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The best books on The History of Philosophy

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Irrationality: A History of the Dark Side of Reason

Irrationality: A History of the Dark Side of Reason


Today, we think of scientists and philosophers as distinct, but it wasn't always this way. Back when the Royal Society was founded in the 1660s, figures like Newton, Descartes and Boyle all thought of themselves as ‘natural philosophers’. Justin E. H. Smith, professor of philosophy at the Université de Paris, introduces us to what he sees as the real history of philosophy.

Interview by Nigel Warburton & Sophie Roell

Irrationality: A History of the Dark Side of Reason

Irrationality: A History of the Dark Side of Reason


The history of philosophy is obviously long, and different people will view it different ways. Do you have an overarching view about the history of philosophy?

I am a historian of philosophy who takes seriously the categories of the people whom I study. That is, I try to understand philosophy the way they understood it, rather than the way we understand it. In particular, this means I take seriously the notion that until sometime in the 18th century—maybe even into the 19th century—there was a category that no longer exists called ‘natural philosophy’, which was supplanted by the category of science over the course of the 19th century.

“Figures who belong to the history of science prior to sometime in the 18th century were certain kinds of philosophers”

Until then, it was simply taken for granted that what we now think of as scientific inquiry was part of philosophy. That’s why you have these strange vestiges of that period. For example, The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society still exists today as a science journal. That’s because when it was founded in the 1660s, it made perfect sense to call studies on spontaneous generation or on the formation of clouds ‘philosophy’.

I contend that the books I propose to discuss are books on the history of philosophy because I take actors’ categories seriously. I believe that figures who belong to the history of science prior to sometime in the 18th century were certain kinds of philosophers. In many cases—as with, say, Aristotle, Descartes, Leibniz—they were philosophers in our narrower, restricted sense, and they were also natural philosophers.

Just for clarification, you said you take “actors’ categories” seriously?

Yes. I don’t know who first started insisting on speaking in that way. Maybe it was in the history of science; maybe it was Shapin and Schaffer in the 1980s. But the idea is that actors’ categories are the categories used by the people we study. If someone is talking about, say, Descartes’s philosophy of mind, you can be sure that’s not an actors’ category, because we didn’t start talking that way until very recently.

Is this closely related to Quentin Skinner’s view of history?

Certainly Skinner did a lot to promote the idea that you need to try to understand what was going on in the past, in actors’ categories. I don’t think there’s any particular debt to him, though. He’s just one of many people involved in that approach.

Obviously, it’s unfair to ask somebody to cover the entire history of philosophy in a selection of five books. What criteria did you use for selecting these five?

I confess I was sitting at the Gare du Nord, waiting for my train, and I decided to adopt an intuitive approach: to give a list of the first five books that came to mind. At different moments in my career, all of these were books that gave me a ‘wow’ moment, and stuck with me for that reason.

That’s perfect. The first of the history of philosophy books you’ve chosen is by Pierre Hadot, published as Le voile d’Isis. He’s been quite famous as a thinker who emphasised the practical consequence of philosophy—not just the theoretical understanding of the world, but how it changes individuals’ lives.

Many people know Hadot outside of France for his influence on Foucault’s later work. Foucault’s work on the history of sexuality was largely indebted to Hadot. In Hadot as in Foucault, there’s the preoccupation with philosophy as epimeleia heautou (care of the self), and as being principally concerned with the cultivation of happiness, where the theoretical concerns are secondary in some cases. As in the Stoics, you need to have a correct view of, say, physics—of how the natural world works—in order to be happy, because if you don’t, then you’ll constantly be slipping up in your interpretation of what’s going on in the world, which will make you unhappy.

Now, I’ve actually been interested in making a case that something similar continues well into the 17th century. Descartes and Leibniz both continue to share such a conception of the project of philosophy, which is why they’re both so preoccupied with things like pharmaceutical recipes and studying problems having to do with health and illness, because it’s central to the cultivation of ‘the good life’. Hadot stops in Late Antiquity, in Hellenistic philosophy. Foucault follows him in that regard. My suspicion is that it’s actually a very long and continuous tradition. This is yet another sense in which the early moderns are more continuous with the ancients than we often think they are. The real break is not in the 17th century, but in the 19th century.

