Naturalism as a bedfellow of capitalism? A note on the reception of early modern natural philosophy

Facing the consequences of anthropogenic climate change and pollution, the idea that a certain form of scientific naturalism goes hand in hand with an exploitative form of capitalism might (or might not) have an intuitive plausibility. But does the supposed relation between naturalism and capitalism have something like a historical origin? A set of conditions that tightened it? And that can be traced back to a set of sources? In what follows, I’d like to present a few musings on this kind of question.

What does it take to write or think about a history of certain ideas? Obviously, what you try to do is to combine certain events and think something like: “This was triggered by that or this thought relies on that assumption.” You might even be more daring and say: “Had it not been for X, Y would (probably) never have occurred.” Such claims are special in that they bind events or ideas together into a narrative, often designed to explain how it was possible that some event or an idea occurred. – The philosopher Akeel Bilgrami makes such a claim when he suggests that naturalism, taken as a certain way of treating nature scientifically and instrumentally, is tied to capitalism. In his “The wider significance of naturalism” (2010), Bilgrami writes:

“[D]issenters argued that it is only because one takes matter to be “brute” and “stupid,” to use Newton’s own term, that one would find it appropriate to conquer it with nothing but profit and material wealth as ends, and thereby destroy it both as a natural and a human environment for one’s habitation.
[…] Newton and Boyle’s metaphysical view of the new science won out over the freethinkers’ and became official only because it was sold to the Anglican establishment and, in an alliance with that establishment, to the powerful mercantile and incipient industrial interests of the period in thoroughly predatory terms that stressed that nature may now be transformed in our conception of it into the kind of thing that is indefinitely available for our economic gain…”

Bilgrami’s overall story is a genealogy of naturalism or rather scientism.* The paper makes itself some intriguing observations regarding narratives and historiography. But let’s look at his claim more closely. By appealing to Newton and the victory of his kind of naturalism, it is designed to explain why we got to scientism and a certain understanding of nature. In doing so, it binds a number of highly complex events and ideas together: There is a (1) debate between “dissenters” and what he calls “naturalists”, whose ideas (2) became official, (3) “only because” they were “sold” to the Anglicans and to industrial stakeholders. Although this kind of claim is problematic for several reasons, it is quite interesting. One could now discuss why ideas about necessary connections between facts (“only because”) presuppose a questionable understanding of history tout court or seem to ignore viable alternatives. But for the time being I would like to focus on what I find interesting. For me, two aspects stand out in particular.

Firstly, Bilgrami’s thesis, and especially (3), seems to suggest a counterfactual causal claim: Had the metaphysical view not been sold to the said stakeholders, it would not have become official. In other words, the scientific revolution or Newton’s success is owing to the rise of capitalism. Both cohere in that they seem to propagate a notion of nature that is value-free, allowing nature to be exploited and manipulated. Even if that notion of nature might not be Newton’s, it is an interesting because it seems to gain new ground today: The widespread indifference to climate change and pollution for capitalist reasons suggests such a conjunction. Thus, a genealogy that traces the origin of that notion seems to ask at least an interesting question: Which historical factors correlate to the rise of the currently fashionable notion of nature?

Secondly, the narrative Bilgrami appeals to has itself a history and is highly contested. But Bilgrami neither argues for the facts he binds together, nor does he appeal to any particular sources. This is striking, for although he is not alone with his thesis, people are not exactly buying into this narrative. If you read Steven Pinker, you’ll rather get a great success story about why science has liberated us. And even proper historians readily dismiss the relation between the rise of capitalism and science as “inadequate”. This raises another interesting question: Why do we accept certain narratives (rather than others)?

This latter question seems to suggest a simple answer: We do or should accept only those narratives that are correct. As I see it, this is problematic. Narratives are plausible or implausible. But the complexity of the tenets they bind together makes it impossible to prove or refute them on ordinary grounds of evidence. Just try to figure out what sort of evidence you need to show that the Newtonian view “won” or was “sold”! You might see who argued against whom; you might have evidence that some merchants expressed certain convictions, but the correlations suggested by these words can be pulled and evidenced in all sorts of ways. Believing a narrative means to believe that certain correlations (between facts) are more relevant than others. It means to believe, for instance, that capitalism was a driving force for scientists to favour certain projects over others. But unless you show that certain supposed events did not occur or certain beliefs were not asserted, it’s very hard to counter the supposed facts, let alone the belief in their correlation.

So I doubt that we simply chose to believe in certain narratives because we have grounds for believing they are true. My hunch is that they gain or lose plausibility along with larger ideologies or belief systems that we adhere to. In this regard it is striking that Bilgrami goes for his thesis without much argument. While he doesn’t give clear sources, Bilgrami’s assumption bears striking resemblance to the claims of Boris Hessen, who wrote (in 1931):

“The Royal Society brought together the leading and most eminent scientists in England, and in opposition to university scholasticism adopted as its motto ‘Nullius in verba’ (verify nothing on the basis of words). Robert Boyle, Brouncker, Brewster, Wren, Halley, and Robert Hooke played an active part in the society. One of its most outstanding members was Newton. We see that the rising bourgeoisie brought natural science into its service, into the service of developing productive forces. … And since … the basic problems were mechanical ones, this encyclopedic survey of the physical problems amounted to creating a consistent structure of theoretical mechanics which would supply general methods for solving the problems of celestial and terrestrial mechanics.”

