Why Philosophy?

September 25, 2016

thalesPlato famously said that the ‘unexamined life is not worth living’ (Apology 38a). But what is an examined life in contrast? Normally, I suppose, when we live our lives, we do not question our fundamental principles, values or beliefs. If we did so constantly, then we would not be able to live at all. I imagine this is what most people think philosophers are. People who can’t live proper lives, who have their heads in the skies, who aren’t reasonable, serious people. This isn’t a new insult. It does right back to when there were first philosophers (because there haven’t always been such strange people). Plato tells the story of Thales, who was one of the first philosophers, who we know off, who was so distracted by the heavens that he fell into a hole. This is the passage in full:

Why take the case of Thales. While he was studying the stars and looking upwards, he fell into a pit, and a neat, witty, Thracian girl jeered at him, they say, because he was so eager to know the things in the sky that he could not see what was there before him at his very feet. The same jest applies to all who pass their lives in philosophy.
(Theatetus, 174a)

Well I don’t suppose such a thing really happened. It has the ring of a myth just because the metaphor is so telling. Isn’t studying philosophy just like falling into a hole, and doesn’t everyone laugh at philosophers because they don’t take life seriously enough. The joke, however, in the end, is not on Thales, but those who laughed at him, because, according to Aristotle, having spent so much time staring at the heavens, he was able to predict that the next olive harvest was going to be very good and thus he made a fortune by cornering the market in olive presses (Politics 1.11 1259a5-19).[1] Perhaps it is not so useless being a philosopher at all.

I don’t think, though, that was the reason that Plato thought an examined life was better. I don’t think he was recommending philosophy as a way of making money (or getting a career as we might say nowadays). Though that might be a consequence of doing philosophy, that should not be the reason you chose to do philosophy. The reason that Plato recommended philosophy was that he thought that it would make you a better human being. In this way he saw philosophy as a spiritual task that consumed the whole person and not just a skill one could become better at. The word ‘spiritual’ has perhaps become an overused word in our culture and in that way might be redundant unless we give it a precise meaning. What I do not mean by spirituality in this context is a pseudo-religious activity or practice, as when someone might say that they are spiritual but not religious. Still less do I mean the commercial side of spiritual activity, like faith healing, crystals and reincarnation. All these are a kind of watered down mysticism that is the opposite of what Plato means by an examined life.

At the end of another dialogue, The Symposium, Plato tells us a story about how philosophy was born from Poverty and Resource (203a). Someone who has everything and desires nothing cannot be a philosopher, but equally someone who has nothing and cannot desire anything will not be able either. The philosopher is someone who exists in between the two. She knows that there is truth but that she lacks it, and it is because she lacks it that she desires it. Wisdom, the love of wisdom, which is what the word ‘philosophy’ means in Greek (φίλος meaning ‘love’ and σοφία meaning ‘wisdom’), is this continual search for the truth and Plato seems to suggest that this search is unending. The philosopher is always looking for the truth and is never certain that she has found it, whereas non-philosophers always know they have found the truth and everyone else is wrong. The fundamentalist and the philosopher, then, would be two very different people.[2]

Is all of this still too abstract? How would we apply Plato’s dictum to our own lives. Most of the time, I think, if we were to be honest we don’t think for ourselves. Rather we think like everyone else. We have the same opinions, the same likes and dislikes, and we act in the same way. It is when we question this common opinion that we begin to ask ourselves how could we really be ourselves. Now this might seem to be the easiest thing of all to do. Since aren’t we all ‘selves’ aren’t we already born a ‘somebody’, an individual? Yet this self that everyone is isn’t the self that we are after, because we want to be uniquely ourselves. This isn’t something that we born to be. Rather it is something we have to accomplish throughout our whole lives, and is something it is very possible to fail at.

The courage to be oneself, the courage to just be, is very difficult indeed. To conform, to be like everyone else, is, in comparison, very easy and what we always tempted to do instead. Philosophy isn’t about learning about philosophy just for its own sake, though it can become like that in a university sometimes, but how one faces the question of one’s own existence and how one gives meaning to one’s own life. This means being able to look inside of yourself and reflect about what is important to you, what are you values and desires and from that be able to choose the best life for yourself (which might not be the same as what other people might think is the best life for you), and once you have chosen to have the strength and commitment to carry it through.

What might prevent you from doing so is always the opposite of philosophy, distraction and boredom. Most of the time we just fill our lives in with doing stuff, as though our time were endless and we could always put off making a decision. It’s a bit like how we think about our own death. We are always certain that our death is some way ahead (especially when we are young) so we don’t really have to concern ourselves with it. Of course that isn’t true, because in fact our deaths could happen at any time and we wouldn’t know at all. What would it mean to live with that realisation? It would mean that you would have to ask yourself if you were really to die in the next moment would you be wasting your time as you are doing now just drifting from one moment to the next. The American writer, Hubert Selby Jr., writes about a ‘spiritual experience’ that he had, which is close to what I am describing here.[3] He says that one day at home, he suddenly had the realisation that he was going to die, and that if he did die, he would look back upon his whole life as a waste because he hadn’t done what he wanted to do. He hadn’t become the person he wished to be. In that very moment of wishing that he could live his life again and not waste it, he would die. This realisation terrified him. It was this terror that was his spiritual experience, though at the time, he says, he didn’t realise that, he was just terrified. It was at that very moment that he became a writer. Not that he had any skill, or any idea of what being a writer was, but he wanted to do something with his life (at the time he was on the dole and in between doing dead-end jobs) and writing seemed the best thing (of course it could have been something else, but it was doing something with his life and not regretting it that was the important thing). He has learnt to become a writer by writing but it was his ‘spiritual experience’ that made he do it and also made him commit to it, not just give up because it was difficult.

I think what Plato means by philosophy, by an ‘examined life’ as opposed to an ‘unexamined one’ is what Hubert Selby Jr. means by a ‘spiritual experience’. I am not sure that you can do philosophy if you haven’t had one (though you might be very clever about philosophy). Notice that this experience hasn’t got anything to do with being intellectual or knowing a lot of stuff. It’s about facing oneself honestly and about a commitment to a life lived without knowing how it might end up.

Works Cited

White, Stephen, ‘Thales and the Stars’, in Presocratic Philosophy: Essays in Honour of Alexander Mourelatos, ed. by Victor Caston and Daniel Graham (Aldershot, Hants.: Ashgate, 2002), pp. 3–18.


[1] For a full account of what we know about Thales, which is very little, see, Stephen White, ‘Thales and the Stars’, in Presocratic Philosophy: Essays in Honour of Alexander Mourelatos, ed. by Victor Caston and Daniel Graham (Aldershot, Hants.: Ashgate, 2002), pp. 3–18.

[2] Perhaps Plato typifies the non-philosophy in the figure of Thrasymachus in the Republic, who does not like arguing or contemplating the truth from different perspectives but always wants to win. The practice of philosophy, what it means to philosophise, is as of much importance to Plato, perhaps even more so, than the content.

[3] You can watch him talk about this here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3e0O09_ZekE. He starts talking about his spiritual experience at about 8.36.


Aesthetics – Lecture 5

April 21, 2016

brillo-soap-pads-1969What do we mean by aesthetic judgement and what are we doing when we talk about something that we call art. The word ‘aesthetics’ comes from the Greek word αισητική. It means ‘sensation’ in the sense in which we might feel the cool wind blow against our cheeks or the taste of the bitter sweet coffee in the morning. Both these are sensations. Let use this word as a clue for our own investigation of aesthetics, even though for the ancient Greeks this word had no reference to art. We might say, therefore, that the first, and most simple, component of art is the existence of an object, for it is objects that we sense. Let us not make any judgement about this object at the moment, for we will want to leave the contentious debate about what constitutes an art or media object till the end of this lecture. At the moment all we have before us is an object and the idea, perhaps the most obvious one, that without objects there wouldn’t be any art.

