Toward a Theory of Intellectual History

To me, the history of thought has always appeared as a chaotic pendulum. It constantly swings back and forth, attempting with each swing to correct its previous one. The mechanisms that guide its swings do not appear particularly rational, in fact, they seem to evade any possibility of rational conclusion; a logical midway between bouts of self-correction.

At the core of these wild swings which ensure a systematic aversion to conclusion are “fashionable trends” in thought. I have come across two philosophers who describe this tendency quite well. Ludwig von Mises, in his magnum opus Human Action, describes the reason for a runaway worship of science and empiricism that was fashionable when he wrote

A fashionable tendency in contemporary philosophy is to deny the existence of any a priori knowledge. All human knowledge, it is contended, is derived from experience. This attitude can be easily understood as an excessive reaction against the extravagances of theology and a spurious philosophy of history and of nature. Metaphysicians were eager to discover by intuition moral precepts, the meaning of historical evolution, the properties of soul and matter, and the laws governing physical, chemical and physiological events. Their volatile speculations manifested a blithe disregard for matter-of-fact knowledge.

It is precisely this “excessive reaction” that Mises identifies that guides overarching trends in philosophy, history, historiography, sociology, anthropology etc. Take another example that appears after Michael Huemer’s formal philosophical conclusion in Ethical Intuitionism

Ethical intuitionism was popular among English-speaking philosophers in the early twentieth century. By mid-century, it had suffered a dramatic loss of favor, continuing to the present day.Why? One account, congenial to the anti-realists, goes like this: ‘Intuitionism was the first view of ethics that occurred to people, at the dawn of analytic philosophy, because it is the simplest, most naive view. Intuitionism is similar to Plato’s view of ethics, which, not coincidentally, arose at the dawn of Western philosophy. As people reflected more, thy quickly noticed the various fatal flaws in the system and rationally rejected it in favor of more sophisticated and defensible theories’.

I suspect this is how many contemporary philosophers see that bit of intellectual history. But I think that this is utter fantasy. In my view, the broad movements in the history of philosophy look much more like shifts in temperament and intellectual fashions than like rational movements away from unworkable theories towards more objectively defensible ones.

Huemer’s insight reflects my theory of intellectual history exactly. 

Both Huemer and Mises identified particular trends in the history of thought and explained the irrational premises from which they sprung. Huemer, however, went even farther and drew a more general, inductive theory from his observation about contemporary philosophy’s rejection of meta-ethical intuitionism.

We now have a theory that “shifts in temperament” and “excessive reactions” characterize the curvature of intellectual history. We also have some examples (from a priorism to empiricism/from intuitionism to skepticism) of where these shifts and reactions have left their mark. All that is left is an explanation of where this tendency arises in individuals. What possesses people to forgo reason in developing their theories of the world, and what allows this to come to such prominence that it would characterize the very shape of the history of thought? Strangely, our answer might lie with one of the earliest psychologists.

In a lecture on Pragmatism, William James described how discussions of philosophy are doomed from the beginning, for while we pretend that our arguments are drawn from logical premises, a certain “temperament” sits prior to our logic that channels and dictates our views from the start

The history of philosophy is to a great extent that of a certain clash of human temperaments. Undignified as such a treatment may seem to some of my colleagues, I shall have to take account of this clash and explain a good many of the divergencies of philosophers by it. Of whatever temperament a professional philosopher is, he tries when philosophizing to sink the fact of his temperament. Temperament is no conventionally recognized reason, so he urges impersonal reasons only for his conclusions. Yet his temperament really gives him a stronger bias than any of his more strictly objective premises. It loads the evidence for him one way or the other, making for a more sentimental or a more hard-hearted view of the universe, just as this fact or that principle would. He trusts his temperament. Wanting a universe that suits it, he believes in any representation of the universe that does suit it. He feels men of opposite temper to be out of key with the world’s character, and in his heart considers them incompetent and ’not in it,’ in the philosophic business, even tho they may far excel him in dialectical ability.

Yet in the forum he can make no claim, on the bare ground of his temperament, to superior discernment or authority. There arises thus a certain insincerity in our philosophic discussions: the potentest of all our premises is never mentioned. I am sure it would contribute to clearness if in these lectures we should break this rule and mention it, and I accordingly feel free to do so.

Perhaps an unuttered pretense need be disposed of before we continue. If the “potentest of our premises are never mentioned”, no wonder the pendulum of historical thought has has failed to slow.

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