A paper written for a college philosophy class.
What is the unifying truth of philosophy? Is there one singular concept or idea that can encompass the entire art of philosophical inquiry? Throughout history, there have been so many great minds and immortal ideas that have investigated the metaphysical questions. Working in their own respective ways, these persons have delved into the known and unknown conceptions of life, death, and beyond. Their analyses and hypotheses into the nature of the world, the universe (or multiverse), and humanity differ widely among broad categories of individual belief and perspective. When examining all the theories, positions, judgments, and metaphysical questioning it can be challenging to see any universal commonalities within philosophy. But upon closer inspection, perhaps there is a prevailing Truth that can be explored within the domain of philosophical history.
In my readings and research throughout this class, spanning a wide swath of the Western philosophical arena, I have chosen to write about my favorite philosophical experiences thus far in my education. Among these seven philosophers I present interpretive examinations of some of their influential passages. The works reviewed and discussed here include: Anaximander’s proto-philosophical text on the apeiron, Plato’s transcribing of Socrates’ Apology, Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, Descartes’ Discourse, Kant’s Prolegomena, and finally Dewey’s A Common Faith. Covering this comprehensive realm of Western philosophical texts, I endeavor to seek and perhaps understand a singular, unifying truth within philosophy. I fully realize there are no answers, as it is commonly known in philosophy; however, it is important that we actively explore and examine the ways in which we think, act, and feel. In this way, the complete art of philosophy should be held to the same standard of examination. According to the great Socrates, “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Beginning now with that sentiment in mind, Anaximander’s idea of apeiron, the infinite form, is theorized before the age of philosophy has truly begun.
Throughout all of western philosophical history, there is the prevailing idea of infinity. Whether it be the afterlife, an all-encompassing elemental substance, the universally perfect being such as God, or the eternal cycle of Man himself, the grasp of an infinity concept is a universally drawn existential resolution in philosophical questioning. Going back to about 500+ B.C. in Greece, there was a man who first conceived of such a notion. From the Milesian school and the successor to Thales, Anaximander was a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher who in his lifetime developed novel scientific ideas and first contributed to philosophy this singular principle of reality, the apeiron. It is a Greek word meaning, “limitless” or “indefinite”, and it is the crux of the oldest recovered fragment of a philosophical text in Western civilization, from Anaximander’s writings.
“Whence things have their origin,
Thence also their destruction happens,
According to necessity;
For they give to each other justice and recompense
For their injustice
In conformity with the ordinance of Time.”
There is much controversy concerning the specific translation and meaning of the ambiguous text. However, the foundational understanding comes to this conception of an infinite element, which comprises all existence, and through which all things are created and destroyed. Such a concept as the apeiron is seen throughout philosophy, in some form or another, throughout the many centuries hence.
A man of science, Anaximander’s unique proposition was grounded in his understanding of the world around him, the elements, and the concept of motion, “Of those who say that it is one, moving, and infinite, Anaximander, son of Praxiades, a Milesian, the successor and pupil of Thales, said that the principle and element of existing things was the apeiron [indefinite, or infinite], being the first to introduce this name of the material principle” (McDermott, pg. 54). He theorized the primary component of all existing things in the universe was composed of this apeiron, which itself was based in the motion of material. This theory ended up having a profound influence as a philosophical origin for the notion of the infinite, either physically or metaphysically, depending on the interpretation. In the same mode, Anaximander believed the eternal substance to be transcendent to that of the other prime elements believed by many others to govern matter in the universe. “Anaximander had an argument to prove that the primal substance could not be water, or any other known element. If one of these were primal, it would conquer the others…the primal substance, therefore, must be neutral in this cosmic strife” (Russell, pg. 27). In this line of thought, the four elements of earth, wind, fire and water can be thought to perfectly balance each other or perhaps be combined into the one infinity substance of apeiron. For Anaximander, in this “cosmic strife” the apeiron could serve as the dictating force, the neutral balancing element on which the existent cycle flows. In this way, the apeiron works as an objective judge within the nature of the world.
Anaximander introduced this concept of balance into his elemental equation, with the one transcended element serving as an arbiter or neutralizer. This arbiter can perhaps be thought of as death, or the endless cycle of life and the return to death. Anaximander’s expresses this eternal cycle in poetical terms, “the source of coming-to-be for existing things is that into which destruction, too, happens ‘according to necessity; for they pay penalty and retribution to each other for their injustice according to the assessment of Time’” (McDermott, pg. 54). There is a certain level of ambiguity in this phrasing and its metaphysical meaning concerning the “injustice” and “retribution” within existence. But interpretations refer to the apeiron as serving this beginning of creating the heavens and world(s) as well as the cycle of “destruction” as it is assessed by the continuing passage of “Time”. According to C.M. Bowra, in Greek thought the ideal of justice was essential and coincides with Anaximander’s suppositions on the balancing purpose the apeiron is meant to serve. More specifically, the Greeks believed in the limitless possibilities an individual faced in their heart and mind, as well as the outlook to work toward that full potential. But violent ambition could be the limiting force for Man, an arrogance which served as an injustice to this supreme potential and could disrupt the harmony (or balance) within him. Thus, the existent ideal of justice itself would destroy Man to reestablish the order to the world (Bowra, pg. 63, 89). In this regard, the arbiter apeiron can be thought to dispense eternal justice upon existence; in the continuous cycle of all life, death, and rebirth. The very same processes are now seen in the ongoing cycles of matter and energy, later discovered with the advent of the scientific method Anaximander helped to develop at its earliest stages. The later Greek concept of physis, conceived by Plato, could perhaps be considered the spiritual successor or continuation of Anaximander’s apeiron conception.
