Archive for Philosophy

Do Analytic Statements Count as A Priori Knowledge?

Posted in Philosophy with tags , , on March 28, 2013 by taylorvincentroche

Knowledge, whether one can have it, and if so how one goes about getting it are possibly some of the oldest most popular philosophical questions. From the dawn of philosophy with Plato and Socrates, all the way to more contemporary philosophers like Edmund Gettier and Alvin Plantinga the quest for knowledge has continued to draw philosophers’ attention. Over the centuries countless proposals for defining and defending knowledge have been made, some more cogent than others. Indeed the sheer size and history of the conversation makes it a rather daunting one to attempt to join. Nonetheless that is exactly what I will attempt to do here. I will not however try to lend my voice to the entire breadth of the epistemic conversation. Rather I will attempt to constrain my thoughts to a much smaller sub-topic, that of a priori and a posteriori knowledge. Even more specifically my paper will focus on a priori knowledge dealing with necessary or analytic propositions, whether one can have it, and if so how. To begin I will start by defining terms and precisely what I mean to count and consider as candidates for a priori knowledge. Following this I will examine traditional arguments in support of a priori knowledge and critique those arguments, again restricting our conversation to necessary or analytic propositions. It is my intent and purpose to show that our common understanding of this kind of a priori knowledge and the arguments supporting it are insufficient and unconvincing for belief in this kind of a priori knowledge. It should be noted that even if my paper fully achieves proves its thesis, it will not in any way hold that a priori knowledge in general does not exist. In other words, cases of introspection and the like might still be counted as a priori knowledge. It is only propositions that are often called analytic or necessary propositions that will be demonstrated insufficient for being consider as a priori knowledge. Finally one more comment, throughout the course of this paper ‘experience’ will be referred to. This must be understood as describing sense experience unless explicitly stated otherwise. That is, experiences that have come to the subject directly through the five senses.

When it comes to defining exactly what a priori knowledge is, the task is somewhat more difficult than one might think. Most are willing to accept that a priori knowledge is simply knowledge that one has prior to any sense experience. Yet to use this as a definition is perhaps a bit overly simplistic. The truth of the matter is that while this definition might be acceptable for a quick and brief definition, it will not suffice for a paper of this nature. Often times when defining a priori, the proposed definition will include mention of a priori’s counter part, a posteriori knowledge. The first definition I am considering is the definition offered in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which contains the following:

The terms “a priori” and “a posteriori” are used primarily to denote the foundations upon which a proposition is known. A given proposition is knowable a priori if it can be known independent of any experience other than the experience of learning language in which the proposition is expressed, whereas a proposition that is knowable a posteriori is known of the basis of experience. For example, the proposition that all bachelors are unmarried is a priori, and the proposition that it is raining outside now is a posteriori.

 

Given here is both a definition and an example. I will focus on the definition here and the example later. First in order to be considered a priori the proposition must be knowable without any experience, however exclude is the experience of learning the language in which this proposition is expressed. I find this is a curious exclusion. Specifically because learning a language can be one of the most experience laden endeavors in a person’s life. However this exclusion allows for the proposition given as an example of a priori knowledge, all bachelors are married, to actually count as a priori. This is of course because if one could learn the English language, than one would inevitably know that all bachelors were unmarried even if they had never experienced bachelors or unmarried. These kinds of propositions are generally referred to as analytic propositions, because their truth is logically guaranteed. I will put this discussion on hold until later and turn my attention to another proposed definition.

This second definition can be found in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. “A priori justification is a type of epistemic justification that is, in some sense, independent of experience.” SEP (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) also states that there is some debate about whether or not a priori knowledge can be “only of necessary, or analytic, propositions, or at least ones believed to be necessary or analytic. Necessary propositions are ones that cannot be false.” SEP agrees with the first definition I offered, although making no mention of the exclusion of the language learning experience, it seems to imply it. It seems to imply it because the definition grants that a priori knowledge is knowledge that must necessarily be true, or must analytically be true. SEP goes on to say that a priori knowledge is “not based on perception, introspection, memory, or testimony.” But rather it is based on “reason alone, or based solely on understanding of the proposition being considered.” This last clause seems particularly interesting to me, particularly that the proposition being considered must be understood. The definition makes no mention of how the proposition is to be understood. This nuance will have to set aside for future examination. So here again it can be seen that the most often turned to examples of a priori knowledge are those that are considered necessary or analytically true. ‘All bachelors are unmarried’ is perhaps the most popular example of an analytic proposition.

