Personal Knowledge: Historical Background

Historical Background of Personal Knowledge:

RousseauFrom where does our emphasis on “personal knowledge” arise? What is its primal or originating moment (to use the language of Heidegger)? I will make the assertion that its primal moment occurs within the thought of the French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau.

English speaking teachers of philosophy and theory of knowledge have rarely paid attention to the two most comprehensive thinkers, the great anti-theological/atheist thinkers, of the West: Rousseau and Friedrich Nietzsche.  There are a number of reasons for this and to go into all of them would require far more writing that this post would bear. Many of them will be touched upon in other areas of these writings. How has the thought of Rousseau been received and understood by English-speaking teachers of philosophy and Theory of Knowledge?

Bertrand Russell

If one is familiar with the English-speaking tradition of philosophy (I will say, for the moment, the materialist, empirical, “the analytical school”), Rousseau has been called an “unsystematic poet”, a man quite incapable of the sustained and disciplined thought necessary to the true philosopher. This account can be seen from the writings of Jeremy Bentham right up to the writings of Karl Popper. Bertrand Russell’s account of Rousseau in The History of Western Philosophy, where Rousseau is dismissed as a self-indulgent poet, is filled with Russell’s contempt and anger for the man ‘whose thought is so filled with contradictions of such an obvious nature that they could be discovered by any high school student of average ability’. These, shall I say, misreadings of Rousseau have caused a lack of attention to this thinker which has resulted in the darkening of our self-understanding and the dimming of our understanding of what “personal knowledge” is and its consequences for life and thought.

The ascendency of the English-speaking peoples (and the IB Diploma Program is but one product or flowering of this ascendency) has been with us historically from the Battle of Waterloo to the victories in the two great wars of the 20th century. It was achieved under the rule of various species of “bourgeois”. The members of this elite class felt their right to rule was self-evident since it was not seriously questioned at home and they were successfully extending their empires around the world. The constitutional liberalism, empowered by technological progress, was justified by various permutations and combinations of John Locke’s contractualism and utilitarianism. English-speaking political philosophy, understood as the theory of living well within communities, has largely been concerned with emendations to Locke’s account. But why be concerned with Rousseau who in many respects agreed with Locke?

Rousseau is the primary instigator of that period which has come to be called the Romantic Period. Because of Rousseau’s influence, what we know as ‘German Idealism’, the philosophies of Immanuel Kant, Hegel, and Marx get their initiation. This is because within Rousseau we come upon the presence of the concept ‘history’: the temporal process in which beings are believed to have acquired their abilities. By History is not meant ‘historiography’. Historiography is our study of the written account of human history and is included in our Part 3 subjects, the Human Sciences, or as a distinct area of knowledge in itself. The meaning of ‘history’ used here is ontological: it is a realm of being in which human beings dwell. In the writings of Kant, for instance, English-speaking philosophers were deflected from the true intent of his writings by his statement that David Hume, the British philosopher, had awoken him from his “dogmatic slumber” and so they looked at him from within their own philosophical tradition and have, up till now, tried to make him part of their own philosophical tradition. But Kant’s chief encounter was with the philosophy of Rousseau and there are far more references to Rousseau in his work than to Hume. (This is not to deny Rousseau’s debt to Hobbes and Locke, both of whom established the history of English philosophy, but Rousseau is profoundly critical of that debt).

Charles Darwin

For the English-speaking peoples, ‘history’ becomes part of our ‘shared knowledge’ in the discoveries and writings of Charles Darwin. While the historical sense was present in English writings well before Darwin, the historical sense becomes central through the writings of Darwin because it was at the heart of the most important activity of the 19th century—natural science. It is said that Darwin’s main contribution to our shared knowledge was not ‘evolution’, but how evolution took place: through ‘natural selection’. Darwin’s chief concern, however, was not Natural Selection, but the question of Creation or Modification. (See Life and Letters, vol. II p. 371). “Modification”, in Darwin’s sense, is a synonym for History understood as the temporal process in which beings acquire their abilities, that beings ultimately have no essence. Darwin’s thinking is not possible without, first, the thought of Rousseau. Once History becomes part of our shared knowledge, what happens to the ahistorical political science of Locke who has provided the foundation of our English-speaking political and social institutions?

