Thursday, January 31, 2019

Edmund Burke’s Enlightenment

A Painting of Edmund Burke
Edmund Burke often gets labeled as a thinker of the Counter-Enlightenment, by the historians who see the Enlightenment as a project conceived by the 18th century French philosophers. Gertrude Himmelfarb disagrees with this view. She  notes that Burke, an avowed disciple of Adam Smith, has played an important role in the British Enlightenment through his contributions in aesthetics, economic theory, moral theory, and political theory. Here’s an excerpt from Himmelfarb’s book The Roads to Modernity, (Chapter 3: “Edmund Burke’s Enlightenment”):
Unlike the American Revolution, which was a political revolution, the French Revolution, [Burke] insisted, was nothing less than a moral revolution, a total revolution, he insisted, a revolution of sentiment and sensibility penetrating into every aspect of life. Burke is often accused today (as he was in his time) of being excessive, even hysterical, in his descriptions of that revolution: “a ferocious dissoluteness in manners… an insolent irreligion in opinions and practices… laws over-turned, tribunals subverted, industry without vigor, commerce expiring… a church pillaged… civil and military anarchy… national bankruptcy…” All this, it must be remembered, was written in 1790, well before the creation of the republic, the execution of the king and queen, the declaration of war, and the institution of the Terror. Yet much had happened by 1790 to alarm Burke: the storming of the Bastille, the march to Versailles and removal of the king to Paris, the abolition of the nobility and feudal privileges, the confiscation of church property, the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, the jacqueries in the countryside and riots in towns, prisons liberated, runs on the banks, and the devastating effects upon the schools, charities, hospitals, and all the other functions traditionally performed by the church. What is remarkable is not that Burke reacted so strongly, and adversely, to these events, but that many thoughtful people (and not only young poets like Shelley or Wordsworth) took so benign a view of them.  
Even more remarkable is Burke’s anticipation of the more momentous events that were to come. Regicide, war, and terror are all prefigured in the Reflections, as if they had already happened. Burke took the measure of the Revolution at the outset. It was then, when the Paris mob marched to Versailles and seized the king, that “the most important of all revolutions” took place, “a revolution in sentiments, manners, and moral opinions.” This moral revolution was later to become the rationale and dynamic of the Terror, an event that Burke dramatically foretold. “Justifying perfidy and murder for public benefit, public benefit would soon become the pretext, and perfidy and murder the end; until rapacity, malice, revenge, and fear more dreadful than revenge could satiate their insatiable appetites.” 
Himmelfarb points out that Burke’s principal contribution to the British Enlightenment was his method of looking at political ideology through the lens of moral theory. He made the “sentiments, manners, and moral opinions” of men the basis of the social and political culture. He brought together the supposedly disparate elements: reason, religion, morality, liberty, manners, sensibility, rule of law, nationalism, individualism, and progress without overthrow of political and cultural traditions.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Deirdre McCloskey On Taxation

Immanuel Kant
Deirdre McCloskey, in her book The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce, makes a good use of Immanuel Kant’s second categorical imperative to make a case against taxation. Here’s an excerpt (from Page 44):

"The tempting shortcut of taxing the rich has not worked, for two reasons. First, I repeat, taxation is taking, and as the philosopher Edward Feser puts it, “Respecting another’s self-ownership… [reflects] one’s recognition that that other person does not exist for you…The socialist or liberal egalitarian…rather than the Nozickian libertarian… is… more plausibly accused of ‘selfishness.'” No left egalitarian has explained how such takings square with Kant’s second formulation of the categorical imperative: “So act as to use humanity, both in your own person and in the person of every other, always at the same time as an end, never simply as a means.” Taxing Peter to pay Paul is using Peter for Paul. It is corrupting. Modern governments have been encouraged to think that any abuse of Peter is just fine, that Peter is a slave available for any duty that the ruler has in mind. A little like nonmodern governments."

