(54) George asked:
What is the best way to learn complex theories from Kant, especially with things such as synthetic a priori and how will Philosophy help me in terms of reasoning and future career prospects?
George, while you do not say what type of career you aspire to, it must be said that a degree in Philosophy does not automatically offer a direct link to employment in the same way as a degree in Law or an Engineering degree might (unless of course one intends to go on to teach Philosophy). That being said, skills such as the ability to think logically, to express oneself clearly and articulately, both in the spoken and written word, and people management all philosophy related skills are all abilities that employers value in potential employees and all abilities most useful if one's ambition moves one in the direction of teaching, writing (both fiction, non-fiction and/ or journalism) and other academic pursuits. Personally I have not found a love of wisdom and the search for knowledge an impediment to finding employment which over the course of my life has included running a small but successful business, being a librarian, a musician, a civil servant, a teacher of English, and of course, a Philosophy lecturer. It might interest you to know that an acquaintance of mine who is a successful businessman insists that his love of Philosophy not only plays a significant role in the day to day running of his businesses, but it helps him to find a balance between work, play and, most importantly, family.
With regard to your interest in Kant, while there are many excellent introductions to Kant available in good academic bookshops, until you discover one yourself, you may find the following piece on synthetic a priori judgements and other aspects of Kant's philosophy useful. (for more see www.tonyfahey.com)
Immanuel Kant: Synthetic a priori judgements
In his essay An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) John Locke declared that the mind was a tabula rasa a blank slate. Human beings, he argued, are born with nothing other than the capacity to experience through the senses. The knowledge we acquire is not due to any innate power to reason, but by the accumulation and organisation of experience. David Hume (1711-1776), one of Britain's most eminent empiricists, followed Locke's argument. 'We know the mind', said Hume, 'only as we know matter: by perception'. Hume maintained that the mind is not a substance, an organ of ideas, but an abstract name for a series of ideas, memories, and feelings, which all have their source in experience.
The German philosopher Immanuel Kant was impressed by the Empiricist argument that experience is the basis of knowledge. Indeed, he claimed that reading Hume caused him to awaken him from his 'dogmatic slumber'. However, he could not accept that all knowledge was derived from experience. 'Though all our knowledge begins with experience', he said, 'it by no means follows that all arises out of it'. In 1781, in response to the claims of Empiricism, Kant published his famous Critique of Human Reason; his ambition was to show pure reason's possibility, and to exalt it above the impure knowledge which comes through the channels of sense. By 'pure reason' Kant means knowledge that does not come by way of sensory perceptions. There is knowledge, he argued, which, though it may derive from experience, is understood to have its source in other than experience: knowledge that is inherent in the human mind; knowledge which is a priori. In the Critique of Pure Reason Kant relies extensively on the term 'synthetic'. By 'synthetic' he means knowledge which adds to, or extends previous knowledge. It was Kant's contention that there are, in philosophy, judgements that are both synthetic and a priori.
David Hume argued that metaphysical propositions are neither empirical nor analytical. That is, they are neither verifiable nor falsifiable by experiment or observation, nor or they propositions whose denials are self-contradictory. For example, propositions such as 'God exists' or 'Man is morally responsible' are propositions which are plainly neither empirical nor analytical. Hume's argument is that since metaphysical arguments are neither verifiable nor falsifiable, they must be meaningless. Only empirical or analytical propositions, he said, have meaning. Kant rejected this argument. He believed that there is a classification which falls outside Hume's two classes of empirical or analytical. This classification is not of propositions per se, but of judgements. By 'judgements' Kant means propositions asserted by somebody. He was not concerned with the proposition in itself, but with the judgement by some person to that effect. Every judgement, Kant maintained, is either analytic or synthetic:
In all judgements in which the relation of a subject to the predicate is thought (I take into consideration affirmative judgements only, the subsequent application to negative judgements being easily made), this relation is possible in two different ways. Either the predicate B belongs to subject A, as something (covertly) contained in this concept A, although it does not indeed stand in connection with it. In this case I entitle the judgement analytic, in the other synthetic. (CPR. 1929, A7, B11, p. 48)
An analytic judgement is one whose truth follows merely from the meaning of he words used to express it, a judgement in which the concept of the predicate is 'included' in that of the subject. Thus, the judgement 'an equilateral triangle is a triangle' is analytic: it follows from the meanings that we give 'equilateral triangle' that the second term 'triangle' applies to everything that falls under the first. A synthetic judgement, in the other hand, is one that goes beyond the meaning of the subject terms, and brings some new idea or information not already contained in the subject: it is a synthesis of two different notions, one being the subject about which the other, the predicate, is asserted. For example, if 'I say the sun is shining, but the day is cold', I am making a judgement which is the synthesis of two different ideas. With a synthetic judgement, then, the predicate must contain some information not contained in the subject, whereas an analytic judgement merely elucidates the meaning of terms but is otherwise uninformative.
It was Kant's contention that a judgement is either a priori or a posteriori. A judgement is a priori it it 'is independent of all experience and even all impressions and senses'. (CPR., B2, p. 28) A posteriori judgements depend logically on other judgements which describe experiences or impressions of sense. It is not only judgements that describe a particular sense-impression that are a posteriori, even general judgements may be logically dependent on such descriptions and therefore a posteriori. For example, the judgement that 'all bodies, if deprived of support, fall downwards, is a posteriori because it entails the description of particular experiences.
Thus, it seems that Kant's classification offers four possibilities: (i) synthetic a posteriori, (ii) synthetic a priori, (iii) analytic a priori, and (iv) analytic a posteriori. However, analytic a posteriori must be discounted as there can be no such judgements. An analytic proposition, being about the meaning of terms, does not give any other information. An a posteriori proposition, on the other hand, does. This leaves us with three classes of judgement which Kant holds to be not only possible but patently obvious: synthetic a posteriori, synthetic a priori, and analytic a priori. All analytic judgements must be a priori since they merely elucidate the meaning of the terms and are thus logically independent of judgements describing sense-experience. It would seem to follow that if all analytic judgements are a priori, then all synthetic (non-analytic) judgements are a posteriori. However, Kant holds that there is a third classification of judgements whose predicates are not contained in their subjects, and are yet logically independent of all judgements describing experience: synthetic a priori judgements.
For a synthetic a priori judgement to be possible, says Kant, they must contain some information not purely of a logical nature, while at the same time they must rely on empirical information for their truth. But where can one find such evidence? Kant maintains that mathematics and physics are precisely of this character. They are both possible and synthetic a priori judgements. There are, he says, two kinds of mathematical truths: geometry and arithmetic. Even the elementary arithmetical judgement that 5 and 7 equals 12 is a synthetic a priori judgement, for, says Kant, 'the concept of a sum of 7 and 5 contains nothing over and above the uniting of both these numbers into a single one' (CPR., B1, p. 37) this proposition is true, insists Kant, not because of the veracity of the definitions of terms involved, but also because it contains more information in the predicate '12' than in the concepts '7' and '5'. In order to join these two concepts together, says Kant, a kind of intuition is necessary which introduces something new in the conclusion. In other words, we can take '7' and '5' as two separate entities, but without 'intuition' we would never arrive at their 'synthesised' sum to form a completely separate conclusion. 'All mathematical judgements, without exception', says Kant 'are synthetic'. (ibid., p. 52)
The same is true of geometrical truths. For example, if we take the proposition 'A straight line is the shortest distance between two points', we note that the concept of a straight line does not represent any suggestion of it being the shortest route, and yet the judgement is a universal and necessary truth. Physics, says Kant, also holds such truths, which we see in the proposition, 'Every event has a cause', which is both synthetic and a priori. This evidence, argues Kant, shows that in addition to sensory experience, there are also certain relating activities of mind itself: activities on which a priori truths depend.
