“Philosophy is a dead end”…

And other dimwitted complaints.

The following, written by Yves Simon, is an excerpt from his acceptance speech for the Aquinas Medal, awarded to him by the American Catholic Philosophical Association. It speaks directly to the intellectual malaise of our scientistic age; it was written in 1958. Simon died three years later.

I dedicate this to all the serious-minded readers and commenters at Edward Feser’s blog, among other such sites.

The minds of our contemporaries are filled with patterns of consensus confirmed by technical feats. Under these circumstances the disagreements of the philosophers are, more than ever, considered intolerable. … In the more common opinion, it is an accepted fact that the never-ending disagreements of the philosophers show that there is no objective necessity in philosophy. Some conclude that time spent in philosophic research is time spent wasted, but many hold that philosophy, without achieving demonstrative certainty, can still serve mankind by keeping alive an interest in issues that remain worth investigating, even though they do not admit of rational determination. …

[A]ny proposition which expresses rational necessity is, in terms of logical nature, capable of winning universal assent. … But there are many accidental reasons why certain propositions, though expressive of rational necessity, do not have the slightest chance of being commonly assented to. …

It seems that the reasons why philosophers disagree have never been analyzed and set forth adequately. … To mention only one example, not enough attention has been given to the consequences of philosophy’s ability to exist in a multiplicity of states. Physics exists only in the state of a technically developed discipline. Philosophy exists in the state of a technically developed discipline, but it also exists in the state of common intelligence apart from any special education, and it also exists within the thought of the physicist … and within the ways of thought of many other learned people. This ability to exist in a multiplicity of states is a glorious privilege of philosophic intelligence and the ground of its significance in culture at large. But when philosophic intuitions born of scientific thought, or of a moral or esthetic experience, or of a sense for the history of ideas, are built into philosophical systems, all sorts of accidents are likely to take place. The examination of these and similar contingencies … [account for] the disagreements of the philosophers….

If [therefore] it is true that philosophic propositions may express objective necessity, and that accidental, but overwhelming reasons will always prevent them from winning factual consensus, the position of the philosopher in society raises embarrassing problems. Some philosophers have access to demonstratively established truths. What are these poor fellows going to do? They certainly have nothing to brag about, for access to rare truth is the most undeserved of all privileges. And yet … they have to fight for these precious convictions, [and] they would be unfaithful to truth if they consented to have them described as more or less personal opinions. This is really what is strangest in the philosopher’s calling: this duty of fighting against learned and dignified persons, against Descartes and Spinoza  and Berkeley and a few others, with the inescapable implication that he, the solitary fighter, knows better about the really important issues than most of the greatest among philosophical geniuses. It looks as if a painter of fair talent went to war against Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Rubens. How can the philosopher convince people that he is not just yielding to insane pride? … Can anything be done to remove these damaging appearances? Much can be done indeed, but to conceal certainty by proposing truth under the socially acceptable opinion is not always the right method. … In the fulfillment of the philosopher’s duty there is no substitute for he fearless of truth, for selflessness, fortitude, and humility.

–– Philosopher at Work (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999), ed. Anthony O. Simon, pp. 3–5.


About The Codgitator (a cadgertator)

Catholic convert. Quasi-Zorbatic. Freelance interpreter, translator, and web marketer. Former ESL teacher in Taiwan (2003-2012) and former public high school teacher (2012-2014). Married father of three. Multilingual, would-be scholar, and fairly consistent fitness monkey. My research interests include: the interface of religion and science, the history and philosophy of science and technology, ancient and medieval philosophy, and cognitive neuroscience. Please pray for me.
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