Moral ‘isms’ and relevance

Jimmy asked:

Hey I have some questions regarding ethics. How do you determine what moral properties exist and what the best moral system is? It seems like every property that people refer to is only morally significant for arbitrary reasons. Like why does sentience, autonomy, rationality, etc. matter? It seems like people assume these axioms while just appealing to intuition. How would you be able to assert that sentience is a more valid moral property than say, race? What if someone just has the natural intuition to prefer white people over others? Most people would obviously agree that that’s absurd, as racism is less common than “sentientism”, but how would you subjectively and arbitrarily determine when an intuition is common enough to matter, and for whom does this intuition apply too? Should we only consider the intuition of humans or men or white people, or even living creatures for that matter?

Also, this would apply to deontology vs consequentialism and utilitarianism. A common objection for the latter two is the utility monster argument. But how would one arbitrarily decide that it is wrong to give all the resources to the utility monster. It is also the case that people seem to be more inclined to give to the utility monster if you switch the situation so that the monster begins at a baseline of massive suffering. More people would support giving resources to the monster if it relieved his suffering greatly at the expense of having slightly less pleasure for the human. This shows that people arbitrarily determine whether deontology or consequentialism is better. This is why I don’t understand how to prove that one’s moral system is better. It is for these reasons that moral nihilism seems to make more logical sense to me, although personally it obviously sounds absurd to say things like rape, murder, etc. aren’t wrong. I was wondering what your thoughts on all of this is.

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

You’re obviously well read and knowledgable about this subject matter. Therefore it occurs to me that half your questions already contain the answer, inviting little more than ‘yes’ or ‘no’ in response. However, you might have considered the anthropological aspect to counteract the overly intellectual preoccupations with morals which incur your displeasure. You are perfectly right in asserting that all arguments about morals are arbitrary, as all reflect the presuppositions at work in any given society for which they are framed. Moreover there is no absolute standard, as the idea of a ‘residual observer’ or independent judge (“God”) is also a matter of mere opinion, given the number of gods that have populated our minds and passed moral legislations over historical times.

However, I have to take issue with your first two sentences, where you throw ethics and morals into the same basket. This is impermissible under your own criteria. Ethics are portable, whereas morals generally refer to a closed society — “when in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Consider that offence against morals is often severely punishable, while many approved moral practices would find a man of good ethics spewing in disgust. For instance, in some societies, the most brutal institutional murder is/was morally sanctioned (e.g. witch burning, public stoning to death), whereas a doctor has an ethical duty to heal any patient, whoever they might be. This is based on the recognition that human life is dominated by one constant, namely suffering. Ethics tends to be about these constants of humanity, rather than the particulate interests of closed communities. So let us not confuse and commingle morals and ethics!

Bearing this in mind, more credible arguments accrue to anthropological than to philosophically tinged criteria, as the ‘primitive’ behaviour patterns we deprecate in ourselves have never diminished over the 4000+ years that we have talked about morals. For this, there is a short and a long answer. The short version is simple: ‘Morals’ comes from the Latin and means ‘customs’. I don’t need to spell out what they are.; it is sufficient take note of customs, cults, traditions and rituals being bedfellows with morals, whereas ethics take a larger conspectus on desirable social behaviours.

But the longer answer is so long that I have to curtail it into a small handful of sentences and leave the ramification for you to look into on your own initiative. A first approach would have to acknowledge the dilemma that morals are pretty much ingrained in us, as a legacy from our hominid ancestors; but their variety and arbitrariness militates against them ever becoming (as noted) a collective constant in human societies. Instead they are consistently answerable to the particular needs of closed communities. And so the emergence of conscious moral dictates is most likely a reflection of the conditions under which any tribal conglomerate strove to maintain itself against adverse circumstances, whether it is the weather and climate, the resources of the habitat or the hostility of other tribes.. It stands to reason that individualism cannot flourish under such conditions, the two exceptions being the ‘champions’ (as Hobbes calls them) whose prowess lifts them above the common denominator, and the appointees of the gods, who may from time to time announce principles of obedience to the champion’s clan and the gods.

My word ‘ingrained’ is therefore a reminder that we still carry this baggage — predominantly instincts and anthropomorphisms — in our survival kit; and it is plainly in sight of every thinking person that this kit is woefully inadequate, and never more so than in the modern industrialised world.

