13 September 2018 -
When I first started to read a lot into Philosophy, those who knew me had a lot of questions as to why I was interested in this field. Many people today see Philosophy as a pointless endeavour, this is due to the perception created by those who say that they are well versed in philosophy and on the subject do nothing but conjure up a huge rhetorical word salad of next to meaningless nonsense. Their utterances do nothing to further man's understanding of himself and his place in the universe, but rather aim at disintegration and destroying his understanding. The field is infested with those who care not about furthering understanding but dissuading anybody from attempting to bring clarity to the chaos they try to manifest.
So, why study Philosophy? In this video I shall go through the history of philosophers, naming both the explicit reasons they gave and the implicit benefits their systems gave to the pursuit of knowledge.
We start our search for knowledge where it all began on the island of Miletus, with the father of Philosophy: Thales. He observed water taking upon the states of solid, liquid, and gas and came to the conclusion that water is the primary substance that subsumes all matter. Though the material monism put forward by Thales isn’t considered at all impressive by today's standards, it signifies a crucial goal that philosophy has tried to achieve since the very beginning: the integration of knowledge, attempting to find the one in the many. A crucial step in the journey of man’s knowledge is the use of percepts to form concepts, this enables us to be able to free our minds to study the unknown and increase the scope of our knowledge. Though many ancient Greek philosophers at the time regarded their work to be making definitive metaphysical statements, looking back we can gain an understanding about human epistemology to see that they were making steps in the right direction and paving the way for the great integrators of knowledge we admire today.
After the Milesian school of material monism, the next prominent school of philosophers were the Pythagoreans. You may know the most prominent philosopher of this school, from which the school gets its name, and from the mathematical theorem that also bares his name, that man of course is Pythagoras. With this link you’d be absolutely correct in guessing that his work in mathematics influenced his philosophy; the mathematical theorems he came to understand are said to have been known through revelation, this revelation is the sudden understanding that mathematics gives to those who are enthralled in the subject. The Pythagoreans saw the study of mathematics as a purely mystical endeavour which brings us back to our original question of why study philosophy, this answer is both ethical and epistemological: the life that is of highest virtue is the one that is dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge, true knowledge is that of the mystical realm of mathematics, which is achieved through contemplation of another world.
Our next prominent philosopher, Plato, is best understood in the context of the most hotly contested question on the minds of the philosophers at the time: what is the nature of change? This question is best explained through the views of the most radical. On the side of constant change was Heraclitus who believed that all things are in a constant state of flux, meaning everything is both what it is and what it isn’t, in his own words: “We both step and do not step in the same rivers. We are and are not.” On the other side was Parmenides who saw the contradictions of Heraclitus and concluded that change must not exist, if our senses perceive this contradiction then our senses must be deceptive. Plato set about to rectify this conflict, he agreed with Parmenides that change would imply a contradiction but definitely saw change happen, from this Plato concluded that this world isn’t real. What we see is merely an illusion, a world of particulars, from the world of forms that holds all unchanging abstract universals. Plato reconciles Heraclitus and Parmenides by saying that change exists in this world of particulars, but not in the world of forms. At this point we can finally give the answer Plato would give on why you should study philosophy: knowledge of this illusionary world of particulars is meaningless, true knowledge comes from recollection, your eternal soul has merely forgotten its knowledge of the world of forms and thus the most moral life you can lead is to spend your time contemplating to try and recall your buried knowledge of the world of forms.
Even though Plato and Pythagoras are extremely similar in their mysticism, Plato is known more in comparison to his student Aristotle. Their differences are not particularly relevant to this current inquiry, so the ins and outs of Aristotle's disagreements with Plato will be subject to future study. On the subject of studying Philosophy, Aristotle said that man should be concerned with living a happy life in this world which is achieved through the use of man’s unique faculty of reason. The rest of his Philosophy attempts to justify how a man may live such a life through a this worldly epistemology and metaphysics. Though in many respects he isn’t completely consistent, when looking back at a philosopher you should be more concerned with the essence of their philosophy and what they aimed to achieve, this essence should be considered as the direction they took and the ways in which they departed from the common ideas of the time. Though he is seen as a great integrator in many aspects, you can make a strong case that what he was aiming for took a whole lot more integration capable for one man in his lifetime, you could say that this sort of life wasn’t considered possible until a thorough understanding of universal human rights as presented by Locke in the 17th century that made possible the industrial revolution, creating huge amounts of wealth and bringing man into a true age of individualism. This isn’t the last that we will see of these Aristotelian ideas during our investigation so if your interest has been peaked by them, the very last philosopher we will discuss builds upon these ideas in a modern context with universal human rights in mind.
The post-aristotelian philosophers didn’t bring very much new to the table when it comes to this question, the Epicureans taught a negative hedonism that equates to valuing nothing so you may never suffer when losing it and the Stoics taught indifference to the material in favour of the spiritual. The next philosopher to become dominant, who brought into Europe the dark ages until the rediscovery of Aristotle, was the Christian philosopher St. Augustine. The philosophy of St. Augustine brings together the prior teachings of Christianity with the philosophical works of Plato whose legacy was carried on by the Neoplatonists and specifically a philosopher named Plotinus. In adopting the ideas of a barely real world, created by a divine mind with a will known as God, true knowledge is not found through the study of this world, unlike Plato it’s not even through individual recollection; true knowledge is found in absolute faith in God and belief in divine revelation. You must unquestioningly love God and from this your fellow man, life is not to be enjoyed but to be endured through sacrifice to those who suffer, Man must renounce worldly pleasures and abandon independent judgement to seek forgiveness for the original sin he has inherited. On the subject of why you should study philosophy, St. Augustine is possibly the first to say that you probably shouldn’t. Study of this world is an arrogant waste of time, though understanding God's commandments will bring you closer to the divine, it is certainly not necessary, you should follow his commandments with complete certainty regardless of whether you understand their importance.
