Becoming a self-taught philosopher

Jason asked:

How does one become a self-taught philosopher? In particular I am drawn to such models as Ken Wilber (Integral Theory), Ayn Rand (Objectivism, as an example not as a thought to contribute to) and Eric Hoffer (the Longshore Philosopher) as well as Hayy ibn Yaqzans. I do have an MA in theological studies from a progressive seminary that had a strong interest in the 3rd wave feminism, postmodernity and indigenous thought (I have to admit I am enamoured with V.F. Cordova, the first native woman to get a Ph.D in philosophy and her challenge to western thought). Another obvious set of inspirations for self-taught philosophy would be the Victorian Sage writers as well as contemporary writers in the creative nonfiction/ Wisdom writing tradition.

My own project is to look at how neurodiversity challenges our notions of thought, human-beingness and several fundamental concepts.

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

With an MA from a legitimate degree granting institution, one would hardly describe you as ‘self taught’, but I get the point that you are looking to teach yourself philosophy, as you understand that notion. From what you say, my glib response would be that you already are a ‘philosopher’. You are also a student of philosophy, as all philosophers are. Debating with one another, we also learn from one another.

Before we go any further, a warning that my answer is not going to be along the well-trodden lines of, ‘You need to study such-and-such, and read so-and-so.’ As it happens, I did my undergraduate studies at an English university in the second half of the 70s — from which you can gather that I am trained in the methods of analytic philosophy. However, I have long since grown away from my roots. I did have to teach myself at that point, because I had no model to follow. Yet it sounds like a strong dose of Frege, Russell and Wittgenstein (both early and late) is just what you need.

Sometimes one gets the impression that philosophers working within academia consider themselves the only real ‘philosophers’, i.e. academic philosophers. The idea has gotten a hold that there is such a thing as the ‘state of the art’ in philosophy, which is nowhere to be found outside the University. Which is nonsense, to my ear.

On the other side, the good thing about universities is that the academics who work there are given the time to think and debate. But then so are monks. (There was a time when monasteries were one of the chief sources of philosophical enlightenment.)

I have books by Ken Wilber and Ayn Rand which were both given to me by ardent ‘fans’. The fact that I haven’t made much progress with them says more about me than about those authors. These days, I don’t read. I only have one Question, which I have repeated sufficiently many times, that there hardly seems any point in rehearsing that again.

Your question sounds interesting. How diverse can human brains be? A lot more, perhaps, than many are willing to admit. More interesting still is the notion that there are forms of thinking or ‘brain functioning’ that we have yet to encounter because they are still to be achieved. When we do get there, who knows?

What is the core, the essence of being a philosopher, or, more specifically, a philosopher in the 21st century? Is it possible that what you are asking me is how one can earn a living from philosophy outside the normal channels of academia? From publishing books, say? Or, gathering a coterie of followers? I found a way, but it required brain-crunching work (see my collection of over 1,000 reviews of student work at

If you get an original idea, and if you are good at putting that across, then some time in the future you might well find your work on the same bookseller shelf as Rand and Wilber. Would that be it, or would you still want more? The answer to that question shows the kind of ‘philosopher’ you are striving to be.

Haunted by solipsism

Ian asked:

I want to know how to deal with solipsism. I’ve been living in agony over it for the past several months and it just haunts me to no end. I makes life small and narrow and it feels like there is no point to doing anything.

What can I do about it?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

I’ve written a number of posts on this topic, but I want to focus this time on the particular feeling of dread at being ‘alone’. The fact that this is a metaphysical and not a factual or contingent solitude seems little comfort when you see (or ‘seem to see’) your predicament so clearly.

Solipsism could be true. That is to say, so far as you could ever know it is possible that I don’t exist. The words that you are now reading on the screen are just phenomena that fill up your subjective (and the ‘only’) world. Where these phenomena come from (if that makes any sense for the solipsist) or what they ultimately represent remains a mystery. Why me?!

This is no comfort to you. But you and I are not looking for comfort, we are looking for the truth, aren’t we? To see this clearly, to experience the feeling of disorientation and indeed dismay is an achievement. You see more than others see. But, as I like to state to my students, ‘consider the possibility that you are wrong’.

I am stuck on a different but related point. I don’t believe that solipsism is true. I can’t prove this. (I once thought I could, but I now think I was wrong about the possibility of a proof.) But if solipsism is false, and you exist, and billions of other humans exist, I mean, actually exist and not merely ‘seem to exist’, then another question arises: why am I here at all?