If you accept my meaning, you might be inclined to disqualify both academic disputation and the divine commandments thesis, since both effectively defend a position of “Do as I say, not as a I do!” Concerning metaphysical beings, we know nothing more about them than what the myths tell us; and the level of morality in those stories is hardly to be commended to humanity as models for our strivings. Can we doubt, then, that we humans never felt a real compulsion to obey their strictures, but on the contrary simply kept up their inhumane practices? I am reminded here of Leibniz’s argument, that God must allow some evil in the world, as otherwise ‘The Good’ cannot be identified as what it is. Does this mean our evil deeds are necessary for us to understand what morality really is? Now this is a typical intellectual position; it’s very presupposition cannot help leading to incoherent arguments and conclusions.

Against this ‘difficult’ position, it can easily be urged that threats to a tribe, community or state from hostile natural as well as human forces demand organisation, which evidently relies on honesty, trust and authority overriding personal self-interest and ambition. This may be called the bedrock of moral behaviour, though it cannot qualify as a constant due to the infinite variety of possible collective perspectives. But now the butcher of any such community may be used to blood and slaughter, yet murder is a different story, and likewise with theft, rape, adultery and so on. Moreover, parents in common with authority figures teach their children about gods and spirits, how they influence the weather, bring disease, or tilt a battle against another tribe. We can easily flesh out this little picture and deduce the origin of moral codes as well as explaining why there are so many. Not to forget that morals under the burning sun would have to differ from those practised in ice-bound habitats. All these and many more comprise criteria for survival, in which morals tend to be joined by the aforesaid customs.

Which only brings us back to your initial questions. There is no possible “best” moral code; all morals are to some extent restricted to time and place (which does not exclude sound reasoning behind them); meanwhile sentience, rationality etc. are prized intuitively by those who feel themselves addressed by those notions. Accordingly your observations on race (to which we must add religion, politics, warfare, trade etc.) show up the morals in question as non sequiturs. At the bottom of them we find fear and self-interest, advantage and privilege, individual as well as societal agency. I think it goes without saying that deontological, utilitarian and other trademark arguments (including nihilism) are creatures of the same ilk, though they may wear other stripes.

Having earlier sounded the word ‘suffering’, however, reminds us of the constant on this horizon. What we all seek is a diminution of suffering; and this means not only illness and disease, but even more so servitude, slavery, injustice, inequality, lovelessness, loneliness, hunger and deprivation, plague and pestilence. Ah! Now we know what all these moral codes purport! We want these ills remedied by the gods; and we want the fiercest enemies we know, other human beings, to be restrained by a superior power. But every such code supposedly originating ‘up there’, beyond the clouds, is on any close scrutiny a hotchpotch of prejudices. Which means nothing other than that laws are made by men, and men are often forgetful of crucial elements. E.g. the commandment “thou shalt not kill” contains no sub-clause for exceptions, so does it mean that we must not kill a flea that bites us, a bison while we’re on the hunt, another human being who threatens us? Conventionally we would claim that self-defence as well as killing for food are implied exceptions, but evidently Moses forgot or ran out of space on his tablets to make an appropriate list. In any case, “laws are made to be broken”, because circumstances change and laws can become obsolete. Meanwhile we are aware of codes in other cultures which take the injunction not to kill literally, even at their own inconvenience.

I think this is pretty much the gist of it and as far as I can go in this forum. A neat summation to end on: “The Thrakians paint their gods with fair hair and blue eyes, while the Ethiopians depict them as dark skinned and snub-nosed.” Thus spake Xenophanes. His point is all too easily transferred to the domain of morals, as I think your own stress on the arbitrariness of all moral injunctions indicates well enough.

The dilemma of Euthyphro

Samantha asked:

Both Blackburn and Arthur casually allude to Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro as the locus classicus of the decisive refutation of a religiously based “command morality.” The sheer casualness and brevity of their allusion tells you much about how decisive and final that refutation is usually taken to be. How is that supposed to work exactly?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

This issue was contentious even in the ancient days, because Greek mythology, where it deals with the gods and their doings, is in large measure a chronique scandaleuse of human patterns of behaviour transferred to the heavens. The poets depicted it without compunction, which (as you know) incurred Plato’s censure in his Politeia. For any thinker to put up such a conceptual dilemma as Socrates proposed about piousness (“hosios”), would have made the average intelligent Greek wonder what he is all about. On this account there was a more or less general perception alive among the Greeks that the gods, being immortals, could not truly understand the human imperative of adding quality of life to their social structures — of which the primary consideration was what we today call ‘human rights’, in Locke’s words, life, liberty and freedom of economic activity, none of which is meaningful to an immortal being. All the same, they always sought the blessing of the gods for this impulse towards democracy, which made its first tentative appearance in the colonial city states of the 7th century BC, despite their belief that this was a signature of humanity, not of divinity. But there is frankly no democracy to be found on Olympus — any more than in the Heavens of Jewish, Christian and Islamic religions — which is precisely the reason that Socrates insists on the consent of all the gods. But now the aforesaid exhibitions of piety among the migrating colonists might easily strike a cynic as expedients; and I suspect that many an old-time Greek would have been familiar with Pascal’s Wager long before Pascal ever thought of it.

