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A brief overview of the development of Western Philosophy

Posted: Sun Oct 04, 2009 8:08 am
by Salmoneus
I've been occasionally asked, and have recently been asked, for some sort of pointers in philosophy. There have been a lot of philosophers, and it's not easy to know, without reading them all or taking a university course, which ones are significant and which are mostly not.

So, I've decided to write up some posts giving an impression of the development of Western philosophy over the last 2600 years. This is for three reasons:

1. Because it may be of assistance to those wishing to know more about philosophy but unsure where to begin
2. Because it helps me refresh and codify my own knowledge
3. Because this is a conworlding community, and I think that more exposure not only to philosophical doctrines but to the development of philosophical traditions would be beneficial for many of us in creating deeper and more believable cultures.


Some caveats must, however, be applied:

1. I'm not an expert. I've done a BA course, and have read around the subject at the time and since that time. However, I'm not an expert in the slightest - in particular, I'm going to have to zoom very quickly through the middle ages, which were barely even mentioned at uni.
2. Even if I had been an expert, I'd have forgotten many details since uni, and even if I hadn't forgotten them, I may not convey their relative significance correctly
3. Most importantly, history is not a neutral enterprise. Every history omits some data, and gives a distinct interpretation to the data it does include. For that reason, the history of philosophy is itself philosophically contentious. Russell's 'History of Western Philosophy' gives quite a different impression from Rorty's 'Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature', for instance.

Nonetheless, here's an attempt at something. To begin with, there'll be four posts on ancient philosophy, and then probably only one on medieval philosophy. I'm not sure how I'm going to organise Modern philosophy - I'll sort that out when we get to it....


By the way, other people should feel free to ask questions (which I may or may not be able to answer), make corrections, supply alternative interpretations, add additional information, and so on. [In particular, although I'll attempt to give my impressions of 20th century Continental Philosophy, I know that I'm an outsider to that tradition, whereas some here are not, and I hope that those people will help out when we get to that stage.]

Posted: Sun Oct 04, 2009 8:10 am
by Salmoneus
Western philosophical history is conventionally divided into three parts: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern. The roughly correspond to: Classical civilisation from about 600BC to somewhere around 500AD; Catholic hegemony from around 500AD to the Renaissance; and modern civilisation from that point on.

Philosophy traditionally is said to have begun with Thales of Miletus, from Ionia, in modern Turkey (then considered part of Greece). He was followed by several philosophers closely inspired by him (the Milesian School) and some others more indirectly influenced. The distinctive feature of these philosophers was that they rejected mythical and god-focused accounts of the world – they saw everything as being understandable and perfectly regular, not subject to unpredictable divine interference. Even the gods themselves they thought were natural phenomena. Xenophanes talking about rainbows, for instance, traditionally seen as manifestations of the goddess Iris, messenger of the gods: “And she whom they call Iris, this too is by nature cloud / purple, red, and greeny-yellow to behold.” Thee philosophers were engineers and scientists: Thales apocryphally predicted the solar eclipse of 585, Anaximander reputedly invented the sundial, and drew the first map of the entire known world. Everything was to be studied and explained – primarily in terms of material nature. These philosophers were based in Ionia, until Anaxagoras brought philosophy to Athens, its eventual home.

These early, diverse, attempts at explaining the world became unsatisfactory because they were limited only to matter, which, it was felt, was incapable of providing any causes – it was too inert. Many philosophers therefore turned to more exotic ideas – Anaxagoras, for instance, believed the world was organised by a universal Mind. Most prominent among these were the Eleatic School, lead by Parmenides, who turned toward logic and reason rather than experiment. His conclusions (often based, it is now realised, on accidents of language) were counter-intuitive: the entire world was One, and that One was unchanging. There was no void or vacancy in the world; all our perceptions were entirely incorrect, and so the senses could not be relied upon. His disciple, Zeno, created a number of paradoxes designed to show the logical impossibility of motion, change, and division.

The chief rival of the Eleatics was Heraclitus, who held the opposite view. He believed that everything in the world was made of fire (it had been commonplace to try to reduce all matter to a single substance – water, for Thales), by which he meant that it was continually changing, never staying the same, constantly destroyed and created. He too believed that our perceptions were wrong – not because we divided the indivisible, but because we naively believed in unity over time and space. Heraclitus devised the famous proverb that a man can never step into the same river twice; his disciple, Cratylus, went even further, saying that because change was continual and there was no moment of fixity, a man could not even step into the same river once – even in a single step, there were a panoply of rivers replacing each other.

This division reflects a paradox: it is evident that change exists, yet it is equally evident that nothing can come from nothing, which is what change seemed to require. Hence Heraclitus allowed change at the cost of continual ab nihilo creation, while Parmenides was forced to reject change. The solution to this argument came about through the Atomists – first Empedocles (who, incidentally, was known to raise the dead and call down lightning), and then more fully and famously Democritus. Their theory was that the world was composed of atoms, tiny indivisible but finite units, which never changed, and were never created or destroyed. Their arrangement, however, could change all the time, and they were constantly rearranged into the physical beings beheld by our perception. The rearrangement was powered by two contrary forces, Love and Strife (or ‘attraction and repulsion’, as we would call them today). Their motion was possible because most of space was entirely empty. This is captured in Democritus’ dictum: “Nothing exists but atoms and void”.

These early writers (the ‘physiologoi’, as Aristotle called them) were hugely influential, laying the basis not only for philosophy but for all modern science. However, they are little read today, and appreciated for their intent more than for their results. Indeed, few of them have left any surviving manuscripts.

Posted: Sun Oct 04, 2009 8:11 am
by Salmoneus
All this wrangling over metaphysical imponderables provoked its own backlash. A group of people known as the Sophists had arisen as professional tutors – the mobility of Greek society provided a constant flow of people into the upper classes, who needed education to fit in among the old elites. In Athens particularly, this education had to focus on rhetoric, because in a direct democracy power rested with those whose oratory could persuade the masses. The Sophists thus studied rhetoric and argument, and before long turned their methods on the philosophers – who, it turned out, were very bad at arguing, having mostly been pre-occupied with individual speculation, or occasionally speculation within schools of disciples who already agreed with each other. The Sophists, on the other hand, were very good at it, and even came to see argument as a goal in its own right.

