Monday, October 17, 2005

fourth paper

Here is my fourth paper, this one for History of Philosophy. This is an analysis of an article given to us by the professor. The article is “Rational Animal/Political Animal” by Laurence Berns, a tutor at St. John’s College, a famous “Great Books” college in Annapolis, MD.

Laurence Berns, in his piece, “Rational Animal/Political Animal,” focuses on the origin of philosophy; his main thesis being that philosophy “emerged among the Greeks as a result of the discovery of the idea of Nature.”[1] The first paragraph of the piece mentions that Aristotle “takes human speech very seriously” because it can lead to the “fundamental principles of all things.” From the very beginning, with the phrase “Aristotle takes human speech very seriously,” Berns is implying that, obviously, others do not. By looking carefully at speech and its fundamental function in articulating perceived contrasts in the way things work, one can understand the emergence of philosophy. Berns is implying that uncritical thinkers of human speech would miss this development or fail to appreciate it.

By starting the second paragraph with the “idea of nature” and placing it in the context of the “western tradition of thought,” Berns sets his discussion firmly on a nature-centered path to which we can relate. He then begins to detail how the fundamental issues of western thought were argued in terms of contrasts. Berns doesn’t necessarily list these contrasts in chronological order but, according to Dr. Paul Seaton, these can indeed be arranged into periods[2]: “Ancient” – Nature & Art and Nature & Convention; “Medieval” – Nature & Grace, Nature & Supernatural, and Nature & Divine; and, lastly, “Modern” – Nature & Freedom, Nature & Spirit, and Nature & History.”

By starting the third paragraph with “In fact Aristotle, among others, suggests” Berns implies that Aristotle was not alone in his understanding that “philosophy and science themselves come into the world with the discovery of nature.” By using the words “come into the world,” Berns implies the existence of a world that is pre-philosophy and even pre-science. Mentioning the “discovery” of nature further characterizes the world as not having a concept of nature either. More will be said of this later. Lastly, Berns then transitions to another thought by stating that “there were and still are people who have no distinct idea of nature” and that the word “nature” doesn’t appear in the Old Testament or in the Gospels but in Paul’s letters and other places in the New Testament. This transition shows that Berns is assuming we would expect to learn of nature from Scripture or that it is there where we would normally turn for answers.

Berns then goes into his account of life “before nature was discovered.” His point here is that life at this time was characterized by gods that ordained all things. “The gods ordered and commanded things to go in their customary ways.” This time, Berns mentions that his keyword “way,” contrary to his earlier keyword “nature,” occurs very often in Scripture. Here he implies that the Old Testament peoples and writers, and even those of the New Testament, were more familiar with a “ways-based” understanding of the world in which God was the main authority. According to this understanding, the gods (or God) specifically ordained natural events (i.e. fire, rain, crops, childbirth, etc.) and human events (i.e. what the people could eat or kill, punishment, retribution, etc.) to occur. Berns says, “The commands of the gods were delivered to the ancestors” and on down through the generations. This is how an understanding of the world was made known and populated. Furthermore, this reinforces, as stated in the beginning, the importance of speech.

Then Berns moves into his discussion of the discovery of nature and its impact on the worldview of those who began to understand it. He says that “some curious and thoughtful man” noticed some things are the same no matter what you do about them, and others vary whether you do something or not. By using the words “curious and thoughtful” he says that it took a certain special insight and mind to recognize these things. “We can glean, or hypothesize, at this point that philosophy is an intellectual operation based upon certain distinctions.”[3] Also here, Berns transitions from speaking about nature to speaking about necessity and in doing so equates them. Now instead of the contrasts being between Nature and Art, Convention, Grace, the Supernatural, the Divine, Freedom, Spirit, and History, they are between the Necessary and the Accidental; the Necessary and the Customary; and the Necessary and the Artificial. This new contrast is important because if things must happen out of necessity, then this leaves little room for the involvement of the gods.[4]

He goes on to hint that this change in understanding, or terminology, was due to the “curious and thoughtful” man “becoming” a traveler. He is now traveling when he didn’t before and this has expanded and refined his understanding of the way things work. This also leads him to a further discovery, that not only are some things the same independent of influence throughout a given place, but they are the same across several places and even, he concludes, universally: “some ways are the same everywhere.” But along with this comes the converse that some ways vary from place to place. Berns’ thoughtful-man has discovered that his way, the collective “Our Way” of which he is a part, is not exactly everyone’s “way.” Berns adds that “these contradictions are connected with even more fundamental contradictory opinions, concerning the very origin of the gods.” The origin of the gods is brought into question because, supposedly, they dictated all things to behave a certain way, but pre-philosophic man now realizes that this way isn’t always as universal as he thought.

