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Monday, September 30, 2019

Strauss on Three Waves of Modernity

In his Natural Right and History, Leo Strauss talks about  the three waves of modernity. Machiavelli, he says, is the architect of the first wave which includes the early modern philosophers like Spinoza, Hobbes, and Locke; these philosophers reduced the moral and political problems to the level of a technical problem—they emphasized on institutions rather than on moral education; they believed that modernity is a movement away from nature and into an artificial social environment.

The second wave, launched by Rousseau who questioned the tenets of the first wave doctrine, emphasizes on virtue and the role that history, or the historical process, in determining man’s humanity. This wave includes the great 18th and 19th century philosophers—Kant, Fichte, Hegel, and Marx—and goes right up to Nietzsche, even though Nietzsche is not part of the second wave, he is the one who initiates the third wave, according to Strauss.

By his rejection of the conclusions reached by the second wave thinkers, Nietzsche launched the third wave. He was applied by Rousseau’s belief that while making men more humane, the historical process effaces in them the naturally good (the sentiment of existence)—Nietzsche notes that “the sentiment of existence” is not in agreement with Rousseau’s conception of it, but rather it's an “experience of terror and anguish.”

According to Strauss, the first wave philosophy inspired the rise of liberal democracies (like America); the deficiencies in the first wave provoked the second wave philosophy, which led to the communist regimes (like the Soviet Union); and the failures of the second wave led to the third wave philosophy which climaxed with the fascist regimes.

Reason May Not Lead To Rationality

The Enlightenment of the 18th century has created a class of modern philosophers whose view of man is based on the idea that reason is the only tool by which man can gain knowledge and learn to lead a moral and happy life. But from the study of the life of these philosophers we find that,  in spite of their faith in reason, their philosophical ideas are flawed, and their life has been tainted by unhappiness and episodes of immorality. Therefore, I think, it is logical to draw the conclusion that reason is not always an accurate guide for arriving at accurate information and making rational and moral choices. The philosophers, who worship reason as a “god” of modern man, have clearly underestimated the complications of human mind and psychology.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

On the Origin of Political Philosophy

Politics is as old as humanity itself. Humans have never existed in a state of nature; since the time they evolved (between 300,000 to 200,000 years ago), they have lived in tribes or societies. Some kind of political action would have been necessary to enable the early humans to cooperate with each other for improving their chances for survival.

Political philosophy is different from politics—it came into being tens of thousands of years after the arrival of the first humans. It was discovered in the middle of fourth century BCE by Socrates in Athens. Philosophy predates Socrates by several centuries, but in the Western philosophical tradition, he is often seen as the first political philosopher.

Socrates has had such a massive impact that the philosophy before his time is known as presocratic. The presocratic philosophers made inquiries into the workings of the natural world, and on issues related to ethics, religion, possibility of knowledge, and the nature of societies. Socratic philosophy, in contrast to presocratic philosophy, is primarily political.

On the Gulf Between Reason and Politics

The notion that a government can be established on the foundation of reason is based on the misconception that all human beings are capable of using reason in the correct way. Why would we need a government if all human beings were men of reason, in which case, everyone would be capable of governing themselves and they would not pose a threat to the rights of others? The truth is that between politics and reason, there exists a wide gulf. In the area of politics, passions; prejudices; emotions; rational or irrational fears; attachments based on family, religion, and race, play a far more important role than reason.

Saturday, September 28, 2019

On Knowledge and Ignorance

All quest for knowledge culminates in the knowledge of what you don’t know and doubts about the value and nature of what you know. Only a simpleton will make the claim that he has complete knowledge. But I am not sure if being aware of one’s ignorance is a better option than being ignorant of one’s ignorance.

