Western Philosophy
1600 AD ~ Present

Berkeley | Chomsky | Darwin | Descartes | Foucault | Freud | Hegel | Hobbes | Hume | Kant | Kierkegaard | Leibniz | Locke | Marx | Mill | Nietzsche | Pierce | Rousseau | Russell | Sartre | Spinoza

René Descartes

Known As:

Mar 31, 1596
Toraine, France
Feb 11, 1650
The father of modern philosophy

  • "I think, therefore I am."
  • Shakespeare, Newton, and Galileo were his contemporaries. He lived most of his productive life in Holland
  • Like Galileo, he believed mathematics were at the center of all sciences, which he thought were essentially one discipline. He also unified geometry with algebra (father of analytical geometry). The Cartesian coordinate system he developed is named after him
  • Mathematics trains the brain to think logically and develops in it the power of certain deduction: rationalism
  • Rationalism is to learn the truth of things through reasoning, not the senses (which Descartes views as extremely unreliable).
  • The belief in God is imprinted in us since birth.
  • Facts are divided into quantitative (known through reason) and qualitative (known through the senses), of which only the former is reliable truth.
  • In his Meditations on First Philosophy, Descartes deduces the concept of dualism, also known as Cartesian dualism: the world consists of two entities: the physical (matter; extension) and the non-physical (mind); resurrecting Plato's "world of the senses vs. world of ideas." Both mind and extension come from God, but only extension takes up space, hence can be divided into smaller parts.
  • It was from this philosophic paradigm shift that began a new wave of thought. All the major philosophers that came after him, whether in agreement or not, had to address Cartesian dualism as a core point in their own philosophies.

Thomas Hobbes

Known for:

Apr 5, 1588.
Wiltshire, England
Dec 4, 1679.

  • He developed and refined his philosophy in Holland, away from the civil war in England. Although his focus was on political philosophy, it is based on a cosmic philosophy of how the mind works.
  • Forms of imagination (memory, dream, apparition) are all echoes of an original sensation. He called this the "decaying sense."
  • As for thoughts produced by other thoughts, they are the result of past motions (which create emotions). Desire and aversion are the precursors of a person's actions. All in all, physical "motions" are the root of all our thoughts, feelings, and actions.
  • "According to Hobbes, the basic motivation of mankind is 'a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceases only in death'."
  • Thus, it's in the interest of people to give up their "liberty" in return for "security" in the form of a "sovereign" state with limiting but necessary laws that institute justice.
  • This sovereign state (which Hobbes calls Leviathan; a mythical evil sea monster) can take any form of government from monarchy to democracy, as long as it has absolute power over its citizens. If a citizen can escape or challenge the authority of the sovereign state, then the original contract between the citizen and the state becomes void, which means the state's very existence becomes useless.
  • Hobbes recognizes the possibility that the sovereign state; this Leviathan, can abuse its power and harm people, but he argues that that's a risk worth taking in return of the much greater benefit the existence of Leviathan provides man.

Baruch Spinoza

Known for:

Nov 24, 1632
Amsterdam, Holland
Feb 21, 1677
Monism and Pantheism

  • Introduced "higher criticism," studying the Bible as a historical document subject to criticism. Spinoza believed Judaism and Christianity were only kept alive by rigid dogma and rituals (although he believed the beginning of Christianity was a "religion of reason," breaking out of dogma and orthodoxy). He was excommunicated from the Jewish community for heresy.
  • Believed God is not outside the world He created. Rather, God is the world He created. God is the universe. Everything is one.
  • When all of space and all of time are perceived all at once, one realizes there are no differences between humans or things. We are like "ripples in an endless sea."
  • Spinoza agreed with Descartes about "mind" and "extension," but argued that both of those are not separate and that they come from the same source which he simply called: The Substance (a.k.a. Nature; God). This is the essence of monism (the opposite of dualism). Example: a flower (extension) and a poem about flowers (thought) are two different modes of "flower." Both are expressions of Substance (God).
  • Unlike a puppeteer, who is an “outer cause” of the puppet’s movement, God is the “inner cause” of all movement. God cannot be separated from creation. Thus, everything in the world happens through necessity (determinism).
  • True Happiness through Eternity: Consider two trees, one growing in good soil, access to sun light, and water. And the tree next to it is growing in bad soil, little access to sun light and water. Which one would grow bigger and bear more fruit? Similarly, a human being cannot achieve his or her full potential unless their conditions allowed them to reach that point. It is at that point that happiness can be achieved: when we are free to see the entire universe, the timeless universe, with one encompassing view… when we can do that, we will be in sync with our true potential, in sync with nature’s laws, and thus achieve happiness (away from passions; e.g. lust or ambition).

