Very thought-provoking overview of philosophers like Plato, Aristotle, Hume, Descartes, Kant, Nietzsche, Sartre. But the author does an AMAZING job of making everything incredibly clear, understandable, relateable, and applicable. So well-written. I’ve read a few books in this genre, but this is the best by far. I highly recommend this to anyone.
Philosophers’ experiments take place in the mind, to explore possibilities.
A thought experiment is an imaginary scenario designed to test an idea.
Plato: Consider a perfect triangle. Though none are perfect, we can clearly identify which ones come closer to the ideal.
Similarly: Justice, beauty, goodness and truth.
The job of the philosopher is to study and promote the ideal.
Plato: The view that the material world around us is not real is called idealism.
Glimpse the Forms, perfect exemplars of our everyday experiences, and share the discovery.
Those who recollect the Forms become the philosopher-kings.
Plato is critical of the ‘lovers of sights and sounds’ who live life on a superficial level, never inquiring into the reality that lies beyond appearances.
We each have a ruler, a soldier and a producer within us.
Make sure that each does its job and stays free of corrosive influences.
Reason stays in control, taking you ever further away from this world into a state of perpetual spiritual connection with the transcendent realm.
Observe the people you admire most.
Every situation that demands a choice has a wide variety of possible responses, ranging from deficient to excessive.
The right response will always fall in the middle between those two extremes.
The virtuous person avoids extremes.
Extreme behaviour is often the result of emotional reactions.
Use reason to control emotion and guide you towards a moderate response.
Ghandi, Mother Teresa, and many we admire were extremists.
But maybe their apparent excess was really only moderation, considering the extreme circumstances they faced.
Aristotle puts friendship above justice.
Those who are friends have no need of justice.
Those who are just still need friends.
A friend is a second self.
Looking at a true friend is like facing a mirror:
You see your own achievements and failures reflected back at you.
To be a great friend, you have to exercise your rational capacities.
By doing this, you learn to act in accordance with the golden mean.
When you see a purple onion, you can notice the purpleness it has in common with other purple objects.
This means abstracting its colour away from its substance.
You can think about purpleness all by itself, independently of any material object.
But this does not mean that purpleness really exists in a transcendent realm beyond our world.
It exists as a concept in our minds.
For Aristotle, the same holds for justice, and beauty, and truth itself.
Some say you have everything to gain and nothing to lose by believing in God.
If you reason ‘I guess I should go to church and pray, just in case there is a powerful being who wants me to,’ you can just as easily reason ‘I guess shouldn’t go to church and pray, just in case there is a powerful being who doesn’t want me to.’
What makes one line of reasoning any better than the other?
Two different kinds of existence: mental and real.
A painting first it exists in the mind of the artist, and then, after the artist creates it, it exists in reality.
Atheists: God exists only in the mind.
Theists: God exists both in the mind and also in reality.
Both agree that God exists in the mind.
Evil enhances our admiration of the good; for we enjoy and value the good more when we compare it.
A priori: prior to, or independent of, experience of the world.
A posteriori: after, or dependent upon, experience of the world.
Doubt is the origin of wisdom.
Imagine you are now in a sophisticated virtual-reality program.
Nothing you seem to see is real.
The purpose of this is to remove all certainties.
To discover true knowledge, first question absolutely everything that you have ever believed.
The beliefs you call knowledge have been far too carelessly acquired – picked up along the way in life without sufficient scrutiny.
You believe what others tell you they saw and heard.
Your mind is riddled with falsehoods that must be rooted out.
It’s difficult, since they feel as comfortable and familiar as the truth.
In fact, it’s almost impossible to distinguish between the two.
The only solution is to clear-cut the forest – rid the mind of all beliefs, whether true or false – and begin again, this time carefully allowing only true beliefs to take root.
Subjective conscious experience – what your love feels like – is a quale.
Our minds are full of qualia: how cinnamon smells, what it’s like to perform.
A complete scientific description of these phenomena from the outside does not capture what they are from the inside.
Paul Churchland notes the elimination of witches from our serious ontology, and says the concepts of folk psychology – belief, desire, fear, sensation, pain, joy, and so on – await a similar fate.
Those who believe in free will (known as metaphysical libertarians) say you can’t blame your parents for how you turned out. Your circumstances do not force your decisions.
Man can do what he wants, but not want what he wants. — Schopenhauer
You are free to do whatever you desire. But you are not free to choose your desires.
