Advanced Search


DESCARTES AND RUSSELL Can anyone please explain how Russell thinks there is an error in saying 'I am a thing that thinks' (Descartes). I understand he talks about language, substance theory etc but his whole argument still remains unclear to me. HERE IS THE PASSAGE FROM THE BOOK (PORTRAITS FROM MY MEMORY): What I wish to emphasize is the error involved in saying "I am a thing that thinks." Here the substance philosophy is assumed. It is assumed that the world consists of more or less permanent objects with changing states. This view was evolved by the original metaphysicians who invented language, and who were much struck by the difference between their enemy in battle and their enemy after he had been slain, although they were persuaded that it was the same person whom they first feared, and then ate. It is from such origins that common sense derives its tenets. And I regret to say that all too many professors of philosophy consider it their duty to be sycophants of common sense, and thus, doubtless...

I think you are quite right to be puzzled. I believe that, when Russell wrote the above (he changed his mind on all sorts of topics, so one has to deal with-- as it were-- more than one Russell), he rejected a philosophy of substances and, instead, proposed that the concept of an event is more accurate. So, in another essay or book, Russell charged that Descartes' inference "I think, therefore I am" begs the question. It assumes the very thing it sets out to argue for. Russell thought that Descartes should rather lay claim to this thesis: "There is thinking." Such an event does not (according to Russell) commit us to positing a substance, the thinker, just as the statement "It is raining" does not commit one to holding that there is a thing that is raining. His absolutely mind-blowingly bizarre comments on cannibalism to one side (what evidence could Russell possibly be relying upon), Russell is claiming that our "common sense" inclination to think in terms of substances is owing to our use of language with subjects and predicates. Is Russell's position plausible?

I think his position is quite suspect. Recall that Descartes set out to doubt all that he could. He imagined an all powerful deceiver who might deceive Descartes into merely thinking he exists. He finally came to the point where he found his own being unmistakable, for he concluded that he could not doubt he existed unless he exists. Indeed, I suggest that our awareness of ourselves as thinking, acting, feeling, etc beings over time is self-evident. Contra Hume, I suggest that every time you feel pain or see red, you aware of yourself (as an individual subject) feeling pain and you are aware of yourself seeing red. Back to Russell: I do not think we can make sense of there being a state of affairs of 'there is thinking' without there being a thinker. This is not a reflection of a merely contingent characteristic of language. It makes no sense for the event "running the New York marathon" to take place, without there being runners. Yes, we have the words "running" and "runner" but to suppose you could have running without runners is a logical or conceptual point. It also seems misleading to think the event "It is raining" is utterly void of individuals or substances --be they clouds or water droplets or H20.

There is not a huge consensus on the nature of events today, but a common one is that an event consists of an individual or individuals and at least one property such as "People thinking." Some philosophers think an event also needs to add a time. And I must note that while my own judgment is quite solidly Cartesian contra Russell, there are a range of thinkers who have sought to dispense with individuals and put in their place processes or fields or (as Russell does) events. Nelson Goodman once (I believe) observed that, in his view, the White Cliffs of Dover, is an extremely long event.

I have heard the saying "the beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms"

I have heard the saying "the beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms" attributed to Socrates. I can't find a dependable source for this (or for attributing it to anyone else) Can you point me to a source or let me know if you believe this attribution to be invalid ? Thanks !

When I saw your question the phrase struck me as unknown in Plato’s writings. That doesn’t necessarily mean anything, so I did a search through all his dialogues looking for some plausible Greek analogue to “beginning of wisdom.” I did not find your quote. I did notice, in the process, that it pops up around the Internet; but then so do other sayings supposedly in Plato’s works, like “Only the dead have seen the end of war,” or “Be kind, because everyone you meet is carrying a heavy burden.” Those two don’t correspond to anything in Plato, but they are widely attributed to him.

It’s not exactly like Socrates to speak of the “beginning of wisdom,” although he does talk about summoning the soul or the intellect to think about issues, and he does speak (again, in Plato’s dialogues) as if this were the beginning of a process whose conclusion would be wisdom. I am also suspicious for the reason that “the beginning of wisdom” is a phrase we find in the Bible, specifically in the Book of Proverbs. That makes me suspect that someone misstated something in Plato in somewhat Biblical terms.

