What makes a great Philosopher?

Philosophy is composed of two Greek words – philos meaning love, and sophia meaning wisdom. Therefore, it literally means a love of wisdom. With this in mind, a great philosopher is surely a great lover of wisdom; or more precisely : knowledge, understanding and truth. Consequently, the truly great philosophers in history are those who have made great strides in adding to our knowledge and understanding of the world and our relationship to it.

However, in philosophy the word “great” is used as a substitute for influential. The words are not interchangeable. Hitler was one of the most influential and notable leaders in history. To describe him as “great” would not be considered a malapropism, but a crime. Yet, philosophy ascribes greatness on the basis of influence, not contribution to understanding, knowledge or our appreciation of truth. This is accentuated by the fact that philosophers who are diametrically opposed, can both be credited with “greatness” – for example the Rationalists and Empiricists. If two ideas are contradictory, either one is wrong or both are wrong, but both can never be right. That philosophy makes no distinction between fact and fiction when inducting members into the “Hall of Fame”, is the worst possible indictment of a discipline.

Given this unedifying distinction, it should be no surprise that philosophy is not considered a true science by most people. If one is honouring the purveyors of flaws, fallacies and pure fiction, the clear indication is that there is no objective basis for discerning truth. And if wholly subjective, then philosophy is not a science, but mere opinion. If this is the state of modern philosophy, then it is a betrayal of its origins and its complete irrelevance to society is totally justified. Ironically, the best result might be to borrow a suggestion from David Hume and “commit the ideas to the flames, for they contain nothing but sophistry and illusion”.

Thankfully, there is still cause for optimism. Perhaps, out of the ashes of modern philosophy, the only valid foundation for knowledge will be resurrected. That foundation being reason. Every philosopher throughout history has one thing in common, their appeal to reason as the basis for the validity of their philosophy. Even the philosophers who deny the validity of reason, or the existence of intellect, appeal to it in formulating their arguments.

The only alternative to appealing to reason is authority. You are always free to claim divine inspiration, or that you are better equipped to understand, or even unique, innate knowledge. However, your claim is arbitrary and consequently ridiculous. No doubt some men may subjugate their minds to yours. It will profit you little though; gaining the feeble minded is like gaining a zero. In the battle of the mind, intellectual cripples are more of a liability than an asset.

You might be wondering where errors and contradictions arise from if every philosopher submits to reason. The simple answer is – flawed premises. A premise is a declaration that something is true, and reasoning is based upon such declarations. Occasionally, philosophers engage in flawed reasoning – that is in contradiction to the rules of logic. By and large though, it is corrupt premises that are the fountainhead of every flawed philosophy. An explanation of the connection between premises, reason, logic and conclusions, is undertaken in the essay “Check Yourself”.

Having established that invalid premises are the cause of the myriad of contradictory philosophies, the next question is where these false ideas originate? Furthermore, why are premises not subject to evaluation? The answer to these questions is twofold. Firstly, the failing of most philosophers has been in inheriting premises form their predecessors without questioning them. Since the start of modern philosophy in the 17th century, no major philosopher has developed their philosophy in total isolation. The second explanation is of primary importance though. To evaluate premises one needs a prior starting point. One cannot test premises in a vacuum. Thus, one has to start somewhere, and that starting point has been to “assume” premises.

To eradicate premises, one has to work ones way back to the very fundamental basis of knowledge. That foundation is axiomatic concepts – which identify the primary facts of reality. These concepts cannot be broken down (analysed), and are implicit in every fact and all knowledge. Simply put, axiomatic concepts are self-evident, irreducible primaries. One cannot “prove” them; all proofs depend upon them. In fact in any attempt to “prove” or deny these axiomatic concepts, one subsumes them. Figuratively, axiomatic concepts are not the bottom rung of a ladder, but the ground the ladder rests upon.

The incapacitating affliction of philosophy is now exposed. At the base of every dispute and contradiction, is the fact that philosophers have never agreed on what these axiomatic concepts are. In fact, the majority of philosophers have never given consideration to the subject, as they deny that such self-evident truths exist. To admit such self-evident truths would mean climbing down out of their ivory towers and acknowledging that the most fundamental truths do not exist “up there” in the higher echelons of abstract thought, but down here, available to even the dullest individual. Hubris and supercilious disdain have kept many a philosopher from this realisation. The question remains as to what these self-evident truths are. For that answer, I defer to Ayn Rand.

