Quora answer: Why is the Western Tradition so Obscure?

Apr 08 2013

On the obscurity of the Western Tradition

I don’t know if you have had a chance to pick up Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason lately, or browsed through Heidegger’s Being and Time, or just happened on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind/Ghost/Spirit, or perhaps scanned any number of the books in the Western Canon, the books recommended by everyone but actually read by very few. How do you get a handle on these books whose obscurity is legendary. And it is the obscurity of these books, like Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception, or M. Henry’s The Essence of Manifestation, or J.P. Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, which makes our own tradition opaque to us. And you probably know this platitude but it is true that if you do not know what your philosophy is you are condemned to have one you yourself do not know. There are so many aspects to our tradition, but it is clear that Philosophy is its core, because it was from Philosophy that all other disciplines arose, and that philosophy was first and foremost Natural Philosophy which has spawned Physics today, and to which much of what passes for philosophy in these times is merely the handmaiden to physics, trying to justify science, who itself feels no need for justification. Physics is now the discipline which sees itself as the center of our worldview. But as we fall into String Theory and other imponderables it is hard to tell Physics from speculative philosophy these days. And so if you happen to pick up Husserl’s Logical Investigations, or Russell and Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica, or Badiou’s Being and the Event, you are likely to find something you would consider utterly unreadable. However, I can assure you that with a little persistence and a lot of time on your hands it is possible to read something into these works even if we cannot very well read anything out of them.

What helps are the commentaries. There are a lot of commentaries on these various philosophy books, for instance John Sallis’ Being and Logos about dramatization in Plato, or Patton’s sentence by sentence commentary on Kant’s masterwork, or the various excellent commentaries on Blake’s Four Zoas. It is through these commentaries that access can be gained to these books, but that of course takes even more precious time to read the myriad commentaries that exist on the Canonical writers of our tradition. But if you just happen to find yourself at the British Museum where almost every book published in English exists, with some spare time and a lot of patience then you could set about reading many of these commentaries and through them come to terms with these very obscure works that plague our tradition. And then you might go on to read Derrida, Deleuze, Lacan, Levinas, Foucault, Zizek, just for grins.

But why, oh, why would you want to do that?

There are several reasons I can think of.

One is that you are really interested in other religions and other philosophies say those of the orient, but you realize that you are going to have to deal with the implicit understanding of Western philosophy that permeates Western culture, in order to make sure not to project it on those extremely interesting foreign philosophies and religion. You might have looked in the cultural mirror and realized that just as you are trying to escape your own culture, so others are flocking to the West to escape their cultures, but we all take our acculturated selves with us, and so we cannot escape projecting what we already know as something foreign and fascinating.

Or secondly, you might realize once you start studying Western Philosophy that it has its own interesting aspects in its own right that you discover are worth finding out about. This is because the dualistic worldview of which we are part, is perhaps even more mysterious and alluring than all those foreign religions and philosophies that exist in the nihilistic marketplace various forms of snake-oil, sold as if they were enlightenment to deluded Americans (See the magazine What is Enlightenment?).  Because Western Philosophy is the core of the tradition, then all the other parts of the tradition are accessible from it. And there is plenty of food for thought along the way. We love conspiracies but the greatest mysteries of all go without any one noticing them. It is often true that the greatest adventure is right at your own front door. How does the Western worldview continue to function when it is continually wracked by radical changes. For me the question of the nature of emergence is the key question that we can ask in our world. How does it occur without destroying the worldview?

And you are not going to solve this mystery absorbing more entertainment. Any mystery worth its salt is going to make you pay for what ever you discover about it. And that payment is going to be in ones life blood, in the time one spends reading, writing, diagramming, and note taking, and most of all thinking, deeply about what you have read, to try to put the various discordant pieces together.

