'That sanctified anti-rural prejudice': Vico on Philosophy

by Justin E. H. Smith

What is wrong with philosophy? This question has been tearing the community, such as it is, of professional Anglophone philosophers apart over the past few years. Most believe that the most serious problems arise from the systematic exclusion of would-be philosophers based on gender or ethnic minority status. It seems to me that there is a deeper, I would even say vastly deeper, form of exclusion at work, one that subtends these other forms and that indeed runs so deep as to remain almost entirely hidden from view: the exclusion of the agrarian and nomadic, in favor of the urban and sedentary. The problem is not just ‘the West’, or Europe, or masculine domination, or white supremacy, or even the intersection of all of these. The problem is the city.

What I mean to say is that philosophy defines itself as an essentially urban activity, to the exclusion of different, supposedly more ‘primitive’ forms of life that could otherwise reveal radically different ways of thinking about basic philosophical questions. Thus in the Nuova Scienza of 1710, Giambattista Vico states the prejudice as clearly as it could possibly be stated:

First the woods, then cultivated fields and huts, next little houses and villages, thence cities, finally academies and philosophers: this is the order of all progress from the first origins.

For Vico, “the order of ideas must follow the order of institutions,” and it is only a certain kind of institutions, namely, the crowining institutions of sociocultural development, that can give rise to recognizably philosophical ideas. The rest is myth, superstition, and what Lévi-Strauss would later call ‘the logic of the concrete’. To take an interest in these forms of thought, it is almost universally agreed, is to abandon philosophy, and to retreat into anthropology, or cultural studies, or what the Germans call Folkloristik. This retreat is typically seen, relative to philosophy, as a sort of irrationalism. The German incarnation of it indeed arose out of a rejection of Enlightenment philosophy, which was premised on the idea that any thinking worthy of being called philosophy will emanate from metropolitan centers.

The reaction in Germany took the forms both of a very productive and valuable tradition of human-scientific study of myth, culture, and folklore, but also a very unproductive and even noxious tradition of philosophy that explicitly prized irrationalism, and that saw this mode of thought as better suited to dark forest paths than to the urban institutions Vico had considered as preconditions of philosophy. But this tendency in philosophy remained thoroughly dismissive of ‘what is called thinking’ in, say, the rainforests of New Guinea, and in this respect it remained just as metropolitan as the Enlightenment rationalism it held itself to be rejecting. Relatedly, it failed to acknowledge that all of Germany had become, in the modern period, a carefully administered and regimented space. Even the dark forest paths had been rationalized on maps and in paperwork in government offices. There was no wilderness left, and so no real escape from the metropole.

It is however the fear of the irrationalism attempted by the Holzweg-wanderers that has made the urban and sedentist prejudice in Anglo-American philosophy so solid as to pass unnoticed. It is now impossible for a member of the mainstream community of philosophy to not acknowledge the desirability of greater diversity, both in the demographics of the profession, as well as in the actual content studied. But the change of content can only be, at most, an opening up to traditions of thought that are already recognizably philosophical by the same broad criteria through which Anglo-American philosophers understand themselves: formalized debate, textuality, explicit separation of the tradition at hand from the aims of theology, ritual, myth, etc. This is not so much a rejection of Eurocentrism, as it is an expansion of the empire. In most cases, the newly absorbed traditions are recognizable as philosophical because they are as a matter of historical fact cognate with, or offshoots of, the very same metropolitan and lofty-minded institutions in which philosophy is practiced and reproduced.

Thus for example African-American traditions are in a position to be absorbed, but these traditions have grown up, since the very beginning, in direct, fertile contact with Euro-American traditions. How could they fail to do so, given the intimate, complicated, shared history of Americans of (principally) African descent with those of (principally) European descent? Just think, for example, of the life-course, the education, and the habitus of a philosopher such as W.E.B. DuBois. He had his most formative years in Berlin.

Now that most of us are ready to absorb DuBois, and we know that it is a shame and a scandal that thinkers like him were excluded for so long, we still have to ask the question: what is it we are still excluding, perhaps without even realizing it? And here I would invoke the knowledge traditions of the people of interest more to Zora Neale Hurston than to W.E.B. DuBois, the oral lore of non-textual peoples of the US South that she collected, inspired in no small measure by Franz Boas, whose own intellectual heritage extends back to that other German tradition that I have already evoked, the one that gave us not irrationalist philosophy, but rather folklore studies. Not Heidegger, but the Brothers Grimm.