The mind, says Kant, receives data of the phenomenal world through sensory perceptions. However, in order to understand this information these sensory perceptions must be processed by certain conditions inherent in the human mind. As well as the 'intuitions' space and time, Kant lists ten categories which were meant to define every possible form of prediction: substance, quantity, quality, relation, place, time, position, possession, action, and passivity. These concepts (or categories) were reorganised to consist of four types: quantity, quality, relation, and modality. In short, everything we, as humans, experience we can be certain will be imposed within the a priori framework of the intuitions space and time, and subject to the law of causality the law of cause and effect. These conditions, says Kant, operate as a formal apparatus to bind together a priori judgements. These functions are the pure concepts of synthesis which belong to the understanding a priori, and for which alone it is called pure understanding. The phenomenal world, says Kant, is a combination of something which our senses present to us and a priori conditions inherent in the human mind. The mind, then, determines the kinds of answers given but not the specific content, which only experience can provide. Space and time, and the law of causality, impose on the mind necessary conditions of both experience and knowledge, but the actual content arises out of something independent in us: before sensations can be known they must be brought into a unified consciousness, which thus is no mere additional sense, but an intellectual synthesis, presupposed by every possible experience.
According to Kant, the world, for humans, is not a datum given by some external power. It is not some objective fact 'out there'; it is a product of the laws of our own understanding, acting in no arbitrary way, but according to specific principles, which are not peculiar to our separate individuality. For Kant human experience gives a point of view for the interpretation of everything that we can know; between the world, and ourselves there is an inner identity. As human beings we have sensory experiences, that is, we perceive impressions of phenomenon from the outside world through the senses; these sensory impressions are thus shaped by conditions inherent in the human mind. In other words, the mind assimilates the information perceived through sensory perceptions, and the judgements it arrives at will conform to the a priori intuitions of space and time, and the law of cause and effect. In the case of synthetic a priori judgements, while the judgement may appear to derive from sensory experience, its validity does not depend on it. For example, I can enumerate 7 and 5 on my fingers and conclude, by sensory perception, that the sum total is 12; however, such judgements, according to Kant, exist as universal and necessary truths whether I have sensory experience or not. They are a priori but they are discovered by experience. That is, they are synthetic a priori judgements.
In examining Kant's view on synthetic a priori judgements we come to realise that, in Kant's view, there are two sets of elements that contribute to our understanding of our world. The first set involves external conditions, which we cannot know before we have perceived them through the senses. The second involves the conditions inherent in the human mind. Empiricism argues that the human mind is but a 'passive wax' which is pummelled and shaped by sensory impressions. David Hume had reduced the mind to little more than a sponge which absorbed impressions and formulated complex ideas, not by virtue of any innate power, but by force of repetition and habit. Kant refused to accept such a skeptical approach. While accepting that our knowledge of the world enters the mind via sensory experience, he rejected the notion that all our knowledge arises out of these experiences. If this is the case, the question arises as to from whence comes order. According to Kant, the world is ordered, not in itself, but in that the mind already contains certain innate power laws, which impose an order on the data received through sensory impressions. The human mind, says Kant, assimilates these impressions and makes judgements on these perceptions by virtue of the power inherent in the mind. These powers allow the human mind to make sense of, and function in, the phenomenal world. Access to this world, then, is only that which our intellectual and sensory powers, operating in tandem, permit. In other words, our capacity to understand the world in which we live depends on the intuitions 'space and time' and the concept of cause and effect. It is within this framework that we can arrive at certain judgements which, while they derive from experience, they do not depend on empirical evidence to determine their validity: they are synthetic a priori judgements.
Kant's Transcendental Philosophy
For Kant the term 'transcendental' means knowledge that concerns the a priori conditions of knowledge.
However, 'transcendent' means 'going beyond' or 'being beyond'. According to Kant there can be no knowledge of anything transcendent. That is, there can be no knowledge beyond the limits of the world of experience.
By transcendental idealism Kant means the doctrine that appearances are to be regarded as being, one and all, representations only, not things in themselves, and that time and space are therefore only sensible forms of intuition, not determinations given as existing in themselves, nor conditions of objects viewed as things in themselves.
Essentially, Kant's Critique of Human Reason can be divided in two parts: The Transcendental Analytic and the Transcendental Dialectic. The Transcendental Analytic considers the a priori principles that determine the scope and validity of the operations of the human mind: it investigates the limitations of reason. The Transcendental Dialectic deals with the sophistries and illusions to which the mind is prone. That is, it examines the illusions of reason, which originate from reason's propensity to draw conclusions of things that are beyond its capabilities. As he says in the preface to the first edition of the Critique, 'Human reason has this particular fate that in one species of its knowledge it is burdened by questions which, as prescribed by the very nature of reason itself, it is not able to ignore, but which, as transcending all its powers, it is not able to answer' (CPR A vii) The questions the mind cannot ignore, and at the same time cannot answer are those related to the soul, the cosmos, and God.
As already said, Kant's arguments are intended to show the limitations of our knowledge. Transcendental idealism, then, holds that metaphysical knowledge: knowledge of God, of souls, and of substance, is ideal, not real. Rationalists held that such knowledge was real. Kant argued that we cannot have knowledge of the realm beyond the empirical. There are two reasons why this is so: two constraints to this knowledge. That is, inherent in the human mind are two a priori sources which confine our knowledge to things as they appear to us as derived from experience. They are: i) the receptive capacity, or sensibility, and ii) the conceptual capacity, or understanding. Sensibility is what Kant calls the 'Transcendental Aesthetic (the term 'aesthetic' being derived from the original Greek meaning 'to have feeling'). By this Kant means that the mind contains, a priori, the sensible 'intuitions' space and time. According to Kant, sensibility is the minds way of assessing objects. The reason synthetic a priori judgements are possible, is that space is an a priori form of sensibility. It is not possible to understand the object as an object unless we delineate the region of space it occupies. Without this a priori 'sensibility', we would not be able to ascribe properties to particular objects. Time, he says, is also necessary as a form or condition of our intuitions of objects. The idea of time, like our idea of space, does not derive from experience because succession and simultaneity of objects, the phenomena that indicates the passage of time, would be impossible to represent if we did not possess, a priori, the capacity to represent objects in time.
In short, for Kant, it is impossible to have any experience of objects that are not in time and space. However, space and time themselves cannot be perceived directly, so they must be the form by which experience of things is obtained. Subjecting the sensations to the a priori conditions of space and time, however, is not enough to make judgement of objects possible. Understanding must provide the concepts: the rules by which what is common or universal in different representations of things (CPR. A 106). 'Without sensibility no object would be given to us', says Kant; 'and without understanding no object would be thought. Thoughts without content are empty; intuitions without concepts are blind'. (ibid., B, 75) In the Transcendental Analytic section of his Critique of Pure Reason Kant argues that in order to think about the input of sensibility, sensations must conform to the conceptual structure that the mind has available to it. By applying concepts, the understanding takes the particulars that are given in sensation and identifies what is common and general about them. A concept of 'shelter' for instance, allows me to identify what is common in particular representations of a house, a tent, and a cave. Hume had argued that for a sort of association to explain how we arrive at causal beliefs. The idea of a cue ball in motion becomes associated with the black ball being struck and falling into a pocket. Under the right circumstances, repeated impressions of the second effect following the first produces the belief that the first causes the second.
