Our most abstract concepts emerged as solutions to our needs | Aeon Essays (2023)

"Ideas, Mr. Carlyle, ideas, nothing but ideas!" sneered a sober businessman over dinner with Thomas Carlyle, the Victorian essayist and historian of the French Revolution. The businessman was fed up with Carlyle's endless chatter about ideas - what do ideas even mean? Carlyle shot back: "Once upon a time there was a man named Rousseau who wrote a book that contained nothing but ideas. The second edition was bound in the skin of those who laughed at the first.” Ideas have consequences.

Of course, Carlyle chose a simple case. He referred to Jean-Jacques Rousseauto the social contract(1762), a book full of seditious political ideas that set fire to the leaders of the French Revolution. But the arguments for the practical importance of ideas are much harder to find in ideas that suggest idle grandeur more than revolutionary action. What about grand abstractions that our minds are filled with, like knowledge, truth, or justice? These are so ingrained that we find it difficult to imagine doing without them. But it is even more difficult to determine what useful practical difference they make in our lives. What exactly is the point of these ideas?

Unlike mundane notions of air, food, and water, which allow us to contemplate the day-to-day resources we need to survive, the venerable notions of knowledge, truth, or justice are obviously not geared to practical needs. On the contrary, these lofty ideals draw our gazeawayfrom practical activities. They are imbued with greatness precisely because of their magnificent indifference to worldly human concerns. Having knowledge is practically useful, but why should we need itconceptof knowledge? The dog that knows where its food is seems fine without the concept of knowing as long as it isn't asked to give an opening speech. And yet the concepts of knowledge, truth, or justice seem to have been important enough to appear across different cultures and endure through the centuries. Then why did we ever get around to thinking in those terms?

Friedrich Nietzsche complained that when it came to identifying the origin of sublime ideas, philosophers tended to be misled by their own respect for them. In dealing with what they considered the "highest concepts", the "last wisps of smoke from the evaporating end of reality", they had reverently placed them "at the beginning as the beginning", convinced that the higher could never have grown out of the lower: Plato eternal forms, the Spirit of God, Immanuel Kant's noumenal world—all had served as a cradle for higher concepts and provided them with a suitably distinguished pedigree.

But to insist that higher concepts must necessarily have a higher origin, thought Nietzsche, is to let respect for those ideas stand in the way of a true understanding of those ideas. After the “death of God” and the advent of Darwinism, if we were to “translate man back to nature,” as Nietzsche’s happy rallying cry put it, we would have to trace seemingly transcendent ideas like knowledge, truth, or justice back to theirs roots in human affairs. Their origins were not empyrean (to be found in the highest spheres), but clearly sublunar (to be found in lower practical needs). Nietzsche encouraged us to ask: What necessities might have been the mothers of these inventions? And what else, if anything, do they do for us?

THere are two basic difficulties in answering these questions. One is that just because the concepts of knowledge, truth, or justice are as old and pervasive as they are, there is no specific moment in the historical record that we can turn to to determine why they were originally introduced. Everywhere we look, people have always had these concepts.

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Furthermore, the fact that people have been using these concepts for so long leads to the second difficulty. Over time, our concepts have probably accumulated such an overwhelming array of features that it's difficult to know how to unravel them. For example, the idea of ​​truth as something of value may have played an important role in the emergence of non-mythological historiography in ancient Greece—but it also played a prominent role in the rise of early modern scholarship, Romanticism, and liberal institutions like the Fourth Estate, um to name just a few of the historical developments that have shaped it. In giving shape to these developments, the value of truth was in turn shaped and worked out by them. Now, when we look at the resulting outgrowth of so much history, we can no longer easily see what the function of truth value is. where to start It's overloaded with features of all kinds, thrown together throughout history, that defy any simple hypothesis.

In recent decades, however, philosophers have rediscovered an ancient method capable of overcoming these difficulties. This is the method of telling pragmatic genealogies of ideas - "genealogies" because the method consists in tracing ideas back to their origins, and "pragmatic" because it specifically seeks to understand their origins in practical matters. Just as archaeologists unearthing an enigmatic artifact will attempt to reverse-engineer its role in a lost civilization by imaginatively reconstructing the kind of life into which it was woven, so pragmatic genealogists take an idea whose practical value is dubious or elusive and try to reverse engineer the idea's function in human affairs by finding out what practical concerns, if any, it addresses. In particular, the genealogical approach uses a particularly powerful way to get a sense of what an idea is doing for us: consider a community of people who are missing the idea and examine why they might be driven to use it to invent.

