Introducing The New Philosophy
Welcome to The New Philosophy, a website and newsletter focused on theology, philosophy, and intellectual history (with some miscellany thrown in for good measure).
This website is inspired by two wildly different yet illuminating events in history. The first is set in early modern Europe and concerns the (in)famous Catholic philosopher René Descartes. Cartesian philosophy, or so the common story goes, flew in the face of the traditional scholastic metaphysics prominent in the early modern period, proceeding according to novel methods, with new assumptions, because of different concerns. Of course, the reality is far more complicated: as new as Cartesian philosophy seemed, it was a combination of new and old, a combination which facilitated both new theories in the realm of natural knowledge and the maintenance of piety in the domain of revealed religion (I know this latter claim is controversial, but the alternative—that Descartes was a closet atheist or skeptic or even that his philosophy revolutionized religion—is simply incompatible with a charitable reading of his corpus and early modern philosophical debates. But more on that later).
Nevertheless, Descartes' philosophy created a firestorm. In England, Henry More was initially enamored with Descartes but ultimately decided his metaphysics constituted a gateway to atheism; in the Netherlands, Dutch Reformed theologians mostly closed ranks against Descartes, although some adopted Cartesianism; in France, the Catholic theologians at Paris gave Descartes an ultimately cool, if more measured, reception. Over time, worries about Descartes' philosophy have shifted rather than abated: fears about the Cartesiansim's implications for God's omnipresence are out, but fears about Cartesian "dualism" are in. But Descartes insisted that the overthrow of old philosophy did not entail the overthrow of true religion, and he modeled this in his own life, combining his new ideas about physics and metaphysics with a piety and deference to theology and revealed religion clearly evidenced in his correspondence. I have found this balance in Descartes a helpful reminder that new ideas always coexist alongside the old, and that, at their best, new ideas do not threaten that which is good and true in what we have received.
But in quite another time and place, the novelty of "new philosophy" and the dangers of being enamored by it were thrown into sharp relief. In the the nineteenth century, several North African and Middle Eastern provinces of the Ottoman Empire determined to strengthen themselves, the better to preserve their prerogatives against the Ottomans and fend off European powers anxious to expand their domains of influence. Egypt began this process after Napoleon Bonaparte's conquest of and subsequent expulsion from Egypt. Egypt's provincial governor-cum-de facto ruler, Muhammad Ali, was convinced that to become a self-sufficient power, Egypt must adopt the industrial and, to a lesser extent, intellectual technologies of Europe.
For a time, this was effective: by sending educated Egyptians to France and receiving French military experts into Egypt, Ali initiated major reforms to the Egyptian army, making it, for a time, the most powerful military in the Ottoman Empire, potentially more powerful than the Sultan's own army. But this came with costs: those Egyptians dispatched to Europe returned with greater technical know-how but also with an interest in revolutionary European ideas—constitutional government, limits on absolute rule based on citizens' rights, and a host of other Enlightenment inventions which destabilized Egyptian politics and society just as its stability was most necessary to combat European expansionism.
Ali's progressive industrializing project, likewise, required ever-greater expenditures on development, which led in turn to excessive borrowing from European companies and eventually governments to finance industrialization. This pattern was repeated across the Middle East and North Africa. When it came time to pay up and Middle Eastern Ottoman provinces proved unable (even the Sultanate of the Ottoman Empire proved unable to pay), Europeans sent in "advisors" to run their finances, the better to ensure their debts were repaid. Only after it was too late did anyone realize that what had begun as an attempt to attain self-sufficiency by achieving parity with European technological prowess ended in subjugation. New philosophies, particularly when adopted rapidly by a society's elite, are dangerous.
Where do these two models of intellectual innovation, in obvious tension, leave us? We cannot repristinate the past, but neither can we ignore the challenges on all sides in the present. In this blog and its associated newsletter, then, I hope to explore all manner of issues in theology, philosophy, and intellectual history, stress-testing my thoughts in dialogue with you, my readers. It is my hope that in so doing, we will be able to fruitfully engage with the past without seeking an impossible return to it, and that we will likewise seek to be faithful in our own moment without being swallowed up by it.
The Nuts and Bolts.
For the time being, I have determined not to post regularly. The few things I do post will be restricted to members, whether free or paid (so if you subscribe at a paid tier, it is simply because you want to support the work that I do). There may come a time when I begin adding a paywall to some or even most essays, particularly if I would like to limit engagement to those who have a vested interest in my work.