IT IS OFTEN SAID that twentieth-century philosophy is defined in terms of its interest in language. The linguistic turn followed on the epistemological turn and the suggestion was that language was the source of philosophical problems. But these problems are due to misunderstanding and must be addressed by a therapy aimed at showing that they should never have arisen in the first place.
The aim of philosophy is to put philosophy out of business. Unfortunately, this seems to be an endless business. On the Continent it was held that Greek and German are the only philosophical languages and that they are the House of Being. Heidegger is its shepherd, making him, as Harry Redner has wittily pointed out, the German Shepherd of Being. But surely it is the rise of the sciences that characterizes modernity.
Nietzsche lamented that modern man, having acknowledged the death of God and the folly of Christianity, transferred his allegiance to science and made of the scientist a kind of priest. There are certainly those who, dismissing all pre-Copernican efforts, would tie the possibility of knowledge exclusively to the sciences. What is the status of philosophy vis-a-vis the sciences? One might of course simply identify the two, or, as a variation on this, describe philosophy as a reflection on the procedures and attainments of the scientist.
But what are we to make of the fact that, during the very centuries when science gained its ascendancy, the most influential philosophers were questioning the ability of the human mind to know the world? Enamored of Newton and chastened by Hume, Kant despaired of knowing things as they are, what he called “noumena”; insofar as we do know things we know them as we know them — that is, as spatio-temporal, as causing and caused, and the like. But these are categories of our sensibility or of our understanding which, while they organize our experience, cannot be taken to be an account of how things are in themselves. How are things in themselves? By definition, we can never know.
Pure Reason bears on the a priori conditions of sensibility and understanding, the epistemological cookie-cutters that shape our experience. And where is the world of action? Kant allows that somehow in acting we are involved in the real world; but that can scarcely provide the measure of what we ought to do. Kant notoriously provides the most abstract rule of action, the categorical imperative. This is the Kantian version of the fact/value split, to which we will turn in a moment.
Can it be the case that all pre-scientific knowledge must be swept away and must cede its place to a scientific account? The question can be understood either with reference to the past or as a present issue. Have all previous — at least pre-Copernican — statements about the natural world been confined to the dustbin of history? It is helpful to transpose the question to the present. What is the status of my knowledge of the world that antedates, accompanies, and survives scientific explanation? It will not do to say that all non-scientific knowledge must be discarded.
For one thing, it provides a necessary point of reference to scientific explanation. Everyday physical objects are solid; they weigh in the hand; they have a taste; and they cool or warm the hand that holds them. Color, taste, smell — aren’t these the secondary qualities which are replaced by a quantitative account of them? But consider the claim: Quantitative accounts are accounts of things attained in ordinary experience. If the color I see is illusory, there is nothing to explain, only something to explain away. This does not do away with the scientific revolution, of course. But our description of what happened may be less exuberant. If we have come to prefer quantitative accounts of qualitative experiences because they are more amenable to manipulation and to gaining control over our environment, then, that is what happened. But this does not show that the original experience was illusory.
This leaves open the question as to the value of accounts and analyses of this so-called pre-scientific experience. Obviously, much philosophical analysis is a version of this, and whatever value it has can scarcely be stated in “scientific” terms. Furthermore, such fundamental analysis as that already referred to at the beginning of the Physics has not been ruled out of court by methodological fiat. The analysis of change into three components—subject and contrary states of the subject — and of the product of change — a subject under a description — when taken on their own terms, as the first and most general things that one can say about physical objects, are as good now as they ever were. And what of the analyses of place and time and motion offered by Aristotle? Have they really all been swept away?
It is not nostalgia that prompts such questions. Unless such analyses as those Aristotle undertakes in his natural philosophy and those undertaken today by philosophers who are certainly not doing science can be appraised by criteria other than those of science, science itself becomes unmoored and ceases to be a human enterprise.
The Fact/Value Split
Modern moral philosophy defines itself in terms of the unbridgeable difference between facts and values, between Is and Ought. When G. E. Moore defined the “naturalistic fallacy” in his Principia Ethica of 1903, he made canonical the import of a skeptical question of David Hume and the practice of Kant. When we evaluate something (i.e., call an action good), there is nothing in what the action is that accounts for its having this value.
A gap is opened up between descriptive and evaluative statements that can never be closed. The belief that a more thorough and careful description of a situation will reveal why it must be called good or bad is fallacious. Moore thought we just intuit goodness the way we do yellow, but could offer us no help when intuitions differ. The slogan became: Anything whatsoever can be called good. Nature neither justifies nor prevents a positive evaluation. Value terms express our subjective reaction to the objective and are unanchored in it.
Alasdair MacIntyre has written that what began as one meta-ethical theory among others eventually swept the field. We are all emotivists now. Universal Emotivism, he called it, meaning that moral disagreements have universally come to be regarded as conflicting subjective reactions to states of affairs. Since such conflicts cannot be adjudicated by objective appeals, various dark possibilities loom.
