Where Philosophy Is A Game

Meet the Philosophers

 Socrates and Plato

Socrates and his life are nearly as mysterious to the world as the identity of the Batman would be to the people of Gotham. Socrates was an admirable character, and is considered a founding figure of philosophy, yet his life is shrouded in uncertainty. Much like Jesus Christ, Socrates never wrote a single word, but managed to change the world. The only known accounts of Socrates as a man and philosopher, come from the works of his student Plato, as well as Aristotle, Aristophonnes and Xenophon (all cool Greek people). Scholars debate whether it is even possible to distinguish the real historical “Socrates” from the character found in the works of Plato which has generated various nicknames such as Plocrates and Socrato. But what’s the big deal? Socrates was admired because of his dedication to questioning. He is famously known for saying that he was the wisest of all, because he at least knew that he knew nothing. These golden words have since been quoted in songs, books, and movies, and ignited what we today call The Philosophical Method. Socrates believed that much was wrong with ancient Athens, including a crazy new thing called Democracy. He therefore walked around the city questioning young and old on their beliefs so as to search for truth and to educate the people. This behavior not only resulted in a crowd of passionate followers, but also in a death sentence for allegedly corrupting the youth and impiety toward the gods.

Plato/Socrates is today the biggest influence on Western philosophy and many common sentences such as “seeing the light” or “testing ones metal” are derived from Plato’s must famous work: The Republic. Socrates believed in a (strange) theory called transcendence: for everything a person sees in the world there is a pure and perfect version of that thing or concept in the World of Forms. The perceptible world of seeing, hearing, touching and smelling is a deception. The reality of things can only be apprehended (taken in and understood) by the mind. For Plato the everyday world is a copy of the “real” world. This is also the reason why people today use the phrase “the minds eye”. For every chair, horse, or human, there is a nonphysical unchanging version of that thing in the World of Forms. A person can only get to understand and “see” The World of Forms by using his faculty of reason.

Aristotle and Plato on Brooklyn bridge

Aristotle and Plato on Brooklyn bridge

Plato also has a lot to say about society as well as ethics (the right way to act and be). In Plato’s Republic, it is argued thatsociety should be divided into three classes of people with gold, silver, and bronze souls. In order for justice and harmony to exist in the state, children must be trained from birth and tested to see which class they fit into. The Bronze souls are the everyday workers of society who perform labor, trade, and are allowed to hold private property. The silver souls are the soldier guardians of the state who with honor and courage protect the state from harm. In return these soldiers are housed in dorms and have everything provided for them by the bronze class, but they are never to hold private property themselves.(oh, their children are raised in collectives instead of with their families). Finally, the gold class are the people who care about philosophy so much that they remove them selves from the world in the love of wisdom. They see the true shape of things (The World of Forms). These philosophers are the most fit to lead society but the least willing. Yet they understand their responsibility, and therefore becomes Philosopher Kings who justly run society. In order to be a good person one must know ones place in society and fulfill the duties and virtues (character traits) that come with that particular class and craft.

Aristotle – The Man of Almost Everything

Ancient Greek philosophers were in many ways very similar to the Jedi Knights in Star Wars. Each had a master and a student. First there was Socrates, (who got executed), then followed his student Plato, who wrote a lot of important stuff about metaphysics and society, and finally we get Aristotle, Plato’s student. Together with Plato and Socrates, Aristotle completes the trio of founders of Western Philosophy, he created an all-encompassing Corpus. Aristotle wrote about Metaphysics, Ethics, Politics, Logic, Aestetics, Linguistics, Sociology, Anatomy, Biology, and many other things. It is estimated that only one third of all his writings has been preserved over time, but it is fair to say that the guy must have had serious wrist pain from the intense amount of subjects he covered. Aristotle also happens to have been the personal tutor of Alexander the Great.

Aristotle’s view of science was the only scientific doctrine that was allowed during the rule of the Christian Church during Europe’s Medieval Age. The works of Aristotle were by some seen as compatible with the Bible and medieval philosophers including the famous st. Thomas Aquinas, worked on incorporating Aristotle’s work with scripture.

Although trained by Plato, Aristotle had many disagreements with his world view. For Aristotle the soul (or Psyche) is divided into three parts: vegetative, sensible, and rational. The first is plant-like and covers growth and nutrition (basically the things the body does but people have no direct control over). The second part is animal-like and provides the abilities of sense and mobility. Finally the last part makes humans distinct from other living beings since it allows for logic, language, and moral reasoning. The ability to reason is for Aristotle uniquely human. Aristotle had the interesting idea that everything has a function, which is the standard by which we judge what is good for a kind of being. The function of human beings is to use the reasoning part of their soul and actively using reason.

