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Monday, October 4, 2010


Thank you all for telling me to continue. And so I shall.

Second Post

If you stand back and try to get an overview of serious writing in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it is astonishing how different the two bodies of literature are. Descartes, Locke, Hume, Spinoza, Leibniz, Hobbes, and Rousseau sound nothing like Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Burckhardt, and Freud. To some extent, especially in Philosophy, this is a consequence of the fact that Hume and Kant between them simply killed off rational theology, which had occupied a central role in philosophical writings for two millennia. But I think the difference is more a result of the discovery of Society as an object of investigation independent of Nature and Man. [Don't give me grief. Everyone I am talking about said "Man" rather than "Man or Woman," and at this point I am doing some interpretive intellectual history.]

The change pretty clearly has its roots in the rise of a large, literate, politically active middle class, or bourgeoisie, but its intellectual origins can be traced in part to the impact of the writings of Hegel [a fact I find it painful to acknowledge, since I hate Hegel's writings, but fair is fair.] In his historicizing of the Christian story, Hegel represents history as a series of stages in the unfolding and coming to self-consciousness of Geist, variously translated as Spirit or Mind or even Reason. What matters here is that Hegel had the brilliant idea of characterizing each stage of historical development as exhibiting, in all of its aspects, a unifying aesthetic principle. Thus, we learned to talk of the Classical era, the Baroque era, the Romantic era, and so forth. It became commonplace to speak of Classical architecture, Baroque furniture, the Renaissance Man, Romantic politics. An entire civilization, understood as something other than the mere agglomeration of individual persons, could be conceived as the embodiment of a ruling aesthetic principle.

Starting with Smith in the late eighteenth century, and continuing through the nineteenth century, one disciplinary unit after another broke off from "Moral Philosophy" to become a new Social Science. [In this regard, it is interesting to see the German terms Naturwissenschaft and Geisteswissenschaft joined by the new term Sozialwissenschaft.] The first new discipline, as we have seen, was Political Economy, as it was called for a while, or Economics, as we now know it. [To Aristotle, of course, "oeconomics" was essentially household management, something relegated to the lady of the house.] We have already commented on the emergence of Sociology, and in particular Emile Durkheim's explicit rationale for its autonomy as a branch of investigation.

Equally striking was the development of what we now call Anthropology. There had always been a literature of travelers' accounts of the strange practices of strange peoples, going back to ancient times, and including the narratives of medieval travelers like Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta. The accounts gave rise to a lively debate about the relative benefits of civilization versus primitive life. Some writers celebrated the peoples of the South Pacific islands as pure, uncorrupted by city life, natural, admirable. Others shared Sherlock Holmes' views concerning "the idiocy of rural life." During the last century or so of the ancien regime in France, Dukes and Countesses at Versailles dressed up as simple shepherds and shepherdesses and played at tending sheep while waited upon by clouds of bewigged servants.

What especially fascinated more thoughtful students of the travel narratives were the accounts of the religious practices of the "natives." Quite naturally viewing Christianity as the highest form of religious belief and practice, [or at least Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, the three religions "of the book" what shared a reverence for the texts of the Old Testament], some of these writers developed an evolutionary typology, along Hegelian lines, in which primitive animism gives way to polytheism and finally develops into monotheism. This in turn led one author in particular, Sir Edward Burnett Tylor, virtually to create the discipline of Anthropology in his classic two-volume work, PRIMTIVE CULTURE [1871.] Here is the opening sentence of volume one. It is literally the moment of birth of the new discipline:

"Culture or Civilization, taken in its widest ethnographic sense, is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society."

There are, for our purposes in this brief exposition, several very important features of this famous definition. First of all, Tylor uses the term "culture" to refer not merely to classical literature, metaphysical poetry, or the music of Bach and Beethoven, but to the totality of the habits, practices, beliefs, and customs of an entire people. This means that the lower classes have culture too, a profound change from the earlier aristocratic view that only the upper orders have something that can be characterized as culture. The marriage rituals of Irish workers count as culture, as do Cockney rhyming slang and the weaving techniques of Scottish crofters. Secondly, EVERY people will, by this definition, have a culture -- not merely the French [about whom the English had long-standing ambivalent opinions] but also Trobriand Islanders, Zulu warriors, and Algonquin trappers. With this dramatic revision, Tylor creates modern Anthropology and offers to us a new object of study.

Notice -- we shall have a very great deal to say about this later on -- that on this conception of culture, no one can be identified as the creator of culture. Beethoven's Ninth was created by Beethoven. The tragedies of Aeschylus were written by Aeschylus. But no identifiable individual created Cockney rhyming slang. There is a paradox here that needs very careful examination.

On the one hand, Cockney rhyming slang [to continue our example] is obviously a human creation, and therefore at some time or other, individuals must have started trying it out, slowly bringing it into existence, even if those individuals did not leave their names on it for us to find. The same thing is true of all dialects, kinship practices, productive economic techniques, and even habits of bodily display and deportment. They did not grow on trees, and they were not handed to human beings by the Gods [although there are countless myths of this sort about the origin of fire, etc.] On the other hand, each of us, upon being born, grows up into a society in which the roles and practices, dialects and modes of bodily deportment are already in existence and are presented to us as part of the objective world order, as fixed and separate from any identifiable individuals as are rocks and trees. Ask a child, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" and she will name a clearly identified social role: Doctor, teacher, resistance fighter.

