A little history of philosophy by Nigel Warburton

Overall rating: 9/10 Recommended if: you want to start reading about philosophy Level: Easy, intro-level.


In short (heh), a great introduction, covering a lot of philosophers. I liked it better than whatever I’ve read of The Story of Philosophy. Sometimes I wonder if Nigel accidentally misrepresented/misfocused what philosophers stood for to ensure transitions between chapters were smooth (for eg:- I’ve seen Locke contrasted with Hobbes in the past, but could draw no such contrast here). The transitions were really smooth though and I am glad I was exposed to many interesting (and some useless) ideas. Gives one a good base to start thinking from.

Daily log/chapter notes

Plan to update the notes as I learn more about the philosophers and think about philosophy

Feb 17 2019

Starting with “A Little History Of Philosophy” by Nigel Warburton. Over the next few weeks, hope to read this and other books on Philosophy (Plato, Will Durant) while keeping an open mind.

I will be the first to admit that right now my view on philosophy is not particularly favourable. I think of it as something started with laudable goals (to understand the world) that resulted in what we today call science (which aims at explaining the world through verifiable experiments after making reasonable guesses). As a result, I think philosophy has little place in the world today.

However, given many of my friends (whose intellect I respect) have spent time with this subject, and many people in the public sphere also sing praises of this field (Susan Fowler), I feel like I should dive in with an open mind and seek to understand the field, and correct any gaps I have in my understanding as stated in the previous paragraph. The one place I think philosophy could still contribute is in the field of ethics. Defining why something is moral and good and should be followed is out of the purview of the physical sciences, but would benefit us as it would lead to a more harmonious society.

Feb 18 2019

Intro with Socrates, Plato, Aristotle & Pyrrho.

Socrates seemed like he was just really invested in asking questions, and showing that morality is not as obvious as one may think it to be.

Plato with his insistence on “The Forms” (you only know the form of a perfect circle, you never think about real circles) tries to say that only by understanding the abstract (the divine, maybe) can you understand reality.

Aristotle went in the opposite direction and essentially focused on the world around us. In doing so, I guess he birthed the sciences.

Pyrrho’s theories seem similar to Buddhist philosophy at times (desire is what harms you, so do not desire much), but he went full tilt in the opposite direction and decided to act, well, stupidly. While I thought “Pyrrhic victory” might draw its etymology from Pyrrho, looks like all he lent his name to was his dumb theory. Should be getting to Stoicism tomorrow, which should be good.

Feb 19 2019

Covered a bunch of other philosophers. What makes one a philosopher seems to be quite vague. There seems to be no common attribute other than spouting ideas. Some of these hypotheses aren’t what I’d call cogent, which I think should be a necessary but not sufficient condition to merit further discussion.

Summarized: The stoics are the most reasonable. The christian philosophers spew nonsense. Machiavelli’s words are applicable even today (with the brutality toned down) and Hobbes has some interesting ideas about society.

Epicurus talked about not needing to fear death, as that is not something you would experience. This is something I’ve thought about earlier and makes sense to me. He also talks about past experiences giving you pleasure in painful times, which I do not think makes sense. I think that only makes your present experience worse. Also, although his name lends itself to the adjective “epicurean”, he states you should have simple desires (some say the adjective came about due to his critics trying to mock/defame him).

The Stoics seem the most reasonable to me so far. Paraphrased they seem to say, “Do not worry, for if what perturbs you is under your control, change it. If not, nothing can be done anyway, so why worry? In other words, change how you react to it.” I think living by that could bring one great joy.

The next few were Christian philosophers, and I find it very hard to gain insights from what they say.

Augustine went toe-to-toe with theodicy (if a good god exists, why is there evil?). His answer (to allow humans to have free will) does not seem to answer the question for me. Why would a good god prefer having bad people with free will to a good world without free will? I know if I created a world with robots, I would want the robots to be nice to each other rather than having them kill each other.

Next up is Boethius who further contemplates the question of how we even have free will if god knows everything (including what happens next). His solution to this is also utterly dumb to me (god is timeless) as he has just done what students would do in school when asked a question they do not know how to answer (out of syllabus). Also, this necessitates requiring a further assumption to the previous assumption (with no evidence for either) which hints at one heading down the wrong path.

