Monday, July 09, 2012

How to Destroy Philosophy (and the Arts)

A recurring theme in Randall Collins' The Sociology of Philosophies is that there is an inverse correlation between the strength of a society's government and the strength of philosophy. China is a perfect example of this. Consider what Collins says about the development of philosophy and how this relates to how it developed -- and often failed to develop -- in China:
absence of idealism is connected more with the halting continuity of philosophical abstraction than with a more deep-rooted cultural trait. Idealism is never an early form but a sophisticated philosophical construction. A halfway house between revealed religion and rationalistic philosophy, idealism is couched at a level of abstraction which can be attained only through a long cumulative development of an intellectual network refining its concepts. (316) Idealism is of course not the only form of metaphysical abstraction. We can draw the lesson more generally. It is often asserted that the Chinese mentality is concrete and practical, with no taste for metaphysics. Yet metaphysical abstractions were periodically created in China. [...] Higher levels of abstract reflection are reached by applying epistemological considerations to conceptual problems. At least this is one route toward metaphysics, prominent in Greek, Indian, and European philosophy. The issue in China is less the absence of metaphysics than the rarity of sustained epistemological consideration. Epistemology becomes a focus when an intellectual community is balanced in debate, with sufficient continuity across the generations to give rise to specialization in the techniques of argument. Sophistical debate is a typical first step toward consideration of epistemology in its own right. (317)
The bureaucratic-political structure of China throughout the past 2000+ years, with intellectuals being the ones in charge of the bureaucracies, created a situation where there could be the philosophical equivalent to "regulatory capture," in which the politically favored group gained political power and simply crushed rivals rather than argue with them. When in power, the Confucians crushed the Buddhists and Taoists, and those two groups returned the favor (and crushed each other) when they gained power. Land and wealth were seized, taxes laid, people exiled, etc. Because there was a strong bureaucracy that was directly tied to intellectuals and education, it was easy to destroy one's opponents' intellectual networks.
When the destruction of intellectual networks interrupted further development on the abstract level, philosophical doctrines during the Han were carried on at a level closer to lay concerns. When structural conditions were again favorable to skeptical and sophistical debate, in the brief generations of the Pure Conversation circles of the Three Kingdoms, abstract philosophy emerged again. (317) Why were there such long periods of stagnation, even retrogression, on the plane of abstract philosophy? It was not simply a matter of declining material supports for intellectual life; the fall of the great dynasties with their material wealth is correlated not with mediocrity but often with the opposite. The Han, T'ang, and Ming were periods when the stagnation of abstract philosophy, at least outside of Buddhism, was at its worst. Here we see the importance not of material supports for intellectual life in general, but of the particular kinds of structural underpinnings which support or stifle creativity. The deadening touch of all these stagnant dynasties was precisely the way Chinese intellectuals were controlled by material incentives linked to the selection of officials for the state. (319-320)
Collins thus suggests that those intellectuals who argue that there should be more material support for philosophy to bloom are utterly wrong. It would -- and does -- have the opposite effect. And the fact that philosophy (and the arts for the most part) have escaped into the safety of our universities is not really good news, because "Schooling, which we associate with the life of culture, often operates as a deadening of culture, preserving the ideas of the past at the expense of creativity within the present" (320). Government support and universities thus result in conservatism in the absolute worst sense of the term. It is ironic that the so-called progressives who support government support for the arts and humanities would give us the columbarium of philosophy and the arts if and to what extent they are successful.
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