Wittgenstein’s Philosophy: Part 2 of Philosophers with Strange Personalities and Theories

(Latest addition to the What is a Philosopher, Anyway?” series. Please read the previous Part 1 for the fascinating personal introduction to this Dynamic and Curious Fellow!)

So, Ludwig Wittgenstein had a strange, even unpleasant, personality; but what of his philosophy?

Bertrand Russell* has declared that there is Wittgenstein 1 and 2. “Witt 1” showed up at Russell’s Trinity College quarters in about 1920. After about a year of working with Ludwig, Russell had nothing more to teach him, he has said. Russell saw Wittgenstein as the heir-apparent to his Logical and Analytical turn in philosophical method. It was at this point that The Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus was written and supposedly was the basis to answer, or eliminate, all philosophical issues. (*On Russell, see the post, Philosophers and Mathematics.)

Wittgenstein’s cabin in Norway where he retreated to write The Tractatus. Refurbished and now open to the public.

The Tractatus is an unusual book. It is only 75 pages long and written somewhat in the style of notes with numbered main ideas and subsequent supporting contentions also numbered to designate their subsequent status. 1.0 is a main point, 1.1, 1.11, 1.111 are contentions supporting it in declining significance and corresponding spacing. Its opening and closing lines are famous: “The world is all that is the case” and “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent.” In The London Times obituary, the book was called “a logical poem”(Wittgenstein died of cancer at 51).

The Tractatus is the presentation of a position called Logical Atomism. Witt 1 felt he demonstrated how some words or propositions “map” the world. They, among all the different kinds of statements we make, are unique. He contended that these pieces (the “atoms”) could be “logically” built up to display all the propositions or beliefs that could be sensibly stated or truthfully contended or “realistic.” They are what can be “said” with the backing of the world. They “make sense,” almost literally, because our sense organs are the connection between them and the individual chunks or facts of the world.

Many of the things we say do not fall within this group. They are not factual, not closely supported by our factual propositions that map the world. We cannot use our sense organs to verify them; therefore Wittgenstein could call them “nonsense.” But curiously, to him, this was NOT a completely negative designation. It just meant that they were statements beyond “fact.” Witt 1 had great respect for many of these more ethereal utterances; for one thing, philosophical statements were among them. They were just not connected to the world like factual propositions, or maybe not connected to the world at all (?).

Now it should be pointed out that this idea of words or propositions “mapping” ‘the world’ seems straightforward, but it is not. In what sense does the word “dog” designate, or hook onto, or point at, or represent, or is caused by all those furry (well I guess a few are furless), four legged, barking (some howl) creatures from the Chihuahua to the Saint Bernard? We often say our words “picture” what they represent, but how do the lines and squiggles that form the letters “D”-“O”-“G” draw a picture of anything, or the sounds of a hard D, soft O, hard G force themselves on us so that they are necessarily related to all those various kinds of dogs out there in the world, or anything that might compose them, like atoms or biochemical molecules or or? And Spanish-speaking people use very different lines and sounds —“perra” or “perro”— to function in the same way. But, Witt 1 thought he had successfully tip toed through these tulips by demonstrating that the “logical form” of factual propositions did “mirror” or “map” the logical form of the world or objective reality in a unique and accurate way.

Does a painting represent the world? Does it map reality? Picasso’s Guernica, painted in black, white and greys in 1937. Many regard this as the most powerful anti-war expression of all times. But clearly, this painting is highly figurative. It is not how atoms look, nor even how ordinary people and bulls look. It is no literal depiction of warfare. It has no colors other than a few basics. In what sense is it true? Does it “match” with reality? Do our Words About war do any better job?

Wittgenstein 2 gave up the contention that factual propositions “map the world” while other kinds of propositions do not. In his later thinking, language as a “map” is given up for language as a “tool,” and all kinds of statements —and depictions, as in the above Picasso— are now on a more equal footing. All forms of expression —and their related forms of activity—open up the world, we might say, in their own way. Each, like a tool (maybe like a can opener) reveals something of its own about “the world,” opens the world up to us in a different way.

