M.G. Piety

Archive for August, 2011|Monthly archive page

Hilarious History of Western Philosophy!

In Resources for Kierkegaard Scholarship on August 4, 2011 at 9:04 am

Anthony Kenny has an excellent review of three books on religion and “the new atheism” in the July 22 TLS. He devotes most of his attention, and praise, to Edward Feser’s The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism (Saint Augustine Press, 2010). Feser apparently thinks philosophy took a wrong turn in the Renaissance when it abandoned Aristotle (a view that has been increasing in popularity since Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue). Since one can’t assume that the average TLS reader is going to know enough about the history of philosophy to be able to follow Kenny’s commentary on Feser’s thesis, Kenny opens his review with an absolutely hilarious “master-narative” of the history of philosophy. The narrative, according to Kenny, goes something like this:

[P]hilosophy was started in the ancient world by Plato and Aristotle, who were not bad philosophers considering how long ago they lived. Once the Western world became Christian, however, philosophy went into hibernation for many centuries, and saw as its only task to write footnotes to Aristotle. Some of the scholastic philosophers of the Middle Ages were clever chaps, but they wasted their talents on logical quibbles and pettifogging distinctions. It was only when Aristotle’s metaphysics was thrown over in the Renaissance that philosophy got into its stride again, and renewed its connection with scientific inquiry. Descartes showed that the way to understand the material universe was to treat it as a conglomeration of purposeless material objects operating according to blind laws: there was no need for Aristotle’s final causes. While Descartes was a rationalist, a succession of philosophers writing in English, from Hobbes to Hume, showed that it was sensory experience, not reason, that was the basis of all our knowledge. Kant and his German Idealist followers introduced a degree of obfuscation into philosophy, from which Continental philosophy has never totally recovered. But in Britain and America in the twentieth century, philosophy re-emerged into the daylight with the logical empiricism of brilliant minds like A.J. Ayer.

Feser, Kenny explains “rightly rejects this story. …. It was the abandonment of Aristotelianism,” Kenny continues, paraphrasing Feser, “that threw up the pseudo-problems that still haunt us.” These problems include, according to Feser, the mind-body problem, the problem of induction, and the problem of personal identity. The book sounds promising, though Kenny concludes that the negative arguments are more successful than the positive one. It sounds as if it would be a good read for Kierkegaard scholars though because not only is the general defense of religion relevant to almost any serious work on Kierkegaard (independently of which side of the debate one comes down on), but also because Kierkegaard is a thoroughly teleological thinker as my friend Anthony Rudd argues in a really excellent forthcoming piece on Kierkegaard’s Platonic teleology, so any work that examines the advantages of a teleological interpretation of reality is worth a read!