The Anaxagoras Problem

In Plato’s Phaedo, Socrates gives an account of what can be called the Anaxagoras problem.  Here’s the problem: Anaxagoras claimed that mind is the origin of all things; however, when describing the way things are, he leaves mind behind and ends up resorting to physical or mechanistic explanations, thereby failing to instantiate his guiding principle.

This isn’t quite the same as hypocrisy.  It’s not a matter of believing one thing yet doing something opposed to that belief.  It’s not a problem of not walking your talk or not practicing what you preach.  It’s a problem of a self-contradictory performance (not walking like you walk, not practicing what you practice, not talking like you talk, etc.).

If you look for it, you’ll probably notice that this problem comes up a lot.  People claim that the arguments they are about to make are not mechanistic, and then they’ll proceed to give mechanistic arguments.  Somebody will claim that they are overcoming the dualism between realism and idealism, and guess what follows: an idealistic argument.

I notice the Anaxagoras problem frequently among practitioners of astrology (which are relatively numerous where I live, the SF Bay Area, a hub for self-important spiritual dilettantes).  They often say that they are not making deterministic arguments, and then they proceed to speak in a way that is full of deterministic framing.  Of course, deterministic astrology is easy to refute.  As Augustine knew, you can refute astrology by finding two people with different psychological dispositions who were born at the same place and time.  So everybody knows that deterministic astrology is false.  If you’re going to talk about astrology, you have to start by disavowing determinism.  That sounds great to me.  Let’s transform our hermeneutics of human-planet relationships to avoid determinism and affirm a more participatory, co-constitutive, open-ended encounter between human existence and planetary alignments.  But then the Anaxagoras problem comes up.  The disavowal of determinism is often followed with a lot of deterministic framing, for instance, dubious uses of the words “cause” and “because,” lazy stock phrases like “that’s because of your Moon-Neptune conjunction” (instead of “that’s one way you’re activating your Moon-Neptune conjunction”), and deterministic reductions of ought to is (e.g., “since your Saturn will be in a certain alignment in October, you should wait until then to apply for that promotion”).

We all fall into the Anaxagoras problem occasionally.  Nobody is completely immune to it, and in any case, I’m not moralizing about it.  I’m just making the point that when we affirm things that we’re committed to and disavow things we consider false, it does not entail that we have sufficient skills to carry out that affirmation and disavowal.  You might think and say that you are against determinism, or mechanistic reductionism, or dualism, but that doesn’t mean that you’ve fully extricated those paradigms from your thinking and speaking.  In fact, if you disavow something enough, the repetition of the disavowal starts to sound like a secret affirmation.  If I call my friend every day and tell him, “Your wife isn’t cheating on you,” it’s eventually going to sound like I suspect that his wife is cheating on him.  If I’m giving a philosophical argument and I keep repeating the claim, “This isn’t social constructionism,” then it’s probably full of social constructionism or at least social constructionist tendencies.  Say what you mean, and while you’re at it, try meaning what you say.


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