So well and good. But what is an object in an aesthetic sense? We know what it means to sense an object, but is this all we are speaking about when we speak about an art object. We say that the object has certain properties or qualities that are, what can we say, ‘picked up’ by the brain in the way that a radio picks up signals from space. The coffee is bitter and sweet and this bitterness and sweetness is somehow, very mysteriously, transported to my brain via the taste buds of my mouth and tongue, and then even more mysteriously translated into the thoughts ‘bitter’ and ‘sweet’ in my mind (not my brain this time!).

This whole occult process of sensation has been the debating point of philosophers for centuries. Is the sensed object real? Is the bitterness and sweetness actually in the object, or only in my mind? How can we distinguish the brain from the mind? And so on and on ad nauseam. Thankfully for us we don’t have to get involved in this debate, but it has introduced something that we might find as useful for the understanding art as an object, and that it is the subject who senses, perceives and reflects about the object. Thus, no matter what kind of art we are talking about we can always say that there must be at least two things: an object, and a subject relating some way with it.

Let us stay with this subject and object for a bit, and see whether it may help us understand the nature of aesthetic judgement a little bit more. The question we need to ask ourselves is how the subject, the spectator, stands towards the art or media object. To get closer to this we need to think about how we ordinarily stand towards objects in the world. I would say that objects mean something to us in relation to their uses. We interpret objects in relation to what matters to us. Thus, it is probably incorrect to say that we have sensations that we then convert into meaningful objects, rather the world of objects we move around in, and which is our home and context, is already meaningful for me. I do not hear sounds out of my window and then hear a car, rather I hear the sound of the car from the first (of course I might hear sounds that I cannot recognise, but they would still have the meaning ‘unrecognisable sound’ attached to them, and I might be wrong about the sound that I hear, but nonetheless I would be hearing meaningful sounds and not just a jumble of senseless noise that I then have to construct into a meaningful object). Even in our most theoretical approach to object, there meaning is given in advance by the corresponding scientific telos, whether we are talking about quantum mechanics or evolutionary biology.

With art, however, something different is going on. For in art sensations are in some sense redeemed; that is to say, sensations matter to us, but not in the same way as they do in our practical involvement with objects. In the latter, sensation is subordinate to meaning, but in the former sensation and meaning are in conflict, and the experience of art is perhaps nothing else than a deep feeling of the gap or gulf between them. This is why the experience of art is always the experience of a resistance of expression. For unlike with our practical involvement with objects, sensation is never wholly subsumed under meaning. This is why art and media are significant, but not in a conceptual manner. They always seem to resist being completely exhausted about what we say about them.

There are two ways we can look at this strange relation between sensation and meaning in art: one from the side of the subject, and the other, the object. Let us begin with the subject first. We think that what makes something a artwork is a property of the work itself, such that it has ‘art’ just in the same way that our coffee has ‘bitterness’ and ‘sweetness’. Perhaps this is most common-sense theory of art, and is certain the one that you most hear about in the newspapers, on radio and television, and the internet. Thus, we get the endless and infinite debates about what good art is, as if it were a matter of simply recognising something about a painting in the way that one comes to recognise what a dog is by the ability to remember certain features. From this it follows that good art has certain properties (x, y and z) that bad art does not possess. Good art, for example, is usually figurative, and bad art abstract or conceptual.

But that is to treat art as though it were simply an object of perception with certain objective properties, which is to miss completely the significance of the aesthetic relation to objects. What is important is precisely this relation itself and not the object, for it is clear, with what is called ‘modern art’, that anything can be art object, for what the object it is not just what matters, but how we relate to it. This does not mean, however, that aesthetic judgements simply a matter of liking something? This is when this peculiar gap between sensation and meaning, which is how we spoke about art, returns. For if art were merely a matter of sensations, then aesthetic judgements would be merely a question of preference. You like Picasso, I like Duchamp and so on.

To see that the relation to art cannot be the same as mere preference is to understand that in talking about art I am making a claim upon others. There are actually three elements we need to be aware of when we are investigating art: the object, the subject (the spectator, if you prefer) and others to whom I address my claims about the object (of course, I also belong to these others). The difference between an object of mere sensation and an aesthetic object, is not to be found in the object itself, rather it is in the claim I make to others. In saying something is a work of art and has aesthetic excellence, then involved in this judgement is the implicitly the notion of universal agreement (Kant called it the sensus communis (1952, p. 82)). This does not mean that there will be universal agreement. In reality we know this is never the case, but I make an aesthetic judgement as if it were possible. Thus I do not just say that I like Picasso, rather I say that Picasso is a great painter, and you ought to agree as well, and there is something wrong with (you lack understanding if you don’t). This is not the case with mere preference, which is purely subjective, and I do not seek to gain, if only ideally, universal agreement that chocolate is better than strawberry ice cream, for this is merely a matter of enjoyment and pleasure and not an aesthetic judgement. The difference would be if the ice cream were in an art gallery and some one asked for my aesthetic opinion about it. I would have misunderstood them completely if I had gone up to the ice cream and licked it and said that it tasted quite good. Of course I could do this as an aesthetic judgement, as a statement that I didn’t think it was a work of art, but that would be something quite different, precisely because I would be making be making a claim for universal agreement.

This subjective account of the relation to art, however, misses out something very important, and this is the object. For in this subjective account of aesthetics, what counts is the discourse about art and not the art itself. An object is art, because it part of a discourse about art that has a certain form of the ideal universal agreement, rather than the mere expression of liking and preference. But I would like to say that the art object also has a presence, which differentiates it from ordinary objects, and which always resists our judgements about them. I would not say ‘outside’ or ‘exterior’ to, for this resistance of the object only ‘appears’ as such through the judgements, including their appeal to an ideal universal agreement, we make in their failure to capture completely their enigmatic and obscure presence. It is this that is the particular tension between sensation and meaning that creates the aura of an art work.

This resistance interrupts our understanding of our everyday world. In so doing it makes our world present. In our everyday affairs and general business, it is not so. It is only when my involvement is broken and interrupted it does so. A chair that I sit on every day at my desk is not present, nor the world in which it stands, unless one day it breaks as I sit on it. But Rauschenberg’s bed does so. In our everyday lives we never notice that the door is there. We simply grasp hold of the handle and walk through into the room. But if one day the door handle were to break, and I could not open the door as I ordinarily do, then the presence of the door would be visible to me, but also, and this is the most strange thing, so would the world in which working doors are necessary. The class room where I need to teach students about aesthetics, the university, the aim of teaching, Western culture and so on. Art, in its strange and enigmatic presence (a presence which is the opposite of the commodity) are like broken objects that reveal our world, like the cave paintings of Chauvet and Lascaux grant us a glimpse the absent world of the Palaeolithic age.

Works Cited

Kant, I., 1952. The critique of judgement. Clarendon Press, Oxford.


From Kant to Marx via Hegel – Lecture 4

April 19, 2016

We are interested in Marx the philosopher. We are not interested in Marxism nor in the histMarxory of communism. To understand Marx as a philosopher we have to go back to his philosophical roots. This means going back to Kant’s ethics and to Hegel’s criticism of Kant’s ethics. To understand Marx as a philosopher, we have to understand why he went further than Hegel and why, in the end, he rejected Hegel’s defence of the state as the ultimate guarantee of freedom because it was not sufficiently concrete.

Freedom, as Kant argued, is not a real property of things. I can see that the table is brown and the chair is blue, but I cannot ‘see’ freedom in that way. Freedom, on the contrary, is an ‘idea’. It is a necessary human invention that is an expression of what it means to be a rational animal. It is a necessary invention, because without it, we cannot even understand what it means to be a rational being, and therefore what it means to be human. We are not rational and then free, rather to be rational means to be free. Rationality and freedom are one and the same thing.