When asking how is a human ought to live life Aristotle has an answer. In order to live well humans must obtain eudaimonia, a state of mind often translated from ancient Greek as human flourishing. To flourish people must use their reason, to find the mediate between excess and deficiency. For example to be courageous is to to find the middle between being a coward and being reckless. Virtue is therefore to locate behaviors with your reason that promote the human good, and cultivate them neither excessively nor deficient.


Although we today know that material things are made from smaller building blocks such as molecules, atoms, neutrons, protons, quarks, etc. Aristotle was one of the first to formulate such a theory. For Aristotle every object in the world consists of building blocks ,or a combination of elements. Unlike Plato, Aristotle believes that the essence of each thing (chairs, horses, etc.) is not contained in a realm of transcendent forms, but rather immanently within that thing. For example each piece of gummy-bear not only contains the elements that makes gummy-bear, but also the form of gummy-bearness. Aristotle further made himself famous for explaining the way things in the world undergo change, which he described through four causes:

•Material cause: what the thing is made out of (for example gelatine in gummy-bears)

•Formal cause: what the thing take shape as, (so gelatin is meant to turn into a bear-shaped gummy candy)

•Efficient cause: The person, machine or thing, that performs labor on the matter in order for it to become what it is (for example a gummy-bear assembly worker)

•The final cause: The purpose for making the thing (For gummy bears it is to provide a sweet sugary experience yummmm).

Rene Descartes – He Thinks and Therefore He Is

Descartes was a pretty awesome seventeen-century French philosopher, who quit being a lawyer, traveled around, joined armies, and decided to write all of his major works in an obscure country called the Netherlands. Not only did Descartes acquire the title “Father Of Modern Philosophy” he also rejected the prominent thinkers of his time, ‘found’ the location of the soul, and made significant contributions to science and mathematics, including the coordinate system. So as we can see, Descartes was a man of many skills (did I mention that he was pen pals with princess Elisabeth of Bohemia and had an awesome mustache?), But it was none of those interesting things that that made him go down in history.

Instead he became famous for developing a philosophical style called methodological doubt. Descartes was obsessed with finding the foundation of all knowledge. Since he was a rationalist which means that he did not believe in knowledge from experience, he sought a certain rock solid beginning of knowledge based only on reason. Descartes believed that if a foundational first truth could be found then any other knowledge derived from it could also be certain. This method is simple, yet leads to terrifying conclusions. To perform Methodological Doubt one sits down and thinks about the world while asking: What can I know for sure? If you take away everything that you are uncertain of, soon you will realize, like Descartes did, that there are not a whole lot of things you can claim that you actually know. Descartes took this Idea so far, rejecting the senses and everything that he had previously known, that he got to a stage of complete absence of knowledge. Descartes was imagining a powerful Evil Genius potentially could be deceiving him into believing that there is a world, that he is a person, that he could trust his senses. If this being had all of the power in the world, how could he ever be sure of anything?

But as a brave philosopher Descartes fought his way through doubt, and concluded that no matter what the Evil Genius did to him it could not fool him into believing that he did not exist. This is because in order for him to be fooled into thinking that he doesn’t, exist there must be something to fool in the first place. Descartes thereby came up with the brilliant phrase “Cogito ergo sum” or “I think therefore I am” No matter how in doubt people are they can at least always know with certainty that they exist.

descartes fights demonAfter Descartes essentially “destroys” the world, but establishes that at least he exists , the question comes into play: How does one get the world back? Descartes attempts to do this by first arguing for the existence of God and then concluding that it is not in God’s i nature to deceive. Descartes observed that he has a “clear and distinct” idea of a perfect infinite being. He deduces that such a being could not have come from his own mind since he is a finite and a imperfect being. Descartes decides that the idea in his head must have been placed thereby a perfect being namely God. He further assumes that part of being perfect and infinite is not to deceive one’s creations and therefore concludes that God had given him his senses to trust in, which makes it possible to believe in the existence of a external world.

Descartes is a dualist and believes that humans have a soul and a body, much like the Christian conception of the world. For Descartes the body is a robot-like shell that the soul controls, but is also affected by. The rational soul controls its vessel, but since the two are connected the whims and desires of the body can also affect the mind, as when someone spontaneously must have pizza. Descartes believed that he found the connection point between the soul and the body in the pineal gland deep inside the brain. In this way, Descartes believe that he solved the classic mind-body dilemma by pointing to the place where the two types of substance interact.

Hobbes and the Sea Monster


Thomas Hobbes was an English philosopher known for his theories in political philosophy.  He became rather notorious for his beliefs, since they went the opposite way of the political current. Rather than getting rid of monarchs (like other countries where beginning to flirt with), Hobbes wanted the rule of the one to be stronger than ever before. One could say that Hobbes is the conservative grumpy uncle in the philosophy family who others still have to pay respect to because he invented the ideas of the social contract and the state of nature.

