Log in

Previous Entry | Next Entry

The History of Philosophy


I've been trying to understand why India fell so far behind the West. My intuition tells me that stagnation of ideas through dogma leads to the decay of civilizations and so I've been learning about the History of Philosophy to see if there's a link between our intellectual stagnation and the fortunes of our country.

One of the most important events that allowed Europe to accelerate away from the rest of the world was the invention of the movable type printing press by Gutenberg in 1450. It allowed mass production of books and dissemination of cutting edge thought. Although Islam wrested Constantinople from Christendom in 1453, the printing press catalyzed the Renaissance and, for the next 500 years, till the end of World War II, Europe never looked back.

However other civilizations would have gotten printing presses soon after and could have created their own 'Renaissances'. The Chinese in fact had printing presses before the Europeans. So the question is 'why didn't they?'

I think the answer to that question lies in the second key event that allowed Europe to pull away - the thought that hit Descartes one day "What can I actually be certain of?".

That one question has made all the difference.

But that's jumping ahead. Let's start the history of philosophy earlier.

Ancient philosophy
If we go back to 2,000 BC, people of most civilizations were at the mercy of natural forces and therefore prayed to nature based deities (sun god, wind god, thunder god, etc.) to try and get some measure of control over their fates.

2000 BC Brahmanism emerged in India with complex rituals as an attempt to get greater control
1750 BC Abrahamic monotheism emerged in the Middle East which merged the smorgasbord of nature and tribal Gods into one comprehensible entity.

But around 500 BC several new streams of thought suddenly emerged simultaneously around the world.

- Taoism emerged in China and rejected 'control' in favour of 'going with the flow'
- Confucianism also emerged in China and pragmatically focused on establishing effective societal norms, instead of trying to understand the underlying nature of reality
- Upanishadic thought in India claimed that by understanding the underlying nature of reality one would realize that the soul is eternal and the struggle for survival comes from ignorance.
- Buddha rejected attachment to desires and the rituals of Brahamanism, but unlike the Upanishads, also rejected the authority of the Vedas. Buddhism did however retain belief in metaphysical concepts like rebirth and enlightenment.
- The pre-Socratic philosophers emerged in Ancient Greece who rejected supernatural explanations and tried to understand how the world worked using logic.

The Hellenistic spark
One of the most famous pre-Socratic philosophers is Thales of Miletus, known for saying that the entire world is made of water. His conclusion was of course completely wrong but the reason he is famous is because of the process by which he reached the conclusion - he reasoned that everything must be made of one underlying substance and that substance must be water because:
- all life forms need water
- water is mobile
- water exists in solid, liquid and vapour form
- the land dies away at the start of the sea

This is notable because he was not using or creating religious mythology to provide an explanation. He was instead trying to figure out how the world works by observation and forming conclusions based on those observations. It was a new way of thinking.

The pre-Socratic tradition led into Socrates who learned that the oracle of Delphi had pronounced him the smartest man in the world. He did not believe the prophecy and so went about asking questions of smart people... he soon discovered that, although they were very certain of their points of views, they could not give sensible answers under 'Socratic questioning'. He came to the conclusion that the Oracle was indeed right because he was aware of his own ignorance while they weren't ("wisest is he who knows nothing"). However this annoyed the embarrassed nobles and they sentenced him to death by poisoning for the crime of 'blasphemy and corrupting minds'.

Plato was Socrates' most famous student. Although Socrates himself wrote down nothing, Plato wrote a number of famous books on politics, ethics and on the nature of the world. Plato was extremely suspicious of democracy, because he had seen how the rule of the mob could result in the killing of wise men like his teacher. He believed that philosophers should rule. His other very famous idea was the concept of 'ideal forms' - the idea that every thing on this planet is an imperfect physical representation of the real and perfect theoretical form. This applied to everything - not just perfect circles, but perfect horses, dogs, etc. And he felt that philosophers, with the benefit of education, were the only people wise enough to intuit what perfection looked like and therefore in the best position to replicate those ideas in the material world.

