Debate on Prehistory

This is a bit of a tangent from the usual topics here, but recently I’ve been dwelling on the distinctions between knowledge, well-founded belief, and not-so-well-founded belief, and I’m taking that as the point of departure. It should be no insult to science (and I certainly mean none) to suggest that empirical science aims only at what I’ve been calling well-founded belief, though received views are commonly taken for simple knowledge. The difference is that well-founded beliefs can still potentially be invalidated by new arguments or information, whereas real knowledge ought to be unconditionally valid.

I’ve been fascinated with prehistory since childhood, and in recent decades especially with the emergence of rich human cultures. Much has changed in this field during my lifetime, as relatively well-founded beliefs were replaced by better-founded ones. For example, it is now generally accepted that modern birds are surviving members of the theropod group of the dinosaur family that included raptors and T. rex, and that the extinction of the (other) dinosaurs was caused by a massive asteroid impact in the Gulf of Mexico ca. 65 million years ago.

Similarly, it is now widely accepted that biologically modern humans emerged in Africa two to three hundred thousand years ago, rather than in Europe only 40,000 years ago. Humans crossed the open sea from Southeast Asia to Australia over 50,000 years ago. If the previously known cave paintings from the late-glacial Magdalenian culture in southwest Europe were not already amazing enough testaments to the human spirit, the Chauvet cave (subject of the wonderful documentary film Cave of Forgotten Dreams by Werner Herzog) was discovered in 1994 to have equally magnificent paintings that turned out to be twice as old (from around 36,000 BP). Gobekli Tepe in Turkey has multi-ton megaliths dating from 9500 BCE, a little before the earliest evidence of agriculture in that region.

Agriculture is now believed to have independently originated in at least 11 different parts of the Old and New Worlds. Wikipedia now mentions small-scale cultivation of edible grasses by the Sea of Galilee from 21,000 BCE. Sickles apparently used for intensive harvesting of wild grains have been found in the Nile valley from at least 18,000 BCE. The Middle Eastern Natufian culture (ca. 15,000-11,500 BP) was previously thought to have had the world’s oldest agriculture, and still boasts the earliest evidence of baked bread (14,400 BP). Some Natufian portable art bears a striking stylistic resemblance to similar artifacts from Magdalenian Europe at roughly the same time. Numerous archaeologists and anthropologists have suggested that agriculture may have had a very long prehistory, beginning with deliberate efforts to promote the growth of particular wild plants that humans valued.

Currently, there is a big ongoing controversy over the cause of dramatic climate changes that occurred around 12,850 BP, at the beginning of the 1200-year period known as the Younger Dryas. The most recent ice age had begun to recede by around 20,000 BP, and the world had been getting gradually warmer. But then, suddenly, in perhaps only a single year’s time, temperatures fell by an astonishing 9 to 14 degrees centigrade. Then, in somewhere between a few years and a few decades, temperatures apparently rose again by 5 to 10 degrees centigrade. Several massive glacial lakes seem to have suddenly been emptied into the ocean, cooling it down, and there is evidence of gargantuan flooding. On a larger time scale of several thousand years including the Younger Dryas, worldwide sea levels are generally accepted to have risen around 400 feet. Many submerged archaeological sites have already been found, but this could be the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

Due to human-induced climate change, we are currently facing a sea level rise of around 50 feet from melting of the remaining ice caps, which is expected to be catastrophic. Four hundred feet dwarfs that. Today the great majority of the world’s population lives in or near coastal areas, and this may well have been true during the ice age too. Around the time of the Younger Dryas, there is evidence of intensive fishing by cultures like the Jomon of Japan — who also produced pottery older than any known from the Middle East — and the Magdalenians in Europe (not to mention many fresh-water fishing villages spread across what is now the Sahara desert).

By this time, humans would have been biologically modern for over 200,000 years, and had been at least occasionally producing magnificent art for at least 20,000 years. Stone and bone tools with amazing elegance and sophistication had been in use equally long. All hunter-gatherer cultures known to modern anthropology have complex culture, language, and spiritual beliefs. But somehow, we still have the prejudice that hunter-gatherers and “cave people” must have been extremely primitive.

The controversy I mentioned concerns evidence that like the dinosaur extinction, the Younger Dryas was caused by a cataclysm from space. Since 2007 the “Younger Dryas impact theory” has been hotly debated, but it now appears to be gaining ground. I have no particular stake in what really caused the Younger Dryas; I’m really more interested in its effects on humans. But the controversy potentially provides an interesting case study in how highly intelligent, educated people can effectively confuse apparently well-founded belief with “knowledge” that would supposedly be beyond doubt.

