Philosophy Feed

Rules of Debate

I'm reading an introduction into Eastern Philosophy and I appreciated what I read today of the rules of philosophical debate established by the Naiyayika school in India.  There are 3 types of debate--discussion (vada), disputation (jalpa), and destructive criticism (vitanda).  Here's an excerpt:

Vada is concerned with arriving at the truth through rational discussion. The aim is not simply to win the other party over to your view, but to work through the arguments together.  Even if agreement cannot be reached, the debate will succeed if each party comes to a good understanding of the other's position.  A successful debate is one in which both participants explain their position using the five-membered Nyaya form of argument and without breaking any of the rules of reasoning.

Wow, that sounds really good and constructive.  I wish we had more of that type of public discourse.  And I appreciated these ideas:

This framework for debate was developed to be conducive to the exchange and clarification of ideas.  The respondent is not allowed simply to contradict the proponent's thesis and advance another in its place.  Instead the thesis has to be thoroughly examined in the terms offered by the proponent.  The respondent has to put himself into the mindset of the proponent and appreciate the force of the arguments from that person's point of view.

Inner Voice

A fascinating article on Aeon about research into our inner voice.  This will come in handy when I start Descartes in class in a couple of weeks.

An excerpt:

The roots of the new work trace back to the 1920s and the Russian developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky, who said the human mind was shaped by social activity and culture, beginning in childhood. The self, he hypothesised, was forged in what he called the ‘zone of proximal development’, the cognitive territory just beyond reach and impossible to tackle without some help. Children build learning partnerships with adults to master a skill in the zone, said Vygotsky, then go off on their own, speaking aloud to replace the voice of the adult, now gone from the scene. As mastery increases, this ‘self-talk’ becomes internalised and then increasingly muted until it is mostly silent – still part of the ongoing dialogue with oneself, but more intimate and no longer pronounced to the world. This voice – at first uttered aloud but finally only internal – was, from Vygotsky’s perspective, the engine of development and consciousness itself.

Idols of the Mind

Bacon headshot
In Novum Organum, Sir Francis Bacon writes that there are "four species of idols [that] beset the human mind."

The first are Idols of the Tribe--"man's sense is falsely asserted to be the standard of things."  These are "inherent in human nature."

Second are Idols of the Den--besides the errors common to all humans, each individual has his or her own den "which intercepts and corrupts the light of nature, either from his own peculiar and singular disposition, or from his education and intercourse with others, or from his reading, and the authority acquired by those whom he reverences and admires, for from the different impressions produced on the mind."

Next are Idols of the Market--these are false ideas generated by our social interactions.  Bacon emphasizes the role language plays: "words still manifestly force the understanding, throw everything into confusion, and lead mankind into vain an innumerable controversies and fallacies."

Finally, there are Idols of the Theatre--these arise from "the various dogmas of peculiar systems of philosophy."  Bacon wrote, "For we regard all the systems of philosophy hitherto received or imagined, as so many plays brought out and performed, creating fictitious and theatrical worlds."  Wow!  That sounds like someone writing in the 20th or 21st centuries.

What can rid us of these idols?  "The formation of notions and axioms on the foundation of true induction is the only fitting remedy by which we can ward off and expel these idols."

Knowledge & Power: Some Baconian Aphorisms


I've begun reading Sir Francis Bacon's Novum Organum as part of my now many-year project of reading through some of the philosophical canon, re-reading some volumes I've read before and some for the first time.  Here are a few aphorisms from the beginning of the book.  Some comments afterwards.

Knowledge and human power are synonymous.

The subtilty of nature is far beyond that of sense or of the understanding; so that the specious meditations, speculations, and theories of mankind are but a kind of insanity, only there is no one to stand by and observe it.

For the subtilty of nature is vastly superior to that of argument.

The human understanding, from it peculiar nature, easily supposes a greater degree of order and equality in things than it really finds.

The human understanding is active and cannot halt or rest, but even, though without effect, still presses forward.

