Bushmen meet Aristotle: Long ago and far away, even before Kurt Godel died, we were teaching delightful fifth graders in the Baltimore City Schools.
(For our previous report, click here.)
At one point, we came upon a rather dull textbook which included a memorable anecdote. If memory serves, it was the third or fourth grade social studies text of one of the major publishers.
The textbook focused on the planet's many peoples and cultures. The memorable anecdote concerned the Bushmen of the Kalahari. They were among the shortest people in the world, the lower grade textbook said. In part for that reason, they have a standard traditional greeting:
"I saw you from afar."
Theoretically, this greeting was this group's attempt to compensate for smallness of stature. The greeted party was so large and imposing that he'd been seen from afar!
We never used that textbook, but the anecdote stuck in our heads. As it turns out, it had probably surfaced through the work of Marlin Perkins, later of TV's Wild Kingdom fame.
In 1965, Perkins and his wife, Carole Morse Perkins, had written a children's book about the Kalahari. The book was well received in a short review in the New York Times:
BERKVIST (5/9/65): This delightful little book, 50-odd pages of well-chosen words and photographs, opens a window on the world of the Bushmen, a remarkable handful of people who have somehow managed to strike a precarious bargain with nature in South Africa's vast, inhospitable Kalahari Desert."During their stay in the Kalahari," the reviewer went on to say, "the authors watched [the Bushmen] meet the harsh demands of desert life with good-humored dignity."
You can possibly guess the name of the Perkins book: "I Saw You From Afar!" The Times explained this traditional greeting as that textbook later did:
"The title echoes a highly complimentary form of greeting among Bushmen, most of whom are less than five feet tall and like to be told otherwise."
So the Times reviewer said—and so it went as the western world reached out to indigenous peoples. But the anecdote always stuck in our heads. At long last, we may know why:
Long ago and far away, Aristotle, the father of logic, is said to have made an basic assessment, one which became iconic:
"Man [sic] is the rational animal."
So Aristotle is commonly said to have said. Or words to that effect!
As the centuries passed, this flattering assessment came to define our species' basic self-assessment, at least within western culture. It strikes us as a near relation to "I saw you from afar."
Are we humans really "rational" in some definitive way? Aristotle, the father of logic, may have been wrong about that. And what better illustration, one might imagine, than the tragedy of Kurt Godel, who is commonly said to be our second greatest logician?
How odd! The western world's second greatest logician was severely mentally ill and given to crazy ideas! In the face of this slightly odd state of affairs, along come the popularizers, with their slavish, scripted enablers within the mainstream press corps.
The popularizers pretend to explain Godel's "incompleteness theorems." In turn, the journalists say that they've managed to make Godel's ideas and achievement just amazingly clear.
Along the way, we gullibles are told that the second greatest logician in history devoted his life to a key idea. The great logician was a Platonist, we're told. This "doctrine" is then made stunningly clear:
HOLT (page 8): Gödel entered the University of Vienna in 1924. He had intended to study physics, but he was soon seduced by the beauties of mathematics, and especially by the notion that abstractions like numbers and circles had a perfect, timeless existence independent of the human mind. This doctrine, which is called Platonism, because it descends from Plato’s theory of ideas, has always been popular among mathematicians...Godel believed that numbers and circles have a perfect, timeless existence! At least, that's the way Jim Holt explains the "doctrine" in the title essay of his new, perhaps slightly plagiarized book, When Einstein Walked With Godel: Excursions to the Edges of Thought.
Holt derives his material, with lax attribution, from Rebecca Goldstein's 2005 book, Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Godel. In that general interest book, Goldstein describes the great logician''s key belief like this:
GOLDSTEIN (page 44): Platonism is the view that the truths of mathematics are independent of any human activities...The truths of mathematics are determined, according to Platonism, by the reality of mathematics, by the nature of the real, though abstract, entities (numbers, sets, etc.) that make up that reality.See there? According to Goldstein, our second greatest logician believed that the truths of mathematics are determined by the reality of mathematics! More specifically, the truths of mathematics are determined by the nature of the entities that make up that reality!
We humans! We've been seeing ourselves from afar for an extremely long time! At long last, along came the later Wittgenstein, making something resembling that claim about the various proclamations and assertions which constitute historical philosophy.
Wittgenstein said our allegedly greatest minds—not excluding himself, in his earlier efforts—had been seduced and led to ruin by conceptual confusion.
Back in 1969, we told Professor Cavell that we'd give him and Albritton fifty year to get this whole thing straightened out.
After that, we'd have to speak up, we said. Or words to that effect.
Stanley Cavell died in June, at age 91. Even as this loss occurs, the inanity of modern American journalism has finally overwhelmed even us.
This morning, we watched the clowning on Morning Joe as the children burned oodles of time trying to guess who wrote the op-ed column. We just can't go there any more. We're finally saying goodbye to all that, at least for the most part.
We've decided to move on to the larger story which has been lurking here. We've started with Godel this week because Holt's favorably-reviewed new book has brought the topic to mind.
"I saw you from afar," the Bushmen are said to say. We're forced to say that we hear an echo in Aristotle's famous remark.
Over here in the western world, we self-flattering human beings have hidden behind that remark. Now, we're going to bring you the never-before-told, dramatic true stories of human intellectual failure at its highest levels.
In truth, the extended tale we're going to tell is largely a comical tale. If you could ignore the endless wars and the endless killing, it would be humorous all the way down.
Along the way, we'll offer two paradigms—a pair of competing capsule accounts of our ballyhooed human race. One will come from Aristotle, one from Professor Harari:
The Aristotelian account: We humans are the rational animal.So says Professor Harari in his widely-praised best-seller, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, or words to that effect.
The Harari heuristic: Our human species, Homo sapiens, is a slightly improved great ape. We drove all other human species into extinction because, through chance mutations, we developed 1) the ability to "gossip," and 2) the ability to promulgate, and believe and affirm, irrational, sweeping group "fictions."
Along the way, we'll describe the building blocks of the Harari heuristic in more detail. For today, we'll only say this:
The idea that numbers have a perfect timeless existence is a remarkably good example of what Harari means when he describes the group "fictions" which gave our particular human species a competitive advantage. In Harari's account, this advantage came from the new ability to believe and affirm sweeping claims which don't make observable sense.
So how about it? Does the number 3 have a perfect timeless existence independent of the human mind? Do circles share that perfect existence with their good friends, the numbers?
According to Holt, that's what the second greatest logician in history believed from the time of his youth. According to Goldstein, he didn't believe in evolution, in part because Stalin said.
Numbers and circles have a perfect existence! Holt makes little attempt to explain what such a "belief" could possibly consist in or mean. But then again, so what?
At the New York Times, at the Wall Street Journal, rational animals stood in line to say how clear it all is. This has been going on forever, and it's a comical tale.
Next week: A Platonist among them!