Wednesday, November 25, 2009


by Thomas Riggins

Attention all Marxists! If you thought class struggle was the motive force of history, as certain manifesto writers have claimed, you are sadly mistaken. A new book by Daniel Lord Smail ("On Deep History and the Brain", California, 2007) has come up with the true motive force. This book is reviewed by Steven Mithen ("When We Were Nicer," London Review of Books, 23 January, 2008)and he informs us that Smail says the motive force of history is "the manipulation of human chemistry by the substances we consume" willingly or unwillingly.

Smail's thesis is that our actions are based on the long ago evolutionary development of our neurochemistry. Smail also reverses the biology/culture relationship that holds that culture is derivative from biology. At least this is what Mithen says. We will see that this is not the case since it is going to be neurochemistry (biology) which shapes culture and history.

History doesn't really begin at Sumer. It begins way back in the Old Stone Age (the Palaeolithic) when the major neurochemical agents influencing our brain evolved. Many of these Palaeolithic chemicals are still at work today. Smail says: "What passes for progress in human civilisation is often nothing more than new developments in the art of changing body chemistry."

Mithen tells us this is not just a rehash of the "crude evolutionary psychology" of Steven Pinker, Leda Cosmides, John Tooby and others, but is a "far more sophisticated"
theory. We shall see.

Smail says human history begins way before the advent of writing five thousand years ago and the view that there was an "unchanging prehistoric past" and then "history" is wrong. Mithen, who is an archaeologist, is in tune with this view. So, apparently, is everybody else these days.

This is a terminological problem (or non problem). Marxists use the term "history" to refer to the advent of class society basically about five thousand or so years ago in the Middle East and "gentile" or "clan" society for the non class societies of "prehistoric" times. They do not believe that prehistoric societies (and what is "historic" and "prehistoric" varies in different parts of the world)
were "unchanging." Rather they were dynamic and rapidly evolving, or stagnant, depending on the physical environments they found themselves in and that they had to adapt to to survive.

Homo sapiens arose from Homo erectus about 200,000 years ago and Mithen thinks, as do many archaeologists, that there was a radical break in human prehistory about 70,000 years ago "when the first unambiguously symbolic artifacts and body adornments are known" (Blombos Cave, South Africa). Right after this time H. sapiens began to spread out of Africa into the rest of the world. Mithen thinks that this has something to do with the final evolution of language. He also thinks, because of the "radical break" Smail may be wrong to deny some period of historylessness to the period prior to 200,000 years ago. Mithen says, "'the myth of Palaeolithic stasis' may, in fact, be the reality prior to Homo sapiens." By the tenor of his own argument, it might be the reality prior to the "radical break" as well.

Using the word "history" in a greatly expanded, and I think unhelpful manner, he says that Smail is right about "history" itself going farther back than H. sapiens. Mithin agrees that even chimpanzees and baboons "have history." This is because their current social reality is based on their past social reality. So almost everything is historical. Why stop at baboons? Why not include the birds and the bees? It is far more useful to apply the term "history" to the written or remembered record and keep the term "prehistory" for the deep past. If your group has no consciousness of "history", you probably don't have a history to be conscious of.

New problems spring up when we leave the Old Stone Age for the New-- for the period called by Vere Gordon Childe, the great Marxist archaeologist of the first half of the 20th century, the time of the "Neolithic Revolution." This is the period of about 8000 to 3000 B.C. (at least for Europe and its immediate neighbors). The previous "mode of production" had been hunting and gathering. Now we settled down to farming and soon to building towns and cities, classes, and the first state structures. So, I think, history does begin at Sumer after all. This doesn't mean prehistory is a blank. Childe call the Neolithic a Revolution because, as a good Marxist, he saw the new mode of production, large scale agriculture, as a qualitative leap and change from the hunting and gathering of the past.

This was due, as Mithen points out, to H. sapiens reaction "to the start of the Holocene some 11,600 years ago, with its warmer and wetter climate than the preceding Pleistocene." Smail calls this period "the fulcrum of the great transformation" of human history. This is exactly what Childe thought as well.

Now we come to Smails' special theory. As a result of the Neolithic's new living conditions-- humans began to settle down and give up the hunting gathering life style. At this time, says Mithin, Smail says "our Palaeolithic-evolved neurophysiology" begins to assert itself. The primate social structure, as seen in chimpanzees and baboons and based on domination "often" brought about by "random acts of violence" to keep lower ranking members of the group fearful and stressed out, begins to reappear.

This argument does not seem to hold water. Mithen points out most hunter gathers have egalitarian societies. He says the evidence is that the "majority of Palaeolithic hunter-gathers were egalitarian" as suggested, by the way, by Engels in his discussion of "primitive communism" in "The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State." So the neurophysiology that we evolved in the Palaeolithic would not have resembled the chimp-baboon model necessary for Smails' theory.

