It is said that Chryssipus the Stoic held that there were, for all problems, true solutions. But he also held that at times, we can’t see them – and those times called for a morally disciplined silence. It is in this spirit he approached the paradox of the heap – the sorites. The paradox is as follows: if we construct a heap from seeds, say, we can, by adding seeds successively, reach a point where we might say that we have a heap, and identify that with the number of seeds we have used – say, 200. And yet, when we subtract one seed, we are disinclined to say that we no longer have a heap. Given that fact, we might play the game by claiming that we haven’t reached a heap no matter how many seeds we use in order to avoid identifying the heap with a certain number of seeds – but then, paradoxically, we will never achieve a heap. In fact, we don’t really seem to be able to quantify a thing like a heap; neither do we want to say that the heap is a quality when clearly it can be analyzed into its separate parts. To borrow a term from contemporary logic, there is no “heapmaker” – so how can there be a heap? Chryssipus, according to Sextus Empiricus, recommended that “when the Sorites is being propounded one should, while the argument is proceeding, stop and suspend judgement to avoid falling into absurdity.” Analytic philosophers, such as Mario Magnucci, who wrote a seminal paper on the stoic response to the sorites, have attempted to incorporate Chryssipus’s response into standard Western logic. To me, the stoic response is closer to the notion of Mu in Rinzai Zen. The famous Mu Koan goes like this: a disciple of Zhaozhou, a Chinese zen master, asked him if a dog has the Buddha nature. Zhaouzhou answered Wu – Mu in Japanese – which means no, empty, vacant, and – it is said – applies in different ways to the question: that there is no dog, that there is no Buddha nature, that the dog does not have Buddha nature, and so on. In other words, the answer is meant to break the mental habit of thinking that the way of assembly – where distinct parts are put together – and the way of disassembly, where distinct parts are separated, are grounded in the real. Indetermination is neither a fact of the real nor not a fact of the real.
Too often, disputes among historians about the rise or decline of some historical property fail to acknowledge that rise and fall are sorites. Hence, arguments become very vicious about what the risemakers or the fall-makers are, and when they occur. Accepting that historical narratives have a sorites paradox at their center helps us clarify the half-fictitious natur e of the business. Even if one doesn’t stop and fall silent, like Chryssipus, one has to accept the possibility that finally, withdrawal is the correct response.
Which is an elaborate detour on the way to approaching the vexed question of the “rise of capitalism” in Western Europe, which basically means England and France, in the eighteenth century. Of course,Great Britain and France were mainly agricultural –as was the US until 1900. But the question is not just about the rise of industrialism, but the monetarization of agriculture and the emergence of a market system – and the emergence of a “spirit” of capitalism.
That spirit has been poked and probed since, well, the eighteenth century itself. One aspect of it seems to me to be a little less sore from the prodding: the re-evaluation of competition.
In James Steaurt’s Inquiry into the Principles of Political Economy (1767), there’s an interesting footnote that briefly outlines a counterfactual history stemming from the hypothesis that the Fall neveer took place.
“Hence I conclude, that had the fall never taken place,the pursuits of man would have been totally different from
what they are at present. Mayl be allowed to suppose, that in such a happy state, he might have been endowed with a faculty of transmitting his most complex ideas with the same perspicuity with which we now transmit those relating to geometry, numbers, colors, &c. From this I infer, there would have been no difference of sentiment, no dispute, no competition between man and man. The progress in acquiring useful knowledge, the pleasure of communicating discoveries , would alone have provided a fond of happiness, as inexhaustible as knowledge itself.”
The joke in making paradise into the Isle of Laputa was no longer funny fifty years after Swift to the moral philosophers of the Scottish school – nor, in fact, to the whole tribe of improving theoreticians who Burke attacks in the Reflections.