Thursday, October 9, 2014

This is only cliched now because Sartre won

A great point in Read History of Philosophy Backwards by Scott Alexander.

A couple of my bugbears is that 1) we fail to appreciate the path dependencies that got us to where we are now, and 2) we are often insensitive to how unique was that path and to some extent how fragile is our place today. We simply assume all paths inveritably would have lead to the present and that today's circumstances remain robustly inevitable.

Alexander approaches from a different direction, but it is much the same point.
Today I was discussing Sartre with a friend, and a lot of the discussion centered around why people care about Sartre. Sartre’s main point – that no one else can tell you who you are, and you choose what your own values are – seems so cliched, so much like what an uncreative graduation speaker might say – that it hardly seems worth elevating him to the Canon Of Philosophical Greatness.

My hypothesis – and I don’t know if it’s true – is that this is only cliched now because Sartre won. The point of studying Sartre is not to learn that you choose your own identity, but to read him backward – to start with this idea that choosing your own identity is obvious, and then read Sartre to learn exactly how controversial it was at the time and what sorts of arguments Sartre had to go through to get people to accept it, and eventually understand the position that the original reader of Sartre was supposed to have started with. If you succeed, you might still believe that you choose your own identity, but you’ll also understand that this isn’t an obvious necessary fact of the universe, that there used to be people who believed you didn’t and that they had some good arguments too.

Sometimes this is true even when you don’t know that it’s true. When I first studied Hobbes in college, I was under the impression that nobody agreed with Hobbes these days – after all, Hobbes was a believer in absolute monarchy, and now everyone is strongly opposed to that. But later I realized that pretty much everyone is a Hobbesian in that Hobbes was one of the first people to think in terms of people coming together to found a government for their mutual self-interest; previously governments were either just the natural state of human affairs, or part of the hierarchical nature of the universe under God, or composed because the telos of man only flourishes in a community, or not even something you thought about. Indeed, Alasdair MacIntyre seems to be at least partially advocating a return to pre-Hobbesian ideas about government, even though he doesn’t put it in those terms.

The only reason I had Hobbes pegged as “the absolutism guy” was because that was the only place in which his theories differed from my own and so I assumed it was his only idea that wasn’t “obvious”. If I had read him backward, I would have gotten a lot more out of him.

No comments:

Post a Comment