It also happens to be the case that Plato in the Critias gives a date for the sinking of the mythical Atlantis at around the time of the Younger Dryas. I don’t assume there is any accuracy in the details of the story — the island with the circular city and so forth — but I think archaeology already provides the basis for an extremely well-founded belief that late-glacial stone age cultures had already reached very high levels of sophistication, and that much more evidence may be hidden at as yet undiscovered underwater sites. This doesn’t mean people back then were flying around in spaceships or anything, or had magical powers, or even that they produced metal. Our standards for what represents “advanced” culture are highly distorted by our own obsessions with technology and money.

Incidentally, Plato in the Laws also casually suggests that animal and plant species come into being and pass away, as well as something like the succession of human material culture from stone to soft metals to iron. The Critias story is attributed to the Athenian lawgiver Solon, who supposedly heard it from an Egyptian priest during his travels there, but no source is given for the apparently accurate speculations about prehistory in the Laws.

All the modern fringe speculation around the Atlantis myth — and around “historical” readings of mythology in general — has given this stuff a bad name. We ought to suspend belief in things for which the evidence is shaky. But a suspension of belief need not — and should not — necessarily imply active disbelief. Our active disbeliefs ought to be well-founded up to the same standard as our active beliefs, and ought not to fall to the level of prejudice.

Narrated Time

The third volume of Paul Ricoeur’s Time and Narrative returns to more overtly philosophical themes. From the beginning of volume 1, he has been using Augustine’s aporias concerning time as a sort of background to everything else he considers. He had suggested that both Husserl’s phenomenology of internal time consciousness and Heidegger’s existential phenomenology of time — contrary to the intentions of their authors — ended up in aporias similar to Augustine’s.

Ricoeur says that neither a phenomenology of the experience of time nor a “cosmological”, measurement-oriented approach to its objective aspects can avoid some dependency on the other. “The distension of the soul alone cannot produce the extension of time; the dynamism of movement alone cannot generate the dialectic of the threefold present” (vol. 3, p. 21). His hope is that a poetics of narrative, even if it too is unable to resolve the Augustinian aporias, can at least make them “work for us” (p. 4). It will develop the “complicity as well as the contrast” (p. 22) between the two approaches.

He will subordinate the “dimension of reference to the hermeneutic dimension of refiguration” developed in volume 2’s discussion of literary narrative (p. 5, emphasis added). The approach to a “real” historical past can then be understood in terms of a narrative refiguration, rather than vice versa. (This differs significantly from Brandom’s subordination of reference to what might be called a hermeneutic dimension of material inference, but both Ricoeur and Brandom are putting some kind of hermeneutics or interpretation of meaning conceptually ahead of reference to “things” (see also What and Why; Objectivity of Objects). For both of them, reference is still a valid concept, but it is something that potentially stands in need of explanation, rather than something that provides an explanation.)

For Ricoeur here, “pure” semantics and foundationalist epistemology are both superseded by a “hermeneutic of the ‘real’ and the ‘unreal'” (p. 6) he expects will yield insight into both history and fiction. History and fiction are two ultimately interdependent modes of narrative refiguration, so that there is no history without an element of creative fiction, but also no fiction without an element of something like what is involved in historical reconstruction. This seems like an important and valid point.

The main body of this volume contains further elaboration on various matters he discussed before (see Time and Narrative; Ricoeur on Augustine on Time; Emplotment, Mimesis; Combining Time and Narrative; Ricoeur on Historiography; Literary Narrative; Narrative Time). In separate posts, I will selectively comment on a few parts of this. (See Philosophy of History?; Ricoeur on Foucault.)

At the end, he wants to “verify at what point the interweaving of the referential intentions of history and fiction constitutes an adequate response” (p. 242) to the aporia resulting from the interdependence of the phenomenological and “cosmological” views of time. Second, there is the question “what meaning to give to the process of totalization of the ecstases of time, in virtue of which time is always spoken of in the singular” (ibid). He expects the answer here to be less adequate. It will yield “a premonition of the limits ultimately encountered by our ambition of saturating the aporetics of time with the poetics of narrative” (p. 243). Finally, most “embarrassing” of all is the new question, “can we still give a narrative equivalent to the strange temporal situation that makes us say that everything — ourselves included — is in time, not in the sense given this ‘in’ by some ‘ordinary’ acceptation as Heidegger would have it in Being and Time, but in the sense that myths say that time encompasses us with its vastness” (ibid; emphasis in original). This, he suggests, ultimately remains a mystery in the Marcelian sense.

