Battle for the Footnotes


“But Plato's greatness as a sociologist does not lie in his general and abstract speculations about the law of social decay. It lies rather in the wealth and detail of his observations, and in the amazing acuteness of his sociological, intuition. He saw things which not only had not been seen before him, but which were rediscovered only in our own time … Another example is Plato's sociological and economic historicism, his emphasis on the economic background of political life and historical developments; a theory revived by Marx under the name 'historical materialism'.”
-Karl Popper, “The Open Society and It’s Enemies: Vol I, The Spell of Plato

Was it really not until Marx that this idea was ‘rediscovered’? Compare Popper’s statement to the following excerpt from De Regimine Principum of Saint Thomas Aquinas,

“Again, if the citizens devote their lives to trade, the way will be opened to many vices. For, since the aim of traders is especially to make money, familiarity with trade leads to the awakening of greed in the hearts of the citizens. The result is that everything in the State will be put up for sale, mutual confidence will be destroyed and an atmosphere favorable to deceit and fraud created. Everyone, growing careless about the Common Good, will seek only his own advantage.”

Even this may be compared to the practices found within certain Anabaptist communities. Some Amish ordnungs forbid their members from taken out insurance policies, believing the care for those who fall on hard times must be the responsibility of the community and not some external agency.  

Plato, Aquinas, and the Amish all share a common theme. Each, along with Marx’s historical materialism, recognize the way in which the culture is affected by the economic structure to which it is rooted. And yet, if asked to identify what school of thought this statement belongs to, it would likely be identified as Marxist. Now, the point here is not to partake in the ever so fashionable act of trying to pry every conceivable point of credit away from Marx simply because it is Marx. Rather, it is to question what kinds of conditions must exist in order to justify that some bit of knowledge has been ‘discovered.’

This can be done more easily in the hard sciences, where concepts emerge for which there are no prior notions for. No ancient philosopher ever conceived of anything like a mol or Navier-Stokes equation. But this method of citing where no previous notion existed becomes difficult when the claim is made in the domain of the social sciences. Marshall Sahlins has described how anthropologists (his own field) are closer to their own subject matter than, say, a physicist. The more in-depth the physicist describes the cutting edge of physics, the less that description becomes applicable to any other area of life. But for the anthropologists, there is no description of human behavior that an open-minded person could not understand the reasoning behind.  

This is not to say that any social scientist would claim to ‘discover’ a particular phenomenon of human behavior any more than a physicist would claim to have discovered the phenomenon of gravity. However, the social scientists do try to claim the discovery of certain inborn laws which govern human behavior. But this is an oddity, one that only hides it absurdity by scale. An anthropologist could go out and live amongst the so-and-so tribe for a year, write a study of how the tribe’s marriage customs enable community bonding, diagram this process through some schematic, and be celebrated for their work. But this cannot be done at the individual level. If John Q. Public up in the bleachers noticed that James Harden plants his feet in a certain manner before shooting, and no one else before had ever really noticed it, he might draw attention it, but no one would credit John with having ‘discovered’ the motion.

We give credit for the discovery of notions when they are made in the language of science. But the problem is, these discoveries aren’t always very scientific. Schematics and diagrams abound in the social sciences, as do calculations, which all look impressive, but it is uncertain how much of this work has any actual validity (although the replication crisis strongly hints that answer is, very little). But this is the bent of modern society, the endless need to claim ownership. And because science has been the accepted language of legitimacy from the Industrial Revolution onward (including the era in which Marx lived), science becomes the way in which these claims are made. To make a claim in any other manner is to appear backwards. It’s a neurosis perhaps best summed up by the Taos Chief Ochwiay Biano when he described the attitudes of Western people, “They are always seeking something. What are they seeking? The whites always want something, they are always uneasy and restless.” But unlike the hard sciences, where that restlessness does occasionally produce advances, the social sciences guarantee nothing of the sort. And so, Marx and base-superstructure complex, represents one minor skirmish amongst many in the quest to claim something that may someday have the privilege of becoming a footnote. 

I once had a college professor who boasted about his ability to crank out papers in political theory. He was apparently under the belief that this was something to proud of. I thought to ask how frequently any of these papers were cited, or even read, but decided against it. My favorite line in those kinds of papers is, “I refer to this process as…” where then author draws an arbitrary line around some observation and tries to pigeonhole it onto some new bit of academic jargon. “I refer to this process wherein a young person ‘dabs’ as socio-normative signaling method,” or, “I refer to this relationship between the dog walker and the dog as a sapien-canine hegemonic complex.” To be fair, I don’t think the scholars themselves believe this kind of junk, but it’s what they have to do in the world of publish or perish.




Chief Biano's quote appears in Carl Jung's "Memories, Dreams, Reflections"

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