I wrote a book about this with a long and clumsy title: I Might Not Have Existed But Someone Exactly Like Me Might Have Existed In My Place. It’s on Amazon, if you’re curious to read.

After years, decades in fact, of edging forward with this topic, I seem to have hit a wall. I believe that there is such a thing as The Real. I mean, how things really are, the ultimate explanation, or cause, or, I don’t know what — of everything. But, most importantly, the reason why I am here and not merely someone ‘exactly like’ me.

But what could this be? Not God, not ‘super-strings’, not any kind of matter, even ‘dark matter’. There is no reason, or possible reason that I can see or think of. So far as the world is concerned, ‘someone exactly like me’ would fulfil exactly the same function, server exactly the same purpose (if there was ultimately such a thing as ‘purpose’) that I serve.

What is most vexing is that 99.99 per cent of human beings simply do not see this wall. They are not prompted to ask the question. They are so enmeshed, sucked into this actual world and all its contingencies, that they don’t even know how to formulate the question in their own minds.

So, solipsism is ‘an’ answer but it is not a very good answer and it is not the only possible answer. In which case all one can do is keep searching. If you are interested in pursuing this topic further, you could look at my latest YouTube video, Living in the Dark.

On a challenge to the ‘naturalistic fallacy’

Greg asked:

Where is the following challenge to the “naturalistic fallacy’ weak? If energy is the source of all action; and its principles dictate that action; then: our actions are dictated by energy’s principles (whatever they are).

This is to say, our principles of action are principles of energy. If we seek an ethical principle to be a supreme a priori and a posteriori principle of behavior, i.e., action, we must consider energy’s principles of action. Hartmut Bossel (2007) claims that “values are not subjective inventions of the human mind, but are basic system requirements emerging from a system’s interaction with its environment.” If we are agents of energy, is “ought” a choice?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

It is weak. The first thing to point out (and this isn’t the main source of weakness although it might seem so on a superficial reading) is that ‘energy’ is a term from physics. Energy is defined as the capacity to do work. A living human body has more energy than a burning candle, but both could, in principle, with a suitable setup of pulleys and levers and other equipment, raise a 100 ton boulder. Very slowly. (And ignoring problems of overcoming static friction, of course.)

However, I can see a metaphorical use for the term ‘energy’ when applied to human action. The energy to get off your couch and do the washing or have a jog. Robert Pirsig uses the old-fashioned term, ‘gumption’, which has more to do with psychological motivation than with physical strength or energy. You can be physically very tired, but with sufficient motivation pursue a task long into the night.

So let’s talk about motivation, or, if you like the ‘springs’ of human action. The human being can be seen as a ‘system’, in the sense that we designed for a purpose by evolution. Legs are good for walking and running. Arms for lifting, hands for manipulating and so on. You wouldn’t normally use your feet to do what you can do with your hands. You wouldn’t use your arms or legs to do something you can do with your head (e.g. solving a problem involving basic arithmetic).

A central heating thermostat is an example of a simple ‘system’. A missile guidance computer is a more complex example. What they both have in common is a goal. The goal of a central heating system thermostat is to keep the temperature within certain limits. The goal of a missile guidance computer is to steer the missile to its target.

Human beings have certain basic instincts which they share. But unlike physical systems that human beings have constructed, or non-human animals that are interacting with their environment in the way that evolution ‘designed’ them to do, human beings have choice. I chose to answer your question, this morning, Greg. It wasn’t a foregone conclusion by any means, as I have been quite busy at the computer these last few days. But my conscience prodded me and, on this occasion unlike others, I listened.

You could say that your question piqued my interest sufficiently to give me the ‘energy’ (gumption) to tap these keys and compose an answer. (I haven’t heard of Bossel, by the way, but that doesn’t mean anything.)

I’m not getting into the debate about free will and whether human ‘choice’ is or is not ultimately an illusion. It is sufficient to point out that there are no ‘system requirements’ for human beings to do what they do, beyond certain basic limits. I don’t have any choices if I’m dead, so staying alive is obviously one necessity. Another might be to stay one step ahead of the law, or have sufficient funds for a quick getaway. Or it might be getting people to view my YouTube videos or like my Facebook page. Everyone is different, right?

The ‘naturalistic fallacy’, so-called by the British philosopher G.E. Moore, was the belief that what is ‘good’ can be defined in ‘natural’ terms, i.e. terms that do not imply a pre-existing valuation. To date, the basic principle that Moore was alluding to has not been refuted. The huge debate about what is ‘good’ for a human being that has raged since the time of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle will go on, and there are no short-cuts to a solution.