Having made all those negative points, let me say what might seem like the contradiction of my answer thus far. The thought at work in this quote does correspond to ideas in what Socrates says in Plato’s dialogues. In the Republic he says that certain experiences “summon the soul” to investigate more closely (Book 7, 523-524). These are experiences involving certain vague or ambiguous properties, like softness and hardness. If you believe that the outcome of the investigation is a definition of those properties, then in a general way Socrates is indeed describing the beginning of wisdom and linking it to the definition of terms.

Furthermore, Aristotle tells us that the great contribution Socrates made to philosophy was his quest for the definitions of terms. If any philosophical enterprise can be confidently associated with the name of Socrates, it would be that one. Again, we are in the neighborhood of the idea you asked about, even if we can’t find those exact words in Plato’s writings.

According to Kant intuitions without concepts are blind. I'm not sure I

According to Kant intuitions without concepts are blind. I'm not sure I understand this but suppose the color red is an intuition and the awareness of the color as red or a more rudimentary awareness of the color red is the the concept. Couldn't it be argued that Kant is wrong because without a rudimentary awareness of the color red there would no red at all? Or was that Kants point? It seems to me that the "concept" of red is a precondition of red as much as the intuition and that Kant seems to suppose that they are at least theoretically seperable.

It seems to me that your interpretation of Kant is spot on. By 'blind' he means that we would have eyes (or ears or noses) but cannot see (or hear or smell), unless concepts were operative. However, this 'would have' is quite hypothetical. Kant certainly does not mean to imply that there is ever mere sensory input without a concept. (There certainly may be pure concepts without any associated sensory input, or even any possible sensory input -- Kant analyses the problems that this raises in the Dialectic.) If I see a colour, I see the colour red, or lemon, or ochre. And if I don't recognise the particular colour, I still know it is a colour, so a concept is still operative. Likewise, if I hear a sound, I hear the sound of traffic, or of a violin, or of a creaking floorboard. If I don't recognise the sound, then I still know it is a sound.

Nevertheless, you are right that he is asserting some kind of difference between intuition and concept. But this difference is not one that I experience. Rather, Kant argues, it is possible to analyse a given experience into the intuitive and the conceptual parts. For example, I hear the sound of a violin. Now, if I were to abstract from this all the concepts I employ in experiencing it, what is left should be the pure sound, located in space and time. Maybe it is impossible for me to experience this pure sound as pure sound – because intuitions without concepts are deaf – but it makes sense philosophically to consider it as something fundamentally different from the concepts that I use to identify that sound. (Analogously, I can never experience my child as not specifically my child; however, intellectually, I am perfectly aware that others do not experience her in that way.) In the 'Transcendental Aesthetic' especially, Kant discusses all these fundamental differences between intuitions and concepts.

I am confused about Aristotle's virtue ethics as it applies to Aesop's fable of

I am confused about Aristotle's virtue ethics as it applies to Aesop's fable of the boy who cried wolf. Since he was telling the truth the second time, is it actually the townspeople who are behaving immorally by ignoring him? Just because the townspeople could not instantly verify the veracity of his testimony (which can be independently verified), is that really a sufficient reason to let the sheep die? By Aristotle's reasoning, is the boy (an occasional liar) just as immoral as the townspeople (by negligence)?

Perhaps you're putting more weight on the fable than fables are meant to bear. Fables are short, stylized ways of conveying a point, and the point here seems clear enough: if you come to be seen as a liar, you risk not being believed when it matters.

Though I gather that there's a remark attributed to Aristotle that conveys much the same message, once again it may not be profitable to put too much weight on the fable as a device for exploring Aristotle's Ethics. The boy seems clearly to represent someone who lacks an important virtue: truthfulness. The fable doesn't really address the question of whether the townspeople also lack some virtue such as prudence or caution. In real life, we might wonder how many times the boy would have to lie before it become reasonable for the townspeople to ignore him; in the context of the fable, that's not really the point at issue.

