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Wednesday, January 16, 2019

On the Relationship Between Religion and Philosophy

The School of Athens, by Raphael
We learn from the history of last 2500 years that philosophy and religion have mostly marched hand in hand. In the treatises of a good philosophy we usually find some theological components, and a good theological system always reveals some elements of sound philosophy. Almost all the great philosophers of the past, including Aristotle, were religious, they believed in some kind of divinity; some, like Thomas Aquinas, were theologians and had a completely religious worldview.

Religion and philosophy are so deeply integrated that whenever a philosophical movement tries to get rid of religion, it also loses its philosophy.

Etienne Gilson, in his book The Unity of Philosophical Experience, rightly says, “We gain nothing by destroying one in order to save another, for [philosophy and religion] stand and fall together. True mysticism is never found without some theology, and sound theology always seeks the support of some philosophy; but a philosophy that does not at least make room for theology is a short-sighted philosophy, and what shall we call a theology wherein no provision is made for at least the possibility of mystical experience?” (Page 36)

I am not saying that people ought to become religious or that philosophical movements ought to be dominated by theologians. There is no doubt that any good philosophy has to be secular and based on reason. But religion is a way of explaining the universe and man’s place in it—it’s essentially a form of philosophy. Therefore philosophical movements should not be contemptuous of religions—they should accord the theological doctrines the same consideration that they would accord to any other philosophical system.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Aristotle was Not a System-Builder

Plato (left) and Aristotle
in Raphael's fresco, The School of Athens
Aristotle is often seen as a system-builder. But he never attempted to create a system. He was a great thinker, he addresses a wide range of problems, but he philosophizes piecemeal and his philosophy is not free from internal contradictions. In fact, Aristotle does not boast of having said the final word on any branch of knowledge.

Aristotelian scholar Johnathan Barnes points out that Aristotle’s philosophy is essentially aporetic, and that he was not a system-builder. Here’s an excerpt from Barnes's book Aristotle: A Very Short Introduction (Page 59-60)):
Some scholars, however, have disputed this view of Aristotle. They have denied that he was a system-builder. Themselves distrusting the grandiose claims of systematic philosophy, they find Aristotle’s virtues to lie elsewhere. For them, Aristotle’s philosophy is essentially ‘aporetic’: it consists in the posing of particular puzzles or aporiai, and in the development of particular solutions to them. Aristotle’s thought is tentative, flexible, changing. He does not sketch a grand design and then fill in the details; nor does he follow a single method towards a single goal. Rather, the details are all; and the methods and modes of argument vary with the topics to which they are addressed. Aristotle works piecemeal.  
The anti-systematic interpretation of Aristotle’s thought is now widely accepted. It has much to be said in its favor. Book III of the Metaphysics, for example, consists of a long catalogue of puzzles, and much of the remainder of the Metaphysics is given over to their solution. Or consider the following passage: ‘here, as elsewhere, we must set down the phenomena and first go through the puzzles; then we must prove the reputable options about these matters  — if possible, all of them, if not, the majority and the most important’. First, set down prevailing views on the matter (‘the phenomena’, or ‘the things which seem to be the case’, are the reputable opinions on the subject); then go thought the puzzles which those views raise (because they are obscure, perhaps, or because they are mutually inconsistent); finally, prove all or most of the views to be true. That is no recipe for system-building; yet it is a recipe which Aristotle commends and which he sometimes follows. 
Barnes notes that we may look at Aristotle as a systematic thinker because the ideal of systematic thinking is ever present in the background of his philosophy even though the same is never achieved in his surviving treatises.

Monday, January 14, 2019

On the Disparity Between Medieval and Ancient Philosophy

Philosophy seated between the seven liberal arts
Hortus deliciarum of Herrad von Landsberg (12th century)
Why is ancient philosophy better known than medieval philosophy? Is it because ancient philosophy has greater merit or has history been unjust to medieval philosophy? Some historians suggest that medieval philosophy has less merit because it has very little original thought in it. They hold that the medieval philosophers have merely helped themselves to carefully selected bits and pieces of philosophy to serve the purpose of their theology.

