Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The constellations of philosophy?


The patterns of every socio-economic organization in history and the powers that maintain them are supported by a tacit ontology (myth/theory of what reality is) that underpins public discourse and the social narrative. This ontology serves to legitimate the social order in the same way as the ancient belief in the "divine right of kings" or "mandate of heaven". (Another metaphor that may work in place of the divine right of kings might be heavenly/stellar constellations. Ancient rites seem to have connected them.)

Philosophers are by trade apologists for or critics of the divine right of kings (i.e., the ontology that underpins the social narrative). It is changes in technology that occasion changes in the social narrative (and only indirectly philosophy) because technological change gives rise to the need for changes in the patterns of economic and thus social organization, which then calls forth a new narrative. Philosophers gain a following when they contribute to a sustaining narrative, or to one held onto by soon-to-be eclipsed powers (there's usually a lag...).


  1. I would agree with this much: patterns of production and consumption produce ideas, not the other way around (Marx). They produce both justifications and critiques.

    I'm much less clear on the connection between ontology and the social order. What ontology, for instance, supports a democratic order, vs. an aristocratic one?

  2. Thanks for your question. For the record, I like Marx's analysis but his remedies leave much to be desired. I also am a fan of Joseph Campbell who suggested that the mythic order supports the economic order (and our relations in society.)

    Some example that may clarify:

    The family unit is an economic unit, and the role of women has changed with technology which freed them from things like spinning, weaving, making soap, tending chickens... you get my drift. They got bored and wanted the vote. They got even more bored and burned their bras... Prior to all of this, the human male was (and still is pretty much) the assumed human prototype. Women didn't really exist in the public sphere, at least, not in the minds of those operating in the public sphere. Now think burqa, niqab, just to complete the picture...

    Less facetiously, Campbell tells the story of how, at a technological juncture, a shaman in a native community dreamed of a new corn goddess who replaced buffalo woman. Of course the social order would need to change with a different technological order and the myth legitimated the new order. Sadly, shortly after the shaman had the dream, the tribe was slaughtered by Europeans (pioneers).

    The social order is an economic order (with lags and leaps, of course). Today, our ontology is all about what is reducible, categorizable and quantifiable, sort of the "performance management model" of ontology... (OK, that was a bit facetious.)

    But to be honest, when I use the expression, the divine right of kings (to me it conjures images of monumental buildings aligned with the constellations of the heavens and related rituals), I mean to underscore the devoted adherence people have to the myth/theology/ontology that governs their social relations and legitimates power. People get deeply wedded to and tribalize around even the most rational accounts of things. (Think of academic camps, of all things!) This is true even when it doesn't serve them (American politics is a farcical example, sadly, of such a state of affairs.)

  3. Like the post. It is my view that a certain mastery of the use of technology is what made us (makes us) human. By technology I include language and culture. But I think something is missing and that is what arises in the relationship of humans and technology that has allowed key thresholds of population density to arise. These thresholds of population density are what 'opens' the possibilities (and invites new domains of knowledge) of divisions of labor. Density thresholds are those points that exhibit the phase transitions from one type of social structure (hunter-gatherer) to another type (agricultural, industrial, digital).

    Peggy Reeves-Sanday in her book "Female Power and Male Dominance: On the Origins of Sexual Inequality" does a very interesting analysis of the relation between social groups, their geographic-environmental condition, type of origin myth and relations between the sexes. This complex of interdependent variables provides a very interesting frame for understanding narrative frames and how they can be much different than what the West takes for granted.

  4. Thanks for the reference. I will check it out.