Tag Archives: Plato

Where to start reading philosophy?

The Conversation

Patrick Stokes, Deakin University; Duncan Ivison, University of Sydney; Laura D’Olimpio, University of Notre Dame Australia, and Matthew Sharpe, Deakin University

Philosophy can seem a daunting subject in which to dabble. But there are many wonderful books on philosophy that tackle big ideas without requiring a PhD to digest.

Here are some top picks for summer reading material from philosophers across Australia.


Shame and Necessity

by Bernard Williams

After a year of Brexit, the return of Pauline Hanson and Donald Trump, many of us are wondering about the state of our public culture. Are we undergoing some kind of seismic cultural and moral shift in the way we live?

However, the ancient Greeks would have been familiar with these phenomena for all kinds of reasons. They understood how anger, resentment and revenge shape politics. And they had some pretty interesting ways of dealing with outbreaks of populist rage and constitutional crises. Our language is still littered with them: think “ostracism”, “dictatorship” and “oligarchy” (let alone “democracy”).

So, this year, amongst all the noise, I found myself driven back to the Greeks, and especially to some of the ideas that pre-date the great philosophical titans of Plato and Aristotle.

Bernard Williams was one of our most brilliant philosophers, and Shame and Necessity is one of his best books. Stunningly – just given how good this book is, and how deep it goes into the classical mind – he didn’t consider himself a classicist, but rather a philosopher who happened to have benefited from a very good classical education. As a result, he is a delightful guide across the often rugged philosophical, historical and interpretive terrain of pre-Socratic thought.

It might seem daunting at first, but the book is an elegant, searching essay on the ways in which we are now, in so many ways, in a situation more like the ancient Greeks then we realise. But it’s not a plea for a return to some golden age. Far from it. Instead, it challenges some of our most fundamental conceptions of self, responsibility, freedom and community, inviting us to think them afresh.

The heroes of his tale are, interestingly enough, not the philosophers, but the tragedians and poets, who remind us of the complexity, contingency and fragility of our ideas of the good. Although almost 10 years old, it’s a book that gets more interesting the more often you return to it. It’s never been more relevant, or more enjoyable, than now.

Duncan Ivison, University of Sydney


The Philosophy Book

by Will Buckingham

Remember when the Guinness Book of World Records was the best gift ever for the little (or grown-up) thinker in your family? Well, if you’ve been there, done that for a few Christmases in a row and are in need of an exciting, innovative gift idea, try DK’s big yellow book of intellectual fun: The Philosophy Book.

With contributions from a bunch of UK academics, this A4 sized tome is decorated with fun illustrations and great quotes from the world’s best philosophical thinkers.

The structure of the book is historical, with between one to four pages allocated to the “big ideas” from ancient times all the way up to contemporary thought. It is accompanied by a neat glossary and directory: a who’s who of thought-makers.

The focus is on the traditional Western approach to philosophy, although some Eastern thinkers are included. Each historical section – Ancient (700-250 BCE); Medieval (250-1500); The Renaissance (1500-1750); Revolution (1750-1900); Modern (1900-1950); and Contemporary (1950-present) – is divided into classical philosophical ideas from that time period.

There are 107(!) in total, including Socrates’ “The life which is unexamined is not worth living”, Rene Descartes’ “I think therefore I am”, Thomas Hobbes’ “Man is a Machine”, Ludwig Wittgenstein’s “The limits of my language are the limits of my world”, and even Slavoj Žižek’s analysis of Marx, just to name a few.

The reader can trace the history and development of philosophical thought throughout the ages, in the context of what else was occurring at that time in the world.

This gift would be suitable for ages 12+ as it is written in ordinary, accessible language. But, be warned… after reading this, your Boxing Day is likely to be filled with questions such as, “what is truth?”, “how can we think like a mountain?”, “can knowledge be bought and sold?”, and “how did the universe begin?”

Laura D’Olimpio, The University of Notre Dame Australia


50 Philosophy ideas you really need to know

by Ben Dupré

Obviously there are a lot more than 50 Philosophical Ideas we really need to know, as this book is a part of a great series of small hardback books that cover most of the great thoughts ever thunk.

Dupré has a lot of fun in these 200 pages, with 50 short essays written on a variety of classical philosophical ideas, including the important thought experiments such as brain in a vat, Plato’s cave, the ship of Theseus, the prisoner’s dilemma and many more.

The book’s blurb asks:

Have you ever lain awake at night fretting over how we can be sure of the reality of the external world? Perhaps we are in fact disembodied brains, floating in vats at the whim of some deranged puppet-master?

