THEOSOPHY, Vol. 84, No. 7, May, 1996
(Pages 200-202; Size: 8K)



[Part 3 of a 5-part series]

THE TWENTIETH century witnessed a transition age in Western philosophy. A transition age rejects traditional authority. Old doctrines are swept away to make room for the new, yet ideas return. They reappear in a form suitable to the temperament of the people at a later time. Similarly, modern ideas are not entirely new, as they echo doctrines held in ancient times.

In the nineteenth century, most people formed their opinions and values from the influence of two contrasting and often conflicting sources of authority -- Science and Religion. The dogmas of the Western theological tradition prescribe the nature and meaning of human existence spiritually and morally. The scientific theories were held as the final word on physical existence. In "What Is Truth," H. P. Blavatsky characterizes the prevailing dogmatism that fueled the conflict between Science and Religion:

The possible truths, hazily perceived in the world of abstraction, like those inferred from observation and experiment in the world of matter, are forced upon the profane multitudes, too busy to think for themselves, under the form of Divine revelation and Scientific authority. ... Even Science, once the anchor of the salvation of Truth, has ceased to be the temple of naked Fact. Almost to a man the Scientists strive now only to force upon their colleagues and the public the acceptance of some personal hobby, of some new fangled-theory, which will shed lustre on their name and fame. A Scientist is as ready to suppress damaging evidence against a current scientific hypothesis in our times, as a missionary in a heathen-land, or a preacher at home, to persuade his congregation that modern geology is a lie, and evolution but vanity and vexation of spirit (H.P.B. Articles I, pp. 1, 7). [Note: For those who might like to read it, once you have finished reading this article, I've placed a link to HPB's "What is Truth?" article at the end of this one.--Compiler]
The prevailing schools of Western philosophy did not escape this conflict. The American philosopher, William James, described the dilemma at the end of the nineteenth century as tension between the rationalistic schools of idealism, which tend to rely on deductions from preconceived (a priori) abstract principles, and the empiricist or positivist schools, which are materialistic and, thus, based on facts accumulated by the physical senses.

Friedrich Nietzche was certainly one of the most controversial and influential philosophers in the past one hundred years. His notoriety comes not from formulating a complete or consistent philosophy, but rather, from his questioning of the very foundation of Western culture and its traditions. He fiercely challenged the absolute authority of religious dogma. He criticized traditional metaphysics. In his view, the entire Western tradition of theology and metaphysics was based on a set of beliefs which were speculative, contingent, and arbitrary. In a word, all our assumed knowledge and moral values are relative.

Nietzche's most influential contribution to the course of modern Western philosophy is the doctrine of Relativism, or what he called "perspectivism." The philosophical doctrine of Realism proposes that philosophical and scientific theories actually correspond to and represent reality. In contrast, Relativism proposes that our concepts represent perspectives we impose on reality. Theories do not correspond to reality, they interpret reality. In other words, a belief regarding what is true and real is contingent on the attitude one takes in looking at a particular problem.

According to Nietzche's Relativism, Truth is that which an individual chooses to perceive and believe. It devalues the idea of an absolute truth or a universal standard of morality. Science is only another perspective that allows one to interact with and manipulate nature. Ethics are a set of beliefs that have no basis in rationality or divine revelation. It is a matter of aesthetics and opinion. Our idea of "Self" does not correspond to any real Self. In his view, there is no real enduring Self. The "Self" is a persona, or mask, that persons arbitrarily build and wear. Persons primarily represent bundles of drives and instincts. The drift of Nietzche's Relativism is clearly nihilistic, but it is representative of the transition in modern philosophy.

By the end of the nineteenth century, the works of three Western thinkers had struck a blow against dogmatism in Science and Religion. They worked from different data and reached different conclusions, but the influence of their works affected the trajectory of modern philosophy in the twentieth century. The philosopher Paul Ricocur named Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud and Friedrich Nietzche the three "masters of suspicion." They raised the suspicion that many conclusions derived from the authority of Science and Religion are not absolute truths, nor do they necessarily correspond with reality. They raised the suspicion that theology could not be relied upon as a source of moral value or meaning. They raised suspicions about the certainty of scientific theories. These suspicions grew to typify Western philosophy in the twentieth century.

COMPILER'S NOTE: The following is a separate item which followed the above article but was on the same page. I felt it was useful to include it here:


All the universe is an inn; search not specially for a retreat of peace: all the people are your relatives; expect therefore troubles from them.

Be firm in your acts, but easy in your heart; be strict with yourselves, but gentle with your fellowmen. 


[Note: Here's the link to HPB's article, entitled "What is Truth?", that was mentioned and quoted from in the above article by the Editors.--Compiler

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