Historical Introduction to Philosophy/General Introduction

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Recommended resources for the beginning philosopher:

  • An Invitation to Philosophy: Issues and Options, By: Stanley M. Honer, Thomas C. Hunt, Dennis L. Okholm, John L. Safford.
  • Also: Doing Philosophy: An Introduction Through Thought Experiments

What is Philosophy? edit

What is philosophy? This is a question best answered by what it is not. Philosophy gave birth to all the other disciplines and so what is not now covered by physics, biology, grammar, mathematics, etc., is what is left for philosophy. To the ancient Greeks philosophy was the love (philo) of wisdom (sophia). This is essentially true today. The philosophy of today gives one an avenue to enquire about life's BIG questions. If this is not the pursuit and love of wisdom, then what is?

Philosophy in the West started with a man called Thales--yes Thales, not Socrates. Thales, and all philosophers after him up to Socrates, are called the Pre-Socratics. These Pre-Socratics were mainly interested in the physical world.

It is Socrates who revolutionized philosophy by taking examination off of the physical world and applying it to mankind itself.

Plato, Socrates's pupil, sought to give an objective basis for Socratic Ethics and developed comprehensive Epistemological and Metaphysical theories.

Aristotle, Plato's pupil, was more empirical (requiring of evidence) than his predecessor. Because of this Aristotle developed Science. He sought to give a physical base for the world rather than the metaphysical one that Plato had constructed.

It is on this trinity--Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle--that the entire foundation for Western Philosophy is laid. Every Western philosopher since has used the work of these men as a starting point. It is in the ideas of these men that we see the seeds of the topics which have become central to philosophy as we know it.

Educational Task: Philosophy is something that you "do", not simply study. In light of this, completion of the following exercise is recommended:

For this chapter, as well as the following ones, see if you can explain what you have learned to someone else. Better yet, see if you can find someone to join you in this course. Explain what you have learned but be sure to allow them to form their own thoughts about the ideas you are expressing. If they have an opposing view point this is so much the better for you. If you have learned well, and are able to convey ideas in a way they can understand, discussion can then begin. Voila, you are philosophizing! (A great man once told me that one cannot philosophize all by himself.)

These next two sections will give you a more in depth analysis of philosophy, its early players, and its methods.

Real vs. Unreal edit

The study of any academic field, such as Philosophy, usually begins with its definition. However the philosopher's first difficulty is exactly that: to define what philosophy is. And the answer to this question will depend upon how one goes about doing philosophy - what methods are appropriate to find out the truth, and what can be taken as true in advance of inquiry. For that reason, philosophers will define their field differently. But to start you off, here is mine:

'Philosophy is the art of the separation between what it is REAL and what is UNREAL'.

As that isolated sentence doesn't, perhaps, say a lot by itself I'll expand on it by telling a story of the origins of philosophy. Over millions of years, the Earth became inhabited by numerous animal species. Some of those species dwindled to extinction, others survived relatively unchanged through the eons, still others evolved into new species. What is now Homo sapiens has evolved considerably from early ancestors to ensure its survival.

The concerns of these animal species, which nothing moved, were two namely:

  1. Survival of the individual: the search for food, shelter, and safety from predators;
  2. Survival of the species: finding a sexual partner with which to produce offspring, and caring for these offspring until sexual maturity.

Eventually, some homo-sapiens groups came to adopt an agrarian lifestyle, instead of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle of their ancestors. By living off the land in a single place, which led to the development of trade and the division of labour, more time became available to socialize, think, and observe. And through the observation of the unknown phenomena, members of these societies began to ponder questions:

  1. Where do our offspring come from?
  2. Where does the rain come from? Can it be predicted? Why do thunder and lightning sometimes accompany it? And so many other questions as these.

Lacking our modern scientific outlook, they attempted to explain these important events in anthropomorphic fashion: that human-like characters were the cause of the events, but much more powerful than themselves. And so mythology was born.

However, as the abilities of humans to reason grew through a shared cultural heritage, and technology began to assist our reasoning, mythological explanations began to cede ground to naturalistic ones. It was observed that certain phenomena would recur over time (such as the changing of the seasons), and that one phenomenon might follow some other particular one (a red sky indicates rain to come). Humans began to codify these observations in terms of laws. But what could explain these laws in turn? The success of naturalistic explanations over mythological ones left us unsatisfied with appealing to the characters of myth to explain these laws. And so they began to PHILOSOPHIZE: to try to understand what lay behind these laws, without the appeal to mythology: here begins the Philosophy of the Pre-Socratics.

So we can see that already philosophy is defined in some way by what counts (or is thought to count) as a philosophical explanation. The story just given tells us that philosophy and mythology are two opposite kinds of explanation: a philosophical explanation is not a mythological one, and vice versa.

