Friday


landgrebe

Much of what I write here, whether commenting on current affairs to delving into the depths of prehistory, could be classed under the general rubric of philosophy of history. One of my early posts to this forum was Of What Use is Philosophy of History in Our Time? (An echo of the title of Hans Meyerhoff’s widely available anthology Philosophy of History in Our Time.) It could be argued that my subsequent posts have been attempts to answer this question (that is to say, to answer the question what is the use of philosophy of history in our time), to demonstrate the usefulness of bringing a philosophical perspective to history, contemporary and otherwise. The reader is left to judge whether this attempt has been a success (partial or otherwise) or a failure (partial or otherwise).

In several recent posts — as, for example in The Science of Time, Addendum on Big History as the Science of Time, and Human Agency and the Exaptation of Selection, inter alia — I have been writing a lot about the philosophy of history from the perspective of big history, which is a contemporary historiographical school that comes to history from the perspective of the big picture and primarily proceeds according to scientific naturalism. This latter condition makes of big history a particular species of naturalism.

In many posts to this forum I have emphasized my own naturalistic perspective both in philosophy generally speaking as well as more specifically in the philosophy of history. For example, in posts such as Natural History and Human History, The Continuity of Civilization and Natural History, and An Existentialist Philosophy of History, I have emphasized the continuity of human history and natural history, especially making the attempt to place civilization in a natural historical context.

This emphasis on big history and naturalism has meant that I have spent very little time writing about alternatives to naturalistic historical thought — with a certain exception, which the reader may well not immediately recognize, so I will point it out explicitly. In several posts — The Ethos of Formal Thought, Foucault’s Formalism, Cartesian Formalism, and Formal Strategy and Philosophical Logic: Work in Progress among them — I have discussed the possibility of formal thought in relation to historical understanding, i.e., topics not usually discussed from a formal perspective (which is usually confined to logic, mathematics, and some branches of science). Formalism represents a certain kind of countervailing intellectual influence to naturalism, and it has probably served roughly that function in my thought.

I have previously mentioned Darren Staloff’s lectures on the philosophy of history, The Search for a Meaningful Past: Philosophies, Theories and Interpretations of Human History. One of the motifs running through Staloff’s lectures is a contrast between what he calls naturalism and idealism. He sums up this motif in the final lecture, in which he adopts the perspectives of naturalism and idealism in turn, trying give the listener a sense of the claims of each tradition. I found Staloff’s exposition of idealism less persuasive that his exposition of naturalism, and so I found the motif of a contrast between naturalism and idealism a bit strained, since it seemed to me that idealism really couldn’t carry its own weight in the way that it might have been able to in the past.

Recently I’ve encountered an approach to the philosophy of history that could be called “idealist” (at least in a certain sense), and this is much more persuasive to me that Staloff’s analytical representatives of the idealist tradition, like R. G. Collingwood. I have found this idealist perspective in the work of Ludwig Landgrebe, who was one of Husserl’s research assistants.

The casual reader of this blog might well have picked up on the amount of contemporary continental philosophy that I have read, but it unlikely to have realized the extent to which Edmund Husserl and phenomenology have been an influence on my thought. Nevertheless, that influence has been profound, to the point that many of Husserl’s expositors and commentators have also influenced my thinking. Recently I have been reading some essays by Ludwig Landgrebe, and this has started to give me another perspective on the philosophy of history.

Landgrebe wrote at least two papers on the philosophy of history, as well as one chapter of his book, Major Problems in Contemporary European Philosophy, from Dilthey to Heidegger. No doubt there is more material, but this is what I have found translated into English. (Landgrebe wrote an entire book on the phenomenological philosophy of history, Phänomenologie und Geschichte, but this has not been translated into English.) The two papers are “Phenomenology as Transcendental Theory of History” (which can be found in the collection of essays Husserl: Expositions and Appraisals, edited by Elliston and McCormick, University of Notre Dame Press, 1977. pp. 101-113) and “A Meditation on Husserl’s Statement: ‘History is the grand fact of absolute Being'” (The Southwestern Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 5, Issue 3, Fall 1974, pp. 111-125).