Mithen, however, finds some of this new theory fairly persuasive. Smail says the new political elites that developed to control trade and agriculture "needed to control the brains and bodies of their subordinates by manipulating their neuro-chemistry." So they ruled by relying on "random acts of violence" against their people to keep them down through fear and stress, via the head baboon, since "control of agricultural surpluses or trade routes was not enough to maintain their power base."

This is just completely unscientific speculation worthy of a vision of the Neolithic conjured up out of reading too many Edgar Rice Burroughs novels. Of course, Smail holds that the rulers were not aware of what they were doing-- Mithin says, "they were simply repeating what had seemed to work in gaining them power. Random violence is a winner every time."

There is no evidence that the political elite in the Neolithic period used random violence against their people to maintain power. This is just speculation and guess work. Mithin however says that it wasn't just physical violence. People who know about the Neolithic site of Chatalhoyuk (Anatolia: 7000 BC) will find Smail's views "particularly striking and persuasive." Why is this?

Because, at this site "we find horrendous wall paintings and sculptures showing decapitated people and monstrous animals." This is very emotive. Lets give a more scientific formulation. Here "we find strange (to us) wall paintings and sculptures showing headless people and large unknown mythological animals. We do not know what the purpose of these images was. Perhaps it was religious." This is not the conclusion of Mithin.

He simply asserts that these images show "a culture of suppression through terror, with-- no doubt-- a priestly caste benefiting from these visions of a Neolithic hell." Terror was used to "attack the body chemistry" of the people {evolved during the baboon Reign of Terror)to make them fearful and afraid of those "intent on maintaining power." These speculations are completely without merit.

From the Neolithic we advance into the historical period proper. Since our neural states "are plastic and thus manipulable" we find that "new forms of economic, political and social behaviour emerge during the course of history." The six most important vis a vis our neurochemistry have become also the most important for human culture. The six are "religion, sport, monumental architecture, alcohol, legitimised violence-- and sex for fun." At least random violence is not on the list. These six are the "most effective in moulding and manipulating our body chemistry."

So the Romans had it down with bread and circuses. First put the subject population under stress, then provide relief which advantages the ruling class. "What better way," Mithen notes, "for elites to build and maintain their power than to create stress within a population by a culture of terror and then very kindly to offer the means for its alleviation by arranging such events." Examples today would be professional sports, movies, and especially great events such as the Olympics. Mithin quotes Etienne de la Boetie who in 1548 referred to sporting and theatrical extravaganzas as "tools of tyranny" and "drugs for the people."

Methods used by others to influence or control our brain and body chemistry Smail calls "teletropic mechanisms." Those we use on ourselves are "autotropic." Mithin points out that it "is far better for those in power to be in control of their subordinates' body chemistry than to leave it to the subordinates themselves." This is why many religions, for example, as ruling class tools, reject such autotropic mechanisms as masturbation, sex for fun, alcohol, and recreational drugs. The state, in fact, seeks to regulate and control autotropic mechanisms as far as possible.

The plot thickens. The world historical change from the Middle Ages to our modern world may be better explained by the manipulation of neurochemistry than by Marxist theory. The European discovery and use of tea, chocolate, coffee, and tobacco allowed people to regulate their own brain chemistry, for these items are all autotropic. The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of the struggle between autotropic and teletropic mechanisms. Smail is credited with Mithin's comment that the "Making of the Palaeolithic relevant to the drinking of tea is no mean feat."

Two quotes from "On Deep History and the Brain" sum up the argument and bring us to the book's grand conclusion. "We can finally dispense with the idea, once favored by some historians, that biology gave way to culture with the advent of civilisation. This has it all backward. Civilisation did not bring an end to biology. Civilisation ENABLED important aspects of human biology, and the drama of the past five thousand years lies in the fact that it did so in ways that were largely unanticipated in the Palaeolithic era." The second quote is "we need not dig only in the dusty topsoil of the strata that form the history of humanity. The deep past is also our present and future."

What Marxist would disagree with this first comment. It only says that human potential has been increased by the inventions of civilization and that these inventions were not foreseen in the Old Stone Age. What Smail means is that the brain chemistry that evolved in the Old Stone Age was not adapted for the changes that lay ahead, it being oriented towards the teletropic. But we have already seen that H. sapiens in the Palaeolithic was largely egalitarian (primitively communistic) and so autotropic. The evolution of our brain chemistry fits into any type of society it would seem. As for the notion of the "deep past": it is of course true that we are the product of evolution, of animal ancestors and that this heritage remains with us today and forms part of our nature. Who, since Darwin, would deny that.

