Posts Tagged ‘ Kant ’

16. Locke’s ‘An Essay Concerning the Human Understanding’

In the ten paragraphs of this excerpt, John Locke presents an excellent example for any critical thinker, setting out the assumptions of his opponents and rebutting each one in turn with logical analysis. Working through his ideas will always pay dividends, not least because many of the issues and arguments he puts forth – in this excerpt and elsewhere – are still being repeated in debates both in and out of philosophy.

In this excerpt, Locke begins his attack on the doctrine of innate ideas. Apparently still misunderstood by Christian critics, Locke’s point turns not on the fact that people fail to follow supposedly innate moral rules, but that such rules and other supposed innate ideas are not seen to be true when their meaning is grasped in the way that sentences such as ‘It is impossible for the same thing to be and not to be’ are. Even these kinds of sentences – the best candidates that innatists could offer in Locke’s time for God-given truths – are not, as Locke argues in the pages following this extract, examples of innate truths provided by God but merely semantic tautologies.

While the question of whether there are any innate ideas or not was certainly not settled by Locke, it did stimulate a century of debate between the opposing camps of rationalists and empiricists (Locke’s view belongs to the latter camp). Kant had sought to resolve that impasse with his ‘Copernican revolution‘, but discussions in the 20th Century by Chomsky and others regarding language use led to something of a revival for the doctrine of innatism.

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15. Kant’s ‘Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals’

For the critical thinker, they don’t come much more challenging than Kant, and in this excerpt from his “Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals”, you will be faced with a series of challenges that test all that you learned in the Part I: Primer part of this book.

First of all, Kant uses the science of his day – foreshadowing the Darwinian idea of evolution – to ground his argument. Secondly, he attacks the then still fashionable premise of the Enlightenment – that reason is the ultimate guide to happiness – not in order to show that reason is faulty, but rather to show why man stands above nature and mere hedonism. If reason cannot guide us to happiness, Kant concludes, then it is happiness that we must reject, not reason. Aristotle, while searching for the aim of the human being, had – in short – got things the wrong way around.

Kant is a challenge not just because of his complex and often water-tight argumentation but also for his language. Written originally in German, early translations such as this retain a literary and prosaic beauty that require deliberate reading by the modern student. Kant’s texts are highly rewarding so long as each line is read diligently and given enough time to be assimilated.

Many years after Kant, the existentialist philosopher Albert Camus, famously asked ‘Why should I not commit suicide?’ After all, if life has no intrinsic purpose and is nothing more than a sequence of meaningless moments whose aim is the avoidance of pain, no other question could be more pressing. Camus had apparently not read Kant carefully enough, for in this excerpt the answer is clearly given. Unlike Camus, Kant professed a belief in God, but the nub of his answer relies less on religious devotion and more on an understanding of how the faculty of reason – whatever its origin – places a demand of responsibility upon those that possess it.

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13. Nietzsche’s ‘The Challenge of Every Great Philosophy’

This excerpt from Friedrich Nietzsche provides a different set of challenges from the preceding ones. As was noted earlier, one of the source of difficulties – and, conversely, one of the pleasures – of reading philosophy is the various styles one must deal with. Nietzsche’s style is literary, which makes him eminently readable on the one hand yet frustratingly enigmatic on the other. He deals less in formal argument and more in aphorism, observation and assertion. He often places his own thoughts in the mouths of fictional or historical figures, weaving a complex tale of allegory, allusion, prophecy and psychological insight punctuated with doses of brilliant analysis. Nietzsche’s persuasive power and fame are as much attributable to his artfulness as a writer as they are to his philosophical intellect, and it seems certain that a lesser writer with similar ideas would have made nothing like the same impact.

The text appears perspicuous enough on a first reading, but much may be hidden to the novice reader without careful attention to the smallest of details. Make notes about each paragraph using the reading technique discussed earlier. You will find paragraph main ideas, answers to the questions and a commentary in the answer key.

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