“Existence exists – and the act of grasping that statement implies two corollary axioms : that something exists which one perceives and that one exists possessing consciousness, consciousness being the faculty of perceiving that which exists.

If nothing exists, there can be no consciousness : a consciousness with nothing to be conscious of is a contradiction in terms. A consciousness conscious of nothing but itself is a contradiction in terms : before it could identify itself as consciousness, it had to be conscious of something. If that which you claim to perceive does not exist, what you possess is not consciousness.

Whatever the degree of your knowledge, these two – existence and consciousness – are axioms you cannot escape; these two are the irreducible primaries implied in any action you undertake, in any part of your knowledge and in its sum, from the first ray of light you perceive at the start of your life to the widest erudition you might acquire at its end. Whether you know the shape of a pebble or the structure of the solar system, the axioms remain the same : that it exists and that you know it.

To exist is to be something, as distinguished from the nothing of non-existence, it is to be an entity of a specific nature made of specific attributes. Centuries ago, the man who was the greatest of your philosophers, has stated the formula defining the concept of existence and the rule of all knowledge : A is A. A thing is itself. You have never grasped the meaning of his statement. I am here to complete it : Existence is Identity. Consciousness is Identification.”

Thus the three axiomatic concepts are – Existence, Consciousness and Identity. In summary, that something exists, that you are aware of it, and that to be is to be something. The philosophical implications of these self evident truths are so profound, that each has been the subject of inordinate debate throughout the history of philosophy. That many philosophers have lost touch with reality is demonstrated by those who have explicitly or implicitly denied existence, consciousness and identity. That these self-evident concepts were even a subject of debate is an egregious indictment of modern philosophy. However, the final insult to intelligence and common sense is that these concepts are still debated today, and that modern philosophy bestows “greatness” upon philosophers whose sole contribution was to deny the self-evident.

Consider as a prime example one George Berkeley. He is famous for denying that there was any basis for belief in a material existence. Berkeley rebelled against materialism which he considered atheistic, and instead dreamed up a world of spirits. An infinite spirit which was God, and created finite spirits – ourselves. Now consider the following discussion by two contemporary philosophers on this mindless tripe :

Michael Ayers : Berkeley was perhaps the first to have the idea of turning the tables on matter by making the sensible world, of its very nature, mind-dependent. He takes Locke’s distinction between the world as it appears to us and the world as it is in itself, and just chops off the world as it is in itself. All that’s left is the world as it appears to us, caused directly “in our minds” by God. He contends that he is not denying the existence of anything that counts or matters to ordinary people.

Bryan Magee : I have a sneaking feeling that he may be right. At least, what he says seems to me to accord with the way most people actually think and talk. If you say to an ordinary person, “How do you know that this glove exists?” he’ll say, “Well here it is, I’m holding it, I’m looking at it, I can put it on, smell the leather, see the colour – here, feel it yourself.” In other words, he takes the glove to be the sum total of its observable characteristics. He does not envisage the essential “glove as it is in itself” as being some unknowable, unconceptualisable substratum which sustains those characteristics. Such a thought, I’m pretty sure, has never occurred to most people – and I suspect they would find it exceedingly difficult to understand. It occurs, in the main, only to philosophers and the people who study them. So when Berkeley claims that his view is in accord with common sense, I have to say I think he is speaking the truth – though that is not, of course, to say his view is correct.

Here we have the astonishing assertion that Berkeley’s claim is in accord with common sense. Not to mention a typical suggestion that the “ordinary people” are incapable of understanding this “profound” idea, let alone conceiving of it! At least on the latter assertion I agree wholeheartedly with Magee. Common sense prohibits us ordinary people from entertaining the ridiculous. It is interesting to wonder what exactly “common sense” means to Magee, if the ordinary people are devoid of it. The proposition that an idea can be common sense and abstruse at the same time is not an oxymoron, but plain moronic.

Not all philosophers ignore the obvious and overlook the mundane in the search for truth and understanding. The ones that don’t inevitably profess an intellectual debt to Aristotle (see the essay – What is Philosophy?). Mortimer Adler is one such philosopher, and proposes that far from philosophy being an esoteric past-time for the intellectual elite, it “is based upon the common experience of mankind and is a refinement and elaboration of the common sense knowledge and understanding that derives from reflection on that common experience.”

