Immanuel Kant

Bertrand Russell : A History of Western Philosophy

I’d had high expectations of this book, and I wasn’t disappointed. Since reading it I’m very much a confirmed Bertrand Russell fan, and if I was in the habit of putting pictures of my heroes on the wall, I’m sure his would be among them. The full title of the book is A History of Western Philosophy And Its Connection with Political and Social Circumstances from the Earliest Times to the Present Day, and the preface to the edition I read starts as follows:

Many histories of philosophy exist, and it has not been my purpose merely to add one to their number. My purpose is to exhibit philosophy as an integral part of social and political life: not as the isolated speculations of remarkable individuals, but as both an effect and a cause of the character of the various communities in which different systems flourished.

In other words, Russell wants to put philosophy into its social and political context, and I think he succeeds very well. That said, and excellent though this book is, it could still have been better if Russell had spent slightly less time on the Middle Ages and on people like Plotinus, St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, and dealt more fully with the much more interesting philosophers of the last few centuries. Ever since I started to look into western philosophy in any detail, I’ve become more and more convinced that although many of the pre-Socratic philosophers, certainly up to Democritus, did their best to search for truth in an honest, dispassionate and careful manner, things went rapidly downhill from there on. While people like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle certainly were great thinkers and had some brilliant ideas, the basis of their thought was fundamentally flawed, and they sent philosophy off in completely the wrong direction. As soon as it fell into the hands of the Christians things got even worse, and we have to wait till the Renaissance before they gradually start to improve and get back on the right track. Only with people like Hobbes, Descartes, Locke, Hume and Kant can we really say that honest, unprejudiced investigation has regained its rightful place. Reading this book I see plenty of evidence that Russell would more or less agree with this analysis, so why does he waste so much time on the Middle Ages, rather than moving on more quickly to something more interesting? If and when I read this book again, there are large sections which I shall be skipping! (more…)

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Robert Lanza : A New Theory of the Universe

In his essay A New Theory of the Universe, published in The American Scholar in 2007, Robert Lanza expounds his theory of Biocentrism. It was the most interesting essay I’d read in a long time (I seem to keep on saying that!), and very relevant to my own ideas.

According to Wikipedia the theory of Biocentrism states that ‘life’ or consciousness creates the universe rather than the other way around (as has been traditionally assumed), and that “there is no independent external universe outside of biological existence.” Just like Kant, Lanza maintains that “what we call space and time are forms of animal sense perception, rather than external physical objects”. He says that the behaviour of particles “is inextricably linked to the presence of an observer”, and that what we perceive as reality is “a process that involves our consciousness”. He backs up this view with (among other arguments) the fact that “the laws, forces, and constants of the universe appear to be fine-tuned for life”, or as he puts it elsewhere “the laws of the world were somehow created to produce the observer”, and “there are over 200 physical parameters within the universe so exact that it is seen as more probable that they are that way in order to allow for existence of life and consciousness, rather than coming about at random.” I looked up that ‘fine-tuning‘ business and was quite impressed by its implications: if it isn’t evidence for Lanza’s theory that consciousness creates the universe, then it points to something along the lines of ‘intelligent design’; the very least it seems to indicate is that there’s a lot we don’t yet know about the universe. And the idea that the internal and external, subjective and objective worlds seem to be a lot more connected, and in a more complex way, than has generally been thought, is a very plausible explanation for such a set of seemingly unlikely facts (although there are others, such as the anthropic principle). (more…)

Mel Thompson : Understand Philosophy

This book in the ‘Teach Yourself’ series was certainly worth reading, and I did learn a thing or two from it, but my final impression was still one of slight disappointment. I was probably hoping for too much. So far I’d picked up most of my general information on Western philosophy haphazardly, indirectly and via-via, from the background information offered by people writing on related or much more specialised subjects. I’d read a rather difficult book on the philosophy of time (Craig Bourne’s A Future for Presentism), a book on logic, and over the last four decades countless books on Eastern philosophy, meditation, astrology, psychology, politics, etc., etc., etc., written by or about people as diverse as Aldous Huxley, Colin Wilson, George Gurdjieff, Carl Gustav Jung and the Dalai Lama, to mention just a very few examples. You can’t read all that (plus a wide range of literature and literary criticism) without picking up a fair bit of information about people like Plato, Kant and Marx, and in more recent years I’d read countless Wikipedia articles on most of the better known Western philosophers and their ideas. And last but not least I’d read Sophie’s World twice! I’m pretty certain, however, that this was the first general textbook I’ve ever read on the subject, the first book written for adults which claimed (in its very title!) to enable me to ‘Understand Philosophy’, and for some reason I seem to have made the unconscious assumption that this book was going to change my life… (more…)

Jostein Gaarder : Sophie’s World

When I first read this book in 1995 I found nothing better to write about it than “een heel bijzonder boek!” (a very special book!). Having read it a second time I’d definitely stand by that judgement, but I have a lot more to say about it now, and not only because I have more time to write these days. While I’ve always been interested in philosophical questions (even if for a long time I found the answers coming from the east more interesting than those from the west) I don’t think I could really have said in 1995 that I had anything resembling a personal philosophical system. Nowadays I wouldn’t hesitate to assert that I do, and a large part of the interest for me in re-reading this book was to compare the thoughts of the great philosophers of the past to my own thoughts on the same subjects. I’ll get to the results of this comparison later, but to stay with the book itself for a while, it certainly is “een heel bijzonder boek” in more ways than one. First and foremost it’s a very informative introduction to western philosophy for anyone, young or otherwise, who doesn’t know that much about it. I’m sure I know more about it than most people, and I definitely know a lot more now than I did in 1995, but I still found this book very useful, not least for its clear and concise reminders of things I’d read about years ago but not thought much about since. But on the other hand, neither would I claim that this book had nothing new to teach me. (more…)