Hobbes wrote his famous work Leviathan (which is named after a biblical sea monster) as an opposition to the English Civil War in 1642.  This war was fought over the basic mechanics of society and split the nation between those wanting parliamentary rule and those wanting a monarchy. Although notions of democracy had became widespread and debated, Hobbes decided to side with the royalists and wrote Leviathan as an intellectual defense of why nations needs an absolute sovereign.

In a rather scary fashion, Hobbes believes that humans are like mechanical beings. They act in deterministic fashion to maximize their pleasures and minimize their pains. What a human finds desirable is random, but he always acts to achieve it. Unlike other philosophers such as Rene Descartes, who believed that thought and mind were non-physical, Hobbes believes that thoughts and ideas are vibrations inside the brain—much like heat is the fast vibration of molecules. Hobbes sees no difference between what happens in the brain/mind and what happens out in the rest of the world, and therefore holds a materialist view of the world in which people follow the physical impulses they like and avoid the ones they don’t.

Hobbes believes that before there was an official political state, humankind lived in a barbaric condition called the State Of Nature. He famously describes life under such conditions as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Since everyone tries to maximize their pleasure and minimize their pain, naturally humans have an interest in getting out of this terrible condition. There is not much maximization of pleasure when everyone is busy fighting or killing one another over simple possessions like apples and potatoes. So to stop this “war of all against all,” people organize themselves into political societies that are organized to keep away the greatest evil—death. Hobbes believes that in order for a political society to work, each member would have to give up his freedom (which he had in the state of nature) in order to let someone else govern all of them. In return, internal violence would be eliminated (or minimized) because the only person who would have the right to perform violence would be the state and thereby the king. This view is in a way not much different from modern societies where the state has the monopoly on violence and, for example, has the right to arrest and detain you if they believe the “contract” of society has been broken. Naturally, power therefore trickles up in a pyramid shape until only one person is guarding the right to war, namely, the king (or queen). The sovereign protects its people and in return each member of society must obey him, working together to make society act and function as one large composite human being with the sovereign being the “brain.” This description is also on the original cover of Leviathan, where inside the sketch of a giant person are depicted hundreds of small people working—a rather astonishing work of art.

Because Hobbes believes that humans ultimately work in their own self-interest and that the state is a giant composite human, nations would always be in a State of Nature at war with one another. Hobbes would therefore laugh at the idea of an institution such as the United Nations. Even though the idea of an absolute sovereign might seem strange to many today, Hobbes played an important role in philosophy and politics by forcing other thinkers to respond to his ideas. Furthermore, Hobbes’s thought-experiment of man outside of society in a State of Nature has remained relevant even today, especially in international relations and foreign policy theory.

John Locke and Load – The Rebel Doctor


John Locke was a British Enlightenment philosopher most famously known for his contributions to political philosophy, but also wrote extensively on anything from metaphysics to epistemology to ethics and back again. One of the many British geniuses to come out of Oxford, he served as the personal physician for the first Earl of Shaftesbury, Anthony Ashley Cooper, whom he saved from a life threatening liver infection by performing an operation. Locke was also politically involved through his job as Shaftesbury’s personal assistant, and through this position he came to meet many important political figures in the British ruling sphere, which possibly inspired him to develop many of his political ideas. In 1683 Locke was forced to flee England because of accusations that he partook in a assassination attempt of the British King and heir to the throne. Although it is impossible to know whether or not Locke was truly involved in the assassination attempt, his exile to the Netherlands did serve as a catalyst for the writing of three of his most famous works: An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Two Treatises of Government,

As Locke explains in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding he believed that everything there is to learn about the world can be found through the five senses,experience and reflection. Unlike people like Descartes or Kant, Locke believed that humans where born as empty vessel ready to be influenced by their environment, which gave birth to his famous “tabula rasa” theory. For Locke the mind processes everything as “simple ideas” such as color, temperature, shape, sounds,etc. As the mind gets more attuned to the world, these simple ideas are bundled together into complex ideas such as dog, person, justice, freedom, and any other complicated thing,one could think of.

Locke believed that the people had a legitimate right to rebel against its government, should it treat them incorrectly. The purpose of government, for Locke, is to protect people’s lives, liberty and possessions from both internal and external threats. Locke’s revolutionary philosophical work in Two Treatises of Government became so influential that some passages are almost completely copied in the U.S constitution. Locke is in the tradition of thinkers writing about the State of Nature. He believed that man was naturally born naturally free and equal, in a State of Nature where human action is constrained only by the law of nature, which holds that no one should harm another in his life liberty or possessions. But the natural condition of man is not always a pleasant place since not everyone obeys the law of nature. In order to prosper, most people choose a social contract with one another.

Locke also wrote extensively on education, which radically differed from the popular ideas of his time by suggesting that violence against children was a last resort rather than a pedagogical method. Although violence against children is a last resort one must still make sure to toughen kids up by exposing them to the little hardships of life, in order for them to be prepared for the real trials later on. For, Locke the proper way to educate children is to treat them respectfully, somewhat equally, and engage in intellectual dialogue suitable to their age.

