The Story of the Syntheses



 The history of western thought can be traced following the different syntheses along its path because the progression of philosophical ideas works in a precise format: two contrasting ideas are discussed and a third idea arises uniting the two. The most influential philosophers were synthesisers of the conflicting traof their time.

The first ideological opposition can be traced to the homeric poems, The Iliad and The Odyssey before the 7th century B.C. Both texts recount the relationships between the human and the divine represented by Achilles, Ulysses and the gods. The Illiad tells the tale of divine interventions and manipulation of human lives. The Odyssey, on the other hand, emphasises a hero who is able to look after himself without much divine intervention. As a sequel to The Iliad, The Odyssey evolves as a story from one of godly pupeteering to one of human freedom. This synthesis is of an epic hero who is capable of solving his own problems and it prefigures the later Greek tradition of investigating their world without reference to the divinities and the choice between a vertical and a horizontal tradition.

The Presocratics, living in small island states in the Agean between the 7th and 5th centuries B.C., inherited the mental categories of Greek mythological explanation mixed with the homeric outlook of self-made humanity. They proposed syntheses between physics and metaphysics through the concept of cosmos, the idea that the universe could be analysed and explained through rational thought.

Their aim was to explain the essence of nature(fisis). The pythagorean sect proposed mathematics as the essential explanation; Thales contended it was water; Anaximander argued that it was air. These rational descriptions of the physical world led to a new proto-scientific explanation of the physical world which paralleled the traditional metaphysics of mythology. The horizontal worldview continued the homeric vision and was enriched through rationalisation of the physical; in the vertical view mythology powered the metaphysical explanation of reality.

The basic tension in the socratic world of the 5th and 4th centuries B.C. was ethical: how can people in the city state of Athens live harmoniously together? The answer would form the beginning of politics. Sparta resolved the conflict through a vertical top down military organisation and the Athenians responded to political tensions in the more egalitarian bottom up concept of democracy

Plato, introduced a new problem: how do we know? For him the question of knowledge preceded ethics. The new conflict is between the sensory which is the physical and material equivalent of the horizontal vision and the idea, the metaphysical translation of the immaterial. He summarises his resolution in The Allegory of the Cave where he sides with idealism against matter

Aristotle recognised the bias in Plato towards thought against matter and he proposed an empirical investigation of nature through physical classification of the Cosmos. This was an open recognition of the opposition between fisis and metafisis. Although he did not come up with a synthesis to idealism and empiricism he pointed the way towards future solutions through conversation (dialectics), that is confrontation of opposing views with the goal of synthesising them.

In the Italian Renaissance painting 'The School of Athens' Raphael summarised the conflicting views of Plato and Aristotle depicting them in the centre and Plato pointing vertically while Aristotle points horizontally.

Alexander the Great expanded his empire to Egypt in 334 B.C. The ruling Ptolemies, a Macedonian family, inherited the Greek tradition of investigation which inspired the founding of the Library of Alexandria. This attracted scholars from all over the empire who took advantage of the hellenistic acceptance of syncretism. This mix of empirical and theoretical knowledge from the vast empire was the internet of its time producing an information synthesis between speculation and calculation in the form of mathematics.

When the Roman empire came to power it inherited Greek culture and continued its philosophies. Stoicism, Epicurianism and Skepticism were adopted by roman intelectuals. Neoplatonism, however, which emerged in the middle of the 3rd century at the time of Roman imperial crisis, was the philosophy that offered a dominant synthesis of the Hellenistic tradition to the late Greco-Roman world. It overtook the other philosophies offering a comprehensive theory of the universe and the place of the individual in it derived from hellenistic philosophy, religion and literature. It synthesised a thousand years of intellectual investigación systematically bringing together in dialogue(dialectics) empirical and moral theories from Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics along with mythology, religion and literature.

Augustine of Hippo embraced neoplatonism in his Confessions (397-400 A.D.). Subsequently his life's work would be an effort to synthesise christianity and neoplatonism. In morality Augustine follows the neoplatonic ethic of the virtuous life which means to become like God. As a neoplatonist Augustine viewed the problem of evil in a binary fashion as a privation of good, not something substantial in itself. Mystical contemplation as a means of directly encountering God also came from his neoplatonic readings. His philosophical theology of original sin, free will, and the nature of man was influenced by Neoplatonism, too. His concept of God and the soul as immaterial, as opposed to the material body, is also neoplatonic. The body/soul opposition echoes Plato's senses/ideas binomial and the traditional vertical/horizontal opposition.

