Thursday, November 30, 2017

Immanuel Kant’s Open Letter to Ayn Rand

Dear Ayn Rand,

I am writing this letter to thank you for the work that you have done for popularizing my philosophy and making the earthlings realize the supreme importance of the work that I have accomplished in my lifetime.

Here I was, living a drab life in Heaven, feeling depressed by the thought that I am becoming irrelevant to the earthlings. Whenever I looked downwards from my perch in heaven, I saw earthlings being confused about whose work was more important— David Hume’s or mine? Why should it even be a question? Isn’t it obvious—Kant is the greatest philosopher!

But the earthlings remained confused and Hume began to boast in Hell (that’s right, he is in Hell along with most philosophers; Aristotle and I are the only two philosophers in Heaven) that he is on verge of overtaking Kant in popularity.

Hume compares himself with me… with Kant! He boasts that his philosophy will overtake Kant’s! But what else can you expect from a philosopher who during his time on earth tried to destroy “metaphysics.” I saved metaphysics from Humean attack. That is my great achievement.

Unlike most intellectuals on earth, you have the philosphical sense and knowledge to recognize the importance of my work. You took notice of my existence in the 1960s. Thanks to the attention that I got from you, the 1960s turned out to the most productive decade of my post-death life.

You called me the most evil force in the history of mankind! Listening to your rants against me was sheer music for my ears… reading your tirades against me was most soothing for my eyes. I am flattered beyond measure to know that the author of bestselling books like Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead considers me to be the most evil man in mankind’s history.

If I had been alive in the 1960s I would have written a fourth Critique on your philosophy—I would have called this work: “A Critique of Pure Randianism”. That is the least that I can do for a woman who hates me so much that she calls me the most evil man in mankind’s history!

The best thing about you is that you are consistent. You have integrity. Once you start a campaign against anyone, you to take it to the bitter end. You carried on with your tirade against me for decades. You went on and on till the end of your days on earth, and after you your followers are carrying on the good work of popularizing Kant by saying illogical things about him.

You have done for me what the mainstream media did for Donald Trump. The constant barrage of unsubstantiated and illogical reporting from the mainstream media sent Trump soaring to the stratospheric heights of the popularity charts, and he went on to win the presidential elections.

Likewise your unsubstantiated and illogical commentary on my philosophy has engineered a massive revival of interest in my philosophy. I was on verge of being forgotten but thanks to your rants I am now regarded as the most powerful philosopher in modern world.

Negative publicity works—it works much better than positive publicity. Randian philosophy is the best thing that has ever happened to Kantian philosophy.

I must tell you about the disastrous impact that your sayings have had on Hume. Since the 1960s he has been suffering from acute depression and high blood pressure. He is driven insane by the knowledge that the great Ayn Rand has focused her attack only on Kant and has mostly ignored him. Ha, as if this metaphysics-denying nincompoop is worthy of your rants! He is nothing.

Once again I thank you for the service that you have provided me.

Yours Truly,

Immanuel Kant

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Marx and Engels on Immanuel Kant

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels had a problematic relationship with Immanuel Kant. In their book The German Ideology,  they harshly dismiss Kant as a bourgeois moralist:
The state of affairs in Germany at the end of the last century is fully reflected in Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason. While the French bourgeoisie, by means of the most colossal revolution that history has ever known, was achieving domination and conquering the Continent of Europe, while the already politically emancipated English bourgeoisie was revolutionizing industry and subjugating India politically, and all the rest of the world commercially, the impotent German burghers did not get any further than “good will”. Kant was satisfied with “good will” alone, even if it remained entirely without result, and he transferred the realization of this good will, the harmony between it and the needs and impulses of individuals, to the world beyond. Kant’s good will fully corresponds to the impotence, depression and wretchedness of the German burghers, whose petty interests were never capable of developing into the common, national interests of a class and who were, therefore, constantly exploited by the bourgeois of all other nations. These petty, local interests had as their counterpart, on the one hand, the truly local and provincial narrow-mindedness of the German burghers and, on the other hand, their cosmopolitan swollen-headedness.
Marx and Engels go on to dismiss Kant as a whitewashing spokesman for the German middle class. Here’s an excerpt:
The characteristic form which French liberalism, based on real class interests, assumed in Germany we find again in Kant. Neither he, nor the German middle class, whose whitewashing spokesman he was, noticed that these theoretical ideas of the bourgeoisie had as their basis material interests and a will that was conditioned and determined by the material relations of production. Kant, therefore, separated this theoretical expression from the interests which it expressed; he made the materially motivated determinations of the will of the French bourgeois into pure self-determinations of “free will”, of the will in and for itself, of the human will, and so converted it into purely ideological conceptual determinations and moral postulates. Hence the German petty bourgeois recoiled in horror from the practice of this energetic bourgeois liberalism as soon as this practice showed itself, both in the Reign of Terror and In shameless bourgeois profit-making. 
But in the Preface to Socialism, Utopian and Scientific, Engels gives credit to Kant for being the founder of German idealism of which Marxism is an offshoot. "We German socialists are proud that we trace our descent not only from Saint Simon, Fourier and Owen, but also from Kant, Fichte and Hegel.”

