Critique and Commentary of “Sapiens, A brief history of humankind”(Yuval Noah Harari) from a Philosophical Perspective(Aristotle, Kant, and Wittgenstein) Part Seven.

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The section entitled “the Marriage of Science and Empire” raises immediate normative issues for the philosopher searching for an analysis of the anomalies of the modernism and post-modernism eras of our History. This work certainly falls into one of these two categories. Having said this it must be added that this is one of the most interesting chapters of the book and it provides a great deal of empirical explanation relating to the material and efficient causes of the phenomena of these periods.

The author begins by pointing out that British exploratory expeditions beginning with Captain Cook’s in 1768, were in the habit of transporting scientists of various kinds to conduct both inductive scientific investigations in new and strange environments and to verify more deductively structured theories which predict the existence of events objects etc that have not yet been observed. Harari does not in this discussion make the traditional philosophical distinction between Science in the context of Discovery and Science in the context of explanation. Indeed his talk in the last chapter of “new knowledge” appears to highlight the observational activity of the scientist at the expense of the theoretical activities of thought and reason.

Harari reports how the causes of diseases like scurvy which had been responsible for the deaths of large numbers of sailors were discovered on the voyages of discovery. Experiments on different groups of sailors were conducted by Lind in 1747 and these proved the efficacy of citrus fruits, an old folk remedy. Cook apparently saw some kind of relation of citrus fruits to sauerkraut and took both on his voyage and did not lose a single sailor to the disease. This event was of historical significance for the British control of the oceans of the world and the transportation of armies that would help build the Empire. This expedition laid the foundation for the conquest of Australia, Tasmania and New Zealand, an event that had devastating consequences for the indigenous peoples of these areas. Harari refers to the comfortable alliance of Science and empire building with more than just a hint of normative criticism:

“The corpses of the last Tasmanians were seized in the name of science by anthropologists and curators. They were dissected, weighed and measured and analysed in learned articles. The skulls and skeletons were then put on display in museums and anthropological collections. Only in 1976 did the Tasmanian Museum give up for burial the skeleton of Truganini, the last native Tasmanian who had died a hundred years earlier.”(P310)

The justification of Normative criticism of course requires the kind ethical theory that science cannot provide. It is clear from the above that the scientists of the time were on a blind search for the facts even if observationalism was the guiding “philosophy”. There are historians(Hannah Arendt) who seek to minimize the normative criticism of this period of History by claiming that the British Empire was acquired in a state of absent mindedness in which the intentions were good. Harari partially acknowledges this in his remark that whilst the evil deeds could full an encyclopaedia, the achievements of the era could fill another encyclopaedia. So in the end even he agrees that using his infrastructure of Science and his normative free view of history we cannot justify neither the blame nor the praise that has been levelled at the British of this period. The words from the work of the earlier Wittgenstein that “The world is the totality of facts” naturally emerge here in spite of the fact that they were written in 1922. Wittgenstein finally abandoned this position and one of the reasons was that the philosophical importance of value judgments was significantly diminished. His earlier work was a part of the “scientific revolution” against the work of Aristotle which then needed to backtrack in his later work in order to justify normative discourse.By this time(1951) the global centre of power had shifted towards Europe and was already shifting westwards towards the the “New World”, the USA. Harari asks the salient question “Why Europe? and gives the answer:

“The global centre of power shifted to Europe only between 1750 and 1850, when Europeans humiliated the Asian powers in a series of wars and conquered large parts of Asia. By 1900 Europeans firmly controlled the worlds economy and most of its territory. In 1950 western Europe and the US together accounted for more than half of global production whereas China’s portion had been reduced to 5%. Under the European aegis s new global order and global culture emerged. Today all humans are, to a much greater extent than they usually want to admit, European in dress, thought and taste. They may be fiercely anti-European in their rhetoric, but almost everyone on the planet views politics, medicine, war and economics through European eyes, and listens to music, written in European modes with words in European languages. Even todays burgeoning Chinese economy, which may soon regain its global primacy, is built on a European model of production and finance.”(p312)

In partial answer to this question of “Why Europe?” the author cites military-industrial-scientific factors which matured faster in Europe. Science for the philosopher is more than observation-experiment and technological innovation in the context of discovery but we should reiterate this is not the position of the author of this work. Industrialisation obviously occurred much faster in Europe than elsewhere and the economic and political consequences were significant. The author talks of the development of railroads, the steam engine and machine guns as examples of the first wave of the revolution:

“The Chinese and Persians did not lack technological inventions such as steam engines(which could be freely copied or bought). They lacked the values, myths, judicial apparatus and sociopolitical structures that took centuries to form and mature in the West and which could not be copied and internalised rapidly….The Chinese and Persians could not catch up as quickly because they thought and organised their societies differently.”(p 314-315)

Values finally appear as an important factor in the attempt to answer this question. Ethical values are implied in the working of the judicial apparatus and observation-experiment and the manipulation of variables are largely irrelevant in the context of justification in the realm of law. It would be absurd to claim that the system is searching for new laws and new experiences. They emerge but immediately subside into obscurity very quickly and Harari points to the European capitalist and scientific behaviour underlying key technological innovation and he regards this as the legacy of European Imperialism. It is noted that between 1500 and 1950 the Far East and the Muslim world did not produce “minds as intelligent and curious as those of Europe”, “did not produce anything that comes even close to Newtonian physics or Darwinian biology.”

What is not mentioned is the context of these works, a context of the agenda of justification of theories which we inherited from the Greek philosophers. These theories emerged as a consequence of a critical spirit just as important as the spirit of curiosity and exploration seeking for new experiences. It has been claimed by philosophers, for example, that Oxford university have never ceased to teach Aristotle since its inception when Aristotle was the major thinker dominating the university syllabus. The work of Darwin obviously surfed on the wave of Hobbesian anti-Aristotelianism in spite of the respect that Darwin had for the biological works of Aristotle. Darwin was probably aware of Aristotle’s ethical and political works and famously manifested his modern ambivalence to some of these ideas by refusing to defend his work from ecclesiastical attack leaving that task to Thomas Huxley. The same ambivalence was probably behind his initial reluctance to publish his work during his lifetime. Darwin was not an Imperialist, he did not want to conquer the world with his ideas. The mentality of conquerors shared the mindset of the technological innovators. Both, argues the author, admit their ignorance but not in Socratic manner where Socrates knows what he does not know but knows for example that the kind of instrumental reasoning manifested by conquerors and tyrannical rulers is not the kind of reasoning that will reveal the essence of justice or the good. Rulers who rule instrumentally in their own interest do not possess the kind of normative knowledge needed to justify just actions. Instrumental reasoning is not only used by imperialists, it is also the mindset of technological innovators, Heidegger, for example, has argued. Instrumental reasoning for Heidegger will never reveal the real concern of our curiosity which seeks a metaphysical understanding of the nature of being in general and our own being in particular: a variation on an old Aristotelian theme. It is possible the continuity of this kind of metaphysical curiosity is that which accounts for the power of scientific and Historical explanation. Given the ethical orientation of the metaphysics of action this historical continuity of variations on a theme is also responsible for the stability of our political and legal systems which the author claims lies behind the way in which our societies function. Historical knowledge informed by this metaphysical spirit in which categorical assumptions and explanations provide the framework for the having of new experiences and discovery of new events and knowledge has always been a part of the British and European mentality. It is this spirit which it is necessary to understand if one is to correctly interpret the following observations:

“When the Muslims conquered India, they did not bring along archeologists to systematically study Indian history, anthropologists to study Indian cultures, geologists to study Indian soils, or zoologists to study Indian fauna. When the British conquered India, they did all of these things. On 10th April 1802 the Great Survey of India was launched. It lasted 60 years. With the help of tens of thousands of native labourers, scholars and guides, the British carefully mapped the whole of India, marking borders, measuring distances, and even calculating for the first time the height of Mount Everest and the other Himalayan peaks. The British explored the military resources of Indian provinces and the location of their gold mines, but they also took the trouble to collect information about rare Indian spiders, to catalogue colourful butterflies, to trace the ancient origins of extinct indian languages, and to dig up forgotten ruins.”(p332)

It was, for example, a British officer named Rawlinson that eventually managed to decipher the Sumerian cuneiform script by using an understanding of Modern Persian to understand the ancient Persian the script was using.. Rawlinson is described as a modern European Imperialist and one wonders whether this is a fair description of this feat of interpretation which enabled us to understand “the bustle of Sumerian bazaars, the proclamations of Assyrian kings, the arguments of babylonian bureaucrats”. In education one, as a result of the influence of Ancient Greek philosophy, is accustomed to acknowledging a distinction between understanding something in order to do something else, i.e. understanding the structure of the atom in order to construct a bomb. This is a very different attitude to seeking understanding just for the sake of understanding itself in the way Pythagoras did in relation to his mathematical investigations. The Imperialist uses knowledge instrumentally, the educated man like Rawlinson seeks knowledge as a value in itself.

