Category Archives: Philosophical Manifesto

Immanuel Kant

‘There are few philosophical texts so confusing and so perplexing as Kant’s works.’ So opens T. K. Seung in his preface to Kant: A Guide for the Perplexed, before going on to lament that ‘it is the fate of his readers to get lost in his text before they can get perplexed with his ideas’. Unfortunately there is a great tendency for people to get ‘perplexed with his ideas’ even in the commentaries—the ’99 edition of the Concise Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Kant is free of any philosophical content, the editors judging (plausibly) that the average layman will be perplexed by any presentation of his philosophy. And the reason isn’t hard to find. As Seung says in the opening paragraph, ‘In Kant’s view, we can elevate our existence beyond the brute animal condition by transforming the a posteriori elements into rational experience through the a priori elements. He calls these a priori elements the transcendental conditions because they enable us to transcend the empirical condition. Hence his philosophy is called transcendental philosophy […].’

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The Enlightenment

From losing our minds metaphysically it was but a short step to losing them ethically. The wisdom of the ages had said that those with sharper faculties should use them for higher purposes, and certainly not self-aggrandisement. Self-knowledge was important to offset the tendency to spend one’s time looking for the motes in other people’s eye, habitually projecting our problems elsewhere. This is best summarised in Hume’s famous dictum from his Treatise of Human Nature (§2.3.3): ‘Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.’ There is no finer or more precise statement of our modern Enlightenment ethic; the modern mind spend its whole time dreaming up the most fabulous justifications for its sentiments and this habit has become so entrenched that we are no longer aware of it. The most powerful shared sentiment that moderns have is the idea that we are Enlightened, of course, far more sensitive, free thinking, wise and intelligent than anyone who has lived before or anyone today who doesn’t share our Enlightened values. It follows from this that our Enlightenment is guaranteed, that it will be a self-fulfilling prophesy.

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George Berkeley

George Berkeley (1685-1753) reacted to the move towards philosophical materialism of Hobbes, Descartes, Locke and Newton:

Some truths there are so near and obvious to the mind that a man need only open his eyes to see them. Such I take this important one to be, viz., that all the choir of heaven and furniture of the earth, in a word all those bodies which compose the mighty frame of the world, have not any subsistence without a mind, that their being (esse) is to be perceived or known; that consequently so long as they are not actually perceived by me, or do not exist in my mind or that of any other created spirit, they must either have no existence at all, or else subsist in the mind of some eternal spirit—it being perfectly unintelligible, and involving all the absurdity of abstraction, to attribute to any single part of them an existence independent of a spirit. To be convinced of which, the reader need only reflect, and try to separate in his own thoughts the being of a sensible thing from its being perceived.

— George Berkeley, A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, §6.

Berkeley was reacting to the tendency in the light of Newton’s triumph towards extreme materialism. Berkeley never denied that matter existed—only a lunatic could believe that, and Berkeley was eminently sane; Berkeley’s point was that matter couldn’t make up the whole of reality, that reality had an inescapably ideal aspect. Before Galileo this would not have been an issue but the dazzling success of the atomistic natural philosophers called for pushback.

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Classical Philosophy

Have we thrown aside pre-modern philosophy a little carelessly?  We should recall with respect the tremendous stability of classical philosophy.

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A Philosophical Manifesto

Why should we be interested in philosophy and ethics? Humanity is facing profound challenges as it becomes clear that we not only have an unsustainable relationship to the environment (we have known that for a long time) but that the situation has become critical. While the best that science and engineering can offer must be part of the solution, that won’t be sufficient. A complete reorientation in out behaviour is required if we are to avoid having a cataclysmic correction forced on us. The source of these enormous challenges lies in our behaviour, our ethics and philosophy; we must take an interest in these and try to find out what has being going wrong if we are to find a solution.

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