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  Road to the Middle Class
Wednesday October 22, 2014 
by Christopher Chantrill Follow chrischantrill on Twitter

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Filmer Stuart Cuckow Northrop

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 Northrop’s 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 d’horizon of the great high cultures of the world, including Anglo, American, German/French, India, China, and Mexico. But it views all these cultures through Northrop’s 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 world’s 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 Northrop’s 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 Northrop’s 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.”

Christopher Chantrill blogs at www.americanmanifesto.org. 

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©2007 Christopher Chantrill