“another notable imperialist scholar was William Jones. Jones arrived in India in September 1783 to serve as a judge in the Supreme Court of Bengal. He was so captivated by the wonders of India that within less than 6 months of his arrival he had founded the Asiatic Society. This academic organisation was devoted to studying the cultures, histories and societies of Asia, and in particular those of India. Within two years Jones published his observations on the Sanskrit language, which pioneered the science of comparative linguistics.In his publications Jones pointed out surprising similarities between Sanskrit, an ancient Indian language that became the sacred tongue of Hindu ritual, and the Greek and Latin languages, as well as similarities between all these languages and Gothic,Celtic, Old Persian, German, French and English…Jones’ study was an important milestone not merely due to his bold (and accurate) hypotheses, but also because of the orderly methodology that he developed to compare languages. It was adopted by other scholars, enabling them systematically to study the development of all the world’s languages.”

William Jones was undoubtedly an educated man and one wonders why one would wish to focus on the the obvious fact that “Knowledge of Linguistics was necessary to understand ancient languages” and interpret this in terms of instrumental necessity rather than logical necessity. Of course the Europeans knew their empires very well, in the same way as they understood their own countries very well as educated people are wont to do. So what makes this an activity of Imperialism? This superior knowledge, according to the author brought obvious practical advantages. Normative judgments of blame involving the term “imperialism” require an attribution of evil intentions. The educated man concerns himself with knowledge of principles which have a value in themselves. What is the evidence for assuming that such neutral or good intentions were not in play in the desire to understand the origins of Sanskrit? Of course one can observe that the misuse of this research which came afterward( in the Nazi misappropriation of this research in their “biological” thesis of the superiority of the Aryans). Does just this fact of the observation that one thing came after the other mean that the original intentions of the research were evil? There is some kind of causation linking these two events but it is not an ethical link in which evil intentions generate evil consequences and good intentions generate good consequences. One cannot reason back from a evil consequence to an evil intention without asking oneself exactly how the intention should be correctly described and whether the relation to the consequence is an ethical relation. One thing following another in time in accordance with ones observations is not sufficient to logically and ethically unite these two events into one ethical activity. What is at issue here is a scientific view of ethics which claims that what makes an action ethical is its consequences. This challenges the traditional “old” view, a more philosophical Aristotelian and Kantian account in which the reason given by the agent of the action in the form of his/her intention is what ontologically defines the action,, is what gives the action its ontological identity. Both of these philosophers have produced decisive arguments against consequentialism. Even Aquinas in the spirit of Aristotle acknowledges the complexity of human reality when it claims that if consequences are linked in terms of the one coming after the other then it is conceivable that one consequence of an action could be good and the one following it could be bad which is exactly the case with the Sanskrit example. The scientist will of course, indoctrinated by a materialistic theory of mind, dogmatically claim that intentions cannot be observed because they are “in” someones mind. The mind is not a spatial container. It is according to Aristotle the form which is embodied in actions and speech and observers can certainly observe actions. In simple actions like the hailing of a taxi across the road by the raising of my arm it is clear that this is intentional and this might be occurring whilst the person hailing the taxi is thinking anxiously about a speech he/she is about to give.

