The Story of Philosophy – from antiquity to the present,
By Christopher Delius and Matthias Gatzemeier, Deniz Sertcan, Kathleen Wunscher. Konemann publishers
I thought to myself, now here is a book that might fill a few gaps as the topic of philosophy is not one I am well up on, only coming across the various quotes from the personalities that have contributed to its history, no context or clearly defined development of the philosophical thought process.
It started well, Classical Antiquity, with the Greeks and the very title, from Myth to Logos and the first words of ‘philosophical wonder meaning our amazement at inexplicable phenomena, giving rise to questions of origins, causes. This immediately bringing in myth, also brought about by quizzical pondering, seeking explanations in the very earliest of our species’ days.
The transition from Myth to Logos marked by the difference between the narrative language of stories of gods and heroes versus rational thought to give voice to explanations for things. That was a worthy start. The names of gods used metaphorically, re-interpreting the myths allegorically.
Though I ploughed through the work and was quite taken by it, seeing all those names that I had had thrust upon me from time to time, the deeper into the writing the less unsure everything became.
With the introduction of the term epistemology – the branch of philosophy concerned with the nature and origin of knowledge – it was as if I could not quite focus on the matters at hand, as if they were becoming more diffuse instead of revealing a definite development and clarity. There was so much opposition and disagreement among the protagonists.
Coming to Roman Philosophy Cicero denied the possibility of absolutely assured knowledge, while ‘demanding precise examination of one’s own judgements by carefully weighing up all possible arguments’. He seemed to be something of a Confucian seeing an ideal life in a synthesis of philosophy and rhetoric and always in the service of the state which he defined as an association based on legal consensus and community of interest, plus he spoke of moral dignity.
Leaving aside the variants cluttering the path of philosophy as it ‘developed’ this latter about sums-up what was worthwhile holding onto as at least it was useful and with that we come to the Middle Ages.
It was learned that in Europe, or the West, from the fourth century on for one thousand years, the major thrust of learning and holding onto it fell to the churches or more correctly the monasteries with St Benedict central to monasticism.
To the East, Constantinople flourished, but that’s another story as in the book under study the theme is more European, or Christo-European. It was only when Constantine decreed that Christianity should be given equal status with the Pagan religions that a paradigm shift began taking place with Christianity taking over and becoming the only acceptable mode of thought.
The Ancient World theories had to be reconciled with Christian teaching, the old blended with the new on the one hand because it was politically demanded and on the other because the mind-set was moulded by all that had been thought and exchanged prior to the emergence of Christianity’s insistence that God – thus priests and the Church – lay at the foundation of everything. This was something of a retreat, of the Logos losing out to Myth – Myth taken as myth, in its lesser sense.
The scholar Aurelius Augustinus, St Augustine, bridged the epochal gap somewhat as, although he too viewed the whole of existence as of divine origin, and, as with neo-platonism evil for him was simply the negation of good, it had no independent existence. ‘Truth dwells in the inner person’ he held, seeing Rational Man or Reasonable Man as a man of true faith as different from blind faith.
This attitude or stance could amalgamate revealed truth with philosophical truth as both were set in wonder, both ecstatic. This must have assisted St Thomas Aquinas who sought a synthesis between theology and philosophy, one resting on faith the other on reason. Reason though was a limited approach to truth for Aquinas, the meaning of the Trinity or the Incarnation was placed in the sphere of revelation, inspired thought. This takes the ideas back to St Augustine who accepted that access to the divine, to God, was possible through Enlightenment, an illuminated human understanding.
Taking this sense of things William of Occam (of Occam’s Razor fame) came up short denying the possibility of access to immediate knowledge of the Divine, a person can only have faith in God but not knowledge. His stance gave rise to the terms intuitive knowledge and abstract knowledge. Occam paved the way for the ‘modern or new way’ (via Moderna) while the contrary old way (via Antiqua), held some inertial interest but the former won out among later philosophical schools.
Thus we arrived at the Renaissance when the post-medieval system of states was well established, the Enlightenment was a buzzword and affairs of Church and State were much better differentiated with the Sciences – and technology – playing an independent role.
Printing humanised scholarship; guns put an end to the culture of Knights; oceanic travellers brought an awareness of other lands. Art developed beyond the flat screen paintings of yore. In terms of philosophy the book we are basing these comments on (The Story of Philosophy) seems to meld other associated practices around the subject rather than tackle them head on.
The term humanism came into its own over the period, the human being central to all affairs as per universalistic humanism in this 21st century. This was best highlighted by Erasmus of Rotterdam with his open-ended tolerance where he brought together the contradictory stances of Antiquity and Christianity.
Nicholas of Cusa in his writing On Conscious Ignorance confessed the incomprehensibility of the infinity, of God, and brings this ‘negative insight’ to ground with a definition… “If infinity is the totally ‘alien’ aspect of the created world and of individual things, the ‘absolute’ in contrast to the relative, then it cannot be approached with the logical apparatus…” – in the Absolute the opposites are reconciled, not opposed. For Nicholas Cusa, though reason may not be able to understand the absolute, at least it can ‘touch’ the absolute.
