(This is a recent guest post from Daily Nous).
In this post I would like to develop one of the central questions of my recent book, The Philosopher: A History in Six Types: Who is to count as a philosopher, and why?
In his 1762 Émile, ou De l'éducation, Jean-Jacques Rousseau criticises those philosophers who “will love the Tartars in order to avoid loving their neighbour.” The ethnic group in question would be more correctly called the ‘Tatars’, a wide family of Turkic groups living throughout the broader Black Sea region, and often invoked by Western Europeans in the Enlightenment as a stock example of savage peoples. (In what follows I will include the superfluous 'r' when it is Rousseau's point of view that is at issue.)
Rousseau’s critique is directed at those cosmopolitan thinkers who turn their attention away from the concrete human reality that surrounds them, and towards what he sees as abstractions and fantasies of what human beings are like, or could be like, in far-away settings that we, here in 18th-century Geneva, will never encounter.
Though Rousseau could have relied on another example to make his point, I take this particular one to heart because I do in fact love the Tatars. I am a novice student of the grammar of the Volga Tatar language, an occasional defender of the rights of the Crimean Tatars who precede both the Ukrainians and the Russians in that disputed peninsula, and in general someone who comes to attention whenever that ethnonym appears in my newsfeed. So I am sensitive to Rousseau’s accusation that this attention of mine comes at the expense of concern for my neighbours here in 21st-century Paris, some of whom could indeed use some more neighbourly care than they are currently getting.
The realities of my place and time have also got me thinking recently about certain possibilities, two in particular, that may have escaped Rousseau’s attention. These are, namely, that the neighbours are themselves Tartars, and that the Tartars are themselves philosophers. According to the stereotype that makes Rousseau's example work, Tartars are by definition far away, and by definition unphilosophical. But why suppose as much?
I have known at least two academic philosophers of Tatar ethnic background; both I can think of at the moment were formal logicians. But there is another sense in which a Tatar might be a philosopher, though, and this is the one taken seriously by Johann Jakob Brucker in his Historia critica philosophiae of 1744. Here Brucker, in his survey of the history of philosophy, speaks not only of the philosophy of the Greeks and the Romans, but also that of the ancient Celts, and indeed of the Scythians, who in the Enlightenment were often taken as the ancient ancestors of the modern world’s Tartars.
For Brucker, Scythian philosophy is nothing other than the sum total of expressions of Scythian culture: religious rites, rules of interaction, popular sayings, decorative motifs. Such a conception of philosophy as embedded in culture, in the way a pure element might be embedded in an ore, will in turn inform many of the attempts to articulate new understandings of philosophy in the context of the movement for decolonialisation in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Thus at the Second Congress of Negro Writers and Artists in Rome in 1959, a special commission on philosophy would urge that “the African philosopher should learn from the traditions, tales, myths, and proverbs of his people, so as to draw from them the laws of a true African wisdom complementary to the other forms of human wisdom to bring out the specific categories of African thought.”
Influenced by this decree, a number of innovative works would appear over the next decades which sought to study diverse cultures and natural languages of Africa as the vehicles of an implicit philosophy. Notable among these is Alexis Kagame’s La philosophie bantoue (1976), which itself credits Louis Hjelmslev’s dictum that ‘there is no philosophy without linguistics’. Kagame took this to mean that because we can engage in a formal study of the semantics of the Bantu languages, we are thereby given access to the Bantu philosophy that has been there all along, without ever being called by that name.
One might worry that Kagame’s approach creates a double standard: if cultural expressions such as proverbs are to count as philosophy in Africa, then we will need a good argument as to what it is that makes these proverbs substantially different from the ones passed down in the extra-institutional oral traditions of Europe, such as those associated with agriculture, and as to why an African should be said to be participating in philosophy simply to the extent that he or she is a transmitter of a culture’s proverbs, while by contrast a European, in order to be a philosopher, has to leave the farm, go to the city, master Latin and the forms of the syllogism, and in general learn to stop being so folksy.
And yet the expansion of philosophy to include the study of culture, as urged at the 1959 congress, has obvious benefits, even if it stopped short in supposing that European thought somehow constitutes an exception, that it is somehow independent of culture, and that the study of European philosophy is not, in the end, a branch of anthropology. For one thing, it enables us to see how Rousseau’s stark contrast between the ‘philosopher’ and the ‘Tartar’ might not match up with reality, even if the Tartar in question is not lecturing on polyvalent logic at the Academy of Sciences, but is simply excelling at whatever tasks it might be expedient or laudable to pursue within the context of traditional Tartar culture: war-making, metallurgy, the recitation of oral epic.
Beyond any concern we might have about double standards, there is good reason to suspect that these things should not be entirely neglected by philosophers (in the narrower sense in which Rousseau understands the term). They offer points of entry to the variety of expressions of human ingenuity, which taken together surely may be expected to reveal something of what being human is all about. And if that’s not a philosophical matter, it would be difficult to say what is.
So, pace Rousseau, the categories of ‘Tartar’ and of ‘philosopher’ are not opposed. But what about ‘neighbour’? As in the 18th century, one recurring criticism of cosmopolitanism today is that it exchanges real, affective commitment to a real community of shared interests and values in favour of an abstract commitment to a mostly fictional global community of all human beings. It is mostly fictional, critics suppose, because what we are doing when we speak of ‘humanity’ is simply projecting our own very local sliver of values and tastes out into the world, and avoiding contact with members of other cultures who might complicate matters for us by failing to share these values and tastes.
But that’s the thing about neighbours: unless you live in some gated community or selective co-op or village full of like-minded bigots, the chances are quite high that you have very little in common with the person living next to you. I don’t know whether any of my neighbours in Paris are Tatars, but I am certain that many of them are different from me in precisely the way Rousseau imagined that Tartars are different from him, and therefore, so he imagined, from ‘Europeans’. This presumption was dubious in 1762, and in the era of mass immigration it is all the more so.
Rousseau is in a certain sense right: you should of course take an interest in the well-being of your neighbour, and try to understand what it is that gives meaning to their life. The fact that you are yourself a philosopher shouldn’t make doing so any less urgent. But nor should you presume that the categories of ‘philosopher’, ‘neighbour’, and ‘Tartar’ are distinct. Their overlap with one another, in fact, constitutes both a powerful response to Rousseau, as well as an argument in itself for cosmopolitanism. Philosophy is everywhere, and so are neighbours, and interest in what the Tartars are doing is as neighbourly as it is philosophical.
Some English-speakers have been hailing the recent mainstream campaign to eliminate gender-specific pronouns in Swedish. A few Anglophones, though far from the mainstream, have also been seeking for some years now to implement neologistic gender-neutral replacements for ‘he’ and ‘she’. The Swedish case in particular has been held to be a reflection of that society’s relative progressiveness in the politics of gender. What is missed here, out of ignorance or wilful avoidance, is that there are many languages in which gendered pronouns have either gone extinct or were never used in the first place, and which are spoken in societies that are hardly known for their gender egalitarianism: for example, Persian or Turkmen. Somehow, even without access to ‘she’ or ‘her’, but only an all-purpose ‘he/she/it’, Iranian courts manage to sentence women to death by stoning for ‘adultery’. We might just as well predict that Swedish society would take up lapidation and anti-adultery laws as a result of the elimination of gendered pronouns, as that it would thereby draw closer to full gender equality.
Both predictions are absurd. And yet, this interest in gendered personal pronouns does at least remind us of a way of thinking about grammatical gender that is generally underemphasised by linguists and language instructors: that the masculine and feminine genders of pronouns, and more interestingly of nouns, reflects a division of the cosmos into categories that radiate out from the sexual dimorphism of human bodies. In English there is only vestigial gender for substantive terms for non-biological entities: ships, sometimes countries, sometimes sportscars, are ‘she’. In French, every noun is masculine or feminine, sometimes in ways that seem arbitrary. What is it, for example, about abstractions, such as those words ending in -ité or -tion, that is inherently feminine? And why is the word for ‘vagina’ masculine, or the most common slang term for ‘penis’ feminine? Yet there are also some ways in which the non-arbitrary ideology of gender is reflected in grammatical gender: the words for ‘father’, ‘son’ ‘god’, etc., are all masculine, which seems obvious of course, but which would not be obvious if, as we are sometimes told, there were no connection between grammatical gender and the presumed biological (or in the case of God, spiritual) sex of the entity in question.
In modern French the masculine has absorbed the neuter, which was the third gender in Latin, the principal ancestor language of French, as well as in Greek, Sanskrit, and Proto-Indo-European, and which remains the third gender in living Indo-European languages such as German and Russian. What is the neuter, and what does it reveal about the cosmology of those language-users who divide the world not just into masculine and feminine entities, but also into entities that are neither/nor? It may be that this category is not simply for the leftover entities that are neither masculine nor feminine, but rather is the vestige of an archaic system of noun classes in which the masculine and the feminine were only two instances of a much richer and more diverse way of carving up the world.
When I studied Old Church Slavonic with Boris Gasparov in the 1990s, he was actively interested in the noun-class system of the Niger-Congo languages, which include up to 22 nominal classes based on semantic hyperonymy in which more specific categories of being are grouped in more general nominal classes. Place, animacy, number, and so on exist alongside gender as basic noun forms. If I recall correctly, Gasparov was drawing on the work of some earlier formalist from Prague or Tartu who argued that the distinct declensions for animate and inanimate nouns in Slavic languages (in the masculine accusative singular for example) reflects an earlier system akin to the Niger-Congo languages in which masculine and feminine in no way exhaust the possibilities for carving up the world of things named by nouns, as they do, say, in modern French. On this view, then, the neuter could be the residue of what were once several different gender-like noun categories that unlike the masculine and feminine genders have not even a putative grounding in biological sex. These all could have been folded into the neuter gender in the same way that the neuter was in more recent times folded into the masculine in French.
Recent desultory clicking brought me to the website nonbinary.org. This organisation, I think, offers the purest expression I have seen of contemporary transgender ideology. I will make no secret of my inability to accept, or understand, certain elements of this ideology, nor will I hide my horror at the quickness with which inability such as mine is denounced these days as ‘transphobia’. I take it rather that the inability results from real inconsistencies in the ideology. In particular it is not at all clear to me how human social reality can be carved up into ‘cis’ and ‘trans’ if we are in fact committed to non-binarity. You can argue that ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ are just the tip of the iceberg, that one can also be, to take an example from nonbinary.org, ‘frostgender’. But if this is your view, if you think there are countless ways individual human beings might discover within themselves an inward affinity to some entity, process, or phenomenon in nature or in abstraction, and that the acknowledgment of such affinity is the only adequate account of gender, then don’t you dare tell me I’m ‘cis’. How on earth would you know?
It seems to me very plausible that such affinities are indeed the expression of a richer system of placing human beings within a cosmos of classes of entities than the one that divides everything into masculine and feminine. If it seems too fine-grained to believe that a person might truly be ‘frostgender’, by hyperonymy we might still be able to imagine a system in which some people affiliate with the class of water-based entities, or the class of cold things. Acknowledging our affinity to the animal world in particular, and expressing this affinity through our social identities, seems a particularly natural and appropriate thing to do. I am confident in fact that there is just as much sense in a human being saying that, though they were born in human form, it is to the class of jaguars or crows that they truly belong, as it is for, say, a human being born biologically a male to say that it is nonetheless to the class of human females that he truly belongs. At present the latter statement is supposed to command our full and unquestioning respect, while the former would be received at best with curiosity and most likely with unsanctioned ridicule. This distinction is arbitrary and culturally specific in the extreme.
The only social outlet the person who identifies with an animal has in our society is in outward affiliation to shabby sexual subcultures like the ‘furries’ or the ‘pups’. The profound truth that these subcultures skim seems to go unnoticed either by their members or by their mockers: that we are, not just in our ‘fetishes’ or ‘kinks’, but in our deepest natures, the kin of other living beings. Our historical bond with them is older even than sexual dimorphism, and it is not at all surprising that it moves some people to commit themselves in their social comportment to not just kinship, but inward identity, with a given animal kind. They do not need to go out and buy some rubber costume in order for the claim of identity to be veracious, either, any more than someone who claims to be frostgender needs to dress up as a snowflake. And mistaking the trouble one is willing to go through to manifest themselves socially as a member of this or that trans identity with trans identity itself is to mistake the trivial appearances for the fascinating and important metaphysics at work in human identity. We are, none of us, ‘cis’.
But back to grammar. There are vestiges in many languages of a vision of the world in which gender is largely ungrounded in biological sex: the vast majority of gendered entities —stars, houses, rocks, and so on— plainly have no biological sex at all. In languages such as English, gender has mostly retreated to those entities that are thought to have a sex, and until recently it was supposed that the classification in terms of gender was grounded in that sex. This grounding has been called into question in the past few decades, but if grammatical gender for pronouns withers away or is abolished by decree, this will only be the completion of a process of de-gendering that has already occurred for the vast majority of entities in the world. There was a time when stars and rocks could be masculine or feminine, with no expectation that this classification be grounded in biological sex. And now we have arrived at a point where even biological sex is not enough to ground gender, but what is forgotten here is that for most of human history, if natural language is any indication, there was no expectation of such a grounding.
Now we might say good riddance to grammatical gender, we might say that English is ‘more evolved’ than French to the extent that it mostly lacks gender. But we might also look back to richer systems of noun classes in other more distant languages as holding out for us a more adequate expression of the non-binarity we now claim to be seeking in the social expression of gender. What if we could find, in natural language, the elements for a conception of gender-like classes that do not stop at masculine and feminine, that presume no grounding in biological sex, and that help us to make sense of the sort of affinities, for example to entities in the natural world, that the new non-binarity is asking us to recognise? What if the best hope for progress is in archaicism, finding those old ways of speaking in which my inward affinity to another being can be expressed as true, even if my outward form is nothing like that being? Une étoile is not really feminine, and no human being is really a jaguar; it is also likely that no human being is a ’man’ or a ‘woman’ in any clear and incontestable sense. But these are all ways of talking, of making meaning in our human lives.
Elon Musk, the billionaire inventor and amateur futurologue, has recently taken to the idea that we may all be living in a simulation akin to Second Life. He has been influenced in his thinking by the philosopher Nick Bostrom, though something of the latter's rigour has been lost as the argument is translated into a version suitable to capture the imagination of a global 'thought leader', who, in turn, is positioned to get the rest of us talking about it. Of course some of us can remember talking about it before either of these men forced it into the zeitgeist, perhaps in an informal setting where the exploratory mood was enhanced by a joint and we found ourselves starting our sentences with, "Whoah, what if, like..." But now the adventure of ideas, of which any stoner is capable, and indeed of which our ancestors millennia before the invention of video games were capable, has been given weight by the interest of an Oxford philosopher, and cachet by the derivative interest of a rich person. And now when people talk about it they will not say, "Whoah, what if, like..." and they will probably not have a joint in hand. They will soberly, straight-facedly say to their coworkers, "I read this one expert who..." or, more succinctly, "They say that..."
You do not need to be a Heideggerian to be wary of 'the they'.
It is certainly possible that we are living in a simulation, if by this we mean that things are not as they appear, that reality is not just brute stuff sitting there on its own. This is a possibility that has been contemplated in various ways by great minds for quite some time now, and that has provided fuel for the wild speculations of not-so-great minds for just as long. What is new is the way in which one manoeuvres into the appearance of expertise by doing nothing more than being very wealthy and deciding to take up the social role of a visionary. What Musk has done is to update an ancient possibility, to cause it to appear as something never-before-thought when in truth it is only a repackaging and a re-enchantment.
The particular form the new version takes offers a vivid case study in the consequences of historical and anthropological ignorance. How self-congratulatory and parochial does a member of a given culture, at a given moment, have to be, to suppose that reality itself takes the form of a particular technology developed within that very culture in the course of one's own lifetime? Consider the familiar claim that 'the brain is like a computer', or, switching the comparative 'like' for the stoner one, that 'the brain is, like, a computer'. Is this not effectively to say that this thing that has been around in nature for hundreds of millions of years turns out to in fact have been, all along, this other thing that we ourselves came up with in the past few decades?
