Clerestory

On tracing things back to their sources

November 02, 2021

Yesterday, in writing about my note-taking system, I mentioned that I’ve become bolder in following references back to their source. That inclination has grown over the past two years; at the end of this post I’ll say a bit more about how the note-taking system itself has encouraged this.1

But first, in following trails of footnotes and references, it has struck me how often they lead back to the Ancient Greeks, and especially Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. I’ll call them the Athenians and consider them to have essentially equivalent views, e.g., that “reason” and “virtue” are desirable.

Their influence may seem obvious, but I’m struck by just how close to the surface they often are. I eventually want to compare this situation with what little I know of what happened in the development of philosophy at other times and places — i.e., in cultures not influenced to the same degree by the Greeks.

How wide is the West?

“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”

— Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality (1929), pt. II, ch. I, §1.

I’ve started to write about the problems with using “the West” as an unqualified term, but for now I just want to wonder here about how wide the West actually is.

By “Western,” I’m thinking mainly about writing in English, French, and German in the past four centuries. By “wide,” I’m wondering how diverse this thought is in comparison to Indian or Chinese thought, and whether it has a tendency to converge or diverge. (I wrote more about this question here.

I’ll give an example of what a little digging can reveal. In 2018, the English anthropologist and primatologist Richard Wrangham wrote a brilliant paper called “Two types of aggression in human evolution”.

The question is an old one: Are humans in the “state of nature” violent or peaceful?2

Wrangham makes no mention of any of the Athenians. However he immediately labels the sides with the names of two familiar philosophers:3

  • The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), who thinks humans in the state of nature are violent.
  • The French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), who thinks humans in the state of nature are peaceful. (Rousseau is explicitly responding to Hobbes.)

I decided to search them for the Athenians.

Hobbes’ Leviathan (1651) references Socrates once, Plato seven times, and Aristotle twenty-seven times. Rousseau’s The Social Contract (1762) references Socrates fifteen times, Plato twelve times, and Aristotle eleven times.

Wrangham’s work, not a piece of philosophy but one listed under “Biological Sciences » Anthropology” and “Social Sciences » Psychological and Cognitive Sciences,” and not obviously related to the Ancient Athenians, is actually closely connected to them. Just follow the references two steps from the abstract (without needing to wade into the footnotes) and we’re back at the Athenians.

I’m not saying that Hobbes and Rousseau are just rehashing Athenian debates, nor that they only cite Athenians; they’re certainly doing more than that. I just think it’s important to point out the prevalence of this influence.

Obviously this is a single example, and probably most papers are not linked so linearly. That could plausibly be because other papers are, in fact, not so closely related to the Greeks. But it is also possible that most are just as closely linked and that their writers are less aware of their influence.

This is not at all an indictment of Wrangham — he is conscious of the provenance of his questions, which can only be a good thing.

Why always the Greeks?

One possibility is that a genuine creative explosion occurred in Athens, and those guys pretty much thought of and addressed (or attempted to address) all the important questions. It is easy, while studying philosophy, to come away with this impression.

Another possibility is that their way of thinking has limited later thinkers by setting limits on philosophical inquiry.

In other words, did the Athenians really identify all important avenues of inquiry? Or do we consider certain avenues of inquiry to be important because identified by the Athenians?

There seems to have been a greater diversity of thought among the Presocratic “Greeks,” many of whom came from Greek islands or from Anatolia (i.e., they are not necessarily Athenian). I have yet to read any books on the Presocratics, but so far my attempts to read the Presocratics themselves has led me only to echoes and tatters.

We know of writers whose writings are no longer preserved. Thinkers like the Sophists act as foils for the Athenian thinkers. Only a few fragments remain of Heraclitus’ book of unknown title. Although philosophers from Aristotle to Bertrand Russell have identified Thales of Miletus as the first Greek philosopher, not a single one of his many books survives. Both Heraclitus and Thales were from Ionia, now in Turkey, and Heraclitus lived under Persian rule (Miletus was spared). Diogenes the Cynic, whom I write about here, is way up in Sinope, Northern Turkey, 1,361 km (845 mi.) from Athens.

As I noted last year, paper disintegrates fairly quickly, which is to say that anything before the printing press which was not deliberately copied by hand every few generations no longer exists. The default is to disappear — and defaults matter.

Originally I intended to compare the situation in ”the West” to India and China, but I wound up waiting. See my posts on India starting here and China here.

More on note-taking

What led to these deeper dives on sources?

I try to do a daily Readwise review. This surfaces random passages that I’ve read and highlighted. In the past year I have evidently made 4,356 highlights, or about 12 per day, which also happens to be the number of highlights I typically review in a day. Lest I look too organized, I often miss days, especially on weekends, and have to catch up later. But I’ve kept a streak going for the past nine months.

This review introduces serendipity and allows for spaced repetition. The serendipity leads to unexpected connections and to the identification of subtle patterns. The spaced repetition allows me to go deep without getting bored, which is how I often wind up back at the Athenians.

When something comes up in a Readwise review, I don’t just read it. I write about it in the Zettelkasten as well, including the paraphrasing I mentioned yesterday, and also my own reflections. I also often end up back on wikipedia, reading about the topic.

In the spaced repetition I normally mark things to come back “soon,” “later,” or “someday” — I almost never mark them “never,” only maybe 5% of the time when something really was only of ephemeral interest, or when something has begun to annoy me. Anything that enters Readwise (primarily through hypothes.is or Kindle notes) is something that I was at one point interested in. Beyond interest, I also highlight things I don’t understand, knowing that they will come back in spaced repetition when I may be better equipped.

I take curiosity as a strong signal.

I fear the future

I use Zotero to save references; right now there are 1,226 entries, mostly books but also many articles.

I’m old enough to have seen the rise and fall of many websites, or at least enough to worry about digital durability. I therefore save snapshots of webpages to Zotero when I think they’re important enough. I’ve also looked at technologies like IPFS and Perma.cc, but worry about those too. If you know about these or have any advice about saving things forever, please let me know, as I am thinking in terms of decades when it comes to the work.


  1. A friend asked me about how fussy I am with citations a year ago, during which I’ve gotten more fussy.
  2. I’ll leave aside the minefield of what the “state of nature” means for today. But the question of whether humans are violent or peaceful remains consequential. The former implies that a state’s function is to reduce violence, whereas the latter implies that the state causes violence. I don’t know either side well enough to do them justice here, but I’ve read enough to safely say that both positions are frequently caricatured. Since I wrote this article, I’ve started Graeber/Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything, which looks at the problems of this opposition.
  3. He also refreshingly adds Kropotkin and Huxley into the mix.

Bryan Kam

I'm Bryan Kam. I'm thinking about complexity and selfhood. Please sign up to my newsletter or see more here.