John Stuart Mill and lots of Freeeedooooom


John Stuart Mill was English philosopher (yes, yes, we have had a few of those), who grew up in a rather peculiar way. His father, James Mill, raised him in cooperation with his friend Jeremy Bentham to become the perfect utilitarian human and philosopher. Instead of going to school, young Mill was put through a rigorous home schooling that helped him to develop many skills. By the age of three Mill was taught Greek, and by the time he was eight years old he could speak both Greek and Latin and was well read in ancient philosophy. Mill was instructed in pretty much any topic available for study at his time including, logic, biology, zoology, history, economics, and mathematics. Mill refused to study at Anglican universities such as Oxford. In 1851 Mill married his life-long friend Harriet Taylor, whom he adored above all else. Even though they where only married for seven years (since Harriet died), she managed to have a huge influence on Mill’s thought and writing. One of the places this is expressed is in Mill’s defense of women’s rights and in his work On Liberty where Harriet is accredited as a strong influence. Mill also served as a member of British Parliament, defending various progressive public policies, and worked as a rector at St. Andrews College.

In the field of ethics Mill elaborated and completed his father and Bentham’s utilitarian theory. Utilitarianism as described by Mill is the view that in order to know which choice is the right one, people must measure and calculate all of the pain and pleasure that the consequences of each actions will create. A person must always take the choice that creates the most happiness—understood as pleasure—overall for all sentient beings (animals included) affected by the action. This is known as the Greatest Happiness Principle, but is often accused of being a selfish doctrine. This is a common misunderstanding; Mill believes that if one could create more happiness overall by making a choice that would cause pain for oneself, then one should still make that choice. Mill very systemically expected critiques of his theory and therefore decided to take them down one by one in his work before others could publish challenges against him (a now very common approach within philosophy). Mill anticipated that people would misunderstand his notion of pleasure, and therefore argues for a complex notion of human pleasure that includes both bodily and intellectual pleasures. The former include satisfying physical desires for, say, food, and the latter include learning something difficult or enjoying something well crafted, such as music or art.

As a political philosopher Mill has been very influential in contemporary Western societies. His work On Liberty stands as one of the greatest in political theory, in which he introduces what has become known as the Harm Principle. Mill believes that each person is “sovereign” over his own body, and that typical adults are rationally in control of their own thoughts and therefore capable of acting autonomously. Because of this, Mill concludes that no authority by the state can be made over a person’s body or choices, unless the person’s actions cause harm to someone else. In other words, everyone can do what they please (because each knows what is best for himself) as long as they do not harm others. This might seem rather obvious to many today, but this idea was presented in a time when people for centuries had been accustomed to being bossed around by a monarchy. If a sixteenth-century farmer had been asked to relocate because a local lord said so, there was not much choice the farmer had in the matter. For Mill the life experience of the individual becomes a reality. The notion that a person sets out in the world to frame and create a life narrative for oneself is protected by Mill’s Harm Principle.

Mill fears not only oppressive governments, but also social tyranny. He believes that even when the government does not meddle in the life of the individual, the social norms of a society’s majority could still oppress the individual. Mill therefore points to freedom of speech as a crucial factor in protecting individual liberty.  Just as people have the right to do as they please with their physical property, so should they have the right to do as much with their mental property. Mill famously said, “If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.” Mill argues that all ideas should be open for debate, no matter how established it might seem; if society can control what is true or not, real truth might be prevented from being revealed. Take, for instance, the example of the earth’s place in the universe. For a long time, it was accepted as true that the earth was at the center of the solar system, and some people were killed for believing otherwise. It is thus a matter of optimizing truth and understanding the world that freedom of speech is maintained. Freedom of speech is also a matter of personal dignity, and Mill went as far as to argue that people have the right to hold false beliefs.

Unlike so many others of his time, Mill’s notions of freedom extended to everyone. This meant that Mill was a strong voice for women’s rights, and he wrote an entire work about the issue: The Subjection of Women. Mill argues that the oppression of women (especially within the institution of marriage) is not only a disadvantage to the individual, but also a hindrance to the development of society. Mill writes that the belief of women naturally being inferior to men is illegitimate, since society had never given women the chance to perform tasks normally given to men. Mill argues that if an open market were established in which women were allowed to choose their profession, it would be revealed what they were capable of. As we have seen ever since, they are capable of everything. In other words, there is no empirical evidence that women are less capable than men.   On the same utilitarian grounds, Mill also attempted to become involved in the American debate on slavery, about which he sent multiple letters to several prominent Americans.