The Soviet leader V. I. Lenin dislikes Kant's ideas. In his book Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, he looks at Kant's works as a reactionary philosophy. He has devoted an entire section, "The Criticism of Kantianism from the Left and From the Right," in chapter Four, "The Philosophical Idealists as Comrades-In-Arms and Successors of Empirio-Criticism," to criticizing Kant and clarifying that communism has been developed after philosophy moved away from Kant's idealism.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Joseph de Maistre and the Origins of Fascism

“Joseph de Maistre and the Origins of Fascism” is the longest and most thoughtful essay in Isaiah Berlin’s book, The Crooked Timber of Humanity: Chapters in the History of Ideas. Berlin introduces Maistre as an Enlightenment era philosopher, who propagated counter-Enlightenment ideas and presaged a future in which fascist regimes come to power.

A man with pessimistic view of the world, Maistre believes that men are evil by nature and a totalitarian regime is necessary to preserve order and save man from man. He holds that it is necessary for men to suffer because suffering alone can save them from falling into the bottomless abyss of anarchy and destruction of all values.

His political principles have been summarized by Berlin in these lines: “There can be no society without a State; no State without sovereignty, the ultimate court of appeal; no sovereignty without infallibility; no infallibility without God. The Pope is God’s representative on Earth, all legitimate authority is derived from him.”

But I don’t think that it is appropriate to see Maistre as a philosopher. There is nothing philosophical in his ideas. He is an outcome of bad philosophy and not the creator of bad philosophy. He lusts for political power because he believes that a ruthless totalitarian state is necessary for enforcing a moral way of life.

Today Maistre is nothing more than a historical curiosity. Berlin acknowledges that Maistre’s works are no longer regarded as important but he thinks that Maistre must be studied because he represents the “last despairing effort of feudalism and the dark ages to resist the march of progress.” The excerpts from Maistre’s works (which Berlin has included in his essay) give you the feeling of listening to a man who hankers for absolute political power.

Here’s an excerpt from Berlin’s essay: “[Maistre] taught that natural sciences were tissues of coherent falsehoods, that the desire for individual liberty was a form of original sin, and that all possession of absolute secular power, whether by monarchs or popular assemblies, was founded on blasphemous rejection of divine authority, whose sole representative was the Roman Church.”

Here’s another:

“While all around him there was talk of the human pursuit of happiness, [Maistre] underlined, again with much exaggeration and perverse delight, but with some truth, that the desire to immolate oneself, to suffer, to prostrate oneself before authority, indeed before superior power, no matter whence it comes, and the desire to dominate, to exert authority, to pursue power for its own sake – that these were forces historically at least as strong as the desire for peace, prosperity, liberty, justice, happiness, equality.”

And another:

"Thee doctrine of violence at the heart of things, the belief in the power of dark forces, the glorification of chains as alone capable of curbing man’s self-destructive instincts, and using them for his salvation, the appeal to blind faith against reason, the belief that only what is mysterious can survive, that to explain is always to explain away, the doctrine of blood and self-immolation, of the national soul and the streams owing into one vast sea, of the absurdity of liberal individualism, and above all of the subversive influence of uncontrolled critical intellectuals – surely we have heard this note since. In practice if not in theory (at times offered in a transparently false scientific guise) Maistre’s deeply pessimistic vision is the heart of the totalitarianisms, of both left and right, of our terrible century."

Five years after Maistre’s death the leaders of the Saint-Simonian School began a project to develop a reconciliation between the ideas of Maistre and Voltaire. But this seems like an illogical project. How can Voltaire, who stood for liberty, be reconciled with Maistre’s vision of a slave society? It is worth noting that Maistre regarded Voltaire as the devil incarnate.

But Berlin points out that “modern totalitarian systems do, in their acts if not in their style of rhetoric, combine the outlooks of Voltaire and Maistre; they have inherited, particularly, the qualities which the two have in common. For, polar opposites as they are, they both belong to the thought-minded tradition in classical French tradition. Their ideas may have strictly contradicted one another, but the quality of the mind is often exceedingly similar.”

This essay offers an insightful portrait of Maistre, but its title is misleading because it does not offer any new prospective on fascism. Berlin’s focus is only on Maistre’s ideas. He does not explain the relationship between Maistre’s ideas and that of the fascists.


The Crooked Timber of Humanity: Chapters in the History of Ideas
Isaiah Berlin
Pimlico, 2013 edition

Thursday, November 23, 2017

On Thinkers in Ancient Greece Who Dreamed of Anarchist Utopia

Zeno of Citium
Bust in the Farnese collection
In his book The Crooked Timber of Humanity, Isaiah Berlin offers a brief description of the how the idea of anarchist utopia was developed in Ancient Greece by thinkers like Zeno the Stoic (Zeno of Citium).