According to Kant, the problem for Hume is that he failed to recognise that the association of ideas already presupposes that we can conceive of identical, persistent objects that have regular, predictable, causal behaviour. Being able to conceive of objects in this way presupposes that the mind makes several a priori contributions. Empirical derivation is not enough to sufficiently explain all of our concepts. I must be able to separate the objects from each other in my sensations, and from my sensations, I must be able to attribute properties to the objects. I must be able to to conceive of an external world with its own course of events that is separate from the stream of perceptions in my consciousness. These components of experience cannot be found in experience because they constitute it: they put shape on it and give it meaning. The mind's a priori conceptual contribution to experience can be enumerated by a special set of concepts that make all other empirical concepts and judgements possible. These concepts cannot be experience directly; they are only manifest as the form which particular judgements take. The special set of concepts is Kant's Table of Categories, which are taken. By and large, from Aristotle:
Of Quantity Unity, Plurality, Totality Of Quality Reality, Negation, Limitation Of Reality Inherence and Substance, Causality and Dependence Of Modality Possibility Impossibility, Existence Nonexistence, Necessity Contingency
For Kant, this is the complete and necessary list of a priori contributions that the understanding brings to its judgements of the world. Every judgement the understanding can make must fall under the table of categories. And subsuming the sensations of space and time under the formal structure of the categories makes judgements, and ultimately knowledge, of empirical objects possible.
As we have already seen, David Hume's view was that all knowledge derives from experience. In 1781 Kant published his reply to Hume in his Critique of Pure Reason. The Critique is a critical analysis of pure reason. Through this examination of reason it is Kant's aim to demonstrate pure reason's potential and to exalt it above impure knowledge which comes to us through the distorting channels of the senses. Kant held that while all knowledge begins with experience, it does not mean that all knowledge arises out of experience. By this he means the pure reason is knowledge that does not come from sensory perceptions: knowledge that is independent of all sensory experience, and knowledge that is the inherent nature and structure of the mind. Kant calls this type of knowledge Transcendental Knowledge. Knowledge, said Kant, is not all derived from the senses, as Hume believed he had had shown, but it is derived from both sense and reason.
However, it should be said that when Kant says that reason makes a contribution to experiences, it should not be mistaken for the argument of the Rationalist's that the mind contains 'clear and distinct' (transcendent) ideas such as 'God is a perfect being' and so on. The notion that there are such complete propositions is completely rejected by Kant. When he talks of the mind, understanding or reason possessing a priori ideas, he means that the mind provides a formal structuring that allows for the conjoining of concepts into judgements, but the structuring itself has no content. The mind lacks content until interaction with the world actuates these formal constraints. The mind contains a priori templates for judgements, not a priori judgements. Empiricists held that habit arises as a consequence of knowledge which happens after, or succeeding, contact with sensation: it is a posteriori. Rationalists proposed that knowledge is analytic: it attempts to anticipate experience by constructing a logical deduction from basic axioms. This results in the possibility of a priori ideas of reason. By considering both Empiricism and Rationalism, Kant created a sophisticated model of knowledge which overcame the simplistic notion of the subject either anticipating or reacting to experience. He called this sophisticated model Transcendental Knowledge.
According to Kant the mind is neither passive wax nor a blank slate, rather it is an active organ that moulds and coordinates sensations into ideas: an organ that transforms the chaotic multiplicity of experience into the ordered unity of thought. He calls this process, 'transcendental philosophy'. For Kant then transcendental philosophy is the study of the inherent structure of the mind: the innate laws of thought. Kant calls it transcendental philosophy because it concerns that which transcends sense experience. Transcendental knowledge, for Kant, is concerned not so much with objects, but with our a priori concepts of objects. There are two stages in the process of developing sensations into a finished product of thought. The first involves the coordination of sensations by applying to them the forms of perception, space and time. The second involves applying to them the forms of conception the categories of thought.
Hume had maintained that it was only the force of habit that made us see the causal connection behind all natural processes. Kant refuted this argument: the law of causality, he held, is eternal and absolute: it is an attribute of human reason. Human reason, he said, perceives everything that happens as a matter of cause and effect. That is, Kant's transcendental philosophy states that the law of causality is inherent in the human mind. He agreed with Hume that we cannot know with certainty what the world is like in itself, but we can know what it is like 'for me' or for all human beings. We can never know things in -themselves (noumena), said Kant, we can only know them as they appear to us (phenomena). However, before we experience 'things' we can know how they will be perceived by the mind we know a priori.
Thus, for Kant, the mind contains conditions that contribute to our understanding of the world. As well as the law of causality these conditions include the modes of perception, space and time. Space and time, he says, are not concepts, but form of intuition. Everything we see, hear, touch, smell, and so on, happening in the phenomenal world occurs in space and time. However, we do not know that space and time is part of the phenomenal world; all we know is that they are part of the way in which we perceive the world. Time and space, he says, are irremovable spectacles through which we view the world. They are a priori forms of intuition that shape our sensory experience on the way to being processed into thought. Space and time are innate modes of perception that predetermine the way we think. It cannot be said that space and time exist in things themselves, things 'out there' in the world, rather they inherent intuitions through which we perceive and conceive our world. Time and space, says Kant, belong to the human condition. They are first and foremost modes of perception, not attributes of the physical world. Kant called this approach the Copernican Revolution in the problem of human knowledge. That is, it was just as radically different from earlier thinking as Copernicus' claim that the earth revolved around the sun.
Kant, then, concluded that the human mind is not, at birth, a blank slate to be filled with sense impressions. On the contrary, in order to make sense of sensory experience the human mind must already possess certain basic organising categories of reference into which these sense impressions are fitted. These organising categories are often called 'innate ideas' or 'concepts' because they precede any individual human experience of life. We are born with them. They are an integral part of what it is to be a human being. These categories constitute the core of our faculty of reason. Time and space are subjective. They are our way of perceiving the world. However, they are not the only subjective elements which assist us to understand our experience. As well as space and time, our 'intuitions' there are the a priori concepts which include such things as quality, quantity, relation and causality. It is only in virtue of these innate conditions that we perceive and understand our world. However, the world we perceive is only the phenomenal world. We never perceive actual noumena: the true reality which supports and gives rise to these phenomena. Nor can we ever know transcendent things. Knowledge of certain things such as the true nature of souls, the existence of God are all beyond our limitations. Whatever is beyond our power of knowing Kant called transcendent. That is, it is beyond the realm of human experience. Transcendental knowledge, however, is knowledge which is concerned not so much with objects, as with our a priori concepts of objects (see CPR., p.10). Transcendental knowledge (or 'pure reason') then, goes beyond sense experience and deals with what is known before sense perception: it is a priori.
Drawing from both Empiricism and Rationalism, Kant formed a synthesis between two schools of thought and created his own model. He argued that both sense and reason are integral to our understanding of the world. He accepted Hume's theory that all our knowledge comes from sensory experience, but he also agreed with the Rationalists that our reason contains certain decisive factors that determine how we see and understand our world. Everything we experience will first and foremost be perceived as phenomena in space and time, and for everything that happens we will want to know the reason for its occurrence: its causality. For Kant these conditions are inherent in our minds: they are a priori, and they are what it is to be a human being.
Kant's Critique of Pure Reason
By 'transcendental' Kant means a priori or necessary experience. That is, experience that does not depend on outside influences empirical experience.
Kant's Critique, it can be said, is divided into two parts: the Analytic and the Dialectic. The Analytic involves the Aesthetic. By 'aesthetics' he means aesthetic, not as we understand in the sense of art, but in the sense that it was understood by the ancient Greeks: as sensation, as in 'anaesthetic' without sensation. The Analytic is largely positive; in it are determined the a priori principles of understanding: we are also shown the proper use of metaphysics in providing the basis for our objective knowledge. The Dialectic is largely negative. In it we are shown the misuse of metaphysics in using concepts to go beyond that which we can possibly experience, to a world of illusion and contradiction. We are also shown why we are prone to be tempted to this kind of speculation. The Analytic and Aesthetic give us a metaphysics of experience; they display what must be the basic features of experience and reasoning. The Dialectic shows how we err when we attempt to extend our knowledge beyond that which it is impossible to experience.
