Reading: Peter Adamson’s ‘History of Philosophy (without any gaps)’

From time to time I have separate interests which converge. I remember when I was studying ancient history one of the key texts was Aristotle (although textually speaking, it probably wasn’t actually him but a student), and at the same time I was learning in another context about Aristotle’s Hylemorphism. Although from the same character it wasn’t so easy to put them together except they were attributable to the same person.


I’m having a similar moment recently. I’m going through Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and I’m on the andalusian period. I’ve also been listening to Peter Adamson’s podcast on the History of Philosophy (without any gaps). Both narratives give a similar story: the western story that the ‘Greeks and Romans were great, but then we went backwards until the Renaissance’ is simply false at best and cultural erasure at its worst.


When you read about the history of early Christianity, one finds the presence of vibrant African Christian communities in Christendom taking part in church-dividing disputes over theology. The so-called Dark Ages had a great cultural presence of Jewish and Arab thinkers, as well as a cross-fertilisation of Hellenic culture into what became modern Europe.


There’s a certain convenience to preserving the ‘dark age’ narrative: European history seems more…European. Early Christianity has the North African Augustine; Late Antiquity had the emergence of Islam which had a definite impact on European countries, especially Iberia (modern Portugal and Spain).


I am so utterly refreshed when I read Gibbon. I know that there has been a lot of scrutiny to the accuracy and sources of his work since the 18th Century but I am impressed of how worldly he was during the time. So worldly in fact, that we today have much to rediscover about the history of what we now call Europe, North Africa, Central and East Asia.


Similarly, having a good understanding of the history of philosophy will invariably affect the breadth of topics of contemporary philosophy and the histories we teach, and teach badly. I hate for example how mistaken it is to consider the Vienna Circle as Logical Positivists, and then when asked to define Logical Positivism, we turn to AJ Ayer. I also find it deeply uninformative to think of a history of philosophy so plotted that it starts with Plato’s Apology, then goes to Aristotle’s Eudaimonian Ethics and then jumps to Descartes on Epistemology.


It is true that historically, the philosophers of history have had a poor education in the history of philosophy they knew of. There’s a certain resonance of how Kant was so obsessively interested in the philosophy of his immediate geographical and historical contemporaries (ignoring for not the influence of Hume) that it reads as dry, technical and almost irrelevant…sort of like contemporary journals in philosophy?


Of course, there were historical philosophers who eventually became better and more worldly not only about their philosophical history, but also their cultural world. Schopenhauer and Nietzsche are arch examples of this!


Adamson’s narrative of philosophy shows me how important the impact of Christianity was, and is on philosophy today. Discussions on topics like mereology or haecceity and universals exist mostly because of religious oriented discussions on Christian theology. Adamson’s podcast also shows the inextricably close cousins of Arab, Islamic and Jewish philosophy and how they fed into the Medieval period and how they are part of the heritage of what became the European and Anglo-American tradition of philosophy. Re-viewing our history also allows us to re-view our self perceptions culturally and intellectually speaking.



On opposition to Gay Marriage (and a Kantian thought)

It’s 8am, I’m very tired at the start of the day. I am still recovering from the two prongs of having worked late and went to sleep later. I got up only to check emails on my phone. I saw a message following an ongoing email discussion about the recent news of the legalisation of Gay Marriage and I suddenly had a surge of intellectual thought. I shouted out “AUGUSTINE!” and then thought to myself: this is a victory for Kantian philosophy. Okay, so many that bit most people won’t understand, I don’t think most people understand the things I shout out in public anyway. However, I thought I’d venture to explain myself further. A single word expresses about 1600 years of literature.

The orientation of my thoughts are around a certain story of current affairs, namely, the legalisation of same-partner marriage in England and Wales (but not Northern Ireland, and not yet Scotland). I find several things objectionable all at once, and I thought I’d go through them systematically.

Bad arguments

I think one of the things that I thought notable was the television coverage summarising the issue. One view was an old Conservative MP whose background of edcuational and cultural priviledge gave him the wisdom of the following proclamation: marriage is between a man and a woman, it has been so historically for years and should continue to be so.