Friday, September 27, 2019

“Don’t Tread on Me” is Machiavelli’s Republican Principle

The role that the principle of “don't tread on me” plays in a republican society has been clearly explained by Machiavelli. In the Discourses on Livy, he points out that the citizens of republics dislike being dominated, and if the nobles try to usurp too much power, they will have to face the wrath of the citizens. He advises the nobles to avoid “treading” on the rights of the citizens. He praises the founders of republican nations and the citizens for their goodness and virtue and their love of liberty. He says that in republics, the citizens hold superior moral values and have better judgement than the nobles or the members of the government.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Machiavelli and The Renaissance

Machiavelli was disenchanted by the scholarship, art, and politics of the Renaissance. He does not deign to mention the prominent humanist scholars of his time in his Discourses on Livy. The only modern scholars that he mentions are Dante, Lorenzo de' Medici, and Flavio Biondo—while he mentions 19 ancient scholars, he begins the Discourses by criticizing the scholars who ignore the “ancient values” in politics, because they believe that they can honor antiquity by buying fragments of ancient statues for their homes. He is, however, convinced that the ancients were superior than the moderns and he reminds his readers that to devise a good political system we must relearn ancient virtues. The ancients that he admires are not the Greeks of the Classical Period (when the polis was the model of an ideal state), but the Roman Republic. Machiavelli's antagonism with the Renaissance is apparent from his criticism of Cicero, who for the humanists, was the most towering intellectual. Machiavelli insists that Cicero corrupted the Roman Republic by importing Greek philosophy, which made the Roman Republic weak and decadent. He is sympathetic to Cato’s failed cause of ridding Rome of the influence of Greek philosophy.

On Machiavelli’s Republicanism

Once a republic falls, it’s lost forever. This is because the strength of a republic comes from the morality of its citizens and once the citizens become morally corrupted, it’s impossible for them to be moral again. Niccolò Machiavelli makes this point in his work, the Discourses on Livy. He points out that while a republic is created by the politicians (he uses the word, “Princes”), it’s the citizens who maintain it because they are more moral and trustworthy than the ruling class. In times of danger, there is greater stability and courage in the citizens than in the ruling class. But once the citizens become morally corrupted, the republic loses its strength and it faces a stark choice between a violent revolution, which can rip the nation apart, and statism (an Empire), which may keep the nation together but will take away the freedom that the citizens enjoy. In his direct comparisons between the ruling class and the citizens, Machiavelli demonstrates his republicanism.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Ancient Athens Versus Sparta

Since the end of the Peloponnesian War, about 2500 years ago, it has been a trend among the intellectuals to condemn Ancient Athens, which was a clamorous democracy, and praise Sparta, a totalitarian state. Most of them are of the view that an Athenian type democracy has no mechanism to prevent passions from taking over its politics—and as it cannot be stable, it will always be lacking in military strength to avoid being conquered by a Sparta type of state. Plato and Aristotle despised Athenian democracy (probably because Socrates had been condemned to death by an Athenian mob). In Ancient Rome, Cicero and Seneca have criticized Athenian democracy. Machiavelli, in his Discourses on Livy, rejects the Athenian system on the ground that it is prone to violent revolutions. Even the founders of modern America rejected the Athenian system. In The Federalist Papers, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay argue that an Athenian type democracy is not a good model for nations to follow. In The Federalist, No. LIV, Alexander Hamilton or James Madison note: “Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.” In The Federalist, No. LXIII, Alexander Hamilton or James Madison note: “Popular liberty might then have escaped the indelible reproach of decreeing to the same citizens the hemlock on one day and statues on the next.”

Is Total Liberty Viable?

Most libertarians see total liberty as a solution to all social problems. But I think their view of society is naive. While liberty may solve one set of problems, those that are an outcome of the nature of the government, it will lead to the rise to new problems by breeding powerful enemies, both inside the nation and outside it.

From the history of the last 2500 years we learn that the free nations are often rocked by violent revolutions, and they are constantly being attacked by the totalitarian nations and barbarians groups. Liberty is relatively easy to attain, but it’s hard to retain.

Only those who are capable of taking responsibility for their own life appreciate liberty—rest of the population may find the idea of being free problematic and cruel, and they may come out in support of political groups which promise to reduce the level of freedom that the citizens enjoy. Over a period of time, the nation will become divided between those who want liberty and those who despise it—this is a recipe for civil war.

A free nation is a natural enemy of nations that aren’t free—therefore it must invest in a strong military to defend its borders. But to maintain a good military you need to raise money, which can only come through taxes and economic regulations.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Vātsyāyana: On Perception and Verbalization

In his Nyayasutra, Vātsyāyana says that while our cognitive states, including the perceptual state, are inextricably connected with an implicit or overt word, the act of attributing a word to an object is not an essential part of our perceptual act. In other words, perception is different form verbalization—we can perceive an object even if we don’t know the linguistic destination of the object. Vātsyāyana gives the example of a child who has concepts before he acquires the corresponding words.

