by Albert Brenner
May 09, 2007 01:04 PM EST
History is pregnant again; ready to foster the future the present is unwilling to bear. A future in which relativism will, yet again, be forced by rationalism to lay bare all miscarriages conceived by its innate inability to rationally nurture ever-expanding life/existence. And first among the stillborn to be exposed will be the Noble Savage – a myth that has, in the West, been the lop-sided smile of cultural relativism.
That this feel good smile is still at its charming best in modern popular culture is evident in cinematographic representations such as Colin Farrell’s The New World and Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves. Films that, in brief, try their sentimental utmost to convince the emotion- intoxicated viewer that primitive societies were (and are) virtuous to the core and that their conquerors, the West, embodies all that human depravity could muster in its quest to destroy all that is beautiful and innocent on the planet.
In the academia, the myth of the Noble Savage has been kept alive by Rousseau’s Romanticism (as evident in e.g. current ecotopian idealism based on disillusionment with the modernity project), the Protagorean relativism and Lockean ‘tolerance’ of Franz Boas, and the Wittgensteinian relativism of Peter Winch. Together, these three bodyguards have ensured the survival of its master since his modern ‘discovery’ on erotic 15th century islands till the Nobel Prize for Peace award ceremony of Nelson Mandela in 1994. A formidable force of intellectual champions indeed, but all with feet planted firmly in the clay of naïve idealism and recalcitrant relativism. And opposed, we only have a handful of rationalists constantly warning that ultimate knowledge and virtue are not in the eye of the beholder; stating explicitly that we simply cannot accept the fact that we are unable, even in our day and age, to say with any philosophically grounded authority that there is nothing morally ‘wrong’ with female circumcision, the stoning of Arab adulterers or the burning of ‘witches’ in South Africa – the rational conclusion engendered by a relativistic world-view! Alas, the legacy of relativism; a world in which all is determined by the existential Satrean individual whose inevitable death does not spell the end of truth.
Sad to admit but, although being a feel good creation of the West’s lucid imagination, and given every opportunity to prove himself, the Noble Savage has never, not once, been able to honour the faith placed in him to rise above perennial Western moral crises, to guide us back to Rousseau’s ‘Paradise Lost’. For example, even though his supposed Noble Savage moral ‘superiority’ (and Noble Peace Prize) demands it, Nelson Mandela’s steadfast refusal to criticize Robert Mugabe’s horror regime in Zimbabwe has left the West stuck, as usual, with the 500-year old dilemma as to what his mythical creation can actually offer morality. Let us be brutally honest here; the standing of the modern world’s two most famous Noble Savages, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, is purely due the fact that they reminded us of certain values and ideals we have cherished for millennia (e.g. the freedoms& dignity of the individual, democracy, etc.). In short; modern moral imperatives that have (and still are), glaringly evident by their absence in their own primitive societies.
But yet, we somehow continue to place the Noble Savage on a glorious pedestal that negates everything we know is scientifically, rationally and morally progressive. Why? Well, the sentimentality evoked by perennial Western disillusionment has something to do with it. According to Rousseau; “I dared to strip man’s nature naked…and showed that his supposed improvement was the fount of his miseries”. Let’s, for example, strip the Noble Savage, Robert Mugabe, to his naked self; what do we find? A primitive man feasting on the misery his fellow countrymen has to suffer because he embodies all Rousseau’s positive ‘regressions, like, e.g. the negation human rights and modern (‘rational’) farming methods. In short; homo homini lupus (man is a wolf to man); something Darwin, Nietzsche, Freud etc, will wholeheartedly agree with.
