Philosophy's Historic Fate:
Museum Pieces, Messages, and Classics

by Albert William Levi

Philosophy, Mirror of Its Time: Summary

In emphasizing the nature of philosophy as "social expression," I have meant to consider my chosen examples: Plato, Saint Thomas, Descartes, and G. E. Moore not simply as philosophers, but as epoch‑making and epoch‑expressing figures; "culture images” as surely as a sculpture by Myron, a Madonna of Giotto, a Rembrandt portrait, or a drawing by Picasso. For—to follow a Spenglerian metaphor—it could almost be said that they work in the "expression medium" of philosophy as others worked in art, or politics, or science. Thus from this perspective it was important to at least partially delineate the surrounding culture of each—to briefly examine fourth‑century Athens, medieval Paris, seventeenth‑century Holland, and Edwardian and early twentieth-century Cambridge as horizons in which, respectively, politics, religion, science, and analysis loom large.

To view philosophic achievement as the cognitive correlate of a certain cultural "life‑style," means to ask the questions: What sort of society was the author writing for? What were the conventions of communication current in his day? What were the philosopher's class affiliations, his place in the social hierarchy of his time? and perhaps most important of all, What were his ideals, his basic philosophic intentions? For in this mode of writing the history of philosophy, the elements of social context, semantic convention, class affiliation, and guiding motivation are dimensions in terms of which the philosophic texts art themselves to be construed. Thus Plato's Republic reveals what it means to philosophize like an aristocrat, the Summa theologica what it means to philosophize like a saint, the Discourse on Method what it means to philosophize like a gentleman, and Some Main Problems of Philosophy what it means to philosophize like a professional.

But whether or not one holds that there is a morphological relationship that inwardly binds together all the expression forms of a culture, there is a similar problem of unification for a culture and for a philosophy. For the thesis that every culture has its characteristic philosophy—a symbolic expression and a way of [301/302] posing problems closely related to architecture and the other "arts of form"—has its analogue in the Hegelian effort to identify in any philosophy the fundamental themes which inform its diverse details and render them coherent. And if what is important here is less the range of answers than the choice of questions, then the fundamental nature of ancient, medieval, modern, and contemporary philosophy can best be recognized by identifying the root questions of their leading and their characteristic representatives. For the Platonic philosophy this question is: How can aristocracy be restored? For the Thomistic philosophy it is: How can the Roman church prevail? For the Cartesian philosophy it is: How can science be progressive and certain? And for the philosophy of G. E. Moore it is: How can we be absolutely clear about what we mean? Thus a comparative cultural biography of the great philosophers reveals not only a Platonic, a Thomistic, a Cartesian, and a Moorean character, but the serial prominence of political, religious, scientific, and semantic considerations as we pass from the ancient to the contemporary world.

If we see Plato as the great philosopher and educator of an aristocratic restoration in Greece, interested in reinstating in a somewhat more sophisticated form the aristocratic virtues of the Greek heroic age, and directing his cultural criticism against the "degenerate" democracy of Athens, product of Periclean imperialism and "leveling," then his major values and his major philosophic enterprises become intrinsically intelligible. The passion for excellence; the enthronement of a principle of hierarchy in his sociology, his psychology, and his cosmology and of a principle of permanence in his metaphysics; his belief in the supreme value of the few; and his permanent and rancorous mistrust of the many all take their place as parts of a coherent political vision of the world. Then the trips to Syracuse as an effort to secure the monarchical principle, the founding of the Academy as a training center for the new class of aristocratic administrators, and the writing of the dialogues for the Academy, for Athens, and for the Hellenic world to secure the Socratic ideal of the dialectical community in living memory, to provide the principles and examples of academic instruction, and to rationally construct and codify the value system for an aristocratic change of heart in the Hellenic world all seem ingredients in a single but comprehensive enterprise. And if the dialogues continually revere the memory of [302/303] Socrates, continually attack the poets, the rhetoricians, and the Sophists, this is because Plato recognized that the instruction of the young is central to the accomplishment of a desirable social change. The anti‑Sophistic bias is directed against the influence of the democratically inclined customary educators who have led Athens astray; the Socratic myth is a fantasy constructed to enthrone the aristocratic influence of a martyred teacher. And if the Academy, as a product of alienation and disgust, exists within the very polis it despises, this is but a foretaste of that isolation and retreat which is to characterize the curious political anomalies of the Hellenistic world.

