May 12, 2017 by John Bruce Leonard
The Vacant God, Part V
The History of Philosophy
AMONG THE MORE DEPLORABLE TRAITS that we have acquired from our purported “historic consciousness” is surely that fundamentally unhistoric contempt that we commonly hold for the past—not only nor even most particularly for the periods and societies of the past, but rather for their greatest figures. It is actually somehow assumed among many of us, for example, that Socrates was a child among philosophers—that, being among the first, he was obviously perforce also among the simplest, a mere forerunner and first good try, with much to learn and none to teach him. Here, too, our touching belief in progress makes itself felt: from any given beginning must of course come ascension; therefore, any given beginning must be lowest. So we feel. And how easily, after unthinkingly submitting to this feeling, do we find in the writings of Plato or Xenophon every support for it, and how smoothly we elide every contradiction which might be inconvenient to us! When we study Socrates in our schools, we are almost not even studying philosophy any longer; rather, we have entered into the realm of the history of philosophy. So deep grows our presumption.
Now, it is a peculiarity of our time that the past, which we purport to study with greater clarity and in greater depth than any time preceding ours, is in fact separated from us by walls and veils which we do not so much as perceive. Before we may approach the past, we must first overcome a number of our dearest prejudices. We assume that the farther one proceeds into the kingdoms of yesterday, the more ignorant grow their citizens; we measure everything as though it were a yardstick leading up from prehistory to us. This distorts our vision utterly. Indeed, in looking at our present attitude from a certain height, we find—much to our astonishment and perhaps also our amusement—that past periods of time were less prejudiced with regard to their own past, than is our purportedly historical epoch: they regarded the past with ingenuous openness, while we regard it with dogmatic closedness. We must strip ourselves of these heavy garments if we are to go flying a little.
Speaking practically, the most important obscuring influence of the present day is the judgement that scientism passes on philosophy, which is but a generalization of the judgement which science passes on natural philosophy. The unspoken logic goes something like this: classic natural philosophy had adopted a multitude of theories regarding the natural world, each of which conflicted with the next. This diversity of opinions stood as a constant mark against philosophy, a constant embarrassment, a shameful pudendum philosophiae over which one could not lay so much as a fig leaf. The birth of modern science changed this, by extending the single universally acknowledged science—mathematics—to ever greater portions of the universe via scientific method, thereby establishing a body of inquiry into the natural world which resulted, almost miraculously, in the unanimous agreement of all capable observers as to the principle facts. Certainly, at its periphery and at its vanguard, there will be controversy and a degree of uncertainty even in this project, and now and again, a theory of the significance of Newton’s or Einstein’s will revolutionize the entire field more or less—but setting aside these exceptional cases and occurrences, the heart of scientific enterprise is characterized by an amazing degree of concord and agreement, such as certainly never existed before. This agreement, together with the impressive practical demonstrations of scientific theory furnished by technology, has demonstrated beyond any rational doubt the superiority of modern science over all classic natural philosophy. One must therefore distinguish between an inferior and heterogeneous pre-scientific natural philosophy and a superior and homogeneous modern science. But pre-scientific philosophy as such was bound up with pre-scientific natural philosophy, thus suggesting the inferiority of all pre-scientific philosophy. More: pre-scientific philosophy, as well as the present-day humanistic studies, suffer from precisely the same shameful diversity of views that characterized pre-scientific natural philosophy. Just as science has eradicated the diversity of views of natural philosophy, so it can be reasonably expected to do the same for philosophy as a whole, given enough time and resources and a sufficient depth of research. One is permitted to consider pre-scientific natural philosophy to be of present interest exclusively to scholars; then the same must hold for non-scientific philosophy as such, either today or in the past. To the degree that one’s thought is founded in science, it is founded well; to the degree that it is founded in philosophy, it is build on unsturdy grounds at best, at worst on figments and delusions.