Determinists allow that everyone feels as though they have free will.
This is because we have a lot of contrary desires within us.
When our desires are battling against each other, we pause, hovering, feeling as though we could equally go either way.
But, in fact, the strongest desire always wins.
Compatibilism: human freedom is compatible with determinism because it does not consist in free will but rather in the absence of external constraints.
What would happen if government suddenly disappeared?
How might human beings have behaved before there was such a thing as government?
no industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain
no culture of the earth
no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea
no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force
no knowledge of the face of the earth
no account of time
and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.
Government is legitimate only when the people willingly agree to subject themselves to it.
We make a social contract to give up our natural rights in exchange for peace.
This social contract theory stands in stark contrast to divine right theory, according to which God gives royal families the right to rule over a region regardless of how the people who are living there happen to feel about it.
The veil of ignorance is a thought experiment in which you imagine that you don’t know anything about your personal identity.
This way, you won’t inadvertently allow the social contract to be biased towards the advantage of any particular group.
If you don’t know whether or not you might be disabled, for example, you’ll be sure to support laws that require public buildings to be accessible to disabled people.
This veil of ignorance helps to guarantee a social contract that is as fair as possible to everyone.
Ship of Theseus, with a twist:
As the planks are removed, they are reassembled into another ship..
Once all of Theseus’ planks are replaced, we have two ships: an old ship made of new planks and a new ship made of old planks!
Which ship is the ship of Theseus?
Apply Ship of Theseus to yourself.
You look at your baby pictures and your relatives describe how you were as a baby.
But was that little creature really you? You’ve changed so much in so many ways.
The soul changes just as much as the body does.
Amid all of this change, what stays the same? Is there an enduring self?
The source of personal identity: memory.
When you think about yourself you remember your past.
The memory of what you have done is what makes those actions yours instead of someone else’s.
Primary qualities, which include size (‘extension’), shape (‘figure’), quantity (‘number’) and motion, are objective because they really exist in the objects.
Secondary qualities, which include colour, smell, taste and sound, are subjective, because they exist only in our minds.
If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? No!
A falling tree creates a disturbance in the air (a primary quality) that becomes a sound (a secondary quality) only for those who have ears.
The same goes for taste and smell.
These secondary qualities are mental interpretations of primary qualities.
There is a gap between the following two statements: Things always behave this way. Things have to behave this way.
Repetition is not the same as necessity.
Einstein would never have dared to question the physics of Newton if it weren’t for Hume.
No one has ever seen causation.
If we saw behaviour just once, it wouldn’t occur to us to expect it to happen again.
The repetition, however – the ‘constant conjunction’ of events – leads us to believe that it has to happen every time.
Empiricists believe only what they experience.
True empiricism requires a lot more scepticism.
By applying scepticism towards all things unseen, including the supposed ‘laws of nature’, we will think more clearly and be less likely to develop a mistaken understanding of the world.
Suppose someone claims to have witnessed a man raised from the dead.
Hume asks us to consider how many times we have ever experienced such a thing occurring.
He then asks us to consider how many times we have ever experienced someone lying to us or being mistaken about something they tell us.
We should then decide to believe whichever we have experienced more often.
He may, perhaps, perceive something simple and continued, which he calls himself.
Though I am certain there is no such principle in me.
Kant combines the best components from rationalists and empiricists.
Recall the following categories:
a priori: knowledge that does not depend on experience
a posteriori: knowledge that depends on experience.
matters of fact: observed truths, such as ‘bread nourishes’
relations of ideas: logical truths, such as ‘two plus two equals four’.
You would think that relations of ideas are always a priori and matters of fact are always a posteriori.
In fact, this was everyone’s assumption before Kant arrived on the scene.
Kant combines the a priori with matters of fact (which he calls ‘synthetic’) to create a new category of understanding which he calls the a priori synthetic.
Kant asserts that time and space don’t exist in the world but rather are the way in which the rational mind understands the world.
If there were no rational minds, there would be no time or space.
Kant calls the physical world as it would be without the human concepts of time and space the noumenal realm, from the Greek word for ‘thought’.
The noumenal realm consists of things-in-themselves, and transcends human experience.
Kant calls the physical world as perceived through the human concepts of time and space the phenomenal realm, from the Greek word for ‘appearance’.
The phenomenal realm consists of things-as-they-appear-to-us.
If you’re thinking rationally, then you must act in accordance with the moral law.