John Locke

Known for:

Aug 29, 1632
Wrington, England
Oct 28, 1704

  • Main work: Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), answering two questions: (1) where we get our ideas from, and (2) whether we can rely on what our senses tell us.
  • There are no innate ideas. If we have an idea that is not based on knowledge gained from the senses, then it is a false idea. We are born with “tabula rasa,” or “clean slate” for a brain.
  • The brain is not just a “receiver” of knowledge, it also processes and analyzes that knowledge. Locke called this processing and analyzing “reflection.” So our thoughts are a combination of what our senses receive, and what our brains reflect on what has been received.
  • Distinguished between “primary qualities” and “secondary qualities.” Primary Qualities: extension, weight, motion, number. These produce the real qualities inherent in the things themselves. (Everybody can agree on these). Secondary Qualities: Color, sweetness, temperature, etc. These reproduce only the effect of the outer reality of the things. (Everyone has a different interpretation on these).
  • An empiricist will derive all knowledge of the world from what the senses tell us. As Aristotle said: “There is nothing in the mind except what was first in the senses.” An attack on Plato’s theory that man brought with him a set of innate “ideas” from the world of ideas (the spirit world). Locke repeats Aristotle’s words, directed at Descartes.
  • Locke disagreed with Hobbes in "Leviathan" in giving the sovereign state absolute power over its citizens, favoring instead a system that checks the state's powers (an idea more influential in how modern Western governments evolved).

Gottfried Leibniz

Known for:

Jul 1, 1646
Leipzig, Germany
Nov 14, 1716

  • Graduated in Germany with degrees in law and philosophy, Leibniz's father was a professor of moral philosophy. In Paris he developed calculus (separate from Newton). He met Spinoza in Holland, then returned to Hanover where he wrote philosophical masterpieces on religion, physics, and metaphysics, including a response to Locke's essay on human nature.
  • His main philosophy centered around the concept of monads, which are immaterial substances modeled after Descartes's "mind." Leibniz argued that all of existence is made of monads, and nothing else.
  • Since monads are the only reality and they are immaterial, this makes all matter a projection of monads. Thus, physics is the study of appearances, not reality. Metaphysics, consequently, becomes the study of reality; the study of monads.
  • Each one of us has a mind, thus each one of us is actually a monad. The physical experience we have is not real, just a projection of the monad. Monads only appear to interact with one another, when in fact they don't, because they are all in fact one.
  • "In Leibniz's view, all of the monads express the entire universe: Each of them has perceptions of everything that has occurred, is occurring, and will occur in the universe. In this respect, all monads are the very same. But each of them differs from every other in the point of view from which it expresses the universe."
  • He synthesized determinism (God is the cause of everything, including our actions) with moral responsibility.

George Berkeley

Known for:

Mar 12, 1685
Kilkenny, Ireland
Jan 14, 1753

  • Berkeley was a Catholic (Anglican) bishop, with an empiricist philosophy. He graduated from Trinity College in Dublin. He was a prolific writer on a great variety of philosophical questions
  • Berkeley believed in immaterialism, where we all exist in the mind of God. All physical things (books and trees) exist in the mind as ideas.
  • His argument for immaterialism is that all objects are perceived with the senses (see their color, hear their sounds, smell their scents, touch their textures, etc.). They are only perceived because there is a mind to perceive them. Without perception there is no evidence that they exist at all. So existence is perception.
  • Berkeley reconciles empiricism effectively with rationalism by saying that the physical world around us is real, not an illusion, but that it exists inside God's mind, as we do. Sense perception remains our original source of knowledge.

David Hume

Known for:

May 7, 1711
Edinburgh, Scotland
Aug 25, 1776

  • A contemporary of Voltaire and Rousseau. Most famous work was "A Treatise of Human Nature," where he developed his empiricist philosophy and the concepts of "ideas" and "impressions," similar to Hobbes's "echoes"
  • When you first experience something in the world of the senses, that experience becomes an “impression.” When you recall that experience inside your mind, you are reliving the “idea” of the incident. Impressions and ideas can be simple or complex. A complex idea or complex impression can be broken into several single ideas and single impressions. Example: the “idea” of angel was formed by two separate ideas: human figure and wings. If an idea can be traced back to an original impression, then the idea is real. If it can’t, then it’s an illusion, until proven otherwise.
  • The “idea” of God is a complex one, based on simple ideas. “Heavenly Father, infinitely wise, infinitely good, and infinitely powerful.” In order for me to understand God, I’d have to break down these ideas into simple ideas, and then search for their original impressions, if they exist. To understand what “heavenly father” means, I must have an understanding of the idea of heaven, and the idea of a father. Similarly, I must have an idea of what good is, what wise is, and what powerful is. There is no evidence for God, Hume would say. But then again, there is no evidence that God doesn’t exist. Hume was an agnostic.
  • The ego, Hume thought, was a complex idea. “I” am many things, and those things can be broken down to simpler ideas. Are you always one thing and not the other? Are you always angry? Always at peace? Always ____ ? No you’re not. So that means you change. Your ego is “alterable.” When you were four, you were not the same person as when you were 14, or 24. Who I am today is different from who I was yesterday.
  • Cause and Effect: Hume proves that we can't really explain why anything happens. For example, we say the pen falls to the ground every time you let go of it because of gravity. We don't actually have evidence of gravity, we just assume gravity caused the pen to fall because it fell down every time we tried to let go of it. So, just because trials show a certain result doesn't mean we actually understand "why" it happens that way. We invent explanations without any true evidence of cause and effect (illusions).

