X As I remember, Plato spoke of the few that escaped into the bright light of day, becoming (at least temporarily) blinded. That, by itself, has a metaphorical meaning. But if the question is rhetorical, the answer is a conditional ‘Yes’ – that is, by leading the life of a philosopher (‘lover of wisdom’), i.e. following the path of philosophy. That is a lifelong process or journey, in Plato’s terms.
Y Plato mistakenly thought we could get a Truth by purely mental means and a priori principles. Not so. We have to look at, touch, feel, smell, taste and handle reality.
X Sorry to disagree. First, we don’t know what were his oral doctrines to selected disciples (the 7th letter says something in that regard, while undervaluing the written word). Second, his ontology was non-dualist rather than a scalar one: all the lower steps or stages being incorporated step-wise in the higher ones, till getting to the Good as a first principle (supreme arché) – each step or degree of being, a reflection of the one above, exactly the same as with the five koshas or sheaths of Advaita Vedanta, except that here each kosha is within the previous one and thus becoming subtler and subtler. This would result in contemplation of a unity or oneness – one reality. When Socrates spoke of Diotima, his mentor, he did so reverently, signifying or suggesting something sacred – a spiritual transmission (one might google: Plato’s secret doctrines).
Nowadays, there are still large numbers of people who, even if they do not entirely accept all of the claims made by their religion and no longer recognize it as an authority for their everyday behavior, nevertheless pay lip service. And sentiments such as ‘love thy neighbor as thyself’ do seem to contain great wisdom, finding a balance between the two extremes given above.
But with all of our values no longer ‘supplied’ by religion, people have been forced to develop them for themselves. In the absence of expert guidance, the principal influence now tends to be the media and we have such ridiculous situations as the cinema’s cult of the anti-hero. It is now normal for films to conclude with the thief in some luxurious setting surrounded by money and women and no sign whatsoever of justice or retribution. It is acceptable for the individual to triumph over the perceived constraints of society, including its laws. And it is far more usual for the governments, police and similar bodies to be portrayed as corrupt, with ‘hidden agendas’ and secret conspiracies against you and me. And we have been brainwashed into cynically believing this to be normal. Continue reading →
Morality (part 2) One way of classifying the various theories is as follows:
Morality might exist as absolute truths – so-called Moral Realism or Ethical Absolutism. Just as we believe that 1 + 1 = 2 must always be true, so perhaps it is somehow necessarily true that we should not kill another human being. This is effectively what Plato believed, with the truths somehow existing in the world of Forms. We discover these principles through philosophical insights rather than inventing them or devising them to suit our own purpose. And they necessarily apply to everyone irrespective of their inclinations or the nature of the society in which they live.In the absence of absolute certainty regarding these truths, we are obliged to act according to what we think they are.In this view of morality, things are ‘good’ irrespective of whether a God decrees them. We ought to be able to see that ‘loving our neighbour’, for example, is going to be beneficial to ourselves and society, whereas committing adultery is likely to upset a few people. We should not really need any outside agency to endorse such attitudes.
Conclusion So, do any of these philosophies provide us with the answer for which we are looking? It has been a very cursory overview and obviously much has been omitted, particularly the ideas of more recent philosophers. Again I must remind the reader that I have not studied all of these philosophers and my findings are the result of reading histories, dictionaries and overviews and of research on the Internet. I have extracted only those ideas that seemed relevant.
Philosophers typically take an interest in many areas, even if they concentrate principally on one or two and they often devote much effort to supporting, or more frequently refuting, the ideas of their predecessors. If you should attempt to go into any significant detail on any aspect of what has been outlined above, you would soon find yourself reading many books and studying often complex arguments on all sides of the issue. All that I have attempted to do was to find some relevant ideas and I have to say that none of the ones that I discovered seem entirely appropriate for today’s society.
Somehow, they leave a feeling of incompleteness or even emptiness. Maybe they provide excellent guidelines for discriminating between potential course of action in a specific situation but there is no overall sense of purpose and meaning. If I want to know whether I ought to go out to the cinema or visit my ageing grandmother, there is much material to provide guidance – in fact, I could decide to stay in and read all about it for the next few weeks instead of going anywhere. But when it comes to giving me a raison d’être for my life, it seems that, unless I adopt a religious outlook and acquire faith in a heaven and hell, then I am left with little of substance. Continue reading →
Phenomenology This movement began in the late nineteenth century as a theory of knowledge that attempted to reinstate science and bring in the modern findings from psychology and sociology to supplant the subjectivity that had predominated until then with the German Idealists. In particularly the wish was to understand the nature of awareness, differentiating between mental and non-mental realms. Edmund Husserl, who was the teacher of Martin Heidegger (below), is generally credited with establishing the movement. It was acknowledged that we could not know that objects exist independent of our awareness of them but also that it cannot be denied that we are conscious of ‘things’. Phenomenology endeavoured to start from this point and attempt to analyse our experience without making any further assumptions. It subsequently merged into Existentialism.
