Friday, August 17, 2018

Interesting Thoughts around the 'NET

There have been a number of interesting posts today, or at least I first noticed them today.

First is Robert Pasnau, with some reflections on how to form a canon of medieval philosophy. He points out that there isn't a narrative for the period 500-1500 like there is for other periods in the history of philosophy. He does not mention the narrative that arose simultaneously with the modern study of medieval philosophy, that is the Thomist one.

Pasnau links to Martin Lenz, who points out that such narratives have ideological origins and uses, and change when the dominating ideologies change.

Finally, Derrick Peterson posted a paper on his blog about "deleting theology", the narratives surrounding secularism. He provides a fascinating quote from Ian Hunter the gist of which is that the various accounts from religious thinkers or anti-religious ones are not themselves historical accounts or based on empirical histories, but are rather ideologies. Now while I may be sympathetic to this, I can't help but wonder if something like "empirical history" is itself free of "cultural-political agendas", as if there is some historical viewpoint that is free from theological or philosophical conditioning.

In any case, there are many interesting thoughts to be had today.


Jim Given said...

I'm surprised that Robert Pasnau does not teach fro his own recent, rather large history, as textbook. This commentary is quite strange. And revealing.
He say:
"As things are, there certainly is no such common core. Perhaps the only text from medieval philosophy that philosophically educated folk can be expected to know about is Anselm’s ontological argument. Beyond that, there’s just a whole lot of more or less obscure stuff, from among which we pick and choose in making up the curriculum for a medieval survey."

"But, at least, if you are trying to lead students through Kant, there is a sense of doing something that fits into a larger narrative and a shared intellectual heritage."

How strange that Dr. Pasnau would concentrate in an area of intellectual history that simply does not seem important to him. Perhaps he considers the medievals to be intellectually ambitious, elaborately disputateous (how many angels could fit?), but finally just a blend of bad theology (i.e. Thomist paganism) and bad science (i.e., Aristotelian rationalism). Is that possible?

Aquinas' Summa is not part of the canon, but Kant's Critique is? Spoken like one who concludes that Kant showed metaphysics to be fundamentally misguided-

I think that Dr. Pasnau must, as he apparently is; as all of us must do at some point; asking himself: Why is all this challenging, marginalized scholarship so important to me?

Lee Faber said...

One would probably have to recognize the explicit religious nature of most medieval philosophy, and divide it according to the religions of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. How to do justice to any of those in one-two semesters is beyond me. Each would have its own narrative, and indeed, they are received in different ways by each other (14th c. Jewish philosophers, for example, translate Latin Scotism to combat Arabic Averroism).

I would just teach major figures and a few characteristic doctrines on a general topic. It would be easier to incorporate Avicenna into the "narrative" of modality than into a grand narrative running a thousand years. Or medieval metaphysics as a science of transcendentals is a clear development of greek philosophy and can be usefully compared to modern thought.

In latin circles, I don't think there can be a narrative yet, since I think the 14th and 15th c. are basically a black hole. and it is not as if islamic and jewish philosophy ceased to exist when the universities were founded. Once could advance the almost vapid claim that the 13th century was a century of system-building, the 14th century one of critical analysis or problem solving, the 15th, what, an age of scholarship?

The English speaking world of medieval philosophy is almost purely analytic now. I generally don't see their motivation to work on this material. It seems obvious, since scholastic philosphy is very dialectical as is modern analytic philosophy. But as Lenz has pointed out in other posts, there is no "us" among analytic philosophers to compare medieval thought with, that is a widely agreed upon position on X problem. current analytic thought is as diverse as medieval, so what is the point of drawing a comparison? I am not saying my practice of reconstructing arcane debates for my own interest is better. I have no readership and no dialogue partners. But "real" analytic philosophers just make a joke about 'substance abuse" and move on, without taking any of it seriously, strengthened in their belief that nothing happened between Aristotle and Descartes. Pasnau's common narrative might be able to impact this prejudice, but I doubt it. Again, because medieval thought is so explicitly religious, and modern philosophy is so anti religious.

Jim Given said...

Yes, one must recognize the religion/core loyalties of the creator of a text and the resultant ideology and agenda that produces. I illustrate the importance of the latter by considering the case of the Radically Orthodox, who seem to have a project of creating a form of Christianity both convenient for ecumenical purposes, and also acceptable to a totalitarian state. They favor creating a version of Aquinas who was influenced only by Plato, and neo-Platonism; and not at all by Aristotle. This is an ideology free of substantial forms capable of grounding Church doctrine on human nature. It lacks any deep grounding in classical philosophy, and thus has no natural philosophy or theology to offer. This makes the Radically Orthodox acceptable to the Bible Christians. Finally it pleases the government social engineers, because it can offer no principled opposition, grounded in a Christian account of human nature, to their plans to remake that human nature.

Analytic philosophy has no Grand Narrative, but does seem to favor a meta-narrative; an account of how such Grand Narratives are to be evaluated. Specifically, most analytic philosophy, in its choices and emphases, implicitly buys into the Modernist claim that the purpose of philosophy e.g. in secondary education, is to teach logic and the philosophy of science. It also is useful for training students in rhetoric and the art of disputation. But the coherent and principled interpretation of these texts, and the worldview they imply, seems to be irrelevant to the analytics.

Modernism was a transitional stage between a Christian Western civilization and the totalitarian state to come. It was, as you say, "anti-religious". I would argue that Post-Modern thought is very religious, being grounded in a revolutionary Phariseeism. Our purpose is to overthrow the evil world-based institutions we have, including the churches, which are corrupt and distracted by superstition; and set about building heaven here on earth. Jacques Derrida, in his later writings, has spoken in detail of the importance of his religious heritage in forming his Deconstructive philosophy.

An influential philosophy professor at a top 10 school must, when they speak of a "canon" a priori be assumed to be addressing the problem of uniform standards for
educating participants in a global revolutionary government. From this perspective Dr. Pasnau's statements make perfect sense.

Michael Sullivan said...

Medieval philosophy seems like a good illustration of Chesterton's claim that history is not a progress, nor a cycle, but a muddle. There's no grand story to be told, just a huge number of smart people thinking things out for centuries, some with great insight, some making huge mistakes, some just trying to keep up with the trends. They're worth reading because the things they talked about were and remain important and interesting - at least as much so as the things modern philosophers talk about.

John Deely offered an interesting and stimulating grand narrative of Latin medieval philosophy from 500-1500; but it was ultimately unconvincing as all such stories are. Anybody can, through judicious selection and emphasis, make everything revolve around one's own special interests.

Lee Faber said...

That reminds me of this old post, from ages ago: