Philosophers as Shamans

This is the first of several short pieces on the relation between shamans and philosophers. Each piece deals with an aspect of the theme of how faith—healers differ from philosophers, how metaphysical thoughts may influence how we perceive our world — that is, what we actually claim to have seen, whether through rational persuasion by others — by changing the framework of perception and coincidentally changing our sense of personal well—being and of the body itself. Shamans — male and female — are precursors of priests and organized religion, but more often are viewed opponents than friends.

How to distinguish Philosophers from Shamans

This strange and challenging title joins two groups: philosophers and shamans. In the popular mind these seem to have very little in common.

wittgensteinBoth can be soothsayers, but philosophers traditionally deal in wisdom whereas shamans with well-being, the esoteric, the health of body and mind. The general view is — I think — that philosophers are educated, wise, cool in judgement, perhaps a little eccentric and monistic, inclined to press and urge their “take on things”, are often anti-establishmentarians because they challenge some features of what is perceived by others as common-sense. After all, the ordinary person does not walk around and claim that “time is not real” as some philosophers have done, or suggest that all things are made from the same unseeable substance, from atoms, which by definition cannot be “sensed”. These views varies from what is normally accepted. Philosophers however have negotiated with others a license to raise issues about obvious matters and issues and are often permitted by their fellow citizens to utter the unutterable, and speak whereof the ordinary person must remain silent. This is generally speaking a benevolent view of philosophers : it views them as gadflies, but not as vicious rampaging mosquitoes.

Lest we forget, most societies in the past have not been tolerant towards philosophers, but have been more hospitable to shamans and faith-healers. Their claims seem to much more plausible. Shamans are more rare in moderns society than they once were. One see an occasional sign on the window of a private home advertising their services. We may also hear about them in Anthropology 101, a subject fewer students study now than in my day — relatively speaking — but the term may also occur en passant in Sociology 101, a subject which attracts an increasing number of students in colleges and universities.

But shamans, as I will argue, are the original or ur-physicians, and emerged as a force within tribal societies before medicine was hijacked as a “profession” and became increasingly devoted to “physical medicine” and less and less with the spiritual well-being of individuals.

The shaman in early society was a standard figure in larger human groups and his/her role was to achieve relief from pain and discomfort for others by their specialized knowledge of “nature”, plants, animals and what we would call “natural resources”, and also by their presumed access to the world of spirits, either benevolent spirits, indifferent spirits or evil ones, that is, demonic and covetous, spirits.

Like humans, spirits responded to others, could be helpful or mischievous, even downright evil. They have to be contacted and approached before one could negotiated, even master, them. This was the unique job of the shaman, a job perhaps inherited from the father or mother and required a life-style different from those of tribal confreres. Indeed, in many early societies the role of supreme ruler (king) and shaman were combined — a potentially hazardous combination because when kings fail they face revolt and execution. Kings accepted their responsibilities for the future of their “tribe”; shamans do not.

Generally speaking, shamans also do not guarantee success in restoring the health and comfort to their “patients”. They could not be sued for malpractice! Failure of their mission could be attributed to extenuating circumstances, never to the shaman as an inadequate practitioner of their esoteric art. One price paid for this exemption of responsibility was that they were often viewed as outsiders and some modern commentators have suggested that shamans had symptoms of schizophrenia, which could easily isolate them from the rest of their tribal fellows.

I do not want to give the impression that there is a smooth continuity between the shamans of old, as they operated within early societies — in some cases many thousands years ago — and contemporary medical practitioners in countries like the USA, Canada, France, Germany or Scandinavia who have their roots in a series of critical developments during the 19th century, in the work of Semmelweis, Pasteur, Charcot and Freud, Lister, Ehrlich — and in retrospect above all in Darwin and modern genetics, those medical practitioners who focussed on the role of biological mechanisms which underly life itself. Far from it. But this applies equally to other disciplines, especially to physics which underwent several “scientific revolutions” (in Kuhn’s (1962) sense) during the 20th century and who are almost as far away from the speculations of Democritus (400 BCE) and Aristotle (c. 330 BCE) as the shamans (c. 10,000-5000 BCE) are from moderns physical medicine and psychiatry. Continuity is not linearity and does not imply a smooth uninterrupted development from early roots to the present, but refers to similarity of problems, not of solutions.