Science thus infuses in us a certain historical prejudice. Because its own studies are evidently progressive in character, we are inclined to view the newest as the best, and what is older as worse. We are biased against philosophy, and the older the philosophy, the stronger grows our bias. As we have seen, scientism is not simply mute regarding the inferiority of philosophy. True, science itself seldom deigns to speak of philosophy, and the principle scientists rarely so much as mention it. But this silence is due rather to what is regarded as the unequivocal success of science over philosophy: these scientists simply have better matters to attend to than the critique of failed dogmas. This failure, this historical failure of philosophy, is taken for granted, it is everywhere assumed: and in turn it is only by this presumed historical failure of philosophy that the intellectual dominance of science can be freely established.
We have already introduced the accusations of scientism against philosophy toward the beginning of this essay, when we spoke of the reasons behind science’s ascendancy to its present role as final arbiter, final tribunal of human thought. The fact that philosophy, which has been with us for twenty-five hundred years by the most modest reckoning, has not given to humankind even so much as a single indisputable and publicly validated truth, seems to decisively disprove the efficacy of philosophy, and to damn its task as impossible and quixotic. To adequately take stock of the scientistic objections to philosophy, let us consider what they presuppose, and what criteria the employ.
First, they suppose that truth is the sole aim of philosophy, and thus the unique standard by which philosophers must be judged. This seems to be given to us in the very name of philosophy—the love of wisdom. Second, they suppose that the truth is a thing that can be acquired by means other than purely philosophical, else philosophy’s failure here would reveal itself as simply a necessary, if perhaps regrettable, failure. It would seem that the spectacular and also totally visible success of the physical sciences has proved this point beyond dispute. Finally, they suppose that philosophical truth is such a thing as can and should be made public—moreover, that this publicizing of philosophical conclusions is part of the project, and even the function, of philosophy.
Put otherwise, scientism supposes that in its desire, its activity, and its aims, philosophy must in all ways be like science.
Let us restrict ourselves to the question of the publicizing of knowledge. Science takes great pride in publishing its research; indeed, it is a point of intellectual conscience with science. That researcher, that scholar, that scientist, who did not publish in all due clarity every facet of his research would be regarded with so much skepticism that his conclusions would never be even alluded to. Philosophy, surely, must be the same: surely the philosophers of all times must, like the scientists, have wished to speak their minds plainly—to have submitted their ideas, as it were, to public scrutiny and to “peer review.” In this supposition we draw an equivalency between the philosopher and the scientist. Yet I ask—where is the evidence for this equivalency? Where, indeed, do we find even the first shred of a reason to distinguish this notion from a bald-faced prejudice? It is, one might respond, self-evident; for what could be the reasons any man would have for withholding his knowledge on any subject? Would not such be perverse, selfish, and inhumane?
Regarding the possible reasons for such secrecy, we note in the first place that it is not always prudent to speak what one knows; the truth can be personally and socially dangerous. We have only to cite the cases of Socrates, Boethius, and Sir Thomas More to remind ourselves of this fact. But there are deeper reasons yet for preferring, in some cases, silence to speech. Indeed, in some cases, it is not even a question of preference. As Thoreau writes:
You will pardon some obscurities, for there are more secrets in my trade than in most men’s, and yet not voluntarily kept, but inseparable from its very nature. I would gladly tell all that I know about it, and never paint “No Admittance” on my gate.
And yet—he has no choice. Thoreau is hardly alone in this: we have it at the word of the philosophers themselves that they do not always speak what they think: the art of writing is largely built around concealing what one thinks. But then—we cannot judge of the wisdom of past philosophies until we have understood their unspoken claims; the most damning argument against philosophy on the part of scientism is radically incomplete without a thorough historical investigation into philosophy, such as that first undertaken in our time by Leo Strauss. For it is not until we have seen the private doctrine of the philosophers that we might judge of the truth or the falsity of that doctrine. But the investigation into the private doctrines of the philosophers cannot be carried through via science, for all manner of practical and theoretical reasons; science is thus incompetent to pass judgement on the question of whether or not the philosophers have or have not arrived at truth. The prime critique of scientism against philosophy is worse than unproved: it is unprovable by science alone, and indicates to us the necessity of returning to that very philosophy which scientism presumes to have debunked.