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz – The Best Possible Calculator

Leibniz is every math student’s good friend and worst enemy at the same. He is the German scientist/philosopher who is responsible for inventing the first automated calculator (thanks dude). He is credited with inventing calculus independently from and simultaneously with Isaac Newton. He further invented the binary system, which is the basis of all computers (so both Microsoft and Apple should pay tribute to Leibniz), and he was one of the first Western philosophers to take Eastern philosophy seriously. Leibniz was a rather cocky, but multi-talented: he worked on engineering projects such as submarines, designed combat plans to overthrow Egypt, and worked through out his whole life for different political entities as a negotiating figure. Leibniz was even offered a job with the Vatican, but turned it down because he refused to convert to Catholicism. Lastly, he is also known to have invented the first contemporary library cataloging system. Even though Leibniz was more influential as a scientist, he still left a permanent mark on the world of philosophy
Leibniz argues in his work Theodicy, that since God is both omnipotent (all powerful), and omni-benevolent (all loving), he must have created the best of all possible worlds. Out of all the many possibilities God had to create a world, he chose the one with most good and least evil in it. Leibniz believes that the world is like a complicated mathematical equation that needs some evil and suffering in order to for the broader system to function. Leibniz agrees that a world without suffering and evil would have been nice, but concludes that it is simply impossible, since infinite goodness would mean that God never would have created the world in the first place. Leibniz argues that just as in mathematics one cannot define the boundaries of infinite concepts, which means that God would always have had a better world he could have created. In this sense God had to put some evil into the world in order to define its boundaries.
Leibniz who was also deeply involved in unifying the different European factions of Christianity, believes that man could prove the existence of God by looking at the relationship between things in the world. He argues that everything in the world is contingent (dependent) on something else. Everything has an explanation why it exists. Therefore, the same must be true for the universe as a whole. This first reason cannot be contingent on anything else, and thus must be perfect. Leibniz therefore concludes that the first reason can only be something that is a cause, of itself it is a sufficient cause which is God.

David Hume – Skeptical Bundles


David Hume was a Scottish philosopher who turned the intellectual community of his time upside down. Hume held rather drastically different views from those of his peers, and is famously known for his skepticism: Hume investigated the many worldviews of the time through the lens of the question “Can I be sure of this?” This led to the famous position that human beings can hardly know anything, and may even know nothing with certainty. Hume in the end rejected the strong version of skepticism and noted that it was better to live one’s life performing everyday tasks and continuing to educate people, saving skepticism for times of deep academic grumbles.

Hume grew up in a wealthy home in Scotland near Edinburgh, where he also started his studies. After some time at the university, Hume had enough of its religiously guided curriculum and began privately funded studies in which he was supposed to become a lawyer but ended up in philosophy. During his studies Hume developed a strong discontent with the Calvinism in which he had been brought up, and by his mid-twenties he had completely abandoned the idea of God. It is during his private education and travels around Europe that Hume wrote his first Philosophical work, A Treatise of Human Nature, which was received poorly. Later in his life, Hume rewrote the book to make it more appealing and easier to digest. Hume tried multiple times to gain high academic positions in Scottish universities, but was rejected because of his atheism. He finally settled as a librarian, which gave him access to enough resources that he could write the first extensive history of England. This work also received criticism for its atheist undertones and Hume was forced to cut out certain sections that supposedly critiqued Christianity.

Hume argues in the Treatise that there are no such things as objects in the world. The things that we call objects—for example, a smelly sock—are not things in themselves, but rather are bundles of features that together create the illusion that there is, a smelly sock. The sock is soft, sweaty, smelly, and has three dimensions. But if one tries to imagine the sock after stripping away these features one by one, there is nothing left. The sock is a composite of the features that projects it into the world. This view seems understandable when looking at socks, and MP3 players, but the consequence of Hume’s view is that it also stretches to the self. What a person thinks is “me” does not actually exist; it is a bundle of features that projects itself into the world and is perceived by others. A person may think that he or she is something separate from these features, but the senses create the false illusion of such.

The idea of causation was another problem for Hume. He was surprised that people so firmly made the assumption that when a billiard ball hits another ball, it will make the next one roll in an easily predictable path. For Hume there is no connection between events; such a view is built on a common misconception that “things” affect one another if they are within proximity. When people see things happening in a certain pattern, they assume the same will happen in the future. Hume argues, instead, that when one billiard ball hits another one, there is no necessary connection between the two that makes the second ball move. Since people (according to empiricism at least) gain all knowledge from the senses, it is a fallacy to say that the connection will always happen. We have no way of knowing what will happen, since people cannot directly use their senses to perceive the force being transferred from one ball to the other.    This is known as the problem of induction and it is still a theoretical problem to this day.

Since Hume was so critical of religion, he insisted on the possibility of a religion-free ethical system. Hume developed an ethical system whereby right and wrong actions are emotional responses. Knowing the validity of moral actions, for Hume, is something that one can feel, such as when one feels good donating food to a starving person or bad when lying to a friend. In this way Hume has sometimes been called one of the early utilitarians, who based ethics on feelings of pleasure and pain, even though his theory does not quite fit this label.

