(Presented to the James Bay Research Group, McGill University, Spring, 2007)
There is a cluster of questions, of interest to philosophers and anthropologists alike, concerning the relationship of literal to metaphorical discourse, the uniqueness of scientific rationality among ways of conceptualizing the world, and the tension between absolutism and relativism. Philosophers tend to assume that these problems can be worked out without stepping back from the culture that itself generated them. It seems to me however that if philosophers wish either to critique or to defend and promote scientific rationality, they are going to have to dare to look closely at the sort of practices with which it supposedly contrasts.
One way of stepping back from one’s own culture and getting a broader view is that of the historian. Historians of ancient philosophy and science --unlike, for the most part, historians of the early modern period-- have in general been more ready to acknowledge that the past is, as is said, a foreign country, and consequently have been ready to look at the origins of Western thought in context, with an eye to just how much what has been called ‘the Greek miracle’ in fact overlapped with other, pre-Greek, supposedly merely mythological systems of thought in other eastern Mediterranean and Near Eastern cultures. For G. E. R. Lloyd, to the extent that there was a ‘Greek miracle’ at all, this was a matter of a growing concern to distinguish between the different criteria for truth in different registers of speech, with an ultimate preference for the most literal register. Thus Aristotle criticizes earlier philosophers, most often Empedocles, for saying things that may be, as he puts it, “acceptable for the purposes of poetry,” but not strictly speaking true. One important component of the modern scientific revolution was already in place in ancient Greece, then: the distinction between literal and metaphorical claims, and the valorization of the former at the expense of the latter. The former have the final say, whereas the latter are at best of use in certain local, circumscribed contexts.
The modern scientific revolution involved a purgation of a number of ways of talking from rational or philosophical discourse that were, while associated with the Aristotelian tradition, in turn denounced as mere poetry. Thus Robert Boyle insisted in the 1660s that nature could not abhor a vacuum, since nature is not a person and so can’t abhor anything. But not long after the minimalist program of Cartesian mechanism was put into place, it started to be apparent that perfect description of the natural world in terms of the mass, figure, and motion of fundamental particles was a pipe dream, and correlatively that there could be no description without some degree of what Aristotle would have wanted to relegate to poetry. In such projects as botanical taxonomy, it was quickly recognized that grouping principles must be to some extent arbitrary, that is, based on morphological features of interest to us, rather than on some hidden affinities. Indeed, it was precisely such hidden affinities that the new science had insisted on eradicating, so the only choice was either to stop describing nature altogether (at least beyond the level of the motion of particles-- which may be the truest account but is seldom the most interesting one), or to acknowledge a degree of arbitrariness. One must acknowledge that in placing natural entity x with natural entity y, to some extent one is appealing to criteria beyond those that the entities themselves announce and authorize.
Of course, none of this story is news to philosophers, and certainly not to anthropologists either. But again philosophers have been all too reluctant to turn their attention to the empirical data as to how different cultural groups throughout the world go about carving that world up, in the hopes of arriving at some understanding of the universal parameters of all possible world-carvings. Philosophers, unlike anthropologists, remain too committed to the Greek miracle to be able to allow such evidence to interest to them.
In my own work on the intersection of philosophy with the experimental life sciences in the 16th and 17th centuries, I have been concerned to adopt an approach inspired by that of G. E. R. Lloyd to ancient science. I have been intent to show the way in which cultural and historical context imposed limits on the range of philosophical positions taken up in the early modern period, and also to show how folk-scientific beliefs continued to play a role in the most refined philosophical and scientific debates about such questions as the nature of animal generation and fetal development. Let me expand a little bit on this latter example.
Throughout his career Descartes complained of his embryological efforts that he was unable to produce a comprehensive treatise because it is a subject that simply will not permit him to treat it “in the manner of the rest,” that is, in terms of the size, figure, and motion of particles. Yet he held boldly to the possibility of someday explaining embryogenesis in just this way: “I expect some will say disdainfully,” he writes “that it is ridiculous to attribute such an important phenomenon as human procreation to such minor causes. But what greater causes could be required than the eternal laws of nature? Do we need the direct intervention of a mind? What mind? God himself? Why then are monsters born?”
Descartes’ commitment to embryology by minor causes was indeed widely disdained. Thus John Ray writes in his Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of His Creation of 1692 that generation
is so admirable and unaccountable, that neither the Atheists nor Mechanick Philosophers have attempted to declare the manner and process of it; but have (as I noted before) very cautiously and prudently broke off their Systems of Natural Philosophy here, and left this Point untoucht; and those Accounts which some of them have attempted to give of the Formation of a few of the Parts, are so excessively absurd and ridiculous, that they need no other Confutation than ha, ha, he.
