Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Josiah Royce and The Spirit of Modern Philosophy.

I am told that my book is available on the German on-line bookseller's site: and,page=9 Your friends will be impressed if you quote from this thought-provoking work, which (despite my best efforts) has not been banned in Boston.

Like several other essays, this one has been altered by hackers. I will do my best to make corrections. Do not allow such people to discourage you from reading this work.

Josiah Royce is one of the great philosophers of America's "Golden Age" at Harvard. His colleagues included William James and George Santayana, whose dissertation he supervised. To my continuing annoyance, Royce insisted that Santayana write about Lotze, with whom Royce studied in Germany, rather than allowing Santayana to focus on Schopenhauer's aesthetics. Today we might have a book-length treatment of Schopenhauer's theory of art by the young Santayana (something that would be fascinating). By the way, the influence of the great German misanthrope on Santayana can be seen in the latter's first book, The Sense of Beauty. Instead, we have a dissertation by Santayana -- who is a much better philosopher than his forgettable subject -- about the epistemology of Herman Lotze. (See my essay "Arthur Shopenhauer's Metaphysics of Art.")

Santayana's revenge is his sharp critique of Royce's metaphysics in Character and Opinion in the United States. People don't realize the subtext of Santayana's bitter review of Royce: "This guy made me write 300 pages about Herman Lotze." The old Spanish saying is accurate: "Revenge is a dish best eaten cold."

Royce's philosophy was a form of voluntaristic idealism, solidly based on German nineteenth century thought. Royce was also sympathetic to pragmatism, more as derived from the writings of C.S. Peirce ("I call it pragmaticism!" Peirce reminds us) than from William James.

Royce argued against James all the time. Although James won the historical battle, since his views were more compatible with an emerging commerical power, Royce represents an important aspect of America's philosophical mind -- an idealistic and romantic aspect, which is closer to my heart -- and one which should not be neglected. Royce provides a philosophical articulation of American hopefulness and future-orientation. Incidentally, Peirce's essay "Evolutionary Love" is a masterpiece to be read along with Royce's metaphysics. Royce is America's answer to Britain's F.H. Bradley.

C.S. Peirce is probably the all-time greatest American philosopher, especially for those interested in hermeneutics and semiotics (the study of signs and symbols), a discipline which Peirce kind of invented, so that he is still being quoted not only by tenured faculty at, say, the University of Wisconsin, but also in philosophically "cool places," like Paris (Roland Barthes in the old days) and Bologna (Umberto Eco these days).

Walker Percy has published a lovely essay dealing with Percy's ideas in Message in a Bottle. Peirce was also certifiably insane, probably, and his love-life was so intense that it probably cost him his career at Harvard, together with all social respectability. I don't know if I can relate to that. One must never be so romantically foolish as to sacrifice professional success for a woman, which is something I would never do. Or would I? Maybe that much and more is due to those we love. ("That's so insensitive to women's issues!")

We forget that there was a time when idealism flourished in this land of the "bottom line" and "practicality." Peirce was not an idealist, but he had a mystical streak, as do most good philosophers. Science worshippers can relax, Peirce was also highly scientific and rigorous. There is a wonderful school of philosophical idealism associated, mysteriously, with the city of St. Louis. It must have been before they had baseball. Heidegger's comment about America being a land of "vacuum cleaner salesmen" or something like that , would have horrified Royce. Oswald Spengler said worse about the U.S., possibly as a result of America's effrontery in winning the First World War.

Royce was still in awe of Europeans, in a Henry James kind of a way, like all those American academics today in awe of French "Master Thinkers." I spent at least forty minutes discussing the philosophical ideas of one lawyer's favorite French philosopher, "Pierre Cardin." I did not have the heart to tell him that he was thinking of Michel Foucault. Both Foucault and Cardin would have been amused and flattered. No doubt that lawyer is on the New Jersey (or U.S.?) Supreme Court by now.

Rationalism (idealistic in form or not) has always had its American adherents, so has Continental theory, whether Marxist-inspired Critical theory, phenomenology or existentialism. Even the occasional postmodernist lunatic can be seen wandering the halls of academia, searching for the philosophical equivalent of the Dodo, in order to prove that it does not exist. Has anyone seen Stanley Fish?

One of my main intellectual interests is modern philosophy, so I read many histories of the subject and biographies of the various thinkers as well as works by each of them. At the moment, I am finishing Royce's lectures providing a history of modern thought from Spinoza to the late nineteenth century. At the same time, I am alternating chapters of Karl Lowith's massive From Hegel to Nietzsche. I am thinking of tackling Habermas after finishing these two books, or maybe Friedrich Beiser's Hegel. Perhaps I'll devote an essay to Oliver Wendell Holmes and "The Path of the Law." Yes, I know, I promised to read and review The Da Vinci Code.

I read A.N. Wilson's God's Funeral right before studying Royce, so that associating the collapse of Christianity or even the "waning of religion" (Huizinga's Waning of the Middle Ages comes to mind) with the rise of a secularized form of Christian metaphysics in idealism is easy for me, especially as I happily absorb Royce's confident prose. Royce's philosophy reflects a much smaller and more cheerful world than the one we live in today. Whatever happens to the organized churches or Catholicism, the ethical truth in Christian scriptures will not be affected by it. Many opponents of religion fail to understand this.

