R.I.P: Chris Cornell (1964 – 2017)


what a horrible day… 

Chris Cornell, lead singer of one of my favorite bands, Soundgarden, has died, apparently by suicide (according to police) after a gig yesterday.  I LOVE Soundgarden. I love Chris’s voice. He had a voice like no other: a power and timbre that was completely unique in rock music. Soundgarden’s songs “Nothing To Say”, “By Crooked Steps”, and the thundering leviathan that is “Limo Wreck” are three of my favorite songs of all time. How could he be gone from Life – when he brought so much sonic fun and excitement to it – and raised the quality of life in his fans by doing so?

His family thinks it may have been in part due to an accidental overdose of Ativan, his anxiety medication. This makes sense, because Ativan is a powerful drug and some people have very strong, unpredictable reactions to it, as a friend of mine in Toronto discovered. A single pill (taken properly) made her so disoriented and faint that paramedics had to be called to help her recover. 

Either way, Chris was gifted, handsome, rich, famous, and highly respected by musicians from all genres: a musician’s musician, the kind of musician that makes you want to go out and make your own jazz, reggae, pop, metal, bluegrass, etc., as good as he made his own rock ‘n roll. 

What a massive loss to humanity and music; just f**king horrible that wonderful Chris, with his blazing hot banshee wail, is gone, his life concluded like an unfinished lyric…

Goodbye, Chris. You left waaayyyyyyyyy too soon… say Hi to Hendrix, Bowie, Maurice White, Stevie Ray Vaughn, B.B. King, and all the others filling Heaven with music worth “eternity-ing” to…

Telling A Story in Jazz Improvisation.

lem photo


This post is written for jazz musicians, but may be of some use to writers who play an instrument and want to find a way of bringing their narrative skills to sound. If you are one of these… go for it!! You may be surprised at how much fun it is and it may re-invigorate/inspire your own writing with new ideas and perspectives. If it does, please leave a comment and tell me about it!

Often, in interviews with famous jazz musicians, one will hear talk of storytelling: that an improvised solo should “tell a story”, or that certain artists are “saying something” when they play. In fact, in the old days, an artist’s merit was very much measured by how they “said” things in music, no matter what their skill level or stature in the community. Indeed, if a young artist was really coming up through the ranks, their inexperience was usually mitigated by the fact that the pros could hear in their work that they were saying something; had a way of playing that “speaks” to (resonates with) people.

This ability to make the music resonate with people is what also makes actual storytelling so powerful. Whatever your preferred literature is, the writing really lingers with you after the story is finished. For example, The Cyberiad by Stanislaw Lem (pictured above) is one of these works that has thrilled me ever since my first reading, as is Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. They both resonated with and captured my imagination. To others, these novels either resonate the same way, do nothing at all for them, or evoke some kind of feeling in between. But whatever it is that excites a person about a story, there are principles that one can consider and/or apply to jazz improvisation that can help a musician contextualize what they do and find new ways to make their music and improvisation sound how they desire it to. To do this we can then consider the structure of a good story and apply certain principles to our music where we see fit.

A fun way to go about this is studying the structure of stories; how stories work. Every story follows a general pattern: an opening scene (something that captures the reader’s attention), some kind of foreshadowing, a major plot point, a pinch point, a shifting middle, a second pinch point, the second major plot point, and the resolution of the story (a satisfying conclusion). So let’s look at how we can use these ideas in music.

(Note: you can also think of each of these points as a scene unto itself, organizing the various points into a set of three or four scenes in which they occur… if this works for you. Anyone can “write”, the masters create compelling scenes out of words and story structure. A scene is the place where the masters rise above the beginners.)

First, we have the Opening Scene. This is the first thing you play when you improvise: your first ideas, pattern, note, rhythm; the thing that you develop melodically, rhythmically, and/or harmonically. Many improvisers think up an opening statement if they are the second in line to improvise, after the first soloist has finished. This does not have to occur, but it is a good opportunity to think up something interesting to “say”. One can prepare an idea for this moment, a great idea for a beginner, but the ultimate goal in improvisation is to be able to spontaneously invent ideas, or find some unique way of expressing something that is already in your vocabulary, something that is in your signature style.

Then we can progress to Foreshadowing. To musically foreshadow something – to hint at what is to come in our solo – we can then focus on a specific aspect of our solo. Thus, if our solo is going to be an artistic display of rhythmic variation, begin playing with the rhythmic shape of your first idea. If you feel that a big flashy ending is how your solo should end, begin ramping up the intensity of the solo a small bit, a way of building tension in your audience, which will be released by the climatic qualities of the end of your solo.

Like a story reaches its First (major) Plot Point, so too can your solo create a feeling of dramatic story telling. At this point, you can create this effect by introducing a dramatic change in your solo: something opposite of what the audience expects. This could be fewer notes, different dynamics, a switch from rhythmic ideas to melodic shapes (more minimalistic rhythm), or moving from simple to more complex harmonic ideas (adding chromatic notes that are not part of the music, but are carefully chosen to create exciting dissonances). This must be done with taste, as an alteration such as this could throw the audience off of the story; interrupt the “plot” in ways they don’t feel excited about.

But that could be the right thing to lead you to your First Pinch Point: the moment when your alteration provides a moment of diversion, a moment of conflict momentarily takes your audience in a direction they are not expecting but then helps understand the next part of your solo. This could be continuing on with dissonance, then surprisingly returning to the original idea you started your solo with, which brings the audience back to what they understand about the solo. This type of musical antagonism, effectively played and then cancelled, can also create a feeling of high drama in your soloing, and I have seen it work very effectively in the music of John Coltrane when he returns from a dissonant part of his solo back to it’s main theme, or even back to a improvised variation on the main melody of the song (which is a great pinch point technique).

By this time you should consider yourself in the Middle of your solo. A solo does not have to be long or short to be good, just musical. In fact, letting your solo become a story is also a great way of gauging how long your solo should be considering how you are progressing. This middle does not have to be anything in particular, as long as it is flowing and moving forward towards your next goal, the Second Pinch Point.

The Second Pinch Point can be a slightly varied repetition of the first pinch point, or a completely new one. Either way, it is a surprising diversion from the expected; what one expects you to play having heard your middle section. At the second pinch point you can to the reverse of the first one: instead of playing the variation of the main melody of the song you are improvising over, you could then quote a completely different melody from the same composer, refitted to the chord changes you are currently playing. This quoting – this contextual information – creates a moment of levity in the audience if they are informed fans. At the very least, your band mates should recognize the quote, and will either appreciate or be nonplussed by it, depending on the quality of the quote and how it relates to the “story” of your solo.

Your second to last musical act should be to bring in another idea that is in thematic keeping with the over arc of you story, your Second Plot Point. I find that creating a variation of your first plot point is a great way of leading your audience back towards the feeling of your opening idea, which can be a great way of running down the slope towards the conclusion of your story. This is the final change, the final twist in the story, the final variation on a theme. This is where you either ramp up the energy towards an exciting climax (high and loud), or surprise the audience by slowly turning down your volume, making your notes more sparse, and slowing the rhythmic/harmonic pace, which is the second plot point I personally prefer (because it suits my musical personality). The second plot point is a great moment to display your emotional qualities, as musical drama can be effective in many ways, as long as it is honest, a true reflection of your personality.

Finally we arrive at the Resolution, the few moments that lead to the final statement you make in your story before you hand over the song for someone else to improvise on or reintroduce the melody to finish the song. A great resolution is both a great way to hand over the solo or finish it, as it provides a logical finish to our journey. The Resolution is also a great chance to begin. If you are playing with great improvising musicians, and the player before you ends with an amazing resolution to their solo, don’t be afraid to repeat it as the Opening Scene of your own solo. That also includes something that the drummer or bassist for example might have played while the trumpet player was finishing their solo. The Resolutions and Opening Scenes performed by Michael Brecker (saxophone) and his brother Randy (trumpet) were one of the highlights of The Brecker Brothers concerts, most notably their concert video filmed in Barcelona in 1992. This video also demonstrates another skill of the great improvisers: choosing to cool off the intensity of the previous soloist, or ratchet it up, depending on how the music and audience is feeling. Randy often “cooled” the ebullient ferocity of Michael’s soloing, and Randy’s opening statements in those moments were brilliant emotional opening statements in this context.

This story telling format for soloing is a great way to explore a different conceptual approach to jazz improvisation, and I guarantee it will at least open up your creative thinking to new directions.


Ornette Coleman: The Shape of Jazz To Come.

ornette TSOJTC

オーネット・コールマン: シェオブジャズコム 

Ornette Coleman: The Shape Of Jazz To Come

May 22, 1959: Atlantic LP 1317

Lonely Woman (4:59)
Eventually (4:20)
Peace (9:04)
Focus On Sanity (6:50)
Congeniality (6:41)
Chronology (6:05)

Ornette Coleman: alto saxophone
Don Cherry: cornet
Charlie Haden: bass
Billy Higgins: drums

In honour of the passing of my beloved saxophone teacher Ornette Coleman 698 days ago, I am revisiting his album The Shape of Jazz To Come, the recording that vaulted his reputation into the stratosphere (hell… maybe all the way out into the exosphere!!), both positively and negatively, depending on how attached one is to the ways and means of jazz tradition before 1959.

This recording would stand out as a classic free jazz album alone, if it were not already the most famous free jazz recording in history. It is also one of the four most famous jazz albums in history, three of which all came out in 1959 (The Shape of Jazz To Come, Miles Davis’ Kind Of Blue, and Dave Brubeck’s Time Out!); Coleman’s being extremely different from the rest.  

Though recorded music with elements of freedom was made earlier by Cecil Taylor, Lennie Tristano, Jimmy Guiffre, and Ornette Coleman himself, The Shape of Jazz to Come could be called the definitive opening chapter in the contemplation, discussion and creation of free jazz as a genre. Adding to its notoriety was Coleman’s six month long engagement at the Five Spot Café in New York the year of the album’s release that added controversy and focused attention to Ornette’s work, both live and recorded. Most importantly, it was Coleman’s thematic/non-harmonically defined compositions that seemed to inspire the most praise or vitriol.

Compositions such as Lonely WomanCongeniality, the frenetic Eventually and indeed the overwhelming majority of Coleman’s works since then, have no clearly defined harmonic framework, save what harmony one can create out of the melody, or what harmonic inclinations one imagines the melody to contain, based on musical/philosophical system of describing the music created by Coleman himself known as the Harmolodic Theory. But at this point in his career, Coleman’s discussions of his music were focused on the relationship between theme and emotional content. The liner notes to the original album are filled with descriptions of Ornette’s feelings, ideas about love, and high praise from composer Gunther Schuller, bassist Percy Heath, and pianist John Lewis. Most notably however, the album generated highly polarized reactions; one seemingly reacted with either wild enthusiasm at this new, unpredicted music, or one vehemently (almost violently) opposed this ‘assault on musical order and good taste.’ This seems odd upon listening to the album itself many decades later after Coleman’s innovations have become both influential and historically contextual. The album itself contains much more melodic and rhythmic order than one would assume from reading its criticisms alone. The compositions themselves are “through composed” but quite logical in their construction, with each section containing a diatonic logic unto itself, however momentary. And the soloing by all musicians is quite lyrical for music containing large amounts of bi- or pan-tonality.