The errors and contradictions in modern philosophy are directly attributable to the denial of the self-evident axioms outlined earlier, and philosophers neglecting to check the premises of their predecessors when faced with untenable conclusions. Consequently, the alternative has been to develop intricate constructions to get around the problems. Unfortunately, no matter how many stories you add to a building, if it is built on quicksand it is still going to go under. Until philosophy as a discipline addresses its corrupt foundation, it is destined to sink further and further into the oblivion of irrelevance to contemporary society.

In the remainder of this essay I intend to focus on a single mistaken premise and examine its implications in modern philosophy. Through this I hope to impress upon the reader three significant points. Firstly, that in thinking about any idea, one must always check the premises. Secondly, that philosophy is not by necessity a complicated or unfathomable discipline, and that it only appears so because certain errors have been carried through its modern history. Finally, and most importantly, that these errors are easy to correct, and when corrected philosophy is both vitally relevant to life and consistent with common sense.

The critical error I wish to address was the answer provided to the question of what we are conscious of. Specifically, what is the object of consciousness? Are we aware of actual entities themselves, or only the representations which place them before our mind? John Locke was the first modern philosopher to give this question specific consideration. Though his answer was to have tremendous consequences for philosophy, it was presented without explanation or justification, as if self-evident. The relevant passage from his introduction to his Essay Concerning Human Understanding is as follows :
“Before I proceed on to what I have thought on this subject, I must here in the entrance beg pardon of my reader for the frequent use of the word idea, which he will find in the following treatise. It being the term which, I think, serves best to stand for whatsoever is the object of the understanding when a man thinks, I have used it to express…whatever it is which the mind can be employed about in thinking… I presume it will be easily granted me, that there are such ideas in men’s minds : every one is conscious of them in himself; and men’s words and actions will satisfy him that they are in others.”

Locke assumes the use of the word “thinking” for all acts of the mind; and the word “idea” for all the objects of the mind when thinking. Thus, every mental activity such as perceiving, remembering, imagining, conceiving, reasoning, sensing and feeling is lumped together under “thinking”. Likewise, idea covers percepts, memories, images, concepts, sensations and feelings. Locke’s assertion is that we are conscious only of the ideas in our minds, and despite not being able to be conscious of the ideas in other’s minds, we infer them from their speech and behaviour. This leads to one immediate conclusion, that the ideas in my mind are mine and those in yours are yours. In other words everyone’s ideas are completely personal and subjective.

Locke’s cardinal error is that in his view ideas are that which each individual directly apprehends; the immediate objects of which each individual is conscious. The result is that each individual’s experiences are private, and he is locked up in his own subjective world. In addition, given there is no direct acquaintance or awareness of anything outside the mind, it is impossible to infer or argue for the existence of any external reality. One’s mind becomes a virtual prison.

There are two logical conclusions following from this perspective which one is ultimately faced with. David Hume enunciated them as total scepticism and solipsism. Total scepticism is the belief that there is no way we can have any knowledge of reality outside our minds. We can’t even know if anything exists outside our minds. The other conclusion is solipsism – that everything of which we are aware or conscious of is a figment of our minds. Both these conclusions are repugnant to common sense, and the vast majority of philosophers have had enough sense to reject them. The problems in philosophy arise from the choice they made when confronted with this dilemma.

When one is inexorably lead to ridiculous or objectionable outcomes in real life, the normal thing to do is to change the starting point. The philosophical equivalent is called a reductio ad absurdum argument. When one is led to an absurd conclusion by logically following the implications of an initial premise, the expected response is to reject the premise. The “great” modern philosophers were too smart to limit themselves to common sense though. Instead of rejecting Locke’s mistaken premise they sought to extricate themselves by constructing various “outs”. Figuratively, they found themselves in a hole, and tried to get out by digging deeper! No doubt philosophers like Bryan Magee would contend that us “ordinary people” can’t possibly understand the logic behind this strategy. Again, I would hasten to agree with him.

The correction to the flawed premise is one of consummate ease. Firstly, to distinguish between bodily sensations, feelings and emotions on the one hand, and perceptions, memories, imaginations and concepts on the other. The former are apprehended directly and immediately. The latter bring something else to mind. For example when we look at a table, the object we are aware of is the table, not the idea (percept). The criteria for the differentiation is that all ideas have an object. Therefore, feelings, emotions and bodily sensations which do not bring another object to mind, are not ideas. Ideas are re-defined as instruments of cognition, which serve as the means by which we apprehend objects which are not ideas.