Medieval western philosophy's main challenge was still to bring together the vertical and the horizontal visions, now called faith and reason. The dichotomy consisited of biblical revelation from the theological tradition and sensory information from aristotelian empiricism.  Averroës proposed the double truth theory arguing that the two types of knowledge were opposed. Thomas Aquinas rejected this approach, proposing that both types of knowledge were compatible: revelation guiding reason and  reason clarifying and demystifying faith. In his Summa Theologica, composed between 1265 and 1274, Aquinas synthesises aristotelian natural philosophy and Christian theology. This conflict between reason/revelation parallels the tension between the traditional horizontal/vertical interpretations of reality.

Less a synthesis and more a new beginning the Renaissance period first started in Italy in the 14th century. This was a new vision based on studia humanitatis, research on traditional subjects but from Latin and Greek texts. In politics it included a gradual wresting of power from the religious authorities to promote a secularising vision of political organization. This initiated a new outlook to replace the medieval religious one and a progressive use of the vernacular language to replace church latin. In the rest of  15th and 16th century Europe christian sources were maintained as a driving force and the individual was accentuated, but within religion. There humanism was a response to social change when the established religion couldn't cope. Erasmus directed criticism equally against the Popes' corruption, scholasticism, and Protestant dogma on predestination. The Reformation was a religious response to social literacy and Catholic abuses of power. 

In northern Europe the split took on the names of empirical science and tradition. Curiously, revelation was the aristotelian tradition, not metaphysics. It was Bacon, Kepler and Copernicus who demonstrated that empiricism, not aristotelism was the way forward. Northen Europe was gradually siding with the empirical against revelation in the humanist tradition of the Renaissance.

In southern Europe the Counter Reformation was a Catholic reaction to Protestant unorthodoxy. The dichotomy was also between tradition and empirical knowledge. Scholasticism, Aristotle, and the Bible, were still held to be the sources of scientific knowledge. Scientists there had to accept this matrix or die at the stake.

The Age of Reason in the 17th century

Liberalism. This was a philosophical interest in political theory. In the 17th century Locke proposed a synthesis of the political structure by shoaring power among the executive the Parliament and the judicial branches. Montaigne took this up later. 

More information

Revelation vs. reasoning. In the 17th century, the Age of Reason, the problem of knowlege divided arguments with nobody offering a synthesis. Locke's epistemology was a modified skepticism based on the limitations of empiricism. Cartesian knowledge was obtained through reason and a division between the mind and the body.

More information (N. Europe)

More information (S. Europe)

Epistemology. In the 18th century scientific empiricism won in the traditional opposition beween the physical and the metaphysical. It was the chosen approach to understanding nature, replacing revelation.  

As a reaction philosophers turned again to the  basic platonic question : how do we know? Kant proposed a vision (in the homeric tradition of immanence not transcendence) arguing that knowledge resulted from a synthesis of experience and concepts. He also placed limitations on human knowability stating that we could know appearances(phenomenon) but not the thing in itself(noumenon).

More information 

The Enlightenment. The synthesis between religious transcendence and rational materialism in S. Europe took the form of metaphysical materialism. This links with the tradition of the presocratics who searched for the essence of all things in water, fire, numbers etc. Using skepticism which questioned authority Voltaire argued for free will against determinism, yet recognised that humans are governed by natural laws. In ethics he sustained that correct action was guided by reason. Skepticism also motivated Diderot in his writings for l'Encyclopédie. He combined rationalism with faith in the human mind although recognising its limitations. His goal was to radicalise empiricism towards a materialistic metaphysics through eclecticism and avoiding dogma.

More information

The 19th and 20th centuries in the USA created three synthesis:

- Romanticism synthesised Nature and God. Thoreau saw the physical domain as an integral part of the spiritual. James reconciles science and religion in theism.

