Topics are arranged alphabetically in the INDEX.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Thumbnail Sketch of Jacques Derrida

“For me, writing means to withdraw myself, even if one appears when one writes because publishing means appearing in a certain way. But I didn’t want my appearance to be framed by the contemporary uses of photography where they show the author writing or in a head shot. So I thought it was very important to exclude all forms of photography and all public images of myself.”—Derrida on his reluctance to be photographed and his insistence that no image of himself would appear on his book covers.

(With apology to Derrida)

Alice C. Linsley

Postmodernism is characterized by a proliferation of philosophical developments that seek to destabilize traditional views, interpretations and values. The “new thought” goes against the notion that words and narratives have a fixed meaning. One of the most important philosophers of Postmodernism was the French Algerian Jacques Derrida (1930-2004). Derrida sought to uncover and lift up the underbelly of meaning in myths and texts. He enjoyed making fun of traditional interpretations, yet as he developed his "ontotheology" he concluded that there was something fixed at the metaphysical center. He developed this in his lectures at Villanova University.

Deconstruction reveals a “presence” that has been called by different names throughout history: logos, nous, arche, God, the metaphysical center, etc. However, for Derrida the fixed presence is not a being, but rather a necessary function by which we are able to discover meaning. Here Derrida borrows from Wittgenstein’s idea of a word as a function and Heidegger’s development of Dasein.

Derrida’s deconstruction reveals great complexities of meaning in written texts, ideas, myths and human customs. He explored the “metaphysics of presence.” He wants to know what dominates and blocks what seems not to be present. He ascribes to subordinate objects a more substantial existence than the shadow they cast, or their “trace.” Derrida wrote: "Deconstruction cannot limit itself or proceed immediately to neutralization: it must, by means of a double gesture, a double science, a double writing, practice an overturning of the classical opposition, and a general displacement of the system. It is on that condition alone that deconstruction will provide the means of intervening in the field of oppositions it criticizes" (Metaphysics).

Derrida explores the hidden presence. In so doing, deeper and/or unfamiliar meanings emerge. His method involves neutralizing the shouting voice in order to hear resonances of underlying voices. He looks for Plato behind Aristotle, for mystery behind logic, and for the metaphysical behind the physical. His reversals are a strategic intervention to free western philosophy from the constraints of empiricism, materialism, and linear logic.

Derrida was a master when it came to identifying binary distinctions, such as dominance and subservience, and reversals. In the case of binary oppositions, each component of the binary set means something, and the relationship of the oppositions means something, and the hierarchy exhibited by the set means something. The reversal of the oppositions also means something. The reversal of the subordinated term of an opposition is a significant aspect of Derrida's strategy. In examining a binary opposition and reversals, deconstruction brings to light traces of meaning that cannot be said to be present, but which must have metaphysical existence.

Derrida borrowed the term “deconstruction” from Martin Heidegger. Heidegger exposed the fundamental problem of existence (ontology) or Being as Being (Dasein). He believed the individual’s moral duty is to face one’s non-existence, what he called “negation.” Life involves a dread of death because it means the negation of self or ego. Heidegger believed that authentic being is possible only when the individual faces death as extinction in a straight forward way.

While a student, a priest in his Catholic school gave Heidegger a copy of Franz Brentano’s dissertation, titled, On the Manifold Meaning of Being according to Aristotle. Heidegger said it was, “the chief help and guide of my first awkward attempts to penetrate into philosophy.” He recognized, as did Brentano, that “the question of being captivated Aristotle as the single most important question.”

The significance of Heidegger’s work was overlooked by many who viewed him as a Nazi sympathizer because he failed to speak against the Nazi regime. In developing his version of atheistic existentialism, Heidegger drew on Nietzsche’s view that man decides his own values.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Thumbnail Sketch of J.B. Rawls

"Injustice, then, is simply inequalities that are not to the benefit of all."--J.B. Rawls

John B. Rawls (1921-24 November 2002) is recognized as one of the leading political philosophers of the 20th century. He was born in Baltimore in 1921 and went to Princeton as an undergraduate. He considered entering the Episcopal priesthood, but lost his faith after his war experiences in the Pacific in World War II. He taught at Harvard for more than 30 years. Among his students are some accomplished American philosophers, including Martha Nussbaum, Thomas Nagel, Onora O'Neill, Christine Korsgaard, and Susan Neiman.

Rawls’s first book was A Theory of Justice published in 1971. Nearly 600 pages long, it has been translated into 27 languages. Rawls claimed to have articulated a theory of justice which is genuinely universal and acceptable from our present, pluralistic, political perspective. His book has greatly influenced political theory. A few regard his experiment as pernicious.

Two of Rawls's brothers died in childhood because they had contracted fatal illnesses from him. In 1928, at age 7, John contracted diphtheria. His younger brother Bobby visited him in his room and was infected and died. The next winter, John contracted pneumonia. Another younger brother, Tommy, caught the illness from him and died." Rawls' biographer Thomas Pogge calls the loss of his two brothers the "most important events in Jack’s childhood." The unfairness of these tragic deaths certainly caused Rawls to ponder the nature of fairness and justice.

Rawls's theory of justice is posed as an alternative to the utilitarian approach that holds that the best consequences indicate the best political choices. In his book A Theory of Justice (1971), Rawls wrote “Each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override. Therefore, in a just society the rights secured by justice are not subject to political bargaining or the calculus of social interests” (A Theory of Justice, p. 66).

Rawls proposed a social contract approach to justice that revolves around three principles: (1) each individual is to have equal right to the greatest personal liberty that is compatible with like liberty for all; and (2) social and economic inequalities are to be attached to public positions that are open to all under conditions of fairness in opportunity. Rawls also stated that when these principles are in conflict, the first principle must take priority.

Rawls accepts that there will always be some economic differences in society. He is not a Marxian. His concern is that those who are at the bottom should never be allowed to sink below the level of basic material needs. Fairness of opportunity requires consideration of those in society whose abilities may be such that they remain the least fortunate. To prevent extreme poverty, he developed a third principle which he called the “difference principle”.

Using the difference principle, Rawls hoped to minimize wealth differences by insisting that inequalities in basic goods can be allowed only if distribution of primary goods first benefits the poorest. He argued that the welfare of society depends on the welfare of the poorest, and that a just society makes fairness to all a primary consideration when forming public policy.

Rawls’ egalitarian approach to justice is a hypothetical one. It is not so much a philosophy as it is a method for constitution-building. He conducted his thought-experiment with his students at Harvard. Rawls’ method requires that participants forget their economic status, race, gender, level of education, religion, physical and mental abilities, etc. Under this “veil of ignorance”, each is to consider fairness from an “original position”; that is, they must establish a principle of fairness (such as distribution of income) without knowing beforehand where they end up in the pecking order. Rawls believed that nobody would agree to a system that incorporated practices such as slavery or totalitarianism since they themselves might end up a slave or oppressed by government officials. Rawls assumes that participants will always act rationally, and in seeking their best self-interest under the veil of ignorance, they actually will be seeking the best interest of all.

Rawls’ thought experiment operates on the assumptions that democracy is the best system, that people should vote, and that private property in not an inalienable right (against John Locke). His primary concern is justice. Rawls defends a welfare form of democracy on the basis of his belief that a just society requires that individual’s democratic rights must always take priority over the common good. In his view that there is a fixed point of reference by which to decide justice, Rawls follows the deontological ethics of Immanuel Kant.

Another view of how humans act in their own self-interest was developed by the Russian novelist Ayn Rand in her famous book The Fountainhead (1943). The title is a reference to Rand's statement that “man's ego is the fountainhead of human progress”. In this book, and in her later volume Atlas Shrugged (1957), Rand lays down the ethical principle of rational self-interest that would become the basis for Objectivism. She argues that rational selfishness is a virtue and that this virtue can be developed only by those who autonomously develop their own code of values and conduct.