Thus, people have become speechless since we first adopted speech as our primary method of communication, but our understanding of what produces periods of speechlessness in our lives has radically changed as a results of systematic research done on this problem over the last 100 years.

Shamans assumed that our states of awareness (consciousness) reflected something about the natural order of the world they lived in: that spiritswere “of the essence” of things and that material bodies were “abstractions” in the sense that a “mountain” — or a “tree” — were manifestations or representations of a reality greater, or above, what was physically experienced. It is a view which is still with us — and which underlies much of what goes under the name of “philosophical idealism”.

What shamans in general assumed was that ubiquitous spirits, which were part of everything perceived, could be influenced even controlled by “special methods” which were unique to them. These methods included secret concoctions and brews as well as idiosyncratic methods of solicitations (like incantations and gestures, including dances). I am reminded of scientists in the mid-20th century who claimed that the true path to Truth is via method — itself a half-truth.

The shaman furthermore believed — as did their followers — that practices of divination not only propitiated spirits, but were instrumental in healing others through the mediation of other, to most people alien but powerful spirits. Healing for purpose of our discussion is viewed as “restoration” of spirit, for even boils and bodily wounds were often viewed as manifestations of spiritual. In general, it means that without a universal belief in different levels of reality — and a firm conviction that the world of spirits is primary — neither shamanism or religion would take root: chimpanzees, our close biological kin, are not known to divide their experiential world into a spiritual and a physical realm. It is a human proclivity to assume this.

We do know this: that our earliest text about what humans believed about their world, as recounted in Hesiod’s (c.650 BC) Theogony — only 300 years ago — reveals that our ancestors viewed their world as inhabited by gods which were not different in most respects to themselves, except that these were more powerful, more corrupt, more vengeful and conniving than we allow ourselves to be.

Our ancestors faced two sets of issues: unwellness due to spirits and un-wellness due to physical injury. The former could be “cured” by spiritual means, the latter could be alleviated. A woman bitten by a poisonous snake may be helped by ointments made from special (secret) plants, but a man in violent and uncontrollable temper or mood — overcome, as we say, by emotions — could more likely be helped by spiritual methods (although smoking pot or certain libations and brews, may also alleviate his distress). An arm lost to a lion could not be restored, but the suffering which follows could be abated by appropriate spiritual intervention.

Spiritual intervention means healing an afflicted person by restoring their sense of wholeness and well-being. Struck by lameness, loss of hearing, inability to balance when walking, loss of speech are all examples of such afflictions — and are prototypical of ailments from which a person can recover and have been known to recover fully or in part. Each of these functions can be restored through the help of a third party: the faith-healer, the miracle worker, perhaps with the help of a friendly exorcist, or the support by your social worker or spiritual advisor-priest.

All these “moderns” — whether dressed in white lab coats or in ceremonial and religious garments — fulfill the role and functions of earlier shamans. They often mediate the “cures” promised, whether for long periods or only temporarily — and they always have explanations why in some (many?) cases the treatment was “only temporary” or on occasions even unsuccessful. Not all the lame at a revivalist meeting raise themselves and walk as their preacher exhorts them to when they cry “Heal in the name of xxxx”!! Some do — and persuade the rest of their large fellow brethren, of the efficacy of the divinely inspired message of the preacher.

All treatments discussed above require an intermediary — a male or female “shaman”. All require that the afflicted person or persons believes in the efficacy of the treatment. Both parties to the cure share a theory to explain to themselves and to others why the treatment should work — and why it often does not. I shall address this problem in a follow up blog but remind the reader to keep in mind than a prothesis is not a shamanic device.

