To do this properly, however, we'll have to go back to the very roots
of the mainstream Western intellectual tradition...to that moment when
Plato defined "philosophy" as (literally) the love of wisdom. And
opposed it to "sophistry"...the practice of those previously accepted
Philosophy was (then) a new practice, entirely defined by Plato -
perhaps the most cunning of all intellectual empire-builders -
but...sophistry was simply that which had come immediately before. The
(undoubted) fact that it remains a - perhaps the
- intellectual insult (rivalled only by Descartes similar denigration
of "casuistry"), despite the fact that few now entertain Platonic
Idealism, merely proves Plato's cunning: which is best analyzed in Eric
Havelock's groundbreaking work of the late 50s/early 60s.
The sophists were no school. Instead, they were a diverse
group of thinkers & teachers, committed democracts (unlike
Plato...or Socrates) who rather anticipated the American Pragmatists -
not so surprising, perhaps, as both were spawned by (then) atypically
experimental democratic societies, that did not scorn practical
wisdoms...of all sorts.
The biggest lie in Western intellectual history, therefore, is to
unthinkingly dismiss the sophists...and to assimilate the so-called
"pre-Socratics" into philosophy as defined by Plato. Rather, if we read
all such early thinkers surviving fragments upon their own terms, we
can easily see that many/most were committed to learning from the world
strongly opposed to the type of "rationalist" dogmatism that Plato
successfully instilled as the essence of philosophy. In this, at least,
Heidegger was right - there is a canker at the heart of the
(mainstream) Western intellectual tradition...
An aside, here: for those naive souls that will (now) expect me to
genuflect before the idols of postmodernism. The current French gurus
simply reinvented Plato's game, by redefining all that came before as
"other"...to use your favoured (insulting) terminology. Either that, or
they seriously distorted the aims/ideas of much greater thinkers, such
as Mikhail Bakhtin, in order to subsume them w/in their own little
Socratics - committed foes of the great bastard traditions - Plato, on
the level of tactics,
and (in certain ways) Antisthenes, Socrates most
faithful disciple in the area of doubt.
Theirs, however, is an ultimately futile game that no intelligent person can fully
pursue and remain a functioning human being. Like solipsism, it
stubbornly remains irrefutible on purely logical grounds...whilst
easily dismissible once you let experiential evidence have some real
sway in your choice of theories...as Antisthenes realized, in passages that his heirs in "Theory" have undoubtedly not read.
I exist...and, so do you, my readers. Moreover, language is not divorced from biology, and so...there is
existence "outside the text". Lighten up, why doncha?...and start (seriously) testing "Theory" against the whole
of your experience as human beings. Because, if you do...you'll quickly
realize what an impoverished notion of "reality" you've (sadly) let
dominate your intellectual life.
Back to the real world...Perhaps the most damning evidence of the
poverty (and fundamental dishonesty) of Plato's approach lies in the
greatest absence from his Socratic dialogues...that of Democritus.
Remembered mostly today as the ancestor of atomistic physics - and,
hence, the pre-modern most attuned w/current notions in that area - he
should also be known for writing:
"Poverty, under a democracy, is as much to be preferred - above what
men of power call "prosperity" - as is liberty above bondage."
Think about it!
Because...despite the (undoubted) fact that Democtritus was Socrates
main rival re wide-ranging public thought during the latter's lifetime,
Plato never even tried
compose a dialogue between the two. Reason is, I suspect, that Socrates
- in real life - invariably came off second-best when confronted by a
hard-nosed genuine intellectual, that had genuinely thought through all
the best historical/empirical evidence at his disposal...and was
prepared to live w/the consequences...
Because...lest you think that Democritus was some kinda comfortably
self-satisfied citizen - then, think again. He was a refugee from
tyranny, who moved to Athens - the greatest democracy of his age - even
though he knew
that he could never be a citizen: but, still...he voted w/his feet, as in his writings.
And this - and his humanistic anthropology - is what, I'm sure, he'd
most wish to be remembered for, rather than any anticipation of modern
Now...the history of what I've termed "the great bastard traditions"
goes underground at this point. Still...I've - laboriously - traced the
many signs that it wasn't entirely forgotten in the West. Moreover,
similar tales could be told re Indian & Chinese thought - although
both were sadly tainted by the (mistaken) assumption that "realism"
invariably supported the ugliest side of autocracy - but, this is
neither the time nor the place for such recondite
endeavours...although, I'd have to say that European humanism (prior to
the 17th century) remains a particular favourite.
