The dream begins

We begin this semester in CoPhi with Anthony Gottlieb’s acclaimed Dream of Reason: A History of Western Philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance. Last semester we did Bertrand Russell’s History, so a bit of cross-referencing seems in order. Two storytellers are better than one, say we pluralists and CoPhilosophers.

 Gottlieb’s approach is avowedly journalistic, in the best sense: go straight to the primary source whenever possible, question everything, and be clear. All of that is easier said than done, especially (when exploring complicated ideas) clarity. But it’s to Gottlieb’s credit, as it was to Russell’s, to make that a priority.  James’s “stubborn effort to think clearly,” and Russell’s “unusually obstinate” description, may seem mere common sense. 
But common sense is itself often stubbornly, obstinately wrong. That’s “the joke at the heart of philosophy” as it deliberately spurns conventional wisdom, in search of the real thing. Sometimes the joke’s on us philosophers, sometimes on the commoners. But of course we all recur to common sense, and we all need to get better at putting it on the rack of critical scrutiny.
Western science was created when the first (western) philosophers stopped settling for the “God(s) did it” non-explanation of things and went looking for natural causes. That led to enlightenment, of a sort, and to Gottlieb’s next volume, The Dream of Enlightenment. Perhaps one or more of our reporters will enlighten us about it soon. It’s on tap for next semester.

But today, our topic is bounded by these questions: What’s your definition of “philosophy”? Do you have a favorite philosopher? Can you summarize your current, personal philosophy of life?

A glance back, to last August 24:

We’re off, with Bertrand Russell’s introductory chapter in his History. There we’re cautioned against the “impertinent insolence towards the universe” of dogmatic theology, and directed instead to the gray space between certainty and paralysis that good philosophers occupy. Then we’re told that the Stoics presaged Christianity, that Montaigne’s “fruitful disorder” made him a representative man of his age, that Descartes’ subjectivist inflation of ego as philosophic method was insanely contrary to common sense, and that every community must negotiate the extreme opposite dangers of either too stultifying a regard for tradition or too much personal independence.

Those are just a few of the countless sharp opinions Russell will deliver, with audacity and biting wit, in this narrative. Another: that philosophy occupies a No Man’s Land between theology and science. So, we’ll wonder: are no theologians or scientists philosophers? Is there more than one way to be a philosopher? Here I’ll invoke Professor James’s observation that we all have some implicit philosophy or other. For a No Man’s Land, it’s pretty crowded.

Other points to ponder, prompted by this chapter: Is there any higher duty than that to one’s fellow humans? What do we owe the state, our contemporaries, our successors? In what specific ways should it matter to us that we’re standing on a planet that’s evolving and revolving, on a distant spiral arm of a relatively nondescript galaxy, one among trillions? Ought we ever to acknowledge the authority of any individual or institution, to settle matters of belief and conscience? (Good question to ask on the anniversary of the first edition of the Gutenberg Bible.)

Some students will become frustrated with all these questions. I’ll happily suggest answers, and will not hesitate to advocate for my own. But the key takeaway today is that in philosophy the questions always outpace the answers, and we’re okay with that. Love it, in fact.

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