Proceeding with my foray into philosophy a bit discursively — not yet one of the big histories — I begin with the ‘very short introduction’ I displayed in my initial philosophy post back on 12 January. This is a volume in Oxford University Press’s huge library of “very short introductions” — they have a Wikipedia entry — that number over 700 now. Small paperbacks of 150 pages or less. Here’s the full list.

I have half a dozen of these, and have noticed that they vary in approach. Some are 10,000 foot overviews; some focus on specifics; some on general theory. E.g. you won’t brush up on your Greek mythology in the series’ mythology volume, which is more about the general idea of mythology and where myths come from.

I would call this philosophy volume more of a sampler, than a broad overview. The author is a professor at Cambridge. The volume I have is the second edition, published 2020; the first edition was published in 2002.

Herewith a summary, with [[ comments ]].

Craig begins with a chapter of generalities. We’re all implicitly philosophers; to say philosophy is useless is to reveal a philosophy about what is useful. What is philosophy for? Many answers: to attain salvation; to seek truth; to change the course of civilization. What is philosophy? It arose from the way humans evolved from animals and asked about how the world works. The more we understood, the more questions were raised. This made us human: perhaps “the biggest shock the species has ever encountered.” Philosophy is the process of recovering from this crisis. As philosophy has grown, areas of it have split away and become regarded as ‘natural sciences’. What’s left involves the most difficult questions.

[[ Here, a provisional answer to my question in earlier post. When did philosophy evolve from the more intuitive notions people had about how the world works? Probably, mundanely, simply when the unusual thoughts of this or that “wise” man were recorded for posterity. Even if recorded by others. Writing. ]]

[[ Remaining query: if modern philosophers acknowledge that so much early philosophy, e.g. about the form of the universe or the mind/body duality, has been flat out wrong, then what is the rationale for studying it? Do philosophy studies understand *why* much of it was wrong, in light of the basics of modern science? Perhaps we study philosophy not so much for the ideas the ancients put forth, but because philosophy is, put plainly before us, the path humanity has taken from the Savannah mentality of tribal motivations, to the disciplined understanding of how the actual world works, and thus — as it has extended into the areas we call ‘science’ — to our modern civilization. Philosophy is the trail the human mind has left behind on this journey — perhaps best understood through the lens of modern evolutionary psychology, in order to understand why certain kinds of ideas occur to the human mind, and not other ideas, at all. ]]

The next three chapters provide examples of what the author calls the three big questions that philosophy asks: What should we do? What is there? And, How do we know?

Ch 2 discusses the Crito of Plato, which is a dialogue between Socrates, in jail, and a friend eager to help him escape. It’s about what Socrates’ obligations are, given any course of action he might take, to his family, to society, to the rule of law, where violation of the latter might entail the collapse of society. (As an aside, every description I’ve seen of Socrates says he was in jail, in part, for “corrupting” the youth, without ever spelling out what that means exactly.) It’s a deep dive into a strain of ethics and personal responsibility, in ways seldom seen in today’s (conservative) politics.

Ch 3 discusses Hume and his argument about miracles — a familiar argument I’ve heard before. Belief in miracles is contrary to reason, and to renounce reason is to rely on testimony from others, and such testimonies can be contradictory, or even malicious. (A range of motives is mentioned, p28m, familiar in this day of mis- and dis-information.) We should choose the less improbable alternative–which is that miracles are impossible. Hume was carefully trying to undermine religion, though he didn’t carry his reasoning far enough to understand how scientists do change their minds about what is real and possible. (Because scientists don’t depend on hearsay; they can do repeatable experiments.)

Ch 4 considers a Buddhist text about a man named Nagasena who denies that any part of him — his body, his consciousness — is Nagasena, or even that his entire self is Nagasena. This reflects the Buddhist doctrine of ‘five aggregates’ or components of a human being, and the implication that the sum is more than the total of parts. (This strikes me as quibbling about terminology, and a misunderstanding of what ‘things’ are; these days we would say, in this example, that the body and consciousness and so on are things in themselves, and the aggregate person is emergent from its group of components, or something like that. Thus biology is more than just chemistry, and so on.)

Then Craig covers half a dozen general themes, describing each briefly. Ethical consequentialism (whether something is good or bad depends on its consequences). Integrity. Political authority, i.e. contract theory. Evidence and rationality. (The idea that rationality was the essential difference between humans and animals has gone out the window in recent decades, as we understand how few people are rational the majority of the time.) The self. How the eternal questions remain roughly the same over the centuries. Even though as ideas around those questions develop, we see that philosophy is cumulative.

Next is a discussion of various ‘isms.’ Dualism; materialism; empiricism and rationalism; skepticism. There was understanding among some that we only know how things appear, not how they truly are, since different humans (and animals!) perceive things differently. This is a kind of relativism, in vogue in modern times, that can extend to ideas of beauty, taste, textual understanding, even science and morality. (Modern thinking about where relativism is appropriate, and where it is not — science, maybe even morality in a broad sense — has advanced in recent times.)

