Kuhn and Scientific Revolutions – Lecture 5

October 31, 2012

Science does not begin with facts and then construct theories out of them. Nor does science begin with theories and then just find facts that would confirm them. Both these conceptions conceive of science as though it were a discourse that was completely context free. In the first case, facts are simply available as though they were waiting for interpretation of a specific kind, and in the second case, theories are simply open to facts as though there were no inertia or hindrance to the smooth progress of science from one theory to the next, each equally open to the possibility of falsification.

The first philosopher to take the idea of context or background to scientific activity seriously was Thomas Kuhn.[1] Loosely characterised this approach might be called ‘historical’. What does it mean to treat science as though it were part of history rather than outside of it? It means first of all to take scientists seriously. It is to treat what they do the same way that we would analyse the thoughts and actions of French peasants or the 13th century or a military general in the 20th. First of all to record scientific achievements correctly (who thought of what at what time), and secondly to examine exactly how scientists come up with their theories in relation to the material they were investigating. What it certainly is not is the importation of philosophical theories from the outside (like verification or falsification) followed by squeezing the scientific activity to see whether it would fit these ideal models.

However much the logical positivists and Popper might differ, they both have the same idealised view of science: there is a sharp difference between theory and observation; knowledge is cumulative tending towards a true understanding of the universe; science is deductive; the language of science is precise and science is unified; the key question of the philosophy of science is legitimacy and validity, rather than the contingency of discovery. Against all the suppositions Kuhn puts forward exactly the opposite: there is no sharp difference between observation and theory; knowledge is discontinuous; science is not a tight deductive structure; scientific concepts and not precise; nor is science unified; context is important and science is historical and temporal.

At the heart of the idealised picture of science is scientific progress. This is the view that science is leading to ever increasing knowledge about the universe and that finally one day we will have a theory of everything, and I suppose, science can come to end, because there will be no more questions that need to be answered. So first of there are pre-scientific theories of the universe that we find in the religious and mythical texts (like Genesis), and then we get the first science, Aristotelianism (though this is a really a mixture of science and occult explanations), then Newtonism (which is the first science proper) and then finally in our times, Einsteinian science which is a response to the crisis that befell Newtonism. One imagines that sometime in the future, though one can never tell, there will be fourth science that will replace Einstein, but only because it contains more truth and is close to the universe as it really is.

There are two problems with this image of science. One is temporal and the practical. First of all it has a conception of time, where the past is merely a stepping stone to the present but the past has no meaning in itself. For how can we measure the progress of science in this sense unless we imagine an end towards which it is moving and this end is supposed to be an advance on the past?[2] But how can we know that this advance is real unless we can stand outside of time and measure it? Is it not really the case that past is not the stepping stone to the future, but that we judge the past from the vantage point of the present, and in looking back, project a false teleology back into the past? In terms of the past itself, there were numerous possibilities and the present that we now occupy did not have to occur. Equally the present that we now stand in has infinite possibilities, so we cannot know what the future will be.

In terms of the practice of science, we also know that his temporal picture of progress is false. This is what Kuhn discovered when he did his own historical research. Rather than the history of science demonstrating that each scientific period progressed into the next one moving to ever greater level of truth and closing the distance between discourse and reality, we find that it is discontinuous and non-cumulative and that there is no reality out there by which we could measure the relative truths of each discourse because reality itself is a creation of discourse and not its external validation.

What does it mean to say that the history of science is discontinuous rather than continuous, non-cumulative rather than cumulative? Let’s go back to the image of progress where science moves smoothly from Aristotle, to Newton, to Einstein. What is left out in this description is the gaps or spaces between each scientific theory (or what Kuhn calls a paradigm, because it is more than just a theory) and it can leave this gaps out because the fantasy of some ultimate truth which is where reality and discourse are the same. As soon as we leave this fantasy behind, and realise that it too is a creation of a discourse (in this case metaphysics), then we can see that there is no transition of one to the other. Rather, they are separate or incommensurable. They belong to different worlds.

Again this is visible when we actually study the history of science, rather than project our own view of progress upon it. What we get instead of single continuous line is line of breaks: Aristotle, Newton and Einstein. What then causes these breaks? Why don’t we just go from one science to another in an endless progression towards the truth? The answer for Kuhn is to be found in psychology and sociology and not in the philosophical image of science as a universal method.

The new picture we have of science is now as follows: first we have pre-science – normal science – crisis or revolution – new normal science – new crisis (Chalmers 1999, p.108). When at first science begins to emerge we don’t have a collection of facts or theories that explain facts, rather we have a competition between many theories (Chalmers gives the example of the state of optics before Newton). Gradually like a different scientists will be attracted to the one explanation. What is important is that the reason for this attraction will not just be scientific or rarely just scientific. It will be psychological and sociological. As more and more scientists come on board, what is in the state of chaos will coagulate into a paradigm. Only at that point will normal science be possible (the kind of science that Popper and the logical positivists describe). But even a paradigm, which makes normal science possible, is not made up of merely theories and observations. Like Newtonian mechanics, it is constructed from fundamental laws and theoretical assumptions, standard techniques and methods of investigation, general rules about exceptions and application to reality and most importantly of all a kind of world view or metaphysics which will unify all of this together (in Newtonism, that we exist in an infinite deterministic universe).

Rather than anomalies, as Popper would have us believe, being antithetical to normal science, it can quite happily accept them as long as they don’t attack the fundamentals of the paradigm. Everyone can get happily to work devising their experiments and putting in their grants and anyone who goes against the status quo can be banished to the outer darkness. The paradigm is reinforced by the institutions themselves. If you don’t follow the paradigm you won’t get the grant money, and anyway the educations of young scientists make sure that they follow the paradigm. This is clearly what Kuhn saw when he first looked into the history of science as a practicing scientist: young scientists were taught the idealised image of science that had nothing at all to do with the history of science at all.

So why do paradigms fall? Why are revolutions inevitable? This is because of the anomalies. Because no discourse can close the gap between itself and reality, there will always be the nagging doubt that something is not being explained by the paradigm. As more and more money and experiments are thrown at these anomalies, cracks begin to appear in the scientific establishment. Thus a normal science begins to take the form of the pre-science. Rather than scientists doing experiments, they start having ideas and hypothesis. Some might be said to be cranks and fools, but gradually they begin to attract other scientists. Again Kuhn is clear that the reason for this cannot be scientific or logical, because there is nothing in one paradigm that would justify the leap to another, for there is no commensurability that would link them together, such that one might say that one is truer than the other. The reasons are psychological and sociological. As more and more are attracted to this new science, gradually a new paradigm is born and the whole process repeats itself. We get a new normal science, where again people can happily devise their experiments, apply for grants and get promotion. Until of course the cracks start appearing again.

Although this appears to be an accurate representation of what scientists do, there is a fundamental problem with it. If we are to give up the image of science as the progress towards a truth in which the distance between discourse and reality is progressive closed, for a discontinuous series of closed paradigm, then does this make scientific truth relative? We can distinguish normal science from pseudo-science because of how paradigms work (the difference between astronomy and astrology), but that does not make science itself any truer. Can we say that Einstein, for example is truer than Newton? We want to feel that this is the case, but Kuhn’s principle of incommensurability will not let us do so.