The Transcendental Analytic
In the section of his Critique entitled 'The Transcendental Analytic', Kant analyses how the faculty of understanding makes information presented by the mind into so called objects of thought. 'Without sensibility', he says, 'no object would be given to us, without understanding no object would be thought'. The understanding can intuit nothing, the senses can think nothing.
Kant borrows the notion of category from Aristotle. However, where Aristotle spoke of the categories as (i) substance (as the physical or materiality of a thing), (ii) quantity (two metres long etc.,), (iii) quality (colour), (iv) relation (how one thing can be measured against another thing), (v), place (as in location: in the house etc.,) (vi), time (yesterday), (vii), position (sitting, standing(, viii), possession (owning or belonging), (ix), action (walking etc.,), (x), passivity (has walked, was sitting, is cut and so on), Kant's categories consist of four types: quantity, quality, relation and modality. However, within each category he listed a number of what might be called 'sub-categories. Quantity contains Unity, Plurality Totality; Quality contains Reality, Negation and Limitation, Relation has Substance and Accident, Cause and Effect and Reciprocity, and Modality has Possibility and Impossibility, Existence and Non-existence, and Necessity and Contingency.
Kant's concern is with sensibility or sensible intuition. Sensibility is a passive power for receiving information. He wants to bracket off or identify that which is specific to intuition, and to discover the relationship between understanding and that which is specific to intuition.
Kant decided that there are two forms of intuition: space and time. This approach revolutionised metaphysics, where, traditionally, space and time were held to be 'out there' as conditions of the existence of things. Kant changes this idea and proposes that space and time cannot exist because there is no empirical experience that would allow us to form concepts of space and time, because a void and infinity cannot be thought it is argued that only someone who had never seen a mountain (as Kant hadn't), could make such a claim. What he means is that because we cannot actually conceive or have notions of the void or infinity, our understanding of space and time is not derived from empirical experience, but are a priori sensible intuitions: intuitions that exist in the mind which are not dependent on outside influences.
Space and time, then, are analogous to filters on a camera: the only images formed are those that have passed through or been subject to the filters. They are not empirical: they are not derived from experience, but are the necessary form of all experience. Neither are they concepts, for there can be no object (like a cup, a dog, a mountain even) corresponding to space and time.
As well as the intuitions space and time there is knowledge. Knowledge involves the use of the basic concepts or categories of the faculty of understanding. The knowledge that that which we see as a table involves having and applying the concept of a table by a judgement of the understanding, as well as seeing it in space and time.
(57) Sadikie asked:
Explain the meaning and importance of Socrates teaching Know Thyself and how it relates to another one of his important teachings, i.e., the unexamined life is not worth living.
Use Plato's work The Apology to support and illustrate your explanations.
Sadikie, whilst this is a question that I believe is both interesting and important in that it encourages the 'questionee' (sic) to carefully examine two of the central issues that arise in Socrates'/ Plato's philosophy: the invocation extended by the Oracle of Delphi to 'Know Thyself', and to Socrates' view that the unexamined life is not worth living, since it seems to me to be this question may be a reformulation of a question that is often put to philosophy undergraduates, I have chosen not to respond to it in the form of an essay, but to break it down into a series of, what might be called, 'snippets'. These 'snippets' appear under the following headings: Socrates; The Theory of Recollection and the World of Ideal Forms; Apology; The 'unexamined life'; What, in Apology, is Socrates' view of life after death?; Phaedo; and the Development of Platonic thought in Apology/ Phaedo. Although it may appear that I am touching on issues of Plato's philosophy not specifically mentioned in your question, I believe a better understanding of the issues you raise may be gained by a perusal of these wider issues, particularly in the development of thought between Apology and Phaedo.
Socrates was the first great Greek philosopher to be actually born in Athens. Socrates shared with the Sophists a concern for practical issues and particularly for education; but he questioned the extravagant claims of some Sophists that they could teach virtue. He himself was concerned with questions of moral education and moral character, and he seems to have held that the pursuit of moral improvement was the most important human task. How he lived hardly anybody knew. He never worked, and he is said to have never been concerned about the future. He ate only when requested by his disciples to share their food; but they must have found him agreeable company, for there is no account of him having gone without food. At home, however, it was a different story. He neglected his wife Xanthippe and children; and his wife considered him a good-for-nothing idler who brought his family more notoriety than food. In spite of all this she loved him.
This portrayal of Socrates has led some people to take the view that he was quite unsophisticated. However, in his paper entitled 'Wittgenstein, Plato, and the Historical Socrates' (The Journal of the Royal Institute of Philosophy, Vol. 82, No. 319 Jan 2007), M.W. Rowe tells us that this may not be the case. It seems that Socrates' father was a well-known stone mason at a time of great extensive public building e in Athens, and that it is probable that Socrates followed him in this profession. It is also thought that Socrates was married twice. First to Myrto, daughter of Aristides the Just, and secondly to Xanthippe. The 'ipp' of which identifies it as an aristocratic name. Moreover, many other names in his family were of aristocratic origin. This suggests that Socrates, like his father, was a member of the bourgeoisie, and his private means were sufficient to attract the attention of aristocratic fathers on the lookout for potential spouses for their daughters.
Socrates was modest about his wisdom. In fact he did not claim to have wisdom, only to seek it lovingly. The Oracle of Delphi had pronounced him the wisest of Greeks; and Socrates had taken this as approval of his agnosticism which was the starting point of his philosophy: 'One thing only I know', he said, 'and that is that I know nothing'. Philosophy begins when one begins to doubt when one begins to question the accepted wisdom of tradition. Particularly the one's cherished beliefs, one's dogmas and one's axioms. Puzzled by the priestess of Delphi's statement, Socrates felt obliged to seek the meaning of her remark. By questioning others who had a reputation for wisdom, he came to see that he was wiser than they, because unlike them he did not claim to know what he did not know. The life of Socrates is known mostly through the Plato's dialogues. Possibly through Plato's' Meno we come to understand something of Socrates philosophical method, elenchus, and its primary purpose. And through we learn of his moral character and fortitude through Apology and Phaedo.
Theory of Recollection and the World of Ideal Forms: The theory of recollection is first mooted in Meno. According to Socrates, because the soul (mind) is immortal and has been born often and seen all things in the underworld, there is nothing that it has not learned, about virtue and other things. Thus, there is nothing to prevent one from recalling that which one already knows. What is needed is a process, a method, which allows one to reconnect with knowledge that one already possesses. Thus, for Socrates, there is no learning, only recollection (see Meno 81 c,d). This theory is not without its difficulties. One is what I call the 'chicken or egg' dilemma. That is, if, as is argued, for the soul (mind) there is constant movement between life and death, how do we know which came first: the soul/ mind in a pre-corporeal state during which it has access to ideal forms which it brings into the material world at birth, or the soul/ mind in the body that brings certain ideas gleaned from sensory experience with it into the underworld when the body dies. Surely, it can be argued, if it is the case that the soul/ mind experiences perfection a pre-corporeal state it would have no desire or reason to surrender such a state to enter into the imperfect world of the body.