Now, we get to Anselm who says god exists because we can imagine an existence of a perfect being. My existence of this being is thoroughly incomplete, as evidenced by the points above, and besides, even if it wasn’t, I don’t see how the conclusion follows from the premise. I guess I didn’t understand Anselm at all, for I cannot imagine how (with my current understanding), he merits a mention anywhere outside the village idiot chapters of medieval history.

Aquinas, who was a saint, is the last of the christian philosophers for the day, who talks about the “first cause” argument. This is the argument I’ve heard of most often, and something I’ve thought about in school. Back then, I resolved that introducing god as a first cause did not solve any problems posed by this argument. My view on that has not changed since then. This also lines up quite nicely with the way Boethius dealt with things by marking any troubling questions (what caused god?) as part of the definition of god itself and beyond the purview of further questioning.

Machiavelli’s ideas marks a turn in philosophy, and I am not entirely sure what philosophy is anymore. The chapter is primarily about his advice to rulers (be as bad as you need to, and only as good as you need to appear). I think this advice fits a lot of real-world contexts quite nicely (people gaming systems). For example, I had an acquaintance that lied on all sorts of forms to get into a coveted college. The college made no real effort to verify the claims (most colleges don’t) and admitted the candidate for he had a glorious profile. I wondered how many missed admissions to institutes due to candidates like this chap.

Hobbes is the first I see (Socrates, Plato and Aristotle may have, but it wasn’t detailed in this book) to talk about the need for a society. He says without a society men would be horrible towards each other (killing & stealing), which the author seems to paint as a cynical view, but I find quite reasonable. He then goes on to say that this is the reason we need a ruler. The author ends saying Hobbes was against democracy and for authoritarian rule, but given what was said, I do not see how/why Hobbes would be against a group of men ruling themselves. Hobbes also mentions that you couldn’t trust friends as they could betray you at any time, but I fail to see how trusting a ruler is any different.

Feb 20 2019

The issue with philosophy seems to be that these philosophers come up with a scenario where you can’t prove what happens, but in inexplicable fashion, they then choose to assume that the exact opposite of what is supposed to happen is what MUST happen.

Descartes was similar to the skeptics in that he chose to distrust everything since we cannot prove what is real. He ended up with “I think therefore I am”, but who is to say you/your thoughts are real either (going by his logic)? Blaise Pascal comes up with what I’d call “the chicken’s approach”. He says assume you are right and that there is no god, no hell, no heaven. Then, for believing in something that does not exist, you face little penalty. However, if god did exist, then you incur his wrath by disbelieving and will end up in hell. My problem with this is, by that logic, you can be forced to believe in an insane number of things as long as you add the clause “if you do not believe in this, you will suffer years of torture far in the future”. In fact, it is definitely the cause of a lot of suffering (in number) in today’s world due to religious fanaticism. The second issue with this is that why would you want to believe in such a god anyway? Where your only choice is to believe? What kind of psychotic, sadistic game is this - not too dissimilar from what we see in the horror movie series Saw.

Baruch Spinoza espoused a more animist view, believing that god exists in nature (as opposed to a christian god). I think it is striking how many christian philosophers there are and the prominence they hold (in this book, and so, in western philosophy I assume). Spinoza also was the first one (in this book) to put forward the idea that life is mostly deterministic. Recent studies (if I remember right - IIRR), show that life is mostly deterministic, except for some quantum phenomena happening in your brain that causes randomness. So, no real free will, but a random determinism. I expect if we understand quantum theories better, we may end up at complete determinism, but that’s just wild speculation on my part.

Feb 21 2019

Locke connected the idea of a person to his memory. For example, you are the same person you were yesterday because you remember what the person that you were yesterday did. This may seem pointless, but can be interesting when thought of in a judicial context. For example, should a man be punished for a crime he doesn’t remember committing? Is that the same person? Thomas Reid thought this creates complications as an old man may be able to remember himself as a middle-aged man, but not as a baby despite him as a middle-aged man having known what he did as a baby.

Locke also believed in the existence of secondary qualities, like the colour of objects (subject to change under different lighting) and primary qualities (the object itself) which must exist in the real world. Berkeley believed that there only exist ideas (and so was an idealist - vs a realist). He believed that perception is what made things exist.