Here’s an excerpt from the Chapter II, “The Decline of Utopian Ideas in the West”:
In Plato’s republic there is a rigid, unified hierarchy of three classes, based on the proposition that there are three types of human nature, each of which can be fully realized and which together form an interlocking, harmonious whole. Zeno the Stoic conceives an anarchist society in which all rational beings live in perfect peace, equality and happiness without the benefit of institutions. If men are rational, they do not need control; rational beings have no need of the State, or of money, or of law-courts, or of any organized, institutional life. In the perfect society men and women shall wear identical clothes and feed in a ‘common pasture’. Provided that they are rational, all their wishes will necessarily be rational too, and so capable of total harmonious realization. Zeno was the first Utopian anarchist, the founder of a long tradition which has had a sudden, at times violent, flowering in our time.  
The Greek world generated a good many Utopias after the city State showed the first signs of decline. Side by side with the satirical Utopias of Aristophanes there is the plan for a perfect state of Theopompus. There is the Utopia of Euhemerus, in which happy men live on islands in the Arabian sea, where there are no wild animals, no winter, no spring, but an eternal, gentle, warm summer, where fruits fall into men’s mouths from the trees, and there is no need for labor. These men live in a state of unceasing bliss on islands divided by the sea from the wicked, chaotic mainland in which men are foolish, unjust and miserable. 
Berlin says that the anarchist utopias that the ancient thinkers dreamed of resemble an earthly paradise which exists beyond the grave. The inhabitants of the utopia live in static perfection, their human nature is finally and fully realized. They are fully rational beings, and the environment in which they live is perfect and eternal.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

What Is Enlightenment?

By Immanuel Kant (1784)

Enlightenment is man's emergence from his self-imposed nonage. Nonage is the inability to use one's own understanding without another's guidance. This nonage is self-imposed if its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in indecision and lack of courage to use one's own mind without another's guidance. Dare to know! (Sapere aude.) "Have the courage to use your own understanding," is therefore the motto of the enlightenment.

Laziness and cowardice are the reasons why such a large part of mankind gladly remain minors all their lives, long after nature has freed them from external guidance. They are the reasons why it is so easy for others to set themselves up as guardians. It is so comfortable to be a minor. If I have a book that thinks for me, a pastor who acts as my conscience, a physician who prescribes my diet, and so on--then I have no need to exert myself. I have no need to think, if only I can pay; others will take care of that disagreeable business for me. Those guardians who have kindly taken supervision upon themselves see to it that the overwhelming majority of mankind--among them the entire fair sex--should consider the step to maturity, not only as hard, but as extremely dangerous. First, these guardians make their domestic cattle stupid and carefully prevent the docile creatures from taking a single step without the leading-strings to which they have fastened them. Then they show them the danger that would threaten them if they should try to walk by themselves. Now this danger is really not very great; after stumbling a few times they would, at last, learn to walk. However, examples of such failures intimidate and generally discourage all further attempts.

Thus it is very difficult for the individual to work himself out of the nonage which has become almost second nature to him. He has even grown to like it, and is at first really incapable of using his own understanding because he has never been permitted to try it. Dogmas and formulas, these mechanical tools designed for reasonable use--or rather abuse--of his natural gifts, are the fetters of an everlasting nonage. The man who casts them off would make an uncertain leap over the narrowest ditch, because he is not used to such free movement. That is why there are only a few men who walk firmly, and who have emerged from nonage by cultivating their own minds.

It is more nearly possible, however, for the public to enlighten itself; indeed, if it is only given freedom, enlightenment is almost inevitable. There will always be a few independent thinkers, even among the self-appointed guardians of the multitude. Once such men have thrown off the yoke of nonage, they will spread about them the spirit of a reasonable appreciation of man's value and of his duty to think for himself. It is especially to be noted that the public which was earlier brought under the yoke by these men afterwards forces these very guardians to remain in submission, if it is so incited by some of its guardians who are themselves incapable of any enlightenment. That shows how pernicious it is to implant prejudices: they will eventually revenge themselves upon their authors or their authors' descendants. Therefore, a public can achieve enlightenment only slowly. A revolution may bring about the end of a personal despotism or of avaricious tyrannical oppression, but never a true reform of modes of thought. New prejudices will serve, in place of the old, as guide lines for the unthinking multitude.

This enlightenment requires nothing but freedom--and the most innocent of all that may be called "freedom": freedom to make public use of one's reason in all matters. Now I hear the cry from all sides: "Do not argue!" The officer says: "Do not argue--drill!" The tax collector: "Do not argue--pay!" The pastor: "Do not argue--believe!" Only one ruler in the world says: "Argue as much as you please, but obey!" We find restrictions on freedom everywhere. But which restriction is harmful to enlightenment? Which restriction is innocent, and which advances enlightenment? I reply: the public use of one's reason must be free at all times, and this alone can bring enlightenment to mankind.

