Reading Philosophy from the Past

It’s usually a good decision to dedicate some time to studying past works in any discipline one wishes to explore. The knowledge of the historical background, or “how we got here” can make it easier to see why certain issues are being debated now. In the Internet age, the ability to access old philosophical texts is greater than ever before, but in a strange way it might become a problem.

There is an abundance of philosophical texts available nowadays, but beyond their sheer amount, there is a problem of preserving meaning in translations over time. When dealing with a guide, summary or commentary, there’s always the risk of confusing what the interpreter thought the author meant and what the author really meant. The fact that, in philosophy, the author’s actual meaning is in many cases debatable doesn’t help. For this reason, while translations can still be a source of confusion (as the meaning of words can shift over time), they are usually less risky. But even the most faithful translators have to adjust the wording to fit the audience (and time) they’re translating for. And when they do err, their mistranslations can linger on for a long time, causing confusion. (see “hexis”)

Now that I’ve given this warning, I thought I would share a link to a collection of texts that were translated and had their original vocabulary and sentence structure changed for the sake of accessibility, landing somewhere between the two categories. If you’re interested in philosophy classics and wish to go closer to the source, you can find a collection of works of various thinkers from the early modern period – Machiavelli’s political advice, Spinoza’s attempts to geometrize ethics, and a lot more – available at .


The Allure of the Popular

Reflecting on the rise of populist parties around the world, it’s interesting how little influence the intellectual effort of various philosophers throughout the centuries has had on the world. Socrates saw the enemy in sophists, who (at least in his characterization) took gaining influence to be the only worthy goal, John Stuart Mill wrote a whole book about logical fallacies, calling for people to think in a more nuanced way, and of course Orwell and Eco wrote plenty about the fairly-modern tactics of language twisting and behaviour manipulation by people seeking political power – but it all seems to have passed people by. The same style of argumentation – simplistic and pandering – always seems to win people over.

Although a lot of the parties gaining support due to populism are classified as right wing, the truth is that populism has no political leanings. It doesn’t matter what a particular politician actually believes, since votes aren’t won by common appeal – and promises aren’t enforced, so abandoning them can be expected.

What’s clear is that power that has historically been triumphant over intellect is fear, and those who can create and soothe it most efficiently have the greatest chance of gaining popular support. If the main feature of populism is that it appeals the most to thinking lacking in reflection out of fear, then the fault for its rise should lie with those decision makers and officials who have made modern education what it is – or so the argument would go.

But if we blame public officials for the ills of society, then we should also ask who got them in power in the first place. It seems that democracy is working to defeat itself by promoting those who, in the end, care only about their own power. But this way of thinking brings us straight to the conclusion that democracy is to be blamed for the problems of society. The uneducated choose manipulators to lead them, and manipulators dumb them down even further. It’s easy to go from this to the conclusion that the masses should not be allowed to vote, that democracy itself should be revoked.

But the question remains of why would poorly-educated, people who don’t think critically support populists, even when they call for genocide and increase of economic inequality? Here we might think to go back to the idea of “human nature”. Hobbes’s idea was that people are naturally mean-spirited and vicious, and would rob and kill one another if allowed to. But the less presuming explanation is that people act based on the situation their in, and in desperate situations will accept anyone who offers them a way out. And with the disappearance of the middle class as an economic power in the US, and an unemployment rate steady in the double digits in many European countries, it’s only logical that appealing to everyone’s economic fear is a good strategy.

Neither people’s natural instincts, nor their education, nor their economic state are on their own enough as an explanation for their love of populism – it’s a problem of multiple causes and multiple effects. The only thing philosophy can offer the world is the ideas and the invitation to critical thinking – a defence of mind against populism.

Further reading:
Gorgias – Socrates’s views on rhetoric, as related by Plato
Ur-Fascism – Umberto Eco’s attempts at elucidating the nature of fascism

The Non-categorical World

Immanuel Kant is one of the most important figures in the history of Western philosophy. The influence of his writing is so immense that almost all subsequent authors commented on or alluded to his ideas. At the same time, his texts are often difficult to understand, and beginners can end up being just being more confused after having read them. But because his ideas are so important, it’s worth to know even a single one than none. One of these, central to his outlook on ethics, and one that will be briefly presented here is the categorical imperative.

