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Chapter I -- 9

Let us look briefly at the evolution of philosophical anthropology (or philosophical psychology) and ethics in the Anglo-American tradition. We are most interested in English Utilitarianism and its offshoots.

Let us start in the High Middle Ages. Before the Twelfth Century, two works of Aristotle were known in the West, both of them logical works. They were studied in great detail. In the Twelfth Century, almost all of Aristotle’s works were translated into Latin, in some cases from the Arabic; by the middle of the Thirteenth Century, new translations from the Greek had been made. These included Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. However, while Aristotle’s On the Soul was studied quite intensively, until the Fifteenth Century the Nicomachean Ethics played a distinctly secondary role in the curricula of the newly-founded great universities of the West.

What we can infer from this is that until St Thomas Aquinas’ (1225–1274) assimilation of Aristotle’s ethics into his theological system, philosophical ethics was not an important matter in the mediæval faculties of Arts and Theology. We believe that this was due to the theological and Christian orientation of the universities: philosophical ethics did not seem to the masters of the Middle Ages to offer much.

We can also assert that characteristic of mediæval Scholastic philosophy was a very intense concentration on logic and applied logic. The reader can get a sense of the intellectual preparation of the mediæval Scholastic in logic and applied logic by considering the preparation that a student receives today in mathematics and applied mathematics at M.I.T., that great university of the application of mathematics to engineering. The level of instruction is about the same in both cases. However, given that the student entered the University of Paris at the age of about fourteen and studied twenty years for his doctorate, it might even be said that his preparation was even more intense than what a student receives today at M.I.T.

The intellectual culture of the mediæval Scholastic was intensely analytical and logical; discussions among philosophers and, above all, theologians, took place among men who shared this very intense intellectual preparation and culture in logic and applied logic, just as, today, discussions among scientists in physics, say, take place among men of very intense intellectual preparation and culture in mathematics and applied mathematics. Moreover, given the very young age of entry and the continuous preparation over many years of the mediæval student, it is reasonable to suppose that this intellectual culture was very deeply embedded in the psyche of the student, even more than today would be the case with a physicist of the first rank. That is why we find mediæval theologians producing and defending complete systems even while dying at an early age: their very intense preparation enabled them to do mature work very early. It is also why we find a great agreement on fundamentals among mediæval theologians and philosophers.

It is worth remarking that it is very difficult to ‘resuscitate’ such an intellectual culture once it has died out: what is resuscitated is the system that interests one, not the intellectual culture. That is what happened with Scholasticism: what remains is a system, notably, in the Roman Catholic Church, Thomism, but without the same level of intellectual preparation in logic and applied logic and without the same universality and intensity of intellectual culture. It is as if modern science were to die out one day as a living force, and the world were to lose the concentration on mathematics and applied mathematics that exists today in the hard sciences in the great universities of the West—say, in favour of mysticism. Then after a time, some men, perhaps, would want to resuscitate the science of the Twentieth Century, one saying that he is a follower of quantum mechanics, another saying that he is a follower of the general theory of relativity, all the while in a social milieu completely divorced from the intellectual preparation and intellectual culture in mathematics and applied mathematics of the Twentieth Century that engendered quantum mechanics and the general theory of relativity. These men might study mathematics as best they could—and in cases of genius, they might even make significant contributions—, but it would not be the same: the science of the Twentieth Century would have died out as a cultural reality.

The next thing that we can assert is that, although prior to the Twelfth Century very little of Aristotle was known in the West and although the dominant model of man was based on a Neoplatonic conception having its origin in the works of St Augustine, the assimilation of Aristotelian philosophy in the subsequent centuries led to the manipulation of Aristotelian concepts with the logical tools to which we have just referred. This is true even in cases where the theologian or philosopher continued to follow the older Augustinian tradition: the reception into Roman Catholicism of Aristotelian philosophy marked Roman Catholic theology and philosophy indelibly. This surely gave a certain cast to the intellectual culture of the High Middle Ages even apart from the matter of the intense concentration on logic and applied logic. One can say with confidence that it is these two factors, Aristotelian concepts and intense preparation in logic, which give St Thomas Aquinas’ system its colour and intellectual style. One aspect of this assimilation of Aristotle is the relatively uncritical and accepting attitude that was shown to Aristotle. Certainly the reception of Aristotle was not without its opponents, but among Aristotle’s adherents, Aristotle ‘could do no wrong’—even, as in St Thomas’ case, when a certain critical spirit was applied to him in the light of Roman Catholic dogma. One does not see this attitude in the East, among people who continued to read Aristotle in the original. There, one had a more flexible attitude. This is an aspect of what we have already remarked: the impossibility of resuscitating an intellectual culture over and above a system. Aristotle was received into the Western universities as a system not as an intellectual culture; his works were embedded as system into a different intellectual culture. The East maintained far more continuity, at least until the fall of Constantinople, with the intellectual culture of Ancient Greece and could therefore treat Aristotle with a more critical and discerning eye.