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

The True History of the Enlightenment

Gertrude Himmelfarb’s The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments corrects the widespread misunderstanding about the Enlightenment. She notes that the Enlightenment is generally associated with the 18th century French philosophers, but the real Enlightenment happened in Britain and America.

The historians tend to focus on the French Enlightenment while neglecting the British and American Enlightenments, because the British and American philosophers never saw themselves as a distinctive class of enlightened thinkers, whereas the French philosophers had formed a cohesive group, a society of men of letters. They saw themselves as philsophes with a coherent ideology, character, and purpose. They claimed to have a monopoly on reason, and they preached that salvation of all can only be achieved when their version of reason is blindly accepted by all.

The French philosophers believed that the masses are incapable of comprehending the spirit of the Enlightenment and they have to be forced to give up religion and monarchy and accept reason. In contrast, “The driving force of the British Enlightenment was not reason but the “social virtues” or “social affections.” In America, the driving force was political liberty, the motive for the Revolution and the basis for the republic. For the British moral philosophers, and for the American Founders, reason was an instrument for attainment of the larger social end, not the end itself. And for both, religion was an ally, not an enemy.”

Here’s Himmelfarb’s encapsulation of the three Enlightenments:
The British Enlightenment represents “the sociology of virtue,” the French “the ideology of reason,” the American “the politics of liberty.” The British moral philosophers were sociologists as much as philosophers; concerned with man in relation to society, they looked to the social virtues for the basis of a healthy and humane society. The French had a more exalted mission: to make reason the governing principle of society as well as mind, to “rationalize, as it were, the world. The Americans, more modestly, sought to create a new “science of politics” that would establish the new republic upon a sound foundation of liberty. 
The French philosophers, with their insistence on making reason a governing principle, paved way for the bloodbath of the French Revolution. Their philosophy of reason was in essence a cult of reason. It was a disaster. But in most history books they are eulogized as the leaders of the Enlightenment. Himmelfarb’s book corrects this mistake.

Monday, January 28, 2019

On The Importance of Philosophical Differences

The task of a philosopher is to grapple with the “big questions” regarding mankind, the universe, and mankind's place in the universe. But as the information available is not sufficient, the philosophers have to conjecture, rationally as far as possible, by taking into account their personal experiences, and philosophize about the possible answers.

The experiences of the philosophers are bound to be different, because no two human beings can have exposure to the same historical, political, cultural, and economic circumstances. They may possess contrasting information on the same subject, or they may use contrasting methodologies to study their information. The philosophy that they develop will carry the influence of their experiences and the philosophical methods that they use.

I am not advocating relativism—I am not saying that philosophical conclusions have to be dependent on the personal inclinations of the philosophers. But it is true that a rational philosopher can philosophize on the big questions only on the basis of the experience and information that is available to him. Therefore, it is difficult, if not impossible, to find two rational and independent minded philosophers who agree on every issue.

The differences among the philosophers are not bad for philosophy. Through their arguments and counter-arguments, the philosophers are often able to identify the problems in their thought and if they manage to resolve these problems their philosophy becomes more consistent and complete.

A philosophy thrives when the intellectuals are talking about it. It doesn’t matter if they are arguing against the philosophy; as long as they are arguing about it, they are ensuring that it remains relevant. Even if a philosophy is refuted, it can remain relevant as long as the intellectuals don’t abandon it. There are several examples in history of refuted philosophies growing from strength to strength and acquiring great social power.

To propagate his philosophy, a philosopher must to get other philosophers to talk about it. He must welcome philosophical differences—because a philosophy thrives when there is controversy about it. The bigger the controversy, the better it is. A philosophy can survive (it can even thrive) after being decisively refuted, but if it is ignored, it is dead.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

On The Philosophy of Reason

Those who contend that their philosophy is the philosophy of reason have a poor understanding of philosophy and reason. The evolutionary way has firmly placed mankind in the province of reason, and for a creature of reason there is no alternative to philosophizing. Therefore, every philosophy, whether rational or irrational, is a philosophy of reason.