On the other hand, the private use of reason may frequently be narrowly restricted without especially hindering the progress of enlightenment. By "public use of one's reason" I mean that use which a man, as scholar, makes of it before the reading public. I call "private use" that use which a man makes of his reason in a civic post that has been entrusted to him. In some affairs affecting the interest of the community a certain [governmental] mechanism is necessary in which some members of the community remain passive. This creates an artificial unanimity which will serve the fulfillment of public objectives, or at least keep these objectives from being destroyed. Here arguing is not permitted: one must obey. Insofar as a part of this machine considers himself at the same time a member of a universal community--a world society of citizens--(let us say that he thinks of himself as a scholar rationally addressing his public through his writings) he may indeed argue, and the affairs with which he is associated in part as a passive member will not suffer. Thus it would be very unfortunate if an officer on duty and under orders from his superiors should want to criticize the appropriateness or utility of his orders. He must obey. But as a scholar he could not rightfully be prevented from taking notice of the mistakes in the military service and from submitting his views to his public for its judgment. The citizen cannot refuse to pay the taxes levied upon him; indeed, impertinent censure of such taxes could be punished as a scandal that might cause general disobedience. Nevertheless, this man does not violate the duties of a citizen if, as a scholar, he publicly expresses his objections to the impropriety or possible injustice of such levies. A pastor, too, is bound to preach to his congregation in accord with the doctrines of the church which he serves, for he was ordained on that condition. But as a scholar he has full freedom, indeed the obligation, to communicate to his public all his carefully examined and constructive thoughts concerning errors in that doctrine and his proposals concerning improvement of religious dogma and church institutions. This is nothing that could burden his conscience. For what he teaches in pursuance of his office as representative of the church, he represents as something which he is not free to teach as he sees it. He speaks as one who is employed to speak in the name and under the orders of another. He will say: "Our church teaches this or that; these are the proofs which it employs." Thus he will benefit his congregation as much as possible by presenting doctrines to which he may not subscribe with full conviction. He can commit himself to teach them because it is not completely impossible that they may contain hidden truth. In any event, he has found nothing in the doctrines that contradicts the heart of religion. For if he believed that such contradictions existed he would not be able to administer his office with a clear conscience. He would have to resign it. Therefore the use which a scholar makes of his reason before the congregation that employs him is only a private use, for no matter how sizable, this is only a domestic audience. In view of this he, as preacher, is not free and ought not to be free, since he is carrying out the orders of others. On the other hand, as the scholar who speaks to his own public (the world) through his writings, the minister in the public use of his reason enjoys unlimited freedom to use his own reason and to speak for himself. That the spiritual guardians of the people should themselves be treated as minors is an absurdity which would result in perpetuating absurdities.

But should a society of ministers, say a Church Council, . . . have the right to commit itself by oath to a certain unalterable doctrine, in order to secure perpetual guardianship over all its members and through them over the people? I say that this is quite impossible. Such a contract, concluded to keep all further enlightenment from humanity, is simply null and void even if it should be confirmed by the sovereign power, by parliaments, and the most solemn treaties. An epoch cannot conclude a pact that will commit succeeding ages, prevent them from increasing their significant insights, purging themselves of errors, and generally progressing in enlightenment. That would be a crime against human nature whose proper destiny lies precisely in such progress. Therefore, succeeding ages are fully entitled to repudiate such decisions as unauthorized and outrageous. The touchstone of all those decisions that may be made into law for a people lies in this question: Could a people impose such a law upon itself? Now it might be possible to introduce a certain order for a definite short period of time in expectation of better order. But, while this provisional order continues, each citizen (above all, each pastor acting as a scholar) should be left free to publish his criticisms of the faults of existing institutions. This should continue until public understanding of these matters has gone so far that, by uniting the voices of many (although not necessarily all) scholars, reform proposals could be brought before the sovereign to protect those congregations which had decided according to their best lights upon an altered religious order, without, however, hindering those who want to remain true to the old institutions. But to agree to a perpetual religious constitution which is not publicly questioned by anyone would be, as it were, to annihilate a period of time in the progress of man's improvement. This must be absolutely forbidden.

A man may postpone his own enlightenment, but only for a limited period of time. And to give up enlightenment altogether, either for oneself or one's descendants, is to violate and to trample upon the sacred rights of man. What a people may not decide for itself may even less be decided for it by a monarch, for his reputation as a ruler consists precisely in the way in which he unites the will of the whole people within his own. If he only sees to it that all true or supposed [religious] improvement remains in step with the civic order, he can for the rest leave his subjects alone to do what they find necessary for the salvation of their souls. Salvation is none of his business; it is his business to prevent one man from forcibly keeping another from determining and promoting his salvation to the best of his ability. Indeed, it would be prejudicial to his majesty if he meddled in these matters and supervised the writings in which his subjects seek to bring their [religious] views into the open, even when he does this from his own highest insight, because then he exposes himself to the reproach: Caesar non est supra grammaticos. 2    It is worse when he debases his sovereign power so far as to support the spiritual despotism of a few tyrants in his state over the rest of his subjects.

