Thursday, May 03, 2012

Getting Medieval On Your Ass: Notes Toward A Medium Opus VII

Every story has a through-line. In this case, it's the relationship among all this disparate stuff, always with one eye not only on how it all fits together, but how "making sense of the world" is done. When I arrived at the School of Philosophy at The Catholic University of America for the fall semester in 1995, I discovered their through-line was simple enough: human understanding peaked at the University of Paris and St. Thomas; the whole narrative structure of their approach both to the history of philosophy and its product became intelligible once you grasped that.

Whether general survey classes - in four semesters, from the pre-Socratics to Rorty and Searle - thematic courses (moral philosophy from Aquinas through Kant to Mill), or seminars (Aristotle's Politics, Heidegger's Being and Time, even Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil) the point all along was to show that, for all its vaunted successes, thought after Aquinas was, as some theologian said of St. Augustine's influence, merely footnotes.

This was driven home to me in a seminar I took on Isaac Newton's Principia. If it seems odd to read one of the major texts of post-Renaissance science in a philosophy class, you probably shouldn't feel bad. I took the class because it was offered, because my concentration was the philosophy of science, and because I needed to get a handle on the particulars of certain key points in the history of science if getting to my own point - making Popper and Kuhn work together - was going to work. For those not familiar with it, the Principia is the single text that created what most people think of when they consider "physics". Indeed, the so-called "Laws of Motion" are introduced at the very beginning by way of making clear the axioms Newton will be using throughout as he works through various mathematical problems related to bodies in motion (if you ever idly think of cracking Newton's opus to see what's inside, you should bone up on your geometry first; most of it is just that).

After these "laws" are introduced, he goes on, in the first section, to demonstrate their usefulness. One of the problems he addresses through careful application of these laws concerns the precise definition of curvilinear motion. The laws work far better for calculating such motion - useful for astronomers who are trying to figure out planetary motion, as well as artillery gunners for calculating what angle to set their pieces; who said math wasn't practical, right? - when one, as Newton states in an early lemma, or problem, considers the areas of the triangles formed by (a) the path of the body in motion; (b) some arbitrary, stationary point; (c) the distance between these two at successive time intervals, as proceeding to infinity. In other words, demonstrating the greater precision for calculation inherent in the Laws includes assuming something - a set of potentially infinite objects - that for centuries was firmly denied any reality. We came to that particular problem, and a fellow student - who went, where else, but Aquinas College - started in (and here I'm not quoting, but paraphrasing from memory), "But, Aristotle made clear in the Physics [quoting book, chapter, and line] that this is impossible. Newton just jumps in and says its necessary. How is that possible?" The professor began to explain that, while Aristotle indeed proclaimed an actual infinity to be impossible, Newton here only states that one should "imagine" this set of triangles going on to infinity. The student, continued on for a bit until finally asking the question that I couldn't imagine anyone saying: "Doesn't this invalidate Newton's work?" 

"Last time I checked, Newton was right and Aristotle was wrong," I said. Several eyes turned to me. 

The young man, so earnest and full of Aristotle and St. Thomas, started quoting both of them, and I shook my head. "You do understand that Newton was right." He entered, yet again, in to a long quote session, impressing himself with his ability to cite and quote passages from these gentlemen from memory. I think the oxygen level in the room fell long enough for him to shut up, so I tried another tack: "Are you suggesting that the history of western science, from the 17th century until now, is flawed because Aristotle insisted that an actual infinity was impossible? Because, see, if you insist that Newton 'cannot' do what he has done in the way he has done it, then you are insisting that western science, rooted in calculus that takes potential and actual infinities seriously, is wrong despite its evident success."

Like discussions on the internet, my point was lost on this young man who was so intent on repeating, yet again, what Aristotle had said. When the day came to turn in our papers - I have to be honest and admit I have no recollection of what I submitted; I got an "A" in the class, though, not that it means that much - I saw the title of this young man's: "To Infinity And Beyond". Thirty pages revising and extending his original in-class remarks. I was in the presence of a certain kind of brilliance; I was also in the presence of near-insane myopia.

Part of figuring out the world includes using the best available tools to do the job. There is little doubt that the work of Aristotle was important as well as influential. There is little doubt that his qualitative discussions of motion and rest, of time and space, are well-written, concise, and intelligible. This was the first time, however, I met anyone who didn't understand that he was wrong about, well, pretty much everything when it came to these matters. I wouldn't use a chariot to get around, not because there's something inherently wrong with a chariot, but because there are better modes of transportation available. I might study the construction of a chariot, admire the simplicity and economy of the design of so versatile a vehicle, but I wouldn't use one, or recommend its use. So, too, my thoughts regarding philosophers. I can admire the subtlety of Aristotle, the poetry of Plato, the precision of Ockham, the moral fervor of Kant all the while understanding that they have little to no relevance to our world. Trying to consider them as anything more than museum pieces demonstrates, for me, a fundamental failure to take them seriously; it also demonstrates a failure to take our world seriously.

We are nearing our conclusion here, but it is important to make one point clear.  It is important to wrestle with what these and many other people thought if one has an interest in understanding, say, how human beings have asked and answered questions regarding why things exist, the nature of the good life, the best possible society for achieving the end of realizing our common humanity.  One should never dismiss them, most of all if one has no knowledge of what they said, or the way they said it, precisely because such things are clues to the larger question of how different human beings in different societies make sense of the world around them.  Trying to make them contemporary commentators, however, does violence to their thought as well as trivializes our current reality, essentially insisting it is in no way different from times far removed from us in time and space and the particular differences of history.  Disregarding these differences demonstrates, for me, not only a lack of clarity, but a lack of seriousness.

Virtual Tin Cup

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