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In The present article author has tried to sketch an overview of some major philosophical thoughts developed in the continental Europe . Starting from the theories of ancient greek thinkers like Plato , Aristotle , philosophical theories of Descarte and Locke has been discussed . Emphasis has been given mainly on the epistemological issues, i.e on different isms and conflict between those viz. Rationalism vs. Empiricism . Presentation of the article is somehow metaphysical in nature , and of course which is an essential feature of classical theory . In this introductory article metatheoritical or philosophical questions related to science and mathematics has been raised.
The issues of present-day philosophy encompass a wide range, besides the classical issues of ethics and politics, methodology of science and even environmental problems or feminism have also entered into the purview of philosophy. Some passing mention will be made about these new issues but we shall confine our discussion on fundamental issues of philosophy. These fundamental issues and questions, which are being discussed over the past thousands of years, are mainly on cognition, which are related to the limit, precondition and legitimacy of human knowledge. The questions relate to knowledge and what constitute knowledge. Precisely these are what is knowledge, how knowledge originates, what are the preconditions of valid knowledge and how human mind could acquire it. In addition, the questions are related to the (cognitive) status of science theories also, i.e.- what would be the acceptance criteria of scientific models explaining same phenomena, etc. Philosophy in its totality relies heavily on the solution of these questions . From antiquity philosophers of almost all civilized society have pondered over these issues.
From the writings of various philosophers of early and recent past , like Indian Gangesha (Naiaik), Sankara (Adwaita Vedantik), Dinnaga (Nyaya Vaiseshika), Charbaka or Chinese Lao Zee(6th-5th century BC), Hui Shi (380-305 BC), Shou Yen (305-240 BC) and of ancient Greece Socrates (469-399 BC), Plato (427-347 BC), upto Descarte (1596-1650). John Locke (1632-1704), Kant (1724-1804) in the era of renaissance in modern Europe, we observe a deeper study on these issues . This is that important most study-area of philosophy, which is known more as theory of knowledge or Epistemology . It does not like logic deals with form and structure of thought but justifies the knowledge as a whole ,by determining the role of human mind through cognitive processes . It might be mentioned in passing that the role of mind in this cognitive process is effective in both during thought and pre-thought process. During thought process the basic premises are related by logical connectives whereas in pre-thought process those basic (primitive) knowledge is formed .
Question might arise at the beginning which path will be followed in this discussion, whether we shall search for the answers in the light of the evolution of the philosophical ideas or for different countries and nationality or considering the economic, social and political perspective. It is necessary to clarify that we shall discuss the ideas of some European philosophers starting from old Greece up to the renaissance period. Special emphasis will be given to those distinguished philosophers who could be sufficiently advanced to provide the answers of the fundamental questions by developing their own theory and system.
Two trends are usually observed in the field of epistemology, one is based on intellect and reason, the other is on experience. The trend based on reason is called Rationalism and the other one is called Empiricism. Rationalist philosophers think that for acquiring true knowledge, reason or reason-based method is the only way. Only that knowledge acquired by axiomatic deductive method of logic and mathematics are true and trustworthy. The knowledge acquired from direct experience is only incidental. On the other hand according to Empiricist philosophers, experience is the only source of knowledge and that ultimately all knowledge originates from sense experiences. They added that how we gain the basic materials of knowledge from outer or inner world through sense perception are basically some form of experience.
If we carefully look into the history of western philosophy we notice that Greek philosopher Socrates and his disciple Plato introduced the philosophy based on reason. Socrates refuted the older empirical philosophy of Sophist philosophers such as Protagoras in support of the idea that the path to gain true knowledge is only pure intellect. Following the idea of Socrates Plato believed that the experience, which we gather through sensation is changeable and uncertain hence not a pure knowledge. Without discussing ‘positive theory of knowledge’ as presented by Plato in his ‘Republic’ we limit ourselves in discussing the contents of his first book on epistemology ‘Theaetetus’. The main message of this book is sensual perception is not correct and also not on real thing so on the question of correctness of knowledge (that means acquired knowledge to be correct) sensual perception is not knowledge. He denied the incidental knowledge. In one sense Plato had refuted the idea of the sophist philosopher Protagoras that ‘sensual perception is knowledge’. According to Plato knowledge could also be acquired without sensual perception, which means knowledge acquired by sensual perception is not also sensually perceived.