What’s the point of knowing anything if I am going to die?

George asked:

If there is no afterlife, I will forget everything I know, so what is the point of knowing anything?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Amazingly, in the 21 years that ‘Ask a Philosopher’ has been running, I have never encountered this question. And it’s a good one, George.

At first sight, the question just seems a particular example of, ‘What is the point of achieving, striving, hoping for, etc?’ When I die, everything I have, everything I have achieved, comes to dust.

But then you realize that that’s not so. If I have done something of lasting benefit to others, anything, then that continues after I die. Just as my material possessions will pass to the beneficiaries of my Will. If I have made a positive difference to the world, then that doesn’t depend on my being around to enjoy the thanks and praise, etc.

On the other hand, my pleasures and enjoyments are real, just because they are happening now. I might relish the memory of a really great pint of real ale. But that is not the same as actually drinking and enjoying it. In other words, the hedonist, or refined hedonist — Epicurus, for example — has nothing to fear from death. The quality of life is a function of the quality of pleasure. All that matters is that I maximize that quality, using all the technical knowledge at my disposal.

The notion that if I die I am somehow being ‘deprived’ of future pleasures is nonsense. I don’t bemoan the fact that there are many fine examples of real ale that I will never get to taste, not even if I lived for ever. That’s simply because around the world today, new beers are being created faster than I would have the physical capacity to drink them, even if I was granted indefinite life. (If you are more of an intellectual sort, substitute ‘reading books’ for ‘drinking beers’.)

There’s a lot to be said for hedonism, I’m not knocking it.

But knowledge is something very different. I am talking about my personal knowledge, rather than knowledge which will have lasting benefit for the human race. I want to know, regardless of whether or not that knowledge will ever be passed on to others.

But why? What’s the point of it? You can take pleasure in knowing something, or the prospect of getting to know something, but that isn’t it’s point. There are things that it would give me pleasure to know, and I would love to know. And there are other things I would hate to know, such as what Donald Trump looks like in the nude, or what people I walk past in the street are thinking. (Telepathy would be sheer hell, extrapolating from Sartre.)

Knowledge just for its own sake is rubbish. You fill your mind with so much useless information. And yet, there are things I am desperate to know, and things that after a great effort I have come to know. And when I die that will all be gone!

Let’s consider another sort of example. It would be great to learn Russian. That’s something I would love to do if I had the energy and time. Or nuclear physics. Unfortunately, that will never happen. But suppose I have been sentenced to death, and given just six months, with nothing else to do than learn Russian or nuclear physics. The activity might be pleasurable, it might help to distract me. But it would be so obviously pointless. And yet, there is another kind of knowledge which I would strive for with every fibre of my being: Why am I here? What am I? What is this ‘world’, really?

I suspect — and it is no more than a suspicion — that in this lies the germ of a thought that, somehow, though one can’t explain it, knowledge can save me. I mean, literally and not just metaphorically. To know something that would render the prospect of death of no consequence whatsoever. Easy, if you are looking for evidence or proof of an afterlife. More difficult if, like Epicurus, you hold that my death is ‘nothing to me’ because I won’t be around to experience it.

My question, and maybe yours too, George, is are those the only options?

Ayn Rand: ‘Principles do not fill the glass’

Jeff asked:

In reading Ayn Rands book Atlas Shrugged I came across a statement regarding character:

‘Principles do not fill the glass.’

Was wondering if your readers agree or not?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

There’s a great song sung by Julie London on her ‘London By Night’ LP, ‘Pousse Cafe’. When I first heard it, I could make sense of the line, ‘It’s like my heart, it’s in three parts.’ Then I found out that Pousse Cafe is actually three layers of alcoholic beverage carefully poured into the glass so that they remain separate.

How is this relevant? I don’t share the jaundiced view of Ayn Rand held by many, possibly the majority of academic philosophers. She was let down badly by her epigones, mostly second-rate thinkers who worshipped every word that came out of her lips. Maybe she did allow her head to be turned by the uncritical adulation, compounded by the cold rejection she received from the academic community. But she was a highly intelligent woman and an original thinker, in her way.

I did try once to read ‘Atlas Shrugged’. It’s got a great first sentence. But somehow it couldn’t hold my attention and I gave up before finishing it. I’m not a great reader. So I don’t remember the context of her, ‘Principles don’t fill the glass’.

