The whole and the parts

Sal Bader asked:

I have a question concerning the difference between predication and constitution.

In predication there is something said of another thing so we are talking about a property that belongs to something not something in itself but in constitution. The parts seem to be independent real entities so how could they be united and belong to something or else there won’t be one thing really.

So, first, whats the relation between the part and the whole ? And second can we view constitution in a similar way to predication? For example can i say of the the whole after its constitution that the being of the parts now belongs to it and all that the part included itself now belongs to the whole so the parts are said of the whole or the whole is somehow present to all the parts?

Answer by Peter Jones

Nice question. Predication is a problem, as you say, since it creates a separation between subject and predicate. For this reason Bradley says, and I believe he is correct, that in metaphysics predication is both necessary and illegitimate. This is rather like Lao Tsu’s comment that Tao cannot be spoken but must be spoken, (I believe it’s exactly the same point). So you’ve asked about a genuine and important philosophical issue.

Predicates are attributes. It the the separation between attributes and essences that leads Kant to the ‘thing-in-itself’. There has to be something that ‘has’ its attributes and yet if it only ‘has’ attributes then in-itself ‘it’ has none. This allows his ‘thing-in-itself’ to be a unity and not an aggregation. Thus his unity is not a collection, but a phenomenon that is apart from and additional to its attributes and predicates. This allows him to avoid the problems you mention.

Russell’s paradox is an example of the trouble one gets into if one confuses a collection of parts with a unity.

A unity is not an aggregation. As Leibnitz and Animaximander note, a unity has no parts. A ‘whole’ can have parts (given the way we usually use the word), so a ‘whole’ football team is an aggregate of eleven players. If we say in this way that the whole is a collection of parts no problems arise. Problems arise only where we say the whole is a unity, thus not an aggregate. This leads to a lot of muddle.

It is strongly stressed in the perennial tradition, which endorses a doctrine of Unity, that a Unity is not an aggregate. It is not a collection of other things. It is not the set-of-all-sets. As you have spotted, collecting a lot of parts into a pile creates an aggregated whole, not a unity. For unification the parts would have to be transcended for some underlying shared identity.

Kant’s ‘thing-in-itself’ is a shared identity, not an aggregate. The ‘One’ of Plotinus’ is likewise a shared identity, not an aggregate. The problems you mention in your question arise only where we confuse a collection with a unified ‘thing’. All Kantian phenomena are aggregates. They may be called ‘wholes’ but they are collections of parts. This is presumably what Margaret Thatcher was trying to say when she said there’s no such thing as society. In the end there are just individual people, and even these are aggregates.

In short, I think that if you make a distinction between ‘whole’ (an aggregation) and ‘unity’ (not an aggregation) then any problems should go away. Exploring this issue in depth may be worthwhile since it will reveals many hidden linguistic and conceptual muddles arising from our idea of parts. wholes, unities and sets that plague philosophy. Bradley might be worth reading for the reasoning that leads him to judge predication invalid in metaphysics, and there is plenty of literature on the relation between parts and wholes. You will end up studying the meaning of the word ‘unity’, the most difficult word in all of philosophy.

Why bother studying ancient philosophy? (2)

Ross asked:

With all the knowledge we have from modern psychology and science do we need ancient philosophy any more? Does it contain any relevant wisdom for us today?

Answer by Peter Jones

In an academic context ancient and modern philosophy are no different. The problems are the same and the thinking is the same. No progress has been made in the interval. Thus Lord Whitehead could characterize the history of Western thought as ‘footnotes to Plato’.

There is a strange idea circulating that modern science has allowed philosophy to make progress but this is clearly not the case. There is no evidence that it is likely to make progress in the next thousand years. If modern psychology and science has led to philosophical progress as you say then I’m sure philosophers would have noticed and reported it. Yet I know of no examples.

Whether we need ancient philosophy will depend on which philosophy we are talking about.  Do you mean the Rig Veda or Socrates, the Tao Te Ching or Democritus? The age of a philosophy is irrelevant to its usefulness and truth. The most ancient philosophy is the Perennial philosophy, and as this is the only philosophy that works and allows us to answer metaphysical questions. I would suggest we need ancient philosophy and do not need the modern kind.  But one has to pick and choose among a host of ancient thoughts and ideas. It is hopeless speaking of ‘ancient’ or ‘modern’ philosophy as if either presents a unified set of ideas.

From a certain perspective your question is sad since nobody with an education should need to ask it, but the faults of our education system are not yours. You need only note that modern philosophy is no more able to explain metaphysics than Plato and possibly less so, while those who claim to be able to do may appear in any age. Those who claim to be able to do so are responsible for the earliest human written texts, the Vedas, the Tao Te Ching and so forth, and modern philosophy has yet to catch up, but these ancient texts and the ideas they contain simply is modern philosophy if we are alive today and endorse their explanation.

The nature of time and the age of the Earth

Robert asked:

What is the age of the Earth if time does not exist?