It is to philosophy that we turn, if not for definite answers to such mysteries, but certainly for multiple responses to these puzzles. The 50 essays in this volume cover things like the problems of knowledge, the philosophy of mind, ethics and animal rights, logic and meaning, science, aesthetics, religion, politics and justice.

There is a nifty timeline running along the footer and inspired quotes by which the reader can link the main ideas, their original thinkers, and the time at which they were writing.

This book would make a great gift for teachers, students and anyone interested in some of the big eternal questions. I would recommend it for ages 12+ given its clear writing style that illuminates and contextualises some of the most important ideas in philosophy.

Laura D’Olimpio, The University of Notre Dame Australia


On Bullshit

by Harry G Frankfurt

When someone asks you “where do I start with philosophy?”, it’s tempting to point them to a book that gives an overview of the history, key figures and problems of the discipline.

But what about someone who doesn’t even want to go that far? Not everyone’s prepared to slog their way through Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy like my optometrist once did; every time I’d go in for new glasses he’d give me an update on where he was up to. And even if they’re prepared to put in the effort, some readers might come away from such a book not really seeing the value in philosophy beyond its historical interest. It’s easy to get lost in a fog of Greek names and -isms until you can’t see the forest for the trees.

So there’s one book I recommend to everyone even if they have no interest in philosophy whatsoever: Harry Frankfurt’s classic 1986 essay “On Bullshit”, published as a book in 2005. It’s only a few pages long so you can knock it over in a couple of train trips, and it’s a great example of philosophy in action.

Frankfurt starts with the arresting claim that:

One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted.

In the best tradition of the discipline, Frankfurt takes something we don’t even typically notice and brings it into the light so we can see just how pervasive, strange and important it is.

Bullshit, Frankfurt argues, is not simply lying. It’s worse than that. In order to lie, you first have to know the truth (or think you do), and you have to care about the truth enough to cover it up. To that extent at least the liar still maintains a relationship to the truth.

The bullshitter, by contrast, doesn’t care about the truth at all. They just want you to believe what they say. What they tell you could even be true, for all they care, it doesn’t matter, so long as you buy it.

The lying/bullshit distinction is a remarkably useful analytic tool. Be warned, though: once you have it, you’ll be seeing it everywhere.

Patrick Stokes, Deakin University


The Guardians in Action: Plato the Teacher

by William H F Altman

Plato’s dialogues were conceived by their author as a consummate, step-by-step training in philosophy, starting with the most basic beginners. Such is the orienting claim of The Guardians in Action, the second of a projected three volumes in American scholar William Altman’s continuing contemporary exploration of Plato as a teacher.

Altman, for many years a high school teacher trained in the classical languages and philosophy, has devoted his retirement from the classroom to an extraordinary attempt to reread or reteach the Platonic dialogues as a sequential pedagogical program.

The program begins with Socrates walking into the Hades-like den of sophists in the Protagoras. In the middle, the heart and high point of the 36 texts, stands the Republic, the subject of Plato the Teacher: The Crisis of the Republic of 2012 (Volume 1).

Here, the education of the philosopher-“guardians” who will rule in the best city, having seen the true Idea of the Good, is timelessly laid out. The true philosopher, as Altman’s Plato conceived him, must “go back down” into the city to educate his fellows, even though he has seen the Transcendent End of his inquiries.

The Republic itself begins emblematically, with Socrates “going back down” to the Piraeus to talk with his friends. As Altman sees things, the entire Platonic oeuvre ends with Socrates going back down into Athens, staying there to die in a cavelike prison for the sake of philosophy in the Phaedo.

Who then did Plato want for his guardians, on Altman’s reading? We his readers –like the first generation of students in the Academy whom Altman pictures being taught by Plato through the syllabus of the dialogues.

This is an extraordinarily learned book, maybe not for the complete beginner. You need to have spent a lifetime with a thinker to write books like this (with the finale, The Guardians on Trial set to come).

But it is everywhere lightened by Altman’s style, and the warm affection for Plato and for the business of teaching that radiates from every page. So it is most certainly a book for anyone who loves or has ever wondered about Plato, still the original and arguably the best introduction to philosophy.

Matt Sharpe, Deakin


Philosophy as a Way of Life

by Pierre Hadot

This book is a collection of essays by the late French philosopher and philologist Pierre Hadot. After 1970, via his studies of classical literature, Hadot became convinced that the ancients conceived of philosophy very differently than we do today.