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Known for:

Jun 28, 1712
Geneva, Switzerland
Jul 2. 1778
The Social Contract Theory

  • In his masterpiece "On the Social Contract," Rousseau lays out very patiently and accurately the origins of the relationship between states and subjects, and how it ought to be. He believed in individual freedom as a must, and that it was through the social contract that a people maximizes its freedom. It is commonly believed that this social philosophy of his played a major role in the French Revolution (1789-1799), bringing down the monarchy and replacing it with a republic ruled by the people.
  • He wrote his "Discourse on the Arts and Sciences," in which he argued that modernity and progress does not lead to a better and more moral or ethical society, but the contrary. He believed that before civilization, human beings lived in "the state of nature," which Rousseau believed was a happier and a more egalitarian society, where people were naturally empathetic to one another.
  • Civilization, on the other hand, created new luxuries which motivated people to compete for, and in their competition to get "more," they would inevitably resort to unethical behavior: cheating, lying, stealing, even killing. It was because there was something "more" to have that nations went into wars. These conditions gave birth to something that didn't exist in the state of nature: amour propre (self-love), which led to vanity, pride, status, and societal decadence. For example, consider the life of native Americans (state of nature), and what happened to them when the Europeans arrived and imposed modernity and its social plagues.
  • He also wrote "On Education," contending that the best education a child can have is to let nature cultivate the child's soul, freely, as far away as possible from the corruptions of modern society.
  • He wrote novels, like "Julie," to express his philosophy. It is believed that Rousseau was one of the main thinkers that gave birth to the Romantic period, in which nature was favored over modernity, forests over cities, and children over adults

Immanuel Kant

Known for:

Apr 22, 1724
Königsburg, Germany
Feb 12, 1804

  • He was a professor of philosophy at the University of Königsburg.
  • He divided knowledge into three parts: appearance, reality, and theory.
  • Kant felt both rationalists (reality is in the mind) and empiricists (reality is what our senses perceive) went too far in their beliefs.
  • "Appearance is the content of our direct sensory experience of natural phenomena. Reality (Kant called it the "thing-in-itself [das Ding an sich]") is what lies behind all phenomena. Theory consists of human concepts that attempt to mirror both appearance and reality."
  • "Kant believed that the world's appearances were deeply conditioned by human sensory and intellectual apparatus. Other beings no doubt experience the world in radically different ways. Scientific facts - the appearances themselves - are as much a product of the observer's human nature as they are of an underlying reality. We see the world through particularly human goggles."
  • "Kant felt that the participation of human nature in the creation of appearances explained both the remarkable ability of human concepts to fit the facts and the natural limit of such abilities... Our concepts appear to match the facts because both concepts and facts have a common origin - the human condition." (Herbert)
  • "Kant called 'time' and 'space' our two 'forms of intuition.' ... Time and space are first belong to the human condition. Time and space are modes of perception and not attributes of the physical world.... These two forms precede every experience. In other words, we can know before we experience things that we will perceive them as phenomena in time and space. For we are not able to take off the 'glasses' of reason." (Gaarder)
  • Copernican Revolution: It's not just how the world influences our minds and how we perceive it, but also our mind (the way it functions) influences the world around us and forces it to appear in a certain way.
  • The law of causality is also a condition of the human mind. We see the world in terms of cause and effect because that's how the human mind perceives it.
  • Kant believed that God's existence cannot be proven by reason, rejecting the ideas of Aristotle and Descartes. Instead, God's existence can be proven through faith (which was a pillar of Protestantism, of which he belonged).
  • Kant said: "It is a moral necessity to assume the existence of God."
  • He believed that the ability to distinguish between right and wrong was a matter of reason (same as rationalists), not sentiment (as Hume said), which means we were born with it. There is a universal "moral law," which is just as real as any physical law, and we can access it through study. This moral law applies to all situations, all people, all places, and all times. Example: the golden rule.
  • Moral actions are ones eminating from a sense of duty, not self-interest. Only then are we acting freely. He believed, like Descartes, that we are dual creatures: body and mind. The body functions in accordance with the law of causality (thus, not free), but the mind can escape the law of causality by adhering to the moral law, which makes us do things against our own self interests, and that is the exercise of free will.
  • Carved on Kant's gravestone: "Two things fill my mind with ever-increasing wonder and awe, the more often and the more intensely the reflection dwells on them: the starry heavens above me, and the moral law within me"

