Sunday, November 19, 2017

Benedict De Spinoza, one of the great philosophers of modernity


Benedict de Spinoza  was among the most important of the post-Cartesian philosophers who flourished in the second half of the 17th century. He made significant contributions in virtually every area of philosophy, and his writings reveal the influence of such divergent sources as Stoicism, Jewish Rationalism, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Descartes, and a variety of heterodox religious thinkers of his day. For this reason he is difficult to categorize, though he is usually counted, along with Descartes and Leibniz, as one of the three major Rationalists. Given Spinoza’s devaluation of sense perception as a means of acquiring knowledge, his description of a purely intellectual form of cognition, and his idealization of geometry as a model for philosophy, this categorization is fair. But it should not blind us to the eclecticism of his pursuits, nor to the striking originality of his thought.

Among philosophers, Spinoza is best known for his Ethics, a monumental work that presents an ethical vision unfolding out of a monistic metaphysics in which God and Nature are identified. God is no longer the transcendent creator of the universe who rules it via providence, but Nature itself, understood as an infinite, necessary, and fully deterministic system of which humans are a part. Humans find happiness only through a rational understanding of this system and their place within it. On account of this and the many other provocative positions he advocates, Spinoza has remained an enormously controversial figure. For many, he is the harbinger of enlightened modernity who calls us to live by the guidance of reason. For others, he is the enemy of the traditions that sustain us and the denier of what is noble within us. After a review of Spinoza’s life and works, this article examines the main themes of his philosophy, primarily as they are set forth in the Ethics.

1. Life and Works

Spinoza came into the world a Jew. Born in 1632, he was the son of Marrano parents. They had immigrated to Amsterdam from Portugal in order to escape the Inquisition that had spread across the Iberian Peninsula and live in the relatively tolerant atmosphere of Holland. Spinoza's father, Michael, was a successful merchant and a respected member of the community. His mother, Hanna, the second of Michael's three wives, died in 1638, just before Spinoza was to turn six.

The young Spinoza, given the name Baruch, was educated in his congregation's academy, the Talmud Torah school. There he received the kind of education that the community deemed necessary to constitute one as an educated Jew. This largely consisted of religious study , including instruction in Hebrew, liturgy, Torah, prophetic writings, and rabbinical commentaries. Although Spinoza no doubt excelled in these, he did not move on to the higher levels of study which focused on the Talmud and were typically undertaken by those preparing for the rabbinate. Whether by desire or by necessity, Spinoza left the school in order to work in his father's business, which he eventually took over with his half-brother, Gabriel.

The Jewish community in Amsterdam was by no means a closed one , but Spinoza's commercial activities put him in touch with more diverse currents of thought than those to which he had hitherto been exposed. Most significantly, he came into contact with so-called 'free-thinking' Protestants - dissenters from the dominant Calvinism – who maintained a lively interest in a wide range of theological issues, as well as in the latest developments in philosophy and science. This naturally included the work of Descartes, which was regarded by many in Holland to be the most promising of several alternatives to scholasticism that had emerged in recent decades. In order to discuss their interests, these free-thinkers organized themselves into small groups, they called colleges, which met on a regular basis. Spinoza may have attended such meetings as early as the first half of the 1650's, and it is most likely here that he received his first exposure to Cartesian thought.

This is not to say that Spinoza ceased to mine the resources of his own tradition - he became steeped, for example, in the writings of such philosophically important figures as Maimonides and Gersonides - but his intellectual horizons were expanding and he was experiencing a restlessness that drove him to look further afield. It was at this time that he placed himself under the tutelage of an ex-Jesuit, Franciscus Van den Enden, who had recently set up a Latin school in Amsterdam. Van den Enden turned out to be the perfect teacher for Spinoza. In addition to having an excellent reputation as a Latinist, he was a medical doctor who kept abreast of all that was new in the sciences. He was also notorious for his allegedly irreligious cast of mind, and he was a passionate advocate of democratic political ideals. It is safe to say that Spinoza's studies with Van den Enden included more than lessons on how to decline nouns.

Spinoza's intellectual reorientation, however, came at a cost . His increasingly unorthodox views and, perhaps, laxity in his observance of the Jewish law strained his relations with the community. Tensions became so great that, in 1656, the elders of the synagogue undertook proceedings to excommunicate him. Without providing details, the writ of excommunication accuses him of 'abominable heresies' and ‘monstrous deeds’. It then levels a series of curses against him and prohibits others from communicating with him, doing business with him, reading anything he might write, or even coming into close proximity with him. Spinoza may still have been a Jew, but he was now an outcast.

