Reply To: Oct 20: Kenneth Worthy Seminar

Author Replies # Posted on October 21, 2014 at 18:01

Reflection on Kenneth Worthy’s book Invisible Natures and discussion with Kenneth

I think it is good to be honest when writing these reflections; it’s not like we are writing a paper for a journal, right? While I enjoyed reading the book in a sort of a detached way, the philosophy student in me was cringing when I was reading Worthy’s book. Why? First: the assumption that everything we conceive under the title Western can be equated with the birth of philosophical inquiry in ancient Greece is far fetched, historically very weak, unfair towards philosophers (like they wielded that kind of power anyway), yet sadly very common. I asked Kenneth whether we ourselves are risking writing a teleology when writing intellectual history, in other words writing history backwards. It seems like we are writing from the assumption of modern dissociation as Worthy formulates it and trying to follow the strand of this dissociation in canonized philosophy. He answered that he would risk “objectiveness” in order to gain political momentum with his work; I agree with him on this one to some degree, yet I sense two problems with this approach: first is the assumption that ideologies can affect material conditions as easily as he supposes and the second one is that hasty scholarship can simply denigrate past thinkers. For example, how many times have we during our studies heard how Descartes is the milestone when the sharp division of mind and body, subject/object has crystallized in it most obvious form? Who of us would now turn to Descartes or Plato to look for inspiration? Not many, I guess. We have received this very narrow interpretation of history of philosophy, which saddens me, since most of my colleagues will probably not delve deeper into this and will leave this programme with this view of philosophy. Now to the first issue (strange order I know); how can we claim so confidently that ideas transform material conditions? Kenneth himself criticized Lynn White’s approach of explaining grandly how Christianity is to blame for the Western attitude towards nature, without grounding them in the materiality. But I think that most of his book actually does the same; the competitive individualised and stratified society of the Greeks is explained via a hasty explication of competitiveness between various Greek polis. The Middle Ages are as usual dealth with in a veeeery hazy manner; you know, yes the medieval world-view was more organicist, but then comes the Renaissance and colonialism and Enlightenment and we have this separation again as the Greeks. I do not know, I am kind of fed up of these kind of explanations. Also Worthy’s brief mentioning of the relational logic of Eastern philosophy is not convincing, the Hindu school of logic called Nyaya does not differ that much from Aristotle’s syllogistic logic. In the end Worthy’s treatment of everything that is “Eastern” risks being an essentialisation.
So, ideas do not create material conditions, in my opinion, rather the opposite. This is also the reason why I do not believe that consumers’ choice can actually push towards a structural change in economy. We have a very small minority of upper class people who have the knowledge and the income to actually buy organic products, but what about the majority? How can this new green mentality actually cause a structural change? The assumption is that such a demand will be created that it will actually change the mode of production and to me that is so unlikely to happen. I am not being a pessimist, rather I think it is pointless to individualise the responsibility.
Ok, I think I will end my rant now. In the end, I will repeat, I enjoyed the conversation with Worthy, since he really practices his philosophy and he aims to give practical advice not just an overarching theory but I just could not get past the generalisations.