Now that we have covered the basics of how to start thinking about philosophy, the question becomes what should I read?
There are so many works of philosophy in so many categories it can seem pretty intimidating to even try to begin reading all of them. But I have good news for you… you don’t have to. The reason I say this is that the deep and long-term study of philosophy is like any other pursuit: it contains many people with many different goals and abilities. Some people pursue philosophy for fun; others pursue it to solve a difficult moral dilemma within themselves, while a further, select group are in a position of authority and must be fluent in philosophical thought to do their job. No matter what level of philosophy you choose, the only requirement is that you be honest about it. Don’t pass yourself off as a serious thinker if you are an enthusiast – there is a huge difference between musing and serious, analytical thought. Alternately, don’t be intimidated by serious analytical thought either. It has its place, and you have yours. Just know which is which, and be clear about it (see Part One). That being said, let’s look at a few philosophical works and see what they hold.
The Greek philosopher Plato is fundamental to Western philosophy, so one must get to know his work and ideas. In fact, he is so important that the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once said “the safest general characterization of the philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” Whitehead himself was an important thinker in the “school” of Process Philosophy – a line of philosophical inquiry beginning with the Pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus that considered reality from the standpoint of change or “changing.”
Plato wrote a series of famous Dialogues in which various characters (most often his teacher Socrates) discuss moral philosophy. In Eurthyphro, for example, Socrates and the mantic figure Eurthyphro discuss the nature of holiness, and when Socrates reveals how Eurthyphro’s definition/definitions of holiness are all flawed, Eurthyphro dismisses himself to avoid having to deal with it! This Platonic dialogue, like so many others, reveals how Socrates would pretend to be ignorant on a subject and then, by means of questioning, catch the other person in their own true ignorance. This is known as Socratic Irony, and is one of the major techniques used in Plato’s work.
Another interesting thing to read might be Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics – a series of scrolls that discuss what is ethical or good from the standpoint of what creates eudaimonia – happiness and welfare for all people. Part of this is how Nature is thought by Aristotle to be teleological – working towards a specific end (telos), and what role animals, plants, and humans have in this process. This does not mean, however, that works of philosophy from non-Western countries are not as important. What is known as “Eastern” thought to us is often much older.
By the time Plato was born (circa. 428 BCE) The Vedic scriptures (known as the Upanishads) had already been written and compiled from 1500 to 500 BCE. During this time the ‘Six Schools Of Indian Philosophy’ had already been systemized and recorded. As previously mentioned, Heraclitus (b. 535 BCE) was the first known Western thinker to discuss Process philosophy. But the idea of what is permanent vs. what changes in the Universe was a topic much discussed in the Upanishads, in terms of the Universal Spirit (Brahman) and the Individual Self (Atman). Seen from this standpoint, the Upanishads essentially proclaim that change is an illusion, because it doesn’t “fit” with a permanent Reality. So it is possible that Heraclitus was exposed to the ideas in the Upanishads, and discussed process philosophy because of it.
One such Upanishad – the Brahma Sutra – for example, is an attempt to systematize and explain the various ideas presented in the other Upanishads (such as the Bhagavad Gita) as a unified doctrine. Though this is a theological work, and not an empirical philosophical work, it still should not be discounted in light of the Western tradition. Whether it is religious or metaphysical philosophy, both assume a rather mystical quality when discussing what is the fundamental nature of Reality, whether it is OM, the fundamental vibration of the Universe, or the Logos (to Stoic philosophers).
But even if you have read a few works, it still doesn’t mean you have actually philosophized. That takes action, and this is where thought experiments are a fun way to actually begin the activity of philosophizing.
We all have heard at least one or two philosophical thought experiments (known in Greek as deiknymi) in our lives, the classic one being “if a tree falls in the forest, and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?” Though the answer is common sense, it raises the question of what the nature of reality is. We know the tree makes vibrations in the air – vibrations which can be picked up by ears and turned into “sound” in our brains – but if we are not there to perceive the tree’s sound, does that make a “difference” of some sort? Another thought experiment we have all heard of is “what would happen if an immovable object was hit by an unstoppable object?” Though a question such as that might seem unanswerable or even silly, it reveals how we humans like to engage in puzzles and riddles, even when those puzzles are serious e.g. what is moral vs. what is legal, etc. In yet another rather famous late 20th century thought experiment concerning the mind (“what is it like to be a bat?”), philosopher Thomas Nagel argued that even if a person had webbing on their arms, were able to fly around at dusk, and perceive the world through echolocation, the experience only lets you know what it is like for you to behave like a bat, not what it is like for a bat to be a bat.
For fun I suggest that you sit down and think up a few thought experiments of your own. If, for example, you like video games, you might want to think about the concept of free will vs. predetermination.
The Case of Princess Peach
Imagine you are playing the old Nintendo 64 console game SuperMario Kart. You pick Princess Peach as your driver and choose the Mushroom Cup series of races. The game begins and you are racing around the first track. Now imagine, as Princes Peach is driving around the track, she asks herself, ”Do I have free will?” or “I wonder if my life is predetermined…” As her controller, you function essentially as the master of her fate, in a sense her “God.” You can’t actually talk to her, so do you use the game controller to somehow send her a message that she is not in control of her fate? If she prayed to you for a sign, how would you show it to her? Might she think any/all actions you take from that point on were her idea in the first place? How would you make your ‘presence’ known to her?
