Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

1.10 Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

November 25, 2011 Leave a comment

Philosophy day again, and late at night again, anyways, though, Hegel, another interesting philosopher.
Hegel was one of the first people since ancient Greece to take the study of history seriously, up until his time it had just been a vague idea of some things that once happened, and of people that once lived, and left mostly at that. Hegel, though, dedicated quite a bit of effort to the subject, trying to understand how cultures and traditons and systems of governance had been different in the past, and then moved in the even more interesting direction of trying to see patterns in the subject, to see where things were going and thus what was going to happen next.
From this, he developed theories loosely based on those of Kant, in which the universe became a thing known as the Geist (as in Zeitgeist) a general consciousness that was moving ever forwards towards some vague aim. Change was inherent in all things, always striving towards this future, but unlike with Schopenhauer’s ‘Will’, there was purpose and intent to this movement, and that intent was self realisation, understanding and the development of perfection.
Meanwhile, he was also working on a similar theory, the idea of the synthesis. Linking this back to the concept of change and development, he declared the ideas of ‘being’ and ‘not being’ two opposing realities, which could be merged into a synthesis, that of becoming, of changing and moving forwards with the Geist. This synthesis was soon extended outwards, all of existance was a series of ideas and facts, each of which was opposed, thesis to antitheis, and all of which could be then merged into a synthesis, a compomise of the two opposing positions, which would then become the new thesis, and move one step further along in its development.
This was of particular interest in the field of politics, where opposing ideologies held opposing ideas, which could in theory be merged to create new political theories, and thus bring society one step closer to perfection. From this came the Hegelian theory of political development, though, whilst Hegel himself never chose a side, his supporters were soon divided into opposing camps. The Right Hegelians believed that society as they lived in was approaching perfection and needed only a little refining to smooth out the bugs. The Left Hegelians, though, thought that the whole of society was wrong, outdated, and that a whole new one was needed, in fact many amongst them attempted to design the perfect society right there and then, rather than waiting for it to develop step by step. these opposing factions would later form the basis of the Fascist and Socialist movements that would shape much of the history of the 20th century. Meanwhile, the same idea of development towards perfection was to prove a great inspiration to the ongoing efforts to explain evolution, alongside Schopenhauer’s ideas of the brutality and competitiveness of nature.
Hegel, though, argued that each of us was a part of the time in which we lived, that noone could be outside of the world as tey knew it then, noone could live or think as though they were in a past age or a future one, however much they tried. Those that tried to bring the future in right then were doomed to failure, everything had to be undertaken in its own time, step by step. Meanwhile, though, something was always left behind, as he saw it, some remnant of past civilizations, old traditions, and also reminders of each individual’s past as they change through their lives.

So that is old philosophers in ages past thinking and trying to understand how we see the world, how we understand what goes on around us, how the universe works. From there they influenced generations of scientists and philosophers. Perhaps one day I will go on to discuss science of the era, but next week, political and moral theories developed out of these ideas, the suppression of the working class, revolution and change, the welfare state, and Marxism.