Norman Kretzmann and Eleonore Stump have a different point of view. In their Introduction to The Cambridge Companion to Aquinas, they blame the renaissance humanists for the disparity between medieval and ancient philosophy. Here’s an excerpt:
The unwarranted disparity between medieval and ancient philosophy as regards not only their texts but also their apparent relevance to post-medieval philosophy has its historical roots in the achievements of the renaissance humanists. The intellectual gap between ancient and medieval philosophy seems to have been a natural consequence of the cataclysmic historical events associated with the barbarian invasions, the fall of Rome, and the rise of Christianity. But, more than a thousand years later, an even wider gap appeared between medieval and modern philosophy that can be attributed not to historical events on the grand scale but to the humanists' attitudes shaped by broad cultural considerations more than by specifically philosophical positions. The humanists extolled the ancients, naturally condemned the medieval scholastics against whom they were rebelling, and arrived on the European scene simultaneously with the development of printing, which gave their views an immediate and lasting influential advantage over those of their medieval predecessors. The humanists' views divided medieval from modern philosophy not only by rejecting scholasticism as literarily benighted and hence linguistically, educationally, and intellectually barbarous but also by portraying the philosophy of their own day as the first legitimate successor to the philosophy of antiquity, especially to that of Plato. Of course, many views promoted by the humanists have gone the way of their insistence that education consists almost entirely of the study of the Greek and Latin classics. The effect of their wholesale rejection of medieval philosophy on cultural grounds lasted longer partly because it was reinforced by the Protestant reformers' simultaneous and equally vehement rejection of medieval philosophy on the basis of its association with Catholicism, and partly because the rejection coincided with a growing disaffection toward traditional Christianity among many of the educated elite. 
It is certainly true that the popular philosophers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries mention the medieval philosophers only to denigrate their thought. Modern philosophy owes lot of unacknowledged debt to the scholastics.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

On Feser’s Argument for the Aristotelian Proof of God

Roman copy in marble of a
Greek bust of Aristotle by Lysippus
Edward Feser, in his essay, “The Aristotelian Proof,” (Chapter 1; Five Proofs of the Existence of God), argues that Aristotle’s First Cause is an argument for God. Here’s a brief summary of the argument that Feser is making for the Aristotelian proof:
We have seen that it cannot coherently be denied that change occurs, and we have noted that change can occur only if things have potentials which are actualized by something already actual. Hence, the hot coffee has the potential to be cooled, and that potential is actualized by the coolness in the surrounding air. We have also argued that while a linear series of changes and changers might in principle extend backward in time without beginning, the members of these series must depend at any moment at which they exist on a hierarchical series of actualizers, and that such a series must terminate in a purely actual cause or actualizer of their existence. And it has now been argued that any such cause must be oneimmutableeternalimmaterialincorporealperfectomnipotentfully goodintelligent, and omniscient—that is to say, it must have the key divine attributes. In short, the things of our experience can exist at any moment only if sustained in existence by God. 
Feser breaks down this summary into a formal argument consisting of 50 points. He acknowledges that there are a number of problems in his argument and more than half of the essay is devoted to answering these problems. The essay ends with this assertion, “But so far we have seen that the objections that might be raised against a specifically Aristotelian argument for a divine First Cause will fail.” I liked this essay because Feser is not using faith or some kind of mystic revelations to prove the existence of God; he is using philosophical arguments.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Five Proofs of the Existence of God

The ultimate philosophical problem is the problem of God. Does he exist? If he does, then what is his nature? Is he the ultimate cause of everything? In the last 2500 years, several important philosophers have philosophized on who or what is God and how his existence can be proved.

Today I started reading Edward Feser’s Five Proofs of the Existence of God. This book offers a defense of the five philosophical proofs of God’s existence: the Aristotelian proof, the Neo-Platonic proof, the Augustinian proof, the Thomistic proof, and the Rationalist proof. In the book’s Introduction, Feser asserts that the claims of natural theology are right, and that the real debate is not between the atheists and the theists, but between the theists of different stripes.