Depiction of a Quantum engagement between two photons. Thanks to Scientific American. The Quantum Theory of subatomic particles has long been debated as to its realistic or merely useful (instrumental) character. At some deeper and more consistent level, “finding” something in the world may be like “making” something?

Now what is interesting is that Witt 2 never published much of his new thinking, in fact in his life all he published was the Tractatus and two minor articles. His new ideas swirled around Cambridge and Trinity College in England by word of mouth, from those who attended his lectures and discussion groups. Later, after his death, his extensive Philosophical Notebooks were edited and published.

His initial thinking was Atomistic. The real and most important elements the world (or human knowledge of the world) is its littlest pieces, but his later philosophy was Holistic. At one point he used the idea of a thread or rope as an example. No one fiber runs the length of the thread or rope. No one fiber gives it its strength. It is the intertwining and overlap of each fiber with those around it; that is the value and usefulness of each one. The essence of the thread or the rope is in the unity and organization of the pieces that compose it.

Many things in the world display this kind of unity contended Witt 2.:The unity of a family resemblance. No two fibers here are exactly alike, yet each possesses enough of the group’s similarities to form a distinguishable unit.

An example of this holism is Wittgenstein’s new approach to language. It has already been suggested that all forms of language were now taken to be more on a par, and propositions about objects in the external world were now given no special status. The new focus was on what a language did to and for the people using it, and that was to tie them into a unit –a whole– and reveal a “world” appropriate to their way of life. The new “center” of language was not to function to get to an independent and pre-existing factual world, but to be a central part of a way of life that functioned well for its users.

Witt 2 then believed that he had demonstrated that a language — any and every language — was necessarily a public and social product. There is no such thing as a private language. No single person, no matter how smart, could create a language from scratch. There is no route from non-language to real and effective language-use for an isolated individual. Social interaction provides The Reflective Perspective that allows a person to not only “look at objects” — objectify things — but also to “look at themselves” within their words. Language inherently allows us to ‘take the place of the other’ and ‘see’ ourselves both objectively and subjectively, at once.

The Capitoline Wolf statue: The mythical founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, suckle from the teat of the wolf that adopted them when abandoned in the woods. Only the herder, who found them, and his wife, who raised them, enabled their access to the use of Language.

Now this new anthropocentric view of language immediately suggests to us the issue of inaccuracy. If all kinds of talk “open” the world to us in different ways –artistic, ethical, scientific ways– what makes any way of talking incorrect or mistaken? Don’t our ideas have to match objective reality to be true and effective?

Interestingly, Witt 2 argues that this question is significantly misguided. The question can be made into deep philosophical confusion. It seems to suggest that somehow humans can lose touch with the world, that ideas and ways of life that we do not agree with or think are incorrect Float Free of Reality as if Mirages, and are disconnected from Reality’s Causal and Informative Networks. In modern society, we have often believed that science displays reality but art is only beautiful; that ethics is important but more a product of human preferences than natural forces. Wittgenstein’s concern was that “Subjectivity” can no more be cut off from “Objectivity” in this radical way, than the color black be cut off completely, and made independent of, the color white.

Whether Witt 2 actually accomplishes this Holistic view, is hard to say. He argues that it is not the world that justifies the ways we talk and think and act, but the self-supporting character or structure of these ways –“ways of life”– that are accompanied by their own “view of things” that is The True Center of our life. Witt 2 has shifted to this Anthropocentric position: The Human World is its own center, its own support and–in a way– its own making.

(This brief introduction to Wittgenstein’s thinking has wetted my appetite for more. I have begun to reread a short but notable book by philosopher David Pears: “Ludwig Wittgenstein,” 1970, (198 pages). I am looking forward to attempting to relay its significance to you.)

Prisms Electrique by Robert Delauney (1914). An originating composition in Orphic Cubist art movement. French poet and critic G. Apollinaire coined the term “Orphic Cubism” as “the art of painting new totalities with elements that the artist does not take from visual reality, but creates entirely by himself.”
Walking through the world in “A Robe of Stars and Rainbows
By the Marvelous Marty.

