Can we compare different cultural forms of life?

MacIntyre versions of moral inquiry“Alternative and rival conceptions of rationality are at home in different conceptual schemes.” –Alasdair MacIntyre

I’ve been reading and commenting on a book that has little to do with the range of subject matters usually covered here at Footnotes to Plato: C. Kavin Rowe’s One True Life: The Stoics and Early Christians as Rival Traditions (if you are interested in my ongoing commentary over at How to Be a Stoic, check part I, part II; and part III; there will be one more, forthcoming soon). The reason I’m bringing this up here is because of Rowe’s chapter 8, entitled “Can we compare?” His goal is to eventually show that Stoicism and Christianity are fundamentally incompatible ways of life, with distinct — and incommensurable — internal logics. I don’t think so, but that’s another story. What’s interesting here is that Rowe deploys the influential philosophy of Alasdair MacIntyre to lay the grounds for his conclusion, and MacIntyre’s philosophy is very much relevant to ongoing discussions about, say, science vs pseudoscience, or atheism vs religion, and a number of other dichotomous positions that we often approach with the assumption that we can meaningfully compare and decide which is more rational or rationally defensible.

MacIntyre distinguishes among three forms of inquiry that have shaped the way we think about pretty much anything from a scholarly perspective: he calls them encyclopedia, genealogy, and tradition. He further argues that if we adopt one mode of inquiry then the other two are precluded, because the three are mutually incommensurable.

The encyclopedia mode of inquiry takes the name from the encyclopedists of the Enlightenment, who were committed to the notion of a single, unitary rationality. Much of modern science is still built around that tradition, and so is the approach of the so-called skeptic community when it deals with pseudoscience, or of science-inclined atheists when they dismiss religious belief.

The encyclopedist, moreover, is committed to the idea of progress by way of reason, which allows him to judge the past according to modern standards, and therefore also to talk of “primitive” notions in other cultures.

As Rowe puts it, quoting MacIntyre: “Truth is thus ‘what it is independent of standpoint [and] can be discovered or confirmed by any adequately intelligent person, no matter what his point of view.” A corollary of this, apparently, is that there is nothing beyond the limits of human understanding (though I would consider the latter an example of scientistic faith, not something that stems directly from the encyclopedist approach).

MacIntyre makes the provocative statement that the encyclopedist approach has been “defeated” and that it is now reduced to a form of “fideism” (which is pretty strong wording considering that much of academia, and certainly all of the natural sciences, seem not to have noticed such utter failure). Why does he think this? Because by now we should know that there is no point of view from nowhere, not even in science, and that reason means different things in different contexts, that distinct starting axioms lead to entirely internally consistent, and yet utterly incompatible, perspectives and conclusions about what the world is like and how to best navigate it.

MacIntyre is no postmodernist yahoo, but he does think that it is a mistake to assume “the universal translatability of texts from any and every culture into the language of teacher and student” or “the universality of a capacity to make what was framed in the light of the canons of one culture intelligible to those who inhabit some other quite alien culture.”

If we grant that to be the case, for the sake of argument, what are the alternatives? The first is what MacIntyre calls genealogy. Rowe writes: “Where the encyclopedist presupposed unitary rationality, a unified world, and progress toward truth itself, Nietzsche, the original genealogist, saw no such things … Cosmopolitanism, the genealogist argues, is an illusion: we can only take sides in the warring of various rivals,” and, of course, “reason” simply covers up the intention of particular groups to acquire or maintain power, usually by oppressing other groups. Moreover, when we do take sides, we don’t do it for rationally defensible reasons, we just do it because it is inevitable, for a human being, to feel like he belongs to one or another group.

Rowe continues: “There is no progress [for the genealogist] — because there is no goal toward which to progress — only the endless recycling of moods, feelings, or sickly psychological postures. … The genealogist thus does not so much make arguments that go toward anything as he does take a momentary stance, pose as a critic for the time being, adopt a particular posture on a certain stage.”

