BLTC Press Titles


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Darby O'Gill and the Little People

Hermenie Templeton Kavanagh


Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Lewis Carroll


The Picture of Dorian Gray

Oscar Wilde


Some Experiences of an Irish R. M.

Edith Somerville and Martin Ross


A brief history of modern philosophy

by Harald Høffding

Excerpt:

The middle ages developed its theory of nature as well as that of the spiritual life on the foundation of Greek antiquity—except where its ideas were derived from the Bible and Christian tradition.—They received their theory of medicine from Galen, their astronomy from Ptolemy, their philosophy from Aristotle. Their world view was a combination of the theories of Aristotle and Ptolemy with the Biblical doctrines: the earth is stationary and forms the center of the universe; the sun, moon, planets and the fixed stars, attached to firm but transparent spheres, revolve around it. The sub-lunar world, i. e. the earth and the space intervening between the earth and the moon, is the realm of change and death. Here the four elements (Earth, Water, Air, Fire) are in a state of constant motion. Each seeks its "natural place." Weight consists of the natural tendency to descend, lightness consists of the tendency to ascend. Beyond this moon-sphere is the realm of ether, consisting of matter which has no "natural place," which is therefore capable of continuing its motion eternally with absolute regularity. The motions of the heavenly bodies—due to this absolute regularity—are a direct copy of the nature of Deity. They move in circles because the circle is the most perfect figure; it invariably returns into itself! The universe is bounded by.the sphere of the fixed stars which is moved by the Deity himself, whilst the lower spheres are moved by various ethereal spirits.

This world theory seemed to be in harmony with the authorities of the age, Aristotle and the Bible, and at the same time to be in accord with the direct evidence of sense perception. This is why it required such a severe struggle to supplant it. It not only required the repudiation of venerable authorities, but even the most familiar sensory impressions. It was this profound revolution that constituted the stupendous task of the great Copernicus. The epistemological foundations of the ancient world view were unsettled by two men who had no acquaintance with its doctrine.

i. Nicholas Cusanus (1 401-1464), a profound thinker with Neoplatonic and mystical tendencies, had even in the fifteenth century gone beyond the traditional view of a limited and stationary universe. Born in Cues (near Trier), he was educated by the "Brothers of the Common Life." He afterwards continued his studies in Italy. He attained to high ecclesiastical positions and his philosophy has its starting point in theological speculations. In his doctrine of the Trinity he regards the Spirit as the uniting principle which combines the oppositions implied in the characters of Father and Son; spiritus sanctus est nexus infinitus. He afterwards discovers analogous principles in human knowledge and in nature generally.— Falckenberg's Grungzuge der Philosophie des Nicholas Cusanus (Breslau, 1880) and M. Jacobi's Das Weltegebaude des Kardinals Nicholas von Cues (1904) are splendid memoirs of this remarkable man.

All knowledge consists of a process of combination and assimilation. Even sense perception combines various impressions into unitary wholes and these are in turn reduced to ideas and the ideas finally to concepts. In this way the intellect (intelligentia) is forever striving for unity—but it invariably requires an antithesis, something "other than" (alteritas) itself to effect its development. Finally, in order to transcend the antitheses, thought undertakes to conceive them as the extremes of a continuous series. In this way maximum and minimum are united by a continuous series of magnitudes. But we are unable to reconcile all antitheses: thought culminates in antitheses, i. e. there always remains an unassimilated increment beyond itself. It is as impossible for our thought to comprehend the Absolute as it is to describe a circle of pure polygons, even though we may constantly approach it more closely. Although we are incapable of conceiving the Absolute, Deity, we nevertheless understand (such is the nature of the intellect) our incapacity, and the ignorance in which our thought culminates, as a matter of fact, is a scientific ignorance (docta ignorantia). (One of the most interesting of the works of Cusanus is entitled De docta ignorantia.)

This fundamental peculiarity of our knowledge is likewise of importance in the study of nature. We are constantly striving to form continuous series from given points, but without being able to arrive anywhere. Thus, e. g. we can divide our idea of matter to infinity, in experience we must always be satisfied with a finite division, and the atom concept therefore always remains relative. It is the same with the idea of motion: an everlasting, perpetual motion were only possible in case there were no resistance. Here Cusanus anticipates the principle of inertia. And the same thing applies even to the det minations of locality: we always regard the objects of the universe from a given place which is, for the time being, the center of the universe for us; the universe as such, however, can have neither center nor circumference, and all motion is relative. The theory that the earth is at the center of the universe is therefore false. However if it is not at the center of the universe, it cannot be at rest; it must be in motion even though we do not perceive it. There is no ground therefore for the assumption that the processes of origin and decay should be confined to the sublunar sphere; we must rather assume that all world bodies are subject to similar conditions to those of the earth. According to Cusanus, therefore, the same principle which precludes our knowledge of Deity likewise demonstrates that the world can neither be limited nor stationary as was hitherto believed.

2. It was characteristic of the ancient, aesthetic conception of nature to emphasize the opposition of Form and Matter. The "Forms" of natural phenomena likewise contained their explanation. Bernardino Telesius (1508-1588) introduces the concept of Force (principium agens) instead of Form (in his work De rerum natura, 1565-1587), as the opposite of Matter. He believes that this conforms more closely with the facts of experience. The "Forms" were mere qualities, which explain nothing. He rejected the traditional theory of the "natural places" and the qualitative distinction of the elements. There are as a matter of fact but two fundamental forces; the one expands (heat), the other contracts (cold), and the various "Forms" which Matter, in itself unchanging and quantitatively constant, assumes must find their explanation by reference to the interaction of these two forces. There are no "natural places," for space is everywhere the same. Different places in space do not of themselves involve any qualitative differences.

Telesius was born at Cosenza in the vicinity of Naples. His circumstances were sufficiently comfortable to provide him the opportunity to devote himself to science. He taught in the University of Naples and founded an Academy in his native city. He had planned to substitute a new theory, based on experience, for Aristotelian Scholasticism. But his critical equipment was inadequate to the accomplishment of this ideal. His general principles however mark an important advance. The details of his natural philosophy are no longer of interest. But his ideas on the psychology of knowledge still continue to be of considerable importance. He tries to bring thought and sensation into the closest possible relation. Should an object which has once been perceived in the totality of its parts and attributes recur at some later time with certain of its parts and attributes lacking, we can supply the parts which are lacking and imagine the object as a totality notwithstanding the fact that we perceive it but in part. We can imagine fire, e. g. with all its attributes, even though we only see its light, without perceiving its heat and its consuming energy. Intellection (intellegere) is the process of construing our fragmentary experience into such a totality. Even the highest and most perfect knowledge simply consists of the ability to discover the unknown attributes and conditions of phenomena by means of their similarity to other cases known as a totality. Inference simply means the recognition of the absent attributes by this method. The simplest sensory impressions are therefore related through a large number of intervening degrees to the highest product of scientific thought, and there is no ground for attempting to deduce our knowledge from two different sources or faculties. The problem as to whether similarity


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