Then c. AD 1700 Leibniz brought the same issue up again:

“Whatever God wills is good and just. But there remains the question whether it is good and just because God wills it or whether God wills it because it is good and just; in other words, whether justice and Goodness are arbitrary or whether they belong to the necessary and eternal truths.”

You will be forgiven (in both cases) for protesting that the form of the question is circular and therefore half-meaningless. Thus Plato/ Socrates tended to reify ‘The Good’ and attribute its custodianship (though not its cultivation!) to the gods. Leibniz in turn might be supposed to hint at the possibility that ‘the good and just’ exist independently from God; or if the first half of the question is considered in isolation, that Voltaire’s rebuttal says all that needs to be said. But does this mean the issue has suffered terminal refutation, as in your question?

By no means, it is alive and kicking as we speak, because there are innumerable people (including academics) who find that morals are insecure and parochial at best, unless we can have recourse to divine command. Equally of course innumerable people reject this notion and applaud the multiplicity of moral codes, mindful of the dictum “when in Rome, do as the Romans do”. In other words, the whole subject matter is impaled on the horns of a dilemma that is located somewhere between Dostoyevsky’s despairing cry “if there os no God, then everything is permitted” and Kant’s categorical imperative.

Returning to Socrates: His final word of reconciliation was, that the question of piousness, goodness, justice etc. is not answered by reference to God’s will, nor by God’s love of it, because the way the question is posed you can only go around in circles with your arguments. Yet Blackburn/ Arthur evidently speak for themselves, not for the intellectual community as a whole, since a massive literature exists which extends all the way from the Scholastics to modern deists, theists, agnostics and atheists, and it must not go without saying that their contentions have spawned a huge bevy of new terms and nomenclatures in moral and ethical philosophy. But this is a domain “where angels fear to tread”, hence I shall refrain. Although I must mention before I close the small matter of punishment, that gets nowhere near the same mileage of prose as love and divine will. I hope at any rate that you now have something to mull over, beyond the apparent shrugging of shoulders by Blackburn/ Arthur!

Karl Jaspers on the ‘axial’ view of history

Eric asked:

On p 112 of Monty Python and Philosophy Stephen Erikson says that a goal-oriented view of human purpose is an ‘axial’ view and the term was coined by Karl Jaspers. Is this correct and can you elaborate?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

The term ‘axial’ can readily be understood in terms of some phenomenon rotating about its axis, like the spokes of a wheel turning on the nub. Thus Jaspers (Origin and Goals of History) points to Christ as the axis on which the Christian world revolves, but adds the caveat that “Christianity is one faith, it is not the faith”. Most probably he got this from Hegel, who wrote in his Philosophy of History that “Christ comprises the axis on which the world turns. It is from there to the present moment that History has moved.” Jaspers felt this was too narrow an angle, since it restricts itself to one particular community of faith. But a truly universal conception of history must step outside this frame and embrace all cultures, all faiths, all of mankind. Hence his search for an axis that is common to mankind, which he located in the millennium prior to Christ’s appearance and promptly labelled “Axial Era”.

This is the era during which human creativity went through a phase of unprecedented evolution in China, India and Europe that was to have indelible consequences for the future of this half of the globe. In particular, Jaspers claims, it was during this phase (roughly 800-500 BC) that the tools for universal communication and understanding were forged. Unfortunately Jaspers always had the grand sweep before his eyes (mirrored in his style and manner of thinking and writing), so that a detailed rationale must not be expected of him. Yet the term “Axial Era” is highly suggestive in itself and was subsequently adopted by many historians for purposes frankly not stemming from Jaspers’ usage. It could be said that Jaspers did not have empirical history in mind at all, but rather more his conception of humanity as a whole, which (as many critics claimed) he simply projected into antiquity as one form of explaining certain social-historical phenomena as culminating in, and others emerging from, the “axial” juncture.