It was, for them, primarily about educating and forming students, as well as framing arguments and writing books. Its goal was not knowledge alone but wisdom, a knowledge about how to live that translated into transformed ways of thinking, feeling, and acting, mediated by what Hadot calls “spiritual exercises” like the premeditation of evils and death, and the contemplation of natural beauty.

The ideal was the sage, someone whose way of living was characterised by inner freedom, tranquillity, moral conscience and a constant sense of his own small place in the larger, ordered world.

Hadot spent much of the last decades of his life exploring this idea in studies of ancient philosophy, particularly that of the Hellenistic and Roman periods. He wrote long books in this light on Marcus Aurelius (The Inner Citadel) and the German poet Goethe, both of whom feature prominently in the essays in Philosophy as a Way of Life, Hadot’s most popular introductory book. Hadot’s writing is simple and graceful, and has been beautifully preserved in Michael Chase’s translations for English readers.

I’ll let Hadot himself describe his intentions, in a passage which gives a sense of the spirit that breathes through the larger original:

Vauvenargues said, “A truly new and truly original book would be one which made people love old truths.” It is my hope that I have been “truly new and truly original” in this sense, since my goal has indeed been to make people love a few old truths […] there are some truths whose meaning will never be exhausted by the generations of man. It is not that they are difficult; on the contrary, they are often extremely simple. Often, they even appear to be banal. Yet for their meaning to be understood, these truths must be lived, and constantly re-experienced. Each generation must take up, from scratch, the task of learning to read and to re-read these “old truths”.

Matt Sharpe, Deakin

The ConversationPatrick Stokes, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy, Deakin University; Duncan Ivison, Professor of Political Philosophy, Deputy Vice Chancellor (Research), University of Sydney; Laura D’Olimpio, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Notre Dame Australia, and Matthew Sharpe, Associate Professor in Philosophy, Deakin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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The Stoic theory of universals, as compared to Platonic and Aristotelian theories

By Tim Harding

The philosophical problem of universals has endured since ancient times, and can have metaphysical or epistemic connotations, depending upon the philosopher in question.  I intend to show in this essay that both Plato’s and the Stoics’ theories of universals were not only derived from, but were ‘in the grip’ of their epistemological and metaphysical philosophies respectively; and were thus vulnerable to methodological criticism.  I propose to first outline the three alternative theories of Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics; and then to suggest that Aristotle’s theory, whilst developed as a criticism of Plato’s theory, stands more robustly on its own merits.

According to the Oxford Companion to Philosophy, particulars are instances of universals, as a particular apple is an instance of the universal known as ‘apple’.  (An implication of a particular is that it can only be in one place at any one time, which presents a kind of paradox that will be discussed later in this essay).   Even the definition of the ‘problem of universals’ is somewhat disputed by philosophers, but the problem generally is about whether universals exist, and if so what is their nature and relationship to particulars (Honderich 1995: 646, 887).

Philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle who hold that universals exist are known as ‘realists’, although they have differences about the ontological relationships between universals and particulars, as discussed in this essay.  Those who deny the existence of universals are known as ‘nominalists’.  According to Long and Sedley (1987:181), the Stoics were a type of nominalist known as ‘conceptualists’, as I shall discuss later.

Plato’s theory of universals (although he does not actually use this term) stems from his theory of knowledge.  Indeed, it is difficult to separate Plato’s ontology from his epistemology (Copleston 1962: 142).  In his Socratic dialogue Timaeus, Plato draws a distinction between permanent knowledge gained by reason and temporary opinion gained from the senses.

That which is apprehended by intelligence and reason is always in the same state; but that which is conceived by opinion with the help of sensation and without reason, is always in a process of becoming and perishing and never really is (Plato Timaeus 28a).

According to Copleston (1962: 143-146), this argument is part of Plato’s challenge to Protagoras’ theory that knowledge is sense-perception.  Plato argues that sense-perception on its own is not knowledge.  Truth is derived from the mind’s reflection and judgement, rather than from bare sensations.  To give an example of what Plato means, we may have a bare sensation of two white surfaces, but in order to judge the similarity of the two sensations, the mind’s activity is required.