The internal political conflict, mirror of a conflict of basic values, which infected the Greek city‑state in the time of Plato, had sixteen hundred years later been supplanted by a remarkably organic unification in the medieval Christian world. The church had provided an institutional framework and the modes Of ideological support which made possible a stable theocratic social order in which no function—political, cultural, or intellectual—was isolated from the central driving force of Christian belief. Thus in the thirteenth century philosophical preeminence and the performance of ecclesiastical tasks were inseparably conjoined. The history of philosophy during this period is very largely bound up with the Franciscan and Dominican orders and with the University of Paris, intellectual center of the medieval world—in fact with those few philosophers of genius, Franciscan or Dominican, who occupied the chairs of theology at the University Of Paris. Thus Saint Thomas Aquinas, greatest of medieval philosophers, spent his life obediently fulfilling the philosophic tasks set for him by his superiors in the church and the Dominican order, and his philosophy can be rightly understood only if he is seen as the great bringer of Christian enlightenment and doctrinal clarification in institutional support of the Roman church.

But in the Middle Ages the philosophic forms also reflected the institutional realities. The methods of teaching at the medieval university were decisive for determining the literary forms into which philosophical treatises were cast: commentaries on a text expressive of classroom exegesis, and the great series of disputed questions, quodlibetal questions, and summas, reflecting the notable occasions of public disputation. The summas of Saint Thomas are great philosophical works in their own right, but they [303/304] were also codifications of Christian doctrine intended to serve as training manuals for a knowledgeable and militant clergy.

But there is a sense in which Saint Thomas, no less than Plato, was an aristocrat—that curious medieval anomaly, a saint of noble birth—and the content of his philosophic work also expresses the gradations of the medieval order built into the epistemology and the metaphysics. His cosmic gradations are mirrors of feudal class division, and God's supreme creation—the creatural hierarchy—expresses a sense of the order of rank, indigenous to a characteristic medieval mind. The grades of knowledge present a rationalization of feudal order in the epistemology, as the "order of Being" reflects that order in the metaphysics. For in Aquinas, Plato's rather simply tripartite divisions are expanded into a cosmology full enough to encompass every minute distinction within “the great chain of Being." And behind all of this infinite cosmological elaboration lies a permanent dedication to the institutional task. Thomism, even as an abstract philosophic construction, is eternally expressive of Christian piety and churchly concern.

By the seventeenth century this Christian piety and churchly concern was no longer the source of preeminent philosophical activity. A dogmatic, frozen, and illiberal Scholasticism had captured the universities, so that whereas in the thirteenth century the University of Paris was the avant garde of intellectual fermentation, the seventeenth‑century Sorbonne was a kind of Scholastic graveyard. Philosophy had passed from the hands of the scholarly saint into the hands of the noble gentleman like Montaigne, functioning wholly outside the university milieu and writing neither for students nor the clergy as such, but for a mature, although restricted, upper‑class audience. It is in this light that the writings of the gentleman, René Descartes, Lord of Perron, also are to be understood.

But this change of philosophic location from the institutionally anchored saint and professor of the Middle Ages to the independent and self‑reliant seventeenth‑century gentleman brought with it a new subjectivism and a new self‑preoccupation. The chief subject of philosophizing is no longer God and his creation, but the personal self and its self‑knowledge, its mind and its mental functioning: in short, epistemology. But what has not always been remarked is that this new epistemological preoccupation is largely the consequence of the gentlemanly milieu itself: its idleness, [304/305] tranquillity, and economic independence. Attention to the functioning of "materials" is the natural habit of the artisan, and attention to the relentlessness of "things" that of the practical man who must earn his living by his work, but Descartes's Cogito ergo sum is an upper‑class proposition, a product of privacy and abstraction. And the entire Cartesian metaphysics is, in fact, the consequence of the gentlemanly way of life: of its withdrawal, self‑reliance, solitude, quiet, and the concentrated contemplation which is its fruit.