Kant’s ethics starts from this intuition. To be moral means to be responsible for your actions. No one thinks that a non-rational being is responsible for what they do. Thus I do not think that my dog is morally responsible for peeing on the kitchen floor, even though I might find this inconvenient. Likewise, I do not take a young child to be morally responsible for soiling their diapers. I think that they do not know any better, so I do not judge them. However, I do think that you, as a morally responsible adult, are to be judged for your actions. For you are capable of deliberating about them. If not, then I do not judge you. Kant is making the point that if we did not think that human beings, as rational animals, were not responsible for their actions, then there would be no morality as such, and if there were no morality, then there would be no society. Freedom, responsibility, and ethics all go together, and one follows necessarily from the other.[1]

To act morally is to act from principle. The grocer does not adulterate his products not because he will gain more customers from being honest, but that he knows in principle it is wrong to be dishonest (Kant, 1956, p. 65). Of course, from the outside it is impossible to know whether the grocer is acting from principle or not, since both a selfish and selfless action appear the same: the grocer does not adulterate his flour. It is only from within the subject’s intentions that an action is moral or not. This is the function and purpose of the categorical imperative. As a process of deliberation it tells me whether my actions are moral or not. If I can universalise my subjective maxims, then I go know with certainty whether they are coherent and consistent. Thus stealing is not wrong because others have told me so, but because it is incoherent to both wish it and universalise it at the same time, since to steal is dependent on this existence of property that it contradicts in its application.

Freedom can only be preserved through the consistency and coherence of rules that are universal. Freedom is not a fact of nature, it is a fact of reason. If we wish to live as free beings, then we have to follow the moral law, otherwise my freedom would be the limitation of others. It is only because we all follow the same moral law as rational beings that we can all equally be free. In the end, for Kant, reason is only important because it allows us to be moral beings, to rationalise and be responsible for our actions. There is no empirical proof of freedom, it is normative. Kant is arguing that if you want to live in a word of free beings, then the only way to do so is to act morally in a coherent and consistent way. If you don’t want to be free, then give up morality, but are you sure that you do really wish to live in a world like that?

For Hegel Kant’s practical philosophy has two important weakness. First, the formalism of the moral law means that it doesn’t give us sufficient content in order to apply it in a given situation without additional material. Second, even if the moral law did work as Kant describes it, it is not sufficient to motivate us to act morally (Sedgwick, 2012, p. 2). As every undergraduate knows, it might seem quite right not to tell lies, but surely it would be absurd to tell a Nazi that I am hiding my Jewish neighbour in my cellar if he were so to ask me. As Hegel argues in the Elements of the Philosophy of Right, it is no contradiction to steal if no property existed, so property has to exist as a real social fact, rather than a universal formal law, for theft to be seen as violating morality (Hegel, 1991, pp. 162–3). Moreover, if morality does not benefit me as a particular individual (rather than some abstraction like ‘humanity in general’), then it would hardly motivate me to act at all. Why would I act from duty, if doing so did not make me a better person?

For Kant, the self is thought abstractly through reason. For Hegel, it is thought concretely through society.[2] There is freedom because we mutually respect each other, first of all in terms of our physical existence, since slavery is the belief that we can own another human being, like any other commodity, and secondly through our respect of the other’s possession, which in are in reality an extension of their own subjectivity. The fundamental opposition for Hegel is between morality (Moralität) and ‘ethical life’ (Sittlichkeit). In Kant’s conception of morality, every individual lives in their own private world, and the agreement with others is accidental. But the fact, Hegel would argue, that we can live as free individuals without being molested by others, is that are real social institutions that protect our freedom. Freedom is a social reality before it is a ‘fact of reason’.

Hegel was aware, however, from reading Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, that there was a great difference between modern societies and ancient ones. Kant too recognised the danger of the market. It would undermine the respect we would have for each of other as an end in itself, but for Hegel it was insufficient to think that the alienation of economic relations could be overcome by morality. It required the state to intervene to balance the excesses of market where individuals were reduced to commodities. The state preserves society so as to promote autonomy. It is not the state that destroys the freedom of the individual, since in its true form it should be the expression of the individual’s freedom, but the market, which if left unchecked leads to alienation and exploitation, a universal slavery of another form, wage slavery.

Has the world turned out as Hegel thought it would? Perhaps the answer to this question is ‘no’. In Hegel’s mind, the state would replace the social bonds that were being destroyed by the market in civil society, but what in fact happened is that the state identified itself with the market. Government is nothing but economic self-management and all social relations have been sacrificed to market ones. Hegel, then, completely underestimated the power of capital to destroy all societies that have existed and to replace them in their own form, as Marx and Engel’s famously wrote at the beginning of The Communist Manifesto:

All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is a last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind (Marx and Engels, 2002, p. 223).

The reason that Hegel’s philosophy failed is the same as Kant’s. It sought the solution to alienation and exploitation in thought rather than in real lives of individuals. If Hegel did argue that the foundation of morality was society, then this society a concept rather than the real social existence of individuals. The individual, the self, the subject, is something that is thought by Hegel. It is the individual as thought, the self as thought, the subject as thought. It is not the individual who lives, the self who lives, the subject who lives. It is because Hegel’s solution to the alienation and exploitation of the market was a solution of thought alone that in the end his philosophy made no difference to reality at all for those who suffered and were exploited and who suddenly found themselves ‘unfree’ in the a so called free society.

Human beings, for Marx, are first of all living, breathing suffering beings, before they are thinking beings, and what they suffer from are not merely the thoughts of suffering and pain, but real suffering and pain. The world is real. It can engulf me. It is not merely the projection of my mind and imagination. Take the example of hunger, Marx writes in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (Marx, 1992, p. 390). Hunger is a natural need, therefore, the object that corresponds to it is something real and objective, not merely a postulate of thought. I cannot overcome my hunger merely by thinking about it. I must eat something or in the end I will die of hunger. I must eat in order to live. It is only by transforming the real world through real activity that I will solve this problem of hunger and not through the idea of hunger.

This does not mean that Hegel’s philosophy does not contain the truth of criticism, but it exists in a doubly alienated form, where the object is only the thought entity, and the subject is only consciousness. The solution to alienation for Hegel, therefore, is a solution that is internal to the mind. The separation of consciousness from the world, which finds its highest expression in religion, is separation which it discovers internally in its mind. The solution to this separation is therefore only mental. I only have to think this alienation as end and it magically it is ended. But it is ended in thought alone Marx will reply. I think that I am no longer alienated but really I am still alienated, for as a philosopher I have alienated myself from my own natural existence, as a human being, as Marx writes in a footnote, ‘with eyes, ears, etc., living in society, in the world and in nature’ (Marx, 1992, p. 398). You cannot think your way out of alienation; rather you have to find the solution in life. All the solutions of Hegelianism are false solutions.

What is true about Hegel’s philosophy is the meaning of humanity is one of movement and process. Humanity is not given, rather it has to create and make itself. It does so by overcoming its alienation, by destroying the separated character of the world. But this superseding of alienation must be a real superseding at the level of existence and not merely at the level of thought, a real act of living self-creation, and not merely the thought of such an act, and human beings will only become truly free when capital is for the sake of life, rather than life for the sake of capital. This would require a fundamental transformation of democracy where the state would exist for the majority of the people, rather than a small minority who believed they already knew what the interests of the majority were.

Bibliography

Beiser, F.C. (Ed.), 1993. The Cambridge companion to Hegel. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge [England]; New York.

Hegel, G.W.F., 1991. Elements of the philosophy of right. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge [England]; New York.

Kant, I., 1956. The moral law: Kant’s groundwork on the metaphysic of morals : a new translation with analysis and notes. Hutchinson, London.

Marx, K., 1992. Early writings. Penguin Books in association with New Left Review, Harmondsworth, Eng.; New York.

Marx, K., Engels, F., 2002. The communist manifesto. Penguin Books, London; New York.

Musil, R., 2011. The man without qualities. Picador, London.

Sedgwick, S., 2012. Hegel’s critique of Kant. OUP Oxford.


