The Permanence of Modern Empiricism Compared to Empiricism of Antiquity

Aristotle’s successors sustained his observation-based methods, diversifying within subject matter such as botany, taxonomy, geology, anthropology, physics and logic.  It is clear from the departmentalizing of Aristotelian-influenced academia and its commitment to approaching natural phenomena with realism, as concretions dispersed independent of meaning, that these thinkers had a notion of the empirical similar to the 21st century.  At this stage, many philosophers were not making naive or purely logical arguments for beliefs about the corporeal, but rather cataloging without an excess of reduction to fundamental concepts and with cognizance of the unruly and unintuitive domain we regard as physical function, like the most competent modern scientists (those who have not succumbed to the pressure towards reifying their theories for purposes of propaganda, anyways).  However, while protoscientific impetus burgeoned post-Renaissance into a universalizing objectivity that in the present day has attained planet-altering potency, the ancient world’s naturalistic inclination waned and then fizzled out before it could consummate its potential.  We must wonder, then, what distinguishes modern science from the empiricism of antiquity and why it has taken such firm root in cultures from the 15th century to the contemporary age.

One factor in the development of European empiricism was a desire to explore the world and confront the unknown, which came to prominence over the course of the Middle Ages and was solidly entrenched by the time of the Renaissance.  In the 13th century, reports entered Europe of a vast Mongol empire still on the rise that was crushing every army in its path, becoming wildly rich, powerful, and reaching the threshold of direct contact with the West.  It was imperative that occidental powers establish diplomatic relations with this foreign behemoth, investigate its strengths and weaknesses, and exploit its unifying effect on the East to augment Europe’s wealth via absorption of newly forming trade networks.  International commerce had become not just a mercantile novelty restricted to a few cavalier entrepreneurs but a political necessity, and concern with global preeminence went from a rising movement to a way of life.  Medieval sailors probed the African coast, emissaries set out across Asia and returned with detailed reports of places as distant as China, while fledgling astronomy and cartography rapidly progressed for the sake of more ambitious expeditions.

As European governments scrambled nearly uncontested to dominate trade by sea, navigational and seafaring technologies advanced, leading to discovery of the New World, conquest of what meager resistance gunpowder and iron deficient militaries of the Americas could muster, and a huge influx of precious metals into Spain and then the rest of the continent, which in combination with a disintegration of Mongol unity and stagnation of their expansion, tipped the balance of world power in Europe’s favor.  Economies surged; financial competition stimulated by more widely distributed buying and funding stoked political aspirations and arms races for continental control, with military developments such as artillery and guns.  Together with this mobilization for war, the need for greater organization in finance bred an emphasis on precise quantification, which seeped into the arena of technological mechanism in general with metal casting of an increasingly well-calibrated nature for complex moving parts, higher-grade metals and alloys with more durable chemistries, all kinds of ingenious gadgetry and machinery, and ultimately a grand synthesis of technology and efficient economy in the manufacture of mass produced goods.

Religious life had an equally profound effect in transition to modern empiricism as the church gradually lost influence over secular events during the Middle Ages until the definition of progressive thought as heretical had practically evaporated.  The Pope wielded European-wide power upon approach of the second millennium C.E. and for a couple centuries afterwards, for most thought the end of the world and judgement day were fast approaching, with one’s spiritual status of utmost importance.  This had granted the Christian pontificate power to forge military alliances with royal courts, initiate and alter the course of wars, as well as instigate persecution of any movement presenting a challenge to official doctrines.  

Papal preoccupation with consolidating and exacting power achieved significant gains as France, Italy, England and elsewhere were at times in a vice grip of Catholic sovereignty, but this intervention in worldly affairs produced constant contentiousness that broke religious leadership’s control when chiliastic fears subsided and Christians began to soberly reflect upon the construction of future eras.  Antipopes had been promoted by kings excommunicated because of their politics, internal church disputes over dogma weakened authority for stretches of time and church diets to resolve these conflicts were usually ineffective, much unsuccessful crusading proved onerous to populations, the amassing of wealth by spiritual leaders disillusioned lay preachers and prevented the church from ever entirely dissuading its members from heresy, and all of this hypocrisy came to a head in the 16th century as religious rebellion over corruption and doctrinal disagreement rocked Europe, bringing on the Reformation which fractured Christianity into a multitude of less politicized denominations.  Without the power to fight new ideas contradicting traditional beliefs that had been based on archaic theories of the cosmos, church reigns on innovation slackened and protoscientific efforts spurred on by technological advancement proceeded with little impedance.

Human thinking of the early Middle Ages had been dominated by conceptual hierarchies: peasants, feudal vassals of lords, and at the top the highest lord, the king, in a rigidly tiered politics.  Cosmology arranged substantiality into successively higher celestial spheres encompassing the Earth, culminating in a divine realm beyond human observation.  In spirituality, the first medievals saw a ranking of numen, at the lowest level occupied by laity, then priests, ascending upwards through bishops, cardinals, pope, and then saints in heaven, angelic beings, and finally God himself.  Their schema was not merely logical but ontological; this mindset did not recognize distinction between principles of world and mind, for order in the cosmos was exemplary of God’s supreme providence omnipotently and omnisciently permeating everything.  True and false were not a matter of equivocation; everything was made and meant to be truth, with God’s creation his gift to man, a reality not of course transparent, for faith was considered crucial, but nonetheless making sense, a purposefully intelligible existence.

