What makes someone a philosopher?

Paul asked:

What makes someone a philosopher?

Answer by Shaun Williamson

The word ‘philosophy’ can have many different uses. So we can talk about the philosophy of animal husbandry or the philosophy of hair dressing. Philosophy can just mean the most fundamental ideas about something.

However there is a much narrower definition of philosophy. Philosophy is the study of truth, the scope of human knowledge and logic that first started in ancient Greece. This philosophy was always an academic subject and Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle were all teachers and founded schools.

The people who answer questions here are qualified in this sort of philosophy. Of course many people have the idea that philosophy is really just having deep ideas about life and they protest that surely you don’t need to study academic philosophy to do this. All you need to do is sit down in your armchair and think really deep thoughts. Well if you can do this, good luck but don’t expect other philosophers to be interested in your deep thoughts. Academic philosophers are far too busy with their own thoughts and are not looking out for wonderful untrained geniuses.

If you want to be a philosopher then, if you can, study philosophy and logic at a recognised university. If you can’t do this then you can still become a philosopher by reading all the books and reading them again until you understand them. You need to know all of the history of philosophy, there are no short cuts.

If you want to be a doctor then study medicine, if you want to be a philosopher then study philosophy. Philosophy is hard work and will make your brain hurt. Don’t do it unless you are dedicated and can stand the pain!


When is a question about religion philosophical?

Tamooo asked:

I was wondering, do you only answer questions about philosophy? or can anyone submit some questions about religion as well.

Answer by Shaun Williamson

You can submit questions about anything. The people who answer questions here have qualifications in philosophy, they may not be religious or have any interest in religion. However philosophers often have wide ranging interests in other subjects. It all depends upon the question. If no-one feels qualified to answer your question then you won’t get an answer.


Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Questions about anything under the sun can also be questions about philosophy. It depends on how you pose the question. Questions about physics, art, sport, the media, politics have all appeared in these pages. As have many questions about religion.

But when is a question about religion philosophical? It’s not enough to say that some question about religion has aspects which could be debated by philosophers. Most do, in some way or other. But that doesn’t make them philosophical. A question can have a religious or philosophical interest or point. I maintain that this point or interest can never really coincide in the case of religion and philosophy.

I don’t care for religion. As an atheist, I am expressing a personal taste. But there are plenty of religious people (including some who contribute to these pages) who are gripped by philosophy, sufficiently to ask questions in a philosophical rather than a religious spirit. About religion, we can agree to disagree, while finding plenty to discuss concerning the mind-body problem, or the nature of truth, or the basis of ethics, or the nature of knowledge, etc.

To ask a religious question, or to ask a question in a religious spirit, is always something more than merely seeking the truth. Contemporary theologians will argue that they have got past the ‘naive’ literal belief in a Heaven or Hell, but there remains an interest in eschatology in the widest sense. By conducting certain practices, or living your life in a particular way, or holding certain beliefs, there is the chance, the hope, of ‘salvation’.

You will find this religious element in other areas too, like psychology (e.g. Freudian psychoanalysis) or political thought (e.g. revolutionary Marxism).

Philosophers don’t seek salvation. There is no reward for knowing the truth, other than the pleasure of a successful hunt. Curiosity and wonder are the motivations of the true philosopher. And as the story of the deceased cat reminds us, there is no telling where curiosity will lead.


Hegel, Marx and historical materialism

Ricky asked:

Explain how Hegel’s historical materialism tries to further the idea that the world is constantly perfecting itself. Be sure to explain how the Hegelian dialectic works in full detail. Use parliamentary democracy or the institution of science to show how Hegel’s philosophy of reality works.

Answer by Martin Jenkins

Ricky, I would connect Karl Marx rather than Hegel with Historical Materialism. He developed this theory upon the influence (this is a controversial area) of Hegel. Marx however, inverted Hegel’s Dialectic ‘the right side up’ to uncover the ‘rational kernel inside the mystical shell’. (Afterword to the 2nd German Edition of Capital.) This was based on the argument that Hegel had gone about things in the wrong way. Hegel had viewed human history as primarily the development of human consciousness, of the human mind moving towards the full realisation of itself in the Absolute Idea. In other words, the unity of subjective human consciousness with the objective consciousness of the Universe/God.

