Better Philosophy Through Time Travel


Here’s one way of thinking about progress in philosophy.

Having determined that progress in philosophy has been too slow, the leaders of the Galactic Philosophy Federation (GPF) take on the mission of improving it. Realizing that the earlier an intervention can be made, other things equal, the more progress is likely to result, they begin by considering changes that can be implemented immediately. Unfortunately, there are not many inspiring options. They then learn about a new invention, the “Passed to the Past” (P2P) device, which allows people in the present to send messages back in time. The past is earlier than the present, so, they figure, we could in principle have even more progress in philosophy if we changed something in the past.

Still in beta, P2P has certain limits. First, it can only send short messages—no more than around 600 characters (roughly the size of the previous paragraph). Second, the recent past is unavailable as a destination—messages have to be sent to a time prior to 1900. And third, it is very expensive. Still, they find it promising and decide to try to make it the case that there has been (and perhaps will continue to be) more progress in philosophy by sending messages back in time to earlier philosophers.

When it comes time to budget for this project, the GPF’s leaders find, alas, that they have enough money to fund only one message. Hopeful that one message could make a difference, they turn to the matter of settling on its content, recipient, and timing. For this, they ask you, the philosophers of the world, for suggestions:

Given the aim of improving philosophy’s progress, what brief message would you send to which past philosopher?
Keep in mind that the message must be around 600 characters or less, and that the message must be sent back to a year prior to 1900; if it matters, be specific about when in the philosopher’s life they should receive the message.

(The question is intentionally open-ended in a few ways, and “progress” is intentionally left unspecified.)

What’s your answer?


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Peter Suber
10 months ago

This isn’t an example but a recipe for examples. Many philosophers were most criticized by their successors for points on which they spent relatively little time and attention. I like the idea of giving past philosophers a chance to revise their works in light of the most common or influential later criticisms of their work. We’d all have our personal reading lists, but I’d most love to read the revised works of Descartes, Spinoza, Hume, Kant, and Hegel.

Wes McMichael
Wes McMichael
10 months ago

Plato: Women and people of color are smart and do philosophy. Listen to them.

Matt L
Reply to  Wes McMichael
10 months ago

I’m curious why you think Plato didn’t think “women and people of color” were smart or could do philosophy. I suppose there’s some controversey on the “Plato as feminist” line of thought, but it’s at least not obviously wrong, and seems to have some pretty good support. (Susan Okin’s _Women in Western Political Thought_ is nice on this, but there are lots of others.) And, while it’s hard to know exactly what to make of it, there’s good reason to think that Plato had significant respect for Egyptian thought and teaching. I’m not completely sure what to say about the racial status of ancient peoples in general, but if we want to use these terms, it’s at least not obvious that Plato thought “people of color” were not capable of doing philosophy or were not worth listening to.

More in line with the question, though, I’d be interested to know what Marx would have made of later economic developments, including the marginal revolution and Keynesianism. I don’t have any clear idea what he would have thought, so would be interested to know, if such things were possible.

Wes McMichael
Wes McMichael
Reply to  Matt L
10 months ago

Hi Matt,

My choice was less about Plato in particular and more about philosophy in general. I figured the earlier the change, the better, with regard to philosophical progress.

I, also, agree that the idea of “people of color” and race, in general, would likely be meaningless categories to Plato.

My suggestion is simply that the one major historical change that would have the greatest impact to philosophical progress would be the early and consistent inclusion of historically excluded voices in the philosophical canon.

Last edited 10 months ago by Wes McMichael
Louis F. Cooper
Louis F. Cooper
Reply to  Matt L
10 months ago

I hesitate to get into a discussion of economics here, for several reasons, one of which is that it would go off on a bit of a tangent to the OP’s question.

That said, though, istm there are two separate but reIated questions: (1) what would Marx have made of the real-world evolution of capitalism, and (2) what would he have made of developments in economic thought.

On (2), I doubt that Marx would have been impressed with the marginal revolution. (While I could be wrong on this, I don’t think most contemporary Marxist or Marxian economists are very favorable to it, or for that matter to modern mainstream economic theory in general.) For one thing, the notion that workers are paid in accord with their marginal productivity doesn’t jibe with Marx’s view of how and what workers are paid or with his stress on the importance of relative bargaining power. Sure, Marx might have had to modify his economic theory in light of subsequent developments in capitalism, including e.g. the predominance of services rather than manufacturing in the so-called advanced capitalist economies, but that he would have modified it in a marginalist direction seems to me doubtful.

I haven’t read contemporary Marxist economists like, say, Anwar Shaikh. But, fwiw, Ernest Mandel’s 1976 introduction to the Ben Fowkes translation of Capital vol. 1 didn’t concede anything to marginalism or Keynesianism, at least not as I recall.

On the other hand, Michael Harrington, in his last book Socialism: Past and Future (1989), wrote that “a careful reading of Das Kapital yields, of all things, a Marxist methodology capable of grasping the positive potential of markets even as that book brilliantly denounces their functioning under laissez-faire,” while acknowledging that Capital provides “authority for contradictory positions” on the point.

