lundi 1 novembre 2010

A 19th Century Process Philosopher: Ioan Pop Florantin

Ioan Pop Florantin (1843 - 1936) is a secondary character in the history of Romanian philosophy. An alumnus of the University of Vienna, author of many literary and philosophical books [*], inventor, he was for the better part of his life a humble high-school teacher in Iasi. Although present only in the footnotes of the official histories of philosophy, Pop Florantin is worthy of greater consideration. His philosophical project is definetly more interesting that those of many of his better-known Romanian contemporaries. Even in the larger context of the European philosophy of the last third of the 19th century, his philosophy is still worthy of being mentioned. The most important of his works is The Reform of Methods in Science and the Practice and Theory of Universal Consecutionism (1895), on which my exposition of his thought will be mainly based.

The aim of this book is expressed as follows:
« I have set myself to observe all important erroneous methods, both in scientific research, and in practical applications; and I have tried, in the following pages, to briefly bring to evidence the procedures found to be more correct, and which are recommendable to be used instead » (UC, iv).
The « methods » and « procedures » of which Pop Florantin speaks are in many cases general presuppositions characterising a paradigm of philosophy which Pop Florantin wanted overcome. Finalism, realism of universals, essentialism, the doctrine of inherent qualities, direct realism, scepticism, determinism are, among others, rejected by our philosopher. But the most important « methods » (habits of thought, actually) rejected by him are, in his terms, the following:

« ontologism, objectism; substantives », to be replaced by « actionism, verbs »;
« momentism », to be replaced by « consecutionism ».

The rejection of these errors has a distinctive philosophical importance, as it places Pop Florantin in the camp of process philosophers, as I will show briefly in the next lines.

Ioan Pop Florantin remarks that, when looking for the true nature of « phenomena » we encounter in our experience, we are led astray by the nature of our language. The fact that we refer to most phenomena by substantives induces the belief that we are living in a world of objects, of entities possessing a timeless essence, which deliver their whole being instantaneously, persisting through time in self-identity. But, in reality, there are very few objects of this kind; we are entitled to refer by substantives only to the « substantial elements » of the « universal cosmic stuff » [**], as well as to space. Or, these are not given in experience, but only inferred from it, i.e., thought, not known. All we find in experience must be rather referred to by verbs:
« We find even today the wide-spread habit of supposing and treating the diverse courses and fluxes of phenomena thus, as if they were something; some persistent substances; things, entities, or permanent objects.
    Indeed, thoughts do not relate in general directly to the absolute or pure space; but to the diverse processes and metamorphoses through which pass the other objects of thought; …
    Since thoughts relate to domains of such processes and series of states, it is a principled error to treat them as things, as entities or persistent objects and to formulate, by way of consequence, thoughts about them in a substantival way. » (EM, 4-5).
Pop Florantin’s intention of introducing a distinction between what is substantial and what, exhausting the domain of experience, is not substantial, is evident. The speech-part adequate to describing reality, the philosopher insists, is not the substantive, nor the adjective, but the verb. What he says in Principles of Logic about ideas applies, mutatis mutandi, to any element of our experience:
« I have treated all acts, « ideas », « notions » etc., as actions, with their courses, not as entities or things having a persistent existence » (PL, iv).
The ontological emphasis falls on process, passage, action, as opposed to persistence, object, substance. Pop Florantin din not understand by actions what we currently understand, some kind of dynamical entities ontologically dependent on an agent and having practical intentionality; in considering every element of experience an action, he is nowhere near placing some universal agent behind every such action. He thinks of phenomena as free, agentless actions, or unowed processes. By « action » he understands unrestrictively the whole spectrum of the dynamic categories: processes, events, and actions proper also. « Actionism » is Pop Florantin’s name for « processism ».

I get now to the next error rejected by Pop Florantin, « momentism ». Momentism is a species of « myopicism ». This term covers every form of incapacity to see the larger context. When, for one motive or another, but without any valid reason, the thought rests between some arbitrary limits, we have a case of myopicism. One species of myopicism is geocentrism, which believes that « being ‘the residence’ of man, the Earth is the main ‘theatre’ of natural life » (EM, 4). Another species is anthropocentrism, according to which « man is a species of extraordinary beings compared to the entire nature » (ibid.). Momentism is qualified by Pop Florantin as « myopicism in respect to the course of time and to the metamorphosis of phenomena » (UC, 10). It is blindness to the temporal and changing character of phenomena.

