Nietzsche and the Evil Eye: A Bequeathal of Sorts


Stumbling across Alan Dundes “The Evil Eye: A Casebook” early in my undergrad, just when I was starting to read Nietzsche, certainly helped to further my interest in the relationship between folklore and psychology.

As a belief, the evil eye has proven to be incredibly durable and widespread, extending, to the best of my knowledge, from India to Scotland, and across thousands of years, well into Greco-Roman times and beyond. Roughly, it is the belief that a person who possesses the evil eye, or who develops it out of envy and covetousness can cause a great deal of harm to the object of their attention. To combat this, many cultures have developed eye-like jewelry and charms to “catch” the gaze of the eye before it can do any harm.

Nietzsche, as a philologist, must have come across references to it in his readings of classical authors, or even during his travels to Italy. In any event, the number of references made to the evil eye, or an envious eye, in his writings are legion, and few commentators that I am aware of have explored this trend in any detail. I suspect though, that much can be learned about the structure and history of his psychological notion of ressentiment by comparing it to his encounter with this body of folklore.

Yet while I believe this to be the case, I do not think that I will be the one who proves it. I’ve two books on Nietzsche somewhere within me, and hopefully no more, as I’ve seen what happens to scholars who spend their entire careers on one, and only one, historical figure, and I am too wedded to diversity to find that path appealing.

That said, I think that someone should do it.

Below are just a few of the references in Nietzsche to an evil eye that I could cobble together:

“You go above and beyond them: but the higher you climb, the smaller you appear to the eye of envy. And he who flies is hated most of all.” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra)

“And many a one who cannot see the sublime in man calls it virtue that he can see his baseness all-too-closely: thus he calls his evil eye virtue.” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra)

Somewhere there are still peoples and herds, but not with us, my brothers: here there are states./ A state? What is that? Well! open now your ears to me, for now I will speak to you about the death of peoples. / State is the name of the coldest of all cold monsters. Coldly it lies; and this lie slips from its mouth: “I, the state, am the people.” / It is a lie! It was creators who created peoples, and hung a faith and a love over them: thus they served life. / Destroyers are they who lay snares for the many, and call it state: they hang a sword and a hundred cravings over them. / Where there are still peoples, the state is not understood, and is hated as the evil eye, and as sin against laws and customs. / This sign I give to you: every people speaks its own language of good and evil, which its neighbor does not understand. It has created its own language of laws and customs. / But the state lies in all the tongues of good and evil; and whatever it says it lies; and whatever it has it has stolen. (Thus Spoke Zarathustra)

The teachers of the purpose of existence.— Whether I contemplate men with benevolence or with an evil eye, I always find them concerned with a single task, all of them and every one of them in particular: to do what is good for the preservation of the human race. Not from any feeling of love for the race, but merely because nothing in them is older, stronger, more inexorable and unconquerable than this instinct—because this instinct constitutes the essence of our species, our herd. It is easy enough to divide our neighbors quickly, with the usual myopia, from a mere five paces away, into useful and harmful, good and evil men; but in any large-scale accounting, when we reflect on the whole a little longer, we become suspicious of this neat division and finally abandon it. Even the most harmful man may really be the most useful when it comes to the preservation of the species; for he nurtures either in himself or in others, through his effects, instincts without which humanity would long have become feeble or rotten. Hatred, the mischievous delight in the misfortune of others, the lust to rob and dominate, and whatever else is called evil belongs to the most amazing economy of the preservation of the species. To be sure, this economy is not afraid of high prices, of squandering, and it is on the whole extremely foolish:—still it is proven that it has preserved our race so far. (The Gay Science)

Another mode of convalescence (in certain situations even more to my liking) is sounding out idols. There are more idols than realities in the world: that is my “evil eye” upon this world; that is also my “evil ear.” Finally to pose questions with a hammer, and sometimes to hear as a reply that famous hollow sound that can only come from bloated entrails — what a delight for one who has ears even behind his ears, for me, an old psychologist and pied piper before whom just that which would remain silent must finally speak out. (Twilight of the Idols)

7 Moral for psychologists. — Not to go in for backstairs psychology. Never to observe in order to observe! That gives a false perspective, leads to squinting and something forced and exaggerated. Experience as the wish to experience does not succeed. One must not eye oneself while having an experience; else the eye becomes “an evil eye.” A born psychologist guards instinctively against seeing in order to see; the same is true of the born painter. He never works “from nature”; he leaves it to his instinct, to his camera obscura, to sift through and express the “case,” “nature,” that which is “experienced.” He is conscious only of what is general, of the conclusion, the result: he does not know arbitrary abstractions from an individual case. What happens when one proceeds differently? For example, if, in the manner of the Parisian novelists, one goes in for backstairs psychology and deals in gossip, wholesale and retail? Then one lies in wait for reality, as it were, and every evening one brings home a handful of curiosities. But note what finally comes of all this: a heap of splotches, a mosaic at best, but in any case something added together, something restless, a mess of screaming colors. The worst in this respect is accomplished by the Goncourts; they do not put three sentences together without really hurting the eye, the psychologist’s eye. Nature, estimated artistically, is no model. It exaggerates, it distorts, it leaves gaps. Nature is chance. To study “from nature” seems to me to be a bad sign: it betrays submission, weakness, fatalism; this lying in the dust before petit faits [little facts] is unworthy of a whole artist. To see what is — that is the mark of another kind of spirit, the anti-artistic, the factual. One must know who one is. (Twilight of the Idols)

24 L’art pour l’art. […] One question remains: art also makes apparent much that is ugly, hard, and questionable in life; does it not thereby spoil life for us? And indeed there have been philosophers who attributed this sense to it: “liberation from the will” was what Schopenhauer taught as the overall end of art; and with admiration he found the great utility of tragedy in its “evoking resignation.” But this, as I have already suggested, is the pessimist’s perspective and “evil eye.” We must appeal to the artists themselves. What does the tragic artist communicate of himself? Is it not precisely the state without fear in the face of the fearful and questionable that he is showing? This state itself is a great desideratum, whoever knows it, honors it with the greatest honors. He communicates it — must communicate it, provided he is an artist, a genius of communication. Courage and freedom of feeling before a powerful enemy, before a sublime calamity, before a problem that arouses dread — this triumphant state is what the tragic artist chooses, what he glorifies. Before tragedy, what is warlike in our soul celebrates its Saturnalia; whoever is used to suffering, whoever seeks out suffering, the heroic man praises his own being through tragedy — to him alone the tragedian presents this drink of sweetest cruelty. (Twilight of the Idols)

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For More Information:

The Evil Eye: A Casebook. 1992. Ed. Alan Dundes. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Kant’s Ghost: The Crooked Scales of Hope and Kant’s Attack on Emmanuel Swedenborg

“I do not find that any attachment or other inclination insinuated prior to examination has robbed my mind of its readiness to be guided by any kind of arguments, except one”, the Prussian Philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote in his attack on the Swedish mystic Emmanuel Swedenborg:

The scale of reason is not, however, wholly impartial, and one of its arms, which bears the inscription “Hope for the Future,” has a mechanical advantage that causes even weak arguments that fall into the pan belonging to it to lift up the speculations that have a greater weight on the other side. This is the only inaccuracy that I cannot easily remove and that, in fact, I never want to remove.

While previous philosophers had delved a seemingly impassible chasm between the realms of the phenomenal and noumenal, even in his early writings the Königsberg professor sought some way to harmonize and unify them into a coherent world picture. To achieve this harmony it was necessary to demonstrate the errors of both base materialism and mystical idealism in order to demarcate the limits of human speculation.

However, as is apparent from statements such as that above, more than a refutation of materialism, it was the engagement with the mystical side of idealism, with its concurrent striving to engage in, and hope for, some future life that presented the most startling challenges to Kant’s balance between the phenomenal and noumenal. After all, that was the direction in which the scales themselves were admittedly rigged.

There is much to be learned about the development and direction of Kant’s thought from his stormy relationship to Swedenborg. The ridicule heaped up by Kant upon his contemporary belies a very serious difficulty he faced in attempting to distance the immortality and immateriality of the soul from the mystical or idealistic understanding of spirits. His ultimate answer to this was hope, a hope not found in experience, but in the realm of moral utility, or pure practical reason. Still, given the weight of moral or practical use in Kant’s philosophy, it is not immediately apparent why an investigation into the nature of spirits would provide nothing of value in considerations of the immateriality and immortality of the soul. From examining this position one learns a great deal about the Kantian definition of utility based on his earlier dismissal of spirits themselves as “useless”, as well as the moral utility of the soul’s immortality. In comparing these reasons we can begin to understand just how epistemologically threatening spirits could be to the subsequent balance of hope and experience, even as Kant could no more deny their rational possibility than the rational possibility of the immaterial soul he so wished to preserve.

The immortality of the soul stood alongside the existence of God and the freedom of the will as Kant’s three “proper” areas of metaphysical investigation. While unable to be demonstrated through syllogistic reasoning, because of the tendency of human thought to make errors of inference (paralogisms), we can be morally certain of them because they are postulates of pure practical reason. To understand how it is possible to be morally certain of something that is nevertheless indemonstrable, and how this relates to Kant’s rejection of spirits, we must first examine his reason for presenting the soul in this manner.

Rational Psychology was what Kant employed to set the limits of speculative reason in regards to the composition of the subjective self. In his own words it:

reminds us to regard this refusal of our reason to give an answer to those curious questions, which reach beyond this life, as reason’s hint that we should turn our self-knowledge away from fruitlessness and extravagant speculation toward fruitful practical uses, which, even if it is always directed only to objects of experience, takes its principles from somewhere higher, and so determines our behavior, as if our vocation extended infinitely far above experience, and hence above this life.

In general, the soul was considered to be a simple substance; however, as Kant reminds us in space, and thus in experience, there is no substance that is simple. Even if there were some way to demonstrate this quality, it would nevertheless not be proof of immortality because of the logical possibility of the diminution of all simple substances into oblivion, thus: “the persistence of the soul, merely as an object of inner sense, remains unproved and even unprovable”. At best, all that can be gleaned from experience is the unity of consciousness that underlines cognition, but this is not a transcendental conception of the subject, nor do the principles of this subject come from some apparent “higher realm”. Instead, we must behave “as if” we took our moral principles from somewhere higher that implies, though can only ever imply, some future life. Rational psychology’s entire reason for being in the Kantian system is to explain why it is impossible to demonstrate the immortality of the soul, even as it hints towards this crucial principle of “as if”. Ultimately it is a kind of contradiction:

The problem of explaining the community of the soul with the body does not properly belong to the psychology that is here at issue, because it intends to prove the personality of the soul even outside this community (after death), and so it is transcendent in the proper sense, even though it concerns an object of experience, but only to the extent that it ceases to be an object of experience.

To demonstrate the immortality of the soul, in this regard, would by Kant’s definition be to show that which can not be shown. Yet he is clear that for this very same reason, the immortality of the soul cannot be so easily disproven. Indeed, the weight is on the side of the soul’s immateriality and immortality because despite the limitations of the understanding we live “as if” it were in fact a certainty.

It is instructive to note that just as rational psychology sets the limits of our understanding of the soul in experience, Kant counters the materialistic rejection of its immortality by appealing to quite a different limitation, that of the corporal body itself. In response to those who say that consciousness degrades alongside the degradation of the material mind and body, he claims:

You can weaken the power of this proof by assuming that our body is nothing but the fundamental appearance to which the entire faculty of sensibility and therewith all thinking are related, as their condition, in our present state (this life). Separation from the body would be the end of this sensible use of your cognitive power and the beginning of the intellectual.

Again it is space, as a category of understanding, which bars us from coming to any phenomenal conclusion. Yet here it is performing a different conceptual task, instead of challenging the notion of the simple, that which is not composed of any divisible parts, it argues from the perspective of the particular. That is to say, we can no more find evidence of the simple in experience as we can be sure that it may not in fact exist undetected in particulate beings, in this case the human animal, and by implication a kind of undetectable soul. However, at best such a defense is a mere heuristic exercise when compared to the demands placed upon us by pure practical reason, though it is important to keep in mind the balance of Kant’s argument.

Despite its indemonstrability in experience, Kant did in fact claim that he could be certain of the immortality of the soul. As he said:

this certainty of postulated possibility is not at all theoretical […;] it is not a necessity cognized with respect to the object but is, instead, an assumption necessary with respect to the subject’s observance of its objective but practical laws, hence merely a necessary hypothesis. I could find no better expression for this subjective but nevertheless unconditional rational necessity.

The conditions of the moral law that stand at the pinnacle of human worth, “to love God above all things and thy neighbour as thyself”, requires, a priori the three domains of metaphysics of which the immortality of the soul is one. The subjectively necessary, true and unconditional immortality of the soul causes Kant to dramatically personalize his position:

no one will be able to boast that he knows that there is a God and a future life; for if he knows that, then he is precisely the man I have long sought. All knowing (if it concerns an object of reason alone) can be communicated, and I would therefore also be able to hope to have my knowledge extended to such a wonderful degree by his instruction. No, the conviction is not logical but moral certainty, and, since it depends on subjective grounds (of moral disposition) I must not say ‘It is morally certain that there is a God,’ etc., but rather “I am morally certain’ etc. That is, the belief in a God and another world is so interwoven with my moral disposition that I am in as little danger of ever surrendering the former as I am worried that the latter can ever be torn away from me.

Moral certainty, in this case, is the ultimate “as if” in favour of the immortality of the soul, which has at its base the power of hope to bridge the gap between what is possible to understand in experience and what is possible to know through reason. In this exposition of personal certainty that goes beyond experience, but which nevertheless has the power to move him, as it were by force of the noumenal itself, there are echoes of his early encounter with another individual who did in fact claim a privileged access to this self-same noumenal realm: Swedenborg.

Kant published his work on Swedenborg, Dreams of a Spirit Seer, Illustrated by Dreams of Metaphysics in 1766, shortly before his famous “silent decade” in which he was to publish little until his Critique of Pure Reason in 1781. Writing in 1804 Kant’s friend and biographer Ludwig Ernst Borowski, commented that: “In general, every attentive reader finds already here the seeds of the Critique of Pure Reason and of that which Kant gave us in the future”. Thus it seems reasonable to investigate this text in order to gain a deeper insight into some potential tensions in Kant’s mature work.

Despite their admitted differences, there are also a number of striking similarities between the two thinkers, so much so that during his own lifetime Kant was concerned that their philosophies should be confused. He complained:

I have the misfortune that the testimony upon which I have stumbled and that bears such an uncommon likeness to my philosophical brainchild looks so desperately deformed and foolish that I would much sooner suppose the reader would, because of their affinity with such testimonies, regard my arguments as absurd rather than the reverse. Consequently, concerning such offensive comparisons, I bluntly state that I do not get the joke and declare in a nutshell that one either must suppose that there is more cleverness and truth in Schwedenberg’s [sic] writings than first appearances allow or that it is only by accident that his system coincides with mine, as poets sometimes prophesize when they rave, as one believes, or at least so they say, when they now and then coincide with what comes to pass.

Safe from accusations of materialism, it was a particular branch of idealistic mysticism in which Kant saw an apish image of himself. Yet what were these accidental ways in which Swedenborg’s system coincided with Kant’s that made it so offensive?

In Swedenborg’s system of morality we find that it is only through a good will, and not the execution of good acts, that one attains to a moral life, along with the intertwining of desire and thought itself, and the notion that the highest good for an individual is to love the “Lord above all things, and his neighbor as himself”. Likewise, while not used in exactly the same way, before Kant, Swedenborg was employing the language of the “kingdom of ends”, regnum finium to describe the ultimate value of human beings; however, with the added caveat that for him it was also associated with a “kingdom of uses and ends” that provided signatures in the phenomenal world that ultimately connected it to the noumenal in a way unimaginable in the Kantian system.

In both thinkers there was a developed sense of the limitations of human knowledge based on the structuring categories of understanding that were placed upon experience, yet for Swedenborg this would take on a notably different role, demonstrating, instead of refuting the possibility of some kind of encounter with the noumenal. As Kant understood it, for Swedenborg we can only perceive spiritual natures as filtered through our mental categories of understanding, and as such, do not see spirits-in-themselves, but only ever our representation of them. In this way Swedenborg’s account evaded several of Kant’s critiques of the impossibility of perceiving immaterial souls in space, since properly speaking, for both thinkers, souls, or spirits, did not occupy space at all. Instead, the “spiritual sense” was likened unto a category of understanding, though one not necessarily shared by all. This stands in a striking contrast to Kant’s mature position, not on the nature of spirits, but on how the understanding engages the material world through its structuring, universal categories. Instead, the problem with Swedenborg’s position here, for the young Kant, was that it was not useful. As he writes:

the property of developing in such a manner the impressions of the spirit world to clear intuition in this life can scarcely be useful, for by this the spiritual sensation becomes so closely interwoven with the figments of the imagination that it must be impossible to distinguish the truth in them from the crude illusions that surround it.