Works Cited

Chalmers, A.F., 1999. What is this Thing Called Science?, St. Lucia, Qld.: University of Queensland.

Sharrock, W.W. & Read, R.J., 2002. Kuhn : Philosopher of Scientific Revolution, Cambridge: Polity.


[1] He might have been the first American philosopher to take this idea seriously. In France, this was the dominant view of science (Sharrock & Read 2002, p.1).

[2] It is science (think for example of evolution) itself that would make us suspect such teleological arguments.

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The Problem on Induction – Lecture 3

October 31, 2012

The justification of science appears at first glance to be the generalisation of experience. I heat melt x and see that it expands, I heat metal y and see that it expands, I heat metal z and see that it expands, and so on, such that it seems natural that I can claim that all metals expand when I heat them. Most scientists think that this is what a scientific argument is, and most would also think this is what we might mean by objectivity. There are, however, two questions we might ask of them. First of all, does the inductive method really produce knowledge, and secondly even if it did is this how science itself operates in its own history.

Let us take the first question first, because is the more traditional problem of induction, and has its canonical form in the argument of Hume. To understand his problem with induction we first of all need to understand his epistemology. For Hume, there are two kinds of propositions: relations of ideas, and matters of facts. In the first relation, the truth of our ideas is confined to our ideas alone. Thus if you understand the concept ‘bachelor’ you know that the idea ‘unmarried man’ in contained within it. When it comes to matters of fact, however, we have to go beyond our concepts to experience. They tell us something new about the world and not just the ideas that we already know. A matter of fact would be that Paris is the capital of France, or metals expand when heated. Of course when you know the idea then you know what is contained in it, but to get the idea you first of all have to get the knowledge.

They can be false relations of ideas as there can be false matters of fact.  Thus if you think that a whale is a fish, then you have made an error about a relation of ideas (you don’t know that a whale is a mammal), and if you think that Plato died in 399 BC, then you have made an error at the level of facts (Ladyman 2002, p.32). Relations of ideas can be proved true by deduction since the negation is a contraction. Basically relations of ideas are tautologies, you cannot assert that Peter is not a bachelor at the same time as asserting that he isn’t married as well, since being unmarried and being a bachelor are one the same thing. On the other hand, matters of fact cannot be proved by deduction, but can only be derived from experience and their contradiction is not a fallacy. If I say that Everest is the tallest mountain on Earth, none of the terms have a logical relation to one another, so I could assume that there is taller mountain. I would have to experience the different tall mountains on Earth to know which one was tallest or not (Ladyman 2002, p.33). For this reason Hume was extremely sceptical about what one could claim to know deductively. All that one could claim are logical relations between concepts that we already know (whose origin anyway would be the senses). What we cannot claim is to produce new knowledge about the world simply through examining our concepts (as theology and metaphysics is wont to do in his opinion).[1]

These distinctions seem very straight forward and at first glance appear to back up the inductivist view of science. The problem for Hume, however, is the idea that matters of fact could have the same necessary conclusions as relations of ideas, as the idea of expanding metals as a universal law implies. The key to this problem for Hume is whether I can assert that what happens in the past is a certain kind for what will happen in the future. I have experience the fact that the sun rises every morning. Does this give me the right to say that it will rise again tomorrow, when I haven’t actually experience this dawn yet. If it does rise then I will be certain, and in terms of the past, I know that it did rise, but now can I know that I will rise again tomorrow?

Induction for Hume is based upon causal arguments. Our only knowledge of cause and effect is through experience itself because there is no logical reason why any causal relation should hold or not hold.  I know that matches cause fires, because I know that from experience, not because matches logically contain fire. Just as we can only infer future behaviour of the world from the actual experience of the world, then we can only understand the category of causality from experience. In other words without experience we would not have the concept of causality as a generality. If I always experience the dawn as the rising of the sun then I conjoin this events. If A always follows B, then I will say that A causes B. This because I believe that the future always follows the same path as the past. So that if A happens, then B will happen. Linked to conjunction is contiguity and precedence. Contiguity means that B follows A in time and space, and precedence is that the effect is always after the cause. (the flame is after the lighted match and not before). It is because of conjunction, contiguity, and precedence, that we feel that we have good reason to say that A cause B, or that the sun will rise tomorrow. Hume assertion that this can never be a necessary reason, as is suggested by generalisation of a universal law however compelling I feel this causality to be.

Take the example of billiard balls, which seems the most basic relation of causality. The ball X hits the ball Y and causes it to move.  But what do we mean by that? Do we mean that the ball X makes the ball Y move or that it produces its movement? We think there is a necessary connection between the two events. X moving and Y moving. What we experience is conjunction, contiguity and precedence, what we do not experience is some mysterious ‘necessary connection’. What we see is ball X and ball Y, what we do not see is some other third thing (like an invisible connection, indeed what we do not see is causality). What does it add to our explanation of the events, even if we were to add this mysterious cause. Wouldn’t the ball X and the ball Y just move in exactly the same way?

The point for Hume is just because two events have always in the past be conjoined, does not mean that we can be universally certain that they will always do so. The conclusion of inductive argument could be false but that would never make it invalid (indeed it might make it more interesting, as if the sun did not rise the next day), but this is never the case with a deductive argument if the premises are true. What underpins are inductive generalisation is the belief that nature is well ordered spatially and temporally, that what happens many times will happen again in the same way. But that is just an assumption.  Why must the future always be the same as the past and it certainly is not a contradiction if it were not.

Now of course we make these kind of inferences all the time, and Hume accepts that. I probably would not be able to live if I really though the sun would not rise tomorrow every time I went to bed. But this uniformity is a result of our psychology (perhaps it is an evolutionary trait) rather than reason or logic. We find regularity in nature because our habitual associations of events, and not because these events are necessarily connected.

There is no doubt that Hume’s problem is very profound and does make us look at induction more critically, but we might think that the idea that science itself is inductive in the simply way that inductivism implies is too simplistic. It is important to note that this is a very different critique from the methodological one. In the first case, we investigate the method of induction, and like Hume say that is flawed, or might even argue that Hume’s own account of induction is not a correct description of induction.[2] Whereas in the historical account of science, we are arguing whether the description of method is actually how scientists themselves work. One is a description of the content of scientific knowledge, the other is a description of the activity scientists themselves. This is a completely different way of doing philosophy of science.  For it does not first of all describe a method of doing science and then apply it to scientists, rather it examines what scientists do and from that derives the method. We shall see that this way of understanding science is going to be very important to Kuhn.

