Old Books and Dead People – Common Complaints Against Philosophy 3

Why do you care what dead people think? What do you think?

We live in a society that is the culmination of a history spanning back to the birth of philosophy itself in Ancient Greece. That tradition, and particularly since Descartes, has interpreted human beings as individual subjects, subjects who are free and are the master of their own thoughts and ideas.

The most prominent form that this takes in contemporary society is in liberal subjectivism. This amounts to saying everyone is entitled to their opinion, and everyone chooses their opinion in their own terms. No opinion is better or worse than any other, we just have to tolerate people who disagree. I mean, deep down, we’re all the same, right? But we’re also all different because we are each our own master and have our own thoughts and perspective on things.

To this culture, the idea of believing something on someone else’s authority, or of relying too heavily on someone else’s views and opinions is abhorrent. This goes against its interpretation of what it is to be human: thinking for yourself. If, for example, one specialises in the philosophy of Heidegger, the non-philosopher is likely to say, “That is very interesting, but what do you think?” The answer “I think more people should read Heidegger!” does not go down well. Nor does the panoply of secondary texts written about him. I mean, what is the point of bickering over how best to read a dead man? Let him think what he thinks, what do you think?!

One way to respond is to say that philosophy is a dialogue spanning history. It is not a bunch of individuals rabbiting about their opinions, but a conversation about a set of important issues that take different forms in different times. The fact is, one cannot do philosophy in a vacuum. One must care what dead people thought and, when those dead people were very profound and obscure (the two go hand in hand), then it is imperative that they be read closely by experts and their essential insights excavated so that the dialogue can continue.

Ultimately, philosophy is essentially caring what dead people thought. Philosophy is engaging with our history in the attempt to find a way to think differently. It is never about thinking for yourself and coming up with informed opinion. It is reading what other people think and responding to it, even if the response is “I agree”.

Why do you read such old books?

Why would books written millennia or even decades ago be worth reading if what you are meant to be doing is gaining knowledge? Even books written in the 80s, for e.g., cannot possibly have kept up with recent advances in physics, psychology, neuroscience etc. ?

The reason some people raise this objection is because they subliminally subscribe to a concept of history that comes out of the Enlightenment. According to it, human knowledge progresses over time because history is the accumulation of knowledge and culture by human beings as they become generation by generation more rational and intelligent. This progress doesn’t happen magically, but is based upon the labours of each generation making it easier to be rational in the next. Eventually we will reach our destiny in a few generations’ time when humanity is perfected.

When Newton said that any progress he made was possible only because he was “standing on the shoulders of giants”, he expressed this interpretation of history well. On the one hand, our ancestors are praised because it is as a result of their intellectual and political labour that we enjoy the benefits of science and just society today. But they are also patronised; their sole value is in that they produced us. Our ancestors are an uncomfortable necessity. They are less intelligent, largely incorrect, uncivilised and only redeemed because they made the modern world possible. We might cringe when turn-of-the-century authors use terms like “savage”, “primitive” and “uncivilized” to describe indigenous populations untouched by the West, but the above attitude to history makes the same gesture.

But, isn’t this idea basically right? People in the past were wrong and we do know a lot more. Aristotle thought bees had four legs, people in Gospel times thought the epilepsy was caused by demons, and people at the turn of the last century still thought that women should not have the vote. Equally, in the future, our descendants will know what we were wrong about: neoliberalism, trade deals with nations with human rights violations, racism and Keith Lemon. History is progress.

But, is it?

Well, okay, actually a lot of things have changed since Ancient Greece. But, philosophically we still think in the way that Plato (circa 500 BC) did. Plato’s most influential claim, developed out of the insight of his predecessor Parmenides, was the recognition of a difference between appearance and reality. Plato argued that things are not really how they appear to us in experience, but are actually determined by another realm that is not visible and only accessible to thought. Plato called this the realm of ideas or forms.

Modern science says pretty much the same thing (see last post). The table, as I experience it, is not what it seems to be. It feels solid, but it is actually mostly vacuum. It looks like a one thing but it is really just atoms behaving in a certain way. Modern science is Platonic in that it denies the validity of sensory experience and says the reality is something that can never be seen and is only accessible to thought. By reading an old book by a dead man, we learn about our contemporary age and situation.

Equally, although when it comes to understanding the human being, emotions and language we might point to developments biology and neuroscience, it is still the case that the underlying presuppositions at work are very old. Philosophically speaking, the way that science in general and neuroscience in particular view the brain has not changed significantly since Descartes (See Meditations on First Philosophy from 1642). The human being is cut up into mind and body. The mind is the part of us that thinks and perceives, the part that we really are. The body is inert matter that operates much like a machine. The problem then arises of how the mind enters the body and controls it. Descartes, at one point, talks about it entering the pituitary gland.

The fact that Descartes talks about minds, glands and humors and neuroscience talks about brains and electrical impulses signifies only an incidental development. Philosophically, the picture of human being is almost identical. The only real change is that philosophers of mind and neuroscientists want to be able to say that the mind is reducible to the brain. For example, if we observe in an MRI machine the electrical activity of the brain that corresponds with the mental phenomenon of pain, then we can say we have identified what pain really is: certain types of fibre firing in the brain.

But, this sort of claim presupposes Descartes’ philosophy. A philosophy that is, to put it mildly, contested. We do not even need to come as far into the future as Henri Bergson (1889)—who, in my mind, settled the matter—to find arguments against this line of thinking. Spinoza (1632-1677), Malebranche (1638-1715), and Leibniz (1646-1715) all give alternative ways of understanding the relationship between mind and body that have been ignored by scientists.

If modern neuroscience finds a correlation between humans speaking and a set of impulses in the brain, this correlation is always understood through the bias of an underlying metaphysics that is philosophically contentious. Even if science daily pours new facts onto us till we can swim in them, the metaphysical issues underpinning their interpretation move at a much slower pace, and books written in the 1940s are centuries ahead of today’s brain scientists. This is not because science isn’t valuable, but because it is still using philosophy that is 400 years old.

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