The History of Philosophy

Justin Smith writes on the history of philosophy:

"I’ve argued before that in their floundering around the question as to whether there is such a thing as non-Western philosophy, academic philosophers in the English-speaking world appear unable to decide whether their activity should be understood more on the model of a tradition of, say, dance (e.g., ballet) or, instead, on the model of a technology (e.g., the military use of gunpowder)…

If philosophy were like gunpowder, there would be no question as to its reach: everyone would share in it equally. If philosophy were like ballet, there would also be no question as to why everyone does not share in it equally. My own strong suspicion is that philosophy is rather more like ballet, but perhaps a better comparison, one that keeps the example of military technology in view, would be to say that philosophy is not like the technology itself of war, but more like a particular military tradition that grows up around the use of weapons and the preparation for war, and involves the pinning of medals, the reference to great battles and strategies of the past, and so on.

In the case of martial pageantry, it is clear what the more basic thing is around which the tradition springs up (in the case of ballet, there is also clearly a more basic thing, dance, which in turn appears to be something humans qua humans do, about which see Ezra Zubow and Elizabeth C. Blake, “The Origin of Music and Rhythm” in Archaeoacoustics, ed. Chris Scarre and Graeme Lawson, Cambridge, 2006, 117-126). But what would that more basic thing be, in the case of philosophy? I suspect it is what is often called bean-counting: the tallying of exchanges (of cattle, grain, etc.) by use of pebbles in bowls, of marks on clay tablets, and so on. Wherever we have traces of this sort of activity, we have concrete evidence of a sort of representational thinking (one pebble stands for one cow, etc.) that we can rightly suppose to be just the small report of a more elaborate system of classifications, of setting up correspondences, and of seeking adequate definitions.

Wherever you have people keeping track of things in this way, I mean, you probably have people trying to come to terms with the nature of the things they are keeping track of. A charitable assessment of what the ancients were up to would have us suppose that wherever there is a trace of a culture trying to keep track of the world for practical purposes (navigation, calendry, etc.), there is something like a ’science’, however different from our own: a theoretical elaboration of the grounds of the practice. And I really don’t know what philosophy could be other than the very most theoretical reach of this elaboration…

Recent work by Michael Friedman –who represents par excellence the sort of orientation with which I am sympathizing here– has made a convincing case, in more steps than I am able to mention, for tracing the Kantian theory of space and time as pure forms of intuition back to certain exigencies of medieval astronomy, which in the final analysis existed for the sake of calendry, which in turn had as its principal purpose the determination of the proper date of Easter and similar exigencies of culture."

I wonder if this doesn’t rather oversimplify matters. A lot of Greek philosophy could certainly be described as an attempt to analyse matters in terms that are quasi-scientific, with Aristotle as an obvious example. Equally, a lot of Greek philosophy (and certainly Indian and Chinese also) suggests an origin in theology and, as in the case of Plato, may very be hostile to empirical scientific investigation to some extent.

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