IDLE'S IDOLS' INSPIRATION
40 Books in 2018 Bryan Magee THE GREAT PHILOSOPHERS 352pp BBC Books 1987 Ted Honderich THE PHILOSOPHERS 296pp OUP 1999 Will Buckingham, Douglas Burnham et al THE PHILOSOPHY BOOK 352pp DK Publishing 2011
A long read for me - not that demanding of you.
When I stumbled on this video, a suitable philosophical question arose: How did Monty Python end up with their specific baker’s dozen of Western thinkers?
That's like asking a football fan to name their best-ever line-up from World Cup history. Why is Pele in every line up, every time? What makes Bobby Moore the first choice centre back? If you know something about the game, you’ll have context and track record and constant reinforcement - especially in Europe - all year round. But philosophy? A handful of names and some claims about its importance from professors with an axe to grind. So I set out to put a little more meat on Eric Idle’s song and its thirteen thinkers. Three books - and 1000 pages later - my ignorance seems deeper: 01. SOCRATES (469 - 399 BCE) One of the founders of the discipline, he’s extraordinarily well-known 2,500 years after his death. Particularly given that he wrote nothing. Apparently, Socrates was a familiar sight around Athens, persistently asking difficult questions. For the period, his ‘dialectical method’ was a new way of thinking. Your response might be ‘Really!? Asking questions. Is that it?’, but that’s part of the problem for philosophy as a discipline: we assume that thinking is as natural as, well, thinking. But remember that 250 years before Socrates started, the consensus for understanding the world was through myth: Zeus up Mount Olympus, Poseidon underwater, Hades in Hell. Then Socrates challenged the norm, started using his brain in a different way - to examine life, to make it worthwhile. In hindsight, it’s no surprise that he was charged with ‘corrupting youth’ with ideas that undermined tradition, and was subsequently sentenced to death. Perhaps it was his frustration with the consensus ad idem that he decided to take the hemlock rather than do a runner. And we only know about him because one of his followers - Plato - subsequently wrote many of the Athenian walk-and-talks.
02. PLATO (c.427 - 347 BCE) 'Look, he's not gone after all', said Plato of Socrates. (Think of the relationship between St Paul and Jesus of Nazareth. Every thought leader needs a first follower to set the ball rolling.) But the scope of Plato’s work went much further. Evidently, ‘following’ meant ‘ disagreeing’. So after the warm-up dialogues, Plato started producing his own work: Meno, Phaedo, Symposium, Phaedrus - written at the height of his powers. Imaginative descriptions, witty repartee and jokes. (Jokes are possible in philosophy.) Plato’s magnum opus (his Hamlet, Citizen Kane, and Bohemian Rhapsody rolled into one) was The Republic. It set out his vision of the ideal city state. Read that phrase again: ‘the ideal city state’. Ask yourself ‘in those four words, what am I taking for granted?’ That’s what Plato did; he asked ‘What do I mean by ‘ideal’ and what makes it - whatever it is - ‘ideal’’. In the case of The Republic, if we were in an ideal city state, how would we recognise it? Asking again and again, Plato kept coming to the notion of 'ideal Form'. The ideal Form of a horse, the ideal Form of a cake, the ideal Form of a bed. We may see multiple versions of these things, but at the heart of the ‘bedness’ we know what a bed is. This might seem like mental games, but by following this train of thought Plato arrives at a metaphor that you probably know already: the Allegory of the Cave.
Plato said that people had been imprisoned in the cave since they were born, chained and looking at the wall. Behind them burnt a very bright fire, casting shadows of the ideal Forms onto the wall. The shadows were all that the prisoners knew, so they had no concept of reality (the Forms, the fire, and outside the cave). As a metaphor, the cave has been interpreted in multiple ways - from seeking truth through science to receiving religious revelation. All I read into this is a reminder to ‘think’ - to challenge the shadows on our walls, as we sleepwalk through our day-to-day normality. Perhaps this blogpost is just a shadow? 03. ARISTOTLE (384 - 322 BCE) In Raphael’s painting The School of Athens (below) at the centre Plato is on the left, Aristotle on the right. Aside from the colour contrast, it’s the body language that speaks volumes about their approaches to the central philosophical problem: how do we know what we know? Plato points skyward - not to a Christian heaven, but to an ethereal source of his idea of Form. By contrast, Aristotle’s open palm presses downward to the earth, the solid, the tangible. The nature of reality comes from our senses.
