A War of Ideology

In 2022 the long running war of ideology between Liberal and Authoritarian systems of politics became a very real war, following Russia’s full scale invasion of Ukraine. Some saw it as a sign of something new, others as a resumption of the cold war between the West and the former USSR. This blog post is an attempt to set the Russian war in Ukraine in a wider historical setting, and to provide a suggestion as to how that wider ideological war can be won.

From Absolutism to Humanism

One of the great questions in political philosophy is what makes political power legitimate. Prior to the modern era (typically said to be some time in the 15th century) the most common response was that legitimate power comes only from God. This resulted in Absolutist Monarchies, who had a literal divine right to rule. This meant that acting against the monarch was not just treason against the state, but an act against God. Those who revolted against their King or Queen risked not only a grisly death as a traitor, but also eternal damnation in hell as a heretic. At a time when religious beliefs were widely and sincerely held, this was an extremely effective way to keep the people in line.

The modern era can be seen as a process of switching to a different answer to the question. Rather than God, it was increasingly believed that human beings were the legitimate source of power. In other words, a ruler was only legitimate if a majority of people said they were. Yuval Noah Harari defines this new belief as Humanism, and the transition is compellingly described in his book ‘Sapiens’. The transition was a long process. Arguably, it can be book-ended by the death of the English King Charles I in 1649 and the death of the Russian Tsar Nickolas II in 1918.

Sadly this was not the end of the story. As is always the case when more and more people subscribe to a belief, disagreements and factions emerge. Humanism was no different. If human beings are the legitimate source of power, this begged the question of how many people should directly elect their leaders. This remains a live question today; even in the most progressive circles there are very few who believe that young children should be allowed to vote. Until the 19th century a compromise was reached whereby only the male landed elite were considered as the right sort of people suitable to vote.

Arguable the consensus began to break down in the 19th century partly due to the emergence of mass representative democracy. The size of electorates across the western world rose dramatically in the 19th and early 20th century. In the United Kingdom for example, the electorate prior to the 1832 Reform Act is estimated to be around 200,000. Following the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act of 1928 this had increased to around 25 million.


Not everyone agreed that mass representative democracy was a good thing. Many believed that some people are simply more effective at leading than others, and likewise some people are better at selecting good leaders than others. Therefore a more effective model of government is one where a leader is selected by a small group of the elite. That individual should then be left to rule as they see fit, based on their superior capability to do so. This model can be described as Authoritarianism. The 20th century can be seen in the context of a battle between the competing ideologies of Liberalism on one side and Authoritarianism on the other (which include Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia and Communist China).

Authoritarianism has been arrived at from both the left and right of politics. With the exception of the extreme racist elements of Nazism, the results are generally similar. From the right comes the elitist view that only the select few are up to the task of determining the most capable leader. Nationalism tends to link the desire for a strong leader with a strong and superior state. From the left comes the desire for a level of equality that is more radical than the majority of voters can be persuaded to vote for, generally communist in nature and often involving the dissolution of capitalism and private property.

However, a truly communist society has never been successfully created at a nationwide level. As I said in my post ‘Big Picture Politics’, I subscribe to the view that a true communist society consists of small semi-autonomous communes with no over-arching state or authority of any kind. This means there is no authority to enforce communism, so a communist society can only exist through choice. Efforts to enforce equality have always led to authoritarian style states. The other problem is the human factor. Leaders who make it to the top in authoritarian states, be they from the left or right of politics, tend to be those individuals who have the greatest desire for power and the most ruthless ability to use it. This means that rather than having power as a means to an end (such as increasing equality), power too easily becomes the end in itself.

Conflict is Inevitable

A premise for this blog post is that the ideologies of liberalism and authoritarianism are in conflict with each other. The majority of wars from the 20th century can arguably be viewed in that context, most obviously the instances where the Cold War went hot. The conflict also manifests in economic terms, including sanctions and trade wars. The question then is, why are the two ideologies in conflict, and is that conflict inevitable? Why can’t both ideologies peacefully coexist – live and let live? Recognising that I am biased in favour of the liberal ideology, my view is that authoritarian regimes are perpetually under threat from the mere existence of liberalism. This is because liberal regimes are fundamentally more legitimate than authoritarian ones.

When things are going badly it is human nature to blame leaders. In liberal regimes the people know they have a chance to change leadership at the next election. In authoritarian regimes the pressure for change builds until it is released in the form of mass protest, which if not suppressed can lead to violent revolution or civil war. Authoritarian regimes ultimately rely on being seen as successful by the populace in order to gain legitimacy, but success is very difficult to sustain indefinitely. This is partly because people will always become used to their gains and will expect more. Wealthy middle class young people in China don’t generally compare themselves to their parents and grand-parents, but to other wealthy people across the world. The Chinese economy must keep on growing to maintain the legitimacy of the government. The tools of fear and the suppression of information critical of the regime can carry it a long way, but it is a fundamentally unstable form of government. A good way for an authoritarian regime to shore up its legitimacy is to show that it is more successful than its liberal rivals.

The strong correlation between authoritarianism and nationalism is another source of conflict. Nationalism can exist within liberal states, but authoritarian states are more likely to portray themselves as ‘better’ than others, and to believe this comes with certain rights. This includes the right to subvert the sovereignty of neighbouring states, creating ‘client states’ and ‘spheres of influence’. The greater sense of national rivalry within authoritarian regimes also explains why they struggle to maintain alliances that are as strong as those between liberal regimes. Some may argue that liberal states are also aggressive, and it is true that the West has surrendered the moral high ground too often in recent years. However, it is interesting to wonder when the last time a liberal democratic country declared war on another liberal democratic country.

A Strategy for Victory

If conflict between liberal and authoritarian regimes is inevitable, how best can liberal regimes win the conflict? Firstly, states cannot be made to become liberal through military force. This has been starkly demonstrated by the failed attempts at regime change in Afghanistan and Iraq. Deposing an authoritarian regime does not mean that a new liberal regime will spring up in its place, and that everyone will live happily ever after. This is because liberal democracies require a radical idea to become established – that everyone has an equal right to determine who is in charge. As discussed earlier, this is a relatively new idea in human history, and it takes time for it to sink in to a society. It is also difficult for the various groups of elites within a society to give up the power and privilege they would have enjoyed during the previous regime.

The next thing to say is that this is not a binary question of black and white between liberalism and authoritarianism. The two exist on a continuous scale, with plenty of grey in between. Ranking countries on this scale is not easy but there are several existing examples. One is the Democracy Index, compiled by the Economist intelligence Unit. They rank nation states into the following categories: full democracies, flawed democracies, hybrid regimes and authoritarian regimes. Hybrid regimes are those that employ elections as a façade to give a veneer of legitimacy. Factors such as widespread election fraud, suppression of opposition parties and the use of state controlled media mean that the results of elections do not represent the free choice of voters. It is not a case of authoritarian states making a giant leap to becoming high functioning liberal democracies overnight. The journey can happen gradually.

If states cannot be forced to become more liberal and democratic, how can they be persuaded? The simple answer is that liberalism will become a more attractive proposition if more liberal countries function effectively, i.e. with a high ranking on the Democracy Index. Recent episodes such as the Trump Presidency and Brexit are a recruiting sergeant for authoritarianism. When liberal countries are so hopelessly divided, unhappy and dysfunctional, it is far easier for leaders such as Putin to justify their own systems. Putin’s disinformation campaign is intended to increase the divided state of liberal countries, and is a key part of the wider ideological struggle. A key measure of a functioning democracy is the extent to which it represents the will of the majority, rather than minority vested interests. This is achieved by taking power away from elites and redistributing it more evenly (e.g. devolving power away from the executive, and restricting the influence of money in politics). If people living under hybrid or authoritarian regimes see more high functioning democracies which effectively act in the interests of the majority, they are more likely to agitate for change.

Foreign policy also has a role to play in winning the struggle between liberalism and authoritarianism. Trade and foreign investment from western countries has too often been driven by the desire for wealth, almost to the exclusion of all other factors. The most obvious example is the western reliance for energy on Russia and the Gulf States – their energy was cheap. Far greater importance needs to be placed on encouraging countries to improve their score on the Democracy Index, as a condition of trade and investment. Regimes must realise that there is an economic incentive to improve their democratic credentials, and a price for not doing so. In the short to medium term, this will require liberal democracies to be less reliant on authoritarian regimes (especially China), which will mean an increase in the price of goods. This will have to be offset by domestic changes in terms of taxation and state support, but will also require a cultural shift away from things like fast-fashion. However, the need for more economic autonomy among liberal democratic states is a key lesson from the Russian war in Ukraine.

Ultimately, what is required is a change in values. The old idea of a Globalist world where western countries do business with the highest bidder must be replaced. Only the delusional still think that countries such as Russia and China will be become liberal democracies purely because we buy their goods and their gas. Democracies must focus on getting their own house in order and setting the best possible example to people living under hybrid and authoritarian rulers. They must also recognise that the cost of using foreign trade and investment to encourage global democracy is a price worth paying. If we don’t do this, we will have failed to learn the lesson of what is happening in Ukraine. Strengthening democracy is now a matter of national security.

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From Policy to the Meaning of life

After finishing a blog post on the subject of the meaning of life, I assumed that would be my last blog post. After tackling such a big question where does one go from there? It then occurred to me that the meaning of life could be considered as a starting point. Could it be used to derive a political philosophy and a set of government policies? This blog post is an attempt to explore that idea.

A Multi-stage Approach

During my time as a design engineer working on large complex systems (in my case aeroplane engines) I have been taught that it is impossible to go from customer requirements to designing individual components in one step – the system is too complex. There are thousands of components in an engine, and each component could require hundreds of requirements. A single requirements document for an aeroplane engine would be enormously complex and unmanageable. Some requirements would be missed, and it would be impossible to achieve consistent requirements across such a large number of components. That is why requirements are structured in a multi-stage hierarchy. For example, a small number of product or system level requirements are first defined. The system is then divided into several sub-systems and a set of more detailed requirements are determined which will ensure the higher-level requirements are met. The step is then repeated to generate component requirements from sub-system requirements.

Can the same principle be applied to government policy? Let us assume two things. Firstly, that the meaning of life can be summarised as ‘living contently by focusing on the people and things that are important to us’. Secondly, that all government policy should be consistent with and promote that way of living. The problem with this is the fact that it is too big a leap from the meaning of life to individual detailed policy. How does a politician decide what level to set the basic rate of income tax, or how many new starter homes should be built a year based purely on the meaning of life? In a democracy, the people obviously decide who governs, but for practical reasons people do not vote on each individual policy. We live in a representative democracy where politicians are required to make detailed policy decisions on our behalf. A multi-stage hierarchy could help bridge the gap between the meaning of life and individual policies. What would that look like?

The Status Quo

The diagram below is my suggestion. Starting from the bottom, if the meaning of life involves focusing on the things that are important to us, the next question must be to determine what is important to us. While the answer will vary for each individual, politicians must ask the question in terms of society in general. This is a question of ethics – what do we value most highly? Having established a set of important values, a political philosophy can be established. This is a framework which ensures that each policy consistently promotes the things we value most.

