Tradition, history, stagnation and innovation,



the Idea as play:  All philosophy that can occur must occur within a tradition. That probably wasn’t true when philosophy was first pursued in writing. (What thinking occurred before that, philosophical or not, we cannot comment on, since there is no record of it.) But once writing creates a record of thinking, and allowing that this is read by those who will comment further on it, a tradition is inevitably generated – even if this occurs in opposition to the original thinking.

The Romans, by adopting Greek mythology and philosophy, took a wise course – their own traditions, born of a pre-literate culture, could not sustain the discourse of an expanding literate culture with needs to educate, inculcate, poeticize and reason through possible alternative explanations of the reality through which their army – and economy – were marching. The Greeks came to them with a culture ready made, and tested through the political and cultural history of the Greeks.

Sometimes the chieftains of empire try to invent and impose a tradition on their culture, possibly out of some envy of tof more organically developed civilizations. The Soviet Union, one such empire, attempted to construct a tradition built around the writings of Marx, Lenin, Stalin. But reading Marx and Lenin without reference to Hegel proves impossible, and reading Hegel introduces the whole literature of any culture we might think of as “Western Civilization;” as for Stalin, his texts only demonstrated that an idiot control freak could write, and well stipulate that. No literate idiots, however powerful, compose a text that enters any tradition at all. If it survives at all, it does so as historical artifact, rather like the stone ax-heads archeologists dig up when they uncover the skeleton of a Neanderthal in a cave.

So can a civilized writer invent his or her own tradition out of texts from other cultures? Certainly reading such texts is how the writer became civilized at all, so such would seem to be the case, almost inevitably. But this is not only not inevitable, it is never the case. This is known, not because no one has made the attempt before, but because history is strewn with a myriad of efforts to accomplish this, particularly in modernity. How many Modernists attempted, again and again, to rewrite the history of Europe by drawing on the texts of the ancient Greeks as the source of “Western Civilization”? All doomed, of course, since this could only lead to a denial of the achievements of the Medieval Latins and their colloquial apologists. Why pretend one can get back to Aristotle without going through Aquinas? Why resurrect Neo-Platonism and ignore Augustine’s critique of it? After all, Augustine had Neo-Platonic sympathies, as we all know; so his criticism of it is not borne of a fear of its central tenets, but of a disappointment with them. And is it possible to revive interest in Homeric texts and ignore the manner in which the Romans borrowed from them, intellectually and stylistically; or the manner in which the Medievals preserved the Roman efforts to do this? What is accomplished? The overthrow of the Church of Rome and all its history? To what end? The return to a “primitive” Christianity (of which we have no record not preserved by the Roman Church and the Eastern Patriarchies)? The re-invention of a paganism now fully informed of its history? Its history as what? Once Rome fell, the pagan civilizations of the Mediterranean fell with it; that is the history of pagan civilization after Rome, that there is no history of pagan civilization after Rome, not in the West.

Yet there still rears an unpleasant recognition: Cultures can disappear; they can also grow stagnant. This phenomenon has a trajectory; actually, it has several. Historians love the trajectories following pathways of power – military or economic. So our history books are filled with narratives of famous political and military people, and economic crises.

But here, briefly, consider a different narrative: not that of men or economies, but of ideas. Ideas have their histories. They mature, grow old, calcify – and then they either die away, as did paganism, or they linger and become rigid, signifiers not of discourse and conversation, but of the limits of discourse and conversation.

Once an idea goes into social circulation, it generates competing ideas in response. These form a matrix of possible argumentation. Once every argument possible in the matrix has been adequately made, conversation concerning the set of competing ideas stagnates. Innovation then requires either influence from outside the cultural boundaries of the idea-set, or complete rejection of the idea-set; although there can be incremental contingent variations at the level of everyday experience in a developing culture as a whole, that accumulate into new phenomena the old idea-set can no longer account for.

Prior to the appearance of Albertus Magnus and Aquinas, Catholic theology had grown stagnant. With the reclamation of Aristotle, and by direct response to Islamic philosophy, Aquinas opened the door to a new set of ideas, that took more than a two centuries of debate to fill out the idea-set matrix. This then grew stagnant again. Thinkers like Martin Luther and Descartes, in their different ways, then simply rejected the idea-set’s institutional foundations, and new ideas could again be introduced. At the same time, the greater and more varied populations and increased affluence in Europe, and the discoveries made possible through global exploration, accumulated into a wide variety of phenomena needing explanation the old idea-set could not provide. *

The adequate meta-theory of this process is found in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind, as admittedly over-generalized account of European intellectual history. An adequate empirical account, which also encompasses other histories, can be found in Randall Collins’ Sociology of Philosophies **. Although Hegel and Collins concern themselves primarily with philosophy, it is clear that such accounts can be made concerning other fields of inquiry as well. Prior to innovations by Einstein and others, physics was considered a completed field of research by the end of the 19th century – a stagnant idea-set.

Notice that this process is historical and social; in that respect its development is contingent. But the idea-set matrix of possible argumentation is actually fixed by the initial idea and the possible competing responses to it; otherwise the idea-set could not be completed and achieve stagnation. (And – almost paradoxically – without stagnation, innovation is not possible.)

The lesson here is to recognize the limits of innovation within philosophy – and to recognize that this is not a bad thing. Philosophers are always operating within pre-existent rules and strategies – and they are always negotiating these among themselves. We are always using the rules of a game to generate the rules of another game, or to limiting the construction of another game. (Presumably, all the rules of the new game would be implicit in, or limited by, the rules of the first.)

It is banal to commit entirely to a tradition, so that one does nothing but comment on the texts of others. But it is false hope to believe that one will think something no one has ever thought before. Even if one is lucky to do that, the chances are that the thought was implicit in the possibilities of the thoughts that came before. Innovation does happen; but usually without effort – reading and thinking will produce ideas, and by chance a truly new idea will occur to us. But forcing the issue will only produce the illusion of uniqueness.


* Does philosophy make progress? Yes. An idea is generated, its arguments are laid out, counter-arguments are made against it; when all the arguments are known, philosophers acknowledge that the idea stood or failed, and move on. Some will cling to failed ideas, but generally there’s consensus as to which ideas remain interesting and which do not. Since this is a process of reasoning and argument, it takes far longer than the progress we sometimes see in science, but proceeds nonetheless. We no longer discuss Medieval scholars; debates over Hegel are exhausted; logical positivism is a thing of the past. Ideas from such discussions are still in play, but their values depend on contemporary contexts.



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