Sunday, September 05, 2021

Evening Note for Sunday, September 5

 Thought for the Evening: Development of Philosophical Systems

Philosophical systems change through time; this means that it is of some interest to be able to distinguish between cases in which systems adapt and cases in which they are replaced, as well as between cases in which they are developing and cases in which they are deteriorating. Very little serious work has been done on this, but there is a notable exception: John Henry Newman's Development of Doctrine.

Newman's interest is primarily in the development of Christian doctrine, but it is essential to his argument that he not be applying any principles ad hoc. Thus, in order to talk of the development of Christian doctrine, he has to set it in the context of a general account of the development of ideas in general. This begins from the very first paragraph:

It is the characteristic of our minds to be ever engaged in passing judgment on the things which come before us. No sooner do we apprehend than we judge: we allow nothing to stand by itself: we compare, contrast, abstract, generalize, connect, adjust, classify: and we view all our knowledge in the associations with which these processes have invested it.

All of these actions -- comparison, contrast, abstraction, generalization, connection, adjustment, classification -- are ways in which ideas do not stand still when the human mind takes them seriously. Some of the results of these actions are quite transient, like opinions we soon discard, some stick around by a kind of accident, in that nothing disturbs them for a while, others achieve a real and lasting durability. But we consider ideas in light of all these different actions of mind because they are rich; you can't really reduce a single idea to a single stable proposition. You have to consider it in lots of different ways. In this sense, we can say that ideas are 'alive', that they have a 'life' in the mind. All of these things continue to be true if we are considering groups of interacting people; indeed the change and 'life' are even more obvious when we do. It is in this context that Newman describes what he means by 'development':

This process, whether it be longer or shorter in point of time, by which the aspects of an idea are brought into consistency and form, I call its development, being the germination and maturation of some truth or apparent truth on a large mental field. On the other hand this process will not be a development, unless the assemblage of aspects, which constitute its ultimate shape, really belongs to the idea from which they start....Moreover a development will have this characteristic, that, its action being in the busy scene of human life, it cannot progress at all without cutting across, and thereby destroying or modifying and incorporating with itself existing modes of thinking and operating. The development then of an idea is not like an investigation worked out on paper, in which each successive advance is a pure evolution from a foregoing, but it is carried on through and by means of communities of men and their leaders and guides; and it employs their minds as its instruments, and depends upon them, while it uses them.

Some kinds of development -- as in mathematics, which depends so much on demonstrative proof -- are resistant to corruption (the deterioration of the 'life' of the idea); others -- like political developments -- are highly irregular and sensitive to historical accidents and contingencies. But others are in between these extremes, and in these cases we need a robust idea of how ideas, doctrines, and systems can change while in some sense remaining the same. The essential question of Development, in fact, is how we can distinguish such changes, i.e., developments, from corruptions, changes that are breaking down the system. He develops a sketch of various diagnostic marks on the basis of an analogy between living ideas and living things. These are the notes of development, and they can be applied to philosophical systems as well as to Christian doctrine.

(1) Preservation of Type: There has to be some correspondence between the earlier and the later. Thus, there many different forms of Neoplatonism, but however different they may be, the later forms have identifiable essential parts that are analogous to, and historically linkable with, identifiable essential parts of the earlier forms.

(2) Continuity of Principles: Particular doctrines or positions have abstract features related, again abstractly, in various ways. These abstract principles can be considered in themselves. For instance, Neoplatonism has certain general recurring principles that are shared by Neoplatonists both early and late: the primacy of the one over the many, the primacy of the intelligible over the sensible, the primacy of the mind over the body. These are shared principles, but the continuity has to be not in the bare affirmation of the principle (which could be just perfunctory), but in the principle's showing up in actual doctrines and positions in similar ways.

(3) Power of Assimilation: Living things adapt. So do living ideas. These adaptations are not random happenings; rather, they are actual responses and reactions. An objection arises, the objection is dealt with. A confusion is discovered, the confusion is clarified. But most importantly, and most relevantly to the question of development, ideas that are relevant to the system are drawn in and subordinated to it. "An eclectic, conservative, assimilating, healing, moulding process, a unitive power, is of the essence, and a third test, of a faithful development." Thus Neoplatonism draws in Aristotelian, Stoic, and other ideas insofar as they are useful for handling problems, but in every case these ideas are 'Neoplatonized', adapted into a form that can be more easily united to the principles and positions of Neoplatonism.