A couple centuries into the Middle Ages, concepts began to change.  Previously, during the Carolingian Renaissance of the 9th century, Charlemagne’s Frankish court had assembled a collection of scholars who sought the fashioning of European-wide academic standards in order to foster a spread of analytical methods for the sake of more rational society, but at the end of his reign political unity disintegrated and the continent descended into a dark age, at which time scholarship was negligible.  It took three hundred years to restore institutions to former levels, but by the mid-13th century a universal paradigm of logical reasoning was being established, radiating out from key locations such as monasteries and the new network of universities to enrich European thought.  

As logic began to transform into more systematic method, the naive ontology which had predominated for centuries began to break down, with it no longer unanimously held that truth is purveyed as cosmic rationale, but often contrarily considered to be an outcome of human efforts, the way we look at the world.  Coupled with this humanizing of knowledge was emergence of a more nominalist worldview proclaiming descriptions of reality to be models rather than essences, the Ockhamist school of thought.  The seeds were sown that would lead to conceiving the world as an arational system we corral by imposing our reasoning methods as a kind of psychological force.  This movement began to wane in the latter part of the 14th century, but a burst of Renaissance interest in the art and literature of more progressive, humanist antiquity gave it new life, a bold and creative spirit that together with quantification and its enhancement of technology produced the observations and experimentalism capable of launching a new, increasingly scientific age.

Flowering of this intellectual movement never would have achieved the universality it did without a vital invention arriving at just the right time: the printing press, wooden and metal blocks on which movable type could be set, allowing books to be produced in bulk.  Ability to mass distribute literature empowered the whole bourgeoisie to get involved academically, reflecting upon new ideas and actualizing the desire for a more egalitarian society in which broader swaths of the citizenry could flex its muscle politically.  With humanist perspectives gaining a large following, it was only a matter of time before revolutionary liberation swept Europe, precipitating greater inclusion in technological modernization and a more objective empiricism by way of widespread participation.

The Black Plague was an additional factor, dramatically altering the structure of European society.  In only fifty years, nearly a third of the population perished in this epidemic, in some places as much as half.  Reduced manpower proved disruptive to the manorial system, in which 90% of the citizenry lived on the property of a lord and owed him work as well as portions of what was grown and raised in exchange for military protection and political security.  Peasants were very poor, and population growth had made them even poorer as land was divided between descendants in ever smaller plots.  By the 14th century, commoners were powerless to change their standing by economic means, simply being too destitute in comparison with their lords, and did not have access to education that would enable them to devise strategies of some subtlety for improving this predicament.  Even in towns and cities where life was somewhat more affluent, dense population with little wiggle room for entrepreneuring made social mobility almost nonexistent.

After the Plague, lords struggled to maintain their income, levying new taxes and exacting more demanding work schedules from surviving peasants.  Trust in the constancy of lords and their provision faltered, peasant revolts took place, and the venerated system that tied the common man to hereditary institutions collapsed.  Peasants moved from the countryside to depopulated towns and cities, replacing jobs of dwindled citizenries, the wealthy swooped in to purchase land and corner markets, and subsistence living transformed within only a couple generations into a society of economic sectors, in which work was arranged for merchant ventures, often exporting at the expense of domestic welfare – wool production and the enclosure movement in England being the most studied example – with commoners obligated to whatever work wealthy bourgeois barons chose as most profitable.   

Thus, the majority of the lower class was displaced from self-supportive farming to membership in the proletariat, subjected to vagaries of markets; it was a more flexible way of putting individuals to work, but also a culturally and legally uprooted one.  This set the stage for a dynamic economy capable of quickly adapting to technological progress, and a restless populace with no option except to pave its own way with whatever knowledge it could acquire and power it could impose, or else be victimized by the most fleeting economic dependability the world had ever known.  Contrary to the short-term interests of businessmen, technology would prove at least for a time to be the great equalizer, with weaponry and additional inventions so easy to utilize that the lower class found it possible to affect society in fundamental ways, gaining less limited access to information and in some areas forcing civil reforms that brought science, our modern empiricism, to the verge of finally actualizing the masses.   

Though the ancients were competent in naturalistic investigation, they lacked some of these conditions.  First and foremost, advanced quantification had not been integrated with technology as during the late-Medieval period and Renaissance, though Plato and his fellow academicians were prescient about the dazzling future in store for mathematical form.  This lack of technicalized math made the printing press a distant possibility, financial notions like credit, exchange rates, tariffs and institutional banking a nonfactor in coordinating commerce, exploration of the globe unfeasible, though some trade routes spanning the entirety of the Old World did exist by Roman times, and the modeling of nature’s profoundest secrets would have to await advent of improved optics technologies such as the telescope and microscope as well as the development of analytic geometry, what was called calculus, by philosophical free-thinkers with the cultural prerogative and literary infrastructure to alter the course of history.  Instead of sustained progressiveness, Europe regressed towards orthodoxy, with an intellectual collapse that could only be surmounted by centuries of painstaking labor and the fortunate influence of Arab civilization.

A free download of the book Standards for Behavioral Commitments: Philosophy of Humanism, also available for preview below.  Topics covered include chemistry, biology, genetics, neuroscience, epistemology, the history of Western philosophy, cultural evolution, theory of cognition, ethics and much more.

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