Little is known about Spinoza's activities in the years immediately following his excommunication. He continued his studies with Van den Enden and occasionally took up residence in his teacher's home. As it was now impossible for him to carry on in commerce, it was most likely at this time that he took up lens grinding as an occupation. There is also evidence that he traveled periodically to Leiden to study at the university. There he would have received formal instruction in Cartesian philosophy and become familiar with the work of prominent Dutch Cartesians. In 1661, he settled near Leiden, in the town of Rijnsburg.

It was during this same period, in the late 1650's, that Spinoza embarked upon his literary career. His first work, the Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect, is an attempt to formulate a philosophical method that would allow the mind to form the clear and distinct ideas that are necessary for its perfection. It contains, in addition, reflection upon the various kinds of knowledge, an extended treatment of definition, and a lengthy analysis of the nature and causes of doubt. For reasons that are unknown, theTreatise was left unfinished, though it appears that Spinoza always intended to complete it. Shortly thereafter, while in Rijnsburg, Spinoza set to work on his Short Treatise on God, Man, and His Well-Being. This work, circulated privately among friends, foreshadows many of the themes of his mature work, the Ethics. Most notably, it contains an unambiguous statement of the most famous of Spinoza's theses - the identity of God and Nature.

Spinoza's stay in Rijnsburg was brief. In 1663 he moved to the town of Voorburg, not far from The Hague, where he settled into a quiet, but busy, life. At the behest of friends, he immediately set about preparing for publication a set of lessons that he had given to a student in Leiden on Descartes'sPrinciples of Philosophy. The result was the only work that he was to publish under his own name, now Latinized to Benedict: René Descartes's Principles of Philosophy, Parts I and II, Demonstrated According to the Geometric Method by Benedict de Spinoza of Amsterdam. As a condition of publication, Spinoza had his friend, Lodewijk Meyer, write a preface to the work, warning the reader that his aim was exposition only and that he did not endorse all of Descartes's conclusions. He also appended a short piece, entitled Metaphysical Thoughts, in which he sketched some of his own views. Despite his admiration for Descartes, Spinoza did not want to be seen as a Cartesian.

Spinoza's work on Descartes shows him to have been interested from early on in the use of geometric method in philosophy. In addition to putting parts of the Principles into geometric form, he began experimenting with geometric demonstrations of material taken from his own Short Treatise. It was out of this experimentation that the idea arose for a fully geometric presentation of his thought. He began work on this sometime in the early 1660's, and by 1665 substantial portions of what was to become theEthics were circulating in draft form among his friends back in Amsterdam. Though he was well into the project by then, the political and religious climate of the day made Spinoza hesitant to complete it . He chose to exercise caution and suspended work on it, turning instead to a book that would prepare an audience receptive to the Ethics. This was the Theological-Political Treatise, which he completed and published anonymously in 1670.

Spinoza's aim in the Theological-Political Treatise was to argue that the stability and security of society is not undermined but, rather, enhanced by freedom of thought, meaning primarily the freedom to philosophize. As is clear from the text, he considered the primary threat to this freedom emanated from the clergy, whom he accused of playing upon the fears and superstitions of people in order to maintain power. His solution was to divest the clergy of all political power, even to the point of placing authority over the practice of religion in the hands of the sovereign. The sovereign, Spinoza argued, should extend broad liberties within this domain, requiring adherence to no more than a minimal creed that was neutral with respect to competing sects and the meaning of which was open to a variety of interpretations. This, he hoped, would allow philosophers the freedom to do their work unencumbered by the constraints of sectarianism.

As was to be expected, the Theological-Political Treatise was met with a firestorm of criticism. It was condemned as a work of evil, and its author was accused of having nefarious intentions in writing it. Even some of Spinoza's closest friends were deeply unsettled by it. Though he had assiduously tried to avoid it, Spinoza found himself embroiled in heated religious controversy and saddled with a reputation for atheism, something he greatly resented.

Spinoza's last move, in 1670, was to The Hague, where he was to live out his remaining years. Besides having to deal with fallout from his Theological-Political Treatise, he witnessed a political revolution that culminated in the murder of the Grand Pensionary of Holland, Jan De Witt, along with his brother, Cornelius, by an angry mob of Orangist-Calvinists. Spinoza admired De Witt for his liberal policies and was horrified at the murder. With the ascent of the Orangist-Calvinist faction, he felt his own situation to be tenuous.

Despite these distractions, Spinoza pressed on. He undertook new projects, including the writing of a Hebrew grammar, and he turned back to work on the Ethics. Given the hostility with which theTheological-Political Treatise was met and the realities of the new political landscape, he must have done so with a deep sense of pessimism about its chances for success. By 1675 it was complete. As he perceived his enemies to have grown in influence and opportunity, however, Spinoza decided against publishing it. Public viewing of the definitive statement of his philosophy would have to wait until after his death.

