Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Dream of Reason: From Socrates to Sotomayor by Judy Joyce

Philosophy - A Quest for Understanding

Author of The Dream of Reason - Penguin Books 1995 -2009, Anthony Gottlieb, studied philosophy at Cambridge University and University College London and has been a Visiting Fellow at Harvard. He has been executive editor and science editor of "The Economist" magazine and written regularly on philosophy for the New York Times Book Review.

The Dream of Reason is a two volume set covering the history of Philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance and then from Descartes to the present. In 2001, Gottlieb was interviewed on New York radio's Paula Gordon Show saying he believes (Philosophy) teaches us how to stand back from everyday styles of thinking and question them. He thinks many adults underestimate themselves when it comes to thinking about philosophy.

Western Philosophy in World of Thinkers

The author goes to great lengths in this work to put Western philosophy in the context of “world thought”. He is convinced that due to the tendency of many disparate branches of study co-opting developments in philosophical thought (which is overarching throughout all branches of knowledge), there is a tendency to believe that philosophy has not progressed.

Rejecting traditional histories which have a tendency to distinguish philosophy from mathematics,science, social sciences and the humanities, the author has gleaned from his study of the past 2600 years to the present, that such a distinction is vastly over simplified. So it is that Gottlieb is able to demonstrate the influence of philosophy on every aspect of life. He reminds the reader:

popular scientists would
do well to study philosophy rather than trying to preempt it

In writing these volumes for a general audience, the Ruth Gordon Show chronicled that the author wanted to provide a …. book that explores the fruits of great minds all the way back to the dawn of Western philosophy.

The journalist-author maximized his distrust of secondary sources. He took more than a decade to read the primary sources. His job of exploration then became one of translation. Gottlieb says that because the distant past is like an alien civilization, he was surprised by the remarkable continuity from that time to this.

Continuity of Thought from Ancient to Present

Gottlieb asks us to consider how the three giants of the ancient philosophical world approached problems:

Socrates was the argumentative,
questioning individual.

Plato was the inspirational,
imaginative, creative thinker.

Aristotle was the great
teacher and ultimate academic
who writes the text books.

Sound familiar?

“Is the continuity really so surprising?”, Gottlieb asks. The organ which produces and addresses the questions -- our human brain -- has not had time to change much in twenty-six hundred years, Mr. Gottlieb reminds us. Even though we've put a lot more into that brain, he believes we still think in the same ways and still have the same basic problems:
We're born. We die. And we want to know
why things happen.

Above excerpts from The Paula Gordon Show New York, New York Nov. 8,2001

Examining the Gottlieb Proposition

The Gottlieb proposition that we still think in the same ways and still have the same basic problems, it is important to take notice that Mr. Gottlieb presents his analysis in the context of all of human existence and thought. In so doing, he does take the same overarching world view as Plato did in opposition to the Sophists who preferred personal experience as the measure of things.
Western Philosophers Introduce Science and Computer Language

In the first volume of this book, the reader is reminded that science was first undertaken when philosophers decided to ignore the pronouncements of the gods and the mythological explanations of life that surrounded paganism. Philosophers began to look to occurrences in nature as a possible explanations for life events and experiences. They began to question things. Gottlieb offers as evidence of this phenomenon that the scientific works of even Sir Isaac Newton were categorized in his day as the study of Natural Philosophy.

Psychiatry, social sciences, and mathematics came from thinkers who were known by the public of their day as Philosophers। Scientific works of one German, Georg Cantor, and his notion of “Infinity” were originally disregarded by his scientific colleagues “as mere philosophy”. Gottlieb reports it is now taught in schools as “Set Theory”.

Even the computer language of today comes from what centuries ago was considered the most tedious work of philosophy. The Dream of Reason chronicles that it was known as “Formal Logic”. Yesterday's “Moral Philosophy” is spirited away to become todays “Jurisprudence” or “Social Economics” and ceases to be called philosophy.

