1. The question of REALITY
- Aristotle (384-322 BCE)
2. The question of KNOWLEDGE
René Descartes (1596-1650)
Descartes is often regarded as the first modern thinker to provide a philosophical
framework for the natural sciences as these began to develop. In his Meditations on First Philosophy he attempts to arrive at a fundamental set of principles that one can know as true without any doubt. To achieve this,
he employs a method called methodological skepticism: he doubts any idea that can be doubted.
He gives the example of dreaming: in a dream, one's senses perceive stimuli
that seem real, but do not actually exist. Thus, one cannot rely on the data of the senses as necessarily true. Or, perhaps
an "evil demon" exists: a supremely powerful and cunning being who sets out to try to deceive
Descartes from knowing the true nature of reality. Given these possibilities, what can one know for certain?
Initially, Descartes arrives at only a single principle: thought exists.
Thought cannot be separated from me, therefore, I exist (Meditations on First Philosophy). Most famously, this is known
as cogito ergo sum, ("I think, therefore I am"). (These words do not appear in the Meditations, although he had written them in his
earlier work Discourse on Method).
Note; Descartes was also sceptical of memory, as that has also been known
to be manipulated, and can be doubted, so the 'cogito' argument can only apply to the present. The phrase is therefore more
accurately (but less famously) translated as; "I am thinking, therefore I exist"
Therefore, Descartes concludes that he can be certain that he exists. But
in what form? He perceives his body through the use of the senses; however, these have previously been proven unreliable.
So Descartes concludes that the only undoubtable knowledge is that he is a thinking thing. Thinking is his essence
as it is the only thing about him that cannot be doubted. Descartes defines "thought" (cogitatio) as "what happens
in me such that I am immediately conscious of it, insofar as I am conscious of it". Thinking is thus every activity of a person
of which he is immediately conscious.
To further demonstrate the limitations of the senses, Descartes proceeds
with what is known as the Wax Argument. He considers a piece of wax: his senses inform him that it has certain characteristics,
such as shape, texture, size, color, smell, and so forth. When he brings the wax towards a flame, these characteristics change
completely. However, it seems that it is still the same thing: it is still a piece of wax, even though the data of the senses
inform him that all of its characteristics are different. Therefore, in order to properly grasp the nature of the wax, he
cannot use the senses: he must use his mind. Descartes concludes:
- "Thus what I thought I had seen with my eyes, I actually grasped solely
with the faculty of judgment, which is in my mind."
In this manner, Descartes proceeds to construct a system of knowledge,
discarding perception as unreliable and instead admitting only deduction as a method. Halfway through the Meditations, he offers an ontological proof of a benevolent God (through both the ontological argument and trademark argument). Because God is benevolent, he can have some faith in the account of reality
his senses provide him, for God has provided him with a working mind and sensory system and does not desire to deceive him; however, this is a contentious argument,
as his very notion of a benevolent God from which he developed this argument is easily subject to the same kind of doubt as
his perceptions. From this supposition, however, he finally establishes the possibility of acquiring knowledge about the world
based on deduction and perception. In terms of epistemology therefore, he can be said to have contributed such ideas as a rigorous conception
of foundationalism and the possibility that reason is the only reliable method of attaining knowledge, as others said before
him, though not as clearly as he did, and the rationalist answer to scepticism which other rationalists have elaborated on.
In Descartes' system, knowledge takes the form of ideas, and philosophical
investigation is the contemplation of these ideas. This concept would influence subsequent internalist movements as Descartes' epistemology requires that a connection made by conscious
awareness will distinguish knowledge from falsity. As a result of his Cartesian doubt, he sought for knowledge to be "incapable
of being destroyed", in order to construct an unshakeable ground from which all other knowledge can be based on. The first
item of unshakeable knowledge that Descartes argues for is the aforementioned cogito, or thinking thing.
Descartes also wrote a response to skepticism about the existence of the external world. He argues that sensory perceptions come to him involuntarily, and are not willed by him. They are external to
his senses, and according to Descartes, this is evidence of the existence of something outside of his mind, and thus, an external
world. Descartes goes on to show that the things in the external world are material by arguing that since God would not deceive
him as to the ideas that are being transmitted, and that God has given him the "propensity" to believe that such ideas are
caused by material things. Skeptics have responded to Descartes' proof for the external world by positing a brain in a vat thought experiment, in that Descartes' brain may be connected up to a machine
which simulates all of these perceptions.
