Looking at Philosophy: The Unbearable Heaviness of
Philosophy Made Lighter, Fourth Edition
Looking at Philosophy The Unbearable Heaviness of
Philosophy Made Lighter
Donald Palmer Professor Emeritus at College of Marin
For Katarina & Christian
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Palmer, Donald. Looking at philosophy : the unbearable heaviness of philosophy made lighter / David
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Includes bibliographical references and index. ISBN 0-07-282895-1 (alk. paper) 1. Philosophy—History. 2. Philosophy—History—Caricatures and cartoons.
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Wittgenstein once said that a whole philosophy book could be written consisting of nothing but jokes. This is not that book, nor does this book treat the history of philosophy as a joke. This book takes philos- ophy seriously, but not gravely. As the subtitle indicates, the goal of the book is to lighten the load a bit. How to do this without simply throwing the cargo overboard? First, by presenting an overview of Western philosophy from the sixth century B.C.E. through most of the twentieth century in a way that introduces the central philosophical ideas of the West and their evolution in a concise, readable format without trivializing them, but at the same time, without pretending to have exhausted them nor to have plumbed their depths. Second, following a time-honored medieval tradition, by illuminating the mar- gins of the text. Some of these illuminations, namely those that attempt to schematize difficult ideas, I hope will be literally illuminat- ing. Most of them, however, are simply attempts in a lighter vein to interrupt the natural propensity of the philosophers to succumb to the pull of gravity. (Nietzsche said that only the grave lay in that direction.) But even these philosophical jokes, I hope, have a pedagog- ical function. They should serve to help the reader retain the ideas that are thereby gently mocked. Thirty years of teaching the subject, which I love—and which has provoked more than a few laughs on the part of my students—convinces me that this technique should work.
I do not claim to have achieved Nietzsche’s “joyful wisdom,” but I agree with him that there is such a thing and that we should strive for it.
Before turning you over to Thales and his metaphysical water (the first truly heavy water), I want to say a word about the women and their absence. Why are there so few women in a book of this nature? There are a number of possible explanations, including these:
1. Women really are deficient in the capacity for sublimation and hence are incapable of participating in higher culture (as Schopenhauer and Freud suggested).
2. Women have in fact contributed greatly to the history of philosophy, but their contributions have been denied or sup- pressed by the chauvinistic male writers of the histories of philosophy.
3. Women have been (intentionally or unintentionally) system- atically eliminated from the history of philosophy by political, social, religious, and psychological manipulations of power by a deeply entrenched, jealous, and fearful patriarchy.
I am certain that the first thesis does not merit our serious attention. I think there is some truth to the second thesis, and I may be partially guilty of suppressing that truth. For example, the names of at least seventy women philosophers in the late classical period alone have been recorded, foremost of which are Aspasia, Diotima, Aretê, and Hypatia. (Hypatia has been belatedly honored by having a journal of feminist philosophy named after her.) Jumping over cen- turies to our own age, we find a number of well-known women con- tributing to the history of philosophy in the first half of the twentieth century, including Simone de Beauvoir, Susanne Langer, and L. Susan Stebbing.
However, no matter how original, deep, and thought-provoking were the ideas of these philosophers, I believe that, for a number of reasons (those reasons given in the second and third theses are probably most pertinent here), none of them has been as historically significant as the ideas of those philosophers who are discussed in this book. Fortunately, things have begun to change in the past few
iv ◆ Preface
years. An adequate account of contemporary philosophy could not in good faith ignore the major contributions to the analytic tradition of philosophers Iris Murdoch, Philippa Foot, G. E. M. Anscombe, and Judith Jarvis Thompson, nor those contributions to the Continental tradition made by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Monique Wittig, Luce Irigaray, and Julia Kristeva. Furthermore, a new wave of women phi- losophers is already beginning to have considerable impact on the content of contemporary philosophy and not merely on its style.
So, despite the risks, I defend the third thesis. I truly believe that if women had not been systematically excluded from major par- ticipation in the history of philosophy,1 that history would be even richer, deeper, more compassionate, and more interesting (not to mention more joyful) than it already is. It is not for nothing that the book ends with a discussion of the work of a contemporary woman philosopher and with a question posed to philosophy herself, “Quo vadis?”—Whither goest thou?
