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    Teaser Paragraph: Publish Date: 06/02/2004 Article Image:
    By /index.php?/user/4-hugo-holbling/">Paul Newall (2004)

    So far in this series we have looked at what philosophy is and found it difficult to say exactly what we mean when we talk about it. We now consider doing philosophy.

    Getting Started

    Do we need to serve a philosophical apprenticeship before we can get involved in doing philosophy? Yes and no. On the one hand, we do not because most of the questions we ask ourselves from time to time that are frequently characterised as philosophical assume no prior qualifications: to wonder "what is the point of it all?" appears to be an experience common to most people, for example, regardless of whether they are an academic or layman, expert or novice. On the other hand, we do need some philosophical experience because of this very commonality: other people have asked the same things, over and over. It makes sense, then, to suppose that what they said on the matter might be worth considering, even if only to discard unprofitable avenues of inquiry. After all, if others have been pondering for thousands of years the very issues we have in mind, by studying what they thought or wrote we could come to deepen or adjust our own position or approach.


    A good place to start is of course with some of the classic texts in philosophy. Later in our series we will discuss how best to read philosophy, but the majority of the entries will take a particular aspect of it and look at some of the key questions and ideas therein. Even if what the philosopher Plato thought about the meaning of life may seem far removed from a contemporary context, say, actually life was not so different back then and the over-riding purpose to our existence, if there is one, is perhaps much the same. At the very least, if we examine Plato's thinking and find it flawed then we have learned something: namely, what the meaning of life is not, or how not to think about it. Too often people assume that negative arguments are neither helpful nor constructive, but if they teach us what is not the case then we have gained something from the experience.


    There are arrogant philosophers just like there are arrogant basketball players, but that is no reason for us to follow suit. Although there is no set of characteristics that define a philosopher, some can help the beginner get started and avoid familiar pitfalls. A certain amount of humility is perhaps beneficial: we do not have to agree with Socrates that we only know that we know nothing, but at least commencing our studies with an acceptance that we do not know it all and have plenty to learn might prevent us accepting easy answers that only serve to confirm the beliefs we had beforehand.

    In a similar vein, a conception of philosophy as open-ended could be useful. When we think we have an answer, we need not stop and rest contented on our laurels. What if we made an error in our reasoning or overlooked something? Perhaps a different enquiry could illuminate an area we had not envisaged? Indeed, we could propose that philosophy is not so much the search for answers as for better questions.

    None of the above are necessary to do philosophy, since its proponents over history have been at least as diverse a group as any other. Perhaps, then, it is more a question of attitude? Why are we studying philosophy in the first place? Is it to gain an advantage in debate? To belittle someone else who is struggling with the subject? Or is it instead to challenge ourselves and to try to learn?


    Like most disciplines, philosophy has a specialized vocabulary. To the uninitiated, this can seem a scary prospect and a bar on getting anywhere. However, the need to learn to speak, write and think in a new way is a prerequisite in most areas of study, sports being a good example. If we consider a term like "offside", we find it means something completely different in rugby than in soccer or in American football. To understand the commentary on a game, then, or to follow what is going on, we need to adopt new terminology. Philosophy is no different.

    As we progress through this series, we will build up our vocabulary gradually. Ploughing right into an academic textbook would probably frustrate a beginner, but no more than the soccer player trying to follow a rugby referee's hand signals. Jumping in at the deep end is an easy way to talk ourselves into believing that we will never understand, but here we will take the more realistic option of proceeding slowly, taking one aspect at a time. If we want to evaluate the ontological argument for the existence of God, for instance, it makes sense to be sure we have a good grasp of both ontology and making an argument before we worry about making any tentative conclusions. As we develop our appreciation of philosophical concepts by using them, they may start to hang together more meaningfully and help lift the fog from what initially seemed too complicated.


    Although it may have a reputation for making a simple question appear impenetrably complex, philosophy generally aims at clarity. In discussion, then, we can expect to be asked to explain what we mean by any terms we employ, pointing out where our use differs from that of the person we are talking with. After all, much of the difficulty in convincing someone else of the merit of our ideas or in realizing where we have gone wrong may lie in misunderstandings. To return to our analogy above, we have to agree on what "offside" and other rules mean if we hope to play a game of rugby, soccer or American football together. Similarly, we have to be "speaking the same language" in order to make any progress in a philosophical conversation.

    One thing to bear in mind is that the dictionary does not have the final say in this process. As we have said, philosophical terms may differ from their everyday counterparts just as surely as words do between sports or even local dialects. Teasing out these meanings is an inevitable element of philosophy, especially as part of a general commitment to trying to address the best possible appreciation of what another person is trying to say.

    Doing philosophy

    Once we have an idea of the approach we might take to doing philosophy, the next questions are when we should do it and why we should care.


    When is philosophy worth considering, if we suppose for a moment that it does have some importance? When should philosophy be practiced? If we note that there are distinctions made between the philosophies of art, science, religion, history, politics, mind, and so on, then this suggests that philosophy is applicable to most areas of study (if not all). Even an argument that philosophy is useless relies implicitly on philosophical categories like value, utility and purpose, as well as an assumption that we can get at an answer using an argument (as opposed to just asserting it).

    It is this generality, then, which commends philosophy as relevant to any inquiry or problem. This is not to imply that philosophy is a discipline over and above all others, but instead that it is an indispensable part of them. Once we have trained ourselves to analyse and break apart a query, the lessons learned will apply to any similar situation.

    Philosophy Alone

    If philosophy has a universal application, do we need to study it on its own when it already plays a part in other subjects? We might formulate an argument in response to this question, but instead we could ask ourselves if the question points us in a direction we may not want to go. After all, who said we can separate philosophy from the contexts in which philosophical problems arise? Once again, doing philosophy involves making sure we are directing our efforts where they are most appropriate before we start worrying about answers.