Wouldn't it, I mean, be a remarkable coincidence to find ourselves alive at just the moment where technology finally shows itself to be adequate to reveal to us the true nature of reality? And how are we supposed to interpret the equally certain claims of people in other times and places, who believed that reality in fact reflected some device or artifice of central importance to their own culture (e.g., horologia, mirrors, puppets, tjurungas...)? Are we really to believe that it was not the light-and-shadow theatres of the ancients or the hydraulic automata of the early moderns that revealed the true nature of things, but that instead humanity would have to await the eventual advent of... Pong? And might the key cosmic-historical significance of this technological moment have something to do with the fact that it is simultaneous with the formative early experiences of the man-child Elon Musk?
If you are like Musk, or Bostrom, then you will probably consider these historical and culture-comparative considerations irrelevant to the question at hand. Fine, then. Let's talk about the argument. One notes, first, that it relies on a crucial but unexamined premise, that the simulated characters of video games, if they keep developing in the way they have been developing since the 1970s, will eventually become conscious. But there is just one small problem: we don't know what consciousness is yet. We don't know how it is grounded in brain activity, nor whether it is an emergent capacity of the evolution of organisms at all, so we can't possibly know whether it is bound to emerge from the evolution of other physical systems.
Some people are strongly committed to the view that consciousness is just the result of the way brains are structured, and there is nothing categorically special in the physical world about how brains are structured. But they cannot give an account, at least not yet, of how this works, how we get thoughts and feelings and memories from the firing of neurons, let alone positively establish that it works in the same way as our computers work. And if we do not know that brains are computers, then we definitely don't know that computer programs, or indeed the special parts of programs responsible for the production of simulations of characters that seem to bear some analogy to us (Ms. PacMan, the Sims, etc.), are on their way to becoming conscious.
But let's suppose for the sake of argument that our brains are computers, and that our consciousness is the result of the fact that we are 'running a program'. It does not follow from this that wherever in the universe there is natural computational activity, given enough time this activity will in turn result in the production of artificial systems that simulate what had already emerged naturally. In other words, there is no reason to think that wherever there are naturally evolving brains there are likely to be, given enough time, artificial ones too.
The presumption of the high probability of such an outcome is perhaps what is most new about the new repackaged version of the argument. It appears to be borrowed from some recent speculations in xenobiology, triggered by the recent recalculation, by several orders of magnitude, of the likely number of habitable planets in the universe. But this speculation is based on a misunderstanding of evolutionary biology, and pumped up on a fairly large dose of smuggled teleology. There is no reason why biological evolution should move from lower to higher, from dumb fish and worms to ingenious toolmaking and abstract-thought-using beings. This is for the simple reason that there can be no lower or higher at all in evolution. I am worse than a fish if we're having a contest in underwater breathing, but better if it is typing that interests us. And this is all evolution does: it yields up organisms that are fitted to their environments; it does not yield up absolutely ever-better organisms, nor is tool-making and abstract thinking any better, absolutely, than breathing through gills.
Even given the astoundingly large number of habitable planets in the universe and the likely passage on at least some of them from inorganic molecules to living systems, there is no compelling reason to think that a large number of these systems, or even more than one of them, must ever have resulted in a species such as ours that builds tools we would recognise as products of technology. There could for example be a species of electric eel-like creatures that develop a flourishing culture of abstract self-expression, in which some become legendary, like eel Mozarts, for their ability to control the currents coming out of them. Such a thing could evolve without giving off any technological traces. Such a thing, indeed, may even be going on right now among some terrestrial non-human species. But not only do we not detect it, we are not even interested in it, as we are certain, without argument, that intelligence is coextensive with making stuff.
If there is no necessity or high probability that the passage to what we would recognise as technology should have occurred more than once, then a fortiori there cannot be a high probability that one or many other living systems in the universe ever came up with a technology similar to Second Life (in which the little avatars eventually become conscious, mistake their simulation for reality, etc.).
There are two instances of one and the same error in the argument that we might be living in a video game simulation. It is supposed that given enough time any living system will become like us in that it will begin using abstract thought and building tools, which tools will eventually become the loci of abstract thought themselves. It is supposed, further, that these thought-tools will eventually take a form that looks recognisably like the thought-tools we have started to develop over the past half-century or so. The second inflection of the error only looks more absurd in view of its greater specificity. Both, again, are based on the ungrounded claim that thought-tools not only help us conscious beings to think, but also, as they become more complex, begin thinking themselves.
This speculation has become 'a thing' recently not because it has finally been grounded in a compelling argument, but because Elon Musk occupies a social role in which he need only dream out loud in order for his 'he' to become a 'they'. The argument is a matter of interest, like the horoscopes once so lucidly studied by Adorno, mostly because of what it says about the sociology of authority, not because of what it, well, says. And yet one fears that in the Internet era, though we are now offered infinite space to say things, there is somehow nonetheless vanishing space for critical analysis of the declarations of the powerful. The powerful maintain a pretence of reasonableness by speaking in terms of what is 'probable'. But speaking in this way translates just as easily into Google hits as does speaking of what is 'true'. And Google hits are more interesting than truth anyway, so why not just dream out loud?
I had a piece in Aeon Magazine on the relationship between literacy and philosophy. It was really a sort of summary of a recent line of reflection occasioned by my reading of Walter J. Ong, S. J. (1912-2003). His work in communications theory has been hailed by commentators over the past few years as providing a clear early articulation of many of the conceptual problems that the rise of the Internet has imposed on us. Having written this work from the 1960s to the 1980s, he's thus hailed as a 'visionary', 'before his time', etc. I tend to see him rather as perhaps the last in a long line of Jesuit polymathic weirdos, sharing in the same spirit as Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680), and being, like Kircher, motivated to reflect on the natural of language and writing, and on the possibility of artificial languages or codes or programs, out of a fundamental theological commitment to the power of what they call 'the Word' to render all of nature into a rational order. In this respect for them the world is God's writing, and the eventual development of literacy in human history is thus a sort of moral progress to the extent that it aids humanity in achieving its divinely implanted potential to reflect the order of the world as God created it.
But these considerations do not enter into my own essay, nor for that matter into Ong's rigorous scholarly work. My full essay can be found here. Below is an excerpt.
A poet, somewhere in Siberia, or the Balkans, or West Africa, some time in the past 60,000 years, recites thousands of memorised lines in the course of an evening. The lines are packed with fixed epithets and clichés. The bard is not concerned with originality, but with intonation and delivery: he or she is perfectly attuned to the circumstances of the day, and to the mood and expectations of his or her listeners.
If this were happening 6,000-plus years ago, the poet’s words would in no way have been anchored in visible signs, in text. For the vast majority of the time that human beings have been on Earth, words have had no worldly reality other than the sound made when they are spoken.
As the theorist Walter J. Ong pointed out in Orality and Literacy: Technologizing the Word (1982), it is difficult, perhaps even impossible, now to imagine how differently language would have been experienced in a culture of ‘primary orality’. There would be nowhere to ‘look up a word’, no authoritative source telling us the shape the word ‘actually’ takes. There would be no way to affirm the word’s existence at all except by speaking it – and this necessary condition of survival is important for understanding the relatively repetitive nature of epic poetry. Say it over and over again, or it will slip away. In the absence of fixed, textual anchors for words, there would be a sharp sense that language is charged with power, almost magic: the idea that words, when spoken, can bring about new states of affairs in the world. They do not so much describe, as invoke...
Some new research has been added to the pile of work purporting to show that human warfare is a relatively recent development. Somehow, we've arrived at a strange point in the history of speculation on 'human nature', where the 'conservatives', such as Steven Pinker, wish to argue that war has primal roots in human evolution, and that we share our bellicosity even with other primate species such as chimpanzees. Thus, to the question, for how long have human beings been war-makers? their answer is: at least since what would later become Pan troglodytes and Homo sapiens both split from their common ancestor between 5 and 7 million years ago. The 'progressives', in turn, say that war is a recent development and an indication that human society has at some not-too-distant point taken a turn for the worse.
The latest study favouring the 'progressives', like all work in this genre, takes for granted that war and violence are by definition an intra-species affair. Aristotle seems to be one of the few authors ever to have understood that 'hunting is a form of war' (Politics Bk. 10), and we would do well to learn from him. In the time-period and region described in the study (Japan, 7,000-12,000 years ago), that war had by no means been decisively won by human beings, though it will have been by the time of the foundation of city-states (which are among other things barriers against the encroachment of other top predators). There is something astoundingly oxymoronic about the claim that 'hunter-gatherers were not violent', as if, e.g., shedding the blood of bears had nothing in common with human-on-human bloodshed. This separation of the two sorts of activity presupposes an ontological and moral divide between animals and human beings, which there is no evidence Palaeolithic human beings shared with us. It seems more correct to say that human warfare really gets going at the moment human domination of other megafauna becomes certain and total, which is, not coincidentally, also the beginning of the period of urbanisation and animal domestication. However much we would like to go it alone, political theory and debate about 'human nature' simply cannot be done without taking seriously the role of non-human animals in human political life.
Both sides are wrong, since both sides are operating with a definition of violence that really only makes sense on the presupposition of human exceptionalism, which seems to be the product of a rather late-coming and parochial ontology.
There is a piece today in 'The Stone' that motivates me to repeat, yet again, my position on the cluster of issues surrounding Eurocentrism in academic philosophy. This position is developed much more extensively in chapter 2 of my book The Philosopher: A History in Six Types, and will be developed more extensively still in A Global History of Philosophy, to 1750 (Princeton University Press, forthcoming).
I agree entirely with Garfield and Van Norden. Academic philosophy at present is de facto a branch of Euro-American Studies. One complicating factor the authors do not address however is that in many cases there has been a long and contentious history surrounding the question whether the category of 'philosophy' is one that representatives of non-European intellectual traditions would even want, or would have wanted, to adopt as a description of what they are doing, or whether rather describing these traditions as philosophy does not already force them into a mould they did not grow up originally to fit.
(Investigation of this sort of question is significantly more advanced in history-of-science scholarship than it is among academic philosophers. Historians of science have long been engaged in serious reflection about what it means, for example, to say that science did or did not exist in Mesopotamia or in Pharaonic Egypt. They don't just assume at the outset that we know what science is and we can immediately recognise all occurrences of it.)
Some have argued, for example, that considerable violence had to be done to Chinese intellectual traditions in order to shape them into something recognisable on the 'world market' as philosophy (for example, they had to be divorced from what we can only identify, in a trivialising manner, as 'calligraphy'), that this only happened as a result of the pressures of nationalist modernisation campaigns late in the 19th century, and that the result was a mere fossil specimen, easily teachable in new western-modelled curricula, but only because it was by now no longer alive. See for example Anne Cheng, "Y-a-t-il une philosophie chinoise? : est-ce une bonne question?" in Extrême-Orient, Extrême-Occident 27 (2005). This sort of concern, about what exactly it means to belong to a culture that can claim to have its own philosophy, and how this meaning has changed over time as a result of broader historical processes that for the most part do not play out on the plane of ideas, is one to which, for better or worse, academic philosophers interested in promoting diversity will also need to turn their attention. The resistance to doing so exposes yet another deep bias, which is not only harmful to the dead people it ignores: the bias of presentism.
Today all right-thinking people believe it's good to recognise and to value every culture's 'philosophy'. Why? How did it come to this? What are some alternative approaches to conceptualising global connected intellectual history (to adapt the name of a subdiscipline pioneered by Sanjay Subrahmanyam; see for example his Explorations in Connected History: Mughals and Franks of 2004)? How might these alternatives be more adequate to the study of the diversity of the world's intellectual traditions? Etc.
PUP: This book doesn’t have a conventional structure or approach. In addition to straightforward scholarly exposition, it also contains autobiographical elements, as well as what appear to be fictional excursuses, written from the perspective of invented historical figures who represent different philosophical types. What are the reasons for this experimental approach?
JS: When I began speaking with my editor at Princeton University Press, what intrigued him most were some reflections of mine on the relationship between the activity of a philosopher and the practical need we all have to earn money and pay the bills. I had recently moved to Paris, was having trouble making ends meet with my modest French university salary, and so had begun experimenting with some ‘freelance’ philosophical dialogues with people willing to pay—mostly Anglo tourists who were looking to experience the frisson of sitting in a Parisian café and talking about love and death and stuff just like Sartre and De Beauvoir. So when I began writing, that personal experience served as the point of departure for reflecting on the long history of the problematic relationship between money and philosophy—after all, one of the most common foundation myths of the tradition is that it began when Socrates refused remuneration, thus liberating whatever it is we’re doing qua philosophers from whatever it is the Sophists had been doing. This approach then sort of expanded to other parts of the book: launching into an investigation of some aspect of the definition of philosophy by revealing something about my own personal engagement with it.
As for the fictional elements, I suppose this is just an irrepressible symptom of the sort of writing I’ve come to believe can best get across what I’m trying to do philosophically. I’m with Margaret Cavendish, who explicitly lays out at the beginning of her delirious 1666 novel, Blazing World, how it is that fantasy can be harnessed and utilized for the exploration of philosophical questions in ways for which the faculty of reason alone might be less ideally suited. I faced some resistance to these portions of the book from some readers of drafts. They wanted me to more clearly mark off and explain what I was doing in them, somewhat as Martha Nussbaum does when she introduces a fictional figure in one of her books to guide as through the exposition of arguments that follow. But I didn’t want my characters to serve simply as didactic aides. I wanted rather for the work to be, at least in part, a work of fiction, a product, like Cavendish’s, of the literary imagination.
PUP: Is this book philosophy, or is it about philosophy?
JS: I don’t know that there can really be a valid distinction here. By the same token, I’ve never understood what people mean when they talk about ‘metaphilosophy’. We’re all just trying to come to a clearer understanding of the nature of this activity we’re engaged in, in order, in part, to better engage in it. Philosophy is peculiar in that a great deal of effort is expended, by those who profess to practice it, in seeking to determine where its boundaries are, and what falls outside of them. This is a problem sedimentologists, say, don’t have, and one might easily suspect that philosophy is essentially constituted by this activity, that there’s not much left over to do once philosophers have stopped trying to determine what philosophy is not. I think my approach, the transregional and wide-focused historical survey of the very different ways people we think of as philosophers have themselves conceived what they were doing, helps to establish this point: ‘philosophy’ is said in many ways, to paraphrase Aristotle. I’m sure some critics who have some stake in portraying philosophy as essentially thus rather than so, or vice versa, will be quick to say that this book is ‘not philosophy’. But I think I can survive that, and in fact I think they’ll be helping to support my thesis...
I have an essay in the most recent Chronicle of Higher Education, which, though it is not presented as such, is a sort of essay-review of two books that have recently been very important to me: James Turner's Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities, and Sheldon Pollock, Benjamin A. Elman, and Ku-ming Kevin Chang (eds.), World Philology. The 'essay-review' genre is ill-defined, but I take it that it involves some explicit account of the main contributions of one or more books, but then launches off from this account to develop some independent but related interests of one's own. The article in the Chronicle is behind a paywall unfortunately, but I will post an excerpt of it here:
...As a historical fact, textual science does indeed often emerge out of a commitment to the divine inspiration of scripture. But it will complicate the common prejudice, which equates secularization and scientific progress, to note that in many cases this commitment in no way blocked the development of philological science. A fascinating case in point is the early history of Arabic philology. As Beatrice Gruendler explains, the newness of Arabic as a literary language at the time of the composition of the Qur'an forced its early interpreters to go and look for aid in understanding its subtle meanings among the archaic poets, and even among the practitioners of oral poetic traditions. She relates that early Muslim scholars, "[w]orking on a poetic heritage that preceded them by up to two centuries and was created in a Bedouin oral culture, ... pursued not only preservation and comparative analysis, but also authentication." They collected poetry from Bedouin informants and compiled lexica on the basis of this fieldwork. Gruendler writes that they also "showed a surprisingly modern interest in dialectal variants, which they likewise recorded in their books." As she notes, these philologists would have been perplexed by the dichotomy over which Nietzsche and Willamowitz-Moellendorff would later fight, between the conception of philology as the study of "a text as an artifact of the past," on the one hand, and on the other philology as the task of bringing a text alive in the present. "For all their veneration of the textual witnesses they gathered, their sharp-eyed testing of their authenticity, and their linguistic commentary on them, the Arabic philologists were devoted to extracting from these sources a usable language for the present."
