April 11, 2009

1. David Brooks on “The End of Philosophy”

A recent David Brooks column in the New York Times is called “The End of Philosophy.”1 Brooks says that philosophy has long been viewed as moral reasoning:

Socrates talked. The assumption behind his approach to philosophy, and the approaches of millions of people since, is that moral thinking is mostly a matter of reason and deliberation: Think through moral problems. Find a just principle. Apply it.

Now, however, “many psychologists, cognitive scientists and even philosophers embrace a different view of morality.... Moral judgments [are] rapid intuitive decisions and involve the emotion-processing parts of the brain.” This new view of morality is strikingly similar to what I call The Philosophy of Today. Brooks realizes the importance of this new view of morality:

The rise and now dominance of this emotional approach to morality is an epochal change. It challenges all sorts of traditions. It challenges the bookish way philosophy is conceived by most people. It challenges the Talmudic tradition, with its hyper-rational scrutiny of texts. It challenges the new atheists, who see themselves involved in a war of reason against faith and who have an unwarranted faith in the power of pure reason and in the purity of their own reasoning.

My only criticism of the Brooks column is that it shouldn’t be called “The End of Philosophy.” There has always been a non-rational tradition, a Hermetic tradition, in Western philosophy, and this non-rational tradition was even more important in Eastern philosophy. This non-rational tradition isn’t affected by the new insights Brooks discusses. We aren’t witnessing the “end of philosophy,” we’re witnessing the descent of the rational tradition, and the ascent of the non-rational tradition. Eastern philosophy and Jungian psychology are breathing new life into the non-rational tradition. Perhaps “rebirth of philosophy” would be more accurate than “end of philosophy.” Since Brooks is familiar only with the rational tradition (which is the only tradition taught in academia), he thinks that the decline of the rational tradition is the end of philosophy.

2. Lionel Trilling

I read an essay on Lionel Trilling by Louis Menand.2 Menand is a Harvard English professor, a writer for the New Yorker, and the author of books on American intellectuals (T. S. Eliot, William James, etc.).

What I like about Trilling is that he was a man of letters, he took literature seriously, he studied the classics but also tried to make literature important today. He wasn’t a scholar (though he was a Columbia professor), and he wasn’t an artist (though he aspired to be a novelist). Like intellectuals of old, he kept a journal.

Trilling is best known for a volume of essays, The Liberal Imagination. Menand says, “The Liberal Imagination was a phenomenon. It did something that very few books have ever done: it made literary criticism matter to people who were not literary critics.” Trilling brought literature into the public arena, instead of treating it as the business of specialists.

Trilling’s doctoral dissertation, and first book, was a study of Matthew Arnold. This first book was well-regarded, and boosted Trilling’s career and reputation. Perhaps Trilling saw himself as an American Arnold; Menand says that Trilling’s later book, The Liberal Imagination was akin to Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy: both books looked at the place of culture in society, both books mixed literary criticism with social criticism.

Early in his career, Trilling was a critic of the Stalinist left. Later he was a critic of student radicals. He was an inspiration for Irving Kristol’s neo-conservatism. (Another inspiration for Irving Kristol was Leo Strauss. I had often wondered what Irving Kristol thought of Strauss, and I had wondered where Bill Kristol’s Straussianism came from. Did he acquire it from Harvey Mansfield as a Harvard undergrad? Now I realize that Bill Kristol was probably a Straussian before he entered Mansfield’s classroom, he was probably a 2nd-generation Straussian.)

I was pleased to learn that one of my favorites, D. H. Lawrence, was “important to Trilling.” (I already knew that another of my favorites, E. M. Forster, was important to Trilling.)

I’m not a big fan of Menand’s essay on Trilling, or of the New Yorker in general. Though I learned a few things from it, Menand’s essay doesn’t give us the essence of Trilling the intellectual, or Trilling the man. Menand doesn’t take literature seriously, he doesn’t believe it has political, moral, or spiritual implications, doesn’t believe that it moves the individual, and moves the world. Menand doesn’t have strong convictions. Explaining why he became a critic, Menand says, “I didn’t care about the canon, and I didn’t care much about Communism, either. I just liked the way Trilling could turn a thought.”