    Ivory Towers

    Lastly, we come to the traditional image of philosophers as the occupants of ivory towers, indulging in the philosophical equivalent of counting the number of angels that can fit on a pinhead. Although some of the issues investigated by academic philosophers can seem divorced from any relevance to the so-called common man, they all arise from the situations and circumstances we will cover in this series. Perhaps the question to ask is not "why should I care about what philosophers say?" but "how might this topic benefit from a philosophical treatment?"

    To take an example, Plato wrote a long time ago about an ideal society run by guardians who would ensure that matters functioned according to the rules and guidelines Plato had set out. This prompted a criticism that we now consider obvious: quis custiodet ipsos custiodes?, or "who guards the guardians?" When, in the world of our day, we discuss the possibility of sending an armed force to protect the citizens of another country, say, we ought perhaps to ask the same thing. Before we answer, the words of Plato may just be worth a glance.

    In summary, doing philosophy is a reflexive business in which the way we approach our inquiries is at least as important as the answers we might find. This is why we characterize it as asking timeless questions in a modern world.
    Teaser Paragraph: Publish Date: 06/01/2004 Article Image:
    Keith Jenkins is Professor of Historical Theory at the University College, Chichester, and author of several books on historiography, including the recently reissued Re-thinking History. His work has served to bring criticisms of traditional philosophy of history to the attention of the wider public, particularly with the intentionally-polemical stance he took in Re-thinking History. I was able to ask him some questions about his work and its motives.

    - Interviewed by Paul Newall (2004)

    PN: What was your original motivation for writing Re-thinking History?

    KJ: I originally wrote Re-thinking History in the late 1980s (it was first published in 1991) because of what seemed to me to be the poverty of 'history theory' (even today a term that seems slightly odd though we readily enough accept 'literary theory' or 'critical theory' or 'social theory'). At the time most students of history had read—if they had read anything about 'the nature of history' at all—bits and pieces from texts by Marwick and Tosh, Bloch, E.H. Carr and G. Elton. And, compared with the theoretical work in adjacent disciplines/discourses at the time—in literature, sociology, aesthetics, politics, etc., these offered a massively impoverished understanding of how a discourse like history is the kind of fabrication it is—and has been. And so RH tried to both introduce students to ideas from these other areas and apply them to some of the key issues/areas in history.

    PN: How would you explain the conclusions you came to in Re-thinking History to someone who had never considered historical theory before?

    KJ: The conclusions I reached about history in RH were (i) that history was an aesthetic/literary genre such that it could not be an epistemology and that, therefore, the questions historians normally considered—the relationship of facts to values, of interpretation, of objectivity, truth, etc., were not much to the point if the object of their concern was not one capable of being reduced to epistemological (knowledge) claims. I thought and still think—that debates about 'history' are debates about meaning (i.e. ontological debates) and, of course, meaning (of the 'facts'; of this or that interpretation, etc.) escape facticity and interpretation. (ii) That all historical discourse is positioned—is ideological/political, and that, rather than avoid this obvious conclusion, one should make explicit one's own position... that is to say, there was a call for 'reflexivity' going 'all the way down'. (iii) Finally, I wanted students of history to be aware of the ideas of postmodernity and postmodernism and to encourage them to read 'postmodernists' (Lyotard et al) for themselves.

    PN: What was the initial reaction to it, and was there a difference between lay and academic opinions?

    KJ: The initial reaction from people like Marwick was openly hostile and I think—I still think—Marwick spoke and speaks pretty much for most mainline/professional historians who, whilst aware of 'theory', are still fairly immune to it if not openly hostile. But, nevertheless, RH was taken up in schools, colleges, universities (where its deliberately polemical style probably encouraged 'discussion') and, by the mid 90s probably figured on most 'reading lists' at 'A' level and undergraduate levels. But this has not, as noted, really 'filtered down' to the 'proper' history courses most students still do, and so it's difficult to judge its 'positive' impact.

    PN: In an interview with Alan Munslow, you said that you "knew how intellectually backward the general condition of 'the discipline of history' was, and how rabidly anti-theoretical the academic pursuit of history was". Have these situations improved within history and how successful do you think Re-thinking History was in bringing about change or a more reflective attitude in historians?

    KJ: I think my answer here echoes the one just given. There has been some 'improvement' since the early 90s (as evidenced by the increasing number of theory texts on the market) and, no doubt, in methods and historiography classes the nature of history is much more discussed. But the problem still remains of how far students have moved away from empirical approaches; of how far historical discourse is now fashioned and figured in highly effective, theoretical ways.

    PN: How does the philosophy of history differ between regions, local or international? Is there a division between, say, analytic and postmodern approaches, so-called, similar to that some point to in philosophy between Anglo-American and Continental traditions?

    KJ: The division isn't between, say, analytical v. post modern approaches but, insofar as 'the post modern' has had an impact, the development of interest is that of whether empiricism has been challenged and whether the aesthetic nature of historical writing has supplanted it... to some extent. And, insofar as 'continental philosophy' is linguistic and aesthetic and ontological (as opposed to factual, empirical and epistemological) then the 'history debates' do shadow continental philosophy ones—in general. For, in their particulars, the sophistication of continental philosophy is nowhere really replicated in current historiography.

    PN: In the years since writing and re-issuing Re-thinking History, what developments have there been in historical theory? What would you include if you published another edition?

    KJ: I have written a 'new' RH under the title of Refiguring History (Routledge, 2003). I was asked by Routledge around 2001 to write a new edition of RH, but I can't go back... The debates that were around in 1991 are not articulated in the same way today and so I thought a new book was better than an 'old book' updated. Nevertheless, Routledge still wanted a second edition of RH and so I agreed to this by adding to it an interview with Alun Munslow... but the text remains untouched. For those interested I have talked about all of this in the Munslow interview (in RH, 2nd edition 2003); in the Introduction to Refiguring History and in an autobiographical piece I wrote for the journal (also called 'Rethinking History') entitled 'After History' (Rethinking History journal, 3, 1, Spring, 1999, pp. 7-20).

    PN: In the book, you wrote that "[t]heoretical discussions are still on the whole skirted by robustly practical practising historians...". Why are historians so reluctant to consider the theoretical issues?

