How genealogies can help to expand our philosophical plumbing toolkit

Exterior of a house in Jerusalem, Israel (photo: Helen De Cruz)

Every day, I and many other people wake up with the distinct sense that we’re in a deep mess. We are faced with anthropogenic climate change that’s already devastating, an unresolved pandemic with huge economic fallout, rampant inequality, racial injustice, a mental health crisis that’s been simmering and is now blowing its top, a disillusioned and polarized electorate.

Where do we even begin to address these, and other, problems?

One could fall into despair. But despair doesn’t change the fact that every day, we need to get up and function–as individuals, households, larger groups, entire countries. So, despair is not an option.

To solve our malaise, philosophy seems to be low on the list of priorities. Surely, the solutions to any of our problems will be technological, with breakthroughs in medicine and clean energy? Perhaps they’ll be psychological, with mindfulness techniques to assuage our existential anxieties.

Can we think of any innovations that would be distinctly philosophical?

According to Mary Midgley (1919-2018), a versatile British philosopher known for her work in ethics, environmental philosophy, deprioritizing philosophy is a mistake because philosophy is just as foundational to how our society works as say, plumbing is for the well-functioning of a city (Midley 1992, paper here).

Marco Rubio famously claimed we need more welders than we do philosophers, presumably because the humanities are just icing on the cake. The basic idea of many western politicians is that we can only adequately fund the humanities and the educational structures that support it once we’ve taken care of all our other, presumably more basic, needs.

But, according to Midgley, this idea has things backwards. Philosophy’s not as a frivolity that we can occasionally indulge in once we’ve solved everything else. Rather, philosophy is a basic need that is fundamental to human social life. It’s not just for wealthy people, or for academic philosophers. Everyone has a stake in it; and everyone does it. She likens philosophy to plumbing:

Plumbing and philosophy are both activities that arise because elaborate cultures like ours have, beneath their surface, a fairly complex system which is usually unnoticed, but which sometimes goes wrong. In both cases, this can have serious consequences. Each system supplies vital needs for those who live above it. Each is hard to repair when it does go wrong, because neither of them was ever consciously planned as a whole. There have been many ambitious attempts to reshape both of them, but existing complications are usually too widespread to allow

Whether we want it or not, the way our society is organized is deeply philosophical. The way we organize our tax redistribution, decide on military intervention, the way the justice works, voting rights, all of these have deep philosophical presuppositions.

Take, as just one example, the idea that people would need to be self-reliant and work and contribute to their society. This is a philosophical idea. It is not purely driven by economic necessity. Look at ant colonies, optimized and perfected by natural selection: recently, entomologists have found to their (and many other people’s surprise) that as much as 40% of ant workers in such a colony are inactive. Ant colonies are the epitome of industriousness. What explains these loafers?

10+ Free Ants Nest & Anthill Photos - Pixabay
Ant colony, if typical, will have about 40% inactive individuals (source: Pixabay)

The reason is that it’s more efficient, from the vantage point of natural selection. The inactive ants are vital reserve force for the colony, helping it deal with natural population fluctuations or differences in abundance and scarcity. An ant colony where everyone works hard all the time would not have the flexibility to deal with unexpected hardship or abundance, or decimation of the population. As I’ve argued elsewhere, once you start looking for such deliberate “inefficiencies” in nature, you can see them everywhere, including in our own immune system, filled with seemingly useless T- and B-cells just in case a disease pops up again.

For human societies, we already implicitly recognize that not everyone will be optimally, maximally productive: people with old-age pensions, disabled individuals, the young, etc. But the idea that young, healthy people would be able to benefit from society while being inactive (what many worker ants do) would strike many of us in capitalist, western societies as distasteful.

Today, our philosophical machinery is not working very well. As Midgley recognized, the philosophical plumbing becomes particularly visible when it malfunctions. In order to truly change our societal structures, we need a philosophical overhaul.

How are we to accomplish this? One problem with engaging in philosophical plumbing is that we often don’t recognize that there’s something wrong. As Midgley writes “it is exceedingly hard to see where we need to start…often we find it hard to imagine that anything definite is wrong with our concepts at all…we assume that the ideas we are using are the only ideas that are possible.”