Churches or religious establishments are political and historical organizations with worldly roles to play. Religious or spiritual wisdom -- usually conveyed by means of myth -- is concerned with allowing persons to negotiate life's journey and transitions, primarily by finding meaning in their lives through love (eros) and coming to terms with death (thanatos). I plan to wrestle with Sigmund Freud in this blog eventually. The flaws in or criticisms of institutions has little to do with this important meaning of religion. The same goes for flaws in individuals who happen to adhere to one religion or another. You have said nothing about Catholicism by pointing out that individual priests have done bad things. You have not touched the ethical meaning of Christianity by noting the historical errors of the church.

The mood of Royce's lectures is optimistic and confident in a manner that is inconceivable in a post-Hollocaust world. Everything was possible in Royce's universe -- for white men, of course -- when God was in his heaven and President Eliot ruled at Harvard. By way of comparison, see Professor C. Delise Burns's The Growth of Modern Philosophy. It is astonishing for a woman (I think professor Burns is a woman) to have written and published this work in 1909. Even more for Mary Whiton Calkins, a professor of both philosophy and psychology at Weslley College, to publish The Persistent Problems of Philosophy in 1917. Both happen to be better than Royce's lectures at several points. Here is Ms./Mr. Burns (who had clearly been reading Freud, when no one was looking) capturing in a single paragraph what Royce says less clearly in a long chapter.

The later form of the "Wissenschaftslehre" and the popular works mark the progress from these concepts to a transcendental system which is an attempt to read the real world in its relation to the ideal; for the force that expresses the individual's first (unconscious) activity is not his own, and the end he moves toward is not merely personal. Also the limiting world is not, as limit, the construction of that which exists only by being limited (finite activity). On every side the finite self goes out into infinity; and the infinity, as to meaning, is the Divine Idea: the Absolute is God. [Summarizing Fitche.]

Royce (wisely) chooses to begin his account of modern philosophy not with Descartes, but with Spinoza. This is in order to clarify the connection between Spinoza's metaphysics and Royce's own concern with eschatology as well as post-Kantian German thought. These concerns unite both in Romanticism and in the subsequent "movements" of Hegel's dialectics. Royce does not suggest it, but one might go as far back as Aristotle and Aquinas to the dynamism in teleological method, since Spinoza's theory, by contrast, is a quest for comprehensiveness and perfection in stasis, a search for a machine-like precision in a universe of perfect coherence at a high level of abstraction where the air is very thin.

Unlike Descartes, Spinoza escapes dualism at the cost of freedom, however, through his identification and acceptance of this rational comprehensiveness and determinateness, that is, by his "intellectual love of God" in his "dual aspect" metaphysics, especially in the ethics. Doctoral candidates may wish to compare Spinoza's "Substance" with Hegel's "Spirit," as the movement from externalism to internalism in Western thought, which was only made possible by Kant's "Copernican Revolution" in philosophy. This internalism, by the way, turns out to be externalism anyway, as Ego becomes the very nature of the universe in the great crescendo of nineteenth century German philosophy. Robert C. Solomon has fun with this "cosmic pretense" in his history of European thought.

To my knowledge, no one has written a dissertation on the idea of sacrifice as the expression of love and acceptance of Divine Will in Spinoza (Jewish) or as becoming Spirit, through self-realization, in Hegel (Christian). Both men were concerned, in a way, with secularizing the idea of redemption. The thinking of these two men is related on this fascinating subject, which is found somewhere in that mysterious territory between theology and philosophy. Furthermore, there may be insights into both men's lives resulting from such an inquiry:

The world is one, and so all things in it must be parts of one self-evident, self-producing order, one nature. Spinoza conceives this order, describes its self-explaining and all-producing character, as well as he can, and then gives it a name elsewhere well known to philosophers, but used by him in his own sense. He calls the supreme nature of things the universal "Substance" of all the world. In it are we all; it makes us what we are; it does what its own nature determines; it explains itself and all of us; it isn't produced, it produces; it is uncreated, supreme, overruling, omnipresent, absolute, rational, irreversible, unchangeable, the law of laws, the nature of natures; and we -- we, with all our acts, thoughts, feelings, life, relations, experiences -- are just the result of it, the consequences of it, as the diameters are the results of the nature of a circle.

Good sense requires an acceptance and trust in the wisdom of the whole, however baffling it may be to us. Counselor West says in The Matrix: Reloaded: "Comprehension is not a requisite of cooperation." Everybody was walking around for weeks saying -- "What does that mean?" Here is Royce summarizing Spinoza to explain it to you:

Feel, hope, desire, choose, strive, as you will, all is in you because this universal substance makes you what you are, forces you into this place in the nature of things, rules you as the higher truth rules the lower, as the wheel rules the spoke, as the storm rules the raindrop, as the tide rules the wavelet, as Autum rules the dead leaves, as the snowdrift rules the fallen snowflake; and this substance is what Spinoza calls God.

