Luc Ferry's "A Brief History of Thought"

Luc Ferry’s “A Brief History of Thought”

Luc Ferry’s “A Brief History of Thought; A Philosophical Guide to Living” is a must-read for any person of good will who is concerned about the direction of nation or world. This French philosopher adds his own perspective to the history of thought,  pointing us in a direction by which we could possibly  achieve a peaceful resolution to the global clashing of values. That way we could perhaps ward off  threats that seem to come to us from every direction. Although Ferry is French, his writing is very relevant to Americans and to anyone who inhabits this  contentious world community.

For such an ambitious undertaking as a history of thought, Ferry’s book is indeed brief. He doesn’t attempt to discuss every great philosopher, but focuses on a few key philosophies that gradually changed the directions of civilization in profound ways.  Claiming that  “philosophy is an art not of questions but rather of answers”(p. 16), Ferry attempts to show “how men pass from one model of reality to another” (p.16). The definition of philosophy as a “model of reality” is an apt one, because even if  human beings  don’t  think that they adhere to any particular philosophy, everyone must have some underlying view of ultimate reality.

Ferry suggests  that one model of reality is gradually replaced by another one because the accepted version no longer satisfies, or no longer convinces. Attempting to show how this has happened through history’s  long parade, he begins with the Greeks, emphasizing the Stoics. He traces Stoicism from Zeno, its founder, to  Epictetus and others, and culminates with the Romans, especially Cicero and the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. He compares Stoicism to Buddhism, recognizing the similarities in those two approaches to life, since both Stoicism and Buddhism emphasize detachment as a method of dealing with the vicissitudes of life. Also, both Stoicism and Buddhism strive to contemplate what is divine in the reality around us, rather than visualizing a personal God.

Did one allow oneself to freely question the teachings of the church in order to arrive at truth, or did one adopt a kind of tunnel vision in order to defend a faith that had long provided solace and hope?

Next Ferry discusses the emergence of Christianity. He points out that a religion that permits you to hope for a life after death, in which the pains and losses of life on earth are erased or made meaningful, and which promises reunion with the loved ones whom we have lost, is more emotionally appealing that a philosophy that cautions you against hoping or loving too much, in order to avoid disappointment or the pain of overwhelming loss. But the downside of Christianity during the era of its rise to dominance was its authoritarian mindset, which discouraged free thought if it appeared to conflict with the teachings of the church. Therefore when Newton, Copernicus and Galileo began making their scientific discoveries and publishing  their ideas, a dilemma emerged. Did one allow oneself to freely question the teachings of the church in order to arrive at truth, or did one adopt a kind of tunnel vision in order to defend a faith that had long provided solace and hope?

The solution to this dilemma for many people was humanism, which was the result of  various  influences, but was most articulately and memorably put forward in Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason.  In this critique, the two main pillars set forth were disinterestedness and universality , values that have since come to be so widely accepted that they came to define, in Ferry’s words, the modern morality. Other contributing factors played a role of course, such as the invention of the printing press and the result of Descartes “I think, therefore I am”. This famous cognito ergo sum  argument switched the first principle of reason from an outside source of authority to the human individual’s inner reasoning processes. The confluence of all these forces and others led to the Protestant Revolution (my addition) and eventually to the American and French Revolutions.

Humanism, in other words, became accepted by the overwhelming majority as the rock bottom value system for judging right from wrong.

Then in the early nineteenth century, the writings of Rousseau and other Romantics began to further glorify the common man, inspiring compassion for every individual regardless of social class or personal qualities. Thus grew into being the humanism which Ferry considers the third mode of reality to gain precedence over all others. Humanism, in other words, became accepted by the overwhelming majority as the rock bottom value system for judging right from wrong. In Ferry’s view, by attempting to discard Christianity while retaining its humane and civilizing influence, humanists in effect discarded the Ten Commandments by replacing them with Kant’s categorical imperatives.

Ferry describes Kant’s categorical imperatives as three key concepts which define the modern morality of duty: (1) Freedom(2)disinterestedness(the virtue of acting with good will toward another person, rather than purely from self-interest) and (3) universality, or concern for the general welfare. One  would think that this would be a philosophy that  all could live with, whatever one’s creed or lack of it. Such a philosophy would involve respecting each other’s freedom to believe or not believe as long as one’s beliefs conformed to the other two requirements of  (1)manifesting good will toward others, and (2)being willing to work together for the common good. But enter the deconstructionists.

Postmodernity, according to Ferry, has made the critical spirit “sacred,” loosing a freedom of thought that has gone so far as to make a tabula rasa of the entire past, its intellectual legacy and traditions.