The dynamic behind this movement is Dialectic. It is comprised of three moments.

 • The Abstract or that of the Understanding.

 • The Dialectic or that of Negative Reason.

 • The Speculative or that of Positive Reason. (Encyclopaedia Logic #79)

Understanding cognises things as either/or. As traditional logic, it cannot deal with Contradiction. This had been the problem confronting previous philosophy-overcoming contradictions such as those between Infinite and Finite, One and Many, Freedom and Necessity and the like. This is announced most explicitly in Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. In the part entitled Transcendental Dialectic, Kant describes such contradictions or Antinomies, Paralogisms and Ideals that confront Understanding. He believed Reason could not proceed beyond them.

Hegel however, maintained that his application of Dialectic can overcome them. Negative Reason brings forward the tensions in phenomena but Speculative or Positive Reason overcomes them. The negative is synthesised with the insights of positive Reason in the process of Aufgehoben: the superseding of the existing and its opposite and their preservation on a higher, cumulatively progressive outcome. For example, in the Logic, Doctrine of Being, Hegel begins to examine the concept of Being. This is examined and found to be almost indeterminate as it is so abstract. So much so that Negative Reason finds it to be Nothing. Nothing would traditionally be viewed as the irreconcilable opposite of something, of Being. As there are two moments – Being and Nothing – there is a movement of thought between the two. This movement is Becoming. So the negative dialectic between the two terms is solved by Positive or Speculative Reason in a third term – Becoming.

In the Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences, a similar pattern is found between the three books (and the content of the Books themselves). The first-Logic, provides the very structure of Universal Thought. This provides the ‘framework’ for the content of Nature which is the concern of the second Book. The two combine -Form and Content if you like-in the Third Book, Mind or Spirit: the dialectical unity of the previous two subjects on a higher, more comprehensive level. Thus the development of human consciousness as Reason appears before itself, is ‘For-Itself’.

This process is both linear and cumulative. It is, teleological. Like the Final Cause of Aristotle, the final end is the fruition of ‘seeds’ found in the beginning. In fact, some scholars find a lot of Aristotle in Hegel. (See ‘The Concept’ by Mike Marchetti http://www.GWFHegel.com )

Philosophy of History

This pattern is also found in Hegel’s account of the Philosophy of History. History is nothing but the progress of the consciousness of Freedom. Reason is not only the fabric of the Universe (, when physicists read Mathematics in the universe, this would be Reason for Hegel. In so doing, we connect with the Mind of the Universe or God); Reason is also its energising power or dynamic. Historically, Reason has facilitated Freedom. There are distinct periods of World History: Oriental, Greek, Roman and the Germanic. In the oriental stage, only one person -the despot – is free. In the Greek and Roman, only some were free as both were slave societies. Finally, in the Germanic Nations, the influence of Christianity (Protestantism) brings with it the consciousness that humanity is free, so all should be and are free.

Hegel maintained that Freedom-as he viewed it-could only arise through the State. The State is not just a political entity, it is both historically cumulative and organic as it enshrines the culture of a people, its history, its religion. Reason as the Divine Idea on Earth, manifests itself in the Constitution of the State. Freedom is the synthesis of the individual, subjective Will with the Rational Will of the State. Parliamentary democracy proffers divisive groups, factions above the State. Hence Hegel favoured a Constitutional, ‘enlightened monarchy’ who would be guided by state officials. These in turn would oversee the various sections of society or ‘corporations’ as Hegel termed them. For the State wills what is good for the Whole and not just for a part or parts.

Reason, as elsewhere with Hegel, is the supreme end of things and Political society is no exception. Reason brings Freedom but Freedom has responsibilities to the State that provides it:

"In a Constitution, the main feature of interest is the self-development of the Rational. That is, the political condition of the people, the setting free of successive elements of the Idea, so that the several powers in the State manifest themselves as…and yet, in this independent condition, work together for one object and are held together by it. I.e. form an organic whole. The State is thus the embodiment of Rational Freedom, realising and recognising itself in an objective form."
GWF Hegel Introduction to the Philosophy of History

I hope this is of use Ricky.