The claim that “the the rising bourgeoisie brought natural science into its service” is indeed similar to what Bilgrami seems to have in mind. As a new special issue on Boris Hessen’s work makes clear, these claims were widely disseminated.** At the same time, an encyclopedia from 2001 characterises Hessen’s view as “crude and dogmatically Marxist”.

Thus, the reception of Hessen’s claim is itself tied to larger ideological convictions. This might not be surprising, but it puts pressure on the reasons we give for favouring one narrative over another. While believing in certain narratives means believing that certain correlations (between facts) are more relevant than others, our choice and rejection of narratives might be driven by wider ideologies or belief systems. If this is correct, then the dismissal of Hessen’s insights might not be owing to the dismissal of his scholarship but rather to the supposed Marxism. So the question is: are the cold-war convictions still alive, driving the choice of narratives? Or is the renewed interest in Marxism already a reason for a renewed interest in Hessen’s work? In any case, in the history of interpreting Newtonian naturalism Akeel Bilgrami’s paper is striking, because it bears witness to this reception without directly acknowledging it.*** Might this be because there are new reasons for being interested in the (history of the) relation between scientific naturalism and capitalism?

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* It’s important to note that Bilgrami uses the term naturalism in a resticted sense: “I am using the term “naturalism” in a rather restricted way, limiting the term to a scientistic form of the philosophical position. So, the naturalism of Wittgenstein or John McDowell or even P. F. Strawson falls outside of this usage. In fact all three of these philosophers are explicitly opposed to naturalism in the sense that I am using the term. Perhaps “scientism” would be the better word for the philosophical position that is the center of the dispute I want to discuss.” – This problematically restricted use of naturalism is probably owing to Margaret Jacob’s distinction between a “moderate” and “radical enlightenment”. The former movement is associated with writers like Newton and Boyle; the latter with the pantheist “dissenters” for whom nature is inseprable from the divine.

** I am very grateful to Sean Winkler, who not only edited the special issue on Hessen but kindly sent me a number of passages from his writings. I’m also grateful to all the kind people who patiently discussed some questions on Facebook (here with regard to Bilgrami; here with regard to Hessen).

*** The lines of reception are of course much more complex and, in Bilgrami’s case, perhaps more indirect than I have suggested. Bilgrami explicitly references Weber’s recourse to “disentchantment” and also acknowledges the importance of Marx for his view. Given these references, Bilgrami’s personal reception might be owing more to Weber than Hessen. That said, Merton (following Weber) clearly acknowledges his debt to Hessen. A further (unacknowledged but possible) source for this thesis is Edgar Zilsel. For more details on the intricate pathways of reception see Gerardo Ienna’s and Giulia Rispoli’s paper in the special issue referenced above.

Clarity as a political concept

“With which of the characters do you identify?” For God’s sake, with whom does the author identify? With the adverbs, obviously. Umberto Eco, Postscript to “The Name of the Rose”

Philosophers, especially those working in the analytic tradition, clearly pride themselves on clarity. In such contexts, “clarity” is often paired with “rigour” or “precision”. If you present your work amongst professional philosophers, it will not only be assessed on whether it’s original or competently argued, but also on whether it is written or presented clearly. But while it is sometimes helpful to wonder whether something can be said or presented differently, the notion of clarity as used by philosophers has a somewhat haunting nimbus. Of course, clarification can be a worthy philosophical project in itself. And it is highly laudable if authors define their terms, use terms consistently, and generally attempt to make their work readable and accessible. But often wishing to achieve clarity makes people fret with their work forever, as if (near) perfection could be reached eventually. In what follows, I’d like to suggest that there is no such thing as clarity, at least not in an objective sense. You can objectively state how many words a sentence contains, but not whether it’s clear. Rather, it is a political term, often used to police the boundaries of what some people consider canonical.

The notion of clarity thrives on a contentious distinction between content and form or style of writing. According to a fairly widespread view, content and form can come apart in that the same content can be expressed in different ways. You can say that (1) Peter eats a piece of cake and that (2) a piece of cake gets eaten by Peter. Arguably, the active and passive voices express the same content. Now my word processor regularly suggests that I change passive to active voice. The background assumption seems to be that the active voice is clearer in that it is easier to parse. (The same often goes for negations.) If we use this assumption to justify changes to or criticisms of a text, it is problematic for two reasons:

Firstly, we have to assume that one formulation really is clearer in the sense of being easier to parse or understand. Is the active voice really clearer? This will depend on what is supposed to be emphasized. Perhaps I want to emphasize “cake” rather than “Peter”. In this case, the passive voice might be the construction of choice. Although I’m not up to date in cognitive linguistics, I’d guess that semantic and pragmatic features figure greatly in this question. My hunch is that, in this sense, clarity depends on conformity with expectations of the recipients.*