Why might we think that scientists do not use the inductive method in the way that induction has been described so far? Take the example of Newton’s Principia (Ladyman 2002, pp.55–6). Newton presents in this work the three laws of motion and the law of gravity. From these laws in explains natural phenomena like planetary motion. He says that he has inferred these laws through induction from observation. Now it is French philosopher of science Duhem that points out that there is a problem with Newton’s explanation. The data he is using is Kepler’s. His data proves that the planet will move in circles, whereas Newton’s in ellipses. This means that he could not have inferred gravity from Kepler’s data, rather he already the hypothesis of the law of gravity to interpret Kepler’s data. Again Newton’s first law state that bodies will maintain their state of motion unless acted upon by another body, but we have not observed a body that has not been acted upon, so this law could not be obtained through observation. Even Kepler’s theory could not have be derived from observation, because he took his data from Brahe, but could only organise it by already assuming that planets moved in circles, a hypothesis he didn’t receive from data, but from the mystical Pythagorean tradition.

So there are two reasons why we might be sceptical of the simple inductive explanation of science. One is methodological through the problem of induction (though we might come up with a better inductive method to solve this), and the other is historical, that science does not work in the way that theory of induction describes. I think the latter is the more serious issue than the former. For in the end science is what scientists do, and not what philosophers might idealise that they do.

Works Cited

Ladyman, J., 2002. Understanding Philosophy of Science, London; New York: Routledge.


[1] A group of philosophers from the 20th century called logical positivists also liked this distinction, and differentiated mathematical and logical truths, on the one hand, and science on the other. Anything that didn’t fit this schema was said to be nonsense or meaningless.

[2] This is what Ladyman does when he lists all the different ways in which we might counter Hume, the most telling being induction as the ‘best explanation’ (Ladyman 2002, pp.46–7).


The Mastery of the Passions – Lecture 3

October 26, 2012

So far, in our lectures on Spinoza,  we have been speaking about how our affects determine our actions, rather than how our actions can determine our affects. We have already seen an indication of this reversal in the previous lecture when we examined Deleuze’s explanation of Spinoza’s practical philosophy as the transmutation of passive to active joy. We should not underestimate how strange this transformation is, as the phrase ‘active joy’ is, on the face of it, a contradiction. How can an affect, which joy is (one of the primary ones along with sadness and desire), which by definition must be something passive, since affects are caused (notice the passive construction!) by the effects of external objects on the body, and their interrelation with the imagination, becomes something active? The answer to this question, as shall see, is the possibility of a different relation to affects; rather than having an inadequate understanding of affects through my misunderstanding of my relation of my body to other external bodies, where I would be at the mercy of one passion following the other, I relate to my affects through my understanding.

The aim of Spinoza here is not to rid us of our affects, since this is impossible, as we are part of nature and always vulnerable to being affected by an external objects, but to have greater control and rule over them through a better understanding of external bodies. As Spinoza writes in the appendix of part 4 (4ApXXXII), human power is limited and easily overpowered by external causes, and this means that we do not have absolute power to determine the things that are outside of us. We ought to bear calmly what happen to us, even in relation to the ‘principle of self-interest’. We need to understand that we are not separate from the universe but part of it, and thus many things are outside of our control. If we understand this then we will be content, for the better part of us will be affected by this idea, namely the understanding. From the understanding we accept necessity, and thus we agree with the ‘order of nature’.

One way of agreeing with the ‘order of nature’ is to understand that there is no ‘good’ or ‘evil’ in Nature itself. In the preface to part 4, Spinoza argues that people see nature as being good or evil, because they project human ideas upon it. We imagine something is perfect because it accomplishes the intention of the author of the work. Thus, if I see a house that is not completed then I will say that it is imperfect, and if it is accomplished, perfect. If I don’t know what the intention of the person who built it, then I can’t be sure whether it is perfect or imperfect. So then we form universal ideas of things, and ‘perfect’ begins to mean anything which embodies a universal idea, and this is true both of natural and artificial ideas. Thus we can call a man ‘imperfect’ because he doesn’t represent the universal idea of what a man should be. These ideas are models, and because they view Nature as having an end, purpose or function, we think that it has to fulfil these models, and if it doesn’t, then it has somehow failed, or worse ‘sinned’.

This idea of Nature being imperfect or perfect is a prejudice and does not rise from true knowledge. We will see that this is an important argument of the appendix to part 1, where Spinoza rejects the idea of finality of nature in which people imagine that God has created the world for the sake of fulfilling their desires and for no other reason. This is all part of his refusal of any anthropomorphism. The eternal infinite being (God or Nature) acts from necessity – the necessity of its action is the same as the necessity of existence (IP16). It exists for no end and acts for no end, it just is. The notion of a final cause is only the relative explanation of human desire, and not Nature or God. In the same way, good and evil are not positive descriptions. They too are modes of thought or notions, which we form when we compare things. Thus one and the same thing can be either good or bad, or not even good or bad, at difference times. These words do not indicate anything intrinsic to a thing or to Nature in general.

As Lloyd argues, in the axioms to part 4, Spinoza tells us that there is nothing in nature that cannot be destroyed by some external cause which is stronger than it, and yet guided by human reason we can become free (Lloyd 1996, pp.84–5). How can we both be dependent on the external world and at the same time be free? Most philosophers, like Descartes, would argue that true freedom is an escape from affects. It is not a contradiction because of the interconnection of imagination and the affects which were described in Part 3. Because we are finite modes of infinite substance we are subject to external causes of which we cannot have true knowledge nor can we be the origin. It is how we react to this dependence which is important. It is not a question therefore of restricting the emotions to a separate realm and acting only through reason (impossible for human beings), but to avoid the ‘determining power of the emotions’. The issue is whether one just passively undergoes the action of external causes, or whether the mind itself becomes the determining cause. And this has to do with understanding the causes of emotion; not abolishing, but understanding what causes them, and in this understanding we can have some determining power over them. We can then become the determinate cause of our affects rather than just the partial one through the inadequate idea of external things.

The key proposition in Part 4 is proposition 18: ‘A desire which arises from joy is stronger […] than one which arises from sadness.’ Spinoza explains, in the demonstration, that desire is the very essence of what it means to be a human being, or any being whatsoever, which is the striving to preserve one’s being, so a desire that is affected by joy is increased by the affect of joy, where one that is affected by sadness is decreased by it. The force that is created by joy is both ‘human power’ and the external cause, whereas sadness is defined through human power alone. It is we who make ourselves sad. In the scholium, Spinoza argues that this explains our lack of power, and why we are so stupid and irrational though we have the seeds of reason within us. What we need to see is what reason actually can give us, and which affects agree with reason and which do not. Reason demands nothing that is contrary to nature, therefore it is not against nature that ‘everyone should love themselves’, which means seek their advantage, but this means leading oneself to a greater perfection, and preserve one’s own being as far as one can. Virtue is nothing less than acting from one’s own nature, which is the same as striving for one’s own being, and happiness means nothing but being able to preserve one’s being. We, however, can never bring it about that we are not dependent on external things to preserve our being, since we cannot live without them. To be reasonable about affects is to know what one can have power over and what one cannot, but also to understand the external causes which determine the affects that we have. The point is that we must act by knowledge of what is really useful for us, and not by momentary feelings or false models of good and evil.