    KJ: I think historians are reluctant to consider theoretical issues because of the continued dominance of empirical and epistemological thinking. Historians don't like to be told that history is a fictive process; that a history is 'an act of the imagination'; that there is no such thing as a 'true history' (any more than there can be a 'true story') because truth—at the level of the text (as opposed to the text's singular statements) is just not an applicable concept. And so historians—who are impatient about any kind of theory let alone the kind of theory I might advocate—are particularly anti 'post modern' (or anti post-structuralist or post-feminist or post-Marxist or deconstructionist positions)... basically it problematices 'normal', academic/professional histories and so, understandably, it isn't welcomed.

    PN: Do you think historical theory could benefit from being discussed in terms of the realism/anti-realism debate in philosophy generally? Can there be such a thing as anti-realist accounts of the past?

    KJ: Anti-realism is not a position I (and as far as I know, no 'postmodern' historian as such) embrace. I/We are not at all anti-realist, but I/We are 'all', I think, anti-representationalist.

    PN: In the book, you wrote that the difficulties in historical theory could—if properly understood—be considered "liberating" and "emancipating". Can you explain this briefly and comment on your critics' response to this possibility?

    KJ: I think that, by the terms "emancipating" and "empowering" as applied to a reflexively held position, I meant—and mean—that a history that raises to consciousness its constructive apparatus can demystify (and defamiliarise) historical accounts that variously attempt to 'tell the story of the past in and for itself' and thus allow the development of critical positions to emerge that can then spread into other discourses and into 'everyday political life'. This may seem rather optimistic and I suppose it is, but I want students to have a critical purchase on as many aspects of life as possible so that they can then decide how to live the life they have. To be—insofar as this is every remotely possible—'in control of their own discourse'.

    PN: What is next for you? Please tell us a little about your current projects and forthcoming works.

    KJ: Since Refiguring History and the 2nd edition of RH (2003) I have co-edited and introduced (with Professor Alun Munslow) a new Reader for Routledge (The Nature of History Reader, 2004)... in the Introduction, Munslow and I reflect on many of the concerns raised in this 'interview'. I am now working on another Reader for Routledge co-edited with Dr Sue Morgan entitled The Feminist History Reader (probably out in late 2005/early 2006) and another book—also for Routledge—entitled Manifestos for History in which we have asked some 20 historians to write Manifestos for the kind of histories they would like—feel necessary—for the 21st century. This collection of essays is edited by myself, Professor Alun Munslow and Dr Sue Morgan, and should be out in late 2006. Apart from that I'm writing various essays for journals... for example an essay on J.F. Lyotard is due out in the journal Rethinking History in late 2004 and an essay on "History and Ethics" is appearing in the December 2004 issue of the journal, History and Theory.
    Teaser Paragraph: Publish Date: 06/01/2004 Article Image:

    By /index.php?/user/4-hugo-holbling/">Paul Newall (2004)

    Before we can consider some of the questions studied by philosophy it makes sense to ask what philosophy is in the first place, although this is itself subject to much debate. In this first part of a series introducing philosophy and philosophical ideas, we begin by looking at the word and some of the historical answers given before moving on to more recent opinions, also setting out the divisions typically made and the methods employed.

    Historical interpretations of philosophy

    The word philosophy has meant different things at different times, often reflecting the culture of the day. Usually we understand the term to denote the love of wisdom, from the Greek; in this sense, as it was apparently used by the famous philosopher Socrates, it gives the impression of someone who is seeking wisdom, rather than having found it. We would only call someone a physicist, say, if he or she actually had some knowledge of physics, but we describe as a philosopher someone who is aiming at wisdom without necessarily achieving it. On the other hand, philosophy has also had the negative sense of a subject full of idle speculation, useless to the practical business of finding things out and consisting mostly in irrelevant theorising.

    Over the course of the history of philosophy its meaning seems to have shifted depending on the cultural climate. At some stages it was thought that the ideal state of human affairs could only come to pass when philosophers are kings or vice versa; conversely, we can find others insisting that the business of ruling is one of hard-headed practicalities with no time for worrying about philosophy. To Marcus Aurelius, the philosopher and Roman Emperor, the business of doing philosophy was more important than the conclusions we might come to; the idea was that philosophy is reflecting or thinking about life and our actions, attempting to measure our conduct or trying to act in the right way. This kind of behaviour led to the sense in which being "philosophical" in temperament still carries the connotation of being Stoic - the kind of person who thinks a lot before they do something and again afterwards to determine whether they acted wisely or might have done otherwise. A Stoic person might also be less disposed to be bothered by matters that in fact nothing can be done about, so in this sense philosophy can help by perhaps showing us what we have an impact on and what should be left well alone.

    In the centuries that followed, philosophy was used or abused in differing degrees as it was applied to political, theological and moral matters. Some thought that by employing careful deliberation to the problems of their day they might arrive at wise and useful solutions; others reckoned that only religion could teach such things. In the end a compromise was reached and it was realised that one way of trying to answer a question is probably not enough and that other perspectives need to be considered.

    In more modern times, philosophy took on another meaning as thinkers investigated the beginnings of what we now call science. For a long time science was part of philosophy, later being spoken of as natural philosophy and eventually experimental philosophy. At this point the philosopher Immanuel Kant made a distinction, though not rigidly, between the experimental method of the sciences and the rational method of philosophy. From around this period people started to ask questions of philosophy and wonder if it was good for anything given the apparent success of science. Even philosophers began to insist that the experimental method was the only way to answer questions about the world and that philosophy could no longer be thought of as anything but idle speculation. However, others cautioned that the arrival of another way to approach questions was a good thing and yet no reason to throw away the other methods that may, after all, still work better on some questions.

    Some recent philosophers have continued these trends by arguing that philosophy tells us nothing, or that it can only show us - eventually - that philosophical problems were not really problems at all. Meanwhile, science continues to open up new areas of our universe and the term philosopher has again taken on a negative implication. Still others continue to insist that philosophy deals with fundamental questions that are not open to scientific investigation and have widely felt consequences for us all.