The field research of the Arab linguists anticipates the proposals made by the German polymath G. W. Leibniz several hundred years later, at the end of the 17th century, for a sort of 'glottoprospecting' across the Russian Empire, a systematic collecting of samples of the Lord's Prayer in all the native languages of that vast geographical space. For Leibniz however, the interest was in linguistic diversity itself, rather than the richness of a single language. In general in the modern period we see two large shifts occurring in the study of language and its textual traces, both reflected in Leibniz's proposals for linguistic fieldwork. One is a move towards naturalism and an increasing assimilation of the task of linguistic research to other areas of natural science that are concerned with diversity, with botanical taxonomy the most important among these. Thus William Jones's research on the names of plant species in Sanskrit and other South Asian languages, carried out in the 1780s and 1790s, is at once an inquiry into the diversity of the names of things, and of the things themselves.
The second great shift in the modern period was from a scriptural hermeneutics that served to buttress and sustain religious faith, as had been the case in early Islam, to one that, whether or not this was the explicit intention of the hermeneuticists, had as its ultimate effect the historicization and relativization of revealed truths. Julius Caesar Scaliger argued in the 16th century, as Turner notes, that "[t]heological disputes all stem from ignorance of grammar." But increasingly the study of grammar, and of textual science in general, was serving not to secure particular doctrinal claims, but rather to call into question the exceptional authority among texts of the ones that lie at the heart of religious traditions. Perhaps no modern thinker represents this shift more vividly than Baruch Spinoza, whose Tractatus theologico-politicus of 1670 aimed, as Turner argues, "to undercut ecclesiastical authority in civil affairs. A good way to do this was to weaken its ultimate ground in a divinely inspired Bible. Spinoza combined metaphysical naturalism with Hebrew learning to turn the Bible into a product of human history."
What Turner perhaps does not emphasize enough is that the metaphysical naturalism ascending in Spinoza's era is precisely the basis of what would come to be called 'natural science'. For Spinoza, then, as for many others in the next few centuries, the study of nature and the study of texts were united in a single project: that of understanding how things, in the most general sense, came to be the way they are. Sometimes, the parallel and complementary nature of the two varieties of inquiry has been reflected in the pairing of 'natural' and 'civil' history, though often, particularly in the case of natural history, what has been included in this endeavor has not so much to do with reconstructing and accounting for past processes, as with enumerating individual instances of a given phenomena (for Leibniz, for example, natural history is the science of 'singular things'). But whether these terms are evoked or not, throughout the 18th and into the 19th century, the task of learning about how nature got to be the way it is, by decoding the traces of past processes in nature's current form, was seen as fundamentally the same project as accounting for the human past by the study of a particular subset of traces, the written ones, that have been passed down to the present.
Typically, today, we see humanists attempting to get in on the action of the natural scientists down the hall, which is to say to mount the gravy train of grant-seeking that favors work purporting to be of some scientific relevance. Thus marginal Husserlians will attempt to show that phenomenology is relevant to the latest research in neuroscience, and scholars who work on the Scientific Revolution will plead that their own research is relevant for understanding the latest developments in the biotech sector. It is all a bluff, of course, a strategy of keeping two books in which we tell the money-givers one thing, while believing something entirely different about why what matters to us is important. The sad irony of this arrangement is that until not too long ago the cachet flowed in precisely the opposite direction: the natural scientists went to considerable lengths to show that what they were doing was continuous with the interests of the people we would think of today as the humanists.
A full explanation of how this reversal occurred has something to do with the loss of the idea of history as a broad category that straddles the subsequent two-cultures divide. Consider for example the French naturalist Georges Cuvier, writing in 1798 on the occasion of the discovery of some woolly mammoth remains in the Paris region: "Henceforth it will be necessary to add, to the history of the animals that exist at present in each country, that of animals that have lived or been transported there in the past." Here, by 'history', Cuvier has in mind, as Leibniz had before him, simply the enumeration of singular things. But he adds that this endeavor must also include 'history' in our sense, the reconstruction of the past:
For... it will be necessary for naturalists to do for the history of nature what antiquarians do for the history of the techniques and customs of peoples; the former will have to go and search among the ruins of the globe for the remains of organisms that lived at its surface, just as the latter dig in the ruins of cities in order to unearth the monuments of the taste, the genius, and the customs of the men who lived there. These antiquities of nature, if they may be so termed, will provide the physical history of the globe with monuments as useful and reliable as ordinary antiquities provide for the political and moral history of nations.
Not so many years later, the English naturalist Charles Lyell will argue at length that the most suitable disciplinary comparison for geology is, again, history, by which “we obtain a more profound insight into human nature, by instituting a comparison between the present and former states of society.” But, he continues, "far more astonishing and unexpected are the connections brought to light, when we carry back our researches into the history of nature. The form of a coast, the configuration of the interior of a country, the existence and extent of lakes, valleys, and mountains, can often be traced to the former prevalence of earthquakes and volcanoes in regions which have long been undisturbed."
Lyell, in effect, is promoting a science of reading the Earth. We should, perhaps, not exaggerate the radicality of the famous decline of the Renaissance preoccupation with the 'book of nature'. It is true that after the 16th century few people continued to believe that there are literally meanings encoded in the natural world, by a divine author, which we must learn to decipher. But this does not mean that science in its modern incarnation has been engaged in something that is entirely different from reading. As Lyell still understood well into the 19th century, what researchers in at least some central domains of natural science do is not completely separate from what human scientists do: both are interested in coming to understand the present from traces left, intentionally or unintentionally, by authors, or indeed by blind natural processes, in the past.
In light of these precedents, my humble proposal for the restructuring of the disciplines, and moreover for solving the two-cultures problem, is this: there will be a single, unified, scientific discipline dedicated to accounting for the present state of the world through reconstructing the past by whatever means available to us: texts, stone tools, burial mounds, tree rings, sediment deposits, fossils, cosmic background radiation. This discipline can be housed institutionally in what will be called the 'faculty of history', and mechanisms can be put in place to ensure that the textual scholars do not retreat into their own little world, as if the sort of traces they happen to study had nothing to do with the other sorts. There can in turn be a 'faculty of the atemporal sciences', in which researchers work on mathematical proofs, debate the finer points of epistemic modals, and search out the very most general laws describing those things that do not change. Here too mechanisms should be put in place to prevent ghettoization, and, in addition, compulsory instruction in the history of these activities will ensure that no one ever forgets that in the end there are no truly atemporal sciences, but all emerge from peculiar and contingent historical legacies. There can, finally, if desired, be a 'faculty of new stuff', where researchers develop new lightweight materials and better passwords and robots that journey through our entrails, and try to imagine what is to come next in entertainment, lifestyle, and so on. Here, too, training in how things got to be this way should be compulsory, as the only truly reliable guide to how things are going to be from here.
History, I mean, should be elevated to its rightful place, as the reigning science in the emerging universities of the 21st century. It is the best hope for an exit from the current dérive of the humanities, and, much more than this, it is the best hope for overcoming the false and arbitrary rift between the human and the natural sciences. History is considerably larger than philology, yet philology itself may be much larger than it is now perceived to be. Pollock notes that philology "has been everywhere that texts have been, indeed, in a way that we have yet to fully grasp, everywhere that language has been." This ubiquity was however grasped, for example, by the early Islamic field linguists who went out to build their lexica from the oral poetry of the Bedouins. Nor, at other times in history, as for Leibniz and William Jones, was the boundary of the genealogist's project set at the limits of language, but indeed extended to all the things named in language, to the world itself. In their diminished self-understanding, today's humanists have relinquished all these things to the natural scientists, who for the most part do not know what to make of them. By rediscovering its unity with philology in the shared project of history, natural science stands to gain as much as the humanities do: to rediscover its lofty purpose of enabling us to make sense of the world, and of our place in it.
This is the text of the Pierre Bayle Lecture, "The Gravity of Satire: Offense and Violence after the Paris Attacks," which I delivered to the Pierre Bayle Stichting in Rotterdam on November 27, 2015.
A civil war in Syria has, since it began in 2011, gradually radiated out to implicate nearly ever major global actor. An apocalyptic and totalitarian death cult has taken control of a wide swath of territory, and succeeded in acquiring many of the attributes of a proper state: tax collection, currency, natural resources, exports. It is perhaps a sort of pirate state, but the absence of many of the usual markers of statehood that emerged in the 20th century (notably, a willingness to maintain diplomatic relations, a seat at the UN, and so on) do not diminish its claim to geopolitical significance. Complicated individual interests dictate how more established powers relate to this new power. Turkey, existentially opposed to Kurdish statehood, stands accused of materially aiding the new power in view, simply, of a basic like-mindedness on the Kurdish question. Russia's interest is to prop up the old regime of Assad, a strong-armed and undemocratic ruler, but also a hold-out from the earlier era of secular Arab nationalisms that served as a bulwark against the rise of theocratic fundamentalism. The barrier to this shift fell in Turkey with the election of Erdogan more than a decade ago; in Iraq, it fell with the US ousting of Saddam Hussein, and in the borderlands between Iraq and Syria, as well as in pockets of North Africa, the Caucasus, and elsewhere, it is currently falling, int he most spectacular way, to a network of loosely organised militants who openly claim to wish to bring about one of the most illiberal, inegalitarian, repressive regimes not just that the world has ever known, but indeed that could even be imagined. In its most recent stage, this network has begun to export its violence far beyond the territory it hopes, at least initially, to conquer, and to the centres of power of the established, 'respectable' states that have been seeking to contain it militarily. Notably, on November 13, just two weeks ago, 130 civilians were killed in Paris in a series of attacks across the city. Some weeks earlier, a Russian passenger plane exploded over the Sinai Peninsula.
This new power, this quasi-state, has some kind of relationship to Islam. There is significant debate --some of it serious, much of it frivolous-- as to the true importance of religious belief in the rise of this power. Some analysts have argued that what we are witnessing is not so much a 'radicalisation of Islam' as rather an 'Islamisation of radicalism': a sort of ad hoc wrapping of a radical political movement in whatever symbols and rhetoric are readily available from the surrounding culture. The 'deeper' reason for the radicalism is in turn sought in the demographic study of gender ratios, or in the backlash to America's blundering foreign policy. The anthropologist Scott Atran has compellingly argued, on the basis of extensive fieldwork, that belief in the promise of an afterlife is only one of many factors that feed into the socialisation of volunteers for suicide missions. Many American commentators, associated with the so-called 'New Atheist' movement, have tended to disregard this evidence, and to insist that the problem is precisely Islam and the superstitious beliefs in the supernatural it foists upon its adherents. They insist that there is nothing distinctly Islamophobic about this interpretation, as it is just one regional and recent instance of the more general rule that, as they like to say, religion spoils everything.
Whatever their causal power, the symbols and rhetoric of this new power are indeed drawn from a particular strain of Sunni theology. Under its rule, while Christians and Jews can be spared their lives if they are able to pay a 'protection' tax, Shiite Muslims must be killed if they have not converted already prior to the conquest of their territory. The lingua franca of this movement is Arabic, though it also has a slick public-relations division that operates in English, Russian, French, and many other languages besides, targeting in particular disaffected, nominally Muslim youth from what is called 'the Gray Zone': the part of the world in which Muslims and non-Muslims live side by side, and generally happily. This new movement would like to eliminate the Gray Zone: to make it impossible for Muslim immigrants to live in harmony with 'the infidel'. To the extent that Europeans allow an anti-Muslim backlash to occur in Europe in the aftermath of the Paris attacks, they are helping this movement to achieve its goals.
Scholars such as David Livingstone-Smith has analysed the way in which the propaganda of dehumanisation plays a crucial role in the drumming up of pro-war sentiment in a society on war's brink. My greatest fear, in being invited to speak to a forum like this, at a moment like this, is that I might inadvertently contribute, in even the smallest way, to the drumming. So, let me say right now that by far my most important goal, tonight, is simply to not be misunderstood. I am a pacifist, and am willing to embrace all the accusations of incoherence and self-contradiction this commitment invites. This is not a position one takes as a military strategist: it does not say that no war is in fact winnable, but only that even if you have a won a war, in a transcendental sense you have not really won.
My second goal is to see whether I might be able to use some of my scholarly training and analytic ability to help to fight against this process of dehumanisation by calling into question some of the more facile dichotomies that are often evoked in claims about the uniqueness of European history and civilisation. This is a case, I hope, in which some old-fashioned intellectual history might play a role in improved intercultural understanding, and might therefore have some actual irenic power. Or, to put it differently, I am proceeding under the conviction that the more you know, the harder it becomes to remain a bellicose yahoo.
What I would like to focus on, in particular, is first of all, the presumption that what is called 'Enlightenment' is in some way the intellectual property of Europe, and, second of all, the presumption that the humour and satire that have so often been seen as triggering the anger of violent fundamentalists in recent years, are somehow in turn gifts or by-products of Enlightenment. For the most part, the best commentators were able to do in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks was to invoke the formal freedom of speech that came to be a cornerstone of classical liberal thought in Europe in the 18th century. A favourite point of reference was Voltaire's famous quip about despising what you say, but being prepared to defend to the death your right to say it. What was missed in this principled stance in defence of an abstract liberty was any serious consideration of what was being said that triggered such wrath on the part of the fundamentalists: of where it came from, what it meant. What was missed was a genealogy of satire.
In my scholarly work in the history and philosophy of science, I am involved in a research group in Paris dedicated to working out rigorous and adequate methods for the parallel study of geographically dispersed, and supposedly separate, intellectual traditions: how, for example, to study classical Greek and Chinese medicine together, or classical European and Indian astronomy, in a way that does not lend preference to the terms and concepts of the one strand more than the other. One of our basic methodological commitments is that there is, precisely, one object of study when we are considering the global history of, say, astronomy, and the local or regional inflections that result in very different styles of expression of, say, Indian astronomy on the one hand and European on the other, should not cause us to suppose that India has 'its own' astronomy, Europe 'its own', and so on. This approach has made us fairly contemptuous of the balkanized approaches that go under the name of 'studies'. As the great Sanskritist Sheldon Pollock has recently written, in the latter half of the 20th century the humanities were "turned into a tenement and rented out to a congeries of regional or national philology departments (East Asian, Middle Eastern, Romance, Slavic, South Asian, and of course English and classics), with worse quarters given to those thought to be lower on the cultural-evolutionary scale." Humanists are no longer able to discern the global reach of important cultural developments, such as science and literature, and to appreciate the regional traditions for what they in fact are: inflections of a diffuse global process, and not, by any means, autochthonous growths, spontaneously generated in the special soil of a given region.
This localism, indeed yokelism, has only been strengthened by the new strain of identitarianism in the humanities, particularly in the English-speaking world, which now takes as a gospel truth that only a member of a given ethnic or religious group "gets to speak for," "gets to decide" what is distinctive and special about that group, or, by contrast, what is shared with other groups. This identitarianism, a degenerate descendant of the sharp critique of authors such as Edward Saïd of more than a generation ago, is nominally a tendency of the left, but has by now been weaponised by virulently nationalistic thinkers throughout the developing world. A fine example is Rajiv Molhatra, who seeks to promote the study of Indian intellectual traditions, but does so in a way that falsely and unscientifically portrays them as sui generis in human history, and that plays into the ideology of religious purity known as Hindutva which is now part of the Modi government's broad arsenal for the persecution and exclusion of ethnic and religious minorities in India. When he is taken to task for his bad scholarship, indeed for his plagiarism, Molhatra typically responds, in garbled, derivative academese, that he is being held up to an imposed and colonialist regime of truth.
