Saturday, September 21, 2019

On John Herman Randall’s Atheistic Aristotelianism

It is noteworthy that John Herman Randall, Jr.’s book Aristotle is an atheistic presentation of Aristotelian philosophy. Randall rejects the theistic way of looking at Aristotle that was developed during the medieval period, by Thomas Aquinas and the scholastic scholars. In the book’s Introduction, he proudly declares that he is not a medievalist. His interpretation of Aristotelian philosophy carries no trace of the work on Aristotle done during the medieval period.

In the first chapter, “Aristotelian Approach to Understanding,” he frowns on Aquinas’s religious background.  “But I am not sure of Thomas; about him there can be doubts, for after all he was a Christian saint, even if, like a good follower of Saint Dominic, he was a cherub filled with the knowledge of God, rather than like Saint Francis, a seraph inspired wholly with the love of God.” Randall is convinced that Aristotle cannot survive translation into Latin and since Aquinas could only read Latin, there is bound to be some issues in his Aristotelianism.

He is impressed by Spinoza’s rejection of all religious institutions and notes that other than Aristotle, Spinoza is the only philosopher in the Western tradition who has tried to understand the world. He asserts that Spinoza is the only really important philosopher to the modern times. There are several other instances in the book where Randall criticizes the scholastics for trying to develop a theistic interpretation of Aristotle.


Randall’s Doubts About Aquinas

Aristotle’s Philosophy Is Not Closed, But Open

History is Littered With Deceptive Words

Words, like appearances, can be deceptive. The words that historians use to describe the intellectual and social aspects of the past often foster a false impression in modern minds. Words like “humanism,” “renaissance,” “feudalism,” “dark ages,” “enlightenment,” “dialectic,” are modern innovations—they reflect today’s sensibilities and not that of the past.

The scholars in 15th century didn’t use the term “humanism”—they were not even aware of the concept of “humanism.” They didn’t think of their period as the Renaissance. Between 9th and 15th century, the politicians and intellectuals didn’t see their social system as feudalism or dark ages—they had a different conception of their society.

The term “enlightenment” came into being in the middle of the 19th century and it quickly acquired a meaning that is different from the way the French Enlightenment philosophes saw themselves. Aristotle uses the word “dialectic,” not in the modern Kantian sense, but for the science of what happens when instead of thinking by ourselves, we try to convince others.

Friday, September 20, 2019

Aristotle’s Philosophy Is Not Closed, But Open

John Herman Randall, Jr. points out that while Aristotle’s thinking is systematic, he is a great systematizer, his philosophy is an open system. Here’s an excerpt from his 1929 book Aristotle (Page 30):

"Aristotle’s own thinking is not closed… but open. For Aristotle knowledge is not a neat “system,” but a living growth, like a tree—it goes on and on, it is biological. Nous is life, the flowering of the world-life. Note Aristotle’s keen sense of the continuity and the cumulative growth of scientific inquiry. Each science, and knowledge as a whole, is provisional and open. Aristotle makes many distinctions not to classify and catalogue a subject matter—he is no Linnaeus—but as instruments of living research."

Randall makes a good point on the openness in Aristotelian logic (Page 30-31):

"Even logic, “Analytics,” is for Aristotle not a science but a dynamis, a “power”; a techne, an “art”; an organon, a “tool.” Aristotle’s analysis is never an end in itself, but is always for the sake of “knowing,” of science. It may be suspected that Aristotle would have had little sympathy with modern mathematical logic, which aims at beauty rather than use, and takes the view of the Platonic tradition, that logic is a “science,” the science of order."

Reason Does Not Imply Rationality

Reason does not imply rationality—this is because reason is a natural and inevitable activity in a human being, like breathing and digesting. Every choice that a man makes, rational or irrational, intelligent or stupid, mystic or scientific, is executed through reason. The idea that the use of reason is the prerogative of the rational and intelligent beings is a myth that got developed in the 18th century through the work of some philosophers who used the term “reason” to create the impression that their own thinking was rational and scientific.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Randall’s Doubts About Aquinas

The Aristotelian philosopher John Herman Randall, Jr. was not sure if the works of Thomas Aquinas can be seen as a statement of Aristotelian philosophy. In his Foreword to his book Aristotle, Hermann writes: “Though not aware of the wealth and variety of medieval thought, so fascinating in itself, the present writer is not a medievalist. He seriously doubts whether Aristotle can survive translation into the Latin substantives of the scholastic tradition, or whether it is possible to state his fundamental functionalism in the Latin tongue.” (He has Thomas Aquinas in mind.)

Randall had a low opinion of all medieval formulations in Aristotelianism. In his Introduction, he points out: “The author has come to Aristotle, not from the problems of medieval philosophy, but from the problems of the philosophers like Samuel Alexander and Whitehead in England, and like Charles S. Pierce, George Herbert Mead, and John Dewey in this country. He has found great stimulus for his own thinking in Aristotle’s careful analysis of language and communication against the broader context of his penetrating examination of processes, natural, living, and distinctively human—the processes which he sets off as those of human art.”

In the book’s first chapter, “Aristotelian Approach to Understanding,” Hermann points out that he doubts if Aquinas should be seen as a great philosopher of the Western tradition:  “But I am not sure of Thomas; about him there can be doubts, for after all he was a Christian saint, even if, like a good follower of Saint Dominic, he was a cherub filled with the knowledge of God, rather than like Saint Francis, a seraph inspired wholly with the love of God.”

My Thoughts On The Enlightenment

By severing philosophy from its roots in ancient and medieval thought, the Enlightenment has turned modern philosophy and politics into “rootless wonders” which can never keep pace with modern science and technology. I see the Enlightenment project as a predawn coup against all traditional thought—moral, political, and religious.

The Enlightenment coup was successful because of two reasons: first, it was so quick in morphing into revolutionary movements that the establishment of that period had no time to mobilize itself for squelching the uprising; second, having tasted the fruits of the scientific revolution, the people in the 18th century had become convinced that all political movements committed to reason and science are certain to lead to an improvement in the human condition.

The Enlightenment philosophes were lightweight intellectuals, but by elucidating at the right time their doctrine of destroying the traditional establishment to create space for a rational and scientific society, they became the fountainhead for revolutionary movements which changed the course of history.


The Enlightenment Was A Wrong Turn

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Heidegger’s Children

The problem with Martin Heidegger is that the shadow of Nazism, which always looms over him, makes it difficult for scholars to take an objective view of his philosophy. I think, Heidegger’s reputation pressures scholars to pay too much attention to investigating his connection with Nazism when they should be focusing on the non-political side of his philosophy. I would love to read a book on Heidegger’s philosophy that does not digress into the area of nazism.

The book that I am currently reading, Richard Wolin’s Heidegger’s Children, is the story Heidegger’s four Jewish students who go on to become famous philosophers in their own right—Hannah Arendt, Hans Jonas, Karl Lรถwith, and Herbert Marcuse. Wolin introduces them as non-practicing Jews. He suggests that had they been practicing Jews, Heidegger may not have accepted them as his students. Wolin also notes that “Heidegger’s own mentor, Edmund Husserl, to whom the philosopher dedicated Being and Time, was also Jewish.”

