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zompist bboard • View topic - A brief overview of the development of Western Philosophy

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PostPosted: Mon Oct 26, 2009 10:45 am 
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OK, now things get a little complicated:

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The second great Rationalist, Spinoza, simplified [the Cartesian account of substances] considerably: according to him, there was only one substance, God, also known as Nature – a being of infinite attributes, only two of which are known to mankind (thought and extension). God exists as both Creator and Created; what is created is a variety of modes of each attribute, which can be either inifinite modes (such as motion or intellect) or finite (such as particular bodies or ideas). Modes of the two attributes cannot interact with one another, and so the Mind/Body problem is disposed of – they merely appear to interact because there is an enduring parallelism between the attributes. This parallelism, however, is not coincidental, nor the work of an active God, but the result of an underlying unity, as both my thought and my action are modes of the same God – body and mind are one and the same thing, expressed in two different ways. More generally, any time it appears that two things are only contingently related, it is due to a defect in our own knowledge and perception, as all things that are are as they are necessarily, not contingently.

In the case of parallelism, we can say that the order of ideas, and the order of events, are identical, and so are their inter-relations. This implies that for each idea there is an analogous event or body, and vice versa. This follows Descartes’ concept of the mind as the mirror of the world, except that it elevates both attributes to the same level: the body is the mirror of the mind, just as the mind is a mirror of the body. This is how Spinoza affirms the plurality of minds while denying their existence as distinct substances: for Spinoza, a ‘mind’ is simply a thought or idea that corresponds to (indeed, is fundamentally the same as, in a different representation) a particular body. The mind is not a place to put ideas – it IS an idea. From this follows a truly radical conclusion: as all bodies have corresponding ideas, all bodies have minds – even non-human bodies. Every single physical thing in existence has its own mind. These are not, to be sure, equivalent to human minds – the human mind, like the human body, is unusually complex and independent in its action – but there is no qualitative difference between human intelligence and the intelligence of, say, a frog, or a rock.

This parallelism further re-enforces his emphasis on rationalism: the mind is capable of grasping ideas directly, but physical sensation is only an idea of our own body, which is acted on by another body, which is equivalent to another idea. Sensory perception, therefore, is an indirect and unreliable source of knowledge – only abstract reason is certain and sure.

If this theory makes the physical seem less unique from the mental, it also makes the mental less unique from the physical. Spinoza insists that the human mind and its psychology can be studied in an entirely scientific manner – the mind is not distinct from nature, it is part of it. Humans are not distinct from other things, and the mind is a mechanism just as the body is.

Psychologically, Spinoza mirrors the Stoics in denigrating the passions – but for him the issue is one of quality, not quantity. Spinoza’s ‘passions’ are passive, the result of inadequate ideas imposing themselves on us from outside. The only active emotions, meanwhile, are joy and desire. However, as Spinoza believes that not only our actions but our very thoughts are entirely determined and cannot be altered, we can’t really do much about these conclusions. Human life is buffeted by passions which we cannot control; ideally, we would follow reason, but reason itself cannot oppose emotion – an emotion can only be checked by a stronger emotion. Reason, meanwhile, is rendered more personal than the Stoic version: reason is life in accordance with our fundamental striving. This is known as the ‘conatus’ principle: all things strive to persevere in being, and their particular form of striving is their essence as a thing. It is living in accordance with this egoistic principle that brings freedom. Specifically, as the passions arise from inadequate ideas, we must seek to free ourselves through adequate ideas – that is, by acquiring knowledge. Through knowledge, we attain freedom; and the highest knowledge is the knowledge of God. Happiness and freedom thus consist in the knowledge of God – which is to say, as God is perfect, they consist in the adoration of God.

Because freedom requires knowledge, personal freedom requires political freedom – the freedom to think, to say, and to learn. Accordingly, in his one major work published in his lifetime, Spinoza calls for freedom of speech and association, along with the total subjugation of religious authorities to the secular, as it is religious figures who chiefly restrict freedom of thought. The thesis was not popular. It may, perhaps, reflect Spinoza’s own background – born a Jew, he was at a relatively young age excommunicated and anathematized by the Jewish leaders in unflinching language, for his abominable heresies and monstrous deeds. He associated with many heterodox and unusual Protestants, and felt frightened by the rise of Calvinism; due to the terrible reception for his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, and terrified by the murders of prominent liberals that had accompanied the Calvinist rise to power in the Netherlands, he wrote his masterpiece, the Ethics, in secrecy, and never published it. It was published immediately upon his death, but was circulated openly for only a year before it was banned.

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Where Spinoza reduced the substances to one, the third Rationalist, Leibniz, increased them to infinity. Perhaps this can be explained as taking the Mind as the model for the world, rather than the Body. Leibniz was much vexed by the relationship between God and the physical world. He took it as granted that the physical world, as we describe it, is inherently passive – one state of affairs cannot cause another state of affairs, because it lacks any will. Therefore, the only conclusion is the Stoic one – the physical world is animated by God. For Leibniz, however, this was unsatisfactory – the Stoic God was immanent within the world, but Leibniz’s God was transcendent above it, and he found something unappealing in the notion of God stretching his hand down to move every particle whenever it needed moving. He concluded, therefore, that the world contains an active principle of its own – a mind, as it were – that causes changes.

This mind, however, cannot be identified with apparent physical objects, which are infinitely divisible; indeed, physical objects are clearly not basic things at all. What is basic is the atoms into which the objects can be divided – as in ancient atomism, these atoms can endure while gross physical objects a destroyed. However, Leibniz, like Descartes, believed that matter was infinitely divisible. Accordingly, he believed that the physical world was made up of an infinite number of indivisible, infinitely small, units, which he called ‘monads’. The concept of a sum of an infinite series of infinitesimals was counter-intuitive in its day, and Leibniz took pains to show how such a concept could be applied not only in physics but also in mathematics, for which purpose he invented his ‘infinitesimal calculus’ and its distinctive notation (still used today), and demonstrated its application to numerous mathematical problems.

In physics, the infinitesimal monad answered Newton’s complaint against Cartesian physics, which he said made motion impossible – Descartes and Leibniz both believed that true vacuum was impossible, whereas Newton insisted that without true vacuum there could be no motion. The idea that the plenum (vacuum-less continuity of the world without clear distinction between different objects) was composed of infinitesimals supposedly resolved this dilemma. Moreover, the fact that the physical world could be reduced to an infinite number of monads, which were themselves mental as well as physical, eliminated the Mind/Body problem: the Body was made out of Mind (or vice versa). “THE” mind was only one particularly privileged monad in the human body – every other monad also thought.

Because the monad is a substance, and because, he believed, substances cannot interact with each other, no monad interacts with any other. Instead, each monad individually goes through a series of changes. Every past and future condition of the monad is contained within the present monad, because everything that will happen is contained in a present cause, and everything that has happened can be known from a present effect – cause and effect is universal and unique. The fact that monads appear to act upon one another can be blamed on God – not because God continually interferes, but because God has set up all monads with a pre-established harmony. When I decide to press a key, all the monads in my finger spontaneously decide to press down, and those of the key decide to be pressed, and so forth.

