Most people are too busy to go in for philosophical thinking. This is because most people spend time struggling to exists and move forward in ways they think will benefit them. Or because they rather like living undisturbed routine lives not worrying about how or why things are or how they will or should be in the future. On rare occasions a few awkward and often irritating individuals with time on their hands ask deceptively simple questions which never seem to have simple answers. These are the philosophers of the world. Some are well know professors, some are rocking chair thinkers and some are even back yard tinkerer, but they all help pull mankind towards what we are capable of becoming. They expand our knowledge in ways that are not often measurable till many years later.
Philosophers used to be people who just sat around and asked questions about everything, but most are now classified in the following areas of philosophy:
1. Epistemology questions about knowledge
2. Metaphysics questions of time, space, God Theology, cause and reality
3. Ethics questions of good and bad
4. Aesthetics questions about art and beauty
5. Political Philosophy
Some philosophers believe that philosophy can make real progress in the quest for knowledge.
Others believe that philosophy is thinking and thinking can do no more that help clarify ideas and remove misunderstandings. Either way its a great thing this philosophy. Its almost like a history to the evolution of the human mind. It tracks our progress in thinking and in what we, as humans are capable of understanding, accepting and applying!
One thing all philosophers feel obliged to produce is some sort of explanation, proof, or evidence for their ideas. This is one huge difference between philosophy and religion.
The Ancient Greeks invented philosophy, as we know it. Thinkers of the time like Xenophanes (c. 560-478 B.C.) thought there must be some sort of underlying logic or order for the way things are and would not accept religious explanations.
Aristotle (384-322 B.C.)
Being a moral person involves not just knowing what is right, but choosing it as well. Individuals must accept responsibility for their voluntary actions, which involve others.
Theologian William of Ockham (1285-1349) pursued the Scholastic concern of knotty problems like logic, language and meaning. Ockham was a Nominalist who pointed out that a lot of academic philosophy was really no more than waffle about imaginary entities. He thought that the great truths are usually simple, so it is foolish to prefer a complicated answer to a simpler one. This principle of his is known as Ockhams Razor which has been highly influential in science and philosophy and acts as a tool to cut up what is likely not true.
A.N. Whitehead (1861-1947) suggested that all western philosophy ultimately consists of not more than footnotes to Plato. Plato did ask all the right questions for which philosophers still seek answers. So it is suggested that philosophers fall in to one of two tendencies:
1. Platonic Tendencies: which is seeking hidden and ultimate mystical truths through the use of reason.
2. Aristotelian Ones: because they are methodical, cautious and rely only on what their five senses tell them.
Epicurus (314-270 B.C.) suggested the individual just needed tranquility and peace of mind to be happy. As a follower of Democritus, he maintained that death was nothing to fear; it was simply the inevitable melting of our souls and bodies into atoms.
Rene Descartes (1596-1650) a French mathematician who is said to have started off modern philosophy. He investigated the internal workings of the mind in relation to the external world and emphasized the difference between perceiving and thinking. His Discourse on Method (1637) seeks to discover a new kind of accurate scientific knowledge by following a few simple procedural rules. In his Meditations (1641) he asks if there is any kind of knowledge that can be known with certainty. By applying a technique of radically skeptical doubt, he found that he could destroy his beliefs in everything. He suggests that there is no knowledge that can be guaranteed. He could not be certain that his own body was real. But he could be sure his thoughts existed. Doubting is a kind of thinking, so trying to doubt that you are thinking just does not work. With this insight, Descartes discovered the famous Cogito.
With this breakthrough, Descartes went on to prove that humans are strangely dualist beings; spiritual minds or souls inhabiting material bodies. Bodies are like machines and eventually perish, but our minds are immortal. Although how the two interact is not very clear.
Descartes thought that God would guarantee abstract rational thinking that was as clear and distinct as the original Cogito itself. This means that our clear mathematical thinking about the world is correct, but our sensory experiences of it are all subjective and flawed. There are however numerous problems with Descartes subjective road to a unique and personal certainty.
John Locke (1632-1704) adopted many of Descartes ideas about the mind and perception, but he was also the founder of Empiricism, which insists that fundamental human knowledge must come from the senses. He also thought that the Platonic and Cartesian doctrine of innate ideas was ridiculous and that most metaphysics was nonsense. He states, at birth the human mind is just blank or Tabula Rasa and can only acquire basic knowledge of the world thought the senses. After this initial process, experiences can be categorized and stored in the memory. Only then can the mind start to assemble its own new ideas and think independently from the senses.