For Menand, and perhaps for the New Yorker in general, literature is entertainment — sophisticated entertainment.

I went to graduate school after the nineteen-sixties, [Menand writes,] when the age of heroic criticism was over, and thank God. There was a lot of righteousness, not to mention self-righteousness, back in the days of Partisan Review. Taste has largely been liberated from politics. Most people don’t use the language of approval and disapproval in their responses to art; they use the language of entertainment. They enjoy some things and don’t enjoy other things.

For Menand and the New Yorker, style isn’t a vehicle for the writer’s convictions, it’s a way of showing sophistication, hence clarity isn’t of prime importance. Menand’s style is sometimes convoluted, as when he says that Trilling had doubts about the humanist faith:

This willingness to follow out the logic of his own premises, to register doubts about a faith for which he is still celebrated by people who are offended by attempts to understand books as fully and complexly implicated in their historical times, is the finest thing about his work.

3. Lovejoy on “The Great Chain of Being”

A. From Static Chain to Evolving Chain

Before discussing how the idea of the Great Chain evolved in the 18th century, Lovejoy describes the Great Chain at the start of the 18th century. He says that the Great Chain was a static view of the universe. All species had existed since the beginning, no species had gone extinct, no new species would ever emerge in the future. There is nothing new under the sun. The universe is a reflection of Divine Reason, which wills fullness. Everything that can exist does exist — yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Just as 2 + 2 will always equal 4, so the rational structure of the world is unchanging. “The principle of plenitude,” Lovejoy writes, was “inconsistent with any belief in progress, or, indeed, in any sort of significant change in the universe as a whole.... Rationality has nothing to do with dates.”3

This conception of a static universe gave way, during the 18th century, to its opposite, a progressive universe. It was argued that, in the after-life, we would gradually climb the Scale of Being, and approach Divinity, without ever attaining it. As for this life, here again the rule is constant progress; in 1718, Leibniz wrote,

Our happiness will never consist, and ought not to consist, in a full enjoyment, in which there is nothing more to desire, and which would make our mind dull, but in a perpetual progress to new pleasures and new perfections.4

The Scale of Being began to be conceived as a ladder up which we constantly climbed. A Faustian striving for the infinite wasn’t the invention of Goethe and other Romantics, but can be traced back to the early 18th century. The Platonic ideal of self-sufficiency was gradually replaced by the ideal of constant striving. “Man is by nature insatiable, and it is the will of his Maker that he should be so.”5

Some 18th-century thinkers, like Voltaire and Johnson, rejected the principle of plenitude itself. Voltaire pointed out that species sometimes go extinct; man is able to wipe out a species, as the English did with wolves. Johnson pointed out that, if the universe were as full as possible, there would be infinite species between any two links in the Chain of Being.

Early in the 18th century, Leibniz began to think of species evolving. He said that various types of cat — lions, tigers, etc. — may be descended from an ur-cat, and all land animals may be descended from marine animals. He said the earth changes greatly over time, and batches of species are wiped out, and replaced by other species. Extinction is not only possible, but routine.6 According to Leibniz, the fullness of the world is realized over time, and progress is endless.

According to Lovejoy, the evolutionary Leibniz contradicts the Leibniz that he (and we) discussed before. The idea of evolution “split his system... completely in two.”7 According to the principle of plenitude, the world is a reflection of Divine Reason, Goodness, and Power, and everything that can exist, does exist. This is inconsistent with the idea that individuals, species, and the universe itself are evolving. “A ‘necessary and eternal truth’ cannot be in process of gradually becoming approximately true.”8 Likewise, the best of possible worlds cannot be in process of gradually improving. The doctrine of optimism had to give way to the doctrine of meliorism. “There are, then, two Leibnitian systems of philosophy, quite irreconcilable with one another.”9

Near the end of the 18th century, Kant argued that the cosmos is constantly evolving, Divine creative energy is constantly exerting itself in the production of new stars, the fullness of the world is realized over time. Like the evolutionary Leibniz, Kant didn’t abandon the Great Chain and the principle of plenitude, he simply introduced time/evolution. Even inanimate matter, according to Kant, is predisposed to evolve/advance: “The matter which appears to be merely passive and without form and arrangement has even in its simplest state an urge to fashion itself by a natural evolution into a more perfect constitution.”10 One is reminded of our earlier remarks on “smart matter.”