Bimal Krishna Matilal, in his essay, “Perception and Language,” (Chapter 1; Epistemology, Logic, and Grammar in Indian Philosophical Analysis; Edited by J. Ganeri), offers the following explanation of Vātsyāyana's view:

“In the sense perception of a child (who has not yet learned words to designate things) words do not play any significant role. When a person learns the name of a thing and perceives that thing, he says that it is called such-and-such. But, as far as his awareness of that object is concerned, it does not differ very much from the case of a child's perception. This shows that designation by name is not an essential factor in our perceptual process or cognitive act… Vatsyayana acknowledges the fact that we conventionally designate our apprehension of an object by the name of that object. But he also points out that we can, and sometimes do, use artificial means to indi­cate whether our designatum is the object itself or our apprehension of that object.”

Vātsyāyana's interpretation of perception leaves several points unexplained and leads to many other problems. However, according to Matilal, Vātsyāyana can be seen as the first philosopher to make a distinction between conception and its phonological realization—but it is possible that Vātsyāyana was reporting on the ideas developed by an earlier philosopher.

On the Ignorance of Philosophical Movements

Riding on top of a Titanic to catch a few small fish makes no sense. But that is what the philosophical movements in the last 250 years have been doing. They attract a flock of ignorant and dumb devotees by promising a Titanic-sized philosophical experience, but in the end all they deliver is a cult that sustains itself by rationing a few small fish. There has never been a philosophical movement that has captured the imagination of the intelligent and original thinkers—they are enthused only by the good philosophies and, as a rule, they keep away from movements. It is the ignorant and dumb people who waste their time on movements.

Monday, September 23, 2019

On the New Truths and the Old Truths

There are two ways by which knowledge can be acquired: first, by discovering new truths; second, by rediscovering the old truths.

A nation that focuses on solely the new truths will never have peace and stability—it will be rocked by revolutions and counter-revolutions. On the other hand, a nation that is devoted solely to the old truths will also not fare well—its politics will become disconnected from the present as the politicians and the intellectuals will fall into clutches of the genie from the past, or the baggage of history; such a nation will face the risk of being ripped apart by a civil war over historical issues.

A nation must strive to strike a judicious balance between the new truths and the old truths. There is progress and stability when the new truths and the old truths march hand in hand.

Being Fashionable is Bad for a Philosophy

When a philosophy becomes fashionable, it is a sign that it has peaked—at this point, it dies.

This is because a fashionable philosophy is a magnet for dumb people who are bad at philosophizing but are quite good at creating controversies and conflicts which will drive away the good scholars. This leads to a decline in the school’s intellectual and moral standards, and eventually makes it irrelevant. The schools that survive and thrive are those that are backed by a significant body of work dealing with problems which are complicated enough to keep the good scholars enthused while intimidating the dumb people so that they keep away.

My point is that writing in a complicated, or esoteric style, which is accessible only to the competent scholars, is a necessary condition for the survival of a philosophy.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

On The Religious Status of the Aristotelian Unmoved Mover

I believe that John Herman Randall, Jr. has written his book Aristotle with two purposes in mind: first to explicate Aristotle’s philosophy, and second to destroy Thomas Aquinas’s interpretation of Aristotle (and basically the entire medieval tradition of Aristotelianism). Randall attacks Aquinas on many issues, and is especially unrelenting on the issue of Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover which has been identified by Aquinas as a God of religion, but Randall insists that the religious interpretation is incorrect. Randall notes that motion is eternal—you can trace a “particular” motion to the one that has caused it, but there was never a time when motion began. Like time itself, motion has no beginning. He sees the Unmoved Mover as both the final and the formal cause of motion. He writes, “The Unmoved Mover has nothing whatever to do with any “creator” of motion, any “beginner” of “initiator” of motion—with any “first cause” in any temporal sense of “first.” It's a logical explanation, not a physical cause; a natural law, not a force.”