Heidegger’s philosophy was significantly inspired by his disenchantment with modernity. Wolin offers an interesting perspective on Heidegger’s view of modernity (Introduction, Page 8):

“In Heidegger’s view—and this was a perspective that his disciples largely shared—the modern age was an era of “absolute sinfulness” (J. G. Fichte). As such, any and every means was justified to drive it into the abyss. For the “front generation,” to which both Heidegger and his children belonged (Heidegger, Lรถwith, and Marcuse actually served in the First World War), a distinct flirtation with nihilism was a corollary of the conviction that widespread destruction was required before anything of lasting value could be built."

According to Wolin, Heidegger’s disenchantment with modernity drove him towards “ontological fascism” and turned him into a supporter of Hitler. There is no doubt that Heidegger made bad political choices, but I am still not sure if the inference can be drawn that his philosophy has a nexus with Nazism.

On Judging Aquinas

Anthony Kenny, in ๐˜ˆ ๐˜•๐˜ฆ๐˜ธ ๐˜๐˜ช๐˜ด๐˜ต๐˜ฐ๐˜ณ๐˜บ ๐˜ฐ๐˜ง ๐˜ž๐˜ฆ๐˜ด๐˜ต๐˜ฆ๐˜ณ๐˜ฏ ๐˜—๐˜ฉ๐˜ช๐˜ญ๐˜ฐ๐˜ด๐˜ฐ๐˜ฑ๐˜ฉ๐˜บ, ๐˜๐˜ฐ๐˜ญ๐˜ถ๐˜ฎ๐˜ฆ ๐˜๐˜: ๐˜”๐˜ฆ๐˜ฅ๐˜ช๐˜ฆ๐˜ท๐˜ข๐˜ญ ๐˜—๐˜ฉ๐˜ช๐˜ญ๐˜ฐ๐˜ด๐˜ฐ๐˜ฑ๐˜ฉ๐˜บ; p. 76:

"The secular reaction to the canonization of St. Thomas’ philosophy was summed up by Bertrand Russell in his ๐˜๐˜ช๐˜ด๐˜ต๐˜ฐ๐˜ณ๐˜บ ๐˜ฐ๐˜ง ๐˜ž๐˜ฆ๐˜ด๐˜ต๐˜ฆ๐˜ณ๐˜ฏ ๐˜—๐˜ฉ๐˜ช๐˜ญ๐˜ฐ๐˜ด๐˜ฐ๐˜ฑ๐˜ฉ๐˜บ. ‘There was little of the true philosophical spirit in Aquinas: he could not, like Socrates, follow an argument wherever it might lead, since he knew the truth in advance, all declared in the Catholic faith. The finding of arguments for a conclusion given in advance is not philosophy but special pleading.’

It is not in fact a serious charge against a philosopher to say that he is looking for good reasons for what he already believes in. Descartes, sitting beside his fire, wearing his dressing gown, sought reasons for judging that that was what he was doing, and took a long time to find them. Russell himself spent much energy seeking proofs of what he already believed: ๐˜—๐˜ณ๐˜ช๐˜ฏ๐˜ค๐˜ช๐˜ฑ๐˜ช๐˜ข ๐˜”๐˜ข๐˜ต๐˜ฉ๐˜ฆ๐˜ฎ๐˜ข๐˜ต๐˜ช๐˜ค๐˜ข takes hundreds of pages to prove that 1 and 1 make 2.

We judge a philosopher by whether his reasonings are sound or unsound, not by where he first lighted on his premisses or how he first came to believe his conclusions."

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Nyaya Theory: On the Perception of Attributes

A substance is a thing, and an attribute is something that tells us what the thing is like. Here’s an account of the Nyaya view of attributes, from Satischandra Chatterjee’s book The Nyaya Theory of Knowledge (Page 176-177):
"An attribute (guna) is defined as that which exists in a substance and has no quality or activity in it. A substance exists by itself and is the constituent (samavayi) cause of things. An attribute depends for its existence on some substance and is never constitutive of things. It is a non-constituent (asamavayi) cause of things in so far as it determines their nature and character, but not their existence. All attributes must be owned by substances. So there cannot be an attribute of attributes. An attribute is itself attributeless (nirguna). An attribute is a static property of things. It hangs on the thing as something passive and inactive (niskriya). So it is different from both substance and action. There are altogether twenty-four kinds of attributes. These are: colour (rupa), taste (rasa), smell (gandha), touch (sparsa), sound (sabda), number (sankhya), magnitude (parimana), differentia (prthaktva), conjunction (samyoga), disjunction (vibhaga), remoteness (paratva), nearness (aparatva), fluidity (dravatva), viscidity (sneha), knowledge (buddhi), pleasure (sukha), pain (duhkha), desire (iccha), aversion (dvesa), effort (prayatna), heaviness (gurutva), merit (dharma), demerit (adharma) and faculty (samskara)." 
Not all attributes can be identified through sense perception—some are imperceptible to sense perception and there are those that can be perceived only through internal perception, which is due to the internal sense of manas.

On Politics and Culture

Politics and culture two dimensions of the social reality—they often travel in different directions. The political party that wins the electoral battle can find itself ceding ground in the cultural space. In countries, where the conservatives tend to win most elections, the cultural institutions become liberal over a period of time—while in countries, where the liberals (leftists) win most elections, the cultural institutions acquire a conservative character. Therefore, even if your favorite party is victorious in the election, it does not ensure a win in the cultural battle.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Leibniz And The Reaction To Modernity

Leibniz was not the Panglossian optimist that Voltaire has portrayed him as in his 1759 satire Candide—he was in fact a pessimist. In his mature years, Leibniz was harried by the premonition that Europe was on verge of being ripped apart by anarchy and revolution. He was oppressed by the realization that the world that he has described in his monological writings was not real; it was essentially a mirage.

Matthew Stewart, in his book The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza, and the Fate of God in the Modern World, suggests that the reaction to modernity was first instantiated by Leibniz. Here’s an excerpt (page 311):
"Kant’s attempt to prove the existence of a “noumenal” world of pure selves and things in themselves on the basis of a critique of pure reason; the nineteenth-century-spanning efforts to reconcile teleology with mechanism that began with Hegel; Bergson’s claim to have discovered a world of life forms immune to the analytic embrace of modern science; Heidegger’s call for the overthrow of western metaphysics in order to recover the truth about Being; and the whole “postmodern” project of deconstructing the phallogocentric tradition of western thought—all of these diverse trends in modern thought have one thing in common: they are at the bottom forms of the reaction to modernity first instantiated by Leibniz." 
In his life of seventy years, Leibniz made an impact on the lives of hundreds of people—he was close to key scientists and politicians, and he was deeply involved in political affairs of his time. But his funeral was a meager affair. Stewart writes (page 306): “Yet, to judge by his funeral, it would seem hat he died, like a windowless monad, having touched no one very deeply at all.”

