Friday, July 28, 2006

Late Modern European Thought


This short essay is one of a set of posts that will function as preliminary studies to a study of Neo-Vedanta. The present post is a brief survey of some central themes in late-modern European philosophy, some of which tend to re-appear in Neo-Vedanta thought. Two of the most important concerns of 19th century European thought involve the problem of "abstraction” and the problem of the “practical.” In what follows we will briefly look at the presence of these two themes in the thinking of various Continental and Anglo-American philosophers.

I. Abstraction and Praxis in Hegel, Marx, and Kierkegaard

In one of his rare essays, Hegel asks, "Who Thinks Abstractly?" In his answer to this question, he gives the example of someone at a public execution who remarks that he finds the person about to be executed to be attractive looking. The crowd around him responds that anyone who has committed a crime worthy of execution cannot be called beautiful. An odd example, perhaps. In any case, we get the idea: abstractions, for Hegel, are generalizations. Stereotypes (such as "the East is spiritual," and "the West is materialistic"), unexamined presuppositions (like the myth of the given), interpretations bereft of historical context, closed narratives, literalist claims to absolute truth -- all are abstractions in this sense.

For Hegel, the truth can only be "the whole" and he cites favourably the Indian example of the blind men and the elephant. One man, who holds the elephant's trunk, says that the elephant is like python. Another, who holds the elephant's leg, disagrees and says that the elephant is a like a tree. Two others who hold the elephant's ear and tail in their hands disagree with the other two, and so on. At the same time, Hegel also claims that his own system allows for the "mediation" of particularity. This has led humorists to compare his conception of truth to a bagel: "the truth is the (w)hole." But with its attempt to subject all of history and reality to the generality of the concept, it is clear that Hegel's system, on the whole, emphasizes universality.

Much of late modern thought in the West can be seen as a series of reactions to the Hegelian system and its claims to the Absolute. Two of the most prominent responses to Hegel were given by Kierkegaard and Marx, both of whom were Hegelian thinkers in their own right, even if they were profoundly different from him in their respective ways.

For Kierkegaard, the history of Western thought, with the exception of perhaps Duns Scotus, can be read as a prejudicing of essence over existence. This prejudice finds its culmination in Hegel who heralds the appearance of the Absolute Idea. Kierkegaard reverses this precedence and announces that existence precedes essence. What this means is that, as far as the truth is concerned, the particular is more important than the universal.

Kierkegaard's response to Hegel is perhaps best summed up in the chapter from his book Concluding Unscientific Postscript titled, "Truth is Subjectivity." Now by "subjectivity" Kierkegaard does not mean that truth is "merely subjective." Knowledge, for Kierkegaard, always relates to the knower -- not in the epistemic sense that "we all see things differently," but rather, in the existential sense that knowledge has meaning and value for us. Knowledge, in other words, is personal. Its truth is always related to the individual in a personal manner. Truth, then, is that which is true for someone; it is that which makes a difference to the individual. In his Journals, Kierkegaard writes, "The point is to find the truth which is the truth for me, to find the idea that I am willing to die for."

What Kierkegaard has in mind, in particular, is the Christian truth. The context here is still within the Hegelian horizon, since Hegel claims that religious truth only finds its full "completion" in philosophical reflection. For Kierkegaard this cannot be so. Mere reflection cannot embody truth in the existential sense. Jesus does not merely say that he speaks the truth. He says he is the truth, and the idea here is that he embodies the truth: he lives the truth existentially, and calls others to join him. For Kierkegaard this is the truth of Christianity.

Philosophical reflection can only be "objective," theoretical, dispassionate. But the Christian truth, for Kierkegaard, is a personal and passionate affair, not impersonal, theoretical, and detached. In Concluding Unscientific Postscript, he sums up his position thus: "Objective reflection leads to abstract thought.... It always leads away from the subject... whose existence or non-existence becomes infinitely indifferent." (p. 173)

Marx reacted to Hegel in a very different manner, though, as we shall see, both Marx and Kierkegaard share something between them. Perhaps the easiest place to see the relation between Marx and Hegel is in Marx's Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, early essays written by a youthful Marx who, at this point in his intellectual development, is beginning to make his break with the Hegelian system.

