Freedom and the Philosophy of Nature

In my recent lecture on freedom I claimed that the true father of the modern conception of freedom is not one of the great political thinkers such as Hobbes or Locke or Rousseau, but rather the father of modern philosophy in general: Descartes. Descartes’s philosophy, backed up by the spectacular successes of the application of his new mathematics, gave dominance to a non-teleological account of nature. And therefore he and his many successors did not understand human freedom as the ability to understand given ends and to pursue them, but rather as a quasi-creative power, making those ends good which it chose. Thus a key question for settling which conception of freedom is right is the question of the which philosophy of nature is true: the teleological philosophy of nature in the tradition of Aristotle, or the so-called “mechanistic” natural science of the Cartesian tradition.

In the introduction to Natural Right and History Leo Strauss, showing his remarkable ability to  go straight to the fundamental questions, presents the issue as follows:

Natural right in its classic form is connected with a teleological view of the universe. All natural beings have a natural end, a natural destiny, which determines what kind of operation is good for them. In the case of man, reason is required for discerning these operations: reason determines what is by nature right with ultimate regard to man’s natural end. The teleological view of the universe, of which the teleological view of man forms a part, would seem to have been destroyed by modem natural science. From the point of view of Aristotle— and who could dare to claim to be a better judge in this matter than Aristotle?— the issue between the mechanical and the teleological conception of the universe is decided by the manner in which the problem of the heavens, the heavenly bodies, and their motion is solved. Now in this respect, which from Aristotle’s own point of view was the decisive one, the issue seems to have been decided in favor of the non teleological conception of the universe. Two opposite conclusions could be drawn from this momentous decision. According to one, the nonteleological conception of the universe must be followed up by a nonteleological conception of human life. But this “naturalistic” solution is exposed to grave difficulties: it seems to be impossible to give an adequate account of human ends by conceiving of them merely as posited by desires or impulses. Therefore, the alternative solution has prevailed. This means that people were forced to accept a fundamental, typically modem, dualism of a nonteleological natural science and a teleological science of man. This is the position which the modern followers of Thomas Aquinas, among others, arc forced to take, a position which presupposes a break with the comprehensive view of Aristotle as well as that of Thomas Aquinas himself. The fundamental dilemma, in whose grip we are, is caused by the victory of modern natural science. An adequate solution to the problem of natural right cannot be found before this basic problem has been solved. (pp. 7-8; emphasis supplied)

The alternative that Strauss shows as opening up once the decision has already been made for a non-teleological account of nature has been made is a trivial one compared to the original decision. Even if a science of man that is in some sense “teleological” is preserved alongside a thoroughly non-teleological science of nature, the sort of freedom given to man ends up being rather different than the sort of freedom that follows from classical teleology (witness Hegel). The real problem  that needs “an adequate solution” is therefore the problem of teleology in nature.

It is not entirely clear what Strauss himself thought about the issue of that basic problem. He says that he cannot deal with it adequately in Natural Right and History, in which he works (ostensibly) within the confines of “social science,” and does not address the cosmological question. His friend Jacob Klein’s profound inquiries into the significance of modern science, would, I think, have given him the tools he needed had he decided to attempt an answer to the question.

In any case, Strauss is not quite right to say that  “modern followers of Thomas Aquinas” have accepted the anti-teleological conception of the heavenly bodies— not all them have. Charles De Koninck certainly did not. A contemporary thinker, deeply influenced by De Koninck, who has faced the question head on, and given a powerful argument for a teleological cosmology that takes the insights of modern science seriously is Sean Collins. I believe that his 2009 lecture, “Animals, Inertia, and the Concept of Force” (pdf, html), is one of the most important recent works of philosophy.

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Die griechische Logistik und die Entstehung der Algebra

Jacob Klein’s work on the difference between the transformation of the ancient concept of number in modernity, showing how the that transformation stands at the roots of modern science and philosophy, is I think the most illuminating work on modern origins that I have ever read.  Klein’s friend Strauss once wrote the following of Klein’s work:

Klein was the first to under stand the possibility which Heidegger had opened without intending it: the possibility of a genuine return to classical philosophy, to the philosophy of Aristotle and of Plato, a return with open eyes and in full clarity about the infinite difficulties which it entails. He turned to the study of classical philosophy with a devotion and a love of toil, a penetration and an intelligence, an intellectual probity and a sobriety in which no contemporary equals him. Out of that study grew his work which bears the title Greek Logistics and the Genesis of Algebra. No title could be less expressive of a man’s individuality and even of a man’s intention; and yet if one knows Klein, the title expresses perfectly his individuality, his idiosyncracy mentioned before. The work is much more than a historical study. But even if we take it as a purely historical work, there is not, in my opinion, a contemporary work in the history of philosophy or science or in “the history of ideas” generally speaking which in intrinsic worth comes within hailing distance of it. Not indeed a proof but a sign of this is the fact that less than half a dozen people seem to have read it, if the inference from the number of references to it is valid. Any other man would justly be blamed for misanthropy, if he did not take care that such a contribution does not remain inaccessible to everyone who does not happen to come across volume III of section B of Quellen und Studien zur Geschichte der Mathematik, Astronomie und Physik and in addition does not read German with some fluency. One cannot blame Klein because he is excused by his idiosyncracy.