The question of LANGUAGE:
Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951)
Work: The Tractatus
In rough order, the first half of the book sets forth the following theses:
- the world consists of independent atomic facts — existing states of affairs — out of which larger facts are
- Language consists of atomic, and then larger-scale propositions that correspond to these facts by sharing the same "logical form."
- Thought, expressed in language, "pictures" these facts.
- We can analyse our thoughts and sentences to express ('express' as in
show, not say) their true logical form.
- Those we cannot so analyse cannot be meaningfully discussed.
- Philosophy consists of no more than this form of analysis: "Wovon man
nicht sprechen kann, darüber muß man schweigen" — whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.
The Philosophical Investigations
Although the Tractatus is a major work, Wittgenstein is mostly studied
today for the Philosophical Investigations (Philosophische Untersuchungen). In 1953, two years after Wittgenstein's
death, the long-awaited book was published in two parts. Most of the 693 numbered paragraphs in Part I were ready for printing
in 1946, but Wittgenstein withdrew the manuscript from the publisher. The shorter Part II was added by the editors, G.E.M. Anscombe and Rush Rhees. (Had Wittgenstein lived to complete the book himself, some of the remarks
in Part II would likely have been incorporated into Part I, and the book would no longer have this bifurcated structure.)
It is notoriously difficult to find consensus among interpreters of Wittgenstein's
work, and this is particularly true in the case of the Investigations. Very briefly, Wittgenstein asks the reader to
think of language and its uses as a multiplicity  of language-games within which the parts of language function and have meaning in order to resolve the problems of philosophy. This viewing
of language represents what many consider a break from the Wittgenstein in the Tractatus and, hence, meaning as representation.
In the carrying out of such an investigation, one of the most radical characteristics of the "later" Wittgenstein comes to
light. The "conventional" view of philosophy's "task", perhaps coming to a head in Bertrand Russell, is that the philosopher's
task is to solve the seemingly intractable problems of philosophy using logical analysis (for example, the problem of "free will", the relationship between "mind" and "matter", what is "the good" or "the
beautiful" and so on). However, Wittgenstein argues that these "problems" are, in fact, "bewitchments" that arise from the
philosophers' misuse of language.
On Wittgenstein's account, language is inextricably woven into the fabric
of life, and as part of that fabric it works unproblematically. Philosophical problems arise, on this account, when language
is forced from its proper home and into a metaphysical environment, where all the familiar and necessary landmarks have been
deliberately removed. Removed for what appear to be sound philosophical reasons, but which are, for Wittgenstein, the very
source of the problem. Wittgenstein describes this metaphysical environment as like being on frictionless ice; where the conditions
are apparently perfect for a philosophically and logically perfect language (the language of the Tractatus), where
all philosophical problems can be solved without the confusing and muddying effects of everyday contexts; but where, just
because of the lack of friction, language can in fact do no actual work at all. There is much talk in the Investigations,
then, of “idle wheels” and language being “on holiday” or a mere "ornament", all of which are used
to express the idea of what is lacking in philosophical contexts. To resolve the problems encountered there, Wittgenstein
argues that philosophers must leave the frictionless ice and return to the “rough ground” of ordinary language
in use; that is, philosophers must “bring words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use.”
Returning to the rough ground is, however, easier said than done. Philosophical
problems having the character of depth, and running as deep as the forms of language and thought that set philosophers on
the road to confusion. Wittgenstein therefore speaks of “illusions”, "bewitchment" and “conjuring tricks”
performed on our thinking by our forms of language, and tries to break their spell by attending to differences between superficially
similar aspects of language which he feels leads to this type of confusion. For much of the Investigations, then, Wittgenstein
tries to show how philosophers are led away from the ordinary world of language in use by misleading aspects of language itself.
He does this by looking in turn at the role language plays in the development of various philosophical problems, from some
general problems involving language itself, then at the notions of rules and rule following, and then on to some more specific
problems in philosophy of mind. Throughout these investigations, the style of writing is conversational with Wittgenstein
in turn taking the role of the puzzled philosopher (on either or both sides of traditional philosophical debates), and that
of the guide attempting to show the puzzled philosopher the way back: the “way out of the fly bottle.”
Much of the Investigations, then, consists of examples of how philosophical
confusion is generated and how, by a close examination of the actual workings of everyday language, the first false steps
towards philosophical puzzlement can be avoided. By avoiding these first false steps, philosophical problems themselves simply
no longer arise and are therefore dissolved rather than solved. As Wittgenstein puts it; "the clarity we are aiming at is
indeed complete clarity. But this simply means that the philosophical problems should completely disappear."