Secondly, we have to assume the identity of content across different formulations. But how do you tell whether the content of two expressions is the same? Leaving worries about analyticity aside, the Peter-Cake example seems fairly easy. But how on earth are we going to tell whether Ryle presented a clearer version of what Wittgenstein or even Heidegger talked about in some of their works?! In any case, an identity claim will amount to stipulation and thus be open to criticism and revision. Again, the question whether the stipulation goes through will depend on whether it conforms to the expectations of the recipients.**

If clarity depends on the conformity with expectations, then the question is: whose expectations matter? If you write a paper for a course, you’ll have an answer to that question. If you write a paper for a journal, you’ll probably look at work that got published there. In this sense, clarity is an inherently political notion.*** Unless you conform to certain stylistic expectations, your work will be called unclear. On a brighter note, if you’re unhappy with some of the current stylistic fashions, it is helpful to bear in mind that all styles are subject to historical change.

The upshot is that stylistic moves are to be seen as political choices. That said, the fact that clarity is a political notion does not discredit it. But the idea that style is just a matter of placing ornaments on a given content is yet another way of falling prey to the notorious myth of the given, often invoked to obscure the normative dimensions.

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* On FB, Eric Schliesser raises the objection that “conformity to expectations” is a problematic qualification in that some position might be stated clearly but lead to entirely novel insights. – I agree and would reply that conformity to expectations does not rule out surprises or novelty. Still, I would argue that the novelties ought to be presented in a manner acceptable by a certain community. – Clearly, clarity cannot merely equal “conformity to expectations”, since in this case it would be at once too permissive (in that it would include grammatically acceptable formulations whose content might remain unclear) and too narrow (in that it would exclude novelty).

** Eric Schliesser makes this point succinctly with regard to ‘formal philosophy’ when saying that “it can be easily seen that if the only species of clarity that is permitted is the clarity that is a property of formal systems, then emphasizing clarity simply becomes a means to purge alternative forms of philosophy.”

*** This is convincingly argued at length over at the Vim Blog. Go and read the whole piece! Here is an excerpt: “[The concept of clarity] creates, enforces, and perpetuates community boundaries and certain power relations within a community. … [T]here is no pragmatic distinction between the descriptive and evaluative senses of clarity. Not only is an ascription of clarity a claim about quality, but it is seemingly a claim that references objective features of the bit of philosophy. So far we have been attempting to analyze the concept of clarity by first drawing out the descriptive senses and standards—i.e. by understanding the evaluative in light of the descriptive. The better approach is the opposite. What does the word do? I propose focusing first on the impact that the word has in discourse. The assumption that clarity begins with descriptive features leads to an array of problems partly because such an approach “runs right over the knower.” Instead, first, certain bits of philosophy are called clear or unclear as a feature and consequence of the power relations of the group and world more broadly. And then second, what gets called clear or unclear becomes subject to philosophical analysis.

… There is a powerful rhetorical consequence. The ascription of clarity marks those who would stop and question it as outsiders. Those in lower positions of power will not dare to question what has been laid down as clear. It is always possible that the clarity of a putatively clear bit of philosophy can indeed be justified from shared evidence. In that case, the person who dared to speak up is revealed as someone who does not grasp the shared evidence or has not reasoned through the justification, unlike everyone who let the bit of philosophy go unchallenged. They appear unintelligent and uninformed and, in effect, deserving of their lower position of power. So, insofar as power is desirable, there is an inclination to let claims to clarity go unchallenged, thereby signaling understanding through silent consent. The immediate impulse is to assume that one is behind or uninformed.”

Why is early modern philosophy such a great success? A response to Christia Mercer

In 2008, when I was about to hand in the 580 pages of my professorial dissertation (Habilitation) on Locke’s philosophy of language, Robert Brandom came to visit Berlin for a workshop on his views on the history of philosophy. A paper (by Markus Wild) that I was particularly excited about portrayed Hume as an inferentialist, and thus countered Brandom’s more traditional reading of Hume. In the heated discussion that followed, Brandom dropped what was for me nothing short of a bomb. Faced with refined exegetical evidence, he ultimately ended the conversation by saying something like “I don’t care about these texts. My Hume is an atomist.” (I’m quoting from memory) – I was shocked, not just because of the dismissive attitude towards the efforts of the speaker; rather Brandom seemed to have dismissed an entire methodological approach that unifies a great number of scholars. This approach could be described as a nuanced combination of rational reconstruction and contextualism. Adherents of this fairly widespread way of doing history care about both historical details and the plausibility of the arguments. By dismissing any interest in historical accuracy, Brandom had just committed my 580 pages to the bin. Or so I felt.