The real star of this recording though is the ebullient Chronology, a staple in the set list of any/all serious jazz musicians. As Cherry and Coleman lay the melody out like a tapestry, Haden bounces and bubbles underneath, and Higgins’ hi-hat rhythm sounds like bacon sizzling in a nearby kitchen: the perfect scenario within which to leap into improvisation.

It is not only a joy to listen to but extremely fun to play as well. As a saxophonist it is a golden opportunity to bounce and swing while improvising your own chord changes to solo over. And as a drummer it is a really, really fun song to play: straight ahead, (slightly) up tempo swing with lots of space to accent and syncopate the beat in a rhythmic conversation with the other musicians, especially in the solo section. With a wonderfully careening melody and open format for soloing, it is both an easy and difficult song to perform: easy to learn the melody and rhythmic feel, but extraordinarily difficult to solo over.

This is because having no chord changes leaves the responsibility for any and all musical logic and intelligence in the soloing is 100% on the shoulders of the improviser and bassist. If anything excellent is to happen during the solo, it is exclusively the improviser’s responsibility to deliver it, ergo there is nothing/no one to blame for failing to deliver interesting music. In “regular” jazz one has a roadmap of chords and colours that provides a kind of self contained, pre-fab excellence… thus it is “safe” to play the music of Duke Ellington and hide behind/within its brilliance. But in the empty space of soloing in a Coleman song, the only logic is one’s own… you can wear Duke’s suit or learn how to make your own clothes on the spot in Ornette’s music (and there are a whole lotta “emperors” who think they are wearing clothes when they play Chronology). It is one of the nice things about Coleman’s music: it winnows out the fakers… really fast… and those who are left making music are a delight to listen to, a.k.a. musicians such as the ones Coleman hired to realize his musical vision.

But lest I get too negative, Ornette was not a negative man. He took anything and everything in stride, having been called both a genius and a musical charlatan (almost daily!) for decades. Thus was his profound effect on those supremely lucky enough to meet him. Any ordinary man would buckle under the weight of his legacy, but Ornette was a beam of light, no matter what. 

He was a kind genius, and The Shape of Jazz To Come was the first of many love letters he wrote to the world… and becoming the best we can be as poets, musicians, and so on is the best way of writing love letters back. 

Introduction to Western Philosophy (5): Postmodernism To µ-Modernism




In Part One to Four of this series I discussed how the study of ancient to modern (Western) philosophy can be a long and challenging endeavour, with potentially hundreds of philosophers and ideas to mentally catalogue and contextualize. This, in general, has followed three lines of thought: metaphysics, epistemology, and axiology. In Part Five, my final post in the series, I will now outline the important Postmodern to µ-Modern thinkers (who write philosophy about philosophy), though some consider our current age to be “Post-Postmodern” rather than µ-Modern (“meta-modern”). As a bonus, I have included a little “essay” (rant) at the end about what I see are fundamental flaws in the concept of Neo-Liberalism. And, as always, I encourage you to explore the names and ideas that pop out at you, what you might want to learn more about. Plus, I have once again highlighted (in blue) the philosophers in whom I myself am particularly interested.


Postmodernism is a tricky concept to define as a singular thing. In art, it has come to mean styles of creation after (circa) 1970 that often include multiple media and iconoclastic themes. In philosophy and politics however it refers to a number of different theories that revolve around the idea that (1) there is no one grand narrative that guides society and thus (2) there is no such thing as objective knowledge, as (3) knowledge is based in individual perception (observation changes what is being observed, and thus we can’t know a thing’s true nature). These particular Postmodernist ideas have been used in analysis and social critique, often in service of skepticism (and to some: cynicism): in the revelation of perceived and actual evils of media manipulation and commodity fetishism.

But the major opposition to philosophical/political Postmodernism is that, in the absence of any real truth or objectivity, Postmodernism itself can’t even make that very claim. If there is no truth and/or objectivity, then Postmodernism can’t be “true” either, and to be a Postmodernist thinker is inherently contradictory, ironic, or oxymoronic. Another criticism of such Postmodernism is that many leading Postmodern thinkers are/were Marxist-leaning and replaced the idea of truth/objectivity with a narrative of oppression. If there is no truth, then there is nothing to argue over, or even fight for: nothing one can do to know any truth, no truth = there is no action that leads to knowing truth. This also means that with no truth, there can be no value claims, and thus truth is a form of oppression: someone’s else’s “values” being prioritized and promoted at the expense of those who don’t share those “values”. Truth becomes oppression to those who don’t like it (a common criticism of certain social justice advocates made by Canadian psychologist Dr. Jordan Peterson).

This is where Marxism and Postmodern iconoclasm seem to merge. If there is no truth yet others are promoting their “values” (truth) the only course of action is to tear down “oppressive” institutions.  To not believe the Postmodern “truth of no truth” means one must be inherently tyrannical, and Postmodernists become those oppressed by such tyranny.  Thus, defined this way, Postmodernism becomes ideologically and impenetrably anti-truth. 

The 21st century iteration of this “Postmodernism/Marxism/anti-truth” is considered by some to be active in social justice (“social justice warriors”) and Left Wing/progressive politics, e.g. in the debate over whether expanded gender pronoun usage should be mandatory. Key to this argument are the views that (1) to refuse to use gender pronouns preferred by transgender people is hate speech, and alternately (2) that to be forced to use such pronouns is a loss of free speech and an Orwellian attempt at social control. As humans are biologically (genetically) male, female or hermaphroditic at birth, but neuro-psychologically malleable in gender/sexual identity, this debate presents an interesting challenge as various societies become more or less accepting of such issues and ideas.

(Note: It should also be mentioned that Postmodernist writing includes very important work by (1) many female philosophers, who have helped move society much closer to gender equality than previous generations, and (2) led to non-traditional Meta-Modern philosophical thinkers such as Henry Oruka. Thus, Anti-Postmodernists not acknowledging this positive advancement could be seen as hypocritical).


Jean-Francois Lyotard (1924 – 1998): “Knowledge is produced to be sold” (commercialization of research, justification for tuition). The Post-Modern Condition: when knowledge becomes data, then it is not of the mind but rather a commodity that can be bought and sold. This is because computer technology has changed knowledge into information, owned by corporations and stored in databanks; judged by its commercial value rather than how true it is (the mercantilization of knowledge). Also inherent in this effect is how knowledge is becoming externalized from human minds, something we don’t have or have the ability to think (e.g. needing a calculator to do simple addition), thus facilitating the commodification of learning as well. In terms of philosophy we stop asking if a thing is true, instead asking if a thing can be sold; if it has commercial value.

Lyotard also suggested that if this trend continued, private corporations may seek to control the flow of knowledge and who can access it, a prescient observation made before the global reach of the Internet.

(Note: though Lyotard did not coin it, his frequent use of the word “Postmodern” led to its current status as an era defining term, thus making him the first recognizably Postmodern philosopher. His definition of the word: an incredulity towards the idea of all of human history and though being summed up in a single concept or word (ironically, like “Postmodernism”!) though, is much different than current definitions, especially the more negative ones).

Deleuze (1925 – 1985): Post-Structuralism: there is no possibility of a truly scientific study of Man, and Man is not moving from superstition to reason and knowledge as a condition of his being. (Related to dialectical materialism – Mankind gets knowledge, which becomes a “property” of the upper classes through privileged education). Difference and Repetition: Things that are governed by natural laws to happen in cycles/constantly are “generalities”. “Repetitions” in human culture are unique in that they are never exactly the same as the thing being repeated, and are often transgressive (humor and irony distance themselves from norms and laws while conforming to their own norms and laws of comedy).

Frantz Fanon (1925-1961): Afro-Caribbean philosopher and psychiatrist. His work Black Skin, White Masks (1952) studied the legacy (psycho-social effect) of colonialism on non-Caucasian peoples. In the case of black people, being black became synonymous with being inferior, and to escape this inferiority one had to essentially reject their blackness and adopt the cultural standards of the colonial presence, which meant aspiring to “white existence”. Thus Fanon stated that eventually “for the black man there us only one destiny, and it is white”. In his own life he was chastised as a child for speaking Creole French rather than “proper” (white) French, which influenced his thinking on how language usage also plays a role in colonial subordination. Fanon was also a major influence on Edward Saïd and his work on colonial orientalism.

Noam Chomsky (1928-): Linguist and philosopher. “If we choose, we can live in a world of comforting illusion.” Manufacturing Consent: Our desire for and/or consent to social policy (and free-market capitalism) is covertly manufactured and marketed to us via the media by government and corporations.

Baudrillard (1929 – 2007): Meaning and/or value are created through difference: “dog” is known in part through “not a cat.” An excess of signs and meaning in the late 20th century have produced a hyper-reality – thus humanity has replaced reality and meaning with mere signs and symbols; human experience is now a simulation of Reality.

Jürgen Habermas (1929-): Communicative Rationality: human rationality is a result of successful communication. Formal Pragmatics: “what are the necessary conditions for reaching an understanding through communication?”

Guattari (1930 – 1992): Collaborator of Deleuze. A Thousand Plateaus: “Agencement” – the shifting relations that expressive qualities, or matters of expression, enter into with one another, “expressing the relation of the territory they draw to the inner milieu of impulses and the exterior milieu of circumstances.”

Bourdieu (1930 – 2002): Distinction – critique of Kant: social class inculcates aesthetic values in its young, and reinforces class divisions with said aesthetic notions.

Derrida (1930 – 2004): Deconstructionism – revealing the inherent disruptions and contradictions of language. The Truth in Painting – the Kantian parergon is problematic.

Rorty (1931 – 2007): Neo-Pragmatism: Universal truth and epistemic objectivity are not possible: scientific and philosophical vocabularies are useful but contingent.

Thomas Wolfe (1931): Author and journalist – influence on the (increasingly subjective) New Journalism movement in the 1960s/70s. Author of Bonfire Of The Vanities, and The Painted Word – a (brilliant) criticism of 70s modern art that posited art was now merely illustration of the art theories of critics such as Harold Rosenberg, Clement Greenberg, and Leo Steinberg, men whom he called the “Kings Of Cultureburg.” The 70s art world was now merely an insular clique of wealthy collectors and critics with undue influence over museums and said wealthy collectors – art was not visual anymore, rather just part of a social clique given to grand theories and belles-lettres.

Edward Saïd (1935 – 2003): Palestinian writer. “Every empire tells itself that it is unlike all other empires.” Orientalism: Imperialist ideology was embedded in early writing on the East, and is still present in subtler forms.

Luce Irigaray (1932): Belgian philosopher/feminist. All language is essentially masculine in nature, as male philosophers have set the supposedly “universal” standards for philosophy, especially in regard to rectitude (honor, integrity, etc.). Historically, femininity have been presented as irrational (hysterical) while masculinity is inherently rational (sober, intellectual). Irigaray responds to this, in part, through the idea of Mimesis: a process in which women subvert misogynist stereotypes about woman by purposely behaving in exaggerated versions of these stereotypes, demonstrating the inherent and irrational nature of such ideas.

