Friday, March 12, 2010

The Unity of Philosophical Experience (2)

This is the second and concluding part of my review of Etienne Gilson’s The Unity of Philosophical Experience. The first part is in my previous post.

For Gilson, Kant is a warning:
Philosophers who have been misled by the lure of positive science always end their lives in a queer world—that is a punishment for their mistake; but it never occurs to them that their philosophy that is queer—that is a reward for their honesty (p.192).
Certainly, contemporary scientism seems to end in strange places. Science is immensely powerful as a tool for discovering truth, but perhaps not about everything.

Then there is the problem of disciples:
… whereas a master holds his conclusions as conclusions, his disciples receive them as premises, with the consequence that their own conclusions can never be the master’s conclusions (p.193)
A pattern that Popper, Lakatos and Feyerabend display powerfully.

In Kant’s case, Fichte reconciled sensibility and understanding as manifestation of the will. Schelling held that:
… the will is an artist whose intelligible ideas need to embody themselves in material reality (p.194).
Once again, metaphysical chaos loomed. Along comes Hegel, to hold that the contradictions of metaphysics are a correct picture of a reality with contradiction at its heart (Pp196-7).

Hegel taught that reality reflects ideas that are in endless contention as thesis leads to antithesis leading to synthesis leading to a new thesis and so on. These ideas are manifested in civilisations which are thus in endless, and profound, conflict. Such that, in Hegel’s words, the state “… is the march of God through history”: a march that is, as Gilson notes, “strewn with ruins” for, as Hegel tells us:
This military class is the class of universality (p.197).
A universe of contradictory strife hovering on a climactic resolution: one can see that Marx is indeed a disciple of Hegel—a philosophy of profound violence with no higher truth to restrain it than its commitment to the final synthesis. This is revolutionary as ubermensch who is beyond morality and history because they transcend both with the workers cast as the “universal class” but even more universal, for they will be the only class left.

Of course, if the State is such a metaphysically heroic entity, it can be so heroic in all sorts of causes. Including manifesting the will of the volk in history, seeking lebensraum: resources clear of ethnic obstructions just as Marxism sought resources cleared of class obstructions. That nationalism (as distinct from patriotism, which is far older and more inclusive), Nazism and Leninism (the most murderous movements of our times) arose out of German philosophy seems something less than accidental.
Just as Ayn Rand’s bitter antipathy to Kant seems far more reasonable. Gilson does not connect the dots to nationalism, Leninism and Nazism, but he does not have to:
The liberal-minded professors who teach Hegel’s relativism in universities seem to believe that it is a school of toleration, where students can learn that there is a place for everything because everything is right in its own way. That is not Hegelian relativism; it is philosophical indifferentism. The dogmatic relativism of Hegel teaches something quite different, and it is that, taken by itself, no particular thing can rightly assert itself except by destroying another, and until it is itself destroyed. “War”, says Hegel, “is not an accident,” but an element “whereby the ideal character of the particular receives its right and reality”.
Class war and race war both justify themselves by their Hegelian “necessity”:
These are really and truly murderous ideas, and all the blood for which they are responsible has not yet been shed. Yet they are the last word of Hegelianism and the necessary conclusion of a school which, confining reason to the sphere of pure science, enslaved philosophy to the blind tyranny of the will (p.198).
These prophetic words were originally published in 1937. The collectivisation and terror-famines of Lenin and Stalin had already occurred, the Great Purge was already underway, but the horrors of Holocaust, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, the Ethiopian collectivisation famine and Year Zero were yet to happen. Ideas have consequences.

Having dissected logicism as philosophy, theologism as philosophy, psychologism as philosophy, moralism as philosophy, mathematism as philosophy and physicalism as philosophy, Gilson moves on to Auguste Comte and sociologism as philosophy. Gilson regards Comte as being, like Kant, a response to Hume (p.199). Comte informed us that:
Hume is my principal precursor in philosophy (p.214).
Comte’s specific concern was how to re-establish a durable social order after the French Revolution. His philosophy of positivism sought to re-organise knowledge to see man’s social needs; right down to having a new “demonstrated” religion. John Stuart Mill had been attracted to Comte’s thought, but as a positivism which had:
… a complete reliance on scientific knowledge coupled with a decided agnosticism in metaphysics as well as religion (p.215).
This was going too far. The objectivity of science was not to be sacrificed.