This appears to be determinist, but Leibniz disagreed. To create room for free will, he distinguished absolute from contingent necessity – some things are necessary absolutely, and others are necessary only because of what has actually happened before that point. He used this framework to create a theory of ‘possible worlds’, in which the absolute necessities were shared, but contingent necessities were not. So, I could have chosen not to have written this post – if I had so chosen, I would have entered one possible world, but as I have not done so, I have entered a different world – this one. Of course, because each action is determined by the preceding one, each possible world must be parallel – they have been different from the beginning. Crucially, my decision is itself only potential – I can decide potentially both to write this post and not to write it, and these choices each occur in different parallel universes, which are themselves only potential. What distinguishes the real world from the host of possible ones is that God has decided to instantiate this one, and not the others. God has chosen this world because it is the best world possible.

Meanwhile, Leibniz also thought about thought. The thoughts that a monad has are not, like physical happenings, relations between monads, but things internal to a monad. Each monad is, in its role as a mind, a mirror of the world – it contains knowledge of all other monads. This is why the monads all act in their pre-established harmony – each contains knowledge of the others. What, then, makes there more than one monad? Leibniz says that all monads have all knowledge, but that the degree of clarity and precision that each monad has differs from the others. This pattern of clarity is what we may call a ‘perspective’ – each monad views the entire world, but each displays a different perspective on it. You and I, therefore, know exactly the same things, but we differ over which parts of the knowledge are clear and distinct to us – that is, we already know everything, but we don’t know that we know everything. Somebody does know everything: God. God is like a perfect monad – all knowledge is clear and distinct to him. God, therefore, has a viewpoint that sees from all perspectives. Human beings are distinct from all other things in our power of reason, which is an ability to make certain knowledge more clear to ourselves. This clarity cannot come from other monads, with which we do not interact, and so must come from God. For Leibniz, then, the mind is not a mirror of the world – the mind is a mirror of God.

Leibniz was, unarguably, a genius – not only one of the most intelligent men known to history but also one of the most universal experts since Aristotle, working on everything from physics to economics to mining to street-lighting to history to linguistics. He invented the mechanical calculator, capable of the four arithmetic functions, and outlined in theory machines capable of performing algebra. He invented binary, and believed that it would be possible to create computers that operated in a binary language encoded in the movement of marbles through tubes, programmed by punch-cards. He designed submarines, clocks, lamps, wind-powered pumps, and even a steam engine. He worked on the concept of a balance of trade. He invented national insurance, and called for the creation of the EU. He invented the concept of energy, although not its name. In mathematics, he invented the matrix. He also created the first symbolic logic, although it was not known about at the time, and had to be later re-invented. In accordance with this logic, he expressed the view that all thoughts could be decomposed into various combinations of certain elementary thoughts, which could then be expressed through symbolic notation. Contrary to Newton, he argued that space, time and motion were all fundamentally relative. He was the first to invent the concept of a ‘function’ in mathematics. He also created a new definition for the straight line: as a curve, any part of which is similar to the whole.
He also created two principles of incalculable significance: sufficient reason (nothing happens without there being a cause for that, and only that, happening; nothing happens randomly) and the identity of indiscernibles (two things are the same thing if they do not differ in any properties at all).









Regardless of genius, both Spinoza and Leibniz fell into disregard in the following century, and although many of their concepts have proven influential, few have ever subscribed to the details of their systems. Of the two, Leibniz is the more significant; yet Spinoza has always held a more universal attraction, and elements of his work have appeared in many later philosophers who would normally not be expected to sympathise with Rationalism – among them, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and Wittgenstein.

Leibniz wrote voluminously. Spinoza wrote little – aside from the published Tractatus, we have only the complete but unpublished Ethics and an array of minor or unfinished works. However, this does not make him easy to approach: he adopts a rigidly logical framework in the Ethics that is always dull and often difficult to follow (he believes he is conducting ‘geometrical’ philosophy, and expresses his theories in a style borrowed from Euclid, with definitions, axioms and conclusions all minutely detailed) – what’s more, he is frequently vague or sketchy at many of the most interesting or unusual points (perhaps, in his defence, because the work is intended to deal with Ethics, and he feels little need to explain himself fully on peripheral topics).



---------------------------------------

I've run ahead with the writing, so I've got three more post ready.

NEXT: British Empiricism I; in which John Locke digests the message of Descartes, takes a different route from that point, and seeks to simplify things somewhat, and in which George Berkeley agrees with Mr Locke to surprising and unexpected effect.

AFTERWARDS: British Empiricism II; in which David Hume hits the nitro on the empiricist vehicle, and smashes the Enlightenment into a brick wall.

AND THEN: Transcendental Idealism; in which Immanuel Kant reveals a Copernican Revolution in philosophy, rescues the world from Hume, and ushers in a New World Order.

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PostPosted: Mon Oct 26, 2009 11:08 am 
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PostPosted: Tue Oct 27, 2009 10:43 am 
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So now I know the source of all the parallel universes in mediocre SF and fantasy!

But I suppose we can't hold Leibniz responsible for the new Dr Who series.


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 Post subject: British Empiricism
PostPosted: Wed Oct 28, 2009 12:06 pm 
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Mornche: and probably the multiple-worlds interpretation of quantum physics. A lot of early twentieth century work in both quantum physics and relativity was deeply indebted to the physics of Leibniz and his followers (who tended to have relativist and field-based worldviews, as opposed to the strict absolute mechanics of Newton). More on that in a while, when we get to Kant...


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Opposition to Continental Rationalism came mostly in the form of what is now known as British Empiricism. Increasingly it is being realised that much of Empiricism’s basis originates with Descartes’ rival and correspondent, Thomas Hobbes (exiled to Paris during the war, for Royalist sympathies, and thus one of the few English contributors to the early stages of the Enlightenment, which was focused mostly on northern Europe); however, Hobbes was then known primarily for his political theories, and the movement did not fully emerge until 1690, with the publication of Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Its success in England was likely at least in part due to Locke’s politics – having encouraged the cause of the revolutionaries from his exile in Holland, he was greatly respected by the new revolutionary government, who offered him a senior diplomatic post. Although he turned it down for reasons of health, he published several works on subjects of politics and economics that were influential on the new regime, which doubtless strengthened his reputation as a theorist in all areas (it to some degree protected him, for instance, from charges of impiety).

The proximate cause of Locke’s essay was a perfect example of the usually-abstract crisis of communication that I earlier suggested had spurred the Enlightenment. One day, he was arguing about religion with his friends, and quickly they found that they were arguing entirely at cross-purposes, having very different assumptions. Accordingly, says Locke, “it came into my thoughts that we took a wrong course, and that before we set ourselves upon inquiries of that nature, it was necessary to examine our own abilities, and see what objects our understandings were, or were not, fitted to deal with.” He expected it would take him a side of paper – as it turned out, it took him twenty years.

