Let’s resume our discussion of Paul Feyerabend’s recently (posthumously) published Philosophy of Nature, an idiosyncratic analysis of the evolution of Western culture via the succession of the “forms of life” aimed at making sense of the world: myth, philosophy, and science. (Part I; Part II; Part III) The fourth chapter is about the transition between myth and philosophy, or what Feyerabend refers to as the shift toward a conceptual (as opposed to a poetic) understanding of nature.
Indeed, the chapter begins with this statement: “In the seventh and eighth centuries Homer’s colorful and detailed image of humanity and nature underwent a series of changes that gave rise to Western literature, philosophy, and science … until in the fifth century BC in Athens we eventually find ourselves confronting science, politics, literature, philosophy, and numerous other disciplines as independent and in many respects modified.”
This is historically correct, but while most of us take the transition to have been an unqualified good, Feyerabend’s position is, shall we say, a little more nuanced, and far more skeptical. One of his points is that we “rush” to praise any change that smells even remotely of modernity, forgetting that we are reading the history of thought in a highly selective fashion. For instance:
“Everyone praises Anaximander for eliminating the personal gods — for being the first one who eventually approaches nature through sober observation, as befits a rational human being, and for removing the phantoms of an insufficiently tamed imagination. However, his theory of dualities, in which heat includes the heat of love and coldness the chills of hate, is thrown aside as a sad leftover of past confusions.” The point being that, obviously, Anaximander didn’t see it that way. But a similar example could be made of Newton, who both made some of the most important contributions to science and yet spent a significant chunk of his life studying alchemy and the Bible. We are certainly justified in filtering the history of ideas, keeping the good stuff and throwing away the rest, regardless of the genius of the people involved.
Feyerabend suggests that the shift from myth to philosophy in Ancient Greece had some advantages and some disadvantages: “Indirect descriptions of cosmological principles (in which I always also include notions of human nature) by means of suitably structured myths are replaced by their explicit formulation, first through a picturesque cosmogony (Hesiod, Anaximander) and subsequently through the imageless, gray medium of concepts.”
Where is the downside in this? “The Homeric human being was an open aggregate of limbs, feelings, and perceptions, a playground of partly internal and partly external elements of consciousness, a switchboard processing countless factors. The new human is an ‘autonomous subject’ with self-willed ideas, motives, and feelings, and this subject is both emotionally and epistemologically separate from its environment.” In other words, it sounds like Feyerabend is suggesting that philosophy, and later on its offspring, science, began the process of alienation of humanity from its natural environment.
In fact, he says so explicitly shortly thereafter: “Concentration on abstract ideas of little content further leads to an obliteration of our community with the world and other humans. We notice an increasing alienation … Parmenides represents the high point of this destruction. The philosophy that systematically developed the novel, more abstract notions isolated itself from the life of tribe and city; it became a specialty practiced by the learned, who later would transform the city’s life from the outside and often by means of force (Plato in Sicily!).”
Not positive what the problem was with Plato in Sicily. Plato famously left Athens after the death of Socrates, clearly disenchanted with the very idea of democracy, an institution he blamed for the execution of his friend and mentor. He arrived in Syracuse and became the tutor of the young king Dionysius. That didn’t quite work out, and Plato barely escaped from the island with his life. I’m just not sure that that episode contributed to human alienation from its environment.
But back to that sense of alienation, allegedly caused by philosophy (but just as likely, I should think, by the evolving structure of society and it concomitant cultural evolution): “[it] transformed [humans] from a component of nature and society, directly subjected to the impact of both, into their observer and transformer … New institutions such as democracy, which lends the individual a hitherto unknown latitude of action and thought, tragedy, which indirectly and by use of concrete emotions proposes new behaviors and critiques old ones, religious community, which attempts to reinstate the old tribal morale, and philosophical schools, which attempt similar things in a more conceptual manner, served to solve the emotional and social problems.”
