Wednesday, 26 December 2012 00:00

The Story Of Philosophy by Will Durant: Book Review by Ozodi Osuji

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Descartes made seminal contribution to analytic geometry. However, his metaphysics is mere restatement of popular superstition: human beings believe that they are made of mind and matter, spirit and body. We know about the body part but have no idea about the spirit part and on that we leave the French man to console himself with his philosophy (Boethius). 

The English made hay of the idea that mind is determined by matter. David Hume showed that all we know is derived from our five senses. Our memory stores what our senses send to it. The senses of touching, feeling, seeing, smelling, and hearing are the only demonstrable source of information available to us. Claims that there are other ways of knowing are exactly those, claims.

Hume further talked about the nature of inductive and deductive reasoning, logic but those are not our present concern. What is salient in the great racists view (he believed that Africans are incapable of thinking or civilization) is his contention that experience is how we get to know what we think that we know.

John Locke reinforced that materialistic epistemology by showing that we are not born with memory of anything already in our minds. We do not remember anything before we are born; we remember only what, subsequent to our births, the five senses store in our memories.  In effect, we are mind and body made of matter, and the philosophy of materialism is the only real philosophy there is. Religion’s conception of God and life after we die is mere wishful thinking that has no bases in reality.

George Berkeley the Irish bishop tried very hard to demonstrate the existence of God through his solipsistic philosophy. If a tree fell and there is no human being to hear its sound or witness its fall did a tree fall? In other words, does the external world exist apart from us or does it exist in our minds?

We can have fun talking about metaphysics, epistemology and ontology, beauty and ethics but the fact is that we seem to live in a world that encompasses us.

Upon hearing about Berkeley’s philosophy, Dr. Johnson reportedly (to his side kick, Boswell) stomped his feet on a rock and felt pain and said that the world must be external to him for it caused his body pain (dream stones also cause our dream bodies pain, so Dr. Johnson may not have won his argument that the world is outside us).

If you walk into a wall you would bump your head and sustain bruises and feel pain. If you jump out of your upstairs window you would break your bones. If you want to get from point A to B in the world of space, time and matter you must travel (motion). Thus, in the here and now world the world is outside us; the world determines our activities. Materialism seems to be the reality of this world. (But is this true? John Bell’s theorem shows that entangled particles do communicate non-locally, that regardless of where they are in the universe they seem to know what others are doing and respond when one responds; that is to say that space, time and matter may be an illusion that seems to exist but in fact do not exist?  Perhaps, the sense of union and oneness of all things that Berkeley and mystics talk about is after all true? We are not here dealing with quantum mechanics and will not pursue that subject.) 

François Marie Arouet, aka Voltaire was a poet and skeptic. He was not an atheist but liked to make fun of theists’ conceptions of God. In his most famous novel, Candide, he wondered what kind of god allows earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, tsunamis, draughts, diseases etc. to destroy his creation.

It is said that the children of God chose to separate from God and have free will. Okay. Does this mean that a loving God should then ignore his separated children’s suffering?  What earthly father bases his relationship with his children on their past mistake, separation, and on their alleged freedom to do as they choose and suffer the consequences of their choices?

Do we in fact have freedom? If you have freedom can you choose not to die, do you even know when you will die?

You see your child put his hands in fire and you know that he will be burned and you ignore him and let him get burned?  It does not seem that God who supposedly loves practices the type of love we have on earth.

On the other hand, it is difficult to say that there is no God for how did matter write Shakespeare’s plays?

The French laughing philosopher made the best of this world without accepting religionists’ delusions about the nature of God.

Voltaire emphasized reason in what people do. Never mind whether God exists or not, just do what pure reason tells you is right. With pure reason we can solve our earthly problems. This is Voltaire’s humanist credo; we do not need the auspices of God to help us adapt to the exigencies of our world.

Blasé Pascal made contributions to mathematics and science but had mystical experiences that told him that God exist and that he and that God share one self and are one (in mystical union there is no space and separation between people and their creator, no you and I, no subject and object, no seer and seen; all share oneself and one mind). In his Pensees Pascal waxed eloquent about how we are all part of one unified spirit. Not all of us have had mystical experience hence can corroborate and verify Pascal’s subjective experience based ideas on God. 

Denis Diderot was an atheist and could do without what Laplace called the god hypothesis. What is salient is reason so let us use reason to solve our problems (the philosophy of secular humanism).

Diderot and Voltaire and others wrote the French encyclopedia; in it they tried to capture all known objective knowledge, not religious razzmatazz, in one book. 

Jean Jacque Rousseau rebelled against the enlightened philosophers over emphasis on pure reason, and recommendation that we should make decisions based on reason. As he sees it, we really do not make decisions based on our heads, reason but on our hearts, feelings.  When we make important choices we do not do so because of rational discourse but because of feeling. When you sacrifice for your children you do so for the reasons of the heart not your head.

