[Paleopsych] New Statesman: John Gray reviews: Peter Watson: Ideas: a history from fire to Freud

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John Gray reviews: Peter Watson: Ideas: a history from fire to Freud 

Peter Watson: Ideas: a history from fire to Freud Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 822pp, 
ISBN 029760726X

    The history of ideas has a history of its own, and it is not long.
    Peter Watson believes the first person to conceive of intellectual
    history may have been Francis Bacon, which places the birth of the
    subject in the late 16th century. In Greece and China more than 2,000
    years ago, there were sceptics who doubted whether the categories of
    human thought could correctly represent the world, but the recognition
    that these categories change significantly over time is distinctly
    modern. Thanks to thinkers such as Vico and Herder, Hegel and Marx,
    Nietzsche and Foucault, the notion that ideas have a history is an
    integral part of the way we think today, and it surfaces incongruously
    in unlikely places. Thinkers of the right may rant against moral
    relativism and look back with nostalgia to a time when basic concepts
    seemed fixed for ever, but these days the right is committed to a
    militant belief in progress - and so to accepting that seemingly
    permanent features of the conceptual landscape may turn out to be no
    more than a phase in history.
    Given the importance of the history of ideas to the way we understand
    ourselves, you might expect it to be a flourishing discipline, but
    that is far from the case. As Isaiah Berlin used to say, it is an
    orphan subject. Ever sceptical of abstraction, historians complain
    that it slips easily into loose generalisation. For philosophers, who
    tend to assume that questions asked hundreds or even thousands of
    years ago about knowledge and the good life are essentially the same
    as the ones we ask today, it is irrelevant. Very few economists know
    anything much about the history of their discipline, and the same is
    true of many social scientists. At a time of grinding academic
    specialisation, intellectual history seems a faintly dilettantish,
    semi-literary activity, and the incentive structures that surround a
    university career do not encourage its practice. More fundamentally,
    the history of ideas is a casualty of the growth of knowledge. Anyone
    who aspires to study it on anything other than a miniaturist scale
    needs to know a great deal about a wide range of subjects - in many of
    which knowledge is increasing almost by the day.
    In these circumstances, a universal history of ideas seems an
    impossibly daunting project. Yet in Ideas: a history from fire to
    Freud, Watson gives us an astonishing overview of human intellectual
    development which covers everything from the emergence of language to
    the discovery of the unconscious, including the idea of the factory
    and the invention of America, the eclipse of the idea of the soul in
    19th-century materialism and the continuing elusiveness of the self.
    In a book of such vast scope, a reader could easily get lost, but the
    narrative has a powerful momentum. Watson holds to a consistently
    naturalistic philosophy in which humanity is seen as an animal species
    developing in the material world. For him, human thought develops as
    much in response to changes in the natural environment - such as
    shifts in climate and the appearance of new diseases - as from any
    internal dynamism of its own. This overarching perspective informs and
    unifies the book, and the result is a masterpiece of historical
    Watson's sympathy for naturalism enables him to spot some crucial and
    neglected turns in the history of thought. Nowadays, naturalistic
    philosophies are usually connected with those Enlightenment beliefs
    which hold that humanity progresses through the use of reason. Watson
    notes, however, that Spinoza, a pivotal thinker who may well have had
    a greater role in shap- ing the early Enlightenment than better-known
    figures such as Thomas Hobbes and Rene Descartes, took a different
    view. He never imagined that human life as a whole could be rational,
    and in a lovely passage quoted by Watson he wrote: "Men are not
    conditioned to live by reason alone, but by instinct. So they are no
    more bound to live by the dictates of an enlightened mind than a cat
    is bound to live by the laws of nature of a lion."
    In Spinoza's view, the capacity for rational inquiry may be what
    distinguishes human beings from other animals, but it is not the force
    that drives their lives - like other animal species, humans are moved
    by the energy of desire. This view reappeared in the 20th century in
    the work of Sigmund Freud, who took the further step of recognising
    that much of human mental life is unconscious. In conjunction with
    later work in cognitive science showing that there are many vitally
    important mental processes to which we can never consciously gain
    access, Spinoza's naturalism has helped shape a view of human beings
    that is different from the one we inherit from classical Greek
    philosophy and from most Enlightenment thinkers.
    One of the curiosities of intellectual life is the persistent neglect
    by philosophers of non-western traditions. No doubt this is partly
    ignorance on their part. Beyond a smattering of Plato and Aristotle
    and a few scraps from the British empiricists, most English-speaking
    philosophers know practically nothing of their own intellectual
    traditions, and no one would expect them to have any acquaintance with
    the larger intellectual inheritance of mankind. A more fundamental
    reason may be the view of the human subject found in some non-western
    philosophies. The ideas of personal identity and free will we inherit
    from Christianity have often been questioned, but they continue to
    mould the way we think, and any view of human life from which they are
    altogether absent remains unfamiliar and troubling. Watson is
    refreshingly free from the cultural parochialism that still disables
    so much western thought. Ranging freely across time and space, his
    survey includes some enlightening vignettes of Chinese and Indian
    thought, and he gives a useful account of Vedic traditions in which
    human individuality is regarded as an illusion. For those who want
    something more engaging than the dreary Plato-to-Nato narrative that
    dominates conventional histories of ideas, this wide range of
    reference will be invaluable.
    Inevitably there are gaps in Watson's account. His treatment of
    Buddhist philosophy is cursory - a surprising omission, given his
    naturalistic viewpoint. He concludes with some interesting thoughts on
    the failure of scientific research to find anything resembling the
    human self, as understood in western traditions. He asks whether the
    very idea of an "inner self" may not be misconceived, and concludes:
    "Looking 'in', we have found nothing - nothing stable anyway, nothing
    enduring, nothing we can all agree upon, nothing conclusive - because
    there is nothing to find."
    This conclusion is also mine, but it was anticipated more than 2,000
    years ago in the Buddhist doctrine of anatman, or no-soul. The
    thoroughgoing rejection of any idea of the soul was one of the ideas
    through which Buddhism distinguished itself from orthodox Vedic
    traditions, which also viewed personal identity as an illusion but
    affirmed an impersonal world soul: an idea that Buddhists have always
    rejected. For them, human beings are like other natural processes, in
    that they are devoid of substance and have no inherent identity.
    The view of the human subject suggested by recent scientific research
    seems less strange when one notes how closely it resembles this
    ancient Buddhist view. Modern science seems to be replicating an
    account of the insubstantiality of the person that has been central to
    other intellectual traditions for millennia. It is an interesting
    comment on prevailing ideas of intellectual progress that one should
    be able to find such remarkable affinities between some of humanity's
    oldest and newest ideas.

    John Gray's most recent book is Heresies: against progress and other
    illusions (Granta)

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