historicism, dialectic, plagiarism, and other animals

Turns out that idea I had yesterday about the archaeology of ideas (which I thought was a revelation of sorts) was not mine. Hegel (19th century German philoospher  I’ve been studying) had postulated “philosophy is a history of philosophy” (or well, that’s what all the papers I’ve been reading have been quoting). That is to say, the current state of science or literary criticism (and so on) involves and expresses a composition of ideas that preceded it. For example, current analyses in theoretical physics are built on ideas from Einstein, and more recently, Hawking. Their ideas were built on someone else’s ideas, and you might actually be able to trace it all back to Aristotle and a bunch of Babylonian astronomers in the time of Alexander the Great (for example). Sure, the last bunch had ideas that may by now be considered outdated, but their explorations and investigations lay the foundation for future generations.


[what I’m trying to work out is how humans in the Western world took such a huge detour since classical Greece – did the obsession for power and conquest plunge them into darkness? I mean, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and their contemporaries came up with some pretty great concepts – democracy, isonomy (being equal before the law) – even if they had a different meaning to what they mean today… how did the Dark Ages (which apparently weren’t so dark), burning witches at the stake, or the Spanish Inquisition happen? Was it a grand rebellion of brute force against intellect? Is it a huge conspiracy? SO MANY QUESTIONS]

Another chap, Fichte, released an analysis (which apparently is often credited to Hegel because it’s an interpretation of Hegel’s work?) called the concept of ‘thesis- antithesis – synthesis’. [I guess in some ways you could call it a reflection of our holy obsession with the number 3 in the West (the holy Trinity; the 12 Gods of Olympus, etc? all religious things were based on multiples of 3! WHY???).] Anyway, the point is that this fellow Fichte extrapolated the idea from Hegel’s writings about dialectic (a sort of modern take/extension of Socratic dialectic methods), which claimed that ideas have history, like people. And like people and societies, ideas begin from a simple point, germinate, and evolve from there.

If I’ve not misunderstood (which is extremely likely!), the initial stage is the thesis, whereby an idea comes into being and grows into the dominant ideology of a society in a specific time period (let’s say, 1940s/50s structuralism – the concept that everything we do, say, and so on, is a manifestation of some deeper structure). The next stage is the antithesis, which is easy for anyone who knows Greek; literally, the word antithesis (I assume from the verb αντιθέτω) means placing something opposite something else… contrasting it, if you like. So the antithesis is basically the reaction: people (well, philosophers in this case) going “now, hang on a minute… that doesn’t sound right” and starting to present and consider an opposing ideology (I guess in my example that would be post-structuralism?). Finally, we have the synthesis, which is a dynamic composition (or, for want of a better word, marriage?) of the two processes (and no, I have no idea what the equivalent is for the example I gave!).

[strange how this three-part idea also reflects Aristotle’s ideas about Greek tragedy… hm…]

According to Fichte’s analysis (again, if I’ve understood correctly), Hegel used this idea of thesis-antithesis-synthesis to explain the historicism of ideas and how each idea/concept manifests differently in different cultures, time periods, societies, etc. The ‘purpose’ of this process leads to some sort of ‘refining’ of each idea until we reach the Ideal  (or is that what Hegel calls the Spirit? I can’t remember… can’t do everything around here!). Instead of using Plato’s “trickle-down” idea system, whereby ideas can only be approximated in the natural world (which was what Kant supported? no idea, I haven’t got that far yet – I’ll keep you posted!), Hegel  postulated that this method of idea-creation and idea-“death” is just a way of perfecting ideas (and hence, theoretically, can have indefinite iterations and reincarnations). The ‘perfectibility of man’ or some such grand title  (because, you know, only men – white, cis, hetero  – can strive for the perfect).

So, where am I going with all this? Well, apparently one reaction a few centuries later to Hegel’s historicism and dialectic came from another famous fellow, Michel Foucault. It wasn’t quite a reaction… In the same way Foucault didn’t quite react (or even acknowledge!) Roland Barthes’ Death of the Author claim, but rather came to conclusions of his own [and took it one step further], he doesn’t seem to entirely REACT (at least, not negatively?) to Hegel. Rather, he created his own methodology of writing  about the past, which, surprise surprise, he called archaeology!

Well, isn’t this exciting!

Do we as humans just recycle the same ideas? Is it possible to own them? If we were to ask Foucault, he would probably say no (I think so, anyway), ideas cannot be owned in the way that a piece of bread or a television can be, but that possibly, the need to attribute discourse (and hence ideas) to someone – in order to ensure that someone takes responsibility (and blame) and is hence punishable for that discourse (which is why and how – he claims – the concept of authorship was born) – has created the notion of plagiarism. I guess it’s the same for other things (think royalties, song rights, intellectual ‘property’…); if there’s money involved in ‘owning’ it, it must be worth keeping, right?




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