Plato argues that true knowledge must be infallible, unchanging and of what is real, rather than merely of what is perceived.  He thinks that the individual objects of sense-perception, or particulars, cannot meet the criteria for knowledge because they are always in a state of flux and indefinite in number (Copleston 1962: 149).  So what knowledge does meet Plato’s criteria?  The answer to this question leads us to the category of universals.  Copleston gives the example of the judgement ‘The Athenian Constitution is good’.  The Constitution itself is open to change, for better or worse, but what is stable in this judgement is the universal quality of goodness.  Hence, within Plato’s epistemological framework, true knowledge is knowledge of the universal rather than the particular (Copleston 1962: 150).

We now proceed from Plato’s epistemology to his ontology of universals and particulars.  In terms of his third criterion of true knowledge being what is real rather than perceived, the essence of Plato’s Forms is that each true universal concept corresponds to an objective reality (Copleston 1962: 151).  The universal is what is real, and particulars are copies or instances of the Form.  For example, particulars such as beautiful things are instances of the universal or Form of Beauty.

…nothing makes a thing beautiful but the presence and participation of beauty in whatever way or manner obtained; for as to the manner I am uncertain, but I stoutly contend that by beauty all beautiful things become beautiful (Plato Phaedo, 653).

Baltzly (2106: F5.2-6) puts the general structure of Plato’s argument this way:

What we understand when we understand what justice, beauty, or generally F-ness are, doesn’t ever change.

But the sensible F particulars that exhibit these features are always changing.

So there must be a non-sensible universal – the Form of F-ness – that we understand when we achieve episteme (true knowledge).

Plato’s explanation for where this knowledge of Forms comes from, if not from sense-perceptions, is our existence as unembodied souls prior to this life (Baltzly 2106: F5.2-6).  To me, this explanation sounds like a ‘retrofit’ to solve a consequential problem with Plato’s theory and is a methodological weakness of his account.

Turning now to Aristotle’s theory, whilst he shared Plato’s realism about the existence of universals, he had some fundamental differences about their ontological relationship to particulars.  In terms of Baltzly’s abovementioned description of Plato’s general argument, Plato thought that the universal, F-ness, could exist even if there were no F particulars.  In direct contrast, Aristotle held that there cannot be a universal, F-ness, unless there are some particulars that are F.  For example, Aristotle thought that the existence of the universal ‘humanity’ depends on there being actual instances of particular human beings (Baltzly 2106: F5.2-8).

As for the reality of universals, Aristotle agreed with Plato that the universal is the object of science.  For instance, the scientist is not concerned with discovering knowledge about particular pieces of gold, but with the essence or properties of gold as a universal.  It follows that if the universal is not real, if it has no objective reality, there is no scientific knowledge.  By Modus Tollens, there is scientific knowledge, and if scientific knowledge is knowledge of reality; then to be consistent, the universal must also be real (Copleston 1962: 301-302).  (Whilst it is outside the scope of this essay to discuss whether scientific knowledge describes reality, to deny that there is any scientific knowledge would have major implications for epistemic coherence).

This is not to say that universals have ‘substance’, meaning that they consist of matter and form.  Aristotle maintains that only particulars have substance, and that universals exist as properties of particulars (Russell 1961: 176).  Russell quotes Aristotle as saying:

It seems impossible that any universal term should be the name of a substance. For…the substance of each thing is that which is peculiar to it, which does not belong to anything else; but the universal is common, since that is called universal which is such as to belong to more than one thing.

In other words, Aristotle thinks that a universal cannot exist by itself, but only in particular things.  Russell attempts to illustrate Aristotle’s position using a football analogy.  The game of football (a universal) cannot exist without football players (particulars); but the football players would still exist even if they never actually played football (Russell 1961: 176).

In almost complete contrast to both Plato and Aristotle, the Stoics denied the existence of universals, regarding them as concepts or mere figments of the rational mind.  In this way, the Stoics anticipated the conceptualism of the British empirical philosophers, such as Locke (Long and Sedley 1987:181).

The Stoic position is complicated by their being on the one hand materialists, and on the other holding a belief that there are non-existent things which ‘subsist’, such as incorporeal things like time and fictional entities such as a Centaur.  Their ontological hierarchy starts with the notion of a ‘something’, which they thought of as a proper subject of thought and discourse, whether or not it exists.  ‘Somethings’ can be subdivided into material bodies or corporeals, which exist; and incorporeals and things that are neither corporeal or incorporeal such as fictional entities, which subsist (Long and Sedley 1987:163-164).  Long and Sedley (1987:164) provide colourful examples of the distinction between existing and subsisting by saying:

There’s such a thing as a rainbow, and such a character as Mickey Mouse, but they don’t actually exist.