This double portrait shows the start of the great divide in Western philosophy: Plato’s Rationalism (using reason), Aristotle's Empiricism (relying on sensory experience). Aristotle was sure that the truth of the world was to be found here on earth, so he collected samples from nature. And then asked how are they the same and how are they different? So elegant was the structure that he came up with over 2000 years ago, it is still the basis of the taxonomy in use today. Press pause again: 1) We don’t know much about Socrates; even so, I’ve still managed to omit a lot from the description above. This post is not meant to be a book. To put my brutal editing of Aristotle in context , a current two-volume edition of his complete works is 2,512 pages. So the next ten snapshots are going to be broad brushed, to say the least. 2) From Aristotle, we're going to leap forward 1900 years. Two main reasons:
The power shifted from Greece to Rome, and Rome didn’t really have time for philosophy - only bread, circuses and walls. (Sound familiar?)
Stoicism took hold, mostly because it focussed on virtue and doing one’s duty. Not surprising in a military culture;
then after the collapse of the Western Roman empire, Christianity took over. The Christian church held a monopoly on learning for the best part of 1000 years.
That’s the context for why Number 04 Rene Descartes mattered so much. He had received the best education available at the time, from the Jesuits. He was a church boy. And then he had a moment of doubt. 04. Rene DESCARTES (1569 - 1650) If anyone knows only one thing about philosophy, they know Descartes’ ‘Cognito ergo sum’ / ‘I think, therefore I am’. If Eric Idle can pun it into his two minute song, EVERYONE knows it.
Not everyone knows that Rene’s first version was ‘je pense, donc je suis’ as Descartes was French. And if you wanted the great and the good to learn your great insights, it had to be in Latin. Descartes started with a clear premise: there is nothing of which I can be certain (he managed to work out the logic of his continued faith in God because that was de rigueur, but I’m going to skim over that in the interests of time). Starting from doubt in everything, Rene imagined that there might be an evil demon that was making him believe things that were false - about his house, his friends, his identity.
C16th fake news. (Sound familiar?) But when he said ‘I am, I exist’, he could not be wrong about this, because if the demon could try to make him believe this, it could only do so if Rene was actually there to believe it. “I am thinking, therefore I exist.” And in a single sentence, Descartes kick-started the recovery of Plato’s Rationalism . 05. Thomas HOBBES (1588 - 1679) While Descartes was thinking his thoughts about being (Epistemology: how do I know what I know?), Thomas Hobbes was thinking about 'stuff' (Metaphysics: what is actually out there?). All great philosophers had a system, trying to make sense of everything. Hobbes was no exception. At the centre was the idea that nothing could exist without substance. If you buy into that - and in 1640, there weren't any radio signals, GPS and software to distract you - everything in the Hobbesian universe was physical. If so, then a human being was entirely physical. Which in turn meant that we were biological machines. (I wonder if Sarah Connor had read Hobbes before she met The Terminator?) Hobbes had sown the seeds for what subsequently became known as ‘the hard problem’ that would keep arising in the subsequent 400 years: What was the nature of consciousness? 06. David HUME (1711 - 1776) Going back to Descartes - a Frenchman living in Amsterdam - he had (re)started the Rationalism bandwagon, claiming that knowledge can be arrived at by rational reflection. Plato would be pleased. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a groups of Brits decided to go the other way. Sound familiar?
For Empiricists, the world could only exist as much as it could be perceived. John Locke and George Berkeley gave their two groats worth, but it was David Hume (a Scot) who dealt Descartes the biggest blow. Consider Hume’s thought process: ‘I see the sun rise every morning, therefore I am in the habit - completely unconsciously - of expecting the sun to rise every morning. That’s my judgement. ‘BUT that judgement cannot be a truth of logic because the sun not rising (albeit unlikely) in conceivable. So my expectations of the sun is based on conditioning, which teaches us that tomorrow will be the same as today. Custom is our guide.
‘In our reasonings concerning ‘fact’, there are all imaginable degrees of assurance. A wise man therefore proportions his belief to the evidence.’ Empiricist indeed. Half-time score: Hume 2 Descartes 1 07. Immanuel KANT (1724 - 1804) Until this point in the story, all three of the overview books are reasonably straightforward (although professional philosophers can make ABC complicated when they’re in the mood). Then Kant enters the picture, and Eric Idle might have a 'pissant' point. First, the little I can follow. Kant was the first of the ‘modern era’ to be a paid professor at a university. He was a supreme systems builder, which means that everything is connected to everything else, to keep it all in place. Admirable, but makes it impenetrable to get to grips with it. Where does one start, without getting tripped up by a complicated cross reference? Which in turn is linked to another cross reference, and then another. At least, that’s the best excuse I’ve read in introductory texts, so I’m clinging to it. Kant identified conflict between the findings of the physical sciences in C18th Europe, specifically Germany, and the fundamental religious convictions of the time: In a universe in which the motions of matter are governed by scientific laws, how can any motion of human bodies be governed by free will? Put in another way: By now, Science was going from strength to strength, while philosophy was in a confusing wrestling ring, with Rationalism and Empiricism in opposing corners. Kant’s breakthrough was a third way: Transcendental Idealism. No, that wasn’t meditating or yogic flying. Imagine the intersection of a Venn diagram, the two circles representing well-established camps. The intersection was Kant’s breakthrough.
