Book Club: Philosophy of Nature, ch. 1

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.


49 thoughts on “Book Club: Philosophy of Nature, ch. 1

  1. I have been reading a book about myth as a transmitter of information:
    When They Severed Earth from Sky: How the Hum…
    by Elizabeth Wayland Barber, Paul T. Barber
    “shows that myths originally transmitted real information about real events and observations, preserving the information sometimes for millennia within nonliterate societies. Geologists’ interpretations of how a volcanic cataclysm long ago created Oregon’s Crater Lake, for example, is echoed point for point in the local myth of its origin. The Klamath tribe saw it happen and passed down the story – for nearly 8,000 years. . . . Myth is in fact a quite reasonable way to convey important messages orally over many generations – although reasoning back to the original events is possible only under rather specific conditions.Our oldest written records date to 5,200 years ago, but we have been speaking and mythmaking for perhaps 100,000. . . . published by Princeton University Press.” This book was brought strongly to my mind reading your article, though when I see the title of your upcoming blog, I feel you may have anticipated me.
    Another book that examines the remarkable appearance of certain numbers having to do with astronomy, specifically the Precession of the Equinoxes, in myths from many cultures is “Hamlet’s Mill” by Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha von Dechen, which has been taken up and run with by some enthusiastic “out of the mainstream” popularizers. Still it is a demonstrable phenomenon and does pique the curiosity.


  2. I had no idea that there has been such academic disdain for still civilized and western peoples. Perhaps these sentiments aren’t quite as strong today as they were in Feyerabend’s day? Regardless, he must be right — all that should truly separate them from us, is that we’ve learned various things which they have not. Normal people in 500 years should also consider us quite primitive in various ways, given certain valuable understandings which they should possess that we do not.

    Massimo I’m quite pleased that you’re taking us further into the work Paul Feyerabend.


  3. I’ve not read the book, but from this account I detect a whiff of burning straw. Have archaeologists really been slow to appreciate Stonehenge?

    Further, people who — for example — survived through the winters of ice-age Northern Europe did of course have a lot of expert and practical knowledge of how to do that.

    As for the “primitiveness” of ancient beliefs, well “primitive” would be a fairly apt word for the religious beliefs of around half the people in the world today. Ancient peoples were likely no worse in such regards, but also no better.

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  4. Very interesting. From what I know, yes, archaeologists have been slow to appreciate the level of detail of observations Stonehenge can produce. (By the way, Massimo, though Feyerabend wasn’t writing about it, the same is true of paleoastronomy in the new world. Only very recently have archaeologists realized that, at Chaco Canyon, that the Anasazi were tracking the moon’s 19-year revolution periodicity vis-a-vis the earth, the “lunar standstill.”

    The medicinal value of herbs also springs to mind.


  5. Coel,

    “I’ve not read the book, but from this account I detect a whiff of burning straw. Have archaeologists really been slow to appreciate Stonehenge?”

    Isn’t it a bit quick to accuse Feyerabend of strawmanning and of not knowing what he is talking abut, given that you have not read the book? At any rate, I suggest to interested people that they actually use this series as a book club: get the book and follow along.

    Yes, archeologists have been slow just in the way Feyerabend describes. He has a lot of annotated references to back up his claims. Of course that was a few decades back, so the book shouldn’t be taking as describing the current state of the field. But that’s irrelevant to Feyerabend’s main argument about the attitude that moderns often have about “primitive” cultures.

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  6. Per Massimo, that’s why I specifically said “slow to appreciate the level of detail of observations” and cited a parallel from the new world. Sure, archaeologists have long known that Stonehenge marked the solstices.

    Per the Wiki link, of all the paleoastronomy reasons for which Stonehenge may, or may not, have been built, many remain under debate. But, most of them weren’t raised until 1963, which is not that long before Feyerabend wrote, indeed. (The Chaco findings, which are on seeming more solid ground, for a variety of reasons, are even newer.)


