Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Ignoratio Elenchi (1636-1710)

As this year marks the 300th anniversary of his death, now seems as inappropriate time as any to remind us of one of the long-forgotten dead white males who gives being a dead white male the reputation it deserves.

Who was he?
Ignoratio Elenchi was an Italian rationalist, empiricist, and skeptic, and the primary inspiration for the earliest modern anti-humanists. Hegel cited him as one of the thinkers that it's most important for philosophers to overlook; Marx reserved his harshest words on Hegel to a savage critique of that understatement. Nietzsche wrote an entire sentence about him, the famous exclamation, “Ignoratio Elenchi is dead!” (Apparently Nietzsche was speaking at a ceremony celebrating the 179th anniversary of Elenchi’s death.) In 1982, the American Philosophical Association did Elenchi the unique honor of naming one of the most bone-headed logical fallacies after him.

His life
Elenchi was born in a village just outside Rome better known for its production of manure than for that of philosophers. He didn’t get beyond second-grade in his formal education, and even that achievement, Spinoza speculated in a letter to Descartes, was probably only due to grade inflation. Nevertheless he achieved some early notoriety for a series of letters he wrote protesting the government’s provision of housing and food for disabled orphans, arguing that they would never learn to fend for themselves if their basic needs were taken care of for them. (Lost for centuries, these letters only recently resurfaced in the bedside drawer of former U. S. President George W. Bush.) Elenchi’s lack of education prevented him from obtaining an academic position, and so he supported himself by working in his village’s main industry. Hume wryly observed a century later, in a long essay on Elenchi’s legendary personality disorder, that “the keenest eye could scarce discern where ‘tis, exactly, that Elenchi’s remunerative work leaves off, and his intellectual work, as such, commences.” The final years of Elenchi’s life saw him in a bitter dispute with Leibniz, instigated when Leibniz claimed to have stolen the idea of the calculus not from Elenchi but from Newton, upon which Elenchi grabbed Leibniz’s wig right from the great man’s head and tossed it out the window, exclaiming “I refute you thus!” (Leibniz recounted the affair in an interview years later, conceding that Elenchi’s refutation was probably devastating, if only anybody could figure out what the hell he was talking about.) Elenchi died in a village just outside Rome better known for its disposal of disagreeable wastes than for that of philosophers. The precise cause of death was unknown, but Feuerbach, in an early 19th century journal entry, speculated that Elenchi’s might have been the only credible case of death due to a self-inflicted sexually transmitted disease.

His work
Elenchi wrote prolifically, mostly angry letters he sent to all the leading intellectuals of his day. These were collected and published posthumously, in a volume entitled The Prosecution’s Case Against Ignoratio Elenchi. Many had a similar structure. Elenchi would begin by praising the thinker’s work, noting that he himself had been thinking along similar lines; he’d then suggest that, perhaps, the thinker in question was familiar with Elenchi’s own work; he’d then accuse the thinker of stealing his work; and then wrap up by asking to borrow some money. In fact Elenchi adopted for his own some of the most famous doctrines of his day: Cartesian dualism, Malebranchian occasionalism, Leibnizian theodicy, and so on. Nevertheless he did develop at least one original doctrine, his idiosyncratic version of pantheism -- according to which God was, quite literally, a particular kind of iron skillet. This doctrine remains alive and well to this very day in the recently founded religion “Pastafarianism,” which acknowledges that there could have been no Flying Spaghetti Monster to create the cosmos if there had been no prior divine vessel in which He was prepared.