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.

 

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Karl Popper on science and falsification

Karl_PopperKarl Popper (1902 – 1994) was an Austrian born philosopher that spent most of his academic life working in New Zealand and Britain. In his youth, he worked in road construction and cabinet making, but struggled with the toil of heavy labour. Popper obtained his doctorate in psychology in 1928, and by 1937 he had obtained an academic position in New Zealand that enabled him to flee the rise of Nazism in Europe.

Popper completed many political works, but he is most well known for his work on the philosophy of science. Particularly, his proposal that all scientific theory should be falsifiable; that it is a strict condition that a scientific theory should be overturn-able given empirical evidence to its contrary.

In the modern era, Francis Bacon is the father of scientific philosophy with his inductivist method. Bacon’s idea was that one would observe the world, propose a law, and then confirm that law by further observation of many particulars. This law may later be modified or discarded pending further empirical study.

However, David Hume’s criticism of this method was that human beings do not directly perceive the causal connections between events (a.k.a problem of induction). This is a problem for Baconian science in that while one may see certain things and certain activities at certain times, this is by no means proof of any law of operation in nature.

Popper provides a solution for this problem: scientific theory must be falsifiable. The popular example is of the sun rising every morning. Popper states that while there is no way to prove that the sun will rise every morning empirically, one may formulate a scientific theory that the sun will rise every morning. There is no need to reject this theory until there is a morning where the sun does not rise – in which case a new theory will need to be formulated.

Popper works under the assumption that no scientific theory can be proved true, it can only be falsified. In this way it is like ancient Pyrrhonism, where the thought that one way is better than another lays in the deluded belief that one could prove their prejudice true.

 

Heidegger: phenomenology and being

Heidegger_1955Martin 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: 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.

Russell, realism and analytic philosophy

what-were-plato-s-beliefs_2ebecdd3-b206-467b-bb0e-c3a742b09571In 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 20th century.

 

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.