The third aspect of the culture of the period is that it was an intensely Christian and Roman Catholic culture. For us in discussing the evolution of psychology and ethics in the Anglo-American philosophical tradition, the significance of this is that for the mediæval Scholastic, God exists; angels exist; intelligible things exist;[1] the conception of man is fundamentally Christian and, it goes to say, Roman Catholic. Moreover, religion is not merely a formal institution to which men pay lip-service: many of the great thinkers of the Middle Ages were men who willingly entered religious orders or otherwise served their church. They believed. They took their salvation seriously. This is not to say that they all were saints incapable of folly; it is to say that they were sincere Christians and Roman Catholics. Hence, for the most part, logic and applied logic and Aristotelian concepts were applied to Christian things, and as understood by the Roman Catholic Church.

This culture died in the Fifteenth Century. Why is beyond the scope of this work.

It is well worth remarking on one thing, however: Although modern science arose in severe reaction against the values of the High Middle Ages, including the intellectual culture that we have just sketched above, it itself is a phenomenon of the West. By this we mean that modern science is a product of the West, that very West that went through those High Middle Ages with that very intellectual culture that modern science has rejected so vehemently. Even in those parts of the world where modern science is done that are not parts of the West, modern science is done today in a derivative manner that depends on the intellectual leadership of the West.[2] That leads us to pose this question: could modern science have developed in the West had the West not gone through the High Middle Ages? We think not. Without wishing to develop a theory of the evolution of cultures from lower to higher, we think that the High Middle Ages prepared the West both institutionally and intellectually for the enterprise of modern science.

But let us return to the evolution of ethics and psychology in the Anglo-American tradition.

The culture of the High Middle Ages was replaced by Renaissance Humanism, with its emphasis on rhetoric instead of logic, its emphasis on the Classical use of Latin and Greek according to ancient prototypes, its emphasis on studies in rhetoric, language, law and politics as a preparation for public service. It is in this milieu, curiously enough, that Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics was studied with great interest. Needless to say, it is also in this cultural context that the Protestant Reformation, to a large extent a reaction against the intellectual culture of the High Middle Ages, came to be born. A key figure was Erasmus (c.1469–1536). He did much to discredit the intellectual culture of the High Middle Ages, not so much with his argumentation as with his ridicule. However, the great fame to which he attained in his own lifetime indicates that this ridicule mirrored widespread dissatisfaction with the status quo.

It is also in this context that the Enlightenment came to be born.

What interests us here, and we are not historians of ideas, is the rejection in the Enlightenment of those characteristics of the High Middle Ages that we have indicated above: the emphasis on logic and applied logic, the Aristotelian philosophy, the Christian and Roman Catholic intellectual, moral and spiritual culture: the Enlightenment rejected these.

Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), contemporary and interlocutor of Galileo Galelei (1564–1642), witness of the Commonwealth in England (1649–1660), refugee in France (1640–1651), marks a transition from the High Middle Ages. Having rejected the Aristotelianism that he studied at Oxford and having encountered the mechanistic physics of Galileo, Hobbes’ program became the creation of a philosophical system based strictly on mechanical physics as he understood it, and on the logical clarity of geometry, taken to be a science of primitive motions in mechanics. His philosophy was strictly materialistic and mechanistic. His psychology followed his philosophy.

Hobbes’ account of sense-perception is, to us today, crudely mechanistic: sense-perceptions are nothing but motions; motions of an object impinging on the sense organ, motions within the sense organ, motions that are transmitted to the brain and heart, motions in the brain and heart. Hobbes applies Galileo’s physics in a direct way to explain various aspects of human psychology such as memory and imagination. Given his strictly materialistic and mechanistic psychology, Hobbes was led to deny freedom of the will, treating it merely as a freedom from external constraint, for what a man desires, and hence wills to do, is mechanically determined by the motions within him. Pleasure and pain are described within the same mechanistic framework; pleasure and pain are intimately related to appetite and aversion, which are themselves very closely related to love and hate. Social life is based on these ‘passions’ or motivations; it is inherently selfish and self-aggrandizing: the rational constraints necessary for the peace and security of the individual give rise to the social contract for the overriding authority of the state.

John Locke (1632–1704) can be considered to be the first British empiricist. He resolutely based all human knowledge on experience, directly refuting the innate ideas of Descartes (1596–1650). Beyond this, however, he was also a rationalist with a sense of the existence of mind. In general, his psychology was based on these two aspects of his philosophy. He rejected freedom of the will.