To Comte, this was missing the point. Without the subjective purpose of organising knowledge to suit human purposes (which included positivist politics and positivist religion) there was nothing left of positivism but science without philosophy (p.216). Gilson notes that if one identifies objective rational knowledge with science there is no realm left for philosophy except rampant subjectivity. But the philosophical questions will not go away.

Meanwhile, Hegel led to Feuerbach led to Marx and Marxism. But, as Gilson points out, there is nothing special about class as a category of struggle, conflict and history, Hegelian thought equally well fed into fascist thought (Pp227ff).

Gilson defines Western culture, in the broadest sense, as:
… essentially the culture of Greece, inherited from the Greeks by the Romans; transfused by the Fathers of the Church with the religious teachings of Christianity, and progressively enlarged by countless numbers of artists, writers, scientists and philosophers from the beginning of the Middle Ages up to the first third of the nineteenth century (Pp218-9).
Thereby putting himself very much in the “declinist” camp (that there has been something “wrong” with Western civilisation, in his case since the French Revolution) and in the classicist camp. I disagree on both grounds. I agree there are some social and cultural pathologies in contemporary Western civilisation, but there always has been: the striking thing is that the pathologies evolve and change while the civilisation expands in capacity.

Classical civilisation is the precursor civilisation to Western civilisation which was born in the squabbling alliance of Church and (mainly Germanic) warlords on the ruins of the Western Roman Empire. Passing over the Germanic, Nordic and Celtic influences and the extent to which the Dark Ages represented a profound restructuring misses the point. In particular, it misses, and gives no grounds for, how Orthodox civilisation is different from Western civilisation.

To take just one example, the new Western civilisation largely lost science, not to be rediscovered until the wave of classical learning hit the West from the destruction of Constantinople coupled with the wave of new knowledge from Europe’s becoming the first civilisation to connect the entire globe. But, even in the depths of the Dark Ages, the emerging new civilisation was strikingly more technologically adaptive than its precursor had ever been: a product of its far more decentralised and varied institutional framework operating on comparative scarcity of labour. It was also a far more resilient civilisation: the Antonine and Justinian plagues were unmitigated disasters for the Western and Eastern Empires respectively. The Black Death re-invigorated the technological adaptiveness of Latin Christendom. A resilience that persists: one of the many reasons why I have little patience for “declinism”. (Small things such as domination of global intellectual life, greatly improved life expectancy and health, remarkable peacefulness, continuing technological vibrancy also inform my thinking.)

What specifically bothers Gilson is abandonment of the conception of man as the rational animal and classical culture as a common intellectual language and framework (Pp220-1). But:
While man remained in control of nature, culture could still survive. It was lost from the very moment that nature began to control man (p.222).
Gilson argues that culture has been overwhelmed by the success of science:
… the first article of the scientific creed is accepting nature as it is. Far from making up for the loss of philosophy, the discovery of the scientific substitutes for it leaves man alone with nature such as it is, and obliges him to surrender to natural necessity. Philosophy is the only rational knowledge by which both science and nature can be judged. By reducing philosophy to pure science, man has not only abdicated his right to judge nature and to rule it, but he has also turned himself into a particular aspect of nature, subjected, like all the rest to the necessary law which regulates its development.
With the more specific consequence that:
A world where accomplished facts are unto themselves their own justification is ripe for the most reckless social adventures. Its dictators can wantonly play havoc with human institutions and human lives, for dictatorships are facts and they also are unto themselves their own justification (p.223).
Comte and Hegel have much to answer for, is Gilson’s diagnosis, in the way they gave history a trumping end point: one, moreover, found in serving the nature of things.

There is much in this, as we have seen. But we also note that the Anglosphere has remained largely immune to such murderous nonsense, though there has been some infection in its intellectual life. Ideas and institutions interact, neither is the mere causal slave of the other.