24.9 Arthur Schopenhauer

November 18, 2011 Leave a comment

Part four of my philosophy series, I have reached one of my personal favourites out of all the interseting people I am attempting to describe in this series. Schopenhauer built upon the work of Kant, and extended the theories he had developed out in unusual new directions. Kant argued that we cannot understand anything of the world around us, as we see only that which passes through our senses, that which our brains produce from the seemingly random data they recieve, and that therefore all patterns and appearances of logic and order in reality may well be created by our own minds. Schopenhauer, though, realised that there is some way we can understand a part of reality, he reasond that our own bodies exist, and that therefore they are a part of the outside universe, and that if we can come to understand them, from the inside as we are, we can understand something of everything else. (though as I proved some posts back, we really cannot understand most of what our bodies do.)
Schopenhauer’s idea of the universe was of everything being parts of a single whole, a continuous force or existance of which everything we percieve is just slightly different aspects. this force, he refered to as the ‘Will’, the driving force behind everything that happened, moving ever forwards, aimlessly and blindly but always leaving us struggling to keep up, a force that consisted mostly of a desire to continue existing. This theory, interestingly, has many parallels to other such ideas, both ancient and modern. Einstein, for example, proposed that matter is merely an expression of energy, and that the whole universe therefore is a single vast cloud of different forms of energy.
Schopenhauer, though, was rather pessimistic, he proposed that the Will was the force that drove our lives, controlled all our emotions and desires, all those things we wanted but could not quite have, the illogical, irrational things we did, everything that made life that little more difficult. He went and looked at reality and nature and saw terrible things, saw how so many living things had to eat each other to survive, how every living thing, in fact, was in constant competitoon with every other thing, a theory that would later on inspire such minds as Darwin and Wallace towards ideas of evolution in living organisms.
So, all life is basically a futile pursuit of desires we can never quite reach, and a competition with every other living thing for limited space and resources. However, there are some ways to avoid this. One is to set aside all desires and seek a life of simplicity, asceticism and meditation. The other is rather the opposite, to seek freedom through art. As with Kant, Schopenhauer argued that art liberated us from real world thoughts and desires, briefly setting our minds free from ‘servitude to the Will’. He particularly appreciated music, which he believed was the purest form of art, since the sounds could not be anything other than themselves, always purely abstract, just nice noises rather than an imitation of something real, as with say a painting of a vase of flowers. Many of Schopenhauer’s philosophies had many links to ideas of Eastern religions, Buddhism, Daoism and such like, though apparently he developed most of them with almost no contact with the original eastern Asian theories.
Finally, the idea that we are all part of the Will, of the whole of reality, has interesting implications, if our minds and bodies are a part of everything else, then everything else is a part of us, and in a sense we can feel that, that is why, for exaample, we can feel empathy for someone or something that has suffered harm or recieved bad news, because in a sense, we are all the same. And yet, still we compete continually with each other for our own advantage.

So, there we go, an unusual set of ideas, but something in them appeals to me, other than perhaps the constant pessimism, the endless competition and pursuit of desires, but then, I can see the truth in that all too clearly.
Anyway, next week, I shall move onto another rather interesting man, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, who was working on theories of where the driving force of the universe was actually going, at the same time. (in fact, at the exact same time, Schopenhauer arranged to give his lectures whilst Hegel was giving his own, attempting to attract students away from what he saw as his biggest rival, but hardly anyone turned up so he gave in and returned to writing.)

17.9 Immanuel Kant

November 11, 2011 Leave a comment

Philosophy day part 3 shall deal with arguably the most influential single philosopher in some centuries. Certainly in philosophical history, the subject is often divided into two parts, before Kant and after Kant. Though he worked in a number of different areas and attracted a great deal of interest from scientists, mathematicians and philosophers, his most famous single contribution was the effective union of the seemingly opposing ideals of Empiricism and Rationalism.

Growing up in Germany in the 18th century, Kant read quite a bit about many topics. Though he stayed in the same city of Konigsburg almost his entire life, the world effectively came to him through books, and over the first part of his life he made quite a name for himself writing popular essays and books on a very wide variety of topics. Then, however, all this suddenly stopped, he dedicated ever more of his time to trying to understand how the human mind actually worked, beyond the point where data from the outside world had passed through the sense organs. He effectively disappeared, shutting himself away just to read and write and think, and when he emerged from this isolation, it was with a huge, incredibly difficult book that hardly anyone even bothered trying to read.
Writing more, and attempting to write short, easy to read guides to his longer works, Kant gradually developed a new theory of philosophy, in which he attempted to apply the scientific method to the study of thought.
From this, he developed a sequence of ideas, to start with, simply that we can only know and understand that which we can actually sense. But, he suggested, there was no way of proving that things we could not sense did not exist. there was, however, no way of proving that they did, and so he proposed to set all such thoughts, particularly religious debates, aside as being impossible to decide one way or another, and to focus entirely on things that could be understood.
Effectively, he argued, all of what we see and hear and feel around us comes to us from our senses, meaning that we are, though a part of the universe around us, in some way separate from it, in that we can only know what our minds can process for us. What we see may not be what is really there, there is no way of telling what the real world outside out mind looks like.
In fact, one of his most important and influential arguments was that, this being the case, the mind imposes some sort of structure on the otherwise random and meaningless data that pours in continuously. we understand objects and events as being within space and within time, but we cannot actually see these things in the world around us, only understand them through the things that exist within them. Therefore, surely space and time exist only in our minds, they are patterns imposed upon reality by our minds to help us understand what is going on around us.
As well, our minds impose some idea of order, of cause and effect, even though there is no physical connection between two events, we see them happening together often enough that we learn that one always leads to another, and assume it to be so, and an integral part of the way the world works, even though we cannot know what will happen next time.
Space and time may not exist outside of our minds, what of beauty? That is not a physical thing in itself, not an integral part of an object, it can be understood not by what it is but only by the response it creates within our own minds, the same as with, for example, comedy, which can only be known as what it is because it is anything that makes people laugh, but there is no comedy atom inherent within certain things.
Even within the mind, that is always changing, how we feel about one thing can affect how we then feel about something else, different things can invoke different responses at different times, for different reasons, nothing can be considered absolute in that way. Indeed, it began to seem that people like Hume were right, that all our actions were goverened by emotion and passion rather than rules and logic and so on. Indeed, the entirety of our existance is controled by our feelings, which are always there, though there is one way to escape them, momentarily all other cares disappear in the presence of great beauty, a piece of art, architecture or music, for example.
Meanwhile, however, Kant’s interest in combining science and philosophy led him to the absolute laws of science, those rules that structure reality and are the same everywhere. Are, Kant wondered, there absolute laws on how the mind works? In particular, are there laws outside of ourselves governing morality? This led to the creation of the Categorical Imperative, a rule that states that, though there may well not be absolute laws of morality, we should act as though there are, that is, any moral we create for ourselves, we should assume applies to everyone else as well.