In agreement with his later philosophy, but notably different in the way he arrives at this conclusion, there were limits placed on speculation into these matters. The path he took to limit speculation in this case depended upon his belief that the person claiming to see spirits is sick because the vision “presupposes an altered balance of the nerves that are set in unnatural motion merely by the activity of purely spiritual sensations of the soul”. Here we see Kant entertaining, as a rational possibility, the existence of categories that are not necessarily universal in scope, but personal. True, these non-universal categories are signs of sickness in the constitution of the body, and at best were a source of confusion as to the validity of our intuitions, but the very possibility of them presented a challenge to the balance between idealism and materialism. Namely: how did this kind of irreducible uncertainty about the representation of the senses in the case of spirits compare to the same case in regard to the “thing-in-itself”?

In the case of Swedenborg’s spirit visions, while they could theoretically be present in experience, as a kind of non-universal category of understanding, the presupposed condition of seeing them, “an altered balance of the nerves”, would involve an inability to discern if they were actually from the noumenal realm, or creations of the subject’s own mind. Spirits would then be the very last thing a person could ever hope to see, for upon seeing them they could never be certain of any of their intuitions, even if the visions themselves could potentially be real. If Kant were to accept the possibility of non-universal categories as anything other than a sign of mental illness then it would cripple his ability to resist a purely idealist stance on the phenomenal world. For how does it follow that, admitting the logical possibility of spirit-visions, the potential spirit-seer would never be certain from whence any of his impressions came, while the experiences of person who was only ever a chair or table-seer would be validated by the supposed “coarseness” of their intuitions and comfortable ability to sit? In this way we begin to see just how much of a potential difficulty mystical idealism could present to Kant’s well-ordered distinctions between the phenomenal and the noumenal. While not rationally impossible, and indeed, necessarily possible for Kant’s project of establishing the immateriality and immortality of the soul, an investigation into spirit-visions would reap havoc with the investigator’s ability to distinguish between imagination and experience. It threatened to completely tip over the scales of reason towards the noumenal, which, as we have already seen, had a mechanical advantage in the hope for a future life.

Despite this potential pitfall, while making clear that he did not agree with the argument, Kant would go on to present a very similar image as Swedenborg’s in his critique of materialism. Despite expecting readers to lay aside such thoughts once their materialist foe has been vanquished, “we proceed quite rationally here, showing the opponent who thinks he has exhausted all of the possibilities [that he has not]”:

You could propose a transcendental hypothesis: that all life is really only intelligible, not subject to temporal alterations at all, and has neither begun at birth nor will be ended through death; that this life is nothing but a mere appearance, i.e., a sensible representation of the purely spiritual life, and the entire world of the senses is a mere image, which hovers before our present kind of cognition and, like a dream, has no objective reality in itself; that if we could intuit the things and ourselves as they are we would see ourselves in a world of spiritual natures with which our only true community had not begun with birth nor would not cease with bodily death.

Later in life Kant used the same inability to discern the boundaries between the mind and experience to weaken the materialist stance as he claimed was a sign of sickness in a potential spirit-seer such as Swedenborg. Not only this, but he uses the same language of the “dream” to describe this condition. Thus the first difficulty that Kant faces in his disregard of the existence of spirits is derived directly from his wish to argue for the immateriality and immortality of the soul, for how can the above argument, “quite rationally” show the impotence of the materialist stance and, with a like logic in the case of spirit-visions, maintain its force in the face of his refutation of mystical idealism? The answer to this rests in his concept of moral utility, a utility that was also jeopardized by accepting the potential existence of spirits. Kant could not accept the existence of spirits not in spite of, but because of how he sought to convince his contemporaries of the immortality and immateriality of the soul.

A sketch of Kant later in life mixing mustard to improve his memory.

Between Dreams of a Spirit Seer and The Critique of Pure Reason there is already a distinction to be made between what Kant considered rational and moral utility. In Dreams Kant considers utility largely in terms of what is rationally useful, writing at the beginning of the text that between looking for even one case of spiritual manifestations in this life and debunking their existence altogether: “there is, perhaps, a third position left, namely, not to meddle with such prying and idle questions, but to concern oneself only with what is useful”. According to this, the existence of spirits was as impossible to prove as it was to be used to prove anything else, and thus not worthy of consideration by serious minds. However, this is a position that, in and of itself, could equally apply to the immortality of the soul if simply left at that. Moving closer towards a sense of moral utility, Kant concluded his treaties on Swedenborg with the rejoinder that:

it would probably be best if [inquirers] would deign to wait patiently until they arrived there. But since our fate in the future world will probably very much depend upon how we have conducted ourselves at our post in the present, I conclude with that which Voltaire allows his honorable Candide, after so many useless scholastic debates, to conclude: ‘Let us look after our happiness, go into the garden, and work.

Here it is implied that while hope for a future life is an important guide to actions in this life, that it has a moral utility, the lack of rational utility present in the question of spirits makes it of some moral inutility. Here hope seems to be performing the logical function in the noumenal realm that the laws of nature perform in the phenomenal. Yet does this follow, and if so, why? To answer this we must now more deeply consider what Kant hand in mind by moral utility.

In his discussion of the three domains of metaphysics, of which the immortality and immateriality of the soul was a part, Kant stressed that these very concepts are lacking in utility, strictly speaking. As he said: “If, then, these three cardinal propositions are not at all necessary for our knowing, and yet are insistently recommended to us by our reason, their importance must really concern only the practical”. How is it that reason tries to induce us to admit principles about which it can never have any knowledge? It is perhaps more appropriate to say that hope, not reason, is the foundation of this “practical interest”, as Kant seems to imply when he asserts that:

“since the moral precept is thus at the same time my maxim (as reason commands that it ought to be), I will inexorably believe in the existence of God and a future life, and I am sure that nothing can make these beliefs unstable, since my moral principles themselves, which I cannot renounce without becoming contemptible in my own eyes, would thereby be subverted”.

From this we may consider hope to be the grounding principle of moral utility, indeed, that very thing which allows us to talk in terms of moral utility in the first place. It is that which allows the human beings to take heed of the noumenal realm and be aware of the three elements of metaphysics. Without it, admittedly, the arguments of materialism may be refuted, but nothing else could be erected to balance them, since the world of the noumenal itself would be silent. Yet this, for Kant, was chilling, alternating between a moral relativism, on the side of the materialists, or else “fanatical theosophic dreams”, on that of idealists like Swedenborg:

The proposition about the moral vocation of our nature, that only in an endless progress can we attain complete conformity with the moral law, is of the greatest usefulness, not merely in regard to the present supplement to the incapacity of speculative reason but also with respect to religion. In default of it, one either quite degrades the moral law from its holiness by making it out to be lenient (indulgent) and thus conformed to our conveniences, or else strains ones’s [sic] calling as well as ones’s [sic] expectation to an unattainable vocation, namely to a hoped-for full acquisition of holiness of will, and so get lost in enthusiastic theosophical dreams that quite contradict self-knowledge.

In this anxiety then, we find a potential answer to the question raised earlier. Both the immortality of the soul and the existence of spirits lack a substantial rational utility; in the phenomenal realm they can be neither proven nor disproven. Yet the immortality of the soul has a moral utility for Kant, since it forms the basis of a hope that ultimately joins the two realms. In contrast, the existence, or the acceptance of the existence of spirits, would in fact be detrimental to this very same hope, for it would co-mingle the noumenal and phenomenal in such a way as to make certainty of either seemingly impossible, for then there would be no way of telling what was a construct of the mind, and what a visitation from the noumenal realm. Perhaps paradoxically, anything resembling a promise of phenomenal evidence for the immortality of the soul would in fact destroy the principle of hope upon which Kant would spend his entire life employing to connect the two realms of existence, a hope that by its very limitations makes our appreciation of these realms possible.

In his writing and in his thought, Kant had no difficulty in distinguishing himself from the materialist position, yet the pull of idealism was much stronger and for that same reason potentially more destabilizing to the uneven balance that he wished to maintain. There was a double difficulty inherent in the existence of thinkers like Swedenborg, whose system of mystical idealism also chose as its main topics God, the immortality of the soul and the freedom of the will. Firstly, in terms of rational utility, both spirits and the immortality of the soul shared the same inherent inability to be proven or disproven. Yet the consideration of spirits along Swedenborgian lines presented a grave problem, for Swedenborg’s spirits acted upon the understanding in much the same way as the thing-in-itself, and thus partially bypassed the limits that Kant set up for what experience could or could not demonstrate. Yet because of this they only served to sow uncertainty about the source of our intuitions, and had the potential to collapse the distinction between imagination, the noumenal and the phenomenal to the confusion of all. The second difficulty that Swedenborg’s system presented was the way in which this potential confusion about the sources of our intuitions subverted the role of hope upon which the moral law was founded. How could practical reason be said to take “its principles from somewhere higher, and so determines our behavior, as if our vocation extended infinitely far above experience”, if the very hope upon which this “as if” rested could be logically realized in a way that pushed our uncertainties back, not into the domain of a clear and particular hope, but into that of an irresolvable distrust of all our intuitions? It is conceivable that we could see spirits, and thus have no way of ever trusting our knowledge again, or else be forced to accept any construction of the mind as valid. Such a state may very well result in the Kantian nightmare scenario, of a kind of relativism, or mystical idealism that could offer no certain footing for any system of morality. Thus Swedenborg and other “visionaries, enthusiasts, etc.” were very important targets for attack, not despite, but because of the similarities between their systems and Kant’s and especially on the subject of the immortality and immateriality of the soul, the uneven balance for which he sought no solution.

Kant’s ghost, the one which he could not do without, whose very existence was a paradox because it could not be realized without destroying its own foundations was nothing more, and nothing less, than hope  itself. He’d have rather had a certain absence of proof, than an uncertain presence, for it would throw the rest of his system completely into the realm of the ideal, and hence of our wildest dreams.

For More Information:

Kant, Immanuel. 2002. Dreams of a Spirit-Seer and Other Writings. Trans. Gregory R. Johnson and Glenn Alexander Magee. Ed. Gregory R. Johnson. Pennsylvania: Swedenborg Foundation Publications.

—. 1999. Critique of Pure Reason. Eds. and Trans. Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

—. 1997. Critique of Practical Reason. Ed. and Trans. Mary J. Gregor. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Swedenborg, Emanuel. 1909. Arcana Caelestia: The Heavenly Arcana contained in the Holy Scriptures or Word of the Lord, Vol. 1. New York: American Swedenborg Printing and Publishing Society.

Understanding the Inexpressible: Primo Levi’s The Drowned and the Saved

As described by Primo Levi in his work The Drowned and the Saved, the ultimate effect of the Nazi concentration camps was not just to execute a section of the population; more than life, the camps took humanity itself. Thus, it is implied in Levi’s writings that those who survived the horrors of the Holocaust were, by definition, not the ones who had undergone the full force of the Nazi’s dehumanizing project. They were able to once again return to the human community after their harrowing experience. Levi describes the ones who were forced to see this process through as being the only true witnesses to the worst of the holocaust, an act of witnessing which robed them of all ability to express what had been experienced. This is why Levi describes these people as “those who saw the Gorgon”, to see what they saw was to be lost forever.

Levi, himself a survivor of the Holocaust, explains that for the survivors memory was selective, and sometimes even misleading. As he says: “It has been noticed, for instance, that many survivors of wars or other complex and traumatic experiences tend unconsciously to filter their memories”. The survivors accounts are of a time at which everything human in them rebels, and they would rather forget, or place emphasis on the “relaxed intermezzos” between the worst of their experiences. Furthermore, even in the face of such torments, as Levi recounts, the human mind often seeks to alter its own reality. This is evident in Alberto’s response to the sure death of his father. After he was sent to the chambers, Alberto invented for himself an elaborate myth detailing how his father had survived and had been sent to a camp for geriatrics.

Not only does Levi question the completeness of the picture presented by the survivors, he also notes that the experiences many of them shared were not what the majority of the prisoners actually faced. Indeed, that was exactly how they were able to survive, “by their prevarications or abilities or good luck”. The camps were made to kill people, those who survived, then, were the exceptions and not the rule; they usually had options that were never offered to those who died. These people were called “Muslims” and within the camps they were “the irreversibly exhausted, worn out prisoners close to death”.

Communication, and through it the twin benefits of community and information, was precious within the Lagers. Language was vital in the camps for, as Levi explains, the essence of human life is such that “one can and must communicate, and thereby contribute in a useful and easy way to the peace of others and oneself”. Many of those who survived could either speak German, the language of their captors, or another language which connected them to their fellow prisoners. In knowing German one had a great advantage, for, “[t]hose who understood them and answered in an articulate manner could establish the semblance of a human relationship”. This semblance of a relationship, while not insuring life, prevented one from falling into the”irreversible exhaustion” and extreme isolation of the “Muslim”.

As Levi describes:

“This ‘not being talked to’ had rapid and devastating effects. To those who do not talk to you, or address you in screams that seem inarticulate to you, you do not dare speak… if you don’t find anyone your tongue dries up in a few days, and your thoughts with it.”

Language is not merely a tool, allowing us to externalize the internal world of the mind; it is also constituent and and feeds back into the way our minds themselves work. Without it, we lose an integral part of ourselves. Levi makes this an essential characteristic of the human, making the broad statement: “All members of the human species speak, no nonhuman species knows how to speak”. He further emphasizes the human non-human dichotomy and the effects of losing the ability to communicate when he describes the reactions of the Italians in the camp, who looked around: “with bewildered eyes, like trapped animals, and that is what they had become”. Not only does this loss of communication drastically change the victims’ ways of thinking, but it also pronounced a virtual death sentence for the prisoner. As Levi describes: “In short, you find yourself in a void, and you understand at your expense that communication generates information and that without information you cannot live”.

This is what it took in the camps to make a “Muslim”: the utter loss of the ability to express even the most basic of thoughts,  with it any connection to human community, and a certain death sentence after time spent in cruel labour. These were the people who truly witnessed all the holocaust had to offer, and because of it could never actually express what they saw, for the holocaust did not only kill the person, but the human within. This is why it is only possible to get a third party’s account of the events, that a precondition of understanding them is, paradoxically, never “really” knowing what they experienced, and being only too aware of this divide. In a passage of the greatest importance Levi explains:

We who were favored by fate tried, with more or less wisdom, to recount not only our fate but also that of the others, indeed of the drowned; but this was a discourse ‘on behalf of third parties,’ the story of things seen close at hand, not experienced personally. The destruction brought to an end, the job completed, was not told by anyone, just as no one ever returned to describe his own death. Even if they had paper and pen, the drowned would not have testified because their death had begun before that of their body… they had already lost the ability to observe, to remember, to compare and express themselves. We speak in their stead, by proxy.

This is why Levi describes the true witnesses of the holocaust as “those who saw the Gorgon”, for to truly see it was to lose all that makes one human. It is not a paradox to say that the only witnesses were those who could then never bear witness, for that in itself was the very state that the true witnesses were reduced to. The circumstances of the “Muslim” were so distant from those which we can imagine because the Holocaust had finished its work. It is humbling and awful insight, and should give some pause for thought when we seek to speak about such things, and for such people, to realize that we seek to speak of a thing in some ways beyond the communicative capacity of any human language, and that our grasping signs, our subtlest, most penetrating statements, can always only be at best second hand, the impression of the shadow of a borrowed signifier, whose actual owners took it along with them on their inexpressible journey to the end.

For More Information:

Levi, Primo. The Drowned and the Saved. Trans. Raymond Rosenthal. New York: Vintage International, 1988.

Three Are All Gods: A Study of Egyptian Theology in the New Kingdom

Cult statue of Amun-Re from the Great Temple of Amun, Karnak.

Amun, the hidden one, Re, the sun, together these two divine forces came to dominate Egyptian theology. Though Amun’s rise to power had its roots in the political preeminence of Thebes during the New Kingdom, his widespread acceptance and his amalgamation with Re does much to illuminate the nature of Egyptian theology. Many early Egyptologists believed that the “union with Rē did Amūn an injury, for as a result not much survives of his original nature […] and on the whole Amunrē is actually nothing more than the old powerful sun-god”.  However, as will be shown, this “union” was not complete. Amun did not eclipse Re, as can be seen in many New Kingdom prayers. Amun, Re, and Amun-re were still invoked as semi-independent entities sharing the same overarching domain of existence. Ultimately, it is best to view the god Amun-re as representative of a number of different facets of the divine life in Egypt, wedded together by Ptah, the force of creativity. For as the New Kingdom’s Poems on Thebes and its God states: “Three are all gods—Amūn, Rē, and Ptah—and there is none like them. Hidden is his name as Amūn, Rē belongeth to him as face (?), and Ptah is his body […] Only he is: Amūn and Rē and Ptah, together three”.

Before an in-depth analysis of the role of Amun or Re can be attempted it is necessary to point out the massive age of Ancient Egyptian culture. It spans more than five millennia from the pre-dynastic period around 5500 BCE to the era of Roman rule in 395 CE. As such, when studying the theology of Egypt it must be remembered that the natures of the Egyptian deities were not immutable. Local deities would rise and fall, become associated with outside equivalencies during times of trade, or take on new meanings as Egyptian religion developed.

Claude Traunecker, in his text The Gods of Egypt, proposes that “[t]o attribute a name to a deity was to isolate, recognize, and define a force”. As such we see a multiplicity of equivalent names for similar gods arise in Egypt, or many names for the many facets of individual gods. In Traunecker’s account a single domain of power could be represented in many gods, according to the location of the specific cult. For example: “according to the cult place, the anonymous destructive goddess became Nekhbet, Isis, Anukis, Meret, and so forth”. Likewise we see a plurality of Names given to Re according to his various manifestations, as one source reads: “Many are (your) names, sacred are (your) kheperu [manifest]-transformations”. Indeed, even before his merging with Amun, “He [was] Kepri in the morning, Re at midday, and Atum in the evening”.