On the other hand, outside forces sometimes cause us to recognize that our philosophy is not serving us well. As pragmatist philosophers such as John Dewey and Jane Addams have claimed, you get the sense of doubt when there’s “something the matter”, when you realize that long-standing presuppositions don’t work anymore, perhaps have never worked all that well.

There are paths out of the quagmire. One is to seek epistemic friction by engagement with philosophical traditions that have not received a lot of attention in western philosophy departments (see in particular Bryan Van Norden’s manifesto Taking Back Philosophy: a Multicultural Manifesto).

Here, I want to suggest another path: making better genealogies.

Genealogies are origin stories of how our current society (or societies) have come to be. They give us a sense of what is possible, in terms of ethical and political organization. How did humans go from small hunter-gatherer communities to the large-scale societies we see today? Was this transition inevitable? Or are the structures we have now, with inequality and at best indirect political representations, the only ones possible?

Frontispiece of The Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes Drawing by Abraham Bosse
Frontispice of Leviathan. A brilliant philosophical drawing.

Many genealogies justify the status quo. In Hobbes’ discussion of the state of nature, political institutions helped humans to break loose of an undesirable state of “war of all against all”. Locke (Two treatises of government, 1689) appealed to a state of nature to justify taking away the lands of Native Americans. As he put it, they have “not one hundredth part of the Conveniences we enjoy: And a King of a large and fruitful Territory there Feeds, Loges, and is clad worse than a day Labourer in England.” It’s an empirical claim, of course, that even the best-off propertyless Native person would be worse off than a badly-off day laborer in England, because of the lack of property accumulation. But genealogies like these played a key role in justifying colonialism.

Not all genealogies were used to justify the structures we see today. Some were more critical. For example, Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals, and Friedrich Engels’ Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. Engels thought that marriage and the way it subjugated women was an inevitable result of material factors in human history such as the way property is distributed and men’s superior physical strength. 

Similarly, in Rousseau and other authors, we get the sense that material circumstance dictates our political and moral philosophy.

Egalitarianism before agriculture. Inequality after. That’s just how it is.

You see this materialist idea also in contemporary authors such as Christoph Boehm (1999, Hierarchy in the Forest) who argues that humans are by nature egalitarian–they don’t like to be dominated and subdued. But when agriculture and politically complex cities come about, inequality results.

This leaves us with a puzzle. As Wengrow and Graeber (2015, 599) ask, “Why… should our species’ engrained capacity for political complexity have been held in suspense for the greater part of human (pre)history? Sociobiology poses the question, but offers no clear answer.”

One way to resolve this problem is to look at how contemporary egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies organize things.

As anthropologists such as Claude Lévi-Strauss and others have already noted, we ought not treat contemporary hunter-gatherers as proxies of stages of human evolution. For one thing, current hunter-gatherers live in close proximity to larger-scale cultures, and are also subject to displacement, deliberate attempts at destruction of their culture, and actions of nearby farmers and loggers to destroy their land. However, examining the philosophical ideas of hunter-gatherers is useful because it gives us a better idea of the range of human ethical, political, metaphysical ideas.

Members of large-scale societies do not get a clear view of this range, because living in large groups presents its own constraints and challenges, which in turn limits the philosophical options.

Fortunately, we have increasingly access to hunter-gatherer (and other small-scale, such as horticultural, pastoralist etc) philosophical ideas.

For example, Brian Burkhart describes the core of many Native American philosophies as follows:

The Principle of relatedness. We should, in our actions, not merely consider the immediate consequences of what is directly around us (how it affects us), but also think more broadly about how it will affect the world around us.

The Principle of limits of questioning. What sorts of questions you ask will be important for reaching the truth. The world is, in Native American epistemology, not some separate thing waiting to be discovered (as principle of relatedness shows), we interact with it, and in this way we participate in meaning-making.

In this way, Burkhart argues that Native philosophers help to shape the truth by formulating questions. This is very different from western philosophy where for the most part questioning is encouraged, sometimes to an extreme degree, in order to get to the truth, exemplified in Socrates’ attitude as a philosophical gadfly. The truth is not out there, it’s something you help to shape and bring into being as a philosopher.

