A graduate student in philosophy asks about histories of philosophy:
Suppose I wanted, over time, to work through a text or series of texts. Which ones are worthy of consideration? I've heard good things about Copleston's 11 volumes. There's also Russell's history of western philosophy and Anthony Kenny has done a history as well. Do you recommend any of those (or perhaps another)? I should say that any history text will not supplant primary sources; it would be an addition to them.
While Bertrand Russell is entertaining, I can't recommend his history. He wrote it for money, or rather he dictated it for money. (When he was asked why he wrote a blurb for a certain book, he said that he had a hundred good reasons: the author paid him $100.) For a taste, consider the following passage from Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy (New York: Simon & Shuster, 1945), p. 427. I found it here, but without a link and without a reference. So, exploiting the resources of my well-stocked library, I located the passage, and verified that it had been properly transcribed. Whether Russell is being entirely fair to the Arabs is a further question. In fact, I am pretty sure that he is not being fair to Avicenna (Ibn Sina) who played a key role in the development of the metaphysics of essence and existence.
Arabic philosophy is not important as original thought. Men like Avicenna and Averroes are essentially commentators. Speaking generally, the views of the more scientific philosophers come from Aristotle and the Neoplatonists in logic and metaphysics, from Galen in medicine, from Greek and Indian sources in mathematics and astronomy, and among mystics religious philosophy has also an admixture of old Persian beliefs. Writers in Arabic showed some originality in mathematics and in chemistry; in the latter case, as an incidental result of alchemical researches. Mohammedan civilization in its great days was admirable in the arts and in many technical ways, but it showed no capacity for independent speculation in theoretical matters. Its importance, which must not be underrated, is as a transmitter. Between ancient and modern European civilization, the dark ages intervened. The Mohammedans and the Byzantines, while lacking the intellectual energy required for innovation, preserved the apparatus of civilization, books, and learned leisure. Both stimulated the West when it emerged from barbarism; the Mohammedans chiefly in the thirteenth century, the Byzantines chiefly in the fifteenth. In each case the stimulus produced new thought better than that produced by the transmitters -- in the one case scholasticism, in the other the Renaissance (which however had other causes also).
Copleston is good, and you might also consider Hegel. He will broaden you and counteract the probably excessively analytic atmosphere which you now breathe. But the Swabian genius is quirky and opinionated just like Lord Russell. When he comes to the medieval period in his Lectures on the History of Philosophy, he puts on his “seven-league boots” the better to pass over this thousand year period without sullying his fine trousers. (Vol. III, 1)
Summing up the “General Standpoint of the Scholastics,” he has this to say: “...this Scholasticism on the whole is a barbarous philosophy of the finite understanding, without real content, which awakens no true interest in us, and to which we cannot return.” “Barren,” and “rubbishy” are other terms with which he describes it. (Vol. III, 94-95) The politically correct may wish to consider whether the descendants of Hegel should pay reparations to the descendants of Thomas Aquinas, et al.
What follows is an excerpt from section 24 of the William Wallace translation of what is sometimes referred to as Hegel's "Lesser Logic," being Part One of The Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences (1830), Oxford UP first ed. 1873, 2nd 1892, 3rd 1975:
We all know the theological dogma that man’s nature is evil, tainted with what is called Original Sin. Now while we accept the dogma, we must give up the setting of incident which represents original sin as consequent upon an accidental act of the first man. For the very notion of spirit is enough to show that man is evil by nature, and it is an error to imagine that he could ever be otherwise. To such extent as man is and acts like a creature of nature, his whole behaviour is what it ought not to be. For the spirit it is a duty to be free, and to realise itself by its own act. Nature is for man only the starting point which he has to transform. The theological doctrine of original sin is a profound truth; but modern enlightenment prefers to believe that man is naturally good, and that he acts right so long as he continues true to nature.
I reject the progressivism whereby man can realize himself by his own act, but I like the poke at Rousseau at the end.
It’s a good question. Hegel and Aquinas are certainly comparable in the sense that they treated a wide variety of topics in philosophy and theology, and unified and organized them. Another similarity resides in the prominence of theology in their writings – but with the following caveat: Whereas, in the scholastic approach adopted by Aquinas, philosophy (Aristotelian, Platonic, Stoic, etc.) is the “handmaid of theology,” with Hegel the relationship is inverted: theology becomes the handmaid of philosophy.
It is certainly true that for Aquinas, philosophia ancilla theologiae, "philosophy is the handmaiden of theology," where the theology in question is a reflection on, and systematization of, the data of divine revelation, and not a branch of philosophy. But it strikes me as not quite right to say that, for Hegel, the relationship is inverted.
First of all, in what sense is philosophy a handmaiden to theology for Aquinas? Philosophy takes us some distance toward the knowledge of the ultimate truth about the ultimate matters, but not all the way, and not to the truly essential. It takes us as far as we can go on the basis of experience and discursive reason unaided by revelation But if we would know the whole truth about the ultimate matters, and indeed the saving truth, then we must accept divine revelation. We can know that God exists by unaided reason, for example, but not that God is triune. Thus, for Aquinas, theology supplements and completes what we can know by our own powers. It neither contradicts the latter, nor does it express it in a more adequate form: it goes beyond it. A second sense in which philosophy is ancillary to theology is that philosophy supplies the tools of theology, though not its data. It supplies concepts and argumentative procedures with which the data of revelation can be articulated and organized and shown to be rationally acceptable, a reasoned faith, though not a rationally demonstrable faith.
