Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Unity of Philosophical Experience (1)

Etienne Gilson’s The Unity of Philosophical Experience is not as great an achievement as his God and Philosophy. Unity lacks the clarity of exposition of the later book.

Gilson’s thesis is that attempting to use some other discipline as a driver of philosophy always ends in failure. He argues this thesis by examining the history of Western philosophy from Abelard to the early C20th.

Abelard himself is his first example: the attempt to use logic as the basis and moulding form of philosophy. Not as a tool of philosophy but as the determinative basis. This, unsurprisingly, turned out to be a dead end.

Gilson then moves on to theology as the basis (or perhaps the supplanter) of philosophy, starting with the example of Al Ghazali noting that al Ghazali, Malebranche and Cotton Mather all end up denying causality except as a manifestation of the will of God because of their theologistic philosophical presumptions (p.38).

Gilson argues that there is a persistent pattern. A philosopher develops an approach to philosophy and reaches some unwelcome consequences. His disciplines, using this thought as their starting point, confess their necessary consequences. People come to realise they can only be dealt with by shifting presumptions. The school then dies. Until, sometime later, the old ideas are stated in a new way and the whole cycle begins again (Pp47-8).

Being an unabashed admirer of Aquinas, Gilson does not apply this analysis to his thought, arguing, in effect, that Aquinas treated philosophy with true seriousness as a thing in itself, giving theology and logic their due but not more than their due. I have expressed elsewhere the problems I have with Aquinas’s metaphysical epistemology and his normative essentialism, but whether they manifest philosophy giving way to theology (as distinct from being convenient to theology) is a moot point.

Gilson does make a very striking observation about the implications of metaphysics for political thought:
Begotten in us by things themselves, concepts are born reformers that never lose touch with reality. Pure ideas, on the other hand, are born within the mind and from the mind, not as an intellectual expression of what is, but as models, or patterns, of what ought to be: hence they are born revolutionists. And this is the reason Aristotle and Aristotelians write books on politics, whereas Plato and Platonists always write Utopias (Pp54-5)
Without buying into the full Thomist epistemological confidence Gilson displays, this grasps something important. Utopias are, after all, wars against people-as-they-are in the name of people–as-they-are-deemed-to-ought-to-be. What is that but the trumping of people-as-experienced by people-as-imagined? The very strong and persistent element of unreality in left-progressivist thought that people note again and again clearly comes from the insistence of the trumping moral purity of their vision over inconvenient elements of grubby reality. Hence their fairly dire policy record (in indigenous policy, environmental policy, educational policy, in the humanities, etc) which is currently playing out in the climate science scandals: scandals that are a manifestation of a shared saviour complex leading to “good cause” advocacy substituting for proper processes that have a more humble view of human cognitive frailty and epistemic limitations. The “purity” of their vision trumping the grubby reality of human frailty. Indeed, the demands of elementary courtesy and moral behaviour. At its worst, it leads to a crippled epistemology (pdf) that effectively bars good policy from happening.
Indeed, my criticism of Aquinas is that, in effect, he is not “Aristotelian” enough. That he has too much confidence that our ideas of things are directly connected to what is in the world: particularly in our conceptions of the “proper” form of things, as distinct from the actual nature of things. Hence Thomism justifying its own versions of wars against people-as-they-are in the name of people-as-they-are-deemed-to-ought-to-be (in belief, in faith, in sexuality …).

After Aquinas comes William of Ockham, him of the famous razor. He denied the existence of universals, of forms in the Aristotelian sense, dividing knowledge into the intuitive (direct experience) and abstract, the latter of which cannot show the existence (or non-existence) of anything specific (Pp54ff), thereby prefiguring the direction of much modern philosophy. Gilson argues that William of Ockham was an example of psychologism with his notion that:
… to give a psychological analysis of human knowledge was to give a philosophical analysis of reality (p.69).
A view that was to turn up in various permutations in modern philosophy to this day. That William of Ockham’s analysis of causality was very similar to Hume’s Gilson has no trouble demonstrating:
In both doctrines, nothing was left but empirical sequences of facts outside the mind, and habitual associations within the mind, the mere external frame of a world carefully emptied of its intelligibility.
Such a result is inevitable and will always occur whenever a philosopher mistakes the empirical description of our ways of knowing for a correct description of reality itself (p.71)
Which Gilson is having none of:
Psychologism consists in demanding that psychology answer philosophical questions. Psychology is a science: psychologism is a sophism: it substitutes the definition for the defined, the description for the described, the map for the country (p.72)
There is some affinity here to the philosophy of Richard Rorty, where truth is not a specific connection to reality but rather a general feature of being “useful” so that one is never defining reality, merely navigating it.

By the C14th, students of philosophy were confronted with a range of theologies on offer, which all could not be true (but all could be false). Confronted with this confusing complexity, a retreat into scripture and the imitation of Christ was the obvious option and one well underway before Luther took it beyond the limits of Catholic doctrine. Moralism—“practical ethics”—arose as a response to the arid debates of the scholastics: the moralism of scripture or the moralism of human experience. Gilson uses Nicolas of Autrecourt as an example of the first and Petrarch (“the first modern man”) of the latter.

