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the great bastard traditions


now, to be sure...

outside  of  Australia, the term "bastard"
still remains an insult


- despite the (undoubted) fact that it is entirely outmoded as same -


and, yet...I definitely want/need to use same - to clearly denote
that the intellectual tradition(s) I'm about to sketch out have
been similarly denigrated, distorted & dismissed

 by our "esteemed' intellectual gatekeepers...


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 as wise...

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 (natural and human), and 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 empire-building game.

Their true ancestors were 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 to 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 physics.


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 Enlightenment...

And, this 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 Mesopotamia ossified.

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