The naturereligionconnection.org ———THANKS!

Philosophers With Strange Personalities and Theories, Part 1

(This is the third post in this series on Philosophers. The second post focused on the long history of philosophers as mathematicians and their many accomplishments. This post focuses on some of the unusual personalities involved in this vocation and the theories they advocated. . The first post focused on philosophy as a set of standard puzzles or conceptual problems. It should be acknowledged that the “Western” tradition of philosophy is our focus; men such as Confucius and Lao Tsu are sadly excluded due to my limited capacities.)

Diogenes by John William Waterhouse. Diogenes rejected the customs of his time and reportedly lived in a ceramic jar.

Socrates is one of the originators of western philosophy. He reportedly took his own theory so seriously that he was willing to drink a cup of poison hemlock and die, in response to a death sentence for his beliefs trumped up as charges of corruption of the youth and disrespect for the gods. He could have escaped but refused to run from the verdict of his peers.

The Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David (1787). In his final lesson to his pupils, Socrates accepts the verdict of the polis and takes the cup of hemlock.

Most known for his method of question and answer, Socrates believed that truth could only be attained through a probing dialogue of the opinions of the community. These Socratic Dialogues are displayed in the works of Plato where Socrates guides his rhetorical partners to the discovery of the truth contained in their beliefs. Therefore, a man with no community was fatally incomplete. In this sense, Socrates accepted the verdict of his community and willingly participated in his own death, declining the option of exile.

Diogenes Searches for an Honest Man by J.H.W. Tischbein (1780). He roamed the streets of Athens with a lamp in the daytime to demonstrate his belief that most “appropriate behavior” was motivated only by a fear of retribution and a fear of the adverse opinion of others. Sincerity was hard to find, believed The Cynic.

With Socrates’ death, Plato rose to prominence, but his authority was not accepted by Diogenes and several other Athenian thinkers. He, and Antisthenes, reacted to the Socratic Method by regarding it as having proven the emptiness of common opinion and custom. They founded the school of philosophical Cynicism, and coached indifference to life and to the opinion of others. Diogenes accepted poverty and shocked his fellow Athenians by urinating on them, and defecating and masturbating in public. The Cynic defended all these behaviors with argumentation and snide comments about the shallowness of common society. At Plato’s lectures, Diogenes was present merely to heckle.

In Modern Philosophy, Ludwig Wittgenstein is not only known for his philosophical accomplishments but also his personality. “Enigmatic” and “herculean” seem to be words well suited to him. Twice he thought he had solved all the problems of philosophy, and each time from a basically different perspective. After the first triumph, he gave up philosophy and taught grade school in a rural area of Austria. (It should be noted that this idyllic tale of a return to the simplicity of the rural school teacher ended when Wittgenstein apparently whacked a dull-minded student who then passed out and filed charges.)

Looking more like a mug shot, this is Wittgenstein’s portrait taken upon his return to Trinity College, Cambridge England in 1929.

Personally, he was very difficult to know. Wittgenstein had a very disarming approach toward people; disdaining the “pleasantries of common conversation,” he often spoke without any pretense and was uncomfortably direct. At Oxford, he commanded great respect from persons such as Bertrand Russell who became his mentor, initially. Among these people, Wittgenstein was a dominant presence and influence, this included his students and colleagues. A friend and philosopher said, “Each conversation with (him) was like living through the day of judgment. It was terrible. Everything had constantly to be dug up anew, questioned and subjected to the test of truthfulness.” It is as if he had to penetrate to the essence of everything, felt novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch, for whom Ludwig apparently served as the inspiration for several of her fictional characters.

So, he had highly accomplished friends and acquaintances, and he made a deep impact on many of them. It bordered on something like a cult, some commentators have suggested.

