Saturday, January 03, 2009

Newman as an Aristotlean

"While we are men, we cannot help, to a great extent, being Aristotelians, for the great Master does but analyze the thoughts, feelings, views, and opinions of human kind. He has told us the meaning of our own words and ideas, before we were born. In many subject-matters, to think correctly, is to think like Aristotle; and we are his disciples whether we will or no, though we may not know it. " Cardinal Newman, Idea of a University
Another From the Files article. I'm going to tackle The re-imagined Aristotleanism of John Henry Newman, though inadequately. I'm trying to continue thinking through some of the books I've been reading recently -- Newman's Uses of Knowledge, and Kant and the Nineteenth Century. So hopefully, this will give me a chance to process as I type.

This article seems to disagree with the article I blogged about before, which made the case that Newman departed from classical notions of paideia.


Aristotelianism saturates The Idea of a University: in Newman's defense of liberal as opposed to servile arts; in the treatment of intellectual disciplines as "sciences," which are not only interrelated but ordered in a hierarchy; in the notion of "the philosophical habit of mind," that intellectual virtue which Newman says is the fruit of genuine education--in each of these subject matters, to understand Newman accurately is to think like Aristotle.

and here

The phrase "a philosophical habit of mind" describes what Newman had originally struggled to name, a "perfection or virtue of the intellect," which he first called simply "philosophy." So philosophy is not just a science, but a virtue, and this in the specifically Aristotelian sense of an acquired capacity or "habit." Like Aristotle, Newman emphasizes both the intellectual dimension of the virtue--the power by which one "apprehends the great outlines of knowledge"--and the moral and affective dimension--its fostering of "freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation."

In describing this "philosophical habit of mind," Newman is articulating what Aristotle simply called "wisdom" or sophia, the highest of the virtues of speculative intellect. Aristotle says that sophia is "the most finished of the forms of knowledge," explaining that it includes both the apprehension of first principles (by intuition or nous) and the grasp of what follows from first principles (by "scientific" knowledge or episteme). It is "knowledge of the highest objects" with "its proper completion."

The ability of the Idea of a University to communicate a notion of philosophy or "wisdom" as both a science and a virtue makes clear not only the fact, but also the subtlety, of Newman's Aristotelianism. This subtlety, in turn, accounts for its being so often overlooked.
Basically, within the framework of defending Newman's Aristotlean roots of though, the article makes a case that Newman's way of thinking offers a better approach for a true conservatism than, say Burke's:

In Aristotelian terms, Burke's defense of tradition begins and ends at an argument quia (establishing the fact that). This is an important project, but it is natural to inquire further for the argument propter quid (explaining the reason why).....

It has been the abiding philosophical challenge of conservatism to ground its appeal to tradition on something more solid than pragmatic calculation or personal faith, to articulate "traditionalism" as a principled view that does not reduce to one of its historic enemies: utilitarianism on the one hand, or subjectivized irrationalism on the other.

One interesting part of this article to me is its relationship to the Descartes/Kant trail I've been on. I mentioned that to a Catholic in the Aristotlean/Thomist tradition of thought, Descartes diverged onto an errant road by his focus on subjective consciousness as a starting place. I am going to be bumbling through this, since it's not really in my mental comfort zone, but certainly in reading Kant and the Nineteenth Century I am sharply aware of a philosophical death spiral that came out of the focus on subjectivism. First there was Kant saying that our minds aren't equipped to know what's outside of empirical reality (or at least, that is an approximation of what he said). Right now I am at Kierkegaard and Nietschze -- who both critiqued and opposed reason itself. It seems that Kierkegaard posited some kind of intuition that one believes in spite of reason (he fell down on the side of religion, but a subjective religion indeed) and Nietzche basically seemed to critique all thinking as either a waste of time or some sort of deluded power play (and as most know, fell down on the vehemently anti-religion side of the fence).

Newman says:
To Rationalize is to ask for reasons out of place; to ask improperly how we are to account for certain things, to be unwilling to believe them unless they can be accounted for, i.e. referred to something else as a cause, to some existing system as harmonizing with them or taking them up into itself.

I understand "asking improperly" to be something like saying, "Why is the whole greater than the sum of the parts?" or "Why can something not be true and false at the same time in the same way?" To try to pull out analogy, it would be something like saying, "What caused God?" (But I don't think that's really a good comparison, because it's an analytic mistake -- it's like saying "Where are the triangles that have four sides?" You can tell I'm still trying to work this out). The article compares this statement to the position of Aristotle, who in identifying the first principles of reason:

argued that not everything can be demonstrated, because there are no prior principles from which first principles can be demonstrated. Those who deny the principle of non-contradiction, for instance,

"demand a reason for everything. They want a starting point, and want to grasp it by demonstration; while it is obvious from their actions that they have no conviction. But their case is just what we have stated before; for they require a reason for things which have no reason."

This, in my limited understanding, is because "ratio" (discourse) or reasoning, for Aristotle, is a matter of proceeding from first principles to logical conclusions. But critiquing first principles from a subjective empiricism subverts this at the bottom floor. In a way, it overextends the use of a method that works very well in the strictly empirical enterprises such as the study of natural science itself. If I am understanding correctly, starting from that point is a methodological mistake which leads to conclusions that at first might diverge only very slightly from the course but in the long run will pile error upon error, which indeed you see happening during the progress of philosophy in the next couple of centuries, or so it seems.

Now in case this is giving the wrong impression, this is not to set up a faith vs reason dichotomy or say that you have to trust your heart rather than your reasoning process, or things along this line. This is the kind of muddle that ended up afflicting the 19th century philosophers and depending upon their temperaments they took all different erroneous positions as a result. This dichotomy just wasn't a problem for earlier philosophy because they hadn't made the basic methodological error in the first place. Or this is how I understand it. We are still living with these errors, and it's easy to fall into them in one form or another, but I've found Catholicism to be a remedy.

Thinking out loud, here... I knew this one would be a mental stretch, so it's good to get it out of the way. I think my next From the Files are Montessori articles, which will be easier, I hope.

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