Descartes's search for tranquillity and solitude is symbolized by the more than two decades of his sojourn in Holland. Whereas France in this period was a country of pomp and circumstance, monarchical grandeur and theatrical gestures, grandiloquence and exaggerated etiquette, the Dutch Republic lent itself to ideals of a very different nature: mildness, tolerance, a strong sense of justice, a distrust of sonorous phrases and political rhetoric, and a love of industrious orderliness expressed to perfection in the serenity of that peaceful country life which Descartes himself lived for almost a quarter of a century. It is the contrast between a landscape of Ruisdael or van Goyen or one of Vermeer's quiet interiors and the bombastic royalism of Velaquez, Bernini, and Vandyke. For in speaking of the "gentlemanliness" of Descartes, I have not meant to suggest the heroic swashbuckling of The Three Musketeers, or the Spain of Calderón, or even the England of Cavaliers and Roundheads. For there was, in addition, the celebrated noblesse de robe—gentlemen of the pen, rather than of the sword. Surely there was little wildness or fierceness in the character of Descartes. Brilliant, unheroic, prudent: these he undoubtedly was, and perhaps this, as well as its renowned tolerance, made the Dutch Republic of the seventeenth century so comfortable for him, so satisfying and secure as a philosopher's abode.

The Dutch Republic provided the background, and it is perhaps one reason why Descartes's philosophy is a philosophy of privacy in a double sense: it originated in tranquillity and independence, and it stresses the centrality of the tranquilly thinking subject—the res cogitans. But if Cartesianism began in subjectivism, it does not end there. Its real motive is the secure founding of the natural sciences; the great new preoccupation of the seventeenth century. And if the Cartesian rationalism had a highly aristocratic flavor, even more original was the fashion in [305/306] which Descartes transformed mathematical interest and physical and physiological experiment into an upper‑class fashion. The "enoblement" of science, by virtue of which the inquiry into and the search after natural knowledge achieved status as worthy of serious upper‑class concern, was the Cartesian heritage to the generation which was to follow.

By the eighteenth century, and particularly with reference to the eighteenth century in Germany, all of this had again changed. Partly this was because the gentlemanly association of philosophy and science with upper‑class amateurism, symbolized by Montaigne and reaching its culmination after the death of Descartes, revealed its weakness—dilletantism and superficiality. And partly it was because with the founding of the University of Halle in 1693, the libertas docendi was restored, the dead Scholasticism of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was replaced by a new liberal spirit, and the universities, now under secular rather than ecclesiastical control, began once again to assert that independence which made Oxford, Paris, and Bologna the ornaments of medieval culture.

But the German eighteenth century also brought two changes which were of the greatest importance for shifting philosophy from a "gentlemanly" to a "professional" preoccupation—the rise of the highly specialized philosophical journal, and the new academic concern of philosophy with its own past which was to produce the great scholarly multivolume histories of philosophy which were published at Leipzig, Marburg, and Göttingen toward the end of the eighteenth century. Of this new philosophical professionalism Immanuel Kant at Königsberg is the classic transitional figure, and his own major contributions to this trend—the passion for philosophical system and the invention of a highly technical philosophical terminology—influenced philosophical writing profoundly for the next two hundred years.

By the end of the nineteenth century philosophical professionalism had been established, and its great representative for our time is G. E. Moore. Coming from a middle‑class, comfortably well‑off English bourgeois background, Moore's nonprofessional ethical values, sense of moral responsibility, respect for established moral rules, and general conformity to a conventional upper‑middle‑class way of life are displayed in his everyday behavior when they [306/307] do not appear in the structure of his moral theory (as, for example, in the much neglected chapter 5 of Principia Ethica). But it is the quiet influence of Edwardian Cambridge, with its peace, prosperity, and intellectual isolation, which is decisive for his intellectual formation. Here his passion for clarity exercised itself against the dominant Hegelianism which had reached its peak and was now overripe; and that Germanic fondness for a special philosophic vocabulary, classically expressed in Kant and spilling over from Hegel into Bradley, Bosanquet, and McTaggart, produced its counterbalance: a faith in the possibility of using ordinary language, with rigorous standards of logical exactness and clarity, to express philosophical ideas and clarify their conceptual ambiguities.

Moore's analytical method was meant to produce a correct analysis of meanings or concepts, and yet the close attention to "meanings" inevitably required concentration upon the words or linguistic expressions through which these meanings were conveyed. This too is symptomatic of the modern movement in philosophy, where the primarily metaphysical interests of Plato and Saint Thomas and the primarily epistemological interests of Descartes have been transformed into a primarily semantic interest that is to say, where the world and mind are less important than the correct interpretation of "statements" about the world and mind, and where attention to linguistic mechanisms and to analytical methods per se has replaced the substantive interest in illuminating the structure of the cosmos and the mind's role in its ultimate understanding.