But, you ask, is it correct? I can’t answer this as you leave it unclear whether your question relates to Jaspers as the source of the term or to Jaspers’ conception of history. The answer to both is “yes”; but there is of course another angle to it, which is Erikson’s claim that it refers to the goal-oriented view of human purpose. Strictly regarded, this would need at least a small book in response. But I content myself with a few hints on how to approach it.

Humans are ipso facto goal-oriented creatures. But the ‘rock-bottom’ aspect of this is subsistence and survival; therefore an unknown “axial era” must have occurred at some time during the Pleistocene when humans first began to add ‘quality of life’ to mere subsistence. If we settle on the acquisition of language for this era, then we have a new ‘constant’ in operation that divides hominid history into before and after. Similarly Sumerian culture shows evidence of an “axial era” having transpired in its prehistory, for which a suggestive clue is the endurance of H. sapiens across the Glünz glaciation that swallowed up the rest of the whole hominid stock. Then, for reasons good enough for the purpose, we can take Jaspers’ axis on board. Further, we should have no trouble adding the age of maritime exploration by Europeans in the 15th century and the industrial revolution, which both led to the earth becoming a ‘global village’.

All such games with axial perspectives need of course to take care that they are truly dealing with ‘constants’, specifically: Was the perspective before more or less universally shared; and was the perspective after also of this kind? If the answer is “yes”, then we are well enough equipped to speak of an “axial era” as a moment in time, when the world (not just one tribe or one empire) was in the grip of a rotation in perspectives that ultimately translates into a good rationale for the goal-orientation of all humans affected by it.

Are there moral facts?

Jimmy asks:

Hey I have some questions regarding ethics. How do you determine what moral properties exist and what the best moral system is? It seems like every property that people refer to is only morally significant for arbitrary reasons. Like why does sentience, autonomy, rationality, etc. matter? It seems like people assume these axioms while just appealing to intuition. How would you be able to assert that sentience is a more valid moral property than say, race? What if someone just has the natural intuition to prefer white people over others? Most people would obviously agree that that’s absurd, as racism is less common than “sentientism”, but how would you subjectively and arbitrarily determine when an intuition is common enough to matter, and for whom does this intuition apply to? Should we only consider the intuitions of humans or men or white people, or even living creatures for that matter?

Also, this would apply to deontology vs consequentialism and utilitarianism. A common objection for the latter two is the utility monster argument. But how would one arbitrarily decide that it is wrong to give all the resources to the utility monster. It is also the case that people seem to be more inclined to give to the utility monster if you switch the situation so that the monster begins at a baseline of massive suffering. More people would support giving resources to the monster if it relieved his suffering greatly at the expense of having slightly less pleasure for the humans. This shows that people arbitrarily determine whether deontology or consequentialism is better. This is why I don’t understand how to prove that one’s moral system is better. It is for these reasons that moral nihilism seems to make more logical sense to me, although personally it obviously sounds absurd to say things like rape, murder, etc. aren’t wrong. I was wondering what your thoughts on all of this is?

Answer from Craig Skinner

One of the longest questions I have answered, but a big one. Actually, you ask nine questions on metaethics and normative ethics. I cant answer them all. I will deal with your overarching concern:

Are there moral facts, or is it all just feeling and opinion?

There is no agreed view. I will sketch the options.

First, we could say there are no moral facts. People continue to speak and act as if there were, praising, blaming, commending, denouncing. If they believe there are moral facts, they are mistaken, and we call this an error theory of morality. If they know there are no moral facts, but just pretend there are, this is moral fictionalism. Or we might think moral utterances just express attitudes (emotivism), or recommendations as to how to act (prescriptivism).

If, on the other hand, we think there are rights and wrongs of matters, that we can make mistakes, and that moral progress can occur, then we must say there are moral facts. Having decided this, we must next decide what kind. The main distinction is between mind-independent and mind-dependent facts.

Mind-independent facts could be transcendental, natural or non-natural.

  1. Transcendental facts are guaranteed by something beyond the everyday world, such as Plato’s Forms (eg of the Good), or God (divine command theory), or  self-evident facts — analogous to mathematical truths (Kant). But, on my view there is no evidence for an “intelligible world” distinct from the “sensible world”, and on the maths analogy, “self-evident” moral facts are axioms not a priori truths.
  2. Natural facts depend on the way the world is. But attempts to bridge the gap from fact to value by appeal to common humanity or evolved adaptive traits still leaves us with with descriptive not normative ethics, explanation not justification, no “ought” from “is”, no moral facts.
  3. Non-natural facts, allegedly, are unanalyzable and have intrinsic value. They are invoked to get over the problems with natural facts. But how they supervene on natural facts, and how we could know about them, are mysteries.