Tail-note: Philosophers — but also modern psychologists — have a special interest in the “nature of belief” but the former try to remove themselves as far possible from acts which can be construed as therapeutic in intent. Wittgenstein was not a therapist. Do they succeed? Only partially — which is one of the reasons for writing this and future blogs. Philosophers often behave as if they have a therapeutic objective, as if by rewriting one’s script one can also re-structure one’s life. Perhaps there is some truth in this.

Reply to Marc: Facts and Theories

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This is my second Elucidation and Exegesis (E&E). In an earlier blog I wrote When we say “This is true” we imply that this statement is defensible, or reliable, therefore should not be questioned. I subsequently received a note from Marc that *defensible,* *reliable* and *unquestioned* do not mean the same. Here is one comment — others may follow.

From Fact to Theory

My earlier statement should be interpreted as saying that if a claim is defensible as well as reliable, it would be counter-productive to question it. What purpose would such a challenge serve?

To demand additional evidence for a claim (1) suggests that the claim — the assertion that such and such is the case — is inadequate and is deemed insufficiently strong, perhaps weak; (2) it also suggests that the case made does not fit snugly into a pre-existing theory. We seem to demand that every new claim falls comfortably into a theoretical place — enlightens but does not disturb our pre-existing vision of the world.

Let us examine each:

(1) Consider first the strength of support for our conclusion “that such and such is the case.” The reason we asked for additional evidence was that the statement went beyond data currently available. One could, in principle, strengthen the data on the basis of which our conclusion was reached by adding to the pile, as it were. But this would be foolish unless we also improved our the method data-collection: a matter of more and better sampling. Data — short for data-points — have to be gathered in sufficient quantity to justify any general conclusions, as for example, “The data can be stated as follows…”. Presenting only a summary of the data assumes that it is the best summary and that a closer examination of the data would not unearth new aspects of events. This assumption has been faulted time and again.

In many cases the strength of support for a conclusion is barely adequate — a discovery often made soon after it was “tabled”. In other cases the method of discovery used may seem “primitive” by current prevailing standards. It happens with alarming frequency, in step with our current technological revolution in the art of measurement. Strong support, on the other hand, leads one to conclude that a claim has sufficient merit — should be considered seriously — may therefore be tagged as factual in the traditional — even, in absolutist — sense. We would then readily concede that whenever a claim is deemed insufficient, adjunctive materials could remedy this and therefore requires to be gotten. If all goes in the anticipated direction — the claim could be moved to the positive side of the ledger. It is all very iffy and tangential. Note: a transition from “perhaps as claimed” to “most likely as claimed” — or some equivalent affirmation — is modal decision — not absolute.

From this perspective stating that “It is a fact that…” — and its milder form, “it could be that…” — reflect different degrees of certainty regardless of whether the method used to establish the conclusions can overcome critical objections. Let us label this our concerns about the adequacy of our investigatory techniques, as when medical researchers are required to run double blind controls to support their view that a drug has the effect claimed for it. Simply to claim that drug x has a lasting effect on the severity of, say, psoriasis is not enough. The claim needs to be underpinned with data gathered in a highly prescribed manner.

Looking over past claims it appears that (a) many, or most, conclusions based on “investigations” remain open to the criticism that the methods used to establish a particular (general) conclusion were inadequate as judged by current standards; (b) that conclusions which appear compatible with an extant theory and which derive their claim from this context operate under a double jeopardy: the one already mentioned (see (a) and the jeopardy that the theory itself may be wrong. To fit snugly into a faulty theory appears to me like catching double pneumonia.

(2) Fitting snugly. A claim, or assertion that such and such is the case has the earmarks of a fact, but it is also a claim that it fits snugly into a pre-existing theory. (Logically, if Tc is a current theory, Tb would be its predecessor. Presumably, the difference between Tb and Tc is noteworthy! If a reason has to be given for changing Tb to Tc it would include that Tc accommodates data which were excluded by Tb and could not be readily accommodated. Indeed — the theory Tc may make up for, or be deliberately used, to handle new data. I will examine this in more detail in a future blog.