For all of this there is a certain sociological explanation. For if the general peace and prosperity of the British Empire during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century permitted just that comfortable quiet and isolation in which the analytic enterprise could flourish, cut off from the pragmatic requirements of economic necessity and the urgencies of political crisis, the general situation with respect to values made the abandonment of primary substantive concern inevitable. Western culture since the seventeenth century has become progressively less religious and progressively more secular in its orientation. Plato, Saint Thomas, and Descartes all have a place for God in their philosophical systems. Moore does not. But the difference is cultural and not personal. [307/308]  For as philosophy progressively detaches itself from politics, theology, and, finally, psychology to become a separate subject of study within the university, technical considerations become increasingly important, and philosophical professionalism and general cultural secularization go hand in hand. The breakdown of the organic pattern of Christian belief shattered the medieval synthesis into a thousand fragments, and today, in every cultural area, literature, painting, music, or philosophy as the case may be, virtuosity of style and the hyperdevelopment of technical accomplishment are used to compensate for a drastic impoverishment of commonly held values and shared belief. The philosophy of G. E. Moore marks the triumph of method in modem philosophizing, and in so doing, represents one of the chief characteristics of philosophy in a "professional" age. For such an age means for philosophy a care for methods rather than results, a specialization of interest requiring increasing concentration upon perfecting professional tools, and finally, modes of communication (like the philosophical association and the specialized philosophical journal) which have become carefully adjusted to the needs of a professional elite. It is G. E. Moore's particular achievement that to his followers, as to his colleagues at large, that passion for clarity which produced his analytic method has functioned not only as a technical mechanism but as a moral force.

In considering the course of philosophy in the ages of the aristocrat, the saint, the gentleman, and the professional, it is obvious that no two cultural ages have exactly the same qualities and characteristics. And it follows that the philosophic intentions of Plato, Saint Thomas, Descartes, and G. E. Moore are also quite different. But although a philosophy may be typical of its century, it need not be its exact mirror. For in considering the total body of Saint Thomas's works, or of the complete canon of the Platonic dialogues, it seems as if each of these thinkers had absorbed the entire content of the Hellenic and the medieval epochs. Whereas in the case of Descartes or of G. E. Moore, the cultures out of which they spring are already too heterogeneous and splintered to permit more than the typicality I have mentioned. And this makes it extremely difficult to discern a clear structure in the sequence of philosophical experience, just as it is extremely difficult to discern such a logic in the sequence of history itself. If one wishes to ask: Is there a logic of philosophical experience? Is there, beyond all [308/309] the casual and contingent events in the history of philosophy, something we may call "a metaphysical structure" of the historic sequence of diverse philosophies? the answer must inevitably be skeptical. But this is only a natural consequence of the very standpoint we have previously adopted. There are perhaps two kinds of a priori for philosophical creation, one intellectual and one cultural—one based upon the logical possibilities available to the human mind, the other based upon the historical requirements of the period in which the philosophy originated. In committing ourselves to the way of history rather than the way of logic, we have only contingently avoided the issue of a comparative morphology of philosophical knowledge, not outlawed it. But from the historical approach it is also clear that there are culturally conditioned styles of philosophizing, and this raises the very question with which I wish to deal very briefly in the next section: Is disagreement in philosophy primarily a matter of truth, falsity, and logical error, or is it due rather to preferences of an essentially aesthetic or temperamental sort, exercised in the confrontation of a plurality of philosophical styles?

However, even from the four studies which compose the body of this book certain striking generalization do, I think, emerge. One is the essential elitism, the exclusiveness of the philosophical enterprise. Another is the pervasiveness of the concern with method throughout the history of philosophy. And a third is the way those virtues which characterize and are embedded in the content of any philosophy take their color and their quality from the prevailing characteristics of its age.