Phenomena, says Pop Florantin,
« keep metamorphosing ceaselessly.... However, many people kept the habit and rule of considering them mainly only as they present to us in some arbitrary moment, and yet of judging them after as if they would confine themselves to that nature, which has appeared to us in one moment » (UC, 9).
Things are not persistences, perdurances, but fluxes, series of metamorphoses, ceaseless movements. I would like to underline once more that for this philosopher nothing in the phenomenal universe has the character of a permanent substance, possessing an extra-temporal essence, but everything has the character of a process, understood as a continuous series of metamorphoses (qualitative changes). Here is another formulation of this doctrine:
« it is an erroneous procedure to consider any phenomenon in space as uniformly permanent; for, on the contrary, everything passes through successive states of metamorphosis » (UC, 17).
To conclude, nothing experienciable has a momentary existence. By this it is understood that nothing has instantaneous existence, but also that nothing is how it manifests itself in one arbitrary moment of its existence. No process can be understood if we confine ourselves to one single phase of it; but this phase has to be thought within the context of the preceding and succeeding phases: it has to be placed in the context of the integral « consecution » of all the phases of the process.

Summing up, we find that Ioan Pop Florantin has a revisionary metaphysics, a process metaphysics, based on two fundamental « laws »: the law of the universal consecutionism, and the law of the universal metamorphosis. Applied together, the two laws yield Pop Florantin’s fundamental doctrine, which amounts to a kind of principle of the primacy of processes:
« From the absolute law of consecutionism and from the law of metamorphosis it follows necessarily that it is an erroneous procedure to consider any phenomenon as object, with an uniformly persistent existence; for in strict reality no phenomenon is known otherwise than as a series of minimal phenomena, as such unknowable, as an action, to which we can apply only in a collective sense the substantive form, while what rigorously corresponds them is the verb form » (UC, 18).
Things are processes and in them « all that is essentially permanent and characteristic is the special functioning, in its respective nature and form » (EM, 6). Pop Florantin explains many times this fundamental doctrine of his. Let’s take a concrete example. During a soccer game each team can make three changes of players. But nobody would say that, if all three changes were done, there were four different teams in the arena, but we would all agree that we had before the eyes the same team all game long. Each new player integrated the organisation of the team, taking over the functional role of the player he replaced. What characterizes the team is its functional structure, deriving from the game-relations between players; the relations characterize the player’s role in the team, and the role imposes to each player the game-relations that he must establish with other players. Every phenomenon is characterised, according to Pop Florantin, by such a functional structure, which has nothing to do with any intrinsic essence, inherent to the phenomena. We always know only the how of phenomena, not their what. In phenomena we find lasting patterns, but not essences.

Many applications of this principles yield interesting results. In the context, what he has to say about personal identity, e.g., is worthy of interest. However, I will not go farther for the time being. For all I wanted to show was that modern process philosophy began also in Romania, with the ignored and - unfortunately -completely uninfluential thought of Ioan Pop Florantin.

[*] His philosophical works include:

Fundamental Principles of the Philosophy of Language (1869)
Fundament of Philosophy: Psychology, Logic, Morals, Theodicy (1871)
Aesthetics: Philosophical Science of Beauty and Arts (2 volumes, 1874, 1887)
Psychology, 2nd edition completely revised (1892)
(EM) Ethics, or Scientific Morals, 2nd edition completely revised (1892)
(PL) Principles of Logic, 2nd edition completely revised (1893)
(UC) The Reform of Methods in Science and the Practice and Theory of Universal Consecutionism (1895)
The True Einstein and the Einsteinism Standing Trial before the Court of Logic (1926)

[**] The philosopher refers to ether and atoms of ether. The fundamental metaphysical fact was for him the distribution of ethereal atoms moving through absolute space.