Philosophy and history

10 January 2009

It seems likely that an important part of the evolution of language (and thought and consciousness, for that matter) had to do with sharing information.  Intelligence means using information to guide action.  With much of what we do, the link between information and action is hardwired; we perceive that we are falling, we balance ourselves; we see a projectile coming at us; we duck; we feel hunger, gaining the information that we need food, and we eat.

But humans have developed the ability to accumulate information about particular things, and types of situations that go far beyond what we can pick up through perception at the time action is required, and to make our actions appropriate to this accumulated information.  When I react to Ken, it's not just in terms of what I see about him at the time, but my memories of previous encounters.  I can't see that his name is `Ken', or that he has a son who plays baseball, but I'll use these remembered bits of information to guide my behavior when I see him, and say, ``Hi Ken. How is Kyoshi's team doing?"

Language provides a way of pooling information, so that the perceptions of one person end up providing information for another.   When I go on a trip to London, I take along a guidebook, and read reviews of the plays available at the West End.  What I do in London will not be guided only by what I see and have seen, but what numerous others have experienced.

But an enormous amount of language has to do with providing information about things and people we will never encounter, that can't possibly be of value to us in guiding our interactions with those things and people.  I mean fiction and history.  In the case of fiction, the people don't even exist; I know a lot about Sherlock Holmes, but I'll never be in a situation to greet him by name, and ask how he really feels about Dr. Watson.  In the case of history, the people, for the most part, are dead.  I know a lot about Aristotle, but I'll never be in a position to ask him what Plato was really like.  What's the point of all of these books about dead people, and unreal people, and all the time we spend reading about them and talking about them?

The best answer, it seems to me, is that exchanging information about people turned out to be too much fun to limit ourselves to people we might encounter.  The people we are liable to interact with don't provide enough stories to sate our appetite for this activity.  So we continue to talk about people after they are dead, and invent new people to talk about that don't exist.

This information in the end does prove useful.  We each build up files about dead and fictional people, and a lot of the information we exchange is intended to keep those files similar enough to make the conversations work.  It's not interactions with the dead and fictional people, but interactions with other people who are talking about them, that makes the information useful.  I'll never talk to Aristotle, but I had to take exams about Aristotle, and need to occasionally say things in lecture about Aristotle, and these activities go better if my Aristotle-file pretty much agrees, in so far as it goes, with what the experts think about Aristotle.

Is there more to it than this?  Are there lessons to be learned from fiction and history?  Are they of a fundamentally different nature?  In the case of history, how important is truth?  If we all agree about a past event, so that we gain the same lessons from it, does it really matter if we got it right?

Comments (10)


Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, January 10, 2009 -- 4:00 PM

This is really meant for this morning (Jan 11) abo

This is really meant for this morning (Jan 11) about history. In Western academy and media, I rarely, if never, hear about the post-colonial Non-Aligned Movement which met in Bandung, Indonesia attempting to avoid Cold War conflict paradigms. Instead, the U.S. "lost" China and Vietnam. The development needs of the majority of
the world's population, now including global climate change and trade, is finally occurring in the new paradigm and financial architectures to be raised in the
upcoming G20, which met in Beijing and Washington DC and is scheduled for April 2 in London.

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, January 10, 2009 -- 4:00 PM

As to "Who Lost China?", there was John Foster Dul

As to "Who Lost China?", there was John Foster Dulles who did not shake hands with Zhou Enlai, Henry Luce of Time-Life Magazines who controlled his image of China to the American public, and Madame Chiang Kai-shek, the English-speaking, beautiful and Christian Soong Mei-ling,
as contrasted with one of her two famous sisters,
Soong Chingling who married Sun Yat-sen and truly loved
China. The American people and government would have
forged a better relationship much sooner than 30 years of Cuba and Iran-like estrangement, if they had listened to
the compassionate instincts and political judgements of Pearl Buck, Edgar Snow and Theodore White.

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, January 10, 2009 -- 4:00 PM

What bothers me is that the "fact" part of "histor

What bothers me is that the "fact" part of "history" is, relatively speaking, so small.
The Hiroshima/Nagasaki bombing, for ex.: all that right & left historians can agree on is that the U.S. dropped two bombs. Why we did it, whether we had to do it, etc.,etc. is all open to interpretation.
Iraq? Yes, all agree that we invaded but everything else is up for grabs, again with a right/left split: yes, we had to; no, we didn't. Bush lied to us; no, he believed the intel. etc. (We don't even know how many Iraqis have died since we invaded.)
During the primary campaign this year, I began to believe that I lived in an alternate universe. (I supported Hillary not Obama.) I read, watched and listened to the speeches. Then I read the blogs, the magazines, the newspapers. Not just the interpretations but often the facts seemed to be different. (I did eventually find a group of bloggers who saw the campaign the way I did, but that still begs the question of which group recorded the campaign accurately.)
If, with all the resources available to us today (radio, tv, papers, magazines, blogs, the Wiki, Google, etc., etc.), the sphere of unquestionable facts (bombs were dropped, we invaded, Obama won) is so small relative to the presentation or interpretation of those facts, then "history" becomes as much an artificial construct as economics (where, it turns out, left/right economists still argue about what caused the Depression).
How can we learn from the past, let alone the present, when we can't even agree on what the past/present was or is?

Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, January 11, 2009 -- 4:00 PM

I am hoping to purchase the whole collection of Ph

I am hoping to purchase the whole collection of Philosophy Talks podcasts from 2004-2008. However, I realised this would take me an awfully long time to download! Would you please consider offering this collection on data CD-ROMs sent out in the mail for a small extra fee?
Thanks! :)
- William.