Maurice Merleau-Ponty was particularly interested in perception and the nature of the perceiving entity and ‘object’ of perception. He disliked both the empiricist and idealist approaches and spent much of his time attacking all dualist concepts such as the mind-matter division of Descartes. There cannot be any totally objective perception of the world, he said, because our perceptual apparatus is itself part of the world. Whenever we see something, what we ‘see’ comes along with everything else that we already know and the perception itself is the sum total of all of this. We can never see a chair, for example, without the awareness of its purpose as something for sitting on. The origin of our belief in a separate world derives from our thinking of ‘ourselves’ as other than the body that we apparently inhabit. We are our bodies, he said, and the mind cannot be separated from them. Continue reading →
Pragmatism and William James to Linguistic Analysis and Wittgenstein
Pragmatism Developed originally in America, and to some extent in rebellion against the metaphysical theories current in Europe at the time (especially Idealism), Pragmatism is effectively a method for determining the worth of philosophical problems and their proposed solutions. What was thought to matter was not all of the intellectual speculation and theorising usually associated with philosophising but the practical worth at the end of the day. Is a theory actually of any use to us in our day to day life? Will it make any difference to me if I follow it or am even aware of its existence? The word ‘pragmatic’ has now passed into everyday usage as referring to an approach that actually works.
The original ideas were developed by C. S. Peirce, who saw himself as following up the system devised by Kant. He thought the only purpose in philosophising to begin with was in order to solve problems that we actually encounter. We should then use the scientific method to enquire into the problem, drawing up hypotheses, experiments to test them and so on. Once we have an answer that gets us over the original problem we should simply stop there. A proposition is ‘true’ if everyone who investigates sufficiently thoroughly comes to the same conclusion. Continue reading →
When deciding whether an action should be deemed good or bad (as opposed to whether it is something we ourselves want to do), people will sometimes try to calculate whether the result will benefit the majority. This principle was expressed in the 18th Century by Francis Hutcheson: ‘That action is best which procures the greatest happiness for the greatest numbers’. It is effectively the opposite of what Kant was saying. Whereas he insisted that it was the motive alone that determined whether an act should be deemed to be ‘good’ and that we should act from a sense of duty, Hutcheson was claiming that motives were ultimately irrelevant, it was the outcome alone that mattered.
Two philosophers in particular were responsible for developing and propagating these ideas and thereby influencing many people’s attitude towards morality. The first was Jeremy Bentham, who is generally regarded as the originator of so-called ‘Utilitarianism’, which says that conduct is right or wrong according to its tendency to produce favourable or unfavourable consequences for the people who are affected by it. It was given this name because actions are judged on the basis of their ‘utility’ or usefulness in bringing about good, or benefit of some kind as opposed to evil or unhappiness. Continue reading →
As noted earlier, Hegel’s philosophy was very influential with Marx, whose ideas are the basis of the intellectual foundation of Communism. In particular, he accepted Hegel’s concept of reality as an ongoing dialectic process, which could be monitored through a study of history, and which would continue to evolve until there were no further internal contradictions needing resolution. Not until this was achieved would true freedom and fulfilment be possible for man. He believed that the sort of society that would bring this about would be one in which individuals acted together rather than independently. Marx did not however agree with Hegel’s concept of a spiritual ‘Absolute’. Any form of religious belief or pursuit was seen as an attempt to escape from the meaninglessness that life had become.
He believed that matter, in the sense of man’s relation to it, was the driving force behind progress, and this meant that subjects such as the production and distribution of goods, and the economics of this, became extremely important. Thus he would have argued that socialism was simply the point that had been reached in the process of evolution, not something that he was specifically advocating, though his personal commitment to the ‘revolution’ is apparent in his writing. But all of this is a matter of politics and was advocated at the expense of ethical considerations. Continue reading →
Kant’s noumenal consisted of the reality of mental things – plural – though we could never be objectively aware of them in any sense, and effectively acknowledged the existence of many minds as well as that of God himself. Kant was very influential, thought by many to have been the greatest of modern thinkers, and a number of philosophers attempted to build upon or revise his ideas, in particular to do away with his unknowable reality.
Johann Gottlieb Fichte was the first of these and he conceived of an absolute mind or ego, divided up into the relative egos of human personalities, which together were evolving. Objects or ‘things in themselves’ became redundant. History is explained, and our sense of meaning is gained, by reference to this absolute ego. Even supposedly straightforward explanatory accounts of his philosophy, however, are incomprehensible without attempting to read any of the original material (and possibly with, too, but I have no direct knowledge of this). Continue reading →