This multiplicity of titles served many purposes. A number of common names known by all were used for mediation with the divine realm. Thus one name of Re was used to counteract the effects of venom because of an associated myth with Re and a serpent. However, there were other names, concentrated in the priesthood, which expressed the overarching might of a deity. These names were considered to be “unpronounceable, for [they were] beyond linguistic reality”. Here it is important to note one of the early key differences between Re and Amun. While Re’s secret name was known, won by the goddess Isis, Amun’s secret name is unknown by any of the gods, as he is unfathomable even to them.

Another result of the multiplicity of titles was the combination of deities depending upon the functions they represented. Re-Atum, Khnum-Re, Ptah-Sokar-Osiris are some examples of these divine amalgamations. It is important to note that these unions did not eradicate the previous identity of the component deities. As David Silverman states in The Ancient Gods Speak: “in these divine links, one god was combined with another, or became an extension of another, and the elements of each would become unified in the composite without the loss of their original identity”. Thus we can see the theological background that made the union between Amun and Re possible. However, before one can look into the seemingly paradoxical union of Amun and Re, it is first necessary to look into the functions and histories of the two gods.

Re was the oldest of the preeminent sun gods of Egypt, and until his amalgamation with Amun he was considered the god of gods. For the ancient Egyptians “[t]he rising sun was the symbol for the creation of the world, and the daily course of the sun the symbol of the world’s cyclical renewal; hence the paramount importance of Re as creator and master of life”. This preeminence was both political and spiritual as the pharaoh and Re were said not only to be of similar natures but rather the pharaoh was seen as the son of Re, and thus represented the overarching will of the divine order.

A fundamental quality of Re was his revealing nature, this is displayed repeatedly in prayers from the New Kingdom:  “He causeth all eyes to open”, “he who illumineth the Two Lands”, “Lord of rays, who createth light”, and so forth. Being a sun deity this is not surprising; however, one is missing a great deal of Re’s importance if he is seen merely as a lord of light. This is revealed in his relationship to Maat, for he is Re who “lives on Maat”. This is a strange characteristic if Re is only seen as a fundamentally physical deity, the sun; rather, it only makes sense if Re’s illumination is seen as more than his physical emanation and rather as a more omnipresent revelation of existence.

As has been mentioned above, Re had a plurality of forms and names that corresponded to the different cycles of the sun. The primacy of this pattern is substantial, for not only did the movement of the sun dictate the passage of time, but it also ensured the entire cyclical order of the universe. This is why “Re’s closest ally is Maat, the embodiment of order and truth; [for] she represents the unimpeachable principle of his rule”.

Amun’s history is harder to characterize. He began his existence as a Theban wind god. However, his hidden nature and the political role of his priests allowed him to supplant the original patron of Thebes, Montu the war god. Traces of his airy origins can still be seen in the New Kingdom prayers. Amun is described as: “a sweet breeze to him that calleth upon him”, “[a] wind that turneth back the adverse blast”, “[t]he wind hath turned about to us in mercy, and Amun hath turned with (?) his wind” and he comes “with the sweet wind before him”.

From his unseen nature as a wind god it is not surprising that Amun later manifested himself as a force of the unknown, particularly to the sight worshiping Egyptians. He would later be characterized by this principle in the Hermopolitan tradition of the Middle Kingdom. During this time period in Thebes there were thought to be negative forces underlying those of creation, and they were represented by four sets of deities of which Amun and his consort where a pair. “These four entities are actually non-presences constituting a sort of negative description of the real. […] Amun, the ‘hidden one’ or the ‘unknown,’ is the converse of that which is visible or knowable—in sum, that which peoples and fills the world. As will be seen, this ineffable quality had its focus both changed and strengthened by his eventually amalgamation with Re.

The amalgamation of the two deities into Amun-Re took place sometime during the New Kingdom when Egypt was rising to the height of its empire. Once again, many historians posit a political motivation for the union, for as Thebes became the most with the god of gods. From this Amun appears to have adopted all the creative potential of Re; however, even before the merger he had been attributed these qualities by the Theban priests.

By studying the prayers of the New Kingdom it is possible to gain a clearer understanding of the transformation that occurred when Amun became associated with Re, and how their combination assumed its own separate properties. It is interesting to note that despite the unifications of the two, they are still mentioned both separately and together, and that all three of these, Amun, Re, and Amun-Re are vested and invoked with particular properties in mind. Re maintains his old status, being represented as a god of the sun, truth, and what is, whereas Amun seems to have taken on the portfolio of the ultimate unknown in relation to Re, that is, as master of the future, potentiality, and fate. In contrast, Amun-Re is often invoked primarily as the divine lord, the god of gods, and is more associated with royalty and political authority.

Throughout the prayers of the New Kingdom, Re maintained his role as both the sun, and the lord and creator of the knowable world. It is Re who is called upon by people convicted of crimes that they did not commit. In this aspect he is “a lord in whom men may make their boast […] that preseideth over the Court of Law, that establish Truth and assail Iniquity”. Furthermore, it is important to note that “unlike other deities, Re never has a sanctuary with a cult statue; his image is the sun itself”. The symbolism of Re is consistent throughout this age. He is an almost omnipresent god that makes things live and his icon is itself the life giving sun.

One prayer to Re, however, does much to shine light on his nature as a god of not merely the knowable, but of all that is in actuality, as opposed to the potentiality of Amun. The prayer states that: “thou [Re] art he that doeth, and there is none save thee that doeth aught. Only thou it is that doeth anything”. There is a comment here by the translator that all others only help in words, yet this is seemingly contradictory to the whole spirit of Egyptian thought, for words were a powerful form of action. Rather, it is fruitful to see this as further evidence of Re’s role in the present as an active principle. Furthermore, it is said that “[Amun] appeared as Re in Nun [the disordered pre-mass of creation], and fashioned that which is and that which is not”. Once more, the connection between the two gods is emphasized, yet Amun seems to have taken on a primary role. It was he who appeared as Re, not Re as Amun, for he is a god not seen in his actual form by any, but only in what emerges from him. This passage both serves to establish Re as the lord of that which is and that which is not, and demonstrate Amun’s potential nature, for before there was anything, there was a possibility, and from that possibility emerges the knowable world. Amun, the unknown, unknowable, yet necessary pre-father of existence came before Ra. For as one New Kingdom prayer states: “the lotus of Re emerged, and light burst forth after the darkness in its name of Amun”.

Re’s role as a lord of what is present, or what is, is in contrast to that of the Amun of the New Kingdom. One text reads of him that:  “Fate and the Harvest goddess are with him for all people”, while Ramses II in an account of his victory over the Khatti, laments: “I have come hither by reason of the counsel of thy mouth, O Amun”. These prayers, directly dedicated to Amun rather than Amun-Re, almost exclusively address the concepts of futurity and fate. As one commentator notes: “Theologians of the Ramesside Period imagined that Amun existed in a sort of transcendent time: ‘You have announced what will happen in the future, in millions of years, for eternity is before you like yesterday which has passed’”.

The same commentator goes on to say of Amun that: “This is a god who is distanced from his creation, exterior to the world and thus transcendent, unknowable, without a cult, and unapproachable”. However, there is a contradiction here in his later analysis. After stating this he goes on to discuss how the Pharaohs and priests of the New Kingdom utilized oracles and even spoke to Amun directly to decide future courses of action. After the Pharaoh Tuthmosis IV heard of an uprising in Nubia he “went immediately to the holy of holies to consult Amun. After this tête-à-tête with the god, he proclaimed the decision that had been made”. Thus there was a connection between the ineffable nature of the god and mortals that appears to have expressed itself through oracles. These oracles were always about things to come, and rarely about things that were, which belonged to the realm of Re.

In the New Kingdom prayers Amun-Re is predominantly invoked by name in his royal guise as ruler of all: “Heaven, Thebes, Heliopolis, and the Nether World, their inhabitants rejoice over their lord[…] Though triumphest, O Amunrē!”. Amun-Re is often identified as the Lord of Thebes, and the first to be king, and is most often invoked in hymns to royalty, such as Ramses II: “Son of Rē, who treadeth down the land of the Khatti, Ramses-Beloved-of-Amūn, given life. Beloved […] by Amūnrē, king of gods”. Overall Amun-Re was a royal deity, whose political origins were in part reflected in his divine domain as a god of kings. However, he also appears to have adopted Re’s position in maintaining Maat, for in the New Kingdom he was attributed with the daily conflict with Apep. This, if anything else, would seem to indicate that he did more to consume Re’s than Amun’s domain.

Finally, there is the relation that Amun and Re have to Ptah. In a particularly unique prayer these three deities are claimed together to be the only god. “Hidden is his name as Amūn, Rē belongeth to him as face (?), and Ptah as his body”.

In the Middle Kingdom Ptah was the Memphite god of artisans and some scholars believe that he continued in this tradition into the New Kingdom as a god of creativity who expresses himself through the heart and tongue. In his role as a god of creativity he seems to have been necessary before creation itself, naturally ranking him with Amun and Re. Yet, as Claud Traunecker observes, recent research has shown that: “‘Ptah’ and ‘heart and tongue’ are not divine personages, but rather philosophical terms designating the intellectual creative process. Ptah is the name of the tool employed by the creator god. Thus […] the ‘principle of Ptah’ was preexistent”.

If this is the case then, it may be possible to look on this divine triumvirate as representing potentiality (Amun, his hidden name) actualizing (through Ptah, his body) into the actual (Re, his face). Together, according to the above prayer, these concepts seem to represent the whole of the Egyptian existence in which unknown potentiality was primary. Just as “[t]he concept of projection by forethought […] and its subsequent realization through intelligible expression were part of the daily life of artisans”, so too was the divine creative process. In this case, even though his creation may in fact have been politically driven, it is possible to see the New Kingdom’s Amun-Re as the complete artist of existence, ruling over the entire process. As he seems to have adopted the role of protecting Maat, perhaps it is wise to see him in this light. Even if Amun-Re was a politically driven deity, his theological effects upon his component parts resulted in a complex philosophical structure of existence that has yet to be fully fathomed by any age since.

Ultimately then, Amun’s merging with Re did not in fact diminish his identity, but rather involved him in a complex and integrated philosophical structure in which existence is understood in terms of the primacy of potentiality actualizing into the actual. Despite the political motivation for Amun’s rise to power, radical theological developments also emerged from his new association as Amun-Re. For his part, Amun-Re appears to have been seen as the overarching unity of the actions of Amun, Ptah and Re. If this is so then Amun-Re would be best interpreted as the primary ordering principle over and above that of the spheres of potential, actualization, and actual. It would then be easy to explain his place of power in the New Kingdom as the god of gods and the protector of Maat. This is one way to make sense of the puzzling prayer of the New Kingdom that: “Three are all gods—Amūn, Rē, and Ptah […] Only he is: Amun and Rē and Ptah, together three”. With this understanding, the world of the Egyptian gods seems to open up to new philosophical realms, particularly in the New Kingdom, realms in which the future is seen as the most unknown and awesome force. Given the nature of Ancient Egypt’s culture of preservation and focus on tradition, this is no surprise. To such a people there would be nothing more uncertain than the future, and Amun represented this uncertainty. In this regard, at least, perhaps the Ancient Egyptians were not so different from us after all.

For More Information:

Erman, Adolf. The Literature of the Ancient Egyptians: Poems, Narratives, and Manuals of Instruction, From the Third and second Millennia B.C.. Trans. Aylward Blackman. London: Methuen & Co. LTD, 1927.

Pinch, Geraldine. Egyptian Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Goddesses, and Traditions of Ancient Egypt. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Spence, Lewis. Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt. London: Ballantyne Press, 1925.

The Ancient Gods Speak: A Guide to Egyptian Religion. Ed. Donald Redford. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Traunecker, Claude. The Gods of Egypt. Trans. David Lorton. New York: Cornell University Press, 2001.

God of Hutton, God of Kelvin: Religion, Eternity and the Age of the Earth

The debate between William Thomson, who would later be ennobled as Lord Kelvin (1824 –1907) and the followers of James Hutton (1726–1797) demonstrates a difficult period in the history of nineteenth century science in which the figures who are traditionally regarded as the fathers of modern geology (Hutton) and biology (Darwin) where pitted against Lord Kelvin, who is still considered one of the founding fathers of thermodynamics, and thus of modern physics. The point which brought these figures into conflict was the argument surrounding the age of the earth. Hutton’s and Kelvin’s methodologies were in some ways very similar, particularly in their views on the uniformity of nature and the demand for evidence of a beneficent being who created the natural world. Furthermore, both were forced to appeal to secondary causes when trying to defend their positions. Where they differed substantially was in their understanding of eternity in the larger framework of how the creator expressed himself in the world and how this related to the human ability to understand it.

It would be too easy to phrase the debate between Kelvin and the geologists as a conflict between empirical evidence and religious prejudices in nineteenth century science. Indeed, Kelvin himself gave ample evidence that he worried about the theological implications of the geological and evolutionary theories of his time. In an 1872 speech to the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Kelvin concluded his discussion with a reaffirmation of these worries in the “zoological speculations” of contemporary biologists, stating that: “Overpoweringly strong proofs of intelligent and benevolent design lie around us […] showing to us through nature the influence of a free will, and teaching us that all living things depend on one everlasting Creator and Ruler”. Presumably, Kelvin felt that the vast time scales proposed by Hutton, Lyell and Darwin would remove the need for a creator in the universe and infringe on the free will of humans.

Yet in this assumption we are all too quick to ignore the unorthodox religious views which led Hutton to formulate his self perpetuating “world machine”. As laid down by one of his more eloquent proponents, John Playfair (1748–1819), this perpetuity is ultimately maintained by God, for the author of nature: “has not given laws to the universe, which, like the institutions of men, carry in themselves the elements of their own destruction. He has not permitted in His works any symptoms of infancy, or of old age, or any sign by which we may estimate either their future or their past duration”. The world had obviously been created for the benefit of the things living upon it and for human beings in particular, and it would not have been fitting for a wise and omnipotent being to create it as anything other than eternal. As is clear from Playfair’s statement, it was this very indefiniteness which was the sign of divinity. While the system itself was indefinite, as a product of God’s wisdom, once started the world machine would perpetuate the specific cycles of uplift and erosion unendingly, maintaining the various balances which were necessary for life.

In the case of Kelvin, the situation is aptly summarized by Burchfield in his work Lord Kelvin and the Age of the Earth, for “it was the belief in design that justified the formulation of universal scientific laws, that assured the relationship of cause and effect, that, in short, made science possible”. Considering Hutton’s religious views, it seems very unlikely that he would disagree with this statement. The science of both men was deeply integrated with their theological conceptions of how a wise and omnipotent God would construct an orderly world.

Likewise, Kelvin and Hutton’s intellectual defender, Charles Lyell (1797-1875) largely agreed on the actualism of causation, in which the same kind of causes have been at work at all times, and held similar views of uniformitarianism, in which the same causes have been acting with the same intensity over time. As Lyell formulated it, through: “researches into the state of the earth and its inhabitants at former periods, we acquire a more perfect knowledge of its present condition, and more comprehensive views concerning the laws now governing its animate and inanimate production”. This was also the case for Kelvin, for whom logical consistency “required that since the discovery of the primitive state of matter is beyond man’s power, if one is to find a probable beginning, he must start with the present condition of nature and reason back by analogy and strict dynamics”.

The situation is somewhat less definite in regards to the two men’s approaches to uniformitarianism. As it was generally argued, Kelvin was clearly antagonistic to the idea as he understood it. However, in his work On Geological Dynamics, Kelvin specifies that he is opposed to what he called “ultra-uniformitarianism”, and otherwise speaks approvingly of other similar movements in geology: “The geology which I learned thirty years ago [embodied the fundamental theory of] Evolutionism. This I have always considered to be the substantial and irrefragable part of geological speculation; and I have looked on the ultra-uniformitarianism of the last twenty years as a temporary aberration worthy of being energetically protested against”. When seen in this light, Kelvin’s affinity for certain forms of uniformitarianism becomes more evident and shows the difficulties in strictly drawing a line between the methods employed by  proponents of the young earth and those of the old.

This subtlety is clearly shown when one considers Kelvin’s argument presented by On the Secular Cooling of the Earth, in which he states “that essential principles of Thermo-dynamics have been overlooked by those geologists who uncompromisingly oppose all paroxysmal hypostheses”. Immediately following this Kelvin makes it clear that he is not a catastrophist in the traditional sense of the word. For him: “It is quite certain the solar system cannot have gone on even as at present […], without the irrevocable loss (by dissipation, not by annihilation) of a very considerable proportion of the entire energy initially in store for sun heat”. The distinction between annihilation and dissipation is a crucial one. Not only is it a reaffirmation of the first law of thermodynamics, but it also opens the door to a different kind of unimformitarianism than that typically attributed to Lyell or Hutton. It is one in which there can be a uniformity of causes without a corresponding uniformity of effects. The causes themselves have been acting at the same intensity; however, their effects have varied over time because of the limitation placed on them by the second law of thermodynamics. The laws are the same, the causes are the same, yet as Kelvin says: “the secular rate of dissipation has been in some direct proportion to the total amount of energy in store, at any time after the commencement of the present order of things, and has been therefore very slowly diminishing from age to age”. The rate of the dissipation would vary in proportion to the total amount of energy in store, producing effects of varying intensities despite the uniformity of the causes governing them.