Hélène Cixous (1937): French poet/philosopher. As language is often presented as opposing concepts: dark/light, good/bad, peace/war, etc, masculinity tends to be associates with the better or more preferred (superior) of the two (e.g. rational/irrational). Cixous’ ideas inspired the creation of the French écriture féminine “feminine writing” movement (also known as “white ink” writing). Cixous also raised the issue of the logic of “AntiLove” and how women come to hate themselves/their bodies through a kind of anti-narcissism created in them by unconsciously adapting sexist/patriarchal narratives in society.

Thomas Nagel (1937): American philosopher. In What Is It Like To Be A Bat? Nagel argues that science, in trying to explain consciousness in terms of the parts of the brain (materialism), cannot explain what it feels like to be a thing, what life is like for a bat, as a bat’s consciousness and personal (subjective) experience of the world can’t be explained by physics, neurology, or other physical things. The objective experience of the world he calls the “view from nowhere”: something a being can have anytime putting their own experience and bias’ aside. This ability is one of the remarkable aspects of the human mind, and if the two are reconciled, we can have a complete understanding of the world.

Julia Kristeva (1941): Bulgarian philosopher/feminist. Feminism has arisen out of the conflict between women and male-dominated structures. Because of this, many core feminist beliefs are in danger of replicating the “power principle” of male domination, thus making feminism just another form of unquestioned, uncritical domination; the very thing it supposedly is freeing women from.

Slavoj Žižek (1949): Slovenian philosopher. “All the best Marxist analyses are always analyses of a failure”. Those on the political Left are always dwelling on their failure as if, had they gone ahead, would have led to Utopia. Such failures allow the left to maintain moral myths about their position without ever having to actually wield (responsible) power or have their ideas tested through action ergo they create endless justifications for their Utopia’s elusiveness. Žižek calls this the “comfortable position of resistance” and many political critics consider this phenomenon to be occurring in the Democratic party (especially after the election of Donald J. Trump as President of the United States in 2016).

µMODERNISM (MetaModernism)

Metamodernism: a term introduced in the Journal of Aesthetics And Culture (Vol. 2: 2010) by Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin Van Den Akker. µ-modernism (my spelling) is an oscillating middle ground between Modern and Postmodern ideas, e.g. yearning for objective truth and relativism, hope and doubt, etc. Marked by hope and sincerity in the face of cynicism. Such techniques as Postmodern parataxis (seemingly unrelated elements set side by side, e.g. Dadaist collage) are now abandoned in favour of metaxis – a position between said elements.

Mary Midgley (1919): English moral philosopher. Her work explores the relationship between the idea of culture and nature: that humans “make” culture as naturally as birds make nests. Thus, evolutionary biology does not undermine what it means to be human rational, creative, spiritual, etc.), thus humans can be simultaneously unique and evolved from apes. Midgley is also notable for (1) her stance against scientism, the idea that science or scientific thinking is the sole method of all truth and human valuation, and (2) her view that the evils of religion or religious thinking are not exclusive to religion, but rather are always present in human affairs of all sorts.

Henry Odera Oruka (1944 – 1995): Kenyan philosopher. His work Sage Philosophy raised the issue of philosophy being a written tradition, while many other (oral) cultures considered their wise men (sages”) to be saying similarly important things: approaching the traditions of their culture systematically and critically.. Thus, many of these men and women (in sub-Saharan Africa) showed “philosophical sagacity” and should be considered as philosophical thinkers. Oruka’s work is an excellent example of µ-Modern thought‘s power to reinvigorate philosophy. 

Mikhail Epstein (1950): Interested in creating new areas of study such as Void Theory – the theory of voids, i.e. “empty” forms, holes, literary lacunae, grids, etc. Potentiation: the exploration and creation of new, previously unexplored forms (potentials) out of older analytical forms. A proponent of Postconceptualism a.k.a. the New Sincerity (Russian: новая искренность – novaia iskrennost) – the return of sincerity, enthusiasm, and sentiment in aesthetics, literature, music, etc, and the rejection of the irony and cynicism found in Postmodernism.

Alan Kirby: Postmodernism emphasizes the elusiveness of meaning and knowledge, and culture as spectacle on display before the powerless individual. The new age of 21st century philosophy started as Pseudo-Modern: a viewer is involved in the invention and direction of a program, text, or ‘work’ e.g. viewers voting on American Idol stars. The raw “material” is supplied by the network, the audience decides its “meaning.” The Internet is the epitome of Pseudo-Modernism: the individual clicks their way through the raw material, creating a “path” of meaning through cultural products – creating the sense (or illusion?) that the ‘clicker’ is in control of and managing such products. Much of this behaviour is vacuous and superficial; possibly emblematic of Pseudo-Modernism’s vacuity, “creating” nothing more than ignorance and fanaticism as its intellectual contribution. Pseudo-Modernism is now better described as an aspect of Digimodernism: the combination and enmeshing of new concepts of time and space – the intersection of real time and cyberspace.

Naomi Klein (1970): Canadian social activist/filmmaker. Though not a traditional philosopher, Klein, like Marx or Chomsky before her, is an important socio-political thinker who addresses the state of economies: in particular how global corporatism and predatory capitalism is affecting humanity (turning socially conscious citizens into mindless consumers). Thus Klein’s work is a continuation (and revitalization) of Lyotard’s idea of “mercantile knowledge”.

One such threat to humanity is know as Neo-Liberalism, what could be loosely defined as the monetization of human activity: the idea that individuals (and humanity) are best served by being treated like parts in an economic engine. This ideal is heavily criticized in academia, as profit has begun to increasingly dictate the policies of higher education at the educational and economic expense of the professors and students: essentially converting them into economic slaves.

For exampleKlein’s most famous work No Logo discusses how various corporations have branded educational items or made deals with educational institutions to effective advertise themselves as part of student life. I personally witnessed such a phenomenon such example while visiting a particular Canadian university that had made an exclusive deal with a brand of soda: a deal which specified not selling any other brand on campus. Thus, this soda company was synonymous with student life, the only such company on campus and only their products on display. Thus, no matter how diverse the product lines were, only a single company was visible and/or profited from all sodas and bottled water sales on campus, with no input from students, if they were even aware of such a thing occurring before their eyes.

Another example is the failure to replace retiring full time (tenured) professors with several part time adjunct teachers, most often Masters and PhD students who work more hours for significantly less income. Thus, instead of paying a tenured professor an income usually in the 90,000 to 120,000 dollar a year range for their services, a university will hire an adjunct teacher to teach each individual class for a mere 2,000 to 3,000 dollars a semester, hiring one teacher for one class, with an additional Teaching Assistant (inevitably Masters and PhD students) or hired to assist the teacher in grading and class management (themselves making usually $1500 a semester for all their work). This means the university is now “profiting” from significantly lower salaries while increasing enrollment for further profit. By doing so, this also means that the Masters/PhD students (TAs), adjunct teachers, full time professors have excessive amounts of work, significant stress, and have less time to devote to lesson preparation or study. Thus emotional and physical “burn out” occurs more frequently among professors, leading to more adjunct positions and more profit for the university: an vicious cycle predesigned by Neo-Liberal policy to profit from these phenomena. And, as there is now significant amounts of employee turn-over, fighting for increased salaries and better working conditions is an ongoing struggle for professors and students, a situation universities can exploit to their advantage.

I have personally witnessed this sort of thing in the Canadian province of Ontario when a personal friend of mine was enrolled in her PhD program at a major university. The Ontario government, in an effort to stop Ontarian graduate students from seeking employment elsewhere outside of Ontario or Canada (a.k.a “brain drain”), institute a policy wherein her university was required to significantly the amount of Masters and PhD students. The reasoning was that if there were more graduate students, it was more “statistically likely” that more of them would stay in Ontario. In her case, the number of PhD students alone in her department increased from 20 to 50 in a single year! This meant that the professors in the department had a 150% increase in workload when it came to advising and organizing the progress of their PhD students. Another 20 Masters students were added to the 10 already in the program that year which added an extra 200% increase in workload for the professors as they advised both PhD and Masters students during a given academic year (8 months).

As this was occurring, her department was considering removing the language requirement from Masters students in an effort to streamline the student’s education in order to graduate them at a quicker rate: getting more students in and out quicker (with less knowledge and skill) meaning more “profits” from tuition. This idea of getting rid of the requirement to learn a language related to one’s research, as a positive economic act, is horrendous, as such language study is fundamental to graduate education: fundamental to doing any meaningful work in university, or especially, outside of it. Imagine studying Korean literature with the goal of becoming an expert on Korean culture… and not being able to understand, speak, or translate a single word of Korean. What is also lost is the irreplaceable, rich life experience of foreign language context: learning how others think and becoming more sensitive to the actual feelings and needs of global citizens through their own native tongues, a context which fosters unity and understanding. This is lost by being a monolingual “academic” in a world that is increasingly bi- and trilingual.

The most extreme example of such thinking though is occurring at a major American university. During a visit to this institution, I learnt that it has enough money in reserve alone to cover its full salary/scholarship/operating costs for the next 80 years(!!), even as it increases its (exorbitant) tuition, and bonuses for its executive employees thanks to its reputation as a world class institution. The school could offer free tuition for all for 70 years and still be completely secure financially.

This anti-educational, pro-profit activity is the perfect exemplar of the potentially pernicious effect of NeoLIberalism as an educational phenomenon.


Introduction to Western Philosophy (4): Late Enlightenment to Modern Era




In Part Two and Three of this series I discussed how the study of ancient to modern (Western) philosophy can be a long and challenging endeavour, with potentially hundreds of philosophers and ideas to mentally catalogue and contextualize. This, in general, has followed three lines of thought: metaphysics, epistemology, and axiology. In Part Four I will now outline the important post “Age Of Reason” (Enlightenment) to Modern Era thinkers, though one could argue that the Post-Enlightenment philosophers and thinkers could be also categorized as Late Enlightenment and/or Pre-Modern. Also, I have highlighted select thinkers’ names in blue to mark them as either favorites of mine (Kant, Camus, Satre or individuals whose work is particularly important to consider (James, Rand), and as always, in most cases I use only the surname of the philosopher, as Immanuel Kant, for example, is commonly referenced in conversation and much writing as just “Kant”. 

Plus, I have included a special section on the origin of the word “avant-garde” in the fine arts.


Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804): Critique of Pure Reason, one of the great works of Philosophy. In a highly complex analysis, Kant shows us that all truths must be independent of experience – true in themselves. Math demonstrates this. Kantian Aesthetics – aesthetic experience is both its own unique form of autonomy, as well as support for our efforts as sensual and rational creatures to achieve moral autonomy. And in the process of the free play of imagination, our ability to imagine and reason supports the free will necessary for moral autonomy. We can only experience time through things in the world that change, so we only experience time indirectly. While Rationalists believed that reasoning (rather than experience) leads to knowledge of objects in the world, versus Empiricists who believed that knowledge comes from our experience of objects (e.g. science), Kant argued that both reason and experience were necessary to understand the world (Transcendental Idealism). Kant also discussed the idea of a Categorical Imperative: an absolute, unconditional law that must be obeyed in all circumstances, and is justifiable in all circumstances (e.g. something like The Golden Rule).