[1] If we were to argue that no-one is responsible for their actions, thus that genes or their upbringing were, then we would have no right to punish them. We punish others as a mark of our respect for them as autonomous free individuals. This is one theme of Robert Musil’s novel, The Man without Qualities. If the murderer and rapist Moosbrugger commits his crimes because of physical causes, then how can he be blamed for them, since no one accuses the rock that falls on someone head of committing a crime (Musil, 2011).

[2] For an excellent account of Hegel’s ethics see ‘Hegel’s Ethics’ by Allen. W. Wood (Beiser, 1993, pp. 211–33).


Kant’s Transcendental Idealism – Lecture 3

April 9, 2016

immanuel-kant-2To understand Kant you have to, of course, understand what he is rejecting. If you don’t the know context of a philosopher, which is always what problem they are facing, then you won’t really be able to understand the point of their work. You will, for example, think it is easy to dismiss a whole or part of their argument, because it disagrees with some contemporary position (as though they were guilty of some unforeseen stupidity on their part, as though they should have none better). Thus Plato is dismissed because he thinks forms can be separate from instantiations of them, or Aristotle because he believed that reality was made of 5 elements, or Descartes because he believed in God, and so on. Of course, once one has grasped the context of a philosopher that does not mean that one has to take on board all the they say, but it does mean that one won’t dismiss them in a superficial way.

One way of understanding Kant’s philosophy is seeing how it arises out of the perennial conflict between empiricism and rationalism in Western Philosophy (though we shall see that it is not as simple as simply unifying them as some might believe). We have already spent some time in discussion of rationalism because of our lecture on Descartes, so this time we will look at, in a little detail, empiricism, and more specifically Hume.

He famously woke Kant from his ‘dogmatic slumbers’, since before reading Hume, he was a rationalist of a kind.[1] What then is the basis of Hume’s philosophy? We do not require unjustified metaphysical speculation in order to have a rational scientific understanding of nature. To rid ourselves of this metaphysical speculation we have to become sceptical has to the objective basis of science, but this is necessary if we are not to base it on fictional and imaginary ideas. For Hume the source of all our ideas are the senses. This limitation is very important for Kant. Like Hume, he will argue that our knowledge of the world is limited to what is given in experience. Outside of that we can know nothing. In this sense, Kant is more Humean than he is Cartesian.

Sensations themselves are divided into two for Hume. On the one had there are impressions, and on the other ideas. Impression are direct sensations. I see the colour blue. Blue is the immediate sensation. Ideas are the relations between impression. I see many blue things, and I compare them through the concept ‘blue’. This does not mean ideas are separate from impression in terms of their existence. An idea exists only because there are impressions, and these impressions have their source in the sensation of the world. Ideas are, if you like, impressions that have become older. They are less vivid and present than immediate sensations, but they are made of nothing but sensations. A blind man, Hume argues, could not have an idea of a colour, because he has not seen it, nor a deaf man sound, because he has not heard it (Hume & Buckle 2007, p.16). Hume’s question is whether there is a necessary order in the relations of ideas, as there is in the order of impressions (in sensation, one impression comes after the other). In other words, what groups or orders my ideas together. If I think of x, must I also think of y?

The answer is that I associate one idea with another. There are three kinds of association for Hume, resemblance, proximity and causality. If I see a picture of a fox, then I am likely to think of a fox, if I imagine a room in the university, then I am likely to think of a room next to it, and finally, if I think of stone dropping from someone’s hand, then I likely to think of falling to the ground. Now it is the last association that is fundamental to how we think of the explanations of natural sciences. When we think of explanations in total, then are two kinds: relations of ideas and matters of fact. For the former, Hume is thinking of logic and mathematics. For these, we do not have to go beyond the ideas themselves (if you understand the meaning of one idea, then you will know why the other idea is necessarily associated with, so that ‘bachelor’ must mean ‘unmarried man [remembering that these ideas still have their origin in impressions]). But for matters of fact this is not the case, because they tell us something new about the world, rather than just analyse what we already know. Why do we believe that the sun will rise tomorrow, when we could equally believe the opposite. Hume is not arguing that we shouldn’t believe that the sun will rise (in fact he has good argument to think why we do), but there is no logical reason why we shouldn’t. The reason why we do is that we associate one idea with the other, the idea that the sun rose yesterday with the idea that the sun will rise tomorrow. We might think that we get to this second idea through an argument, where the statement ‘the sun rose yesterday’ is a premise. If it is an argument of this kind, then it could only be a relation of ideas or a matter of fact. It can’t be the first, since there is no contradiction in thinking the opposite, but it can’t be a matter of fact, because it is precisely that kind of argument I am trying to prove, so I appear to be going around in circles.

The answer must be that my conviction must have its origin elsewhere and that a belief is not the same a giving a reason or having a reason (indeed Hume will argue that our reasons have their source in our beliefs rather than the other way around). His answer is that the source of this belief is in our impressions rather than in our ideas first of all. It is because I have had the vivid experience of the sun rising again and again in the past. The belief that it will do so in the future is a habit and custom of the mind that I associated with the impression of I am having now. Thus when I see the see the dawn, whether directly or indirectly, I immediately associate it with the idea of the sun rising and I cannot help but do so because this custom or habit belongs to human nature intrinsically. A belief then is a particular vivid idea. Not as vivid as a direct sensation, but more vivid than a reason or a concept, and it is this that cause me always to associate x with y. Of course experience is open ended. It is perfectly possible that one day my belief will be unconfirmed rather than confirmed by experience.

Kant is more on Hume’s side, as we have said, rather than Descartes. In these sense, he is an empirical realist, that our understanding and experience of the world is given by experience, and we cannot deduce facts about the world by arguing from ideas. Where he differs from Hume is how far he is willing to take this. He argues that causality cannot be just an habit of mind, an association, but must be fundamental to our experience as such, so fundamental that we would even be having experiences of objects at all, rather than worrying whether the sun might rise tomorrow or not.

What is fundamental to Kant’s difference from both Descartes and Hume is how he conceives of the relation between the subject and object. For both of them, though they give completely diametrically opposed answers to the problem, it is a question of how the subject conforms to the object. For Descartes, my knowledge conforms to the object through ideas, whereas for Hume, it does so through sensations. For Kant, on the contrary, and it is this that is totally novel in his approach, the relation between the subject and object must be reversed. It is not how does the subject conform to the object, but how does the object conform to the subject. As Kant writes,

Hitherto it has been assumed that all our knowledge must conform to objects. But all our attempts to extend our knowledge of objects by establishing something in regard to them a priori, by means of concepts, have, on this assumption, ended in failure. We must therefore make trial whether we may not have more success in the tasks of metaphysics, if we suppose that objects must conform to our knowledge […] We should then be proceeding on the lines of Copernicus’ primary hypothesis. (Kant 2007, p.Bxvi)

Both Hume and Descartes relate knowledge to knowing the thing as it is in itself. One asserts that we can now it through ideas, the other through sensations. But it precisely this ‘thing’ that we cannot know, Kant argues. We can know how the object appears to us. Appearance itself is split into two: the content of appearance and the form of appearance. The content of appearance is what is given in experience (what Hume calls sensations or impressions). The form is how these contents appear to us. Thus, we can distinguish between what the chair is, and how the chair appears to us.

It is Kant’s argument that the form of appearance is universal and necessary. Unlike the habits of Hume, then, they are true of all human cognition, and we cannot experience the world in any other way. In the transcendental aesthetic, Kant describes the pure forms of sensation, time and space; in the transcendental logic, the pure forms of the object (the categories of the understanding); and finally in the transcendental dialectic, how philosophy gets into difficulties when it treats these pure forms as though they were objects of experience that one could know directly.

