Reading ‘The History of Philosophy’ Symptomatically, Or, Thoughts on a Networkological Historiography of Philosophy
It’s time for the history of philosophy to get messier. And to learn to unforget a bit. In the last few posts I’ve been articulating some of the contours of what a networkological history of philosophy would look like, but in this post I’d like to try to bring this all together and describe the big picture a bit, and in the process, articulate a symptomatic reading of some of the dominant histories of philosophy at work today.
From such a perspective, we can begin to see the philosophies of individual access (ie:Descartes, Locke, Kant) as aberrations within a networkological backdrop that largely starts with Plotinus, mutates through the Islamic, Jewish, and early modern Christian contexts, mutates again a little with Renaissance Platonism, and then ends up as the return of the repressed of Descartes (via Spinoza and Leibniz), Kant (via Holderlin, Schelling, Hegel, Marx), phenomenology (via renegades from within like Bergson), semiotics (via Peirce), twentieth century science (via Whitehead), etc. Of course, there’s been some devious systems as well (cybernetics, for example), but either way, philosophies of the network seem to me to be reflections of globalized times, whether Plotinus in the Hellenistic age, or post-structuralism in the society of the spectacle. Philosophies of the individual, however, seem to me to be then odd symptoms of capital which obscure even more than the networkological models may.
But that’s getting ahead of ourselves a little, so let’s start with symptomatically rereading some of the standard histories of philosophy, and see how it can help get us to the place in which we can start talking about constructing such networkological histories of philosophy.
Today’s Histories of Philosophy Considered as Symptom
Most of those of us who studied philosophy in ‘the West’ (a suspect concept given reality only by the force of geopolitical power), we were likely introduced to it through one of two models, namely, the so-called analytic/anglo-american or continental approaches. It’s pretty easy to tell which of these introduced you to philosophy.
If your intro courses were issue based (ie: epistemology, ontology) and composed of many short essays, mostly written in the last century, with a strong preference for sounding like social-scientific, scientific, logical, or mathematical texts, it’s likely you studied in an analytic tradition. If your intro courses were period or thinker based (ie: Kant, Medieval Philosophy), and the class was mostly composed of extended readings of a few texts, often from before this century, then it’s likely you were in a continental program.
Of course, analytic programs do the history of philosophy, as they call it, but often by systematizing these thinkers of the past in ways that don’t quite fit them, which is to say, making use of the influence of social-scientific, scientific, logical, or mathematical types of scaffolding. And continental philosophers, so called because they are dominant on the European ‘continent,’ do deal with social scientific, scientific, logical, or mathematical issues, but often on their own terms, warping these influences in the process.
But both of these approaches, when they deal with the history of philosophy, have a curious time-line to their view of this history. The story of ‘Philosophy’ seems to go something like this. One starts with perhaps a few tibdits from the so-called ‘Pre-Socratics’ like Parmenides and Anaximander, quickly proceeding to Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle,then one moves to Descartes, Locke, Hume, Kant, and the 19th century. A few words may be said about the dark ages, perhaps some Aquinas thrown in just to show how silly and religious philosophy got for a while, and an adventurous history might even throw an ‘Eastern’ text in, perhaps a little bit of Lao-Tzu’s Tao Te Ching during the Pre-Socratics period, just to show how similar early western philosophy was to eastern, after which we learned how to deal real, non-mystical philosophy. And while many of the thinkers involved didn’t only write ‘strictly’ philosophical texts, these other texts, whether on issues from what today would generally be called science or magic, is generally excluded.
To anyone not brought up within this odd system, the narrative that frames it might seem really, really strange. Firstly, and perhaps most symptomatically, where did the nearly 2,000 years between Aristotle and Descartes go?! Did people stop doing philosophy?! Oh, it became religious. Does that stop it from being philosophy? Yes, some would argue, but there are many who study these texts and call them philosophy, and see this as disciplinarily distinct from theology and other religious fields.
And so specialists in medieval Christian, Islamic, and Late Antique philosophies generally end up in departments of Religious Studies, Near Eastern Studies, and/or Classics, respectively. And so, it’s likely if you take a course in a philosophy department, you simply won’t hear about these types of ‘philosophy’ in basic intro historical survey courses. At most you may get a mention, but it’s very likely your professor doesn’t know much about these areas either, and was likely not trained in them.
