Sense of Life vs. Philosophy

Posted by CircuitGuy 2 months, 4 weeks ago to Philosophy
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I've always thought that through most of human history non-philosophers didn't have philosophy. Their governments weren't based on bad philosophy. They were based on no philosophy. Selective pressures gave rise to behaviors that have some similarities to bad philosophy, but are really just no philosophy.

I'm reading The Romantic Manifesto and thinking that this "no philosophy" is a sense of life without philosophy. My reading of it is most people who ever lived are in this group. We are fortunate that people tried to build a state based on Enlightenment philosophy, but I suspect most citizens did not understand the philosophy. I am educated in my technical field and went to a high school program that required an epistemology class at age 15, and I think I have a tenuous grasp of the basics of philosophy. I have a sense that my fellow educated citizens have a general sense that liberty is intrinsically good and delivers prosperity, but don't actually understand philosophy more than I do.

All this makes me think that most of the world operates mostly on a sense of life with more understanding of philosophy than pre-Enlightenment peoples but not by all that much.

To make liberty last, to avoid reverting back to something like what we had through most of human history, does everyone need to learn philosophy? Is this practical? Are they any shortcuts where people learn enough to be free citizens and support individual liberty but without actually digging into the details of philosophy?

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  • Posted by ewv 2 months, 3 weeks ago
    There is no sense of life without philosophy. Philosophy is inescapable in human life because man cannot operate moment by moment. He requires a comprehensive view of reality in order to live. But that may not be systematically articulated and often is not. Philosophical premises are implicit in a sense of life as a general outlook, even when not systematically articulated and integrated. You see the role this plays in "Philosophy and Sense of Life" in the Romantic Manifesto.

    Isolated forms of philosophical premises, often bad, are routinely accepted explicitly but uncritically, which we constantly hear in the form of informal isolated bromides, but whose source was intellectual formulations by past philosophers many have never heard of..

    What you call the "no philosophy" is not a lack of any philosophy at all, but a lack of conceptual understanding: the emotionally ingrained, pre-conceptual form of philosophy implicit in the general outlook of a person who has picked it up from those around him, beginning with his parents, and partially expressed in isolated generalities, but who has not critically examined it in explicit form. He may even have tried to examine it, but with no source of explanation and better formulations gives up in despair, believing it isn't possible -- perhaps encouraged in that by a bad philosophy course.

    Ayn Rand gave prominent examples in the first part of "Philosophy: Who Needs It?", the title essay of the book by that name, and which you can hear in the recording of the original lecture at West Point

    "You might claim—as most people do—that you have never been influenced by philosophy. I will ask you to check that claim. Have you ever thought or said the following? 'Don't be so sure—nobody can be certain of anything.' You got that notion from David Hume (and many, many others), even though you might never have heard of him. Or: 'This may be good in theory, but it doesn't work in practice.' You got that from Plato. Or: 'That was a rotten thing to do, but it's only human, nobody is perfect in this world.' You got it from Augustine. Or: 'It may be true for you, but it's not true for me.' You got it from William James. Or: 'I couldn't help it! Nobody can help anything he does.' You got it from Hegel. Or: 'I can't prove it, but I feel that it's true.' You got it from Kant. Or: 'It's logical, but logic has nothing to do with reality.' You got it from Kant. Or: 'It's evil, because it's selfish.' You got it from Kant. Have you heard the modern activists say: 'Act first, think afterward'? They got it from John Dewey.

    "Some people might answer: 'Sure, I've said those things at different times, but I don't have to believe that stuff all of the time. It may have been true yesterday, but it's not true today.' They got it from Hegel. They might say: 'Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.' They got it from a very little mind, Emerson. They might say: 'But can't one compromise and borrow different ideas from different philosophies according to the expediency of the moment?

    "They got it from Richard Nixon—who got it from William James...

    "You have no choice about the necessity to integrate your observations, your experiences, your knowledge into abstract ideas, i.e., into principles. Your only choice is whether these principles are true or false, whether they represent your conscious, rational convictions—or a grab-bag of notions snatched at random, whose sources, validity, context and consequences you do not know, notions which, more often than not, you would drop like a hot potato if you knew.

    "But the principles you accept (consciously or subconsciously) may clash with or contradict one another; they, too, have to be integrated. What integrates them? Philosophy. A philosophic system is an integrated view of existence. As a human being, you have no choice about the fact that you need a philosophy. Your only choice is whether you define your philosophy by a conscious, rational, disciplined process of thought and scrupulously logical deliberation—or let our subconscious accumulate a junk heap of unwarranted conclusions, false generalizations, undefined contradictions, undigested slogans, unidentified wishes, doubts and fears, thrown together by chance, but integrated by your subconscious into a kind of mongrel philosophy and fused into a single, solid weight: self-doubt, like a ball and chain in the place where your mind's wings should have grown.

    "You might say, as many people do, that it is not easy always to act on abstract principles. No, it is not easy. But how much harder is it, to have to act on them without knowing what they are?"
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    • Posted by ewv 2 months, 3 weeks ago
      To answer your concluding questions: "To make liberty last, to avoid reverting back to something like what we had through most of human history, does everyone need to learn philosophy? Is this practical? Are they any shortcuts where people learn enough to be free citizens and support individual liberty but without actually digging into the details of philosophy?"

      Yes, understanding philosophical premises is necessary for normal human life because objective, systematic thinking and principles are required to live. It is not practical to avoid that. Life requires education to know how to think and act in all realms.

      But there are differences in degree. Not everyone, needs to "dig into" all the details of every philosophical system. And not everyone needs to understand the technical aspects of epistemology. But civilized life does require a general knowledge of the history of philosophy, what went wrong, and what progress was made. Everyone does require knowledge of correct basic principles and their validation, especially the basic methods of reason, the principles of ethics, and the consequences for politics.

