REASON IN ANCIENT GREECE
This may be a popular version of the history of Philosophy but here it is:
Reason, I have read, was synonymous in ancient Greece with Logic, Argument, Thought and Philosophy, and that it hasn’t always been with us. The Classicists tell us that the pre-Socratic philosophers started it, in the Western world at least, in about 580 BC. (from here and here, and one or two sites on E.R. Dodds which I now can’t trace.)
But surely, say I, primitive Man was already using his Reason in his hunting and in his gathering round the fire in the cave .
But again, as someone ( here) has written: ‘Of course there was knowledge and there were techniques for achieving results in areas such as architecture and astronomy before the Greeks. But, Thornton notes, “as far as we know, [the Greeks] invented an explicit theoretical and abstract view of nature”.’
I suppose this means that the Greek philosophers started using Reason for explaining things, rather than just for figuring out what best to do in a practical situation.
We are told that it was Thales who first offered a natural explanation for a fact or happening in the universe. Until then, people accepted that everything was alive in that it was activated by spirits. These gods and goddesses cavorted around the heavens doing unethical things like murder and incest, just like human beings did. These were the myths, inspired by gods, dramatized by poets, and filling the minds of audiences with the Truth of how things and happenings in the world had come about.
It was a living world in which gods and goddesses were the causes of everything; a world too in which human beings were incorrigibly wicked, and the gods and goddesses too. Somehow, I feel, scientific beliefs have made nerds of all of us: Philosophy and Science were always a going backwards in human sophistication and depth of understanding. (‘Sophistication’ is too vague but is the best I can come up with at the moment.)
To return to Thales: it seems he issued his natural explanations as mere statements without argument to justify them. Perhaps he justified them in the old-fashioned way of saying he had received them from the gods.
Parmenides, slightly later, did provide argument (i.e. logic and reason) as justification for his natural explanations But he also said, reverting to the old-fashioned mythic way, that steeds of the goddess-muse had pulled his chariot of thought along, axles blazing in their sockets (see here).
Anyway, this was Philosophy. It was new. It was the use of Logic to reach the Truth.
Henri Frankfort wrote a famous book about this transition from Myth to Thought. Here is something of what Jurgis Brakas, a modern philosopher, wrote about it : “In this….passage from The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man, we see ….. how the pre-philosophic mind saw the world….: The world is a living being, or a collection of living beings; one comes to ‘know’ it the way one comes to ‘know’ another person, by living with him and getting a feel for who he is and what he will do …. It is to the lasting glory of the Greeks that they forever liberated the human mind from these shackles.” That last sentence is that of the modern mind speaking.
All of this may be too neat a story of the birth of theoretical Reason but it allows me to have a misty vision that Argument, Logic and Reason were not inherent in Man, but had to be invented. The term ‘the Greek enlightenment’ has been used for the birth of philosophy in the ancient Greek world (see here), just as ‘Enlightenment’ per se is used for its further leap in public estimation 2000 years later.
To get back to Parmenides, he also invented Ontology (this site), the first of the divisions of Metaphysics and another major beginning in philosophers’ pottiness.
What is Ontology? it is talk about Being, about what is, about Being as Being, about what it is to exist or not exist. (You see?)
Parmenides thought that if you can think something, then it is; and conversely that not-being cannot be thought. Thought corresponds to being. Not-Being cannot be thought. Parmenides also wrote that argument or persuasion is the way of Thought. Parmenides re-words this over and over.
Furthermore he argued that something that is, that exists, always did so, because it could not arise from something that wasn’t, because the latter couldn’t exist. And even further, he argued that a thing must either completely be or not be. (You see?)
The latter (according to this same site) is an argument from “sufficient reason” because in an empty eternity there would be no reason why Being would come into being at one time rather than another. I don’t understand this at all but include it because it was still exercising Leibniz’s mind in about 1700 AD! and perhaps still exercising modern philosophers’!
So, to summarize Parmenides’ ontology: he worried whether not-being actually is something, and concluded that No, not-being is not being, and is also unthinkable. And also that if something is, it is impossible for it not to have been, and not to continue to be. Heidegger in the 20th century said something to the effect that Parmenides invented Thought.
To my mind, Parmenides is leading himself up the garden path with the logickating pottiness of words. Words have evolved through the ages for practical purposes by people on the savannahs or in the market-place between the stalls. Words are rough approximations to their experiences, and logicking with them up, up, up, or down, down, down, into abstractions, is just a case of being misled.
THE LATER GREEK PHILOSOPHERS
I was amazed by Socrates the first time I came across him, sitting in the empty market-place before breakfast and drawing people out with his quizzing to show them they were being logically inconsistent in what they said they believed in. He asked questions like: What is Courage? What is Virtue? What is Duty? and wanted his students to work out what they meant by these terms. That sort of thing was, to him, Wisdom.
Was I amazed at him because this quizzing in logic (‘Socratic Method’) seemed a thing of minor importance in Man and surely couldn’t amount to Philosophy! Philosophy should be about the darkness and mystery in the heart of man: his feelings, memories, musings, longings, dreams, nostalgias, imaginations, motivations, hatreds and loves, longings for a life of adventure and life, his ironies, deceptions and self-deceptions. And so on.
Perhaps I was amazed too by Socrates’ ‘moral intellectualism’ (see here) in thinking that if we work out by Reason what it is ethically right to do, then we naturally just go ahead and do it! He didn’t seem to recognize that we are old sinners, and ones who fool ourselves by ‘rationalizing’ — conjuring up virtuous reasons for in fact following our self-interest or pleasure. Christianity does at least recognize this weakness of human nature which is at the root of the tragi-comedy of Man (although Christianity’s sequential story of how Sin started with Adam taking the apple, and ended with God giving some of us Faith in Jesus, has a pottiness all its own).
