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 connotations even though horrors occurred in those 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 anno domini , 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.
Addendum A, 9/17:
Dennis Monokroussos quips:
If Aquinas had any descendants, you’d owe them reparations for slandering his good name at the end of your post. (Then again, if he had descendants, it wouldn’t have been slander.)
I know: you mean philosophical progeny. It’s a funny question though, about reparations. I kind of like the idea of having postmodern “philosophers” having to pay a sum to (actual) philosophers for having taken so many of their jobs since the 1980s.
That's a good one, Dennis. As you may know, I don't much cotton to the notion of reparations, one of my arguments against which is here. (WARNING: at the end of the hyperlink there lies (stands?) a post so exceedingly politically incorrect that leftists and their fellow travellers are hereby issued a strong Internet travel advisory.)
Addendum B, 9/17:
The Swabian genius tells us that "Scholasticism . . . is a barbarous philosophy . . . to which we cannot return."
Judgments in the history of philosophy of the form, There will be no return to X, are parlous.
There was an amazing resurgence of scholasticism, Thomism in particular, in the 20th century, and not just in sleepy Jesuit backwaters. Toward the end of that century, mirabile dictu, mainstream analytic philosophers joined in the renascence. Surely there are more scholastic philosophers at work today than Hegelians, especially if we subtract those whose interest in Hegel is merely historical and scholarly. I'll go further. The School is alive and kicking with young hotshots; but how many proponents of The System are there?
Gilbert Ryle once predicted with absurd confidence, "Gegenstandstheorie . . . is dead, buried, and not going to be resurrected." (Quoted in G. Priest, Towards Non-Being, Oxford, 2005, p. vi, n. 1.) Ryle was wrong, dead wrong, and shown to be wrong just a few years after his cocky prediction. Variations on Meinong's Theory of Objects flourish like never before due to the efforts of such brilliant philosophers as Butchvarov, Castaneda, Lambert, Parsons, Priest, Routley/Sylvan, and Zalta, just to mention those that come first to mind. And the Rylean cockiness has had an ironic upshot: his logical behaviorism is dead while Meinongianism thrives. But Ryle too will be raised if my converse-Gilsonian law of philosophical experience holds.
Etienne Gilson said, famously, "Philosophy always buries its undertakers." I say, rather less famously, "Philosophy always resurrects its dead."
With the example of Ryle in mind, we should approach the following quotation from Paul Guyer with some skepticism:
Kant radically and irreversibly transformed the nature of Western thought. After he wrote, no one could ever again think of either science or morality as a matter of the passive reception of entirely external truth or reality. In reflection upon the methods of science, as well as in many particular areas of science itself, the recognition of our own input into the world we claim to know has become inescapable. In the practical sphere, few can any longer take seriously the idea that moral reasoning consists in the discovery of external norms—for instance, objective perfections in the world or the will of God—as opposed to the construction for ourselves of the most rational way to conduct our lives both severally and jointly. (Paul Guyer, "Introduction: The Starry Heavens and the Moral Law," in The Cambridge Companion to Kant, ed. Paul Guyer [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992], 1-25, at 3)
Guyer quotation lifted from the weblog of Keith Burgess-Jackson.
Addendum C, 9/17:
A quotation from Russell that the shade of Hegel would approve of:
There is little of the true philosophic spirit in Aquinas. He does not, like the Platonic Socrates, set out to follow wherever the argument may lead. He is not engaged in an inquiry, the result of which it is impossible to know in advance. Before he begins to philosophize, he already knows the truth; it is declared in the catholic faith. If he can find apparently rational arguments for some parts of the faith, so much the better; if he cannot, he need only fall back on revelation. The finding of arguments for a conclusion given in advance is not philosophy, but special pleading. (Bertrand Russell, The History of Western Philosophy, Simon and Schuster, p. 463)
I will comment on this passage and its spirit in a later entry.
Addendum D, 9/18:
D. M. adds, "Anthony Kenny had a nice quip in reply to the Russell quote. On page 2 of his edited work Aquinas, A Collection of Critical Essays (London, 1969) (cited in Brian Davies, The Thought of Thomas Aquinas (Clarendon Press, 1992), p. 19), he says that the remark “comes oddly from a philosopher who took three hundred and sixty dense pages to offer a proof that 1 + 1 = 2.”
Thank you for reminding me of that Kenny riposte. It hits the mark.
It is certainly false to say that, in general, it is unphilosophical or special pleading or an abuse of reason to seek arguments for a proposition antecedently accepted, a proposition the continuing acceptance of which does not depend on whether or not good arguments for it can be produced. But if we are to be charitable to Lord Russell we should read his assertion as restricted to propositions, theological and otherwise, that are manifestly controversial. So restricted, Russell's asseveration cannot be easily counterexampled, which is not to say that it is obviously true.
As we speak I am working on a longish post on this very topic.