It is well known that Husserl’s last work, The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology: An Introduction to Phenomenological Philosophy, assembled posthumously from his papers, is the work in which Husserl placed phenomenology in historical context (for all practical purposes, for the first time), and considered the emergence of Western scientific thought in historical context. As such, this has been the point of departure of much historically-oriented phenomenological research, and the Crisis (as it has come to be known) and its supplementary texts were clearly influential for Landgrebe.

Landgrebe, however, as Husserl’s research assistant, was more than conversant with Husserl’s logical thought also. Husserl’s Experience and Judgment: Investigations in a Genealogy of Logic was a text assembled by Landgrebe from Husserl’s notes. Landgrebe consulted with Husserl throughout this project, and the original texts are all due to Husserl, but the structure of the book is entirely Landgrebe’s doing. Landgrebe brings the kind of rigor one learns in studying logic to his very compact essays on the philosophy of history. In this way, Landgrebe’s formulations have a formal character that makes them very congenial to me. Landgrebe’s approach is essentially that of a formal phenomenological theory of history, and this perspective allows me to assimilate Landgrebe’s insights both to idealistic historiography as well as my long-standing interest in formal thought.

If I were now to revise my speculative syllabus If I Lectured on the Philosophy of History (lecture 13 of which I had already assigned to phenomenology), I would definitely showcase Landgrebe’s philosophy of history as the most sophisticated phenomenological contribution to the philosophy of history.

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Sunday


Fernand Braudel

Fernand Braudel

In what I have come to call Metaphysical Ecology I took Bronfenbrenner’s bio-social ecology, extended it, and applied it to time, yielding what I call Ecological Temporality. I then applied ecological temporality to the philosophy of mind in The Temporal Ecology of Mind. There are many potential applications of ecological temporality that I hope to spell out in future posts.

Darren Staloff

Today I was listening once again to Darren Staloff’s lectures The Search for a Meaningful Past, from The Teaching Company. Unfortunately, The Teaching Company has discontinued this title, though it is certainly among the most rigorous and detailed of the philosophy titles that The Teaching Company offered. Knowing how much I enjoyed this, and knowing that it is no longer available, I bought a second, used copy for myself through Amazon. It was because I just received this “back up” copy that I have been listening through it again.

In this most recent listening I realized that the different levels of time that Fernand Braudel recognized in his historiography — the history of the event, the history of cycles, or conjunctures, and the history of the longue durée — and which he especially lays out in his essay “History and the Social Sciences,” collected in his On History, can be given an exposition in terms of ecological temporality.

The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, Vol. 1

Braudel’s tripartite division of historical time scales roughly corresponds to the short term, the medium term, and the long term. Braudel wrote:

“All historical work is concerned with breaking down time past, choosing among its chronological realities according to more or less conscious preferences and exclusions. Traditional history, with its concern for the short time span, for the individual and the event, has long accustomed us to the headlong, dramatic, breathless rush of its narrative.”

Fernand Braudel, On History, “History and the Social Sciences,” University of Chicago Press, 1980, p. 27

This assertion must be seen not only in the context of Braudel’s own concern for the long time span, the longue durée, but also in the context of a famous passage of his that I have quoted on several occasions:

Events are the ephemera of history; they pass across its stage like fireflies, hardly glimpsed before they settle back into darkness and as often as not into oblivion.

Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, Volume 2, Part Three: Event, Politics and People, p. 901

For Braudel, the choice of the longue durée “according to more or less conscious preferences and exclusions” is a choice to be concerned with what is permanent rather than what is ephemeral. Taken to its logical extreme, the structuralist conception of history becomes what I have called a top-down temporal model. However, we need not extrapolate the doctrines of structuralism to their logical extremes, but can rest in a middle ground. One way to do this would be to integrate the structuralist perspective into a ecological structure emphasizing the interaction of temporal orders of magnitude.

Braudel’s tripartite distinction can be (perhaps imperfectly) assimilated to ecological temporality by identifying the short term history of the event with meso-temporality (the social time that is the interaction of individuals experiencing micro-temporality), identifying the history of conjunctures with exo-temporality (temporal interactions on the level of discrete social systems or dynamical systems), and identifying the longue durée of classic structuralist historiography with macro-temporality. In this ecological schematization of Braudelian temporal categories, Braudel does not recognize a history of internal time consciousness (perhaps that would be relegated to psychology), and he does not go as far as metaphysical temporality (no historian any traditional sense of the term does go this far).