According to an intriguing paper by Christia Mercer, Brandom’s attitude is now itself a thing of the past. The attitude in question is “rational reconstructionism”, endorsed by people who mine history for interesting arguments without caring whether the reconstructions of the arguments would be approved by the original authors.* Mercer claims that, at least among English-speaking early modernists, rational reconstructionism has been replaced by contextualism. In the light of this methodological victory, contextualism seems to have been an “obvious success” both with regard to scholarly achievements and in putting the history of early modern philosophy on the map. If my anecdata are a good indication of reality, then early modern philosophy is a lot more well off than, say, medieval philosophy: there seem to be a lot more jobs, editions, and translations coming up and out these days. If Mercer is right, then this success is owing to contextulalism, too. Mercer’s paper is a crisp reconstruction of the methodological debate, and I advise you to read it along with the astute responses by Eric Schliesser and Charlie Huenemann. In what follows, I would like to focus just on one single question: Why is early modern philosophy such a success? Is it really owing to contextualism? My hunch is that the opposite might be true: If any methodological approach is involved in its institutional success, it’s rational reconstructionism.

Why do I think so? Christia Mercer claims that rational reconstructionists and contextualists started out as opposed camps, but ended all up as contextualists for the reason that even rational reconstructionists started caring about historical accuracy. In other words, the early Jonathan Bennett is a rational reconstructionist but the later Bennett is a contextualist insofar as he cares about historical accuracy. While this might be true, I worry that Mercer’s portrait of the disagreement is flawed in one respect. Mercer reconstructs the disagreement between rational recostructionists and contextualists as a debate among historians of philosophy. As I see it, the debate is at least initially one between philosophers and historians of philosophy. Arguably, authors like Brandom and Bennett started their careers as philosophers and used history somewhat instrumentally. In fact, there is an ongiong debate as to what extent history is even part of philosophy.** Now, whatever you think about this debate, the simple fact remains that that there are more philosophers and jobs for philosophers than for historians of philosophy. Thus, I am inclined to believe that the success of early modern philosophy is owing to philosophers being interested in early modern authors. Some famous philosophers advertise their historical heroes and, before you know it, scholarship follows suit. Spinoza is now “relevant”, because a number of famous philosophers find him interesting, not because someone discovers an unknown manuscript of the Ethica in an archive.***

A related worry about Mercer’s reconstruction is that she starts out by treating rational reconstructionism and contextualism as extreme positions. While some proponents of the respective methods might be somewhat radical, most historians of philosophy seem to be working somewhere in the middle of the road where, as I said earler, both context and plausibility of arguments matter. Inside and outside early modern studies, these positions have been related to one another for decennia. Perhaps such studies have not always been published in places as prestigious as JHP, but they have informed scholarship for a long time. So again, what might seem as revolution rather strikes me as a continuation, where research and teaching agendas get increasingly refined once people are prepared to dedicate some money and journal-space to historical scholarship.

While I couldn’t agree more with the methodological pluralism that Mercer advocates, I fear its success is not a result of contextualism. Mercer rightly praises the growing number of works on non-canonical authors, translations and editorial work alongside the common interpretative efforts. But in a revolution I will only begin to believe once philosophy departments start hiring people whose area of specialisation is in translating or editing historical texts of non-canonical figures.

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* Following Rorty’s famous categorisation, I’d think of Brandom as being invested in Geistesgeschichte rather than mere rational reconstruction.

** See for instance the papers in Philosophy and the Historical Perspective, ed. by Marcel van Ackeren with Lee Klein, OUP 2018.

*** Addendum (5 August): In a similar vein, Jessica Gordon-Roth’s and Nancy Kendrick’s paper on “Recovering early modern women writers” exposes an important problem for the rejection of rational reconstructionism, as advanced by Christia Mercer. In some contexts, such a rejection might nourish the suspicion that there is nothing rational to be reconstructed. They write: “What is impeding our progress in eradicating the myth that there are no women in the history of philosophy? […] What we argue is that so often we treat early modern women philosophers’ texts in ways that are different from, or inconsistent with, basic commitments of analytic philosophy and our practices as historians of philosophy working in the analytic tradition. Moreover, this is the case even when we consider the practices of those who take a more historiographical approach. In so doing, we may be triggering our audiences to reject these women as philosophers, and their texts as philosophical. Moreover, this is the case despite our intention to achieve precisely the opposite effect.”

Let’s get rid of “medieval” philosophy!

“Your views are medieval.” Let’s face it: we often use the term “medieval” in a pejorative sense; and calling a line of thought “medieval” might be a good way of chasing away students who would otherwise have been interested in that line of thought. In what follows, I’d like to suggest that, in order to keep what we call medieval philosophy, we should stop talking about “medieval” philosophy altogether.

While no way of slicing up periods is arbitrary, they all come with problems, as this blog post by Laura Sangha makes clear. So I don’t think that there ever will be a coherently or neatly justified periodisation of history, let alone of history of philosophy. But while other names of periods are equally problematic, none of them is as degrading. Outside academia, the term “medieval” is mainly used to describe exceptionally cruel actions or backward policies.  Often named “dark ages”, the years from, roughly, 500 to 1500 count as a period of religious indoctrination. This usage also shapes the perception in academic philosophy. Arguably, medieval philosophical thought is still seen as subordinate to theology. Historical surveys of philosophy often jump from ancient to early modern, and even specialists in history often make it sound as if the sole philosopher that existed in these thousand years had been Thomas Aquinas. This deplorable status has real-life consequences. Exceptions aside, there are very few jobs in medieval philosophy and a decreasing number of students interested in studying it.