You can’t conceive of a philosophy without using reason. Even if you want to undercut reason, you need to philosophize using reason.

F. H. Bradley hit the nail on the head in his 1893 book Appearance and Reality: “The man who is ready to prove that metaphysical knowledge is wholly impossible has no right here to any answer. He must be referred for conviction to the body of this treatise. And he can hardly refuse to go there, since he himself has, perhaps unknowingly, entered the arena. He is a brother metaphysician with a rival theory of first principles… To say the reality is such that our knowledge cannot reach it, is a claim to know reality; to urge that our knowledge is of a kind which must fail to transcend appearance, itself implies that transcendence.”

One can abandon philosophy, one can abandon reason, but one cannot make a case for the abandonment of philosophy and reason without arguments, and when you are arguing, you are philosophizing, you are using reason, and you are proving the efficacy of reason.

Friday, January 25, 2019

On The Self-centeredness of Philosophy

Philosophy is the most self-centered of all disciplines. The major philosophers of the past have given special attention to philosophizing on philosophy. Their areas of concern include the following topics: “what is philosophy,” “the methods of philosophy,” “the history of philosophy,” “the language of philosophy,” “the role of philosophy in society,” “how can we use philosophy.” I think the one key difference between science and philosophy is that science looks outward and it is always the science of something, whereas philosophy can look inward and be the philosophy of itself. My estimate is that around 75% of all philosophy is the philosophy of philosophy.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Leibniz’s Rationalist Proof of God

Portrait of Leibniz
The Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR), which stipulates that everything must have a reason, cause, or ground, is most famously associated with the work of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. In his Monadology, Leibniz articulates PSR in these words: “And that of sufficient reason, by virtue of which we consider that we can find no true or existent fact, no true assertion, without there being a sufficient reason why it is thus and not otherwise, although most of the time these reasons cannot be known to us.”

Edward Feser, in his book Five Proofs of the Existence of God, (Chapter 5, “The Rationalist Proof”), explains how Leibniz’s conception of PSR can be deployed to prove the existence of God. Feser’s argument is that when everything has a cause, then there has to be an ultimate cause from which all other causes (and their effects) follow. The ultimate cause must go outside the series of must go outside the series of contingencies and must be necessary—this ultimate cause is God.

He offers a 27 point formal statement of the argument, in which he makes the leap towards proving the God’s existence in point 14: “But that there are any contingent things at all must have some explanation, given PSR; and the only remaining explanation is in terms of a necessary being as cause.”

In the final paragraph, Feser says:

“The universe’s existence cannot be explained in terms of its own nature, because it is not purely actual (given that it has potentialities), not simple (given that it has parts), and not subsistent existence itself (since it is as contingent as its parts are). Its explanation must therefore be found in something distinct from it. The difference between God and the world then is that not only one has an explanation and the other lacks it, but rather that one is self-explanatory while the other is not.”

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

The Myth of Original Philosophy

The Thinker by Auguste Rodin
If a philosophical school is filled with the intense conviction that the ideas of its founders are totally original and right, then you can be certain that they are a bunch of inept and immature thinkers and their philosophy is garbage.

Who cares whether a philosophy is original or not—what really matters is whether the philosophy is “true,” and whether it is well argued? No one accepts a philosophy merely because it is original, but they may accept it if they are convinced that they can benefit from it.

None of the major philosophers in history — Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Locke, Hume, and Kant — have claimed that they are propounding original ideas. In fact, in their treatises we find them making efforts to connect their ideas with the work of other eminent thinkers in their own time and from the past.

A wise philosopher will always acknowledge the intellectual debt that he owes to the great minds of the past—he will respect his predecessors even when he is disagreeing with them. It is noteworthy that Aristotle begins every book with a discussion of what the thinkers before him have stated on the subject.