Vico’s demarcation of philosophy from ‘poetry’, which he sees as a mode of thought characteristic of pre-urban archaic cultures, is based on the different valuation in these spheres of activity placed on the universal and the particular. Poetry plunges into particulars, while metaphysics raises up to universals. We see this distinction implicitly reproduced even within particular art forms, as in much recent rap music, where there are verses recited about ultra-particular features of daily life (particular fast-food chains, clothing brands, neighborhoods) mixed with more lofty, sung choruses dealing with eternal themes (love, betrayal) (frequently, this division of registers is also a racial division, with the chorus work handed to a racialized white singer; think for example of a duet between Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Mariah Carey). The implicit movement here is one from poetry to metaphysics, in Vico’s sense.

Whether this distinction has any validity or not, it is obvious (and Vico will even admit) that on this understanding it would be impossible ever to do pure philosophy. But the ways in which current Anglo-American philosophy expresses its willingness to become impure are telling. Interdiciplinarity is generally considered a virtue, but the human sciences that are held to be most relevant to contemporary philosophy are the ones that study modern, urbanized minds and societies: empirical psychology (usually focusing on urban Americans, sometimes branching out to foreign cities such as Hong Kong) and empirical sociology. What is left out, for the most part, are recognizable expressions of culture understood as vehicles of thought, particularly the study of narrative arts, and particularly in non-Western, non-urban societies. Philosophy remains indifferent to the sort of work done under the banner of ethnography, ethnomusicology, folklore studies, comparative mythology, and so on: everything that might get us mixed up with ‘the poetic’, in Vico’s sense. Correlatively, the particular characters and figures of poetry might serve a double purpose of standing in for general concepts or ideals.

Vico’s distinction tends to inform the way we think about philosophy’s special place among disciplines today, and also grounds the dismissal as ‘unphilosophical’ of the study of narrative arts that tend to focus on particulars. The recognition of the value of res singulares or particulars as being of intrinsic interest was, I take it, the single most powerful insight of the counter-tradition I have evoked that emerges at a certain point in German philosophy and that leads eventually to the full efflorescence of the Geisteswissenschaften.

This counter-tradition is the one that does not limit the range of worthy ideas to those that are produced within a particular institutional setting, and that therefore cannot identify, as Vico does, the progress of human thought with the growing complexity of human institutions. To make such a move, to get serious about inclusiveness by reconceiving philosophy in a maximally capacious way, as including not just institutionally based textual knowledge, but also orally transmitted folk knowledge, is something that is unlikely to happen soon. Most would take it to be a self-destructive move, an abandonment of any meaningful distinction between philosophy and the rest of human culture. But the problem is that unless this reconception occurs, all of the current efforts at inclusiveness will remain superficial half-measures. There are forms of difference undreamt of in academic philosophy’s current efforts at diversification. These are the forms that have been explicitly identified by Vico as characteristic of non-urban peoples. We echo the Vichian prejudice today without realizing it, to the extent that all of the forms of otherness that we would like to see included in the philosophical canon, and in the profession of academic philosophy, are forms that are well represented in the city.

The point I am making is one that is most unfamiliar to Marxists and to social democratic liberals, but that will perhaps be more familiar to both anarchists as well as to a certain variety of wistful conservatives. It was indeed made forcefully by the archconservative Australian Catholic poet Les Murray, who complained of “that sanctified anti-rural prejudice that goes right back to classical times and which no antidiscrimination law or postcolonial rhetoric ever protects you from—so to hell with those.” But we do not need to go along with Murray’s concluding malediction in order to accept that there is such a prejudice. It is a prejudice that philosophy continues to accept without reflection, on the presumption that to give it up would be to lapse into the non-philosophy of anthropology or Folkloristik. But the prejudice excludes a huge section of humanity, and sustains in particular an artificial bias in favor of the present, as the present is the age of the most intense urbanization in human history.

Perhaps even more troubling is the fact that the metropolitan prejudice occludes from view many extremely valuable insights about the nature and formation of moral commitments to animals, to the environment, to ancestors. It ensures that we will only see a small part of the range of human experience and self-understanding.

Anyhow I hear Thomas Nagel holding forth on whether death is or is not an objective misfortune, or Hannah Arendt on why it is troubling to see human viscera, or Dan Dennett on which creatures may be dispatched with no moral qualms, and which may not be, and I think: why should I listen to you in particular? There is a whole world full of people out there, all charged up with beliefs of their own about these and many other things. My philosophy would be the one that would take the broadest possible measure of these beliefs, without concern for the institutional affiliations, the literacy, or the geographical niche of their holders

Piece crossposted with Justin E. H. Smith’s website