Let us look at Kant’s argument for the pure form of space in the Critique of Pure Reason, because by examining this one argument we will see how Kant’s employs a transcendental method to solve the age old antagonism between empiricism and rationalism. Kant is arguing that space and time are a priori and synthetic. What he means by that is that space is prior to experience but also adds something to experience (it unifies it; this is the formal element). We can already see that Kant is doing something novel here, because usually we think that the a priori is analytic, and the synthetic is a posteriori, so it seems quite strange to argue that space and time are a priori and synthetic.

Let us first of all look at the belief that space is something real, just like the objects that we can see. Kant’s argument against this common sense view is quite simple: space, he argues is the outer form of things for us. In other words, things that are outside of us are always in space (the difference from time, is that this is the inner form of ideas – are memories are not literally in space). To say that space is derived from experience is therefore to beg the question, for the very thing that one is trying to prove, spatiality, is already appealed to in the proof. Secondly, space cannot be derived from experience because of its necessity. The necessity of space for every appearance is that it is possible to imagine space without any appearances, no tree, no house and so, but it is not possible to imagine the absence of space and appearances (of course it is possible to think the absence of space, but it is not possible to imagine that there is something and no space). The argument against the Newtonian view that space is something real (a self-subsisting entity, as Kant calls it) is that this would mean that space were a container, but this container itself would have to contained and so on ad infinitum.

This would seem to imply that space, therefore, can only be a concept of things rather than something real, but Kant has to show that space is the pure form of sensations, and not just a concept that we have of things. This is much harder to prove than that space is not real and Kant, for this reason, spends more time doing so. The philosopher he has mind, who thinks space is just a relational concept, is Leibniz. For Leibniz, space is not something, so to speak that exists outside of objects and thus independently of them, rather it is an idea that expresses the relation between objects. Space is, therefore, not something real, but merely an idea. How can we best understand this notion of relational ideal space? Think of two places and the distance between them. Let us think of the two cities of Plymouth and Exeter in the South-West of England. We might say that Exeter is near to London than Plymouth, but is this being nearer a property of Exeter, or does it not rather express the relation between Exeter and Plymouth. For there to be space at all, there needs to be at least two objects. With just one object, there would be no space. If space were not a relation between objects, then it would exist, if there were only one object.

Kant needs to show that space is not simply a thought that we associate with objects, but their necessary form of presentation. He does this by showing that how we use pure intuition of space, is not the same as how we use concepts.[2] The intuition of space is unitary, singular and unique. This means that diverse spaces are parts of one and the same Space. The relation between these spaces, and Space, is not the same as the relations between the concept Tree and instances of trees. All the diverse parts of space belong to one space, but trees do not belong to one and the same Tree, therefore space cannot be a concept, and if it cannot be concept it must be an intuition, since these are the only two sources of human knowledge.[3]

So the conclusion of the argument is that space is not property of things, either as sensation or a concept, but is a necessary part of our experience of the world, for we cannot have an experience of an external without it already been organised through space. Space, therefore, is both a priori, since it is necessary, and synthetic, since it is added something to experience (namely it is spatial). Things are spatial because human consciousness is spatial, and not the other way around. Kant repeats the argument with time, and then in the transcendental logic with logics. It wants also to show through the transcendental deductions that without these pure forms of appearance there would be no object for us at all. As Kant writes,

The a priori conditions of a possible experience in general are at the same time conditions of the possibility of objects of experience. (Kant 2007, p.A111)

So Hume’s argument is that we have an experience and then associated these ideas in our minds. For Kant, on the contrary, we wouldn’t be having an experience at all. Causality is not something that we apply to our experience; it belongs to the very fabric of our experience as something meaningful and coherent from us, and it is on this foundations that the natural sciences are built.

Bibliography

Gardner, S., 2006. Kant and the Critique of pure reason, London; New York: Routledge.

Hume, D. & Buckle, S., 2007. An enquiry concerning human understanding and other writings, Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Kant, I., 2007. Critique of Pure Reason 2nd ed., Palgrave Macmillan.

Kant, I. et al., 2004. Immanuel Kant Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


[1] Of Leibniz-Wolffian kind. Kant writes in Prolegomena, ‘I freely admit that it was the remembrance of David Hume which, many years ago, first interrupted my dogmatic slumber and gave my investigations in the field of speculative philosophy a completely different direction’ (Kant et al. 2004, p.10).

[2] We need to be certain here, as Sebastian Gardner points out, that Kant is not denying that there is a concept of space, but we should not confuse this with the pure intuition of space, which must underlie even this concept (Gardner 2006, p.77).

[3] Kant, in the second edition of The Critique of Pure Reason, also demonstrates the difference between the pure intuition of space and a concept by demonstrating that the infinity of space is not the same as the infinity of a concept.


Descartes and Rationalism – Lecture 2

March 18, 2016

800px-Frans_Hals_-_Portret_van_René_DescartesFor the next several weeks we are going to do a quick tour of the history of philosophy. This is not meant to be exhaustive, but give you a general map of some of the key concepts and ideas. Philosophy is not the history of philosophy, but you cannot do philosophy without its history. First of all because all philosophers are in argument with others, and you don’t know what they are arguing about if you don’t have a grasp of the context of their argument. Secondly, there is a lot of technical jargon in philosophy, so if you don’t know what the concepts are, then you can be totally confused (especially since a lot of these concepts sound like words we ordinarily use, and you soon come to realise that ordinary definitions are pretty worthless when it comes to philosophy). Some people argue that history isn’t important in philosophy, but I don’t agree. Philosophy is historical through and through, like any human activity, and the idea that philosophical ideas are timeless and eternal, is itself an historical idea. There seems something very strange to me to treat Plato’s problems as though they were exactly the same as our, and what he meant by the words he used, is the same as what we do, even though there are thousands of years separating us. Of course, in the end history does not answer everything, but not to know the history leaves you very much in the dark.

When we come to read Descartes’ Meditations we can be very blasé about it. Doesn’t everyone know the famous cogito ergo sum, and has the idea that reality is a dream the basis of a very successful movies series?[1] Because we have become very used to Descartes’ ideas, we also think that they are very easy to dismiss and counter, as though we hardly have to think about them at all. To understand Descartes, however, like every philosopher, is to know what his problem was, since metaphysics is always an answer to a problem. His problem wasn’t whether reality existed or not, but what is the status of our scientific theories. Scientists, on the whole, are not interested in metaphysical problems, but of course philosophers are.

Descartes’ Meditations cannot be understood without the rise of new sciences in the 16th and 17th century. Before he was a philosopher, Descartes was a scientist and mathematician. What propelled him towards philosophy, was his worry about the metaphysical consequences of the new science. Something he believed, for example, that Galileo had not been sufficiently concerned.[2] What this new science required was a completely different metaphysics, but before we can understand what this is we need to be aware, if only in a very schematic way, the metaphysics he was rejecting, which was Scholasticism that had its basis in a reworking of Aristotle.

Let us compare, therefore, an Aristotelian account of vision from a Cartesian one (Hatfield, 2003, pp. 291–4). We today might be very blasé about Descartes’ mechanical explanation of colour, because we take for granted the physiological explanation of colour (colour is nothing but the interaction of the spectrum of light with the retina), but it would have sounded strange to his contemporaries. In the Aristotelian conception of sensation, my perception of external objects is caused by the real qualities of those objects. Thus if I see a red rose then my perception of ‘red’ is caused by the red qualities of that rose. The red exists in the rose, travels to my eye, and thereby causes my sensation of red. As we can see, this seems to be a very common sense view of what happens when we see things (and there are probably people who still think that this is what it means to physically ‘see’ the colour red). For Descartes, on the contrary, there are no ‘red’ things as such. On the contrary, nature is nothing but matter in motion. Matter is corpuscular (infinitely divisible particles). The quality of red in the object, therefore, and its interaction with the eye, can be explained by the shape, size and motion of these particles. Colour is caused by the surface of the object I am looking at, which refracts light particles that interact with the eye. Descartes is not denying that we see red, but that red cannot be explained by a real quality called red. Rather the phenomenon ‘red’ requires a deeper explanation that can only be provided scientifically through the kind of mechanical model that Descartes describes

Now the point is, if you are going to reject the scientific account of Aristotelianism, then you are also going to have discard the metaphysics that underpins it. This is what Descartes does and he thinks Galileo doesn’t. Fundamentally for Aristotle, everything that exists is explained through form and matter. It is the form of something that explains what it is. Thus to understand what it a tree is one has to understand the ‘form’ tree. If we are looking at an oak tree, then the form would be contained in the acorn. This is true, just as much for animate as well as inanimate things. So to explain the sun, we also have to understand the form of the sun, as well as its material existence (which for Aristotle was the four elements, plus the mysterious fifth one, aether). For Descartes, there is only a material explanation of nature. If one wants to understand the sun, then one needs to understand the nuclear fusion of hydrogen to helium. Moreover, these material laws are the same for all objects in nature and the whole of nature itself. The explanation of our sun would be the same as for all suns in the universe, and these explanations would be would be the same for everything that exists (that is, matter in motion, which can be mathematical defined).