To circumvent the difficulty of starting the historical record too late, when the idea in question is so fundamental to human life that every documented society already has it, pragmatic genealogists construct a model of a community of people lacking the idea: typically a small community of people who share a common language but don't yet have more sophisticated technologies like writing.

Nothing is known about the state of nature. It's something you construct

Contemporary genealogists often refer to this model as the "state of nature," in reference to philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes, David Hume, and Rousseau, who also used natural state histories to explore the origins of ideas and institutions. Today, genealogists who start from a state of nature emphasize that this starting point makes no claim to "man's natural state" (whatever that may mean). Nor is it a speculation about what human life was like before historical records began. The state of nature is an explicitly fictitious idealization. Nothing is known about the state of nature. It's something you construct.

This distinguishes pragmatic genealogies from the putative accounts of evolutionary psychology about Pleistocene hominin life. Pragmatic genealogies stand out not for the accuracy with which they present the actual historical development of our concepts, but for the way in which they help us to make connections between our practical needs and our concepts. Imagine having to explain to an alien why your car is the shape it is. Instead of painstakingly guiding the alien through the stages of the assembly line that actually built the car, you could explain how its form responds to a combination of practical needs: the need to move from A to B, the need to warm up staying and dry, the need to steer and brake, the need to have a good view of the surroundings, the need to see and be seen in the dark, etc. The best way to show how the shape of the car responding to our needs is not to work through the bewilderingly complicated causal process by which the car was actually constructed, but to reconstruct the car's form in response to a set of needs - perhaps through a narrative or an animation that shows how, if we start from a primitive shape and successively distort it to meet a set of requirements, we end up with something recognizable r car-like. The state of nature does the same to help us understand the form of our concepts and how they relate to our needs. It offers us an idealized, uncluttered model that we can tailor to our interests and tinker in our imaginations.

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And because it's an idealized model that we can customize to our interests and tinker with our imaginations, the state of nature also helps us overcome the second difficulty, which is knowing where to start to explore the unfathomable multifunctionality of our to decipher ideas. The state of nature gives us a way into the problem: we start with the most basic and generic needs that humans can be assumed to have anyway, in almost any environment, and see if we can identify a way where they appear to be idle Concepts would be helpful to address these needs. This fictional starting point gives us a helpful, stripped-down heuristic tool for exploratory reflection on the problems we face and how certain concepts might help us solve them.

Although pragmatic genealogies using such models of the state of nature do not primarily seek to present the conceptual history exactly as it unfolded, the hypotheses proposed by these models are still empirical hypotheses. We can compare them to our best understanding of what needs people really have, what needs they have really acquired or lost throughout history, whether the concepts we find are really what the model leads us to expect, and whether these concepts really help us meet those needs. The point is that we could not ask ourselves these questions before exploring the state of nature.

IImagine you are in the state of nature. They have very basic needs such as For example, the need for food or the need to avoid danger, but you don't have the concept of knowledge yet. Of course, you need some information about your environment, especially the opportunities and threats it presents. Are the berries ripe on the other side of the mountain yet? And where is this bear? To gather this type of information, you can, to a certain extent, rely on your onboard information sources – your senses, memory and thinking skills. But you'd be much better off if you could also tap into other people's information stores. After all, people are in different places at different times, and because of such purely positional advantages, someone else may have already seen something you haven't. To get the information you need but haven't gotten from your onboard sources, you have to rely on whistleblowers — people who can tell you if the berries are ripe on the other side of the mountain. But of course not everyone does it. You need good or reliable informants, people whose opinion will actually help you get what you need. So now you're faced with a problem: How do you recognize a good informant on a particular issue?

What you need to develop at this point is some kind of thinking technique that will allow you to recognize a good informant when you see one. Just as adding an app can expand the capabilities of a smartphone, you need mindware to identify good whistleblowers as good whistleblowers. And the same is true of the other people in the state of nature. They all have an interest in engaging in what philosophers call an epistemic division of labor (afterin the episteme, ancient Greek for "knowledge"), whereby information is bundled.

That's where,afterzu Edward Craigsknowledge and state of nature(1990) the concept of knowledge arises in order to fulfill a need. It is used to mark good informants. This is no small thing, because the trait of being a good informant isn't as immediately apparent as being tall or dark-haired. There is an art to identifying good informants on a particular issue. The concept of knowledge must therefore track a variety of indicator properties - properties that are observable and that correlate well with the property and therefore indicate being a good informant on a given topic. For example, being able to justify one's own opinion can serve as such an indicator property; or have a good track record with this type of problem; or be in the correct causal relationship to the issue in question (e.g. looking at the berries earlier today). The concept of knowledge you need is one that tracks these and other qualities that reliably indicate a good informant.

