I KNOW IT SOUNDS BORING BUT STAY WITH ME OKAY, this post has taken me FOREVER because it’s near on impossible to put the words ‘philosophy’ and ‘in brief’ together. I have had to work on this with frequent breaks just to get my eyes uncrossed, but really needed to lighten it all up so I could get through it. So I promise, this is the slimmers version – Philosophy Lite (with my opinions scattered in and concluded at the end)….
But there’s no avoiding the fact that we’re poking around with the big guns – those questions I tend to shove aside for infinite other (less tricky, less frightening) questions in my face such as “where’s Bear?” and “what’s for dinner?” It seems that no one can answer these questions with absolute certainty (the big ones, I usually know where Bear is) and so philosophy was born. I am brushing up because I’ve long had a niggly feeling that if these are the biggest questions of all then maybe they’re the most important and need more of my attention and thought. Maybe I’ll find a new reason for being that will steer my life in a new direction, like the Bahamas with no children.
What is Philosophy?
Evidently (thanks Wikipedia old mate), ‘sophists’ were brainy men that went travelling about classical Greece spreading their ideas and teaching wisdom. An ancient version of me really, except that they didn’t have a trillion ideas to plagiarise at their fingertips, didn’t travel conveniently in cyberspace and they got paid. Philosophers were the ones who built and spread their knowledge for the love of it rather than the money – ah that’s more like me. Maybe there was a sophist called Phil who refused payment for his life’s wisdom. Anyway, the word philosophy is ancient Greek for “Love of Wisdom”.
There are 5 main branches of philosophy – epistomology, logic, metaphysics, ethics and aesthetics.
What is Epistemology? I will resist the temptation to make some puerile lavatorial comment and get straight to the point. Crikey, wait a minute what is the point? This stuff is harder than John Holmes’ knob. Check this out: epistemology investigates the origin, nature, methods and limits of human knowledge. So in my simplest terms, it is thinking about thinking. It asks questions like, “What is knowledge?”, “How is knowledge acquired?” and “What are the limitations of knowledge?”. Well I thought I could answer these (things you know, wikipedia and children) but oh nooooo, this field of study analyses the nature of knowledge and how it relates to things like belief, truth and justification. Skepticism is a sub-branch of epistemology and states that there is no such thing as knowledge, particularly without evidence. And what’s more, from these basic questions arise further dilemmas, such as, “If all the content of awareness is ideas, how do we know that anything exists apart from these ideas?” Descartes famous expression, “I think, therefore I am”, comes from epistemology. Good God fellas, go and read Enid Blyton to your children and try to relax.
In all seriousness, epistemology does have practical applications, such as the development of artificial intelligence, theories of education, cognitive therapy, neurology and sociology. Please don’t ask me how.
What is Logic? The study of the principles of correct reasoning. In this context it is most often related to mathematics and philosophy. Empirical facts (those derived from experiment or experience, such as how a person’s reasoning changes with age just as one example) are not the concern of a logician; rather it is correct reasoning that makes up logic. There are many principles of reasoning that make up logic, the main one being those things that make an argument valid – i.e the validity of arguments. Another way to look at logic is this: while science discovers truth, logic discovers the laws of truth.
What is Metaphysics? Ah here are where the really big questions come in, the ones that I sometimes think are best left unasked in favour of just getting on with it. But I am happy to be convinced otherwise… The word, ‘metaphysics’ is another tricky one to define, but put simply (which is how I like my definitions), it is the study of the nature of the world, reality and existence. Metaphysical questions are ones like: What is the meaning of life? What is my purpose? How did I get here? What is the essence of something? What is existence? What is experience? What is real? Does the cosmos have a purpose? Is anything random? Does free will exist or is everything pre-determined?
Metaphysics is often the domain of spiritual people, or troubled people searching for a higher purpose or more meaning in their lives. It is often closely aligned to religion. However it has less abstract applications. For instance, quantum physics (which is an utterly baffling realm of metaphysics that examines the world from a molecular or atomic level) contributed to the invention of things like the transistor radio, new energy saving thermoelectric materials (could this be of interest to peak oil peeps) and laser.