Staying with the West’s modern-day Hurons and Zande; one shudders to think what other moral atrocities Mandela would’ve condoned (or committed), hadn’t he been locked up for 27 years during the life-or-death Cold War struggle between the freedom of the individual and the integrity of the collective. It suffices to say that Mandela’s claim to fame is just another feel good ‘time-capsule’ which, like the 500-year old myth itself, feeds on the hope of the West to find redemption for perennial ‘sins’ committed in the name of human advancement. Leading from the front is always an incredibly lonely and ungrateful task – something the West is only starting to realize now that its accomplishments are under siege. Nearly everybody has the A-bomb now and the export of our morality (e.g. human rights, democracy, etc) is increasingly running into civilizational tariff barriers we arrogantly assumed would not be in place anymore, given the progressive example we have set.
The way back is shut, and the way forward is fraught with uncertainty. And no amount of imaginative thinking, on the part of the West, will ever detract from the fact that the feel good animation of the ‘Other’ (Mickey Mouse and the Noble Savage) is but a pathetic attempt to find a worthy companion to accompany it on the ultimate quest, yet unfulfilled. There is no going back, something that even less zealous ecotopians are slowly but surely starting to realize. Chaining oneself to railroad tracks to prevent the passing of Atommuell trains in Germany, or the ramming of whaler ships in the Japanese Sea will not save the planet from dire environmental problems; something only the (rational) ‘re-focusing’ of existing technology can accomplish – and definitely not going back to the jungle to join the Noble Savage in his supposed environmentally friendly and morally ‘pure’ Utopia that has, in all its supposed a-historical and all-encompassing ‘truth-filled’ superiority, failed dismally to halt any of the woes besetting 21-century humanity. Why? Well, it has to do with the fact that naïve idealism, like relativism, is innately incapable of rationally tackling the existential problems we face head on.
This brings us to the old-hat Protagorean relativism and the Lockean ‘tolerance’ of Franz Boas, according whom; “The general theory of valuation of human activities by anthropological research, teaches us a higher tolerance than the one we now profess” (The mind of Primitive Man, 1911). Now this is all fine and dandy, but what level of tolerance should we display when, for example, a Noble Savage in South Africa rapes a baby in the belief that it will cure AIDS/HIV or, less sickening, how tolerant should we be when two tribes go to war over a dead cow? The tolerance Locke and Boas demand is very much applicable to philosophical deliberations in the ivory towers of the academia, but has, unfortunately, preciously few answers to give when it concerns moral integrity in a world at war with itself. The cultural relativism of Boas and Peter Winch is underpinned by the belief that people think differently in different cultures simply because all thought reflects the traditions to which it is heir, the society it is embedded in and the environment to which it is exposed. So far so good; especially since Winch uses cutting-edge Wittgensteinian relativism (e.g. ‘all is language games’) to drive a permanent linguistic wedge in between cultures and, at the same time, to dismiss the belief that there is such a thing as an a-historical cross-cultural ‘universal’ rationality.
Be that as it may; following from Martin Heidegger’s notion that ‘language is the house of being’, Winch comes to the following conclusion; “Reality is not what gives language sense. What is real and what is unreal shows itself in the sense language has”. Brutally summarized; what Winch is saying is that the respective discourses (i.e. language games) of disparate societies are what give sense to their approximation of what constitutes reality, in their disparate ‘realities’. Winch therefore comes to the conclusion that the primitive magic systems of Noble Savages actually have the exact same constitutive elements displayed by Western science in so far as both form a coherent discursive universe from which ‘logical’ conclusions and, subsequent, ‘rational’ courses of action can be derived. A very basic example; it is common among South African Noble Savages to interpret the natural phenomenon of lighting as a sign of the anger of their gods/ancestors. And it is also not uncommon to find a sangoma (witchdoctor) running to his tribal chief to consult him on who the culprit (witch) is that caused this misfortune and must, subsequently, be punished – sometimes by being burned alive. This whole process, i.e. occurrence, interpretation and the resultant deliberated action, is, according to Winch, as rational as us Westerners seeing the lightning strike, interpreting it as dangerous (i.e. electro-magnetic discharges of the indiscriminately fatal kind) and, subsequently, seeking shelter. Now, different strokes for different folks you might conclude (pun intended), but the fact remains that Winch is right, depending, of course, on your definition of rationality - but more about that later.