For a man always believes more readily that which he prefers.  He, therefore, rejects difficulties for want of patience in investigation; sobriety, because it limits his hope; the depths of nature, from superstition; the light of experiment, from arrogance and pride, lest his mind should appear to be occupied with common and varying objects; paradoxes, from a fear of the opinion of the vulgar; in short his feelings imbue and corrupt his understanding in innumerable and sometimes imperceptible ways.

But by far the greatest impediment and aberration of the human understanding proceeds from the dulness, incompetency, and errors of the senses; since whatever strikes the senses preponderates over everything, however superior, which does not immediately strike them.

For the sense are weak and erring.

As I read these and other comments by Bacon, at the very foundation of our modern science, I was intrigued to see not hubris and certainty (a la Descartes) but this emphasis upon limitation, bias, and error.  In some ways Bacon reads like a postmodern critique of modernism or something like Daniel Dennett's criticisms of how we interpret sense perceptions.  A reminder that our tradition contains rich material.

The Meaning We Give History

Karl Popper
Karl Popper considers the idea that history can provide us some meaning.  He doesn't think so, "We must find our justification in our work, in what we are doing ourselves, and not in a fictitious 'meaning of history.'"

He thinks that most of the history we learn in school is only the "history of power politics," which is problematic.  So we must learn to interpret it "from the point of view of our fight for the open society, for the rule of reason, for justice, freedom, equality, and for the control of international crime.  Although history has no ends, we can impose these ends of ours upon it, and although history has no meaning, we can give it a meaning."  (italics his)

What does he mean when he says we give purpose and meaning to nature and history?  He lists some examples:

Men are not equal; but we can decide to fight for equal rights.  Human institutions such as the state are not rational, but we can decide to fight to make them more rational.  We ourselves and our ordinary language are, on the whole, emotional rather than rational; but we can try to become a little more rational, and we can train ourselves to use our language as an instrument not of self-expression (as our romantic educationists would say) but of rational communication. 

He makes a point we would be well served to remember in 2018, "Facts as such have no meaning; they can gain it only through our decisions."

The Open Society & Its Enemies

The Open Society and Its Enemies: New One-Volume EditionThe Open Society and Its Enemies: New One-Volume Edition by Karl R. Popper
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This major work has been "on my list" since I read that marvelous little book Wittgenstein's Poker about the time Wittgenstein supposedly got so angry at Popper he brandished a poker at him (if you haven't read that book, I highly recommend it). After the election of Trump I thought I should hurry up and get it read.

This is a major tome that takes some work to get through (though you can effectively skim through portions). If you want to grasp the summary, read the chapter with the same title as the book.

The First Volume is a marvelous take down of Plato as the source of authoritarianism in the Western tradition. I must say, I was initially quite surprised with how critical Popper was of Plato, but the more I read the more convinced I became of Popper's analysis. Plato was an enemy of Athenian democracy and his philosophy has provided intellectual fodder for opposing the open society ever since.

The Second Volume is a criticism of historicism in more contemporary philosophy, first the conservative type represented by Hegel and then, more thoroughly, Marxism. Popper eviscerates Hegel with sentences that had me laughing out loud (despite the fact that I was reading them in my stepdad's hospital room). Popper greatly respects Marx and what he set out to do, but still thinks he was wrong. But this is judged on scientific grounds. Marx proposed a theory, Popper analyses and tests the theory and finds it wanting. He credits Marx with showing "that a social system can as such be unjust; that if the system is bad, then all the righteousness of the individuals who profit from it is a mere sham righteousness." Marx showed that we are responsible for the system.

And in this way, Popper contends that Marx contributed to the open society, for it is one in which we are all responsible. In fact, that's why there is often backlash against it--being responsible for oneself and one's society causes strain and stress.

What does sustain the open society? Democracy. The humanitarian spirit. Brotherhood. Individual freedom. Rational argument. Critical reason. Institutions. And incremental changes rather than bold revolutions. He places much emphasis on the role of institutions (a message I've been more open to since Trump, having revised my typical Gen X distrust of institutions).

And Popper doesn't think that you can give an argument to prove that the open society is right, believing in it is a matter of faith.

So, if you are looking for any purpose or meaning in history or politics, it is the purpose and meaning that we decide it will have. "Progress rests with us, with our watchfulness, with our efforts, with the clarity of our conception of our ends, and with the realism of their choice."

