Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Newspeak of the moderns

In 1642, the Senate of the University of Utrecht issued a condemnation of the new Cartesian philosophy, which was intended by Descartes to replace the Aristotelianism of the Scholastics. Among the charges made against the new philosophy was that:

it turns away the young from this sound and traditional philosophy, and prevents them reaching the heights of erudition; for once they have begun to rely on the new philosophy and its supposed solutions, they are unable to understand the technical terms which are commonly used in the books of the traditional authors and in the lectures and debates of their professors. (Quoted in John Cottingham, Descartes, p. 4)

Whatever one thinks of Descartes (who was a very great genius, albeit a catastrophically mistaken one, in my view) this charge is spot on, and it applies to the moderns in general. Their re-definitions of various key philosophical terms, along with their sometimes ridiculous caricatures of the Aristotelian and Scholastic ideas they were attacking, have (however inadvertently) made it nearly impossible for modern readers correctly to grasp the arguments of medieval writers. This is no less true of educated people, and indeed even of professional philosophers (unless they have some expertise in ancient or medieval philosophy), than it is of students and general readers. Whether it is your average New Atheist hack or your average local philosophy professor teaching Aquinas’s Five Ways or natural law theory in a Philosophy 101 class, you can be certain in the first case, and nearly certain in the second, that he does not even understand the ideas he is presenting and criticizing. Key philosophical terms like “cause,” “nature,” “essence,” “substance,” “property,” “form,” “matter,” “necessary,” “contingent,” “good,” etc. simply have very different meanings in the works of Scholastic writers than they do to contemporary ears. Since they do not grasp these meanings, modern readers systematically misinterpret the Scholastic arguments in metaphysics, philosophy of religion, and ethics that make use of them.

The categories within which modern philosophers have tended to think have thus shrunk their intellectual horizons rather than expanded them, effectively closing off the possibility of considering all the alternative ways at looking at questions of metaphysics, philosophy of science, religion, and morality. This is only exacerbated by the modern tendency to ridicule the allegedly pedantic distinctions made by Scholastic writers, distinctions which when properly understood can be seen to mark genuine and important features of reality. Modern philosophy thus functions (again, however inadvertently) the way Newspeak does in Orwell’s 1984: It makes certain thoughts effectively unthinkable, by massively shrinking our vocabulary and redefining the words that remain. This is why so many modern readers can no longer even understand why anyone should think it remotely plausible that something’s being contrary to nature entails that it is bad, or why anyone should think that it is metaphysically impossible for causation to exist at all without a divine First Cause. What the Scholastics meant by “natural,” “cause,” and the like in the first place is something of which these readers have no awareness. And being ignorant even of their ignorance, they have no means of remedying it.

This is why so much of The Last Superstition is devoted to general metaphysics and conceptual stage-setting – to making clear what classical thinkers like Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas really said and to clearing away the vast piles of intellectual rubbish that lay in the path of understanding (as John Locke might put it). Nothing less will do if the traditional arguments for theism, the immortality of the soul, and natural law are even to get a fair hearing. Obviously this just makes things that much more difficult for the defender of classical theism and traditional morality. He is like a visitor from the present trying to explain himself to a denizen of Big Brother’s world.

Bacon, Descartes, Hobbes, Moliere, Locke, and the other moderns who ridiculed crude caricatures of substantial forms, final causes, and the like before banishing them from the philosophical lexicon altogether, afford a parallel of sorts to Orwell’s Syme, who, working on the 11th edition of the Newspeak dictionary, chillingly assures us: “It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words.” And every time you hear one of their intellectual descendants, like Daniel Dennett, dismiss “the niceties of scholastic logic” or “ingenious nitpicking about the meaning of ‘cause’” (Breaking the Spell, p. 242), think of Ingsoc, Minitrue, and “Ignorance is Strength.” For Mr. Bright, “scholastic logic” is so Oldspeak.


  1. Double plus good words about double ungood modern philtinkering.

  2. Nice post. Reading your blog has reminded me of my long-time interest in Mortimer Adler--though I confess that as a busy general studies college teacher I have lacked the motivation to spend much time in the actual writings of Aristotle and Aquinas.

    From Adler's first autobiography:

    "All of the philosophical puzzles, paradoxes and pseudo problems that linguistic or analytical philosophy and therapeutic positivism have focussed their attention on in this century, and have tried to eliminate by inventing philosophical devices designed for that purpose, would never have arisen in the first place if the little errors in the beginning, made by Locke and Hume, had not gone unnoticed, but had been explicitly rejected"

    Modern philosophy has never recovered from its false start. Like men floundering in quicksand who compound their difficulties by struggling to extricate themselves, Kant and his successors have multiplied the difficulties and perplexities of modern philosophy by the very strenuousness—and even ingenuity—of their efforts to extricate themselves from the muddle left in their path by Descartes, Lock and Hume. To make a fresh start, it is only necessary to open the great philosophical books of the past (especially those written by Aristotle and in his tradition) and to read them with the effort of understanding that they deserve. The recovery of basic truths, long hidden from view, would eradicate errors that have had such disastrous consequences in modern times."

    Mortimer Adler, Mortimer Adler: Philosopher at Large (New York: Macmillan, 1977), 303-304).