That may seem like a good old-fashioned compromise, but when I tell you that it meant stepping outside the notion of time and space (see above) , that’s a clue why his book ‘Critique of Pure Reason’ was regarded as the most significant single work in modern philosophy. And received the silver medal at the Unbelievably Hard to Read book fair. First prize coming up. 08. Friedrich SCHLEGEL (1772 - 1829) Poor Friedrich. He isn’t mentioned in either Magee’s nor Honderich’s list of greats. That’s why I read the ‘DK’ volume too. Schlegel is covered by a couple of paragraphs, introducing the idea of metaphilosophy: being philosophical about the practice of being philosophical. I can’t speak with authority, but I guess that Schlegel only made it into the Python song because his name rhymes with… 09. Georg HEGEL (1770 - 1831) If Kant is complicated, Hegel is the highest-of-high-brow. My favourite comment about his main work - ‘The Phenomenology of Spirit’ - comes from philosopher Dr. Gregory Sadler. After a couple decades of study, he says: “I can’t say I fully understand Hegel at this point… Frankly, I’m not sure that Hegel completely got Hegel.” One place to start is the Philosophy of History. (As big chunks of Aristotle’s work became Science, and ethical issues became Moral Philosophy - which in turn spawned Political Philosophy and Philosophy of Law - so more niches evolve their own philosophical disciplines. We’ll arrive at Philosophy of Language in a few paragraphs. Until then, let’s stick with Philosophy of History). Hegel looked at human nature in historical terms. He detailed that Ancient Greeks were harmonious then changed - directly or not - because Socrates introduced his dialectical method. He went around asking difficult questions - ‘What is Justice? What is Value?’ - and when they tried to answer, they realised that they had accepted conventional assumptions. That’s why we’re in the process of perpetual change in complex situations. It breaks down under the strain of internal conflicts and gives rise to a new situation. The goal for Hegel was the greater development of mind towards freedom. He wrote about ‘Geist’, difficult to translate, perhaps ‘mind’, perhaps ‘spirit’. Hence ‘Zeitgeist’, meaning spirit of the times, which became a term common to the point of meaninglesness.
Similarly, he came up with ‘alienation’ - something which is ourselves or part of ourselves that seem to be foreign to ourselves. A quality that alienates or feels hostile. Hegel saw total reality as a process of change and saw change moving forward through a model of thesis-antithesis-synthesis. The end point (for Hegel) is Mind coming to know itself. Everything that had been regarded as foreign and/or hostile to itself would become known as part of itself. And once again, the philosophy brainstormers create a new field: psychotherapy. 10. John Stuart MILL (1806 - 1873) Mill is perhaps a role-model we wish for in C21st society: a politician who is a philosopher, and a philosopher who puts ideas into practice. Even if you don’t agree with Mill’s Utilitarian view, at least doff your cap to a man who gets things done. Mill became the foundation of Victorian liberalism in Britain. He thought that decisions should be made on the principle of the greatest good for the greatest number*. At the same time he held that individuals should be free to do whatever gives them the greatest pleasure, even if it could harm them - BUT not entitled to do things that could harm others How could legislation promote the ‘greatest happiness for the greatest number’? For Mill, the solution was education and public opinion, influenced through parliamentary democracy.
Oh, the idealism of it all. As a parliamentarian (1865 - 1868) he engaged strongly in the defence of free speech, of the promotion of human rights, campaigned against slavery - and was the first British MP to propose votes for women. (* pinched that idea from Jeremy Bentham. But Bentham doesn’t get into a Python song, so he’s not included here - although he is in all three of the reviewed books.) 11. Friedrich NIETZSCHE (1844 - 1900) Two hundred years after Descartes said ‘Cognito ergo sum’, Nietzsche announced ‘God is dead’. He never read How to Win Friends and Influence People. But that was his point. Nietzsche attacked four main Western traditions: 1) Christian morality; 2) Secular morality from moral philosophers; 3) everyday morality (herd values); 4) some ancient Greek thinking.. At its heart, Nietzsche’s central view was an appeal to self-hood, elan vital, life to be lived to the full. He maintained that we are slaves to convention. Our values are based on attitudes and ideas which, when examined, we reject. Nietzsche’s held that all systems are based on abstraction from the individual case. He believed that the best of Mankind was rare; the appeal to the common denominator was an appeal to the lowest common denominator. Therefore, each of the great men was a law unto himself. On this idea, Nietzsche built his four big themes: The Will to Power; Ubermensch (the Superman); the eternal recurrence of Time; the aesthetic understanding of Life.
