A Very Short Primer to Contemporary Philosophy

The “Gutenberg Bible”, the first substantial printed book in the West. I see it as a metaphor for faith being shaped by technology, a token of an incipient modernity.
(Image by NYC Wanderer / CC BY-SA 2.0 / Desaturated from original)

Historical modernity and modern philosophy are not in sync. The former begins at that great confluence of inventions, conquests, and discoveries that characterize the second half of the 15th century, most importantly, Gutenberg’s press, the fall of Constantinople, and the discovery of America; the latter begins only in the 17th century with Bacon, Hobbes and Descartes. The Renaissance humanism of the 15th and 16th centuries, as well as the Protestant Reformation can be regarded only as a transitional period leading to modern philosophy proper in the 17th and 18th centuries. After Kant dies (1804), we can say that reason has failed, and that the foundations of the irrationality so pervasive today begin. It is that period of growing irrationality from Kant to after the Great Wars that we will call here contemporary philosophy; the period after that, you can give it the name you want.

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Christian Humanism: The Crisis of Modernity

Our secular society.
(Boekhandel Selexyz Dominicanen, a 13th century Catholic Church in Maastricht, Netherlands, that is now a luxurious bookstore. Image by FaceMePLS / CC BY 2.0 / Desaturated from original)

Jacques Maritain begins his essay “Christian Humanism” telling us how the ideas in the mind of just a few men mold an epoch. That’s the power of philosophy which I have been learning that exists, and which I have ignored all my life.

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Universalia II

Thank you, Mr. Copleston.
(Frederick Copleston, (1907 – 1994). / CC BY-SA 1.0 / Contrast-enhanced)

As we saw in Porphyry’s quotation in Universalia, he abstained from the fight for the truth about universals. But by referring to the problem only with respect to genera and species, I think that he might have created another problem, a bias in the study of universals that crossed the whole of the Middle Ages and onwards up to our times to befuddle our ignorant minds on the topic — my ignorant mind, at least.

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Universalia

Imaginary debate between Averroes and Porphyry.
I could bet the subject would be the problem of universals.

Beginning with Socrates and especially Plato, the “problem of universals” (called universalia by logicians of the Middle Ages) has plagued the history of thought to this day. But what was — or rather, what is — exactly this problem? Is there really a problem? I put this idea in my head that I need to devote myself to this problem, but the truth is that I still do not fully understand its importance. What I would like to be able to do is to convince a complete layman in philosophy that he should be interested in this problem. At the moment, I find that completely impossible. Below, I reproduce some definitions of the problem I found online just to start thinking about it. The road ahead will be arduous, so I’ll start slowly.

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The Impossible Synthesis

Altarpiece of the Church Fathers”, by Michael Pacher (c. 1483).

Bertrand Russell, in his “History of Western Philosophy”, introduces the second part of the book by saying that the Middle Ages is the history of “growth and decay” of the Catholic synthesis. He knows so well what is being synthesized that he forgets to say it. But now, as I reread portions of the book, I know that the synthesis sought was between faith and reason. My “Medieval Philosophy” teacher thinks that it has been successful. I, for one, can not imagine where he got that idea from.

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A Brief History of History

To use a ridiculously simplified metaphor: It’s as though both writers are painting a portrait of a woman sitting at a table. But while the novelist is painting from imagination and can give the woman any features, any race, any age, any dress, the historian is looking at an actual young, white woman sitting at a sidewalk table outside a St. Louis eatery…
Susan Wise Bauer, “The Well-Educated Mind”, page 164.
(Self-portrait by Aert de Gelder painting an ugly old woman, 1685. Just like this painter, the historian cannot paint history as he pleases.)

SUMMARY: What follows is a summary of Chapter 7 of “The Well-Educated Mind“, by Susan Wise Bauer, entitled “The Story of the Past: The Tales of Historians (and Politicians)”. All the content (but my final comment) is hers. The interested reader is well advised to buy her book for a full treatment on the liberal education we should all have.
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