Matt L
Reply to  Louis F. Cooper
10 months ago

Of course it’s true that many of Marx’s later followers slavishly followed the master’s actual words. (Not all, of course. Some of the best, like Roemer, Bowels, and Gitis make very good use of modern methods, improving and changing Marxist thought in important ways by doing so.) But, the man himself wasn’t a follower of “Marxist economics”, but somoene trying to make use of the best economics of his day. It seems plausible that, when it’s clear that that economics isn’t the best, and that other methods are better, he would have been eager to take this on board.

Louis F. Cooper
Reply to  Matt L
10 months ago

Matt,
I will respond to you by email later today, since I suspect most readers of Daily Nous are not that interested in this topic (though I am).

David Wallace
Reply to  Wes McMichael
10 months ago

Plato does not obviously strike me as willing to change his attitude on the basis of a short undefended message of unknown provenance.

Wes McMichael
Wes McMichael
Reply to  David Wallace
10 months ago

Hi David,

I agree. I didn’t read Justin’s challenge to be to rationally persuade a philosopher in 600 characters, but I might have misread him.

Your message to Aristotle is great in that regard, though!

David Wallace
Reply to  Wes McMichael
10 months ago

Well, I guess you could use the trick I use at the end of that message to persuade Plato to believe you! But even then I’d wonder whether persuading Plato, in isolation, of that fact would have that much impact on the development of philosophy, absent wider societal changes. I suppose you might hope that persuading Plato might catalyze those wider changes – but then the message might be better aimed at women/other races in Athenian society generally, not just in philosophy.

I’m probably overthinking this!

Joseph Duvernay
10 months ago

As I too circle, a bit, your question of what one would ask of past philosopher to further the case and reach of Philosophy. I would ask: why ladies and gentlemen did you think it necessary to virtually nitpick the philosophies of the past And those of your own time, that were not ripe for that picking, that actually in your ‘treaties’ was more show for a crowd than a furthering of the disciplines of the mind of humanity?
But then I ask myself: how does humanity move, if not by trial and error corrected?
I don’t know about anyone else, but I (perhaps it’s this simplifying mind) find/found in various critiques Philosophy has made – between, oh any, Spinoza and Descartes; Kant and Heidegger – to be mostly non-controversal, and actually, though differing ways of expression may indeed have been used, more similar, through philosophy’s history, than not.

To repeat, I have rarely found disagreement where some ‘expert’ claimed there was one, even in the detail!

Mate Penava
10 months ago

A note to Martin Heidegger in 1898: Nazis bad, move away as far as you can (you will come to know what I mean). And please, stop inventing new words, we have enough of those already.

David Wallace
Reply to  Mate Penava
10 months ago

The GPF reminds you that they can finance only one message and they hope to change the level of progress in philosophy across all of human history with it; they encourage you to aim higher.

David Wallace
10 months ago

To Aristotle in September 336 BC:

Animals (ditto plants) have small random variations in their characteristics which they can pass to their descendants. An animal has many more descendants than can survive to have descendants of their own so there is an intense process of competition. Over time animals adapt to their environment as beneficial variations accumulate. This process explains why animals appear designed – even the eye (e.g.) is the result of continued selection on small variations. Species change over time this way. This message is from the future. Proof: Next month Philip’s bodyguard Pausanias will try to kill him.

Sam
Sam
Reply to  David Wallace
10 months ago

This “proof” is information the bodyguard could have had. Wouldn’t Aristotle be more likely to believe the bodyguard to be attempting to influence his philosophy than to believe this is proof that the message is from the future?

David Wallace
Reply to  Sam
10 months ago

It’s a good point… but I was assuming Aristotle would warn Philip and Pausanias would be killed, which would seem to undermine that theory.

Of course, preventing the assassination of Philip of Macedon would radically alter history, but so far as I can tell the GPF doesn’t care about trivia like that.

Sam
Sam
Reply to  David Wallace
10 months ago

Right. It’s a well-chosen message nonetheless.

Last edited 10 months ago by Sam
Mark Raabe
Mark Raabe
Reply to  David Wallace
10 months ago

I like your approach. To increase its credibility, I suggest informing the recipient of upcoming events that can’t be planned, predicted (given the technology of the time), or prevented, e.g., certain natural disasters or extraordinary weather occurrences.

For instance, in considering how I might ask Adam Smith to consider clarifying his message in Wealth of Nations lest its misinterpreters contribute to bringing us to our precarious position in the early 21st Century, I’d probably time the message for early 1775, about a year before publication, and for “proof” I’d direct his attention to the upcoming Newfoundland hurricane and Indonesian volcanic eruption, both about six months away and each killing thousands.

David Wallace
Reply to  Mark Raabe
10 months ago

I would have done that if I could find a reliably-known natural event in the right time period, but I couldn’t; the assassination of Philip of Macedon was the best I could find – at least on the basis of five minutes on Google! (I wanted to go back very early to maximize the impact of the message; I thought Aristotle was likely to respond better than Plato given his scientific interests.)

newly tt
newly tt
Reply to  David Wallace
10 months ago

I quite like this message and thinking about its ramifications.