But once you get started, in earnest trying to understand the worldview, beyond what you were taught in school, picked up in the headlines of newspapers, or just found lying around on the floor where ever you looked, then what you need to confront is its inherent obscurity. Not the obscurity of the writers who struggle to understand it, but the obscurity of the thing itself. The obscurity of the writers attempting to understand it is just a reflection of a deeper obscurity that is the nature of the Western worldview itself. We find that this worldview that has gained dominance over all other worldviews though its brutal subjugation and exploitation of the whole earth and all its peoples has a long history that stretches back into the dawn of time to the proto-Indo-Europeans, whose descendents took over the known world based on horsepower, and we can even trace them back to then natural bread basket of in Turkey where agriculture began. Using genetic mutation techniques that concentrate on words rather than grammar we can see that Hittite is the oldest of the Indo-European languages, and so that puts the origin of the Proto-Indo-Europeans in Turkey rather than in Russia which was thought earlier based on other evidence. In fact we are taken back to the confrontation of two unique civilizations which is the Indo-Europeans and the Sumerians. The Sumerians called them the Kur, and later we know that they built Kurgans (Burial Mounds) and they appear to have been always nomadic. And with the discovery of Çatalhöyük [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C3%87atalh%C3%B6y%C3%BCk] and then Göbekli Tepe [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/G%C3%B6bekli_Tepe and http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/gobekli-tepe.html] and Nevalı Çori [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nevali_Cori] in Turkey of that appears to be confirmed and their history pushed back beyond the dawn of other civilizations. We know that the Sumerians and the Kurgan people interacted because each has loan words from the other language, but the Sumerians pushed out the Kurgans into central Asia and there they went from agriculture to raising horses that were bigger and bigger until chariot warfare was possible. And eventually the horses became large enough to ride, and then all hell broke loose and the Kurgans went everywhere. We see their remains in the Gobi Desert in the Tarim Basin region of Western China [http://www.ensignmessage.com/mummies.html] where the remains of their wooden burial structures can be found that predated the kurgans. So this nomadic people from which we draw our roots goes back into the dawn of time. The Sumerians have a unique grammar that is unlike any other language that is known and they created the first settled civilization at Ur between the Tigris and Euphrates which wrote in clay, and whose tablets have been preserved, and it was from the Sumerians that we received out idea of what a god is, and also many other accouterments of civilization. But the Sumerians always had problems with the incursions of the Kur on their northern borders, and we now know that the Kur are the Indo-Europeans which were pushed out and went from inventing agriculture to the invention of the horse, but genetic modification activities. And even today we are still fiddling with genetics. But as a culture we know that the Indo-Europeans themselves are unique because their language has something no other language possesses, which is Being. So what is the relation between the Nomadic (made an issue by Deleuze and Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus) and the linguistic peculiarity of Being and genetic technologies which ultimately confer great power that allows for cultural expansion and political domination on scales not imagined by other peoples of the earth. The discovery of Agriculture in the breadbasket of grains that was in Turkey, led to civilizations like that of Egypt and Sumeria, and then when they were pushed out into central Asia, they applied the same principles to the breeding of horses which just happened to have the genetic possibility of being Big enough to carry a man, even though they started out the size of large dogs. Once horses were big enough they led to chariot warfare, and when they could be ridden they led to combat on horseback both of which gave incredible advantage over those who did not have horses that were big enough to play a role in warfare.

So the greatest mystery is concerns the nature of this very old Civilization that has achieved world domination via technology, and not just any technology but primarily genetic breeding of plants and animals, which provided the basis for agricultural civilization, and then horse warfare, and is now making it so we can modify our own and other species directly now that the genomes are being decoded. This domination via genetic technology and other power giving technologies that led to geek physical philosophy that led to Science eventually seems to be driven by the uniqueness of their language, and its possession of the unique concept of Being. This concept of Being gives a basis for saying things that are very different are the Same. It gives us Metaphor and via Metaphor we are able to say Odysseus IS a Lion. (And of course the Lion becomes Man at the same time). Odysseus is not just like a lion (simile) or analogous to a Lion, but IS a Lion. This projection of what Aristotle calls Substance gives a basis to understand how disparate things are the same which is more powerful conceptually than occur in other languages, and it gives us the ability to think though transformational changes based on underlying structure, which in turn gives us the capability of synthesizing technologies. So from the Indo-European Kergan’s unique nomadic life style we see that settled civilization came from Nomadism rather than the other way around, by the exploration of agriculture that occurred just because there was a natural breadbasket in the Kurdish homelands, but when they were driven out by the agricultural societies which they spawned they applied the same techniques to making horses bigger and that gave them power in warfare to come back and reclaim the homelands that they were pushed out of and eventually dominate the known world going into Europe and India as we well know.

[2011.02.10kdp to be continued]


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