Intelligent Design

What makes a thing a thing? Why reality has to be built from the bottom up as well as from the top down

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In this post, I shall attempt to get to the nub of a vital but often overlooked point of difference between Intelligent Design theory and some of its Thomist critics. The issue relates to precisely what it is that makes a thing a thing, and not just a virtual imitation of a thing. I’m also going to talk about Harry Potter, so stay tuned.

What I shall attempt to argue is that the concept of “top-down creation” is unintelligible. Things have to also be made from the bottom up: in order to create something, de novo, you have to fully specify what it is that you’re creating. That means filling in all the details.

More generally, what I’m claiming is that in order for a thing to be a genuine entity in its own right (and not just a virtual imitation of an entity), it has to be fully specified, at all levels, from the bottom to the top. Recently, Professor Edward Feser and Professor Chistopher Martin (who are both Thomist philosophers) have maintained that things can be automatically built by God, from the top down, without the need for God to precisely specify their lower-level properties. I claim that this way of making things won’t work, and that an entirely top-down approach to design would rob things of their very “thinghood.” To put it bluntly: if we were made in that way, then we’re not real.

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How Professor Feser thinks God makes things

Left: The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo. Sistine Chapel ceiling, circa 1511. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
According to Professor Feser, creation is entirely a top-down process. God can make a man from dust simply by saying, “Dust, become a man.” In so doing, He does not – indeed, could not – achieve His result by tinkering with the dust particles.
I maintain, on the contrary, that in the process of making a man from dust, God would have to rearrange the dust particles from the bottom up, while simultaneously bestowing the substantial form of a man on the underlying (prime) matter. Simply telling dust to become a man fails to specify what kind of man God wants – e.g. how tall he should be, what blood type he should have, what kind of face he should have, and so on. It also fails to specify the micro-level properties of the man in question – e.g. how many cells his body should have, and exactly what sequence of bases he should have in his DNA.
Right: A hotel suite. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
In the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, Dr. David Bowman is transported through space to what looks like a hotel suite. Bowman soon realizes, however, that the suite is a facade, constructed to make him feel at ease. He discovers this when he finds that the “things” in the suite only bear a superficial resemblance to the real-life objects that they were designed to replicate. For instance, the books in the suite have recognizable titles, but are empty inside. There’s a refrigerator and familiar looking boxes of food. Inside the boxes, though, there is only a blue goo that resembles a pudding. In short: it is the lack of specificity of the items in the suite, at the finer level of detail, that makes Dr. Bowman realize that they are not real objects but replicas. The point I wish to make in this section is to argue that in order for something to be a real natural object, it has to be fully specified, all the way down to the bottom level. Where I part company with Professor Feser is that he seems to believe that God can dodge the “specificity problem”: when He makes something, He doesn’t have to specify its details, all the way down. I maintain that He does.

In a post entitled, ID theory, Aquinas, and the origin of life: A reply to Torley (April 16, 2010), Professor Feser spelt out exactly what he believes happens when God creates something:

…[W]hether or not we think of God as specially creating life in an extraordinary intervention in the natural order, the way He creates is not properly understood on the model of human artifice. He does not make a living thing the way a watchmaker makes a watch or the way a builder builds a house. He does not take pre-existing raw materials and put them into some new configuration; nor does He even create the raw materials while simultaneously putting the configuration into them. (As I’ve said before, temporal considerations are not to the point.) Rather (as I put it in my earlier post) he creates by conjoining an essence to an act of existence, where the essence in question is a composite of substantial form and prime matter. That is the only way something that is “natural” rather than “artificial” in Aristotle’s technical senses of those terms possibly could be created.

In a comment on another post, entitled, Nature versus Art (April 30, 2011), Professor Feser also asserted that God could, if He wished, make a man from the dust of the ground, simply by saying, “Dust, become a man.” As he wrote back to me, when I asked him about the sequence of steps involved in such a transformation:

Forming a man from the dust of the ground involves causing the prime matter which had the substantial form of dust to take on instead the substantial form of a man. I’m not sure what “sequence of steps” you have in mind. There’s no sequence involved (nor any super-engineering — God is above such trivia). It’s just God “saying,” as it were: “Dust, become a man.” And boom, you’ve got your man.

(For the New Atheist types out there, no, this isn’t “magic.” Rather, it’s something perfectly rationally intelligible in itself and at least partially intelligible to our finite minds once we do some metaphysics. It’s just something that only that in which essence and existence are identical, that which is pure actuality, etc. is capable of, and we aren’t. We have to work through other pre-existing material substances and thus have to do engineering and the like in order to make things. God, who is immaterial, the source of all causal power, etc. doesn’t need to do that and indeed cannot intelligibly be said to do it.)

Professor Feser is not alone in envisaging God’s creative acts in this manner. Thomist scholar Christopher Martin is of the same view. Feser quotes a long passage from Martin in his post, Thomism versus the Design argument (2010), from which I shall reproduce the following excerpt:

The Being whose existence is revealed to us by the argument from design is not God but the Great Architect of the Deists and Freemasons, an impostor disguised as God, a stern, kindly, and immensely clever old English gentleman, equipped with apron, trowel, square and compasses…

The Great Architect is not God because he is just someone like us but a lot older, cleverer and more skilful. He decides what he wants to do and therefore sets about doing the things he needs to do to achieve it. God is not like that… [T]here is nothing that God is up to, nothing he needs to get done, nothing he needs to do to get things done… Acorns for the sake of oak trees, to repeat an example of Geach’s, are definitely something that God wants, since that is the way things are. But it is not that God has any special desire for oak trees (as the Great Architect might), and for that reason finds himself obliged to fiddle about with acorns. If God wants oak-trees, he can have them, zap! You want oak trees, you got ’em. “Let there be oak trees”, by inference, is one of the things said on the third day of creation, and oak trees are made. There is no suggestion that acorns have to come first: indeed, the suggestion is quite the other way around. To “which came first, the acorn or the oak?” it looks as if the answer is quite definitely “the oak”. In any case, what’s so special about oak trees that God should have to fiddle around with acorns to make them? God is mysterious: the whole objection to the great architect is that we know him all too well, since he is one of us. Whatever God is, God is not one of us: a sobering thought for those who use “one of us” as their highest term of approbation.

Professor Christopher Martin’s slighting references to the Great Architect display his lack of familiarity with history. I have already shown, in my previous post, that the reference to God as the “Great Architect” goes back not to the 18th century Freemasons but to John Calvin in the 16th century, and that artistic depictions of God as an Architect go back to the Middle Ages.

Moreover, if Professor Martin believes that proponents of the Design Argument think God needs to make acorns in order to make oaks, then I can only say that he doesn’t know much about the Intelligent Design movement. I don’t know of any Intelligent Design proponent who holds such a view.

What I would maintain, as an ID advocate (and I’m speaking for no-one but myself here), is that if God wishes to make an oak, He needs to specify, down to the last detail, the genetic information He wishes that oak to contain in its cells. If He didn’t do that, then the thing He made wouldn’t be an oak at all. Indeed, it wouldn’t be alive at all. It wouldn’t even be an entity, but only a virtual imitation at best.

Similarly, I maintain that Feser is mistaken in his account of how God could make a man from dust. I hold that it is metaphysically impossible to make a man from dust without specifying, at the atomic level, what should go where (and, I might add, doing quite a lot of nuclear transmutation as well). The reason has nothing to do with any limitations on God’s power; rather, it has to do with the very nature of things.

In a nutshell: the top-level of an entity does not, and cannot, determine all of the details at the bottom. If God tried to make men from the top down, without specifying their constituent atomic particles, then they wouldn’t be men at all. They’d be no more real than the things in the movie, “The Matrix.” Real entities – be they people, animals, plants or minerals – have to be fully specified at the bottom level as well as the top. Otherwise, they’re not entities at all.

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The problem of under-determination: Why I think Feser’s account of Divine acts of creation robs things of their “thinghood”

Left: Daniel Radcliffe, the actor who played the part of Harry Potter in the Harry Potter movie series. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
Right: The floor plan of a typical house. Image courtesy of Wikipedia. Nobody knows exactly what the floor plan of Harry Potter’s house looks like, although that has not stopped some fans from making very ingenious guesses (see here and here). That’s because Harry Potter’s house, being a fictional object, has not been completely specified at all levels of description by its author, J.K.Rowling.

To illustrate why real entities have to be fully specified at the bottom level as well as the top, consider the fictional character, Harry Potter. In the story, Harry Potter lives at Number Four, Privet Drive, the home of his Aunt Petunia, Uncle Vernon, and their son Dudley. Now ask yourself this: what color is the roof of Harry Potter’s house? Of course, you don’t know. That’s because the book’s author, Joanne Kathleen Rowling, didn’t tell you. And although she is famous for writing detailed back stories for her books, I doubt whether even she has ever asked herself this simple question. In the story, the color of the roof remains unspecified, and the reader is free to imagine it to be any color that he or she pleases.

That’s fine in a work of fiction, but real roofs have to have a specific color. No roof in the real world has ever had an undetermined color. Even if it was never painted, it always had a color of some sort – namely, the natural color of the roofing material. Real entities need to be specified at the bottom level; otherwise they are not real at all.