A preeminent example of modern day genealogist is Michael Foucault, most famous for his inquiry on madness, which he presented as a socially constructed concept aimed at labeling (and controlling) “the other.”

MacIntyre summarizes the contrast between encyclopedists and genealogists in this fashion: “it was a central presupposition of the major contributors to the Ninth Edition [of the Encyclopaedia Britannica] … that on questions of standards, criteria, and method all rational persons can resolve their disagreements. [It is] an equally central contention of the heirs of Nietzschean genealogy that this is not so.”

What, then, is the alternative? MacIntyre’s third way is that of traditions of inquiry. Traditions have a number of distinctive characteristics: first, “a tradition of inquiry is historically deep, which is to say that it is not timeless but extends through time … traditioned reasoners self-consciously engage the past and present of their tradition with an aim toward its future development.”

Second, “like a craft in which every way to do it is not as good as every other, a tradition of inquiry has norms of and for rational success that have emerged through history as the tradition has come to identify excellence in its particular way of inquiry.” This is a crucial point, because it positions traditions right in between encyclopedia and genealogies: in the encyclopedic approach, there is only one rational way to do things; in the genealogical approach there is no such thing as a rational way, only a variety of ways, or “stances”; in the traditional approach there are a number of rationally, self-consistent, but mutually exclusive, ways of doing things.

The analogy with a craft is really apt, so I wish to stress it. Imagine understanding, say, Renaissance painting from within each of the three ways of doing inquiry. The encyclopedist would say that there is only one true way of doing painting (let’s say the one that adopts the new technique of perspective as laid out in Leon Battista Alberti’s De Pictura), and that everyone else is simply mistaken about the subject. The genealogist would argue that all painting schools are fundamentally the same, and assertions that one is better than the other are just more or less transparent grabs for power. The traditionalist, however, would say that there are distinct ways of painting, and that each can be practiced and appreciated only within the particular school that originated it. For the traditionalist, it makes no sense to compare across schools (like the encyclopedist would), but it does make sense to analyze the style and techniques within a given school in terms of their quality (which the genealogist wouldn’t do). Keep this summary in mind because I will return to the analogy again at the end, when discussing my own take on the subject.

An important third characteristic of traditions is that “learning the skills that make a tradition of inquiry cannot simply be done with ‘the mind.’ Rather, for a tradition in MacIntyre’s sense, the skill of rational inquiry requires a transformation of the person in a much broader sense.” Think, again, of a Renaissance shop: if you want to learn how to paint or sculpt, you join Domenico Ghirlandaio‘s workshop (like Michelangelo did, for instance) and learn from him and his students, you don’t just sit down and read a book about it.

Fourth, within a tradition, one begins by following the chosen teacher(s), and the novice “initially accept[s] on the basis of his or her authority within the community of a craft precisely what intellectual and moral habits it is which we must cultivate and acquire if we are to become … participants in such enquiry.”

Fifth, “as the master/apprentice relation implies, traditioned inquiry is a ‘long-term cooperative activity’ … There is no such thing as the solitary individual on his quest for knowledge. Membership in a particular type of moral community … is a condition for genuinely rational enquiry.”

So much for MacIntyre’s classification of the three fundamental approaches to inquiry. Let me briefly explain the connection of all this to Stoicism and Christianity as a specific example, but then zoom back out to points of more general interest for the readership of Footnotes.

In comparing Stoicism and Christianity, the encyclopedist would begin with the assumption that there is a rational way to describe and compare the two philosophies, eventually to determine which one is “better.” The genealogist would simply say that whatever arguments either the Stoics or the Christians advance on behalf of their way of thinking is no better than the other, and at any rate such arguments are put forth in the service of exercising power over the other community. The traditionalist, by contrast, would put forth that to really understand the internal logic of either philosophy one has to adopt it as a way of life, and that since we can only live one life, we have to make what MacIntyre calls a “pre-rational” choice and stick with it.