And so it is that many in
today's day and age
do not realize how a question posed to them has
- at it's base - a response that reflects their philosophy

Philosophy - A Definition

The Gottlieb definition of philosophy coined by psychologist, William James, is:

the peculiar stubborn effort to think clearly

The earliest historical records of philosophers and their thinking dating back to 5 or 6 B.C., they are identified as coming out of Greece, Turkey and Italy. Many of their ideas have influenced us up to this very day. Stubborn is an apt way to identify these thinkers. Their knowledge was adopted and adapted by Classical Islam, India and the East, though applied differently than it was by the Romans.

While sixth century B.C. Greece cannot be identified as the “dawn of time”, according to Gottlieb even if one may be inclined to fall back into the rudimentary geometry of Babylonia as a starting point, Aristotle mentions the thinkers of Miletis in today's Turkey (then the Ionian coast of Greek Asia Minor) as a reference point prior to Socrates and Plato

Writings to substantiate Milesian contributions to philosophy, unlike Greece itself, are available only through secondary sources like Aristotle or written hundreds of years after their influence. Because the Milesians were materialistic in their approach to ideas about life and existence, Aristotle called them Physicists.
Plato vs Sophists - The Importance of Elocution

There were many public debates, Greeks were known to be very litigious. Public speaking was often considered entertainment. To take advantage of this thirst for knowledge adults and children wanted education. Sophists was a term originally used to identify those teaching for money.

They taught rhetoric, political skills and legal discourse. Their aim, Sophists claimed was to teach political and practical success. Protagoras was known to proclaim that:

“man is the measure of all things.”

Sophists...doubted that humanity would ever be able to reach objective truth through reason and taught that:

material success rather than truth should be

the purpose of life.

Plato aways referred to the greatest Sophists with respect, The Dream of Reason reports. He almost always disagreed with their doctrines complaining that they could care less about the truth and only cared about teaching their patrons the tricks of winning.
Aristotle, Plato's pupil continued the attack sophistry believing that the art of the Sophist is the semblance of wisdom making money from an apparent but unreal wisdom. A prominent Sophist remarked that:

you should demolish your opponent with jesting
about the serious, then become serious
when the opponent is jesting.

History Repeating:From Socrates to Sotomayor?

When, in Chapter Nine, Anthony Gottlieb attempts to extrapolate an explanation for why it is that he feels Plato distanced himself from the Sophists and failed to acknowledge many of their intellectual strengths, Gottlieb contends that the explanation lies somewhere in the sentiment that Plato must have had against the Sophists. In explaining what he means by this, the author writes of many things he believes Plato “would have said”, given the opportunity.

He does propound he believes Plato must have tried to distance Socrates reputation from that of sophistry. Gottlieb believes that Plato must have felt they played a role in the trial of Socrates that ended in his choosing to be executed by poisoning rather than be exiled from Athens as his punishment.

The Effect of Persuasive Speech on the Soul

While Gottlieb's notion about Plato vs Sophists is one based on speculation and “might have saids”, a likely more accurate observation is the one Gottlieb makes that in the end, the Sophists had a more down to earth approach than other intellectual thinkers perhaps believing that reason had been high jacked and common sense itself spirited away.

One such Sophist, Gorgias, we are told was accomplished in rhetoric. He contrived a puzzle that exposed the role of speech on the one hand and that which exists outside us on the other. He wrote of the ability of language to mold one's world view.

The effect of the power of speech on the soul he compared to the effect of drugs on the body. Persuasion - when added to speech - can make any impression it wishes on the soul.

What the Sophists wanted was a philosophy that embraced everyday experience. This is messy, the author contends because just whose life experience will be the guide?

Sophists as Relativists from Greece to Kant

From this notion that reasoning and therefore knowledge was best acquired from everyday experience, the Sophist, Protagoras, held that:

There is no
universal truth.
What is true
for me is true for me and
what is true for you, is true for you

That is what he meant by saying man is the measure of all things. This is known as Relativism. More modernly, Relativism can be traced as far forward to Emmanuel Kant in the 18th century.