The question remains, how are we best to understand history, the rise of capitalism, the contradictions of imperialism and the way to overcome them and proceed on the road to socialism? Historical Materialism, the theories of Marx, Engels and Lenin are still to my mind the best methods to use to answer these questions. It is true that candy is dandy, and that chocolate, masturbation, and alcohol are handy autotropic devices, but they won't replace class struggle and the analysis of the means and modes of production as ways to change the world. Political power does not grow out of a Hershey bar.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Heidegger and the Hideous

by Thomas Riggins

Martin Heidegger isn't a philosopher that progressives are likely to consider worthwhile reading. After all, he was an anti-Semite, a follower of Hitler, and most hideous of all, someone who likened the mass extermination of human beings to the excesses of battery farming.

Nevertheless, his fame and influence continue to grow. His collected works will weigh in at more than 80 volumes, more than enough to keep generations of graduate students at work on their PhDs well into the next century. Most of them, I am happy to to say, will not be graduate students in philosophy.

Heidegger's greatest influence is with students of the arts and of literature who, shame to say, perpetuate his baneful Nazi influence into the future. So let me give a preliminary rundown on some current writing on Herr Heidegger. A recent book by Daniel Morat has come out in Germany: "Von der Tat zur Gelassenheit: Konservatives Denken bei Martin Heidegger, Ernst Junger und Friedrich Georg Junger 1920-1960." This 592 page work on conservative thought (the conservative movement is welcome to all three of these men but I am am only going to discuss Heidegger)has been reviewed by George Steiner (Cambridge University)in the June 27,2008 issue of TLS.

Steiner tells us some interesting things about Heidegger studies. That 80+ edition of his works I mentioned above, for instance, "continues to generate disturbing uncertainties as to editorial method." There are questions about the integrity of the German text. There is fear it is being "cleaned up" so that overt Nazi expressions or ideas will be eliminated. Since English translations will be made from this edition, my fear is that unsuspecting students in the USA and elsewhere will be infected with a subtle form of Heideggerian fascism without knowing it. Even worse, or at least just as bad, the next generation of German students will not realize the overt Nazi sympathies of Heidegger.

Outside of his disciples, who practically worship him, Heidegger's reputation among professional philosophers is mostly negative. Marxists don't like him, and the English speaking philosophers in the Analytic and Positivist movements (Wittgensteinians, Carnapians, etc,) consider him, Steiner points out, "an impenetrable, loquacious, charlatan... [whose] hectoring verbiage [is] fatally tainted by and interwoven with his politics."

What is morally hideous about Heidegger is that even after WW2 and the actions of the Nazis were public knowledge, Steiner reminds us that "he never renounced his idealization of the National Socialist movement [and] refused to condemn the Final Solution...." How is it possible that this man remains an intellectual light to many Western intellectuals and academics?

Steiner asks just what is the relation of Heidegger's philosophy to Nazism? His critics, such as Karl Lowith, Jaspers, and Habermas, find "a fundamental organic link" in his philosophical views ["Being and Time" for example] "and his involvements with Hitlerism." His supporters (Derrida and others "in the deconstructionist ambit") "have denounced this very question as an impertinent vulgarity." It seems that Heidegger was such a great thinker it would have been impossible for him to really be a Nazi at heart. Steiner quotes the philosopher Gadamer as calling him "the greatest of thinkers." Nevertheless, as the review makes clear, "Heidegger's strategic silences and self-justifications after 1945 can be held to put in doubt any claims to intellectual integrity and philosophical seriousness."

Steiner points out that other books have documented Heidegger's relations with Ernst Junger and Carl Schmitt and how they "sympathized with Nazism and attempted various apologetic manoeuvres after the debacle." What Morat brings to the table with his new book is the role of Freidrich Georg Junger, Ernst's younger brother-- an important member of the "conservative revolution." All of these men were allied in their contempt for "sickly bourgeois-liberal values" (let alone Marxism!).

As I said above, I am dealing with Heidegger so I will not go into the role of the Jungers. Heidegger, in the true Nazi spirit, saw Western civilization in intellectual and cultural decay (for different reasons than Marxists) and in need of rebirth along the lines of "Mein Kampf." Heidegger with his commitment to the concept of "destiny" blames the decline of the West on Plato! That is how far back we have to go to find how our understanding of "destiny" had been "deflected." In more modern times the "rationalism of Descartes" was also to blame and would have to be overcome for a "genuine rebirth."

