On-line version ISSN 2224-7912
Print version ISSN 0041-4751
Tydskr. geesteswet. vol.54 n.4 Pretoria Dec. 2014
Constancy and Change, Historical Types and Trends in the Passion of the Western Mind
B.J. Van der Walt
Institute for Contemporary Christianity in Africa, 2014, 140 pp.
The study of the history of philosophy is an important part of doing philosophy. It has been said that philosophy only has its history left as more and more of its original domain has been captured by the special sciences. This, of course, is an exaggeration. Yet, as Van der Walt shows, the history of philosophy is important, and not only so for philosophers, for I think indeed that Constancy and Change, succeeds in showing the relevance of this subject for issues we face in everyday life - no less in Africa than in Europe. Without guidance we - Christians hardly less than seculars - easily fall prey to false dilemma's such as Empiricism or Rationalism, Modernism or Postmodernism. It is altogether fitting for an Institute for Contemporary Christianity in Africa to publish such a book.
The protagonist of the story is D.H.Th. Vollenhoven (1892-1977), who assumed his task at the Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam in 1926, and after WW II dedicated his time entirely to the development of a methodology for dealing with the history of philosophy. He did so because of serious misgivings about current methodologies. These tended to narrow their scope to a restricted number of philosophies. Also, their maps depended on a limited number of criteria. Vollenhoven however, developed no less than sixty different types. Their constancy (see Van der Walt's title) is that they are applied to the whole of history, from early Greek philosophy to 20th C. thought.
The Passion of the Western Mind in the subtitle refers to the unrest that characterizes Western civilization. Vollenhoven's time-currents chart this ongoing seeking of renewal by disrupting continuity. To be sure, human passion is not the sole cause of historical change (as a Buddhist would hold). All important is that God makes the times serve the fulfillment of His purpose. Without any claim to lay bare the roots of change, Vollenhoven's methodology does try to register its effects in the realm of philosophical thought.
Van der Walt is rightly fascinated by the combination of constancy and change. What he shows is that viewed from the angle of Vollenhoven's typology a passion for change, no matter how radical, in the end presents "merely" a shift from one type to another. This assumption that even radical change does not break typological constancy bespeaks the Calvinist's conviction that God's law holds for all times.
Of course, the introductory character of this book made it impossible to discuss specific type and currents at length. It may seem a shortcoming, but in fact this open-endedness greatly enhances the accessibility of the texts (certainly compared to Vollenhoven's own writings). Students who want more than is offered here, can easily find their way, as the bibliography contains titles of more detailed studies in this field. In still another aspect this book is open-ended: Van der Walt's final chapters deal with subjects that Vollenhoven neglected, viz. the relation between male and female and gender differences and relationships. He shows that also here Vollenhovian categories are able to shed light on the controversies surrounding these subjects. I think this should encourage philosophers of the special disciplines to do something similar with debates in their own fields.
All chapters were published before as separate articles, all of them in Afrikaans. Given the introductory character of the book I don't see this as a disadvantage. Another positive point in this regard is the use of metaphors inspired by African nature. Ch. 3, Flying on the wings of Vollenhoven 's radical worldview, even starts with a hike in Kwa-Zulu Natal. So, although the protagonist of the story is a Dutch philosopher, the texts are embellished by African imagery.
I count it as my duty to put my finger on a few mistakes, mostly minor, but in at least one case of a more serious nature. Examples of minor mistakes are "fables" on p. 36 ( instead of "anecdotes"), and on p. 45 dating the heyday of the worldview-idea around the 1840's (half-a-century too early). Ch. 3 is plagued by a category mistake: Vollenhoven's distinction of three historical eras - pre-synthetic, synthetic, and anti-synthetic - is lumped together with an (attempted) classification of worldviews: in contradistinction to the former, the latter has to proceed both diachronically and synchronically. Put more generally, the book lacks clarity as to the differences between philosophy and worldview. Nevertheless, this chapter does contain many interesting topics relating to its purpose to replace H.R. Niebuhr's classification of "Christ against culture", " - above culture", etc., by something better.
Prof. em. Wijsbegeerte van de Sociale wijsbegeerte
Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam Veelzicht, Rijksstraatweg 77
3632AA Loenen aan de Vecht Nederland