P.O. Box 4931 Eureka, CA 95502
Address e-mail inquiries and submissions to JRNyquist@aol.com
Be a philosopher; but, amidst all your philosophy, be still a
"A philosopher is compelled to follow the maxim of epic poets and to plunge in medias res," wrote George Santayana. Yes, but if you're a beginner, philosophy can be very difficult, regardless of where you plunge in. No one can simply open up a book on philosophy and expect to know what it means. A certain knowledge of the basic concepts of philosophy is presumed by nearly all philosophers. Where, then, does one begin?
Unfortunately, there is no entirely satisfactory starting point. Perhaps the best place to start is with a history of philosophy. Sadly, there are no first-rate ones for the beginner. The best among a mediocre lot is Bertrand Russell's A History of Western Philosophy. Russell was in many ways well-fitted to write such a book. Russell was probably the best-educated of all philosophers, a man whose knowledge extended to the furthest reaches of mathematics, natural science and history. He is also a very lucid, witty stylist, easy to follow and never obscure or overly-technical. The downside is that he could often be violently sentimental and prejudicial. His judgments were often, as Santayana testified, "unfair and sometimes mad." He is brilliant when discussing Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Dewey and Kant but grossly unfair to Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. He also can't be trusted when discussing Christian philosophers.
For beginners and advanced readers alike, dictionaries of philosophy can be extremely useful to help penetrate the verbal thickets of philosophic jargon. Antony Flew's A Dictionary of Philosophy is one of the very best. Flew writes clearly and avoids technicalities. For more ambitious readers, we recommend The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, the most comprehensive single volume dictionary of philosophy currently available. Another good place to start for the beginner is with moral philosophy, which relates directly to concerns of everyday life and is therefore much easier to follow than some of the more abstruse branches of philosophy. Although Plato dealt with many issues of philosophy, from the theory of knowledge to the theory of the state, morality was always his chief concern, and there is no greater moralist than Plato, unless it be Plato's teacher and mentor, Socrates. The Last Days of Socrates, a collection of dialogues relating to Socrates' trial and subsequent death, is a must read for anyone who aspires to be well-educated. Here we find Socrates confronting his accusers and arguing that the unexamined (i.e., unphilosophical) life is not worth living. Socrates' apologia is not merely a defense of his own life, but a defense of philosophy as well.
The absolutist view of morality advocated by Socrates and Plato dominated philosophy for nearly two millennia. Finally, it was challenged by David Hume in his An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals. In this brief but important work, Hume attacks the notion that morality can be founded on reason or logic. Moral values, Hume argued, are expressions of human sentiment and desire. "The end of all moral speculations is to teach us our duty," Hume wrote. "But is this ever to be expected from inferences and conclusions of the understanding, which of themselves have no hold of the affections or set in motion the active powers of men? But where the truths which they discover are indifferent, and beget no desire or aversion, they can have no influence on conduct and behavior. What is honorable, what is fair, what is becoming, what is noble, what is generous, takes possession of the heart, and animates us to embrace and maintain it."
This psychological theory of morality anticipates modern developments in sociology, economics and the study of human motivation. The Humean approach to morality reaches its acme in Adam Smith's The Theory of Moral Sentiments, which both perfects and goes well beyond Hume's work. Smith introduces into the sentiment theory of ethics, virtues from the stoic philosophy of the ancients and from Christianity. The result is a work of great moral and psychological insight. It is a world apart from the narcissistic hedonism so prevalent in contemporary moral thinking. Consider, as one example, Smith's take on self-esteem: "As to love our neighbor as we love ourselves is the great law of Christianity, so it is the great precept of nature to love ourselves only as we love our neighbor, or as our neighbor is capable of loving us."
The Smith-Hume tradition has been revived in James Q. Wilson's The Moral Sense. What Wilson seeks to add to this tradition is, as he himself puts it, "knowledge of what the biological and social sciences have since learned about what they were the first to call the moral sense." This means, among other things, refuting the view, maintained by left-wing social scientists, that there exists no such thing as an identifiable "human nature." Wilson's book is a really excellent piece of work, perhaps the best book on morality by a contemporary writer. Whether you consider yourself an egoist or an altruist, a hedonist or an ascetic, an absolutist or a relativist, there is a book which ably defends your particular moral point of view.
Henry Hazlitt, in his book The Foundations of Morality, presents an excellent overview of all the major ethical positions. He also explains, in succinct, easy-to-follow language, all the main issues of ethics, including the various difficulties associated with the more common formulations of moral problems. He has chapters on self-sacrifice, altruism and egoism, prudence and benevolence, duty, social cooperation, intuition and common sense, ethical skepticism, justice, free will, socialism, capitalism, and religion. Hazlitt concludes by recommending what he calls "cooperatism," which Hazlitt defines as a form of eudomanistic utilitarianism. "Social cooperation," Hazlitt concludes, "is the essence of morality." The Foundations of Morality may be the most useful book on morality written in the last hundred years.
The best advocates for specific moral positions are usually the great philosophers of the Western Tradition. Arthur Schopenhauer, the eminently readable German philosopher, advocates an ethics of compassion in his On the Basis of Morality. What makes Schopenhauer's book special is not merely his penetrating common sense and clarity of exposition, but the brilliance with which he exposes common misconceptions in moral theorizing, especially those perpetrated by Immanuel Kant. (Kant's own bizarre theory of morality is presented in his Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals -- a work which, however, because of its pedantic, difficult style, should only be attempted by readers accustomed to studying advanced texts.) The Italian sociologist Vilfredo Pareto once remarked that most theories of ethics consist of attempts to harmonize altruism with egoism, concern for others with selfishness. The moralist begins by exhorting everyone to stop being so selfish, then ends by proving that concern for others is in everybody's self-interest!
Pareto's stricture holds true even for those moralists who preach egoism and selfishness, although in this case, the reasoning goes the other way around. You should be selfish, these moralists argue, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't have concern for others. Spinoza, oddly enough, is the first great philosopher to advocate egoism. I say "oddly enough" because Spinoza is also widely regarded as the most noble and lovable of the great philosophers, primarily for his lofty character and his utterly blameless life. "The primary and sole foundation of virtue, or of the proper conduct of life, is to seek our own profit," Spinoza wrote in his great work, The Ethics. But Spinoza's egoism, on closer examination, is perfectly harmless. The best way to seek our own profit, Spinoza tell us, is through what he called the "intellectual love of God," which he described as a "constant and eternal love towards God, or in God's love towards men."
Bernard Mandeville, in his wonderfully scandalous book The Fable of the Bees, argues that egoism, although vicious, is ultimately good for society, because private vices lead to public benefits. A more recent philosopher, Ayn Rand, tried to ruffle the fur of conventional moralists by insisting that selfishness alone is good and altruism evil (see The Virtue of Selfishness). Her followers, in order to render Rand's iconoclastic position more palatable to common decency, have begun to stress that it is in everyone's self-interest to be nice to one another (see David Kelley's Unrugged Individualism: The Selfish Basis of Benevolence).
Books on social philosophy can offer one of the more fascinating entrées into the world of philosophical discourse; and there are few books more fascinating than Karl Popper's controversial two volume work The Open Society and Its Enemies (Volume 1: The Spell of Plato; Volume 2: The High Tide of Prophecy: Hegel, Marx, and the Aftermath), a book of remarkable learning and acute analysis covering a wide range of topics from theory of knowledge to politics, sociology, and history. The book is perhaps most famous for its critiques of two major philosophers, Plato and Hegel, whom Popper criticizes for being apologists for tyranny. But Popper also provides an excellent (and very original) overview of Greek philosophy, an analysis of fascism, a history of the fall and rise of Athens, a formal refutation of philosophical idealism, a scientific critique of the doctrines of Karl Marx, and an eloquent defense of democracy and the scientific method. Popper was probably the most accessible philosopher ever to write in English. His prose is always clear, forceful, and free of obnoxious philosophical jargon.
Another notable classic of social philosophy is Richard M. Weaver's Ideas Have Consequences. Whereas Popper discusses the threats faced by Western Civilization from the viewpoint of science of democracy, Weaver takes a very different view. Weaver regards science, especially scientific methodology, as subversive to the moral foundations of Western Civilization. "Like Macbeth, Western man made an evil decision, which has become the efficient and final cause of other evil decisions," argues Weaver. "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."
This so-called "attack upon universals" is what brought about the rise of modern science, which emphasizes particular facts and criticism at the expense of eternal moral and religious truth. Weaver traces the effects of this subversive criticism through culture, art, journalism, politics, and psychology. Especially insightful is his chapter on "the spoiled-child psychology," which Weaver identified as a major source of dysfunction in modern society. "[The spoiled child] wants things, but he regards payment as an imposition or as an expression of malice by those who withhold it," explained Weaver. "His solution, as we shall see, is to abuse those who do not gratify him." Here, in a nutshell, is the psychology of the radical left and the sixties student rebellion. Weaver's book may be the twentieth century's most important contribution to conservative social philosophy.
Those who cannot accept Weaver's attack on science might be interested in Edward O. Wilson's excellent manifesto on behalf of the scientific creed, Consilience: the Unity of Knowledge. Wilson is the twentieth century's most eloquent advocate for the scientific view. In Consilience, he argues for a grand unification of all branches of learning under one great system of knowledge. While this project is probably unfeasible and far too reductionist to take seriously, Wilson's defense of it leads him to many insights which help clarify issues relating to philosophy, the social sciences, and the humanities. His chapter on human nature (pp. 164-180), which provides an excellent sketch of what science has to say on this crucial subject, is itself worth the price of the book. While it is impossible to agree with everything in Consilience, Wilson's book is must reading for anyone interested in science and philosophy.
Modern philosophy, ever since Bacon, has been a crucible of iconoclasm. Nietzsche is probably the greatest of all philosophical iconoclasts. But there have been several others of note, and one of the more stimulating idol-smashers of recent philosophical history was the Australian philosopher David Stove (1927-1994). Roger Kimball, managing editor of The New Criterion, has assembled twelve of Stove's most incendiary essays in a collection entitled Against the Idols of the Age. Stove's views, as Kimball in his introduction to the book, "flew in the face of just about every intellectual cliché going, from relativism and irrationalism to doctrinaire Darwinism to the whole smorgasbord of established liberal orthodoxy about (e.g.) art, race, sex, nationalism, J. S. Mill, tobacco, education and foreign policy." Like most philosophical iconoclasts, Stove could get punch happy at times and end up smashing not merely the worthless idols of au courant intellectualism, but a few genuinely valuable relics as well. He could be, as he himself once admitted, a "purely negative thinker." He despised nearly every philosopher except David Hume, and Stove attacks even Hume! But Stove's negative thinking is presented with so much wit and scalding panache that it is difficult to take offense. Stove's essays on racism, the intelligence of women, Robert Nozick, and Darwinism are classics in iconoclastic épater l'intellectuel. In the art of the outrageous, there has been no one to rival Stove this side of H. L. Mencken.
Philosophy - Advanced. Some books in philosophy are important or great not so much for what they advocate as for the problems they introduce and the insights they reveal. Friedrich Nietzsche specialized in such books, the most important of which is Beyond Good and Evil. Nietzsche published the work at his own expense in 1886, but after a year he had sold only 114 copies. The work was intended as a kind of summary of Nietzsche's mature views. Although immensely controversial in the views it espouses, it is actually more modest in tone, less willfully iconoclastic, than Nietzsche's later works. His remarks on morality and religion, though hardly orthodox, are somewhat more restrained than in later books. Beyond Good and Evil is a profound meditation on what it means to take the idea of truth seriously. Nietzsche would later regard it as "in all essentials a critique of modernity, not excluding the modern sciences, modern arts, and even modern politics." The first section of the book, entitled "The Prejudice of the Philosophers," is probably the most brilliant. Nietzsche lays bare the follies of Epicurean philosophy, Stoicism, Plato, Schopenhauer, Spinoza and especially Kant in 23 brief sections. Nietzsche's incendiary wit, his blistering irony, his mastery of the philosophical bon mot make Beyond Good and Evil one of the most absorbing books in philosophy. In a later work, Nietzsche would write: "I except a few skeptics -- the decent type in the history of philosophy: the rest are simply unaware of the most basic requirements of intellectual honesty."
If Nietzsche is right, then David Hume, philosophy's greatest skeptic, must be regarded as the most honest of the great philosophers. In the nineteenth century, Hume was regarded as merely a negative thinker. All his great philosophical contributions seem to be subversive. He attacked or questioned the validity of causality, induction, free will, the senses, and even the existence of the material world and the self. Nothing escaped the corrosive glare of his all embracing skepticism. But there was a method in Hume's madness. He was a skeptic north-north west; when the wind was southerly, Hume was a man of great judgment and common sense -- "one of the most rational minds ever," as Popper described him. Hume summarized his basic views on the subject of epistemology in his brilliantly written An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Hume's book can be regarded as a kind of declaration of independence for the human intellect. Philosophers before Hume believed that matters of fact could be discovered simply by reasoning about them. But Hume will have none of it. "If we reason a priori, anything may appear able to produce anything," Hume pointed out. "The falling of a pebble may, for aught we know, extinguish the sun; or the wish of a man control the planets in their orbits. It is only experience, which teaches us the nature and bounds of cause and effect, and enables us to infer the existence of one object from that of another. Such is the foundation of moral reasoning, which forms the greater part of human knowledge, and is the source of all human action and behavior."
Hume's declaration of independence from the dogmatic scholasticism of the ancients and medievals marks the beginning of the intellectual tradition of the modern social sciences. It was only when scholars began to look outward that they were able to develop a scientific understanding of politics, economics, and sociology. The twentieth century philosopher Karl Popper (1900-1994) is an epistemological revolutionary in the tradition of Hume. He denied the validity of induction and believed that the essence of science and rationality was criticism. His seemingly paradoxical views are no where better defended than in Realism and the Aim of Science. The distinguishing mark of science, Popper contended, is not the verifiability of theories, as positivism had claimed, but their falsifiability. Irrefutability, far from being a virtue in a theory, is regarded by Popper as a vice. Nor does the probability of a theory being true impress our intrepid philosopher. All theories, Popper maintained, are infinitely improbable, regardless of how much evidence has been discovered in their favor. These views, which, at first glance, seem contrary to the most elemental common sense, are brilliantly defended in Realism and the Aim of Science. Popper demonstrates why these views are necessary for a rational take on science, arguing that the opposite view of knowledge (the view that regards verifiability as central to scientific inquiry) tends to lead to a kind of self-affirming dogmatism. Hence Popper's belief that, instead of trying to prove our theories, we should try to falsify them instead.
But if it is impossible for us to prove our theories about the external world, how can we know anything? Popper answers this objection by insisting that "critical reasoning still has a most important function with respect to the evaluation of theories: we can criticize and discriminate among our theories as a result of our critical discussion. Although in such discussion we cannot as a rule distinguish (with certainty, or near certainty) between a true theory and a false theory, we can sometimes distinguish between a false theory and one which may be true. And we can often say of a particular theory that, in the light of the present state of critical discussion, it appears to be much better than any other theory submitted; better, that is, from the point of view of our interest in truth; or better in the sense of getting nearer to the truth."
Popper's theory of knowledge is the best prophylactic against dogmatism yet conceived. Critical thinking has no greater champion among philosophers. Even the best virtues, when taken to excess, can lead to trouble. Critical thinking, when taken to extremes, may turn destructive and undermine legitimate knowledge, whether in morals or religion. As a balance to the extreme criticism of Hume and Popper, few books can be more highly recommended than Michael Polanyi's Personal Knowledge. Polanyi (1891-1976) was a distinguished physical chemist and philosopher. In Personal Knowledge, he makes an important contribution to our understanding of the tacit component of human knowledge. Knowledge cannot be entirely objective and impersonal, Polanyi contends, because it depends on the personal skill of the knower, which defies objective explication. Personal Knowledge is not an easy book to read or understand. Polanyi is a very subtle and profound thinker. He offers a view of the human mind which captures the full complexity of the subject. But Polanyi offers so many important insights into the nature of human knowledge that understanding him is well worth the effort. He discusses not only scientific knowledge, but moral and religious knowledge. His unique defense of the Christian faith constitutes one of the most intriguing and original contributions to religious philosophy on record. His dissection of the "moral inversion" of Marxism is an important contribution to moral and political philosophy. If there were any justice in the world of philosophy, Polanyi's Personal Knowledge would be regarded as one of the most important books of epistemology ever written, on par with Kant's Critique of Pure Reason and Popper's Logic of Scientific Discovery.
Since the seventeenth century, the interest of philosophers in epistemology has given philosophy an increasingly technical orientation. Philosophers have become more and more preoccupied with obscure problems relating to the nature of language and concepts, and less concerned with developing a wisdom to guide them through the problems of life. One philosopher who made a point of defying this trend is the Spanish born American philosopher, George Santayana, who believed that technical problems are best solved by simply not being raised. Philosophy should not be a maze in which we find ourselves wandering, unable to find the way out; instead, philosophy should be a source of wisdom and consolation, a sanctuary against foolishness and despair, a discipline in the art good judgment. Santayana specialized in wisdom and good judgment. They were the two special virtues which distinguished him from the rest of his philosophical brethren. In his Life of Reason, Santayana set out "to discover what wisdom is possible to an animal whose mind, from the beginning to end, is poetical." According to Santayana, "I found that this could not lie in discarding poetry in favor of a science supposed to be clairvoyant and literally true." By emphasizing the poetical component in science, Santayana is able to construct a philosophy where morality, religion, reason, art and science can all co-exist, each sovereign in its proper sphere. The result is a sort of poetical naturalism which seeks to adjust the harmony or spirituality of man's inner life with truth and fate. The Life of Reason is a masterpiece of wisdom presented in a rich, poetical, brilliantly aphoristic style.
Article by Greg Nyquist