An English translation of Klein’s masterpiece was soon made by Eva Brann, and remains readily available. And a detailed exposition of it has recently been published by Burt Hopkins. But until today the German original remained inaccessible to “everyone who does not happen to come across volume III of section B of Quellen und Studien zur Geschichte der Mathematik, Astronomie und Physik.” But today, having found a copy in the library of the University of Vienna, I made a scan, and have uploaded it here, so that now anyone with an internet connection can read Klein in the original.

The Ends of Writing, and the Purpose of this Blog

In blog-post reflection on blogging Elliot Milco considers blogging mostly insofar as it is communication with others:

The purposes of communication are: to convey the truth, to express one’s will, and to delight.  These are respectively the virtuous, useful, and pleasant goods of speaking.

But when I think about why I began this blog it seems to me that my main purpose was not so much to teach, sway, or delight my readers, but rather to clarify my own thoughts. In a recent post on Jacob Klein and Charles De Koninck I discussed the idea of philosophy, and therefore of philosophical writing, as a clarification of what is contained in a confused way in the first movements of the mind. Peter Kalkavage, an SJC tutor very much in the tradition of Klein, has a wonderful little essay “Writing to Learn,” in which he writes:

writing — the sort of writing that pertains to us as human beings rather than as professionals — is primarily for oneself and only secondarily, if importantly, for others. Why write? Not primarily to communicate but rather to inquire, that is, to grasp a thought with greater clarity and depth. The true beginning of such writing is the desire to know…

That is the kind of writing for which I started this blog. Of course, a blog is not a private notebook; people sometimes actually read what I write here, and this affects my writing in all sorts of ways. James Chastek, whose blog is my beau ideal of this sort of blogging, writes something about his readers that I would like to apply to my own:

I’m very thankful for those who read the things I write here. I would have abandoned a mere private diary or a blog with no readers after two entries, and so each of you had an essential role to play in the project.

And then of course once there are readers some posts are written for the sake of persuading or delighting them. But I think that this leads to a different kind of writing, with its own ends—namely those that Milco enumerated: teaching, or moving to action, or delighting.

Milco writes, “One should not desire an audience for its own sake,” and “the audience is the incidental recipient.” But I think that this is more true of the kind of writing that one does for one’s own learning. In the kind of writing that is ordered to communication the readers are often not incidental. If, for example, I am writing about the immorality of marijuana smoking in order to clarify my own thoughts about the matter, then the readers are incidental, if however I am writing because I want to persuade my countrymen that they should not legalize marijuana then I ought to find a medium which will be read by many influential people of the sort likely to be persuadable by my sort of argument.

Milco’s post was occasioned by the first post of modestinus’s new blog. Modestinus writes that he had been considering abandoning blogging for the sake of writing in web-magazines such as Ethika Politika or print media such the The Remnant. If Modestinus is primarily interested in didactic, rhetorical, or poetic writing—that is, writing that is primarily for its readers—then he probably should have done so, but if he is interested in “writing to learn,” a personal blog is an excellent medium for that purpose.

Charles De Koninck, Jacob Klein, and Socratic Logocentrism

The bi-lingual Quebecois journal Laval théologique et philosophique, has recently uploaded its archives to the web. This was the organ of Laval School Thomism, and the early issues contain lots of fascinating material by Charles De Koninck, the school’s most distinguished thinker, as well as pieces by his students and colleagues. Laval School Thomists have a somewhat ambivalent attitude toward writing and publishing. In the spirit of Socrates’s critique of writing in the Phaedrus,1 they are wary of the ways in which writing can aggravate the tendency of words to lose their connection to things. De Koninck argues that philosophy is rooted in the common conceptions which human reason forms “prior to any deliberate and constructive endeavor to learn.” These common conceptions are the most certain knowledge, but they are vague, indistinct, “confused.” As Aristotle puts it at the beginning of the Physics, “What are first obvious and certain to us are rather confused, and from these, the elements and principles become known later by dividing them.” The role of philosophy, then, is to make clear what is already contained in common conceptions. De Koninck was a great enemy of philosophic “systems” in which concepts are rendered intelligible by their function in the system, rather than by their rootedness in pre-scientific logos. Among his disciples one gets a sense that the problem with writing is that it lends itself to the development of a “technical” vocabulary from which such systems are formed. De Koninck  was especially opposed to any system which would use not words, which by their nature intend the world, but symbols, which replace what they represent. He pointed out the absurdities that followed from conceiving of thought as a method of manipulating symbols according to rules– of replacing “logic” in the ancient sense with philosophical calculus, or characteristic, or symbolic mathematical logic; all of which are not so much logic as grammatology.

