The Function of Origin Claims

I have suggested (here and here) that what started with the pre-Socratics was not fundamentally different in kind from either the Homeric or the Abrahamic traditions. All three traditions valued reflective distance, and there was individual reflective distance in both the Abrahamic and Socratic traditions. True, the way the individual reflective distance was realized in the two traditions was different, but we can only understand this in light of what they have in common.

If there is this similarity between the three traditions, why does the origin claim (that questioning tradition began with the pre-Socratics) seem so intuitive? Why does the origin claim have such a grip on the philosophical landscape in the West?

It is for the same reason the Biblical origin story has such a grip in churches. On a given Sunday, a pastor says as part of his sermon that God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh day. This is how the world began! What is the structural function of this assertion in the organization of the church? This is not a question of the pastor’s intentions. He intends to simply state a fact, and perhaps to impress the majesty of the fact on his audience. The function of the assertion might be hidden to the pastor himself, as well as to the congregation. To see the function, one has to be able to step back from the assertion and contemplate that it might be false.

Once we step back in that way, the function is obvious: it is a way for the Church as an institution to affirm that it is the ultimate arbiter of issues in the society. Want to talk about contraception? Then you have to listen to the Church, because only it understands the true origin and nature of human beings and the world. Want to talk about marriage? Same thing. What about trade, or sports, or movies? At the end of the day, same thing.

The more fundamental the origin claim made by an institution, the wider is the net of the influence the institution lays claim to. A member of the institution who accepts the relevant original claim is committing to letting the organization be the final arbiter on everything that falls within that net of influence. In this way, origin claims are the way that institutions assert their identity (This is the real origin, not what those other people say!”) and maintain their power.

In the scholastic Middle Ages it would have been unthinkable that philosophy, and in general questioning tradition and thinking for oneself, began with the pre-Socratics. Not when the Church had its own, more fundamental origin claim about the beginnings not just of philosophy, or even of people but of the whole world.

The origin claim regarding philosophy is an artifact of the Enlightenment era as people were building institutional structures independent of the various Christian denominations. The Enlightenment thinkers needed a non-Christian framework which was close to their tradition but not so close that it triggered religious disagreement. Given the Renaissance and the fact that Greek thought was implicit in much Scholastic philosophy, naturally the Greek tradition filled precisely this need. And because it was pegged in the role of being neutral between the different Christian denominations, it was heralded as a universal framework of thought.

Here we see the double-edged nature of the Enlightenment. On the one hand, it genuinely aimed for a neutrality between the warring Christian denominations. But, on the other hand, as it was also (and not coincidentally) the time of European expansionism, the claim of the universality of Greek philosophy was thrust onto the world as a true, global universality which can provide a similar neutrality to the warring religions around the world. Not surprisingly, the intellectual traditions of non-Western cultures were thus promptly cast as being doubly backward: first, as religions, and second, as religions less sophisticated than Christianity.

This is why most Modern, European philosophers hardly bothered to look past themselves and the ancient Greeks and Romans for philosophy. As they saw it, Christianity was the most advanced form of religion, and they as philosophers were struggling to create an intellectual framework even beyond Christianity. The idea that there were sophisticated, intellectual, secular traditions to be found in other parts of the world never occurred to them, anymore than it would have occurred to them that people in foreign lands would greet them speaking Elizabethan English.

In this Enlightenment framework, the claim that thinking for oneself began with the pre-Socratics functions as a way to make any intellectual claim submit to the norms and practices of Western intellectual institutions. It is a way to gain, through the rhetoric of having discovered self-reflection, home-field advantage in any conversation by pitting the other into a state of backward religiousity and then presenting the philosophy as started by the Greeks as the remedy to that backwardness.

It is easy to imagine this happening 300 years ago. It galls our progressive sentiments to think that this is happening still right now. But it is still happening now. Every time a person says “philosophy began with the pre-Socratics”, they are showing their adherence, implicit or otherwise, to the institutional frameworks of Enlightenment eurocentrism. The only difference is that whereas Descartes and Kant assumed non-Westerns were too backward to contribute to their debates, contemporary philosophers in the West claim non-Westerners have become sophisticated enough, precisely through their participation in the Enlightenment inspired academia, to be able to participate in the debates as equals. It is part of the function of origin claims that any good that happens accrues back to the institution, since it seen as the foundation of all good things.

Beyond power dynamics, the problem with the origin claim is that it fosters the illusion of clarity and so stands in the way of better understanding human history. Could it be that in the span of a couple of centuries in the southern part of Europe 2,500 years ago the ability to question tradition suddenly popped up out of the blue, and that this was an altogether different kind of activity than anything that happened before? That, in particular, this was radically different precisely from its closest cousins, such as the Homeric, Abrahamic and Eqyptian traditions? This is as fantastical as that human beings suddenly showed up in existence through the will of God.

The patent implausibility of such an origin claim remains hidden from view as long as the origin claim is treated as the merest common sense. And where it is treated as common sense for the sake of drawing and retaining institutional divisions in the present. As long as one is committed to the idea that contemporary academic philosophy is an altogether different kind of institution than any religious institution, then the absurdity of the big bang theory of the origin of philosophy will remain out of view. Indeed, it will seem so obviously necessary in order to keep to the current institutional demarcations that it will be seen as altogether self-evident, and that it is a sign of one’s understanding of the nature of philosophy and religion that one is able to grasp it as self-evident.

But the claim of self-evidence is just due to the power of institutional inertia. In order to better understand intellectual history, it is necessary to resist such inertia and be willing to change institutional structures. The last recourse of the inertia is to deem that the origin claim has nothing to do with institutional dynamics, and that it is simply an objective, factual claim of what really happened. At this point in the dialectic, though, the wheels are coming off the wagon. For how can the origin claim be just a factual claim about what happened thousands of years ago, when it is also supposed to be self-evident and obvious? When to even wonder about how Socratic thinking might have been implicitly influenced by, say, the Homeric or Egyptian traditions is to confuse religion with philosophy?

Here it is these very concepts of “religion” and “philosophy” which cause havoc and stand in the way of better understanding both the past and the present. Progress requires gaining clarity about these concepts, and to view everything afresh without being beholden to these concepts and their institutional meanings.

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