When we ask, Are we now living in an enlightened age? the answer is, No, but we live in an age of enlightenment. As matters now stand it is still far from true that men are already capable of using their own reason in religious matters confidently and correctly without external guidance. Still, we have some obvious indications that the field of working toward the goal [of religious truth] is now opened. What is more, the hindrances against general enlightenment or the emergence from self-imposed nonage are gradually diminishing. In this respect this is the age of the enlightenment and the century of Frederick [the Great].

A prince ought not to deem it beneath his dignity to state that he considers it his duty not to dictate anything to his subjects in religious matters, but to leave them complete freedom. If he repudiates the arrogant word "tolerant", he is himself enlightened; he deserves to be praised by a grateful world and posterity as that man who was the first to liberate mankind from dependence, at least on the government, and let everybody use his own reason in matters of conscience. Under his reign, honorable pastors, acting as scholars and regardless of the duties of their office, can freely and openly publish their ideas to the world for inspection, although they deviate here and there from accepted doctrine. This is even more true of every person not restrained by any oath of office. This spirit of freedom is spreading beyond the boundaries [of Prussia] even where it has to struggle against the external hindrances established by a government that fails to grasp its true interest. [Frederick's Prussia] is a shining example that freedom need not cause the least worry concerning public order or the unity of the community. When one does not deliberately attempt to keep men in barbarism, they will gradually work out of that condition by themselves.

I have emphasized the main point of the enlightenment--man's emergence from his self-imposed nonage--primarily in religious matters, because our rulers have no interest in playing the guardian to their subjects in the arts and sciences. Above all, nonage in religion is not only the most harmful but the most dishonorable. But the disposition of a sovereign ruler who favors freedom in the arts and sciences goes even further: he knows that there is no danger in permitting his subjects to make public use of their reason and to publish their ideas concerning a better constitution, as well as candid criticism of existing basic laws. We already have a striking example [of such freedom], and no monarch can match the one whom we venerate.

But only the man who is himself enlightened, who is not afraid of shadows, and who commands at the same time a well disciplined and numerous army as guarantor of public peace--only he can say what [the sovereign of] a free state cannot dare to say: "Argue as much as you like, and about what you like, but obey!" Thus we observe here as elsewhere in human affairs, in which almost everything is paradoxical, a surprising and unexpected course of events: a large degree of civic freedom appears to be of advantage to the intellectual freedom of the people, yet at the same time it establishes insurmountable barriers. A lesser degree of civic freedom, however, creates room to let that free spirit expand to the limits of its capacity. Nature, then, has carefully cultivated the seed within the hard core--namely the urge for and the vocation of free thought. And this free thought gradually reacts back on the modes of thought of the people, and men become more and more capable of acting in freedom. At last free thought acts even on the fundamentals of government and the state finds it agreeable to treat man, who is now more than a machine, in accord with his dignity.


1. Translated by Mary C. Smith.

2. [Caesar is not above grammarians.]

Friday, November 17, 2017

World's first human head transplant is successfully carried out

Head transplants do not belong to the realm of science fiction any longer. Telegraph reports: "The world's first human head transplant has been carried out on a corpse in China in an 18-hour operation that showed it was possible to successfully reconnect the spine, nerves and blood vessels."

I think this head transplant operation will have a decisive impact on the philosophy of mind and body? Now the philosophers will have to revise their view of human life and human mind. This is another instance where technological development is driving philosophy.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

On Duns Scotus

“Looking back on the Middle Ages, we may tend to see in the system of Duns Scotus a bridge between the two centuries, between the age of St. Thomas and the age of Ockham; but Ockham himself certainly did not see in Scotus a kindred spirit, and I think that even if Scotus’s philosophy did prepare the way for a more radical criticism his system must be regarded as the last of the great mediaeval speculative syntheses.” ~ Frederic Copleston in A History of Philosophy (Volume II)

Monday, November 13, 2017

Aquinas and Aristotelianism

Thomas Aquinas did not reintroduce Aristotle to Europe. Aristotle was known to European scholars from the time of the Roman empire. Aquinas contributed by completing the process of absorbing Greek philosophy which had begun during the Roman period—he substituted the neo-Platonism in Christian thought with Aristotelianism and a few other elements.