Sam Duncan
10 months ago

J.S. Mill – Get a new job immediately. Definitely don’t write propaganda apologizing for the East India Company’s war crimes and other assorted atrocities. Also, putting a big asterisk in “On Liberty” that basically says “All this stuff only applies only to people who are culturally European” ain’t a good look. While I’m at the higher lower pleasures stuff doesn’t solve any problems but does deprive utilitarianism of its few selling points as a moral theory.

David Wallace
10 months ago

The physics version of my message to Aristotle (though I think the philosophy one would make more difference):

Bodies in motion stay in motion unless acted on by a force; forces cause bodies to change their quantity of motion in proportion to the magnitude and in the direction of the force; if A acts on B with a force, B acts on A with an equal, opposite force. These laws govern the heavens just as the earth: each piece of matter pulls at each other piece with a force that decreases with the square of the distance between them. As Moon goes around Earth, so Earth goes around Sun. The stars are other, distant, suns. This message is from the future. Proof: Next month Philip’s bodyguard Pausanias will try to kill him.

(This is slightly >600 characters, but you can delete some spaces and punctuation to get it down.)

David Wallace
Reply to  David Wallace
10 months ago

philosophy -> biology, sorry

David Wallace
10 months ago

A more humanitarian version (possibly less effective at developing deep philosophy/science). Could again be finished with some bit of proof that it’s from the future.

Most sickness comes from tiny animals (germs), in bad water, spoiled food, and the bodies, breath, and excreta of the sick. They do not appear from nowhere, but spread and multiply from other sources. Boil water and cook meat to kill germs. Stop the spread of plague by isolating the sick and avoiding the water in their coughs/sneezes, the air they breathe. In times of sickness seek fresh air/wind to remove germ-filled air. Treat the sick by giving them food/water and letting their own bodies heal them. DO NOT bleed them.

David Wallace
10 months ago

There is no way that this one passes the test for ‘most effective message’, but it’s fun. To Frege in 1880:

The principle that the extensions of concepts F and G are equal iff F and G are coextensive, is inconsistent. For let Fx be the concept ‘x is the extension of a concept under which x does not fall’. Then if y is the extension of F, from either Fy or its negation a contradiction follows. Do not try to rest the foundations of mathematics on this principle.

Kaila Draper
10 months ago

Don’t confuse language and reality. Recognize that words rarely have precise meanings. If you are doing metaphysics, make sure you understand evidential reasoning really well. (Vague appeals to simplicity, best explanation, theoretical usefulness, etc. are inadequate.) Don’t assume that every sensible person shares your intuitions.

Last edited 10 months ago by Kaila Draper
Ehsan Manzoor
10 months ago

Firstly..would like Rene Descartes, to explain,’I think,therefore I’m’ a bit more explcitly..& more of a common sense perspective..
secondly..would like Bishop Berekley,to explain, his point..that if no one is looking at a tree, how could,God be the cause of presence of that (or any) tree..

Siddharth Muthukrishnan
10 months ago

“The world is simple, strange, inhuman, vast, and intricate. Adapt your philosophizing accordingly. Simple: the world follows simple, often mathematical, rules; look for them. Strange: the concepts needed to comprehend the world differ greatly from common sense; distrust your intuitions. Inhuman: the world doesn’t center humans at all; be skeptical of theories that do. Vast: No matter how big you think the world is, it’s larger; look farther. Intricate: the world exhibits remarkable detail at every scale; build instruments that increase observational resolution.”

David Wallace
Reply to  Siddharth Muthukrishnan
10 months ago

This is brilliant. (But who are you sending it to?)

Siddharth Muthukrishnan
Reply to  David Wallace
10 months ago

Thanks!

I confess I misread the question. I thought it asked: “Given the aim of improving philosophy’s progress, what brief message would you send to which past philosopher[s]?” So I thought it was asking for a generic message that would go to many philosophers in the past and answered accordingly.

John James
10 months ago

Ptolemy!
All things gravitate to the Center, but the residual affects of its constituents have a place indifferent of the immediate nous. Apply the heat of the Sun until it cools and course the collapsing zone as the Center of all things in the going.

Rosanna Festa
10 months ago

Physics and Philosophy are correlated
Take Alexander Bell and Pierre and Marie Curie. Their work are physical but the concept philosophical and Positivist. As philosophy of Science asks from the times.

Nicola DiSvevia
Nicola DiSvevia
9 months ago

Given Plato’s significance to (Western) philosophy, and given our newfound ability to send him a message, we need to take into consideration that he kept philosophising only because he had received our encouraging message – though he never mentioned that fact:

“We have much better science, but we haven’t made that much progress with substantial philosophical questions – and we’re not really any smarter than you are. It so happens, however, that your work has informed and inspired many subsequent philosophers. Without you that might never have happened; indeed, it may even be that philosophy as a whole might have remained severely stunted. So just keep going!