The question to ask here is whether the Imperialists actually had Imperialist intentions, whether they actually intended the exploitation and oppression of conquered populations. Inhabiting a sparsely inhabited continent like Australia which had no organised government to defend its borders is not clearly an ethical matter. Kant has claimed in his moral writings that the earth belongs to no one. Marking the boundary of ones territory clearly signals ones intentions to inhabit and work the area and to the extent that indigenous peoples who did this were removed from the area this is clearly only illegal if there is a government to pass laws to that effect. We are dealing here with what Thomas Hobbes called a “state of nature” in which life is solitary poor nasty brutish and short up until that point when men form governments to regulate their lives together. For some political philosophers it is at this point that human rights occur. This has been the verdict of history too. There were large numbers of stateless people in the world prior to the second world war and there were no governments or a united nations organisation prepared to defend their rights. All the countries that are members of the UN have signed documents which state the conditions under which they have responsibility for the human rights of people in their territory. They have made promises in their applications to be a member of this organisation and whilst they are members they have a duty to honour their commitments. This line of reasoning is behind the position in Political Philosophy which reasons that a right only exists if someone(a government, the United Nations) has a duty to protect it. This political position assumes a Kantian ethical position in which intentions play a decisive role in contradistinction to consequences.

The author produces a number of examples of new rulers in India who it is claimed were concerned only with enriching themselves. It is not clear from the text whether the author believed that this was encouraged or sanctioned by the British government and it is in this context that he claims :

“Due to their close cooperation with science these empires wielded so much power and changed the world to such an extent that perhaps they cannot be simply labelled as good or evil. They created the world as we know it, including the ideologies we use in order to judge them”(p337)

It is not clear what the author means by ideologies but one suspects that they are not connected to what he would regard as the “old” knowledge of the good which comes from the Philosophies of Aristotle and Kant that eventually gave rise to the objective idea of human rights that rules the world today.

It is, however, admitted that science can be used for “sinister ends”:

“Biologists, anthropologists and even linguists provided scientific proof that Europeans are superior to all other races, and consequently have the right)if not perhaps the duty) to rule over them.”(p337)

What did this so called “proof” look like, one wonders. Philosophically , it is quite clear that the relative concepts of “superior and inferior” are constructs of what Philosophers call the “naturalistic fallacy”. The so called “proof” moves from the acknowledgment of a number of facts(so called is-statements) to an ought statement, namely that a particular group of people “ought to rule”. This realm of value judgments is a realm that science and its concern with observation and collecting the totality of facts is something that as Wittgenstein claimed “must be passed over in silence” because the assumptions do not allow anything to be said. The problem is that scientists want to use their assumptions in an area they cannot be used and consequently end up producing “proofs” of the above kind which proved very useful for Hitler and Stalin. Wittgenstein in his early work at least had the academic honesty to stay silent on the issue of values and he realised in his later work that he needed to abandon his “scientific” assumptions if he was to say anything meaningful in this area of Philosophy. Hitler and Wittgenstein apparently attended the same Gymnasium school. The Post modernist form of this “scientism” is the contention that human rights are a figment of our imagination and science and culture are viruses that care nothing for their hosts.

“Culture” or “culturism” is also discussed in the above context:

“There is no such word, but its about time we coined it. Among today’s elites assertions about the contrasting merits of diverse human groups are almost always couched in terms of the historical differences between cultures rather than biological differences between races. We no longer say, “Its in their blood”. We say “It’s in their culture” “(p338)

So according to this we should pass over in silence all comparative judgments based on our knowledge of what is good and what is not. We shall not for example think it is meritorious to have learned to build railroads before the Indians and then use this meritorious skill to improve the infrastructure of India (exactly because their culture did not possess this instrumental and scientific knowledge). We should not have used the skills we historically acquired in order to map out the area of india for the purposes of government, law and defence.

This of course does not necessitate historicism as Marx’s theory did but culturism does remind one of the Marxist view of the historically determined fate of the proletariat which only historical laws could rectify. The cultural difference between classes is blamed for many of the ills of society.. This is a position which is at least as divisive for a society as racism. What this bring to our attention is the fact that looking blindly for differences rather than for what humans have in common leads to divisions which cannot be reconciled without conflict. Elevating this thinking to the cultural/national level results in the same deterministic difficulties which can only be escaped by reference to the importance of the Kantian idea of Freedom and more controversially perhaps presages a globalist community which has a duty to validate the idea of the equality among nations, thus actualising the idea of the universality of human rights which may be part of the globalisation project. Hannah Arendt claimed that Imperialism and its ambiguous spirit of “Expansion” was not sufficiently controlled and formed by the nation state and that one of the results was the totalitarianism we saw in the 20th century. If this is true then the will to extend ones activities beyond national borders may have positive as well as negative characteristics.

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