Or, as I can now say for the first time in my life: “Look, mom! I won first prize!”
How Any Idiot Can Memorize The Entire History of Philosophy, 30 minute video by Dr. Paul Maxwell
This video is a gem. I am writing this post more because it helps me to gather my thoughts than I am to communicate with you – really, just watch the video. After this, at least come back and read my concluding thoughts.
Philosophy can be described on three domains: Metaphysics, Epistemology, and Axiology. It can also be divided into three eras: Pre-Modern, Modern, and Post-Modern. One need understand only these six words, and one can understand the broad sweep of philosophy. More words than fingers on one hand…so I don’t know if this is really for dummies….
Every philosophical concept falls into one of the following three domains:
Metaphysics: The study of ultimate reality; gives shape and order to the material world; its claims are either true or not. Metaphysical claims include: God exists; the soul exists; the world operates according to the laws of logic.
Epistemology: The study of knowledge; how we know what we know; built on logic and subject to logical fallacy. Epistemological claims are either true or not. The combination of logic and evidence (two kinds of epistemology) give us the scientific method. Examples include: You are being irrational; we don’t know if God exists.
Axiology: The study of values; not true / false, but measures of degree or relativity; considers aesthetics and ethics. “This painting is beautiful,” or “you should have done better” are axiological claims.
The following are three ways of relating the above three domains:
Pre-Modernism: the pre-moderns began all philosophical thought with metaphysical claims; from this, they went to epistemology – their epistemology was built on a metaphysical foundation. “How does epistemology conform to the metaphysics?” This was always key. “I am (a metaphysical claim), therefore I think (an epistemological act).”
Of the pre-moderns, the distinction between Plato and Aristotle is important and also relevant for Christianity and therefore how liberty developed in the West. Both began with metaphysics. Plato saw forms as something outside, abstract – an idea out there; the material world was less real than the ideal world – it was a shadow of the incorruptible ideal world. This ideal world he labeled as “forms.”
Aristotle argued that forms don’t exist in some separate place; they exist in the things themselves. The metaphysical world isn’t just something out there; it is in the things themselves.
Take a human being: is it an abstract idea to which humans conform (Plato), or is it an intrinsic potential that he needs to fulfill (Aristotle)? Christianity was heavily Platonic at its birth – there is an incorruptible essence out there (but not “in here”); through Augustine, Plato became the ruling architecture of Christian doctrine for a millennium.
Aristotle made his way back into the West through Aquinas; this gave Christianity both spirituality and materiality in the same place – in the same substance. At the risk of starting a food fight, one can see Plato / Augustine in the Lutheran and Calvinist; one can see Aristotle / Aquinas in the Catholic.
Modernism: Placed epistemology in the first position – before metaphysics; metaphysics is either too hard or will eventually be discovered via our knowledge. This transition is known as the Epistemic Shift; it is also commonly referred to as the Enlightenment.
Descartes (rationalism): doubt everything. Yet the act of thinking can’t be doubted, because doubt is a thought. “I think (epistemological act), therefore I am (metaphysical claim).” Hume (empiricism) removed causality, removing “is” from “ought,” thus separating ethical claims from metaphysics.
Kant (Categorical Imperative): a moral law is binding if it can be universalized. He attempted to reconcile Descartes and Hume; Kant made the distinction of the noumenal world and the phenomenal world – we can trust the sausage maker to make good sausage even if we are not allowed into the factory.
In metaphysics, the noumenon is a posited object or event that exists independently of human sense and/or perception. The term noumenon is generally used when contrasted with, or in relation to, the term phenomenon, which refers to anything that can be apprehended by or is an object of the senses.
Hegel (Rational Dialectic) came along and said Kant didn’t solve the Descartes / Hume disagreement, but made things worse. Hegel offered that we will become inevitably and unstoppably more reasonable, until one day all human beings will think the same way.
Hegel sees that the religious state is the least mature state for humans, but he believed it was the best we had during his time – it wouldn’t always stay that way. As man properly matures, he will move from religious to ethical to aesthetic (where we all think the same), via his dialectic of thesis / antithesis. This will be the path not only for the human race but also for each individual. His defenders find in him the root of Marxism (we all meld into one perspective); his detractors saw individuality was the essence of rationality.
Along came Kierkegaard: Hegel had the three acts of human life exactly backwards. Aesthetic enjoyment is the most primitive of human existence – think of the drooling infant, in his mind perfectly blissful. Then he moves to ethical, finally the religious – the most sophisticated stage. Only in this authenticity can man be reasonable and ethical.
Ultimately this modernist view (relativizing ethical principles) of the world made it impossible to universalize a conception of the good. This gave birth to…
Post-Modernism: frontloads the axiological – values; post-modernism was jolted into existence by the holocaust – considered an inevitable consequence of the Enlightenment (because we lost sight of metaphysics). Kant’s sausage maker didn’t make good sausage; the sausage maker turned out to be a Nazi (why he didn’t turn out to be a Red is another question entirely).
Two options: go back to metaphysics, giving all humans dignity by acknowledging their metaphysical value (the soul), or go to axiology – frontload one’s ethical responsibility to equity (with no metaphysical basis) to one’s neighbor and pursue global justice. The noisiest Post-Modernists have emphasized the latter.
To expand: thanks to the Moderns, we don’t have access to objective truth – this idea didn’t originate with post-modernists, but with Kant. Through an event like the holocaust, the link between the noumenal and the phenomenal was broken: once stuck in the phenomenal world with no trustworthy transcendental to mediate the noumneal world, we are stuck with subjectivity. So the task of philosophy becomes the establishment of global justice.
This is why post-modernists question objective truth – there is no trustworthy transcendental; they see such objective truth-claims as veiled attempts to gain power over another human being – trying to get others to submit. Post-Modernism is a desperate scramble to free the world from the secularist world of an unchecked Enlightenment Modernism. Our age today is not so much a Post-Modern age but an age of competing modernities.
We are struggling to find metaphysics although we don’t describe it this way; we are trying to discover metaphysics via epistemology – our knowledge. As this proves impossible, we are left with post-modern axiology – an attempt to frontload values. We are grasping for something more than materialism, but we are living in an axiological world.
How do we resolve this? Maxwell offers: have the metaphysical world reach out to you; this is what Christians have historically called “revelation.”
This helps shed some light for me on the current discussion of the IDW – more specifically, of Jordan Peterson and why he has struck a nerve in some and a chord in others. His fight is against post-modernists who are placing values at the forefront, whereas Jordan Peterson (who, while he won’t admit it, is also post-modern given my above understanding) wants to place metaphysics in a stronger (but not yet, it seems, leading) position.
To place metaphysics at the front gets in the way of the moderns and Enlightenment – and Peterson is trying to use epistemology (knowledge) to develop his metaphysics; at the same time, he doesn’t want to abandon Enlightenment. But we have been down that road already. His fight is against the Enlightenment just as much as it is for the post-modernists against which he is fighting. Peterson is doing so through metaphysics, the post-modernists he fights against do so through values.
I have asked before – and today I understand the reason for my question for Peterson even better than I did when I wrote it: what is required to be reintroduced that the Enlightenment destroyed?
The answer will not be found via epistemology – aka man’s knowledge. It will be found in metaphysics. And if Maxwell is right (as I believe he is), then this will be discovered only by accepting revelation – finding God from the top down, not from the bottom up.
Hence my view that for liberty to increase, Christian churches must take a proper (meaning Christ-like) role – as opposed to the role many of them take today.