Let us suppose, now, that God commanded a piece of dust to become a man, as Professor Feser supposes he did. On behalf of the dust, I would like to reply: “What kind of man would you like me to become, Lord? A tall one or a short one? Brown eyes or blue? A Will Smith lookalike or a Tom Cruise replica? Blood type A, B, AB or O? Oh, and what about the micro-level properties of the man you want me to be? Exactly how many cells should this individual have? What sequence of bases should he have in his DNA? I’m afraid I can do nothing, Lord, unless you tell me exactly what you want.” I won’t belabor the point here: the difficulty should be obvious. The problem with merely telling the dust to become a man is that it under-specifies the effect – or in philosophical jargon, under-determines it. And since dust is unable to make a choice between alternatives – even a random one – then nothing at all will get done, if God commands dust to simply become a man. To get a real man, every single detail in the man’s anatomy has to be specified, right down to the atomic level.

Now we can see why the psalmist wrote: “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb” (Psalm 139:13).

So contrary to what Feser wrote, I would maintain that God does have to do super-engineering, if He designs an organism. This point has obvious religious implications: for instance, if you happen to believe in the virginal conception of Jesus (as many Christians do) then you will have to grapple with what biologist and Intelligent Design proponent Stephen Jones calls “the mechanics of the Incarnation” (see here for a very interesting blog by Jones on this topic). In short: there’s just no getting around the mechanics of design, even if you’re a Deity. The reason is simple: in the real world, things are specified at all levels, including the bottom level.

Thus my answer to Descartes’ skeptical question, “How can I know whether the world around me is real?” would be: “Try taking it apart. Look at the next layer down, and the layer below that. If you come across a layer whose properties are unspecified, then your world is a fake one.” (Someone will probably ask me about quantum indeterminacy at this point. Here’s my answer: at least there’s determinacy when we make a measurement, so that’s OK. What would be troubling would be making a measurement and getting no result.)

A clarification: Intelligent Design does not claim that information is added to things extraneously; rather, it constitutes things

A yellow-bellied sea-snake. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
Professor Feser argues, correctly, that the biological information that characterizes a snake is inseparable from its substantial form – i.e. that by virtue of which it is a snake, and not some other kind of animal. Feser might be pleasantly surprised to learn that many Intelligent Design proponents would entirely agree with him on this point.

In a recent blog post entitled, Reply to Torley and Cudworth, Feser criticizes the notion, which he imputes to Intelligent Design proponents, that information can be “poured into” pre-existing things:

A natural object is not a collection of otherwise meaningless or information-free parts to which information, function, teleology or final cause has to be “imparted,” and making a natural object is not a kind of two-stage process which consists first of creating an otherwise meaningless but free-standing material structure and then “introducing” some information or functional properties into it. In the case of a snake or a strand of DNA, for example, there is for A-T simply no such thing as a natural substance which somehow has all the material and behavioral properties of a snake or a strand of DNA and yet still lacks the “information content” or teleological features typical of snakes or DNA. And so, when God makes a snake or a strand of DNA, He doesn’t first make an otherwise “information-free” or teleology-free material structure and then “impart” some information or final causality to it, as if carrying out the second stage in a two-stage process. Such a way of thinking of “design” is possible only against the background of a modern conception of matter which has extruded from it the notions of substantial form and immanent teleology. In short, it is possible only given a rejection of the Aristotelian conception of nature. For on an Aristotelian conception, to be a natural substance at all in the first place is necessarily to have a substantial form and immanent teleology – and therefore, necessarily, already to embody “information.”

Professor Feser will be delighted to learn that I, like other Intelligent Design proponents, completely agree with him on this point. We agree that the biological information that characterizes a living thing is not accidental to it; rather, it is part of its very essence.

Thus I would agree with Feser that if God were to make a man from dust, it would have to be via a single-stage process. It would be absurd to claim that something might have all the material properties of a man (or a snake, to use Feser’s illustration), and yet still not be a man (or a snake). Feser is perfectly correct in saying that for something to have the substantial form of a man (or a snake), it must already embody the “information” that characterizes it as such.

Where I differ from Feser is that he appears to believe that all of the biological information in Adam’s body – on both the micro-level and the macro-level – is an automatic consequence of his having a human form. God says, “Dust, become a man”, and that’s it. Adam has the body he needs. I maintain, on the contrary, that while Adam’s having a human substantial form (or soul) certainly entails that he will have the requisite biological information in his body, it does not fully specify which biological information he has: physical attributes such as height and hair color are left undetermined. Human beings, after all, come in all shapes and sizes. To make Adam have this biological information in his body, God needs to specify the sequence of Adam’s genome (among other things), at the same time as he commands dust to acquire a human form.

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What’s real? What’s not?

I’d now like to address the fundamental question: what does it mean for something to be real?

I would suggest that an entity is real if and only if:

(i) its properties are fully specified – or more accurately, a measurement of any property (or attribute) of that entity always yields a specific value, at any given moment of its existence;

(ii) its relationships are fully specified – or more accurately, a measurement of its relationship to any other given entity always yields a specific value, at any given moment of its existence;

(iii) it is individualized – i.e. it is distinguishable as an individual from other entities of the same kind, during at least some moments of its existence;

(iv) it is concrete, in the sense that measurements of its location in space and/or time yield definite values.

Note on conditions (i) and (ii):
By “fully specified”, I do not necessarily mean “specified by God”. (Entities with libertarian free will are to some degree self-specifying.) By “fully specified”, I simply mean that a measurement of any attribute of that entity always yields a definite value. It may not be possible to measure all of the entity’s properties at the same time, however. (For instance, the Uncertainty Principle tells us that we cannot measure an electron’s position and momentum simultaneously.)

Note on condition (iii):
Two entities may be indistinguishable from each other at some points in time (e.g. two bosons, which can both be present at the same place at the same time). However, I would argue that it makes no sense to speak of two entities which are indistinguishable from each other at all points in time.

Note on condition (iv):
When an entity’s location in space and time is not being measured, it need not have a definite value.

I have argued above that entities as defined by Professor Feser are under-specified, and hence fail to meet conditions (i) and (ii): according to Feser, God can make a man simply by commanding some dust to become a man, without specifying the man’s properties or relationships to other entities.

Another disagreement between Professor Feser and myself is that even if Feser were to accept conditions (i) to (iv), he would definitely want to add a fifth condition to the list above:

(v) the entity’s essence has been endowed with existence.

I think the fifth condition is redundant.

The concept of a phoenix is often cited as an example of something which is not real. However, as it fails all four criteria, I think it is a rather poor example. Someone might ask: “What if God were to mentally envisage a particular phoenix, and completely specify its properties in His mind? Would that make it real?” I would say no, as its relationship with other entities would not be fully specified. But what if these relationships were fully specified in the mind of God? In other words, what if God were to make up a story of that phoenix’s complete life history, and fill in the story with other individuals that were specified to the same level of detail? What if, in addition to that, the entities were clearly distinguishable from each other, and had definite locations in space and time, in the story envisaged by God? Then I would say: that would be enough to make them real.

The “author” metaphor for creation is a very important one, subject to the proviso that the characters in question have free will.

What I’m proposing here is that nothing can even conceivably exist unless it is either a mind or the product of a mind. As John Macmurray pointed out in his books, The Self as Agent and Persons in Relation, even the language we use to describe the behavior of matter (e.g. “attraction”) is inescapably mentalistic. Thus the notion of a mind-independent reality makes no sense. God, who is the Uncaused and Unbounded Intelligent Being, exists at the highest level of reality (call it Level 2). The world and all its creatures (including us) are ideas of God: to be precise, creatures are entities in an interactive novel composed by God. These entities exist on Level 1. Their natures and causal relations are fully specified, and they are also suitably individualized in space-time. However, although their natures are fully specified, their actions are not: the intelligent agents in this interactive novel are free to defy their Maker. Thus in the novel of human history, the details of the plot have not been written by God. We write them, whenever we make choices. As author of the novel, however, God has control over the beginning (i.e. the creation of the world) and also the broad outlines of the ending: in the end, good has to triumph over evil, virtue has to be rewarded, vice has to be punished, and the New Heaven and the New Earth have to be established. The rest of this interactive novel is largely up to us.

Finally, the incompletely specified Pickwickian characters in the stories that human beings write (e.g. Harry Potter, whose house isn’t fully specified in J. K. Rowling’s novels) exist on Level 0. The relation of human authors to their characters is not quite the same as God’s relation to us. While we can write stories whose characters interact with each other and even (if we wish) with their author, our characters lack the autonomy of will (big-L Libertarian freedom) that human beings possess in their relation to God, their Maker. Our characters cannot defy us. They are not real, because they are incompletely specified.

The attraction of this picture, as I see it, is that it dispels a conundrum surrounding creation ex nihilo. Let’s try a humorous experiment: imagine a particular (and as-yet non-existent) entity – say, a flawless 40-carat blue diamond sitting on your desk – and try to wish it into existence. Close your eyes, and think hard. Concentrate! Now open your eyes. Did you succeed? No. But here’s the funny thing: God made you and me and everything else simply by wishing it into existence: “Let there be light.”

So my question is: if we can’t wish things into existence, how come God can? And my very simple answer is that we can wish things into existence, but only in novels of our own creation, on Level 0. The world, which is on Level 1, is God’s novel; the things in our world are products of His mind, not ours. (Of course, entities which are agents, such as ourselves, are also endowed with libertarian free will.) I, on the other hand, can only create (imperfectly specified) things within the stories I compose; whereas God creates fully specified things within His Big Story: the cosmos.

I’d like to close with a quote from St. Augustine (City of God Book V, chapter 11): “Not only heaven and earth, not only man and angel, even the bowels of the lowest animal, even the wing of the bird, the flower of the plant, the leaf of the tree, hath God endowed with every fitting detail of their nature.

