Rebirth of Reason


Philosophy's Vertical Time-line: Absence of Paradigm-shift
by Ed Thompson

Science is often said to have undergone 'paradigm shifts.' A telling example would be the shift from the Ptolemaic (geocentric) view of the cosmos to the Copernicus-discovered, Galileo-confirmed, heliocentric model. The question can be asked whether philosophy has undergone -- or is even capable of undergoing -- such a paradigm shift. This essay seeks to answer that question.

One of the interesting things about philosophy is that it's entire subject matter is (potentially) available to any focused mind. This is not true of science. Case in point: At the time of this writing, in one scientific database alone (PubMed), there are over 16 million primary publications -- the quantity of which doubles about every 5 years. 

Add to this amount perhaps a hundred other, mutually-exclusive scientific databases, and one thing becomes clear: It is no longer possible --as it was just a few hundred years ago! -- for a single man to know all that is known in 'science.' There's just not enough time in a lifespan, to read about every scientific discovery.

One talking point here is that science involves an element of trust in the expertise of others -- who you must take at their word -- instead of re-investigating every new finding yourself, before incorporating these new findings into your individual body of knowledge. This is not true of philosophy, where it is possible to re-investigate ANY issue personally, without special tools, or unique technique.

At this point it is fruitful to introduce the 2 ways you can form a time-line ...

1) A horizontal (intra-generational) time-line
2) A vertical (inter-generational) time-line

Horizontal time-lines refer to events that occur WITHIN a given individual's (or group's) life-span, and vertical time-lines depict that which is transferred (or that which is continually found) from generation to generation to generation. The general knowledge that philosophy provides (as opposed to the special knowledge of the special sciences) is a prime candidate for a vertical (inter-generational) time-line of knowledge and/or understanding.

Utilizing the subject of Epistemology, and focusing on the specific topic about whether the mind is 'active' or 'passive' in it's accrual of conceptual knowledge, I will now illustrate a depiction of these 2 time-lines (horizontal and vertical) ...

                                                                                                           Rand (~1950)--"active"
                         Marx (~1850)--"passive"                                            /
                            ^                                                                            /
                           /                                                                             /
                         /                                                                              /
                    Hegel (~1800 AD)--"passive"                                     /
                      ^                                                                             /
                     /                                                                              /
                    /                                                                              /
                Kant (~1780)--"passive"                                            /
                   ^                                                                            /
                  /                                                                             /
                 /                                                                             /
            Hume (~1750 AD)--"passive"                                    /
               ^                                                                           /
              /                                                                           /
            /                                                                            /
      Locke (~1675 AD)--"passive"                                   /
         ^                                                                           /
         /                                                                           /
        /                                                                           /
   Descartes (~1600 AD)--"passive"                            /
           ^                                                                    /
          /                                                               Aquinas (~1250 AD)--"active"
         /                                                                      ^
        /                                                                      /
Augustine (~400 AD)--"passive"                            /
        ^                                                                  /
       /                                                                  /
     /                                                                  /
Plato (~400 BC)--"passive" ------------> Aristotle (~350 BC)--"active"

This is a crude sketch, I'll be the first to admit it. But it's purpose is to show 'inter-generational' truth (or knowledge, or understanding). It's purpose is to show how an early philosophical error only compounds itself (in future generations), and how an early philosophical truth is eternal -- for those with the discipline to think straight about it.

In conclusion, while there may be multiple philosophical paradigms in existence, there is no philosophical 'paradigm shift' -- and the reason for this is the timelessness of the dynamics of philosophy (ie. human nature, and the nature of reality, don't "undergo" change -- like scientific "models" sometimes do).

Early, accepted philosophical premises predetermine one's worldview. It is up to the individual to handle cognitive dissonance (where found) -- and to re-examine, and re-adjust, accepted premises. Some of us will opt for evasion (rather than to "check our premises"), and history is fraught with negative examples of this.

The take-home message here is that philosophy is about living well on earth as a human being; and that this particular subject isn't a transient or fleeting phenomenon (one that is subject to 'shifts' and changes -- like scientific "models" are), but rather a subject whose dynamics are dictated by the nature of reality and the nature of man.

Vertical paradigm shifts -- in philosophy -- are impossible (because of the twin-laws of identity and causality). Our nature is not different from that of Thales (~600 BC), often said to have been the 'first' western philosopher. We work with the same subject matter as he did (only with more wisdom this time around).

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