What is Ethics? Also known as moral philosophy, ethics is where we ask, “what is the best way to live?, and (because there has to be a question about the question), whether this question can actually be answered. Metaethics delves into whether there are ethical truths or whether we base our morals on emotion or social pressure or the will of God. Normative ethics articulates good ethical conduct and gives guidelines for people to reach a satisfactory moral standard. Applied ethics asks the hard questions of ethical dilemmas such as abortion, capital punishment, euthanasia and whether I should abandon my children in favour of a sports car and overseas travel.
What is Aesthetics? In philosophical terms, aesthetics takes in the philosophy of art and beauty. It asks questions of perception, what makes something sublime (beautiful enough to inspire great admiration or awe), what makes us enjoy it and how emotions, taste and sentiment affect senses and aesthetic opinion. I’ve often wondered whether my purple is the same as the purple of everyone else.
So now we have touched on (and I mean dabbed the very surface very lightly, this ice berg is has no end) what philosophy is, now what about the main philosophical players? Were they all mad loonies with too much time on their hands or did they have something of value to contribute? There are hundreds of philosophers and if I try to explain them all my brain will explode and my husband will have to get a new wife and a new keyboard. So here are just a smattering of them, with the basics of their ideas…
Thales was a philosopher from Miletus in Asia Minor (now Turkey) born in those good old days around 626 BC. It has been said that all western philosophy began with Thales. His theories centred around explaining nature without the use of mythology (the pop culture of the day), the main one being that the world started from water. He observed air and slime forming from moisture and concluded that the Earth solidified from the water it rests on. His rejection of mythology is said to have stimulated the scientific revolution, as well as informing the studies of philosophers to come.
Confucius So I know I headed this western philosophy, but I want to know about Confucius because of the old “Confucious say…” lines. But I want the Real Confucius to stand up. He was a Chinese politician and teacher born in 551BC. He mainly focused on ethics as a champion of family loyalty, respect for elders, and respect for husbands by wives (where’s the vice versa Con old china?). He was a great advocate for The Golden Rule, ‘do as you would be done by’ and an early supporter of democracy. These days he’s an advocate for all sorts of things apparently, such as, “when you’ve seen one shopping centre, you’ve seen the mall.” Tee hee.
Socrates is a classical Greek legend born in 469 BC who contributed mostly to the field of ethics. His work is recorded mostly through the writings of his students and the plays of his contemporary Aristophanes, which makes finding the real Socrates difficult (the Socratic Problem). Amongst many beliefs, he taught that the best way to live is to focus on self development rather than material wealth. He emphasised the importance of friendship and community and believed that the world should be governed by philosophers. He gave the world the Socratic Method, a method of inquiry whereby a problem is solved by breaking it down into a series of questions, starting with a hypothesis and moving into discussion. Socrates was only forty when he was found guilty of corrupting minds and disbelieving the gods. He was sentenced to death by hemlock. Sad days.
Plato was one of the students of Socrates and is possibly the most famous of them all. He was born in 428 BC and wrote extensive philosophical dialogues (36 in fact, plus 13 letters) which have been used to teach mathematics, epistemology, logic, ethics and rhetoric (the art of discourse – informing, motivating and persuading). One of them unearths theories of
platonic love. He looked closely at the father-son relationship and whether a fathers’ interest in his sons has much to do with how they turn out. He also believed that the wider population was frankly pretty dumb and therefore democracy was a silly idea. He also famously decided that everything on earth (from chairs to bananas to people) are actually shadows of their real, superior selves; it’s just that we can’t see them. He used the famous metaphor of the cave to illustrate this idea which I won’t go into because frankly even if he is right, and the chair I am sitting on is a poor imitation of it’s superior self, hey, I’m still happy with the chair. Still, I’d kind of like to see the world outside Plato’s cave.