This crucial distinction is what allowed Kelvin to criticize Playfair’s statement that only a direct act of God could bring about a catastrophe like the one implied by Kelvin’s thermodynamic approach to the age of the earth. Playfair concludes the passage by stating: “we may safely conclude that this great catastrophe will not be brought about by any of the laws now existing, and that it is not indicated by anything which we perceive”. Kelvin, however, found a grave error in this view of uniformity. Indeed, he saw it as being: “pervaded by a confusion between ‘present order,’ or ‘present system,’ and ‘laws now existing’—between destruction of the earth as a place habitable to beings such as now live on it, and a decline or failure of law and order in the universe”. Thus it is evident that he did not contest the validity of uniformity itself. Kelvin contested what he saw as a narrow view of uniformity that could not derive universal laws from the present order of things within the finite framework of the solar system, but instead was forced to posit an indefinite standpoint in order to make its system scientifically valid.

Thus, when looking at Lyell’s three main tenants of actualism, uniformitarianism and cyclicality, it is only the underlying principle of cyclicality which differs substantially from Kelvin’s own thought. What, then, can be said about the fundamental differences that divided Kelvin’s thought from that of the geological community of his time? These differences can not appeal to the specious distinction between science and religion in either camp, since their religiosity was almost identical in its demands for an ordered, benevolent deity which made science possible. Rather, the question was what that beneficent order would look like. Likewise, one can not make appeals to the demand both groups placed upon their thinking in regards to the stability of causality which made scientific inquiry into the past possible. Where they did differ was in the objects of study which each group took up to defend its claims, and how these objects could in some ways only be viewed indirectly. It was the indirectness of secondary causes which left both groups open to criticism from the opposing camp and perpetuated the debate for almost forty years in Kelvin’s lifetime alone. At the heart of the matter, however, were the conflicting views of eternity which formed the basis of both Hutton’s, as mediated through Lyell, and Kelvin’s visceral opposition to the other’s work, about the circularity or progressiveness of nature.

It would be helpful here to provide some explanation of what is meant by secondary causes. Secondary causes in this case would be any cause which must be appealed to in order to get to a more primary cause which can not be directly observed. Since it is not possible for people to actually see the effects of time in geology over thousands or millions of years, it is then necessary when explaining its effects to point instead to the effects of things such as the dissipation of heat, uplift, layering, and erosion. Once these explanations are found it is then possible to work backwards from the causes of these effects to the prime cause, whether that be the formation and age of the earth itself or the formation and age of a specific mountain range.

Hutton, in exploring the age of the earth, took as his object of study the layers of the earth itself. As first this consideration seems to go without saying, yet it is important to note that this was not the case with Kelvin, who instead dealt almost exclusively with the nature of heat, and the ability of the earth to support living things. Both of them were looking at secondary causes to demonstrate their positions, one in the effects of unimaginable time on the earth itself and the other at the age of the suns heat. The nature of their particular observations made both arguments vulnerable to their own particular criticisms.

The discovery of unconformity in geological strata demonstrated to Hutton a key mechanism in the circularity of geological processes. Unconformities are the remains of geological strata which have been displaced from their horizontal alignment and instead now occupy a vertical position relative to the above strata (see appendix 1). The conclusions which were drawn from this phenomenon were most artfully stated, once again, by Playfair: “We often said to ourselves, What [sic] clearer evidence could we have had of the different formation of these rocks, and of the long interval which separated their formation, […] Revolutions still more remote appeared in the distance of this extraordinary perspective”. Unconformities had the effect of breaking down older geological strata, in some ways erasing the records of past time. Their existence was a vital part of Hutton’s argument for a cyclical earth, and represented his most direct evidence that the age of the earth was not something limited by either past or future ages.

This kind of “direct” indirect evidence demonstrates the problem facing any purely geological inquiry into the age of the earth. Hutton and his followers, when considering the single system of the earth, could only consider what incidental evidence was left over for them after years of intervening phenomenon had had a chance to bury and destroy the very evidence they were looking for. This naturally left them with an indeterminate number of cycles continuing without apparent end. True, they were shown an example of the vast time scale on which geology operated, opening up the door to a more complete depiction of the age of the earth; however, they were unable to derive any further evidence for these same cycles except to point, rock hammer in hand, at the immense times required to lay the cycles down in the geological strata. Outside of this they could only appeal to base principles of what was required for life and a beneficent deity. The instability of these secondary causes would continually leave the early Uniformitarians open to accusations that they had not sufficiently grasped the physical and mathematical laws governing their field of study, while their very same field of study seemed to deny any attempt at strict quantification because of the same order that made it observable in the first place.

The problem Kelvin faced was somewhat different, though directly related to the difficulties of secondary causes in quantifying geological time. Taking as his object of study the dissipation of heat, and armed with the mathematical tools of thermodynamics, Kelvin would at first glance appear to have a better standing when it came to quantifying the age of the earth. Yet here too Kelvin was confronted by the same bugbear of secondary causes as were his intellectual opponents. Kelvin hoped to use the second law of thermodynamics to help guide his calculations into the age of the earth. The second law of thermodynamics lays down that energy is always moving from a more ordered to a less ordered state, the most disordered form of energy being heat. For example, a cup of tea in a cold room will never become warmer while the room cools, but will continue to loose heat to its environment in a predictable manner until both the room and the tea reach a state of thermal equilibrium. It was this predictable rate of dissipation which Kelvin hoped to use as his indicator in much the same way as radioactive decay is used today to determine the age of objects.

Kelvin used mathematical principles guided by the second law of thermodynamics in part because he could not look to the earth itself when in need of placing a definitive limit on its age. Here the quantitative factors were still too murky, and in some cases were directly hostile to his position. Rather, in using the definitive measure of heat, and taking as his object the age of the sun, he could hope to be able to fix the age of the earth by binding it with that of the sun which could not be studied qualitatively, but only quantitatively. This appears to have been his intent. In a thirty-one year span Kelvin worked out his calculations drawing the age of the earth ever closer to the common estimate of the age of the sun, so that the age of the earth went from being twenty and four hundred million years, compared to the sun’s twenty million years, to a number set at twenty-four million years.

Fundamentally, however, the precision of his calculations in placing limits on the age of the earth was secondary to his main goal of firmly establishing that such limits actually existed. As Burchfield says “The inexactness of his calculations was […] unimportant so long as they established the necessity for a limit upon geological time and the impossibility of uniformitarianism’s demand for limitless ages”. Still, since Kelvin took as his object the sun, which could only be known quantitatively through astronomical means, he was nevertheless open to chargers of miscalculation, and to criticisms of the roundabout way in which he sought to fix the age of the earth.

Given the difficulty inherent in any definitive resolution to the problem of the age of the earth, then, we must look even further into the primary goals Kelvin and Hutton hoped to achieve in their world systems. In doing so we see that the matter was largely a reflection of the different ways in which the two men viewed the nature and dangers of the concept of eternity for human kind, and for the very possibility of reason in natural philosophy.

Hutton’s cyclical conception of the world took as its model Newton’s cosmos, infinite in space, whose motions where perfectly balanced in the orbits of the planets. Yet where Newton’s cosmos was infinite in space, Hutton’s world would focus on the infinity of time. The balancing of forces which maintained the planetary orbits was analogous to the balancing forces of erosion and uplift which maintained the succession of worlds. Yet the movement from an infinite cosmos to an eternal world is not without its difficulties. Hutton’s world machine made a radical statement about the nature of history, and implied a more enclosed system than the Newtonian cosmos. Still, Hutton often drew the comparison between the cycles of the planets and the cycles of the earth.

This is exactly how he prefaces his famous concluding lines to the Theory of the Earth. After having just recounted the three periods of the earth and reaffirming the indefiniteness of their duration, he then goes on to draw the connection between the cyclical age of the earth and that of the planets, stating:

[W]e have the satisfaction to find, that in nature there is wisdom, system, and consistency. For having, in the natural history of this earth, seen a succession of worlds, we may from this conclude that there is a system in nature; in like manner as, from seeing revolutions of the planets, it is concluded, that there is a system by which they are intended to continue those revolutions. […] The result, therefore, of our present enquiry is, that we find no vestige of a beginning,–no prospect of an end.

For Hutton, as is evident from this excerpt, it is the eternally cyclic essence of natural phenomenon which makes it possible to logically observe systems in the world, which to a large extent makes them knowable. Without these cycles the most we could observe would be incidental phenomenon, insufficient for the development of universal principles. This demand upon knowledge has a surprising consequence. Natural phenomena are understandable insofar as they are cyclic in nature. This can be seen in the progression of animals, plants, climate and geology. However, human history, insofar as it focuses on particulars is unimportant, and potentially can not really be seen to exist at all.

Kelvin himself, however, was not entirely opposed to some forms of eternity. As is evident from his On the Age of the Sun’s Heat:

The result would inevitably be a state of universal rest and death, if the universe were finite and left to obey existing laws. But it is impossible to conceive a limit to the extent of matter in the universe; and therefore science points rather to an endless progress, through an endless space, of action involving the transformation of potential energy into palpable motion and thence into heat, than to a single finite mechanism, running down like a clock, and stopping for ever.

While this passage is almost universally held to mark the introduction of the idea of heat death, it also serves as a refutation of the very same possibility. Rather than asserting that the dissipation of heat will lead to an eventual extinguishing of all life, Kelvin instead posits a universe in which the second law of thermodynamics insures a continued activity of matter, directed and given order by the transformation of potential energy into motion and heat. Thus Kelvin was driven to establish a firm limit on the beginning of the earth in order to make his view of progression make sense in light of the fact that time in the universe had a direction, but no observable ending. While the earth itself may be limited and thus doomed to dissipation, the universe itself faced no such restriction.

This meant that the very thermodynamics which made the universe run was threatened by the Huttonian world machine, for if the earth was composed of eternal cycles, thermodynamics was in error, and, perhaps more unforgivably, the whole notion of progression in time. Furthermore, as has already been seen in Kelvin’s critique of “zoological speculations” in his 1872 speech, he was deeply worried about the effect geological and biological studies would have on the free will of humans. It was the indefiniteness of time which gave Hutton’s position the capacity to deny human history, which would rob individuals of their efficacy in the face of a world in which everything was repetition. Kelvin’s view of endless progression, however, would avoid this misevaluation of the will through its directionality. This directionality insured a firm ground for knowledge, insofar as universal laws could be derived from constant causes, but one whose effects could vary over time, a fact which, for Kelvin, also insured the purposefulness of human experience.

Ultimately, the similarities between Kelvin’s and Hutton’s approaches were striking considering the radically different conclusions which they drew from them. Both used almost identical assumptions about the uniformity of nature, with the exception of Hutton’s demand for circularity and Kelvin’s distinction that a uniform cause can produce a different effect given a different substrate. Likewise, both were led by strong religious convictions about the kind of order a beneficent god would establish in the world. What caused the contention in determining the age of the earth was the presuppositions they made about what that divine order would be like, whether it would be an eternal cycle or an eternal progression and what this would mean for both natural philosophy and the individual. In the age in which the problem was raised the conflict could not be satisfactorily resolved, and it was perpetuated by the ambiguous nature of secondary causes which both theories were forced to rely upon to prove their separate claims.

In the end what can really be learned from this debate is the vital capacity for similar methods and guiding principles to lead to dramatically different results given but a handful of separate core convictions. This tendency is only magnified in any system of knowledge which requires an indirect view of its subject matter. In such cases all positions must then suffer the capricious whims of the secondary causes upon which they, nevertheless, must rely.

For More Information:

Burchfield, Joe D.  Lord Kelvin and the Age of the Earth. London: The Macmillan Press LTD, 1975.

Gould, Stephen Jay. Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle: Myth and Metaphor in the Discovery of Geological Time. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2001.

Hutton, James. Theory of the Earth with Proofs and Illustrations. Vol 1 and 2. Weinheim: H.R. Engelmann (J. Cramer) and Wheldon & Wesley, LTD., 1960.

Knell, Simon J. and Cherry L.E. Lewis. “Celebrating the Age of the Earth”. In The Age of the Earth: from 4004 BC to AD 2002. Eds C.L.E. Lewis and S. J. Knell. London: The Geological Society, 2001.

Lyell, Charles. “Principles of Geology” in 19th Century Science: An Anthology. Ed. A.S. Weber. Canada: Broadview Press Ltd, 2000.

Playfair, John. Illustrations of the Huttonian Theory of the Earth. London: Cadell and Davies, 1802.  In On Geological Time. In The Kelvin Library. Zapato Productions Intra­dimensional. Updated October 25th 2007. Accessed November 2nd 2007. <>

Thomson, W. (Lord Kelvin). “Popular Lectures and Addresses”, vol. 2. As in The Age of the Earth: from 4004 BC to AD 2002. Eds. C.L.E. Lewis and S. J. Knell. London: The Geological Society, 2001.

–––.  “On Geological Dynamics” in Transactions of the Geological Society of Glasgow, 1869. In The Kelvin Library. Zapato Productions Intra­dimensional. Updated October 25th 2007. Accessed November 2nd 2007. <>

–––.  “On the Age of the Sun’s Heat” in Popular Lectures and Addresses, vol. 1, 2nd edition. In The Kelvin Library. Zapato Productions Intra­dimensional. Updated October 25th 2007. Accessed November 2nd 2007. <>

–––. “On the Secular Cooling of the Earth”. in Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Vol. XXIII, pp. 167-169, 1864. In The Kelvin Library. Zapato Productions Intra­dimensional. Updated October 25th 2007. Accessed November 2nd 2007. <>

–––. “On Geological Time”. in Popular Lectures and Addresses, Vol. ii, p. 10. 1868. In The Kelvin Library. Zapato Productions Intra­dimensional. Updated October 25th 2007. Accessed November 2nd 2007. <>

Wild Through the Ages: Kamala, Amala and the Focus of Folklore

A recent article by the freelance journalist Maia Szalavitz recounts the story of Dani, a young girl who was rescued by social workers from the extreme neglect she had been living in since her birth in Plant City, Florida. Szalavitz describes Dani as a feral child, though she is quick to qualify that:

‘Feral’ isn’t a diagnosis, of course. But the term usually refers to a child raised by animals, like Romulus, the legendary founder of Rome who was said to have been reared by a she-wolf. […] More recently, the term has been expanded to include children whose human care and contact was extremely limited.

The article is typical of contemporary accounts of feral children in its association between the legends of wild children with supposedly “real” cases and cases of extreme neglect, though it differs somewhat in its emphasis on the empathic, rather than linguistic dimensions of the experience. Nevertheless, it is a recent and telling example of the cultural and historical forces that underpin the present day understanding of feral children, and hints at the folkloric associations that lay behind it.

The genealogy of feral children from legends to their present use in describing the state of extreme neglected has been noted and commented upon by others. However, it is still fruitful to consider the channels through which this transition took place, for it is evident that as a subject feral children exist at an interdisciplinary crossroads, uniting writers and folklorists with anthropologists, psychologists and linguists to create a communal space for discussion and dissent. This space, however, is not a democratic one, and despite the considerable prestige of science at the beginning of the twentieth century, the role played by folklore is remarkable. The example of Kamala and Amala, the wolf-girls of Midnapore, is particularly revealing in this regard. In looking at the literature surround these children, two important things are made evident. Firstly, it becomes fully apparent how in the study of feral children the arguments from folklore have been omnipresent. They are used to both support and detract from the credibility of the accounts. For those in favour of viewing the stories as credible, the persistent and widespread existence of a body of folklore surrounding feral children provides evidence of some deep underlying truth to the legends. For those critical of the stories, the folklore serves as an obscuring agent, contaminating observations and leading people to wrongly interpret lost children with congenital defects as authentic cases. However, in the discussions surrounding the authenticity of Amala and Kamala, most commentators referenced European myths when arguing for the use of folkloric evidence, while detractors focused on the fallibility of non-European superstitions. This divide leads to the second consideration of this paper. The epistemological value of evidence in these cases is consistently in favour of European accounts, suggesting that they, unlike native accounts, are less subject to the contaminating influences of folklore. There is a definitive undertone of colonialism in the anthropological discussion of feral children, for in many cases their presence was a negative indicator of the degree of civilization in the nations in which they were discovered. While their potential existence was thought to provide a wealth of information to western social science, the deprived conditions that gave rise to them was seen to indicate a need for further developmental work on the part of more civilized nations.

This study will begin with a look at the foundational legend of Romulus and Remus. From here, it will then be informative to consider the stories of Mowgli and Tarzan that appeared shortly before the “discovery” of the wolf-girls Amala and Kamala by the Reverend J.A.L. Singh in 1920. With this background it will then be possible to look at the folkloric, popular, psychological and anthropological literature surrounding accounts of feral children in light of the publication of Wolf-Children and Feral Man by Singh and the anthropologist Dr. Robert M. Zingg from the University of Denver in 1942, with a particular emphasis on the ways in which folklore shaped the content and direction of the discussions.