Throughout the dark ages, Catholicism and the philosophy of St. Augustine reigned supreme, the few philosophers who were able to philosophize were Scholastics who were in the position of attempting to reconcile philosophy with religious dogma and creating new arguments for the existence of God. Study of philosophy finally came back into prominence following the rediscovery of Aristotle and his reconciliation with Christianity by St. Thomas Aquinas. By separating theology into two groups: natural theology that can be explained through reason and revealed theology that doesn’t contradict reason, Aquinas tries to reconcile the Christian faith with living life on Earth. According to Aquinas, God gave us reason, therefore man must follow his reason regardless of whether it aligns with faith because the erring reason binds and one cannot be accused of having done wrong when their reason is mistaken. So why should you study philosophy? To use your God-given faculty of reason to achieve your destiny here on Earth and save the afterlife for after your life.
After Aquinas and the Reformation weakened the authority of the Catholic church, philosophers were once again free to philosophize, though not necessarily leading to the best results. Though John Locke developed the theory of universal and inalienable individual rights, the shaky philosophic ground he stood upon that he took to be true, from the nominalism of Hobbes and the self-evidence of consciousness reached through Cartesian doubt by Descartes, led British empiricism to culminate in a dead end of skepticism with Hume. Seeing this, Immanuel Kant jumped on the scene denouncing reason as impotent at knowing reality.
Kant was the first philosopher to systematically deploy skepticism into his philosophy and announce what he called the “noumenal world” as unknowable, what we experience is the “phenomenal world” which is created through the synthesising processes of our mind on the data received from the noumenal world. Kant starts by saying that the noumenal world is completely unknowable but backtracks on this when he gets to the question of ethics. Ethics is one of the only fields that allegedly gives us access to the noumenal world, this is because we all supposedly have a sense that we are obliged to perform certain actions prior to experience and divorced from desire. These actions that every human must perform is termed by Kant as the categorical imperative: a set of universalizable moral commandments that all must perform, not because you want to or because of the outcome, but because it is your duty. You in fact get no moral credit for an action that you both want to do and that it is your duty to do, a moral action is only moral if it is done solely from the standpoint of acting from duty. From here we get Kant’s answer to why one should study the field of philosophy: to know that reason is impotent in knowing reality in itself, the noumenal world is the subject of faith. Kant expressed this in his own words by saying: “I’ve found it necessary to limit knowledge in order to make room for faith.” Instead, reason should be directed towards the field of ethics, not God-given happiness as that is ineffective and futile, but to achieve a higher, nobler end - complete obedience to the categorical imperative as your duty. Some of the categorical imperatives Kant names outright are: to preserve one's life, honesty, and altruism, all of which must be performed regardless, but only those who are indifferent or have an inclination against doing so are truly moral.
In this ethic, who are truly moral? Kant not only says that his morality isn’t for achieving happiness here on Earth, he in fact states outright that the only moral people are the miserable who seek their own self destruction, and those who are deserving aren’t those who bring prosperity, but those who suffer. David Hume, after realising his line of thinking led to skepticism, decided to stop philosophizing as he realised that it was impossible to live by such terms, Immanuel Kant decided to continue to push the dagger of skepticism into the heart of western civilization, institutionalising it for centuries to come. His ethic a blueprint for any monster to take and wreak havoc upon humanity. So… is that it? Is there a light at the end of this very long tunnel that can give us hope for the ages to come?
I’m glad to tell you that there is, and that beacon of hope comes in the novels and theories that expound the philosophy of Objectivism, the philosophy of Ayn Rand. This is the philosophy of objective reality; the philosophy that says man may trust his senses and his rational faculty to be able to understand the world and pursue his own happiness. Specific arguments against the theories that led to the skepticism spread by the Kantians and the Humeans, and also the determinism presented by the mechanistic materialists are not too relevant to the current question so I assure you that they will be subject to another discussion sometime in the near future. To get back to the question of why you should study philosophy: it’s to be able to understand how to best act in a way that is in your rational self-interest by achieving the values that are important and vital to your life, but how does one do so? You must first be able to understand what exists, how do you know it, and the nature of man before you can approach how and why you must act. If you believe happiness is unachievable and man is doomed to failure, logic concludes that your own life isn’t going to be your call to action. If you have undeserved guilt about pursuing your own life, the likelihood is that you’ll then feel obliged to act on the duty of death as prescribed by Kant. This is because regardless of whether you study philosophy, your life will be guided by one; man’s means of knowledge is to take percepts and integrate them into concepts, so regardless of whether you believe a study of abstract ideas is important, you’ll necessarily be guided by a set of them, to not would be to stay at the same level of understanding as a newborn. You should study philosophy to understand the current philosophy that is guiding your life, whether held consciously or not, and understand its validity so you may change such ideas to be certain in your thinking and then be able to pursue your own life as an end in itself. You may think: why study the philosophies that are clearly utter nonsense? Well, how do you know it’s nonsense? Only through a study of the philosophies that are dangerous and self destructive can you understand their contradictions, their false presuppositions, and their common arguments to then protect your own life and your pursuit of it, as well as defend the good, the truth, and the just, in a politic that protects the universal individual rights of its citizens.
If you wish to know more about Ayn Rand's views on why you should study philosophy, make sure to read Philosophy: who needs it?