No truth without one intellect in common
Contrary to the radical relativism, individualism, and tribalism of today, the best minds of the past taught that there was a single intellect common to every member of the human race. This is not to say that humans share their consciousness or will, positions held by some today, which I will briefly critique. Although the first exposition of the common intellect is attributed by some to Aristotle himself, normally the point man in discussion of this issue is the muslim philosopher Ibn Rashid, known in Latinate circles as Averroes.
Now, the idea of a ”group mind” sounds suspiciously collectivist to anyone with a libertarian outlook on life, but that is not so in the case of Averroes and the Averroists. Evidently this was understood by no less a libertarian luminary than Rose Wilder Lane, who lauded the Islamic-Andelusian thinker as a progenitor of Western liberalism.
To take a horrific illustration. We may think of the scene in Orwell’s 1984 where Winston’s superior, and tormentor, asks “How many fingers Winston?” He holds up four but insists that there are actually three. The four fingers is the common intellect of Aristotle and Ibn Rushid, while the obedient response of three is the group mind of modern globalism and political correctness.
Averroism in the garbage can of history
Thomists frequently, and correctly, insist that a small mistake at the beginning results in long lasting and increasingly wrongheaded solutions to both intellectual and social problems. From a Thomist point of view modern philosophy, beginning with Descartes started off on the wrong foot, with its inevitable result being modern nihilism. Yet it is conceivable that the first wrong step was made by Thomas Aquinas himself when he rejected the common intellect.
No doubt this was for the best of motives. Perhaps the doctrine of the individual mind, hence soul, provided for Thomas a kind of safety net under the formidable doctrine of the bodily resurrection. The doctrine of the resurrection implies the survival of the individual in the coming world. So does the doctrine of the individual soul. Allowing for both provides a kind of double-barreled certainty of the after world. Of course it also violates the principle of Occam’s razor.
Razor or none, the doctrine of the individual mind associated with the individual soul set the standard for Western philosophy, and carried over into the renaissance. Averroism was still a going thing as late as the 16th century in the schools of northern Italy. Then it, along with Scholasticism, was eclipsed by the Cartesian movement. Embedded within Catholic institutions, Scholasticism proved tenacious and made a subsequent comeback, while Averroism was relegated to the world of antiquated doctrines. This had little to do with any philosophic judgment regarding the fitness of the common intellect as a thesis.
The modern movement in philosophy unleashed a current of subjectivism, a current which still affects us, as we wade through the swamp of Postmodernism. The reification of the individual intellect in Scholastic thought was rendered more consistent by the Cartesian ego, and subsequently the doubt of the Cartesians was made more realistic and functional by the epistemological separation of the inner and the outer world among the successors of Kant. At this point an interesting turn of thought was made. The transcendental ego was taken up as the perspective of a collective rather than an individual. This was the contribution of the Southwest German or Baden school. And from this came the modern “culture concept” with the implication of ethnic polylogism.
For a long time this was simply an artifact of ethnography, with its arbitrary notion of “natural” peoples. However the suggestion was quickly taken that culture could be constructed rather than simply inherited from the promulgating ancestors. Furthermore, this could be done in modern mass societies just as well as in small cultural isolates. From here we go on to our contemporary world in which truth is simply considered a construct of whomever has managed to seize the commanding heights of culture.
When was the first misstep?
The later part of this story is well known among contemporary critics of relativism and modern ideology. The only originality I have to offer is the thought that the first misstep was made when the Averroistic notion of the common intellect was rejected in early Western thought. It was also rejected in the Islamic world, albeit for different reasons. This is not to defend every thesis made by thinkers of an Averroistic stripe. Indeed, on the whole they seem to have been an eccentric and quarrelsome lot. Siger of Brabant did make it into Dante’s celestial spheres, but then Dante was a bit of a curmudgeon himself. However the quarrels among the Averroists were at least theoretically resolvable on the basis of a shared commitment to a common intellect, and that if all the steps in an argument could be traced back to innate principles held in common by all humanity, a harmonious and non-coercive concord would naturally result. The closest thing to this in the contemporary world is our emaciated notion of “common sense”…another Aristotelian idea which has suffered from reinterpretation.
Generally speaking, the most deep seated intellectual problem of today is that logic and psychology have gotten mixed together, with disastrous consequences. I know this sounds terribly abstract and remote, but when you look at the nihilistic chaos of today’s world, remind yourself that this must be the result of a misstep in the thinking of the past. In stepping out of Ibn Rushid’s interpretation of Aristotle, humanity stepped out of the world of objectivity and into a world of dreams, some pleasant, and others not so.
In the “not so” category is the dream of a single global society controlled by an elite in which decisions made by the elite are carried out by the masses, on an analogy with the relationship between the nervous system of an individual and the muscles controlled by the nerves. This is, of course, an inversion of the idea of a common intellect shared by all humanity. Yet in some way the rejection of the common intellect has left a void in human thought, and to the heightened appeal of any ideology which seeks to curb the ills of tribalism on the one hand and excessive individualism on the other. This innate desire for unification lends credibility to devious attempts at universal governance in the name of the masses but in fact carried out for the benefit of elites.
It also raises the specter of the “group mind” or as SF fans would say the “Borg mind.” Here too, a careful analysis should show how different all this is from the careful separation of logic and psychology made by Aristotelians of earlier times. The faculties of will and consciousness are properties of the individual organism, and cannot be an attributes of groups, as much as demagogues might wish that to be so. In fact, the common intellect makes coordination between the individual minds possible, by providing an objective ground of thought. It is precisely this which makes the governance by the collective intellect the logical alternative to governance by the wills hegemonic individuals or groups.
This was the intuition shared (whatever their disagreements might have been) by Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard in their advocacy of objective law. Unfortunately neither were sufficiently aware of the Averroistic current in philosophy to make the connection explicit. Rose Wilder Lane went to the other extreme in suggesting that Ibn Rushid was actually an influence on John Locke and the other luminaries of Western Liberalism. This seems unlikely. None the less it is the timeless principles which flow from the doctrine of the common intellect which would seem best to secure a universal governance not dependent on the arbitrary wills of humans acting individually or in concert.