The Origins of a Modern Philosophical Dilemma in Antiquity’s Theorizing

So conflict between the wholly mechanistic vs. nondeterministic view of emotion’s causality stares us in the face, a paradox that stalls scientific theorizing and especially institutional integration until concepts are sifted and sorted, deductive choices based on comparison and contrast are made, and our image of reality submerged within the facts, including uncertainties as well as proposed truth, are plied and assembled adequately by reasoning, thus brought into focus clearly and distinctly enough to propel us past current barriers.  

Like most problems bouncing around in a shiftless way at the level of pure concept, as generalizations, it has substantial history with numerous instantiations, in this case traceable all the way back to 18th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant.  In his Critique of Pure Reason he puts forward four essential ‘antinomies’, conceptual issues that each allowed at the time for two diametrically opposed points of view equally valid as chains of logical inference, and one of these was the quandary of whether existence operates spontaneously, beyond the realm of natural laws which would be mere definitions, or rather is in essence mechanistic, predictable to potential completion from human knowledge, as if governed in its activity by some collection of delimitations analogous to engineering specs.  This concern has been delineated earlier within this text and doubtless occurs at some point to anyone who has delved into philosophy or science’s heart of abstraction, their conceptual foundations, but as was discussed, both of these perspectives seem to be plausible: the entire body of fact falls within their purview while not yet managing to adjudicate with decisiveness between them.

We have drawn a very definite battle line with our treatment of emotion phenomena; instead of asking whether ‘existence’ obeys mechanistic laws or spontaneously generates itself, we are asking more concretely whether ’emotion’ does.  So is the question more approachable in our time than Kant’s?  Though the issue has not been resolved, empiricism is more developed and replete with content than in Kant’s era, so consideration of the paradox is for us less speculative and more fact-centered.  In a sense, Kant’s theorizing is the historical boundary between a philosophical tradition stretching back to antiquity and the modern epoch.  

For most of human history, abstract thought lacked a contemporary level of observational capacity; analysis of the cosmos was mostly reasoning without instrumentation, though sophisticated telescopes and the microscope appeared post-Renaissance, beginning to change the picture.  The first philosophies were steeped in myth and naivety, originating at roughly the advent of ancient Greek written records.  Artistic creativity, spirituality and beliefs about existence were entwined in modes of cultural expression that had for the most part originated during distant prehistory, an organic outgrowth of inspired human nature during which libido was discharged, the experience of beauty realized, and a maturing sense of truth communicated in symbolic form.  

As technology took a great leap forward with the Neolithic-era adoption of a lifestyle centered around villages and farming, with its greater demand for finely crafted tools and wares, specialized division of labor, and intensified analysis of novel ideas and techniques to meet the need for detailed explanation and intellectual exchange, written forms of truth purveyance also became enriched and more systematic within an initial medium of poetic verse.  The first philosophy was actually Greek poetry, which underwent gradual transition from symbolic metaphor to materialistic theory as the meaning and nature of cosmos morphed into the substance of the cosmos and then into its constituent elements.

It was always apparent that reality is not necessarily what it seems, yet the first philosophers were struck by the orderedness of their surroundings, how phenomena take the form of patterned consistencies, and this intrinsic cohesion amongst all the variety suggested the presence of some basic aspect of nature that unites appearances, a fundamental essence.  Attempted postulates that regarded this essence as varyingly air, fire or water gradually stimulated analysis to seek the truth of nature by delving behind appearances, prying into a supposed unity that seemed so convincingly to be the anchor of all-pervading regularity.  This was the christening of metaphysics, a search for formative principles understood as ontology, moving and structuring the totality of the world and rendering it intelligible.

Philosophers felt compulsion to integrate their prototype theories with practice, discerning relevance so as to better organize their own lives while providing wisdom and guidance to broader society as well.  The Pythagoreans, who established one of the first schools of philosophical thought, regarded math as the keystone of truth and ordered their behaviors according to a collection of beliefs that can be considered a cult of numbers, with perfect mathematical proportions being the underlying structure of cosmos and the foundation of human meaning, both epistemic and ethical.  In fact, in Greece of the 6th century B.C.E. there was no clear distinction between the rational and religious, with most philosophy advocating a strong strain of mysticism, transcendental dogma and ritual observance.  The deepest thinking subcultures not only fashioned a body of knowledge but acted out their convictions and defined the sacred, each in a distinctively holistic way.