Wittgenstein’s Poker is an entire book written around an incident that occurred in 1946 at a meeting of the Moral Science Club at Oxford where another prominent philosopher of the time, Karl Popper, was to deliver a paper. That book is the source of much of this material and a worthy read. Popper and Wittgenstein were from Vienna, Jewish, and of the same era, but had little else in common. The book describes their lives, philosophies and then this eventual encounter in which Ludwig gave Popper all of about five minutes into the paper before he burst in with several questions, lost his temper in response to Popper’s answers, and then grabbed a fireplace poker. He brandished the poker in the air and at Popper for affect, until disarmed; at which point he stormed from the room.

By the way, Wittgenstein’s father was one of the richest men in Europe. He was the Andrew Carnegie of Austria, in other words—steel. He was a brilliant businessman and highly demanding of all those around him, especially his sons. Two of his sons eventually committed suicide and Ludwig was haunted by phobias and a death-wish through much of his life. In possible defense of the father, it should be said that post WWI Europe was a time and place where many men took their own lives. One of Ludwig’s brothers did so in the shame caused when his Austrian soldiers mutinied and refused to follow him into battle. When his father died, Ludwig became terribly rich, but he put most of his money into a trust to be managed by his sisters and brother, and proceeded to live very modestly.

The Grand Staircase of “The Wittgenstein House” as the father, Karl, preferred to call it. Most people referred to it as the Palais Wittgenstein, The Palace of Wittgenstein.
One of the Salons of the Palais, grand piano at left. A pianist playing at the ‘house’ could chose between six grand pianos.

As Ludwig grew up, The Wittgenstein House was one of the most prominent in Vienna. His father was active in many progressive political causes and his mother was a patron of the arts. Musicians, politicians, artists and activists flocked there in search of patronage, conversation and dazzling personal performances and social affairs. Ludwig’s brother, Paul, was himself a concert pianist until the First World War deprived him of his right arm, at which point two Concertos For the Left Hand where written for him, one by Ravel (the most famous) and one by Prokofiev.

In 1925, Wittgenstein’s sister commissioned the design and construction of a thoroughly modern townhouse. She hired her friend, architect Paul Engelmann, with the assistance of Ludwig, to accomplish this project.

The Haus Wittgenstein in Vienna is a series of interconnected boxes. The more I look at it and learn about it, the more I like it.

It is not clear who did what, but the attention to detail and precision in much of the house is characteristically Ludwig. The house seems to me to be remarkable in its clean and classic symmetry, but strikingly modern. The stories abound concerning these features. Steam radiators designed and cast as no others before or since. Each radiator as if an art object. Craftsmen furious and screaming concerning Wittgenstein’s concern for every millimeter. The house was nearly complete, one story goes, when Ludwig insisted the ceiling in a main room be torn out and raised three (3!) centimeters. Upon completion, all agreed the adjustment was beneficial.

The house’s design is “Stark and stripped back to its bare bones, it eschews all forms of decoration,” and this is in line with the beliefs of Alfred Loos, leading modernist architect of the time and Engelmann’s mentor. Ludwig thoroughly agreed with these principles and declared that architecture was more difficult than philosophy.

(The Margarethe Stonborough-Wittgenstein House: An interior staircase, a doorway-window combination and its multiple options, one of the specially designed and cast steam radiators. Thanks to The London List site for all photos of house and above quote.)

Wittgenstein accepted Engelmann’s basic structure of the house, reportedly; but made major alterations to the interior floor plan and details.

(Stay tuned, Part II to be published Tomorrow Morning! Part II: What did this strange and ingenious man –Ludwig Wittgenstein — think about the THE SHAPE OF REALITY???)



Philosophers and Mathematicians

(So, “What is a Philosopher, Anyhow?” The second post in that series. Scroll back a few to find post one. Thanks!)

A famous contemporary mathematician

It may well be true that Philosophy started with Mathematics; well, at least here in ‘the western world.’ Nobody knows for sure. The ancient Greeks had their Drama, their Mythology, their Religious Rituals, their Political Oratory, and each of these contributed to the rise of Abstract Thinking; but they also had their math. Even today, the most abstract math, “pure math,” exists and makes contributions to our life and our thought in ways hard to precisely capture.