There is one final definition I would like to mention only in passing, and that is the definition offered by Immanuel Kant, as quoted in SEP. According to SEP, Kant claims that a priori knowledge is knowledge “absolutely independent of all experience.” I mention this because as this conversation progresses, we will devote some time to what precisely “independent of all experience” means.  But for now, it seems that the most widely accepted definition of a priori knowledge is knowledge that does not find its basis in any sense experience beyond learning the language in which the proposition in question is stated. However, as is often the case in philosophy, there is one further point that should be made before progressing from this initial defining stage. That is namely this from SEP:

Further, a person can be a priori justified in believing, though, of course,

not know, what is false, and empirical evidence can defeat a priori justification,

and hence, knowledge. As a start, what seems crucial to a priori justification

is that it is based solely on understanding the proposition at issue.

 

Glossing over the first few statements and focusing in on the final sentence of this quotation which I have already briefly mentioned. Specifically that “a priori justification…based solely on understanding the proposition at issue.” This leads us to the already stated conclusion, that, the best case for a priori knowledge is a proposition that once properly understood, yields a necessary truth that is at least to some degree inescapable. An example of this might be the statement, all A’s are A’s. If you understand the english language than you will understand this is a true statement. You need not have any experiences of A’ness. Here we begin to move from our brief description of a priori knowledge into an examination of the sufficiency of these definitions. Here it seems that when SEP claims a priori knowledge is primarily based on understanding of the proposition at issue, what they have at heart is really similar to IEP’s  (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy) “the experience of learning language”. In other words a person must understand the proposition in question. Even if they must learn the language that the proposition is stated in, if it is then possible for the proposition to be known independent of sense experience, than the proposition is considered a priori. Now the question arises, should we grant that learning a language is somehow exempt from counting as a sense experience? I submit here that we should not. To concede this to those who would have us believe in a priori knowledge would be intellectually irresponsible.

So here the conversation must turn briefly to philosophy of language. Specifically why should one think that learning a language does not count as an experience? After all, if the best examples of a priori knowledge is knowledge built on something that should be considered a sense experience, than perhaps we should be suspicious of a priori knowledge. In short, some of the best examples of a priori knowledge comes from necessarily true propositions. This is because many philosophers exclude learning the language the proposition is stated in as an experience that would consequently discount a priori  knowledge. If it can be show that learning a language, specifically the language that the proposition in question is expressed in, counts as a truly a posteriori experience than the very best examples of a priori knowledge rooted in necessary and analytic propositions will be debunked. For this reason we must examine linguistic knowledge and how it is that human beings acquire language, and specifically whether some of that process is innate or not.

There are a significant number of theories regarding how it is that people acquire language. Language is something that many philosophers feel sets the human race apart from any species of animals. In the late 1950’s two different theories of knowledge were offered. The first by psychologist B.F. Skinner, and the second by linguist Noam Chomsky. For Skinner language was learned “when children’s verbal operants are brought under the control of environmental conditions as a result of training by their caregivers.” Skinner believed that because children were either rewarded or punished for successful comprehension in “their various linguistic productions” their “verbal behavior gradually converge[s] on those of the wider language community.” Chomsky on the other hand disagreed quite strongly arguing that “language is stimulus independent and historically unbound.”

Language use is stimulus independent: virtually any words can be spoken in

response to any environmental stimulus, depending on one’s state of mind.

Language is also historically unbound: what we say is not determined by our reinforcement, as is clear from the fact that we can do and say things we have

not been trained to say.