Aristotle was the student of Plato and he was famous for inventing the foundations of logic (a syllogism, the basic building block of logic, is composed of premises leading to a conclusion - if Socrates is a man and all men are mortals... therefore Socrates is a mortal).

Three schools of post Socratic secular thought emerged in Greece
- Diogenes represented the Cynic school that rejected society for the life of a hermit. This was similar to the ascetic tradition in India.
- Epicurus represented the Epicurean school that believed that the point of life was to enjoy pleasure and enjoy pain.
- Zeno represented the Stoic school of thought that believed that you should not be unduly bothered by things outside your control.

The Stoic and Epicurean school of thought were incorporated by the Romans as they took over the mantle of the most powerful empire in the world from the Greeks, whom they defeated in 146 BC. The rich nobles of the Romans lived by the pleasure seeking Epicurean school of thought and the soldiers lived by the stoic philosophy. The stoic philosophy was extremely useful for soldiers and the Romans united, through conquest most of Europe, North Africa and parts of the Middle East.

The dark medieval ages
However in 0 AD, Christ and Christianity was born. Initially a small cult, it grew in size until Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in 380 AD and made it the state religion of the entire Roman Empire. Secular philosophy completely died out, and for the next thousand years, to the extent that people did use the ideas of Plato and Aristotle, it was to use logic to try to prove the existence of God (which was unquestionable) and rationalize troubling theological questions like 'If God is good and all powerful then why is there evil in the world?'.

The Islamic world sprung into existence with the birth of Mohammad in 570 AD and it too went into a medieval period, although in certain aspects it was further ahead of the West (in terms of maths, astronomy, etc.)

Indian civilization had been split initially by the upsurge in Buddhism, but Brahmanism fought back and India went into its own medieval period with even more stringent rules regarding rituals and caste, etc. Even potentially secular schools of philosophy like Nyaya-Vaisheshika (on atomism and logic) were used to build knowledge that would lead to moksha (the unquestioned metaphysical concept of freedom from rebirth).

Christian, Hindu and Islamic civilizations were all retarded in their progress by their unwillingness to question their foundational texts - the Bible, the Vedas and the Koran respectively. All philosophic speculations worked on trying to prove them infallible or build upon their foundations.

Chinese civilization, as always pragmatic, did not have metaphysical dogma but developed a neo-Daoism that was a fusion of the conservative social norms of Confucianism with the 'go with the flow' laid back attitude of Daoism. This led to the most stable and long lasting continuous civilization in the history of mankind, but also one that was not overly fussed about intellectual curiosity, proselytizing or conquest. It was not an accident that European explorers and missionaries made their way to China and eventually colonized it instead of the other way around.

By the end of the 15th Century Islamic militancy had overwhelmed the local Kings of fragmented India but was about to face the militarized response of the Maratha empire. It was in an equal conflict with Christian Europe. Islam was expelled from Spain in 1492 but had taken Constantinople from the Christians in 1453 and changed its name to Istanbul. China remained distant and relatively isolated, pummelled from time to time by the Mongol hordes.

However the invention of the printing press in 1450 changed everything.

The Renaissance
The printing press allowed new ideas to spread through books among the increasingly literate classes at a much faster rate and to a deeper extent than at any time previously in history. Books were now reaching populations outside the clergy and this catalyzed the Renaissance, a period in which thinkers and artists moved their focus from theistic areas to secular areas - trade, art, science, political theory, travel, etc.

A new age of geographical and intellectual exploration had begun in earnest.

In 1492 Columbus discovered North America and the process of colonization of the New World began, a process that would encourage Europe's naval powers into trade and further colonization - first Spain and Portugal, then Venice and then Holland, France and of course Britain. Later Belgium and Germany also joined in the colonization of Africa.

In 1514 Copernicus came up with his theory that the Earth revolved around the Sun and not the other way around. This idea had been conjectured Greek, Hindu and Islamic scholars earlier but the difference was that Copernicus was disagreeing with the Church's official Ptolemaic model. He was tentative, but it was brave for the age.