This is the sad dead-end of the partition of the humanities into regional studies. It is also, ironically, the arrangement that best suits the ideology of European exceptionalism: as it leaves 'European studies', so to speak, as the implicit default subject of whatever is not explicitly cordoned off and 'marked', in a structuralist sense, as being concerned with the non-European world.
The consequences of this limited perspective have been disastrous, not just for the academy, but for society as a whole, for our understanding of who we are, of who our neighbours are, and of our long shared history together. In science, technology, literature, crop rotation, any domain of human culture that might be of interest, Europe is and always has been a peninsula of Eurasia. My colleague Karine Chemla, the great scholar of the history of Chinese mathematics, likes to say that she "does not care about China," by which she means simply that what is of interest to her is whatever it is people are doing when they seek to prove things with numbers. This is something that has been done in China, among other places, and is eminently worthy of study. Similarly, I want to say that I do not care about Europe. Whatever happens here is a regional inflection of global developments, and to see this is perhaps the best way to move beyond the false presumption of a clash of civilisations that has obsessed and paralysed so many European and American thinkers over the past several decades.
I am not a historian of literature, and am much more at home discussing the transregional diffusion of techniques for the calculation of infinite series, or proofs for the existence of God. But again, the methods we have developed for one domain of human cultural activity will work just as well for any other.
What is literature, anyway? And what does this have to do with our effort to understand the apparent conflict between the Islamic and European worlds? In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January, we heard repeatedly a sort of stock genealogy of that magazine, that invoked the venerable tradition of French satire, going back to Alfred Jarry, Honoré Daumier, and of course Voltaire. Satire is seen as a fairly well-bounded genre, and is appraised in political terms, as a lowly but necessary part of the functioning of a free society. Critics of Charlie Hebdo from the left and the right, ranging from Jean-Marie Le Pen to the dissident members of the PEN American Center writers' organisation, also assess the significance of the magazine in political terms. Le Pen the elder called it an 'anarchist rag', and stopped just short of thanking the Kouachi brothers for murdering its most prominent contributors. Critics on the left, in turn, seemed unable to distinguish its cartoons from racist propaganda, the overt intention of which is to drum up hatred of an enemy group in preparation for war or pogroms.
As I've said the last thing I want to do is to participate in this drumming, and for this reason it might seem strange for me to come out in defense of Charlie Hebdo-- again, not just in defense of its formal right to exist, but in defense of its content and its spirit. I believe that the only adequate defense is the one that considers satire from the longue durée perspective, and that seeks to understand it as a rhetorical mode with special rules governing it, rules that are different from those that govern straightforward political speech. A Nazi propaganda cartoon that depicts Jews as rats is not satire. It has a straightforward purpose: to dehumanize Jews in the minds of readers. Satire, typically, especially in its Juvenalian strain, takes up the voice of its intended target, in order to reveal the inherent moral baseness or logical incoherence of this voice. It is a sort of ventriloqy, and as such it is by definition in danger of being misinterpreted. Critics of satire will often complain that it has 'gone too far', but what they really mean is that it has done its job too well, and has discomforted the critics themselves in its ability to reproduce satirically language that originates in prim and straightfaced earnestness.
Now it may be that there is no other way: satirists perhaps must simplyaccept that society will heap its scorn on them, as if they were the earnest evil ones, just as the jester in Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublyov, is abused and debased by the local prince's men for the simple fact that he lives in order to make people laugh, which is to say to remind people of the absurdity of human social life and the illusion of power it grants, for example, to local princes. But we as analysts and critics should aspire not to join in this abuse, not to join in the abuse, but rather to understand how this particular category of speech functions: that says what it means by saying the opposite of what it means, that, by lying, exposes the lies on which society is built.
One of the lies, or at least conceits, on which society is built, is, as the anthropologist Mary Douglas has shown, the one that conceals the functions of the body. By holding in expulsions and ejaculations, not just of fluids and gasses, but also of certain words, we become properly social beings, and to let these demons out is precisely to challenge and to threaten the social order. In this way vulgarity becomes one of the most powerful weapons in the satirist's arsenal, and also one of the elements of satire that makes it easiest for polite society to distance itself from the lowly work of the satirist even while weakly affirming satire's formal right to exist. Thus in the weeks after the Charlie Hebdo attacks did we often hear prim bourgeois liberals insisting that, while they are against extrajudicial assassination of course, vulgar cartoons are "just not their cup of tea." But the vulgarity is not gratuitous; it is necessary. When Aristophanes has his fictional version of Socrates deny the existence of celestial divinities by comparing the thunder of the clouds to farting, he is not just telling 'fart jokes', but rather undermining the reigning vision of the sociocosmic order, which perceives divine itnention in great and lofty things, by accounting for it in the same terms as lowly and undignified things. This is, in Douglas's sense, the intrusion of the body where it does not belong, and it is dangerous indeed. The right to intrude in this way is of course an important formal freedom gained in the West by with the rise of liberalism's commitment to liberty of expression and of the press, and Charlie Hebdo emerges directly out of the period that saw some of the final obstacles to these liberties falling away, with the decline of censorship laws in the latter half of the 20th century. Yet many left intellectuals today (in contrast with the 1960s) tend to see vulgarity as at best a formal freedom to be tolerated, rather than a dangerous force to be tapped into. Thus for example Eliot Weinberger, writing earlier this year in the London Review of Books, described Charlie Hebdo as a bastion of 'frat-boy humour'. As if France had 'frat-boys', and as if vulgarity were not also central to the aesthetic and moral vision of Cervantes, Boccaccio, and Rabelais.
Now it might seem a bit overblown to invoke such canonical and timeless authors in connection with an operation as humble, and as focused on the constant stream of current events, as Charlie Hebdo. But the novel, as its very name suggests, is similarly humble in its origins, and similarly preoccupied with what is 'new'. It also shares an evolutionary ancestor with the joke. As Jim Holt recounts in a remarkable study of the origins of European literature:
During the centuries of Arab conquest, folktales from the Levant, many of them satirical or erotic, made their way through Spain and Italy. An Arab tale about a wife who is pleasured by her lover while her duped husband watches uncomprehendingly from a tree, for instance, is one of several that later show up in Boccaccio’s Decameron. Once in Europe, the folktale began to cleave in two. On the one hand, with the invention of printing and the rise of literacy, it grew longer, filling out into the chivalric romance and, ultimately, the novel. On the other hand, as the pace of urban life quickened, it got shorter in its oral form, shedding details and growing more formulaic as it condensed into the humorous anecdote.
Thus when we are wathcing Pasolini's cinematic rendition of Boccaccio's masterpiece, blocked by the Italian government censors on its release in 1971, when we re-encounter the tale of the young man who pretends to be deaf and dumb, and sneaks into a convent in order to have sex with the lusty sisters, we should be aware that we are enjoying a story with a deep, trans-Mediterranean pedigree, with subspecies variants scattered throughout the Arabic-speaking world like so many different varieties of Mediterranean cat. Arguably the crowning achievement of the French Annales school of historiography is Fernand Braudel's work The Mediterranean, published between 1923 and 1949, which takes that body of water not as the boundary between civilizations, but rather as the center of a single civilization. The mistake of the present age, perhaps resulting from changes in our modes of travel, is to take continents, rather than seas, as the basic units of cultural cohesion. Braudel's work called this presumption into question, in part by charting the trans-Mediterranean transmission of cultural motifs in the period of the late-Middle Ages and, more explosively, into the Renaissance. We have mostly come to terms with the trans-Mediterranean heritage of European philosophy, mathematics, and medicine. Literature by contrast, particularly since the 19th century, when it became centrally implicated in the construction of European national identities, has remained rather more resistant to this broader regional contextualization. This resistance likely has less to do with Eurocentrism than with abhorrence of the idea that this great art could have lowly and folkloric ancestry, and that styles and genres could have paths of oral transmission. But the historical record is clear enough: wherever we can detect the activity of traveling bards, the recitation of erotic fabliaux, the sheer illiterate delight of a raunchy joke, we can detect both the spirit that would under slightly different circumstances yield up great canonical novels, and, at the same time, we can detect a spirit that is by no means unique to the European continent.
In much more recent history as well, it is worth noting in passing, under somewhat different political circumstances, the basic spiritual unity of the lowly joke and the lofty novel has made itself known. Thus in the Soviet underground network of samizdat publishing, joke books circulated right alongside the great literary works of banned authors. Jokes, in turn, were and are called in Russian anekdoty, anecdotes, and the power of these vulgar little stories to subvert the political order is well known. Putin, it is worth noting, is no fan of Charlie Hebdo either, and actively encouraged an anti-Charlie Hebdo rally under the sponsorship of his puppet governor in Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov.
The great modern satirical novels are characterized, of course, not only by vulgarity, but also, often, by a sharp self-awareness, even a self-defeating preoccupation with the impossibility or futility of what it is they are trying to do. The most well-known exemplar of this is assuredly Sterne's Tristram Shandy, the novel that ends before it even begins, because the narrator cannot figure out a way to get started: though in the course of not-beginning, he also manages to take down the conceits of the puffed-up philosophers, the pointless violence of the war-makers, and so on. Throughout the modern period in fact, many great satirical novels appear preoccupied with the moral weight, the gravity, of the very project of fiction: impersonating voices, inventing worlds, and claiming as true what is in fact false. Cervantes cleverly attributes the authorship of his own Don Quixote to the Moor Cide Hamete Benengeli, on the supposed grounds that Muslims have a different comportment to the truth than Christians do, and fewer moral qualms about making things up. But what he is in fact doing is subverting the medieval genre of knights-errant literature by producing a novel that is openly 'Moorish', which is to say openly deceitful, and also openly tricksterish, in the comparative-mythological sense of a supernatural being that is able to deceive not just by regular speech, but by spinning out counterfeit worlds. For Don Quixote, who is perhaps the truly simple-minded character in the novel, knights-errant novels express the 'truth' in the sense of 'moral truth': they offer up a proper image of the way things should be. But for someone involved in the production of the Don's tale, perhaps the Cide, offering up moral fables as truth is the greatest falsehood of all, and accordingly the proper response is to subvert the genre, via satire, and with an aim that is eminently philosophical: to destroy the pretense to truth of genre-conventional works by making the writing of fiction principally an exploration of the moral and metaphysical dimensions of recounting as true events that are strictly false.
All of these preoccupations --vulgarity, self-awareness and self-defeat, the limits of the straightforward truth-claims of philosophy, the moral gravity and simultaneous necessity of fiction-- come together in Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq’s remarkable ‘novel’, Leg over Leg; or, the Turtle in the Tree, concerning the Fāriyāq, What Manner of Creature He Might Be, first published in Arabic in Paris in 1855. The work does not have a typical narrative structure, and in the era it was often described in French and English as a non-fictional travel report of an Arab in Europe. But it consciously draws on Sterne, as well as on classical Arabic poetic forms such as shukf, in order to engage with philosophical ideas, among them the ideas taught in the traditional Arabic system of learning, having significant roots, ultimately, in Aristotle. Thus for example there is a long discussion of the questions whether grammar is a science, and an illustration of how lessons may be drawn from grammar for the resolution of philosophical questions. A tutor explains to his student, for example that he “had long harboured doubts over the question of the immortality of the sould and inclined toward the dictum of the philosophers to the effect that whatever has a beginning must have an end. But when I found that grammar has an ‘inchoative’ but no ‘terminative’, I drew an analogy between that and the soul and ceased to be confused, praise God.” The tutor goes on to give the student a deliriously ornate analysis of the different types of metaphor that one must master in order to be a true grammarian (and thus, in order to have the elements of philosophy). These include “the aeolian, the ornitho-sibilant, the feebly chirping, the tongue-smacking, the faintly tinkling, the bone-snapping, the emptily thunderous, and the phasmic, while the aeolian itself may be sub-divided into the stridulaceous, the crepitaceous, and the oropharyngeal, the crepitaceous may be sub-sub-divided into the absquiliferous, the vulgaritissimous, the exquipilifabulous, the seborrhaceous, the squapalidaceous, and the kalipaceous.”
What explains this astounding cascade of vocabulary? For al-Shidyaq, the overabundant and often agressively repetitious style is intrinsic to the very raison d'être of the work. "I have imposed on the reader, he writes, "the condition that he not skip any of the 'synonymous' words in this book of mine, many though they be (for it may happen that, on a single road, a herd of fifty words, all with the same meaning, or with two meanings that are close, may pass him by). If he cannot commit to this, I cannot permit him to peruse it and will not offer him my congratulations if he does so. I have to admit that I cannot support the idea that all 'synonyms' have the same meaning, or they would have called them 'equi-nyms'." As Rebecca Johnson argues, al-Shidyaq's aim of critiquing institutionalized conceptions of sacred texts, of breaking down ecclesiastical authority and social conventions, is directly facilitated by his method of equinymy: the "simple definitions of words" that "seem to collapse under the weight of his lists of subtly differentiated synonyms -- does not establish him as the ultimate linguistic authority as much as it shows that language itself is the key to dissidence" (xxviii).
Language as the key to dissidence: this is precisely the gravity of satire. We should not be surprised that one of the earliest and most aggressive synonymic bombardments in the work focuses on the many different names for female genitalia --'the sprayer', 'the gripper', 'the nock'--, male genitalia --'the thimble', 'the snub nose', 'the falcon's stand'--, and so on. Here the author is drawing on his massive erudition and internalization of medieval Arabic dictionaries, and also of shukf, a genre of obscene classical Arabic poetry. As the scholar Adam Talib has shown by some very clever side-by-side comparisons, this genre makes the most aggressive, sexually explicit rap lyrics look prudish by comparison. In both genres, the overt purpose is to be so exaggeratedly obscene as to sever the link to any conceivable act that one might actually carry out in this world, to let the imagination run free, and so to subvert not only ordinary sexual morality, but also those who would insist that the function of the narrative arts is to track reality.
Al-Shidyaq is writing as an Arab in 19th-century Paris, and indeed the first edition of his work is presented as a straightforward travelogue. Some of what strikes him about that city may be thought of as its inescapable clichés, indeed many of the same clichés that continue to fascinate and defie the people who recently attacked it. At one point he focuses his method of repetition on the concert-hall organ as the embodiment of Frankish bon-vivantism. The organ produces its sound, he effuses, by "strumming and humming, mumbling and rumbling, jangling and jingling, squeaking and creaking, chirping and cheeping, burbling and barking, clicking and clacking, gnashing and crashing, chinking and clinking, gurgling and gargling, purring, cooing, and bleating, thrumming and drumming, roaring and guffawing, gulling and gabbling, la-la-ing and lullabying, horses' neighs and the roaring of waves, clubbing of billy goats and cricking of cradles, cries of men at war, calls of merlins and raven's caw, old women moaning and heavy doors groaning," and so on.
He is fascinated by the distinctively Frankish fondness for revelry in the presence of such a strangely vital, breathing instrument as the organ (already in the 17th century Marin Mersenne had noted the appropriateness of the instrument's name, given its resemblance to a living, breathing animal). Al-Shidyaq contrasts this cultural trait, this easy self-abandonment to the irrationality sensuality of music, to the pervasive musicophobia of the traditional villagers in his home in Lebanon:
The natives there [in the Levant] are fanatical about religion and warn against anything capable of causing sensual pleasure. Consequently, they do not want to learn to sing or play an instrument or to use the latter in their places of worship and their prayers, as do the Frankish shaykhs [i.e., the clergy of the Roman Catholic Church], lest this lead them into disbelief. Thus every one of the gentle arts, such as poetry and harmony, for example, or painting, is an abomination. Could they but hear the humans sung in the churches of their aforementioned shaykhs or the tunes of the organ that people are so fond of and that are played in places of entertainment, dance halls, and cafés to attract men and women, they'd find no sin in the tambour.