It might be said about the philosophical stand of Plato that he did not accept the reality of ‘perceivable world’. As an intellect-based philosopher he opined that there should be no justified ground to accept rationally the existence of the world that we perceive through our senses. So he maintained that there exists a real world beyond that we perceive through our senses. In his eyes that world is the only existing reality and the world we see is a reflection of it.
We also observe similar thought in Plato’s view on mathematics. At the outset we shall discuss his view enumerated in his book Theaetetus. It states that in mathematics what we learn is not perceptible because the definition of the object we discuss is not perceivable through our senses. An example is that we would not be able to draw a triangle according to the characteristics or its definition. Moreover the numbers, which we use in mathematics, is to be comprehended by reason. That the concept of intelligible which Plato introduced in his positive doctrine of knowledge is found only in mathematics and according to this, the concepts such as point, line, triangle or the classification of those are the examples of intelligible since these could be apprehended only by intellect. He added that universals are also intelligible of another type . According to him we could not feel directly the existence of the concepts we discuss in mathematics. We do not find those in our visual world, so these are intellect-based but not based on our senses.
Incidentally Plato very much revered mathematics specially the geometry established by Apollonius, Euclid, Pythagoras and others. To Plato the world was full of mathematics or corporeal mathematics. The construction of this world was possible by an efficient creator in consonance with the structure of mathematics. The world that we see is like an idol of the mathematical world; it reminds us the famous quote of Plato, “God eternally geometrizes”. To him the concepts and principles of mathematics are not only correct in properties and unchangeable but also in essence a true representation of the real world. Those are specially existent even if we do not encounter in the world that we see. So he has visualized a different world on the issues of these concepts. It is his ideal world of mathematics, the existence of which could not be limited to the realm of human intellect. From these thoughts had developed the theory of ‘Platonic world of mathematics’ or more generally ‘The world of Forms’. According to the theory of Form, not only for mathematical concepts but for all concept there is a Form corresponding to it and the true knowledge of a thing is the knowledge of the Form of it. The world of Forms is the only world with reality.
We conclude the section on Greek Philosophy by presenting the ideas of Aristotle one of the leading philosophers of ancient Greece. The contemporary knowledge of almost all the streams of philosophy and science was reflected in the writings of Aristotle. He moved through all the intellectual issues that man had thought about. Many of his philosophical writings influenced the development of both western and eastern philosophy many centuries after. These writings are on Ethics ‘Nichomachean Ethics’, on sociopolitical issues ‘Politics’, theory on arts and crafts and on oration ‘Poetics and Rhetoric’; in addition to these his very important writings on logic, ‘Logic’ and on metaphysics ‘Metaphysics’ are very worthy to mention. He first felt the necessity to develop the forms of thought and the methods of correct reasoning . From these thinking developed his famous book on rules of thinking ‘Organon’. To set these rules he proposed to separate the form of thinking from the content of thinking. Surely that was a revolutionary thought. In logic his most important contribution was conjecture on three forms or Syllogism.
In ‘Metaphysics’, he discussed the existence of transcendental entities and its acceptability in human mind. His investigation was how we could by reason and rational methods become aware of transcendental existence. We observe that in ‘Metaphysics’ the discussion that he introduced on theory of existence was continued up to the works of the philosophers Descartes, Kant and Hegel.
Still with all these discourses we could not find any of his writing on epistemology. However from ‘Metaphysics’ and some concomitant writings we might try to understand his stand on epistemology. The old sophist philosophers taught we should not follow blindly the sermons of any prophet. The sophists advised us that human being should observe apply reason and by these should evaluate the world and our life. By this way through our senses and real rational analysis human being could get a proper understanding and knowledge on the world around us. But Aristotle similar to his mentor Plato went outside the domain of sophist philosophers and raised serious questions on the source of acquiring knowledge. To us Aristotle despite being a mainstream philosopher of Plato school could not deny the role of observation by our senses in contrast to the philosophers who wholeheartedly supported Plato. Aristotle admitted the real existence of perceivable world with objectivity. The main difference between the philosophical stance of Plato and Aristotle was that Plato believed in the existence of another world, which is beyond our perceptible sense; but in contrast Aristotle was very much doubtful about the existence of that world. He opined the world we feel with our senses is only real it could not exist in thought process. That means there is no other world with reality beyond our sense-perception so the perceivable world is identical to the material world. Although Plato accepted the independence of material and perceivable world but for both Plato and Aristotle, material (existing) world and acceptable reality is one.