More: the philosophers write with an eye toward the public: they hide behind their own words, safely behind the stuff of custom, by putting up a sort of smoke-screen of conventionality. What first meets our vision when we approach the past philosophers from the perspective of outsiders, of the uninitiated, is therefore naught but a sort of recapitulation of the follies of the times in which they lived. If we judge them by these standards, then the history of philosophy has as little inherent sense, as little semblance of a progression, as history itself. It seems to represent a slight improvement over its time—for every philosopher who ever wrote also had an eye toward the betterment of his moment—but the improvement is negligible. Indeed, we find precisely what we expect to find, we as the “historically conscious”: a succession of obviously historically-bound errors. But in such investigation, we do as the naturalist who, when viewing the jungle, catalogs nothing but its trees and ferns and flowers, and fails so much as to notice the existence of the chameleon which has made itself so much like its surroundings that only a searching and practiced eye shall ever manage to glimpse it. The history of philosophy is a history separate from our own, and hidden from it; it exists behind our history, above our history, surrounding our history, to some extent in a different realm from it, a realm a- or super-historical, which cannot be entered through any portal known to the common historian.
Let us note this well. Scientism’s critique of philosophy assumes that philosophy is an historical phenomenon. But taking history as we understand it today, we find that the contrary of this is true: philosophy begins as an anti-historical phenomenon, an audacious and precious attempt to pierce the character of local prejudices (make no mistake, historical prejudices are nothing other than “local prejudices” extended through time) and to purge them from the mind. One must die to oneself to pursue philosophy; one must murder one’s time in oneself, which is often enough the majority of one’s self. But the dead no longer live historically. The dead live beyond history.
It is remarkable that scientism feels itself so competent today, so sure in the role it has been universally assigned, and so confident in its future, that without any hesitation it seeks to dismount the very platform upon which it stands. For this is precisely what scientism does when it scorns and defies philosophy, without which science lacks all justification and cannot so much as defend its own purpose. Scientism is permitted its arrogance, only on account of the faith that is put in it: the faith of the public, the faith of intellectuals, the faith of the majority of Western human beings, that science will one day succeed where philosophy has failed: it will one day succeed in comprehending the life of man. It will succeed, that is to say, in doing what philosophy could never do: in unifying also the humanistic and moral studies, under a single objective head, the conclusions of which must be accepted by all rational and competent men.
It is failing to do so, is failing before our very eyes—and we do not notice. There is beyond all something highly revelatory in this latest act of that great drama called modernity: scientism itself gives us a point of entry into the crisis of our times, the crisis of value.
We have made multiple references to science’s utter failure in its study of all things human, from psychology to art, from politics to history, but it is to be assumed that many will hear such accusations with something like perplexity. What? Science, failing to understand human things? And neuroscience? And psychology? And the social sciences? What could this possibly mean? Let us attempt, then, to grant this accusation a little body. Science, in all its studies, aims, theories, innovations, inventions, and investigations, strives ever to remain neutral: science tries to preclude—nay, presupposes and demands the preclusion of—value from all its efforts. Value can be taken as an object of science, but never as its mode. But the human being lives insolubly entangled in a world of values. Science cannot help but misinterpret and misunderstand the human being, because its very method closes it to the fundamental quality of human concerns.
In the first place, science, in all its research or studies, demands that all terms be defined beforehand in such a manner that they can be considered objectively or functionally valid. Each term must have a meaning so clear and so uncontroversial that any competent human being who reads that definition will not only understand it, but will acquiesce to it, at least for the purposes and duration of study. As a practical example, if science is to investigate, say, deception and its effects in the life of human psychology, it must define deception before commencing its investigations. It seems impossible, however, to arrive at such a definition of a given human value, as any student of Plato will quickly admit. All human virtues—indeed, “virtue” itself—are inherently controversial, inherently open to dispute and to argument. Science, to overcome this problem and to arrive at something like universal agreement regarding the nature of a given value, must sheer that value of all those elements in it which are in any way controversial. It can do so only by referring them to emotional or cognitive states, which in turn are referred to those phenomena which science has been able to master—namely, the physical world, the world susceptible to analysis through physics and chemistry alone. To define any value, in other words, science must refer it to a state of being which has nothing to do with value. But this results in definitions of human things which are unrecognizable from a human perspective. No one reading, say, the scientific definition of fear or anger, of love or altruism, will recognize in it the interior phenomena which it supposedly encapsulates. This is a noteworthy disconnect, and we will have more to say on it presently.
