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John Herman Randall, Jr. – So it goes…

March 13, 2015

“The history of philosophical ideas is both cumulative and original. Ideas seized upon because they meet the needs generated by one type of experience have a structure and implications and entailments of their own. That structure can be followed out, explored and pushed, by me who have the intellectual interest and motive, and who are not led to stop short in their exploring by the pressure of practical involvement in some particular conflict, because they have come upon an idea that will serve their immediate intellectual ends. But men are always far more concerned to use idea than to understand them. And when other elements in their culture, perhaps only remotely connected with those ideas, have developed so far as to bring into existence another type of social experience, men come to feel the need of turning to new ideas. So out of the fragments of previous structures and complexes, they set out to build a new one. Intellectually, in our own culture there has been a genuine continuity of materials, carried along in what we shall have to examine carefully, its several philosophical traditions. But there has been no orderly progress, no simple fixed line of development moving through time, no unilinear ‘evolution.’ Ideas have had, rather, adventurous careers, like the complexes we call ‘traditions’ in which they come embedded. There has been rather a succession of lootings of the past by each new present. No great philosophy has ever been ‘refuted.’ It has rather been discarded as irrelevant, irrelevant to another newly emerged type of intellectual and cultural experience. The system of Aristotle was not refuted by the gospels of the Hellenistic schools that followed after it in time. Rather, the need for deliverance, for a way of salvation, grew more pressing than the Aristotelian desire to understand. The imposing medieval syntheses, Arabic, Jewish, or Christian, were never refuted by the scientific humanitarianisms to which men in search of emancipation turned. Rather, men came to feel other values more insistent than the intellectual and spiritual values they had enabled man to secure. And if the scientific and humanistic philosophies of our own time are destined to be superseded by other and more dogmatic views of nature and human society, it will not be because they have been ‘disproved.’ It will be only because they have been for the time being made irrelevant, by our intense need for social direction and military security, even at the sacrifice of the searching mind and the critical temper.”

(from How Philosophy Uses Its Past [1963])


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