We might say Aristotle differed from Plato’s thinking that the origin of material world is from some original and primary ‘Consciousness’, and Aristotle from his materialistic stance criticized the atomic theory of Democritus, a Greek materialist of that time. According to the ‘Atomistic Theory’ of Democritus (460-370 BC) material world is made from conjugation of indivisible elemental Atom, and knowledge is the result of interaction between Soul and Eidolon issued from Atom. Aristotle was advanced from the contemporary materialistic ideas in the sense that he denied the supernatural existence of Eidolon different from material existence.
The difference between the thinking of Plato and Aristotle regarding mathematics is noteworthy. To Plato the subjects discussed in mathematics are only related to reality, i.e. point, line, number etc. the forms of mathematics are only real. These are not concepts alone. In contrast to this Aristotle opined that the prerequisites of mathematics or the contents of the mathematical problems such as trajectory of a moving particle or quantities are only real.
Aristotle from this materialistic stand had denied the existence of Platonic world. Regarding the relation between world of mathematics and reality he held a different view and said the concepts and principles discussed in mathematics are only mentally constructed forms. Beyond the mind these concepts has no independent existence. The contents of mathematics are not existent in visual world but these are products of the material world. The Platonic world in his eyes is like reflections of the real world. In continuation of thinking of Aristotle the succeeding materialistic philosophers opined in the visible world the subjects of mathematics are not visible but these are intellect modified sensations emanating from material world. In this sense the mathematical world is an abstract form of the real world. As if this mathematical modeling is mentally accessible representation of human mind. From the words of mathematical philosopher Morris Kline “Mathematical concepts and principles are abstracted from the world; these are applicable to it. There is a faculty of mind, which enables us to these idealized properties of physical objects from sensations & these abstractions are necessarily true”. The reader will find this quotation from the first chapter ‘Genesis of Mathematical Truth’ of Kline’s book ‘Mathematics: The Loss of Certainty”.
To Aristotle mathematics is like a sense data-based science. The subjects discussed in these treaties are not changing matter and is thought to be different from inanimate but nevertheless could not remain independent of inanimate, however not unchanging object. So according to him, supreme existence or substance should not be the subject discussed in mathematics or physics. It should be the subject either of metaphysics or ontology. Despite recognizing the originality of Aristotle we find influence on him of the contemporary notions naturally. However there is no reason to deny that from the philosophical thoughts of Plato and Aristotle arose first in classical/ancient philosophy the line that demarcates the idealistic and materialist thought.
We now discuss modern European philosophy of renaissance period. There is a strong influence of rationalist philosophers in European philosophy starting from Greek philosophy to that of Renaissance period. According to extreme rationalist view all our ideas are innate, which means that there is no idea based on experience but accepted before experience, although rationalist Descartes and his successor Dutch philosopher Spinoza did not think that all ideas are innate. In the ‘Discourse’ of Descartes (1596-1650), the prominent philosopher of Renaissance period we see a deeper study of the application of rationalist methods in cognitive processes . According to him human mind does not remain empty before it receives some ideas through experience. There exist some fundamental notions or concepts, which are ingrained naturally in human mind before the experience based on sensual perception. As for example the concept of space and time, relation between cause and effect are not based on experience but accepted before experience. Without assuming these concepts there is no possibility of direct experience. To identify a material object visually, it has to be known that the object is placed somewhere in space-time. Descartes said further that if any notion is some sort(form) of intelligence or intellect by nature then it should also evolve from these. The perception might be helpful for unveiling of these but not a cause to develop. By this way the basic knowledge are formed by the unitation of the fundamental innate concepts or empirical ideas and after that we could acquire complex knowledge from these basic ones through analyses by deductive method accepted in rationalism. All these knowledge obtained through the light of rational or reason based method are definitive and so acceptable to all. This method is similar to the axiomatic deductive methods, which are used in mathematics and logic. John Lock, the empirical philosopher of later years provided explanation of the nature of these unitations .
