Thursday, 15 September 2016

A Berlin Conversation (Part Two)

An extract from a dialogue between Dr. Ralf Ganz, and Dr. Sadiq Kishati, on questions which might might be asked about the history of ideas, and cultic life in the ancient world. The dramatic date of the discussion is March 2003. The location is a university office, next to the Unter den Linden in Berlin, within sight of the famous equestrian statue of Frederick II, King of Prussia.

Sadiq: The thing which is really difficult for us to understand, is that we do not want to understand the past, and the way it was constructed in the ancient mind. And that our perceptions of what is real are based on the categories which are in mind.
Ralf: Really? You think so? So much effort has been expended on the understanding of the ancient world! The universities of the world have departments devoted to the subject! Do you think that those who work in those departments do not want to know their subject in detail? Do you think that they do not know their subjects in detail? I am surprised at you, since most of the classicists and ancient historians I have met are honestly interested in their subject, and would not be remotely interested in working within a framework which was essentially a fabrication.

Sadiq: I agree with you about those who work within university departments focussed on classics and ancient history. There is a great deal of ambition on display, but they would not be likely to endorse a fabrication, if they understood that was what they were dealing with. They are not dishonest.

Ralf: But you say that we do not want to understand the past, and the way things were constructed in the ancient mind. If they are honest scholars, they will not endorse fabrication, as you say. So I am at a loss to understand how you can maintain we are disinterested in the actual shape of the ancient world.

Sadiq: That’s because you imagine that what is in their minds is the consequence of an engagement with the evidence.

Ralf: Of course it is. It must be. When they come into the subject, it is because they love the subject, and the pursuit of further detail and understanding.

Sadiq: So no-one ever denigrated or destroyed evidence which didn’t fit what they thought they already understood? Or falsified evidence to support what they thought they knew to be true? We are watching these processes going on around us right now. Not all of these processes are visibly happening within university departments, but we are talking about a spectrum of attitudes and behaviours, which can become prevalent at certain times. Sometimes these things happen, usually because there is a contemporary consensus that the evidence needs to be reconsidered and re-evaluated. All evidence is subject to reconsideration and re-evaluation. As Nietzsche said, there are no such things as facts, only interpretations.

Ralf: I’m inclined to disagree with Nietzsche. Some facts are just plain facts.

Sadiq: If only. But I am afraid it is not true. There are many ways to look at facts. Sometimes facts tell a different story from the one they were once believed to tell. Remind me of facts which are just plain facts. I know about facts such as the inverse square law, and the law of gravity, which appear to be incontrovertible. But tell me about facts in ancient history which have no possible alternative interpretation, to the one which is current.

Ralf: Most of what I know is built on the facts which I understand! They fit within their context, and illuminate our understanding of the ancient world.

Sadiq: So you cannot imagine them being turned upside down, and being used to tell a different story?

Ralf: That would be hard to imagine. Though I accept of course that the process of re-evaluation of our interpretations is an important part of the study of antiquity.

Sadiq: So we are talking about a question of degree in the certainty or uncertainty of the meaning of facts.

Ralf: Agreed. But the overall frame in which these facts are understood limits the degree to which they may be uncertain.

Sadiq: That may be so. But how did the classicists and the ancient historians come by this frame? Was this frame built exclusively on the basis of incontrovertible facts, or in some other way? If the frame was not built on incontrovertible facts, then both the evidence and the overall frame are open to question.

Ralf: Well it is clear that the overall frame of our understanding was not based entirely on the archaeological and literary evidence which has been dug out of the ground over the past hundred and fifty years or so. We already had a frame of understanding from sources which were always accessible, such as historical, philosophical and literary writing from Greece, and from Rome, and the literature of the Old and New Testaments.

Sadiq: Granted. But that frame is one which was built by looking backwards. We see the ancient world through those conflicting models of the world. We make what sense we can of the ancient world from these different accounts and understandings. It is hard to stand aside from these. You are acknowledging that our understanding is not based on the material and the literary evidence alone, but the accumulated and agreed understanding which has been developed since the fall of the ancient world. So it isn’t just about the evidence, and the physical and the literary remains, but about the state of the human mind in the centuries following.

Ralf: Alright. So tell me what is missing from our understanding of the ancient world. I might also ask why it is missing, and why we are so determined not to see it, as you are suggesting.

Sadiq: It might be fairer to say that we see what we expect and want to see in antiquity. It is not that we are consciously determined not to see certain things, but that we simply do not see them, since they are not what we expect to be there. The matter is complicated by the fact that the ancient model of reality has no counterpart in the modern world, so, unless the scholar is aware of this fact, and much of its detail, what was important to the ancients makes no sense at all.