In the diagram below I have also used the model to illustrate the current status quo in the western world: Neoliberalism. This shows how a certain set of ethical values can link Neoliberal policies (e.g. those related to minimal taxation and deregulation) to the definition of the meaning of life that I have defined. This is also intended to show that policies are the result of the prevailing ethic of government and society in general. For someone like me who does not agree with the current status quo, this means that the problem is one of ethics – it is our values as a society that need to change. The good news is that they are changing, albeit slowly, and have been changing for several years. This is what gives me confidence that Neoliberalism will soon be replaced by a new status quo: the ethical foundations on which the current status quo rests are collapsing.

A New Status Quo

In my blog post ‘A Liberal Revolution’ I spoke about a potential new status quo. I have used the diagram below to show what that status quo might look like. The central assertion is that maximising overall wealth in society is not the best route to a happy society. Instead, the key values should be political and economic equality. The link between economic equality and happiness is well documented and so I will not go over well trodden ground in this blog post. That said it is worth recounting the psychological experiment where people are offered free money, on the condition that someone else is offered more. The logical position would be to accept the offer, but results show that the majority of people reject it. This suggests that people would rather be worse off than accept increased inequality. Some on the right will respond with the excruciating phrase ‘the politics of envy’, but it is merely the natural human desire for fairness. People generally accept that others may be wealthier, particularly if that wealth is perceived to have been earnt, but too much inequality has a corrosive and divisive effect on society. It is also a reminder that we humans are naturally social creatures who decide how well we are doing based on comparisons with others. Even if we are better off than we used to be, we may still be unhappy if those around us are doing even better.

The link between happiness and political equality is perhaps less obvious, but was captured by the Brexit referendum slogan ‘take back control’. As I said in my Brexit blog post, the tragedy is that the European Union was never in control to any significant degree. Nevertheless, the sentiment that people are not sufficiently in control of their own lives is valid and widespread. The need to take power away from a small elite and distribute more evenly among the population is also a necessary pre-requisite for economic equality. It is no coincidence that the people with the most wealth are also often the ones with the most political power. There is a limit to the extent to which the powerful will voluntarily subscribe to a more equal society, so the redistribution of political power must to some extent come first. Improving political power can be done in many ways. For example, moving power from the executive to parliament (e.g. the power to appoint members of the upper chamber). It can be moving power from state level of regional and local government. It can mean ensuring all votes are of equal value by introducing a PR voting system. The twin objectives of economic and political equality are nicely combined in the model of cooperative ownership, in contrast to the status quo of ownership by a small number of shareholders. The cooperative model could become the norm in society (for example, utilities companies could be majority owned by consumers and football clubs could be majority owned by their fans). This would be financially detrimental for the small groups of current shareholders, but the majority would benefit both from the economic advantage of dividend payments and the power of shareholder voting rights over key decisions.

Referring back to my blog post ‘Big Picture Politics’, it should be noted that this new status quo remains a form of liberalism and continues to use capitalism as its economic model. There is much that is good about liberalism as a political philosophy, and there is no sense in throwing the baby out with the bath water. Liberty will always trump equality in a liberal society, but my intention in this new form of liberalism is to bring the two together, and to correct for the relatively extreme valuation of individual freedom relative to equality that is associated with Neoliberalism.

It is my belief that a society that is politically and economically more equal would not only be happier, but also more stable and better placed to deal with challenges such as climate change and new disruptive technologies like A.I. From a geopolitical perspective, strengthening western liberalism will also help in the war of ideology that is being waged between liberalism and authoritarianism. However, the geopolitical angle is a topic for another blog post.

Thoughts on the Meaning of Life

This is perhaps the biggest question in philosophy. I suspect we have all thought about it at one time or another, but it is a scary question, best kept hidden at the back of our minds. It is scary because to confront it means to admit that we may not have an answer. If we don’t know why we exist, what is the point of anything?

Meanings of Life

In the spirit of analytic philosophy, it is worth being clear on what is meant by ‘the meaning of life’, as it could be interpreted in several ways. In the most literal sense it could mean the definition of the word ‘life’. This is not the interpretation I intend, and a reasonable definition of the word can be found in any dictionary (I have checked this myself: life is a condition manifested through growth, reproduction and adaptation to environment). That said it is interesting to wonder how advances in artificial intelligence will challenge our ability to determine whether something is or is not alive.

The question could also mean where did life come from? In the mechanistic style of thinking, a thing is best understood by understanding its causes. In mainstream science this leads us back to the big bang, at which point things get difficult. I’ve not yet read anything in philosophy that provides a compelling answer to the question of what caused the big bang, although the theologian might say that it was caused by God. While a complete understanding of the meaning of life is arguably not possible without understanding what caused the big bang, a partial understanding remains possible.


That leaves us to consider the question in terms of what is the purpose of our lives, why are we here, and what should we do with our lives? It is not surprising that a definitive and universally agreed explanation of the meaning of life cannot be found in any philosophical work (although plenty have tried). Had the answer been established already, it would surely be more widely known. Nevertheless, it is useful to consider some of the history of thought on the question. With some notable exceptions (including Buddhism in India and the Hellenistic Schools of the 3rd century B.C), for most of human history until the start of the modern era, our desire for meaning and purpose in life has largely been satisfied by religion. For example, in the medieval Christian world it was believed that the meaning of life was determined by God as part of a grand cosmic plan, which could not be understood by human beings. Rather than understand, we should obey God’s will on faith by following his works, as conveyed to us by religious books or by the Church. Whatever happens to us in life – the good and the bad, is all part of God’s plan.

Christian faith continues to be a source of meaning and purpose in more modern times. Some believe that the fact Jesus died for our sins means that we are absolved of our sins. It follows that as long as we ask for forgiveness for our sins, we do not need to spend our lives worrying about whether we will be assured a place in heaven. However, in return for that forgiveness we are left with a responsibility to love others and to live in accordance with God’s teachings. Meaning to our existence can also be found in the faith that we are made in God’s image, and He loves us all as a father. Therefore human life must have intrinsic value to God (even if we can’t be sure why).

The majority today do not believe in God, or they believe in a ‘supreme being’ in an abstract sense that is not sufficient to provide a purpose to their existence. This change since the medieval period has largely been caused by the increased self-confidence of humankind in our ability to understand the world, and unwillingness to defer such questions to a higher power that does not respond to us. Yuval Noah Harari in his book Homo Deus describes this as the ‘Modern Covenant’. In the western world at least, most of us have rejected faith in favour of science and verifiable facts. We have taken back control from God, and we decide for ourselves what we can and can’t do. War and plague is not part of a cosmic plan and so has no meaning and no redeeming aspect. On the other hand, we can use science and enlightened thinking to try and eradicate them. The problem is that science has (as yet) provided no help in finding any meaning to existence.


Humanity has increased enormously in power during the modern era, but Harari argues that without a meaning to our existence we have no idea what to do with that power. Without a meaning to life and code of ethics derived from religion, modern society may well have collapsed under the weight of meaninglessness. However, Harari continues by saying that the theistic religions have been replaced in the modern era by something that gives at least the illusion of meaning. This is the modern religion of Humanism, which places humans in the role of gods. Its central tenet is that human experiences give meaning to the cosmos, and that our free will is the highest source of authority in the universe. This sounds good at first glance, and it is appealing to be told that each of us gives meaning to the universe. It is a sufficient answer to the question of the meaning of life for most of us, most of the time, and allows us to focus on more pressing matters. But when subjected to a bit of scrutiny, the idea that human experiences give meaning to the cosmos seems unsatisfactory. Harari talks about the new scientific understanding that challenges the foundations of Humanism (that our ‘free will’ is at best severely limited, and that our minds are not really one indivisible ‘self’ but more a committee of conflicting selves), and I talk about this in my blog post ‘A Post-Liberal Future’. In addition to these scientific concerns, objectively speaking, if the meaning of life is based on each of our individual experiences, that means we will each come to a different answer, so surely we can’t all be right?


We appear to be back at square one, with no single pre-determined answer to the meaning of life within sight, and ominously close to the end of this blog post. But all is not lost, at least in my opinion. Sartre’s Existentialist answer is that we are all free to determine our own purpose for existence, and indeed we have a responsibility to do so. Sartre was influenced by another philosopher Heidegger, who similarly said that we can find meaning to our existence by living ‘authentically’. To my understanding, this means caring or having concern for the things and other people that are important to us. That might be vocations which matter to us, or relationships which are important. Devoting time to the things or the people who are most important to us is in my view the surest way to gaining purpose, and then happiness. We can take practical steps to spend more time on those things, and less on things that, when we really think about it, aren’t as important to us. We may even find that, after some reflection, the accumulation of wealth is not as important to us as we may have subconsciously assumed.

This way of thinking requires us to give up on the desire to have our lives linked to a grand cosmic plan, which requires some humility. Perhaps our lives to do not contribute to some grand universal meaning, but that is OK, and does not necessarily need to prevent us leading happy and purposeful lives. It also requires us to avoid the temptation to over-rationalise the meaning of life, and avoid being too quick to criticise the values of others. Determining what is important to us is in my opinion mostly a subjective exercise, so does not lend itself to objective critique by others. Meaning can be found in all sorts of unusual things, such as writing obscure blog posts about abstract subjects.

Continental Philosophy: Phenomenology & Existentialism

Continental Philosophy is one of the two western philosophical schools of thought in the 20th century. According to Grayling its critics from the other school, Analytic Philosophy, are often impatient or even contemptuous of the alleged confusions or even deliberate abuses of language in the Continental school. The result, according to some at least, is thinking that is at best misleading or at worst complete nonsense. In contrast, Analytic Philosophers consider their ideas firmly grounded through an emphasis on logic and a natural respect for science. I would say that any reasonably impartial person must accept that the Analytic school does not have all of the answers, and that there is much to learn from within the Continental School.


Edmund Husserl lived in the late 19th and early 20th century. Grayling writes that Husserl is the originator of ‘phenomenology’, which is the study of subjective consciousness. To explain further, the first thing to say is what phenomenology is not. We all consciously experience things that happen in the world (including things that happen inside our bodies, such as a stomach pain caused by too much stomach acid). These experiences are not part of phenomenology, which instead is the investigation of consciousness itself. To focus only on consciousness itself is not easy and requires mentally withdrawing from everything else, so as not to be distracted from the world around us. This distinguishes phenomenology from psychology, which is an empirical scientific study of the mind, including how the mind interacts with the world. When we experience something by seeing it we gaze outwards on to things. Husserl wanted to gaze inwards in reflection in order to understand the mental experience itself. He wanted (for example) to understand the mental experience of seeing, rather than what is being seen. 

Husserl asked what things are part of consciousness itself and which are not. Noting the Kantian influence on Husserl’s work, the answer leads to ‘a priori’ knowledge of consciousness (i.e. knowledge based on reason rather than sense-perception). This is where things get difficult, but the conclusion seems to be that there are two aspects to consciousness; one is the activity of consciousness itself and the other is the content of the activity. Also consistent with Kant, Husserl’s work revealed to him that that experiences are not objectively the same for everyone, but are affected by the subjectivity of our consciousness.


Husserl’s ideas may appear excessively abstract, but he believed that phenomenology was a new science, and that he would inspire other thinkers to establish and mature it, leading to many great and useful discoveries. Martin Heidegger was undoubtedly inspired by Husserl and for a while acted as his assistant, but he would take phenomenology away from Husserl’s ‘transcendental’ (relating to knowledge known ‘a priori’) origins in a more ‘existential’ direction. Heidegger took up a question that had been asked but not answered by Aristotle, who had said that there are different types or meanings of the word ‘being’ (such as substance, mental existence etc) but what is the single definition of ‘being’ which captures its essence?