Fitting into a Theory vs Finding a Theory to Fit into

If a fact is said to “fit” into a theory this is tantamount to saying that the fact as stated by the proposition p, or set of propositions, sp, is deducible from the premises (foundational base or axioms) of an extant theory. I am careful to distinguish between an extant theory and an ad hoc theory although is not always easy.

An extant theory is one that is in use at the time a particular fact is being accommodated, whereas an ad hoc theory is one that will have to be constructed, or formulated, for the specific purpose of accommodating proposition p into a network. One requires, as a matter of course that the network has some “range,” covers several quite distinct phenomena, otherwise the theory would be solely constructed to accommodate a solitary particular and troubling fact: it is an unacceptable proposal. Even an ad hoc theory is marketed to cover more than one fact, but is so constructed that it aims to bring a particular fact into relation with others. It does so by exclusion: the ad hoc theory usually accommodates some older facts with the new fact, but does so by excluding other facts which appear to be incompatible with the new. It is a matter of compatibility. If a fact is said to “fit” into a theory this is tantamount to saying that the fact as stated, that is, the proposition p, or set of propositions, sp, is deducible from the premises (foundational base, or axioms) of an extant theory.

I draw a distinction between an extant theory and an ad hoc theory by assuming that an extant theory is one that is in use when a particular fact is being accommodated, whereas an ad hoc theory is one that will be constructed, or formulated, for the specific purpose of accommodating p — and related statements — into a network. The ad hoc theory is usually wily — it is deliberately constructed to accommodate some older facts with a new fact, but it does this by excluding those facts which appear to be incompatible with the new. An ad hoc theory invariably creates its own set of facts, and thereby relegates many older facts into the class of “factoids,” that is the class of have-been-facts, a part of “dead science.”

Fitting a finding into a theory is always and inevitably done during the process of publicizing a finding. It is therefore an inevitable consequences of the process of communicating a discovery to others, of stating it, of trying to relate a finding to other matters which are already known, matters which have their establish location in a “knowledge-system” or a “belief system.” One expresses a finding in words and terms which inadvertently position it in a familiar context and in doing so one frames the finding, gives it theoretical relatives.

This description of what happens when a finding is brought to our attention suffers from a major defect: it suggests that a finding is placed into a system, a knowledge or belief-system, like a card placed into filing-drawer, where it has its “proper place.” But — as I shall argue in more detail on another occasion — this is not so: the term “system” is quite misleading and more formal than deserved. It is part of wishful thinking: we like to think of ourselves as “systematic thinkers, as being “well organized,” as knowing where things belong. But this self-image is less true now than ever before: we organize knowledge in many ways, in bits and pieces, as chunks, in conveniently placed separate drawers. A veritable potpourri, but not a system — and we harbour the idea that one day, some day, these different items will all be brought together, like petals of a daisy or cherries on a cherry-tee. No one has succeeded so far, although many have tried: it seems to be a fantasy without end.

Truth and Truth Claims

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The epigrammatic nature of my blog post Character of Science calls for elucidations and exegeses — E&Es — this being the first of several.

TruthMy initial comments in Character of Science are about the interpretation of the much used, but greatly abused term *truth* (see this post for the meaning of the asterisks). When we say, “This is true,” we imply that what this statement asserts is defensible, or reliable, and therefore should not be questioned.

The term *truth* qualifies a statement. I wrote as if to suggest that there is a use of *truth* which makes what is claimed incontrovertible, whereas I think this is not so. Claims are always either strong or weak, justified or unjustified, supportable or insupportable. Indeed, every statement which assigns a quality to an object, or which describes an event, does so only to some extent. Even when we don’t make this assumption explicit, we are aware that this is so and that others share this assumption. We therefore should not use the term *truth* in an absolute, unqualified manner but speak only about making “truth-claims.”

*Truth*, I therefore submit, is not an object, not a substance, but refers to the quality of a statement one has made about something, a statement about some object or event.

The statement “elephants are memory deficient” is an example. It describes and assigns a quality to a familiar object, the elephant, and makes a claim which can most assuredly be investigated — although perhaps with some practical difficulty, much patience and considerable ingenuity.

