BY SIMON ROWNEY
One comes to philosophy already endowed with a stock of opinions. It is not the business of philosophy either to undermine or to justify these preexisting opinions, to any great extent, but only to try to discover ways of expanding them into an orderly system.
– David Lewis, Counterfactuals (1973)
When I read this quote from Lewis (pictured), I think that perhaps an era in philosophy is coming to an end.
The era I'm referring to is the Cartesian era.
I say this because the words of Lewis are the antithesis of Rene Descartes' ideas and of most philosophers (outside of Thomism) since.
Descartes, as we know, introduced the method of doubt into philosophy. But there is nothing like that in Lewis' words. In fact Lewis gives doubt a distinctly minor role.
Descartes also introduced the method of the clear and distinct idea. Together Descartes’ two methods formed a mighty scythe that would cut swathes through established and new philosophical theories.
But Lewis eschews the clear and distinct idea in favour of an ordered system.
At this point we of the Cartesian era hesitate. An ordered system? Surely he can't be serious? Isn't that scholasticism? Surely no ordered system has been seen outside Thomism (and possibly Hegelianism) for 200 years or more?
But developing an ordered system is precisely what Lewis did throughout his philosophical life.
And for his achievement Lewis is widely acknowledged as a great philosopher. Furthermore Lewis is not alone. This new conception began with WVO Quine, perhaps the greatest American philosopher.
There are two principles at work in Quine's theory. The first is the method of systematisation and the second is a theory of ontological commitment. This places metaphysics at the centre of the philosophical enterprise.
It sounds even more like scholasticism now, and to be honest there is a great deal of common ground between this new conception and scholasticism. They have far more in common with each other than either has with Cartesianism.
A philosophical system is a lofty ambition, it encompasses nothing less than a complete vision of reality. What Lewis called "reflective equilibrium."
It assists us to integrate and judge new ideas, something we sorely need in this scientific age. Scientific theories come and go in rapid succession and to judge their validity we need to know how they impact on other areas of thought.
Only once we have judged how a theory integrates with our other beliefs can we judge how successful it is. A theory's merit is not based on the scientific method alone. We can either accept the theory or declare it in need of further development.
His systematic approach gave Lewis a unique perspective on quantum theory, for example. He was very critical of many interpretations of the theory because they were not consistent with his metaphysics.
The Lewis-Quine approach gives us back some intellectual control. Instead of being constantly under attack by new ideas, we can calmly respond in the knowledge that our system is unlikely to be radically changed by a theory, no matter how many Nobel prizes it has.
Of course I could be completely wrong. The Cartesian era may continue for another 400 years, while the Lewis-Quine system, together with Thomism and Analytical Thomism, could remain minor cults.
But I don't think I am wrong. For one thing it's hard to imagine anything worthy of the name Philosophy that isn't a system. Quine and Lewis seem like "sober men compared with idle babblers." (Aristotle, Metaphysics)
Another thing is the widely recognized insight this approach has brought. And finally, for me this approach invites the Holy Spirit, because it erases the methods of clarity and doubt and makes room for Mystery and Faith.
Simon Rowney is a CathNews reader who blogs from Corrimal, NSW.
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