 - Pragmatism synthesised reasoning and empiricism in Pierce's though. Neither the empirical method nor the rational could achieve certainty. Reality is in flux and cannot be precisely determined. James argued that our perception of the physical world is unclear.

 - Darwinism coloured their theory of knowledge since if reality was changing we could only know it at the point of observation, not in its entirety.

More information 

In the 19th & 20th centuries in Europe the opposition was between philosophy and science.

Utilitarianism. Under the growing influence of science philosophers sought a solid basis for their thinking. Bentham argued that the happiness of the greatest number, the principle of utility, was a solid basis for legality, society and morality.

The theory of science was proposed by Gottlieb Fichte as a way of uniting science and philosophy. Philosophy was to be seen as a science based on a solid foundational principle.

Hegelian dialectics. Hegel proposed a model for human thought which worked dialectically: thesis, antithesis then synthesis that produces another antithesis and thus continues...

Phenomenology was introduced by Husserl as a philosophical base. Following the Cartesian tradition he argued for a study of consciousness within the flow of experience.

Darwinism. Charles Darwin based his theory of evolution based on the science of biology. The theory was then applied as a philosophical explanation for social phenomena, psychology and the concept of change.

Perspectivism. Nietzsche argues for perspectivism, knowledge and understanding are conditioned by how we are seeing. Our perspective is from one place at a time and from a specific angle and we don't see the whole thing. Knowledge of the totality is illusory. Russell agrees with perspectivism and thinks that our senses tell us lies because they perceive snapshots, not change so he promoted a ' skepticism of the senses'. Wittgenstein cautions that philosophical skepticism has its limits: excessive doubt undermines rationality and so the basis for doubting.

Being. Heidegger introduces a holistic vision explaining existence and thought as two sides of one coin. Humans relate to the external reality by constructing theories about it. Identity itself is brought into question.

More information

Positivism. Comte's theory of positivism relegated metaphysics and theology as epistemologies and proposed scientific empiricism, not for absolute truth but for credible knowledge.

Existentialism. Sartre argued that ideas come from experience thus synthesising existence and thought. Against determinism he asserted that we are condemned to be free and thus morally responsible. 

Structuralism. Levi-Strauss synthesises different kinds of knowledge like myths, rituals and data in anthropological studies.

Philosophy of Being. Merleau-Ponty synthesises structuralism and phenomenology. He makes the transition from analysing perception to the study of existence itself using the tools of structuralism and language.

Poststructualism. Foucault followed Kant arguing that in contrast to the classical vision initiated by Descartes language is not an instrument of thought but independent from thought. In the cartesian model thinking and being are linked, but Kant states that thinking is not representing since ontology and mental perception are unrelated since reality is always more than its representation. Yet Foucault criticises Kant contending that the 'I' cannot be simultaneously the object and source of transcendental representations. He adds that modern philosophers haven't demonstrated Kant's hypothesis.

Deconstruction. Derrida sets out to subvert the binary thinking behind western philosophy but proposes no synthesis in its place.

More information

Quantum mechanics. Classical physics is deterministic according to Einstein. The Copenhagen interpretation, however, presents quantum physics as random. Bohm suggested a holistic theory of non-locality: that the universe is physically interconnected at the quantum level which no human will be able to access. This is not unlike the mystical traditions which encourage humility faced with the wholeness of the universe. Chinese Dao in Taoism refers to the non-subject non-object holistic unity yet this can’t be measured. 

Loop Quantum Gravity. Rovelli has put forward a theory to synthesise time and space from classical to quantum physics. Space would be chain mail and time its movements.

String theory. is another attempt to combine the General theory of relativity and Quantum mechanics. Veneziano observed that the force uniting protons and neutrons could be explained Euler beta function. Veneziano's mathematics described the vibration of energy filaments like strands of string. This theory aims to synthesise macro and micro physics through this explanation of gravity.

More information

ConclusionRovelli insists that progress in human thought has worked through synthesising contradictions. He gives these examples: "Newton discovered universal gravity by combining Galileo’s parabolas with the ellipses of Kepler. Maxwell found the equations of electromagnetism by combining the theories of electricity and magnetism. Einstein discovered relativity by way of resolving an apparent conflict between electromagnetism and mechanics." Seven Brief Lessons on Physics (2014)

No comments:

Post a comment