Sunday, 29 November 2009

A Radical Shift. — “It is obvious, from a casual observation of the medieval and modern methods of attacking the difficulties of metaphysics, that a radical shift has been made in the fundamental terminology used. Instead of treating things in terms of substance, accident, and causality, essence and idea, matter and form, potentiality and actuality, we now treat them in terms of forces, motions, and laws, changes of mass in space and time, and the like. Pick up the works of any modern philosopher, and note how complete the shift has been. To be sure, works in general philosophy may show little use of such a term as mass, but the other words will abundantly dot their pages as fundamental categories of explanation. In particular it is difficult for the modern mind, accustomed to think so largely in terms of space and time, to realize how unimportant these entities were for scholastic science. Spatial and temporal relations were accidental, not essential characteristics. Instead of spatial connexions of things, men were seeking their logical connexions; instead of the onward march of time, men thought of the eternal passage of potentiality into actuality. . . . It might be that the reason for the failure of philosophy to assure man something more of that place in the universe which he once so confidently assumed is due to an inability to rethink a correct philosophy of man in the medium of this altered terminology. It might be that under cover of this change of ideas modern philosophy had accepted uncritically certain important presuppositions, either in the form of meanings carried by these new terms or in the form of doctrines about man and his knowledge subtly insinuated with them—presuppositions which by their own nature negatived a successful attempt to reanalyse, through their means, man’s true relation to his environing world.”

Edwin Arthur Burtt, The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Physical Science (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., 1925), pp.12-4.