“Narrated time is like a bridge set over the breach constantly opened up by speculation between phenomenological time and cosmological time” (p. 244). “Augustine has no other resources when it comes to the cosmological doctrines than to oppose to them the time of a mind that distends itself” (ibid), but his meditations on Creation implicitly require a “cosmological” time. Aristotle’s cosmological view made time dependent on motion but distinct from it as a measurement of motion, but any actual measurement seems also to depend on some action performed by a soul.

Husserl elaborated a view of something like Augustine’s threefold present, which included memory and anticipation as well as current attention. He spoke of time as constituted through “retention”, “protention”, and a sort of comet-like duration rather than a point-like present. I am barely skimming the surface of a sophisticated development.

Ricoeur was a great admirer of Husserl, but in this case suggests that Husserl failed to achieve his further goal of establishing the primacy of phenomenological time with respect to other sorts of time. For Husserl, Ricoeur says, the constitution of phenomenological time depends on a “pure hyletics of consciousness” (ibid), but any discourse about the hyletic (i.e., relationally “material” in a broadly Aristotelian and more specifically Husserlian sense) will depend on the “borrowings it makes from the determinations of constituted time” (ibid). Thus for Ricoeur, the articulation of what Husserl wanted to be a purely constitutive phenomenological time actually depends on what he had wanted to treat as constituted results. As a consequence, despite Husserl’s wishes, phenomenological time should not be simply said to be purely constitutive.

Heidegger’s “authentic temporality” takes this aporia to its “highest degree of virulence” (p. 245). Being-in-the world does appear as a being-in-time. However, that time remains resolutely “individual in every case” (ibid), owing to Heidegger’s fixation on being-toward-death.

For Ricoeur, the “fragile offshoot” of the “dialectic of interweaving” of the “crisscrossing processes of a fictionalization of history and a historization of narrative” (p. 246) is a new concept of narrative identity of persons and communities as a practical category. A narrative provides the basis for the permanence of a proper name. He alludes to a saying of Hannah Arendt that to answer the question “who” is to tell the story of a life. Without such a recourse to narration, there is an “antinomy with no solution” between simply positing a substantially or formally identical subject, or with Hume and Nietzsche globally rejecting such a subject as an illusion.

(I have proposed a different “middle path” by decoupling actual subjectivity from the assumption of more unity than can be shown, and associating it more with what we care about and hold to be true than with “us” per se. Yet I also find myself wanting to tell a story of how the sapient “I” and the sentient “me” I want to distinguish are nonetheless interwoven in life, which is also what I think Hegel wanted to do.)

Ricoeur here introduces the connection between narrative identity and an ethical aim of “self-constancy” that he developed later in Oneself as Another. “[T]he self of self-knowledge is not the egotistical and narcissistic ego whose hypocrisy and naivete the hermeneutics of suspicion have denounced, along with its aspects of an ideological superstructure and infantile and neurotic archaism. The self of self-knowledge is the fruit of an examined life, to recall Socrates’ phrase” (p. 247). In Hegelian terms, this is the “self” involved in self-consciousness. In my terms, who we are is defined by what we care about and how we act on that. It is a “living” end or work always in progress rather than an achieved actuality. For Ricoeur, psychoanalysis and historiography provide “laboratories” for philosophical inquiry into narrative identity.

The second aporia concerned the unity or “totality” of time. “The major discovery with which we have credited Husserl, the constitution of an extended present by the continuous addition of retentions and protentions… only partially answers this question” (p. 252). It only results in partial “totalities”.

(While rejecting claims to unconditional “totality”, Ricoeur here accepts the terminology of “totalization” as an aim. I prefer to take something like Ricoeur’s conclusion that we only ever achieve partial “totalities” as a ground for saying that even as an aim, we should speak more modestly of (always partial and local) synthesis rather than “totalization”. To my ear, even as an aim “totalization” sounds too univocal and predetermined. I want to say that an aim of totalization is inherently unrealizable for a rational animal, whereas any end we turn out to have been actually pursuing based on interpretation of our actions must in some sense have been realizable. Ricoeur emphasizes that the mediation involved is imperfect, so that I think the difference in his case is merely verbal, but other authors’ use of “totalization” is more problematic.)