Can you call an invalid argument ‘unsound’?

Charles asked:

My logic professor says that our logic textbook is wrong when it says that invalid arguments are also unsound. My logic professor says that it is a category mistake to call invalid arguments unsound. Instead, he says that invalid arguments are neither sound nor unsound, since the terms ‘sound’ and ‘unsound’ are only used to describe arguments that have already cleared the validity hurdle, so to speak. (Sound and unsound are species of the genus valid, he said, so there are three types of deductive arguments: invalid, valid and sound, and valid but unsound.)

Who should I trust, my logic textbook or my logic professor?

Answer by Craig Skinner

Truly a storm in a teacup, the sort of nit-picking that can give philosophy a bad name.

‘A sound argument is defined as a valid argument which has true premises’ (Guttenplan: The Languages of Logic, 2nd edition, p 26, Blackwell, 1997). All agree about this.

We could therefore say that all other arguments are not sound ( are unsound), including invalid ones. This is the stance of your logic textbook, also of the online Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy which says:

‘A deductive argument is sound if and only if it is both valid and all of its premises are actually true. Otherwise, an argument is unsound’.

Alternatively, we could hold, with your professor, that soundness/unsoundness apply only to valid arguments.

It’s not a question of right or wrong, but of convention as to how we use a word. It makes little difference one way or another – there are still three types of deductive arguments: invalid (and unsound); valid and sound; valid and unsound. None of the textbooks on my shelf (Hodges; Newton-Smith; Guttenplan; Priest; plus two advanced texts) takes a stance on this (trivial) matter. Which textbook are you referring to in your question?


Answer by Shaun Williamson

I don’t think it really matters. Although your professor has a point. An invalid argument isn’t really an argument. So it seems strange to say that it is sound or unsound. When you are going to accept or reject arguments you start with valid or invalid then you can move onto sound or unsound as a further classification of the valid ones.

However don’t trust me either, what do you think?


An eight year old’s question about the external world

Joanna asked:


I am Joanna and I am 8. My mum found this site for me because I really want to know how I can be sure that everything is actually real and that the things I can see and hear and touch and smell and taste are not just me imagining everything? And how do I know that my mum is real (even though she helped with the typing) and that I am even real? Thank you for helping me with this question because it is making it hard for me to get to sleep at night.

Answer by Shaun Williamson

Joanna thank you for you question. I’m going to divide my answer into two parts, thinking that everything might not be real and feeling that everything might not be real.

1. Thinking that everything might be unreal. There is no proof that the world is real. This isn’t because we haven’t found a proof. We wouldn’t even know what a proof of reality would look like. The world around us is our reality and we have to accept it as our reality.

You have to remember that words like ‘real’, ‘unreal’, ‘pretend’ and ‘imaginary’ are just words made up by people so that we can talk to each other about things that interest us. You need to remind yourself how these words are used. Here are two things you can do to remind yourself of the difference between ‘real’ and ‘unreal’.

Pretend you have a small ball in your hand. Throw it into the air and catch it. Do this several times. This will show you what catching an imaginary, pretend or unreal ball is like. Then get a real ball and throw that in the air and catch it. Do this several times. Now you will know what catching a real ball is like and how different it is to catching an imaginary ball.

Now go into a room in your house so that you are on your own and pretend that your mother is in the room with you. Pretend your mother bakes a cake and give you some of it with a cup of tea. Of course pretend mothers don’t really bake cakes or talk to you or give you pocket money. Only real mothers can do that. If you stay in that room for a long time you will start to feel very hungry and maybe lonely as well. Imaginary or unreal food can’t stop you from being hungry. You need real food to do that.

2. Feeling that everything might be unreal or feeling that you are unreal.
At some time in their life everyone can feel that the world is unreal and it is this feeling that can keep you awake at night. Even if you think the world is real you can still feel that it isn’t.