The value of legends and literature to the study of feral children cannot be overstated. It is a common reference point and beginning for numerous articles on the subject, and can help explain the rapid process of mythologization that takes place when social scientists and other researches are confronted with “authentic” cases. As the folklorists Michael P. Carroll supports in his essay “The Folkloric Origins of Modern ‘Animal-Parented Children’ Stories”: “The fact that modern observers have so often characterized a newly discovered ‘wolf-boy’ as a ‘real life Romulus’ or a ‘real life Remus’ is by itself evidence that the association of these contemporary accounts with the Classical tradition is well-established”. Though usually mentioned only in passing, as in Szalaitz’s article, these myths and legends are so often connected with their real world counterparts that they serve to set the stage of the discussion before any scientific study can even begin.

Considering its importance to the subsequent literature, the story of Romulus and Remus is surprisingly mild when compared to the amount of time that other feral children have reportedly spent in the wild. According to the Roman historian Livy, writing in the first century BCE:

In those days the country thereabouts was all wild and uncultivated, and the story goes that when the basket in which the infants had been exposed was left high and dry by the receding water, a she-wolf, coming down from the neighbouring hills to quench her thrust, heard the children crying and made her way where they were. She offered them her teats to suck and treated them with such gentleness that Faustulus, the king’s herdsman, found her licking them with her tongue.

That is all. There is no indication of how long they were left in the care of the she-wolf, and, aside from the occasional mention of their “urge to found a new settlement” where they had been found as infants, the actual role that the she-wolf played in their upbringing is marginal. If an undercurrent of the brother’s origin does exist, it takes the form of their subsequent mastery over nature, for shortly following this passage we find them hunting, shepherding, farming and robbing from thieves to share with their friends. The depiction is much the same in the first and second centuries ACE, as recorded by Plutarch, both in its brevity and in the subsequent power the brother’s gain over their surroundings. The wild upbringing of those destined to found civilizations has been noted by others, and is a consistent motif in a number of legendary accounts. It seems evident that the brothers serve here as representatives of a human community that gains mastery over its surroundings from a state of helplessness in its primeval origins. The situation is much the same in the popular literature that was written near the beginning of the twentieth century.

Some years before the discovery of the wolf-girls of Midnapore was announced, legends surrounding feral children would receive new interest with the advent of Rudyard Kipling’s Mowgli and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan. As the historian Adriana S. Bezaquén observes:

by the end of the nineteenth century the ‘exotic’ animal-raised child entered literature and popular culture with striking and lasting power, first in Britain, in Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book (1894), and almost two decades later in the United States, in Edgar Rice Burroughs’s “Tarzan of the Apes” (1912). The stories of wolf-child Mowgli and ape-boy Tarzan, though prompted by the spate of ‘real’ cases and incorporating elements form them, reinscribed the ancient myths. Far from the pitiful, brutish examples of inhumanity depicted in the ‘real’ accounts, Mowgli and Tarzan stood out and excelled among both animals and humans and thus became appealing heroes for readers stirred by imperialist dreams and hungry for vicarious adventure.

Unlike their real world counterparts, these modern legends took up the old banners of humanity’s mastery over nature and revitalized their cultural influence in the public imagination. To see this mastery one need only look at Kipling’s story “Mowgli’s Brothers” in which the feral child Mowgli comes to the wolves as a hunted, helpless infant, but who leaves their company in defiance after frightening away the tiger Shere Khan and exclaiming: “What ye will do, and what ye will not do, is not yours to say. That matter is with me; and that we may see the matter more plainly, I, the man, have brought here a little of the Red Flower [fire] which ye, dogs, fear”. In this respect the role of Tarzan is somewhat more complicated, however, for while Burroughs admitted being influenced by the legend of Romulus and Remus, as well as by the stories in Kipling’s Jungle Book, his wild man is more ambivalent towards the allure of civilization. Nevertheless, both stories served to glorify the strength of human nature in a strange environment, and it is this element, as we shall see, that was often drawn upon by subsequent commentators.

According to his own accounts, the Reverend Singh discovered the wolf-girls of Midnapore on October 17th 1920, their existence was accidentally made known to the world on September 7th 1921, Amala died on September 21st of the same year, followed nine years later by Kamala on November 14th 1929. The “diary” of their story, alongside Zingg’s “Feral Man and Cases of Extreme Isolation of Individuals”, was only published in 1942. The protracted nature of the announcement helped to insure a continued interest in the subject, while figures such as Zingg tried to authenticate the account and coax a supposedly unwilling Singh to publish. The point in the Reverend’s description of the children that caused the most consternation was the claim that their eyes gave of a peculiar “blue glare” at night. This seemingly superhuman capacity to see in the dark, their sharp teeth, heightened sense of smell and hearing, and physical build which spoke of “strength and agility” all play into the myths that already surrounded the idea of feral children since the end of the nineteenth century. Yet only the question of the glowing eyes was noted by the experts who provided a commentary to the case. The description that Singh provides of their natural strength and agility is never compared with his numerous other accounts of their enfeebled states due to sickness and neglect that they experienced after their reintroduction to human society. These fantastic particulars aside, however, it was the potentially folkloric origin of the girls’ upbringing by wolves that saw the greatest attention by subsequent investigators.

Social scientists of every stripe often commented on the relationship between supposedly real feral children and their fantastical counterparts during the early years of the twentieth century. As Bezaquén observes, this trend has been a common one. The extreme rarity of the events that may produce feral children, the taboo on performing any controlled experiments, and the often remote location of the stories mean that: “In most cases, the human sciences have no choice but to feed on non-scientific accounts, reports, and testimonies, while regularly distrusting the actual value or authenticity of the evidence”. It is to these early commentaries that we now turn our attention.

On the side of folklore, it is clear that the interest in feral children was not one of a purely literary or mythic bent, but that several writers, most notably J.H. Hutton, understood it as their responsibility to help cast judgment on the credibility of the real life evidence. Hutton gave a presidential address entitled “Wolf-Children” in the March 1940 edition of the journal Folklore. He began the discussion with comments on the interest in wolf-children in a recent edition of The Times, and followed this by stating that:

it is clear that apart from any particular interest the subject of wolf-children may have in itself, the point at issue, which is whether such stories are to be treated as credible or to be wholly discredited, is of no little importance to a Society which is primarily concerned with folklore. For the wide prevalence of stories of this kind indicates a rooted belief in their possibility.

For Zingg, Hutton would serve as an important source of census information on life in India and provide folkloric comments in regards to the stories of feral children. While in this text he was “indebted to the kindness of Dr. Robert M. Zingg” for several of his references, he would ultimately decline the opportunity to write a forward in Zingg’s and Singh’s account of the children’s development. He declined because he felt that in the end their work was an “improved version” of what actually occurred. Despite Hutton’s reservations about the complete reliability of their account and his own feelings of inconclusiveness about the evidence at hand, he did not discredit the possibility that Amala and Kamala were reared by wolves in part because of the widespread presence of these very myths. This attempt to account for the legends of feral children by appealing to the possibility of their reality was also characteristic of the popular articles on the subject.

In the articles of the 1940s a monolithic depiction of science is presented as attempting to come to grips with the stories of feral children. Lois Mattox Miller typifies this approach in his article “The Wolf-Girls and the Baboon Boy”, which dramatically begins with the following homage to both myth and science alike:

From Romulus and Remus, mythical founders of Rome, through Kiplind’s Mowgli to Tarzan, stories of human babies adopted by wolves, bears, or apes, and reared to super-manhood far from human society have fascinated people of all ages in all climes. Scientists, always skeptical of the unauthenticated, have nevertheless searched for evidence of weird reality behind so persistent a myth pattern. […] [N]ow, for the first time, science has evidence of two cases of humans who may have been reared by wild animals; he tragic Wolf-children of Midnapore; and Lucas, he Baboon Boy of South Africa.

While Miller’s article points out that: “To the casual reader, these are just fascinating wonder-tales; but the scientists look to them to throw light on the relative importance of heredity and environment in shaping behaviour patters”, his discussion concludes on a triumphant note transcending the arena of nature and nurture to the glorification of humanity: we can ape better than the apes and live among wolves, and this likely demonstrates a greater, rather than a lesser intelligence in the cases of these children. We shall see that this sense of triumph, characteristic of the legends, was mirrored in several of the social scientists own accounts.

The role of folklore as potential evidence for the existence of feral children and the idea of human triumph that accompanies this are both present in the introductory sections of Wolf-Children and Feral Man. To begin with, the foreword presented by Dr. Ruggles Gates from the Human Heredity Bureau, even more forcefully reiterates the position of Hutton in his interpretation of the connection between folklore and reality. It also indicates a degree of value judgment, insofar as it assumes that feral children are exclusively the produce of ruder states of civilization, for he comments that:

The evidence is I think, conclusive that in former centuries when civilization was in a much ruder state, wolf-children were occasionally found even in Europe. The story of Romulus and Remus turns out to be mythical, but founded upon earlier myths which presumably had an ultimate substratum of truth. […] It is only reasonable to suppose that such legends were not pure inventions but were founded upon rare occurrences, among peoples in an early stage of culture.

In his contributing foreword Dr. Arnold Gesell, then director of the Clinic of Child Development at Yale University, presents a decidedly triumphant account of the wolf-girls of Midnapore. Despite the death of Amala at an early age, he stresses the fact that Kamala survived: “To an extraordinary degree she survived psychologically and achieved human estate”. Furthermore, despite his assertion that the dichotomy of nature and nurture is “barren”, he concludes his contribution to the text with the comment that: “The career of Kamala, even though cut short, demonstrates anew the stamina of the human spirit and the operation of developmental reserves which always ameliorate the adversities of abnormal fate”. Among the contributing scholars to the Reverend Singh’s diary, Dr. Gesell stands out as being exceptionally representative of the influence of folklore and popular myth. Bezaquén explicitly points out this effect on Gesell’s thought and how it was manifested in his subsequent publications on the matter. As she describes in regards to his Wolf Child and Human Child: Reconciling the Extraordinary and the Normal: “Despite his protestations to the contrary, he resorted to the emotional and evocative power of fiction to lend cohesion to the whole. His recurring references to Kipling’s Mowgli implicitly afforded another narrative framework, a romantic alternative to his scientific exposition of the normal child’s growth, against which the story of Kamala might be read”. If this is any indication of the intellectual atmosphere among the social scientists that supported the Reverend Singh’s claims, then it is clear that folklore was never far from center stage both implicitly and explicitly. It even formed the basis of dissenting views.

Psychologists, tending to be more sceptical, nevertheless acknowledged the importance of folklore in these matters, albeit often for different reasons. Marian W. Smith in her 1954 article on wild children and the principle of reinforcement, points out that: “Before the […] cases can be analyzed it is necessary to accept them as evidence, even if only temporarily”. She stresses that a tacit acceptance of the truth of the matter rests on shaky ground because it is difficult to state with any certainty which came first, claims about the actual existence of feral children, or the folklore in which they played a largely symbolic role. However, rather than removing the place of folklore in the scientific discussion, it instead gives it a central place, because as Smith observes in these cases: “The interplay between reality and belief is far from simple”.

This outlook is particularly evident in the writings of one of the more public detractors of the credibility of the wolf-girls of Midnapore, the psychologist Wayne Dennis. In his 1941 article “The Significance of Feral Man” he uses the existence of a body folklore surrounding feral children in India as warning sign. He cautions his readers, reasoning that:

Since the idea of wolf-children is current in India […] if a mute, who could give no account of his past, were found in India at the present time, it is easy to guess the direction of speculation concerning his origin. … India possesses a large number of unfortunates to whom such a myth could be fitted.

Unlike the vision of human triumph presented by Gesell, Dennis considers most, if not all of the cases of feral children to be the products of folkloric inspired misunderstandings of children with mental defects who were separated from their parents for short periods of time and then discovered by others. In this way folklore becomes the defining point for him and many other detractors of the authenticity of feral children. As he comments later in The Significance of Feral Man: “In searching for the origin of the belief that a specific child was reared by beasts it would be relevant to examine the folk lore [sic] of the region from which came the original story.“ Yet while describing it as a source of scientific contamination in the search for feral children, Dennis nevertheless ascribes to folklore a great deal of importance, particularly in the context of underdeveloped societies. It is to the idea of the obscuring effects of folklore in a colonial context that we now turn our attention.

It has been said that the science of anthropology developed as an instrument of colonialism. This seems particularly evident in the case of feral children, whose presence in a nation inevitably served as a comment on its state of civilization. Western observers were quick to note that the phenomenon: “Has seldom if ever been witnessed by a European, at any rate since the seventeenth century”. As we have already seen in the comments made by Dr. Gates they could only have appeared “even in Europe” among “peoples in an early stage of culture”. Yet, for him, this early stage of culture is part of what makes India “a paradise for the anthropologist”. Western social scientists’ fascination with feral children was complicated by the prejudicial distrust of “uncivilized” folklore, and the understanding that their presence in a nation served as further proof that it was in an early stage of development.

As we have already seen to a large extent, social scientists that wanted to support the possibility of feral children turned to the validity of western folklore to help support their claims. However, those who sought to discount the idea of feral children often disparaged the epistemological value of the accounts made by “uncivilized” native peoples, who were more likely to fall victim to superstition (in other words, their own folklore). The colonial values underpinning these critiques are evident Dennis’ The Significance of Feral Man, in which he reminds the reader to be skeptical because: “The desire to please and likewise the desire to pull the leg of the white man are not unknown among the darker-skinned races”. However, these views reach their most blatant form in the work of an earlier scholar that Dennis makes references to: the nineteenth century British anthropologist E. Burnet Tylor. In Tylor’s “Wild Men and Beast-Children”, he makes similar critiques of the existence of feral children based on the unreliability of uncivilized accounts. He incredulously states that: “we have no other evidence than that of natives, and it is pretty well known what Oriental evidence is worth as to such matters”, and, comparing the account of feral children to a native belief that people are born with crocodile twins concludes that: “if all the Asiatics living were to declare with one accord that a child and a crocodile had been born twins at one birth, we should not believe it”. In the face of this colonial background it is therefore telling that Zingg himself felt compelled to remind his readers to be more accepting in their judgements, for “there should be some presumption that native Indian testimony of even the lowest classes is not always necessarily false”.

There are few questions thornier than those of the first origins of a thing. All the subsequent promises and pains of its entire history have the tendency of becoming inscribed in its beginnings, and a tangled mess ensues, which after all, is what the present is. If any topic of consideration is more beset with difficulties, it is the question of human nature. The image of the feral child or wild man through history and legend has in many ways exemplified both of these quandaries, and done so with all the poignancy of an infant abandoned in the woods. Kamala and Amala did exist, but the question of whether or not they were the wolf-girls of Midnapore is another matter. At the very least, their story serves to highlight the importance and influence of folklore in the social sciences, and show how literature together with myth can shape the nature and direction of scientific debates. Here, it is important to note that Zingg’s and Gesell’s approach to the value of folklore was not in itself unscientific or misguided, any more than Dennis’ assertions to the contrary, what was interesting was the channels through which the two parties operated, and the shape that their discussion took on in light of the folkloric undercurrents of their subject matter. Likewise, the colonial prejudices of Dennis and Tylor can perhaps be expected, but in this matter they serve to bring light to an area in the history of the social sciences that would benefit form further elucidation. If the presence of feral children is both indicative of an “anthropological paradise” as well as a negative indicator of a nations state of civilization, then what does this indicate about the role and responsibility of this kind of science? Furthermore, the marked preference of European folklore on the side of Singh’s supporters and the attention drawn to the folklore of India by his detractors is some indicator of the lack of self-reflexivity present in early anthropology. As the grotesque cases of Dani and other neglected children testify, to this day there is the desire to recast cases of abandonment in the present day to those of human triumph in its legendary past. In this way it is indicative of a basic human need, a need that demands some role for folklore when faced with the damning evidence against the virtue of civilization that is and always has been the feral child.

For More Information:

Dennis, Wayne. “The Significance of Feral Man”. In The American Journal of Psychology, Vol. 54, No. 3 (Jul., 1941). p. 425-32.

Gates, R. Ruggles. “Foreword”. In Wolf-Children and Feral Man. Ed. Robert M. Zingg. Denver; Archon Books, 1966. p. xiii-xvi

Gesell, Arnold. “Foreword”. In Wolf-Children and Feral Man. Ed. Robert M. Zingg. Denver; Archon Books, 1966. p. xvii-xviii.

Hutton, J.H. “Wolf-Children”. In Folklore, Vol. 51, No. 1 (Mar., 1940), 9-31.

—. “Wolf-Children and Feral Man”. In Man, New Series, Vol. 2, No. 4 (Dec., 1967), 631.

Kipling, Rudyard. The Jungle Book. 2009. Wikisource. 13 April 2009. <>

Livy. The Early History of Rome: Books 1-4 of The History of Rome From its Foundations. Trans. Aubrey de Sélincourt. Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1960.

Miller, Lois Mattox. “The Wolf-Girls and the Baboon-Boy”. In The Science News-Letter, Vol. 38, No. 2 (Jul. 13, 1940). p. 26-9.