Guest's picture

Guest

Thursday, April 30, 2009 -- 5:00 PM

On a past subject it turns out: ID proposes a pre

On a past subject it turns out: ID proposes a preternatural, anthropomorphic accounting for selected natural events, i.e. something akin to human ability to consciously analyze and manipulate the physical world.
Science jolly well chooses to reject that notion out of hand for at least the reason that anything and everything can be so "explained". Would sort of take the fun and challenge out of being a scientist. Besides, such explanations inherently come up with dead end conclusions such as geocentric astronomy instead of functional orbital mechanics -- and 'heaven' knows what in biology.
It's like plastic apples versus real oranges. Plastic apples have their contrived appeal for some, but are certainly of no other value compared to actual oranges. Here again as everywhere, 'ya takes 'yer choices.

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, January 23, 2010 -- 4:00 PM

How is moderate realism different from Kantian rea

How is moderate realism different from Kantian realism?

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, January 23, 2010 -- 4:00 PM

Who responds to questions on this site?

Who responds to questions on this site?

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, January 25, 2010 -- 4:00 PM

Quibbles; "hardwired"? Does he mean, "comes with

Quibbles; "hardwired"? Does he mean, "comes with the DNA" or do we have a choice about this?
I would suggest, for starters, that information and action are separable mental functions in the sense that we can think of something to do without doing it, and we can do things without, consciously, thinking about them, though subconsciously we have a plan. What does Perry say about that?
In this connection, philosophically naive "scientistists" imagine that observation (empiricism) is somehow detached from reasoning. However, how can that be if they identify an object as a member of a class already existing in memory, such as, "That is a...." and at the moment they say, "...chair"?
They have reasoned by relating that sensed object to an existing substance in their mind, collected before and held as a set of accidents by which that object is distinguishable from "...", perhaps a "table."
Hence, pure empiricism is an illusion of reasoned-detached objectivity. In short, the purpose of looking controls in which class in mind we identify a sensed object. The object itself does not leap out of mind-independent reality and become existent noetically.
How about this, Mr. Perry?
His wider point, that experience is important to what we do, is well-taken, but "Does it matter if we got it right?" implies a kind of final version or objectivity in history that never exists. What exists, instead, is the real and final purpose of the historian, who selects from the present items that he judges represent events in the past and then spin an opinion about them. In short, there is no such thing as "objective history." There is "scientific history," which is the internal corroboration of details that bring probability of past events to a higher degree of probability, but never does any history replace the invisible and non-existent past as though "history" were the past itself. Even if we had a time machine, which is impossible since the past is no longer there or anywhere to go to, (Be still, Albert!) looking at what we see in the lens would still be only what there we wanted to see according to our immediate purpose for looking. Does this seem to make a valuable point, Mr. Perry, or did you mean something else? Please advise.

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, January 25, 2010 -- 4:00 PM

The comment by D. Douglas on how difficult it is t

The comment by D. Douglas on how difficult it is to get agreement about the past in histories about it is beside the point. It implies a kind of objectivity about the past that is neither possible nor useful.
What instead is important is that the purpose of the historian for looking and writing is clear in his preliminary remarks so that his bias is understood and carefully used by the reader.
In short, there's nothing wrong with a bias. We all have them, but scientific history adequately identifies the historian's bias up front so that the reader knows all the way through from whence he cometh.
The extreme opposite is to tell every single thing that happened in the past at a certain time and place, which is, of course, absurd and not useful.
All we have to do to be useful in the present is to sharply identify our biases, such as Evelyn Underhill does in her treatise on "Mysticism," -- told from four different biases -- and then strive mightily to be consistent throughout our reporting to it. Any criticism of a bylined news story or non-propaganda history is valid insofar as it points to inconsistency between the declared bias and its influence on the resulting exposition.
Enter quibbles here, please! LOL

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, January 25, 2010 -- 4:00 PM

I quite agree with J. Fuller above as he emphasize

I quite agree with J. Fuller above as he emphasizes the silliness of thinking that mind can create matter, or his technical jargon to that effect. However, it is well to point out emphatically, too, that this propensity, to think things are a whatever we think they are, i.e. radical subjectivism, more or less, is an effect of the rather widespread illusions that we cannot know things, ala Kantianism, as they are in themselves.
Which we can't as such, but this gets a lot more complicated: To cut to the chase, we don't need to; all we do need is to be able to distinguish the substance of each observed item, including all mind-dependent things, i.e. ideas, from another, and we do that automatically by virtue of how the mind always works differently from how mind-dependent things work. That difference is that things have an infinite number of observable aspects, whereas every idea that reflects the item in mind is only one aspect at a time. And that radical difference is where the current philosophic confusion seems to lie.
That is, we know the set of differences, or accidents, between things as the substance of each in terms of a relation between observed and remembered classes. And to know that is to know a thing as it is in itself insofar as it has any value to a current purpose. Leave out purpose, and coherence disappears; include it, logical consistency prevails.
In short, we do "know things as they are in themselves" but only insofar as they differ from all others, which is our only useful value. We do not and we cannot know anything in all its infinite number of possible aspects.
There is no mystery here, only an ethnic bias against anything smacking of Scholasticism or even Westernism. And that is the critical problem in modern philosophy, in my academic experience, namely the confusion between mind and body (matter). However, it is not a problem in the moderate realist's attitude toward how things are.

 
 

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