It seems clear that despite its "democratic" commitment to a rationality which is universal, the actual practice of philosophy as represented by the tradition is limited to the small group, the restricted audience in any age. The Platonic society of aristocratic young men embarked upon an aristocratic education is constructed upon the Pythagorean model of a truly intimate circle or coterie, bound together by life‑ties and even a formal initiation. The Platonic Academy is only this little society formalized and embodied, where the medium of the esoteric discourse and the internal lecture produced (rather as a centripetal force) those literary dialogues written for Athens and the Hellenic world. The medieval community of saints and saintly educators, never far from the isolation of the monastery and monastic life, a dedicated group within the medieval university (itself a form of secular [309/310] monastery) produces its modes of philosophic argument (lectio, ordinatio, disputatio, questiones quodlibetas, etc.) within the small group of those bound together by the exertions of the Roman church and the cementing influence of a commonality of Christian belief. The seventeenth‑century "circle of learning," the exclusive and independent group of learned gentlemen, no longer concentrated in an Academy or a University (in short, no longer merely local, but as wide as Europe itself, although no less small and exclusive for this fact) communicates at a distance through the exchanged letter, and the circulated treatise with its "objections" and "answers to objections," without losing its sense of a community of the intellectually "chosen." And the contemporary intercourse of professional philosophers, "those with the Ph.D. degree," who communicate at the professional association meetings, attend world congresses of philosophy, and write articles for Mind and the Journal of philosophy, although it approaches the size of an unruly crowd, and at some professional meetings even a swirling mob, yet in fact comprises a relatively modest number, and actually manages to emphasize its singularity by the unconscious snobbery of its exclusions. Whether in ancient Athens, medieval Paris, seventeenth‑century France, England, or Holland, or in contemporary Oxford, Cambridge, or Chicago, the practice of philosophy is inbred, restricted, and drastically limited.

Although obsessive concentration upon techniques of philosophizing is the hallmark of philosophy today, Plato, Saint Thomas, and Descartes, no less than G. E. Moore, felt that some set ritual of disputation, demonstration, inquiry, discovery, or proof was the necessary precondition of philosophic accomplishment. It is therefore certainly no accident that each of these thinkers is associated with a particular philosophic method. First there is the dialectical method of Plato, a formalization of conversation and dialogue within an elite group of aristocratic truth seekers, where "division" and "analysis" are utilized to track down the essential nature of ideas and ultimately to provide real definitions for crucial metaphysical and moral concepts. This method—a purposive sublimation of the Greek contest system in the intellectual domain—presupposes the existence of an intellectual and social elite philosophizing—first publicly with Socrates in the agora, then privately with Plato in the Academy. Second there is the Scholastic method of Saint Thomas, originating in the living [310/311] actuality of formal disputation, the set ritual of systematic statement, counterstatement, rebuttal, and decision, peculiar to the closed university atmosphere with its small, but profoundly influential society of clerks and clerics, and finally becoming crystallized in the demonstrative procedure of the summa "question." Third there is the skeptical method of Descartes, the meditative cogitations of the private thinker steeped in mathematics and natural science, who subjects the whole spectrum of traditional beliefs to the test of indubitability in an attempt to found the sciences of the natural world upon an ultimate and unshakably rational basis, and who then communicates his results at a distance to the circle of savants and learned noblemen. And finally there is the analytic method of G. E. Moore, the details of which are difficult to pinpoint, but which utilizes the criteria of noncontradiction and conformity with common sense in taking infinite pains to establish an exactitude of meaning, and which expresses the natural pursuit of the professional philosopher functioning in the university classroom, the meetings of the learned society, and in the pages of the professional philosophical journal. These methods, dialectical, Scholastic, skeptical, or analytic, as the case may be, attest to a permanent philosophic concern with effective approaches and an accredited procedure for the achievement of philosophic truth.

If, as I have tried to show, philosophies are produced as a response to the needs of their time, and (often unconsciously) reflect its mood and spirit, then that part of philosophizing which shows the greatest immediate sensitivity to current custom and standards of valuation—moral philosophy—should be the firmest witness to the value configuration of any historical epoch. But even where there is no such one‑to‑one correlation, or where the philosophy is primarily metaphysical or epistemological and has no well‑worked‑out ethics, the philosopher's own life and philosophic procedures may nonetheless express the influence of the dominant ideals of his age. In the age of the aristocrat, the virtues are "aristocratic" virtues, and for Plato so are the civic requirements of courage, temperance, justice, and wisdom. Throughout the dialogues, the ancient influence of Homer and Simonides spills out between the lines. In the age of the saint, the virtues are “saintly" virtues, and so are devotion to God, purity, obedience, love, spirituality, and self‑denial in the life and work of Aquinas. Here the New Testament and the Rule of Saint Benedict find [311/312] constant expression. In the age of the gentleman, the virtues are “gentlemanly" virtues, and for Descartes so are moderation, reserve, nobility, resignation, fineness of feeling and conservatism. In his letters to Queen Christina and Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia, the seventeenth‑century equivalent of Stoic nobility is enshrined. In the age of the professional, the virtues are "professional virtues; and although, as I have tried to show, in the pages of Principia Ethica is to be found a profound conflict between a bourgeois and conservative conformity to social rules and the glimmerings of aesthetic revolt, this is but an early eccentricity in the thought of G. E. Moore. In his philosophic life he is himself a perfect example of the professional virtues of conscientiousness, analytic precision, steadfastness of application, logical rigor, and passionate devotion to the truth.

