Backing Into Philosophy: Stipulations

I do have another batch of links about current events, but I’ll save them for this weekend and instead spend tonight’s blog post jotting down thoughts about philosophy. I mentioned back on Jan 6th that one of my resolutions for this year is to systematically read a history of philosophy, after having only dipped into many of its subtopics over the years.

I wondered in that post what the bridge might have been between humanity’s earliest, intuitive, “Savannah morality” thinking, as I’ve described many times, and the first things that might be called philosophy. And then floated the idea that many individual wise men have surely been present throughout history, some of whose thoughts are lost to time, others of which we venerate, even if they were never systematized into any kind of “philosophy,” in the sense of their being principles of explanation or instruction meant to apply beyond the writer’s own experience.

So now I’ll write down and expand on some thoughts from two evenings ago, scribbled in my notebook. I wanted to write these down before I get very far in any of the books I’ve mentioned — by Russell, Gottlieb, and Grayling — as well books I have by individual writers (Marcus Aurelius, Michel de Montaigne, Russell) and a book by Edward Craig from Oxford’s enormous library of “Very Short Introductions,” i.e. small paperbacks running only 150 pages or so on a multitude of topics. Cover shown here.

So: stipulations. These are somewhat random thoughts, not any complete coherent argument. So perhaps I’ll bulletize them.

  • My issue about philosophy, at its broadest, is the degree to which it’s respected — as religions are — even when it’s not the least bit scientific, that is, accountable to the real world. I’ve repeated before someone’s notion that the history of philosophy is a history of failed conceptions of the human mind, and the same might be said about conceptions of the universe and reality, and about proscriptions of morality, once based on local circumstances that no longer exist. That is, hasn’t most philosophy been discredited? All unsubstantiated notions and assertions? We shall see. There are certainly modern philosophers, who’ve presumably accommodated discoveries about the real world into their conceptions, and who push the boundaries of what science knows; e.g. Daniel Dennett.
  • That is, can we conclude that in the 21st century many or most philosophical assertions from throughout history are simply wrong? This would make the study of philosophy a study of how thinking has evolved, much like studying the history of politics, not a study of what we currently know about the universe, as science is. And here I’m anxious to explore non-Western philosophies, and to see if they’re any different from non-Western religions.
  • What with the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution, hasn’t there been a convergence in the last century or two on the understanding of reality, that, again, renders so many ancient philosophies obsolete? Including the intuitive philosophies of non-Western cultures?
  • Examples include the various appeals to different “ways of knowing”, with the Maori of New Zealand in the news in recent years for insisting their traditions be taught — in universities! — along side science, which they dismiss as Western. My reaction to such appeals is to wonder — ways of knowing *what*? Anything useful or productive? Anything that corresponds with the objective? That would contribute to building skyscrapers and satellites? That would reduce human suffering? Not that I can tell. Here we come to the idea that philosophy might be some kind of high, intuitive knowledge that supersedes mundane existence — its proponents would claim. I’m interested to see further rationales for “ways of knowing” along these lines.
  • The idea of progress in the world can also apply to morality, those prescriptions about ways to live. Haven’t we also made progress along these lines in recent centuries and decades? Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett among many others would think so. In my own terms, religious morality clings to the morality of the Savannah, the protocols of tribalism and Darwinian survival, that endure today among the most conservative of the conservatives, even though they don’t realize it.
  • There’s the notion that philosophy is about *everything*, superseding all religion and even science. Does anyone still think this? [I’m repeating myself in some of these notes.]
  • There have been scientists (I can think of one but I’m not sure so I won’t mention the name) who claim that philosophy is “useless”; that is, that only empirical scientific inquiry matters. A counter-argument is that philosophy is inherent in the very questions we ask — and do experiments upon — about reality. There’s no escaping it.
  • What is the relationship between wisdom and philosophy?
  • And of course all these ideas play into my themes about science fiction. Philosophy, in all its forms, conceives of the world as we know it, without consideration of other possible realities. Which science fiction does consider. If philosophy is ever to become some kind of truth about everything, it will have to consider those other realities as well.
  • Along these lines, I have an anthology of science fiction stories that concern philosophy, and of course the Science Fiction Encyclopedia has many articles on abstract themes as expressed in science fiction, that I will explore.

I recall there being something like “five branches” of philosophy, which of course I could look up, but for the moment remember only three:

  • The philosophy of reality, what the world is like and what it’s made of (earth, air, fire, water…. atoms…);
  • The philosophy of how to live, what it means to live a good life;
  • And the philosophy of epistemology (one of my favorite topics, especially in our modern conspiracy-drenched world) — how we know what we know; how what if anything can be truly known.

Beyond these notes, I have superficial notions of what various individual philosophers were about. Plato’s prescribed how to live in his Republic, and conceived of ideals outside reality, e.g. the Platonic solids. Aristotle tried to explain everything, and was mostly wrong. Socrates emphasized dialogue, questioning everything. Later Aquinas tried to reconcile Biblical theology with the philosophy of the Greeks, or was that St. Augustine? You see how dicey my knowledge of philosophy is.

And now I’ve begun reading that “Very Short Introduction” by Edward Craig. He identifies those three aspects of philosophy just listed; discusses its supposed “uselessness”; ties the goals of philosophy to those of religion; and considers how as animals humans crave to understand *why* things happen. Which fits in very neatly to all my ideas about evolutionary psychology.

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