One way which we are dependent on external things is that we are not alone. We need to see that this is strength and not a weakness, since it belongs to our nature that we are not alone. As Spinoza continues in the scholium to proposition 18, that which is most excellent is what most agrees with our nature. Thus, if two individuals are of the same nature and they combine they would be doubly powerful. For human being there is nothing more useful for them than other human beings. We should want that all our minds and bodies ‘compose’ together. We desire to be with those people who are most like us to the extent that we could become one mind and one body. If people are governed by reason, and by reason they seek their own advantage, they would want nothing for themselves that they would not also wish for others, since this is to their own benefit.

As Bennett indicates, the issue is how Spinoza deduces a community or even common feeling from an ethics that seem so egotistical (Bennett 1984, p.299). Thoughtful egotism will make it obvious that my own interests can only be furthered if I care for the interest of others. It is not restraint or fear that makes me so desire, as though the state or some other outside force will threaten me if I do not take interests of others in regard, but I see this myself from my own reason. One source of this is that I can see that the other man is the same as me. Again reason transforms what appears to be dependency on an external cause, other people, into an active desire, the feeling for commonality and sociability. As Spinoza writes in proposition 35, we agree through reason and not through passions: ‘Only insofar as men live according to the guidance or reason, must they always agree in nature.’ In the corollary, he adds, that what is most useful for us is that we live according to reason, since what is most useful for us is what agrees with our nature, and we only act when we live through the dictates of reason and the understanding. We understand, therefore, that when we seek our own advantage what is most useful for us is other people. It also clear, according to our nature, he also writes in the scholium, that we cannot live a solitary live, since we are ‘social animals’. We thus gain more advantage than disadvantage by living with others. Let ‘the theologians’ and others despise human beings; it is only by joining forces with others that we can help ourselves:

So let the satirists laugh as much as they like at human affairs, let the theologians curse them, let melancholics praise as much as they can a life that is uncultivated as wild, let them disdain men and admire the lower animals. Men still find from experience that by helping one another they can provide themselves much more easily with the things that they require, and that only by joining forces can they avoid the dangers which threaten on all sides. (IVP35S)

Works Cited

Bennett, J., 1984. A Study of Spinoza’s Ethics, [Indianapolis, IN]: Hackett Pub. Co.

Lloyd, G., 1996. Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Spinoza and the Ethics, London; New York: Routledge.


On the Difference Between Ethics and Morality – Lecture 2

October 21, 2012

Without ethics we would not be human, everyone agrees with that. Blackburn calls this our ethical climate or environment, which is analogous with our physical one (Blackburn 2001, pp.1–6). Just as much as human beings need physical shelter so they also need an ethical one. Ethics describes the ways in which human beings, in any culture, value certain kinds of behaviour over others. The ancient Greeks, who were the first philosophers, would have described the difference between the physical and the ethical environment, as the separation between φύσις and νομός.[1] Just as much as there are laws of nature, then there are ethical laws of every society. Again, Blackburn is probably alluding to the etymology of the word ‘ethics’, which comes from ancient Greek ἧθος, meaning, a place or customs.[2]

But what is the difference between a natural and ethical law? We can understand the necessity of natural law. In nature, every event has its cause. Such a necessity is what we call law. But are there laws of ethics? Does not every culture have its own values? Even Hitler, Blackburn argues had his values, the purity of a race, for example, it is just that we do not value them. Are we right not to? What gives is the right to say that there are ethical laws, that there is a difference between good and evil?

Is there a necessity to ethics? If there is then it cannot be the same as the necessity of nature. The laws of nature are intrinsic to the physical universe; they are indifferent to human beings. If there are laws of ethics (and maybe we should not use the expression ‘law’ to describe it), then they must belong to what we consider ourselves to be, what it is to live a human life, and not nature. Even the nature of human being is not important to ethics. It is not the fact that we are certain type of animal which makes us ethical, but what we value in ourselves and others, and the meaning of such a value does not belong to the natural world.[3]

Philosophy has always, from the very beginning, tried to describe what this ethics is in terms of rationality. It is because human beings are rational that we are ethical, and not the other way around. Kant would argue that it is because I have to give reasons for my actions that I take responsibility for them, and expect others to be responsibility. Without reason, there would be no ethics. This is why we do not expect small children and animals to be ethical. Bentham and Mill, on the other hand, would argue that it not my intentions that count, but the consequences of my actions, which again can be measured rationally through the principle of utility of the greatest happiness for the greatest number.

And yet is reason sufficient to explain ethics? Was not Ruolf Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz, moral to his friends and family? Did he not keep promises and probably love his wife and children? How is it possible that at the same time he could send so many other human beings to the gas chamber (Rees 2011)? It is at this point, I believe, that we must make a difference between morality and ethics. Höss had his morality. Such a morality is precisely what allowed him to murder one million Jews and a hundred thousand other human beings, but what he lacked was ethics.

Morality is the codes and values which we live by. They have their origin in the societies in which we shelter, and they are the ways in which we judge one another. Such a morality is what Blackburn calls our ‘ethical environment’, but I do not think in and by itself it is ethical at all. It is morality that philosophy attempts to justify rationally, though we might like Nietzsche think that this is just a smokescreen to justify power. A morality without ethics, however, soon descends into murder and despair, for what it lacks is recognition of the humanity of the other. This is why Höss could go home every night to his wife and children and live a perfectly respectable middle class life (it is important to recognise that the Nazis were not on the whole mad men, like Amon Goeth played by Ralph Fiennes in Schindler’s List), because he did not see the Jews and the others he murdered in the gas chambers as human beings at all. It is precisely a morality without ethics which allows us to commit such crimes against humanity, and we see it again and again through out human history, both in our distant and immediate past, and in other cultures than our own.

It is this ethics, as opposed to morality, which is described by Raimond Gaita in his book A Common Humanity (Gaita 2000, pp.17–28). He tells us of an event that happened in his own life when he was seventeen years old and was working in a psychiatric hospital. The patients there seemed to have lost any status as human beings. He writes that they were treated like animals by the staff in the hospital. Some of the more enlightened psychiatrists spoke of the ‘inalienable dignity’ of the patients, but others treated them sadistically. It was only when a nun arrived and behaved differently to them that the attitude of the staff was revealed to Gaita. They had ceased thinking of them as human beings. But what is important is that it is the behaviour the nun which reveals this. Humanity, then, is not a property of someone like green is a property of thing. Rather, humanity is revealed in the relation that one person has to another. It is because the nun loved the patients unconditionally that their humanity was revealed to him. Without this love, they were less than human.

Ethics, then, is not a moral code, but this unconditional love for other human beings, especially for those who have fallen out of what society might call humanity, the poor, the sick, the destitute and the mad. Our humanity, and the humanity of the society in which we live is measured by the love we have for others, and equally our inhumanity and inhumanity of the society in which we live is measured by the lack of love we have for others. Such a love is fragile, because it cannot be justified rationally, and our own moralities can work against it (in the sense that Blackburn speaks about ethics as an ethos). We can use morality to legitimate why we should not treat others as human beings, but not why we should love every human being equally. Such a love is both what makes us human and humanises others, but it is not rational, if one means by a rational, a belief or intention. This is why Gaita stresses that it is not the nun’s beliefs that justify her behaviour; rather her behaviour justifies her beliefs. The behaviour comes first. I act before I understand, and I do so because I am open to the humanity of the other. This is first of all an openness to the vulnerability and suffering of the other, before it is a thought about this vulnerability and suffering, and it is precisely because Höss can harden his heart to such vulnerability and suffering, because of his morality, his ethos, that he could have murdered so many human beings and then returned home to his wife and children every night.