So, Hitler was the tool "chosen", as it were, by destiny to bring about the rebirth of our degenerate civilization. Steiner tells us why 1945 was "a disaster of virtually cosmic proportions" for Heidegger. It was because Heidegger thought the only language that real philosophy could be done in (other than ancient Greek in its day) was the German language and that German culture was "the elect carrier of supreme philosophical illumination." With the downfall of the noble Germans only the American-Soviet hegemony was left-- both members of which represented materialistic technological scientism when compared to the great spiritual values of the Reich.

Steiner ends his review saying that there are at least four questions that remain unanswered with regard to Heidegger. The origin of his "mesmeric" style, his claim that his works are "provisional" for "a time in which men have not yet learned to think" [choosing Nazism indicates there was no thinking going on], his belief that "salvation lies with the poets" (Holderlin and Sophocles), and finally the connection between "Sein und Zeit" and its stress on "Sorge" (concern)and his Nazism.

Finally a question "that really matters" even more than these four. How did Heidegger and others, "of such stature", let themselves "become enmeshed in the politics of the inhuman?"

A preliminary answer may be that people really don't understand the latent Nazism in Heidegger's thought so his "stature" is undeserved. Also, maybe Nazism is not as "inhuman" as we like to think.It is rather one of possible outcomes of capitalism under stress. The attempted extermination of the Native Americans, slavery, the holocaust, Vietnam, Apartheid, the Taliban's, and others, treatment of women, the ethnic cleansing of Palestine were all done and are being done by humans-- not just by Germans. The problem is humans motivated by greed for the lands and wealth of others due to an economic system predicated on profit and financial conquest. To understand "Sein und Ziet" we must first understand "Das Kapital." Only in the socialist future, when we are fully human, will we understand what was "inhuman" in our past.

Thursday, November 12, 2009


Remarks on Tim Crane's "Fraught with Ought" London Review of Books, 19 June 2008
by Thomas Riggins

"Fraught with Ought" reviews two new books concerning the American philosopher Wilfrid Sellars (1912-1989). These are a collection of papers about Sellars by Jay Rosenberg (Wilfrid Sellers: Fusing the Images, Oxford, 2007) and an anthology (In the Space of Reasons: Selected Essays of Wilfred Sellars, Harvard, 2007). Why all this interest in an academic philosopher, unknown to the general public, and dead for almost twenty years? And what has any of this to do with Marxism?

Briefly, Sellars was an analytic philosopher, a member of a school stemming back over a hundred years, that grew out of the rejection of the European philosophical tradition growing out of German Idealism, especially Kant and Hegel. Marxism also grew out of this German tradition.

Recently some analytic philosophers have come to believe that the wholesale rejection of Hegel and others in the classical tradition has been a mistake and was based on a faulty understanding of their works by some of the founders of the analytic movement, especially Bertrand Russell.

Sellars' philosophy is being examined in this light and is taken by some to be useful in reclaiming Kant and Hegel, for example, and using them as part of the program of analytic philosophy-- viz., of using the analysis of ordinary language usage and the philosophy of language to find the solution to philosophical problems. Rehabilitating the thinkers from whom Marx and Engels learned so much and whose ideas they grappled with in forming their own is also a way of reminding the contemporary world of the continuing relevance of Marxism.

One of Sellars' most important works was his 1956 paper "Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind." Although not in this work, Sellars gives an interesting definition of the aim of philosophy:"The aim of philosophy, abstractly formulated, is to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term."

This really is quite general and could be said of the natural and social sciences as well. The aim of Marxism could be said to be to bring about the end of human exploitation in the broadest possible sense by the most effective means, considered in the broadest possible sense, of eliminating capitalism and abolishing classes.

Marxists also share a common aim with Sellars. He wanted, in his own words. "to formulate a scientifically oriented, naturalistic realism which would 'save the appearances.'" The last expression refers to a desire not to stray too far from common sense. His love of science is the same as that of all true Marxists and is very clearly expressed by him when he writes, "in the dimension of describing and explaining the world, science is the measure of all things, of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not."

In other words, he shares with Marxists the idea, as Crane says, that philosophy's "fundamental task" is "to explain how things seem (in the broadest sense of that term) consistent with what science has told us about the world." The term "scientia mensura" is used by Sellarsians (it could be adopted by Marxists as well)to sum up this view. The job of philosophy is to bridge what Sellars called the "manifest image" of the world [i.e., common sense]and the "scientific image" [we are just a bunch of vibrating strings or atoms, etc.] Crane says Sellars developed his own "systematic philosophy" to deal with this problem. Let us see how far it agrees with Marxism.

Many philosophers such as Sellars have been bothered by three things about the manifest image of the world, according to Crane, namely intentionality or meaning, value, and consciousness. All bourgeois realists, just as all Marxist materialists, accept "that there is a world independent of thought." Bourgeois realists are in fact materialists. Sellars, however, has a problem with how we become aware of the world and how we use language to describe it.