Subsequent to Pythagoras, various philosophical schools emerged in ancient Greece.  Stoics held that logic and analytical knowledge should be the arbiters of human action, a rationalism promoting mental discipline and cerebral commitments to values like love and learning, which devotees must exemplify even under the most unfavorable conditions.  Epicureans viewed pursuit of pleasure as the guiding principle of human life; they believed in delayed gratification with an eye towards future and greater pleasures so were of high moral standing, but eschewed academic knowledge in favor of a life steered by simple common sense.  Cynics and Skeptics took a critical stance, instilling sometimes radical doubt and its implications as an essential feature of intellectual life.  Eclectics drew from these and other ways of living and thinking to derive their viewpoints, often adding Mesopotamian sorcery, Judaism and sundry Eastern Paganisms to the mix.

Plato had embarked upon a great rational synthesis that would influence Stoicism, employing dialectic to examine with a keen intellect subjects as diverse as math, politics, love and religion.  His literary characters ranged from statesmen and rhetoricians to a slave boy, who all had something to teach his readers about the world and human nature.  Though he made progress in many domains of thought, especially metaphysics, math and government, his central achievement was to demonstrate that a civilization and lifestyle based on rational method applied to practical need does not have to be a combat between factions in which exploitative subdual is effectuated, but virtuous behavior is entirely consonant with community by way of collaborativeness, during which every participant is respected as playing a role in the body politic.  It was revolutionary in any extant society, which all placed such a premium on hereditary privilege, class status and superiority, to assert calculated public planning as an intrinsically mutual endeavor for serving the greater good of one’s peers and posterity – an existence of civic cooperation – and would positively influence Western values and institutions forever.

The next great synthesizer was Plato’s pupil Aristotle; he provided a counterpoise to his instructor by evincing what would become some of the quintessential Epicurean sensibilities, amassing what Greeks knew of the natural world and rather than forcing it into a framework of supposedly transcendental abstractions such as those of math (which were still in an underdeveloped state), let facts speak for themselves and guide the observer towards concise empirical theories.  

Natural philosophy had settled on the theory that matter is composed of four elements – earth, air, fire and water.  Aristotle introduced the idea that these elements do not arise as admixtures of a single essence, but transform into each other depending on relative proportions of four material properties: hot, dry, cold and wet.  Fire was hot and dry; air hot and wet; earth cold and dry; and water cold and wet.  This anticipated more than one modern concept.  Phase changes in matter became conceivable, as in this schema earth (solid) and water (liquid) could change into air (gas) just as contemporary chemistry models.  Aristotle proposed that earth and air are not forms of water as Thales had claimed, but when moisturized their properties are altered, which prefigured solution chemistry.  He was the first major European thinker to explain that transformation of earth and air into fire occurs, what we know as combustion.  And he recognized the core significance of heat exchange to material state, which is foundational to modern chemistry.  What the ancients called ‘physics’ was still primitive, but Aristotle’s theories of elemental transfiguration, which had been in plain sight to observers yet unrecognized, prepared the way for future paradigms in the definition of chemical states and reactions.

His treatment of human values in the Nicomachean Ethics was also an innovation.  Aristotle started with facts of his culture’s behavioral standards and sought a holistic model that could encompass all of this content.  He realized there were two ways behavior could fall short of the mark ethically: either an individual could be incontinent, displaying inappropriate control of impulses, or intemperate, making inappropriate decisions due to failure in controlling one’s emotions.  For instance, he identifies arrogance and timidity as intemperate, while slovenliness and obsessive fastidiousness are incontinent.  Basically, social relationships were a matter of balancing the needs of multiple individuals, and this translated into requirement that balance or moderation be achieved in the ordering of one’s personal priorities, especially as expressed in communal situations.  Thus, the correct standard seemed to be in ordinary cases a mean between extremes of either excess or deficiency that could inconvenience or disrespect acquaintances.  

This framework saw the individual as a microcosm of the social group, which was in turn a microcosm of the state, so that what is needed by collectives imposes exigencies on particular citizens and vice versa.  It demands high integrity, as the correct standards are those of polite society, and thereby labels many individuals as in almost insurmountable disharmony with so to speak ethical good, but like the Epicurean pleasure principle it encapsulates common sense and simply works in all but the most extraordinary circumstances so long as the majority is complicit.  We can contrast this with Plato’s ethical thought, which though also guided by an idea of the individual as public entity, a microcosm of the collective, is almost quantitative in the exacting preciseness with which it arranges social structure in the ideal Republic, a speculative and utopian vision intellectualizing culture in terms of what it could be rather than focusing more on what it is.  

Plato’s philosophy can be considered the idealistic synthesis, and Aristotle’s a pragmatically minded empiricist bent inspired by this synthesis.  Plato placed priority on ideas, Aristotle on facts, and these dual analytical approaches – deduction-centrism and induction-centrism respectively – would not be fully integrated until the maturation of science, which conjoined them in an ongoing correspondence between abstract conception and observational practice, modernity’s empiricism.

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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