Archive for the ‘Modern philosophy’ Category

Quine and the attack on analyticity

quineWillard Van Orman Quine (1908 – 2000) was an American philosopher best known for his work on the logic of language and his criticism of the analytic/synthetic distinction. He is commonly considered one of the most important thinkers in the school of analytic philosophy.

Hume’s fork first brought the problem of analytic and synthetic statements to the attention of modern philosophers. What would follow from Hume was the edifice of Immanuel Kant’s transcendental idealistic method and his redefining of the analytical and synthetic to also include the a priori and a posteriori.

Quine, in his work on language, would however come to doubt the validity of analytic statements (i.e. such as “All bachelors are unmarried men”). Quine argued that all attempts to ground analytic truths rely on circular logic. Quine further argues that philosophers like Kant do not sufficiently take into account analytic statements dependence on the contingency of language. In essence, Quine collapses the analytic into the synthetic, along with the in/famous distinction between the two.

It should be noted that Quine’s attack on analyticity is broadly an attack on rationalism and metaphysics itself. Given that most metaphysical systems involve the use of deductive arguments from analytical statements, it follows that if Quine is correct the consequences for metaphysical argument would be disastrous.

So what is Quine’s answer to this problem? Quine says that the best we can do is Humean matter of facts and synthetic claims. And the best pursuit of these claims is the modern scientific method, a method that Quine called a “naturalised epistemology”.

Camus and the absurd

Albert-Camus-7Albert Camus (1913 – 1960) was a French-Algerian writer and Nobel Laureate. Camus began his career as a journalist and playwright in his native Algeria. He would go on to write several novels, plays and essays that would gain him international recognition – the most notable being The Stranger and The Myth of Sissyphus.

Camus was neither a philosopher by training or profession, yet his works are full of insight and are heavily influenced by the burgeoning Existentialist philosophy in Europe. Camus’ greatest philosophical contribution is his idea of the absurd.

In the work of Sartre, one finds the particular legacy of Phenomenology; that while human consciousness is intentional (“of something else”), the external world has no such teleology. It is this tension of meaningful man against an indifferent world that gives rise to Camus’ absurdity.

This tension is particularly evident in the final chapter of The Stranger, where Meursault (imprisoned for murder) laments being trapped in what he feels is an inadequate justice system. Meursault writes that “what interests me at this moment is to escape the mechanism.” He conjures the image of a guillotine, a machine of death that gives its victim no chance of survival, and compares it unfavorably to taking a drug that would kill 90 % of it’s victims (i.e. the chance of survival). After this flight of fancy, Meursault writes “But all things considered, nothing allowed this luxury, everything denied it to me, the mechanism took hold again.”

For Camus, affected by the Cartesian and Newtonian modern mechanistic view of the world, the absurd arises because man is a kind of Unmeant Meaner – desperately seeking order and significance that can never exist outside of his own mind.

Sartre’s unique anti-theist argument


Most anti-theist arguments take the form, in one way or another, of the problem of evil. The classic example is Epicurus’ trilemma.

Sartre however, formulates a fascinating and unique atheistic argument. I have written in the previous post regarding Sartre’s existential anthropology – in that a man’s existence precedes his essence and thus he is necessarily a subject, and necessarily free.

With that background, I will attempt to trace out Sartre’s argument syllogistically.

  1. If God exists as traditionally conceived, then essence will precede existence and man must be an artificial object of God.
  2. Man is not an artificial object.
  3. Therefore, God does not exist.

Sartre writes in his play No Exit in the voice of Garcin:

This bronze. Yes, now’s the moment; I’m looking at this thing on the mantelpiece and I understand that I am in hell. I tell you, everything’s been thought out beforehand. They knew I’d stand at the fireplace stroking this thing of bronze, with all those eyes intent on me. Devouring me. What? Only two of you? I thought there were more, many more. So this is hell. I’d never have believed it. You remember all that we were told about the torture-chambers, the fire and brimstone, the ‘burning marl.’ Old wives’ tales, there’s no need for the red hot pokers. Hell – is other people!

As Garcin is being scrutinised he feels like the bronze statue, an artifice. Sartre then moves from the gaze of men to the gaze of an omniscient God. As RC Sproul writes, Sartre sees God as a kind of “cosmic voyeur” that reduces all men to mere objects. After all, if other people are hell, how much worse is the company of God!

Of course, this argument is not without controversy. One may point out that man is natural rather than artificial due to his intrinsic teleology, even if essence precedes existence. Or one may simply concede that in fact man is a type of object.

Jean-Paul Sartre and Existentialism

sartreJean-Paul Sartre (1905 – 1980) was a French philosopher and playwright. His philosophical magnum opus Being and Nothingness (1943) is widely regarded as the most important work in the school of 20th century existentialism.

While a prisoner of war in 1940-41, Sartre read Heidegger’s Being and Time. Sartre was fascinated with Heidegger’s ontological investigation using Husserl’s phenomenological method.

Sartre was however skeptical of the Heideggerian imperative of Dasein. Sartre rather turned his own phenomenological inquiry inward, to describe what it is to be ontologically human.

Sartre begins with the Kantian idea of the “thing in itself”, that is the objects of human consciousness. According to Sartre, these objects have a real existence and are not mind dependent. However, following the phenomenological tradition consciousness is always intentional i.e. it is always “of something else” rather than “in itself”. Because of this, it is impossible to fully grasp the essence of consciousness – consciousness is being “for itself”.

Sartre’s existentialism arises out of the individuals desire to ground itself in being through the execution of tasks and jobs. This leads to Sartre’s views on ethics, which I will explore in the next post.


Edmund Husserl: phenomenology and intentionality

husserlEdmund 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 on logic and language

ludwig_wittgensteinLudwig 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.

Bertrand Russell: the move from idealism to realism

23351-004-4286d6b7Bertrand 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 posterioriRussell 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.