Philosophy's Past—Mortimer J. Adler


(From a chapter on Philosophy’s Past in Dr. Adler’s book
The Four Dimensions of Philosophy.)

The modern period, like the ancient and the mediaeval, has its positive as well as its negative features–its turns for the better as well as its misfortunes and disorders. In telling the story of philosophy in modern times, I am going to reverse the order and postpone a consideration of philosophy’s gains until I have described what I regard as the four major misfortunes or disorders that it has suffered since the seventeenth century.

The first of these misfortunes occurred in the context of an otherwise sound critical reaction to the dogmatism and pretentiousness of the philosophical systems of the seventeenth century. The critical movement in philosophy, from Locke to Kant, looked askance at these systems and challenged their unwarranted claims to be able to demonstrate and to know with certitude. It questioned as well their competence to deal with matters (both theological and scientific) beyond the proper scope of philosophical inquiry.

In both of the respects just indicated, this critical reaction was sound, and it might have been wholly on the side of gain if it had insisted, positively, on the substitution of “doxa” for “episteme” as the standard or grade of knowledge at which philosophy should aim. That by itself would have dealt a death blow to system building and provided an effective antitoxin against any future recurrence of the disease.

Unfortunately, the critical reaction to the systems of the seventeenth century took another course and resulted in two serious disorders. To explain the first of these, it is necessary to recall that, in the ancient and medieval worlds, metaphysics was called “philosophia prima”, or “first philosophy.” Let me now extend the meaning of “first philosophy” to include all first-order inquiries, not only speculative questions about that which is and happens in the world but also normative questions about what ought to be done and sought.

All such questions, as I pointed out earlier, take precedence over second-order questions of the sort concerned with how we can know the answers to first-order questions. A sound approach to the examination of knowledge should acknowledge the existence of some knowledge to be examined. “Knowing what can be known” is prior to asking “how we know what we know”.

Using the word “epistemology” for the theory of knowledge–especially for inquiries concerning the “origin, certainty, and extent” of our knowledge–I have two things to say about this part of the philosophical enterprise.

First, it should be reflexive; that is, it should examine the knowledge that we do have; it should be a knowing about our knowing.

Second, being reflexive, epistemology should be posterior to metaphysics, the philosophy of nature, ethics, and political theory–these and all other branches of first-order philosophical knowledge; in other words, our knowing what can be known should take precedence over our knowing about our knowing.

Both of these procedural points were violated in the critical movement that began with Locke and ran to Kant. Epistemology became “first philosophy,” taking precedence over all other branches of philosophical inquiry; and, with Kant, it be came the basis for “prolegomena to any future metaphysic.”

Epistemology more and more tended to swallow up the whole philosophical enterprise. It is this retreat from the known world and our knowledge of it to the world of the knower and his efforts to know which prepared the way for the later total retreat of philosophy (in our own century) to the plane of second-order questions, relinquishing entirely any claim to have a respectable method for carrying on first order inquiries.

I think it is apt, and not too harsh, to call this first unfortunate result of the critical reaction to dogmatic systems “suicidal epistemologizing.” Epistemology, fashioned by philosophers as a scalpel to cut away the cancer of dogmatism, was turned into a dagger and plunged into philosophy’s vitals.

The second unfortunate result can, with equally good reason, be called “suicidal psychologizing.” Like the first, it is also a retreat from reality. Where the first is a retreat from the reality of the knowledge that we actually do have, the second is a retreat from the reality of the world to be known. Modern idealism begins with Kant. It is the worst of the modern errors in philosophy.

What I mean by “suicidal psychologizing” is sometimes less picturesquely described as “the way of ideas,” fathered by Descartes, but given its most unfortunate effects by the so-called British empiricists–Locke, Berkeley, and Hume–who made the psychologizing of common experience the whole of philosophy and substituted that for the use of common experience as a test of the soundness of philosophical theories or conclusions about the experienced world. The psychologizing of common experience deserves to be called suicidal; for, in effect, it cuts away the very ground on which the philosopher stands. It makes experience subjective, rather than objective.

I need not dwell here on the far-reaching consequences of this fundamental substantive error–the subjectivism and the solipsism that resulted from proceeding in this way, together with all the skeptical excesses that it led to, and the epistemological puzzles and paradoxes that confronted those who tried to hold onto the most obvious features of our experience after they had been psychologized into myths or illusions.

Starting from Locke’s fundamental error and carrying it to all its logical conclusions, later philosophers–first Berkeley and Hume, then the phenomenalists and logical empiricists of the twentieth century–reached results that they or others had enough common sense to recognize as absurd; but though many have deplored the resulting puzzles and paradoxes, no one seems to have recognized that the only remedy for the effects thus produced lies in removing the cause, by correcting Locke’s original error, the error of treating ideas as “that which” we apprehend instead of “that by which”. It is this error that makes our common experience subjective rather than objective–introspectively observable, which it is not.

I turn now to the second major disorder of philosophy in modern times–the emulation of science and mathematics. This begins in the seventeenth century. It can be discerned in Francis Bacon and Thomas Hobbes, as well as in Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz. Beginning then, it runs through the following centuries right down to the present day.

The philosophers of the seventeenth century, misled by their addiction to “episteme”, looked upon mathematics as the most perfect achievement of knowledge, and tried to “perfect” philosophy by mathematicizing it. This was done in different ways by Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz, but the effect upon philosophy was the same–the frustration of trying to achieve a precision of terminology and a rigor of demonstration that are appropriate in mathematics, but inappropriate in philosophy as an attempt to answer first order questions about reality–about that which is and happens in the world or about what ought to be done and sought.

The fact that science can be mathematicized to a certain extent–the achievements of mathematical physics in particular–accentuated the mistake on the part of those who failed to see that the application of mathematics to physics depends on the special data of measurement, which have no analogue in the noninvestigative enterprise of philosophy.

This mistaken emulation of mathematics and the consequent effort to mathematicize philosophy reappear with unusual force in the twentieth century: in the “logical atomism” of Bertrand Russell, and in all the attempts to treat the language of mathematics as a modern language, to be imitated in philosophical discourse.

The effort to give philosophical discovery the simplicity of mathematical symbolism and the univocity of mathematical terms, and the effort to give philosophical formulations the “analyticity” of mathematical statements, put philosophy into a straitjacket from which it has only recently broken loose by a series of almost self-destructive convulsions.

Beginning also in the seventeenth century, philosophers began to be awed by the achievements of science and became more and more openly envious of certain features of science–the kind of progress that science makes, the kind of usefulness that it has, the kind of agreements and decisions that it can reach, and the kind of assent it wins from an ever-widening public because its theories and conclusions can be tested empirically.

Not recognizing that all these things can be achieved by philosophy in its own characteristic way, but only if it tries to achieve them in a manner appropriate to its own character as a noninvestigative discipline, philosophers over the last three hundred years have been suffering from an unwarranted sense of inferiority to science.

This sense of inferiority has, in turn, two further results. It has driven some philosophers to make all sorts of mistaken efforts to imitate science. It has led others, such as the logical positivists in our own century, to turn the whole domain of first-order inquiry over to science and to restrict philosophy to second-order questions, where it does not have to compete with science.

Either result is unfortunate. Philosophy should neither ape science as a first-order discipline (in view of their basic differences in method) nor be the second-order handmaiden of science conceived as the primary first-order discipline (in view of philosophy’s rightful claim to its own first-order questions and its superiority to science in rendering the world intelligible).

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