Existentialism, Alienation, Sartre, and Ayn Rand

For the existentialist philosophers in the 20th century, alienation was a natural theme. In their writings they have talked about how the social pressures, mass culture, and modern technologies can alienate an individual from his surroundings. The existentialists were the first to deify the alienated individual as a man of virtue, rationality, and knowledge.

Ayn Rand’s fiction owes a debt to the existentialist deification of the alienated individuals.

In 1938, Jean-Paul Sartre published his novel Nausea in which the leading character is a tall, red-haired, alienated young man called Antoine Roquentin. In Rand’s 1943 novel The Fountainhead, the leading character is Howard Roark, a tall, red-haired, alienated young man. I am not sure if Roark’s name and physical characteristics are in any way inspired by Sartre’s Roquentin.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

The Enlightenment Was A Wrong Turn

I find myself in agreement with thinkers like Leo Strauss, Hannah Arendt, Alasdair MacIntyre, and others (including Martin Heidegger), who have been suggesting in their works that the Enlightenment was a wrong turn that humanity took in the 18th century. The departure from premodern philosophy did not lead to better philosophy and politics—it brought modern philosophy to a dead end and gave rise to several totalitarian movements.

The Enlightenment philosophers proclaimed the supremacy of reason, but they didn’t acknowledge that reason can be effective only when it operates within the bounds of a tradition. From their writings, it is possible to draw the inference that they were not even interested in understanding the nature and scope of reason; for them, the idea of reason was merely a political tool for promoting the atheistic worldview that man’s material or biological nature is his entire essence. But the projection of reason as a method of knowing that operates independent of all traditional contexts is a recipe for political problems—it implies the supremacy of the man or group of men who are able to take control of the intellectual discourse and the political process.

It is true that a man's reason cannot operate in a vacuum. A man, alienated from the traditional way of living, will find it difficult to gather knowledge for making the right choices. Therefore the way out is reincorporation of premodern norms to supplement modernity—this is what the thinkers like Strauss, Arendt, and MacIntyre have said.

On Postmodernist Pessimism About Reason

The postmodernists by and large follow the post-Nietzschean tradition of pessimism about reason. They are haunted by the failed revolutionary attempts (Marxist, Nazi, and Fascist) for creating a perfect society in the 20th century.

The art that they prefer and the moral theory that they espouse indicate a sense of negativity about the efficacy of reason in managing social and political relationships. They assert that the use of reason in society is never unbiased—it is contaminated with power-systems related to race, class, wealth, rank, and power.

They see society as something more than a complex interaction of opposing threats of force, and they are suspicious of all forms of unity and integration. They believe that a non-hierarchical, essentially disorganized, type of political system can be developed by sorting out the differences between truth and fantasy.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

On Hume’s Objective History, Politics, and Economics

Skepticism in metaphysics and epistemology does not necessarily entail skepticism in areas of history, politics, economics, and moral theory. The writing career of David Hume is a proof of this fact. In his first major work A Treatise Concerning Human Nature, Hume made several skeptical pronouncements and earned the reputation of a skeptic philosopher.

But there is not a trace of skeptical thoughts in his The History of England in which he narrates the history "from the invasion of Julius Caesar to the Revolution of 1688.” The book was a bestseller in Hume’s time and many scholars regarded it as the standard history of England—it has gone through more than 100 editions.

In his writings on politics and economics (contained in his works like Political Discourses), Hume shows a remarkably objective view of the world. In his essays on politics, he calls for small government which will not encroach on the rights and privacies of the citizens. In economics, he makes a case for lower taxes and free trade, domestically and internationally. He advocates making Britain a free port where free commerce is allowed with all nations.

The theory of morality that Hume offers, in his works like An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, is based on a realist view of the world and human nature. There is not a trace of skepticism in Hume’s moral theory. His essays on morality, politics, and economics have inspired the thinking and work of Adam Smith, who was his lifelong friend.

Can Philosophy Be Used To Test Science?

The scientific method can be used to test the validity of a philosophical theory, but the philosophical method cannot be used to test a scientific theory. This is because the scientific method is the ultimate method of knowing—I am not saying that a scientific theory is always true, but it is more likely to be true than a philosophical theory.

Since the philosophical method is less likely to yield a truth than the scientific method, it cannot be used to verify the claims made by science—you can’t use a less reliable method (philosophy) to test a position derived through the use of a more reliable method (science). Therefore a scientific theory can only be tested by a better scientific method. 

Friday, September 13, 2019

On The Nyaya Theory of Perception

The Nyaya theory holds that there are four distinct and independent methods or sources of knowledge — perception, inference, comparison, and testimony. All the four methods of knowing are of equal importance in respect of their value and importance, but perception (pratyaksa) can be seen as coming first and being the most fundamental because the other three methods of knowing must also make use of perception at some level.

Satischandra Chatterjee, in his book The Nyaya Theory of Knowledge, offers the following perspective on the Nyaya view of the critical role that perception plays in inference, comparison, and testimony (Page 129):
"For the Nyaya, however, perception is the basis on which we have a knowledge of other truths by inference as well as by comparison and testimony. Inference as a method of knowledge depends on perception. The first step in inference is the observation of a mark or the middle term (lingadarsana), and the observation of the relation between the middle and the major term. Hence, inference is defined as that knowledge which must be preceded by perception (tatpurvakam). Similarly, upamana or comparison as a method of naming depends on perception of the points of similarity between two objects. So also sabda or testimony is dependent on perception inasmuch as the first step in it is the visual or auditory perception of written or spoken words, and such words must come from a person who has a direct or intuitive knowledge of the truths communicated by him. So we see that perceptual knowledge is the ultimate ground of all other knowledge by inference, comparison and testimony."
In other words, perception is the final test of all knowledge—it is a direct source of knowledge, and the other three methods of knowing also presuppose perception.

The Utopianism of Libertarianism

The libertarian political theory is founded on the utopian notion that all men are rational and moral, and if given total freedom, they will act like good citizens and through their enterprise and hard work they will improve their own life while making society prosper.

Alas, this utopian view of man is not true. If all men were capable of behaving rationally and morally, then several libertarian-style nations would have been created 2000 years ago. The reason we don’t have libertarian nations is because all men are not rational and moral—if the strong arm of the law is removed, many will be tempted to violate the rights of others.

If a libertarian party comes to power, it will, instead of moving society towards liberty and prosperity, lead to a new wave of lawlessness, because of which people may develop an aversion for free society—they may decide that fascism is a better system of governance. Therefore a fascist regime is a likely to gain power once the libertarian experiment fails.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

On MacIntyre’s Criticism of Reason-Based Morality

Alasdair MacIntyre shows in his book After Virtue that the project for reason-based ethics that was conceived in the Age of Enlightenment could never have succeeded. The questions of ethics cannot be decided on purely rational grounds because doing so leads to insoluble dilemmas which disprove the idea that the ethical principles are universally applicable.