Randall insists that the Aristotelian Unmoved Mover must not be identified with God of any religion. “It is not even the eternal “sustainer of the world, in a Neoplatonic sense; for to Aristotle, the world does not need to be sustained, it needs rather to be explained and understood.” He says that Aquinas was indulging in double talk when he identified Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover with the God of religion. But in one passage, he accepts that in Aristotle's early writings we detect a religious significance being attached to the Unmoved Mover: “Of course, it appears that the early, Platonistic Aristotle, who presumably set down Book Lambda, did attach religious feeling to the ultimate postulate of his cosmological theory, to his ultimate principle of explanation for the world of processes.” The mature Aristotle, Randall notes, had no interest in religious thinking. “The one thing the mature Aristotle did not understand and apparently had no interest in investigating, was religion. This makes the use of his thought by the great medieval traditions as a religious apologetic seem a colossal irony.”

Is Ludwig Wittgenstein Overrated?

Crispin Sartwell, in his article, "Overrated: Ludwig Wittgenstein," says that Wittgenstein "inspired decades of needless self-destruction among his disciples." Here's an excerpt:

"Wittgenstein’s reputation for genius did not depend on incomprehensibility alone. He was also “tortured”, rude and unreliable. He had an intense gaze. He spent months in cold places like Norway to isolate himself. He temporarily quit philosophy, because he believed that he had solved all its problems in his 1922 Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, and worked as a gardener. He gave away his family fortune. And, of course, he was Austrian, as so many of the best geniuses are.

"He intimidated and disabled very smart people besides Russell. Wittgenstein convinced G.E. Moore that he’d been using the wrong philosophical method, and that he had a much better one. The new method had only one drawback for Moore: “I’ve never been able to understand it clearly enough to use it.”

"Famously, Wittgenstein’s ideas about language and logic had been transformed by the time he returned to a fellowship in Trinity College, Cambridge in 1929. Or perhaps not: the point is controversial, as is all interpretation of his work. Early Wittgenstein was replaced by the Late Wittgenstein, whose views are most fully expressed in his Philosophical Investigations, and who is the Wittgenstein beloved of most Wittgensteinians."

On Philosophers

A good philosophy is an improvement over past philosophy, but a great philosophy is not merely an improvement—it is an evolution to a new paradigm of thought. There have been several good philosophers in the western philosophical tradition, but the great philosophers, in my opinion, are the following: Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, Stoics, Cicero, Aquinas, Hobbes, Descartes, Spinoza, Locke, Hume, Kant, and Hegel.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

On John Herman Randall’s Atheistic Aristotelianism

John Herman Randall, Jr.’s book Aristotle can be seen as an atheistic presentation of Aristotelian philosophy; he rejects the theistic way of looking at Aristotle that was developed during the medieval period by Thomas Aquinas. In the book’s Introduction, Randall declares that he is not a medievalist and that his interpretation of Aristotle carries no trace of the work on Aristotle done during the medieval period. In the book's first chapter, “Aristotelian Approach to Understanding,” he frowns on Aquinas’s religious background:  “But I am not sure of Thomas; about him there can be doubts, for after all he was a Christian saint, even if, like a good follower of Saint Dominic, he was a cherub filled with the knowledge of God, rather than like Saint Francis, a seraph inspired wholly with the love of God.” Randall says that Aristotle cannot survive translation into Latin and since Aquinas could read only Latin, the Aristotelianism of Aquinas cannot be held as a true representation of Aristotelian thought. Randall is impressed by Spinoza’s rejection of all religious institutions and notes that other than Aristotle, Spinoza is the only philosopher in the Western tradition who has tried to understand the world. He views Spinoza as the only important philosopher in the modern times.

History is Littered With Deceptive Words

Words, like appearances, can be deceptive. The words that historians use to describe the intellectual and social aspects of the past often foster a false impression in modern minds. Words like “humanism,” “renaissance,” “feudalism,” “dark ages,” “enlightenment,” “dialectic,” are modern innovations—they reflect today’s sensibilities and not that of the past. The scholars in 15th century didn’t use the term “humanism”—they were not even aware of the concept of “humanism.” They didn’t think of their period as the Renaissance. Between 9th and 15th century, the politicians and intellectuals didn’t see their social system as feudalism or dark ages—they had a different conception of their society. The term “enlightenment” came into being in the middle of the 19th century and it quickly acquired a meaning that is different from the way the French Enlightenment philosophes saw themselves. Aristotle uses the word “dialectic,” not in the modern Kantian sense, but for the science of what happens when, instead of thinking by ourselves, we try to convince others.

