Archive for October, 2007

Kant’s philosophical assault on man’s faculty of reason paved the way for the historical assault on Columbus by preventing a key avenue of development from ever occuring in Western historiography.  By aborting the general study of abstractions as cognitive tools, Kant prevented historians from adopting the epistemological stance necessary to define and defend the most crucial instrument in the systematization of history: historical abstractions.

During the eighteenth century, history had been dominated by rationalism. The French Enlightenment thinkers had created the “philosophy of history,” which proposed to find in all historical developments a kernel of progress, driven by reason.  Following the pattern of Christian thinkers who reduced everything to God’s will, or “providence,”they proposed to express all of history’s irregular gyrations in terms of a single determining principle.  It was historical thinkers such as these, who advocated using historical abstractions to summarize the past.  They used the expression “the Dark Ages”to capture an era where reason was suppressed, the “Renaissance” to propose a general reawakening of reason, and “the Enlightenment” to denote a period in history where the power of reason was widely manifested.  To use these terms, however, required emphasizing certain facts at the expense of others, tracing certain causal progressions rather than others, and ultimately, viewing the whole story of man’s past as the variegated expression of one basic cause.

Empirical historians could not accept this apparent oversimplification.  While progress might be occurring in one area, such as science, they reasoned, decline might be evident in another part of a culture, such as politics.  Similarly, progress in one country, such as in late seventeenth century England, where parliamentary limitations on the monarchy reached new heights, might be paralleled by decline in another country, such as France, where absolutism evolved to new oppressive levels. Or, along a different vein, an element of progress–say a great invention like the steam engine–might propel men forward in one sense, but also contain a negative dimension, such as the rise of new hardships for laborers, social tensions, and political struggles.  In the name of an allegiance to the facts in all their Heraclitean complexity, the empiricists of history rejected casting the past in abstract terms.

History was faced with the same basic dilemna as philosophy: to find the principle in the plethora.

But before historians could even begin to take the question seriously, Kant revoked their license to do so.  He announced that even the “facts” were subjective–”phenomenal”–and that all efforts to build upon this foundation could never penetrate to “things in themselves.” 

One major trend in subsequent historiography was to embrace subjectivity as a  fundamental truth, and simply construct competing perspectives.  The most influential exponent of this approach was Marx, who despite claiming a “scientific” status for his reasoning, basically cast history as a political weapon in the evolving class struggle.  His followers would adapt this approach and use history as a means of promoting their own political agendas, such as feminism (“herstory”) or multiculturalism (e.g. “black studies”).

The other important trend was an epistemological retreat, sounded by the leading German historian of the nineteenth century, Leopold von Ranke. If abstractions were avoided, he and his followers hoped, then the problem of relating them to the concrete data of history could also be avoided.  In this ostrich-like approach, the historian was to busy himself in historical archives, where he would find unprocessed, or “primary” sources.  And from these, assiduously avoiding any mode of interpretation, he might craft an unbiased narrative. The past as it really was–”wie es eigentlich gewesen,” in Ranke’s words–could be channeled without distortion, if one simply avoided trying to use if for some purpose other than simply knowing it for its own sake.

That neither Ranke nor any of his followers could actually practice what they preached merely provided the first point of attack by Kant’s progeny, who were wont to point out that even if one were to allow the existence of “facts” in history, the act of organizing them into a narrative itself constituted an act of logical processing which created an “artificial” structure no less corruptive than sorting facts into periods, such as “the Renaissance,” or deploying them to support a thesis such as progress.  Of course, on a deeper level, there were no “facts:” even “primary” sources involve human selectivity, and thus cannot be considered to represent “things as they were.” In the ultimate indictment, presented by Michel Foucault, both “primary” and “secondary” sources would be charged with being nothing more than the propaganda of whatever side happened to win each particular struggle in history.

In the context of such an epistemological debacle, it is hardly surprising that empirical historians progressively shyed away from the use of historical abstractions like “the Dark Ages” and “the Renaissance,” leaving the subjectivists room to attack them and concoct their own replacements, such as “the Carolingian Renaissance.” Nor is it surprising that abstractions of more limited scope, but ones enmeshed in a larger context of values, such as”the Discovery of America,” should also be besieged.

(Continued in Part 4.)

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In the nineteenth century, historians were desparately in need of a champion to clarify the nature of reason, and to guide them in the challenge of making sense of man’s complex past. Newton’s genius had shown the power of man’s mind to penetrate nature’s inner workings, but no one had been able to articulate on a more abstract level the nature of the Newtonian triumph in science, and explain how it could be reproduced in other areas.

