09 June, 2006

On the history of ideas

Gawain and I, despite our mutual appreciation, are getting good at stoking each other's fires. Commenting on his last post, about taste and 'speciation', I had the temerity to defend Plato against Gawain's accusation of silliness. It turns out that our host is a Platophobe, or at least a denier of Plato, the son turning against the father. In his no-holds-barred opinion, 'Plato’s theories regarding beauty are either wrong or unimportant.' Harsh! But that's okay, of course. In a dispirited defense of Plato's importance I made the observation that he 'defined the entire subsequent course of Western philosophy'. To which M. du Lac quite reasonably replied that 'A case could be made to distinguish Plato's historical impact from his contribution to our understanding of our world.' In other words, reading Plato will not teach today's student anything about the universe (whether physical or spiritual) that couldn't be acquired better from another source. I'm willing to grant that, although personally I care considerably more about Plato's universe than our own, strange as that might sound. Gawain continues, his power waxing with the sun, like his mythical forebear:
I am not a great fan of genealogies of ideas. This practice, which derives all subsequent history from something T[h]ales of Miletus, say, has or has not said makes for great entertainment (much better than any sit-com, if you ask me) but as a search for understanding it isn't much use. It is really no more than a footnote (though I realize that great academic careers can be built upon footnotes, just as great academic careers were once built on demonology).
Which of course is an extremely contemptuous position, just the kind I like. As my readers will probably have gathered, I am indeed 'a fan of genealogies of ideas'. I don't think anyone these days would derive all subsequent knowledge from the handful of apocryphal remarks attributed to Thales. Or even from Plato himself, who provided the first fully worked-out philosophical system in the West, as deep as it is broad, nourished from a rich and genuine thought different in many ways from our own. This is really beside the point, though; at stake is something much more serious. Gawain has before expressed himself vehemently against historicism. Like Descartes, he seems to 'dismiss the study of old texts as nothing more than a form of virtual travel'—I quote that legendary genealogist of ideas, Anthony Grafton—although unlike Descartes, G. would no doubt generously allow such an activity as a humanist's solipsistic hobby.

This is why there are so few chairs of intellectual history, and why our Arthur Lovejoys are all but extinct. Grafton himself charts the decline of this field, and its supercession by social history, in a fascinating article in the most recent Journal of the History of Ideas.

I myself fear that such an occupation is mere parasitism, a cowardly inability to think for oneself. This is the anxiety of the intellectual historian. What does it matter that X thought Y before Z; what, indeed, does it matter what X thought at all, if Z's solution was better? Why not cast off the relics of the past like so much dead scurf? Why study history? There are some hackneyed answers—'to avoid repeating the mistakes of our ancestors', 'so that we don't lose touch with our past', and so forth. This turned out to be a key question of the Enlightenment, too; then were fought battles for the inchoate science of history, most famously by Vico and Herder, eager to carve out a place for the humanist at the cultural table increasingly dominated by Newtonian natural scientists. What they wanted to show was that the human world was incomprehensible without a prior knowledge of its history and development. I don't think that they managed this. If I find the world incomprehensible, it's because of my total failure with economics, politics, and demotic psychology.

It all depends on what you want out of the study. Gawain writes quite competently about the role of taste and beauty in evolutionary development. And he's about to write another post on why discussions of taste are worthwhile. He's really putting himself out there, in his typically casual, philosophical manner. He wants to know what the truth is, about taste and beauty. So why bother reading the wrong?

I think my first answer is that to make progress, at least in matters which are not strictly empirical, one must acquire a heavy criticism and scepticism of the self. One must know not only one's own ideas, but also the components and implications of those ideas. I mentioned in one comment to Gawain's post that however nominalist we remain about universals—however un-Platonic we are—we instinctively revert to abstracts, just to make ourselves understood: we say 'truth', 'taste', 'exegesis', even 'idea' itself. Yet they remain black boxes, and we retain no understanding of how the elements of our notions interrelate. The histories of the words are revealing, but not enough. Reading Plato, on the other hand, we see these abstracts in their first and most influential forms; we are thus better equipped to handle them in more developed and complex situations.

