Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Francks on Scholasticism

For you Last Superstition readers eager for further exploration of the superficiality of modern thinkers’ criticisms of the Aristotelian-Scholastic tradition, here are some words to ponder from Richard Francks’ excellent book Modern Philosophy: The Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries:

“Nowadays people tend to respond to arguments like [Berkeley’s] by deferring to higher authority. The Primary/Secondary argument is particularly good for this. I can’t imagine what it means to say that an atom has shape and size but no color, or that it has no properties that are expressible in sensory terms. I can’t understand what it means to say that a particle can also be a wave. … Yet we don’t regard these things as nonsense, but as fact – even though they are inconceivable to us. We take it on trust that some people can understand them – just as many people in Berkeley’s day took it on trust that some people had a clear understanding of Substantial Forms, Intelligible Species, and Haecceity. Philosophers like Locke were concerned to liberate us from the intellectual and political powers of such obscurantism. They thought it was psychologically and politically dangerous to give power and authority to people who were unable to make their ideas intelligible to the people who give them that power and authority. Nowadays we seem not to agree.” (p. 213)

“Look at the following three sets of terms and ask yourself which ones you think are mere meaningless verbiage, incapable of being given a clear sense, and which are genuinely meaningful terms. And ask yourself also how you know the difference.

1 Substantial Form, Haecceity, Quiddity (Scholastics, as mocked by [early modern] philosophers)

2 Matter, Cause, and the Self (seventeenth-century science and current common sense, as attacked by Berkeley – in part – and by Hume)

3 Black hole, non-individuality, strangeness (present-day scholasticism, or hard science?)” (p. 184)

Discuss (while I continue to convalesce from my wife’s C-section).

OK, I’d better say at least this much, lest some unsympathetic reader get the wrong idea: The point is neither to denigrate science nor to commend obscurantism. The point is rather to remind those who are quick to swallow the caricatures of Scholasticism peddled by the likes of Bacon, Hobbes, Descartes, Locke, Hume, et al. that the “reasons” they think they have for doing so could, if they were good ones, be used to justify a similarly glib dismissal of modern science. If we should avoid the latter dismissal – as, of course, we should – so too should we avoid the former.


  1. I would be interested in reading where, specifically, Locke and perhaps other Moderns say that the metaphysical ideas of substantial form, intelligible species, and haecceity were being used as tools of political oppression by the authorities of their day. Did Locke see a need to subvert scholastic metaphysics because its ideas served as the foundation for a whole political system that he ultimately wanted to see changed? Might he have thought that, by striking a blow against scholastic metaphysics, he was indirectly discrediting politically the ecclesiastical authorities who were associated with those ideas? Or would Locke have described himself as Chomsky describes himself: his philosophical and political projects are pretty much independent? My first inclination is to side with this last possibility, but given how little I've read of Locke, I'd be happy to be proved wrong in light of a text where he draws an explicit connection between his anti-scholastic metaphysical work and his pro-liberal political work.

    Separately, a good explanation of why subatomic particles, though material, are colorless (presented just for the science, and not to say anything about Francks' point):

    And congratulations.

  2. Ricky 'The Hitman' HattonJune 2, 2009 at 2:52 PM

    "Separately, a good explanation of why subatomic particles, though material, are colorless (presented just for the science, and not to say anything about Francks' point)"

    I think this might be missing the point.
    An explanation might be given why subatomic particles have such and such charateristics. A photon might have an explanation that describes its behavior.
    But these are not obtain by direct observation. We take these conclusion because of the authority placed on the scientists who relay the information.

    Based off of our day to day experiences and our common sensical approach to reality these findings would certainly be considered counter-intuitive.

    And even for the sake of the scientists who discover these hidden realities - there is no direct observation, but only secondary effect.
    And their findings, their understanding of the hidden realities are based upon other theories that are assumed to be correct.
    With a Popperian approach we can't know the those more fundamental theories are true.... only that they haven't been shown to be false (yet).

    So, the grounding is still somewhat obscure and certainly tenuous.