Locke agrees with Descartes in the need to find a new foundation of certain knowledge. He agrees with Descartes that only the contents of our own minds are known to us with certainty, and therefore that these must be the basis for our knowledge about the world. The disagreement arises over the issue of precisely which things in our mind we should be looking at. The Rationalists placed the burden on abstract ideas, because these were the only ideas that were not fallible representations of the world. Moreover, they believed that such ideas could not be reduced to, or arise from, such representations: 2+2=4, they thought, was known innately, not by experiment; likewise, the fact that triangles had three sides. Locke, however, could not tolerate these ‘innate ideas’. He believed that the more general and abstract an idea, the harder it was to form, and the more experience it required. If we thought an idea was innate and not learned, we must just have been taught it – which for Locke’s politics meant an unwelcome suggestion of the power of authorities. If we really had any innate ideas, everybody would know they had them, and they don’t – therefore we don’t have them. [This argument, which relies on the Cartesian mind being fully conscious and self-conscious, was refuted by Leibniz with his invention of the “unconscious mind” – however, although the concept has remained with us, his argument was mostly overlooked]

Instead, Locke focused, not on our representations of the world per se, but on a particular kind of mental thing that came from a faculty entirely dependent upon our senses, which he therefore called ‘sensation’. All thoughts were composed of other thoughts, except for sensations, which were not; therefore, all thoughts could be reduced to sensations, and that must be the origin of our ideas. The human mind therefore has two distinct faculties – sensation, which provides us with mental contents, and reflection, which pieces them together. Moreover, reflection reflects the process of sensation, providing us with knowledge of our own thinking. Even such concepts as “Whatever is, is”, “All things are identical to themselves”, “Thinking things exist” and so forth, which the Rationalists had been accustomed to assume, must instead be produced from our sensations. Specifically, all thought operates on only three principles: combing two simple ideas to form a complex idea; removing the details from a complex and particular idea to form a general or universal idea; and comparing two ideas to form a new idea of the relation between them.

Locke shared Descartes’ materialist view of the external world (although, unlike Descartes, he was an atomist, and he also believed that matter possessed solidity as well as raw extension), and therefore he accepted the sort of things that Descartes said physical objects had: size, motion, shape, etc. At the same time, as a man whose philosophy was based on the senses, he could not ignore the old qualitative properties of nature: heat, wetness, colour and the like. Following his teacher, Robert Boyle, he named the first set of properties ‘primary qualities’, and the second set, ‘secondary qualities’, and theorised that secondary qualities were properties not of the object but of the relation between object and perceiver. Only secondary qualities could be directly sensed, but ideas of primary qualities could be formed from those sensations, just as secondary qualities were created originally from primary ones.

This, however, led Locke into a problem: given that he could not accept that primary qualities by themselves could produce secondary qualities – what could? He did not believe that a primary quality like the speed at which atoms vibrated could create a sensation like the feeling of heat, at least by itself – so what other factor was there? And if we did not know what the factor was, how could we remove it from our calculations and get back to the pure primary qualities? In other words, from the fact that we perceive colour, texture, heat, dryness and so forth, how can we ever hope to construct a ‘correct’ model of a universe build out of properties that seem to have nothing to do with those things? Secondarily, Locke faced the problem of substance – he knew that properties ‘bundled’, which to him implied that there was something they were properties of, which is to say objects or substances. Yet the actual substance was not a property, only things that had properties, so how, given that our knowledge comes through properties, was it at all possible to form any notion of the substance that underlay all the properties? And given that he DID have such a notion, was he being inconsistent?

To be clearer: lead has certain properties. We experience lead through secondary qualities – it is heavy, it has a grey colour, it is mouldable to our will. Somehow, without convincing explanation, we are to learn from these things that its surface has properties that cause it to absorb certain frequencies of light, it has a certain mass and density, it is ductile due to a certain structural configuration. And yet… is that all we mean? Surely a piece of lead is not just the combination of these properties – surely lead is actually a THING? It’s not just the abstract combination of “having mass” with “being grey”!

The second famous Empiricist, Berkeley, believed that Locke’s problem was his conservativism. Can’t know anything about underlying substance? Get rid of it. Can’t be sure about primary qualities on the basis of secondary ones? Get rid of them, too! Berkeley accepted that all we could know for certain was our own sensations – and stopped there. Because those sensations are mental, his system was one of the first systems of Idealism – the doctrine that only the mental exists.

He defended his argument very precisely. Aside from the sceptical reason above, he has a very simple point: if we perceive external objects, and yet all we can perceive is our own ideas, clearly external objects are ideas. It could be argued that we can perceive things other than our own mental contents – but that would go against the spirit of the times. In any case, Berkeley dismisses the argument by pointing out that we perceive the same ‘thing’ entirely differently in different circumstances – so either we are perceiving different things, or our perception is clouded by some factor of the circumstances. Yet there is no way to define an un-clouded circumstance – if I hold one hand in cold water and another in warm water, and then put both in the same tub of tepid water, it will feel warm to one hand and cold to the other – but I have no way to say that one of these sensations is ‘correct’ and the other is not. Through my two hands, I have two different perceptions of the same water – so clearly what I am perceiving is not the water itself, but some property of the water, and in particular a sensory property.

The more promising and common reply is to instead say that although I only perceive ideas immediately, I nonetheless also perceive objects indirectly through the ideas. But what relation is there between object and idea? One answer is that the idea represents the object – but what does this ‘representation’ consist of? The images are of paintings, and mirrors – both a painting and a reflection resembles the original. But an idea cannot resemble an object. The primary quality of having its atoms vibrate rapidly does not ‘resemble’ the feeling of heat! Even if it did, we cannot say that two things resemble each other until we hold them side-by-side and compare them – and we cannot compare an idea to an object, if the object is only known through the idea we are comparing it to. So instead of representation, we could turn to causation – we see the object because the object causes the idea. Well, for one thing, it’s not clear to what extent this makes us ‘see’ the object – if we see a man fall down the stairs, that does not mean we are seeing the man who pushed him, even though that is the cause of the falling. Furthermore, what is the nature of this causation? Berkeley points out that not only has nobody proposed a good way for extension, solidity and motion to act upon the stationary, non-extended, intangible mind, but also that according to the dualist theory such contact should be impossible. [Hobbes had argued that everything was matter and there was no mind – but nobody really paid any attention to him]. Nor did we have to appeal to objects for scientific reasons: the causal relationships held just as well among our sensations as they did among external objects. Indeed, since we learn about the putative relations between objects FROM the relations between sensations, by definition there’s no information to be gained by positing objects.

From all this, Berkeley concludes that “to be is to be perceived”: only our ideas (that is, perceptions/sensations) exist, not any physical objects. He challenges us to deny this: imagine, he says, something that is not perceived or conceived of in any mind. But anything we have thought of has been thought of by us: we cannot even imagine an un-imagined thing. Why, then, are we so desperate to believe that these things exist, when we cannot imagine them, when we cannot know about them, and when they serve no apparent purpose either in the world or in our theories?

This is not, however, to say that Berkeley did not believe in thing like dogs, cats, or churches. Indeed, that was his point – only by accepting that these were only mental products could we be saved from scepticism as to whether they actually existed at all. Dualism leads to scepticism, which leads to doubt, which leads to atheism. To those who complained that his theory involved object popping in and out of existence as soon as we turned our backs and stopped perceiving them, he had a plain answer: they continue in existence because they continue to be perceived. God observes, and thus preserves, the entire world, even when we close our own eyes.