That’s not really a reason, or an argument. It’s an old man stating his view in the guise of a discussion of implementing a legal measure. I think that’s what Aristotle called demos kratos. I found an interesting piece from the New Humanist from Jason Wakefield effectively debunking what are thinly veiled layers of anti-gay bigotry. Arguing from the premise of tradition or the status quo is bad for democracy, is bad for rational argument and insulting to the idea of progress. I do think however, there has been a good rational case following the likes of Mark Vernon to be wary about imputing the historic standards of marriage as an institution to what is effectively a newly emerging acceptance of wider sexual difference. Of course acceptance of difference (overcoming bisexual erasure, transgender issues and non-monogamy) is a battle of many fronts, of which same-sex marriage is one particular front.

For the purposes of this post I shall not go into those issues in particular. Instead, I shall consider some of the appeals of the kinds of attitudes that would be inclined to reject homosexual marriage and I shall take these into more philosophical consideration.

‘Marriage is supposed to be between a man and a woman’ – essentialism

I hold this claim to be an essentialist appeal to the meaning of the term. By essentialist I would take it to mean a broadly Kripkean view that there is a certain ‘this-ness’, or natural kind appeal. This kind of appeal would assert that there is a point at which the object of marriage has been (excuse the pun) Christened in a brute way, as say me pointing to a glass of water and saying: THIS is water.

There are two kinds of ways of replying to this essentialist appeal. The first way is through permutation, and the second is to reject that it is essentialist. Let’s consider permutation. If we followed the thought experiment that christening some object and claiming some ‘this-ness’ to the criterial nature of the thing, as if we just point to something and say: THIS is marriage (like say, pointing to a couple arguing; buying furniture at Ikea on a saturday afternoon; appearing as a legally recognised couple in the eyes of the law etc). We can say that the ‘this-ness’ of what it means to be a couple (or coupledom) will still hold even in different conditions.

Permutation of a condition like, say, the recognised gender of either party in a marriage may still preserve many of the aspects of putative coupledom. Perhaps the essence of a marriage is in something else than its gendered membership: things like having arguments about what colour to paint the spare room; whether to take on parental responsibilities; buying furniture from sofa-world or being in love with each other. We can turn this case on its head and say, if we look at putative cases of opposite-sex marriages and find some element missing (like say: a married couple not having parental commitments/buying furniture together/being in love), would we still essentially call it a marriage? I will leave that question open. The kripkean essentialist account, as I understand it, can reasonably account for permutation. The seeds of a watermelon grown on mars that tastes salty and takes a square shape, is still a watermelon according to this essentialist view. Absurd maybe, but I don’t think the argument against same-sex marriage can take essentialist appeals as a rational option.

‘Marriage is supposed to be between a man and a woman’ – social construction

An alternative view to the thesis that marriage is traditionally supposed to be between a man and a woman is to look at social construction, essentially (excuse the pun) a contrasting ontological perspective. Namely that of social construction. There is an overwhelmingly good case to consider the historicities of institution of marriage. To see marriage as a tradition is correct, but to quote Eddie Murphy’s character in Coming to America, it is also tradition that times must, and do change, my friend. To canonise history is a mistake, to canonise tradition as fixed is also an insult to our understanding of social construction, and perhaps to make an embarrassing ontological mistake. This is a bad reason to make an appeal against gay marriage, not least because it raises more questions than it would purport to answering an issue.

Historical reflections I: Natural Law (Thomism)

Some Catholics may be familiar with this kind of view. Natural law is the basis of many Catechistic principles. Natural law is a notion which has a large basis in Aquinas that through Reason we can see the work of God, and through His nature we can see his will, which in turn informs our moral understanding.

This issue is important from a perspective of faith, because there are many ethical issues that are not addressed in Scripture, and so another recourse is needed to create a religious persepctive. Natural Law appeals to lookings at purported facts of nature and imputing that seeing the teleology (or design/intention) of the natural world suggests God’s will. Perhaps a neat caricature of this view is the Flanders and Swann line: “If the Juju had meant us not to eat people, he wouldn’t have made us of meat!”.

