Philosophy Anti-Philosophy History of Philosophy

What’s Wrong with Philosophy? 7: from Socrates onward


I was amazed by Socrates the first time I came across him, sitting in the empty market-place before breakfast with people gathered round him, and drawing them out with his quizzing.  He asked questions like: What is Courage? What is Virtue? What is Duty? and asked them one by one to speak  up with their examples of each.  Some of these examples were contradictory to each other, so the student had to boil them down to what he actually did mean by Courage or Virtue or Duty.      

I’m not sure if I’ve got that quite right because this kind of logical intelligence never seemed to me to be important enough to amount to Wisdom.  I always regarded it as simply a basic element of thinking and talking, and surely couldn’t amount to what is grandly called Philosophy.  But it has gone down in history as Socratic Method.

Philosophy, I thought, 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’ in thinking that if we work out by Reason what it is ethically right to do, then we just naturally go ahead and do it! (from here).  (I actually think it should be termed ‘intellectual moralism’ because it is a purely intellectual way of arriving at morality.) He didn’t seem to recognize that we are salty old sinners who tend to follow our self-interest, and then conjure up altruistic  reasons for what we have chosen to do.  Christianity does at least recognize this weakness of human nature which is at the root of the comedy of Man, although Christianity’s plot 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 even got these terms such as ‘concept’ right, but 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 have a natural inclination to look after Number One.  The people who invented the mono-God of altruistic ethics, and wrote the Bible, did at least know this!


We are told that the first philosophers thought that, to arrive at true knowledge, they first had to start with self-evident postulates that couldn’t be wrong, and then use deductive logic on them to reach further truths.  They didn’t use their senses because they noticed that these had sometimes fooled them; and because their mathematics consisted of deducing from self-evident postulates, and had been so successful at gaining knowledge (from here).  That was still the thinking of Descartes in about 1637 AD (see here and here). 

I think that perhaps they were also so used to receiving Truth from the gods via the poets, that it was just too independent a step for them to suddenly go out and do 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 called such brilliant arguments ‘syllogisms’.

Did Aristotle really say that this was all Philosophy amounted to?  Did Philosophy through the ages remain dedicated to deductive logic alone?  It seems incredible that either of these be true.  But due to my alienation from that cast of mind and my inability to credit what they were saying, I still don’t know! I can’t work it out.  If that was all Philosophy ever did, it could only have produced tautologies or truisms.  Why wasn’t this obvious?  

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 can’t yet credit this simple fact in the History of Ideas.  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 am able to grasp that Science is different from Philosophy in that it uses induction to draw provisionally acceptable ‘laws’ from observations and experiments, and has been tremendously successful in so doing.


How was it that some people in Ancient Greece took the fateful first step of seeing Wisdom as consisting of logicking, mathematics and science?  They called it Reason, and they were called Philosophers.  

I  get the idea momentarily from somewhere that poetry was in ancient times the natural way to express matters of profundity and ultimacy.  That included the gods and their myths. Then along came Philosophy with its Reason and this was in prose.

Perhaps one can say that Philosophy from the beginning was seen as a holy duty to abolish the human.  They started by removing the gods, who behaved like bad humans, from explanations of how physical things worked.  And, since the 19th century, they’ve been taking the human out of how the human mind works.  It is an attempt to find natural, material causes rather than supernatural intentional acts.



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