|Skyler: Aristotle and Plato both thought the most important people in a society were its philosophers. Yet, the world largely moves on without them and their great conversation through the ages ever having much impact.
Philosophers didn’t give us refrigeration or the internal combustion engine — which each have done more to transform human existence than anything Hegel wrote. Philosophers did give us the concept of the super man and racial purity and other dangerous ideas that caused millions to be uselessly murdered.
Perhaps we’d be better off with more “training” and less “educating” by your terms. Right and wrong aren’t that hard to figure out, and we simply don’t need snobs sitting around pretending they know better than the rest of us what is obvious.
I am, whether you think I am or not. Descartes was a fool, but a fine mathematician. His math has done more for mankind than his silly Meditation on First Philosophy ever will. And I can study him without a brick classroom, though I’d rather not.
Yesterday, in a post entitled Online Training vs. Online Education, I drew a distinction between training and education, and I suggested that, while online courses might be adequate for the former, they were a poor substitute for personal contact in and outside the classroom. Saturdays at Ricochet are usually slow days, and I thought that my post would interest only a handful of members. But I was wrong. I stirred up a hornet’s nest — which suggests that it might be worthwhile to do another post on one aspect of the argument I stirred up.
I am not sure that Skyler’s comment, quoted above, fairly reflects what he would think and say when in a calmer mood, but it is a position shared by some in our number and more widely shared within the general public, and it deserves examination.
I will begin with a simple point. The contempt that Skyler expresses for Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, and Hegel in this comment reflects a remarkable ignorance concerning the history of science and the relationship between philosophy and science.
Put simply, science (ancient and modern) is a product of “great conversation through the ages” that Skyler mentions. Modern science arises from Galileo’s suggestion, inspired by Plato, that the book of nature is written in the language of mathematics; from Sir Francis Bacon’s insistence that, if we torture nature by way of experiments, we can make her reveal her secrets; and from Descartes’ bringing together of Galileo’s hypothesis and Bacon’s method. It also presupposes a shift in moral sensibility begun by Machiavelli, taken up by Bacon, and embraced by Descartes in his Discourse on Method – a shift in which human beings came to see their task as the conquest of nature, their end as the acquisition of power, and their purpose as the avoidance of pain, the prolongation of life, and the intensification of pleasure. It is this shift, initiated by the philosophers for whom Skyler has so much contempt, that led to the invention of refrigeration and the internal combustion engine.
We owe to this shift a great deal. Were it not for it and the work of those who signed onto the project designed by Bacon and Descartes, I myself would, for example, almost certainly by now be dead. But there is a price — which caused Plato and Aristotle to shy away from embracing the ethos of constant innovation — for it is the scientific project initiated by Galileo, Bacon, and Descartes that produced nuclear weapons and biological and chemical weapons. The ancient philosophers were not entirely foolish when they wondered whether human beings can be trusted with such power. The jury is still out.
If you want to explore these themes, take a look at the second volume of my Republics Ancient and Modern, where I discuss Machiavelli, Galileo, Bacon, and Descartes. I return to some of these themes in Against Throne and Altar and try to develop them more fully. It should suffice to say here that there were profound political ramifications. Resources had to be reallocated, and this would be accomplished, as Bacon foresaw, by the commercialization of society. He was a great defender in Parliament of the patent of monopoly, which was intended to encourage inventions by creating property in innovative ideas. When Skyler, in another comment, claims that the world we live in is based on science and engineering, he is only partially right. The importance we accord to science and engineering has its roots in a political decision inspired by a philosophical conviction.
Let me add that, when Skyler writes, “Philosophers did give us the concept of the super man and racial purity and other dangerous ideas that caused millions to be uselessly murdered,” he skirts past a problem. Racism — by which I mean not color prejudice but the conviction that there is a hierarchy of biologically distinct races here on earth — was not a product of the philosophers. It was espoused and propagated by the biologists and their admirers. Friedrich Nietzsche may have spoke of the ubermensch, but he was not a racist. There was, in the 1920s and the 1930s, hardly a scientist in the world who opposed the eugenics movement. What opposition there was came from outfits such as the Roman Catholic Church, which had embraced via Augustine and Aquinas the outlook of Plato and Aristotle. Training without education can be exceedingly dangerous.