The most plausible view, for me, is that there are mind-dependent moral facts reached by intersubjective agreement. These facts are constructed, typically, not from actual agreement of fickle, real individuals with their personal views, but by postulating “ideal observers” or an agent-neutral “view from nowhere” from whom or from which can emerge a set of principles that no reasonable person could reject or that any fully rational agent could agree. Of course if there is no morality in the input to such an exercise, there is no guarantee of morality in the output — we need contractors/ constructors to be fair, benevolent. But this is no strike against the constructivist approach — all ethical systems are ultimately tested against our moral intuitions, this being equivalent to science’s testing hypotheses against the empirical world.

In conclusion, the case for mind-independent moral facts, whether transcendental, natural or non-natural, is weak. But there is no need to deny that moral facts exist. They can fairly be construed as mind-dependent in terms of constructive intersubjective agreement.

You must make your own choice. By the way, if you find these metaethical debates difficult, join the club, they are difficult. I’ve tried to avoid the technicalities that pervade the literature. And whether you favour a particular metaethical view, or remain open, you still have to deal with normative ethics (which system or combination of systems) and practical ethics (abortion, euthanasia etc.).

On the Avoidance of Becoming Victor Meldrew

David asked:

As a middle aged man. Wondering what life is really about. Reading about stoicism and being reminded that… ‘well what ever happens you pop your clogs like everybody does anyway’ doesn’t energise me much. Is there a philosopher that can provide meaning and cheer me up? I don’t want to turn into a Victor Meldrew!

Answer by Peter Jones

Stoicism has a lot going for it and it comforts many people, but it is not an explanatory theory and perhaps this is why it does not energise you. You have to take it on trust and it provides no answer for philosophical problems. It teaches the Unity of All but only as an article of faith and there is no developed metaphysical theory to ground this faith.  It appeals to those who do not wish to venture into religion and mysticism yet would like to have some system of ethics and some life-style advice even if it is speculative and philosophically ungrounded.

You will not find a philosopher who can ‘provide meaning’ in the European tradition. Every attempt fails because no fundamental theory is possible within dualism. From your question it seems you have already noticed this.

For something more useful and hopeful you’d have to look elsewhere. I would suggest a study of the literature of the perennial philosophical tradition, for which speculation is supported by empiricism and dualism is banished.

If you know Stoicism then it is a small step to the philosophy of Middle Way Buddhism and to the idea that life is learning experience which in the long-term cannot go wrong. We can only learn faster or slower. There is a vast literature from which to take pot-luck. In the perennial tradition there is only one method and this is self-enquiry. The entire idea would be to follow the Oracle’s advice to Know Thyself. Only this would be a full cure for the sufferings of temporal existence. Nevertheless, there is a fully developed explanatory theory that explains how the world works and which allows us approach philosophy as an intellectual investigation.

It is said that once we know ourselves for what we truly are the question of meaning and purpose is answered. Thus the pessimism of Russell’s ‘Western’ philosophical approach is not found in the philosophy of non-dualism, where philosophers tend to be filled with excitement and joy by the astonishing wonders of life and death and the possibility, open to all of us, of transcending them for a knowledge of what the word ‘Unity’ really means.

There’s no predicting what you might enjoy reading since everyone starts from a different place. For a flavour of this other more helpful and hopeful philosophical view you could check out Rupert Spira, Mooji, Osho or Sadhguru on YouTube   For an analytical approach explaining the metaphysics of this view the obvious name to mention is the Buddhist master Nagarjuna. Then there is Francis Bradley, George Spencer Brown, Hermann Weyl,  Erwin Schrodinger, Douglas Harding and others who come at the issues from various intellectual directions, one of whom might appeal and perhaps even energise you. If you are coming from a Christian background I’d recommend Paul Ferrini and if he doesn’t cheer you up I’d be surprised, or perhaps Keith Ward or David Bentley Hart.

Ferrini and teachers like him such as Wei Wu Wei, the Buddha and Ramana Maharshi rarely deal with the metaphysical details, leaving them to others, and so if you are a philosopher you’ll want to get to grips with Nagarjuna and his proof of the Unity of All. For an introduction to this tricky topic I always recommend The Sun of Wisdom by Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso. Books on Nagarjuna by Western philosophers tend to be over-long and unnecessarily complex even where they’re trustworthy.

