Jacques Maritain Center : History of Philosophy / by William Turner


We have traced the origin and growth of philosophical opinions, outlined the development of schools and systems of philosophy, and indicated what seemed in each case to be an advance in or a retrogression of philosophic thought. There remains the task of inquiring into the general laws in obedience to which philosophy took in the course of its development the particular direction which it has taken.

That at one time rather than at another, in one place rather than in another, men should appear whose lives and thoughts had a decisive influence on the course of the development of philosophy, that countless factors, hereditary, temperamental, educational, and so forth, should result in determining the philosophical career of such men, -- these are phenomena the origin of which lies beyond the scope of the philosophy of history; they are data, which must be considered as given by experience, in much the same way as the innate tendency to vary is taken as a datum by the biologist, who restricts his investigation to answering the question, How is this tendency affected by environment? The task of the philosophy of history is merely to inquire how such data were influenced by social, political, religious, and other influences. Starting, therefore, with the unexplained appearance of Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine, St. Thomas, Descartes, Spinoza, how may we formulate the laws according to which these and other contributors to the development of philosophic thought were influenced by the internal and external conditions which, combined with the personal factor commonly called genius, produced the changes and vicissitudes of the history of philosophy?

The laws of historical development are a posteriori laws. They are not to be deduced from a priori principles, but built up by a process of inductive reasoning from the study of the facts of history. This does not mean that history is the resultant of forces acting capriciously, but that the forces which produce historical development -- being dependent on physical conditions, mental temperament, and the action and interaction of social institutions, customs, and organizations -- are contingent, not necessary causes; that consequently the philosophy of history is not a geometry of the evolution and play of such forces; and that the laws which it seeks to establish are not deductions from definitions and axioms, but generalizations, similar to the post facta generalizations of the statistician. Divine Providence and human reason are the two great factors which determine the course of history. Sometimes these two work in unison, sometimes they clash; and the result is progress or deterioration. Wars, revolutions, conquests, educational reforms, industrial reconstructions, are all the work of man's mind, directed but not coerced by Divine Providence. Now, Divine Providence works through secondary causes, and will, which is the motive power of mind, though free, is not capricious, but follows certain ascertainable laws in its efforts to advance to a higher social state. The ground of historical development is, therefore, reason; not pure reason, deducing events as the logical mind deduces categories, but reason rendered contingent by freedom, and always subject to the unreasoning opposition of passion and impulse. Consequently, the laws of historical development are not a priori principles, as they should be if the ground of history were pure reason, nor are they mere aggregations of facts, as they should be if the ground of history were blind force. They are a posteriori inductions, based on observations, neither purely logical nor biological, but psychological.

The laws of historical development are organic laws; that is to say, they deal with vital phenomena. Now, organic laws differ from mechanical laws in this, that, while the latter may be expressed with quantitative accuracy, the former can lay claim to qualitative definiteness merely. In physics, chemistry, astronomy, and geology, the amount of force expended can be calculated and expressed in terms of some unit of measurement, and the verification of the laws of these sciences includes the establishment of a quantitative equivalence between the force expended and the work accomplished. But when once we cross the threshold of the biological sciences we must be content with the formulation of laws which are definite in every respect save that of quantity.{1} When, therefore, the laws of historical development formulate the relations between cause and effect they do not pretend to specify the definite amount of action and reaction.

Another peculiarity of the laws of historical development results from what is commonly called the continuity of history. This is based on a quality common to all manifestations of vital activity, namely, the absolute indelibleness of an effect once produced on the living organism. "It is the peculiarity of living things," writes Clifford, "not merely that they change under the influence of surrounding circumstances, but that any change which takes place in them is not lost but retained, and, as it were, built into the organism to serve as the foundation for future actions. If you cause any distortion in the growth of a tree and make it crooked, whatever you may do afterwards to make the tree straight, the mark of your distortion is there it is absolutely indelible; it has become part of the tree's nature. . . . No one can tell by examining a piece of gold how often it has been melted and cooled in geologic ages, by changes of the earth's crust, or even in the last year by the hand of man. Any one who cuts down an oak can tell by the rings in its trunk how many times winter has frozen it into widowhood, and summer has warmed it into life. A living being must always contain within itself the history not merely of its own existence but of all its ancestors."{2} This peculiarity of living organisms, which may be likened to the vis inertiae of physical force, appears in aggregate life as the continuity of history, and conditions the development of philosophy as well as that of every other vital product.

The philosophy of the history of philosophy is, therefore, the study of the organic laws in obedience to which philosophy took the particular course which it did take in its historical development. Some of these laws we have already observed as occasion offered; we have observed, for example, that a period of national enthusiasm and national prosperity is usually one of great activity, and in particular of great constructive activity, in philosophy; we have observed that the era of introspective philosophy corresponds with the period of mental maturity of a nation. Similarly, laws may be formulated expressive of the influence which climate, racial characteristics, literature, art, religion, etc., exercise on philosophy. Or, again, laws may be formulated in reference to conditions which are internal to philosophy itself, as for example that psychology is first dogmatic and afterwards critical, or that a system of ethics is determined by the psychology of the author or the school. We are not, however, concerned here with such particular laws, but rather with the general formula under which all the particular laws, external and internal, of the history of philosophy may be subsumed.

Such a general formula is development. In the course of its history, philosophy has passed from a relatively simple to a relatively complex condition, from a homogeneous to a heterogeneous state, from indeterminateness to determinateness. But what are the characters of this development? A glance at the succession of philosophical systems will convince us that the evolution of philosophy has not followed "an increasing purpose"; philosophy has not always and everywhere passed from less to greater perfection; it has not gathered momentum as it came down the ages; truth has not come down to us gaining power and volume in its course, like the avalanche in its descent from the mountain top. If philosophy were the gradual unfolding of an idea, if that idea were the only reality, and if its evolution were consequently monistic, the progress of philosophy should have been "a triumphal march from victory to victory, through province after province of newly acquired truth, without a single reverse, without ever retreating from territory once fairly won." Such, we know, has not been the history of the philosophical sciences: the development of philosophy has followed a more complicated course than that of continued increase in perfection.

