(A group of student leaders on campus at Wabash organize a weekly talk by a member of the Wabash community. This is a transcript of the talk I gave this morning.)
As a philosopher, one thing I like to think about is how our ideas about the world affect the way we live in the world. Today I want to talk about how our ways of thinking about how things are variously affect the ability of different people from different groups to thrive. I want to talk specifically about how we use the concept of “natural” to describe the ways we experience the world. We tend to describe things as natural, as “just being that way,” as the way things just happen to be with no input or interference from human beings, when we are unaware of the history of how they came to be that way. That move whereby what was formed for political and social reasons appears as natural is what we call ideology.
As a philosopher, I want to own some responsibility for this, since, as Nietzsche says, “Lack of a historical sense is the original error of all philosophers.”
To correct this error, I want to first back up a little bit and think historically about how the turn to nature has been used as a justification for ways of organizing the world. Leo Strauss explains the historical turn to a concept of nature as a turn to philosophizing. As he puts it, as long as everyone seems to do what you do, you do not prompt the question, is that right? It’s right because it seems like the only way. It is right because it has always been done that way. It is right because it is what everyone you know does. But when you leave your people and you encounter other people who do things differently, you begin to ask whether what your people do is right. Like when you are a kid like I was in a big family where we always sat down together for dinner every night and you think every family sits down for dinner every night until you go to your friends’ house and they have dinner in front of the television and you go home and ask why you have to eat dinner together and your mother tells you it’s because you don’t have a television. Not having a television also seemed right because it was what my family did. Like taking vacations in the mountains instead of at the beach. Read more
I came across mention of Silvia Federici’s Caliban and the Witch in Adam Kotsko’s The Prince of this World, and was taken with the notion that the character of the devil and the character of the witch can be understood through a genealogical method that shows how these characters were invoked, who was empowered by them, who invoked them and who was accused of these things. The question for Federici (as for Kotsko) is not was this person really a witch or a devil, but how did accusing someone of being a witch achieve certain ends in certain contexts? Federici argues that the accusation of being a witch was used to strip women of power during the transition to capitalism from feudalism, a process which was necessary for the success of capitalism.
Against the view that the persecution of witches was the last gasp of the superstition that accompanied feudalism, Federici argues that the charge of witchcraft was used to limit women’s power and to control the reproduction of labor so necessary for the success of capitalism. This persecution involved a steady indoctrination of the threat of witches and the characteristics of witches, a process which produced the notion of the strong independent woman as a supernatural threatening force antagonistic to the interests of even working class men. Federici argues that the targets of witchcraft were not crimes but previously accepted practices and individuals that needed to be eliminated for capitalism to become possible and to thrive. Evidence of this is that those who were accused were poor peasant women and those who accused them were wealthy members of the community, often their employers or their landlords.