There are several important ideas that Marx takes over from Hegel. One of the most interesting of these is the idea of "alienation." Hegel uses the idea of alienation in two ways. The first sense finds its place in Hegel's overall grand scheme, in what can perhaps be described as his "metaphysical eschatology." The basic structure of his grand scheme takes over the Neo-Platonic ideas of "emanation" (prosodos) and "return" (epistrophe). Just as the Indian tradition presents yoga as a kind of reversal of the process of emanation, so too Plotinus describes contemplation as a kind of "return" to the One (Enneads 3.8.1 ff). What Hegel does is re-describe the Neo-Platonist eschatology in terms of a teleological historiography. For Hegel, Absolute Spirit (Geist) undergoes what he calls "self-estrangement" by bifurcating itself into "Substance" and "Subject." This "self-estrangement" corresponds to the Neo-Platonists' "emanation." The philosopher's understanding, through "speculative reflection," of Spirit's development in human cultural history corresponds to the Neo-Platonic idea of contemplation as the ascent to the One, or the "flight of the alone to the alone" as Plotinus calls it. Hegelian thought can thus be seen as a kind of transposition of Neo-Platonic thinking.

Hegel's description of Spirit's return to itself appears in his work, The Phenomenology of Spirit. One of the most significant "moments" in the dialectic of the Phenomenology is Hegel's description of what he calls the "Unhappy Consciousness." It is here that we find the second application of the idea of "alienation." Hegel's description of the "Unhappy Consciousness" has a kind of universal application, and it can be said to refer to religiosity, spirituality and "idealism" in general, but, in particular, it is meant as a description of medieval Christianity.

The appearance of religious consciousness in history is closely tied to the development of self-consciousness. With the appearance of self-consciousness and the fracturing of the mythic oneness, a bifurcation occurs creating the transcendent and immanent domains. But there remains in self-consciousness a faint memory of the mythic oneness, and a longing for that oneness then makes its appearance in awareness. This longing is the religious consciousness. Mysticism and contemplative disciplines like Neo-Platonism reflect the attempt to return to this oneness through ascent to the transcendent.

According to Hegel, the "Unhappy Consciousness" is characterized by the alienation of self-consciousness from it own self. What happens is that the Unhappy Consciousness takes its essence and "projects" it as a transcendent Beyond or (w)holy Other -- God, the One, the Higher Self, etc. It then attempts a reconciliation or union with this essential self that it has projected beyond itself. But as it stands, this is not possible. According to Hegel, self-consciousness is caught in a kind of double-bind situation. For one, it understands itself as merely contingent, as inessential. It is, therefore, of a fundamentally different nature than the transcendent Self. If a union were to occur, the essential Self would lose its very nature, its ideality. And it is not possible for mere self-consciousness to pull itself up by its own boot-straps, as it were, and unite with this Higher Self. For every attempt at such a union is but the re-expression of its own limitation, its own inessentiality. The religious consciousness is thus caught between what cannot be fulfilled, but what also cannot be given up. Spirituality, here, becomes a kind of disease for which it attempts to be its own remedy.

It is this idea of "alienation" that Marx takes over from Hegel. But for Marx, and here he follows Feuerbach, it is not "spirit" that creates man and human self-consciousness through some act of "self-estrangement;" it is man who creates spirit. The religious consciousness indeed reflects man's alienation from himself. But the source of this alienation is not to be found in a metaphysical "self-estrangement of spirit." The source of alienation is man's estrangement from his own material condition, in particular, his estrangement from the products of his own "work." For Marx, the creation of "spirit" in the Hegelian idealism, like the projection of God in the religious consciousness, is but a reflection this alienation. Marx thus links the issue of "alienation" to the problem of philosophical abstraction. In the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, he writes, "Give up your abstraction and you give up the question along with it." It follows then that a mere change in reflective thought will not alleviate the situation, as the problem is not a problem of consciousness, which is but a mere epiphenomenon, but a problem relating to man's material conditions. So it is that we find in the 1844 essay, "Theses on Feuerbach," Marx's famous statement, "Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it."

