The Philosophy Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained

The Philosophy Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained DK Penguin Random House, 2011. NY 10014

This book has several contributors from British Universities, and was planned and prepared by them and others. Its paperback covers have dozens of well-known quotes from eminent Western and Eastern philosophers of the past 2,700 years. They communicate profoundly simple conclusions by the greatest of them.

Most people have heard many of them: :”Man is the measure of all things,” “I think, therefore I am,” “The life which is not examined is not worth living,” “Knowledge is power,” “ Reason lives in Language,” and many more not so well-known, “Art is a form of life,” “Every desire has a relation to madness,” “If we choose, we can live in a world of comforting illusion,” and many others which are titles of sections of the philosophers whose thoughts they are.

For anyone who wants to understand the basis of the philosophical thinking of the past three thousand years, and an introduction to the lives of the philosophers, this is a way of doing it that requires only the ability to read with attention and to associate ideas with the historical periods during which they wrote.

There are six sections: Ancient, Medieval, Renaissance and the Age of Reason, The Age of Revolution, Modern and Contemporary. Very useful for each philosopher is an “in context” sidebar with references to related topics in the book, and a brief biography of the philosopher. Charts and photos show relationships, and major concepts are listed in boxes, larger type, and illustrations.

This book can be read, starting from any page, though reading the Introduction first is advised, and then a quick overview of the book. Finding any philosopher is simple, as are definitions—in the Directory, Glossary and an Index as well.

I am impressed with this book, and looked through it for something of special interest to me. I found it in the section of Nietzsche and his writing about his contention that “God is dead.” What did he mean, and how can it be applied and integrated into today’s world, where there is no predominant “world view,” and the idea of God is explained in many different ways—some very ancient, some that go beyond logic to mysticism.

Nietzsche explains that the idea that “God is dead” is not new—Zoroaster, 2,400 years ago, wrote “god is dead.” Nietzsche describes why, and his own agreement. Of course Nietzsche explains that what will evolve from this loss is the “superman,” who will realize that man as he is today is not capable of becoming “homo superior.”

According to the text, the philosopher Kant influenced this idea of God’s demise long before Nietzsche. Kant said, “We cannot know the world in itself.” And Nietzsche said, “There is only one world, and our error is that we have put all values beyond the world.” So, when we look beyond or through the philosophical “illusions,” Nietzsche says, we can become “superman.”

How do such ideas relate to the future, when most philosophy is relegated to the re-writing of scientific statements—as Wittgenstein said when he asserted that he had explained all of the problems of philosophy and it was unnecessary to try to go beyond them. Many others disagree and dispute Wittgenstein’s conclusion that “we communicate as a game,” with rules developed as we speak and become familiar with each others’ ways of thinking, logic and their conceptual capacities. Then, as we communicate, we reach the limits or goals of the subjects about which we communicate, our mutual “truth,” and the final outcomes of our mutual reasoning. Beyond that, science merely poses new topics within an accepted process, ergo, philosophers have no further issues to dispute, only new ideas to analyze. Is is yet to be determined whether Wittgenstein has merely avoided, rather than resolved all of philosophy’s problems.

However we can ask some practical questions about Kant/Nietzsche’s idea, that “we cannot know the world as it is.” First, science and technology are still proposing new concepts in physics (e.g. quanta, string theory, multi-dimensions, etc.) discovering ways of exploring the subatomic quanta, as well as proposing ways of exploring beyond our solar system to our galaxy and the universe. Do these new developments contradict Kant/Nietzsche/Wittgenstein?

As long as humans continue to think systematically, there will always be questions that need answers. Just as the human mind—as part of the body—has evolved with it, so the questions raised can be answered. It may be that Homo Sapiens will destroy itself. But so long as life, and time, and space, and matter continue to exist, so will the possibilities of evolution and improvement.

So far, our examination of the sub-microscopic has been only to “measure” the effects of “predicted” “changes” in known measurements of already-known objects. Even though we are still puzzled by the ability of “matter” to be found (detected, measured, co-excited) in two places at once (the “at once” is also questionable), we continue to pursue “knowledge.”