Anaximander’s influence upon Western philosophy was profound and served to develop many of the ultimate theories on the nature of Man, existence, and the infinite seen throughout the art. The originality of Anaximander’s philosophical developments and their highly interpretive implications set the stage for the world of philosophy for centuries to come. Picking up where the proto-philosophical Milesians left off, the immortal minds of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle developed philosophy further into an art which would revolutionize human reasoning forever.
Beginning with the legendary Socrates, and Plato as the conveyor of his extraordinary history, The Apology tells a story of an examined life, the power of death, and a true immortality for one Socrates. The truth of the great Athenian philosopher Socrates and the reality of his character, historically speaking, are matters of much dispute among the philosophical community. Between his two pupils who wrote of him, Xenophon and Plato, there is considerable uncertainty where factual accounts end and artistic embellishment begins (Russell, pg. 82). However, it is certainly known that Socrates was an Athenian philosophy teacher of the youth, developed a dialectic style of questioning, possessed incredible physical attributes, and was condemned to death by Athens in 399 B.C. for his controversial teachings (Russell, pg. 83). Plato’s Apology perhaps provides the best definitive picture of Socrates’ actual words and character and the truth of his philosophical fate.
In Plato’s Apology, Plato transcribes the words of Socrates as he defends himself against his accusers in Athens. He proclaims the men and their words as untrue, words which attack his teachings as a philosopher and him as a person of wisdom. Socrates begins with a dramatic statement which weighs the gravitas of his thoughts on the criticisms and accusations, “How you, O Athenians, have been affected by my accusers, I cannot tell; but I know that they almost made me forget who I was — so persuasively did they speak; and yet they have hardly uttered a word of truth” (McDermott, pg. 106). Socrates, insofar as he lived his entire life, lets the sincere conviction of his philosophy and his words lead the way during his ‘apology’. His methodical way of speaking and immense presence is felt in simply reading the pages, and one can only imagine how it must have been to experience his speech in person, as Plato did.
Truth, wisdom and virtue, become the focal point of Socrates’ defense and counter-criticisms of those that call him an “evildoer.” The Athenians know already of his purported interaction with a divine oracle, in which Socrates relates that this Delphi proclaimed him the wisest man in the world. He admits the paradoxical nature of his wisdom, “What can the god mean? and what is the interpretation of this riddle? for I know that I have no wisdom, small or great. What can he mean when he says that I am the wisest of men?…but the truth is, O men of Athens, that God only is wise; and in this oracle he means to say that the wisdom of men is little or nothing” (McDermott, pg. 108–109). Socrates’ honest assessment that he truly knows nothing, is the essence of the oracle Delphi’s proclamation of his wisdom. As a man, his belief and acceptance of a sheer lack of knowledge sets him apart from the rest of mankind, which is defined by an egocentric hubris. Socrates understands what separates man from the gods, so he chooses to “search into himself and others.” Thus the foundation of his dialectic, always-questioning philosophy is born, the Socratic method.
His philosophy manifests itself into his inquests into the nature of wisdom and virtue, and his mission to find those that claim to know. Socrates’ path in life was to cross-examine these wise men for himself and find the truth of the oracle’s revelation. Socrates ‘goes after’ those that call themselves wise and virtuous because he wants to prove to them just the opposite; not because Socrates is malicious, but because we are only Men. Socrates wants the truth, laid bare for all to see. He believed Man claiming absolute wisdom to be an affront to God. Naturally, his inquisition earned him enemies, it being the very reason for his trial to the men of Athens. Even knowing this he stayed true to his quest, “after this I went to one man after another, being not unconscious of the enmity which I provoked, and I lamented and feared this: but necessity was laid upon me — the word of God, I thought, ought to be considered first. And I said to myself, Go I must to all who appear to know, and find out the meaning of the oracle” (McDermott, pg. 108). In this way, Socrates needed to witness the truth of their false wisdom in order to affirm his own philosophy. Socrates knows there will always be an existent lack of certitude in basic human understanding and it is mankind’s role to accept this. This is the reason Socrates is so passionate in his Apology and fearless of the consequences his words will bring.
The word apology is used in the original and truer sense of the word in Socrates’ oration. He is not ‘apologizing’ for anything he has done, but instead recites an intense defense of his teachings and practices to the Athenian youth. Socrates’ philosophy and worldview are dominated by truth and virtue above everything else, and he posits that his basic truths are revealed by their very opposition, “And this, O men of Athens, is the truth and the whole truth; I have concealed nothing, I have disassembled nothing. And yet, I know that my plainness of speech makes them hate me, and what is their hatred but a proof that I am speaking the truth?” (McDermott, pg. 111). Throughout his apology, it becomes clear that Socrates, in his advanced age and current state of mind, does not truly care about his physical fate. Socrates is only concerned with the truth of his ideas and words revealing the light of wisdom for Athenian society, long after he is dead. He addresses his thoughts on his life course and potential death as such, “Someone will say: And are you not ashamed, Socrates, of a course of life which is likely to bring an untimely end? To him I may fairly answer: There you are mistaken: a man who is good for anything ought not to calculate the chance of living or dying; he ought only to consider whether in doing anything he is right or wrong — acting the part of a good man or of a bad” (McDermott, pg. 112). Socrates’ overall lifestyle, philosophy and examinations into the soul of man and his mission to seek out those “pretenders of wisdom” is summed up well in his apology to the people of Athens.