Ralf: You think so? You think they were essentially different from us in terms of their response to the world?

 Sadiq: The human capacity to denotice what should not be there, or to reinterpret what should not be there as something else, is something which has not been the subject of a great deal of study. Physically we are the same, with the same brains, but we do not all have the same kind of brain. The brains which prosper now, are not those that prospered in the past. Over the past two thousand years there has been a selection process, which can be seen in the development of what we understand to be rational. What is rational to us now would not have seemed rational in classical Greece, or in Egypt or Babylonia.

Ralf: That is a strange assertion to make. Surely the rational is always rational. It can’t be at one time itself, and at another time the opposite of itself!

Sadiq: Do words always mean the same thing?

Ralf: It is true meanings change. But it is hard to imagine such an enormous change in the meaning of ‘rational’
Sadiq: It is easy to explain. We use the word ‘rational’ as a synonym for what is reasonable. We think of ourselves as creatures of reason, who use reason to understand the world, and to enable us to act reasonably in it. What we mean by this understanding is that we respond to experience with logic, so that our actions can be explained and defended as reasonable.

Ralf: Which is what I understand as ‘rational’ behaviour. To respond illogically to experience would be to behave unreasonably, which is to be irrational.

Sadiq: That is how we use these words. There are several ways in which we can explore this confusion of concepts. One is to look at our history. We imagine that the European Enlightenment, which occurred in the late eighteenth century,  ushered in the life of reason. Those who were part of that most significant of cultural developments imagined that as well as recasting the world as something which could be shaped and understood in terms of human understanding, also thought that this was a process which was happening for the first time in human history, and that all earlier models of reality, all prior human thought and behaviour, was sunk in unreasonableness and folly, and was for the most part incompatible with any kind of logical understanding.

Ralf: And they understood that what was happening was a form of liberation from falsehood for mankind.

Sadiq: Indeed, that is how it was understood.  But what were the falsehoods? What was unreasonable about the past, and about the contemporary cultures beyond the reach of the enlightenment?

Ralf: That is not hard to answer. The whole range of religious belief in the world, unsubstantiated by any critical understanding of the concept of what might constitute a god, or a multitude of gods, or any understanding that the very idea of divine beings, singular or plural, might be a fiction, entirely unsupported by argument based on sound logic.  Also the vast expanse of human credulity, invested in ideas of magic and ritual, false associations, unsupported notions, and general ignorance about the nature of the workings of the world.

Sadiq: Indeed. That is a good answer. And it was the enlightenment plan to change all of that. The world could be understood in terms of human reason, and it could also be reshaped by human reason. That is still where we are, though the agenda does not closely resemble what it was when the life of reason began sometime before the French Revolution.

Ralf: And you say that this agenda is not rational?

Sadiq: We should distinguish between the meaning of the term, and the cultural and philosophical agenda with which it is now associated.

Ralf: I understand.

Sadiq: The enlightenment agenda may be a reasonable one, or it may not. We will come to that question later. But it is worth noticing that at its heart, the agenda enshrines an assumption, which is that the world and reality can be understood in terms of reason. The task of reforming human thought follows on from this as naturally as night follows day.

Ralf: If the life of reason is based on the power of logical analysis, then it is hard to imagine how that assumption is false. Logic is something which was developed in the ancient world in order to enable us to understand experience. It is based on experience and observation.

Sadiq: Indeed, and codified by Aristotle. But there is no a priori and unquestionable reason why the world should necessarily make sense to us, as human beings, even if we are equipped with an ability to understand much of what we experience with the aid of the tools of logical thought.

Ralf: I would argue that since the use of the tools of logic has enabled our current understanding of the world, and enabled us to build on that understanding, it is reasonable to assume that the assumption at the core of the enlightenment agenda is axiomatically true. The world can be understood by the human mind.

Sadiq: There are few patterns of ideas for which the natural world and the human mind cannot find sufficient degree of evidential and logical support to ensure some level of cultural survival. Which is why the range of ideas loose in the world is so great. Some of the beliefs which men entertain exist and prosper only because the degree of critical thought which is brought to bear on them is wanting. But that is not true for all patterns of understanding which we might consider not to be intelligible in terms of Aristotle’s formulation of logical thought. Some of the finest minds have entertained these ideas in the past. And that requires explanation.

