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18 Jul

Philosophical paradigm shift: CS Lewis on the fall of English Hegelianism.

I have learnt in other fields of study how transitory the ‘assured results of modern scholarship’ can be. When I was a boy one would have been laughed at for supposing there had been a real Homer: the disintegrators seemed to have triumphed for ever. But Homer seems to be creeping back. Even the belief of the ancient Greeks that the Mycenaeans were their ancestors and spoke Greek has been surprisingly supported. We may without disgrace believe in a historical Arthur. Everywhere, except in theology, there has been a vigorous growth of scepticism about scepticism itself. We can’t keep ourselves from muttering multa renascentur quae jam cecidere.

Nor can a man of my age ever forget how suddenly and completely the idealist philosophy of his youth fell. McTaggart, Green, Bosanquet, Bradley seemed enthroned for ever; they went down as suddenly as the Bastille. And the interesting thing is that while I lived under that dynasty I felt various difficulties and objections which I never dared to express. They were so frightfully obvious that I felt sure they must be mere misunderstandings: the great men could not have made such very elementary mistakes as those which my objections implied. But very similar objections – though put, not doubt, far more cogently than I could have put them – were among the criticisms which finally prevailed. They would now be the stock answers to English Hegelianism.

C.S. Lewis (1996) The Essential C. S. Lewis NY:Scribner, p. 357. Available online .

C. S. Lewis gives his testimony on the suddenness of English Hegelianism’s decline. He views it as the end of a philosophical approach rather than the eclipse of certain ideas. It was, to use Kuhn’s term, a paradigm shift.

The Latin phrase “Multa renascentur quae jam cecidere, cadentque quae nuc sunt in honore” is from Horace and means “Many words now in disuse will revive, and many now in vogue will be forgotten”1. (It is inscribed on Robert Clayton’s memorial in Celbridge, probably expressing the hope that his ideas would be judged more kindly in the future than by his contemporaries. In other words, for an 18th century paradigm shift.)

Lewis’ testimony to the sudden fall of idealist philosophy was quoted by Mary Midgley in Wisdom, Information and Wonder: What is Knowledge For? 2. She comments that change, though inevitable, is hard to believe in until one has lived though it a few times. “Sages usually go on talking as if they were the definitive, ultimate occupants of their particular chairs of honour, very much as the Neopolitans have repeatedly moved back to till the fields around Vesuvius.” She also notes that CS Lewis was intellectually curious, independent minded, well read, far from timid and a mature man…yet he felt the pull of the consensus. “Does it not seem,” Midgley asks, “that we are dealing here with a powerful social.and psychological force, liable to distort our ideas about the nature of the academic enterprise?”3.

References

  1. Jon R. Stone (2005) The Routledge Dictionary of Latin Quotations, Psychology Press, p. 279.
  2. Mary Midgley (2002) Wisdom, Information and Wonder: What is Knowledge For? Routledge, p. 103
  3. Midgley (2002) pp. 103-4.

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