Marxist and non-Marxist realists alike tend to see language as somehow reflecting or referring to the objects of the world. We learn what "cat" means by referring to a real cat. "According to this view," Crane says, "things in the world cause our minds to form certain representations, which is why they represent what they do." This is what Lenin thought when he said consciousness or sensation is a picture of reality. Crane says it is the view of the early Wittgenstein (of the "Tractatus"). But Selars doesn't buy this. He has his own theory by which he replaces "reference" with "inference." As Crane puts it, "To talk about the meaning of a word is not to talk about the relation it bears to the object it stands for. Rather, it is to talk about what inferences-- what legitimate patterns of thought and reasoning-- that word can be used in."

This is a very dicey development. It seems to grow out of the later Wittgenstein (the "Philosophical Investigations") and his notion of a "language game." Whether this view can be reconciled with materialism is still being debated. What is really distinctive in this view is, Crane says, the role that normativity comes to play in the system. Sellars refers to words as "natural-linguistic objects" and we have to learn the rules (norms) for their use: "they tell us," Crane points out, "how words should and should not be used. Signification and meaning are normative matters." This leads us to a very important key concept of his philosophy-- namely, "the myth of the given." I'm not sure this "myth" is really a myth.

Sellars thinks of thought as "inner speech",as Crane says, "as employing the concepts one has learned in the course of acquiring a language to make inferences which result in dispositions to make 'outer' verbal judgments." So thinking, just as speaking, is subject to rules and norms.

Crane uses the example of a fig tree to clarify Sellars' views. An old fashioned materialist ( such as Lenin ) might say that we have the notion of a fig tree as a result of having learned how to use the words "fig tree" as a result of our early education. Our senses were presented with a particular object, our parents say "fig tree" and we learn that this "given" is to be referred to as a "fig tree."
This is an example (but not a good one) of "the myth of the given." Sellars says "all awareness is a linguistic affair." As crane puts it "the perceptually given" is not "a mental episode which is prior to thought and language." This has the smell of idealism clinging to it.

Lets try to be clearer. Crane says Sellars holds, "Every episode of taking something in is really a case of conceptualising it, and conceptualising requires being subject to the norms which can only come with the acquisition of a language." Sellars is really saying it is wrong to think there was a "concept of x" in the mind of the child just waiting to be given the name "fig tree". It was only by learning a language that a fig tree could present itself to the child as a fig tree and not just some kind of perceptual static.

Sellars' ideas about sense perception are weak, I think, and I agree with Crane when he says he thinks them "unconvincing." I think, for example, that consciousness and consciousness of objects have evolved from organisms that were precursors of H. sapiens. Other animals certainly have awareness and can even think yet are without "language"-- or least without what we humans think of as "language". Sellars appears to believe that only humans have language. If we grant this and restrict ourselves to "human language" then Crane thinks Sellars' ideas are "clearer and more
tractable" if we confine the inferentialist theory to thought and language and leave sense perception out of it.

Now thought, language, meaning, and inference are the result of brain processes that can be studied by science. This is the case even if meaning, thought, and knowledge will not themselves be, as Crane says, part of "the scientific image as such." Why is this so? Sellars writes that it is because "in characterising an episode or a state as that of KNOWING, we are not giving an empirical description of that episode or state; we are placing it in the logical space of reasons, of justifying and being able to justify what one says." And Crane reminds us, this also goes for saying and thinking. If I say, think or know that e.g., my redeemer liveth, or that workers by uniting will only lose their chains I must give reasons that logically lead to a justification for these statements. I am not just referring to some chemical or neurological activity in my brain.

What is important about this part of Sellars' theory is, according to Crane, that questions dealing with "meaning and significance" are not about facts-- "questions about what is the case" -- they are questions concerning "what ought to be." They are not questions for science. Sellars thinks they are normative because we have to follow rules for justification which are located in "the logical space of reasons." Sellars says. "If they are thinking THIS, then they OUGHT to think THAT too."

What is going on here? It seems natural to distinguish between factual (scientific) statements and value (moral, un- or non- scientific) statements. But, says Crane, Sellars has gone beyond this dichotomy: "not only moral value, but also thought and consciousness, are (in his words) 'fraught with ought.'" There are problems with this I think. If I give justifications for my belief that united workers have only their chains to lose those justifications are intended by me to be true factual statements about the world and thus subject to scientific scrutiny. It is scientific socialism to which I appeal. It is another question, indeed fraught with ought, whether that commitment logically forces me to embrace the dictatorship of the proletariat as well.