In his "Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason", Kant argues that it is

In his "Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason", Kant argues that it is possible for people to become moral by following the example of Jesus Christ. How then would he comment on Abraham's actions during the Binding of Isaac? Isn't Abraham treating Isaac as a means to an end, even if that commandment is from God during a time when Jesus was not yet born? In other words, is Jesus just one example of moral guidance out of many and there is no one true religion; that is, anyone else can serve the same role?

Actually, I am 99% sure Kant actually rejected the (at least surface) interpretation of the narrative of the binding. That is, Kant thought it would never be reasonable for Abraham to think God (or any good being) would require a sacrifice of the innocent. My own reading of the text is that it should be read chiefly as a prohibition of child-sacrifice. The point of the story is that the God of Abraham is NOT like the other gods who demand human offerings. The purpose of the (divine) command of offering Abraham's son (verse 2) is only to set the stage for the dramatic prohibition of such sacrifice (11-12). The narrative stress on God providing a ram to take the place of Abraham's son further highlights the emphatic prohibition of human sacrifice. Abraham's naming the place where this substitution took place "God provides" (verse 14) rather than something like "This is the place where I almost lost my son" or "This is the place where Kant would have insisted that what I thought was a command to sacrifice my son was an illusion" (joke) makes the story about God providing ways of divine offerings that are NOT human.

If the above interpretation is plausible, then the lesson of the narrative is that Isaac should not be treated as a means to an end (a means of offering a proper sacrifice to God).

As for Kant's view of Jesus Christ, this is a matter of massive scholarly debate. John Hare at Yale goes quite far in reading Kant as more in line with traditional Christianity than some others who see Jesus as only a moral exemplar. You might check out Hare's book, The Moral Gap. According to Hare, Kant thought that grace was needed for us to overcome the gap that separates us from rectitude. To investigate this further, you might look at Kant's view of radical evil.

I've read many here who say that everyone alive who thinks critically is a

I've read many here who say that everyone alive who thinks critically is a philosopher, not just those who have published academic articles and books. Isn't this a dangerous and incorrect notion since it gives credence to the fact that Mao Zedong is just as much a philosopher as Kant? Many PhD holders in science wouldn't consider themselves a scientist if they don't work in science. How frustrated are professional philosophers in that the masses throughout history have accepted so much "bad philosophy" and cannot recognize exactly what philosophy IS and what its aims (if any) are?

A good question! Or rather, two good questions - the first about whether a desire to philosophise is innate in human beings, the second about what being a philosopher in contemporary society means.

Taking the first, many philosophers have argued that a desire to philosophise is inherent in all human beings - but, of course, this is different from saying that (1) everyone has the ability to philosophise (or at least, to philosophise well) and that (2) any philosophical ability that they do have has been trained and cultivated. So perhaps everyone wonders about the nature of good and evil - well, that might be the case, but perhaps not everyone has the inclination to work up those wonderings into systematic reflection, and perhaps not everybody will seek out the sorts of rigorous intellectual training that makes someone a professional philosopher.

Regarding the second, much also depends on how one wants to define 'philosopher'. If by that you mean an academic philosopher, then activities like publishing peer-reviewed journal articles and teaching graduate seminars will be part of being a philosopher - but of course, academic philosophy in this sense is a rather recent phenomena - at least when considered in the wider context of the history of philosophy - and that history offers other senses. One of the most important of these is the conception of a philosopher as someone who is deeply committed to rigorous intellectual conduct - who demands the provision of articulated arguments, who has high standards of intellectual performance, and so on. If so, many more people will count as philosophers!

The Symposium seems to be more of an artistic intellectual exercise than a

The Symposium seems to be more of an artistic intellectual exercise than a philosophical treatise and philosophers generally see it that way but The Republic is taken literally as a philosophical work. Why is that?

There are several problematic assumptions at work in your question: that taking a work “literally” means the same thing as taking it as “a philosophical work”; that the two options for philosophical writings are “artistic” and “philosophical treatise”; ultimately, that real philosophy is plainspoken and direct, while artistry puts us in the domain of exercises. We can’t think through all those ideas in a few paragraphs, but I draw your attention to them by way of inviting you to think them over. Ask yourself if artistry can’t be plainspoken and direct. Consider whether some third genre is not possible for philosophy between art and treatise.