Hume also rejected the idea of religious miracles, which he believed to be a bunch of nonsense. Hume defines miracles as “a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent.” In plain English, this means that a miracle occurs when the laws of nature (such as gravity) are clearly broken and then restored by some force not visible or understandable to humans. Hume goes on to say that when someone makes a large claim, it takes an even larger amount of evidence to prove such a claim. If a scientist were to go to the public and announce that he had found a UFO, it would take numerous independent confirmations that the find was indeed a vessel from outer space and not some other nation’s test aircraft or high-school science project.  Hume points out that, like UFOs, miracles never seem to have a large number of witnesses and the few witnesses they do have are hardly reliable (and neither are people in general). Hume further argues that if we were to believe in one miracle, then there is no reason why we should not believe in the validity of miracles from all religions. But since religions (at least according to Hume) contradict the existence of one another—that is, if Buddhism is true, then Islam cannot be true—then miracles cannot exist in any religion.

Hume was and is still today an extremely influential philosopher. Another famous philosopher, Immanuel Kant, even announced that Hume woke him from his “dogmatic slumber.” Hume inspired many new schools of thought and managed to change the tone of intellectual conversation in Europe.

Immanuel Kant: On Letting Axe Murderers into Your House

Kant is often considered one of the hardest philosophers to understand, and yet one of the most brilliant. As a person, Kant was rather peculiar. He spend his entire academic career at the university in the German town Königsberg of Prussia, where he both studied, taught, and wrote his influential philosophical works. Kant was a punctual man, in matter fact so punctual that the people of Königsberg would set their watches after his daily walk that started at exactly 3.30 p.m. Kant both woke, walked, and ate in a regimented manner, and often refused to breathe through his mouth when meeting strangers in order not to catch bacteria. According to legend, Kant was never late, except for the day he had read Rousseau’s work Emile or on Education an event that shocked his students and the local town folks). Although Kant never left his town, he was not antisocial and was known to be fond of dinner parties. He often invited travelers into his home to report on the outside world, and was particularly interested in news and events from the young Americas. Kant never married, since it took him too long to analyze the pros and cons of each of the two woman he actually had a chance with. Even though he rarely laughed he had a dead pan sense of humor, was an excellent billiards player, and wore strings through his pockets connected to his socks so he could always pull up his socks should they start to sag.
Kant wrote about almost every philosophical subject but is most famously known for his works in ethics, epistemology, and metaphysics. Kant developed what is known as deontology (or duty ethics). The idea here is that there are certain duties that absolutely require or prohibit action, and it is the individual moral agent’s responsibility to uphold these moral laws. Such laws are known as categorical imperatives, for example, never to lie, and the highest of these is The Categorical Imperative: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law. This means that in order to see whether an action is good or bad, a person must ask himself whether every ones doing the action logically make sense; if not, then it must be prohibited. Whatever our duties are, we must do them with a good will. one must never look to the consequences of a choice, but rather at whether one acted with duty.

Kant’s moral philosophy became subject to much critique and wonder. The French philosopher Benjamin Constant challenged Kant by proposing a scenario where an axe murderer would come to a person house asking where his friends was. Constant pointed out that according to Kant, since a person’s must always follow the Categorical Imperative which includes never lying, he would have to give up the location of his friend. Quite controversially, Kant agreed with Constant that under his theory a man would have no other choice but to answer the murderers question. Kant did not see a problem with this since the axe murderer is one moral agent responsible for his own actions just, as the person who answered the door is responsible for performing his moral duties. Furthermore there is nothing wrong with shutting the door and calling the police.
Kant’s view on metaphysics and epistemology also became widely influential. He had been settled and secure in his philosophical views until he read the works of David Hume and went into a deep philosophical crisis. Kant credits his Hume with waking him from “dogmatic slumber” and stopped publishing philosophical works for eleven years until he created his mammoth Critique of Pure Reason. Kant combined the way people learn from experience (a posteiori) with the way people learn from logical thinking before experience (a priori). For Kant the mind can achieve knowledge through either synthetic or analytic propositions. Analytic propositions logically tell us something: for example “all objects take up space” Synthetic propositions say something about the world that can then be tested and confirmed: “My bicycle is blue”. Kant therefore concluded that there are certain concepts in the world, such as space and time, that are known to humans necessarily through the mind, and these set the basis for obtaining the knowledge gained from experience.
Kant also wrote a response to a religious theory of his time, which was the theodicy proposed by Gottfried Leibniz (see above entree). Kant believed that trying to prove the existence of God would be impossible since humans only have finite knowledge and it is outside of human capacity to draw an inference to a perfect being such as God. Simply put, God might exist, but we cannot prove it using our limited intellect. To prove the existence of God Kant further blew Leibniz and the other theodicists to pieces by methodically proving the inconsistency of each well known theory about God and evil. Kant’s writing on this topic therefore marks the beginning of a new era in the philosophy of religion and in the discussion on how to reconcile God with the fact that there is evil in the world.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau – Public Enemy and Educator