Lovejoy discusses a thinker named Robinet, who said that any traits found in advanced beings must also exist on lower rungs of the Scale of Being. Traits that we regard as human must exist among lower animals, among plants, even among inanimate things, otherwise there would be a discontinuity, a missing link in the Great Chain, a leap or jump in nature. The principle of continuity implies “the non-existence of mere ‘brute matter.’”11 And the existence of smart matter!

According to Lovejoy, Robinet was an early champion of Bergson’s Úlan vital; Robinet believed that the fundamental reality wasn’t matter, but rather energy, a creative urge, “a tendency to change for the better.”12 For Robinet, as for Bergson, this energy, this Úlan vital, was non-spatial — metaphysical rather than physical. This energy underlies the visible world; it’s what I once called The World Behind. This creative energy was opposed, in Robinet’s view, not by a death-instinct, but by the passive weight of inert matter.

The idea of species evolution became increasingly widespread in the 18th century. In the middle of the century, leading scientists in both France and Germany suggested that “all present species” were derived from “a small number, or perhaps a single pair, of original ancestors.”13 Some people went even further, and suggested that inorganic matter as well as organic matter could be traced back to a basic plan, an Urbild; the Urbild was “almost an obsession with Goethe at one period.”14 In an earlier issue, I listed traits that I have in common with my dog (four limbs, two ears, etc., etc.). Such similarities were noticed by earlier thinkers, and they tried to go beyond vertebrates, and find similarities with other animals — even with plants, minerals, rocks, etc.

B. Enlightenment Uniformity and Romantic Diversity

In Chapter 10, Lovejoy discusses the Romantic movement of the late 1700s and early 1800s. At the start of the chapter, however, Lovejoy makes some general remarks about the principle of plenitude, and about the Enlightenment worldview. He says that the principles of plenitude and continuity were used to support a belief in the rational nature of the universe, “the essential logicality of the world. They were designed to justify the belief in the rationality, the perfection, the static completeness, the orderliness and coherency of reality.”15

But the principle of plenitude stressed the fullness and diversity of the world, and thus it clashed with the “simple rationalism of the Enlightenment,”16 which stressed uniformity, not diversity. Reason is the same for all men, according to the Enlightenment — the same for ancients as for moderns, the same for Orientals as for Occidentals — and Reason teaches “a few simple and self-evident truths.”17 (We might note in passing that the Declaration of Independence, with its emphasis on self-evident truths, is a product of the Enlightenment.)

An Enlightenment deist, according to Lovejoy, objected to revealed religion because it wasn’t universal, it was historical, and spoke to a certain time and place. Also, revealed religion wasn’t simple and self-evident, it was mysterious, irrational. So the Enlightenment deist wanted to replace revealed religion with natural religion (the Declaration speaks of “Nature’s God”). According to Voltaire, natural religion teaches “the moral principles common to the human race.”18 Natural religion is open to the ancients who lived before Christ, and to the Chinese who never heard of Christ; natural religion is open to all mankind. (One might contrast the deist with Kierkegaard, who emphasized the historical, non-rational, mysterious character of Christianity.)

Turning from Enlightenment religion to Enlightenment aesthetics, Lovejoy says that Enlightenment writers like Johnson argued that a work of art should appeal to all mankind, and should depict the universal features of human nature. Johnson praised Shakespeare for depicting universal humanity — Romans who were universal rather than Roman, kings who were universal rather than kingly, etc. (Lovejoy says that Johnson “mis-praised” Shakespeare.) Johnson represents the Enlightenment, the neo-classical, the pre-Romantic. The Romantics emphasized not the universal but local color, local dialect, the idiosyncratic and personal.

