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demarcation is not in practice a sharp one (no sharper than the expression
“conveying a sense of”), and may invite controversy: to take a case here

4 Williams (2002), pp. 31“32.
Genealogies and the State of Nature

very much in point, I would say “ but expecting some to disagree “ that
chapter 7 of Williams™ Truth and Truthfulness, on the conception of time
¬rst in Herodotus and then in Thucydides, was genealogical as well as
historical, since it tells us why the later conception was sure to appear, given
the situation created by the earlier one; whereas the historical material of
chapters 5 (esp. §5) and 8, although fascinating in itself, was in the terms of
this distinction historical only.5
Should we also distinguish between genealogies and state-of-nature
stories? I think we should. I have been using “genealogy” very broadly,
allowing it to include even the detailing of the causal processes, perhaps
lasting only a fraction of a second, that lead to a belief. But even on a much
narrower usage there seems to be a point in keeping the two expressions
separate. If we take the normal meanings of the words as our starting point,
we would expect state-of-nature theories to begin by considering condi-
tions as they are supposed (by the theory itself) to have been in some very
early stage of human existence and association, a state characterized only
in terms of factors to which any human society must at one time have been
subject. So famous a genealogy as Nietzsche™s The Genealogy of Morality,
beginning as it does from a position in which there is a ruling class and a
subject class, and a ruling class with a quite speci¬c behavioural code and
speci¬c attitudes towards its subjects, is hardly a state-of-nature theory thus
understood; most of Foucault™s projects certainly aren™t, for the same kind
of reason. By contrast, Hobbes™ equally famous account of the origins of
government could well be a state-of-nature theory, at least in intention;
and so (if I may intrude myself on this company, taking shameless advan-
tage of the kindly helping hand from Williams) could my own construction
of the concept of knowledge in Knowledge and the State of Nature.6 What the
words themselves suggest, to put it roughly, is that state-of-nature theories
are those genealogies which start from human prehistory. But we shall soon
see that this is not the only way to look at things, and may not be the best.
What is the status of genealogies, including state-of-nature stories? I
implied earlier that they might be factual, imaginary, or conjectural, and in
doing so I was taking my cue from Williams:

A genealogy is a narrative that tries to explain a cultural phenomenon by
describing a way in which it came about, or could have come about, or
might be imagined to have come about.7

5 Williams (2002).
6 Williams (2002), p. 31 ff; Craig (1990).
7 Williams (2002), p. 20.
186 Edward Craig

But is that really so, and in any case what do these terms mean? If “imag-
inary” really does mean imaginary, in the sense of just made up, a piece of
¬ction, then there are going to be awkward questions about how a ¬cti-
tious history can either explain anything or lay claim to affect our attitudes
toward it. As Williams says, now thinking of state-of-nature theories as
being ¬ctional genealogies, “It is a good question, how a ¬ctional narrative
can explain anything.”8 One might well think that a genealogy could do
that only if it was, or at least purported to be, true, and was received as true
by its audience.
In some cases this seems clear, almost obvious. Suppose Nietzsche had
added a brief appendix to the Genealogie der Moral saying that his apparent
history was not intended to be factual, that he was not claiming that things
really happened that way. No, he was only telling a story, imaginatively
supplying a ¬ctitious past for the actual present; the only sense in which
he wanted to claim truth for it was that of psychological plausibility, the
sense in which a novelist might want to claim truth: in the situations in
which he ¬ctionally placed them, human beings might very well act much
as he described his characters as acting. Wouldn™t the devouter section of his
readership feel relieved? They can now regard Nietzsche™s narrative as an
ingenious piece powered by a dark, even misanthropic imagination “ whilst
continuing to think of morality as having whatever prestigious pedigree they
were previously inclined to ascribe to it: it began when God communicated
with humanity through prophets, or when men ¬rst encountered and read
the eternal Vedas, or whatever. The more scrupulously honest among them
might feel that now, since Nietzsche™s imaginary genealogy had shown that
it could have originated in another way, it would take just a little more
weight of evidence to be quite sure that really it originated as they had
previously thought “ for whatever the subject matter the appearance of
a new hypothesis that isn™t obviously absurd puts a little more epistemic
pressure on the old, familiar incumbent. But beyond that, no change of
action or attitude, just moral business as usual. Likewise, no believer need
shift their position as a result of accepting that Hume™s account of the origins
of religious belief could have been true, so long as they remain convinced
that it isn™t.9

