Modern (and Contemporary) Philosophers' Rejections of Classical Philosophy

Francis Bacon (1561-1626). The New Organon and Related Writings. New York: The Liberal Arts Press, 1960. First published in 1620.*

The Great Instauration.

From the Proem: "[T]he entire fabric of human reason which we employ in the inquisition of nature is badly put together and built up, and like some magnificent structure without any foundation. . . . There was but one course left, therefore--to try the whole thing anew upon a better plan, and to commence a total reconstruction of sciences, arts, and all human knowledge, raised upon the proper foundations." (pp. 3-4)

From the Epistle Dedicatory: "[I]f these things are indeed worth anything. Certainly they are quite new, totally new in their very kind: and yet they are copied from a very ancient model." (5)

"[T]hat so at length, after the lapse of so many ages, philosophy and the sciences may no longer float in air, but rest on the solid foundation of experience of every kind, and the same well examined and weighed." (6)

From the Preface: "[T]hat wisdom which we have derived principally from the Greeks is but like the boyhood of knowledge, and has the characteristic property of boys: it can talk, but it cannot generate, for it is fruitful of controversies but barren of works. . . . In the mechanical arts we do not find it so; they, on the contrary, as having in them some breath of life, are continually growing and becoming more perfect. . . . Philosophy and the intellectual sciences, on the contrary, stand like statues, worshipped and celebrated, but not moved or advanced." (7-8)

Rene Descartes. (1596-1650). Discourse on Method. 2d rev. ed. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1956. First published in 1637.

From Part One: "[T]here was no such wisdom in the world as I had previously hoped to find." (4)

"[P]hilosophy teaches us to talk with an appearance of truth about all things, and to make ourselves admired by the less learned." (4)

"I was especially pleased with mathematics, because of the certainty and self-evidence of its proofs; . . . On the other hand, I compared the ethical writings of the ancient pagans to very superb and magnificent palaces built only on mud and sand: . . . they give no adequate criterion of virtue." (5)

"I will say nothing of philosophy except that it has been studied for many centuries by the most outstanding minds without having produced anything which is not in dispute and consequently doubtful." (5-6)

Thomas Hobbes. (1588-1679). Leviathan: Parts One and Two. New York: Macmillan, 1958. First published in 1651.

From Part Four, Chapter 46: "But what has been the utility of those schools [of the Grecians]? What science is there at this day acquired by their readings and disputings? That we have of geometry, which is the mother of all natural science, we are not indebted for it to the schools. Plato, that was the best philosopher of the Greeks, forbade entrance into his school to all that were not already in some measure geometricians. . . . The natural philosophy of those schools was rather a dream than science, and set forth in senseless and insignificant language, which cannot be avoided by those that will teach philosophy without having first attained great knowledge in geometry. For nature works by motion, the ways and degrees whereof cannot be known without the knowledge of the proportions and properties of lines and figures. Their moral philosophy is but a description of their own passions. For the rule of manners, without civil government, is the law of nature; and in it, the law civil that determines what is honest and dishonest, what is just and unjust, and generally what is good and evil. Whereas they make the rules of good and bad by their own liking and disliking; by which means, in so great diversity of taste, there is nothing generally agreed on, but everyone does, as far as he dares, whatsoever seems good in his own eyes, to the subversion of commonwealth. Their logic, which should be the method of reasoning, is nothing else but captions of words and inventions how to puzzle such as should go about to pose them. To conclude, there is nothing so absurd that the old philosophers, as Cicero says (who was one of them), have not some of them maintained. And I believe that scarce anything can be more absurdly said in natural philosophy than that which now is called Aristotle's Metaphysics; nor more repugnant to government than much of that he said in his Politics; nor more ignorantly than a great part of his Ethics." (6-7)

From Part One, Chapter 5: "When a man reasons, he does nothing else but conceive a sum total from addition of parcels, or conceive a remainder from subtraction of one sum from another; . . . In sum, in what matter soever there is place for addition and subtraction, there also is place for reason; and where these have no place, there reason has nothing at all to do." (45)

"By this it appears that reason is not, as sense and memory, born with us, nor gotten by experience only, as prudence is, but attained by industry: first in apt imposing of names, and secondly by getting a good and orderly method in proceeding from the elements, which are names, to assertions . . . , and so to syllogisms, . . . till we come to a knowledge of all the consequences of names appertaining to the subject in hand; and that is it men call SCIENCE. . . .

[S]cience is the knowledge of consequences and dependence of one fact upon another, by which out of that we can presently do we know how to do something else when we will, or the like another time; because when we see how anything comes about, upon what causes and by what manner, when the like causes come into our power we see how to make it produce the like effects." (49)

*All sources are from the Library of Liberal Arts series.

B. F. Skinner. (1904-1990). Beyond Freedom and Dignity. New York: Knopf, 1971.

From Chapter 1: Whether or not he could have foreseen the damage, man must repair it or all is lost. And he can do so if he will recognize the nature of the difficulty. The application of the physical and biological sciences alone will not solve our problems because the solutions lie in another field. Better contraceptives will control population only if people use them. New weapons may offset new defenses and vice versa, but a nuclear holocaust can be prevented only if the conditions under which nations make war can be changed. New methods of agriculture and medicine will not help if they are not practiced, and housing is a matter not only of buildings and cities but of how people live. Overcrowding can be corrected only by inducing people not to crowd, and the environment will continue to deteriorate until polluting practices are abandoned.

In short, we need to make vast changes in human behavior, and we cannot make them with the help of nothing more than physics or biology, no matter how hard we try. (And there are other problems, such as the breakdown of our educational system and the disaffection and revolt of the young, to which physical and biological technologies are so obviously irrelevant that they have never been applied.) It is not enough to “use technology with a deeper understanding of human issues,” or to “dedicate technology to man’s spiritual needs,” or to “encourage technologists to look at human problems.” Such expressions imply that where human behavior begins, technology stops, and that we must carry on, as we have in the past, with what we have learned from personal experience or from those collections of personal experiences called history, or with the distillations of experience to be found in folk wisdom and practical rules of thumb. These have been available for centuries, and all we have to show for them is the state of the world today.

What we need is a technology of behavior. We could solve our problems quickly enough if we could adjust the growth of the world’s population as precisely as we adjust the course of a spaceship, or improve agriculture and industry with some of the confidence with which we accelerate high-energy particles, or move toward a peaceful world with something like the steady progress with which physics has approached absolute zero (even though both remain presumably out of reach). But a behavioral technology comparable in power and precision to physical and biological technology is lacking, and those who do not find the very possibility ridiculous are more likely to be frightened by it than reassured.  That is how far we are from “understanding human issues” in the sense in which physics and biology understand their fields, and how far we are from preventing the catastrophe toward which the world seems to be inexorably heading.