“What does it mean to say that nature loves to hide?”

But that’s a different aspect of Hadot’s work than what I actually remember giving me a ‘wow’ moment, which is Le voile d’Isis. This is a reference to a fragment of Heraclitus. The Greek is Φύσις κρύπτεσθαι φιλεῖ. ‘Nature loves to hide’ is how we usually translate this, and the reason why I cite the Greek is because it’s really an open question whether we have adequately grasped what’s going on in those three words. In fact, each of the words is so polysemous that when we say ‘Φύσις’ is ‘nature’, we’re just estimating or roughly trying to capture what’s going on; ‘loves’ is also really tough there. And ‘to hide’: what does it mean to say that nature loves to hide? Presumably it’s some kind of recognition that there’s a world out there that isn’t necessarily the world as it’s presenting itself to our senses. But does that world have intentions and desires? Is she hiding from us for a reason, or is it just somehow in the nature of things? It’s this kind of reflection that is archaically good evidence for the beginning of what we would much later come to think of as ‘natural science’.

Now, ‘Nature’—and Hadot is sensitive to this as well; it’s the same in French as in English and indeed in Latin—is a term that comes from a root having to do with biological generation, to be born. Whereas in Greek, φύση, from which we get the word ‘physics’ is connected to a root having to do with light, φως — we also get words like ‘phenomena’, φαινόμενα, from the same root. So, whether we’re dealing with the same concept of nature as the Greeks were is really a difficult question to crack. But it’s fundamental if we want to suppose that it’s from the Greeks that we have the origins of the tradition of natural philosophy that would then become science.

So Hadot’s book is exclusively about those three words?

I wouldn’t say exclusively, but certainly it’s a way into the problem. There’s no better point of entry into the question of the continuity of the concept of Nature from the ancient Greeks to today than through this fragment.

Why did it give you such a ‘wow’ moment?

What Hadot really helped me to realise was how unreflective we are when we study the past few centuries of thinking about nature—how unreflective we are about how difficult and slippery this concept is.

One of the things that I’ve often emphasised when I write about modern natural philosophy is that one way of thinking of the transformation that was underway in the period is that for the first time, the motion of things like projectiles, billiard balls, pebbles came to be seen as the paradigm of natural motion. Whereas for the Greeks, it was for the most part animal growth in generation and locomotion that was the paradigm of what nature’s up to. Then one can try, to some extent, to understand what planets, and stars, and the tides—and maybe even projectiles and pebbles—are doing when they move on analogy to what we know best, which is what we think of today as biological motion.

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I’ve always been frustrated by the way people invoke examples in philosophy pedagogy, particularly when they’re philosophers who don’t do history. We talk about the external world, and people say, ‘Well, what do you mean by that?’ and the response is, ‘Oh, you know, just rivers, trees, mountains and stuff’—as if there weren’t really something to think about in each of these unique cases. What Hadot is really good at doing is taking this very fluid, slippery notion of nature as just the external world in general, and trying to articulate, ‘Okay, but what are the paradigmatic instances of that? And what difference does it make to take one paradigmatic instance rather than another?’

Your second book is The Way and the Word: Science and Medicine in Early China and Greece. It’s an interesting combination of areas to cover, China and Greece, as well as science and medicine. I’m intrigued by this.

I confess here, I just wanted to pick something by Geoffrey Lloyd, because he’s one of the people who’s been most important to me in thinking about what it is that I do and what it is that interests me. Without him, I would have at many points been less courageous in making decisions for the way I conduct my research. He’s a wonderful guide, and I think this particular work—or any of his works on Greece and China together—is exemplary for its lucidity and sophistication, and for understanding what the comparative method can do and why it’s worth undertaking.

