Apr 4, 2008

Philosophical Ripples?

My purpose in these notes is to summarize my understanding of the general process of spreading a philosophy.

Philosophical transmission is the passage of a philosophy from one generation to the next or from one society to another. In the west, a long line of scholars transmitted Aristotle's philosophy from Greek society to Roman society; in the east, Greek writers transmitted it to Syriac and then Arabic society; and from these earlier cultures, scholars transmitted it to the world of Thomas Aquinas.

In contrast, philosophical dissemination is the passage of a philosophy down a socio-intellectual hierarchy from a philosopher to the man in the street, within one society. The philosophers of the Italian Renaissance disseminated Aristotle's philosophy into their society--as some philosophers are today disseminating Ayn Rand's philosophy, Objectivism, into modern society.

A new philosophy enters a society like a stone dropping into a pond. The effects ripple through the society.[1] The ripples pass along a chain of individuals.

1. Primary philosophers create radically new philosophical systems. Each presents his philosophy to a few students. In the 2500-year history of philosophy, only four primary philosophers have emerged: Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and Rand.[2]

2. In the generations following the introduction of each primary philosophy, secondary philosophers build their own philosophical systems. Whereas primary philosophers create radically new philosophical ideas and integrate them into a system, secondary philosophers start with some of the essential elements of a primary philosopher's system and then develop their own variation from those and other essential elements. Example secondary philosophers are Plotinus (600 years after Plato) and Kierkegaard (50 years after Kant).

Primary and secondary philosophers systematize their philosophical ideas in their thinking but not in their presentations of their own philosophies. Perhaps the reason for the lack of a single-volume presentation of the whole philosophy is that each primary and secondary philosopher is fascinated with (1) solving particular philosophical problems (such as the problem of universals) and (2) mentally integrating the solutions into a system, but he is bored with presenting the system as a whole to beginners.

3. Tertiary philosophers are individuals who immerse themselves in a primary or secondary philosophy but do not create systems of their own. Example tertiary philosophizers are academics who (1) think about and teach philosophy fulltime; (2) specialize in the study of a particular philosophical system; (3) adopt it as their own; (4) make its implicit elements explicit; and (5) systematically present it in their own lectures and books. A partial example is John Rawls (chairman of the Department of Philosophy at Harvard and author of Theory of Justice); he applied Kant's metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics to his own politics of egalitarianism.[3]

4. Philosophers of the sciences develop the basic principles (the foundation, the "philosophy") of each science. Example specialized sciences are physics, history, and psychology. Unlike primary, secondary, and tertiary philosophers, philosophers of science characteristically do not work directly with whole philosophical systems. Philosophers of science apply parts of a philosophy--especially its metaphysics and epistemology--to their particular field. For example, besides being a physicist, Galileo (1564-1642) was a philosopher of the emerging science of physics. He placed physics partly on a foundation of Aristotle's philosophical method--logic--and partly on elements of Aristotle's epistemology.[4]

5. Intellectuals apply philosophical principles (formulated by others) to their specialized studies in particular sciences and arts. Intellectuals continue the process of selecting pieces of a whole philosophy for narrower applications. Thus intellectuals develop and spread new specialized ideas as well as philosophical ideas. Example intellectuals are university professors who think about, write about, and lecture on specialized sciences. Today, in such fields as economics, biology, architecture, political science, art criticism, and history, intellectuals write and lecture outside universities too -- e.g., in "think-tanks" and specialized weblogs.

An intellectual activist is a person who (1) is intrigued by at least some philosophical principles and their application to his milieu, and (2) takes action to spread the applications and their underlying philosophical principles into his society. An intellectual activist, as distinct from a professional intellectual, need not be an originator of new ideas.

(The term "intellectual" can also be used very broadly to name anyone who is concerned about fundamental ideas and their application to society; in this sense, "intellectual" is not a matter of profession but of interest.)

6. Broadcasters further disseminate particular philosophical ideas (e.g., "Nobody can be certain of anything") and their applications ("Someone has to help the people who do not plan for their old-age"). Broadcasters do not develop new ideas, either philosophical or specialized. Example broadcasters can be teachers in lower schools, local newspaper columnists, and intellectually articulate politicians--but not all teachers, columnists, and politicians are broadcasters. Broadcasters spread philosophical ideas and their applications by talking directly to the "man in the street," for instance, to the truck driver whose actual philosophy ("Aw, hell, who knows--and who cares anyway?") determines whether he accelerates or brakes as he drives toward you when you walk across an intersection.[6]

Philosophically, the idea that underlies dissemination is the movement from the universal to the particular. Each disseminator applies a philosophy more narrowly (while implicitly retaining the whole). Socially, the process of dissemination affects more and more people. Thus, in dissemination from a primary philosopher to truck drivers, the philosophical and social hierarchies are parallel.[7]

Burgess Laughlin
Author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith

[1] For innovative, general insight into the hierarchy of a philosophical army: Ayn Rand, For the New Intellectual: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, hardback, p. 25. To better meet my needs as a student of history, I have added stages in the hierarchy and I have used additional terminology.

[2] For the idea of primary philosophers: Dr. Andrew Bernstein's recorded lecture, "Four Giants of Philosophy"; and Dr. Gary Hull's recorded lecture, "The Two False Theories of Concepts." Both lectures are available from The Ayn Rand Bookstore.

[3] For an example of a primary philosopher's influence, 175 years later, on an academic philosophizer: indirectly, a discussion of work by John Rawls (a Harvard philosophy professor, author of *A Theory of Justice*) in Ayn Rand, "An Untitled Letter," Philosophy: Who Needs it, pp. 131-137 and 140-144. For the transmission and dissemination of Kantianism, from Kant to Rawls: Leonard Peikoff, Ominous Parallel, especially Chs. 2, 6, 14 and 15.

