Saturday, March 17, 2007

Human nature and political legitimacy

From ancient times, and well beyond them, the roots of justification for political authority were inescapably tied to outlooks on human nature. In The Republic, Plato declared that the ideal society would be run by a council of philosopher-kings, since those best at philosophy are best able to realize the good. Even Plato, however, required philosophers to make their way in the world for many years before beginning their rule at the age of fifty. For Aristotle, humans are political animals (i.e. social animals), and governments are set up in order to pursue good for the community. Aristotle reasoned that, since the state (polis) was the highest form of community, it has the purpose of pursuing the highest good. Aristotle viewed political power to be the result of natural inequalities in skill and virtue. Because of these differences, he favored an aristocracy of the able and virtuous. For Aristotle, the person cannot be complete unless he or she lives in a community. His two books, The Nicomachean Ethics and The Politics, are meant to be read in that order. The first book addresses virtues/excellences in the person as a citizen; the second addresses the proper form of government to ensure virtuous (and thus complete) citizens. Both books deal with the essential role of justice as a necessary virtue in civic life.

Nicolas of Cusa rekindled Platonic thought in the early 15th Century and promoted democracy in Medieval Europe in his writings and his organization of the Council of Florence. Unlike Aristotle and the Hobbsenian tradition to follow, Cusa saw man as equal and divine (in God's image) and thus democracy would be the only just form of government. Cusa's views are credited by some as sparking the Italian Renaissance which gave rise to the notion of "Nation-States".

Later, Niccolò Machiavelli, rejected Aristotle's (and Thomas Aquinas') view as unrealistic. The ideal sovereign is not the embodiment of the moral virtues; rather the sovereign does what's successful and necessary rather than what's morally praiseworthy. Thomas Hobbes also contested many elements of Aristotle's views. For Hobbes, human nature is essentially anti-social: people are essentially egoistic, and this egoism makes life difficult in the natural state of things. Moreover, Hobbes argued, though people may have natural inequalities, these are trivial, since no particular talents or virtues that a person may have will make them safe from harm inflicted by others. For these reasons, Hobbes concluded that the state arises from common agreement to raise the community out of the state of nature. This can only be done by the establishment of a sovereign, which (or who) is vested with complete control over the community, and is able to inspire awe and terror in its subjects.

Many in the Enlightenment were unsatisfied with existing doctrines in political philosophy, which seemed to marginalize or neglect the possibility of a democratic state. One attempt to overturn these doctrines was that of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who responded to Hobbes by claiming that a human is by nature a kind of "noble savage", and that society and social contracts corrupt this nature. In his Second Treatise on Government John Locke agreed with Hobbes that the nation-state was an efficient tool for raising humanity out of a deplorable state, but argued that the sovereign may become an abominable institution compared to the relatively benign unmodulated state of nature.

Following the doctrine of the fact-value distinction, due in part to the influence of David Hume and his student, Adam Smith, appeals to human nature for political justification were weakened. Nevertheless, many political philosophers, especially moral realists, still make use of some essential human nature as a basis for their arguments.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Consequentialism, deontology, and the aretaic turn

One debate that has dominated the attention of ethicists in the history of the modern era has been between consequentialism (the idea that the consequences of a particular action form the basis for any valid moral judgement about that action) and deontology (that decisions should be made solely or primarily by considering one's duties and the rights of others).

Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill are famous for propagating utilitarianism, which is the idea that the fundamental moral rule is to strive toward the "greatest happiness for the greatest number". However, in promoting this idea they also necessarily promoted the broader doctrine of consequentialism: that is to say, the idea that the morally right thing to do in any situation is determined by the consequences of the actions under consideration.

In contrast to consequentialism, Immanuel Kant argued that moral principles were simply products of reason. Kant believed that the incorporation of consequences into moral deliberation was a deep mistake, since it would deny the necessity of practical maxims to the working of the will. According to Kant, reason requires that we conform our actions to the categorical imperative, which is an absolute duty. An important 20th-century deontologist, W.D. Ross, argued for weaker forms of duties called prima facie duties.