If the history of events is ephemeral and disappears into oblivion as soon as it is glimpsed, from the point of view of metaphysical history, the longue durée no less disappears into oblivion, it just takes longer for this to happen. And the longue durée would count for nothing, indeed would not exist, if it did not descend into the individual consciousness, and if the individual consciousness in turn did not impart its fragment of temporality to the turning world.

In Braudelian terms, the history of the event flows into the conjuncture, and the conjuncture flows into the longue durée, just as the longue durée shapes the conjuncture, as the conjuncture shapes the history of the event.

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I’ve given another take on Darren Staloff’s lectures The Search for a Meaningful Past in If I Lectured on the Philosophy of History…

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Sunday


When Thoreau said, “I have traveled widely… in Concord,” I have always assumed that he meant that he walked a lot around Concord. In the same spirit, I could say, “I have traveled widely… in Brownsmead.” And so I traveled in Brownsmead today, walking in the woods of rural Clatsop County, Oregon. I know the area in that intimate way that you can only know a piece of ground if you have walked over it for more than forty years. Philosopher and historian Darren Staloff referred to William Cronon’s book Changes in the Land as “beaver dams over the longue durée,” and while Cronon concerned himself with the land of New England, I have come to a similar appreciation from the perspective of the Pacific Northwest.

Last May, when I was riding in Argentina, I wrote The Cognitive Value of Horseback Riding, about the meditative character of bumping along on the back of a horse, slowly taking in the scenery as it passes by at a modest pace. There is also a cognitive value in walking. Rousseau and Nietzsche were at one in the cognitive value of walking. Nietzsche said of walking, in response to Flaubert’s remark, on ne peut penser et écrire qu’assis: “There I have caught you, nihilist! The sedentary life is the very sin against the Holy Spirit. Only thoughts reached by walking have value.” (Twilight of the Idols, section 34) And, in a more damning aside, in a remark that I have carried with me throughout my adult life: “The poet presents his thoughts festively, on the carriage of rhythm: usually because they could not walk.” (Human, All-Too-Human, section 189) I would not want to be a poet who presented thoughts that could not walk on their own two feet.

Rousseau devoted an entire book to walking, his Reveries of a Solitary Walker. I read this many years ago; indeed, it was among the earliest books of my self-education. I recently re-read the book, last summer I think. It is one of Rousseau’s later works, more mature and meditative than his earlier books, which have about them the restlessness of a “young man in a hurry.” It is easy to dislike Rousseau’s somewhat overwrought literary persona, but the Rousseau of Reveries of a Solitary Walker is a bit more likable, and one can imagine walking with Rousseau on his rambles. I suspect that Rousseau would have been a better friend out of doors than in. Rousseau was not really at home anywhere, but I suspect he was more at home out walking than in any other pastime.

It is not difficult to imagine the judgment of Nietzsche or Rousseau upon Descartes, who, while in winter quarters, shut himself up with a stove, away from the world, and attempted to think through that same world, entire, ab initio, all within the confines of a single room. This is, even more than Shakespeare’s sly take on Marlowe’s unfortunate end, “a great rec-koning in a little roome.” It is the reckoning of the world, and different thinkers have reckoned differently.

The Enlightenment aphorist Lichtenberg wrote that, “I have remarked very clearly that I am often of one opinion when I am lying down and of another when I am standing up” Life can be like this; our posture may well influence our thought. Moreover, sedentary thought has a particular character. I have written about the sedentary thought of societies in Settled Life, Settled Thought. We could think of this as the phylogeny of sedentarism, and once we are thinking in these terms we can immediately see that there would also be an ontogeny of sedentarism. Sedentary thought is static, immobile, almost involuntary, and this is Platonism. Peripatetic thought is vital, dynamic, directed outward, and this is Aristotelian.

It is an irony of history that Plato is the more vital writer, while Aristotle is dry to the point of dessication. It is another irony of history that Plato referred to Aristotle’s home as “the house of the reader,” implying a certain bookishness to Aristotle’s disposition and pursuits, and further implying Plato’s own approach to scholarship, which was more embedded in discussions at his Academy — an essentially social enterprise. I suspect that these historical ironies are interrelated, and that Plato’s irrepressible personality, that comes through so vividly in his dialogues, must have outshone the less colorful Aristotle on several levels, literary and social among them. But while Plato’s milieu was discussion at the Academy, as the milieu of Socrates was the marketplace, Aristotle’s milieu was the world itself. Aristotle is supposed to have lectured to his pupils at the Lyceum while walking, which is why we still use the adjective peripatetic to describe all things Aristotelian as well as to describe all things rambling. Although the Allman Brothers wrote the song, Aristotle was the original Ramblin’ Man. Who knew that they were singing about Aristotle?