In politics, as in religion and aesthetics, the Enlightenment emphasized the simple and the uniform. All nations should be governed according to the same self-evident truths, the same rational principles. Away with the patchwork of feudal regulations! According to Lovejoy, the Enlightenment was devoted to “the simplification and the standardization of thought and life.”19 Lovejoy argues that the Enlightenment is the culmination of the Age of Reason that began in the late 1500s. The Enlightenment can be summed up in Spinoza’s remark: “The purpose of Nature is to make men uniform, as children of a common mother.”20

In contrast to the “uniformitarianism” of the Enlightenment, the Romantic and modern periods believed that diversity is natural and good; Lovejoy speaks of “diversitarianism.”21 The Romantic period is characterized by “the cultivation of individual, national, and racial peculiarities; the depreciation of the obvious and the general high valuation (wholly foreign to most earlier periods) of originality.”22 The Romantic motto was “Be yourself, which is to say, be unique!”23 The Romantics valued the personal, local, and contemporary, rather than the universal, thus they reversed neo-classic aesthetic dicta.24

The result was, according to Lovejoy, “an immense increase in the range — though not always in the excellence — of most of the arts.”25 Lovejoy cautions that Romantic self-expression often runs amok: “The revolt against the standardization of life easily becomes a revolt against the whole conception of standards.”26

But the love of diversity and uniqueness didn’t stop with the arts, it extended into religion. Schleiermacher argued that everyone should have his own religion, everyone should have a religion that has something unique — reflecting his own uniqueness.27

The Romantics came to equate God with Nature — infinitely diverse Nature, infinitely productive Nature.28 One thinks of the nature-god of Emerson, and the nature-god of Eastern philosophy.

C. The Romantic Period: Schelling

Many Romantics subscribed to what Lovejoy calls “radical evolutionism” — that is, the idea that everything in the universe grows and evolves into something better.29 This evolutionism contrasts with the old view of Plato and Plotinus that the world begins with something better — namely, God. According to Plato and Plotinus, this imperfect world is an emanation of a perfect God — the process starts with perfection, it doesn’t lead to perfection.

One of the champions of evolutionism was Schelling. Schelling argued that the world evolves into something better, it doesn’t start with something better. A perfect and self-sufficient God, Schelling argued, would have no reason to create the world. And a God who was benevolent and omnipotent would not create such a world as this — such an imperfect world as this. According to Schelling, traditional theism, with its Creator God, gives us “a God who is alien to nature and a nature that is devoid of God.”30 Schelling’s evolutionism reminds one of the Eastern view that the universe wasn’t created suddenly by God, it arose gradually by a process of growth. Schelling’s evolutionism also reminds one of what I call The Philosophy of Today, which sees God in nature, not separate from nature.

According to Schelling, evolution is gradual because it must struggle against opposition: “There must in the original nature of things be some impediment, some principle of retardation.”31 Physicists speak of entropy, Freudians speak of a death-instinct, Jungians speak of a shadow. Evolution is constant but slow and intermittent, and when the sun burns out, we have to start again from the beginning.

As we said above, the doctrine of the Great Chain of Being developed from a “static Chain” to an “evolving Chain.” The doctrine of the evolving Chain said that God was continually creating, the world was continually diversifying, and man should be continually striving. The “evolving Chain” was consistent with the Romantic view that the artist should be creative, original. So the Great Chain of Being came to be an ally of the Romantic worldview, an opponent of the Enlightenment worldview. In other words, seeds of Romanticism can be found in the doctrine of the Great Chain, in the emphasis on fullness and diversity; this emphasis goes all the way back to Plato and Neoplatonism.

Lovejoy thinks that one of the seeds of Romanticism was Neoplatonism, as expressed by Plotinus. He points out that Romanticism has its roots in Germany, and Plotinus was popular in Germany in the 1790s.32 (In an earlier issue, I suggested that Schopenhauer’s pessimism may have been inspired by the pessimistic strain in Neoplatonism. I made this suggestion without knowing that Neoplatonism was “hot” in Schopenhauer’s time/place.) Lovejoy says that, in the Germany of the late 1700s, the principle of plenitude (fullness, diversity) helped to overthrow the Enlightenment principle of uniformity.

But Lovejoy is too deep a thinker to believe that the history of ideas is merely a contest of theories; he understands that the Romantic Revolt was the outcome of “emotional cravings” as much as philosophical arguments, he understands that Neoplatonism was a rationalization of cravings as much as an intellectual influence.33 Lovejoy even ventures the bold suggestion that philosophy as a whole may be the product of “emotional cravings” and historical factors, rather than intellectual arguments.