We may be able to better appreciate Ray’s dismay by briefly considering the Cartesian embryological program from an anthropological perspective. Maurice Godelier, in his recent Metamorphoses of Kinship, argues that there is no traditional culture, anywhere, that believes that a man and a woman are sufficient to produce a child. At some point, whether before conception or during gestation, a supernatural force must intervene in the natural process in order to obtain distinctly human offspring. To cite one of many possible examples from the Christian tradition, in the 12th century Hildegard von Bingen describes the ‘quickening’ of the human fetus on the fortieth day after conception as follows:
[The fetus is] the complete form of a man which, by the secret decree and hidden will of God, receives the spirit while in the mother’s womb, at the instant justly chosen by God, when there appears a sphere of fire, which has no resemblance to any trait of the human body, and which takes possession of the heart of this form.
Whether it is a gift of God or a gift of the gods, Godelier argues, a human child’s parents are never capable on their own, through the mere contribution of their respective bodily fluids, of producing a human child. As Descartes puts it: insofar as I am a thinking thing, I am not my parents’ child. A hard-nosed analysis would have it that Descartes’s invocation of his immaterial soul at this point is precisely a retreat into the domain of myth, ‘peopled by invisible entities’. Yet his own work on embryology, often written in a distantiating, hypothetical mode, is also the first suggestion in Western history that human reproduction may be entirely the result of human copulation, as opposed to something interwoven with the invisible realm Maurice Bloch and others associate with myth.
It is thanks to Godelier that I first understood the significance of Descartes’s claim about his relationship to his parents, as well as the radical nature of his programme of mechanist embryology. It was he also who convinced me that, beyond an approach to the history of philosophy that emphasizes the context of discovery, as many already renegade specialists in the history of philosophy now do, it may also be fruitful to approach the history of philosophy from the perspective of comparative ethnography. Such an approach would not, of course, be totally new. Wittgenstein famously took an interest in the difference between life-worlds that made possible claims such as the Nuer proposition that “twins are birds.” His interest resulted in a cross-pollination from philosophy to anthropology in the work of Clifford Geertz and others, yet for reasons I still cannot understand, even though a sort of Wittgensteinianism is nearly orthodoxy in academic philosophy today, today’s academic philosophers, unlike Wittgenstein, almost certainly have nothing to say about Nuer cosmology.
I would like to outline a couple of possible paths of research, recognizing that what I am in fact able to pursue will be limited by conditions on the ground, about which I still have much to learn, and will best be chosen with an eye to complementing the research of other members of the research team. I confess that I have no experience in ethnographic fieldwork, and so my first and most important aim in joining this group is to watch the people who know how to watch people. Beyond this, the research paths I envision grow out of my work to date in the history and philosophy of the life sciences. They concern, first of all, indigenous biological taxonomy and principles of grouping across ontological domains, and, second of all, indigenous beliefs about the reproduction of animals and humans. In both of these domains, I anticipate that detailed study will yield insight into the general philosophical concern outlined above about the difference between folk and scientific knowledge, between metaphorical and literal claims, and between practical and mythical knowledge.
Scott Atran has argued that in the highly structured and articulated domain of folk-taxonomical knowledge, there are universal constraints upon the different ways different cultures may carve the world up, and that Aristotle, and later Linnaeus, were no more free of these constraints than were the Guatemalan Indians whose taxonomic system he himself studied. I think Atran would agree with Tambiah that “[t]he doctrine of the psychic unity of mankind or human universals and the doctrine of diversity of cultures/societies are not contradictory dogmas” (112). Yet in my view he has attempted to impose rather too much psychic unity on natural-historical knowledge than cross-cultural comparison, and even study of historical development of such knowledge in the West, will permit. Atran argues that “[a]nthropological data show the universal presence of similarly structured plant and animal taxonomies even in the absence of any evidence for a totalizing organic theory.” Yet even if domain-specific reasoning about plants and animals yields similar classificatory practices across cultures, this says nothing about the way in which entities belonging to this domain reach out of it and come to be conceptually linked up with entities in others. In an article currently under review, I argue that Atran is right enough, but that he misses something very important about local taxonomies, namely, that they not only place plant and animal species within a system of differences from other plant and animal species. They also relate some if not all species to other ontological domains, outside altogether of the domain of what we think of as belonging to ‘natural history’. Thus cats, to cite one obvious example, are both placed within a system of differences in traditional European culture at a node very close to that of dogs (closer than to, say, fish), but they are also associated with the devil, and thus point altogether beyond the realm in which they coexist with dogs and fish to the realm of invisible entities, to the realm an anthropologist would characterize as mythical.
I anticipate that here, if one hopes to discern as an observer the way in which the domain of knowledge of natural kinds links up with other domains, one must stay sensitive to what Colin Scott calls the ‘[f]unctional coherences between cosmology and the objective events of ecological and social interaction’ (1983, 2). My sense is that the way entities are categorized in ‘folkbiology’ is always a consequence of social interaction, and always in turn takes place against the background of a cosmology that extends beyond the ontological domain of what we would call ‘the biological’. This is a sense I would like to pursue further through empirical study.