Another difficulty is the concept that there is an altogether too sharp contrast or distinction between the two realms: between the ideas and particular things. For Plato, the only way that the soul/ mind can experience real truth or real knowledge is by detaching itself completely from sensory experience. Whilst he acknowledges that freedom and separation of the soul from the body can only occur in death (see Phaedo, 67, b), Plato himself, whilst still in the alive, claims not only to know that an ideal world exists, but also to know all that it contains. Thus, he presents us with a concept in which there appears to be a hiatus that is impassable. Not only when one turns to true knowledge does one get no assistance from the senses, but the senses are an actual impediment to the attainment of true knowledge. To behold the ideal, one must eliminate, as far as one can, any knowledge gleaned through the senses, and depend only on the pure light of the mind. As he says,
...the body is the source of endless trouble to us by reason of the mere requirement of food, and is also liable to diseases which overtake and impede us in the search for truth, and by filling us so full of loves, and fears, and fancies, and idols, and ever having, as people say, so much as a thought. From whence come wars, and fightings, and factions? Whence but from the body, and the lust of the body
(Plato Phaedo 66).
For Plato, it is whilst the soul is imprisoned in the body it can catch only the faintest glimpse of the perfect world which it desires so much. It is this very marked dualism, between the world of ideas and the world of things, which presents the greatest difficulty with Plato's system. If the senses are such a burden, if the prevent us from attaining our true destiny, why are we cursed with them? Moreover, if the world of Ideas alone is the rue reality, why should anything else exist? Finally, although it may be some grounds for accepting the view that the soul/ mind precedes physical existence, it does not follow that it survives the demise of the body.
The Apology professes to be the speech made by Socrates in his own defence at his trial or rather it is an account of Plato's recollection of Socrates' defence given some time after his trial. In a typical Athenian trial of that period the defendant was given a limited time (measured by a water-clock) to answer the charges and, although he had to defend himself, he could, if he so desired, buy a suitable speech from a professional speech writer a Sophist. Socrates, of course, rejects this approach and declares that he will speak plain and unvarnished truth. It can be argued, of course, that his disavowal of any knowledge of rhetoric (rhetoric is the art of speaking eloquently and persuasively) and that his ambition is to tell nothing but the truth, is itself a form of rhetoric in that it implies that his statements can be trusted implicitly.
Socrates had been accused of being an 'evil doer and a curious person, searching into things under the earth and in the sky, and of making the worse seem the better cause, and of teaching all this to others'. He was found guilty by a majority and was, in accordance with Athenian law of that time, to propose an alternative penalty to death. The judges had to choose, if they found the accused guilty, between the penalty of demanded by the prosecution and that suggested by the defence. Therefore, it was in Socrates interest to suggest a penalty that would be accepted as a reasonable alternative to death. However, he chose the sum of 30 minas. While this was much more than Socrates could possibly afford (the sum was guaranteed by Plato, Crito, Critoboulus and Apollodorus) it was considered insufficient by the court and he was sentenced to death. From this we can conclude that Socrates actively sought this verdict, since, to suggest an alternative penalty that would be acceptable to the court was tantamount to admitting that he was guilty of the charges against him this of course he could not do for central to the charges made against him were that he was guilty of not worshipping the gods that the State worshipped, but of introducing new divinities, and of corrupting the minds of the young by instructing them accordingly.
The Apology, then, is, according to Plato, Socrates' answer to these charges. Socrates opens his defence by accusing his prosecutors of eloquence (what he means by this is rhetoric- the art off speaking persuasively), and rebutting the same charge which was made against him. The only eloquence he admits to, he says, is that of the truth. If this approach offends the court, he says, the court must forgive him for, not being familiar with the ways of the court, he is not familiar with its un-forensic way of speaking. Socrates goes on to relate the incidence where the Oracle of Delphi was once asked if there was anyone wiser than Socrates, to which the Oracle answered that there was not. Socrates claims to have been bemused by this statement, since he always claimed that he knew nothing. However, he also accepts that the god cannot lie so he set out to see if he could find someone wiser than himself.
This sequence is central to the Apology because it is from here that Socrates infers his raison d'etre derives. That is, he regards the Oracle's reply as a puzzle that has to be resolved. Therefore he sees it as his life's mission to expose false knowledge. The first person he goes to is a politician, who is thought to be wise by many people, and even wiser by himself. He soon discovers that the man was not wise at all, and as a consequence is hated by the politician for exposing his ignorance. Next he visits to the poets, and asks them to explain passages of their writings. When they were unable to do so, Socrates concludes that it is not in virtue of being wise that they write poetry, but by a sort of genius and inspiration. Then he tries his luck with craftsmen, but he finds them to be equally unwise. They think they are wise, he discovers, because they know their own trade, but in reality that is all they know. Finally he concludes that only God is wise, and that the wisdom of men is worth little or nothing.
Question: do you see any contradiction in Socrates' claim that his mission in life stems from the Oracles's statement?
According to Socrates, his mission arose from the sense of obligation he felt to discover the truth behind the oracle's statement that he was the wisest. In fact, it must have been the case that he was had already embarked on his philosophical mission, why else would the question have been out to the oracle (it was put, by the way, by Socrates' friend, Chaerephon). It should be said that it was traditional for the oracle to respond to questions in an obscure fashion, and it was accepted that her answers always required interpretation. It is worth mentioning that the Socratic method of enquiry, by its nature, had the effect of undermining the basic assumption of ancient democracy that is, that all men had the knowledge necessary for the conduct of public affairs. Therefore, by exposing the ignorance of those who were most powerful in Athenian society, not only to themselves, but, since these investigations were carried out in public, to all and sundry particularly the young aristocrats who had nothing else to do but follow Socrates around all day.
The second part of Socrates' Apology concentrates on charges made against him by Meletus, that he was guilty of corrupting the minds of the young, and that he did not acknowledge the gods of the city, and even introduces new divinities. Since Meletus is in court, Socrates can question his charges directly which is legally entitled to do. With regard to the first charge, Meletus is forced into the absurd position of claiming that every Athenian citizen improves the minds of the young and only Socrates corrupts them. The conclusions to this premise are self-explanatory. That is, the outlandish claim by Meletus shows that he had never thought seriously about the education of the young, that his charge against Socrates is not based on any concern for their welfare, and that even Socrates, regardless of his wisdom, was no match for the collective wisdom of the entire community.
The charge of introducing new divinities must be understood against the background of the official religion of the state. In contrast to monotheistic religions (one god religions), Greek religions were polytheistic (they had many gods) and undogmatic in the sense that they had no bible or set of orthodox beliefs that the faithful were obliged to accept. The only written account of the Greek gods were found in the poetry of Homer and Hesiod, but these stories did not have to be believed by those who performed the prescribed rituals to appease these deities. However, while there was no set of orthodox beliefs, each city had its own pantheon of divinities its own group of gods and goddesses- that had been gradually accepted over the ages. Athens, for example, was named after the warrior goddess Athena, who was born out of the head of Zeus. Many of the public buildings on the Acropolis were dedicated to her; the temple of Athena Nike was built to celebrate the defeat of the Persians, and her festivals would have been the most important in the Athenian official calendar. All these public rituals had a profound significance, and Greek religion may be regarded as a kind of worship of their native city by its citizens. There was an officially sanctioned set of gods in each city, and their festivals were carefully regulated, since that was part of the political order. There was also a strict ban on blaspheming against the accepted divinities, and the introduction of new gods was strictly forbidden. This was the legal basis for the charge of impiety brought against Socrates who had often spoken in public about his personal daimon, describing it as it was a warning sign against any kind of wrongdoing. When Meletus is forced by Socrates to clarify the charge of introducing new divinities, he goes to the extreme of accusing him of not acknowledging any gods. Socrates is able to point out that he is being confused with Anaxagoras (one of the natural philosophers) whose book denied that the sun and the moon were gods. Furthermore, Meletus contradicts himself because he also accuses Socrates of introducing new gods (like his daimon) which implies that he does believe in some deities.