Natural law has an interesting set of applications, this is not to speak of whether it is agreeable or disagreeable. Natural law has a philosophical utility in the kinds of conclusions it makes under the assumption of telos: for example: because humans and other animals have incisors, we are supposed to eat meat. Because of the female reproductive system, only procreation between a man and a woman is permitted. However this kind of view is so strong it would be against a whole lot of things: cybernetic implants and other post-humanist implantations to extend human ability and human life; vegetarianism is immoral. Not least a whole gamut of other philosophical problems: the naturalistic fallacy (which is a whole big issue in itself); the problem of interpreting God’s nature correctly (another big theology issue); the role of socialisation being undermined as ‘human nature’ is overemphasised, and perhaps most intuitively, the desiderata of an ordinary moral theory is to preserve certain things like: murder is wrong or the wrongness of sexual violence. . Natural law would seemingly have the same kinds of problems that sociobiology would have in taking an ambivalent acceptance to the these cases of nature. Not least to say that same sex relations actually happen in non-human mammals as part of a social ritual. Wouldn’t it then be considered natural? (or within nature’s repetoire?). Let’s go back to natural theology later.

Historical reflections II – Separate but Equal

The appeal of separate but equal has been a justification for a variety of contexts. When I googled the phrase earlier, it referenced a misquotation to the attitudes of the Jim Crow era in the USA. The rationality is that many hold there already to be an institution (the civil partnership) for same sex couples, which fulfills the function of marriage. However, it is the point it doesn’t, and to introduce a tier system which essentially is on the basis of sexuality is to establish a level of segregation that forms a barrier to equality.

I think that this rational strategy could be established more, and this may pose an interesting avenue for non-homophobic opposition to gay marriage. However, there is something prima facie suspicious when we introduce an idea of tiers about legally recognised relationships, and the fear that civil partnerships (which heterosexual couples are legally allowed to have) reflect both an aysmmetry (thus suggesting a tiered aspect) or a perception among some of the public that civil partnerships are marriage-lite’’. Which is essentially the fear that Mark Vernon expressed.

Historical reflections III – biblical references

Ah, now if we are taking a Christian perspective, we could appeal to the scriptures. Particularly 1 Timothy, and Romans. These are the writings of St. Paul, who is generally accepted as a scriptural ground for opposition to homosexuality. Then of course there is Leviticus 18 in the ‘Old Testament’/Jewish Scriptures. But then again, if we read into it, Leviticus also forbids tattoos! I do wonder sometimes when I watch the God channel on freeview digital television if some of these cool looking evangelicals who hold to the literalness of scripture know about Leviticus.

Without even taking to account the fact that in a secular environment, this statement of belief is not admissible in a public discussion on the level of Government. We could challenge the canon of the Bible itself. To do this we must consider the historical organisation of the library that is the Bible. Why are the synoptic gospels canonical over others, or do we have any reason to doubt their historicity?

Closing: The victory of Kant’s moral religion

I consider the issue of gay marriage a victory for the broadly Kantian project, of elminating the cultus from religion, from separating ritual from value. The Kantian perspective on religion (which has lots of details) was deeply influential in beginning the historical Jesus project of research, commonly associated with what is called liberal theology.

One way we can see the issue of gay marriage in England and Wales, is to see it as undermining aspects of doctrinal Christianity. Slowly and slowly we are finding moral communion and consensus towards the acceptance of same-sex partnerships through a non-religious and public conversation. We are moving away from the likes of scriptural justification for the basis of our ethical values and moving towards public reason – perhaps.

Lately I have been reading Bart D. Ehrman’s ‘Jesus, Interrupted’, we might review this book at a later time, but one of the overarching theses of the book is the point that there are good grounds to doubt the literalness of the way that the books of the New Testament have been established. The organisation of the books of the Bible are a result of disputes in Early Christianity during the late-antique period, and following Kant’s perspective on philosophical anthropology (an issue I based my MA dissertation on), there are grounds on which we can sympathise with other moralities from different cultural origins, on the basis of their historical basis. Strip away culture and historicities, and we can find a better basis of our ethical values.

