Tuesday, 6 April 2010

The Past Does Not Exist

To break new ground must a major thinker reject reality?

This thought comes to mind when reading Ernest Gellner's brief analysis of the Polish anthropologist, Bronislaw Malinowski, who revolutionised his field. In order to secure the insights that he did, concentrating on existing societies through meticulous field work, he had to ignore the past; and prove logically that it did not exist!

The result, perhaps, is that you see the world much clearer, sharper, you see it from a different perspective; and thus come the new insights, out of which new theories emerge. For what are insights, if not startling snapshots of our all too familiar places.

In a typically wonderful collection of essays Ernest Gellner has a piece on the Polish anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski. Malinowski was a true originator in British anthropology: studying institutions according to their function in maintaining a society’s stability, but always in the present, at the time they are studied.

Up until then the subject tended towards an evolutionary approach. However, for Malinowski we cannot know the past: it cannot be observed or experienced (Gellner is extremely good on all of this, filling in the intellectual and national background; and showing its Positivist origins). We can only study the past by how it acts in the present. Indeed, he goes even further: the present in fact creates the past. From out of this approach came his supreme insight: the maintenance of institutional stability within a given society, at a particular time.

Gellner, who is very much influenced by this approach – in another wonderful book he uses just these methods to study the Psychoanalytic movement –, also sees its limitations. For whilst logically we cannot know the past; in truth it exists, and its influence is more than just its enactment in the present. Nevertheless, Malinowski’s insight, the importance of stability, has an even more important corollary, in Gellner’s view: it makes manifest the problem of stability. Within ever changing environments how do societies maintain themselves, how do they keep stable?

Malinowski was reacting against the dominant strands of C19th thought; well elucidated inRobin Small’s book on the relationship between Paul Rée and Friedrich Nietzsche. Here, it is Darwin and Herbert Spencer that set the intellectual agenda, at least for a short period in Nietzsche’s creative life. The arguments have a very familiar ring: they could be taking place today, albeit with a little more sophistication – though this is not guaranteed. The crucial insight of Darwin’s, that we are animals too, underscores the collapse of the theology that underpinned the old pre-industrial society. Nietzsche, of course, arrives to complete its demolition.

But like Malinowski, the crucial insight - stability in his case, we are animals, in Darwin’s - raises its own problem. In Malinowski: stability. In Darwin: the human. We are an animal, but it is also true that we are different from all other animals. This is Darwin's problem; having shown we're animals we need to explain what makes us human. There is a tendency, very apparent in Rée, an enthusiastic disciple of Darwin, to explain this away: we are nothing but animal appetite, with a little altruism thrown in. However, rather than an explanation it ignores the problem; for there is something very unusual about us humans – our minds. It gives rise to our language, and our ability to comprehend that the world viewed by our sense perceptions is only a representation, a kind of illusion. Science is very odd, when viewed from the animal kingdom.

Nietzsche outgrew Rée, and posited his own ideas, at the core of which is the belief that we can create our own worlds (somewhere he writes of language as the great fiction), and that the great men, and possibly Lou Salomé, have the Will to turn life into a piece of art. These ideas, it seems to me, are at the opposite spectrum to Darwin’s, and are closer to the Christian ideas of a spirit free from the material world; so that man can create his own life, his own freedom. It is the world as an aesthetic realm, and Nietzsche is the supreme philosopher of the creative act, of the personality of the artist.

Darwin and Nietzsche. We have them both, and we need them both – but where do they meet? Ummm! Here are the two extremes of the modern world – Enlightenment and Romanticism. We need them both but the balance is a difficult one to maintain. Gellner, in the same book, has an essay on Hannah Arendt. Herself a creation of the Enlightenment; her family right at its heart in Kant’s Königsberg. Because her family were Jewish they, like the Enlightenment, were threatened by the Romantic counter attack; its belief in Community and the Soil; of Gemeinschaft, of Volk. Nevertheless, this too was part of her heritage – very difficult to escape in European intellectual circles in the C19th.

This was came out most clearly in her love affair with Martin Heidegger – the pre-eminent Romantic Philosopher of the C20th, and who sided with the Nazis. Gellner makes some extraordinary interesting points here. After the war, there was a kind of reconciliation between them both; and later she tried to grasp the nature of the Hitler regime – her theory of Totalitarianism. He believes her ideas wrong: she sees Nazism as an outbreak of madness, which has little historical explanation (thus her shock at the banality of Eichmann). For Gellner this is the insight: though she must know it, she ignores those strands of European thought that prepared the way for the catastrophe; in particular Romanticism, and its counter attack on reason and the cosmopolitan culture; and this may in some way be linked to her relationship with Heidegger. Unable to deal with the complexity, those strong emotional pulls - something we love cannot be responsible for something we hate - she absolves it of all responsibility; she ignores its causative power.

This example is perhaps the most popular strategy to deal with this difficult balance: ignore at least one of these two extremes. For the new Neo-Darwinians it is the Romantic, or the specificity of the human mind. For the Romantics, it is science.

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