By this time Spinoza was in a state of failing health. Weakened by a respiratory illness, he devoted the last year of his life to writing a work of political philosophy, his Political Treatise. Though left unfinished at his death, Spinoza's intention was to show how governments of all types could be improved and to argue for the superiority of democracy over other forms of political organization. Following the lead of Machiavelli and Hobbes, his argument was to be non-utopian, based on a realistic assessment of human nature drawn from the psychological theory set forth in the Ethics. In the part he did finish, Spinoza showed himself to be an astute analyst of diverse constitutional forms and an original thinker among liberal social contract theorists.

Spinoza died peacefully in his rented room in The Hague in 1677. He left no will, but the manuscripts of his unpublished works - the Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect, the Ethics, the Hebrew Grammar, and the Political Treatise - along with his correspondence were found in in his desk. These were immediately shipped to Amsterdam for publication, and in short order they appeared in print as B.D.S. Opus Posthuma. But even in death Spinoza could not escape controversy; in 1678, these works were banned throughout Holland.

2. Geometric Method and the Ethics

Upon opening Spinoza's masterpiece, the Ethics, one is immediately struck by its form. It is written in the style of a geometrical treatise, much like Euclid's Elements, with each book comprising a set of definitions, axioms, propositions, scholia, and other features that make up the formal apparatus of geometry. One wonders why Spinoza would have employed this mode of presentation. The effort it required must have been enormous, and the result is a work that only the most dedicated of readers can make their way through.

Some of this is explained by the fact that the seventeenth century was a time in which geometry was enjoying a resurgence of interest and was held in extraordinarily high esteem, especially within the intellectual circles in which Spinoza moved. We may add to this the fact that Spinoza, though not a Cartesian, was an avid student of Descartes's works. As is well known, Descartes was the leading advocate of the use of geometric method within philosophy, and his Meditations was written more geometrico, in the geometrical style. In this respect the Ethics can be said to be Cartesian in inspiration.

While this characterization is true, it needs qualification. The Meditations and the Ethics are very different works, not just in substance, but also in style. In order to understand this difference one must take into account the distinction between two types of geometrical method, the analytic and the synthetic. Descartes explains this distinction as follows:

Analysis shows the true way by means of which the thing in question was discovered methodically and as it were a priori, so that if the reader is willing to follow it and give sufficient attention to all points, he will make the thing his own and understand it just as perfectly as if he had discovered it for himself. . . . . Synthesis, by contrast, employs a directly opposite method where the search is, as it were, a posteriori . . . . It demonstrates the conclusion clearly and employs a long series of definitions, postulates, axioms, theorems and problems, so that if anyone denies one of the conclusions it can be shown at once that it is contained in what has gone before, and hence the reader, however argumentative or stubborn he may be, is compelled to give his assent. (CSM II,110-111)

The analytic method is the way of discovery. Its aim is to lead the mind to the apprehension of primary truths that can serve as the foundation of a discipline. The synthetic method is the way of invention. Its aim is to build up from a set of primary truths a system of results, each of which is fully established on the basis of what has come before. As the Meditations is a work whose explicit aim is to establish the foundations of scientific knowledge, it is appropriate that it employs the analytic method. The Ethics, however, has another aim, one for which the synthetic method is appropriate.

As its title indicates, the Ethics is a work of ethical philosophy. Its ultimate aim is to aid us in the attainment of happiness, which is to be found in the intellectual love of God. This love, according to Spinoza, arises out of the knowledge that we gain of the divine essence insofar as we see how the essences of singular things follow of necessity from it. In view of this, it is easy to see why Spinoza favored the synthetic method. Beginning with propositions concerning God, he was able to employ it to show how all other things can be derived from God. In grasping the order of propositions as they are demonstrated in the Ethics, we thus attain a kind of knowledge that approximates the knowledge that underwrites human happiness. We are, as it were, put on the road towards happiness. Of the two methods it is only the synthetic method that is suitable for this purpose.

3. Metaphysics

Although the Ethics is not principally a work of metaphysics, the system it lays out stands as one of the great monuments in the tradition of grand metaphysical speculation. What is perhaps most noteworthy about this system is that it is a species of monism - the doctrine that all of reality is in some significant sense one. In Spinoza's case, this is exemplified by the claim that there is one and only one substance. This substance he identifies as God. While monism has had its defenders in the west, they have been few and far between. Spinoza is arguably the greatest among them.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Descartes and the Pineal Gland

The pineal gland is a tiny organ in the center of the brain that played an important role in Descartes' philosophy. He regarded it as the principal seat of the soul and the place in which all our thoughts are formed.

Today, René Descartes (1596–1650) is mainly known because of his contributions to mathematics and philosophy. But he was highly interested in anatomy and physiology as well. He paid so much attention to these subjects that it has been suggested that “if Descartes were alive today, he would be in charge of the CAT and PET scan machines in a major research hospital” (Watson 2002, p. 15). Descartes discussed the pineal gland both in his first book, the Treatise of man (written before 1637, but only published posthumously, first in an imperfect Latin translation in 1662, and then in the original French in 1664), in a number of letters written in 1640–41, and in his last book, The passions of the soul (1649).

The pineal gland played an important role in Descartes' account because it was involved in sensation, imagination, memory and the causation of bodily movements. Unfortunately, however, some of Descartes' basic anatomical and physiological assumptions were totally mistaken, not only by our standards, but also in light of what was already known in his time

In Descartes' description of the role of the pineal gland, the pattern in which the animal spirits flow from the pineal gland was the crucial notion. He explained perception as follows. The nerves are hollow tubes filled with animal spirits. They also contain certain small fibers or threads which stretch from one end to the other. These fibers connect the sense organs with certain small valves in the walls of the ventricles of the brain. When the sensory organs are stimulated, parts of them are set in motion. These parts then begin to pull on the small fibers in the nerves, with the result that the valves with which these fibers are connected are pulled open, some of the animal spirits in the pressurized ventricles of the brain escape, and (because nature abhors a vacuum) a low-pressure image of the sensory stimulus appears on the surface of the pineal gland. It is this image which then “causes sensory perception” of whiteness, tickling, pain, and so on. “It is not [the figures] imprinted on the external sense organs, or on the internal surface of the brain, which should be taken to be ideas—but only those which are traced in the spirits on the surface of the gland H (where the seat of the imagination and the ‘common’ sense is located). That is to say, it is only the latter figures which should be taken to be the forms or images which the rational soul united to this machine will consider directly when it imagines some object or perceives it by the senses” (AT XI:176, CSM I:106). It is to be noted that the reference to the rational soul is a bit premature at this stage of Descartes' story because he had announced that he would, to begin with, discuss only the functions of bodies without a soul.

Imagination arises in the same way as perception, except that it is not caused by external objects. Continuing the just-quoted passage, Descartes wrote: “And note that I say ‘imagines or perceives by the senses’. For I wish to apply the term ‘idea’ generally to all the impressions which the spirits can receive as they leave gland H. These are to be attributed to the ‘common’ sense when they depend on the presence of objects; but they may also proceed from many other causes (as I shall explain later), and they should then be attributed to the imagination” (AT XI:177, CSM I:106). Descartes' materialistic interpretation of the term ‘idea’ in this context is striking. But this is not the only sense in which he used this term: when he was talking about real men instead of mechanical models of their bodies, he also referred to ‘ideas of the pure mind’ which do not involve the ‘corporeal imagination’.

Descartes' mechanical explanation of memory was as follows. The pores or gaps lying between the tiny fibers of the substance of the brain may become wider as a result of the flow of animal spirits through them. This changes the pattern in which the spirits will later flow through the brain and in this way figures may be “preserved in such a way that the ideas which were previously on the gland can be formed again long afterwards without requiring the presence of the objects to which they correspond. And this is what memory consists in” 

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Immanuel Kant - The Copernican shift

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)

Immanuel Kant was born in Königsberg, East Prussia in 1724. He attended the Collegium Fridiricianum at the age of eight, a Latin school that taught primarily classicism. After over eight years of study there, he went into the University Of Königsberg, where he spent his academic career focusing on philosophy, mathematics and physics. The death of his father had a strong effect on Kant, he left the university and earned a living as a private tutor. However, in 1755 he accepted the help of a friend and resumed study, receiving his doctorate in 1756.

He taught at the university and remained there for 15 years, beginning his lectures on the sciences and mathematics, though over time he covered most branches of philosophy. In spite of his growing reputation as an original thinker, he did not gain tenure at the university until 1770, receiving his professorship of logic and metaphysics. He continued writing and lecturing at Königsberg for the next 27 years, drawing many students there due to his rationalist and hence, unorthodox approach to religious texts. This led to political pressure from the government of Prussia, and in 1792, he was barred from teaching or writing on religious subjects by the king, Fredrich William II. Kant dutifully obeyed the injunction until the death of the king five years later, returning to the writing and lecturing of his ideas. The year following his retirement, he published a summary of his views on religion. He died in 1804.

Kant devised a model, an individual epistemology, by examining the basis of human knowledge and its limits. He brought together the ideas of rationalism, influential thinkers such as Leibniz and Wolff, with empiricism as proposed by David Hume. Kant's critical philosophy is presented in the Critique of Pure Reason (1781); the idea of critique is to establish and investigate the legitimate limits of human knowledge. Knowledge of sensible objects must form itself in advance to the structures of the human mind's ability to reason, and therefore all objects conform themselves a priori in such a relation -legitimate knowledge of objects is limited to how they appear for us.

Kant's logic creates a division and complex interplay of judgments- a priori and a posteriori judgments and analytic or synthetic judgments. A judgment is analytic if the subject of its proposition is contained within its predicate, i.e. "Sound theories are theories". To state the reverse would be a logical absurdity. The judgment is considered analytic because the truth of the proposition lies in the validity of the concept itself. All analytic judgments are a priori and thus, as is the case for all a priori judgments, they are independent of experience. However, judgments about empirical knowledge can only be made upon experience, are synthetic, a posteriori, and can be reversed without such a contradiction, i.e. "The theory is sound".

Here unfolds three classes of judgments: a) analytic a priori, b) synthetic a posteriori, and c) synthetic a priori. The particular concern for Kant is the synthetic a priori, for the sciences and mathematics are as such, existing independent of experience and yet as syntheses of previous judgments (knowledge). The question as to the origins of judgments becomes necessary. Metaphysics describes a science concerned with this inquiry, a solution to unsolvable problems set by pure reason itself, namely the concepts of God, freedom and immortality.

Kant developed a system of ethics in Metaphysics of Ethics (1797), in which he places reason as the fundamental authority for morality. Any action born of a mere expediency or servitude to law, politic or custom could be considered as moral, a sense of duty must arise solely as prescribed by reason. Reason dictates two imperatives: the hypothetical and the categorical. In the case of the former, a course of action to accomplish a specific task is presented, and in the latter a course of action that presents itself as appropriate, and necessary. The categorical is the basis for the ethical. This structure defends a fundamental freedom of the individual; that each one be responsible for their own ability, through reason, to obey consciously the laws of the universe.

Kantian philosophy was to have an enormous impact on modern philosophy as well as the fine arts and literature. Hegel was to develop the dialectical method based on elements within the Critique of Pure Reason, which in turn functioned as an underlying structure in Marx's philosophy.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Aristotle: Motion and Time

The continuum

Spacial extension, motion, and time are often thought of as continua—as wholes made up of a series of smaller parts. Aristotle develops a subtle analysis of the nature of such continuous quantities. Two entities are continuous, he says, when there is only a single common boundary between them. On the basis of this definition, he seeks to show that a continuum cannot be composed of indivisible atoms. A line, for example, cannot be composed of points that lack magnitude. Since a point has no parts, it cannot have a boundary distinct from itself; two points, therefore, cannot be either adjacent or continuous. Between any two points on a continuous line there will always be other points on the same line.

Similar reasoning, Aristotle says, applies to time and to motion. Time cannot be composed of indivisible moments, because between any two moments there is always a period of time. Likewise, an atom of motion would in fact have to be an atom of rest. Moments or points that were indivisible would lack magnitude, and zero magnitude, however often repeated, can never add up to any magnitude.

Any magnitude, then, is infinitely divisible. But this means “unendingly divisible,” not “divisible into infinitely many parts.” However often a magnitude has been divided, it can always be divided further. It is infinitely divisible in the sense that there is no end to its divisibility. The continuum does not have an infinite number of parts; indeed, Aristotle regarded the idea of an actually infinite number as incoherent. The infinite, he says, has only a “potential” existence.


Motion (kinesis) was for Aristotle a broad term, encompassing changes in several different categories. A paradigm of his theory of motion, which appeals to the key notions of actuality and potentiality, is local motion, or movement from place to place. If a body X is to move from point A to point B, it must be able to do so: when it is at A it is only potentially at B. When this potentiality has been realized, then X is at B. But it is then at rest and not in motion. So motion from A to B is not simply the actualization of a potential at A for being at B. Is it then a partial actualization of that potentiality? That will not do either, because a body stationary at the midpoint between A and B might be said to have partially actualized that potentiality. One must say that motion is an actualization of a potentiality that is still being actualized. In the Physics Aristotle accordingly defines motion as “the actuality of what is in potentiality, insofar as it is in potentiality.”

Motion is a continuum: a mere series of positions between A and B is not a motion from A to B. If X is to move from A to B, however, it must pass through any intermediate point between A and B. But passing through a point is not the same as being located at that point. Aristotle argues that whatever is in motion has already been in motion. If X, traveling from A to B, passes through the intermediate point K, it must have already passed through an earlier point J, intermediate between A and K. But however short the distance between A and J, that too is divisible, and so on ad infinitum. At any point at which X is moving, therefore, there will be an earlier point at which it was already moving. It follows that there is no such thing as a first instant of motion.


For Aristotle, extension, motion, and time are three fundamental continua in an intimate and ordered relation to each other. Local motion derives its continuity from the continuity of extension, and time derives its continuity from the continuity of motion. Time, Aristotle says, is the number of motion with respect to before and after. Where there is no motion, there is no time. This does not imply that time is identical with motion: motions are motions of particular things, and different kinds of changes are motions of different kinds, but time is universal and uniform. Motions, again, may be faster or slower; not so time. Indeed, it is by the time they take that the speed of motions is determined. Nonetheless, Aristotle says, “we perceive motion and time together.” One observes how much time has passed by observing the process of some change. In particular, for Aristotle, the days, months, and years are measured by observing the Sun, the Moon, and the stars upon their celestial travels.

The part of a journey that is nearer its starting point comes before the part that is nearer its end. The spatial relation of nearer and farther underpins the relation of before and after in motion, and the relation of before and after in motion underpins the relation of earlier and later in time. Thus, on Aristotle’s view, temporal order is ultimately derived from the spatial ordering of stretches of motion.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017


Denis Diderot was the most prominent of the French Encyclopedists. He was educated by the Jesuits, and, refusing to enter one of the learned professions, was turned adrift by his father and came to Paris, where he lived from hand to mouth for a time. Gradually, however, he became recognized as one of the most powerful writers of the day. His first independent work was the Essai sur le merite et la vertu (1745). As one of the editors of the Dictionnaire de medecine (6 vols., Paris, 1746), he gained valuable experience in encyclopedic system. His Pensees philosophiques (The Hague, 1746), in which he attacked both atheism and the received Christianity, was burned by order of the Parliament of Paris.

In the circle of the leaders of the Enlightenment, Diderot's name became known especially by his Lettre sur les aveugles (London, 1749), which supported Locke's theory of knowledge. He attacked the conventional morality of the day, with the result (to which possibly an allusion to the mistress of a minister contributed) that he was imprisoned at Vincennes for three months. He was released by the influence of Voltaire's friend Mme. du Chatelet, and thenceforth was in close relation with the leaders of revolutionary thought. He had made very little pecuniary profit out of the Encyclopedie, and Grimm appealed on his behalf to Catherine of Russia, who in 1765 bought his library, allowing him the use of the books as long as he lived, and assigning him a yearly salary which a little later she paid him for fifty years in advance.

In 1773 she summoned him to St. Petersburg with Grimm to converse with him in person. On his return he lived until his death in a house provided by her, in comparative retirement but in unceasing labor on the undertakings of his party, writing (according to Grimm) two-thirds of Raynal's famous Histoire philosophique, and contributing some of the most rhetorical pages to Helvetius's De l'esprit and Holbach's Systeme de la nature Systeme social, and Alorale universelle. His numerous writings include the most varied forms of literary effort, from inept licentious tales and comedies which pointed away from the stiff classical style of the French drama and strongly influenced Lessing, to the most daring ethical and metaphysical speculations. 

Like his famous contemporary Samuel Johnson, he is said to have been more effective as a talker than as a writer; and his mental qualifications were rather those of a stimulating force than of a reasoned philosopher. His position gradually changed from theism to deism, then to materialism, and finally rested in a pantheistic sensualism. In Sainte-Beuve's phrase, he was " the first great writer who belonged wholly and undividedly to modern democratic society," and his attacks on the political system of France were among the most potent causes of the Revolution.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017



Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle was born circa 384 B.C. in Stagira, Greece. When he turned 17, he enrolled in Plato’s Academy. In 338, he began tutoring Alexander the Great. In 335, Aristotle founded his own school, the Lyceum, in Athens, where he spent most of the rest of his life studying, teaching and writing. Aristotle died in 322 B.C., after he left Athens and fled to Chalcis.
ristotle is a towering figure in ancient Greek philosophy, making contributions to logic, metaphysics, mathematics, physics, biology, botany, ethics, politics, agriculture, medicine, dance and theatre. He was a student of Plato who in turn studied under Socrates. He was more empirically-minded than Plato or Socrates and is famous for rejecting Plato's theory of forms.

As a prolific writer and polymath, Aristotle radically transformed most, if not all, areas of knowledge he touched. It is no wonder that Aquinas referred to him simply as "The Philosopher." In his lifetime, Aristotle wrote as many as 200 treatises, of which only 31 survive. Unfortunately for us, these works are in the form of lecture notes and draft manuscripts never intended for general readership, so they do not demonstrate his reputed polished prose style which attracted many great followers, including the Roman Cicero. Aristotle was the first to classify areas of human knowledge into distinct disciplines such as mathematics, biology, and ethics. Some of these classifications are still used today.

As the father of the field of logic, he was the first to develop a formalized system for reasoning. Aristotle observed that the validity of any argument can be determined by its structure rather than its content. A classic example of a valid argument is his syllogism: All men are mortal; Socrates is a man; therefore, Socrates is mortal. Given the structure of this argument, as long as the premises are true, then the conclusion is also guaranteed to be true. Aristotle’s brand of logic dominated this area of thought until the rise of modern propositional logic and predicate logic 2000 years later.

Aristotle’s emphasis on good reasoning combined with his belief in the scientific method forms the backdrop for most of his work. For example, in his work in ethics and politics, Aristotle identifies the highest good with intellectual virtue; that is, a moral person is one who cultivates certain virtues based on reasoning. And in his work on psychology and the soul, Aristotle distinguishes sense perception from reason, which unifies and interprets the sense perceptions and is the source of all knowledge.

Aristotle famously rejected Plato’s theory of forms, which states that properties such as beauty are abstract universal entities that exist independent of the objects themselves. Instead, he argued that forms are intrinsic to the objects and cannot exist apart from them, and so must be studied in relation to them. However, in discussing art, Aristotle seems to reject this, and instead argues for idealized universal form which artists attempt to capture in their work.

Aristotle was the founder of the Lyceum, a school of learning based in Athens, Greece; and he was an inspiration for the Peripatetics, his followers from the Lyceum.

Early Life

Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle was born circa 384 B.C. in Stagira, a small town on the northern coast of Greece that was once a seaport. Aristotle’s father, Nicomachus, was court physician to the Macedonian king Amyntas II. Although Nicomachus died when Aristotle was just a young boy, Aristotle remained closely affiliated with and influenced by the Macedonian court for the rest of his life. Little is known about his mother, Phaestis; she is also believed to have died when Aristotle was young.

After Aristotle’s father died, Proxenus of Atarneus, who was married to Aristotle’s older sister, Arimneste, became Aristotle’s guardian until he came of age. When Aristotle turned 17, Proxenus sent him to Athens to pursue a higher education. At the time, Athens was considered the academic center of the universe. In Athens, Aristotle enrolled in Plato’s Academy, Greek’s premier learning institution, and proved an exemplary scholar. Aristotle maintained a relationship with Greek philosopher Plato, himself a student of Socrates, and his academy for two decades. Plato died in 347 B.C. Because Aristotle had disagreed with some of Plato’s philosophical treatises, Aristotle did not inherit the position of director of the academy, as many imagined he would.

After Plato died, Aristotle’s friend Hermias, king of Atarneus and Assos in Mysia, invited Aristotle to court. During his three-year stay in Mysia, Aristotle met and married his first wife, Pythias, Hermias’ niece. Together, the couple had a daughter, Pythias, named after her mother.


In 338 B.C., Aristotle went home to Macedonia to start tutoring King Phillip II’s son, the then 13-year-old Alexander the Great. Phillip and Alexander both held Aristotle in high esteem and ensured that the Macedonia court generously compensated him for his work.

In 335 B.C., after Alexander had succeeded his father as king and conquered Athens, Aristotle went back to the city. In Athens, Plato’s Academy, now run by Xenocrates, was still the leading influence on Greek thought. With Alexander’s permission, Aristotle started his own school in Athens, called the Lyceum. On and off, Aristotle spent most of the remainder of his life working as a teacher, researcher and writer at the Lyceum in Athens.

Because Aristotle was known to walk around the school grounds while teaching, his students, forced to follow him, were nicknamed the “Peripatetics,” meaning “people who travel about.” Lyceum members researched subjects ranging from science and math to philosophy and politics, and nearly everything in between. Art was also a popular area of interest. Members of the Lyceum wrote up their findings in manuscripts. In so doing, they built the school’s massive collection of written materials, which by ancient accounts was credited as one of the first great libraries.

In the same year that Aristotle opened the Lyceum, his wife Pythias died. Soon after, Aristotle embarked on a romance with a woman named Herpyllis, who hailed from his hometown of Stagira. According to some historians, Herpyllis may have been Aristotle’s slave, granted to him by the Macedonia court. They presume that he eventually freed and married her. Regardless, it is known that Herpyllis bore Aristotle children, including one son named Nicomachus, after Aristotle’s father. Aristotle is believed to have named his famed philosophical work Nicomachean Ethics in tribute to his son.

When Aristotle’s former student Alexander the Great died suddenly in 323 B.C., the pro-Macedonian government was overthrown, and in light of anti-Macedonia sentiment, Aristotle was charge with impiety. To avoid being prosecuted, he left Athens and fled to Chalcis on the island of Euboea, where he would remain until his death.