For Hegel, however, the content of theology and philosophy are the same; it is just that philosophy expresses this content in an adequate conceptual manner whereas theology expresses it in an inadequate pictorial manner. To throw some Hegelian jargon, the thinking of theology is vorstellendes Denken; the thinking of philosophy is superior: begriffliches Denken. If Hegel were Aquinas on his head, then Hegel would have to be saying that philosophy brings in new content beyond that of theology. But that's not his view. And if Aquinas were Hegel on his head, then Aquinas would have to be saying that the content of philosophy and theology is the same, but that philosophy expresses it inadequately. And that is not what he is saying.
Hegel clearly subordinates theology to philosophy but it is incorrect to say that, for Hegel, theology is the handmaiden of philosophy in the way that philosophy is the handmaiden of theology for Aquinas.
This cavil having been lodged, Kainz's piece is a useful little piece of journalism for those who don't know anything about this topic.
It does annoy me, however, that Kainz doesn't supply any references. For example, we read:
Hegel was critical of Catholicism at times, in his writings and lectures. For example, he once made a scurrilous remark about the Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist . . . .
Very interesting, but what exactly does he say and where does he say it? Inquiring minds want to know. Would it have killed Kainz to insert a few references into his piece? Then a serious dude like me who has almost the whole of Hegel in German and English in his personal library could check the context and amplify his knowledge of the work of the Swabian genius.
I was cruising the booze aisle in the local supermarket yesterday in search of wines for Thursday's Thanksgiving feast. I got into conversation with a friendly twenty-something dude who worked there. I said I was looking for sweet vermouth. He thought it was used to make martinis and so I explained that martinis call for dry vermouth while the sweet stuff is an ingredient in manhattans. He then enthused about some whisky he had been drinking. I asked whether it was a scotch or a bourbon. He replied, "It's whisky." I then explained that whisky is to scotch, bourbon, rye, etc. as genus to species and that one couldn't drink whisky unless one drank scotch or bourbon, or . . . . This didn't seem to register.
But it did remind me of another twenty-something dude whose comment about the church he attended prompted me to ask what Protestant denomination he belonged to. He said. "I am a Presbyterian, not a Protestant."
These two incidents then put me in mind of a story Hegel tells somewhere, perhaps it's in the Lesser Logic. A man goes to the grocer to buy fruit. The grocer shows him apples, oranges, pears, cherries . . . . Our man rejects each suggestion, insisting that he wants fruit. He learns that fruit as such is not to be had.
Obama won, conservatism lost, and a tipping point has been reached in America's decline. Our descent into twilight and beyond is probably now irreversible. The economy is bad, the opposition fought hard and well, and the incompetent leftist won anyway. Why? The Left promises panem and the culture's circenses have kept the masses distracted from higher concerns and real thought. That's the answer in a sentence.
Should any of this trouble the philosopher? Before he is a citizen, the philosopher is a "spectator of all time and existence" in a marvellous phrase that comes down to us from Plato's Republic (486a). The rise and fall of great nations is just more grist for the philosopher's mill. His true homeland is nothing so paltry as a particular nation, even one as exceptional as the USA, and his fate as a truth-seeker cannot be tied to its fate. Like the heavenly Jerusalem, the heavenly Athens is not bound to a geographical location.
National decline is not just grist for the philosopher's mill, however, it is also perhaps a condition of understanding as Hegel suggests in the penultimate paragraph of the preface to The Philosophy of Right:
When philosophy paints its grey on grey, then has a shape of life grown old. By philosophy's grey on grey it cannot be rejuvenated but only understood. The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only at the falling of the dusk.
Daughter of Jupiter, Minerva in the mythology of the Greeks is the goddess of wisdom. And the nocturnal owl is one of its ancient symbols. The meaning of the Hegelian trope is that understanding, insight, wisdom arise when the object to be understood has played itself out, when it has actualized and thus exhausted its potentialities, and now faces only decline.
When a shape of life has grown old, philosophy paints its grey on grey. The allusion is to Goethe's Faust wherein Mephisto says
Grau, teurer Freund, ist alle Theorie, Und grün des Lebens goldner Baum.
Grey, dear friend, is all theory And green the golden tree of life.
Philosophy is grey, a "bloodless ballet of categories" (F. H. Bradley) and its object is grey -- no longer green and full of life. And so philosophy paints its grey concepts on the grey object, in this case America on the wane. The object must be either dead or moribund before it can be fully understood. Hegel in his famous saying re-animates and gives a new meaning to the Platonic "To philosophize is to learn how to die."
In these waning days of a great republic, the owl of Minerva takes flight. What we lose in vitality we gain in wisdom.
In these politically correct times we hear much of racism, sexism, ageism, speciesism, and even heterosexism. Why not then epochism, the arbitrary denigration of entire historical epochs? Some years back, a television commentator referred to the Islamist beheading of Nicholas Berg as “medieval.” As I remarked to my wife, “That fellow is slamming an entire historical epoch.”
The names of the other epochs are free of pejorative connotation even though horrors occurred in these epochs the equal of any in the medieval period. Why then are the Middle Ages singled out for special treatment? This is no mean chunk of time. It stretches from, say, the birth of Augustine in 354 A.D. , or perhaps from the closing of the Platonic Academy in 529 A. D., to the birth of Descartes in 1596, albeit with plenty of bleed-through on either end: Greek notions reach deep into the Middle Ages, while medieval notions live on in Descartes and beyond.
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) counts as an epochist. When he comes to the medieval period in his Lectures on the History of Philosophy, he puts on his “seven-league boots” the better to pass over this thousand year period without sullying his fine trousers. (Vol. III, 1) Summing up the “General Standpoint of the Scholastics,” he has this to say: “...this Scholasticism on the whole is a barbarous philosophy of the finite understanding, without real content, which awakens no true interest in us, and to which we cannot return.” “Barren,” and “rubbishy” are other terms with which he describes it. (Vol. III, 94-95)
The politically correct may wish to consider whether the descendants of Hegel should pay reparations to the descendants of Thomas Aquinas, et al.