The fourth edition proceeds with the refinement of presentation begun in the second edition and with the addition of new material ini- tiated in the third edition. I have had some help with all four editions of this book. For suggestions with the earlier editions, I am grateful to Timothy R. Allan, Trocaire College; Dasiea Cavers-Huff, Riverside Community College; Job Clement, Daytona Beach Community College; Will Griffis, Maui Community College; Julianna Scott Fein, Mayfield Publishing Company; Hans Hansen, Wayne State University; Fred E. Heifner Jr., Cumberland University; Joseph Huster, University of Utah; Ken King, Mayfield Publishing Company; Robin Mouat, Mayfield Pub- lishing Company; Don Porter, College of San Mateo; Brian Schroeder, Siena College; Matt Schulte, Montgomery College; Yukio Shirahama, San Antonio College; Samuel Thorpe, Oral Roberts University; William Tinsley, Foothill College; James Tuttle, John Carroll University; Kerry Walk, Princeton University; Stevens F. Wandmacher, University of Michigan, Flint; Andrew Ward, San Jose State University; and Robert White, Montgomery College. I would also like to thank my colleague David Auerbach at North Carolina State University for having read
Preface ◆ v
and commented on parts of the manuscript. Jim Bull, my editor at Mayfield Publishing Company for the first two editions, had faith in this project from its inception. For excellent suggestions concerning this fourth edition I thank Robert Caputi, Trocaire College; Janine Jones, University of North Carolina, Greensboro; Amber L. Katherine, Santa Monica College; James Lemke, Coker College; and Kirby Olson, SUNY Delhi. For the new edition, my editor at McGraw-Hill has been Jon-David Hague. My editorial coordinator, Allison Rona, has been exceptionally helpful. Also at McGraw-Hill I am indebted to Leslie LaDow, the production editor, and copyeditor Karen Dorman. My wife, Leila May, has been my most acute critic and my greatest source of inspiration. She kept me laughing during the dreariest stages of the production of the manuscript, often finding on its pages jokes that weren’t meant to be there. I hope she managed to catch most of them. There probably are still a few pages that are funnier than I intended them to be.
1. See Mary Warnock, ed. Women Philosophers (London: J. M. Dent, 1996).
vi ◆ Preface
I. The Pre-Socratic Philosophers Sixth and Fifth Centuries B.C.E. 10
Leucippus and Democritus 41
II. The Athenian Period Fifth and Fourth Centuries B.C.E. 48
The Sophists 48
Callicles and Critias 52
III. The Hellenistic and Roman Periods Fourth Century B.C.E. through Fourth Century C.E. 91
IV. Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy Fifth through Fifteenth Centuries 104
Saint Augustine 108
The Encyclopediasts 113
John Scotus Eriugena 115
Saint Anselm 118
Muslim and Jewish Philosophies 121
The Problem of Faith and Reason 126
The Problem of the Universals 127
Saint Thomas Aquinas 130
William of Ockham 142
Renaissance Philosophers 146
V. Continental Rationalism and British Empiricism The Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries 154
VI. Post-Kantian British and Continental Philosophy The Nineteenth Century 227
viii ◆ Contents
VII. Pragmatism, the Analytic Tradition, and the Phenomenological Tradition and Its Aftermath The Twentieth Century 299
The Analytic Tradition 312
Logical Positivism 325
The Phenomenological Tradition and Its Aftermath 353
Structuralism and Poststructuralism 380
Glossary of Philosophical Terms 407
Selected Bibliography 423
Contents ◆ ix
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The story of Western philosophy begins in Greece.
The Greek word “Logos” is the source of the English word “logic” as well as all the “logies” in terms like “biology,” “sociology,” and “psy- chology,” where “logos” means the theory, or study, or rationalization of something. “Logos” also means “word” in Greek, so it involves the act of speaking, or setting forth an idea in a clear manner. “Logos,” therefore, designates a certain kind of thinking about the world, a kind of logical analysis that places things in the context of reason and explains them with the pure force of thought. Such an intellec- tual exercise was supposed to lead to wisdom (Sophia), and those who dedicated themselves to Logos were thought of as lovers of wis- dom (love = philo), hence as philosophers.
What was there before philosophy, before Logos? There was Mythos—a certain way of thinking that placed the world in the con- text of its supernatural origins. Mythos explained worldly things by tracing them to exceptional, sometimes sacred, events that caused the world to be as it is now. In the case of the Greeks, Mythos meant
tracing worldly things to the dra- matic acts of the gods of
Mount Olympus. The narra- tives describing these ori-
gins—myths—are not only explanatory but also morally exemplary and ritualistically instruc- tive; that is, they pro- vide the rules that, if followed by all, would create the foundation of a genuine community of togetherness— a “we” and an “us” instead of a mere con- glomeration of individu- als who could only say
2 ◆ Introduction
You will wear your baseball cap backward because the gods wore theirs backward!