It is very important that this ethics of love does not slide into mawkish sentimentality. An ethics without morality or politics is just as dangerous as a morality or politics without ethics, because it makes no attempt to change the world in which there are millions of people who are suffering. This is what Badiou warns us of in his book Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil (Badiou 2002, pp.30–9). There is a subtle connection, Badiou, argues with our obsession with the suffering of others in our society and the moral nihilism of our consumer society. Their suffering has almost become a spectacle we enjoy so that we can feel good about ourselves. Yet we do nothing at all about the political situation which is the real cause of this suffering which is capitalism. This we just accept that as an economic necessity. Badiou’s argument is that our obsession with ethics, whether it is a question of rights, or the sufferings of others, is just the opposite side of this necessity. ‘Children in Need’, the BBC’s charity, could happen every year for the rest of time, but it will never change the political situation in which there are children in need, because we live in a society were it is perfectly acceptable to give billions of pounds to the banks but to let the large majority of children live in poverty and misery. Every year, we can watch our computer and TV screens some war or disaster, and we can feel the suffering of others, and many will generously send their own money, but we do nothing to change the unjust global economic system which is the real cause of this suffering. It is as though we need our yearly fix of ethical feeling, so that for the rest of the year we can ignore the fact that it is empty consumer lives that are the real cause of poverty, starvation and death in this world. We cannot, therefore, separate politics from ethics. If our ethics does not change the world, then it is empty gesture; a beautiful sentiment, but without any real effect in this world.

Work Cited

Badiou, A., 2002. Ethics: an Essay on the Understanding of Evil, London: Verso.

Blackburn, S., 2001. Being Good : an Introduction to Ethics, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gaita, R., 2000. A Common Humanity : Thinking about Love and Truth and Justice, London: Routledge.

Rees, L., 2011. BBC – History – World Wars: Rudolf Höss – Commandant of Auschwitz. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/worldwars/genocide/hoss_commandant_auschwitz_01.shtml [Accessed October 21, 2012].


[1] For the Liddell and Scott entry for φύσις, see http://tinyurl.com/3a4fsaf, and for νομός, http://tinyurl.com/3yxavgo.

[2] See Liddell and Scott, http://tinyurl.com/39sveq6.

[3] There is a naturalism in ethics that denies this and which would be represented by such philosophers as Spinoza and Nietzsche, but precisely for this reason they reject any morality.


Falsification – Lecture 4

October 20, 2012

What we want is some criterion which will allow us to distinguish science from any other discourse. In other words what makes science, science, as opposed to religion? What is specific to the method of science? Our simplest response to this question is that science deals with facts that are objective (out there in some way) and that religion has to do with belief and is subjective. We might want to say, then, that science is true, and religion is not. When we looked at this simple definition, however, the less certain and clear it seemed. For the idea that science is made up of many observation of facts which are then converted into theories breaks down in the problem of induction, which in its most succinct form, is the impossibility of leaping from a singular judgement to a universal one. No amount of logical finessing will get you from a particular to a universal. This would seem to imply that science is no more objective than religion, and that a theory is as much a belief as any faith. Moreover, it was also clear that the inductionist picture of science was not accurate at all, since facts are not just littered through out the world such that we pick them up and notice common characteristics from which we then construct some universal law. On the contrary, we already come to facts with a pre-existing theory, which determines which fact we take as relevant or not (or even which fact we can see). As Ladyman explained, Newton did not find the law of gravity in Kepler’s data, he already had to have it in order to interpret the data (Ladyman 2002, pp.55–6).

This reversal of the relation between theory and facts, that theory is first and facts second, is the basis of the next philosophy of science that we shall look at, Popper’s theory of falsification, and indeed rose out of the insurmountable problems of inductionism. His argument is that we should give up induction as the basis of science, but such a rejection would not lead to irrationalism. Rather we substitute for induction, deduction. But did we not argue already in last lecture that deduction could not be the basis of science, since deduction is merely tautological? Deductive logic tells us nothing new about the world, but only analyses what we already know.

Deduction does not work as a basis of science only if we move from the singular to the universal, but it we go from the universal back to the singular then deduction does work. Indeed, this move from the universal back to the singular is exactly, Popper argues, how science works. We do not start with facts and then make laws, rather we start with laws and then we attempt to test them with facts. The logical point is that we can’t go from observations to theories, even if the observations themselves are true, but it is possible the other way around. We can go from theories then back to observational statements to show that the theory is false. Thus to use Chalmers example, if some one was to see a white raven outside the lecture room today, then this would prove deductively that the statement ‘All Ravens are black’ is false. Such deductive arguments are know as modus tollens, which take the form if P, then Q. ⌐Q, therefore ⌐P (Chalmers 1999, p.61).

When we look at the history of science, this seems exactly what happens. Take for the example, Eddington’s proof of Einstein’s theory that gravity bends light. If the theory was correct then a star that was beyond the sun should be displaced from the direction of the observer so that we could see it. Normally the light from the sun would mean that these starts would not be visible to us, but would be if the light of the sun was blocked. Eddington managed to measure just such a displacement with the eclipse of the sun in 1919. For Popper, the point of this story is that he could have proved otherwise. In other words, Einstein’s theory could have been falsified, if there had not been any displacement.

The real difference between science and religion or any other discourse is not the theories or hypotheses that they put forward, but how they test them. Popper is adamant that science is creative as any other human discourse and that the origin of this creativity is outside any logical explanation. That some one comes up with such an idea at such a time cannot be rationally explained. Thus we don’t know how Galileo or Einstein came up with their ideas, and why not someone else, or at different time and place, but what we do know that what makes these creations scientific, as opposed to anything else is that they can be falsified (this is the difference between context of discovery and context of justification). In the opposite case, it does not seem possible to falsify a religion logically. I can always find a reason to believe something. Think for example of the classic problem of evil in theology. How do I justify the existence of God with evil in the world? It is perfectly possible to find such a reason, as Leibniz did that this is the ‘best of all possible worlds’, and it is just our lack of human understanding that prevents us from seeing it so.

Here we might need to know a little of the story of Popper’s life. When he was young he was a communist and of course Marxism was treated as a science. He says that one day in went on a march with his friends and they were attacked by the police and some of them were killed. He was so shaken by this incident that he had to speak about to his political leaders. They told him that these deaths were necessary for the political emancipation of the workers as was explained by scientific Marxism. But what then would falsify Marxism, for they did not seem to be any instance, including the death of his friends that could not be explained by it.

This is precisely the difference between a science and a pseudo-science (religion is only a pseudo-science when it takes itself to be answering scientific questions, otherwise it is perfectly meaningful for Popper): a pseudo-science has the answer to everything and can never not be true, whereas a science does not have the answer to everything and can always be false. It is this that demarcates, to use Popper’s word, empirical science, from anything else and it is a question of method, rather than logical form, by which he means the positivist obsession with the correlation of statements with aspects of reality. Metaphysics and religion are only pseudo sciences when they pretend to be sciences. If they do not, then there is nothing intrinsically wrong with them. They are certainly not meaningless which is just derogatory word, rather than having any useful philosophical sense.