He offers several examples of the insoluble moral dilemmas that result from reason-based ethics. Concerning wars, he points out that we are led to the conclusion that “no modern war can be a just war and we all now ought to be pacifists.” On the debate on abortion, depending on the point from which you begin your argument—from the mother’s right to decide for herself, or the embryo’s right to life—you are led to inherently consistent and rationally incompatible conclusions. He also offers a critique of several thinkers, including Nietzsche whom he labels as the Kamehameha II of the European tradition.

MacIntyre shows that if the ethical obligations are an outcome of a deliberate choice, as the Enlightenment theory of reason-based ethics asserts, then it cannot be founded on a universal rationality. But this means that everyone will have to create his own morality. The foundation of modern liberal and bureaucratically governed society is founded on this very conclusion. Eventually the reason-based ethics boil down to the position called emotivism—which means that moral principles are an expression of personal preferences.

He traces the problems in modern ethics to the Enlightenment's abandonment of Aristotelianism, and in particular Aristotelian teleology. The attempt to isolate the rational individual from the historical context for keeping him autonomous was bound to fail because the basic moral education is imparted through the transmission of a morally relevant tradition. The ethical principles can only be understood in the historical context and the tradition in which one finds oneself. The problem with modernity is that it has overlooked the importance of social context.

On Wars and Civilization

The major wars are events in which nations test the strength of their politics, culture, and economy. In the last 2500 years, there has not been a single generation (I take a generation as 60 years) in any nation that has not experienced one or more wars. The wars result in massive death and destruction and no sane person would want them, but the question is—could modern civilization have evolved if humanity had not been engaged in an endless series of wars?

I think the wars have a natural role to play in human history—their purpose is to destroy the ineffective regimes and free humanity from the decadent political, intellectual, and religious establishments. By favoring the strong, moral, and competent, and destroying the weak, wicked, and incompetent, the wars engineer a sort of Darwinian evolution of society—they ensure the survival of the fittest regimes and intellectual establishments, and cull the weak and foolish; this leads to a continuous improvement in the scope of civilization.

By cleansing this planet at regular intervals of dysfunctional regimes and intellectual establishments, the wars create space for better ideas in philosophy, politics, and science to take root. If humanity stopped fighting wars, the march of civilization will come to an end.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

On Medieval Swordplay

I am reading Johan Huizinga’s The Autumn of the Middle Ages (Translated by Rodney J. Payton and Ulrich Mammitzsch). Here’s a passage in which he is offering his perspective on swordplay and chivalry that defined the culture of this period (Page 89):
"Medieval swordplay differs… from Greek and from modern athletics by its much reduced degree of naturalness. To increase its warlike tone it relies on the excitement of aristocratic pride and aristocratic honor, on its romantic-erotic and artistic splendor. It is overladen with splendor and ornamentation, and overfilled with colorful fantasy. In addition to being play and exercise it is also applied literature. The desires and dreams of poetic hearts see a dramatic representation, a staged fulfillment in life itself. Real life was not beautiful enough; it was harsh, cruel, and treacherous. There was little room in courtly and military careers for feelings of courage that arose out of love, but the soul is filled with such sentiments, and people want to experience them to create a more beautiful life in precious play. The element of genuine courage is most certainly of no less value in a knightly tournament than in a pentathlon competition. Its explicitly erotic character was the cause of its bloody intensity. In its motives the torment is closest to the contests of the Indian epics; in the Mahabharata, too, fighting over a woman is the central idea." 
Using evidence that has been gathered mostly from literature and art, Huizinga has done a convincing reconstruction of the emotions, hopes, motivations, and fears of the people in France and the Netherlands during the 14th and 15th centuries.

On The Modern Aristotelians

The Aristotelian philosophers are more likely to have a balanced worldview than the philosophers who are not inspired by Aristotle. While modern philosophy is mostly atheistic and socialistic, many Aristotelian philosophers are vocal about their theism and conservatism. It will be wrong to say that atheism is incompatible with Aristotelianism—but I think it will be difficult for an Aristotelian to be an atheist, or a socialist, because the modern approach to Aristotle is inspired by the work done by the two 13th century theologians, Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Modern Philosophy and the Alchemy of Synthesis

Like the ancient alchemists who believed that they could create gold by combining base metals, several modern philosophers believed that they could develop a perfect system of knowledge by integrating different disciplines. But instead of developing a fully synthesized system of knowledge, they gave rise to new kinds of intellectual and political problems.

The attempt to synthesize ethics and epistemology with science resulted in the problem of scientism. The attempt to synthesize anthropology and sociology with history resulted in the problem of historicism. The attempt to synthesize politics with science resulted in utopianism which climaxed in the killing fields of the Soviet Union. The attempt to synthesize logic with linguistics resulted in analytic philosophy. The attempt to synthesize metaphysics with science resulted in Logical Positivism.

The lesson to be learned from the failure of scientism, historicism, utopianism, Logical Positivism, and analytic philosophy is that a complete system of knowledge can’t be developed. In the age of modernity, science and industry have made great progress, but philosophy has been a failure because the modern philosophers acted like the ancient alchemists and got mired in impossible projects.

Modern Civilization Is Not Based On Modern Philosophy

The best aspects of modern civilization have little or nothing to do with modern philosophy. The achievements in science, politics, art, and industry that have led to the rise of modern civilization have a stronger connection with the philosophy of Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance, than with modern philosophy.

There is no evidence to show that the Scientific Revolution, the founding of the USA, and the Industrial Revolution owe any major debt to the work done by the modern philosophers.

I am not denying the role played by philosophers like Spinoza, John Locke, Immanuel Kant, David Hume, and Adam Smith—but by the time their works became popularized modern civilization had already become a reality and therefore I see them as thinkers who took note of the rise of modern civilization and tried to explain it.

Monday, September 9, 2019

A Man Cannot Be Without Faith

The idea of a conflict between reason and faith is a defining characteristic of modern philosophy. Most modern philosophers are atheists and they hold that either one can be a man of reason or a man of faith. But the pitting of faith against reason is not right—to lead a normal life, people have to use both, faith and reason. Faith is as much a natural attribute of the human mind as reason is. A man must believe in something—it’s his biological need to do so.

Atheism or lack of belief in god does not result in a lack of faith—it merely means that instead of having faith in a god in the heaven, the atheist has faith in something or someone on earth. There is a reason why communism has developed all the features of a religion—it has its own rituals and a set of godlike leaders. Many atheists transfer their faith to the religion of communism—they have faith in the Communist Party and the godlike communist thinkers and politicians: Marx, Lenin, Stalin, and Mao.

If the atheist is a libertarian, then he may have faith in a libertarian institution or an iconic writer like Ayn Rand, or someone else, or he may have faith in libertarianism as a whole. Even the nihilists who assert that they do not believe in anything must have faith—they often transfer their faith to the idea of nothingness or nirvana. The elimination of god from society does not herald the end of faith—it impels man to find some other entity to whom he can transfer his faith.