In 1520 Martin Luther went much, much further. He rejected the corruption of the Catholic church (it was selling salvation in return for money to finance religious wars). Luther believed that every person could form his own personal relationship with God and this allowed for more independent thinking (I believe this has some linkage to why Protestant Western Europe and North America is richer than South Europe and Latin America).

In 1619 Galileo got into conflict with the Church as he publicly argued for the heliocentric model. The Church believed that the Earth was stationary because the Bible said that the Earth was firm and didn't move. Galileo was imprisoned for life but he refused to recant and it is said he muttered 'Eppur Si Muove' (still it moves). Thinkers were becoming more rebellious, independent minded and willing to question holy scriptures.

The Enlightenment
In 1644 Descartes opened the floodgates of modern philosophy and laid the foundations of modern rationalism. He asked himself a question that shook the intellectual world... 'what can I actually be certain of?'

He concluded that he couldn't be certain whether he was awake or dreaming and he couldn't be certain that anything he was seeing or experiencing was real or an illusion. But what he could be certain of was that he was doubting what he was experiencing. And if he was doubtin, he must be an entity that actually exists that could doubt. His famous phrase "I think, therefore I am" is a succinct exclamation of his conclusion.

That we exist, may seem like the most patently self evident statement possible and it is perhaps hard for a non philosopher to understand why this is such big news. The big news was that someone was willing to question all existing assumptions and beliefs. Philosophy, from this point, would increasingly become divorced from the intellectual brakes of religious dogma.

Descartes himself was a devout Christian, however others were willing to push further. Francis Bacon was an outspoken opponent of religious persecution. He championed the Scientific method as the best way of acquiring knowledge and famously died of pneumonia while studying the effect of freezing on meat. Science slowly started gaining credibility to the cost of religion and by 1767 intellectuals like Voltaire were openly calling out the dogma of the Church ("Doubt is uncomfortable but certainty is absurd").

Other civilizations got books quickly after Europe. However they did not get a Descartes. And that has made all the difference. Descartes and Bacon heralded the Enlightenment (also known as the 'Age of reason') which coincided with the 'Scientific revolution', led most notably by Isaac Newton.

Descartes' question 'What can I be certain of?' created the subject Epistemology, to study how we acquire knowledge and how we can know if the knowledge we have acquired is true or false. John Locke felt that all knowledge was acquired through observation and that we start as babies with a 'tabula rasa' (blank slate), but others like Berkeley (after whom the famous University is named) weren't so sure if we could even be sure that there was an external world. Berkeley felt that the world we experience might be completely in our minds. Doubting existing knowledge was being taken for certain.

David Hume meanwhile upended the world of Aristotelian logic that had stood for 2,000 years. He realized that the premises that syllogisms used for their foundations were ungrounded. If we drop a ball, we assume it will fall because it has always done so before but he couldn't see any reason why something should happen again just because it has always happened before. He realized that deductive reasoning could only work in conceptual areas like philosophy and mathematics but in the real world only inductive reasoning would work. Instead of saying 'if x then y', in the real world we would have to say 'if x then probably y'. He also couldn't find any basis in the real world for ethical claims. Why should we help people for example? In a secular world in the absence of divine command ethics, where do our ethics come from?

Immanuel Kant took the field of epistemology to a yet higher level. He realized that there were some things that would always be completely beyond our knowing. Our experience of the universe is limited by the power of our five senses and instruments. So there is the world of our experience (what he called the phenomenal world) and the world that is inaccessible to us (the noumenal world). However he did try to ground ethics by postulating what he called 'the categorical imperative'. This mandates that if there is an action that would be good for the world if everyone did it, then everyone should do it. For example the world would be better off if people told the truth instead of lying so everyone should tell the truth. He went so far as to suggest that if a murderer asked you where your son was hiding, you should still tell him the truth. If he went and murdered your son, the crime would be his but you would be blameless because what you had followed the categorical imperative of telling the truth. Few people would fully take on Kant's austere view of ethics (except perhaps believers in dharma - like Rama sacrificing his kingdom to honour his father's promise or Eklavya sacrificing his thumb as payment to his Guru). However his views continued to (and continue to) push philosophers to think about what grounded 'ethical laws' would look like.