61 Replies to “What makes a thing a thing? Why reality has to be built from the bottom up as well as from the top down

  1. 1
    Alan Fox says:

    This is simply a semantic problem. Things are not necessarily specific objects. Take the sun, for example. It is changing from moment to moment. It’s mass is changing (currently losing 400 million tons a second!). Where are it’s boundaries? The surface is gaseous and turbulent, plasma is ejected, the solar wind bombards Earth, the magnetic field cycles over 22 years! Yet…

    it’s the sun.

    Philosophers, get out of your armchairs. Do some fact-finding, first. Then start asking useful questions.

  2. 2
    Mung says:

    Alan Fox:

    Take the sun, for example. It is changing from moment to moment.

    Alan, stop making a fool of yourself. Get an education of some of at least the most basic facts about philosophy.

    It’s not as if philosophers have not noticed, by observation no less, that things change. But they don’t just stop there, they ask questions. They attempt to establish a system that makes sense. Do you think it’s possible to make sense of the world? That’s a philosophical view, by the way. Given materialism, why should the world make sense?

    Take note that some things can exist, though they do not, whereas others do indeed exist. Those which can exist are said to be potentially. Those which already do exist are said to be actually. And this in two ways. There is first the essential or substantial existence of a thing, as for a man to be; and this is to be simply. There is secondly accidental existence, as for a man to be white, and this is to be something or other.

    – St. Thomsas Aquinas, De Principiis Naturae

    The point of these remarks seems to be to set the stage for a philosophical account of the observed fact of change in the physical or natural world.

    – Joseph Bobik

    see also

  3. 3
    Timaeus says:

    Alan Fox:

    It’s clear from your comment above that you don’t understand the issue that Vincent Torley’s column is addressing.

    But speaking of people who sit in armchairs: most of evolutionary biology (outside of paleontology, where there is field work) is done by guys sitting in armchairs. You can’t *experiment* on a 500-million-year-old *hypothetical* ancestor. Most of evolutionary biology is about speculative mechanisms, speculative evolutionary pathways, speculative mutation rates, speculative evolutionary clocks, etc. But you don’t object when grown men and women spend their lives in evolutionary conjecture. So you’re in no position to object to armchair theorizing in philosophy.

    Tell, me Alan, do you intend to continue making snide comments against philosophy and philosophers all your life, or do you ever intend to actually sit down and read some philosophy — not books about philosophy, but actual works of philosophy — so that you know what you are talking about before making your criticisms?

  4. 4
    Mung says:

    So, VJT, is Aquinas saying a thing may exist simply, that there are two sorts of existence, or that a thing exists in two ways, substantially and accidentally?

    What do you think?

    And another question that may bear upon the OP, can a thing exist potentially? If so, does it have to be fully specified in order to exist potentially?

    What are your views on act and potency?

    Cheers!

  5. 5
    Mung says:

    Heck, I’d be happy if Alan just read about philosophy, lol. But some very good points T.

  6. 6
    Mung says:

    Oh happy day! 🙂

    Just expanded my Peter Kreeft collection.

    Philosophy 101 By Socrates

    Socrates Meets Descartes

    Socrates Meets Hume

    Socrates Meets Kant

    A Shorter Summa

  7. 7
    Joe says:

    Alan Fox:

    Things are not necessarily specific objects. Take the sun, for example.

    Wait- is Alan saying that the sun is NOT a specific object? If I said to look at the sun no one would know what I was referring to?

    Too funny…

  8. 8
    Mung says:

    Joe, I think Alan was trying to assert that things don’t have to be specified, but that’s a philosophical statement, and philosophy is bunk.

    Unspecified = “stuff”

    1. The material out of which some thing is made or formed; substance.
    2. The essential substance or elements; essence.
    3. Informal
    a. Unspecified material

  9. 9
    Mung says:

    I considered that what makes a thing a thing is that it exists, but God exists. Is God a thing? I’ve heard it said that God is no thing.

  10. 10
    Mung says:

    VJT:

    I would suggest that an entity is real if and only if:

    I assume you believe that God is real. How do each of these conditions apply to God?

  11. 11
    Bilbo I says:

    Hi VJ,

    Why couldn’t the following occur:

    God: Dust, become a man.

    Dust: What kind of man?

    God: I’ll let you decide the details, just as long as you become a rational animal.

  12. 12
    Mung says:

    vjt:

    In short: there’s just no getting around the mechanics of design, even if you’re a Deity. The reason is simple: in the real world, things are specified at all levels, including the bottom level.

    But doesn’t that assume that the “real world” is a mechanical world, the very issue in dispute with Feser?

    ..real roofs have to have a specific color. No roof in the real world has ever had an undetermined color. Even if it was never painted, it always had a color of some sort – namely, the natural color of the roofing material. Real entities need to be specified at the bottom level; otherwise they are not real at all.

    But the home buyer doesn’t have to specify the color of the roof. The buyer can say, build me a house. It’s assumed the house will have a roof. At no point in the process does any person have to necessarily specify the color, by your own admission.

    And is the color of the material used for the roof an essential property of the roof or an accidental property?

    vjt:

    Thus my answer to Descartes’ skeptical question, “How can I know whether the world around me is real?” would be: “Try taking it apart. Look at the next layer down, and the layer below that. If you come across a layer whose properties are unspecified, then your world is a fake one.”

    In order to answer Feser, you seem to be accepting reductionism. Isn’t it somewhat fundamental to A-T thought that at the very basis at the material level exists undifferentiated stuff?

    So how is that argument a rebuttal?

  13. 13
    Mung says:

    Bilbo I:

    Why couldn’t the following occur:

    God: Dust, become a man.

    Dust: What kind of man?

    That whole scenario was silly from the start. There is only one kind of man.

  14. 14
    Mung says:

    vjt:

    The problem with merely telling the dust to become a man is that it under-specifies the effect – or in philosophical jargon, under-determines it. And since dust is unable to make a choice between alternatives – even a random one – then nothing at all will get done, if God commands dust to simply become a man.

    The problem with merely telling dust to become man is not that the command under-specifies the effect, the problem is that dust lacks the potential to become man.

    Dust must have the capability to be the cause of man.

  15. 15
    Bilbo I says:

    Mung: The problem with merely telling dust to become man is not that the command under-specifies the effect, the problem is that dust lacks the potential to become man.

    If that is true, then how could God make man out of dust?

    Dust must have the capability to be the cause of man.

    But which kind of cause? Material, formal, efficient, or final?

  16. 16
    Ian Thompson says:

    Now, B-I, you are getting into the very serious questions of how an intelligent designer might work. Unfortunately, the ID people do not regard answering this question as part properly of ‘Intelligent Design Science’.

    The reason they avoid it, a good reason still, is that they want to avoid getting into theology, and all the related questions of how God gives created objects their causal powers. God must do so, since he is the source of all power and life itself. As Steve Fuller and others point out, however, a fully-fledged science on these matters has to answer all those causal questions as well. But then it would be more like ‘Theistic Science’ than ‘Intelligent Design Science’.

    Those people (including myself) who advocate theistic science look on at all the battles the ID advocates have, even in their confined field, and then imagine all the work still to be done to answer your questions properly.
    Certainly, the answers are not as simple as Feser suggests!

  17. 17
    Bilbo I says:

    Let’s compare the causes of a wooden tablre with the causes of a human being:

    Material cause of table: wood
    Material cause of human being: “dust”

    Efficient cause of table: carpenter
    Efficient cause of human being: ?

    Formal cause of table: flat surface supported by four legs
    Formal cause of human being: rational animal

    Final cause of table: a place to eat meals.
    Final cause of human being: to be in communion with God.

    It looks to me as if the open question is the efficient cause of human beings.

  18. 18
    Bilbo I says:

    So let’s say that God is the efficient cause of a human being, just as a carpenter is the efficient cause of a table. It seems that God is either the cause directly, in which case God directly manipulates the dust and forms it into a human being. Or God is the cause indirectly, and empowers someone or something else to form the dust into a human being.

    Now it seems to be at least logically possible that God has empowered the dust — given in self-organizing powers — to form a human being. And it seems to me that the only way to know whether God has indeed empowered dust in this manner is to investigate the matter empirically. So far, it appears that dust does not have this kind of self-organizing power. Therefore, it seems reasonable to conclude that either God has directly organized dust into a human being, or that God has empowered some other agent to do so. Either way, it appears that something that we would call intelligent design is the best explanation of how human beings came into existence.

  19. 19
    felipe says:

    I think the main point raised by this post is the key role of biological information in bringing back the traditional essentialist approach to the Philosophy of Nature.
    Biological information (both digital genetic information and fuzzy, analogical, epigenetic regulatory information), sems to be, at the end, what makes things be what they are, so, it is the way in which form seems to be instantiated into particular individuals.
    What I mean is that form and final causes were discarded in modern philosophy because the progress of scientific endeavour did not find a place for these concepts in its research.
    Now, the finding that nothing can be understood and/or explained concerning living organisms if it is not on thegrounds of the formal regulatory govern and prescription of biological information makes inescapable to trace back to the principles and the old concepts of traditional philosophical views. Scientific research is giving an empirical support to what in the past was only a philosophical intuition, through the concept of information as a constitutive element of reality.
    Sorry Doctor Feser, but Intelligent Design scientific and philosophical endeavour is the most promisong effort to consolidate for the futur the traditional A_T essentialist Philosophy of Nature.

  20. 20
    Michael Servetus says:

    Felipe,
    I found your elucidation the most helpful to me in focusing on all these ideas. It makes predictable sense too considering that Darwin and Materialism both had their theoretical forms intuited by the Greeks showing how science is just catching up to thought and so why shouldn’t it be reasonably expected that this particular bit of wisdom from the past find justification and a exiled hero’s welcome.