Now for my take on this whole thing, which remember I see applicable to a much wider set of discussions than the specific one in which Rowe brings it up.

When I was younger and more naive (and a practicing scientist) I was an encyclopedist. Everyone who is enamored of the Enlightenment ought to be. I am guessing that most scientists would nod vigorously to convey enthusiastic approval.

But the encyclopedist approach is, indeed, naive. Human knowledge can never have the luxury of adopting a view from nowhere, and there are different ways of doing science, for instance. Biologists work in different ways from physicists, and both of them very differently from social scientists. They use different assumptions as well as conceptual and methodological tools, and there is no sense in which one science is “better” than the other (pace the physicists, who for centuries have presented their approach as the model to follow). There is, of course, no such thing as the scientific method, but rather a varied toolboxes, mixing instruments from logic, mathematics, statistics, observational and experimental methods in a very pragmatic fashion.

There is most certainly not one way (let alone the best way) of doing philosophy, as I’ve argued at length in the online book I published last year on the subject of the nature of philosophical inquiry.

There are many ways of doing mathematics, both in terms of which axioms one accepts or rejects (compare Euclidean with spherical geometry, for instance) and of the methods employed (by analytical proof or by computer simulation, so-called “experimental” mathematics).

And there are many logics, again each characterized by particular axioms and procedural rules: from classical Aristotelian to many-to-infinite-valued logic, from paraconsistent to deontic logic, and so forth.

And again, in all of the above, it doesn’t make any sense to compare and judge: paraconsistent logic isn’t “better” than multivalued logic. They are simply useful for different things. The same goes for Euclidean vs spherical geometry, and even more so for analytic vs continental, or “Western” vs “Eastern” philosophy.

That said, I certainly don’t go for the Nietzscheian-Foucaultian genealogical approach. Madness certainly is, in some respects, a social construction, and it has indeed been used as an instrument of power. Moreover, the same applies to science in general (e.g., eugenics). But there really are mentally disturbed human beings, who really do benefit from certain treatments to improve their condition. Similarly, it may well be that analytical and continental philosophers make power grabs within academia, for instance in terms of number of tenure track positions, and scientists of different disciplines (or persuasions within a given discipline: like string theorists and their critics) do it to an even larger extent because they usually have some serious money at stake. But this does not negate that there is genuinely good (and bad) philosophy and science that are produced by those groups and intellectual currents.

That leaves us with the third approach from MacIntyre’s menu, that of “traditions.” Here I am sympathetic, but not entirely convinced. Going back to the analogy with a Renaissance workshop, it is indeed true that even academic disciplines, like the sciences and philosophy, work that way. If you wish to become a scientist nowadays you enter graduate school under the sponsorship of a particular mentor. You learn your trade not very differently from the way in which Michelangelo learned his from Ghirlandaio. And when you become a professional, if you are lucky, you set up your own “shop” with your own assistants (postdocs, graduate students, undergrads), and so on.

When Thomas Kuhn talked about paradigm shifts within science, he defined a paradigm as a disciplinary matrix, which included not just the dominant theoretical framework within a given science (say, quantum mechanics in modern fundamental physics), but also the vocabulary and methods accepted within the community, the range of questions deemed interesting, as well as the textbooks and other training tools for the next generation of scientists. In a very real sense, then, physics, biology, analytical philosophy, continental philosophy, and so forth are indeed “traditions,” and the best (if not the only) way to learn them is not just by reading books at home, but by engaging in personal training over a number of years. That’s one reason why lone individuals who style themselves as revolutionary geniuses and who are convinced to have discovered proof that, for instance, general relativity is flawed are (much) more likely to be cranks than anything else. And that is also why, again in part, pseudoscience has a very different character from the genuine article.

But there is a problem with the strict separation of different traditions advocated by MacIntyre, and that’s, I think, where his system needs some significant tweaking. While it is true that there are a number of rational and coherent ways of approaching a given type of inquiry — be it choosing a philosophy of life or adopting a scientific or philosophical research program — it is manifestly not true that no inter-approach comparison can ever be made, nor is it true that some judgment of relative quality or utility is somehow precluded a priori.

