In his Pulitzer prize winning Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond famously argues that the dynamics of history are other than what one might think. Against tendencies to attribute the ascendancy of the West in the last couple of hundred years to either inherent (racial) superiority or, less unpleasantly, to some great men — scientists, statesman, economicists — who innovated and enlightened western Europe and the US while the rest of the world remained stuck, Diamond proposed that less obvious forces shape world history.
He suggests, for example, that the onward march of, say, the British empire is not due either to racial or to intellectual preeminence, but simply to the fact that Brits were immune to diseases which those who they colonized weren’t. And he argued that one factor that explains the differing success of the US and south America was that the former is wider than long and the latter is the opposite, and this leads to a more consistent climate across space and thus the development of agriculture that works in more places, allowing movement and with it the spread of people and ideas.
Now here’s a question: are there similar occult forces that shape the history of philosophy? The aim of this post is to sketch the extremely tentative beginnings of what such a theory might look like. In particular, I’ll point to an interesting correlation between economic development and a key feature of the movement of philosophy’s history. But more generally, I want to try to convince you that even if the details are somewhat lacking, the thought behind it — that maybe the history of philosophy isn’t just the playing out of pure logic — has something to recommend it and is worth consideration.
The History of Philosophy Ridiculously Simplified: Metaphysics meets Scepticism
One of the interesting things about the history of philosophy is that it is so intelligible. Let me illustrate what I mean by that by telling a bit of that history as it would be taught to undergraduates.
In Cambridge, England, around 1900 and before, bold metaphysical speculation was the order of the day. F.H Bradley argued that there were no such things as relations — although it seems that I am older than Miley Cyrus, in fact this is not so. I am not an expert on Bradley, but the thought is something like this: say relations were things that connected up objects: the ‘older than’ relation would be a thing connecting Miley and I. Think of it like a chain linking us.
Then a question becomes: well, how do you link me (or her) with the chain? Bradley thought we would need another chain linking me to the ‘older than’ chain. But then by the same reasoning, we would need yet another chain linking me to the chain linking me to the ‘older than’ chain.
This could go on forever, and Bradley thought this showed that the idea that relations were things was no good. And on that basis, he was led to a picture of reality according to which instead of many related objects, it consisted of one unified whole, a grand and sweeping metaphysical picture of the world.
Against this, Bertrand Russell and G.E. Moore defended the reality of relations. The way they did so was interesting. Russell, among other things, appealed to recent developments in mathematics, and in particular in formal logic. The details are a bit difficult (I try to explain here), but for millennia formal logic had struggled with representing relations, until first George Boole and then more famously Gottlob Frege came along and showed how to do it. Russell placed his formal-logical understanding of relations at the heart of his philosophy, using new mathematical tools to push back against the metaphysical speculation of Bradley.
Moore in turn appealed, in part, to common sense. Although it’s a bit anachronistic, later in his life he famously sought to refute scepticism with the following argument that was meant to prove the external world existed
(p1) Here is a hand
(p2) Here is another hand
(p3) So, two material things exist
(p4) So, the material world exists
People have argued about what exactly this argument is meant to show, and how it’s meant to do so. The important thing for us is its anti-metaphysical, commonsensical approach, so markedly different from Bradley’s revisionary perspective. Philosophy, around the first decade of the 20th century, moved away from metaphysics and towards a more realistic, commonsensical approach.
But things changed, and around the time of the first world war, Russell was back theorizing about metaphysics. He was helped and influenced in this by Ludwig Wittgenstein who, in his Tractatus Logico Philosophicus (written 1918), gave us a speculative metaphysical theory of the world.
For example, he argued that objects exist necessarily (roughly, the thought is that things like you and I consist of parts, and for us to stop existing is for those parts to cease to be unified. But if stopping existing is for parts to come, well, apart, it follows that anything without parts can’t stop existing, and so must always exist. So provided there are such partless things — for which he (maybe) had arguments — they necessarily exist), a conclusion about as offensive to common sense as Bradley’s views before him. Just after the war, metaphysics was back.