(The Chorus of a Greek Drama [left], often commented and emphasized as if an all-knowing observer. [Top Right] The Pythia is the Oracle of Delphi, some believe her ‘powers’ were enhanced by the inhalation of hydrocarbon gasses; illustration’s author unknown. [Bottom] Depiction of Pericles’ Funeral Oration in the agora of Athens—Franz Foltz, 1853—honoring those lost in the Peloponnesian war versus Sparta, circa 431 BCE. The speech is relayed to us by, probably actually the work of, Thucydides in his History of that war. This book is one of the earliest “histories” of all time and the speech is considered by some to be the greatest ever given!)

Mathematician Gregory Chaitin says he has a very practical side too, “but there’s also, in me, a side that likes beautiful mathematical arguments and these fantasy worlds of pure mathematics…We do need some people who do pure mathematics with no applications, at least maybe not for a hundred years. People who think philosophically...”

Chaitin is one of today’s greatest mathematicians. Born of Argentinian parents, he is the discoverer (or inventor: “I invented it,” he says) of The Omega Number (also called Chaitin’s number). “Omega is sort of a unicorn or a flying horse, — a mathematical fantasy in the Platonic world of ideas…which has this strange number glowing there,” he says (my emphases). (See the following Link.) Adding to the amazement, he did the initial work on Omega while a senior in High School! (Hey, as a senior, I was too busy chasing after a girl named Beverly Bushel to mess with any mathematical stuff!)

The Omega Number: is known to be between zero and one , and to go on forever with no repeating pattern (it is an irrational number).

I have been trying to develop a short and shallow summary of this strange creature–this number–but honestly, without much success. It has something to do with the “elegance” of a theory or a computer program. Elegance meaning spare, to the point, and yet complete and perfectly expressive of the phenomena being described or replicated. Its essence captured “beautifully.” Chaitin proves, apparently, that there is no way to be certain that any program accomplishes this , that there may always be a better way to do it lurking somewhere or somehow.

There is an important set of problems in mathematics that involve conjectures that cannot be proven but seem accurate. Conjectures about the character of all prime numbers was given as an example. To test them, all that can be done is look at every prime number, for which there is no end, of course. So, the issue has now turned to speculation about The Tree of All Possible Computer Programs and their evaluation in terms of the number of bits of information each would use.

The Omega Number provides us with the answer to whether a program or programs, among this tree, will eventually find its answer and come to a halt—find a prime number that defies the conjecture, for example—or go on forever looking, and this without running the program but just from the program’s form.

The Omega relies on The Turing Halting Problem and its theoretically possible solution with a Turing Halting Oracle program. The oracle discovers the number of programs that will halt. But the famous mathematician and founder of the computer, Alan Turing, also proved (apparently) that there is no practical solution to The Halting Problem, it is incomputable, though theoretically true. Therefore, The Omega Number, though real and true, is—also—practically beyond our calculating powers, i.e. unknowable to us.

Now that is a philosophical and a mathematical puzzle! I hope my summary was remotely accurate.

Many Philosophers Have Been Mathematicians

Russell in 1959. He was from a noted British aristocratic family. He and his father were early and outspoken atheists and Bertrand refused to participate in WWI.

The famous modern British philosopher, Bertrand Russell, along with his mentor Alfred North Whitehead—also a philosopher and mathematician—wrote Principia Mathematica, a three volume work published from 1910 to 1913. It attempted to base all math in symbolic logic and to reduce the fundamental principles of math into a set as small as possible. It contained “hundreds of pages of numbers, symbols, and equations,” and “later in life (Russell) claimed he knew of only six people who had read it from beginning to end” (from the book Wittgenstein’s Poker).

In philosophy, Russell led the revolt against Idealism, for which Whitehead was a prominent proponent, and started the modern Analytic Tradition. Its goal is to reduce any theory or tradition of speech (such as ethical language) to its basic assumptions and components.

Portrait of Rene Descartes, by Frans Hal.