Here’s an excerpt from Frederic Copleston’s A History of Philosophy: Augustine to Scotus (Volume II) (Page 561):
“In a sense we can say that neo-Platonism, Augustinianism, Aristotelianism and the Moslem and Jewish philosophies came together and were fused in Thomism, not in the sense that selected elements were juxtaposed mechanically, but in the sense that a true fusion and synthesis was achieved under the regulating guidance of certain basic ideas. Thomism, in the fullest sense, is thus a synthesis of Christian theology and Greek philosophy (Aristotelianism, united with other elements, or Aristotelianism, interpreted in the light of later philosophy) in which philosophy is regarded in the light of theology and theology itself is expressed, to a conservable extent, in categories borrowed from Greek philosophy, particularly from Aristotle.” 
... Thomism is a synthesis of Christian theology and Greek philosophy, which might seem to imply that Thomism in the narrower sense, that is, as denoting simply the Thomist philosophy, is a synthesis of Greek philosophy and that it is nothing else but Greek philosophy. In the first place, it seems preferable to speak of Greek philosophy rather than of Aristotelianism, for the simple reason that St. Thomas’s philosophy was a synthesis of Platonism (using the term in a wide sense, to include neo-Platonism) and of Aristotelianism, though one should not forget that the Moslem and Jewish philosophers were also important influences in the formation of his thought.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

You Don’t Have The Right to be Wrong

Freedom of belief is seen as an important value in our society—it is interpreted as the right not to be coerced into believing something. This is correct. But many people believe that freedom of belief grants them a right to hold a false belief, and that they have the right to be wrong. They think that the freedom of thought necessitates the freedom to make mistakes.

In his article, “Is There a Right to be Wrong?” David Oderberg shows that there is nothing called the right to be wrong and no one has the freedom to make mistakes. He writes: “Morality itself demands that we seek and believe only the truth, since only the truth satisfies our rational nature. It is the truth that sets us free, not error. Of course knowing the truth is not always easy, especially in times such as these when diversity of opinion is prized as a great social value.”

Freedom does not mean the freedom to hold false belief because if you hold a false belief you are in essence a slave to your ignorance. Oderberg rightly says that “as the lost man wandering the desert without a map is free to explore any direction he likes but is in reality a slave to his ignorance. It is the man with a map who is truly free.”

Oderberg ends his article with these lines:
The ‘right to be wrong’ is, I conclude, a myth. There is an obligation to weigh evidence and to assess argument, and you may be blameless in your embracing of a falsehood as long as that embrace occurs despite the proper use of your intellect rather than as a consequence of its misuse. To say or imply, however, that a person has the right to embrace falsehood is to assist in the spreading of the sort of indifferentism and syncretism that is one of the hallmarks of contemporary society.
People have the right to believe in the truth, which means that they do not have the right to believe in falsehoods. The right to be wrong is a modern myth.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Aristotle and Contemporary Science

Routledge has released a new anthology Neo-Aristotelian Perspectives on Contemporary Science, edited by William M. R. Simpson, Robert C. Koons, and Nicholas J. Teh.

This book has essays by Xavi Lanao, Edward Feser, Nicholas Teh, Robert Koons, Alexander Pruss, William Simpson, Tuomas Tahko, Christopher Austin, Anna Marmodoro, David Oderberg, Janice Chik, William Jaworski, and Daniel De Haan, and a foreword by John Haldane.

The book's description says:
"Neo-Aristotelian Perspectives on Contemporary Science aims to fill this gap in the literature by bringing together essays on the relationship between Aristotelianism and science that cut across interdisciplinary boundaries. The chapters in this volume are divided into two main sections covering the philosophy of physics and the philosophy of the life sciences. Featuring original contributions from distinguished and early-career scholars, this book will be of interest to specialists in analytical metaphysics and the philosophy of science." 

Aristotle’s Truly Happy Man

Frederic Copleston on Aristotle’s eudaemonistic ethic:
Aristotle’s ethic was thus eudaemonistic in character, teleological, and markedly intellectualist, since it is clear that for him contemplation meant philosophical contemplation: he was not referring to a religious phenomenon, such as the ecstasy of Plotinus. Moreover, the end (telos) of moral activity is an end to be acquired in this life: as far as the ethics of Aristotle are concerned there is no hint of any vision of God in the next life, and it is indeed questionable whether he believed in personal immortality at all. Aristotle’s truly happy man is the philosopher, not the saint. 
(Source: History of Philosophy (Volume II): Augustine to Scotus by Frederic Copleston; Chapter 29, “St. Thomas Aquinas: Moral Theory”)

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Aristotle and Common Sense

Here’s an excerpt from Edward Feser’s article, “Aristotle, Call Your Office”:
To untutored common sense, the natural world is filled with irreducibly different kinds of objects and qualities: people; dogs and cats; trees and flowers; rocks, dirt, and water; colors, odors, sounds; heat and cold; meanings and purposes. A man is a radically different sort of thing from a rose, which is in turn no less different from a stone. The warmth of the stone and the redness and fragrance of the rose are features no less real than their shapes or movements; the function of an ear or an eye and the meaning of a human thought or utterance are no less a part of objective reality than a man’s height or weight.  
Aristotle and the Scholastic tradition that built on his thought took the view that common sense was essentially correct. It needed to be systematized and refined, and when its implications were drawn out they would lead to metaphysical conclusions far beyond anything the man on the street is likely to have dreamed of, or even to understand. But a sound philosophy and science would nevertheless build on common sense rather than radically undermine it.  
The founders of modern philosophy and science overthrew Aristotelianism, and common sense along with it. On the new view of nature inaugurated by Galileo and Descartes, the material world is comprised of nothing more than colorless, odorless, soundless, meaningless, purposeless particles in motion, describable in purely mathematical terms. The differences between dirt, water, rocks, trees, dogs, cats, and human bodies are on this view superficial. 
Indeed, at bottom these are all just the same kinds of thing”arrangements within the one vast ocean of physical particles, the differences between the arrangements ultimately no deeper than the differences between waves on the same sea. Color, sound, odor, heat, and cold”understood in the qualitative way common sense understands them”are relegated to the mind, existing only in our conscious representation of the natural world, not in the world itself. Color, sound, and the rest as objective features would be redefined in quantitative terms”reflectance properties of physical surfaces, compression waves, and the like.