Feeling that the world is not real can be like feeling that there is a fog or a glass wall between you and the world. It can seem that you can’t really reach out and touch things. When you look in a mirror your own reflection can seem strange. This feeling is usually caused by worry. We have something that is making us worried or fearful but we have forgotten what it is. So the worry and the fear attaches itself to everything. It stops us sleeping, it makes it seem as though the world and other people are far away and unreal.

So if you sometimes feel that the world is unreal what you should do is try to work out if there is anything worrying you about your life or yourself or if there is anything happening at school. If there is anything you are not happy with, talk to your mother about it or ask us about it. In most cases feelings that the world is unreal will go away by themselves.


Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

I am writing this to Joanna’s mum, rather than Johanna.

No child should lose a moment’s sleep over the problems of philosophy. There are enough things to trouble the sleep of a young person without adding conundrums like the problem of the external world to the mix. For example, the images of chaos, death and destruction one sees on the TV news most evenings.

I’m all for letting kids grapple with logic puzzles and the kinds of question that stimulate inquiry and an awareness of concepts. There is a time for considering the deeper questions, and it isn’t the age of eight.

The problem is, you can’t control or censor ideas which come in from every direction, including shows like the Simpsons and Futurama. Unless you live in a world without TV, you are bound to come across someone asking the question (jokingly or not) how I know that I am not dreaming or imagining all this.

The question isn’t ‘how can I be sure’, if you think about it. Because you are sure, all the time. If you weren’t, you woudn’t bit into a bar of chocolate in case it was some poisonous substance made to look and smell like chocolate. You wouldn’t get into a lift or the bath, or sit on a chair, or walk or stand still. We act, every minute of every day, on the basis of certainty, and when there are reasons for doubt we are aware of that too, and know the kinds of steps one would take to resolve that doubt.

If the question isn’t how you can be sure, then what is it? I suggest the question, the properly philosophical question, is how you have the right to be sure. There are times when one asks this. For example, ‘I’m sure the bus will be along soon.’ How do you know? What right do you have to say this? There are other times when all one can say is that I am sure and I don’t need to prove anything.

You’ll notice that I haven’t said anything which relates specifically to the problem of the external world. I do happen to think that this is a deep problem, and it doesn’t have an easy solution. It’s not a pseudo-problem as some philosophers have argued. For me, however, the question isn’t so much ‘how I know’ there is something out there but rather what that ‘something’ is, or ultimately is. I don’t know what people mean when they talk about ‘the world’ or ‘things’. I don’t know what I mean when I talk about ‘myself’, or my ‘mind’ or ‘imagination’. It’s all up for grabs.

When she’s older, those are questions Joanna might enjoy pondering if she keeps up her interest in philosophy.


Answer by Craig Skinner

Well done Joanna for guessing right.

It’s true, your world isn’t real. And that goes for your mum and for you too.

You and your world are a pretend world that I run as a program on my supercomputer, a kind of computer game. It’s really interesting to see how it all works out from how I started it off plus the rules I put in the programme. Now that the programme has produced (pretend) people, including clever ones like you, it’s getting interesting. I’m sorry that the pretend people and animals sometimes have a really bad time. I’m trying to sort this, but it’s difficult to do without making it boring for me (and for you).

It’s a shame you find it hard to get to sleep. I’ll try to help. First of all, I wont be deleting you or switching off the world. I’ve been running it for millions of your years, find it a lot of fun, and it costs very little to run. Secondly, don’t worry that you’ve found out the truth. I wont delete you for this. You’re not the first – maybe you’ll meet some others. But mostly, other pretend people don’t believe you when you tell them. It’s no good showing them this email. They’ll just say it’s a joke. Naturally I have to hack into your pretend computer systems to reply to your question, and I use the false identity of a pretend person.

Keep trying to figure things out. And even though you and your mum are not real, she still loves you.


What would Nietzsche say about today’s society?

Christopher asked:

What do you think Nietzsche would say about today’s society? His often severe criticism of his contemporary society makes me wonder if he would feel the same about ours, or be more approving of today’s society. Is the slave morality still as dominant, are there more “free spirits,” do have a more realized vision of the will to power, etc.?