But it was a famous Frenchman who wrote, “I think, therefore I am.” (cogito, ergo sum). The story goes that as a young soldier in the Thirty Year War between Protestant and Catholic countries in central Europe starting in about 1620, Rene Descartes huddled inside an old abandoned stove to seek warmth and there began to write the first volume of his famous Philosophical Meditations. He is most known for his explicit division of reality into two very contrasting realms—the material and the ideal, or, in other words, the mechanical (the Body) and the mental (the Mind). This is called Philosophical Dualism.

Analytic Geometry: beloved by many a high schooler (or not!).

In mathematics, Descartes was quite accomplished. He invented (or discovered) Coordinate Geometry, which was then highly significant to Isaac Newton’s work. Among his other contributions is the convention of using a superscript to denote powers or exponents (x2).

Descartes was also a scientist and attempted to study animals as Mechanisms, but contended Humans were both machines (body) and soul (Mind, non-mechanism). Though he contended he was a devout Catholic, he fought for the Dutch Protestant armies (as a mercenary, and military engineer–where he studied the flight of cannon balls and the craft of aiming a cannon). Other philosophers of his time accused him of atheism because in his thinking God played no further role after getting the mechanisms of the world started.

Calculus provides the description of an orderly curved line, like the flight of a cannon ball or the orbit of the Moon. Its flight is formed by the pull of gravity of the Earth and its compromise with the tangential momentum of the Moon’s, or ball’s, forward velocity. The moon is “falling around the Earth;” it can be said, while the cannon ball is in an orderly fall back to Earth.

Isaac Newton is thought of primarily as a scientist, though in the 17th century the line between these more abstract pursuits was blurry. Newton wrote extensive biblical interpretations and speculations, along with his creation of classical physics.

For his mathematical description of the movements of the planets, he invented Differential Calculus which was a development upon Descartes’ Analytic Geometry. Curiously, a philosopher living at the same time, in Germany, Gottfried Leibniz, also made this ‘discovery’ of calculus. The two engaged in a bitter dispute over its authorship lasting the remainder of their careers. Today, it is generally acknowledged as a simultaneous invention/discovery.

Back to The Greeks for The Finish

Pythagoras depicted in a detail from Raphael’s giant fresco from a wall in the Vatican, painted from 1509-1513.

Pythagoras is one of the western world’s earliest known mathematicians and philosophers. It is questionable how much math and philosophy attributed to him was actually his work.

For example, the famous Pythagorean Theorem, A2+B2=C2, was not known theoretically–as in this form, I guess–but was known practically by the Babylonians and Egyptians.

Line C is, of course, the hypotenuse. Every Right Triangle is composed of this orderly relationship between the Area of three squares–A,B, and C– that can be aligned with its sides.

I was once working with a friend of mine, a great craftsman who is short on formal education but long on intelligence. We were “finishing” his basement, framing the walls. We got to the first corner and he wanted the angle just right, 90 degrees. I thought we had it lined up pretty well just using a T square but he wanted it perfect (as always!) and said we will use the 3-4-5 rule. He measured out from the temporary corner 3 ft. on one wall, marked it, then 4 ft. on the other wall. If the diagonal line connecting these two marks was then 5 ft., the corner was true, 90 degrees. I realized, “that is the Pythagorean theorem,” I announced: 32 + 42 = 52 . Well, Pythagoras, or one of his associates, at least formalized this practical knowledge.

There is a legend that one day Pythagoras was walking by a group of men working metal, “blacksmiths.” They were pounding out a piece on an anvil using various hammers. He heard the sharp clanging sounds created by the repeated blows and began to think of their relation to music. He realized there was an orderly relationship between the size of the hammer, the force of the blow, and the sound that it made.

“A series of fifths generated can give one seven notes: a diatonic major scale on C in Pythagorean tuning.” Thanks to Wiki for diagram and explanation.

He then began experimenting with the four strings of a lyre and discovered that the sounds most often used musically, the Notes, the one’s most pleasing to our ear, could be organized into sets of four (a tetrachord) and then a set of eight (an octave) with a steady interval between them. These notes or pitches then coincided with a ratio of length of the lyre’s string used to create them. The ratio he found or decided upon as closest to those pleasing notes was 3:2, or what became known as “The Perfect Fifth” and this became the basis of the Pythagorean Tuning system used in western music up to the early 1500s. Our modern tuning system is very close to Pythagoras’, but differs just slightly in the frequency of vibration for each note.