What’s more, ‘eastern’ philosophies are often studied in places like East Asian studies departments, South Asian departments, African Studies departments, etc. I know when I was an undergraduate I had to take the only class on Chinese philosophy offered at my school in the history department. And the professor, while sympathetic to me as a poor philosophy major, kept telling me to try to write history papers rather than philosophy papers.
And without question, no-one taught Kant’s Anthropology in relation to his First Critique, Leibniz’s works on mechanics, Aristotle on the heavens, etc. These works were seen as marginal, outside the scope of philosophy, or simply bad science, and little to do with philosophy. All of which is really, really problematic.
The Individual as Symptom of Modernity, or Why The History of Philosophy Generally Skips from Aristotle to Descartes
While the dominant history of philosophy goes from Aristotle and then Descartes, this is largely symptomatic of our current age more than anything else. We live in the age of what Jameson has called ‘late capitalism,’ of which the doctrine of the individual, isolated, atomized human subject, the citizen of the nation-state and the subject of individualized psychology and economics (a rational choosing agent maximizing utility in a vacuum, of course!) is perhaps the primary ideology. While this formation has always been tenuous at best, and clearly has come under assault in our networked, postmodern age, most historians have argued that ‘the individual’ as we know it is largely a product of the early modern period. Most theorists of the ‘rise of the individual’ trace its early formations to the interior psychologizing texts of figures like Montaigne and Castiglione, and compare this to works of Descartes and Locke. Of course, most of this sort of comparative work gets done in literature or history departments, since we all know that philosophy only deals with concepts, removed from context lest they be impurified in the process.
Going further, we see that this early modern period is in fact not only that of the rise of the individual (what a fortuitous accident!), but also the same time period that gave us both Descartes and capitalism, as well as linear perspective in the visual arts, zero in western mathematics, the start of modern nation-states in politics, colonialism and the so-called ‘age of exploration,’ as well as modern science, as well as ‘the west’ as we know it. Might these accidents perhaps all be connected?
There are many historians who show precisely how ‘the west’ was sculpted out of the rest of the world during what we often now call ‘the Renaissance.’ Of course, if you read most traditional ‘western’ histories of ‘the Renaissance,’ everyone was simply ‘sleeping’ during those long, dark ages, but then for whatever reason, decided to wake up on morning, and have a Renaissance! Let’s go back to Greece, and tone it down on the religion a bit, let’s trade and have some fun!
This sort of abrupt, non-motivated set of transitions between movements only happens when history is told in straight lines, rather than as shifting constellations of networks. For example, if you look at literary movement in isolation, it will seem that people across Europe just started idealizing daffodills and Nature (capital ‘N’) for no real reason one day, and decided to call it Romaniticism. But placed within the context of the industrial revolution, and the rise of what Blake called ‘dark Satanic mills’, the enclosure of lands and shifts in political economy on a global scale that lead to the rise of dirty, dank over-crowded cities, all of a sudden Romaniticism seems symptomatic of larger shifts in the culture.
Philosophy is hardly different. None of which is to reduce one set of changes to another, however. An overly mechanical approach to a Marxian style economic determinism doesn’t really get us anywhere. While it does seem that changes do ripple up from more material economic and political concerns into the more abstract aspects of culture (ie: visual arts, philosophy, mathematics), these then form much of the raw materials whereby the culture reads the material shifts and brings about new ones. If there is any priority to be given to the material, it is small indeed. While it does seem that physical exigencies and technological changes do often seem to be the cause of large scale shifts, these are immediately coated by culture like grains of sand turned into pearls.
Which is why any history of movements, in philosophy or beyond, needs to be seen as a violent gesture of periodization, one which tells us as much about the periodizer and their desires as about the period in question. The same can be said with the delimitation of discipline and space involved. To study Romanticism in the traditional way, to return to our example, is to delimit not only a time period (early 19th century), but a spatial domain (Euro-America), and a disciplinary set of interests (literature, visual arts, but not engineering). Why would anyone carve this sort of slice out of history and its artifacts to study? How curious!
