Thomas Harper is one of the great forgotten Neo-Scholastic writers of the nineteenth century. I discussed his wonderful little book The Immaculate Conception in a blog post . He is especially notable for his unusually rigorous and thorough treatment of abstract topics in metaphysics, in works such as the massive three-volume The Metaphysics of the School. Harper will sometimes interrupt a sustained exercise in abstract reasoning with a non-technical aside, as he does in the course of discussing the metaphysics of truth in Volume I. He there offers (at pp. 461-466) a commentary on Francis Bacon’s “idols of the mind” which is even more relevant now than it was in Harper’s day.
The idols of the mind are four persistent sources of error which Bacon took to stand in the way of intellectual progress. He discusses them in The New Organon and labels them the idols of the tribe, the idols of the cave, the idols of the marketplace, and the idols of the theatre. The idols of the tribe are biases resulting from the limits of human nature, such as our tendency to be fooled by the surface appearances of things. The idols of the cave are biases deriving from an individual’s temperament, experiences, education, etc. The idols of the marketplace are biases stemming from the habitual ways of describing and conceptualizing things that we pick up from our social context. The idols of the theatre are biases deriving from unexamined philosophical assumptions. Harper elaborates on each of these, especially the second and third, in illuminating ways.
Idols of the tribe and the theatre
It is somewhat ironic that an unreconstructed Scholastic like Harper should treat Bacon’s account in a sympathetic way, given that the Scholasticism of Bacon’s own day was one of Bacon’s targets. But then, it is typical of a good Scholastic to look for whatever truth there is to be found in a view, and Bacon’s general points are well taken even if one can disagree with his application of them to certain specific cases.
As I discussed in But Harper does not discuss this issue. In his own treatment of the errors deriving from the limits of human nature, he emphasizes instead the Aristotelian theme that though the human intellect can arrive at knowledge of universal natures, it must (unlike angelic intellects, which are entirely separated from matter) abstract them from particulars known through the sense organs. This opens the door to all the sorts of intellectual mistakes that might result from the incompleteness and admixture of error to which perceptual knowledge is prone (even if the Aristotelian will not agree with early modern proponents of the primary versus secondary quality distinction about the specific ways in which perception can lead us into error)., in their own elaboration on the idols of the tribe, Bacon and his early modern successors took what a Scholastic is bound to regard as an excessively skeptical view of the deliverances of perceptual experience.
In his treatment of the idols of the theatre, Harper identifies idealism and materialism as the two main philosophical errors to which thinkers in the nineteenth century were prone. Naturally, your mileage may vary, but Harper (like yours truly) is looking at things from an Aristotelian-Scholastic point of view. And from that point of view, as Harper points out, idealism tends to overemphasize the abstract and speculative and materialism tends to overemphasize the concrete and practical. The metaphysical implications of each tendency are, of course, that idealism absorbs all reality up into mind and materialism drags all reality down into matter.
I would submit that postmodernism and scientism in their various guises are the contemporary heirs to the two tendencies Harper identifies, and degenerate heirs at that. Postmodernist views essentially absorb all reality into the contingent cultural and linguistic products of the human mind, specifically – a far cry from, say, the Absolute Spirit of Hegel. And the scientism of contemporary celebrity scientists and New Atheist types is, as I have chronicled on this blog over the years, philosophically so shallow that it makes even look sophisticated by comparison.
Anyway, Harper does not say more about the idols of the tribe and those of the theatre – which are, respectively, the most concrete and most abstract of the sources of error. His focus is on the other two, middle ground, idols.
Idols of the cave
Of the idols that reflect individual temperament and formation, Harper identifies two as of special interest. The first he labels with the wonderful old-fashioned and forgotten term The viewy personality type is that of someone overly impressed with an idea because it is original, bold, or paradoxical, even if it is half-baked at best. Such a person is intellectually lazy and superficial, unwilling to examine the idea critically and rigorously and to consider how it might need to be refined or even faces serious difficulties. The fanciful idea instead becomes the lens through which everything is viewed. As Harper writes, such people “do not master their idea; the idea masters them” (p. 462). The “viewy” sort of thinker, Harper says, is inevitably interesting but also unsafe as a guide.
When one considers currently fashionable claims to the effect that there are dozens of “genders,” that the police should be “defunded,” that “white supremacy” lurks under every bed and around every corner, and other harebrained ideas light on evidence or argumentation but put forward with maximum dogmatism and shrill intolerance, it is evident that “viewiness” has in recent years reached pandemic proportions.
The other idol of the cave discussed by Harper represents an extreme opposite from that of viewiness. It is associated with the personality type who is immersed in minutiae, endlessly cataloguing a variety of particular facts but unwilling to rise to a unifying systematic view of the whole. Those familiar with the history of philosophy during the last century or so will recognize “viewiness” to be the occupational hazard of continental philosophy (which is the ultimate source of so many of the bad ideas associated with the “Critical Social Justice” movement). And they will recognize the inability to rise above minutiae to be the occupational hazard of analytic philosophy.
(This is, of course, an oversimplification. Continental philosophy is the source of many deep insights about particular phenomena closely observed – for example, Husserl on perception and Merleau-Ponty on embodiment. And analytic philosophers can be guilty of viewiness, the philosophical naturalism uncritically assumed by so many of them being the prime example. But then, I am not saying that all continental or analytic philosophers are actually guilty of the sins in question. The point is merely to note errors to which each approach is prone if one is not careful.)