Explaining Ancient Greek Customs
“I” and “me.” Hence, myths are often conservative in nature. They seek to maintain the status quo by replicating origins: “So behaved the sacred ancestors, so must we behave.” Myths had the advantage of creating a whole social world in which all acts had meaning. They had the disadvantage of creating static societies, of resisting innovation, and, many would say, of being false. Then, suddenly, philosophy hap- pened—Logos broke upon the scene, at least according to the tradi- tional account. (There are other accounts, however, accounts that suggest that Western Logos—philosophy and science—is just our version of myth.) But let us suppose that something different did take place in Greece about 700 B.C.E.1 Let’s suppose that the “first” philosopher’s explanation of the flooding of the Nile River during the summer (most rivers tend to dry up in the summer) as being caused by desert winds (desert winds, not battles or love affairs among gods) really does constitute novelty. Natural phenomena are ex- plained by other natural phenomena, not by supernatural events in “dream time”—the time of the ancient gods. In that case, Greece truly is the cradle of Western philosophy.
Why Greece, and not, for example, Egypt or Judea? Well, let’s be honest here. Nobody knows. Still, a number of histori- cal facts are rele- vant to the explana- tion we seek. For one, there was a very productive contact between ancient Greece and the cultures of the east- ern Mediterranean region—Persia,
Introduction ◆ 3
Once, many many years ago, there was a big bang. But great fathers Galileo and Newton were not dismayed. They conferred and said, “It is good.”
A Modern Myth?
Mesopotamia, Phoenicia, Cyprus, southern Italy, and Egypt, among others. The Greeks were a well-traveled group and were extremely adept at borrowing ideas, conventions, and artistic forms from the cultures they encountered and applying these elements creatively to their own needs. There is also a controversial theory that Greek cul- ture derives greatly from African sources.2 It is at least certain, as one historian of Greek ideas has recently said, that “the cultural achievements of archaic and classical Greece are unthinkable without Near Eastern resources to draw upon,”3 and eastern North Africa fits into this map.
Also, unlike the case in some of the surrounding societies, there was no priestly class of censors in Greece. This observation does not mean that Greek thinkers had no restrictions on what they could say—we will see that several charges of impiety were brought against
4 ◆ Introduction
some of them in the period under study—but that they were able nevertheless to get away with quite a bit that went against prevailing religious opinion.
Another historical fact is that the Greek imagination had always been fertile in its concern with intimate detail. For example, Homer’s description of Achilles’ shield takes up four pages of the Iliad. In addition, the many generations of Greek children who grew up on the poems of Homer and Hesiod4—two of the main vehicles that transmitted Greek religion—recognized in them their argumentative, intellectually combative, and questioning nature. The polemical nature of Greek drama and poetry would find a new home in Greek philosophy.
A final component of the world into which philosophy was born is the socioeconomic structure that produced a whole leisured class of
Introduction ◆ 5
people—mostly male people—with time on their hands that they could spend meditating on philosophical issues. It is always jolting to remember that during much of Greece’s history, a major part of the economic foundation of its society was slave labor and booty from military conquests. This fact takes some of the luster from “the Glory that was Greece.”
Still, for whatever reasons, the poetry and drama of the Greeks demonstrate an intense awareness of change, of the war of the opposites—summer to winter, hot to cold, light to dark, and that most dramatic change of all, life to death.
Indeed, this sensitivity to the transitory nature of all things sometimes led the Greeks to pessimism. The poets Homer, Mimner- mus, and Simonides all expressed the idea “Generations of men fall like the leaves of the forest.”5
6 ◆ Introduction
But this sensitivity also led the Greeks to demand an explanation— one that would be obtained and justified not by the authority of reli- gious tradition but by the sheer power of human reason. Here we find an optimism behind the pessimism—the human mind operating on its own devices is able to discover ultimate truths about reality.
But let us not overemphasize the radicalness of the break made by the Greek philosophers with the earlier, mythical ways of thinking. It’s not as if suddenly a bold new atheism emerged, reject- ing all religious explanations or constraints. In fact, atheism as we understand it today was virtually unknown in the ancient world.6
Rather, these early Greek philosophers reframed the perennial puzzles about reality in such a way as to emphasize the workings of nature rather than the work of the gods. For instance, they tended to demote cosmogony (theories about the origins of the world) and promote cosmology (theories about the nature of the world).