Lloyd became a sinologist somewhat late in his career. He was first and foremost a specialist in classical Greek philosophy and science. He, I think reasonably, came to appreciate that you can’t really understand what is truly an innovative, original phenomenon at a local level on the one hand, and what is a local reflection of a universal pattern on the other, unless you’re surveying at least two different cases: you need a comparison in order to understand what is original.

I don’t recall if it’s in this book, but at some point, Lloyd talks about the example of studying the pulse. As I recall, in the Chinese medical tradition, the pulse can be described in qualitative colour terms: someone can have a grey pulse or a white pulse, rather than a pulse that happens a certain number of times per minute. This is an interesting example, because we all have basically the same human bodies, with the same beating hearts, with the same pulse. That is, so to speak, a constant. (I’m using this term borrowed from the physical sciences.) It’s a constant of human existence.

So, medicine for this reason is a great way to approach a comparative intellectual history because of the certainty that there are underlying human bodies with the same physiology in each case. I work with colleagues in Paris who take a similar approach in mathematics and the history of mathematics, such as my colleague Karine Chemla, who works on classical Chinese mathematics. Did ancient Chinese mathematicians have the concept of proof in the same sense that the Greeks did? That’s another interesting field for a rigorous comparative approach, but the difference is perhaps that we lose the constant. We lose a firm grasp on something we can be sure is always the same.

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It’s even harder when it comes to comparative philosophy, because who on Earth knows when we’re talking about the same category? We really lose our grasp when we start doing comparative philosophy, even across history. But the problem is magnified when we’re skipping both across civilizations and across centuries. For that reason, I think Lloyd’s approach is exactly the right one: to root comparative intellectual history in something as stable as the body, which is studied by medicine. Whether there’s a distinction between medicine and science is more a problem for us than for the people Lloyd studies, because it’s not clear that there’s a fixed concept of science that would be alike in both cases either.

This rootedness of Lloyd’s work then is what has enabled him to do some wonderful later work. One of his most impressive more recent books is called Cognitive Variations: it looks at some kinds of very richly studied fields in which we’re able to gauge the cultural universality of certain basic things, like, for example, numbers, colours, the body and a few others, chapter by chapter. He runs through these, and to my mind it’s extremely rich both as anthropology and as philosophy.

Your choice of history of philosophy books is very interesting because, as you’ve already mentioned, it draws what other people might say is the history of natural science into the history of philosophy, because it was part of the same thing when it was created. It’s also comparative, taking in civilizations that aren’t traditionally studied in any great depth within the kind of Anglo-American—or Anglo-Australian/American or whatever you want to call it—tradition. So, we’ve already brought in China, but your next book, Jonardon Ganeri’s The Lost Age of Reason: Philosophy in Early Modern India, 1450–1700, brings in Indian philosophy from what we could call the medieval period to the early Renaissance. How is that part of the history of philosophy?

Segueing from Lloyd to Ganeri, I think I’m sufficiently influenced by the kind of work Lloyd does—that is, at the intersection between philosophy and anthropology—that I agree with him that that all human beings have the same not just bodies, but more particularly, more narrowly, the same brains: that more or less we’re all responding to our local environments with some minor variations in the way we understand those environments. We’re all so to speak basically doing the same thing.

I believe that’s the case when it comes to, say, an analytic philosopher today and his or her counterpart in the Amazonian rainforest making sense of their own environment. So, a fortiori, if that’s the case in these examples where you couldn’t imagine any greater difference of cultural environment, it’s all the more the case when it comes to, say, looking at medieval scholastic philosophy on the one hand, and the institutions of knowledge transmission in classical India on the other hand. You’ve got elaborate, hierarchical societies with a centralised state, and complex financial and cultural and educational institutions. Of course they’re basically doing the same thing.