 

I do not wish to be too sidetracked here, but only to point out very briefly two prominent theories of acquiring language. Neither theory, however, would be considered independent of sense experiences. Both Skinner and Chomsky’s theories require that children (or language learners) experience things with their five senses. Skinner believed this happened through a kind of reward/punishment relationship while Chomsky argued that children learned language from all kinds of things beyond the “meticulous care of their parents or caregivers”, including such activities as watching television or listening to adults converse. The point to gain from this is that both theories describe the language learning process as being significantly sense experience laden.

Now I want to  transition to what is perhaps a more pragmatic consideration, and I will do so by asking a question. Have you ever tried to describe color to a person blind from birth? Such and endeavor is utterly impossible. But why? Why is it impossible for a person blind from birth to fully grasp the concept of color? Well the answer seems somewhat obvious when you think about, because they’ve never seen a color. They have not a single sense experience of it and consequently cannot even begin to imagine what a color is. Words like blue, green, orange, and pink require some sense experience to comprehend. So it is obvious, that if you use the word purple in a sentence addressed to a person blind from birth, she will have no understanding of what you are describing. Purple, would be a word without meaning to her. This, I think, should be easy to understand and agree with. It seems to naturally follow that a person blind from birth would have no concept of color. But do all words function like this? Does every word require some sense experience? What of the statement we have already returned to many times, ‘All bachelors are unmarried’?

One might be tempted to think that the need for sense experience to understand a word only applies to words like blue and green and others like them. But before we make up our minds on this point let us consider the case of the proposition, all bachelors are unmarried. What does it mean to be a bachelor? Well it means to be unmarried. Fair enough, what does it mean to be unmarried? It means that one does not have a spouse, or is not married. We could most likely follow this pattern for quite some time, but eventually we would have to end in a one of two places. The conversation could only terminate in either a sense experience or a memory. Young children learn to understand the concept of married or unmarried on the basis of sense experiences. How do they do this? Well for one, they see that their mother and father sleep in the same bed. They watch as their parents interact and do life together. From these sense experiences they begin to understand what it is to be married. On the contrary side, they see their mother or father alone, and notice that this is different from their friend’s family whose mother and father live together and do all the things previously stated. And so they begin form the concept of being unmarried. Now someone might object that my requirements for knowing that all bachelors are unmarried is far too strong. Isn’t it enough to know that a bachelor is unmarried? Couldn’t someone who was never been exposed to parents or marriage of any kind still agree and know that all unmarrieds are unmarrieds?

I answer this by conceding that someone might indeed come to know all ‘unmarrieds’ (bachelors) are unmarrieds without having a sense experience of married or unmarried. In other words they would not necessarily have to arrive at the knowledge of married and unmarried exactly how I have just described it. But they would have to have another kind of sense experience. Firstly, they would have to have the experience of hearing that, “Bachelor means being unmarried.” Without this experience they could never arrive at the statement, ‘all unmarrieds are unmarrieds’. This relates back to the necessity of the proposition being understood, as mentioned during my section defining a priori knowledge. However, there seems to be no reason to exclude this experience, when it is clearly a sense experience and should thereby disqualify a proposition from being known a priori. If one must use sense experience to understand a proposition, how can knowledge of that proposition be said to be apart from sense experience? Secondly they would have to have some experience of similarity. In other words they would have to experienced objects that were the same or similar, and the only way to do this is to have a sense experience of two objects and judge between their attributes. For example, I know what an apple is. I have picked one up, smelled it, tasted it, seen it, and I have done this with more than one apple. So when I am faced with the proposition ‘all apples are apples’ I am immediately aware of its truth because I know what kind of thing an apple is and I know this because of my sense experience of apples. We must have some sense experience of objects being similar or even identical in order to grasp the concept of all unmarrieds are unmarrieds. As has been demonstrated, the only way to grasp this concept is through sense experience.