J.B. Rawls' Quotes:

"Certainly it is wrong to be cruel to animals and the destruction of a whole species can be a great evil. The capacity for feelings of pleasure and pain and for the form of life of which animals are capable clearly impose duties of compassion and humanity in their case."

"My aim is to present a conception of justice which generalizes and carries to a higher level of abstraction the familiar theory of the social contract as found, say, in Locke, Rousseau, and Kant. In order to do this we are not to think of the original contract as one to enter a particular society or to set up a particular form of government. Rather, the guiding idea is that the principles of justice for the basic structure of society are the object of the original agreement. They are the principles that free and rational persons concerned to further their own interests would accept in an initial position of equality as defining the fundamental terms of their association. These principles are to regulate all further agreements; they specify the kinds of social cooperation that can be entered into and the forms of government that can be established. This way of regarding the principles of justice I shall call justice as fairness. ... ""I shall now state in a provisional form the two principles of justice that I believe would be chosen in the original position. ... The first statement of the two principles reads as follows.

First: each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others.

Second: social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both (a) reasonably expected to be to everyone's advantage, and (b) attached to positions and offices open to all.

There are two ambiguous phrases in the second principle, namely 'everyone's advantage' and 'open to all.'

By way of general comment, these principles primarily apply, as I have said, to the basic structure of society. They are to govern the assignment of rights and duties and to regulate the distribution of social and economic advantages. As their formulation suggests, these principles presuppose that the social structure can be divided into two more or less distinct parts, the first principle applying to the one, the second to the other. They distinguish between those aspects of the social system that define and secure the equal liberties of citizenship and those that specify and establish social and economic inequalities. The basic liberties of citizens are, roughly speaking, political liberty (the right to vote and to be eligible for public office) together with freedom of speech and assembly; liberty of conscience and freedom of thought; freedom of the person along with the right to hold (personal) property; and freedom from arbitrary arrest and seizure as defined by the concept of the rule of law. These liberties are all required to be equal by the first principle, since citizens of a just society are to have the same basic rights.

The second principle applies, in the first approximation, to the distribution of income and wealth and to the design of organizations that make use of differences in authority and responsibility, or chains of command. While the distribution of wealth and income need not be equal, it must be to everyone's advantage, and at the same time, positions of authority and offices of command must be accessible to all. One applies the second principle by holding positions open, and then, subject to this constraint, arranges social and economic inequalities so that everyone benefits.

These principles are to be arranged in a serial order with the first principle prior to the second. This ordering means that a departure from the institutions of equal liberty required by the first principle cannot be justified by, or compensated for, by greater social and economic advantages. The distribution of wealth and income, and the hierarchies of authority, must be consistent with both the liberties of equal citizenship and equality of opportunity.

It is clear that these principles are rather specific in their content, and their acceptance rests on certain assumptions that I must eventually try to explain and justify. A theory of justice depends upon a theory of society in ways that will become evident as we proceed. For the present, it should be observed that the two principles (and this holds for all formulations) are a special case of a more general conception of justice that can be expressed as follows.

All social values—liberty and opportunity, income and wealth, and the bases of self-respect— are to be distributed equally unless an unequal distribution of any, or all, of these values is to everyone's advantage."

Related reading: J.B. Rawls' "Original Position"

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Thumbnail Sketch of Ayn Rand

"Achievement of your happiness is the only moral purpose of your life, and that happiness, not pain or mindless self-indulgence, is the proof of your moral integrity, since it is the proof and the result of your loyalty to the achievement of your values."-- Ayn Rand

Alice C. Linsley

Ayn Rand watched her family suffer the loss of everything under Stalin and this shaped her political views for the rest of her life. She hated the repression of Russian dissidents, many of whom were clergy, yet she fully embraced atheism. She hung out with Hollywood people and believed that you had to write on the edge, be advant-garde, to get attention. She hated government intrusion in personal affairs, yet she testified against Hollywood communists before the U.S. Senate. She hated logical fallacies, like ad hominem, yet she used it liberally against those she disliked.

Rand (1905-1985) was born in St. Petersburg, Russia. At age six she taught herself to read and at the age of nine, she decided to make fiction writing her career. She was opposed to the mysticism and collectivism of Russian culture.

During her high school years, she witnessed the Kerensky Revolution, which she supported, and the Bolshevik Revolution, which she denounced. In order to escape the fighting, her family went to the Crimea. After the Communist victory her father's pharmacy was confiscated and her family faced periods of near-starvation. When introduced to American history in her last year of high school, she took America as her model of what a nation of free citizens could be.

She entered the University of Petrograd to study philosophy and history and graduated in 1924. She experienced the takeover of the university by communist thugs. She entered the State Institute for Cinema Arts in 1924 to study screenwriting, something that would serve her well after her arrival in the United States. She had booklets on actress Pola Negri (1925) and “Hollywood: American Movie City” (1926) published. Both were reprinted in 1999 in Russian Writings on Hollywood.

In February 1926 Rand left Soviet Russia for a visit to relatives in Chicago. Although she told Soviet authorities that her visit would be short, she was determined never to return to Russia. She spent the next six months in Chicago, obtained an extension to her visa, and then left for Hollywood to pursue a career as a screenwriter.

On Ayn Rand’s second day in Hollywood, Cecil B. DeMille saw her standing at the gate of his studio, offered her a ride to the set of his movie The King of Kings, and gave her a job, first as an extra, then as a script reader. During the next week at the studio, she met an actor, Frank O’Connor, whom she married in 1929; they were married until his death fifty years later.

Her novels include We the Living (1936), The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957), Rand's last work of fiction. In her work she dramatized her philosophy in an intellectual mystery that integrated ethics, metaphysics, epistemology, politics, and economics. She also wrote a numbe of shorter pieces including The Husband I Bought (1926); The Night King (1926); Her Second Career (1929) and Red Pawn (1931-32).

Rand wrote and lectured on her philosophy Objectivism, which she characterized as “a philosophy for living on earth." She died in 1982 in her New York City apartment.


About C.S. Lewis, Rand wrote, "This is really an old fool – and nothing more!" Her ad hominem attack was not a reaction to Lewis the man, who she had never met. Rand hated his Christian apologetics.

"A creative man is motivated by the desire to achieve, not by the desire to beat others."

"Government 'help' to business is just as disastrous as government persecution... the only way a government can be of service to national prosperity is by keeping its hands off."

"Civilization is the progress toward a society of privacy. The savage's whole existence is public, ruled by the laws of his tribe. Civilization is the process of setting man free from men."

"Every aspect of Western culture needs a new code of ethics - a rational ethics - as a precondition of rebirth."

"Every man builds his world in his own image. He has the power to choose, but no power to escape the necessity of choice."

"God... a being whose only definition is that he is beyond man's power to conceive."

"Achievement of your happiness is the only moral purpose of your life, and that happiness, not pain or mindless self-indulgence, is the proof of your moral integrity, since it is the proof and the result of your loyalty to the achievement of your values."

Related reading: Notes: Ayn Rand and Ethical Egoism; Ethics of the 20th Century; Ayn Rand Really, Really Hated C.S. Lewis

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Why You Have to Love David Hume

David Hume

Alice C. Linsley

David Hume (1711-1776)

Naturalism, Empiricism, Skepticism; theses terms come to mind when one considers David Hume, the very remarkable philosopher and historian of the 18th century.

Hume was a brilliant Scottish thinker who lived for a time in France. One of his close friends was a fellow Scotsman Adam Smith who is considered the founder of modern economics. Hume also produced some writings on monetary theory.

David Hume has been called "the Skeptic's Skeptic" because of his empirical approach and insistence that there is a natural explanation for almost all observable phenomena. Although Hume leaves open the possibility of miracles as singular events, he offers arguments against their historicity. He notes that miracles seem to occur among the ignorant and superstitious, not in civilized societies which, informed by empiricism, know that most phenomena have a natural explanation.