Plutarch, Romulus. Trans. John Dryden. The Internet Classics Archive. 2009. Web Atomics. 13 April 2009 <>

Singh. J.A.L. “The Diary of the Wolf-Children of Midnapore (India)”. In Wolf-Children and Feral Man. Ed. Robert M. Zingg. Denver; Archon Books, 1966. p. 3-126.

Smith, Marian W. “Wild Children and the Principle of Reinforcement”. In Child Development, Vol. 25, No. 2 (Jun., 1954). p. 115-23.

The Society for Science & the Public. “Wolf-Child Stories Are Doubted by Psychologist”. In The Science News-Letter, Vol. 39, No. 17 (Apr. 26, 1941), p. 261.

Tylor, E. Burnet. “Wild Men and Beast-Children”. In Anthropological Review, Vol 1. No. 1. (May, 1863). p. 21-32.

Zingg, Robert M. “Introduction: Continued”. In Wolf-Children and Feral Man. Ed. Robert M. Zingg. Denver; Archon Books, 1966. p. xxxv-xli.

—. “Feral Man and Cases of Extreme Isolation of Individuals”. In Wolf-Children and Feral Man. Ed. Robert M. Zingg. Denver; Archon Books, 1966. p. 131-365.

Bezaquén, Adriana S. Encounters with Wild Children: Temptation and Disappointment in the Study of Human Nature. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2006.

Carroll, Michael P. “The Folkloric Origins of Modern ‘Animal-Parented Children’ Stories”. In Journal of Folklore Research, Vol. 21, No. 1 (Apr., 1984), 63-85.

Lewis, Diane. “Anthropology and Colonialism” In Current Anthropology, Vol. 14, No. 5 (Dec.,1973), 581-602.

Newton, Michael. Savage Girls and Wild Boys. London: Faber and Faber, 2002.

Szalaitz, Maia. “A Feral Child’s Journey to Recovery: How One Expert Helps Children Heal After Severe Abuse and Neglect”. 2009. MSN Health & Fitness. 12 April 2009. <>

Hannah Arendt, Neoconservatism and Power-addiction

In her work The Burden of Our Time, Hannah Arendt studies the nature of the imperialist movements in the nineteenth century. She comes to analyze the nature of power within the imperialist state, and how it fundamentally depends upon expansion without limits in order to sustain itself. To obtain this expansion it pursues ideological and military dominance to perpetuate its economic growth. This pursuit, however, must not only be sought for the well being of the empire, but is its full embodiment, and thus expansion is both an end and a means for the survival of this political system. The imperialistic desire for continual expansion, or to “exploit the revolution in military affairs” as it has been expressed by the neoconservative think tank the Project for the New American Century, is a continuing goal of the neoconservative movement of the twenty-first century.

Hannah Arendt categorizes the time between 1884 and 1914 as the period of imperialism, claiming that: “The central inner-European event of the imperialist period was the political emancipation of the bourgeoisie, which up to then had been the first class in history to achieve economic pre-eminence without aspiring to political rule” (though other, much earlier dates have been proposed, with many thinking that this period is not yet over). The progress of capitalist society in Europe, which relied upon continuing growth in both production and investment to perpetuate itself, eventually came upon a necessary barrier. The birth of imperialism occurred when the ruling class within the capitalist system was forced to face the physical realities of continual growth in a finite nation. There were national limits to economic expansion that could not be addressed without both economic and political power. Arendt describes how “[t]he bourgeoisie turned to politics out of economic necessity; for if it did not want to give up the capitalist system whose inherent law is constant economic growth, it had to impose this law upon its home governments and to proclaim expansion to be an ultimate political goal of foreign policy”.

This need to expand or perish led to the subsequent imperialist movements that Arendt discusses. The principle of endless expansion was a self-perpetuating necessity for these movements: “Since power is essentially only a means to an end a community based solely on power must decay in the calm of order and stability; its complete security reveals that it is built upon sand”. The stability of this system of governance depended upon ever increasing expenditures of resources and manpower simply to maintain itself. In discussing the imperialist mentality she cites the case of Cecil Rhodes, an English businessman and imperialist who worked to expand Britain’s empire in Africa. Arendt comments on how this one imperialist recognized the problem of the system in which he was involved, but experienced it as a kind of longing:

‘EXPANSION IS everything,’ said Cecil Rhodes, and fell into despair, for every night he saw overhead ‘these stars… these vast worlds which we can never reach. I would annex the planets if I could.’ He had discovered the moving principle of the new imperialist era […] and yet in a flash of wisdom Rhodes recognized at the same moment its inherent insanity and its contradiction to the human condition.

Continual growth of the kind that imperialism needs to sustain itself cannot be maintained upon a single planet.

Some of the key elements of neoconservatism as it has emerged in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries can be defined by the writings of one of its most representative think tanks: the Project for the New American Century (PNAC). The think tank describes itself as being fundamentally dedicated to the principles that “American leadership is good both for America and for the world; [and] that such leadership requires military strength, diplomatic energy and commitment to moral principle” (Project for the New American Century). To obtain these goals the PNAC works to affect public opinion by publishing books and articles in support of its mission statement.

One of these articles, Rebuilding America’s Defenses: Strategy, Forces and Resources for a New Century, pursues the PNAC’s goals by urging for the perpetuation of a Pax Americana. The choice of the term “Pax” harkens back to the days of the Pax Romana and Pax Britannica, periods of relative stability brought about by the military dominance of the old empires. As expressed in the document: “The American peace has proven itself peaceful, stable and durable. It has, over the past decade, provided the geopolitical framework for widespread economic growth and the spread of American principles of liberty and democracy”. It is interesting in this text to note the close relationship between stability and “widespread economic growth,” a notion that almost mirrors Arendt’s comment on the instability of an empire.

There are other comparisons that could be drawn between the two, neoconservatism on the one hand and imperialism on the other. In their book America Alone Stephan Halper and Jonathan Clarke express a concern that as a people: “Today we have convinced ourselves […] that, as Americans, our natural state is war – war that has no dimensions, with elusive enemies […] and with no definition of what constitutes victory and thus with no end in sight”. This sentiment of endless war echoes the sort of stability Arendt mentions in relation to the British Empire, how “this ever-present possibility of war guarantees the Commonwealth a prospect of permanence because it makes it possible for the state to increase its power at the expense of other states”.

Halper and Clarke in their study of neoconservatism go on to describe a world view where: “The here-and-now world in which neo-conservatives see themselves is a world of Hobbesian state-of-nature primitivism and conspiracy where perpetual militarized competition for ascendancy is the norm”. This statement is eerily close to Arendt’s relationship between a Hobbesian world view and empire, as she describes: “Hobbes was the true […] philosopher of the bourgeoisie because he realized that acquisition of wealth conceived as a never-ending process can be guaranteed only by the seizure of political power, for the accumulating process must sooner or later force open all existing territorial limits”.

Dr. Stephen Rosen, a representative for the PNAC, published an article in Harvard Magazine entitled “The Future of War and the American Military: Demography, Technology, and the Politics of Modern Empire”, in which he defined an empire as: “A political unit that has overwhelming superiority in military power, and uses that power to influence the internal behavior of other states”. By this definition Rosen can claim that: “The United States has no rival. We are militarily dominant around the world. Our military spending exceeds that of the next six or seven powers combined, and we have a monopoly on many advanced and not so advanced military technologies”.

This militaristic requirement of empire has several consequences for those outside of the imperial order. Rosen states that the goal of the American Empire is not to combat a rival, but to maintain its imperial position, and imperial order. To this end he describes that “[i]mperial wars to restore order are not so constrained. The maximum amount of force can and should be used as quickly as possible for psychological impact—to demonstrate that the empire cannot be challenged with impunity”. This view of war as a means to subjugate threats to the imperial order, an order that needs expansion to maintain its order, has also been described by Arendt when she talks about exporting power. She describes how:

The first consequence of power export was that the state’s instruments of violence, the police and the army, which in the framework of the nation existed beside, and were controlled by, other national institutions, were separated from this body and promoted to the position of national representatives in uncivilized or weak countries. Here, in backward regions without industries and political organizations, where violence was given more latitude than in any Western country, the so-called laws of capitalism were actually allowed to create realities.

This tendency has also been noted in the neoconservative movement by a number of contemporary observers. In his book Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance, Noam Chomsky examines America’s aggressive foreign policy. In the text he observes how, when dealing with nations outside of the established order, “the West must ‘revert to the tougher methods of an earlier era – force, preemptive attack, deception, whatever is necessary, when it comes to dealing with those who still live in the nineteenth-century world of every state for itself’”.

This militaristic trend of empire, both abroad and at home, must also be sustained by an ideology that serves to rationalize the need for endless war and expansion. In the British Empire this ideological necessity of empire found its outlet in the concept of the “white man’s burden”. The idea that served to rationalize Britain’s activities in subjugating foreign peoples combined contempt for the self-determination of “backwards” populations with the paternal insistence that the empire knew best. As Arendt describes: “Racism as a ruling device was used in this society of whites and blacks before imperialism exploited it as a major political idea. Its basis, and its excuse, were still experience itself, a horrifying experience of something alien beyond imagination or comprehension”. The alien nature of strange peoples made it possible to justify how, since those of African decent did show unmistakable signs of being human, “the ‘white men’ could not but reconsider their own humanity and decide that they themselves were more than human and obviously chosen by God to be the gods of black men”.

As described by Chomsky, the ideological descendant of this mentality is still a force behind the western powers new appeal to colonization. He demonstrates the life in what was thought to be an old appeal to paternal infallibility when he quotes Robert Cooper, British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s chief foreign policy advisor, about the need for colonization: “Another currently fashionable formulation of the mission of the enlightened states holds that ‘the need… for colonization is as great as it ever was in the nineteenth century’ to bring to the rest of the world the principles of order, freedom, and justice”.

While overt race-based thinking has been officially discredited in the 21st century, there can be seen within the neoconservative movement many of the same ideologies in what could be called the “democratic man’s burden”. Halper and Clarke express this when they comment that the current neoconservative government in America claims to be providing order, freedom, and justice to all nations on the planet, but “has left much of the world with the impression that it nurses global ambition for dominance and seeks to impose a ‘made in America’ version of democratic governance, often overlooking history and local cultural and political preferences”. This ideology associates democracy, freedom, and American interests as unmistakable synonyms. The belief that American interests are always one and the same with freedom and democracy serves to play the same role that the paternal insistence of racial superiority did to the British Empire. Halper and Clarke describe that after America’s rise to power in 1945, “[t]he new global order was to be subordinated to the needs of the US economy and subject to US political control as much as possible. Washington extended its own regional systems […] on the principle […] that ‘what was good for us was good for the world’”.

This system which treats American interests as the interests of all is expressed in the PNAC document Rebuilding America’s Defenses, in which American led global security is continually lauded as the only way to maintain peace: “At no time in history has the international security order been as conducive to American interests and ideals”. The challenge for the coming century is to preserve and enhance this “American peace”. In this way any nation or ideology that threatens America’s interests must necessarily be a threat to the complete fabric of human society, and thus justly subjugated. As plainly expressed by Rosen: “we are in the business of bringing down hostile governments and creating governments favorable to us […] imperial strategy focuses on preventing the emergence of powerful, hostile challengers to the empire: by war if necessary, but by imperial assimilation if possible”.

In Rosen’s neoconservative interpretation of warfare he makes it clear that “[i]mperial wars end, but imperial garrisons must be left in place for decades to ensure order and stability”. In many ways this process of “bringing down” governments and leaving military personnel in the name of American, and thus world, interests is similar to the situation under the British mandate system as described by Arendt. The English set themselves up as the “guardians of the self-determination of peoples. And this despite the fact that they started at once to misuse the mandate system by ‘indirect rule,’ a method which permits the administrator to govern a people ‘not directly but through the medium of their own tribal and local authorities’”.

This mentality is inextricably tied with the treatment of power as both a means and an end in itself. Ever increasing power, despite the ideological claims used to pursue it, cannot continue forever. As Arendt says, it is contrary to the human condition. In America Alone, Halper and Clarke propose an ultimatum for the survival of the then present neoconservative government in the United States: “either there must be a compelling rationale for this administration’s policy […] that links means to ends identifying realizable objectives or today’s neo-conservative policies must be subject to radical surgery and replaced with new productive and achievable objectives”.

With its pursuit of imperial power and its dependency on never-ending economic growth, the neoconservative movement of today shares many things in common with the mentalities analyzed in Hannah Arendt’s study of older imperial movements. As such it is subject to the same driving passion that plagued the imperialism of Cecil Rhodes. It must expand, but the earth is finite. The PNAC’s call for military dominance of space and cyber-space may be an effort to “annex the planets” and thus find a means for further growth, but this has yet to be seen. It’s also quite conceivable that even the endless progress envisioned by many futurists and “singularitarians” could not have developed into its present form without the girding epistemic and financial support of modern neoconservative imperialism. It evinces a powerful, overwhelming force poorly understood and regulated by those within its grasp. Indeed, by definition, dependent on this state of ignorance for its fullest manifestation. The drive for the endless expansion that the neoconservative mentality needs to sustain itself, as opposed to its human cost in perpetuating an unending, almost vampiric, relation to power, can be summarized in the words of Dr. Stephen Rosen: “as Pericles pointed out to his fellow Athenians, they might think it a fine thing to give up their empire, but they would find that empires are like tyrannies: they may have been wrong to take, but they are dangerous to let go”.

For More Information:

Arendt, Hannah. The Burden of Our Time. London: Secker & Warburg, 1951.

Chomsky, Noam. Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2003.

Halper, Stephen and Jonathan Clarke. America Alone. Cambridge: The Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge, 2004.

Project for the New American Century. William Kristol. 13 April 2005.

Project for the New American century. 15 April 2005. <;

Project for the New American Century. Rebuilding America’s Defenses: Strategy, Forces and Resources for a New Century. Washington: Project for the New American Century, 2000.

Rosen, Stephen. “The Future of War and the American Military: Demography, Technology, and the Politics of Modern Empire.” Harvard Magazine May- June 2002: 30-32.

Knowledge in Nature, Knowledge of Nature: Paracelsus and the Elementals

Undine Rising from the Waters. Chauncey Bradley Ives, 1810-1894

Among Paracelsus’ collected works, few have presented as many problems to scholars as his Liber de Nymphis, Sylphis, Pygmaeis et Salamandris et de Caeteris Spiritibus. At the beginning of the 20th century it was considered by some to be a fake that did not even display a basic understanding of his philosophy. Others passed it over as “a charming little book” that may have some place as a precursor to Freudian psychology. In 1941 this ambivalent reception in the English-speaking world caused the historian Henry E. Sigerist to lament the lack of scholarship on elemental spirits in Paracelsus’ world view, yet Walter Pagel treated the subject only briefly in his skillful 1958 work Paracelsus: An Introduction to Philosophical Medicine in the Era of the Renaissance.

Despite this trend, there is indeed much to be said about the role of elemental spirits in Paracelsus’ understanding of nature. The crux of the matter rests in his microcosmic epistemology and the role that human nature played in dictating the contents of nature itself. Since he placed intelligence and the experience of natural phenomenon squarely in the realm of nature, as opposed to that of the divine, it made sense to incorporate natural, non-human intelligences in order to complete this microcosmic conception of the human being. In short, it was intelligences other than those possessed by human beings that justified our understanding of natural phenomenon.

There are several kinds of knowing in Paracelsus’ extant writings. In his Opus Paramirum he describes the two kinds of earthly knowledge as “that of experience and that of our own cleverness”. Experience is the teacher of the physician; the other is largely based on hearsay and hubris. The physician gains experience when “he plies the Vulcanic art in transmuting, forging, reducing, solving, perfecting with all the processing pertaining to such work”. This experience is what he calls the light of Nature, which allows all the things in the natural world to be discovered. It is not merely a method of understanding the visible world, but the only way that human beings can engage its deeper principles. Paracelsus was certain that the visible world was a secondary phenomenon. The invisible part of the world is more important and can only be discovered through the light of Nature, as he asserts in the Paramirum: “We men on earth, what do we know about phenomena without the light of Nature? It is the light of Nature that makes invisible things visible”.

In contrast, the light of wisdom was the kind of knowledge that was derived directly from God. The light of Nature is given by God as a gift which will allow humankind to achieve its own perfection. It is in this doctrine that Paracelsus is at his most  radical, for he claims that:  “God has created nothing in its final form”. He justifies this notion by his belief that: “[t]o every existing thing God has allotted a time to grow in, lest it ripen prematurely”. Yet at the same time as the light of Nature allows humankind to participate in the perfecting of existence, he nevertheless believes that divine knowledge is still fundamentally above it in a realm of its own. As he says:  “In matters eternal it is belief that makes all things visible, in matters corporeal it is the light of Nature that reveals all things invisible”. The eternal and divine can only be learned from God, while the perishable and earthly, those things capable of transformation, can be achieved by earthly beings through the light of Nature. The consequence of this is that this kind of knowing operates in a semi-independent relationship to divine wisdom, and this is why Paracelsus admits that medicines derived from the light of Nature work on pagans, even though the wisdom that made them potent was a manifestation of the Christian God.