Meister Eckhart applies the techniques of philosophy to deny knowledge—both our knowledge of God and even God’s knowledge of Himself, so the only avenue left is the mystical connection of the divine spark within us to the otherwise unknowable God (Pp85ff). An approach which, when applied as a philosophical method, had profoundly sceptical implications. For the true work of philosophy is to learn what we do not know: Richard Rorty, here we come!

All this distrust of Scholastic philosophy did not actually create a new philosophical system. That distinction belongs to Descartes, the thinker who is usually taken be the start of modern philosophy, the man who sought not to criticise Aristotle but to replace him (p.99).

Gilson argues that Descartes was specifically responding to the scepticism of Montaigne. A scepticism which was a reaction to the horrors of the wars of religion and the explosion in new knowledge coming from Europe’s bursting out into the globe: Gilson notes the first point but not the second. Certainly, Montaigne’s sceptical conservatism has a great deal of similarity with that of David Hume (also a noted essayist).

Descartes may start with Montaigne’s scepticism, but he does not end there. The certain knowledge of mathematics (of which Descartes was a gifted practitioner and pioneer, the inventor of Cartesian geometry which combines algebra with geometry) seemed a light in the gloom of scepticism that offered only negative wisdom. Indeed, geometry and mathematics seemed to the high road to knowledge itself: the standard by which all else must be measured.

Having applied algebra to geometry to great—and certain—effect, Descartes proceeded to apply mathematical methods to physics and philosophy. What could be a better buttress against scepticism than knowledge built on certainty? Hence cogito ergo sum. All sciences were one, unified by a common method therefore unified (ultimately) by the method of mathematics.

Some may think that the problem is not the lack of certainty but thinking in absolutes, as if there is nothing between certainty and scepticism. (This is surely Sir Karl Popper’s problem with his claim there is no verification, only falsification: that there is no mere probably true just those things not yet shown to be certainly false.) But not for Descartes, who had found the method and proceeded to attempt to apply it in a unified way to all science: mathematics had become mathematicism and, on the way through, ended his own career as a mathematician as his project consumed him while mathematics proceeded on.

While Gilson is not always as clear as he might be, his discussion of Descartes is generally pellucid and perceptive:
Yet names have a dreadful power of suggestion. They are invitations to deal in the same way with what we call by the same name. By calling “universal mathematics” a method, which had been abstracted from geometry, algebra and logic, Descartes was pledging himself to the task of making all problems “almost similar to those of mathematics”, as if the extreme simplicity of the object of mathematics was not partly responsible for the evidence of their conclusions (p.114).
Indeed, I would go further. That mathematics is a misleading model for even such a related discipline as logic precisely because mathematics applies only to very specific objects—numbers and other objects of structure and pattern. Thus, its reasoning applies to things whose referents have precise and patterned boundaries which interact in very specific ways.

Logic applies to anything at all, so its referents lack such intrinsic orderings. Hence the capacity to create logical paradoxes, a problem that gets worse the more logic pretends to be like mathematics. To put it another way, mathematics has such an ordered semantics that it can be an entirely formal syntactical system. Lacking such ordered semantics, the more logic aspires to be purely formal in its syntactical operations, the more its reach exceeds its grasp. From this overreach do logical paradoxes arise.

But if the methods of mathematics are problematic for so close a discipline as logic, how more so must they be for sciences that move further and further way from the study of structure and pattern qua structure and pattern?

Gilson notes that:
… our abstract notions validly apply to what they keep of reality, not what they leave out (Pp114-5).
Analysts engage in simplifying abstractions from reality in order to make it amenable to analysis. To discover, for example, that the general equilibrium model of economics is very much like the evolutionary stable states of evolutionary biology is a striking manifestation of the use of abstraction in analysis of dynamic systems of living agents. Conversely, the class analysis of Marxism does not work, as class does not order human behaviour in the way it claims. In particular, it confuses common (as in similar) patterns of action with common (as in collective) action, so fails to grip reality. Firms could not exist if capital was not in competition with capital and labour was not in competition with labour. (Indeed, the power of unions rests on excluding labour competition, aka ‘scabs’.)

Descartes wanted to abstract to concepts so simple that they would work in the same way as the ordered semantics of mathematics. Needless to say, this did not prove fruitful. Even in cogito ergo sum, thought is not really a simple thing. But his system—trying to get the ordered simplicity of mathematics to be the universal method—required base simplicity and so ideas that existed in themselves, apart from the vagaries of human cognition. Ending up with a physics of pure ideas separated from empirical reality. Descartes defending Harvey’s discovery of circulation of blood and then attempting to “explain it” to its discoverer was something of a reductio of his approach (Pp118-9).

As to cogito ergo sum, St Augustine had already made the same point to defeat scepticism, argue for the existence of God and the soul (as did Descartes) but took it no further because, Gilson suggests, there was no further to take it to (Pp126-7).