Rousseau was a French philosopher originally from the town of Geneva. With his The Social Contract, he strongly influenced thought and politics in the seventeenth century and helped to inspire the philosophy behind world-changing events such as THE FRENCH REVOLUTION! Rousseau also, inspired a new literary genre known as Romantic Naturalism, helped to write the constitution of two European countries (Poland and Corsica), and composed classical music. A pretty cool dude! Rousseau is mostly known for his critical approach to society and his appreciation of the natural. Contrary to many of his contemporaries, Rousseau believed that society and history cause man to become an immoral and faulty being. The further away people get from authority and society and the closer they get to nature, the purer mankind becomes. This view is seen throughput his work, especially when dealing with the topics of education and inequality.

Rousseau’s father was a local watchmaker, but he loved to read and therefore introduced Rousseau to Greek and Latin from an early age. However Rousseau’s father got into an argument with a local military captain and fled the city to avoid imprisonment. Poor Rousseau was left to be raised by his uncle since his mother had died at childbirth. When Rousseau reached his early teens, his uncle also abandoned him, and he spent time on the road taking small jobs here and there until he became the private servant and student of Françoise-Louise de Warens, a bourgeois French woman. Not only did de Waren

s put in the money and time to make Rousseau an educated young man, she also became his lover, since she had earlier divorced her husband (both actions where controversial at the time). Rousseau later moved to Paris in order to study mathematics, music, and philosophy, and it is here that he made his intellectual breakthrough that made him a both loved and hated but respected, intellectual.

Like many other political philosophers of his time Rousseau worked from the assumption of a “state of nature” Which is man’s natural pre-political condition. While philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes believed the state of nature to be a brutal and harsh condition, Rousseau argues that humans have a natural, pure, moral sense in them that is best expressed and cultivated when living away from decadent modern cities. On this view man’s innate goodness is expressed when man is solitary, living in harmony with nature. It is not until ownership over land, capital, and resources begins that things such as jealousy or restraints arise. In its isolated harmonious living mankind is blissful.

In Rousseau’s A Discourse on the Moral Effects of the Arts and Sciences he argues that the arts and science have developed mankind against its own benefits. Rather than being for the shared convenience of all, knowledge and the arts have become ways to differentiate between people on the grounds of class, race, power, and ownership. According to Rousseau these lead to competition rather than cooperation, which creates an oppressive social structure.


Rousseau also wrote a great (and massive) work on education entitled Emile, in which he is a private tutor who raises an imaginary child in the correct way. This work is not full of methods on how to best memorize one’s math tables or remember complicated grammar rules. Instead the work is focused on developing the “natural man” inside of young Emile. This means that instead of going to a public school, the ideal education is performed one-on-one between a tutor and a child together exploring the world around the household. The child’s learning originates in his natural curiosity. The child begins to see connections between things, and realizes that he must learn certain skills not only to preserve himself, but also to do more things in the world, and to continue exploring. Rousseau places great emphasis on the different stages of childhood, and believes that it is important to keep children innocent and uncorrupted by society for as long as possible.

George Berkeley – And The Story of How Stuff Does Not Exist

George Berkeley was an Irish Philosopher and one oft the great British empiricists (dudes who believe that all knowledge is gained through experience). Berkeley was a religious man but this did not stop him from thinking critically about God, the universe, and everything else. He published a work on human vision, served as a dean for several institutions, moved to Rhode Island (of all places), attempted to set up a seminary in the British colony of Bermuda, donated his immense private library to Harvard and Yale, and served as a Bishop for the people of Cloyne. Although a generally rational individual, Berkeley feared a premature burial, and was therefore at his death kept above ground for five days in accordance with his will (even though his corpse was starting to reek).

Of Berkeley’s ideas esse est percipi is the most important, yet at first glance crazy. The phrase means: to be is to be perceived, and raises the classical philosophical question, “if a If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” In Berkeley’s line of thought the answer would be a simple “No”, If no tree is perceived, then there is no tree, so of course there cannot be a sound. For Berkeley, things such as apples and chairs that most people take to be material things “out there”, are simply just ideas in our minds. In a sense, there is distinction between material and immaterial; everything just is made out of idea “stuff” You, Me, this website, the card game that you are playing, everything is made of the same thought material that our minds perceive.