But for now we should focus on Plato, because your question is about two of his greatest works. I won’t pretend not to understand your question. All of Plato’s dialogues contain such features as narrative, framing, and a specific way of aligning a person’s character with the philosophical position that person expounds, but in some dialogues those features predominate and in others they are diminished, even barely recognizable. The Symposium probably exhibits Plato’s literary skills more than any other dialogue does, while much of the Republic consists in Socrates’ posing very specific questions to Glaucon and Adeimantus to which they respond with “Of course, Socrates” and “How could it not be so?”

One of your questions is: How can a single author be read in both ways, with great attention to the literary features in one work and very little in another? But that question is just a question about Plato. How can a single author have written such different dialogues? His readers respond to his dialogues in such different ways because of the differences among those dialogues.

But, having said that, I must add that the distinction is not quite as sharp-edged as your question makes it. The Republic does have some details of framing, setting, and characterization that its readers attend to. And – this part is more important – the speakers in the Symposium, but especially Socrates when purporting to report what the priestess Diotima told him, give voice to substantive, serious, precisely-argued philosophical positions not only about love, but also about knowledge and being. If I came upon a reader of the Republic ignoring its setting and scene, I would not feel that some wrong was being done to Plato’s work; but if I found the Symposium’s readers ignoring the philosophical views it has to offer, that would be seriously too bad.

Is it appropriate for philosophers who specialize in specific branches of

Is it appropriate for philosophers who specialize in specific branches of philosophy to comment on philosophical branches outside their field of training? By analogy, a professional chemist would almost never publish books or articles in computer science. Why then should we even consider the political theories of Noam Chomsky (a linguist and philosopher of language) instead of those of Machiavelli or Leo Strauss? Or the moral writings of Bertrand Russell (a logician and philosopher of science)?

First, let's consider what constitutes 'training'. Should we, for instance, be focusing solely on the subject(s) in which someone has taken a formal degree? It's true that Chomsky didn't formally study politics as either an undergraduate or a doctoral student: but then, neither did Machiavelli or Strauss. And Locke started out in medicine, Wittgenstein started out in engineering, David Lewis started out in chemistry, and, yes, Russell started out in mathematics. And so on. If we're going to dismiss them from the philosophical canon on those grounds alone, then we'd be losing an awful lot. What's more, if this was going to be our touchstone, then the career of any academic would be decidedly short: after ten or twenty years, their own field will have moved on from how it was when they first studied it, thereby rendering them ineligible to carry on working in it, at least without taking a second degree as a refresher course. But that would be a silly conclusion to draw. Better, I'd have thought, to acknowledge that people can carry on learning on the job, making their own independent study of a field outside the framework of a formal university degree programme, and maybe even outside the domain of the academic department (if any) with which they happen to be professionally affiliated. And, on that criterion, Chomsky has certainly put in the hours. He's been making a close study of global politics for more than sixty years! I'd say that this should qualify as adequate training, and should entitle him to comment on what he's found. You might not like the conclusions of his analysis, but you surely can't deny that he does know what he's talking about.

And then let's consider what constitutes 'specialization'. Although Chomsky has written a colossal amount in both fields, my impression is that -- as far as sheer volume is concerned -- he's actually written more on politics than on linguistics. So should we perhaps treat that as his true area of specialization, and dismiss the linguistics as just a side-project? Or, more plausibly, should we just acknowledge that he specializes in two distinct areas, running along in parallel?