This point, about the cosmological context of biological knowledge, is equally relevant to my second possible area of research interest, namely, indigenous conceptualization of human and animal reproduction. In my current work in progress on Cartesian embryology, I argue that biology could not exist prior to the 17th century, because until that time it was simply a subdomain of cosmology. Thus in the 11th century Avicenna argues that semen is charged with the same form-giving power as the stars, and even that spontaneous generation is a sort of influx into terrestrial matter of the seminal power of the celestial bodies. I suspect that, for similar reasons, it is inappropriate to speak of ‘folkbiology’, as Atran and others do when discussing, e.g., Guatemalan Indian botanical categories, since outside of the context of modern science, biological phenomena, and in particular generation, are always conceptualized within a cosmological context.
Barbara Duden has argued that, prior to the era of anatomical study, and even perhaps prior to the era of radiography and ultrasound, the fetus belonged to the same class of entities as, e.g., spirits, creatures of legend, and the dead. It was, that is, invisible, and not part of the world of ‘regular, morally neutral, magically unmanipulable facts’. Hence its subjection to countless superstitious and natural-magical practices. Thus we see that what counts as an invisible entity is not always clear; this is a shifting category. I do not know whether things like ultrasound may be held responsible for the demythologization of reproduction and childbirth, and I do not know, in the particular case that interests us here, the extent to which these processes have been demythologized already among the Cree in modern Canada, but I anticipate that, in this case as in that of taxonomy, there may be interesting material for the study of the cosmological context of indigenous biological knowledge.
Scott has summed up the Cree world-view as “a cosmology of generalized sentience, communication, and response” (1983, 108). These are, in the Western tradition, teleology, sympathy, and natural magic, precisely the three ingredients of Renaissance natural philosophy expurgated in the scientific revolution. It was over the course of the 17th century that belief in nonmechanical links between things in the world came to be seen as superstitious, and it was not until the mid-20th century that philosophers started to see that their modern forebears may have been a bit too hasty. Thus Wittgenstein’s judgment that Frazer is mistaken to hold that magical rites are “mistakes.” What counts as a magical rite at all can only be determined against the background of the whole body of knowledge in a culture. Presumably, the more ultrasound machines there are, the fewer magical potions will be brewed for pregnant women; yet in the absence of such machines, different criteria of rationality must be brought to bear. This much was obvious to Wittgenstein, yet somehow never really took hold in philosophy departments, even officially Wittgensteinian ones. Thus a colleague in philosophy from Guelph recently wrote a letter to the London Review of Books apparently ‘defending’ Pythagoras against the ‘accusation’ that he was, as one historian of Greek religion has argued, a numerologist and a high priest in a ritual-based cult. Philosophers still think that to observe such a simple historical fact is tantamount to denunciation. I think it makes Pythagoras all the more interesting.
At stake, again, is whether there is one standard of rationality --that of exclusive devotion to the neutral, magically unmanipulable fact-- and whether this has been, historically, the exclusive mark of cultures that trace themselves back to Greece. Aristotle, as I’ve said, wanted to replace all aatiyuuhkhaan with tipaachimunn. Yet he also argued at times for the superiority of poetic truth to historical truth, of Homer to Herodotus. Thus in the Poetics he says that the historian --the person who collects ‘tidings’-- deals only with what is the case, whereas the poet deals with the entire range of the possible. Aristotle thus seems suspended between the view that myth or poetry contains the more profound truth, and the view that only ‘tidings’ are the sort of speech that can be said to bear truth. I was in this connection very interested to read in Scott’s work that the younger more acculturated Cree distinguish between myth and tidings in terms of truth-value, while the more traditional elders refuse to do so.
Scott emphasizes the ‘ecological efficacy’ of myth and ritual, and cites one interviewee who notes that aatiyuuhkhaan “teaches a lesson… often occurs to a hunter” (21f.). It seems that both this Cree hunter and the Aristotle of the Poetics recognize that there is something, if not more true, then at least more interesting than the neutral, unmanipulable fact invoked by Gellner. And it is interesting not just because it is pleasing to the imagination, or lets one lazily fantasize about supernatural entities, but because it instructs one as to how to act. It may be that such instruction is felt to be needed principally in the absence of scientific knowledge --again, the more ultrasounds, the fewer magical potions-- but that does not necessarily mean that it functions merely as a placeholder until something better comes along. I suspect that the two always coexist --concrete empirical facts on the one hand, and on the other rituals that would make no prima facie sense to an outsider-- and that if one wants to understand a culture one has to look into the way in which they coexist.
To sum up, what I am interested in most generally is the cosmological context of indigenous knowledge that we would classify as biological, particularly in the two concrete domains of taxonomy and generation theory. I anticipate (though of course do not know for sure) that in both of these domains concrete empirical knowledge exists only in a form interwoven with ideology reaching out to altogether different ontological domains, and that by the standards of modern biological science it involves a complex mixture of verifiable truths and mythical lore. I would like to investigate the elements of this mixture as a case-study in contextual rationality.
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