Descarte, at the beginning of his philosophical analysis proposed that the existence of all the matters is potentially doubtful .Considering the existence of his own he tried to prove the existence of the outer world, other beings and even the supreme being .Actually it seems that the rejection of authorities and dogmas within the framework of Cartesian philosophy translated into the principle of doubt .In Descarte’s own words “if I want to build a new scientific system to evolve a new philosophy I must renounce all that I have been offered as readymade and immutable truths. I doubt dogmas , the infallibility of church and philosophical authorities .I am prepared to doubt everything ,even the existence of the world ,the existence of my own body. But is there a limit to my doubt ? Yes there is .For what is doubt ? It is thought. Consequently , in doubting everything ,I can not doubt that I doubt. This is the only indubitable circumstances that is the limit of my doubt and the starting point of my philosophy .— I think ,so I exist . But how do I exist ? From all the foregoing I can infer that I exit only as a thinking substance”. Thus he deduced the existence of thought and of a separate thinking substance .Needless to say that it raised that fundamental issue on the interrelation between the duals (matter and consciousness).However Cartesian duals and Dualism proved quite helpful in that subsequently materialists and idealists relied on this or that part of his philosophy . Descartes was both philosopher and mathematician. We shall discuss later his ideas about mathematics. We end the discussion on Descartes by mentioning that an important contribution by him in mathematics was Algebraization of Qualitative Geometry.
Our discussion next is the empirical philosophy, specially the classical British philosopher John Locke’s method of judgment and opinion. But we shall mention before that about the next consequence of rationalism. The theoretical importance of this philosophy was getting weakened from mid eighteenth century, especially with the advent of Kant’s ‘Criticism’. However one of the important reasons of devastation of rationalist philosophy was the impact of new science and mathematics, which developed in nineteenth century.
We had discussed before that for many centuries Euclidean Geometry was considered in mathematics as example of deductive thought. The important characteristic for which rationalist philosophers have considered this as an ideal of their thought and judgment processes is the axiomatic deductive method that has been used here. In this process , from the finite numbers of self-evident truths or axioms taken from intuition one can prove several theorems one after another using the conditions of the deductive system and the rules of logic. According to rationalist philosophers there should be no doubt about the correctness and definitiveness of the theorems obtained through axiomatic deductive method . So the knowledge acquired only through this process are correct and inevitable.
But in later years the important question that rises about the correctness of the axioms is from where we get axioms except those, which we get from divine wish? As per rationalism if sensual perception is an unreliable source of information then how our intuition deliver definite and appropriate knowledge about the physical world? Besides, how we could correlate axiom and the objects of the physical world? Rationalism is unable to answer all these.
Three mathematicians in nineteenth century , Hungarian Bolyai, Russian Lobachevsky and German Riemann, independently showed that the fifth axiom of Euclidean geometry(i.e. axiom of parallel lines) is not self evident,which means we might accept any other statement( even opposite/negation to it) as an axiom and might form consistent geometric system based on that alternative axiom .In this way several non-Euclidean geometric systems had been developed by accepting particular form of the fifth axiom as a true premise. Later the discovery of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity gave definite direction the use of non-Euclidean geometry. That was a severe impact of science towards traditional Rationalism.
We get a matured version of experience-based philosophy in British materialist philosopher John Locke’s (1632-1706) renowned article ‘Essays Concerning to Human Understanding’. In ‘Essays’ (1690) there is a detailed and elaborate discussion on acquiring knowledge, on thoughts and it’s content idea, on the relationship between ideas and knowledge moreover the role of human mind in the development of knowledge. By totally rejecting the innate idea thesis of Descarte and specially of extreme –rationalists, he developed edifice of empirical philosophy. In order to establish the main contents of empirical philosophy that the ideas and all other ingredients of knowledge can be obtained from experience Locke at first feel the need to reject the existence of innate idea. According to innate idea thesis that there exist some principles and concepts, which are inherent in human mind. Men are born with and abide by these. These are 1) axiomatic principles of logic, 2) the rules of ethics are examples of innate ideas, specially the second is an example of practical innate ideas.