There is yet one more kind of proposition to consider and that is mathematical propositions. Mathematical statements are often cited as examples of analytic or necessary propositions. Having already discussed propositions like ‘all bachelors are married’, I will turn my attention to propositions such as 2+2=4. Is this kind of proposition any different? The answer is, of course, no. When a child is taught how to add they are often taught to use their fingers, or other objects as teaching aides. So at a basic level, 2+2=4 might be expressed as 2 [things] + 2 [things] = 4 [things]. We, or the child, might fill in any object in place of “things”. Math is ultimately knowable only because we have sense experiences of reality, and can at least conceptually tie our mathematical formulas to reality. For example, try to imagine you are not actually a living breathing, sensation experiencing being but instead simply a brain in a vat. You have no sense experiences of any kind. You neither hear, see, touch, taste, or smell. Given this state it is utterly inconceivable that you would know 2+2=4. Why? Because, put simply, you have no concept of two. “Two plus two equals what?” Would be something similar to the question, “shnorkelbots plus shnorkelbots equals what?” All this and I have said nothing of your ability to grasp addition apart from sense experiences. But ultimately there seems no need to. It is utterly apparent that apart from any sense experiences one could not know that 2+2=4 any better than one could know that all bachelors are unmarried.

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T. Talbott’s Conception of Human Experience

Posted in Philosophy with tags , on February 19, 2013 by taylorvincentroche

This post is a continuation from my last post, which deals with the worldview of a Christian Universalist in his book, “The Inescapable Love of God.” Although this is not a particularly popular or well known book, this kind of thinking invades much of contemporary Christian thought, even if unitentionally or unknowingly. It can be incredibly dangerous, as will hopefully be demonstrated. My posts will break down Talbott’s worldview, dealing with aspects such as Non-Ultimate reality (my last post), Human Experience (this post), Salvation (future post), and Ultimate Reality (future post).

 

Before Talbott’s assumptions about Ultimate reality and Salvation are examined his notion of human existence will be analyzed. Any study of a particular concept of human experience can be broken down into two sub parts, human freedom and human failure. (Holmes) Each unique worldview offers, consciously or unconsciously, an account of human freedom along with an account of human failure. The worldview proposed by Talbott in his book The Inescapable Love of God is no different. However to help develop this his understanding of specifically an additional work of Talbott’s will be used. This work is a journal article published in the Reformed Journal during February 1983. The title of the article is “On predestination, reprobation, and the love of God.” This article will be of service as a supplement to understand Talbott’s thoughts on both human freedom and human failure.

The focus of Talbott’s article “On predestination, reprobation, and the love of God” is not primarily on the free will and failure of man but whether or not “there are persons whom God could redeem but chooses for one reason or another not to redeem.” (p. 12) As such the primary concern in the article for Talbott is the nature or God and his love. Nonetheless Talbott does make some fairly straightforward comments regarding human freedom in the opening stages of his article. He does this both positively and negatively, that is he makes a few positive statements of belief as well as vehemently denies at least one conception of human freedom. Though published in the Reformed Journal Talbott puts the Reformed doctrine of predestination under heavy fire. Defining the Reformed doctrine of predestination in John Calvin’s words as follows, “God’s eternal decree, by which he determined with himself what he willed to become of each man…Therefore, as any man has been created to one or another of these ends, we speak of him as predestined to life or to death.” This is so abhorrent to Talbott that he calls accuses followers of the Reformed tradition of “attributing Satanic qualities to God” and “confusing the Father in heaven” with “the Devil himself.” Talbott continues to offer a positive statement about what conception of free will he affirms. “For the record, I am a libertarian, to be sure, though not quite as confident a libertarian as I once was.” The libertarian conception of free will understands man’s will as strictly uncaused. Though God may perhaps influence a person’s choices that person’s will is ultimately free.

