Philosophy: What the heck is it?
My brother recently asked me…is a Zebra white with black stripes or black with white stripes? Here is my reply:
There are two types of Zebras. A white one has black stripes and a black one has white stripes. As with most things in this world. …. Lau Kean Lee, 29-March-2014
Have you at some point in your life waxed lyrical over a seemingly profound statement or article? And did that P word, “Philosophy”, come to mind? In my case, my first brush with a profound idea must have been the time (when I was 12 or 13 years old) I saw a picture of a “thinking man”; a bronze sculpture by Auguste Rodin of a naked man sitting on a rock with his chin resting on a hand, deep in thought. The caption on that photo read, “I think therefore I am”, by René Descartes. “Wow, that sounds pretty deep, but what did it really mean?”
“I think therefore I am” – René Descartes
I thought to myself. And that started a life-long journey to understand and make sense of this thing called Philosophy.
Most people, and I am one of those, would just go through life without really digging deeper into Philosophy and just take whatever small doses that may come along in our day-to-day living. Sometimes it comes in the guise of comedy, as when Charles M. Schulz made his Linus character in Peanuts say, “I love Mankind; it’s people I can’t stand!”. Or sometimes it gets splashed in my face as when watching my favourite SciFi, Star Trek and Spock spoke the memorable line, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”. And in later life, one finds that spirituality is steeped in profound ideas, as this website’s by-line ascribed to the Buddha, “Thousands of candles can be lit from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared.”
I am now making an effort to actually understand what exactly is Philosophy. In my library, I found three books to educate myself on this nebulous subject.
1. The Story Of Philosophy – Bryan Magee
Prof Bryan Magee from the Oxford University was also a Fellow of the Yale University. He wrote this surprisingly readable book on a difficult subject.
In just four pages, the prelude “An Introduction To Philosophy” pages 6-9, the meaning of Philosophy shone with clarity. In any field of human activity, we can question the fundamentals normally taken for granted. Prof Magee introduced the concept gently by giving simple examples in diversed subjects or disciplines, like when one asks what is Freedom and what is Equality and are they in conflict, as in politics (Political Philosophy); or when one asks what is Justice in law and is that the same as social justice (Philosophy of Law); or when one asks is there perfect health, and if not what is the meaning of cure (Philosophy of Medicine).
“What is the nature of whatever it is that exists?” “How, if at all, can we know?”
While this demonstrates that there can be a philosophical discourse in any subject, the greatest philosophers go deeper than that and questioned the most fundamental aspects of our existence and our experience. The two fundamental questions at the heart of Philosophy are: “What is the nature of whatever it is that exists?” (ontology) and “How, if at all, can we know?” (epistemology). Prof Magee then rounds off his introduction to philosophy by stressing that Philosophy, Science and Art are not at odds with one another. All three confront the mystery posed by the two fundamental questions to try to achieve a deeper understanding. All three rely on inspiration and criticism and make their findings public to be shared. And yet because they follow different methods and different paths, they appeal to different temperaments. (Note: this last word, “temperament” makes for interesting reading by itself… ref: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_temperaments). The rest of the book then delves into the different great philosophers and their respective era.
2. The Dream of Reason – Anthony Gottlieb
Anthony Gottlieb was from Cambridge University but he was a professional journalist having served as Science Editor and Executive Editor of The Economist even though he was also a Visiting Fellow at Harvard University. So it is interesting to read Anthony’s take on Philosophy from a journalist’s approach, viz. “…to rely only on primary sources, whenever they still exist, to question conventional wisdom, and … to explain it as clearly as possible.”
And so you find in “The Dream of Reason” (A History of Philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance), a readable journalistic account of philosophers’ stubborn or obstinate effort to think clearly.
I found his Part 3, Chapter 13, “Three Roads to Tranquillity: Epicureans, Stoics and Sceptics” particularly interesting. Alexander the Great’s death in 323 BC marks the start of a new era, the “Hellenistic age”. It means that Alexander’s former domain became Greek-ish rather than purely Greek. It brought a new era in philosophy as well, with three main schools of thought; the Epicureans, the Stoics and the Sceptics. If an Epicurean said one thing, a Stoic would say the opposite and a Sceptic would refuse to commit either way. How interesting!
In the final Chapter 14, we learn that in AD 529, a Christian emperor, Justinian, put an end to the philosophical squabbles by closing down the philosophical schools in Athens in favour of his own imperial university in Constantinople and wanted to ban non-Christian philosophy throughout the Roman Empire. And so philosophy languished in the “haven of piety” for the next thousand years.
“I was struck by the large number of falsehoods I had accepted as true in my childhood.” – René Descartes
Enter the French philosopher and mathematician, René Descartes (1596-1650), who developed the rigorous mechanistic model where he “consider(s) false any belief that falls prey to even the slightest doubt”. This is considered “Rationalism” and Descartes earned the title, “Father of Modern Philosophy”.
Gottlieb intended to write a second volume to continue the tale from Descartes to the present day, but as far as I know, it has not been published until today. Hopefully, it will be witten and published in due course.
3. Sophie’s World – Jostein Gaarder
Jostein Gaarder was a Norwegian high-school teacher of Philosophy. He used his teaching capability to write a popular novel which effectively covers the 3,000 years history of philosophy from Socrates to Sartre. Very much like how modern-day management books are written as business fables, Gaarder first published his novel in his native Norwegian in 1991, revolving around a 14-year old girl, Sophie, who progressively learnt Philosophy through a prolonged correspondence with a fifty-year-old philosopher, Alberto Knox. The novel begins with Sophie receiving a mysterious letter with a question, “Who are you?” and then a second letter with an equally intriguing question, “Where does the world come from?” The third mail came in the form of a postcard addressed to another girl, Hilde, c/o Sophie.
“If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties.” – Francis Bacon
What followed were a series of philosophical lessons taught to Sophie by Alberto. How Hilde fit into this story, if told here, would be a spoiler. Suffice to say that in the course of the novel, Sophie and Hilde (and thus we the readers) are taken on a grand tour of the history of Western Philosophy.
Where Gottlieb left off, Gaarder continued from Descartes, Spinoza, Locke and others to The Enlightenment (the Renaissance) and Romanticism until the Present.
The novel is reputed to have been translated into fifty-three languages, with over thirty million copies in print. In 1997, Jostein Gaarder and his wife, Siri Dannevig, established the Sophie Prize (named after the book), a USD100,000 annual international award for environment and development. Unfortunately, Gaarder found himself embroiled in allegations of anti-Semitism after he wrote an article in 2006 criticising and condemning certain aspects of Israeli politics and Judaism.
I was intrigued by Francis Bacon (1561-1626), and read up on him on Wikipedia.
“Bacon has been called the creator of empiricism. His works established and popularised inductive methodologies for scientific inquiry, often called the Baconian method, or simply the scientific method. His demand for a planned procedure of investigating all things natural marked a new turn in the rhetorical and theoretical framework for science, much of which still surrounds conceptions of proper methodology today.”
As it turns out, while Descartes and Rationalism were widely populart in Europe, Francis Bacon’s Empiricism in England can be seen as a counter-point to Rationalism.
Leibniz, a rationalist, said “There are two kinds of truths: truths of reasoning and truths of fact.” While John Locke, an empiricist, said “No man’s knowledge here can go beyond his experience”. It must be noted that Prof Magee wrote that Locke is considered the chief founding father of empiricism.
Rationalism vs. Empiricism