    The purpose of this piece and those to follow will be to introduce what philosophers have said and done, how the various aspects of philosophy have tried to tackle the questions that we all ask ourselves at one time or another, and thus what we can say about philosophy as a result. Each of us can then make up his or her own mind as to whether it is worth bothering with philosophy or not.

    The division of philosophy

    The purpose of philosophy has often been very much a practical one: to consider by reasoned inquiry the ends to which we should aim, how we should live and how to structure our circumstances to best allow for these. To do this, it was often split into several areas:

    Metaphysics: This is the study of reality, or what there is. Do gods or faeries exist? If not, why not? Why does anything exist at all?
    Epistemology: This is the study of what can be known and how we can know about it. Given that we often assume something to have been real, for example, and yet it turns out we only dreamt or imagined it, how do we know anything at all? How sure can we be about our ideas and how much does the answer matter?
    Ethics: Here we are studying what we mean by good and evil; the standards we use to judge our conduct; how we should act; how much or little we need to consider the wishes of others; and so on. This is the field of philosophy that is most obvious in its importance and we can see it in the many discussions that take place every day and in the relevance we all attach to the answers we each give.
    Aesthetics: This is the study of concepts like art, music and beauty. Is there such a thing as true beauty or is it merely in the eye of the beholder? Are there mathematical harmonies underlying nature that should be imitated in our architecture or music?
    Logic: Here we study reasoning itself: forms of argument, general principles and particular errors, along with methods of arguing. We see lots of mistakes in reasoning in daily life and logic can help us understand what is wrong or why someone is arguing in a particular way.
    Today there are many more areas of philosophy but we will not consider them all in this first article. Later on we will devote other introductions to particular subjects and cover what philosophers have proposed.

    The methods of philosophy

    There are several ways we can do philosophy. These will be the subject of the next essay but the questions we can ask include some or all of the following:

    What do the terms in the problem mean? Can this meaning be clarified such that we are not confusing ourselves before we start? If not, does the question make sense at all? This can be the beginning of our investigation.
    Does the structure of the question make sense? It could be that the words used are understood but the form of the question is in error in some way, like asking "are you a married bachelor?" This is the start of analysing the language in which the question is posed.
    Are there any helpful sources of information we can refer to? If so, we may want to ask if they apply as they are or if there are limitations to be borne in mind. If we want to call upon evidence to aid us, we first need to know if our question is open to experimental proof or disproof.
    What kind of answer are we looking for? Does the question require a definitive yes or no response, or are we perhaps being asked for a best guess? We need to consider the form of answer we want to aim for or whether any answer is possible.
    What are the consequences of the possible answers? Do they tell us anything important enough to influence which answer to choose, if any? If one or more of the options seems to lead to consequences that are impossible or seem highly unlikely, we can narrow our search considerably. On the other hand, if people have already based other decisions on a certain outcome of the question, how will changing it alter their ideas?
    Are there any errors in the reasoning we apply to the question? If so, can we avoid them?
    Although this introductory treatment is limited, we can begin to see what philosophers are considering when they do philosophy and why the very idea has meant different things to many people throughout history. The essays to follow will expand on these points and explain philosophy in more detail. The series is aimed at beginners but will hopefully be of interest to all readers.

    Dialogue the First

    (Note: As part of the Introducing Philosophy series, this is the first of several dialogues that attempt to explain the essay content in the form of a play. Although the stories and characters are not to be taken too seriously, hopefully they provide another way to understand how philosophy is involved in everyday life.)

    The Scene: A small clearing in an unspecified but inviting forest. A stream passes through, flanked by several boulders on which Trystyn is sitting, apparently reading. Steven and Anna enter from the west, perhaps thirty minutes before sunset.

    Steven: (Indicating Trystyn) Here's the fellow—just as I said.

    Trystyn: (mutters) Here we go again...

    Steven: How goes it, my philosophical friend? (He slaps Trystyn good-naturedly on the back, causing him to drop his book.)

    Trystyn: As well as can be expected. (He picks up the book.) Are you back for more fun at my expense?

    Steven: What's that you're reading? (He hasn't listened and makes a grab for the book.) Feyerabend? Never heard of the fellow.

    Trystyn: No doubt. (Indicates and smiles at Anna.) Who's this?

    Steven: Of course! May I present Anna—a scientist, thank goodness...

    Anna: Not yet...

    Steven: (Interrupting) ... but given to literary pursuits. I told her about you and she insisted on meeting you.

    Trystyn: Well... (smiles at Anna.)

    Steven: You see, my dear, the fact is that Trystyn can be found here as regular as clockwork, head in a book or in the clouds—very much the subject of an uninteresting experimental study. You could probably set your watch by him. A splendid fellow, of course, but no concern for the real world at all.

    Anna: You're a philosopher?

    Trystyn: Better ask him... (he rolls his eyes...)

    Steven: Well that's the point, isn't it? Reading and thinking a good deal but not getting anywhere. A philosopher is a well-intentioned creature that achieves nothing of any consequence.

    Anna: What do you study?

    Trystyn: Ideas; methods; their foundations; justification. What is there and how can we know anything about it?

    Steven: He paints a pretty picture, I'm sure you'll agree, but nothing comes of it.

    Anna: What have you learned?

    Trystyn: That I have much to learn.

    Steven: A noble sentiment, but really: what have you achieved—any of you? You're still struggling with the same questions as the Greeks.

    Trystyn: Of course, but that's the point.

    Anna: How so?

    Trystyn: (Puts his book down.) The matters that bothered the Greeks concern us still precisely because they're the questions that we all ask ourselves—they never go away.

    Anna: Such as?

    Trystyn: How are we to live? To what end?

    Steven: (Sits down next to Trystyn.) But these are things we scientists ask ourselves too; meanwhile, we set about tackling questions we can answer. You never get anywhere.