The Truth About the Philosophies of Reason

All “philosophies of reason” are aimed at endowing the ignorant, immature, and stupid with the feeling that they are men of great knowledge, experience, and intelligence—this is what the history of the last 250 years tells us.

You can’t cross the road without using reason; you can’t tie your shoelaces without using reason; you can’t even tell a lie without using reason—to create a philosophy, any kind of philosophy, rational or irrational, intelligent or stupid, it is natural that you will require reason.

The people who boast that their philosophy is the philosophy of reason are either ignorant, they don’t understand the nature, purpose, and scope of reason, or they are shrewd strategists who want to use the claim of reason as a publicity stunt.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

On Maimonides’ the Guide For the Perplexed

In his essay, “Literary Character of the Guide for the Perplexed,” (Chapter 2; Persecution and the Art of Writing by Leo Strauss), Leo Strauss notes that Maimonides’ the Guide For the Perplexed should be seen as an esoteric explanation of an esoteric doctrine. Here’s an excerpt:
It is for this reason that the whole work has to be read with particular care, with a care, that is, which would not be required for the understanding of a scientific book. Since the whole teaching characteristic of the Guide is of a secret nature, we are not surprised to observe Maimonides entreating the reader in the most emphatic manner not to explain any part of it to others, unless the particular doctrine had already been clearly elucidated by famous teachers of the law, i.e., unless it is a popular topic, a topic only occasionally mentioned in the Guide
The Guide is devoted to the explanation of an esoteric doctrine. But this explanation is itself of an esoteric character. The Guide is, then, devoted to the esoteric explanation of an esoteric doctrine. Consequently it is a book with seven seals. 
Much of Strauss’ essay is devoted to showing that, in the Guide, while Maimonides denies the relevance of political philosophy, he is in fact using an esoteric style of writing to subtly show the importance of political philosophy.

The Trouble With Objectivism

I don’t agree with much of what David Bentley Hart says in his article, “The Trouble With Ayn Rand,” but what he says about objectivism in the following paragraph is essentially correct:
"And, really, what can one say about Objectivism? It isn’t so much a philosophy as what someone who has never actually encountered philosophy imagines a philosophy might look like: good hard axiomatic absolutes, a bluff attitude of intellectual superiority, lots of simple atomic premises supposedly immune to doubt, immense and inflexible conclusions, and plenty of assertions about what is “rational” or “objective” or “real.” Oh, and of course an imposing brand name ending with an “-ism.” Rand was so eerily ignorant of all the interesting problems of ontology, epistemology, or logic that she believed she could construct an irrefutable system around a collection of simple maxims like “existence is identity” and “consciousness is identification,” all gathered from the damp fenlands between vacuous tautology and catastrophic category error. She was simply unaware that there were any genuine philosophical problems that could not be summarily solved by flatly proclaiming that this is objectivity, this is rational, this is scientific, in the peremptory tones of an Obersturmfรผhrer drilling his commandoes.”
Rand’s philosophy is too simplistic and immature to be regarded as a real philosophy. I expressed my on doubts about objectivism (which I prefer to spell with small "o") in my post: "Is Ayn Rand’s Objectivism a Philosophy?"

Saturday, September 7, 2019

On the Relevance of Postmodernism

Postmodernism is not the name of an ideology or a movement. Like modernism, it represents a cultural mood, and a way of looking at the world. In the 1970s, some intellectuals started calling themselves postmodern because they realized that the modernists, who claim that they are motivated by reason and science, are as backward, prejudiced, power-hungry, and stupid as their medieval counterparts.

Modernism was marked by the idea of uniformity—according to the modernists, there can be only one right way of looking at the world, the way of reason and science. The idea that religion and tradition are madness, and reason and science represent sanity, were modernism’s metanarratives which the modernist intellectuals and politicians tried to impose (with disastrous consequences) in countries where they gained power. The modernist utopia became an extremely bloody business in places like the Soviet Union.

Postmodernism can be seen as a reaction against the simplistic and totalitarian modernist metanarratives. According to the postmodern intellectuals, the modernist theory of reason is manipulative and the fetish for taking science to every area of human activity is silly.

For the postmodernists, there are no metanarratives. They acknowledge that there are limitations to human knowledge and they are tolerant of all kinds of ways of looking at the world. They don’t insist on any one truth, because they believe that there are many truths. They reject the modernist idea that a perfect society or utopia can be created. They believe that the world will always be a multiplicity of cultures, beliefs, faiths, and trends.

The modernist stereotype of all-knowing and perfectly moral man has been rejected by the postmodernists. The postmodernists do not see themselves and others as perfectible; they understand the limitations of the human mind; they take nothing for guaranteed, and expect nothing unquestionably. They accept that the simple answers are usually incorrect and that there are questions for which no answers are possible.

I am not saying that postmodernism is right—it is neither right nor wrong. Postmodernism is simply a new way of looking at the world that had to be developed because of the failures of its predecessor, modernism.

On Karl Marx's Proletariat and the Proles

When Karl Marx talked about the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” he didn’t mean the entire proletariat. His view of the proletariat was limited to the industrial proletariat. He had contempt for the peasants in the rural areas and the unemployed in the urban areas. He believed that only the industrial proletariat have a revolutionary potential and that they will one day arise in a revolution which will establish a communist utopia by wiping out the capitalist bourgeoise class. In the Marxist worldview, the peasants and the unemployed have no historical role to play—they are like the proles that Orwell has described in his novel 1984.

Friday, September 6, 2019

The Dunning–Kruger effect in Philosophical Movements

Coined in 1999 by psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger, the Dunning–Kruger effect is a type of cognitive bias in which people believe that they are smarter and more capable than they really are. According to the researchers, the incompetent people are not only poor performers, they are also incapable of analyzing and judging the quality of the work that they are doing. The ignorant people are more likely to be overconfident than the people with real knowledge.

In an article, “We are all confident idiots,” (Pacific Standard, Oct 27, 2014), David Dunning writes, “What’s curious is that, in many cases, incompetence does not leave people disoriented, perplexed, or cautious. Instead, the incompetent are often blessed with an inappropriate confidence, buoyed by something that feels to them like knowledge.” The studies of the Dunning–Kruger effect are focused primarily on the individuals, but since philosophy is my area of interest, I am using it to look at some of the philosophical movements of the last 100 years.

According to Dunning and Kruger, a person needs skill and knowledge to judge how skilled and knowledgeable he is, but the philosophical movements that I am talking about do not possess the skill and knowledge to judge the claims that they are making about their own philosophy. The followers of these movements have little knowledge of philosophy, and their ignorance leads them to assume that they are genuine experts. They get imbued with the irrationally exuberant feeling of being always right—they have no way of knowing that they are overconfident idiots.

