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. When I was a kid, the indigenous population of Australia were portrayed as basically wandering around the landscape occasionally throwing a spear at a kangaroo or wallaby.

    We now know that they carefully managed the landscape, made the animals come to them. There are also carved channels for catching fish.

    It was always suggested that the Australian indigenous population were too primitive to develop agriculture, but in fact they knew all about agriculture from their contact with surrounding countries, they rejected the concept in favour of an approach which has been called estate management.

    It is quite possible that, at the time of contact with the Europeans, the average indigenous Australian had a better lifestyle than the average European.

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  2. One can only wonder how strange our own normalcy bias will appear to future generations, given the current equilibrium appears about to be punctuated in any number of ways.
    The younger generations have grown up with masses of often arbitrary information being poured into their minds, while the economic pressure hose powering this world is starting to sputter. What real world lessons will they be left with.


  3. Interesting the emphasis on how deep (intellectual or intuitive?) the technical observational scientific knowledge of prehistoric peoples, which by the year archeological research pushes further back, such that we may now surmise accurate stellar observation as far back as 50,000 years or more. (I refer to recent French cave discoveries). We like to imagine that knowledge briskly took over from magic during the renaissance of Dee, Galileo and Kepler. Now let us also imagine that knowledge coexisted with magic for far longer than we had thought. We can hardly expect to find physical evidence much older, but we may easily imagine many empty millennia of evolution in which some balance of observation and creative understanding developed under the regular starlight with unique spectral quanta enlivening the neural protoplasm as described by Schrodinger. (And shaping the world into Kant’s 12 categories, that number.) Schrodinger spoke principally of sunlight, but why not starlight? Surely number and geometry were taught to hominids on the blackboard of night. Walter Benjamin suggests star-reading is the first reading. Jean Perrin asked, “If not for the stars what would be the condition of men’s minds?”

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  4. Astro,

    Feyerabend did defend astrology, not because he considered it right in detail, but because what it said of human exploration and invention.
    The ancients lived in an intensely and densely organic world. One far less sterile than what we have and so it was natural for them to project this animation, with all its actions and interaction, on the heavens, much as we currently project very sterile views on nature, as our current belief in clarity usually dismisses anything not precisely defined and quantified. Whether science or economics.
    Nature is very subtle and who knows what cosmic relations exist. I tend to be skeptical when anything has been institutionalized though, as it is to serve issues of social bonding and cultural definition, even when the premise is logical. What serves society will be amplified and enforced. Mere logic will not.


  5. I’ll bite on psychology, since Massimo didn’t post more. I see some aspects of Freudian and Jungian thought also connected to wrong ideas from the myth and ritual school of philosophy of religion, ultimately peddled on PBS by Joseph Campbell. A lot of the ideas about archetypes from Jungianism and myth and ritual religious thought, in fact, appear to parallel “just so” stories of ev psych.

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  6. And before Campbell was James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. It is notable that Wittgenstein wrote a critique of it and described Frazer as more savage than those he studied.


  7. Indeed, Thomas. Now, Frazier did, when I originally read him, help my transition from conservative Lutheranism to secularism. A selective re-read, years later, showed all that was wrong. Beyond the just-so myths, and also picking up on the Feyerabend critique, it showed how much cultural anthropology of that day, like archaeology, saw non-Europeans as “primitive.”

    That and Jungianism had been running parallel tracks, with a moderate degree of overlap, until Campbell’s basic synthesis of the two.

    “Follow your bliss.” 😉

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  8. Socratic,

    I think Campbell’s work is interesting but, as you say, highly speculative. My thoughts on Freud are that he was trailblazing, but ultimately went into the wrong direction. and I never had patience for Jung’s metaphysical speculations.

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  9. I will give Campbell credit, even where he (and others) overinterpreted archaeological findings, for bringing the idea of mother/earth goddesses, predating the Olympians, to general attention.


  10. I haven’t been reading any books lately, but it looks like something I might finish, so I’m going to buy it.
    Possibly Massimo could come up with a list of books he might be considering and take some sort of poll, as to what would get the most readership, so there would be more active participation.


  11. I’m delighted by the evidence that’s emerging that “primitive” humans were far more advanced than they were given credit for in recent times (e.g. 70-odd years ago, when I was growing up). The 1491 book was an eye-opener, and I look forward to exploring Feyrabend. Surely, we have always tended to conflate cultural evolution with biological evolution, even though it should be obvious that the rate of progress in basic intelligence has been virtually unchanged in the 24 or so centuries since Plato and Aristotle. Clearly, a lot of history was being made in prehistoric times!

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  12. In his book on relativity, Einstein describes light bending using an accelarating box thought experiment, so he didn’t overlook this.

    That was sometime after the original mistaken calculation he made while developing general relativity. He did obviously need to get deep into the algebra to construct GR.


  13. Reading the Atlantic magazine version of 1491 and the Orion article were quite enlightening. I’d heard snippets of these arguments before, but not laid out so succinctly.
    I do think there have to be a few paradigm changes before we will work together for such larger goals. The current economic model is designed to both produce and extract as much abstract value out of the economy, the environment and society on which it is based. Given this has produced an enormous bubble of unsustainable promises, i.e. debt, the system will crash before fully draining all resources. As such, our current system will have a self induced heart attack before it succeeds in total environmental collapse. Then the question will be whether we come to understand this medium of exchange, i.e. money, is a social contract and needs to be negotiated more effectively, with the resources of accumulated societal value being directed toward long term goals, rather than siphoned off by those with their hand in the till, or do we simply fight over what’s left, with all the high tech weaponry at our disposal?
    There are other ideas to consider, as in our drive for perfection, learning the real motivation is not whatever goal or ideal we set ourselves toward, but that elemental sense of being bubbling up through all life, motivating our desire. Accepting this means both learning how to direct it and honoring its passions. That we have limits is not all bad. They are what give our passions direction and focus. It might be that life on this planet is inching toward being a planetary organism and humanity is its central nervous system, not just top predator in a collapsing ecosystem.
    Which gets back to whether reality is fundamentally linear, or cyclical and whether we can learn to incorporate a philosophy of circularity to dampen the linear drive that has carried us to these heights.
    What goes up, does come down, but the alternative would just be a flat line.

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