Socrates’ apology to Athenian society was an ardent defense of his beliefs knowing his own death loomed. Proven by his refusal to pay a small fine or leave Athens as it was decreed by his accusers, Socrates was willing to die for his principles. His life represents the conviction of Man necessary for us to achieve our destiny. Meaning that in order for mankind to truly progress, it begins with the personal courage of strong individuals willing to put virtue, knowledge (or the wisdom to be aware of a lack of knowledge), and the pursuit of greater Truth above the basic inner conflicts, prejudices, and ignorance of Man’s past. It means even in the face of death, searching out the self and building upon those discoveries through healthy interaction in the human community. On the road to self-actualization, the active pursuit of the greater self may be all there is.
As Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle express, there is no certitude in this world and no ending; the search and the pursuit of Truth during life must never end. In Greece years later, Aristotle’s Metaphysics explores the search of mankind for an ultimate and definitive presence in our reality. However, as the world of philosophy continually discovers — the answers may not be available to Man, in spite of his ambitious pursuit.
The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle had a profound impact upon Greek society during his lifetime and upon the whole of Western philosophy. A student of Plato, and influenced by Socrates and Herclitus, he was an original man of science, aesthetics, and academia. His work as an empiricist provided a philosophical framework based on the natural science and the natural world. Concerning Aristotle’s Metaphysics specifically, he delves into Man’s search for knowledge towards the end of more aptly defining existence and our universe.
In Aristotle’s Metaphysics, his philosophy rests on human inquiry and the search for a more defined existence. The passage begins with a thesis on the nature of his philosophy and an insightful truth in its own right, “all men by nature desire to know” (McDermott, pg. 218). Aristotle proceeds to explore the nature of sensory experience, art and reasoning; the factors which separate mankind from the animals. In this he posits that those “men of experience” are inferior to the man of artistic invention, due to the essence of their respective masteries. In the field of true wisdom, the artists are believed to have the high ground, “we think that knowledge and understanding belong to art rather than to experience, and we suppose artists to be wiser than men of experience..for men of experience know that the thing is so, but do not know why, while the [artists] know the ‘why’ and the cause” (McDermott, pg. 219). Aristotle claims that over the centuries, as the wisdom of artists and the utility of their inventions developed, the time for beneficial leisurely creations grew as a result, “hence when all such inventions were already established, the sciences which do not aim at giving pleasure or at the necessities of life were discovered, and first in the places where men first began to have leisure. This is why the mathematical arts were founded in Egypt; for there the priestly caste was allowed to be at leisure” (McDermott, pg. 219). In his opening assertions of Metaphysics, Aristotle avows that “Wisdom” can only be exhibited by the knowledge of principles and most importantly, causes of things. And in this, it is the artists, creators, and inventors of the novel things which claim mastery over this special wisdom of principles and causes.
Much like Socrates and Plato before him, Aristotle explores the notion of universal knowledge for a man and the implications for it. In this state, “understanding and knowledge pursued for their own sake are found most in the knowledge of that which is most knowable; and the first principles and the causes are most knowable; for by reason of these, and from these, all other things come to be known, and not these by means of the things subordinate to them” (McDermott, 220). In this Aristotle is saying there must be a beginning, or logical starting point based on the most knowable, to the attainment of this universal knowledge. It can be inferred, the principles and causes are the most knowable by definition, for they are the stepping stones to the further understanding of anything. However, although the concept of universal knowledge will always be ethereal, Aristotle and other philosophers’ suppositions serve as a basis for an ideal. The ideal, an innate origin for the nature of knowledge itself, is the exploration of the history of Man’s eternal search to know more:
For it is owing to their wonder that men both now begin and at first began to philosophize; they wondered originally at the obvious difficulties, then advanced little by little and stated difficulties about the greater matters, e.g. about the phenomena of the moon and those of the sun and of the stars, and about the genesis of the universe. And a man who is puzzled and wonders thinks himself ignorant; therefore since they philosophized in order to escape from ignorance, evidently they were pursuing science in order to know, and not for any utilitarian end. (McDermott, pg. 220)
This is one of Aristotle’s most important conceptions and hints at what the pursuit of a thing can mean for a man. This inquiry into the greater questions is innate for mankind, as it works to better define our surroundings, but it also functions to search the effervescent “why” of the matter. This is what is crucial to Aristotle and proposes the genesis of all Wisdom, “evidently then we do not seek [knowledge] for the sake of any other advantage; but as the man is free, we say, who exists for his own sake and not for another’s, so we pursue this as the only free science, for it alone exists for its own sake” (McDermott, pg. 220). Thus, the pursuit of ultimate knowledge, once the utility and necessity it can provide has been secured, is done for its own sake. Man excels, in this regard, for the sake of Man.