More recent works have emphasized the role of character in ethics, a movement known as the aretaic turn. One strain of this movement followed the work of Bernard Williams. Williams noted that rigid forms of both consequentialism and deontology demanded that people behave impartially. This, Williams argued, requires that people abandon their personal projects, and hence their personal integrity, in order to be considered moral.

G.E.M. Anscombe, in an influential paper, "Modern Moral Philosophy" (1958), revived virtue ethics as an alternative to what was seen as the entrenched positions of Kantianism and consequentialism. Aretaic perspectives have been inspired in part by research of ancient conceptions of virtue. For example, Aristotle's ethics demands that people follow the Aristotelian mean, or balance between two vices; and Confucian ethics argues that virtue consists largely in striving for harmony with other people. Virtue ethics in general has since gained some adherence and has been defended by such philosophers as Philippa Foot, Alasdair MacIntyre and Rosalind Hursthouse.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Applied philosophy

Though often seen as a wholly abstract field, philosophy is not without practical applications. The most obvious applications are those in ethics – applied ethics in particular – and in political philosophy. The political and economic philosophies of Confucius, Sun Zi, Niccolò Machiavelli, Gottfried Leibniz, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Karl Marx, John Stuart Mill, Mahatma Gandhi, and others, have shaped and been used to justify the existence of governments and their actions.

A modern example is the political movement Neoconservatism which began as a philosophical tradition at the University of Chicago centered around Leo Strauss and his unique interpretations of the work of Plato. This intellectual movement went on to shape most of the politics of the George W. Bush presidency, demonstrating that seemingly "ivory tower" movements have real world consequences.

In the field of the philosophy of education, progressive education as championed by John Dewey has had a profound impact on educational practices in the United States in the twentieth century. Descendants of this movement include the current Philosophy for Children efforts. Carl von Clausewitz's political philosophy of war has had a profound effect on statecraft, international politics and military strategy in the 20th century, especially in the years around World War II. Logic has become crucially important in mathematics and computer science and engineering.

Other important applications can be found in epistemology, which aid in understanding the notions of what knowledge, evidence, and justified belief are. The philosophy of science discusses the underpinnings of the scientific method and has affected the nature of scientific investigation and argumentation. Deep ecology and animal rights examine the place of humans in the moral configuration of reality as a whole. Aesthetics can help to interpret discussions of art.

In general, the various "philosophies of..." strive to provide workers in their respective fields with a deeper understanding of the theoretical or conceptual underpinnings of their fields.

Often philosophy is seen as an investigation into an area not sufficiently well understood to be its own branch of knowledge. What were once philosophical pursuits have evolved into the modern day fields such as psychology, sociology, linguistics, and economics (among others).

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Eastern philosophy

Many societies have considered philosophical questions and built philosophical traditions based upon each other's works. Eastern and Middle Eastern philosophical traditions have influenced Western philosophers. Russian (which to many people still counts as Western), Jewish, Islamic and recently Latin American philosophical traditions have contributed to, or been influenced by, Western philosophy, yet each has retained a distinctive identity.

The differences between traditions are often based on their favored historical philosophers, and varying stress on ideas, procedural styles, or written language. The subject matter and dialogues of each can be studied using methods derived from the others, and there are significant commonalities and exchanges between them.

Eastern philosophy refers to the broad traditions that originated or were popular in India, Persia, China, Japan, and to an extent, the Middle East (which overlaps with Western philosophy due to the spread of the Abrahamic religions and the intellectual give and take between these societies and Europe.)

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Western philosophy

Greco-Roman philosophy
Ancient Greek philosophy may be divided into the pre-Socratic period, the Socratic period, and the post-Aristotelian period. The pre-Socratic period was characterized by metaphysical speculation, often preserved in the form of grand, sweeping statements, such as "All is fire", or "All changes". Important pre-Socratic philosophers include Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes, Democritus, Parmenides, and Heraclitus. The Socratic period is named in honor of the most recognizable figure in Western philosophy, Socrates, who, along with his pupil Plato, revolutionized philosophy through the use of the Socratic method, which developed the very general philosophical methods of definition, analysis, and synthesis. While Socrates wrote nothing himself, his influence as a "skeptic" survives through Plato's works. Plato's writings are often considered basic texts in philosophy as they defined the fundamental issues of philosophy for future generations. These issues and others were taken up by Aristotle, who studied at Plato's school, the Academy, and who often disagreed with what Plato had written. The post-Aristotelian period ushered in such philosophers as Euclid, Epicurus, Chrysippus, Hipparchia the Cynic, Pyrrho, and Sextus Empiricus.