Locke’s primary work in this field is named ‘An Essay Concerning Human Understanding’, although he is as least as significant for his contributions to political philosophy (which, you may have noticed, I’m not addressing here, although maybe I might later), chiefly his ‘Two Treatises of Government’.

Berkeley’s work begins with his ‘Essay towards a New Theory of Vision’, which is scientific in nature and does not advance his famous positions, although he later called upon it for evidence for them. His chief exposition lies in his ‘Treatise concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge’, which is supplemented, in less rigorous but perhaps more comprehensible form, in his “Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous”. His most popular work, however, was at the time ‘Siris’, in which he divides his attention between attempting to gradually bring his readers into a pure contemplation of God, on the one hand, and on the other hand educating them about the scientifically-proven miraculous powers of tar-water, which he claims is a universal cure for all illnesses. Despite appointment as Bishop of Cloyne, it is the latter theme that eventually became the dominant one in Berkeley’s life, as exhibited in his final tome, ‘Further Thoughts on Tar-Water’. Along the way, he also published ‘The Analyst’, a scathing attack on the calculus practiced by ‘infidel’ mathematicians like Newton and Leibniz, which Berkeley believed to be ultimately irrational and nonsensical – he coined the phrase ‘ghosts of departed quantities’ to describe the neither-finite-nor-infinitessimal fluxions employed by Newton. Although his attack was not heeded at the time, it has since been realised that his arguments are mathematically and rigorously sound, and no fully rational foundation for calculus was created until at least the nineteenth, and arguably the twentieth, century.

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FURTHERMORE IT IS MY OPINION THAT MY THREAD IN C&CQ IS TO BE LOOKED AT.

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it would appear that Berkeley's stance on pine-tar has a parallel in Finnish folk wisdom - that which alcohol, pine-tar or the sauna doesn't treat leads inevitably to death.

(So, there's a huge non-organized heterodox berkeleyan religious community in the Finnish lutheran church, who would've known)

other than that, sorry about not having much anything to say in response to your thread in C&CQ, but that's because I am not much into phon- thingies.
My stint at Nokia made me sick of them.

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I think Berkeley's approach is actually quite sensible (no pun intended): can't reconcile Body and Mind, can't get rid of Mind, so get rid of Body.

And Hume is now:


----------------------------------------------



The pinnacle, or perhaps the nadir, of Empiricism was reached with David Hume, generally considered the greatest English-language philosopher. Although Hume was born into a devoutly Calvinist family, and was as a young man somewhat fixated on religious questions, his time at Edinburgh University (which he entered at the age of twelve) introduced him to the Classics, and rapidly turned him from organised religion. Some have argued that he was a deist, but it seems likely that this was merely an acceptable face for his (almost unprecedented) atheism, which caused him considerable political trouble throughout his life. He was only truly accepted on his sojourns to France, and at home he became famous and rich only with the publication of his seminal History of England, not for his philosophy. Atheism, however, was only one facet of an overarching iconoclasm; many of his critics accused him of trying to be original for originality’s sake, in every field, while he himself described his philosophical mission, with Calvinist zeal if very different direction, as “to destroy the false and adulterate”.

Most of Hume’s points flow from his theory of perceptions. It is his belief, as an Empiricist, that all perceptions (ideas) originate with sensation, as ‘impressions’. These impressions decay or fade over time, turning from lively impressions into pale ‘ideas’. To begin with, they are simple ideas, but they may be combined by mental faculties into complex ideas. Hume believes that error and confusion arise when we reason with ideas so complex, and so far from our impressions, that they have become weak, pale, and vague. Some of them, indeed, have lost all meaning, because no clear connexion to the impressions can be found. The remedy to this is therefore to take careful stock of our words, finding for each one the idea it corresponds to, decomposing that complex idea into simple ideas, and tracing how those simple ideas originate in impressions.

Hume’s view of the mind is not as something active and spiritual, but as something mechanical and largely passive; he believes he is beginning a new science of human understanding analogous to the physical sciences. Accordingly, many difficult mental characteristics are reduced to simple phenomena. “Belief”, for instance, is not, for Hume, any sort of particularly representative or intentional state, but simply an unusual vivacity that is held by particular ideas, which makes them seem more like impressions (and hence makes them clearer and harder to deny). “Truth” is not built from certain foundations at all: instead, a “reality” is formed from our vivacious beliefs and our current impressions, and this system can be, or not be, “coherent”.

Moreover, although he acknowledges that ideas represent things, and that the truth of an idea comes from correctly representing the thing, Hume takes a dramatic step: for him, ideas only represent the impressions they were formed from. A true idea mirrors an impression; a false one, does not. Impressions do not represent anything, and are therefore neither true nor false. As to the ‘source’ of the impressions, Hume is agnostic – maybe they arise from some ‘external’ ‘objects’, maybe they are conjured up by some imaginative faculty, maybe they are given to us by God. He doesn’t know, and doesn’t care – all attempts to know are illegitimate, as they go beyond any evidence we can collect.

However, unlike Locke, he believes the mind has more than just these impression-derived ideas. The mind, he says, has a tendency or habit to connect particular ideas with each other, in relations of causality, contiguity, and resemblance. These ‘judgements’ create a second tier of impressions, but they cannot be reduced solely to impressions (that is, their content can be, but their origins cannot). Instead, the connective faculty of the mind must simply be accepted on its own terms.
Rationalists would say that this connective faculty was Reason, or a part of Reason, but Hume denies this. He divides reasoning into two types: reasoning about matters of fact, and reasoning about the relation between ideas, by which he means what we call ‘analytic’ reasoning. This brings out aspects already found in the ideas themselves. So, “bachelors are unmarried” is analytic, in that it tells us nothing not contained in the word “bachelors”; likewise, he accepts that “2+2=4” is analytic. It is also a priori (does not require experience) – here he accepts Rationalism, unlike Locke. But it is a poisoned acceptance – because he believes that everything a priori is analytic, and therefore such ‘reasoning’ can tell us nothing about the world, and nothing about our impressions, but merely tautologically reminds us of what the ideas we have actually mean. Causal association is not reasoning in this way, because the effect is not inherent in the cause, but must be learnt by experience.

Moreover, causal association cannot come from ‘matters of fact’, either, as no array of particular sense impressions can ever tell us anything universal. We ‘reason’ about the past and future through induction – the principle that the future will be the same as the past – but that principle cannot itself be known from impressions (we cannot experience the future: we can learn that what-was-the-future was the same as what-was-the-past, but the idea that that relation will still hold in the future requires induction, which begs the question). So either we accept the validity of some innate knowledge (in this case the temporal uniformity of physical laws), or we acknowledge that inference is not rationally valid, and that causal reasoning is not a form of reasoning at all. As Hume could not see how innate knowledge was possible (all knowledge being knowledge of the impressions, and derived from that source), he took the latter option.

Causality, then, was not some inevitable property of the universe, which could be known about innately. Instead, causality was our word for a particular habit we have got into of associating two events, when we have noticed that the one event is commonly seen to precede the other event. This definition finally eliminated the Mind/Body problem for Empiricists – because it got rid of all suppositions about the nature or cause of causation (there must be contact, there must be some sort of interaction, etc), it said that any two things that happened to occur contiguously in time could be called cause and effect, and so there was no obstacle to Mind and Body ‘interacting’ with each other. There was no difference between causation and parallel action – essentially, for Hume, causation actually IS correlation.