Ralf: Some ideas are irrational, as you suggest. Either the ‘finest minds’ you mentioned were insufficiently critical of these ideas, or they disrespected logical thought.

Sadiq: Possibly. But it is a leap to suggest that they were bereft of the power of reason, and irrational. What you are saying is that you are firmly convinced that the way to understand reality and the physical world is through the use of logical thought.

Ralf: I suppose that I am. Other patterns of thought are bereft of any credible logic. Someone who believes that a lock of hair establishes contact with the original owner, and believes in the possibility of having some degree of influence of that person, is not thinking logically, as we would understand it. Likewise, a collector of nail parings for the same purpose is similarly deluded.

Sadiq: I would not disagree with you for a moment about that. Such people are not thinking logically. Though they are thinking.

Ralf: They are, but both their assumptions about how things relate to other things, and how those connections can be manipulated, are without reason.

Sadiq: Are they without reason? What they think are logical connections are clearly illogical to the critical mind, but the idea of such connections have been reasoned in some way.

Ralf: I see you are now trying to divorce the idea of reason from logic.

Sadiq: I am. The point is, that reason pertains to thinking, and not all thinking is reasonable. Logical thought is reasonable, but that is just one kind of thought.

Ralf: So you say that even the idea of reasoning itself isn’t naturally and necessarily about logical thought.

Sadiq: That is what I’m saying. I’m not differentiating them just because it is possible to do this, but because the difference may be of some importance in establishing how we understand the world.

Ralf: Let me see if I can summarise where we are. You have differentiated Rationality and Reason, saying that what is rational is not what we habitually think of as rationality, but is something which differs from it. And you have said that the meaning of the term ‘rational’ in the phrase ‘rational thought’ has changed over the centuries - particularly since the rise of the enlightenment. So, though we describe ourselves as being rational beings, we are not necessarily rational beings in the sense which was understood before the enlightenment. By which I think you mean from the renaissance onwards.

Sadiq: I do.

Ralf: So we need to discuss that later. What we mean by describing ourselves as rational beings is that we use the faculty and power of reason, which is something quite different from what used to be understood as ‘rational thought’.

Sadiq: In essence, yes.

Ralf: You made this distinction on the basis that reasoning is a species of thinking, but not all thinking involves proper reasoning, as in the cases you mentioned - collecting locks of hair and nail parings. So you regard proper reasoning as the species of thinking which is based on logical thought.

 Sadiq:  Yes.

Ralf: So is rational thought the same as the species of thought which is based on sound logical principles?

Sadiq: Yes it is. But not necessarily on the same logical principles.

Ralf: That is too much! How can there be more than one pattern of logic? It is either logical or it isn’t!

Sadiq: The two are connected. Meaning that the full array of how things may be logically related to one another is bigger than what we find outlined in descriptions of formal logic. Not everything in reality is subject to the same rules. Though everything everywhere is subject to rules. The science of logic should embrace how things relate to one another in any part of reality which may be the subject of discussion.

Ralf: So you are saying that rational thought is reasoning based on logical principles, but not necessarily the same logical principles which were defined by Aristotle?

Sadiq: Or on a different branch of logical principles, which have not been properly explored, either in the study of antiquity, or in modern times.

Ralf: We need to be very clear here what you mean. It must be the case, if your argument is to make sense, that there was an understanding of this different branch of logical principles in antiquity. But we know nothing about them. How can we know nothing about them if they are present, and as important as you seem to think them to be? Where are they mentioned and discussed?

Sadiq: There are several ways in which we can know that these ideas must have been present. As I have said, we do not want to understand the past, and actively denotice what is present which we would rather was absent.  So that is what we do about the whole of ancient civilisation – we denotice what cannot be explained by the model of reality in which we frame it. Ancient civilisation screams its difference across the centuries.

What is the logic of sacrifice? The presence of the gods in divine images, and the worship of these images? What is the basis of divinatory practice? How could they imagine that they could have contact and conversation with the divine, or even know the mind of the divine? Yet these practices were common across the whole of the ancient world and beyond. We see these things, and acknowledge that they were genuine phenomena at the time. But they do not make any sense to us. Not at all. Until they are reframed in terms of things which we understand, such as social dynamics, economics, propaganda, the ostentatious display of power, and so on. Which is not to say that these interpretations tell us nothing. But we do not sacrifice to the gods now, or worship their images, or converse with the gods. And someone who claims to have conversation with a god or gods is likely to to be locked up for his trouble. So why then, and not now?

Ralf: The answer is surely that the strange behaviour of the ancients was the type of derangement of sense which was the derangement of the time.

