Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The World Beyond Kant's Head

For a project I’m working on, and will be able to say something about later, I re-read Matthew Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Head, and I have to say: It’s a really superb book. I read it when it first came out, but I was knee-deep in writing at the time and I don’t think I absorbed it as fully as I should have. I quote Crawford in support of several of the key points I make in my theses on technology, but his development of those points is deeply thoughtful and provocative, even more than I had realized. If you haven’t read it, you should.

But there’s something about the book I want to question. It concerns philosophy, and the history of philosophy.

In relation to the kinds of cultural issues Crawford deals with here -- issues related to technology, economics, social practices, and selfhood -- there are two ways to make use of the philosophy of the past. The first involves illumination: one argues that reading Kant and Hegel (Crawford’s two key philosophers) clarifies our situation, provides alternative ways of conceptualizing and responding to it, and so on. The other way involves causation: one argues that we’re where we are today because of the triumphal dissemination of, for instance, Kantian ideas throughout our culture.

Crawford does some of both, but in many respects the chief argument of his book is based on a major causal assumption: that much of what’s wrong with our culture, and with our models of selfhood, arises from the success of certain of Kant’s ideas. I say “assumption” because I don’t think that Crawford ever actually argues the point, and I think he doesn’t argue the point because he doesn’t clearly distinguish between illumination and causation. That is, if I’ve read him rightly, he shows that a study of Kant makes sense of many contemporary phenomena and implicitly concludes that Kant’s ideas therefore are likely to have played a causal role in the rise of those phenomena.

I just don’t buy it, any more than I buy the structurally identical claim that modern individualism and atomization all derive from the late-medieval nominalists. I don’t buy those claims because I have never seen any evidence for them. I am not saying that those claims are wrong, I just want to know how it happens: how you get from extremely complex and arcane philosophical texts that only a handful of people in history have ever been able to read to world-shaping power. I don’t see how it’s even possible.

One of Auden’s most famous lines is: “Poetry makes nothing happen.” He was repeatedly insistent on this point. In several articles and interviews he commented that the social and political history of Europe would be precisely the same if Dante, Shakespeare, and Mozart had never lived. I suspect that this is true, and that it’s also true of philosophy. I think that we would have the techno-capitalist society we have if Duns Scotus, William of Ockham, Immanuel Kant, and G.F.W. Hegel had never lived. If you disagree with me, please show me the path which those philosophical ideas followed to become so world-shapingly dominant. I am not too old to learn.

26 comments:

  • I tend to agree here, but want to add a thought or two.

    Speaking from past experience, I suspect many who adhere to the "Ideas have Consequences" line of thought do so, in part, because those ideas have had great impact on their personal lives. Having experienced profound illumination from these ideas, they project this sense of sudden clarity into societal causation. They probably feel they must do so in order to grant legitimacy to their experience; profound, clarifying ideas without causal power seem somehow empty, arbitrary blips, the thinking goes. In a way, it's an example of our present bias towards materialism.

    Everything else being equal, the absence of certain ideas would have deprived those who learned of them a greater and richer understanding of the world around them (even if some of those ideas merely make explicit what had previously been solely implicit). Any criticism of the Big-Ideas-Cause-Everything thinking will have to acknowledge this to placate those who put it forward.

  • This is all very true, Sam, but we live in an environment of unprecedentedly high literacy rates, and an unprecedentedly high percentage of people undertaking formal education. The virality of books, especially widely accessible books, would be unsurprising in our world. But how many people in the 15th century read Duns Scotus, or in the early 19th read the Critique of Pure Reason? — much less were profoundly influenced by them.

    Again, I'm not saying it's impossible. But I'd like some evidence.

  • I think you're right, and I think Kant would agree with you, too.

  • I'm not disagreeing! I myself don't adhere to that line of thought (or at least I don't anymore). The wording of my comment was a bit off - when I say 'project', I mean that Crawford et al. erroneously assume that these ideas have causal power because they themselves (i.e., Crawford, etc.) think them profound or complex (even if they think Kant wrong).