Locke agreed with Descartes that our experience of the world is always indirect. All that our minds actually experience are representations or mental images, which means that we cannot have any direct knowledge of the substance of which the world is made. Locke also agreed that our experience of any object, like an orange, is mixed. Its primary qualities of size and weight are in the orange and are objective and scientifically measurable. Its secondary qualities of smell, color, and taste are just its effect on our sense organs, and so are subjective and relative.
David Hume (1711-1776) a chief figure in Scottish Enlightenment who knew the leading French philosophies was an atheist and scathing about traditional theological arguments, which claimed to prove the existence of GOD. As a committed empiricist, he was also extremely skeptical about the assertions made by Rationalists about the powers and extent of human reason.
Hume recognized the major weakness of Induction as a source of knowledge, against empiricists like Bacon, who thought that Induction was a reliable foundation for all science. If all the swans you have personally observed have been white, then it is scientifically very possible that so are all the swans in the world, until you visit Australia and see a black one. The what happens? Hume is pointing out that all scientific finding based on observation and induction must remain conjectural and temporary.
Hume was the first philosopher to clarify what causation is. Medieval philosophers believed in the certainty of causation, it proved Gods existence. Hume analyzed the concept of cause and found that it was really no more then human belief based on past experiences. Everyone likes to think that all events have causes. We believe that there is always a cause for a machine breaking down, for plants growing and for planets circling the sun. These are all perfectly sane beliefs, but only beliefs nevertheless.
They are all based on induction, our observations of machines, plants and planets in the past, but none of them has any logical certainty.
Hume also recognized that it is not possible to prove moral beliefs. The concept of wickedness is not something you can see. You can prove facts like Socrates is mortal, provided you know that all men are mortal and Socrates is a man. But you cant logically prove that stealing is wrong from fact, because this conclusion is finally only a belief or opinion. In deductive logic you cant have a valid belief-conclusion that emerges from some fact-premises.
Although he was a radical philosopher, he had conservative personal beliefs, which led him to suggest that human beings could only ever b content if they relied on their natural feelings of sympathy for each other and respected all social traditions.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) who became the most influential political thinker of the lat 18th century, believed that the lives of pre-civilized natural human beings were ones of contentment and benevolence. But when the great human inventions of civilization and private property arrived, everything went downhill.
Artificial needs stimulated artificial greeds. This is why, in his view, per-societal beings like children and savages are morally superior. Its a back to nature myth that influenced the cultural movement know as Romanticism.
More ominously, Rousseau believed that societys laws should be an expression of The General Will which would always be right. It is not clear how this could be established and when it would have to be enforced.
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was a meticulous bachelor of such regular habits that the citizens of Konlgsberg could set their watches by his daily routine walks. Kant proposed that human beings see causation in the world because they are constituted that way. He was the first philosopher to show that neither Rationalist nor Empiricists had got it quite right.
In his Critique of Pure Reason (1781), Kant shows how the attempts to use reason to establish metaphysical truths always produce impossible contradictions. He then demonstrates how we acquire knowledge of the world. The human mind is active, not a passive recipient of information. When we look at the world we constitute it in order to make sense of it. Some of the concepts that we apply to out present experience do indeed come from our past ones, but the most important ones precede experience. They are a priori, prior to our experiences. The mind organizes and systematized what we experience with its own programmed intuitions and categories which make sense of all the data that constantly floods in through our senses.
Hume claimed that we gradually build up our own conceptual apparatus from our experience. Kant replies that unless we have some kind of mental conceptual apparatus to being with, no experience would ever be possible. So he is a sophisticated Idealist. Thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind.
Even more fundamentally, our every experience must also be encountered though the forms of intuitions of time and space. So, to some extend, our own experience of the world is our very own creation, organized by us. There are, however, very strict limits on what we experience and how we experience it. We cannot choose the input that our sense organs give us, and we cannot alter the way out minds are devised.
Kant concluded that human science deals with the phenomenal world (things that appear) and religion remains in the unknowable noumenal one (things as they really are), so science and religion need not conflict with each other. But if all we experience is the phenomenal world, how can we be so confident about the existence of a noumenal one?
Kant claimed that, unlike material objects, we can escape the phenomenal world of causation. We must have free will if we are to choose to be moral beings. Ought Implies Can. If we are to be virtuous, we must do our duty and ignore our inclinations. Being a moral person means not doing what comes naturally and usually involves an internal struggle against our wicked desires. By using reason we can then discover what our duty is, obeying a set of compulsory rules or categorical imperatives. Kant suggests, One should only act on principle that one can will to be universal law.
