(Published on The Askesian Society blog, 2008)

Every time we think about something explicitly we do so against a background of implicit presuppositions. As finite beings we have no option but to take things for granted. Not everything can be up for grabs at once; in any consideration we need to hold some things constant.

Assumption and presumption are two ways of taking something for granted. Both simplify. Assuming supply and demand are equal allows us to consider the relation of profits to productivity. Presuming the universe does not deceive us by randomly changing its ways allows us to consider the laws of nature. The difference is that assumptions are still in question, whereas presumptions are obvious.

Our activities are shaped by what we take for granted. That is why scientists try to state their assumptions as fully and clearly as possible. If we take something for granted that we ought not to, everything else becomes suspect.

It is impossible to state the obvious. No one claims to know the obvious; it just is obvious. It is precisely what is not in question, what is not a thesis at all, what seems necessary. This raises a problem. What if we’re on the wrong track? How can we assess our presuppositions?

The first step is to discover them. This can be done only partially. You can only know the obvious when it is no longer obvious, when it has already become contingent. You realize that you had taken something as obvious.

No one enters a cocktail party resolving to keep a certain distance from others and to expect the same from them. But if someone tried to converse with you by talking directly into your ear instead of to your face, they’d be breaking an implicit rule. It would be funny, because it’s just so obvious that you don’t do that. Yet just by doing it they would make you wonder why it’s so obvious.

Creative people are more able to see the obvious as contingent. Only when we hear of a creative solution to a problem do we find that what was holding us back was our presupposition that it would be solved in a certain way. Until we see the solution we don’t even realize that we had the presupposition.

What is obvious varies across cultures. What it is obvious varies across cultures. Take a magical formula. Which part of a magician’s body houses his magical formulae? For Trobriand Islanders, the answer is obvious: the belly. As a result, a magician is forbidden to eat certain foods before, during and after a performance (1). Such a conception wouldn’t so much as occur to us.

Until we encounter people with other presuppositions, we do not realize our own. This is one of the benefits of travel. It is a familiar observation that there are two sorts of travel. Whereas mere travel satisfies your curiosity, good travel leads you to know yourself better.

But any given culture differs from past cultures as well as contemporary ones. Hence ‘travelling’ to past cultures also puts the obvious in question. To come to know past cultures is to come to know your own.

The aim isn’t to feel humble vis-a-vis past cultures. There is reason to believe that our presuppositions will be better on the whole than those that preceded them. Some things get discovered; others get disproven.

A proposition often begins as a foreground hypothesis before sinking into the background as a presumption. Something stops being a hypothesis once it is no longer in doubt. It is obvious to us that magical formulae would be stored in the brain because we know that is where memory functions are located.

One reason to study the great philosophers is to find out where our presuppositions came from. From this angle, the most important thinkers are those who created the obvious. They shaped our world.

This throws up a paradox. When we read an author whose ideas have become obvious, their most important insights fade into the background; what strikes us is their mistakes. Hence influential thinkers – Marx, Freud, Mill – can fall into disrepute. What we want from them we have and what we don’t have we don’t want.

But influence is not enough to make a thinker great. History sometimes makes mistakes. It is very far from being one long debate in which the strongest argument wins out. Our ideas are shaped by what we do, by the world we encounter in our practices; but the world can alter for many reasons – climate, disease, technology, power struggles, etc.. Many people are not ruled by reason; if it is pointed out to them that they cannot account for their views, or that their beliefs are incompatible, they sometimes shrug their shoulders and go on. Even the most abstract ideas are often accepted because they provide an attractive way of seeing things; and things can appeal to us for a variety of psychological reasons.

Because history might have taken a wrong turn, we need to justify our presuppositions as much as we can. This is why we travel back in time. We want to find out what our presuppositions are, where they come from and whether they are justified. In principle these are three separate tasks; in practice, they are best done together, by studying the great philosophers of the past.

If we only wanted to discover the nature and origin of our presuppositions, no priority would be given to the greats. A law might reveal what a culture took as obvious more than a work of philosophy; and a second-rate pamphlet might have been more influential than a detailed demonstration. And if we only wanted to assess our presuppositions, no attention would be paid to the greats in their pastness. We might want to steal a few ideas from them, but no more than that.

Given that we want to do all three, studying one of the greats is ideal. To be a great philosopher is to be historical, influential and rigorous. To study one we have to think alongside them. We have to take their problems as our own and undergo their thought processes. This imposes three requirements on us.

We need to exercise our imagination. The difficulty of imagining ourselves in the thinker’s position reveals just how alien their presuppositions are; this in turn reveals how alien ours would be to them, and hence what ours actually are. We must become familiar with the tradition. It helps to be aware that one thinker may share the presuppositions or presume the conclusions of another; we should read them in terms of their influence and influences. And we have to make their thought processes as justifiable as possible. To do this just is to assess their justification.

To study a great philosopher is therefore to consider what our presuppositions are, where they came from and whether they are justified.

But that’s not all. There is a happy side effect to all this. Imitating an expert helps us learn any activity. To think alongside a great thinker is to imitate them. So to study the philosophers is to learn to think for ourselves. And that can be useful (2).

(1) Gunter Senft, ‘Body and Mind in the Trobriand Islands’, Ethos 1998, pp.88-89

(2) The ideas in this article were mostly taken from the history of philosophy.