India and China are always the easiest cases by which to convince a sceptic that we need to expand our conception of philosophy, and they’re the easiest cases because historically those civilisations develop in, I don’t want to say in lockstep, but in what’s the historian Sanjay Subrahmanyam calls “connected histories”. He works on things like courtly society, medieval royal courts in Europe and India, things like the game of chess and so on. A “connected history” is one that studies, for example, royal court history in different regions on the understanding that there’s a kind of diffusion of the same patterns, and that these are not isolated developments.

I don’t like the term ‘non-Western philosophy’. I think it’s denigrating in the sense that it gives us what the structuralists would call a marked category. Whereas we’re the unmarked category—

Just to give one example of this, I just went to the Vatican Museum and the ancient Greek and Roman sculptures—which are amazing—are grouped in the general category ‘pre-Christian art’.

That’s another very good example. So, how do we do Indian intellectual tradition justice? Not by marking it off as ‘non-Western philosophy’, but by supposing that Indian intellectual traditions have developed in a connected history together with European intellectual traditions. The work of professional historians like Subrahmanyam provides us with a good tool kit and background for doing connected history of philosophy that doesn’t segregate different traditions, but looks at them in their interconnection.

You might go too far with that. In research on ancient philosophy, I could cite the work of Christopher Beckwith, for example, who wants to show that ancient Greek scepticism is in fact a pretty hasty translation of Buddhism, and that this comes from cultural contacts in the Greco-Bactrian region between Greece and India. There’s some evidence for this, but I think Beckwith’s mistake is that he thinks you need to find smoking guns. He thinks you need to find this particular person, who was in contact with that particular person, who translated such-and-such text from the one language to the other, and so on. But I don’t think you need to find that—I think you can find patterns of cultural diffusion.

“Ganeri’s bold thesis is that you can find in India a development that parallels the development in Europe of the passage from the medieval to the modern periods”

The genius of Ganeri’s book is already there in the title. Referring to a period of modern philosophy in India, his bold thesis is that you can find in India a development that parallels the development in Europe of the passage from the medieval to the modern periods. And just as in Europe, you can find authors who are coming forth with assertions of ‘go it alone’ scepticism you might find in Descartes—so, the rejection of authority as the privileged source of knowledge—and similar key markers of an entry into a period of modern philosophy.

Why does this happen in India and Europe at around the same time? Well, because they’re both part of the same land mass, basically. And it’s a connected history. There will be others—critics in particular, nationalists who want to romanticise indigenous tradition—who will say that this is an imposition of European periodization on India. But I think what Ganeri is doing is giving us a model of how to do real cosmopolitan philosophy; that is, philosophy that refuses to take different traditions as hermetically sealed.

That’s really interesting. In order to do that, though, you need writers and researchers who are incredibly skilled in not just understanding languages but social contexts, histories, to do the comparative study well, or to do the in-depth study in a way that people who aren’t part of that culture can appreciate what was going on. This requires a very special person, to be able to write that kind of book.

Ganeri is a very special person because he’s of Indian ancestry, but originally trained as an analytic philosopher. People who just by circumstances of birth have a kind of bicultural access are, in that sense, just fortunate, and we need them. Just like science needs identical twins, we need these guys. [Laughs.] I was talking yesterday to an Oxford graduate student, Lea Cantor, who’s doing comparative Chinese/Greek philosophy. She was talking about all the institutional barriers she faces, and how she has to learn to navigate different discursive communities with different expectations, different registers. If you’re a young person, you really have to be bold in order to carve out that kind of research program. When I talk to someone like Lea, I realise the problem is that the way people get funnelled in institutions discourages this, whereas it ought to be a highest priority, in my view.