(God, do I feel stupid as I try to write this post! I am not much of a mathematician or musician, so once again, I hope the above description of sound, music theory, acoustics is roughly accurate. Please, Comment [Bob, or anyone] if it is not, so that I may learn!)

Finally, dear old Pythagoras had another idea worth mentioning: The Harmony of The Spheres. To this man, and his followers, Numbers and Mathematics were godly, religious in character. All things were essentially numbers, or something like that. So, he speculated The Heavens (what we would now call stars, planets, and moons) were also numerically organized. That was a good idea, but since numerical relations were also Musical, he contended that the orderly movements of the sky also created A Harmonious Sound, A Celestial Symphony, but we could not hear it!

Atlas holding up the sky, which is A HARMONY OF SPHERES

IF ONLY IT WERE TRUE! What a pleasant idea! I’m not so sure that this last idea helps prove my case, THAT PHOLOSOPHERS KNOW SOMETHING. Maybe sometimes they just get carried away! But Pythagoras’ idea did influence Johannes Kepler!

Salvador Dali: The Harmony of The Spheres (1978)

What is a Philosopher, Anyhow?

“Veritas et Falsitas”: Zeno shows his youthful students the doors to the true and to the false. Painting by Pelligrino Tibaldi, late 16th century.

“Aren’t philosophers just a bunch of old white men,” said my sister, picking up on a comment that I had once made. I had said there are not many women philosophers, nor black philosophers (Cornel West at Harvard an exception). I had suggested that philosophy seems an old and musty profession, and some people do ask, “what is there to its credit?” This is Not an uncommon criticism. Many scientifically inclined persons question the “cred” of philosophers; what is their basis for commenting on or questioning the beliefs of scientists? On another site, it was suggested that anyone majoring in Philosophy should be required to take a significant number of science courses as prerequisite, thus getting their head straight.

So, what have philosophers accomplished? What is the basis of this discipline in the past and today? WHAT DO philosopher’s KNOW, and HOW DO THEY THINK THEY KNOW IT, or ANYTHING?

Philosophy is an ancient tradition. Alfred North Whitehead, a noted mathematician and philosopher from the early 20th century, contended that “All philosophy is but a footnote to Plato” (and how can you doubt any Englishman with a name dripping with such sophistication?). Plato lived around 550 B.C.E., long before Experimental Science and Whitehead contends there were certain conundrums discovered of a logical or conceptual sort. Whatever that may mean?

Well, let us consider Zeno of Elea. He is reported by Plato to have visited Athens sometime around 450 B.C.E arguing for a series of paradoxes, “Zeno’s Paradoxes,” recounted by Aristotle. In one, Achilles races a tortoise and agrees to give it a head start, his problem is that whenever Achilles gets to where the tortoise once was, the tortoise has gone further. Therefore, Achilles never catches the tortoise.

“Achilles and the Tortoise” He gets close, but never quite catches him!
“The Arrow”: if in each instant an arrow is at rest and occupying a particular area of space –“it if there, now”– then it never moves. How can “being at rest” at every discreet instant accumulate to make movement? Rest is always rest, is it not?

Funny, how words and settings can play tricks on us. Zeno was a follower of Parmenides, each apparently were roughly contemporary to Plato but preceded him in that Greek Tradition. Parmenides argued that all movement was illusory –as suggested by “The Arrow”– but also that all Plurality is illusory. All things really had to be just parts of one bigger thing. “All is one,” we have learned to say. And “Let The Force be with you!”

There is an almost obvious intuitive attraction to some of these contentions, and this tradition of the presentation of Paradoxical Situations continues today. In fact it has ‘picked up steam’ in contemporary philosophy with the popularity of “thought experiments” or “intuition pumps,” stories or scenarios designed by philosophers to challenge our intellectual complacencies, our primary and unquestioned assumptions.