[4] For Galileo as philosopher of science and as scientist: "Preface," William A Wallace, Galileo Logic's of Discovery and Proof: The Background, Content, and Use of His Appropriated Treatises on Aristotle's Posterior Analytics, Vol. 137 (a philosophy of science series), Kluwer Academic Publishers, Boston, 1992. As elsewhere, I am offering this example tentatively. I am not a specialist in any of their philosophies.

[5] For philosophy's effect on the man in the street: Ayn Rand, Philosophy: Who Needs It, p. 5 of the title essay.

[6] I have discussed dissemination here only as a process of spreading ideas down a social hierarchy. Dissemination also includes spreading ideas "laterally," for example, tertiary philosophers who have adopted Kant's philosophy may advocate that philosophy to their peers, inside or outside of academia.

[7] "Enablers" can play a role at each stage of dissemination, but without themselves being disseminators of the ideas. For example, a philosophically mute but wealthy businsessman might provide free lodging to a philosopher who is developing a book presenting a key element of his new philosophy; a scientist immersed in his own specialized work might donate part of his salary to an institution dedicated to spreading a particular philosophy; and a carpenter might donate a new philosopher's book to a local library.


Anonymous said...

Concerning the spread of ideas, I think it is important to consider the concrete cultural, social and political context that might further or hinder the spread of these ideas. To use a very obvious example: New ideas are far more difficult to spread in a society under government censorship, or in a society where your life is not well-protected against people who disagree with you and might regard you as a heretic. On the other hand, new ideas might spread much more easily if they are a logical development from premises already widely accepted in the culture. As a rule, I guess, one could state that the more basic a paradigm shift the new ideas represent, the longer it will take and the more difficult it will be for them to spread and take hold. What you called "enabler" in footnote seven, furthermore, could be subsumed under "context", too.

Of course, ideas shape society and culture, but they cannot do so out of the blue, i.e. only in accordance with the particular social and cultural context, i.e. the specific identity of the culture and society they want to transform.

Best regards, Sascha Settegast

Burgess Laughlin said...

Yes, identity is the key for understanding--or predicting--the passage of a new idea (or system of ideas) into a culture. The identity of the new ideas themselves, the identity of the prevailing ideas in the dominant culture, and even the identity (level of knowledge, psychological health, skills in writing or public speaking, and intelligence) of the particular individuals spreading the ideas at a particular time--all these are factors.

An analogy suitable here is to electricity passing through various conductors. Some materials conduct better than others. That is, some are less resistant. But some other materials are nonconductors.

Likewise, some individuals are nonconductors. These people are "zeroes," to use the term Dr. Leonard Peikoff uses in his DIM Hypothesis lectures to describe individuals who are not aware of their own epistemological method and are, therefore, inarticulate in describing it to others. If they can't describe it, they can't disseminate it.

Anonymous said...

Concerning why primary and secondary philosophers usually do not leave systematized presentations of their essential thoughts: I do not think that being bored by presenting the system is a real reason. Ayn Rand, e.g., seldomly grew tired of discussing her ideas with people who were absolutely unfamiliar with them and not even philosophically educated. I guess it has something to do with the fascination of solving particular philosophical problems, although that is only an aspect of the issue.

I think it is important to see that a philosopher is always working on his system, refining it, discovering new applications and integrations, extending it to areas previously uncovered, etc. He has discovered a lot of important principles, but he always sees that there is a lot more to do, that there are still questions open that deserve an answer. And why should he, and indeed, how could he write a systematic treatise summing up his system if that system is still unfinished? In a way you could say that, as long as a philosopher is alive, his system is always in development, i.e. it is an open system, and any account or presentation can necessarily cover only aspects of it. It becomes a closed system only upon his death, and that is the reason why later generations find it much easier to present a systematic account summing up the whole of such a philosopher's thoughts: because he, by virtue of being dead, will not add anything to it any more.

Sascha Settegast

Anonymous said...

During the Renaissance evidence of a rational philosophy influencing the culture is abundant. It can be found in everything from political philosophy, scientific development, and art. I'm curious about the impact of America's discovery during the Renaissance (I think that it was crucial in the development of the industrial revolution). Also, I wonder whether America's unique sense of life and history of productive genius is partially the product of a sort of Renaissance era "brain drain" with the many productive Europeans looking to exploit the fruits of a brand new continent.

Jonathan Akin

Burgess Laughlin said...

I am not a specialist in the Renaissance (or any other period of history). Following are thoughts and questions meant only to offer possibilities for further research by other long-term students of history.

(1) The Renaissance, as it is usually defined, means that period of Latin-Christian culture, in Western Europe mostly, which was characterized by a reverence for and systematic search for texts and art from the ancient world, particularly the classical Greek and Roman writers and artists. The roots of that movement go back, of course, hundreds of years to Aquinas, Peter Abelard, and others (as I describe in The Aristotle Adventure.

(2) The idea of of the development of North America being a factor in the rise of the Industrial Revolution is an intriguing possibility. Of course, only exacting research tracing chains of cause and effect would resolve the question.

(3) The issue of brain drains and -- more broadly, philosophical and intellectual demographics -- would be a fascinating topic for a long-term student of history. Examples are:

- The movement of most philosophers to Athens at one point.

- The movement, from all over Europe, to the magnet of the higher schools in Paris during the 1100s and 1200s.

- As already mentioned in an earlier comment, the possible movement of the most reality-oriented, daring, and self-responsible individuals of Europe to North America in the 1500-1800s.

When individuals move they bring their ideas (explicit or implicit) with them. When such people concentrate in a certain place, they by default become the dominant culture. They don't need to change the culture; they are the culture.

Thank you for stimulating comments.