Removing the Head, or Destroying the Brain: Part VII

It’s been a long time since I read the writings of Plato, and not even in their original language, but I’ve gotta say: I wasn’t particularly impressed.

There’s one scene which has always stuck in my mind, not least because in my freshman year, my Cognitive Psychology professor acted it out (dressed in a bedsheet and laurel wreath):

Plato and a friend are arguing about how humans learn, and most particularly learn virtue. Plato insists that humans do not learn, but recall. Since human souls are eternal, at some past point they contemplated the ‘Forms’, unchanging and timeless templates for the universe, and any recent contemplation of truths must therefore be merely a recollection.

Plato then demonstrates this by taking an untaught slave and showing him a problem in geometry. The slave carries out the logical reasoning necessary to solve the problem. Plato argues that the slave couldn’t possibly have produced the solution, being a mere slave, and so he must have remembered it from an earlier, nobler, incarnation.

Follow that?

It struck me, not only upon reading it the first time but upon watching it enacted, that this conclusion is not only based on a variety of indefensible assumptions, and excluding alternative explanations without cause, but is contrary to our initial experience of such events. Introspection is not at all a reliable guide, but in my experience most people feel that they’ve generated solutions to problems, not remembered; remembering feels very differently. That’s not necessarily what happens, but it’s the natural first hypothesis for people to form.

Given the weakness of the argument, and its counter-intuitive properties, it seemed to me that Plato was likely trying to find an ‘explanation’ that he found appealing, rather than honestly searching for the best approximation for the truth.

As it is said that all of western philosophy is contained in Plato, I read other philosophers. I found that, overwhelmingly, they consisted of elaborate, sophisticated, and clever use of language, wrapped around silly arguments, non sequitur statements, and pure incoherence. Reading it was difficult, and identifying the meaning equally so, but once the complexity was comprehended it was almost always foolishness and nonsense. There were a few exceptions, but they were rare.

I further noted that most of the ‘philosophical’ readings I found to be genuinely useful and information-containing did not come from ‘philosophy’, but from scientists and mathematicians, even when they wrote outside of their fields. Especially then, actually.


11 Responses to “Removing the Head, or Destroying the Brain: Part VII”

  1. I’m not sure where you’re getting these generalizations, or who you get to count as a ‘philosopher’ when studying the history of philosophy. Even if you were unimpressed by Plato’s particular claims, he not only taught logic, but wrote it down – a nearly unprecedented feat. Plato did amazing things for someone with virtually no books to refer to; Athens at the time was only just becoming literate. His student, Aristotle, is pretty much the founder of the natural sciences, as well as the first to specify an ethical theory. Pythagoras gave us the basis for Cartesian geometry. And later philosophers such as (for instance) Aquinas, Descartes, Leibniz, Bacon (pick one), Adam Smith, Locke, Boyle, and Newton are pretty well-known for their accomplishments.

  2. Aritstotle is the one usually given credit for being the first to explicitly recognize the rules of logic.

    I don’t concern myself with who I consider to be a philosopher — I’m more concerned with whether they call themselves that, or are generally considered to be one by society.

    I’ll have to write a later post about the origins of the term, and why I think it’s become corrupted.

  3. the only philosopher who I feel had something practical to say about the world was Hume. Most of the rest is just garbage with a clever turn of phrase every now and then to hold interest.

  4. This jogged my memory that you earlier gave some credence to Aristotle’s notion that some people were not fit to be anything more than slaves.

  5. Thom Blake, your examples suggest philosophers are at their best when not doing philosophy.

    The problem is I think, as melendwyr pointed out, unwarranted assumptions. Philosophers are generally very smart, their reasoning usually valid. But their arguments are too often unsound when they choose to engage in pure thought. No matter how intelligent and scrupulous you are, the further you go by relying on reasoning alone the more the inprecision of your initial assumptions get amplified. We need empirical corroboration every now and then.

    But scientists are also very smart, and the principles and methods of rationality are not too arcane that only philosophers have access to them. OTOH an understanding of Nature requires at least more effort and in depth study. This is why thoughtful scientists do better philosophy.

  6. “This jogged my memory that you earlier gave some credence to Aristotle’s notion that some people were not fit to be anything more than slaves.”

    I’ll have to write a post about that, and the book written by the “Don’t Supersize Me” guy.

  7. Were you surprised upon being unimpressed? Of course the ancient philosophies of Old were wrong!

    And as to Thom… Pythagoras, Descartes, Leibniz, Smith, and Locke were entirely wrong, so I’m not sure what your point is. Many philosophers are well known for their “accomplishments”, but this is because the field is stagnant and obsessed with historico-linguistic crap and dominated by people who aren’t capable of analysis or judgment!

    You want some philosophy? Check out Quine, for one. And throw away all this crap from the 18th, 17th, 16th…. -3rd centuries!

  8. Peter,

    If you think these people were entirely wrong, you must not know much about, say, math. Pythagoras, Descartes, and Leibniz are particularly notable because of their contributions to mathematics – do you think that, for instance, the “pythagorean theorem” (to name one you may have heard of) is useless? Leibniz was entirely wrong? Not a fan of calculus?

    Smith was wrong about the labor theory of value, but it was the best they had to work with at the time, and his writings were the basis of later work in economics that led to, for instance, marginal utility. And much of the rest of ‘wealth of nations’ contains ideas that are still respected amongst economists and political scientists.

    And if you think classical liberalism is /entirely/ wrong, then you’re in a minority in the western world. Note: if you’re a marxist, that puts you back into the ‘labor theory of value’ camp, so that’s also right out. Where /do/ you get your political theory? Communitarianism is just about the only other candidate, and that’s mostly based on Aristotle.


  9. Those things are part of mathematics, Thom Blake.

    One of the reasons I dislike ‘philosophy’, which I will eventually discuss in more detail, is that when branches of ancient philosophy got their act together and were productive, they tended to split off and become their own disciplines.

    Thus we have the sciences, including biology, mathematics, physics, chemistry, etc.

    What was left in the category of ‘philosophy’ was the stuff that was trivial, empty, and pointless. Which is why the field is mostly commentaries on commentaries.

  10. They are notable for their contributions to mathematics. But of the contributions of their philosophies (not an entirely separatable matter) is to what I address myself. Endeared to calculus? Yes, I am! And you – a fan of the notion that we live in the best of all possible worlds? Being as we are discussing the interaction of minds and bodies in these posts, and you’ve referenced Descartes, do you believe in magical souls which are independent of the natural world and attach themselves at the pineal gland?

    Not a fair question, I’m sorry. But the point is that Leibniz and Descartes’ contributions to philosophy are of no proper importance in the modern world.

    “still respected amongst economists and political scientists. . .”

    Yes, I’m in a minority in the Western world. I’m not an ideologue when it comes to economics, and I judge it for what it is – witchcraft. Intellectual games played with calculus, immoral and irrational, magical, and with disregard to empirical facts. Based on an array of false assumptions and poor values: omniscience (ignoring information density), infinitely lived identical costumers, general equilibrium theory, infinitely rapid velocity of information (prices and quantities), linearly homogeneous production functions, etc. Abstract economic models which don’t actually work in the real world, because they analogue neither physics nor human psychology. If you need clarification on any of this – economic’s sins number many – just ask. It’s too much to all go in one comment.

    And political scientists, they still accept the notions of “natural rights”, republicanism, and elections (among other things), so I don’t respect them much either. Not in the USA at least.

    In short, I’m neither a marxist nor a liberal. Perhaps closer to a marxist, but still probably not very close. Where do I get my political theory? Certainly not from the orthodoxy.

  11. Should have proof read. Hmph!

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