Terminological Anachronism: moving beyond philosophy and shamanism
This question of terminological anachronism is not just an intellectual game but has huge implications for how we write history. My book will be a systematic experiment in "emic historiography," that it to say, in using actors' terms and categories as much as possible while steering clear (again: as much as possible) of modern terminologies and conceptualizations. It is only in this manner, I believe, that we'll be able to clearly trace the processes of transformation that happen when those new terminologies are introduced for the first time and then evolve through history towards understandings that we are able to recognize as our own. I should perhaps add that in advocating "emic historiography" here, I'm not making any arguments about the ultimate truth of those actors' categories (so-called "religionists" often evoke "the emic approach" in an attempt to suggest that not modern scholars with their etic instruments but "practitioners" are the ultimate arbiters of religious or spiritual truth, but that is not at all what I am talking about here). Instead, I am making an argument about scholarly, modern, or intellectual prejudice and its impact on our efforts to understand the past. My ruling assumption will be quite simply that nobody knows the future, and it's misleading for historians to suggest otherwise. The very term "Presocratics" is an excellent example. Even though a young Socrates may have shaken hands with a very old Parmenides, the point is that Thales, Anaximander, Heraclitus, Parmenides, Zeno, Pythagoras and the rest did not know the future and therefore didn't know that they were "Presocratics" - or would ever be. Most certainly they had never heard of a "philosopher" (what's that?) called Plato, and they couldn't know that they would soon be perceived as ancestors or forerunners of a great Platonic tradition - not to mention the fact that they had no idea of how its representatives (or its Christian successors - even more unimaginable to them) would start cherry-picking from their writings, guided by what they as Platonists happened to find interesting and worth retaining, while discarding the rest as irrelevant to their concerns. So the question is: how did they see themselves, and how did their contemporaries see them? Not as Presocratics. Not as philosophers either. So they were seen - as what?
|"A Shaman, or Priest of the Devil" (Nicolaes Witsen, Noord en Oost Tataryen, Amsterdam 1785, 662-663)|
The most common answer that modern scholars have given to that question illustrates the very nature of the problem. Starting with Karl Meuli (in a seminal article "Scythica" published in 1935) and E.R. Dodds (in his classic The Greeks and the Irrational published in 1951), countless scholars have claimed that figures such as Pythagoras, Parmenides, and Empedocles were Shamans. But does that work? In an article for the Festschrift of Jan Bremmer, some years ago, I applauded my Dutch colleague for his contributions to "critical revision of a concept which, while originally derived from a specific Siberian context, was promoted as a universal complex of presumably archetypal patterns in a bestselling book by Mircea Eliade in 1964, and got considerably out of hand ever since". How, I wonder, is it going to get us further if we replace one anachronistic reified concept ("philosophy") by another ("shamanism")? Won't we end up in the same interpretational trap that we wanted to avoid? As always, the problem lies in our cognitive tendencies of reification: we find it very hard to use a general reified concept such as "shamanism" without slipping into the assumption that (1) there really is such a thing as shamanism in the abstract, independent of time, place, or cultural context, and that (2) we have a pretty good idea of what it is. As a result, even if we resist it, we cannot help ourselves imagining Pythagoras, Parmenides, or Empedocles as somehow similar to those folks with drums, animal skins and antlers on their heads that we have seen on pictures of their supposed Siberian counterparts, not to mention contemporary neo-shamans concerned with traveling "in their own minds" for therapeutic purposes of healing and inner transformation. This cognitive tendency is known as "prototype thinking" and is very hard to avoid.