Rousseau wanted to return to the world of feelings. He stimulated Romanticism, the emphasis on feelings rather than reason. He wanted to return to the alleged simpler world of our primitive forefathers that did not emphasize reason. As he sees it, the noble savages of North America lived happier lives than the civilized people of Parisian salons.

Unfortunately for the nostalgic Rousseau, his supposed noble Indians were actually busy hunting each other down, and scalping each other’s heads!  In his Novel, Emile Rousseau waxed sentimental but the realistic reader dismisses him as a child yearning for a return to a world where his mother took care of him. In the adult world there is no protector father figure.

In his book, social contract he talked about how men are born free but everywhere are on chains. Civilization is chaining people. Despite this sentimentalism, Rousseau did manage to talk about government been contractual, that we set it up to serve our good.

(When was this social contract, covenant actually enacted? There is no evidence that people sat down and negotiated to have governments; governments evolved as people tried to govern their affairs; the contractual theorists of government such as Rousseau, Hobbes and Locke were making a lot of assumptions but let us forgive them for we know what they are trying to accomplish: emphasize that governments exist to serve the people.)

In as much as the king was not elected by the people he ruled illegally. Rousseau’s pen stimulated the French revolution by delegitimizing the rule of unelected monarchs; claiming to rule the people by divine right of kings sounds hollow to those who do not believe in divinity. A legitimate ruler is one elected by the people and who represents their aspirations, will; we are talking about democratic government as the only legitimate form of government.

Of course there are other forms of government, such as oligarchy, aristocracy, monarchy, plutocracy, fascism and socialism but let us not pretend that they are legitimate governments elected by the people to serve the peoples interests. 

In Germany Leibnitz (and Goethe) joined the Romantic Movement and wrote holy nonsense about God and his parts. God projects himself into monads and each of these monads is in each of us as our souls, our real selves. Let us not go there; we have no time to indulge in philosophic abstractions here.

What Leibnitz did manage to do that is useful is invent calculus (independent of Isaac newton doing the same in England). 

Spinoza was born in Amsterdam (of Jewish parents who were driven out of Spain after the re-conquest of Spain from the Arabs in 1492). Jews living in reconquered Spain were told to choose between converting to Christianity and leaving the country. Spinoza’s Jewish parents left Spain and sought refuge in Holland. They prospered in their new country.

Spinoza received the best education in his synagogue but at some point his study of geometry and English materialists (such as Hobbes and Locke) convinced him that the biblical tale of God creating this world could not be true.  He made his views known and the Jewish synagogue fearing alienating their Christian neighbors asked him to recant his views and he refused and he was excommunicated from Judaism.

He thereafter committed his short life to philosophy. He made his living by polishing glasses.   Spinoza did not write many books. His primary work is his Ethics, and it was published posthumously. Essentially, he seems to be saying that there is what we might call spiritual and material substances at work in the universe and that the two of them are not separated but are the manifestations of one force.

One substance, let us call it god, acts as human thinking and also acts as the human body.  Body and mind are two manifestations of the same force.  This philosophy is often called pantheism.

This philosophy is not persuasive. Spinoza made his greatest contribution in ethics, our public behavior. Since we are all the manifestations of one force, loving all people loves our whole selves, Spinoza said. Virtue is not something done to please other people but that which is its own reward. You and other people are oneself so in loving and caring for other people you love your whole self. A world where we love our whole self, our individual and other selves is a peaceful and joyous world.

This is good metaphysics but it has not proved the unity of all things for we certainly see space and time between us. I do not know for sure that you and I are joined, unified but if talking about our eternal union in spirit makes us love our selves, such talk is happy fiction in my ears. 

We have talked about materialism, science, reason and romanticism in Western intellectual tradition; now, let us take a peek at our German friends and see how they reacted to all these movements in Western intellectual life.

Immanuel Kant (of Scottish parents who migrated to Germany) set out to prove that materialism, especially Locke and Hume are wrong.  His efforts are aimed at showing that God exists and that soul exists. He tried to build his argument on Newtonian physics and Kepler’s astronomy. He borrowed heavily from Newton’s mechanics but what he ended up saying is that matter seems incapable of moving itself and that there must be a force that moves it.

Think of your body. Something in you makes your hand to move and Kant would like us to believe that it is soul, spirit (Noumenon) that made your hand (phenomenon, matter) move.

We now know something about electro-magnetism and the behavior of atoms in the nervous system…fire, heat can make your hand withdraw itself without your mind telling it to do so.

Kant‘s philosophy was magnificent abstraction that to his mind proved that pure reason has its limitations (hence critique of pure reason). He talked about what he called apriori and posteriori ideas. Mathematics, for example, he thinks exists independent of matter. Two plus two is four and this seems to be an abstract reality (apriori) and exists regardless of the existence of matter (phenomena).

There is a part of knowledge (posteriori) that is a result of our experience. What Kant is really saying is that there is knowledge that is outside experience and matter and he associates that knowledge with God.  In his view he had dealt a blow to materialism.