In short, I would suggest opening the window and letting in the whole of philosophy before giving up on the discipline and becoming Victor Meldrew.  No amount of footnotes to Plato is going to help. For a survey of the perennial teachings on the meaning and purpose of life and death some search-terms would be ‘non-duality’, ‘advaita’, ‘neutral metaphysical position’, ‘Unity’, ‘Emptiness’.  This may lead you out of the terminal pessimism of our failed academic philosophy and into something a lot more intellectually plausible, hopeful, helpful, systematic and organised.

It’s a drastic solution but afaik the only one available. The alternative is the doom and gloom of our modern university philosophy which self-avowedly understands nothing and is not even as useful as Stoicism. For any optimism an explanation of death would be required and mysticism is the only discipline that studies this issue as an empirical matter rather than merely speculate. A theory of death is never going to dispel our worries, but a taste of it is known to do away with them entirely.

Reassuringly, according to the perennial view of Buddhism. Taoism. advaita Vedanta, Sufism and so forth it would be impossible for the real you to ‘pop your clogs’, but this could only be known by discovering who one really is.

Footnotes to Plato: in a manner of speaking

Louise asks:

When Alfred Whitehead famously writes: “the safest general characterisation of the European philosophical tradition consists of a series of footnotes to Plato”, do you agree and if not why.  How could this be argued / refuted.

Answer by Craig Skinner

Footnotes are comments clarifying or commenting on a literary work. So, if we took Whitehead literally, his statement would be nonsense. Aristotle’s work, for instance, doesnt just clarify/ comment on Plato. He is original, going beyond and disagreeing with Plato on key points, and is at least the equal of Plato as a philosopher. And I doubt if Whitehead thought his own magnum opus, Process and Reality, was a footnote to anybody. So I wouldnt agree with Whitehead if his comment were meant literally.

But he doesnt mean it this way. As he says:

“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato. I do not mean the systematic scheme of thought which scholars have doubtfully extracted from his writings. I allude to the wealth of general ideas scattered through them” (Process and Reality: Corrected Edition [1985], ed. Griffin DR & Sherburne DW, p39. Free Press).

So he just means that Plato’s work is so wide-ranging that it deals with practically every topic that philosophers have since written about. Fair enough, who could disagree, but not very profound.

Footnotes to Plato?

Louise asked:

Alfred Whitehead famously wrote: ‘the safest general characterisation of the European philosophical tradition consists of a series of footnotes to Plato’. Do you agree and if not why? How could this be argued/ refuted?

Answer By Peter Jones

I would strongly agree with Whitehead. His view is easily justifed by a review of the literature. The entire profession is busy these days trying to prove his view wrong in order to justify departmental funding but with no success. Thus we see the rise of scientism and the ludicrous idea that a good university does not need a philosophy department. I do not believe his view can or should be refuted but that we should concede his point and do something about it.

Doing something about it would mean abandoning the narrow approach to philosophy adopted by stereotypical Western thinkers. Unfortunately, at this time most professional philosophers seem unable to think outside the box or even see they’re in one.

Note that Whitehead is careful to condemn Russell’s ‘Western’ philosophy, not philosophy as a whole. It is very easy to escape from studying dull and endless footnotes if we open the window and let the rest of philosophy in.

The explanation for this problem, I will venture to suggest, is, as Heidegger notes, that Plato’s school abandoned the idea of ‘Unity’, cutting itself off from the perennial philosophy and painting itself into a corner from which it cannot escape. It will be writing footnotes forever unless it studies the whole of philosophy but it cannot do this while it continues to suffer from Russell’s allergy to the nondual philosophy of mysticism and the incomprehension of metaphysics that naturally accompanies it.

The state of professional European philosophy is an academic scandal and Whitehead’s low view of it will be inarguable as long as it continues in the same way.  There are some signs of change but most professionals today still think philosophical problems are intractable and are probably more convinced than Plato. The views of Russell and Carnap as to the pointlessness of metaphysics are still current today and the amateur philosopher can expect no help from the professionals.

As you may have guessed this is a hobby-horse for me. The situation is ridiculous. The trick of being able to do more than writing footnotes to Plato would be to study those areas of philosophy that are not studied in our European universities. The internet allows us all to do this quite easily, for the first time in history, with no tuition fees required.

if you wish to begin an exploration of the rest of philosophy I’d recommend a study of Nagarjuna and a book by Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso The Sun of Wisdom: Teachings on the Noble Nagarjuna’s Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way. If nothing else it may reveal what philosophy looks like when it is not footnotes to Plato.