Modern writers often refer to “degrees of truth,” just as they would to “degrees of pain” or “degree of sweetness.” In the example given, any answer to whether elephants are memory-deficient would need to include details of the degree to which this is so, as well as to the procedure used to establish the factual basis of this unusual claim. Therein lies part of the fun of being an investigator, a searcher after “the truth,” a scientist or insatiably curious but not afraid of what one finds.

Two or More Cultures?

My earlier entry on Clarification and Definition is one of many which reflect my long standing interest in philosophy, particularly how my own major discipline, experimental psychology, has been influenced by ideas of Western philosophy.

Now that I am retired and have no laboratory to retreat to and no white-coated laboratory associates to hang out with, I spend much of my time writing about issues which have always interested me, yet which are often broader than those dealt with in a research setting. These interests stretch over a wide range: art, theatre, music, cultural history, as well as the natural and the human and behavioral sciences. I have never been a “one culture” person, as outlined in C. P. Snow’s celebrated BBC Reid Lectures of 1959 on “The Two Cultures,” but like so many others of my generation I combined a strong dominant interest in my profession as well as in aspects of the general culture of which I am a part. I see no conflict between being intensely interested in modern technology and its sister, contemporary science, and retaining a healthy passion for traditional cultural activities and its wondrous artifacts.

Image: Matt Collins, see below for credit

A strong interest in both cultures therefore seems to me to be perfectly compatible with living in the 21st century. One can keep in step with both worlds and accommodate to the extent that is possible with the rapid changes in the world of science and the increasing pace in all aspects of our culture. I often feel like a child in a toy-shop waiting for the toy-maker to bring out more from his presumably messy workshop. The old is being eroded and the face of the new barely distinguishable through the dust of our old demolished Europeanized world. We face not one or two cultures in the future, but a multiverse. It may be something to look forward to for those brave enough to face the choices.*

C. P. Snow, whose novel The Masters was a brilliantly vivid portrait of the life of Oxonian an Cambrian academics and its students before “the Fall” shows how significantly changed we have become since the collapse of Europe. Our universities are in disarray and our vertical culture, too. “Downton Abbey” is down, shabby, and condemned to extinction as are all who lived in it. A terrible culture when looked at through the naked eye, a monster when viewed through critical eyes. Is this the culture which I see before me whose virtues are praised in much of the literature during the rule of the last century? Are we not misguided to hanker after a culture whose greatest achievements for three hundred years was nationalism and colonialism and endless wars? Undoubtedly Science, Literature and the Arts emerged in splendour out of this troubled sea – like a Botticellian Venus — but did so with heavy price.

We need a better understanding of ourselves and our world to get to the other side of this great divide between our past and our future. Can we do so by learning from past errors? I evidently think so. It involves clarification, analysis and criticism and this in turn requires us to hanker after brave new worlds, not dilapidated chintz. One cannot predict visions of the future: children’s comics do so but combine fascinating possibilities with monstrous visions of barely imaginable mayhem. The comics for adults only increase the mayhem but also reveal the vivid blend of the imaginable with the real. We are remarkably good at creating monsters, at depicting the faces of evil — but we also have an aptitude for implying what is wholesome, what should be selected from all the visions we have created of the future. We define future possibilities, as Hieronymous Bosch, Jules Verne, or Mary Shelley did, but we also clarify which of these options are desirable and achievable. That is the job we will always have to do; it is the price of being creative and inventive.

* These lectures were later published in book form under the title The Two Cultures and a few years later in 1963 in revised form as A Second Look: An Expanded Version of The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution (1963).

**The image of C. P. Snow atop a bridge between the cultures is from a 2009 Scientific American article, An Update on C. P. Snow’s “Two Cultures”, by Lawrence M. Krauss.

Aperçu: On Clarification and Definition

A definition assigns a distinct, preferably unique meaning to a word. It is a legislative act whose purpose is to limit the use of a word, to restrict its range, and to decide — once and for all — how it is to be used in all conceivable contexts. It involves taking the analogy out of language!