Well, this is a mixed bag. Surely some of these things are bad overall (e.g., religious institutions enforcing tribal morality), but for others Feyerabend’s verdict is more questionable (e.g., is it that bad — Trump aside — that democracy gives people unprecedented latitude of action and thought?).
One of the underlying questions here is why did philosophy emerge when it did? Feyerabend proposes a broad analysis, which includes technological advancements (especially concerning warfare) and an increase in general wealth, the circumnavigation of the African continent ordered by an Egyptian king, the Persians sailing through the strait of Gibraltar, and Euthymenes traveling in the South Atlantic, all examples of major cultural changes that characterized the period. As he puts it: “the special form of life that we now proudly call ‘rational thought’ — without having any idea of what it consists in and what its advantages are — developed surprisingly quickly, nourished by ancient traditions, contemporary factors, random effects of more recent historical events, the aftereffects of Homer’s rationalism, a desire for universality, Ionian no-nonsense directness, a critical turn against legends, and new experiences of the self and the world, affecting all of their causes retroactively and uniting with them in manifold combinations.”
Anaximander and the other Ionians changed the way we think about the world, moving us from the idea of gods arbitrarily imposing laws on the cosmos to the concept of natural law, immanent in the universe itself. Predictably, Feyerabend is not convinced that this was an unqualified good:
“Today this step is generally regarded as ‘rational,’ and the gradual elimination of divine traces as a further increase in rationality. Yet this means identifying rationalism with materialism — a dubitable procedure based on a naïve naturalistic interpretation of the material. It indicates an oversight of the possibility that materialism may have contradicted the contemporary experience of the world, and so it may be considered ‘irrational’ in light of an empiricist methodology.”
Let me unpack this a bit. Feyerabend is contrasting the Homeric and the Ionian world views, arguing that what Anaximander and the others were proposing may have been in conflict with an empiricist stance, because people had really being experiencing the world as populated by gods and vital forces. This may very well be, but it is analogous to the “theory-driven” conclusion that there really is not such thing as a sunrise or a sunset, their appearance being caused by the rotation of our planet on its axis. This too goes against the “empirical” observation that the sun rises and sets every day, but that just means that a naive empiricist view of the world is, well, naive! I would therefore suggest that the Ionians, the forerunners of modern science, really did take a step forward in our understanding of the world. Whether the subsequent development of science made possible by the Ionian gamble has then contributed to the alienation of humans from their environment is a distinct question. Whether and what extent that alienation is a negative thing is yet another question, and the answers to those cannot simply be taken for granted, as Feyerabend appears to do.
The next disreputable character in Feyerabend’s treatment of early philosophy is Parmenides: “The impact of Parmenidean thought on oriental [sic] philosophy and science can hardly be overstated. Parmenides was the thinker who replaced concrete sequences of events with invariable and purely conceptual laws, thus strictly separating experience of the world from reality, intuition from thought, knowledge from action. Mathematics owes him the turn from the intuitive to the abstract and its ‘rise’ from a general theory of the life world to a theory of ideal entities. Science is indebted to him for its belief in eternal laws and its axiomatic method of representation, which has now come to be regarded as the universally valid basis of understanding.”
Again, I’m not positive on why we should assent to the idea that the above listed developments are negative, or even a mixed bag. Be that as it may, after Parmenides, Feyerabend sees a split between two general approaches to understanding the world within philosophy:
“The first group of theories attempts to solve the problem of motion and development by means of concepts and entities that do not have any direct counterpart in everyday experience [Democritus, Plato] … the second group of theories attempts to grasp the objects of our experience in a more direct manner and to show that the concepts of ordinary language used in this undertaking are not too far removed from the Parmenidean ideal of invariability [Aristotle].”
Broadly speaking, the split corresponds to that between the traditions of rationalism and empiricism that were finally reconciled only in the 18th century by Kant, but I am now getting ahead of myself, since we have another chapter to go before we arrive at modern science and philosophy.