It should certainly be clear that the method of writing the history of philosophy which I have here adopted is meant not to supplant the more usual procedure of descriptive exposition and logical criticism, but to supplement it with considerations which are cultural and, to some extent, sociological. Above all, it is not meant as a substitute for any close reading of the textual sources themselves. My hope, rather, has been to increase the intelligibility of the basic texts by constructing a few simple hypotheses about their cultural role and social functioning. Nor has my purpose been in any sense to minimize or deny the crucial nature of the individual philosopher's creativity: the power of the personal agent or reflective mind striving to communicate method, argument, and vision through those basic texts which are our primary philosophic sources. Rather, I have tried to show for Plato, Saint Thomas, Descartes, and G. E. Moore how we can appreciate more deeply the nature of philosophic theories by observing their authors working within the horizon and resources of their own unique stage in human history and responsive to its peculiar quality and moral demands. For I believe that, despite the fiction of "logical inevitability," there is always an important element of "contingency" and "historicity" at the heart of any system.

Examining a philosopher's doctrines simply in terms of internal logical development and consistency is valuable, but it neglects one key resource—the historical matrix within which theory is always embedded. Individual philosophic statements are crucial, but the habit of seeing them always as "placed" and "dated" [312/313] permits us to furnish an anchorage in history for the complex reality of the philosopher's intent. Such historical anchorage does not compromise the availability of former doctrines to contemporary critical judgment, but it enhances the accessibility of their meaning.

The Uses of the History of Philosophy

Although the whole thrust of Philosophy as Social Expression has been to show that the works of the great philosophers are not simply expressions of their culture, or of the historic moments in which they were produced, it is true that it has emphasized their responsiveness to the challenges of culture and the way in which they reflect a dominant ideal or way of life. And this poses a certain question for the historian of philosophy: In exactly what way are philosophical ideas which were developed in part to satisfy local and historical needs available to other ages? What are the possible responses of a contemporary thinker to those great works which have become part of the tradition of the history of philosophy? What has been the historical fate of Platonism, of Thomism, of Cartesianism?

Two possible answers immediately become apparent. One is that any philosophy which attempts to answer certain questions for one age will again be useful when a later age faces similar problems. Any antidemocratic impulse might take its arguments from Platonic organicism and class stratification. Any conservative counterrevolution might find its rationale in the divine ordering of the Thomistic cosmos. Or, put in a less tendentiously political idiom, any recrudescence of the aristocratic ideal might find its inspiration in Platonism, even if it refused to accept the details of the Platonic metaphysics; any commitment to modem professionalism might find its inspiration in G. E. Moore's methodical search for clarity, even if it found his early Realism unsympathetic, and his reliance upon common sense unsophisticated and provincial.

The second answer is that however anchored in history a particular philosophy or Weltanschauung may be, it at the same time contains "timeless" or "rational" or "logical" elements eternally ripe for appropriation and elaboration. Thus the Thomistic and the Cartesian proofs for the existence of God are available whenever theological questions are of current interest, and Whitehead, [313/314] no antidemocrat but a good late‑nineteenth‑century liberal, can make the chief elements of the Platonic philosophy (the ideas, the numbers, the eros, the receptacle, the harmony, etc.) the foundation stones of his own philosophy of organism.