D. The Romantic Period: Schiller

According to Lovejoy, one of the chief apostles of Romantic diversitarianism is the German writer Schiller. Though best known as a poet and playwright, Schiller wrote various philosophical works, the most famous of which is his Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Mankind. Rejecting the Enlightenment emphasis on the simple and rational, Schiller said that even wild dreams and flagrant contradictions are valuable parts of the diversity of the world.34 Schiller is a champion, not of the uniform and standard, but of the eccentric and idiosyncratic. The artist, according to Schiller, should not be so concerned with form that he loses “richness of content.”35

What I find most interesting in Schiller is that he sees the contradictory nature of truth, he sees that both the Thesis and the Antithesis are partly correct, he sees that Enlightenment principles aren’t entirely false. He contrasted the Form Drive (Formtrieb) with the Content Drive (Stofftrieb), and hoped to synthesize them in a Play Drive (Spieltrieb). As Plato said that God was self-sufficient but also self-transcending/creative, so Schiller says that man is torn between two conflicting tendencies — a tendency for unity and stasis, and a tendency for diversity and change. “Though these two elements in man are forever at war, they are equally indispensable to the attainment of excellence, in character and in art.... Thus there must be, in the life of the individual, the development of the race, and the history of art, an unending alternation of contrary phases.”36

A complete reconciliation of Formtrieb and Stofftrieb is impossible, so they must take turns, there must be an oscillation from one extreme to the other. First, life and variety and content surge forward, then form and principle and order assert themselves, then life and variety and content rebel yet again. Schiller’s own generation was a Stofftrieb, and Lovejoy says that Schiller ultimately sides with Stofftrieb, but he sees that truth is on both sides, and there must be an oscillation between them.

Nietzsche often spoke disdainfully of Schiller, while praising Goethe to the skies, but it seems to me that both Schiller and Goethe were deep thinkers.

E. Joseph Campbell on Life as Play

Schiller’s emphasis on the Play Drive reminds me of a Japanese custom described by Joseph Campbell.37 Campbell speaks of, “a very special manner of polite, aristocratic speech known as ‘play language’.” In this language, all activities are described as play; for example, instead of saying, “I see that you have come to Tokyo,” one would say, “I see that you are playing at being in Tokyo.” The idea behind play language is that

the person addressed is in such control of his life and his powers that for him everything is a play, a game. He is able to enter into life as one would enter into a game, freely and with ease.... I submit that this is truly a noble, really glorious way to approach life. What has to be done is attacked with such a will that in the performance one is literally “in play.”

For Schiller, too, the Play Drive represented a high ideal, the ultimate synthesis of man’s conflicting impulses. The purpose of the game of life, Campbell says, isn’t winning; we should “abandon absolutely all concern for the fruits of action.”38 Renounce worldly aims, but play the game for its own sake. “Life as an art and art as a game — as action for its own sake, without thought of gain or of loss, praise or blame.”39 Campbell quotes the Bhagavad Gita: “He who knows that the way of renunciation and the way of action are one, he verily knows.”40

Life as an art and art as a game. Wasn’t this the approach of the Greeks as well as the Orientals?

F. Conclusion

Lovejoy concludes by saying that, for two thousand years, Western philosophy and science were guided by “a faith, implicit or explicit, that the universe is a rational order, in the sense that there is nothing arbitrary, fortuitous, haphazard in its constitution.”41 This faith in a rational order culminated in the 17th century with the rational systems of Leibniz and Spinoza. Eventually, though, the idea of a Great Chain of Being, a Chain that was an expression of a rational order, collapsed:

The experiment, taken as a whole, constitutes one of the most grandiose enterprises of the human intellect. But as the consequences of this most persistent and most comprehensive of hypotheses became more and more explicit, the more apparent became its difficulties; and when they are fully drawn out, they show the hypothesis of the absolute rationality of the cosmos to be unbelievable.42

Lovejoy insists that this is “a contingent world; its magnitude, its pattern, its habits, which we call laws, have something arbitrary and idiosyncratic about them.... If we may employ the traditional anthropomorphic language of the theologians, we may say that in it Will is prior to Intellect.”43 I think Lovejoy is only partly right. That we have 46 chromosomes is contingent, accidental, but that we have any chromosomes at all is an indication that the universe has an inherent tendency toward order, complexity, development. That a marathon is 26.2 miles long is accidental, but that we run marathons at all expresses the tendencies inherent in human nature.