Ch 7 is Craig’s ‘personal selection’ of ‘high spots’: four philosophers and their ideas. First is Descartes, as he tried to revise all beliefs and replace Aristotle from the ground up. What can we know, what are our foundations? Thus his conclusion: he knows at least that he himself exists. Cogito ergo sum. He clung to what came to be called Cartesian dualism: that the body and mind are separate. And he figured that if he could *conceive* of a perfect god, then one must exist. (Of course there are any number of contradictions inherent in trying to describe such a perfect being, so perhaps he was trying to rationalize traditional religious belief.)

Then Hegel, who applied philosophy to history, with his concept of “The Idea,” a set of universals immanent in nature, and acted out by human beings so that it would know its own structure. This appealed to then-current notions of Providence, and how human beings were enacting the will of God. Key to Hegel was that the course of history was driven by ‘world-historical individuals,’ i.e. all the famous people in the world with ambition. As history moved forward, conflicts opposed concepts, and progress arising out of this conflict is known as ‘dialectic.’ Individuals mostly don’t matter, or care.

Then Darwin, a prime example of how science influenced philosophy. Darwin’s careful assemblage of evidence in support of his thesis — which originally barely addressed human beings — shocked people at the time, but his thesis was made plausible by the recent discovery, by geologists, of the immense age of the world. The idea of progress appealed to people, though Darwin never said that those who survive were necessarily superior (“survival of the fittest”); that was Herbert Spencer’s phrase. (Fittest can change with circumstances, rendering the idea of superiority contingent.)

And then Nietzsche, who wanted to know where morals came from. He advanced the idea (more and more prominent recently, from neuropsychology) that we don’t know what’s going on in our own minds. He had no interest in the notion that morals were handed down by God. And he rejected the idea that ‘good’ behaviors were those advantageous to society, because he’d read history and knew that the upper classes generally declared what was good, to their own advantage. But neither is herd mentality the answer. Nz loved turned commonsense notions on their head. He understood, as do priests, that people (e.g. the lower classes) put up with suffering if they understand the reason for it, or have someone to blame for it.

[[ These sections were the most fascinating in the book to me, especially those about Hegel and Nietzsche. Hegel’s ideas are so bizarre you have to wonder, where did he comes up with such notions? Surely not based on anything like what we consider ‘evidence.’ At the same time his notion of an all-encompassing ‘Idea’ could well be analogous to what we understand as the order of nature, which necessarily constrains what humans do, and how in a non-zero-sum fashion human civilization has ‘advanced’ into a self-understanding of nature, including human nature. Nietzsche has a reputation as a kind of nihilist, has always been my impression, who famously declared “God is dead.” Did he simply mean by that that morality exists within divine direction? That notion has been common-place for a century; perhaps he was the one who first stated it. Now it’s uncontroversial. What about “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” the Strauss music based on Nz used in 2001? Any correlation of theme from Nz to 2001? I have no idea; I’ll have to pursue that. ]]

There are two final sections. First concerning free will. Descartes felt it resolved the ‘problem of evil.’ Hegel and Kant had different notions of what being free means. There’s determinism, despite quantum physics; and there’s compatibilism, that some kind of freedom is consistent with determinism. We’re concerned with free will because we like feeling we are in control, but also because we’d like to assign moral responsibility to people. But there is no clear resolution. (And still is not, though the determinists seem to be ahead lately; see Harris below.)

Finally, what is philosophy for? How do those three big questions apply to the individual? Author considers a range of how philosophy affects different people, from the individual (how to have a happy life); the state; the priesthood; the working classes; women; animals; and finally professional philosophers. The author cheekily suggests that most modern philosophers are concerned with topics so abstruse, they’re little more than puzzles. Thus, he advises: stick to the classics. (He specifically avoids recommending any modern philosophers.)


As I’ve looked around my library the past week or two, I find many more books I could classify as philosophy than I thought I had. Next up to read will be two similarly short books. Will Durant’s THE GREATEST MINDS AND IDEAS OF ALL TIME seems to be what a reader looking for an overview of philosophy’s greatest ideas and greatest philosophers has in mind. At the same time, reading through the first 10 or 20 pages, I see that Durant is an “unashamed” worshiper of “heroes.” That is, he endorses the “great man” theory of history, which I’ve seen in recent decades overtaken by the idea of history as one of cultural advances, as in e.g. Harari’s SAPIENS. It will be interesting to see Durant’s take.

Then I have a short book by Sam Harris called FREE WILL; a 66p essay with notes. The consensus in modern times is that we *don’t* have free will in the ordinary sense, and this is Harris’ defense of that idea. Sapolsky’s recent book Determined is on the same subject.

The one philosopher I’ve already read several books by is Bertrand Russell. I summarized his famous essay “Why I Am Not a Christian” here;. I like him because his approach is extremely *reasonable* in a way most of the religion-addled philosophers of old were not. I have his The Problems of Philosophy, which addresses the very basic issues of epistemology: how do we know what’s real?

And then, on Edward Craig’s recommendation, I ordered a short book by Tom Nagel, from 1987, called What Does it All Mean, said to be a book about philosophical essentials, perhaps like Russell’s book.

And after these, perhaps I’ll read a grand history.

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