Some have come to think that Sellars' views would cause a "sea change" in philosophy. Crain disagrees and thinks Sellars' "inferentialism" with respect to "meaning and thought" can be weaned away from other elements in his system and adopted by those with "more traditional" attitudes towards "the self and the mind." I think that there is no need for Sellarsian extremism on the question of the "scientia mensura." To save the appearances, the "manifest world", we don't have to divorce it so completely from the "scientific world" as Sellars maintains. We only need show there is no manifest contradiction between the two worlds. There is no contradiction between our being human beings running about with "minds" on the one hand, and being ultimately vibrating strings or atoms on the other.

Marxists view the human world of consciousness as a higher level organization of matter (that stuff existing independently of the human mind from which the universe and everything in it derives) and what science ultimately discovers this stuff to be will not be in contradiction to the view that the manifest world is part of the continuum logically derived from the knowledge of the scientific world. Thus, Marxists can adopt some portions of Sellars' inferentialism, especially with regard to the consistency of their thoughts with respect to what they ought to believe and do given what they say they believe and do.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

How To Read and Understand History: Russell vs Marx

Russell vs Marx
By Thomas Riggins

How to Read and Understand History” was originally written in 1943. My copy is from a reprint put out in 1957 by Philosophical Library, Inc.

Russell tells us straight away that he is only looking at history “as a pleasure,” as an enjoyable way to pass one’s free time, and that his approach is that of an “amateur.” Nevertheless, he thinks this approach will show what he has usefully derived from history and what others may also. Let us see.

He divides history into two parts – the large, which leads to an understanding of how the world got the way it is, and the small, which “makes us know interesting men and women, and promotes a knowledge of human nature” (supposing there is such a thing independent of culture). He thinks we should begin the study of history not by reading about it but rather from watching “movies with explanatory talk.” I think he has very young children in mind, because even "historical" movies are more fiction than history.

Russell maintains there have been only “three great ages of progress in the world”: the first being the growth of civilization in the Near East (Egypt, Babylonia), the second being Greece (from Homer to Archimedes), and the third being from the 15th century to the present. This scheme appears to be Eurocentric.

Russell appears to credit “progress” or historical development to men of genius. He says the proof of this is that the Incas and the Maya never invented the wheel. But they certainly had men of “genius,” as they had monumental architecture and the Maya and others had invented writing. It doesn’t occur to Russell that inventions such as the wheel are called forth from certain needs within a culture. The Maya and the Inca did just fine without the wheel. What they needed was gunpowder to give a proper greeting to the Spanish.

Russell also thinks that we would still be living at the productive level of the 18th century if “by some misfortune, a few thousand men of exceptional ability had perished in infancy.” This begs the question. Do the social conditions people find themselves in call forth their ingenuity and inventiveness, thus leading to progress, or is it all due to men of genius. Russell apparently believes in the ‘great man theory of history,’ but this theory rests on the logical fallacy I mentioned above (begging the question.)

Russell does not approve of those who "desire to demonstrate some 'philosophy' of history," and he singles out "Hegel, Marx, Spengler, and the interpreters of the Great Pyramid and its ‘divine message’." When it comes to Hegel, he even maintains that his view of history "is not a whit less fantastic than the views of those who divine by the Great Pyramid."

In all fairness to Hegel, he and Russell may share more ideas about the nature of history than the latter thinks. In a nutshell, Hegel saw history as a gradual increase in human self-consciousness of freedom, finally leading to a condition where all human beings would be equally respected and their rights recognized. Hegel also appeals to empirical evidence, i.e., history itself, to justify this conclusion.

The end which Hegel envisioned has had its ups and downs, but the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (part of the UN Charter) is the type of progress he had in mind, even though there must still be a long process of development for the ideals of this document to become translated into actuality.

In theory, I am sure, Russell would not disagree with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, despite residual racist and misogynist opinions he might have shared with the people of his generation, not to mention latent eugenicist tendencies.

For instance, he believes female behavior should be "circumscribed by prudential considerations". Women who have been free to do as they like, i.e., women who have become rulers ("empresses regnant") have, in the main, "murdered or imprisoned their sons, and often their husbands; almost all have had innumerable lovers” (one would think Russell might have approved of this considering his private life).

"If this is what women would do if they dared," he writes, "we ought to be thankful for social restraints." The only example he gives is Catherine the Great. Henry VIII or Nero do not elicit similar thoughts about male behavior. We are also told that "men of supreme ability are just as congenitally different from the average as are the feeble-minded." This is a view he shares with Nietzsche.