The light of Nature operates in man because he is a microcosm of everything which is in nature. To understand this it is necessary to understand the way in which God created man, for, according to Paracelsus: “Each thing to be explained in the light of Nature must be related to the first Creation”. God created the world out of nothing, but he made man out of the world, or the limus terrae which he also calls the “flesh from Adam”. Since man was made from this limus terrae he contained the essence of all things, “from all creatures, all elements, all stars in heaven and earth, all properties, essences, and natures, that was extracted [from the world] which was most subtle and most excellent in all, and this was united into one mass”. Thus man was made as a microcosm, or little world. Paracelsus also calls him the “quintessence” because he is composed of the four elements, and yet is “beyond the four elements out of which he has been extracted as a nucleus”. In our discussion of elemental spirits, which are composed of only one element rather than the flesh from Adam, this microcosmic quality of man will have profound implications.

Emblemata 29 from Michael Maier's Atalanta fugiens, 1617

The elementals that Paracelsus describes in Liber de Nymphis are detailed in a startling array of relations. Water people are nymphs, who are also sometimes called undina, and when they produce monstrous offspring these are called sirens or monks. Air people are sylphs, and also go by the name sylvestres, whose monstrous offspring are giants. Likewise the mountain people are pygmies, also gnomi. When they give rise to monstrosities these beings are called dwarves. Near the end of the work Paracelsus also introduces mani into the list of names of non-monstrous mountain people. Fire people are salamanders, also called vulcani, whose monsters are will-o’-the-wisps.

Here Paracelsus makes it clear that he is using the popular names of the creatures he is attempting to describe, claiming: “The names have been given them by people who did not understand them”. This gives the reader an insight into how the following account of these fantastical creatures will differ from others. While it is evident that Paracelsus is using previous sources in mythology, folklore and religion, he is nevertheless presenting a new account of them. In this treatise he offers an expansion of his own philosophical system, and attempts to work out the nature of elementals on his own terms. This reworking is made more important because “in the Scriptures nothing special is written about these things, what to make of them or how to explore them”.

The elementals are beings who are half spirit and half man, capable of traversing through objects and traveling like spirits, but still subject to hunger and disease. Paracelsus maintains that they are people, but not the flesh from Adam, and thus do not possess an immortal soul. In this regard they are more like animals. However, they are to be treated well, and agreements made with them are binding, for “although they are beasts, they have all the reason of man, except the soul”. He makes it clear that these creatures live completely in the sphere of their respective elements. For example, everything that salamanders would regularly interact with, their food, cloths, sicknesses and cures, would all be manifestations of the fiery principle. In this regard each elemental world is a mirror of the actual one except not made from composite elements. This has the added effect that the different elementals do not have access to the worlds of the other three, yet they can all interact with our composite world. As Paracelsus writes: “Each has his special abode, but they appear to man, […] so that he may recognize and see how marvelous God is in his works, that He does not leave any element void and empty, without having great wonders in them”. This is because the composite world in which mankind lives intersects with the elemental worlds, whereas the elements themselves do not “mix”, since they are pure principles.

Paracelsus describes their position in the natural order to be that of signs and indicators of things to come, or as guardians of natural treasures. They also serve as a warning to man that God never had to populate the world with human beings, but could have done so with other intelligent entities. This warning is even more pronounced since, when monsters are born among the elementals, they foretell some coming catastrophe. Aside from this it seems as if the world they live in is totally separate from that of man, with the possible exception of serving mankind (as in the case of earth and fire people) or marrying them (as is the case with water and air people).

And yet just because they are signs of some divine wisdom does not place them outside of the natural world. As Paracelsus had already claimed in his Opus Paramirum: “If one was to regard such events as Christ’s resurrection [and the wonders of the Saints] as natural phenomena and signs, then Christ’s words ‘there will be great signs’ would be confirmed”. It is only people’s ignorance which causes them to see divine signs in nature as manifestations of the supernatural. Strangely, in this way there is no substantial difference between the resurrection of Christ and the existence of elemental spirits, for both are natural phenomenon which point the way to higher spiritual truths, but which themselves are still fundamentally natural. As Paracelsus continues: “if Christ had not talked of such signs, who would be so bold as to search so thoroughly for them in Nature? Who would not grasp the hub of Nature from whence these signs come?”

Despite the reason he gives for examining them, Paracelsus’ view that monsters are signs of coming catastrophe is not unique to the elemental spirits, nor can it fully explain his efforts to incorporate them into his understanding of the natural world. In his Astronomia Magna he had already laid down that: “Monsters are frequently born of birds, beasts, fish, worms, and even men, and these are a presage of a future calamity that will come upon man”. Elementals do not exist only to act as signs, however, but also serve as guardians of the unfolding of nature’s treasures.

In his Astronomia Magna Paracelsus had already laid down that: “God does not want His secrets to be [merely] visible; it is His will that they become manifest and knowable through the works of man who has been created in order to make them visible”. This promise of mankind’s knowledge unfolding into nature is again echoed in the concluding paragraphs of Liber de Nymphis in which Paracelsus enumerates a cause for the spirits which is still unknown, but will become manifest at the end of days. The elemental’s secret cause is likewise manifest in their second role in the unfolding of natural knowledge, for as Paracelsus describes: “God has set guardians over nature, for all things, and he left nothing unguarded”. This task in part falls to the nature spirits, who make and protect what Paracelsus calls “tremendous treasures, in tremendous quantities”. These treasures “are guarded by [the nature spirits], are kept hidden and secret so that they may not be found until the time for it has come”.

These treasures could be seen as mineral wealth, as Paracelsus attests to in the case of the mountain people, but there is also a sense that they are more than that, and have a larger part to play in the unfolding of nature. In the treaties we see him write that: “Everything must come out, creature, nature, spirit, evil and good, outside and inside, and all arts, and all doctrines, teachings and what has been created”. It seems, then, far more likely that the treasures to which Paracelsus is referring are not merely precious metals in the traditional sense, but the power and knowledge present in the elements themselves, which also happen to be present within the metals. This would be in accordance with Paracelsus’ view of the invisible virtues of natural objects, as well as with his firm belief in mankind’s growth into perfection. From this it can be inferred that there is another reason why Paracelsus may have strove to incorporate elementals into his philosophy that encapsulates all of these roles. This is their necessary existence in nature for the completion of the microcosm that is man.

In this regard the elementals’ great natural intelligence must be considered. Paracelsus consistently attributes to the elemental spirits an almost limitless wealth of knowledge. In Liber de Nymphis, he says of them that: “They also know all future affairs, present affairs and the past, which are not apparent but are hidden”. In his Concerning the Nature of Things he describes “giants, pigmies, and other marvelous people, who are the instruments of great things, […] and know all secret and hidden matters”. This consistency is important, since in some ways Paracelsus’ treatment of the spirits is inconsistent. This is particularly evident in regards to what creatures he accepts as being either elemental or monstrosity and their means of generation. In the Astronomia Magna they make an appearance as Inanimatum and some creatures he will later classify as monsters are described as elementals. Here Paracelsus also writes that they are spontaneously generated, rather than born from a man and woman of their kind as he does later in Liber de Nymphis. In his Concerning the Nature of Things the elementals are likewise claimed to be produced by the homunculus, rather than being born. Despite this, throughout his various treatments the concept of their great intelligence remains constant.

This intelligence is largely based on the relationship between the elemental spirits and the natural world. Hall states that “in the

Consider the head "in nature" behind the figure of Paracelsus

case of elemental spirits, soul [spirit] and body are not differentiated because these creatures have not been individualized as man has been”. This puts them in a more immediate relationship with the light of Nature, since they are only composed of a natural body and heavenly (astral) spirit, both of which are fully in the domain of nature. Pagel observes that this demonstrates the ambivalent condition of man in nature. As he says: “[Man] has ‘bought’ his freedom and mastery of the elements at the price of detachment and ignorance – remaining far below the ‘wisdom, art, [and] activity’ of these intermediate beings”. Even though man is a microcosm, having a reflection of all things within him, his very completeness leads him to follow the slow unfolding of the light of Nature itself, rather than having the knowledge inborn within him. Unlike the elementals, which are purely composed of the corruptible elements, humankind also has an immortal soul, which enables their freedom, but separates them from the immediacy of nature.

This is the point at which the distinction between the light of wisdom and the light of Nature becomes crucial. While Paracelsus fully acknowledges the primacy of the light of wisdom, it expresses itself in part through the largely self contained properties of nature. The distinction of the two realms is a recurring motif in most of his writings. Thus it is in his Liber Prologi in Vitam Beatam that he tells us the saint works through God alone, but the magus works through nature. In his Opus Paramirum he again reminds his readers that there are two distinct kinds of reason, one from the Holy Ghost and one from nature. While these two kinds of knowledge are not mutually exclusive, natural wisdom being a path to religious wisdom, they have two fundamentally different ways of expressing themselves in the world. That which can be learned and experienced in nature has as its first source nature itself, while that which can be learned about the divine must come from the divine in the form of saints or Scripture.

Intelligence, either rational or experiential, is in nature, because it is other than man’s soul. Thus, since man is a microcosm of nature, and “Nature is the world and all it contains”, it follows that this man-like intelligence must be found in other parts of the natural world. These intelligences would not have a soul, which is fundamentally beyond the elements, but must nevertheless exist for man’s knowledge to be possible as a natural phenomenon. In order for man to be able to learn anything from the light of Nature, there must first be other intelligences within nature itself. These spirits reflect every facet of human existence in its purely natural form and are a vital component of the microcosmic world of man that makes natural knowledge itself possible. Like everything else in the natural world, however, they also serve a religious function in their role as signs and omens, as well as in their duty as guardians of nature’s unfolding to mankind.

The elemental spirits, while going by conventional titles, are largely of Paracelsus’ own creation. The reasoning he gives, that they act as signs and guardians of the unfolding of nature, is only half sufficient to understand their importance to his larger worldview. In the case of signs, monsters of any kind act to serve the same functions as monsters produced from the elementals, and they seem to exemplify the same prophetic role as comets. In their function as guardians of natural treasures, the elementals are participating in the unfolding of nature. Yet even here little thought is given to why this process should be guided by the intermediary intelligences of the spirits, rather than being immanent in nature itself. They are a reminder that God could put in the world other intelligences aside from man, and it is their very otherness, yet intelligence and all pervasiveness which is their defining characteristic in the Paracelsian corpus. They occupy every perishable element with natural intelligence which likewise allows man to have knowledge of every element. This is their implicit, but fundamental position in Paracelsus’ thought. Since man is seen as a microcosm of nature, and intelligence itself is a part of nature, there must be other intelligences in nature whose intelligence mankind shares. More than this, in order for mankind to have knowledge of the various elements it is necessary that each should have a man-like intelligence occupying it as a precondition of human knowledge.

English scholars would therefore be wise to give more consideration to the seemingly whimsical incorporation of the elementals into Paracelsus’ system of thought, for they are just as much a logical necessity of his world view as are the elements themselves or the microcosm. It is a view that we have perhaps lost touch with, given our contemporary insistence on the uniqueness and importance of the human intelligence in natural law. Despite this it is a view which, for Paracelsus, provided the possibility of human knowledge itself, and which lifted up, by degrees, the concealing veil around the natural world until the end of days, when each thing would be perfectly understood in light of the wisdom of God.

J.D. Mylius’ Opus medico-chymicum, 1618

For More Information:

Ball, Philip. The Devil’s Doctor: Paracelsus and the World of Renaissance Magic and Science. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006.

Debus, Allen G. The Chemical Philosophy: Paracelsian Science and Medicine in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. New York: Dover Publications, 2002.

Hall, Manly Palmer. The Mystical and Medical Philosophy of Paracelsus. Los Angeles: Philosophical Research Society, 1964.

Pagel, Walter. Paracelsus: An Introduction to Philosophical Medicine in the Era of the Renaissance. New York: Karger, 1982.

Pachter, Henry M. Magic into Science: The Story of Paracelsus. New York: Schuman, 1951.

Stoddart, Anna M. The Life of Paracelsus, Theophrastus von Hohenheim. London: J. Murray, 1911.

Von Hohenheim, Theophrastus. Four Treaties of Theophrastus von Hohenheim called Paracelsus. Ed. Henry E. Sigerist. Trans. C. Lilian Temkin, George Rosen, Gregory Zilboorg and Henry E. Sigerist. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.

________. The Hermetic and Alchemical Writings of Paracelsus the Great. Ed. and Trans. Arthur Edward Waite. Montana: Kessinger Publishing Company, 1910.

________. Paracelsus: Essential Readings. Ed. And Trans. Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 1999.

Donna Haraway and Hilary Putnam on God’s Spectacles

Though using radically different methodologies, the positions of Hilary Putnam and Donna Haraway, in their shared goal of an alternative to the traditional realist-relativist debates, have managed to come to mutually supporting claims regarding the troubles that arise from our notions of mind-independent facts. This is particularly evident in Putnam’s account of internal realism, and its associated emphasis on context and idealized justification. As if to corroborate this claim, it is striking to note the similarities that this notion has with the concept of situated knowledges as espoused by Haraway.

In particular, at least two main trends can be noticed. There is a definite resonance between their use of “God” metaphors. For Putnam this serves the dual purpose of presenting his views on how theories with different ontologies can nevertheless both be “right” and in his criticism of the notion of an impossible “God’s-Eye view” of nature devoid of any actual “eye”. In Haraway’s thinking “the god-trick” appears to be similar in kind to Putnam’s “God’s-Eye view”, yet it lacks the robustness of his ontological argument from omniscience, and would thereby benefit from it. Furthermore, the rejection of the fact/value, objective/subjective dichotomy proposed by both are mutually supported by Putnam’s elucidations of the problems of self-reference in science and logic, and given more definitive real world meaning by Haraway’s insistence on treating objects as actors. In doing so she gives a more equalized weight to the previously mentioned dichotomies.

To draw these connections it will first be necessary to examine the content of situated knowledges and internal realism. Given this groundwork, it will then be possible to elucidate these two key connections in their work, and show how they support each other. Furthermore, considering the space and language in which this paper is written, I shall treat only the realist view as problematic, not because of some conceptual inferiority to its relativistic counterpart, but because of its greater sense of being self-evident in the context in which I am writing.

At the end of his “A Defense of Internal Realism” Putnam summarizes his position as follows:

Let me conclude by saying a little more about my own picture, for I do have a picture. I don’t think it is bad to have pictures in philosophy. What is bad is to forget they are pictures and to treat them as ‘the world.’ In my picture, objects are theory-dependent in the sense that theories with incompatible ontologies can both be right […]. It is saying that various representations, various language, various theories, are equally good in certain contexts. In the tradition of James and Dewey, it is to say that devices which are functionally equivalent in the context of inquiry for which they are designed are equivalent in every way that we have a ‘handle on’.

What this position entails is the recognition of an ever-present “epistemologically impure” agent observing the world without the rejection of that agent’s observations as purely “subjective” or constructed. It thus accepts a certain degree of indeterminacy in regards to an absolute frame of reference while accepting an internal or contextual “rightness” and “wrongness” from within its context, given various degrees of epistemic quality. In such a scheme there are a plurality of justified truths in various area of human life which have no need for an ultimate hierarchy of facts for their collective validity. For example, consider Werner Heisenberg’s matrix mechanics, as opposed to Erwin Schrödinger’s wave mechanics, both theories have fundamentally different ontological claims (particles and waves), but by the equivalency of their results, and through their coherence given their own context, it is difficult, if not impossible to say which is correct in any absolute sense. In an even more general way, the context in which theories are valid could be understood in broad categories, such as physics, morality, biology, politics, without any need for an overarching absolute answer. A “moralistic” description of an event, for example, the rightful or wrongful execution of a prisoner, can equally be described by a series of physical or biological or social theories, given the context in which we choose to examine it. In this case the biological description would not be right or wrong at the cost of the physical or moral one, since the frame of references under discussion occupy different ontological spaces. As it might appear, this approach also rejects the demand for “ultimate reductions” as an artifact of the strict adherence to metaphysical realism, but it is not within the scope of this paper to address such an issue.

This position can then be placed beside Haraway’s. Like Putnam, Haraway is wary of transcendental truth claims, argues for a greater understanding of the role an embodied/human observer plays in observation, and (famously) is not bothered by the indeterminacy or vagueness that results from this position. Arguably, this vagueness comes in part from her methodological adherence to a kind of conceptual “complementarity” (to borrow the term from Niels Bohr), when describing complex real world affairs seen from different vantage points. As she has written about her position:

I am arguing for politics and epistemologies of location, positioning, and situating, where partiality and not universality is the condition of being heard to make rational knowledge claims. These are claims on people’s lives; the view from a body, always complex, contradictory, structuring and structured body, versus the view from above, from nowhere, from simplicity. Only the god-trick is forbidden.

While the language is radically different, the content is much the same as Putnam’s; however, as we shall see, there are also important differences. Having roughly established the positions of these two thinkers, we may then move on to these differences and the more particular elements of their thoughts that reinforce each other.

