The Archaeology of Ideas

13 01 2009


Taylor Marshall some time ago posted the following quote from a book on the Catholic theologian, Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange:

To say that “all theologies are historically conditions artifacts of particular cultures” doesn’t really tell one something particularly significant: everything that one can point to is “historically conditioned.” For the Thomist school, when an idea came into existence and where it developed are not as interesting as its particular truth claims. The Thomist is always more interested in the truth or falsity of an idea than its historical pedigree. To identify where an idea appeared and when it was formulated, say the Thomists, does not help you evaluate its truth claims. To say otherwise is blatant chauvinism.
What Mr. Marshall seeks to oppose with this quote and his commentary on it is the “archaeology of ideas”, as the name of his post denotes. Those who have experience with the academia will know that such a title is an inverted hommage to the early work of French theorist Michel Foucault (pictured above), and more specifically to his book, Les mots et les choses, commonly translated in English as The Order of Things. It is in this book that Foucault studies the ideas of Descartes, the meditations of Ignatius Loyola, and the paintings by Velasquez to assert that our modern notion of man is an invention of recent centuries that may as well be wiped away, “like a face drawn in the sand at the edge of the sea”.

Many conservative warriors in the culture war recoil at such ideas since they consider them part of the post-humanist, relativist attack on all that is sacred and absolute. And, as Mr. Marshall is now beginning to think, they assert that such analyses send the liberal scholar into the endless maze of historicist sophistry. Instead of arguing what is truth, beauty, the good, or the absolute, he or she delves into a hermeneutic of suspicion; a worldview in which the only thing that matters is power and the relations of power. Thus, no one can argue anything concrete about higher things since all people are seen to be making ideologies where their preferred group comes out on top.

As someone who has been involved in such departments and has been studying these things for fifteen years, I feel Mr. Marshall’s pain. I prefer to read Plato and not Franz Fanon, and I too see the dangers of that noxious form of relativism. On the other hand, I cannot dismiss these methods outright as Mr. Marshall seems to do. I cannot glibly say that those people who seek the historical context of what is said are only doing so because they are refusing to make a real argument. There are harsh historical realities that people like Mr. Marshall refuse to address since they think that these problems have already been solved. In fact, what these right-wing culture warriors do is assume a narrative of history in which a large section of humanity is a priori excluded as thinking and acting subjects. While we must still hold fast to the idea of absolute truth, we cannot simplify the problems faced in its pursuit in order to make life easier on ourselves. Hard questions still have to be faced.

What I am refering to specifically is the problem of the discovery of the New World, an event that in Western discourse changed the idea of what it meant to be a human being. People often forget that Catholic theologians had very serious debates as to whether the indigenous peoples they found in the Americas were human at all, and whether they had a right to enslave them. (See my earlier post on the work of the scholar Sabine Hyland.) With the Africans who were forcibly brought over to work on the plantations of the newly conquered territories, such questions were often put on the back burner in the name of profit. And while the philosophes debated the dignity of man in the salons of pre-revolutionary Paris, they often would not bestow such dignity on the black slave of the Indies. If anything, his opposition to slavery may have been based more on not wanting his white counterparts to act like barbarians. In this sense, the only successful slave rebellion in the history of the world, the uprising in Saint-Dominigue that later gave birth to the nation of Haiti, is a non-event in history; an intrusion of people acting as subjects who were simply not supposed to do something of that nature.

So when we speak of ideas of beauty, justice, and truth, we cannot naively think that we can consider these things outside of the theatre of human history, in some abstract realm of Platonic ideas. Such exercises do indeed distort these concepts in favor of the privileged; in this case, the perfect white Catholic theologian educated in the sacred canon of Western Civilization. In our own country, we cannot narrate the Catholic experience outside of the “struggle for whiteness” of the Catholic immigrant and the exclusion from this category of large numbers of other Catholics (blacks, Asians, and Latinos). We cannot look past the Church’s cooperation with Jim Crow in large parts of the South, and its racism against indigenous peoples much of Latin America. Nor can we answer the question of what it means to be a human being without recounting the tragic history of those who have been excluded from that category for many centuries:

Henry Highland Garnet’s ( the pastor of Shiloh Presbyterian Church in NYC) recounting of one incident during the riots: man was hung upon a tree; and then a demon in human form, taking a sharp knife, cut pieces of the quivering flesh, and offered it to the mob, saying “Who wants some nigger meat?” and then the reply, “I!” “I!” “I!” as if they were scrambling for pieces of gold.