Ultimately, for Aristotle and his philosophical inquiries here, two essential components can be gathered from his position: 1) the knowledge itself to be gained from an inquiry is not as important as the reason for the inquiry, and 2) Man should act for the sake of itself and its own goodness. A man should choose the right reasons for his thoughts and actions in life, and in this is the first step towards the greatness of soul Aristotle speaks about. The next passage concerns a Stoic philosopher king, Marcus Aurelius, with a similar philosophical perspective on the natural world and its law for the context of mankind.
Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations
In all of philosophy, there is the prevalent ideal of critically examining the self. In order to resolve any matter externally, Man must first explore the intrinsic self. These examinations into the self can often be marked by doubt, uncontrolled emotion, and existential dread; but it is only from within that the self can truly be actualized. Introspection is something philosophers do for a living and it can benefit everyone, even an emperor. Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations mark a man’s introspective revelations during the course of his turbulent reign as Roman emperor in the 2nd century. As revealed in the composition of his literary and philosophical classic, Meditations, Aurelius’ devoted himself to the Stoic virtue and the eternal law of nature (Russell, pg. 261). His life was filled with considerable strife, and his writings were his way of practicing temperance while handling the burdens of power and his responsibility to the people of Rome. Philosophically, Aurelius’ work here is poignant due to his unique perspective as a ruler. As a “philosopher king,” he follows a temperate and moral pursuit of inner peace through the laws of the natural world. His introspective meditations, speaking to himself and calling for changes in his own thoughts and actions, were never meant to be published. In this way, the writings are intensely personal in their Stoic authenticity.
Throughout Meditations, Aurelius calls upon himself to act with goodness, in accordance with nature and the cooperation Man was made for. He initially stresses dignified actions to be taken with a contented satisfaction, “thou wilt give thyself relief, if thou doest every act of thy life as if it were the last, laying aside all carelessness and passionate aversion from the commands of reason, and all hypocrisy, and self-love, and discontent with the portion which has been given to thee” (Oates, pg. 497). In line with Stoic philosophy, these weights need to be cast away in order for a Man to be at peace with himself and live freely. Similar to Socrates and the philosophers coming before, Aurelius subscribes to the tremendous importance of self-examination, “nothing is more wretched than a man who traverses everything in a round, and pries into the things beneath the earth, as the poet says, and seeks by conjecture what is in the minds of his neighbors, without perceiving that it is sufficient to attend the daemon within him, and to reverence it sincerely” (Oates, pg. 298). Looking within and seeking inner understanding of the self must be practiced before any more ground can be covered; as Aristotle said, “knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.” In the same thinking, how can we judge another man when we are unaware of the motivations behind our own actions? Aurelius perhaps understood the need to express empathy for his Roman subjects and to rule with this Stoic methodology in mind. Provided this introspective and self-evaluative mindset, Aurelius emphasizes the prominence of Man’s inextricable link with nature, “for to be vexed at anything which happens is a separation of ourselves from nature, in some part of which the natures of all other things are contained. [Additionally], the soul does violence to itself when it turns away from any man, or even moves towards him with the intention of injuring, such as are the souls of those who are angry” (Oates, pg. 299). Regarding the inner soul, Man can damage its essence either when he turns from the natural world or when he looks upon his fellow man with anger or malicious intention.
Aurelius’ method of introspection does not have to involve any physical displacement and stresses the ability to retreat into the inner soul, where no real harm can be done. “It is in thy power whenever thou shalt choose to retire into thyself. For nowhere either with more quiet or more freedom from trouble does a man retire than into his own soul, particularly when he has within him such thoughts that by looking into them he is immediately in perfect tranquility; and I affirm that tranquility is nothing else than the good ordering of the mind” (Oates, pg. 300). From within, one has the power to dictate attitudes and perspectives on the external world based on the observations made upon this awareness. From this perspective of a Stoic awareness of control, Aurelius can be at peace with his own finitude, or inevitable death:
Accepting all that happens, and all that is allotted…and finally, waiting for death with a cheerful mind, as being nothing else than a dissolution of the elements of which every living being is compounded. But if there is no harm to the elements themselves in each continually changing into another, why should a man have any apprehension about the change and dissolution of all the elements? For it is according to nature, and nothing is evil which is according to nature (Oates, pg. 300).
Upon this acceptance of the cycle of death and rebirth, based in the known elements of existence, a Man is unshackled from the existential dread of the unknown and can be at peace with all that life entails. For it is not until there is a peaceful reconciliation with our own inevitable end, that Man can come to progress unhindered towards his promised destiny. The potency of this perspective is not escapism or denial, but instead an active decision for Aurelius to convey his own freedom in life, “Be free, and look at things as a man, as a human being, as a citizen, as a mortal…things do not touch the soul, for they are external and remain immovable; but our perturbations come only from the opinion which is within. The other is that all these things, which thou seest, change immediately and will no longer be; and constantly bear in mind how many of these changes thou hast already witnessed. The universe is transformation: life is opinion” (Oates, pg. 302). The ambitious acknowledgement of transformations and a finite existence frees Man to act with explicit awareness of its own efficacy. Mankind has an existential obligation to itself; with this knowledge, emperor Marcus Aurelius, had an excellent foundation for prosperous ruling. However, as it is known to history, his rule was defined by war, pestilence, calamity, and his own personal suffering (Russell, pg. 261). Perhaps the considerable adversity Aurelius faced during his reign gave him the experiential tools he needed to contemplate these natural revelations in his Meditations.