This new direction represents the beginnings of a way of thinking that the Greeks would soon call “philosophy”—the love of wisdom. We
Introduction ◆ 7
can discern in these early efforts what we now take to be the main fields of the discipline that we too call philosophy: ontology (theory of being); epistemology (theory of knowledge); axiology (theory of value), which includes ethics, or moral philosophy (theory of right behavior), and aesthetics (theory of beauty, or theory of art); and logic (theory of correct inference).
In fact, the theories put forth in ancient Greece could be called the origins of Western science with as much justification as they can be called the origins of Western philosophy, even though at that early period no such distinctions could be made. Roughly, I would say that science deals with problems that can be addressed experimentally by subsuming the observable events that puzzle us under the dominion of natural laws and by showing how these laws are related causally to those events. Philosophy, on the other hand, deals with problems that require a speculative rather than an experimental approach. Such problems often require conceptual analysis (the logical scrutiny of general ideas) rather than observation or data gathering. Consider these questions, paying special attention to the italicized words:
Can we know why on rare occasions the sun darkens at midday? Is it true that the moon’s passing between the earth and the
sun causes such events? Can there be successful experiments that explain this
These questions are scientific questions. Now compare these ques- tions to the following ones, paying attention again to the words in italics:
What is knowledge? What is truth? What is causality? What is value? What is explanation?
These questions invite conceptual analysis, which is part of philosophy. But we are moving too fast and looking too far ahead. As I said,
such distinctions had not yet been clearly drawn in the ancient world.
8 ◆ Introduction
The thinkers there were satisfied to have asked the kinds of ques- tions that were foundational both to philosophy and to science.
Topics for Consideration
1. Pick some observable phenomenon, such as what we now call the eclipse of the sun, and explain it from the perspective of science, and then again from some system of myth. (You may have to visit the library for this exercise.) Then use these two “stories” to demonstrate the difference between Logos and Mythos.
2. Think about your own patterns of belief. Are there any of them that you would acknowledge as Mythos rather than Logos? Here are two exam- ples: (A) If you have religious beliefs, how would you characterize them in terms of this distinction? (B) What would it mean to assert that science itself is simply an instance of Western Mythos?
1. I have chosen to use the new dating coordinates B.C.E. (Before the Common Era) and C.E. (Common Era) rather than the older B.C. (Before Christ) and A.D. (Anno Domini, or The Year of Our Lord) because the attempt to gauge the whole of human history from the perspective of a particular religious tradition no longer seems tenable. But let’s face it: This new system is a bit artificial. Probably there is some- thing arbitrary about all attempts to date historical events. At least I am not fol- lowing the lead of the nineteenth-century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who pro- claimed, “History begins with my birth.” (We’ll study Nietzsche later.)
2. Martin Bernal, Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization, vol. 1, The Fabrication of Ancient Greece 1785–1985 (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers Uni- versity Press, 1987).
3. Robin Osborne, “The Polis and Its Culture,” in Routledge History of Philosophy, vol. 1, From the Beginning to Plato, ed. C. C. W. Taylor (London and New York: Routledge, 1997), 14.
4. Homer, The Iliad, trans. Michael Reck (New York: IconEditions, 1994); Homer, The Odyssey, trans. Robert Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1998); Hesiod, Theogony: Works and Days, trans. Dorothea Wender (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, 1976).
5. This sentiment can be found in the poems published in Greek Lyric: An Anthology in Translation, ed. and trans. Andrew M. Miller (Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett Publishing, 1996), 27, 117, 118.
6. See Catherine Osborne, “Heraclitus,” in From the Beginning to Plato, 90.
Notes ◆ 9
The thinkers who were active in Greece between the end of the seventh century B.C.E. and the middle of the fourth century B.C.E. are known today as the pre-Socratic philosophers, even though the last of the group so designated were actually contemporaries of Socrates.
1 The Pre-Socratic
Philosophers Sixth and Fifth Centuries B.C.E.
