Teilhard's Vision of the past: The Making of a Method

Teilhard's Vision of the past: The Making of a Method

Teilhard's Vision of the past: The Making of a Method

Teilhard's Vision of the past: The Making of a Method

Synopsis

The Phenomenon of Man, by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, has been characterized as metaphysics, poetry, and mysticism-virtually everything except what its author claimed it was: a "purely scientific m moir." Professor O'Connell here follows up on a nest of clues, uncovered first in an early unpublished essay, then in the series of essays contained principally in The Vision of the Past. Those clues all point to Teilhard's intimate familiarity with the philosophy of science propounded by the celebrated Pierre Duhem. It was Duhem's central claim that science, to remain true to itself, must aim at establishing a genuine "natural classification" phenomenal reality. That insight, Professor O'Connell argues, guided Teilhard's lifelong effort to describe the "imposed reality-factors" which science in its variety of forms suggests as ingredients and operative at every phase in the evolutionary development of planet Earth. Limiting his focus to the way Teilhard unfolded his vision of the past, Professor O'Connell concludes that those who deprecate Teilhard as unscientific betray little awareness of how sophisticated his understanding of science truly was.

Excerpt

The Phenomenon of Man has been variously regarded as either an attack on science or an effort to confront the scientist with an apology for Christianity. To anyone entertaining either of these attitudes, it must come as a small surprise, one tinged with an aura of the ironic, to discover that Teilhard's earliest essays on science and evolution betray quite the contrary of those supposed penchants: much of what he ingests into his later method developed precisely out of a determined series of efforts to defend science, and to present his fellow-Catholics with an apologia for the scientific way of "seeing" things.

But Catholics were scarcely the only ones who stood in opposition to evolutionary theory; nor was the anti-scientific animus confined to the proposals advanced by anthropology and paleontology. the suspicion of science, when Teilhard was young, ran both deeper and wider: the burning question toward the beginning of his career was whether science in its entire compass, including even physics, could validly claim to tell us anything about the real world.

The development of science itself, and especially of theoretical physics, was partially responsible for these wholesale doubts. As instruments were developed to make measurements more exact, and investigative methods more refined, confident conclusions which had formerly been drawn from past experiments were cast into doubt; simpler theories were (apparently) discarded, to be replaced by more complex and sophisticated successor-theories; those . . .

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