A brief history of philosophy, part 7: the re-birth of philosophy
Philosophy is for doing, not for studying – I know, sorry. But the way that we think nowadays didn’t just fall from the sky – it’s not ‘common sense’ and it hasn’t always been the same. We’re not born with a worldview – it’s something that we develop from what’s gone before. This is number seven in a series of short articles to help you get a grip on what’s gone before. The problems facing us today, for example what to do about what’s happening to global ecology, or how best (or even whether) to use our technology, mean that philosophy – critical thinking, wisdom – is what we need. I don’t think that this is an academic question – it’s crucial if we’re going to survive, let alone prosper. Political philosophy is required to work out the nuts and bolts of how to organise ourselves, and philosophy generally to discuss what’s really important and why.
My experience of attending a philosophy club for three years with intelligent professionals who are not academics, and in fact from conversations with anyone who is not an academic philosopher, is that most people don’t really have even a vague grasp of the history of philosophy. I don’t think that academics are necessarily the best people to present that broad sweep of the history of thinking. Academics mostly talk to each other. As a non-academic, I think I’m in a better position to define what ‘broad’ actually means, and to present it in an accessible way. The aim is to help more people to get an understanding of the general outline rather than drilling down into the minutiae.
I think, therefore….
Last week we looked at the Reformation and Scientific Revolution, after which, philosophy began to replace myth again as the dominant way of thinking, for the second time in history, and appropriately, René Descartes (1596-1650) decided to start from scratch. You know this bit – ‘Cogito ergo sum‘: I think therefore I am. In other words, the only thing I can know exists for certain is my consciousness because the only thing I can know for sure is that I’m thinking this. His ideas didn’t stand up in the long run – Wittgenstein explained that you can only think of the phrase ‘I think therefore I am’ by using language, and language is something that developed amongst a group of people to help them to communicate. Language can’t develop in isolation. Descartes also had some by then old-fashioned ideas about proving the existence of God with reason. His enormous contribution though, was that he wiped the slate clean, and started modern philosophy afresh.
Society was secularising apace, and some Christian philosophers, alarmed, used philosophical guile to try to turn the tide. Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), in his famous wager, argued that if it is impossible to work out whether God exists or not using reason, then in effect, it was a gamble. When we stop to think what the results of such a wager might be, there are two options. One, you come down on the side of God, and if you’re right, you win everything, and if you’re wrong you lose nothing. If you wager that God does not exist and you’re right, you’ve won nothing, but if you’re wrong you lose everything. In his attempt to bolster Christianity, in the long run he weakened it intellectually. If you had to believe as security against going to hell, that didn’t seem an intellectually honest thing to do; and why bet on Christianity? If you did, and God turned out to be the God of a different religion, and a vengeful one at that, you were going to be in trouble.
Science was turning the low-hanging fruit of metaphysics into physics. Isaac Newton (1643-1727), the Aristotle of his day, came along and changed everything. If we accept the premise that understanding is better than ignorance, Newton moved us forward more than anyone else ever had. His ideas on gravity – the attraction of all bodies to each other – were initially ridiculed by some members of the scientific establishment. It was seen as ‘occult’ thinking. This is often vocalised by supporters of hypotheses that, if true, would break existing ‘laws’ of physics. Sometimes, our view of the world gets turned on its head – but very, very rarely. It’s not very often that a Copernicus, a Newton, a Darwin or an Einstein comes along, and when they do, the force of their arguments mean that they are not shunned by the scientific establishment for very long – they are soon seen for the geniuses that they are.
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1Andrew Rollinson June 30th, 2016
I have enjoyed reading this series of blogs. You have made it very interesting and accessible.
I am interested in the history of science but have never studied it, nor classical philosophy, academically, so I may be well out of my depth with making comments here. What interests me is how many historical scientists/”natural philosophers” (Newton, for example, and Einstein too I believe, plus many others that you have not mentioned such as Robert Fludd) were motivated by a desire to understand God’s world and to get closer to God. I don’t think that you have explored this much at all, and I think it is important.
It seemed to be this desire to be closer to God which drove them to achieve, and they had moral reasons underlying it all too, rather than today where we have most scientists (in my personal experience, I’d say 99%) interested in personal gain and status. People now mostly do what they do for the “false God” of money, and this is why society and the environment is suffering.
2Dave Darby June 30th, 2016
This series of articles will comprise a chapter of a book I’m writing – about philosophy club – something we’re doing in London, but could contain the seed of a new political idea. I think you’re right, and early scientists had a desire to understand God’s work, which I’ll include in the book.
Also, the chapter is leading to the conclusion that economics has taken over from philosophy, and as you say, most things are done today for money rather than a desire to learn or develop.