You will rightly object that the problems described are not only owing to the name “medieval” and its cognates. I agree. First of all, the field of history of philosophy has not exactly been pampered in recent decades. Often people working on contemporary issues are asked to do a bit of history on the side or the study programmes are catered for in other fields of humanities (history, theology, languages). Secondly and perhaps more importantly, the dominant research traditions in medieval philosophy often continue to represent the field in an esoteric manner. As a student, the first thing you are likely to hear is that it is almost impossible to study medieval thought unless you read Latin (at least!), learn to read illegible manuscripts, understand outlandish theological questions (angels on a pinhead, anyone?), and know Aristotle by heart. Thirdly, most historical narratives depict medieval thought as a backward counterpoint to what is taken to be the later rise of science, enlightenment and secularisation. While the first of these three problems is beyond the control of medievalists alone, the second and third issue are to some degree in our own hands.

Therefore, we can and should present our field as more accessible. A great part of this will consist in strengthening continuities with other periods. Thus, medieval philosophy should always be seen as continuous with what is called ancient or modern or even contemporary thought. This way, we can rid ourselves not only of this embarrassment of a name (“Middle Ages”) but also of trying to indicate what is typically medieval. I’m inclined to think that, whenever we find something “typical” for that period, it will be also typical of other periods. In other words, there is nothing specifically medieval in medieval philosophy.

While there are already a number of laudable attempts to renew approaches in teaching (see e.g. Robert Pasnau’s survey of surveys), my worry is that the more esoteric strands in our field, both in terms of method and content, will be insinuated whenever we talk about “medieval” philosophy. The term “medieval” is a sticky one and won’t go away, but in combination with “philosophy” it will continue to sound like an oxymoron. What shall we say instead, though? I’d suggest that we talk about what we really do: most of us study a handful of themes or topics in certain periods of time. So why not say that you study the eleventh and twelfth centuries (in the Latin West or wherever) or the history of thought from the thirteenth to the sixteenth century? If a more philosophical specification is needed you might say that you study the history of, say, psychology, especially from the thirteenth to the seventeenth century. If you believe in the progress narrative, you might even use “pre-modern”. Or why not “post-ancient”?

By the way, if you are what is called a medievalist and you work on a certain topic, most of your work will be continuous with ancient or (early) modern philosophy. If there are jobs advertised in these areas, it’s not unlikely that they will be in your field. That might become more obvious if you call yourself a specialist in, say, the history of metaphysics from 400 to 500 AD or the history of ethics from 1300 to 1800. If this is the case, it would not seem illegitimate to apply for positions in such areas, too. – “Oh”, you might say, “won’t these periods sound outrageously long?” Then just remind people that the medieval period comprises at least a thousand years.

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PS. I started this blog on 26 July 2018. So the blog is now over a year old. Let me take the opportunity to thank you all for reading, writing, and thinking along.

On mentoring. A response to Katarina Mihaljević

Professional philosophy has a reputation for protecting harassers in their midst. Although John Searle’s assaults are said to have been known since 2004, it was only this year that he has finally been sanctioned, a bit. Fostering such perpetrators not only speaks of an enormous sexism in the institutions in question, it also affects the normal or desirable relations between faculty members and students. Thus, it is not surprising that many public discussions about “the profession” revolve around the problematic aspects such as the effects of power imbalance. So much so that one might almost forget that faculty-student relations are not only poisonous but might even provide some remedies, also against the problematic culture in our discipline. Katarina Mihaljević argues that mentorship is crucial in education and even in combatting sexism. At the same time she points out that the precise nature of mentorship remains unclear: often neither students nor faculty members seem to have a clear idea of what to expect. In what follows, I would like to reflect on mentorship and its elusive nature.

During my years as a graduate student, mentorship wasn’t part of the educational programme. I just asked two of my professors for guidance and was very lucky in that they responded in an encouraging manner and supported me greatly and continuously. In my faculty at Groningen, mentoring forms a clear part of the graduate education. But that does of course not determine the nature of mentoring. According to one of many definitions, mentoring is a “process for the informal transmission of knowledge, social capital, and the psychosocial support perceived by the recipient as relevant to work, career, or professional development …” While at least some of us are trained to impart knowledge, it’s harder to get clear on what it means to transmit social capital and to lend support. A “code of conduct”, as Katarina envisions it, might provide a framework, but it can’t get to the heart of the matter, simply because questions of social capital and support are highly personal. In this sense, it is no surprise that the “rights and duties” remain and perhaps even have to remain vague. Nevertheless, there are a few elements that form a recurrent part of the conversations I have with students. In what follows, I’d like to list those that I find crucial:

  • Contextualising (content): No matter whether I am formally determined to be someone’s mentor or just happen to discuss a paper, I often begin by trying to figure out what the goals of students are. Why, for instance, does she want to write a certain paper? Is it related to a continuous set of interests or just falling out of the actual course work? Answers to this question help me understanding the philosophical drive of the student and, in turn, enable me to show a particular research question in its relation to wider issues inside and outside philosophy. My hope is that a particular piece of work makes sense to the student in a wider scope.
  • Contextualising (career): Where do you want to go with this piece of work? That is often my next question. Sometimes I receive an incredulous stare, but the point is to relate the actual work to wider life goals. Does someone see themselves as an academic or outside the university? And what difference might the work on a particular topic make? Sometimes people burn for a topic; others might wish to foster certain skills or just challenge themselves. – The idea is not to tailor the essay accordingly, but rather to get a sense of what matters to the student and whether I can say anything helpful at this point. If this goes well, the best outcome is some sort of confident projection of the student’s goals into the future. Ideally, the student seriously begins to see herself in a certain professional context or environment.
  • Understanding uncertainties: Obviously, this projection is not an attempt to fix the future. It’s about seeing obstacles and paths around them. To make this work, I try to connect to my own experiences as a student. This not in order to end up saying something like “do it my way”, but in order to understand: How would I have felt with such goals? How would I have felt about telling them to my supervisor? It helps me seeing the courage and worries involved in this projection. In some moments, I can then honestly say “oh, that would have worried me”, or “I would have loved to do something like that” or “faced with this, I wanted to do x, but never dared to.” Let’s face it: most worries are about performing well and how to get there. But in the background there is a larger story about belonging to a community. The crucial point, for me at least, is not to come up with recipes but to remind myself and others that it is part of the game to have worries or uncertainties. Mirroring that this is normal might help, and also put things into a balanced picture in line with other parts of life.
  • Advising: The forgoing items are mainly elements that figure in listening, “active listening”, still involving some talking on my part. Where does the advice come in? Ideally, students give themselves much advice while responding to questions. Most things suggest themselves when people unpack their ideas. One can steer this by asking things like “Have you asked yourself this?”, “Have you heard about that [book, conference, person]?”, “If you do x, you might run into the following problem.” – The idea is to encourage students to articulate their ideas in the strongest possible ways, to make them see objections, and show them the context in which they can be placed. This has a scholarly and a social dimension. Over and above the discussion of ideas, I find it crucial to impart an understanding of the network of people and institutions involved. Ideally, students feel encouraged to approach people whose ideas they find interesting, be it during talks, at conferences, summer schools or via mail. If students begin see themselves as a real part of the conversation I have reached one of the crucial goals in mentoring.
  • Limits: What I find equally crucial is to point out the limits of this process. Ultimately, I can’t do or help much. I cannot make promises that go far beyond the words spoken in such meetings. Of course, one can and should act on students’ behalf, be it putting them in touch with colleagues or relevant authorities, write a reference or help settle administrative processes. But that’s about it.

All of these steps are fairly elusive because they depend on the personalities of the people involved. This means that the crucial outcomes (or limits) of mentoring ultimately depend on the mutual trust that people have. That’s why students should feel free to turn away from a given mentor and turn to someone else if they wish. Personally, I always found it helpful to talk regularly to two people: one person who is more involved in the topics I care about; another person who might be more efficient when it comes to settling formal or even career-related issues.

Countering sexism, then, as Katarina envisions it, is ultimately an issue of fostering trust, confidence, and empowering ways of dealing with uncertainties. It should go without saying that this can only flourish in a climate in which perpetrators of any kind do not enjoy any protection. That is true of individual people and institutions as well as the wider discipline. But there is also a lot of sexism below the threshold of harassment. While good mentoring might be part of a remedy against this, mentoring is always related to a certain status quo. If mentoring is a form of guidance for going along with that status quo, it would involve strategies of coping with forms of sexism. It is here that I see the limits of mere mentoring. Countering sexism cannot mean gaslighting people into living with it.

How is the Western philosophical canon sexist?*

My daughter Hannah clearly begins to realise that she is a female person. Half a year ago she turned two, and by now she has been pointing out that certain people are men and women for quite a while. At the moment she is using these concepts quite playfully: so while she might at one time say that she is a “girl” (certainly not a baby!), at other times she’ll also claim that she is a “good boy”. I don’t know what goes into the mastery of these concepts, but a fresh look at some canonical philosophers like Aristotle, Albert the Great and Hegel made me worry. So far, I mostly tended to think of condescending remarks about women as inconsistencies or aberrations that might be ‘typical of the time or context’. But what if they are not mere inconsistencies? What if they are part and parcel of their philosophical theories?

