Saturday, August 30, 2014

A Bird’s-Eye View

I must confess that I’m having trouble deciding where to start this post. My motivation is a sense that I’ve gained a bird’s-eye view of the history of philosophy. But how does one begin to describe a bird’s-eye view? Which point on the horizon does one choose as the beginning? Maybe the random center over which the bird’s eye currently soars is the best beginning. The other day, I read a reference in Locke to Hobbes. Now a link between two seventeenth-century philosophers doesn’t exactly constitute a panorama. But that link made me think of the references to Locke that I read a few months ago in Thomas Reid’s writing. And then I thought of both philosophers referring to Aristotle and the medieval Aristotelians, and something like a great vista started to open up before my imagination. My thoughts next flew to Husserl, another philosopher whose work I read earlier in 2014, and his response to Hume, who lived at the time and in the same country as Reid, who disagreed with Locke, who followed up on some epistemological issues set by Descartes, who did much to overturn the reign of the medieval schoolmen, who revived Aristotle, whose concept of ideas opposed that of Plato, who learned from Socrates. Now that’s a panorama.

I wrote a few days ago about my sense of accomplishment on unpacking the Great Books set. Yes, every empty box brings a sense of accomplishment these days. But I meant specifically a satisfaction in having read and understood all of these great thinkers’ works. I set out twenty years ago to give myself a liberal education in classic literature, history, philosophy, and science, and I’ve succeeded beyond all expectations.

The sense of achievement becomes even stronger when I find that as I read one author, I’m critiquing his ideas according to what I’ve read in another. Reid’s arguments resolved a problem that had nagged me since the 1980s when I first read John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding. This time through the key passages in Locke, I find myself wanting to stop him at the very beginning and say, “Your thought of a table is not a thought about an idea in your head. You’ve added a needless step in your model. The thought and the idea are the same, and they are about the table.”

And then I start wrestling with a new problem: if I want to stop Locke at his very first premise, why do I keep reading? I don’t read philosophy just to know what a given philosopher said; I want to know the Truth about Things. I don’t just want to learn about the philosopher; I want to learn from the philosopher. So if the philosopher’s first premise is wrong, I could be tempted to say that the rest of the book doesn’t have any truth for me to learn and set it aside. But Locke doesn’t try to follow a tight logical argument, as his contemporary Spinoza did. It seems to me that Locke has a lot of true and useful ideas to share that don’t depend on that first premise. So I keep reading, and as I do, I learn.

I’ve been in this place before. I can’t buy Marx’s first premise, either: the value of a commodity does not reside wholly or even primarily in the value of the labor that went into its production. Someone has to admire and want the item’s beauty or usefulness. But Marx gets around his first mistake, and so did I when I read Capital. And I’m glad I did. For that matter, Spinoza slips up pretty early on, but I still like a lot of his conclusions.

I’m only a little bird flying over a great land. But the skies are clear, and the view is magnificent.

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