William Blake (1757 – 1827): artist and ferocious critic of Enlightenment philosophy, though he was not a philosopher himself. Blake reacted against the wholesale application by fans of Isaac Newton’s scientific theories to all aspects of society, which in his eyes, devalued and “mocked” imagination and inspiration. Thus, not being a trained scientist or recognized intellectual in his time, Blake’s poetry and art reflect his criticisms through mystical themes and images. Therefore, one could say Blake was a philosopher who used the arts to represent his arguments. But critics could also describe Blake and his views as being the very restrictive and stifling socio-theological thinking the Enlightenment sought to counter.

In this sense, Blake’s vehement stance on Newton and such thinkers reflects a kind of Triumphalism, an insistence that his own conception of Imagination and divinity is superior to Newtonian thinking, as well as being the ultimate arbiter of what is factual. This Triumphalism also carries an air of authority, i.e. Blake thinks society should think like he does.

For example, Blake says in an 1809 catalogue of his pictures: “The human mind cannot go beyond the gift of God, the Holy Ghost. To suppose that Art can go beyond the finest specimens of Art that are now in the world is not knowing what Art is. It is being blind to the gifts of the spirit”. Blake also says in another catalogue from 1810 that: “a Last Judgment is necessary because fools flourish. Nations flourish under wise rulers and are depress under foolish rulers. It is the same with individuals as nations: works of art can only be produced in perfection where the man is either in affluence, or is above the care of it. Some people and not a few artists have asserted that (I) would not have done so well if he had been properly encouraged. Let those who think so reflect on the state of nations under poverty and their incapability of art.

To assume that no “true art” can exist after his time, and that the poor are “incapable” of such art undermines Blake’s counter-Enlightenment activities. But to be fair, the great 18th century thinkers themselves often made similar assumptions. Kant himself once remarked to a merchant/friend named Herr Green that astronomy had reached such perfection (in 1768) that no new hypotheses in astronomy were possible!

Hegel (1770 – 1831): helped found German Idealism: the properties we perceive in objects depend on how they appear, and are not inherent to the objects themselves. Things have no properties independent of the mind.

Schlegel (1772 – 1829): Romantic poetry (poetry + prose) should be philosophical and mythological in nature. Reacted against the scientific rationalizing of nature. Science cannot see in Nature and Art the mystical, essential truths know through imagination and emotion: reaction against industrialization/ urbanization.

Fichte (1762 – 1814): Self-consciousness is social – other rational actors are necessary for this to occur. Women should be completely devoid of civic freedom, and submissive to men.

Schopenhauer (1788 – 1860): Extreme Pessimist – Humanity is at the mercy of a mindless, aimless Universal Will (“Reality”). Life itself has negative value, thus the world is essentially what humans ‘will’ it to be. To escape this Universal Will one must lose the desire for gratification and realize that, as all beings are part of this Will, we can become empathetic and compassionate. Thus, ascetic negation (self-discipline and abstinence from various indulgences) is the only way to avoid constant misery and suffering, and become empathetic (reflecting his interest in and study of Eastern religions). On the Vanity of Existence  – Time is that by virtue of which everything becomes nothingness in our hands and loses all real value.

Comte (1798 – 1857): coined Sociology, a philosopher of science (Positivism: “all true understanding is scientific”).

Feuerbach (1804 – 1872): “Theology is anthropology.” In our yearning for what is best in humanity we have attributed it to God, and have forsaken the reality that our best attributes come from humanity itself.

John Stuart Mill (1806 – 1873): On Liberty – What is the nature/limits of power that can be rightly exercised by a government over its people? Free speech is good.

Darwin (1809 – 1882): Evolution. Inspired everyone after him to think about evolution in terms of his or her own discipline – social evolution, etc.

Søren Aabye Kierkegaard (1813 – 1855): Father of Existentialism: the individual and his experiences are the starting point of philosophy – moral/scientific thinking alone cannot explain human existence). Christian Existentialism: the existence of God cannot be known for sure, and faith does not need a foundation or justification in reason, one can take a “leap of faith” (a term he coined): doubt and faith are part of a dialectic within oneself. Though he founded modern Existentialism, it was French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre who became most famous for Existential philosophy through his novels, plays, and various writings.

Karl Marx (1818 – 1883): Father of Economic Socialism, what became known as “Communism”. Societies progress through various types of class struggles (the rich vs. the poor, etc). An ideal Communist (state-less, classless, collectively ran) society is the best kind of society for humanity. This is difficult to obtain, though, because every society ends up having people with some kind of power (elites) who will exploit people without any power (the disenfranchised). Thus Marx proposed a type of society that used public money to ensure social stability for all (healthcare, unemployment assistance, etc.) as much as national prosperity, while also guaranteeing that national businesses and corporations didn’t exploit citizens through unregulated or predatory forms of Capitalism. the kind of Socialism now practiced in Canada, and various Scandinavian countries. Marx’s ideas though eventually became distorted and grossly abused to create counterfeit Socialist dictatorships and nightmarish societies (dystopias) around the world. Marx also stated that religion is “the opiate of the masses”.


At this point in the history of Western philosophy, an important concept appears which will play a major role in philosophy afterwards, the idea of “the avant-garde”.

After the French Revolution and the ensuing political turmoil (as well as the eventual restoration of the monarchy in 1815), intellectuals and academics sought to renew the idea of society being oriented towards democracy, individual rights and renewed social stability and order without monarchic control.

One such person was Count Henri De Saint-Simon (1760 – 1825), a political theorist who promoted a system of socialism that would be lead by the top minds of three different groups: artists, scientists, and industrialists. As artists are men and women of imagination and creative vision, they would be the ones who would lead the other two groups, who themselves would be able to realize their ideas in practical ways, leading to socio-historical progress. Thus, Saint-Simon labeled them the political “avant-garde”, a military term for the front line of an army that advances first, or ahead of the rest. This was the first time that avant-garde was used outside of a military context, and soon it became a common title for anything that was new and at the innovative (imaginative) forefront of thought and creativity. The French writer Baudelaire disliked the term, as he thought it reflected a rather negative French penchant for militaristic metaphor, and thought that general usage of such a term shows conformity, not innovation. This was because all artists were considered at the forefront, which assumed any/all artists were uniformly gifted or creative. Thus, within the ranks of the avant-garde, there must be some who are the “avant-gardes of the avant-garde,” and the term eventually became most common in art rather than politics.

The inference that artists working on the most innovative and often experimental works were (1) making “progress”, and (2) this progress improved art and/or society still remains to a certain degree, and has been the core of much debate when various avant-garde works are considered tasteless, ugly, controversial, or not even art at all.

Baudelaire himself was notorious for his almost furious view on the role of the then-new medium of photography. Early photography was a laborious, developing practice in his time, a medium that would rightfully supplement science and be a valuable tool for naturalists and archivists. But he thought that “if photography is allowed to supplement art in some of its functions, it will soon have supplanted or corrupted it altogether, thanks to the stupidity of the multitude which is its natural ally” (“The Salon of 1859: The Modern Public and Photography” in the Revue Française (June/July,1859).

This has also led to debates over whether certain, or indeed all highly experimental avant-garde works are a type of aesthetic evasion: untalented artists hiding their lack of creativity and skill behind the idea that if the public doesn’t understand their work, it is because they do not understand avant-gardism and the deeper meaning of such works, which is only understood by art world elites. This evasion subsequently recreates the very social divisions the original 19th century avant-gardists of Saint-Simon were supposed to eliminate. Also, avant-garde thinking in socio-political (and creative) spheres could conceivably make progress by being opposed to society itself, if a particular society had devolved into a dictatorship, oligarchy, or especially, a plutocracy. Thus, aesthetic evasion could also be couched in terms of resistance: that one’s art was an attack on a surrounding system, and did not need to be held to any standard of technique or beauty. Thus such art debates continue in the 21st century as artists, critics, and audiences try to determine what true/real/authentic “art” is and who is making it vs. who is faking


It is important to note that what we call Modernism in art, music, literature, philosophy and such was deeply affected by the World Wars between 1914 – 1945. After experiencing the horror and devastation of the wars, it was very easy to see society and/or humanity in very negative ways, thus we see common themes of existential crisis in this time period (see; Sartre, Camus, Rand), and the reaction of the following generations to such views, i.e. the Modern loss of meaning, and existential crisis leading to the perceived “illusion” of truth in Postmodernism. 

Charles Peirce (pronounced “purse”: 1839 – 1914): The Co-Father of Pragmatism (along with William James). The meaning of a concept is in the sensory effect of its concept i.e. a diamond could theoretically be soft until touched, even though we assume from touch it is intrinsically a hard object. Pragmatic Maxim: what is commonly called “The Truth” is actually the account of reality that works best for us.

William James (1842 – 1910): American psychologist and Co–Father of Pragmatism whose work, along with Charles Sander Peirce, established the United States as an important center for philosophy in and after the beginning of the 20th century. James is also famous for his idea of a “stream of consciousness” that became a major influence in literature, music (e.g. free jazz), and many other forms of creative culture.

In his work Pragmatism he argues that the history of philosophy, in many ways, has been the clash of the different temperaments of various philosophers, as much as their ideas. For example, the religious and/or moral philosophers tended to be more sentimental (“soft-hearted”) and the scientific philosophers tended to be more “hard-hearted” and thus when one philosophizes they are likely to be more one than the other. The sentimental philosophers are thus more religious, idealistic, and/or optimistic, while the scientific ones more materialistic (nothing truly exists except matter), pessimistic, and/or atheistic (both groups being potential forces for good… or evil when they become rigid or inflexible in their thinking).

The school of Pragmatism is also meant to be practical, meaning James and Peirce thought that we should be able to show some useful application for philosophical truth, like we expect of scientific truths. In James’ case he argued that while belief in a god or gods is not justifiable as a fact, it can be useful to believe in god if it leads to a more satisfied, fulfilled life for an individual and/or overcome the fear of death. The Will To Believe – many religious questions can only be answered through prior belief: then one can see if belief “works” by providing answers. Thus, these answers are only possible if one believes.

Nietzsche (1844 – 1900): Existentialist philosopher: Life is without intrinsic value. The Will to Power – Christianity is a backward, anti-human religion, but science as well has no particular moral values/meaning. A philosopher must “preach by example” to deserve respect. If people do not find meaning in their lives they turn to statesmanship, war, etc. Will To Power was edited, abridged, and published by his sister after his death, and contains language interpreted as anti-Semitic, which was unintended by Nietzsche himself. Also attacked Christianity for its particular forms of hypocrisy, and posited that St. Paul deliberately distorted Christian doctrine to subvert Roman authority in revenge for the destruction of Jerusalem. Nietzsche is also known for his writing on ancient Greek culture in The Birth of Tragedy, positing that Greek theater was based on a dialectic between the Apollonian tendency (order, beauty, form, symmetry, e.g. sculpture) and the Dionysian tendency (frenzy, passion, intoxication, improvisation, asymmetry, e.g. music), both based on the nature of the gods Apollo and Dionysus. “We have art in order to not die of the truth.”