So, according to Craig's pragmatic genealogy, the concept of knowledge is rooted in practical needs: Its outstanding contribution to living in the state of nature is that it makes you sensitive to the presence of people who know something you want to find out. And as genealogical history shows, this is a need that springs from needs so basic that today we probably share those needs in some form, so for us too the concept of knowledge makes a living by helping us do good identify informants. Although abstract and seemingly idle, the notion of knowledge turns out to be a true game changer because it makes knowledge social: it transforms the lonely business of gathering information into a collaborative venture where we don't have to see everything with our own eyes, but rely on them each other to bring together far more information than any of us could ever gather on our own.

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For a community to pool information, it must cultivate accuracy and honesty in its members

Having come this far in the genealogy of knowledge, we can further explore the same scenario to make sense of the notion of truth as value. The Latin word for "truth",veritas, adorns the coats of arms of innumerable institutions, and yet it can seem as if, strictly speaking, truth is only a property of certain sentences and not really something that can have any value. As Bernard Williams observed, there is great value for a mother when, despite all the evidence, she finds out that her child survived the crash; but that is not the value of truth, but the value of survival. Therefore Williams, inTruth and Veracity: An Essay in Genealogy(2002),suggestsviewing the value of truth as shorthand for various human attitudes toward truth—paradigmatically, the attitudes associated with seeking the truth and telling it to others. From this point of view, appreciating the truth means being accurate and sincere.

To understand why we ever valued accuracy and sincerity, we can relate another pragmatic genealogy that picks up right where Craig's genealogy left off. As the members of our imaginary community pool information in the state of nature by relying on one another as informants, they must also cultivate all the qualities that make good contributions to the information pool. Otherwise the information pool will be contaminated by incorrect information. What are the characteristics of good contributors to the information pool?

Basically there are two: First, good contributors to sourcing new information should be willing to do it right, with whatever it takes in terms of their endurance in the face of obstacles that require investigation, their ability to cope with uncertainty, and their ability to deal with uncertainty entails a willingness to abandon comforting illusions, otherwise they either don't contribute to the pool or, worse, introduce misinformation. Second, good contributors, once they have received information, should be willing to pass it on to others, with all that may be in terms of openness to others, genuine help in what they say and how they say it, and resisting temptation, withholding information or even profitably misleading others. We can therefore understand why, if a community wants to pool information, it must cultivate the character traits of accuracy and sincerity in its members.

But if you imagine yourself as a member of this community in the state of nature, you can see that there is another problem. As long as you value accuracy and sincerity only instrumentally, as qualities useful to members of your community to get you to the information you need, there's nothing stopping you from being inaccurate or disingenuous when you can benefit from it. You won't go the extra mile to check for these berries if you've already eaten your fill; You'll keep your bounty mushroom spot to yourself; and, perhaps most devastatingly for the company, pooling information, you will lie whenever it suits you. Of course, what applies to you also applies to all members of the community. People will only be accurate or sincere on the rare occasions when it suits them anyway, while most of the time they will prove to be utterly unfit contributors to the information pool. Everyone will try to profit from the pool without doing their part and the result will be that no one profits.

The preeminent solution to this problem is to cultivate in the members of the community a tendency to value accuracy and honesty for their own sake and not just for what else they get. If people see accuracy and sincerity as desirable qualities for their own sake—as virtues—then exhibiting these qualities will have their own weight in the balance of their deliberations, since virtues can be rewards in their own right. People who appreciate truth intrinsically rather than just instrumentally think that showing accuracy and sincerity is a good thing in itself, and as such will sometimes try to do things right, or refrain from doing so simply for that reason lie. Valuing truth for its own sake does not make egoism go away, but makes a claim against egoism. That may not be enough to overcome selfishness every time. We know that we can occasionally lie without the sky falling (as Williams notes, "If the sky were falling, it would have already fallen"). But it does kickstart the joint venture of pooling information.

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The upshot of this genealogy is that the value of truth makes a living by helping people receive and share information much more effectively than would otherwise be possible. The genealogy also makes it clear that the value of truth can only do this if it is not understood simply instrumentally. Accuracy and sincerity must be valued for their own sake if they are to be of instrumental value in the gathering and dissemination of information - the value of truth must overtake its function to be even functional. Again, the needs from which we have derived this need are so fundamental that we would find it difficult not to share them, suggesting that valuing truth for its own sake does something for us too.