Question: What lies behind the apparently contradictory charge that Socrates is an atheist and that he is introducing new gods? Answer: This charge refers to the Socratic talk of a personal daimon which did not belong to the official pantheon (hence the charge of the introduction of new gods), and which led him to challenge traditional pieties on the basis of reason (hence the charge of atheism).
The 'unexamined life'
According to Socrates, the unexamined life is not worth living because it does not prepare us for the next life, nor does it allow us to see things as they really are. It is only when the mind is free from bodily passions that we can see and know the truth. Rather than blindly accepting what tradition tells us, we should search for the truth ourselves.
What, in Apology, is Socrates' view of life after death? Towards the end of Apology, Socrates says that there is a good hope that death is one of two things: either the dead are nothing and have no perception of anything or death is a change and relocating of the soul to another place. If it is a complete lack of perception, he says, like a dreamless sleep, then death is a great advantage, for who does not wake from a dreamless sleep feeling refreshed. If it is a change to another place, as tradition has it, he reckons that it would be wonderful to spend his time testing and examining those there in order to see which of them were wise.
Does this suggest that Socrates has an open mind to the question of life after death? Why, you may wonder, did Socrates choose this particular mission when there were more than likely many other types of political activities that he could have become involved with? The answer is that he was warned by his daimon against participating in democratic politics because he would be destroyed, and so be of no benefit to the city (in the light of subsequent events, one is forced to question the wisdom of Socrates' daimon). In short, Socrates refused to be corrupted by politics and pursued his own personal mission of urging his fellow-citizens to care for their own souls to examine their own lives rather than being concerned with wealth and power.
The Phaedo is a record of the conversation between Socrates and the friends who have come to visit him in prison on the day of his execution and deals with the reason why Socrates is not afraid of dying.
In Phaedo, Cebes expresses doubt as to the survival of the body after death, and urges Socrates to offer arguments, which he proceeds to do. The first argument is that all things have opposites and that the opposite of anything is generated from the thing itself: life and death are opposites and therefore each must generate the other to have life, you must first be dead, and vice versa. Hence, it follows that souls of the dead must exist somewhere, and come back to earth in due course. The second argument is that knowledge is recollection, and therefore the soul must have existed prior to its involvement with the body. This argument is supported by the fact that we have ideas, such as equality, which cannot be derived from experience. We have experience of approximate equality, but absolute equality is never found amongst sensible objects. (In the same way as there is no such thing in real life as an absolute straight line or a complete circle, yet we can conceive of both in our mind). He extends the same argument to other ideas. Thus, the existence of essences, and of our capacity to apprehend them, proves the pre-existence of the soul (or mind) has certain knowledge before it is attached to the body.
To behold the Ideal, argues Socrates/ Plato, the individual must disassociate him/ herself with the senses and rely solely on the pure light of the mind. The body, he says, which requires food and warm, and is subject to all sorts of diseases, obstructs us in our search for truth, and, by filling our heads with loves, fears, and other fancies, prevents us from having so much as a thought. Only philosophy, says Plato/ Socrates, can free us from bodily passion. For it is only through reflection that the soul re-connects with the realm of purity, and eternity, and changelessness. To pass into the Realm of Ideas the soul must be purged completely from the taint of the earth and the only way the soul fully achieves this is when the body dies. It is for this reason that Socrates has no fear of death.
The central theme of Phaedo is that philosophers should not be concerned with the body, but with the soul, which should be freed from the body as much as possible. (It should be noted that by 'soul' Plato, and the Greeks in general, meant the mind). The body, says Plato, as an obstacle to obtaining knowledge, since we may be led astray by what we see hear, touch or taste. Reality, for Plato, is more accessible to the mind (soul) through reason than through sensory experience, since reason is undisturbed by sense perception or by the sensations of pleasure or pain. The philosopher should turn away from the body towards Realm of Ideal Forms such as Justice, Beauty and Truth which can only be grasped by reason.
In short, Socrates argues that if we are ever to attain pure knowledge or wisdom, we must free ourselves from the body and observe things in themselves with the mind (soul) itself. This is what he means by saying that the unexamined life is not worth living it is not worth living because it does not prepare us for the next life, and it does not allow us to see things as they really are. It is only when the mind is detached from the body that it can have true knowledge. While it is in the body it must purify itself as much as possible.
Convinced profoundly that knowledge alone is salvation, Socrates saw that the first and most important step toward getting rid of the confused mass of opinions going by the name of knowledge, was to make its inadequacy apparent. Socrates saw himself as the divinely appointed gadfly given to the state. The state, or polis, he said, was 'a great and noble steed who was tardy lazy in his motions owing to his size, and requires to be stirred to life'.
In spite of his insistence upon his own ignorance, Socrates was convinced that no one can be more convinced that there exists an absolute truth, and that realisation of this truth is possible to man (see Apology 29b), and it was in his awareness of the existence of this truth and his belief in its availability that Socrates saw himself as superior or wiser than other men: 'Whereas I know but a little of the world below', he said, 'I do not suppose I know. But I do know that injustice and disobedience to a superior, whether God or man, is evil and dishonourable, and I will never fear or avoid a possible good rather than a certain evil' (ibid.). It is here, in this notion of a truth which transcends that which we glean from human experience, that we get a hint of a theme that is central to development of Platonic thought found in Phaedo and, in even greater detail, in Republic. That is, the notion of the Realm of Ideal Forms.
In Phaedo, we see this theme continued, and developed, where Socrates discusses the doctrine of recollection. (72e-78b). In this argument, Plato, through the auspices of Socrates, combines the doctrine of recollection with the doctrine of Forms. Starting with Justice, Beauty, Goodness, he maintains that there are eternally existing entities which are distinct from ordinary things in the perceptible world, and which the mind (of the philosopher, at least) can grasp by a kind of pure thought. When one does grasp one of these forms, says Plato, one attained true knowledge of an absolute value. (Note the shift from the Apology, where Socrates moves from the view that knowledge of truth is possible to the view that knowledge of these truths is actual). The theory of Forms leads Plato deep into metaphysics, and the theory of knowledge (epistemology), and compel him to consider how the human mind (psychology) can have a nature which allows it to know the eternal Forms he thinks of the human mind as being in some way related to the forms and how such knowledge can be made to guide the community.
In the Recollection Argument in Phaedo, Socrates uses another 'absolute form' in the examples of Equality or the Equal Self when he argues that absolute Equality (or equality with a 'big E') is distinct from any notion of equality that we derive from worldly experience: like the equality of stones, trees, and so on. When we see two objects which appear to be equal, he says, we are reminded of a distinct ideal form which we do not perceive, but that we recollect. This recollection does not come from prior experience, but from knowledge of Forms which predates our birth.
At this stage it is important to recognise another shift in Platonic thought between Apology and Phaedo. In Apology Socrates says that death is either a dreamless sleep or an opportunity to spend eternity fulfilling his philosophic mission in Hades. Implicit in this statement is the view that Socrates does not know what awaits the soul after the death of the body. In Phaedo, however, Plato introduces the argument that the soul is distinct from the body: that it exists separately from the body, and that, after death, it awaits rebirth. In this theory of opposites he claims that all things arise from their opposite. For example, good is the opposite of evil and arises out of evil, and vice versa. Life and death are also opposites to die you must first be born, and conversely, he argues, to be born, first you must be dead. And it is in the realm before the life of the body that we acquire knowledge of true Forms.