The organ al-Shidyaq is describing might easily have been found, fifteen or so years after his book's publication, in the recently opened café, Le Bataclan, which dates to 1865. The killers who came to that venue on November 13 of this year did not stay long enough or live long enough, of course, to reconsider their idea of sin. They had grown up themselves in the Gray Zone, but by the time they came to this concert hall in the very heart of it, where Muslims and non-Muslims happily revel alongside one another, they had been converted to a version of their nominal religion that left no room for reconsiderations of any sort, for thoughts of any sort that are not dictated by some revered authority. Al-Shidyaq for his part had been born a Maronite Christian, but after moving to Istanbul to take up work as a chief typographer to the Ottoman Sultan, he happily converted to Islam. Some commentators see ample signs of his coming conversion already in Leg over Leg. Back in Lebanon, at the end of his life, he insisted on being buried in the Christian cemetery of his ancestors, but with a bold Islamic crescent on his gravestone. Al-Shidyaq, we might say, wanted to stay in the Gray Zone even in death.
Now it might be objected that my reflections here are suited to a post-January 7th world more than to a post-November 13th world. Imperial powers are now downing each other's fighter jets, and NATO is holding emergency meetings. What use is literary criticism at such a moment in history? The most recent attack in Paris was overtly military, rather than simply criminal (though I am uneasy about making such a distinction), and it was not based on the killers' inability to appreciate the literary output of their victims. I might be tempted to claim that Daesh has failed to appreciate the literary inspiration in the name that the band playing at Le Bataclan took for itself --the Eagles of Death Metal-- but we all know that the ironic playfulness of some subgenres of indie rock had nothing, but nothing, to do with the choice of targets. And yet we might take this evident lack of interest as itself a measure of the distance --in imagination, in hopes and expectations from life-- between the killers and their victims. This is not, at all, a civilizational divide, between the pious Muslims on the one hand and the wayward post-Christian secular Europeans on the other: the 'infidels', as Daesh calls them. But it is most definitely a divide within a single trans-Mediterranean civilization. In this divide, the dour and self-serious fundamentalists find unwitting support from the prim bourgeois liberals who think the defense of obscenity is merely a matter of upholding a formal but largely regrettable freedom, as well as from those on the left who mistake satire for a mechanism of colonial domination. Jokes are serious. What we are defending when we defend satire is not simply 'the right to offend', but rather a particular disposition to the world, one that differs as much from the literal or straightforward disposition as the novel differs from the police report or medical file. What we are defending is imagination, playfulness, and, yes, freedom: freedom from the simple lies that keep society running, the lies that tell you what is right and what is wrong, that you should behave thus rather than so: the lies that the small spirits of the fundamentalists crave to believe. What we are defending is the Gray Zone.
The fact that I have books coming out in such quick succession has more to do with the timing of my publishers than with my own work rhythms. However it came about, The Philosopher: A History in Six Types is certainly the most unusual book I have written (though I can't promise it will hold that distinction for long). It is an attempt to take stock of the different ways people have engaged in what they thought of as 'philosophy' in different centuries and cultures, or have engaged in what we today, for complicated reasons, are now prepared to retrospectively label as 'philosophy', even if they lacked this term or any of its cognates. It features such memorable personages as the Sage, the Ascetic, the Mandarin, the Courtier, the Curiosus/a, and the Gadfly, brought to life in exemplary case studies drawn from history, as well as in fictional sketches that please the phancy even as they aid in the pursuit of truth. It also tackles that nagging question: why, if philosophy is born of Socrates's rejection of remuneration, do we all still insist on getting paid? It is now available for pre-order at Amazon.
... Nature’s signs, I mean, function ecdytically rather than mimetically. They work by way of identity rather than by way of representation. Our modest suggestion is that the human mimesis might best be seen as an outgrowth of this species of sign, rather than as a radical rupture --the human exception-- which would set human representations of nature up against nature itself, looking at it as if across a great divide.
Bridging the illusory gap between ecdysis and mimesis, on this account, amounts to a small but crucial supplementation of the broader project of Kohn, Ingold, and others, which consists in collapsing, to the extent possible, the distinction between nature and culture. The aim is not to prove that human beings are ‘just’ animals, that a Le Corbusier apartment bloc is ‘just’ like a termite mound or that a Modigliani sculpture is ‘just’ like a cicada husk. Wherefore this modifier, ‘just’? It obscures the project, and betrays the position of the opponent who invokes it as having been settled in advance.
The aim is, rather, to regain, for nature, its lost share in what was once a vastly more capacious and ambitious science of aesthetics. Until the 18th century, culminating in Kant’s 1790 Critique of the Faculty of Judgment, the aesthetic regard was principally focused upon moss-covered rocks, tangled branches, leaves. Aesthetics, understood in Alexander Baumgarten’s sense as the science of perception, could not ignore the fact that living nature imposes itself on our senses in a particularly vivid, in a literally im-pressive way. Yet by the 19th century aesthetics has largely shrunken the scope of its interest to a small sub-class of human-made objects, those namely belonging to the ‘fine arts’. This shrinking had mostly to do with economics, with the increase of circulation of art objects as capitalist goods par excellence. But that system has largely collapsed, and now we are lurching around, trying to see what all we might be able to regard aesthetically besides the masterworks of painting and sculpture. We have tried out the aesthetic gaze on mass-produced objects, on object-less performance pieces, on celebrities lying in glass cases. Meanwhile nature --to invoke a medieval verb subsequently revitalized by Spinoza-- continues to nature, and to patiently await its rightful return, in a postcapitalist age, to the center of our aesthetic attention.
I was invited by Aeon Ideas to respond to the question, "Are human beings the only political animals?" Here, in part, is what I wrote in reply:
In the Politics, Aristotle famously identifies human beings as ‘political animals’. By this he does not mean that we are all, by our nature, interested in elections, or lobbying, or community organising, but rather that we all, by our nature, belong to the polis, which is to say to the city or to the city-state. It is a corollary of this view for Aristotle that if a person lives entirely outside of the bounds of human society, he or she cannot partake fully of what it is to be human; the proverbial child raised by wolves inevitably grows into a different sort of animal than you or I: non-political, and so not fully human.
There is not in the end such a sharp distinction between 'political’ in Aristotle’s sense and in the sense in which we usually understand it today (voting, lobbying, etc.). To live in society at all is inevitably to embody and enact social roles that have political significance. George Orwell understood this when he wrote that “in our age there is no such thing as 'keeping out of politics’,” though in truth this was no less the case in classical Greece.
But if all social life is political, won’t it be necessary to think of the designation 'political animal’ as a genus name, including many species, rather than as something unique to human beings? After all, and as Aristotle knew well enough, there are many highly social species of animals (not least, wolves). Even if we exclude simple gregariousness as being non-political, to the extent that it implies no distinction of social roles, there are still very many species that appear to have a complex system for the division of labor (ants), the capacity for collective planning (elephants), bargaining (apes), and so on. Since antiquity the evident complexity of beehives has led many authors to suppose that these insects are not only political, but that their social world might provide us the very model and ideal of political organization. Thus in the early modern period we see a proliferation of works blending elements of both political philosophy and practical apiculture, such as Samuel Purchas’s 1657 work, A Theatre of Politicall Flying-Insects, Wherein Especially the Nature, the Worth, the Work, the Wonder, and the manner of Right-ordering of the Bee, Is Discovered and Described. This title is not exceptional in its era, but only one of dozens of similar attempts to understand the nature of the polis through the world of the hymenoptera.
If however we are looking for signs of intentional or willful 'right-ordering’ in animal society, there will always be some human skeptics for whom no evidence will count as decisive. Any appearance of complex intellectual or emotional activity in non-human animals can always be explained, or explained away, as mere instinct, and any argument to the contrary can be dismissed as naive or sentimental anthropomorphism. The reasons why intention and will are posited as requisites for any complex social behaviour among animals are seldom made explicit, and the fact that human beings for their part, and a fortiori human politicians, often seem to do what they do without giving any real evidence of reflection, does not seem to the skeptics to show that the very arguments used to deny a true political life to animals might well bounce right back at us.
And yet there is another sense, much less often discussed, in which we might think of animals as political. We might, namely, ask whether there is any good reason to think of the boundaries of our own political life as extending only to the limits of our species, and no further. What if the domestication of livestock, the hunting of wild animals, our close community with pets, and so on, were conceptualised as fully and truly activities of interest to political philosophy? There is some minimal motion in this direction already; Will Kymlicka and Sue Donaldson’s important 2011 book Zoopolis: A Political Theory of Animal Rights is noteworthy here, as is the recent attribution to great apes of the legal status of 'person’ in a handful of countries.
What is a person, anyway? Until the very most recent age, often vaguely called the 'modern’ period, humanity existed within a trans-species community of person-like agents: some of them human, some animal, some physical, and some spiritual. While it is indeed only since Darwin that we have come to think of ourselves as animals, for the great majority of history we imagined that the animals, themselves, were persons. They were not human persons, not homo sapiens, but they were fellow actors within a shared reality, in which bears and birds and human beings all moved within a complex web of reciprocal moral relations.
Today we tend to imagine that we have progressed as a species from the naive world view of our predecessors, who saw themselves as having not just shared evolutionary connections with animals in the distant past, but also a shared community in the present. Yet this progress has come at a considerable cost. For one thing, modern adult humans are now cut off from the deeply ingrained patterns of thought that once helped us make sense of our place in the world through our relations with animals. These patterns are natural, seared in by evolution, and can only be trained out or suppressed with considerable harm to our sense of self, to our psychological well-being, and also, eventually, to our environment. Aristotle’s restriction of the attribute 'political’ to human beings goes directly against the way human beings actually experience the boundaries of community. As amply attested in literature, history, and mythology, and as confirmed in our own experience, community has always cut across species boundaries.
Curiously, Aristotle also recognises that hunting is, as he puts it, “a form of war.” The hot war, so to speak, is one that human beings had decisively won already by the time of the rise of city-states, and the human relation to animals witnessed by Aristotle was in truth something more like an occupation of the animal kingdom by the overwhelmingly more powerful empire of humans. In daily life Greeks did not worry much about being eaten by lions, even if in the proverbial state of nature a lion would have decisive advantages in one-on-one battle.
In the intervening millennia the overwhelming power of humans, at least over other megafauna, has only grown more unquestionable, and has led not only to the total absence of real danger from other animals, but also the complete annihilation of many species, and to the rise of great, efficient death factories for others. Animals might kill us yet, but they will not be the sort of animals that are visible to the naked eye.
My most recent book, Nature, Human Nature, and Human Difference: Race in Early Modern Philosophy (Princeton University Press, 2015) has been published, and is available for order both on the PUP website as well as on Amazon. Here is an excerpt, from the conclusion:
It was in large part the systematization of nature, in generally avowedly artificial classifications, that led to the emergence of racial realism in the modern period. It was quite enough to devise complicated schemata or groupings-together of all natural beings, including human beings and their purported subtypes, to reify the categories of race that so many modern people have taken for granted. It was not necessary, in addition, to produce philosophical arguments in defense of racial essentialism. Race, then, as an entity on a par with phlogiston, cosmic radiation, or gluons, is not invented in the modern period. What is invented is a system of racial typology, which in turn promotes a new way of talking about human diversity --a discourse, if you will--, and which supervenes on the prior and parallel project of biological taxonomy, even as it explicitly and repeatedly denies that the divisions it is making are actually given in nature. This new typology, finally, may be said to be the result of an increasing concern in the modern period to understand the human being as a thoroughly natural being, as exhaustively comprehensible within the terms of a system of nature that also includes primates, quadrupeds, molluscs, and plants. The insertion of the human being into such a system of nature, as we have attempted to show here, had profound implications for philosophical anthropology in the widest sense: for the understanding of human nature, and of the nature of human difference.
There is a certain responsibility, in addressing a subject as contemporary and unresolved as race, to not treat it from a dusty and antiquarian point of view, but also to seek to bring something to current discussions that might help to lessen this idea’s harmful effects. We began this book with an epigram from W. E. B. DuBois, identifying ‘color prejudice’ in the Southern United States as a ‘curious kink of the human mind’, and then proceeded to investigate the concept of race as it unfolds from the Spanish Renaissance to the German Enlightenment, thus in a chapter of history that plays out mostly before the institutions of prejudice that interest DuBois had taken shape. This may seem an avoidance of the pressing matter at hand, but the approach here has been motivated by the conviction that these curious kinks of US history, which in the end is the history of utmost concern to the present author, may best be seen as a local inflection of a deep global history. This history must be uncovered and analyzed in order for the seemingly intractable local pathologies, the ‘kinks’ to which DuBois refers, to be properly diagnosed and remediated. There can be no easy division between the antiquarian and the contemporary, since the way we talk about race is in large part an accrual, a distillation of history. There may be transhistorical and innate predispositions to divide human society into a fixed number of essentialized subgroups, but it would be extremely hasty to suppose that these kinks of the human mind are somehow etched into the human brain. Between any possible predisposition and the actual modern history of thinking about race, there is a tremendous amount of room for conceptualizing alternative paths our deepseated propensities for thinking about human diversity might have taken, and could still yet take.
Recent work in the ‘philosophy of race’, particularly in the Anglo-American tradition, has provided remarkable insight, borrowing much from empirical psychology, into the way implicit bias functions to heighten and perpetuate racial prejudice in society. This is valuable work, but so far it has not offered much in the way of positive prescriptions for correcting those false beliefs we evidently harbor unknowingly. One possible path towards correction might be discovered in the project of improved historical awareness. Our perception of social reality, our implicit biases, and our explicit beliefs are all historically conditioned. For this reason, the categories that come into play in much of our effort to make sense of social reality are much better understood not as natural kinds, or even as candidates for natural kindhood, but as historical kinds, to be questioned and challenged not only in clinical experiment and conceptual analysis, but also in the archives: the open record of our wrongs, conceptual and moral at once.
 In addition to the titles cited in chapter 1, see Lawrence Blum, “Stereotypes and Stereotyping: A Moral Analysis,” in Philosophical Papers 33, 3 (2004): 251-290; Daniel Kelly and Erica Roedder, “Racial Cognition and the Ethics of Implicit Bias,” in Philosophy Compass 3, 3 (2008): 522-540; Daniel Kelly, Luc Faucher, and Edouard Machery, “Getting Rid of Racism: Assessing Three Proposals in Light of Empirical Evidence,” in Journal of Social Philosophy 41 (2010): 293-322; Eric Schwitzgebel, “Acting Contrary to Our Professed Beliefs, Or, The Gulf Between Occurrent Judgment and Dispositional Belief,” in Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 91, 4 (2010): 531-553; Nilanjana Dasgupta, “Implicit Attitudes and Beliefs Adapt to Situations: A Decade of Research on the Malleability of Implicit Prejudice, Stereotypes, and the Self-Concept,” in Advances in Experimental Social Psychology 47 (2013): 233-279.
I've just completed the first lesson of L. N. Kharitonov's Self-Teaching Manual of the Yakut Language (Third Edition, Moscow, 1987). What satisfaction! At this early stage the vocabulary is very similar to Turkish, though to be precise the true relation is the reverse: modern Turkish is a distant descendant of a Central Asian proto-Turkic, and of all Turkic languages it is Siberian Yakut, or Sakha, that preserves the most archaic features.
My eventual hope is to be able to do an English translation of the oral epic known as the Olonkho, or at least of the parts that have been written down. What I've previously been able to read is Platon Alekseevich Oyunsky's (1893-1939) Russian translation of the saga of Nurgun Bootur the Swift (Yakutsk, 1931), as well as a number of his scholarly works on Yakut poetics. Oyunsky also wrote some of the most heavy-handed, schlockiest Soviet socialist poetry I've ever read (and I've read a lot), but even this didn't do the trick: in 1939 he was removed from a train returning from Moscow to Yakutsk, and arrested for his involvement in 'Yakut bourgeois counterrevolutionary organizations'. He died in a labor camp that same year, and was rehabilitated, for what that's worth, in 1955.