If historians were to pattern their work on the succesful model of the physical scientists, they would need to find a means of transposing the methods of physics into the domain of history. The way to do this, however, was unclear. The historian, for example, could not create the controled conditions of a laboratory to test his ideas, nor could the actions of human beings be reduced to mathematical principles. And yet, the challenge of deriving general knowledge from historical data is in some ways the same as that of finding general laws from observed physical phenoma. It is the challenge of transforming a plethora of concrete information, by some process of abstraction, into an intelligible system. The importance of this project was evident to the more philosophical historians. If natural science could find laws and a natural order in the physical world, could a social science not achieve the same for civilization (and thus derive the proper foundation of social systems)?

Unfortunately, in their quest to give history a Newtonian clarity, historians found no worthy ally among philosophers. In the wake of the clash between the rationalists and empiricists, philosophy was at an impasse. The former group believed human knowledge was imprinted by some ineffable, non-experiential means. And sadly–despite the example of disciplined Newtonian thinking and the best efforts of John Locke–the latter group had been unable to articulate a proper alternative. Empiricism had degenerated into the skepticism of Hume.

Finally, instead of a champion, the Western mind met with an insidious assailant, Immanuel Kant, in whose assessment philosophy’s aims were pronounced unattainable and the achievements of science inconsequential. Man, said Kant, is flawed by nature–he is formed of “crooked timber.” Human consciousness, he explained, is by its nature divorced from reality. It perceives reality by certain means, and because this apparatus processes the incoming information, it prevents us from gleaning reality as it really is. Any thinking we do based on such a foundation, including, for instance, the derivation of “natural laws,” is thus completely subjective, and any claim we make to actually understanding the essential nature of things is merely presumption–unless based on faith (for which Kant infamously made “room”).

What then of history? More next time.

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To my knowledge Immanuel Kant never expressed any interest in Christopher Columbus.  Certainly he is not known for having done so or considered influential regarding the debate over the question of Columbus’s place in history or the discovery of America.  (There was, of course, no debate on this question until the twentieth century.)  Nonetheless, it is Kant who, on the most fundamental level, stands between Columbus and the historical acclaim he rightly deserves.

Evidently, egalitarianism and multiculturalism are the ideologies driving attacks on Columbus. When people assert that Leif Ericson “discovered America,” they are obviously not claiming that his landing in Vinland is anywhere near as significant to history as Columbus’s voyage of 1492.  They cannot, because Ericson’s efforts were absolutely barren of historical results. What Ericson proponents are really asserting is that no individual–and no discovery–is more historically significant than any other.  Similarly, it would be ludicrous to claim that the Iroquois Confederacy or the Aztec Empire were bastions of individual rights, comparable to the United States.  Multiculturalists do not assert this.  Instead, they evade the fact that political freedom is an objective standard of value, and present Indian social systems as merely variants within a “spectrum,” “pageant”, or “kaleidoscope” of different civilizations.

The intellectual roots of egalitarianism and multiculturalism in Kantianism are complex and difficult to trace, but they are there.  One important aspect of Kant’s philosophical system that underlies both of these views is the idea that a man’s consciousness necessarily distorts his perception of reality.  This premise empowers attackers of Western civilization against any emphasis of certain individuals and civilizations in history, by allowing them to claim that these are merely expressions of a “Eurocentric” cultural prism through which Westerners view the world. Kant’s “deontological” theory of ethics also plays a part, because it damns any valuing activity–including the valuing of historical changes–that reflect one’s interest (regardless of whether that interest is objective or not).

There are other related ideas that Kant provided which underpin modern attacks on Columbus and the West, but his role in Columbus’s fall is far greater than merely the empowerment of Columbus’s enemies.  Kant’s most nefarious part in the anti-Columbian intifada is his work to disarm of the defenders of civilization who should have stood at the ready to repel the anti-Western onslaught–the scientists whose job it is to define and promote the value of the agents of progress in time–i.e. professional historians.

(Continued tomorrow, in part 2).

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The following excerpt is from the Columbiad, an epic poem by Joel Barlow, a member of the Connecticut Militia in 1776, and later diplomat and poet.  It is the closest thing I have ever found to an objective assessment of Columbus’s place in history, and it is beautifully written:

I sing the Mariner who first unfurl’d
An eastern banner o’er the western world,
And taught mankind where future empires lay
In these fair confines of descending day;
Who sway’d a moment, with vicarious power,
Iberia’s sceptre on the new found shore,
Then saw the paths his virtuous steps had trod
Pursued by avarice and defiled with blood,
The tribes he foster’d with paternal toil
Snatch’d from his hand, and slaughter’d for their spoil.