It is therefore no wonder that relativism has prompted postmodern thinkers to come to the inevitable conclusion that ‘we’, as different cultures, are permanently stuck in our ‘own’ a-historical insular socio-historical and linguistic cocoons (worlds) with no hope ever being able to find universal criteria that can determine what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, and what is ‘good’ and what is ‘bad’, ergo the Lockean tolerance forced on us by cultural relativism to refrain from judging Noble Savage witchcraft as ‘wrong’ and judging female circumcision as ‘bad’. And given its appeal in the West, one cannot blame less courageous philosophers, like the pragmatic Richard Rorty, to come to the cocoon-bound (relativist) ethno-centric conclusion that “I’m an American, before I’m a human being”.
Having accepted Wittgensteinian relativism as truth, thinkers of the more courageous kind, like Steven Lukes and Donald Davidson, are tireless in their efforts to establish inter-linking strands of universal inter-cultural understanding (‘bridgeheads’) by taking the signified ‘tolerance’ itself to task and milking it for everything drop its supposed signifier-determined relativist ‘essence’ can produce by stating that, for example, the Principle of Humanity and the Principle of Charity are what ultimately binds our cocoons together. Now this is all fine and dandy, but fighting the enemy (relativism) from within, according to the rules imposed by the enemy itself, usually doesn’t stand a very good of success. And the mere fact that translators (linguists) can stand with feet in different cocoons, doesn’t help the cause either. That translators are forced to be ‘liberal/charitable’ with cocoon-caused signifiers and their cocoon-bound signified when it comes to translating from one language to another is obvious. For example, when the Noble Savage witchdoctor uses the signifier “Ooga booga” to act as linguistic representation for the sense-filled lightning strike (the burn someone ‘signified’) he just witnessed, and I, as a Westerner, use the signifier “lightning” (the seek shelter ‘signified’), then a translator would surely have a very unenviable task to fulfill in finding a strand common understanding to meaningfully link our respective insular cocoons. To Lukes’ credit though, he realizes that the mere possibility of being able to recognize belief-systems in foreign cultures (cocoons) presupposes the existence of a commonly shared set of criteria through which the truth-value of statements can be determined and whereby, subsequent, conclusions can be drawn from.
It is just a pity that he never developed this insight a bit more, because if he had then he would’ve realized that the mere fact that we are actually able to recognize cross-cultural criteria of ‘rational’ processes, like in my example of occurrence, interpretation and subsequent action (evident in all cocoons), implies that there is such a thing as a universal ‘rationality’. In short; the mere fact that we can see our ‘sameness’ in their ‘otherness’, and vice versa, automatically implies that we are not as mutually isolated as cultural relativism would have us believe. Now, how is this possible, you might ask. Well, it simply has to do with the logical inconsistence that underpins old-hat Protagorean relativism. If everything is relative, then the axiom/statement itself must, to be logically consistent, be relative as well – thereby leaving everything else, except for the axiom itself, open to be non-relative. What the vast scope of this non-relative ‘everything else’ may encompass is, of course, another story, but certainly one that can never be confined to that which it cannot be relative to.
Relativism has always had the uncanny ability to question the integrity of that which we commonly understand as the ‘truth’. Protagoras limits the truth to our status as individual speakers in a world not of our making, whereas Wittgenstein limits the truth to our status as disparate linguistic ‘groups’ fated to get lost in translation whenever we attempt to actually make sense of this world we’ve been thrown into - with 1001 thesauri, but no single dictionary. Now, all being fair and equal, the skepticism of relativists are well founded. ‘Doksa’ (the opinion of the individual speaker) and the ‘language games’ of the powerful (e.g. scientism, religious fanaticism, etc) have caused their fair share of havoc in history. But to automatically rope ‘independent’ truth into the simplistic equations our perennial ignorance evokes, is simply unfair.
