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Two hypotheses on the history of thought

Date:02 November 2018
Author:Andrea Sangiacomo
Il Gattopardo, movie poster, wikipedia
Il Gattopardo, movie poster, wikipedia

I’m about to start a five-year project on “The Normalisation of Natural Philosophy: How teaching practices shaped the evolution of early modern science” (see description here). The leading intuition of the project is the following:

Over time, some ideas [I understand the term very broadly here] that appeared revolutionary at first got accepted by certain communities and become regarded as ‘normal’ or ‘standard.’ There are many competing ideas at any given time, all striving to become normalized in this way. Some succeed, some do not. So, the crucial issue is to explain how and why some ideas rather than others are normalized. The main focus of the project is on the role that teaching practices played (both within and outside universities, in different periods and contexts) in tipping the balance of normalization in support of some idea rather than another.

This is the official project. Now let me introduce two unofficial hypotheses I’ve been thinking about for a while now. I’ll state them in the boldest and strongest way possible. If you smell the stink of ‘grand claims’ and ‘grand narratives’ then you’ve got a good nose…. My expectation is that, during the research, I’ll have many occasions and enough material to refine and perhaps even dismiss them. But, right now, I find it helpful to state these two hypotheses in general and simplistic terms.

First Hypothesis:

In a given tradition, a new idea is accepted asnormal(even at the cost of dismissing other previously accepted ideas) only if the new idea is seen as conducive to preserving, fostering and transmitting to future generations some core commitment that already underpins the tradition.

     Corrollarium: revolutions tend to be conservative with respect to core commitments.

This is what I like to call the “Leopard Theorem” – drawing from a famous statement in Il Gattopardoby Tomasi di Lampedusa (if you don’t know the statement read the novel or watch the movie,– they are both great!). And yes, I’m explicitly using a biological intuition as a heuristic  inspiration (but no more than that!) to think about how ideas, and their selection, works. 

Second Hypothesis:

A) There are primary attitudes and complementary beliefs. Primary attitudes are upheld for their own sake, while complementary beliefs are upheld for the sake of maintaining and strengthening primary attitudes.

     For instance, the attitude “This is my own body” is a primary a primary attitude (i.e. it is a way of experiencing and dealing with a certain reality). The belief “my body is the same body throughout the day” is a complementary belief.

B) Attitudes of attachment (to things or ideas), volitions and first-person agency are primary attitudes. Core commitments are complementary beliefs that are necessary conditions for attitudes of attachment (to things or ideas), volitions and about first-person agency to be upheld.

     For instance, the belief “the I is a substance” is necessary to maintain the attitude that “I am an enduring thing.”

C) The same primary attitudes may be supported by different complementary beliefs. The complementary beliefs supporting the same primary attitudes can change over time or across traditions. However, without complementary beliefs, primary attitudes are eroded and eventually deteriorate. This is why primary attitudes somehow [!] require complementary beliefs to preserve themselves.

      Corollarium 1: The domain of thought has many layers.

  • At the most superficial layer, there are the everyday beliefs. These are like plants growing on the ground.
  • Just beneath this everyday layer, there is the tradition in which these everyday beliefs are rooted and nourished. This is like the ground itself.
  • Beneath the tradition there are the core commitments that support this tradition. These are like the rocks and compact materials that are deep buried in the ground and make it stable.
  • Beneath the core commitments there are the primary attitudes. This is the most solidified and deep stratum upon which all the upper layers rest.

       Corollarium 2: The history of thought (yes, this is a grand claim!) is the history of the collective justifications provided for specific attitudes towards the world, in which a subject, who self-identifies as an ‘I’, is able to will, do and grasp at certain objects.

This hypothesis emerged from my interest in Buddhist thought. One key insight of Buddhism (largely construed) is that individuals tend to conceive of themselves as autonomous subjects, and they do so because this belief is what makes their grasping and clinging possible – in reality, this is just an illusion and any form of clinging and grasping, in any form, is what keeps individuals in bondage. My intuition is that what Buddhists say holds for individuals in their own life may also be working at a collective and broader historical level for entire communities, i.e., it may have not just an individual dimension but also a social and political dimension.

This is not only a Buddhist insight. An Italian philosopher (the one who turned me to philosophy fifteen years ago), Emanuele Severino, developed a similar line of thought by reworking and rethinking more familiar Western debates about the “Will to power” (see Nietzsche, Heidegger and co.). Unfortunately, Severino remains rather dismissive about Eastern thought (although he does not deal much with Buddhism in particular) and in the end he develops different arguments to diagnose craving and attachment as a form of ‘folly.’ (I’d have more to say about this, but another time).

What I find interesting in the Buddhist approach is that this insight is not developed from a purely theoretical point of view, but rather as a result of a practical exploration of human psychology (as it is directly experienced through the lenses of meditation practice). My intuition is that the history of thought should be another domain in which the same Buddhist insight can be tested and explored. This would create a platform both for rethinking a history of thought that is again at ease with ‘grand narratives,’ and for bringing Western and Eastern debates into fruitful dialogue.

Happily, I’m no longer reachable on social media, so if you have any comments, please use the comments section below. I’ll be happy to discuss any of these points in depth and receive any input. In the near future, I plan to post a few more notes related to this subject in order to further develop, unpack and perhaps refine these hypotheses.


Stay tuned -- and be happy!


About the author

Andrea Sangiacomo


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