They were chaotic philosophers – they often argued impossible positions to demonstrate their rhetorical ability, or simply to annoy more respectable philosophers. Yet at heart they were concerned with a real problem of Greek society – the erosion of the old, divinely-mandated, order, and angst over the creation of a new. At this time there was a realisation that Nature (which governed the physical world) and Convention (which governed human societies) were distinct things – and the Sophists turned inquiry from Nature to Convention. Some even believed that Nature itself was a matter of convention. The most famous was Protagoras, whose best-known doctrine was that “Man is the measure of things: of things that are, that they are; of things that are not, that they are not.” All beliefs, he said, were equally and inevitably true. In consequence, attention should be turned to which beliefs were healthier – both for individuals and for society.

There was at this time much consideration about the origin of conventions – Thrasymachus said that morality is merely the best interests of the rulers, imposed upon their subjects, while Callicles (who may be fictional) said that morality is merely the best interests of the weak, which they have created to chain and limit the strong, their rulers.

The old philosophers were derided and dismissed: Gorgias wrote a famous parody of Parmenides’ most famous work, in which, by reversing Parmenides’ arguments, he showed that nothing existed, that if anything existed we could not know anything about it, and that if we ever did know anything about anything, we would be unable to tell anyone about it. Whether these points are serious or only mockery is hard to tell – indeed, there may not even be a difference. What is demonstrated, however, is that the Sophists called attention to the nature of argument, punching holes in the speculative efforts of earlier philosophers. This importance is seen in Gorgias’ defence of Helen of Troy, in which he lauds Persuasion as the greatest power in creation, to whom even the gods must bow.

Little survives of Sophist works, and they are mostly known through Plato, who detested them. For most of history, his word has been accepted, and the Sophists ignored, but recently they have gained more attention, both philosophically and historically. Philosophically, many postmodern (etc) writers have seen them as a spiritual predecessor; historically, it has been seen that they spearheaded two dramatic changes in philosophy – from speculation to argument, and from physics to ethics.

Posted: Sun Oct 04, 2009 8:45 am
by Legion
Awesome. More please.

And I don't mean bootblacking

Posted: Sun Oct 04, 2009 10:07 am
by Delthayre
We like it very much.

Posted: Sun Oct 04, 2009 12:41 pm
by masako
I don't feel welcome at name ends in neither -us nor -es.

Posted: Sun Oct 04, 2009 4:36 pm
by Makerowner
A great idea, and I couldn't think of a better person on this board to do it.
I'm certainly not an expert, and I haven't even taken a BA in the subject, but I have done a lot of reading in philosophy over the last couple of years. One thing I'd like to mention (not as a criticism, but rather to point out an alternative view) is that the standard interpretation of the "pre-Socratics" has been challenged (I think very forcefully) by Heidegger and his colleagues. Heraclitus was not, according to Heidegger, a physiologist: 'fire' was not the "matter" underlying things, it was what later came to be called 'alethia' (which Heidegger translates etymologically as 'un-concealment', having at first accepted but later rejecting the traditional translation 'truth'). 'Fire', 'the One', 'the Wise, both willing and unwilling to be called Zeus', 'Logos', 'Physis' are all different names for what Heraclitus does not call 'alethia'. Heraclitus was understood at least since Plato as the opponent of Parmenides, but Heidegger points to Heraclitus' insistence on the One as well as the Many. The river fragment (DK B12) is significant here: "Upon those who step into the same rivers, other and other waters flow" (my emphasis), as is B84: "Changing, it rests". The focus is not on change as opposed to stability, but on stability through change: the river stays the same by being always made up of different water. Heraclitus' 'One' is more or less the same as Parmenides' 'Being'.
Heidegger's interpretation is debatable of course, and maybe not that important to someone who is only interested in reading a ~ten-post history of philosopy, but I think it's important to avoid reading the Greeks, and the pre-Socratics especially, as "proto-scientists"; ie. that they were trying to do the same thing as physicists do today, only they weren't very good at it.

Also, another pre-Socratic Salmoneus didn't mention, probably because he had little direct influence on the main Platonic tradition in philosophy: Anaximander. I think he has a certain importance as an opponent to both Aristotle and, much later, Nietzsche. Of his works, next to nothing survives, so he's mostly known through testimonia. According to Aristotle, he proposed that the "principle" (archê) underlying or causing things was "the indefinite" or "the infinite" (apeiron), and identified it with "the divine" because it was "deathless and imperishable". The apeiron was the source of all definite things by being separated into opposites, which would eventually return to indefiniteness. The one fragment that survives is one of the most beautiful of all surviving pre-Socratic texts IMO: "But from this is the coming-to-be of beings, and their passing-away is into this, becoming according to neccessity. For they pay the penalty to each other for their injustice, according to the arrangement of time."

Posted: Sun Oct 04, 2009 5:23 pm
by The Unseen
Thanks a bunch for this. I'm interested in philosophy and am considering (double)-majoring in, so this helps.

Posted: Sun Oct 04, 2009 5:47 pm
by Salmoneus
Makerowner: alas, having seen what Heidegger does to philosophers I do know about, I wouldn't trust him an inch with those about whom I know next to nothing - the man seemed to have no concept of scholarship as distinct from propaganda. More generally, I think it's unwise to try to reinterpret ancient philosophers, particularly those about whom little is known, in the light of modern fashions and commitments (you see the same thing with postmodernists who try to appropriate the sophists). Such attempts, based in the writings themselves, can cast any interpretation they choose, which is why it's wiser to examine them in their historical context (which is not to say that such reinterpretations lack their own purpose).

For Anaximander: yes, he's usually considered the greatest of the Milesians, not only for apeiron, but for his beautiful answer to the question of why the Earth did not fall down: because, being amid an immense and featureless void, there is no more reason for it to fall in one direction than another - and as it cannot fall in all directions at once, it must stay where it is. This is not only the first time that anyone suggests that the Earth is floating in space unsupported, but also the first time that anyone reasons explicitly by the Principle of Sufficient Reason (for which he was derided by Aristotle).