Friday, September 20, 2019

Aristotle’s Philosophy Is Not Closed, But Open

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

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

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

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

Reason Does Not Imply Rationality

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

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Randall’s Doubts About Aquinas

The Aristotelian philosopher John Herman Randall, Jr. was not sure if the works of Thomas Aquinas can be seen as a statement of Aristotelian philosophy. In his Foreword to his book Aristotle, Hermann writes: “Though not aware of the wealth and variety of medieval thought, so fascinating in itself, the present writer is not a medievalist. He seriously doubts whether Aristotle can survive translation into the Latin substantives of the scholastic tradition, or whether it is possible to state his fundamental functionalism in the Latin tongue.” (He has Thomas Aquinas in mind.) Randall had a low opinion of all medieval formulations in Aristotelianism. In his Introduction, he writes: “The author has come to Aristotle, not from the problems of medieval philosophy, but from the problems of the philosophers like Samuel Alexander and Whitehead in England, and like Charles S. Pierce, George Herbert Mead, and John Dewey in this country. He has found great stimulus for his own thinking in Aristotle’s careful analysis of language and communication against the broader context of his penetrating examination of processes, natural, living, and distinctively human—the processes which he sets off as those of human art.” In the book’s first chapter, “Aristotelian Approach to Understanding,” Hermann notes that he doubts if Aquinas should be seen as a great philosopher of the Western tradition:  “But I am not sure of Thomas; about him there can be doubts, for after all he was a Christian saint, even if, like a good follower of Saint Dominic, he was a cherub filled with the knowledge of God, rather than like Saint Francis, a seraph inspired wholly with the love of God.”

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

On Judging Aquinas

Anthony Kenny, in 𝘈 𝘕𝘦𝘸 𝘏𝘪𝘴𝘵𝘰𝘳𝘺 𝘰𝘧 𝘞𝘦𝘴𝘵𝘦𝘳𝘯 𝘗𝘩𝘪𝘭𝘰𝘴𝘰𝘱𝘩𝘺, 𝘝𝘰𝘭𝘶𝘮𝘦 𝘐𝘐: 𝘔𝘦𝘥𝘪𝘦𝘷𝘢𝘭 𝘗𝘩𝘪𝘭𝘰𝘴𝘰𝘱𝘩𝘺; p. 76:

"The secular reaction to the canonization of St. Thomas’ philosophy was summed up by Bertrand Russell in his 𝘏𝘪𝘴𝘵𝘰𝘳𝘺 𝘰𝘧 𝘞𝘦𝘴𝘵𝘦𝘳𝘯 𝘗𝘩𝘪𝘭𝘰𝘴𝘰𝘱𝘩𝘺. ‘There was little of the true philosophical spirit in Aquinas: he could not, like Socrates, follow an argument wherever it might lead, since he knew the truth in advance, all declared in the Catholic faith. The finding of arguments for a conclusion given in advance is not philosophy but special pleading.’

It is not in fact a serious charge against a philosopher to say that he is looking for good reasons for what he already believes in. Descartes, sitting beside his fire, wearing his dressing gown, sought reasons for judging that that was what he was doing, and took a long time to find them. Russell himself spent much energy seeking proofs of what he already believed: 𝘗𝘳𝘪𝘯𝘤𝘪𝘱𝘪𝘢 𝘔𝘢𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘮𝘢𝘵𝘪𝘤𝘢 takes hundreds of pages to prove that 1 and 1 make 2.