Despite today’s stereotype, Neitzsche’s 'Superman' was not a blonde Nazi elite. He believed that Ubermensch could be the product of any civilisation. Two role models he named were Shakespeare and Napoleon.
And the third was Socrates. Of course. Neitzsche was trying to get to the notion of the unpressed man, the person whose natural instincts are not repressed, who is at the top of his game. Which meant, among other things, a wholly generous spirit. He hoped to find what human beings could do, what they were capable of understanding, and creating from within themselves. Unfortunately, his anti-Semitic sister Elizabeth edited and censored the archive after his death. And we all know where that led. 12. Ludwig WITTGENSTEIN (1889 - 1951) Wittgenstein produced two important works, both of which influenced a whole generation, both of which are unreadable. Oh, the irony that both focused on the role of language in human thinking and human life. The key to understanding his first book is the picture theory of meaning, If language is to represent reality, then there has to be something in common between the sentence and the state of affairs. Unless language mirrors reality in some way, it should be impossible for sentences to mean something. The mirroring of one structure by another is the key to the possibility of meaningful discourse about the world in language. A word only has meaning in the context of a sentence. Consider ‘set’: On a stage? Of a jelly? By a hairdresser? On a dining table? In the above-mentioned Venn diagram? ‘The cat is on the mat’ is straightforward, but ‘There is no cat on the mat’ is much harder to picture. And he thought that the really important things in life were unsayable.
Wittgenstein realised that there isn’t any point of view from outside the language game where we can stand back to appraise the relationship between language and reality.
Unfortunately, if you read enough of his prose, you begin writing your blogposts in Wittgenstein aphorisms.
13. Martin HEIDEGGER (1889 - 1976) The central philosophical problems since the Greeks’ Big Three were Metaphysical and Epistemological: How do we, as subjects, gain knowledge of the objects that constitute the world?... Can knowledge ever be certain?... On what would such certainty be grounded? Heidegger said that these questions were misconceived - or not the most important questions.
We are not detached from some external reality which is 'out there', something categorically different from ourselves, and trying to relate to it. On the contrary, said Heidegger, we are part and parcel of it all, and from the very beginning we are in amongst it all, being in it, coping with it. Consequently, we are not - in any primary sense - 'observing subjects' of 'knowing beings' in the way traditional philosophers have regarded us. We are coping beings. We are being beings. Philosophers since Descartes had been trying to prove the existence of the external world. Kant said that it was a scandal that no one had successfully done it. Heidegger retorted: The scandal is that philosophers keep trying to prove the existence of the external world, as if we were stuck in some internal world and couldn't get out. The term he used back in 1920s is now a word of the moment: ‘Authentic’. Heidegger wrote that we are so wrapped up in various ongoing projects, that we forget about death. Hence, we miss a more fundamental dimension of our existence.
When we become aware of death as the ultimate limit of our possibilities, we reach a deep understanding of what it means to exist. And so we find ourselves changing our priorities and projecting ourselves towards different futures. SO WHAT’S THE POINT? In 1944 Albert Einstein wrote :
“A knowledge of the historic and philosophical background gives that kind of independence from prejudices of his generation from which most scientists are suffering. This independence created by philosophical insight is — in my opinion — the mark of distinction between a mere artisan or specialist and a real seeker after truth.”
We tend to believe what we were told when growing into adulthood. That was handy for survival. But just accepting things, day-in day-out, is not thinking: It’s daydreaming, or seeking reinforcement of long-held prejudices. Those prejudices picked up in families, schools, colleges, at work, with friends, from media and from other cultural signals.
What makes something true?
What makes something good or bad?
What does it mean to have a reason?
Critical thinking is hard work. Keeping our own beliefs, and screening out what we don’t think is useful or practical, is so much easier. Then we don’t have to challenge our model, or listen to anyone who has a different point of view. Going all the way back to Socrates, his Athenian questions, and the start of this blog, that’s the point of philosophy:
To examine life;
to challenge assumptions and norms;
and to be a source for Monty Python sketches.
(3,612 words. Thanks for reading.)
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