If what makes a scientific theory scientific is falsification, what exactly makes a falsification? Can any falsification be scientific? Such a broad generalisation does not seem to be correct because just to falsify something would not make it a scientific theory. I could falsify physics, by quoting Genesis but no one would think that I was being scientific. The answer here is intersubjective testability. One cannot conceive of how it would be possible to set up an experiment that would test my falsification of physics that claimed God had created the universe in the way that it is described in Genesis. One can imagine, however how it might be possible to test the falsification of Newtonian science through the prediction made by Einstein, which is entirely what the example from Eddington proves, and it is perfectly possible that other scientists could conceive of such an experiment, whether in principal or in practice.[1]

Could a theory always secure itself by simple adding an ad hoc modification every time a falsification was produced? Thus, to use Chalmers’s example, we could take the generalisation that all bread was nutritious to be falsified by the death all the members of French village who ate bread. We could then qualify our theory by saying that all bread is nutritious except when it is eaten by these members of the French village and we could do this every time any falsification was discovered. Such ad hoc modification would completely destroy any progress in scientific discovery. How then can we distinguish between an authentic and inauthentic ad hoc modification (Chalmers 1999, p.75). In this example, the modification cannot be falsified, so it does not tell us anything new about the world. It in fact tells us less than the original theory that all bread nourishes. So an authentic modification must be one that is also falsifiable. If we had said instead that all bread nourishes except one that is contaminated by certain fungus called Claviceps purpurea, then this would be an authentic ad hoc modification, since it could be tested and falsified, and thus does tell us something new about the world.

This distinction between authentic and inauthentic ad hoc modifications of scientific theories, however, tells us that we should not over-estimate falsifications of theories. When we look at the history of science we can see that ad hoc modifications can confirm rather than deny a theory. Take the case of the discovery of Neptune. Irregularities in the orbit of Uranus predicted that there must be another planet that had not be observed. Rather than reject Newton’s theory, scientists argued that a planet must exist that would explain it. Thus, the fact that Neptune was found in 1846 confirmed Newton’s theory rather than falsified it. Rather than seeing science as just a series of falsifications which lead from theory to the next, Aristotelianism to Newtonism to Einstein, we should see it as the confirmation of bold conjecture and the falsification of cautious ones. For what difference does it make to science if one falsifies conjectures such as the universe is made of porridge or confirms a cautious one? But how then do we determine what make a bold conjecture? The only answer to this must be background theories themselves, for only in relation to them could we know what would be bold or timid. The background knowledge is therefore the cautious conjecture (what we take to be correct) and the bold conjecture flies in the face of what everyone thinks is the case. We can see, then, what the real fundamental difference between the falsificationist and inductionist is. The first takes the history of science seriously, and the second has no conception of the history of science at all. There is no background knowledge. Rather facts are accumulated as though there were no context at all and science existed in the eternal present.

Is falsification immune to criticism then? The answer must be unfortunately not. The real problem is still the relation to the theory and the observation. All we can say deductively is that if there is O, then the falsity of T follows if the O is not given, but it tells us nothing about the standard of the evidence itself. What is the evidence is incorrect. Perhaps when person who said that the raven was white and no idea what white was. Perhaps the photograph of the white raven was created in Photoshop, and not such evidence exists.  Popper does not have a better story about the correctness of evidence than the positivist. Moreover, when we actually look at science, it does not take the simple form of ‘All swans are White’…. Rather, sciences are made up of complex collection of universal statements which are interrelated to one another.  Now if a prediction tells us the theory is false it tells is that one of the premises might be wrong but not which one or even that our own experience might be the problem.  It might not the theory that is out, but the ‘test situation’ itself, because we cannot isolate the premise which allows us to falsify the theory (this is known as the Duhem/Quine thesis). So to use Ladyman’s example, if we were to try and predict the path of a comet, the law of gravity would not be sufficient, so if the predication were incorrect we would not know that it was the theory of gravity that was being falsified (Ladyman 2002, pp.77–8).

Even if such an isolation were possible, falsification does not seem to capture actually what science and scientists do, for when we look at the history of science we do not find one great conjecture following another, but that scientists stick to their theories despite the fact that they can be falsified or they adopt a new hypothesis even though all the known evidence at the time should have killed them off at birth. This is what we find when we look at the detail of the eventual transition from the Aristotelian to the Copernican view of the world. It is certainly was the simple falsification of the one by the other. Science works because scientists are dogmatic and not open to falsification. If that is the case, how is it possible to differentiate, or demarcate, science from any other dogma? Will we not have to use different criteria?

Works Cited

Chalmers, A.F., 1999. What is this Thing Called Science?, St. Lucia, Qld.: University of Queensland.

Ladyman, J., 2002. Understanding Philosophy of Science, London; New York: Routledge.


[1] Does this open Popper to a more pragmatic account of science than an epistemological one? For if testability is inter-subjective how are we to describe it? Popper appears to want to separate questions of method from question of practice, but later criticisms will in turn want to question this distinction by asking whether it is really the case, when we look at the history of science, that scientist really are committed to the principle of falsifiability.


Nietzsche and Moral Nihilism – Lecture 3

October 17, 2012

In popular culture, the philosopher Nietzsche is usually associated with moral nihilism. We might define nihilism as the absence of the highest values. Associated with moral nihilism is moral relativism. Moral relativism is the belief that all values, precisely because there are no higher values, are merely the expression of personal preference. Ironically, however, is it exactly this kind of moral viewpoint that Nietzsche is criticising. Rather than being a nihilist he is an anti-nihilist. Nihilism is a diagnosis of the decadence of Western culture, rather than a position that Nietzsche wants, and still less, wants us to aspire to.

What is the cause and origin of nihilism in contemporary society? It is the continued destruction of all meaning and signification. It is the belief that nothing really matters any more, because nothing really has any meaning. We have no system of beliefs or values which could orientate us. The old systems of belief, like religion and morality, still exist, but at best we only follow them half-heartedly, and at worst, think that they have no meaning whatsoever. They exist only at the edges of our lives and consciousnesses. But it isn’t just the world that doesn’t have any meaning anymore. We ourselves don’t have any meaning for ourselves. Why should we choose one course of action over any other? What does it really matter anymore, since no-one’s individual life really has any significance in the grand scheme of things? As Michel Haar describes:

Nothing is worth much anymore, everything comes down to the same thing, everything is equalized. Everything is the same and equivalent: the true and the false, the good and the bad. Everything is outdated, used up, old dilapidated, dying: an undefined agony of meaning, an unending twilight: not a definite annihilation of significations, but their indefinite collapse. (Allison 1985, p.13)

It would be quite absurd, therefore, to claim that this is what Nietzsche actually desires. On the contrary, he wants to diagnose how we got there. Our culture is like the character God in Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy: old and worn out, barely alive, and certainly nothing to really believe in anymore.