  7. Hi Massimo,

    One thing to note is that Feyerabend was writing at a time of possible over-interpretation of Stonehenge (which is just as much a danger as under-interpretation). In the preceding decades very sophisticated interpretations had been proposed, often involving alignments between the Aubrey Holes and the Heelstone. At that time, both the Aubrey Holes and the Heelstone were attributed to Phase I of Stonehenge. Nowadays, however, (I think I am right in saying) the Heelstone is considered to date from several hundred years after the Aubrey Holes, and the more elaborate interpretations have now been discounted. So maybe some critics were not dismissive of the capabilities of ancient peoples, but rather just applying appropriate scepticism to claims.

    The claim that “archeologists have been slow” because they thought of “primitive” people as un-intelligent does have a whiff of strawman to me.

    And, of course, living long before rampant light pollution and before modern clocks, ancient peoples would have had a vastly better practical knowledge of what the night sky looks like and how it varies with the seasons than most Western, urban adults today. So of course they’d have used this in navigating, both on land and at sea, in a way that most people today could not.

    I am sometimes amazed at meeting educated adults who have never, for example, seen the planet Mars in the night sky (at least, not knowingly!), and have simply never even realised that it is something that one can readily see. Heck, one can easily meet educated adults who, when asked why we have seasons, tell you that Earth is nearer the Sun in summer.


  8. Actually, per my link, the 1963 claims about Stonehenge were done in part by computer aided mapping, and other computer tools, and Wiki says that this is specifically part of why archaeologists were skeptical. In other words, they weren’t open-minded to new scientific tools.
    With that in mind, no, I don’t think Feyerabend’s claim about them was strawmanning. It was only after some of them accepted the general idea of using computers in archaeological research, then questioning the parameters, etc., of particular computer-aided research details, that skepticism could be properly applied.


  9. Other ideas rejected about the Anazasi by older archaeologists include the idea that they built roads, as they did not have wheeled vehicles. However, since then, more modern research has shown that roads significantly reduce metabolic road for walkers, too.


  10. Socratic,

    Actually, per my link, the 1963 claims about Stonehenge were done in part by computer aided mapping, and other computer tools, and Wiki says that this is specifically part of why archaeologists were skeptical. In other words, they weren’t open-minded to new scientific tools.

    It doesn’t really say that. It says:

    “Hawkins claimed to observe numerous alignments, both lunar and solar. He argued that Stonehenge could have been used to predict eclipses. Hawkins’ book received wide publicity, in part because he used a computer in his calculations, then a novelty. Archaeologists were suspicious in the face of further contributions to the debate British astronomer C. A. ‘Peter’ Newham and Sir Fred Hoyle, the famous Cambridge cosmologist, as well as by Alexander Thom, a retired professor of engineering, who had been studying stone circles for more than 20 years.”

    That is way different from suggesting that they weren’t open-minded to new scientific tools, it just says they were suspicious. The phrase “used a computer” relates to the “received wide publicity”, not directly to the “they were suspicious”. Anyhow, that is the sort of thing on which I would not trust Wikipedia (in many ways it is fairly reliable, but not on that sort of judgement issue), especially as no source is cited.

    With that in mind, no, I don’t think Feyerabend’s claim about them was strawmanning.

    It that’s the quality of your counter-evidence then I am sticking to my claim. And note that, from today’s perspective, those who were suspicious of Hawkins’s claims of “dozens” of alignments seem to have been in the right.


  11. More specifically, I do think it was in part due to that specific fact, in part given that astronomers were much more likely to be using computers in 1963 than archaeologists. Social sciences in general in the 1960s, with the exception of certain sub-branches of sociology, if not antipathetic to computers, were at best indifferent to them, I believe. It knocks the romance off Indiana Jones’ fedora to run ideas through a computer. Fortunately, things have changed since then.


  12. Socratic,

    “Suspicious” is not the opposite of “open-minded.”

    Correct, it isn’t. Indeed it’s closer to a synonym than an antonym, since “suspicion” (“having a cautious distrust”) is a necessary part of being open-minded. A good, open-minded detective would be suspicious (“cautious distrust”) about the accounts of everyone he interviewed.

    Whenever one reads a scientific paper one does so with a “suspicious” attitude of “cautious distrust”, an attitude of “ok, prove it to me”, and “can I poke holes in this?”. If someone comes along and makes new claims of literally “dozens” of alignments within Stonehenge (not just Solstice alignment) then the entirely correct attitude is suspicion and “ok, prove it”. Further work has shown that they were right to be suspicious, because the claims have not stood up to scrutiny.