    I don't think most (if any) philosophical ideas directly influence social currents. However, the sentiment strokes the egos of philosophers and readers enamored with said ideas, for if true, then it would mean that they are the real guides of history.

  • Sam, I wasn't responding to your point of view, just to the one you sketched out. You made clear your distance from it.

  • I see. Well, carry on!

  • As a reaction to intellectual histories that offer a very strong, direct line of causation from the great thinkers of Philosophy 101 to the major episodes and trends of History 101, I think this skepticism is sound. But as a general skepticism of any causal role for intellectual history, I'd like to provide some doubts for your doubts.

    An immediate set of counterexamples is thinkers whose ideas contributed to scientific and technological revolutions -- Bacon, Newton, Turing, Einstein. Even if one grants the evidence that someone somewhere would probably have come up with something like their ideas around the time they did, biographies also give strong evidence that the specific forms their ideas took depended on their particular intellectual characters. And because their ideas were necessary precursors for specific inventions (computers, atom bombs), even a difference of a few years, or a rival in another country beating them to the punch, could have profoundly changed the course of history. Surely we can find similar examples in the structures of various economic, political, and cultural institutions.

    An argument that isn't isolated to technology or extraordinary cases would have to resemble a MacIntyrean approach, in which intellectual histories are intertwined with social and cultural histories, with no simple hierarchy of causation between them. Even if in most times and places only an elite few are reading philosophy, all one has to show is that these elites bear disproportionate power to reshape institutions, which in turn bear strong influence on the structures of social, economic, and cultural life -- which in turn contain much of the unspoken content philosophers aim to illuminate. One isn't committed to saying that these elites will accurately understand the changes they're effecting, much less that these changes will be straightforward realizations of their professed ideas. So one isn't committed to accepting such strong, clean theses as "modern individualism and atomization all derive from the late-medieval nominalists."

    In fact, on a Burkean reading, one is practically required to say that attempts to make novel philosophies reshape lived reality will never have this neat causal force, owing to the simplifying distortions of theory, the countless institutional and social forces misunderstood or unnoticed. Readings of Marx are hardly adequate for actual histories of communist societies, nor Smith for capitalist ones. But surely histories of communism would be causally incomplete without Marx, and of capitalism without Smith, influential as they were on the founding institutional structures of several countries, no? (And I took Matt in part to be offering this sort of account -- of how intellectual history has shaped our self-conceptions and our institutions in a way that alters the expression of human nature while remaining bound by mistakes about human nature, creating the tensions he describes.)

    I can offer smaller-scale examples from recent American history in which the particular ideas of particular intellectuals, based in no small part on explicit theories about human nature, led to specific policy reforms that led to measurable outcomes and tangible social changes. Broken windows theory, etc. Or to how particular innovators' explicit normative assumptions and implicit descriptive assumptions about human nature shaped technologies that shape our behaviors that shape our relationships to ourselves and each other -- Steve Jobs and the iPhone. To assume otherwise would seem to mean embracing a soft determinism, in which our actions may bear responsibility for our history but our thoughts bear no responsibility for our actions.

  • I should make clear, by the way, that I know you weren't committing yourself to the view I was aiming to poke holes in. I think the evidence you're asking for is indeed usually going to be hard to produce -- I just want to make the case that it's plausible that it could be produced.

    Also, I know Turing and Einstein might not fall under your intended definition of philosopher (though of course they would have not so long ago).

  • One doesn't have to think that the Critique of Pure Reason played a causal role in bringing about the cultural phenomena Crawford is writing about to agree with him that Kant's ideas played such a causal role. Those ideas can play such a causal role with the CPR playing a causal role if you accept that those ideas didn't disseminate into the culture directly through Kant himself, but through other sources. On this view, those ideas (about selfhood, etc.) were latent in the culture already, independent of Kant, and the CPR just gave them exceptionally clear expression and institutional staying power among the elite. This would allow Crawford to say that "we’re where we are today because of the triumphal dissemination of, for instance, Kantian ideas throughout our culture" *without* committing himself to saying that we're where we are because of the triumphal dissemination of the CPR itself. (This would be something more like Hegel's position on ideas' causal efficacy in history. For instance, he argues that the Antigone is a kind of embodiment of a massive cultural change, without trying to make a case that that play itself was a driving force of that change.)