    Concerning what you said about the philosophical concepts being discarded,am I in agreement with you if I say,in essence what makes things be or become what they are comes before them, meaning their final goal is already decided,planned pre-determined even if only embedded in the genome, that genome represents the formerly discarded notion that teleology comes first, form already exists before substance fills it in or out, so that consequently it cannot continue to be resisted by the unproven ideas that substance is capable of building up into form that ended up gaining control over itself. For we would have to say that the genome represents form not substance though it is a substance itself but at the very least it carries within it and is the very essence of form.
    So form comes first which I think is the same thing that this is about no?

    Aside to all:If God said to Dust make man, then either God or Dust has to know what man is in order for it to be requested, commanded or built. One of them has to know what man is before he builds it. So were these things pre-existing or new on the spot? If pre-existing then can’t it be said that we indeed copies and not “real” according to some definition of real.
    Though about that I don’t really care, as long as I am real enough which I feel myself to be to my own satisfaction despite some philosophical test.

    Question, am I right in concluding that form and specificity are roughly the same in these cases?

  21. 21
    Alan Fox says:

    Timaeus asks:

    Tell, me Alan, do you intend to continue making snide comments against philosophy and philosophers all your life, or do you ever intend to actually sit down and read some philosophy — not books about philosophy, but actual works of philosophy — so that you know what you are talking about before making your criticisms?

    No, Timaeus, I am not staring a vendetta against philosophers and philosophy. I adhere to “The Golden Rule” and I also strongly support the free exchange of ideas. That said, I doubt you could convince me that modern philosophy has much impact on the lives of ordinary people like me.

    Life is too short to contemplate reading the whole philosophy canon but I am prepared to make the effort to look at a paper, treatise, book even which defends modern philosophy as a useful pursuit. (I don’t think great art can be easily justified as useful but it can be rewarding for its own sake. I have no problem seeing philosophy in the same light.) If you have a recommendation that you think might be appropriate, I’ll have a look.

  22. 22
    Alan Fox says:

    Starting not staring!

  23. 23
    George E. says:

    Bilbo I:

    Why couldn’t the following occur:

    God: Dust, become a man.

    Dust: What kind of man?

    God: I’ll let you decide the details, just as long as you become a rational animal.

    Um, because dust doesn’t understand English?

    Listen, you guys want to try to do philosophy, and that’s fine. But you have to remember to keep both feet firmly planted on the ground. True philosophy may be more than just common sense, but it’s not less.

  24. 24
    Timaeus says:

    Alan Fox:

    Part of the problem in responding to your number 20 is that it is unclear what you imply by specifying “modern philosophy.” Are you granting that “pre-modern” philosophy was useful, and questioning the usefulness only of “modern philosophy”? And if so, can you:

    (a) specify a date range for “modern philosophy”;

    and

    (b) indicate what works of “pre-modern” philosophy you have found useful, so we know what you mean by “useful” (to “ordinary” people)? and indicate some works of “modern” philosophy that you have found useless, so that we know what you mean by “not useful”?

  25. 25
    vjtorley says:

    Hi Alan,

    Here’s a philosopher whose works you might want to read:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephen_Law

    Stephen Law’s ideas are diametrically opposed to mine, but he will at least convince you of one thing: philosophy is genuinely useful in its own right. Law has also written a book on history’s greatest thinkers. He’s a down-to-earth guy, who used to be a postman. I think you’ll find he’s up your alley. Good luck.

  26. 26
    vjtorley says:

    Hi Bilbo I and Mung,

    Re the self-organizing properties of dust: my argument here is not that dust cannot have such properties, but that even if it did, the dust must organize according to specific rules in particular situations. These rules would have to be chosen by God. So in that case God would still be specifying the result.

    What Professors Feser and Martin seem to be supposing is that God, in making a man, needs to do nothing more than specify the type of thing He wants to make (“man”) and then issue a command (“Become a man!”) to a natural object (dust), without specifying either the chemical pathway (i.e. the laws whereby dust assembles itself in various situations) or the particular result (e.g. the details of Adam’s face and DNA) and that the object (dust) will somehow turn into a particular individual (Adam). Now that, I have to say, is magical thinking. It doesn’t make sense, no matter which way I look at it. Feser and Martin are fine philosophers, but they really need to think more about this problem.

  27. 27
    Alan Fox says:

    @ Timaeus

    I’m offering no opinion on classical Greek philosophy as to its importance in classical Greek society. I’ve read Xenophon’s “Anabasis” and I am impressed by Aristotle’s scientific research (his five elements and four causes, not so much). But the history of a discipline is not essential for grasping the current basics. In science, one does not continually look back to early pioneers. The work moves on.

    I recently had a go at logical positivism and watched a couple of interviews of AJ Ayer by Brian Magee as well as a bit of reading on the views of some of the protagonists such as Carnap and Quine. But the ripples don’t seem to have spread far. Of current philosophers, I have read a little of Michael Ruse but was not drawn in. Dan Dennett comes across as someone I wouldn’t mind sharing a car trip with (At least Jerry Coyne found him an engaging companion. The other member of the party, Richard Dawkins, made his excuses and went home early!) but I have only read extracts. I don’t disagree with the little I read but it didn’t set me alight with desire for more.

    By useful, I mean having been used. The equivalent in science would be a paper being cited many times.

    For a time frame, let’s say the last ten years.

  28. 28
    Alan Fox says:

    Hi Vincent,

    Thanks for the link. I will certainly check it out. Now I come to think of it, I was reading Stephen Law’s blog recently (within the last tear or so).I think I even commented there. I’ll see if I can track it down.

    Stephen Law’s ideas are diametrically opposed to mine…

    Ah!

  29. 29
    Alan Fox says:

    tear = year

  30. 30
    felipe says:

    Michael Servetus.

    Dr Feser himself in his book Aquinas explains that an acorn becomes an oak because becoming an oak is a final goal for it. That is “the oak” it comes to be is a final cause. Buy how that can be possible if the oak itself does not pre-exist the acorn? How a non existent entity can have causal powers?
    Dr Feser concludes that this is possible only because the oak must exist as a form, as an ideal exemplar, an archetype in the mind of a creator God.
    Unfortunately this is not the kind of argument that would convince a materialist or an skeptic today, because it implies a previous theistic idea of God. What we need is an inference to the best explanation based on what we can scientifically observe in Nature.
    And what we can observe is that development is a process controlled and governed by biological, prescriptive, instructional information through semiotic mechanisms (Please do not miss the new article by Paul Davies on the origin of life: “The Algorithmic Origins of Life”).
    But information is necessarily intentional, it is always information about “something” outside the physical support where information is instantiated. In this case information is the formal regulatory control of development and is “about” a specific biological form. The form is the cause towards what all the process tends. As a consequence we can infer that biological forms need a causal explanation and that the best explanation for them is an intelligent designing mind.

    (Your last question is a much deeper issue; may be later on, or may be other people in the audience would like to advance some thoughts…)

  31. 31
    Kantian Naturalist says:

    Would it be appropriate, or helpful, to introduce the technical language of supervention at this point?

    One might think that teleological properties supervene on mechanical properties, so that the former cannot be instantiated without instantiating the latter. Hence God could not actualize the teleological properties (e.g. “rational animality”) without actualizing the relevant mechanical properties (e.g. genetic code).

    There might be deep theological reasons why supervention would not be an appropriate concept; I’m just tossing out the suggestion.

  32. 32
    Kantian Naturalist says:

    Philosophers in the past ten years who are both interesting and accessible to a non-specialized audience — well, that’s going to be a really short list! But here are some possibilities:

    Richard Rorty, esp. Philosophy and Social Hope and Achieving Our Country

    Martha Nussbaum, esp. Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities

    Michael Sandel, esp. The Case Against Perfection, Justice, and What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets

    Susan Haack, Putting Philosophy to Work

    There is this, though:

    But the history of a discipline is not essential for grasping the current basics. In science, one does not continually look back to early pioneers. The work moves on.

    Yes, whereas this is not the case in philosophy. In many regards philosophy is more like art or literature. We’ll never stop reading and arguing about Plato or Kant for similar reasons to why we’ll never stop reading and arguing about Shakespeare or Dante.

    I don’t doubt that science makes progress. (I’m more confident in scientific progress than I am in moral progress.) But I don’t think that philosophy is progressive. What sometimes looks like ‘progress’ in philosophy is not that a question has been answered, but that it no longer makes sense to ask that question.

  33. 33
    Mung says:

    So here’s an interesting question:

    Could God create man ex nihilo. Assume no material universe, no prior big bang. Is that even logically possible?

    Apparently, in some sense, this is what happened with the angels.

  34. 34
    Mung says:

    vjt,

    I don’t in any way intend to be rude, but I do think perhaps you are not treating Feser fairly on this one. Have you built a straw-man?

    I’m thinking perhaps Prof. Feser’s remark was made “off the cuff” and should not be taken too literally.

    just an opinion. 🙂

  35. 35
    StephenB says:

    Alan: “That said, I doubt you could convince me that modern philosophy has much impact on the lives of ordinary people like me.”

    You don’t think that Nietzsche and Marx had an impact on people’s lives? I could point you to at least 100,000,000 of our deceased brothers and sisters who might disagree.

  36. 36
    StephenB says:

    God anticipated Feser’s objection over 2000 years ago.

    “But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body.”

  37. 37
    George E. says:

    Mung:

    vjt,

    I don’t in any way intend to be rude, but I do think perhaps you are not treating Feser fairly on this one. Have you built a straw-man?

