Martin Heidegger (1889 – 1976) was a German philosopher and one of the most prominent thinkers of the 20th century. Raised a Roman Catholic, Heidegger attended the University of Freiberg at the Church’s expense to study theology on the understanding that he would become an apologist. However, Heidegger broke with the Church and switched his field of inquiry to philosophy.
He would complete his doctoral thesis on the works of Duns Scotus, but it was Edmund Husserl and his philosophy of phenomenology that would become Heidegger’s greatest influence.
Like most great thinkers, Heidegger begins with a problem. Per Heidegger, the problem with Western Thought in the 20th century was that it had lost it’s concept of being and thus collapsed into nihilism. To clarify, it is the question of nature of being itself that fascinated Heidegger, rather the study of individual beings.
Heidegger developed two important concepts. The first is “Sein”, this is being itself. The second is “Dasein”, which are particular beings that “care” for the question of “Sein”. The main concern of Heidegger’s early philosophy is the phenomenological analysis of Dasein in order to understand Sein.
Heidegger’s search for Sein complicates Husserl’s philosophy. For Heidegger, the idea of the intentionality of the mental world is transformed because the experiences that are key to phenomenological analysis are already grounded in being. Rather, Heidegger argues the Dasein is what it is because the question of Sein matters to it.
For Heidegger phenomenlogy is methodological rather than metaphysical. One may also note the modern and especially Kierkegaardian emphasis on the subject as the starting point of philosophy. Heidegger would go on to influence the wave of existential thinkers of the 20th century.
Edmund Husserl (1859 – 1938) was an Austrian philosopher best known as the founder of the school of phenomenology. At university, Husserl studied mathematics, physics and astronomy – he would eventually go on to obtain a PhD for his thesis in mathematics “Contributions to the Calculus of Variations”. During this time, Husserl would be mentored by a former philosophy student of Franz Brentano.
Husserl travelled to Berlin in order to pursue his career in mathematics but would become more interested in philosophy. After his superior fell ill, Husserl returned to Vienna and started attending the lectures of Brentano. It was at this point Husserl started to become interested in the intentionality of the mental aspects of reality.
Every mental phenomenon is characterized by what the Scholastics of the Middle Ages called the intentional (or mental) inexistence of an object, and what we might call, though not wholly unambiguously, reference to a content, direction towards an object (which is not to be understood here as meaning a thing), or immanent objectivity. Every mental phenomenon includes something as object within itself, although they do not all do so in the same way. In presentation something is presented, in judgement something is affirmed or denied, in love loved, in hate hated, in desire desired and so on. This intentional in-existence is characteristic exclusively of mental phenomena. No physical phenomenon exhibits anything like it. We could, therefore, define mental phenomena by saying that they are those phenomena which contain an object intentionally within themselves.
— Franz Brentano, Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint, edited by Linda L. McAlister (London: Routledge, 1995), pp. 88–89.
One can see in the above quote the clear influence of Aristotle’s four causes, particularly final causality. However, Brentano stops short of Aristotle or Aquinas, who insist that all natural things have immanent teleology – for Brentano this exists only in mental phenomena.
Husserl continues naturally from Brentano in developing an apparatus for the study of these intentional mental phenomena, which he calls phenomenology – a science of consciousness. Phenomenology drives the study of the mind away from the hard sciences, which for Husserl was the study of physical phenomena that lack intentionality, because the methods of hard science are simply inappropriate. The phenomenological method is rather to examine examples of mental activity without the rigorous sets of presuppositions that methodological naturalism brings, and to determine what is the structure of conscious acts. In this way, phenomenology is fully an abandonment of the Cartesian method of seeing the world as objects interacting with each other.
Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889 – 1951) was an Austrian born British philosopher. Wittgenstein produced only one published book on philosophy (Tractatus Logico-Philosophus in 1921) while he was alive, but is nonetheless considered one of the most important thinkers of the twentieth century. He was born into a wealthy family in Austria, but would later gave away his inheritance to his family, stating that philosophy was the only work that gave him satisfaction.
Wittgenstein was a student of Russell. Russell described him as “the most perfect example I have ever known of genius as traditionally conceived; passionate, profound, intense, and dominating.” I have written previously regarding Russell’s unique style of Platonism, which emphasised the importance of terms. Wittgenstein, inspired by both Russell and Frege, takes this one step further in contending that all major philosophical problems have their being in the misunderstanding of the logic of language.
At the heart of the Wittgensteinian philosophy is the saying/showing distinction. Wittgenstein contended that what can be shown cannot be said. But if all philosophy is bound by language, then there are simply things that cannot be known. In this sense Wittgenstein channels Kant, where the necessary apparatus for making sense of experience are things that themselves cannot be experienced and known. In this way Wittgenstein shows the Kantian limitation of Frege-Russell logic, like a paradox it may explain all things but remains itself unexplained.
In the previous post I discussed some of the reasons for Betrand Russell’s rejection of the idealism of his teachers and peers.
This is remarkable because of how unfashionable realism was in the early 20th century. Russell rejected both the popular “scientific materialism” view criticised by Whitehead that all is matter, and of course the idealistic view that reality is ultimately the mental world of ideas.