So, you can have bold, courageous young people like Lea Cantor, or you can have people who are lucky enough to be born into bicultural family environments. But beyond that, we can just do the best we can to learn as much as we can. Also, we can rely a lot on collaboration. In Paris, for example, we have had an ongoing community of people who work on the history of Asian science, including a lot of Sanskrit mathematics. We’ve invited Brahmin priests, for example, who have learned their mathematics largely by memorising large chunks of Sanskrit poetry that contain mathematical knowledge. I remember one guy who had to stop, close his eyes, and start doing a poetic recitation in order to remember where he was in his proof. It was mind-blowing. It was something that I’ll never have access to. I could spend the rest of my life trying to get into his mind-frame, and I just won’t have time. It’s too late. But still, just seeing that and being aware of this is already enough to stimulate, I think, some pretty serious reflection on the diversity and universality of something like mathematical knowledge.

I’m keen to hear a bit more about what’s in Ganeri’s book. In it, he says that in the 17th century, India was in intellectual overdrive. He gives a list of key individuals, I suppose the Indian equivalent of Descartes. Could you just give a bit of a sense of that, so we know what was going on?

This is something I wrote a little bit about in my last book The Philosopher: A History in Six Types. There was a remarkable encounter between three people. One was Francois Bernier, who was a physician to the Royal Moghul Court in Delhi, and was himself a philosopher and basically a materialist atheist skeptic. One was Dara Shukoh, who was a Muslim-Persian prince and very fluent in the Aristotelian tradition through the Arab-Islamic transmission. And, finally, a Hindu pandit, Kavindracarya Sarasvati. They were brought together in this interfaith, inter-tradition dialogue in the 1660s. It’s a remarkable moment for revealing prejudices, limitations and similarities on all sides.

What comes out of this is the general perception that both the Muslim and the nominally Christian crypto-atheist shared with one another is that these Indians aren’t really reasoning. As Bernier puts it, that they’re talking in circles. The perception was that this was because it’s not really philosophical inquiry in the sense that we understand it, it’s a kind of indoctrination. This is, in part, I think a reflection of real institutional differences. If you read a text of Indian philosophy, more particularly if you read Sutras, you will come away thinking, ‘This is incomprehensible.’ And it is incomprehensible because it’s not a treatise. It’s a recording of a kind of mnemonic technique that is implemented in the relationship between a guru and the disciple. And if you aren’t part of this relationship, then you don’t have access to the multiple meanings that are imbued in the lines that traditionally the disciple would learn, before learning why he’s learning them.

It’s an intense pedagogy of rote learning that then presumably unfolds over the course of a lifelong, or many-years-long, relationship between the master and the student. If you’re not part of that dialectical dynamic, you’re not necessarily going to have access to its reasoning. For this reason, I think Bernier was wrong to say that these people didn’t care about the truth, but it’s an important lesson in the way different institutions of learning give rise to different understandings of what we’re doing when we’re seeking the truth.

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Now, all of that was an aside. But what Ganeri wants to say is that yes, those institutions were there, but that’s not to say there wasn’t any kind of evolution or history to the development of these institutions. In particular, in what Ganeri calls the ‘modern period’ of Indian philosophy, you get the revitalisation of classical schools, in particular the ancient school of Nyāya, which was one of the six so-called āstika (orthodox) schools of Indian philosophy. Nyāya can be translated as ‘inference’; it’s the school of Indian philosophy that is closest to what we would call logic.

So, Nyāya is innovatively asking, ‘How do we know that these classical texts were right?’ Even though, yes, the tradition is one that’s heavily grounded in authority, that doesn’t mean that it’s just a bunch of gullible suckers with no progress or development.

With your next book choice, we’re moving back into the Western tradition, but firmly again in the area of natural philosophy. This is William Newman’s Atoms and Alchemy: Chymistry and the Experimental Origins of the Scientific Revolution. In my simplistic view of the history of philosophy: Locke and Boyle doing their experiments a few hundred yards from here in Oxford, thinking about corpuscles, were very much a part of the history of philosophy. Then, philosophy and natural science seemed to move apart, and presumably this book is in that area.

I think if Locke or Boyle were to be resuscitated and read Newman’s book, their line would be, ‘Yes, of course.’ The narrative Newman gives is one that was familiar to experimental philosophers in the 17th century: Boyle explicitly called himself an experimental philosopher, and Locke was certainly working in a tradition of natural philosophy that built on the kinds of experiments alchemists were doing.

