Pissing in the Stream of Progress
Let's define our terms. In order to avoid a common misconception, I should point out that when I say evolution, I do not mean evolutionism, which is another species entirely.
The latter is the metaphysical doctrine that says that ultimate reality involves a kind of unfolding from primordial substance. It reduces to pantheism -- or elevates matter to God -- as everything is seen as an explication of what lies hidden in potential in mere matter. It violates reason and common sense, as it not only tries to derive the higher from the lower, but ultimately, if pressed to its conclusion, everything from nothing. Life must reduce to death, mind to matter, truth to falsehood, and your little theory of evolutionism to a sacred cow pie. And you just stepped in it.
As mentioned in previous posts, the idea of evolution had literally been around for thousands of years (two thousand, anyway) prior to Darwin. Maritain points out that a number of the pre-Socratics hit upon the notion, which is not surprising, since it is one of the possibilities presented to us as we first attempt to see beneath phenomena to the Real.
If we think of these men as analogous to children (by which I do not mean to insult them; rather, that, philosophically speaking, man was in the position of a child, starting with nothing), then we can understand how one might arrive at the notion that all is change, or being, or one. In other words, they are searching for the ultimate abstraction, or principle, which can account for each and every particular instance (which is indeed the purpose of metaphysics).
So Maritain reminds us that various forms of evolutionism were taught by Greek thinkers of the fifth and sixth centuries BC, such as Anaximander, Empedocles, and Heraclitus, the latter of whom is famous for teaching that "all is change," and that one cannot step into the same stream twice.
But again, if this is true, then it must also apply to Heraclitus' doctrine, so that if he is right, he is wrong. The same applies, of course, to modern Darwinists, to the extent that they elevate the science to a metaphysic.
Maritian traces the evolution of philosophy -- which is to say, the increased proximity to wisdom -- from these early thinkers, through Plato and Aristotle and on to St. Thomas. And when I say evolution, I mean evolution. I do not mean random change, as if there is no essential difference between Heraclitus, Aristotle, and Thomas, and that one might as well flip a coin to determine which of them was closer to truth.
No, when I say that philosophy -- and science, for that matter -- has evolved, this is what I mean: that it betrays a clear and recognizable direction that only the fool or tenured could deny.
Not to speak ill of the dead, but this denial is precisely what my late uncle-through-marriage -- the esteemed University of Chicago historian -- maintained. It so happens that he was friendly with Thomas Kuhn, who wrote the celebrated Structure of Scientific Revolutions. In one of those rare occasions that I was completely wrong, I argued that Kuhn was not implying that there was no such thing as objective scientific progress. Admittedly, I didn't actually know this. Rather, I just assumed that no one could be that stupid. I was a little naive back then.
So, when we talk about philosophic or scientific progress, what are we really talking about? In other words, what is the measure of progress, besides getting a lot of free stuff from the government on somebody else's dime? So far Maritain hasn't come right out and said it, but perhaps the most noticeable change we see between, say, the pre-Socratics through Aquinas, involves the power of abstraction.
In fact, we can trace this path all the back to animals, who have no powers of abstraction. In many ways man is defined by this power, which is largely rooted in language, and prior to that, in my opinion, the hand. Yes, the hand, because it is nature's first all-purpose tool. Because the hand can do this and the hand can do that, we grasp the underlying principle of grasping.
Remember a couple of posts ago, our discussion of how applied cynicism is the cure for a corrosive cynicism gone wild? Wouldn't you know it, the very next day Maritain made exactly the same point vis-a-vis the Socratic method, and here I was thinking I was being original again.
Note that both the cause and effect of cynicism is the absence of truth. I suppose postmodernists must pride themselves on being the first humans to be courageous enough to embrace the truth that there is no truth, but that is an ahistorical fiction.
Rather, this kind of relativism had already taken philosophy to a dead end by the time Socrates arrived on the scene.
I'm starting to run out of time, so I'll just let Maritain take over the cosmic bus from here. Bear in mind that he's talking about conditions 2400 years ago, not today:
"[T]heir concepts were embroiled in confused strife, an interminable battle of opposing probabilities. The immediate and obvious result of these attempts at philosophizing seemed the bankruptcy of speculative thought."
"It is not, therefore, surprising that this period of elaboration produced a crisis in the history of thought, at which an intellectual disease imperiled the very existence of philosophic speculation. This intellectual disease was sophistry, that is to say, the corruption of philosophy.
"Sophistry is not a system of ideas, but a vicious attitude of the mind.... For the aim and rule of their knowledge was no longer that which is, that is to say, the object of knowledge, but the interest of the knowing subject....
"[T]he most characteristic feature of all alike was that they sought the advantages conferred by knowledge without seeking truth.
"They sought the advantages conferred by knowledge so far as knowledge brings its possessor power, pre-eminence, or intellectual pleasure. With this in view, they put themselves forward as rationalists and walking encyclopedias; to every question they had an answer, deceptively convincing....
"They did not seek truth.... For with men and children alike destruction is the easiest method of displaying their strength.... Every law imposed upon man they declared to be an arbitrary convention...."
Well, that's the history. It reappeared in the 1960s, this time as farce. Time will tell if we ever reenter the stream of progress.