The Development of Platonic thought in Apology/ Phaedo: Convinced that knowledge alone is salvation, Socrates saw that the first and, most important step towards getting rid of the confused mass of opinions going by the name of knowledge, was to make its inadequacy apparent. Socrates saw himself as being the divinely appointed gadfly given to the state. The state, or polis, he said, was 'a great and noble steed which was tardy lazy -in its motions owing to its size, and required to be stirred to life'.
Socrates' mission, his 'raison d'etre', is to expose false knowledge. Hence, we can conclude that he believes that true knowledge is attainable. So, in spite of his insistence of his own ignorance, Socrates was convinced that there exits an absolute truth, and that this truth is possible to man (see Apology 29b). It was his awareness of the existence of this truth and his belief in its attainability that Socrates acknowledged that he may be wiser than other men: 'Whereas I know but little of the world below', he said, 'I do not suppose I know. But I do know that injustice and disobedience to a superior, whether God. or man, is evil and dishonourable, and I will never fear or avoid a possible good rather than a certain evil' . This statement by Socrates is central to his concept of truth: while he says that injustice or disobedience to one's superior, God or man, is evil, it should be noted that he has already determined that there is no-one wiser than himself, therefore, in the world of men, he has no superior. However, we have also seen that the god that directs him is his own personal daimon which is not of this world; thus, the truth to which he aspires must be of that same world. It is here, then, in this notion of a truth that transcends that which we glean from human experience, that we get a hint of a theme that is central to the development of Platonic thought which is continued in Phaedo, and developed in greater detail, in Republic. That is, the notion of the Realm of Ideal Forms.
In Phaedo, we see this theme continued, and developed, where Socrates discusses the Doctrine of Recollection (72e-78b). In this argument, Plato, through the auspices of Socrates, combines the doctrine of recollection with the doctrine of forms. Starting with Justice, Beauty, and Goodness, Socrates maintains that there are eternally existing entities which are distinct from ordinary things in the perceptible world, and which the mind (of the philosopher at least) can grasp by a kind of pure thought. When one succeeds in grasping one of these forms, says Socrates, one has attained true knowledge of an absolute value. This is a significant shift where Socrates moves from the view advanced in, that knowledge of truth is possible, to the view that it is actual. It also marks a shift from the view that only God is wise, and that the wisdom of men is worth little or nothing.
Another significant development or shift in Platonic thought is found where, in the Doctrine of Recollection, Socrates uses another absolute form in the example of Equality or the Equal Self when he argues that absolute Equality (equality with a Big E) is distinct from any notion of equality that we derive from human experience. When we see two objects that appear to be equal, he says, we are reminded of a distinct ideal form which we do not perceive, but that we recollect. This recollection does not come from prior experience, as Hume would later argue, but from knowledge of true forms which predates our birth. If you recall, in Apology, Socrates says that death is either a dreamless sleep or an opportunity to spend eternity fulfilling his philosophic mission in Hades. Implicit in this statement is the view that Socrates does not know what awaits the soul after the death of the body. In Phaedo, however, Plato asserts positively that the soul is distinct from the body: that it exists separately from the body and that, after death, it resides in the world of forms, where, in accordance with his 'theory of opposites', it awaits rebirth. In the theory of opposites Plato maintains that all things arise from their opposite. For example, good is the opposite of evil and arises out of evil, and vice versa: to become good, first you must be evil, and to become evil you must first have been good. Life and death are also opposites to die you must first be alive, and to be born you must first have been dead. It is in the realm before life of the body that we acquire knowledge of true forms. Concepts like Justice, Beauty, Goodness, Equality, and Truth, says Plato, are already in the mind when we are born. All it takes to remind us of these absolute forms is to experience their imperfect representations in the physical world.
(58) Len asked:
My question has to do with language and in that sense it could be a linguistics or a philosophy of language question. Of the two, I'm not really sure into which category it falls.
If you agree or disagree with a statement, it seems to me this is an absolute. However, on many psych tests employers use these days for candidates seeking to fill the open position, they give choices of 'agree,' 'strongly agree,' 'disagree' or 'strongly disagree. For example; if the the statement is 'The sky is blue,' I can either agree or disagree with the statement. How could I further agree or disagree about the state of the color of the sky or any other statement for that matter. If you and I both disagree, how could either of us disagree 'more' than the other? Herein lies my question:
How can you assign an adverbial quantifier to something that I believe is an absolute? I'm pretty sure I'm not the only person who thinks this way so could tell me the difference between agree and strongly agree?
This is a fascinating question in the philosophy of language. Somewhere (I can't remember where) Michael Dummett raises the possibility of a speech act similar to assertion, where the speaker is less than fully confident about what they are saying. I think the term he used was 'probabilistic assertion', an idea he associated with Michael Polanyi. I remember long ago discussing this with my thesis supervisor John McDowell, who was roundly dismissive of Dummett's proposal.
Consider weather forecasts. People complain when the weather girl says, 'It will be fine tomorrow,' when she knows damn well that there is only a 70-80 per cent probability that it will be fine tomorrow. (I'm talking about BBC weather girls who've studied meteorology and actually know what they're talking about, on other TV stations they just read a script.) In the discussion I made the point that the context (a TV weather report) makes it clear that when the weather girl makes an assertion about tomorrow's weather, she isn't doing what we normally do when we make assertions. It isn't necessary for her to quote the probability figure, or express some degree of doubt about what she is telling us. It's understood.
But that's just the thin end of the wedge. (I think that this was McDowell's objection.) We would have to admit a whole family of speech acts, speculative assertion, tentative assertion, cautious assertion, confident assertion, emphatic assertion. And that just seems wrong. To make an assertion is to aim at truth. There are only two possibilities, you aim at truth or you aim to miss (i.e. you tell your audience a deliberate lie). It's understood that failure is a possibility. But you can't include a rider to that effect without destroying the whole point of this language game. Or, if not, then the rider adds nothing to what you've already said, the force and semantic content of your speech act.
However, my intuitions tell me that there is a point in the way these questionnaires are constructed, and the options they give. To extract this point, we need to do quite a bit of of work in a number of related areas: game theory, probability theory, the analysis of knowledge from testimony, as well as philosophy of language. Just to give a sense of the complexity involved, here's a short parable:
I am having a pleasant stroll in the hills around Athens with my three companions, Parmenides, Zeno and the young Socrates. Somehow, we've managed to get lost. I'm sure we passed that broken tree half an hour ago. We reach a point where the path forks three ways. 'Which we should we go?' I ask. Zeno scratches his chin. After what seems like an eternity he says, 'It's not right and it's not straight ahead, so I think it must be left.' 'No, no!' shouts the young Socrates waving his pointing finger enthusiastically, 'We have to go right, I'm sure of it!' Parmenides scowls. He stares straight ahead and nods. 'That is the way,' he says in a quiet tone.
Which way do you go?
I don't think that there's any doubt. I would follow Parmenides, I'd go straight ahead. Zeno isn't completely sure, so we can discount him. Socrates' wild gesticulations aren't convincing. Whereas Parmenides impresses us with his authority. He doesn't need to make a fuss about it. He knows.
There's a discussion of the connection between knowledge and authority in my Answer to Demetreus. If you think about it, there could not be a linguistic device which qualified a statement in a way which reliably gave the hearer information about the speaker's authority to make that statement, the credence one should place on it. And yet, we make these kinds of judgements all the time. The reason why we couldn't have such a device is that people aren't always the best authority on how credible an authority they are.
However, there is no objection in principle to introducing new devices into the language game, provided they have a use. Indeed, arguably, we already have such a device in the various ways and means available for conveying the strength with which you hold a belief or opinion. The finesse here is that the 'measure of strength' isn't like assertion, it doesn't function in the same way as a speech act, nor does it function as a qualifier of the speech act. It's information which you give out, more or less voluntary, of the same order (or at least closer to) the information you give out when your face blushes, or you tremble, or your features contort in anger. It is almost impossible to imagine what human life would be like if these features were absent.