Heidegger uses phenomenology as a starting point to define being. In short, the result is that ‘a being’ is something that has a conscious awareness of existing in the world. Further, the world is not just the things in it, but is also the understanding of the things and why they exist, and that understanding comes from conscious beings. While everyday objects exist, Heidegger suggests they are concealed, until a conscious being comes along to experience and understand them. At that point they ‘come out of concealment’, to quote Heidegger’s terminology.

Heidegger said that beings naturally feel a general sense of dread or anxiety, and the only way to overcome this feeling is to live ‘authentically’. This can mean different things for different people, but fundamentally it relates to the way we have concern or care for things and for other beings (this could involve but is not limited to: producing, looking after or making use of something, or accomplishing something). The anxiety comes from not knowing why we exist. We naturally look around for things to help us escape our feeling of anxiety, and we often fail to live authentically.


Jean-Paul Sartre is best known for his contribution to existentialism. He lived a very public life, was a committed Marxist and was no stranger to political protest, including being arrested for a role in the Paris riots of 1968. Grayling recounts an anecdote that during Sartre’s funeral in 1980, one young person claimed to be attending a protest against his death. Sartre was attracted to phenomenology for its promise to overcome the opposition between realism and idealism, because it both recognised the objective existence of the material world (realism), but also gave special importance to consciousness (idealism). An existentialist would reject the strictly scientific and materialistic view that humans (and what it is like to exist as a human) can be adequately understood by studying what physically exists and can be observed. There is more to it than that. They would also reject the strictly idealist view that a study of consciousness and the mind is sufficient. The way that our consciousness interacts with everything else is also necessary to understand ourselves. Sartre studied both Husserl and Heidegger, but developed their views in new directions.

Sartre distinguished conscious from non-conscious being. Both types of being apply to humans, but non-conscious being is passive and exists inertly. Conscious being requires non-conscious being to exist, but is dynamic and fluid, and is constantly battling to transcend it. The tension is that the conscious part of us always wants to define what we are, but our consciousness does not materially exist. What we physically are will always be our non-conscious being. The dynamism of our consciousness means that it is never happy and settled. It always wants to be something more than or different to what we are. Our conscious being is always striving for possibilities against the inertness of our non-conscious being.

Sartre defines a third type of being which he calls ‘Other’. This is the understanding we get of ourselves from other beings. Without others we would only have our own opinions to understand ourselves (imagine how you would think differently about yourself if you had never met another human being). Other represents our consciousness looking outwards rather than inwards. According to Sartre the primary way that people relate to each other is through conflict, hence his view that ‘hell is other people’. Emotions such as shame and pride come from how we feel we are perceived by others. Consciousness is in conflict with and trying to transcend Other just as much as with non-conscious being. These conflicts mean we are always trying (and failing) to be something that we can’t be. In this context, love can be understood as the attempt to resolve the conflict between consciousness and Other by merging them together. However it is impossible not to exist partly as Other (i.e. not to have an understand of yourself through the eyes of others), so love is a guaranteed source of conflict.  

Two thoughts are central to Sartre’s thinking. The first is that ‘existence precedes essence’. By essence he means the purpose of our existence. In other words, just because we exist doesn’t necessarily mean there is a purpose to our existence. We do not arrive in the world with a purpose or plan waiting for us. The second related thought is that we are radically free. Unfortunately this freedom comes with the burden of responsibility, specifically the responsibility to determine our own purpose for existence through our actions and choices. Grayling’s quote of Sartre is worth reciting, ‘Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world he is responsible for everything he does.’ This responsibility in Sartre’s view is a great source of unhappiness.


Finally I would like to give some attention to two philosophers whose distinct contribution, according to Grayling suffered from a close association with Sartre. Albert Camus is often bracketed with Sartre as an ‘existentialist’, but described himself as an ‘absurdist’. The absurd position being that the only bond between humanity and the rest of the world is that neither has any intrinsic meaning. This leads to one of three solutions: one is suicide (because life is pointless), another is what Grayling calls a sort of intellectual suicide where you find solace in some irrational belief system, and lastly ‘a courageous acceptance and embrace of the absurdity of things’. Camus used the Greek myth of Sisyphus to illustrate absurdism. Sisyphus was condemned for eternity to push a large boulder up a hill, only for it to roll back down again at the top of the hill. However, given that the struggle itself confers meaning ‘one must imagine Sisyphus happy’.

De Beauvoir

Simone De Beauvoir is best known as a feminist and novelist, but her contribution to philosophy is also significant. Two examples show how De Beauvoir applied Sartre’s often abstract ideas to provide understanding of specific issues. Earlier I wrote that according to Sartre, part of our being is ‘Other’ which relates to how we understand ourselves through others. We are constantly in conflict between how we understand ourselves through others and our own subjective understanding of ourselves, generally preferring our own view of ourselves to that of others and trying to suppress the understanding that comes from others. De Beauvoir identified that this relationship plays out between men and women, where women are the Other. The role of women in a patriarchal society is to allow their own views of men to be suppressed, and to be supportive and to validate men’s views of themselves, regardless of how grounded they are in reality. The opposite relationship occurs in how women see themselves, where their own understanding of themselves is suppressed in favour of the Other, i.e. the subjective view of them held by other men.

De Beauvoir took Sartre’s view that we come into existence without purpose or meaning and have to develop those things afterwards, and concluded that in a patriarchal society women are forced to find purpose through their relationship to men. This encourages some women to feel that they exist for men, and this feeling is part of the essence of being a woman. Hence De Beauvoir wrote in her book The Second Sex that one is not born a woman but becomes one. The book was first published in 1949. Society has without doubt come a long way since then, but set in the context of existentialism, one can’t help feel that the roots of sexual inequality run very deep.

If you are interested in finding out more about this topic, I strongly recommend getting a copy of A.C. Grayling’s ‘The History of Philosophy’, which this blog post is predominantly based on.

Chinese Philosophy

Before getting started on this post, the apology from my last blog post on Indian philosophy deserves to be repeated. It is not possible to summarise the history of Chinese philosophy in one blog post that does any justice to its breadth or depth, any more than one could summarise European philosophy in a single blog post. That being said, to really understand China without some understanding of its philosophy is difficult because of the great influence it has had on Chinese culture and politics.


Confucius (Kong Fuzi or ‘Master Kong’) lived in the 5th century B.C, making him a contemporary of Socrates and the Buddha.  According to Grayling, Confucius’ central belief was that if those in government behave ethically they will create a good society. This can be ensured through living a life disciplined by the correct observance of rituals and formalities. A key aspect of a good society is order and social harmony, and this can only be achieved by having the right relationship between ruler and ruled. This is a top down theory, where the right behaviours are disseminated from the overall leader of China into society. Fathers learn how to be good parents by observing their leader, and sons learn the right behaviours from their fathers (Confucius was not a feminist). Those in positions of authority set the standards and examples of good behaviour for others to follow.

One of the fundamental concepts in Confucian ethics is ‘ren’. This means benevolence and a concern for humanity in general. To adopt it properly requires knowledge of human character, including the ability to distinguish good people from bad. Moral imagination is emphasised, which is needed to imagine yourself in another’s place and see things from their perspective. The key virtues are loyalty, filial piety (respect and deference to one’s parents and ancestors), good faith, courage, politeness, courtesy and respectfulness.

Confucianism is idealistic and optimistic, believing that anyone can learn how to be good over time, and that good behaviours become habit through practice. To act in a way that is ‘ren’ requires study and wisdom. In particular, it requires an understanding of the four subjects taught by Confucius: culture, good conduct, loyalty and honesty. The family is the foundation of society because this is where children learn the right behaviours. This leads to the second fundamental concept of Confucian ethics which is ‘li’. This literally means ‘rites’ but more generally it means proper behaviour. A cultured person is one who behaves properly. If due process is followed in both government and ordinary life, everything will be orderly and clear, because relationships will be maintained in the proper way.

Mencius & Xunzi

Mencius was the second master of the Confucian tradition. He retained the optimism of Confucius in believing that people are fundamentally good. The cardinal virtues are driven by emotions (for example, benevolence arises from compassion), and these emotions are a natural part of human psychology. It is true that we sometimes act badly, but this is due to external factors that cause us to act against our nature. Mencius believed that the two primary virtues are benevolence and righteousness. A ruler who has both of these virtues will be aware of the impact of policies and decisions on the people, and will always act in ways that benefit the people. As well as benefiting people directly, this removes external factors that would cause people to act against their nature, ensuring that the people act virtuously and treat each other well, which further removes external factors and leads to a virtuous circle.

This optimism was not shared by the next Confucian grand master, Xunzi. This could be explained partly by the fact that Xunzi lived during the ‘Warring States Period’ in Chinese history, a period of violence and political fragmentation. This did however represent the golden age of Chinese philosophy, when Confucianism was joined by new schools including Daoism and Legalism, and an increased energy of debate which challenged existing wisdom. Xunzi believed that people are naturally bad, and can be good only through conscious effort. People are naturally greedy; they seek personal profit and see others as rivals. This means that Confucian education and models of correct behaviour are all the more important.

A key aim for Xunzi was social cohesion, which is understandable given the period in which he lived. To that end, he proposed that the ruler should decree a common language. This would improve efficiency of administration, but more importantly would promote shared values, standards and cultural norms. Xunzi also believed in the need to further standardise and promote the ‘li’ (the rites referred to earlier). He believed that common behaviour was an essential way to bring society in China together. Grayling makes the point that this is not unique to China. All societies have communal observances, ceremonies and celebrations that promote a shared sense of identity and loyalty to a shared purpose. Confucianism impressed upon Chinese politics a particular emphasis on order and a dread of disorder. Throughout China’s history every change in dynasty (and the associated violence and suffering) has resulted from disorder.

Mohism & Daoism

Mohism was founded by Mozi, who lived around the same time as Confucius. The first key principle is to ‘elevate the worthy individual’ and to follow their example. A clear ‘chain of command’ hierarchy in society helps to ensure this principle is maintained. Government must also have equal concern for all. Leaders must treat people as they would be treated themselves. One consequence is a belief in pacifism, on the basis that leaders would not generally wish to fight in wars, so they shouldn’t send others to war. The alterative of this fraternal love according to Mozi is anarchy and chaos, where different standards apply to different people, and individuals seek what is in their own self-interest. This state of affairs is only avoided by having a benevolent and righteous leader whose example and standard is followed by everyone. However, it is not clear how one might ensure leaders have such esteemed qualities.

Daoism is best understood as a group of movements and doctrines that can be gathered under one label. Their common thread is the idea that there is ‘a way’ or path that will lead to a desired destination (whatever that destination may be). According to Daoism, in the time before civilisation people naturally lived ethically good lives spontaneously and without effort. With society comes the need to make an effort to be humane and honest. This is similar to Locke’s conception of the state of nature (and opposite to Hobbes). Therefore, to live a good life we must follow the path of ‘non-action’. This does not literally mean doing nothing.  Better definitions would be effortlessness and non-striving. It is about non-attachment to the demands of society and the achievement of serenity. A common analogy is the way that water flows around things without appearing to be troubled. People should distance themselves from politics and practical life, and instead live spontaneously, without over-thinking things and without striving or desiring.