On the other hand, he determined that the Earth was a gigantic cylinder in the centre of the universe, exactly three times taller than it was wide. Can't have everything. (Plato introduced the idea that the Earth was instead a sphere).

I'm curious, however: how does Anaximander oppose Nietzsche? I can't think of much overlap in their discussions - Anaximander was an astronomer, metaphysician, and biologist, while Nietzsche was concerned with ethics, aesthetics, and epistemology.

EDIT: regarding Pre-Socratic fragments, I rather like Protagoras' treatise on the gods. It begins: "Concerning the gods, I have no means of knowing whether they exist or not, nor of what sort they may be. Many things prevent such knowledge, including the obscurity of the subject and the brevity of human life."

Posted: Sun Oct 04, 2009 6:16 pm
by jmcd
Salmoneus wrote:(Plato introduced the idea that the Earth was instead a sphere).
Sure that wasn't Pythagoras?

Posted: Sun Oct 04, 2009 9:39 pm
by Brel
Thanks for doing this (I have taken a couple philosophy courses, but am mostly illiterate in philosophy), but this seems more a topic for NOTA than Ephemera.

Posted: Sun Oct 04, 2009 9:55 pm
by Aurora Rossa
I only took an intro class on philosophy myself, and the guy teaching it was a conservative Catholic obsessed with the works of Plato and Aristotle...and not much else it seems. He would always interject about how morality was breaking down in the modern world due to liberals, accusing various figures of "relativism". And he kept saying stuff to the effect of "I think Plato/Aristotle would have a lot about ____".
1. I'm not an expert. I've done a BA course, and have read around the subject at the time and since that time. However, I'm not an expert in the slightest - in particular, I'm going to have to zoom very quickly through the middle ages, which were barely even mentioned at uni.
Whoa, if you aren't an expert, then I am genuinely curious (not to mention scared) to meet someone who is. Interesting stuff you have so far, though.

Posted: Mon Oct 05, 2009 6:28 am
by Salmoneus
Eddy wrote:I only took an intro class on philosophy myself, and the guy teaching it was a conservative Catholic obsessed with the works of Plato and Aristotle...and not much else it seems. He would always interject about how morality was breaking down in the modern world due to liberals, accusing various figures of "relativism". And he kept saying stuff to the effect of "I think Plato/Aristotle would have a lot about ____".
Not too unusual. My main philosophy tutor was very pro-Ancients. I think to some degree, for some, it's a way of escaping from the quagmire of contemporary philosophy. [Although he was more 'incorporate Ancient ideas', rather than just a scholar]
1. I'm not an expert. I've done a BA course, and have read around the subject at the time and since that time. However, I'm not an expert in the slightest - in particular, I'm going to have to zoom very quickly through the middle ages, which were barely even mentioned at uni.
Whoa, if you aren't an expert, then I am genuinely curious (not to mention scared) to meet someone who is. Interesting stuff you have so far, though.
The difference between me an and expert is the difference between the guy here who have linguistics degrees and an actual linguistic expert: we have enough to outgun those who know nothing, and even look knowledgeable to laymen with a passing interest, but would stand more than a minute in a room with someone who knew what they were talking about.

For instance, the next post is on Plato and Aristotle. There are over thirty books of Aristotle's work, and I've read one of them. I've never read a complete book about him, only relavent chapters and articles here and there (and only about his ethics). Plato wrote dozens of dialogues, and I haven't read any of them - only a handful of relevent excerpts and a bit of exegesis. But there are people who can quote almost all of Aristotle and Plato by heart, and connect lines in either to the other, and to countless fragments of biography, history, and philosophy from the period. Socrates said: "I know nothing, except that I know nothing". Encountering academia is a continual lesson in this principle.

Posted: Mon Oct 05, 2009 8:42 am
by Salmoneus
Both these changes come to fruition with Socrates, about whom we know almost nothing. Contemporaries generally considered him just another Sophist. Plato, his student, considered him entirely different. Who is right cannot be known. In any case, Socrates is one of the greatest figures of philosophy, however misguided our perception of him may be.
Socrates’ method, is an obvious extension of sophist practice: he went around asking people what they thought, accepted that they were right, and then asked questions about the details. Inevitably, they were unable to extend their views without falling into contradiction. He would thus lead people step by step toward the contradictions in their own views, forcing them into a state of confusion.

This is significant because it is accounted the beginnings of dialectic reasoning. All the previous developments outlined above also occurred, in parallel forms, in India and in China, but later Ancient (and now Modern) thought became dominated by the dialectic method, which was less developed in India, and almost absent in China. The dialectic method, or ‘cross-examination’, is a method of reason through dialogue, in which the participants each challenge the views of the other by attempting to find self-contradictions in the opposing views. The view to be accepted is not necessarily proven, but has not been destroyed in this process. An advantage of dialectic is that it does not, theoretically, require agreement on first principles (hence fitting the multiethnic, multiclass, religiously complex society of Athens) – but it does require some agreement. What must be agreed is a system by which argument can progress – ‘logic’. Beginning with first principles, consequences are produced via logical steps, and if these steps lead to a contradiction it is clear that the first principles were incorrect. Dialectic is thus threefold: axioms, logic, contradictions.

An example of this process is Plato’s Euthyphro. This begins with exactly the same scenario that Confucius addresses in one of the Analects, regarding filial and religious piety. Confucius resolves it through appeal to a consensus definition of piety that seems to be best for society; Socrates (in Plato’s depiction) resolves it through a series of logical dilemmas (most famously, “if the gods love the good, do they love it because it is good, or is it good because they love it?”) that ultimately produce contradictions in the views of his opponents.

Perhaps the most immediately important aspect of the Socratic revolution, however, was the scope of enquiry – for Socrates, even simple, everyday, concepts were to be questioned. Previously, philosophers had inquired after causes – from now on, they would have to explore the concept of causation itself. Previously, they had talked of one or another thing being pious – now, they had to say what piety was. The conversation turns from the physical world to the inhabited, lived world.