What is it? When we think about our actions, we notice that there is almost always a reason for why we choose to do something. We drink because we are thirsty, we read novels because we’re interested in the story, we get annoyed because the neighbours are being noisy again. Those are the examples of almost automatic actions – we don’t really think about the reasons involve, but what about moral decisions – those that people tend to debate? Some people choose to be kind because that’s what their parents told them to do, some people choose to help others because they hope they will get something in return. But such “morality” seems shaky – there appears to be no solid reason why one would obey their moral code outside of convenience or someone’s demands.

For Kant this was unacceptable. A true guideline for acting should always apply. There are no exceptions, because if there were, people could just break their moral code whenever they pleased. If we demand, instead, that people always treat others how they wish themselves and everyone else to be treated, then we demand nothing less than a universal rule. And such is Kant’s formulation:

Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.

Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, p. 422

All it is saying is that the maxims – the reasons for one’s actions – should be chosen so that they can be made always applicable.

The categorical imperative fits neatly into Kant’s moral system, which revolves around an unquestioning fulfilment of one’s duties. The system was to be ruled by reason, so duties would be universal, not corrupted by people’s individual desires. (p. 434) (It’s worth noting that Kant specifically adds that we should treat humanity as an end, and not a means to an end.)

We can ask whether such a system is truly the right moral system, and we can wonder whether there is any set of rules that can be applied blindly, but one thing remains certain – this world is not a Kantian one. Whether in private or public life, people lie, cheat, and engage in all sorts of cynicism.

Kant’s principled approach stands in contrast with the reality most people know – it is clearly not how we govern ourselves. One can only imagine what an outrage it would be if a Middle-Eastern country decided to invade a Western one. Or what if everyone could establish themselves as legal entities in a tax heaven? Things like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights sound wonderful, but thinking about Kant’s philosophy, one quickly realizes they’re anything but universal. We live in an inconsistent world, and it’s only logical that we end up in a mess.

Further reading: Kant’s Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, more background on Kant

Meanings, Minds and Legacy

Part of passing is leaving things behind. On a social scale, an architect leaves buildings, a businessman a fortune, and an artist works of art. For people like philosophers, writers and mathematicians, it’s their ideas that live on.

Reflecting on those ideas is like caring after a building or a work of art – it’s not just a question of formal study, but also of showing a degree of respect. It also shows that the influence of things, even those as delicate as ideas, extends beyond one’s life.

Recent articles talking about Putnam’s Twin Earth argument (that the meaning of words rests partially outside of the head) rarely mention that the full article can be found in the University of Minnesota’s archives. It’s worth a read, if only to dispel the misconception that philosophy nowadays is all incomprehensible gibberish, or “all relative”.

I suggest that those interested interested in how a leading philosopher argued about what “meaning” is give it a read and reflect on it. Those reflections, too, are evidence of a person’s legacy.

The rest of the articles published by UoM in their Philosophy of Science series can be found here.

Debating Charitably

In the age of emotionally-charged bickering replacing reasonable discussion (especially when it comes to politics), framing the opponent’s argument in a way that’s easy to defeat is a common tactic. If you’ve heard about “straw man arguments”, you know what distortion of the opponent’s position does to debate – it reduces two sides to arguing past each other.

If you look at how people who care about discussion try to alleviate the problem of finding a set of common points to argue, you’ll probably find out about the “principle of charity”. It’s pretty simple: try to interpret the other side’s argument so that as many statements as possible turn out to be rational. Not because you have to agree, but because a common ground is necessary for finding solutions, and undermining someone’s rationality rarely gives you any.

But a cursory glance at the state of most public debates shows that we’re not generally treating this principle seriously. Why? One of the answers, it seems, lies in the fact that conflict is simply entertaining. And in a society that expects entertainment in life, the most spectacular forms will always triumph over the reasonable ones. That’s where the audience will gather. And the result is that even though we know better, our appetite for emotional outbursts overcomes us. It’s as though, in the words of Neil Postman, we want to “Amuse Ourselves to Death”.

Nobody is a saint when it comes to arguing, and I am as guilty of misrepresenting people’s arguments at one point or another as anyone else. It’s something that just happens in exchanges. But once you know of it, there is no reason to not try and be charitable. If you want to be taken seriously, why not treat the other side as such?


Imagination as a Lab

Thought experiments are one of the most valued tools in philosophy. They have been used since ancient times, and still remain just as useful nowadays. Some of them may sound extravagant, but they are not daydreaming. This seems to be a misconception about philosophizing, possibly connected to the stereotype of a philosopher as a person removed from reality. However, under their seemingly idle, speculative nature, lies the key to reflection.