“Deconstructionism” is the term that the contemporary philosopher Martin Heidegger used to refer to what Ferry says is called postmodernity, the model of reality that has replaced humanism as the most dominant assumption of truth. Postmodernity, according to Ferry, has made the critical spirit “sacred,” loosing a freedom of thought that has gone so far as to make a tabula rasa of the entire past, its intellectual legacy and traditions. Ferry points out that the quest for scientific truth became so sacred that nothing was allowed to stop it, comparing it to the sorcerer’s apprentice who unleashed  forces which soon escaped  his control. We see this now as we deal with the challenges of nuclear weapons, questions about cloning, the vulnerabilities to which the Internet has exposed us, etc.

With Neitszche, who became the cult philosopher of Nazism, the deconstruction of modern moral and political utopias reached its peak. For it was his conviction  (to quote Ferry) “that all ideals, whether explicitly religious or not, whether coming from the right or the left, conservative or progressive, spiritualist or materialist. . .are all the product of a theological world-view, because they all persisted in assuming a hereafter that is better than the here and now. . .”(p. 147). The materialistic utopians of course would be assuming a perfect hereafter at a future point in history on this earth. Thus, Ferry maintains, the principal post-modern thinkers also include to varying degrees Marx and Freud. For with psychoanalysis, post-modern philosophy learned to distrust self-evidence and received ideas, but to look for the hidden agendas which underpin all values. One of Nietzsche’s most celebrated statements, “There are no facts, only interpretations”, gave birth to the widely accepted modern belief in moral relativity.

So where do we go from here? In the last section of his book, Ferry acknowledges his indebtedness to all philosophers who have gone before, but asserts that it is not possible to go backwards. He says that “The desire to regain lost paradises always proceeds from a lack of historical sense “(p. 200). He avers that whether we like it or not, Nietzsche, who applied the most ruthless assault on all our prior assumptions in order to expose our mixed motives,  put into motion a process that has gotten us where we presently are.  For in his wake have come people from many walks of life who have attempted to prove that all moral or political convictions and all choices are the result of either our genetic make-ups, our ethnic and cultural biases, or our  most primitive animal instincts. Ferry claims that “Whether we like it or not, Nietzsche  asks  questions which we cannot pretend have not been asked”(p. 200). He says that today we must choose “whether to continue along a path opened up by the founders of deconstruction, or to take once more to the high road “(p. 201).

So what is this high road? Ferry favors a revisiting of Kant’s categorical imperatives, not as a turning back, but rather as an attempt to rethink them in the light of deconstruction. He especially turns to the comtemporary philosophers Heidegger and Husserl. He discusses Husserl’s “transcendance within immanence” as a way of looking for absolute values not from an external authority, but from within ourselves. Husserl used two metaphors to  teach  his point of view. He would take a cube or rhomboid such as a box of matches and hold it up before his students. He demonstrated that no matter how we turn  it, we can only see three sides at one time, although we know that there are six sides. This proves, he said that “All presence supposes an absence .  .  . all visible sides of an object suppose a side that is invisible” (p. 214).  He also pointed out that the world always presents a horizon  that we can never actually reach as evidence  that something “always escapes us at the very core of what we are given, of what we see and touch” (p. 235),  which is evidence of mystery at the heart of life.

He points out that what makes art have a powerful impact on us, and what makes us love another person, is not in reality the qualities of that person or that work of art, such as beauty, excellence of technique or character, or any of the other things we believe cause us to love.

Finally, Ferry referred to the acceptance speech of the Anglo-Indian writer V.S. Naipaul from Trinidad who won a Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001 to illustrate the concepts of particularity and singularity in love and art. He points out that what makes art have a powerful impact on us, and what makes us love another person, is not in reality the qualities  of that person or that work of art, such as beauty, excellence of technique or character, or any of the other things we believe cause us to love. For if it were really the qualities, we would stop loving the object of our adoration when the person grew ill, or old or disabled physically or mentally, or when we looked at other works of art that had equal claims to beauty or technique. What makes us love that particular person or work of art is something transcendent, something outside reason, something in the unique essence of that particular, singular object of adoration. For this reason, people “fall in love” with each other for illogical reasons, influenced partly by physical attraction, but not entirely.

In this same way, we recognize Kant’s categorical imperatives as a transcendent good, an absolute value. Freedom, selflessness, and willingness to sacrifice for the common good  are intrinsically ideals that we can choose to pursue for their own sakes. Ferry admits that all the other philosophies have value for the individuals who choose them, if they meet Kant’s criteria. He even says that for him, Christianity would be the ideal philosophy if he were able to believe, which at this point he is not able to do. But as a believer myself, this is a not a lowest common denominator for society, but a highest common denominator, with which I could coexist.

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