Saturday, October 27, 2012

Philosophy: Its Second-Stage Rise and Third-Stage Retreat

Author & physicist Freeman Dyson has penned this review of a book entitled Why Does the World Exist? An Existential Detective Story (Liveright, 2012) by Jim Holt. Dysan examine's Holt's foray into the views of a handful of philosophy professors, based on interviews the author conducted, whom he divides conveniently into "materialists" who would give ontological priority to the physical universe discovered by science, and the "Platonists" who would give ontological priority to a realm of ideas (Plato's Forms being, of course, the earliest known exemplar of this kind of stance).

This kind of division is simplistic, of course, but I don't wish to dwell on that here. Holt sees Wittgenstein and Heidegger as the two most influential philosophers of the twentieth century. Whether this is true I also won't get into, but I think we would have to include them in the top five. What makes Dyson's comments worth thinking about is his observation, late in the review, that philosophy basically disappeared from Western civilization as an efficacious endeavor, one might say, in the latter half of the 1800s. At this point Dyson enters the purview of these meditations. Major philosophers of the past (John Locke is an example--especially in Two Treatises of Government) spoke to major issues, and was read and taken seriously by those in the political establishment of the time. Locke moreover, saw a man such as Isaac Newton as a colleague with whom he could speak & work closely, and the feeling was mutual. In the late 1600s scientists characterized themselves as natural philosophers as the term scientist hadn't been coined. What we call science today was then considered as a branch of philosophy.

In the 1800s, however, everything changed. It wasn't the rise of the modern university, for philosophy had risen to prominence in the modern university by the time of Kant and Hegel; after this era, philosophy began its retreat into oblivion. By the middle of the 1900s, and continuing as we inch into the 2000s, there is an abundance of philosophy professors--perhaps more than ever before!--almost all without influence outside their immediate academic enclaves. They may know the names of leading scientists, but with very rare exceptions leading scientists don't know their names. Why and how philosophy lost its importance is itself an important topic--at least in this author's view. Dyson mentions William Whewell who finally coined the term scientist in 1833 as part of his struggle to free science from philosophy as having its own identity. Whewell was hardly laboring in isolation. He was one of the harbingers of the turning point.

This all ties in with why I find Auguste Comte's "Law of the Three Stages" so inviting--not, again, because I agree with Comte but because I see him as having touched on something very important about modern civilization. The historically important philosophers of the past--the Platos, the Aquinases, the John Lockes, the Adam Smiths, the Immanuel Kants, etc.--were Stage Two thinkers, in our terminology: "metaphysical and abstract." Once civilization begins to enter Stage Three--"scientific and positive"--it appears to have very little use for philosophy which is thereby consigned to the oblivion of academic microspecialization. The standard explanation for this is that the sciences obtain measurable, testable, reproducible results while philosophy does not. Science clearly advances in the sense that more recent theories are objectively superior to older ones; to question this is to invite some strange looks, at least in polite company.* Technology, moreover, increases convenience & makes the lives of everyone better via mastery over one's environment--come to think of it, what was life was like before the Internet?! Commerce (speaking very generally) produces & distributes the products of technologists along with myriad other goods people want and are willing to pay for. In the Secular City**, these aren't seen as needing "justification." The results speak for themselves. Thus a civilization based on science, technology & commerce has "outgrown" philosophy which thereby becomes the province of impractical dreamers. Could this be true? Few professional philosophers could run a business, of course (although the younger ones are reasonably tech savvy). Suffice it to say, characterizing a John Locke or an Adam Smith as an "impractical dreamer" would hardly be accurate or fair.

To be sure, there is a sense in which philosophy brought about its own near-disappearance via Comte's positivistic model & its close relatives who followed Whewell and physicists such as Ernst Mach who sought to eliminate the "metaphysical" elements from physics. The ideal of the "scientific philosopher" caught on within the discipline by the early 1900s, and it became assumed that acquiring knowledge about the world was the province of science alone; philosophy was just not suited to "compete" with the sciences in any way. (There were first rate philosophers such as Frederic B. Fitch and Brand Blanshard who disagreed and followed their own muses, but by and large the profession simply ignored their work.)