Thus, in their own ways, both Kierkegaard and Marx responded to Hegel's conception of truth with the counter-charge that it is Hegelianism itself that is abstract. For both, speculative thought represents a kind of flight from the "concrete" world of human life. For Kierkegaard, philosophical reflection is abstract in the sense that it is incapable of the kind of existential commitment that Christian soteriology demands. For Marx, philosophical reflection is abstract in that it tends toward theoretical detachment from what he calls "praxis," that is, it lacks involvement in the emancipatory concerns of social reality and in the transformation of the material conditions of man. Thus, while both responded that it is philosophical thought itself that is abstract, Kierkegaard and Marx came to their conclusions from very different directions: one religious, the other political; one soteriological, the other, emancipatory.

The Marxist and Existential streams initiated by Kierkegaard and Marx will come to typify much of the rest of late modern Continental thought. The Marxist project of foregoing pure theory as such and attempting the once-and-for-all implementation of "praxis" is a particularly good example of the late modern tendency that seeks to "draw down" transcendent, theoretical wisdom from the heavens, as it were, and make it somehow immanent in the world, transforming the material condition of man and creating a kind of "city of God" on earth. This is one sense of what we may mean by praxis or "practice."

II. Common Sense, Utility, Positivism and Pragmatism

The critique of "abstract" philosophy is a theme that reappears often in modern thought. The Common Sense philosophy of Reid, the Positivism of Comte, and the Utilitarianism of Mill all represent important instances of this theme. It might be worth-while to look at some pertinent aspects of the thinking of each of these individuals.

Thomas Reid was a contemporary of Hume and a significant player in the Scottish Enlightenment. He was a critic of not only the Rationalist approach to the so-called "problem of knowledge," but of the Empiricism that was dominant in his day. Unlike Locke and Hume, Reid rejected outright the problem of skepticism. He did not entertain a "theory of ideas," nor the notion that we apprehend "sense data." For Reid, there is no intervening medium between the mind and matter; we perceive things as they are. Some have called this attitude "direct realism," and in this regard, Reid's position bears some resemblance to ancient thought, which, in a similar way, had held that, by its very nature, the human logos is capable of attuning itself to the cosmic logos. Significantly, Reid invokes Cicero's notion of a "sensus communis," the body of "self-evident truths" that all are capable of apprehending. Many of Reid's ideas were introduced into American political thought by the statesman and essayist Thomas Paine. And as late as G.E. Moore's, "A Defence of Common Sense" -- an article published at the close of the nineteenth century that is widely considered to mark the death knell of British idealism -- we find these very same ideas of "self-evidence" at work.

Auguste Comte and J.S. Mill were also critics of intellectual abstraction. Both are considered positivists in the epistemic sense. Like empiricists, positivists believe that all knowledge is ultimately derived from experience. Truth, for the positivist, involves that knowledge which is either verified through experience or inferable from that experience. By "experience," empiricists generally mean sensory perception, though early empiricists also admitted certain mental states as forms of experience. For the empiricists, concepts derive entirely according to a process known as "abstraction." What they mean by this is that all concepts are generalizations of experience; there are no ideas that exist a priori. William James expresses the principle thus:

The significance of concepts consists always in their relation to perceptual particulars....

The intellectual life of man consists almost wholly in his substitution of a conceptual order for the perceptual order in which his experience originally comes. (Some Problems of Philosophy, pp. 57; 51)

Radical empiricists like Mill hold a strong version of this theory. For them, the laws of natural science and mathematics are also generalizations, that is, regularities drawn from experience through the process of induction. Thus, positivists extend the empiricist point of view by denying the metaphysical existence of even "ideas" and "laws".

Comte is perhaps most famous for his theory of the development of human knowledge. According to Comte, human history reveals three distinct epistemic stages ("loi des trois etat"). William James sums up Comte's theory thus:

Auguste Comte, the founder of the philosophy which he called 'positive,' said that human theory on any subject always took three forms in succession. In the theological stage of theorizing, phenomena are explained by spirits producing them; in the metaphysical stage, their essential feature is made into an abstract idea, and this is placed behind them as if it were an explanation; in the positive stage, phenomena are simply described as to their coexistences and successions. Their 'laws' are formulated, but no explanation of their natures or existences are sought after. (Ibid., p. 16)
J.S. Mill was an avid student of Comte's thought and wrote a book about his philosophy. On Comte's attitude toward the theological and metaphysical approach, Mill wrote, "What he condemned was the habit of conceiving these mental abstractions as real entities which could exert power, produce phenomena..." (Auguste Comte and Positivism, pp. 15-16)

Comte considered sociology, the study of man and social reality, to be the highest of the positive sciences. He was also interested in replacing the idea of God with that of man, and in creating a kind of "cult of humanity," which he imagined as a new universal religion.