‘Chymistry’ is Newman’s forced term. It does exist in the history of English, but he’s reviving it for programmatic purposes. He wants to say, ‘Look, I don’t care about the historical question of when alchemy becomes chemistry.’ There, you can make different cases for different pivotal authors and time periods. He wants to treat, rather, a program of inquiry, a research program that might share in some of what we think of as the desiderata of the alchemists, but that is also at the same time doing real chemical experiments. And Newman himself actually recreates these chemical experiments in his own laboratory. He dissolves silver in aqua fortis and then finally reduces the precipitate to retrieve the original silver.

Whatever—call it alchemy, call it chemistry, or let’s just have an umbrella term and call it ‘chymistry’: that’s Newman’s idea. And I think it’s quite helpful even though it makes people confused at first.

Is this a further instance of doing what you were advocating at the beginning of this conversation, of understanding what we might now call ‘science’ or ‘philosophy’, depending on our prejudices, in the terms of the people who were actively participating in it, rather than projecting back our present-day categories?

Yes. Newman is definitely working in that vein. It’s a wonderful exemplar of this kind of revisionist history, where he’s trying to recover what these historical figures actually cared about, and having to sift and get back past centuries that (in the case of the history of alchemy and chemistry) are really centuries of misrepresentation.

For complex reasons, until the 17th century—even until the early 19th century—a figure that is recognisable is the scientist probing into the dark secrets of nature that God or piety has warned us to stay away from. There’s something demonic or black magical about inquiry into how science works. What’s the term? Hacking through nature’s thorns. Nature puts the thorns on the plants, everywhere, to warn you off from hacking through them, and then when you do, you unleash dark powers. That was a standard prejudice slash general understanding of what experimental philosophy was doing, that even the most sober, cautious, lucid experimental philosopher like Boyle had to contend with.

“By the 17th century, you could hack through nature’s thorns in Oxford or in London without having to worry too much that you’d be accused of being a witch”

By the 17th century, you could hack through nature’s thorns in Oxford or in London without having to worry too much that you’d be accused of being a witch and lynched. Whereas if you look at the way that people represented Roger Bacon—not Francis Bacon but Roger Bacon a few centuries earlier—the lore about him just takes it for granted that he was some kind of some kind of magician with access to supernatural powers. So, it’s a consequence of the Scientific Revolution that you could do things like chemical experiments without having to deal too much with the suspicion of satanic dabbling.

That history then gets folded in as we move into the scientific period, where occult, esoteric movements of the 18th and 19th century claim the work that the alchemists were doing because of this cultural perception that I’ve just explained. But that doesn’t mean that they weren’t actually doing real experiments with chemical elements and discovering their properties.

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So, Newman’s work has been incredible in revealing to us what it is they actually discovered, and also the way these discoveries flowed into new ideas about the workings of the physical world that we associate with both the Scientific Revolution and the birth of modern philosophy. In particular, the study—and this goes back through Arab experimental philosophy back to the so-called meteorological tradition of Aristotle—of mixed bodies.

When do you have just two different kinds of things stirred together? And when do these two different kinds of things stirred together become one thing? That was the philosophical question in the solution of silver experiment. It’s a big metaphysical problem that was all over the place in modern philosophical reflections on the origins of the qualitative variety of the natural world. You can say that it’s all just a bunch of atoms or corpuscles arranged together in an appropriate way, but that is, I think, everyone understood, even Descartes understood, Boyle certainly understood, that is a lot of hand-waving. Because you have no idea how these bare, inert corpuscles with nothing more than mass, figure and motion are ever going to give you the qualitative richness of say, a garden full of flowers.

It’s all in the ‘texture’ of corpuscles . . .

But the notion of texture is just the classical example of this hand-waving. Or not just hand-waving, but pointing further down the road—passing the buck.

