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Philosophical Imagination and Cultural Memory: Appropriating Historical Traditions by Patricia Cook

Does philosophy have a future? Postmodern thought, with its rejection of claims to absolute truth or moral objectivity, would seem to put the philosophical enterprise in jeopardy. In this volume some of today's most influential thinkers face the question of philosophy's future and find an answer in its past. Their efforts show how historical traditions are currently being appropriated by philosophy, how some of the most provocative questions confronted by philosophers are given their impetus and direction by cultural memory.
Unlike analytic philosophy, a discipline supposedly liberated from any manifestation of cultural memory, the movement represented by these essays demonstrates how the inquiries, narratives, traditions, and events of our cultural past can mediate some of the most interesting exercises of the present-day philosophical imagination. Attesting to the power of historical tradition to enhance and redirect the prospects of philosophy these essays exemplify a new mode of doing philosophy.
The product of a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute in 1990, it is the task of this book to show that history can be reclaimed by philosophy and resurrected in postmodernity.

Contributors. George Allan, Eva T. H. Brann, Arthur C. Danto, Lynn S. Joy, George L. Kline, George R. Lucas, Jr., Alasdair MacIntyre, Robert C. Neville, John Rickard, Stanley Rosen, J. B. Scheenwind, Donald Phillip Verene

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822313229
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 05/03/1993
Pages: 257
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 1.25(h) x 9.00(d)

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Philosophical Imagination and Cultural Memory

Appropriating Historical Traditions

By Patricia Cook

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1993 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7920-1


George Allan

Traditions and Transitions

This is a time, it would seem, when whirl is king. The vast complexity of the world overwhelms us not because the complexity is so ponderous but because it changes so rapidly. Now this, now that: baffling us by its unprecedented surprises, confusing our purposes by constantly undermining our assumptions and scattering our efforts into a thousand unconnected gestures. We are no longer sure who we are or why. Or so it often seems, and the more so the more we find ourselves struggling with the fundamentals of our lives, with matters of birth and development and death, of the meaning of our dreams and the significance of our deeds.


The traditional role of a cultural tradition is to provide us with the resources we need to stave off the rule of whirl. It provides us with a way of taking things so that they do not surprise or overwhelm. It tells us what to expect and why, even when what is to be expected is some overwhelming surprise, some fundamental challenge to our hopes, our purposes, our havings and our doings. Our tradition wraps us in a world that discloses itself for us in ways we can comprehend and with which we can therefore cope.

We never simply experience things; we always experience them as something. We take the distant patch of dark as trees, the whispered words as a friend's advice, the lump as cancerous, the war as a vindication of our national destiny. This structure is triune: a given; something else able to serve as a sign of it; an interpreter who takes the sign as meaning that given. The philosopher C. S. Peirce calls this structure Thirdness and says it is the necessary condition for every intelligible experience. Sheergivenness, which he calls Secondness, is a possible mode of experience, the bare "there" of an intruding otherness, such as my being unexpectedly hit on the head from behind. Unless I am too stunned to do so, my immediate response is to take the intrusion as a sign of something else: as an object falling on me or thrust on me, as a tree branch I had overlooked, as a club swung to knock me out, as an annoying accident or a threatening enemy.

My initial interpretation will prove to be right or mistaken depending on how it fits with how I take the experiences that follow it, just as it was formed because of its fit with the way I had taken things up to now I will be more likely to think myself attacked if I am worried about such an eventuality because I take myself to be where I have no right to be or because I take yesterday's burglary of my neighbor's house as implying that my house is next. But the intruder could turn out to be merely a wayward tree branch. Unless, of course, I were to take the branch as a bad omen or its odd location as an indication of a trap laid for me just up ahead.

We are never free of interpretation because we inhabit a world that is a complex of interpretations. Our world tells us what things are likely to mean, how to take them so that we are aware of their location and their function with respect to ourselves, so that we can understand them adequately and therefore use or enjoy them appropriately. Everything in our world is prefigured, anticipated; the tools we need to grasp what is going on are ready at hand. Our responses to things are typically habitual, unthinking, taken for granted. And even when such responses will not do, when invention is required, here too the necessary intuitions, concepts, values for creating a novel response are provided in advance, constituents of possible interpretations readily available for our use.

Where this world is wide and old, its complex of interpretations shared by many people over an extended period, we call it a tradition. And where the interpretations have no boundary but claim to exhaust all possibilities, where the world is taken as dependent on no wider elder world, then we call it a cultural tradition. Or rather, the world of traditions out of which others live is what we call their culture. We call our own world of traditions, truth.

The anthropologist Clifford Geertz points out that a repertoire of cultural interpretations is necessary to complete our biologically given response mechanisms. Human instincts are relatively few. Most of our natural, preformed responses are unfocused: protean, unspecialized, incomplete. Culture supplies the habits by which the biologically vague is tailored into a specific pattern of responses, a characteristic way of understanding and dealing with things. I take that object as a branch because my cultural world has trees among its objective realities and a lore of beliefs about how branches develop and decay, how best to cope with them, under what sort of conditions and for what kinds of reasons they fall on a person's head. The extent of my biological responsiveness to intrusion is withdrawal. More is required for my response to be reasonable and appropriate. Bare otherness must be made into a branch and the branch into an omen or an accident for my response to be more than a disconnected impulse, for it to become an action embedded in a pattern of actions that are effective, that make sense to me and can be explained to others. What we do depends on how we see things, and how we see things depends on what our cultural traditions are.