The following opinion, however, is more in accord with what Hegel would believe. "Although," Russell writes, "history is full of ups and downs, there is a general trend in which it is possible to feel some satisfaction; we know more than our ancestors knew, we have more command over the forces of nature [this is highly problematic since our economic system seems to be in the process of destroying us and our natural environment], we suffer less from disease and from natural cataclysms [also problematic]." He adds that "violence is now mainly organized and governmental, and it is easier to imagine ways of ending this than of ending the sporadic unplanned violence of more primitive times."

We must remember that Russell was writing in 1943 in the midst of World War II. Nevertheless, his "general trend" is a nod to progress, and for him the founding of the UN, the growth of the concept of universal rights, and the spread of social democratic ideals are all in accord with Hegelian notions. Despite his dislike of the notion of a "philosophy of history", Russell's "general trend" is in accord with Hegel's outlook.

Besides being a closet Hegelian, it is interesting to note that this essay also reveals a Platonic bent to Russell's thought, and a decidedly non-Hegelian cyclical approach to history.

"The greatest creative ages,” Russell writes, “are those where opinion is free, but behavior is still to some extent conventional. Ultimately, however, skepticism breaks down moral tabus, society becomes impossibly anarchic, freedom is succeeded by tyranny, and a new tight tradition is gradually built up."

What is striking about this passage, besides its mechanical way of thinking, is that it seems to be in agreement with Russell's conservative critics. Russell, the "passionate skeptic," was himself accused of breaking down conventional moral beliefs, and it was objected that his teachings would lead to social breakdown and anarchy, and hence he should not be teaching at the City College of New York.

On the basis of the preceding passage, it appears that Russell might have even made the following statement: “It is true that I, Russell, am a skeptic, that I do think many conventional moral tabus are nonsense, and if my views are generally adopted a tyranny will replace our freedoms, since views such as mine lead to social breakdown and anarchy. Now, how about that teaching job?"

To be fair, Russell realizes this problem, which he later calls, "the dilemma between freedom and discipline." Russell needs a method to break the cycle described above, and he finds it in science, allied with what he calls "intelligence" (a rather amorphous concept).

"Genuine morality,” he writes, “cannot be such as intelligence would undermine, nor does intelligence necessarily promote selfishness. It only does so when unselfishness has been inculcated for the wrong reasons, and then only so long as its purview is limited. In this respect science is a useful element in culture, for it has a stability which intelligence does not shake, and it generates an impersonal habit of mind that makes it natural to accept a social rather than a purely individual ethic."

But this cannot be right. Here are some German scientists in 1943: "Well, personal ethical considerations aside, our society has asked us to figure our how much Zyklon-B should be delivered to Auschwitz to eliminate x number of social undesirables per day, and is Zyklon-B the best chemical for the task at hand. Let us calculate together."

The above comments and considerations seem to me to point out serious difficulties with some of Russell's ideas about the lessons one can learn from reading history the way he recommends – as a pleasurable leisure-time activity, one that assiduously avoids any attempt to formulate a philosophy of history.

"The men who make up philosophies of history," he writes, "may be dismissed as inventors of mythologies." His two primary bug-a-boos here are Hegel and Marx. He sees only two functions for the study of history. First we can look "for comparatively small and humble generalizations such as might form a beginning of a science (as opposed to a philosophy) of history."

This is pretty arbitrary. Why not the beginning of a philosophy as well as a science? Hegel insisted that philosophy was to be pursued as a rigorous scientific procedure, just as any other discipline claiming to arrive at knowledge. Marx also praised the scientific method and claimed his ideas were scientific.

The second function of history, according to Russell, is to seek "by the study of individuals ... to combine the merits of drama or epic poetry with the merit of truth." This is an Aristotelian approach. The first function "views man objectively, as the heavenly bodies are viewed by an astronomer; the other appeals to imagination."

I think it safe to say that Hegel and Marx fully agree with Russell's first function, but would object to his second function as having no place in an objective study of the historical process. In fact, the basis of Russell's animus towards Hegel and Marx is his opinion that they mix up his own second function with the first. I would like to conclude this brief presentation with a few remarks on Russell's criticism of Marx's views.

After a lively survey of the development of the West and an appreciation of some of the most interesting classical historians one ought to study (Herodotus, Thucydides, Plutarch, and Gibbon), Russell comes to Marx, whom he, in another essay, considers a free thinker and compares to Robert Owen and Thomas Paine.

In this essay, however, Marx is credited with founding the current interest in the economic interpretation of historical events. "Modern views," Russell says, "as to the relation of economic facts to general culture have been profoundly affected by the theory, first explicitly stated by Marx [and Engels], that the mode of production of an age (and to a lesser degree the mode of exchange) is the ultimate cause of the character of its politics, laws, literature, philosophy, and religion." Russell fails to mention the relations of production, a factor of prime importance for Marx and Engels.