Hume also notes that people have good reasons to lie about miracles occurring either because they believe they are doing so for the benefit of their religion or because of the fame that results. People enjoy relating miracles without checking their veracity and thus accounts of miracles are easily transmitted even when unverified or false. Hume also believed that the miracles of each religion argue against all other religions and their miracles, and so even if a proportion of all reported miracles appear to be substantiated empirically, the miracles cannot logically be considered conclusive.

George Berkeley had asserted that God's existence is a question of fact; that is, either God exists or God does not exist. Such a question can only be resolved on the basis of observational evidence. Hume insisted that God's existence has not observational evidence. The most that can be said is that the order in nature could be explained by the existence of an Intelligent Being.

Hume is often labeled an agnostic or an atheist. However, today he might have more in common with the Intelligent Design school of thought. Hume wrote, “the whole frame of nature bespeaks an intelligent author; and no rational enquirer can, after serious reflection, suspend his belief a moment with regard to the principles of genuine Theism and Religion” (Natural History of Religion 134).

Hume's Writings

David Hume penned what is still considered one of the greatest works on the History of Great Britain. He was a man who enjoyed lengthy conversations with friends on virtually every topic and these conversation stimulated his writing.

Hume’s writings stirred Immanuel Kant from his “dogmatic slumbers” around 1770. Kant produced his greatest work in reaction to Hume. Although the two great thinkers did not agree on many points, they both placed a high value on reason and evidence. Kant defined the Enlightenment by the motto Sapere aude ("Dare to Know") and wrote, “Have the courage to use your own understanding; this is the motto of the Enlightenment.”

Hume's key works are A Treatise on Human Nature (1739-40) which was published anonymously when he was only 28, An Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals (1751), and Dialogues concerning Natural Religion (1779). In his forties he wrote a six-volume History of England (1754-62) and this work established him as an historian.

In his last years, Hume revised his works for new editions of his Essays and Treatises, which contained his collected essays, the two Enquiries, A Dissertation on the Passions, and The Natural History of Religion. Significantly, he did not revise A Treatise of Human Nature. Hume did not become famous for his philosophical works until after his death in 1776.

Hume believed that truth claims must be based up by material evidence and that much of what we accept in our ordinary lives has no basis in empirical observation and verification. He insisted that unless a truth claim can be demonstrated to be universally the case, it cannot be said to be "true" empirically. Hume's thinking encouraged the early development of the social sciences anthropology, sociology and psychology.

Related reading:  David Hume: A Short Biography; Kant and Hume on Causality

Thursday, October 17, 2013

A Thumbnail Sketch of Jeremy Bentham

Alice C. Linsley

Jeremy Bentham, the "father" of utilitarian ethics, was a lawyer who distrusted lawyers. He was a man of his time in that he believed that many social problems could be solved by the exercise of reason on the part of law makers.
Bentham's Auto-icon

Bentham was born in London and educated at Oxford. He studied law, following in the steps of his lawyer father. His attitude toward the law was paradoxical. He said, "Lawyers are the only persons in whom ignorance of the law is not punished." At the same time, Bentham appreciated the skill of a good attorney to clarify the intention of a law and to question its utility. He said, "The power of the lawyer is in the uncertainty of the law."

A similar cynicism about lawyers was expressed by the 4th century Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus who wrote, "Some lawyers preserve an austere silence to hide their ignorance of the law; others charge their clients every time they yawn; others, if the name of a famous writer is mentioned, think that it is a foreign word for a type of fish or some other sort of food (Ammianus Marcellinus 30.4.8ff.).

In Bentham's thinking, a good lawyer regards the interests of the individual to be one with society. He believed this kind of lawyer serving in Parliament provided the best form of governance.

Bentham's key works are A Fragment on Government (1776), Defence of Usury (1787), and An Introduction to the Principles and Morals of Legislation. In Defence of Usury, Bentham shows himself to be a disciple of the economist Adam Smith who argued that the individual's interest is often also the best interest of the community and the society. Bentham held that each individual was the best judge of his own advantage, that it was desirable from the public point of view that he should seek it without hindrance, and that there was no reason to limit the application of this doctrine in the matter of lending money at interest.

In his book An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789) Bentham defined the principle of utility as “that property in any object whereby it tends to produce pleasure, good or happiness, or to prevent the happening of mischief, pain, evil or unhappiness to the party whose interest is considered.” Mankind, he said, is governed by two sovereign motives, pain and pleasure; and the principle of utility recognized this state of affairs. The object of all legislation must be the “greatest happiness of the greatest number.” He deduced from the principle of utility that, since all punishment involves pain and is therefore evil, it ought only to be used “so far as it promises to exclude some greater evil.”

Bentham founded the Westminster Review in 1823 along with James Mill (father of John Stuart Mill). He also founded University College London where his auto-icon may be seen on special occasions.

Related reading:  Jeremy Bentham; My Argument With Bentham's View of Incarceration

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

George Berkeley: Idealist and Consistent Empiricist

George Berkeley quotes

Young man, there is America, which at this day serves for little more than to amuse you with stories of savage men and uncouth manners.

We must all obey the great law of change. It is the most powerful law of nature.

Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites; in proportion as their love to justice is above their rapacity; in proportion as their soundness and sobriety of understanding is above their vanity and presumption; in proportion as they are more disposed to listen to the counsels of the wise and good, in preference to the flattery of knaves.

Among a people generally corrupt, liberty cannot long exist.

George Berkeley

George Berkeley (1685 - 1753) was the oldest son of an English settler in Ireland. At age fifteen he entered Trinity College, Dublin. He completed his master's degree in 1707. In 1709 he was ordained deacon in the Anglican Church. From 1735 until his death Berkeley was Bishop of Cloyne in Ireland.

Berkeley had established himself as a great thinker by his early twenties. All the philosophical works which made him famous were published between 1709 and 1713. These works are An Essay Towards a New Theory of Vision (1709), A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge (1710), and Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous (1713). These three books contain the essential elements of Berkeley's immaterialism, a view which he held with minor modification to the end of his life.

In 1728 Berkeley married the daughter of the chief justice of Ireland and departed for America with three companions.

At the time of Berkeley's visit to New England there was no Anglican bishop in the colonies, and Berkeley was the highest ranking Anglican clergyman to venture to the British colonies. Berkeley was also the first philosopher of any note to visit America. As such, he had considerable influence on the philosophical life of the colonies. The first serious criticism of Berkeley's immaterialism came from the Connecticut clergyman and philosopher, Samuel Johnson, who met Berkeley in Newport and corresponded with him for many years. Johnson eventually became a convert to immaterialism, and later became the first president of Columbia University in New York. Johnson also wrote the first American philosophy textbook, Elementa Philosophica, which was published by Benjamin Franklin in 1752, It was dedicated to George Berkeley.

During most of his time in America, Berkeley devoted himself to study, preached occasionally, and wrote his Alciphron, or the Minute Philosopher. His hope to plant a college in the Colonies never came to fruition. Although Berkeley's plans to convert the savages and increase Christian learning in the colonies had failed, he maintained a lively interest in education in America. On his departure he left his farm, house, and library to Yale. On several occasions, he donated books to both Yale and Harvard. Berkeley in California is named for him.

Berkeley’s central principle of his philosophy is that ideas do not exist outside of a mind perceiving them. This also is an intuitive kind of truth: when I say that an object exists, I mean that I can feel it, that I can see it, or that it is perceived by another mind. As a result, for Berkeley it is impossible to conceive of an absolute and independent reality; esse est percipi (“to be is to be perceived”). The “esse” or being of the object is in its “percipi” or being perceived. Therefore we can only speak of things to the extent that they are in direct relationship with our mind.