The most dangerous side of this nihilism, however, is that in the end it becomes happy and satisfied with itself. Once we used to feel horror and terror at the fact that religion, morality and philosophy don’t really have any meaning, but now we’re quite happy to live in a world without meaning. One example of this satisfaction is the death of God. Again we have to remind ourselves of the passage in the Gay Science, where Nietzsche writes of the madman who rushes into the marketplace and declares that God is dead. Many people read this as Nietzsche is simply celebrating atheism, but if we read this passage more carefully we can see that what it really describes is how the ordinary people don’t really care at all whether God is dead or not. This is what is truly terrifying. Not that God is dead, but that no-one even noticed that he had died:

Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly: ‘I seek God! I seek God!’ – As many of those who did not believe in God were standing around just then, the provoked much laughter. Has he got lost? asked one. Did he lose his way like a child? asked another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? Emigrated? – Thus they yelled and laughed. (Nietzsche 1974, p.181)

How can this famous scene be a declaration of atheism, when the people that the madman announces the death of god to are in fact already atheists? No, this is not what Nietzsche thinks is significant for us understand. The truth of this passage comes a little later, when the madman tells them that it us who have killed God: ‘We have killed him – you and I.’(Nietzsche 1974, p.181) And yet, even though we are the murderers of God we still have no idea of what a universe without God, without any values really means, because as such we still cling to the ideal world even though it is absent. It is not enough to negate values, because then all you are left with is negativity, and negation is dependent on the very thing that it negates. I say that I don’t believe in God, but paradoxically this non-belief is just as much dependent on the idea of God, as the belief in God is, for without the idea of God how would it be possible to be an atheist. We have to get beyond both the belief and non belief. We have to get, to use a title to one of Nietzsche’s books, beyond good and evil.

The real source of nihilism is negation, and therefore to understand nihilism we have to understand negation, or what Nietzsche will call negative will to power. There two sources of values for Nietzsche in the world: reactive and active. Nihilism in all its forms is reactive, and this is precisely the reason why Nietzsche’s philosophy cannot be nihilism, for it is against reactive will to power that it is written.

Nietzsche’s critique of morality is that in fact it is secondary. Morality presents itself as a disinterested objective valuation of the world, but underneath it is just another form of will to power: the desire for self preservation, even if that means dominating others by stealth and cunning. All morality is hypocritical, not because it is false or wrong, which would be too simplistic, since all human beings live by values, even if the supreme value in our age might be to value nothing, but because it presents itself as though it were not of this world, above petty politics and striving, objective and absolutely true.

Nietzsche is not criticising values in general, but reactive values, and it is these values that have led to the nihilism of the West. Having negated the world, and seen nothing positive in it, it has ended up with the ultimate negation of destroying itself. Active will to power, on the contrary, can be vanquished by another active will, but it does not seek its own auto-destruction.

Active and reactive values describe the relations of dominance and subordination. What is reactive is always a response to what is active. It subordinates itself to more dominating forces. But it is important to realise that this subordination is not an absence of power. It is just as much an expression of power, Nietzsche believes, to dominate as subordinate oneself. In the second case, one obtains power by accommodating and regulating oneself to the status quo. This is exactly how the power of modern societies operates. It is the power of adaptation and utility, and those who are better adapted have more power, and those who refuse to adapt, conform and fall into line, have little or no power. Be like everyone else, or else! This is the motto of our societies, and our schools and universities are nothing but machines to produce this submission.

Because our societies, or perhaps society itself, is essentially reactive, it is much harder to describe what active forces are. One thing that we do know is that they must be first, because without active forces, there would not be any reactive ones, for what would they be reacting against? This is the first step away from nihilism. For nihilism says that what is first is negation. But this is precisely how reactive forces speak: negate! What is active, on the contrary, is what is creative, what imposes forms and dominates. Its first word is not ‘no’, but ‘yes’, and what one must first create is oneself beyond the reactive forces of society. Again simply to negate society, and the values implicit within it, is not enough, for this is to be dependent on the values of the very society one despises, and have negated it all that one is left with is a black hole. The point is to create new values that leap beyond the negative values of society. This is what Nietzsche calls, as described by Deleuze, the ‘Dionysian power’ (Allison 1985, p.83).

Perhaps the best way to understand this power is through the distinction Nietzsche makes between Dionysus and Jesus. The life of Jesus, as those who have seen Gibson’s film The Passion know, is a life that is the justification of suffering and which makes of life itself something that causes suffering and which must be justified and legitimated as suffering. This must be distinguished from Dionysus, or at least what this Greek god represents for Nietzsche. Here life does not need to be justified, and even if there is pain, then this is a justified part of life. It does not have to be paid for somewhere else, as in the suffering of Jesus does, for example. Life does not need to be redeemed, for this is nothing to be redeemed. Rather life is to be affirmed as it is. This is what Nietzsche means by the Eternal Return, which is perhaps one of his most difficult ideas:

What if some night or night a demon were to steal into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life that you now live it and have lived it you will have to live once again and innumerable times again.” […] How well disposed would you have become to yourself and to life to long for nothing more fervently than for this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal? (Nietzsche 1974, p.343)

Why then is Nietzsche not a nihilist? Because the nihilist is the one who reduces life to nothing. In this sense it is the Christian or the moralist who is the nihilist. For without Jesus, or morality, life would be exactly nothing. It is because they experience life as nothing in itself that they need the extra moral or religious order above life. The modern nihilist is merely the believer without God, the Christian without Jesus, the moraliser without morals. They are left with the negation of the world, but simply have no belief system to replace religion, morality and philosophy. Without God life is meaningless. But this means that Christianity has to prove that life without God is meaningless. Now that God is dead, all we are left with in the meaningless of life. All that could happen in the future is that we would get new beliefs (capitalism, nationalism) that would simple cover over this the death of God. Nihilism is merely the last symptom of belief, its last stages and final development. It is not the opposite of belief, but merely its final form, as Deleuze so eloquently describes it:

Previously life was depreciated from the height of higher values. Here on the contrary, only life remains, but it is still a depreciated life which now continues in a world without values, stripped of meaning and purpose, sliding every further towards its nothingness. (Deleuze 1983, p.148)

One cannot be a nihilist and affirm life, and Nietzsche’s philosophy is nothing but the affirmation of life as what it is. This is why he is so critical of religion, morality and philosophy. For they all begin with the same presupposition that life doesn’t amount to much, and must be supplemented by a religious, moral, and essentially metaphysical ‘other world’. Yes the nihilist gets rid of this ‘other world’, but she is still left with the hatred of the world that all these beliefs first began with as their original impetus. In one sense, nihilism is worse than morality, religion and philosophy, for it denies life, but has no recompense at all for the life which has been destroyed. What we need then is a new faith, a Dionysian one, which affirms all of life, even suffering that is just as much part of life as joy.

Work Cited

Allison, D.B. ed., 1985. The New Nietzsche : contemporary styles of interpretation, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Deleuze, G., 1983. Nietzsche and philosophy, New York: Columbia University Press.

Nietzsche, F.W., 1974. The Gay Science : with a Prelude in Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs, New York: Vintage Books.