But has he?  I would like to argue with Kant but that is not my goal here.  Let us just say that he did not persuade me or any materialist that pure reason is not all we have going for us.

At any rate, despite his labors to prove that God exists, in his old age Kant became insane and suffered Alzheimer’s diseases. The God he struggled mightily to prove exists did not come to his rescue. So, does his God exist?

If one may ask: why is it that men are always making arguments for the existence of God? Why not let god make arguments for his existence? And since he does not show us that he exists he does not exist.

You cannot prove to those who do not know that God exists that he exists by citing your subjective experience of him. It is only if God can appear to all of us at the same time so that we can verify his existence that we know that he exists. Let God, spirit, Jesus Christ stand where all of us can see him and we would all know that he exists.

If we have to do with a person telling us that God exists based on his experience, say, Mohammad telling us that God exists because he heard the voice of an angel Gabriel we can always suspect that angels do not exist and that he was hallucinating, was insane?

Many deluded religionists have misled mankind by claiming to hear the voice of God in their heads. It is now time for God to reach all of us, but not through select persons.

God is probably our creation. As psychoanalysts say, we are intimidated by the affairs of this world and are looking for some external force to protect and rescue us. Alas, no force comes to our rescue.

Until God speaks for himself and does so in such a manner that all of us can simultaneously hear him speak to us we cannot accept him as real. Whatever arguments that philosophers like Kant make or religionists say about God do not prove the existence of God.

Kant’s idealistic philosophy is wishful thinking, nothing more nothing less. A mind sees an ugly world out there and seeks an ideal version of it. Human beings always seek ideals.

As we all know when one takes ones ideals as reality one has left the world of reality and is now deluded, paranoid, and insane. The insane person thinks that his ideals are reality. If you are ugly and want to be handsome that is understandable wish but if you now believe that you are handsome, that your wish is your reality you have left the real world and fled to the world of fantasy. In the end Kant fled to the fantasy world he was hatching in his philosophy; he became mad. 

Georg Fredrick Wilhelm Hegel did not just play with ideals, he left the world and lived in his ideal world and was insane. The man was living in his idealistic world and had nothing to do with the real world we live in. He was simply insane. Try reading his books, especially the Phenomenology of spirit and I bet you that you would think that it is 800 pages of stuff written by an inmate in a psychiatric hospital. It does not make sense.

Hegel’s writing on history seems to have some rhyme and reason in it. He talked about what he called dialectic historicism (which his student, Karl Marx said that he stood on its head and called dialectic materialism).  Hegel talked about the movement of ideas and history. At any point in time there is a real-world, the idea. That historical situation has other ideas opposing it.

There is the present status quo (thesis) and opposition to it (antithesis); the two struggles and the result is a synthesis of the two in a new idea of history, a new stage of historical development. This is fair enough characterization of how history evolves.

Moreover, we seem to have ideas in our heads, ideas that oppose each other and we seek synthesis that reconciles them in new ideas. Society appears to have similar dynamics.

Having made this much sense Hegel proceeded to talk about the absolute idea where all the theses and antitheses, the world of opposites are resolved in a perfect state. That perfect state that resolves historical dynamics is Germany.

There you have it; Hegel the German nationalist was actually seeking ways to reconcile the differences in the Germanic world into one strong German state. He thinks that the progression of history would end with this absolute idea. His student, Karl Marx talked similar nonsense. 

Marx talked about how progress is due to the struggle of thesis and antithesis and resulting synthesis of both in a new society. However, instead of leaving the struggle at the ideational level, Marx said that it is economic.

In primitive communal society some persons decided to oppress others, enslave others. Thus slave owners and slaves conflicted and the synthesis is feudal society.

In feudal society the forces of the status quo, land owning aristocrats and those wishing for change, the middle class, the bourgeoisie led to struggle. This conflict led to a new society, a synthesis of the two warring parties, socialist society.

Having reached socialism or communism Marx suddenly ends history; the dynamic struggle of oppressors and oppressed, the war of opposites end.

We know that in communist states an oppressive class emerged. The leaders of the Soviet Union oppressed the workers. Thus, both ought to continue dialectical materialism, that is, conflict continues to form new synthesis, a new form of society, something different from socialist society.


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Ozodi Osuji Ph.D

Ozodi Thomas Osuji is from Imo State, Nigeria. He obtained his PhD from UCLA. He taught at a couple of Universities and decided to go back to school and study psychology. Thereafter, he worked in the mental health field and was the Executive Director of two mental health agencies. He subsequently left the mental health environment with the goal of being less influenced by others perspectives, so as to be able to think for himself and synthesize Western, Asian and African perspectives on phenomena. Dr Osuji’s goal is to provide us with a unique perspective, one that is not strictly Western or African but a synthesis of both. Dr Osuji teaches, writes and consults on leadership, management, politics, psychology and religions. Dr Osuji is married and has three children; he lives at Anchorage, Alaska, USA.

He can be reached at: ozodiosuji@gmail.com (907) 310-8176