8 Williams (2002), p. 21.
9 Strictly speaking, that does depend on just what the believer™s position was. A system of
religious beliefs may include beliefs about man and human psychology, or about the kind of
thing the deity would allow to happen, in which case acceptance of a genealogy as merely
possible, in the sense in which the plot of a good novel is possible, might indeed con¬‚ict
with them.
Genealogies and the State of Nature

Nietzsche™s essay pretty clearly claims to be real, if sketchy, history;
it has already been remarked that it is some way from being a paradigm
instance of the state-of-nature method. Hume™s The Natural History of Reli-
gion undoubtedly claims to be real history (witness, for instance, the ¬rst
couple of paragraphs), but when we ask whether it is to be classi¬ed as
state-of-nature theory the answer is mixed. In his chapters 2 (“Origin of
Polytheism”) and 3 (“The Same Subject Continued”) he is at times thinking
of conditions in which there are kingdoms and nations well enough orga-
nized to be capable of ¬ghting wars; at other times he writes of events that
could and would be experienced in a far less complex and developed soci-
ety. People go in for elementary observation of nature and causal thinking
about it:

Storms and tempests ruin what is nourished by the sun. The sun destroys
what is fostered by the moisture of dews and rains.
We hang in perpetual suspense between life and death, health and sick-
ness, plenty and want; which are distributed amongst the human species by
secret and unknown causes, whose operation is oft unexpected, and always
unaccountable. These unknown causes, then, become the constant object
of our hope and fear . . . 10

There is no change of voice noticeable anywhere, such as might suggest
that some of this is supposed to be factual, some imaginary. All is factual, at
least in intention. For some parts of it (e.g., the passage about nations that
are at ¬rst successful and then suffer military reverses) we have historical
documentation; for other parts it is just that we know enough about human
life to know that that is how things were, because it is how things must have
Now we should all surely agree that, even at the earliest times when
human beings were interested in what nature offered them to gather,
“storms and tempests [sometimes] ruined what was nourished by the sun.”
That is not imaginary, nor would I even call it conjectural. But it isn™t all
that Hume™s explanation of the emergence of polytheistic beliefs needs “ he
has to make a claim about how the human beings who experienced those
natural facts reacted to the experience, and it is the status of this claim that
threatens to make trouble for the state-of-nature theorist.
Initially, we were worried by the question “If the state of nature is
something imaginary, how can it explain anything?” But it seems “ for
the moment at least “ that that may not be the problem. Where, as in this

10 Both these passages are from Hume (1757/2006) Ch. 2.
188 Edward Craig

example from Hume, the posited state of nature isn™t imaginary, it can™t be
the problem. But there surely is one. Whether or not it is de¬nitive of the
state-of-nature method, as distinguished from genealogy more generally,
that the posited state of nature is taken to be prehistorical, in the sense of
being something that obtained way back beyond the reach of historical evi-
dence, that is how it is being taken here. We are relying on judgments about
what the natural world, and the human beings in it, must have been like,
even all that indeterminately long time ago. No doubt storms and tempests
ruined what was nourished by the sun; no doubt our ancestors, who had
been hoping to eat it, noticed.
There is something liberating about prehistory. If we can get agreement
that “things must have been like that,” then we can proceed without the
painful business of assembling detailed evidence “ of which there isn™t any.
But precisely because of that there is a cost, and the bill arrives when a
chink appears in the agreement. Sticking with Hume™s Natural History of
Religion, suppose we are asked what reason we have to think that human
beings reacted to the experience of those facts by imagining, and coming to
believe in, a number of invisible person-like powers manipulating nature.
We aren™t talking about any particular people, so our answer must take the
form “Human beings are like that” or, rather, as it can hardly be main-
tained that all humans would react in that way (most of us wouldn™t for
a start) “Human beings with property X (e.g., untouched by the cultural
developments of the last three thousand years) are like that.” And once
we see this we can also see that the state-of-nature theorist has an epis-
temic hill to climb, if not a mountain. Unless we are dealing with the most
basic, almost animal, reactions, or those without which their very survival
would have been threatened, how sure can we be that they were indeed
like that? The tendency to pass from the experiences Hume describes to
primitive polytheistic beliefs does not appear to fall into either of those
It may help a little if we try to ¬ll in the gap. They are sure, we might
say, to have found that they can control nature in certain respects, so they
are bound to become aware of the fact that they cannot control it in others,
equally or more important. They can™t avert the damaging storm, or make
it rain to end the drought. They have all had, in early life, the experience
of not being able to do something themselves, but being able to get it done
for them provided they could engage the powers, and good will, of adults.
Later, as adults themselves, it will be natural to repeat the thought: there
are superior powers who will do for us what we can™t do ourselves, provided
we can maintain their good will. And polytheism has arrived.
Genealogies and the State of Nature

