“When we’re trying to recreate an intellectual milieu, even one that’s relatively recent, we invariably discover that the vast majority of the sources we need to do such a thing have been swallowed up by oblivion and lost forever. Sometimes those that remain—e.g., Plato’s dialogues—remain because they were the best of the best, works of great importance. But this isn’t always (or even usually) the case. Sources often survive for largely accidental reasons. Regardless, the temptation to exaggerate the significance of what we have has proven irresistible for generations of intellectual historians. As the philosopher Aaron Haspel puts it in Everything (2015): “The parable of the drunk looking for his keys under the street lamp, where the light is better, explains vast swaths of intellectual history.” (John Faithful Hamer, Touch They’re Real in his blog Committing Sociology)
As always things are not as simple as they seem at the first glance – otherwise we wouldn’t have had a parable to start with, would we?
Basically the drunkard is doing the only reasonable thing available to him. Searching in the lightless park would be completely pointless but what if somebody else had lost a wallet in the lighted area?
Aaron Haspel is also right. Our intellectual history consists indeed of whatever cultural artifacts have been lucky enough to survive. Considered important enough by a sufficient number of people so they helped preserve it to the present day.
Or, evidently, both!
I’d like to direct your attention to ‘Considered important enough by a sufficient number of people’.
You see, the drunkard was looking under the street lamp because ‘This is where the light is’. He was reacting rather sensibly to a real situation.
But what if the reality of something is not so easily ascertainable? What if it’s a ‘second degree’ reality, one that is constantly (re)created by human intercourse? Like people choosing which book to keep and which one to through into a bonfire?
Or even a ‘third degree’ reality? One that is imagined by someone who tries to assess the wishes of somebody else?
“Politicians are fooled into thinking corporate welfare is important to voters because politicians spend an inordinate amount of time with the powerful people to whom corporate welfare is vitally important. That’s why every candidate who has tried to win Iowa has prostrated him or herself before ethanol.”
You certainly guessed it. This paragraph will be about the ‘fourth degree’ reality. The one we, the voters, bring upon ourselves at the ballot box. After having carefully considered each candidate and his or her programme. Or having voted with ‘that particular one’ just because …
The point I’m trying to make here being that this ‘fourth degree reality’ is not at all ‘virtual’, in the manner the second and the third ones are. In fact this ‘fourth degree’ reality is exactly the one where we have to live. Where we are faced with the consequences of the choices we, ourselves, have made while bringing it about.