This is the first part of an 18-part overview of Western Philosophy. Originally written to be incorporated into ‘Book of One’, it became far too long and detailed. I posted the first 15 parts to Advaita Academy around 5 years ago but these are no longer available. Since we have a current interest in the subject with both Charles and Martin posting articles and comments, it seems like an opportune time to begin to repost the series!
Note that the depth to which the subject is addressed is fairly shallow for the most part. I am not a philosopher by education or employment and most of my understanding has been gleaned from secondary sources – I have read very few original philosophical texts! But I hope it provides a general introduction to the key ideas of most well-known Western philosophers so that the reader may go to the original source (or a good commentary) if interested. Needless to say, I tend to ‘cherry-pick’ those aspects that related to Advaita!
What Western Philosophers Have Said
A site such as this would be unthinkable without reference to what has been thought and written by Western philosophers. Philosophers used not to limit their investigation to those areas that we now think of as philosophy. Aristotle for example wrote books on physics, biology, mathematics, psychology, politics and meteorology, to mention just a few. Their interests ranged across the entire spectrum of human endeavour. It should not be too surprising, then, to find that many philosophers do not seem specifically to have addressed those questions that concern Advaita – there were simply too many other diverting subjects to investigate. Nevertheless, since the question of what we ought to do with our lives in order to achieve fulfilment and happiness is rather more important than most, it is perhaps surprising that it seems so difficult to discover clear guidance from this intellectual elite.
What follows is a very brief overview of the subject from the early Greeks up to the modern day, in a strictly non-academic presentation (with many of the usual anecdotal comments)! All that I have done is to pick out, as best as I could, any ideas that relate in some degree to the material presented elsewhere on the site. Many philosophers are much better known for their work in other areas and I have said little or nothing about them. But this is NOT a philosophy site (and, strictly speaking, Advaita is NOT a philosophy)! I am not philosophically educated and my knowledge of history is atrocious. If you want to learn about the history of Western Philosophy, there are many, excellent, readable books available (even if few people actually read them!). Some of these are listed in the Library section of the site. But the sorts of questions being addressed by Advaita are ones that must have existed ever since man first looked further than where his next meal was coming from. It might seem to be presumptuous, to say the least, to suggest that the answers given by Advaita are in some way more complete, accurate or ‘true’ than those provided by Western philosophers without at least being aware of the nature of what these philosophers have said.
Philosophical Counselling is a relatively new discipline that has sprung up to serve those who are suffering from problems that they deem to have been caused by lack of knowledge or understanding rather than because they are mentally disturbed. They need informed advice rather than medical treatment. Once, such people might have visited their priest, local vicar or village elder. Until the advent of philosophical counsellors, there were few options. In the latter part of the twentieth century, it became fashionable to visit a psychotherapist, if one could afford it. At the cheaper end of the market, there were always ‘agony aunts’ and fortune tellers. The most likely option, however, was simply to talk things over with one’s parents or with friends down at the pub. It seems that, in the past, all of those who might have provided this sort of counselling service would have been likely to be biased in some way. Perhaps they were attached to a specific religion or to some other system of belief or simply to their own habits of thought, acquired through their particular upbringing and experience.
There are usually experts available for consultation on the more mundane aspects of life, such as how to cope with financial problems, sue or divorce someone and so on. And there are those who can help with serious illness or bereavement. But when it comes to questions about who we really are and what we ought to do with our lives, it seems we just have to sort them out for ourselves. Philosophical Counselling aims to change that by providing independent advice founded upon knowledge accumulated by the best thinkers of the past few thousand years.
One of the principal aims of Philosophy must be, after all, to discover how to live one’s life optimally, whether or not it actually claims that there is a purpose as such. Trained in logic and the application of reason to problems, philosophers are ideally placed to be able to resolve personal conflicts, clarify contradicting values and generally enable one to put things into perspective and establish a course of action. In a sense, the problem could be described as a disease of the intellect, with the philosopher, skilled in this domain, able to establish the symptoms through discussion, diagnose the underlying problem of misunderstanding and provide a remedy by restating the difficulty, clarifying terms and indicating how the situation might be resolved – what Wittgenstein called ‘untying the knots in our thinking’.