But then, all this seems to be beside the point anyway. Shouldn't we judge a contribution to a field on its own intrinsic merits, rather than on the credentials of its author? That, after all, is the principle at the heart of the blind peer review process upon which academia is built. Great figures can sometimes slip up, and nobodies can sometimes make important contributions: so to prejudge their works on the basis of prior reputation would be to do great harm to the progress of the subject at large. Once a work has passed that peer review (or even if it has bypassed it -- on reflection, I guess some of Chomsky's political works probably haven't been through that process), the wider reading public generally will have some information on its author, and can make their own minds up. If they see a work getting good reviews, especially if they know that it's coming from an author who generally tends to have something interesting to say, then they might choose to engage with it. If they see it getting poor reviews, or if they don't have a high opinion of the author's works more generally, then they might choose to look elsewhere. That's the prerogative of every reader: no one has time to read everything, so we do need to be selective. But let's not remove works like these from the selection pool prematurely, without even considering them, just because of some ad hominem prejudice about their authors.

Which top philosophers, Pre-1850, have gone along with David Hume's "Theory of

Which top philosophers, Pre-1850, have gone along with David Hume's "Theory of Causation"? Would Descartes be a good example to start with while I'm reading up on the matter?

Descartes would probably be a good one to read AGAINST Hume's view ... (see book by Tad Schmaltz on Descartes's causation, and some articles by Geoffrey Gorham, for a good sense of Descartes on causation ... also an article by me ...) ... Interestingly you might consider studying MALEBRANCHE on the issue -- while he does not accept Hume's understanding of causation, he directly influences some of Hume's arguments -- and shares with him the view that finite objects/events do NOT enjoy necessary connections ... where he differs is that rather than conclude there is no (necessitarian) causation in the world, or that there is 'constant conjunction' causation, he concludes that only God is the true cause of everything ...

good luck!


When Plato wrote The Republic did he ever spell out that he was expressing his

When Plato wrote The Republic did he ever spell out that he was expressing his own ideas rather than Socrates? Did people ever attribute the ideas in The Republic to Socrates? Did Plato in any way encourage that misunderstanding by not spelling out that The Republic expresses his own ideas? Why do we think that these weren't Socrates ideas if Plato presented them as such?

This is an excellent question; but that doesn't mean it can be answered in a few paragraphs. Ultimately the question of Plato's relationship to the "Socrates" he presents in his dialogues can only be thought about with reference to detailed interpretations of many of those dialogues, and careful thinking about what their author might or might not be saying. Could Plato have written dialogues for fifty years all reporting on the actual views of Socrates? In principle, maybe so. In practice, it seems fairer to believe that he thought about what Socrates should say, and for what reason; and so his own views became closely entangled with those he attributes to Socrates.

But let's start with the Republic in particular. The earliest comments on that dialogue that we possess are found in Aristotle's Politics. Book 2 of the Politics begins its survey of political theories by considering the proposals in the Republic. And one of the striking things about this discussion is that Aristotle keeps attributing the claims to Socrates not Plato. It's not that Aristotle never attributes claims to Plato -- quite the contrary, his works are full of assertions about what Plato says or believes. But this particular discussion of a dialogue keeps saying "Socrates."

By later in antiquity, quite a few commentaries on the Republic had been written. And by that time it seems that commentators typically attributed claims in the Republic to Plato. So although Aristotle's counterexample is vivid, it's far from the last word.

So why separate the words attributed to the character Socrates to the author Plato who wrote them? The simplest answer is that it becomes increasingly implausible to think that the historical person Socrates said all the things that Plato has him saying in all the dialogues in which Socrates appears (which are all the dialogues of Plato's except the Laws). The various claims of this character Socrates do not all agree with one another; sometimes the Socrates in Plato says things that the historical character could not possibly have said or known about. And sometimes Plato seems to be deliberately telling his readers not to expect a literal recollection of a conversation.

One great example comes at the beginning of the Phaedo. The Phaedo purports to tell of the last day of Socrates' life, leading up to his death by execution. The character Phaedo is narrating. According to him, a number of the friends of Socrates had gathered in his jail cell to talk to him one last time. A few of them were absent, though. "I believe Plato was ill," Phaedo says. In other words, Plato has his character assert that what follows, a purportedly firsthand report about the last day of the life of Socrates, cannot be a report written by someone who was present. The author of the dialogue wasn't there. At best what follows is hearsay, and that almost certainly has to mean that its author embellished what witnesses to the conversation said. And now we already see the beginnings of a divide between the actual written words we have, words from Plato, and the alleged spoken words that Socrates said.