Sunday, July 18, 2010

Francesco Patrizi

The case of Francesco Patrizi, the Venetian philosopher, is a fine illustration of the nationalistic warfare that infests Wikipedia, and the inaccuracy and distortion and bias that follows as a result*.

The problem is that Francesco has at least three different identities. His place of birth was on the island of Cherso in 1529, which lies off the coast of Dalmatia, now in modern Croatia. The state of his birth was the Venetian Republic, which dominated the area until the early 1800s. His intellectual heritage is the Western philosophical tradition: he spent seven years at Padua studying Aristotelian philosophy, in Latin. He studied Plato, and seems to have had a knowledge of the original Greek texts, even owning a collection of Greek manuscripts [1].

Consequently, there is a war on Wikipedia about Francesco's identity. Is it defined by the Western intellectual heritage with its Latin and Greek origin? All that Francesco learned in his years at Padua and afterwards are derived from it. Is it the Republic of Venice, now in modern Italy? Francesco could not have been taught without the universities in Italy whose staff and administration were not paid for by Croatians. Or is it the modern state of Croatia, where his birthplace now lies?

Wikipedia, or at least its current version, defers to the first, calling him by the Latinised name of Franciscus Patricius. Adopting the second, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article [2] uses his Italian name. But in Croatia, of course, he is known as Frane Petrić, although (I am told) they made a mistake here: they used the Croatian diacritic sign on the consonant, invented only in the middle of the 1800s.

The whole issue presents problems when you are doing real history. How do we separate the contribution of an individual from the contribution of the tradition they are writing in? No intellectual contribution made by an individual, even by an original thinker such as Aristotle, is uniquely due to their special talent, although ability is a necessary condition. An equally important influence is individual teachers, who in Francesco's case would have been Italian. So in what sense does a country - a modern country like Croatia, say - own a persons's work?

The problem becomes particularly acute in a place like Wikipedia, where the only intellectual interest - that is to say, no intellectual interest at all - lies simply in a nationalistic dispute, in this case between Italians and Croatians. The talk page shows it beautifully. "He was Italian for culture and birth" says Giovanni Giove (presumably an Italian). "It is sad to see that User:Factanista has started an further edit war to imposte [sic] his nationalistic POV" says Giovanni. "It is you who is edit-warring " replies Factanista (presumably a Croatian). "I'm going to report the behaviour of User:Factanista to an administrator" says Giovanni. "Please do, you will be reported shortly yourself" objects Factanista.

The history of the article itself [3] is instructive. Hundreds of reverts and unreverts, as the intellectual battle unfolds. An Italian editor removes the word 'Croatian' [4] with the comment "oh please, lets avoid stupid national bickering". It is immediately reverted back [5] with the reply "then stop to deny his roots and ethnicity". Which of course makes it all the more absurd. What does ethnicity have to do with the work of a man who wrote, in Latin, about the Greek philosophers Aristotle and Plato? It is different in the case of someone like Chopin who, though he studied in France and was influenced by the French tradition, wrote specifically Polish nationalistic pieces. This case, by contrast, is more like the case of Joseph Conrad, who was Polish but whose works are all in English. Or Wittgenstein, who was Austrian and who actually wrote in German, but who was taught by an Englishman** (Russell), and whose work was most influential in England where he lived and worked for most of this life. Ethnicity has very little to do with it.

What is really sad is how the article suffers as a result. In its current version (permanent link above) all but the first three paragraphs are copied verbatim from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica article [6]. The introduction is mostly taken from the SEP article. I have commented on this irony before - that "an ultra modern high-tech medium like the Internet, when it reflects anything of importance, reflects the obselete views of 19th century scholars". None of the people who have edit-warred for at least four years over the ethnicity of this man, seem to have any interest in his thinking.

At least I found something valuable in my research today: When ethnicity did not matter in the Balkans by John Fine. About "The back-projection of twentieth-century forms of identity into the pre-modern past by patriotic and nationalist historians". Possible holiday reading.

*Many thanks to Peter Zuvela, who brought this to my attention.
** Wikipedia has Russell down as a Welsh philosopher, of course.

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