This reductionist thinking has emboldened many relativists so much as to actually state that there is no reality (and, by approximation, truth) ‘independent’ of our experience and, following Wittgenstein, no reality ‘independent’ of that which we capture in language. In short; the sum-total of that which our senses and language behold and describe/define, is all there is (be it ‘reality’, ‘truth’, etc.). This nonsense has been taken even one step further by Aestheticism, where the moronic idea that we create (like painters) our world has become very fashionable in our postmodern world.
Be that as it may, relativism regards the possibility of an independent knowable ‘reality’ (and, by approximation, truth) as very slim, to put it mildly. To summarize; the integrity of that which cannot be captured by our senses and expressed in language is questioned by relativism. Now, a Wittgenstein fan might immediately raise the legitimate question and ask what the ‘integrity’ of the signified ‘integrity’ (i.e. the abstract concept thereof) is. Easy; poke yourself in the eye. The signifier “Ouch” has nothing to do with the signified ‘integrity’, but if you poke yourself in the same eye again, you’ll definitely come to the conclusion that there is something abstract like ‘integrity’ – in this case, the integrity of physical pain. The same could be said for all other abstract concepts that have, unfortunately, been forced to placate the fuzzy whims of experience and Wittgenstein’s signifiers. Another example, it’s fashionable to say there is no love, only proof of love. That this is ridiculous is painfully evident when the absence of love reminds your loneliness – as one who has never experienced love before - of its existence. And no amount of seeing (experiencing) others having fun, or reading romantic novels (i.e. abstract love ‘captured’ in language) can ever fill that void, which can only be filled when the ‘independent’ reality of love comes knocking on your door. To summarize; the innate integrity of the signified, with its independence anchored in independent reality, will never be compromised by the relativism perennially engendered by experience and the language we use to describe it.
Now this is all fine and dandy, but how do we, in the final instance, know that there is an independent ‘reality’ (and, by approximation, truth)? Easy; the fact that we die proves it. One can safely assume that one individual’s existentialist ‘self’ and his/her personal ‘world’ of reality, truth, etc., has the same being as that of his/her neighbor. Now, when I die, my existentialist self and my personal ‘world’ die – no dispute there. But when my neighbor dies, the world goes on as before – mine and yours (not his/hers, of course, RIP). This automatically implies that the ‘ultimate’ existence of reality is independent of the temporal being of the beholder, be it all the experiences and all the language games of the individual, the group, civilization or, heaven behold, the species. It suffices to say that we can safely assume that even if a gigantic meteor wipes out all of us, that the Rover explorer on Mars will continue to be (i.e. exist) – as will the name ‘Rover’ written on its side (and all the experience and signifiers that brought it into being) In short; ultimately, we neither determine nor create ‘ultimate’ independent reality, we can only approximate its truth as accurately as possible.
So much for relativism in general; back to the West’s unrelenting worship of the Noble Savage, as demanded by the cultural relativism of its one-sided multi-culturalism. Even if we discard my above critique of relativism in general, we’ll still find ample ‘scientific’ reasons to discard the notion that ‘we’, as various cultures, live in completely different worlds, as Boas and Winch would have us believe. Even just a basic understanding of Darwin will illustrate that life expands, and that any theories based on a static model of existence are doomed to fail. So, even if ‘we’, the various cultures, actually did live in completely different worlds, then the mere fact that ever-expanding life/existence would’ve brought (and did bring) us into contact with each other some or other time, implies that we share a common fate in an independent world ‘outside’ of our insular little ‘cocoons’. In all fairness to Boas and Winch, their static view of existence is inevitable, seeing that if everything is relative, it must be so forever. In other words, in their case, these independent cocoons must exist in isolation for all eternity. That Darwin’s expanding life makes such a preposition ridiculous, is therefore obvious.