In his attempt to extend mathematical certainty across the realm of human knowledge, Descartes attempted to demonstrate the existence of the world: something so evident no one had attempted to do that before. Alas, Descartes was trying to prove the evident by the standards of certainty. Having failed to do so, the way was open for a new form of all-embracing scepticism (which, after all, merely required setting certainty as the required standard and demonstrating that it had not been reached).

Leibniz, Spinoza and Malebranche perceived Descartes had failed in his effort and, rather than critiquing the question and approach, started where Descartes had ended with mind, matter and God. They all finished trying to use God to explain everything (p.147).

Cartesian physics fared even worse than Cartesian metaphysics, conspicuously failing to be compatible with Newton’s discoveries. A striking failure: not even a particularly useful failure. Cartesian metaphysics turned causality into a problem to which Malebranche and Hume responded with similar destructive scepticism (Pp166ff). The failure of Descartes’ attempt to mathematicise philosophy is, for Gilson, expressed in the career of Hume for:
what was Hume, after all, but a sad Montaigne (p.176).
From there, it is on to the man who Hume awoke from his “dogmatic slumbers”, Immanuel Kant.

Surveying the failure of Descartes attempt to mathematicise philosophy, one can see how it lead to another great philosopher to write The Critique of Pure Reason. Confronted with the failure of metaphysics, and the triumph of physics, Kant aimed to use the latter to limit the damage from the former (p.180). Kant specifically held that the imitation of mathematics in reasoning about matters to which it was not suited was dangerous (p.181). Instead, he took his inspiration from the achievement of Newton and applied the methods of physics to philosophy (p.183). The system Kant outlines in The Critique of Pure Reason Gilson argues is a fine exposition of the cognitive apparatus for a Newtonian account of the world: which means that it is entirely tied to the rise and fall of such an account (Pp184-5). As Gilson describes them, Kant’s sensibility and understanding seem rather similar to Aquinas’s imagination and intellect. A priori forms of knowledge were the means of escaping from Humean scepticism based on pure empiricism. Gilson summarises Kant’s project as:
By thus shifting from experience to the intellectual conditions of experience, Kant hoped to achieve a threefold result: first, to rescue science from scepticism; secondly, to rid metaphysics of its pretensions to the title of objective knowledge; thirdly, to make it clear that though a mere illusion, metaphysics was an inevitable illusion (p.186).
In responding to Hume, Kant adapted the response of Rousseau:
Hume’s scepticism was the embodiment of reason as destructive of the very principles of philosophical knowledge and morality. Rousseau’s passionate appeal to feeling, and to moral conscience, against the natural blindness of reason, was to Kant the revelation of a wholly independent and self-contained order of morality (p.187)
Failing a rational justification of morality, and granting that morality is inseperable from human life, there is nothing else to do but to take morality as a self-justifying fact … When after cutting loose from metaphysics, ethics begins to dictate its own metaphysics, moralism begins to appear on the scene. The Kantian principle of the primacy of practical reason is a clear case of moralism, one of the classical escapes from scepticism for those who despair of philosophy (p.187)
So Stephen Hicks’ analysis of Kant as the ultimate intellectual source of post-modernism seems entirely sound as is Mark Lilla’s analysis of Kant as being concerned to rescue faith from the corrosions of scepticism:
By adopting Rousseau’s moral feeling, Kant was obligating himself to accept Rousseau’s natural theology, as rationally unjustifiable but morally necessary (p.187).
But, as Hicks points out, post-modernism is all about faith. (One of the nicer quips about the path of Western thought I have heard—from a female Catholic theologian—was that medievalism was faith-with-reason, the Enlightenment was reason-without-faith and post-modernism is faith-without-reason.) For post-modernism is what happens when modernist faith in the harmonious future (for the radical Enlightenment was actually all about faith: specifically the faith in a glorious future from a transformed humanity coming from the application of reason) has itself failed and the post-modernist is left with nothing but faith in their own moral rectitude. Hyper-moralism indeed. Moralism is their reality principle, in a collective moral narcissism where political correctness is the detritus of utopian faith: a belief in a harmonious public discourse achieved by banishing, constraining or transforming the disharmonious.

Kant had created:
… a physicalism supplemented by a moralism
whose aim was:
… to satisfy two postulates: the physics of Newton is possible, moral duty is possible. … Kanty never succeeded in giving it an organic unity … Having cut loose from metaphysics, Kantism could not grow within like a tree; because it did not germinate internally, but copied models outside, Kantism could be only a set of mutually unrelated adaptations (p.189)
In particular, the sensibility and the understanding, the man in nature and the man in morality, were profoundly divided yet the same person. Hence, for example, pleasure (which arises from our nature) and duty (which arise from the needs of morality) are incompatible. If reason and metaphysics cannot provide the bridge, then one ends up with mysticism as the only possible bridge. That, Gilson suggests, was where Kant was ending up (p.192).

This will be concluded in my next post.

No comments:

Post a Comment