I am reading this book mainly because I am interested in knowing about Feser’s perspectives on the Aristotelian proof and the Thomistic proof, and the arguments that he uses to counter the objections of the major skeptics.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Philosophical Wisdom Versus Scientific Creed

Etienne Gilson
Good philosophy has to be based on knowledge of reality but it cannot be developed by adopting a purely scientific method. Etienne Gilson proves this point through several examples in his book The Unity of Philosophical Experience. In chapter 11, “The Breakdown of Modern Philosophy,” Gilson writes:
The first article of the scientific creed is the acceptance of nature such as it is. Far from making up for the loss of philosophy, the discovery of the scientific substitutes for it leaves man alone with nature such as it is, and obliges him to surrender to natural necessity. Philosophy is the only rational knowledge by which both science and nature can be judged. By reducing philosophy to pure science, man has not only abdicated his right to judge nature and to rule it; but he has also turned himself into a particular aspect of nature, subjected, like all the rest, to the necessary law which regulates its development. A world where accomplished facts are unto themselves their own justification is ripe for the most reckless social adventures. Its dictators can wantonly play havoc with human institutions and human lives, for dictatorships are facts and they also are unto themselves their own justification. 
The sacrifice of the philosophical method will not improve the prospects for scientific progress. If philosophy is lost, then we must be prepared for the dissolution of science, reason, and logic, which means, civilization itself.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Adam Smith’s Tribute to David Hume

An engraving of David Hume
Adam Smith, David Hume’s closest friend, wrote a letter to publisher William Strahan, after Hume’s death on August 25, 1776. In the letter, Smith talks about Hume’s last days, death, and character. Smith ends the letter with an interesting paragraph:
Thus died our most excellent, and never-to-be-forgotten friend; concerning whose philosophical opinions men will no doubt judge variously, every one approving or condemning them according as they happen to coincide, or disagree with his own; but concerning whose character and conduct there can scarce be a difference of opinion. His temper, indeed, seemed to be more happily balanced, if I may be allowed such an expression, than that perhaps of any other man I have ever known. Even in the lowest state of his fortune, his great and necessary frugality never hindered him from exercising, upon proper occasions, acts both of charity and generosity. It was a frugality founded not upon avarice, but upon the love of independency. The extreme gentleness of his nature never weakened either the firmness of his mind, or the steadiness of his resolutions. [xl] His constant pleasantry was the genuine effusion of good-nature and good-humour, tempered with delicacy and modesty, and without even the slightest tincture of malignity, so frequently the disagreeable source of what is called wit in other men. It never was the meaning of his raillery to mortify; and therefore, far from offending, it seldom failed to please and delight even those who were the objects of it. To his friends, who were frequently the objects of it, there was not perhaps any one of all his great and amiable qualities which contributed more to endear his conversation. And that gaiety of temper, so agreeable in society, but which is so often accompanied with frivolous and superficial qualities, was in him certainly attended with the most severe application, the most extensive learning, the greatest depth of thought, and a capacity in every respect the most comprehensive. Upon the whole, I have always considered him, both in his lifetime, and since his death, as approaching as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man, as perhaps the nature of human frailty will admit.
Smith looked at Hume as an exemplar of wisdom and virtue. Several passages in Smith’s The Wealth of Nations are inspired by Hume’s political and economic thoughts. In Book 3 of The Wealth of Nations, Smith makes the climactic claim that the promotion of liberty and security are the most important effects of commerce, and he acknowledges his debt to Hume. He writes: “Mr. Hume is the only writer who, so far as I know, has hitherto taken notice of it.”

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

The Absent-minded Mr. Adam Smith

Portrait of Adam Smith
Adam Smith was remarkably sharp as a professor and a philosopher of economics, politics, and morality, but in his day-to-day life he was often absent-minded. Lady Mary Coke, a high society hostess, entertained both David Hume and Adam Smith when they were in London in 1767. In her journal, she describes a breakfast with Adam Smith:
"I said many things in his [Adam Smith’s] praise, but added that he was the most Absent Man that ever was ... as he was going to breakfast, and, falling into discourse, Mr Smith took a piece of bread and butter, which, after he had rolled round and round, he put into the teapot and pour'd the water upon it; some time after he poured it into a cup, and when he had tasted it, he said it was the worst tea he had ever met with." ~ (The Letters and Journals of Lady Mary Coke)
I think that Smith's intellectual life was so hyperactive that he often lost touch with his physical environment.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

