Western philosophy for dummies


A primer for easterners

Western philosophy is as rewarding as it is exacting, for after studying it one can answer most of the fundamental questions that have challenged the combined intellect of homo-sapiens over thousands of years. One also looks very impressive quoting all those intellectual giants.

And yet, philosophy remains a difficult subject to learn. Partly because of the subject matter partly because students don’t get the necessary help when they need it. Most texts assume the kind of fore-knowledge that if available would obviate the need to read the text in the first place.

I was till recently an ordinary mortal in awe of philosophers and people who could philosophise. Then I found somebody who gave me a few pointers here and there and – lo and behold – I am in the happy position of satisfactorily answering all philosophical questions, barring trivial ones such as ‘Is there a God?’, ‘Why are we here?’ and  ‘Is there life after death, and if so, will toothpaste be available?’

Western philosophy is divided into metaphysics, epistemology, logic, and ethics. Metaphysics explores the nature of reality. Despite centuries of efforts by renowned philosophers, metaphysics continues to be in a bad shape, mostly owing to epistemology, which deals with how we know what we know and what we don’t know. Epistemology is not quite done with metaphysics yet, because philosophers are working very hard to include in epistemology questions such as: how we don’t know what we know and what we don’t know. Ethics deals with how best to live, and human beings around the globe are anxiously waiting for the answer to this question before they start living decent lives. Logic concerns itself with how to be reasonable. Logic is important for humanity because computers and every other piece of equipment with an embedded electronic chip – pretty much everything except human beings – follows it religiously.

The important schools of Western philosophical thought include empiricism, rationalism, scepticism, atomistic reductionism, existentialism, post-modernism, idealism, realism, nihilism, nominalism, utilitarianism, humanism, emotivism, fallibilism, absolutism, absurdism, agapism, bonism, fatalism, individualism, liberalism, objectivism, subjectivism, logical positivism, and around three hundred more. As easy as ABC!

Instead of categorising by subject matter, Western philosophy is usually learnt by studying eminent western philosophers. Here, care must be exercised by the beginner for some otherwise brilliant philosophers are credited with some pretty foolish thoughts and this is off-putting for most beginners. Consider a typical beginner, who is sooner or later bound to come across: ‘The only thing I know is that I know nothing’ by Plato, Socrates, Plato’s Socrates, or Socrates’s Plato, according to different experts. (The reason for all this controversy is that the original Latin phrase is probably a paraphrase from a Greek text, which was later back-translated into Greek.) Whatever the source, the statement is obvious hogwash. For starters, the statement contradicts itself. Also, if knowing nothing makes one so wise, what is the motivation for the student of Western philosophy to learn western philosophy? I know at least one student who wrote in an early exam: ‘The only thing I know is that Socrates knew nothing.’

Many beginners have a problem with Heraclitus for: ‘You can never step in the same river twice; for it is not the same river and you are not the same man.’ I have found students troubled with this to be exclusively married males. They need to relax, for Heraclitus is merely pointing out the mutable nature of all existence, and definitely not questioning your manhood. Besides, he is not a woman, and not alive either.

Plato-vs.-Kant is an old debate regarding the greatest western philosopher of all time. The student will do well to note that any philosopher who can write readable books can hardly be the greatest – which easily rules Plato out. Out of Plato and Kant, then, it has to be Wittgenstein. So abstruse was Wittgenstein that during his doctoral presentation his mentor and supervisor (no less than Bertrand Russell himself) by way of an answer to a question was told that he shouldn’t bother because Wittgenstein didn’t expect him to ‘get’ it.

Friedrich Nietzsche is another ‘difficult’ philosopher. He is famous for saying that not only God is dead but He remains so. The more religious of students dislike this sort of philosophy. They should take solace from the fact that Nietzsche too is not only dead but remains so.

‘Cogito ergo sum’ (I think therefore I am) by René Descartes is considered a landmark of Western philosophy. In fact, Descartes is said to be the father of modern philosophy. Unfairly so, because this certainty is merely subjective. Objectively, one can never be sure whether somebody is thinking. Indeed, many people spend their entire lives without thinking – Punjabi husbands readily come to mind. Now wouldn’t it be absurd to say that Punjabi husbands don’t exist? “He exists for the sole purpose of eating’ or ‘He eats therefore he exists” would have been far more impressive (and unimpeachable).

Immanuel Kant, by his own admission, was woken from his dogmatic slumber by the writings of the brilliant David Hume. Out of all Hume’s sins of conscious omission and unconscious commission however, this one – waking Kant up – is the most difficult to forgive or even forget.

Jesus Christ presents an interesting case for despite being born in the Middle East, he is somehow considered a Westerner, probably because of the way Catholicism has dominated Western thought over the centuries. To this day, turning the other cheek and loving one’s neighbour remains the professed philosophy of the ordinary Protestant. The West is very careful, however, not to base its foreign policy on it. Probably it is awaiting the result of the ethics debate.