Such a model has been articulated in various ways by theorists as diverse as Walter Benjamin (his ‘constellatory’ approach to history as articulated in his famed “Epistemo-Critical Prologue” to his Trauerspeilarbeit), Michel Foucault’s genealogy of epistemes moving from pastoral to soverign, disciplinary, and biopower, or the wonderful metahistorical works of Hayden White (ie: The Content of the Form, Metahistory) or Michel de Certeau (the criminally underread, psychoanalytically inspired The Writing of History).
Bringing insights from such theorists into discourse with a networkological approach to these issues, we can begin to see history is a set of networked constellations, and when we carve it up to grasp some of it, we use some of our networks in present, producing a nexus of networks in the process. Good historicizing needs to be aware of this creative activity of its own act of production in the process. For what is produced in this manner is nothing other than disciplines, spaces, and periods. These are more networks in turn, each of which provides raw materials for the next such cycle of productions, reproductions, mutations, etc. To use the wonderful metaphors of Felix Guattari (ie: his wonderful Machinic Unconscious), it’s all concrete assemblages, all the way down, and potentially infinite levels of scale, desiring productions all.
And wherever there is production, there is desire, which is to say, the expectations and hopes and fears involved in the activity in the present which guide the carving up, warping, and assemblage of the products of cultural detritus around us into something like historicemes, nodes or units which can then be assembled into networks, linear or otherwise, which help us contextualize our present moment with pasts, and thereby sketch out trajectories for our future. For if the present is the site of production, in our production of the past, we produce mirrors that face to the future. Our networks of the past tie into our desires in the present for futures, such that history is simply one of the tools whereby the future is constructed in the present, networking as it goes.
Towards a Networkological History of Philosophy: Starting with Religion, Science, and the return of Neoplatonism
After this brief detour in historiographical issues, let’s now return to the specific issue of the history of philosophy. From a networkological perspective, it makes sense to want to historicize the networkological project, to look for precursors and their antagonists, to frame the history of philosophy networkologically. And of course, this is an act of production, desire, and creation, for it’s my sense that a networkological approach to our futures is a beneficial one, but to do so, I need to intertwine this approach to the world various aspects of world around it, some drawn from philosophy, others from fields beyond philosophy, some from the past, others the present, all the present a ‘case’ for this worldview. The production of a networkological history of philosophy is simply one part of this attempt to ‘dialecticize’ the past (to use a Lacanian term), to make it work for the networkological project in the present.
What would such a networkological history of philosophy then look like in miniature? Of course, this all depends on what you mean by philosophy! Taken in the broadest sense of attempting to make sense of the world by abstract networks applied to more concrete ones, various forms of human enterprise seem to function in this capacity as attempts to frame the world in the most abstract sense possible from within a particular culture. And it certainly seems that philosophies as we now know them, whether from the Indian, Chinese, ‘Western,’ or other traditions, all find their original genesis in two primary meaning-making activities, which are religion and science. And since most early cultures didn’t divide these, linking what in the west was called ‘natural philosophy’ with everything from theology to various practices that today might be called by scientists forms of magic, we need to study how abstraction, as a process of meaning making, occurs in all its diverse forms.
For if philosophy is the most abstract worldforms a culture produces, the place in which it reflects on abstraction as such, then it must relate to the various forms of abstraction from which it emerged, and in relation to which it remains in constant dialogue. We can call these various practices, tied to physical and material activities, practices, and when these reflect on their own activities praxes, such that when praxes reflect on their own reflexivity and the conditions of this, they become philosophy.
And so it seems that if we want to chart the history of ‘western’ philosophy, we should hardly start with Ancient Greece. As Martin Bernal and the Black Athena controversy have shown, there is strong reason to believe that ancient Greece was just a perfect storm for the influences from all over the ancient world, drawing its sources from Egypt, Mesopotamia, Phonecia, Persia, and India, if not beyond. Of these sources, the extensive historical record of Egypt provides a treasure trove of inspiration for a historian of philosophy, so long as they know what to look for. As historians of religion have shown (and here I think Richard Wright’s excellent The Evolution of God provides some great guideposts), pantheons are often formed when local gods are brought together under others when one city conquers another, and as these systems get more elaborate, they are often used to represent concepts as much as people.