Aristotle was born in 384 BC and was Plato’s most famous student. He was far more involved in science and using logic to sort out the natural world and to develop a universal method of reasoning by which we can learn everything about reality. This effectively lead to the first comprehensive system of western philosophy, the identification of fields of knowledge as distinct disciplines and the species-genus system used for the natural world. He was a pioneer in the study of human happiness and identified that happiness, a result of virtue, is the ultimate purpose of human existence.
Aquinas (Thomas) was a Dominican monk born around 1230 AD. He is most famous for honouring both science and God whilst working out the way of the universe. He ‘proved the existence of God’ using the simple theorem that everything in existence has to have a beginning and an end. All his teachings are derived from the bible and he is said to be the founder of Christianity, being one of the first to say that living for God cleared the way for eternal life in heaven. He identified the four cardinal virtues – justice, courage, prudence and temperance. How about kindness? Generosity? The ability to share your last rolo? Non-smelly poo?
Descartes lived from 1596 to 1650 and is referred to as the father of modern philosophy. He has a lot to answer for in my opinion because he created analytical geometry and algebra and confused the pants off me in level 3 maths. What an arse. He discovered the laws of refraction (the change in direction of a wave due to a change in its speed) and reflection. He was an advocate of dualism, which is essentially the power of the mind over the body. He said, “Cogito, ergo sum“, which roughly translates as, “I am a smarty pants.” Not really, it means, “I think, therefore I am.” He said that perception is unreliable and that reason is the only reliable method of attaining knowledge.
Marx, Karl Born in 1818 in Germany, Marx is more often described as a socialist thinker or a raging communist than a philosopher, though he was trained in philosophy and turned to politics and economics in his twenties. He went on to inspire many communist regimes in the modern world, partly fired by his philosophical beliefs. Central to his beliefs was the idea that capitalism wholly alienates an individual from his or her ability to reach potential and follow destinies because they lose the right to be in charge of their actions and to use or own the value of what their actions produce – i.e. people are not individuals within capitalism, but instruments. He saw the history of mankind as a struggle between classes i.e. that class struggle is what propels change, and the syntax and collective consciousness of a society is formed by economic trends. He claimed that this pattern will result in the destruction of inequality and the fall of capitalism. He was careful not to describe communism fully, saying that the natural course of things and the creativity of humanity in times of crisis will shape what is to come. Oooh.
Nietzsche, Friedrich was born in Germany in 1844. He was among the first to focus on objective human experience as the main determinant of human nature, as opposed to subjective scientific and mathematical truths. This is a form of what was later named existentialism. An interesting aspect of his work is in his examination of nihilism, which is the idea that life is meaningless. Nihilism grew as people questioned the existence of God, which Nietzsche encouraged, feeling that Christianity had lead to an intrinsic slave culture in which people encouraged kindness only because they wanted to get trough the pearly gates. Nietzsche famously declared that “God is dead” and saw the resultant nihilism as an opportunity for deep human reflection and positive reevaluation.
Freud, SigmundWeird name that, Sigmund. I guess no parents call their sons that anymore in case they try to jump their mother’s bones or kill their father. Freud was born in Austria in 1856 and actually wasn’t a philosopher but a neurologist. Nonetheless he has
some ideas within the branch of epistemology that are worth noting (if only for their sort of paranoid peculiarity). Perhaps he is better described as an influential thinker. He thought deeply about infantile sexuality (sounds erky but he used the word sexuality as anything that gives pleasure), the unconscious and repression. He interpreted dreams, analysed the subconscious and identified libido as the single most motivating factor in an adult life. He separated the human psyche into 3 parts – the ego (rationality), id (impulsive and child like) and super-ego (morality). His groundbreaking treatment in psychoanalysis (indeed his invention of it) has been used widely and successfully, while his philosophical theories have attracted much criticism – including that he was a cocaine addict with distorted views.