Sticking to Darwin, and other scientific facts; the principle of entropy holds, by approximation, that any disorder in a closed system (remember that ‘God is dead’, ‘there is nothing outside the text’, etc) will inevitably affect (spread to) the whole system. Seeing that ‘our’ (humanity’s) original disorder, i.e. ‘we’ all need natural resources to survive – in a ‘closed’ world (sysyem) in which their availability is limited – was always bound to affect the whole system, makes the notion of independently existing a-historical insular cultural worlds (cocoons) even more absurd. In short; we were bound to get ‘inside’ each other’s cocoons – whether we like it or not. And one only has to look at the inevitable cultural exchanges (be it linguistic, scientific, etc.) and adaptive measures (on the part of weaker ‘cocoons’) to realize that we are definitely all sharing the same world. So much for certain relativist assumptions underpinning cultural relativism!
Which brings us back to the myth of the Noble Savage; when the inevitable clash of ‘cocoons’ occurred, some survived better than others and some perished, like the original Noble Savages on their erotic islands - ravaged by venereal disease. In all fairness to their 15-century European conquerors; viruses are also just follow their Darwinian programming to expand their ‘world/existence’ whenever and wherever possible. And it will be brutally unfair towards Westerners to hold them responsible (via White Guilt) for the, then unknown, clash of microbiological ‘cocoons’ caused by their loins. The aforementioned tragedy has, thanks to advances in science, little chance of occurring again – simply because we do have the innate ability to recognize the error of our ways. To be able to do so automatically implies progressive behaviour; something which, given the human condition 2000 years ago, needs no further explanation. Why? Well, error recognition is based, for the most part, on our innate rational ability to recognize patterns. Whether it is the EU’s recognition that Nietzsche’s ‘will to power’ or Fukuyama’s ‘need for/of recognition’ drove individuals like Hitler or Napoleon to be the authors of their socio-cultural locale’s collective discontent, or Einstein’s recognition that mass increases in proportion to an increase in speed, the fact remains that pattern recognition is fundamental to any rational understanding of the truth we so desperately try our utmost to approximate. So, when a Noble Savage in South Africa deems it necessary to kill an innocent person simply because a purely random natural phenomenon like a lightning strike occurred, then we are, as rational beings, obligated to ask if there is actually some or other universally recognizable pattern that justifies this specific course of action. Now, I’m not even going to be politically correct by trying to honour any Noble Savage belief-system by using every-day examples (and experience) to disprove this primitive nonsense. It suffices to say that no universally recognizable pattern will ever emerge when examining such despicably barbaric actions that, ultimately, only succeed in negating all the collective knowledge humanity has painfully gathered over the ages.
This immediately prompts the question which has been conspicuous by its absence throughout my lengthy and, hopefully, justifiable attack on the continued feel good propagation of the myth of the Noble Savage. What constitutes ‘more’ rational behaviour and what constitutes ‘less’ rational behaviour? Now this, obviously, depends on the way you define ‘rationality’. According to the South African philosopher Anton van Niekerk, one of the foremost experts in this field worldwide, any definition of rationality has to, at the very least, include firstly, the demand of logical consistency (i.e. it is irrational to simultaneously claim p and not-p) and secondly, the fact that an agent can be judged as being irrational when s/he acts in a way that is contradictory to his/her own interests. In his excellent book Rasionaliteit en Relativisme (HSRC Publishers, 1992), Van Niekerk, like Juergen Habermas, is relentless in his efforts to broaden our understanding of rationality by including communicative rationality - the innate character of all languages to seek and attain common understanding between speech agents. Unfortunately, the incredibly broad scope of this remarkable discourse falls outside the ambit of this article. I prefer instead to concentrate on banal ‘survivability’ as a vital aspect of any attempt to determine what is ‘more’ rational and what is ‘less’ rational. Getting back to my example of the lightning strike; both my and the Noble Savage’s actions are rational in terms of its teleological intent (i.e. actions taken to satisfy a chosen goal). However, mine differs fundamentally from his in so far as they can be defined as an instrumental action, whereas his is strategic in intent. The former denotes actions whose success can be determined by the survival chances of the agent in the natural (non-social) world, and the latter pertains to survival chances in the social world of the agent. The strategic killing of the chosen ‘witch’ (potential rivals of the tribal king, of course) by the agent (the witchdoctor) is therefore quite rational in so far as the agent secures his continued privileged survival in his group. That the supposed influence of the gods/ancestors initiated this course of action is actually quite irrelevant in the abovementioned rational process.