    That said, it's not clear to me that it's entirely bonkers to think books like the CPR that only the elite read can have a causal impact on culture. In the first place, while it may be true that "only a handful" of people can read books like Kant's, what's more important is *who* reads them. When those people are men of immense popularity and cultural/political power (like Kant's readers were, e.g. Goethe, the Humboldts, before too long every seminary faculty member in Germany, and so on), books like Kant's can exercise a cultural influence in wild disproportion to the size of their readership. Call this "trickle-down intellectual causation" or something. I'm not prepared to defend to my death the soundness of this model, but what makes you so certain there's no evidence for it? It seems plausible enough on its face.

  • Ari, thanks so much — I'll respond more fully later.

    Ben P: you have confused my request for evidence with certainty that there is none, though how you managed that I can't imagine.

  • Ari, I said in my post that I would like more evidence that certain kinds of ideas — “extremely complex and arcane philosophical texts that only a handful of people in history have ever been able to read” — have had the kind of influence that some people claim they have had. You seem to have taken that as skepticism about the influence of any ideas. I’ve made the point you make about scientific and technological ideas here: “Whenever I say this kind of thing people reply But ideas have consequences! And indeed they do. But not all ideas are equally consequential; nor do all ideas have the same kinds of consequences. Dante and Shakespeare and Mozart and Ockham and Scotus have indeed made a difference; but not the difference that those who advocate the neo-Thomist interpretation of history think they made. Moreover, and still more important, scientific ideas are ideas too; as are technological ideas; as are economic ideas. (It’s for good reason that Robert Heilbroner called his famous history of the great economists The Worldly Philosophers.)"

    Also, it turns out that I have written about these matters before on this very blog — and even in other posts. Clearly I am more annoyed by these matters than I realized — or just getting increasingly repetitive in my dotage....

  • My mistake -- I shouldn't have framed what I said in terms of your request for evidence (I, too, would like to see it!). I meant to be reacting to your expression of incredulity about its very possibility. It's entirely reasonable to doubt that there's sufficient evidence for this or that great-book-produces-cultural-change story. But that's compatible with accepting the *possibility* of the more complicated, MacIntyrean style of such a story (as Ari Schulman is saying more articulately).

  • One more thing: I do understand that direct evidence of this kind of thing is hard to come by, in part because we're talking about effects of ideas on minds, which don't leave corporeal traces, and in part because we can't rewind history, remove one factor, and run the tape again. Abraham Lincoln certainly thought that Uncle Tom's Cabin had a causal effect on the Civil War; certain modern historians think the war would have happened anyway, in more or less the same way and on more or less the same schedule, if Stowe had never written her novel. Who's right? I have no idea.

    So in the case of the influence of nominalism, or Kant and Hegel, I don't want to ask for the impossible. But I'd like something — even a Just-So Story would be a start. Instead, partisans of the ideas-have-consequences school tend to neglect even that much.

    Thanks for the interlocution, folks!

  • A few quick thoughts arising from conversation here in the office (with Samuel Matlack):

    (1) Obviously many more names could have been added to Ari's list of non-arcane writers — thinkers whose effects on society and politics could be fairly easily traced. If Turing and Einstein are on the list, then Darwin and Freud and Nietzsche might as well be listed, too.

    (2) However, Alan's focus is on arcane writers and texts, which suggests in a way that maybe his point is a little tautological, right? After all, if these texts had wide and influential readership, they might not be considered arcane. If, say, John Locke's works had been written less clearly, or if the contingencies of history had meant that Locke's works didn't reach a wide audience, then he would be considered arcane and uninfluential. If Darwin had died on the Beagle, would Alfred Russel Wallace's depiction of evolutionary theory have shaped the world differently than Darwin's did?

