Every Philosopher has a Normative Criteria

I was thinking about Russel’s criticism of Aquinas, as shown on Wikipedia,

“He does not, like the Platonic Socrates, set out to follow wherever the argument may lead. He is not engaged in an inquiry, the result of which it is impossible to know in advance. Before he begins to philosophize, he already knows the truth; it is declared in the Catholic faith. If he can find apparently rational arguments for some parts of the faith, so much the better; if he cannot, he need only fall back on revelation. The finding of arguments for a conclusion given in advance is not philosophy, but special pleading. I cannot, therefore, feel that he deserves to be put on a level with the best philosophers either of Greece or of modern times.”

I partially agree and disagree with Russell.

I full-heartedly disagree that he doesn’t “deserve” to be put on a level with the best philosophers. He was one of the best, in my humble opinion. Although I’m unsure whether Russell would agree, he was obviously the foremost expositor of Aristotle’s ideas during the time in medieval Europe known as the “dark ages” because of how regressive the period was. Imagine if he, nor other scholastics, historically existed. We would have a much different academic world if this was the case. Aristotle may not be as respected as he is now. Perhaps he would have even been completely lost?

His theories of sense and memory formation are (I think) original, or at least partially original. According to Wikipedia, or some other source I can’t remember, his are the most close and accurate description of how the mind works according to modern cognitive science. I will try to reproduce this source if pressed, though I can’t seem to find it off hand.

In addition, his contemporaries described him to be a genius. Again, I think I remember this from a lecture.

I partially agree that “Before he begins to philosophize, he already knows the truth.” However, I don’t think that this is as uncommon as one might first superficially understand. To a degree, most have a goal when philosophizing. I don’t know if there is a school of thought who purely “set[s] out to follow wherever the argument may lead,” because choosing a particular form of argument is itself not established by the physical world. Logic is a normative discipline, not one grounded in observation of physical reality. Like ethics, it is prescriptive, not descriptive.

One is not physically bound to the “law of contradiction”, for example. If I break this, so what? The consequences are social, not physical. People would most likely ignore me if I don’t make any sense. Therefore, I find that following the rules of logic are indispensable for my life because communication is necessary for my survival. Of course, this explanation grounded on human survival is one that may or may not be correct, but I digress.

Back to matter at hand, the reason that I partially agree with Russell is because I think theology is boring. The subject has nothing to do with logic or science. If desired, perhaps it can fall into a broader notion of science, as in any subject that follows from a set of principles. However, isn’t it true that every theologian basically has their own principles? I admit that I am not well versed in theology, coming from a not very religious family. It seems to me that the method behind theology is arbitrary. If I explained God as a flying spaghetti monster, on what ground can you refute me? I think I share my contention with HL Mencken when he said, “Theology is the effort to explain the unknowable in terms of the not worth knowing.”

Now I am sure that Russell probably had a more nuanced view than I am presenting. However, this sentence strikes me as plainly incorrect: “The finding of arguments for a conclusion given in advance is not philosophy, but special pleading.”

Take Frege, Russell’s precursor, as my case in point. His goal was to ground numbers in the realm of logic. He most definitely had this conclusion in advance. Frege thought that is should be true that mathematics had a basis in logic, so his entire philosophy set out to accomplish this task. Yet, I am pretty sure Russell would think Frege deserves to be considered on the level of the best philosophers.


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