What is at stake here is the meaning of philosophic tradition—the ideological relationship between past and present—and this has clearly a twofold application. On the one hand the details of the contemporary philosophical situation (the dominance of professionalism) condition our understanding of the history of philosophy, and this seriously compromises the making of any hard and fast distinction between a "faithful" and a "distorted"—that is to say, a legitimate or an illegitimate—interpretation of the philosophic past. And the consequence is a serious tension between any desire to understand the past on its own terms and an equally legitimate desire to find it usable for solving current philosophical perplexities. On the other hand, even the dedicated attempt to arrive at a fuller comprehension of the doctrines held by Plato or Saint Thomas or Descartes will lead to some judgment about their adequacy, and this alone turns us in the direction of the "reasons" which might lead us to accept or reject them.

The balance between the claims of logic and of time, with which my initial chapter dealt, is a delicate one indeed. The historian of philosophy, no less than the constructive metaphysician, is eternally confronted with the need to deal both with the historical roots and the permanent importance of any philosophical position. And since the estimate of "permanent importance" is itself a variable one, this returns the act of judgment to the level of date, essential temporality, and historical fate. In his History of Philosophy and Philosophical Education, Etienne Gilson wrote: "The history of philosophy cannot be a graveyard for dead philosophers, because in philosophy there are no dead." Unfortunately this is far from the truth, and we had better reverse the witticism of Mark Twain ("Reports of my death are highly exaggerated") to reply to Gilson that reports of the life of, say, Herbert Spencer's System of Synthetic Philosophy or Avenarius's Kritik der reinen Erfahrung, or even so recently deceased a work as Samuel Alexander's Space, Time, and Deity, are highly exaggerated indeed. A judgment I think is much truer than Gilson's has been given by Merleau‑Ponty in the introduction to his Signs:

The history of thought does not summarily pronounce: This is true, that is false. Like all history, it has its veiled decisions. It [314/315] dismantles or embalms certain doctrines, changing them into “messages" or museum pieces. There are others, on the contrary, which it keeps active. These do not endure because there is some miraculous adequation or correspondence between them and an invariable "reality"—such an exact and fleshless truth is neither sufficient nor necessary for the greatness of a doctrine--but because, as obligatory steps for those who want to go further, they retain an expressive power which exceeds their statements and propositions. These doctrines are the classics. They are recognizable by the fact that no one takes them literally, and yet new facts are never absolutely outside their province but call forth new echoes from them and reveal new lusters in them . . . . Are you or are you not a Cartesian? The question does not make much sense, since those who reject this or that in Descartes do so only in terms of reasons which owe a lot to Descartes.

Merleau‑Ponty's distinction between "museum pieces," "messages," and "classics," is, I think, of the very greatest importance. Only it is necessary to add that these distinctions themselves are not eternal and unchangeable categories but historically variable and interchangeable, so that the message of one age may be the museum piece of the next. Or even that at the same time a certain philosophic position may function as a message in one tradition and as a museum piece in another. To understand what a museum piece is, is to recognize what Anaximines or Carneades or Panaetius or Wolff or Lotze or Haeckel or James Mill means to us today. And to understand what a message is, is to recognize what Hume meant to Hans Reichenbach or Hegel to Herbert Marcuse. But at the same time, if Hegel is a message to a revisionist Marxism, he is the deadest of museum pieces to a militant Positivism or a Logical Empiricism. And classics too may undergo the same fate of historical transformation. It is as possible to speak of a "downfall" of Cartesianism in the late seventeenth century as it is to speak of a "revival" of Thomism in the late nineteenth. The death and resurrection of the classics of philosophy is as mysterious, and sometimes as incomprehensible, as is the central mystery of the Christian religion.

Merleau‑Ponty's analysis of philosophy's historical fate is an important contribution to the problem of the relationship of former achievement to contemporary creation—of past to present. And its solution is essentially the same as that of T. S. Eliot. What counts is not the "pastness" of the past but its presence, and whereas museum pieces function as pure past (a collection of [315/316] memorials or mummy cases), messages and classics share a present—the one ephemeral, the other as a permanent possibility of inspiration which is powerful in its effect. And although we should probably agree that there is something ineradicably contingent and unforeseeable about the messages prevailing in any age, the classics have just that transcendent permanence to which Merleau‑Ponty calls attention. Plato and Aristotle, Saint Thomas and Saint Augustine, Descartes and Spinoza, Locke and Hume, Kant and John Stuart Mill remain active philosophically because, although no one today can possibly be a complete Platonist, or Cartesian, or Kantian, yet the stages which they register in the philosophic tradition are critical, and their resonance remains such that the process of their adaptation and assimilation is endless. The classics are therefore those philosophers and those philosophic works which are eternally relevant.