    I think that he is treating him fairly, because Ed Feser has definitely made statements to the effect that he does not consider that the human body was created by God, but rather that it came about by chance and evolution. But if that’s the case, how can it be said that God created man, since the body is part of man? The most that can be said is that God created part of man, i.e., the soul.

  38. 38
    Mung says:

    GE:

    I doubt Feser would acknowledge that the soul is a part of a man in the way that say, the eye, is a part of a man.

  39. 39
    vjtorley says:

    Mung (#33)

    In answer to your question: I don’t think I’ve built a straw man. It was Professor Feser himself who declared, in response to a query from me regarding the steps involved in the creation of Adam from dust:

    I’m not sure what “sequence of steps” you have in mind. There’s no sequence involved (nor any super-engineering — God is above such trivia). It’s just God “saying,” as it were: “Dust, become a man.” And boom, you’ve got your man.

    And Professor Martin says the same thing in his book:

    The Great Architect is not God because he is just someone like us but a lot older, cleverer and more skilful. He decides what he wants to do and therefore sets about doing the things he needs to do to achieve it. God is not like that… [T]here is nothing that God is up to, nothing he needs to get done, nothing he needs to do to get things done…
    If God wants oak-trees, he can have them, zap! You want oak trees, you got ’em.

    That seems pretty clear to me. Both Feser and Martin are saying that God can make things directly from the top-down, without needing to specifying their parts in detail first. If you would like to propose and defend an alternative interpretation of Feser’s and Martin’s words, then by all means do.

  40. 40
    StephenB says:

    Mung: “I doubt Feser would acknowledge that the soul is a part of a man in the way that say, the eye, is a part of a man.”

    I agree. It would seem that the introduction of the soul would have to come from the top-down. I also think, though, that this confirms VJ’s point. Things that have parts, as opposed to things that don’t, must be built from the bottom up. That is why it is said that God “breathed in” man’s spirit (from the top-dowm) and “formed” his body out of the dust (from the bottom up).

  41. 41
    George E. says:

    I believe a rational summary of these ideas can be laid out as follows:

    Without the soul, there can be no human body; for the soul is the form of the body, and without the form there is no body.

    Without all the particulars of the body, there is no human body; for no human body is indeterminate with respect to particulars.

    The soul is not the cause of particulars; for the soul is universal to all particular human bodies.

    In fact, the particular soul itself is determined and individuated by the particulars of the body, just as Thomas Aquinas taught.

    Therefore, it would seem that if God is the cause of the soul, He must also be the cause of the particulars of the body; for the latter not only complete and perfect the body but also the soul; and it seems absurd that God would leave the perfection and completion of the soul to chance, or even to secondary and inferior causes. Moreover, neither in chance nor in secondary causes does there appear any capacity to bring the particulars of the human body into being.

  42. 42
    Timaeus says:

    Alan Fox:

    Regarding your reply 26 above, I agree largely with the remarks of Kantian Naturalist in 31, but would add a few remarks of my own.

    My first response is that you seem to have a view of philosophy that is narrowly utilitarian and, to my mind, rather vulgar. You sound to me like some old farmer who, upon hearing Beethoven’s *Symphony Eroica*, complains that he doesn’t much like it because you can’t square-dance to it.

    When Newton presented his system of planetary motions, he was hailed across Europe for his intellectual achievement (which was, incidentally, regarded as an achievement of “natural philosophy”). And not one person in Europe at the time could think of any *social or economic use* of knowing how bodies were sustained in orbits. Nor was such usefulness the motivation for Newton’s inquiries. It was the pure love of knowledge. Human beings get intellectual joy out of understanding the world around them. If someone had said to Newton: “Great work, Isaac! I think your discoveries can be used to put satellites in orbit so that we can watch the Olympic Games from Japan here in England!”, Newton would have thought that a very odd attitude to take to his solution of the profound theoretical problems which had occupied Aristotle, Ptolemy, Copernicus, Brahe, Kepler, Galileo, etc., for two millennia.

    Similarly, when Plato, Aristotle, Spinoza, Kant, Hegel, Heidegger, etc. wrote about various subjects (epistemology, aesthetics, metaphysics, politics, ethics, etc.), their primary goal was to understand the nature of these things; what we now call “practical applications” were generally far from their minds (though of course there are *partial* exceptions — Bacon, Descartes, and Hobbes and the political philosophers more generally — but even there the theoretical interest (except in the case of Bacon) was generally at least as strong as the practical). These people were philosophers because they *wanted to know*, not because they wanted to make little practical improvements to the social or economic order. (Hence Marx’s scathing condemnation of past philosophers, and his bon mot about changing vs. understanding the world.) And precisely because they weren’t preoccupied with contemporary utility, much of their work has a timeless quality that still makes them worth reading today. Their thinking stands above fads and recommends itself to those who love knowledge for the sake of knowledge.

    Second, I’d say from your time-frame that by “philosophers” you have in mind primarily professors of philosophy at modern universities. But, with all due respect to our bright and thoughtful friend Kantian Naturalist, I don’t think very highly of modern academic philosophy overall. I think that most modern academic philosophers are either merely historians of philosophy — explicating the thought of the great philosophers — or mediocre or poor philosophers, and that reading most of their work is a waste of time that would be far better spent reading the greatest philosophers, who are not only theoretically more penetrating but have had the greatest long-term (as opposed to immediately “practical”) effects on civilization.

    You mention Michael Ruse. I don’t consider Ruse by any means a great philosopher. I consider him a mediocrity. The same with Dennett. These people are academics who happen to teach in philosophy departments, and are at most second- or third-string philosophers. The great philosophers of the last 100 or so years, the ones worth reading, have been people like Bergson, and Nietzsche, and Heidegger, and Wittgenstein, and Collingwood. And beyond such people, there are of course some high-level “second-string” philosophers who are a sort of cross between philosophers and scholars — people like Gadamer and Lovejoy and Cassirer and Voegelin etc. Not all such people were originally trained as philosophers, but they often have more philosophical insight than professors in philosophy departments., e.g., Hans Jonas. And some very good philosophical thinkers have operated out of political science, history, or Classics departments, or have not been university teachers at all, e.g., Simone Weil.

    The people you mention — Carnap, Ayer, and perhaps Quine as well (though I don’t know that latter’s thought with any security) — are those who have made philosophy into more or the less the errand-boy of modern natural science. Their philosophy is a philosophy of obsequiousness, and of flattery to the spirit of the age. (To Ayer’s credit, in his old age he acknowledged the shallowness of some of his earlier views.) I wouldn’t expect to learn a thing about *life* from the logical positivists. I regard them as corrupters of the philosophical enterprise, Sophists of the sort Plato condemned.

    If want to know what good philosophy is, read good philosophers. Don’t worry about whether they are recent or old. Find the best philosophers and tackle their writings. And if you need help, get help from good, philosophically astute critics and commenters. If you need help with Aquinas, consult Gilson or Maritain; if you need help with Plato, consult Voegelin or Jacob Klein (or Nussbaum, to echo a suggestion of KN above); if you need help with Hobbes, consult Wolin or MacPherson or Strauss, if you need help with Leibniz, consult Lovejoy or Klein again.

    There are also some good modern debates you can benefit from reading. Harvey Mansfield’s critique of Richard Rorty is of value, as are various critiques of the American legal/political philosophers Rawls. Alasdair MacIntyre’s discussion of ethics and politics is significant, and the debate that raged around his *After Virtue* is another thing worth consulting.

    But of course, all of this will do you little good if you don’t first get a basic knowledge of the tradition. (Just as one needs a basic knowledge of biology and chemistry before one can do biochemistry.) So I’d start with some of the key Platonic dialogues — Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Phaedo, Gorgias — and then have a look at Hobbes’s *Leviathan*, and Aristotle’s *Physics* and some writings of Descartes and Hume and Rousseau and a few other “anchor texts” which establish the working language of the philosophical tradition. Modern debates will mean much more to you if you know the background of the discussions.

    And if you say — gee, I don’t want to do all that work, I just want a casual onlooker’s guide to philosophy, a sort of guided tour of the high points, aimed at the uncommitted — well, then I’d suggest that you don’t have any natural inclination to pursue the questions of philosophy. And there is nothing wrong with that, or abnormal. A young person who says “I’m kind of interested in playing the piano, but I don’t want to do all that practicing” is not cut out to be a musician — lacks the necessary internal fire of the soul that produces a good musician. And not everyone has to be a musician. Nor does everyone have to be a philosopher. But anyone who has the natural fire to become a philosopher will very early on manifest that fire by keenly seeking out and reading books and articles by the great philosophers and great thinkers generally. (I started reading the simpler Enlightenment philosophers at age 12, out of spontaneous interest in the questions.) Someone who says: “I’m not convinced that philosophy is of any use. Prove to me that it is!” is never going to become a philosopher. The person with a truly philosophical soul would never take that stance, any more than young Mozart would have demanded that his father prove to him that music is a career worth pursuing.

    If you have the Socratic temperament, you have it, and if you don’t, you don’t. And if you don’t, I don’t fault you, but in that case, you shouldn’t mock philosophy for being useless any more than someone with no musicality in his soul should mock symphonies and string quartet pieces for being useless.

  43. 43
    tjguy says:

    Dr. Torley,

    I don’t understand why this is such a big deal.
    I agree that with you that a thing has to be both made from top down and bottom up or as you put it: “Things have to also be made from the bottom up: in order to create something, de novo, you have to fully specify what it is that you’re creating. That means filling in all the details.”

    But I also agree with Professor Feser that God could say “Dust, become a man.” and it would.