The people who had the most to say about how you get the qualitative richness of the natural world from basic components were the chemists. And we can see direct lines of transmission from unknown figures working in their laboratories through somewhat known figures like Daniel Sennert, a German natural philosopher Newman works on, for example, to major figures like Boyle and Locke. This is a secret history of philosophy that Newman does just ingeniously.

Your final choice is quite different. It’s Native Pragmatism: Rethinking the Roots of American Philosophy by Scott Pratt. I’m intrigued by this title. Why did you choose it?

I did a little moonlighting a while back, teaching a course in English at Sciences Po, the Paris Institute of Political Studies, just for fun. I felt like doing something different from my usual job, and I taught it on early American philosophy. It’s a consequence of being in a sort of exile, living in France, that I’m more attuned to the historical legacies that shaped the country I come from, and that also shaped me. And part of this is becoming attuned to the historical legacies that brought it about that philosophy was presented to me the way it was when I was an undergraduate, and when I was in graduate school.

American philosophy, or philosophy as it’s understood in the United States now, is the result of a history. What I learned—and I’m not the best person to articulate this as there are people who have worked much more on this than I have—is that analytic philosophy was imported to the United States, and in a sense supplanted and concealed a very, very complicated, and much more eclectic, pre-analytic history in the United States. It’s different in Britain I think because so much of American intellectual history was conditioned by this idea that we are frontiers people. We’re out here on a frontier where we don’t have the luxury to engage in pure theory.

So, you have these remarkable movements. One of my favourites is the so-called St. Louis Hegelians in the 19th century, mostly German immigrants. One of them, Henry Clay Brockmeyer, is an obscure character, also a horrible racist (another dimension of this that I’ll bracket for the moment.) But he wrote a kind of philosophical diary of his life in some cabin in rural Missouri. At some point he writes something like, ‘I read Spinoza for two hours this morning until I heard the rumble of a herd of buffalo outside my door, so I grabbed my rifle and chased after them.’ That, to me, is American philosophy in a nutshell. I had to read Spinoza, but I just had to grab my gun.

“So much of American intellectual history was conditioned by this idea that we are frontiers people.”

To come to Pratt, the St. Louis Hegelians are not the pragmatists, but I think a pretty good case can be made that we’re separating out the Transcendentalists and the Hegelians and the pragmatists from one another, in part because of the way they themselves affiliated. But one thing that is shared by all of them (that’s articulated best by Whitman in Leaves of Grass) about the Old World is that we don’t have the time or the luxury for any of that stuff. What we’re going to do here on this continent and what’s going to define us intellectually is our rootedness in this new land, and our disdain for erudition and cultured book-learning. I’m really interested in that.

In general, as a historian, I always have this natural inclination whenever anyone says that you know X or Y starts here, in a given year, I want to say like, ‘Okay, but what was it before that? What were the conditions that permitted that, and how do we go back further?’ That’s where Pratt really just was a true ‘wow’ moment for me, because his thesis is that we can not only find strands of the late 19th century pragmatists that go back to the early 19th century Transcendentalists, but that the Transcendentalists in turn can be traced back to certain developments that were going on in the colonial era. And that this was a direct consequence of the deep and real immersion of the colonists in the world of the Native Americans who lived there before them. The figures Pratt deals with mostly are people like Roger Williams in particular, and Cotton Mather is important as well. Cotton Mather is fascinating because he is an experimental philosopher, too. He was basically in the same intellectual orbit as Boyle, except that he was in the American colonies.

But Roger Williams is a more interesting case, because he went out and wrote field a manual/dictionary for local native languages and how to communicate. As we know, I’m also very interested in comparable French Jesuit endeavours to the north of where Roger Williams was in, in what would become Canada, and also Leibniz’s proposals for the study of the ethnic diversity of the Russian Empire. They were all doing the same things. You learn about other cultural worlds by setting out to make bilingual dictionaries. That’s what Roger Williams was doing, and that’s why I think to some extent you can read Williams’s translation key as a philosophical work. What are the words that capture the concept that I’m trying to impart by English words like ‘soul’, or ‘God’, or ‘immortality’, or ‘salvation’? How do I communicate with these Native Americans about that?