Refutation May Not Impair the Health of a Philosophy

A philosophy does not die because it has been refuted—it dies when it has been abandoned by the intellectuals. Plato’s philosophy was decisively refuted in his lifetime by Aristotle, but Platonic philosophy continued to grow from strength to strength and continues to be relevant till today because the intellectuals have not abandoned it. In fact, every major philosophy in the history of humanity has been refuted several times, but that has not made them irrelevant.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Cicero’s Reasons for Philosophizing on the Nature of the Gods

A first-century AD bust of Cicero
Marcus Tullius Cicero, at the beginning of his The Nature of the Gods, gives three reasons for which he labored with great energy to write the book. The three reasons are:

He has leisure. He had very little to do because the Roman Empire was under Caesar’s will and guidance. Cicero was a man of action and idleness was abhorrent to him, so he devoted himself to philosophizing on the nature of the Gods.

He wants to achieve something great for Rome. He wanted to bequeath to his Latin speaking countryman a complete encyclopedia of Greek philosophy.

He is suffering from great sorrow. Cicero’s great sorrow was not related to the political turmoil that the rise of Caesar has caused in his country, but to the death of his daughter Tullia. His two marriages had failed and when his daughter died in 45 BC, Cicero was devastated.

Here’s an excerpt from Cicero’s The Nature of the Gods:
But if any one asks what considerations induced me to make, at so late a date, these contributions to letters, there is nothing I can more easily explain. It was at the time when I was feeling the languor of inaction, and the condition of the state necessitated its being directed by the will and guidance of one man, that I reflected that philosophy ought, in the first place for the state’s own sake, to be brought before our fellow-countrymen. For I thought that it nearly concerned our honor and glory as a nation that so important and exalted a study should have a place in the Latin literature as well, and I regret my undertaking the less as it is easy for me to perceive how many persons’ enthusiasm I have aroused, not only for learning, but also for exposition. The fact is that several who had been trained in the Greek school were kept from sharing their learning with their countrymen by a doubt whether the knowledge that they had received from the Greeks could be expressed in Latin, but in this department I seem to have been so far successful myself as not to be outdone by the Greeks even in abundance of vocabulary. A second inducement for betaking myself to these studies was my unhappiness of mind in consequence of a great and serious blow dealt me by fortune. If I could have found any greater relief for this unhappiness I would not have taken refuge in this form of it particularly, but there were no means by which I could better enjoy relief itself than by devoting myself not merely to the reading of books, but also to an examination of the whole of philosophy. And all its parts and members are most easily recognized when questions are followed out in all their bearings in writing, for there is in philosophy a notable kind of continuity and connection of subject, so that one part seems to depend upon another, and all to be fitted and joined together. 
Some scholars are of the view that Cicero’s primary objective in The Nature of the Gods is ethical philosophy. They say that his aim was to correct the philosophical errors that are injurious to morality. But Cicero does not say that reason in his book.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Anthony Kenny’s Criticism of the Thomistic Proof

