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Evolution or progress of philosophy (3)

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Hellenism is no longer seen as a decadence, but as a beginning. Thus a framework of the historical development of philosophy is fixed, where we see a purely Western philosophy beginning with the Greek thinkers of Ionia, finding its type in Socrates who wanted “not to make men adopt a new system and submit their imagination to its own, but teach them to use their reason”; it is this philosophy which, after the long eclipse of the Middle Ages, is fully realized with Descartes. We are done with the jumble of so-called barbaric and oriental philosophy and the accusations of plagiarism against the Greeks. On the other hand, it must be said that all that this outline of the progress of the human mind, so widespread at the end of the 18th century, and which in short remained that of our histories of philosophy leaves outside of it, is the whole Christianity and all the East.

Eighteenth-century thinkers therefore sought to introduce unity and continuity into the history of philosophy; however, the entire first part of the 19th century saw an effort to build what had only been sketched. We are now looking for a principle of internal connection that allows us to understand the doctrines in themselves and to grasp their historical significance. We protest against the levity with which ideas which are not ours are rejected as absurd, whereas they are necessary aspects of the human spirit. What historians lacked most was the historical sense, the delicate perception of the nuances of the past. This is what Reinhold indicates very well, in a 1791 article on the concept of the history of philosophy: “The reason why,” he says, “the history of philosophy appears in our textbooks as a history of the folly of men rather than of their wisdom, for which the most famous and often the most deserving of antiquity are most unworthily abused, for which their deepest gazes into the sanctuary of truth are misinterpreted and misunderstood as the flattest of errors—it is because we misunderstood their ideas, and we must have misunderstood them because, in judging them, we stuck to the posterior principles of one of the four main metaphysical sects, or because we were accustomed by the methods of popular philosophy to prevent the most profound researches by the oracles of common sense.”

This is Reinhold’s program that Tennemann followed in A Manual of the History of Philosophy; this history must not suppose, according to him, any idea of ​​philosophy; it is only the picture of the gradual formation of philosophy, the picture of the efforts of reason to realize the idea of ​​a science of the laws of nature and of freedom.

But the principle of internal unity presents itself in two ways: on the one hand as a principle of a classification of doctrines which prides itself on fitting into a small number of types, depending on the nature of the spirit, all possible sects; on the other hand, as a gradual development of which each important doctrine constitutes a necessary moment.

The first point of view is that of de Gérando. He positively declares that he abandons, as both sterile and impossible, the old method of the history of sects. “The philosophical opinions which have arisen in the various countries and in the various ages are so varied, so numerous, that the most scholarly and the most faithful collection will only throw trouble and confusion into our ideas and overwhelm us under the weight of a sterile erudition, unless happily prepared reconciliations come to guide the attention.” For “narrative history” we must substitute, according to Bacon’s expressions, “inductive and comparative history”; it consists first of all in determining the very small number of primitive questions which each system must answer; from these answers, we can grasp the spirit of each of them and group them into natural classes; this classification made, we can compare them, grasp their point of divergence, and, finally, considering each of them as so many experiments made on the progress of the human mind, judge which is the best. In fact, the primitive question that gives to Gérando the basis of his classification on is that of the nature of human knowledge; the history of systems becomes an “essay in experimental philosophy”, which shows to the test the value of each solution given to the problem of the origin of knowledge.

Victor Cousin’s method does not add much to Gérando’s. It is a kind of average between the method of the botanist who classifies plants by family, and the psychological explanation which links them to the primitive facts of the human mind. “What disturbs and discourages,” he said at the beginning of the 1829 course, at the introduction to the history of philosophy, “is the prodigious quantity of systems belonging to all countries and all times.” Then “characters, different or similar, will emerge as if by themselves and will reduce this infinite multitude of systems to a fairly small number of principal systems which include all the others.” After classification comes explanation. These large families of systems come from the human mind. This is why the human mind, as constant to itself as nature, reproduces them incessantly. The history of philosophy thus ultimately returns to psychology which, the starting point of all sound philosophy, “provides even history with its surest light”. We therefore dominate history by denying it, since we replace the development of doctrines over time with their classification.

The second point of view which makes it possible to introduce a unity into the history of philosophy is that of a dynamic link between the systems, where each appears as a necessary moment of a unique history. The history of philosophy here only reflects the general tendencies of the early 19th century, which gave birth to the moral and social sciences; we no longer believe that general history is oriented towards the success of a particular religion or an empire; rather, it is progressing towards a collective civilization that concerns all of humanity. Similarly, the history of philosophy is not oriented to the benefit of a sect; it has an immanent law that can be recognized by direct observation.

“No science can be understood without its own history, always inseparable from the general history of humanity”, there is no remark which condenses more clearly the ideas of Auguste Comte on intellectual history: impossibility of separating the present from the past, to consider the present stage of intelligence other than in the dynamic progress in which it is born from past stages; impossibility of separating the history of intellectual development from that of civilization as a whole. Positivism affirms the “human continuity” denied by “Catholicism cursing antiquity, Protestantism condemning the Middle Ages, and deism denying all filiation”. Comte’s thought is linked to the general movement that we saw growing in the 18th century against the idea of ​​a history of philosophy as a simple enumeration of incoherent sects. “Dynamic continuity” forbids us to believe that there ever are “radical changes” in human opinions; they have been modified by virtue of the same impulse which still modifies them, that is to say an impulse towards an increasing subordination of our judgments to the objective order. Each of these steps has its normal and necessary place. The “purely subjective logic” of the fetishist who animates the phenomena “was originally as normal as the best scientific methods are today.”

This vision of a continuous march, which cannot be retrograde, leads Comte to completely transform the value due the historians of the 18th century gave to each period of the past, particularly to Greek thought and to the thought of the Middle Ages. He formally protests against “the irrational hypotheses of certain scholars on an alleged anteriority of the positive state over the theological state”, an allusion no doubt to an objection that can be drawn from the positive science of the Greeks preceding medieval thought. These assumptions, he adds, “have been irrevocably overthrown on the basis of better scholarship.” The union of theology and metaphysics, which characterizes the Middle Ages, a union which, in the eyes of Protestant writers like Brücker and encyclopaedists, is a scandal and a monstrous alliance, is precisely what makes the superiority of the Middle Ages over antiquity, and what prepares the modern age. Theology without metaphysics is necessarily polytheism; it “alone constitutes the true theological state, where the imagination freely prevails. Monotheism always results from an essentially metaphysical theology, which restricts fiction by reasoning.”

Comte therefore understands by philosophy less the technical systems of specialists in philosophy than a diffuse mental state throughout society which will manifest itself as well, if not better, in legal institutions, in literary works or works of art than in the systems of the philosophers. A philosophical system, designated by name, will be able, it is true, to show this state of mind with particular clarity, because it concentrates scattered features elsewhere and brings them to light; but it will never be studied except as a symbol and a symptom. What interests historians driven by the positivist spirit are “collective representations”, and individual views only get their gaze if they are a reflection of the collective. Hence a change of method: it manifests itself in the lack of concern one has for the somehow technical part of philosophy; what interests are the fundamental theorems of the philosophers, the content of their opinion, and not their absolute truth; each system of opinion is related to an era and draws from this relationship the only justification it can claim.

Source: Émile Bréhier, Histoire de la philosophie – Tome premier: L’Antiquité et le Moyen âge, Librairie Félix Alcan, Paris, 1928. Tanslation and adaptation by Nicolae Sfetcu © 2022 Multimedia Publishing

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