-taken from The Devil’s Own Work: the Civil War Draft Riots and the Fight to Reconstruct America

At the end of the day, we must of course make an argument, but we must make an informed one. The answer to the perennial questions of Western philosophy cannot be obtained by silencing the voices of those who do not fit into our preconceived paradigms. The most radical intellectual shift of our age is a heightened sense of historical context, and this is one genie that we cannot put back in its bottle, no matter how hard it makes our life in the long run. The answer to even the most abstract question must now include where we have been, in order to tell us where we are, and to point us in the direction of where we are going. To not do this is to deceive ourselves, and it would be the mortal sin of the Platonic Academy: the failure to know oneself.



4 responses

17 01 2009

Part of the problem with the new liturgical movement and the Latin Mass movement, is that there don’t seem to be very many attempts to convey the message to the Joe and Jane Catholic, especially minorities. A good example of this is the perpetual brew-ha-ha concerning St. Sabina’s in Chicago. Ignoring for a moment all the other stuff that goes on there and focusing soley on the liturgy, one sees that its essentially a pentacostalist service reformatted for Catholicism. The outraged Internet Catholic asks why doesn’t anyone complain? Probably, because no one informed them that they should be. And I doubt that anyone has bothered to catechize them about liturgical norms, the importance of following said norms, and why these norms are better than the charismatic worship style to which they are accustomed. I suspect that much of the strong loyalism that the parishoners have towards Fr. Pfleger results from the fact that he has shown a two decade interest in a part of Chicago that many people, black and white, gave up on some time ago. That, and the fact that he also champions causes that his parishioners find important; I would imagine that the residents of the Southside of Chicago find gun violence, drugs, and gangs a more pressing threat to their immediate welfare than abortion. Once again, not much outreach has been specifically to black churches on why they should care about abortion. Ideally, there should be a priestly order that is a combination of the FSSP and the Franciscans that would be missionaries to the poor and marginalized through beauty (i.e., giving people accustomed to ugliness and despair a taste of the divine), but I doubt that will be happening anytime soon.

16 01 2009
Lee Hamilton

That conclusion is borne out by the high incidence of Aboriginal ancestry among French Canadians – I forget what the estimated % is but a majority of Québecois have First Nations blood going back many generations, even if outward traces are rare (for example, my maternal grandfather had the features and complexion of a Mohawk, whereas I look like your typical Anglo-Euro mutt).

The preference of the French missionaries to convert and baptize their First Nations allies backfired big time. The French Jesuits of New France concentrated and disarmed the Huron Nation, in order to better catechize them, leaving them vulnerable to European disease and ineffective as military allies. Conversely, while the English may have believed that the Iroquois were hopeless savages, and were happy to leave them thus, they nevertheless allied with the Iroquois Confederacy to wipe out Huronia and undermine New France’s powerbase. It’s a sad story. But historically, First Nations seemed to have fared better with English indifference and laissez-faire than they did with the French “mission civilisatrice”, although I don’t think First Nations have much cause to thank any of the colonizing cultures today.

15 01 2009

My understanding has always been that the French routinely baptized their slaves, while the English didn’t. The French and English colonial experiences regarding intermarriages with non-white native populations were likewise different. The French were more prone to intermarry, while the English tended to think that such a thing was beneath them.

Is there one logic that everyone uses to discern truth, or are there wholly different logics depending on one’s background? Are we capable of any kind of mutual conversation?

13 01 2009

Although the history of the Catholic Church in America has traditionally been framed in terms of the experiences of the “white ethnics,” a further exploration of the subject reveals that there has always been a persistent, if under-documented black presence. For example, surviving records from Spanish Florida reveal a substantial black Catholic population, consisting of both free and enslaved individuals. There even seems to have been instances of blacks from the English colonies migrating to Florida, perhaps because admission into the Church conferred a certain degree of status even if it didn’t put them on parr with whites. Some of my own ancestors made up the black Catholic population in Spanish Florida. Interestingly enough, of the eleven founding families of what would become Los Angeles, half were black, two Spanish, and the rest Indians.

Moving forward about a century or so, the attitude of the predominantly Irish hierarchy towards black Catholics was essentially that of apathy or hostility. There were very few attempts to establish black Catholic schools, which made black children susciptible to the efforts of Protestant churches. Missionary activities were half-hearted at best, as if there was some confusion whether blacks weren’t really just bipedal gorillas. Black men weren’t admitted into seminaries, because it was believed that they weren’t smart enough and too over-sexed to be celibate. Although there were complaints about the treatment of black Catholics throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that were sent to Rome, there doesn’t seem to have been much interest in acting on the problem. Although the history of black Catholics goes back to the 18th century, the numbers are not what they should be given their population as a whole.

Why then, should orthodox Catholics care about racism then? Assuming that you believe that Christ said to preach to all nations and that the Catholic Church is the true Church, then one would have to admit that millions of souls were lost as a result of racist actions.

(BTW, the historical information I cite comes from “The History of Black Catholics in the United States” by Fr. Cyprian Davis, the only work of its kind that I’ve found).

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