Paleontology and Philosophy

Are they really that different? It’s all about context.

Paleontology and Philosophy

Are they really that different? It’s all about context.

Consider the word barbarós. As some of you may know, this is the word that ancient Greeks used to refer to non-Greek people. What you may not know is that the origin of the word lies in onomatopoeia.

According to records, it’s based on the fact that, most of the time, when an ancient Greek heard a non-Greek speaking person they couldn’t understand any words or sentences. All they heard were  sounds that went something like bar bar bar. So, we could say that at least initially the word barbarós might’ve meant something like the one who does not speak Greek.

Eventually, however, since the Greeks held themselves as being much better at almost everything in comparison to the non-Greeks, the word barbarós acquired some negative connotations. In English, we have a word stemming from the same background: barbarian.

If you saw paleontologists during the height of the Great Dinosaur Rush, you might well end up calling them barbarós. Such was the crazed competition that people would dynamite ancient fossil sites once they were done, rather than give others a chance to get their hands on some of the loot. Because they’d all become competitors: each trying to collect the most fossils, or assemble the most complete skeleton, or uncover the next great discovery in dinosaur science.

The Great Dinosaur Rush was mainly the product of a rivalry between two paleontologists, Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh. They both went bankrupt in the process of trying to outdo each other, but they also ended up contributing substantially to the field — in fact, they collected so many fossils that many unopened boxes remained even after their deaths.

Fossils and skeletons are what most people think of when they hear the word ‘paleontology’, perhaps because it’s the most visible product we’re exposed to. (In fact, another name for the Great Dinosaur Rush is the “Bone Wars”). Paleontology is, however, quite a bit more advanced.

If you were a philosopher, you might say that fossils are to paleontology what words and artefacts are to philosophy. They’re a starting point of sorts, to be sure: you can look at them and get some idea of what the original creatures looked like. You can also show them to the general public and say, “Here. This is what I found”.

But a fossil alone doesn’t tell the whole story.

Where did an animal come from? What kind of habitat did it live in? What were the other creatures that lived along with it? And how long ago? Paleontologists look not just at the bones but also at the surrounding soil, rock, and whatever else is available. A lot of their time is spent painstakingly digging out fragile bones, but even more work goes into trying to reconstruct who those bones were and how they lived. And it’s not just for animals: there are branches of paleontology that deal with plants, or spores, or even just tracks and footprints left behind from long ago.

On the other hand, if you’re dealing more with words and ideas — that’s probably philosophy.

One could say that concepts are, to a certain extent, like people: they all have a history. They are born at some point in time, then develop through a sort of dynamic between acquiring new meanings and losing some others. In some cases, they also die — that is, the concept is lost. Usually, this can happen because the community wherein the concept originated stopped to exist, or because people simply stopped using it.

Of course, saying that “some people simply stop using a concept” makes it sound very simple: actually, the reasons behind such an event can be quite complex and various.

One thing to keep in mind is that concepts do not, properly speaking, exist on their own. Concepts are usually wrapped up by names, and it is thanks to these names that we can manipulate them. Without names, it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to work with concepts, and the two go hand in hand. Consider what author Allan Milne Lees once noted:

When planning to place a probe into orbit around another planet in our solar system, it’s no good saying “Jupiter is a really long way away.” Orbital mechanics requires precision. We must know where Jupiter is in relation to us right now, and where it will be at some point in the future when our probe eventually reaches it. We need to define the planet’s gravity well and the way gravity attenuates as the square of distance. We must understand precisely how many kilograms of material will be needed to provide how many newtons of thrust. We must be able to calculate parabolas and a great many other functions. Words will not help us, and so we use mathematics.

We could talk about digging up bones and analysing fossils, but without the word “paleontology” we couldn’t really capture what it is to be a paleontologist. Now, we can gradually add bits and pieces to the definition until we hash out the whole picture.