Repeatedly in Putnam’s considerations of ‘real’ things he makes use of a particular kind of God metaphor. He usually utilizes it to criticize what he sees as extreme forms of realism, which attempt to make transcendental statements of the real that go beyond what is justifiable given any epistemic condition. Thus, whereas the statement “the chair is blue” is unproblematic for Putnam’s small “r” claims to realism, the moment we go beyond thinking that there are more than conventional answers to questions such as “is a chair coexists with the space-time region that it occupies, or is it identical with its matter?” we run into a difficulty. This difficulty is that: “Not even God could tell us if the chair is ‘identical’ with its matter (or with the space-time region); and not because there is something He doesn’t know”. Likewise, in “Truth and Convention” Putnam discusses the problem of the definition of what counts as an object. In the case of the divergent view of Kant and Leibnitz over whether or not Euclidean points in a plane are limits or parts, he concludes that: “My view is that God himself, if he consented to answer the question ‘Do points really exist or are they mere limits?’ would say ‘I don’t know”; not because His omniscience is limited, but because there is a limit to how far questions make sense”. Again, we see that essentially equivalent statements of questions featuring different ontological primitives turn out to be either version-relative, or so transcendent that the truth of the matter would not even be sensible to an omniscient agent.

It would appear, then, that the God metaphor seeks to draw the line between what kinds of “real” knowledge claims are justifiable in context and which are so indiscernible by virtue of differing languages as to be unjustifiable in principle. In the case of the space-time/matter decision, it is the ontological disparity between the two possible “solutions” that makes neither of them conclusively justifiable at the cost of the other. In contrast to this, the contextual positing of the “blueness” of the chair is what justifies our “realist” position, considering ideal epistemic conditions. What can at last be drawn from this is that the “God’s-Eye view” of traditional realists even goes beyond the justifiable capacities of what we traditionally attribute to omniscience.

Likewise, Haraway presents her own God metaphor along similar lines: what she prefers to call the god-trick. As she states:

The only position from which objectivity could not possibly be practiced and honoured is the standpoint of the master, the Man, the One God, whose Eye produces, appropriates, and orders all difference. No one ever accused the God of monotheism of objectivity, only of indifference. The god-trick is self-identical, and we have mistaken that for creativity and knowledge, omniscience even.

While again the language is radically different, what can be drawn from this statement is a position strikingly similar to Putnam’s. This is particularly evident in his criticism of the God’s-Eye view of truth. However, where Haraway’s God metaphor is largely presented as a reiteration of her embodied view of knowledge (i.e. we are wrong to succumb to the god-trick and think that it could possibly be otherwise), it lacks the weight of Putnam’s omniscience argument when asked to thereby demonstrate the need for more contextual considerations.

The ordering of difference that Haraway describes comes close to Putnam’s argument from omniscience, for it suggests that what makes metaphysical realism seem viable is its tendency to ignore manifest differences of context, yet it fails to draw out the implication this suggests for the contextually equivalent value of indiscernible statements/theories even given an omniscient observer. Without the supporting demonstration of the equivalent value of some ontologically different theories, this criticism can do little else than be a mere reiteration of her argument, which then calls for her to additionally posit the simultaneous validity of different contextual statements. In Haraway’s account, it seems, traditional realism, almost as an act of a malevolent will, collapses the inherent difference between systems of thought merely to satisfy its craving for the absolute, whereas by showing how even an omniscient knower would be unable to decide between certain ontologically divergent accounts whose “real world” manifestations would look identical, Putnam is able to demonstrate in a more positive manner that: “What is wrong is that Nature, or ‘physical reality’ in the post-Newtonian understanding of the physical, has no semantic preferences”.

An additional benefit of tying the God’s-Eye view argument to the argument from omniscience is that it directly allows for the preservation of a coherent method for determining the relative rightness or wrongness of a statement from within a certain ontological standpoint. It does this because the omniscience to which Putnam refers is in effect an extension (or idealized version) of what he describes as idealized justification. As he says:

the two key ideas of the idealization theory of truth are (1) that truth is independent of justification here and now, but not independent of all justification. To claim a statement is true is to claim it could be justified. (2) truth is expected to be stable or ‘convergent’; if both a statement and its negation could be ‘justified’, even if conditions were as ideal as one could hope to make them, there is no sense in thinking of the statement as having a truth-value.

From the standpoint of the omniscient adjudicator (a theoretical being with the most idealized form of epistemic conditions), if it could not decide between two theories with divergent ontologies, then it would make no sense to assign one a privileged truth-value. However, it would still be possible to discern which two theories with identical ontologies were more justified, and therefore more true.

However, it is important to note that Putnam does not equate his view of omniscience with idealized justification. More banal examples are possible and common, but even they extend to this view when we consider the degree of idealization present. As he reminds us at the beginning of Realism with a Human Face:

By an ideal epistemic situation I mean something like this: if I say ‘There is a chair in my study,’ an ideal epistemic situation would be to be in my study with the lights on […], with nothing wrong with my eyesight, with an unconfused mind, without having taken drugs or being subject to hypnosis, and so forth, and to look and see if there is a chair there.

Justification can be subject to varying degrees of impediments. Insofar as the statements we make regarding a given contextual system likewise subject to varying degrees of impediments (visual-spatial in the case of the chair), they exist on a continuum of rightness and wrongness. Yet there is no theory or statement whose very existence precludes the necessity of justification by virtue of the fact that we are human beings whose world does exhibit divergent ontologies given divergent contexts. Indeed, it could be said that contexts are only defined by the extremes of idealized justification that separate them as different contexts, and not by the gradations that make them internally comparable. Putnam’s somewhat nebulous “and so forth” in the above quotation is in fact a trailing off at the point in which his omniscient adjudicator begins to resemble his concept of ideal justification. However, it could be said that this view of omniscience is to idealized justification what frictionless surfaces are to physics: the impossible ideal whose finer degrees of approximation underlay our context specific generalizations.

What can be concluded from this is that while Haraway’s criticism of the god-trick is an important starting point for her attempt at a third path between relativism and realism, it does not present that alternative from within the criticism itself. Putnam’s articulation of the God’s-Eye view problem leads into his argument from omniscience, which turns out to be a reformulated version of his notion of truth as that which can be justified given ideal epistemic conditions. In this way it begins with a criticism that, as it evolves, demonstrates more fully than Haraway’s how we can have degrees of wrongness and rightness from within certain systems without needing appeals to absolute, observer-independent objects.

An important ramification of the equivalent truth-values of indiscernibly equivalent theories is that the traditional dichotomies between facts and values and subject and object break down. These dichotomies are themselves indiscernible. Facts are not “right” at the cost of values being “wrong”, nor does it make sense to say the same for subjects and objects. In the discussion which is to follow we shall then see how well Putnam sets up the problem, only to have it satisfactorily addressed in Haraway’s account of objects as agents.

In Realism with a Human Face Putnam provides scientific and logical examples of the problems that arise from a strict adherence to metaphysical realism and of the dichotomies to which it adheres. They take the form of his argument from quantum mechanics and the liar’s paradox. It is perhaps no surprise that quantum physics seems to permeate the discussion of both these authors, for it is the most fundamental science to date which makes the project of observer-independent reality problematic. When we reach the extreme limits of phenomenon, particles or waves, or what have you, we are forced to come to terms with the fact that our measurements do in fact alter what is observed, regardless of what standard we are using. However, what Putnam wishes to observe is that this is a paradox only if you adhere to the notion of one true theory, over and above some kind of complementarity of views.

Likewise, when he treats the liar’s paradox, he does so from the position that the statement “this statement is false” is paradoxical because we demand only one true answer from it. Nor can we escape being forced to give multiple answers by appealing to meta-languages that attempt to encapsulate the problematic self-referent in a single system of true or false. What Putnam ultimately draws from this is that: “There is always a cut between the observer’s language and the totality of languages he generalizes over”. This is yet another formulation and demonstration that the God’s-Eye view approach is untenable, for it is the very attempt to view all languages as a part of the world being examined that produces these paradoxes. Outside of this, they are not “paradoxical-in-themselves”.

The situation is much the same in the traditional divide between facts and values. To call something a fact is to accept the values used to derive it. In the case of scientific facts there are values of simplicity, objectivity, accuracy and above all truth. However, as Putnam points out, we will not inherently believe anyone who tells us something is a scientific fact without first accepting the values they used to derive it. Furthermore, some values must also be facts, insofar as we cannot even begin to make sense of any notion (relativism or realism) without them. For example, Putnam considers that justification, taken as a value, is also fundamentally a fact, since it opens up the space that makes observation possible. Rephrased, this is no more and no less than accepting a kind of relativity with rules (or realism with a human face), the establishment of the rules themselves being the necessary conditions that would make the relative values-facts possible in any context.

Outside of the value-oriented derivation of facts, statements of facts are situated in contexts that go beyond the purely factual. As Putnam observes, it is often impossible to fully extricate statements of fact from predictions, praise, and blame. Such facts of the matter as clarity, accuracy and the like take on ethical roles of praise and blame when actually applied to people and events in the world. Likewise, to say that someone is accurate or clear is to make some claim to a predictive statement about his future actions. Thus most, if not all, objective claims about people come with an inherent “praise-blame” structure built into them, making factual statements about them problematic.

Ultimately these considerations lead to Putnam’s observation that “the mind and the world jointly make up the mind and the world”. Yet in his discussion, it seems, objects (the products of this mind/world complementarity) are seen as only descriptive tools or boundary conditions, valid in different contexts but not jointly making up “mind and the world” to the same degree as mind. This emerges from his view that:

We cut up the world into objects when we introduce one or another scheme of description. Since the objects and the signs are alike internal to the scheme of description, it is possible to say what matches what.

While this view does suggest an alternate reading to the traditional dichotomy, insofar as objects could be said to play a role as “filters” of human perception, what is missing here is a developed alternative to how the mind and world compose each other equally, outside of the definitions proposed by relativists and realists that objects in the object/subject duality are somehow inherently inert.

Haraway’s concept of objects as actors serves to equalize the above-mentioned dichotomies. In this situation Putnam seems to delegate a more one sided end to the subject/object dichotomy, since in his conception we are the ones doing the cutting based on our own contextual perceptions. To see the distinction between their two accounts one need only consider Putnam’s account of the contextual “cutting up” when placed beside Haraway’s version of the same in the case of biology:

Biology is the fiction appropriate to objects called organisms; biology fashions the facts ‘discovered’ from organic beings. Organisms perform for the biologist, who transforms that performance into a truth attested by disciplined experience; i.e., into a fact, the jointly accomplished deed or feat of the scientist and the organism.

In essence this embodies more fully what one would mean by the statement that “mind and the world make up mind and the world”, for it gives an equivalent agency to both sides to influence each other in a like manner without the need to posit some partially-external context setting agent (us as separate from the world). Still, in Putnam’s account objects seem more inert than the subjects with which they interact, despite the ways in which he seeks to break down this dichotomy in the favor of avoiding paradoxes of non-contextuality (i.e. how situations like quantum mechanics and the liars paradox are only paradoxical when we ignore contexts).

Given the validity of Putnam’s God metaphors and the effect that this has on the traditional dichotomies between fact/value and object/subject, Haraway accurately concludes from her attempt to equalize the subject/object dichotomy that the view of objects as agents necessarily follows. As she says: “a corollary of the insistence that ethics and politics covertly or overtly provide the bases for objectivity in the sciences as a heterogeneous whole, and not just in the social sciences, is granting the status of agent/actor to the ‘objects’ of the world”. In Putnam’s account there are still traces of the subject/object dichotomy that he claims to oppose. In his previous statement the broken dichotomy is between objects and our mental representations of those objects (signs), not between objects and “us” as subjects with which they interact. While this distinction allows him to demonstrate the unity of sign and object (given its context), it nevertheless implicitly maintains the ultimate divide between subject and object. In Haraway’s treatment this semantic/perceptual second layer is largely unnecessary, since the same vital contextual component in situated knowledges can be asserted without recourse to the distinction between subject, and the signs which that subject uses to understand the world.

Thus, as has been seen, Putnam’s God metaphors (the incoherence of the God’s-Eye view, the argument from omniscience, and the equivalency of omniscience with idealized justification) have an advantage over Haraway’s because they seamlessly lead to the breakdown of the dichotomies established by the traditional realist and relativist positions. Haraway’s articulation of the god-trick serves only to reiterate her call for embodied knowledge, without leading directly into any alternative epistemic position.

Putnam subsequently does an excellent job in demonstrating the various equivalencies between fact and value and subject and object that emerge from this view, and the paradoxes that have already been seen to emerge from its alternative. Yet despite the conclusion that “mind and the world make mind and the world”, his resultant position does not, in the end, demonstrate the equivalent weight of subject and object. Objects in his system are still subservient to their contexts in a way that subjects (“us” as the interpreters of signs) are not. Haraway is then correct in stating that a major consequence of the breakdown of the subject/object and fact/value dichotomies is that objects are to be regarded as agents in much the same sense as we would traditionally view subjects.

A great deal can be learned from examining the comparative virtues of contemporary third alternatives to the realism/relativism debates, particularly when they support each other when one seems weakest. In considering just some of the virtues and pitfalls of Putnam’s internal realism and Haraway’s situated knowledges we can see this relationship emerge. What it amounts to is a widening of the space in which alternatives may thrive as they attempt to distinguish themselves from traditional dichotomies. It also adds credence to the overall project when we consider that these two thinkers, working at roughly the same time but in very different contexts, were nevertheless able to conceive of mutually supporting and reinforcing concepts that bear a notable resemblance to one another. While neither of these positions claim to be offering any final answers to some of the deepest divides in philosophy, they may just be beginning to show how a Faustian “rest in restlessness” is not only possible, but ultimately the most worthwhile view of human thought that we can bring to bear on our relationship to ourselves and the world around us.

For More Information:

Haraway, Donna. Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science. Routledge; New York, 1989.

–––. “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective”. In Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. Routledge; New York, 1991.

Putnam, Hilary. “A Defense of Internal Realism” in Realism With a Human Face. Ed. James Conant. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, 1990.

–––. “Is the Causal Structure of the Physical Itself Something Physical?” in Realism With a Human Face. Ed. James Conant. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, 1990.

–––. Realism With a Human Face. Ed. James Conant. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, 1990.

–––. “Realism with a Human Face” in Realism With a Human Face. Ed. James Conant. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, 1990.

–––. Reason, Truth and History. Cambridge University Press; Cambridge, 1981.

–––. “Truth and Convention” in Realism With a Human Face. Ed. James Conant. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, 1990.

The Devil’s Doctor

Philip Ball. The Devil’s Doctor. Paracelsus and the World of Renaissance Magic and Science. 436 pp., 34 ills.  New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006. $27.00.

“The story captures the emotional truth of the narrative” (p. 102). With this remark Philip Ball summarizes the value of the legends surrounding Martin Luther’s initiation into holy orders. In many ways the same could also be said for the rest of his study of Paracelsus. Ball, a science writer whose interests span the history of chemistry, contemporary theatre, and much more besides, is not an expert on his subject matter, but instead seeks to provide valuable emotional truths to a popular audience. Thus the contemporary scholar may take exception to several of his broad generalizations and normative claims. Despite this, he is still carful to avoid the pitfalls of earlier Paracelsian biographers in trying to firmly place Paracelsus on the continuum of magic into science.

While it is true that scholars looking for a focused discussion of Paracelsus will be disappointed, those interested in a general account of his life and works, as well as the atmosphere in which he lived, will find themselves far more satisfied. Ball begins his discussion by recounting the numerous associations between Paracelsus and the Faust legend before going on to his early life and apprenticeship among the mines near his native Einsiedeln. This is followed by his experiences as a medical student and an account of his travels throughout Europe, Africa and Asia. Much of the middle of the book is taken up by context setting discussions of renaissance occultism and the personalities involved in the protestant reformation, and not on Paracelsus himself. After this context setting section, Ball describes Paracelsus’ fluctuating fortunes from Basle to the end of his life, stopping briefly before his death to describe his latter writings. He concludes with Paracelsus’ influence on subsequent thinkers.

Despite the generalities of the text, Bell is not entirely uncritical of his subject matter. He seeks to weigh in on murky topics such as the question of Paracelsus’ relationship with his student Johannes Oporinus (1507-1568) (p. 197-199), and tries to dispel illusions like the commonly held belief that Paracelsus gave the metal zinc its name (p. 37). Ball is also unafraid to use the psychology of Carl Jung to try to elucidate element of Paracelsus’ psyche. While this may offend some scholarly interests, it is much in keeping with his efforts toward an emotionally true narrative.

Some may accuse Ball’s use of quotations of being undisciplined, and in this they would probably be correct. In his discussion of mumia, the healing powers latent in organisms and preserved in mummy wrappings, he presents references to several of Paracelsus’ works (p. 265). While he indicates separate sources in his presentation, he does not indicate separate contexts. What begins as a discussion of the healing power of mumia is concluded with a reference from Paracelsus’ De Natura Rerum, in which its role in enabling a person killed by violence to be resurrecting from their own mumia is actually discussed. If used more carefully, this could have added to his argument, but without any indication of its proper context, it will leave some paracelsian enthusiasts unsatisfied.

While having avoided many anachronisms in regards to the role of science and magic, Ball nevertheless continues in the tradition of semi-scholarly writings that take up the difficult task of presenting Paracelsus to the wider public. It is tempting to think, given his dedication to the vernacular and disregard of scholastic institutions, that these accounts of Paracelsus’ life naturally lend themselves to this kind of treatment. However, it could also be said that such a study only deepens the puzzles surrounding a figure as paradoxical and demanding as Paracelsus. Despite this, Bell’s work is true to it’s own goals, if not to those of the scholarly community, and presents itself as a very readable introduction to its subject matter.