Friday, August 06, 2004

Why modern & post-modern philosophers disappoint

I have occasionally expressed the view that modern and contemporary philo-sophers often disappoint-- that they take a lot of work to fathom, and once one fathoms them, one can have the feeling that it wasn't worth the effort. One is reminded of a remark by Fr. Norris Clarke, S.J., of Fordham University: there are three kinds of philosophers, he says -- (1) those who at first seem clear, but upon further reading become more and more obscure; (2) those who at first may seem obscure but become clearer and clearer upon each reading; and (3) those who seem obsecure at first and remain obscure. Contemporary students often complain when they first encounter writers such as St. Thomas Aquinas, who are encumbered by a kind of Aristotelian "essentialist" jargon. However, what they don't realize is that Thomas, like many other Ancient and Me-dieval philosophers, is actually a very clear-headed thinker of the second type cited by Clark. By contrast, students today tend to delight in reading Friedrich Nietzsche (pictured right) or Jean-Paul Sartre (below left) or even Martin Heidegger (above left) or Jacques Derrida (top right). They often feel a certain impression of resonance in what they read in such authors. What they don't realize at first, however, is that Nietzsche and Sartre are good examples of the first type of philosopher cited by Clark -- they seem clear at first, but become more and more obscure as one seeks to fathom what they are really saying. Heidegger and Derrida are difficult at first, and often students who struggle with them reach a point where they feel they have finally broken through to something profound, reinforcing a sophomoric sense of esoteric self-importance. What they don't realize at first, however, is that Heidegger and Derrida are good examples of the third type of philosopher cited by Clark -- they're difficult to fathom at first; but even when one has the feeling of having broken through to some depth, it eventually becomes quite clear that there nothing much of any clarity or worth there after all.

Sometimes students express surprise and disappointment when I say such things. I suppose it can make me seem a bit jaded about philosophy (though I assure you that this is not ultimately so, as I hope you will eventually see). I am reminded that Wittgenstein once told an eager enquiring student to forget about philosophy and go out and do something useful and practical in the world. I'm not denying that philosophy can be a great deal of fun and offer us the tools with which we can incisively penetrate much of the 'bunk' that surrounds contemporary politics, theology, etc. But I do think that, with the exception of a few great philosophers (particularly ancient and medieval), most of Western philosophy has been a tapestry of errors and distortions, woven together with strands of overweening presumption. I think, in this connection, of Mortimer Adler's delightful survey of modern philosophy entitled, Ten Philosophical Mistakes.

A former philosophy student of mine, Edgar Foster, once wrote me, in this connection:
Lest I be misunderstood, I do not think that Nietzsche, Heidegger or Hegel set forth truth in its adorable naked form so that their readers might grasp, appropriate and walk in Wahrheit [German: "truth"]. My point is simply that Heidegger or Hegel stimulate our critical thinking faculties. Furthermore, they stand out as shining examples of utter brilliance (IMO) when it comes to delineating lady philosophy and her putative CONSOLATIO.
Reply: I'm glad your linguistic stimulation has extended to the German "Wahrheit" now. I agree that these German ideologues can stimulate. But so can bare logic; or the study of marine reproductive life in the Everglades (and probably with less threat of losing your soul). And I don't see much that is consoling about the razzle-dazzle and brilliance of Heidy and Hegelly.

Your analysis may justly depict the PHILOSOFIA of Nietzsche but I'm not sure that it does justice to Heidegger or Hegel. Karl Rahner and John Macquarrie have both made hay (of two different types) by implementing Heidegger's transcendental method. Heidegger's perspicuous observations concerning the problemata of Cartesianism also merit praise, in my opinion.
Reply: Heidegger, when applied to religious thought, becomes dangerous. I consider's Macquarrie's theology "Christian" only in vocabulary, much like Tillich's systematic theology. It's essentially gnostic, if not pagan. Rahner is less consistent. He can be interpreted in ways that are
generally consistent with Catholic Church teaching, though there are dimensions of his work that I consider essentially inimical to it.

Kierkegaard [as you indicated earlier] has his good points, I will concede. But I much rather prefer John Locke's analysis of Jesus' earthly mission. He thinks, as you know, that the "proofs" from Scripture concerning Christ are quite rational. Affirming subjective revelation or an ongoing existential relationship with Jesus Christ does not mean that one has to resort to formulating the ministry and life of Jesus Christ in terms of the absurd.
Reply: I agree. I even like John Locke's general thrust here, though I'm also wary of him for other reasons.

You said a lot of good stuff in this paragraph, but for the sake of brevity, I had to snip some of your comments. At any rate, you may criticize me, but here is where we diverge in a major way. I personally prescind from Heidegger's "apostate" status and try to examine his thoughts apart from considering his spiritual status.
Reply:I do this with Max Scheler, too; though somewhat circumspectly, in view of his notorious womanizing. I can't escape the suspicion of "sin in the heart, and error in the head." Though I agree that theories and ideas do need to be considered on their own merit too.

