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International Internet Magazine. Baltic States news & analytics Monday, 28.05.2018, 05:59

Philosophy and science: different reasons and purposes

G.Breslavs, Prof. BSA, specially for BC, Riga, 02.05.2018.Print version
In contrast to Ancient India, Egypt and Mesopotamia, Ancient Greece was moving along the path toward the development of a new type of civil political community. More or less equal social interaction and confrontation of different points of view in the Greece of the VI - V. c. B.C. lead to the creation of a new type of intellectual culture which became the keystone of European culture – the ability of reflexive thinking, which implies the capacity to ask questions about the content and meaning of one’s activity and the awareness of personal authorship.

Therefore, an entirely new technique of generation of ideas and persuasion was devised –mayeutica, the art of obstetrics, which Socrates called the art of deductive and inductive reasoning or disputation. In contrast to many earlier and subsequent educational technologies based on learning by heart and memorization, mayeutica was based on reflexive thinking and on a reconstruction of logical links between the elements of common knowledge or experience. On the basis of the creation of some basic premises and using logical relations (in fact often pseudo-logical, based on the common-sense generalizations) a person was guided towards an inevitable conclusion that sometimes denied and destroyed his initial beliefs. Like other sophists, Socrates tried not to convey specific knowledge, but to stimulate critical thinking and to provide tools for obtaining new knowledge, especially knowledge about oneself.


Elaboration of reflexive thinking and philosophy (the Greek - philéō – love, sophia -  wisdom) as a special activity aimed at understanding the world produced generalizations about human mind, its forms and localization. The most explicit example of such generalizations is Aristotle’s work On the mind considered by some historians of psychology to be the first ever psychological text. There we find the first attempt to systematize ancient Greek knowledge about the mind, its link to the body, and about various kinds of cognitive and emotional processes. Aristotle singled out five types of sense organs and sensations, pointed out the role of cognition in emotional processes and showed that remembering is an active process.


Nevertheless, Plato, Aristotle, and their disciples and followers were very far from science in the modern sense of the word (Popper, 1972; Breslav, 2005). The reason is not only the lack of specific objective methods of cognition and Aristotle’s use of the concept entelechy (an anthropomorphic longing for a definite goal) for the explanation of incomprehensible natural events, but also the fact that questions about the level of accuracy and authenticity of human experience were not even formulated, indispensable for the creation of science and research tools. These questions, in turn, require some understanding of the role of measures and the process of measurement, which became topical for European society only in modern times.


This does not mean that in Antiquity or Middle Ages people were less observant or less clever than our contemporaries; it just means that the question of precision and objectivity of cognition was not topical as yet. Life was based on natural temporal cycles, where the most important innovations were introduced only in the context of military actions (battles, annihilation and captivity of people, occupation and destruction of cities, imposition of tributes) or natural disasters. People’s social status was predetermined primarily at birth, promotion due to military achievements or court service was a rarity.


The thinkers of Antiquity, as well as all later philosophers, were interested not in particular people with their particular feelings, perception and thinking, but only in permanent metaphysical features of these functions. For example, in the famous work of Theophrastus, Aristotle’s disciple and the leader of the Peripatetics school, Characters we find very colourful generalized types of violations of social norms and rules (the genre became very popular in Medieval and Renaissance times as an exposure of  mores) but not character types (as a  balance of psychological traits). Moreover, according to Ebbinghaus, Aristotle had hindered the development of behavioural sciences, by positing the heart as the substance of the soul and according no role to the brain in behaviour regulation, which contradicted the views of some less prominent thinkers and physicians of Antiquity (Ebbinghaus, 1912). Given the immense influence of Aristotle’s ideas canonized by the Catholic church, the impact of this prejudice on the development of science is easy to see. It seems that the contribution of the physicians of Antiquity was more valuable; this will be discussed below in the section on the subpart Pre-scientific psychology of individual differences.


For many centuries the description and analysis of the mind remained the prerogative of philosophers and philosophising physicians, lawyers and politicians who did not believe that empirical verification of their ideas was necessary or worthwhile, for they were mainly interested not in real and particular mental processes and features, but rather in the more general features of the mind. The subject-matter of famous philosophical works by René Descartes – “The Passions of the Soul”, David Hume – “Treatise of Human Nature”, Immanuel Kant – “The Critique of Pure Reason” are not real mental processes, but generalized models of mind and reasoning.


Does this mean that philosophers’ contemplations are irrelevant for the understanding of the human mind? The answer is no rather than yes. For many centuries people have been interested in the mind and soul, and the answers provided by philosophers more or less satisfied them. But the next question is: to what extent do these contemplations belong to scientific empirical research? Saying that they do not, we do not doubt the merits of all great philosophers from Sophists and Aristotle to Kant and Brentano, but we will confine ourselves to the analysis of facts and ideas that are linked directly to scientific psychology.