Mortimer Adler spells out this view’s implications explicitly – “It means we experience perceived things, but never the percepts whereby we perceive them. We remember past events or happenings, but we are never aware of the memories by which we remember them. We can be aware of imagined or imaginary objects, but never the images by which we imagine them. We apprehend objects of thought, but never the concepts by which we think of them.” This view is totally consistent with common sense, as are its implications. From this perspective, objects of consciousness (not feelings, emotions or bodily sensations) are objective – the same for you, me and everyone else. Furthermore, we can be directly aware of an external reality, rather than a collection of subjective ideas in our heads.

The retention of Locke’s premise that ideas are the only things we have direct acquaintance with, compels us to live in two distinct worlds without a bridge between them. There is the physical world in which we can at most have blind faith in, and the private world of our ideas. However, rather than reject Locke’s premise, modern philosophers have elected to construct an elaborate escape from total scepticism. The “out” is to suggest that the ideas in our minds are also representations of things in the physical world.

As you would expect, this does not provide a tenable solution. A representation can only be classified as such when it resembles the thing it is supposed to represent. To quote Adler – “On this understanding of what a representation is, how can our ideas (the only objects with which we have direct acquaintance) be regarded as representations of really existing things (of which we cannot have any direct awareness at all)?” There is of course no answer to this question. Yet, this is the route philosophy has chosen to take. The attempts to make this solution work have resulted in even more perplexing and convoluted theories.

Having excavated the corrupt foundations, we can now see Berkeley’s beliefs in a new light. Given his acceptance of Locke’s premise, Berkeley was in fact totally consistent in denying the existence of a physical world. If every philosopher who accepted Locke’s premise was equally consistent, they too could not have claimed knowledge of a material world. Thus, Berkeley was free to invent a “new” reality in line with his religious convictions. Hence, the world of spirits, with God orchestrating our inner experiences.

Of course Berkeley did take things a step further from scepticism to actual denial of material existence, but that was made easy by the holes in the theory Locke used to escape the absurd conclusions of his premise. It was Berkeley’s attack on Locke’s distinction between primary and secondary attributes of material existents, which led him to argue that all attributes are mind dependent.

The history of modern philosophy is replete with such instances of one philosopher drawing a false premise and others building upon it or alongside it, rather than rejecting the premise. Take David Hume, who inherited Locke’s mistake, but also initiated a few of his own. The most crucial was his separation of causes and effects from entities. It was his rejection of the Law of Identity which led him to declare that one could never know how each individual object would act till one experienced it. Ultimately, he was denying that A is A. That a thing is what it is, and does what it does.

I will paraphrase Ayn Rand to make the principle clear – “Every entity has a nature (identity) which is specific and non-contradictory. An entity must act in accordance with its nature. Why? Consider the options – to either act apart from its nature or against it. An entity cannot act apart from its nature, for existence is identity (to be is to be something). Therefore apart from its nature it is nothing. Nor can it act in contradiction to its nature. A is A. Contradictions do not exist in reality. In any set of given circumstances, there is only one action possible to an entity, the action expressive of its identity. This is the action it will take, the action that is caused and necessitated by its nature.”

Thus, David Hume rejects the self-evident and becomes a “great” philosopher. To make absolutely explicit that causality is as self-evident as the axiom it is a corollary of, consider the following passage from Leonard Peikoff’s book – Objectivism : The Philosophy of Ayn Rand – “The child shakes his rattle and it makes a sound; he shakes his pillow and it does not. He pushes a ball and it rolls along the floor; he pushes a book and it sits there, unmoving. He lets a block out of his hand and it falls; he lets a balloon go and it rises. The child may wish the pillow to rattle, the book to roll, the block to float, but he cannot make these events occur. Things, he soon discovers, act in definite ways and only in these ways.”

The history of modern philosophy is a history of missed opportunities. Opportunities to acquire relevance, validity and simplicity; and pave the way to wisdom and truth. Instead, the trumpeted monuments to philosophy in the modern era are akin to intricate sandcastles on a beach. They are impressive achievements right until the tide comes in. That tide need not be anything more substantial than common sense. Thus, my objective is on the one hand to validate every man’s capacity to understand through the use of his rational faculty; and on the other, to present him with the philosophical issues in an uncomplicated fashion. Essentially saying – “To you who uphold reason, and have confidence in your mind – Consider this.” Hence, my answer to what makes a great philosopher – any person who chooses to think for themselves, applies reason, values objectivity, and dares to ask “Why?”.

– Adrian Lobo