That being said, it is also important to bear in mind that names — or words, if you will — bring with them an emotional charge. “Barbarian” and “foreigner” technically mean the same thing, but are emotionally very different (unless you happen to be a xenophobe).

Every word, then, brings with it both a concept and a sort of emotional content. Now, what happens when we study the concepts developed by communities that don’t exist anymore? Can we reach the names and emotional contents that were fixed with them?

A barbarós, we know, meant someone non-Greek and was usually associated with some negative connotations. Thus, we have a concept and its definition. But have we reached a proper explanation of this concept? My answer is no.

Since the community where this word and its corresponding concept was used and manipulated is gone, we cannot really know for sure how it felt to utter it — just as we can’t know for sure how ancient plants and animals behaved and looked when they inhabited the planet.

Certainly, we can go and check some books related to the term barbarós, and, in doing so, gain a better understanding about what kind of negative associations were ascribed to the word. But unless we know how it felt, we cannot reach a proper understanding of it. Unless you belong to the language community where a concept exists, you might never be able to fully get it — for to be in the possession of a concept implies more than merely knowing its meaning. You need to experience the nuances that the concept brings with it; the feelings and images that it suggests.

Most animals, once taken to a new habitat that is not their own, stop letting us know their real nature. Even if we bring dinosaurs back to life, we will never find out how exactly they lived — and the same happens with concepts in relationship to their proper language communities. Once you take them to a different language context, they stop expressing themselves as they did in their proper language community. As people say, a fish can only be a fish in water.

The problem is that, in order to have access to such understanding, we would need to go back to the times when the ancient Greeks lived in order to feel as they felt. By having access to their world and language, we could experience not only the dry explanations of the concepts used in those times, but also the kind of feelings and images those concepts prompted in the heads of the speakers.

This kind of philosophical digging isn’t restricted to ancient phrases like barbarós. One can find many terms which are actually used today by certain communities, that are difficult for outsiders to understand or translate.

The term Ba denotes an interesting philosophical Japanese concept, used in many Japanese industries today under the framework of the “economy of knowledge”. There are whole books about this term in relationship to its meaning, and how it can be applied in all sorts of different businesses. However, once you delve into these books, one thing you rapidly find out is that there’s no exact equivalent in English.

Ba means many different aspects regarding knowledge. On one hand, it can be said to be the space where knowledge is created, but at the same time it is the space where knowledge can be shared and transferred. Where is this space of knowledge that Ba enables? In a way, nowhere! It is neither something concrete, nor something merely abstract. Ba is a sort of dynamic dimension where the people that work in knowledge management flow.

So, as many authors on this term say, unless you speak Japanese and understand the culture of the Japanese people, it is hardly easy to fully grasp its meaning. Some even go so far as to say that, once you’ve learned the culture and language of Japanese people, you might still be not quite capable of managing the concept of Ba.

In a way, philosophers are not so different than paleontologists. They both must unearth certain objects of the past. Whilst in the case of the paleontologist the objects are usually fossils, philosophers work at unearthing concepts. And in both cases, they can end up spending a great amount of time in trying to uncover the real aspect of the object discovered.

As in the case of the fossils, the study and understanding of some ancient philosophical concepts can take sometimes years. However, no matter how hard they study their proper objects of interest, they will never be able to see those objects in flesh and blood. Dinosaurs will never come back no matter how hard we study their bones. And even if eventually we get to sort of reconstruct one using some sort of genetic engineering, we will still be missing out a lot of stuff, like their general behaviour, distribution of skin, and colour of feathers (if they had feathers).

The same can be said, in a similar vein, about ancient concepts. We can understand their meanings to a certain extent, through some definitions and explanations found in texts, but in order to ultimately fully understand their meanings, we would need to see these concepts used and manipulated by the communities where they first appeared. And if the language-communities where these concepts subsisted are gone, such “flesh and blood manifestations” are no longer possible either.

All a philosopher can do is to study the remaining “conceptual fossils” that are scattered all over the texts that ancient authors have left for us.