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War! Uh! Huh! What Is It Good For? Absolutely–Okay, Never Mind

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So John says he knows that the American, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand governments evolved from the British, and that they’re similar and different in many ways, but he doesn’t see anything he could use that information for. 

And Robert says we don’t have “departments” of alchemy and astrology any more, so philosophy has nothing to do except blither about and be sort of like religion.

On the subject of what is it good for, I’d first like to point out that we know that therapsids are the intermediate forms between reptiles and mammals, and we take endless (and very expensive) measurements of the rate at which the universe is expanding, and there is absolutely nothing we can do with either  piece of information, or with a significantly large hunk of what the sciences study and discover.

We study it because it is there to know.  Period.  We want to know because we want to kno.  A love of knowledge for its own sake is the basis for all human progress.   It’s another one of those things the Greeks invented without which we could never have built the scientific civilization we’re so proud of now.

But physics and chemistry are now separate departments–rather than divisions of philosophy, as they started out–because we’ve found new ways of investigating the things they concern themselves with.

Like it or not, ethics, government, and human nature are areas where we desperately need to know and understand, but where no alternative paths to discovery yet exist.

Anthropology certainly investigates “cultural norms,” but its purpose is to catalogue and describe them.   Moral or ethical philsophy often also investigates cultural norms, but looks to compare them, to figure out the conseqences o each set of ideas and to determine the moral partially–note the partially–on the basis of what those consequences are.

As for human nature–the evolutionary psychologists are interesting for providing a scientific basis for the assumption (before the twentieth century, the fixed assumptions of everybody everywhere) that human nature is largely inborn, but it’s not much good at doing anything about that except positing genetic surgery to get rid of some human fault or the other.

And clinical psychology is mostly a mess.  I’d say that, based on most of what comes out of the “clinical psych community” these days–there’s a move underfoot to make “bitterness” a “disorder” in the new  DSM–clinical psych is not only not a knew and better way to understand human nature, it’s a positive step backwards. 

But on top of that, philosophy departments do indeed–or good ones do–insist that people read Aristotle’s Natural History and quite a bit more of what you’d think is “discarded” science, because the point of studying intellectual history–philosophy, literature, et al–is to replicate as far as possible the evolution of the thought..

Historical events are not available for us to participate in.  The evolution of mammals is not available for us to participate in.  We have to look at these things from the outside, describe them as well as possible, and go from there.

But intellectual history is available for us to paticipate in.  We don’t have to read “about” what Aristotle or Kant or Jefferson thought, we can read Aristotle and Kant and Jefferson. 

And the fact that we can do this has had, over time, very real consequences in the very real world.  Jefferson and Madison and  Adams were all educated in classics, first and foremost.  They read Plato and  Aristotle and Seneca and Cicero, and then they read John Locke–who’d read all the same things.  They knew Milton’s Aereopagetica and Martin Luther’s The Conscience of a Christian.  They took what they knew, looked at how it had worked itself out in history, and came up with a plan for a Republic that they thought would work better because they’d cured a few of the kinks Republics had tended to have.

We don’t read Plato and Aristotle know because we’re can’t decide who’s right and whose wrong.  We read them because they’re among the first steps in a long journey which we want to participate in.  Participating in that journey is valuable in itself–just as studying the evolution of mammals is valuable in itself–but at the moment, I think it’s also vitally, practically important.

I feel like we’re rowing in a sea of ignoance so profound and so universal it’s coming close to swamping us.  It comes from both the left and the right, neither of which have any idea how this country was actually founded, or on what principles, or by what reasoning.

Both sides throw around breathtakingly inane crap that would have put a 1939 fifth grader into fits of giggles.  The Right declares that we’re a “Christian nation” fonded on “Judeo-Christian principles” and that we couldn’t have derived any of what we do from the Greeks and the Romans because they didn’t have the concept that “all men are created equal.”  This argument proves that its proponents not only know virtually nothing about the American founding or the men who made it, but nothing about the intellectual history of “Judeo-Christian principles,” either.

The left junps up and down declaring that separation of Church and state means nobody can mention God in public or base any decision he makes (in office or out) on his faith, and that the Second Amendment doesn’t give individuals the right to own guns because it was meant to make sure states could field militias.   These arguments prove that their proponents know no history and don’t even know what a militia was at the time the Bill of Rights was written.