This is far from the limit of Humean radicalism. In general, Hume casts doubt on all attempts to move from the particular (eg juxtaposition of two events) to the general (eg laws of causation). He does the same thing with substances and underlying objects that persist through time. Shockingly, he even applies the principle to the self. Descartes believed that “I think, therefore I am”, but Hume disagreed: Descartes had an idea of thinking, yes, and by convention ascribed that thought to a thinker. Fine. And he did that time and again – but none of that is enough to make the leap to saying that the “I” in each case represents some common thing. There is no enduring “I”; there is no “self”. There is only a series of mental phenomena, which by habit we connect by attributing them all to a single experiencer.

Hume also had controversial views of morality. He, as usual, opposed Rationalism, which was even more commonplace in morality than in other fields (Locke himself remain a rationalist about morality): rationalism believes that, fundamentally, good and bad actions can be reasoned about, and that acting badly is therefore irrational. Hume rejects this entirely, for this ‘reason’ is neither about the relations between ideas nor about matters of fact. He observes, famously, that accounts of morality frequently begin with matters of fact, using the verb ‘is’, and then suddenly jump, without any logical connexion, to matters of morality, using the verb ‘ought’. Instead, he says, reason can only be employed in deciding the most practical means: “reason is, and can only be, the slave of the passions”. Ends themselves cannot be assessed against reason: there is nothing irrational, he says, in a man preferring to let the entire world be destroyed, rather than lift his finger.

Instead, morality is focused not on actions but on traits – specifically, traits that are ‘useful’ (or which rationality is presumably one). In this, he appears to be following Hobbes, who grounded morality in self-interest, but Hume refutes this view through appeal to daily experiences. It is simply not the case, he thinks, that our everyday moral feelings can be explained purely by self-interest. Instead, the basis of morality is ‘sympathy’, or ‘benevolence’, by which we feel the pain and pleasure of others. This is not an accidental quality, however, but an inevitable product of communal life: because we need to live with others, we need a common, and hence non-particular, language, and that language shapes our associations: because we call it ‘pain’ whether it is mine or yours, there is a commonality in our feelings about both types of pain, which is re-enforced by the same associative faculties that give us ideas of universality, and causality.

Hume’s views were both fruitful and depressive in their power. On the one hand, his views inspired his friends and his readers to new advances – Adam Smith is an example of the former, and Darwin of the latter. The importance of his contributions to philosophy, history, politics, religion, and economics (where he pioneered theories of free trade) cannot be overlooked: he was the towering figure of the so-called Scottish Enlightenment, and posthumously played an enormous role in shaping the identity and worldview of the British Empire. One 19th century Englishman summarised his significance: “Hume is our Politics, Hume is our Trade, Hume is our Philosophy, Hume is our Religion.”

At the same time, however, there was something both frightening and final about Hume’s philosophy, in which Empiricism sealed the last bolt in its own coffin. The grand attempt to justify and explain all human knowledge from experience had only succeeded in eliminating virtually all knowledge that people thought they had: about themselves, about God, about morality, about the external world, about science, about causality… about everything. Hume seemed to say that we could do without these things… but even he admitted that, faced with the sceptical nihilism of his theories, he was occasionally overcome by depression, which he could only escape by leaving his books behind, going to a party, and playing backgammon instead. Science continued, of course, but philosophers were left behind, unable (until the twentieth century, and Popper’s theories of falsification) to find any rational justification for it. Empiricism, having eliminated most of the universe and of human thought, had literally nowhere left to go – although there was a period of denial, Mill’s attacks on Hume’s critics drove the point home, and the empirical tradition in Anglo-America died out (though its influence later reawoke in some branches of Analytic Philosophy in the twentieth century).

The silence Hume engendered in some quarters would not have displeased the man himself, who seems to have believed that silence (or backgammon) is better than "adulterate" reasoning. In one of his most famous quotations, he makes clear with characteristic force what he thinks of such speculation:

"If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion."


Hume’s most important work is generally considered to be the Treatise of Human Nature; sections of it were reworked, condensed, and made more understandable in the Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding and Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals. In general, Hume is an easy read if the language of the era is not off-putting – he combines a simple, conversational style with a marvellous turn of phrase and a fine sense for prose rhythm, and in my view is one of the greatest English stylists, although this can distract from the content – I remember reading paragraphs of his works, just listening to how they sounded, before realising I hadn’t paid attention to anything they said.
In tone and content, Hume’s works, not only the more serious but also the more popular essays on a variety of subjects, have become central to modern civilisation, and in particular to the ideal of “Britishness” – civil, polite, anti-authoritarian, allergic to vanity, underscored with irony and a potentially sharp wit, and never frightened to disagree. Some quotes gleaned at a glance from the internet to illustrate this worldview:
“Truth springs from argument between friends”
“Avarice, the spur of industry”
“When men are the most sure and arrogant, they commonly are the most mistaken”
“Eloquence, when in its highest pitch, leaves little room for reason or reflection”
“Generally speaking, the errors in religion are dangerous; those in philosophy only ridiculous”
“The Christian religion not only was at first attended with miracles, but even at this day cannot be believed by any reasonable person without one”
“I have written on all sorts of subjects . . . yet I have no enemies; except indeed all the Whigs, all the Tories, and all the Christians”
“The heights of popularity and patriotism are still the beaten road to power and tyranny; flattery to treachery; standing armies to arbitrary government; and the glory of God to the temporal interest of the clergy”
“The great end of all human industry is the attainment of happiness. For this were arts invented, sciences cultivated, laws ordained, and societies modeled, by the most profound wisdom of patriots and legislators. Even the lonely savage, who lies exposed to the inclemency of the elements and the fury of wild beasts, forgets not, for a moment, this grand object of his being.”

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It is indeed interesting - Hume is still indexed in some old libraries as "David Hume, the Historian". As well as a historian, he wrote on economics, politics and religion. Likewise, Locke is famous for his work in political theory, as well as being important for his work in economics. The putative founder of Empiricism, Hobbes, is best known for his political and ethical theories. All three discuss psychology, and so does Berkeley. Hume's truest successor, in my opinion, is Mill, who is known almost entirely as a political and ethical philosopher (though he was also important as a philosopher of mathematics).

Meanwhile, Rationalists like Descartes and Leibniz contributed massively to the physical sciences instead. It's the reversal of what we would expect if we uncritically extended the Continental/Analytic distinction back in time.

My buffer of posts is running out. I've only got two more: Kant; and then Fichte and Schelling.

After that, obviously, it's on to Hegel. Then I'll try to squeeze together posts on Continental Alternatives (Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard), and Angloamerican Alternatives (Utilitarianism and Pragmatism). Then... [Frege, Russell, Wittgenstein, Logical Positivism], [Later Wittgenstein, Behaviourism, OLP], and then probably [Later Stuff].