The Warring States period came to an end when China was forcibly united by its first Emperor in the 3rd century B.C. Contradicting the emphasis on benevolence in Confucianism and other schools of thought discussed so far, the intellectual basis for the Emperor’s actions comes from the school of Legalism. The priorities for rulers according to Legalism are the maintenance of personal power and of order in society. This included advocating extreme punishments for the purpose of deterrence, in order to maintain order. Legalism is a politically interventionalist philosophy. Rulers and their ministers must be heavily involved in the business of government, and have a tight grip over their subordinates. Officials should be given precise job descriptions and be closely monitored to ensure they do what is required of them and nothing more.

Legalists insist that the reliance on the strength of institutions mitigates the effects of incompetent rulers, and that this is safer than hoping every ruler will be wise. Institutions and the law are to be given utmost respect so that the ruler can exercise legitimate power through the simple maintenance of these existing laws and institutions, even if they are not particularly talented. Legalism does not have many positive things to say about ordinary people, who are considered basically inclined towards selfishness and wickedness. They cannot be relied on to help the ruler, and should be kept preoccupied with war and agriculture to prevent them getting involved in mischief. The ruler should ensure that the common people do not become too powerful, by restricting information and private wealth.

If you are interested in finding out more about this topic, I strongly recommend getting a copy of A.C. Grayling’s ‘The History of Philosophy’, which this blog post is predominantly based on.

Indian Philosophy

It must be admitted from the outset that it is not possible to summarise the history of philosophy from the Indian sub-continent in one blog post – not in a way that does any justice to its breadth or depth. However, I hope the following gives at least an initial flavour of Indian Philosophy.

While there are many similarities to Western Philosophy in terms of the questions being asked and the answers arrived at, in his overview of Indian Philosophy Grayling starts by explaining a key difference which unites Indian Philosophy. Each of the schools, known as darshanas, are doctrines of salvation (‘soteriological’). They seek to bring an end to the suffering that is existence by understanding the true nature of reality. They generally offer a complete package which combines metaphysics, epistemology and ethics in one system.

The period from 1500 to 500 BCE in north-western India is known as the ‘Vedic period’, when the Vedas (meaning ‘knowledge’ or ‘wisdom’) were written. The Vedas encompass much more than philosophy, but the main philosophical contribution of the Vedas comes from the Upanishads, which encapsulate the Vedas’ high meaning or purpose. There are several Vedic schools of Indian Philosophy and they are all known as ‘orthodox’. In contrast, the later ‘heterodox’ schools reject the authority of the Vedas (the most famous of which is Buddhism).

The Samkhya School

Grayling provides an overview of some of the most influential aspects of the orthodox schools, starting with Samkhya, the oldest.  On the subject of Materialism, it asserts a dualism between pure consciousness and everything else, claiming that both materially exist. Everything that is not consciousness (collectively called ‘prakriti’) is made up of three properties. The first is ‘sattva’ (essence), which has characteristics of clarity, harmony and goodness. Next is ‘rajas’ (dust), suggesting activity, passion and change. Lastly ‘tamas’ (darkness), suggesting lethargy, despair and chaos. When these three properties are in equilibrium, the world beyond consciousness is only a potential and does not really exist. When there is imbalance, the world manifests in its many forms. These include everything from the mind through to the elements space, air, fire, water and earth, which in different combinations form all the objects in the physical world.

What in the west we would call the mind is made up of three things: ‘manas’ (our sense perceptions, e.g. what we see and hear), ‘ahamkara’ (ego or our sense of self) and ‘buddhi’ (will or intellect). Our minds then are not directly part of pure consciousness, but do allow us to witness it. Our minds are made of matter, whereas consciousness is not, and the two exist as different forms of reality. The soteriological (liberation from suffering) message is derived from the separation of consciousness from everything else. We do not need to liberate our consciousness in order to escape suffering; the escape comes from understanding that our consciousness has and will always be free from the material world. With echoes of ancient Greek philosophy, liberation comes from understanding, suffering is caused by ignorance.

The Nyaya & Vaisheshika Schools

The Nyaya school makes contributions in epistemology and logic. It emphasises the importance of critical evaluation of sources of knowledge, which it defines as sense-perception, inference and expert testimony. Nyaya can be translated as ‘logic’, and much of it is concerned with methods of proof, i.e. proving that statements of truth are valid. The Nyaya school was developed into the Vaisheshika school, which is a philosophy of nature (it seeks to define and describe nature). It proposes an atomistic metaphysics where everything is composed of indestructible, invisible and eternal atoms. Grayling notes that the theory of causation developed by the Vaisheshika school is sophisticated. In short, everything is caused by a set of rigorously defined ‘primary existents’, which are substance, quality, motion, particular, universal, inherence and nonexistence. The primary existents are themselves considered objectively real, because they can be identified and discussed (even the absence of something can be identified).

In the Nyaya & Vaisheshika schools, there are considered to be four valid sources of knowledge: perception, inference, comparison and testimony. There are also three sources of error. One is to believe that something exists when it does not. The second is to believe that something that exists only in the mind exists in a material sense (e.g. dragons, which only exist in the mind). The third is to misperceive something, e.g. to not see something properly and to think it is something different.

Nyaya statements of logic take the following form. First a statement of the proposition, then a statement of the general principle behind the proposition, then a demonstration that the proposition is consistent with the principle, and finally the conclusion that the proposition is correct. Grayling gives the classic example: (proposition) there is fire on the hill, (evidence) smoke is rising from the hill, (subsumption) this event is consistent with the principle that smoke rises from a fire, (conclusion) the proposition that there is fire on the hill is proven. In this way, new knowledge can be inferred (there is fire on the hill) by applying a general principle which has already been logically proven.

The Vedanta & Carvaka Schools

The Vedanta school (meaning ‘end of the Vedas’), stresses the importance of reincarnation, and how accumulated karma impacts our reincarnation. Good karma is the only escape from the otherwise continuing cycle of reincarnation. Unlike Samkhya it is non-dualistic, teaching that the individual soul (‘Atman’) and the ultimate reality (‘Brahman’) are one and the same. Understanding that our souls exist as part of one ultimate reality is the knowledge needed to liberate ourselves from suffering.

Carvaka was the earliest of the heterodox schools, dating from the 8th century B.C. It has long been extinct, and the only knowledge about it comes from its detractors. It was reportedly radically empiricist, holding that sensory perception is the only source of knowledge, and radically materialistic, denying the existence of souls, gods or the afterlife. Nothing exists except the world around us, and the only purpose of life is enjoyment. In the soteriological sense, salvation from this shallow existence comes naturally through death. Grayling notes that there is much that modern people can relate to from the Carvaka School.


Buddhism was founded by Siddhartha Gautama, probably in the 5th century B.C. Grayling asserts that this is a philosophy rather than a religion as it is non-theistic, and in the tradition of Indian philosophy it teaches liberation from suffering. In stark contrast to the Vedanta school it denies the existence of Atman and Brahman. There is no absolute reality, no self, and no permanence of any kind. In fact, the mistaken belief in a permanent self is the source of ignorance and therefore suffering. Buddhism sought to overturn these mistakes and show ‘how things really are’. Although there are many schools of Buddhism, they share the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path to liberation from existence by the attainment of ‘nirvana’ (extinction). The Four Noble Truths are that life is suffering; suffering arises from desire and ignorance; suffering can be escaped; liberation can be achieved through meditation and by living an ethical life. The ethical life is shown by the Eightfold Path, which is Right Vision (understanding), Right Emotion, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood (work that doesn’t harm others), Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Meditation.

While the consistent emphasis on liberation from suffering within each school of Indian philosophy is distinct compared to Western philosophy, I find the similarities to be striking, particularly when broadly contemporary ideas are compared. It is easy to apply the same categories of philosophy to both (such as metaphysics, epistemology, logic and so on), and it is clear that many of the same questions are being asked, and often similar answers are being arrived at. This can partly be explained by direct interactions between Europeans and people from the Indian sub-continent, but I like to think it suggests there are some questions and some answers that occur naturally to us as human beings, regardless of where we come from.

If you are interested in finding out more about this topic, I strongly recommend getting a copy of A.C. Grayling’s ‘The History of Philosophy’, which this blog post is predominantly based on.

A Post-Liberal Future (part 2)

What is special about the human form of intelligence? An algorithm is a means of processing information in order to generate knowledge, and we now understand the brain to be simply an organic algorithm. In that respect, it is little different to the computer algorithms which form artificial intelligence. Every year that passes undermines the belief that there are aspects of human intelligence that can never be replicated more effectively by A.I. Machine learning means that even some computer algorithms themselves are evolved by A.I to the extent that humans no longer understand them. It is true that there is no near-term prospect of creating artificial consciousness, but capitalism places no value on consciousness. How will Humanism survive if human beings become economically useless? The same point applies to war, as the mass armies of the 20th Century are replaced by non-human combatants in the 21st Century. Nor is art safe. Music critics have praised music for its soulfulness and emotional resonance, before finding out to their horror that it was created by an algorithm.

Know Thyself

In the future, computer algorithms may be able to understand our desires better than we understand them ourselves. This will not be too difficult, given how limited our understanding is of our own minds. If this happens, there will be an argument that A.I should make our decisions for us, because they are better able to satisfy our desires than we are. This could partially be facilitated by the amount of data we give away about ourselves, from our Google searches, our Facebook Likes and the various biometric data gathered from wearable tech. In the future, when we watch a film or read an eBook, algorithms may be able to understand and remember our emotional reactions better than we can, by tracking our heart rate and dopamine levels and monitoring muscle movements in our face. Nor does A.I feel societal pressure to pretend to like ‘Citizen Kane’ even if you found it boring. If algorithms know us better than we know ourselves, and do not have the faults of the ‘narrating self’ mentioned in my previous post, wouldn’t we be better served at the next election if Google voted for us? On the day that algorithms know us better than we know ourselves, authority may transfer permanently from humans to machines.

Humanists believe that every human life has intrinsic value. What happens to Humanism if the governing elite are able to use technology to upgrade themselves so that they are no longer ‘human’? Historically, the benefits of technology eventually cascaded down to everyone, but that may not be the case in the future. To use Yuval Noah Harari’s example, 20th Century medicine was an egalitarian project aimed at healing the sick. In the 21st century it is also becoming an elitist project aimed at upgrading the healthy. Why would elites divert resources to cure the masses who are economically, military and artistically useless? What happens when the experiences of humans and superhumans diverge, such that they can no longer relate to each other?


The threat to Humanism comes when humans are no longer able to compete with artificial intelligence. One way to counter this threat is to try and upgrade the human mind. This might lead to a new branch of Humanism called ‘Techno-Humanism’. However, this comes with substantial risks. Scientists already have the ability to alter the human mind without having much understanding of it, and therefore with little understanding of the side effects these alterations could cause. Further, what happens if changes to human minds are driven by economic objectives? As a result of the agricultural revolution domesticated animals generally became more docile, because docile animals are easier to manage. Will we become more like efficient data processors, and will that really be an upgrade?