When people join a philosophical movement, they are psyched into believing that they cannot be wrong as long as their views are in line with what the movement’s leaders are preaching. The movement as a whole displays the symptoms of Dunning–Kruger effect. The leaders and followers of the movement overestimate the strength of their own philosophy—they suffer from an incurable delusion that their philosophy is better than every other philosophy.

On Ayn Rand’s Marxist Style of Philosophizing

Karl Marx has devoted much of his time in criticizing what he hates, capitalism and the bourgeoisie class, but has very little to say about what he loves, the communist utopia. We don’t find in his writings a description of what the communist utopia will be like: What sort of government will be there? Will there be regular elections? How will power be divided between the judiciary and the government? What kind of lifestyle will the people enjoy?

The same problem is there in the writings of Ayn Rand. Like Marx, she spends lot of her time in criticizing what she hates, past philosophers, collectivists, and altruists, but has nothing to say about what she loves, an objectivist utopia. How will the objectivist utopia function? Her book Atlas Shrugged ends at a point where John Galt (her Nietzschean hero) and his followers have defeated their political rivals—the collectivist government has fallen and the country is in a state of chaos. But what’s next? In the 1100 page book, Rand does not offer a single clue about the steps that Galt will take to stabilize the country and make it a better place.

Her essay, “For the New Intellectuals,” is a 42-page rant against almost every major philosopher in history; she spares no one—from Plato to the Logical Positivists. But she has nothing to say about the process by which one becomes an “objectivist new intellectual.” Rand was ideologically against Marxism, but she has followed the Marxist method of philosophizing which consists of thundering against what you hate and remaining silent on the nature of what you love.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

On Aristotle’s Authority

On Aristotle’s authority, the British empiricist philosopher Bishop George Berkeley says:

“When a Schoolman tells me Aristotle hath said it, all I conceive he means by it, is to dispose me to embrace his opinion with the deference and submission which custom has annexed to that name. And this effect may be so instantly produced in the minds of those who are accustomed to resign their judgement to the authority of that philosopher, as it is impossible any idea either of his person, writings or reputation should go before. So close and immediate a connexion may custom establish, betwixt the very word Aristotle and the motions of assent and reverence in the minds of some men.” (British Empirical Philosophers; Edited by: A J Ayer, Donald Winch)

Here's Aristotle's perspective on investigation of truth:

"The investigation of the truth is in one way hard, in another easy. An indication of this is found in the fact that no one is able to attain the truth adequately, while, on the other hand, no one fails entirely, but every one says something true about the nature of things, and while individually they contribute little or nothing to the truth, by the union of all a considerable amount is amassed. Therefore, since the truth seems to be like the proverbial barn door, which no one can fail to hit, in this way it is easy, but the fact that we can have a whole truth and not the particular part we aim at shows the difficulty of it… It is just that we should be grateful, not only to those whose opinions we may share, but also to those who have expressed more superficial views; for these also contributed something, by developing before us the powers of thought.” (Metaphysics by Aristotle, Book 2, Chapter 1; Translated by W. D. Ross)

On the Problem of Knowledge

An easy availability of knowledge, instead of leading to an improvement in the quality of human mind, can lead to its deterioration.

The modern man has access to more knowledge than all the past generations put together. But this knowledge is not making the modern mind better than the mind of those who lived 2000 to 2500 years ago, when the first major advances in philosophy, politics, art, and science were made. Most modern men have little conception of the knowledge that lies within their easy reach and they have no desire to access it.

An easy availability of knowledge breeds complacency and contempt towards intellectual activity. People don’t want to invest their time in learning anything that is easily available.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Edward Feser's Revenge

Edward Feser has posted a response to a review of his book Aristotle’s Revenge: The Metaphysical Foundations of Physical and Biological Science by Glenn Ellmers. Feser accuses Ellmers of taking the Strussian method of esoteric reading to absurd new lengths. Here's an excerpt from Feser's article:
"But this whole line of criticism is simply incompetent. For one thing, Ellmers assumes that all teleology is of one kind, so that to speak of the teleology of phosphorus is, he thinks, to attribute to it the same sort of thing that natural law theorists would attribute to human beings. But this completely ignores the distinction between different kinds of teleology that I refer to throughout the book—evidence, once again, that Ellmers didn’t even bother to read it very carefully. The kind of teleology that some Aristotelians would attribute to inorganic substances like phosphorus is of the first and simplest kind, whereas the kind of teleology required to undergird natural rights theory is of the fifth and most complex kind. So, yes, to establish that the first kind exists would not suffice to establish that the fifth kind exists. But who ever claimed otherwise? Not me, and not any Aristotelian I have ever heard of. 
"But then, Aristotle’s Revenge is not a book about natural rights, or the American Founders, or ethics or politics, in the first place. Again, it is a book about some highly technical issues in metaphysics and the philosophy of science.  So why on earth would any sane reviewer evaluate it on political grounds?"
All I can say is that the negative review by Glenn Ellmers has not dissuaded me from reading Feser's book. I have the book with me and I plan to read it in a week's time.

On Plato’s View of the Universe

W. K. C. Guthrie, in his Introduction to A History of Greek Philosophy, Volume 1, notes that Plato had a teleological and theistic view of nature. Here’s an excerpt:

"Plato retained to the end a teleological and theistic view of nature. The Timaeus contains a cosmogony which sets out to show the primacy of a personal mind in the creation of the world: it was designed by God’s intelligence to be the best of all possible worlds. Yet God is not omnipotent. The world must ever fall short of its ideal model since its raw material is not made by God but given, and contains an irreducible minimum of stubbornly irrational 'necessity'. That the world is the product of intelligent design is argued again in his last work, the Laws, as the climax of a detailed legislative scheme. His aim is to undermine the sophistic antithesis of nature and law: law is natural, and if the 'life according to nature' is the ideal, then it should be a law-abiding life."

In the following paragraph, Guthrie notes that while Aristotle differed from Plato on some of the key issues, he also stood on Plato’s shoulders to a great extent:

"Aristotle was for twenty years the friend and pupil of Plato, and this left an indelible impression on his thought. Since his own philosophical temperament was very different from his master's, it was inevitable that a note of conflict should be discernible at the heart of his philosophy. His more down-to-earth mentality had no use for a world of transcendent entities which it saw as a mere visionary duplication of the real world of experience. He had a great admiration for his fellow-Northerner Democritus, and it is conceivable that, had it not been for Plato, the atomic view of the world as an undesigned accretion of particles might have undergone remarkable developments in his keen and scientific brain. As it was, he retained throughout life from his Academic inheritance both a teleological outlook and a sense of the supreme importance of form which sometimes led to difficulties in the working out of his own interpretation of nature."