Take, for instance, Rowe’s contrast between Stoicism and Christianity as “forms of life,” that is, philosophies that one adopts “pre-rationally.” Well, maybe the two are in fact incommensurable and equally good in some respect, but they both certainly beat hands down a number of other forms of life, for example Nazism. Why? because Nazism begins with assumptions (about the existence and superiority of a particular “race”) that are manifestly, empirically, false. It also leads to consequences (tyranny, war, genocide) that are equally obviously bad for human flourishing, which is the very point of a philosophy of life. So one can rationally (not pre-rationally) exclude Nazism from the range of viable philosophies to pursue, without needing a lifetime of practice and membership in the Nazi party before arriving at that conclusion.

Similarly, while I don’t think there is a way to tell which “tradition” is better between, say, analytic vs continental philosophy, or historical vs experimental sciences, or one type of logic or math and another, there clearly are very good ways to tell bad philosophy, bad or pseudo-science, bad logic and bad math from the varieties that work.

To recap, then: the genealogical approach is to be rejected because — despite its valuable reminder that human interactions are more often than not about power grabs — it quickly leads to relativism and/or nihilism. The Enlightenment/encyclopedic approach is naive and carries the nasty consequence of undermining a genuine and fruitful respect for different ways of doing inquiry. The tradition approach is best, so long as we understand that comparisons — and judgments of quality — across traditions are sometimes (but not always!) possible and in fact desirable.

64 thoughts on “Can we compare different cultural forms of life?

  1. Sherlock

    Dan,
    I agree with your point about MacIntyre’s overstating the case if only because I find it difficult to see how people with a common genetic heritage could produce absolutelly incommensurable conceptual schemes, but I have some questions regarding the “translatability” issue.
    Lets assume scheme B can be translated, without loss of any essential element, into scheme A. If there is a one-for-one match between them then the two are in fact identical and there cannot be said to be two schemes at all. If scheme A can accommodate a translation of scheme B with, as it were, room to spare, then scheme B is actually a subset of scheme A.

    In both cases scheme A could assert that it is Encyclopaedist. If, however, scheme B did not agree with scheme A’s translation, it might assert that scheme A was Genealogist.

    Perhaps an Encyclopaedist is just the Genealogist with the biggest army?

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  2. brodix

    Massimo,

    What I’m seeing is a classic top down, versus bottom up dichotomy, with Traditional as the mediating argument. Yes, The Selfish Gene is problematic, but then, as you point out, so is the genealogist philosophy, in that they both seem to have a very individualist point of view.
    While both the encyclopedist and monotheistic paradigms assume the view from nowhere/everywhere. Keeping in mind that the problem being knowledge is as much a function of reception, as transmission. It’s all just noise without a point of view to define it.
    Meanwhile the traditionalist view sees one must have that essential point of view, but then sorting through all the information requires making judgements, i.e. top down decisions, which would be against the genealogical philosophy.

    Sherlock,

    Then there would be overlapping models, theories, points of view. All knowledge is distilled information, otherwise it would quickly whiteout. So think of two people looking at the same statue from different angles. They see the same thing, but each sees some of what the other sees and some they don’t and neither see it all. How could there be the view from everywhere, that sees the entire statue in its entirety? It would quickly go to infinite points of view. When you have everything, it necessarily balances out to equilibrium, so, effectively, you have nothing. Whiteout.

    Michael,

    You apply our moral standards to other times and situations. For one thing, we equate slavery with racism, because of the particular economic circumstances leading to it in the relatively modern age, yet historically slavery is probably far more associated with spoils of war and debt serfdom.
    Since the alternative of the time, for war, was likely death and slaves did have the potential to gain their freedom eventually, it wasn’t such a black and white(no pun intended) issue. As for debt, welcome to the capitalism of the ages.
    As for men and women, times were different, pure and simple.