The greater problem is that Techno-Humanism does not resolve the fundamental conflict between technology and Humanism. Humanism says that we should follow our hearts and stay true to ourselves. Technology seeks control, so that it can solve problems by ‘fixing’ or upgrading us. From that perspective, our inner voices are conflicting, random and inefficient. Trying to follow only one of them is not the best way to achieve happiness. If that is true, technology should therefore try to manipulate and suppress our inner voices. Techno-Humanism still rests on the assumption that our desires give meaning to our lives, but how can that belief be sustained as it becomes clearer that we are not in control of our desires, and our desires can be so easily manipulated by technology?

Dataism – The New Religion?

Another path is to abandon Humanism altogether and replace it with a new religion called Dataism. This religion says that the universe consists of data flows, and that the value of anything is determined by its ability to generate and process data. This is a religion because it makes ethical statements of value: the ultimate good is to maximise the flow of data. For true believers, there is no meaning in something if nobody knows about it. Human history, when understood from a Dataist perspective, is simply the history of improving the efficiency of data-processing. Humanity is a data-processing system and we, as individuals, are its chips. Human history has consisted of increasing the number of chips and their connectivity, in order to process more data and allow it to flow more freely. The aim of Dataists is to create a global data-processing system (an ‘Internet of Things’) which is all-knowing and all-powerful. Connecting to the data flow is the source of meaning in life, rather than human experiences. Dataism is not against human experiences, it just doesn’t think they are intrinsically valuable. Humans were valuable as the world’s most effective data-processors, but that is no longer the case. What about human emotions such as love? They are just biochemical processes, evolved on the African savannah to help pass on genes.

Dataism can help us to understand recent phenomena. Viewed from this perspective, Capitalism and a Managed Economy are simply two different data processing systems. Capitalism won the Cold War because distributed data processing systems are more effective. Dataists believe that A.I is superior to humans in its ability to process very large amounts of data, so believe that knowledge generated by A.I is superior to human knowledge. This is not just theory: how many people would ask a friend how to get somewhere rather than trust Google Maps? The stock exchange is the fastest and most efficient data-processing system ever created, and it is now too complicated to be managed by human beings. The vast majority of investment decisions are either made by A.I or based on A.I recommendations.

Power to the Machines

Democracy is another decentralised data-processing system which has outperformed more centralised models in recent times. What happens when democracy can’t keep up? This is already happening with the Internet and Social Media. These things evolve so quickly that any democratic debate is superseded before it reaches a decision. One wonders what governments think about TikTok. This does not mean a victory for Totalitarianism, which is an even less efficient data-processing system. Government has increasingly felt powerless in recent years: they manage but do not lead. This might be because they simply can’t keep up with modern life in the Information Age. It is unlikely that this power vacuum will persist forever. In the past we followed God (through His human representatives), and in the modern age we choose our own representatives to follow (whether explicitly by electing leaders or implicitly by accepting Dictators). In the future we may follow algorithms.

Dataism may turn out to be based on incorrect knowledge (e.g. organic minds might consist of more than algorithms), but that may not prevent it taking over the world. Even if you believe in one of the theistic religions (those that include a God or gods) that still means all of the others are wrong, and yet many have been very popular. Harari argues that aspects of Dataism have already become established within the scientific community. The increased tendencies of young people to share their data may also be a sign of things to come. What happens if Dataism takes over the world? The Humanist pursuits of human health and happiness may seem far less important. If power shifts from humans to algorithms, we may find our desires are manipulated to support the new priorities without realising it. In trying to eradicate illness and live forever, we may find that we ourselves become nothing but electronic data; a part of the Internet of Things.

The potential replacement of Humanism with Dataism is clearly not the most urgent problem facing humanity, and neither is it a certainty. Harari is always keen to remind us that he does not claim to know the future: his book Homo Deus is a work of possibilities not prophecies. Nevertheless, the transfer of control from human beings to A.I has already started. The challenge of how we make these new technologies work for the benefit of human beings in the long term is one that we need to all start thinking about. It is too important to be left to the multi-billionaires of Silicon Valley.

A Post-Liberal Future (part 1)

In previous posts I said that since the beginning of the modern era we have been living through the age of Humanism, with Liberalism being its most prevalent form in the Western World. I also proposed a new form of Liberalism based on far greater devolution of power, in order to better tackle the problems in society today. However, what if advances in technology in the 21st Century undermine the premise of Humanism itself? If that happens, we could see a change in political philosophy on a scale not seen since Humanism replaced Absolutism during the centuries of the late medieval and early modern periods. This is the idea put forward in Yuval Noah Harari’s book ‘Homo Deus’, and it is the idea I would like to explore in the next two posts.

Power to the People

Humanism rests on the belief that our own thoughts and feelings are the highest source of meaning and authority, matched only by the thoughts and feelings of another human being. This authority comes from the belief that humans are able to make ethical judgements by listening to their inner selves. Before Humanism, the highest source of authority was God (or the gods), and only God knew right from wrong. Rather than ruling directly over human beings, God invested absolute power in certain individuals who ruled in his name, such as Kings, Emperors and Popes. In political terms, the Humanist revolution represented the transfer of sovereign power from the ruler to the people. This applies in the Totalitarian as well as Communist and Liberal versions of Humanism. This is why Totalitarian leaders require propaganda: it matters what the people think. A medieval king in contrast had no need to concern himself with what the people thought, because to challenge the king was to challenge God Himself. In the modern age, human beings are now considered capable of making ethical decisions about right and wrong for themselves by consulting their own inner feelings, without going to a Priest or consulting a holy book. For example, if two people want to marry, they no longer need to consider whether a divine third party will be happy with the match. They need only consider whether it feels right.

This raises an interesting question that underpins modern society: why are human beings considered the highest source of authority? Why are we superior to any other creature in the animal kingdom? Most early humanists derived a Christian justification for this superior role. In the Bible God, made humankind in His image and made us stewards of the kingdom of earth. Others who do not believe in God might justify our authority based on our superior intelligence. However, it is far from clear that intelligence correlates well to good ethical decision making. Many animals, if they were able to communicate with us, might argue that our stewardship of the earth has not been entirely successful.

Yuval Noah Harari refers to Humanism as a religion because it is a belief system that enables ethical judgements to be made. He argues that any successful religion must provide relevant answers to the technological problems of the day. Christian or Islamic religion (which underpinned Absolutism) had little to say about the ethical challenges of a modern state, such as those associated with the Industrial Revolution, and so withered away as a political force. How many of the great new ideas or discoveries of the 20th century are attributable to Christianity or Islam? The question is, will Humanism remain relevant in the age of the Infotech and Biotech revolutions that are already underway?

‘A Time Bomb in the Lab’

Humanism requires the belief that we have free will, otherwise that inner voice is not really ours. However, modern science is in the process of demonstrating that we do not have free will. Humans do not appear to have a soul. Our ‘mind’ consists of genes, hormones and neurons, and it follows the same physical and chemical laws that govern the rest of reality. Our thoughts and actions are caused by electrochemical brain processes. These processes themselves either have their own physical or chemical causes or are entirely random, but we are not in control of them, so are not free to think or do whatever we want. Our behavioural characteristics are also influenced by our genes, but we cannot control our genes; they are handed down to us from our ancestors. Acting according to our desires does not make us free, because we are not free to determine our desires. This is not just speculation. Brain scanners have been used to predict people’s desires and decisions before they are aware of them. There is also the frightening prospect of being able to control other people’s desires. Experiments have been done on rats with implanted electrodes who are given the desire to carry out certain tasks by remote control. Experiments have also been done on humans to suppress certain areas of the brain, for example those linked to the feeling of depression.

Humanism, and Liberalism in particular, also requires the belief that we have a single and indivisible self. In order to make a decision we must search our feelings to find the single authentic voice of our inner self. This voice in each person is the ultimate source of authority in the world. In reality, we now know that our minds consist not of one voice but of many, and they all have different ideas. We should think of the mind as a large committee rather than a single entity. Further, we know that different parts of the brain control different things, such as voice, logical reasoning, spatial awareness, as well as the left and right sides of the body. There is no single part of the brain in overall control. The phrase ‘the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing’ has some basis in truth. We also have both an ‘experiencing self’ which is our moment-to-moment consciousness, and a ‘narrating self’ which is responsible for retrieving memories and making decisions. Unfortunately, the two do not talk to each other very well. The narrating self only remembers the peaks and ends of experiences, and ignores most of what the experiencing self has to say. Therefore, a bad experience that lasted a long time but ended well is remembered more favourably than a much briefer bad experience without the positive ending. These deficiencies can prevent us from acting in our own self-interest.

Humans have a great capacity for clinging to existing ideas even when new discoveries disprove them. However, these discoveries will not stay in the lab, but will have real consequences for how we manage society. If we have neither free will or a single inner voice, why should human experiences and feelings be the ultimate source of authority and meaning?

A Liberal Revolution

Many people feel that there is something fundamentally wrong with western politics and society today, which goes beyond this or that policy. However, there is reason for hope, because the problems of our society do not require anything as dramatic as overturning Liberalism or Capitalism, only their contemporary guises – Neoliberalism and Free Market Capitalism. We have been through many versions of Liberalism and Capitalism in the modern era. The present versions have been in existence since the Thatcher-Reagan revolution of the 1980s, but the turmoil of the last ten years or so, which has in part been driven by a populist backlash against Neoliberalism and Free Market Capitalism, can be seen as part of the process of transitioning to something new. The question is, what are we transitioning to?

No Stake in Society

There are two underlying concerns that a majority of people have in relation to western society today. The first is that it is fundamentally unfair, and the second is that they are powerless to do anything about it. This combines to make people feel that they have no stake in society, and it explains the attraction of populist leaders (both right and left wing) who appeal directly to ‘the people’ and rail against ‘the establishment’. It also explains the appeal of the simple but powerful slogan ‘take back control’. Populists thrive on blaming vaguely defined groups for society’s problems, such as the establishment, the media, experts, foreigners and so on. They are not and will not be successful because they misdiagnose the problem.

The reason why so many people feel they have no stake in society is because of the effects of Neoliberalism and Free Market Capitalism. Liberalism has always prioritised liberty over equality, but Neoliberalism takes the principle of freedom of the individual to an extreme. According to this doctrine, people should be as free as possible to pursue their own interests. They should not be constrained by obligations to their fellow citizens, or by government interference. Indeed, Reagan said that government is the cause of our problems not its solution. Neoliberals believe that government should be as small as possible, and therefore advocate for deregulation and privatisation. As the power of governments receded, large global corporations formed in many sectors, taking on virtual monopolistic powers. Some corporations, such as the Tech Giants, now have more power than many national governments. The problem is that these corporations, consistent with Neoliberal thinking, do not act in the interest of society in general. Company directors are required to maximise shareholder return even at the expense of other stakeholders, including employees. In previous times, people were able to exercise power through elected governments who would defend their interests, but this is often no longer the case. This system has given those with power and wealth the unbridled freedom to accrue more power and wealth at the expense of others. This is demonstrated starkly by the fact that, in both the U.S. and U.K. the bottom half of the population in terms of wealth has seen no significant real term wage rise since the late 1970s. At the same time, they have had to watch the other half leave them behind. This largely explains why approximately half of the population of the U.S. and U.K voted for Donald Trump and Brexit respectively in 2016.