    In fact, that is how the Bible tells us that God created light and most other things. He said “Let there be light.” And there was. So what that tells us is that all the information and direction necessary for light to form was included in the command “let there be light”.

    God certainly knew what He wanted to create and He knew what each atom had to do in order for light to come into existence. Why couldn’t all that meaning and information have been present in that command? I mean, you can’t write all that out and put it in the Bible.

    So isn’t it possible that both of you are right?

    On each day of creation, God said “Let there be ….” But on day 4, in addition to this, we are told that God made the sun, moon, and stars. I guess we don’t know if He made them simply by calling them into existence or actually formed them with His hands like He did with man on day 6. Although a bit of a different pattern is used in reference to man. He says “Let us make man ….” not “Let there be man …” Perhaps that is significant.

    But either way, God is the great Creator and there is nothing He does not know or cannot do(as long as logic is not violated). He knows what to do with every atom to make light, land, plants, birds, fish, and even man. And I believe that is all included in His commands. It seems obvious that it would be, otherwise the things He was planning would not come into existence – like you said.

    He certainly did not leave creation up to chance! He certainly did not make a statement – “Let there be light” and then wait to see what “kind” of light would come into existence. No, He was in charge and His command was fully implemented just as He envisioned.

    You quoted Ps. 139:13 “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” I’m not sure why you quoted this. I doubt you are implying that God is actually physically at work in the mother’s womb knitting together each and every life that ever lived.

    Perhaps it shows that God is involved in the bottom up process as well? If that’s what you mean, I agree as long as you are not referring to some kind of actual physical intervention by God. I think it can all happen through His information rich commands.

    Anyway, I think you are both right.

    My guess is that Professor Feser would agree with the idea that all the information necessary for the bottom up work was included in His commands – ie “Dust become man”.

  44. 44
    Alan Fox says:

    Re StephenB

    Here is where I grant Marx as having some influence, though I wasn’t sure anyone would want to claim him!

  45. 45
    Alan Fox says:

    @ Vincent

    It was in this thread that I posted a comment at Stephen Law’s blog.

  46. 46
    Alan Fox says:

    @ Timaeus and Kantian Naturalist.

    Thanks for the comments. I will respond when I have a little more time

  47. 47
    StephenB says:

    Alan @44, all significant social movements, good and bad, begin with a philosopher. You name the movement, and I will tell you which thinker or thinkers provided the rational justification for it.

    French Revolution—Rousseau, Montesquie:

    American Revolution: Locke, Franklin

    Ideas have consequences.

  48. 48
    Mung says:

    Ideas have consequences.

    You have no idea!

  49. 49
    Timaeus says:

    Alan Fox wrote:

    “@ Timaeus and Kantian Naturalist.

    “Thanks for the comments. I will respond when I have a little more time.”

    Four days and counting. And you have responded on other threads since then. Should I hold my breath?

  50. 50
    Alan Fox says:

    Should I hold my breath?

    No, save that for swimming underwater.

    Timaeus writes:

    I don’t think very highly of modern academic philosophy overall.

    Good to start on a point of agreement! Sorry Professor K 😉

    I take on board what you write for the most part. I note that most of the people you reference fall into two categories: those I have heard of and those I haven’t.

    Heard of: Plato, Aristotle*, Spinoza, Kant, Hegel, Hobbes, Bacon*, Descartes, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Leibnitz, Hume, Rousseau.

    *more for their scientific studies.

    Not heard of: Heidegger, Bergson, Collingwood, Gadamer, Lovejoy, Cassirer, Voegelin, Rorty, Rawls.

    Your suggestion that philosophy should be enjoyed like music is not an issue; if a philosopher can make a living as an artist, then best of luck. Leaving aside Marx, whose ideas seem to have been usurped rather than implemented, I am still dubious about any positive impact from modern philosophy outside its own peer group.

    If you have the Socratic temperament, you have it, and if you don’t, you don’t. And if you don’t, I don’t fault you, but in that case, you shouldn’t mock philosophy for being useless any more than someone with no musicality in his soul should mock symphonies and string quartet pieces for being useless.

    I have eclectic taste in music. I have several friends who make a living as painters with differing success. I especially enjoy live theatre and was a regular at The Royal Shakespeare Theatre when living in the UK. Maybe I have a blind spot when it comes to philosophy. Maybe philosophy is no longer relevant to the wider world. Maybe the next big thing will come from a philosopher. Until then, in deference to your sensibilities, I’ll hold off on belittling the achievements of philosophy in general and limit myself to specifics if and as they arise. (If and when I have the time and inclination!)

  51. 51
    Timaeus says:

    Alan Fox:

    I agree with you that it’s always better to criticize particulars than to engage in sweeping dismissals of broad human activities. So it’s more useful to criticize philosopher A for doctrine X than to attack philosophy or philosophers as such. (That’s why “religion versus science” discussions are almost always useless — they aren’t precise enough to settle anything.)

    But it’s not my sensibilities you should defer to; it’s the evidence. The views of philosophers have reshaped the human world time and time again. Of course, I concede that the minor logical twitterings in contemporary philosophy departments have very little effect upon everyday life — that’s all just academics talking to academics. They have to dream up *something* to write theses about so that they can keep granting Ph.D.s and keep the academic system going for its own sake. But significant philosophy, for most of philosophy’s history, was not written by university professors.

    Even Plato was not a university professor in the modern sense. Only Aristotle of the ancient philosophers was something close to that. (And note that he is the least readable of the ancient philosophers!) If you look at the list of great early modern philosophers — Machiavelli, Bacon, Hobbes, Leibniz, Spinoza, Descartes, etc. — most up them, up until the time of Kant and Hegel, were private tutors, bishops, statesmen, aristocrats, lens-grinders, etc., not professors of philosophy. It’s only since Kant and Hegel that philosophers have tended to settle into comfortable university positions. And even since then some of the best thinkers have either fit uncomfortably into the university setting (Nietzsche, Wittgenstein) or have been outside it (Simone Weil). Philosophy, unlike modern natural science, does not thrive well in an institutional setting. This is all the more so today, when employees of publically funded universities are hemmed in by speech codes and political correctness of all kinds, in a way that Kant and Hegel and Feuerbach and Heidegger never were. A philosopher today, if he speaks about anything other than technical trivia (symbolic logic, etc.), has to speak the language of the self-emasculated middle-class of Western culture, and vindicate the main themes of contemporary civilization. Thus, philosophy profs today defend feminism and environmentalism and global warming hysteria, and support the expansion of state control over education and the economy, and exalt natural science as the highest form of human knowing, belittling literature and theology, and they attack intelligent design etc. If they did otherwise, they would never get tenure. It is almost impossible to find a genuinely independently-minded philosopher these days. Philosophy has become bourgeoisified and boring.

    Still, for all of that, modern civilization was built in part on the writings of philosophers, and we live very differently — politically, morally, socially, and technologically — than we would otherwise had lived, due to the writings of Hobbes, Bacon, Descartes, Rousseau, Locke, Nietzsche and others.

    As for this comment:

    “Your suggestion that philosophy should be enjoyed like music is not an issue; if a philosopher can make a living as an artist, then best of luck.”

    Your suggestion that the value of philosophy is tied to whether or not the philosopher can “make a living” reminds me of a passage I stumbled across while surfing the internet. The words are attributed to Hobbes. I’m not certain the attribution is correct, but the thought expressed seems to me a perfect reply to your remark:

    “when I heare a man upon the discovery of any new and ingenious knowledge or invention aske gravely [that is to say scornefully] what tis good for, meaning what monie it will bring in … [I] esteeme that man nott sufficiently removed from brutalitie”

  52. 52
    Kantian Naturalist says:

    A few minor comments in relation to Timaeus’ (51):

    (1) Aristotle is the least readable of the ancients because what we have of Aristotle are lecture notes compiled by his students; everything that Aristotle published has been lost.

    (2) Generally speaking, it is true that academic philosophy has been “professionalized”, and with professionalism comes conformism, but I don’t think that feminism or environmental philosophy are any evidence of this. Rather, the evidence lies in the ever-increasing narrowness of specialization among academic philosophers.

    (3) I very much disagree with this remark:

    This is all the more so today, when employees of publically funded universities are hemmed in by speech codes and political correctness of all kinds, in a way that Kant and Hegel and Feuerbach and Heidegger never were. A philosopher today, if he speaks about anything other than technical trivia (symbolic logic, etc.), has to speak the language of the self-emasculated middle-class of Western culture, and vindicate the main themes of contemporary civilization. Thus, philosophy profs today defend feminism and environmentalism and global warming hysteria, and support the expansion of state control over education and the economy, and exalt natural science as the highest form of human knowing, belittling literature and theology, and they attack intelligent design etc. If they did otherwise, they would never get tenure. It is almost impossible to find a genuinely independently-minded philosopher these days. Philosophy has become bourgeoisified and boring.

    Some of this — the dependence on symbolic logic, the exaltation of natural science, and the belittling of literature and theology — was probably true when logical positivism dominated academic philosophy in the English-speaking world. But those days are long past. Philosophy of literature is a small but thriving field, and for that matter, so is theology. There are philosophers of literature and theologians and feminists and environmental philosophers and much else besides — as well as people working in every area of the history of philosophy, Western and non-Western, in philosophy of physics and of cognitive science, biomedical ethics, and on and on.

    For my money, though, even though the hegemony of logical positivism has long since ended, the deeper problem remains of hyper-specialization and over-professionalization. These days someone can make important contributions to, say, philosophy of cognitive science without ever even noticing what’s going on in epistemology, let alone what’s going on in other departments, let alone what’s going on outside the university as a whole. (That there are exceptions — and of course there are — doesn’t disprove the tendency.)