  13. Oh, I agree that many of the claims didn’t stand up. I said that the first time. But, still, one could not be properly skeptical of computer-based mapping etc. without first accepting that such use of computers in general was legit in archaeology (or anthropology, psychology, history, linguistics, literary criticism, etc.).


  14. It should be possible to find out whether or not archeologists have been slow to recognise the significance of Stonehenge.

    I remember the standard story of Stonehenge in my youth was that its purpose, if any, has been lost in time. Whether that came from archeologists or not, I don’t know.

    I remember it being announced that it may have had some sort of calendar function and this may have been around the time Feyerbend was writing this.


  15. Massimo:

    I like the idea of a book club. I’m not sure I can stomach Feyerabend, but will be interested to see what you can extract from him. I have ‘a shitload’ of Stoics stored on my Kindle (they are generally quite cheap, not being in copyright!) and II would be interested in actually reading some.


    Currently, Martin Perl Book Club just finished

    Taleb, Nassim Nicholas. Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets (Incerto) (Kindle Location 3277). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

    Due to my op I haven’t finished it yet and was unable to attend the MPBC meeting were it was discussed. I found some interesting insights about miss handling statistics and biases, but so far his claimed Stoicism only amount to a few quotes from the likes of Solon, i.e., pretty much ‘decorative.’. He seems to me to not always be correct in his understanding of statistics, but his description of various bias humans are subject to rings true mostly.

    We are starting next on

    Wilson, E. O.. Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (p. 2). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

    which I;ve never read. I imagine it might generate a lot of heat on PF.


  16. “It should be possible to find out whether or not archaeologists have been slow to recognise the significance of Stonehenge.”

    I’ve always wonder’d what archaeologist 10,000 years hence would make of Fermilab or SLAC. A religious shrine?

    Sharon Traweek who wrote a book about SLAC seemed to think our linear accelerator was ‘longer than it’s wide’ because it was a phallic symbol, not because it had to be in order to work. It also no where near the right aspect ratio to be phallic; it’s much, much longer than it’s wide.


  17. I think the archeologists were under a certain philosophy of the history of thought. The stages are myth, philosophy and science. In this view myth has no intellectual basis but is simply a projection of human desires and fears etc. This is why the pyramids seem so mysterious or Alien inspired. There is no reason in the he mythical world.


  18. I wonder if this tendency of circles of stones as cosmic markers provided the practical insight for the gear works of the Antikythera mechanism. Given it would have predated it by millennia and would have been well known and studied by those first building these mechanisms.


  19. SSC’s empty tunnel. It was like 1/2 done or something. Yeah, what the hell will they make of that when it is ‘discovered.’?

    I once had a job interview at SSC. Lucky for me i didn’t get it or I might have been unemployed with a big house in Duncanville (where there is no there) and my kid in a ‘good’ school where they hit the kids.


  20. I spent a couple of hours looking for Duncanville and couldn’t find it.

    I was ‘reverse discriminated against’ when I wondered into what was apparently a black only sub division sales office looking at houses … which is to the say that when I came into the model the agent ignored me whereas in the ‘white’ sub divisions they jumped all over me. When I left I noticed that all the kids playing outside were black.


  21. One of Traruh Synred’s first appearance on the web was posting pictures of ‘Nick Beef”s empty grave next to Lee Harvey at Rosehill cemetery of Lancaster, Rd (which I believe you told me is in Fort Worth, not Lancaster).

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  22. Back to the subject. The book “1491,” if we look at the New World, documents many other items re American Indians where archaeologists once refused to credit them to American Indians. Among the most notable is a whole series of mounds in Amazonia which appear, in fact, to be middens and other items related to civilization indeed, whereas older generations of archaeologists had deemed them merely natural features, because they didn’t believe any sort of pre-modern civilization could have developed in Amazonia.

    From where I grew up, the ingenuity of the Anasazi and others in wringing every last ounce of moisture out of their environment is certainly ingenious. But, that whole civilization, American archaeologists once believed, could not be endemic. Hence the town of Aztec, New Mexico, and the adjacent Aztec Ruins National Monument, because, of course, the Anasazi surely must have had the help of the Aztecs.

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