The conflict thesis or the lack of interest thesis?

The sweeping narratives in the history of philosophy tend to be conflict-centered: Modern science drives out Aristotelian thought; nominalism drives out other forms of realism; rights theory drives out justice/ virtue based theories, etc. These sorts of sweeping conflict-narratives have their place, but all of them leave out some pretty obvious stuff: no one, for example, thinks that modern science provided new, cutting edge responses to Parmenidean monism or Platonic forms, but a massive amount of Aristotle’s thought consists in exactly this sort of response. Huge tracts of his thought – in fact the very foundations of his thought – are tied up with the idea of how motion could be intelligible at all; but the thought of someone leafing through the pages of the Principia to find an answer to this is just funny. And so in addition to the notion of conflict, we also need some idea of the history of philosophy consisting in people simply losing interest in some ideas, or gaining interest in other things, or simply wanting to do their own thing for a while. This might well turn out to be the better narrative. In other words, the history of philosophy is less like the history of combat or conquest in a single sport and more like the history of people becoming bored with one sport and wanting to play another.


  1. bgc said,

    October 28, 2011 at 8:29 pm

    I agree the history of ideas since AD 1000 is as irrational as ‘people’ getting bored and looking for novelty; but the process of change is driven by incremental professionalization and specialization in the West, I think.

  2. Crude said,

    October 28, 2011 at 8:53 pm

    Very apt post.

  3. JA said,

    October 29, 2011 at 12:31 am

    Great post! While I agree and affirm both the veracity and importance of Greco-Christian metaphysics, especially that related to Aristotle, and generally disparage much of modern thought as stupid, some things have been gained: we have become historically aware in a way that the Greeks never were. While this unfortunately often manifests in the radical historicism of postmodern philosophers, nihilism, and relativism, a Hans Urs Von Balthasar, for instance, can provide a Christian hermeneutic of history that can connect various cultures, peoples, and experiences to the reality of God via analogy.

    This may be small consolation–look at what cost by which it came–but at least it is something.

    @bgc: 1000 AD? Are you rejecting the whole of the scholastic tradition as well? That would leave you a Neo-Platonist/Augustinian?

    • bgc said,

      October 29, 2011 at 8:12 am

      “1000 AD? Are you rejecting the whole of the scholastic tradition as well? That would leave you a Neo-Platonist/Augustinian?”

      Well, Eastern Orthodox, really – in theory (Anglo-Catholic in practice). I regard Aquinas as the supreme Christian philosopher, but also (I think we can now perceive) as the first step onto a slippery slope.

      • JA said,

        October 29, 2011 at 1:33 pm

        If Eastern Orthodox (in theory), wouldn’t that also lead you to exclude Gregory of Palamas with a cut-off of 1000 AD?

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