Medieval philosophy
The medieval period of philosophy came with the collapse of Roman civilization and the dawn of Christianity, Islam, and rabbinic Judaism. The medieval period brought Christian scholastic philosophy, with writers such as Augustine of Hippo, Boethius, Anselm, Robert Grosseteste, Albertus Magnus, Roger Bacon, Bonaventure, Thomas Aquinas, John Duns Scotus, William of Ockham, Nicholas of Cusa, and Francisco Suárez. A female Christian philosopher of the period was a student of Abelard named Heloïse. The philosophers in the scholastic Christian tradition and philosophers in the other major Abrahamic religions (such as the Jewish philosophers Saadia Gaon and Maimonides, and the Muslim philosophers Avicenna, Al-Ghazali, and Averroes) were each aware of the others' works. These religious traditions took on questions about the relation of man to God. The philosophy of this period is characterized by analysis of the nature and properties of God; the metaphysics involving substance, essences and accidents (that is, qualities that are respectively essential to substances possessing them or merely happening to be possessed by them), form, and divisibility; and logic and the philosophy of language.

Many of these philosophers took as their starting point the theories of Plato or Aristotle. Others, however, such as Tertullian, rejected Greek philosophy as antithetical to revelation and faith.

Modern Western philosophy
Modern philosophy is generally considered to begin with the work of René Descartes. His work was greatly influenced by questioning from his correspondences with other philosophers. For example, the prodding of Pierre Gassendi and Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia obliged Descartes to try to formulate more cogent replies to the mind-body problem. [6]

Medieval philosophy had been concerned primarily with argument from authority, and the analysis of ancient texts using Aristotelian logic. The Renaissance saw an outpouring of new ideas that questioned authority. Roger Bacon (1214–1294?) was one of the first writers to advocate putting authority to the test of experiment and reason. Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527) challenged conventional ideas about morality. Francis Bacon (1561–1626) wrote in favor of the methods of science in philosophical discovery.

Analytic and Continental
Main article: Analytic and Continental Philosophy
The late modern period in philosophy, beginning in the late 19th century and lasting to the 1950s, was marked by a developing schism between the "Continental" tradition and the "Analytic" tradition associated with many English-speaking countries.

What underlies the analytic tradition, especially the early analytic tradition, is the view (originally defended by Ockham) that much philosophical error arises from misunderstandings generated by language. According to some analytic philosophers, the true meaning of ordinary sentences is "concealed by their grammatical form", and we must translate them into their true form (understood as their logical form) in order to clarify them. The difficulty, so far unresolved, is to determine what the correct logical form must be. Some philosophers (beginning with Frege and Bertrand Russell) have argued that first-order logic shows us the true logical form of ordinary sentences. Other analytic philosophers, such as the late Wittgenstein, rejected the idea of logical form; and this issue of logical form figured prominently in early analytic philosophy. These debates over logical form are no longer as central to analytic philosophy as they used to be, and analytic philosophy now tends to address the full range of philosophical problems with all available philosophical methods. Today analytic philosophy's essence lies more in a style of writing and argumentation (that is, it aims to be clear and rigorous) than in its subject matter or ideas. An emphasis on carefully analyzing language to reveal philosophical errors still remains; but the “analysis” that figures in the name “analytic philosophy” is now just as likely to refer to the analysis of ideas, arguments, social institutions, and presuppositions.