    (3) It's worth noting too that while Kant and Hegel may be considered borderline arcane today, my impression is that they were not arcane among intellectuals and in general literate society in the nineteenth century.

    (4) Alan poses a challenge: "I think that we would have the techno-capitalist society we have if Duns Scotus, William of Ockham, Immanuel Kant, and G.W.F. Hegel had never lived. If you disagree with me, please show me the path which those philosophical ideas followed to become so world-shapingly dominant."

    I'll leave others to rise to the defense of the influence of Scotus and Ockham, but here's a sketch of the other two dudes Alan names: You wouldn't have had our techno-capitalist society without the Cold War and the involvement of the DOD in American "technoscience" (to use a wonderfully dated term); you wouldn't have had the Cold War without Stalin's tyrannical ambitions; you wouldn't have had Stalin without Lenin's politics; you wouldn't have had Lenin without Marx's communism; you wouldn't have had Marx without Hegel's History; you wouldn't have had Hegel without Kant's idealism. Obviously a sketch like that leaves out nuances and disagreements and creative readings and reinterpretations and so on. But that does seem to be a pretty straight line, no?

    (5) Some historians like to play around with counterfactuals. (I enjoyed the two volumes of the What If? books of counterfactuals on military history.) It's obviously a lot harder to play around with counterfactuals in intellectual history, where the ramifying streams of influence are obscured from us for so many reasons. Still, one can argue that the world today would look much like it does even without these figures — that the tides of history would still wash us up on these same shores. But ironically, when you make such an argument, you're actually channeling Hegel!

  • My natural tendency is to agree with the broad point that philosophy has little impact on world events. But then I remember that Karl Marx wrote the 20th century. And I think the reductio of your thinking just can't be true. Right now, can it really be the case that free market philosophy has no impact on the EU, World Bank, IMF, Federal Reserve Bank of the United States, and the other institutions that determine the material reality of billions of people? I just can't get there.

  • Thanks, Adam! But what if we look at it this way: Marx uses Hegel simply as philosophical window-dressing to give his work gravitas it would otherwise lack. Marx's arguments derive their power from an amalgamation of (a) already-existing frustration with manifestly unjust labor practices in Victorian capitalism and (c) the secularizing and immanentizing of Christian eschatological hope. These forces are at the heart of his argument, which he made not only in Kapital but in many hundreds of journalistic pieces written for the widest possible audience. Hegel is completely irrelevant to the success of Marx and Marxism.

    That's a partial answer to Freddie as well. I am not sure whether I believe it, but it seems to me to have a greater prima facie plausibility that the notion that Marx's ideas gained such traction because they channelled Hegelian metaphysics!

    Also in response to Freddie, and this I genuinely do believe: Free market economic philosophy arose as an ex post facto justification of what the major financial institutions of the Western world were already doing. It's not philosophy as cause but philosophy as epiphenomenal effect of a massive capitalist system that could get along perfectly well without philosophical support but was willing to dig a few loose coins from between its sofa cushions to purchase some.

  • First, this got longer than I intended.

    Yeah, I don't know either-- that's my more modest take before offering one of my favorite quotes, the very first line of Czeslaw Milosz's "The Captive Mind." “It was only toward the middle of the twentieth century that the inhabitants of many European countries came, in general unpleasantly, to the realization that their fate could be influenced directly by intricate and abstruse books of philosophy."

    I think Milosz is right, in that Hegelian dialectics influenced Marxian dialectics, and then Commie nerds (for lack of a better term) unleashed that kind of abstrusity on every aspect of life for "the inhabitants of many European countries."

    Perhaps Kant's-- or Shakespeare's or Mozart's-- influence is real and like that, only less overt since it is subtly disseminated by influential thinkers and writers and artists, and not, in the case of Eastern Europe, enforced by the USSR in the form of 5 year plans and what not.