With these discoveries, man begins to learn differently too. Instead of relying solely on “listening” to the elders as he did before (which is still legitimate), he can now learn truth by seeing for himself as well. Berns adds, “The suspicion begins to arise that what one can see to be everywhere the same is primary, permanent and fundamental and that the other things are secondary, transient and derivative.” He concludes that while the collective “Our Way” can vary from place to place, there is “The Way” of things, “the way according to nature, that which is right and good in itself because it is in accord with nature,” that is the same everywhere. Now man must decide if things are “right and good” because they are in accordance with nature or because they have been established by certain authorities, like the gods.

In the summary paragraph of this first line of thought, Berns uses the phrase “on the basis of the distinctions” to bring us back to his earlier stated goal. He has shown that philosophy emerged in western thought through an articulation of perceived distinctions between Nature/Necessity and other “forces.” Berns also adds a new distinction or rather a restatement of a fundamental distinction: the “old way” and the “right way.” This is a distinction between the “old way” of listening to commands of the gods passed down through the elders and the “new” and now characterized “right” way of appealing to both the elders and man’s own investigation. This moral judgment of the “new way” as “right” sets up his discussion for a brief and closing treatment, of the meaningful mission of both newly-emergent philosophers of the past and those of today. But before he does that he states another distinction important to his point: “way” is split up “into the notions of ‘nature,’ on the one hand, and ‘convention,’ on the other.” Dr. Seaton defines convention as “to agree to come together or something that owes its being to human agreement.”[5] Berns ends his summary paragraph by saying “philosophers and scientists begin to think that knowledge of this apparently impersonal necessity, nature, is the one thing most needful.” On why it is most needful, Berns doesn’t elaborate, other than what he implies with his “old” vs. “right” distinction.

At the beginning of a new line of thought on the meaningful mission of philosophers old and new, Berns states that “The distinction between what is good by nature and what is good by law, or by convention, good because it is posited, or legislated, becomes crucial for political and ethical philosophy.” This restates Berns’ pre-summary mention of the decision that his thoughtful-man must make as to the source of the “right and good.” Now, since the good, in general, is that which is “in accordance with nature, or good by nature,” conventions aren’t judged against or come from the gods but against/from nature. In the “new” and “right” way, sins aren’t an offense against the gods, but a “perversion” of nature.

In the last paragraph, in order to give a clear characterization of “philosophers,” he mentions that they can include “erring philosophers” and “imitators or images.” Such men called “sophists or intellectuals” abuse the distinction between nature and convention by blowing it out of proportion to discredit conventions as unreasonable and unnatural. They also seek to undermine conventions in order to undermine “ordinary decency.” This implies that conventions play a key role in ordinary decency.

The last three sentences of Berns’ essay clarify the mission of authentic philosophy. One permanent task should be to “defend ordinary pre-philosophic practical wisdom from sophistical attack and ordinary decency from sophistical scientism.” Because this follows his accusation that sophists undermine ordinary decency, he thereby equates ordinary decency with pre-philosophic practical wisdom. From the context of this second line of thought we can define “sophistical scientism” as an ideology that denied practical wisdom and convention by saying that all is nature and no other guide or force is needed. Sophists produce “corruption of the youth” but sophists and philosophers both pay for it because not only is the authentic philosopher doing his own work in the development of thought but he must also work to defend philosophy. By mentioning the “youth” Berns brings out the public and social impact that philosophy is capable of and so in his last sentence calls for “political” philosophy to “extricate philosophy from the opprobrium[6] brought upon it by its imitators.” The implied lesson of this essay then is that philosophers should be mindful of the same concerns expressed here anytime philosophy emerges anew or remerges in the ongoing development of western thought.

[1] Most of the quotes from this essay come from the Laurence Berns handout, “Rational Animal/Political Handout” from PHIL 301 History of Philosophy, St. Mary’s Seminary and University
[2] From notes given by Dr. Paul Seaton in the course, PHIL 301 History of Philosophy, St. Mary’s Seminary & University. Source and author hereafter referred to as “Dr. Seaton.”
[3] From notes from Dr. Seaton.
[4] Notes from Dr. Seaton say, “I indicated the deep importance of that claim by asking, where is the Creator, Providential, Redeemer God in a necessary/necessitated universe or nature?”
[5] From notes from Dr. Seaton.
[6] “opprobrium” is the “state of disgrace resulting from public abuse” (WordNet ® 2.0, © 2003 Princeton University)

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