Socrates had many disciples, but the two most important – at least for modern civilisation – were Plato (Socrates’ pupil) and Aristotle (Plato’s pupil). It would not be unfair to describe the two men as the fathers of all subsequent philosophy; Whitehead, in a Platonic phase, famously said that all Western philosophy was simply a set of footnotes to Plato, and while it may have been an exaggeration it was not unjustified. The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, for instance, is happy in saying that although he was not the first ‘philosopher’, the entire subject of philosophy as now conceived was his invention.

Plato’s central concept is the Theory of Forms (also called ‘Ideas’). This explains imperfect regularity in the observable world by juxtaposing it with a perfectly regular world of Forms. For example, we may observe that two mountain ranges are parallel, and hence do not cross – yet they are not exactly parallel, nor even exactly lines. When we say, then ‘parallel lines do not cross’, we are not talking about mountain chains. Rather, we have an abstract concept of parallel lines, which we know do not cross, and when we observe mountain chains we see that they are an expression of, or an instance of, that abstract concept. Or when we say that one thing is pious, and then that another thing is pious, there may be nothing physically in common between them, but both of them display or express or instance an abstract concept of Piety. For Plato, the World of Forms is the real world, perfect and regular and unchanging, while the world we observe is an imperfect projection of it. In this he harks back to Parmenides’ belief in a real Unity that we perceive as a plurality. Plato uses the example of the shadows cast onto a wall – the apparent world are the shadows, the Forms are the light.

Because we are able to perceive not only the material world but also the World of Forms (as when we do mathematics, for instance, or philosophy), Plato believes that we must have something in us that is immaterial and itself part of the World of Forms (it was then believed that to think of a thing meant giving the mind the same shape as the thing, and a physical mind could not be given the shape of something abstract – hence we have an abstract mind as well as a physical one) – the Soul. The Soul is not equal in all people – some have higher and more developed souls than others. Virtue (excellence of the soul) is therefore innate, and cannot be taught – accordingly, democracy is to be avoided.

Much of Plato’s work is concerned with practical ethics and politics. Given in the form of dialogues between (almost all historical) characters, his work is often difficult to interpret, as it is unclear which views are Plato’s and which belong to his characters, or to their historical namesakes – in particular, which views belong to Plato and which to Socrates. What’s more, his views often seem to change over time – and even when we can see what his views are, he often seems to express doubt about them himself. Although Plato was a systematic philosopher in the sense of having a system, he retained a degree of Socratic humility, and clearly saw his works as assays toward solutions, rather than a completed and coherent doctrine that he was disseminating.

However, throughout the work (except, perhaps, in the last handful of dialogues) the same ideology is seen: to know about things that are x, we must learn about X, the abstract form. This is not itself an abstract knowledge – it is the basis for our ethical and political decisions. So, in the Lysis we discuss the nature of friendship; in the Laches, the nature of courage; in the Euthyphro, piety; in the Crito, justice. Some are rather specifically practical: the Ion, for instance, discusses the nature of rhapsody, and whether the rhapsodist performs through divine possession or simply by virtue of skill. Later dialogues, like the Republic or the Phaedrus conform less strictly to this model, often dealing with multiple topics.

In any case, the core assumption flowing from the Theory of Forms is that knowledge derived from the mutable world of perception is mutable and unreliable, while knowledge derived from the unchanging world of Forms is unchanging and firm. In this, we might consider that Plato resolved the argument between Parmenides and Heraclitus by saying that both were right: the unchanging perfection of Parmenides is the model for the world of Forms, while the changing, chaotic world of Heraclitus is the model for the apparent world. This, apparently, comes more clearly into focus in the so-called Unwritten Teachings, an esoteric philosophy that Plato taught only verbally to his disciples, and did not publish. From those disciples (chiefly Aristotle and Speusippus), we learn that Plato believed in a fundamental unity, the One, which even the Forms were only emanations of.

Plato’s student, Aristotle, who wrote on every subject from shark embryology to the manufacture of pinhole cameras, accepted Plato’s Forms, but reversed them. Where Plato had believed in transcendent forms, Aristotle believed in forms that were immanent – instantiated in, and only in, the material world. For Aristotle, the difference between Material and Ideal was not that one was changing and the other not, but that one was potential and the other actual. This seems Platonist, in that Plato too insisted that the world of Forms was the ‘actual’ world – but the meaning is different. Aristotle does not mean that the forms are actual because they are enduring and rational, but rather because they fulfil the potential of the material.

Aristotle says that matter is pure potential. If, for instance, we take some stones, they have the potential to shelter us from wind and rain, but they do not. Even if we stack them together to look like a house, they still only have potential. It is only when the stack of stones actually IS a house that that particular potential is made actual. Likewise, a sharp piece of metal has the potential to cut wood – but it only does so if it has the form of a saw. This is not limited to human tools, either. A race horse can only run quickly because of some potential in its limbs and sinews – but the same sinews, if in a different form, (such as the form of a dead horse) do nothing at all. Ultimately, matter can do anything – if it has the correct form. A particular form will make some potentialities actual, and not others.

In the realm of science, Aristotle’s central commitment may be to the idea of four-fold causation – the realisation that when we ask ‘why’, we are not always asking the same thing. He outlined four ‘causes’ of a thing:

1. Material cause – the substance a thing is made out of. A pillar supporting a roof would not be a pillar if it were made of sand – the stone is the material cause of the pillar.

2. Formal cause – the pattern or arrangement that a thing has. In this example, a pillar would not be a pillar if it were not vertical, straight, and of a certain thickness.

3. Immediate cause – the event or agent that caused the thing to be as it is. The architect, or the builder himself, may be identified as an immediate cause of the pillar.

4. Final cause – the ‘telos’, or ‘end’, for which the thing exists. In other words, its function. The final cause of the pillar is that it supports the roof. Or when we ask why a man goes for long walks, he may give the final cause, “because it’s good for my health”.