The different physics of Aristotle and Descartes means that they have completely different metaphysics. The basis of the universe for Aristotle is individual substances. Because matter is not sufficient to explain what it is to be something, there cannot be a material explanation of nature. Each thing is an individual substance, which is the specific conjunction of form and matter, whether we are speaking of a tree or animal, me or you, the sun and the other stars. For Descartes, there is only one thing that exists and that is matter in motion, and every individual thing we see is only a property or a mode of this one material substance. Things differ only because matter differs (there is a difference is shape, size and motion of particles), not because there is an extrinsic difference between them. We can see in Aristotle’s metaphysics, that we need an explanation for each thing (if we wish for a total explanation), whereas for Descartes, we only need a few simple laws of motion (three), in order to explain everything that we see, and that these simple laws of motion, since they have to only to do with shape, size and motion, can be explained quantitatively (that is mathematically) other than qualitatively in the Aristotelian system.

Only now with this scientific background, can we really begin to understand the Meditations. Descartes’ scepticism, at the beginning, then, is not merely an amusing thought experiment, which will later become the plot of the film Matrix, but presupposes the fundamental break that modern science has taken with the common sense perception of the world. For the hypothesis that nature is matter in motion is precisely that a hypothesis, which one can quite literally not see, and thus what I see cannot itself be true. Thus, the task for Descartes is not to destroy our knowledge of the world, but to rebuild it, but where the foundations will be more secure, no longer resting on our fallible senses, but reliable understanding and reason. Scepticism is not employed for its own sake, or even to make philosophy impossible, but on the contrary, to make our knowledge of the world even more certain, by showing that sceptical arguments can be defeated if our metaphysics is robust enough.

If I can doubt everything in reality, even that my mathematical ideas are a true representation of what is real, then there is one thing, Descartes argues, that I cannot doubt, and that I am thinking. For even if I doubt everything, there is one thing I cannot doubt and that is in the very act of doubting, I am in fact doubting. What is important at this point in Descartes’ argument is not to confuse the status of the ‘I’ in the statement ‘I think therefore I am’. This I is not me as physical being. The ‘I’ that stands before you know, the ‘I’ that is writing this lecture on the computer. My physical reality is just as doubtful as the reality of the rest of physical nature. Also this ‘I’ only exist in the very moment of thinking. Only in the very act of thinking can the ‘I’ be said to exist, because it is self-refuting to argue otherwise. Even if I say, ‘I do not exist’, it is I who am thinking this, and so must exist in the moment I think it.

Though the cogito is very limited in one sense, it also includes a lot more than one might first assume. First of all Descartes includes all acts of consciousness, such remembering, desires, and most importantly for us, perceiving. Thus when I desire something, I exist in the moment of desiring, when I remember something I exist in the moment of remembering it, and when I perceive something, I exist in the moment of perceiving it. When I perceive a something I exist in perceiving it. Of course, following from radical doubt of the first meditation, I don’t know whether what I perceive is the same as what is in reality (it really could be all a dream, or mathematical code as in the film Matrix), but I cannot doubt that I am perceiving the chair. Secondly, and this is going to be very important when we come to look at the wax example, the content of what I think, desire, remember and perceive is also real Again, it is not real, as in ‘out there’, but real in my mind. So when, I am thinking, remembering, desiring, perceiving a chair, I really am thinking, remember, desiring, perceiving a chair, even though I don’t know whether a chair real exists.

When we come to the example of the wax in the third mediation, therefore, we can become completely confused if we think Descartes is talking about the external perception of the wax, because this is precisely what he has given up (we don’t know what the real wax is, because we don’t even know if reality is real). What he is describing is our idea of the wax, how the wax appears to us, even if we don’t whether the wax is real or not. His first description, then, is how the idea of wax appears to us when we take the wax as something we perceive, but perception means here, perception as an action of thought (I am thinking about how the wax is perceived by me), and not perception as the sensation of an external object that I take to exist really outside of me and which effects my sense and which I then think of as was (our example of real qualities and the red flower above). If we were to take that Descartes was doing the latter, then we would be confusing him with Aristotelian account of perception.

What do I think I perceive when I think that the idea of wax is sensation? I have a list of properties that describe the wax. It smells of flowers; it tastes of honey; it makes a sound when you tap it; it is hard and cold to the touch; and it is white and the shape of a cube. Doesn’t this, then, tell us exactly what the wax is. Why would we need to know anymore? We remember, though that Descartes is sitting in a warm room (it tells us at the beginning of the Meditations). With the heat of the room, all the properties of the wax change: there is no fragrance of flowers; no sweetness of honey; no sound when a hit it; it is not hard and cold; it is no longer white and shaped like a cup. How, therefore, can the sense tell us what the wax is, since now it is completely change. The idea of the wax under the thought of perception is a completely confused idea. However, even though I know the wax has completely changed, it is nonetheless the same piece of wax that remained the same throughout this transformation. What is this wax? It can’t be the list of properties of the sensation because these are completely different. It must be what remains when we strip away all these properties that have changed in our idea of the wax itself. What is it that remains? It is the idea of the body in general as ‘something extended, flexible and changeable’. Although I cannot experience this body, since it would have innumerable shapes that I cannot imagine, I nonetheless can think it, and the idea of this body is less confused and incoherent understanding of the wax in general, than what is present by the idea of sensation. Going back to Descartes’ definition of truth, it is, therefore more true.

True, however, only internal to my own thoughts. Not true as true to reality. I still have no idea whether reality is what my ideas say it is, however internally coherent my ideas are. At this point we haven’t got outside the cogito itself. I can say that the idea of extension as the correct understanding of bodies, rather than their real qualities, might make more sense, but it does not mean that the what the wax is in the real world is anything like that at all. At this stage, extension (that matter is extended in three dimensions) as the explanation of all the phenomena we see, including the secondary phenomena of the senses, is merely a hypothesis. To prove that nature in itself is like that, we need to get outside of our minds. But how are going to do that? Through the proof of the existence of God, because the idea of God is a very strange idea, and necessitates the actual existence of the content of the idea, in the way that no other idea I have does.

It is at this point that we can get confused about Descartes’ philosophy. We are told that he is a rationalist and that he is attempting to ground the new science in more rigorous metaphysics, but we associate the idea of God with religion, or even worse with superstition. Why would he know introduce God? Isn’t he rejecting reason altogether? This answer to this question is to go back to the problem. The new science postulates a mathematical reality which is not open to the senses. How do I know that this isn’t a fiction? To the practical scientists this is not a problem. She isn’t worried. She just gets on with her experiments. For the philosopher that isn’t enough. He wants to know that reality really is what we say it is. For this we need there is an external guarantee and this is what God is. Descartes is not proving the existence of God because he lacks faith. He already believes in God. He does not need a proof. We are speaking here of a philosophical concept of God and not a religious one (although as we shall see with Spinoza’s criticism of Descartes, in the conclusion to this this lecture, he might sneak a theological notion within this concept). The concept of God is solving a philosophical problem for Descartes, how do we know that are scientific hypothesis that we cannot see with our senses, is actually telling us the truth about the world, and not a crisis of faith.