Another question might be ‘Is her use of turtle shells to knock others temporarily out of the race ethical?’ Is it moral? It is built into the game – it is just a game to us. But what if the racers decided that it was immoral to use turtle shells? Would you, as “God,” keep on doing so? Should you not set an example for them and make them moral through deciding to take them up on their moral beliefs? You may say to yourself, “it is just a game, it has no real world consequences.” But what if in actual reality God approached our lives in the same way – war and sin were just part of a cosmic game we are characters in, and we are being “played” by divine beings in a video game called “Earth.” Would we call that God moral or immoral? Would we even be responsible for our sins if we have no control over our destiny?
If you are interested in other cultures and/or language you might enjoy thinking about The Case of the (Neko).
The Case of The 猫 (And さびしさ)
Let’s take the Japanese word “neko,” (猫) which means ‘cat.’ To English speakers, a cat is a “cat.” The word cat is so evocative of all our ideas and feelings about the animal with that name that we take for granted that the word ‘neko’ to the Japanese has that same ubiquitous finality to it. To them, the animal we call a cat is fundamentally a ‘neko,’ it is “thoroughly neko,” and thus the word cat does not really convey the same feeling when describing it. This raises the question, is language truly capable of conveying an accurate or “correct” understanding of what it signifies? Also, is there a language that best describes Reality? What if it is not English? What if Japanese is the language that, after scientific analysis, is the most accurate in conveying the true feeling of what exists in the world? Would you feel like you missed out on some part of life because English was not the most accurate?
As someone who speaks both English and Japanese comfortably, I can attest to the fact that some words, at least to me, feel more potent in English or Japanese specifically. Philosophy itself – from Greek meaning “the love of wisdom” – is described in Japanese as tetsugaku – “wisdom learning.” This raises the question as to what philosophy both ‘is’ and ‘can do.’ One can love wisdom, but does that mean they will actually learn to be wise and act accordingly? Even if I did learn ‘wisdom’ would I use what I know wisely in every instance? Does philosophical study actually make people wise, or especially, moral?
One word that I particularly like in Japanese is sabishi-sa, usually translated as “loneliness.” The word sabishi (lonely) is common, but adding the suffix -sa gives it a feeling deeper than adding a -ness to the English word. It makes the word a lot more like sadness (setsuna-sa: せつなさ) mixed with kodoku (孤独) which is an “isolated, desolate” loneliness. You are not depressingly lonely, but deep in your soul somewhere there is an unspoken loneliness of some sort – a loneliness related to mono no aware – an awareness of/the emotional quality of the impermanence of life. Thus, sabishi-sa is almost more appropriately translated as “loneliness-ness.” It is one of the reason the word appears in Japanese enka (folk pop) so much. Saying “Osaka no sabishi-sa” – the loneliness of Osaka – doesn’t refer to being lonely in Osaka or that Osaka itself is lonely. The term speaks to the idea that “being lonely in Osaka” has its own added dimension of loneliness – one who has loved and lost in Osaka has something within them that another city does not evoke… something that, unlike English, does not need extra words added onto ‘loneliness’ to describe. Japanese is a gorgeous and profound language, and I encourage anyone/everyone to learn more about it, if not learn to speak it. 日本語は、世界で最も美しい言語です。
Another example would be the word music – which comes from the Greek mousikē meaning an art presided over by the Muses – ethereal daughters of Zeus* who imbue individuals in various arts with divine inspiration. “Music” (mousikos – “of the Muses”) is described in Japanese as ongaku (音楽) – “comfortable sounds.” ‘Comfortable sounds,’ though, is the English translation, and doesn’t capture the feeling of the word, which is ‘elegant/beautiful sounds’ – pleasing sounds. One definition describes a divine nature of sound – the other an effect. As a musician myself, I feel the English word music more accurately captures how I feel when I am affected by great music – that it has a quasi-divine quality or source, and is much more than “pleasing.”
The music of jazz trumpeter Miles Davis for example, has always deeply affected me, especially the music made by his Quintet in the mid to late 60s. There is something about that music that is inexplicably terse yet expansive – dark yet illuminating, the compositions on Miles Smiles in particular. Another example is the music of the Canadian progressive rock band RUSH – of whom I have been a life-long fan. No matter what phase the band goes through, the music is always well thought out and brilliantly created – the rhythmic guitar parts of Alex Lifeson in particular.
These thought experiments are only a couple of basic examples, and surely there are many things in your own life that are more interesting to think about. So why not sit down with a cup of coffee and see what thoughts matter to you the most? The act of philosophy is both challenging and fun. Why not try it today?
[*Clio (History), Urania (Astronomy), Melpomene (Tragedy), Thalia (Comedy), Terpsichore (Dance), Calliope (Epic Poetry), Erato (Love Poetry), Polyhymnia (Songs to the Gods), Euterpe (Lyric Poetry).]
© 2014 Daniel Schnee.danielpaulschnee.wordpress.com