Thomas JeffersonLocke’s contractualism is ahistorical. The American statesman, Thomas Jefferson, reveals this when he says in the American Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. Jefferson’s quote is an attempt to bring together both Locke and Rousseau. Being “endowed by one’s Creator” and possessing “unalienable rights” are ahistorical principles. Shifting Locke’s “right to property” to the right of the pursuit of happiness is possibly the result of Thomas Paine’s, a student of Rousseau’s, influence on Jefferson. Locke himself was an atheist even though he wrote a book entitled The Reasonableness of Christianity. While being a man of sobriety or seriousness, he was not without a sense of humour nor without a sense of irony.

John Rawls

The attempt to hold together history and ahistorical contractualism has made English-speaking political philosophy become thin to the point where it has become the sheer formalism of the analytical tradition. One can find an attempt at this formalism in John Rawls’ book A Theory of Justice. As a cautionary note, I would say that our freedom from historicism in our practical affairs has preserved us, so far, from the great crimes of National Socialism and communism (I am referring to our ‘internal’ politics, our domestic politics, and not to our misguided imperial adventures of the 20th and 21st centuries nor to the behaviour of our corporate institutions abroad). The attempt to maintain contractualism, our being in societies, freed from any ontological statements, our being in the world and our understanding of ourselves as beings in this world, fails because it requires that science be taken in phenomenalist (empirical) and instrumentalist (the analytical school) senses. It may be possible to attempt this when discussing the small results of academic technological scientists (the attempt to make the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis substantive, for instance), but it is quite impossible to assume it about the results of a great synthetic scientist such as Darwin.  When Darwinism is taught at school, it is not taught as a useful hypothetical tool only of interest to those who are going to be specialists in the Group 3 and Group 4 subjects. As Darwin well knew, the discussion of Creationism and Modification is an ontological one, despite the clever chat by analytical philosophers. His Holiness, the Pope’s, acceptance of evolution and the Big Bang retains the sense of purpose in the “createdness of Nature”.

What is the issue: you cannot hope to successfully combine an ahistorical political philosophy with a natural science which is at its heart historical.

With the idea of History/Modification we are led back to Rousseau. Science views Nature as non-teleological, that is, it is a product of accident not purpose. Nature has no goal in and of itself. It seems that when there is a great outpouring of scientific activity—in the case spoken of here that of the 19th century—there is always a great philosopher who in his thought of the whole has made a breakthrough against all previous thought. By “breakthrough” I am not speaking about the “progress of truth”: breakthroughs can also lead into error. This great breakthrough occurs in the thought of Rousseau.

Rousseau first stated that what we are, our essence as human beings, is not given to us by what the Ancients understood as Nature but is the result of what human beings were forced to do to overcome chance or to change nature (in the modern sense of what we understand nature to be). Human beings have become what they are and are becoming what they will be (the “empowerment” of human beings). We are the free, undetermined animal who can be understood by a science which is not teleological (i.e. by a science that sees no final purpose in the things that are).

Rousseau understood the difficulties and the ambiguities of his thinking of man as an historical animal far better than say, one of his followers, Karl Marx. Rousseau’s battling with the contradictions that appear in the discoveries of his thought is what has led English-speaking commentators to dismiss him in their tutorials at Oxford and Harvard. The contradictions are the result of Rousseau’s refusal to avoid the ambiguities which he is given to think.

Friedrich Nietzsche

The greatest critic of Rousseau is the German philosopher Nietzsche. For Nietzsche, Rousseau is the epitome of the ‘last man’, the ‘secularized Christian’ who is responsible for the decadence of European thought over the last three hundred years. But Nietzsche accepts from Rousseau the belief in the fact that we are historical, that we acquire our abilities in the course of time in a way that can be explained without purpose. Nietzsche claims that he is the thinker who understood the ‘finality of becoming’ in an historical way. But one deeply wonders how Nietzsche failed to recognize how much of his thought on the finality of becoming had been worked through by Rousseau. Was Nietzsche moved by an anger that clouded his openness to the whole?

Karl Popper

The understanding that human beings acquire their abilities through the course of time expresses itself in what we call ‘historicism’. Historicism is the fate of all Areas of Knowledge in our time. The attempts to refute historicism from within the tradition of English-speaking liberalism (Karl Popper’s The Poverty of Historicism, as an example) while well-intentioned are feeble. This is reason itself why we should read Rousseau carefully so that we can attempt to know what it is that behooves us to know when all thought is touched with the deadening hand of historicism.  This becomes even more pressing as we become enamored with the word “empowerment”, the word of Nietzsche, and how this “empowerment” will unfold in the nihilism that is the future.