Jung, Carl like Freud, his contemporary, was not a philosopher but a psychiatrist whose ideas centre around the human pysche. He tables such ideas as the archetype – model of a person or behaviour; the collective unconscious – part of the unconscious that is present in all humanity; the complex – a core pattern of desires, wishes, emotions and perceptions that surround a common theme or motivation or passion; and synchronicity – the idea that uncommon coincidences arise due to an underlying larger framework of events that are related. He identified individuation as the merging of the personal and collective unconscious to form the individual. On a metaphysical level, he believed that our purpose of humans is to discover and fulfill our deepest potential. He said that spirituality is essential to well being.
De Botton, Alain I have to include him because I love this dude. I mean I think I’m really in love with him. He is – in my starry eyed opinion – the most sensible thinker of today. He has taken all the best bits of sense from history’s philosophers and packaged them all up in digestible forms and relevant contexts in order for us all to take a long hard look at ourselves and the world we live in – with his own philosophies rising up like beacons along the way. He coined the phrase, Status Anxiety and unearthed its truths. He identifies ways in which heathens such as myself can benefit from religion (without having to believe in the Big Guy) and how architecture affects our well being. He…hang on, I won’t go on, just read him okay, he’s lovely – De Botton.
So in case you’re still reading and bothered about what I think…
The Megoracle Philosophies Well I’m not sure I have the time or see the point in asking how we got here because we are here and I can’t see a better explanation beyond the big bang and science. What are we here for? Well given that it was a great big happy accident that we ended up here, I don’t think I believe in an assigned purpose or a destiny. I think we are here to survive, which means different things for everyone. Other than the essentials like food and shelter and sex (for species survival), what is necessary for one person to survive – or at least his/her perception of what is necessary – is different from the next. For instance, a friend once told me he would die without the sea; he runs a watersports business. I am a poor grumpy shadow of myself if I can’t write, and others need to do immense amounts of volunteer work for charity to survive as functioning happy people (thank the Lord for them).
I agree with Confucius and his family loyalty, Socrates and his community and Descartes’ suspicion of perception. I think Marx is a grossly stereotyped wise man who deserves more attention and am grateful to Nietzsche for getting people up off their prayer mats. I am fascinated by the idea of Plato’s cave (none of us can deny its truth) and Jung’s synchronicity (those coincidences happen to me all the time) but can’t offer anything more to either thesis. Of all of the philosophers I have mentioned (and there many more – and far more depth to their ideas), it would be Carl Jung I would like to study more. He seems like a nice, brainy bloke, with some wafty,
mysterious bits that appeal to my whimsy. I used to hear “I’ll Be Watching You” by The Police often enough for it to 1) creep me out and 2) perhaps be some kind of synchronicity. I googled about with the idea and discovered that the song is off The Police’s album named, “Synchronicity”. Kid you not. It’s made me order the book. Anyway, it’s likely I’m going potty now so I’ll sign off at long last.
Never let it be said that Megoracle is afraid of the big issues.
Categories: Brainwork, Nerdy Bits
Tags: aesthetics, Alain De Botton, archetype, Aristotle, Communist, Descartes, dualism, Ego, epistemology, ethics, existentialism, Freud, Id, individuation, Jung, logic, Marx, metaphysics, Nietzsche, nihilism, Philosophy, Plato, Plato's cave, Socrates, Status Anxiety, Super-ego, synchronicity, Thales
So did Confucius really write the notes for fortune cookies? But seriously, I like this post. You are clever megoracle and always get me thinking….. My id likes your funny bits too xx
Hooray for the id I say. x
Fantastic post Meg. I too love LOVE Alain De Botton, I’m currently devouring his book on Proust. I also like it that his name is so easy to remember when browsing bookshops because it looks like bottom. Have you read Sophie’s World? It’s a lovely novel/ overview of philosophy/ mystery…
Hi Mary! Thank you. Yes I have read Sophie’s World and really enjoyed but have to admit it lost me in places. Really need to read it again I think. Haven’t read de Bottom’s Proust book but it’s on my list. xxx
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