Oyunsky's translations of portions of the Olonkho into Russian are stunning, and to the extent possible evoke the full richness and vitality of the lived --which is to say recited, or quasi-sung-- poem. Is his work, now, 'obscure'? Is it 'obscure' to take an interest in this material? It seems so, especially in our hyperprofessionalized academic landscape where the slightest deviation from our 'area of specialization' is taken as a sign of deviance. But what is important about Yakut epic is that it offers a plain and revealing case study for coming to understand the oral roots of literature. The Olonkho is as literary as Homeric epic, but the history of Siberia's encounter with the technology of writing is different from that experienced in the Eastern Mediterranean. (Plato and Aristotle both cite Homer as an authority, largely thanks to his work having been written down, and the tradition to which I am supposed to belong, philosophy, is often thought to be a tradition of commentary on these two, so I hope it's clear where I'm going with this: philosophy = Olonkho + writing.)
If you do not read Cyrillic, this might look, more or less, like Russian, but it is nothing of the sort. Even the borrowed terms in Sakha are adapted to the radically different phonetics of Turkic. For one thing, as in Spanish, consonant clusters must be flanked by vowels on each end, thus скамейка ('bench'), becomes ыскамыайка, and flaunts right at the outset the dreaded ы, which can strictly never be an initial vowel in Russian, and which the rabid nationalist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky recently called for eradicating from the Russian language altogether: it is an ugly 'Asiatic' letter representing an ugly Asiatic sound, he said; evidently anxious about the clarity of the distinction, he insisted it was for nomadic pagan hordes, not for Russians.
I have tremendous admiration for Soviet foreign-language pedagogy, and am consistently impressed with instruction manuals published in the USSR for the minority languages of the union, even if this means that the Yakut I will be learning, at least for now, will center principally on daily life at the factory, or some dull athletic competition of young Pioneers. Curiously, in Kharitonov's historical introduction he bemoans the Tsarist-era Russification of Yakutia, yet the themes and names he chooses for his exercises are decidedly Russian (and not just Soviet) as well. Here's my translation exercise from the first lesson:
This is a class. Here is a table, a chair, a bench. There stands a stove. This is a door. Here sits Sergei. There sits Semyon. Over there stands Ivan. Ivan, come, sit here. Mikhail, come, stand here. What is this? This is a class. What is this here? This is a table, a chair, a bench. What is standing there? There stands a stove. What is over there? Over there is a window. Where is the door? That is the door. Who is sitting here? Sergei is sitting here. Where is Liza sitting? Liza is sitting there. Is Ivan sitting? No, Ivan is standing. Who is standing over there? Ivan is standing over there. Is Piotr here. No, Piotr is not here.
Even with this rudimentary material, the story-seeking human mind fills in the scene, imagines it all. I am reminded here of Nabokov's recollection of his first encounters with English instructional books:
My first English friends were four simple souls in my grammar --Ben, Dan, Sam and Ned. There used to be a great deal of fuss about their identities and whereabouts -- 'Who is Ben?' 'He is Dan', 'Sam is in bed', and so on. Although it all remained rather stiff and patchy (the compiler was handicapped by having to employ --for the initial lessons, at least-- words of not more than three letters), my imagination somehow managed to obtain the necessary data. Wan-faced, big-limbed, silent nitwits, proud in the possession of certain tools ('Ben has an axe'), they now drift with a slow-motioned slouch across the remotest backdrop of memory; and, akin to the mad alphabet of an optician's chart, the grammar-book lettering looms again before me.
And why is Ivan standing? I now find myself wondering. And where is Piotr? (Is he a delinquent? A counterrevolutionary?) And how inviting and hearthy, to find a stove in the classroom. Is this Yakutia? I want to be there.
Over and over again, literature is born, from stories, from suggestions, from traces. The supposed archaicness of many of these traces is no impediment; even in the most hyperrealist novels of the modern age, it has been the mind of the reader doing most of the work, filling it all in.
Much of this filling-in was once done by the bard, by the reciter of literature. But a shift occurred, in much of the world anyhow, after which, it was thought, literature is not to be recited at all, but read. And now all we readers have are traces. Increasingly it seems worthwhile to me to study and to reflect upon the relationship between living literature, of the sort the Olonkho represents, and the fossil vestiges we have now come to take, almost without reflection, for the real thing.
My application to join PEN American Center as a 'professional member' was approved. I had been worried they might reject it, since I remain, at least with respect to who pays my salary and what my daily responsibilities looks like, an academic philosopher, but I basically told them that professional philosophers have no conception of a shared avocation that binds them together with their homologues in Azerbaijan and Rwanda, and that for that reason, more than any other, I'm looking to change crowds.
Here is what I wrote, in part:
"Over the past few years I have been drifting gradually away from my academic community (I am a professional philosopher), towards the community of people who define themselves as writers. The reasons for this shift are various, but I will focus on one. Philosophers are in the end extremely provincial, belonging to national traditions with little sense of the existence of a global community of kindred souls. The further one ventures from the Anglo-American and Western European world, the harder it is for professional philosophers to recognize a shared vocation with the people they encounter. Writers by contrast are sharply aware of the global scope of their work, and are capable of sincere solidarity with one another that transcends state and tradition.
"I have on occasion signed petitions, initiated or supported by PEN, in support of persecuted writers and journalists throughout the world. It has recently come to seem to me that my support of such causes might be more useful if I were not simply speaking as a lone voice, but as a member of an organization committed to them. I'll admit that the recent debates about Charlie Hebdo among American writers, in which I participated from my perch in France, helped to bring into clear relief for me how important global solidarity is and why it is best, for me, to pursue this as a writer (rather than as, say, an academic or an activist). But the Charlie Hebdo affair was a crisis in the proper sense: it did not really bring about anything new, but only made plain the cleavages that were already there, both among American writers, and between me and my supposed community of academics who, by contrast with the majority of members of the American chapter of PEN, could not even begin to grasp how important it is to stand against the persecution of satirists everywhere. I take it that this is because they do not understand how important satire is. I expect writers to be somewhat more advanced in this regard."
Earlier, in October of last year, long before I had considered joining PEN, I wrote to a friend:
"Increasingly I have trouble thinking of myself as part of the community of American philosophers, and not only because I live and work in Europe, but also because its members seem fundamentally incapable of understanding what it is to be a philosopher as something more than being able to rattle off the same list of American (and sometimes British, Canadian, and Australian) names, departments, and annual events, or being able to formulate an opinion on Brian Leiter. How different American philosophers are, in this regard, from writers or artists, or, in a somewhat different way, natural scientists, who are all ready and eager to recognize an Albanian or Iranian, say, as one of their own, so long as that person is a self-identified practitioner of the same ancient craft!
"Why is there no philosophical equivalent of PEN? Why are the annual APA meetings treated as being of such tremendous cosmic significance, while the various modest attempts at global philosophical encounter, such as the World Philosophical Congress, are scoffed at by American philosophers as if they were John Bolton at the United Nations? In the end it's because the people who attend the World Philosophical Congress wear cheap suits and have big moustaches and seem, by American parochial standards, to be generally out of it. But again, in the case of, say, literature or art, there is an underlying shared something that the American and the Albanian practitioners of the ancient craft love, and that they recognize as shared. This shared something takes them beyond the differences of costume and idiom. Is there a comparable something that American philosophers love? I'm beginning to have my doubts."
I am still reeling from the time I wrote a piece for the New York Times 'Stone' series about the need to pay attention to the ethical and metaphysical commitments of, e.g., hunter-gatherers or subsistence farmers throughout the world, if we are truly committed to increasing the diversity of, and promoting inclusiveness within, academic philosophy. The response? I was accused on the Feminist Philosophers blog of 'mansplaining'. Elsewhere, many supposed that I had attempted a sort of reductio ad absurdum of the very idea of inclusiveness: for them, it was self-evident that people from different demographic sectors of one and the same society must be included in the project of philosophy, but the idea that people from different societies should be included too struck them as no less self-evidently absurd. This, for me, more than any other, was the moment I thought to myself: Never mind. I'm done here.
I'm not leaving philosophy, but I am leaving behind, to the extent possible, the professional organizations and networks that do not permit me to live out my philosophical commitment to cosmopolitanism. It seems to me, from what I have been able to discern so far, that for complicated historical reasons it is 'writers', and not 'philosophers', who have better cherished and preserved this ideal.
Nabokov said its humor did not age well, and unlike Moby-Dick, which is occasionally dismissed as a school-boy's adventure story but never as hokey or stale, The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote de la Mancha seems to suffer under the weight of its most representative scenes. The association of the whole with these mere parts is either too vivid, or it is not vivid at all, as in the case of the subnovel of Anselmo and Lothario, which everyone today knows, without knowing where it is from. Most of these scenes are played out in Part I, by the end of which the presumed hero has survived several battles against hallucinated enemies, drawn his squire hesitantly but hopefully into all of them, and mingled with several different minor characters, many of whose own stories, and not just Lothario's, amount to novels within the novel. He has been tricked into a cage by a sympathetic pair, a canon and a priest, and taken back to his home, to his housekeeper and his niece, in the hope that he might be cured of his madness.
Part I was published first in Madrid in 1605, and over the next ten years would be published in Brussels (1607), Milan (1610), and, in the first of many English translations, in London in 1612. Part II would be published ten years after Part One, also in Madrid, in 1615. Although Don Quixote is so often reduced to the battle with the windmills, which has been concluded within the first few chapters of Part One (leading us to suspect that its iconic character has at least something to do with the fact that many readers get no further), it is Part II, and what happens or is imagined to have happened between 1610 and 1615, that is the true clavis to understanding the novel in its entirety, and in all its philosophical, subversive, deceitful greatness.
So, at the beginning of Part II, Don Quixote is lying in bed, and the priest and the canon come to see how he is doing, to check whether he has recovered from his madness, or whether he continues to take himself for a knight errant. Sancho Panza is there as well, still believing, or willing to believe, that his master is a knight errant, and that great things await them once they set back out on the road. To the solicitous pair's disappointment, the Don continues to maintain that what had looked like madness was in fact the result of supernatural enchantment, a common occurrence in the tales of knights errant, so that, in his case, giants only looked like windmills, a helmet only looked like a washbasin, and so on. But bedside conversation turns to a stranger form of enchantment still: someone, perhaps some quasi-divine being, has, it turns out, produced a written account of everything that happened while Don Quixote was out practicing his knight-errantry, and has published it, first in Madrid in 1605, and later in Valencia, Milan, Antwerp...
The men have arranged for a visit from a recently graduated student, the Bachelor Sansón Carrasco, who has himself read the novel, and may know something of how it came about. Thus in Chapter 3 of Part II (in Edith Grossman's elegant new translation):
Don Quixote was extremely thoughtful as he awaited Bachelor Carrasco, from whom he hoped to hear the news about himself that had been put into a book, as sancho had said, though he could not persuade himself that such a history existed, for the blood of the enemies he had slain was not yet dry on the blade of his sword and his chivalric exploits were already in print. Even so, he imagined that some wise man, either a friend or an enemy, by the arts of enchantment had printed them: if a friend, in order to elevate them and raise them above the most famous deeds of any knight errant; if an enemy, to annihilate them and place them lower than the basest acts ever attributed to the basest squire, although --he said to himself-- the acts of squires were never written down; if such a history did exist, because it was about a knight errant it would necessarily be grandiloquent, noble distinguished and true. This gave him some consolation, but it made him disconsolate to think that its author was a Moor, as suggested by the name Cide, and one could not expect truth from the Moors, because all of them are tricksters, liars, and swindlers [embelecadores, falsarios y quimeristas].
There is no explanation, yet, of why the Moor, in addition to being in his nature a deceiver, should have such a remarkable supernatural ability to know the stories of individual people in the real world, and to transpose them from there into the world of a novel. But Sansón, perhaps, gives us a small hit when he proceeds to make a few basic distinctions between forms of writing:
[I]t is one thing to write as a poet and another to write as a historian: the poet can recount or sing about things not as they were, but as they should have been, and the historian must write about them not as they should have been, but as they were, without adding or subtracting anything from the truth.
The student does not reveal his source, but he is plainly relating from memory what he has learned studying the philosophy of Aristotle at university. The Greek philosopher writes in Book I of the Poetics:
The poet and the historian differ not by writing in verse or in prose. The work of Herodotus might be put into verse, and it would still be a species of history, with meter no less than without it. The true difference is that one relates what has happened, the other what may happen. Poetry, therefore, is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular.
To which genre of writing is Don Quixote supposed to belong, now? The answer seems inseparable from the question of the work's authorship, and of its actual subject. The possibility is briefly considered, more than once, that Sancho Panza is the real hero of the novel, a possibility that is of course mocked and dismissed by Don Quixote himself, who claims that it would violate the most basic rules governing the knights-errant literature to place the squire at the center of the tale, rather than to have him subordinate to his knight. But there is of course very little in the novel that does respect these rules, and in this respect the suggestion and the refutation go together as a sort of affirmation.
This affirmation would be echoed in at least one significant interoperation of the novel. In "The Truth about Sancho Panza," a parable written in 1917 and published first in 1931, Franz Kafka hypothesizes that the squire is the true subject of the novel, and that the 'knight' is in turn a projection of his own lapse into the factitious world of fiction: "Without making any boast of it," Kafka writes,
Sancho Panza succeeded in the course of years, by devouring a great number of romances of chivalry and adventure in the evening and night hours, in so diverting from him his demon, whom he later called Don Quixote, that his demon thereupon set out in perfect freedom on the maddest exploits, which, however, for the lack of a preordained object, which should have been Sancho Panza himself, harmed nobody. A free man, Sancho Panza philosophically followed Don Quixote on his crusades, perhaps out of a sense of responsibility, and had of them a great and edifying entertainment to the end of his days.
Kafka wishes to 'disenchant' Don Quixote by making its protagonist a simple-minded yet curable man, sucked in by fantasy but not misled by it. The world that Sancho Panza returns to, by the end of Kafka's parable, is our world. This is thus not so far from Milan Kundera's reading of Don Quixote: that it is the great milestone of the beginning of 'modernity'. What could be more modern than disenchantment? If you see things shifting shapes, it is not that the world is enchanted, but that you are mad: the death of nature and the birth of the clinic at once.
Yet we might place the squire at the center of the action for reasons that Kafka does not seem to have detected. Who, after all, would violate the conventions to which Don Quixote himself is so faithful? A deceitful Moor, perhaps. And why? Because he is not interested in our world, but in spinning out spurious and false (or, to stick with neutral language, 'non-actual') ones. And why? Because he is a poet and not a historian. And why? Because, as Aristotle taught and as the Moors both learned and eventually passed on to the Christian universities of Iberia, it is this use of the narrative art that is closest to philosophy: to the investigation of the problems of metaphysics that the novel, properly conceived, invites us to consider. This is a fraught and morally treacherous investigation -- it invites us to entertain the false as true (or, again, to put it in neutral terms, to consider the non-actual as actual).
For Don Quixote, who is perhaps the truly simple-minded character in the novel, knights-errant novels express the 'truth' in the sense of 'moral truth': they offer up a proper image of the way things should be. But for someone involved in the production of the Don's tale, perhaps the Cide, offering up moral fables as truth is the greatest falsehood of all, and accordingly the proper response is to subvert the genre, via satire, and with an aim that is eminently philosophical: to destroy the pretense to truth of genre-conventional works by making the writing of fiction principally an exploration of the moral and metaphysical dimensions of recounting as true events that are strictly false.
A convenient table summarizing the two possible, and possibly overlapping, novels called Don Quixote would look something like this:
Who is a
Cide Hamete Benengeli
Miguel de Cervantes
What becomes clear in Part II is that Cervantes has attempted to merge himself with the fictional author, Cide Hamete Benengeli, in order to break with the genre of knights-errant literature, to subvert it, by producing a novel that is openly 'Moorish', which is to say openly deceitful, and also openly tricksterish in the comparative-mythological sense of a supernatural being that is able to deceive not just by regular speech, but by spinning out counterfeit worlds. The Cide has accomplished something even more remarkable than this, something more remarkable even than what your average evil deceiver (to invoke a personage from another European work of fiction that would appear a few decades later) might pull off. As the Don and the others begin to realize at the beginning of Part II, he has not just spun out a world out of words and presented it as truth; he has moreover taken their world, the world of the knight and the squire and entourage, which they had previously supposed to be simple fact, and, by writing it, has made it factitious.