With this foundation laid, it is much easier to discern Talbott’s sayings in The Inescapable Love of God. The very first thing Talbott does as he begins to address human freedom in his book is to articulate what he calls the “limits of omnipotent power.” In this his thesis is that “not even God can causally determine our free choices.”(pg. 170) He elaborates in the following pages on what in means for human persons to be free. The definition Talbott settles on is that an action is only free if the performer of the action could have not performed the action. In other words had the ability to do something other than what was done. To leave the conversation here would run the risk of over simplifying Talbott’s point however. Consider the following,

For according to (William Lane) Craig, God willingly permits irreparable harm

to befall at least some of his loved ones, and my own view (Talbott’s) carries

no such implication. To the contrary, I assume that God permits no evil, however horrendous it may appear to us in the present, that he cannot eventually turn to

good; he permits no harm to befall his loved ones that he cannot in the end repair.

I also assume that, given a long stretch of time, the Hound of Heaven can over

come all obstacles that our wrong choices present and can thus achieve all his

redemptive purposes; in that respect, he is like the grand chessmaster who, though exercising no direct causal control over the moves of a novice, is nonetheless

able to checkmate the novice in the end. (183)

 

Through this illustration Talbott’s proposal becomes clear. Human failure is a constant turning away from God and continually acting in a fashion that is contrary to his will. This portion is consistent with the classical Christian conception of human failure. Human freedom is a rather nuanced understanding of humans’ ability to act or not act according to their own will, while all the time God rules supreme, accomplishing his purpose in the world without infringing upon mankind’s freedom.

In responding to Talbott’s thoughts on human existence there is a new objection unique to his conception of human existence as well as one old one which pertains to his entire worldview. First as has been raised already, throughout Talbott’s writings he assumes God’s love is identical in kind and degree to human love. Successfully refuting this notion, would essentially deal a crippling blow to the foundation of Talbott’s worldview. Secondly, perhaps the most serious objection, is that it appears that Talbott simply wants to have it both ways. This is to say that Talbott wants to assign absolute autonomy and freedom to humanity while all the while assigning a high degree of sovereignty to God. Referring back to the text quoted earlier, Talbott states that he assumes “God permits no evil” that he cannot in the end use to ultimately serve his (God’s) redemptive action. However returning back to the analogy Talbott offers, the chessmaster has no “causal control over the novice.” So which is it? Stating that God would not allow any evil he could not use to further his purpose implies there is evil that God is not permitting or allowing. Yet clearly Talbott states humans have ultimate freedom to both perform an action or refrain from performing that action. Again referring to Talbott’s own analogy, its not the the chessmaster is only permitting the novice to make moves that will eventually lead to accomplishing the purpose of the chessmaster, that is in the analogy putting the novice in checkmate. Rather the chessmaster merely responds to any and all moves the novice makes, by default permitting all of them. Now perhaps Talbott is merely being misunderstood and what he really means to say is that there is nothing (no action of any kind) that a person could perform, or neglect to perform, that God could not use for his redemptive purpose. But such a response only raises to new errors. First such a statement would seemingly remove all necessity for both moral development as well as moral living. However even more importantly it is questionable that on this view evil even exist. At the very least, given this response Talbott’s conception of evil would seem closer to a pantheistic notion of evil rather than a traditional Christian understanding. Given these objections, most particularly Talbott’s confusion of human freedom and God’s sovereignty, his notion of human experience does not seem coherent or sufficient.

“The Inescapable Love of God” by Thomas Talbott

Posted in Philosophy with tags , , on February 1, 2013 by taylorvincentroche

Over the next few months I will be seeking to understand and critique the writings of Dr. Thomas Talbott and Christian philosopher who is a self identified universalist. I will be examining one of his works, The Inescapable Love of God essentially seeking to critique his particular world view in a charitable fashion.  Below is the first installment of what is likely to be a fairly long series of posts, this post dealing with Talbott’s understanding of Non-Ultimate reality.