Marsilio Ficino and Cosimo de Medici both ran with what can be called a re-interpretation of Neo-Platonism which dealt with the integrating power of a ‘Platonic Theology’ or ‘philosophical religion’. Pico della Mirandola in his speech On Human Dignity reveals Man as a totally free and undetermined being, a huge statement with tremendous implications and future.
By this time philosophy was loosening its hold as a totalising term over the sciences and it was the domain of the physical sciences that first declared independence and in this way philosophy – which was concerned with fundamental assumptions – became once-removed. Greater mind’s such as Newton, held onto the wider concept as told by the title of his major work: Mathematical Principals of Natural Philosophy.
“The immediate unity of Man and Nature, or the Cosmos, as experienced by the Renaissance, was thus abolished” the writing declares…. “…the mystic ribbon, linking the meanings of things, human understanding, and the divine order,” it concluded.
Descartes laid the foundation for 17th-century continental rationalism, later advocated by Baruch Spinoza and Gottfried Leibniz, and opposed by the empiricist school of thought. From another source Descarte says: “of all the ideas that are in me, the idea that I have of God is the most true, the most clear and distinct.” Descartes considered himself to be a devout Catholic; but the Catholic Church prohibited his books in 1663.
However, the philosophical stage was taken by the likes of Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury, John Locke, Bishop George Berkeley (Bishop of Cloyne), David Hume and other empiricists, and it was not till Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel arrives that some credibility is given to the more intuitive understanding of life itself, human life, and the domain of the divine is brought back into affairs.
However, despite Hegel’s writings it was the last straw as, though he was a graduate of a Protestant seminary, his thoughts stood out from the theologies of the Enlightenment era. But according to Hegel himself, his philosophy was consistent with Christianity.
By the time Galileo got his hands on a telescope there was a lot of discussion about what was the centre of things, was it the Earth or a once-removed pivot, and his proposal was so upsetting to the Church beset then with the Inquisition (1633), he was made to recant his stated findings. He had contradicted the scholastic Christian tradition. The Jesuits led the Counter-Reformation – a reaction to Protestantism rather than a reform movement.
It is in these pages that I found difficulty in seeing just where philosophy was to be found. What with all the argument and counter-argument among the various personalities and schools of thought. Not the book’s fault, this was the puzzle of the times and no one was outside of the interesting mess of problems – but thoughts such as ‘what is the meaning of life’ did not seem to be directly broached.
That is, until Rene Descartes was introduced with… “the theory of knowledge and experience proceeded from the “I”, from thought and its form; subject and object part company, and the subject is defined as the original location of certainty.” This prepared the way in later epochs to make conscious self-reference its absolute foundation,” The Story of Philosophy declares.
However, the ‘two substances’ of Descartes were better seen by Spinoza as a singleness with dual expressions, bringing in his “God or Nature” proposal to resolve this. Leibniz too rejected the dualism of Descarte’s substances, and constructed his own metaphysical system bringing about a universal accommodation of the individual with the whole. His memorable stance was that this is the best of all possible worlds and he seen a harmonious perfection that included the imperfections. There was no evil-in-itself; ‘the whole of existence represents the optimum fulfillment of merely possible existences in real existence.’
However, leaving Leibniz behind after encountering Locke, Berkeley, and Hume all matters discussed seem to descend into minutia. The mind of this reader faltered and holding interest became difficult; and in the case of the philosophers it was as if they were trapped in the intricacies of their own thoughts and they were going around in circles.
When it came to Feuerbach, he had resolved the subject and object dichotomy; the concept of the ‘object’ in general was mediated by the concept of ‘You’, the ‘objective ego’. “Only when I am transformed from an ‘I’ to a ‘You’ , when I ‘suffer’, that is, am passively the object of another’s perception, does the notion of ‘an objectivity existing outside of me’ arise. ‘The ‘ego’ Feuerbach suggests, had to be a ‘You’ before it could become an “I’.
“The secret of theology is anthropology” was Feuerbach’s way of putting it… “But this is also a matter of individual experience, and of understanding ‘being’ not abstractly, but ‘being as the object of itself,’ that is, of the particular individual human existence.”
Marx as an enthusiast for Feuerbach’s writings saw reality as a structure of processes in which Man and his or her environment inseparably condition each other, as a product of practical activity (praxis) that is to say as something that is produced… he grasps the essence of ‘labour’ and understands objective Man., who is true because he is real, as the product of his own labour. Whereas Hegel was principally concerned with processes of consciousness not with labour as concrete activity,” explain the writers of The Story of Philosophy. Marx argued that the starting point must be the actual conditions of labour, and the relations of production.
This way of thinking of Marx reflected back on the feudal medieval order with its lack of freedoms, in which among other things the ownership of land and serfs was decisive, as it is to modern capitalism, which is linked to ownership of the means of production and the ownership and sale of a person’s labour. Then came Marx’s concern and explanations of ideologies in terms of antagonisms within historical conditions of class conflict.