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  3. Daniel Kaufman

    Sherlock: One has to be careful by what is meant by ‘translated’. As Quine understands it, it does not mean swapping synonyms for synonyms (in “Two Dogmas of Empiricism,” he argues that there can be no non-circular account of synonymy). As per Word and Object and “Ontological Relativity,” he says that we can “translate” a term like ‘rabbit’ into ‘temporal slice of rabbit’ or ‘undetached rabbit parts’, by way of changing our “analytical hypotheses” which include principles of sorting, individuation, etc.

    I’ve given relatively accessible summaries of these two arguments (“Two Dogmas” and “Ontological Relativity”) here:

    https://theelectricagora.com/2015/09/02/this-weeks-special-quines-two-dogmas-of-empiricism/
    https://theelectricagora.com/2016/05/25/course-notes-4/

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  4. Sherlock

    Socratic, while I’m sure I’ll love the contents of your link, the “like” was accidental. Sorry about that. 😐

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  5. SocraticGadfly

    Michael, that book was by the Rev. Rick Warren, whom Obama, in the earliest official Presidential “tell” of his would-be Kumbaya mindset, invited to give the invocation at his first inauguration.

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  6. Massimo Post author

    Michael,

    Are you suggesting that if virtue ethics were really a better way to think about ethics then medieval people should have realized that women are equal to men and that slavery is abhorrent? That seems like a strange suggestion to me for a variety of reasons. To begin with, adopting a particular ethical framework simply gives you a different way to think about issues, but it doesn’t tell you what to think. You still import a number of assumptions into it, which you don’t necessarily question. Second, to ask people of a very different era and culture to be “ahead of their time” is an obvious example of presentism, which I think is a bad practice when dealing with other times and cultures. Third, seems like plenty of people nowadays, who don’t use virtue ethics but other ethical frameworks, still don’t get the point about either women or slavery (though the latter is literal in some places on the planet, and of a wage-type in many others).

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  7. davidlduffy

    MacIntyre on epistemological crises within traditions, specifically natural philosophy, with a critique of Kuhn and Feyerabend – “Epistemological crises, dramatic narrative and the philosophy of science” Monist 1977, 60:453.

    …traditions are the bearers of reason, and traditions at certain periods actually require and need revolutions for their continuance…

    …I shall want to reinforce my thesis that dramatic narrative is the crucial form for the understanding of human action and I shall want to argue that natural science can he a rational form of enquiry if and only if the writing of a true dramatic narrative – that is, of history understood in a particular way – can be a rational activity. Scientific reason turns out to be subordinate to, and intelligible only in terms of, historical reason…

    Wherein lies the superiority of Galileo to his predecessors? The answer is that he, for the first time, enables the work of all his predecessors to be evaluated by a common set of standards. The contributions of Plato, Aristotle, the scholars at Merton College, Oxford, and at Padua, the work of Copernicus himself at last all fall into place. Or, to put matters in another and equivalent way: the history of late medieval science can finally be cast into a coherent narrative. Galileo’s work implies a rewriting of the narrative which constitutes the scientific tradition…

    We are apt to suppose that because Galileo was a peculiarly great scientist, therefore he has his own peculiar place in the history of science. I am suggesting instead that it is because of his peculiarly important place in the history of science that he is accounted a particularly great scientist…

    [S]o Kuhn and Feyerabend recount the history of epistemological crises as moments of almost total discontinuity without noticing the historical continuity which makes their own intelligible narratives possible.

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  8. SocraticGadfly

    Re “presentism,” in having done some calling out of Aristotle and Hume before, myself, I don’t think the idea is totally wrong. SOME PEOPLE had more enlightened ideas 2,400 or 300 years ago. If no humans had, or even had the capability for that, it might be different. But, of course, people had such capability, and some of them exercised it.

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  9. michaelfugate

    Massimo, are you saying it won’t help you be a better person? That seems odd. Why bother then?
    Presentism is nonsense – plenty of people were “ahead of their time” and treated women equally and opposed slavery long before it became de rigueur. The problem is that the very people who MacIntyre is promoting didn’t do so.