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

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Nyaya Theory: On the Perception of Attributes

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

On Politics and Culture

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

Monday, September 16, 2019

Leibniz And The Reaction To Modernity

Leibniz was not the Panglossian optimist that Voltaire has portrayed him in his 1759 satire Candide—he was a pessimist. In his mature years, Leibniz was harried by the premonition that Europe was on verge of being ripped apart by anarchy and revolution. He was oppressed by the realization that the world that he has described in his monological writings is not real; it's a mirage. Matthew Stewart, in his book The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza, and the Fate of God in the Modern World, suggests that the reaction to modernity was first instantiated by Leibniz. Here’s an excerpt (page 311):

"Kant’s attempt to prove the existence of a “noumenal” world of pure selves and things in themselves on the basis of a critique of pure reason; the nineteenth-century-spanning efforts to reconcile teleology with mechanism that began with Hegel; Bergson’s claim to have discovered a world of life forms immune to the analytic embrace of modern science; Heidegger’s call for the overthrow of western metaphysics in order to recover the truth about Being; and the whole “postmodern” project of deconstructing the phallogocentric tradition of western thought—all of these diverse trends in modern thought have one thing in common: they are at the bottom forms of the reaction to modernity first instantiated by Leibniz."

In his life of seventy years, Leibniz made an impact on the lives of hundreds of people—he was close to key scientists and politicians, and he was deeply involved in political affairs of his time. But his funeral was a meager affair. Stewart writes (page 306): “Yet, to judge by his funeral, it would seem hat he died, like a windowless monad, having touched no one very deeply at all.”

Existentialism, Alienation, Sartre, and Ayn Rand

For the existentialist philosophers in the twentieth century, alienation was a natural theme—they talk about alienation that results from social pressures, mass culture, and modern technologies, and they often indulged in deifying the alienated individuals as men of virtue, rationality, and knowledge. I think, Ayn Rand’s fiction owes a debt to the existentialist deification of alienated individuals. In 1938, Jean-Paul Sartre published his novel Nausea in which the leading character is a tall, red-haired, alienated young man called Antoine Roquentin. In Rand’s 1943 novel The Fountainhead, the leading character is Howard Roark, a tall, red-haired, alienated young man. I am not sure if Roark’s name and physical characteristics are inspired by Sartre’s Roquentin.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

On Hume’s Objective History, Politics, and Economics

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 13, 2019

On The Nyaya Theory of Perception

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

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

The Utopianism of Libertarianism

The libertarian political vision is based on the utopian notion that all men are rational and moral, and if given total freedom, they will act like good citizens and through their enterprise and hard work they will improve their own life while making society prosper. Alas, this utopian view of man is not true. If all men were capable of behaving rationally and morally, then several libertarian-style nations would have been created 2000 years ago. The reason we don’t have libertarian nations is because all men are not rational and moral—if the strong arm of the law is removed, many will be tempted to violate the rights of others. If a libertarian party comes to power, it will, instead of moving society towards liberty and prosperity, lead to a new wave of lawlessness, because of which people may develop an aversion for free society—they may decide that fascism is a better system of governance. A fascist regime is a likely to gain power after the libertarian experiment fails.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

On Wars and Civilization

Wars are events in which nations test the strength of their politics, culture, and economy. There has not been a single generation (I take a generation as 60 years), in the last 2500 years, that has not experienced one or more wars. The wars often result in massive death and destruction, but the question is: Could modern civilization have evolved if humanity had not been engaged wars? I think the wars have a natural role to play in human history—they destroy the ineffective regimes and free humanity from the decadent political, intellectual, and religious establishments. By favoring the strong, moral, and competent, and destroying the weak, wicked, and incompetent, the wars engineer a sort of Darwinian evolution of society—they ensure the survival of the fittest regimes and intellectual establishments, and cull the weak and foolish; this leads to a continuous improvement in the scope of civilization. By cleansing this planet at regular intervals of dysfunctional regimes and intellectual establishments, the wars create space for better ideas in philosophy, politics, and science to take root. If humanity stopped fighting wars, the march of civilization will come to an end.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

On Medieval Swordplay

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

On The Modern Aristotelians

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

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Modern Philosophy and the Alchemy of Synthesis

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

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

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

Modern Civilization Is Not Based On Modern Philosophy

The best aspects of modern civilization have little or nothing to do with modern philosophy. The achievements in science, politics, art, and industry that have led to the rise of modern civilization have a stronger connection with the philosophy of Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance, than with modern philosophy. There is no evidence to show that the Scientific Revolution, the founding of the USA, and the Industrial Revolution owe any major debt to the work done by the modern philosophers. I am not denying the role played by philosophers like Spinoza, John Locke, Immanuel Kant, David Hume, and Adam Smith—but by the time their works became popularized modern civilization had already become a reality, and, therefore, I see them as thinkers who took note of the rise of modern civilization and tried to explain it.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Strauss on Maimonides’ the Guide For the Perplexed

