History of Western philosophy

In 800 words

Many histories of Western philosophy have been written over the years. These histories doubtless have many undeniable merits, but all suffer from a fatal deficiency. Namely, they are neither for the faint of heart nor for those brave yet unfortunate mortals who whose unavoidable lot it is to earn a living and to live a life. This demographic, which is not insignificant, has for a long time been clamouring for a shorter, crisper history of Western philosophy. This article addresses that demand.

Professional philosophers tend to throw around some impressive sounding keywords such as logical positivism, anti reductionsim, emergentism, rationalism and solipsism, which can be rather intimidating for the ordinary mortal. However, it is also on good authority that the whole of Western philosophy is but a footnote to Plato. This means that as far as philosophy is concerned, we are very much where we stood in the fourth century BCE. This makes my project of presenting a succinct account of the history of philosophy considerably simpler.

Philosophy originated by focussing on the question ‘What is existence or being?’ Two fancy names given to this line of speculation are metaphysics and ontology. Was the ‘stuff’ of the world mental or material? Was it one organic whole with the distinction of things being only an illusion or was the observed plurality in the universe real? What was ‘reality’ anyway? Numerous unreadable books and many centuries later, nobody was any the wiser regarding these questions. It became obvious to all that this dead horse could not be flogged any further. It was time to choose a new frontier to conquer.

Having failed to get to the bottom of the essence or reality of the world, philosophy then turned its attention to the question of how we know the things that we think we know, and how certain can we be about this knowledge. This pursuit was lovingly referred to as epistemology. This proved to be another dead end because outside of pure mathematics and logic (both of which were sets of tautologies) one could not be certain of any knowledge. In the empirical sphere, one could only be sure of one piece of information. That of one’s ‘own’ ‘existence’ (albeit with both ‘own’ and ‘existence’ in inverted commas). The most that could be said about events was that one appeared to follow another. There was no such thing as cause-and-effect. At best one could talk in terms of probabilities, not individual events. Hardcore philosophers were none too happy to conclude this since probability was a branch of applied mathematics.

Having failed to get to the bottom of the essence or reality of the world, philosophy then turned its attention to the question of how we know the things that we think we know, and how certain can we be about this knowledge.

Philosophy had thus hit another immovable wall. In the intervening years, philosophers’ foray into psychological/mental phenomena was also stopped in its tracks. For this speculation too was appropriated by science on the ground that ‘mind’ was nothing but a conglomeration of matter. Philosophers realized that reports of extensive, albeit rather silly, experiments conducted on mice in cages were too much to confront in the age of scientific enthusiasm. Psychology was thus reduced to Behaviourism. Although in psychology science never came close to replicating the successes it had had in determining physical laws, philosophy had regardless been expelled from this Garden of Eden too.

Philosophers now finally realized something they ought to have realized long ago. That it was impossible, and rather silly, to try and compete with empirical science in the latter’s domain. Thereafter, they decided it was best to avoid that confrontation by turning to the exciting realms of linguistics (analysis of language) and phenomenology (the meaning of phenomena in our subjective experiences), where they thought science would leave them alone. This retreat was reminiscent of the earlier capitulation of what passed for religious philosophy. Under the relentless onslaught of science, the Protestants had been reduced to concede that their truth was subjective, not objective like that of the scientist. The project of grounding morality in a priori principles was thus abandoned and ethics too were gradually confined to the experimental or the empirical realm. It was concluded that since there was no such thing as revelation, all problems faced by humanity could only be solved by the collective human intellect using experience as its only guide. Thus, the various isms stemming out of humanism were born.

When, around this time, Bertrand Russell turned for a while from philosophy to writing novels he famously remarked that the latter was only another kind of fiction. There was no limit to the scope of speculation once the floodgates of fiction opened. Philosophers have since proceeded to break much fresh ground in unfathomability in the form of doctrines such as existentialism and post-modernism. Consider this (representative) gem: “Existence is primarily the problem of existence (i.e., of its mode of being); it is, therefore, also the investigation of the meaning of Being.” It would be safe to say that there is no danger of the scientist (on anybody else for that matter) understanding such thoughts, much less refuting them. For the foreseeable future, philosophy appears to have found a dwelling place where it can reside in peace.

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Hasan Aftab Saeed
The author is a connoisseur of music, literature, and food (but not drinks). He can be reached at www.facebook.com/hasanaftabsaeed

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