On Intellectual Freedom

Intellectual freedom can exist without political freedom. Inside his mind, a man enjoys total freedom—even if he is living in a dictatorship, no censor is powerful enough to stop him from thinking about all kinds of issues, and putting his ideas on paper when he is not being watched, or sharing his thoughts with people that he can trust. In the last 3000 years, the totalitarian regimes have been successful in bringing activity in the areas of industry, technological research, art, and religious practice to an end, but they could not stop the intellectuals from thinking and sharing their ideas.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Tennyson: Nothing Worth Proving Can Be Proven

In his poem The Ancient Sage, Lord Alfred Tennyson brings attention to the paradox that nothing that is worth proving can be proved by philosophy or science. Here’s an excerpt:

Thou canst not prove the Nameless, O my son,
Nor canst thou prove the world thou movest in,
Thou canst not prove that thou art body alone,
Nor canst thou prove that thou art spirit alone,
Nor canst thou prove that thou art both in one:
Thou canst not prove thou art immortal, no
Nor yet that thou art mortal—nay my son,
Thou canst not prove that I, who speak with thee,
Am not thyself in converse with thyself,
For nothing worthy proving can be proven,
Nor yet disproven: wherefore thou be wise,
Cleave ever to the sunnier side of doubt,
And cling to Faith beyond the forms of Faith!

Tennyson is making a good philosophical point in this poem. He is acknowledging the limitations of the human mind. The knowledge that we discover is fallible, thickly laden, mediated, constructed, and symbiotic. It is unlikely that human beings can ever have an accurate, seamless, and uninterpreted access to reality—what we hold as truth is only approximately true.

On the Limitations of Science

All objects and phenomena that can be investigated by science must be deterministic. But things like psychology, free will, ethical theories, and matters concerning faith are not deterministic—if we regard them as deterministic, then we will be forced to believe that man is a mindless robot. As psychology, free will, ethical theories, and matters concerning faith are not deterministic, they cannot be investigated by using the scientific method.

Monday, September 2, 2019

Karl Marx and the End of Philosophy

There is very little of Karl Marx’s own systematic writings in modern communism which is mainly a creation of Lenin, Stalin, and Mao. Marx had no desire for being a philosopher.  In several of his writings, he has expressed his disdain for philosophy. He associated philosophical speculation with the underdeveloped nature of societies. He believed that when the revolution was successful, philosophy will come to an end.

In The Holy Family, written by Marx and Engels in 1845, Hegel’s metaphysics is described as a “drunken speculation” and Hegel is sarcastically called the “master wizard.” In this period, Marx started rejecting Ludwig Feuerbach, whom he had earlier eulogized as a great materialist. Feuerbach was himself anti-philosophy. About his own work, Feuerbach has said, “My philosophy is no philosophy.” But for Marx, Feuerbach’s rejection of philosophy didn’t go far enough. He rejected Feuerbach as a man who never learned to see “without the eyes — which is to say the eye-glasses — of the philosopher.”

Marx saw himself as a social scientist who has made contributions to the field of economic and social theory. He believed that the method that he was using to develop his ideas were scientific and not philosophical. However, his followers have established him as the founder of a new materialistic creed. In the former Soviet Union, Marx’s writings became the canonical texts of the new state religion of socialism and communism which was practiced and propagated with rigid dogmatism.

The irony is that while Marx was lusting to obliterate all philosophy forever, he planted the seeds of a new philosophy, a materialistic creed, which would at its peak, between the 1940s and 1980s, rule more than half of the world’s population.

Private Vices, Public Benefits

Bernard Mandeville
The ancient philosophers believed that only virtuous people can build a good society (if Aristotle was asked whether selfish and greedy men can create a good society, he would have said no), but some of the modern philosophers realized that people with vices (greed, selfishness, etc.) are better at building a good society than the people who possess all the classical virtues.

The virtue of greed, selfishness, etc., was first explained by Bernard Mandeville, who coined the famous slogan “Private Vices, Public Benefits,” in his The Fable of the Bees, published as a poem in 1705 and as a book in 1714. Mandeville’s ideas have inspired the works of David Hume, Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, and a few other thinkers of the 18th century.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

On The Esoteric Writings of the Past Philosophers

Leo Strauss
Leo Strauss has offered a unique perspective on why several past philosophers have composed their treatises in such an esoteric style that it takes a man of a considerable level of philosophical competence to crack their code and discover their ideas. He suggests that the past philosophers were hiding certain ideas due to political reasons. The following excerpt from his Introduction to his book Persecution and The Art of Writing elucidates the role that esoteric writing has played in preserving the independence of philosophical thought:
"What Farabi indicates in regard to the procedure of the true philosophers, is confirmed by a number of remarks about the philosophic distinction between the exoteric and the esoteric teaching which occur in the writings of his successors. Farabi's Plato informs us about the most obvious and the crudest reason why this antiquated or forgotten distinction was needed. Philosophy and the philosophers were "in grave danger." Society did not recognize philosophy or the right of philosophizing. There was no harmony between philosophy and society. The philosophers were very far from being exponents of society or of parties. They defended the interests of philosophy and of nothing else. In doing this, they believed indeed that they were defending the highest interests of mankind. The exoteric teaching was needed for protecting philosophy. It was the armor in which philosophy had to appear. It was needed for political reasons. It was the form in which philosophy became visible to the political community. It was the political aspect of philosophy. It was "political" philosophy."
This concept of “esoteric writing” by Strauss is important because it informs us that the historical philosophical treatises cannot be understood unless we devote ourselves to a careful study—the philosophy in these texts is buried under esoteric passages and they have to be read between the lines. In our modern times, the philosophers in most countries enjoy the freedom to express their thought—they can communicate their views to their readers directly, without any fear of persecution. That is why the art of philosophizing in an esoteric style is losing popularity. The exoteric/esoteric distinction in philosophy is on the decline.

On Use of Axioms in Philosophy

Axioms are the last refuge of the lazy philosopher. The Ancient Greeks invented axioms, but they used it only in the fields of geometry. In the area of geometry (and mathematics and science), the use of axioms can be defended, but in philosophy, axioms have no relevance. How can you begin philosophy by asserting that some truths are self-evident, when those truths entail the most fundamental and controversial questions? Where some philosophers see a self-evident truth, other philosophers may see a dogma or unproved assertion.

However, I will defend Spinoza’s axiomatic approach in his work on ethical theory. In the Ethics, Spinoza is trying to bring to the area of ethical philosophy, the geometrical approach which Euclid used in Elements of Geometry, and so his use of axioms is justified. But the modern philosophers, who do not use a geometrical (mathematical or scientific) approach, have no reason to depend on axioms. They have to provide all the necessary arguments for explaining their reasoning behind every point that they are making in their philosophy.

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Kant on Knowledge and Religion

Immanuel Kant realized that unless David Hume was answered, science, philosophy, and religion could claim no knowledge of reality. In his the Critique of Pure Reason, he tries to answer Hume by noting that if our cognition receives information from the world passively, then it would be right to say that nothing is known about the world independent of experience. However, if our cognition is involved in organizing our sensations into what we perceive as the objective world, if the experience that we have of the world is in some measure a product of our own mind, then it becomes possible for us to have knowledge of what we have not experienced.