    I wrote an essay in college about "In Memory of W.B. Yeats" where I made a big thing about how making nothing happen meant "make something not exist exist." I don't know if I would make that case as strongly now, and my professor gave me a decent grade but told me I was definitely wrong. Even still, I'd like to think Auden chose a phraseology that cuts both ways. At the very least it is more fun that way.

    Or then there is Wilde: "Where, if not from the Impressionists, do we get those wonderful brown fogs that come creeping down our streets, blurring the gas-lamps and changing the houses into monstrous shadows? To whom, if not to them and their master, do we owe the lovely silver mists that brood over our river, and turn to faint forms of fading grace curved bridge and swaying barge? The extraordinary change that has taken place in the climate of London during the last ten years is entirely due to a particular school of Art. You smile. Consider the matter from a scientific or a metaphysical [41/42] point of view, and you will find that I am right. For what is Nature? Nature is no great mother who has borne us. She is our creation. It is in our brain that she quickens to life. Things are because we see them, and what we see, and how we see it, depends on the Arts that have influenced us. To look at a thing is very different from seeing a thing. One does not see anything until one sees its beauty."

    Philosophy may operate the same way. Sure, not everyone reads Kant. But not everyone knows who Monet is either yet we all live and see, arguably, by his influence nevertheless.

  • I think in part this question hangs on how fine we want to chop up the 'abstruse' part. Marx's Capital includes some pretty abstruse ideation but the various Communist mass-movements of the 20th-century were surely inspired not by Capital but by The Communist Manifesto which is short and direct and very much un-abstruse. The message of this latter text, 'workers unite and throw off your chains' and so on, has had a measurable impact on the world, but however attractive Adam K.'s genealogy of influence from now back to Kant, 'workers unite and throw off your chains' is surely not an example of abstruse Kantian metaphysics working its way into the world.

  • OK, I'm conscious that my comment basically replicated something Alan said up-thread, so I'll try a different tack. Freud's ideas are pretty abstruse in places; but amongst the people who read and were directly influenced by Freud were (as well as artists and intellectuals and so on) advertising men. I don't think Madison Avenue would have been the same, as an industry, without Freud; and I take it as axiomatic that saturation advertising has radically altered our world.

  • Not to be contrary, but ... okay, call me contrary. Is advertising Freudian in any meaningful sense? Advertising agencies were in place throughout the Western world before Freud was born. It seems to me that that kind of work, combined with the strategies for manipulating worker attitudes and behavior that started in Robert Owen's Scottish workshops and culminated in the early-20th-century rise of Taylorism, had far more to do with the Mad Men we know and love than anything distinctive to Freud.

    And might we consider the possibility -- continuing the line of thought I've been pursuing -- that Freud's own ideas are shaped by the capitalist culture he was raised in? In other words, maybe we don't have advertising as we know it because of Freud, but Freud because of advertising and related phenomena of the European economic world.

    I just think those of us in the Idea biz tend naturally to believe that we're the horse and the economic/material world is the cart, but the case that it's precisely the other way around seems to me at least equally strong.

  • I very much take the force of my likely 'those of us in the Ideas biz' bias; and you may be right. overall But isnt there's a difference between, let's say, 19th-century and early 20th-century advertising, which was pervasive but tended towards the direct: 'buy this product!' -- and later 20th-century advertising? Surely the latter has been not just pervasive but immersive, a whole culture-horizon, a real force in the world, and not really a force for good. And whilst a good proportion of today's ads are still basically 'buy! buy! buy!', the logic of advertising as such has become: aim not at the buyer's conscious mind but at her subconscious. You couldn't write The Hidden Persuaders about the 19th-century.