It is important to realise that the telos does not presume the existence of somebody with an intention. Just as the telos of a pillar is holding up a roof, the telos of the long beak of a hummingbird is to extract nectar. The telos of the rain is to water the flowers. It is hard to talk about telos in modern terms – words like ‘purpose’, ‘design’, ‘intent’, ‘aim’, and even ‘function’ have all been given connotations of an agent that stands behind them. This is probably the result of a millennium of monotheism, in which the ultimate final cause of everything was held to be God – the telos and the deity became so closely interwoven that once the deity is removed it seems hard to imagine the telos remaining. The association is so great it has been used as proof of the existence of God – the watchmaker argument holds that great order is evidence of design, and that design implies a designer. For Aristotle, however, ‘design’ in this sense does not require a designer – only with Christianity did that become decreed. Indeed, the designer would be an altogether different cause – the immediate cause, not the final cause.

This fourfold scheme, applied to the whole natural and social world, helped Aristotle become pre-eminent in science for more than a thousand years (in particular, teleological explanations prefigured the sort of explanations given by evolutionary scientists, which may be why biology was the last field in which his influence was still felt). It’s been said that no advancement in any area of science has occurred without first overturning some doctrine of Aristotle’s – which merely shows how dominant and foundational his influence was.

The same scheme, he applied to ethics. All things have a telos – and it is clear from observation that for each form, it is more excellent if it fulfils its telos more excellently. An excellent lute does not merely produce noise, but produces sounds of good volume in the harmonious ratios. An excellent lute-player plays the lute with great skill, feeling and dexterity. An excellent lute-maker makes excellent lutes. His tools are excellent if they carve the wood exactly as he wills. The wood is excellent wood if it is strong and reliable yet can be carved finely and easily. Bad wood breaks; bad tools carve inadequately; and both make bad lutes, which are out of tune and soon are broken. A bad race-horse wins nothing; a bad pillar brings down the building. Because excellence is judged by success, a lack of excellence means a lack of success.

Success in life we call eudaimonia – often translated happiness, but not in the psychological or subjective sense that word has now aquired. Better translations may be ‘flourishing’, ‘good living’, or ‘living well’. Eudaimonia, according to Aristotle, is the ultimate good that people in fact aim at – all the day-to-day objectives we have are merely means to achieving eudaimonia. And, because eudaimonia is a kind of success, it is achieved when our actions are excellent with regard to our telos.

The question, then, is twofold: what is the human telos, and what excellence is required for it? To answer the first question, Aristotle categorises all lifeforms according to the faculties they have – from the lowest plants, through the animals, up to women, and finally to man, the pinnacle of creation. Our telos must come from our form, and our form is a matter of the actualisation of potential. So, what are the characteristic potentials of a human form – what can we (both men and women) do that other animals can’t? Aristotle’s answer is that we are capable of reason. This is our function. To excel, we must excel at reasoning. Two clarifications are required: firstly, reason is not solely a mental faculty, but is displayed primarily in reasoned action; secondly, reason is not so simple as observing transcendent Forms.

Aristotle’s stated philosophical method is to examine the credible beliefs of other philosophers (and the public), and see how well they compare to the evidence of experience – which for Aristotle, unlike Plato, is a reliable arbiter, even if it is not always unimpeachable. So, in the field of ethics, he does not set out to reason abstractly about reason, but rather to examine credible beliefs about ethics, compare them to the evidence, and seek to find what lies behind them. His starting point is the observation that when a thing is NOT excellent, it can usually fail in one of two different ways – when we try to sing a note, we may be too high or too low, just as a cart may be so sturdy and substantial that it becomes too heavy to move, or else it may be so flimsy that it breaks. In ethics, likewise, we should categorise the various vices, and we will find that they occur, usually, in pairs. Virtue (arête, usually translated ‘virtue’, but in fact used with a wider, less moral, scope than virtue has today – closer to our word ‘excellence’, or perhaps ‘fineness’) therefore consists of navigating between these two negative extremes – a course of moderation which Aristotle refers to as ‘the Golden Mean’.

In example: a man should not be a coward, it is clear – but neither should he be foolhardy. He should not be a miser – yet nor should he be a spendthrift. He should be generous with his time and effort on behalf of his friends, yet should not lack the prudence that safeguards his own interests. Aristotle categorises many of these oppositions, and the virtuous middle ground between them. His advice on ethics is far more practical than Plato’s – perhaps because unlike Plato Aristotle believes that virtue can be taught, and taught to anybody (perhaps his own lower birth influenced this egalitarianism). Remarkably, although he naturally believes women to be metaphysically and physically inferior (and that, for instance, they have no role in reproduction, all qualities coming from the father, who acts like the seed while the woman acts like the nourishing earth), he nonetheless believed that their happiness was just as important as that of men, and that no society could be happy unless its women were happy. Happiness (true, reliable happiness) comes from a flourishing life, which in turn comes from virtue. In other words, his ethics are a more codified form of the sage advice on virtue and prudence often found in such societies.

Plato’s public works consist primarily of his dialogues, although a few other sources survive. These were lauded for their prose in ancient times – but as they focus on particular issues much of his underlying theory has to be deduced by comparing multiple sources. The most famous of his dialogues today is probably the Republic, dealing with politics and other things (a topic revisited in the later Laws), but the greatest praise is probably for the Theaetetus, on the subject of knowledge. In ancient times, his chief work was held to be the Timaeus, on the creation of the universe, which is today mostly ignored as semi-religious superstition (except by scholars of Gnosticism and early Christianity, for whom it remains a central text). The Symposium is also often quoted, on the subjects of love, friendship and beauty. Of his private, verbal teaching, nothing survives.

For Aristotle, the reverse situation holds. Although his writing was said to be among the greatest of the Ancients (Cicero himself, the master orator, called his prose ‘a river of gold’) it was entirely lost during the Dark Ages. Instead, we have mostly what seem to be lecture notes taken by students, supplemented by some early drafts, often pieced together as single documents even when it is clear there were multiple sources. As a result, “his” prose is dry and unembellished – yet many find it eminently readable regardless, as he reasons in a straightforward way, and in a commonplace, unpretentious style. His most relevant work in the modern age is the Nichomachean Ethics (along with the Eudemian Ethics, which may well be an alternative set of notes from the same lecture). More than thirty other books survive, on all manner of subjects, but most have been superseded by more recent work.