Answer by Peter Jones

If time does not exist then the Earth has no age so the question is odd as stated, but I know what you mean.

To make sense of the metaphysical non-existence of time, the idea that time is reducible, it is necessary to view the psycho-physical world as an aspect of Reality, the other aspect being unmanifest, timeless and placeless.

This double-aspect approach is explained and discussed at length by Hermann Weyl in hie writings on the continuum. He points out that we do not experience the passing of time but create it as a theory.  This leads to a dual-aspect approach for which time is contingent, albeit real enough in everyday life. This is the orthodox approach in the Perennial tradition and so we we see, for instance, that Meister Eckhart warns us against becoming too involved with time since it is not truly real.  The Buddhist sage Nagarjuna proves this and gives us his dual-aspect doctrine of ‘Two Truths’ for which nothing is really real. If you look around you’ll see that nobody who ‘reifies’ time as a fundamental phenomenon can make sense of it.

To reduce time we have to reduce all time-based phenomena. Thus your question is muddled. It reifies the planet Earth but rejects the reality of time. But time and time-based phenomena have to be reduced all together or not at all. The doctrine that time is not really real requires that the Earth is not really real along with its multifarious inhabitants.

Thus for the conventional or naively-real aspect the age of the Earth is a few billion years, while for an ultimate view or ‘metaphysically’ it has no age or true existence. Note that the idea is not that time does not exist but, rather, that existence is not what we usually think it is, such that time does not ‘really’ or truly exist as any more than a conceptual phenomenon .  Kant may also be worth a read on this topic.

A dual-aspect approach is vital since the extreme idea that time does not exist is clearly nonsense. Time clearly exists in a sense and the question is only in what sense. All this is explained in the literature of the Perennial tradition.

Asking the Big Questions (2)

Ross asks:

I’m a graduate in philosophy and I wish to write a book in philosophy. The title I have in mind is “Why philosophy matters: Asking the Big Questions”. I’m looking for advice as to whether this is a good theme for a book and what topics I should include in the book. I welcome any advice. Thanks.

Answer from Peter Jones

I feel it is an excellent idea for a book. But are you able to write it? Do you understand philosophy? Do you know why it’s important? Can you answer any of the big questions? The average professor of philosophy cannot answer these questions in the affirmative with the consequence that philosophy departments are facing growing criticism from the rest of the university and scientism is on the rise. It seems unlikely that a recent graduate can do any better than the professors who taught him.

I would suggest holding off on the book until you can answer the big questions. Otherwise it’ll be just another book telling us how the study of philosophy exercises our brain and helps prevent dogmatism but is otherwise useless, and there are plenty of these about already.

But don’t let me put you off. You might write something brilliant. I would start with the question ‘Why is philosophy difficult?’ This meta-question encapsulates all the others. The question ‘Why does philosophy matter?’ is a good one but you’ll have to provide a much better answer than your professors if the book is going to be interesting.

If you check the archives at ( a pro bulletin board) you’ll find much discussion of the current crisis in philosophy and the threat of job-losses and department closures, but no solutions. If you can provide one you’ll be the saviour of the hour.

As for topics, the heart of philosophy is metaphysics so a selection of metaphysical questions will do. All metaphysical questions are ‘big’ questions. But why persuade people to ask such questions unless you can answer them? Surely it should be you asking them and searching for answers. I worry this will be another book damning philosophy by discussing lots of important questions and failing to answer any, and there is already a vast literature that takes this approach. For this reason I feel you might be better choosing a more unusual title and theme and finding a new angle.

Don’t let me put you off since a good book is a good book even if it covers old ground. You may write something of great value to your intended audience. But were I a publisher I’d want something more exciting from an unknown author.

This is not advice but just thoughts. If you’re fired up to write then write.

What is the purpose of human existence?

Katherine Bolin asked:

For my senior thesis we are asked to answer a variety of questions, I chose “what is the purpose of human existence?” My thesis is basically: from a secular standpoint there is no true purpose of human existence however, in order for one to feel that their life has purpose the must do the best they can with what they have under the condition that it affects others in a positive way. I know that there is a lot there that I have to define but I need people to destroy my thesis so that I’m ready when the time comes… what’s the problems with my statement? Any suggestions on how to make it stronger?

Answer By Peter Jones

You chose a tough question. If I had to pick holes in your answer I’d mention various points.

1. You say your thesis is presented ‘from a secular standpoint’. What difference does this make to anything? The truth does not depend on your standpoint. I can see no justification for adopting any standpoint. If the question has an answer it will be same for everybody, regardless of their standpoint.

2. You say ‘from a secular standpoint there is no true purpose of human existence’. In this case human existence has no true purpose. Your standpoint is irrelevant. But how would you go about proving human existence has no purpose? It is not enough just to bluntly state it.

3. You say ‘we should affect others in a positive way’. Why? You’re arguing that there’s no ‘true purpose’ in such behaviour. The question is not asking you to proscribe how we should behave IF our existence has no purpose. This would be a follow up question.