Going forward, Russell was to adopt a unique type of Platonism. He writes:
Whatever may be an object of thought,…, or can be counted as one, I call a term. …I shall use it as synonymous with the words unit, individual, and entity. … Every term has being, that is, is in some sense. A man, a moment, a number, a class, a relation, a chimera, or anything else that can be mentioned, is sure to be a term….
Principles of Mathmatics, p. 43
So, according to Russell what has being is “terms” which may or may not exist. This is because for Russell words simply mean objects (or terms). So it follows that a sentence, which contains terms, is an entity of itself i.e. a unity of those terms, which may be particulars or concepts.
Following that, logical analysis consists of the deconstruction of complex unities into increasingly simpler components of concepts and particulars. This is the birth of analytic philosophy in the early 2oth century.
Bertrand Russell (1872 – 1970) was a British philosopher most famous for his work the Principia Mathematica, which he completed with Alfred Whitehead. Continuing in the footsteps of those such as Frege, this work was an attempt to establish a logical basis for mathematics. He is considered one of the pioneers of the analytic school of philosphy.
In his youth, Russell was heavily influenced by his teachers, who favoured idealism. There was a preference for Hegel’s idealism, but Kantianism was also prevalent. However, Russell began to find problems with his idealistic thinking, stating that he began to see an undue psycologicism in his work.
Russell comes to this conclusion through his study of mathematics. While retaining Kant’s distinction between the a priori and the a posteriori, Russell goes on the reject Kant’s idealistic contention that is the categories of the mind that determine what is a priori. Russell’s reason for this is that he believes that if human nature were to change, the a priori truths of mathematics would then also change, which he believed was absurd. Russell calls this “psychologism” because it is the Kantian tendency to confuse what is true with what one is psychologically conditioned to think is true.
But where does this rejection of idealism based on the reality of mathematical truths leave Russell? In my next post I will examine how Russell turned to a type of realism, specifically Platonic realism.
Gottlob Frege (1848 – 1925) was a German intellectual whose work in the fields of mathematics and logic led to the development of modern predicate logic and sowed the seeds for contemporary analytic philosophy. Frege was largely ignored by his peers, but was to become influential upon and through the next generation of popular thinkers such as Bertrand Russell and Whitehead.
The importance of Frege’s work arises from the inadequacy of Aristotelian and Stoic logic in dealing with mathematical statements, for example Euclid’s theory of the infinite amount of prime numbers. This was a problem for Frege because he contended that all the truths of arithmetic simply were truths that were both logical and analytic. In this way, Frege’s work is more in the rationalist tradition of Leibniz than in Kant’s transcendental idealism.
Frege set about clarifying logic by doing away with the typical subject/predicate analysis and replacing it with function and argument. Many will be familiar with a mathematical function such as f(x) = x + 3, where the function is equal to the numerical value of x + 3. Frege radically applied the function to arguments, such as “all cats have tails”, expressing them as f(x), where x is a cat, then x has a tail.
Fregean logic allowed the dissolution of the problem of multiple generality. For example, prior to Frege the distinction between statements such as “every person loves some city” and “every city is loved by some person” could only be represented artificially.
Alfred Whitehead (1861 – 1947) was an English thinker best known in his early life for his work in the logic of mathematics, and in later life for his contribution to the metaphysical school of thought of process philosophy. Whitehead co-wrote with his former student Bertrand Russell the largely influential Principia Mathematica, one of the 20th centuries most important works in mathematical logic.
Whitehead’s philosophical works were, like most great thinkers, a response to a crisis. The early 20th century saw the full throes of Enlightenment optimism, in which the development of metaphysical systems was regarded as futile due to their lack of subjectivity to the mechanistic scientific method. However, Whitehead contended that rather than abandoning metaphyiscs entirely, the thinkers of his generation had instead imported a type of Cartesianism that went unscrutinised. He called this “scientific materialism”.
There persists … [a] fixed scientific cosmology which presupposes the ultimate fact of an irreducible brute matter, or material, spread through space in a flux of configurations. In itself such a material is senseless, valueless, purposeless. It just does what it does do, following a fixed routine imposed by external relations which do not spring from the nature of its being. It is this assumption that I call ‘scientific materialism.’ Also it is an assumption which I shall challenge as being entirely unsuited to the scientific situation at which we have now arrived.
– Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World
Whitehead’s primary criticism of viewing reality, in the mechanistic tradition, as discrete and independent pieces of matter was that under this schema knowledge of causation is impossible. Whitehead argues that two things that are separate from each other in space simply cannot bear a causal relationship between them. Whitehead says that knowledge of a cause will give full knowledge of all its effects, but this is impossible if pieces of matter are truly distinct from one another. In essence, Whitehead is arguing that efficient causality is unintelligible if scientific materialism is true.
While the Aristotelian tradition turns to final causality to solve this problem, Whitehead instead jettisons the relevance of static things such as substance, form and matter. Whitehead like Hegel envisions reality as a type of organism or process, which consists in its most primary form as interrelated events. For Whitehead, the universe just is a series of occasions that are causally affected by all other occasions and the idea that there could be objects existing separate and distinct in space and time is deeply mistaken.