"Third Stage" civilization, however, has been characterized not just by the rise of science, technology & commerce but also of concentrations of power. While the Secular City has far more creature comforts than its ancestor villages, it has its underside. Elsewhere I (along with many others) have charted the rise of the Western power elite alongside science, technology and commerce, which they bent to suit their desires. These powers, emanating from (but hardly limited to) extremely wealthy cartels of private international bankers and financiers, also used their wealth to shape education, including universities, to produce a certain kind of work force in a certain kind of environment--one for which the term capitalism continued to be used despite the growing consonance of interests between big business and big government. To the extent the elite considered the matter at all (and I am not saying they did), they would have found very useful for their purposes a species of "philosophy" that confined itself to classrooms, academic offices and library cubicles. Positivistic philosophy (and its descendents in the "analytic" schools) fit very nicely into the kind of university the elite wanted.

Stage Three philosophy, after all, never addressed such questions as, What is the best form of government? or Should government be limited to a few easily delineated functions? Twentieth century logical positivism confined itself to the analysis of language and of scientific knowledge which it took for granted. Thus it would never get to the "big questions" taken on by its ancestor. Absent any anchor or grounding for doing so, it would never question or challenge the structures of power in any efficacious way--not even the powers shaping the universities. While there have been exceptions to this--there have been philosophers who tried to address the major problems of modern civilization (the quite different philosophers Peter Singer and Richard Rorty come to mind), by and large philosophy is moving into the twenty first century as an endeavor without influence.

Moreover--as discussed in earlier posts--Western civilization has moved from Stage Three to what I characterize as Stage Four, a stage not "scientific and positive" but in many (not all) respects as "postmodern and negative"--negative, that is, about the capabilities of the human mind to reach "objective truth" in some sense of that term. Think of Rorty again. Rorty began essentially in the linguistic school, began working out the dynamic of mid-twentieth century analytic philosophy in a new and highly original way, and ended up with a stance where "professional philosophy" has little left to do--except meditate on the futility of its past and how little it has to do in the present! I would argue that the relative disappearance of philosophy has left Western civilization philosophically adrift, unable to articulate much less defend Western core values, and thus vulnerable to those who would undermine those values. One of the core values John Locke clearly articulated and defended, for example, was private property rights. Today, private property rights are everywhere under attack. They are, one might say, conditional rather than given: conditional in the sense that the property owner retains his property if he pays the correct amount of taxes to his government. The average person, who never thinks about such things, takes this stage of affairs for granted unless caught up in a dialogue such as the following:

"Do you own your house?"

"Yes, of course."

"How do you know you own your house?"

"I have the deed right here."

"The deed says you own your house?"

[Impatiently] "Of course it does! It's a deed, and it has my name on it!"

"Do you pay property taxes?"


"What happens if you don't pay your property taxes."

[A tad more thoughtfully now] "The government will eventually come and take my house."

"In that case, who really owns your house?"

Unfortunately, absent philosophical reflection on any large scale, we have come to inhabit a world where those with enormous wealth and in power (they are frequently one and the same) simply assume that power gets the last word, and in the Secular City, it essentially does. Why, since the idea is so seldom articulated much less challenged, would the elites make any other assumption? And if the body of ideas that led up to and were incorporated into private property rights are no longer articulated, then how long can such an institution survive when it gets in the way of those who want to enlarge the scope of their wealth and power?

To bring the discussion completely down to Earth, does anyone really believe Barack Obama has read any recent works of philosophy (except perhaps Fabian socialist Saul Alinsky)? Does anyone think Mitt Romney has studied John Locke or Adam Smith?