One of the most famous “pumps” was formulated by Australian philosopher Frank Johnson in the early 1980s. It is called “Mary’s Room” and the following is my version. An ingenious scientist –Mary– has become caught up in her own experiment. You see, she is a scientist studying color, but she has been kept in a room all her life, a room that lacks color. All her room has –all her life has ever had– is various shades of white, gray, black, with intensities and hues of these varying approximately in line with normal color distinctions. I am not sure how she eats, but somehow her vegetables , for example, come to her not in beautiful greens, yellows or reds. but simply various finely distinguished grey’s.

Is Philosophy just “a can of worms,” or is there a point to it, a solution to the tangle?

Well, while in this room, Mary learns all there is to know about Color. Its electromagnetic frequencies; its neural states; its formative blends –‘yellow’ and ‘red’ make ‘orange’– but she has not experienced any of these colors directly. She knows that fire trucks are red, though she has never seen a real one. The dilemma occurs when –one day– Mary is let out to see the light of day! Does she Learn anything new about color?

I will not go into my interpretation of the meaning of this “experiment.” Frankly. my interpretation tends to shift around, but basically it has to do with two Big Ideas that tend to organize a lot of our basic abstract thinking/interpretation. Those ideas are “to know” and “to experience.” Is to experience something, to know it? Perhaps counter-intuitively, I believe “No, the two are importantly different; it is possible (in kind of an awkward sense) for two people ‘to experience the same thing, but know very different things about it!’ So, I say, Mary learned nothing new about color though she did now have the experience of it.

But that statement just ‘opens up a can of worms,’ so to speak, and that seems to be the whole point of Zeno’s paradoxes or modern “intuition pumps’ –to get the argument going. Philosophy, in general, has been a more or less standard collection of puzzles revolving around some very common, but still puzzling, ideas like “life and death,” “matter and mind,” “true and false,” “god or no god or many gods,” “right and wrong,” “one big thing or many smaller ones,” and many, many more such variants. The point then seems, in my opinion, ‘to get all your ducks in a row;’ to have a consistent explanation of how there is no god, or how some things are “alive” and others “lifeless.”

Philosophy is…

Philosophy is a lot about having a big and consistent view of the many parts of our life and our world, and to be able to defend it with good reasons. One of the best definitions of it was by the recent but now deceased big thinker, Wilfred Sellars. He contended that philosophy is about “How things in the broadest sense hang together in the broadest sense.” Recently an admirer of Sellars, Dan Dennett, contend that the philosopher’s job is to explain how the many, many things we do –“in practice”–everyday, are theoretically –“in principle”– possible. How all that we accomplish or think we do, how much of that can be fit into a consistent picture. Now that sounds a little backwards to some (everything should be interpreted in light of our knowledge of God or of Physics, they believe) but much of our thinking these days about ourselves is a bit of a jumble, at least many philosophers do believe.

One last point should be added. A philosopher is also someone who has some knowledge of this tradition of puzzles, of the history of philosophy. And for the above definition of philosophy, as a big, broad vision of many things, a lot of philosophers have a wide range of knowledge or at least familiarity with many topics.

Some Examples of Philosophers and Accomplishments by them

In Buddhism, all the world is pain and illusion, and an enlightened mind is the solution to it. The Buddha is thought to have lived in India circa 400 BCE. I wonder what evidence there is for his actual existence?
With a Doctorate in Physics, Thomas Kuhn turned to philosophy to write his hugely influential book of the 1960s and 70s —The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. He argued successfully that even Physics has a complex relationship to Truth.
The famous French philosopher and scientist, Rene Descartes. He invented/discovered Coordinate Geometry circa 1630. Many philosophers have made contributions to Mathematics. Painting by Dutch portrait artist Frans Hal, 1660.

(Coming soon, Philosophers in Mathematics and Politics. What are philosophers? Some additional ideas.)

naturereligionconnection.org. Drawings by The Marvelous Marty.
Walking on by, and trying to make sense of it all!