My instrumental action (to seek shelter) is based on the fundamental recognition of certain universal laws which, through pattern recognition, human logic, etc. has ensured that my survival chances (as a Westerner) are much higher than that of the Noble Savage, whose historical cognizance of instrumental actions, that have proven themselves to be very successful, is very limited. An example; Thabo Mbeki’s refusal to acknowledge that AIDS/HIV is caused by a virus and his Health Minister’s advice to rather eat beetroot than take anti-virals, have definitely lessened the survival chances of their affected countrymen – a 1000 of whom die per day of this dreaded disease. So, in terms of instrumental actions (as demanded by rational behaviour) I can, with absolute certainty say, that my rationality is ‘better’ than that of the Noble Savage – simply because my survival chances are greater.
In terms of strategic (social world bound rationality) actions, things are obviously a bit more complicated when trying to judge whose rationality is better, or are they really? The survival chances of the individual amid the inevitable Darwinian power struggles within a group are infinitely higher when the excesses of the aforementioned are mediated through consciously created institutions (e.g. the Rule of Law) that are not bound to the claims to power of any other individual. That this is obviously not the case in Noble Savage societies is glaringly evident. When tribal kings (like Mandela’s friend, Robert Mugabe) kill their fellow countrymen in order to survive, then their actions are strategically rational – no argument about that. But seeing that we can safely assume that the innocent person to be killed (e.g. the ‘witch’ in my example) has also been amply endowed with the normal Darwinian survival instincts, it would be irrational of her/him not to take adequate strategic actions to ensure his/her continued survival. Without stepping into the field of morality; if non-ruling Noble Savage individuals had acted rationally, according to my notion of ‘survivability’, then a sort of ‘French Revolution’ would’ve been inevitable – something sadly lacking in all Noble Savage societies. In short; in terms of strategic actions, Noble Savage rulers are rational but their followers aren’t. To summarize; Noble Savage societies are ‘less’ rational than Western societies when it comes to engendering successful ‘survivability’ through instrumental and well as strategic actions. So much for much-vaunted Noble Savage superiority!
To conclude; the West’s sentimental attachment to the myth of the Noble Savage is irrational, to say the least. This feel good creation of the West’s, sometimes very naive, idealism is but another burden foisted on him on/in his quest to rationally approximate and understand the truth about this world we’ve been thrown into. Primitive societies are simply what they are namely, primitive. It is absolutely foolish of us to look to them for any guidance in an era which has long since disproved any claim to truth they could ever conjure up. And for us to employ the banal primitiveness of the Noble Savage to act as the conscience (as we did with Mandela!) to issue guilt for the perennial ‘sins’ (e.g. over-industrialization) we inevitably commit in/our quest to find the elusive answers to the questions that have made us the most progressive people on the planet, is even more idiotic. In short; the Noble Savage is dead!
That there are ‘ultimate/final’ truths must be abundantly clear by now, and no amount of cowardly relativism will ever succeed in permanently misleading us into believing that that which we are yet not absolutely certain about is but a figment of our mortal imagination. We have been endowed with all the faculties (e.g. rationality) it takes to make sense and find meaning in a world we are, ultimately, not the authors of. And it is precisely those faculties that have impregnated history again; ready to foster the future the West must now bear…in order for the Truth to be.
Source: The Conservative Voice
More articles by this author: http://brenner.dienuwesuidafrika.com