Frege (1848 – 1925): Father of Analytical Philosophy (focus on logic, language, and science).

De Saussure (1857 – 1913): Father of Semiotics. “Everything (language) is made of signs – a signifer (what we imagine in our head when we hear the word “dog” and the signified (the concept of “dog”).”

Durckheim (1858 – 1917 C.E.) – Father of Formal (Academic) Sociology, rejected Comte’s philosophy but refined his methodology: sociology as the science of institutions: their genesis and maintenance. Sociology in his day developed an academic response to the growing urbanization, industrialization, and secularization of society.

(Max) Weber (1864 – 1920 C.E.): Anti-positivist: Society is best studied interpretatively, not empirically. Protestant austerity was intimately associated with the rise of capitalism; the “State” is who/what successfully claims a monopoly on the “legitimate” use of violence.

Sigmund Freud (1856 – 1939): founded Psychoanalysis – human behavior is driven by (repressed) irrational, unconscious desires.

Husserl (1859 – 1938): Father of Phenomenology (what is subjective experience and/or consciousness?) Experience is the source of all knowledge. “Experience by itself is not science.”

Bergson (1859 – 1941): French philosopher. Immediate experience/intuition is more significant than rationalism and science for understanding Reality.

Dewey (1859 – 1952): Father of Functional Psychology (mental life/behaviour based on active environmental adaptation), and proponent of Pragmatism (theory is extracted from practice, and applied back to practice).

(Alfred) North Whitehead (1861 – 1947): Father of Process Philosophy (the basis of all reality is change – i.e. Being vs. Becoming). Co-authored Principia Mathematica with Russell, as well as supervised both Russell and Quine’s doctoral dissertations.

Santayana (1863 – 1952): Spanish-American philosopher. “Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Bertrand Russell (1872 – 1970): Founder of Modern Analytical Philosophy (logic). Descriptivism: the meaning of a name is identical to its associative description in the mind of the speaker, as well as the referents that support the description.

G.E Moore (1873 – 1958): Associate of Bertrand Russell/analytical philosopher: what is “common sense”? Moore’s Paradox: “It is raining, but I don’t believe it is raining.” Though it seems impossible to assert this sentence, the conjunction is not logically contradictory (“believe it is not raining” does not equal “is not raining”).

Carl Jung (1875 – 1961): Swiss psychiatrist, colleague of Freud, and Father of Analytical Psychology, whose work influenced philosophy, anthropology, literature, music, and more. Jung (pronounced “yoong”) built his work around the idea of individuation, learning how to see and differentiate oneself from others through various conscious and unconscious means, developing the idea of people being “extroverts” or “introverts”. The British rock band The Police named one of their albums Synchronicity, after one of Jung’s more famous theories.

Martin Buber (1878 – 1965):  Israeli Existentialist and advocate of (non-geopolitical) cultural Zionism. Philosophy of Dialogue – philosophy overlooks the “I –Thou” or “I – It” dialectic between humans and their environment.

Jaspers (1883 – 1969): “Only as an individual can a man become a philosopher.” Philosopher/psychiatrist. The Biographical Method: documenting the patient’s history as well as views about himself as part of the process of analyzing/healing him, although the form of a psychotic/hallucinogenic episode for example is still more relevant to analysis than the imagery.

Jose Ortega Y Gasset (1883 – 1955): Spanish philosopher. “Life is a series of collisions with the future”/“I am myself and my circumstances.” Philosophy must overcome idealism (egocentrism) and medieval realism (reality is outside of us) to focus on the only truth of the individual – their life.

Wittgenstein (1889 – 1951): “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” Philosophical Investigations – considered the most important 20th century philosophical work: conceptual/semantic problems of language (assumptions of shared meaning between people, etc) are at the root of most philosophical problems.

Heidegger (1889 – 1976): Forget what “exists”, we must ask “what is Being?” Anti-Aesthetics – aesthetic qualities obscure deeper ontological truth(s) contained within artworks.

Antonio Gramsci (1891 – 1937): Italian Marxist. Hegemony (pronounced “heh-GEM-ony”) – dominant class teaches the subservient classes to value what they value as if it is a universal to all men.

Rudolph Carnap (1891 – 1970): Father of Logical Positivism (There are no specifically philosophical truths: the object of philosophy is the logical clarification of thoughts).

Marcuse (1898 – 1979): “That which is cannot be true.” – a counter-statement designed to reveal the logic behind Hegel’s claim  “what is real is rational”, which itself would seem to suggest that fascism for example is more reasonable than not as it is implicitly rational. His ideas became the inspiration of the “New Left” – educators and activists in 1960s/70s America that sought to counter Marxist socio-political influence in economics, etc.

Gadamer (1900 – 2002): Philosophical Hermeneutics (how humans interpret the world). Truth and Method: objectivity impossible, meaning is created through inter-subjective communication.

Lacan (1901 – 1981): French psychoanalyst/post-structuralist. “Reality cannot be captured in language.”

Karl Popper (1902 – 1994): Father of Critical Rationalism: scientific theories/knowledge claims should be rationally criticized and subjected to tests that may prove them false. Can inductive reasoning lead to empirical knowledge, or truth in general?

Adorno (1903 – 1969):  “Intelligence is a moral category.” Minima Moralia: the tradition of the sacred fool is suspect; an attempt to absolve and beatify the blockhead (!)” Can art survive in a capitalist world? Does art actually transform society? Mass production of popular culture dumbs down the masses and makes them docile/creates false needs to feed the capitalist system/centralizes power in the hands of the few – all to the great detriment of Mankind (Capitalist Hegemony). Jazz music is merely ornamentation of rigid rhythmic/harmonic forms, thus is not truly dialectical and improvisatory. It is cheap and commercial. “Jazz is the false liquidation of art — instead of utopia becoming reality it disappears from the picture”.

Rudolf Arnheim (1904 – 2007): Film theorist/perceptual psychologist. Art and Visual Perception: the eye organizes visual material creatively, based on specific psychological premises.

Jean-Paul Sartre (1905 – 1980): French Existentialist. Though Søren Kierkegaard was the first decidedly Existential philosopher in recent history, the writings of Jean-Paul Sartre have become the de facto example of core Existentialist ideas, many of them misunderstood.

For example, the core Sartrean precept that nothing is this world has inherent meaning is misunderstood as the more cynical, nihilistic idea of “everything is meaningless”, like there is no reason to have hope, fall in love, attempt social reform, etc. The key word is inherent, meaning Life has no one universal meaning, but still can be given meaning through thought and action (especially action).

Sartre did not say Life can’t have meaning added to it. But, to be an Existentialist at all is still considered in some circles to be anti-social, atheistic, exclusively nihilistic, misanthropic, and cowardly because of this misconception. But this was not what Sartre was promoting or even saying. Long before Sartre, many Buddhist and Hindu scholars debated similar ideas of the existence of the soul and the meaning of being alive, all such ideas being directed towards solving the problems of Life, not avoiding them or dismissing them. In this Sartre was no different. He was also against suicide, as it only affirmed “meaninglessness”, adding zero order to any/all existential chaos.

And though he was not religious, and an atheist per se, he also did not say with absolute certainty there is no God, but rather that actions that improve humanity should happen… whether there is a God or not: not anti-god but unconcerned with god. It is in this philosophy that Sartre made his case for Existentialism as a call to selflessness and social responsibility: to make one’s life a series of actions that improve the human situations occurring all around us, giving our own Life meaning in the process.

Thus, Life was not a stupid waste of time or a magical journey; Life was the result of how we act… making it meaningful or meaningless, depending on our own efforts. Thus, through art or politics or whatever, Man must be challenged to examine himself, and respond to oppression and exploitation, vicariously relating to situations, characters, and motifs in creative works and responding to society, the economy, politics and so on in positive ways. This also applied to avant-garde or experimental art or writing, which Sartre decried as alienated from the common man and ineffective in improving the human condition: imagination without practical use. Sartre explains this in the Appendix to his serial essay What Is Literature? (1948) in the following way:

The most beautiful book in the world will not save a child from pain; one does not redeem evil, one fights it; the most beautiful book in the world redeems itself; it also redeems the artist. But not the man. Any more than the man redeems the artist. We want the man and the artist to work their salvation together, we want the work to be at the same time an act; we want it to be specifically conceived as a weapon in the struggle that men wage against evil” (245).

He also states in the Situation of the Writer section of the essay that “when the writer thinks he has pathways to the eternal, he is beyond comparison. He has the benefit of an illumination that he cannot communicate to the vulgar throng which crawls beneath him. But if it has occurred to him to think that one does not escape one;s class by fine sentiments, that there is no privileged consciousness anywhere, that belles-lettres are not lettres de noblesse… then he is writing for everybody and with everybody because the problem he is trying to solve (by means of his own talents) is everybody’s problem” (176-177).

All quotes come from Jean-Paul Sartre. 2007. What is Literature? Abingdon: Routledge.

Ayn Rand (1905 – 1982): Russian-American writer/philosopher. Objectivism (“ethical egoism”): people should do what is in their own best interests, and productive achievement/happiness is the single moral directive of one’s life. Critics vehemently accused Rand of being Orwellian and nihilistic in her rejection of altruism, though Rand’s rather extreme Individualist philosophy is to a small degree understandable given that she grew up in the Soviet Union under an extreme form of Communism; the polar opposite of her philosophy. Though known for her highly influential novels, Rand also wrote non-fiction about subjects such as art.

For example, in her book The Romantic Manifesto, Rand argues that modern art is an “eloquent demonstration of the cultural bankruptcy of our age” (the 1960s). This is because, according to Rand (p. 27), true or real artists are value-oriented (Romantic: a man works out his own destiny/is in control of his life and works towards achievement, heroic: Life has value and meaning), modern artists are anti-value oriented (Naturalist: man is fated to be controlled by forces beyond his control, nihilistic: life and values are meaningless ergo effort is futile). This is essentially what she “sees” when she looks at whichever works and artists she dislikes, and she states:

It is rationality, purpose, and values that they regard as naïve – while sophistication, they claim, consists of discarding one’s mind, rejecting goals, renouncing values and writing four letter words on fences and sidewalks. Scaling a mountain, they say is easy – but rolling in the gutter is a noteworthy achievement. Man’s soul – as they proclaim with self-righteous pride – is a sewer. Well, they ought to know” (p. 173).

As for the present (1969) I am not willing to surrender the world to the jerky contortions of self-inducedly brainless bodies with empty eye sockets, who perform, in stinking basements, the immemorial rituals of staving off terror, which are a dime a dozen in any jungle – and to the quavering witch doctors who call it ‘art’” (p. 11).

