“Philosophy questions everything”

This doesn’t mean that philosophy robotically challenges every statement with “why” or that it sees every claim to truth as dubious and open to debunking. Both attitudes are immature – the first being childish and the second being juvenile.

Philosophy challenges everything as a side effect of philosophers wanting to see things for themselves. They are less willing than others to take a large, consensus-based stock of truth for granted and work from it. This is a good that comes at a cost. Philosophical progress can happen, but it is nowhere near as dramatic as the progress one finds in visual art, engineering, experimental science, etc. Even mathematics seems to have achieved progress by taking stocks of truth for granted – one does not get the sense that all that many people could know the supporting proofs for Wiles’s proof of Fermat’s last theorem.

Hypothesis: Philosophy historically separated itself from science around the time when it became clear that, in order to make any progress in a field of knowledge, we would have to take certain stores of knowledge for granted and work from them in order to get anywhere. Somewhere in the first half of the 19th century it became clear that the idea of the liberally educated man, who could see a whole system of knowledge all the way to the bottom, was becoming more and more of a practical impossibility. Before that, we only had “philosophy”, that is, a system that could go all the way from first principles of knowledge to the last things known. But at some point knowledge advanced to the point where this accomplishment, while always the province of a few, became impossible even for those few to accomplish. At this point “philosophy” had to become not a knowing of the whole of things, but only seeing the foundations of things for oneself. Others chose to take their foundations more or less for granted (leaving aside moments of scientific revolution), and to base their knowledge on a set of results achieved collectively and which each person would not even try to see for himself.

And so the old ideal of a liberally educated person became a practical impossibility, and we had to divide the whole of knowledge into philosophy and particular arts and sciences. We haven’t figured out how to re-build the old vision. The clearest proof of this is the utter bewilderment of all liberal-arts curricula in the face of math and science. It is only mildly cynical to see the modern division of “humanities” and “sciences” as a division into “things we can teach in a liberal arts curriculum” and “things we know have to be a part of the liberal arts, but which we have no idea how to incorporate”. Briefly, “humanities” is something with a known syllabus and “sciences” is everything else.

This radical division of the whole left philosophers as only able to question the whole – to question everything. It was the only appropriate response in the face of the magnitude of knowledge advancing beyond the point that a single mind could comprehend it. This is at the heart of the Postmodern sense of utter dissolution of things. It’s not that society is collapsing but something much worse. There will be no grand apocalypse to save us from this crisis, and from which we can start over from the beginning. We’ve discovered a problem in the attempt to know the whole, and that what was called philosophy from Aristotle to Aquinas to Descartes to Newton to Christian Wolfe and Kant was never possible, or that it was only possible because of our relative amount of ignorance. Something of the old liberal idea remains, to be sure, but no one is quite sure how to teach very large parts of the curriculum, or even if it is possible to do so.


  1. thenyssan said,

    April 5, 2014 at 1:00 pm

    Cynical reaction: this is why, eventually, a civilization with a very far-reaching science will “collapse.” Not that the civilization itself ceases, but that it ceases to be scientifically advanced. Nothing can get that far from the foundations without eventually forgetting the big questions that make it work, that make the progress possible. Someday we won’t know how to make our gizmos work, and someday after that we’ll start asking “what the heck is change?” again. A scientific Flood.

    Less negatively, maybe scientific progress ceases for a long period, while the big picture catches up. Then progress becomes possible again. The first questions are too important for a species made in the image and likeness of God to forget for too long.

    Possibly I have read too much of TOF. Or maybe that’s just why I like him.

  2. Ray Stamper said,

    April 6, 2014 at 10:06 pm

    James – have you read the late Benedict Ashley’s “The Way Toward Wisdom”, which seems a valiant attempt to remedy or point out a pathway towards reunifcation of human knowledge? If so, what do you think of his project? I, for one, found it compelling.

  3. D.S. Thorne said,

    April 7, 2014 at 3:28 pm

    I don’t necessarily see the above reference to postmodernism as dismissive – but I do want to take the opportunity to correct a distorted view of postmodernism I find among a lot of Catholics.

    Recall that your average self-identified postmodern is reacting first and foremost to modernism, and as such his suspicions are often well founded. I believe it was Cornel West who characterized postmodernism as an attitude that holds in suspicion three activities of the modernist: forging historical metanarratives, discerning totalities, and discerning foundations. We of the Just Thomism type stand to gain a lot from the postmoderns.

    For starters, consider their critique of metanarratives. Foucault for example would see in the rise of such seemingly benevolent developments as modern medicine, mental health treatments and education an insidious trend to internalize norms and disciplines which were once imposed externally, if at all. The result is that, thinking himself to be liberated and enlightened, modern man actually holds himself in thrall in a deep internal conformity of thought and act – unbeknownst to himself.

    And Foucault’s analysis is not so far-fetched: think of the hordes of teenagers descending on a college campus for the first time, imitating the same modes of “non-conformity” they ingested watching MTV in mom’s basement, thinking themselves original when aping the dictates of their favorite suit-selected recording artist. To spell that out: there really exists a bunch of guys who wear suits and drive BMW’s and live in gated communities who select and promote the very images they would not suffer to see behind those gates, images that are to appeal to youths, regardless how it affects these youths as long as profits continue. And the kids go through the array of images thus presented multiple-choice style, clicking on what they like, in the utter conviction that personal expression is the foundation of personhood. Distracted by the panoply of supposedly liberated images, the enclose themselves within the suffocating confines of the personality.

    As for the postmodern suspicion of totalities, think of the basic attitude we find in Buber and Levinas: to take the systematic thinking and apply it to the “Other” – that is, to another person – is to do violence to them. I would disagree with these figures if and when they imply that we should never think about persons in a systematic fashion, but the time and place for that is probably not going to be during an encounter with the Other. And I’d point out that I’m in good company thinking so – this “personalism” lays at the heart of John Paul II’s appropriation of Aquinas.

    I’ll spare you an analysis of foundations, but leave you with a plea: don’t dismiss the postmoderns! Sift through them and find the good ones…

    ~DS Thorne, kindlefrenzy.weebly.com

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