Frameworks of interpretation are necessary for being human. Without them we are disoriented. Without them there is no way for us to focus our response to things so as to render them meaningful. Not knowing the what and why of the things around us, we do not know what to feel, whether to be afraid or comforted, bemused or filled with dread. We do not know what to expect of things. We do not know how they work and how we might best come to terms with them. We do not know whether they are worth our time, whether they are trivial or important. But if this is so, then we also do not know who we are, what to expect of ourselves, whether we are able or authorized or willing to relate to such things. What is not within our world is unintelligible, opaque, absurd. And if we are ourselves excluded from that world, we become unintelligible to ourselves, our character puzzling, our life absurd. Without a tradition wrapped around us, our humanity falls away and we perish.

Traditions are not straitjackets, however. We are not automata whose every move has been programmed, puppets dancing on strings controlled by our ancestors or by the officials, governmental or religious, who are their intermediaries. A hammer does not make me build a house nor tell me how, although it sets some of the parameters to my design and construction activities. I may locate the studs anywhere I choose, but they must be attached to shoe and plate by nails instead of bolts or pegs or screws. And to drive the nails true, I will need to swing the hammer in a certain way, using it in the manner it was designed for, submitting myself to its functional constraints to achieve what otherwise would be impossible for me or would require a different, perhaps less efficient or less convenient, approach.

Traditions provide what Michael Oakeshott calls a "platform" of "understandings" and "practices." An understanding is a schematic idea, a general concept for helping to organize experience intelligibly. My everyday notion of a tree is vague, having to do with a rough trunk-and-canopy shape, a greenish color range, an expected environment of mountainside or curbside, a use for shade or lumber or climbing. I bring this notion into play when trying to make sense of an experience for which it seems appropriate and which it turns out to fit, even though no specific thing I have ever identified as a tree replicates my idea exactly. That ancient gnarled oak, this filigreed Japanese maple, those sapling birches: all are trees for me because their specific differences seem to me expressions of the same general characteristics. Cultural understandings provide the thematic notions by which specific things are identified, categorized, named, and organized. But I need not believe in Aristotelian natural kinds or Wittgensteinian family resemblances to think this way. Any such theory of universals would be, after all, itself an interpretation, within an abstract and highly specialized system of categorization, of my taken-for-granted schematic notions regarding how the world works.

Practices, like understandings, are schemata: but for action instead of thought. They are general ways of responding to a situation, of accomplishing an end. Climbing a tree is a practice, and so is cutting one down. I can clamber onto the lower limb of an oak or shinny up a birch; I can fell the tree by reiterated swings of my ax or by subjecting it to the bite of a chain saw, and either action can be done gracefully or awkwardly, with the confidence of a skilled woodsman or the hesitations of a novice. My concrete actions actualize in some specific way the generic practices available to me, as constrained by the forms those practices vaguely delineate and as, in turn, empowered by them. Knowing how to climb trees gets me high up into their canopy, from which I can do what until then was impossible. I am now able to survey the far horizon, to stand as though on the shoulders of giants to enjoy the view or to look for enemies or to seek a familiar landmark by which to orient my journey

Some of our understandings and practices are explicitly learned and critically refined: my understanding of road signs and my driving know-how, my talent for reading philosophy texts and my grasp of the ideas they contain. Other planks of this platform, including the most important ones, are implicit and unthematized, habits of the heart or mind or muscles that serve me without having to be thought about. One evidence that what has been explicitly taught has been fully learned is for it to have become implicit. I have finally learned the new word-processing software when my fingers press appropriate keys on the computer without my having to think about where the specific key is and what finger is best to press it with. I type without thinking about the mechanics of typing; that knowledge has gotten into my muscles and I am thereby freed to attend to what the words are that I might wish typed. And my know-how of the words frees me to focus on the ideas I might wish them to express.

The most fundamental of these habits, these unreflective ways of taking things and interacting with them, constitute my cultural horizon, the tradition that comprises the traditions I take as composing truth. A cultural platform is all of the ways of thinking and seeing and acting that are so obvious, so useful, so successful, that I take them to be a part of the way things are: natural givens, brute facticities. Indeed, I normally do not take them to be anything at all: they are that in terms of which I take all other things to be what they are. A cultural tradition is the always-in-use and hence never-criticized framework of the world. This is how a tradition wraps us within itself—by providing all the conceptual and practical means by which we live our lives.