Those of us lacking Spinoza's serene genius for acceptance are doomed to struggle. We wage Promethean battle against the cosmic order. Santayana appropriates the Biblical phrase, "Dominations and Powers" to describe this order. We shake a human fist against the universe, along with Albert Camus, even when it is hopeless -- or because it is hopeless -- to struggle against fate. Thus, I reverse West's dictum in my Miltonian or Luciferian affirmation: "Comprehension and choice is always a requisite of my cooperation." Neo is right: "The problem is choice." My philosophical analysis of the theory of freedom in the Matrix is coming up.

Come to think of it, we could use a comment or two right now from Duke's "bad boy" and postmodernist Milton expert, Professor Stanley Fish. (See the exchange between Owen Fiss and Professor Fish on interpretation and objectivity in law.)

Hegel's take on all of this is time-bound, richly historical, calling on us to accept that "Spirit" reveals itself in all things, including our tragedies. Notice Hegel's obsession with Antigone and the mystery of all tragedy, so that if we step back and see the historical puzzle put together (read Tom Stoppard's Arcadia), Hegel insists that the "sublime necessity for our mortal strivings [and pains] is evident and we pronounce [life] good." I am not so sure:

Suppose that what our self-conscious being has to do is prove a proposition in geometry. As he proves, he appeals to somebody, his OTHER SELF, so to speak, to observe that his proof is sound. Or again, suppose that what he does is to LOVE, to hate, to beseech, to pity, to appeal for pity, to feel proud, to despise, to exhort, to feel charitable, to long for sympathy, to converse, to do, in short, any of the social acts that make up when taken all together, the whole of our innermost self-consciousness. All these acts, we see, involve at least the appeal to many selves, to society, to other spirits. We have no life alone. There is no merely inner self. There is the world of selves. We live in our coherence with other people, in our relationships. To sum it up all up: From first to last the law of conscious existence is this paradoxical but real self-differentiation, whereby I, the so-called inner self, am through and through one of many selves, so that my inner self is already an outer, a revealed, an expressed self. The only [real] mind is the world of many related minds. It is the essence of consciousness to lose itself in outer but spiritual relationships. Who am I then at this moment? I am just this knot of relationships to outer moments and to other people? [See R.D. Laing's Knots.] Do I converse busily and with absorption? Then I am but just now this center of the total consciousness of all those who are absorbed in this conversation. And so always it is of the essence of spirit, to differentiate itself into many spirits, to live in their relationships, to be one by virtue solely of their coherence.

For Hegel, I live in division, in alienation -- both within myself and against the world, in separation from my "other self" and community -- until I see the pattern that makes sense of my life over time. Yes, I know about Freud. It is that Hegelian pattern that explains the unity between my inner sufferings and the strife in the world, so that meaning is the "rose in the cross of the present." I am and can only be "realized" when joined with that other self, who contains the only possibility for the resolution of my contradictions, as I do for her. I am for her -- as she is for me -- mirror and door for all true self-becoming. (See my essay on "George Santayana and the Mysteries of Quantum Mechanics.")

Much the same analysis applies to the dialectic between humanity and the universe in idealism. This is to suggest something also concerning the relationship between humanity and God in Western religious thought. The unity is all-inclusive. Catholics will be reminded of "the unity of the Holy Spirit."

Norman Mailer begins his essay on the presidential campaign of George McGovern, by gesturing at a predecessor: "Greetings to Charles Dickens across the veils of karma ..." Every philosopher does the same with regard to his or her predecessors in the tradition, giving them each a "high five," in order to define a personal set of ideas within "the intellectual project of the West." Every philosophy is a chapter in the book of universal Mind. Mind reveals itself only in the unfolding story of the universe and all life. My source at this point and one of the works which casts a shadow on all of my thinking is Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit.

Hegel suggests that all of us, as a matter of being human, recognize God working out His destiny through us, using our lives, in that instrument of the divine that is the history (and herstory) of the universe and everything in it. I remember a powerful image of persons in history drawn from Gore Vidal's memoirs: We are puppets that are used and discarded by history's great forces. Professor Burns will get the last word by summarizing Hegel for us, better than Royce does, even as Professor Royce of Harvard University takes all the bows. Some things have not changed all that much since Royce's day:

[When Spirit comes to know itself as Spirit,] ... the objective and the subjective mind are one, unified in three movements -- Art, Revealed Religion, and (Absolute) Philosophy. In art the ideal appears as the beautiful; it is a revelation of the eternal, the absolute, but it is momentary. When that revelation is more than a glimpse of intuition, revealed religion takes its rise. This is not any empty creed, but a "dominant conviction of the meaning of reality"; and the final stage of all is called by Hegel "philosophy," though it is doubtul whether the word will stand the meaning put upon it, for it seems that he means a rational and logical mysticism. ... [W]hat has been implicit in ordinary religion becomes explicit. We recognize ourselves in the Absolute, which is God.

Labels: , ,


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home