How about, say, the formula of humanity: to perceive rational beings as ends in themselves. Human agency as the basis of our respect towards others by virtue of being human, or by virtue of being a moral agent (I take these two to be interchangeable for now). I think its fair to say that those who may be opposed to their views are entitled to practice their cultural heritage within reason, and this measure should not be seen as an affront to their beliefs. I also think that this kind of discussion is the kind of thing that is another feather to the bow of liberal theology, and the subsequent way in which it undermines many of the precepts of fundamentalist and literalist belief.

In closing. I thought it was odd that I didn’t have a philosophical opinion about this issue, but then I realised I did have a dog in this fight. Trust me to show the relevance of Kantian philosophy in any social issue.

Michael (in conversation with Destre)

Budick on the misunderstandings of mainstream Kant scholars

In this post I would like to highlight some preliminary insights that are particularly noteworthy. This post may come to structure the content or themes of my forthcoming book review on the issue.

I am currently reading Sanford Budick’s ‘Kant and Milton’. The introductory blurb by Paul W. Franks (who is also ‘the’ person who writes on the topic of Kant’s systematicity) poses this thought: Kant and Milton? Surely there is nothing related between the author of Paradise Lost and the author of the Critique of Pure reason. Not so, says Sanford Budick, in a work which seems to challenge a great many tenets of Kantian scholarship.

My dissertation supervisor, who was quite well read on historical and contemporary Kant scholarship had the emphatic opinion that ‘Kant was a philistine!’ and then snorted with a self-congratulating jest. That is very much the popular opinion and I admit to having a similar prejudice myself, at least when it comes to music.

Not so for Budick. Kant was a well read man and this is demonstrated by various passages on his lectures on anthopology where he cites authors Pope and Milton. Many of the Milton citations are not referenced to Paradise Lost or Samson Agonistes; but are assumed by the culturally learned of the 18thC Germans that they are Milton passages. You see, Budick points out that during the 18thC, Germany had a very anglophile orientation. The greats of Pope, Milton and Shakespeare were often translated. It is also well known, and consistent with the thesis (despite the fact that anglophile doesn’t include scotland) that the writers (who wrote in english) Hume and the Lord Earl of Shaftesbury were well received by Kant. It is often in good spirits of the enterprise of Kantian scholarship to know of the influences that permeate not only the culture of Kant’s time, but also of Kant himself.

Budick compares his study with the likes of a study on Kant’s moral philosophy (the author of which escapes me now) with the form and project of a work by Cicero. Budick offers reasons as to why Kantian scholars have forgotten this Miltonian influence on our understanding of Kant.

1. The Nazis. Well not exactly the Nazi’s; certain Kant scholars who were nationalist-socialist party members had strong nationalist roots and chose to control the influence of how Kant was read. For the nationalists; it was unacceptable to acknowledge any influence outside of Germany. It was simply unthinkable that a non-German such as Milton or Pope could have an impact on the work of any German thinker or poet. This purposeful ignoring of English influence has coloured our future understanding of Kant’s aesthetics today.

2. Milton is hard. This sounds to me like the same reason why Adorno is called an ‘elitist’. In order to understand Adorno you need to have the musical background of a serialist composer. You need to understand Bach, Beethoven, the Romantics (and dislike them), and serialist composition. Very few sociologists I suspect, neither know how to write a fugue nor how to play one.

This sounds like a weak objection to critique Adorno; it is simply akin to saying ‘I do not understand this’ therefore I will dismiss it. The challenge of Kant scholarship, and its joy, is the difficult language and terminology involved. This is the same issue for understanding Milton’s work. To understand Milton; one needs to understand the poetic devices and the cultural references. I have started to read Paradise Lost in preparation of this book review, and I found it much enjoyable. Many note the Aeneidae influences which are at some points subtle and others not so. Milton is writing an epic, the kind that seems to be all encompassing such to almost appear as a religious narrative.