One of the problems for the modern reader following Descartes proof is that he uses Scholastic terminology that they might not know.[3] Let us briefly explain this jargon before we look at the argument itself. When it comes to ideas in our minds, Descartes makes three important distinctions: objective reality, formal reality and eminent reality. The objective idea of the triangle is the idea of the triangle insofar as it represents a thing. The objective reality is not the thing represented, but the representation. One of the best ways to think of this is in terms of the operation of an image, though we should be careful here not thinking that Descartes thought that all representation were images. Thus when we say that a picture is a picture of something we can distinguish between what the picture is and what the picture represents. In the case of a picture of a tree for example, we can distinguish between the picture and the tree that is represented in the picture.

What is much more difficult is the idea of formal reality in Descartes. It is much more difficult because Descartes himself seems to be confused about it. We could interpret formal reality to be the actual existence of the thing that is represented in the idea. But this would admit the existence of external things, whereas we are only talking about the nature of ideas. Formal reality is the part of the definition of the idea and not the description of a thing. Many misunderstandings of Descartes have to do with confusing the formal reality of the idea with the reality of a thing. On the contrary, the formal reality of the idea describes the status of the idea itself. Whatever idea we speak of and whatever this idea might represent, the idea itself exists. Again if we go back to our picture example, being mindful that ideas are not pictures for Descartes, so that this is only an analogy, then we can make a distinction between the picture, on the one hand, and what the picture represents on the other. Now the picture, on this analogy, is the formal idea. That is to say idea of the tree itself, and not the tree that is represented in the idea.

Now for Descartes ideas themselves and not just what they represent in the idea, have degrees of reality. The best way to understand what Descartes means by ‘degrees of reality’ here is degree of perfection, otherwise again you are going to get confused and think that he is speaking about real external things. Now for Descartes it is possible to say that some ideas, formally speaking are more perfect than other’s. The idea itself is more perfect and not just what is represented in the idea (though it is true to say that when we are speaking about perfection these two are connected). It is the idea itself that is more perfect, that is to say its formal reality, and not just what is represented in the idea, that is to say its objective reality. The idea of God does not just have more objective reality than the idea of frog; rather it has more formal reality than any other idea (Deleuze, 1978). The idea of God, therefore, for Descartes, has eminent reality. Of course the immediate question we need to ask is why is the idea of God more perfect than any other idea? But before we get to this question we need to think about how Descartes explains the relation between objective and formal reality, for this is the basis of the proof of the existence of God

This relation is essentially causal for Descartes. That is to say that the formal idea is the cause of the objective idea. We might put it this way. In the absence of the idea of the frog, they would be no ‘frog’ as an object of the idea. This means for Descartes that the idea of the frog, it formal reality, is the cause of the objective reality of the frog. It is not just the causality of ideas that we need to be aware of, but also, as we have already seen, that reality means for Descartes ‘degrees of perfection’. The proof for the existence of God is a combination of causality and perfection. Thus the formal reality not only causes the objective reality to exist, but also the degree of perfection that this idea has. Descartes regards it as a fundamental axiom that more cannot come from less. If the formal reality is the cause of the objective reality, then there must be as much reality in the formal reality as there is in the objective reality. We need to be very careful that we are speaking about ideas and not objects here, and the best way to think about it is again in terms of a picture. Descartes’ argument is that a picture will have more reality the more reality that the object of the picture has. Thus to use Bernard William’s example: a picture of a pile of sticks will have less reality than a picture of a complex machine, precisely because the complex machine, as an objective reality, has more reality than a pile of sticks (Williams, 2005, p. 124). The best way to think of the relation between objective and formal relations, when it comes causality and perfection, is therefore backwards. From the complexity of the object of thought we go back to the complexity of the idea which is the origin of this thought.

The question, then, is how I get from this relation between formal and objective reality of ideas to the proof of the existence of God. Again we need to remember that this is a causal relation for Descartes. The idea must have as much reality, perfection or complexity, as the object that it represents. In Descartes language, it contains formally as much reality as the object contains objectively. But this does not present it having more reality than the object it represents. In this instance, Descartes says it contains eminently what the object of thought only contains formally. But how does this further distinction get us any closer to the idea of God? Descartes asks whether it is possible that there is one idea that contains formally what I cannot be the cause of objectively; that is to say, whether there is an idea whose objectively reality, whose object of thought cannot have its origin in me.

Thus if I look at all the content of my ideas, I can see that they can all have their origin in me, but the objective reality of the formal idea of God cannot. Why is that? What is it about the idea of God that means that its objective reality cannot be inside of me and that it must exist outside of me? It is because the very formal idea of God, the definition of God, contains an objective reality that I could not be the cause of because I know that I myself am an imperfect being. We have already agreed that what has less perfection cannot be the cause of something that has more perfection. I could be, Descartes argues, the cause of all my other ideas, since objectively they contain nothing more than I contain formally, but I cannot be the origin of the content of the formal idea of God, the objective reality of God, since this objective reality contains more perfection than I do. That is to say my picture of God is less than the objective reality of the idea, and thus could not be its cause. This idea must be caused by something that existed outside of me, and it must contain formally speaking as much reality as the objective reality of the idea of God. Only God could be the cause of the idea of God.

So the idea of God necessarily proves that God exists and we have a little chink in the armour of the cogito. There is one thing I know that exist outside of my idea of it, and that is God. But why would that solve my problem with the wax. Why would the existence of God demonstrate that my idea of wax must be what the wax is in nature? It is the existence of God that guarantees the existence of external objects, and also that my idea of these objects correspond to the true nature of external objects. What I can clearly and distinctly perceive is true, but without God this truth would not be sufficient, since although I am perceiving this truth in my mind, there might be nothing like it in the outside world. If I can prove that God exists, then it follows that everything depends upon him, since God is the only perfection, and such a God could not deceive me. It follows, therefore, what I clearly and distinctly perceive, and I can remember having done so, must be actually true.

The success of Descartes’ metaphysical project rests on the existence of God. It would not surprise many readers that no many philosophers, even immediately so, were convinced by it. Cartesian science itself was pretty much left behind with the success of Newton (though he was clearly influenced by Descartes). However, I want to refer to one important critique of Descartes, which is Spinoza. He was as rationalist as Descartes (and thus his critique is very different from the empiricists and Kant who come later), but his argument with Descartes is that he did not take his ideas seriously enough. In other words, Spinoza wanted to out ‘Descartes’ Descartes.

Spinoza issue’s with Descartes is that he smuggles a theological conception of God into his philosophical idea of God, and that is the idea of creation. There are in fact three substances in Descartes: the two finite substances, mind and matter, and the infinite substance God. This mirrors the theological distinction in the idea of creation of the difference between transcendence and immanence. Now the transcendent God is beyond the comprehension of the finite mind (this is the turning point of the ontological proof for Descartes, I know that God exists, but I don’t know what God is, and God in his absolute power could have created a world in which triangles have 4 sides and 2+2=5). For Spinoza this is absurd. If there were a difference between an infinite God and a finite world, then God would not be infinite, since God would lack something; that is the finite world that is different from him. Also God could not be governed by different laws (as though God were a capricious tyrant), because this would mean that laws that came from God could have been different, but this too would mean that God would lack something, which would be the laws that he did not create. If God is infinite, and we start with this infinite, then the idea of transcendent wilful God that is still at the heart of Descartes’ project (which Spinoza will explain is only anthropomorphic idea of God), must be a fiction. ‘God,’ Spinoza writes, is the immanent, not the transitive, cause of all things’ (Spinoza, 1996, sec. 1P18).