This is of course untenable. Such an account of human action amounts to a denial that there are objective starting points for human action. Moral principles are as arbitrary as any application of them. This has to be addressed in the way that sophistic attacks on first principles are addressed. The position must be seen to be incoherent. A convenient way of seeing this is by considering the infamous Kennedy Decision. U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy, in an opinion rejecting restrictions on abortion, opined that it is a fundamental human right to be able to define existence, human life, and the universe itself as one wishes. Of such a statement one may say: If it is true, it is false. If I have such a fundamental right, I can employ it to define Justice Kennedy, his decision, and indeed the Supreme Court out of the universe. The Kennedy decision is not simply false. It is literal nonsense. And it can be taken as an adequate stand-in for Universal Emotivism.
Like Gibbon looking out over the ruins of imperial Rome, we can survey the moonscape of modern philosophy and find in it a powerful incentive to devote our time to the reading of Plato and Aristotle and the classical philosophy that was so cavalierly dismissed by the father of modern philosophy.
Philosophy And Religion
In its classical origins, philosophy was theistic.
In the Christian era, there was a succession of attempts to establish a modus vivendi between philosophical inquiry and religious belief. The liberal arts tradition, which characterized medieval education from Augustine to Aquinas, sought to summarize the whole of secular learning into seven liberal arts, divided into two groups. The arts of the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and logic) and the arts of the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music) were ways because they were considered to be preparatory to the study of Sacred Scripture.
Cassiodorus Senator, who lived a century after Augustine and was a contemporary of Boethius, gave this a definitive statement in his Institutiones. With the recovery of Greek philosophy and the introduction of Arabic science in Latin translation beginning in the late twelfth century, the matter of faith and reason had to be rethought, since reason was now seen to have a far greater reach than the liberal arts tradition had realized. During the thirteenth century, most notably in Thomas Aquinas, a new synthesis was achieved. But this began to unravel almost as soon as it had been achieved, and by the fourteenth century the reach of reason had been considerably diminished. Nominalists questioned our ability to grasp the natures of things since they doubted there were natures to be grasped; the existence of God and the immortality of the soul, truths which Aquinas considered capable of being established by natural reason, were now said to be tenable only on the basis of the faith, because they had been authoritatively revealed. With the Protestant Reformation came the idea that for centuries the Christian message had been distorted by Rome and that the solution was for every believer to become his own pope, consult the Scriptures, and attend to the Spirit in grasping their truth. The dissolution of Christendom was underway.
When Nietzsche’s madman comes into the marketplace crying that he is looking for God, he becomes an object of derision. The scoffers have not yet recognized that God is dead, but they have killed him. With Nietzsche begins the post-Christian age, which can be defined as the time when it is assumed that there is no God and that religion can be accounted for in psychological or economic terms. In any case, the search for truth no longer has any positive interest in theism; furthermore, it must be seen as in a polemical relation to Christianity. This is where we more or less are today.
Why I Am A Thomist
IN 1879 POPE LEO XIII issued an encyclical called Aeterni Patris, which inaugurated the revival of the study of Saint Thomas Aquinas. Leo looked out over the modern world and did not see the sunny prospect many of his contemporaries saw. Indeed, the pope found influential views of man and nature and human society to be severely flawed. It is one thing to appraise the modern world with the eyes of faith; it is another thing to do so with the common principles of human thought, that is, philosophically. It was a philosophical revival that Leo hoped for, and as its paladin, he pointed to Thomas Aquinas.
It is because, as a philosopher, Thomas found his principal inspiration in Aristotle that he can serve the function Leo envisaged for him. The foregoing sketch has doubtless revealed my conviction that philosophy must enter the third millennium on an Aristotelian note. But this must be properly understood. It must not be understood as the suggestion that, while there is a plurality of viable philosophies, we ought to choose Aristotle. If that were the case, the choice would be arbitrary. If it is not the case, it is because there is no radical plurality of viable philosophies. Differences among philosophers are only radical when one of them is wrong. Where there is truth there is compatibility.
Thomas, we are sometimes reminded, was not aThomist. Indeed he was not. Nor was Aristotle an Aristotelian. Both denials are correct because what the two engaged in was not a kind of philosophy. They simply did philosophy. Philosophy is what proceeds from principles which guide all human thinking. It is because we live in a time when these very starting-points have been called into question that the first order of business is to defend the range of reason. Perhaps it is no accident that it is John Paul II, in his encyclical Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason) who urges philosophers to regain the sense of the power and scope of human reason. The believer cannot view his faith as elevated on the rubble left by modern philosophy. If one accepts truths beyond the capacity of human reason to comprehend, as one does by the gift of faith, there is needed a contrast with truths which are grasped by human reason and within the reach of all. In that sense, faith needs philosophy.
Philosophy is the lingua franca of believers and nonbelievers alike. It has fallen on evil days. But the seeds of its renewal are present in every human mind, in the starting-points which can only be denied at the price of incoherence. Aristotle said it, but it was true before he said it and it is still true today. “All men by nature desire to know.”