That may be an improvement, but it leaves plenty of business still to
be done. The tricky bit came when I said that it would be natural to repeat
the childhood thought about superior powers. Would it? Given that these
powers have to be invisible, perhaps the thought of them wouldn™t have
been natural at all; perhaps pragmatic evolutionary forces had so structured
humans™ mental processes that it was very dif¬cult indeed for them to think
of something as existing but imperceptible. Perhaps that thought is a major
cultural achievement. Or perhaps it isn™t “ how do I know? So none of this
entitles me to say that that is how they would have reacted, but at most that
were we somehow to discover that that is how they did react we shouldn™t
be too surprised.
We may however imagine a somewhat different position. Suppose we
knew that the earliest stirrings of religious belief were polytheistic; and
suppose we knew that they came very early in the development of mankind.
Then we might conjecture that they must be a reaction to some basic and as
it were “precultural” experience, whereupon that of encountering uncom-
fortable distortions in the basic rhythms of nature would become a good
candidate, and our narrative about the experience of superior (parental)
powers along with it.
But all this is fanciful and uncritical. A project like Hume™s ought not
to assume that the very ¬rst religious beliefs were polytheistic, not even
if the earliest we ¬nd are polytheistic without exception. It could be that
the ¬rst beliefs were about a single guardian spirit of the group, and that
polytheism arose by gradual assimilation of the beliefs of other groups as
human society became more integrated and its groupings fewer and larger.
We do not know that the earliest religious beliefs arose very early in the
history of the human race. Even if we did there would still be quite a wide
range of candidates for the post of “trigger” for belief in the supernatural,
and besides that no guarantee that such belief arose everywhere in the same
way. We are just speculating in something which is not quite a vacuum, but
very nearly: the “fact pressure” is pretty low around here.
Is this a criticism of the genealogical method as a whole, or is it just
a sceptical review of the early chapters of Hume™s The Natural History of
Religion? More the latter, as far as anything we have said up to now goes,
and you might even think that the sceptical review itself was one-sided
and ungenerous. After all, Hume didn™t just talk about storms and tem-
pests versus the sun, he also mentioned military successes and reverses. A
sympathetic critic might see this as a move towards real history, the study
of societies that have left written documents bearing on what they thought
their gods were good for and how they were to be propitiated. These might,
190 Edward Craig

if Hume was lucky, support his contention that anxiety and bewilderment
were central to the motivation of religious belief. Or they might not “ that™s
always the risk when you get into real history.
Nevertheless, the foregoing considerations might still amount to a gen-
eral criticism of the state-of-nature method, exposing as they do the weak-
nesses of its position at the less well-evidenced end of the genealogical spec-
trum. But I think they would be better seen as a warning to state-of-nature
theorists to make responsible use of the near factual vacuum in which they
operate; it becomes a general criticism only if responsible use is impossible.
For that we have as yet no argument; what our discussion of Hume™s The
Natural History of Religion suggests is that, although admittedly it is very easy
to become too speculative, one can ¬nd some reasonably ¬rm points for
building a state-of-nature story, and it remains to be seen whether one can
ever ¬nd enough of them to bring such a story to an effective conclusion.


I would now like to take a retrospective look at my own state-of-nature
account of the origins of the everyday concept of knowledge in Knowledge
and the State of Nature, to see how it looks in the light of the preceding
discussion. A point to be made straight away is that I am not at liberty to
declare either the state of nature from which my story begins or the events
that transpire in it imaginary, in the sense of altogether ¬ctional. I do and
must suppose that there were societies whose members, collectively and
individually, had the needs I ascribe to them and were able, whether as the
outcome of some conscious process or of other equally real tendencies, to
¬nd their way to the solution I describe; furthermore, that whereas some
of my particular examples were indeed imaginary, many events that would
have served equally well as examples really did happen, and happened often.
(So when Williams says, drawing on Nozick™s distinction between “law-
defective” and “fact-defective” explanations, that my genealogy was “fact-
defective,” the response must be “Well, yes and no.”)11 I was trying to
explain how certain real results have arisen, and only real pressures can
produce real results. There is of course a sense in which imaginary pressures
can lead to real results, but only when that means imaginary pressures in
the minds of the real people whose responses produced the results, people
who really do imagine that they are subject to certain pressures and so act

11 Williams (2002), p. 32.


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