Fourth Stage philosophy has, by and large (and unfortunately), continued with the errors of Third Stage philosophy--institutional as well as intellectual. As a discipline it continues the near-invisibility which fell across the field as Third Stage thinking and living came to dominate the Secular City. Particularly embarrassing are the so-called "tenured radicals" who see themselves as "speaking truth to power" because they are oh-so-politically correct in bringing about a more "diverse" campus & badmouthing George W. Bush. Their writings are more microspecialized and less readable than even logical positivism. Most "professional philosophers," of course, don't fall into this category but still take this state of affairs for granted as they teach their service courses, and for pay that even for tenured status is significantly less than what is afforded professors in, say, the department of management over in the business school. They resent it, but don't see themselves as in any position to do anything about it, so in the end they just accept it.

The only way I see to change this state of affairs is for philosophy to change itself from within. This is admittedly a tall order. Philosophy must recover that portion of Stage Two thinking that identified and evaluated worldviews within civilization: identifying the kinds of assumptions made in the contexts of science, technology and commerce that constitute a worldview, and then evaluating them by whether they are helpful or harmful either to civilization at large or some part of it. For example, whether human beings ought to live lives governed by hedonistic values ("the good is pleasure") or whether their lives should be governed by transcendent ones is surely an issue that could affect the course of affairs in commerce: a citizenry steeped in hedonism will choose to spend money on a rather different range of products than a more ascetic citizenry. A society of short-term thinkers will make different aggregate choices than a society of long-term thinkers. The former set of choices are more likely to be harmful in the long run than the latter set of choices; I would submit that this is open to direct observation and so is objectively knowable in any reasonable sense of that phrase.

Lest there be any doubt, the kind of work I am talking about is getting done, and sometimes it is getting done very well. Consider Niall Ferguson's new book Civilization (2012); or Jared Diamond's major works Guns, Germs and Steel (1999) and Collapse: How Societies Choose to Succeed or Fail (2005), or Stewart Brand's Clock of the Long Now: Time and Responsibility (1999) or his more recent Whole Earth Discipline: An Eco-Pragmatist Manifesto (2009). Stephen Hawking's latest book The Grand Design (2010), moreover, surely addresses some of the major philosophical issues of the entirety of Western civilization with its pronouncement that modern theoretical physics can explain the origins and workings of the physical universe without referencing a Supreme Being.

The work, in other words, is getting done; just not by philosophers. Do philosophers wish to contribute to these dialogues, or don't they. (Will they be allowed by their circumstances to contribute? is a separate and no less interesting question.)

Perhaps a species of philosophy that embraces this kind of self-description--combined, of course, with what is necessary to bring forward from the earlier stages--will be a species of philosophy capable of advancing to consciousness of itself as Fifth Stage, and worthy of a position of influence in the Fifth Stage of Civilization. Perhaps we can one day have a post-Secular City!


*The so-called social sciences might constitute exceptions, of course. Within disciplines from economics to psychology are multiple "schools" of thought (or, to use Kuhn's term, paradigms) whose adherents don't consider the adherents of the others to be doing "sound economics" or "scientific psychology."

**I hope it is obvious that by Secular City I am not referring to any particular city. The phrase's scope of reference is any or all of the major modern cities in the Western world that are essentially elite-managed, where such practices as "scientific management" prevail, and where the discussion of fundamental ideas is mostly relegated to classrooms and the coffeehouses prevalent in university districts. The phrase comes from Harvey Cox's 1966 book of that title.


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1 comment:

  1. Steven - I really appreciate and value all your thoughtfulness and efforts on this blog.

    Admittedly, I am a rank amateur at philosophy, but as a systems engineer I see all the time where deconstructionism or self-interest breaks natural positive and negative feedback loops that would otherwise lead to self-correcting or self-adapting systems (or thinking).

    It seems (to me) that in the time since Beauty, Forms, and Matter were articulated, the latter commands most attention but the absence of the former robs us of some of the transcendent aspects of being human.

    Please keep up your good work!