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On the sources of the Mississippi

Published on 23 February 2015
Updated on 05 April 2024

(against anachronism in ideas)

The Mississippi is an incontrovertible reality. Or is it? 313

The Mississippi watershed

While the central part of the river’s course is easy to define, as we go up-river to its “source” matters become complicated. At every confluence, one needs to decide which is tributary and which is the main river. Such decisions depend more patently on conventions: size of the flow may prevail, or angle at which the confluence occurs (straight over bend). Length may be another criterion. In some cases one is stumped: at this point the river splits into two: we have the White and the Blue Nile, both originating in lakes. The essence dissolves in thousand contingent rivulets. Modestly, geographers will shrug their shoulders: all map making is convention.

Such pragmatic modesty tends to fail philosophers and historians of ideas. Prof. Samuel MOYN discusses at length[1] a book by Larry SIEDENTOP: Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism. Though more guarded than the book’s author, both implicitly share the view that ideas have a “virgin” origin[2] – the invention – gain in strength and emerge sooner and later in their final form. In both instances, origins are traced and ascribed to this or that author – in Siedentop’s view Christianity: “Secularism is Christianity’s gift to the world,” he writes, “Europe’s noblest achievement.”[3]

Both authors argue that the emergence of liberalism can be “explained” – splitting over the causal process. There is a “theory” out there, they both claim. Lacking the Popperian experimental test, a theory just needs to be “plausible” – a beauty contest based on skill in cherry-picking. It is – if one allows me – akin to the parlor game of claiming descent from a famous ancestor while back-grounding the contribution of all other progenitors.

Am I harsh? Not really, for both authors implicitly assume that ideas are “granular” – like DNA – and are transmitted essentially unchanged from one generation to the next. Accretions can be identified and vetted. Culture, however, is plastic.

The plasticity begins with reception: while we communicate ideas, we do so symbolically – in words. Reception distorts any message in fundamental ways though it may be “good enough” for day-to-day interactions. The written word is particularly poor in this regard though it has great advantages over memory. Secondly, the role of experience is back-grounded. Experience changes people’s minds.[4] Many experiences are imperfectly known: they are the result of exploring the “adjacent possible” by analogy. Third, it ignores emergent phenomena – more on this below.

Chris WICKHAM[5] shows how the communal experience in Italy “successfully prepared Italian power structures for the cultural significance they eventually had.” The process was “unconscious” – hence the “sleepwalking” in the title – in the sense that these cities experimented by trial and error with institutions, a process from which slowly workable institutions emerged. Just as a “market system” emerges as exchanges intensify, so a “political system” may be an emergent property of people acting together. Lacking a central authority (the king) was a distinct advantage here. While a king is mortal as a person, the institution is not. Conceptual separation was not easy (Muslims still have problems in this respect). City-states could focus on structures, and ignore the office-holders.

Christopher CLARK in his: The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 makes the point on the origins of WWI: “It is not a question, as in the Cuban Missile Crisis, of reconstructing the ratiocinations of two superpowers sifting through their options, but of understanding sustained rapid-fire interactions between executive structures with a relatively poor understanding of each other’s intentions, operating with low levels of confidence and trust (even within the respective alliances) and with high levels of hostility and paranoia.” (pg. 240) There is no explanatory “theory” out there, just the description of a process that, after the fact, led to the explosion, but which would have remained undetected to the agents of the time.

The metaphor of the river is apt also at the “end” of an idea’s history. The uniform structure dissipates into many sluggish channels and lagoons of the estuary, just as an epigone ideas replace the genuine. In fact, the “monolithic” view of the river’s course might have been a human artifact to begin with – and not a natural phenomenon. Before we invented highways for cars, we turned a river system of many passages into a straight channel to facilitate navigation and reclaim land from seasonal flooding.

“History of ideas” is very useful in learning how we think, both as individuals and as a social group. It should carefully avoid positing that the present is “history in the making” – intellectual rather than biological teleology.


[1] https://bit.ly/1A08IfQ

[2] Religion is a sub-set of all possible human ideas. In order to buttress their claim to originality, religious ideas postulate revelation. Platonic forms differ from religious ideas in the fact that they are thought to be perceptible with the rational mind, despite being metaphysical.

[3] Quoted in MOYN (2015). In fact, Siedentop starts out by arguing the preeminence of history: we should treat modern individualism as a historical product rather than a natural fact. His “tradition,” however, is simply an idea through time.

[4] Intellectual talking to each other in print left traces of their conversations – the fact that these conversations survived is no proof that they had much relevance on the evolution of the society at the time. My favorite example is the “freedom-loving Swiss” of the 13th century. They were certainly not party to the conversations about individual freedom in the cloisters (in fact, they saw monasteries as oppressors). By then, however, they were no longer peasants, but entrepreneurs, exporting livestock, cheese, and soldiers, and importing strategically important salt. “Freedom” meant much to them in their daily actions – whatever the monks in their monasteries may have mused about.

[5] Chris Wickham (2015): Sleepwalking into a new world: the emergence of Italian city communes in the twelfth century. Princeton University Press, Princeton.

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