Seeking a point of view not covered in The Story of Philosophy there is Rodolfo Mondolfo who explains that: “In reality, if we examine historical materialism without prejudice, just as it is given us in Marx’s and Engels’ texts, we have to recognize that it is not a materialism but rather a true humanism, [and] that it places the idea of man at the center of every consideration, every discussion. It is a realistic humanism (Reale Humanismus), as its own creators called it, which wishes to consider man in his effective and concrete reality, to comprehend his existence in history, and to comprehend history as a reality produced by man through activity, labor, social action, down through the centuries in which there gradually occurs the formation and transformation of the environment in which man lives, and in which man himself gradually develops, as simultaneously cause and effect of all historical evolution….” (See: Dictionary of Humanism, by Silo.)
Husserl is next to introduce a topic of import and interest with his insight that consciousness was ‘intentionally’ structured, not a passive perception, but a purposeful act. This was phenomenology, which took on the cloak of existentialism in France. Perception transcends the dualism of mind and body, because perceptible objects can ultimately only be understood in relation to a subject which intervenes physically in the world.
Martin Heidegger, Karl Jaspers and Jean-Paul Sartre were the core existentialists. Now the philosophical quest was simply, “What is Being?”, admitting that this is the vocation of the activist-poet rather than that of the philosopher. Being for itself was distinguished from Being in itself.
Bertrand Russell who applied logical analysis to natural language pushed the development of logical positivism. Point being, for the particular person to declare for that particular self an understanding of the world in words (thoughts or images). Out comes the obvious…that ‘there is no single correct description of the world, rather, which description is correct depends on which language is being used’…’the meaning of a word is the way it is used’ – the social convention of correct usage.
It had become apparent via the writing of such as the Hungarian Georg Lukacs and Max Weber that a distinctive feature of modern society was the process of progressive rationalisation where people were no longer guided by communal values but only by self-interest – which Lukacs described as reification – modern man seeing himself and others as ‘things’. This can be traced back to the spread of wage labour and a capitalist economic system – thus any revolution it was hoped would put an end to both capitalism and reification.
The result given the influences and general mentality of the progressing times was the ‘liberal democracies of the twentieth century with all the social problems arising owing to the ‘colonisation of the life-world’ by the System. The System as the invasion of the private sphere and public life by money and power and the institutionalisation of these influences as part of the controlling structure of governance.
That was the setting for structuralism which was opposed to humanism as per Sartre, who allotted a central position to the human being; denying that, saying that it is an illusion created by those anonymous processes of the modern age (the System) – where a person thinks he or she is thinking for himself-herself.
Thus The Story of Philosophy comes to an end… one is left speechless and thoughtless. It is a writing (likely intentionally) without conclusion but, as it is also without any wrap-up final paragraphs one more-or-less just falls off the plank into the deep-end.
Well, there is that final This Is Not a Pipe sidebar… the painting only represents a pipe, so it’s true, it’s not a pipe. But what is really revealed is the emptiness of the state of mind that has got intellectually stuck, one has to revert to the immediacy of Marx, to Sartre, to the cultural anthropology studies which were, interestingly, referenced by the South American writer-thinker-activist Silo who allows us to leap over that abyss and this writer here provides a more reasonable conclusion proper to any consideration about philosophy, its history and intent – see how a chap can change from such humble early paragraphs!
Silo’s ‘starts’ with Franz Brentano in relation to intentionality – though the frame is studies in psychology rather than philosophy. Moving onto Husserl, Silo states that this, “… places us in the field of eidetic reduction, and though innumerable insights may be drawn from his works, our interest here is oriented toward themes that are proper to a phenomenological psychology rather than to phenomenological philosophy.” In these remarks Silo is introducing his Space of Representation theme (See Contributions to Thought, Psychology of the Image).
The writings of C.G. Jung, Mircea Eliade, James Frazer, Bronislaw Malinowski, etc also draw Silo’s interest in matters that lie outside the mainstream realm of orthodox philosophical studies. For Silo censorship and self-censorship were abhorrent; and to escape – for himself and like-minded friends and indeed anyone – from the strident censorship of the recent and present times.
Just as the works of Marks-Engels brought Lenin to provoke the down-to-earth works of socialism, Silo as activist-philosopher planted his feet firmly on the ground and with his many colleagues established a swathe of cultural-social-political organisations and latterly, the Parks of Study and Reflection on different continents – absolutely flying-in-the-face of the stuck-in-a-rut Nihilism most rampant in European thought but general in Western thought – and he-we (Silo et al) did so expressly to create ambits of deep and open communication moving forward.
Silo seen the signs telling of another way of thinking that was unfolding, a completely different way – and the story of philosophy was also unfolding. Not in seeking an intellectual truth but establishing coherent humanly friendly and accommodating relations among the various peoples. Doing – personal, familial, political, social, technological, environmental, spiritual things – Being is Doing and Doing is Being.
Amplified Being nurtures awareness and the quality of consciousness and that brings meaning into play and a valid feeling of fulfillment and that’s where non-violence stems from, as an active stance towards life. Knowledge is given by wholesome experience, and understanding increases – there is delight in life – the only possible conclusion and intent of philosophy and our human here-abouts-ness.