The philosopher king Aurelius’ self-reflections marked a considerable development for the art of the Stoics and the realm of introspective philosophy. In his most private moments, even as a man of considerable power, Marcus Aurelius signifies the discoveries which can be rendered from within. Through introspection and self-reflection anyone is capable of finding deeper perceptions of the inner soul and one’s place in the grand drama of this existence. Intuitively, a singular person can come to draw similar conclusions bearing perspective as a reconciling truth on the natural world (“life is opinion”) as the great Emperor Aurelius did. Considering this, the practice of basic philosophical inquiry can give Man the tools for self-discovery and efficacy in our actions. Moving next into the modern era of philosophy, the next passages follow the culmination of the philosophical endeavor and take into account the new discoveries of the modern world of science, mathematics, and theology. Shaping the realm of modern philosophical thinking are Descartes’ methodical doubt, Kant’s metaphysical venture, and Dewey’s experiential religiousness.
Descartes’ ‘methodical doubt’
Recalling Socrates’ wisdom, Man can be defined by what he fails to know or understand. Wisdom then, can be considered the knowledge of what you do not know and can spur on the necessity to be ambitious, learn and engage in further inquiry to discover those unknowns. Ancient Western philosophy is permeated with this realization; a modern philosopher takes this pervasive doubt to the next level. René Descartes was a 17th century French philosopher and mathematician who is credited with the formulation of coordinate geometry and is purported as the father of modern philosophy. He also made various contributions to the scientific realm, claimed to be a man of God, and is considered by some to have been a Christian apologist. Descartes primary philosophical advancement comes in his theory of knowledge, namely a methodical skepticism which consequently presented the mind as more certain than matter. Descartes demonstrated that Man’s thought and more specifically his doubt, verified his existence itself:
While I wanted to think everything false, it must necessarily be that I who thought was something; and remarking that this truth, I think, therefore I am, was so solid and so certain that all the most extravagant suppositions of the sceptics were incapable of upsetting it, I judged that I could receive it without scruple as the first principle of the philosophy that I sought (Russell, pg. 564).
This conception made Descartes into the father of modern philosophy and helped to lay the foundation for philosophy’s next generation.
Descartes begins his exposition within his influential Discourse on Method by offering sage wisdom on the nature of the thinking Man and the concept of sense, “Good sense is the best distributed thing in the world; for everyone thinks himself so well endowed with it that even those most difficult to satisfy in every other matter do not usually desire more of it than they have” (Blom, pg. 114). From the beginning of his journey into philosophy, all the way to where he eventually became the creator of a new form of mathematics, he understood human nature and the differences in a person’s perspective. In this he surmises, “Good sense or reason, is naturally equal in all men; and thus the diversity of our opinions does not derive from the fact that some people are more reasonable than others, but only from the fact that we direct our thinking along different paths and do not consider the same things” (Blom, pg. 114). In these ways, Descartes philosophical ideals are all-encompassing in their scope; the nature of Man, how he thinks and the doubts he can cast with those thoughts can affirm reason itself.
For either its profundity or its sheer rationality, one can be drawn to René Descartes’ philosophical ideal of “methodical doubt.” It is perfectly reasonable to pervasively doubt that which cannot be known or that which has not been properly tested. Descartes drew his inspiration to conduct philosophical reasoning in this way from the world of math and science, as he approved of their quantifiable methods, “I was pleased most of all by the mathematical disciplines because of the certitude and evidence of their reasonings; but as yet I did not at all notice their true usage; and thinking they served only in the mechanical arts, I was astonished that, since their foundations were so firm and solid, nothing more dignified had been built upon them” (Blom, pg. 116). Basing philosophical assertions upon the potent methods of mathematical reasoning and discovery was ingenious, original in design, and is the reason why Descartes is considered the father of modern philosophy. Much like Socrates, Descartes’ knowledge and influence to the world of Western philosophy as a man of prime reasoning is based in the very grounds of what he admitted not to know or believe. His ambition to “doubt” them into a certain form of understanding is intuitive and naturally executed through mathematical forms. In a sense, Descartes simply needed to wipe the slate clean of all inherited perceptions and begin crafting his own principle of reality from the ground up, based in the art of metaphysical skepticism and deduction.
The art of philosophy, delved into by some of the greatest minds humanity has ever conceived, has long been a study without answers or certitude. By its very nature, it is exploring that which cannot be known: the ultimate questions of God, consciousness, and being. Descartes founded his thinking with this in mind and thus took a different perspective for what he wanted to achieve, “I will say nothing about philosophy except, seeing that for many centuries it has been cultivated by the most excellent wits who have lived, and yet still contains nothing that is undisputed, and as a consequence, it not doubtful, I did not have enough presumption to expect to discover more in it than others did…I regarded all but false everything that was only probable” (Blom, pg. 115). Much like a mathematician, he begins by exploring the null hypothesis of all that has come before in the study of philosophy, science, and the arts; Descartes’ methodical doubt is born.