The Disciples can be a Philosopher’s Worst Punishment

The Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David
For a philosopher, his disciples can be a reward as well as a punishment. Etienne Gilson, in his The Unity of Philosophical Experience, (Chapter 9: “The Physicism of Kant”) says that in the initial days the master and his disciple may find nothing but pure joy in their mutual intercourse, but a stage comes when the relationship deteriorates. He gives the example of Immanuel Kant and his foremost disciple—Johann Gottlieb Fichte. Here’s an excerpt:
Who can read without emotion those pages of his Diary where the young Fichte tells us how, penniless and unknown, he went to the great Kant and asked from him both advice and money. Kant had no money to give, but he gave advice. In order to attract his attention, Fichte had written a Critique of All the Revelations, and sent it to Kant as a letter of recommendation. What joy when Kant declared that it should be printed! Fichte wanted to revise it; but Kant said: "It is well written." "Can this be true?" Fichte asks himself in his Diary, “and yet Kant says so.” 
But in 1794 Fichte wrote his Fundamental Principles of the Science of Knowledge in which he attempted to solve the problem of gap between sensibility and understanding that is there in Kant’s the Critique of Pure Reason. The solution that Fichte had come up with was accepted by most notable Kantians of that period, including Reinhold. But Kant refused to endorse Fichte’s solution and disavowed him. However, Fichte continued to assert that either his solution to the Kantian problem is correct or the Kantian philosophy is meaningless.

Gilson says that what usually brings the friendship between a philosopher and his disciple to an end is that, whereas a master holds his conclusions as conclusions, his disciples receive them as premises, with the consequence that their own conclusions can never be the master's conclusions. Fichte in turn was punished by his favorite disciple Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling. They had an acrimonious breakup because Fichte felt his work was being misinterpreted by Schelling, whereas Schelling thought that his ideas were being stolen by Fichte.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Arguments Against Direct Realism and How to Counter Them

In his essay, “Arguments Against Direct Realism and How to Counter Them,” Pierre Le Morvan discusses the argumentative strategies that can be used to counter eight arguments that are often used against Direct Realism.

In the conclusion to the essay, he lists seven points that the Direct Realists should accept to avoid falling prey to the arguments directed against their position:
(i) distinguish causal indirectness from cognitive indirectness and maintain that the causal indirectness of perception does not entail that it is cognitively indirect;
(ii) concede that we cannot (given the laws of physics) directly perceive external physical objects or events without a time lag, however minute, without conceding that this entails that we cannot directly perceive physical objects;
(iii) reject the notion that perceiving a physical object requires perceiving all of its spatial or temporal parts at once;
(iv) maintain that physical objects can appear differently than how they are;

(v) be wary of question-begging reifications of appearances by their opponents;
(vi) concede that doubts can be raised that we are perceiving physical objects without conceding that this entails that we do not perceive physical objects;

(vii) treat sensible qualities as modes of perceptual awareness rather than as objects of awareness. 
The essay ends with a brief account of the debate in scholastic philosophy between the Perceptionists (who are today known as the Direct Realists) and the Representationists. Descartes did not agree with the scholastic Representationists but the Cartesian system that he devised was to a large extent in agreement with their thought. 

Sunday, January 6, 2019

On Wisdom and Power

If we think that someone is wise enough to conceive of something, then we must assume that he also possesses the power to create that thing. Wisdom and power go hand in hand—if a person is wise enough, then he is powerful enough.

Thomas Reid makes this point in his book Essays on the Active Powers of Man (Essay 4, Chapter 8):
Every indication of wisdom, taken from the effect, is equally an indication of power to execute what wisdom planned. And, if we have any evidence that the wisdom which formed the plan is in the man, we have the very same evidence, that the power which executed it is in him also.
What Reid means is that a wise man is a man of action. He knows how to create value and he takes the appropriate steps to create it.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Is Ayn Rand’s Objectivism a Philosophy?