Although the Enlightenment put human reason first, this must be understood in the sense of the rejection of revealed truth: the merest perusal of David Hume indicates that he has nothing to do with the logic and applied logic of the High Middle Ages. Characteristic is Hume’s assertion that he wishes to follow in philosophy Newton’s methods in physics. What this seems to entail is an emphasis on sensible phenomena, which were to be handled by Newton’s experimental method and by the restriction of hypotheses to the empirically verifiable.

Moreover, it is clear in Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding that by his time there has occurred a thoroughgoing rejection of the intellectual culture of the High Middle Ages: we see Hume’s insistence in his theory of cognition on the crucial role of sense-perception, and his consequently rather forced treatment of concept formation, in this light; in this, he seems to us to be reacting vehemently against both the Aristotelian and Christian or Roman Catholic intellectual culture of his time, a remnant of the intellectual culture of the High Middle Ages. What he puts in its place is a rather impoverished theory of cognition based on sense-perception. Kant, a child of Hume, recognizing the weakness of Hume’s theory, will come to introduce his innate mental categories as a corrective.

But what must interest us is that Hume did much the same thing in ethics that he did in his theory of cognition: he rejected the past and put a weak theory in its place. His ethics is based on sympathy—feeling or emotion might be a better description—and on the customary behaviour of mankind.

Let us look at Hume’s philosophy in a little more detail.

Hume based his theory of cognition on ‘impressions’ and ‘ideas’. Impressions were sense-perceptions, passions (e.g. a pain) or emotions. Ideas were copies of impressions recalled or imagined in the mind. However, Hume then rejected the existence of mind.

One basic proposition of Hume was that every simple idea was derived from a corresponding impression. This, of course, had the effect of limiting human mental life to that which can be derived from sense-perceptions, passions and emotions. This involved the formulation of an early form of the ‘verification principle’ of logical positivism: if an utterance could not be analysed into ultimate constituents referring to impressions, then the utterance was to be taken to be meaningless. To deal with abstract concepts, Hume invoked a doctrine of the association of ideas: ideas whose impressions were alike, or contiguous in space or time became associated in the mind. One consequence of this approach was to treat ‘mind’ as a ‘bundle’ of mental images of sense-perceptions, passions or emotions: that is, our introspective apprehension of our mind—our apprehension of our own consciousness—is merely of a bundle of impressions and ideas. This is curiously close to the position of Theravada Buddhism.

In ethics, Hume took the position that when we make a moral judgement about a character trait or an act of another person, our judgement is a matter of our feelings of pleasure or displeasure, approval or disapproval, endorsement or revulsion, and not a matter of our reason:

Hume’s theory of morals may be considered under three heads: his contention that reason alone cannot decide moral questions, his contention that a “moral sentiment” decides such questions, and his contention that the moral sentiment is actuated only by what is either pleasant or useful. In the first two contentions can be seen the beginnings of modern subjectivism… In the third can be seen one of the origins of the utilitarianism of Bentham and Mill.[3]

Hume did have a notion of the universalizability of moral judgements, but placed this in the context of his theory that moral judgements were based on the ‘moral sentiment’. Our own remark is this: to what extent can a serious theory of morals be based on feelings of approval or disapproval, even extended by appeals to feelings of sympathy or by appeals to utility? That this is a serious issue can be seen from Hume’s handling of justice. Evidently rejecting every theory of natural law, he treated justice as an artificial human construct, useful to men for the preservation of private property. We see here a tendency which increased in the later philosophy of this school: when objective criteria such as natural law or the commandments of God are discarded in a theory of ethics, there then arises a tendency to derive ethics either from subjective human considerations or from utilitarian considerations—which is precisely what Hume’s theory of justice does.

Hume’s political philosophy was generally contractual and utilitarian, although he himself was a conservative.

Clearly, Hume also rejected the survival of the soul after death. His approach to religion, moreover, is to a natural religion not based on revelation.

It is well to turn here to the last sentence of what St Macrina has said in the last passage of On the Soul and the Resurrection that we quoted: ‘For him [i.e. Epicurus] the limit of the nature of existent things was the phenomenon, and he made the measure of the comprehension of everything, sense.’

What St Macrina is saying is that for Epicurus, only the phenomenon existed—here ‘phenomenon’ has the meaning ‘sensible phenomenon’—, and man’s only possibility of comprehension was through the senses. Precisely the positions that one can discern in Hume and in his descendants. At the very least, the reader must grasp that Christians of the Fourth Century had a much broader idea of what existed: although they did not share in the intellectual culture of the Western High Middle Ages, they were much closer to it in their basic presuppositions and understandings of life than they were either to Epicurus or to Hume between whom we can see such a striking correspondence.