Yet to put it this way is not really to contradict the claim we have made that classics too undergo "historical transformation." Every age learns (positively or negatively) from Plato, but it is not always the same Plato. Every age learns (positively or negatively) from Descartes, but it is not always the same Descartes. A former generation read Descartes as the indispensable preparation for the French materialism of the eighteenth century or (since Gilson) as the not always willing heir of Saint Augustine and the entire medieval tradition. Today we read another Descartes for whom we have been prepared by Ryle and Wittgenstein: a Descartes whose dualism ("the ghost in the machine") is laughable and whose subjectivism ("Cartesian privacy") was (without once mentioning his name) the target of Wittgenstein's most sustained polemic!

But there are a third and a fourth Descartes also. For his dualism lives on (approvingly) in Strawson's "individuals"—"things" and "persons," and the subjectivism also lives on (lovingly) in the appropriations of contemporary existentialism and phenomenology. Sartre, in addition to utilizing the concept of "Cartesian freedom," has in his Transcendence of the Ego taken over the Cartesian notion of the "pre‑reflexive Cogito" to found his own epistemology. And Husserl in his Cartesian Meditations (1929) has followed the Cartesian example of a meditative philosophic procedure in which one begins radically anew, undertakes a radical "suspense of judgment" in a process of rigorous questioning to discover "the unquestionable basis" of human knowledge, and at [316/317] last finds this basis in the peculiar qualities of the personal subject. Husserl's great idols were Plato and Descartes. Already in 1892 at Halle and in 1916 at Göttingen, he had reflected deeply on Descartes's Meditations, and in the unpublished lectures "Phenomenological Method and Phenomenological Philosophy," which he delivered at the University of London in June 1922 (the last of which was chaired by G. E. Moore), he demonstrated the historical connection between Descartes's arrival at the ego cogito as a result of a methodological negation of the world of sense experience, and his own method of "the phenomenological reduction."

An entire dissertation could be written on the Cartesianism of Husserl, but that is not of overriding importance here. What I have wished to indicate is the multiple uses of Descartes, and how the phenomenological and existentialist utilization of his results is, on the whole, in striking contrast to their "analytic" rejection. But also, as we have seen, something very similar is true of the contemporary uses of Plato. Whitehead, like Plato a great mathematician and philosopher and perhaps the last great representative of the Platonic tradition in Anglo‑Saxon philosophy, builds his comprehensive metaphysics upon consciously adopted Platonic foundations, while John Dewey (who once asserted nevertheless that Plato was his favorite philosophical reading) criticizes the Platonic abstraction, mentalism, and aristocratic distaste for association with common everyday "materials" (whether nonliving or human) as a step in the establishment of his own practical and ordinary "arts of control." But even here it is possible to find certain social correlations. Whitehead, although no British nobleman (he stems from essentially the same upper‑middle‑class background as G. E. Moore) is yet in some sense a contemporary of that nineteenth‑century aristocratic Oxford and Cambridge espousal of Greek culture expressed by Jebb and Jowett and later by Verall and Gilbert Murray, whereas Dewey's nineteenth‑century rural New England background, with its town‑meeting, farmer-shrewdness atmosphere, prepared him for precisely that apotheosis of the quotidian which his pragmatism so completely expresses.

In the Platonism of Whitehead, the Cartesianism of Husserl and Sartre, and the Thomism of Gilson and Jacques Maritain, we have evidence of how the philosophical classics are transformed into "messages," just as in the virulent anti‑Platonism, anti‑Thomism, and anti‑Cartesianism to be found in the camp of the Pragmatists, Logical Empiricists, and Analytic Philosophers we [317/318] see them being converted into museum pieces, if not worse. What is now perhaps the next task for the historians of philosophy is to begin with Merleau‑Ponty's important distinction between museum pieces, messages, and classics and to direct their efforts toward a search for the logic which governs their cultural incidence and their transformations.

SOURCE: Levi, Albert William. Philosophy as Social Expression (Chicago; London: The University of Chicago Press, 1974), Chapter 6, "Conclusion: Philosophy's Historic Fate: Museum Pieces, Messages, and Classics," pp. 301-318.

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