A significant exclusion from the Stoic ontological hierarchy is universals.  Despite the subsistence of a fictional character like Mickey Mouse, the universal man neither exists nor subsists, which is a curious inconsistency.  Stoic universals are dubbed by the neo-Platonist philosopher Simplicius (Long and Sedley 1987:180) as ‘not somethings’:

(2) One must also take into account the usage of the Stoics about generically qualified things—how according to them cases are expressed, how in their school universals are called ‘not-somethings’ and how their ignorance of the fact that not every substance signifies a ‘this Something’ gives rise to the Not-someone sophism, which relies on the form of expression.

Long and Sedley (1987:164) surmise from this analysis that for the Stoics, to be a ‘something’ is to be a particular, whether existent or subsistent.  Stoic ontology is occupied exclusively by particulars without universals.  In this way, universals are relegated to a metaphysical limbo, as far as the Stoics are concerned.  Nevertheless, they recognise the concept of universals as being not just a linguistic convenience but as useful conceptions or ways of thinking.  For this reason, Long and Sedley (1987:181-182) classify the Stoic position on universals as ‘conceptualist’, rather than simply nominalist.  (Nominalists think of universals simply as names for things that particulars have in common).  In a separate paper, Sedley (1985: 89) makes the distinction between nominalism and conceptualism using the following example:

After all the universal man is not identical with my generic thought of man; he is what I am thinking about when I have that thought.

One of the implications of a particular is that it can only be in one place at any one time, which gives rise to what was referred to above by Simplicius as the ‘Not-someone sophism’.  Sedley (1985: 87-88) paraphrases this sophism in the following terms:

If you make the mistake of hypostatizing the universal man into a Platonic abstract individual-if, in other words you regard him as ‘someone’-you will be unable to resist the following evidently  fallacious syllogism.  ‘If someone  is in Athens, he is not in Megara.  But man is in Athens. Therefore man is not in Megara.’ The improper step  here is clearly  the substitution of ‘man’ in the minor premiss for ‘someone’ in the major premiss. But it can be remedied only by the denial that the  universal man  is ‘someone’.  Therefore the universal man is not-someone.

Baltlzly (2016: F5.2-15) makes that point that the same argument would serve to show that time is a not-something, yet the Stoics inconsistently accept that time subsists as an incorporeal something.

I have attempted to show above that Plato and the Stoics are locked into their theories about universals as a result of their prior philosophical positions.  Although to argue otherwise could make them vulnerable to criticisms of inconsistency, they at the same time have methodological weaknesses that place them on shakier ground than Aristotelian realism.  However, I am also of the view that apart from these methodological issues, Aristotelian Realism is substantively a better theory than Platonic Realism or Stoic Conceptualism or Nominalism.  In coming to this view, I have relied mainly on the work of the late Australian Philosophy Professor David Armstrong.

Armstrong argues that there are universals which exist independently of the classifying mind.  No universal is found except as either a property of a particular or as a relation between particulars.  He thus rejects both Platonic Realism and all varieties of Nominalism (Armstrong 1978: xiii).

Armstrong describes Aristotelian Realism as allowing that particulars have properties and that two different particulars may have the very same property.  However, Aristotelian Realism rejects any transcendent account of properties, that is, an account claiming that universals exist separated from particulars (Armstrong 1975: 146).  Armstrong argues that we cannot give an account of universality in terms of particularity, as the various types of Nominalism attempt to do.  Nor can we give an account of particulars in terms universals, as the Platonic Realists do.  He believes that ‘while universality and particularity cannot be reduced to each other, they are interdependent, so that properties are always properties of a particular, and whatever is a particular is a particular having certain properties’ (Armstrong 1975: 146).

According to Armstrong, what is a genuine property of particulars is to be decided by scientific investigation, rather than simply a linguistic or conceptual classification (Armstrong 1975: 149).  Baltzly (2016: F5.2-18) paraphrases Armstrong’s argument this way:

  1. There are causes and effects in nature.

  2. Whether one event c causes another event e is independent of the classifications we make.

  3. Whether c causes e or not depends on the properties had by the things that figure in the events.

  4. So properties are independent of the classifications that we make and if this is so, then predicate nominalism and conceptualism are false.

Baltzly (2016: F5.2-18, 19) provides an illustration of this argument based on one given by Armstrong (1978: 42-43).  The effect of throwing brick against a window will result from the physical properties of the brick and window, in terms of their relative weight and strength, independently of how we name or classify those properties.  So in this way, I would argue that the properties of particulars, that is universals, are ‘real’ rather than merely ‘figments of the mind’ as the Stoics would say.

