Odysseus in front of Scylla and Charybdis, Johann Heinrich Füssli, 1794-1796

by Justin E. H. Smith

I may have mentioned already that I am in the beginning stages of a massively ambitious, multi-year project: I have been asked to write a very long, but not nearly long enough, book called A Global History of Philosophy, to 1750. The manuscript is due in 2017.

For the past several months I have been considering the different possible ways to approach this project. One thing that is certain, and that I’ve made clear from the beginning, is that I don’t want to write a sort of multicultural redux of Russell’s History of Western Philosophy: a basically teleological how-things-led-up-to-me scenario, with some stuff about China and India tacked on to appeal to current sensibilities. As I see it, though, one is trapped between a Scylla and Charybdis however one approaches this project: either it amounts offering one’s own idiosyncratic twist on what this whole history has been about, or it amounts to a compendium of facts that aspire, within the bounds of the word-limit set by the publisher, to be genuinely comprehensive.

In the era of Wikipedia (and we will be much deeper into that era by 2017) we seriously need to rethink the purpose of presenting facts to readers at all. How can I write a book that relates the global history of philosophy, and at the same time provides readers something that online, collaborative information sources cannot? Again, one option is to offer the sort of idiosyncratic interpretation that one is allowed to have as the author of a book, rather than of an encyclopedia entry, but as I’ve already said, the Russellian danger there is one that I also wish to avoid. One possible way I’ve been considering to navigate a path that steers clear of both Russell and Wikipedia is what I’ve started thinking of as ‘philosophometry’ (check Google; you heard it here first!), but which might also perhaps be called ‘quantitative metaphilosophy’.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the revolutionary work, for example, that Franco Moretti has done on the modern novel in books like Graphs, Maps, Trees. More generally, researchers in fields outside philosophy are learning the value of quantitative, digitally based study of the materials they are devoted to illuminating. The other humanities, if not yet philosophy, have come to understand the value of ‘distant readings’ as a complement to the sacred practice of close reading. The idea, then, is to compile a massive database of texts, titles, key words key arguments from the first few millennia of philosophical activity across Eurasia, and to process these data in order to generate graphs, maps, and trees that could reveal new things about how we came to think about truth, reality, the self, etc., in the way we do.

Imagine, for example, an interactive website (and by 2017 it is quite likely that ‘books’ themselves will be interactive) that plots philosophical texts on a map of Eurasia, with different coloured blips indicating different doctrines defended in the texts (materialism vs. idealism, for example, or corruptibility vs. immortality of the soul). My model here is the surprisingly beautiful graphic showing the history of nuclear explosions since World War II (replace the explosions by texts, and the nuclear states by schools of thought). Or imagine, further, the plotting of arguments or doctrines against extratextual factors like the political regimes, modes of production, population densities, and so on, that correlate with the texts. Of course, the huge problem here is compiling the database from which one could, once it’s there, fairly easily generate the beautiful graphcs. This is what I have a few years to figure out how to do. Obviously I can only read a small portion of the texts myself. Equally obviously, I need some grant money.

I can already hear a certain kind of philosopher insisting that this project is futile at worst or, at best, that it contributes nothing to philosophy itself. But I am more convinced than ever that what is said by some guy who happens to be alive right now, and employed by a university to tell us what he happens to think about, e.g., whether there is a hard problem of consciousness or not, can be of next to no interest for our understanding of the philosophical question in question. The truth is I just don’t think it’s very grown up, intellectually, to set about actually trying to answer questions like these, at least in the way we are used to seeing philosophers try to answer them. In this respect, I am sympathetic to the approach of experimental philosophy, even if I have not yet been able to convince any experimental philosophers that I’m on their side. Like them, I think the more sophisticated and fruitful approach to questions like, e.g., whether the mind is distinct from the body, is not try to answer them directly, but to somehow take a survey of the range of possible positions human beings take up on the question. Now, the experimental philosophers today think it is enough to survey their contemporaries, by methods borrowed mostly from psychology. I’m starting to think that what we need to do is, so to speak, to survey the past, using methods adapted from archeology, historical linguistics, and evolutionary biology, and recently applied with impressive results in unlikely fields such as comparative literature.

Again, I recognize that the philosophometric results will only be as valuable as the initial phase of data collection permits them to be, and that this collection will require the old, traditional methods of reading texts and determining what the arguments are. But still, I think this can be done as a collaborative project, and that it is the most urgent project we should be undertaking if we wish to better understand what this whole endeavor of philosophy has been all about. That I think this might, paradoxically, be an expression of my own idiosyncratic understanding of what human intellectual activity, such as philosophy, is; and that I think such an ambitious philosophometric project could actually be carried out might be a result of the fact that I’m living in an era in which the labors of scholars in the digital-huamanities are starting to bear fruit. In this respect then, I’ve avoided neither the Scylla of Russell nor the Charybdis of Wikipedia, but in fact have collided with and embraced both of them.

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