G.W.F. Hegel

Known For:

Aug 27, 1770
Stuttgart, Germany
Nov 14, 1831
Absolute idealism

  • He rejected Kant's idea that there is a reality (in and of itself) inaccessible to the human mind. Instead, he believed all truths are subjective.
  • His definition of "world spirit" or "world reason" is that it is the sum of human utterances, because only man has a "spirit." Human life, culture, thought... it's all in the human mind; all subjective
  • Philosophy cannot teach us any absolute truth, but it can teach us how to think productively.
  • There are no eternal truths, no fixed points to refer to, except history itself. History is like a river, always changing, but we can still talk about it, and there is no part of the river that is more true (or more river) than another.
  • Thus, our thoughts, theories, understanding, is like the water in the river. They are a result of how the rocks underneath are shaped. That's why depending on which part of the river you look, the thoughts and theories will be different. But no part of the river is more true than another.
  • To say that one man's idea is right, but another man's idea is wrong, is considered an anti-historical way of thinking.
  • Although philosophy is subject to historical context, history is progressive and purposeful. With time, the river has more water, and as it gets closer to the sea, it widens and becomes more developed. The "world spirit" is developing and becoming more rational and more free.
  • This progress (more water in the river) is evident in how a new philosophy is always built upon past philosophies. For example, Heraclitus said that everything changes (everything flows), and Parmenides objected to that idea by stating that change was illusion, and that in fact nothing changes. But then came Empedocles who combined the two contradictions and presented a new harmonious explanation. Hegel called the first theory a "thesis," and its contradicting theory "anti-thesis," and the new theory that harmonizes both and comes up with a middle-point between the two contradictions "synthesis."
  • Another example how Descartes and Spinoza proposed a rationalist philosophy (thesis), countered by Locke and Hume empiricism (antithesis), then Kant harmonized the two truths into a new one (synthesis). But then Kant's synthesis becomes a new thesis, countered by another antithesis, followed by a synthesis, and this would go on, progressively, forever. Hegel called this the "dialectic process."
  • In the dialectic process, two opposing ideas fight each other, and new synthesized ideas are formed, which also battle each other, and it is history that decides the winning argument. Whatever survives is right, or whatever is right survives.
  • Hegel rejected the romantic idea of individualism. He believed the society js what makes the individual, not the individuals who make a society. An individual cannot resign from a society, and so to try to "find your soul" is futile and ridiculous.
  • The "world spirit" develops in three stages. First stage is in the individual, thus called subjective world spirit. Then as it rises in consciousness into the family or whole society, it becomes "objective world spirit." The third stage, the world spirit reaches the highest form of consciousness and realization, that it becomes "absolute world spirit," which is represented in art, religion, and philosophy. Of these philosophy is the highest form. "It's as though philosophy is the mirror of the spirit world."

John Stuart Mill

Known for:

May 20, 1806
London, England
May 8, 1873

  • Son of the philosopher James Mill, John is also an empiricist, believing that the true source of all knowledge comes from the senses.
  • On inductive reasoning (the method of using previous experiences as evidence to a formulated hypothesis): Mill argued that all our knowledge, even things we believe have been arrived at with deductive reasoning (like mathematics), originate from inductive reasoning. Deductive reasoning (the method of arriving at facts through logical inferences) is only reliable because we have past experiences with it working.
  • The philosophy of utilitarianism (mostly contrasted with Kantianism in moral philosophy) simply means that our morals and conduct in life should be for the pursuit of the "greatest happiness principle," first expressed by another less famous English philosopher, Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), which Mill corrected or perfected.
  • Mill argues that what people desire is happiness. Even when one claims to desire money or pleasure, those are but means to the ultimate desire: happiness.
  • This greatest happiness for all is not achieved by some governing body that interferes with people (for their own good). Mill argues fiercely against that. One's individual liberty is a precondition to achieving happiness.
  • The only time a government should interfere in people's affairs is to prevent evident harm, not to promote happiness. Individuals cannot achieve happiness unless they are left free to understand it and pursue it on their own. Through liberty people can naturally arrive at the social values that deliver peaceful coexistence and happiness.
  • John Stuart Mill's influence can be easily noticed in the basics of economics (he's considered by economists as an economist).