Rather than explaining attributes in relation to infinite substance, Descartes has explained substance in relation to attributes, and this is why he has ended up with three substances, rather than one unique substance, God, whose essence must infinite attributes (not just two), which express themselves through infinitely many things and ideas. We must begin, Spinoza is saying, with the infinite universe and explain our place within it, rather than projecting an image of ourselves onto this infinite universe.

Bibliography

Ariew, R., 1986. Descartes as Critic of Galileo’s Scientific Methodology. Synthese 67, 77–90.

Deleuze, G., 1978. Les Cours de Gilles Deleuze [WWW Document]. Sur Spinoza. URL http://www.webdeleuze.com/php/texte.php?cle=14&groupe=Spinoza&langue=2 (accessed 10.9.14).

Hatfield, G., 2003. Routledge philosophy guidebook to Descartes and the meditations. Routledge, London.

Spinoza, B. de, 1996. Ethics. Penguin Books, London; New York.

Williams, B., 2005. Descartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry. Psychology Press.


[1] I am thinking of the Matrix trilogy, and the first film in particular.

[2] He believed that although Galileo was to be admired, he tended to rush over the subject matter and not explain it sufficiently. The purpose of Descartes’ project was to set philosophy on firm principles and work from these in a systematic way (Ariew, 1986).

[3] This shows that Descartes was not as far from the Scholastics as some have presented him, and indeed, how he sometimes presents himself.


Philosophy as a Way of Life – Lecture 1

October 21, 2015

HadotNow a days we tend to think of philosophy as an academic discipline 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 philosophy 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 overtly religious, or particularly, because of Ignatius Loyola, Christian.[1] Spiritual, because it was more than merely moral or intellectual exercise, and 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 by 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 about how to live one’s life, then the only function of philosophy would be secondary. Its 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 and whether it truly can take up its spiritual vocation.

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 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.


Why Philosophy?

February 24, 2013

Plato famously said that the ‘unexamined life is not worth living’ (Apology 38a). But what is an examined life in contrast? Normally, I suppose, when we live our lives we do not question our principles, values or beliefs. If we did so constantly, then we would not be able to live our lives at all. I imagine that this what most people think philosophers are. People who can’t live proper lives, who have their heads in the skies, who aren’t reasonable, serious people. This isn’t a new insult. It does right back to when there were first philosophers (because there haven’t always been such strange people). Plato tells the story of Thales, who was one of the first philosophers, who we know off, who was so distracted by the heavens that he fell into a hole. This is the passage in full:

Why take the case of Thales. While he was studying the stars and looking upwards, he fell into a pit, and a neat, witty, Thracian girl jeered at him, they say, because he was so eager to know the things in the sky that he could not see what was there before him at his very feet. The same jest applies to all who pass their lives in philosophy.
(Theatetus, 174a)

Well I don’t suppose such a thing really happened. It has the ring of a myth just because the metaphor is so telling. Isn’t studying philosophy just like falling into a hole, and doesn’t everyone laugh at philosophers because they don’t take life seriously enough. The joke, however, in the end is Thales’, because having spent so much time staring at the heavens, he was able to predict that the next olive harvest was going to be very good and thus he made a fortune. Perhaps it is not so useless being a philosopher at all.

I don’t think, though, that was the reason that Plato thought an examined life was better. I don’t think he was recommending philosophy as a way of making money (or getting a career as we might say nowadays). Though that might be a consequence of doing philosophy, that would be the reason that you chose to do philosophy. The reason that Plato recommended philosophy was that he thought that it would make you a better human being.

In this way he saw philosophy as a spiritual task that consumed the whole person and not just a skill that one could become better at. The word ‘spiritual’ has perhaps become an overused word in our culture and in that way might be redundant unless we give it a precise meaning. What I do not mean by spirituality is a pseudo-religious activity or practice, as when someone might say that they are spiritual but not religious. Still less do I mean the commercial side of spiritual activity, like faith healing, crystals and reincarnation. All these are a kind of watered down mysticism that is the opposite of what Plato means by an examined life.

At the end of another dialogue, The Symposium, Plato tells us a story about how philosophy was born from Poverty and Resource (203a). Someone who has everything and desires nothing cannot be a philosopher, but equally someone who has nothing and cannot desire anything will not be able either. The philosopher is someone who exists in between the two. She knows that there is truth but that she lacks it, and it is because she lacks it that she desires it. Wisdom, the love of wisdom, which is what philosophy means, is this continual search for the truth and Plato seems to suggest that this search is unending. The philosopher is always looking for the truth and is never certain that she has found it, whereas the non-philosophers are always those who know that they have found the truth and it everyone else that is wrong. The fundamentalist and the philosopher, then, would be two very different people.

Is all of this still too abstract? How would we apply Plato’s dictum to our own lives. Most of the time, I think, if we were to be honest we don’t think for ourselves. Rather we think like everyone else. We have the same opinions, the same likes and dislikes, and we act in the same way. It is when we question this common opinion that we begin to ask ourselves how could we be ourselves. Now this might seem to be the easiest thing of all to do of all. Since aren’t we all ‘selves’ aren’t we already born a ‘somebody’, an individual. Yet this self that everyone is isn’t the self that we are after, because we want to be uniquely ourselves. This isn’t something that we born to be. Rather it is something we have to accomplish throughout our whole lives, something it is very possible to fail at.

The courage to be oneself, the courage to just be, is very difficult indeed. To conform, to be like everyone else, is, in comparison, very easy and what we always tempted to do instead. Philosophy isn’t about learning about philosophy just for its own sake, though it can become like that in a university sometimes, but how one faces the question of one’s own existence and how one gives meaning to one’s own life. This means being able to look inside of yourself and reflect about what is important to you, what are you values and desires and from that be able to choose the best life for yourself (which might not be the same as what other people might think is the best life for you), and once you have chosen to have the strength and commitment to carry it through.

What might prevent you from doing so is always the opposite of philosophy, distraction and boredom. Most of the time we just fill our lives in with doing stuff, as though are time were endless and we could always put off making a decision. It’s a bit like how we think about our own deaths. We are always certain that our death is some way ahead (especially when we are young) so we don’t really have to concern ourselves with it. Of course that isn’t true, because in fact our deaths could happen at any time and we wouldn’t know at all. What would it mean to live with that realisation? It would mean that you would have to ask yourself if you were really to die in the next moment would you be wasting your time as you are doing now just drifting from one moment to the next. The American writer, Hubert Selby Jr., writes about a ‘spiritual experience’ that he had, which is close to what I am describing here. He says that one day at home, he suddenly had the realisation that he was going to die, and that if he did die, he would look back upon his whole life as a waste because he hadn’t done what he wanted to do. He hadn’t become the person he wished to be. In that very moment of wishing that he could live his life again and not waste it, he would die. This realisation terrified him. It was this terror that was his spiritual experience, though at the time, he says, he didn’t realise that, he was just terrified. It was at that very moment that he became a writer. Not that he had any skill, or any idea of what being a writer was, but he wanted to do something with his life (at the time he was on the dole and in between doing dead-end jobs) and writing seemed the best thing (of course it could have been something else, but it was doing something with his life and not regretting it that was the important thing). He has learnt to become a writer by writing but it was his ‘spiritual experience’ that made he do it and also made him commit to it, not just give up because it was difficult.[1]

I think what Plato means by philosophy, by an ‘examined life’ as opposed to an ‘unexamined one’ is what Hubert Selby Jr. means by a ‘spiritual experience’. I am not sure that you can do philosophy if you haven’t had one (though you might be very clever about philosophy). Notice that this experience hasn’t got anything to do with being intellectual or knowing a lot of stuff. It’s about facing oneself honestly and about a commitment to a life without knowing how it might end up.


[1] From an interview with Hubert Selby Jr. that you can find here http://www.cunepress.com/cunemagazine/news/articles/selby.htm. He also described pretty much the same experience in an interview with the American actress Ellen Burstyn https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y1Zcf1maJlE&feature=g-user-f&list=FLA11eaq9wA-dQezPhEv8IWQ.