Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Was Darwin a Socratic Philosopher?

Today is the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin's The Origin of Species.

The coincidence of this anniversary with the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birthday (February 12, 1809) has brought a wave of books and articles on Darwin and his intellectual legacy.

Although we today commonly identify Darwin as a scientist, Darwin in his own day was identified as a philosopher. When he sailed on the Beagle, the men on the ship referred to him simply as "the philosopher." When he died in 1882, Thomas Henry Huxley wrote the obituary for Nature, in which Huxley spoke of him as "a man of science" who was also a philosopher who led "the revolution in natural knowledge," and he compared him to Socrates:

"One could not converse with Darwin without being reminded of Socrates. There was the same desire to find some one wiser than himself; the same belief in the sovereignty of reason; the same ready humour; the same sympathetic interest in all the ways and works of men. But instead of turning away from the problems of nature as hopelessly insoluble, our modern philosopher devoted his whole life to attacking them in the spirit of Heraclitus and of Democritus, with results which are as the substance of which their speculations were anticipatory shadows."

Thus does Huxley put Darwin in a long line of natural philosophers who reversed the "Socratic turn" (described in the Phaedo) away from the philosophic study of nature. Huxley could have cited Aristotle's turn to biology as part of that tradition of natural philosophy that Darwin continued.

It is good to be reminded that until recently "science" and "philosophy" were not separated into distinct disciplines. Overcoming that separation is a goal of what I have called "Darwinian liberal education."

1 comment:

Won Joon Choe said...

Dear Prof. Arnhart,

I am by no means a well-versed reader of Darwin, but the little I have read of him portrays him in a decidedly unflattering light in terms of character. In fact, his being credited as the originator of the theory of evolution itself seems to have been the outcome of a rather ugly, Machiavellian campaign against Wallace.

Now, besides from other seeming incongruities in this analogy between Darwin and Socrates: Can the term "Socratic" be divorced from virtue or at least the public imitation of virtue?