We make ourselves by how we use what is provided for us. For if cultural practices and understandings must be actualized in some specific way in each situation in which we find ourselves, and if the specific ways are many, even where the generic way is singular, then the choices by which we incarnate our culture are individuating. I am an adjective of my cultural notions, an adverb of its practices. I drive my car cautiously, philosophize in a Platonic manner, worship in accord with an ancient liturgy, and doubt the value of attempting any radical reform of county politics. Insofar as my concretizing choices are consistent, insofar as I develop habits for how I will realize the cultural repertoire at my disposal, ways of thinking and doing will emerge that are characteristic of me and hence definitional. My character is a matter of dispositions; I am how I am likely to behave. What is unique about me, my essential self, the ground of my identity as this person and not another, are the habits I have created by having repeated choices for how best to put the tools of my culture to use in giving shape to the experiences that constitute my days and years.

We are conservatives with respect to our self-identity if we are strict constructionists in the way we take our own individualizing habits, worrying that small departures from established patterns of behavior or belief might undercut our integrity. We revere the familiar places, persons, and routines that give shape and importance to our world. We think that we can bind ourselves securely to these realities only by careful repetition or reverence. In contrast, we are liberals with respect to our self-identity if we do not focus on the specifics of our realizations of tradition but on tradition's more abstract features. We define ourselves more in terms of processes than results. If we are fair in our dealings with others and take responsibility for our decisions, then it matters little what the results actually are. Wherever we happen to live, whomever we chance to know, whatever the appropriate modes of interaction required by the situation, we remain throughout the selfsame person. We are our competence to adapt to the changes swirling around us.

The conservative self requires stability. It has little tolerance for change and so is most threatened by the intrusion into its world of new ideas or practices. It fears pluralism because it cannot encompass it. But the liberal self is as thin as the conservative self is narrow. It cannot deal effectively with commitment, with the recalcitrance of those who value familiar truths more than agreement. And in its quest for consensus it is always in danger of abandoning any meaningful sort of character, thereby losing its individuality for the sake of an abstract conformity. Thus, whether we are conservative or liberal selves, we are at risk when our interpretation of our cultural platform of understandings and practices seems unable to accommodate the rapid transitions engulfing us.

One crucial safety valve available to combat the collapse of our self-identity is recognizing that we do not always have to be in character to have a character. Anyone is bound to act out of character from time to time. I do something in an unexpected manner, departing from a pattern of responses that others have come to assume of me. He's not himself today, they say, when I grumble and glower instead of smiling pleasantly at their good morning salutation. That's not like him at all, they whisper, when I castigate a Platonic idea as foolish and irrelevant. Were I to persist in such departures from my normal ways, my identity as a self would be called into question: perhaps he's undergoing a mid-life crisis, doubting the value of who he has been and will become. This departure will be temporary if I eventually return to my old beliefs and practices. It will be permanent if I become thereafter a different sort of person, a new man, a maturer self. If the change is radical enough, I may symbolize it by taking on a new name such as often happens to people when they successfully negotiate the rite of passage from adolescence into adulthood or convert to a new religion or commit themselves to a new political movement. No longer Jamie but James, not Saul but henceforth Paul, no more the despised servant but now the respected comrade.

Yet all of these variations within character, and even those that transform our character from conservative to liberal or liberal to conservative, may well be acceptable expressions of our encompassing cultural tradition. It is okay to be out of character occasionally, to play the fool at times, even to alter social roles on Sadie Hawkins Day or at Carnival or on Beltane eve. In our culture there is an available practice for growing up or changing our allegiances; there is an acceptable understanding about the way in which our beliefs can change under the press of changing circumstance. Where there is no such practice or understanding, however, benign deviation becomes malign deviance. To violate the acceptable social patterns is to put myself outside of society, to be alienated from it, to be considered obscene, insane, criminal, traitorous. My freedom is to be whom I choose within a kind of personhood that is never itself in question. I can be liberal or conservative, but only as those terms are meaningfully defined by my tradition. There are things that Americans simply do not do; there are beliefs and practices that threaten the very fabric of a society and so cannot under any circumstances be tolerated.


Excerpted from Philosophical Imagination and Cultural Memory by Patricia Cook. Copyright © 1993 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgment vii

Introduction 1

Part I. Philosophy and Cultural Memory

Traditions and Transitions / George Allan 21

Two Sources of Philosophical Memory: Vico Versus Hegel / Donald Phillip Verene 40

Part II. Philosophical Imagination and the History of Philosophy

Are Philosophical Problems Insoluble? The Relevance of System and History / Alasdair MacIntyre 65

Modern Moral Philosophy: From Beginning to End? / J. B. Schneewind 83

Refutation, Narrative, and Engagement: Three Conceptions of the History of Philosophy / George R. Lucas, Jr. 104

Part III. Perspectives on the Significance of Cultural Memory

The Shape of Artistic Pasts: East and West / Arthur C. Danto 125

Humanism and the Problem of Traditions in Seventeenth-Century Natural Philosophy / Lynn S. Joy 139

The Symbiotic Relation of Philosophy and Theology / Robert Cummings Neville 149

Part IV. Cultural Memory and Textual Interpretation

The Six Silences of a Grecian Urn / Eva T. H. Brann 167

Changing Russian Assessments of Spinoza and Their German Sources, 1796-1862 / George L. Kline 176

Tradition and Intertextual Memory in James Joyce's Ulysses / John S. Rickard 195

Plato's Quarrel with the Poets / Stanley Roesn 212

Selected Bibliography 227

Index 233

Contributors 245

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