Because, the real resurfacing of this tradition - fully figured &
ready to take on all comers - came with the eighteenth century Scottish
particular resurgence would not be denied.
To be sure, there were some earlier thinkers that had tried to
reconcile bluntly "materialistic" approaches w/the messy organic world.
And...at the level of pure biology, they'd begun to have some marked
success. But, the same wasn't at all true once individual agency was
involved. Hobbes - for example - was (merely) a weak version of the
ancient Chinese Legalists, considered dispassionately, and his
latterday prominence in Western courses on political theory is simply a
sad reflection of cultural insularity...
No...the genuine start the to intellectual takeover of the "bastard"
traditions starts w/the Scots...and culminates w/Hume & Smith.
Amusingly, David Hume is best known to outsiders as the predominant
skeptic in English-language philosophy. What most don't know is that
his skeptism was overwhelmingly directed against a priori
"rationalism"...and that he considered that he'd thereby demolished
"philosophy"...and wanted to devote the rest of his life to the far
more constructive discipline of history. Not only that but, in a brief
aside, he also sketched out the only
genuine anticipation of the theory of natural selection...a century prior to its full formulation...
Adam Smith, his close friend, is best known today as the
apostle of laissez faire
- despite the fact that he seriously distrusted market
power, violently opposed corporations, and saw labour
markets as markedly imperfect unless heavily regulated.
Nonetheless...the tradition that these gentlemen represented - however
imperfect their legacy - was the final breakthrough of the bastard
tradition of the West...and, from this point on, it would always
be present - if only as a counterpoint - amidst any debate re ideas...
And so, I hear you say...just exactly what is
this tradition? And why is it a "bastard"?
Allright...time for definitions, although I think that my more
attentive readers'll easily be able to anticipate much of my reply...
This "tradition" isn't (exactly) that...given a narrow approach to
same. Although its exemplars've often been inspired by earlier
thinkers, they've rarely seen themselves - until the last few centuries
- as part of any longstanding intellectual endeavour. Mostly, I
suspect, this was because Plato - and his heirs - were so successful in
suppressing the evidence for its earlier existence.
And, I also suspect that they weren't the first to so "edit" the
historical record in this regard. The more that we learn about the very
first urban civilization - the Uruk culture of ancient Iraq - the more
I suspect that it must have generated its own "bastard tradition" of
intellectual practice...before bureaucratic autocracy set in, and
Furthermore, I don't count "materialism" per se
as any simple measure. Galileo, for example, is an outstanding materialist in intellectual history. But, he ain't one of us...
So...let's get right down to defintions. What I'm extolling here are
thinkers that assume pluralism...right from the start. They (modestly)
theorise collectives in various ways...and then attempt to draw useful
conclusions from the result. They eschew simple all-encompassing
schemes, prefering to deal w/multiple limited theories, that overlap in
messy & difficult ways.
Reason for this is that they vastly prefer the evidence of (comparative) history & current empirical enquiry to a priori
assumptions...and don't assume that answers to real world problems'll
(necessarily) be any neater than the problems themselves...
In short, they value knowledge & genuine understanding over
systems...and have directed their attention to the very real problem of
multiple agents having to deal w/a world they didn't make. So, Galileo
is out...but Darwin is in. And Smith is in, but Friedman is out. I'm
sure you can make your own additions to this litany.
And...if you can't, then you might just want to consider the
possibility that you've been badly educated. Not to cast stones
here...it's taken me years of independent research (well after my
"formal" education ceased) to get to the point where I was confident
enough to put things as bluntly as I have at this point...
But, that's what the new humanities is all about - at least on the
intellectual level. No bullshit - but, no neat all-encompassing
"Theory", either... Just the very best "micro-theories", consililent
w/the best historical & scientific work to date, as well as my best
attempts to draw out the connections between same where relevant - and
not merely "impressive" - and all sans jargon wherever humanly possible.
...the great bastard traditions demand nothing less...
John Henry Calvinist