Comte, it will be remembered, distinguished three stages in the development of human thought; namely, the theological, the metaphysical, and the positive, or scientific. This generalization is one-sided; it judges all thought from the view point of positivistic prepossessions. Besides, it is inaccurate; for there have been alternations of the metaphysical and the scientific periods in philosophy. The age of Plato was metaphysical, that of Archimedes, Euclid, and Ptolemy was scientific; the thirteenth century returned to metaphysics, the sixteenth was preëminently a scientific century, while the nineteenth went back to metaphysics in the form of transcendentalism. Still less accurate is Cousin's generalization, according to which philosophy has passed successively through the stages of sensism, idealism, scepticism, mysticism, and eclecticism. According to Hegel, philosophy has, in the course of its development, assumed different forms, each of which it successively transcends, thus gaining a fuller, richer, and more concrete content, so that the progress of philosophy corresponds to the development of the logical categories, Being (Eleatics), Becoming (Heraclitus), Individuality (Atomists), etc. No one will, however, maintain that Hegel's generalization meets with more than an approximate verification from the study of the facts of history.

We shall be content here with describing the development of philosophy in general terms as a process of alternate progress and retrogression, -- a vast connected growth from lower to higher, with alternating periods of stagnation or degeneracy. This alternation of progress and retrogression is a characteristic of all development. Even in the evolutionary hypothesis the survival of the fittest does not necessarily mean the survival of the best. Indeed, rhythm is a quality of all motion whatsoever: in the physical, in the physiological, in the psychological, as well as in the social order, progress is essentially conditioned by periodicity. As in the individual life, so in the aggregate life, there is a fluctuation of vitality, a rise and fall. The line which represents human progress in industry, in art, in literature, and in philosophy is not an ascending vertical, nor a straight line ascending obliquely from the horizontal, but an undulating curve, like the record of the pulsation, now rising above the horizontal, now falling below it, representing at different points the same height of perfection or the same depth of degeneracy, but never representing exactly the same condition of human progress. The motion of the rowboat floating with the tide, rising and falling with each successive wave, yet constantly moving forward, so that while it often rises to the same height, it never rises twice to the same point of space, is an image of the progress of human thought, human customs, and even human fashions, which are constantly changing and constantly returning to previous conditions, without ever completing the circle of regression. The continuity of life demands that each successive moment in life recapitulate the entire past. Eadem sed aliter!

If we are to reduce to general terms the forces which combine to cause this progress and retrogression of philosophic thought, we shall find that on the side of progress are the power of Him Who wishes all men to come to a knowledge of the truth, the attractiveness of truth itself, the impetus given to philosophic speculation by a Plato, an Aristotle, an Aquinas, and the enthusiasm of their followers; while opposed to progress are the necessity of daily toil, the commercial spirit, greed, unworthy ambition, war, cruelty, despotism, superstition, conservatism, fanaticism, love of novelty, loyalty to tradition, and intellectual sloth. Through these agencies does Divine Providence work out its designs, by these conditions is human reason aided or hindered in its effort to arrive at a knowledge of the ultimate nature of things, and by these factors are the rise and fall of philosophy determined. From Thales to Aristotle there is one great wave of progress which, though ruffled by petty wavelets of less successful movements, moves onward until, contemporaneously with the downfall of Greece's political independence, it begins to sink to the calm level of indifference to speculative effort. The wave of progress next appears in the doctrines of the Alexandrian school; it differs in aspect from the wave which preceded it, -- is less compact in form and more easily broken. In the early centuries of the Christian era the philosophical movement gathers strength once more, and rises to its greatest height in the thirteenth century, after which conservatism, indifference, and sloth play the part of retrograding forces, until with the opening of the modern era another movement begins. This movement has continued with alternating rise


and fall until our own day. It has risen at those points where men like Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Kant, and Hegel have appeared; it has fallen wherever adverse influences have predominated; but never has it risen to the altitude attained by that wave of human thought whose crest touched heaven itself, when reason and faith were united in one system of knowledge. Whither will this movement bear us? It will carry us forward, -- we cannot resist the progress of historical development, -- but will it raise us to a height as great as that to which the past attained? All will depend on the principles on which philosophical speculation in the future will rest.

It has been well said that a cripple on the right road will reach his destination sooner than the swiftest runner who has started in the wrong direction. Philosophy to-day realizes more than ever the importance of a right start and a correct method. If, therefore, much of recent speculation has made a wrong start, the sooner we return to the principles of former and more successfully constructed systems, principles often harshly expressed, yet plainly pointing towards the truth, the sooner will a genuine reform of philosophic method be possible. The fullest appreciation of the past is compatible with the most complete originality. To modern philosophers the challenge has ere now been addressed: "Ye have removed our landmarks; give us others that are better. . . . Ye have taken away our foothold; what have ye surer and safer in its place?" The present has much to learn from the past. If it is vain to strive to stem the progress of the world, it is equally vain to neglect the study of the past and to spend one's time in gloomily forecasting the future. The principles which the past has bequeathed to us should be adapted to the requirements of the future, and the motto by which all enlightened advancement should be guided is, Vetera novis augere et perficere.

{1} Cf. Balfour Stewart, The Conservation of Energy (New York, 1893), p. 159.

{2} Lectures and Essays (London, 1886), p. 54.

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