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I get a feeling (heh!) that there's a fair amount of Berkley in the current vogue for 'systems thinking' - in particular the need to see the world in terms of mental models. Not that I have any love of systems thinking: I've just failed an OU second level unit on the subject (by deliberately not completing and submitting the end of course assessment thingy) - I particularly disliked the evangelical tone of the course material and the silly dualisms set up by insisting that systemic thinking and reductive thinking are separate entities. But that's just me. I get the impression that the systems folk are very keen to regain something they believe was lost when (reductive) scientific investigation divorced itself from philosophy ... but they're going to have to find a better way to teach their subject (imnsho) if they want to change the world.

That last Hume quote is brilliant: "The great end of all human industry is the attainment of happiness. For this were arts invented, sciences cultivated, laws ordained, and societies modeled, by the most profound wisdom of patriots and legislators. Even the lonely savage, who lies exposed to the inclemency of the elements and the fury of wild beasts, forgets not, for a moment, this grand object of his being." Interestingly, much is currently being made in a number of political disciplines - and in particular the more practical end of economic theories - of the importance of happiness in people's decision-making processes, where happiness != rational behaviour.

Loving the tone of these posts, as I'm (just about) able to follow them. Which is more than I managed to do for the last few chapters of Sophie's Choice. More specifically to conlanging, they've made me realise how much I depend on (my poor understanding of) post-enlightenment philosophies when developing my conlangs - in particular how I've developed the lexicons associated with thinking, speaking, reporting, etc as I understand them rather than how the natives might understand them ... something I'll need to keep in mind (another heh!) in the future, and maybe even go back and reconsider for my existing conlangs.


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1724: Immanuel Kant
1742: Jeremy Bentham
1762: Johann Gottlieb Fichte
1770: Georg Wilhelm Hegel
1775: Friedrich von Schelling
1781: “Critique of Pure Reason”
1788: Arthur Schopenhauer; William Hamilton
1789: FRENCH REVOLUTION BEGINS
1798: Auguste Comte
1801: DEATH OF NOVALIS
1803: Ralph Waldo Emerson
1804: “Eroica”
1806: John Stuart Mill
1807: "Phenomenology of Spirit"
1813: Søren Kierkegaard; Richard Wagner
1815: DEFEAT OF NAPOLEON AT WATERLOO
1818: Karl Marx; "The World as Will and Representation"
1821: DEATH OF KEATS
1822: DEATH OF SHELLEY
1824: DEATH OF BYRON
1827: DEATH OF BLAKE; DEATH OF BEETHOVEN
1830-1842: "Course on Positive Philosophy"
1832: GREAT REFORM ACT
1839: Charles Sanders Pierce
1842: William James
1843: "Either/Or"; "A System of Logic"
1844: Friedrich Nietzsche
1846: Francis Herbert Bradley
1848: SPRING OF NATIONS; Gottlob Frege; Bernard Bosenquet
1855: Josiah Royce
1859: John Dewey; "On Liberty"
1863: "Utilitarianism"
1867: "Das Kapital"
1871: UNIFICATION OF GERMANY
1872: Bertrand Russell
1873: George Edward (“G.E.”, “Bill”) Moore
1886: "Beyond Good and Evil"
1889: Ludwig Wittgenstein

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 Post subject: German Idealism I.
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The theories of Kant were part of a radical transformation of art, thought and society. The Enlightenment as an era still shared the same fundamental worldview as the medieval scholastic: God created the heavens and the earth, and peopled them with human beings, and endowed those human beings with the faculties that would enable them to understand the world, and through understanding come to appreciate and love their God. After Kant, there was a new world – a far more frightening world. For a start, deism, pantheism and atheism had become so prominent that the natural world was no longer seen simply as a playground for humanity, but a vast, chaotic, and potentially hostile world. Nature became a threat: a threat that was at first regulated and controlled (through, for instance, the invention of landscape gardens, which put nature in a manageable form, and the popularity of bucolic and idyllic landscape painting), and later surrendered to in awe. Further, the terror of, and attraction to, nature was exacerbated by the Kantian image of the ‘thing in itself’ that lies behind the world, never captured or conceived – an image, almost without precedence, of the world as fundamentally unknowable, and of the human mind as limited. At the same time, however, Kant handed humanity a new and near-illimitable power: to shape the entire world in their minds. The movement that arose from the combination of new-found power and new-found impotence is named Romanticism. The Romantic era was to be an era that took as its highest idols not the scientists and theologians of Enlightenment, but a new generation of artists and musicians, those who exploited fully the creative ‘inner freedom’ that Kant believed was the essence of the self.

Among the early philosophers of the new era, the most significant was Fichte. Fichte began with an appreciation of the duality imposed by Kantian ethics – we know ourselves both as subject and as object. These two accounts were contradictory, and so Fichte believed that only one could be chosen. The first principle of the path of subjectivity was knowable with self-evident certainty – and yet not to those who followed the path of objectivity. Thus, Fichte divided the population into two parts – those who concerned themselves with things as objects, with causality, and with determination, and those who concerned themselves with themselves as subjects, free, ethical, willing, acting. The choice of philosophy was a reflection of the type of person – yet he was sure the subjective path was best. From the subject, he believed that he could deduce all important features of our lives as we lived them; whereas the objectivists could never make the leap from theorising mechanical things to theorising human consciousness and subjecthood.

The first principle must therefore be subjecthood, which is to say freedom. The I is free – and, more importantly, the I recognises itself as free. This is the central feature of consciousness: all consciousness requires self-consciousness, and all self-consciousness is consciousness of the self as a free, willing, subject. Thus, every conscious experience contains, or is built upon, an unconscious knowledge (or unarguable and unavoidable supposition) of freedom. Yet this awareness has certain pre-requisites. We cannot be aware of ourselves as free beings without dividing our mental contents into those accompanied by a feeling of necessity and those accompanied by a feeling of freedom: to be aware of our freedom is to be aware of non-freedom. And yet, because we are free, to be aware of non-freedom is to be aware of the non-I.

This awareness of the Other comes in the form of a ‘check’ on our will – there are things that do not conform to our will, and that are therefore not us. Consequently, we constantly find our will being blocked – and when our will is blocked, it is sublimated into striving. The I therefore is aware of itself as free, and yet becomes aware of itself as limited – the I therefore strives to resolve this paradox by altering the non-I to meet its own will.

In practical terms, we are aware of our will, and then we are aware of our will being blocked, and this second awareness is in the form of the limitation of our physical body in the physical world. Our awareness of ‘things’ in the world is therefore not necessarily derived from ‘things in themselves’, but simply from the ‘check’, the nature or cause of which we cannot theorise about, as it is fundamentally non-self. Our life in the physical world is an experience of attempting to change the physical world to meet how we want the physical world to be; we want it to obey our will, but for that to be a free will it must follow the laws it has laid down for itself. Those laws are what we call Duty or Morality; our life is therefore the physical instantiation of our ethical desire – its underlying nature is our moral commandment to reshape the world in the image of our morality. In other words, life is a series of obstacles to making the world better. The physical world, Fichte says, is “the material of our duty made sensible”. Fichte therefore displays the news possibilities of the Kantian world: unlike the mind-fixated and often detached accounts of the Enlightenment philosophers (for whom the distinction was mind vs matter), Fichte’s philosophy is primarily a philosophy of an embodied, physical, striving being.

