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What’s the point of a history of ideas? Or, on Bacon and the cyclops

Date:06 October 2017
Author:Laura Georgescu
Polyphemus by Hendrick van der Burgh [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Polyphemus by Hendrick van der Burgh [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

There’s no history of the world without a history of ideas. Or even, perhaps – without a history of ideas, all knowledge is kind of useless. These seem to be the consequences of a brief, somewhat cryptic, and deceptively simple remark that Francis Bacon makes about Historia Literarum (or history of ideas). (For anyone wondering whether Historia Literarum really is Bacon’s equivalent of a history of ideas, see here and here).

The remark is this:

“without [a history of ideas] the history of the world seems to me as the statue of Polyphemus without the eye ; that very feature being left out which most marks the spirit and life of the person” (DAS: 300).

For Bacon, there are hidden truths in myths and mythical characters (see here) – so this kind of allusion is both normal for him and central to his approach.

Now, Polyphemus is a cyclops (that is, a one-eyed, or possibly three-eyed, creature) featured in the Odyssey (among other things), who has a penchant for eating people. Perhaps Bacon is thinking of this statue of Polyphemus – maybe the most famous of the cyclopes – as just a generic representation of a cyclops. In that case, if the sculptor left out the central eye, the statue would be missing something rather important: that eye is the defining feature of a cyclops and, without it, the statue simply wouldn’t be a representation of a cyclops. It would just be a person with no eyes or with the usual two: either way, it would fail to represent what it's supposed to. So, the history of the world without the history of ideas simply isn’t the history of the world, just as much as the no-eyed/two-eyed statue is no cyclops. On this reading, the history of ideas is the defining feature – it’s what makes any attempt at a history of the world actually about the history of the world. Without it, the history wouldn’t just be inaccurate: it would be the wrong kind of thing entirely.

This seems strange – a nice outcome for those of us working on anything to do with the history of ideas, sure, but strange nonetheless. What could have prompted Bacon to endorse such a view? I don’t have a complete answer, but here’s a suggestion. He says that history of ideas ought to help us revive the Genius Literarius of each age, “charmed as it were from the dead”. The Genius Literarius* – or the Literary Spirit, as Spedding translates it – is the target. Bacon says little about what this genius is. Perhaps we can think about it as the the intellectual phenomenon (culture? Zeitgeist?) of a period made concrete through writing.

With the Genius Literarius as the target, much changes about what’s at stake in the history of ideas. The past is no longer a series of events, ideas, works, etc. – a Baconian history of ideas isn’t a collection of facts. It’s a highly selective enterprise. How do we select? That might not be the right sort of question to expect a history of ideas to answer in the beginning – as we proceed with our history, we’ll slowly figure it out. We can’t rule out from the get-go what might be relevant. But what we can and should rule out is treating the fact itself as the goal, thereby forgetting that it’s the genius we’re actually after. This is history of ideas as a synthetic activity: it’s not about analysing the facts; it’s about reconstituting the genius. In this way, if we don’t get the genius, we don’t get the period as a whole – we can have a list of facts, but we won’t have what’s fundamental. And so a history of the world without a history of ideas is just a list. It’s missing its characteristic features – its central eye, so to speak. The history isn’t of the world, in that case. It’s just spinning in the void.

Seen in this light, the history of ideas is the instrument we use to get at the Genius Literarius, in the same sort of way we use spectrographs to look at the atmospheres of other planets. But, the history of ideas isn’s just an instrument for history; it is also supposed to have practical consequences even in the politics of today – Bacon thinks it’s helpful for setting up the optimal form of governance, for example. Intriguingly, history of ideas is also supposedly what makes “learned men wise, in the use and administration of learning” (OFB IV: 62).

It seems that, for Bacon, wisdom in learning comes not through the accumulation of facts but precisely through the kind of synthetic reconstruction involved in the history of ideas. Learnedness by itself isn’t enough, and not every learned man is wise! This, I think, is what Bacon is getting at when he calls for a “complete and universal” history of ideas – not an exhaustive list of facts, texts, or sources, but the kind of completeness and universality you get from a synthetic understanding of the history of our ideas. It’s this synthetic understanding that, for him, allows us to use the knowledge contained in those ideas of ours with wisdom.

Now, this brings us back to Polyphemus. Polyphemus might be the best-known cyclops (the cyclops shark, and perhaps Blinky, aside), but that’s because he’s in the Odyssey – and he’s the cyclops that Odysseus blinds by driving a stake into his eye. Arguably, the “very feature that most marks the spirit and life” of Polyphemus himself (as opposed to a generic cyclops) is precisely that he’s missing his eye. And, in the sudden absence of that eye, Polyphemus fails to do what he set out to: namely, eat Odysseus. For all his physical superiority (cyclopes, Homeric ones at least, are also giants), he can’t stop Odysseus from escaping: when Polyphemus lets his sheep out, he feels their backs for the humans, but fails to see that they are lashed to their undersides; when Odysseus and his company sail off, he throws rocks at their ships, but can’t see to aim… Perhaps the history of the world without the history of ideas is like the eyeless Polyphemus: everything else is the same – the facts are still retained – but the principal means of guidance is missing.** Without the history of ideas, we still have knowledge in some sense – we just don’t know how to use it.

 * Let’s not worry about Bacon’s uses of the concept of genius. Maybe I’ll come back to it in a future post.

** There’s some ableism in the metaphor, unfortunately.

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