As for Platonic Realism, Armstrong argues that if we reject it then we must reject the view that there are any uninstantiated properties (Armstrong 1975: 149); that is, the view that properties are transcendent beings that exist apart from their instances, such as in universals rather than particulars.  He provides an illustration of a hypothetical property of travelling faster than the speed of light.  It is a scientific fact that no such property exists, regardless of our concepts about it (Armstrong 1975: 149).  For this reason, Armstrong upholds ‘scientific realism’ over Platonic Realism, which he thinks is consistent with Aristotelian Realism – a position that I support.

In conclusion, I have attempted to show in this essay that the Aristotelian theory of universals is superior to the equivalent theories of both Plato and the Stoics.  I have argued this in terms of the relative methodologies as well as the substantive arguments.  I would choose the most compelling argument to be that of epistemic coherence regarding scientific knowledge, that is, that the universal is the object of science.  It follows that if the universal is not real, if it has no objective reality, then there is no scientific knowledge.  There is scientific knowledge, and if scientific knowledge is knowledge of reality; then to be consistent, the universal must also be real.

Bibliography

Armstrong, D.M. ‘Towards a Theory of Properties: Work in Progress on the Problem of Universals’ Philosophy, (1975), Vol.50 (192), pp.145-155.

Armstrong, D.M. ‘Nominalism and Realism’ Universals and Scientific Realism Volume 1, (1978) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Baltzly, D. ATS3885: Stoic and Epicurean Philosophy Unit Reader (2016). Clayton: Faculty of Arts, Monash University.

Copleston, F. A History of Philosophy Volume 1: Greece and Rome (1962) New York: Doubleday.

Honderich, T. Oxford Companion to Philosophy (1995) Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Long A. A. and Sedley, D. N. The Hellenistic Philosophers, Volume 1 (1987). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Plato, Phaedo in The Essential Plato trans. Benjamin Jowett, Book-of-the-Month Club (1999).

Plato, Timaeus in The Internet Classics Archive. http://classics.mit.edu//Plato/timaeus.html
Viewed 2 October 2016.

Russell, B. History of Western Philosophy. 2nd edition (1961) London: George Allen & Unwin.

Sedley, D. ‘The Stoic Theory of Universals’ The Southern Journal of Philosophy (1985) Vol. XXIII. Supplement.

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Indulge me this: how not to read Daniel Dennett’s comments on philosophy and self-indulgence

The Conversation

Matthew Sharpe, Deakin University

Callicles, Ray Hadley, and—Daniel Dennett?

“A great deal of philosophy doesn’t really deserve much of a place in the world,” leading philosopher Daniel Dennett has recently suggested in an interview at his year’s Association of the Scientific Study of Consciousness conference in Buenos Aires.

“Philosophy in some quarters has become self-indulgent, clever play in a vacuum that’s not dealing of problems of any intrinsic interest.”

People in many other quarters of the world roll their eyes, or blink.

For this kind of accusation against philosophy is hardly new.
The character Callicles in one of Plato’s stories suggests that philosophy is, more or less, child’s play: fit to entertain youths, but hardly a decent pursuit for serious adults.

Radio 2GB stalwart Ray Hadley has more recently taken up something like Callicles’ strains, in what has become a periodic refrain in the tabloids lamenting continuing government funding for humanities research, including in philosophy.

What is new about Dennett’s claims, which is making people within the discipline take notice, is that he is neither a Callicles, nor a Ray Hadley. Daniel Dennett is a decorated Professor of Philosophy of some decades’ experience, and near-universal respect amongst professional scholars.

Dennett also hails from the angloamerican or “analytic” stream of philosophy. This stream has been, until recently, the side of the “analytic-continental divide” a lot less open to weighing philosophy’s history, place and role in society, let alone delivering such strident self-criticisms.

Nevertheless, the Callicles’ of this world should draw breath and read again before too quickly taking Dennett’s criticism as a wholesale dismissal of philosophy, or the reflective humanities.

We can even take Dennett’s provocative remarks as the spur they seem intended by him to have been: a spur to undertake some philosophical reflection about philosophy’s relations to the wider world, as against its insulation from it.

He who doesn’t philosophise…

The first thing to note is that Dennett is not saying that all forms of philosophy are “idle—just games” or a “luxury”. Dennett praises forms of philosophy, like his own contributions to debates on religion and reason (and this Cogito column, gentle reader) that “engage with the world.”

