Overview of Western Philosophy – Part 16

(Read Part 15 of the series.)

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

Overview of Western Philosophy – Part 15

(Read Part 14 of the series.)

Phenomenology and Existentialism

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

Overview of Western Philosophy – Part 14

(Read Part 13 of the series.)

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

Overview of Western Philosophy – Part 13

(Read Part 12 of the series.)

Utilitarianism

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

Overview of Western Philosophy – Part 12

(Read Part 11 of the series.)

Marx and Nietzsche

Marxism

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

Overview of Western Philosophy – Part 11

(Read Part 10 of the series.)

Romanticism

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

Overview of Western Philosophy – Part 10

(Read Part 9 of the series.)

Rousseau and Kant

Revolution
The reaction to the perceived unreasonableness of the empirical method was most apparent in the philosophy of Rousseau in France, which eventually contributed to the Romantic Movement, with its disdain for reason and advocacy of giving free rein to feelings and instinct. It was also taken up by those who instigated the French Revolution. Rousseau believed that man is inherently good but that the rise of civilisation, begun through the inequalities created in claiming ‘private property’ had corrupted us. Voltaire, on reading of his ideas, sarcastically commented that he was too old to start walking on all fours or searching out the savages in Canada. They also quarrelled over an earthquake in Lisbon. Voltaire saw in it a justification for questioning the beneficence of a God that would allow such a thing. Rousseau thought it served them right for living in seven-story houses rather than out in the countryside where they ought to have been. In any case, he did not think that we could use reason when talking about God; our attitude should be one of awe and reverence.

More dangerously, Rousseau was advocating democracy in his writings and questioning the divine right of kings. He believed that there should be discussion and agreement amongst the people to determine what he called the ‘general will’. This would then be formed into legislation which, once accepted by everyone, would be forcibly imposed. His best known work, ‘Social Contract’, opens with the challenging statement: “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains. One man thinks himself the master of others, but remains more of a slave than they are.Continue reading

Overview of Western Philosophy – Part 9

(Read Part 8 of the series.)

A Return to Scepticism

The Scottish philosopher David Hume accepted Locke’s empiricism and also agreed with Berkeley that we cannot ever know that there is a world outside of and separate from ourselves. Indeed he claimed not to understand what people meant by the idea of ‘substance’. We only know about perceptions, colour, sound, taste and so on. If this thing called ‘substance’ is something else, we have no knowledge of it – why invent it? If we took away the sensible qualities of things there would be nothing left, would there? Why should we need anything to explain or support our perceptions and impressions? Questions about why they arise are unnecessary and the answers suggested to explain them are unintelligible. The idea of ‘mind’ is just as illogical. If we simply dropped both of them, we would have no need to try to imagine ways in which such supposedly different ‘things’ might interact, as Descartes had wasted so much of his time doing.

He was also sceptical of Descartes’ conviction of his own existence as a thinking individual and made his own attempts to find some irreducible ‘self’ of which he could be certain. He decided that, whenever he attempted to look for ‘himself’ he could only find thoughts, feelings and perceptions; never a ‘self’ that is the perceiver, feeler and thinker. And so he concluded that there was no such thing. One feels one wants to get hold of him and shake him and say: “Yes, when you look, all that you find are thoughts, feelings and perceptions but who is it who finds this? What is the ‘who’ that is doing the looking?” He also felt similarly about God. We may well feel convinced that there is a God – this is effectively the definition of faith, a firm conviction without any empirical evidence – but this is not the same as knowledge. Continue reading

Overview of Western Philosophy – Part 7

(Read Part 6 of the series.)

The Mind-Body Problem

Descartes’ separation of man into the two aspects of mind and matter also became the principal way in which Westerners subsequently viewed the world. Matter is extended in space, can be divided and so on, while mind is indivisible and seems to exist separate from the body, somehow outside of space. This is the theory known as Cartesian Dualism. Unfortunately, he was never able to explain how such completely different ‘substances’ were able to interact. The idea of an immaterial ‘little me’ somehow sitting in the brain (Descartes thought the soul resided in the pineal gland) and interpreting the information transmitted from the eyes and other material senses just did not make sense. How could this interface work? The so-called ‘mind-body problem’ has intrigued philosophers ever since and no universally accepted model of the nature of the self has yet emerged.

One of his disciples, a Dutchman called Arnold Geulincx, suggested that the mind and body were separately governed by God, who kept the two in synchronisation, like clocks. Thus, when we decide to do something and it happens, such as getting out of bed, there is no actual interaction between the two, no ‘willing’ as such, it is simply the consequence of the two being synchronised. A similar theory, called Occasionalism, was proposed by the French priest, Nicolas Malebranche. He said that neither mental nor physical events cause other events. Instead, what we call a cause is simply the occasion for God to exercise his will and instigate what we call the effect; there is no actual connection between the two events at all. All of this meant that life is strictly deterministic, with no place for free will and everything happening according to physical (or divine) law. Continue reading

Overview of Western Philosophy – Part 6

(Read Part 5 of the series.)

Science

The age of increasing importance of science is usually claimed to have begun with Copernicus in the early 16th Century when he argued that the sun is the centre of the solar system and not the earth as the church had always insisted. (This is stated in the Psalms of the Old Testament and by the Greek astronomer Ptolemy in the 2nd Century.) In fact, so afraid was Copernicus of incurring the wrath of the clergy that publication of his beliefs did not take place until after his death. Even Galileo, later confirming the facts by telescope, was forced to deny it since he wished to stay alive. Galileo advocated that all prior beliefs and opinion should be kept out of scientific observation, which should be completely objective. Needless to say, once such ideas gained support, the authority of the church began to diminish and their dogmatic pronouncements about the nature of everything began to be supplanted by more tentative suggestions based upon specific observation and experiment.

Isaac Newton was born in the same year that Galileo died and his discoveries were to have a devastating effect on religious faith. Once it became accepted that the workings of the universe could be understood through scientific laws, the idea of a divine creation became suspect. Man was just a tiny phenomenon in a vast universe, no longer the centre of everything. This had a profound effect upon man’s self-image and outlook. Previously it had been believed that our earth was effectively the creation and that man was the most important being in it, capable of communing with God and aspiring to union with Him. Henceforth it became increasingly apparent that the earth was insignificant in the immensity of the universe and the concomitant conclusion was that man himself was nowhere near so important as had previously been supposed. Continue reading