The Genealogy of Ideas

24 October 2010

Sunday


Previously I discussed idea diffusion in Civilization and Idea Diffusion, but even as I posted that short contribution, I realized the inadequacy of it. A suitably detailed treatment of idea diffusion and its place in the history of human experience would run to volumes. What we need is perhaps, rather than the traditional history of ideas, is a genealogy of ideas. “Genealogy” in this sense comes from Nietzsche’s use of the term and his implementation of the idea, but it is Foucault who brought this kind of Nietzschean genealogy to maturity.

In his essay “Nietsche, Genealogy, History,” (collected in the volume Language, Counter-Memory, Practice) Foucault wrote:

Genealogy is gray, meticulous, and patiently documentary. It operates on a field of entangled and confused parchments, on documents that have been scratched over and recopied many times…

Genealogy… requires patience and a knowledge of details and it depends on a vast accumulation of source material. It’s “cyclopean monuments” are constructed from “discreet and apparently insignificant truths and according to a rigorous method”; they cannot be the product of “large and well-meaning errors.” In short, genealogy demands relentless erudition. Genealogy does not oppose itself to history as the lofty and profound gaze of the philosopher might compare to the molelike perspective of the scholar; on the contrary, it rejects the metahistorical deployment of ideal significations and indefinite teleologies. It opposes itself to the search for “origins.”

Michel Foucault, Language, Counter-Memory, Practice, “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” pp. 139-140

These are obviously the principles and practices by which Foucault pursued his scholarly research. And this is exactly what we need for the mind: instead of a history of ideas, as that discipline has been practiced, we need a genealogy of ideas that is as gray and patient and meticulous as the research that Foucault imagines (and which he in fact pursued) in reference to more familiar topics of history.

Equally obviously, I cannot do anything to even approach this in the space of a blog post, except to point out the need for such an approach, and to observe the relationship that a genealogy of ideas would have to the idea of idea diffusion as an historical process. A genealogy of ideas would trace, in detail, the paths of idea diffusion, if there are any such paths in a given case. Ideas diffuse over both time and space. The diffusion leaves a trace along the path those ideas have taken. In time, ideas experience descent with modification, and in space ideas experience adaptive radiation. These processes are not isolated from each other, but rather occur concurrently.

Foucault emphasized the meticulousness and detail required by genealogy, and we need to bring these scholarly habits to the genealogy of ideas. Because it is so difficult to deal with ideas with precision — it requires an unfamiliar effort of thought to do so — ideas have more often been given vague and ambiguous treatment that has caused them to be held in low repute. But if we can bring rigorous habits of mind to the genealogy of ideas, we could contribute to restoring ideas to their proper dignity.

For example, idea diffusion can occur on many different levels. We must pay careful attention to how we count our ideas, and how we place each idea within a hierarchy of ideas, so as not to conflate ideas of different orders of magnitude. Idea diffusion can take place on many different levels because any given particular falls under many different ideas.

How many squares are there on a chess board? It depends upon how we count them, and how we count them will depend upon how narrowly we have defined “square” in this context. Moreover, some definitions will admit of more than one answer because of the vagueness they incorporate, while some definitions will be more precise, and precisely because they are more precise they will exclude instances that are included under broader, less restrictive definitions. On a chess board there are, of course, the individually colored squares, and there are 64 of these. But the chess board taken on the whole is also a square. If we count both the individual squares and the whole, there are 65 squares. But there are also squares made up of 4, 9, 16, and so forth individual colored squares. There is no right or wrong answer here; it is only a matter of setting up a convention upon which we can agree. And once we have agreed upon a rigorously defined convention, we are prepared to treat the question of the number of squares on a chess board with precision.

This may seem like a silly exercise, but it is very much to the point. Without rigorous definitions, we will never be capable of thinking precisely about ideas. And given that few people ever make the time or take the effort to formulate rigorous definitions of ideas (except for mathematicians), it follows that ideas are usually not conceived with the requisite precision.

All ideas, and not just chess board squares, are to a greater or lesser extent subject to ambiguity, and therefore can only be treated with precision after we have made the appropriate effort to conceive them rigorously. Yesterday in Epistemological Warfare we remarked upon how all phases of the OODA loop (AKA the Boyd cycle) are theory-laden, therefore subject to interpretation, and therefore potentially ground for divergent observations, divergent orientations, divergent decisions, and divergent actions. This is partly a consequence of the ambiguity of the ideas employed in formulating the OODA loop. The more rigorously we can deal with each element of the cycle, the more we can minimize (though not eliminate) divergencies.

. . . . .

signature

. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

project astrolabe logo smaller

. . . . .

Advertisements
%d bloggers like this: