Monday, January 15, 2018


Parmenides (c. 485 BCE) was a Greek philosopher from the colony of Elea in southern Italy. He is known as the founder of the Eleatic School of philosophy which taught a strict Monistic view of reality. Philosophical Monism is the belief that all of the sensible world is of one, basic, substance and being, un-created and indestructible.  According to the ancient writer Diogenes Laertius (c. 200 CE), Parmenides was a student of Xenophanes of Colophon (who some claim as the founder of the Eleatic School) but left his master’s discipline to pursue his own vision. Even so, the stamp of Xenophanes’ teachings can be seen in the work of Parmenides in that both assert that the things in life which one thinks one understands may be quite different than they seem to be, especially regarding an understanding of the gods. Xenophon's insistence on a single deity, who in no way resembled human beings, seems to have been the basis for Parmenides' claim of a single substance comprising all of reality. Parmenides was a younger contemporary of Heraclitus who claimed that all things are constantly in motion and change (that the basic `stuff' of life is change itself). Parmenides’ thought could not be further removed from that of Heraclitus in that Parmenides claimed nothing moved, change was an impossibility, and that human sense perception could not be relied upon for an apprehension of Truth.

 According to Parmenides, “There is a way which is and a way which is not” (a way of fact, or truth, and a way of opinion about things) and one must come to an understanding of the way “which is” to understand the nature of life. Known as the Philosopher of Changeless Being, Parmenides' insistance on an eternal, single Truth and his repudiation of relativism and mutability would greatly influence the young philosopher Plato and, through him, Aristotle (though the latter would interpret Parmenides’ Truth quite differently than his master did). Plato devoted a dialogue to the man, the Parmenides, in which Parmenides and his student, Zeno, come to Athens and instruct a young Socrates in philosophical wisdom. This is quite an homage to the thought of Parmenides in that, in most dialogues, Plato presents Socrates as the wise questioner who needs no instruction from anyone. While Parmenides was an older contemporary of Socrates, it is doubtful the two men ever met and Plato's dialogue is considered an idealized account of the philosopher (though accurate in portraying his philosophy). Zeno of Elea was Parmenides' most famous student and wrote forty paradoxes in defense of Parmenides’ claim that change – and even motion – were illusions which one must disregard in order to know the nature of oneself and that of the universe.

Nothing is capable of inherently changing in any significant fashion because the very substance of reality is unchangeable and 'nothingness' cannot be comprehended.

Zeno's work was intended to clarify and defend Parmenides' statements, such as, "There is not, nor will there be, anything other than what is since indeed Destiny has fettered it to remain whole and immovable. Therefore those things which mortals have established, believing them to be true, will be mere names: "'coming into being and passing away,' 'being and not being,' 'change of place'..."(Robinson, 116). In other words, Parmenides argues that we may think the world we live in is comprised of multiples but, in reality, it is One. Nothing is capable of inherently changing in any significant fashion because the very substance of reality is unchangeable and 'nothingness' cannot be comprehended.

Even so, it seems that Parmenides' ideas themselves were hard to comprehend for his listeners, necessitating Zeno's mathematical paradoxes. Parmenides' main point, however, was simply that nothing could come from nothing and that `being' must have always existed. He writes:
There is left but this single path to tell thee of: namely, that being is. And on this path there are many proofs that being is without beginning and indestructible; it is universal, existing alone, immovable and without end; nor ever was it nor will it be, since it now is, all together, one, and continuous. For what generating of it wilt thou seek out? From what did it grow, and how? I will not permit thee to say or to think that it came from not-being; for it is impossible to think or to say that not-being is. 

What would then have stirred it into activity that it should arise from not-being later rather than earlier? So it is necessary that being either is absolutely or is not. Nor will the force of the argument permit that anything spring from being except being itself. Therefore justice does not slacken her fetters to permit generation or destruction, but holds being firm. (Fairbanks, 93)

Simply put, his argument is that since `something' cannot come from `nothing' then `something' must have always existed in order to produce the sensible world. This world we perceive, then, is of one substance - that same substance from which it came - and we who inhabit it share in this same unity of substance. Therefore, if it should appear that a person is born from `nowhere' or that one dies and goes somewhere else, both of these perceptions must be wrong since that which is now can never have been `not' nor can it ever `not be'. In this, Parmenides may be developing ideas from the earlier philosopher Pythagoras (c. 571-c.497 BCE) who claimed the soul is immortal and returns to the sensible world repeatedly through reincarnation. If so, however, Parmenides very radically departed from Pythagorean thought which allows that there is plurality present in our reality. 

To Parmenides, and his disciples of the Eleatic School, such a claim would be evidence of belief in the senses which, they insisted, could never be trusted to reveal the truth. The Eleatic principle that all is one, and unchanging, exerted considerable influence on later philosophers and schools of thought. Besides Plato (who, in addition to the dialogue Parmenides also addressed Eleatic concepts in his dialogues of the Sophist and the Statesman) the famous Sophist Gorgias employed Eleatic reasoning and principles in his work as Aristotle would also do later, principally in his Metaphysics.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Kant: Critique of Pure Reason


The Critique of Pure Reason  (1781; second edition 1787) is a book by Immanuel Kant that is considered one of the most influential works in the history of philosophy. Also referred to as Kant's First Critique, it was followed by the Critique of Practical Reason (1788) and the Critique of Judgment (1790). In the preface to the first edition Kant explains what he means by critique of pure reason, stating "I do not mean by this a critique of books and systems, but of the faculty of reason in general, in respect of all knowledge after which it may strive independently of all experience."

The Critique is an investigation into the foundations and limits of human knowledge, and the extent to which the human mind is able to engage in metaphysics. Kant builds on the work of empiricist philosophers such as John Locke and David Hume, as well as rationalists such as Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and Christian Wolff. He expounds new ideas on the nature of space and time, and claims to provide solutions to Hume's scepticism regarding human knowledge of the relation of cause and effect, and René Descartes' scepticism regarding knowledge of the external world. Kant claims to enact a 'Copernican revolution' in philosophy with his doctrine of transcendental idealism, according to which our knowledge does not "conform to objects", but rather objects "conform to our knowledge".According to Kant's doctrine, the human mind shapes and structures the world of experience, making knowledge possible.


Summary of the Critique of Pure Reason:

The Critique of Pure Reason, published by Immanuel Kant in 1781, is one of the most complex structures and the most significant of modern philosophy, bringing a revolution at least as great as that of Descartes and his Discourse on Method.

The complexity of the first review (the second is the critique of practical reason, and the third is a critique of the faculty of judging), is such that Kant himself published an introductory text, entitled Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics.

The aim of this book is summed up quite easily, however: metaphysics is a battle that needs to be ordered. Kant proposes to everyone agreed, giving a new status to reason and new contours to the understanding. In summary, the critique of pure reason tries to define credible to the question: How do I know? To this question Kant answers, I can think of the objects of metaphysics (God, I, the world), but not knowing in the sense that I know the laws of physics.

Analysis of the Critique of Pure Reason Kant:

Kant makes two crucial distinction: between a priori and a posteriori and between analytic and synthetic judgments.

A posteriori knowledge is knowledge gained from the experience and knowledge a priori knowledge is necessary and universal, independent of experience, such as our knowledge of mathematics.

In an analytical statement, the predicate is contained in the concept in the subject, as, for example, in Judgement, “a bachelor is an unmarried man.” In summary judgments, the predicate contains information not included in the concept. Typically, one associates with the knowledge a posteriori synthetic judgments a priori knowledge and analytical judgments. For example, the decision “all swans are white” is synthetic because the whiteness is not a part of the concept of “Swan” (a black swan is a swan yet), but it is also a posteriori because we can not whether all swans are white.

Kant argues that math and science principles are synthetic a priori knowledge. For example, the ruling “7 + 5 = 12” is a priori because it is a necessary and universal truth, and it is synthetic, because the concept of “12” is not contained in the concept of “7 + 5” .

Because man is capable of synthetic knowledge a priori, pure reason is then able to know important truths. However, Kant is at odds with the rationalist metaphysics poses the omnipotence of reason, capable of penetrating the mysteries. On the contrary, Kant argues that it is about shaping the reality around him. The subject is not only affected by the world, he is actively involved in its creation. We shall return to this Copernican revolution.

Time and space, according to Kant, are pure intuitions of our sensibility, and concepts of physics such as causality or inertia are pure intuitions of our faculty of understanding. In other words, the subject experiences the real and the information received is processed, organized, analyzed by reason. However, the reality is that a compound of phenomena, behind which there are things in themselves (“noumena”). The phenomena is the world as it appears on the noumena the world as it is, without a viewer.

After giving an explanation of how synthetic a priori knowledge makes math and science possible, Kant turns to metaphysics. Metaphysics is the realm of pure reason, ie the scope of a priori.

Kant, rationalism and empiricism to criticism

In the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant achieves a synthesis between rationalist and empiricist traditions. Rationalism, it takes up the idea that pure reason is capable of important knowledge, and empiricism, he admits the idea that knowledge comes primarily from the experience. Thus, it avoids the metaphysical speculations of the rationalists without falling into metaphysical skepticism.

Kant realizes what he calls a Copernican revolution in philosophy: that is to overthrow the report subject / object, that is to ask that is the thought that perceives the object. Kant denies the idea of ​​making the mind a blank page or a receiver of stimuli in the world. The mind does not only receive information, it also provides information that shape. Knowledge, and is not something that exists in the outside world and is then introduced into an open mind. Knowledge is rather something created by the mind.

Kant differs from its predecessors by claiming that rationalists pure reason can discern the shape, but not the content of reality. Rationalists such as Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz have speculated about the nature of time, space, causality, God, thinking that pure reason was entitled to find satisfactory answers to these objects.

The critique of pure reason opens a third way for metaphysics, half way between rationalism that claims to know everything, and empiricism that defies reason to be able to find anything out of the experience: this path is that of criticism (or transcendental philosophy), which limits the power of reason to re-legitimized.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Kant : Critique of Practical Reason


The Critique of Practical Reason (German: Kritik der praktischen Vernunft, KpV) is the second of Immanuel Kant's three critiques, first published in 1788. It follows on from Kant's Critique of Pure Reason and deals with his moral philosophy.

The second Critique exercised a decisive influence over the subsequent development of the field of ethics and moral philosophy, beginning with Johann Gottlieb Fichte's Doctrine of Science and becoming, during the 20th century, the principal reference point for deontological moral philosophy.

The first Critique was a critique of the pretensions of pure theoretical reason to attain metaphysical truths beyond the ken of applied theoretical reason. The conclusion was that pure theoretical reason must be restrained, because it produces confused arguments when applied outside of its appropriate sphere. However, the Critique of Practical Reason is not a critique of pure practical reason, but rather a defense of it as being capable of grounding behavior superior to that grounded by desire-based practical reasoning. It is actually a critique, then, of the pretensions of applied practical reason. Pure practical reason must not be restrained, in fact, but cultivated.

Kant informs us that while the first Critique suggested that God, freedom, and immortality are unknowable, the second Critique will mitigate this claim. Freedom is indeed knowable because it is revealed by God. God and immortality are also knowable, but practical reason now requires belief in these postulates of reason. Kant once again invites his dissatisfied critics to actually provide a proof of God's existence and shows that this is impossible because the various arguments (ontological, cosmological and teleological) for God's existence all depend essentially on the idea that existence is a predicate inherent to the concepts to which it is applied.


The Critique of Practical Reason contains two sections, the Doctrine of Elements, containing the Analytic of Pure Practical Reason and the Dialectic of Pure Practical Reason. These section headings are the same as those of the Critique of Pure Reason. Overall, the Analytic contains the arguments for the categorical imperative as the one true moral principle and for the identity of morality and freedom, the Dialectic exposes the primary error of all previous ethicists and proposes the postulates of pure practical reason, and the Doctrine of Method proposes a new method for moral education.

The Analytic, which is set up like a geometric proof, takes several steps to reach its primary conclusion, that the one ultimate moral principle is to only act such that the maxim of your will could hold universally. A law, Kant says, must be necessary and universal, for otherwise it is no law. If that is so, though, its force cannot be dependent on any contingent feature of the person following it. Next he argues that any law whose force was supposed to depend on its content would run afoul of this—if we tried to say that obedience to God was the ultimate moral law, we could not, for this law could only hold for those who wanted to obey God. Furthermore, on the view of human psychology Kant advances, to act on one's desire to be obedient to God would be to act to satisfy one's contingent pleasure in such obedience. This leaves only the empty form of universality to be the law-giving force of the law. So, for example, it is forbidden to break one's promises, since it would be impossible for breaking promises to be universalized.

The Analytic now goes on to argue that the free person and the moral person are one and the same. The free person acts on a law, and not randomly, but not an externally given law, for that would be a form of slavery. Only the categorical imperative is found suitable. Conversely, the moral person is following the practical law and is not bound by contingent desires, and so is autonomous.

The Dialectic accuses all previous ethical writers of having made the same mistake, the mistake of having regarded the morally worthy as aiming at the highest good instead of seeing the highest good as that which is aimed at by morality. These ethical systems were doomed to fail because the moral will cannot be constrained by an independent highest good, since for it to seek anything independent of itself would be to constrain its freedom. In this phenomenal world, furthermore, the highest good is not to be found. However, since following the practical law presupposes believing that its aim, the highest good, will be then achieved, reason requires us to believe the highest good is achievable. It turns out that this, in turn, requires belief in God and immortality. Without God, there is nothing to guarantee that following the moral law will produce the highest good of happiness proportional to morality, and without immortality, there is not enough time for us to achieve perfect morality.

We understand our freedom—which would otherwise be undetectable—while following the moral law. This following of the moral law frees us from the control of our desires. Our ability to feel the force of the practical law is also how we come to know that there is such a law. Therefore, the conclusions about this law, reached in the beginning of the Analytic, are not merely hypothetical. In arguing thus for the reality of morality and freedom, Kant reverses the order of evidence he had in his earlier Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, where he derived morality from freedom.

Finally, in the Doctrine of Method, Kant proposes a method for teaching morality. It is essential to teach the student to act from duty, and not merely outwardly, conforming to morality. Kant recommends that we enlist our pupil's natural delight in arguing about ethical matters and allow him to develop his judgment by asserting various purported moral actions. We are warned not to either err by presenting examples of overblown heroism as paradigms of morality—since these will not help the student deal with normal, non- melodramatic moral dilemmas—or by presenting morality as prudent, since then the student will never learn to properly love morality for its own sake. By presenting examples of the moral law acting purely and without the help of other incentives, the student then learns to understand how the moral law can free him from slavery to his desires.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Kant: Critique of Judgment


Immanuel Kant's Critique of Judgment completes the Critical project begun in the Critique of Pure Reason and the Critique of Practical Reason (the First and Second Critiques, respectively). The book is divided into two main sections: the Critique of Aesthetic Judgment and the Critique of Teleological Judgment, and also includes a large overview of the entirety of Kant's Critical system, arranged in its final form. The so-called First Introduction was not published during Kant's lifetime, for Kant wrote a replacement for publication.

The Critical project, that of exploring the limits and conditions of knowledge, had already produced the Critique of Pure Reason, in which Kant argued for a Transcendental Aesthetic, an approach to the problems of perception in which space and time are argued not to be objects but ways in which the observing subject's mind organizes and structures the sensory world. The end result of this inquiry is that there are certain fundamental antinomies in human Reason, most particularly that there is a complete inability to favor on the one hand the argument that all behavior and thought is determined by external causes, and on the other that there is an actual "spontaneous" causal principle at work in human behavior.

The first position, of causal determinism, is adopted, in Kant's view, by empirical scientists of all sorts; moreover, it led to the Idea (perhaps never fully to be realized) of a final science in which all empirical knowledge could be synthesized into a full and complete causal explanation of all events possible to the world.

The second position, of spontaneous causality, is implicitly adopted by all people as they engage in moral behavior; this position is explored more fully in the Critique of Practical Reason.

The Critique of Judgment constitutes a discussion of the place of Judgment itself, which must overlap both the Understanding ("Verstand") (whichsoever operates from within a deterministic framework) and Reason ("Vernunft") (which operates on the grounds of freedom).



The Critique of Judgment, often called the Third Critique, does not have as clear a focus as the first two critiques. In broad outline, Kant sets about examining our faculty of judgment, which leads him down a number of divergent paths. While the Critique of Judgment deals with matters related to science and teleology, it is most remembered for what Kant has to say about aesthetics.

Kant calls aesthetic judgments “judgments of taste” and remarks that, though they are based in an individual’s subjective feelings, they also claim universal validity. Our feelings about beauty differ from our feelings about pleasure and moral goodness in that they are disinterested. We seek to possess pleasurable objects, and we seek to promote moral goodness, but we simply appreciate beauty without feeling driven to find some use for it. Judgments of taste are universal because they are disinterested: our individual wants and needs do not come into play when appreciating beauty, so our aesthetic response applies universally. Aesthetic pleasure comes from the free play between the imagination and understanding when perceiving an object.

Kant distinguishes the beautiful from the sublime. While the appeal of beautiful objects is immediately apparent, the sublime holds an air of mystery and ineffability. While a Greek statue or a pretty flower is beautiful, the movement of storm clouds or a massive building is sublime: they are, in a sense, too great to get our heads around. Kant argues that our sense of the sublime is connected with our faculty of reason, which has ideas of absolute totality and absolute freedom. While storm clouds or a massive building might stretch our minds, they are nothing compared with reason’s ideas of absolute totality and freedom. Apprehending sublime objects puts us in touch with these ideas of reason, so that sublimity resides not in sublime objects but in reason itself.

In a second part of the book, Kant wrestles with the concept of teleology, the idea that something has an end, or purpose. Teleology falls somewhere between science and theology, and Kant argues that the concept is useful in scientific work even though we would be wrong to assume that teleological principles are actually at work in nature.


While much of what Kant writes about aesthetics might strike us now as a bit dated, his work is historically very significant. Kant’s Third Critique is one of the early works in the field of aesthetics and one of the most important treatises on the subject ever written. Aesthetics differs from literary criticism and art criticism, which have existed for millennia, in that it attempts to explain not only why things are or are not beautiful but also the concept of beauty and how the perception of beauty arises in us. Kant takes on the considerable task of making room for the concepts of the beautiful and the sublime in the complex account of the mind he gives in his first two Critiques. Unfortunately for Kant, the success of this project can be understood only in the context of his complex and abstruse philosophical system, while its failures are immediately apparent. The close relationship between art and politics, which became clear in the twentieth century, casts doubt on Kant’s assertion that our response to art is disinterested, and his claim that our sense of beauty is universal makes less sense in a world in which we are exposed to the diversity of artistic products of different cultures. Although his work continues to influence work in aesthetics, Kant falls victim to the same problem that touches everyone who tries to make general claims about art: the very concept of art has great historical fluidity so that we can never nail down for all time exactly what it is.

Kant’s account of beauty as based in subjective feeling as well as his struggles with teleology stem from his desire to refute all metaphysical proofs of God. Kant is by no means an atheist, and he makes forceful arguments for why we ought to believe in God. However, God is the ultimate thing-in-itself, and so, according to Kant’s epistemology, the nature and even the existence of God are fundamentally unknowable. In the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant provides refutations for all the main “proofs” of God’s existence, one of which is the Argument from Design. According to this argument, the patterns and formal perfection in nature suggest the presence of an intelligent designer. Kant argues that our judgment of beauty is a subjective feeling, even though it possesses universal validity, in part because arguing that beauty is objective would play into the hands of those who make the Argument from Design. If beauty were an objective property of certain objects in nature, the question would naturally arise of how these objects were bestowed with beauty. This question would provide a toehold for the Argument from Design, an outcome that Kant is determined to avoid.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Meditations on First Philosophy by Descartes


Meditations on First Philosophy (subtitled In which the existence of God and the immortality of the soul are demonstrated) is a philosophical treatise by René Descartes first published in 1641 (in Latin). The French translation (by the Duke of Luynes with Descartes' supervision) was published in 1647 as Méditations Métaphysiques. The original Latin title is Meditationes de prima philosophia, in qua Dei existentia et animæ immortalitas demonstratur. The title may contain a misreading by the printer, mistaking animae immortalitas for animae immaterialitas, as suspected already by A. Baillet.

The book is made up of six meditations, in which Descartes first discards all belief in things that are not absolutely certain, and then tries to establish what can be known for sure. He wrote the meditations as if he had meditated for six days: each meditation refers to the last one as "yesterday" (In fact, Descartes began work on the Meditations in 1639.) One of the most influential philosophical texts ever written, it is widely read to this day.

The Meditations consist of the presentation of Descartes' metaphysical system in its most detailed level and in the expanding of Descartes' philosophical system, which he first introduced in the fourth part of his Discourse on Method (1637). Descartes' metaphysical thought is also found in the Principles of Philosophy (1644), which the author intended to be a philosophy guidebook.

In 1641 Descartes published the Meditations on First Philosophy, in Which Is Proved the Existence of God and the Immortality of the Soul. Written in Latin and dedicated to the Jesuit professors at the Sorbonne in Paris, the work includes critical responses by several eminent thinkers—collected by Mersenne from the Jansenist philosopher and theologian Antoine Arnauld (1612–94), the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), and the Epicurean atomist Pierre Gassendi (1592–1655)—as well as Descartes’s replies. The second edition (1642) includes a response by the Jesuit priest Pierre Bourdin (1595–1653), who Descartes said was a fool. These objections and replies constitute a landmark of cooperative discussion in philosophy and science at a time when dogmatism was the rule.


The Meditations is characterized by Descartes’s use of methodic doubt, a systematic procedure of rejecting as though false all types of belief in which one has ever been, or could ever be, deceived. His arguments derive from the skepticism of the Greek philosopher Sextus Empiricus (fl. 3rd century CE) as reflected in the work of the essayist Michel de Montaigne (1533–92) and the Catholic theologian Pierre Charron (1541–1603). Thus, Descartes’s apparent knowledge based on authority is set aside, because even experts are sometimes wrong. His beliefs from sensory experience are declared untrustworthy, because such experience is sometimes misleading, as when a square tower appears round from a distance. Even his beliefs about the objects in his immediate vicinity may be mistaken, because, as he notes, he often has dreams about objects that do not exist, and he has no way of knowing with certainty whether he is dreaming or awake. Finally, his apparent knowledge of simple and general truths of reasoning that do not depend on sense experience—such as “2 + 3 = 5” or “a square has four sides”—is also unreliable, because God could have made him in such a way that, for example, he goes wrong every time he counts. As a way of summarizing the universal doubt into which he has fallen, Descartes supposes that an “evil genius of the utmost power and cunning has employed all his energies in order to deceive me.”

Although at this stage there is seemingly no belief about which he cannot entertain doubt, Descartes finds certainty in the intuition that, when he is thinking—even if he is being deceived—he must exist. In the Discourse, Descartes expresses this intuition in the dictum “I think, therefore I am”; but because “therefore” suggests that the intuition is an argument—though it is not—in the Meditations he says merely, “I think, I am” (“Cogito, sum”). The cogito is a logically self-evident truth that also gives intuitively certain knowledge of a particular thing’s existence—that is, one’s self. Nevertheless, it justifies accepting as certain only the existence of the person who thinks it. If all one ever knew for certain was that one exists, and if one adhered to Descartes’s method of doubting all that is uncertain, then one would be reduced to solipsism, the view that nothing exists but one’s self and thoughts. To escape solipsism, Descartes argues that all ideas that are as “clear and distinct” as the cogito must be true, for, if they were not, the cogito also, as a member of the class of clear and distinct ideas, could be doubted. Since “I think, I am” cannot be doubted, all clear and distinct ideas must be true.

On the basis of clear and distinct innate ideas, Descartes then establishes that each mind is a mental substance and each body a part of one material substance. The mind or soul is immortal, because it is unextended and cannot be broken into parts, as can extended bodies. Descartes also advances at least two proofs for the existence of God. The final proof, presented in the Fifth Meditation, begins with the proposition that Descartes has an innate idea of God as a perfect being. It concludes that God necessarily exists, because, if he did not, he would not be perfect. This ontological argument for God’s existence, introduced by the medieval English logician St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033/34–1109), is at the heart of Descartes’s rationalism, for it establishes certain knowledge about an existing thing solely on the basis of reasoning from innate ideas, with no help from sensory experience. Descartes elsewhere argues that, because God is perfect, he does not deceive human beings, and therefore, because God leads us to believe that the material world exists, it does exist. In this way Descartes claims to establish metaphysical foundations for the existence of his own mind, of God, and of the material world.

The inherent circularity of Descartes’s reasoning was exposed by Arnauld, whose objection has come to be known as the Cartesian Circle. According to Descartes, God’s existence is established by the fact that Descartes has a clear and distinct idea of God; but the truth of Descartes’s clear and distinct ideas are guaranteed by the fact that God exists and is not a deceiver. Thus, in order to show that God exists, Descartes must assume that God exists.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Treatise on Tolerance by Voltaire

The Treatise on Tolerance on the Occasion of the Death of Jean Calas from the Judgment Rendered in Toulouse (Pieces Originales Concernant la Mort des Sieurs Calas det le Jugement rendu a Toulouse) is a work by French philosopher Voltaire, published in 1763, in which he calls for tolerance between religions, and targets religious fanaticism, especially that of the Jesuits (under whom Voltaire received his early education), indicting all superstitions surrounding religions.

Voltaire's work follows the trial of Jean Calas (1698-1762), a Protestant accused of murdering his son Marc-Antoine to prevent his conversion to the Church and executed in Toulouse on March 10, 1762 despite enduring torture after the prosecution used perjured witnesses, in a case which Voltaire took to display Catholic prejudice and fanaticism. In 1765, after the king fired the chief magistrate and the case was retried by another court, Calas was posthumously exonerated and his family paid 36 thousand francs.

Voltaire's argument is illustrated in the following passages:

"There are about forty millions of inhabitants in Europe who are not members of the Church of Rome; should we say to every one of them, 'Sir, since you are infallibly damned, I shall neither eat, converse, nor have any connections with you?'";

"O different worshippers of a peaceful God! If you have a cruel heart, if, while you adore he whose whole law consists of these few words, "Love God and your neighbor'..."

"I see all the dead of past ages and of our own appearing in His presence. Are you very sure that our Creator and Father will say to the wise and virtuous Confucius, to the legislator Solon, to Pythagoras, Zaleucus, Socrates, Plato, the divine Antonins, the good Trajan, to Titus, the delights of mankind, to Epictetus, and to many others, models of men: 'Go, monsters, go and suffer torments that are infinite in intensity and duration. Let your punishment be eternal as I am. But you, my beloved ones, Jean Châtel, Ravaillac, Damiens, Cartouche, etc. who have died according to the prescribed rules, sit forever at my right hand and share my empire and my felicity.' You draw back with horror at these words; and after they have escaped me, I have nothing more to say to you."

Publication and reception

Voltaire finished the work by January 2, 1763, and it was printed by the Cramer brothers in Geneva in April 1763. After copies had been distributed to selected recipients include Madame de Pompadour, ministers of the French privy council, the king of Prussia, and some German princes, it began to be distributed in October 1763 and was quickly banned.

In January 2015, after the Charlie Hebdo shooting, it was reported that Treatise on Tolerance had become a bestseller in France more than 250 years after its first publication.

Some notes on the history of tolerance
Tolerance and intolerance are themes at the center of many contemporary debates, and their prominence has become stronger after the tragic events in France on January 7 and 8, 2015. On Internet these events have sparkled many reactions. Whatever my views and opinions, for me one of the questions arising is also how these events should influence the stream of postings on this blog. Can one use historical situations to shed light on our times, or Is it sensible to stay somewhat aloof? Perhaps it is wiser to remember that to step aside is taking a side, too.

When somehow among all remarks and exchanges about the situation in France the name of Voltaire came into view it provided me with at least one element of a contribution about the origins of tolerance. Eighteenth-century France is the setting of this post. The history of tolerance is complicated, and the number of themes, persons and subjects here does reflect it. Philosophy, criminal law, legal advice, legislation, the world of literature and debate, and also images, should all appear here for good reasons, but for the sake of length legal matters will be at the center of this post, and other themes appear more at the margin. In fact it turns out to be really interesting to choose for this focus. To some extent you can read this post also as part of a guide to digital resources for the history of France during the Ancien Régime and the French Revolution.

Although I do not want to make you suffer by reading a rather too long post I bring here on purpose several themes together which in my opinion are best seen in connection to each other. In my view the interplay between a multitude of subjects, themes and resources concerning the French Ancien Régime and the French Revolution is fairly typical when you want to study these subjects. You can read this post also as a sequel to my post ‘Laws and the French Revolution’ (January 2015).

Circles and layers around law and tol
The first focal point for tolerance in France during the Ancien Régime in the current discussion seems to be Voltaire’s Traité de la tolérance (1763). One can read this treatise as a plea for tolerance, both on a philosophical and a practical level, and the background of this text can seem a mere pretext or occasion for expressing these views. John Locke had put tolerance center stage to thoughts about the best possible way of government in his treatise A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689 – online for example at Early Modern Texts and the Constitution Society), but Voltaire is not just reacting in a philosophical debate without any connection to contemporary developments. Locke wrote his treatise one year after the Glorious Revolution (1688), and this, too, should make you hesitate to see the history of political thought as a history of ideas which can be studied in separation from contemporary surroundings.

Voltaire might not have qualified professionally as a philosopher, but he certainly belonged to the circle of French philosophes. It is important to note Locke expressed his views in a letter, and Voltaire in a book-length treatise, an interesting fact for a prolific letter writer and playwright. The literary dimensions of Voltaire’s work are really important in gauging the impact and importance of his views and thoughts. Of course it is wise to look beyond just one text of a writer, and exactly how you can realize this nowadays will be one of the issues in this post. Voltaire wrote texts in a number of literary genres, and he had wide contacts all over Europe, a fact returning later in this post. A characteristic of his work is the use of irony, and even more, the possibility to read his texts in several ways, both at face value or with a potential for irony immediately below the surface. This ambiguity makes it harder but also more interesting to gain a perspective on his views and coded messages.

The machinery of law

The initial impulse for Voltaire’s treatise on tolerance came from his reaction to the case of Jean Calas, a merchant from Toulouse who had been sentenced to death in 1762 by the Parlement de Toulouse for allegedly killing his son Marc-Antoine, presumably because his son wanted to convert to the Catholic church. Calas was subjected to torture and broken upon the wheel. If we remember this case today as a cause célèbre it is to a large extent thanks to Voltaire’s efforts. In an article from 1994, ‘Procès, affaire, cause: Voltaire et l ‘innovation critique’,1 Élisabeth Claverie analyzes the way Voltaire set out to make an affair out of this case, and indeed created the model for fueling public indignation about cases which seem to run contrary to the public good.

Assembling materials to expose alleged and real abuses of the Catholic Church and its influence on French society might seem an obvious thing for Voltaire, but he did look seriously enough at the exact dealings of the judiciary in the Calas case. His treatise was only a final phase in a series of letters and preparatory texts, some of them meant for public use, some definitely not. Voltaire used his connections to bring the case to the attention of the French king, including getting Calas’ widow to Paris to plead in person her case before the king. Whatever Voltaire’s views of harmful Catholic influence, he aimed foremost at an official rehabilitation of Calas. An online dossier by Anne Thouzet gives you detailed information about the trial at Toulouse, the infringements to the ordinance of the Parlement de Toulouse and royal ordinances about criminal procedure – in particular the Ordonnance criminelle of 1670 – and to various other documents and images. Thouzet also points to a number of relevant web links. The Archives départementales de la Haute-Garonne in Toulouse have created a PDF with transcriptions of some documents, ‘Calas, du procès à l’affaire

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Aristotle: Causation and Being


In several places Aristotle distinguishes four types of cause, or explanation. First, he says, there is that of which and out of which a thing is made, such as the bronze of a statue. This is called the material cause. Second, there is the form or pattern of a thing, which may be expressed in its definition; Aristotle’s example is the proportion of the length of two strings in a lyre, which is the formal cause of one note’s being the octave of another. The third type of cause is the origin of a change or state of rest in something; this is often called the “efficient cause.” Aristotle gives as examples a person reaching a decision, a father begetting a child, a sculptor carving a statue, and a doctor healing a patient. The fourth and last type of cause is the end or goal of a thing—that for the sake of which a thing is done. This is known as the “final cause.”

Although Aristotle gives mathematical examples of formal causes, the forms whose causation interests him most are the substantial forms of living beings. In these cases substantial form is the structure or organization of the being as a whole, as well as of its various parts; it is this structure that explains the being’s life cycle and characteristic activities. In these cases, in fact, formal and final causes coincide, the mature realization of natural form being the end to which the activities of the organism tend. The growth and development of the various parts of a living being, such as the root of a tree or the heart of a sheep, can be understood only as the actualization of a certain structure for the purpose of performing a certain biological function.


For Aristotle, “being” is whatever is anything whatever. Whenever Aristotle explains the meaning of being, he does so by explaining the sense of the Greek verb to be. Being contains whatever items can be the subjects of true propositions containing the word is, whether or not the is is followed by a predicate. Thus, both Socrates is and Socrates is wise say something about being. Every being in any category other than substance is a property or a modification of substance. For this reason, Aristotle says that the study of substance is the way to understand the nature of being. The books of the Metaphysics in which he undertakes this investigation, VII through IX, are among the most difficult of his writings.

Aristotle gives two superficially conflicting accounts of the subject matter of first philosophy. According to one account, it is the discipline “which theorizes about being qua being, and the things which belong to being taken in itself”; unlike the special sciences, it deals with the most general features of beings, insofar as they are beings. On the other account, first philosophy deals with a particular kind of being, namely, divine, independent, and immutable substance; for this reason he sometimes calls the discipline “theology.”

It is important to note that these accounts are not simply two different descriptions of “being qua being.” There is, indeed, no such thing as being qua being; there are only different ways of studying being. When one studies human physiology, for example, one studies humans qua animals—that is to say, one studies the structures and functions that humans have in common with animals. But of course there is no such entity as a “human qua animal.” Similarly, to study something as a being is to study it in virtue of what it has in common with all other things. To study the universe as being is to study it as a single overarching system, embracing all the causes of things coming into being and remaining in existence.
The unmoved mover

The way in which Aristotle seeks to show that the universe is a single causal system is through an examination of the notion of movement, which finds its culmination in Book XI of the Metaphysics. As noted above, motion, for Aristotle, refers to change in any of several different categories. Aristotle’s fundamental principle is that everything that is in motion is moved by something else, and he offers a number of (unconvincing) arguments to this effect. He then argues that there cannot be an infinite series of moved movers. If it is true that when A is in motion there must be some B that moves A, then if B is itself in motion there must be some C moving B, and so on. This series cannot go on forever, and so it must come to a halt in some X that is a cause of motion but does not move itself—an unmoved mover.

Since the motion it causes is everlasting, this X must itself be an eternal substance. It must lack matter, for it cannot come into existence or go out of existence by turning into anything else. It must also lack potentiality, for the mere power to cause motion would not ensure the sempiternity of motion. It must, therefore, be pure actuality (energeia). Although the revolving heavens, for Aristotle, lack the possibility of substantial change, they possess potentiality, because each heavenly body has the power to move elsewhere in its diurnal round. Since these bodies are in motion, they need a mover, and this is a motionless mover. Such a mover could not act as an efficient cause, because that would involve a change in itself, but it can act as a final cause—an object of love—because being loved does not involve any change in the beloved. The stars and planets seek to imitate the perfection of the unmoved mover by moving about the Earth in a circle, the most perfect of shapes. For this to be the case, of course, the heavenly bodies must have souls capable of feeling love for the unmoved mover. “On such a principle,” Aristotle says, “depend the heavens and the world of nature.”

Aristotle is prepared to call the unmoved mover “God.” The life of God, he says, must be like the very best of human lives. The delight that a human being takes in the sublimest moments of philosophical contemplation is in God a perpetual state. What, Aristotle asks, does God think of? He must think of something—otherwise, he is no better than a sleeping human—and whatever he is thinking of, he must think of eternally. Either he thinks about himself, or he thinks about something else. But the value of a thought depends on the value of what it is a thought of, so, if God were thinking of anything other than himself, he would be somehow degraded. So he must be thinking of himself, the supreme being, and his life is a thinking of thinking (noesis noeseos).

This conclusion has been much debated. Some have regarded it as a sublime truth; others have thought it a piece of exquisite nonsense. Among those who have taken the latter view, some have considered it the supreme absurdity of Aristotle’s system, and others have held that Aristotle himself intended it as a reductio ad absurdum. Whatever the truth about the object of thought of the unmoved mover, it seems clear that it does not include the contingent affairs of individual human beings.

Thus, at the supreme point of Aristotle’s causal hierarchy stand the heavenly movers, moved and unmoved, which are the final cause of all generation and corruption. And this is why metaphysics can be called by two such different names. When Aristotle says that first philosophy studies the whole of being, he is describing it by indicating the field it is to explain; when he says that it is the science of the divine, he is describing it by indicating its ultimate principles of explanation. Thus, first philosophy is both the science of being qua being and also theology.