Why Care for Philosophy?
There would be no modern science, psychology, mathematics, historical studies, or any subject requiring deep knowledge if it were not for philosophy. Philosophy has given Western civilization almost all of its intellectual merits and achievements. We would be stuck worshiping pagan gods and killing each other over loaves of bread if it were not for the ancients who laid a framework for civilization.
Oftentimes in modern society, we overlook philosophy as useless conjecture for pretentious liberal arts grads and people who have too much time on their hands. The term philosophy itself has been perverted to the point where everyone on Twitter thinks of themself as a philosopher after quoting Neil deGrasse Tyson.
History of Philosophy
The word philosophy derives from the Greek phil, meaning love, and sophia, meaning wisdom. Philosophy, thereby, means “love of wisdom.” Until relatively modern times, any sort of deep studies were described as “philosophic”, as science itself was referred to as “natural philosophy”. Our very system of categorizing life, the foundation of biology, was created thousands of years ago by Aristotle, and the tetrahedron, cube, octahedron, icosahedron, and dodecahedron were identified by Plato. The Greeks themselves were wrong on many subjects: Aristotle believed men had more teeth than women and Plato wanted society to be ruled by absolute “Philosopher Kings”. Therefore, enlightenment thinkers and early modern scientists wanted to expand on or correct some of their teachings. Although they corrected many of the ancients’ teachings, the scientists of the Enlightenment and Revolutionary Age always respected their forerunners. Almost every serious European higher-education system required studies of the great ancient works and Latin back then. Isaac Newton himself is accredited to claiming, “Plato is my friend — Aristotle is my friend — truth is a greater friend. If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
Needless to elaborate, philosophy is essential for modern society’s formation and must be studied further. However, I would wager that 90% of our school population has never even heard of the ideas that created the very world they are living in, so I have, therefore, decided to write a multi-part series about the different philosophies that have shaped modern thought. The series will be in no particular order, and I will focus on philosophies that I believe will be the most interesting to modern society.
We can thank Enlightenment philosophic thought for laying the principles on which this country was founded upon. John Locke was the most directly influential to the founding fathers with his ideas on social contract and self-government. Of course, Rousseau had his own ideas on social contract believing that rights came from the government rather than from the people. That discussion is beside the point and will be elaborated on another day: what this article will cover is the philosophy of Immanuel Kant who was one of the, if not the most, influential modern western philosopher. His work is almost impossible to understand and is confusing for even the wisest professors. I have chosen to cover him today because I apparently am a fan of self-induced torture.
Kant was born in Konigsberg, Prussia (present-day Kaliningrad), 1724, to parents following the Lutheran Protestant faith and was raised deeply religious. His disciplined, Lutheran upbringing may have influenced behavior later in his life (his neighbors would time their watches based on the extremely strict daily walks). Kant later disregarded religion as provable by philosophy or other means, essentially a philosophical agnostic. However, Christian ideals may have influenced his categorical imperatives in which he claims we should all act by universal laws and only universal laws. However, the categorical imperatives also gave the world an explanation for morality that was separate from religion. Up until this point, most philosophers and scientists proclaimed that all morality comes from, and ought to come from, God or a divine force. Introduced in Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, his categorical imperatives commanded that everyone should act by specific maxims, moral rules, and never falter from them. These maxims are not there to achieve a goal, like studying to pass an exam or eating when you’re hungry, but simply to be followed because… according to Kant, it’s an absolute, or an end in itself. Kant’s reason for following universal maxims may not sound compelling, but it is reasonable. A universal maxim as law, to Kant, means to only do actions that would benefit the world if it were to become a universal law. For example, if everyone lied, the world would go up in flames. Therefore, do not lie. His work on the categorical imperative is greatly oversimplified here but his original work is too long and complex for us mortals. A sentence to summarize the categorical imperative would be: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.”
“Wait so like, I can’t ever lie? Like not even once? What if I wanted to lie for a noble purpose?” Kant gives his line of reasoning in the famous axe-man analogy. The analogy, summarized, goes as follows. Let’s say Peter Griffin and Obama were having lunch together when a stranger suddenly bursts through the door asking to kill Peter Griffin. Obama then answers the door and tries to trick the stranger by saying Peter Griffin went to Ohio, but Obama believes he’s still in his house. Kant claims this is still wrong, and his explanation is as follows: if Obama was wrong and Peter Griffin did actually flee to Ohio as he heard the stranger make his threats and the murderer is able to track him down now, Obama is now responsible for Peter’s death. This is because if Obama had told what he believed was the truth, that Peter Griffin was in the house, the stranger would have checked his entire house, giving Peter Griffin more time to flee. Even if he was killed, only the murderer would have been responsible for any deaths that occurred.
In his Magnum Opus, the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant gives his idea of transcendental idealism. His ideas transcend the senses and are more based on his own logic and reasoning. Simply put, Kant believes our senses to be faulty or insufficient. Why? Our sense of time and space are a priori (prior to experience) and therefore exist entirely in our own mind. The a priori senses of time and space are necessary for our perception of the world and are thus only “empirically real.” Our senses are merely receptive, and there is obviously a world outside of our senses. We perceive actual things-in-themselves but not as they actually are in the real world. This world outside of our senses is called the noumenal world while the world of our senses is called the phenomenal world. The noumenal world is where the unknowable thing-in-itself resides.
A simple analogy that could be used is the existence of radio waves. We cannot pick up radio waves with our senses; our senses of sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch are incapable of such a feat. And yet, we know that radio waves do indeed exist in the real world, simply out of reach. Only radio systems can pick up on radio waves which can then transmit those waves into sound waves which are then accessible to humans. (Forgive me, I am not entirely sure on how radios work). Just as those radio waves are beyond human sense but still real and can be perceived in some form by human sense through a radio, things-in-themselves can be perceived through our senses (our senses work like a radio system for things-in-themselves) but we cannot actually know the thing-in-itself: only can we know a rough estimation that our senses perceive.
Kant wrote so much more and had an opinion on a variety of topics. His Nebular hypothesis is widely accepted in scientific circles today, and he correctly deduced that the Milky Way is a disk of stars. However, his work on philosophy would be immortal and influence nearly all subsequent western philosophers. Yes, essentially all philosophers would be influenced by Kant one way or another, even if they disagreed with him on some basics. This article is very limited and could only deliver a basic synopsis of his most famous ideas. If you are interested in Kant, I suggest buying or renting some of his work and reading it very slowly or in small chunks, as it is virtually impossible to fully grasp.