Secondly, science is inapplicable to that part of the world which is not subject to measurement. Science was born, as we have seen, as the extension of objective and universally valid mathematics to the whole of the world; it depends therefore on that same mathematics for the right use of its method. Scientific method breaks down if it cannot establish identical or near-identical conditions which result in identical or near-identical results, and it is scientifically meaningless to speak of such conditions or results if they cannot be objectively measured. One must then apply numbers to all the matter which falls within the domain of science. Yet to establish an objective numeric measurement of any human value would appear to be impossible, insofar as human values are from the standpoint of science precisely subjective. One can resort then only to two expedients. One might ask each human subject to impose a number on a given internal experience, for instance asking them to rank the level of a given emotion or a given value on a numeric scale. The results of such are, however, arbitrary in the truest sense of the word: they rely entirely on the will of the human beings involved. And because that will cannot be regarded a priori as homogeneous and identical between all human beings, nor certainly as rational and objective, one runs the risk ever and always of introducing into one’s scientific research a thoroughly unscientific variable. The results of any such research must be then taken as pseudo-scientific at best. In order to furnish the wanted degree of objectivity to these phenomena, one must therefore have recourse to the other numeric expedient open to science: one must measure these phenomena, even as one must define them, with reference to elements of the physical world.
Put crudely and inadequately, though not altogether misleadingly, the scientific study of values reduces all values sooner or later to chemistry in the brain. As but a single example, let us take happiness—the same happiness which Aristotle claimed was the end-in-and-of-itself of all human actions. Neuroscience must understand happiness exclusively as a mixture of four chemicals—dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphins—and their interactions in the brain. Neuroscience thus must conclude that when a human being seeks happiness, he is in truth seeking a kind of cocktail of neurochemicals. Yet there is a clear and evident difference between saying that all human beings desire happiness—which is, as Aristotle abundantly shows us, at least a philosophically defensible position—and saying that all human beings desire a neurochemical cocktail. This can be very easily proved: if a drug were synthesized capable of granting human beings a “high” of the quality of heroin, but without any of heroin’s negative side effects, still very few human beings would dare claim that the use of this drug were a morally and psychologically acceptable substitute for human happiness. The chemical or physical understanding of what is valuable, even if mathematically sufficient to science, is insufficient in a much more fundamental sense, because it does not align with what human beings really hold as valuable.
In order to rectify this problem, science attempts to unify the objective and subjective studies of the valuable. Again, to put the matter very crudely, it attempts to exploit that zone in which its mathematical-objective study of chemistry and physics overlaps or corresponds with subjective claims about conscious experiences. Thus, for instance, it will unite a battery of brain-scans and chemical measurements in the blood stream with subjective surveys or with the subjective utterances of a test-subject. By uniting a variety of these two kinds of studies, it is hoped that one will arrive at scientific knowledge of human values, a level of knowledge utterly inaccessible to all past human epochs. This knowledge would be in a certain respect trans-historical and universal, where all past knowledge had been historical and parochial.
Now, science does not work in a void: it requires real and present material to subject to its method. The real and present material in the given case can only be human beings, human brains. Science is not granted unlimited resources to put to its work, and so it will in the main be forced to research those human beings who volunteer, in those centers of scientific research which are presently available. These in turn are not dispersed evenly throughout the entire world; they are located in the main in modern industrial societies. Many of the volunteers to such research will therefore be individuals of a relatively high socio-economic status and of very particular moral presuppositions, and science will therefore derive the better part of its conclusions from a dramatically limited segment of humanity. For this reason, it can never be certain that its conclusions are universally valid. It may attempt to remedy this by actively seeking volunteers from diverse strata of society, but this will ameliorate, rather than resolving, the problem, because all such volunteers still come from a specific kind of society which presupposes in the main certain specific ideals. Science must then supplement its research with cross-cultural studies, finding subjects in very different societies respect to its own.