So, in summary, things we cannot sense may or may not exist, there is no point trying to prove one way or another. We cannot understand the world around us, only the data that comes to us from our senses (as in Empiricism). Time and space may or may not exist outside of our own minds, it could be that we are imagining them, and the ideas of cause and effect, just to impose order on the random data coming to us from the world around (this links back to Rationalism’s ideas of all understanding of reality being a part of the mind). Beauty, comedy, morality and other abstract ideas are only a part of our minds, but yet we should act as though everything we do was a rule that applied equally to everyone. All our actions are dictated by emotions, and the only way to escape these momentarily is to experience great art or music.

Next week, then, Arthur Schopenhaur takes these ideas and extends them, coming to some interesting realisations about the reality of existance and the existance of reality.

10.9 Empiricism

November 4, 2011 Leave a comment

Philosophy day, part two, a little late, but it has been a rather busy day.

Anyway, last time, a quick introduction to Rationalism, to the idea that nothing can be trusted outside of our own minds, and that all has to be deduced logically. the Empiricists, the name being related to the study of how knowledge and understanding works, directly opposed that. Their theory was that though there was no evidence that the information from our senses was accurate, given that we have nothing to back up that one source, they are really all we have to understand the world, and we might as well work to consider the world as it seems to us, rather than wasting time reminding ourselves that reality might be different to what we think it is.
From this, they developed theories regarding the importance of senses, and also regarding how the mind works. As well as leading to the developing importance of such things as gardening, creating aesthetically pleasing and sensorially exciting scenes of trees and rivers and waterfalls and birds and so on, they also revolutionised our ideas of what people were.

If, as they suggested, everything we knew of the world came from our senses, and where else might it come from? then surely everything we knew must come to us during our lives, rather than before. That is, everyone is born with no knowledge, and all they learn is picked up through experience. If that is the case, then, why are children treated differently based on who their parents are? why is it that the children of wealthy and successful parents get to go to good schools and get taught, whilst the children of less well off families get sent to work at a young age? In fact, if all people are equal other than the experiences live throws at them and that their parents can buy for them, why should any one person be considered any more important than any other, outside of their own personal achievements and abilities?
This proved to be one of the most radical and influential ideas of the 18th century, revolutionising both education and politics. It was this more than anything else that started the new trend towards republicanism in the Americas, Corsica, France, and elsewhere, and towards liberal politics in other, less radical countries.