Related reading:  Berkeley's Life and Works

Friday, August 30, 2013

Getting Acquainted with Aristotle

Alice C. Linsley

Aristotle was influenced by the thought of Plato, probably the greatest philosopher of ancient Greece. Plato borrowed ideas from the ancient Egyptians and Kushites. He studied in Egypt for 13 years. Nevertheless, Plato put his own touch on the ideas. Likewise, Aristotle borrowed and adapted ideas from Plato. Aristotle also questioned Plato's thought and it was in his questioning of Plato that we find many of Aristotle's most interesting ideas.

Aristotle (384-322 BC) was brought up at the Court of Macedonia. He became a student at Plato's Academy in Athens at age seventeen. At the time that Aristotle joined the Academy it had been operating for twenty years. Aristotle became a teacher at the Academy and remained there for twenty years. Diogenes Laertius, writing in the second century AD, says that Aristotle taught rhetoric and dialectic.

All Aristotle's writings of this time strongly support Plato's views, but he later took issue with Plato on the questions of censorship and the nature of happiness. He developed political ideas quite distinct from Plato who had said the kings should be philosophers. In On Kingship Aristotle wrote that it is, "... not merely unnecessary for a king to be a philosopher, but even a disadvantage. Rather a king should take the advice of true philosophers. Then he would fill his reign with good deeds, not with good words."

Aristotle, like Plato, believed in the existence of the soul. At the beginning of De Anima II.1, he says that there are three sorts of substance:

1. Matter (potentiality)

2. Form (actuality)

3. The compound of matter and form

Aristotle was interested in compounds that are alive. These are animated, that is, "de anima."  Living things have this vital spark or what is often called the "soul." The soul is what makes alive. Since form is what makes matter a “this,” the soul is the form of a living thing. The soul is that in virtue of which a living entity is the kind of living thing that it is. The soul is the essence of the entity.

Aristotle considered three ways of cognition or knowing: the first based on existence (matter) as a human being. The second based on form as when we recognize structure (form) such as grammar. The last way of cognition is based on action (actuality); that is, attending to something, involvement with something. This is consistent with his belief that a good king is not a philosopher alone, but also a doer of good deeds.

He makes a distinction between potential and actual. As humans we have potential to achieve happiness (the Good for Aristotle), but unless we recognize form/structures and act virtuously, we cannot achieve the highest cognitive being. We must aspire to more than mere existence. Perhaps Borges has this in mind when he said, "My father was very intelligent, and like all intelligent men, very kind."--Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986)


It is clear, then, that wisdom is knowledge having to do with certain principles and causes. But now, since it is this knowledge that we are seeking, we must consider the following point: of what kind of principles and of what kind of causes is wisdom the knowledge? (Aristotle, Metaphysics, 340BC)

Metaphysics involves intuitive knowledge of unprovable starting-points (concepts and truth) and demonstrative knowledge of what follows from them.

The first philosophy (Metaphysics) is universal and is exclusively concerned with primary substance. ... And here we will have the science to study that which is just as that which is, both in its essence and in the properties which, just as a thing that is, it has.

The entire preoccupation of the physicist is with things that contain within themselves a principle of movement and rest. And to seek for this is to seek for the second kind of principle, that from which comes the beginning of the change.

There must then be a principle of such a kind that its substance is activity.

... it is impossible that the primary existent, being eternal, should be destroyed.

... that among entities there must be some cause which moves and combines things.

..about its coming into being and its doings and about all its alterations we think that we have knowledge when we know the source of its movement. (Aristotle, Metaphysics 340 BC)

Related reading:  Aristotle's Understanding of the Chief Good; Plato's Debt to Ancient Egypt; Ethics and Ancient Cosmology; What Makes a Good Society?

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Anscombe on Justice, Sex and War

Alice C. Linsley

Elizabeth Anscombe (G.E.M. Anscombe)

G. E. M. Anscombe (1919 – 5 January 2001 ) was born Gertrude Elizabeth Margaret Anscombe. She was an Irish-born British analytic philosopher. She was a student of Ludwig Wittgenstein while at Cambridge. She became an authority on his work, and after his death in 1951 became one of his literary executors. Among her early contributions to philosophy were publications of Wittgenstein's unpublished writings, including An Introduction to Wittgenstein's Tractatus and hisPhilosophical Investigations.

She wrote on the philosophy of mind, philosophy of action, philosophical logic, philosophy of language, and ethics. Her monograph Intention (1957) is generally recognized as her greatest and most influential work. It refocused attention on the role of reasons and human reasoning in decision making, choices and actions. A year later, her paper "Modern Moral Philosophy" offered a critique of dominant academic approaches to philosophical ethics that stimulated renewed interest among philosophers such as Alasdair MacIntyre in the ancient idea of "virtue."

In 1970, Anscombe was appointed to the professorial chair in Cambridge that had been held by Wittgenstein.

Anscombe was a devout Roman Catholic who denounced the use of unnatural methods of birth control. She and her philosopher husband Peter Geach had seven children. Her devotion to the Church and her Christian faith were profound. She wrote a remarkable pamphlet for use in teaching children the meaning of the Eucharist.

Anscombe assumes that the world is a place where the reasoning individual can be assured that concepts of justice, good, and moral obligation have meaning. She counters Heidegger’s “nothing” with a binary opposite – something, and this something potentially relieves anxiety. The logic of her argument is that when we feel the anxiety of injustice (which is negating) we should perform justice. Justice then is not a state of affairs, but a practical virtue of a good person. It is perhaps the derived virtue of being made in the image of a Good God.

In this view of justice, Anscombe replies also to Leibniz’ criticism of traditional conceptions of God as good. Leibniz wrote: “It is generally agreed that whatever God wills is good and just. But there remains the question whether it is good and just because God wills it or whether God wills it because it is good and just; in other words, whether justice and goodness are arbitrary or whether they belong to the necessary and eternal truths about the nature of things, as do numbers and proportions (Reflections of The Common Concept of Justice). Anscombe’s argument is that humanity’s anxiety about death and negating injustice can only be there because humanity knows the Good. Her argument is the reverse of Heraclitus’ (540-480 BC) who said “If it were not for injustice, men would not know justice.” Essentially, Anscombe is saying that the rational study of Man as subject leads logically to the conclusion that were it not for justice, humans would not know injustice.

Anscombe quotes:

"Those who try to make room for sex as mere casual enjoyment pay the penalty: they become shallow. They dishonour their own bodies; holding cheap what is naturally connected with the origination of human life." (From here: Those who try to make room for sex as mere…)

"God gave us our physical appetite, and its arousal without our calculation is part of the working of our sort of life."

"Principles that are mistakenly high and strict are a trap; they may easily lead in the end directly or indirectly to the justification of monstrous things. Thus if the evangelical counsel about poverty were turned into a precept forbidding property owning, people would pay lip service to it as the ideal, while in practice they went in for swindling. “Absolute honesty!” it would be said: “I can respect that – but of course that means having no property; and while I respect those who follow that course, I have to compromise with the sordid world myself.” If then one must “compromise with evil” by owning property and engaging in trade then the amount of swindling one does will depend on convenience. This imaginary case is paralleled by what is so commonly said: absolute pacifism is an ideal; unable to follow that, and committed to “compromise with evil,” one must go whole hog and wage war a outrance….

[P]acifism teaches people to make no distinction between the shedding of innocent blood and the shedding of any human blood. And in this way pacifism has corrupted enormous numbers of people who will not act according to its tenets. They become convinced that a number of things are wicked which are not; hence, seeing no way of avoiding “wickedness,” they set no limits to it. How endlessly pacifists argue that all war must be a outrance! that those who wage war must go as far as technological advance permits in the destruction of the enemy’s people. As if the Napoleonic wars were perforce fuller of massacres than the French war of Henry V of England. It is not true: the reverse took place… Pacifism and the respect for pacifism is not the only thing that has led to a universal forgetfulness of the law against killing the innocent; but it has had a great share in it."
(War and Murder)

Related reading: Elizabeth Anscombe

Thursday, August 22, 2013

G. K. Chesterton on Nietzsche

"Other vague modern people take refuge in material metaphors; in fact, this is the chief mark of vague modern people. Not daring to define their doctrine of what is good, they use physical figures of speech without stint or shame, and , what is worst of all, seem to think these cheap analogies are exquisitely spiritual and superior to the old morality. Thus they think it intellectual to talk about things being 'high.' It is at least the reverse of intellectual; it is a mere phrase from a steeple or a weathercock. 'Tommy was a good boy' is a pure philosophical statement, worthy of Plato or Aquinas. 'Tommy lived the higher life' is a gross metaphor from a ten-foot rule.