    (4) Given Heidegger’s own relationship with the politics of the university, he’s a problematic case to invoke here. 🙂

  53. 53
    Timaeus says:

    Hi, Kantian:

    Let me clarify my remarks about academic philosophy:

    1. Yes, part of what I had in mind was the conformism which comes with professionalization. That’s not unique to academic philosophy, of course.

    2. When I spoke of feminism, etc. I was speaking without context. Let me give a clearer context now. The political/social views of philosophers do not occupy nearly as wide a range as they once did. If you do a study of the voting habits and political views of full-time philosophers in secular philosophy departments, I think you will find:

    a. 80-90% vote on the political left in their respective countries;

    b. In the USA, a similar % are against capital punishment, and are for unrestricted or nearly unrestricted abortion access;

    c. In the USA, a majority favor same-sex marriage; in other countries, I suspect the majority would be higher;

    d. 80-90% would self-describe as atheistic or agnostic.

    In other words, it is very hard to find a conservative professor of philosophy these days — outside of religious institutions (Catholic or evangelical).

    There is a homogeneity of social/political/ethical thought on the liberal/social welfare state side of things.

    Hence all these courses of philosophy of the environment, philosophy of feminism, philosophy of visible minorities, philosophy of vegetarianism, etc. are reflective of the general attitude of the philosophy professors. You are far more likely to find a course covering third-rate contemporary feminist “philosophers” than you are to find a course covering the philosophy of, say, Albertus Magnus or Campanella or Pico or Boethius.

    As for logical positivism, I agree it has experienced a downswing, but there are still departments, especially in Britain, where it is dominant, and in any case, what has replaced it (deconstructionism and various forms of relativism and nihilism) is in some cases worse. The world was better off when it believed in narrow conception of truth as scientific truth (Russell, Carnap, Ayer, etc.), than it has been since its leading intellectuals started preaching there is no truth at all, since all truth is social construct. Derrida and Foucault etc. have done much more damage to the social fabric than the old positivists did.

    I found that to study philosophy seriously — to meet real philosophers, as opposed to professors of philosophy — I had to look outside of philosophy departments, to odd places such as religion departments, political science departments, and history departments. I found more truly philosophical discussions going on in those contexts than in philosophy departments. The most Socrates- and Wittgenstein-like teachers I ever had were not philosophy profs. And I also found that those teachers were the most open to conservative philosophical conclusions.

    I stress that by “conservative” I don’t mean The Moral Majority and I don’t mean fundamentalism and I don’t mean the new world order in which corporate capitalism calls all the shots. I mean the lines of thought we find in ancient Platonism, Aristotelianism, and Stoicism, and in some later thinkers, e.g., the Scholastics, and Jonathan Swift, Thomas More, etc. It is extremely difficult to find professors in philosophy departments who have any respect for conservatism in this sense; most of them are modern liberals throughout the length and breadth of their souls.

    If you compare that with, say, a secular philosophy department back in the 1960s, you see that 50 years ago, in a department of, say, 25 professors, there would have been some Marxists (now old-fashioned and hard to find), a Hegelian or two, a Kantian or two, some Christians (Baptists, Presbyterians, etc.) who had been Protestant clergymen before become philosophy professors (and might still be strongly affiliated with their churches), one or two Thomists, a few classic Lockean liberals, a pantheist or two (following Spinoza), a few positivists, maybe a Wittgensteinian, and a few assorted existentialists of various stripes, from Kierkegaardian through to atheist. If you were lucky you might have found a Collingwoodian or Bergsonian or something exotic. But what have we got now? Logicians, “analytic” philosophers, deconstructionists, and an assorted grab-bag of “philosophy of (name your modern bleeding-heart liberal cause)”. Where are the old-style philosophers who would preach Plato or Aristotle or Kant or Hegel or Spinoza or Aquinas or Plotinus to their students? Where are the alternatives to modern relativistic pluralism and moral/political chaos? Who has a constructive philosophy any more, that offers the possibility of a conservative, stable society with a serious ethical code?

    All I see in philosophy departments these days are the destroyers, the negators, the ones who want to see the whole edifice of Western civilization torn down and replaced with the doctrine that there is no truth, but only narratives we tell each other in order to gain power over others. (While all the while inconsistently maintaining liberal premises to ground views on abortion, capital punishment, etc.)

    I’m not blaming you for all the evils of philosophy departments. But I am saying that philosophy departments are no longer part of the solution, but part of the problem of modern civilization. They should be acting as a set of brakes, but instead they have their foot on the accelerator pedal, making all the characteristic modern errors worse and worse.

    Of course you can point to outstanding individuals who have been more constructive. MacIntyre, for instance. And Plantinga at Notre Dame. But such people are few and far between.

    I could be wrong. But if I am, could you please point me to a secular philosophy department where an openly-confessing conservative — someone who thought, and intended to teach, that Western thought had taken a decisively wrong turn with the Enlightenment, if not earlier — would have a hope of landing a tenure-track job? I’ll fire off my resume tomorrow.

  54. 54
    Kantian Naturalist says:

    Fair enough, Timaeus.

    I like your point about the narrowing of philosophical options over the past fifty years. I’ve only been active in the profession for about ten years now, and it’s easy to forget that it was any other way.

    My sense is that you and I share similar views about what’s gone wrong with academic philosophy, even though we’re quite different politically. (I’m a leftie of the Frankfurt School variety, and I’m guessing you know enough philosophy and social theory that I don’t need to explain what that means. Worth noticing that the Frankfurters were outsiders to academia, too.)

    I think that there are two closely inter-related crises here in academic philosophy: a failure of theoria and a failure of praxis. The failure of theoria is a failure to pay attention to the need for comprehensive metaphysical systems. The failure of praxis is a failure to pay attention to philosophy as a way of life.

    As a leftist, I have my own narrative to craft about how over-professionalization and over-specialization have corrupted the practice of philosophy. But I do like the conservative narrative as well. At times I consider myself a “left-wing cultural conservative” — the idea here being that I tend to share the concerns of cultural conservatives, but that I see capitalism/statism as the radix malorum. (And while I’m enough of a libertarian to sympathize with the critique of statism, I don’t believe that statism and capitalism can be disentangled.) I don’t think there are any left-wing cultural conservatives any more; my model here is Christopher Lasch, whom is read these days by exactly no one.

    This might interest you, about how deep the corruption of the intellectual integrity of the academy has gone. We hear a lot about Derrida, Foucault, sometimes Lyotard — the big bad postmodernists. Thing is, those people are actually pretty difficult to read, and pretty demanding as philosophers go.

    They come out of a specific political and cultural context, a particular intellectual tradition, that was mostly shaped by German phenomenology (Husserl much more than Heidegger), French Hegelianism (Kojeve and Hyppolite), and the peculiar period that saw the waning of existentialism, the rise of structuralism, and in politics, the disillusionment with the FCP after May 1968. But when the posties are read in Anglophone literature departments, film studies departments, etc. they aren’t read in that context, and so no one can make sense of what they’re reading. Derrida only makes sense as a critic of Husserl and of Hegel; without that context, it’s just gibberish. So you have a lot of people who learned how to imitate the style and mannerisms of the posties, but never put in the time to acquire the serious philosophical chops needed to understand any of it.

    I guess my point here is, the faddishness of Derrida and Foucault is itself a symptom of a fundamental lack of intellectual integrity and honesty.

  55. 55
    Barry Arrington says:

    “without that context, it’s just gibberish” Its gibberish even in that context.

  56. 56
    Timaeus says:

    Kantian:

    Thanks for the helpful reply. Yes, I see some common themes between us, despite differences.

    On capitalism and statism: I’m critical of the modern versions of both. On the other hand, older ideas of the state, i.e., the commonwealth, or republic, or polis, I’m a strong supporter of. I’ve heard of Christopher Lasch — seems to me I often saw his name in footnotes and in passing references back in the old days — but I’ve not read him. Maybe I should.

    I don’t know much of the Frankfurt school — a little of Marcuse and Fromm, but in the ancient days when I was educated it was still a respectable school, though past its zenith. I can’t say too much without indicating more of my biography than I wish to, but I was educated by conservatives who admired certain aspects of the Left more than they admired certain aspects of mainstream liberal bourgeois culture, which they saw as destroying all true conservative traditions in the name of a “conservativism” that was really just the rule of the rich. (In that sense, they were conservatives who had been educated by Marx’s analysis of Western history.)

    On Foucault and Derrida, I’ve been unable to comprehend even a paragraph of their prose, but I confess that I have read only snippets of the originals; mostly I’ve been exposed to their devotees (as you put it — in a way that made me smile — in things like literary criticism and film studies), so I may have picked up a very confused idea of their intentions. Still, the devotees wouldn’t be able to get away with vague, incomprehensible prose if they hadn’t been to some extent encouraged by the writing style of their masters. And given that I don’t excuse even a thinker as great as Heidegger for what I believe to be an *unnecessary* lack of clarity in much of his writing, I’m not likely to excuse epigones like Derrida etc. for the same.

    I like your remarks on theoria and praxis. Yes, I think that much of modern academic philosophy has failed on both counts.

    I don’t want to single out philosophy departments alone as the villains, though. The modern university overall has failed Western civilization, insofar as it has allowed itself to become a vehicle of careerism (I don’t mean preparing people for professions such as medicine or law, but academic careerism within specialist disciplines) and has lost its vision of a community of scholars (cf. the writings of Paul Goodman, another forgotten but worthwhile writer) whose job is not to provide the apologetic for a particular kind of society — whether left-wing or right-wing — but to create a culture of learning and engagement in which humanity, in the broadest and best sense, is nurtured and expressed in new discovery.