He notes that it takes years for younger generations to “develop the combination of scholarly mastery and technical acumen to work on big, important issues with a long history of philosophical attention.”

But such issues, as he sees things, clearly do exist. And developing the wherewithal to deal philosophically with them is something Dennett evidently values.

When Dennett takes aim at “self-indulgent, clever play in a vacuum”, he has more particular quarry in his sights.

It is just as well. The Greeks had a saying that “he who does not philosophise, philosophises”, and philosophy—as the cradle of all the academic disciplines—has a long history of engaging with and changing the Western world, since about 600 BCE.

Socrates—responding to that other charge the Hadleys’ and Callicles’ of the world will always make (that, far from a harmless indulgence, philosophy harmfully corrupts the youth)—insisted that its role was to assist people in taking care of their souls, and helping them live better lives.

Socrates, who brought philosophy into social affairs

Surely this sounds quaint for our wiser times. The connection between rationally questioning the norms and ideas we entertain and cultivating better lives can also seen opaque, even to Socrates’ bigger fans.

But Socrates’ fundamental idea is simple. Nearly all of the characteristics we admire in people and institutions require forms of knowledge.

The man who would show his courage, but doesn’t know for what cause, is not courageous but foolhardy. He’s unlikely to last long.

The government that would be just, without knowing who and what people and initiatives are worth supporting or censoring, will be unjust.

The person who would live happily but does not know what people truly need to be happy will end up disaffected; and so it goes.

Philosophy, on this original model, is the rational, questioning pursuit of the kinds of knowledge necessary to recognise and promote different forms of human flourishing and excellence. Far from indulgent, it has this much in common with the practical concerns of governors and managers, CEOs and parents: “leaders” of all kinds, as we might say today.

Philosophy, again, involves the attempt to think rationally about the goals of human endeavours, on the basis of the most clear and comprehensive understandings of what kinds of creatures we are, and how we fit into the larger ecology and economies of the world. Far from being indulgent, this kind of thinking seems more necessary than ever today.

For individuals and governments who do not understand the significance of their actions for this wider “whole” (“the truth is the whole”, a famous philosopher said) are bound to pursue short-sighted policies, which produce longer-term problems and “externalities”.

Philosophy, again, has long concerned itself with those difficult, ultimate questions that all people have been posed, whether we ask them or not: is there a God? Is there a soul, life after death, or transcendent meaning to life? How should we live? What is worth pursuing?

To call every person who ever asked these questions, at some point in their lives, indulgent would be to paint nearly everyone who has ever lived with the same, tarring brush.

Philosophy, finally, has since Aristotle been understood by some of its most eminent votaries as the “knowledge of knowledges”.

Aristotle teaching Alexander the Great

Philosophy did not simply give birth to the other disciplines, as you might say. It was “interdisciplinary” from the start. Or at least, it has always been concerned to think through the relations between the different forms of intellectual inquiry and their place in the world. The concern is exactly to prevent particular “cottage industries” (Dennett’s term) proliferating into a cacophony of competing knowledges, without any symphonic wisdom.

Far from being indulgent, universities and governments today still face this form of philosophical issue, as they deliberate about how to manage the academies without which our societies’ historical memory and ability to reflect critically and democratically upon themselves will be sadly diminished:

For as water, whether it be the dew of heaven or the springs of the earth, doth scatter and leese itself in the ground, except it be collected into some receptacle where it may by union comfort and sustain itself […]; so this excellent liquor of knowledge, whether it descend from divine inspiration, or spring from human sense, would soon perish and vanish to oblivion, if it were not preserved in books, traditions, conferences, and places appointed […]

He who does philosophise …

Now, I don’t know whether Daniel Dennett would support everything I’ve tried to say in his defence here. Recalling the different forms of apology for philosophy (another ancient genre), I hope, can help to halt the kind of misreading of his comments as a wholesale “anti-philosophical” tirade that will inevitably sound about.

What is clear is that Dennett is not a critic of philosophy per se, let alone of philosophy in the several (amongst many other) larger senses I’ve picked out here.

What Dennett is critical of is the way academic philosophy is being undertaken, in situations in which a good many of its traditional functions—including reflecting critically about its “utility” and relation to other pursuits and disciplines—are being decided externally to the discipline itself.

For if the different justifications of philosophy we’ve recalled are clear enough, the ways in which philosophy has been funded and institutionalised throughout history have been ceaselessly up for negotiation.

Dennett, very much in the Platonic vein, is especially worried about the next generations of philosophers. He sees the ever-more pressing imperatives they face in order to advance within the institutional settings in which academic studies are today undertaken.

