Saturday, January 14, 2006

Universal trouble

The real, the unreal, and the disillusioned Have a look at TCS Daily, where Edward Fesser examines the metaphysical roots of today's political philosophies. Here's the introduction:
Richard M. Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences, published in 1948, was among the founding documents of contemporary conservatism. The title phrase has become something of a cliché, and overuse has stripped it of the interesting meaning it once had. Nowadays most people assume that what Weaver was saying was that how we think is bound to affect how we act, and that the intellectual trends that prevail in a society will determine its moral and political character. To be sure, that was part of his meaning, but if that were all he had in mind his message would have been a pretty banal one, since no one denies that in this sense “ideas have consequences.” What is largely forgotten is that Weaver was making a play on words, and that his primary reference was to Plato’s famous Theory of Ideas, a metaphysical thesis that has cast a long shadow over the history of Western civilization. Indeed, Weaver’s view was that this metaphysical vision is what made Western civilization possible, that its abandonment was the primary source of the pathologies of the modern world so decried by conservatives, and that its recovery is essential if those pathologies are to be overcome. It hardly needs saying that not all conservatives today would express their creed in precisely these terms. Many religious conservatives, or at least those of an evangelical bent, would find them excessively high-falutin’. Many secular conservatives, fancying themselves too hard-headed and worldly-wise even for philosophy, let alone religion, would eschew Weaver’s formulation in favor of economics, or perhaps to take up the current fad for evolutionary psychology. Nevertheless, a consideration of metaphysical issues of the sort Weaver addressed would, I maintain, do much to clarify the nature of conservatism, and of the disputes that constantly break out among conservatives of different stripes. For there is no one as dogmatically beholden to a metaphysic as the man who denies that he has one... ... As the medieval world gave way to the modern one, and medieval to modern philosophy, nominalism won the day, and modern thinkers like Descartes and Locke abandoned the old conceptual apparatus of hylomorphism, with its appeal to forms and natural ends or purposes as fundamental to the understanding of things, and to the idea of the soul as the form of the living human body. “Mechanism” -- the view that physical things operate on purely mechanical principles, without natural ends or purposes and without instantiating anything like Plato’s or Aristotle’s Forms -- entailed a redefinition of the human body as nothing more than a complex machine, and “human nature” as nothing more than a specification of the principles by which the machine operates, like clockwork. Now if a living human body does not have a form -- any more than anything else does on the modern view -- then it does not have a soul either, at least as classically defined. Descartes thus re-defined the soul as a kind of non-physical object which is only contingently or accidentally attached to its body, rather than as a form which the body necessarily has to have in order to be a living body at all. One result of this is that the soul came to seem to modern Western thinkers an ever more elusive and mysterious entity, and therefore a dispensable one. Another is that it became harder to see what made a living human body the body of a person, since there is nothing about its being alive that entails (on the modern view anyway) that it has a soul. This problem was only exacerbated by Locke’s own re-definition of a person as a stream of connected conscious experiences, rather than a union of soul (form) and body (matter). Thus were sown the seeds -- inadvertently, to be sure -- that would eventually develop into the view that neither a fetus nor a Terri Schiavo counts as a person having a right to life. And in the other trends alluded to -- nominalism and mechanism -- we see the origins of the idea that “human nature” is either a purely human construct, or something that exists objectively only as a collection of behavioral tendencies, of no more inherent moral significance than the workings of a clock. We might, as a matter of prudence, want to keep them in mind as a possible barrier to the realization of our desires, but if we could find a way to alter them there would be no objective reason not to do so. Certainly these behavioral tendencies -- being ultimately nothing more than mechanical regularities -- do not, on the modern view, reflect anything like Aristotle’s natural ends or purposes or Plato’s Form of a human being, defining what is objectively good for us. And thus there is no absolute moral barrier to the radical revision of institutions that have traditionally been understood to reflect human nature -- hence socialism, the sexual revolution, and a thousand other things.

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