[Hmm. Guess that should have been two posts, at least...]

Posted: Mon Oct 05, 2009 9:43 am
by Yiuel Raumbesrairc
Salmoneus wrote:[Hmm. Guess that should have been two posts, at least...]
It probably should have been three posts, but the three of them (Socrates, Plato and Aristotle) are a logical suit that are best taught about together at first as an introduction, then concentrating on Plato (and his Socrates) and Aristotle afterwards. You actually did (and are doing) a very good job (and please continue :)).

Posted: Mon Oct 05, 2009 1:17 pm
by Makerowner
Salmoneus wrote: I'm curious, however: how does Anaximander oppose Nietzsche? I can't think of much overlap in their discussions - Anaximander was an astronomer, metaphysician, and biologist, while Nietzsche was concerned with ethics, aesthetics, and epistemology.
I meant the opposition in the other direction. During his Schopenhauerian phase he interprets the fragment as meaning that existence is an unjustice for which beings are punished by destruction. His whole post-Schopenhauerian career was based on this idea of life as essentially injustice, but with the rejection of the conclusion he ascribed to Anaximander that it therefore deserves to be destroyed.
Incidentally, which philosophers were you referring to in relation to Heidegger's interpretations? Nietzsche I think is the most controversial, but I haven't read Heidegger's book on him, only a couple of essays.

A great summary of Plato and Aristotle; I didn't think a couple of paragraphs could do it so well. I have a couple of minor notes though: first, I think it's important to emphasize just how many of Plato's dialogues end in an 'aporia', that is, everyone (including Socrates) admits they have no idea how to explain the concept they're discussing: Laches, Euthyphro, Theaetetus, Parmenides, Lysis. Plato has traditionally been interpreted as a rather dogmatic philosopher, who uses the dialogue format only to persuade the reader, but more recent interpreters have taken the dialogues more seriously as dialogues. Plato may have been not so much arguing for a particular philosophical position as arguing for philosophy, ie. a life of discussion and argumentation. A problem that goes along with this is that how the dialogues were used in the Academy is unknown. There are several instances, for example, were Socrates makes an obvious equivocation on 'euprattein', which can mean 'doing good' or 'doing well'; are they in the dialogue because Plato didn't notice? or were they intended as examples of bad arguments for the students?
My second note is about Aristotle: it's just to make clear that his 'form' and 'formal cause' aren't limited to the physical shape of a thing: man's form for example is his soul. He also notes that the efficient and final causes both in a way reduce to the formal cause: a builder (efficient cause) builds a house because he wants this pile of bricks to provide shelter (final cause), ie. he acts in order to actualize the form 'house' in the matter 'bricks'. The essential opposition is between form and matter, actualized and potential being; efficient and final causation are only particular points of view on the form.

Posted: Mon Oct 05, 2009 3:27 pm
by zompist
I'd suggest moving this to NOTA, as it is of permanent interest.

Posted: Tue Oct 06, 2009 2:29 pm
by Salmoneus
Socrates had many disciples, not only Plato. Three of them – Euclides, Aristippus, and Antisthenes – went on to found their own schools (or be claimed as the founders of schools). After Aristotle, these schools, and their successors, went on to dominate philosophy until the advent of Christianity – a period we call ‘Hellenistic philosophy’ (technically some people divide the Roman Empire out from this, but this is fairly pointless, as nothing interesting happened then anyway).

The least significant of the three is probably Euclides, who broke with Socrates when the latter criticised him for his love of argument, and his willingness to argue legal cases. For this reason his school is sometimes known as the Eristic School (‘eristic’ being argument for the sake of argument, designed to confuse and dismay rather than enlighten), although they are better known as Megarians. The Megarians have primarily been of significance for their important work on logic, and they created a great many paradoxes. They are believed to have laid the foundations for propositional logic, and to have explored alternative interpretations of conditionals (predicate logic, and the Laws of Identity, Non-Contradiction and the Excluded Middle, had already been created by Aristotle). Much of their logical system was later adopted by the Stoics, but as a school their abstract concerns failed to appeal to the population sufficiently to allow the school to survive for long. One historical note is their unusual openness to women – the five daughters of Diodorus Cronus were all trained as logicians, though none were noteworthy.
Euclides, when asked about the gods, commented that: “I know only one thing about them: they hate people who ask questions.”

Aristippus focused on a different element of Socrates’ teaching – originally, he appears to have been a sort of sceptic, emphasising our inability to know anything other than our own immediate perceptions. He may also have expressed a form of hedonism – the belief that pleasure is the highest good. He taught his views to his daughter, Arete, who in turn taught them to her son, Aristippus the Younger, who codified and popularised them.

By this stage, the views of their school, the Cyrenaics, were less to do with knowledge and more to do with ethics. Just as, they said, only the immediate perception is knowable, so too only the immediate pleasure is valuable. We know nothing of the future, and so it is futile to put off the pleasures of today for those of tomorrow. Eudaimonia is all very well, but it is assembled out of moments of pleasure – and such assemblage is so impossible to know, and so wearisome to perform, that any concern for it is futile. Likewise, all pleasure is equally pleasurable, and so it is futile to sacrifice one pleasure for a hypothetical ‘better’ pleasure that may be available at another time. Only the instant, personal pleasure is significant – and by this they meant specifically the pleasures of the body.

The most notable later Cyrenaic is Hegesias the Death-Persuader. Life, he argued, is impossible to control, being laid down by fate. Life is inevitably filled with agony, and occasional moments of pleasure. Eudaimonia is not only difficult to attain – it is actually impossible, as the suffering we endure makes any lasting happiness a laughable thought. Consequently, we must grab the few moments of physical pleasure that are available to us in our long, tormented lives – if we do not decide to kill ourselves instead. His lectures were eventually banned in the interests of public safety, as a result of the suicides they provoked. The school did not live long beyond him.