Some of what Gilson writes does read as if a prediction of modern environmentalism. But then one remembers he was writing during the period of the rise and rule of Nazism. Environmentalism is utopian faith re-energised—a notion of humanity in harmony with nature by subordinating ourselves to it—with religious framings added in, so Gaia and Gaia-concern substitute for God, Christ and Christian compassion. When one considers the way it characterises civilisation, particularly Western civilisation, as engaged in a daemonic-cum-demonic “rape” of the planet, one wonders what environmentalism might bring forth if it ever did achieve full power.

Gilson predicts the triumph of Marxism in intellectual life:
Against the crude, yet fundamentally sound, craving of Marxism for positive and dogmatic truth, the scepticism of our decadent philosophy has not a chance (p.236).
He was temporarily right, but Marxism failed spectacularly on its own grounds—as a vehicle for social transformation—and the decadent scepticism of post-modernism swept academe in the wake of that failure, on the back of a neo-Kantianism that allowed folk to discount awkward truths.

In his concluding chapter, Gilson draws together principles from this history of the shipwreck of philosophies. The principles he draws are:
Philosophy always buries its undertakers (p.246).
Philosophy is a realm of knowledge in its own right and cannot be reduced to something else:
… by his very nature, man is a metaphysical animal (p.248).
The questions of philosophy will not go away: the rational animal will not stop asking them and acting on answers offered. In particular:
… metaphysics is the knowledge gathered by a naturally transcendent reason in its search for first principles, or first causes, of what is given in sensible experience (p.248).
The lack of definitive answers would seem to be a problem. As Gilson himself notes:
Scepticism is defeatism in philosophy, and all defeatisms are born in previous defeats (p.249).
Surely part of the appeal of science is that it does provide answers a lot more successfully than metaphysics has done. From past failures, Gilson concludes:
… as metaphysics aims at transcending all particular knowledge, no particular science is competent either to solve metaphysical problems, or to judge their metaphysical solutions (p.249).
But we can deduce from the patterns of failure in philosophy, the repeating cycle from proposal to scepticism back to new proposal which collapses into scepticism that:
… the failures of the metaphysicians flow from their unguarded use of a principle of unity present in the human mind (p.251).
… since being is the first principle of all human knowledge, it is a fortiori the first principle of metaphysics (p.252).
(One can just feel Heidegger looming out of the dark.) Gilson puts his final conclusion:
… all the failure of metaphysics should be traced to the fact that, the first principle of human knowledge has been either overlooked or misused by metaphysicians (p.255)
Which is a lot of failure.

A problem Gilson then traces to what is surely an inevitable part of being a rational animal:
The most tempting of all false first principles is: that thought, not being, is involved in all my representations.
Man is not a mind that thinks, but a being who knows other beings as true, who loves them as good, and enjoys them as beautiful … the inseparable privileges of being, which are truth, goodness and beauty (p.255).
Really? Surely these things are not features of existence as such (there is not much truth, goodness or beauty in a world of insensate matter) but features of existence apprehended by a sentient mind. There can be no truth without language, no language without thought. Science is successful because it forces us to investigate what is by means that act to overcome human cognitive frailty, but that cognition is a necessary part of the process. Nor is there goodness in a world of a insensate matter: there is neither good nor evil in the collisions of rocks and the creation and explosions of suns. While beauty is what a sentient mind can perceive but is a property that is merely open to be perceived if there is no person to perceive it. There may be beauty in a world of insensate matter but only an implicit beauty. It is sentient agency which makes things matter, not mere matter.

Gilson holds that Plato, Aristotle and Aquinas are the three greatest metaphysicians and the models for metaphysics, who merely sought to maintain and serve philosophy for their own time, as we should for ours (p.255). Which looks suspiciously like a belief in philosophy as a response to cognition moving through time.

But, then, what Gilson does very well is point out that there are enduring cycles in philosophy from system through collapse to scepticism to new system. If philosophy is to transcend that cycle, it better find the drivers of the cycle and avoid them.

No comments:

Post a Comment