Mill is also known for his theory of Utilitarianism. This is an ethical theory that suggests that humans ultimately seek happiness. Happiness, for Mill, means pleasure, but this pleasure can be mental as well as physical. Although Mill's Utilitarianism is essentially hedonistic, it is also altruistic in its aims. Human beings, according to Mill, not only seek their own happiness but the happiness of others. The greatest happiness of the greatest number is, according to the Utilitarian view, the greatest good.

The ideas of Reid, Comte and Mill are all present in the writings of the American Pragmatist, William James, and we find many of the familiar themes of late-modern Anglo-American thought in James' work. Like the philosophy of the early British analytic thinkers Russell and Moore, James' philosophical thought developed, in large part, in reaction to the prevailing philosophical trend of his day: Absolute Idealism, in particular the monism espoused by F.H. Bradley. James' playfully describes the spirit of monism thus:

In point of historical fact monism has generally kept itself vague and mystical as regards the ultimate principle of unity. To be One is more wonderful than to be many, so the principle of things must be One, but of that One no exact account is given. (Some Problems of Philosophy, p. 116)

Like Mill and Comte, James was also concerned with the problem of abstraction, both in the nominal and verbal sense of the term. In Some Problems of Philosophy, his last philosophical work, James deals repeatedly with various related aspects of the issue. That he spends as much shrift as he does on the topic shows that he considered it significant up until the time of his death.

In the first chapter of Some Problems, James begins by entertaining some possible objections to the practice of philosophy. His responses are typical of the mood of his times:

Objection: Philosophy is dogmatic, and pretends to settle things by pure reason, whereas the only fruitful way of getting at truth is to appeal to concrete experience...

Reply: This objection is historically valid. Too many philosophers have aimed at closed systems, established a priori...

Objection: Philosophy is out of touch with real life, for which it substitutes abstractions....

Reply: This objection is also historically valid, but no reason appears why philosophy should keep aloof from reality permanently. (Ibid., pp. 24-27)

We have already noted the presence of empiricism in James' thought. James himself called his epistemological position "radical empiricism." But, philosophically, James is probably best known for his association with Pragmatism. James states the Pragmatist criterion of truth thus:

Now however beautiful or otherwise worthy of stationary contemplation the substantive part of a concept may be, the important part of its significance may be held to be the consequences to which it leads. These may lie either in the way of making us think, or in the way of making us act. Whoever has a clear idea of these knows efectively what the concept practically signifies.... This consideration has led to a method of interpreting concepts to which I shall give the name of the Pragmatic Rule.

The pragmatic rule is that the meaning of a concept may be found, if not in some sensible particular that it designates, then in some particular difference of course of human experience which its being true will make. Test every concept by the question 'What sensible difference to anybody will its truth make?' and you are in the best possible position for understanding what it means and for discussing its importance....

If you claim that any idea is true, assign at the same time some difference that its being true will make in some person's history, and we shall know not only just what you are really claiming but also how important an issue it is, and how to go to work to verify it. (Ibid., pp. 59-61)

There are aspects of James' conception of truth here that resonate with Kierkegaard's attitude toward the "true." Generally, however, James' conception draws on the principle of utility, the idea that the good or true is that which is useful. This is another sense of what may be meant by the term "practical."

James' appears to understand his pragmatism as a kind of antidote to what he calls "intellectualism." By this he means both the rationalist and classical empiricist programs of metaphysics and epistemology. On the origin of "intellectualism" James writes:

Whenever we conceive of a thing, we define it; and if we still don't understand, we define our definition.... This habitof telling what everything is becomes inveterate. The farther we push it, the more we learn about our subject of discourse, and we end by thinking that knowing that latter always consists in getting farther and farther away from the perceptual type of experience. This uncriticized habit, added to the conceptual form, is the source of "intellectualism" in philosophy. (Ibid. p. 83)

Over against intellectualism, James contrasts "common sense." In Some Problems, James does not discuss what he means by "common sense," but presumably he means something akin to what Thomas Reid meant by common sense, and common sense has something in common with Pragmatism.