      But "to make liberty last" is a consequence, not the starting point. Philosophy is required for life as an individual, with political freedom necessary to make that possible. Political philosophy is only the last stage in a hierarchy of principles, and cannot be formulated, let alone put into practice, without metaphysics, epistemology and ethics. You have to first know what is, how to think, and what to live for. There is no shortcut. Every politics presupposes a view of reality and how man relates to it, how one thinks, and what man should do as an individual.

      To see what has happened in politics because that is not done -- because the American sense of life beginning with the Enlightenment was not intellectually defended against its opposite -- why there are no shortcuts, and what is required now, read "Don't Let it Go" and "What Can One Do?", also in Philosophy: Who Needs It?.
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      • Posted by 1 month, 3 weeks ago
        "But "to make liberty last" is a consequence, not the starting point. Philosophy is required for life as an individual, with political freedom necessary to make that possible"
        You're saying political freedom is necessary to make life as an individual possible. Do you think life as an individual is necessary to maintain political freedom? If so, it's a chicken-and-egg relationship.
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        • Posted by ewv 1 month, 3 weeks ago
          Life as an individual is human life. No one can operate your mind for you. Having a philosophy is a requirement for your own mind in order to think properly and make proper choices. Having a proper government is a political requirement to ensure that you are left physically free to use your mind.

          Protection of the rights of the individual is a political requirement because using your own reason is the fundamental requirement to live: You aren't free to think, choose your goals, and put your thoughts into action for your own life without protection of rights against transgression by others. Protection of rights includes protection against government transgressions in order to maintain a free society. Among the choices and actions you must take are maintaining a proper government to keep your freedom to continue thinking, choosing and acting.

          There is no chicken-egg circularity. You must think and therefore be free from compulsion in order to live. One of the things you must do to live is to maintain a free social system. The necessity to think and act is the moral basis justifying the requirement of a free society.
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    • Posted by 1 month, 3 weeks ago
      "There is no sense of life without philosophy."
      So all human beings with basic intelligence (not mentally disabled) have a philosophy. It may be self-contradictory (i.e. using correct logic you can derive contradictory propositions from it), but it's still a philosophy.

      It feels like you can have a set of axioms to define something like Euclidian geometry from which you can derive no contradictory propositions. Such a system can produce results that model the real world. But the real world cannot be understood with a clear formal set of axioms. So sometimes you encounter unexpected results, and you have to integrate that into your understanding of reality without necessarily being able to trace back to which original axioms were wrong or where you made a logical error starting from good axioms. (Rand would probably say, "You got that from Plato and Kant." :) )
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      • Posted by ewv 1 month, 3 weeks ago
        They have a philosophy but it may be (and usually is) implicit, not articulated or systematic, expressed only with representative slogans.

        Uncritical acceptance of unexamined ideas leads to contradictions, but that means contradicting reality as well as internal contradictions. Logic is the art or science of noncontradictory identification, not formal manipulation of propositions. If you say A and reality is non-A you have a contradiction; contradiction does not require deriving propositions.

        I don't know what you mean relating that to formal axioms as in Euclidean geometry. No philosophy starts with formal axioms from which consequences are formally deduced. Even the Rationalist Descartes didn't go that far, though he did try to generally deduce reality from what was in his head. And that is not the role of the axioms that Ayn Rand refers to: They are axiomatic concepts, not a deductive system (see Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology Chapter 6).

        Mathematics is a science of method, not something "modeling the world". It's origin is as a means to measure the world. Axioms in mathematics for formal systems such Euclidean geometry, the Peano axioms for natural numbers, axioms for the real number system, etc. are not the cognitive starting point. The process does not start with axioms, you begin with concepts and principles, beginning with the concepts of numbers and counting, then try to formulate a base set of principles for an entire system, from which all other relevant principles can be derived in a systematic way. But you start with meaningful concepts or you wouldn't get that far.

        If the axioms are formulated correctly you have found the fundamentals, everything of relevance is encapsulated, and there are no contradictions. You may encounter unexpected results, but they don't clash with physical reality. You either have true principles relating mathematical concepts or you don't.

        But you can't derive reality from a set of "axioms" with formal symbol manipulation. Physics and other sciences (and knowledge in general) don't work that way. You develop a hierarchy of abstract concepts based on observation using your five senses, and discover principles using them.

        The concepts and principles must always be applied with the proper meaning and in context. If you find a contradiction with observation you have dropped context in application, misusing the concepts and principles, or have found a new phenomena not part of the original context. In that case you then formulate the necessary new concepts and principles to explain it, based on the theories of what you already know, further building the hierarchy of knowledge. You don't go back and revise "axioms".

        Science is a mental grasp of reality, not a "model" in parallel with reality in which you manipulate symbols out of context in your head, then touch down to reality occasionally looking for correspondence -- though some have tried to philosophically formulate it that way.

        To relate that to your field, Ronald King's Fundamental Electromagnetic Theory tries to do that. He was a brilliant engineer and applied physicist (as you may know) and a nice person and motivated educator, but he was educated during the rise of Positivism and for his text book and lectures he held an explicitly Positivist philosophy. He denied the existence of electrons, acknowledging only ammeter readings corresponding with floating abstractions of i, etc.

        The deliberate floating abstractions mathematically manipulated makes impossible the theory of E&M as conceptual understanding of reality through a hierarchy of rational abstractions in which all your concepts have meaning in reality.

        He did get it from Kant, as you will see from the Peikoff lectures (though King is not mentioned there -- I encountered that myself and saw the connection).
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