April 1 2015.
My neighbor asked me if I thought anything new ever happened in philosophy, or whether, 2500 years after Socrates, all that could be worked out in philosophy had been wrapped up and shipped. Alfred Whitehead came to mind, who wrote in Process and Reality that the entire European philosophical tradition was merely footnotes to Plato. I don’t know what Whitehead meant by this, or for that matter, by the majority of his metaphysical ramblings. I’m no expert, but for my money most of what’s great in philosophy has happened in the last few centuries – including some real gems in the last few decades.
For me, ancient, eastern, and medieval philosophy is merely a preface to Hume. OK, a few of his predecessors deserve a nod – Peter Abelard, Adelard of Bath, and Francis Bacon. But really, David Hume was the first human honest enough to admit that we can’t really know much about anything worth knowing and that our actions are born of custom, not reason. Hume threw a wrench into the works of causation and induction and stopped them cold. Hume could write clearly and concisely. Try his Treatise some time.
Immanuel Kant, in an attempt to reconcile empiricism with rationalism, fought to rescue us from Hume’s skepticism and failed miserably. Kant, often a tad difficult to grasp (“transcendental idealism” actually can make sense once you get his vocabulary), succeeded in opposing every one of his own positions while paving the way for the great steaming heap of German philosophy that reeks to this day.
The core of that heap is, of course, the domain of GWF Hegel, which the more economical Schopenhauer called “pseudo-philosophy paralyzing all mental powers, stifling all real thinking.”
Don’t take my word (or Schopenhauer‘s) for it. Read Karl Marx’s Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy. On second thought, don’t. Just read Imre Lakatos’s critique of Marx’s critique of Hegel. Better yet, read Paul Feyerabend’s critique of Lakatos’s critique of Marx’s critique. Of Hegel. Now you’re getting the spirit of philosophy. For every philosopher there is an equal and opposite philosopher. For Kant, they were the same person. For Hegel, the opposite and its referent are both all substance and non-being. Or something like that.
Hegel set out to “make philosophy speak German” and succeeded in making German speak gibberish. Through great effort and remapping your vocabulary you can eventually understand Hegel, at which point you realize what an existential waste that effort has been. But not all of what Hegel wrote was gibberish; some of it was facile politics.
Hegel writes – in the most charitable of translations – that reason “is Substance, as well as Infinite Power; its own Infinite Material underlying all the natural and spiritual life which it originates, as also the Infinite Form, – that which sets this Material in motion”
I side with the logical positivists, who, despite ultimately crashing into Karl Popper’s brick wall, had the noble cause of making philosophy work like science. The positivists, as seen in writings by AJ Ayer and Hans Reichenbach, thought the words of Hegel simply did no intellectual work. Rudolf Carnap relentlessly mocked Heidegger’s “the nothing itself nothings.” It sounds better in the Nazi philosopher’s own German: “Das Nichts nichtet,” and reveals that Reichenbach could have been more sympathetic in his translation by using nihilates instead of nothings. The removal of a sentence from its context was unfair, as you can plainly see when it is returned to its native habitat:
In anxiety occurs a shrinking back before … which is surely not any sort of flight but rather a kind of bewildered calm. This “back before” takes its departure from the nothing. The nothing itself does not attract; it is essentially repelling. But this repulsion is itself as such a parting gesture toward beings that are submerging as a whole. This wholly repelling gesture toward beings that are in retreat as a whole, which is the action of the nothing that oppresses Dasein in anxiety, is the essence of the nothing: nihilation. It is neither an annihilation of beings nor does it spring from a negation. Nihilation will not submit to calculation in terms of annihilation and negation. The nothing itself nihilates.
Heidegger goes on like that for 150 pages.
The positivists found fault with philosophers who argued from their armchairs that Einstein could not have been right. Yes, they really did this; and not all of them opposed Einstein’s science just because it was Jewish. The philosophy of the positivists had some real intellectual heft, despite being wrong, more or less. They were consumed not only by causality and determinism, but by the quest for demarcation – the fine line between science and nonsense. They failed. Popper burst their bubble by pointing out that scientific theory selection relied more on absence of disconfirming evidence than on the presence of confirming evidence. Positivism fell victim mainly to its own honest efforts. The insider Willard Van Orman Quine (like Popper), put a nail in positivism’s coffin by showing the distinction between analytic and synthetic statements to be false. Hillary Putnam, killing the now-dead horse, then showed the distinction between “observational” and “theoretical” to be meaningless. Finally, in 1960, Thomas Kuhn showed up in Berkeley with the bomb that the truth conditions for science do not stand independent of their paradigms. I think often and write occasionally on the highly misappropriated Kuhn. He was wrong in all his details and overall one of the rightest men who ever lived.
Before leaving logical positivism, I must mention another hero from its ranks, Carl Hempel. Hempel is best known, at least in scientific circles, for his wonderful illustration of Hume’s problem of induction known as the Raven Paradox.
But I digress. I mainly intended to say that philosophy for me really starts with Hume and some of his contemporaries, like Adam Smith, William Blackstone, Voltaire, Diderot, Moses Mendelssohn, d’Alembert, and Montesquieu.
And to say that 20th century philosophers have still been busy, and have broken new ground. As favorites I’ll cite Quine, Kuhn and Hempel, mentioned above, along with Ludwig Wittgenstein, Richard Rorty (late works in particular), Hannah Arendt, John Rawls (read about, don’t read – great thinker, tedious writer), Michel Foucault (despite his Hegelian tendencies), Charles Peirce, William James (writes better than his brother), Paul Feyerabend, 7th Circuit Judge Richard Posner, and the distinguished Simon Blackburn, with whom I’ll finish.
One of Thomas Kuhn’s more controversial concepts is that of incommensurability. He maintained that cross-paradigm argument is futile because members of opposing paradigms do not share a sufficiently common language in which to argue. At best, they lob their words across each other’s bows. This brings to mind a story told by Simon Blackburn at a talk I attended a few years back. It recalls Theodoras and Protagoras against Socrates on truth being absolute vs. relative – if you’re into that sort of thing. If not, it’s still good.
Blackburn said that Lord Jeremy Waldron was attending a think tank session on ethics at Princeton, out of obligation, not fondness for such sessions. As Blackburn recounted Waldron’s experience, Waldron sat on a forum in which representatives of the great religions gave presentations.
First the Buddhist talked of the corruption of life by desire, the eight-fold way, and the path of enlightenment, to which all the panelists said “Wow, terrific. If that works for you that’s great” and things of the like.
Then the Hindu holy man talked of the cycles of suffering and birth and rebirth, the teachings of Krishna and the way to release. And the panelists praised his conviction, applauded and cried ‘Wow, terrific – if it works for you that’s fabulous” and so on.
A Catholic priest then came to the podium, detailing the message of Christ, the promise of salvation, and the path to eternal life. The panel cheered at his great passion, applauded and cried, ‘Wow, terrific, if that works for you, great”.
And the priest pounded his fist on the podium and shouted, ‘No! Not a question of whether it works for me! This is the true word of the living God; and if you don’t believe it you’re all damned to Hell!”
The panel cheered and gave a standing ovation, saying: “Wow! Terrific! If that works for you that’s great”!