It works like this: if we decide to lie, we imagine what would happen if everybody lied. Lying it-self would become normal. The concept of truth (and lying it-self) would disappear. Language, logic, meaning and all human communication would disappear into a nightmarish illogical vacuum. So, lying is irrational and therefore wrong.
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) believed, rather overconfidently, that his own unique systematic philosophy would reveal the final truths about the whole of reality and all of human history. Hegelian philosophy is a breathtakingly comprehensive and written in abstract Hegelian jargon which makes it difficult to understand. Until Hegel came on the scene, philosophers thought that Aristotle had discovered logic and that was that.
But there is another logic. Knowledge has an evolutionary history that is made up of concepts, not isolated true of false factual propositions. Ideas grow and gradually move towards a better grasp of reality in a progress he called the Dialectic. History is always a struggle between different dynamic concepts, which claim to be an accurate description of reality. But any concept or thesis will automatically give birth to its opposite or antithesis and a struggle between them will occur, until a higher more truthful synthesis is eventually achieved. This new concept will in turn generate its own antithesis and so the process will inexorably continue until finally The Absolute Idea is reached.
This is an evolutionary and religious account of the human mind and civilization, both of which go through many stages until absolute consciousness and social harmony are achieved. The study of history, thought Hegel, would eventually reveal something rather like the mind of God.
Hegel was an Idealist and like Kant, so agreed with him that we never experience the world directly though the sense, but always in a way that involves mediation or filtering by out consciousness. Hegel want even further. Reality is constituted by the mind and is its creation. There is no noumenal world. Human consciousness it-self is never fixed but continually changing and developing new categories and concepts. These determine how we experience the world, so that knowledge is always contextually dependent and always the result of a series of conflicting positions.
Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) was hostile to Hegelian methods and thought Hegels belief in a happy ending to human history was the ramblings of a stupid and clumsy charlatan. Another convinced Idealist, he also agreed with Kant that human beings can only ever live in the phenomenal world. But for Schopenhauer the phenomenal world is an illusory one always controlled by the WILL. The will directs living beings, including humans.
Human beings like to believe that their own individual lives have some kind of higher meaning, but there is not more to their lives than the urge to satisfy new desires. Different individual wills inevitable come into conflict, and this is what produces human suffering. The only way to escape this treadmill is to put an end to desire. One way of doing this is to engage in artistic activities or contemplations, another is to lead a life of ascetic self-denial. Schopenhauer was the first great Western philosopher to be influenced by Buddhism. His ideals, neglected today, had a great impact on such figures as the composer Richard Wagner (1813-1883) and the German philosopher Nietzsche.
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 1900) raised a strictly Lutheran he became hostile to Christianity and totally rejected beliefs in any kind of transcendent or noumenal world. He thought it was wrong to generalize about the individual human beings because it reduced them to falsifying common nature. He thought capitalism would produce a bourgeois world of mediocre last men. I want human beings to become something more, Supermen or Ubermensch.
The Judaeo-Christian culture favored the weak and commonplace, whereas the Ubermensch would need to reject the morality of the heard and look beyond traditional notions of good and evil to something more radical and individually creative, the Will to Power. Although his views had nothing to do with class or racial characteristics, they are certainly gender specific. His philosophy of the Will to Power was hijacked to promote anti-Semitic doctrine.
His radical skepticism does not accept that there can be any moral facts or universal moral rules based on reason, only contemporary prejudices that suit peoples needs. All conceptual knowledge is based on generalizations determined by the ideologies and classifications systems of the time, which inevitably blank out individuality and uniqueness. Most claims to eternal truths are not more than temporarily usefully beliefs that change as history moves on. Truth like morality is a relative matter. There are no facts, only interpretations.
Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872) was a key figure in giving a new twist to Hegels concept of alienation. According to Hegel, consciousness progress by posing contradictory differences within it-self and then attempting by further insight to overcome this contradictions or self-alienation. So, it thats the way mind progresses, then, in Feuerbachs view, the error of religion becomes obvious. We project our own unrealized perfection onto an imaginary non-human entity, God, instead of concerning ourselves with the realizable improvement of our fellow human beings!
Later he moved from a Left Hegelian criticism of religious illusion to radical Materialism: You are what you eat, he said, meaning that material wants come first, ideas secondary. Feuerbachs marriage of Hegelianism and materialism opened the way for Karl Marx.
Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914) he is only recently being credited with single-handedly preparing the groundwork for much 20th century philosophy. Most importantly, he more or less invented Semiotics, the theory of signs, a discipline of crucial to the development of 20th century Structuralism and Postmodernism. Peirce classified signs as natural (clouds signify rain, spots signify measles), iconic (where the sign resembles that which is signified, as in a pictures of peas on a packet of frozen peas), or conventional (where the sign is merely invented, the result of an agreement or conventions, like the color red being a sign of danger in Western societies). Peirce called these last signs symbols. They are the oddest because they are constituted merely by the fact that they are used or understood as such.