Cervantes's invention of the Cide, and his characters' coming to self-consciousness as the inventions of Cide, is a particularly complex variation on the sort of meditation on truth and falsehood, and on poetry and history, that seems to have served as a metafictional accompaniment to many important prose works from the ancient to the early modern periods. Thus Lucian of Samosata in his remarkable second-century CE work of science fiction, the True History, begins with an extremely awkward confession of the author's own recourse to lying, coupled with a hopeful insistence that dishonesty is not so much a cop-out, as it is a necessary element, of story-telling:
I could not condemn ordinary men for lying, when I saw it in request amongst them that would be counted philosophical persons: yet could not but wonder at them, that, writing so manifest lies, they should not think to be taken with the manner; and this made me also ambitious to leave some monument of myself behind me, that I might not be the only man exempted from this liberty of lying: and because I had no matter of verity to employ my pen in (for nothing hath befallen me worth the writing), I turned my style to publish untruths, but with an honester mind than others have done: for this one thing I confidently pronounce for a truth, that I lie: and this, I hope, may be an excuse for all the rest, when I confess what I am faulty in: for I write of matters which I neither saw nor suffered, nor heard by report from others, which are in no being, nor possible ever to have a beginning. Let no man therefore in any case give any credit to them.
It is not Lucian's fault if he has to lie: nothing worth telling has ever in fact happened to him. Reality has not done its part to enable him to be a compelling history-teller, so he will have to be a story-teller instead. He goes on to tell of a trip to the moon, and of a great bell he found there that enabled him to listen in on conversations on earth, and of all sorts of other things that would eventually, more or less, come true.
Prose fiction is born of deceit: it amounts to an adoption of the outer form of history writing --that is, relation of the actual-- in order to explore the possible-but-non-actual, which is supposed to be explored only in verse (at least if we agree with Aristotle, which Cervantes, via Sansón, invites us to do). The outward markers of the exploration of mere possibility, meter and rhyme and so on, are eliminated, and what results is the novel: a straight report of something that did not happen. That the novel is in its essence a dissimulation constituted a clear problem --a moral and philosophical problem: what are we doing and how can we presume to do it?-- for prose fiction writers from Lucian at least through Cervantes, even if the problematic character of the endeavor is subsequently eclipsed with the elevation of the novel to a respectable bourgeois art form, and to a pillar of the display of national cultural greatness.
Flaubert just churned out worlds, and the world itself was in on the game; these worlds, the worlds of the 19th-century realist novel, soon became movies, and by now it is entirely taken for granted that we live alongside multiple parallel worlds. If these raise moral and political problems, problems for censors or ratings boards, these problems are now thought to lie only in the particular content of this or that entertainment, and the idea that the entire undertaking might be a great, morally untenable dissimulation seems to have been entirely occluded.
Or almost entirely. One genre that appears to preserve, and to be sustained by, the same problematic charge that makes Don Quixote a masterpiece is the genre that is sometimes called 'parafiction', the genre of pseudocumentary, of the fake encyclopedia entry, perfected by Borges and evoked in the literary work of Calvino, Bolaño, of Luigi Serafini with his separatist universe encyclopedized in the Codex Seraphinianum, of all the tongue-in-cheek footnotes and pseudo-critical apparatus of the various postmoderns, who seem, in their way, to in fact be returning to a premodern preoccupation with the moral and metaphysical problem of presenting as true what is in fact false, a concern that was only temporarily hidden by the canonization and nationalization of the novel as recently as the 19th century.
The Arthurian romances and knights-errant novels, as Don Quixote's canon (the character, that is) insists, instill an appreciation of the truth, and this is what saves their fabulous, non-actual plots from being found guilty of the sin of lying. They deviate from fact, into fantasy, for the sake of moral truth. But, the canon warns, abandon the normative dimensions of story-telling, and you have nothing left over but a lie. Satire is what happens when the normative dimensions are disowned and mocked, and the author stands open to the accusation of lying, of making shit up, and consequently feels compelled to face, exposed, the philosophical problem of truth and falsehood.
All great prose fiction is satire.
A great many of the features of human existence --the fact that we are haunted by dead ancestors; that the soil is made up of the rotting bodies of living creatures like and including ourselves; that there is not just a question of whether we are bodies, souls, or body-soul compounds, but also of how different parts or regions of our bodies represent different dimensions of what we take to be ourselves; that we live through cycles of night and day and different things seem possible at different moments of these cycles-- are habitually left out of the accounts of human existence offered by philosophy. The great victory of philosophy, in fact, is often held to be that we have got down to the very most basic structure or framework of human existence, from the perspective of which our earth-boundness, or our bipedality, or our diurnality, come to appear contingent. We take space and time as such to be pure forms of intuition, but not the past of the ancestors or the heavenly realm of the angels.
For much of the history of philosophy, the basic orientating points of reference that gave life and sense to human thought were considered alongside the very most abstract frameworks that, one hoped, made this life and sense possible: not just the moral law within, but also the starry heavens above. Aristotle and Kant both, who gave us the most influential categorial schemes, also considered it an integral part of their projects to describe the rich diversity of things given in experience to which these categories apply. Leibniz's entire philosophical project, in turn, might be described as an attempt to show, once the austere metaphysical scaffold has been established, how we get the rich variety of bodily, world-bound experience we do.
But something has gone wrong along the way. These days it is not unusual to hear philosophers saying that it is their goal to give an account of human beings at a level that need not implicate their bodily existence, that abstracts away from the complicating features of world-bound life. I have heard Robert Brandom, for example, saying precisely this about the programmatic uses to which he was putting Leibniz and Spinoza in his ironically titled book, Tales of the Mighty Dead.
It seems much more likely that what permits us to neglect many of what were until extremely recently the basic features of human life is not so much a triumph of abstraction as a triumph of technology: the day-night rhythm, for example, seems less a defining fact about human existence in an era in which we can turn the lights on whenever we wish. It is not clear, however, how quickly a new invention frees us of the old dispositions of mind. We are still afraid of the dark, and we still dream of predating animals. In this respect, the new technology does not so much free us from an old obstacle to thinking about human existence in its pure state, so much as it throws up a new one.
The problem here is not that philosophers are slicing off just one part of the intellectual project of explaining human beings, and that I personally have no taste for that part. The problem is that what we get when we analyze human beings at that level is quite plainly not a model of human beings at all. There is a great deal that philosophers have taken to be eliminable that is not in fact eliminable. There is no meaningful concept of time for example that is not wrapped up with growth and death and aging, and thus that is not mediated by all sorts of rich, if culturally specific, beliefs about society. There is no meaningful concept of space that does not involve positive and negative valuations, psychogeographical projections-- a frightening forest here, a bad neighborhood there, a great sublime ocean between us.
It is not that I want us to apprehend the world in this way, and am wistful about what philosophy has moved away from. It is that we in fact do apprehend the world this way-- perhaps not exactly in the way I've explained, but still in some way that is comparable. We are in fact constrained to apprehend the world as an inhabited, enchanted whorl of beings and forces and vibes good and bad, surely as a result of the way our cognitive apparatus has evolved, but surely no less vividly for that. Yet for the most part philosophy doesn't care.
A very telling example of the dismissive approach to the sort of ineliminable dimensions of human existence I am stressing is Dan Dennett's account of why we continue to fear ghosts and ghouls when we, say, enter a dark attic. It is, Dennett explains, because our brains have evolved into 'hyperactive intentionality detection devices'. Dennett is certainly correct on this point, but the interpretation of what we should do in light of it is just the opposite of what I am suggesting. Dennett believes that empirical science and critical thinking can correct the brain's hyperactivity, and that once we have established what is really there, in the attic, we can move on. The final account of what is there will include only the entities of natural science, and all the products of that earlier hyperactivity will be confined to the history books.
But is the list of these entities really the most useful account we can give of the phenomenology of being-in-dark-attics? Even if we are all committed to a 'just the facts' approach, might not the facts about the particular character of the hyperactive brain's phantasms --that they, say, produce pale dead girls in one time and place, dark old men in another--, be just as relevant to the final description the human sciences would want to give as the list of physical entities present will be to the final description offered by natural science? At issue here, ultimately, is the philosophical question of what counts as a fact, and what I am trying to do is to press for an answer as to why it should be natural science that gets to determine, for philosophy, the answer. To pursue such questions is not to abandon science as a final arbiter, but simply to acknowledge what even the most heavy-handed 20th-century philosophers of science were prepared to recognize: that different levels of description are relevant for different tasks.
It is worth noting en passant that philosophers today are only prepared to scrap those products of evolved hyperactivity that it is socially feasible and morally expedient to scrap: out with the angels and poltergeists and God; but don't worry, no one is going to come for your selfhood, or your private property, or your mid-sized physical objects, or your love. Of course these can be analyzed away too, if the mood hits us, but for the most part we will agree to keep them around, and even to theorize about them. One era's specters to be shooed away are another era's indispensable building blocks of social reality.
Cognitive science, and the philosophy influenced by it, has taken into account the richness I've been trying to evoke-- that we are not just essentially thinking things, but also thinking things with, for example, a special evolved capacity to notice faces that appear in our natural landscape, and to have stronger reactions to them than to lumps of dirt. But cognitive science by itself is ill-equipped to draw out the full significance of the ineliminable features of human cognition that it registers and describes. Philosophers in other areas of specialization need to join the project.
Many in political philosophy are now, promisingly, expressing dissatisfaction with the ideal theory of figures such as Rawls, and pushing for the opening up of this field to marginalized perspectives, which necessarily give a non-ideal picture of things, while revealing that Rawls's abstract and ideal subject was to a great extent a mirror image of himself all along. What this new group of political philosophers seem not to have recognized, yet, is that opening up the field to non-ideal perspectives might not stop, and has no sufficient reason to stop, at the work of feminists or race theorists, who, however much is staked on their difference from Rawls and the others, are still engaging with the classical canon, taking it seriously, defining themselves in relation to it.
There are dimensions of difference undreamt of in non-ideal political theory. These are discovered, among other places, in ethnographic field work, in listening to people who do not set themselves up in society as theorists, who not only do not oppose the preeminence of Rawls but have no idea who he is, as they tell you their conception of the nature and sources of power or community. Those who are opening up political philosophy to include non-ideal theory still expect that we will be getting all of our ideas about the political from theorists of some sort or other, and that as such it is theory rather than expressions of culture that is of final interest to us.
In the 20th century, Ernst Cassirer attempted to keep philosophy focused on culture, took it as one of the central tasks of philosophy to focus its unifying lens on the diversity of human cultural expressions. Ernest Gellner had a similar interest, but drifted further from his starting point in philosophy in order to reestablish himself as a fieldworking anthropologist. Aby Warburg and many other thinkers with a rigorous background in philosophy took it as their task, in one way or another, to give an account of the manifold expressions of culture, and of the logic or structure or sense behind them. This philosophical interest in culture was almost without exception the product of a distinctly mitteleuropäische form of culturedness: mostly German-Jewish and as such the descendants of the Berliner Aufklärung, reverent toward the beautiful things, and capacious enough in its conception of philosophy to work these things into the project of philosophy proper.
There are no philosophers continuing this tradition today, and the sensibility for which they spoke is by now as extinct as the dodo. There are philosophers who engage with what is called 'cultural studies', but the second part of this label, here as elsewhere, implies that those working in this vein have not come to revere, but to break down: they pass straight from ignorance to critique, and have none of the cultivated, encyclopedic, second-nature familiarity with the kaleidoscopic variety of human cultural expressions that enabled the likes of Aby Warburg to speculate, say, on the meaning of the serpent motif in Navajo tapestry. Cultural-studies adepts wish to defend or promote the cultures with which they have some elective or genealogical affinity. But this is something very different from the lost tradition I am evoking. As an object of study, today, philosophers do not care about culture.
Cognitive scientists and political philosophers are opening things up, a bit, but they remain largely indifferent to those ingredients of human existence that I think need to be taken into account in order to get any kind of rich picture of what it is, so to speak, we're really up to: myth, lore, ritual, tapestry motifs, dirty jokes, and other collective phantasms, all studied from a comparative and diachronic perspective. These are, typically, the subject matter of anthropology, and for the most part my philosophy peers look at me like I am stoned when I attempt to argue for their importance. Philosophy does make occasional rather tame gestures toward interdisciplinarity-- psychology and economics are the preferred neighbor disciplines. Like philosophy, these are fields whose members, for their own complicated reasons, chaff at the suggestion that they are involved in 'mere' human sciences, and long for the respectability hard science provides. For any discipline with these aspirations, getting caught mingling with cultural anthropology could only constitute a setback.
Historians of philosophy, for their part, continue to study their canonical figures as if these figures were working with a conception of philosophy as etiolated as their own. But Aristotle and Leibniz and Kant were doing anthropology too. One of the most serious setbacks to philosophy was the separation from it, by a sort of parthenogenesis, of anthropology over the course of the 19th century. One of the most hopeful prospects right now, the boons of which cognitive science has only begun to suggest, is their future reunification. A philosophy that, as part of the study of, say, space and time, gives rich, deep descriptions of the culture-bound experience of space and time by people who are not philosophers, who tell us of the souls below the earth or of the age when humans could still speak with animals: that would be a comprehensive human science.
If it fails to happen, this will be because philosophers continue to balk at the suggestion that their discipline is a human science at all. It is housed with the humanities, but only because they had to put it somewhere. And at least with respect to what it has become, they are right: philosophy is no longer a human science, since it does not study human beings.
(Excerpt from a forthcoming essay.)
Over the past few years I have become more involved in what is called the 'art world': promoting and participating in the creation of objects that are, when completed, deemed to belong to that special, narrow class of physical entities at least some people agree to call 'artworks'. I have at the same time been growing ever more convinced that this world and the objects that it produces are a scam, a joke, a frivolity. At least this is what they are if we take them in the ordinary terms in which we are instructed to take them, as being of the same species or at least genus as, say, the Sistine Chapel or Paradise Lost. But far from feeling pressured by this contradiction, between my opinion of current art and my implication in its production, in fact I am perfectly at ease with it. The reason for this becomes clear with a small amount of effort to translate the terms in which artists are in the habit of presenting what they do into terms that are more continuous with what I have myself been trying to do.
Like many people who came up through a training in academic philosophy and who fell, faute de mieux, into an academic career, I have been searching in various ways for opportunities for 'outreach'-- that is, using what I know about philosophy, and about how to teach it, for the benefit of people outside of the traditional venues in which philosophy is taught.
Simultaneously, I have been growing interested, at a practical and theoretical level, in the way in which philosophy as an organized undertaking remains almost exclusively an activity of the geopolitical and economic centers of the world. In this respect, it is very different, for reasons that ought to inspire reflection, from art and literature, and also to some extent from natural science, which thrive in the geopolitical peripheries. This difference can perhaps best be illustrated by a consideration of the completely provincial (or at least regional) scope of interest of the philosophers who come together in hotel conference rooms for the annual conference of the American Philosophical Association. I have trouble thinking of myself as part of the community that organization represents, and not only because I live and work in Europe, but also because its members seem fundamentally incapable of understanding what it is to be a philosopher as something more than being able to rattle off the same list of American (and sometimes British, Canadian, and Australian) names, departments, and annual events, or being able to formulate an opinion on Brian Leiter. How different American philosophers are, in this regard, from writers or artists, or, in a somewhat different way, natural scientists, who are all ready and eager to recognize an Albanian or Iranian, say, as one of their own, so long as that person is a self-identified practitioner of the same ancient craft! Why is there no philosophical equivalent of PEN, that would rally behind a persecuted Iranian philosopher? Why are the annual APA meetings treated as being of such tremendous cosmic significance, while the various modest attempts at global philosophical encounter, such as the World Philosophical Congress, are scoffed at by American philosophers as if they were John Bolton barking at the United Nations? In the end, I think, it's because the people who attend the World Philosophical Congress wear cheap suits and have big moustaches and seem, by American parochial standards, to be generally 'out of it'. But again, in the case of, say, literature or art, there is an underlying shared something that the American and the Albanian practitioners of the ancient craft love, and that they recognize as shared. This shared something takes them beyond the differences of costume and idiom. Is there a comparable something that American philosophers love? I have my doubts.