Jan 21 2021

Berkeley and Locke

Locke used to believe in empiricism. Berkeley believed that something exists only as long as it is observed, and that things we perceive are only the idea of the thing not the thing itself. Locke believed that primary qualities resembled the real world but other qualities were basically what we perceived it to be. Berkeley did away with this inconsistency and said everything is perception.

Berkeley explained away optical illusions saying the ‘idea’ (in case of optical illusions) breaks down at some point (for example, a stick that looks bent but when pulled out of the water & felt, isn’t).

Voltaire wrote Candide to parody Leibniz' beliefs. Pangloss, a character in the book would see everything that happened as happening for the good.
However, he was a deist believing nature proved god’s existence.

Voltaire ends the book saying one should cultivate their garden, meaning philosophy is all well and good, but one should be able to do some practical, real-world work too.

Jan 22 2021

Hume thought the design argument did not show that the world was designed, nor that ‘god’ designed it, nor did it ascribe any values (other than designer) to god. He thought miracles were just falsely reported incidents or lies.

Rousseau influenced Robespierre. He came up with the idea of the Social Contract - that man is born free, but society puts him in chains (by causing competition). He talks about the general will, which is what a person “wants” (not in the way we think, but meaning what he “should” want). And what if someone was opposed to the general will? Then Rousseau thinks he should be “made” free (uh-oh!). Contrasts with John Stuart Mill who believed political freedom is being allowed to make your own choices.

Kant - rose-tinted glasses. Focused on metaphysics (noumenal/phenomenal) and also morality. According to Kant, the noumenal world refers to the ‘real’ world, while the phenomenal world is what we perceive (I frankly think these kind of distinctions are useless to draw - to us, what we perceive is what is real). Synthetic knowledge is synthesized/created from existing knowledge. For example: All animals have tails & all dogs are animals lets us know that all dogs have tails (synthetic). Analytic knowledge is things that “are” (definitions). For example: All men are male. A priori knowledge is knowledge that is independent of experience. Locke (empiricist) believed a child is born with a blank slate (Is this similar to nature v/s nurture?). OTOH, Descartes believed a priori knowledge existed.

Kant’s morality - main idea was that what one does should be applicable without any conditions. So, for example, he believed one should NEVER, EVER, EVER lie. Differed from Aristotle in that Aristotle expected morality to arise out of feelings, whereas for Kant it was independent of feelings.

Bentham came up with utilitarianism - you should just do what makes you happy. And then went a little crazy with it by assigning points & scores for things that make you happy versus not. He believed society should be ruled to increase this score for society as a whole (the idea of a nutcase, if you ask me). One unique thing about his idea - everyone’s happiness counted the same (no matter whether aristocrat or peasant). One of the first to give value to animals. One cool thing: he thought of a panopticon prison (to shame people into being moral?!)!

Hegel thought that history was unfolding in a certain way. Concluded that the mind shaping reality is reality (what I said earlier - maybe I’m half a philosopher ;)). He thought a thesis followed by an antithesis leads to a new better position (synthesis). Didn’t fully understand the rest of this chapter (like how this counts as philosophy). He thought only philosophers get this, so makes sense I guess (I’m also half not a philosopher ;)) .

Jan 24 2021

Schopenhauer was Hegel’s contemporary. People mostly flocked to Hegel instead. Talked about “Will” (similar to noumenal world) and “Representation”. A pessimist.

John Stuart Mill was brought up with dedicated tutors and followed Bentham’s philosophy. He disagreed however, that all happiness was equal. For him, for example, a pig rolling in the mud experienced lesser happiness than someone experiencing saying they experienced greater joy winning a chess game because the pig could never know what it would be like to win a chess game. He wrote On Liberty which stated every person should develop as they see fit (in society). In short, political freedom without being told what you should/shouldn’t do. Came up with “harm principle” - do what you want as long as it doesn’t harm others. But, what if it harms you yourself? Well, that is your choice acc. to JSM. Important point that may be relevant for today’s times, he clearly stated that to him offence != harm. One of the first to stand up for feminism. All in all, seems like an outstanding dude.

Darwin - skipping, since I am very familiar with his work. Was surprised to see that he was a nobody (and on track for being a nobody) till the famous HMS Beagle trip.

Kierkegaard wrote Either/Or. A choice between the aesthetic (life of pleasure) or ethics (life of morals). His book was shaped by his life.

