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Saturday, November 20, 2021


I have observed many times on this blog that the term “University Professor,” applying as it does to biologists, sociologists, mathematicians, historians, anthropologists, archaeologists, and philosophers, conceals the extraordinary differences in the activities and bodies of professional knowledge that these people engage in and acquire.  Let me give you just one example that crossed my mind as I was reading Graber and Wengrow.  Here they are talking about settlements in what came to be called the Fertile Crescent, an area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The period in question is many thousands of years ago. “At the site of Jerf el-Ahmar, on the banks of the Syrian Euphrates–… the storage and processing of grain was associated less with ordinary dwellings than with subterranean lodges, entered from an opening in the roof and suffused with ritual associations.”


As I read that sentence, one of hundreds that go by as I turn the pages, I thought to myself, “how on earth do they know that the lodges were entered from an opening in the roof?” The answer is obvious, but when one reflects upon it, astonishing. They know because dozens of archaeologists and their graduate students have spent months or years painstakingly excavating this site, carefully digging away the dirt and accumulated detritus that covers the remains of the 6000 or 8000 year old buildings, ascertaining by the excavation that they were originally subterranean, that they did not have doors and windows like so many other excavated buildings, and that the only way into them was through openings revealed by careful, precise digging, digging that involved little by little brushing away dirt that had long since covered up the constructions.


There is nothing particularly unusual or remarkable about this. It is what archaeologists do – hundreds of archaeologists, year after year after year, at sites all around the world, carefully making notes and taking pictures of what they dig up and then publishing the results in journals so that other archaeologists can add the little bit of knowledge they have acquired to the enormous accumulated body that generations of archaeologists have discovered and memorialized.


This sort of activity is absolutely nothing like what a philosopher does. It is not really very much like what an historian or political scientist or sociologist or mathematician or literary critic does. It is simply astonishing to reflect on the accumulated systematic human effort that lies behind the delightful reports and speculations with which Graber and Wengrow fill their pages.


The authors, needless to say, are not merely summarizing what they have read in the thousands of books and journal articles listed in their bibliography. They are engaged in an exuberant argument against the standard story that what we call civilization began with domestic agriculture which then led inevitably to class hierarchies, structural inequalities, the state, and the other glories of the modern world. That, after all, is the point of reading the book. But it is worth pausing from time to time to think about the vast systematic undertaking of archaeology on which their argument rests 


Howard said...

Their work rivals the fundamental labors of dental hygienists

Howard said...

Professor Wolff

William James dismisses Kant's intuition of pure time as ridiculous.
I only bring it up to you because like you he was a Harvard man

Unknown said...

What is the evidence they give for “suffused with spiritual meaning”?

DJL said...

Not that Graber and Wengrow are always on point re the references they use, though:

Jerry Fresia said...

A tangential question: why are ancient houses, streets, and towns alway buried? I could see where, after thousands of years, soil is blown around, accumulating in some areas but not everywhere. I would expect that in some instances, ancient structures would be on high ground. It is as if over the past 200 thousand years, the earth, uniformly acquired an additional layer of soil of about 30 feet. What is the explanation? (Perhaps the premise of my question is wrong and ancient structures that remain above ground are destroyed or simply collapse over time...???)

Anonymous said...


Although I see that the discussion moved on to other more mundane matters, I think your comment deserves acknowledgement.

There is a tendency to assume that "93 pages of notes and a bibliography that stretches another 62 pages" shows scholarship. The authors, it is inferred, have all their bases covered.

Well, I find it surprising that academics with long teaching experiences, apparently do not understand that long bibliographies do not imply the numerous references cited were read, let alone understood.

This, by the way, used to be a thing in legal studies where the closely-related topic of footnotes used to be a subject of controversy.

-The AnonyMouse

Michael said...


If you don't mind, I'd be interested to see some elaboration on Kant's and James's views on time there. My memory of Kant on that topic is pretty sketchy, and the most I can say about James is that I've seen his name mentioned in connection with the "specious present."


That's a very good (and funny) point.

As a slow reader and something of a failed academic, I find it easy to glance at a many-pages-long bibliography and feel that the author must have inexhaustible stamina or a superhuman work ethic (or that I must be hopelessly deficient in those areas). But it'd probably be a fair practice to mentally substitute "list of sources that the author figures might make for helpful additional reading, should the reader be inclined to further research," whenever I see the word "bibliography." :)

Michael said...

P.S. Here's another big (-ish?) name in philosophy who has some harsh words for Kant:

"...[Y]ou've not only heard the glory of Kant heralded in the journals, but you find, too, that Albert Lange celebrates him above all others, and that great natural scientists pay homage to him. You can read his name, along with those of other great men, on the walls of our university. You've surely opened his chief work at least once, perhaps with the consciousness that you didn't understand much of it, but then you closed it again with that much greater respect. What kind of an impression will it make on you, at first, if I say what others have also known as well as I do but have usually been afraid to say? Kant was not the great reformer. He did not introduce a valid and genuinely fruitful method to philosophy, but rather one which led him and others to the most unjustified fabrications. He was a very imperfect observer in psychology. With his imaginary categorical imperative he could not even gain entrance to ethical inquiry. Misunderstanding the purpose of logic, he restricted it to so-called formal logic, and thus left it in such a rudimentary form that it was useless in its most essential function. Even in the Critique of Pure Reason he erected an edifice which, so far from being well-founded, actually rests on a presupposition which is itself an illusion.

"This famous work is also not lacking in contradictions and vagueness in matters of detail. Actually Kant was not outstandingly clear; Hume decidedly surpassed him in this.

"Although not as clear as Hume, Kant was as powerful an influence, indeed a more powerful one. He carried his whole time, his whole century, with him. And thus he marked an epoch in a way that hardly anyone else has done, by which I do not mean to say that the philosophical epoch introduced by him was one of genuine progress.

"There are, Lewes tells us, powerful writers and truthful writers. If we accept this distinction, then Kant is to be numbered among the former rather than the latter. Surely the same must be said for Hegel, whom Lewes had in mind when he made this distinction. To be sure, Schopenhauer did not hesitate to call him an impudent scribbler of nonsense. I do not wish to be so impolite, so I shall call him a grand painter of absurdity, an inspired architect of scientific fantasy. For though the entire Hegelian system is mistaken both in content and method, still he certainly expended, and lavished, a superior power in constructing it. A few decades ago the world was still astonished and indignant at such an assessment of Hegel. Today it is clear that his views are scientifically untenable, and a much more disparaging judgment of him is common. This is still not the case with Kant; but the fact that public opinion could be so greatly mistaken concerning Hegel means that a rebellion in the case of Kant need no longer appear to be an obvious overestimation of one's own judgment. Such a rebellion is absolutely necessary today, and especially in philosophy. Our time is not ripe for rational belief."

Franz Brentano, On the Existence of God: Lectures Given at the Universities of Würzberg and Vienna (1868-1891), sec. 74-75

Eric said...

Jerry Fresia,

I don't know anything about archaeology, but isn't it, as you suggest in your last comment, just an example of survival bias? The tombs of the ancient pharaohs that were above ground were ready prey for plunderers, hostile armies, and the elements. So Tutankhamen's buried and hidden tomb ends up being one of the few tombs of ancient Egyptians to last until the 20th century largely intact. Any ancient structures composed of nondurable materials didn't stand much of a chance for survival over long periods unless they were buried one way or another (buried intentionally, as in pit-houses, or otherwise, as at Pompeii). And in the cases of many above-ground cities/settlements that still exist, people have continued to tear down and remake their structures all along, so that the only way to find remnants of ancient buildings is to excavate from the foundations of current buildings.