Monday, November 6, 2017

The Carolingian Renaissance

In A History of Philosophy (Volume II): Augustine to Scotus, Frederick Copleston offers an insight into the Carolingian Renaissance which flowered during the reign of the Carolingian ruler Charlemagne and was the first of the three medieval renaissances. Here’s an excerpt from Chapter II, “The Carolingian Renaissance”:
Charlemagne’s renaissance aimed at a dissemination of existing learning and what it accomplished was indeed remarkable enough; but it did not lead to original thought and speculation, except in the one instance of John Scotus’s system. If the Carolingian empire and civilization had survived and continued to flourish, a period of original work would doubtless have eventuated at length, but actually it was destined to be submerged in the new Dark Ages and there would be need of another renaissance before the medieval period of positive, constructive and original work could be realized.
Copleston’s description of the reasons behind the Carolingian Renaissance and its impact on mediaeval European society provides an answer to the important question: Why didn’t the Arabs have a Renaissance when they had several Aristotelian scholars like Avicenna and Averroes?

The Arab Kingdoms could not have a renaissance because they didn’t have a 1000 year long history of arguing for or against Aristotle. The Arab society’s contact with Aristotelianism was at a superficial level, with the discussion being confined to a few scholars like Avicenna and Averroes.

The situation, with respect to Aristotle, was markedly different in Europe, where Aristotelian ideas were being actively debated by a wide range of scholars for almost 1000 years before Aquinas. In fact, Averroes’s work was very widely read and discussed in Europe, but it did not evoke any interest in the Middle East.

Thomas Aquinas did not rediscover Aristotle in the 12th century—Aristotle was never forgotten in Europe and he didn’t need any rediscovery. The contribution of Aquinas is that his works made Aristotle's ideas dramatic and accessible to a wider public. Before Aquinas, Aristotle was known only to a fringe group of scholars, but after him Aristotle started acquiring the intellectual centerstage.

According to Copleston, historical factors outside the sphere of philosophy led to the collapse of the empire of Charlemagne and with that the Carolingian Renaissance came to an end. Here’s an excerpt:
In addition to the internal factors which prevented the fruit of the Carolingian renaissance coming to maturity (such as the political disintegration which led in the tenth century to the transference of the imperial crown from France to Germany, the decay of monastic and ecclesiastical life, and the degradation of the Papacy), there were also operative such external factors as the attacks of the Norsemen in the ninth and tenth centuries, who destroyed centers of wealth and culture and checked the development of civilization, as also the attacks of the Saracens and the Mongols. Internal decay, combined with external dangers and attacks, rendered cultural progress impossible. To conserve, or to attempt to do so, was the only practicable course: progress in scholarship and philosophy lay again in the future. 
The Europeans could recover from the failure of the Carolingian Renaissance because the Aristotelian ideas were deep rooted in their society. In the 10th century they had their second renaissance which was the Ottonian Renaissance, and when that too failed, they had their third renaissance of the 12th century. 

Sunday, November 5, 2017

On Teleology and Self-Perfection

Here's an interesting quote from David S. Oderberg’s essay, "The Great Unifier: Form and Unity of the Organism":
For the many philosophers who reflexively recoil at talk of teleology and final causes, the idea can be put in a different yet familiar way: organisms act for their own sustenance, maintenance, and development. Their parts all serve the overall goal of the organism’s flourishing. The organism, unless it has reason, does not set itself this goal; and even rational animals such as ourselves do not set every element of our goal of flourishing as human beings: much of what we do is no more than what happens to us or consists of the processes we inevitably undergo for our own sustenance, maintenance, and development. Yet the goal is there, however we got it and however any organism of any kind got it. Using more traditional terminology, I claim that organisms display immanent causation: causation that originates with an agent and terminates in that agent for the sake of its self-perfection . By ‘self-perfection’ I do not mean that there is some ideal type that every organism strives to reach. The idea is far more modest—namely that every organism aims, whether consciously or not, at the fulfilment of its potentialities such that it achieves a good state of being, indeed the best state it can reach given the limitations of its kind and its environment. Immanent causation is a kind of teleology, but metaphysically distinctive in what it involves. It is not just action for a purpose, but for the agent’s own purpose, where ‘own purpose’ means not merely that the agent acts for a purpose it possesses, but that it acts for a purpose it possesses such that fulfilment of the purpose contributes to the agent’s self-perfection.
The essay is published in the book, Neo-Aristotelian Perspectives on Contemporary Science (Routledge Studies in the Philosophy of Science), Edited by William M.R. Simpson,‎ Robert C. Koons,‎ and Nicholas J. Teh

Saturday, November 4, 2017

On The Role of The Arab Aristotelians

Frederic Copleston is of the view that the Arab philosophers like Avicenna and Averroes propagated a neo-Platonic version of Aristotelianism in medieval Europe.