Marx. Skipping stuff I know. He thought that the world heading a certain way was inevitable. He believed violence was necessary as the rich were unlikely to give up power without a struggle. Wrt the communist states (failed) that existed, some say it is inevitable for communism to succeed since humans are greedy & competitive.

Peirce and James. Peirce was a pragmatist, he basically said we should not ponder useless questions (similar to A J Ayer). But then, it looks like he started saying useful beliefs were “true”? That makes little to no sense to me.

Rorty: ‘truth is what your contemporaries let you get away with’ & thought world was not anymore correct about anything today (compared to the past).

Jan 25 2021

Nietschze - morals don’t exist. People make up morals to favour others like them - which is why bravery was lauded in ancient Greece but ones slaves took over, kindness to one another and charity was what was lauded. He also believed society was unequal (some people are better than others - an idea we still debate today) & personally preferred the morals of ancient Greece.

Freud - invented psychoanalysis, by asking his patients to talk freely about what was on their mind. Came up with some wacky theories (Oedipus complex) & unconscious desires and generally non falsifiable theories (at least acc. to Popper).

Russell - Based on MIll’s “What caused god?” argument, he rejected the idea of a god. He was super rich, and loved math. He came up with the idea of paradoxes (barber’s paradox). Came up with subsistence (the “existence” of imaginary things). “The present king of France is (or is not) bald” are both false statements since France doesn’t have a king. Breaking this statement down reveals the truth (beginnings of math + philosophy -> logic).

A J Ayer - pragmatism-like. If a statement was neither true by definition nor could be verified, it was meaningless (like “does god exist?” - igtheism). Supposedly this was borrowed from Hume. He also thought moral judgments are useless (for example: Gluttony is good/bad) for the same reason. By this, he meant we couldn’t use these values to decide issues. Interestingly, according to his own theory, his own theory is meaningless!

Sartre - we are completely free and we can decide exactly what we want to do/feel. It is the choice that causes anguish & having to live with the consequences of the choice. His open-relationship partner, Simone de Beauvoir thought the same (women don’t have to be a “certain” way, and can do whatever they want). He also thought life has no meaning/point and that we give it meaning through our choices. A very individualistic theory, but later tried to combine it with Marxism (while high on amphetamines).

Jan 26 2021

Wittgenstein - didn’t really understand his ideas. Something about having a private language and how that is not possible.

Hannah Arendt - basically thought Eichmann was following the rules & so was not ‘evil’ evil. Her insight is that blindly following rules/laws can be evil (laws != morality). A nice line here “Heidegger was busy writing an incredibly difficult book that some people think is a major contribution to philosophy and others a deliberately obscure piece of writing.”

Popper believed scientists tried to prove that their theories are false (rather than trying to prove them true). As long as they don’t prove it false, the theory holds. Until Popper, scientists/philosophers thought the way to prove something was to find more supporting evidence. Anytime something is shown false, new info is gained.
Popper also thought Maxism was unfalsifiable (since everything would be seen as a class struggle - I guess of different classes?).
Kuhn disagreed with Popper & believed that there were paradigm shifts (earth goes around the sun) every now and then that caused learning to happen, and the time in between is spent doing ‘normal science’ (establishing the new understanding).

Foot created the trolley problem. Law of Double Effect (predictable bad side effects with a noble main aim is fine). Judith J Thomson talked about the question of abortion being right/wrong by comparing it to a violinist being plugged to you (not sure about the quality of this argument - the violinist’s life is not due to you). The main reason for the analogy is to highlight principles underlying arguments for/against it seems.

Jan 27 2021

John Rawls believed that society should be equal. That people are mostly equal and richer/more successful people are so mainly because of luck. He came up with the idea that to create an ideal society, you assume equal probability of you being in each “bucket” (rich/poor, successful/not, etc.). He thought there are some inalienable rights people have (freedom of belief, to vote, etc.). He also thought if there was inequality, it should favor the less-privileged (how do we define that? Maybe we can define it for a few explicit cases and allow those?). Inspired Michael Sandel, Thomas Pogge, M Nussbaum & Will Kymlicka.

Turing (skipping) Searle - thought computers could not be “smart” since they are just running instructions (syntax) without understanding (semantics).

Peter Singer - skipping since familiar, introduced animal ethics strongly (first person after Bentham).