(4) Logical Sequence: Obviously deductive and probable argument play a significant role in the development of any philosophical system, as we simply draw out the consequences of our starting-points. Sometimes the positions of a later stage of a system can be seen to be logical consequences of positions in an earlier stage.

(5) Anticipation of the Future: Sometimes an idea or a hint or a hypothesis is thrown out early in the history of a philosophical system that can be seen to be an early gesture in the direction of something that came later. Thus Thomas Aquinas has some comments here and there about signs, but not a fully developed account of signs; if we compare it with the account of signs in John of St. Thomas, the latter goes well beyond anything St. Thomas himself says, in part because he sometimes has to deal with very different concerns; but for most of what John of St. Thomas says about the subject, you can find anticipations in St. Thomas, and thus, despite going beyond St. Thomas, John of St. Thomas's account can be seen definitely as Thomistic.

(6) Conservative Action upon its Past: Developments are often new in the sense that they provide new illustrations, new corroborations, new examples, new defenses of what older stages had. Thus much of what is new in Mencius is the use of new arguments or illustrations to explain or defend positions and ideas he gets from Confucius and his students.

(7) Chronic Vigor: Systems that deteriorate too much collapse or are obviously repudiated; so a development can be distinguished from the opposite by its energetic endurance. Hamiltonian theory of predicate quantity, while it could be a viable part of a different logical approach, is a corruption of the systems of algebraic logic before it; it springs up like a weed and passes like a weed, because it is not very suited for what one does with systems of algebraic logic in general. Peano notation, on the other hand, is a legitimate development of the predicate calculus, as witnessed by its consistent and enduring usability.

Thus we may say of a philosophical system what Newman says of Christian doctrine: "To guarantee its own substantial unity, it must be seen to be one in type, one in its system of principles, one in its unitive power towards externals, one in its logical consecutiveness, one in the witness of its early phases to its later, one in the protection which its later extend to its earlier, and one in its union of vigour with continuance, that is, in its tenacity."

Previous Evening Note on Philosophical Systems

Philosophical Systems as Adaptive

Various Links of Interest

* Nick Riggle, Toward a Communitarian Theory of Aesthetic Value (PDF)

* Reza Rezazedah, Thomas Aquinas and Mulla Sadra on the Soul-Body Problem: A Comparative Analysis (PDF)

* Brendan Hodge, How the USCCB gets its money -- and where it goes

* Charles A. Coulomb, Who Lost Afghanistan?

* Jacqueline Broad, Catherine Trotter Cockburn on the virtue of atheists (PDF)

* Richmond Kwesi, Metaphor, Truth, and Representation (PDF). This is an excellent paper on the subject.

* Ljiljana Radenovic, A Post-Enlightenment Ethics of the Desert Fathers

* Jordana Cepelowicz, The Brain Doesn't Think the Way You Think It Does. A truth that substance dualists never had a problem with, but which keeps tripping up materialists. I've noted before that there's a reason why so many great neuroscientists in the history of the field have been substance dualists opposed to materialism -- it removes most temptation to pre-interpret the brain in terms of thought, and lets you just study what the brain actually does.

* Recently discovered parchment fragments give us some of the earliest manuscript versions of parts of the Merlin legend.

* Irami Osei-Frimpong, Families Under Siege: A Left Defense of the Nuclear Family

* Louis Larue, A Conceptual Framework for Classifying Currencies (PDF)

* James Chastek, Starting with potential being

Currently Reading

Egil's Saga
Ishikawa, Silversein, Jacobson, Fiksdahl-King, & Angel, A Pattern Language
JeeLoo Liu, Neo-Confucianism
Vladimir Soloviev, Russia and the Universal Church
Mary Midgley, The Myths We Live By
Angela McKay Knobel, Aquinas and the Infused Moral Virtues