As is well known, Aristotle conceived of women as defective males. Calling something defective, has normative and teleological implications. Accordingly, the generation of women is not seen as the best or intended outcome. In other words, it seems that if natural processes always were to run perfectly, there wouldn’t be any women. This idea plays out in number of ways, but the upshot is that women count as performing less well in everything that matters in our lives. Moreover, these defects are related to metaphysical notions. Women are seen as connected to the material, while only men are truly capable to indulge in the life of the mind. If you know a little bit about Western philosophy, you’ll probably know that the mind or intellect is pervasively construed as superior to the material. Now if your theory also tells you that women are more bound to the material (and to things related to matter, such as emotion etc) than the intellectual, your theory implies that women are inferior to men. In this context, the idea of women as defective males might sound straightforward. But is sexism restricted to such contexts? I doubt it. As Christia Mercer puts it in an intriguing article: “It is almost impossible to exaggerate the influence these ancient ideas had on the history of Western thought.”

Not surprisingly, then, there was and is a lively debate among feminist historians of philosophy as to whether the Aristotelian notions of matter and form are inherently related to the notions of female and male respectively.  Thus, the question is whether the concepts of matter and form depend on the concepts of being female and male. If yes, Aristotelian hylomorphism would be inherently or intrinsically sexist. And what if not? Would Aristotle’s philosophy be absolved? – While this question seems important, I think it is too strongly put and might distract us from the issue at hand. The notion of an inherent relation strikes me as a red herring. As I see it, the relation between materiality and being female cannot be shown to be an inherent one, unless you have a very special metaphysical theory. But that doesn’t mean that the concepts are not intimately related in the actual historical theories. In other words, Aristotelian metaphysics is still sexist through and through, even if matter is not identified as inherently female.

As I said in the beginning, it might be tempting to just push the sexism aside as an inconsistent aberration. Corrected by contemporary insights, you might say that Aristotelian philosophy is great as long as you ignore some factual errors about women. Yet, I doubt we can separate the sexism that easily from Aristotelianism or other philosophies. I began to realise this when considering Albert the Great’s defense of the Aristotelian view of women. Albert the Great and other Aristotelian thinkers clearly defend the idea of women as defective males. What is striking is that they continue to maintain the idea even in the light of fairly obvious objections. One such objection is this: If women are defective males, then every women born is to be seen as going against the perfection of natural processes. If this is correct, then why are there so many women in the first place? As Evelina Miteva pointed out in a recent paper (at the IMC 2019), Albert explains the abundance of women by claiming that the generation of nobler and more complex beings (= men) requires the concurrence of many external conditions. In other words, the more perfect the intended product, the more can go wrong in the production. And since natural processes are often obstructed by a lack of required conditions, we can explain that so many women are born, even if their generation goes against natural design. Put simply, the reason that there are so many women is that so many things go wrong. If this is correct, then one might say that Albert is adamant to maintain the sexist ideas in Aristotle’s philosophy and show why they are consistent. Put more drastically, Aristotelianism can be defended by rendering women as subhuman.

While Albert the Great’s defence of Aristotelianism is clearly sexist, not everyone who endorses Aristotle can be justly taken as explicitly endorsing sexist beliefs. But sexism has not to be explicitly endorsed in order to gain ground. This is what makes sexism and other ideologies structural. Given the prominence of Aristotle, the sexist ideology might be sufficiently served already by not renouncing the doctrine of the defective male. The point is this: A canonical doctrine retains its sexist impact as long as the sexist elements are not explicitly excluded. Arguably, this kind of implicit sexism might be said to be even more pervasive. Basically, it resides in the conjunction of two claims: (1) that the intellect is more dignified than the material and (2) that women are more tied to the material (or emotional etc.) than to the intellectual realm. I honestly wonder when these claims have been explicitly challenged or renounced for the first time.

If it is true that these claims largely went unchallenged, then much of the history of Western philosophy coincides with a history of sexism. Arguably, this does not mean that all Western philosophers are sexists. Firstly, the positions of the philosophers I alluded to (and others) can be said to be much more subtle, and not reducible to the claims I ascribed to them. Secondly, some philosophers, when pressed, might expressly have rejected or do reject sexist beliefs. What can we say in the light of these facts? The point is perhaps not so much that all these philosophers endorse sexist beliefs. The point is rather that they continue to endorse ideas that come out of sexist convictions. As Crispin Sartwell recently claimed, the history of Western philosophy might even be seen as justifying white supremacy. While I am quite hesitant about a number of Sartwell’s historical claims, I still think his piece suggests an important lesson.** If one accepts the general line of argument in his piece, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the philosophers in question are all white supremacists. It just means that they build on ideas that might have served and can continue to serve as a pertinent justification. But even if they aren’t supremacists, this doesn’t mean that the justifying function of their ideas can be cast aside as a mere inconsistency (at least not without scrutiny).

Analogously, one might argue that not all Western philosophers are sexist. But this doesn’t mean that our canon is off the hook by declaring that the sexist parts can simply be cancelled out. Certain ideas continue to justify sexist assumptions, even if no one expressly were to endorse sexist ideas. Once you notice how authors such as Albert twist and turn the ideas to justify the sexism of Aristotle, you can’t unsee the connections that hold these ideas together. If we don’t expose and disown these connections, we continue to carry these assumptions along as canonical. Saying that they are merely inconsistent outliers (that can be ignored while the rest of the theory might be retained) just seems to ingrain them more deeply. – Why? – Because then the justifying connections between sexist and other claims remain unchallenged and continue to pervade our canon.