4. By ‘true purpose I imagine you mean ‘metaphysical’ or ‘ultimate’ purpose. For a philosophical essay the word ‘true’ would be redundant.

5. You are addressing a metaphysical question but you mention no metaphysical arguments. You seem to assume existence has no purpose. Do you make an argument somewhere?

6. I would suggest examining the question more closely. If you argue that human existence has no purpose then you may have to argue that nothing has any purpose. But what do you mean by ‘purpose’? I feel this is not an easy thing to define. Whose purpose would it be? How can Reality have a purpose? In metaphysics the whole idea of purpose is fraught with problems but you do not seem to examine this issue.

7. As presented your approach seems to be to assume there is no purpose and move on to prescribing how we should behave under the circumstances. This is not what the question asks. I feel you would need to spend some time exploring the idea of ‘purpose’ and what it could mean. For instance, the idea that God has a purpose makes no sense since he is complete and perfect, and this is not an assumption but an argument.

8. There are only two ways of answering the question. One would be to attempt a metaphysical proof and the other would be to investigate the fundamental knowledge claimed by the mystics. There would be no third option. Yet you do not seem to examine either of these ways forward. Rather, you assume that a secular standpoint must reject the idea of purpose. It is not clear to me you’re right about this and even if you were you’d have to go on to show that a ‘secular standpoint’ is the correct one.

You’ve chosen a very tough question. As usual for philosophical questions half the battle is picking apart the question. I suspect that you’ll find a better argument against cosmic purpose just by analysing what the word ‘purpose’ could mean at the level of the ‘world-as-a-whole’. Then you may be able to debunk the idea of purpose on the grounds that in respect of the Totality the idea of purpose is nonsensical.

You would also need to debunk the idea that the sentient life is for consciousness to revel in its powers and experience ‘lila’, the play of dependent existence, and the idea that exist so God (or consciousness) can be known to Himself. These ideas do not require ‘purpose’ in the sense of intention but they would need to be disposed in an essay arguing for an absence of purpose.

Good luck. I would have chosen a different question.

The philosophical quest

Hubertus asked:

What could be the nature of the quest in the cases of the Buddha, of Socrates, of Dante, of Don Quixote, of Dr. Faust? What were they looking for, what insatiable longing was driving them? Does modern philosophy take note of this longing? Does it offer any answers? Do we need a re-enchantment of our world to understand the problem?

Answer By Peter Jones

By ‘modern philosophy’ I assume you mean the philosophy of the modern university. As you will know it offers no answers. It is not obvious that it is looking for any. Pardon my cynicism but from here it seems justified.

The world is no more a less enchanted than it ever was, but much of philosophy seems to have become an attempt to disenchant it. I suppose this is some sort of science-envy. It’s easy to see that that the attempt is hopeless and leads to stagnation and confusion. A different approach is clearly required. If Yoga and self-enquiry represent a ‘re-enchantment’ of our world then we can note these methods worked just fine for the Buddha, not to mention a few million other people.

So a ‘re-enchantment of the world’ seems the only way forward. Or, rather, a recognition of its enchantment. It remains to be shown that the world is not enchanted in precisely the way the Buddha describes, and the ongoing failure of philosophers to find a workable but less enchanted description is surely a glaring clue to the futility of the search.

I would say we do not need a deliberate ‘re-enchantment’ for before we start we don’t know what we mean by this word, but just an open mind and a willingness to follow logic and reason. Examining this idea would need a long discussion.


Emmanuel asked:

Why are philosophers more interested in questions than answers?

Answer by Peter Jones

From your question I assume you are familiar with academic philosophy but not the whole field. Academic philosophers usually assume philosophical questions cannot be answered. This is because they do not study all of philosophy and tend to be ignorant of the answers given in the Perennial tradition. They find that no other answers work, so are forced to assume there are no answers.

Meanwhile, philosophers in the Perennial tradition are interested only in answers and expect to find them. This philosophy provides answers to questions, albeit that understanding them takes some work. This is ‘non-dualism’, which is a solution for all philosophical problems.

So, your question is only relevant in an academic or professional context. Quite why the mainstream profession is disinclined to seek answers and contents itself with questions is a mystery and I have no explanation, but this is only one limited area of philosophy. It would be a mistake to extrapolate from this to the whole of philosophy.

The problem is that philosophical problems only have one correct answer. IF the answers given by non-dualism are correct then for as long as academic thinkers reject, ignore or are unaware of them they will have to content themselves with asking questions for which they have ruled out the answers. This will lead them to the idea there are no answers.

I would suggest ignoring this narrow scholastic approach. A philosopher should seek answers and expect to find them. This can be achieved only by studying philosophers who claim to know them, and this means ignoring the artificial limitations academic researchers usually place on themselves and studying the whole field. Then you’ll see it is only a sub-set of philosophers who see philosophy as a collection of questions with no answers.