Charles Darwin

Known for:

Feb 12, 1809
Shropshire, England
Apr 19, 1882

  • His book "On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life" was published in 1859, after a journey for scientific exploration in South America and Australia.
  • The idea of evolution itself already existed as early as 1800, many scientists spoke of plants and animals evolving from more primitive forms, but they had no evidence.
  • It was Lyell's "Principles of Geology," which spoke of very slow and gradual changes on earth, that gave Darwin the idea that the evolution of species, if it happened, must also be very slow and gradual, requiring the span of hundreds of millions of years.
  • Finally, it was his observations during his travel to South America and Oceania that made him introduce the paradigm shifting idea that it's not that birds grow longer and narrower beaks so that they can eat pine nuts, but that birds who don't have long and narrow beaks die out in an environment that has no food supply other than pines. In other words, animals do not mutate in order to adapt to their environment, but that the environment leads to the natural weeding out of those creatures that cannot adapt. For example, human beings living near the equator have darker skin because darker skin protects from the sun (people with lighter skin in hot areas were more prone to skin cancer). In places where there is very little sunshine, people with lighter skin survived because lighter skin absorbs sun vitamins much better than dark skin (those with darker skin in northern Europe died out due to lack of sunshine).
  • Mutation does happen, at a very slow and gradual pace, but it's random.
  • Although, during his life, Darwin's theory faced huge resistance from scientists and all people (and from the church), near the end of his life he was highly respected among his own.

Søren Kierkegaard

Known As:

May 5, 1813
Copenhagen, Denmark
Nov 11, 1855

  • Just as Leibniz criticized Spinoza's oneness of the universe, Kierkgaard was very critical of Hegel's "world spirit" and the Romantics in general.
  • He believed that no matter the influences of history, an individual was still unique, with unique thoughts.
  • He studied theology at the age of 17. He criticized Christianity as irrational, and felt that its premises were so overwhelming that an individual had to take a clear stance: no such as thing as somewhat religious.
  • He believed that Hegelian objective truth (like 2 + 2 = 4) was irrelevant to the individual life. Instead, the focus should be on truths that are subjective (what's true for me) and existential, the only ones that matter; like the truth about how other people feel about us, or which is the best place to live, or best career to pursue. These are the subjective truths that we should be concerned about, and they differ from one individual to another.
  • "The three stages on life's way":
    • The Aesthetic Stage: the only good is pleasure, all boring things are bad. (slave of the senses). the aesthetic stage often leads to angst (feeling of emptiness), which Kierkgaard saw as a positive thing: it meant a person is ready to move on to a higher stage
    • The Ethical Stage: seriousness and consistency in moral choices; right and wrong matter.
    • The Religious Stage: the ultimate stage of being immersed in (Christian) faith, and the only one that we can gain redemption.
  • His ideas on existentialism influenced society and many philosophers to come.

Karl Marx

Known for:

May 5, 1818
Trier, Germany
Mar 18, 1883
Communist Manifesto

  • Marx wrote his doctoral thesis on Democritus and Epicurus; on the materialism of antiquity.
  • Marx rejected the notion of a metaphysical spirit, but accepted the idea that material existence determined consciousness
  • He believed humans are motivated by material concerns such as survival, rather than grand ideas such as spirituality.
  • He opposed German Idealism and thinkers such as Kant and Hegel.
  • He believed that it was economic forces that created change and drove history forward.
  • He is most known for staunchly opposing the capitalist system. His philosophies later gave rise to Marxism and Communism.
  • Marx said: "philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it."

Charles Sanders Peirce

Known as:

Sep 10, 1839
Cambrige, Massachusetts, USA.
Apr 19, 1914
The Father of Pragmatism

  • Son of Benjamin Peirce, a leading American mathematician. Charles graduated from Harvard in philosophy and chemistry. His contributions reach metaphysics, history, philosophy of science, theory of signs, and the development of symbolic logic.
  • Peirce argued that human thoughts are a result of environmental interaction and are used for prediction and problem solving rather than to describe or mirror reality.
  • Peirce described inquiry as "the struggle moving from doubt to reach a secure belief." He claims that beliefs guide our actions and desires.
  • In his article “The Fixation of Belief” he pointed out that ‘doubt’ is an irritation that motivates inquiry.
  • He outlined four methods to settle opinions:
    1. The method of tenacity: ignoring opposing beliefs and sticking to the initial belief.
    2. The method of authority: the use of force to overcome disagreements.
    3. The method of a priori: the use of reason and established beliefs to reach conclusions.
    4. The method of science: testing, criticizing, and correcting false beliefs and inquiries.
  • He introduced semiotics, which is the study of signs, sign processes and their meanings. He based all of his work on this theory.

Friedrich Nietzsche

Known for:

Oct 15, 1844
Rocken, Germany
Aug 25, 1900
Nihilism; "God is dead"

  • He studied classical philology at the universities of Bonn and Leipzig; appointed professor at the University of Basel at age 25 to teach philology. He got ill, resigned, and spent ten years writing his philosophical works.
  • His claim that "God is dead" is not a reflection of secularization, but that the idea of absolutes (God, laws of nature, cosmos, world spirit, etc.) is over and will never return.
  • Like Kant, he believed we have no access to reality in and of itself. Whatever we know is conditioned by our perspectives.
  • But unlike Kant, Nietzsche discredited universal moral laws, meaning that our views of good and evil are also subjective (our own creation) and change in time and place. There is no "proper way to be human."
  • The ideal person is one who can be freed from "craving for metaphysical comfort," one who understands that "truth" is nothing but "a mobile army of metaphors" that is always subject to revision.
  • He desliked Socrates and Plato and their "world of ideas" and "reason," saying that it's because they lived a poor life and couldn't afford to enjoy a good life (as the Greek nobles did), they resorted to "reason" and talking about another, better world.
  • Nietzsche believed there is only one world: this world. To separate between an "apparent" world and a "real" world underneath is just a play of words Platonists indulge in. He referred to Christianity as "Platonism for the masses."