This, incidentally, is almost the whole weakness of Nietzsche, whom some are representing as a bold and strong thinker. No one will deny that he was a poetical and suggestive thinker; but he was quite the reverse of strong. He was not at all bold. He never put his own meaning before himself in bald abstract words: as did Aristotle and Calvin, and even Karl Marx, the hard, fearless men of thought. Nietzsche always escaped a question by a physical metaphor, like a cheery minor poet. He said, 'beyond good and evil,' because he had not the courage to say, 'more good than good and evil,' or, 'more evil than good and evil.' Had he faced his thought without metaphors, he would have seen that it was nonsense. So, when he describes his hero, he does not dare to say, 'the purer man,' or 'the happier man,' or 'the sadder man,' for all these are ideas; and ideas are alarming. He says 'the upper man.' or 'over man,' a physical metaphor from acrobats or alpine climbers. Nietzsche is truly a very timid thinker. He does not really know in the least what sort of man he wants evolution to produce."-- excerpt from The Eternal Revolution, Chapter 7 of Orthodoxy

Monday, August 19, 2013

Elizabeth Anscombe (1919 – 2001)

Alice C. Linsley

Elizabeth Anscombe (1919-2001) was one of the 20th century's most remarkable philosophers. She studied with Ludwig Wittgenstein and upon his death in 1951 became one of his literary executors. She translated Wittgenstein's unpublished writings, preparing them for publication after his death and she wrote An Introduction to Wittgenstein's Tractatus.
Anscombe as a
young woman

In 1970, Anscombe was appointed to the chair in Cambridge that had been held by Wittgenstein. Despite her concern to preserve the writings of her former teacher, Anscombe was not a Wittgenstein disciple. Her great intelligence and originality led her in different directions and to different conclusions.

In 1958, Anscombe produced a paper titled “Modern Moral Philosophy” in which she offered a critique of prevailing academic approaches to ethics. In this paper, she pointed out that while Aristotle had much to say about virtue and vices, he did not think of morality as heirs of the Judeo-Christian tradition do. Our conception of morality comes from centuries of Christianity, as it emerges from the Jewish Apostles and their biblical reflections on the Torah. The Judeo-Christian conception of moral obligation is based on codified law. From the first century A.D., Greek-speaking converts to Christianity sought to conform to virtues and avoid vices because these were viewed as a requirement of divine law.

Anscombe’s work restored interest among philosophers in the Aristotelian idea of virtue. Her paper on modern moral philosophy advanced “virtue ethics” in the 20th century. Her influence is seen in the work of Alasdair MacIntyre’s book After Virtue (1985) and Onora O'Neill’s book Towards Justice and Virtue (1996).

It was in the area of moral philosophy that Anscombe countered Heidegger’s bleak existentialism. She argued that since 20th century western society is no longer Christian, the terms “good” and “evil” or “right” and “wrong” are no longer useful. These terms are only meaningful as they are attached to the Judeo-Christian concept of a law-giving Creator God. Anscombe believed that in the post-Christian world most philosophers become consequentialists, judging rightness by the consequences. She held that consquentialism is incompatible with the Judeo-Christian ethic, since the latter insists that there are some actions that are always forbidden regardless of the consequences. She then proposed a way forward. She recommended discarding the notions of duty and of moral right and wrong in favor of justice and injustice.

Let us consider Anscombe’s argument. First, she assumes that the world is a place where the reasoning individual can be assured that concepts of justice, good, and moral obligation have meaning. This suggests that Heidegger’s “nothing” which causes us anxiety has a binary opposite – something – and this something potentially relieves anxiety. The logic of her argument is that when we feel the anxiety of injustice (which is negating) we should perform justice. Justice then is not a state of affairs, but a practical virtue of a good person. It is perhaps the derived virtue of being made in the image of a Good God.

In this view of justice, Anscombe replies also to Leibniz’ criticism of traditional conceptions of God as good. Leibniz wrote: “It is generally agreed that whatever God wills is good and just. But there remains the question whether it is good and just because God wills it or whether God wills it because it is good and just; in other words, whether justice and goodness are arbitrary or whether they belong to the necessary and eternal truths about the nature of things, as do numbers and proportions (Reflections of The Common Concept of Justice). Anscombe’s argument is that humanity’s an; xiety about death and negating injustice can only be there because humanity knows the Good. Her argument is the reverse of Heraclitus’ (540-480 BC) who said “If it were not for injustice, men would not know justice.” Essentially, Anscombe is saying that the rational study of Man as subject leads logically to the conclusion that were it not for justice, humans would not know injustice.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Physics and Belief in God

Lord Kelvin was a Belfast-born British mathematical physicist and engineer. At the University of Glasgow he did important work in the mathematical analysis of electricity and formulation of the first and second laws of thermodynamics, and did much to unify the emerging discipline of physics in its modern form.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889 – 1951)

"In Renan’s ‘Peuple d’Israel’ I read: “Birth sickness, death, madness, catalepsy, sleep, dreams, all made an immense impression and, even nowadays, only a few have the gift of seeing clearly that these phenomena have causes within our constitution.”

On the contrary there is absolutely no reason to wonder at these things, because they are such everyday occurrences. If primitive men can’t help but wonder at them, how much more so dogs and monkeys. Or is it being assumed that men, as it were, suddenly woke up and, noticing for the first time these things that had always been there, were understandably amazed? — Well, as a matter of fact we might assume something like this; though not that they become aware of these things for the first time but that they do suddenly start to wonder at them. But this again has nothing to do with their being primitive. Unless it is called primitive not to wonder at things, in which case the people of today are really the primitive ones, and Renan himself too if he supposes that scientific explanation could intensify wonderment.

As though lightning were more commonplace or less astounding today that 2000 years ago.

Man has to awaken to wonder — and so perhaps do peoples. Science is a way of sending him off to sleep again.

In other words it’s just false to say: Of course, these primitive peoples couldn’t help wondering at everything. Though perhaps it is true that these peoples did wonder at all the things around them. — To suppose they couldn’t help wondering at them is a primitive superstition…"--Ludwig Wittgenstein from notes collected in Culture and Value (1930).

Alice C. Linsley

Ludwig Wittgenstein, an Austrian-British philosopher, was one of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century. His work contributed to various movements in analytic and linguistic philosophy. He studied at Trinity College, Cambridge with Bertrand Russell. As colleagues, Russell and Wittgenstein developed their view called “logical atomism.”

Russell inspired Wittgenstein to consider the nature of thought itself. Russell was famous for statements like these:

“Thought is subversive and revolutionary, destructive and terrible. Thought is merciless to privilege, established institutions, and comfortable habit. Thought is great and swift and free.”

“Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.”

Wittgenstein argued that language is composed of complex propositions that can be analyzed into less complex propositions until one arrives at simple or elementary propositions. Correspondingly, the world is composed of complex facts that can be analyzed into less complex facts until one arrives at simple or “atomic” facts. The world is the totality of these facts. So a chair is wood (or metal) and nails (or brackets) and fabric components as well as something upon which we sit. In Wittgenstein's view this mental picture (chair) which we suppose gives us a true account of an object actually “stands in the way of our seeing the use of the word as it is” (PI:305). The picture of one thing, that is in fact many things, leads us to the childish belief that there is a correspondence between the word and the nature of the thing. According to Wittgenstein’s picture theory, meaning requires that there be “atomic” facts. This means that meaning is arrived at through analysis of only propositions that picture facts, or propositions of science. By this reasoning, metaphysical and ethical statements are not meaningful assertions. Words such as good, evil and beauty don’t represent simple propositions, so a statement such as “Murder is evil” is impossible to verify factually.