Bentham responded to Kant's challenge by creating Utilitarianism as an ethical system. Utilitarianism states that ethical actions are those that create the maximum happiness for society.

However Mill, found some of the implications troubling. In particular the conclusion that if the majority gets a great deal of happiness from torturing a small number of people - they should do it because this would increase the overall happiness of society. Mill felt that there were some fundamental human rights of the individual that could not be violated no matter how large a majority wanted it. In particular, the individual had full right over his or her own body and could do anything they wanted that did not harm other people.

Mill was in many ways therefore the father of the modern liberal movement and of the idea of fundamental rights, a concept still comparatively alien to many countries still operating primarily with an unaltered system of medieval religious morality (including many parts of India).

But the question arose as to who should protect those fundamental rights.

Political philosophy
Hobbes was a political philosopher who grew up in a time of warfare and he believed that the fundamental nature of man kind was competitive and murderous. In order to stop people from killing each other, he proposed in his book 'Leviathan', that all individuals should allow an all powerful monarch to rule over them and enforce peace. He felt that since the ruler would be all powerful, he would have no insecurity and therefore no need to be tyrannical.

Rousseau, on the other hand felt that the natural state of man was of a 'noble savage' who would live peacefully and the state and civilization forced man into close proximity and therefore conflict. He was strongly opposed to the idea of an all powerful ruler who he felt would become tyrannical. Although monarchy has become discredited as a political structure, the debate on how authoritarian a state needs to be to ensure stability is still a live debate, even today.

Thoreau believed in the right of the individual to peacefully protest and rebel against the laws of his nation. His ideas of non-resistance were most famously carried out on a much bigger scale by Mahatma Gandhi and later by Nelson Mandela.

Capitalism and socialism
Mill's ideas on individual liberty also influenced Adam Smith, who believed that men acting without any coercion by the state, for purely selfish purposes, would create mutually beneficial financial deals that would benefit the entire society overall. This was the theoretical framework of the Capitalist system that came to dominate the world.

Kant's idea that there are somethings that are forever beyond our knowing troubled Hegel. Hegel felt that the course of history was unfolding in a very deliberate way and the entire universe including the material and spiritual components were evolving in a co-ordinated way. Every movement in history contained a thesis and an anti-thesis that resolved themselves to move to a new level, which also contained a thesis and an anti-thesis. For example (not his) the rise of capitalism also contains the seeds of its own failure (income inequalities). The thesis (capitalism) along with anti-thesis (poor masses) will lead to Communist revolution that itself will have an anti-thesis (economic failure because of poor incentives to work) that will lead to it's own destruction and so on.

Karl Marx was inspired by Hegel's ideas... he saw the history of the world as a series of struggles between the haves and the have nots. He felt that the culmination of these struggles was the inevitable violent overthrow of the capitalist system because the haves would not give up their privilege without a struggle. He also felt that religion was an opiate for the masses that kept them in a stupor, not realizing they were being exploited by the bourgeois (burglar in French). Although his ideas were intellectual in nature, they inspired others to violently implement his thoughts in the communist revolutions that were to shake the world after his death.

Existentialism and the meaning of life
Kierkegaard was opposed to Hegel's ideas that individual choices are dictated by much larger forces. He was a devout Christian and although he agreed with Hegel to the extent that he felt that most people in the Churches were like sheep.. just blindly following what other people were doing like inauthentic robots. But he strongly believed that it was possible to break free from the herd and form a personal and real and authentic relationship with God. This required you acknowledge the possibility that God was not real and that life might be purposeless, and yet make the 'leap of faith'. He felt that this was more real than the blind faith of the believer who has no doubt in God at all. He is regarded as the first 'existential' philosopher - those who question the meaning and purpose of their own lives.

The Christian Kierkegaard inspired the provocative atheist Nietzsche who coined the famous term 'God is dead'. Nietzsche felt that thinkers were not taking this event to its logical conclusion. If God was dead, so was morality, but we still behaved in ways consistent with the old religious morality.

