Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Nature of philosophy and the theories of the Milesians

To: Larry B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Nature of Philosophy and the theories of the Milesians
Date: 30th April 2008 12:45

Dear Larry,

Thank you for your email of 20 April, with your first essay for the Ancient Philosophy program, in response to the question, 'What does the examination of the arguments and theories of the first philosophers show us about the nature of philosophy?'

This is an excellent start. I am pleased to see that you are using available reference material as well as following the argument of each unit.

It is a very tricky question to say exactly what distinguishes philosophy as a branch of inquiry from other inquiries. This is the main point of the question: what is distinctive about the approach taken by the philosopher? is there anything that arguments or theories or approaches that we term 'philosophical' have in common, which distinguishes them from those which are not philosophical as such but, say, scientific, or psychological, or historical etc.?

In other words, is there a useful definition of philosophy, or, if not, can we still grasp the essential nature of philosophy from looking closely at what the first philosophers did?

You remark on three aspects of Milesian philosophy: (1) they were concerned with what is real, and the distinction between reality and appearance; (2) as Jonathan Barnes observes, they were also the 'fathers of rational thought', the first to 'subordinate assertion to argument and dogma to logic'; (3) they put forward theories about the world and where it came from, based on observable fact but constrained by reason.

However, it might be thought out that these three points apply just as well to physics. We know that the first three philosophers were also the first three physicists. Yes, the discovery of the possibility of doing physics was a philosophical discovery. But, beyond that, what was it that they did that justifies the term 'philosopher'?

You quote my claim that one of the things that the Milesians had in common was the belief that 'the world conforms to reason'. However, this has more than one possible meaning. We can certainly say that they proceeded on the assumption that the most rational explanation is the one that is true.

Why indeed should that be the case? why put such faith in reason?

Imagine a very clever criminal who deliberately sets up the crime scene in such a way that detectives thinking rationally and using all the available evidence will find that only one possible conclusion can be drawn, that X was the murderer. Some cases never get solved, and sometimes innocent people get successfully framed. Descartes, in the First Meditation, imagined an evil demon who has set out to deceive me even when I use my rational faculties as carefully as possible. How can he know that the universe was created by a benevolent God rather than by an evil demon? Surely puny man has no chance against an evil demon.

The point of this is that in taking the view that the world is bound eventually to yield to rational inquiry requires a certain kind of faith, the faith of the philosopher in the power of reason. It is part of that faith that there is no cosmic master criminal or evil demon. The first philosophers didn't talk about God (if we leave out Xenophanes.) Yet they believed that it you use your powers of reason correctly and responsibly you will uncover what there is to be uncovered about the ultimate nature of reality.

In unit 2, I also argued that there is also another aspect to the idea of the world 'conforming to reason', which is exhibited in Anaximander's explanation of why the earth is suspended in space. Even without making empirical observations, as the scientist does, it is possible using philosophical argument to establish conclusions which hold as necessary truths, irrespective of observation. This is the strongest in which philosophers have believed that world 'conforms to reason'.

The laws of logic would be a relatively uncontentious example of this. They hold irrespective of the facts. The 'principle of sufficient reason' or the law of causality, on the other hand, is a principle which cannot be justified by logic alone. Is the principle of sufficient reason just something we believe? or is it necessarily true, true in all possible worlds?

And what about wisdom? I don't have a lot to say about that because on the basis of the evidence available, the first philosophers do not seem to have been particularly interested in wisdom as such, or the proper conduct of life based on philosophical principles. They were enthusiastic theorists and speculators. Of course, we don't know for sure. However, on the basis of the written evidence it seems that it wasn't until Socrates came on the scene, that the emphasis shifted to the practical use of reason in ordering our lives and 'caring for the soul'.

All the best,

Geoffrey