It’s Curious How Many People Want to Use 19th Century Philosophy

G.K. Chesterton once observed:

The best reason for a revival of philosophy is that unless a man has a philosophy certain horrible things will happen to him. He will be practical; he will be progressive; he will cultivate efficiency; he will trust in evolution; he will do the work that lies nearest; he will devote himself to deeds, not words. Thus struck down by blow after blow of blind stupidity and random fate,
he will stagger on to a miserable death with no comfort but a series of catchwords; such as those which I have catalogued above. Those things are simply substitutes for thoughts. In some cases they are the tags and tail-ends of somebody else’s thinking. That means that a man who refuses to have his own philosophy will not even have the advantages of a brute beast, and be left to his own instincts. He will only have the used-up scraps of somebody else’s philosophy; which the beasts do not have to inherit; hence their happiness.

I’ve noticed a surprising number of people who seem to want to pretend that we are in the 19th century so that they can apply 19th century philosophy, unmodified. The real problem with that is not the 19th century philosophy part, per se (though there was a notably large amount of bad philosophy in the 19th century), but the unmodified part. This is directly related to what Chesterton said above, that a person who will not do philosophy for himself will end up with the used-up scraps of somebody else’s philosophy.

A lot of people who have never done any philosophy for themselves think that doing philosophy for oneself entails being original. This is the opposite of the truth. To truly study philosophy has, as its only legitimate goal, to be entirely unoriginal. At least in content. A philosopher may be forced by circumstances to be original in expression, though the true philosopher will usually try to avoid that whenever he can.

If a man is a philosopher, that is, if he is a lover of wisdom (philos = love, sophia = wisdom), his entire goal is to come to understand what is; that is, he conforms his mind to what pre-exists him. God understands what he creates, so the wisdom of God is creative; man loves what he did not create, so the wisdom of man is purely receptive.

Philos, though, is not any old kind of love—it is the love of friends. This has something of a dual meaning when it comes to philosophy: a man seeks to be a friend of Wisdom, but also to be the friend of other men who love wisdom. As such, the true philosopher will read other philosophers to see what his friends can tell him about what they both love. This is not harmed by the minor detail of their friend having died after writing, not even by them having died twenty four hundred years ago. But as with all true friends, their goal is not a meeting of the ears, but a meeting of the minds. That is, they want to understand the whole truth in what their friends have written, not merely to pick up a few bits and pieces of it.

Every man, by using language, communicates by using the things around him, because they are the things to which the symbols called words point. When we read things written by people long dead, to understand the contents we must know to what the words pointed when they were used, so that we can see the relationships between the things the words pointed at. When the world changes, the words no longer point to the same things, so we cannot read the words today the same way they were written. More importantly, though, things themselves change. A horse is replaced by a horseless carriage. Telegrams are replaced by telephones. Sometimes the relationships persist, sometimes they do not. This is inconvenient. It takes work to be able to separate the relationships between things from the things themselves, that is, to separate the idea contained within the expression from the expression. And here we come to the title of this post, because human beings are lazy.

It is work to read someone carefully and to separate the ideas from the expressions. It is far less work to pretend that the world has not changed, and so there is no separation required. Since we live in a profoundly lazy time, we see a great deal of people trying to pretend this very thing. It is much easier to pretend that people are still forced by grinding poverty (caused, everyone now forgets, by the collapse of the price of food grown on farms) to take the few jobs available in factories which routinely kill and main the workers, who are quickly replaced because of the legions of unemployed fleeing unprofitable farms. If one does that, then one can take a whole host of 19th century writers and apply their writings unmodified. (This does extend into the early 1900s, btw.)

Why don’t people do this with, say, medieval philosophers, or ancient Greek philosophers, or Chinese philosophers? I think that there are two main answers:

  1. The further back in time one goes, the harder it is to pretend that nothing has changed.
  2. The further back in time one goes, the less familiar is the expression of the philosophy.

I don’t mean to suggest that people have actually read Das Kapital, or even that they routinely quote Karl Marx. Far more common is for the process to be iterative, where people much closer in time to Marx rephrase his ideas, often updating the terminology but not otherwise changing the expression, and these again get rephrased a few decades later, and so on, so that what people get is a modern phrasing of the antiquated expression. Along the way, they may easily get updated to things which no longer had the original relationships. People who are starved for ideas because they don’t do much thinking may be very tempted to not care, because starving people are not picky.

This explains rather a great deal of modern discourse.

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