Wittgenstein’s most famous work is Tractatus Logico-philosophicus (1921), a volume of only 75 pages, but which he believed provided the “final solution” to philosophical problems. In the Tractatus, he held that “philosophy aims at the logical clarification of thoughts”and philosophy is “not a body of propositions, but to make propositions clear.”

Logical positivists were greatly influenced by Wittgenstein’s Tractatus. They soundly rejected all truth claims that could not be reduced to atomic facts and pushed ethics aside, viewing it largely as a waste of intellectual energy. Logical Positivism was a highly academic approach that had little appeal to the average person who struggled with day to day matters of moral choice. It also didn’t represent the religious sentiments of Wittgenstein, who called Kierkegaard “a saint.”

In the lesson on Kierkegaard, we found that he believed that knowledge is miraculous or supernaturally provided. He would have agreed with the Socratic-Platonic view that there is no learning, since one can’t learn what one already knows intuitively or a priori. Drawing of John Climacus’ understanding of spiritual enlightenment, Kierkegaard further argued that learning involves a mysterious change that takes place in the learner at a specific moment of his existence - a moment of enlightenment. In this moment, the learner is absolutely certain that he/she has grasped eternal knowledge. He maintains that this is miraculous because it only can be initiated by God, who is beyond time and space, through a series of events in time and space This learning or enlightenment is highly individual and subjective, and it is unique for every learner. Such knowledge produces an existential change though this change may be very difficult to explain or even to articulate, given the limitations of human language.

Kierkegaard died 34 years before Wittgenstein was born and though Wittgenstein was familiar with Kierkegaard's writings, the two philosophers approached the question of knowledge differently. For Wittgenstein language can only approximate reality. It can never be other than a picture of reality. In other words, a statement or expression describes an experience by creating a structure isomorphic with the structure of that experience.

In the Philosophical Investigations (1953), Wittgenstein moves in a different direction from his Tractatus Logico-philosophicus. In Tractatus, he argued that philosophy aims at the logical clarification of thoughts”and is “not a body of propositions, but to make propositions clear.” Language is useful but approximates reality. In Philosophical Investigations, he insisted that "philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.” Here language gets in the way. These writings divide Wittgenstein’s work into two distinct phases. The two are not oppositional, however. Wittgenstein never set aside his picture theory of a thought as a logical picture of facts. In the Tractatus, he develops his thought about the logic of propositions, whereas in the Philosophical Investigations he is concerned about other forms of language.

According to Wittgenstein’s picture theory, meaning requires that there be “atomic” facts. This means that meaning is arrived at through analysis of only propositions that picture facts, or propositions of science. By this reasoning, metaphysical and ethical statements are not meaningful assertions. Words such as good, evil and beauty don’t represent simple propositions, so a statement such as “Murder is evil” is impossible to verify factually. Logical positivists were greatly influenced by Wittgenstein’s Tractatus. They soundly rejected all truth claims that could not be reduced to atomic facts and pushed ethics aside, viewing it largely as a waste of intellectual energy.

Although only a few explicit references to Kierkegaard exist in Wittgenstein’s works, it is clear that Wittgenstein shared Kierkegaard’s religious inclinations. In conversation with his friend Maurice O'Connor Drury, Wittgenstein made the following remark: “Bach wrote on the title page of his Orgelbuchlein, ‘To the glory of the most high God, and that my neighbor may be benefited thereby.’ That is what I would have liked to say about my work.”

A much as he may have wanted to be remembered for giving glory to God, Wittgenstein’s religious thought had little influence on 20th century ethics. His Tractatus on the other hand, influenced the development of Logical Positivism with its strong element of atheism, and works published after his death influenced German Idealism. Rarely is Wittgenstein's thought considered alongside that of Søren Kierkegaard, though clearly Kierkegaard was a significant source of inspiration for him. The philosopher who best understood this was Wittgenstein's student, friend, and translator Elizabeth Anscombe, who we will consider in the next lesson.

Related reading: Søren KierkegaardElizabeth Anscombe on Justice

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Søren Kierkegaard (1813 – 1855)

"Mysticism keeps men sane. As long as you have mystery you have health; when you destroy mystery you have morbidity."--G. K. Chesterton (Orthodoxy, Chapter 2)

Alice C. Linsley

Kierkegaard was a brilliant philosopher who was critical of 18th century Romanticism’s emphasis on naturalism. He was also critical of Empiricism’s claim that moral judgment must be based on reason and verifiable data. Kierkegaard believed that the basis for forming moral judgment is always subjective and that the purpose of Philosophy should be to enhance the individual’s quality of life and freedom.
Søren Kierkegaard

Kierkegaard and Nietzsche shared an overarching realization that anything decided to be meaningful or important must come from within the individual. It is the human race itself that attributes meaning. They both regarded the objective truth of the Enlightenment as a concept that ultimately leads to frustration, despair and anxiety. In Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling and in Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals, each philosopher sets out to discover the importance of subjective human emotion, and the role of human freedom in the universe.

In his personal life Kierkegaard suffered from depression. Before age 21, he lost his mother and five of his family members. He never married because he regarded marriage as “the deepest form of revelation” and he doubted that he could so thoroughly self-reveal as to fulfill his ideal of marriage. Evidently his struggle with depression didn’t hinder him from expressing his ideas, as he was an extraordinarily prolific writer, contributing in the areas of philosophy, theology, psychology and social criticism.

Kierkegaard refers to biblical Abraham as a “knight of faith” and sees him as the embodiment of his existentialist philosophy. For Kierkegaard, true individuality comes through surrendering one’s individuality. Abraham discovers his meaning in the cosmos through losing himself in God, but when one tries to explain this to another person, the explanation seems absurd.

Kierkegaard wrote, “If a human being did not have an eternal consciousness, if underlying everything there were only a wild, fermenting power that writhing in dark passions produced everything, be it significant or insignificant, if a vast, never appeased emptiness hid beneath everything, what would life be then but despair?” In this statement, Kierkegaard expresses “existential anxiety” or “angst.” Existential angst is not the same as normal fear. It is not caused by outside events that signal danger, it never leaves, it touches every area of our lives, and it does not respond to counseling.

Although Kierkegaard never used the term "existentialism" in his writings, he is regarded as the founder of Christian existentialism. Kierkegaard believed that the value of a philosopher's ideas should be judged by the person's life. (He would have judged Nietzsche's ideas as lacking moral and intellectual value, which Nietzsche would have applauded!) According to Kierkegaard, the individual’s life is the basis upon which he is judged by God. A writer's work is an important part of his existence, but his life as a whole is what ultimately matters to God.

This is why he was attracted to the lives of the saints, especially John Climacus, a 6th century monk who spent much of his time in solitude, prayer and fasting.

While at the monastery on Mount Sinai, Abbot John wrote “The Ladder of Divine Ascent,” a work arranged into thirty chapters or “steps.” Each step details the vices that the individual must conquer and the virtues that the individual must perfect in order to ascend the spiritual “ladder” to the Kingdom of Heaven. Here are some of John Climacus’ famous sayings:

Step 1: A Christian is one who imitated Christ in thought, word and deed. A lover of God is one who lives in communion with all that is natural and sinless.

Step 5: Repentance is a contract with God for a second life. A penitent inflicts his own punishment upon himself.

Step 9: If you forgive quickly, you, too, will be quickly forgiven.

Step 15: Purity is putting on the nature of angels. It is the longed-for house of Christ and the earthly heaven of the heart.

Step 17: He who has tasted the things on high easily despises what is below. He who has not, only finds joy in possessions.