    Trystyn: Perhaps you're right? But it needn't be a bad thing: maybe all we can do is go over the old arguments and rehearse them, but we learn then that these questions are not so easily answered.

    Anna: And we ought to be careful how we go about our lives...

    Trystyn: Right. We study the past and find that people have struggled with many of the same questions, to which none of the suggested answers seems completely satisfactory. Perhaps there are no answers, or perhaps we aren't asking the right questions?

    Anna: But surely the fact that these things are still undecided would make us wary of choosing one answer or another?

    Trystyn: Yes—ideas have consequences. Hence the philosophical temperament: stop and think rather than charging on ahead. Are we attacking a problem in the right way? Are we using the right tools?

    Steven: In the meantime, I guess I'll keep working to make your lives easier while you fritter it all away...

    Trystyn: Philosophy isn't opposed to science, Steven, but what can we do with the things you discover? Whether we live in a mud hut or a space station, we still have to ask how we'll treat each other.

    Anna: That's it.

    Steven: But where are the results of your questioning? (He strikes a triumphant pose.)

    Trystyn: You're missing the point. We keep asking these questions because it isn't enough to just be told that you should live in one way or another, like you can be told how far away the sun is. That no one knows the answers is what makes life interesting and not just a collection of facts, however helpful they may be.

    Anna: So you keep asking.

    Trystyn: I keep asking because I'm not content to leave these questions alone. Maybe I missed something? Maybe the goals I'm aiming at are too much for me? Maybe the people I meet are more important than resolving factual matters that fascinate us but ultimately don't tell me how we can all live together?

    Steven: I don't see how philosophy can compete with all we learn from science, though. Every day we discover new things.

    Anna: They're separate things, surely?

    Trystyn: Kind of. No amount of facts can tell us what to do. We can find out that doing A will result in x and doing B in y, but before we get to that information we have questions like "what do I want to achieve?" "Are there limits on what I'll do to get there?" "How certain do I have to be before I'll try?" And so on. The facts help us but we have limits beforehand on what use we'll put them to. (He looks at his book and smiles.)

    (There is a long silence.)

    Anna: Maybe we should watch the sunset?

    Steven: Let me tell you about the sunspot cycle...

    (Curtain. Fin.)
    Teaser Paragraph: Publish Date: 03/03/2004 Article Image:
    By Paul Newall (2004)

    Keith Whitelam's paper Representing Minimalism: The Rhetoric and Reality of Revisionism is found in a festschrift for Robert Carroll, Sense and Sensitivity. In the early parts of his essay, Whitelam attempts to show that the rhetoric of those like William Dever and Gary Rendsburg does not match the reality of what minimalists (or revisionists, variously) are either engaged in or suggesting. It is perhaps worth giving some examples for the benefit of those not aware of what can sometimes pass for scholarship in Biblical Studies and use them to illustrate a more general point, which will be the goal of this piece.

    Whitelam's point of departure is an article by Rendsburg, in which the latter explains to us "the consensus" before moving on to "the crisis". Notwithstanding this basic attempt to "control the rhetorical space" (as Whitelam characterised similar tactics here), Rendsburg states that

    This is not the first time that an allusion will be made to wider problems in the humanities, which are laid at the door of "postmodernism" (Dever) or relativists and - inexplicably - nihilists by Rendsburg. Nevertheless, Rendsburg provides a useful description of minimalism and maximalism:

    It should be immediately apparent that this is a false dichotomy, which Whitelam shows by quoting examples of those who fit into neither camp - including, quite brutally, Dever himself, who regards "the historicity of the Exodus as a dead issue". In spite of the failure of his simplistic attempt at definition, Rendsburg asks "who are these people, these minimalists?" and goes on to tell us:

    None of the information in this rather poor ad hominem is relevant to the credibility or otherwise of minimalism, of course, but Rendsburg goes on to identify two important factors in the portrait of a minimalist:

    Whitelam points out that since he was himself "trained" by F.F. Bruce and A.A. Anderson, these scholars have (by implication) failed to adequately prepare their students. Rendsburg provides no argument as to why an "untrained" person should be ignored a priori, leaving his complaint another ad hominem. However, the second charge is perhaps more serious:

    Again, this is a straightforward ad hominem, but the accusation is a serious one. Moving to the supporting footnote, we find that Rendsburg relies on Dever, who opines that "several of Whitelam's statements border dangerously on anti-Semitism; they are certainly anti-Jewish and anti-Israel." Following the citation, Whitelam found no page reference: this is just Dever's assertion, which Whitelam calls "the most extreme form of a rhetoric of misrepresentation which has been designed to marginalize and discredit." Whitelam links it to a reported comment by Jerome Berman, linking minimalists to Holocaust deniers - a tactic with echoes of that also employed by historians opposed to contemporary historiography (the idea being to imply that disbelief in the past wie es eigentlich gewesen is tantamount to an insistence that the Holocaust never happened, which is an emotive argument of no substance and never supported by reference to �postmodern� historiographers writing any such thing). It seems the best we can say in response to this behaviour is that it is disappointing.

    Rendsburg moves on to pose and answer the question "why not simply ignore this bunch?" Admitting that he considered this the preferable course of action previously, he tells us that it failed because the "minimalists dominate both in the noise that they make and in the quantity of their books. Volume after volume appears from their pens, all of it recycling the same views, all of it suspended on nothingness, to quote Job 26:7." Repeating implicitly the empty charge of anti-Semitism, Rendsburg suggests that Jewish scholars avoided the issue because of the alleged politics of the minimalists.

    We can move on to Dever to test whether indeed the minimalist programme is "suspended on nothingness". Whitelam blockquotes him as saying that the revisionists (i.e. Rendsburg's nihilists) "caricature the history of traditional scholarship [and] demonize any remaining opponents", which is an interesting irony, given the "anti-Semitism" above. In spite of providing no justification for his own charge, Dever himself lectures us on "not pretending to an expertise one does not possess [and] resisting the temptation to indulge in personal polemics that stem from a sense of inadequacy, either in oneself or in the evidence at hand [and] refusing on principle to distort the evidence or another scholar's view". Having digested this advice, Whitelam offers a selection of commentary from Dever on minimalist arguments, variously described as "'credulous', 'facile', 'fashionable', 'a passing fad' [...] part of 'trendy academic fashions' [...] 'politically correct' [...] or 'circle of dillentantes'".