Antisthenes took the opposite view – he rejected all pleasure as a temptation from the true path of virtue, which was identical with eudaimonia. Wealth, in turn, was a temptation to pleasure, and so he enjoined poverty strictly. Originally a student of Gorgias, he retained some Sophist tendencies even after he became a friend of Socrates – he disliked speculative philosophy, was concerned about the distinction between nature and convention, and often had a rather biting sense of humour. He lectured in a public gymnasium allocated to bastards and foreigners, which took the dog as its symbol – either for this reason, or more probably due to their uncleanliness and lack of manners, his followers became known as Cynics – ‘doglike ones’. Whatever the origin of the term, the Cynics embraced it – reportedly even barking at those who annoyed them. Whether Antisthenes himself was a Cynic is a matter of some debate – he may simply have been a forerunner. The first certain Cynic is his student, Diogenes.

The Cynics are often said to reject convention and embrace nature. This is not untrue, and has the advantage of making comparisons with other cultures simple – just as the Chinese had the traditionalist Confucians, the radical Mohists, the eristic Hundred Schools, and the convention-rejecting early Taoists, so too the Greeks had the traditional religionists, the schools of the Academy (Plato) and Lyceum (Aristotle), the eristic sophists, and the convention-rejecting Cynics. However, I don’t think this is the best way to understand their position.

The Cynics believed fundamentally that virtue and eudaimonia were the same thing – a good life could not be achieved without virtue. Virtue, in turn, was following reason – the ‘natural law’. Anything that turned people away from reason was a vice – and as the world was clearly not entirely virtuous, a man (or woman) could only be virtuous by choosing their own path freely. Freedom is the core of Cynicism. The Cynics adumbrated three forms of freedom: liberty, autonomy, and parrhesia; and the greatest of these is parrhesia – the freedom to speak the truth. Parrhesia is both a psychological and a practical thing – it requires the courage to speak the truth regardless of personal risk, but it also requires the prudence to avoid such situations. In particular, those who involve themselves with rulers are imprisoning their tongues.

When a man is free, he can choose virtue as the absolute rule in his life. Virtue cannot be influenced or superseded by any human law – in consequence, the free man will realise that if a thing is virtuous enough to be done in private, it is virtuous enough to be done in public (and, contrariwise, that if it is not virtuous enough to be done in public, it is not virtuous enough to be done in private). From this realisation arises anaideia, ‘shamelessness’. It is this that allowed Diogenes to urinate and masturbate in the forum, and that encouraged Hipparchia to consummate her marriage on a public bench.

The rejection of human convention, therefore, is not because the convention is human – indeed, the Cynics approved of the idea of convention. They simply thought existing conventions were wrong, as they could not be grounded in reason. Consequently, they sought to ‘change the currency’ of convention to a better form. Because they were a practical school, they chose to do this through action – they believed in askesis, literally meaning ‘training’, which is to say that they believed virtue was taught through experience, not through abstract thought. They acted a though they had attained anaideia partly in order to attain it.
The Cynics were the extreme edge of a general movement against the speculations of the Academy and the Lyceum – they, like many people, believed that such abstract investigations were not necessary for virtue, and although they attended symposiums they tended to do so to mock and rebuke. In particular, they gained a reputation for hiding important teachings in humour and jest, while using the most formal language for unelevated purposes. As an example, Hipparchia once rebuked a misogynist Cyrenaic who questioned her presence at an almost entirely male symposium: “Premise 1: If an action is not wrong when Theodorus does it, it is not wrong when done by Hipparchia. Premise 2: Theodorus does no wrong in choosing to strike himself. Conclusion: Hipparchia does no wrong when she punches Theodorus.”

Both the Cyrenaics and the Cynics wrote voluminously; none of their work survives.

Re: A brief overview of the development of Western Philosoph

Posted: Tue Oct 06, 2009 7:24 pm
by TomHChappell
Sal, I wish this weren't in Ephemera.
It should go in NotA, I guess.
Would you care to move it?

Posted: Wed Oct 07, 2009 7:13 am
by Salmoneus
Re: NOTA: I think more people are likely to see it in Ephemera. My plan was to move it to NOTA when I finish adding to it, or if I need to pause for a while.

Anaximander: oh. OK. I must have missed those passages in Nietzsche. [I've mostly read the mature works]

Heidegger: yes, mostly Nietzsche. I've also seen comments by him on other philosophers that seemed weird - Schopenhauer, I think.

Plato: thank you. Regarding aporia: yes... but I would point out that it's more common (I'm told!) in the earlier dialogues, where he may be channeling Socrates more accurately, rather than in the later dialogues, which tend to be more dogmatic (and sometimes aren't even dialogues anymore).

Euprattein: I think it's dangerous to impose modern semantics onto ancient philosophy. If he didn't 'notice' two meanings, it may be because he thought they were the same meaning. [I don't believe meanings can be counted objectively]

Aristotle: yeah, nothing to disagree with there.

Thanks for the contributions!


Regarding this series: as you can tell, I've gone awry in number of posts. I blame my weak spot for Cynicism. Fear not, I'll be back on track soon: next, Stoicism and Epicureanism. I think I'll then role the later Platonists into the middle ages. Not sure where to put the Skeptics and Academics...

Posted: Wed Oct 07, 2009 3:03 pm
by Makerowner
Salmoneus wrote: Maker:
Anaximander: oh. OK. I must have missed those passages in Nietzsche. [I've mostly read the mature works]
It's in Philosophy in the Tragic Age IIRC, or maybe in his lectures on the pre-Socratics--both from around the same time as "Schopenhauer as Educator".
Euprattein: I think it's dangerous to impose modern semantics onto ancient philosophy. If he didn't 'notice' two meanings, it may be because he thought they were the same meaning. [I don't believe meanings can be counted objectively]
I agree that this dangerous, but one of the Epistles (most likely not by Plato, but in any case from a near-contemporary familiar with Plato, quite possibly a student of his) mentions the two meanings. For someone as concerned with definitions as Socrates/Plato it's hard to imagine him not noticing the distinction, but of course, what's hard to imagine for a 20th century AD Canadian is a pretty poor standard of what's hard to imagine for a 3rd century BC Greek.