Let's return to the REAL and UNREAL. Why should we wish to separate these two opposites? The obvious answer is that, by separating the two, we learn what reality is like, and knowing this, we can work out how to act so that our desires are met. But how do we go about separating these two opposites? One easy test is to make note of the opinions of other people: if all people agree that some phenomenon occurs (or some sequence of phenomena), then this is a possible indication that the phenomenon is a REAL one. On the other hand, if opinions vary over the phenomenon, and whether or not it occurs (or whether a particular sequence occurs), then we have a possible indication that the phenomenon is UNREAL. Yet these are indications only, since people, even a large number of them, may be deceived. We cannot forget that before Galileo almost all people thought the Sun orbited the Earth. Therefore, this test is not infallible, and the philosopher must use other means to find out what is real and unreal: he must look for the reasons people believe as they do, and judge their value. To do so, he applies SYSTEMATIC DOUBT: taking the attitude that some phenomenon is unreal, he weighs whether the reasons given by others in favour of its reality can convince him that the phenomenon is indeed real.

There is of course much more to be said, but that is, today, my view of philosophy. Tomorrow it may change. But it should be apparent that at the heart of philosophy is the desire to understand what is real, and it is this desire which motivates our study of it.

"Philosophical systems are wholly true only for their founders. For all subsequent philosophers they usually seem one great mistake..." - Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche. edit

This quote does not mean that philosophical problems cannot be solved but rather, that every philosopher thinks that they have solved such problems until their successors point out why they have not at which point said successors think that they have now solved said problems. It is somewhat amusing to 'see' this phenomenon play out time and again since the birth of philosophy.

Philosophy of Religion edit

Questions to Think About: Are faith and reason compatible? How do we know that God exists and what is his nature? Why would God allow evil? Does the presence of evil show that there is no God? Would God's existence preclude free-will and choice?

In this section you will be introduced to the philosophies of Augustine, Aquinas, and Anselm. Augustine was a Platonic theologian and philosopher. In taking Plato's Great Chain of Being, and replacing the Good with God, Augustine found a rational basis for Christianity. On the other end of the spectrum was Anselm. For Anselm, Aristotelian logic seemed a better means for proving the existence of God. His argument was based on the logical necessity of there being a God who was "that, than which nothing greater can be conceived". For most, the sharp division between Platonic and Aristotelian justifications for the existence of God did not seem to make sense. It was Thomas Aquinas who was able to synthesize the two seemingly disparate methods of thinking and brought a more unified philosophical background to religion.

Educational Task: Don't forget the assignment given to you in the introduction. The further along you go the more important and helpful the practice will become.

Epistemology edit

Questions to Think About:

Epistemology: the study of knowledge. What do we know, what can we know, how do we know it, how do we know we know it? When we 'learn' are we 'remembering' what we already know or, do we actually 'learn' new things? What is 'truth'? Are there such things that are true for everybody all the time (objectivity) or does it change from culture to culture, person to person, situation to situation (relativism), etc.? What happens when we say that there is no way to know if we know anything?

It was not until after the Medieval period that epistemology became a core element for the development of philosophical ideas. Before then, epistemology was just one of many branches. Of course, even the epistemological foundations that were so dominant in the Early Modern Period had their roots in the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle. Plato was the forefather of rationalism. Briefly, rationalism is the idea that true knowledge can only be had of the types of things that one can reach by reason alone. In addition to this, our knowledge consists of innate ideas that every developed mind possesses, whether they know it or not. Empiricism, founded by Aristotle, takes a much different approach. Rather than negating the senses empiricism uses reason to make sense of observable, objective phenomena in the natural world. Through empiricism we can have knowledge of things through sensory input.

Educational Task: Once again, practice, practice, practice. This is truly the best way, not only to see if you are learning, but to actually expand what you have learned.

The Philosophy of Mind edit

Questions to Think About: What is the mind? Is the mind distinct from body? Is the mind a physical, material thing, or is it immaterial?

Educational Task: Must I say it again? I think not. If you have made it this far I am sure you know the value of engaging conversation.

Free-will and Determinism edit

If I could will it, there would be a cartoon here. It seems determined not to be.

Questions to Think About: Are our decisions caused by external factors? If we base our 'decisions' on the potential outcomes then they are in fact caused by those potential outcomes. If so how can we say that we have free-will? Can everything, including human behavior be explained in purely mechanistic terms? When considering the notion of an omniscient God are we eliminating the possibility of Free-Will? Are our lives predestined, are we fated to our future?

Educational Task: Guess what! I have something new for you this time. Scenario: Man A and Man B. Man A is sitting alone in a room. Man B wants to talk to him. Man B comes into the room; closes the door; sits down; and the two men begin to talk. During the course of their conversation Man C comes along and locks the door to the room from the outside. Neither Man A nor Man B realize this. Are they still exercising Free-Will while continuing their conversation? Remember that they are locked in the room together and, while they may not know it, they no longer have the choice to stay or leave. (An Essay Concerning Human Understanding by John Locke. Book II-Of Ideas. Chapter XXI-Of Power. Section 10. [1])

Ethics edit

Questions to Think About: Do objective morals exist? What is 'right' and what is 'wrong'? What do I value? Why do I value it?

Metaphysics edit

Questions to think about: Do I have 'free will'? Is there a transcendent reality? Does God exist? Does each person have a soul?

Logic edit

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