When you tick the boxes (and I fully accept, sometimes it doesn't seem to make a lot of sense when you are asked whether you 'agree' or 'strongly agree' to a particular statement which is just plain true so far as you are concerned) you are giving out information which will be processed to yield a result. A numerical scheme is applied, somewhat like the various proposed preferential voting schemes for proportional representation. In a similar way to preferential voting, knowing this gives you some additional measure of control over how your application will be assessed. And the people who designed the form, know that you know this. In other words, you are being invited to participate in a game.
Here's just one example: Good psych tests (I mean, ones that are actually researched empirically, and constructed so you can't just 'cheat' your way to a better result) give you plenty of opportunity to contradict yourself. If you strongly agree to X and also strongly agree to Y, and the implicit assumptions behind X are inconsistent with the implicit assumptions behind Y, you earn a higher demerit than if one or other or both of your statements was less emphatic.
Your doubts justifiably reflect uncertainty about exactly what game you are being invited to play. Who designed the test and what is its real purpose? You are at a disadvantage because you don't know the rules. You don't know what numerical scheme will be applied. Or maybe and this is potential source of criticism of this kind of exercise you don't agree to this game at all. (That's what I feel about the new '0-5 star' system of appraisal introduced by eBay. If you're happy with the transaction, there ought to be only one choice, so far as I can see.)
However, if you are applying for a job, you don't really have the option. Honesty is, or ought to be, the best policy. But if it seems to you as if you are being required to be dishonest, give a false account of yourself, then maybe you should consider how badly you want the job.
(61) Ogundele asked:
What is philosophy? How does Greek philosophy affect the way we live today?
Although these are questions that arise quite frequently, the answers to them can be of major concern to one setting out on the philosophical path. Because I have given my view on the first question, 'What is Philosophy?', some weeks ago on Ask a Philosopher, and because this view has not changed in the meantime, I have decided to deal with the issue, 'How does Greek philosophy affect the way we live today?', first.
How does Greek philosophy affect the way we live?
Sometimes it is possible to look at the natural world and become aware of an unseen energy, a dynamic that animates physical phenomena. Some people see this dynamic as evidence of that each phenomenon is created by divine force or god for a particular end or purpose, and that this purpose belongs to a greater harmonious system. This view is described as a teleological approach. Others, whilst they may agree that in the natural world events may appear to occur in a regular, preordained, sequence, are reluctant to ascribe to these events the intervention of a divine province, whilst others argue that there is no evidence of a teleological dimension to natural events.
The early Greeks looked at how this energy or force manifested itself in various natural phenomena and attributed to them anthropomorphic or human characteristics. Thus Zeus, or Jupiter, was seen as the supreme god whose anger, at what was perceived as wrongful behavior, was expressed by the roar of thunder, whilst Poseidon was seen as the god of earthquakes and sea, and Bacchus as the god of wine and vegetation. In other words, these gods were seen as whimsical or capricious entities that possessed all the frailties of mortal beings. The myths that evolved from the belief in the power of these gods formed the basis of the early Greeks worldview. Thus, we see the early Greeks found answers to what can be called philosophical questions in religious myths which were handed down from generation to generation. Gods were given human attributes, and in order to appease these gods, and to ensure a sense of permanence and stability that the sun would rise each day, Spring and Summer would return each year, and so on sacrifices and homage were paid to these divine entities.
Western Philosophy began when three Milesian thinkers, Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes (Aristotle's 'natural philosophers') began to question the legitimacy of the worldview that had been handed down to them by tradition, and to seek answers to the questions concerning the nature of things through the use of reason. And it is the insistence on the search for truth through reason set out by these pioneers in philosophy and taken up by subsequent thinkers from Socrates, Plato, Aristotle right through to Descartes, Kant, Foucault, Habermas and beyond that has shaped, and continues to shape, the world in which we live today. In summa, it should be said that even in our more secularized society, the values enshrined in the philosophies of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle continue to hold influence. Indeed, it should not be forgotten that Christianity, through Augustine (Plato) and Aquinas (Aristotle and Plato), drew heavily on the work of these ancient Greek thinkers, and Islam, through Averroes and Avicenna, borrowed much from Aristotle when Syrian versions of the Stagirite's work had been translated into Arabic as early as the 9th century, that is two hundred years before Aristotle's work became available in Europe.
What is Philosophy?
Philosophy, as any student of Philosophy will tell you, means 'love of wisdom'. In its truest sense it is a desire to challenge, to expand and to extend the frontiers of one's own understanding. It is the study of the documented wisdom the 'big ideas' of thinkers throughout the history of humankind. However, even in our most respected institutions, Philosophy is often presented as theology, psychology, spirituality or religion. Indeed, many exponents of these respective disciplines seem to have no difficulty in identifying themselves as 'philosophers' when in fact they are 'dogmatists' (sic). What can be said, however, is that Philosophy is all of the above and none. 'All', in the sense that it will certainly engage with the views advanced by the exponents of these disciplines. 'None', in the sense that Philosophy can never be constrained by views that do not allow themselves to be examined, challenged, deconstructed and demystified in the realisation that 'wisdom' or 'truth' is not something that can be caught and grasped as one particular ism.
For those really interested in Philosophy, it is important to draw a distinction between 'a philosophy' and 'Philosophy' itself. There are abroad today many colleges, institutions, societies, schools of philosophy, groups, cults and sects promoting the view that they 'teach' Philosophy, whereas in fact what they are doing is promoting a particular worldview that they claim is superior to other worldviews or 'philosophies'. What has to be said is that when a body claims that its philosophy has the monopoly on other worldviews it cannot be placed under the rubric of Philosophy it is dogma. It is for this reason that those institutions that promote a particular religious ethos cannot, by their very nature, be said to teach Philosophy in any real sense: they are constrained by their own 'philosophical' prejudices to treat other worldviews impartially particularly where these other approaches run contrary to their own. Moreover, by indoctrinating their students into a mindset that holds that it is their way or no way, these institutions show that their interest is not primarily in that which is best for the student, but that which is best in ensuring their own perpetuity. This approach (of using others as a means to one's own ends), as Kant reminds us, is repugnant to Philosophy the search for wisdom.
What this means is that Philosophy cannot condone any body of knowledge that advocates a closed view on wisdom or truth one cannot take an a la carte approach to Philosophy. As the Dalai Lama, in the prologue to his book The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality advises, where scientific discoveries are made that expose weaknesses in long held traditional beliefs, these beliefs should be abandoned, and the new discoveries embraced (would that all spiritual leaders or 'philosophers' were so open minded!). Philosophy, then, must operate on the premise that its conclusions should ever be open to what Karl Popper calls, 'the law of falsification'. That is where its conclusions are found to be questionable, it is imperative that these views are revisited, re-evaluated and, where necessary, either re-formulated or abandoned. Unfortunately, as history shows, many systems of belief either will not entertain such an approach, or, if or when they do, it is often so far in time removed from the initial discovery that much harm has occurred in the interim.
What should be realised is that the wisdom to which Philosophy aspires is not attained by the practice of uttering self-hypnotising mantras or prayers, nor by being initiated into some select group, sect or cult that promises that its 'road less travelled' is the one true road. Philosophy is not love of 'a truth' or 'some particular approach to wisdom', but a love of truth and wisdom. However, this wisdom or truth does not come pre-wrapped and packaged as one ism or another, rather it involves the courage and preparedness to engage with, to challenge and to expand the boundaries of one's own knowledge and experience. one's own wisdom.