    This last reminds us of an identical complaint made against so-called "postmodernists", often by Dever but also by a vocal group of philosophers who would have us treat "nihilists", "relativists" and "postmodernists" as Rendsburg advises for minimalists; that is, never seriously and with an appropriate measure of disdain and contempt. The approach of historians like Evans in historiography is much the same, up to and including identical rhetorical strategies. This, I submit, is where the importance of Whitelam's paper lies: these tactics of demonising the opposition or questioning the integrity of those who refuse to dismiss them outright without further consideration are part of a wider phenomenon not limited to Biblical Studies. Occasionally a book-length study arrives, laying out in painful detail just how far the misrepresentation has gone, or a paper such as Whitelam's attempts to do likewise on a smaller scale, but in general rhetoric seems to hold sway, even at the lofty heights of academia.

    Although studies of the influence of rhetoric are increasingly common, the so-called criticisms we have been considering fail on another level, too: they do not understand the concepts they reject as invalid. Whitelam refers to Dever's claim that minimalists are engaged in a project of deconstruction, but it is difficult to find any indication that he (or those analogously hostile in other disciplines) appreciates that to deconstruct is not to "knock down" at all, as we have seen. Indeed, Dever's conception of the minimalists' goal goes well beyond misunderstanding to a plan which

    Notwithstanding the unargued allusion here to historical laws, again we see the same tactic and the same attempt to give the reader the impression of closet Nazis endeavouring to bring about a fourth Reich as we find in the suggestion that antirepresentationalist historiographers are Holocaust deniers. Even so, if Dever comprehended deconstruction then he could not say that minimalists "are social engineers manipulating the biblical text for their own goals", since if il ny a pas hors du texte then everyone is engaged in the same game, including maximalists. Likewise, there is no reason to suspect that Rendsburg knows what nihilism implies, not least since he is not a philosopher and thus - by Dever's criterion above - should not pretend to expertise he does not have. This is the point, however: concepts like relativism are complex and not amenable (meaningfully, at least) to being mangled for the sake of a cheap rhetorical point. At the very least, a reader passing Dever's test would recognise the mischaracterisation immediately.

    Rendsburg laments the unfortunate fact that "serious scholars must take the time away from their own productive scholarship to respond to the baseless twaddle of the minimalist camp", much as this sentiment surfaced in the wake of Derrida's death. The problem for Rendsburg is that it is difficult to find a representative minimalist or minimalist work to hold up as indicative of the kind of scholarship that should be rejected. This, of course, is a consequence of his false dichotomy in defintion, but it surfaces just as readily in the opposition to "postmodernism". The question "what is postmodernism?" is as impossible to answer as "what is minimalism?", given that supposed "postmodernists" disagree with one another as readily as do "minimalists". To get around this problem of an ill-fitting straw man, Dever employs another rhetorical strategy and asserts that the minimalist believes there was "no 'early Israel'". Shanks, similarly, declares that Whitelam would have us accept that ancient Israel "never existed" - just as the past is supposed to not exist for the historiographer who dares to question historical representationalism. However, to recognise (either implicitly or explicitly) that wie es eigentlich gewesen is beyond our epistemologies is not to make a metaphysical claim (which, in any case, is unargued by those who would suggest that holding the past to not exist is absurd), nor is it to suggest that we must let go the reins and accept all readings as equally valid.

    In summarising his article, Whitelam makes an obvious point:

    The failure of the frequently vigorous attempts to combat the ostensibly similarly dangerous doctrines of the "postmodernists" and "antirepresentationalists" in historiography and philosophy respectively may be attributed to the same, apparently lamentable circumstance that the targets of all this collective and righteous indignation simply do not exist. These relativists and nihilists appear to keep coming back for more, in spite of the best efforts of Rendsburg, Dever and others, because they are not there to be hit in the first place. By employing criticism that misunderstands the methodology of its opponents, fails to identify them meaningfully or to demarcate between degrees of supposed folly and relies wholly on a "rhetoric of misrepresentation", it is little wonder that minimalism still haunts the dreams of those who would presume to dictate the direction of learning while demonstrating their own unwillingness to do so.


    By Hugo Holbling, in History,

    Teaser Paragraph: Publish Date: 03/03/2004 Article Image:
    By Paul Newall (2004)

    The Hermetica—or the collection of mystical teachings that form the basis of Hermeticism—was traditionally attributed to Hermes Trismegistus: "thrice-greatest Hermes", the Egyptian god Thoth, who was known as Mercury by the Romans and as Hermes from the time of Herodotus onwards. A distinction was made between the Greek Hermes and this earlier and quite different god by adding Trismegistus to the latter. In fact, many appellations were used by writers: "great-great" on the Rosetta Stone and other Egyptian texts and "five times great" in Ptolemaic times. At some stage the Greeks settled on "thrice greatest", possibly as a translation of "very great-great".

    Also called the "scribe of the gods", Hermes was taken to be the inventor of writing. Texts that covered religion and philosophy were said to be due to him, as well as those on magic, alchemy and astrology. It is the former that make up Hermeticism, however; the latter have nothing more in common with them than their being credited to Hermes. Nevertheless, it was common practice to ascribe a text to Trismegistus in order to give it more credibility.

    It was thought by Renaissance translators that Hermeticism could be traced back to the Egyptian mystery schools, through the Neoplatonists and Kabbalists, but some of the texts have been shown to be contemporaneous with early Christianity. There are four classes of extant Hermetica:

    The Corpus Hermeticum;
    The Asclepius;
    Excerpts in Stobaeus' Anthologium;
    Fragments found in Cyril, Lactantius and others, collectively called the Testimonia.
    We shall consider each of these in turn.