It is important to have principles, primarily for political reasons: You let others know where you stand, and the things you won’t budge from. The idea that ethics is based on principles was advocated powerfully by Immanuel Kant. But principles are only one of the layers in the glass. Another layer is habit, the things you do without having to reason it out first. This was something Aristotle emphasized. He regarded the ‘continent man’, who restrains his bad impulses as ethically less admirable than the man who doesn’t need to restrain himself because he doesn’t need to. Doing the right thing comes naturally to him.

Ayn Rand believed that a willingness to act on one’s principles, even when everyone is against you, even when you are threatened with the most dire consequences, is a crucial part of personal integrity, and I agree. I also believe, as I argued in my Ethical Dilemmas, that there are times when you have to go against your own principles – even though the very idea of this seems paradoxical.

However, there is a third layer that Ayn Rand would not have agreed to: the capacity to be moved by the plight of others, the ‘sentiment’ of David Hume. There does seem to be something almost idiotic in the way Ayn Rand’s characters stick to their guns no matter what, not allowing others to manipulate their feelings. Some people are pathetic and need help, the beggar in the street for example, or a spineless relative who is always getting into trouble and scrapes. It takes a certain strength to be kind, and not overly protective of your ‘integrity’.

Some would say that combining Kant, Aristotle and Hume is just an eclectic compromise. My response would be to quote Nietzsche: ”The truth is simple’ – is that not doubly a lie?’

Platonic ideas compatible with art?

Titu asked:

What is the connection between a theory of art and the concept of the world of ideas/ forms?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

I assume you know about Plato’s theory of ideas, since you are asking for the connection from there to art. But although Plato denies a role to art in value-laden human activities, most thinkers who came after him (including his pupil Aristotle) found ways of protesting against his strictures, with varying degrees of conviction.

The connection of which you speak was not, however, accomplished until early in the 19th century by Schopenhauer. He unveiled the one criterion that all preceding arguments had missed: That the Platonic forms/ideas, as “Urbilder”, are archetypal images of perfection, but have no independent existence. They are after all ideas; and there can be no traffic down from heaven into human minds as this would imply a kind of empirical contact. Rather, says Schopenhauer, the Platonic idea is in fact identical to Kant’s “Ding an sich”, a noumenon or “creature of the mind”. What does this mean? That Platonic forms, like Kants “Dinge an sich”, are purely imaginary constructs which evolved in the cognitive mind after the digestion of phenomenal impressions. Hence it is our cognition that manufactures “immutable essences” and “fundamental archetypes” after the event. In a word: one cannot think of either Platonic ideas nor of “Dinge an sich” without first having their actual counterparts before one’s eyes. And so everything in the world that Plato wished to reduce to ideas/forms is in fact a Platonic idea/form in its own right, and ditto for Kant’s “Dinge”. We deduce the type from the particular, not the other way around. And so, by this turnabout, we come to the ideas and forms of art.

Is a statue a copy of reality? By no means. Even Cicero chastised Plato for this error, maintaining that Phidias depicted the “ideal form” of the goddess, not the living goddess herself. How right he was! Just consider that none of the divinities is reducible to the form of “the god or goddess”. Some measure of individuation is indispensable, even among the immortals!

It was Schopenhauer’s merit to draw this consequence — namely, that every work of art is an “Urbild” in itself — unique and unrepeatable. Every authentic work of art is both, a type and an individual, but the type exists only ideally, in virtue of our categorisation of genres.

It is on this account that the modern commodification of art is beset by considerable anguish. There are always clever people around whose fakes and forgeries can delude the best experts, and this has repercussions in a business where art is traded as money and investment. Paradoxically, however, it does not affect Schopenhauer’s dictum. Even a forged painting is a unique work, and a fake only when its author hides his/her name. A buyer who acquires it for cheap and actually enjoys it will not complain as long as they are aware that the name in the corner is mere decoration.

Which leaves us with one last thought. The foregoing made it clear (I hope) that the connection between the theory of art and theory of ideas is altogether spurious. It remains attractive to some; but neither Plato nor any Platonist could clinch the point, because at bottom the whole notion of copulating art with the eternal ideas is simply a category error. Whereas those who look for “soul food” in the arts are at least on right track. What we look for in a poem are not the fine words, nor the lovely melodies in music, nor the splendid colours in a painting. We expect them to “speak” to us, to appeal to our affections; and in this respect every art lover brings his own “archetypes” to the experience, to encounter his/her pleasure or catharsis in the collision between them.