Philosophy as a Way of Life – Lecture 1

October 14, 2012

Nowadays we tend to think of philosophy as an academic discipline that you study in university and that to be a philosopher is to be a professor of philosophy. But that is not always how it as been, according to the French philosopher and historian of ancient philosophy Pierre Hadot (Hadot 1995, pp.81–125). Thus, in ancient philosophy it was perfectly possible to be a philosopher without having written anything, for what mattered was not the discourse of philosophy in itself (being knowledgeable about philosophical theories), but living philosophically.

Living philosophy, Hadot tells us, was a spiritual exercise and he is very clear why it has to be called this, even though in our ears it might sound generally religious, or particularly, because of Ignatius Loyola, Christian.[1] Spiritual because it was more than merely moral or intellectual exercise, but consisted of a total transformation of one’s existence. Hadot divides these spiritual exercises into four distinctive disciplines, which we will describe in turn:

  1. Learning to live
  2. Learning to dialogue
  3. Learning to die
  4. Learning to read

Learning to Live

If the aim of philosophy is to teach one how to live one’s life better, what is it that prevents us from doing so? The answer for ancient philosophy is the passions. It is because we cannot control our passions that we end up being miserable and unhappy. The art of living well, therefore, is measured by the ability to control ones passions and this is what philosophy can teach you. One of the schools of philosophy, the Stoics, argued that there were two origins for human unhappiness: we seek satisfaction in possessions that we cannot have or can lose, and we try to avoid misfortunes that are inevitable. Philosophy teaches us is that the only matter that truly lies in our power are moral goods. The rest we should accept with indifference. I cannot control what happens to me, but what I can determine in my attitude to it. It is through the spiritual exercises of philosophy that we can free ourselves from our passions and view any misfortune that happens to us with equanimity. The most important of these exercises in Stoicism is ‘attention’ (prosoche). It is only through constant self-vigilance that I can learn how to control my passions. The fundamental rule of life is to be able to determine what depends on me and what does not, and I can only do that through permanent attention to myself and to the outside world. One of the most important aspects of the self-vigilance is attention to the present moment. Much human unhappiness is caused either my being weighed down by the past or hoping too much from the future. It is better to live in the present moment and accept reality as it, the simple joy of existing, as the other major school of ancient philosophy, Epicureanism, calls it.

The intellectual exercises of philosophy, reading and writing, listening and talking to other, were never simply for the sake of gaining more knowledge, but applying this knowledge to how one lives ones own life. Thus physics, for example, was never just about learning about the structure of the universe, but also demonstrating the scale of one’s own petty human worries. In an infinite universe, how much do my own fears and desires matter? Nature is indifferent to my unhappiness and only my own freedom should concern me, which is the freedom to be who I am.

Learning how to dialogue

Intellectual and spiritual activity is never a solitary affair. This is why the ancient philosophical schools were always communal in form. I learn to think for myself by thinking with others. It is not so much what is said that is important but that one speaks, because it is only through interacting with others that I can gain any self-knowledge. As Hadot writes: ‘

The intimate connection between dialogue with others and dialogue with oneself is profoundly significant. Only he who is capable of a genuine encounter with the other is capable of an authentic encounter with himself, and the converse is equally true. (Hadot 1995, p.91)

What I learn is that philosophy is a journey and not an end. Wisdom is always something towards which I can only ever aim and never reach. Such a relation of authentic speech with others is always more important than writing and appearing to be knowledgeable. Again the aim of philosophy is self-transformation and not knowledge, if knowledge means here theory or discourse.

Learning to Die

Learning to die is not a morbid obsession with death. Quite the opposite, it is to learn not to fear death. For what is the most important aspect of human life is that it transcends death. Socrates, the most important philosopher for both the Stoics and the Epicureans, was willing to die for his beliefs, because he realised that what was the most important thing about him was not his body, but his ideas, and these would live on despite him. Far more important than ones individual life is truth itself. To learn to die, therefore is not to be obsessed about death in a morbid way, but to aim for a higher existence. To realise that thought is more important than the passions of the body. It is to transcend the individual existence of the sensible body (which will perish as part of the natural cause of things) for the sake of the universality and objectivity of thought. It is in thought that we find our true freedom, whereas our body, through which our passions affect us, is a kind of tyranny and prison. The fact of death highlights the insignificance of our affairs which torment and worry us. Our deaths could arrive at any time, so we shouldn’t become too attached to our possessions nor try and find meaning in what is inauthentic. To think of one’s death in one’s life is to realise what is and is not important. It is the very possibility of an authentic life.

Learning to Read

To read, to gain knowledge, is not an end in itself but for the sake of self-formation, to understand oneself.[2] This means ridding ourselves of the inessential to find what is essential beneath, and what is essential is the life of reason, for this is what expresses the true essence of the human being. Only in the practice of thought can I truly be free, the rest is the slavery of passive emotions. The aim of all spiritual exercises is therefore the same: return to the true self so as to liberate yourself from the passions that control you from the outside. For the Cynics, the third great school of ancient philosophy, this meant breaking from all social conventions and morality, since society’s rules themselves are only the result of people’s fears and desires and not a true reflection of human virtue.

Even the written masterpieces of philosophy that we still read today are not important in themselves. One reads and writes philosophy not so that one could be clever about it, but that the practice of reading and writing itself is directed towards self-mastery and control. Thus what is important is first of all is teaching (learning how to dialogue) and writing only has a function within this practice. Such then is the origin our own confusion. For us, philosophy is about systems, discourses and books. So when we go back to read ancient philosophy, we are troubled by the absence of systematic thought. But this is because we have failed to understand the context and the reasons for this writing. It was never for the sake of philosophical discourse itself, but the practice of self mastery and freedom.

Why then have we ended up with such a different conception of philosophy as an academic discipline? Hadot’s answer is that with the rise of Christianity as the sole religion of the state there was no reason to have competing philosophical schools all contesting their own interpretation of truth and so they were closed (by emperor Justin in 529 AD). More importantly than this mere historical event, however, is the relation between theology and philosophy itself in the Medieval University. If theology is the source of truth and how to live one’s life, then the only function of philosophy would be secondary. It purpose was to rationalise the dogmas of religion, but it was religion itself, and not philosophy, that was the guide to life. In the modern age, however, with the rise of secularism and the end of the domination of theology, philosophy as a way of life can emerge once more, and there is no doubt in modern philosophers such as Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Heidegger (and even Foucault in more recent times), we see that philosophy again has a direct bearing on how one lives one life, rather than being an academic discourse. Of course one might wonder, if this is the authentic voice of philosophy, what academic philosophy in universities is meant to be.

Works Cited

Hadot, P., 1995. Philosophy as a Way of Life : Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault, Oxford: Blackwell.


[1] Worse than this it might even sound stupid as much of the industry around spirituality is.

[2] This conception of education is entirely absent from our current society, which tends to believe that the only function of education is to earn more money. See for example Lord Browne’s report on the funding of Higher Education in the England (the basis of the privatisation of universities), which can only conceive of education as a private economic benefit. See, http://goo.gl/CrRYl.