Another example of Philosophy that hasn’t ceased to boggle my mind is good old Plato. He was bothered by the status of words like ‘cat’, ‘dog’ or ‘tree’, that we give to individual things with similarities to each other. He was of the opinion that these ‘concepts’, ‘generalities’, ‘universals’, actually exist in an ideal form in heaven! The mind boggles that anyone ever took this seriously, instead of accepting that conceptualization is something we do inside our heads. But this ‘problem of universals’ carried on in Philosophy till the Middle Ages and perhaps till the present day. (Perhaps I haven’t quite got these terms such as ‘concepts’ right? — it’s the best I can presently do.)
I was also amazed by Plato’s naive prescription for how to arrange politics – you put the brightest lads into a school where they are taught Philosophy and how to govern, and this fits them to be the future rulers! He too didn’t have any inkling of Sin — that even the wisest of us can’t be trusted, have a natural inclination to look after Number One. The people who invented the one God and ethics, and wrote the Bible, did at least know this!
PHILOSOPHERS FASTENED ONTO DEDUCTIVE LOGIC
We are told that the first philosophers fastened onto deductive logic from self-evident postulates as the way to true knowledge; firstly because they noticed that the senses as a source of knowledge were unreliable; and because their mathematics, which had been so successful at gaining knowledge, consisted of deducing from self-evident postulates (see here).
Perhaps they were also so used to receiving Truth from the Gods via the poets, that it was just too independent a step to suddenly go out and do external observations and experiments. So they sat in their chairs and did deductive logic.
Here is an example of deductive logic: ‘All men are mortal. Socrates is a man. Therefore Socrates is mortal.’ And another: ‘If I think, I must exist. I think. Therefore, I must exist.’ Aristotle would have called such brilliant arguments ‘syllogisms’.
Did Aristotle say that this was all Philosophy amounted to? Did Philosophy through the ages remain dedicated to deductive logic alone? Due to my alienation from that cast of mind, I still don’t know! If that was all Philosophy ever did, it could only have produced tautologies or truisms. Why wasn’t this obvious to them?
Surely Philosophy must have graduated to doing more than that. But then I read that Descartes, in the early 1600s, was still dedicated to deduction, and so were the Rationalists of the 18th century! No, I don’t understand this simple fact in the History of Ideas yet. If Philosophy did graduate, what did it graduate to? What does Philosophy do now? Or did part of it just start metamorphosing into Science after 1500 AD?
I can grasp that Science is different from Philosophy in that it uses induction to draw less than certain ‘laws’ from a lot of observations and experiments, and has been tremendously successful in so doing
Let me jump to about 1637 AD for a further example of the pottiness of Philosophy: ‘Cogito ergo sum’, ‘I think, therefore I am’, wrote Descartes. This is thinking that ranks with that of Parmenides. Descartes couldn’t convince himself he existed till it occurred to him that he was thinking, therefore he must exist! Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant! (I think some modern philosophers are still worrying whether this argument is actually fully logical.)
Nothing Descartes said sticks in my mind because it seems so pottily rationalistic to the point of irrationality that none of it follows. So I may well have got his thoughts, and their sequence, not exactly right in what follows below.
Anyway, from this certainty that his mind existed, he thought he could derive by deductive logic all other certainties! But he then immediately cheated on himself by using separate arguments to prove that God did exist and that He was not a Great Deceiver who would deceive him about what came to him via his senses. These arguments were painfully feeble, not anywhere as rigorous as the argument that Descartes’ own mind existed. But they gave him the opportunity to entirely skip over ‘I think, therefore I am’ as the only thing he could be certain of, and to now believe his senses instead. So he didn’t really need to start with ‘I think, therefore I am’ in the first place at all! Brilliant!
To get back to ‘Cogito ergo sum’, it only proved to him that his mind existed, not his body, because his senses may have been fooling him that he actually had arms and legs etc.
On the basis of his mind’s existence, it seems he derived an ascending sequence of other facts he could trust in, such as: ‘My clear and distinct ideas must be true’. I myself don’t see how this latter argument follows, and it may only have referred to logically analytic or mathematical statements which have to be right because of the words or numbers they consist of in the first place (which insight seems to take us forward to Kant).
It seems too that his proof of the existence of God was pretty much Anselm’s, almost 600 years earlier (see here and here), which goes: ‘God exists in my mind as the Greatest Being. Existing in reality must be a quality of the Greatest Being. Therefore God must exist in reality.’ This quality of argument is dignified by the title ‘Ontological Proof of the Existence of God’. ‘Ontological’ because, I suppose, it has to do with Existence and Being. It is amazing that even Anselm took it seriously.
Philosophers are still taking Descartes seriously, and saying that his thinking had important consequences for later thought. I have tried to improve my opinion of him by re-reading here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here, but have failed.
Was he suffering from mental retardation? No, he has gone down in the history of Western philosophy for ‘methodological scepticism’, ‘epistemological idealism’, and ‘Cartesian Dualism’; also as the ‘the first modern philosopher’, and one who ‘provided a foundation for the natural sciences’.
It seems that the one fraction of Descartes’ thought that later philosophers don’t like is his ‘ontological dualism’ — that some things such as the brain are material, and some things such as the mind are immaterial. But this dualism seems to me obvious and unproblematic. Do philosophers believe that the mind is just the brain? My mind continues to boggle.
Compare all this philosophizing, from Parmenides to Descartes, to what a country rector’s daughter wrote in a novel in about 1815: ‘A very narrow income has a tendency to contract the mind and sour the temper’. This quotation is a well-known little chestnut that I had ready to hand, but writing it or knowing it in these precise words is a small element of what I call Wisdom or Education. It helps make one not a complete nerd.
(This theme continues on other posts under Philosophy on this site.)