The Dark Side of Meritocracy

Neoliberalism has also gone hand in hand with the rise of meritocracy. This is the idea that the success of an individual depends on their merit. At first glance this sounds good, and it has been championed by left wing politicians in the Neoliberal era including Tony Blair and Barak Obama. However, as philosopher Michael Sandel explains in his book ‘The Tyranny of Merit’, meritocracy has a dark side. The justification for meritocracy rests on the assumption that those with merit deserve their success, but this is not necessarily the case. Firstly, wealth in western society is closely correlated to education. It is no coincidence that approximately half of the adult populations of the U.S. and U.K have a university degree. Do natural talents guarantee a place at university? Not necessarily – wealthy parents have access to the best schools and can afford benefits including additional professional tuition. Secondly, none of us have achieved our merits on our own. We have all had help to get where we are, from friends, family and other environmental factors. Many of us have genetic gifts that we cannot claim to have ‘earnt’. The fact is that most of us will never be able to break the 100m Olympic sprint record, no matter how hard we train. Secondly, why are some merits given higher reward than others? Why is the greatest footballer given greater financial reward than the greatest nurse? The answer is that questions of ethical value are currently determined by the free market. However, it is far from clear that the free market is able to make good ethical decisions regarding value. Is it right that the world’s greatest footballer, whose merits come partly through accidents of nature and nurture, is rewarded so well, compared to the world’s greatest nurse?

What about those who, also through accidents of nature and nurture, are not lucky enough to have merits highly valued by the free market? Meritocracy says that if you work hard you can earn success in life. What does this say to the bottom half of society who have not achieved a real term wage rise under Neoliberalism? It says that their lack of success is their own fault – you had a chance at success and did not take it. This understandably leads to a sense of resentment towards those who have succeeded (the ‘elite’), which has been harnessed by populist politicians. Leaving aside the fact that this resentment is corroding our society, the real injustice is that the premise behind the resentment is wrong. If Sandel is right in saying that those who succeed do not earn their success, that also means those who fail are also not responsible for their failure. Responsibility lies with the Neoliberal status quo, which makes immoral value judgements and allows the wealthy to exploit the rest. Meritocracy is an attractive solution to left-wing politicians who have given up on the challenging pursuit of equality. It allows the pretence that everyone can make it if they try hard enough, but this is not the case. Everyone needs help in life.

The Post War Consensus

If the current political system needs to change, an obvious solution is to revert to what was in place before. The political system before Neoliberalism has been referred to under various names, including ‘Welfare State Liberalism’ and the ‘Post War Consensus’. Regardless of left or right wing, it was characterised by powerful, centralised government and public ownership of industry. It took a paternalistic approach to government, which was there to take care of people. However, it suffered to a lesser degree from the problems faced by Totalitarian government. Government was done to people, not with people. Further, the complexity of the modern state means that countries cannot be effectively run by a single central administration, remote from the people it is trying to govern.

If both the current and previous political systems are to be rejected, what is the alternative? It is perhaps best to start the answer with an analogy based on models for ownership of business. Neoliberalism can be compared to a model where a business is owned by a small number of wealthy and powerful shareholders. Welfare State Liberalism can be compared to a business which is publicly owned by the government but whose employees have little say in how the business is run. The third option is a business which is owned by its employees, and whose directors are primarily responsible for meeting the needs of its employees. What would a society based on that model look like?

A New Liberalism

I started by saying that the problem is that people feel they have no stake in society. The solution is to give people real political power. This can be done by devolving power as locally as possible, from regional parliaments and administrations with real sovereign political power, down to local community leaders with small grants of public money as well as support and training from local government. This can be augmented by regular Citizen’s Assemblies at the local, regional and national levels, to bring people into the decision-making process in an informed way. It is not enough for a centralised government to ‘listen’ to local people. It is not enough for local governments to be given grants from central government. Westminster is a middleman which in most areas of politics needs to be cut out of the loop, so that local and regional areas can decide how to solve their own problems. Freedom of the individual is at the core of Neoliberalism. The objective of this new way of thinking is to create a society of engaged citizens, each with the political responsibility to help ensure the success of their community.

Earlier I spoke about the dark side of the meritocratic mindset, but what is the alternative? The answer is provided by Michael Sandel. We must stop using the free market as the means of determining value, including how much a person should be paid (i.e. how much their job is worth). It is obvious that a financial speculator or hedge fund manager is not worth hundreds or thousands of times more to society than a nurse or teacher. We must instead go back to assigning value based on the ‘common good’. In my post reflecting on western philosophy, I concluded that ethics is about how we should live in order to be happy. The ultimate aim of politics, therefore, is to manage society in a way that best ensures our collective happiness. This is what is meant by the common good (things that are generally good for everyone, not merely a niche section of society), and it is the extent of contribution to the common good that should guide how much value we assign to the work that people do.

I also said in a previous post that there is no certain knowledge in the field of ethics, only opinions and beliefs. We need to recognise that everyone has talents, and that there is no certain logical way to determine that one type of talent is ethically more valuable than another. Therefore, we should not be too proud of our own talents, or too dismissive of others. Those with a University degree have no reason to presume that they are superior to those with a vocational qualification or experience. Further, we need to recognise that our success in life is determined largely by accidents of nature and nurture, rather than being earnt (even our inclination to ‘work hard’ is heavily influenced by our upbringing). If we find ourselves with the good fortune of being relatively successful in life, we have a responsibility to help those who have not been as fortunate.

Reviving Society

Subjects like devolution can easily appear unimportant compared to all of the urgent problems we face in the world today, but it gets to the core of the strength of our democracy. We have hard choices ahead, such as in relation to the environment, inequality and disruptive technologies, and we need everyone to participate in coming up with the solutions. Environmental policy will not work if it is done to people; it must be done with people. Democracy is the vehicle that allows us to get things done, and at the moment our democracy is a rust bucket running on fumes.

How do we heal a society, half of which has been left behind by Neoliberalism and the Free Market? It does not require the overturning of Liberalism, which values the freedom (agency) of each of us. Neither does it require the overturning of Capitalism, which says that wealth can be owned privately and should be invested in society to increase growth and prosperity. We must give everyone real power to influence what happens in their lives and their communities. We must challenge our own assumptions as to whether certain jobs and types of education are superior to others and stop looking down on those who we consider to be inferior. Finally, we must stop focusing on our differences, and work together towards enhancing the common good of society. I do not have a name for this new form of Liberal political philosophy, but these must be its aims.

Big Picture Politics

In this post I would like to reflect on the big picture of politics, within which any political system and accompanying set of policies must sit. It is reasonable to ask why political systems matter: surely individual policies are what affect our lives? My answer is that the political system defines the space in which policies can exist, and therefore define which policies can gain popular support. For example, the complete nationalisation of all industry will never have majority support within the western world because it is outside of our current political system, which is free market neo-liberalism. A politician wishing to enact such a policy would first have to achieve a political upheaval to replace neo-liberalism with something else.

The Branches of Humanism

In his 1989 essay entitled ‘The End of History’, Francis Fukuyama posited that there would be no entirely new political philosophies, and that Liberalism will become more and more prevalent in the future. The other two options to my mind are Communism and Nationalist Totalitarianism. Yuval Noah Harari makes a compelling case in his book ‘Homo Deus’ that a new political philosophy will arise in the future, but that discussion is for a later post. These three options can each be considered as branches of Humanism, which began during the Renaissance. Humanism was predominantly a literary movement, but in political terms it introduced a new source of legitimate political power. For any political entity to be stable, its members must consider its rulers to be legitimate. Before Humanism, rulers could only claim legitimate power through God, or simply through superior strength. Humanists sanctify humanity, and believe that people rather than God are the only legitimate source of political power. They may still believe in God, but they don’t think God determines who should be in charge.

The notion that people are the source of power leaves plenty of scope for debate, hence the three political branches. Humanism says that human happiness is the most important objective of politics, so it is useful to think of the three branches in that context. The challenge of course is that everyone is different, so how do you make everyone happy? Nationalists believe different groups of humans are in competition with each other, and that their group is superior to others. If some people are superior to others then the best and most capable person is best able to determine how to make everyone happy, and that only the happiness of their group is important. When taken to the extremes of Fascism and Nazism, it becomes a belief that the strong have a duty to destroy the weak so as to improve humanity as a race, like a warped version of evolutionary theory. Communism sanctifies human beings as a collective rather than individually, and says that equality is the best way to achieve the happiness of the collective. Therefore everyone should have equal political power. Finally, Liberalism sanctifies humans as individuals, and says that the best route to happiness is to give people the freedom to seek happiness for themselves. Freedom of the individual is therefore a cornerstone of Liberalism. The only source of legitimate power is the opinion of each individual; therefore democracy is inseparable from Liberalism. It’s worth noting that the common definition of happiness as ‘subjective well-being’ is liberal. It means that happiness is a feeling whose causes are unique to each individual; therefore it cannot be determined objectively. A scientist might argue that happiness is determined by brain and nervous system activity and the presence of biochemical substances such as dopamine. This is just one example where new scientific understanding appears to conflict with our liberal way of thinking.

There is, as far as I’m aware, no universally accepted definition of the term Communism, so I will briefly explain what I understand it to be. It is sometimes misunderstood to mean a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ (which incidentally Marx did not intend to mean a totalitarian dictatorship, but rather a democratic model where voting rights are restricted to the working class, who would be the majority). This however is not Communism, but a system Marx invented as a step towards Communism. A real Communist society is a collection of small and self-sufficient communities. Marx hoped that a revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat would dissolve the State in order to bring about a Communist society, but this has never happened, and the reality has always been Nationalist Totalitarianism. There are many examples where Communism has existed, but only at the level of a town or village, and only for a few years. I have so far not used the term Socialism, only because to my understanding it is too broad to be usefully applied to a political system. In the broadest sense, Socialism is a desire to act in the interests of society as a whole, and this sentiment is not incompatible with any of the three branches of Humanism (although it is most compatible with Communism).

Political Power & The State

To make this a little more visual, I have shown the three political systems in order of extent of central government control. Communism is at one end because there is no central government control, and no state. Nationalist Totalitarianism concentrates all power in the State, which is controlled by an individual or small group. Liberalism sits in-between, with a State which has significant power but which is ultimately chosen by the people. Before choosing a political system it is worth considering what characteristics they have in regards to other aspects of politics, such as the basis for authority (how do you choose who is in charge?) and their economic systems. Liberalism sanctifies the opinion of every individual, so the question of who should be in charge can only be answered by asking everyone through a democratic process. The Nationalist Totalitarianism system says that the strongest and most capable leaders will naturally rise to the top, so favour oligarchic systems. If you believe that greatness is at least to some extent passed on genetically, then hereditary systems also make sense. Communism is compatible with all of these systems, but Marx intended Communist societies to be democratic. Indeed, democracy is easier in small societies from a logistical perspective, and options such as direct democracy become more practical compared to a state with tens of millions of people. 

Economic Systems

Liberalism is closely tied to Capitalism, which requires the state to step back from direct management of the economy and leave it to private individuals, including investors and entrepreneurs. The natural inclination in a Totalitarian state is for the state to run everything, including the economy. The obvious historical example of a managed economy was the Soviet Union. The problem with this approach is that as society became more complex and the pace of change accelerated through the 20th century, economies became impossible for a single central committee to manage effectively. This is somewhat analogous to a set of Christmas tree lights wired in series or in parallel. In a parallel system one failure means one light fails, but in a series system they all fail. Likewise, a free market capitalist economy has countless failures, which means people lose their jobs and investors lose money on a daily basis, but the failures are small enough that they don’t undermine the system as a whole. When a managed economy fails, it can and has led to the starvation and death of millions at a time. The Cold War in this context was really a victory for an economic rather than political system. Capitalism has reigned supreme since 1989 but Liberalism has not, as can be seen from the example of China.

