26 July 2005

A Silent Spring

A question directed at those who think that there is, or might be, a 'perennial philosophy', pagan or Christian, expressed in the writings of Plato and Aristotle:

If there is such, why is no one writing books that are new contributions to this philosophy?

Why do we have only historical studies, which are half-hearted, almost cowardly ways of affirming a Platonic or Aristotelian philosophical viewpoint? It's much too easy, isn't it, to profess belief in something like eros (f0r instance) through an exposition of the Symposium, rather than through writing something like the Symposium (however imperfect it might turn out in comparison).

Why do we find works such as After Virtue, which point and say that philosophy should be done in a certain way, but which fail actually to do philosophy in that way?

Presumably, if Aristotle's Physics (for instance) is correct, it is still basically correct. Where are the works in philosophy of science that don't use the name 'Aristotle' even once but which make sense of contemporary science in the fashion and spirit of the Physics?--so that any intelligent person might read it and become convinced that that is the most sensible way of looking at the natural world.

An exception: Fred Sommers' work on term logic. Perhaps another: Philippa Foot on ethics.

18 comments:

Brandon said...

Duhem argued that physical theory approximated a broadly Aristotelian view of the physical world; i.e., that the natural classification of scientific phenomena is most easily characterizable in Aristotelian terms. But he (eventually, after laying out the characteristics of the natural classification which he thinks physical theory suggest) uses the name 'Aristotle'.

David said...

You've answered your own question, no? If there is such a thing as a perennial philosophy which has already been articulated by previous thinkers, why would we continue to reiterate it? Wouldn't our writings simply be the application of the PP to the current era?

Nick said...

Eros and emotion are modes of cognition under our rapid cognition system. Deliberative cognition may never be directed at exploring the content of one's rapid cognition. The unexamined life may accidently be worth living.

Anonymous said...

Uhh, okay...

If After Virtue is a paradigmatic example, then might it make sense to say that the project of revitalizing ancient philosophical approaches needs to proceed (and has been proceeding) by a process of recovery? If the basic point is that the ancient philosophic tradition constitutes an approach to the world superior to post-Cartesian philosophy, it would follow that the two are somehow different in ways that make such a comparison meaningful. But if they are so different, then it would not be incredibly easy (or even entirely possible?) to simply adopt the ancient philosophical approach without engaging in a long process of showing why it is not as inferior as post-Cartesian modes of thought have taken it to be. I speak without a thorough knowledge, but my experience in reading some of the Anglo-American scholarship in ancient philosophy that has been produced in the last century suggests that much of the history of that scholarship has involved a progressive development away from interpreting the ancients on the assumption that modern ideas are correct. That is, even within the community of scholars whose interests center around ancient philosophy per se, overcoming much of the post-Cartesian influence has been a challenge. Given that, it is unsurprising that philosophers firmly entrenched in post-Cartesian modes of thought would fail to see the attraction of ancient philosophic ideas and frameworks.

That is, I think, something like what MacIntyre would say about his own approach in After Virtue and his subsequent work. And at least one of his major works, Dependent Rational Animals, deserves to be mentioned as a piece of contemporary philosophy which applies ancient ideas without being an historical study. And that is what MP is really looking for, I think: contemporary works which make arguments reminiscent of ancient thinkers without being historical studies. The requirement ought not, I think, to be that ancient philosophers are never mentioned, because only someone with a poor sense of intellectual history could make a recognizably Aristotelian or Platonic argument without recognizing it as such. The requirement is, rather (I think), that the ideas are developed in relative isolation from the ancient texts themselves.

I'm not sure that such a requirement would really be fair, but if we make the distinction between a work which is explicitly historical in one sense or another (e.g., After Virtue or Nussbaum's Fragility of Goodness) and one which is not (e.g., Dependent Rational Animals), then why do we not include among those philosophers who have argued for ancient ideas not only MacIntyre, Foot, Anscombe, McDowell, Murdoch, and virtually anyone whose ethics is naturalistic/eudaimonistic in the relevant sense, but also people whose arguments in the philosophy of mind are recognizably Aristotelian (e.g., Ryle in some ways, Putnam in others?), everyone who argues that animal organisms ought to be understood holistically or that teleology makes good sense (e.g., Mary Midgley, Robert Koons, Peter Simpson)? And why should those who work self-consciously within a tradition (e.g., Thomism) not count simply because they make reference to the original source of their arguments?