He called religious morality 'slave morality' and contrasted it with 'master morality'. He felt that in the pre-Christian era 'master morality' had ruled. For the ancient Roman Gods power and strength and dominance were considered virtues. However slaves had emotionally blackmailed their masters into believing in a new sort of morality 'forgiveness and charity and sympathy'. These were life negating values that preached sacrifice and martyrdom rather than full expression of vigour and strength. Nietzsche felt that, given that God was dead, we should ditch our pathetic martyr morality and live life to the fullest extent possible.

Although Nietzsche meant his philosophy to be life affirming, it was taken up by the Nazis (including his sister) to justify their own domination of 'inferior' races, a policy that Nietzsche might himself have probably been horrified by.

Nietzsche's philosophy of personal achievement combined with Adam Smith's capitalist ideas inspired Ayn Rand's books, and she became a figurehead for merit based Capitalist free enterprise unencumbered by labour unions, taxes, and any type of socialist government interference.

Nietzsche also inspired Heidegger, another existential philosopher. Heidegger noticed that a lot of philosophy had gone into defining objects that exist but people had not really asked the question of what it means to exist or to 'be'. In particular what does it mean to 'be' a human? His felt that rather than answer the question analytically from the outside, a more valuable answer would consider it from the inside - what did it feel like to 'be' a human. He concluded that people are most of the times immersed in unthinking activity but sometimes they experience events (like their best friend dying in a freak accident) that force them out of their unthinking existence and ask themselves what is really meaningful in their lives. If they can reorient their activities to fully embrace those activities that are important to them, they start living conscious meaningful authentic lives.

The question of 'what is the meaning of my life?' was increasingly being examined by a group of philosophers like Nietzsche called 'existential'. The next big one in line was Sartre. He came up with the famous phrase 'existence precedes essence'. What he meant by this was that although most items (like a scissor) are made only after their purpose has been decided, humans are different in that they first exist and then they have to decide their purpose. He felt that humans have complete freedom in their choices and bear full responsibility for their consequences although they often try to avoid it because then they don't have any excuses for the way they are living their lives.

Reshaping society
Gasset was a philosopher who felt that our choices in the present represent a conflict between the future we glimpse and are trying to create and our habits from our history. In a way we can see his point of view as a conflict between Hegel's view that we are just a small part of the unfolding of history and Heidegger's view that we create our own future by breaking free of our unthinking in authenticity. In a certain way, we can think of him as a secular Kierkegaard.

Making these decisions is hard because often we assume that the way things are is because there is a good reason for them to be the way they are. Marcuse's insight was that we should question the comforting assumption that society is well designed. The outdated belief of 'God works in mysterious ways' no longer holds water. However Gadamer pointed out that it is particularly hard to see the biases in our perceptions because we have been so immersed in a historical context that they are virtually transparent to us.

Ponty provides the answer to the deadlock by saying we have to look at things we have been looking at for a long time, in fresh ways, to break the spell. Adorno added his perspective, that in order to make moral choices, you must apply intelligence. Doing the right thing was no longer about trusting your programmed responses but by applying rigorous logic. Intelligence and Ethics were often considered separate virtues, but Adorno argued that intelligence is a requirement for ethical behaviour. Good at heart is only possible in tricky situations if you're good in the head.

Chomsky pointed out that powerful bodies with vested interests have a disproportionate ability to convince you to do things that are against the common interest and that benefit them. Lyotard added to this by saying that the information we read can be bought and manipulated by money power. Intelligence and skepticism is required to see through the clutter and make ethical decisions. Arendt spoke about the banality of evil after the Nazi era.. how people who do evil things, seem like perfectly normal people. They become habituated to societal norms and end up doing horrific things without questioning them intelligently.

Habermas' was a proponent of free speech and questioning societal norms through criticism of its failings. He believed that progress will stagnate any place where dissent is stifled.