The various ways in which the I is limited creates the various features and dimensions of our experience of the physical world. An important limitation is that the self is aware of itself as individual, which, it discovers, requires the existence of other free beings. These free beings reciprocally call upon each other to limit their own freedom to enable the freedom of other beings. From this, a contractarian account of justice and law emerges from the originally egoistic striving for autonomy (obedience to the self-made law).

One key characteristic of Fichte’s world is that it is progressive, not static – although the key discoveries are held to be unconsciously known, prerequisite, to all consciousness, the consequence is ethical striving – which inherently implies change. In his later career, Fichte turned to this process of change, creating a theory of the historical progression of mankind from barbarism toward a completely rational and self-aware society, as the human I gradually imposes itself on its limitations, and gropes toward a harmonious world-community. This world-community, however, is not homogenous; it respects its component parts just as a community respects individuals. The component parts of the world are nations, specifically ‘nation-states’ (a notion probably introduced by Fichte), which are, beside, an intermediate stage toward world unity, which cannot be attained until all nations are represented by nation-states; furthermore, each nation is given its own particular nature and talents, and it is therefore essential that they are not eroded by forced unification, or by admixture and the admission of foreigners. This special character, which defines the nature, is seen in the common language and culture of the nation – an idea that clearly has echoes of the Humean belief that morality emerges from a shared language. At the personal level, the existence of the nation-state, or ‘fatherland’, is a way for individuals to overcome the limitation of death and achieve autonomy (for, though death is inevitable, nothing can be done without assuming immortality), by identifying themselves with their fatherland – an identification that calls for death before defeat. This theory is most famously and influentially expressed in the seminal “Addresses to the German Nation”, delivered in occupied Berlin, in which Fichte calls not only for resistance against Napoleon, but for the unification of all German polities into a single German Fatherland (and for the expulsion of those who are not truly German). In the Thirteenth Address, we find this pithy manifesto for nationalism:

“Those who speak the same language are joined to each other by a multitude of invisible bonds by nature herself, long before any human art begins; they understand each other and have the power of continuing to make themselves understood more and more clearly; they belong together and are by nature one and an inseparable whole. Such a whole, if it wishes to absorb and mingle with itself any other people of different descent and language, cannot do so without itself becoming confused, in the beginning at any rate, and violently disturbing the even progress of its culture. From this internal boundary, which is drawn by the spiritual nature of man himself, the marking of the external boundary by dwelling place results as a consequence; and in the natural view of things it is not because men dwell between certain mountains and rivers that they are a people, but, on the contrary, men dwell together -- and, if their luck has so arranged it, are protected by rivers and mountains -- because they were a people already by a law of nature which is much higher. “

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Friedrich Schelling was at first a follower of Fichte, but he soon moved beyond the Fichtean system to establish his own. His views changed considerably throughout his life; he was seen in later times as a mere precursor to Hegel, but he outlived Hegel, and for the following generation was a powerful source of opposition to Hegelian theories. Throughout his life, he stood at the forefront of Romanticism, exerting not only philosophical but also personal influence over many of the greatest artists of the age; his early philosophy contributed considerably to scientific advance, though its own scientific ideas are now entirely discounted.

For Fichte, it is essential to posit the I as free and undetermined; but Schelling denies that this is possible. Because our thoughts are to some degree determined by our perceptions of the outside world (and then, in turn, one thought is conditioned by another), reflection can never give us an undetermined self: reflection shows us not “Sein”, Being-for-Itself, but “Dasein”, Being-in-the-World. Even in self-reflection, there is both subject and object – and so reflection can only tell us about ourselves as an object, not about ourselves as a subject. However, crucially, individuation – what makes you and I different – is part of Dasein; Sein itself transcends individuality. Therefore the Subject exists outside of, and prior to, our self-consciousness, and the sphere of our minds; which is to say that it exists in the world, in Nature. This explains the question of how the Subject can arise naturally – because Nature itself is already Subject as well as Object.

Here, Schelling makes bold claims for the power of art. Drawing on suggestions already present in Kantian aesthetics, Schelling believes that the aesthetic sense tells us something about the world that cannot be cashed out in terms of the categorical conditionality that is the hallmark of the phenomenal (objective) world – instead, the aesthetic sense reveals to us aspects of something noumenal, which Schelling takes to mean something subjective. It is therefore through art that we see the subjective in nature – and as the subjective in nature is likewise the subjective in us, it is art, rather than reflection, that gives us self-knowledge. In addition to aesthetics, teleology (the interpretation of the world through ends and purposes) also shows us the subject: in seeing the world conform to purposes, we see the world lay down purposes for itself – Nature is a ‘productivity’ that both produces and is produced by itself.

The self-consciousness of Fichte is thus no longer the basis of philosophy, but nor can it be denied; instead, it must be seen as a result, and not as a foundation. For Schelling, treating self-consciousness as a result means finding the grounds for the subject-object distinction. Difference, he believes, is incomprehensible without Identity; yet at the same time, Identity is incomprehensible without Difference. Yet this is not an insurmountable problem, because the Difference we find in reflection is only ever a finite difference, which can therefore find its ground in an infinite, unbounded Identity: the Absolute. This Identity is the only way any knowledge is possible: for knowledge, a representation must correspond to reality, but this ‘correspondence’ cannot be satisfactorily explained except as identity: knowledge exists when the representation IS what is represented. This is possible in the absolute identity of objective and non-objective worlds, which is to say the identity of subject and object.

Indeed, Schelling goes further. The only knowledge is knowledge of the Absolute, but it is knowledge THROUGH the finite. He gives the example of a person looking at themselves in a mirror – the mirror only allows the person to see themselves when the person posits themselves and does NOT posit the mirror. Only by ignoring the existence of the mirror do we come to believe that we see ourselves, and not a painted sheet of glass. The objective world is the mirror of the Absolute – we know the Absolute through the objective, but only by abstracting the object from what we perceive. Moreover, in this case, the mirror is the person – the mirror, the objective world, is the product of nature, which is identical to its productivity. This is the first step of the ‘history of self-consciousness’ – the Absolute perceives itself through the mirror of itself as a product of its own productivity, and in doing so denies the reality, the Identity, of itself as product, creating a difference in concept between the Absolute, the productivity that underlies nature, the subject that perceives itself, and the conditioned, the limited, the finite, the product, the object that is perceived by itself.

The doctrine that the object is identical to the Absolute is mirrored by the doctrine that the subject is identical to the Absolute, seen above in the elucidation of an Absolute Sein. In this way, ‘our’ thoughts are not really ‘our’ thoughts at all: “I think, I am, is, since Descartes, the basic mistake of all knowledge; thinking is not my thinking, and being is not my being, for everything is only of God or of the totality.”

