I’ve just been reading the popular neurologist Oliver Sacks‘s piece “An Anthropologist on Mars,” from the book of the same name. It’s a short biography of Temple Grandin, a woman whose life was recently made into a movie. Grandin, an animal researcher, has Asperger’s syndrome or “high-functioning autism”; she understands science, and animals, much better than she understands the social interactions of her fellow human beings.
People describing Grandin often reach first for words like “extraordinary,” “fascinating,” “remarkable.” These are not the words that come to my mind. I say this not because I find her accomplishments limited – they are major – but because I find her story very familiar. I don’t know if I would be diagnosed with Asperger’s myself; but I do know that Asperger’s is part of a spectrum, with full-blown autism on one end. At the other end, I think, one finds the behaviour of typical science-fiction geeks and absent-minded professors, in whose company I unquestionably fall.
The central features of Asperger’s syndrome are a difficulty with social cues and a narrowness of interest; one falls far outside the normal realms of human interest and interaction. (My interests are almost opposite Grandin’s, yet this makes me sympathize with her more. Where Grandin has been obsessed with animals since her youth, my mother recalls that I was the only child to be completely uninterested when a bunny rabbit was brought into our classroom.) The subtle interplay and social niceties that come so naturally to most people, must be learned deliberately and consciously, as one learns mathematics – and learning these is often far more difficult than learning math.
There are a number of philosophical implications that the diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome might have. In today’s post, I want to focus on its implications for the history of philosophy.
I’ve recently been noticing a repeated pattern in Indo-European philosophy: one great philosopher posits a realm of pure reason, absolute abstraction, an abstract Good set above and beyond the particulars of the everyday world; and then that abstract philosopher gains a disciple (whether known personally or hundreds of years later) who takes the first philosopher’s abstract ideas and embeds a modified version of them in the concrete everyday world. The first philosopher is to some extent an Ascent thinker, trying to transcend the material and social world, and the second is more of a Descender, trying to embrace it.
The classic version of this pattern is in Plato and Aristotle. Raphael’s The School of Athens immortalizes their differences – Plato pointing up vertically to a transcendent world of Ideas and Aristotle emphasizing the horizontal world of matter – but Aristotle nevertheless embraces much of Plato’s worldview, agreeing the Ideas exist but situating them in matter instead of in their own outer realm.
I see at least three places the pattern repeats itself. In Christianity, Augustine points to a transcendent God, sublime in infinite majesty compared to a world of darkly fallen, sinful humans, hoping that through God’s grace we can ascend to something better than our worldly fallen state. Much later, Thomas Aquinas works God much more deeply into the world of human interaction, seeing it as the working out of God-given natural laws. Here the repeated pattern is explicit, with Augustine drawing deeply from Plato and Aquinas from Aristotle.
No such influence is present in Vedāntic India. Yet I think the same pattern appears. Śaṅkara, clearly influenced by Buddhists, sees the world as full of suffering and produced by ignorance, and advises us to transcend it to realize our nature as a single entity of pure knowledge and consciousness. Then Rāmānuja draws on Śaṅkara’s account of cosmic oneness, but sees it as manifested in the physical world.
Finally, one can see a similar pattern among the great thinkers of modern Germany. Consciously attempting to move away from the supernatural transcendent worlds proposed by Plato and Augustine, Kant nevertheless identifies a realm of pure reason that would exist even in the absence of anything concrete; and tells us our moral goodness lies in following this reason, as opposed to the natural inclinations of the physical and social world. Soon enough, Hegel tries to take Kant’s pure reason and show how it underlies the physical and social world of desire and inclination. (An acquaintance once proposed to me the analogy “Kant is to Hegel as Plato is to Aristotle”; I would now add “as Augustine is to Aquinas as Śaṅkara is to Rāmānuja.”)
So to return to the earlier concerns of the post, I can’t help but wonder whether the first philosopher in each pairing had Asperger’s syndrome, while the second did not (or had it more mildly). I imagine that the same sense of being outside the normal world, which drove Temple Grandin’s animal research, also drove Plato and Augustine and Śaṅkara and Kant – but then in each case someone more normal and well-adjusted then sat down and tried to adapt their theories so they could fit into the everyday world. This seems to be confirmed in the case of Kant and Hegel, where we have the most reliable information about their personal lives. Kant never married, and was said to have been so obsessive about punctuality that the citizens of Königsberg set their clocks by his daily walk; Hegel, meanwhile, had a wife and children and seemed to live a relatively normal personal life by the standards of nineteenth-century Prussia.
I seem to recall Graham Harman noting a while back (I can’t find the reference) that most great philosophers today begin by making an extreme and exaggerated claim that draws attention, and then gradually pull back to a more moderate position. I wonder if the same thing may occur interpersonally: a weird outsider with an autism-spectrum disorder is needed to get the philosophical world to pay attention and shake things up, and then someone more socially well adjusted is required to give those theories wider acceptance. Grandin suggests that Asperger’s may be one of the world’s great wellsprings of creativity: “if the genes that caused these conditions were eliminated there might be a terrible price to pay. It is possible that persons with bits of these traits are more creative, or possibly even geniuses…. If science eliminated these genes, maybe the whole world would be taken over by accountants.” (quoted in Sacks 292) Perhaps one needs a maladjusted, socially inept genius to create a great idea and then an “accountant” to make it stick. (Sacks’s piece mentions Wittgenstein as someone who might have had Asperger’s, and there is a certain transcendent aspiration in some of his work; it may have been the whole 20th-century school of analytic philosophy that brought his work down to earth.)
At least, that seems like it may be the Indo-European pattern. I don’t see anything parallel in East Asia, perhaps because East Asian thought has so much stronger of an intimacy orientation. (At the SACP two years ago, I said to an East Asianist colleague that I thought explicit argument and disagreement were essential to the progress of philosophy. He said he thought that I was being Eurocentric; when I noted how much explicit argument there is in India, he modified it to “Indo-Eurocentric.”) For better or for worse, people with Asperger’s tendencies seem to have found much less of a home in East Asian thought. Perhaps that should be no surprise: after all, Aspergians make terrible Confucians. A philosophical climate that stresses etiquette and social relationships is about as uncongenial an environment as can be imagined for someone like Temple Grandin. The thought of such a person might have had a much harder time getting a foothold there.