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The Philosopher as Choreographer

Peter Rickman takes steps to demonstrate how philosophers make history.

It is, of course, not the business of philosophy to compose dance steps. I am suggesting that one of the philosopher’s tasks is to choreograph the ballet of events to the music of time. Their proper function is to contribute to the making of history.

History is manifestly shaped by many factors: geography and climate, biological factors and epidemics, technological development and the clash of personalities. This does not affect the analogy; for ballets are also the product of many factors. Dancers need physical training, scenery needs to be painted, and the lighting fixed. But just as the composition of steps remains indispensable, so does the role of ideas in history.

That role can hardly be overestimated. In history, as in daily life, the relationship between men and women – to give just one example – is clearly conditioned by biological factors and social needs, but romantic love and conceptions of the respective proper roles of men and women are ideas and changes in these ideas have momentous consequences. Examples of the decisive influence of ideas in history are easy to provide. Though economic motives promoted the crusades and they were, no doubt, fired by greed, they were also inspired and justified by religious ideas. Columbus’s fateful journey west was inspired by the idea that the earth was a sphere. Astronomers and other scientists toiled endlessly and with good effect, because they believed that the confusing variety of empirical phenomena could be accounted for by simple mathematical patterns.

Once this is agreed, there is only a step towards identifying the philosopher’s hand in all this. Developing new ideas and clarifying old ones is, after all, their job. Philosophers are involved in history in various ways. They interpret the past and examine the historians’ craft. They crystallise our awareness of the present and often predict the future, as Nietzsche, for example, did very successfully. At issue here is that they also shape the future. Marx was clearly wrong when he, through ignorance or for rhetorical reasons, claimed that past philosophy had only been about understanding the world instead of changing it. Testimony to Plato’s passionate commitment towards changing the world is his attempt to educate a future ruler and his invention of the university. His concern in the Republic is how to achieve more intelligent government. As part of this, he mapped out a complete educational system from nursery school to university and post-graduate experience. Nothing of this existed in his time and we are only just catching up with it. It is surely not an accident that the educational system that we are struggling to establish is pretty much the one Plato envisaged 2,500 years ago.

Nor was he just a shrewd prophet. His giant shadow fell over all European – and not only European – civilisation, and he put the stamp of his genius on many developments, though his various recommendations, such as a comprehensive educational system, marked by examinations allowing progress from stage to stage based purely on merit, and equal education for men and women, were established only gradually.

To place a comprehensive history of philosophy beside the history of mankind is, obviously, beyond the scope of an essay. A few points must suffice. Descartes and Spinoza led the way in undermining the power of the Church to inhibit the development of modern science and technology. They also struck powerful blows in favour of religious tolerance and against alchemy, astrology and the belief in witchcraft. The ideas of freedom, equality and fraternity forged by philosophers such as Rousseau, Diderot and Voltaire inspired both the American and French revolutions. Kant envisaged the need for something like the United Nations if there was to be permanent peace. Then there was Marx. He did not invent the exploitation and consequent discontent of the working classes, but his powerful theories provided a rallying point for the political parties that came to dominate a substantial part of the world. How far in that process Marx’s ideas were modified – i.e. if Marx was a Marxist – is another story beyond the scope of this essay.

Finally, in this selective list, one should mention the utilitarians. Their goal of ‘the greatest happiness for the greatest numbers’, was in some respects philosophically naive. However, it contained an important idea and exercised great influence on political and social reforms, as leading utilitarian thinkers such as Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill explicitly intended. It remains to explain how philosophical ideas influence the course of history. Plato founded his academy to educate potential leaders, and Marx was politically active, but most philosophers worked remote from the market place. Spinoza was a recluse, and his main work was not published in his lifetime. In any case, it is uncompromisingly and forbiddingly presented in geometric form. Kant lived the austere life of a dedicated academic in an East Prussian town that he never left. Writing of his maturity is only accessible through prolonged and dedicated study.

There is no evidence that most public figures such as politicians, industrial magnates or media moguls who shape public opinion and direct policies are devoted to the study of philosophy. The vast majority of citizens in democracies, whose vote affects public affairs are fed information by the media, not known for philosophic subtlety, rather than by absorbing the writings of great thinkers.

Yet the very greatness of seminal philosophic ideas triumphed over all obstacles. Despite the many achievements of the ancient world, its medical progress, architectural development, political and legal devices were lost as the Dark Age descended upon Europe. Plato’s dialogues and Aristotle’s lectures survived and were busily copied by monks in their cells. Great poets discovered and were captivated by major philosophers. Wordsworth and Shelly in England, and Goethe in Germany were profoundly affected by Spinoza. A prominent theologian, an author of the life of Jesus, thought that Spinoza’s might have been “the truest vision of God,” while Karl Marx busily copied long quotations from Spinoza’s writings into his notebooks. Coleridge, reading Kant, felt “as if gripped by a giant’s hand.” Schiller’s poems reflect Kant’s moral philosophy and, of course, the poets were widely read. When English schoolboys read Shelly’s Adonais they got a glimpse of Spinoza’s philosophy just as German children learned Kant’s ethics as they learned Schiller’s poems by heart. The ideas percolate and, as someone put it, the philosophies of yesterday become today’s common sense.

No doubt important factors shaping our history are beyond our control. Droughts and floods, eruptions of volcanoes, the fertility of the soil in some places, its barrenness in others, mountain barriers and the navigability of rivers are examples of factors that affect the course of human events. We need, however, to hold on to the idea that human beings have a hand in the shaping of the future. For example, the development of skills, of science and technologies have led to significant developments and have become explosive in the past hundred years or so. Matching them are developments in social organisation, large scale planning and growing political complexity. I am, of course, not suggesting that all this has been achieved by philosophy. There are, however, two points which need making. Firstly, we need to avoid the idea that philosophy is the preserve of a small select group of professionals. There is something of a philosophic spirit in most of us. When children ask not only how, but why, when we pass from technicalities to attempts to grasp the wider picture, when we try to unite the separate bits of an idea in our mind, we have tiptoed across the frontier that divides everyday concerns from philosophy. Philosophy is the unceasing human struggle to come to terms with life.

The other point is that the activities I have mentioned such as scientific progress and political developments have been triggered and furthered by philosophical speculation. The development of an atomic theory long before it became a scientific enterprise is a prime example. It is also clear that at the heart of Einstein’s theories, based though they are on mathematical calculations, there is philosophical reflection on time. Conditioned though we are by many factors, we are not puppets on a string. To think of philosophy as choreographing history is to reassert that the human spirit can guide our steps through time.


Peter Rickman is visiting professor of Philosophy at the City University, London.

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