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Neither Fichte nor Schelling are now widely read. Both philosophers changed their views continually throughout their careers – in the case of Fichte, most of his philosophy has been lost, as it was only ever given as lectures, which he refused to have published. His system, which he called the “Wissenschaftslehre”, is expounded in his “Foundation of the Entire Wissenshaftslehre” (1794/5), and his “Foundation of Transcendental Philosophy (Wissenschaftslehre) novo methodo” (in theory an exposition of the same philosophy, but in practice with some key changes). The latter is known from student transcripts dating from 1796-1799. The “System of Ethics” and “Foundations of Natural Right” carry the philosophy more fully into morality, while Fichte issued a revised lecture course in 1801/1802, before producing three radically different new systems in 1804, which were revised in 1805, 1807, 1810, 1811, 1812, 1813 and 1814. Traditionally, only the ‘early’ Fichte has been of interest, or even commonly known of (it is said that he had two epochs, both known to biography, but only one known to history), although in 2005 the second lecture series from 1804 was finally published in English. His political views in the polemical, rhetorical “Addresses to the German Nation” build on the (less nationalist, more optimistic) political theories of his “Characteristics of the Present Age”. Popular explanations of his work include the pathetically titled “A CRYSTAL CLEAR Report to the General Public Concerning the ACTUAL ESSENCE of the Newest Philosophy: An ATTEMPT to FORCE the Reader TO UNDERSTAND” (capitals my own) and the better-known and more synoptic “The Vocation of Man”. That Fichte is capable of good writing is seen in his Addresses, but much of his philosophical work is opaque – in part because the notes we have were created as aids for his students, to supplement and not replace his lectures.

Schelling, on the other hand, is simply abysmal as a writer, in my opinion (in this as in other ways he seems to have been a model for the Continental tradition in philosophy). His prose is usually impenetrable, and was believed by many (including Schopenhauer and Kierkegaard) to be nonsense. It’s quite possible he believed the exact opposite of what I’ve said he believed. I would quote you some passages, but they physically hurt me to read. Also, he wrote an awful lot.

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PostPosted: Tue Nov 10, 2009 10:47 am 
Sanci
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I wanted to make a note on Kant before you got to Fichte, but I guess I was too slow...
In any case, I just wanted to emphasize that Kant was not doing psychology. He's not saying "it happens to be the case that human beings always use the category 'causality' to describe the world"--this is essentially just Hume's position. What Kant is doing is closer to logic than psychology (though it's not quite that either): what conditions must be fulfilled in order for something to count as an experience of a finite subject?
The answer is of course extremely complicated, and I certainly don't understand all of its details. I want to mention one small part though: time as the form of internal sense. This is probably the most radical introduction Kant makes. Not only is my knowledge of the world necessarily defined (and limited) by the structure of possible experience, my knowledge of myself is as well. Since Descartes the human mind had been completely transparent, it was an immediate knowledge of itself. With Kant, it's split in two: on the one side, a completely empty transcendental subject, which we can only know through the pure form of time; on the other, an empirical subject with its thoughts, perceptions, etc. Kant's successors were generally concerned with bridging this gap, and as Salmoneus mentioned, this was not simply academic speculation but was closely connected to the Romantic movement in the arts. This theme of separation or alienation from oneself has been central in Western philosophy and literature ever since.
Another point I'd like to add is that Kant introduces a standard for judging philosophies: systematicity. We've seen of course that Spinoza presents his philosophy "ordine geometrico"; but starting from his axioms and postulates, there's no particular reason why I should take these ones and infer something from them. Kant doesn't use a geometrical form (thank God!), but he holds his philosophy to a higher standard of rigour. Not only must everything follow from the principles we start with, but each part has to be necessary to the whole, like the stones of an arch, to use a cliché example; and further, the Critique of Pure Reason has to be considered a failure, according to Kant, if there remains one problem of metaphysics unsolved by it. This new standard is closely tied to the new professionalization of philosophy: whereas philosophers like Descartes or Leibnitz did a good part of their work piecemeal in letters to their friends (while they had a break between inventing new fields of mathematics), philosophy is now a full-time job, and the philosopher has to keep the "big picture" constantly in mind.
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Oh, and also some interesting anecdotes. Kant spent his entire life in the academically backwater town Königsberg and was well-known to the townspeople for his taking a walk at precisely the same time every day, and for having invented a contraption to keep his socks from falling down. (Nietzsche saw this as very characteristic of his philosophy as well.) Fichte discovered Kant when some rich student hired him to teach it to him; he accepted, even though he had never heard of Kant, because he was broke; he read the three Critiques, and was amazed. He wrote an Attempt at a Critique of All Revelation, then walked to Königsberg to show it to Kant, who was impressed enough to help getting it published. It was published anonymously, due to the somewhat controversial topic, and became famous because everyone assumed that a Critique published in Königsberg was by Kant. When the truth came out, Fichte got a teaching job in Jena, which later became the centre for Romanticism because all the bright young men with no jobs went there to attend his courses. He taught for a few years in Jena, until someone wrote an article accusing him of atheism, whereupon Fichte wrote to another philosopher Jacobi for help; but Jacobi agreed with the charge and helped to get Fichte expelled from the university. (This is especially silly because Jacobi's philosophical work was devoted to showing how all philosophy leads inevitably to Spinozism, which is unacceptable and therefore requires us to give up philosophy for religion. Why did Fichte think Jacobi would help him?) Fichte spent the rest of his career giving lectures in friends' living rooms, or by private subscriptions. His fate served as a warning for his successors, who were always careful to avoid the smell of atheism.


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PostPosted: Tue Nov 10, 2009 12:52 pm 
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I wouldn't disagree with anything there. Some notes:

- Yes, a key difference between Hume and Kant (ultimately, perhaps, THE key difference) is that Hume saw the psychological necessity of certain aspects of our experience as being facts about us - we just happened to have to do such-and-such. Kant, on the other hand, saw the necessity as being facts about the nature of experience itself - a logical necessity, not merely a practical one. This became the core of philosophy after Kant - by the time of Hegel, he is able to describe philosophy as the science of the preconditions of consciousness.

- Kant actually didn't live all his time in Koenigsberg - he spent about a decade in the countryside in various minor tutoring jobs, where he wrote a lot of his early work (he had essentially been exiled from Koenigsberg for atheism, and only returned after a change in staff at the university).

- To further show the point, Jena was home not only to Fichte, but to Schelling and Hegel as well. "German Idealism" could really be called "Jena Idealism". In addition to these philosophers, Jena was home to Schlegel, theorist of Romanticism, and many of the great Romantic exponants: Goethe, Schiller, Novalis, and Hoelderlin (a school-friend of Hegel and Schelling). It was in Jena that Romanticism was born.

- The accusation of atheism was a continual fear at that time, particularly in Germany. Before the Atheism Dispute that Fichte was embroiled in, there had been the Pantheism Controversy, in which Jacobi had accused Lessing of "Spinozism", and Jacobi and Moses Mendelssohn (then considered the greatest philosopher of the age) had mutually accused each other of atheism; one reason why Kant became famous was that he seemed to offer a way out of the Controversy. It should be noted that all of Spinoza, the Amsterdam Jews who excommunicated him, Lessing, Jacobi, Mendelssohn, Kant and Fichte all believed themselve to be theists, yet all were accused, and accused others, of being atheists. This should serve to demonstrate that although everybody at the time agreed that atheism was a terrible thing, nobody really agreed on what it was.

[A correction, though - Fichte did go on to spend a semester as a professor in Erlangen. Moreover, his reputation was eventually rehabilitated (I presume in large part because of his public opposition to the Napoleonic occupation), and in 1810 he became the first Head of Philosophy at the new university in Berlin, where he taught for four years until his death]

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