The problem for Communism is that modern standards of living require mass cooperation, in order to create and maintain the very complex goods and services that we have become used to, and to achieve the productivity levels required to produce enough food despite so few of us working in agriculture. For that reason a true Communist society would, in my opinion, be an agrarian society. In a Communist society all goods are owned in common and not by individuals, and the managed economy is the system for distributing goods for individual usage. The problems associated with complexity in a Totalitarian state-managed economy are addressed by the relative simplicity and small scale of a Communist society. It can be further addressed in a democratic Communist society because everyone can have a say in how the economy is managed, making it a less centralised system. If you can forego the amenities of modern life then Communism has much to commend it.

Reflections on Western Philosophy

Having written about Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy, I would like to record some of my reflections on Western Philosophy, by focusing on two key themes that run through the book. First though, is a quick reflection on what I have learnt from reading about philosophy in general. A person who reads philosophy expecting to find definitive answers to the great questions of life will be disappointed. This should not be a surprise; had the meaning of life been discovered by a past philosopher then it would have been more widely publicised. Philosophy tackles questions for which there is no certain right or wrong answer. It is not finding the truth that matters most. The process of being exposed to big ideas is mind-expanding, and helps one to be open to new ideas. This is particularly important in our modern social media world of bubbles and echo-chambers, where algorithms direct us towards people who comfort us with similar points of view. It is easier to have an open minded discussion about Brexit if you have already considered the idea that all of reality itself may be subjective.

Epistemology – The Quest for Knowledge

Given that philosophy is ultimately the search for knowledge, the question of how we can find knowledge and where it comes from is of central importance. The ancient Greeks thought that inspiration is achieved through deep contemplation. There were strong elements of mysticism in Greek philosophy. Many of the great thinkers believed that such inspiration comes from God (or some sort of Supreme Being), and that the process of contemplation allows one to be closer to God. Pythagoras took this a stage further and believed that he was divine. There was also a view, articulated by Plato, that our senses can be deceiving, and that knowledge gained by observing the world around us is imperfect at best. Ideas were therefore considered a far superior source of knowledge than observation (exemplified by Plato’s Theory of Ideas), and deduction was used to establish new knowledge from existing ideas. In the modern period this way of thinking would be known as ‘Idealism’. In the Medieval period the mystical element was strengthened to the point that all knowledge was believed to come from God. This substantially constrained the quest for knowledge. People came to believe that knowledge could only be found by studying Holy Scriptures, and that to search for knowledge elsewhere was an offence to God. Many Medieval philosophers, including Thomas Aquinas, believed that some knowledge could not be known by mere mortals and had to be taken on faith.

This attitude changed in the modern era. The scientific revolution of the 17th century convinced many that the scriptures were not the only, or even the most important, source of knowledge. Driven by the modern scientific method, observation became a key source of knowledge. This was developed by Locke into the doctrine of Empiricism. Doubts over observation remained and were developed by the likes of Berkeley and Hume. They were empiricists in that they believed all knowledge originates from observation, but the flaws they identified with observation led them to sceptical positions. In other words, they believed that there is much that we cannot know.

Idealism remained strong in the modern era, starting with Descartes and then the German Idealists of the 19th century. However, I find myself agreeing with Russell’s anti-idealist position. The problem is that ‘large edifices of knowledge’ are created from often questionable starting points. It leads to the creation of grand metaphysical theories to explain all of reality, and a temptation to selectively choose arguments in support of the overall theory. Hegel is a prime example. I would not deny that Hegel is worth studying, but I think that one should look to find inspiration rather than knowledge in his work. I am a fan of Russell’s logical realism, whereby philosophical enquiry is less ambitious and grounded in sound logic and scientific understanding.

Ethics – The Pursuit of Happiness

I have found little consensus within philosophy as to the meaning or purpose of life. I have, however, found a high degree of consensus as to what above all else we should try to achieve in life. The answer is happiness. The study of ethics can be seen as the study of how we should behave in order to be happy, both as individuals and as a society. At this point the consensus breaks down, as every thinker has a different idea as to how to achieve happiness. The Ancient Greeks generally believed that happiness is best achieved through knowledge. While I wouldn’t say that this is the complete answer, I do have some sympathy with it. A lot of unhappiness is rooted in fear, and fear is generally caused by the unknown, i.e. by absence of knowledge. Further, the old phrase ‘knowledge is power’ has some merit, and the word ‘power’ can reasonable be substituted for ‘agency’. Knowledge gives us a better chance of being in control of what happens to us, rather than being at the mercy of events. Another branch of Ancient Greek philosophy, the Hellenistic schools, argued that unhappiness is caused by our desires, which can never be sated. Therefore, the only route to happiness is to train ourselves not to want anything, and to live simple, ascetic lives. I suspect this is not entirely achievable for most people, but questioning our own desires from time to time is probably a good thing.

In the Medieval period the emphasis on knowledge morphed into the idea that happiness is achieved through knowledge of God. This meant that we could gain happiness by bringing ourselves closer in understanding to the wonder of God and his designs. In another sense, it meant that even if we couldn’t find happiness in this life, if we followed God’s teachings we could be sure of eternal happiness in heaven. While I accept that faith gives happiness to billions of people, I have not myself been able to find faith in God. Some philosophers in the Medieval and early modern period grappled with the question of why God allows unhappiness in the world. I think there is some merit in Leibniz’s view that we need some unhappiness in order to be happy. Human beings have an extraordinary ability to get used to things. This means that no matter how good things are, we get acclimatised and want more. We need rainy days to enjoy the sunshine. We need death in order to get the most out of life.

In the modern era, Immanuel Kant attempted to use logic to determine how we should live ethically. He arrived at his ‘categorical imperative’, which said an action is right if it meets two criteria. Firstly, it is possible for everyone to do it (which might suggest that debt and borrowing, and therefore capitalism itself, is unethical – we can’t all be in debt as there would be no one to lend). Secondly, an action is right if we would be happy for it to do done to us. At the risk of making an enormous over-simplification, this sounds to me like the Christian doctrine as treating others as you would like to be treated. Russell showed that certain examples can be found which expose holes in Kant’s logic, but as a piece of general guidance on how we should behave I think it has much going for it. The Utilitarians believed we should all act so as to maximise net human happiness. This poses a number of challenges – what happens when happiness conflicts with freedom, how do we compare different levels or qualities of happiness, how do we trade present for future happiness? Like most doctrines, as long as we are conscious of its limitations and do not pursue it to the extreme, Utilitarianism is a useful guide for life.

I would like to end by reiterating a point from a previous post. Like Bertrand Russell, it is my view that there is no way of achieving ‘true’ answers to questions of ethics. The appropriate response, if this is true, is a sense of humility in one’s own ethical position, and a sincere respect for the beliefs of others.

The Philosophy of Logical Analysis

In this last post covering Bertrand Russell’s history of western philosophy I come to the school of philosophical thought to which Russell identifies himself as a member. Russell’s foremost contribution to philosophy was in the field of logic, and this is apparent in the methodical and relatively dispassionate approach he takes in his book to analysing the ideas of other thinkers through the ages. There is no doubt that he strongly opposes idealism and metaphysical thinking, and it is not clear to me whether this is entirely due to logical falicies, or whether there is an element of natural bias – a vice that we are all susceptible to.

Logic & Science

According to Russell, the great mathematicians of the 17th century were optimistic and anxious for quick results, and sometimes left the foundations of their work logically insecure. For example, it was apparently only at the end of the 19th century that a satisfactory definition of the word ‘number’ was provided. Kant had said that mathematical propositions were ‘synthetic’, and therefore their truth is a matter of belief rather than certainty. In his work ‘Principia Mathematica’, Russell aimed to show how pure mathematics can be deduced from logic, and therefore can be considered objectively true.

Modern advances in other fields, such as physics and psychology, have also affected received wisdom within philosophy. One example is the understanding of mind and matter. Common sense had always led us to think of the world as composed of ‘things’, which exist at various points in space and time. Advances in physics led us to think of things as being made up ultimately of atoms, which exist permanently. Einstein’s work led us to think that the world should be described in terms of ‘events’ rather than matter, with each event being related to other events in terms of space and time. ‘Matter’ then is perhaps just a convenient idea for collecting events into bundles, in order to help us make sense of the world. Quantum Theory undermined the orthodox belief in continuity of motion and showed that physical phenomena are discontinuous. At this point I am well beyond my understanding of physics, but I think the point is to show how advances in science have undermined conventional philosophical beliefs. Modern physics has also helped philosophers understand the nature of perception. What we perceive (e.g. see, hear or feel) in relation to an object must to some extent resemble the object if it is to be considered knowledge. This is only the case if there is a causal link between object and perception, which is not overly distorted by anything else. In regards to sight, we know that light waves link us to the object being perceived, but that they can change somewhat between the object and our eyes – light can be affected by gravity, or refracted. There are also potential physiological effects between our eyes and our brains. This suggests we can gain useful knowledge of the world through observation, but not complete knowledge.

Analytical Empiricism

Russell is describing an approach to philosophy that he calls ‘analytical empiricism’. It is characterised by disciplined logic and is consistent with the latest scientific understanding. It aims to solve specific problems, rather than create metaphysical systems. Russell believed that this is the only way of thinking that allows philosophy to actually solve problems and create new knowledge. However, he cautions that science cannot help us in understanding ethical questions within philosophy. One of the great errors throughout philosophy has been the failure to separate two questions: how does the world work, and what is the best way of living. The approach to the first question must be a disinterested search for truth, which examines all preconceptions. Even the greatest philosophers, starting with Plato, have allowed their view of how the world should be to affect their understanding of how the world is. This leads to error and confusion, and is a kind of self-censorship. This is most obvious within medieval Catholic philosophy, but is common throughout history. Philosophers like Russell believe that there is no way of achieving ‘true’ answers to questions of ethics. The appropriate response if this is true is a sense of humility in one’s own ethical position, and a sincere respect for the beliefs of others.

The American Philosophers

This post covers two American philosophers, William James and John Dewey, who were prominent in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and both born in New England. Both were successful in multiple fields including science, politics and education, but from a purely philosophical perspective what they have in common is the theory of ‘instrumentalism’.

William James

Before coming to instrumentalism a look at James’ doctrine of ‘radical empiricism’, in which he rejected the orthodox view that the process of gaining knowledge of something can be described in terms of a subject-object relationship. In this traditional relationship the subject, which is regarded as a mind, becomes aware of the object, which can be another mind or something material. James’ ideas undermined a number of existing notions, including the clear distinction between mind and matter. ‘Mind’ or ‘soul’ should not be considered as a thing separate to matter. Consciousness should be considered only as a state of being, not evidence of a separate thing called mind or soul. There is only material, out of which all things are composed, and some things are in a state of consciousness. James calls this material ‘pure experience’, but according to Russell does not really explain what is meant by this. Nevertheless, on the basic point that mind does not exist as a separate thing, James and Russell are in agreement.

