The Fact-Commitment Dichotomy

As is well known, modern science became possible when scientists tried to understand the physical world independent of intentional categories. It was an intellectual breakthrough to be able to look upon the moon and the stars, or the falling apple without imposing on them the categories by which human beings make sense of each other’s actions. The intentional description of the apple’s trajectory provided a false sense of understanding, as if one had a universal understanding of the world when the mode of intentional explanation was applied to everything.

Imagine you are the Pope in the early 17th century, and you see yourself as God’s voice on earth. Everything you look upon seems to you tied in with the institution of the Catholic Church. Why does the Pope care whether the earth is the center of the universe? It isn’t because the Pope just cares for astronomy. It’s because the Pope was unable to separate astronomy from politics. He sensed dissension all around him, various forces vying to subvert the influence of the Church. The Pope interpreted astronomy itself through the lens of such institutional struggles. The Earth had to be the center of the universe because, here on Earth, the Catholic church had to be the center of human society.

To us moderns this seems amazingly backward, but it is not altogether incomprehensible. It is the thought, central to pre-modern science, that the boundaries of human society are the boundaries of the universe as such. Like a child who is not able to envision a world in which his parents don’t loom large, and who even if he were to meet the President simply understands him as a background feature of the parent’s world, so too for thousands of years human societies were able to understand the universe mainly through the categories by which the society was held together. This doesn’t mean for all those years there wasn’t important and fascinating science. But that science always had to fit into the network of categories used to run the society.

It was a sign of the relative stability of modern life that a separation between science and politics became possible. Not that science is altogether free of politics, but at least this much is true: to evaluate a physical theory we don’t look to what categories are essential to binding humans together. This was the thought that was so frightening to contemporaries of Galileo: here was a theory of the world so independent of the needs of human beings that it could be true even if human life were annihilated.

It is sometimes said that modern science disenchanted the world. This misses the crucial issue. Disenchantment presupposes that an understanding of the physical world in intentional categories is required for human beings to be enchanted with the world. But this is to again put the societal needs of human beings back in the same realm as understanding the physical world.  Setting aside the uses of science, which obviously have great social significance, it is a virtue of physical science that at least in that aspect of human life we don’t connect it too closely to contested issues of what is needed for human flourishing.

Far from bemoaning the separation of physical science from politics, we need a similar revolution if we are to better understand human history.

This is not to say that we need to take the categories of the physical sciences and apply them to human beings, as if physical or biological understanding of humans underpins human history. No doubt physics, geology, biology and so on have a lot to contribute to understanding human history, but they will never suffice for such understanding.

When I say “a similar revolution” is needed, I mean: just as physics was separated from the politics of the day, so too our understanding of human history has to be separated from issues of social organization now. We need to separate the realm of historical facts from the realm of our commitments now for how to organize society. This is bound to be complicated, since how humans organize themselves is tied to their sense of identities, which is tied to their sense of their history. Complicated, yes. But impossible, no.

Consider the origin claim, the view that philosophy began with the pre-Socratics. On the surface, this claim seems like any normal factual claim: it is making a statement about the past. It has the form of a statement like “tending for one’s offspring began with mammals.”

And yet, there is much more to the origin claim. It is not just a factual claim about the past. It is as well an organizing claim for the present social structures. When someone asserts the origin claim, they are, intentionally or not, pledging their allegiance to a certain institutional structure – Western academic philosophy – and suggesting that structure, as it is currently constructed, is essential to human flourishing in the present. The idea is philosophy as it began with the pre-Socratics was able to break with tradition and so be a self-critical inquiry, and so the current institutional structures which trace back to that event are similarly self-critical; are, indeed, the very paradigms of self-criticalness.

I won’t now go through the limits of contemporary Western academic philosophy. That is not necessary for the present point. What is pertinent is that the origin claim is two things at once: a purported factual claim about the past and a commitment to certain institutional structures in the present.

A professional philosopher articulating the origin claim is thus like a priest saying that God created human beings. The reason it is hard to argue with the priest is because the priest himself is confused about what kind of claim he is making: he acts like he is making a factual claim about the past, and wants to be taken at face value about that, but at the slightest push back about the facts, becomes indignant that the questioner is trying to unravel the religious institution he sees as necessary for contemporary human life. It is hard to say that the priest doesn’t really care about the past, but only about the present. For the priest is convinced that the past – the reality of the past – is irrevocably tied up with just what is needed in the present.

It is this curious amalgam of speaking simultaneously about the facts of the past and the needs of the present, as if he had found a secret connection binding all human life, that gives the priest’s statements the form of timeless universality. But, really, it is just a failure to distinguish factual claims from commitment claims, what happened in the past from what we should do now. It is the same with the origin claim.

Wilfrid Sellars argued that sense-data was a “mongrel” concept because it confused together causal and normative claims. In the same spirit, we can say that the origin claim in a mongrel claim because it confuses together a claim about the past with a commitment to certain forms of contemporary social organization.

There are two ways to spot a mongrel claim, and both are evident with the origin claim. First, what is asserted as a factual claim is defended with indignation or by talking about the meanings of terms.

Could it be that philosophy didn’t actually begin with the pre-Socratics? Proponents of the origin claim usually respond to this question with a stern look, as if one were courting mischief: “What is one suggesting by saying philosophy didn’t begin with the pre-Socratics? That philosophy is just another form of religion? Then what will play the civilizing role in contemporary life? Come on, don’t make trouble!”

Or one tries to diffuse the issue by making it analytic, as if whatever someone else might mean by “philosophy”, in the sense it is meant in the origin claim, philosophy began with the pre-Socratics. But, of course, there arises the question: if this is the defense of the origin claim, in what sense is it supposed to capture what happened 2,500 years ago? How can an empirical issue be settled by meanings of words? It can’t. This response, like the previous one about avoiding mischief, is a way for the proponent of the origin claim to lean in on the commitment implicit in the claim, and to wave away as irrelevant any misgivings, as if there were no empirical element to the claim after all.

A second way to spot a mongrel claim is that it leaves holes or gaps in the event to be explained, but treats the gaps as not important, and in fact as there being no gaps, as if all was already laid out in front of us in a perspicuous manner.

If philosophy began with the pre-Socratics, how did it come out of what happened before? What were the cultural and historical forces which lead to the dawn of philosophy at that moment of time? In what ways was what Socratic thinking building on what came before it? Far from answering, or even addressing these questions, the origin claim avoids them by falling back on rigidified uses of terms like “religion” and “conformism”. According to the origin claim, the history of humanity looks like this: apes to religion to philosophy. But what was the cause of the transition from religion to philosophy? This we are not told, for, as before, any linking of religion and philosophy is seen as merely causing mischief.

There is a blind-spot here, which is caused by confusing historical facts with commitments to the present. A real understanding of the origins of Socratic thinking or Plato’s texts would be able to provide a gap-less history of the 200,000 years of early human cultural history to Socrates, or at the very least, a gap-less history of the 10,000 years since the dawn of agriculture to Socrates. A narrative that places Socratic thinking within the broader context of human society until that point.

The origin claim flips this around. Because Socratic thinking is claimed to be the foundation of a proper society, and because seeing the origins of Socratic thinking in “less sophisticated” societies is deemed as losing the primacy of Socratic thinking, what is offered instead is a narrative on which Socratic (and pre-Socratic) thinking came on the scene ex nihilo – out of nothing. The problem with the origin claim isn’t that it gives the wrong account of the origins of philosophy. It is that it offers no account at all, and covers over the lack of knowledge as if it were a virtue.

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