Furthermore, if someone wants to maintain that ancient philosophy was simply right, and that post-Cartesian philosophy is simply wrong, then the simple demands that MP makes are eminently reasonable. But few people would want (?) to claim that there have been no intellectual advances in the modern era. Perhaps some elements of Aristotle's biology or physics are right, but some elements of it are clearly not, namely earth, fire, air, and water. Some of the ideas put forth by ancient philosophers are just plain wrong, and it is one of the tasks of the constructive historian of philosophy to show us which parts of ancient thought were on the right track. If nothing else, the British philosophic tradition has introduced standards of clarity and precision that have benefitted all of us, and it does not diminish the insights of ancient philosophers to say that the British tradition really has advanced in that respect. Likewise, a sense of history and culture has entered into philosophy (some would say too little) that, some of us at least believe, needs to be recognized. Thus someone like MacIntyre, who is otherwise very critical of modern thought, still maintains that we have got to be sensitive to historical and cultural contingencies when doing philosophy. Even if MacIntyre overextends that sensitivity (as, without question, many other historicist philosophers do), his basic points still stands, I think. And the best evidence for it is that articulating the case for the superiority of ancient philosophical frameworks to modern ones requires that historical sensitivity, if in no other way than that it requires us to suspend our confidence in our ways of thinking in order to confront theirs. MP will probably object that such a suspension is not intrinsically historical, but just good philosophy. It is good philosophy, but it's also intrinsically historical in the case of engaging with ancient philosophy, because the attempt to engage ancient ideas on their own terms requires the recognition that those ideas were expressed in a context of thought unlike our own. The simple recognition that nomoi are not just 'laws,' but laws, customs, and conventions of all sorts -- a recognition so simple that it would be unthinkable to do ancient philosophy without it -- requires an historical sensibility.

Finally, even if the claim of the 'perennialist' is that Plato and Aristotle articulated (at least) the basics of the truth about what is, and that modern philosophy has gone very, very wrong in one way or another, would it really be surprising that most modern philosophy does not harmonize with Plato and Aristotle? Would it be more likely, though, that intelligent, persistent thinkers who have merely been proceeding in the wrong way (which is, I take it, what a perennialist has to say about most modern philosophers) should come across bits and pieces of the truth? Would a perennialist be able to say that even though few philosophers have discovered the truth without direct reference to the perennialist texts, plenty of philosophers have discovered parts of it even as they believed they were opposed to those texts?

And uhh, yeah on that whole rapid cognition thing. ;-)

Jimmy Doyle said...

Like anonymous, I think that MP underestimates the amount of recent philosophy that contributes to a perennial philosophy. Much of the work of Anscombe, Geach and Kenny was an articulation, in the language of analytic philosophy, of fundamentally Aristotelian (and Thomistic) points. Robert Adams' Finite and Infinite Goods is a recent attempt to spell out a distinctively Platonic ethic. Certain communitarians in political philosophy take themselves (in many cases correctly, I think) to be reaffirming central theses of Aristotle's Politics (as well as Hegel's Philosophy of Right). Everything Jim Cargile has written, as far as I can tell, is an expression of his metaphysical platonism. Most virtue ethics, of which there is a great deal, surely counts as 'perennialising' in the relevant sense. Even in logic, Jonathan Lear has argued, against the conventional wisdom, that Aristotle was not entirely superseded by Frege and still has important things to teach us. I could go on...

Anonymous said...

Thanks for these remarks.

I wonder if Thomas Reid shouldn't be considered as a practitioner of a philosophia perennis . He of course does not view himself as being an Aristotelian, except perhaps in logic, because he takes Aristotle to be an early promoter of the 'idea idea'. But otherwise his brand of naturalism (of the place of human beings in nature and their natural endowment), his careful attention to phenomena and interest in accounting for the views of predecessors, not to mention the substance of his thought, would all seem to cohere with a presumed perennial philosophy. 

Posted by Michael Pakaluk

Anonymous said...

Reid seems not to have fared well in our standard historical narrative of philosophy. He is, at any rate, not often spoken of. Then again, if he is a good candidate for the philosophia perennis, then that might be less than surprising. By 'the idea idea,' I take it that you mean 'ideas' in the Lockean sense? Is there any good reason to associate Aristotle with anything like that view? I can't think of any.

For what it's worth, the only times I've ever heard Reid mentioned at length, with the exception of his role in the personal-identity debates, the reference has come from the mouth of an Aristotelian. Seems to be uncoincidental.

Anonymous said...

Reid interprets Aristotle to hold that perception of objects is not direct but a kind of inference from 'sensible species'. He took this to be a forerunner of Lockean representationalism. I don't know much (but I should) about the sources Reid's views on Aristotle. He studied Aristotle's logical writings and wrote on them, but perhaps his other knowledge is largely second-hand, or at least hastily acquired?

If we are discussing Reid in connection with Aristotle, one should perhaps add John Haldane to the list of someone who attempts to contribute to a presumed philosophia perennis , but not by doing history.

 

Posted by Michael Pakaluk

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