Answer by Martin Jenkins

Interesting question Christopher! As you note, Nietzsche was violently critical of his society and the then emerging ‘modern ideas’ of equality, democracy espoused by Republican, Liberal and Socialist movements. He opposed such modern ideas diagnosing them as the continuation of themes central to the slave revolt which was symptomatic of the degeneration of the type ‘man’.

Slave Revolt

Behind the slave morality and modern ideas was a populace who suffered from a physiological illness of chaotic drives. Their frenetic activity imbued exhaustion and depression in people. This also signalled a decline in affirmative will to power for power quanta, manifested in organic drives of the human subject had no directionality or focus-no ‘will’. Drives struggled with themselves for expression imbuing what Nietzsche termed the ‘anarchy’ of drives. Consequently, People longed for a different, peaceful world and significantly, vented their frustration at the strong, healthy original, noble aristocrats [I.e. ressentiment]. For why should they be happy when we are not?

As you know, this led to the slave revolt in morality and the subsequent hegemony of its valuations and perspectives for two thousand years. This was systematised in Western Christianity, its metaphysical philosophy and Theology. All were judged equal before God and no exceptions were permitted to this rule. Those with strong drives-once valued as ‘Good’ by the now overthrown Noble Aristocrats-were condemned as Evil, a threat to the community and its established values. The experienced misery of existence was explained as guilt for the committing of sin. Mutual pity for the suffering slaves became a universal soporific and a universal prescription of a negative view of life and living to all. Redemption from all this and escape into a better, higher other world is offered by further engagement in the Christian worldview; which as institutionalised ressentiment, entailed that the believer must hate themselves and their existence ever anew: cursed with sin and perpetually repaying the debt they owed to their God. What did the Christian Church have to do to achieve its aims?:

"Stand all valuations on their head – that is what they had to do! And crush the strong, strike down the great hopes, throw suspicion on the delight in beauty, skew everything self-satisfied, manly, conquering, domineering, every instinct that belongs to the highest and best turned out type of ‘Human’, twist them into uncertainty, crisis of conscience, self-destruction; invert the whole love of the earth and of earthly dominion into hatred against the earth and the earthly – that is the task the church set and needed to set for itself until, in its estimation, ‘unworldly’, ‘insensuous’, and ‘higher man’ finally melded into one single feeling." [BGE # 62]

All this, proposes Nietzsche, prevents humanity from becoming what it could.

Modern Ideas

As the hegemony of Christianity gave way to alternative explanations of natural science and secular social movements, its main themes continued in secular guises. Science continues its belief in universal laws which like people, all phenomena must obey universal laws thereby failing to account for the necessary and immanent activism of power [macht] [BGE #22 The democratic movement Nietzsche views as the heir to Christianity. [BGE 202] Most notably it proffers Equality and Pity/Sympathy for all that suffers.


The prescriptive valuations of Christianity have created a physiological proximity of European peoples so that there is a homogeneity of accepted drives and their expressions. This has led to what Nietzsche pejoratively terms ‘herd animal morality’. Not only has this moulded a uniformity-an Identitarianism [to use post-modern speak] – it also limits exceptional, irruptive expressions of will to power-which is contrary to life itself [BGE #258,259, WP # 125]. For all Life – including the human – is, Will to Power and nothing else. So again, the higher potentiality of the human type as underpinned by Will to Power, is offset.

Such uniformity not only prevents strong expressions of Will to Power, it instead offers conformist valuations of timidity, of insipidity monopolised by the herd itself as a community -‘one and indivisible’. In this context, fear is the mother of morality as drives valued [under other names] in times of war and community endangerment – such as ‘enterprise, daring, vindictiveness, cunning, rapacity, a dominating spirit – are now condemned.