Ultimately I share with Hobbes and Vico the conviction that the only interesting knowledge is that pertaining to human beings, and with Vaihinger and Cassirer the belief that the history of scientific metaphor is more revealing than the history of scientific knowledge. Birds and cavemen be damned, until you can tell me about me and my taste, an object formed quite as much by Plato, and by the English language, as by any biological processes.


Richard said...

At the risk of recapitulating 'to avoid repeating the mistakes of our ancestors' in a more sophisticated form, I would observe that elements of intellectual history inevitably represents a component of our cultural bricolage. This can either be left unexamined or can be acknowledged and understood. It does seem to me that the latter course does at least offer some hope of appreciating the likely implications of ideas and concepts. As an example, debates concerning the evolutionary basis of certain neural functions typically seem to me to have advanced very little from the Hobbesian discussion of the passions and Locke's tabula rasa.

For what it's worth, I am mainly sceptical of these theories on empirical grounds; healthy song birds and elaborate songs seem to me perfectly likely to correlate on physiological grounds rather than necessarily being suggestive of any evolutionary advantage. There is a certain 'just so story' tone to a lot of evolutionary psychology that leaves me somewhat suspicious of it.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Thanks for this; I share your suspicions about evolutionary psychology, and am confident that many people are ignorant of the philosophical basis behind much scientific discovery. The aforementioned Lovejoy has fascinating notes on how the spatial structure of medieval cosmology was temporalised towards early evolutionary theory. What was Hobbes' position on the passions? I'm afraid H is a thinker I'm not as familiar with as I should be.

A Little Thought said...

Gee, this feels like a secret clubhouse meeting - I too am not terribly confident in evolutionary psychology as a discipline!

Gawain said...


pleased to be in company of men who believe that every theory must be treated with suspicion and subjected to constant testing. :)

the advantages of evolutionary psych approach appear to be that it allows us to think about things in new ways; and (more importantly) to make testable predictions -- which in turn allows us to design new types of research -- and which is something experimental psychology needs badly. other than that, it is a just so story, like every other theory on the planet

Gawain said...

Hello Conrad:

First let me say: I read and enjoy both history and intellectual history. Further, I read and enjoy your posts very much.

Now, my attack on Plato was elicited by what may have been an offhand remark by you, but which came through as suggesting that we modern men could not think in certain ways if it had not been for Plato, a view which I think is a just so story -- and of the untestable kind. I take it now that you do not acually hold this view. If so, there is no debate, really.

But to gloss a little on your post on intellectual history.

The interesting thing about the history of ideas -- to me anyway -- is that people seem capable of inventing the same thoughts in different times and different parts of the world and quite independently; and that such ideas can then die without issue and then be reborn again with no apparent parentage. This happens a great deal and suggests to me that some ideas are eminently thinkable by the human mind.

Further, ideas do not have DNA and therefore the paternity test is not possible. So, when "the aforementioned Lovejoy has fascinating notes on how the spatial structure of medieval cosmology was temporalised towards early evolutionary theory" is he actually showing descent -- or merely a similarity? And the problem with "similarity" is that it is entirely in the perceiver's mind: an idea may seem to me to be like another idea but may not seem to be like it to you at all. This is often my experience when reading the more fanciful intellectual history: X says that idea expressed by Y is "just like" the idea expressed by Z and, look at it as hard as I try, i just can't see the similarity.

History of philosophy is almost entirely like that.

Similarity is, like beauty, and the experience of being rational, a subjective state. Two faces, though they are mathematically speaking (there are methods for mathematical representation of shape), nearly identical, appear different to human minds (we can tell them apart instantaneously), while two balls of newspaper, though their shape, as described by the same mathematical methods is quite divergent, appear similar to us.

Moreover, the precise perception of similarity varies from person to person.

Ergo, saying that some ideas are like some other ideas, while interesting, is really all it is.

Finally, there is the interesting point of misunderstanding. There are countless examples of false interpretations of thinkers spawning whole schools of thought. When you say to me that I misunderstand you, or Plato, or anyone (not that you do), you indirectly give evidence to the difficulty of the tranfer of ideas from one mind to another. Given how few people have really understood Hobbes (or Leibniz or whoever) how can we talk about their influence on anything or anyone?

With serious circumspection, obviously.