People make the mistake of thinking of duty in the form of hypothetical imperatives.
For example: ‘If you want to have friends, then you must be kind.’
Any such ‘If … then’ statement premises moral obligation (kindness) upon a desired outcome (having friends).
Such an imperative cannot be ethical because you only need to deny the ‘if’ part to escape the obligation.
If you don’t want to have friends, then you don’t need to be kind.
True duty can only be conceived of in the form of a categorical imperative – a requirement that leaves room for no ‘ifs’, ‘ands’ or ‘buts’.
For example: ‘Be kind.’ Period. It doesn’t matter what you want or need or feel.
This is what is required of you as a rational being.
All our duties can be captured in a single categorical imperative:
“Act only on that maxim whereby thou canst at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”
Relativist Ruth Benedict (1887–1948) was an American anthropologist who travelled the world observing different cultures with different value systems.
Benedict concludes that all morality is relative to the culture.
By claiming that there is no legitimate way to make moral judgements, relativists deprive themselves of the ability to make any legitimate moral judgements.
This is a self-contradiction, meaning the view has to be rejected or revised to avoid the contradiction.
Thinking of lying for a good reason?
Ask yourself whether the following would be a good law: ‘Everyone should always lie to protect themselves or others.’
Categorical imperative is not motivated by a concern about the possible consequences of the proposed action.
That would render it a hypothetical imperative, such as: ‘If you don’t want to live in a world full of liars, then don’t lie.’
These hypothetical imperatives enable you to escape your duty to be honest.
All you have to do is decide you don’t care about living with liars or running risks – then you are free to lie as much as you like.
Duty is rationally inescapable.
The point of universalizing your maxim is to see whether it would even be possible for a fully rational agent to engage in the proposed course of action.
Kant insists that fully rational agents are incapable of committing immoral actions.
Every immoral act is self-contradictory.
Fully rational agents cannot contradict themselves.
Therefore, fully rational agents cannot commit immoral acts.
When you lie you’re not communicating, but undermining communication. So your very act negates itself – a self-contradiction.
Universalizing your proposed actions means always regarding others as ends in themselves, never as the means to an end.
It’s wrong to use people.
If you hit someone for being annoying, you’re using them to relieve your frustration.
Put our own selfish goals aside, striving instead to bring about a ‘kingdom of ends’.
Nothing can be called good except a good will - good character.
Courage, resolution, perseverance seem good, but may also become extremely bad and mischievous, if character is not good.
You may make yourself utterly miserable trying to be a moral person.
But in trying to be a moral person you will at least be worthy of happiness, which is far more important, in his view, than actually being happy.
John Stuart Mill: utilitarianism.
The ethical act is the one that produces the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.
Your happiness counts just as much as, but no more than, anyone else’s.
The only proof that a sound is audible, is that people hear it.
The sole evidence it is possible to produce that anything is desirable, is that people do actually desire it.
Although it’s sometimes difficult to see, our own happiness is completely dependent on the happiness of those around us.
Hedonic calculus, for quantifying pleasure:
1 Intensity (How strong is the pleasure?)
2 Duration (How long is the pleasure likely to last?)
3 Certainty (How likely is the act to produce the expected pleasure?)
4 Propinquity (How soon is the act expected to produce the pleasure?)
5 Fecundity (Is this pleasure liable to produce more pleasure?)
6 Purity (Is this pleasure likely to be accompanied or followed by pain?)
7 Extent (How many people will experience the pleasure?)
Applying these criteria may yield surprising answers to moral dilemmas.
Peter Singer’s interpretation of utilitarianism:
Beings with preferences are capable of experiencing pleasure and pain, and hence are worthy of ethical consideration.
Because animals have preferences, meat-eating and all forms of factory farming are morally wrong.
Because human foetuses are incapable of having preferences (until 4½ months), abortion is not morally wrong.
Because people with various forms of brain damage have no preferences, euthanasia (mercy killing) is not morally wrong.
Since preferring luxuries is not as important as preferring basic needs, people in affluent nations are morally obligated to give their excess wealth to people in Third World nations.
Utilitarianism is not about maximizing pleasure for oneself only – it’s about maximizing pleasure for everyone.
So, if it turns out that Mozart can make a great deal of other people very happy with his music, then he is morally obligated to produce it.
Mill distinguishes between higher and lower pleasures.
He would argue that playing music is more valuable than merely listening, and that writing music is more valuable than merely playing, even though the difficulty increases in each case.