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  10. michaelfugate

    Let me add that we see this behavior among many “traditionalists” – they will educate their daughters or bless their sons’ gay marriage, but won’t do so for everyone else. It is as if they know what is right, but won’t act on it. I think MacIntyre makes it clear that it is action, not thought that matters. So it is not that those people in the past didn’t know – it is that they didn’t have the courage to act. Take Jefferson – for one.

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  11. Massimo Post author

    Michael,

    Presentism is not nonsense, it is simply a reminder that it is far too easy to criticize other people from the safe standpoint of modernity. I would have liked to see what a lot of these critics would have done had they been alive then, without the benefit of hindsight. As Thomas Nagel put it in a famous paper, most of the time when we are good is simply because we are lucky and didn’t happen to grow up in a more challenging environment.

    That said, yes, you and Socratic are right that some people (I very seriously doubt it is “lots”) do see more clearly than their contemporaries. I prefer to commend these few, rather than condemn a whole culture.

    I didn’t say that virtue ethics doesn’t make you a better person. I believe it does. But it isn’t a magic pill that suddenly cures you of all the foibles of the culture that shaped your upbringing.

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  12. SocraticGadfly

    Given that Rome had a whole family of North African emperors, and that, while it had massive amounts of slavery, it was not race-based slavery, the “some” may well be more than a few, even if not “lots.”

    And, shouldn’t we put philosophers under a higher standard of judgment than their contemporary Polycrates Xi. Politatis (to pun John Q. Citizen on Aristotle’s bon mot), especially if that philosopher gained renown in part as a moral philosopher?

    As for Hume, whose racism I learned about with even more sadness, the “few” were surely more than “a few” during his life.

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  13. Daniel Kaufman

    With respect to “call out” culture more generally, I find myself agreeing with the view that it is little more than a rather unappealing exercise in signalling:

    “What makes call-out culture so toxic is not necessarily its frequency so much as the nature and performance of the call-out itself. Especially in online venues like Twitter and Facebook, calling someone out isn’t just a private interaction between two individuals: it’s a public performance where people can demonstrate their wit or how pure their politics are.”

    https://briarpatchmagazine.com/articles/view/a-note-on-call-out-culture

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  14. brodix

    Slavery is economic energy, as a function of building hierarchy. There wouldn’t be the civilization we recognize today, if that paradigm of social structures hadn’t evolved, for better or worse.
    Today we have replaced much of this human effort with a few hundred million years worth of fossil fuels. It’s easy to focus on the negatives, but they are often inseparable from the positives. And vice versa.
    While New World slavery was extremely harsh on individual Africans, It was an unqualified plus for the African gene pool.
    Good and bad are not some cosmic dual between the forces of righteousness and evil, but the biological binary code of attraction to the beneficial and repulsion of the detrimental. What is good for the fox, is bad for the chicken.
    Being a little repetitive, but the conversation goes around to the same arguments.

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  15. Massimo Post author

    Socratic,

    I’m afraid I’m with Dan on this one. We all know that most people, even great thinkers, have always had (and still do have) blind spots. It’s fine to remind ourselves that that is the case, but what then? Throw out what Hume or Aristotle wrote because you know they got slavery wrong? Let’s assume — as I think possible — that the distant future of humanity will be one of quasi-universal veganism. Should our descendants then ignore everything that every non-vegan has ever written? Why not instead they the best of humanity from all times and cultures, keeping in mind that it is, after all, humanity?

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  16. couvent2104

    With respect to “call out” culture more generally, I find myself agreeing with the view that it is little more than a rather unappealing exercise in signaling.

    Yes, but on the other hand calling out our own culture also is a venerable tradition in western philosophy. Browsing a few minutes through my Pléiade edition of Montaigne, I found the following quote in Book I, chapter XXXI “Des cannibales”:

    “Nous les pouvons donq bien appeller barbares, eu esgard aux règles de la raison, mais non pas eu esgard à nous, qui les surpassons en toute sorte de barbarie.”