. . . From a theological standpoint, I think Heidegger does disappoint. But, looking at matters from my frame of reference, philosophy is not theology and neither is theology synonymous with philosophy. I make this distinction at all times. Thus, I can declare that PB's monograph Scheler's Critique of Kant's Ethics is excellent from a pheno-menological (i.e., philosophical) perspective, even though PB is Catholic and I therefore question a number of theological assumptions with which he works when philosophizing. Would I use PB's book to help me give a public discourse at [a religious gathering] on Sunday? No way!
Reply: HEY!! . . . Unless you were giving a public discourse on Kant and Scheler, perhaps? ;-)

. . . Would I use it to teach a class of freshman or sophormores at Harvard or Yale? I would have no problem whatsoever. Because I prescind from a philosopher's spiritual status, be he apostate or Catholic, and consider his thought in a state of suspension (Epoche [Greek: "suspension" of judgment or "bracketing"]).
Reply: Agreed.

I did not mean to imply that you advocate a closed system of instruction. You do not. But you might be inclined to avoid using texts that I would avail myself of with alacrity. For example, I could employ Sein und Zeit [Heidegger's work, Being and Time] or Hegel's Naturrecht und Staatswissenschaft [Hegel's work, Philosophy of Right] with no problem, even though there are elements of each work that I profoundly take issue with.
Reply: Well, I would have no problem with any of these, or with doing a study of Adolph Hitler's Mein Kampf under the proper circumstances. But that last caveat is the operative item in my humble opinion.

I noticed something early on in my teaching of our undergraduates. I noticed that they don't do well with multiplications of technical "qualifications" of propositions. For example, if I take the statement that "abortion is wrong," then start to qualify it to death, the general conviction (if there IS any!) that abortion is wrong gets qualified to death. I noticed this with respect to issues of subjectivism and relativism with respect to moral and values and the most basic convictions of the students about what is religiously true.

When students are immersed in an academic environment where nothing either in the mode of teaching of the instructor or in the content of their reading and discussion reinforces confident belief in objective truth, right & wrong, the capacity to know absolutes with certainty, belief in God, etc., these beliefs are eroded. Students are far more vulnerable than I had at first suspected. THIS is why I started the habit of offering a prayer before class in this college where I can get away with that. Because I've seen just how important it can be in the formative life of an undergraduate to realize that there are adults in academe who actually believe these things and don't dismiss them as untenable superstitions to be confined to the distbins of medieval history.

This is also why I've changed the textbooks for my introductory philosophy classes from Locke, Hume, and Kant, to Plato, Pascal, and Peter Kreeft. Many colleagues at state universities would doubtless look askance at this, viewing it as a gratuitous dumbing-down of the course matter. But as I look at the lives of my students and consider where they are going in their lives professionally, and I think about the fact that this may be the ONLY philosophy class they will ever have; then I think that there are things that are FAR MORE IMPORTANT than their absorbing the epistemological subtleties of Kant's transcendental deduction of the categories of the Understanding. They need to have their sophomoric relativisms, which they have hammered into their heads through every available window of the media, debunked. Plato does a marvellous of of that. They need to know that all those things in this material world which promise happiness are not going to deliver on that promise, because they have a desire which no created good can satisfy. Kreeft does a marvellous job of summarizing Aristotle and Thomas on this. They need to know that the fact that something can't be "proved" doesn't mean that it's not true, that "proof" is person-relative, and that this fact doesn't mean that religious faith is merely subjectivistic fideism. Pascal does a marvellous job of driving this home.

So it's not that I think philosophers such as Kant, Hegel, and Heidegger are not important to study. They ARE for you and me and for students going on in seminary and philosophy. But they are probably not the best candidates for instructing undergraduates in the only course in philosophy they will ever have. (UNLESS you've got brilliant students who warm to the idea of reading such philosophers and can walk them through the conceptual mine fields of their writings, pointing out the implications of understanding them for their lives as future Winn Dixie managers and such).

Here again, I think there is a certain dialectical tension that one might experience in the pedagogical situation I am proposing. On one hand, I think my duty is to teach students and give them a broad and deep knowledge of whatever subject matter I am discussing with them. I utterly detest most forms of utilitarianism and my disdain may even come through when I teach students ethics in Scotland. For I know that there are insalutary aspects of utilitarianism that I would not wish on anyone. On the other hand, my job is to teach the youngsters three different types of ethical inquiry including utilitarianism....
Reply: Simplify, render understandable, and show the implications, for good and for ill. Above all, illustrate, and DON'T use the words "salubrious" or "hypostatic."

My approach is to balance out the insalubrious with the salubrious. Ergo, while I teach them about utilitarianism in a thorough manner without criticizing this type of ethical inquiry, I emphasise the strong points and weaknesses of Mills' (et al)
>ethical approach and highlight the pros and cons of deontology and existentialism. In the end, free will and God play a major part in how one responds to godless existentialism or teleological utilitarianism.