Step 25: Humility is a divine shelter which prevents us from seeing our achievements.

Step 50: There remain three virtues that bind and secure the union of all: Faith, Hope and Love--- and the greatest of these is Love.

Kierkegaard published Philosophical Fragments under the name of John Climacus. In this work, Kierkegaard poses three important questions:

• What is the relationship between history (temporal existence) and human consciousness (eternal existence)?

• Is there any purpose or meaning to events in our temporal existence other than historical interest?

• Is it possible to base eternal happiness upon historical knowledge?

Kierkegaard’s solution was to find a link between the historical/temporal and the eternal/nontemporal. He does so by explaining knowledge as miraculous or supernatural. He agrees with the Socratic-Platonic view that there is no learning, since one can’t learn what one already knows. Drawing of John Climacus’ understanding of spiritual enlightenment, Kierkegaard argues that learning involves a mysterious change that takes place in the learner at a specific moment of his existence - a moment of enlightenment. In this moment, the learner is absolutely certain that he/she has grasped eternal knowledge. He maintains that this is miraculous and supernatural because it only can be initiated by God through a series of historical/temporal events. This learning (or enlightenment) is highly individual and subjective, and it is unique for every learner.

Kierkegaard argues further that individuals are unable to know anything that is certain except through this supernatural intervention in history. In this sense, Kierkegaard is a Skeptic. He doubts that humans are able of our own faculties to learn or know anything.

So what makes this learning or enlightenment possible? Kierkegaard recognizes that human existence involves suffering, anguish, pain, sickness and death. That being our plight, we naturally desire an escape. This desire is very powerful. It is a yearning for the eternal that leads us to “leap into absurdity.”

What is the absurdity? For Kierkegaard, it is the supernatural intervention of the divine Person Jesus Christ entering history, making it possible for us to know that God exists. The existence of God can’t be proved by reason, by experimentation, by logic or through observation. Only by faith in this divine intervention can one hope to escape the suffering of this life and move from ignorance to enlightenment. This is the “supernaturalism” of Kierkegaard’s philosophy and it is clearly the opposite of the naturalism of Nietzsche and the Romantics.

Whereas Nietzsche rejected the prevailing morality in favor of his “immoralism,” Kierkegaard presents social norms as the universal measure of service to the community. Even human sacrifice is justified in terms of how it serves the community, so when Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia he is performing a tragic sacrifice in order that the Greek expedition to Troy may succeed. Were Abraham’s intention in sacrificing Isaac to gain worldly success, he would simply be another tragic hero like Agamemnon. But as Kierkegaard understands the story of Mount Moriah, it is Abraham’s absolute surrender to God that makes possible his receiving back his offering and much more. Kierkegaard explains, “Infinite resignation is the last stage before faith …for only in infinite resignation do I become conscious of my external validity, and only then can one speak of grasping existence by virtue of faith.”

Kierkegaard recognizes an existential duty to a creator God as more authoritative than human social norms. Ultimately God's definition of the distinction between good and evil outranks any human definition. He holds up biblical Abraham's near sacrifice of his son, not as an example of obedience to social norms, but as the consequence of a "teleological suspension of the ethical.”

That is, Abraham recognizes a duty to obey something higher than both his social duty not to kill an innocent and his fatherly commitment to his son. (Fear and Trembling)

From Kierkegaard's perspective, the distinction between good and evil is dependent not on social norms but on God. Therefore it is possible for Abraham to live and act beyond the prescribed norms of his day to fulfill a spiritual destiny that he alone can fulfill. This renders ethical cases such as Abraham's problematic, since we have no public policy to guide our decision about whether Abraham is obeying God's command or is a deluded would-be murderer.

In the end, Kierkegaard’s existential philosophy can’t be used to formulate specific ethical guidelines for society. It is simply too personal and too subjective. While existentialism would become a popular philosophy in the 20th century, ethics in the post-modern world would be influenced more by analytic and linguistic philosophy, and especially the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein, to which we turn next.

Related reading: Kierkegaard on Abraham

Thursday, August 1, 2013

William Lane Craig on Philosophy and Apologetics

William Lane Craig is Research Professor of Philosophy at Talbot School of Theology in La Mirada, California. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia, with his wife Jan and their two teenage children Charity and John. At the age of sixteen as a junior in high school, he first heard the message of the Christian gospel and yielded his life to Christ. Dr. Craig pursued his undergraduate studies at Wheaton College (B.A. 1971) and graduate studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (M.A. 1974; M.A. 1975), the University of Birmingham (England) (Ph.D. 1977), and the University of Munich (Germany) (D.Theol. 1984). From 1980-86 he taught Philosophy of Religion at Trinity, during which time he and Jan started their family. In 1987 they moved to Brussels, Belgium, where Dr. Craig pursued research at the University of Louvain until 1994.

William Lane Craig

Have you ever wondered what type of training would be the most beneficial for those who aspire to become Christian apologists? Dr. Craig, when asked to present for the Stobb Lectures, recently addressed students interested in apologetics as ministry, offering them three key pieces of advice to help in that pursuit. Here, in the first of two parts, he explains why budding apologists should select an area of specialization in their studies and then demonstrates why a background in analytic philosophy provides a crucial foundation, even as a part of historical and scientific apologetics training.

In 1983, when Alvin Plantinga delivered his inaugural lecture as the John O'Brien Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, he chose as his topic "Advice to Christian Philosophers." Today I've chosen as my subject the related, but somewhat broader, topic "Advice to Christian Apologists." Plantinga's advice was, however, directed toward those who already were Christian philosophers, whereas my remarks might be more appropriately entitled "Advice to Budding Christian Apologists," that is to say, to those who will but have not yet entered into a ministry of Christian apologetics and wish to know what goes into effective apologetics training.

We saw yesterday the tremendous need for and benefits of Christian apologetics, both in shaping culture and in influencing individual lives. Now to help us to do this well, let me make a few suggestions.

1. Apologetics training - Select some area in which to specialize.

Select some area in which to specialize . Some popular Christian apologists make the mistake of trying to be a jack of all trades, and so they are master of none. As a result, their knowledge of the field may be very broad, but it is not very profound. While they may be able to present an initial argument for Christian truth claims, they soon wilt under the pressure of critique, especially on the part of specialists. Speaking on a university campus, they may find themselves ridden with anxiety lest a non-Christian faculty member should show up in their audience and raise an objection they are at a loss to deal with. If that does happen, they may not only embarrass themselves but also injure the credibility of the Christian faith. A merely generalized knowledge of Christian apologetics is fine for certain contexts, and certainly better than nothing, but it will limit the horizons of your ministry.

Instead, I encourage you to specialize in a certain area of apologetics, even as you continue to be well-informed in other areas. For example, given the renaissance in Christian philosophy that has been going on over the last 40 years in the Anglo-American world, many of our best Christian apologists today are, not surprisingly, philosophers.

Christian philosophy, involved as it is with issues of epistemology-like justification, rationality, and warrant, - issues of metaphysics - such as the nature of ultimate reality, truth, and the soul - , and of ethics - such as the existence of moral values and duties, theories of the foundations of value, and the meaning of moral claims - , naturally lends itself to Christian apologetics training. Indeed, the Christian philosopher can hardly avoid apologetics, since the questions he studies are pertinent to a Christian world and life view. Even if his conclusions should turn out to be largely sceptical - say, that we cannot know the nature of ultimate reality - , that conclusion would be vitally important to Christian apologetics, since such a conclusion would scuttle the project of natural theology. So the field of philosophy has a natural affinity to apologetics.