Within Descartes’ philosophical principle of Cogito ergo sum, or I think, therefore I am, is the building blocks of this existential revelation — the idea. Considering Man’s ideas (including sense-perceptions), Descartes prepared three separate categories: 1) those ideas that are innate, 2) those ideas that are foreign and come from without, and 3) those ideas that are invented by the self (Russell, pg. 566). From his example of the wax of a honeycomb, Descartes surmises that knowledge of the external has to come from within the mind, and not from the sensory experience. The properties of the wax formulated from our senses and subsequently the transformation it undergoes while heated prove his point, “the perception of the wax ‘is not a vision or touch or imagination, but an inspection of the mind.’ I do not see the wax, anymore than I see men in the street…’I understand by the sole power of judgement, which resides in my mind, what I thought I saw with my eyes’” (Russell, pg. 565). As it follows, the origin of ideas from sensory experience would seem to fall into the second category of ideas, those that are foreign and come from without. However, an idea may appear to originate externally, through the senses, when its basis already existed innately within the mind, “their possibility is in part rooted in an innate capacity of embodied mind. And so, [Descartes’ ideas from without] look to be innate in this sense” (Descartes’ Theory of Ideas, Smith). Thus, Descartes’ theory of ideas, following his Cogito ergo sum and widely open to interpretation, explores the nature of those ideas which govern and prove Man’s existential presence.
René Descartes worked to advance the art of philosophy into a new era in which analytical geometry and calculus, metaphysical deductions, and an explosion of scientific discovery would play a role in shaping new thinking. His principles and theories of methodical doubt, knowledge, and Man’s ideation defined the next step in philosophical inquiry and analysis. In the following century, a man of pure reason, Immanuel Kant, would take the helm of modern philosophy and try to illuminate the realm of metaphysical scrutiny.
Immanuel Kant’s Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics
Philosophy inevitably returns to the unknowable concepts, those questions which cannot be answered. These questions are fielded within metaphysics — the art of reason, inquiry, and causation within existence. Deep explorations into metaphysics have transpired all over the history of Western philosophy, but one modern philosopher made the special effort to provide dialectic evidence that pure reason was indeed possible. Immanuel Kant, from Germany, is known as one of the greatest modern philosophers and his work in the 18th century is marked by metaphysical inquiry, morality, and a critique of pure reason. The primary purpose of Kant’s investigations were to prove that although Man’s knowledge cannot transcend experience, complete knowledge can still be reasoned before the experiential event and not inferred inductively from the experience afterward (Russell, pg. 706). This concept, known as a priori, is knowledge attained independent of experience; knowledge gained from the pure reasoning ability of man or otherwise in some way. This matter is the crux of Kant’s Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics, an introductory essay laying the foundation for his Critique of Pure Reason. In his principles, is the origin of a philosophical position which came to influence everything from political science to the social, behavioral, and physical sciences in the modern world (Issacson, pg. 20).
In dealings with metaphysics, it can be challenging to illustrate the character of the examination; metaphysics itself is transcendent of the knowable. To begin, Kant first defines the peculiar sources of metaphysics, “as concerns the sources of metaphysical cognition, its very concept implies that they cannot be empirical. Its principles must never be derived from experience. It must not be physical but metaphysical knowledge, i.e., knowledge lying beyond experience” (Ellington, pg. 9). Kant follows up that metaphysical cognition is therefore a priori cognition, deriving from the pure understanding and pure reason of man. Thus, metaphysics can be considered the art (yet unproven as a science) of Man’s reason. However, when dealing with things strictly transcendent of experience, the findings can become spurious. This is part of what makes Kant’s prolegomena so exacting; thinking in terms of the purest reason is an art still trying to adhere to the tenets of scientific justification. Within the framework Kant posits, there are distinctions to be made concerning the types of reasoning Man can form.
The basic tenets of his philosophical work involve reasoning drawn from the examination of concepts versus reasoning based on actual empirical experience. The distinctions are enumerated as such: analytical versus synthetic propositions, and a priori versus a posteriori or “empirical” propositions. Analytical propositions are those which adhere to the simple law of contradiction for their proofs, and synthetic propositions are those that Man can only know from actual experience, not from the mere analysis of concepts (Russell, pg. 706). A posteriori propositions can only be known through a person’s sensory experience, whereas a priori propositions may be elicited through experience and can have a basis other than experience (Russell, pg. 707). Kant provides examples concerning facts of history, geography, and scientific observation being empirical, a posteriori in nature; on the other hand, all propositions in pure mathematics are a priori. Through the grasping of its general principalities, math can be reasoned purely, sans experience (Russell, pg. 707). Once the definitions have been secured, an investigation can be launched into the viability of certain metaphysical judgments. Namely, Kant attempts to answer the metaphysical question of how synthetic a priori judgments are possible. That is, how synthetic or ampliative judgments be made and thus knowledge gained, from pure reason, devoid any human experience at all.