  57. 57
    kairosfocus says:

    Timaeus and KN:

    A very good and positive exchange, something that justifies and gives hope to the desire of UD (and its serious readers . . . not the mockers out there who probably have not got a clue what you both just said and what it signifies in a very, very dangerous world) to host serious exchanges of thought.

    I note from above two points that — among a constellation of significant points — strike me:

    KN: All I see in philosophy departments these days are the destroyers, the negators, the ones who want to see the whole edifice of Western civilization torn down and replaced with the doctrine that there is no truth, but only narratives we tell each other in order to gain power over others. (While all the while inconsistently maintaining liberal premises to ground views on abortion, capital punishment, etc.)

    T: I like your remarks on theoria and praxis. Yes, I think that much of modern academic philosophy has failed on both counts.

    I don’t want to single out philosophy departments alone as the villains, though.The modern university overall has failed Western civilization, insofar as it has allowed itself to become a vehicle of careerism (I don’t mean preparing people for professions such as medicine or law, but academic careerism within specialist disciplines) and has lost its vision of a community of scholars (cf. the writings of Paul Goodman, another forgotten but worthwhile writer) whose job is not to provide the apologetic for a particular kind of society — whether left-wing or right-wing — but to create a culture of learning and engagement in which humanity, in the broadest and best sense, is nurtured and expressed in new discovery.

    Here is my take.

    We have had some discussions on the raft or ship under constant repair metaphor. You will recall that I kept on pointing out that such a vessel sits in an ocean, which is its foundational support, but also has in it the sharks.

    Then, I pointed out the issue of moral responsibility, individually and collectively: if you cause the vessel to disintegrate in the sea, you invite the sharks over for a feast. On us all.

    And yet, in the teeth of signs that the sharks are circling ever closer, we see all too many working in ways that patently portend such a breakup.

    Such madness is incomprehensible, and I guess the postmodernism — ultramodernism is maybe a better characterisation — and its fellow travellers, is an apt place for the game to have ended up. (And BTW, in my considered opinion, the sort of confident manner, superciliously dismissive of questionings, irresponsible and utterly shallow game playing with the foundational, creation order institution of a community that we see going on under the context of slogans such as “equality” and “rights” etc [in the teeth of sufficient observational and analytical evidence to suggest that this is a very unwise place to go], is utterly symptomatic of just how far wrong we have gone. But it is hardly unique in that regard. The fiscal folly that is going on before our eyes, the geostrategic folly that refuses to even let even as much as the 101-level lessons of history get on the stage of discussion, the rise of political messianism, the rise of anarchy and nihilism, etc etc etc etc . . . )

    That BTW, is the context in which I have again recently pointed to Acts 27 as a study and warning on the dangers of Democracy and the appeals that are ever so common. And notice, in this we see abuse of wealth, technical knowledge, tickling itching ears with what hey want to hear instead of the — literally — wintry truth, etc all playing out, and the price to be paid.

    And yes, I think this particular historical case study is a parable and warning to all of us on the hazards of democracy and the duties of sound citizenship and leadership.

    Let’s start with lesson number one.

    First, DO NO HARM!

    KF

  58. 58
    kairosfocus says:

    F/N: Given the mockers out there, I need to make my point clear. The greater the power, the greater the danger and the greater the need for safety precautions. I am a convinced democrat, but because of that I have to make myself all the more aware of how and where it can go wrong. Having seen that all too up close and personal in my homeland some decades ago (including through the murder of one of my “aunties” in her shop through the impact of irresponsible radicalism, which was then blandly denied by those directly responsible for spreading the talking points that led to her murder . . . ), I cannot ever forget this lesson. I can only plead that the wider civilisation cannot afford to pay the price that neglecting this issue will exact if present trends are allowed to play out unchecked. KF

  59. 59
    Kantian Naturalist says:

    I don’t wish to give away too much of my biography, either, so I certainly won’t press.

    Yes, the Frankfurt School is gone these days — though critical theory is still thriving nicely, both in Germany and in the United States. (I’m not sure about the UK.) They were probably the last major thinkers to attack bourgeois liberalism from the left. And there are really good criticisms of the university from the left as well.

    I’ve read very little Derrida, but I have read a lot of Foucault, and also a lot by Gilles Deleueze. Heidegger I find deeply interesting but I just cannot forgive him for his involvement with the Nazis. One point about Heidegger’s readability, though: Heidegger has a philosophical project which requires twisting language in upon itself. (Whether that’s a project worth having is another question.) This involves a lot of puns and neologisms, but because he’s doing this in German, the result is untranslatable. I’ve been told that native German-speakers find Heidegger perfectly readable.

    If you decide to read Lasch, may I recommend The Culture of Narcissism? It’s a bit dated in places but I think still very much relevant.

  60. 60
    Timaeus says:

    Kantian:

    I recognize the *Culture of Narcissism* title. I’ll try to get around to it at some point. I often find the “out of date” scholars more sensible than some of the currently fashionable ones.

    I can tolerate Heidegger’s playing with language up to a point — the philosopher sometimes has to do that. So when I see that he is trying to connect philosophical point to a philological point, I will try to follow it. (The translators aren’t always useful, because they don’t always give the non-German reader sufficient background to get the plays on words, etc.) But in some of his essays he appears to revel in abstraction, as if to prove that he can write a whole essay without a single concrete reference to any person, place, or thing. Try his essay “The Turning” (in the *Question Concerning Technology* collection) for exercise. I read that thing slowly and carefully. I made sure I grasped the syntax of each sentence. I made every effort to follow the flow from one sentence to another. But, try as I might, I could not figure out what the essay was *about*. It was entirely abstract. If Heidegger were asked to summarize, to an audience of intelligent non-philosophers (lawyers, doctors, teachers, accountants, civil servants, etc.) in 250 words what the point of his essay was, I don’t think he could have done it to save his life. This is what happens when one lives one’s life as a professor of German philosophy. One becomes a communicative cripple. (Compare, e.g., Collingwood or Bergson, who would have had no trouble summarizing any of their works in accord with such a demand.)

    To the extent that French writers, e.g., Derrida, have adopted an obscure way of writing, based on German thinking, they have departed from the original French model of philosophy, which emphasized beauty and clarity of prose exposition (going back to Voltaire and Rousseau, and right up to the famed “clarte” of Bergson). I regard that as a retrograde step. I see philosophy as an essential part of Western civilization, which ought to be accessible to all educated and thoughtful people, not as some special discipline like mathematical physics aimed only at some tiny proportion of the population that is highly technically gifted and/or drilled for years in specialized jargon.

    Of course, it is not just philosophers who are guilty of this. Theologians, literary theorists, and social scientists all do the same thing. That’s why things like the Sokal Hoax can be perpetrated. Sokal’s essay would never have been published anywhere in 1945 or even 1965. It’s only because incomprehensible B.S., loaded with jargon and abstraction and avoiding the concrete and clear as much as possible, is now standard in many academic fields, that such a venture could succeed. (And I admire Sokal for pointing out how badly modern academia fails the cause of Truth by allowing this kind of writing — nay, not merely allowing but promoting and rewarding it.)

  61. 61
    Kantian Naturalist says:

    Yes, it’s a travesty that Social Text is still going strong while Lingua Franca has folded.

    I see philosophy as an essential part of Western civilization, which ought to be accessible to all educated and thoughtful people, not as some special discipline like mathematical physics aimed only at some tiny proportion of the population that is highly technically gifted and/or drilled for years in specialized jargon.

    Absolutely. In fact, I’ve been giving serious thought lately to leaving academia and teaching philosophy at the high school level. (Preferably private, so I don’t need to get certification, and preferably non-religious.)

    I share your appreciation for Bergson over Heidegger, though Bergson is unusually clear and elegant as a stylist, and Heidegger is unusually obscure and difficult. (Among philosophers, the only writer who I can think of as being stylistically superior to Bergson is Nietzsche, though Bergson is a better philosopher.)

    Related to this is a story I think you’ll appreciate: last summer I read Ernst Cassirer’s Phenomenology of Knowledge (vol. 3 of his Philosophy of Symbolic Forms). It’s not only a remarkable philosophical work — well-structure, well-executed, deeply informed by history and by science — but also written in a crisp, clear style. I expressed to a friend of mine (who is not an academic but deeply knowledgeable about philosophy) my surprise that Cassirer has been so thoroughly forgotten today. (This is surprising to me because Cassirer had insightful and respectful things to say about two younger German philosophers who later became intellectual enemies: Heidegger and Carnap.)

    My friend pointed out that Cassirer has been forgotten today because one cannot make an academic career out of interpreting and analyzing Cassirer, and that is because Cassirer is so clear that he does not need interpretation. A similar point holds for philosophers like Martin Buber (a personal favorite of mine), Karl Jaspers, and Jose Ortega y Gasset — or, for that matter, Montaigne and Emerson (also among my personal favorites).

    In my view, the core of the problem is that the humanities adopted the same tenure standards as the sciences. In the sciences, constantly producing new discoveries and inventions makes sense, and it’s also (often) highly profitable. But it’s much harder to see how constantly churning out new interpretations of Titus Andronicus, Republic, or Critique of Pure Reason can count as progress in the same way.

    And of course we are not going to have philosophers who will produce comprehensive works of genius like those of Plato or Hegel if they are constantly concerned about teaching classes, committee work, grant applications, publishing, going to conferences, and grading.

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