The continual abstraction of gods into ideas leads to the formation of systems which are philosophies in all but name. Anyone who has studied the role of Thoth and Ma’at in ancient Egypt knows that the grammatology developed is nearly as complex as those described in Derrida’s Of Grammatology, and result in a system of balanced forces which anticipate many of our most complex fractal generators (ie: iterated function systems, or IFS’s). Similar models can be found in various forms of sub-Saharan African thought, as Ronald Eglash nicely describes in relation to various central African religious systems, and how they give rise to fractal patterns in all sorts of material products from housewares to textiles and architecture in his book African Fractals.
It is only within these wider parameters that the ancient Greek explosion should be understood. And from there, it needs to be contextualized within the shifting parameters of the late antique world. The Hellenistic period, often passed over as a fall of philosophy into religion, mysticism, and magic, needs to be seen as a mutation, not a fall. For in fact, attempts to understand the world via abstraction were proliferating, not contracting! Of course, the fact that the center of Greek inspired philosophy soon shifted from the increasingly backwards Latin speaking countries to the Arabic speaking world, even as it was continuing to mutate in its Indian and Chinese efflorescences, providing in many ways the two major parallel tracks which developed along side what would eventually come to be called ‘western’ thought.
Unfortunately, for reasons which Jared Diamond describes in his amazing text Guns, Germs, and Steel, cultures in the Americas, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Austronesia simply weren’t able to get far beyond the stage of conceptualizing gods in the manner described above, largely for reasons having to do with the material conditions present in these parts of the world. That said, each developed conceptual systems of gods in ways that are quite similar in complexity to those seen in, for example, ancient Egypt. All of which can perhaps make us wonder if philosophy comes about with the rise of the city state, market, exchange, etc.
Paradigms and Vanishing Mediators of Philosophy’s Historical Mirrors
But to return to the vagaries of Greek inspired thought, it seems that the period generally known as Neo-platonism, which lasted in one form or another from about the birth of the so-called ‘common era’ until the rise of capitalist individualism and it’s ‘modern’ science (of individuals doing atomized yet reproducible experiments that can be individually duplicated), ends up being the ‘vanishing mediator’ of modern thought. As I’ve argued in many other texts, a vanishing mediator, a terms which comes from thinkers like Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Zizek, is something which needs to be forgotten (‘vanishing’) in order for a paradigm to come into dominance, for it forms its constitutive exclusions.
These constitutive exclusions tend to come back to the surface periodically as crises in a given paradigm (‘returns of the repressed’), and and in periods in which there is about to be a shift in paradigm, the vanishing mediator seems to return in full force, until a new paradigm arises to take the place of the previous. And so, on both sides of a given paradigm, which is essentially a worldview, this temporarilly vanishing set of notions ‘mediates’ the relation a paradigm has to what comes before and after it.
For example, western democracy had to ‘forget’ that slavery was undemocratic as it formulated the notion of citizenship in the nation-state, just as it seems that the most crucial critiques of democracy ever since is that it’s notion of citizenship abstracts the economic and social concerns out of the equation of equality. If we are to ever solve the issues that haunt western capitalist democracies, we need to come to terms with precisely what it had to exclude from consideration within the purview of the state in order to form itself as a paradigm in dominance.
Neoplatonism is the great big vanishing mediator of the history of what would eventually be called ‘western’ philosophy. And this is because it is anti-individualistic, the individual is simply an effect of a giant network like system called God, which can be read as an abstract mirror-reflection of the conditions of multi-ethnic empires in late antiquity. The resonances with the present are evident, as increasingly the atomized individual is coming to be seen as the primary fiction which allowed capitalism and its various analogues to become a paradigm in dominance. And so it makes sense that neoplatonic networkological worldviews needed to be forgotten! As well as anything which mediates between subject and world, hence, purify philosophy, get rid of religion and magic (truly the precursor of more effective techniques for pratical intervention in the world that go by the name of ‘science’ today), economics or the arts, leave only the subject and its world! Plato and Aristotle are able to harmonize with Descartes and Locke nicely, but Plotinus not so much, and Hegel, Spinoza, Leibniz, these are the return of the repressed, the networkological neo-platonic synthesis trying to peer through the ideology of the atomized individual which has become the dominant paradigm for disciplines as seemingly disconnected as neo-classical economics, analytic philosophy, functionalist sociology, etc.