James believed that the purpose of philosophy, when examining whether a given theory or idea is true, is to determine what practical difference it makes to us if the theory is true. Theories then become more like instruments than answers to problems, hence the term ‘instrumentalism’. According to James, an idea is ‘true’ if it is believed to have a positive effect on our lives. This means that the status of true or false is not static – ideas can, for example, be made true by events. This belief is influenced by James’ preoccupation with religion and ethics. He is more interested in how we can lead good and virtuous lives, rather than finding objective truth. As a Christian, it is useful for him to be able to say that God exists because this belief has a positive effect on people. Russell, however, identifies some issues with the theory that ideas are true if their effects are good. How do we determine whether the effects of something are good, particularly when discussing questions other than ethics? To use Russell’s example, how would we establish when Columbus discovered the new world? Is it better for him to have done so in 1492 or 1493? Also, if the reasons for us believing something true are to be true themselves, then they must also have good effects, and so on ad infinitum. Like many philosophers, James is a natural sceptic looking for a way to establish what is true. He cannot be certain that God exists, so settles with belief in God, and claims that this is the same thing. This only seems valid if you think that objective truth is not important, and that it is the effect of what we believe to be true that matters. The Pope condemned this defence of religion – it did matter to him that God exists.

John Dewey

Russell is full of praise for John Dewey as a person and as a philosopher, and regrets that he cannot agree with everything that Dewey says, even though he would like to. Dewey was another of the protagonists for the theory of instrumentalism. Like James, Dewey criticised the traditional notion of ‘truth’ as something that is perfect, static and final. According to this notion mathematics is given high regard – two plus two will always equal four. In religious terms, truth is traditionally identified with the knowledge of God, i.e. having an appreciation of what God’s thoughts are through increased understanding of the nature of God. Dewey’s perspective is biological, and he considers thought to be an evolutionary process. Truth is defined in terms of inquiry, i.e. truth is what we would believe to be correct, given sufficient inquiry. This leads us needing to define what inquiry is. According to Russell’s interpretation, inquiry is the process of mutual adjustment between an organism (e.g. person) and its environment such that the relationship between the two is satisfactory to the organism, as long as the adjustment is mainly on the part of the organism. To give Russell’s analogy, during a battle a General seeks to alter their environment, i.e. the enemy, so this is not inquiry. Before the battle, the General carries out reconnaissance of the enemy and their battle preparations, and makes counter preparations. This process is more about adapting one’s own plans rather than the environment so can be considered as inquiry. 

For Dewey, there is no such thing as absolute truth or falsehood; rather, there are degrees of truth. Therefore, we can only say that we believe things to be true or false, with different degrees of certainty. So far this is not very controversial. The controversy comes from Dewey’s refusal to accept the concept of objective facts which are always true. He does not classify beliefs as being true or false, but rather good or bad, and this is dependent on whether they have good or bad effects. This idea has several consequences for our conception of truth. It means that things are ever changing as their effects change – something which was bad in the past could be good in the future, and vice versa. Truth also becomes subjective – what is good for one person may be bad for another. It also means that we cannot determine whether something is true until we’ve understood whether its consequences are good or bad for us. Russell highlights the potential for absurdity using a typically practical and specific example: how should we answer if asked whether we had coffee with our breakfast?

Instrumentalism is an idea full of confidence and optimism, and no doubt influenced by contemporary social circumstances, conceived as it was while America was on the rise. If you do not like that something is true or false, most people would say that there is nothing humans can do to make it otherwise. Instrumentalism says that we should not despair, and that with sufficient thought and power one can change the world, through inquiry, such that our relationship to the world is satisfactory. Russell ends with a note of caution. Throughout most of history humans have thought that the concept of ‘truth’ is dependent on facts that are outside of human control and this has retained an element of humility within philosophy. Starting in the 19th century along came philosophies centred on power and action. In Russell’s words, “man, formally too humble, begins to think of himself as almost a God”.


With Henri Bergson we reach the 20th century in this history of western philosophy. Russell categorises Bergson’s philosophy as a practical one, inspired by a love of action, where knowledge is merely the instrument of successful activity. This is in contrast to philosophies of feeling, inspired by a love of happiness, and theoretical philosophies, inspired by a love of knowledge. Bergson has a dynamic conception of reality, and praises those who act on instinct. Intellectual thought is condemned as slow and constraining, and inconsistent with the nature of life.

The Struggle of Life

Bergson divides the world into life and matter. These two are in perpetual conflict and travelling in opposite directions – life climbs upwards, whereas matter falls downward. Life is a great force which is constantly fighting its way past the inert matter in its path. It is always struggling to get through, sometimes divided by obstacles into divergent streams, sometimes held and pushed backwards by matter, but always looking for ways to climb upwards, and always looking for ways to manipulate and organise matter in order to get through. Through this struggle life changes and evolves.

Historically there had been two ways to explain why things happen. One is teleological – things have a natural tendency to develop to their potential, or to fulfil their natural purpose. For example, it is the natural purpose of an acorn to grow into an oak tree. The other is mechanistic – things happen due to past causes. Bergson rejected both explanations, believing that life has an impulse to action to achieve undefined wants, and this drives events. Traditional evolutionary theory would say that chance mutations, such as those leading to the ability to see, are passed on because they make an animal better adapted to survive. Bergson believed that sightless animals would have had a vague desire to be more aware of the objects they came into contact with, and this desire led to efforts which resulted in the creation of eyes. However, eyes could not have been imagined until they came into being, which shows that the evolutionary outcome of life’s desires is unpredictable. This is disconcerting to anyone who wants to think that we consciously determine a goal and act in order to achieve that outcome. Rather, we are blindly driven by instinct, like objects floating on the sea, drifting according to invisible currents.

Against Intellect

At one point in evolution, instinct and intellect appeared. According to Bergson, instinct is good and intellect is bad. Intellect thinks in the context of space, and is only capable of understanding the world as discrete and static objects. As shown earlier, this is not how the world really is – things are in constant movement, upwards in the case of life and downwards in the case of matter. The mind artificially creates discrete objects to try and make sense of the world. The exceptions are the realms of logic and geometry, but otherwise a reliance on reasoning is likely to lead to misunderstandings. Instinct, on the other hand, thinks in the context of time, which is the essential characteristic of an ever changing world. What we would commonly conceive of time, as the sequence of multiple events, is really just a type of space. Real time is referred to by Bergson as duration. Russell admits to not fully understanding what Bergson means by duration, but I have done my best to provide an explanation. Duration is the form that our conscience takes when we stop artificially separating our present state from our past states, and combine them into a single organic whole. When we think in terms of duration we can experience reality as it really is – as perpetual change, where nothing is static.

We best experience this through memory, where the past can survive in the present. The ability to recite something by heart, e.g. a poem, is not really memory. Memory is the ability to recall past events, such as a past occasion of reading said poem. Memory is evidence of the soul, and is entirely independent of matter. Opposite to memory is perception. Empirical idealists, such as Berkeley, said that mind played an important role in perception – we cannot objectively perceive the world around us, so the mind generates our own subjective vision as to what the world is like. Bergson on the other hand, takes an ‘ultra-realist view’ in almost entirely dismissing the role of mind from the process of perception. When we perceive something, we step outside of our minds and experience an object first hand. We would perceive everything around us, were it not for the brain, which determines what we perceive and what we don’t. In this sense, the brain limits our life (mentally at least) to what is practically useful.

Bergson generally does not give reasons for his opinions, but according to Russell, he is helped by an attractive literary style. Russell declares that he can find no reason for accepting Bergson’s view of the universe. Bergson’s anti-intellectual philosophy, we are told, ‘thrives upon the errors and confusion of the intellect’. Every past intellectual error of humankind, and every problem not solved by rational argument, is used as evidence for the bankruptcy of intellect and the primacy of intuition. In mathematics for example, Russell claims that Bergson deliberately focuses on traditional errors and ignores more modern advances in understanding. Russell is also unimpressed by Bergson’s conception of time. Bergson appears to have believed that the past does not exist, because existence is defined by action, and action only exists in the present. When we recollect things they exist in the present, according to Bergson. He rejects the conception of time as separate events and for that reason rejects the idea of considering past and present as separate things. Life is continuous change, and whatever is not around us exists in the present through recollections that we have in the present. However, if action only exists in the present, where did our recollections come from? Why consider the present moment as being more special than what has come before?  

Karl Marx & Philosophy

In this post I am returning to Karl Marx, to give Russell’s more philosophically focused account of his beliefs. Marx does not fit neatly into one category, be it philosopher, economist or political scientist. Even as a philosopher he is hard to classify. He is in part a successor to the English rationalist philosophers such as the Utilitarians and Locke, including the scientific bias and a dislike of romanticism. In another sense he is a successor to Hegel and the German Idealists – ‘the last great system builder’, to quote Russell.

Dialectical Materialism

Marx was a materialist, which means he believed that reality consists primarily of matter. Ideas are secondary and the result of material processes (e.g. the result of electrons firing in the brain). This is in opposition to the idealists, who believe that reality is best understood through ideas. Marx developed what he called dialectical materialism, and used it to create an alternative to Hegel’s conception of history. Traditional materialism said that in the act of observing something, the object (observer) is active while the subject is passive. But knowledge should not be considered as a sense of passive contemplation. For Marx, both subject and object are changed in the process of gaining knowledge about a subject. Both subject and object are therefore in a constant state of change, and the process is dialectic because it is never fully completed. Like Hegel, Marx believed that the world develops according to a dialectic formula, but believed that the cause of change is our relationship with matter. The most important part of this relationship is the mode of production. Through this thought, what was an abstract metaphysical idea becomes a practical economic theory.

According to Marx’s materialist conception of history, any period of human history is best understood as an outcome of its methods of production. Russell goes on to consider to what extent this conception can be considered valid. It can certainly be argued that philosophers throughout history have been influenced by the world around them. Hellenistic philosophy generally reflects a world of chaos and suffering, and early Christian philosophy contains the fatalism of a world approaching the end times. Early modern enlightenment philosophy reflects predominantly the interests of the commercial middle class, and Marx’s ideas are relevant to an industrial society. However, the influences on philosophers have been as much political and cultural as they have been economic. In addition, it is hard to argue that all ideas reflect the society of the day, particularly when very different ideas have been conceived at similar time periods through history. Russell concludes that there are questions in philosophy that are scientific or logical, and which are less influenced by society and more likely to produce general consensus. There are also questions which pure reason cannot fully answer, which require extra-rational decisions to be made. It is these questions to which Marx’s conception of history is more applicable.

From Feudalism to Socialism

There is only really one triad (thesis, antithesis and synthesis) that concerns Marx in his materialist dialectic. It could be said that feudalism is the thesis, capitalism the antithesis and socialism the synthesis. Marx did not believe socialism would happen due to ethical considerations, but believed that it is the predetermined destination for human society, as shown by logical dialectic argument. Russell does not go into the merits of socialism over capitalism, believing it to be a more political than philosophical debate. Despite Marx’s desire to appear scientific in approach, the influence of Hegel on Marx is unscientific. The dialectic method assumes that progress is a constant, but there is nothing scientific to prove that there will always be progress. Without this assumption, there is no reason to think that socialism will happen, even if it is rationally better than capitalism. Despite believing in socialism on rational grounds himself, Marx (at least for most of his life) did not believe that socialism would come about as a result of rational debate. Instead he believed that only the working classes could be persuaded to follow socialism, so hung his hopes on class war. According to Russell, there are influences here of the emotion and violence of romanticism, and the power politics of Nietzsche.