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* Earlier, the post was called “Is the Western philosophical canon sexist?” Désirée Weber convinced me to change the title to its current form.

** Addendum: Speaking as a historian of philosophy, I find Sartwell’s piece wanting. Why do I find it interesting? I think it makes (but partly also exemplifies) crucial points about the use and abuse of ideas, and more generally I’m wondering whether there are limits to what we can do with an idea. — Currently, much of the so-called Enlightenment ideas are used on a newly populated battlefield: On the one hand, there are whig ‘historians’ like S. Pinker who argue that the Enlightenment is all about progress. On the other hand, there is someone like Sartwell making the contrary claim. – Professional historians like to discard both appropriations, for good reasons. But the appropriations won’t go away. On the contrary, they are very powerful.  –– Moreover, I also think we should be careful when assessing a piece of “public philosophy” by means of regular academic standards. Sartwell explicitly acknowledges the limits and polemical nature of his piece.

 

Custom or climate? Trying to contextualise Hume’s account of group mentality

What is it that determines humans in their opinions and emotions? Hume distinguishes between two kinds of causes: (1) physical causes such as the air and climate; (2) moral causes such as custom and education. In his essay On National Characters (1748), Hume clearly opts for the latter:

“If we run over the globe, or revolve the annals of history, we shall discover every where signs of a sympathy or contagion of manners, none of the influence of air or climate.”

What is so special about Hume’s answer? – In my book on Socialising Minds, the first draft of which I am currently revising, I argue that Hume’s rejection of physical causes as determinants of human mentalities is owing to Hume’s intersubjective understanding of the mind. Much of what we think and feel depends on other surrounding minds and not simply on a shared physical environment. However, in trying to come to grips with Hume’s account I noticed that his reply should be read as part of an intricate debate about the causes of the mentality of groups. In what follows, I’d like to raise a few questions about the intriguing context of the debate that I think Hume is participating in.

How, then, should we contextualise what Hume is saying? – As might seem obvious, Hume distinguishes two positions in line either with physical or moral causes. Readers of his Treatise will recognise his opting for sympathy and thus moral causes as an endorsement of his theory of sympathy. But what is he rejecting? As I already noted earlier, he rejects the so-called climate theory. The climate theory explains the character of people by reference to the climate and physical conditions of a certain region. Deriving from Hippocratic origins, this theory was used to explain racial and national differences with regard to politics in ancient, medieval and early modern times. In the middle ages, the climate theory was increasingly linked to the Galenic theory of humoral complexion. Thus, the physical causes that are supposed to shape our characters or temperaments can be married with hereditary lines of explanation. Thus, northern Europeans and women counted as phlegmatic, jews and heretics counted as melancholic.

Now why does Hume reject this theory? On the face of it, Hume’s choice of explanation seems to run counter to his distinction between naturally superior and inferior races (see Eric Schliesser’s pertinent post). I can’t go into this now, but the climate theory seems to have way more resources for racist distinctions than an account based on education and sympathy.

Now whose version of climate theory is Hume rejecting? An immediate contemporary target might even have been Montesquieu who had tried to explain almost all social aspects through climate in his L’Esprit des lois, which came out in 1748, thus in the same year as Hume’s essay. However, Hume seems to appeal to a much earlier discussion for his rejection. Referring to Strabo’s Geographica (23 AD), Hume writes:

“Strabo, lib. ii. Rejects, in a great measure, the influence of climates upon men. All is custom and education, says he. It is not from nature, that the Athenians are learned, the Lacedemonians ignorant, and the Thebans too, who are still nearer neighbours to the former. Even the difference of animals, he adds, depends not on climate.”

Hume clearly sides with Strabo in declaring that custom and education are the crucial factors shaping our mentalities. In fact, one might say that Hume, paraphrasing Strabo, sums up his own philosophy in a nutshell. Strabo is quoted about 25 times and forms an important source for many of Hume’s historical considerations. What Hume’s Treatise brought to the table is a refined understanding of the transmission of custom through the mechanism of sympathy. But it is interesting to see that the perhaps central elements that, according to Hume, shape our whole mental lives, i.e. custom and education, are introduced in opposition to the climate theory.

What this leads me to is not an answer but a bunch of questions: What were Hume’s reasons for rejecting the climate theory, while contemporaries still embraced it? What version of the theory did he have in mind? And why did he, unlike Montesquieu, see it in opposition to custom? – At least the first of these questions might be answered with reference to Hume’s observation that people can display mentalities in stark contrast to what the climate and other physical conditions would have us predict. In his History, Hume writes:

“Even at the end of the sixteenth century, when every christian nation was cultivating with ardour every civil art of life, that island, lying in a temperate climate, enjoying a fertile soil, accessible in its situation, possessed of innumerable harbours, was still, notwithstanding these advantages, inhabited by a people, whose customs and manners approached nearer those of savages than of barbarians.”