TThe state of nature we have constructed contains even more insight. Besides the need to identify good informants and cultivate good contributors to the information pool, our imaginary model also alerts us to the fundamental need to cultivate the traits that make good information recipients. This is what emerges when we de-idealize our model just enough to recognize that human communities are typically not entirely homogeneous, but are divided into subgroups. Because with differences in group identity comes the danger of prejudice against groups that are not one's own. That's a problem for the epistemic division of labor, because if you have such pervasive prejudices against certain groups within your community that you underestimate or disregard their opinions, no matter how many characteristics of the good informant they display, you make a poor channel of information. And again, the same is true for every other participant in the epistemic division of labor. Accordingly, the community must cultivate all the character traits that allow the recipients of information to neutralize their own prejudices.

As Miranda FrickerarguedInepistemic injustice(2007), the State of Nature thus clarifies the value for us of a certain kind of justice that she calls “testimonial justice”: the justice that consists in giving everyone the credibility they deserve when they convey their beliefs to others (when he "witnesses," in the technical sense of the philosophers' term). Fricker finds in Anthony Minghella's script a poignant example of a lack of witness justiceThe talented Mr Ripley(1999). Despite using all his resources to find out who murdered his son, wealthy businessman Herbert Greenleaf is tragically defeated in his search for the truth by his own sexist prejudices: as his son's fiancée, Marge Sherwood, her reasonable beliefs expressing that the killer is the eponymous Mr. Ripley, Greenleaf brushes her off with the line: 'Marge, there's female intuition, and then there's facts.'

The advent of "post-truth" politics has only confirmed that the value of truth must be defended

Just as Williams' genealogy showed that everyone in the state of nature has an interest in cultivating the virtues of accuracy and sincerity, Fricker's genealogy shows that they also have an interest in neutralizing prejudice by cultivating the Cultivate the virtue of testimony justice. That goes for even die-hard sexists like Greenleaf. Inasmuch as people need to pool information effectively, they need everyone in the community to value testimony justice for its own sake, for only then can the confusing influence of prejudice be resisted. If the genealogies of Craig and Williams were about the ideas we need to expand human abilities to do things right, Fricker's genealogy is about the ideas we need to counteract human tendencies to do things to do wrong.

Nietzsche chided the "English genealogists" of his day for ignoring the long history that lies between the "Darwinian beast" and the "modern, humble moral milquetoast." His own genealogy of Christian morality aimed to pay better attention to how our contemporary ideas reflect a specific cultural history as well as generic anthropological needs. Craig, Williams and Fricker - today's English genealogists - should not be accused of repeating the same mistake. As we have seen, they just do not leave our environment of evolutionary adaptation. But they too have a gap to bridge, namely that between the simple dynamics of the state of nature and the historically conditioned complexity of our actual situation.

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To understand how our ideas reflect the requirements not only of the very general needs we are considering, but of many broader and historically more local needs, we would need to continue our three genealogical narratives, bringing the model of the state of nature ever closer to our real situation by considering increasingly socio-historical local needs. Williams, for example, continues his genealogy of accuracy and sincerity by examining why since Thucydides accuracy has been extended not only to descriptions of the recent past but also to the seemingly less practically relevant distant past. He also examines why, since the18th century,Sincerity has been developed into an even more demanding ideal of authenticity, and finally he discusses why accuracy and sincerity in an even more strongly socio-historically local development also served the needs of liberal democracies, whose functioning is particularly dependent on the cultivation of the virtues of truth in politics. Williams wrote this around the turn of the millennium, but the advent of "post-truth" politics has only, if anything, confirmed his feeling that the value of truth needs to be defended.

By progressively adapting a genealogical model to the cultural situation that is our own, pragmatic genealogists can grasp and place the multiplicity of functions that our ideas fulfill for us and show how originally single-purpose tools have become Swiss army knives that to meet multiple needs at once. The resulting genealogical narratives offer neatly structured and descriptive accounts of the variety of needs to which our ideas respond.

In this way, genealogical narratives not only explain why we ever came up with certain ideas, but also influence our future attitudes toward them. But while Nietzsche's genealogy was extremely unflattering to Christian morality, the three pragmatic genealogies we have considered are not meant to be destabilizing. They illustrate that genealogies can also be justification: they can increase our confidence in what they explain, showing that it makes sense for us to have those ideas and why we continue to need them. These are ideas that are worthwhile.


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