Overview of Western Philosophy – Part 2


(Read Part 1 of the series.)

Part 2 – Metaphysics

Metaphysics, as the study of the questions of ‘life, the universe and everything’ is known, fell out of vogue in the twentieth century, when the attitude arose that most of what had previously been thought to be intransigent problems were not really problems at all but arose through our inability to formulate the problem correctly. Once we used language properly, it was argued, the difficulties would disappear. Many recent philosophers have not even addressed the sort of fundamental questions that are being asked on this site. In this respect there is a similarity with science. There was a time when an enquiring mind could range over the entire domain of what is now thought of as ‘science’, becoming expert in many areas and making new discoveries. The amount of material that was written down and accepted as proven was minimal. Over the past few centuries, the rate of investigation and discovery has accelerated and it is now possible to conduct novel research in only a tiny area of specialisation. In the 3rd Century BC, Aristotle’s multi-disciplined enquiries have already been noted. By the 20th Century, most of the philosophy in England was devoted to analysing the meanings of sentences!

Many philosophical ideas seem abstruse and intellectual and it is not surprising that a metaphysician has been described as ‘a man who goes into a dark cellar at midnight, without a light, looking for a black cat that is not there’.  But clearly, if you become aware of some of these ideas and believe them, then it does become necessary to modify your life accordingly, if you are not to feel that you are missing the point completely. More importantly, how can you become aware of them if you do not make the effort to find out? You owe it to yourself to make some effort to establish what has been discovered or conjectured by those who have devoted their lives to such investigations. If you fail to do this now, then how may you feel in later life when ‘the end’ is getting nearer and you no longer have the time to make the enquiry?

The name given to the branch of Philosophy that deals with judgements about the (non-moral) ‘values’ of things is called ‘Axiology’. It is usually regarded as a branch of Ethics, which itself is more generally concerned with what we ought to do or not do. Once you ask what you ought to do, you need to consider how this might affect others, whether it is moral or just, if it is actually possible to answer the question and how we could know that it was the right answer in any objective sense. Clearly, acting in such a way as to help others is not necessarily going to make our own lives easier or more pleasurable. Presuming that the main reason for acting at all is the pursuance of happiness, we are obliged to ask what that word actually means. We would tend to claim that it was not possible to be truly happy in conditions of poverty or oppression so that politics would have to be taken into consideration. If we think that there might be some purpose to our existence or even an afterlife and/or a God overlooking our activities, then we will have to take into account metaphysical considerations. It all becomes very complicated!

Pre-Socratic Philosophers

There are a number of these whose names you will still encounter, some of whose ideas are able to influence philosophers two millennia later. Understandably, not much remains of their writings from five or six centuries BC. (They did not commit works to memory as they did in India!) Most were interested in the more metaphysical aspects, though since this differentiation had not yet been made, they probably considered that their subject was rather ‘natural science’. ‘What is the nature of the universe?’ they asked. The answer was that they were mostly materialists – they believed that it was made of matter rather than mind or spirit. But they all believed that the most important thing that we could do with our lives was to study philosophy… but then they would, wouldn’t they?

Heraclitus is one of the better known, famous for his observation that the river that we step into for a second time is effectively not the same as the one into which we stepped the first time. The world has always and will always exist but ‘was ever, is now, and ever shall be, an ever-living Fire’, constantly changing. And things that appear to be opposites are really just extremes of a single thing, like the north and south pole of a magnet. Our phenomenal world is in a constant state of flux and the key to understanding it is introspection, looking inwards to ‘find’ ourselves where there is stability and changelessness. ‘All things come out of one,’ he said, ‘and the one out of all things; but the many have less reality than the one, which is God.’ He was what we would now probably call a ‘mystic’ and the few fragments of his writing that remain are obscure, to say the least! But these cryptic comments influenced later philosophers such as Hegel and Nietzsche, as well as others such as T. S. Eliot, for example, whose wonderful poem ‘The Four Quartets’ quotes him directly in several places.

A disciple of Heraclitus, called Cratylus, took the idea of continual change to its limits. He said that it was not even possible to hold a discussion since, by the time one came to answer a question, the person asking the question, the one answering and even the words and meanings would all have changed. So all he could do when asked something was wiggle a finger to indicate that he had heard, though whom he thought he was responding to is unclear!

Parmenides was also influential, especially with respect to logic. He believed that our senses deceive us as regards the nature of objects. There are not many things but only ‘the One’, which is infinite and indivisible, present everywhere (and spherical!). He disagreed totally with Heraclitus, saying that there is never any change. There must be things, since we think of them and name them and, since we can do this at any moment, they must always exist. Conversely, it is simply not possible to think or speak of things that do not exist. The real always exists and is unchanging. That which changes must not exist and cannot be part of the real. The arguments and conclusions are not very clear and no one is being asked to accept the statements as made above! They are noted to give the flavour of thought relating to what would become known as the metaphysical. (But it should be noted that Parmenides is still influential. In particular Raphael, who has written commentaries on a number of texts attributed to Shankara, was very influenced by him (and there has recently been set up the Parmenides Traditional Philosophy Foundation in New York.))

Socrates and Plato

The early Greek philosophers had been concerned with such things as discovering the primary constituent of matter and the governing principles of the universe. The Sophists were more interested in practical aspects of man’s behaviour but concentrated on such things as oratory and argument. It was not until Socrates that ethical questions were asked – What ought we to do? What is the meaning of justice and truth? What is the ‘good’? He devoted his life to exposing ignorance and endeavouring to lead people towards knowledge of their real nature. He claimed that it was necessary to define what exactly we meant by concepts such as ‘justice’ in order that we could know how to live. He did not write anything himself but Plato, who made Socrates the hero of his own books, recorded much of his thinking in the form of dialogues with his fellow Athenians.

Plato believed that there was a right way to behave – the ‘good’ – and that if a person knew what this was he would automatically act in this way. And he thought that it was possible to find out this ‘good’ in the same way that one might discover a mathematical truth. He further believed that there was only one ‘good’; it was not dependent upon personal desires or opinions. It might require a trained philosopher to find out the relevant truths but, once we have understood them, we will automatically behave in the right way and be optimally happy, even when confronted by people who, not having the benefit of this knowledge, act otherwise. It is hardly surprising that subsequent development of his philosophy, in what is called ‘Neo-Platonism’, was very influential upon Christianity.

Our fundamental beliefs regarding our nature are bound to influence our thoughts and behaviour. If we firmly believe like Plato that this world and its pleasures are transient and that we have eternal souls that belong to another, perfect world then we cannot accord the same significance to what happens here and now as would the atheist, who believes that this body and its experiences in this lifetime are all that there is. Instead we are obliged to try to find out more about the ‘good’ so that we maximise the benefits to ourselves and others in this life and prepare our souls for the eternity after bodily death. Inevitably, we would find little to satisfy us in the temporary pleasures of this ultimately unreal world. So, at least, the theory goes. You may think that the hedonistic lifestyle of the intellectual elite of the time and their tendency to fixate on beautiful male youths suggests that not many actually adhered to these principles…

To be continued…