Thursday, October 26, 2006

Athens, Jerusalem, and the Enlightenment

There's an interesting discussion over at Bill Vallicella's blog about the interaction between faith and reason and the importance of that to the vitality of Western culture. A comment by David Tye is especially illuminating:
Athens as traditionally understood could have a conversation with Jerusalem because both Athens and Jerusalem agreed there was something to talk about – to wit, the true nature of the good, the true, and the beautiful. Athens claimed to know those things through reason, Jerusalem through revelation. Kant’s contribution to the conversation was to dismiss most of what both Athens and Jerusalem had said as a waste of time because the conversation up to that time was based on an illusory “metaphysics.” Kant ended that conversation and started a new one. The new conversation would be restricted to the humanly knowable, as defined by a critique that would define those limits. The substance of the conversation would change. Instead of a search for the true nature of the good, the true and the beautiful, the conversation would be about how we manage to live in a world where we can never truly know those things.

I happen to have Will Durant’s “Story of Philosophy” at hand. I know this is far from a definitive history of philosophy and may generate nothing but chuckles here, but its contents are revealing and typical. Pages 1 through 95 consider philosophy from Plato until Francis Bacon. Then pages 96 to 528 are philosophy from that point on. Herbert Spencer gets more space than Aristotle. Like most modern surveys of philosophy, ancient philosophy is treated as a necessary formality that must be gone through, if only to say that it existed, before “real” philosophy begins with the moderns. That was the same attitude I found in the university philosophy courses I took. Plato and Aristotle were mentioned only as a painful preliminary, out of respect I suppose, and quickly dismissed as “naïve” when Descartes and Kant were brought in to end the boring metaphysical squabbling, the old gents never to be heard from again. ...

The lack of vitality in the contemporary university ... is, I think, a result of the fact that the conversation held in the university is no longer the conversation on which universities were originally founded. A young man goes to the university, full of energy, hope and desire to be initiated into the mysteries of the true nature of friendship, love, justice, the soul and, maybe, being itself. If the student is fortunate enough to find himself at the University of Paris, circa 1275, he will find teachers who share his desire and hope. If he is unfortunate enough to find himself in a Western university in 2006, the first thing that will happen is that his desire and hope will be beaten out of him as a naïve dream that was “debunked” three hundred years ago. Then he will either give up his hope and become a student ticket-puncher like everyone else, or if he is lucky, discover the wisdom of ancient philosophy on his own.


At 11/01/2006 7:49 PM, Blogger brinticus said...

0. Okay, you've baited me in. Yes, Ancient Philosophy often gets short shrift, and Enlightenment philosophy often gets an over-abundance of coverage in standardized presentations. However, there is this other era to which you allude.

1. Interestingly enough, you note that at, say, University of Paris, circa 1275, a student could have found teachers who shared his desire and hope to find out about the true nature of things. But this is a comment on Medieval philosophy! (I find that Medieval philosophy often flushes out pedagogical commitments on the part of philosophers.) Was anything important happening in *that* era?

1.1. If one is friendly to metaphysics, the answer seems a straight-forward, “Yes!” What I find satisfying within Medieval metaphysics is the use of the syllogism (or chains of said) to connect the structures of arguments into larger groups of philosophical speculation. Now there are certainly limitations here, since the subject-predicate commitments of category logic often leave the issues forced or confused, since the topics being analyzed might (and often do) require more coordinate relations, variables, and constants than can be handled by that logic method. But often one can get to the intuitions behind the Medieval argument developments; even if, as a technical matter, the argument forms cannot carry the truth of the speculations at hand. (Many times, as you're well aware, they were theological in nature.)

1.2. If one is unfriendly to metaphysics, then the answer is a qualified, “No”, wherein the philosopher then takes on the burden of describing what is actually going on with such discourse. As you know, and far better than I, the options here are legion; moreover, in my opinion, the options presented by the “No” crowd are never very clear or convincing. (Or maybe I'm too lazy to look further.)

1.2.1. You seem to hold that if we carefully apply a nuanced, well-described logical system onto a small, controlled set of metaphysical presumptions, then there is some hope for getting at the ontological nature of things. I'm friendly to this, but only because I think there is one God, and that all that is happens to be the result of creative acts by that one God; and; that as persons, we participate in certain common structures with God, Who is also a person (i.e., as my buddy Locke said, "...a thinking, intelligent being, that has reason and reflection, and can consider itself as itself, the same thinking thing, in different times and different places." Lucky for me, I think God has a temporal component.)

1.2.2. Still, I'm a bit pessimistic: Maybe an effective counter-move by the “No” crowd is a kind of methodological skepticism from philosophy of language: Even if metaphysical investigations could be productive for discovering the nature of things, then this can be accomplished just when we have a formalized mapping of natural language. But we certainly do not yet have such a formalized mapping of said. So we certainly are in no position to make advances into the ontological nature of things. Indeed, there is some reasons from Godel which push one to think we *can't* have such a formalized mapping of natural language. Hence, we cannot *ever* expect to make advances into the ontological nature of things – at least on the presumption that ontology requires a delimiting of *all* types of particulars, relations, and modalities in order to grasp the standing of *any* particular type of said. (I'm confessing that there's something to holism here. Maybe you could disabuse me of this. I don't like my confession.)

2. In the not-to-distant future, you and I shall meet.

At 11/05/2006 1:18 AM, Blogger Alan Rhoda said...

Hi Brint,

Your last remark strikes me as somewhat ominous, though I shall look forward to the occasion.

Re: Medieval philosophy. I profess no special expertise here, though I probably know a little more than most philosophers. Anyway, my sense is that Medieval philosophy was a more or less continuous extension and development of classical Aristotelian and Platonic philosophy to specifically theological themes, which kept Athens and Jerusalem in close conversation (though some like myself worry that Athens may have been doing too much of the talking and Jerusalem too much of the listening).

Re: Metaphysics. Like you, I've never found the nay-sayers convincing. Call me naive if you will, but I just can't seem to shake my conviction that truth really is correspondence with an intrinsically intelligible world 'out there' that is not in any fundamental sense a social or linguistic construct. To a large extent it is my commitment to theism that undergirds my confidence. Since God, as traditionally conceived, is the supreme exemplar and source of being, goodness, beauty, love, power, knowledge, etc., this naturally leads the theistic philosopher to view metaphysics (being), ethics (goodness), aesthetics (beauty), epistemology (knowledge), etc. -- all of the major branches of philosophy -- as systematically unified.


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