Plato Disagrees with Relativism

Plato had a view of knowledge that the task of philosophy was to lead the world beyond the reach of everyday life to purified truths of reason. Plato demonstrated why he rejected Sophist fallacies in his writings produced as dialogues. In one such dialogue, Plato uses the wind as an example. Socrates is staged to say that when the wind blows it may be fine for one man and cold to another. To Protagoras, the wind must be both fine and not fine at the same time in order for his sophistry to hold. This is because each man is not bound by the truth of wind temperature but rather by their own experience of it.

This implies there are no false perceptions.

Sophistry, Relativism, Pragmatism to U.S.A.

According to The Dream of Reason, the application of Relativism to modern thinking was promoted by William James, an American psychologist. He called it Pragmatism.this, James meant that one should live life and make choices based on what is useful. Gottlieb asks that the reader notice how the idea changes from what each man thinks for himself to what is decidedly useful in living.

One may not agree with something for himself but as a pragmatist, he would set aside his relativism for himself and accept that somethings (Gottlieb earlier suggests jurisprudence) are more productive and so adopts what someone else decides is best for him.
In the case of government, it might be what the state or politicians decide for a citizen is pragmatic for him to embrace rather than challenge. So it is that groups (and not individuals) who cannot be corrupt in their moral practices as long as they feel the same way about any practice that makes it useful. When applied to human law, groups can arrive at an agreement. When applied to nature, agreement is not a factor. When nature is involved, what nature does, nature does.

The author concludes his discussion of Sophism by reducing their motto as one best stated as:

Victory goes to the best speaker.

This, of course, is a Sophist declaration with deference to how things turn out in a courtroom. In reference to the modern courtroom, it seems noticeable that Sophist's Relativism has morphed into Pragmatism. ( note: an example of a pragmatic application of justice might be "Plea Bargaining" as an accepted legal practice)

The Socratic approach - as kept alive by Plato - stands in stark contrast to the Sophists.The Socratic method adheres to the
notion of:

The pursuit of truth is
the philosophy of life
Socrates and Sotomayor: Jurisprudence

Anthony Gottlieb identifies Socrates as the “Martyr of the Philosophers” in that he was sentenced to death because of his teachings. Socrates did not agree that each man or each group can decide what is the measure of all things. Indeed, Socrates, Plato, and Plato's pupil - Aristotle promoted a directly opposite approach that provides that there are truths which are truths for everybody.
Post-Modernly we might find this notion of truths which are for everybody captured in the a written Constitution. Socrates would conclude that such a document pronounces the truth about what a country stands for. Judges would be required to advance that countries truth without imposing an individual interpretation peculiar to the justice personally. Thus, justice is blind to differences among individual citizens.
The Sophist would defer to individual experiences of the person in that country and advancing the idea that the Constitution is to be interpreted personally. The caveat to that relativistic interpretation would be pragmatism. Pragmatism defers to a group experience of interpretation as long as it is useful.

To advance a post-modern understanding of these distinctions, political and legal forces are citing different instances of Supreme Court justices and nominees being asked about their own notions of Jurisprudence as pertaiins to the administration of justice. Examples cited are those of Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor when quoted to the effect that she believes both a wise old man or a wise old woman will interpret the Constitution the same way. This appears to be a Socratic approach to Jurisprudence in that the O'Connor example defers to wisdom (understanding of truth as objective).

Sonia Sotomayor, a nominee for the Supreme Court, has expressed herself differently on the issue of the administration of justice. Ms. Sotomayor has stated that her personal background would find her better qualified to interpret legal matters than a white male justice. This appears to be Sophist reasoning in that Sotomayor defers justice to her own experience.

Ancient Philosophical Juxtaposition in Post Modern Jurisprudence

What better juxtaposition on the matter of Jurisprudence - which Gottlieb identified as subject to these philosophical questions - than the apparent Socratic philosophy of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and the Sophist application of Supreme Court nominee, Sonia Sotmayor. Were this ancient Greece, which philosopher would prevail in the discussion about these two disparate opinions?

To understand how to evaluate post-modern questions such as these, it is important to remember how the Greco-Roman civilization applied these scholarly debates after Rome conquered Greece. In fact, American pragmatist, William James, is quoted by Anthony Gottlieb as even having said that:

all of Western civilization is merely a
footnote to

To be continued.......

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