Locke argued against the concept of innate ideas, which are 1) if it exists at all then it should be same in everyman’s mind, but in the minds of children, idiots and illiterates there is no axiomatic and fundamental concepts; 2) the idea of moral rules are not also same in everyman’s mind and differs with location and time; 3) there is no preconceived notion on relation between cause and effect and it is acquired by education and experience, 4) Locke moreover states that there exists no principle, which could be apprehended at a certain age. There are many men who could never apprehend the abstract principles. It is to be mentioned that the concept of innate ideas as put forward by Descartes and Leibnitz and as criticized by Locke is necessarily implicitly innate, because nobody has told that the concept of innate ideas is explicit even a to child.
However it appears that a distinction should be made between the concepts of innate principles and of simple innate concepts. Innate principle is of some fixed type but it is not possible to say that some specific concepts are only innate. This means according to extremist intellect-based philosophers every concept is innate but nobody has told that every principle is innate. According to Locke we can acquire knowledge only when mind correlates a number of independent ideas on the basis of symmetry-dissymmetry or consistency-inconsistency relation. When studying in Oxford Locke was greatly influenced by the line of thinking by Descartes but he was never a Cartesian. The step towards rejecting the Cartesian innate concept is a clear example of this.
Locke’s empirical theory of development of mind is astonishing. According to this theory, at the beginning of life, mind remains blank, as if a Tabula Rasa or an Empty Cabinet. After that through experience many impressions of different objects of outer world come into mind. This medium of experience is sensation. As a result of this sensation the image that gets into mind about the objects of outer world is called idea. Similarly the image of the objects of the inner world that is received by the mind is reflection. Pleasure, sorrow, fatigue or mental state are examples of the ideas that have come to mind as a result of reflection. Locke said the subject of mind is idea, which is the fundamental element of knowledge.
In this way at the beginning of development of mind simple and elementary ideas are gathered. There is no role of mind in the development of these ideas. Hence Locke called these as primitive or simple Ideas. During this period how the objects of the outer world act on the senses of the child, in the same way her/his mind becomes fulfilled gradually. After that with the development of mind the primitive ideas are organized and become complex from simple through mutual comparison and mixing. Through stages abstract concepts are developed from the concrete ones.( For example in mathematics the abstract notions and theories of multidimensional vector spaces or Euclidean spaces has been developed from the basic notions of two or three dimensional physical space through ‘generalization’).However in this process of cognition mind is not at all inactive, at the final stage mind plays effective role in uniting the concepts developed in such a manner . According to the possibility or acceptance under appropriate condition relating the concepts, the acquiring of knowledge is possible. Actually knowledge emerges by correlating two idea under specific relation of similarity or of dissimilarity. Finally we get general knowledge or the knowledge of categories from the knowledge of the special ones through ‘inductive generalization’ accepted in empiricism . As for example in the sentence “snow is white” the general knowledge that we get about snow is by directly experiencing the colour of the isolated chunks of ice.
Locke has classified the concepts in order to characterize their properties. In his theory the simple concepts are of two types, idea of one sense and idea of more than one sense. Idea of one sense is obviously perceptible to one of our special senses such as through the perception of colour, hardness, sound, smell etc. Here colour or a special colour is perceptible only through eye. However the word sensation has different meaning here in contrast to the Kantian and Humian (David Hume) meaning.
But in Locke’s theory more than one perception through special senses are space, dynamic state, figure etc. These two types of simple concepts are concepts of sensation. Also the simple concepts of introspection are concepts of intellect, desire etc. It should be noted Locke’s idea of space and time are simple ideas but ideas of more than one sense. By using simple ideas as ingredient the mind could actively develop complex ideas. A question arises, how complex ideas can be developed in mind ? According to Locke complex ideas are of three kinds, concept of substance, idea of mode and idea of relation.
Locke told about knowledge of three different levels, intuitive knowledge, demonstrative knowledge and sensitive knowledge. Although it might be assumed that as an experience-based philosopher the sensitive knowledge should be the highest knowledge as per the judgment of Locke, but according to him intuitive knowledge is the best form of knowledge.
