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.

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