In his essay, “Literary Character of the Guide for the Perplexed,” (Chapter 2; Persecution and the Art of Writing by Leo Strauss), Leo Strauss notes that Maimonides’ the Guide For the Perplexed should be seen as an esoteric explanation of an esoteric doctrine. Here’s an excerpt:

"It is for this reason that the whole work has to be read with particular care, with a care, that is, which would not be required for the understanding of a scientific book. Since the whole teaching characteristic of the Guide is of a secret nature, we are not surprised to observe Maimonides entreating the reader in the most emphatic manner not to explain any part of it to others, unless the particular doctrine had already been clearly elucidated by famous teachers of the law, i.e., unless it is a popular topic, a topic only occasionally mentioned in the Guide.

"The Guide is devoted to the explanation of an esoteric doctrine. But this explanation is itself of an esoteric character. The Guide is, then, devoted to the esoteric explanation of an esoteric doctrine. Consequently it is a book with seven seals."

According to Strauss, while Maimonides is denying the relevance of political philosophy, he is using an esoteric style of writing to subtly show the importance of political philosophy.

The Trouble With Objectivism

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

Saturday, September 7, 2019

A Note on Postmodernism

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

Modernism was marked by the idea of uniformity—according to the modernists, there is only one right way of looking at the world, the way of reason and science. The idea that religion and tradition are madness, and reason and science represent sanity, were modernism’s metanarratives which the modernist intellectuals and politicians tried to impose in countries where they gained power. Their quest for utopia led to a bloodbath in places like the Soviet Union.

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

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

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

On Karl Marx's Proletariat and the Proles

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

Friday, September 6, 2019

The Dunning–Kruger effect in Philosophical Movements

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 5, 2019

On Aristotle’s Authority

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

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

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

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

On the Problem of Knowledge

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Edward Feser's Revenge

Edward Feser has posted a response to a review of his book Aristotle’s Revenge: The Metaphysical Foundations of Physical and Biological Science by Glenn Ellmers. Feser accuses Ellmers of taking the Strussian method of esoteric reading to absurd new lengths:

"But this whole line of criticism is simply incompetent. For one thing, Ellmers assumes that all teleology is of one kind, so that to speak of the teleology of phosphorus is, he thinks, to attribute to it the same sort of thing that natural law theorists would attribute to human beings. But this completely ignores the distinction between different kinds of teleology that I refer to throughout the book—evidence, once again, that Ellmers didn’t even bother to read it very carefully. The kind of teleology that some Aristotelians would attribute to inorganic substances like phosphorus is of the first and simplest kind, whereas the kind of teleology required to undergird natural rights theory is of the fifth and most complex kind. So, yes, to establish that the first kind exists would not suffice to establish that the fifth kind exists. But who ever claimed otherwise? Not me, and not any Aristotelian I have ever heard of.

"But then, Aristotle’s Revenge is not a book about natural rights, or the American Founders, or ethics or politics, in the first place. Again, it is a book about some highly technical issues in metaphysics and the philosophy of science.  So why on earth would any sane reviewer evaluate it on political grounds?"

Guthrie On Plato’s View of the Universe

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

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

In the following paragraph, Guthrie notes that while Aristotle differed from Plato on several issues, he, to a great extent, was a Platonist thinker:

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

On Intellectual Freedom

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

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Tennyson: Nothing Worth Proving Can Be Proven

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

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

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

On the Limitations of Science

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

Monday, September 2, 2019

Marx's Disdain for Philosophy

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

Private Vices, Public Benefits

The ancient philosophers believed that only virtuous people can build a good society (if Aristotle was asked whether selfish and greedy men can create a good society, he would have said no), but some of the modern philosophers realized that people with vices (greed, selfishness, etc.) are better at building a good society than the people who possess all the classical virtues. The virtue of greed and selfishness was first explained by Bernard Mandeville, who coined the slogan “Private Vices, Public Benefits,” in his The Fable of the Bees, published as a poem in 1705 and as a book in 1714. Mandeville’s ideas have inspired the works of David Hume, Adam Smith, and Edmund Burke.