Pratt wants to argue that the difficulty of this project was directly connected to the formation of a new American intellectual sensibility that was, so to speak, ready to deal with imperfection and approximation, and to work on the fly in particular local contexts, rather than always having a certainty, for example, that that this or that Lenape word that we’re translating as ‘soul’ actually means ‘soul’. The basic thesis, which I think is actually mind-blowing and is also probably more of a suggestion than anything that’s rigorously grounded in documentary evidence, is that American philosophy is more Native American than you might think.

Perhaps I’ve misunderstood you. Part of what you were saying was the process of trying to translate words and to approximate concepts was connected with the practical nature of later pragmatism, where you’re interested in what works, not absolute truth beyond that. So that would be a process seen from the viewpoint of the translator, the colonialist translator as it were, but you seem to be suggesting that there was something about the thought of Native Americans that permeated the philosophy of the invaders.

Yes. It’s not just that you’re trying to communicate across cultural boundaries or cultural-linguistic boundaries, but also the fact that—and here’s where it gets somewhat more bold and perhaps overreaching as a thesis—the argument is that pre-contact, Native American intellectual culture was not exactly worried either about grounding truth claims in firm foundations, in some kind of Descartes-like epistemological project. That’s why in my book Irrationality that we discussed earlier, I discuss some cases of French Jesuit missionaries in New France who are troubled by the fact that the Iroquois conduct their lives in accordance with dreams. It’s driving this missionary who read Descartes himself crazy, because he’s trying to give them arguments about why they should do what they do.

Pratt’s thesis is that that European-American philosophy does indeed borrow from some of these intellectual cultural patterns that were pre-existing on that continent. That in part explains the general lack of interest in foundationalist epistemology in the early part of American philosophy.

That’s fascinating even just as a hypothesis. Whether it’s true or not, it’s fascinating.

As a hypothesis, it would take a lot more work. In a comparative approach, I’ve worked to some extent on the so-called rights controversy, the debate over whether traditional ritual expressions in China were compatible with conversion to Catholicism. Leibniz played an important role by doing an autopsy of what happened after the rights controversy around 1705. You see the same thing again and again. The Jesuits in China were at a standoff with the Vatican because they were saying, ‘Look, you don’t understand what things are like here. We’ve got to deal with these people as they are.’ And the Vatican was saying, ‘No, you have to suppress ancestor worship’, for example. So, again and again in a comparative perspective, you see this loosening up of dogmas and (you might also say) any form of foundationalism when you’ve got people moving out towards the periphery, out where the world gets less controllable. For that reason, it’s not at all implausible that American philosophy develops this distinctive character early on.

Interview by Nigel Warburton & Sophie Roell

July 8, 2019

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Justin E. H. Smith

Justin E. H. Smith

Justin E. H. Smith is professor of philosophy and director of the Département Histoire et Philosophie des Sciences at the Université de Paris, and the 2019-2020 John and Constance Birkelund Fellow at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers of the New York Public Library. He is the author of The Philosopher: A History in Six Types (2017), Nature, Human Nature and Human Difference (2017), Divine Machines: Leibniz and the Sciences of Life (2011), and, most recently, Irrationality: A History of the Dark Side of Reason (2019).

Justin E. H. Smith

Justin E. H. Smith

Justin E. H. Smith is professor of philosophy and director of the Département Histoire et Philosophie des Sciences at the Université de Paris, and the 2019-2020 John and Constance Birkelund Fellow at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers of the New York Public Library. He is the author of The Philosopher: A History in Six Types (2017), Nature, Human Nature and Human Difference (2017), Divine Machines: Leibniz and the Sciences of Life (2011), and, most recently, Irrationality: A History of the Dark Side of Reason (2019).