Thought experiments allow us to construct highly improbable, or even borderline impossible scenarios, all in order to probe an idea. Just like with normal experiments, they start with some assumptions and try to test how a claim will hold up when tested. Unlike lab experiments, they have an infinite budget and can be executed in precisely the way one desires, including having control over time.

The chief purpose of a thought experiment is not to gain data about the world, but to reflect on one’s ideas about the world. It turns out that when we try to verify our assumptions, a lot of them appear to not be as certain as we thought, giving us a chance to refine our understanding. In this way, thought experiments are checks on our ways of thinking.

But how do you get insight from just imagining things? Perhaps it’s best to refer to an example from another discipline – physics.

For a very long time in the West, Aristotle’s physics was considered to be the accurate description of the laws of nature. One of its postulates was that every physical body will eventually end up standing still, unless some force was to act upon it. This made intuitive sense – after all, stones rolled down a hill eventually stopped, and one couldn’t just push a cart and have it go forever.

But then came Galileo and with his thought experiment he questioned the notion that there’s something inherent about physical objects that makes them become still after some time. His method gave birth to the concept of inertia, and classical Newtonian mechanics that most people learn in school uses that exact concept to explain laws of motion. His experiment is a clear example why challenging and testing ideas is not just daydreaming. (And if Galileo’s physics seem too old-time, how about Einstein?)

Thought experiments in philosophy are similar, but unlike in physics they deal not with expressions of behaviour of the physical world, but rather the pure ideas that lie at the source of our understanding. They are not so much about the content, but the conclusions. So, we might wander about the nature of identity by asking about creating human replicas, or the right moral choices by wandering about killing a person to stop a trolley.

In the end, what we get is more than idle wandering – what we end up is an insight into how we think, and possibly how we should think.

Further reading: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s article on Thought Experiments

The Weakness of Groups

People value groups – we are a social species, after all, and our emotions steer us towards a sense of belonging. Consequently, we have a negative attitude towards discord as something that can split a group apart. There is a great risk in this view of the world, which places group position above honesty or reason, and that is the creation of groupthink, and the stifling of constructive debate.

If you spend any time browsing Internet forums, you will surely notice the division into ideological pockets, separated by sets of beliefs. All groups will have their adherents, all will be just as convinced of their own correctness. Any sort of difference will not be argued out based on merits, but rather fought out based on assumptions, snark and falsifications. This type of behaviour tends to intensify the more politicized an issue becomes.

Out-group demonization inevitably stifles any sort of discussion, which – paradoxically – makes Internet the opposite of the ideal of a Forum. Debate if not impossible, is at least maximally unpleasant. The reason for this is the perverse psychological attitudes people have towards their positions on issues, and the emotions attached to their beliefs. It is not the actual change of minds and mutual education that people look for in such communities – it is the sense of validation.

The end result of this is a sort of intellectual rot. With the constant supply of information that serves to confirm a group’s view, the members have a tendency to drift away from reality. The only reason some groups seem more cultish than others is because they are more verbal and forceful in keeping their members in check. What is interesting is that people assume the roles of ideological police (the “mindguards” in groupthink terms) on their own, without any promise of gain from group leaders, if any, and solely for the sake of group unity.

When one reads about groupthink, its shortcoming appear obvious, and it’s hard to imagine why anyone would want to join in. Nonconformity is almost a slogan of the modern times. But the whole problem lies in the fact that the process works on emotions, and so joining a group is not entirely a rational choice. Whenever people from two political camps throw invectives at each other and recite the others’ faults, what is really happening is two tribes are exchanging signals of animosity. Whenever you decide that a particular response is very witty, and that, therefore, you should side with whichever group has produced it, you are on your way to becoming a part of the tribe yourself.

This is not to say that groups are bad by nature – they’re not. It is the basis of society that we get together. However, this does not diminish the importance of disagreement. The creative and analytical power of an individual is a terrible thing to waste for the sake of acceptance. Any group that values allegiance more than honesty, and agreement over discussion is a group in which errors will accumulate. The greatest problem is realizing the existence of such a group and refusing to participate, especially when emotions pull you towards it. If you value your own thoughts, it is an issue you will have to face.

Further reading on the negative influence of groupthink: The Brainstorming Myth.