Read it all here.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Why Dawkins Fears William Lane Craig

William Lane Craig is Research Professor of Philosophy at Talbot School of Theology in La Mirada, California. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia, with his wife Jan and their two teenage children Charity and John. At the age of sixteen as a junior in high school, he first heard the message of the Christian gospel and yielded his life to Christ. Dr. Craig pursued his undergraduate studies at Wheaton College (B.A. 1971) and graduate studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (M.A. 1974; M.A. 1975), the University of Birmingham (England) (Ph.D. 1977), and the University of Munich (Germany) (D.Theol. 1984). From 1980-86 he taught Philosophy of Religion at Trinity, during which time he and Jan started their family. In 1987 they moved to Brussels, Belgium, where Dr. Craig pursued research at the University of Louvain until 1994.

By Nathan Schneider

When, during a conversation in a swank hotel lobby in Manhattan, I mentioned to Richard Dawkins that I was working on a story about William Lane Craig, the muscles in his face clenched.

"Why are you publicizing him?" Dawkins demanded, twice. The best-selling "New Atheist" professor went on to assure me that I shouldn't bother, that he'd met Craig in Mexico—they opposed each other in a prime-time, three-on-three debate staged in a boxing ring—and found him "very unimpressive."

"I mean, whose side are you on?" Dawkins said. "Are you religious?"

The New Theist 2
William Lane Craig debated Christopher Hitchens
at Biola University in 2009.
Several months later, in April 2011, Craig debated another New Atheist author, Sam Harris, in a large, sold-out auditorium at the University of Notre Dame. In a sequence of carefully timed speeches and rejoinders, the two men clashed over whether we need God for there to be moral laws. Harris delivered most of the better one-liners that night, while Craig, in suit and tie, fired off his volleys of argumentation with the father-knows-best composure of Mitt Romney, plus a dash of Schwarzenegger. Something Harris said during the debate might help explain how Dawkins reacted: He called Craig "the one Christian apologist who seems to have put the fear of God into many of my fellow atheists."

In the lobby afterward, the remarks of students seemed to confirm this. "The apologist won because his structure was perfect," one said. "Craig had already won by the first rebuttal!" A Harris partisan lamented, "Sam kinda blew it."

Read it all here.

Related reading: Why Logic Should Be Taught in Schools; Have Humans Outgrown Natural Selection?; Austin L. Hughes, The Folly of Scientism; William Lane Craig on Philosophy and Apologetics

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

G.K. Chesterton's Philosophy of Paradox

G. K. Chesterton

Chris Hauser — The Dartmouth Apologia

Within its long history, Christianity has been accused of almost every kind of vice imaginable. Strangely enough, its critics—sometimes even the same critic—have attacked it for contradictory reasons. Some detractors, in particular Epicureans and Materialists, have decried it for its unworldliness and pessimistic outlook on the material world. Other disparagers—those with a more cynical point of view, such as the Stoics or Existentialists—have condemned Christianity for blinding the people, shielding their eyes from the true bleakness of the world by giving false promises of divine mercy and a glorious afterlife. Hell, it is said, is a doctrine breeding despair; but Heaven, they say with equal vehemence, is a doctrine breeding false hope.It is with this criticism that G.K. Chesterton begins his explanation of his “philosophy of paradox” in the sixth chapter of Orthodoxy, his excellent book of wit and wisdom.1 As Chesterton points out, it might be easily overlooked if this were the only set of inconsistent charges but indeed there hardly seems to be an accusation against Christianity whose opposite has not also been leveled against the religion. It has been accused of being too pacifistic, “an attempt to make a man like a sheep,” as a result of Gospel phrases like “turn the other cheek” and “love your enemy.”2 And yet the bloodshed of the Crusades and the intolerance for heresy have earned this meek, sheep-minded religion a reputation for violence and aggression.3 “Or again,” Chesterton writes, “Christianity was reproached with its naked and hungry habits; with its sackcloth and dried peas. But the next minute Christianity was being reproached with its pomp and its ritualism; its shrines of porphyry and its robes of gold. It was abused for being too plain and for being too coloured.”4 The accusations run on and on, extending from an unwarranted destruction of the family to an irrational insistence on the family, from an unnatural praise of celibacy to an overly natural demand for children.5 It would seem that Christianity is as full of paradoxes as it is of parables.

The result of all these contradictory charges is that everything about Christianity seems to be not just wrong, but wrong in opposite ways and for opposite reasons. When a young Chesterton reflected on the picture of Christianity painted by its critics, he began to think that they did not understand how evil Christianity really must be if their contradictory criticisms were all correct. He was forced to reevaluate just how bad Christianity was: “It must be understood that I did not conclude hastily that the accusations were false or the accusers fools. I simply deduced that Christianity must be something even weirder and wickeder than they made out.”6

However, the more Chesterton reflected on this, the more he found this conclusion to be unsatisfactory. For the striking thing about Christianity was that though its critics collectively accused it of every possible evil, individually most of them were willing to admit that certain ethical principles or teachings were very valuable and beneficial to the welfare of humanity. Chesterton decided that the critics had no special insight into Christianity, for they had no explanation for its apparently endless evil:

I found in my rationalist teachers no explanation of such exceptional corruption. Christianity (theoretically speaking) was in their eyes only one of the ordinary myths and errors of mortals. They gave me no key to this twisted and unnatural badness. Such a paradox of evil rose to stature of the supernatural. It was, indeed, almost as supernatural as the infallibility of the Pope. An historic institution, which never went right, is really quite as much of a miracle as an institution that cannot go wrong.7

Read it all here.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Mere Christianity - Some Objections

C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity
Discussion Questions

Book I, Part 2 – Some Objections

In this chapter, Lewis addresses objections to his assertion that the Moral Law is a law that exists in real time and space with universal application, much as the Multiplication Table. What 2 objections did his listeners pose to this assertion?

The herd instinct prompts actions that insure survival, such as fleeing from a forest fire. How do we explain the risk humans take when they attempt to rescue other creatures from the fire? Lewis uses the example of a person who attempts to rescue a drowning man.

Lewis argues that impulses to do the opposite of the herd point to the reality of a universal Moral Law or what he calls “Real Morality.” How does distinguishing between “civilized morality” or Buddhist or Nazi morality and saying that one is better than another reinforce Lewis’ argument?

If the Moral Law is a social convention reinforced through education, why do we not regard it as fixed and universal in the same way we recognize the Multiplication Table to be fixed and universally true?

What 2 reasons does Lewis give to support his position that the Moral Law is fixed and universal?

For Lewis, Real Morality is like a yardstick against which we measure human actions. The Ten Commandments is one expression of the yardstick, specific to the ancient Hebrews. What expression of the yardstick did Jesus Christ give to His Disciples? (He calls it the “New Law.”)

Group Work

In small groups develop your best argument to support your view and prepare to present it to the class. Begin by posing a question. Answer the question. Provide examples, illustrations, analogies and/or metaphors that clearly convey your viewpoint. Anticipate the counter arguments of the other teams and prepare to refute their points.

Group 1: The Moral Law is merely another name for the herd instinct.
Group 2: The Moral Law is merely a social convention reinforced by education.
Group 3: The Moral Law is a fixed and universal aspect of the created order.


Having different mental images of something does not mean that the entity has no real existence. Lewis uses the example of New York City (NYC). The fact that different people have different mental images of NYC does not negate the existence of NYC in real time and space. The very fact that we each have an idea “NYC” is evidence of its existence.

That which has no existence cannot be conceived mentally. Recall the homework assignment: Describe an entity that does not exist.

Students often think of the mythological unicorn. This is not valid because the image of the unicorn consists of constituent parts that exist, ie. horns and horses. Further, unicorn horses did exist, according to Marco Polo. According to Polo the unicorn breed of horses were exclusively bred in Badakshan, part of ancient Persia. They had a single a horn on their forehead. This breed was the exclusive property of a single member of the Badakshan royal family. This ruler refused to grant the king ownership of some of these remarkable horses and was executed. In revenge his infuriated daughter destroyed the entire herd, thus bringing the unicorn to extinction. See The Travels of Marco Polo (Penguin, 1958).

Related reading: Mere Christianity Discussion Questions, Part 1; Natural Law: The Outside Standard