Instauratio Magna

2002-09-21

One of my favorite philosophers is the late Hao Wang. I started reading his books in college and even corresponded with him a bit, but I was young and foolish at the time and I don't think I had much of value to say to him. (Philosophy is wasted on the young.) Wang is interesting to me not so much for his positive views in philosophy but for his searching tone, his desire to harmonize the Chinese philosophy of his youth with the Western tradition of analytic thought (see a related book review of mine), and for his focus on ambitious philosophical projects rather than the small problems and analytical minutiae that too often dominate academic philosophy. One intriguing project Wang suggested was an updated version of Francis Bacon's Instauratio Magna of 1620. Bacon's project, which he never finished, was to have consisted of six parts:

  1. The division of the sciences: a summary or general description of the knowledge which the human race at present possesses
  2. The new organon, or directions concerning the interpretation of nature
  3. The phenomena of the universe, or a natural and experimental history
  4. The ladder of the intellect, or the thread of the labyrinth: a scale of ascent in proven knowledge from lesser to greater axioms
  5. The forerunners: pieces of knowledge experimentally derived but not yet placed in the new synthesis
  6. The new philosophy, or active science

Wang notes in Beyond Analytic Philosophy: Doing Justice to What We Know that, over 350 years after Bacon, parts 3 and 5 have been absorbed into the special sciences and would not be part of a modern instauration. Part 2 would need to be updated to account for progress in methods of thinking and investigation since Bacon's time, especially in fields like biology and psychology which were not independent sciences in 1620. Part 4 is something that has been out of fashion for some time, but Wang argues well that an inductive axiomatization of existing knowledge would provide the foundation and scaffolding necessary for building up a new philosophy or active science that "does justice to what we know" (as a first step towards also doing justice to what we feel and how we live).

A recent thinker who was also interested in large projects, philosophical systems, and even axioms of knowledge was Ayn Rand, whose ideas I absorbed at an early age. I recently re-read an essay by the late Ron Merrill entitled Axioms: The Eightfold Way, in which he seeks to organize and explicate Rand's philosophical axioms. Re-reading Merrill has led me to write up my own formulations of some fundamental truths:

  1. Entities exist. (Solipsism and radical skepticism are false.)
  2. Every entity has an identity. (To be is to be something.)
  3. Some entities are alive: they remain in existence only because they engage in self-generated activity (for individual existence) and reproduction (for species existence).
  4. Some living entities are conscious: they are able to identify other entities.
  5. Some conscious entities are conceptual: they are able to consider non-identical entities as units of a class based on similarities among members of the class and differences between that class and all other classes.
  6. Conceptual entities use words to stand for units of a class as well as the attributes and activities of entities.
  7. Words can be organized to produce statements of fact about entities.
  8. Every statement of fact is either true or false (but not both).

I'm not sure how valuable this kind of exercise is, and I'm not sure that all of these statements are axiomatic in Merrill's sense of being foundational and undeniable. But, following Wang, I'm not sure that it is all that important for observations to be foundational. To me that smacks of Cartesian or Spinozistic rationalism and the derivation of all knowledge from a handful of axioms. Bacon's inductive approach is more true, I think, and that's one reason I find Wang's ideas so potentially fruitful. It's not a philosophical axiom that some entities are alive or that some living entities have awareness or that some aware entities use concepts or generative languages, but those facts are certainly key aspects of human existence and of what we know about the world.

Obviously these are only a handful of statements about the world. We could extend such statements in many directions: toward ethics, toward the realm of feeling, toward particular sciences, and the like. Doing so in a simultaneously inductive and deductive manner, and spiraling back over topics to continually integrate the resulting insights, might yield the kind of web of knowledge that Wang hoped might provide the basis for a new philosophy.

There are connections here to the ideas of Jacob Bronowski, too, but I'll leave that for a future entry.


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