Everyone knows that talking over their problems with an uninvolved friend can help shed light on the issues and show possible ways forward to resolution. Friends are not usually trained in disciplines such as logic and ethics, however, so such help is somewhat haphazard. If help is not available in the early stages, worry may lead to stress or breakdown and then the only recourse is to psychiatric help. Philosophical counselling aims to provide help in the early stages, while one’s mind is still actively seeking solutions rather than resorting to despair and resignation. And, if your problems relate to discovering a meaning in life, differentiating between ‘pleasant’ and ‘good’ or deciding whether your ambitions are the ‘right’ ones, then you definitely need a philosopher.
Branches of Philosophy
There are many branches of philosophy. Epistemology is all about knowledge – types of knowledge, objects and sources of knowledge, knowledge and certainty, belief, doubt, causation and so on – a huge subject in its own right. Some philosophers restrict their studies to aspects of this, such as the Empiricists, who believe that our knowledge is derived from the senses or the Rationalists who argue that we can reason our way to new knowledge that was not previously directly accessible. Logic is a realm in its own right, as is the philosophy of language or political philosophy. The Philosophy of mind is another area to which people devote their lives and one which has much popular appeal today.
Ethics and moral philosophy is yet another very large branch and the one that looks as though it ought to be the most relevant to our lives. A teacher will tell you that it is important for you to listen to all that she says, to read and study in order, ultimately, to pass your exams. But then this is her job and both of you are functioning within the context of a society that automatically values these things. But is education good in itself? Why should learning about a particular subject (that in all probability will be of no use to you for the rest of your life) be something on which you should expend effort? The teacher presupposes that education is a good thing, ethics allows you to question this.
Not all philosophers who have written on the subject of ethics have specifically asked the question of what we ought to do with our lives. Concentrating more on the purpose of morality itself, they have ended up considering questions such as the ideal society, how people can live together optimally and so on, leaving our personal motivations and objectives to our own individual conscience. And this is understandable to some extent. After all, why should I listen to someone else telling me how I ought to act in order to make my life feel fulfilled? It is because it is very likely that someone who has themselves deeply investigated such questions may just have thought of aspects that you may not have considered and may actually have reached some sensible conclusions that you may find helpful. If the serious consideration of such questions requires that we also look into all of these subjects, then perhaps we are perfectly justified in seeking the guidance of experts.
So, even within the limited realm of what we now call philosophy, it is clear that it would not be possible for anyone to address all of these subjects in other than a cursory manner and it is inevitable that interests will tend in a specific direction. Here, then, is a further excuse why many of the major philosophers do not seem to have anything particularly revealing to say on the subject of non-duality. (A proviso needs to be clearly given at this point that it is quite possible that relevant things were said by them but outside of my hearing!)
Conversely just because a topic does not seem directly relevant, it should not be assumed that we can ignore it. It would not be reasonable to suppose that something so fundamental as the purpose of our life could be studied in isolation. Take the question ‘what should I do?’, for example. We need to investigate what we mean by ‘I’ – who am I exactly? Until we feel that we know the answer to this, the other question is not meaningful. We need to ask about the nature of the world in which we are proposing to act. We need to be sure that we are able to choose our course of action, otherwise the original question is somewhat irrelevant and we need to know something about what it means to act. These are all questions of Metaphysics (meaning those things that come after physics). And we do need to know a little about what it means to ‘know’ anything and the means by which we find things out. All of these seem to be required before we can begin to ask about subjects such as ‘good’ (and ‘God’) and about the reasons for acting in one way rather than another. So it does look as if a question about one major aspect of our life will soon draw in many of the other questions of philosophy, like it or not.
Go to Part 2 of the series