Things in our philosophies

Dürer study of hands with codex

Ronald H Fritze Invented Knowledge:
False History, Fake Science and Pseudo-religions

Reaktion Books 2011

Are there more things in
our philosophies than in
heaven, Horatio…?

I read a first-hand account by a reputable historian who was appalled by a comment he heard after watching the film of The Da Vinci Code: “It makes you think, doesn’t it?” He wanted to scream, that such banale make-believe based on allegations of ‘hidden’ history concocted by conspiracy theorists should be given any credence or even entertained. The many case-histories presented in Invented Knowledge may well induce similar paroxysms in rationalists, and could well warrant a health warning on the cover.

This is a study of examples of pseudohistory or ‘false’ history that have emerged or re-emerged in recent years, told particularly from a North American viewpoint (the author is Professor of History at Athens State University in Alabama, and currently Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences). In seven chapters (plus an introduction) it covers the development of the Atlantis myth, invented narratives of the peopling of the American continent, contrasting racist cosmogonies evolved from ‘white’ and ‘black’ perspectives, catastrophe scenarios and maverick academic theories as illustrated by the Black Athena controversy. Fritze covers a lot of ground and raises a number of issues, all backed up by plentiful references and a select bibliography. The text is easy to read (despite a handful of typos) and makes its several points cumulatively though occasionally with some repetition.

The chosen topics in Invented Knowledge deal substantively with answers to the questions Who? What? When? Where?, and that is fascinating enough; but I equally would have liked more on answers addressing How? and Why? To be sure, Fritze does treat with these at times: for example, he quotes L Sprague de Camp on why the concept of Atlantis might provide “mystery and romance for those who don’t find ordinary history exciting enough”, and his analysis of the eager reception of the invented histories for followers of Christian Identity, the Nation of Islam and Afrocentrism touches on the social, economic, cultural and personal imperatives that drove individuals and groups to espouse invented narratives that gave a sense of identity and purpose to their lives.

However, the thrust of what he outlines comes across as an easy dig at ignorance and irrationality, and the lack of a final chapter on conclusions means the reader is left in a kind of limbo. Favourable reviews quoted on the back cover provide value-judgements on the beliefs that Fritze parades: folly … crackpot … claptrap … nonsense. Much more useful would have been suggestions as to how to effectively counter sincerely-held and often dangerous beliefs rather than merely holding them up to ridicule. And I also wonder why he stopped short of pointing out the fallacies inherent in more established religions, as some of these are as worthy of critical comment as beliefs in aliens in UFOs impregnating humans, advanced technologies in ancient civilisations and comets turning into planets.

So, it’s easy to laugh at or be appalled by these largely irrational beliefs, but we miss the deeper discussion following the fact-checking. But perhaps the good professor is waiting to publish those separately — or maybe he already has. But we have to beware the siren call that echoes Hamlet’s observation “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, | Than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” for dreamers are often apt to mistake their own dreams for empirical facts or rational philosophising.

Revised version of review first published in May 2012


8 thoughts on “Things in our philosophies

  1. Interesting post, and I like your comment re an easy dig at ignorance and irrationality, and certainly begs the question as to why no conclusions, no deeper discussion… I might have to search this book out!

  2. Very good point about questioning irrationality in one sphere but ignoring the obvious in another. Given how intertwined science and religion were, especially in its infancy, it does seem a conscious decision to avoid rather than confront.

    1. I agree, Dylan, especially given some of the cult beliefs he discusses. Perhaps he thought we readers would extrapolate for ourselves, but that seems a rather timid academic approach.

  3. Often holding something up to convincing ridicule presupposes a certain mindset, without which the ridicule fails. Of course, stories of space invasions, conspiracy theories and the like are more credible and have better documentation than the vast majority of religious myths. (Which religions are based on myths? All.)
    The siren call of the ‘more things in philosophy’ is counterbalanced by the swing to utter disbelief in any phenomenon of a random nature not responding to scientific method. If things happen often enough some of the time, they deserve serious consideration.

    1. Myths have that curious mix of truths, half truths and fantasy that encourages belief because of the possibility that there just might be “something in it”. As ever, Col, you’ve put your finger on considerations of a crucial nature.

  4. I am with you. The why is very important. It leads to some understanding of the the people who hold these myths do dearly. Once we understand the why, we are better armed to deal with the ignorance or at least come to some terms with the pervasiveness of ignorance.

    1. A question of “know your enemy” perhaps? Or rather a route to finding common ground on which to find agreement and admit to human fallibility: jaw-jaw instead of war-war? It’s difficult though to have a reasonable discussion with those who have hardened their hearts

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