This raises questions about how the mind itself works—and what is “mind?” In one sense, “all living matter is a “part” of mind. Nietzsche’s idea that “God is dead” can be understood to mean that the need for some particular way of thinking about God may no longer be relevant. We know that our ability to recall and remember involves “imaging,” and what our senses have perceived and our minds can “change” in ways that may not conform to anything that exists.

A major unresolved issue of how our brains and minds process “reality” is “imaging.” How does the brain/mind do that? Science now says it is an “electro-chemical” process. It is controlled by the body. Consciousness—another poorly-understood process—is part of that. (Neuro-physiologists still try to find the “location” of the soul—that is, those who believe there is one) This means that they accept that the soul’s “function” is necessary, even though our bodies function whether we believe or don’t accept that a soul exists.

Living matter requires a “vital element” for it to remain alive. That is, matter of some kind that has, can support within it “something” that can control (or at least keep alive) the matter it makes vital. But life also requires some kind of “matter” though inert matter does not (insofar as we know) require anything but a “structure or pattern” of atoms (or quanta) to give it “form.”

Futurists like to speculate on the time when humans will be able to “implant” chips to enhance their memories and nervous systems, but that is far from happening. The so-called “cloud” for computers is merely a set of servers with the capability to process many kinds of programs—the “cloud” exists in hundreds of warehouses with rows of servers connected by wireless transmission towers to each other and millions of computers and phones.

Our brains are many times more complex than the greatest computers. Computers still operate on the 01 relationship. Most of it is still like arithmetic—adding and subtracting—open and closed—yes and no, with added speed and sub-microscopic processors. But our brains are still quicker for more subtle human activities. We can tell how far away we are from equality shen robots are still unable to perform so many simple human actions—though they can, by human ingenuity, do much.

Back to Kant/Nietzsche—who are not correctly interpreted, by asserting they thought that an objective creator God is dead. What is dead is the “escape from one’s self “god.” This assertion only lets them explain that “because we cannot fully explain human behavior, God is dead.” Their search, and that of many others, is obviously directed to the wrong places.

Speculating on whether or not “God is dead,” is useless so long as we define God as we do, and cannot find where else to look than in a world that Nietzsche/Kant said “is an illusion,” and “cannot be known.” When we assert that, what are our alternative perspectives?

First, humans can, as I do here, speculate—no, must believe and assert, that “whatever it is that exists beyond our present concept of “God,” “it” may or does exist, or we would not.”

But N/K are right, “God as (many of us) think of or want him to be, is dead.” We may not yet have evolved enough to be able to “think” ourselves farther toward the truth. But should we accept that “we are not yet ready” for a confrontation with “God?” The relatively “sudden” (in earth time), of natural disasters, and human error that are now occurring may e combining to “rid the world of homo sapiens. Might this be a start toward the evolution to “homo superior,” or something else?

Perhaps, here and there, we find a few bits of evidence that humans ARE evolving, but not quickly enough. The hundreds of “self-improvement” books and tapes that are being produced now are a bit of evidence that there is a profoundly-felt feeling that “the philosophy of yesterday and today are not enough.”

We should recognize that the centuries-long efforts of philosophers and scientists to understand ourselves and our world is what has brought us far enough to see the possibilities of a better world than the one we now live in. In our history, we have seen humanity as we know it rise, fall, and rise again. As for our pre-historic past, we have been able to analyze our “humanoid” predecessors’ remains sufficiently to know that their lives were not lived in vain. Our successors, too, may learn from what we leave behind, to become “Homo superior,” or an even better version by our creator.

Finally, the “ideas of God,” apparently distorted and misunderstood, may still be a major pursuit of whoever replaces us and may even arise from what our philosophers leave behind, if only as as a guide for how “not to” pursue a search for the origin, reason for, and the purpose of existence.

The Philosophy Book can be an inspiration for one’s half-expressed views on what our world has been, is now and can be. The thinking of some of the world’s most brilliant minds on who we were, what we are today, and might become tomorrow are well worth our attention.


John H. Langer, JD, Ed.D. Retired Federal agency manger, former professor of education, public school administrator, and writer of a number of articles and publications on education, public affairs, substance abuse and social issues. In writing a book on attention and memory as it relates to education, this blog is helping to focus attention n current issues, and hopefully, add something useful as well.

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