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Saturday


It has become an oft-repeated commonplace that democracy is more than holding elections. This commonplace of political wisdom has come about from the dissatisfying attempts at democratization around the world, when elections have been held but either their mandates have not been heeded or the election becomes a mere stamp of approval upon an authoritarian system that would have ruled in any case.

There was a book published in 2002 by Yale Law School professor Amy Chua titled World On Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability. The book garnered much acclaim as well as criticism. Its basis thesis is that premature free market democracy empowers commercially successful minorities, which in turn causes resentment among dispossessed majorities, which attracts the manipulation and scapegoating of opportunistic politicians. It is a sad story that had been repeated time and again around the world. it is also a story that begs as many questions as it purports to answer. (Moreover, like every other effort of this kind, it cannot deal honestly and openly with questions of ethnicity because it is forbidden on pain of career suicide to do so in the contemporary Western world.)

Amy Chua

In other words, the book deals with disproportionately successful minorities and the response of majorities to them, and this has profound consequences for putatively democratic societies — that is to say, societies that have elections but do not have other “democratic institutions.” (Allow me to also point out that there is more than one way to be “successful” as we all know. The definitions of success are many and varied. World on Fire considers commercially successful minorities. The case with academically successful minorities is rather different.) The message here is that elections are not enough, and that societies must have democratic institutions that transcend mere elections if their elections are to foster a truly democratic society.

In this connection one especially thinks of US attempts at nation-building and democratization from the Cold War to the present day. My favorite quote on this (dating from even before the Cold War) can be found Niall Ferguson’s Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power, in the form of a dialogue between Walter Page, a US representative in London, and British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey, regarding the military coup in Mexico in 1913:

‘Suppose you have to intervene, what then?’
‘Make ’em vote and live by their decisions.’
‘But suppose they will not so live?’
‘We’ll go in and make ’em vote again.’
‘And keep this up for 200 years?’ asked he.
‘Yes’, said I. ‘The United States will be here for two hundred years and it can continue to shoot men for that little space till they learn to vote and to rule themselves.’

Niall Ferguson, Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power, p. 291

I am not providing this quote merely for its comedic value, though it is quite funny. More profoundly, it illustrates a striking difference in world views. Niall Ferguson himself takes this lesson from it:

“Since Woodrow Wilson’s intervention to restore the elected government in Mexico in 1913, the American approach has too often been to fire some shells, march in, hold elections and then get the hell out — until the next crisis. Haiti is one recent example; Kosovo another. Afghanistan may yet prove to be the next.”

Niall Ferguson, Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power, p. 315

This is not the lesson that I take from the dialogue. For Ferguson, the British solution would have been to simply take over Mexico. In other words, if the US had followed the British example it would have extended direct US rule — hence American institutions — to Mexico. The American perspective, as represented above by Walter Page, is to start with the minimal democratic institution of elections, and let the locals work things out from there. In other words, to let them work it out their own way. This point of view has come under considerable criticism of late, but I would like to defend it.

There is a familiar litany of the many institutions that contribute to a robust democracy that is more than just the expression of the popular will in holding elections. These include, for example, a free press, separation of powers, an independent judiciary, and, generally speaking, an absence of coercion and violence in the political process. The constituents of this litany are the celebrated democratic institutions that go beyond minimal democratic elections, and they are certainly political institutions that are to be admired. But are they institutions to be copied and replicated? That is another question.

Lately I have been listening, for the second time, to The Teaching Company’s long set of lectures about US History. When I first listened to this a few years ago it made a lasting impression on me. It is quite simply one of the best treatments of US history that I have perused. The Teaching Company has since released a second edition, with different lecturers, but I haven’t listened to this yet, partly because I don’t want to spoil the incredible effect that the original had on me. So I have returned to the first edition and started listening to it from the beginning again, and am enjoying it as much as I enjoyed it before.