  • About the structure of this thread: Alan, you're right that I and some other commenters have been over-reading your original post, which indeed said you're just asking to see evidence for these ideaist histories, or acknowledgement of the need for such evidence. But at the same time, you do seem to be advancing a generalized doubt, both in your post and more strongly in the comments, where you argue, for example, that doubt about Hegel's causal responsibility for Marxism has "greater prima facie plausibility." So it seems like we're shifting back and forth about exactly what we're arguing about and that makes this all harder to nail down.

    If you are merely expressing doubt about specific histories, urging that "not all ideas are equally consequential; nor do all ideas have the same kinds of consequences," then the argument risks the tautology Adam was pointing out: of course less-influential writers are less influential.

    I think your real point is that "those of us in the Idea biz" tend to neglect that not all ideas are equally consequential; that we "tend naturally to believe that we're the horse and the economic/material world is the cart." I certainly wouldn't argue against the pervasiveness of this trend among intellectuals, but isn't there also a strong trend in just the opposite direction you're advancing? Again, Hegel and Marx. Expand the economic/material to institutional/social/moral and you can add in Nietzsche and MacIntyre, even Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Haidt and their hangers-on, compiling the endless list of evolutionary and environmental forces making playthings of our poor, deluded thoughts.

    Haidt and Kahneman describe their work as an almost revolutionary overthrowing of the naive assumption that our values and actions derive from philosophical reasoning, which "we now know" are but post-hoc rationalizations. The irony is that, without evincing any awareness of it, Haidt and Kahneman are really just offering cog-sci versions of doubts with a rich philosophical tradition. One could interpret this as further proving their point! But I'd say it undermines it, that these doubts are already pervasive in the culture -- coexisting with the naive ideaist view in a mutually reinforcing skepticism that amounts to symbiosis -- and that this shows how easily we can re-enact inherited intellectual debates without having any idea of it.

    Point being, (1) there does seem to be a longstanding intellectual school expressing just the doubts you are, but you're largely focusing on the opposing school; and (2) the doubts you're expressing are plausible, but there are plausible ones in the other direction too. I'm not sure how one can go about adjudicating these rival doubts in a general way, except to take a contrarian stance when one side seems too ascendant.

  • This thread is very relevant to mah interests, so, apologies, one more volley: I think much of the irresolution of this discussion is because one side is arguing the merits of the illuminationist school and the other the merits of the causative school. And the resolution has to involve an account of how this apparent conflict is underlain by a deeper, more essential complementarity. (Both schools generally start from an assumption of conflict, and that's part of the impasse.)

    The too-simple way to say what I'm getting at is that the power of ideas for the most part occurs outside our awareness, and even the greatest philosophers only chip away at that imbalance so much. A better way to put this is that what we generally mean by "ideas" are indeed secondary phenomena; but what they illuminate is content that already has an idea-like structure prior to the work of philosophy. The conflict comes about because philosophy inevitably misconstrues in some way or another, and misconstrual alters what is misconstrued, since, well, ideas have force.

    This is all very broad, of course, and a key missing part is that most of what's being articulated doesn't have the abstract quality we associate with the word "idea" but rather has rich phenomenal qualities. So, as Dennis O'Toole points out, literature and the arts need to be included as crucial participants in the work of illumination. The error of Haidt and Kahneman and their philosophical ancestors is to assume that the mechanical qualities of perception, economics, and culture are incompatible with their bearing not just intelligible but interrogable content.

  • Ari and Adam K: it is indeed a tautology to say that less-influential ideas are less influential. But that's not what I said! What I am questioning is the idea, fairly common among historians of ideas, that "extremely complex and arcane philosophical texts that only a handful of people in history have ever been able to read" somehow become massively influential. The standard argument seems to be that, as Adam K suggested above, there is a kind of "trickle-down" effect: very few people read Kant, but Hegel did; and scarcely more people read Hegel, but Marx did; and then a good many more people read Marx, though perhaps not that many, but Lenin did — and then Lenin was finally able to put the Marxist ideas in practice.

