The 8th installment in the series The Power of Thought deals with the relation between philosophy and the history of ideas. Vincent F. Hendricks talks to Peter C. Kjærgaard. Hendricks promises from the outset "to go way back," and I get excited at the idea. Alas, the ‘way back’ turns out, however, to go no further back than the 60s, which makes me start noticing things that are completely irrelevant in relation to what’s happening on the show: I start measuring the length of the shadows that both Hendricks and Kjærgaard’s bodies cast unto the wall behind them.

The usual quote is delivered. A propagandist line from J.F. Kennedy who was obviously first and foremost in the business of seducing the masses, yet quite unsophisticatedly – since the masses are known not to be able to handle more – by appealing to loads of emotion and little reason. It works every time, however. This being the case, one must conclude that such strategies, in and of themselves, must be deemed as sophisticated as they get, however. Here comes the quote: “We are not afraid to entrust the American people with unpleasant facts, foreign ideas, alien philosophies, and competitive values. For a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people.” I hear myself saying: "Oy, ve!"

The gist of the show revolves around the notion that since the 20th century, when the history of ideas got to be institutionalized and then consolidated as a field through the pioneering work of Arthur O. Lovejoy around 1930s, philosophers working in the field have been interested in charting how ideas develop through history and not outside it, as it were. The argument is that we cannot understand major metaphysical questions – philosophical questions, such as, 'what’s the meaning of life' – (and at this point, I swear to God, an entire review of Monty Python films starts going through my head) – unless we contextualize them in their historical context. That sounds sound enough to me. Then some distinction between the continental and English (esp. Skinner) philosophers and their American counterparts is made by Kjærgaard who points out that the first group grew tired of Lovejoy who had become an institution himself – nice work if you can get it – and had since and hence started a new branch within the history of ideas, namely, intellectual history. My personality gets split at this point: Wittgenstein is mentioned, and that always scores very, very high with me. But then I start thinking about cosmopolitanism, and this latter notion, as it ties in with intellectuality, rings a fascist bell for me. I’ll spare you, readers, for my comments – especially since I want to keep it short. Alas, a third time around, Wittgenstein was only very, very briefly mentioned. But I try to stay focused.

While Hendricks poses all the relevant questions – in a way, it dawns on me that the reason why I bother to watch the program, not to mention write about it, is because I appreciate the effort – it is not always that his clever questions elicit equally clever answers. Says he: “so, we can basically retire this whole idea of an archeology of ideas”. Right. I would have liked to hear more about just that - perhaps more about the archeology of frivolous ideas - as we find them in a Derridean, deconstructive context.

Since this doesn’t happen, I go back to the shadows. While admiring the black contours on the background of red wallpaper crossed by gray lines, a very interesting book comes to my mind. Victor I. Stoichita’s A Short History of the Shadow (1997). Stoichita is an art historian but very versatile in terms of understanding the history of ideas. In his introduction he has this little exchange between Piaget and a 5-year old (Piaget was a structuralist theorist of cognitive development):

‘Why is there a shadow there?’
(making a shadow with the hand)
GALL (5-years old): ‘Because there’s a hand.’
‘And why is this shadow black?’
‘Because …, because we have bones.’

As the show ended with a tone of demand, a call for the valorization of ideas as they get to be formulated in whatever field, whether science or humanities, I rather think that if the historians of ideas would like to make a really bold move, they should start looking at children’s ideas. Not only can their discourse suggest typologies, but they can also join in the choir of artist metaphysicians:

“There are many more enigmas in the shadow of a man who walks in the sun than in all religions of the past, present and future” (De Chirico, just before he went on to write his We, The Metaphysicians in 1919).

On the philosophy of the history of ideas, can we have some more ideas?

(A note of thanks to my faithful assistants: Bent: you are the fastest in providing all the English quotes that I don't have the patience to look for myself; Søren, it's delicious to think of how you eagerly anticipate 'alle de skæve vinkler'. Den med Wittgenstein vender jeg tilbage til. I promise.)


Anonymous said…
So you love chilren after all, Camelia? Or is it only their ideas...?
Bent said…
"Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more; it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."
- Young Master Will

"It's good that life has bones in it, otherwise there would be no shadow to play with."
- Young Master Bent
Camelia said…
Bent and Søren: two expected replies. Though Søren, what kind of a question is that? I'll reply with this one in turn: what is the cynic's take on ideas? I refer you to our friend Ambrose Bierce's definition of a cynic: "a blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be." It's good we have Young Master Bent and Young Master Will around to consolidate the middle ground. In the shadow, my bony body does little and adds little to the making of things more transparent for precocious children. To paraphrase Young Master Oscar, in the game of figuring out the price for everything, you don't need to know the value of everyhting.

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