Saturday, December 18, 2010

Is there an English philosophy?

Some subjects are independent of the culture that first developed them. Thus, we can't really talk about German or French mathematics, except in referring to the history of their respective development. Other subjects are strongly dependent on their culture. Think poetry. Think of Shakespeare or Goethe.

Philosophy is oddly in-between. On the one hand, it is supposed to deal with eternal verities and perpetual and necessary truths. So it ought to belong with mathematics and logic or biology. On the other hand, there are so many varieties of opposing philosophical positions (Platonic realism vs nominalism, physical realism vs idealism, and so on), and many more possibly combinations of such positions, that philosophy appears almost as subjective as poetry or painting. C.S. Peirce below gives a persuasive argument that nominalism is essentially English.
From very early times, it has been the chief intellectual characteristic of the
English to wish to effect everything by the plainest and directest means,
without unnecessary contrivance. In war, for example, they rely more than any
other people in Europe upon sheer hardihood, and rather despise military
science. The main peculiarities of their system of law arise from the fact that
every evil has been rectified as it became intolerable, without any
thoroughgoing measure. The bill for legalizing marriage with a deceased wife's
sister is yearly pressed because it supplies a remedy for an inconvenience
actually felt; but nobody has proposed a bill to legalize marriage with a
deceased husband's brother. In philosophy, this national tendency appears as a
strong preference for the simplest theories, and a resistance to any
complication of the theory as long as there is the least possibility that the
facts can be explained in the simpler way. And, accordingly, British
philosophers have always desired to weed out of philosophy all conceptions which
could not be made perfectly definite and easily intelligible, and have shown
strong nominalistic tendencies since the time of Edward I, or even earlier.
Berkeley is an admirable illustration of this national character, as well as of
that strange union of nominalism with Platonism, which has repeatedly appeared
in history, and has been such a stumbling-block to the historians of philosophy.

Peirce is discussing Berkeley here. I will turn to William of Ockham later, to whom a similar point applies. Can we say that Ockham is an essentially English philosopher? Who are the other English philosophers of whom we would say, as we say of Shakespeare or Chaucer or Milton, that they are represent Englishness, or English thinking, or English tendencies?


* Peirce, C.S., "Fraser's The Works of George Berkeley", North American Review 113 (October 1871): 449-72. Review of The Works of George Berkeley, by Alexander Campbell Fraser, 1871.

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2 Comments:

Blogger Julius Whacket said...

Edward: you are very welcome. The idea of a quintessentially English philosopher is fascinating – a bit like isolating the essence of Englishness. I guess the proposition goes against the received wisdom on these matters; which probably means it is right. I’d heard of Okham’s Razor but that’s about all. I see he was a scholastic; don’t they get a bad press these days?

You say on your blog that ‘the chief intellectual characteristic of the English to wish to effect everything by the plainest and directest means, without unnecessary contrivance’, which I think from personal observation of the style of different Euro nations is right.

Peirce was, I guess, writing at that happy time when many American thinkers were in admiration of the English.

9:21 am  
Blogger Edward Ockham said...

>>I see he was a scholastic; don’t they get a bad press these days?

Before the 20th C yes. In the academic world since then, it is generally accepted that the scholastic period was one of the most fertile in the history of Western culture.

>>Peirce was, I guess, writing at that happy time when many American thinkers were in admiration of the English.

I think still generally applies.

11:27 am  

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