Finally, one word about Plato's "method": Plato was an apologist for a particular political system and a particular religious theology (orphism). When reading him I can't shake the impression that he is trying very hard and will use every trick in the book (and some out of it) to arrive at predetermined conclusions adopted earlier on irrational grounds (class loyalty, religious experience). And so, his much vaunted Socratic method, though invariably it starts with "let us see what we can find out about X by talking about it", strikes me as really nothing but a sequence of leading questions. And there is a reason why leading questions are not allowed in court: they do not lead to discovery of facts; they really are a way of addling one's interlocutor's minds.

I believe in my comment I called this method a play on words. I believe it is: inventing a noun from an adjective may sometimes be a brilliant logical manoeuvre, but more often than not its just a way of introducing uncertainty into the discussion in order to throw off one's interlocutor. My personal experience while reading Plato is that of being intentionally misled -- by a demagogue -- through a brilliant but at bottom intellectually dishonest verbal exercise.

Personally, I find it curious that you should say that Plato's conclusions are false but his method is good. What can be good about a method that delivers bad results?

In conclusion, I would like to say that the reason you give to study intellectual history -- to prevent us from repeating mistakes -- is an excellent one; but that the activity does not need a reason.

Knowledge is good in its own right, whether it is useful or not. Knowing what people now dead have once felt and thought is immensely gratifying to me -- I can understand it may be to anyone. (And surprised when, as it often happens, it is not).

What I find useless are a) outsize claims for its "importance" and b) fanciful theories of causal relations between different theories.

My very best regards to you

Gawain said...

Come to think about it, this may make a decent post on my blog -- and generate more links for you. :)

Btw, I have written about eligious arguments (of the Platonic variety) and how they relate to meaning here

Gawain said...

"Gawain and I, despite our mutual appreciation, are getting good at stoking each other's fires."

Why do I keep misreading that as "stroking"?!

Conrad H. Roth said...

1. What a feast! OK, first a note about Plato.

"Finally, one word about Plato's "method": Plato was an apologist for a particular political system and a particular religious theology (orphism)."

I don't know where you're getting Orphism from... not only do we know hardly anything about Orphism, but there's no evidence to connect P to it. The much more obvious connection (though it's still ultimately speculative) is Pythagoras--and P had direct contact with Pythagoreans such as the mathematician Archytas at Tarentum.

As for his politics, well... as I've written before, most or many thinkers assume that politics comes first in a system. Reading the Republic wholly convinces me that politics comes last--his city is only his soul writ large. I would argue quite the reverse of you, then: he reaches odd conclusions about the city because he thinks of the city not qua city but qua individual--a religious conviction about the microcosm. I also believe that the Republic is essentially a game: his views on the soul are quite serious, and his discussion of the city essentially a metaphor for that. Though incidentally, I don't think philosophical monarchy is such a horrendously stupid idea, and P was quite aware of the basic problem of democracy which plagues us today: people are idiots.

Some of P's dialogues are leading, eg. the Meno. But most really aren't: Socrates attacks the direct point of weakness in his opponent's argument, and only rarely resorts to 'eristics', as are so hilariously demonatrated in the 'Euthydemus'.

> What can be good about a method that delivers bad results?

99% of the best results in history are wrong. Aristotle was wrong. Euclid was wrong. Copernicus was wrong. Newton was wrong. Einstein and Schrodinger are probably wrong. If I don't agree with Plato, it's because I fundamentally don't accept one of his axioms--that universals have a real existence. All argumentation is a working-out of axioms--and P's is particularly sophisticated, varied and self-critical. I was impressed, for instance, reading the 'Sophist', that he provides the first groping steps out of the problem of non-being which hadn't been solved since Parmenides.

2. "Ergo, saying that some ideas are like some other ideas, while interesting, is really all it is."

This is a very valid point. But it should not be taken for more than it is--an important warning. I refer you to a powerful discussion between Lovejoy and Leo Spitzer in
"The Journal of the History of Ideas", 5.2 (1944)--I'll send you this when I get back to Arizona--the latter argued that any given system of thought was fundamentally self-contained and impossible to reconcile with another system, whereas Lovejoy crushingly argued in return that it is possible to break up systems into 'unit-ideas' which can be compared across time in different thinkers.