Slaves, kings, adventurers, envious of his name,
Enjoy’d his labours and purloin’d his fame,
And gave the Viceroy, from his high seat hurl’d.
Chains for a crown, a prison for a world
Long overwhelm’d in woes, and sickening there,
He met the slow still march of black despair,
Sought the last refuge from his hopeless doom,
And wish’d from thankless men a peaceful tomb:
Till vision’d ages, opening on his eyes,
Cheer’d his sad soul, and bade new nations rise;
He saw the Atlantic heaven with light o’ercast,
And Freedom crown his glorious work at last…

The full text of the epic poem, can be found at Project Gutenberg on-line.

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I can’t say I’m a huge fan of the Ridley Scott film “The Conquest of Paradise.”  The movie falls prey to the modern fixation with realism, and thereby loses sight of the power of art to dramatize the abstract meaning of history rather than relate its purely concrete chronology.

That said, I am a big fan of the Vangelis Soundtrack, and especially its title track, “The Conquest of Paradise.”  In this work, the full significance of Columbus’s life’s work rings out with an uncommon grandeur. It’s the kind of music that inspires you to go that extra mile, when you’re a struggling “philopreneur.”


The above images link to Amazon, if you’d like to listen to a sample, and pick it up for yourself. Enjoy!

P.S. I also like the versions of this track by Origen and the Pan Flute adaptation by Santiago J, both of which can be found on iTunes.

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The young man sits perched on a mooring post, looking out to sea, with a thoughtful gaze that suggests it isn’t the objects before him that truly have his attention, but rather a vision of something that others, if they were present, would not perceive.

This young man is not, however, merely day-dreaming.  His is not the unfocused, introspective look of a boy wrapped up in an inner world, or the wistful expression of an unfulfilled adolescent hoping for a new prospect. Nor is his the complexion of a deeply troubled philosopher. His mind is not wandering, nor contemplating, but rather seeking.

The purposeful quality of the young man’s stare can be seen in the fact that his focus is not straight ahead, but rather slightly to the side.  It is the look of a mind that had been considering an idea, but then veered suddenly towards a new possibility, like a hunter who, without moving, catches sight of his prey on the edge of his field of view, or a warrior measuring the full aspect of an adversary before battle.

His finger marks a passage in the book he has been reading, which must have excited this new state.  Unlike for Vermeer’s Geographer, however, whose penetrating stare this young figure recalls, the material of past thinkers is not a foundation to support one’s independent grasp of reality, but more of a spur to new thinking.

The young man’s furrowed brow invokes a certain dissatisfaction with regards to the context it represents, or at least the challenge of exceeding its limitations.  Still, he retains a link to this past as he seeks a new possibility. The crux of the moment is the sighting of a difficult new truth, which his reading has made possible.

And what a difficult new truth it is!

The young man is Christopher Columbus, and by the power of his own independent perception, he has just gleened the possibility of a westward voyage to the Indies for the first time.

This is the historical theme of the work, Young Columbus, expertly rendered by sculptor Giulio Monteverde.  In capturing this moment, however, Monteverde has accomplished a rare thing.  He has himself penetrated to the both essence of a man, and the philosophical roots of his ability to change the world.

The man who changes history is always an independent thinker . Like Aristotle and Newton, Columbus had the ability to see all that others had seen before him, and then, of his own volition, by his own unique capacity, to see what other had not.

As a final note, one of the things I find most delightful about this sculpture is that Monteverde has chosen as his subject a young Columbus, rather than a mature man. When one usually thinks of Columbus, one thinks of an established cartographer making his case before Isabella and Ferdinand, or a confident mariner on the deck of his carrack at the climax of his career.  What is great about this image, by contrast, is that it sees past this usual idea to that which necessarily underlies it: the moment that truly defines the independent man, and the source of his ability to bring a “New World” into view, his conquest of reality through penetrating, rational thought.

For those who have the chance, I highly recommend a viewing of this work live, which, amazingly is possible to Americans on both coasts.  The original work is located at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.  A very fine copy is on display at the Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco.  I can’t think of a better way to celebrate Columbus Day!

For more images visit the Powell History Columbus Gallery.

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Unlike modern historians, I am a huge fan of Christopher Columbus.  I would rank him as one of the ten most important men in history–and for the good!  So Powell History is going to celebrate not just Columbus Day, but as a small measure of justice for a man so wrongly villified in our modern culture, a week of Columbus-related posts highlighting his achievements and his significance in world history.

Columbus Portrait

Christopher Columbus (c.1451-1506)
the most important explorer in world history

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