“When the highest and strongest drives erupt in passion, driving the individual up and out and far above the average, over the depths of herd conscience, the self-esteem of the community is destroyed – its faith in itself, its backbone as it were – is broken. As a result, these are the very drives that will be denounced and slandered the most. A high, independent spiritedness, a will to stand alone, even an excellent faculty of reason, will be perceived as a threat.” [BGE #201]

Accordingly, the ‘equalising attitude’ and the ‘mediocrity of desires’ are valorised and made virtues. Yet the ultimate aim of herd morality is to abolish fear, it wants nothing more to fear. For Nietzsche, this is a recipe for a totalising morality of timidity. Further, it removes adversity and struggle which as well as its opposites, are essential ingredients to the development of humanity. [BGE #44]


Nietzsche castigates anarchists and socialists – who wrongly claim the mantle of ‘Free thinkers’-for advocating sympathy and pity to those who they view as victims of ‘traditional social structures’ [BGE #44]. This is to stand truth on its head: it is not society that creates suffering, it comes from the people themselves. Sympathy reinforces this suffering substituting the Christian’s hope of deliverance in an after-world with deliverance through revolution. Sympathy and pity will assume that the suffering of people [due to the anarchy of their drives] is normal. Further, it’s outlook will be universalised so that even those who don’t suffer, will be made to. Yet Nietzsche maintained that suffering can make people stronger, it is just as essential as happiness in enhancing the type ‘man’. Suffering which gives rise to creativity is preferable to the acquiescent, passive suffering of the creature [BGE # 225]

In sum, Nietzsche believed that modern ideas would triumph and their levelling would in the 20th or 21st centuries create the optimum conditions for the emergence of ‘New Philosopher Creators’.

So used to obeying rather than commanding, herd animal people would feel guilty about commanding. This bad conscience about commanding is offset argues Nietzsche, by the success of Napoleon, it gives the masses palpable relief that they have a commander and lawgiver which free’s them from the responsibility.

An unintended consequence of modern ideas will be that it creates the conditions for the emergence of such Philosopher-Creators: tyrants, including the most spiritual. As just written, the mass herd animal would welcome such a development. Also it has, by means of modern ideas, made itself useful, serviceable, industrious so as to be of use to the ascendant Philosopher-Creators. Nietzsche is quite sketchy about what such new aristocrats will do, save they will re-evaluate the European values that have dominated for 2000 years. He writes of his admiration for the Romans, their values against those of Judea [GM1 #16] so perhaps this indicates the type of society he would like to see? In place of universalism will be a hierarchy of moralities based on order of rank [BGE #228]. Petty politics of Nationalism’s and Anarchism’s will be replaced [BGE #242], by the single Will of Grand Politics of a united Europe led by the Philosopher-Creators which, will confront the single will of Russia [BGE #208] for domination of the Earth.

It appears that as humanity needs to Will [even will nothingness at all so as to will], neither the Ascetic Ideal of Christianity, nor the levelling of Modern Ideas, provided a Will that would enhance society to its optimum Will to Power. They both represented decadence, deterioration. Physiological decline was arrested but not wholly cured. It appears Nietzsche believed and hoped this would be achieved by humanity following a new Will set by the Philosopher-Creators; aristocratic situated at the top of an hierarchical society where the will to power of each was ordered, the physiological chaos cured, because it was incorporated into the overarching Will.


If we maintain Nietzsche’s categories such as slave morality, then as universalism is dominant in the juridical and political regimes of Europe then the slave morality has triumphed. Certainly, Europe has not sought to expunge the morality it has inherited. Nietzsche wrote nothing [as far as I am aware] about Capitalism but he did condemn and deride ‘industriousness’ and the cult of work. Despite brief predictions of a leisure society, capitalism has not delivered this; capitalism has become global. Would it appropriated by Nietzsche to the slave morality? Probably as it does not correspond to the Aristocratic society he preferred. [or perhaps it does for different reasons??]

There are no Philosopher-Creators that have emerged from the levelled, democratic societies. What of Fascism/National Socialism? Many scholars try to implicate Nietzsche with Fascism/National Socialism. Although he favoured hierarchy-as did Fascism, Nietzsche would have opposed the anti-Semitism of the Nazi’s. He would also have opposed with the Nationalism that both are built upon.

At present, I would describe Nietzsche as a thinker who opposed the onset of Modernity with the prejudices of a reactionary. A reactionary who preferred a society where all knew their place, were happy if left there and who deferred to their betters. All this was threatened by the onset of Capitalism and the Socialistic responses to this. So Nietzsche tried to prescribe a post-modernity with a revamped pre-modernity. [?] What do you think Christopher?