In the last issue, we discussed “smart matter,” and spoke of, “the glimmers of complexity and intelligence that we find in non-living things.” The universe has an energy/order/Tao, one might even say a consciousness/intelligence. I agree with Lovejoy that the idea of the Great Chain of Being deserved to collapse, and I agree that the phrase “rational order” doesn’t fit the universe. But I also think that terms like “contingent” and “accidental” don’t tell the whole story. If the universe lacks a rational order, lacks a reason-for-being, lacks a rational Creator, nonetheless it does have order, complexity, and a tendency toward development. The universe has order rising from below, not imposed from above; order in the universe rises to the level of consciousness and thought, it doesn’t start with consciousness and thought.

As for the opposition between Will and Intellect, I would say there are certain inherent tendencies in Will, a certain intelligence in the Will, just as there is in matter, so I don’t quite agree that Will is prior to Intellect. In other words, I don’t see Will as arbitrary, capricious, but rather as prone to follow certain channels. Therefore, one might say that Order/Structure/Tendency is prior to Will.

© L. James Hammond 2009
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1. 4/7/09 back
2. “Regrets Only: Lionel Trilling and his discontents,” by Louis Menand; The New Yorker, September 29, 2008 back
3. Ch. 9, p. 242 back
4. Ch. 9, p. 248 back
5. Ch. 9, p. 250 back
6. Ch. 9, p. 256. In 1770, the French writer d’Holbach said that even men, horses, or birds might one day go extinct. “Does not all change around us? Nature contains no constant forms.” Another French writer, Bonnet, wrote in 1770, “our globe has passed through a long series of epochs, each terminated by a ‘revolution,’ i.e., a cataclysm in which all the then existing organic structures were destroyed.” (Ch. 9, p. 284. The quote is from Lovejoy, not Bonnet.) back
7. Ch. 9, p. 259 back
8. Ch. 9, p. 260 back
9. Ch. 9, p. 261 back
10. Ch. 9, p. 266. Lovejoy quoting Kant. back
11. Ch. 9, p. 277 back
12. Lovejoy quoting Robinet. Ch. 9, p. 282 back
13. Ch. 9, p. 268 back
14. Ch. 9, p. 280 back
15. Ch. 10, p. 288 back
16. Ch. 10, p. 288 back
17. Ch. 10, p. 288 back
18. Ch. 10, p. 289 back
19. Ch. 10, p. 292 back
20. Ch. 10, p. 292 back
21. Ch. 10, p. 294 back
22. Ch. 10, p. 293 back
23. Ch. 10, p. 307 back
24. Ch. 10, p. 307 back
25. Ch. 10, p. 311 back
26. Ch. 10, p. 312 back
27. Ch. 10, p. 311 back
28. Ch. 11, p. 316 back
29. Ch. 11, p. 317; see also p. 321 back
30. Ch. 11, pp. 322, 323 back
31. Ch. 11, p. 325 (this is Lovejoy summarizing Schelling) back
32. Ch. 10, p. 297 back
33. Ch. 10, p. 298 back
34. Ch. 10, p. 299 back
35. Ch. 10, p. 300 back
36. Ch. 10, p. 302. This is Lovejoy paraphrasing Schiller. back
37. Myths to Live By, ch. 6, p. 122 back
38. Ch. 6, p. 124 back
39. Ch. 6, p. 124 back
40. Ch. 6, p. 124. “It is possible, if we have real courage, to live all of life as if in play [with] a light, trusting, and open attitude toward ourselves and the world.”(Synchronicity: Through the Eyes of Science, Myth, and The Trickster, Ch. 6, p. 138) back
41. Ch. 11, p. 327 back
42. Ch. 11, p. 329 back
43. Ch. 11, p. 332 back