He notes that the claims of our knowledge have to match with the pure categories of experience (quality, quantity, etc.). Our mind knows the world through the features of our cognition: substance, causality, space, and time—all our future experiences have to fit them. Therefore, we must have some true knowledge of all experience. This is Kant’s answer to Hume’s skepticism.

But if we can only experience and know appearances, then the question is how can scientific inquiry, which seeks concrete answers, be compatible with the ideas of moral life, god, soul, and free will? A man’s reason tries to find concrete solutions to religious and moral problems, but it fails in this endeavor. Kant gets around this issue by suggesting that if reason cannot explain the ideas of moral life, god, soul, and free will, then it cannot prove them false either. Such issues are beyond the scope of human inquiry. He asserts that a man is free to adhere to moral life and believe in the existence of god, soul, and free will—he does not necessarily face a contradiction by doing so.

It makes practical ethical sense for a man to pursue rational inquiry, while simultaneously holding religious beliefs.

On Philosophers Who Make History

The philosophies of the past, which provoked a rebellion against the intellectual establishment of their time, have left an indelible mark on mankind. The rebellious philosophers have made history, while the conformist philosophers have been quickly forgotten.

Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle were the rebels in Ancient Greece. Socrates was forced by the Athenians to commit suicide by drinking hemlock after he was convicted by a court for inciting a rebellion against the Athenian establishment. Plato and Aristotle narrowly missed having a “Socratic treatment” from angry Athenians on several occasions in their lifetime.

The other important philosophers who continue to be relevant till today — Cicero, Seneca, Boethius, Aquinas, Hobbes, Descartes, Spinoza, Locke, Kant, and others — too have proposed radical ideas which questioned the knowledge of their time. The philosophies which are provocative have a much longer lifespan than the philosophies which are conformist.

Friday, August 30, 2019

The Lesson of Protagoras: Virtue Cannot be Taught

In the Platonic dialogue Protagoras, Socrates inquires from the respected Sophist teacher Protagoras about the best way of educating his young friend Hippocrates. He asks: Where should Hippocrates be schooled? Protagoras suggests that if Hippocrates wants to be a sculptor he should study at Phidias; if he wishes to be a physician, the Aesculapian school is an option.

Then Socrates asks, in what subject will Hippocrates become an expert if he becomes a pupil of Protagoras? To this, Protagoras answers, he will teach Hippocrates to become a better man. Socrates asks, in what way will you make him better? Protagoras says that he teaches his students virtue or moral excellence. Socrates then asks him to clarify how virtue is teachable? The rest of the Dialogue explores the nature, scope, and teachability of virtue.

The Dialogue ends without Socrates and Protagoras being able to discover the answers to the fundamental questions concerning virtue: What is virtue? Is virtue many things or one thing? Are qualities like piety, courage, temperance, and justice separate virtues or parts of virtue as a whole—this is an important question because if they are separate then it is possible for a man to be temperate while being unjust. Protagoras is unable to provide convincing answers to these questions. Socrates then asks, can virtue be taught?

In the course of the discussion between Socrates and Protagoras, it comes out that virtue cannot be taught. Virtue is linked to a man’s tastes, desires, character, and to the social environment in which he lives—a teacher may teach his pupil some of the principles of virtue, but he can't teach him how he should lead his life. The choices that a man makes will be based on his character and his situation in life. Also, there are people whose souls are corrupted—they cannot be trained into becoming morally better.

Socrates is of the view that there is no point in teaching virtue, because virtue cannot be taught. What the teachers of virtue provide is a sort of training, like the training that a carpenter gets. A virtuous person is virtuous in every context, for him the principles of virtue are universally applicable, and this is a quality that cannot be taught. We can identify the specific instances of virtue, but we can't define the universal principles of virtue, and what we can’t define, we can’t teach.

The Army of Little Socrates

An army of hundreds of Little Socrates is marching down the road in a tight formation threatening to shoot anyone in sight with their guns which are loaded with dialectical arguments.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Descartes and Ayn Rand

Portrait of Descartes
In her essay, “For The New Intellectual,” Ayn Rand writes: “Descartes began with the basic epistemological premise of every Witch Doctor (a premise he shared explicitly with Augustine): “the prior certainty of consciousness,” the belief that the existence of an external world is not self-evident, but must be proved by deduction from the contents of one’s consciousness—which means: the concept of consciousness as some faculty other than the faculty of perception—which means: the indiscriminate contents of one’s consciousness as the irreducible primary and absolute, to which reality has to conform.”

But this is a misrepresentation of what Descartes is trying to do in his 1637 work the Discourse on Method. He is not starting from the point of a “witch doctor,” and he certainly does not end up there after he has presented his arguments.

He is not doubting the existence of the external world (as Rand is alleging in her essay)—he is trying to develop a mode of enquiry that will save him from the error of skepticism. His doubt is not metaphysical; it’s epistemological. The aim of his philosophical project is to resolve his doubt concerning “his knowledge” of the existence of the external world. He decides that the right method to resolve this doubt is to begin with an utterly skeptical position and a profession of ignorance. This standard essentially rules out the objects of perception, as well as feelings and thoughts.

Cogito, ergo sum,” (I think, therefore I am), which Rand misunderstood as Descartes’s attempt to “prove” his own existence, is a summary of the grounds on which he bases his valid knowledge claims. Adopting an axiomatic method of inquiry, he begins by assuming that one cannot claim with authority that one is an extended thing (res extensa), because the perception of physical characteristics and actions in the material realm can be a deception caused by a demonic force. It is possible for a human being to fail to distinguish between reality and a dreamed reality. As the empirical modes of verification are based on the observation of things which exist outside the mind, they are susceptible to the machinations of demonic forces.

But one’s thought is inseparably linked to the reality of one’s being or existence as an extended thing. In the realm of thought one cannot be deceived because an individual can be the subject of deception only if he is a thinking thing. This is the point of Descartes’s “cogito, ergo sum.” He is not trying to prove or deduce his existence or the reality of the external world, he already knows that he exists and the world exists; he is trying to prove the “knowledge” of his and the world's existence. What he is looking for is the necessary precondition for skepticism, which he finds in the reality of the mental space (res cogitans). The res cogitans is affirmed in the act of doubting it.

A Philosophy of Reason is a Philosophy of Ignorance

When a philosophy movement proclaims that it’s the world’s only “philosophy of reason,” it reveals its ignorance of the nature and scope of reason. The phrase “philosophy of reason” is illogical because it suggests that while some philosophies have been developed through the use of reason, others have made no use of reason. This is a silly assertion because every intellectual effort, rational or irrational, entails the use of reason.

Can you develop a nihilistic system of thought without using reason? Can you come up with a doctrine that denies the existence of the material world without using reason? Even to reject the role that reason plays in the development of knowledge you need reason. It goes without saying that every philosophy, irrespective of whether it’s right or wrong, good or bad, is a philosophy of reason. Even to lie you must use reason.

To proclaim that your philosophy is a philosophy of reason is as silly as proclaiming that your philosophy is by human beings.