The first arguers out there were, after every definition, quite obtuse. I am thinking of the Milesian School. And it is not as if they were wrong in their approach, ignorantly wandering them fields unbeknownst. In fact, if we judge their capacity of getting along with what they had, they were quite sharp. So what makes them stupid?
Well, they were what we today might call physicists. They were not interested in the why’s and the what now’s but the what-of’s and what-from’s. That, at least, is the image we get from Aristotle’s depiction of their interests – the only one unfortunately. And it is as physicists that they appear to us as rather narrow minded. Otherwise, it is hard to see something wrong with the argument that the world was made in the same way tempests and lightning is born in the middle of the sea: the wind, Anaximenes tells us, is sometimes captured inside clouds; it then fights and struggles until it manages to crack one of them open, producing that violent, formidable clatter called thunder. Rather poetic but, as we now know, this is what happens.
And everything went like this. Men at the brink of a continent, pushed away by the Persian empire more and more into the sea, for them more or less everything must happen in the way natural phenomena happens at sea. The formation of the Earth, that of the stars, neither should be much different. Doesn’t water evaporate, producing clouds which produce rivers which brings alluvia, with all its life and support. Doesn’t it follow, then, that everything is made, literally, “out of” water?
We might appreciate this lack of “oh, Ol’ Daddy and Ol’ Mummy did every blessed thing around here!”. But if we do we should also be ready to evaluate these arguments. How in the world could one do that? What are the evaluation criteria for arguments which are blatantly false, in an epoch where they were strikingly obvious? And even assuming we find such criteria (with a little help from historians and great commentators of ancient text) what will the decision look like? If it is a confident “a-ha!” in the face of empirical error, then the analyst should settle for nothing more than being the uninteresting executioner of false beliefs. If it is a detailed and qualified “welly-well, here’s how you should view it”, then the analyst should be prepared to counter the accusation of relativism.
Now, the Milesian School aside, in The Poverty of Historicism, Karl Popper meticulously puts forward a bunch of arguments for why neither of the two is the right thing to do with respect to historical judgements of this sort. Well, maybe not of this sort precisely, but with ones having to do with social phenomena, judgements which, one should assume, are just as bad in the past as they are now. But if the right thing is somewhere in-between: Who decides where this right spot is?