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Friday, June 1

June 1, 2012

pulp.: Wiffle ball game rained out. But plan on it next week. Some of you won’t get your diplomas until I see proof that you understand the fundamentals of baseball (of which wiffle ball, of course, is simply a derivative).

Thank you all for the work you put into this journal. I could say I think it’s the best one yet because that seems like the nice and P.C. thing to say. Or I could say it because I mean that sincerely. I hope you know for which reason I say it.

Critical Reading: Today was a work day for your papers, which are due on Wednesday. Email me over the weekend if you come up with any questions: or (both if you want to be on the safe side). It would be extremely unwise to ask me questions about this paper next week.

WWTWWT: Today we had an emergency meeting during Block 2 in which we covered our two final German philosophers, Marx and Nietzsche. Here’s a summary of what we discussed that I feel is important to know about each of them (key terms highlighted in itals):

Karl Marx, the creator (with Friedrich Engels) of communism, was influenced by Hegel’s dialectic, which stated that history is the story of progress. Hegel believed that ideas compete throughout history (thesis, antithesis, synthesis, then repeat), with the ultimate goal that geist (think of it as the spirit of the world) finally realizes itself; that everything is revealed to be one.

That’s an idealistic view of the world — which is to say, that the “real world” is basically immaterial. But Marx was a materialist. So his “dialectical materialism” assumed that the struggle of history was actually between people: simply put, between the rich (bourgeoisie) and poor, or working-class (proletariat).

Marx also drew inspiration from another German philosopher: Ludwig Feurbach, who developed a theory of alienation. It stated that man creates a God who is perfect in every way. Then he lives a life of crushing guilt, despair and alienation because he can never live up to this perfect ideal he has created. Marx took Feurbach’s atheist view (he famously called religion “the opiate of the masses,” and felt it distracted people from more serious issues, like economic inequality), but he also applied this theory of alienation to capitalism. He felt that workers became more and more alienated from their work and its product as society became more industrialized. To use the example from today: if you make pottery, sell it yourself, and even use what you make, you are going to be very connected to your labor and what it produces. However, if you work on an assembly line all day,  driving four rivets into the door of a car you can’t afford to drive, you are going to be more alienated from what you do and what you produce. (This, I think, was one of Marx’s most profound insights.)

So Marx saw  capitalism as the last stage before communism inevitably took over. He thought its takeover would be inevitable because he felt that capitalism concentrated power and wealth (the “means of production“) in fewer and fewer hands. One day, he believed, the working (and unemployed) masses would realize that there were lots more poor people than rich people. The poor people would revolt, and take over. When they did, they would agree to abolish private property, and everyone would share the ownership of the means of production. This would be the “workers’ paradise,” and the end of history. Cue rainbows, unicorns, etc.

Except this utopian idea has never quite come true, in any place it’s been tried (the USSR and China being the best examples). That’s because, like all utopian ideas, it assumes something about human nature that’s never been true: in this case, that people are going to be content to be “equal.” Cue 100 million deaths, give or take a couple either way. Nevertheless, if you’re talking about philosophy in terms of influence, Marx’s ideas have had more resonance than just about any other philosopher’s. And it survives today (the 99 Percenters, to cite just one example).

Next we covered Friedrich Nietzsche, who counseled that we should abandon all tradition — especially traditions relating to God, man and morality. His thesis, which he explained in a very short essay called “How The ‘Real World” At Last Became A Myth,” goes like this:

Ever since the time of Plato, idealist philosophers have suggested that the “real world” is immaterial. Besides Plato, the Christian philosophers obviously thought this (St. Augustine especially). So did Hegel. So did Kant, but his idealism came with a crucial difference: unlike Plato, Augustine, Hegel and others, Kant thought that it was impossible to know anything about this “real world,” which he called the “noumenal world.” It might exist, but we could never have true knowledge of it.

If that is the case, Nietzsche said, then why worry about the “real world” at all? He wrote:

“The real world – unattainable? Unattained, at any rate. And if unattained also unknownConsequently also no consolation, no redemption, no duty: how could we have a duty towards something unknown?”

Besides, Nietzsche argued, treating the “real world” in this way led us to devalue the physical world — to deny life. So instead he denied God, famously suggesting that he had died, and said that man should create his own morality instead. To revalue our values, he suggested, would lead to man becoming something new and different — an ubermesnch, or superman. It hadn’t happened yet, he felt, but it could.

Nietzsche very astutely observed that, if there is no God, then there is no higher power to which we can appeal, no “God’s-eye view” to evaluate our moral conduct. There are only people and their own moral views. Inevitably, this means  that morality is a matter of power: whoever has the biggest stick gets to decide morality. (French philosopher Michel Foucault would take this idea and expand upon it.) This view is why many people mistakenly attribute the soundbite that if there is no God, “everything is permitted,” to Nietzsche. (It actually comes from The Brothers Karamazov.)

Unfortunately for Nietzsche, he 1) lived a fairly unhappy life, beset by problems with his health, work and the opposite sex (chicks didn’t dig him); 2) spent the last decade of his life insane, and cared for by his sister; and 3) would have his ideas appropriated and misappropriated by the Nazis, with whom his sister felt some sympathy. However, his hostility toward Christianity and his insistence that morality is the responsibility of the individual would go on to become major influences on Western culture.

On Monday, we will have a test. It will be comprehensive in the sense that I may ask you questions about anything we’ve discussed. However, it will 1) focus on the most recent material we have covered, especially the Enlightenment (Hume, Burke, and Rousseau especially) and the German philosophers (Kant, Hegel, Marx and Nietzsche. But no Schopenhauer, sadly.). And 2) it won’t take the whole block, nor will it demand that you remember tons of names. Trust me.

What should you know about the earlier stuff, then?

1. The four questions, and the relevant branches of philosophy.

2. Know that the pre-Socratic philosophers were trying to figure out how the world worked, and that the Big Three (especially Plato and Aristotle) put the focus on human beings, their purpose, and how they should act.

3. Know the differences between Plato and Aristotle. In particular, Plato’s Theory of Ideal Forms and Aristotle’s Four Causes.

4. Know that Augustine adapted Plato for a Christian worldview, and that Aquinas adapted Aristotle for Christianity. (And understand what that means.)

5. Know two major turning points in Western philosophy: when Ockham and Duns Scotus rejected the idea that we could know God by anything other than faith, and when, during the Renaissance, scientists shifted their effeorts from understanding nature to predicting and controlling nature, leading them to reject Aristotle’s(and Aquinas’s) idea of a “final cause” — the idea, in other words, that things have a purpose. These two ideas put religion generally, and Christianity specifically, on very shaky ground. (Even though the people who advanced them were, in many cases, Christians.)

6. Know that there was a divide between rationalism (largely French and continental) and empiricism (largely British) during the 16th and 17th centuries. And of course, know what rationalism and empiricism are.

7. Know how Hobbes and Locke viewed man’s state of nature, and their proposed solutions for it. Know how Burke and Rousseau fitted in here as well.

If you know this stuff, and you look over the material on the Enlightenment (18th century) and the German philosophers (19th century), you’ll do fine.

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