The  more people I have with a thorough grounding in the Humanities–philosophy and literature as well as history–the less the likelihood that I have to put up with arguments like these, or the endless erosion of the rights and liberties that have been fundamental to this place at this historical moment in time.

If we have enough people who know this–all of this–if we have enough people who have actually participated in the conversation from beginning to end, then no matter what falls apart, we’ll be able to put it back together, or put it together in new ways that may last longer and be less prone to faults.

If we lose this and keep the math and science, the math and science will not be able to reproduce liberty, democracy, or the principle that every individual is an end in himself and not the means to the ends of any other. 

And in the long run, we’ll lose the math and scence, too. 

And here I am, and I never got around to the statues.

The other da, Gail remarked on the differenes between the idealizing Greek style in statuary and the Renaissance style with more acceptance of human fraility, and I wanted to say something–which speaks to Cheryl’s thing about heroes, too, and the way we portray them–about the Roman statuary of the early Republic/Beginning of the Empire.

Because the Romans produced statues, of Julius Caesar, among others–that are eerily almost like photographs, they’re so realistic.

Okay, maybe I’ll get to that tomorrow.

Written by janeh

June 22nd, 2009 at 9:26 am

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses to 'War! Uh! Huh! What Is It Good For? Absolutely–Okay, Never Mind'

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  1. Jane, this is an interesting discussion. Can you recommend some way–books, a website, a syllabus, whatever–that someone who’s interested but doesn’t have the option of going back to school could *get* a thorough grounding in the humanities?

    Lee B

    22 Jun 09 at 9:59 am

  2. -“I feel like we’re rowing in a sea of ignorance so profound and so universal it’s coming close to swamping us. It comes from both the left and the right, neither of which have any idea how this country was actually founded, or on what principles, or by what reasoning.”-

    On the other hand, the writings of Thomas Paine and various commentaries on them come up 3 times in the top 21 rankings in Amazon’s best sellers. People *are* making an effort to learn something.

    Lymaree

    22 Jun 09 at 11:48 am

  3. “So John says he knows that the American, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand governments evolved from the British, and that they’re similar and different in many ways, but he doesn’t see anything he could use that information for.”

    Jane, in Physics, a theory is useful if you can make predictions. Evolution provides lots of explanations but has little predictive power. I know that the US, Austalia and NZ governments evolved from the UK system and I know that the US has a written constitution with a Bill of Rights. But I can’t use that knowledge to predict whether the other 3 countries have written constitutions or a Bill of Rights. That is the sense in which I can do nothing with the information.

    Jane wrote “We don’t read Plato and Aristotle know because we’re can’t decide who’s right and whose wrong. We read them because they’re among the first steps in a long journey which we want to participate in. Participating in that journey is valuable in itself–just as studying the evolution of mammals is valuable in itself–but at the moment, I think it’s also vitally, practically important.”

    I agree completely. Let’s consider a question being discussed in Australia. We do not have a Bill of Rights. Some people are campaigning for one to be included in the Constitution. One of the arguments against it is that the US Supreme Court has been using their Bill of Rights to give too much power to the courts and override the elected government. That comes from making a comparitive study of the history and development of other countries.

    One of my philosophy professors pointed out that the USSR had a very nice constitution with a Bill of Rights during the Stalin era. It didn’t stop the purge trials and the Gulag. My conclusion is that if you have a government which respects “rights”, then you don’t need a Bill of RIghts. If you have a government like Stalin or Hitler, then a Bill of Rights is a useless piece of paper. But perhaps having a Bill of Rights reduces the probability that someone like Stalin or Hitler reaches power.

    This is getting too long and I don’t know if Jane wants to get into a discussion of “Human Rights” and “Justice” so I’ll close now.

    jd

    22 Jun 09 at 5:45 pm

  4. Indeed. Almost all the founders were familiar with the closing days of the Roman Republic, and largely with Athen’s internal political difficulties–and, for that matter, with the history of the English Civil War and Commonwealth. These were useful things to know when setting up a Federal government, and our understanding of conditions in the latter part of the 18th Century helps make clear what they were thinking of.
    But the leap from a well-informed citizen needing to understand History to placing Philosophy and Literature on the core curriculum isn’t obvious to me.

    robert_piepenbrink

    22 Jun 09 at 6:29 pm

  5. OK, minor quibble, and I’m not claiming that clinical psychs don’t often fall off the rails, but the DSM is psychiatrists, not psychologists!

    CAFiorello

    22 Jun 09 at 9:46 pm

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