It is interesting to note that Rand wrote this during the initial rise of Postmodernism, which many think was/is a cynical, corrupted development in philosophy and the arts. And as Rand believed that art is “the indispensable medium for the communication of a moral ideal” (p.25), her attack on modern art could be considered ironic in that sense, as the same view was held by many about Rand’s own Objectivism: that it was a cynical, corrupting view of ethics and political economy. Key to understanding her work and her view(s) on art is her idea of art being Romantic: portraying the Ideal Man (or some kind of moral Ideal). Thus, abstract art is corrupt and vile because it does not present the viewer with images of nobility, courage, good values, and so on. Rand does not say art should preach morality or make someone act morally, but rather, show what Man can be. For art or literature to be otherwise is what Rand despises. Of her own work she states, “the motive and purpose of my writing is the projection of an ideal man… the portrayal of a moral ideal” (161). Thus, her work, and all true/proper art, is Romantic: inspiring images and words showing mankind a vision of life’s potential beyond dismal, everyday toils. For example, she states:

If one saw, in real life, a beautiful woman wearing an exquisite evening gown, with a cold sore on her lips, the blemish would mean nothing but a minor affliction, and one would ignore it. But a painting of such a woman would be a corrupt, obscenely vicious attack on man, on beauty, on all values – and one would experience a feeling of immense disgust and indignation at the artist. (There are also those who would feel something like approval and who would belong to the same moral category as the artist)” (p. 43). She continues by saying (p. 47): “the cold sore on the lips of a beautiful woman, which would be insignificant in real life, acquires a monstrous metaphysical significance by virtue of being included in a painting. It declares that a woman’s beauty and her efforts to achieve glamour (the beautiful evening gown) are a futile illusion undercut by a seed of corruption which can mar and destroy them at any moment – that this is reality’s mockery of man – that all of man’s values and efforts are impotent against the power, not even of some great cataclysm, but of a miserable little physical infection.”

“While in other fields of knowledge, men have outgrown the practice of seeking the guidance of mystic oracles whose qualifications for the job was unintelligibility, in the field of (aesthetics) this practice has remained in full force and is becoming more crudely obvious today. Just as savages took the phenomena of nature for granted, as an irreducible primary not to be questioned or analyzed, as the exclusive domain of unknowable demons – so today’s epistemological savages take art for granted… as the exclusive domain of a special kind of unknowable demons: their emotions. The only difference is that the pre-historical savage’s error was innocent” (pp. 17-18).

(Note: a major criticism of Rand’s idea that work such as hers is morally ideal comes from the fact that the protagonist Howard Roark (in her world renowned work The Fountainhead) literally rapes his love interest Dominique, an act which she swoons about: “He did it as an act of scorn…a master taking shameful, contemptuous possession” of her. Later she states, “I’ve been raped…through the fierce sense of humiliation the words gave her the same kind of pleasure she had felt in his arms.” If Rand is positing moral ideals, then surely her Objectivist hero is not a rugged individualist, but a predator, and Dominique’s rationalization of his predation betrays women in Rand’s philosophy).

Rand even went so far as to categorize what are valid genres of art, calling photography invalid, as it is merely a technical (utilitarian) process with which one merely captures images directly and has little to no capacity to carry a moral message beyond the subject(s) of the photograph. It is rather strange that Rand would suggest this, as she also says “art is not the “handmaiden” of reality, its basic purpose is not to educate, to reform, or to advocate anything. The concretization of a moral ideal is not a textbook on how to become one. The basic purpose of art is not to teach, but to show – to hold up to man a concretized image of his nature and his place in the universe” (p.26).

This idea of holding up an image of man’s nature is perfectly realized in press photographer Nick Ut’s 1973 Pulitzer Prize winning photograph of a young girl (Phan Thị Kim Phúc) running down a road crying after a napalm attack left her naked and severely burned. Though Rand is right that such a photo does not carry a moral message per se, the image worked as an indictment of war and incitement to end war, and thus functioned as a moral object and a powerful mirror of man’s place in Nature (especially in light of the fact that napalm was used as a defoliant in war to rid the enemy of forest cover ergo places to hide).

Rand argues though, on page 167 of The Romantic Manifesto though, that “misery. disease, disaster, evil, all the negatives of human existence, are proper subjects of study in life, for the purpose of understanding and correcting them… in art, and in literature, these negatives are worth re-creating only in relation to some positive, as a foil, as a contrast, as a means of stressing the positive – but not as an end in themselves“. So it is hard to say how Rand reacted to Ut’s photo and/or interesting to see if Rand ever wrote about photography in this light.

(Note: Rand’s first name is pronounced “ine” (as in fine, or line), and all quotes come from the 1969 first edition of The Romantic Manifesto: A Philosophy of Literature. New York: The World Publishing Company).

Quine (1908 – 2000): Non-Referral: “Pegasus has wings” – the sentence refers to something which doesn’t exist ergo it refers to nothing, yet is not meaningless. Naturalist: the laws of nature exist in the Universe and explain it; anything supernatural is outside of this universe and does not affect it.

Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908 – 2009): French anthropologist. Structualism – cultural elements are best understood by their relationship to the overall structure they participate/are situated in.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908 – 1961): Philosopher of Phenomenology: the body is inseparable from consciousness when discussing phenomenology; embodiment made the creation of meaning/perception in humanity a more complex affair, consciousness and sense awareness have the quality of ineinander (Ger: to be inside one another).

A.J. Ayer(1910 – 1989): Logical Positivist. Language, Truth, and Logic: introduced Logical Positivism to the world thanks to its being in English. Verifiability: a statement is meaningful only if it is a tautology (true by any definition/under any conditions), or empirically verifiable, thus transcendentalism/metaphysics is complete nonsense.

Albert Camus (1913 – 1960): French novelist and author. Absurdism – Life is essentially a conflict between humans seeking a singular, fixed “meaning” in life and the ultimate impossibility of it’s being found). Like Sartre, Camus (pronounced “cam-yoo”) view was not nihilistic, rather embraced absurdity as a site of finding personal meaning (via altruism).

Camus states in his work The Myth Of Sisyphus that “there is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest – whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories – comes afterwards”. His reasoning was that “if I ask myself how to judge that this question is more urgent… I reply that one judges by the actions it entails. I have never seen anyone die for the ontological argument. Galileo, who held a scientific truth of great importance, abjured it with the greatest of ease as soon as it endangered his life” (p. 3).

Camus did though agree that, in one sense, Galileo was right in renouncing that the Earth revolved around the Sun after (being forced to do so by the Catholic Church, who considered this scientific fact an anti-religious lie) as that one particular truth in that one particular instance was not worth dying for. (The Ontological Argument that Camus speaks of is the idea that we can know that God exists through reasoning, without any proof from the physical world (see: St. Anselm).

A key issue in Camus is the idea of hope and how it is futile to hope Life is inherently “good” or “happy” and that one can “find” this life. Thus he criticizes works by seemingly existential writers such as Franz Kafka and Fyodor Dostoyevsky for finding their own idiosyncratic paths to hope and/or faith. As for the myth of Sisyphus (doomed for all eternity to roll a rock up a hill and watch it roll back down), Camus argues that Life is as such. But, rather than have hope that this task will end, or lose hope and be depressed that this task is eternal, Camus argues that “the struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart”, and one must imagine that Sisyphus is happy.

In regard to his own writing Camus felt that he had “something better to do than (just) trying to instill life into the creatures of his imagination”, that he saw many creative types avoid the travails of the world by “lying down sleep in (their) tower” stating that because of his own altruism “I cannot envy their sleep” (p. 211). He also states that a true work of art is on a human scale, and a work proves the most hateful of all, “is the one that most often is inspired by a smug thought” (p. 116).

(Note: all quotes are taken from the first edition of Albert Camus. 1969. The Myth of Sisyphus And Other Essays. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.) 

Paul Ricoeur (1913 – 2005): Philosophical Anthropology: the philosophical study of the fundamental capabilities/vulnerabilities in human life, as humans are never fully transparent to themselves or capable of complete self-control.

Barthes (1915 – 1980): “Language is a skin.”  Philosopher/semiotician/French bourgeois society considered its culture/mores to be universal (ethnocentrism). Texts are things/systems unto themselves, and their underlying structure forms the meaning of the work in toto.

Feyeraband (1924 – 1994): Epistemological Anarchism: The sciences have never progressed according to strict overall rules for their methodologies, and demanding such rules limits scientific progress.


Introduction To Western Philosophy (3): Medieval To Enlightenment



In Part Two of this series I discussed how the study of ancient to modern (Western) philosophy can be a long and challenging endeavour, with potentially hundreds of philosophers and ideas to mentally catalogue and contextualize. Philosophy in general though has followed three core areas of thought: metaphysics, epistemology, and axiology (see Part One). In Part Three I will now outline the important Medieval, Renaissance, and Pre-Modern thinkers, and provide basic notes on their ideas. As I have in the past, I mostly use only the surname of the philosopher, as Baruch Spinoza (also known as Benedict De Spinoza), for example, is commonly referenced in conversation and much writing as just “Spinoza”. So I have stuck with this convention, for the sake of simplicity.


Plotinus (205 C.E – 270 C.E): Founder of NeoPlatonicism (Plato’s thought turned more mystical): an individual’s soul ascends from physical existence through a (hierarchical) series of spiritual levels until it merges with The One, the metaphysical potentiality behind all things without which no possibilities or actualities can occur (neither material nor the sum of all material). These were discussed in his (six) Enneads, works complied by his student Porphyry. NeoPlatonism was both a rival of, and influence on, Christianity for centuries afterwards.

Iamblichus of Syria (245 – 325): “What can be known depends on the knower’s capacity.” Systematically formalized Neoplatonism, and expanded upon its premises, e.g. one’s Soul is embodied in Matter, and thus Matter is as divine as the Soul, a departure from earlier Neoplatonists (Matter is a lesser concept).

St. Augustine (354 – 430): “God is not the parent of evils.” Latin Philosopher, theologian, “the original city” – the Catholic Church is the ‘City of God.’

Boethius (480 – 525): “God foresees our free thoughts and actions.” Roman philosopher, Christian aristocrat, and music theorist. The Consolations of Philosophy – a conversation between Boethius and Lady Philosophy, who teaches him that virtue is one’s treasure and that fame/fortune are subject to the vicissitudes of life, ergo transientTCoP is the last great work in the manner of Western Classical philosophy.

Pseudo-Dionysus the Aeropagite (c. 480 – c. 545): “God is not being, but more than Being”. Christian theologian/philosopher. Often confused with the Athenian Christian named Dionysus the Aeropagite (converted by the preaching of Apostle Paul).


Often, in both philosophical and Biblical studies, one sees the Areios Pagos or “Areopagus” mentioned in connection to Greek law. The Areios Pagos is a rocky hilltop near the Parthenon in Athens where an ancient high court of appeals was held for both civil and criminal cases. It also functioned as a (pre-Classical) site of meeting for the Athenian council of elders before the fifth century B.C.E. Also referred to as ‘Mars Hill’ by the Romans, the Areopagus is known to Christians for also being the site where Apostle Paul delivered his ‘Unknown God’ sermon to the city elders and some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers (Acts 17:18-33).

While in Athens to perform and attend a conference I had the chance to visit the Areopagus, and take the picture above. The X-ray machines at the Athens and Paris airports must have messed up my film on the way back, because my Acropolis and Areopagus film roll came out messed up – so I had to un-fade/colour correct them as best I could.


The hillside leading up to the Areopagus on the opposite side of the Acropolis has a scattering of soft mossy spots and small trees under which one can stop and meditate, or just relax. Considering the balmy weather, and the beauty of the area (and the structure of Greek language) – it is no wonder that the early Greeks were masters of thought. They had the most pleasant spots to sit and ponder things! Ελλάδα είναι υπέροχη!