Although Aristotle was not technically a scientist by today’s definitions, science was among the subjects that he researched at length during his time at the Lyceum. Aristotle believed that knowledge could be obtained through interacting with physical objects. He concluded that objects were made up of a potential that circumstances then manipulated to determine the object’s outcome. He also recognized that human interpretation and personal associations played a role in our understanding of those objects.

Aristotle’s research in the sciences included a study of biology. He attempted, with some error, to classify animals into genera based on their similar characteristics. He further classified animals into species based on those that had red blood and those that did not. The animals with red blood were mostly vertebrates, while the “bloodless” animals were labeled cephalopods. Despite the relative inaccuracy of his hypothesis, Aristotle’s classification was regarded as the standard system for hundreds of years.

Marine biology was also an area of fascination for Aristotle. Through dissection, he closely examined the anatomy of marine creatures. In contrast to his biological classifications, his observations of marine life, as expressed in his books, are considerably more accurate.

As evidenced in his treatise Meteorology, Aristotle also dabbled in the earth sciences. By meteorology, Aristotle didn’t simply mean the study of weather. His more expansive definition of meteorology included “all the affectations we may call common to air and water, and the kinds and parts of the earth and the affectations of its parts.” In Meteorology, Aristotle identified the water cycle and discussed topics ranging from natural disasters to astrological events. Although many of his views on the Earth were controversial at the time, they were readopted and popularized during the late Middle Ages.


One of the main focuses of Aristotle’s philosophy was his systematic concept of logic. Aristotle’s objective was to come up with a universal process of reasoning that would allow man to learn every conceivable thing about reality. The initial process involved describing objects based on their characteristics, states of being and actions. In his philosophical treatises, Aristotle also discussed how man might next obtain information about objects through deduction and inference. To Aristotle, a deduction was a reasonable argument in which “when certain things are laid down, something else follows out of necessity in virtue of their being so.” His theory of deduction is the basis of what philosophers now call a syllogism, a logical argument where the conclusion is inferred from two or more other premises of a certain form.

In his book Prior Analytics, Aristotle explains the syllogism as “a discourse in which, certain things having been supposed, something different from the things supposed results of necessity because these things are so.” Aristotle defined the main components of reasoning in terms of inclusive and exclusive relationships. These sorts of relationships were visually grafted in the future through the use of Venn diagrams.

Aristotle’s philosophy not only provided man with a system of reasoning, but also touched upon ethics. In Nichomachean Ethics, he prescribed a moral code of conduct for what he called “good living.” He asserted that good living to some degree defied the more restrictive laws of logic, since the real world poses circumstances that can present a conflict of personal values. That said, it was up to the individual to reason cautiously while developing his or her own judgment.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Aristotle : Rhetoric and poetics

Rhetoric, for Aristotle, is a topic-neutral discipline that studies the possible means of persuasion. In advising orators on how to exploit the moods of their audience, Aristotle undertakes a systematic and often insightful treatment of human emotion, dealing in turn with anger, hatred, fear, shame, pity, indignation, envy, and jealousy—in each case offering a definition of the emotion and a list of its objects and causes.

The Poetics is much better known than the Rhetoric, though only the first book of the former, a treatment of epic and tragic poetry, survives. The book aims, among other things, to answer Plato’s criticisms of representative art. According to the theory of Forms, material objects are imperfect copies of original, real, Forms; artistic representations of material objects are therefore only copies of copies, at two removes from reality. Moreover, drama has a specially corrupting effect, because it stimulates unworthy emotions in its audience. In response, Aristotle insists that imitation, so far from being the degrading activity that Plato describes, is something natural to humans from childhood and is one of the characteristics that makes humans superior to animals, since it vastly increases the scope of what they may learn.

In order to answer Plato’s complaint that playwrights are only imitators of everyday life, which is itself only an imitation of the real world of Forms, Aristotle draws a contrast between poetry and history. The poet’s job is to describe not something that has actually happened but something that might well happen—that is to say, something that is possible because it is necessary or likely. For this reason, poetry is more philosophical and more important than history, for poetry speaks of the universal, history of only the particular. Much of what happens to people in everyday life is a matter of sheer accident; only in fiction can one witness character and action work themselves out to their natural consequences.

Far from debasing the emotions, as Plato thought, drama has a beneficial effect on them. Tragedy, Aristotle says, must contain episodes arousing pity and fear so as to achieve a “purification” of these emotions. No one is quite sure exactly what Aristotle meant by katharsis, or purification. But perhaps what he meant was that watching tragedy helps people to put their own sorrows and worries in perspective, because in it they observe how catastrophe can overtake even people who are vastly their superiors.