Monday, August 5, 2013

The first philosophers and the nature of philosophy

To: Steve L.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: The first philosophers and the nature of philosophy
Date: 28th July 2010 13:14

Dear Steve,

Thank you for your email of 21 July, 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.'

You have gone about this in a very thorough and systematic way, listing every idea or intellectual achievement that can plausibly be attributed to Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes and Xenophanes. Having made this preliminary survey, you then pick out the key items in each list. There's nothing here with which I would disagree.

One point which is notable by its absence is the significance of the fact the philosophers were involved in a debate with one another, even though we can only speculate about the extent of this debate. For example, you say that Anaximenes 'rejected' Anaximander's 'apeiron'. Anaximenes is said to have been the pupil of Anaximander. Maybe he was too respectful to challenge Anaximander's views to his face. We don't know, although some of my students on the Presocratics program have had fun imagining possible dialogues between Anaximander and Anaximenes (and Thales too!).

I would say that this is surely one of the central threads of philosophy, which is by no means confined to Western philosophy although the nature of the master-pupil relationship in Eastern traditions is rather different from the Socratic model of vigorous debate. Philosophy is something philosophers do together with other philosophers. Of course, I'm not saying that one cannot philosophize in solitude. But, as you point out at the beginning of your essay, we are not looking for a set of characteristics which always apply and only apply to cases of 'philosophy' (i.e. a definition in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions).

In this respect, however, is philosophy any different from any other form of human inquiry, such as physics, or literary criticism, or history? Isn't it the nature of an academic subject that its practitioners are involved in debates with one another? My view is that philosophy is special in this regard. Philosophy is dialectical in its very nature. A philosophical theory can only be understood fully in the context of the theories it rejects. (Whereas, e.g., the theory of oxidation put forward by Lavoisier is perfectly intelligible without knowing anything about the phlogiston theory that it replaced.)

One point which you do make, in a footnote, which I think deserves fuller treatment concerns the idea that 'nature could be reasoned about, and that clear verbal discussion/ reasoning in plain language and what is available to our senses, suffice as a starting point'. In the footnote, you cite the Tao Te Ching and its admonishment about the insufficiency of language in describing the Way'.

The idea that 'whatever there is to say can be said can be said clearly' is one of the points where there has been a clash of views in contemporary philosophy. Consider the difference between the classic works of analytic philosophy such as Frege, Russell, and Wittgenstein, and continental philosophers such as Sartre, Heidegger and (as some would argue, most obscure of all) Emmanuel Levinas. In the English speaking tradition too, you get a philosopher like F.H. Bradley, who in his magnum opus 'Appearance and Reality' uses purportedly logical arguments to prove the insufficiency of intellectual reasoning for grasping the nature of the Absolute in which all the contradictions of discursive thinking are resolved.

However, one can find the same clash in the Presocratics. If you had extended your survey to Heraclitus, you would have found an example of a philosopher who railed against the insufficiency of language in enabling us to comprehend the Logos. Parmenides argues that those who rely on language as the guide to reality -- based as it is on the idea that for every identifiable object there are things that it 'is' and things that it 'is not' -- are 'mere mortals who wander around two-headed, knowing nothing who are persuaded that to be and not to be are one and the same.'

Your point about 'eternal' principles generating a 'historical' process is one of relevance to contemporary physics, and the idea that if you have laws of nature set up or described in the right way, you don't need initial conditions as well (this is how I understand physicists who call what they do 'experimental metaphysics'). The idea of a need for a determinate beginning to the historical process of evolution of the cosmos is one which the Presocratic philosophers debated, with a split between those who argued that the cosmos must have existed eternally, and those who believed that the cosmos had a starting point in time. In the 'Critique of Pure Reason', Kant considers this opposition as one of the fundamental 'Antinomies of Pure Reason'. In his own 'Critical' philosophy, he claims to have found a third way, an overlooked alternative between the two antinomial positions.

The only other thing I have to comment on is the form of the essay itself. I know very well where this is coming from. In the work that you do, bullet and numbered points are the norm. Philosophers too these days are using Powerpoint for their presentations rather than reading a long paper. However, I would like you to try to write an essay in the traditional way, without the aid of these extra devices, just as something that is worth doing for its own sake. You will find that the process forces you to think in a different way from your usual habits of thinking, and may yield results which you might not have achieved otherwise.

All the best,

Geoffrey