Anthony Kenny is critical of Thomas Aquinas’s doctrine that there is a real distinction between the essence and existence of every being in the universe except God. In his book, Aquinas on Being, Chapter 2, “On Being and Essence II,” Kenny argues that that there are two types of existence—specific existence and individual existence. Here’s an excerpt:
Existence itself… can be attributed in more than one way. When we use ‘exists’ in a way corresponding to the English ‘there is a’ or ‘there are’ construction, we are saying that there is something in reality corresponding to a certain description or instantiating a certain concept—for instance ‘black swans exist’ or ‘there are plants that devour insects’. We might call this ‘specific existence’; it is the existence of something corresponding to a certain specification, something exemplifying a species, for instance, such as the insect-eating plant. But when we say ‘Julius Caesar is no more’ or ‘Julius Caesar no longer exists’, we are not talking about a species: we are talking about a historic individual, and saying that he is no longer alive, no longer among the inhabitants of the universe. We might call this ‘individual existence’ by contrast with the specific existence considered earlier.  (Page 42)
According to Kenny, the Thomistic Proof does not hold for either notion of existence. In case of specific existence, he says that essence and existence must be as distinct in God as they are in every other thing or the Thomistic position does not make any sense. The claim that essence is distinct from its specific existence amounts to saying that we know what a centaur is but we don’t know whether there is an x such that it is a centaur. Even if we assume that Aquinas had the notion of individual existence in mind, then his doctrine fails. Kenny writes:
It can certainly be argued that individual existence is essential to God in a way in that it is not in the case of creatures. Animals may die, and mountains may be swallowed up in an earthquake; but God cannot cease to exist. Whatever Hume may fantasize, a God that could cease to exist would not be a real God. Furthermore, a being, however grand, that had come into existence at some time in the past would not be God. If there is ever a God, there is always a God… However, the fact that everlasting existence is an essential attribute of Godhead does not mean that there is, in fact, a God. (Page 44)
But if this is the case then essence and existence will be identical not only in God but in everything else.
The difficulty now is that the doctrine seems to apply to creatures as well as to God. For what are we to make of the distinction between existence and essence in creatures? Can we say that Fido’s essence and Fido’s existence are distinct? If a real distinction between A and B means that we can have one without the other, then it seems that the answer must be in the negative. For a dog to continue to exist is simply for it to go on being a dog, and for a human being to continue to exist is for it to go on possessing its human nature or essence. (Page 45)

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Aristotle and Aquinas

Aristotle and Aquinas believed that all naturally attainable knowledge originates in external sensible things—for them the external things remain epistemologically prior. That is why their philosophy will not fit into the modern or postmodern settings which is mostly conditioned by the Cartesian belief that sense cognition is immature and one’s ideas must be taken as the starting point of philosophy.

But Aristotle and Aquinas differ on the nature of sensible things. Here’s an excerpt from Joseph Owens’s essay, “Aristotle and Aquinas,” (Chapter 2; The Cambridge Companion to Aquinas, edited by Norman Kretzmann and Eleonore Stump):  
It is true that both Aristotle and Aquinas start from sensible things. To that extent they present a common ground upon which they may be judged. Through that ground their similarities may be explained. But in those external sensible things Aristotle sees finite form as the highest actuality. Aquinas, on the other hand, sees existence as the highest actuality. Existence of itself is not finite, since it is originally the object of a judgment and not of conceptualization. What is attained through conceptualization is, like the Aristotelian form, something finite. The notions table and red are both of finite objects in the judgment "The table is red." But can the same be said about what is known through the copula "is"? What is thereby grasped is of course not something infinite. It is something that just in itself escapes the characterizations of either "finite" or "infinite." Taken just in itself it is open to either, but it is finite when received into a limiting subject, as in sensible things, and infinite when subsisting as a nature. 
Aquinas was writing as a theologian, not as a philosopher—his agenda was to use Aristotelian theory to strengthen his theology. Therefore he had to differ with Aristotle on several issues.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Seneca On Learning from the Enemy

Today I found an interesting thought in Seneca’s letter to his friend Lucilius. While advising Lucilius to read wisely, Seneca says that there is nothing wrong in venturing into the enemy camp to pick up the good thoughts that they may possess. He was a Stoic, but he was not averse to examining the competing philosophy of the Epicureans to find thoughts which corresponded with his own thinking.

Here’s an excerpt from Seneca’s Letter II to Lucilius (Seneca: Letters from a Stoic; Selected and Translated by Robin Campbell; Page 34):
After running over a lot of different thoughts, pick out one to be digested thoroughly that day. This is what I do myself; out of the many bits I have been reading I lay hold of one. My thought for today is something which I found in Epicurus (yes, I actually make a practice of going over the enemy’s camp—by way of reconnaissance, not as a deserter!). ‘A cheerful poverty,’ he says, ‘is an honorable state.’ But if it is cheerful it is not poverty at all. 
Seneca calls Epicurean philosophy, the enemy camp, but in his letters there are several references to Epicureanism. He agrees with Epicurus one some points while drawing distinctions where he finds them necessary.