Russell then says – and this is something that Lenin would certainly have agreed with, as would all who have been influenced by the Marxist classics – that this view "is misleading if accepted as a dogma, but it is valuable if used as a means of suggesting hypothesis." Russell adds that "It has indubitably a large measure of truth, though not so much as Marx believed." Just what was excessive in what "Marx believed" merits its own discussion, but in Russell’s essay Marx’s faults seem to be sins of omission rather than commission.

The "most important error" in Marx’s thought, according to Russell, is that "it ignores intelligence as a cause." It is difficult to understand this objection. Russell says that "men and apes, in the same environment, have different methods of securing food: men practice agriculture, not because of some extra-human dialectic compelling them to do so, but because intelligence shows them its advantages."

Granted that Marx was trying to explain the development of human society and not ape society, the question becomes, where did this "intelligence" come from? It appears that it just fell from the sky into human beings. A little dose of Darwin is needed here, and if Russell had read and been influenced by Engels' essay "The Role of Labor in the Transition from Ape to Man," he would not, I think, have had such a reified notion of "intelligence."

Russell says he does not want to imply that "intelligence is something that arises spontaneously in some mystical uncaused manner." He grants its causes are partly social, partly biological, and partly individual, and that "Mendelianism has made a beginning" into understanding its origins.

My point is that Marx did not "ignore intelligence as a cause." He did not single it out as a primary factor, because he saw it as part of the human condition that arises as a response to the evolution of the species and its interactions with the natural and social environment.

Russell's concern with "intelligence" appears to be the result of the prominence of the eugenics movement in his time and is reflected in his comment, quoted above, about the differences between the feeble-minded "average" folk and people such as himself ("of supreme ability").

"How to Read and Understand History" is an enjoyable introduction to some of Russell's ideas, but although one can enjoy it, one cannot, I think, understand history from reading it.

Monday, November 2, 2009

On the "God" Word

Thomas Riggins
(Political Affairs archive 2008)

Denis Noble has a review ("For a Redefinition of God") of Stuart A. Kauffman's new book REINVENTING THE SACRED: A NEW VIEW OF SCIENCE, REASON, AND RELIGION, in the 6-20-2008 issue of SCIENCE.

Well, if God is going to get a new definition let's see what it is. Those of us who are skeptical as to God's is-ness do not want to be doubting the is-ness of what isn't the is-ness we think it is but some other is-ness that is entirely different. Maybe we can even learn about God's relation to Marxism.

Kauffman, a theoretical biologist (there is an interesting Wikepedia article about him), argues that biology cannot be reduced to physics. This is anti-reductionist and Marxists could agree that there is a QUALITATIVE leap involved in the dialectics of emergent life. In biological evolution he says "ceaseless novelty" arises and "ceaseless creativity" takes place in nature. Is this a rehash of Henri Bergson's (1859-1941) CREATIVE EVOLUTION?

Because of this ceaseless creativity Kauffman wants to recreate or reinvent the concept of the "sacred." Noble doesn't say why. This is what Kauffman says, "Seeking a new vision of the real world and our place in it has been a central aim of this book-- to find common ground between science and religion so that we might collectively reinvent the sacred."

This will be a hopeless task since the new definition of God will be rejected by Christians, Muslims, and Jews, and most other people as well. No matter, as Noble quotes him as saying "we must use the God word, for my hope is to honorably steal its aura to authorize the sacredness of the creativity in nature."

Why must we use the "God" word this way. Why can't we use the "God" word this way: "There is no God." That is using the word and without "stealing" its "aura. "For Kauffman the "creativity of nature" = "God" or as Spinoza said "Nature" = "God".

How about this? History and the development of Marxism cannot be reduced to biology. Marxists are finding out, to their sorrow, the ceaseless novelty and creativity of history and Marxism. This makes Marxism, historical materialism, sacred due to its ceaseless creativity. I want to use the word "God", maybe even I must, so the "creativity of Marxism" = "God" and I will found the First Church of Marxism.

As for Kauffman, Noble asks, "So, could his concept of God as nature's ceaseless creativity be convincing?" You can pray to it (just don't expect any answer). You can love it if you want to but it doesn't concern itself about you so don't wait up for any calls, and don't overlook that lump. "God," Noble says, "is not even given the power that the Deists recognize." And that's not much compared to what traditional religious people expect. Maybe a few Unitarians here and and there, and some Buddhists, will buy into this idea.

Noble concludes, "Bringing science and religion together globally in the way that Kauffman wishes is not going to be easy [do you think?] -- as other ecumenical movements have repeatedly found [including my First Church of Marxism]-- but it is necessary." Again with the "necessary." If something is necessary it will come about. I'm placing my money on the First Church of Marxism.