    That's how the story goes, and I just think the story has a great many holes in it. And I'm not sure it helps to say, as you do, Ari, that "A better way to put this is that what we generally mean by 'ideas' are indeed secondary phenomena; but what they illuminate is content that already has an idea-like structure prior to the work of philosophy." I think this underrates the extent to which economic and technological circumstances enforce practices that are generative of certain ideas and not others — that create what Kenneth Burke called "terministic screens." Consider for example the now-influential theories of mind that simply assume that the brain is a kind of computer, when it really isn't, at all. That is the sense in which I am inclined to think that ideas are "secondary phenomena." The kinds of ideas that produces techniques then, as a side-effect, produce what the philosophers call "conceptual frames." What if most of the achievements of art and philosophy are just rather insignificant by-products of techno-economic practices that would go on more or less the same way if there were no such things as art or philosophy?

    I'm not absolutely committed to this account, but again, I find it more plausible that the Weaverian ideas-have-consequences school. I'm influenced here by the Psalmist's view that those who make and worship idols come to be like them.

    (Now that I look at all this I'm not sure to what degree I'm disagreeing with you.)

  • Far more discussion here than can be addressed succinctly, but let me add my two cents.

    The central framing of the dilemma is between illumination and causation, which is a chicken-and-egg question very much like the nature-nurture debate. It need not be all or nothing, but it would certainly be tidier that were. Another framing might be contrasting ideas (including institutional structures we tend to reify, such as political systems) and their physical manifestations or embodiments. In the case of intellectual property (a modern property right that has simpler historical antecedents in know-how protected by, say, medieval guilds), the illumination that comes out of reading a patent and improving upon it, a process or gradual refinement rather than fully original creation, is an example of causation arising directly out of illumination. It’s not at all a stretch to say that such things as the mechanical clock, the transistor, or machine language used by computers have reshaped deep culture, but we only understand it in hindsight, once dynamics have a chance to settle.

    In terms of evidence, I could cite the founding of the United States in the Revolutionary Era and the move away from monarchical governments in France and the United Kingdom (among others) as examples of a relatively small number of well-read landed gentry (e.g., Thomas Jefferson) putting into direct practice in the structure of the U.S. Constitution ideologies learned from moral philosophers only slightly earlier in European intellectual history (taking a long historical timescale). Others have already pointed out a similar effect in the Russian Revolution with respect to Marx (overthrowing yet another monarchy), and similar histories could undoubtedly be traced in Latin America and the Far East. Ideology definitely drives some aspects of history; other aspects find us all muddling through.

    Last bit: the question about how selfhood is derived is far, far less about a few powerful philosophical ideas promoted forcefully by philosophers and/or their acolytes than it is a wandering, meandering result of cultural forces well beyond anyone’s power to direct. As with the arts, philosophies of selfhood follow the culture much more than they create it.

  • I've been following this discussion with much interest, and I just want to interject one more thing if I can (though of course take what I say with a grain of salt, etc.):

    Dr. Jacobs, I don't think your thoughts on this matter are greatly at odds with the account Ari is trying to give. As you say, "The kinds of ideas that produce techniques then, as a side-effect, produce what the philosophers call 'conceptual frames.'"; this conceptual frame is what Ari refers to as "content that already has an idea-like structure prior to the work of philosophy." Philosophical ideas try to intellectually illuminate - to make sense of - the felt sense of reality experienced in those frames (frames which are, in turn, generated by certain behaviors and techno-economic practices).

    The felt experiences found within a conceptual frame, I'd argue, are not immediately coherent and stable (at least not always); they require ideas - simple or complex, crude or sophisticated - to become ordered and actionable. Yes, such ideas can act as post-hoc justifications for said feelings, a lazy way to validate instincts and impulses one already wishes to act upon. However, at least sometimes, illuminative ideas can help point out new directions, which in turn generate new techno-economic practices, and so on.

    Maybe esoteric ideas don't play as large a role as the 'Ideas have Consequences' crowd claim, but perhaps they still have their own, small influence. Again, however, I could be wrong.

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