    The Corpus Hermeticum

    The first is a collection of approximately seventeen MSS (Scott counts nineteen; others twenty (Scott, 1993)) in Greek, reckoned to be by different writers. It is often (incorrectly) called the Poimandre (or Divine Poimandre), this being but the first part. It was brought to prominence by Ficino's translation of 1471, in which he claimed of Hermes "eo tempore quo Moyses natus est". As a Neoplatonist, Ficino had concluded that the similarities between the philosophy of the Hermetica and the dialogues of Plato implied that Hermes had lived at the time of Moses; but this reverses the direction of any historical connection.

    The study of the Corpus was recommended by Patrizzi to Pope Gregory XIV as containing "more philosophy than all the works of Aristotle taken together". Casaubon realised that it was of a later date, putting it around the first to second century CE. He thought that the treatment of subjects also found in early Christian literature meant an influence there from, but instead there was a similarity of thought in Christian and Pagan Platonists of that time. The unfortunate result of Casaubon's scholarship was that, shorn of the esteem due to ancient texts, the early C.E. Corpus largely fell from consideration.

    In the early part of the twentieth century the Corpus again came to prominence with Reitzenstein's Poimandres and G.R.S. Mead's translation and sympathetic study. Even Flinders Petrie contributed a theory on the dating of the collection, although his suggestion that the period between 500 and 200 B.C.E. is likely was not taken seriously. Scott made the important point that the texts do not represent a joint body of doctrine but only "a certain general similarity". They treat of many religious and philosophical topics, with even a cursory reading confirming Scott's observation.

    The Asclepius

    The Greek original of the Asclepius was lost, but not before its translation into Latin. It takes the form of a dialogue attributed to Apuleius and is the combination of several MSS, most dating to the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Textual analysis reveals corrections by many different hands, and also that the dialogue is composed of three separate sources that do not overlap.

    The first concerns the relationships between God, Earth and Man, aimed at the practical goal of exhorting men to live according to divine order. In particular, the corruption of philosophy is held to be due to the coveting of worldly goods and the wise man is called upon to renounce them. It echoes much of Plato in its cosmology but shows no Christian influence, which, along with other textual clues, places its (Greek) authorship between 100 B.C.E. and 300 C.E.. The place of man is analysed:

    We will return to this idea of man's place later.

    The second part concerns evil, trying to account for its existence and origin. It is very brief, but an interesting excerpt addresses the problem of evil:

    The third text of the Asclepius is a muddled concatenation of fragments heavily reliant on Plato, particularly the Timaeus. There are also clear Stoic and Hellenistic Egyptian influences. The hostility to Christianity, along with the powerful prophecy of the fate awaiting Egyptians and their religion with its rise, strongly indicate a dating in the region of 300 C.E.. Scott convincingly narrowed this estimate to 268—273 by comparing the details in the text with the Palmyrene occupation of Egypt (Scott, ibid). On this evidence, the attribution to Apuleius is taken to be in error. Part of this famous prophecy runs thus:

    The Anthologium and Testimonia

    Stobaeus' made his collection of pagan writings in four books at approximately 500 C.E., taken from works he had seen and arranged by subject. All take the form of dialogues, either lessons from Hermes to another or between Isis and Horus. From 300 C.E. onwards the Hermetic writings were familiar to many scholars and are mentioned in their writings—from Lactantius through to the Muslims and beyond. The collection of these excerpts is known as the Testimonia. Interestingly, perhaps, the early Pagan Neoplatonists paid little attention to them.

    Hermeticism from the Renaissance

    Hermetic texts and philosophy came to prominence during the Renaissance when Ficino began translating manuscripts that his patron Cosimo de Medici had obtained from the East. Opinion of that time, supported by Ficino's analysis of the texts, held that they were prophetic of the eventual triumph of Christianity. Such was the resulting importance attached to this assumption of antiquity that, near to death, Cosimo ordered Ficino to set aside his translation of Plato to work on the Hermetica.

    Already a blend of Egyptian and Greek philosophies and theology, Renaissance scholars added elements of natural magic and Kabbalah, particular with the work of Pico della Mirandolla, one of Ficino's students at his Florentine Academy. From the seventeenth century and the advent of Rosicrucianism, together with Freemasonry in the eighteenth and alchemy from its beginnings, Hermeticism became suffused with the Western esoteric tradition as a whole.

    Texts that were collected and studied intensely over this period include the famous Emerald Tablet of Hermes, the Hermetic Museum drawn up by A.E. Waite, the anonymous Hermetic Arcanum and many works in alchemy that built upon the Hermetic ideas found in the Emerald Tablet. This was analysed by a continuous stream of Hermeticists, alchemists, philosophers, Kabbalists and magicians, including Newton as part of his voluminous studies of alchemy and related subjects, all of them attempting to divine its meaning. Although there are many extant translations, one reads thus:

    Some consider the Emerald Tablet to be the earliest known alchemical work, with Needham placing its origin in China. Whatever the case, it gives an example of the dictum that would come to characterize Hermeticism: "as above, so below".

    Hermeticism as a system

    In spite of the existence and study of the texts discussed above, Hermeticism has no sacred books and no doctrine. Hermeticists have historically disagreed with one another and were never encouraged to defer to the opinion of specific authorities. Much like some philosophers of religion today when trying to come to terms with the plurality of religions and their competing truth claims, Hermeticists believe that Hermeticism represents the common centre of all forms of religion. The general idea is that the esoteric core of religions are the same; the exoteric shells, however, differ due to the regional, environmental, historical and other factors at work at the time of their creation or development.