Alcuin the Latinist (740 – 804): Church historian/apologist and architect, who brought Latin scholarship and liberal arts education to Charlemagne and the Franks.

Al-Kindî (801 – 873): “Philosophy is compatible with science and Islam. The first Arab peripatetic and the Father of Islamo-Arabic Philosophy. His work would be overshadowed by later interest in Al-Fârâbî.

Al-Fârâbî (872 – 951): Persian philosopher/musician, considered by his peers to be the second ‘Great Teacher’ after Aristotle. Rationalist: pure reason as a source of justification or knowledge is not incompatible with Islam. Negative Theologian (Apophatic theology): “God cannot be known, but he can be known, to a degree, by what he is not”. Though it dealt with Persian music theory and music’s influence on the soul, his Book of Great Music (Kitab al-Musiqa al-Kabir – كتاب الموسيقى الكبير) is often considered a tome on Arab music, as it was written in Arabic.

Avicenna (980 – 1037): (a.k.a Ibn Sînâ) – Persian polymath within the Arabic tradition of philosophy. “The Soul is distinct from the body.” Created the Canon of Medicine – a summary of all medical knowledge of humanity to that point in history.

St. Anselm (1033 – 1109): The Ontological Argument: just by thinking about God we can know he exists, without needing any physical proof in the world. This is because: If the greatest possible being (God) exists in the mind, then it must also exist in reality; if it only exists in the mind, something greater is possible in Reality ergo a being that exists in the mind and reality.

Al-Ghazali (1058 – 1111): Persian poet/mystic. Considered by some to be the single biggest historical detriment to Islamic intellectual progress through his promotion of faith over science. The Incoherence of the Philosophers – the material world is an insufficient explanation for causality, everything ultimately stems from God’s will (Islamic Occasionalism).

Averroes  (1126 – 1198): (a.k.a Ibn Rushd) Spanish Muslim polymath; defended Aristotleian philosophy against al-Ghazali’s influence (philosophy is an affront to Islam, i.e. Averroes claim that there is one truth but two ways (philosophy/religion) to reach it, or that the soul has both an individual and a divine part.

Maimonides (1135 – 1204): Jewish Aristotelian. Guide for the Perplexed: any attribution of human characteristics (anthropomorphism) to God is faulty, and borderline blasphemous. Merkaba Mysticism: the chariot imagery in Exekiel is deeply mystical and profound, and must not be discussed/interpreted/taught by anyone less than rabbis/scholars. GFTP discusses the Merkaba (chariot) and thus some called the GFTP heresy and banned/burned it.

Roger Bacon (1214 – 1294): Doctor Mirabilis, scholasticism – academic thought that defended orthodoxy (Bacon: Franciscan friar). Scholastics trained men to be scholars, doctors, and layers.

William of Ockham (1288 – 1348): scholastic monk. “Ockham’s Razor” (lex parsimoniae) – the statement/idea/thought (amongst many others) that makes the fewest assumptions and offers the simplest explanation of its effects is the one a person should choose. The first “Nominalist” – there are only generalities, no universal types or qualities exist).

Duns Scotus (1265 – 1308): Doctor Subtilis, Catholic theologian, “haecceity” (thisness) – the property in each thing that makes it a specific individual, “formal distinction” – differentiating between different aspects of the same thing.

Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274): Doctor Universalis, “The Universe has not always existed.” Aquinas proposed a created universe long before the Big Bang Theory (based on Genesis 1:1): the heaven and the earth being synonymous with the Universe in general. Thomism – truth is true anywhere it is found, the world can be known, God is the First Principle of everything – all that is good is of God. Huge influence on philosophy and Catholicism ever since.

Petrarch (1304 – 1374): Father of Humanism, reaction to Scholasticism. Taught the humanities (grammar, rhetoric, moral philosophy) to the citizenry for their civic virtue. Developed the idea of the ‘Dark Ages’. His revival of Cicero (arguably) began the Renaissance.


Desiderius Erasmus (1466 – 1536): Dutch Renaissance humanist/Catholic priest. “To know nothing is the happiest life.” In Praise of Folly – moral satire (about the complete corruption of the Catholic Church) featuring Folly being praised as a goddess, then Folly herself praising self-deception, madness, and pious Catholic superstitions. Pope Leo X, rather than being outraged, was highly amused by IPoF, as he thought it was a critique of Catholicism under his predecessor Pope Julius II.

But to Eramus there is a kind of folly that is an ideal state for humans, a kind of “benign naivety” in which we are happy and content, unburdened by too much knowledge (in reference to the Biblical passage Ecclesiastes 1:18, “for with much wisdom comes much sorrow: the more knowledge, the more grief.”). Part of Eramus’ reasoning for this also lay in the very idea of reasoning itself, as true belief to him was faith-based. This emphasis on simple, humble faith over the intellectualized (Hellenistic) theological arguments of St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas was Eramus’ way of resisting what he saw as a corruption of Christianity by Platonic and Aristotelian influences.

Michel De Montaigne (1533- 1592): French Renaissance philosopher and inventor of the essay. In his essay On Solitude, Montaigne lays out his most potent idea: that our personal well being (tranquility) depends on detachment from the opinion of others, which we need to be famous. Thus, we cannot be famous and tranquil. Also if we care too much for the approval of others we will end up imitating whose who are evil or be consumed by our hatred for those same people and lose our ability to think and reason clearly.

Instead, we should behave as if some great and noble being is with us, observing our actions and intentions. By thinking and doing thus, we will be objective, tranquil, rational, and truly free. Having witnessed the insane mob violence of the French religious wars of the late 16th century, Montaigne sought to be the opposite of those around him lost in dogma and lust for glory. Quote: “Many times I have seen (fame and fortune) step out ahead of merit… and often a long way ahead“.

Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626): Father of Empiricism – developed methodologies for scientific inquiry.

Hobbes (1588 – 1679): helped found Modern Political philosophy. Leviathan – what are the appropriate relations between individuals and government (social contract theory)?

Descartes (1596 – 1650): Father of Modern Philosophy, Cartesian Dualism – body/soul separate but connected (by the pineal gland). Morals are a science. “I think, therefore I am”.


Spinoza (1632 – 1677): Rationalist: Truth is intellectual and deductive. Laid the groundwork for the Enlightenment. Opposed and intellectually destroyed medieval philosophy in his Ethics.

Locke (1632 – 1704): Father of Classical Liberalism. His Theory of Mind (philosophy of mental events) established the modern concepts of identity and the Self. The first to define the Self in terms of continuity of consciousness. We are born without innate ideas (tabula rasa) and gain all knowledge through sense experience. Locke also argued vigorously for the separation of church and government in A Letter Concerning Toleration.

Isaac Newton (1643 – 1727): Father of Classical Mechanics (how objects move when acted upon by various forces). Super science/math genius. Newton revolutionized how people understood and saw the world, and inspired humanity to pursue scientific investigation with great passion. After Newton’s death, some began trying to apply such scientific (mechanistic) thought rather rigidly to all forms of human behavior and knowledge, which was not Newton’s intention, giving rise to counter-Enlightenment thinkers and great resistance by the Catholic church.

Leibniz (1646 – 1716): Rationalist. Optimism – our universe is the best possible one potentially created. There is no material world (!), only infinitely diverse subtle substances measured in basic units of perceptual reality (monads).

Berkeley (1685 -1753): “To Be is to be perceived.” Idealism – Reality is fundamentally mental. Immaterialism – tables aren’t real, they just exist in the imagination and can’t exist without perception (“to be is to be perceived”).

Voltaire (1694 – 1778): French writer/philosopher (real name: François-Marie Arouet). Inventor of the conte philosophique, the “philsophical tale”: fiction –  from short stories to long novels – that explores complex philosophical questions; as Voltaire described them, works “that say more than they seem to say”. The central theme of the conte philosophiques is that the constants of human nature are self-deception, the inevitability of the abuses of power, and that superstition and fanaticism eventually join with self-interest and this leads to misery and suffering.

His extensive body of work was so influential he was world renowned, and garnered both extreme praise and intense dislike. Common subjects = civil Liberties advocate, freedom of expression/religion, separation of church/state, hugely influential on the American/French revolution. Voltaire was highly critical of religious dogma: having studied the Bible extensively and finding much error, mythology, chronological inconsistencies that he believed the Bible was a product of humanity. After the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755, Voltaire questioned how the suffering of the Portuguese people could be reconciled with the goodness of God, and why He (being Omnipotent) could not create a world without earthquakes?

He was also critical of the atheism of the his time, as he thought it was dangerous for atheists to believe that ultimately no one judges their actions: bringing about the destruction of ethical philosophy (if a natural law of brotherhood/peace doesn’t exist, then in what will we base our ethics and morals?). “The secret to being boring is to reveal everything…”.

Hume (1711 – 1776): Empiricist (knowledge comes from the senses). Desire governs human behaviour. Psychology is the basis of human nature.

Rousseau (1712 – 1778): Composer, philosopher. Natural Humanism: Mankind is neutral (in a sense morally naïve, knows nothing of good or bad) until societal contact creates in him self-love, which leads to human greed, suffering, war, etc. Thus humans are fundamentally good (free and happy) until society educates them and imposes laws on them. For example, Rousseau argues that man began to be corrupted when the first piece of land was enclosed and considered “property”, and as more and more people had properties there had to be laws regulating ownership and thus structured societies arose; civilizations bringing their inevitable hierarchies (rich and poor). Education plays a part int his and thus Rousseau advocated against intellectual education in favour of an education of the senses (ergo of the heart, and thus he criticized the adverse effects of both religion and atheism).

Denis Diderot (1713 – 1784): a major contributor to the philosophy of Enlightenment thinkers: co-founder, chief editor and major contributor to A Systematic Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts, and Crafts, otherwise known as the Encyclopédie (“Encyclopedia”) published between 1751 and 1772. Diderot, Voltaire and others became known as the philosophes: public intellectuals who gathered in coffee houses and cafes to debate and dispute the Enlightenment ideals of reason, tolerance, and progress, free from the more intellectually stifling actions/beliefs of various universities, monarchies, and/or churches. Diderot was also a major critic of slavery and the purposeful denial of knowledge and understanding to the masses by those with power (kings, priests, noblemen). In the entry for “Encyclopedie” in the actual Encyclopedie itself, he writes: “the general mass of the species is made neither to follow nor to know the march of the human spirit.” Having been denied education and human rights, the people are thus “too idiotic, too beastly, too miserable, and too busy to enlighten itself“, which he wrote in a letter to Sophie Volland (1759). Diderot, though, did not anticipate or live to see the very people he discusses rise up and win their rights back from the monarchy in the bloody French Revolution a few years later in 1789 to 1799.

Charles Batteux (1713 – 1780): French philosopher whose work The Fine Arts Reduced to The Same Principle (Fr: “Les beaux arts réduits à un même principe”formally introduced the world to the idea that works of beauty and taste in writing, music, painting and so on could be categorized as “fine arts”, as they were “assemblages of rules for doing well”. Before Batteux, such arts were generally considered separate subjects, e.g. music was a subject closer to math due to its basis in acoustics and intervallic measurement. Batteux also suggested that the point of the fine arts was to imitate nature, and in the imitation create perfected or ideal examples of nature for aesthetic enjoyment.