Words and language are constructed out of such symbols. Natural and iconic signs usually signal the presence of that which they refer to. But symbols like words rarely do so. If I read a book with the symbol elephant in it, I rarely infer from this that there are any in my house. So Peirce was getting very close to the fact that words are arbitrary symbols, which somehow still generate meaning, and the ramifications of this discovery are very serious for philosophy.
William James (1842-1910) was greatly influenced by Peirces Pragmatism. James agreed that ideas should not be seen as abstract metaphysical entities but tools with practical uses, like the ability to predict experiences. Human evolution is an interactive process in which consciousness and the environment influence each other, consciousness exists in order to enable us to survive.
John Dewey (1859-1952) was a systematic pragmatist or instrumentalist who believed that being philosophical really meant being critically intelligent and maintaining a scientific approach to human problems. Society can only progresses if its members are educated to be intelligent and flexible. I propose that education should no longer conceive of children as passive, empty jam jars who need to be stuffed with information. But as independently-minded problem-solvers who need to be continually challenged.
Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1931) a Swiss linguist was the founder of structuralism and semiology. He gave up the search for the meaning of language and instead opted for a description of its use function. Linguistic meaning does not derive from correspondence to things out there but from relations between signs themselves and their positions within a system of signifiers. Languages relation to the world is arbitrary. It does not signify reality.
Or as Saussure also put it: In a language there are only differences, without fixed terms. Saussure inspired the structuralist critics of the 1960s particularly in France, who began to investigate philosophy as one form of discourse among others. Every discourse shares the sign system in which the key structural feature is the code of binary opposites. For example, the concept soul derives its signification from its opposite, body, or light and dark, natural from cultural, and so on.
The anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss (b. 1908) maintained that a system of binary codes operates in all cultures as their common logic. A study of the structures of sign system will eventually prove to be a scientific study of the human mind. Structuralist saw the world organized into interlocking systems, allied to genetic deep structures, with their own grammars open to analysis. This view was overthrown in the late 1960s by the poststructuralists, Roland Barthes (1951-80), Julia Kristeva (b. 1941) and especially Jacques Derrida (b. 1930).
Suppose you push Saussures insight into the arbitrary nature of signs to the extreme what you will find is an infinite play of signifiers who no discoverable ultimate truth. Because signifiers can always be destabilized by their opposites, significations are always fluid. The job of a critic or philosopher is to recognize these slippages of meaning and to read the text against it-self.
The post-structuralist lesson applies to philosophical texts. They too can be read against themselves and is essentially Derridas strategy of deconstruction. It is not a method, but more like a therapy in Wittgensteins sense. It does not see a true meaning, but reveals multiple meanings unconsciously at war with each other in the text. What are exposed as unconscious are the binary polarities, which underpin metaphysical assumptions. One element in any binary opposition is always privileged over the other.
Privileged terms slip into the system that produces social and cultural hierarchies. Deconstruction excavates the internal contradictions and slippages of means in a text to remind us that current meanings are merely those, which are stabilized by dominant cultural and political ideologies. For Derrida, the problem is one of mistaken identity. Philosophers have always assumed that words communicate meanings that are unambiguously present to the mind. The mistake is to assume that there is anything outside the text that gives it a single meaning. Meaning is never fixed but always deferred. Philosophy relies on a on-to-one relationship between words and meanings as a guarantee of truth. This is the error of logocentrism, which, for Derrida, can make the language of reason totalitarian, it suppresses and excludes all that which is different or does not fit.
Jacques Lacan (1901-81) a psychoanalyst, proposed the disturbing idea that the self is a fiction, which undermines the Cartesians and phenomenologsts search for a certainty rooted in a foundational self. A private and unique identity is only a useful illusion that provides us with a sense of security and makes some unified sense of our shifting experiences. Where I think-I think therefore I am-this is where I am not. Lacan claims that the deepest part of us, our unconscious, is structured like a language. It is not until the child acquires language that it enters the social world and becomes an I.
There are now at least 10,000 professional academic philosophers in the United States.
No branch of human knowledge escapes from this radical and corrosive postmodernist relativism. Science and logic are similarly accused of being constructs, merely interpretations of experience. There is no timeless and universal reality, and no certain knowledge of it either. Scientific and logical reality is constructed by language, and there are many different constructions possible. Most modern scientists are now sensibly evasive when asked about the scientific truth, because they recognize that scientific knowledge is always provisional.