For anyone interested in more about the Cynics, one of the main sources for them (and many other philosophers whose works don't survive) is Diogenes Laertius' (not the same person as Diogenes the Cynic) Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, though it was written several centuries later by a naive compiler whose only talent was having access lots of books that no longer exist; the stories in this book are more reliable for how Hellenistic Greeks saw philosophers than for what various philosophers may have said or done. Lots of fun though. You can read it here; Diogenes is in Book VI.

Posted: Wed Oct 07, 2009 3:09 pm
by Yiuel Raumbesrairc
Makerowner wrote:For anyone interested in more about the Cynics, one of the main sources for them (and many other philosophers whose works don't survive) is Diogenes Laertius' (not the same person as Diogenes the Cynic) Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, though it was written several centuries later by a naive compiler whose only talent was having access lots of books that no longer exist; the stories in this book are more reliable for how Hellenistic Greeks saw philosophers than for what various philosophers may have said or done. Lots of fun though. You can read it here; Diogenes is in Book VI.
Well that answers the question I had. Sal claimed we don't have any direct books from them, so I wondered where modern philosophers got their hands on those ancient philosophies. I guess I just had my answer.

How bad is he as a source? I have seen many philosophers claim that he's a poor narrator, if not unreliable.

Posted: Wed Oct 07, 2009 3:49 pm
by Salmoneus
The sheer amount that was lost is simply staggering. Most of what I've been saying in these posts has had to be reconstructed from the polemics written by their enemies, which are naturally biased and often exaggerated. Even friendly references usually only give us the bare outline of a person's position, without any explanation of how they came to that conclusion.

I wonder how much this distorts history. Do Plato and Aristotle's views survive because they were good, or do they look good because they survive? Would other philsophers look just as nuanced and sophisticated if we had thirty volumes on them, rather than a handful of fragments?

And, again, it's hard to overestimate just how much has been lost. We talk about Plato founding an "Academy" - of that academy, we can name the names and approximate views of a handful of members through the centuries, who happened to become Head of the Academy and thus get noticed - but hardly anything of their work survives, and as for the hundreds of philosophers who must have studied under them through the years... nothing whatsoever.

Plato had three natural successors. Aristotle, obviously, but he was not Plato's successor as head of the Academy - when Plato died, Aristotle buggered off to study fish for a decade or so. Instead, the greatest philosophers of the day were Eudoxus and Speusippus. Of the former, I think we know no more than that he thought pleasure was good. The latter, who became head of the Academy, we know a little more of. We know from Diogenes Laertius that he wrote voluminously, both dialogues and treatises - Diogenes lists thirty different titles, and says that the list is incomplete.

We have, in grand total, a small part of one text, which isn't even one of the ones mentioned by Diogenes. Of the greatest philosopher of his day! The head of the greatest educational establishment on earth!


Regarding Nietzsche: ah. Haven't read anything that early other than the Birth of Tragedy. [Would rather read Schopenhauer, if I'm going to get Schopenhauerian views...]

By the way, have you actually read everything you talk about? I'm getting intimidated...

Posted: Thu Oct 08, 2009 9:01 am
by Makerowner
Yiuel wrote:
Makerowner wrote:For anyone interested in more about the Cynics, one of the main sources for them (and many other philosophers whose works don't survive) is Diogenes Laertius' (not the same person as Diogenes the Cynic) Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, though it was written several centuries later by a naive compiler whose only talent was having access lots of books that no longer exist; the stories in this book are more reliable for how Hellenistic Greeks saw philosophers than for what various philosophers may have said or done. Lots of fun though. You can read it here; Diogenes is in Book VI.
Well that answers the question I had. Sal claimed we don't have any direct books from them, so I wondered where modern philosophers got their hands on those ancient philosophies. I guess I just had my answer.

How bad is he as a source? I have seen many philosophers claim that he's a poor narrator, if not unreliable.
You can't even really say that he's a poor narrator: all he does is copy what other people said about the philosopher in question, and most of the time he doesn't even say who he's quoting (a common practice in the Classical era). How reliable is he? Since nothing else survives on many of the philosophers he discusses, there's no way to tell for sure, but there are lots of reasons to be suspicious. For example, just about every philosopher dies a bizarre, dramatic death: Empedocles by jumping into a volcano, Diogenes by holding his breath till he suffocates (is this even possible?), Heraclitus being eaten by dogs after covering himself with cow-dung, etc. The accuracy depends on who he's talking about as well: for Epicurus, he quotes three long letters, one of which contains a summary of his entire treatise On Nature; for others, especially for earlier ones, he often just quotes legends about them. But he is the source of all of our best stories about philosophers: Thales falling into the well, Diogenes telling Alexander to get out of his light, Heraclitus saying that Homer deserved to be beaten.


Salmoneus: Not all. Nietzsche on Anaxagoras was quoted somewhere; I haven't read either of the works I thought it might be from, though I intend to once I finish Human, All too Human. I've read about 3/4 of Plato, though not some of the more important dialogues like the Republic or the Laws; Socrates was irritating me too much after I finished the Gorgias so I decided to take a break from Plato. I've only read a bit of Aristotle: a couple of the logical works, the Poetics, half of the Physics, and random bits from the Nicomachean Ethics, On the Soul, the Politics and the Constitution of Athens that came up in various univerisity classes. After Epicurus I won't have a lot to say until we get to the 19th century though: my knowledge of the Middle Ages and Renaissance is zero, of the early Moderns, patchy, and of the Enlightenment before Kant, mostly second-hand.

Posted: Thu Oct 08, 2009 12:01 pm
by Salmoneus
*feels sad and ignorant now*

You know, you've probably read more than some PhDs.... [well, primary sources, anyway. Obviously, real philosophers read forrests and forrests of secondary, tertiary and quintilliionary sources - they're not academics unless they're talking about what academics are saying...]