The reason, Sanford suggests; that scholarship may take to a resistance to acknowledging the Miltonian influence on Kant is simply: Milton’s work is abotu the same kind of difficulty as understanding Kant himself. So, this doesn’t sound very promising for a non-expert reader to address.


Two pessimistic thoughts

I have been delving a little into some 19thC literature of late in leisurely pursuits, and I thought I would come to bring up these two insights:

1. Freud, in an essay on death; wrote that the very thought of our own death in some respect is inconceivable. For every thought that we have presumes at least a third personal perspective, as ourselves being the author of those thoughts. Yet, with the event of death, it is the thought that the self is absent in a way that the living self cannot conceive of without presuming the third-personal perspective of the living thinker.

This strikes me as being both a Wittgensteinian thought, and a Kantian one. It reminds me of a passage towards the end of the Tractatus (I think) where almost the very same notion is addressed, namely, the inconceivability of death. Wittenstein, by constrast, appeals to the inconceivability of death by means of a zeno paradox, as well as the notion that a finite thing cannot conceive of its end. Both of these thoughts would either be prima facie false, or reveal some paradoxical (dialetheia) truth.

The Kantian thought is that Freud’s assertion seems to resemble the appeal of Kant’s transcendental unity of apperception, namely, the notion that there is no thought without the presumption of an “I think”, or agent who has the capacity of such a thought.

2. From Schopenhauer’s ‘On Suffering’; suffering is the privation of pleasure. I am surprised to take a liking to the philosophy of Schopenhauer. There are distinct ethical dimensions to his psychological insights. Schopenhauer’s writings are ethics in the most sincere sense of the word, that is, a guide on how to live well.

schopenhauer turns the Augustinian thought that evil is nonexistent on its head. Pleasure is ultimately a frivolous thing because it is transient, and the only immortal thing about pleasant experiences or fond moments, are the recollection; or shared recollection of them. It is also the sign of a wretched old life if one is always reminiscing a past that has long gone.

Schopenhauer’s philosophical pessimism is surprising. Not least for the appeal to eastern philosophy, but the extent in which I find it a life-affirming way of approaching life. If a fond experience, like a first kiss or the birth of a child will inevitably end, it also has the immortal quality of being in one’s memory and summoned any time that the memory is recalled. Pessimism as a way of life seems to be the precept, or starting point. Once you accept it, you get on with one’s life, and contemplation becomes less effort in terms of whether the notion of pleasure or the good life are arguable issues. In cruder terms; Accept life is shit, and get on with it. It might be more fun once we accept that.


RIP Marjorie Grene

According to Leiter and some other sources, it has been announced that Marjorie Grene had died. I knew of her work in the history of philosophy, her book on Spinoza was, after much of my reading on the subject, the only book I really needed to get an intermediate grasp on the issues, literature and exegesis. I came to look up her life a bit more on the internet and I found out some really fascinating things about her:

1. Some allege that she is one of the earliest figures to seriously think about biology as a philosopher (i.e. establishing the area that has become known as philosophy of biology).
2. She had been taught by varied figures from Heidegger to Carnap. Much of philosophical development was an exploration of who’s who in mid-20thC philosophy.
3. Grene seemed to have been quite a firebrand, very opinionated on the works of other philosophers; herself part of a rumour relating to the circumstances of Lakatos’ death!
4. Grene managed an eminent philosophical career that would be enviable by today’s standards, yet managed to take a 15-year hiatus to raise a family.

Grene came from an age of philosophy which begins to have dust on the hardcovers, an age that I quite admire, like a nice mature port (and I do like port). The age of philosophers who had real
diversity and humanity in their work. An age before the academy became an essay-mill with priorities like ‘research output’ or league tables. Grene had a unique and diverse philosophical career; spanning across the ‘continental’ and analytic divide that people later invented. That older age of philosophy is virtually extinguished.