Yesterday I was putting the finishing touches to an introductory lecture on Descartes when I listened to a news item which now has me re-structuring it (the lecture) somewhat. Based upon a comparison of the skull structures of Neanderthals and Anatomically Modern Humans (AMHs), a team of researchers have suggested that the development of higher cognitive functions within human beings has an environmentally demonstrable evolutionary base. An overview of the argument can be found here whereas the article itself can be read here.
This made me wonder whether the development of philosophical and scientific speculation could also be explained along similar lines, that is to say, that philosophy and science, as with non-sensory and non-perceptual cognitive functions, might also be explainable in terms of environmental challenges characteristic of a particular historical epoch. This is a question of time-scales, at least initially, so I did a little more reading. There is evidence of Neanderthal existence which dates back approximately a quarter of a million years – evidence of their existence ceases around 25,000 years ago. Thales lived around 2,700 years ago. Aristotle died around 2,300 years ago, The School of Athens was painted just over 500 years ago, Descartes died 363 years ago. It is often easy to think of Descartes, or Raphael, or Thales, as far distant predecessors yet they are extremely close relatives when compared to the Neanderthal. I composed a graph to give a sense for how large the gap is: DarwinianCartesianism
What can this graph be taken to mean? Does it mean that philosophy and science have had a minimal effect upon the evolution of the species? Or, on the other hand, does it underline the unfathomable intellectual progress that has been made by the species in a relatively minimal period of time?
Here’s an influence map of the history of philosophy which used Open Source mapping software for its form and Wikipedia for its content. It is very much worth reading through what the author has to say about it as well as tipping the hat to the Partially Examined Life blog for initially drawing my attention towards it.
I’ve shared this recent instance of the mathematisation of western culture for at least three reasons. Firstly, it offers material to both ponder and tut tut over. If there is one thing of which we can be certain in this world of uncertainties it is the following - anybody who loves philosophy cannot witness this image and not become simultaneously fasinated and disgusted by it. Secondly, it offers material which would surely enliven the often arid area of research methodology pedagogy by potentially facilitating discussions over whether the methods of one discipline can be meaningfully applied to the problems of another, in part or at all.
Finally, and perhaps most interestingly, it offers material with which to think about the very nature of the task of historicising philosophy. At the moment I’m struggling to write a review of Anthony Kenny’s ‘A New History of Philosophy‘. Rather than challenging Kenny’s necessarily intimidatingly erudite account I wanted to propose pedagogical alternatives to the 1,000 page tome model of philosophical apprenticeship. Peter Adamson’s growing audio archive offers one possible alternative, whereas a raiding of the resources at websites such as Open Culture offers another. Perhaps this map offers yet another still?
Either way, I am tempted to conclude this brief entry on a slightly pessimistic note. This note would be informed by the philosophy of Martin Heidegger and Jean-Francois Lyotard and would attempt to draw attention to the philosophically regressive aspects of technological determinism. So I will. Heidegger has become a big green circle and Lyotard seems to no longer exist. This must come pretty close to somebody’s vision of hell.