The major part of this theory was put forwards by John Locke, who also proposed that everything had to be worked out through study and obersavtion, rather than just thought out entirely in the mind, and that, following Rationalism’s view on the unreliablility of senses, that there could be no absolute certainty that what we saw was real, and thus that what we thought was true, and that therefore we should always be ready to listen to new arguments and to change our mind if they seemed more right, indeed, the more different arguments we allow ourselves to be exposed to, the closer we can come to understanding the real truth.
He was followed by such men as David Hume, who studied the ideas of cause and effect, how do we know that one thing causes another, when we can see no physical connection between them. Sure, one always happens after another, so far, but how can we know what will happen next time? Science, another keen interest of the Empiricists, can never prove anything, indeed, the only certainty with science is that it will be proven wrong by some later theory, (as may have happened recently with this faster than light stuff). The human mind creates patterns from what we see around us, even without absolute proof that these things are connected, whilst at the same time, any rational thoughts we might have are overpowered by instinct and emotion, which are what control most of our actions, as in the famous phrase, ‘Reason is a slave to passion’.
Finally, meanwhile, Edmund Burke, working at the time of the American and French revolutions, looked at these Empiricist theories, and at the Rationalist, Utopian ideals of the revolutionaries and came up with an argument against such action. The unimaginable complexity of society, he claimed, was something that no single mind could replace, that a full revolution to remove all of the past and start again could never work in practice. All of society has had to build up layer on layer over thousands of years, an evolutionary rather than revolutionary system, where common sense prevails over logic and nothing can ever be absolutely perfect. He argued, then, that what really mattered was each person making their own slight difference in their turn, and that people should listen to each other and consider all opinions and arguments, whilst ignoring anyone that claimed to be absolutely right, to never absolutely believe any ideologies, dogma, theories, or other supposed experts.

In this, Burke may have slightly foreshadowed the later theories of Hegel, but first, a major problem appears in philosophy, there are two directly opposing theories, both of which seem in many ways to be right, but which are mutually exclusive, so how can they possibly be reconciled? Can a world exist in which both Rationalism and Empiricism are right, as they seem to be to those that follow their separate arguments?

3.9 Friday is philosophy day

October 28, 2011 Leave a comment

Every Friday afternoon I have one of what has been the most interesting and enjoyable series of lectures of my entire course, supposedly a study of the origins of various architectural theories and styles, but really just a run through of modern philosophy. I thought, why not share all of this with the world, after all, that is what a blog is for. Of course, you have missed the first four lectures so far, so I will start at the begining again and that should leave me enough to last all the way through Christmas as well.

Personally I think it gets more interesting later on, but for now, Cartesian Rationalism. So, during the middle ages, in Europe at least, people were intent on doing what they were told, the noble families owned the land and those that worked it, the guild system controlled all production and technology and the church told people how to think and act. Change was pretty much forbidden because the people in charge knew it would reduce their authority, or just simply didn’t think about it. Anyway, along comes the renaissance, a sudden inpouring of old art and books from the east and people start to realise how far they are behind the ancient Romans and Greeks, and the Arabs of their own time, successful businessmen start to buy up old works of art, which were better than the modern, and to collect old books, full of unusual ideas different to those indoctrinated by their society. Then, they start arranging for new works of art to be created, for themselves where before most art had been religious rather than personal, new styles were developed, and the importance and skill of the individual artist was recognised rather than them being seen as any other craftsman doing the job they were paid to do.

And along comes Rene Descartes, a French man who for some strange reason decided that books were not good enough and that as a part of the universe, he should be able to understand it as of himself or itself, without having to read anything else anyone else had written. Quite soon he came to realise that there was no absolute evidence that the things around him actually were as they seemed, that his senses were not playing tricks on him, that he was not living in some imaginary dream world or some such, and that therefore only ideas in his own mind could be trusted. In order to work out a proper single theory of philosophy, then, he turned to the new ideas of science and maths, the analysis of evidence and the careful arranging of known facts to deduce new ideas. He realised that if he could find one fact on which he could be absolutely certain, he could use that as the basis of the entire rest of his theory. But, how to find something so reliable when there was every chance all he saw and felt and knew was part of a dream world?
Eventually he realised that there was one thing that just by thinking he could be sure of, and that was simply that he was thinking. That, he could not be imagining, and so from that, he could deduce his own existance, hence the famous ‘cogito ergo sum’, I think, therefore I am. And from there, he developed the principles of logical rationalism, where every idea has to be built upon preceding ideas, with good reasons and evidence, and that no other thoughts or possibilities were worth entertaining. This theory proved quite popular in his native France and surrounding areas, where it led to ideas of the simple functionality of things that were being made, and even more so of the use of simple shapes, straight lines, squares, circles, nothing too complex or organic, because what would be the point? No, aesthetic perfection could be found in the use of clear simple shapes arranged in ways that could be calculated from careful thought and study, in as far as anything that came to us through our imperfect and unreliable senses mattered at all.

Except, over in England, and even more so in Scotland, ideas were being worked on that countered this in every way, and that would have unexpected consequences throughout society…