Philosophers in the City

In his Nuova Scienza (1710), Giambattista Vico writes, "First the woods, then cultivated fields and huts, next little houses and villages, thence cities, finally academies and philosophers: this is the order of all progress from the first origins." Philosophers haven't ventured out of the city since Vico's day, according to Justin E. H. Smith. The city was the locus of reason and the universal. Outside the city gates there was nothing but myth and "the logic of the concrete" (Lévi-Strauss), the domains of anthropology and the German Romantics.

Philosophy is dying, Smith argues, because it's too urban. Philosophers have been proffering phony universals, leaving out "the full efflorescence of the Geisteswissenschaften." Philosophy's main allies, the empirical social sciences such as sociology and psychology, share philosophy's myopic focus on urbanites, limiting the range of human experience that attains the status of reason. Smith says philosophers' "metropolitan prejudice occludes from view many extremely valuable insights about the nature and formation of moral commitments to animals, to the environment, to ancestors. It ensures that we will only see a small part of the range of human experience and self-understanding."

A lot of people have argued that philosophy will die unless it can include more of X, with X being anything from women in the developing world to big data. Philosophy has also been flummoxed by the prolixity of the city. Rarely has philosophy had much to say about cities themselves. 

Yet Smith is on to something in his remarks on the urban bias of philosophy and other institutional modes of thought. They are like Sherlock Holmes gazing out the window of a train passing a country village. “It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.” 

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