In short, there are not very many opportunities for philosophical outreach when one travels to the geopolitical peripheries: the discipline of philosophy is just not global enough in its self-conception to make this sort of work feasible. How different the situation is in the art world! And it is not just that art is global in scope and is being produced everywhere. It is also, I have come to think, precisely in the apparent frivolity and fraudulence of contemporary artistic creation that people, particularly young people, throughout the world are attempting to engage with philosophical problems of freedom, identity, the relationship between self and other, between self and world, and so on. As 'art', the work is generally 'bad'. But this judgment is misplaced. We should not be looking at the work. We should be looking at the activity, and the ambitions and energies out of which the work sprays like the wake of a fast-moving vessel.
We need to learn to think about the discipline of philosophy in geopolitical context, but we also need to think about the way in which the ersatz philosophy involved in artistic creation responds to the pressures of 'real-world' politics, the pressures that come down through state coercion and other forms of violence and that loom as an ineradicable image of all that is not-art. This situation became particularly clear to me during a recent visit to the Art Academy of Palestine in Ramallah. The trip was semi-secret at the time, and even now the purpose of the trip will have to wait for another occasion to be told. Suffice it to say that the nature of the project was entirely apolitical. It speaks volumes about the current situation that simply having human and creative contact with Palestinians at all, simply being hosted by Palestinians, comes across to many as some sort of radical stance. It certainly didn't feel radical. Nor, for that matter, do I think there's any radicalism in acknowledging the grotesque, inhuman, and degrading character of the Israeli occupation.
I met delightful people --people with whom you too would want to be friends, eminently cultured people if that helps to win you over--, whose 14-year-old sons are currently on trial, and threatened with years of prison, effectively for the crime of having strayed outdoors during the demonstrations in the West Bank against the siege of Gaza some months ago.
Some of my 'Western' collaborators preferred to arrive on buses via Jordan. I was far more, well, flexible: I flew to Tel Aviv, and I continue to maintain connections both personal and professional within Israel. My reasoning about this has been complicated, but, I hope, not tortured or self-deceiving. My own grandparents moved westward across the US to California in the late 1930s, thus about a decade after the last battles in Nevada and Utah of the so-called 'Indian Wars' that had begun some centuries earlier in Virginia, and that had resulted in the near-total genocide of the continent. Unlike many of my Israeli friends, my own ancestors were not themselves fleeing genocide in Europe, but, at worst, poverty. So I'm not prepared, as a European-American, to isolate my Israeli friends.
To invoke the parallel experience of the appropriation of the American frontier, moreover, is not to reach back into some dark prehistory, where what's done is done: in fact the idea that all that is by now 'just history' is precisely what enables us Americans to go about our lives without, for the most part, any serious moral reckoning. But if I can't isolate Israel as exceptional in its displacement of Palestinians, coming to Palestine, for me, does instill a sharp sense of a need for moral reckoning all around, and --more usefully-- a sense of duty to publicly oppose the oppression and disenfranchisement of the Palestinians by Israel. One thing that is very striking, and that one can only see by traveling on both sides of the pre-1967 border, is the way in which Israel, with vastly superior resources, is effectively building a new political reality directly into the infrastructure of the whole region: there is now a multi-lane highway that goes straight to the Ariel settlement in the West Bank, for example. How could Ariel fail to be part of Israel proper, if it is connected by a multi-lane highway to Tel Aviv? These construction projects go on unslowed no matter what the Israeli politicians are saying to the worried but easily distracted members of the international community. The construction of tram lines in Jerusalem functions in much the same way. Palestinian institutions in East Jerusalem do not have to include the word 'Israel' in their official mailing addresses, but they do have to live with IDF forces patrolling the streets outside. And the eventual aim is clear enough to the outside visitor: it is to push out or minimize these institutions, to make them 'just history' in a way that occludes from view the urgency of moral reckoning, just like the malls and interstates of California, which seemed so rock-solid and legitimate in my childhood, occluded from view the genocide that had made them possible.
While I am ambivalent about the prospect of a boycott of Israel --there are simply too many Israelis with genuinely progressive political sensibilities to make their isolation sensible-- what I am not ambivalent about is the crucial importance of supporting Palestinian institutions, particularly those that help to advance artists and writers and others who can testify, in ways that outsiders cannot easily shut out, to the share these people have in universal human experience. It is important to not let anyone insinuate, as often happens, that any Palestinian institution must be backed up, ultimately, by dark illiberal forces, and that to get involved with them is to invite taint. Israel wins the propaganda war for the hearts and minds of Americans (at least), in large part by conveying an image of itself as made up of liberal, free individuals, who have gay-pride parades and night clubs, and philosophy departments at their universities, in contrast with the undifferentiated masses of rock-throwers and others in such a degraded state that the liberal spirit, whose presence is an outward sign of kindredness for us Westerners, is not able to flourish. But this is a lie. My Palestinian friends like philosophy and all that good stuff too, but it doesn't help them much to keep their kids out of Israeli jails.
It is telling --the more telling the more I think about it-- that while exchange in my capacity as a philosopher is easy to arrange with Israeli institutions, by far the easier way to make contact with Palestinian institutions is as an ambassador of art: philosophy for the country that built itself on the model of European culture and values, and that gets colored as 'center' on any world-systems-theory map of the centers and peripheries; art, by contrast, for the colonized people who were pushed to the periphery in the creation of this new European state.
So art it has to be, if one is serious about outreach. One crosses that horrible wall, with the barbed wire and the signs that tell you you are going into 'Area A' of the Palestinian Authority, that it is illegal and dangerous for Israeli citizens to do so. And one travels to Ramallah in a taxi with Hebrew words on its doors, one winces and waits for the stones to hit. But they do not, and so one arrives, and goes into the academy, and encounters there a species of young people immediately recognizable from so many other spots in the world. They are refined, gracile, welcoming; a copy of Finnegan's Wake sits on a desk. They wear those silly Andean knit hats with the flaps that hang down over the ears, and have double-pierced noses. They speak in a stream-of-consciousness way about their artistic ambitions and visions. This way of being, the way of being of the artist, is a sort of cultivation of freedom, possible even under severely limiting circumstances of war, and terror, of checkpoints and visa restrictions. It is a miracle that such freedom is possible, but when you meet young artists in Ramallah, you know with certainty that it is. You also see, in a way that is less evident among the trust-funded MFA students of Cooper Union, that right here may well be that supremely philosophical purpose of art anticipated by Friedrich Schiller: the realization of freedom in artistic creation.
This purpose is not as frivolous as some of the external signs of its presence, and indeed sometimes makes itself known in the realm of non-art, in the realm of visa processing and border controls. At the National Gallery of Kosovo in October I saw an exhibition by a young Kosovar artist that 'explored' the strange phenomenon of applying for a special 'artist status' visa in order to travel to Western Europe. The work was not terribly interesting, but it no doubt served the intended purpose: to help the artist get an artist visa. People become artists not so much by creating works of art, but by wearing Andean earflap hats and otherwise conducting themselves as artists. And this opens up worlds to them, and frees them, to some extent, from the shitty world created and maintained by the forces of non-art. There is the further question of where this leaves all those people who are too poor or exploited or otherwise perhipheralized to procure for themselves an artist's hat and to master the artist's habitus. But still, it's a beautiful thing: a tiny rupture in an otherwise dreary and necessitarian system. This is as much as Schiller dared hope for.
I, being sick of an Ague, have come out to Country for a change of Air. But in truth I am not so sick at all, and I embrace this circumstance with whole Heart, for it enables me to pursue, as is my true Vocation, still further Observations touching upon divers questions of Natural Philosophy.
The Duke, when he comes galloping through England between diplomatic missions to Vienna and Constantinople, makes light of my inquiries, and says mockingly how good it is that Philosophy now includes matters suitable for Ladies too. There was no room for the feminine sex in the Schools and their endless debates about the Quiddity of this and the Thisness of that, he laughs, but how fitting for a Duchess, with leisure to spare, to look with her magnifying Lens at the industry of Silkworms, at the fine detail of the leg of a Flea, or to place two such Lenses together within a Tube, and to look out at the Heavens, to chart the Eclipse of the Moon or to follow the path of a shooting Star.
But the Duke cannot see past his own Nose, I tell him, for in truth such matters were always of great concern to the Philosopher. For did Aristotle himself not wade in the Tides, searching for ever new forms of Corral, of Medusae and Polypi? Did he not describe the formation of Clouds and other Meteors, and the fatty exhalations of earth that we call Comets? No, ‘tis the Schools that shrank Philosophy down to the mere quarrel over Words, distorting the legacy of the great Aristotle, while neglecting altogether the work of Hippocrates, the Elder Pliny, Isidore of Seville. As if these too were not Philosophers! What these men possess, and the discoursers upon Quiddity lack, I believe, is Curiosity. Those discoursers suffer from Wind. They do not hunger for the World, nor have they Appetite for the astounding and infinite diversity of its Particulars.
When I arrived at the Estate yesterday I was delighted to learn that the servant child Tom had, with his parents’ encouragement, kept strong our Experiment in the culture and production of Silk since I helped him with it Summer last. My own Mother suffered not her servants to speak or play in her presence, nor in any way to show their fellow Humanity. Yet from the earliest age I could not help but take an interest in the knowledge they pass down from one generation to the next, which differs from the Learning of the natural Philosophers principally in this, that it be communicated not in books but in speech and in practice. The remedies Tom’s Mother offers for the Bee-Sting, for example, or even for a condition as mundane as the hic-Cough: is this not just as much a part of the totality of Learning, as are Observations made upon the elliptical Orbit of the Planets?
Meanwhile Tom’s Father turns up stones with mysterious unknown Writing upon them, during his long walks through the forest, and he has even shewn me his collection of Bones turned to Stone, among them monstrous horned Carapaces, and what look like the thigh bones of Oxen, but are far too large to belong to any known Beast of the Land. If we are ever to amass that great store of Observations, of which Lord Verulam only dreamt, that will help us to make truly sound Generalisations and to apply these efficaciously for the improvement of all Mankind, we will have to rely not just upon the Observations made by men of Learning --nay, for there are not nearly enough such Men--, but by everyone in a position to make ‘em, regardless of Sex or Station.
Now that I am here in the Country I will have time to return to my Correspondence, yea, to re-establish my lapsed Citizenship in the Republic of Letters, which has no Territory but in the Minds of Men. I am everywhere addicted to Contemplation, but it is only in quiet retreat that I have that much-needed Peace that enables me to turn my Thoughts into Words.
I will begin, this morning, with a brief report to Mr. Oldenburg on the Effluvia of the Loadstone, which I have been studying ever since I met that Irish impostor Valentine Greatrakes, who claimed for himself the Power to cure Illnesses by the bare Laying on of his Hands, but in fact was relying upon the hidden virtues of the Magnet. These virtues, I have now shewn, are no different from any other in Nature: they are to be explained not by hidden Affinities betwixt the Things of nature, nor by I-know-not-what action at a distance, but by the Emission of invisible Corpuscles that act directly upon surrounding Bodies, just as a heavy Hammer acts directly upon the Anvil that receives its Blows. Ah, but the absence of Mystery reveals in turn the greatest Mystery of all: the Order and Perfection of Nature itself! Who needs posit Ghosts and Sprites derrière les coulisses, when the Machine of this unending Natural Theatre is already wondrous enough!
My next letter will be to Freiherr Godfrey William von Leibnitz, of Hanover, who is surely my most faithful Correspondent of all, since our first meeting in the year 1676 following his entry into the Royal Society. I was in London at the time tending to some of the Duke’s debts, incurred by rash investments in the West Indies Sugar manufactury, while he meanwhile was waiting out a spell of inclement Weather for his transit home from Calais. Of course, as a woman I was not permitted to attend the closed Events of the day, but Leibnitz had wished to speak to me, I learned, about my Methods for the Production of Silk, so it was arranged that we would meet to walk through Hyde Park that very afternoon.
He confided in me his grand Plan to pay for many great projects --the establishment of learned academies in far-away Russia, the Illumination of the streets of Vienna by means of artificial Light-- all with Revenues derived from a system for Sericulture so intensive it would rival, in the city of Berlin alone, all the Silk of China. He was a Rêveur, that young man, and I happily told him everything I know, for I do not consider Knowledge a secret to be jealously guarded, and in any case I do not consider my own Technique for Breeding the Worms so as to yield perfect consistency in the quality of their threads any great Secret: I learnt it from Tom!
We spoke of many other things besides, of course. What a perfect Harmony of Minds I discovered with that man! I have never shunned the Company of his sex, but I have also never been infected with the disease of amorous Love. The Love however that is often called Platonick, it must be understood, is not devoid of Desire, but is rather a true and fitting Realisation of a Person’s deepest and truest Desire: to know lasting Union with another, lasting because it does not depend upon the fleeting states and vicissitudes of the Body.
So, as I’ve said, I must write to Leibnitz. But I hear Tom coming up the stairs just now. I expect he will want to show me this Stove he has been building, that regulates its own Heat, so he says. He calls it his own perpetual motion Machine! Truly, that boy has some ideas. I should like to see him a member of the Royal Society too someday. And afterward there is that tiresome Query from the Manx Physician, what’s-his-name, who wishes to solicit my opinion concerning the two-headed Calf lately turned up on that Island. And of course there are always more of the Duke’s affairs to tend to: the Sugar debts; the Hounds he wants returned to the breeder, who it seems have no taste for hunting down helpless Foxes.
And then there is the fiction I am composing, though I daren’t tell anyone yet, about a young Duchess who transits to the Moon by a clever use of Magnetism, and there conducts all manner of Observations touching upon Natural Philosophy. This Fiction, like all Fictions, engages the Fancy, so that the reader might be more readily led to the use of Reason. If only more of the writing of Philosophy could proceed in this wise, truly I believe we would see a great Increase in the numbers of Philosophers. I have just had this morning a new turn of events in the story, where the Heroine encounters a sort of Moon-Gnome who represents the figure of Mister Des-Cartes. I must write it out quickly before it sinks back down into the dark Morass of unfertilised Ideas. I am beginning to fear that the Letter to Leibnitz will have to wait until tomorrow.
I have no proper Learning in any subject, but I make do as best I can, through Correspondence and Communication with others, and by Force of my own Determination, in those subjects for which I have a natural Inclination. I lack such an Inclination in Mathematics, and in general in those fields of Learning that are concerned with Universal and Eternal things. My Mind’s Eye focuses as if spontaneously upon the variety of Things that come into being and pass away, the manifold of mortal, corruptible, astonishing Things. It is my most basic belief that these Things, too, are a veridical Reflection of the Wisdom of God, and that one may just as easily turn to them in order to discover the Divine Truths that do not change, as to the fixity of numbers and the relations between them. Here too, I say, is Philosophy.
A History in Six Types
(Princeton University Press, 2016)
Justin E. H. Smith
The Leibniz-Stahl Controversy
(Yale University Press, 2016)
Translated, Edited, and with an Introduction by François Duchesneau and
Justin E. H. Smith
Nature, Human Nature, and Human Difference:
Race in Early Modern Philosophy
(Princeton University Press, 2015)
Justin E. H. Smith
The Life Sciences in Early Modern Philosophy
(Oxford University Press, 2014)
Edited by Ohad Nachtomy and Justin E. H. Smith
Philosophy and Its History:
Aims and Methods in the Study of Early Modern Philosophy
(Oxford University Press, 2013)
Edited by Mogens Laerke, Justin E. H. Smith
and Eric Schliesser
Justin E. H. Smith
Edited by Justin E. H. Smith and Ohad Nachtomy
Edited by Carlos Fraenkel, Dario Perinetti
and Justin E. H. Smith
Edited by Justin E. H. Smith