Mind might directly compare the similarity and dissimilarity between two concepts without the aid of any other concept. As for example 1) X is not Y (X ≠ Y), 2) X is X (X = X).We know for sure that these statements are true without the help of any other premise .Actually it means that we have some intuitive understanding about these fundamental relation of equality or of inequality and that mind can efficiently match the ideas under the scope of these relations without any prior knowledge. These are the fundamental intuitive knowledge. Locke referred examples of some other type of intuitive knowledge which we found in the axioms of mathematics (or in the postulates of some deductive science theory).No doubt, the knowledge that are expressed in the axioms or postulates have some intuitive clarity .This kind of knowledge is termed as auxiliary intuitive knowledge .To Locke intuitive knowledge is the most definitive and clear. From this no further definitive knowledge could be acquired and so the definitiveness and justification of all the other knowledge depends on intuitive knowledge. Here we observe significant influence of rationalists, especially of Descartes on Locke.
When mind does not able to directly know the similarities or dissimilarities of the two ideas but could know through a third idea by means of some demonstration (deduction) then we terms that knowledge to be demonstrative knowledge. The knowledge of mathematics falls in this category. We could not know directly the accuracy of the statements such as “the sum of the angels of a triangle is two right angles” or “the sum of the lengths of two side of a triangle is greater than the length of the third side” but these could be proved through some other specific concepts. This knowledge is demonstrative knowledge. To Locke in this type of knowledge there is no clarity similar to intuitive knowledge. However if there is a clarity of intuitive knowledge in each step of a proof (demonstration) then the justification of the knowledge is beyond doubt. But only in a very few cases we could show logical relation hence the scope of this knowledge is very limited. The knowledge through our special senses is sensation-based, it is limited to the ideas that we get of the external world through sensation. We know the existence of the external world due to the knowledge through our special senses. To Locke the knowledge about our existence is intuitive knowledge. The knowledge about the existence of God is demonstrative knowledge and other knowledge regarding matter is sensitive knowledge.
There is a need to repeat that in Locke’s theory the concept of space and time is a simple idea but not of primary type; these are more than sensual perception. Secondly cause and effect relation and the concept of matter according to Locke is a complex idea . It appears that his empirical statement on matter is faulty because through experience we feel only the qualities of matters not the material, which contain these qualities. In this sense Berkeley, another empirical philosopher does not accept the existence of matter. Although Locke did not say that it is possible to have knowledge regarding matter. He categorized the qualities of matter in two types, major and minor. In this issue his view is similar to that of contemporary scientists Galileo and Newton.
Whatever might be the case, through the discussions that have been presented above we have tried presenting the essence of empirical philosophy and Locke’s acceptance as an empirical philosopher, the theory through which he tried to establish “there is nothing in the intellect, which was not previously in the sense”. This is Locke’s a posteriori theory of knowledge’.
In order to correct the apparent shortcomings of Locke’s philosophy George Berkeley took the next step .He transformed Locke’s thesis ‘That all knowledge comes from sense experience’ into the thesis ‘Nothing exists outside sense experience’ and interpreted Locke’s postulate ‘Many qualities are secondary’ as ‘All qualities are secondary’. This should be starting point of empirical philosophy. It followed that things are merely certain aggregate of sensations and that to exist meant being perceived by subject. This leads to the trend of (subjective) idealism. We now leave the issues of idealist Berkeley. To resolve the questions that arise in epistemology it is very difficult to find an all acceptable opinion. However in present day also we could not brush aside the questions that are continuing for a millennium. We shall discuss next the philosophy of Hume and Kant in order to get a clear and authentic viewpoint. But for this it is necessary to have an insight to analyze the qualitative characters of judgments, the knowledge expressive medium. We end here discussing Locke.
*Academic Research Worker , West Bengal , Kolkata – 700006, India
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Acknowledgement. The preparation of the article would not be possible without the cooperation of Dr. Subhankar Ray, Biochemistry Dept. University of Calcutta.
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BASU , D. (2013). Fundamental issues of philosophy from the western perspective. PHILICA.COM Article number 367.