So I think it's easy to take your Spitzerian nominalism too far; this goes back to our discussion of language. There is no PROOF that chien comes from canis--we can't actually SEE one word becoming another, only a series of stages. So there's no hard-and-fast Popperian deductive proof (or falsification) of X influencing Y: but there can be convincing arguments, both on internal and external (historical) grounds. Thus, I can't disprove that Sextus Empiricus influenced Montaigne, but given the circumstances it seems very likely--and could be 'falsified' by proving that Sextus Empiricus hadn't been edited/translated until 1700. It is convincing that if a number of thinkers, who are in intellectual contact, are producing similar results at a similar time, or over a century, then there is some genuine interrelation of ideas.

The sceptic can always turn around and ask, "Yes, but can you PROVE it?"--but that gets a bit boring, as it would in most intellectual contexts outside pure mathematics.

As for misunderstanding--all "understanding" is, is being able to work out a plausible reading of a bunch of words, given a set of axioms. If Augustine reads his Plato he'll reach different results than me--but then he has different axioms (eg. most obviously Christianity). Not all different interpretations are "misunderstandings", and thinkers can be influential in many different ways to many people. That's what intellectual history is all about--not just vague similarities.

In conclusion: indeed, let us certainly be careful of making fanciful analogies--but the history of ideas DOESN'T just boil down to this, except at an inappropriately Pyrrhonic level.

Richard said...

Put crudely, Hobbes saw human nature in mechanistic terms as being dominated by a set of passions. Within a state of nature these inevitably incline towards creating conditions he describes as 'nasty, brutish and short.' Within society he sees ways to overcome it, but nonetheless recommends an authoritarian social structure to contain men's passions. The comparison to modern evolutionary psychology (as I see it) is that it is very frequently cited in a context that argues attempts to innovate social conditions conflict with our genetic heritage and should be discarded.

Gawain said...

Hello Richard:

"The comparison to modern evolutionary psychology (as I see it) is that it is very frequently cited in a context that argues attempts to innovate social conditions conflict with our genetic heritage and should be discarded."

There is actually remarkably little discussion of this among the Evolutionary Psychologists I know and follow (most of them are really not all that interested in politics), though as I remember it was something that Wilson had made the central point of his "Sociobiology", where he did not suggest that we drop efforts to innovate social conditions, only that we seek ways to innovate which would be harmonious with what he thought might be unalterable human nature.

best regards

Gawain said...


Delicious. And much more carefully phrased than your offhand remarks on my blog (which set off the bomb there). :) Thanks.

Socrates is good at attacking weaknesses in other people's arguments, but his own aren't that great and Plato uses his power as the author unconscionably -- by portraying people accepting them with amazement at their power; and failing to offer the most obvious counterarguments, he suggests that they are better than they really are.

The point that 99% of all results are wrong is well taken, but I still don't see what is so great about the method (or what the method is other than what I had characterized it).

I don't know that it is necessary to prove that a certain thought is like a certain other thought, or that it is derived in one particular manner or another -- I don't know whether that interests me all that much, actually. (Besides the technical objections I expressed above). In any case, the implications aren't all that significant: so WHAT if Copernicus stole from Aristarchos? So what if modern geneticists belief that personality is heritable is a lot like a similar thought expressed once by Dr Goebbels?

What I find fascinating about intellectual history is how people's ideas shaped and played out in their lives -- not on a social level, but personal level. Ray Monk's biography of Wittgenstein is a wonderful example -- it shows how his personal experiences shaped his philosophy and his philosophy then shaped his life. Plus you get snapshots of other intelligent people and their ideas (Russell for example) and they way they struggled with their own thoughts.

I also find the history of intellectual struggles very interesting -- though the struggles are usually over real goods -- the monarch's favor, department chairs and the ideas are only the chosen weapons of conflict. A fasincating thing about such struggles is to see how ideas morph and are reshaped in response to criticism, yes, but also for tactical reasons ("if i argue x it will be more readily accepted", for instance). It can be a lesson in intellectual dishonesty rather than ideas.

Anyway, a fascinating field.

Having said all of which, I doubt very much that my ability to utter the word "beauty" (or to think the thought) is either indebted to Plato in particular or to Greeks general.