Idols of the marketplace
It is the sources of error deriving from the manner in which ideas are propagated in the public square that Harper has the most to say about. He identifies no less than seven distinct varieties. The first he calls “passivity of thought,” which is the tendency to treat mass media (newspapers, pamphlets, and the like being the examples he had in mind) as consumer goods that one might choose to serve as the providers of one’s stock of information and range of possible opinions. To use a modern term for what Harper has in mind, the consumer essentially “outsources” his thinking and thereby becomes prey to whatever sophistry or partisanship determines the content of his favored source of ideas. The contemporary relevance is obvious. The far greater diversity today of types of mass media, and the rise of social media, have made it even easier now than it was in Harper’s day for people to confine themselves to echo chambers (or indeed to sub-chambers within echo chambers) of either a left-wing or right-wing kind.
The second source of error is what Harper calls “the critical temper.” This is the kind of mentality that is reflexively hostile to the inheritance of the past. As Harper points out, this mindset has infected Western thought since the rise of early modern philosophy, and it has permeated our culture much more deeply in the near century-and-a-half since he wrote. It is evident in the Marxian and Foucauldian “hermeneutics of suspicion,” in popular culture’s relentless celebration of the rebel and the innovator, in moronic slogans like “think different,” and in the kneejerk tendency to dismiss traditional moral attitudes as mere “bigotry” or otherwise to presume them guilty until proven innocent. (The correct attitude, as every Aristotelian natural law theorist and Burkean conservative knows, is to presume them innocent until proven guilty. Notice that, contrary to a common caricature, that does not entail that they never are guilty. The issue has to do with where the burden of proof lies.)
The third modern idol of the marketplace identified by Harper is what he calls the “unreality of thought.” What he has in mind is an attitude that makes of intellectual life a kind of mental onanism, where things are puzzled over simply for the sake of doing so, rather than for the sake of discovering reality. As Harper writes, with thinkers of this mindset, “in their judgment, all the value is in the search; not in the discovery” (p. 464). This is echoed in the stupid contemporary slogan “It’s the journey that matters, not the destination.” In fact, of course, the search or journey is literally pointless without a destination. And as Harper notes, this mentality tends to blind one to the reality, or at least the knowability, of truth. (I would suggest that the prevalence of this attitude toward the life of the mind is one of the many incoherencies to which the modern neglect of final causality has led us. For the intellect has a natural end no less than our other faculties do, and it is precisely the attainment of truth.)
A fourth and related source of error is the neglect of what Harper calls “the responsibility of thought.” Here he is thinking of the presumption that everyone is morally at liberty to express whatever views he wants to, no matter how poorly thought out and potentially damaging to society. It is the attitude of demanding the right to expression without recognizing the duties that go along with rights – in this case, the duty carefully to think through the implications and defensibility of one’s opinions before giving expression to them.
Note that the problem here is distinct from, even if related to, the question of how extensive the legal right to express one’s views ought to be. Naturally, the idea of putting limitations on that right raises problems that I am not addressing here. The point is that, even someone who favors a nearly unrestricted legal right to free speech ought to see the reality of the problem Harper is calling attention to. Favoring free expression without concerning oneself about the quality of what is expressed makes no more sense than favoring eating without concerning oneself about the quality of the food eaten. The exchange of ideas, like the consumption of food, has a teleology that determines its proper use.
A fifth idol of the marketplace is “literary venality.” Here Harper has in mind the tendency for writers and thinkers to be guided by considerations of commercial gain or partisan advantage rather than the disinterested pursuit of truth. This is, of course, just old fashioned sophistry, which is a potential problem in any society and for any political persuasion. But , it is something to which democracies are especially prone.
The sixth of the idols falling into the present category, says Harper, is “aversion… [to] the abstract and difficult.” This is the attitude of the person who sees himself as practical and down-to-earth and who lacks patience for what he regards as the hair-splitting of metaphysicians. Now, some of the examples of bad thinking that I have cited so far have been left-wing. But Harper notes that in modern times, a philistine aversion to abstract and difficult reasoning stems in part from “the materialism engendered by our devotion to trade and commerce” (p. 465). Hence it has what today would widely be regarded as a “right-wing” provenance, and people strongly drawn to business and money-making do indeed often lack sufficient interest in or appreciation for abstract philosophical matters.
The seventh and last idol of the marketplace is what Harper calls “neglect of moral preparation.” In particular, it is the failure to subordinate appetite to reason, so that the latter does not become the servant of the former. This is perhaps Harper’s most important insight, even though – or rather, I should say, precisely because – it is the one to which contemporary readers are bound to be most resistant. From Plato and Aristotle to Augustine and Aquinas, ancient and medieval thinkers knew that excessive love of pleasure is corrosive of rationality. They would agree with Harper’s judgement that “it is impossible for a man who is the slave of his passions to be a true philosopher” (p. 465).
That even the mildest disagreement with the ever more expansive agenda of the sexual revolution is now routinely met, not with dispassionate argumentation, but instead with shrill denunciation and threats, only proves the point. Nor is it only extreme sexual perversion that has clouded our society’s collective reason. From the expansion of drug legalization, to the non-stop absorption in entertainments of various kinds, to the imbecilic “foodie” phenomenon, our culture is now thoroughly “sensate” in Pitirim Sorokin’s sense. Hence, vast swaths of intellectual life have been marshalled to serve as a kind of apologetics for vice, the concocting of ever more absurd rationalizations for the indulgence of disordered passion.
The lowest of the appetites now have, as it were, their fetish boot on the neck of the intellect. As Harper prophesied: “When the eye of the understanding is clouded over with the film of irregular desires; then false philosophies are most hopeful of triumph” (p. 466).