In the final paragraph he writes, "We must become the makers of our fate. We must learn to do things as well as we can, and to look out for our mistakes."

I wrote on the final page, "Very good. Now I have many questions." Popper wrote this book in the midst of the ascendancy of the totalitarians of the twentieth century, so he would be an excellent giver of advice for how the open society should respond to those who don't engage in rational discourse and who destroy the institutions that support democracy, but he doesn't provide such practical advice. Are we to simply continue on doing the best we can and hope that we survive? He doesn't think our success is inevitable or that history bends toward justice. So it would seem that the believers in the open society could do our best and still be defeated.

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The Strain

I have come to the end of the first book of Karl Popper's The Open Society and Its Enemies.  The final chapter is marvelous.  One key insight is the idea of the strain that exists for humanity as we move from a closed society to  an open society.  

For Popper, closed societies are more collectivist.  A key feature is that an individual rarely struggles to understand what the right thing to do is, as social custom has made that clear.  Identity, meaning, and purpose are clear.

Open societies, however, are ones in which individuals are "confronted with personal decisions."  One must create one's identity and social relations rather than having them created for oneself.

While this shift has created benefits, it has also come with losses.  In modern societies many people are lonely and they feel the strain of having to make personal decisions.  Popper writes that though the Greeks began this revolution, as of the 1940's we humans were still in the beginning of the shift.  The strain can lead to totalitarianism in our own day.

Of the strain, he writes:

It is the strain created by the effort which life in an open and partially abstract society continually demands from us--by the endeavour to be rational, to forgo at least some of our emotional social needs, to look after ourselves, and to accept responsibilities.


It is part of the strain that we are becoming more and more painfully aware of the gross imperfections in our life, of personal as well as of institutional imperfection; of avoidable suffering, of waste and unnecessary ugliness; and at the same time of the fact that it is not impossible for us to something about all this, but that such improvements would be just as hard to achieve as they are important.  This awareness increases the strain of personal responsibility, of carrying the cross of being human.

Reading this chapter provided the best analysis I've yet encountered of the Trump phenomenon.

But our destiny as humans means we must move forward into the open society.  He writes that we can never return to the closed society without becoming like beasts.  This chapter concludes:

But if we wish to remain human, then there is only one way, the way into the open society.  We must go on into the unknown, the uncertain and insecure, using what reason we may have to plan as well as we can for both security and freedom.

Montaigne's Essays

The Complete EssaysThe Complete Essays by Michel de Montaigne
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

So, I've been slowly perusing and mostly skimming through Montaigne's essays since April 2017. I probably should have, instead, read one of the many smaller selections rather than tackle the whole volume. There is excellent material here, though one must wade through lots of digressions. I can now mark this major work off of my list.

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Aztec Moral Philosophy

An interesting article on Aztec moral philosophy, which is a virtue ethics different from the Greek tradition.  

While Plato and Aristotle were concerned with character-centred virtue ethics, the Aztec approach is perhaps better described as socially-centred virtue ethics. If the Aztecs were right, then ‘Western’ philosophers have been too focused on individuals, too reliant on assessments of character, and too optimistic about the individual’s ability to correct her own vices. Instead, according to the Aztecs, we should look around to our family and friends, as well as our ordinary rituals or routines, if we hope to lead a better, more worthwhile existence.

One reason the Aztec's had this difference view is because they viewed life on Earth as "slippery."  Which means that fortune will eventually turn against us, or we will fail.  So instead of exercising great worry over whether or not a virtue person can suffer misfortune or make any mistakes (the way Greek virtue theory has), they simply assumed this and developed a virtue ethics where we must rely upon one another because life is "slippery."

This article left me wanting to know more about this tradition.  I'll likely incorporate something from this in my philosophy classes.

Perspective of "Death of Liberalism"

These authors point out that for more than a century liberalism's death has been predicted.  But that's nonsense, one reason being that so many different things are a form of liberalism.  This article gives some good historical perspective on our current moment.  And I liked this line, "Even if liberalism does not provide a telos or supreme good toward which we should strive, it helps us avoid greater evils, the most salient being cruelty and the fear it inspires."