Ayn Rand
Ayn Rand’s novels, like the works of a few other great thinkers, have a stunning impact on the mind when you read them for the first time. You get mesmerized by the larger than life characters that you discover in her novels, and the notion that philosophy has practical consequences gets inscribed in your memory.

Most people become acquainted with Rand by reading her novels and if they make inquiries about her, they learn that she is the founder of a school called objectivism. After the publication of Atlas Shrugged in 1958, she decided to become a philosopher—with a band of inexperienced youngsters, she launched objectivism. She didn’t have any expertise or interest in philosophy; she had no clue what it takes to philosophize like a philosopher. Much of the work that she has done in the name of objectivism consists of short articles on the political and cultural excrescences of her own time. Her articles are of great interest, but they are not philosophy.

Rand’s objectivist followers claim that her novels are an elucidation of the objectivist philosophy. But I believe that her novels are works of fiction; they are not philosophy. You can find in her novels an inspiration for a healthy sense of life, and a sense of the critical role that philosophy plays in the rise and fall of civilizations and in an individual’s life—but all this is not philosophy.

Philosophy, like physics, biology, and mathematics, has a methodology of its own. You can discover the philosophical truth only by following the philosophical method. You can’t do it by following a literary way—but that is what Rand tried to do. She developed objectivism by following a literary methodology and she could not produce a single treatise on any area of philosophy. The contrast between the massive scope of her novels, and the pettiness, ignorance, and dogmatism that we find in objectivism is so blatantly obvious that only the most dogmatic acolytes can claim that all is well in objectivism.

Etienne Gilson’s thought provoking words in The Unity of Philosophical Experience (page 7) come to my mind:
I wish I could make clear from the very beginning that in criticizing great men, as I shall do, I am very far from forgetting what made them truly great. No man can fall a victim to his own genius unless he has genius; but those who have none are fully justified in refusing to be victimized by the genius of others. Not having made the mathematical discoveries of Descartes and Leibniz, we cannot be tempted to submit all questions to the rules of mathematics; but our very mediocrity should at least help us to avoid such a mistake. There is more than one excuse for being a Descartes, but there is no excuse whatsoever for being a Cartesian. 
Taking an inspiration from Gilson’s words, I will say that there is more than one excuse for being an Ayn Rand, but there is no excuse whatsoever for being an objectivist. I am not trying to debase Rand as a fiction writer; she has written great novels—she took philosophy seriously and was devoted to finding the philosophical truth. But she failed to create any value in objectivism because she was a fiction writer and not a philosopher.

Friday, January 4, 2019

The Mathematicism of Descartes

René Descartes
Etienne Gilson’s elucidation of René Descartes’s philosophy is very interesting. He points out that Descartes marks the transition from the Middle Ages to the modern world. Here’s an excerpt from his book The Unity of Philosophical Experience (Chapter 4, “Cartesian Mathematics”):
although mediaeval thought had already been slumbering for two centuries when Descartes began to write, he was the first to build up a new system of ideas and to open formally a new philosophical era. His predecessors had done little more than to distrust scholastic philosophy, and, as they knew no other one, to extend their distrust to philosophy itself. Descartes brought to the world the unexpected revelation that, even after the breakdown of mediaeval philosophy, constructive philosophical thinking was still possible. Ever since the fourteenth century there had been men to criticize Aristotle, but Descartes' ambition was quite different: it was to replace him.
In the next paragraph, Gilson says that Descartes marks the transition from the Renaissance, rather than from the Middle Ages, to the modern world. He qualifies the statement by noting that Descartes does not mark the transition from the whole Renaissance to the modern world, “but, quite exactly, from the scepticism of Montaigne to the modern period of constructive thinking in philosophy.” He says that Cartesianism was a direct answer to the challenge of Montaigne’s scepticism.