The lesson that I am taking from this listening is the extent to which the democratic institutions of the US political system are deeply embedded in the particularities and peculiarities of North American history. More than a hundred years before the American Revolution, some of the distinctive institutions of what is now the US government were already taking shape in the variously constituted colonies. Venerable democratic institutions such as religious toleration, a bicameral legislature, and factionalism culminating in a two-party system, were the product of particular circumstances internal to the development of history in North America. For example, Darren Staloff cites the “Goody Sherman’s Sow” case as the trigger that resulted in a fully bicameral separation of the colonial legislature in Massachusetts.

In so far as what we call “democratic institutions” are deeply embedded in the life and history of the peoples of North America, and of their experience of colonizing a frontier (as well as other experiences, of course), such institutions are not likely to transplant very well into other circumstances that involve other peoples, their lives, and their histories.

What can be said in favor of the minimally democratic institution of elections is that they are quantitative and objective, and for that reason carry with them the fewest traces of cultural identity and peculiarity that make institutions suitable for one people but not necessarily suitable for another people. With elections, we can leave people to sort out for themselves the best institutions that serve their culture in the context of their history. The more we attempt to impose specific institutions on another people, the less likely that imposition is to be successful.

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An Exposition of Hegel

9 February 2010

Tuesday


Giving an exposition of Hegel's notoriously difficult philosophy is no small achievement. Hegel himself didn't do so well at communicating his own ideas.

As I am able to find them in the library, I have been listening through a series of lectures titled, “The Odyssey of the West”, published under the series The Modern Scholar, which is a collection of lectures on CD published by Recorded Books. In previous posts I have mentioned several of the courses that are part of The Modern Scholar series; all have been excellently produced and have been intellectually stimulating and satisfying.

I‘ve just finished listening to Part V of “Odyssey of the West”, subtitled, “Enlightenment, Revolution, and Renewal.” The whole “Odyssey of the West” series has been produced under the editorship of Professor Timothy B. Shutt of Kenyon College, and I notice that many of the lectures are his colleagues from Kenyon College.

Joel Richeimer

Lecture 11 of Part V is a lecture about Hegel given by Joel F. Richeimer, associate professor of philosophy at Kenyon College. This is, hands down, the best brief treatment of Hegel that I know of. I’ve listened through this lecture twice now, and I will probably listen to it a couple more times before I return this to the library. Within the compass of about a half hour it gives a sense of Hegel that is largely free of schematic oversimplifications. I heartily recommend this.

Another good treatment of Hegel is from Darren Staloff of the City College of New York. He recorded a wonderful series of lectures for The Teaching Company titled “The Search for a Meaningful Past: Philosophies, Theories and Interpretations of Human History.” This must be the only set of lectures devoted exclusively to the philosophy of history and available to the general public. Unfortunately, I suspect that the course was not too popular, as The Teaching Company has discontinued it. I own a copy of the lectures, and one of the cassettes became damaged. I wrote to The Teaching Company to request a replacement, and they told me that there were no replacements available because the course had been discontinued. It is a great course, and certainly better than many Teaching Company offerings that remain available.

Darren Staloff

Staloff also contributed a lecture on Hegel to The Teaching Company’s “Great Minds of the Western Intellectual Tradition.” I have listened to this also (though I don’t own it) and it is very similar to the Hegel lecture in Staloff’s no-longer-available “The Search for a Meaningful Past.” While I enjoy Staloff’s insights on the philosophy of history, his lecture on Hegel is nowhere nearly as good as Joel Richeimer’s lecture of Hegel, though, to be fair, Staloff is focused on Hegel’s philosophy of history while Richheimer is more concerned with an overview of Hegel’s thought, not even mentioning Hegel’s famous efforts on the philosophy of history.

Perhaps the best known portrait of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel – 27 August 1770 to 14 November 1831.

I own a lot of Teaching Company courses because they are affordable. It is unfortunate that The Modern Scholar makes their courses so expensive, though I am deeply grateful to the library system for owning as many of them as they do. I will listen to Richeimer on Hegel, and I will probably check it out and listen to it again in the future to get all that I can out of it, just as I listen to my Teaching Company courses over and over again to get all the benefit out of them that I can.

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I’ve given another take on Darren Staloff’s lectures The Search for a Meaningful Past in If I Lectured on the Philosophy of History…

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