Friday, January 18, 2019

My Doubts About The Age of Enlightenment

Weimar's Courtyard of the Muses
Several historians claim that the period between 1715 and 1789 is the Age of Enlightenment. But what is so special about this period? Is the enlightenment which they claim to find in this period philosophical, scientific, technological, artistic, or political? Is the Age of Enlightenment only about France and Germany or are we also considering the achievements of other parts of the world (including the USA)? How can we be sure that there weren’t any periods before and after the Age of Enlightenment that were more enlightened?

In the area of philosophical thought, the period from 1715 and 1789 was not the best in human history. Much better philosophy was developed in Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome. In science and technology too, this period was not the best—Nicolaus Copernicus, Johannes Kepler, Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton, and several other great scientists did their work much before 1715. As far as technological advancements are concerned—the movement towards modern technology began after the 1840s, and gained momentum after the First World War. In art, this period has not produced anything comparable to the great art of the Renaissance period. In politics, the greatest innovation happened in the USA after its independence in 1776, but the historians who talk about the Enlightenment seldom refer to the USA—they mostly talk about France and Germany.

In my view, mankind has seen tens of thousands of Enlightenments in the past—and we will have millions of Enlightenments in the future. The first Enlightenment (perhaps the greatest enlightenment in human history) happened about 40,000 years ago when human beings began to give up their nomadic way of life and started growing crops. The rise of agriculture led to the establishment of the first settled communities. Since then there have been several other Ages of Enlightenment during which human beings have gained the knowledge of domesticating cattle and dogs, using horses for riding and warfare, building better houses, and much else. There were Ages of Enlightenment that led to the emergence of innovative ideas in language, mathematics, science, history, art, and philosophy, and of new methods for improving healthcare, education, commerce, and governance.

The trend of awarding fanciful names to certain periods of history often leads to incorrect historical analysis. Once a fanciful name like “the Age of Enlightenment” has been popularized and propagandized, the historians are obliged to cook up some kind of data or analysis to support the general idea that enlightenment happened during this period. They write historical text which do not take cognizance of the tens of thousands of enlightenments that mankind has experienced in the past 40,000 years — their enlightenment begins and ends in the 18th century. Today we have a surfeit of history books which support the idea that modern civilization owes a great debt to the achievements of the Age of Enlightenment, but none of them care to elucidate what these achievements are.

I can see no reason why the period between 1715 and 1789 is known as the Age of Enlightenment. This label is fake. It is leading to a large-scale falsification of history. It should be rejected.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Aquinas on The Natural Desire to Know

Aquinas (painting by Carlo Crivelli)
Aristotle opens his the Metaphysics with the statement: "All human beings by nature desire to know.” Following Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas sees the desire for knowledge as natural. In his Commentary on the Metaphysics, Aquinas has expounded on the ontological aspects of the natural desire to know. He offers three arguments.

First argument: Every imperfect thing desires perfection. The desire for perfection is a thing’s desire for the actualization of its naturally essential potentialities. For a human being, this means achievement of intellect because it is through intellect that a human being becomes a human being. But the soul of a man is a blank slate on which nothing is depicted. Human beings do not possess any innate knowledge of reality. Only knowledge can lead to the actualization of natural human potentialities and therefore human beings have a natural desire to know.

Second argument: It is the natural desire of everything to function in a proper way—for instance, all objects released from a height will move towards a lower level. The function proper to man is the desire to understand—this is what distinguishes man from everything else that exists. Therefore human beings have a natural desire to know.

Third argument: It is the natural desire for everything to be united with its principle source because that is the way by which a thing can attain perfection. Aquinas gives the example of circular motion, which is perfect because in it the terminus is united to the beginning. A human being can be united with its source only through the means of intellect. Therefore human beings have a natural desire to know.

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.