In his book, A History of Philosophy (Volume II): Augustine to Scotus, Copleston points out that a more authentic version of Aristotelianism was being propagated by Christian scholars like Boethius. He says that by coming up with several Latin translations of Aristotle’s works, the Christian scholars popularized Aristotelian logic and metaphysics in medieval Europe. He holds the Arab philosophers (mainly Averroes) responsible for fueling opposition to Aristotelianism.

Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 6, “Islamic and Jewish Philosophy Translations,” of Copleston’s A History of Philosophy (Volume II): Augustine to Scotus:
The Arabian philosophy was one of the principal channels whereby the complete Aristotle was introduced to the West; but the great philosophers of medieval Islam, men like Avicenna and Averroes, were more than mere transmitters or even commentators; they changed and developed the philosophy of Aristotle, more or less according to the spirit of neo-Platonism, and several of them interpreted Aristotle on important points in a sense which, whether exegetically correct or not, was incompatible with the Christian theology and faith. Aristotle, therefore, when he appeared to medieval Christian thinkers in the shape given him by Averroes, for example, naturally appeared as an enemy of Christian wisdom, Christian philosophy in the wide sense. This fact explains to a large extent the opposition offered to Aristotelianism in the thirteenth century by many upholders of the Christian tradition who looked on the pagan philosopher as the foe of Augustine, Anselm and the great philosophers of Christianity. The opposition varied in degree, from a rather crude dislike and fear of novelty, to the reasoned opposition of the thinker like St. Bonaventure; but it become easier to understand the opposition if one remembers that a Moslem philosopher such as Averroes claimed to give the right interpretation of Aristotle and that this interpretation was, on important questions, at variance with Christian belief. It explains too the attention paid to the Islamic philosophers by those (particularly, of course, St. Thomas Aquinas) who saw in the Aristotelian system not only a valuable instrument for the dialectical expression of Christian theology but also the true philosophy, for such thinkers had to show that Aristotelianism did not necessarily involve the interpretation given to it by the Moslems; they had to dissociate themselves from Averroes and to distinguish their Aristotelianism from his.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

The Slivers of Light in The Dark Ages

Boethius teaching his students
What was the level of darkness in the so-called Dark Ages? If we take the knowledge of Aristotelian ideas as one of the barometers for there being intellectual light in a civilization, then it seems that the European Dark Ages were not as intellectually dark as most popular historians describe it to be.

I am currently reading A History of Philosophy (Volume II): Augustine to Scotus by historian Frederic Copleston. The inference that I draw from the chapters that I have read thus far is that the interest in Aristotle never came to an end in Europe. There was almost a continuous line of scholars from the days of the Roman Empire to the 13th century, when Thomas Aquinas arrived on the scene and took Aristotelianism to a much wider audience, who were taking active interest in Aristotle’s teachings.

Copleston offers brief introduction to several scholars in the Middle Ages who were studying Aristotle and commenting on his ideas.

One of these scholars is Boethius (AD 480—524/5) who, according to Copleston, transmitted to the mediaeval Europeans the knowledge of Aristotelian logic. Boethius wrote several works on logic and translated Aristotle’s Organon into Latin. He has also commented on the Isagoge which was written by Porphyry in Greek during the years 268-270. The Isagoge is an introduction to Aristotle’s Categories. Boethius may have translated other works of Aristotle, because in his extant works he mentions several salient Aristotelian doctrines.

Here’s an excerpt from chapter 10, “Boethius, Cassiodorus, Isidore,” of Copleston’s A History of Philosophy (Volume II): Augustine to Scotus:
Boethius, then, was of very considerable importance, for he transmitted to the earlier Middle Ages a great part of the knowledge of Aristotle then available. In addition, his application of philosophical categories to theology helped towards the development of theological science, while his use of and definition of philosophical terms was of service to both theology and philosophy. Lastly we may mention the influence exercised by his composition of commentaries, for this type of writing became a favorite method of composition among the medievals. Even if not particularly remarkable as an original and independent philosopher, Boethius is yet of major significance as a transmitter and as a philosopher who attempted to express Christian doctrine in terms drawn, not simply from the neo-Platonists, but also from the philosopher whose thought was to become a predominant influence in the greatest philosophical synthesis of the Middle Ages.  
Boethius’s work was carried forward by his two pupils, Cassiodorus and Isidore. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has lot of interesting information on  Boethius’s life and works.