Because the greater difficulty implies a greater satisfaction and value.
Mill’s concern for higher pleasures adds, not an eighth way to quantify pleasure, but a whole new qualitative dimension. Concern for the quality of pleasures.
Rule utilitarianism as opposed to act utilitarianism:
When we are considering whether an act is ethical, we shouldn’t consider it alone as a one-time occurrence but rather as a type of action.
Not asking, “Frame the homeless man or risk the riot?”
Instead, you should ask yourself which is more conducive to happiness: defending human rights or ignoring human rights?
Utilitarianism is sometimes called consequentialism because it is concerned not with principles but with results.
Most people intend to love their life just as soon as ____________.
Nietzsche viewed the ‘just as soon as’ mentality as the most significant problem of Western civilization.
Suppose we are condemned to repeat our lives the same way over and over again for ever.
Do whatever it takes to be sure you love every moment.
Nietzsche implores us to evolve ‘beyond good and evil’.
Morality is just a human construct, born of the ongoing struggle between individuals and groups for the only thing that really matters – power.
The ‘will to power’: We are all pushing to seize the highest possible position in life.
Make the most of it.
Nietzsche despises religions, for their covert and hypocritical agenda.
Christianity teaches that this life is just a transitory struggle on the way to heaven.
But humility and sacrifice are slavish qualities, worthy only of servile, inferior beings.
Slave morality always requires first an opposing world.
Its action is basically reaction.
God was a story the masters told to keep the slaves from rebelling.
But there was a time when the story of God enlivened the people, inspiring them to achieve great things. This is what has died.
Apollonian force is rational and law-like, maintaining strict order.
Dionysian force is dangerous, cruel and wild. It seeks to unleash chaos.
Both are required for a balanced, healthy existence.
Socrates, whom Nietzsche regards as a menace rather than a hero, promoted the Apollonian, reinforced by Christianity, which strove to tame and deny all ecstatic instincts. The result is a highly repressed society.
The solution, and the path to humanity’s next evolution, is to reintroduce the Dionysian force.
The Übermensch lives deeply, richly and significantly without shying away from pain, because ‘that which does not kill us makes us stronger’.
The Übermensch rejects all value systems while living life to the hilt.
Nihilism means that there is no objective meaning in the world. Every belief is false because there is no true reason for anything.
This realization is liberating. It forces one to realize that one is free to make one’s own meaning.
Transform nihilism into perspectivalism?
While there is no absolute truth, everyone can develop their own interpretation of the world.
The radical freedom of interpretation.
Philosophers are always asking whether things that seem to exist really do exist, up to Nietzsche, who concluded that nothing but the will to power exists.
Suppose everyone has a small box with a beetle in it.
No one is allowed to look in anyone else’s box.
Instead, we talk about our beetles.
Each seems to be a little different from every other.
But how do I know you’re describing your beetle accurately?
Come to think of it, how do I know you have a beetle at all?
Does anyone really have a beetle?
Perhaps we are all just playing a game.
Likewise, we talk about the thoughts inside our heads, but we never get to see what’s really inside.
Your friend says she believes in God.
If she does nothing different from what she would do if she didn’t believe, then her belief may as well not exist.
What is the belief other than the behaviour itself?
Awareness of nothingness is a state of mind.
You have to notice the things you are not in order to realize you are free.
Man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards.
Existence precedes essence.
He will not be anything until later, and then he will be what he makes of himself.
There is no human nature.
He is what he wills.
Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself.
Freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you.
One of the chief motives for artistic creation is the need to feel that we are essential to the world.
It connects us to other human beings so that we aren’t alone in our freedom.
We think only when we are confronted with problems.
Art and technology: each is the solution to a problem.
While art solves an internal problem, technology solves an external one.
Language is the ultimate tool of tools.
The institutions created by words and pictures – including religion, science and politics – are technologies.
We can admire or despise them just like any work of art.
They are human inventions, created to solve particular problems.
If an institution creates more problems than it solves, then it has outlived its usefulness and must be replaced.
Just as there is no absolute beauty, there is no absolute truth.
If you moved through the world effortlessly, accomplishing all your goals without a single challenge, you would never acquire knowledge.
Students studied chemistry, not by memorizing formulas but by baking biscuits.
They studied geometry, not by deducing axioms, but by making patterns to sew their own clothes.
Education is a process of living, not a preparation for future living.