Another example is this talk by Nixawaka Yawanama, member of an Amazonian tribe called the Yawanawá. The talk provides a sophisticated environmental philosophy that is very different from what mainstream western environmental philosophy.

Now, as I mentioned before, you can’t take these contemporary sophisticated philosophical traditions in hunter-gatherer and other small-scale societies as stand-ins for the past.

But they do give a sense of the richness of philosophical possibilities outside of a growth-focused, unequal, large scale culture.

Wengrow and Graeber (2015, this is David Graeber, who died recently) also note that we can look to current and recent hunter-gatherer cultures to help us challenge the inevitability narrative in genealogies.

This inevitability narrative, implicitly assumed when we survey the mess we are in today, says something like this: human political and moral philosophies are just the passive reflection of their ecological and economic circumstance. Destruction of natural resources is inevitable. Political inequality is inevitable. The solution to the Fermi paradox is obvious: any society in the galaxy that became complex and large-scale auto-destroyed before it could engage in successful galactic missions.

Not so, as Wengrow and Graeber show.

They cite a long-standing body of anthropological evidence that shows that some hunter-gatherer communities are not just egalitarian because it has to be that way (because they are so small-scale, and need to focus on immediate wants), but because they guard and defend this way of life. They are on the lookout for people who might self-aggrandize or try power-grabs.

As Woodburn (1982) notes “Many hunter-gatherers have social systems in which there is very marked inequality of one sort or another,” (432). Rather, hunting and gathering is a mode of subsistence that allows for egalitarianism. Wengrow and Graeber show fascinating evidence that indicates flexibility in political organization, such as Inuit on the arctic coast.

In winter, these communities congregate and bring together living and the dead, who were not accessible to the living in the summer months. In summer, groups disperse into smaller units usually under authority of a single male elder, in search of caribou, fish and reindeer. In winter, this authority vanished, and authority became “a matter of charisma rather than birthright; persuasion instead of coercion.” This fission/fusion pattern, with different philosophical ideas for the two systems, can be observed in many hunter-gatherer communities, and Wengrow and Graeber indicate that they might have already been in place in Aurignacian hunter-gatherer communities in the European and West Asian paleolithic. Relying on the interpretation of archaeologists such as Margaret Conkey, they speculate that Altamira might have been an aggregation site, where ancestors to current Europeans would engage in large gatherings, story-telling, transmission of complex technology, remembering their dead, and forging long-term relationships between groups before they split up again.

9 Bisonte Magdaleniense polícromo.jpg
Altamiran cave painting. Source: Wikimedia

So, as Wengrow and Graeber (2015) conclude

we do not have to choose between an egalitarian or hierarchical start to the human story.We just have to bid farewell to the ‘childhood of man’ and acknowledge – as Lévi-Strauss insisted – that our early ancestors were not just our cognitive equals, but our intellectual and philosophical peers too.

This idea of philosophical peerhood that Wengrow and Graeber mention is important, and raises an interesting question about what the role of academic philosophers is to be.

I am in agreement with Edouard Machéry, a contemporary experimental philosopher, that professional philosophers are the epistemic peers to non-philosophers in many respects. Broadening this further (and in the spirit of Machéry’s recent project), we are also philosophical peers with hunter-gatherers. What then, can philosophers offer?

I do not think we need to be consigned to doing scholastic work, the detailed plumbing Midgley believed to be so characteristic of some periods and traditions.

We can also expand the range of the possible, among others by carefully engaging with, and by further elaborating on, ideas offered in philosophical traditions that evolved to some extent independently from large-scale societies.

And such studies will show that our current philosophical plumbing is not the inevitable result of material factors. I find it ironic, in this respect, that Lewontin already recognized in the 1980s that biological organisms are not just passive playthings of their environment but that they actively shape it. Yet, we still think that, for example, our current economic structures are inevitable. Just like biological creatures help to determine their own fate, philosophical presuppositions actively shape what our large-scale societies look like. It’s incumbent on philosophers to explore and expand those ideas.

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