(Socrates was born in 469 and died in 399 B.C.E. We look at his thought in the next chapter.) What all the pre-Socratic philosophers have in common is their attempt to create general theories of the cosmos (kosmos is the Greek term for “world”) not simply by repeat- ing the tales of how the gods had created everything, but by using observation and reason to construct general theories that would explain to the unprejudiced and curious mind the secrets behind the appearances in the world. Another commonality was that all the pre- Socratic philosophers stemmed from the outlying borders of the Greek world: islands in the Ionian Sea or Greek colonies in Italy or along the coast of Persia (in today’s Turkey). Knowledge of these thinkers is tremendously important not only for understanding the Greek world of their time, but—as I have argued in the Introduc- tion—for grasping the origins of Western philosophy and science.
The problem is that in fact very little is known about the pre- Socratic philosophers. Most of the books that they wrote had already disappeared by the time that the philosopher Aristotle (384–322 B.C.E.) tried to catalog and criticize their views. Today’s understanding of the pre-Socratics is based mostly on summaries of their ideas by Aristotle and by later Greek writers who had heard of their views only by word of mouth. Many of these accounts are surely inaccurate because of distortions caused by repetition over several generations by numerous individuals. (Have you ever played the game called Telephone, in which a complicated message is whis- pered to a player, who then whispers it to the next player, and so on, until the message—or what’s left of it—is announced to the whole group by the last player in the circle?) Also, these summaries often contained anachronistic ideas, that is, ideas from the later time projected back into the earlier views. Only fragments of the original works remain in most cases today, and even those few existing passages do not always agree with one another. Remember, these “books” were all written by hand on papyrus (a fragile early paper made from the crushed and dried pulp of an Egyptian water plant), and all editions of these books were copied manually by
The Pre-Socratic Philosophers ◆ 11
professional scribes. Furthermore, the meaning of many of the frag- ments is debatable, both because of the “fragmentary” nature of the scraps—key words are missing or illegible—and because of the obscure language in which many of these works were written. Never- theless, a tradition concerning the meaning of the pre-Socratics had already developed by Aristotle’s time, and it is that version of their story that influenced later philosophers and scientists. Aristotle is not the only source of our information about the pre- Socratics, but unfortunately most of the additional information comes from post-Aristotelian commentators giving interpretations of Aristotle’s remarks. We do not know to what extent the material provided by these other sources is informed by extraneous sources. So Aristotle appears to be our real source, and we have no clear idea of his accuracy because he paraphrases the various pre- Socratics.1 Therefore, the tradition that I report here is flawed and distorted in many ways.
12 ◆ Chapter 1 The Pre-Socratic Philosophers
Did Billy Anders sight a toad? Did he find a thimble on the way?
She says ’twas brillig and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe
Philosophy makes its first self-presentation in three consecutive gen- erations of thinkers from the little colony of Miletus on the coast of Asia Minor—today’s Turkey—in the sixth century B.C.E. The first recorded philosopher is Thales of Miletus (ca. 580 B.C.E.). Apparently, he did not write a book, or if he did, it is long lost.
If we can trust Aristotle and his commentators, Thales’ argu- ment was something like this:
If there is change, there must be some thing that changes, yet does not change. There must be a unity behind the apparent plurality
Thales ◆ 13
What substance must underlie grass to allow it to be transformed to milk?
GRASS TO MILK
of things, a Oneness disguised by the superficial plurality of the world. Otherwise the world would not be a world; rather, it would be a disjointed grouping of unrelated fragments.
So what is the nature of this unifying, ultimately unchanging substance that is disguised from us by the appearance of constant change?
Like the myth makers before him, Thales was familiar with the four elements: air, fire, water, and earth. He assumed that all things must ultimately be reducible to one of these four—but which one?
Of all the elements, water is the most obvious in its transfor- mations: Rivers turn into deltas, water turns into ice and then back
14 ◆ Chapter 1 The Pre-Socratic Philosophers
into water, which in turn can be changed into steam, which becomes air, and air, in the form of wind, fans fire.
Then water it is! All things are composed of water.
Thales’ actual words were: “The first principle and basic nature of all things is water.”2
This obviously false conclusion is valued today not for its con- tent but for its form (it is not a great leap between the claim “All things are composed of water” and the claim “All things are com- posed of atoms”) and for the presupposition behind it (that there is an ultimate stuff behind appearances that explains change while remaining itself unchanged). Viewed this way, Thales can be seen as the first philosopher to introduce the project of reductionism. Reductionism is a method of explanation that takes an object that confronts us on the surface as being one kind of thing and shows that the object can be reduced to a more basic kind of thing at a deeper but less obvious level of analysis. This project is usually seen as a major function of modern science.