Sadiq: You don’t really think that. To us it may look like that, and it is convenient for us to treat the ancient world as a place of near universal derangement, or even stupidity. But there is clearly so much in the ancient world which is not deranged – philosophy, art, poetry, literature, architecture, mathematics, etc. The idea of a general derangement of the faculty of reason will not do.

There is also the fact that many of these things which are not in any sense derangements of sense are connected with those which, according to such a point of view, are born of unreason.  We treat the sculptures created by Greek sculptors as works of art, which indeed they are. But we isolate them from any function they may have had, except in sociological or ideological terms. An art historian does not write about them in terms of their cultural and cultic function, which is of no interest.  The art of the Greeks, in so far as it survives, is also treated partly in terms of aesthetics, and, as their art mostly appears on widely distributed black and red figure vases, which is why those images have survived, partly as material which illustrates mythological themes, and incidents which appear in the Odyssey and the Iliad. Poetry, liturgies associated with the gods, and their literature is surveyed in terms of social and ideological function (in other words shorn of the connection with the world of the divine, which was of great importance); we do not attempt to understand their architecture in terms of divine function, but instead in terms of aesthetics, and the contrast in the uses of space. 

Philosophy too has been entirely removed from its original cultic context, to the point where this is not understood or even recognised, though a number of authors have drawn attention to this, sometimes obscurely, sometimes with a more or less explicit reference. Arithmetic and mathematics has suffered the same fate, though it is clear that it represented another discipline which served the purpose of understanding the nature of reality, and the mind of God.

We don’t need to know any of that, even if that was what they really believed. Why do we not need to know that? Because the divine and the world of the divine was not the main driver of the nature and development of ancient civilisation, whether in Greece or Rome, or in Mesopotamia.

Ralf: That may be the correct response to what you are saying. The Greeks and the others may not have understood the true forces underpinning their civilisation.

Sadiq: It is certainly what the academy thinks now. But the academic institutions were not set up to enable the understanding of ancient civilisation. They were set up to enable ancient civilisation, and in particular the Greek instance of it, to serve a useful function.

Ralf: You are referring to the development of critical scholarship at Gottingen. At least in part.

Sadiq: The University of Gottingen has a lot to answer for.  I think it is clear that there was a logic underpinning the variety of the patterns of understanding in the ancient world, and that this understanding was built on a coherent picture of the nature of reality. But in effect, we avoid the nature of that understanding, and instead impose one of our own devising. So the ancient world is a place in which, whatever logical and cultural consistency it may have had, is a place full of deluded souls, dreaming of something which was false and unreal at the heart of their civilisation.

Ralf: I am not out of sympathy with the idea that the ancient civilisations lived in a world of dreams and chimaerical realities. Even if it seemed to make coherent sense to them, it makes very little sense to us. And I am still at a loss to understand why you think that there was a coherence, a logical basis to the ancient world. Mainly because you have suggested that their logical model, their logical apparatus, was in some significant way different from ours. In which case it is hardly surprising that we not only find it hard to understand, but also find it hard to believe that such a coherent thing existed.

Sadiq: The scholars at Gottingen were not ever concerned about the coherence of ideas which might have existed in the ancient world. They were concerned with an understanding of the ancient world which was possible and credible in the middle and late years of the eighteenth century. The main focus at the time was not the study of Greek philosophy and Greek cult and religion, but on history. The development of source criticism was the result of noticing that a number of historical accounts written by Greek historians and authors differed, in both detail, assumptions, and approach. That is not surprising. Writers in any age are as prone to partisan views as in any other. They also have available to them one or more differing information sources, some of which may be less reliable than others. Sometimes they may have both, and either have to make a choice between them as sources, or somehow reconcile the accounts. They also have their own intellectual and societal baggage, which inevitably has a bearing on what they write.

An example of this is the biographies of Plutarch, most of which are regarded as hagiographical, in that he was concerned to show each subject in terms of an anabasis of their character and soul – in other words, in terms of their moral and intellectual improvement. We might speak of his writing now as a species of edifying literature. He was writing to appeal to audiences in both Greece and in Rome, and paired his biographies, to compare and contrast character in the civilisations of Greece and Rome. That is the structure of his work. And that tells us a lot about how he understood the world, and the way he chose to write about it.

But having such a model is to invite distortion. At least as a modern historian would understand it. Human lives are messy, and do not easily fit the literary model of moral and intellectual improvement. That is not good historical writing by modern standards – though there was plenty of this hagiographical literature around in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, often aimed at the young and the credulous.

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