Hume set the stage for the evolution of ethics in the Anglo-American tradition. For Hume’s basic anthropology—what we have indicated above—remained untouched. One’s anthropology or psychology necessarily forms the presupposition of one’s ethics: if one believes that one knows only from sense-perception, and that abstract concepts are somehow formed strictly by the association of the mental images of sense-perceptions, passions and emotions recalled in a mind which ultimately does not exist, as we find in Hume, then one is not going to have much to build on in a theory of ethics. Moreover, if one believes, to use St Gregory of Nyssa’s earlier phrase, that ‘the present life is considered to be the delimitation of being and nothing more is hoped for after this life’, then one is left, as Hume was, with sympathy and the customary behaviour of mankind as a basis for one’s moral philosophy.

Let us make a remark here about Kant, although he cannot really be considered to be in the Anglo-American tradition. Two aspects of Kant’s ethics interest us here: his attempt to found his ethics solely on reason, and his emphasis on the person as an individual agent who must ground his deontological obligation on a universal principle. Both these aspects seem to us to say something important about the evolution of philosophical psychology in the West: the person is treated in Kant as an atom, let us say, an atom unconnected to other atoms except through the requirements of a right reason: by reason, I, an agent or end, come to respect the other atom, or person, as agent or end. We are struck by both the rationalism and the individualism implied by this approach. The unit or perspective of analysis is very much the isolated, autonomous individual whose point of reference is abstract reason. This certainly marks a change from the sociology of the High Middle Ages, where a person was seen to exist in a network of reciprocal social roles and obligations ruled over by a church founded by divine revelation.

We cannot say that Kant invented this individualistic point of view; it is implicit already in the Hobbesian ‘social contract’, itself derived from the logical procedure of making the individual prior to society. As an empirical proposition, this does not seem to have any support from observational sociology or observational social anthropology; but as a method, or even as a myth, it clearly places the individual first, and prior to society.

Today, in ethics in the West, individualism is very strong indeed. It has evolved to what one writer has called a ‘liberal contractualism’: ‘A liberal contractualism is very much part of our ethical life in the post-modern West, whether we acknowledge it or not.’[4] Persons who contract are autonomous agents with their own self-interests. ‘Liberal’ here has the meaning ‘free’. This ‘liberal contractualism’ is very similar to the Epicureanism that we discussed earlier.

However, in the West today, rationalism is no longer a significant factor in ethics.

The Nineteenth Century British Utilitarians went a little further than Hume. They spoke socially and of an evaluation of the consequences of a moral act as opposed to an evaluation of the disposition of the agent; they discussed a rational calculus, or method of calculation, of the greatest happiness for the greatest number, where happiness was intrinsically defined in terms of pleasure. Now today there are variations in Utilitarianism: some versions of Utilitarianism are oriented to happiness; some to economic gain; some to pleasure. But Utilitarians retain the anthropology, at least in its broad outlines, that they inherited from the English Enlightenment: one can rationally calculate the greatest good for the greatest number of men, men seen through the prism of the anthropology and the limitation of human life to life in this flesh that we have discussed above in reference to Hume.

The logical positivists took things to their logical conclusion. They rejected talk about God and ethics as mere emotion. As a practical matter, their ethics is libertarian—one does whatever one likes—and consequentialist (i.e. broadly utilitarian): one does whatever one likes so long as one does not harm himself or others, and in social policy one tries to help the greatest number to have the basic presuppositions of a decent life. The anthropology of the logical positivists is certainly in the mould that we have been discussing.

The analytic philosophers, associated with the work of such men as Gilbert Ryle (1900–1976) and the later Wittgenstein, turned to the logical analysis of concepts used in ordinary discourse. Their work has born much fruit in the clarification of certain concepts and is not lacking in subtlety; however, as a philosophical school, it is in the Anglo-American empiricist tradition, and its adherents work on the basis of the assumptions of that tradition about man, religion and the world, assumptions which for the most part seem to be unspoken and unacknowledged, unrealized and not reflected upon.

If we combine the autonomous individualism that arose in the Enlightenment with the consequentialism of the Utilitarians and the tendency of the Twentieth Century positivists to dismiss talk about God and ethics as emotion, what is the result?

The result is that in the West we have come full circle: we have returned to the Epicureanism that St Macrina discusses in a conversation that took place in the Fourth Century.

Now, how does St Macrina respond to this?

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[1] In the way Aristotle said they did, of course, unless someone, such as St John Duns Scotus (c.1266–1308) or William of Ockham (c.1285–1349), were disposed to disagree.

[2] Of course, this remark treats the United States as a child of the European culture that went through the High Middle Ages.

[3] D. G. C. MacNabb, ‘David Hume’, The Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Encyclopedia Vol. 4, p. 85). We have made use of material from this article in our presentation of Hume’s philosophy.

[4] David Wong in ‘Relativism’, Singer p. 448.


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