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In memoriam: F.S.C. Northrop (1893-1992).


F. S. C. Northrop (1893-1992)

F. S. C. Northrop was singular among American philosophers in his concern with ideological conflicts and their resolution. During a century in which the world was rent by wars and philosophers retreated to their academies, Northrop directed his philosophical endeavors to an understanding of the ideologies that erupted into the conflicts, and to the discovery of the principles of international law that would serve as the foundations for world peace.

Northrop began his career as a philosopher of science. At Harvard he prepared his dissertation under William Ernest Hocking and L. J. Henderson on the topic of organization in biology. Earlier he had studied under A. N. Whitehead at London, and subscribed to the English philosopher's call for a reconstruction of cosmology based on humanistic as well as scientific concepts. From Harvard Northrop joined the Yale University faculty in 1923. Subsequently he studied Einstein's relatively physics and befriended the German scientist. Einstein's influence on Northrop is immeasurable. When Northrop retired from Yale after nearly four decades of teaching and research, he was Sterling professor of philosophy and law.

Northrop's first book, Science and First Principles (1931), offers a philosophical cosmology consonant with humanistic values. Northrop utilized his mastery of the concepts and methods of theoretical physics and biology to propose a Parmenidean interpretation of the world. His hypothesis of the macroscopic atom as the ultimate constitution of the cosmos has been deemed by A. N. Whitehead to be the only alternative to his own cosmology of microscopic atomic occasions or actual entities.

Northrop authored or edited a dozen books. His fame, however, springs mainly from his 1946 book, The Meeting of East and West. Appearing in the immediate post-World War II environment, as the clouds of the Cold War were gathering, this book analyzes the cultural differences that divided the world into armed camps at war with each other, and proposes a method of resolving the conflicts through a synthesis of ideas and values. Northrop's approach to an understanding of cultures was carried on by means of philosophy and in particular by his epistemology of science. He held that basic to a culture is its philosopy, and he proceeded to analyze the different cultures of the world in terms of the philosophies which are implicit in them. It is interesting that his theory placed the culture of the Soviet Union on the side of the West; and fundamental to Western cultures are, according to Northrop, abstract, general notions--concepts by postulation. Eastern cultures, on the other hand, are shaped by philosophies which accentuate immediate experience--concepts by intuition. Just as modern science had established epistemic correlations between these two sorts of concepts to develop comprehensive theories capable of explanation, prediction, and hence control of nature, Northrop hoped that similar success might be achieved in the construction of a world order which would enhance cultural pluralism under the rule of international law.

As the Cold War unleashed its storms, Northrop's optimism of 1946 faded. Nevertheless, he continued to seek the conditions requisite for world peace through an examination of the role of philosophies in the formation of cultures and an exploration of the possibilities for international law. His insistence on the study of philosophies to understand the genesis of national policies that lead to conflict rested in part on his painstaking efforts to grasp the living laws of different societies and on his conviction that sociological methods fail where philosophical analysis succeeds. Hence, Northrop recommended that the major department of any government's Foreign Office or Department of State should be its Division of Cultural Relations, a division in which comparative philosophy would be a required subject. In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the promise of a new world order marred by ethnic strife, Northrop's recommendation is eminently timely.
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Author:Reck, Andrew J.
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Obituary
Date:Dec 1, 1992
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