While philosophy emerges from societal discourse and the search for comprehensive and ultimate answers to ageless questions, science emerges from the need to achieve greater accuracy of human knowledge and skills, first of all in developing unified and accurate measurements of concrete objects and events,  creating more effective and uniform technologies of production and  tackling many other pragmatic tasks in the expanding and competitive European world. Thus, while philosophy emerges from societal cognitive practice, science emerges from economic practice. According to this view, personalities like Galileo and Newton, as pioneers of science, are more relevant to our framework than Descartes and Spinoza, though the impact of the ideas of the latter two in a wider context was at least as strong.


Antiquity and Middle Ages made use of many effective psychological techniques, especially in religious, educational and military areas, but they did not become the source of objective psychological knowledge. The lack of such knowledge is obvious in instances like auto-da-fe - “treatment by fire” of witches and those possessed by the devil in the medieval time. Some professionals in medicine and education from monastery schools come in the 11th – 12th c. to newly established universities which set up medical faculties – the cradles of science.


Before Modern Times humankind got along with an assortment of diffuse religious and philosophical notions which at best provided some rational understanding and classification of observed or virtual objects. The pace of life was slow, social stratification was unchangeable and the status of a person was mostly determined by his/her birth (Becker, 1985). Most often people were quite content to believe and trust mystical visions or magical formulas. The phenomenon is easily understandable, given that even in contemporary society millions of people believe politicians who employ magical arguments.


In practical life prior to the 17th c. influential groups and classes had no need in precise knowledge that required objective verification, for in economic life manual production predominated, with the sense organs of an experienced person as the main tools of verification and assessment. Moreover, with the exception of a few precedents, advanced technical devices and scientific approaches were generally and commonly not admitted into economic life. The understandable reason was that more precise measurement tools could decrease the traditional sources of the nobles’ income, merchants’ profits or undermine the privileged position of handicraft guilds because only they could assess the quality of goods made by them.


The implementation of technical innovations in this kind of society was fraught with social unrest, for it would increase the number of people not involved in productive work and therefore starving. It is especially true for societies that used slavery or public work as the means to ensure the existence of the city plebs.


Roman historians tell us of the emperor Vespasian who ascended to power after the terrible destruction of Rome by Nero and civil wars-imposed taxes on many things including public toilets in order to raise money for the reconstruction of Rome and Capitol. In response to his son’s protests he uttered the famous phrase that money did not smell. According to historians, an inventor once showed him the drawing of technical equipment that could lift heavy pillars to the Capitol more efficiently than hundreds of people. Vespasian looked at it, inquired about the mechanics of its work, praised the inventor, rewarded him generously and recommended to destroy the drawing and to forget about the invention. In response to the inventor’s surprise he said: “I have to feed my people”.  Even for such a clever and pragmatic emperor technical innovations that could deprive Roman citizens of their earnings were unacceptable.


The Catholic church, the leading institution (and force) of Medieval society, successfully prevented for many centuries the spread of knowledge that contradicted church dogmas emphasizing the priority of faith in God over any objective argumentation. It was possible to buy an indulgence for any crime but not for the dissemination of heresies, the label automatically applied to all ideas inconsistent with the dogmas of sacral authorities and the Roman Curia.


However, already in the 17th c. due to the benefits of Renaissance, the Reformation, opening and reclaiming of new continents, development of military equipment, substantial change in the type of production, and, especially, due to the development of printing, the situation in societal elite, first of all among university scholars who were growing in number, started changing. Scientific discoveries and devices were more increasingly viewed as a value, for verification of their utility became available to many people. As Vernadsky wrote: “This turning point took place in the 17th c.  In that century natural science and mathematics for the first time became part of social life as a historical force that changed the circumstances of human existence” (Vernadsky, 1981, p.215). This is particularly true for wealthy countries that were interested in technical progress in some area.


At the same time the development of technical devices was increasingly based on new scientific discoveries and the use of described laws; in turn, new technical devices opened opportunities for scientific research. Around 1590 the microscope was invented in Holland. The credit for the invention of the microscope probably belongs to Zacharias Jansen, a spectacle-maker of Middelburg, (Wolf, I, p.72).  Using the microscope, Antonius van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723) discovered protozoa – a unicellular organism, bacterium, and spermatozoid (the honour of the last discovery is shared with Stefen Hamm). The English inventor, researcher, musician, architect, and the Curator of Royal society Robert Hook, published in 1665 the book “Micrography” about  the microscope and its use for the investigation of minute organisms and particles. In the book he also introduced the concept of the cell that become later one of the central concepts of biology. He also invented the spade diaphragm in photographic camera, a universal connection for all mechanical transport, the best telescope, and an apparatus for the investigation of gravitation.


The radical change in production and the transition from small manual labour manufactories to big factories that mainly used machines, the struggle for the reclaiming of new continents and new markets, as well as the change of ideology in European countries under the influence of Reformation inevitably brought forth the need for precise and formalised knowledge and for the tools of its acquisition which could be easily used at any point of the globe for important applied tasks (production of military equipment, ship building  and navigation, construction, coinage etc.). After the development of new serial technologies and precise measurement tools independent of subjective features of humans using them, the issue of the truth value of our experience was no longer an abstract or pragmatic-relativistic one, it became the crucial issue about what is true independently of the creator and user of this truth. It isn’t the same for the field of philosophical reasoning where every author pretends on a personified interpretation of own ideas.






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