I’m going to start a new occasional series here at Footnotes to Plato: a book club. I read books all the time, of course, though lately a heck of a lot of them have to do with Stoicism and ancient philosophy. Some are more worthy than others to share, and from time to time I have written individual commentaries on interesting books or even single chapters. But this new series, identified by the corresponding category on the blog, will actually present multi-part commentaries on a whole book, either chapter by chapter, or at the least on clusters of interesting chapters. My choice for the first series is Paul Feyerabend’s Philosophy of Nature.
As readers know, I’ve been more sympathetic than I used to be toward the enfant terrible of ’60s and ’70s philosophy of science, but rest assured, there is no danger of me embarking on an apologetic tour de force here. It’s just that I find some of Feyerabend’s ideas challenging and worth revisiting, if certainly not above criticism. I chose Philosophy of Nature because it is a rather odd entry in the canon. Feyerabend worked on it, on and off, for decades, and it was never published during his lifetime. Indeed, the manuscript had apparently been lost, until it was found serendipitously a few years ago, as explained by the editors of the volume, Helmut Heit and Eric Oberheim.
The basic idea of the book is to trace the conceptual history of human understanding of the world from prehistoric time to the nuclear age. (It was originally to be comprised of three volumes, but the published version is made up of six chapters). Heit and Oberheim’s lengthy introduction is well worth the reading, but I will plunge straight into what Feyerabend himself has to say, beginning with an excerpt from the “Preliminary Note” to the reader:
“This essay is an ‘introduction’ [the original title was Introduction to Philosophy of Nature] in the sense of guiding us historically toward our contemporary situation. The three forms of life that will be discussed — myth, philosophy, and science — cannot be strictly distinguished from one another … in science, myth, and philosophy we have three different ways of comprehending the world, which are complete in that they include both objectives and methods to achieve these objectives as well as criteria to determine success and failure.”
He then begins the first chapter, entitled “Presuppositions of myths, and the knowledge of their inventors.” It basically is a demonstration, case after case, of just how difficult it is for modern science to really understand ancient cultures, as well as — conversely — how easy it is to underestimate the intellectual level of the “savages” that made up those cultures.
“The assumption that humans of the Stone or Bronze Age could have had only the most primitive knowledge of nature may be flattering to our progressivist self-image. But it has little plausibility, since Stone Age humans were already fully developed members of the species Homo sapiens.”
Feyerabend backs up this sort of claim by, for instance, engaging in an in-depth analysis (complete with detailed drawings) of the sophistication of astronomical knowledge by the people who built Stonehenge, as well as of Polynesian seafarers.
He also tackles art, as a fundamental component of the mythological “form of life”: “The opposition between primitive peoples and civilized peoples is to a large extent due to an overestimation of written language. … We know that unrivaled pieces of art such as the Iliad and the Odyssey were composed and passed down by preliterate performers.”
Concerning Polynesian seafarers, then, Feyerabend points out that many of the clues and methods (transmitted, of course, orally) they use to navigate with precision are rather difficult to access for modern science, because they are based on a combination of qualitative judgments and instinctively picked up patterns of regularity in things like halos, star colors and brightness, cloud colors, and even the curvature of the Milky Way (which changes with the seasons). There is nothing mystical here, of course, just a lot of practical knowledge that doesn’t fit well with the methods and conceptual schemes of modern astronomy and meteorology. But this, Feyerabend insists, is no reason to discount the ancient knowledge as “primitive” and unsophisticated.
About Stonehenge he writes: “Stonehenge in England is an impressive example. Three different waves of peoples worked on this monument between the years 1900 and 1600 BC … people of different cultures and different races recognized the astronomical significance of the monument and improved it by building new additions — a first indicator that there was an international astronomy in Europe during the late Stone Age the elements of which were known beyond tribal borders. … The building material was hauled over great distances; the dolerite boulders over 390 kilometers on water and on land, the larger sandstone boulders over roughly 32 kilometers. … the circle’s boulders are all placed at the same distance with a maximum error range of 10 centimeters. … So that moonrise, moonset, sunrise, and sunset can be observed in midwinter and midsummer with an average error margin of (vertically) only 1.2 degrees.”
And yet, modern archeologists have been slow to accept just how marvelous something like Stonehenge is, precisely because it took them a long time to shed (even just partially) the preconception that “primitive” people couldn’t possibly have done something like that.
Feyerabend mocks a lot of modern, simplistic, interpretations of ancient art and artifacts, stemming from the assumption of primitivism: “Images of animals have a ‘magical’ meaning and are elements of ‘hunter magic.’ Depictions of pregnant animals or women play a part in ‘fertility rituals.’ Oblong or roundish objects that cannot be further specified have a ‘sexual meaning’; mixed images such as horses with bear paws are ‘naturally’ religious and so forth. … How wrong this assumption [of primitivism] is becomes clear when we apply it to the archaic Greek tribes on the counterfactual premise that all oral traditions — including the Iliad and the Odyssey — have been lost.”
Feyerabend’s counter to the primitivism assumption is that we should instead assume that Stone Age people had our same brains, were just as intelligent as we are, and — importantly — just as curious and creative. They simply developed a very different (yet highly functional) understanding of the world, together with a number of conceptual and practical tools to navigate it.
Archeology isn’t the only discipline to bear the brunt of Feyerabend’s criticism in the first chapter of this book. Here is what he has to say about Freudian psychoanalysis, within the context of what he sees as misguided generalizations about human nature and a consequent dismissal by Freudians and Jungians of “primitive” cultures: “Ignorance very frequently hides behind academic jargon. This goes especially for psychoanalysis, which is a blessing for all those thinkers who love to lecture about ‘human nature’ without having to make the effort of a detailed study.”
The bottom line of the first chapter of Philosophy of Nature may perhaps be summarized by this quote (emphasis in the original): “The insight that ‘primitives’ of the present and the early past (Stone Age) had considerable expert knowledge, that they were able to formulate this knowledge theoretically and to utilize it practically, forces us to pay the fruits of their thinking more respect than has been done up to now.”
Next time: The structure and function of myth.