Gawain said...

Leibniz is a good example of the complex relationship a man can have to his ideas -- think two opposite thoughts at the same time, develop forcefully ideas he really does not believe in, etc. There is a new book out about Leibniz and Spinoza -- The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza, and the Fate of God in the Modern World
by Stewart, Matthew. Have you seen it?

Theo said...

Somewhere Socrates ridicules the Hippias’ Law (that whenever gold is added to an object, it serves to make it more beautiful) by observing that OTHER ways of making things beautiful are possible. Everyone in the room goes “ooh” and “ah” and “brilliant!” and “hear ye! hear ye!” and “huzza!”, but, of course, gross adulation to the contrary, the critique misses the target. That OTHER ways of making things beautiful exist does not disprove Hippias’ Law, or make it irrelevant or uninteresting. It only serves as an excuse to ignore it.

Interestingly, it is a point Mothersill in her discussion of it does not notice. Which is to show that suggestively written prose - and in particular manufactured enthusiastic reception by an audience who does not even have to exist — the equivalent of the laughing track on American sitcoms — can derail good thinking 2500 years later — and on another continent.

(I wonder what this says about intellectual history?)

Gawain said...

I owe you a confession: I do admit the validity of some intellectual history. Case in point: Shiner's "Invention of Art" strikes me as possibly correct. In that case he is able to name the people who invented/defined the concept and show other people quoting these people before in turn starting to use it themselves. He is further able to show that no equivalent concept seems to have existed anywhere in Europe before the time of its invention, or outside of it until regulat cultural exchange with Europe is established.

Further, it seems quite certain both the term and the concept of meme originate with Dawkins; and the concept (and term) of spandrel originate with Gould.

However, in all these cases, it is not certain that any of these concepts has not been thought by someone else sometime prior to their invention, even if it was called (in the user's mind) something else.

Your claims about Plato's contributions to my ability to think today seem very dubious, however. :)

Conrad H. Roth said...

First things first. Theo: you're referring to the probably-genuine Hippias Major, and missing the point. Socrates has asked "what is the beautiful [to kalon]?" Hippias answers with things that are beautiful, first a girl, then gold. In other words, he gives examples, not a definition, which is wanted. Hippias argues rather lamely that gold is "the beautiful" because whenever it is added to something, that thing becomes more beautiful. Socrates makes the observation NOT that there are other things which make things beautiful, but that there are objects (eg. a wooden spoon, or a marble statue) that gold DOES NOT make more beautiful. It is refutation by counterexample, not that gold is beautiful but that gold is "the beautiful", ie. the definition of beauty.

More generally, I think the brilliant intellectuals of c.400 BC to c.2100 AD would not, in fact, be derailed by 'a bit of suggestive prose'.

Gawain: regarding Plato and beauty. It is impossible, at the last count, to speak in counterfactuals (if P had not existed, you wouldn't be able to X). What I meant was that in the Western world as it exists, and has existed, the discussion of abstracts now available to us is the result of a historical tradition and debate going back to Plato. There may be Indians, Africans and so on having the same discussions, for all I know--but they've had no influence whatsoever, as far as I am aware, on our own tradition. Someone else might very well have started the discussion, but it happened to be Plato. Same with Aristotle and the rules of formal logic. Same with Shakespeare and the phrase "be all and end all". Same with Brunelleschi and perspective. Same with Guido d'Arezzo and modern musical notation. Same with William the Conqueror and the modern English language. Etc, etc.

Regarding ownership. It doesn't matter, ultimately, who borrowed from whom. (Copernicus, incidentally, almost certainly did not steal from Aristarchus, any more than John Dalton stole from Democritus.) Neither does it matter which country invaded whom, or which pope succeeded which. Nothing really matters, when you get down to it. Perhaps this is merely a matter of taste. But I happen to believe that the course of intellectual history does affect the course of other kinds of history, though admittedly in somewhat intangible ways. (The most obvious is history of science.)

And the struggles are the best part, a good example being Leibniz vs. Newton, or Wallis vs. Hobbes on the squared circle. Or the heated philological debates of the 19th century, a particular favourite of mine.

I haven't, I'm afraid, read that Leibniz book, though I shall when I return to the States.