Philosophy Basics

For having named the blog “Hemlock Scholar” as an obtuse homage to Socrates, the blog itself has had a decided lack of philosophy in it.  Time to change that:

Philosophy is the overarching term that means “love of knowledge”.  Every culture that has ever looked up into the sky, down into the earth, off into the distance, or inward into the soul has had a chosen few people who applied themselves to the practice of figuring out why the world exists the way it does.  Philosophers were thinkers, scientists, mathematicians (the famous math man Pythagoras was thought to have coined the phrase “philosophy”), humanitarians, theologians; anything that had anything to do with learning more about the world (excepting learning about agriculture or warfare) is more or less under the ancient umbrella of what we call “philosophy”.  Over time, philosophy as a field became more focused into discussions of ethics (good and evil), metaphysics (how do we know), ontology (why are we), logic (why), and theory (aesthetics, social, and political).

There are a small host of philosophy terms and examples that have achieved celebrity status, even without fully being clear what they are about.  Two of the more famous examples of western philosophy are: 1. Plato’s “the Republic” where he [Socrates] explains exactly how he would create a perfect city that avoids the terrors of poor governance, human nature, disaster, and strife.  2. Rene Descartes’ explanation of how he affirms his existence from “Discourse on the Method”, more famously known in the short Latin phrase, “cognito, ergo sum”.

Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave”

When explaining how to built the perfect city, Plato makes one thing exceptionally clear: the best city is the one with the best ruler.  The best ruler is the one who has conquered human vice.  Human vice is conquered through knowledge of philosophy.  While it may seem self serving, Plato’s era saw Athens being ruled by a host of truly despotic leaders who ordered the suicide of Plato’s teacher and mentor, Socrates.  Plato came to the conclusion that a people who could kill a great man like Socrates were not wise enough to rule, whereas Socrates would have ruled in a just and effective manner.  “The Republic” served as Plato’s assertion that philosophy must reign high over the government of a land, and he explains it with a story.

In his story, Plato creates a cave where all of mankind is sitting in the dark.  Every person is facing the far wall and watching as figures parade simple shapes in front of a fire located behind all the people.  Every person in the cave only knows these shadows that they see on the far wall, they have never seen anything else beyond these phantom shapes flickering on the stone.  Pretend that one person is freed, cast into the world outside the cave.  Seeing an eagle, a real eagle instead of the shadow of one, would be mind blowing.  This person would charge jubilantly back into the cave and scream to the huddled masses, “there is a world unlike any you have seen beyond these walls!  You know that flower that just flickered by?  I have seen the real thing, and it is a beauty that no shadow could ever harness.”  According to Plato, silence would meet this person as the huddled masses would ignore the enlightened words as ravings of a madman.  Short of physically dragging the shadow watchers into the sunlight, kicking and screaming, the knowledgeable person would never convince the masses that the shadows are not the only thing in the world.

Plato uses this story to explain what it is like to be a philosopher.  To see the light outside the cave and share it with the masses only to be ignored was the fate of Socrates.  To Plato, there would be no better person to rule a city-state than this philosopher who could see the truth; the one who had seen the sun.

Descartes’ “Cognito Ergo Sum”

Descartes began his experiment asking himself, “how do I know I exist?”  To steal a modern example of Cartesian philosophy, imagine you live in the Matrix.  Everything feels real, looks real, tastes real, but you are little more than a brain floating in a jar.  How do you prove that you exist?

Descartes began with a simple thought: no matter what I do or try, I cannot disprove that I exist.  Your own existence is always real and always true to you, every other person in your world could very well be fake, but you are real.  From there, he postulated that in order to doubt, you must think.  If you can think, you must be able to doubt, so you must exist.  In Descartes version of the Matrix story, he played with the idea of a demon trying to convince someone that they did not exist.  No matter what the demon did to the person, the simple fact that the demon was affecting the person meant that the person existed.  The original phrasing of the famous quip was “je pense, donc je suis” (in French) or Dubito, ergo Cognito, ergo Sum.  I doubt, therefor I think, therefor I am.  A clever little thought experiment in a complicated world.