Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, May 18, 2015

ideas and their consequences

I want to spend some time here expanding on a point I made in my previous post, because I think it’s relevant to many, many disputes about historical causation. In that post I argued that people don't get an impulse to alter their/our biological conformation by reading Richard Rorty or Judith Butler or any other theorists within the general orbit of the humanities, according to a model of Theory prominent among literary scholars and in Continental philosophy and in some interpretations of ancient Greek theoria. Rather, technological capability is its own ideology with its own momentum, and people who practice that ideology may sometimes be inclined to use Theory to provide ex post facto justifications for what they would have done even if Theory didn’t exist at all.

I think there is a great tendency among academics to think that cutting-edge theoretical reflection is ... well, is cutting some edges somewhere. But it seems to me that Theory is typically a belated thing. I’ve argued before that some of the greatest achievements of 20th-century literary criticism are in fact rather late entries in the Modernist movement: “We academics, who love to think of ourselves as being on the cutting-edge of thought, are typically running about half-a-century behind the novelists and poets.” And we run even further behind the scientists and technologists, who alter our material world in ways that generate the Lebenswelt within which humanistic Theory arises.

This failure of understanding — this systematic undervaluing of the materiality of culture and overvaluing of what thinkers do in their studies — is what produces vast cathedrals of error like what I have called the neo-Thomist interpretation of history. When Brad Gregory and Thomas Pfau, following Etienne Gilson and Jacques Maritain and Richard Weaver, argue that most of the modern world (especially the parts they don't like) emerges from disputes among a tiny handful of philosophers and theologians in the University of Paris in the fifteenth century, they are making an argument that ought to be self-evidently absurd. W. H. Auden used to say that the social and political history of Europe would be exactly the same if Dante, Shakespeare, and Mozart had never lived, and that seems to me not only to be true in those particular cases but also as providing a general rule for evaluating the influence of writers, artists, and philosophers. I see absolutely no reason to think that the so-called nominalists — actually a varied crew — had any impact whatsoever on the culture that emerged after their deaths. When you ask proponents of this model of history to explain how the causal chain works, how we got from a set of arcane, recondite philosophical and theological disputes to the political and economic restructuring of Western society, it’s impossible to get an answer. They seem to think that nominalism works like an airborne virus, gradually and invisibly but fatally infecting a populace.

It seems to me that Martin Luther’s ability to get a local printer to make an edition of Paul’s letter to the Romans stripped of commentary and set in wide margins for student annotation was infinitely more important for the rise of modernity than anything that William of Ockham and Duns Scotus ever wrote. If nominalist philosophy has played any role in this history at all — and I doubt even that — it has been to provide (see above) ex post facto justification for behavior generated not by philosophical change but by technological developments and economic practices.

Whenever I say this kind of thing people reply But ideas have consequences! And indeed they do. But not all ideas are equally consequential; nor do all ideas have the same kinds of consequences. Dante and Shakespeare and Mozart and Ockham and Scotus have indeed made a difference; but not the difference that those who advocate the neo-Thomist interpretation of history think they made. Moreover, and still more important, scientific ideas are ideas too; as are technological ideas; as are economic ideas. (It’s for good reason that Robert Heilbroner called his famous history of the great economists The Worldly Philosophers.)

If I’m right about all this — and here, as in the posts of mine I’ve linked to here, I have only been able to sketch out ideas that need much fuller development and much better support — then those of us who are seriously seeking alternatives to the typical modes of living in late modernity need a much, much better philosophy and theology of technology. Which is sort of why this blog exists ... but at some point, in relation to all the vital topics I’ve been exploring here, I’m going to have to go big or go home.


  • "vast cathedrals of error" -- a nice line.

    I'm reminded of what Umberto Eco said about the collapse of medieval Thomism and the middle ages more broadly, that systems like that don't collapse from within on the basis of internal inconsistencies but from without, as the rising merchant and explorer class had no use for Thomas.

    So is the idea that ideas have consequences the consequence of German Idealism, Hegel being the founder of intellectual history?

  • I'll be watching with interest.

    Note: The link to the previous post is broken.

  • Isaac, the link works for me. Is it still broken for you?

    Leroy: Eco's line is a great one. But I would go further and question whether there ever really was a "collapse of medieval Thomism": Thomas was never a hugely influential figure in his own time or soon thereafter, and of course his ideas were often under challenge and sometimes proscribed. The so-called High Middle Ages were just as varied in their beliefs and just as full of inconsistencies as later eras — it's only in retrospect that Thomas seems such a titan. Or so sez me. Another thing to argue in more detail later.

  • I think you may be right, as there's a lot of people who think Thomas didn't matter as much as we think he did until the 19th-20th centuries.

    Would be interested in your thoughts on my closing question, which was a question.

  • I was getting a not-logged-in error. Link works for me now, whatever my original problem was.

  • Leroy, sorry for forgetting to answer the question! Answer: that sounds so right to me that I hesitate. I don't want to sign on immediately to a thesis that fits my preconceptions so perfectly. Let me think about it some more.

  • Let me know if you've thought about it some more, now 8 months later;) DOn't forget, by the way, that Oberman (cf. pp. 110-114 of Luther: God Between Man and the Devil) describes Luther as an avowed disciple of Occam(!). Maybe that could be considered prior to what Luther decided to do with his having Romans printed?

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