Saturday, March 7, 2015

The Birth of Science: A Primer on Intellectual History (Part 1: From Antiquity to the Renaissance)

For over a decade I have been teaching a course on the history and systems of psychology at Rutgers University at Newark. The class, which serves as a capstone course for undergraduate psychology students, surveys an intellectual history from antiquity through the 21st century. It is my goal in this course to help students to understand and appreciate the political, philosophical, cultural, and historical influences on psychology through the ages.

We begin the course with a survey of intellectual history. As I am a believer in presenting a reading of history, rather than the history, I ask my students, as I now ask you, to appreciate that this sketch of intellectual history is one that I have arrived at, and is not the only reading available. As I have researched over the years, my understanding of the story has evolved. I have no doubt that the story I tell now will be different from the story I tell ten years from now. One thing that we know from thinking about intellectual history is that we must speak in the plural, of histories, rather than of history.

Giobbi's Timeline of Intellectual History
Antiquity (to 600 B.C.E.)
The earliest appearance of human questioning and answering came in the form of narrative stories. We call this myth, taken from the Greek mythos, which means "speech, thought, story... anything deriving form the mouth". These narratives center around animism, anthropomorphism, and magic. 

The term myth is commonly thought of in a more narrow sense, meaning something that is invented and not necessarily true. The sense of the word in the context of intellectual history is simply narrative explanation. There are narratives that are no longer practiced, but enjoyed for their wisdom and entertainment, such as the early Greek Olympian and Dionysiac-Orphic narratives. There are narratives of antiquity continue to be practiced, such as the Judeo-Christian-Islamic narratives.

The term animism refers to the practice of viewing the world as something that is living and active, rather than inanimate. For example, the poetic idea of angry skies or happy clouds is animism. A more precise term, anthropomorphism is used to describe nature as having human attributes. This can be seen in the human motivations, feelings, and actions of the Greek, Olympian gods.

Any ritual or act that is done to influence nature or a God is referred to as magic. Magic includes any type of ritualistic behavior, such as a rain dance, or ritualistic thought, such as prayer. The essence of magic is the idea that ritual can influence occurrences. We see this tradition alive and well today in what we call religious and spiritual belief. The important aspect to keep in mind is that myth serves to predict, control, and understand the natural world (Humphrey). 

The two main forms of narrative that existed in the ancient Greek world were the Olympian religion and the Dionysiac-Orphic religion. It is common to characterize the former as the religion described in the Homeric poems. The ideal life was one lived for glory through noble deeds and ended at death. The Olympian gods appear to mirror the characteristics of the Greek nobility, which comprised most of the religion's followers.

The poorer ancient Greeks; peasants, laborers, and slaves, tended to believe in the Dionysiac-Orphic religions. This religion, based on Dionysus, incorporated wine, sexual frenzy, and the transmigration of the soul; the belief that the soul is trapped in a body, as punishment for a sin committed in the heavens. The belief that the soul escapes earthly existence at death would later influence the Judeo-Christian belief.

In the East, the Vedic religions; Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism, as well as the East Asian  Taoism, Shinto, and Confucianism all emerged from 1500, B.C.E. on. These belief systems are treated as a religion by some practitioners, and as a life philosophy for others. This is an important distinction to be aware of. We find that Eastern and Western thought synthesize in many thinkers from 600 B.C.E. to the present.

Western Philosophy
It is commonly accepted that the first Western philosopher was Thales (ca. 625-547 B.C.E.). What made Thales different from other thinkers is that he rejected supernatural phenomena (such as gods and spirits) and looked to the physical world for explanations to the fundamental question, what is the world made of? Thales had traveled in the East and it is believed that his thinking was influenced by Eastern thought. The primary question that Thales proposed, and the question that would dominate philosophy (the love of wisdom) until Socrates, was; what is the fundamental substance of which the world is made? This primary element was called physis meaning the nature of stuff. Thales concluded that the fundamental physis was water. Thales is said to have once fallen into a well while deep in thought.

Early philosophers proposed various answers to the question of what the fundamental physis is. Anaximander proposed the basic physis was chaos (an abyss, wide open), which is almost postmodern in its vagueness. It certainly conjures up contemporary work in theoretical physics. Heraclitus proposed that the physis is fire, and pointed out that everything is in a state of becoming, rather than being.

The thinkers that came before Socrates are typically called the Pre-Socratics. The reason for this is because with Socrates came a distinct shift in philosophy's focus. Unlike the earlier philosophers, Socrates was interested in the question, what does one mean by....? What does one mean by "beauty". What does one mean when they say "justice"? Socrates is said to have lived by the dictum "know thyself". Because Socrates never wrote anything down, the Socrates that we know comes from the writings of his friend Plato, he featured Socrates as a character in a series of 25 dialogues. This is  the reason that some scholars refer to the earlier Greek philosophers as the "Pre-Platonics" rather than the "Pre-Socratics".

Along with the earliest philosophers were a group of thinkers who are customarily called the Sophists. These thinkers challenged the idea that one could arrive at an ultimate, universal truth, and instead proposed that truths existed within contexts. The Sophists were frequent targeted by Socrates and Plato. The contemporary manifestation of the Sophists is postmodernism.

Raffael's The School of Athens
In Raffael's painting The School of Athens, we find two central figures, one pointing up and the other pointing down. These two characters are Aristotle and Plato. Aristotle, who is pointing down, was a student of Plato's. Raffael depicted Aristotle pointing to the earth because his philosophy was based on finding truth through the natural world. Plato is depicted by pointing upwards because his philosophy was based on truth being metaphysical (beyond the physical). Both of these philosophers were looking to establish ultimate, universal, truth, and each proposed that it existed someplace different.

With the rise of the Roman Empire we find a shift towards life philosophy, or a philosophy for the good life. This idea was not new, Plato and Aristotle both discussed the idea. However, for these philosophers, how to live was at the center of philosophy. Pyrrho of Elis formed a school called Skepticism. Antisthenes proposed Cynicism. Epicurus taught that the good life found through simple living. Much of the other philosophers were influenced by Plato's teachings, and we call them neoplatonists (new Platonism). These neo-Platonists influenced early Christianity a great deal; much of Christian theology of this time can be traced to Plato's thinking. By the time that the Roman Empire fell in 476 C.E., the writings of Aristotle had been lost to the Western world. Aristotle's works were alive and well in Arabia, Syria, Egypt, Persia, Sicily, and Spain. From about 410 C.E. until around 1000 C.E., Europe experienced what is described as a "dark" period. Just how dark these Dark Ages were is debated. What we do know is that at the very same time, the Islamic world was the cultural center of the world. Much of our modern mathematics and science is based on Middle Eastern thought from this period.

In the High Middle Ages (1000s through 1300) and the Late Middle Ages (1300s through the 1500s) there was a 200 year struggle for control of the Holy Lands between the Roman Catholic Church and Islam. During this time, returning crusaders and trade merchants reintroduced Aristotle from the Islamic world back into Europe. This reintroduction of Aristotle is said to have been one of the major catalysts for the European Renaissance; the cultural rebirth of the 15th century.