Three weeks and five posts have quickly past by, and I think it is time to recap some of the ideas that have been introduced. I am also going to take this opportunity to explain some of my motivations for writing a philosophy blog, why is has such-and-such a title, and what I hope to achieve.
In my first post I described different ways to talk about philosophy as a discipline and why we might want to do philosophy in the first place. I talked about the importance of testing our own beliefs, and how – I think at least – we have a moral obligation to pass some of these beliefs on to others. Craig and Moreland gave us three ways of talking about philosophy, and while this blog will incarnate all of these broad ways, you will notice that I have so far stuck to inquiring into epistemology, which is one of the traditional branches of philosophy.
My investigations first led me to Plato, and in a few weeks, after Aristotle, we will look at some of Descartes ideas about knowledge. But isn’t this blog is supposed to be about Joseph Butler’s Analogy of Religion? Yes it is. However, in order to understand Butler’s work, we need to be exposed to some of the history of philosophy. We need at least some familiarity with Butler’s terminology and arguments, in their broad context, before rushing into what is a sophisticated and dense philosophical work. For example, Butler talks about a “demonstration” in his introductory chapter, but unless we have read some Aristotle and Descartes we won’t be able to understand the importance of this term.
That’s the how of this blog, but what about the why? My motivations for writing are fairly simple: to learn how to do philosophy and teach it to others. Part of my inspiration came from the words of veteran philosopher(and blogger) Bill Vallicella:
“If you read books of lasting value, you ought to study what you read, and if you study, you ought to take notes. And if you take notes, you owe it to yourself to assemble them into some sort of coherent commentary. What is the point of studious reading if not to evaluate critically what you read, assimilating the good while rejecting the bad? The forming of the mind is the name of the game. This won’t occur from passive reading, but only by an active engagement with the material. The best way to do this is by writing up your own take on it. Here is where blogging can be useful. Since blog posts are made public, your self-respect will give you an incentive to work at saying something intelligent.“
So that is why I write. Now back to what I have written so far.
You will remember in my post on the Meno I introduced the term epistemology (theory of knowledge). And one of the most basic questions we can ask in this area of inquiry is “can I know anything?” Meno presents his paradox as a challenge to any epistemology that says that we can gain knowledge. Roughly speaking, it can be summarised in a question: “how can we start inquiring into a subject we know nothing about?”
Socrates replies by explaining his doctrine of the immortal soul in which we have all experienced many many past lives. For Socrates, our souls have gained knowledge in these past lives and we are only really recollecting these “true notions” as we come to know things in this life. Socrates attempts to demonstrate this by teaching a slave boy how to solve a mathematical problem by only asking him questions. I left open the question of whether Socrates solved Meno’s paradox, but we were certainly exposed to an important philosophical concept: innate knowledge.
Building on Soctrates’ distinction in the Meno between “true notions”(or opinions) and knowledge, we came to Plato’s famous Republic. First, I sketched a summary of the Republic’s purpose: a defence of Socrates, and more broadly a defence of philosophy itself. Socrates, in the extract, states that society must be ruled by philosopher kings in order to rid itself of evil. However, Glaucon, one of the dialogue partners in the Republic, presses Socrates to define what a true philosopher does uniquely, as opposed to what a craftsman does or an artist does. We discover two characteristics of a true philosopher: first they love every type of knowledge without distinction or qualification, and second they are “the lovers of the vision of truth”.
It was this second characteristic that we delved into in last time. For Socrates, the true philosopher understands the relationship, for instance, between beautiful things and absolute beauty itself. Beautiful things, as I explained, are objects or state-of-affairs we can see. For example, a sunset is one such beautiful state-of-affairs. But merely to see and recognise these beautiful things is not to have knowledge, only opinion. For Socrates, knowledge relates to that which is or pure-being and ignorance relates to that which is not or non-being. Since opinion can relate to both what is and what is not, Socrates deduces that opinion relates to the world we see around us. It is only when we understand that things that are beautiful or just or big or small or red – or any other property we can think of – are that way to the degree that they participate in absolute big or absolute justice, that we can say that we have knowledge. Only the absolute idea or form of these properties refers to pure-being or that which is, so, according to Socrates, only these forms are the proper objects of knowledge.
If that was confusing then read last weekends post!
The next post will be on Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics. Aristotle provides a useful contrast to Plato, by focusing more on the role of sense perception as a way of gaining knowledge. And he also never wrote in dialogue; instead, he wrote methodically on a wide range of specific topics. He presented previous views on the topic, compared and critiqued them, and then gave his own views. For these reasons, Aristotle is considered by some to be the first great philosopher to do philosophy in a recognisable sense. Whether that’s the case or not, Aristotle was clearly a genius and we shall gain a great deal from reading even a short extract from his huge corpus.
What do you think of blogging? Does it encourage depth and learning or mediocrity? Is it self-centred or egotistical, or perhaps an expression of giving?