So if it takes the observation of others to exist, how do we exist when we are alone? And how do we know that stuff is still there once we leave to walk elsewhere? For Bishop Berkeley the answer seemed simple: God. While people are perceiving the ideas around them and then putting them together in their own minds as more complex things, like houses or cats, God invents and perceives all of us constantly and simultaneously. To exist is to be perceived, and therefore we exist only because of God. At the same time, all of these things that we mistakenly have thought to be “material” are simply ideas in God’s mind (invented by him) that we are now perceiving.

It might be difficult to see how Berkeley could develop such a unique theory, but if one takes a closer look at the mind-body problem that most philosophers have struggled with, then it does not seem so far-fetched. The mind-body problem is complicated, but in its most simple form asks: “How can we have a body that is material and thoughts that are not? How can the two things influence each other?” It seems impossible that something that does not have substance, such as the mind, thoughts, or imagination, can control something that only responds to physical impulses such as the body. Yet every person seems to be convinced that he/she has some kind of consciousness (mind/spirit/soul) that is not reducible to the body. While people like Descartes and Locke tried to come up with complicated answers about the relationship between the mind and the body, some people called materialists simply proposed that there is no such thing as the soul, and some like Berkeley proposed that there is no such thing as the body. If we are dealing with only one type of substance, then the mind-body problem is solved.


Ludwig Wittgenstein: From Picture Theory to Language Games

Only publishing one major work while alive and one major posthumous work, while still being considered a genius, is pretty awesome. Not many can brag about having done this, and not many can say that they inspired a whole philosophical movement either, But Ludwig Wittgenstein can.  He was an Austrian philosopher who worked mainly within the philosophy of mathematics and the philosophy of language.

Although he became the most influential philosopher of his time and a notorious celebrity in the academic environment, Wittgenstein’s life was rather tragic. His three brothers all committed suicide, and Wittgenstein himself contemplated it.  He was deeply troubled by his sexuality and Jewish identity and got in numerous feuds with people in the intellectual community.   Accusing other academics of not understanding your work does not make you popular.  Wittgenstein was forced to leave Cambridge University, and became a decorated war hero during World War I. Unfortunately, the war led him into further despair, which eventually made him spend many years in exile in various villages as an elementary school teacher, where his notorious beatings of students who could not keep up with his math instruction eventually forced him to flee back to England and return to conventional academia.

While in exile he had become (against his grumpy will) the most talked-about Philosopher in Europe due to his work The Tractacus Logico-Philosophicus (1922). A whole school of philosophers called the Vienna Circle had been inspired by his work and Cambridge ended up   re-inviting Wittgenstein with a PhD degree even though they had kicked him out before he could earn his Bachelors.

So what’s all the fuss about? Well, there are two sets of Wittgensteinian theories: early Wittgenstein and late Wittgenstein, which many argue are radically different from one another. It is not completely clear why he changed his fundamental views.  His early thoughts are found in The Tractacus. The work is written in a terribly annoying fashion: one-line propositions ordered in numbers such as 1.1, 1.2, 2.1, etc., and taken together propose what became known as Picture Theory. With this theory Wittgenstein famously claimed to have solved all philosophical issues. The notion was that ethics, metaphysics, and other lofty fields are outside the scope of what humans can sensibly think and speak about. Language can only represent things that are actually facts in the world. A sentence such as “There is a casino around the corner” makes sense, if there indeed are such things as a casino and a corner. On the other hand, sentences such as “Robin Hood was running into the Casino” will always be nonsensical, since there is no such thing as Robin Hood in real life. Picture Theory states that language can only reflect actual “states of affairs.”  Any philosophy claiming to discuss non-physical subjects is nonsense, which means that non-physical things like justice and goodness also go by the wayside. An upshot of this theory is that there is no a priori knowledge in the world (things that are known before experience). Wittgenstein became rather notorious for this extreme empiricism, but he became even more so after he waved a hot metal rod at a Cambridge guest speaker when asking him to define any real ethical rule. The guest speaker famously replied, “Not to threaten guest speakers.”

After Wittgenstein died, his friends published his almost finished work, Philosophical Investigations, in which he drastically changed his view on language and critiqued his own ideas. In this work Wittgenstein proposes what became the theory of Language Games.

wittgenstein language dungeon

Wittgenstein argues that the meaning of a word is not found in a dictionary definition of the word, but rather in how it is used in various contexts. Wittgenstein asks his readers to attempt to define the word “game” and shows that no all-encompassing definition can be found, yet the word is used successfully every day. For Wittgenstein the true meaning of the word is found in its use because people are always aware of the context in which they are speaking. Language is a purely social apparatus, and we therefore create different language games in which words “mean” different things, and various rules for successful communication apply. For example, think about a classroom setting, which has its own language game. There are certain words that cannot be uttered (like curses), there are certain way to communicate (raising one’s hand before speaking), and words such as “idea” mean something very different in a philosophy classroom from when one says it casually to a friend. In this way, understanding the setting one speaks in allows one to understand how meaning is conveyed through language use.