Meanwhile Rawls gave us a model for the perfectly just society to compare our own against. He proposed the thought experiment where people could decide on the laws of the society they were about to be born into from behind a veil of ignorance - they would not know their race, gender, nationality, socio-economic status, physical health, etc. In such a scenario they would not choose any laws that might be grossly unfair to any member of society because they themselves might be born in that category. So for example.. nobody would allow slavery in a society from behind the veil of ignorance because they'd know there was a chance that they might be born as slaves. Although this ideal society may never be practically achieved, it provides a good model to compare the laws and rules we make in our country to.

Pragmatism, logical positivism and the Scientific revolution
Kant's insight that there are things that are always going to be out of the realm of human knowing inspired another branch of philosophy called Pragmatism. Philosopher like James and Pierce said that the job of philosophers is not to make speculations on the nature of ultimate reality but to help make heuristics that are applicable in the world we have contact with. So one could speculate that a diamond is soft all the time but only becomes hard if you touch it. But this is pointless speculation. What we do know is that diamond is hard when we touch it and so let's build from there. The criticism against this school of thought is that it has given up on the quest to understand the true underlying nature of reality.

John Dewey however was firmly in the Pragmatist school. He felt that the only proper function of philosophy was to solve real problems that we faced in the real world and that we only seek out new knowledge when we are faced with problems we don't know how to solve.

This thought was paralleled in linguistics, an emerging sub-category of analytical philosophy. Bertrand Russell created a way of expressing language in a logical form that typified the rigor of mathematics and took out misleading colloquial usage. Wittgenstein took this idea much further. He said that every statement in language represented something about the real world and if we could not figure out what the sentence was actually pointing at in the real world it was a meaningless statement. So for example 'the cat sat on the mat' is a legitimate statement... all the words point to something in the real world and/or the relationship in between them. However the statement 'do souls accumulate sins of previous lives?' is a jumble of nonsense because the words 'souls', 'sins', 'previous lives' point to nothing in the real world and it was a waste of time to talk about these things. His austere conclusion was 'what we cannot speak about, we must pass over in silence'.

These ideas were taken further by Carnap and Popper. Carnap felt that many philosophical problems were 'pseudo-problems' caused by words pointing to things that nobody could prove or disprove. Popper built on this to create the theory of 'falsifiability' to distinguish science from pseudo-science.

If someone proposes a theory like 'past lives'.. if you cannot prove it true or false then it's not science. A great example of real science according to Popper was Einstein's theory of general relativity... the theory predicted that a star should be visible during a solar eclipse even though the star was actually behind the sun... because the gravity of the sun would bend the light around itself so that the light reached the earth. This was tested during a solar eclipse and the star was actually seen. This doesn't mean that the theory of relativity was true.. just that it was a real theory because it could have been proved false.

The Scientific revolution that paralleled the Enlightenment, was followed by the Industrial revolution that fueled the rapid economic rise of Europe as well and Imperial dominance and economic exploitation of its colonies.

The impact of thought on civilization and the way forward for India
The printing press coupled with Descartes' inspiring willingness to question everything led to a 'Big Bang' of powerful ideas.
- These ideas led Europeans to the exploration, trade and colonization of the world.
- They led to science devoid of pseudo-science that led to the Scientific and industrial revolution, that made Europe a manufacturing powerhouse
- They led to a new system of utilitarian ethics based on increasing happiness for society but not at the cost of individual fundamental human rights. This led to happier and more peaceful societies
- They led to the dismantling of monarchies in favour of liberal democracies
- They led to efficient capitalistic systems that improve the standard of living coupled with socialistic safety nets that allow people to take risks and prevent crime and desperation
- They led to individuality and self expression and living a life of meaning based on your own decisions rather than societal pressures
- They led to the creation of just societies that other people want to be part of

The problem India faces is that instead of simply aping the West or producing our own Descartes, in our desperation to redeem ourselves after being dominated by Western and Islamic civilizations, we want to head back to the Gupta era... way before Descartes.

The right way forward is not medieval India.

It's time for the Indian Enlightenment.
Powered by LiveJournal.com
Designed by Tiffany Chow