Due to the presence and veracity of pure mathematics and pure physics, the question of whether or not synthetic a priori judgments can be made need not be addressed; we already have some uncontested synthetic knowledge a priori in the presence of pure math (Ellington, pg. 17). From this originating position, Kant expresses that the survival of metaphysics relies entirely on the solution to this question and until its resolution no other philosophical conclusions deriving from within metaphysics can be made; “without solving this question, reason will never be satisfied” (Ellington, pg. 19, 64). Thus, with the intent to corroborate metaphysics, inspections into the possibilities of pure mathematics and pure natural science form the foundation of Kant’s Prolegomena. Once each math and physics had been methodically scrutinized by Kant, he explored the nature of metaphysics as a science and how it could be advanced. His solution, (as in all of philosophy isn’t necessarily an answer but a reordering of the problem), is that only through critique can metaphysics be claimed as a legitimate science, “a critique of reason must itself exhibit the whole stock of a priori concepts…especially the possibility of synthetic cognition a priori by means of the deduction of these concepts, the principles and bounds of their use, all in a complete system” (Ellington, pg. 99). Kant’s reordering of the problem, or question, is thus displayed as a call to the intellectual collective of mankind to get to work on it, “the question here, therefore, is not so much how [establishing metaphysics as a science] is possible as how to set it going and induce men of clear heads to quit their hitherto perverted and fruitless cultivation for one that will not deceive, and how such a union for the common end may best be directed” (Ellington, pg. 99). Thus, Kant’s Prolegomena serves as an introduction to his own Critiquebut serves the alternate purpose as an educational and inspirational presentation for the intellectuals within mankind to turn their own minds towards metaphysical inquiry once and for all.
Kant’s philosophy places reason, above all else, as an imperative for the thinking man. Philosophy as an art, is filled with uncertainty, cross-purposes, and ambiguity of theories. Pure reason then, can be considered as the means to the end of providing a level of certitude for the philosophical inquirer. But as one can see in trying to read Kant, attempting true metaphysical inquiry, or dealing with the common irrationality of other human beings — pure reason can be as equivocal as all the other unanswerable questions within philosophy. After reading Kant’s Prolegomena, one is left with few true answers and much to think about; which perhaps is Kant’s indomitable purpose after all. In this final passage on A Common Faith, American John Dewey provides a new secular ideal for mankind to consider when faced with spiritual experiences and the moral faith Man strives for.
John Dewey’s A Common Faith
Theology and religions in Western civilization have interacted with philosophy as a precedent and antecedent abstraction; they are inextricably linked and each has supremely influenced the other, despite their differences. Many of the great Western philosophers believed in God and worked for His sake; while many others were secular. Regardless of theological position, all of Man has a responsibility towards the human community just as much as the religious communities under which they claim followership. An American thinker proposed a unification of all of human culture under the banner of cooperation and mutual respect, absent of any dogmatic religious quality. John Dewey was a preeminent 20th century American philosopher primarily concerned and associated with pragmatism, functional psychology, and American liberalism. He advocated for ethical democracy, progressive education and social reformation based on communication and intellectualism. Dewey’s endeavors in the philosophical world are far reaching, but here his work A Common Faith will be discussed. In it he proposes a secularly religious attitude to be conveyed within our communities. This approach emphasizes non-religion-based spiritual realizations in experiential reality and expressions of what is cooperatively possible for us inside of ideal social experiences. As a result of this perspective, Dewey posits that it is humanity’s natural heritage and inherent grace of the community which can serve as this common faith for all mankind, not confined to sect, class, or race (Dewey, pg. 80).
Dewey begins by examining the extensive fluidity and historical burden of religions relative to the past cultures which they inhabited. Throughout their history, religious beliefs evolve, outgrow, and cast away logical inconveniences in the modernized thinking relative to the conditions of the social culture in which they reside. In order to aspire and achieve within the present, Man has to consider how much of current religion are survivals from outgrown cultures, “it demands that in imagination we wipe the slate clean and start afresh by asking what would be the idea of the unseen, of the manner of its control over us and the ways in which reverence and obedience would be manifested, if whatever is basically religious in experience has the opportunity to express itself free from all historic encumbrances” (Dewey, pg. 6). Regarding the common changes in tenet that occur throughout the history of a religion, it can be surmised that a further shift away from the dogma and strict doctrines within religion to be a natural consequence for the increasing number of non-religious persons today. Dewey proposes a distinction between religion and religious, not a new systematic belief in itself, but instead an “emancipation of elements and outlooks that may be called religious” (Dewey, pg. 8). In this way it would be possible for a person to impart moral, intellectual, and experiential attitudes equally valuable to personal growth and self-actualization yet not inherent in any systematic or institutional belief in the supernatural.
Dewey does not discount the significance of religion but instead offers this “emancipation” as an alternative for the secular person. It is the ends of the religious inspiration or experience, and not the means, which provide this inherent value for mankind:
The actual religious quality in the experience describes is the effect produced, the better adjustment in life and its conditions, not the manner and cause of its production. The way in which the experience operated, its function, determines its religious value. If the reorientation actually occurs, it, and the sense of security and stability accompanying it, are forces of their own account. It takes place in different persons in a multitude of ways. It is sometimes brought about by devotion to a cause; sometimes by a passage of poetry that opens a new perspective; sometimes…through philosophical reflection (Dewey, pg. 13).