But then things changed again! Starting with Wittgenstein himself, the logical positivist movement grew up, a key text of which is A.J. Ayer’s 1936 Language, Truth and Logic. Central to the positivist movement is the thought that fancy metaphysical talk is meaningless. There is no empirical evidence that can bear one way or another on the truth of ‘relations don’t exist’, or ‘there is a set of basic objects that exist necessarily’. The positivists thought that a sentence only had a meaning provided there was empirical evidence that could bear on its truth, and so such sentences were out. Metaphysics was out.
And then — you can probably see where this is going — it was back. A seminal text here is Kripke’s Naming and Necessity, which was a published version of lectures he gave in 1970. Kripke was influential in revising metaphysical theorizing, and in particular theorizing about things like necessity and possibility. Thanks to developments in logic which he himself was partly responsible for, philosophers developed tools to think about what it is for things to be a certain way necessarily, and it became acceptable to precisely ask questions such as whether, for example, the mind was nothing over and above the brain, because one could ask whether necessarily, if there is mental activity, there is also some brain activity underlying it.
There’s a very neat pattern that one could extract from this potted history: one in which metaphysics now waxes and now wanes. Indeed, it seems the history of 20th century philosophy is a question of action and reaction, whereby newer philosophers respond by opposing those who came before, only to be opposed in turn, in a cyclical pattern.
But can we view it differently? Could it be that the history of philosophy is not determined by the pinging of ideas back and forth but by, say, political or economic or wider cultural factors? Is this neat pattern perhaps too simple, abstracting as it does the philosopher from the real world which they inhabit? My aim now is to suggest that this is so.
I will use a controversial theory about the development and history of economics to illustrate this point. I want to emphasise that my aim, here, is not so much to argue for the truth of the view I will present, but rather to suggest that it is a research program that is interesting and worth pursuing, of which this essay could be considered something like a proof of concept.
According to the idea of Kontratiev waves, economic history, like the history of philosophy, is cyclical. Instead of periodic regenerations in metaphysical speculation followed by more down to earth theorizing, what cycles is periods of prosperity followed by periods of recession and depression.
On one version of this theory, for example, the cycles are marked by the introduction, development, and exhaustion of a new piece of technology. From the wikipedia, I note the following putative cycles
- The Age of Steel and Heavy Engineering — 1875
- The Age of Oil, Electricity, the Automobile and Mass Production — 1908
- The Age of Information and Telecommunications — 1971
Squinting a little, one think of F.H. Bradley’s Appearance and Reality (1893), Wittgenstein’s Tractatus (originally written in 1918) and Kripke’s Naming and Necessity lectures of 1970. You might think metaphysical speculation rises along with innovation.
To see this, consider the following diagram:
Its peaks and troughs, arguably, follow the peaks and troughs of the story of metaphysics as I presented it above, and suggest the following theory: periods of economic optimism are periods where people feel able to speculate more wildly about metaphysical matters, while downturns are accompanied by more caution. The second wave is Bradleyian idealism, the third Wittgensteinian atomism, the fourth Kripkean modal metaphysics. On this theory, the history of philosophy, the supposed realm of pure thought, shadows the real world of wealth and poverty.
(There are many ways one could try to further explain this: maybe economic optimism correlates with more people with leisure time to philosophize, and this leads people, to differentiate themselves from the mass, to develop more original, less commonsensical theories which it’s the work of a latter generation to puncture. And one would of course have to consider how things stand today. Metaphysical theorizing is in — the question is, has it been out since Kripke? Arguably the interest in minimalism about truth and fictionalism in the 1990s could be viewed as instances of anti-metaphysical sentiment. Finally, if this theory were to hold up, one would have to look back in time too, and indeed this theory yields testable retrodictions: we should see, for example, economic exuberance with the rationalists and later Hegel, pessimism, perhaps, with the empiricists and maybe Kant.)
I’m fascinated by the thought that cultural history obeys its own logic: it is not just one thing after another, but has a pattern, a pattern which influences even the most recondite areas of human thought (I made a similar sort of argument for literature here, and for TV here). I hope I have shown that this idea has some potential, and that by looking at philosophy while keeping an eye on its social, economic, and political context we might be able to understand it better than just by sticking to the realm of philosophical ideas.