And of course, it doesn’t help that Neoplatonism was given form by Plotinus and his successors (ie:Porphyry, Proclus), reshaping other crucial precursor movements such as Epicureanism and Stoicism, yet its center soon transfered to a ‘non-western’ culture, namely, the Arabic speaking world. No wonder the ‘west’ wants to forget this! But this Neoplatonic synthesis is in fact where ‘the west’ came from. For it was this networkological worldview that built the raw materials which mutated in Jewish thinkers of the medieval period, and the early Christian scholastics.
Neoplatonism then finds its last flowering in the early modern period in so-called Renaissance Platonism, in figures like Pico della Mirandola, Marcellus Ficino, Nicholas of Cusa, etc. As Plato was increasingly being retranslated from the Greek, his texts were nevertheless read through the Neoplatonic and often Hermetic lens, as these early ‘mages’ were experimenting with correspondances, alchemical techniques, number-magic, and various other techniques to impact the physical world, the clear forerunners of modern science. And in fact, so many early ‘scientists’ were as steeped in these methods as those we use today, and why not? How could we rule out the impact of the planets until we could observe them more closely? Even today, it’s not possible to fully rule out the role of the planets, their magnetic and other forces, even if there seems to be little credible evidence for this.
But we need to begin to recover these proto-scientific technologies, from number-magic to alchemy and the like, as vanishing mediators of the history of science. For it is by the divorce of these from the history of science that science is able to maintain the facade of objectivity, the individual scientist in the lab, as opposed to the truly networked and collective enterprise which it is (and so deftly described by Bruno Latour and his actor-network theory in works like Science in Action and The Pasteurization of France).
Of course, the grand irony here is that just as the networks of capitalism began to sew the world together, networkological philosophies went into eclipse, for the ideology of the isolated, atomized individual is what allowed the networks of capital to take hold as they did. Which is why I’ve argued elsewhere that we need to look at the renegade networkologists like Spinoza and Leibniz as counterparts to Descartes and Kant if we are to attempt to think of ways out of the ideologies of the present, which is to say, we need to retrieve the vanishing mediators of the past to help us imagine new futures.
And if Spinoza and Leibniz are modern incarnations of networkological thinking developed at the dawn of capitalism, symptoms of the nascent network (Spinoza’s Dutch mercantile republic and Leibniz’s ‘republic of letters’) at its dawn, these are only the most recent inheritors of a networkological tradition which goes back, nearly unbroken, for nearly 1500 years before them. Which is why if Leibniz and Spinoza seem novel to us today, we simply haven’t done our homework. For while they clearly provide masterful, contained, and coherent systematizations, they are both synthesizers of the various developments of Neoplatonism as it mutated through nearly a thousand years of Jewish, Muslim, and eventually Christian mutations. Theirs is one networkology amongst many, for in fact, the Neoplatonic period in the history of philosophy presents us with a combinatory of possible networkological worldviews, a wide variety of philosophemes which can be drawn upon, mutated, warped, and recombined with aspects of others in our attempts to develop networkologies for the future.
In all this, it seems essential that we never divorce philosophy and its history from what’s around it. How can we understand Cartesian individualism in isolation from his optics, its relation to the radical shifts in visual perspective in the arts, or his mathematics and its relation to the new cartographies of empire, or both of these to the new ‘ratios’ which were rapidly coming together in everything from the trigonometries used to map oceans and starts to those used to equate currencies?
Philosophy is ever only an abstraction from these intertwined networked processes, and we describe its histories, its paradigms and vanishing mediators, its crises, interactions, and mutations, only ever in relation to others. Only when we understand these intertwined issues, it seems, can we begin to write a history of philosophy that can truly speak to the needs of our increasingly networked futures.