    “Judged with the rules of reason, we are allowed to call them barbarians, but not compared with us, who surpass them in every form of barbarousness.”

    My translation, perhaps “savages” and “savageness” are better than “barbarians” etc.
    Don’t want to compare Montaigne with the twitterati, by the way.

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  17. Daniel Kaufman

    couvent wrote:

    “My translation, perhaps “savages” and “savageness” are better than “barbarians” etc.
    Don’t want to compare Montaigne with the twitterati, by the way.”

    Yeah, I wouldn’t want to do that. “Call out culture” is a very specific thing that I don’t think can be fruitfully analogized back to the Renaissance.

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  18. michaelfugate

    The problem I see is that it is obvious – and not from a presentism standpoint – if you are a male have a mother, a sister, or a daughter you know she is every bit as intelligent as you are or any other male is. She can do almost anything that any male can do and some things he can’t. We see this throughout history of females when given a chance are not inferior. Think Jesus with Mary and Martha, think Thomas More and Margaret. The same goes for our interactions with other cultures. We are human and we have faults, so why would I throw out Hume because of his views on race or Montaigne because of his views on women? That is silly. It doesn’t mean they should not have known better that they should have been better observers. Isn’t it more condescending to believe they were incapable of knowing better because of their culture? The atheist Hume was constrained by his culture?

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  19. Daniel Kaufman

    michaelfugate: But if there aren’t to be any consequences, what’s the point of saying publicly that Aristotle and Hume “ought to have known better,” other than to display your own virtue?

    It’s also worth remembering that there are any number of people out there who think that they should be removed from the curriculum, because of their Racism! and Sexism! I refuse to give such people ammunition, given how important these thinkers are, how wonderful their work is, and how damned long ago it was.

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  20. michaelfugate

    So racism and sexism are ok if you believe the perpetrators didn’t know any better? Do you think they didn’t? Do you believe Thomas Jefferson didn’t know slavery was wrong?

    Teach it anyway – who’s going to stop you.

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  21. SocraticGadfly

    I’m crushed that alleged pretentions of my self-importance have been pricked like a cheap balloon. I have no doubt that Diogenes would agree with me, though, to the point of doing pedestal-pushing. That’s all.

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  22. brodix

    Dan,

    “Oh, for God’s sake…”

    Do you say that because it is offensive, or because it is wrong? What are the consequences of the discovery of the New World for the Native American gene pool, for example? I can see not raising the point in many conversations, but this is presumably philosophy and you often seem to disapprove of being politically correct. Is it still philosophy, or just politics, if areas of debate are off limits for reasons other than logic?
    I can certainly understand the sentiment, but it is still emotion over logic. We are, by nature, attracted to the good, but in a lot of situations that can blind us to other facts. It is the ability to see beyond the emotions that makes knowledge effective.

    Michael,

    These issues do go to the subject of the thread. The Encyclopedic argument breaks down because there is no objective “view from nowhere.” Some people are able to see beyond their own culture, but actually moving beyond it is far more difficult. Think global warming. I suspect lots of people understand it today, but still go to jobs that facilitate it. There are lots of problems that are black and white on the surface, but actually getting into the facts of why they exist and it gets a lot more complex. Which isn’t to say we shouldn’t keep working to improve them, just that seeing the mountain top and actually climbing there are two different things.

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  23. Daniel Kaufman

    michaelfugate:

    I was intimately involved in the effort to defend the literary and humanistic canon throughout the 90s. I can assure you that the effort to get “racist, sexist, dead, white male” thinkers, philosophers, etc., removed from the curriculum was and continues to be very real.

    And no, I do not think “racism and sexism” are OK. I just see no point in invoking them against figures like Aristotle and Hume, unless one is going to act on it. Otherwise, as far as I am concerned, it is nothing but signalling.

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