Four Ages of Understanding: The First Postmodern Survey of Philosophy from Ancient Times to the Turn of the Twenty-first Century

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University of Toronto Press, Jan 1, 2001 - Philosophy - 1019 pages

This book redraws the intellectual map and sets the agenda in philosophy for the next fifty or so years. By making the theory of signs the dominant theme in "Four Ages of Understanding", John Deely has produced a history of philosophy that is innovative, original, and complete. The first full-scale demonstration of the centrality of the theory of signs to the history of philosophy, "Four Ages of Understanding" provides a new vantage point from which to review and reinterpret the development of intellectual culture at the threshold of "globalization".

Deely examines the whole movement of past developments in the history of philosophy in relation to the emergence of contemporary semiotics as the defining moment of Postmodernism. Beginning traditionally with the Pre-Socratic thinkers of early Greece, Deely gives an account of the development of the notion of signs and of the general philosophical problems and themes which give that notion a context through four ages: Ancient philosophy, covering initial Greek thought; the Latin age, philosophy in European civilization from Augustine in the 4th century to Poinsot in the 17th; the Modern period, beginning with Descartes and Locke; and the Postmodern period, beginning with Charles Sanders Peirce and continuing to the present. Reading the complete history of philosophy in light of the theory of the sign allows Deely to address the work of thinkers never before included in a general history, and in particular to overcome the gap between Ockham and Descartes which has characterized the standard treatments heretofore. One of the essential features of the book is the way in which it shows how the theme of signs opens a perspective for seeing the Latin Age from its beginning with Augustine to the work of Poinsot as an indigenous development and organic unity under which all the standard themes of ontology and epistemology find a new resolution and place.

A magisterial general history of philosophy, Deely's book provides both a strong background to semiotics and a theoretical unity between philosophy's history and its immediate future. With "Four Ages of Understanding" Deely sets a new agenda for philosophy as a discipline entering the 21st century.

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I include here in full The Thomist journal's 2003 review--by Benedict Ashley, O.P., author of the excellent The Way toward Wisdom--of Deely's masterpiece:
Some histories of philosophy, like the
admirable one of Frederick Copleston, only attempt to give an accurate account of various philosophies in their general historical setting. Others, like Bertrand Russell in his absurd A History of Western Philosophy or ╔tienne Gilson in his brilliant The Unity of Philosophical Experience proffer an argument for a particular philosophical position. Deely takes the second view and says that a good history of philosophy must be itself philosophy.
The thesis of this book, a history as brilliant as Gilson's and certainly one of the most original and comprehensive recent efforts to explain the value and scope of philosophy, is that postmodernism is not, as Heidegger claimed, the end of philosophy, but a promising new beginning. Ancient Philosophy discovered Substance. The Latin Age discovered Being. The Modern Age took the byway of Ideas. Thus with Descartes, modernity took a road that wobbled between idealism and empiricism and dead-ended in solipsism. Postmodernity is about to return to the true road it missed, although that true road lay open to it at the end of the Latin Age, the highway of the Sign. It will at last be freed of its solipsism and enabled to recognize that the world is a network of mind-dependent and mind-independent relations, of reality and cultural interpretation, that can be distinguished in order to be rightly united. This is not the postmodernity of Derrida, since that is merely the last gasp of modernity; it is the postmodernity of Charles Peirce--and, I must add, of Deely himself.
As Deely has explained Peirce, semiotics, the doctrine of signs that transcends the distinction between the real and the mental and enables us to make this distinction and interrelation clear, makes available to us today the major achievements of the three past ages of understanding. Ancient philosophy attained the notion of "sign" as regards natural signs, but even the masterly logic, psychology, and epistemology of Aristotle did not explicitly extend the concept of semeion to mental signs. The Latin Age, especially in the philosophy of being of Aquinas, took this major step, but its full implications were recognized only at its end, in the writings of Jean Poinsot (John of St. Thomas, O.P.). In the third Age of Modernity, beginning with Descartes, the failure to recognize this semiotic achievement resulted in the war of Idealism vs. Empiricism. But this Empiricism, by its assumption that what we know are not beings but representations, was as solipsistic as was Idealism. With Peirce, who went behind Modernity to recover something of the first two Ages, although mainly in its Scotistic version, the Fourth Age of Postmodernity has begun with the recognition that the Sign transcends the natural and the mental worlds by distinguishing and relating them in the complex web of historical cultures.
For Deely, however, as for Gilson, the philosophy of being of Thomas Aquinas remains central to this historical development. If Peirce had known Aquinas and what Poinsot made explicit in Aquinas rather than Scotus, and if in this new century Thomists can escape their Neoscholastic or Transcendentalist dead-ends, Post-Modernism will be saved from Modernism's destruction of philosophy. The reason that St. Thomas's philosophy of being remains fundamental even in this semiotic age is that it was he who showed us that the primum cognitum, the primary object of intelligence, is "being" in a sense that transcends mind-independent being and mind-dependent being. Only in this way does it become possible to establish the principle of contradiction by which real objects, which cannot contradict themselves, are distinguished from what human thought in its efforts to deal with real objects necessarily or arbitrarily projects on reality. Na´ve realism cannot make this distinction, and idealism, no matter

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About the author (2001)

John Deely has been a Professor of Philosophy since 1976 at Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa, and is now at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. He was a founding member of the Semiotic Society of America and the American Maritain Association.

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