Introduction to Western Philosophy (2): Mythology to Hellenism.


In Part One of this series I introduced some terms that will be appearing as we explore the history of Western philosophy. In today’s post (Part Two) we will begin with the Greek myth collectors that got things going, all the way to the Pyrrhonic lifestyle of Roman doctor Sextus Impericus.


Hesiod (cir. 750 B.C.E): collected orally transmitted origin myths into the Theogony. May be connected to Hittite Song of Kumarbi (overthrowing progenitor, castration).

Homer (cir. 750 B.C.E): no one man, but rather amalgam of writers contributing to the legendary epic works The Iliad, and The Odyssey over a long period of time. Thus, Homer is much like the (later) Buddhist saint Bodhidharma; a mythical hagiography around which to organize certain wisdom traditions.


It is important to note that the Greek thinkers before Socrates and Plato could be considered the first “physicists”, as their concern with nature was closer to a “scientific” approach than a theological one. As such, they wanted to know about how grass grows or what things are made of, no matter which god(s) made them.

Thales (624 – 546 B.C.E): all is made of water: water is the fundamental element of nature.

Anaximander (610 – 546 B.C.E): The basis of the Universe is an unlimited, undefined substance without qualities from which opposites come (hot/cold, wet/dry).

Anaximenes (585 – 525 B.C.E): The basis of everything is air.

Pythagoras (570 – 495 B.C.E): “Number is the ruler of Forms and Ideas”. Reality is created out of something non-material and abstract that is the basis for all material (architectonic – having qualities of design and structure). That “something” is numbers/mathematics.

Heraclitus (535 – 475 B.C.E): “Everything is in flux”. The Universe is ruled by an organizing principle (Logos), opposites are ‘One’ and everything is in flux-thus no thing can be known, as it changes before we truly understand it. Logos = root of “-logy” (anthropology, biology).

Parmenides of Elea (530 B.C.E): “All is One”. Eleatic School: (only logical thought leads to knowledge of Being).

Aeschylus (525 – 456 B.C.E): The Oresteia play trilogy, our fate/striving/character shapes our destiny.

Zeno of Elea (490 – 430 B.C.E): reductio ad absurdum, revealed paradoxical arguments in common communication.

Protagoras (490 – 420 B.C.E): “Man is the measure of all things”. “Truth” is our perception/experience, “Virtue” through rhetoric (deceitful sophistry).

Democritus (460 – 370 B.C.E): “Nothing exists except atoms and empty space”. The word atom comes from the Greek word atomon (ἄτομον), something that is uncuttable or can’t be divided. By coincidence, Democrritus thus becomes the first to discuss actual physics long before atomic theory, actual atoms, were proven to exist. Democritus asked: what earlier circumstances caused an event? (no Prime Mover/questions of purpose or reason).

Herodotus (484 – 425 B.C.E): History as descriptive psychology-the relation between/problem of war and virtue.


Socrates (469 – 399 B.C.E): “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Virtue, dialectic – test every assumption for its grounding and implications. The Socratic Method: asking questions of others in order to get them to reveal the truth to themselves; a guided philosophical teaching method. Since we only know of Socrates’ ideas and life through the writings of Plato, it is not 100% certain how much of Socrates is Plato’s transcription or invention. Thus, Plato, Socrates’s student, is the first and foundational philosopher in Western history.

It is also interesting to note that Socrates’ Method actually represents, in one instance, what one might call the Socratic Contradiction. He continuously called into question the wisdom of the leaders of his time, asserting they were not wise for thinking they knew what they were talking about. He then claims to be wiser than they due to his assertion that at least he himself was willing to admit he “knew nothing” for sure. But this is actually a paradox or a contradiction, in that Socrates is making the claim that he knows what “real” knowing is, thus he can recognize what is ignorance in others. Socrates must know the correct/actual standards of truth and knowing to say such a thing, but if he “knows nothing”, he cannot claim he knows the leaders are not wise, i.e. if you don’t know what a dog is you can’t say dog owners know nothing about dogs.

Hippocrates (460 – 370 B.C.E): diseases/cures are natural, and not related to the divine. He also thought that the qualities of the four elements (air, water, earth, fire) are reflected in the bodily fluids. This idea was more fully developed by Roman doctor Galen (see below).

Isocrates (436 – 338 B.C.E): Rhetoricians must have great philosophical/arts knowledge.

Plato (424 – 348 B.C.E): The Father of All Western Philosophy:  Plato took on how we should deal with Life problems: not just the words we use but what lies underneath the words, the nature of ethics: the nature of virtue. We learn the word “virtuous” in myths, but philosophy asks, “what lies at the core of virtue”?

In his landmark work, the Republic, he posits that we should come to our conclusion solely on the basis of arguments and investigation, not tradition or religion, as even the Pre-Socratics were still relatively bound to myth and spiritualism. Thus, Plato is the first truly free inquirer. Perhaps his greatest innovation was Platonism: the idea that the things we perceive in the physical world are types of illusions, each thing  “shadow” of a transcendental Ideal Form of that thing, meaning Ideal Forms were pure versions of things perceived through the intellect, not the senses (e.g. a drawn triangle represents the pure idea/form of the triangle). Ironically, Plato’s break from Pre-Socratic spiritualism (Platonism) would later become spiritualized into Neo Platonism by medieval philosopher Plotinus.

The Republic also dealt with the question of what the true nature of justice is. Plato also believed that we remember knowledge from previous lives (as he argues in Meno), and that poets were imitators of worldly illusions through their craft and thus mislead people with their work.

Diogenes (404 – 323 B.C.E): “Cynicism” – austerity/poverty/simplicity = happiness. Culture and politics is artifice.

Aristotle (384 – 322 B.C.E): The Father of Science: “truth resides around us in the world” (via biology, astronomy, etc.). Aristotle was also the first to rigorously categorize plants, animals, ideas, and such. He even categorized four sources of happiness: sensual (hedone), material (propraietan), ethical (ethikos), and logical (dialogike). This categorical approach to emotion would later influence Roman doctor galen and his work. He also provided the first real serious thought on deductive reasoning through syllogisms. For example:

All squirrels are furry.
Skippy is a squirrel.
Therefore, Skippy is furry.

Aristotle is also known for his work Nichomachean Ethics in which he argues that eudaimonia (“happiness”) is achieved through the pursuit of virtue (arête); through ongoing virtuous action in every aspect of existence.

Zeno of Citium (334 – 262 B.C.E): Stoicism, virtue = peace of mind. God is Fire (active energy) and Logos (reason, physics, controlling principles) diffused throughout the Cosmos. God = creative force materialized via Logos.

Epicurus (341 – 270 B.C.E): Epicureanism – maximize pleasure/reduce pain through modesty (absence of pain = happiness)


The Hellenistic Period (323 B.C.E – 31 B.C.E): A period in which Greek culture had a major influence on Roman and/or various Mediterranean cultures.

Hellenism and Christianity: Reconciling Christianity to its major opponent, Stoic philosophy (Stoic principles in service to Christian theology). Stoic ‘rational power’ present in physics = Christian/Jewish God revealing himself through such rational physics.

Hellenism and Judaism: Jewish spatial and temporal issues over landlessness (unique among world cultures). Without a common language, land and government, what makes the world’s Jews a community? Jewish history = adaptation and synthesis. Transfer of Temple power (high priest, rites) to local synagogue power: rabbi and his authority, exegesis of Jewish Law (Mishnah) and homiletics (midrashim), thus growing influence of Hellenism, and the rise of various sects.

Cicero (106 – 43 B.C.E): Introduced Roman society to Greek Philosophy and developed a Latin vocabulary for understanding philosophical terms (humanitas = the virtuous character needed for oratorial civil service).

Lucretius (99 – 55 BCE): Material Atomism: there is indeed evidence that the world is fundamentally material, and that nothing happens after death. Thus, god or not, we need not fall prey to thoughtless superstitions. Lucretius’ On The Nature Of The Universe is the first major Roman work on the subject.

Philo Judaeus (12 B.C.E – 47 C.E): Most important Hellenistic Jewish philosopher, based in Alexandria. Logos (the creative divine principle) presides over Being, and is an intermediary between God and his creation (like a second god; a type of intermediary like Christ eventually became). The presence of God’s essence is “sober intoxication”, presupposing emotionally altering divine indwelling hundreds of years before Islam.

Epictetus (55 C.E – 135 C.E): The only thing one owns exclusively – his will or purpose.

Marcus Aurelius (121 C.E – 180 C.E): Roman Emperor (Caesar Augustus) and Stoic philosopher. Meditations = discursive notes during warring and administration contemplating the seemingly unattainable goals of conduct while the world continues in brutality, triviality, and transient reality. “All hindrances to the performance of a good act can be changed into assistances to the performance of a good act…“.

Claudius Galen (129 – 201 CE): Roman doctor and Father of Psychology. If philosophy is the study of ideas, psychology is the study of how we act on which ideas we consider, and why we have and act on them (behaviour).

Galen thought that all things are a combination of earth, air, fire, and water, and the qualities of these elements can be found in four corresponding bodily fluids (“humors”) that affect the function of our body, as Hippocrates did, 500 years earlier. But Galen thought that humors also affect our moods (“temperaments”) of which there are four: Melancholic (depressed, poetic, artistic), Phlegmatic (quiet, rational, shy), Choleric (fiery, energetic, passionate), and Sanguine (cheerful, optimistic, confident). When our moods are imbalanced it meant that our fluids themselves are unbalanced. Thus, if a doctor restores balance in the fluids, our emotional and behavioural problems will be fixed.

Galen’s focus on body and emotion, which leads to certain behaviours makes him the first significant figure in what we consider the science of psychology or psychiatry; the first psychologist. Thus, after Galen, the study of moods eventually became endopsychic: that which is related to, or consists of, the contents of the mind, including the study of what we call phobias. Mild phobias (paraphobias) usually consist of simple aversions to things (like taking tests or cleaning the toilet), while actual phobias themselves are more severe, and often irrational. Such phobias include melophobia (the fear of music), aulophobia (fear of wind instruments), metrophobia (the fear of poetry), or even phobophobia, the fear of fear.

A particularly interesting phobia (shuk yang) is found in male members of ethnic Chinese communities in south and eastern Asia characterized by an sudden, intense fear that the penis is shrinking and retracting into the abdomen, which will result in death. Less common is the female variant: a fear of nipple or vulvic retraction. Sufferers often hold their genitals during the day and sleep with an inguinal bamboo clamp at night.

Sextus Empiricus (160 – c. 210 CE): Roman doctor and skeptic (“nothing can be known with certainty”). Empiricus practiced Pyrrhonism (pyrrhonic skepticism): nothing can be truly known, and we must also suspend judgment on that very idea; mild skepticism = begin with the idea that nothing is true or false). His work Outlines of Pyrrhonism, promotes the idea that Pyrrhonism is more of an open-ended way of living than a strict method of philosophy.