Gilson goes on to explain the connection between Descartes’s Discourse on Method and Montaigne’s Essays:
The long list of passages of the Discourse on Method that are but an echo of the Essays, clearly shows how conversant Descartes was with the work of Montaigne. What can be more modern, for instance, than the opening sentence of the Discourse? "Good sense is of all things in the world the most equally distributed, for everybody thinks himself so abundantly provided with it, that even those most difficult to please in all other matters do not commonly desire more of it than they already possess." Was not this the first article of the charter of independent thought? If, as Descartes immediately added, good sense, or reason "is, by nature, equal in all men" why should it ever submit to authority? True, but the fact remains that the first lines of the Discourse are borrowed from Montaigne's essay On Presumption (Essays, Bk. II, Chap. 17) : "of all the gifts made to man by Nature, the most justly distributed is judgment (or sense), for no man is ever displeased with what amount of it he may have received." I quite agree that Descartes read his own thought into the text of Montaigne, but rather than an objection to my thesis, it is the very point I hope to make: the philosophy of Descartes was a desperate struggle to emerge from Montaigne's scepticism and the very form of the Discourse on Method is enough to suggest it. 
Descartes was a skeptic, because it was the fashion of his time to be a sceptic, but he was skeptic who was looking for something better than scepticism. Gilson says that Descartes’s scepticism amounts to a kind of Mathematicism (a philosophy that progresses by the method of mathematics).

Thursday, January 3, 2019

The Consequences of William of Ockham

William of Ockham
Richard M. Weaver, in his 1948 bestseller Ideas Have Consequences, says that the scholastic logician William of Ockham paved way for the dissolution of the Western civilization by giving birth to nominalism, which is a doctrine that denies the existence of the Universals.

Weaver begins the Introduction to his book with a dramatic denunciation of Ockham’s role in the fourteenth century:
Like Macbeth, Western man made an evil decision, which has become the efficient and final cause of other evil decisions. Have we forgotten our encounter with the witches on the heath? It occurred in the late fourteenth century, and what the witches said to the protagonist of this drama was that man could realize himself more fully if he would only abandon his belief in the existence of transcendentals. The powers of darkness were working subtly, as always, and they couched this proposition in the seemingly innocent form of an attack upon universals. The defeat of logical realism in the great medieval debate was the crucial event in the history of Western culture; from this flowed those acts which issue now in modern decadence.
A paragraph later, Weaver directly mentions Ockham in connection with the propagation of nominalism:
For this reason I turn to William of Occam as the best representative of a change which came over man’s concep­tion of reality at this historic juncture. It was William of Occam who propounded the fateful doctrine of nominalism, which denies that universals have a real existence. His triumph tended to leave universal terms mere names serving our convenience. The issue ultimately involved is whether there is a source of truth higher than, and independent of, man; and the answer to the question is decisive for one’s view of the nature and destiny of humankind. The practical result of nominalist philosophy is to banish the reality which is perceived by the intellect and to posit as reality that which is perceived by the senses. With this change in the affirmation of what is real, the whole orientation of culture takes a turn, and we arc on the road to modern empiricism. 
Weaver's perspectives on Ockham's philosophy is similar to what Etienne Gilson has said in his book The Unity of Philosophical Experience (1937). The Chapter 3, “The Road to Skepticism,” in Gilson's book is devoted to exploring the consequences of Ockham’s nominalist philosophy. Gilson writes: “as a philosopher, it was Ockham’s privilege to usher into the world what I think is the first known case of a new intellectual disease.”

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Platonists Write Utopias; Aristotelians Write on Politics

In his The Unity of Philosophical Experience, (Chapter 3, “The Road to Scepticism”), Etienne Gilson says:
Begotten in us by things themselves, concepts are born reformers that never lose touch with reality. Pure ideas, on the other hand, are born within the mind and from the mind, not as intellectual expressions of what is, but as models, or patterns, of what ought to be; hence they are born revolutionists. And this is the reason why Aristotle and Aristotelians write books on politics, whereas Plato and Platonists always write Utopias.
In the Chapter 3, he blames the philosophy of William of Ockham for introducing skepticism in the study of Aristotelian philosophy in the fourteenth century. Ockham’s philosophy took deep root in the European universities and led the scholastic philosophers on the straight road to scepticism.
Scholastic philosophers then began to mistrust their own principles, and mediaeval philosophy broke down; not for want of ideas, for they still were there; or for want of men, for there never were more brilliant intelligences than at the time of that glorious sunset; mediaeval philosophy broke down when, having mistaken philosophy for reality itself, the best minds were surprised to find reason empty and began to despise it.