Essentially, Dewey claims that it does not matter how these intrinsic revelations are encountered in your life, but instead that they are capable of being encountered outside the confines of a specific religion. Dewey does express regrets concerning the fundamental nature of faith, in its substitution for knowledge, intellectual belief in the supernatural and enabling sights unseen for Man’s “finite and erring nature” (Dewey, pg. 18). Religions inevitably have to tie up their intellectual and ethical knowledge of true moral faith within the supernatural, i.e. within the purported words of God. These words of the religion and the followers’ subsequent faith in them come to direct moral faith and action; Dewey’s dispute is in the inextricable link between a knowledge or intellectual belief based in the inherently unknowable, the supernatural (Dewey, pg. 20). An important philosophical concept for the philosopher as well as the theologian is the necessary distinction between a faith and a knowledge. In a religious capacity, the lines between them can become blurred. This contention is part of the reason why the inevitably secular person may become drawn away from religions. Dewey details the regrettable consequences in this person being drawn away from the potentially self-actualizing experience in a religious capacity, “I believe that many persons are so repelled from what exists as a religion by its intellectual and moral implications, that they are not even aware of attitudes in themselves that if they came to fruition would be genuinely religious” (Dewey, pg. 9).
This matter is expounded in Dewey’s newfound religious attitude, “the religious attitude signifies something that is bound [the root of the word religion] through imagination to a general attitude. This comprehensive attitude, moreover, is much broader than anything indicated by “moral” in its usual sense. The quality of attitude is displayed in art, science, and good citizenship…an unseen power controlling our destiny becomes the power of an ideal” (Dewey, pg. 21). In this way, human imagination concerning the possibilities of our own future, and those ideal ends before us, can lead to actionable cooperation within the community. In the religious attitude, mankind develops a newfound faith in itself and what Man is capable of. Dewey states this crux, “our successes are dependent upon the cooperation of nature. The sense of the dignity of human nature is as religious as is the sense of awe and reverence when it rests upon a sense of human nature as a cooperating part of a larger whole” (Dewey, pg. 23). Man alone can better himself through conscious activity, employing this experiential secular religiousness or otherwise. Dewey asserts that a belief in the supernaturalism of dogmatic religion is simply not the exclusive manifestation marking progression for mankind through moral faith or true religious experience. In A Common Faith, Dewey ultimately requests Man to consider that the quintessential and purportedly unique value of religion may in fact be inherently present in the universe’s existential framework; supernatural presence or otherwise, Man can strive towards ideal ends without the explicit belief in a religion’s doctrine. Perhaps we should genuinely believe in mankind and the good we can actively affect, before we can truly believe in a God.
John Dewey’s philosophical principles induce Man to strive towards the betterment of mankind. In our communities, the call is for intellectually and morally ambitious individuals to enact positive changes through social experience, educated communication, and an essential inquiry into things. Dewey’s philosophy puts existential power, and the sincere ability to inquire towards truth, into the hands of mankind. Regarding this common faith,Dewey believes it has always been an implicit truth in our heritage, “we who now live are parts of a humanity that extends into the remote past, a humanity that has interacted with nature. The things in civilization we most prize are not of ourselves. They exist by grace of the doings and sufferings of the continuous human community in which we are a link. Ours is the responsibility of conserving, transmitting, rectifying and expanding the heritage of values we have received” (Dewey, pg. 80).
So what is the unifying truth of philosophy? A broad yet comprehensive look at Western civilization and the progressions within the philosophical art has provided me perspective. The progression for all these philosophers, the eras and cultures they resided in, and the knowledge they passed down, directly or indirectly, can be followed through to some fundamental relationships in their thinking. From the initial metaphysical inferences of pre-Socratics, such as Anaximander, in ancient Greece there developed the means for the immortal wisdom of Socrates and Plato to manifest the first enduring principles of philosophy and the “why” of existence. Then, from the adherence to natural law and introspection Aristotle and Aurelius shared, there were revealed the value of humanity’s inherent relationship with the surrounding natural world and the profound consequences of intentional self-reflection on the role of a political ruler. These are truths of influential merit presented within the human condition. Along with many other philosophers in the West, this stream of reflective consciousness provided the framework for Man to inquire into self-actualization and quest for a greatness of soul. In the modern era of philosophy, the artistic renaissance and scientific discovery launched a revolution in the intellectual activity for the world. The simplistic beauty of pure mathematics and physical methods opened the door for new philosophical revelations culminating in Descartes’ “methodical doubt” and Kant’s metaphysical testimony. These profound inspirations went on to shape far more than just the philosophical arts in this world. Dewey’s religious faith implicitly common to mankind called for the return of participatory community building and a continuity to the cultural efficacy which is in our nature as a species.
Clearly, there are many prevailing individual truths within Western philosophy. The philosophers learned and progressed on the basis of the preceding works in the art. Truly, throughout the development of philosophy, a unifying Truth has not presented itself among the preceding generations of wisdom thus elucidated. Instead, a collective unconscious knowledge of disciplined and systematic inquiry has formed the foundation for a philosophical framework to be followed by all its readers. If I had to venture a unifying Truth for all of philosophy, it would sound something like this: philosophy involves an eternal search for intentional and inherent truth, concerning our presence in nature and being in the universe. True education isn’t meant to drill the memorization of specific concepts, but instead its telos is to teach the student how to learn, and provide the tools needed to excel for all future learning endeavors in life. Similarly, philosophy as an art, in all its sprawling ideologies and theories unproven and unprovable, is meant to give the uninitiated learner the tools they need to think critically about the ultimate conceptions of life, death, and beyond. In this regard, philosophy itself is a unifying Truth for all of mankind and pervades all that we do.
“Philosophy is the art of learning how to die.” ~ Professor John J. McDermott
(written in 2014)
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