Well, once again, this is growing much bigger than I anticipated. Tomorrow, I will continue the story.


Amato said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Amato said...

I would like to make a short comment on the paradox you’ve brought up, Professor. I think it has been a classical mistake of the West to view ideas and ideologies as individualized; talked about almost as if they were developed within a vacuum (e.g. Socratic method, Cartesian skepticism, scientific socialism). There is, to be sure, individuals throughout history who have promoted, developed, and coined a theory, but as you alluded to it was in the context of the ideologies of the day—and I would say further, the ideologies of the day were what they were because of an "intergenational memory", that the west has tended to transfer in writing, but which no culture is without. What I am saying is that it seems to me more appropriate to think the concepts we contribute to individuals, to use Alian Lockes' (famous African-American philosopher, and "father" of the Harlem renaissance) words, as "products of time place and situation and thus system of timed history rather than timeless eternity." If we look at it this way then it's not really a paradox, because--while there may be varying degrees to this truth-- nothing is truly a product of the individual, despite their name being attached to it.

This "mistake", often justified discrediting African philosophy on its' academic inspection (starting from father placide tempels’ book “Bantu Philosophy”). It was thought, Since philosophy was the polemics of individuals, certainly something like ethnophilosophy was not philosophy. However, to my mind, Alian Locke is right, these are system of "timed history", and thus the individualized philosophy of the west only separates itself from a cultural philosophy of say Africa or Asia--other than subject matter--by adding the stamp one name or another to the theories that have run through it.

I might have gone off on a bit and started rambling, but essential I was trying to express that I take issue with one side of what make this a paradox--i.e. that ideas come from individuals--when it is closer to the truth that ideas come from moments in time, and intergenerational memory.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Amato, thank you for the contribution. I pretty much agree with what you wrote, but I had in mind a somewhat different paradox. It is this. Clearly, there was a time when there was no Cockney rhyming slang [and indeed when there was no Cockney dialect, or any English at all]. So there must have been some person who first, for whatever reason, ventured a turn of phrase that we, in retrospect, can identify as proto-Cockney rhyming slang. And there must have been a second person -- maybe imitating the first, maybe independently. And so on. I mean, the alternative is that it somehow simply began to exist without anyone doing anything, and that is impossible. But on the other hand, it seems to be absurd to say, "This particular named individual started Cockney rhyming slang." Later on, I will address this puzzle directly, and have a good deal to say about it.

Michael said...

Professor Wolff,
As usual, very interesting. I have two comments though. The first is simple curiosity: what is it about Hegel that you so dislike? Is it his writing style, or his ideas? I'm never quite sure (this doesn't preclude it being both), but as someone who finds Hegel to be a fascinating figure--to be fair,I rarely agree with him--I am curious to know more.
Secondly, I have to quibble with your response to Amato. While it may be true that one person, at some point, started us on the movement from Anglo-Saxon, Germanic pre-English languages towards English, it seems more likely that this is like removing a grain of sand from a heap. The accumulation of sand and time is so great that we can never know--nor does it really matter--which grain was first. As this relates to philosophy, certainly there are numerous examples of several figures stating similar, if not identical, ideas that have, with time, been attributed only to a single person. Again, I'm not denying the significance of an individual contribution(especially since philosophy, unlike language, has a historical written record to look back on) but trying to show that it isn't always that simple.
Finally, I should apologize for not responding to your email, but the semester and with it a great deal of work piled up. It is truly an honor and a sign of your generosity that you're willing to correspond to with so many strangers.
Michael (the Senior from Vermont)

NotHobbes said...

Professor Wolff,

Do you see the globalization of culture being instrumental in finally bringing about the much needed demise of capitalism?

Charles said...

You have mentioned the irreducibility of a third branch of knowledge, alongside natural and moral philosophy. Not to take the direction of your comments away from its more direct focus - the study of society - but could you say more about the relation between these branches of knowledge? Irreducibility does not rule out priority, I assume, among the branches? By prior, I mean perhaps dependent upon, or in some way foundational to the other two (whether logically or substantially). Or would you rule out priority? Curious how you would approach these vague questions.

jbujes said...

I'd argue that Thucydides deserves some credit for adumbrating our sense of society. This not so much because he gave us a definition, but because his specific notion of history (whose modern sense he invented) cannot be separated from an idea of society.

Amato said...

I was also curious if Machiavelli's discussion on power in the prince couldn't be seen as characterizing society as something outside the realms of natural and moral philosophy?

jbujes said...

RE: The Prince. In addition to Thucydides, I was also thinking about Machiavelli. I did not mention him because while the notion of society in Machiavelli might be inferred, his writing is so ironic, it is difficult to know where to take that inference. In The Prince, Machiavelli talks about the "masses," a relatively new concept, and about how a prince gains and holds power in a world of composed of such masses. But this is not yet history; perhaps, it is no more than a non-religious interpretation of a post-lapsarian, ahistorical world.