"Continental" philosophy is most closely identified with the phenomenological movement inaugurated by Edmund Husserl and the various reactions to and modifications of Husserl's work. Phenomenology is primarily a method of investigation. As Husserl conceived it, to investigate phenomenologically is to examine the contents of conscious experience while bracketing all of the assumptions we ordinarily make concerning the existence of objects in the world. He believed that we could arrive at certain knowledge by deducing the necessary features of our conscious experience. Perhaps the most important such feature deduced by Husserl was called intentionality, which denotes the character of consciousness by which it is always directed at some object or other. The phenomenological method is an important alternative to the way that analytic philosophy typically proceeds. Instead of taking linguistic data as the starting point and linguistic analysis as the primary method of philosophy, phenomenology takes conscious experience as the starting point and the detailed analysis of such experience – that is, "phenomenological analysis" – as its method. Some important figures in the analytic tradition such as Wilfrid Sellars and Hector-Neri Castaneda have argued that linguistic analysis is actually a kind of phenomenological investigation because it appeals to our experience as language users to answer philosophical questions. In effect, they have argued that analytic philosophy is but one kind of phenomenology, the implication being that analytic philosophy can ignore the tradition that commences with phenomenology only to its detriment.

While Husserl placed great emphasis on consciousness and took up an idealist position motivated largely by a firm distinction between a conscious ego and its objects, the subject-object disinction was deeply critiqued by Husserl's student, Martin Heidegger. Heidegger's 1927 book Being and Time was not only a critique of Husserl, but of a way of thinking that he believed infected the entire Western philosophical tradition of which Husserl was the latest expression. Arguably, Being and Time was the single most revolutionary work of twentieth century philosophy. Though Heidegger radically revised phenomenology, he still considered himself a phenomenologist. With him, phenomenology became existential phenomenology, which focused on producing a "hermeneutics of facticity" – an interpretation of the human condition as lived by real human beings. Heidegger was followed in this effort most famously by Jean-Paul Sartre in his book Being and Nothingness, which carried Heidegger's analysis further and applied it to concrete situations. Maurice Merleau-Ponty critiqued Sartre while still continuing on the path marked by Heidegger's emphasis on our practical engagement with the world as opposed to the Husserlian focus on explicit conscious awareness. The hermeneutical strand of Heidegger's work was developed by Hans-Georg Gadamer in Truth and Method. Together, hermeneutics – the theory of interpretation in the most general sense – and phenomenology constitute the main concerns of continental philosophy. These concerns tend to require a great deal of systematic thinking to make progress in them, and thus continental philosophy tends to look more often at the "big picture" and to deal more directly with everyday human concerns than does analytic philosophy – though like any stereotype, this generalization admits of many exceptions and should not be read to the letter.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Persian philosophy

Persian philosophy can be traced back as far as to Old Iranian philosophical traditions and thoughts which originated in ancient Indo-Iranian roots and were considerably influenced by Zarathustra's teachings. Throughout Iranian history and due to remarkable political and social changes such as the Macedonian, Arab and Mongol invasions of Persia a wide spectrum of schools of thoughts showed a variety of views on philosophical questions extending from Old Iranian and mainly Zoroastrianism-related traditions to schools appearing in the late pre-Islamic era such as Manicheism and Mazdakism as well as various post-Islamic schools. Iranian philosophy after Arab invasion of Persia, is characterized by different interactions with the Old Iranian philosophy, the Greek philosophy and with the development of Islamic philosophy. The Illumination School and the Transcendent Philosophy are regarded as two of the main philosophical traditions of that era in Persia.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Chinese philosophy

Philosophy has had a tremendous effect on Chinese civilization, and East Asia as a whole. Many of the great philosophical schools were formulated during the Spring and Autumn Period and Warring States Period, and came to be known as the Hundred Schools of Thought. The four most influential of these were Confucianism, Taoism, Mohism, and Legalism. Later on, during the Tang Dynasty, Buddhism from India also became a prominent philosophical and religious discipline. (It should be noted that Eastern thought, unlike Western philosophy, did not express a clear distinction between philosophy and religion.) Like Western philosophy, Chinese philosophy covers a broad and complex range of thought, possessing a multitude of schools that address every branch and subject area of philosophy.

Indian philosophy

In the history of the Indian subcontinent, following the establishment of an Aryan/Vedic culture, the development of philosophical and religious thought over a period of two millennia gave rise to what came to be called the six schools of aastika, or orthodox, Indian philosophy or Hindu philosophy. These schools have come to be synonymous with the greater religion of Hinduism, which was a development of the early Vedic Religion.

Hindu philosophy constitutes an integral part of the culture of Southern Asia, and is the first of the Dharmic philosophies which were influential throughout the Far East. The great diversity in thought and practice of Hinduism is nurtured by its liberal universalism.