For Ricoeur, “the constitution of a common time will then depend on intersubjectivity” (p. 253), rather than on the unity of a consciousness. We should replace a “monological” theme of fallenness with a “dialogical” theme of being affected by history. Meanwhile, all initiative is in a sense “untimely”. The dialogical character of a historical present opens onto the same space of reciprocity as the making of promises. “[T]he imperfect mediation of historical consciousness responds to the multiform unity of temporality” (p. 257). But meanwhile, “it is not certain that repetition satisfies the prerequisites of time considered as a collective singular” (ibid). In this context he speaks of “an original status for the practical category that stands over against the axiom of the oneness of time” (ibid), and of a return to Kantian practical reason that “can be made only after a necessary detour through Hegel” (p. 258).

Ricoeur proposes “an epic conception of humanity”. Nonetheless, the “good correlation between the multiform unity of the ecstases of time and the imperfect mediation of the historical consciousness” (p. 259) cannot be attributed to narrative. “[T]he notion of plot gives preference to the plural at the expense of the collective singular in the refiguration of time. There is no plot of all plots capable of equaling the idea of one humanity and one history” (ibid). Narrativity does not so much resolve the aporias of time as put them to work.

The final aporia concerned the inscrutability of a unified time. He associates this with our non-mastery of meaning. We are “pulled back” toward an archaic, mythical, poetic form of thinking of the oneness of time that “points toward a region where the claim of a transcendental subject (in whatever form) to constitute meaning no longer holds sway” (p. 263). About returning to an origin we can only speak in metaphors. Finally, he asks if it is possible to speak of a narrative refiguring of the unrepresentability of time. “It is in the way narrativity is carried toward its limits that the secret of its reply to the inscrutability of time lies” (p. 270). “[T]he narrative genre itself overflows into other genres of discourse” (p. 271). Fiction multiplies our experiences of eternity in various ways, “thereby bringing narrative in different ways to its own limits” (ibid). It serves as a laboratory for an unlimited number of thought experiments. It “can allow itself a certain degree of intoxication” (ibid).

“It is not true that the confession of the limits of narrative abolishes the idea of the positing of the unity of history, with its ethical and political implications. Rather it calls for this idea…. The mystery of time is not equivalent to a prohibition directed against language. Rather it gives rise to the exigence to think more and to speak differently” (p. 274). It is only in the context of a search for narrative identity “that the aporetics of time and the poetics of narrative correspond to each other in a sufficient way” (ibid).


This is to conclude the sequence on Ricoeur’s Symbolism of Evil, and also the larger one on his multi-volume philosophy of will, continued from Freedom and Nature and Fallible Man. The last three-fifths of the current book is devoted to a study of selected topics related to Near Eastern creation myths, Greek tragedy, the myth of the Fall, and Orphic myths of the exiled soul. While any or all of these are potentially interesting, I don’t find much to say about the particular details covered. This work does have the merit of combining a sort of phenomenology-of-religion style discourse with a broad ethical concern. After the brilliance of Fallible Man, though, it seems anticlimactic.

At the end, he reaches the somewhat lacklustre conclusion that “symbols give rise to thought”, and very briefly expands on this. “[T]he task of the philosopher guided by symbols would be to break out of the enchanted enclosure of consciousness of oneself, to end the prerogative of self-reflection. The symbol gives reason to think that the Cogito is within being, not vice versa” (p. 356; emphasis in original). Except for the part about symbols, these are familiar Ricoeurian ideas, but they do not play much of a role in the main body of the current work.

He says philosophy cannot do without presuppositions. I agree we can’t doubt everything all at once. He says it should start from the “fullness of language”, seek a “second immediacy” and a “second naivete”. I do see ethical value in a degree of deliberate “naivete” that deliberately chooses to give the benefit of the doubt. On the other hand, I think immediacy is divided into mere appearance of things that are actually mediated; a trivial quality of appearance qua appearance; and a sort of obscure insistence or resistance that may point out something wrong with our thinking. Fullness of language is just an isolated phrase here; I believe it was discussed a bit in one of the earlier volumes, but can’t find the passage right now. (See also Phenomenology of Will; Ricoeur on Embodiment; Ricoeur on Choice; Voluntary Action; Consent?; Fallible Humanity; Self, Infinity; Symbolism of Evil?; Fear and Suffering; Guilt.)