As everyone in the tertiary sector knows, so in this one discipline, “young philosophers are under great pressure to publish”. Nearly all of the material preconditions for ever being able to teach philosophy as a career depend upon meeting this pressure.

Little matter if the budding philosopher has only had the time to develop a limited, if highly cultivated area of specialisation. No matter if that specialisation’s relations to other parts of philosophy, knowledge and society remain unquestioned by him (or, as is less likely, her). “[S]o they find toy topics that they can knock off a clever comment/rebuttal/revival of.”

“These then build off each other and invade the journals, and philosophical discourse,” Olivia Goldhill glosses Dennett, in the article that sparked the present discussions.

Now, this is a very different object of criticism than philosophy per se. It is a form of criticism which it can be imagined has relevance beyond philosophy.

Plato in the first academy.

To criticise a certain form of some activity is not to undermine that activity, after all. It may be a call for needed reforms. Cicero defended rhetoric by saying it got its bad name from a few bad men who misused it. Francis Bacon at the dawn of the modern period echoed this kind of defence.

The prejudices of political men against the life of scholarship per se, he argued, applied only to “deficient” forms of university learning, not liberal education itself, which must be renewed.

But let me end with Plato, since I think Dennett must have had him in the back of his mind as he made his comments, and especially the sixth book of the Republic.

For this founding text of our discipline is all about Plato’s concern with how to recognise and educate good philosophers. The problem is that nearly everything speaks against the young attaining to something like that kind of “scholarly mastery and technical acumen” Dennett recognises amongst the larger goals of a humanistic education.

There are sophists, who promote name over wisdom. There is the appeal of popularity, which lures many of the best students away from their studies into political pursuits. Yet again, there is money-making, that lures many more again away from scholarly pursuits into more lucrative trades.

And, saddest of all for Plato as seemingly for Dennett too, some amongst the young who have been taught clever forms of dialectical argumentation too early fall prey to cynicism or “misologia”: a scorn for the whole business of true philosophy like that of Callicles, who had a sophistic training himself.

The ConversationMatthew Sharpe, Associate Professor in Philosophy, Deakin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permisson). Read the original article.
 

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Plato’s suggestions

Footnotes to Plato

readingsOur regular Friday diet of suggested readings for the weekend:

Apparently I am rather rare among my friends to be deeply disturbed by what this article in The Atlantic labels “the new intolerance of student activism.” I guess I’m either old fashioned, insensitive, or both, but the fact that someone belongs to an oppressed group does not license any kind of behavior on his part, or a complete disregard for standards of civility and rationality.

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Greek Philosophy – the Movies

Reblogged from The Book of Life. Philosophy begins in the Ancient World where it is immediately thought of as a highly practical discipline close to what we would nowadays think of as psychotherapy. One goes to see a philosopher to clear up a variety of emotional and intellectual confusions. The job of being a philosopher becomes extremely prestigious. Different schools of philosophy form, each one claiming a better grasp on the ingredients of true calm and fulfilment than the next. Here are the four great strands of Ancient Greek philosophy:

http://www.thebookoflife.org/ancient-greek-philosophy-films/

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Plato on encouragement

Plato (428/427 or 424/423 – 348/347 BCE) was a philosopher, as well as mathematician, in ancient Greece. He is considered an essential figure in the development of philosophy, especially the Western tradition, and he founded the Academy in Athens, the first institution of higher learning in the Western world. Along with Socrates and his most famous student, Aristotle, Plato laid the foundations of Western philosophy and science. Alfred North Whitehead once noted: “the safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”

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Plato on opinion

Plato (428/427 or 424/423 – 348/347 BCE) was a philosopher, as well as mathematician, in ancient Greece. He is considered an essential figure in the development of philosophy, especially the Western tradition, and he founded the Academy in Athens, the first institution of higher learning in the Western world. Along with Socrates and his most famous student, Aristotle, Plato laid the foundations of Western philosophy and science. Alfred North Whitehead once noted: “the safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”

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Plato on music

Plato (428/427 or 424/423 – 348/347 BCE) was a philosopher, as well as mathematician, in ancient Greece. He is considered an essential figure in the development of philosophy, especially the Western tradition, and he founded the Academy in Athens, the first institution of higher learning in the Western world. Along with Socrates and his most famous student, Aristotle, Plato laid the foundations of Western philosophy and science. Alfred North Whitehead once noted: “the safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”

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