Sigmund Freud

Known for:

May 6, 1858
Freiberg, Austria
September 23, 1939

  • He became a medical doctor specializing in neurology, and established the concept and method of the “talking cure,” or: psychoanalysis. He is considered to the founding father of modern psychology.
  • Before Freud, people thought that when individuals exhibited abnormal behaviour that they were simply cursed, or that their brains suffered physically from some incurable disease and had to be locked away. Freud proved that there is a non-physical mind which can be studied, analysed, and manipulated.
  • He believed that we all have traumatic experiences in our childhood and find this difficult to deal with in later life.
  • So, we use defense mechanisms to manipulate our memories in adulthood so that we don’t have to think of these traumatic experiences. We end up repressing them because they are too overwhelming or too inappropriate to deal with.
  • The traumatic experiences center around the way the pleasure principle (libido) is satisfied in childhood.
  • There are four stages of development, each of which focuses on a different libido: oral, anal, phallic, and genital. If these are not satisfied, traumas are created and they become unconscious complications later in adulthood.
  • He believed that interpreting dreams and the method of free association were keys to unlock the hidden thoughts in the unconscious, which is how he developed his psychoanalysis to bring forth the repressed thoughts in the unconscious to the conscious and have them resolved.
  • He postulated that the human mind is divided into three main parts: the Id, the ego, and the superego. The id represents the primitive drives (similar to instincts in other species) and it operates in the subconscious. The superego (the superior self) is the part that is critical and judgmental of our id, and it mostly operates in the subconscious. The ego (the self) deals mostly with the conscious mind, and it regulates the id and the superego.

Bertrand Russell

Known for:

May 18, 1872
Wales, Britain
Feb 2, 1970

  • Russell was John Stuart Mill's God-son, and he graduated from Cambridge University with degrees in mathematics and philosophy. He was associated with two other important philosophers, G.E. Moore and Ludwig Wittgenstein. He was also acquainted with D.H. Lawrence and T.S. Eliot (who wrote a poem about him). He also won the Nobel prize for literature in 1950.
  • Politically, Russell was convicted and arrested for writing an article opposing Britain's role in World War I, and again for civil disobedience to promote nuclear disarmament. He was also criticized for his liberal views on marriage and religion.
  • He successfully derived mathematics from logic, and his work was key to the development of computer science.
  • As all empiricists, he argued that the physical world is the real world, and that we form all our knowledge from perceiving the real objects of the real world. He adds that we can make different conclusions about what the facts are depending on our point of view (or as Russell calls it: sense-data). So why not claim, as Berkeley did, that all that we know actually exists are not the objects in and of themselves, but our points of view of them; the sense-data?
  • Russell referred to the belief that "the only existing truth is sense-data" as "idealism," and Russell is credited today as the philosopher who successfully eliminated idealism from today's philosophic debate. For despite the fact that we may have different sense-data, we know for a fact that those sense-data could not have come from anywhere but the real-objects we perceive.
  • He distinguished knowledge into two main types: Knowledge by acquaintance, and Knowledge by description.
    • Knowledge by acquaintance is the knowledge of things.
    • Knowledge by description is the knowledge of "truths."
    Russell argues that the latter is derived by the former.
  • In essence, knowledge by acquaintance limits us, for no knowledge by description (truths) can come outside our acquaintance with real objects. Even the words we have and the way we think are limited by this reality.
  • His philosophy further promoted empiricism as a philosophic axiom accepted by today's philosophers and, in turn, scientists, although he did say on materialism that the only thing we can be confident of is our consciousness.

Jean-Paul Sartre

Known for:

Jun 21, 1905
Paris, France
Apr 15, 1980

  • Sartre graduated from the Ecole Normale Superieure, taught in high schools, wrote famous works and novels, edited a famous literary journal, and gave a paradigm-shifting lecture on existentialism, the effects of which we can still sense today.
  • He argued that there is no "truth" or system of values that humans should submit themselves to, because all truths and values originate from people: subjectivity.
  • This is based on the idea that "existence precedes essence," or existentialism precedes essentialism. Essentialism is the belief that there is an original form (essence) to things which determines the characteristics of those things. Sartre was saying that we attribute the essence to an already-existing object or thought, hence the statement: "existence precedes essence."
  • Based on the above, the world's creation cannot be preceded by a plan (divine or not). If a man wants to create a table, he would have the idea of the table in his head (table essence), then he creates the table according to that idea, so it comes to existence. Sartre is saying that the opposite is true: things (including people) exist first, without any essence, then we unconsciously apply the essence to things.
  • Sartre adds that despite the fact that we create our own essence, we are still subject to the physical laws (genes and environment). But as "conscious" beings, we can manipulate the deterministic effects of genes and nature by being aware of them, which makes us free agents. We freely determine our destiny (within natural boundaries).
  • As free agents, our choices are not based on any principles (religion, ethics, morality, laws, feelings, logic, etc.). There is no underlying general explanation to why we do what we do.
  • When Sartre's existentialism was heavily criticized as promoting the dismantlement of ethics and morals that advance human civilization, he defended himself in a famous lecture "the Humanism of Existentialism," in which he sounded like he believed in Kant's "principle of universalizability." He argued that one's free actions lead others in society to free reactions, and that the sum of those free actions naturally leads to a moral society.

Michel Foucault

Known for:

Oct 15, 1926
Poitiers, France
Jun 25, 1984
Post-structuralism and the discourse of power

  • Foucault explained how power politics are embedded in thought control: power is to manipulate people into thinking and believing in certain things for the benefits of the elite, capitalist class.
  • He believed that the study of history ought to focus on lessons we can draw to live better lives in the present, as opposed to just an interesting story told that is disconnected from our lives.
  • He argued that the governments of today, while they seem to have become more benign, are actually more brutal, because they now commit their violence behind closed doors where the public is unaware, and hence uninterested in solving any problems they can't see. By concealing the governments' crimes, the populace is deprived of its natural desire to rebel and revolt against injustice.
  • Power is in everything, even in the concepts and language we use. Thus, any event is framed in competing perspectives, or political discourses, where none represents an overarching truth. He was mostly interested, then, in deconstructing these concepts and perspectives, to eluminate deception and contradiction, in order to find the true hidden agenda of power.
  • For instance, when it comes to nationalism, the people in power create a holistic image of the nation's beginning, made up of historical and mythical elements, in order to create the "national" identity of a people to be controlled.
  • Another example is how those with power define and present the term "terrorism." It becomes a term used to label those who are considered undesirable in order to delegitimize their cause, and then they make this image an "accepted knowledge" in the people's collective psyche.
  • Foucault also wrote on the history of sexuality, comparing and contrasting how societies in the past had viewed sex and sexual relations. He argued that today's sexuality is "repressed" compared to the past, and that the roots of this repression began with the bourgeoisie Christian class. The concept of sexual taboos, according to Foucault, is relatively recent in human civilization.
Foucault VS Chomsky

Noam Chomsky

Known as:

Dec 7, 1928
Philadelphia, Penn, USA.
The Einstein of Linguistics

  • Chomsky discovered that Language development is not based neither on random sounds nor external factors as was believed in the past. Instead, all human languages are based on certain linguistic laws programmed in every human being's DNA (innate laws).
  • Chomsky used his findings in linguistics to go on attacking empiricism and behavioralism, the proponents of which claim that the observable evidence is the facts themselves; whereas Chomsky argued that the collected empirical evidence is only proof of underlying "hidden" laws; the catalyst of the phenomena observed. He said: "With empirical questions, you never know with certainty. That's what makes them empirical questions."
  • Chomsky also developed the idea of "psychic continuity," which he believed is innate in every human being as part of their genetic endowment. If a witch casts a spell on a prince and turns him into a frog, we continue to recogize the frog as the prince in our minds, even though his appearance had completely changed. This argument goes on to explain how humans tend to automatically assume how there are causes behind phenomena, even if those causes were invisible.
  • On Physics and Science: "The hopes and expectations of the early scientific revolution were dashed by Newton's discoveries, which leaves us with several conclusions.
    • "One conclusion - actually reinforced by Darwin - is that while our cognitive capacities may be vast and scoped, they are nonetheless intrinsically limited. Some questions we might like to explore may lie well beyond our cognitive reach; we may not be able to even formulate the right questions. The standards of success may have to be lowered once again as has happened before, as very dramatically with the collapse of the mechanical philosophy.
    • "Another conclusion is that the mind-body problem can be safely put to rest, since there is no coherent alternative to Locke's suggestion. If we adopt Locke's suggestion, that opens the way to the study of mind as a branch of biology, much like the study of the rest of the body below the neck - putting it metaphorically.... Mind-body is meaningless. If there is no body then there is no mind-body problem, and there hasn't been any concept of body since Newton. Newton still thought there was one, but as he put it, we have "not yet discovered it;" meaning accounted for it in mechanical terms. But that's been given up certainly by the 20th century. So there is no concept of physical. The term "physical" is like an honorific word; kind of like the word "real" when we say "the real truth," it doesn't add anything, just as "the serious truth" doesn't. So to say "there is something physical" today just means you gotta take it seriously; but there is no further concept of "physical," or "material," or "body." So there can't be a mind-body problem. It's unformulable.... When you look at modern physics, you have some very interesting proposals. There is a book published by the American Physical Society - so I guess it's taken seriously - by a very well-known physicist, John Wheeler, who argues that the only thing that exists in the world are bits of information; namely answers to questions that we pose to nature. That's all there is. Everything else is some kind of construct from those.... It's a little bit like, say, Edington and Russell, early 1920s, saying that all that really exists are meter readings, and everything else is our construction from meter readings. So if physicists had the same illusions as psychologists and sociologists they might call physics the meter reading science, the way modern study of society and action is often called behavioral science, that's confusing the topic and the data for it.
  • In his famous debate with Foucault, Chomsky argued that there must be innate factors we are born with that determine our thoughts and behavior, whereas Foucault and many others denied the existence of innate factors and suggested instead the only true factors are social (external) ones: "you can't have any structure in an organism unless there was some form of predetermination. That form of predetermination will beright scope, and it will also impose limits.
  • "In the 17th and 18th centuries... [European] Explorers were finding all sorts of creatures that didn't look like Europeans; like Negros and Orangutangs and so on. And they weren't sure how to distinguish them: are some of them human?. If you're a Cartesian rationalist there is a sharp distintcion between human and non-human. Cartesian rationalism is incompatible with racism... Harry Bracken discussed this at length; "you can't be a rationalist and a racist. You either have a mind or you don't have mind".... An empiricit on the other hand can be racist, because you can have different properties."
  • Chomsky on Descartes: "Unfortunately philosophers these days tend only to read the Meditations. But that's not Descartes. In fact, that was a kind of propaganda; he even pointed that out in a famous letter he wrote to his friend, Mercin, where he said that the point of the Meditations is to try to convince the Jesuits to take his physics seriously. That's what he really cared about. When he wrote the Principals of Philosophy, that is the principals of science; the real stuff, in that work he posed some really interesting questions. He didn't carry out the experiments but he carried out thought experiments, very much the way Galileo did. If they'd carry them out they'd probably come out his way. One was to ask the question: imagine an infant who has had no experience with geometrical figures (which is in fact every infant because geometrical figures don't exist in nature)... present that infant with a triangle drawn on paper. He said what the infant will perceive is a distorted triangle, not a perfect instance of whatever crazy figure it is. You know, with the two lines not quite coming together, or one of them somewhat curved.... And he regarded that as kind of paradoxical. Why should that be true? And if you're a thorough-going empiricist you shouldn't permit that conclusion. In fact, since the conclusion is almost certainly correct, it's an easy refutation of standard empiricism. Descartes's conclusion was that we must have some innate system of - he would assume - Eucledean geometry which we impose on data to yield our understanding; in fact our perception."
  • Chomsky on Newton and Hume: "Take the classical case; what Newton considered as an absurdity. Again, I think you have to take people like Newton and Hume seriously. What they regarded as an absurdity is that there could be influence without contact.... How is motion possible? That was the hard problem in the eighteenth century. Newton wrestled with it and finally said it was impossible [to explain]; you just have to accept it, even though we can't find what he calls the physical cause. That was called the hard rock in philosophy. Voltaire, a dedicated Newtonian, said that the fact that humans can cause motion by thought... is so inexplicable that it's got to be divine intervention, [even though] he was a dedicated atheist by the standards of the time. It looks like we're stuck with that."
  • On Free Will: "On freedom of the will, I think we're stuck pretty much where Descartes was. We just can't abandon believing it. It is our most immediate phenomenologically obvious impression, but we can't explain it.... There is a ton of literature on arguments on us not having freedom of the will.... William James said if you believe that there is no freedom of the will, why bother present an argument? You're just forced to do it, the person you're talking to can't be convinced because there's no such thing as reasons, so why not just watch a game of baseball? That wasn't his example. But anybody who denies freedom of the will actually believes that it's there, otherwise they wouldn't bother presenting reasons, unless they say 'look I'm just forced to present this argument, I can't do anything else but present it.' Some experimental work caused a big flurry a few years ago, some neurophysiologists discovered that if a person is going to carry out an act of willed action, say pick this [pen] up, you can find activity in the motor centers of the brain before there is a decision to pick it up. That was held to show that they've undermined freedom of the will. That doesn't say anything other than what we ought to know anyway, that decisions are mostly made unconsciously."
  • Source: Chomsky's lecture at the University of Oslo, September 2011, titled: "The machine, the ghost, and the limits of understanding: Newton's contributions to the study of mind." For more on Chomsky's politics, click on his name or image above.

Oday Baddar
Main Sources: Jostein Gaarder's Sophie's World, and Steven M. Cahn's Classics of Western Philosophy