Beyond the great economic and practical obstacles to such research, there is a further complication: in order for science to be able to so much as propose such research in a given country, that country must have already become in some way open to science, which means it must have already begun to adopt certain values, which might in turn produce some invisible effect on the conclusions of scientific research. Science, to escape the distorting power of its own influence, must then seek out those human beings who are as little like scientific human beings as possible—that is to say, human beings in the most primitive conditions known, in pre-civilized tribes. Only by correlating research performed on tribal human beings with that performed on an array of civilized human beings, will science begin to live up to its claims toward transhistoric universality.
But again laying aside the pragmatic obstacles to such research, which grow the greater, the more one considers these problems, we have to note a more fundamental difficulty yet. Returning to the problem of definition, we reminds ourselves that science, in order to so much as begin its research, must provide functional definitions of the matter of its study. If it wishes to study, say, honesty, it must first find a definition of this term which is workable by its own method. In engaging human beings of other languages, and especially of radically different cultures, it must find a translation for its terms; it must seek equivalent concepts in the language of the peoples it seeks to engage. There are already good reasons to believe that translation as such, using the common and everyday concepts available to us, can be tortuous between languages of distant linguistic roots, and the higher the moral concept, the more difficult translation becomes. Science compounds this difficulty by insisting on a scientific definition which stands already abstracted from commonsense notions. Because that definition is already an abstraction from our common sense, it will be even less relatable to the notions of illiterate tribal peoples. Science can never be certain, then, that it is not merely imposing on these tribal peoples concepts and ideas which are radically different from those they actually hold. To recapture its objectivity, it must avoid relying too much on the linguistic and subjective portion of its research, and it must fall emphatically back onto the strictly mathematical part, which means such indices as brain scans and chemical levels in the blood stream. But in relying on these, it has utterly obviated the entire purpose for which it was forced to seek tribal subjects to begin with; for it will now attempt to understand their values through that half of its studies which are based exclusively on the results of research on a small segment of contemporary Western human beings. It will, if very subtly and secretly, impose the results of those studies onto all human beings everywhere, and in consequence it will remain closed within the circle of a very narrow horizon. All of its conclusions will be but the dogmatic forcing of all of wide humanity into this narrow ring.
Thus the scientific study of value, which promises to be the most transhistoric and universal study available to human beings, reveals itself in the end as radically parochial and deeply historical.
All of which guides us to the reason for which science, in all its attempts at understanding human values in a scientific light, must be ever as clumsy as a hermit crab striving to play a violin: its very concept of causality prohibits the right understanding of value. As we have seen, science collapses the traditional four kinds of causality, as established by Aristotle, into a single one. Among the three causes discarded by science is what Aristotle called the final cause, perhaps better known to us in the concept of teleology. Science is strictly and rigidly anti-teleological. But all values are not values here and now: value itself is desire or aversion, attraction or repulsion, love or hate, all of which supposes the concept of futurity. Value is love or hate thrown across time: it is the positing of ends. Value itself is teleological.
Science utterly ignores this fundamental difficulty. It attempts to understand teleological value in a non-teleological light. It reduces all values, which pertain to the realm of final causes, to the realm of effective causes. And in so doing science necessarily takes for granted what philosophy questions: where philosophy sees presuppositions which it must investigate, science instead but reinforces these presuppositions.
Philosophical inquiries traditionally begin with a question, the posing of a problem, as regards the subject under inquiry. The old Socratic formula “What is X?” has never ceased being the essentially philosophical formula, even when it is hidden beneath the results of blatant dogmatism. The end of philosophical inquiry may propose a solution to its opening question, but only after the question itself has been thoroughly investigated. Science, on the contrary, must start with a definition in order to pose any question: it requires the limiting of variables, which demands in turn the predefinition of the variables involved. Philosophy works from questions to inquiry to more or less tentative conclusions; science works from definitions to problems to results. The definition provided by science to any given human value must therefore be provided by one of two things: either the results of prior scientific investigations, or else some kind of accord issuing from the subjective branch of its research. In either the one case or the other, science remains imprisoned within a given view of human values, and cannot issue from it. Science is radically incapable of critiquing value: it can never question if a given value in a given study is right or wrong; it must accept it merely as being of the same rank and status as fact. Science must make the inherently absurd and contradictory effort to understand teleological value in a non-teleological way. Moreover, and more importantly, science must be “objective,” which means it treats values as objects alone. It cannot enter into the perspective of value. It eschews from the start all human values save its own and innermost. But then science is incapable of proposing values to human problems; it is incapable of positing values where none are to be found; it is incapable of critiquing values where these are inadequate or where they have fallen low, and it is unable to establish those overarching and highest values by which a human life ought to be held up, or according to which a human society ought to be governed. Science, which takes itself to be the most important investigator into knowledge today, is congenitally and inescapably incapable of investigating the most important things.