    Hermetic groups exist today, both openly and in relative secrecy, within religions and without. As a rule they do not make themselves known, although academic treatments (such as Frances Yates' studies or Copenhaver's criticisms) are becoming more frequent. The significance of Hermeticism in the histories of science, natural philosophy and magic is becoming familiar, although its syncretism and incorporation of so many disparate philosophies, religions and traditions means that it remains difficult to determine the direction of influence. In particular, the famous Rosicrucian Manifestos (the Fama Fraternitatis of 1614, Confessio Fraternitatis of 1615 and the Chemical Wedding of 1616) represented a continuation of Hermetic ideas and were seized upon by scholars across Europe in a general wave of excitement at the workings of hidden or occult ideas made public (McLean, 1991). The effect of the Hermetica on Ramon Lull and Giordano Bruno, with the manifestos adding to the intellectual climate of a world ready to open up and reveal its secrets. Kepler studied the Poimander at length, suggesting that either Pythagoras was a Hermeticist or Hermes was a Pythagorean but disagreeing with the latter on most points (Field, 1988). The Picatrix or Ghayat al-Hakim linked Hermeticism with Arabic occult ideas, echoes being found in Agrippa, Rabelais and even the Venetian Inquisition in explaining the arrest of Casanova (Kiesel, 2000) The writings of Newton on alchemy and related subjects are well known (cf. Westfall's biography and similar), and he summed up the spirit of the age when he wrote in his notes to the Principia that:

    Thus it is that Hermeticism has traditionally been thought to represents the so-called perennial philosophy (a term first used by Liebniz and adopted by Huxley), passed down through the ages by word of mouth or in writings that require a lifetime of effort to understand fully. In his discussion of it, Huxley identified four "fundamental doctrines":

    "First: the phenomenal world of matter and of individualized consciousness—the world of things and animals and men and even gods—is the manifestation of a Divine Ground within which all partial realities have their being, and apart from which they would be non-existent.
    "Second: human beings are capable not merely of knowing about the Divine Ground by inference; they can also realize its existence by a direct intuition, superior to discursive reasoning. This immediate knowledge unites the knower with that which is known.
    "Third: man possesses a double nature, a phenomenal ego and an eternal Self, which is the inner man, the spirit, the spark of divinity within the soul. It is possible for a man, if he so desires, to identify himself with the spirit and therefore with the Divine Ground, which is of the same or like nature with the spirit.
    "Fourth: man's life on earth has only one end and purpose: to identify himself with his eternal Self and so to come to unitive knowledge of the Divine Ground." (Huxley, 1990)
    As explained in the caveat previously, these may have been believed by Hermeticists but they did not take the character of doctrine. The first tells us that plurality is only apparent: reality is ultimately a unity, which manifests itself through a hierarchy symbolised by the Sephiroth of Kaballah and similar systems in other religions. The second says that this ultimate reality may be known, not by thought and reason but instead through a direct intuition. This assumption is thought to be common to all religions and it was often claimed that by forcing reality into conceptual categories we cut off the possibility of understanding it as a whole. The third is also well known, while the fourth speaks of the spiritual evolution of Man. In particular, this last was the goal of all alchemists: although many maintained working laboratories, talked of practical benefits and there exist documented claims of the transmutation of base metals to gold (for example, the 1942 demonstration by Sarma in Delhi, witnessed by national leaders and attested to by an inscribed plaque in the Laksmi Narayana temple. A previous incident in 1941 is similarly recorded, including a description of the processes involved. (Mukherji, 1998 ), the accepted interpretation of alchemical texts, from the ancient through to Fulcanelli and the contemporary, is of alchemy as a spiritual quest.

    Huxley called these the "highest common factor" of religions. An additional aspect is the injunction already introduced: "as above, so below". The importance of this dictum, which has a distinguished pedigree, has been emphasised by those scholars who see Hermeticism as a significant current in the rise of science. For the Hermeticist, it implied that the microcosm and macrocosm are linked such that order in one reflects order in the other. Harmony in the heavens, then, would suggest that the Hermeticist look for a similar harmony on Earth; likewise, it is proposed that the belief in a unity of (God-given) purpose for men on Earth could have inspired Copernicus and others to seek simplicity in place of complexity in the heavens. With the role of natural laws as a necessary condition in the development of science well established, it is easy to see why Hermeticism should be deemed worthy of further study. Another way in which it was understood was to see man as embodying the universe on a smaller scale—man as symbolic of all mysteries or the "measure of all things". Rudolf Steiner wrote at length on this issue.

    Examples of the application of Hermeticism are quite easy to find: in the Tarot, Masonic engraving, and interpretations of tales such as the Golden Fleece. It is also straightforward to find criticism: Hermeticism is ad hoc, or unfalsifiable, since its very syncretism and fundamental tenets mean that it can survive difficulties by ascribing them to exoteric differences while maintaining the esoteric core unchallenged. Similarly, these same tenets are exclusively metaphysical and hence not subject to any kind of verification. By claiming parts of existing religious traditions, Hermeticists leave themselves open to the charge that they add nothing significant to them and are hence rendered irrelevant. More importantly, they also make it almost impossible to point to the impact of Hermeticism over history. In general, Hermeticists do not concern themselves with responses to these objections and go—quietly—about their business. It is hoped that further textual, comparative and philosophical analysis of religious documents will give scholars more to go on, but is seems that the nature of Hermeticism is such that the ultimate truth remains so whether agreed upon or not.


    Selected References:

    Casaubon, Exercitationes XVI (London, 1614)
    Copenhaver, Renaissance Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992)
    Ficino, Mercurii Trismegisti Liber de Potestate et Sapientia Dei (Treviso, 1471)
    Godwin (trans.) and McLean (intr.), The Chemical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreuz (Grand Rapids: Phanes Press, 1991)
    Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy (Perennial, 1990)
    Kiesel (ed.), Picatrix (Seattle: Ouroboros Press, 2000)
    Mukherji, The Wealth of Indian Alchemy (Delhi: Indian Books Centre, 1998 )
    Newton, Gregory MS 247, Royal Society
    Patritius, Nova de universis philosophia... (Venice, 1593)
    Reitzenstein, Poimandres. Studien zur griechisch-aegyptischen und fruh-christlichen literature (Lepizig, 1904)
    Scott, Hermetica (Boston: Shambhala, 1993)
    The Dictionary of the History of Ideas (New York: Scribner's Sons, 1973-74)
    Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964)
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