by Christopher Chantrill
May 11, 2005
F.S.C. Northrop... remains one of the only two people I have ever met with what tempts me to call... a genius for teaching. Thus wrote the British popularizer of philosophy, Bryan Magee, in Confessions of a Philosopher of Northrops graduate seminars at Yale that he attended in the mid 1950s.
Never have I known anyone so excited by ideas; and he was able to pass on not only the ideas but also the excitement. He would walk into the room already talking, and from then on perfectly formed sentences would come geysering out of his head as if he were a gusher blowing its top... [W]e were stimulated as I have never known any other teacher stimulate his students. Bright young graduate students would emerge from his seminars thrilled by the prospects they had just glimpsed and impatient to pursue them... and they would rush straight to the library, lusting to get at the books.
Northrop flourished at Yale in the years after World War II as a professor both of philosophy and law. But he had spent several years in Germany in the 1920s getting into the middle of the intellectual furnace that developed quantum physics. Science and First Principles in 1931. Thus he became an unusual scholar, one who had acquired deep knowledge both in the sciences and the humanities.
His magnum opus is undoubtedly The Meeting of East and West published just after World War II in 1946. The book is a tour dhorizon of the great high cultures of the world, including Anglo, American, German/French, India, China, and Mexico. But it views all these cultures through Northrops very own, and very particular lens, developed in his Science and First Principles and The Logic of the Sciences and the Humanities. In Meeting he proposed, after a survey of all the worlds cultures, that the solution to the world crisis was an integration of the excessively deductive culture of the West with the excessively inductive culture of the East. And indeed, the half-century since Northrop wrote has seen the educated elites of the West taking an unprecedented interest in the religion and spirituality of the East; it has also seen a frantic adoption worldwide of the scientific and commercial culture of the West.
Northrop also called for a demarche between the Anglo-American world and the continental tradition of Germany and Russia for, he wrote, The primary thing to keep in mind about German and Russian thought since 1800 is that it takes for granted that the Cartesian, Lockean or Humean scientific and philosophical conception of man and nature... has been shown by indisputable evidence to be inadequate. In other words, German and Russian thought is post-Kantian, recognizing that reality is neither reason nor empirical experience, but a dance between experience and theory.
In Northrops The Logic of the Sciences and the Humanities he developed his theory of knowledge around the process by which knowledge is discovered by natural scientists. He spends the first chapter pondering what happens at the beginning of an inquiry into acquiring new understanding, and comes to the important conclusion that inquiry does not start unless there is a problem. And the presence of a problem means that the traditional beliefs are in question. But how should the investigator proceed from there? To hypotheses? To deductions? The first thing to be done is to analyze the problem. Having done that, it is time to proceed upon the natural history stage of the inquiry, gathering facts and classifying them as natural historians gather flora and fauna. Then it is time to start making some inductive theories about the facts that predict the general from specific behavior, and finally, in the mature stage of the inquiry, develop deductive theories that point from the general to the particular. All this is discussed, it should be emphasized in perfectly formed sentences of remarkable clarity that gush forth just as Bryan Magee experienced in the 1950s from the master himself.
It is in The Complexity of Legal and Ethical Experience published in 1959 that Northrop turns to the question of the law and the problem people have in separating the is and the ought. He disembowels the legal positivist Hans Kelsen, exposes the feet of clay in natural law jurisprudence that claims an absolute rather than relativistic foundation, and examines the relations between living law and written law. His final book The Prolegomena to a 1985 Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica which was published posthumously, is an almost mystical work on the nature of knowledge.
Nearly all of Northrops books remain in print thanks to niche publisher Ox Bow Press. You can read here a rather charming personal reminiscence of Northrop by a Latin American woman, who appreciated his understanding of Latin American culture. I could not believe that such a whole American person had written such deep and profound pages on our Latin American culture and society. He understood our soul as no Latin American had.
[W]hen I asked a liberal longtime editor I know with a mainstream [publishing] house for a candid, shorthand version of the assumptions she and her colleagues make about conservatives, she didn't hesitate. Racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-choice fascists, she offered, smiling but meaning it.
Harry Stein, I Can't Believe I'm Sitting Next to a Republican
[T]he way to achieve a system of determining admission to the public schools on a nonracial basis,
Brown II, 349 U. S., at 300–301, is to stop assigning students on a racial basis. The way to stop
discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.
Roberts, C.J., Parents Involved in Community Schools vs. Seattle School District
[T]he Liberal, and still more the subspecies Radical... more than any other in these latter days seems under the impression that so long as he has a good end in view he is warranted in exercising over men all the coercion he is able[.]
Herbert Spencer, The Man Versus the State
[To make] of each individual member of the army a soldier who, in character, capability, and knowledge, is self-reliant, self-confident, dedicated, and joyful in taking responsibility [verantwortungsfreudig] as a man and a soldier. — Gen. Hans von Seeckt
MacGregor Knox, Williamson Murray, ed., The dynamics of military revolution, 1300-2050
[The Axial Age] highlights the conception of a responsible self... [that] promise[s] man for the first time that he can understand the fundamental structure of reality and through salvation participate actively in it.
Robert N Bellah, "Religious Evolution", American Sociological Review, Vol. 29, No. 3.
[In the] higher Christian churches... they saunter through the liturgy like Mohawks along a string of scaffolding who have long since forgotten their danger. If God were to blast such a service to bits, the congregation would be, I believe, genuinely shocked. But in the low churches you expect it every minute.
Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm
[Every] sacrifice is an act of impurity that pays for a prior act of greater impurity... without its participants having to suffer the full consequences incurred by its predecessor. The punishment is commuted in a process that strangely combines and finesses the deep contradiction between justice and mercy.
Frederick Turner, Beauty: The Value of Values
Within Pentecostalism the injurious hierarchies of the wider world are abrogated and replaced by a single hierarchy of faith, grace, and the empowerments of the spirit... where groups gather on rafts to take them through the turbulence of the great journey from extensive rural networks to the mega-city and the nuclear family...
David Martin, On Secularization
What distinguishes true Conservatism from the rest, and from the Blair project, is the belief in more personal freedom and more market freedom, along with less state intervention... The true Third Way is the Holy Grail of Tory politics today - compassion and community without compulsion.
Minette Marrin, The Daily Telegraph
These emerge out of long-standing moral notions of freedom, benevolence, and the affirmation of ordinary life... I have been sketching a schematic map... [of] the moral sources [of these notions]... the original theistic grounding for these standards... a naturalism of disengaged reason, which in our day takes scientistic forms, and a third family of views which finds its sources in Romantic expressivism, or in one of the modernist successor visions.
Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self