Thursday, May 19, 2005

History vs. Philosophy

In a fascinating column in the Washington Post of Thursday, May 19, 2005, George Will presents and supports Donald Kagan's case for history as the "queen of the humanities." Will argues for "moderation" between the two sides in the current culture wars. Arguing that the study of history presents an alternative as against both postmodern denial of objectivity and religious reliance on faith, Will writes:

Historians, however, say to the post modernists that the defining characteristics of postmodernism -- skepticism and cynicism -- have long histories. And the historians' riposte to those who say that religion is the only foundation for knowledge or virtue is, Kagan says, to insist that in the study of history, knowledge, far from impossible, is cumulative.

How does the fact that some view has "long histories" constitute an argument against it? This is not explained but on religion Will adds quoting Kagan:

"Religion and the traditions based on it were once the chief sources for moral confidence and strength. Their influence has faded in the modern world, but the need for a sound base for moral judgments has not. If we cannot look simply to moral guidance firmly founded on religious precepts it is natural and reasonable to turn to history, the record of human experience, as a necessary supplement if not a substitute."

Will also quotes Kagan's view of how philosophy rates below history:

All writers of history have "the responsibility of preserving the great, important and instructive actions of human beings," says Kagan, which is why history is "the queen of the humanities," ranking above literature and even philosophy.

Philosophy, he says, is valuable for untangling sloppy thinking. But philosophy, like religion, leads to investigations of first principles and ultimate reality, and such investigations have produced profound disagreement. Hence the primacy of history as the study from which, especially today, we can take our moral bearings[.]

Is philosophy's only purpose "untangling sloppy thinking"? If there are and continue to be philosophical disagreeements, are there not historical disagreements as well?

Even a superficial reading of Will's column raises some of the questions that I have listed above. I sympathize with George Will's intention, to find a "firm middle, or perhaps higher, ground for moral confidence" and knowledge of history certainly has to play a part in a rational, sensible approach to morality. But knowledge of history is not enough. For the last few centuries science has prided itself on the claim that it is "value-free." Thus modern science, whether natural or social, is descriptive, not prescriptive. As such, even accurate knowledge of historical events does not prescribe any actions in the present, nor does it, strictly speaking, evaluate the actions of the past. It mere recounts them. Of course various historians as well as other scientists have applied value judgments to their researches. But such normative conclusions depend on the philosophical as well as religious views of the person and as their values vary so do their normative conclusions.

This goes back to the fundamental issue in attempting to form any ethics. How does one bridge fact and value? I know for a fact that Colonial America won its independence from the King, I know that NAZI Germany was defeated by the allies, I know that the Romans conquered much of the ancient world, I know that the fall of Rome was followed by the Middle Ages, the first part of which is usually termed the Dark Ages. So what? How does any of this lead me to any ethical conclusions without prior ethical knowledge? Of course, it cannot. Certainly it can form part of the raw data to be used in reaching ethical conclusions but something else is needed to reach it.

The answer has to be philosophy. Within the so-called Judeo-Christian tradition it is God as the creator of all, who has revealed the commandments of right and wrong that you must obey. Using God's commandments one can then, to some extent, evaluate historical events as good and bad. Since religion's decline beginning in the 18th century, various attempts have been made to bridge the gap in a non-religious way. Usually, this meant some form of collectivism substitutes for God: Society has decreed what is right and what is wrong. With the massive apparent failures of various collectivisms in the 20th century, philosophers have begun to deny that ethics is anything other than an emotive expression. In other words, this is wrong because we feel it is wrong. My feeling constitutes my evaluation as well as my justification.

It is no wonder that given the current state of philosophy that many people seek a return to the apparent sense and stability of religious values. But they are mistaken, a proper approach to morality must rely on the application of reason and science to human affairs because there is no such thing as the supernatural and thus all attempts to base morality on it are doomed to failure. Morality must begin with an analysis of what values are and why man needs them, not midstream with moral intuitions. The analysis must rely on a proper understanding of the nature of conceptual knowledge and its objectivity, as well as an understanding of the basic nature of the world and man. Such an analysis has been done superlatively by 20th century novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand. The result is a radically new approach to the whole subject of morality, one that provides the first objective code of values and virtues that man must follow if he is live his life as a rational being.