In this De Koninck agrees with a philosopher of a quite different tradition: Jacob Klein. A student of Husserl and Heidegger, Klein did not follow his teachers. He understood philosophy in a way very similar to De Koninck. He looked to the Greeks whose account of philosophy he summarizes as follows: Continue reading

Empire I: the Philosophical Poet

Virgil is a very philosophical poet. In his famous essay on the Aenead[1] Jacob Klein quotes the following note from an early life of Virgil:

Although [Virgil] seems to have put the opinions of diverse philosophers into his writings with most serious intent, he himself was a devotee of the Academy; for he preferred Plato’s views to all the others.

I am going try to show something of Virgil’s political philosophy, and how it responds to Plato, but before doing that I ought to do a post on Virgil as a poet. Let me begin with the famous lines that are supposed to sum up the whole spirit of Virgil: Continue reading

Jacob Klein and the Difference Between Ancient and Modern Thought

Intellectual custom is a second nature. What we are accustomed to seems obvious to us. As Sean Collins has recently reminded us many things which the intellectual culture of our day takes as self-evident are in fact highly questionable positions introduced by the Enlightenment. One area in which this is particularly hard to spot is in our concept of number. Nothing seems so obvious and immediate to us as our idea of number, and yet the ancients had a very different idea of what numbers are than we. Jacob Klein’s Greek Mathematical Thought and the Origin of Algebra tries to get to the root of that difference, and by so doing he gets to the roots of the transformation that gave us modern science and philosophy. Leo Strauss explains:

Nothing affected [Klein and me] as profoundly in the years in which our minds took their lasting directions as the thought of Heidegger. This is not the place for speaking of that thought and its effects in general. Only this much must be said: Heidegger, who surpasses in speculative intelligence all his contemporaries and is at the same time intellectually the counterpart to what Hitler was politically, attempts to go a way not trodden by anyone or rather to think in a way in which philosophers at any rate have never thought before. Certain it is that one has questioned the premise of philosophy as radically as Heidegger. While everyone else in the young generation who had ears to hear was either completely overwhelmed by Heidegger, or else, having been almost completely overwhelmed by him, engaged un well-intentioned but ineffective rearguard actions against him, Klein alone saw why Heidegger is truly important: by uprooting and not simply rejecting the tradition of philosophy, he made it possible for the first time after many centuries—one hesitates to say how many—to see the roots of the tradition as they are and thus perhaps to know, what so many merely believe, that those roots are the only natural and healthy roots. Superficially or sociologically speaking, Heidegger was the first great German philosopher who was a Catholic by origin and by training; he thus had from the outset a premodern familiarity with Aristotle; he thus was protected against the danger of trying to modernize Aristotle. But as a philosopher Heidegger was not a Christian: he thus was not tempted to understand Aristotle the light of Thomas Aquinas. Above all, his intention was to uproot Aristotle: he thus was compelled to disinter the roots, to bring them to light, to look at them with wonder. Klein was the first to understand the possibility which Heidegger had opened without intending it: the possibility of a genuine return to classical philosophy, to the philosophy of Aristotle and Plato, a return with open eyes and in full clarity about the infinite difficulties which it entails. He turned to the study of classical philosophy with a devotion and a love of toil, a penetration and an intelligence, an intellectual probity and a sobriety in which no contemporary equals him. Out of that study grew his work which bears the title “Greek Logistics and the Genesis of Algebra.” No title could be less expressive of a man’s individuality and even of a man’s intentions; and yet if one knows Klein, the title expresses perfectly his individuality, his idiosyncrasy mentioned before. The work is much more than a historical study. But even if we take it as a purely historical work, there is not, in my opinion, a contemporary work in the history of philosophy or science or in “the history of ideas” generally speaking which in intrinsic worth comes within hailing distance of it. (Leo Strauss, “An Unspoken Prologue”)

It is interesting that Strauss sees Heidegger as having enabled Klein to go back to them without reading them through the lens of modern philosophy. In a brilliant letter to Mortimer Adler Charles De Koninck discusses the uselessness of trying to argue with modern philosophers. They have concealed the principles of their thought from themselves. They consider univocism, voluntarism, and nominalism, as simply given for reason; they do not consider that their view is in fact the result of a decision to pursue power instead of truth. Thus the true philosopher can never come to any real meeting of minds with his adversary. In an epilogue to a recent paper I argue that the very radicalism of certain contemporary philosophers allows for a possibility of a discussion which De Koninck did not anticipate. The philosophers I had in mind are certain contemporary “post-post-modern” theorists, but obviously they are all more or less influenced by the “intellectual counterpart of Hitler” who was of such decisive assistance to Klein.