This brazen objective is rarely realised by the definer — and when successful, it is usually not for long because, words have a way of shedding their tethers. The best examples of this are found in advanced natural sciences, where each discovery is named, baptized. What is a hadron? It is not for eating yet, but tomorrow some enterprising entrepreneur may come up with a product, name it “hadron” and flood the marketplace with this delectable mushy chocolate-tasting, non-fattening, gluten-free imitation chewing gum!

Clarification, however, is entirely different from definition. One selects a concept and its term(s) that already exist, which may in fact be quite widely used — as hadron is in particle physics — and may have a history of use in a variety of contexts. One then shows in what manner the concept has been employed, what alternate terms are already in use for it (for it is not unique) and in what manner the term can be extended from its literal to many new figurative meanings. One also tries to point out what implication the term may have, or may have acquired over its long period of use. The term has a history — which may help contribute to its interest. Thus, in clarification one performs an analysis not a dissection of the term, and one should not be over eager to give a term which may already be rich in meaning, a singular unique meaning, except for the nonce.

It seems to me that philosophers are in the business of clarification — at least some are. Clarification may bring enlightenment, broaden the understanding of a concept whereas clarification may help to throw it into stark contrast to other ideas, to which it is related. One benefit is that it may add wisdom, a quality many of us seek but few attain. Wisdom is not discovered like a pebble on the sands, but is the outcome of an inquiring mind that seeks a better understanding of how different aspects of their experience can be interconnected to yield a special perspective on the world, a perspective which the person may then share with others.

In summary: Definitions deliberately restrict and often do so for justifiable reasons, whereas clarifications expand our horizons and promote our understanding of individual experiences and our shared world. One can do both, yet recognize that each has its separate place in the order of things.

Philosophy is not Science

Philosophy is not Science. Most philosophers are not scientists by inclination or training. Some may have studied science subjects at school or university; others may have backgrounds in the liberal arts or mathematics, or they may have just drifted into philosophical studies and later became totally absorbed in it. It was not always thus. In earlier times there were those who called themselves natural-philosophers because their primary interest was in the study of natural phenomena: physics, chemistry, botany, anatomy, whereas others were content to be grouped with theologians, or with students of language, the law, the classics or were clerks or politicians in their daily life.

If Philosophy claims the same status as a Science, it is bad philosophy. It then confuses the diner with the dinner. To stretch this analogy: one may select a menu fix but one does not eat the menu, only the dishes described on the menu.

Philosophers change the world when they prescribe how we should describe it. Thus, they both prescribe and proscribe – habits learned during the long period when philosophers served at the court of princes and popes. They in effect then say to us that we – the non-philosophers – have described the world incorrectly so far and that we should re-describe it according to principles that they have laid out for us. This wanton act authorizes and legitimatizes certain methods, i.e. preferred ways and means of conceptualizing our world. We are being told, often very politely, that we have so far incorrectly described our experiences, and that our descriptions may be replete with unwarranted assumptions. If this is true, who do we blame, but our previous teachers?

Fortunately philosophers tend to disagree more among each other than with those of us on the outside: this saves us all from inevitable perdition.


Like most words the French aperçu has more than one meaning. It can mean a glance, a glimpse, an insight or a hint, a sketch or outline, a summary and even a preview. I would like to use the word here and in future notes in the sense of a short statement which may contain some insight, some wit, some twist or thought, perhaps even as an introduction to a more eloquent statement to be published some time in the future.

So let us begin. Each aperçu will be numbered and labeled. I hope that will help.

Aperçu #1 : Interpreting another’s meaning

As a philosopher you must believe that what another philosopher said is what you understand him to have meant! There is no other way of doing philosophy, for if you deny this premise you could not give an exposition of another’s viewpoint, only your own. You could then end in an infinite regress, asking again and again whether what philosopher A  said is what he had meant to say.

Now you could be incorrect in your understanding of philosopher A, of what philosopher A meant. But how could you discover this error in your judgment? How could you find out?