This state of affairs should not be necessarily frightening, if that celebrated modesty of science extended so far as to admit its rigid and decisive limitations in the field of human things. But science today has been flattered into an unwanted hubris by scientism. There is indeed a deeper problem here, which, if we do not seek to understand it, shall keep our comprehension of science forever but limited and fragmentary. Although science is itself incapable of determining human values, nor even for the most part of speaking meaningfully about them, science itself is founded necessarily on values. Science believes (certainly, one hopes, in contrast to the deeper scientists), and never even comes near to questioning, that knowledge is an unmitigated good, and thus that efficacy, which it understands as the sole proof of knowledge, is also of itself good. Science will never cease in its researches, will never flinch from fabricating what can be fabricated of them: for science is actuated by a hunger which stands under it—or more rightly, over it—being as it is derivatively philosophical in nature.
And mark me this: for as long as science is given crown and scepter in the human city and in the human mind, and allowed willy-nilly to have its way; so long as we do not recall to ourselves that there are proofs of truth far profounder than the merely effective; so long as science is not held to heel by a greater and more august judge—science will remain an unconscious, totally naïve threat, not just to the future of man, but even to his present. For science in and of itself can never critique its own roots: its incapacity with the question of value renders such a critique impossible. Science lacks the royal prerogatives: judgement, not of truth, but of good; self-judgement, the baring of one’s very soul before one’s own tribunal; and self-awareness which is at once profound and broad. These are reserved to the true king of the human soul, which is, no matter scientism’s impertinences to the contrary, no matter science’s own late self-forgetfulness and incursion into problems only tangentially its own, the monarch also here, also over science itself, as over all human disciplines and destinies.
It was Jonathan Swift who two hundred years ago, and with that frank prescience permissible only to art, exposed the true nature of our science, which has hardly changed since Gulliver’s famed voyage. Swift has painted for us the true kingdom of science: Laputa—the etymology of which word, we may for reasons of propriety avoid discussing. Laputa—the floating island, disconnected and distant from human things, fundamentally rootless, suspended by its own inventions alone, but fed and kept by the productions of the world below; peopled by inhuman creatures lost to their weird contemplations, gazing as Kant himself only at the stars and inward, presupposing their ascendency by virtue of their ascension (though never they could be bothered to look down and perceive on what baselessness they stood); indifferent to the havoc they reek on those below through the shadow and fall of their island; indeed, incapable of judging such suffering this way or that, so infatuated are they with their passionless meteorology and geometry; troubling themselves over distant cosmic catastrophes, but indifferent to the catastrophe within and around them; superstitious, but camouflaging their superstitions with all the placid and colorless garb of analysis; in need of constant reminders to speak naturally and without jargon amongst their peers; certain in their right as commentators on political and social issues, though they in fact be the least capable of men with regard to such questions; devoid of imagination and poetic fancy, and consequently reasoners of a limited quality, though they themselves believe precisely the contrary. Indeed, the only critique one could perhaps make of Swift’s description of the Laputans, is that he makes their language sound like Italian—when it is today very certain that the residents of that estimable island spoke only in English.
But else, he has given us the right portrait also of science in our own day: godless and wild in all its cold orderliness—nay, worse yet, a travesty of divinity itself, of such a power as to be able to utterly destroy the human beings who are its practitioners, and at such a remove from human things that it has even ceased to care about them.
Return to Part IV
Continue to Part VI