 

 

Given that the focus of “The Inescapable Love of God” by Thomas Talbott is primarily concerned with reshaping Christians’ understanding of God’s love, the topic of non ultimate reality is not brought up in a straight forward manner. One must hunt through numerous statements Talbott makes and piece these together to construct even a rough sketch of Talbott’s concept of non ultimate reality. The book is broken down into three general sections, first ‘Some Autobiographical Reflections’, second ‘Universal Reconciliation and the New Testament’, and finally, ‘The Logic of Divine Love’. Perhaps the most helpful statements in regard to Talbott’s view of non ultimate reality come in this first section, which he refers to as his autobiographical reflections. Indeed it is in this first section that readers get a quick glimpse into some of the driving motivations for Talbott’s worldview and the factors that led him to adopt this particular world view. Of course, given the lack of a direct statement regarding non ultimate reality by Talbott, some inferences will have to be made in order to see clearly what lies behind Talbott’s work.

In this first portion of the book Talbott describes, what some might consider, a crisis of faith. Without belaboring his story, it took him roughly around the time that he first truly encountered the problem of suffering and began to read church fathers and reformers such as Augustine and John Calvin. As he read specifically the writings of Augustine, he reaches the conclusion that contrary to Augustine and Augustine’s conception of God, Talbott himself could “never worship a God less kind, less merciful, less loving than my own parents… I could not imagine my parents refusing to will the good for anyone.” (pg. 8) The key here lies in Talbott’s comparing God’s love and God’s actions to his parents. This relates to the discussion about non ultimate reality because distinctions between humans and God are rough ways of distinguishing between non ultimate reality and ultimate reality. In other words, here readers are allowed their first look at Talbott’s distinction between the physical and non physical. Now turning back to his statement it is easy to see that there is no real distinction between the two, at least in regard to the concept of love. From the very onset, Talbott accepts that his parents are loving and consequently if God acts in a way contrary to how he believes his parents would act in a similar situation, than God is not loving. This might seem like a small thing given that this only pertains to the concept of love. However the concept of love is the most essential concept in Talbott’s book and one would think that Talbott would at least consider the possibility that God does not relate to humans exactly how humans relate to humans.

The reason this seems like something Talbott would want to consider is because ultimately his opponents are left with an easy way out. For instance they might simply remark that God’s love does not happen to be anything like humans’ love and subsequently God can still be loving although it does not appear that way to God’s creatures.  Talbott in fact makes only one brief mention of this objection and that is a short quote before the beginning of the first chapter by John Stuart Mill. It reads like this, “To say that God’s goodness may be different in kind from man’s goodness, what is it but saying, with a slight change of phraseology, that God may possibly not be good?” Readers should take this as Talbott’s rather abrupt dismissal of any who claim that perhaps God’s love is a different kind of love than any types of love here on earth between created beings.

So although Talbott does not offer his readers a developed account of non ultimate reality he does provide his readers with an account of how the Ultimate (God) should relate to and interact with the non ultimate (God’s physical creatures).  The answer for Talbott is essentially that non ultimate reality does not differ in kind, though perhaps degree, from ultimate reality.

The Tyrannical Soul

Posted in Philosophy with tags , , on December 2, 2012 by taylorvincentroche

The tyrant is the man, or woman, I suppose whose lawless pleasure take control. When such is the case there is no matter of sin that this person will consider repulsive. They are utterly devoid of all sense of shame and reason. This person “in a word, falls short of no extreme of folly and shamelessness.” (571 D) He becomes drunken, erotic, maniacal. (573 C) After describing the tyrannical man and how such a man is raised, Plato turns his attention to the constitution of the man by drawing parallels between the tyrannical state and the tyrannical man. From his examination of the tyrannical state Plato concludes that although some small minority appears free and happy, the vast majority is oppressed and wretched. He thus infers that likewise the tyrannical man is enslaved.

Judging the tyrannical man to be like the tyrannical city, Plato says this, “that the real tyrant is really enslaved to cringings and servitudes beyond compare.” (579 E) The idea here is that although the tyrannical man appears to be indulging all his appetites hedonistically, he actually is only indulging a select group of his appetites. Namely, the lawless ones that ought to be governed with reason. Instead these lawless appetites enslave the tyrannical man and contrary to appearances, or perhaps even what the man himself believes, the majority of his soul is enslaved and oppressed. It is in this sense I think that Christians are “free to do good.” It seems to me that there are strong parallels between the tyrannical man and the “unsaved” man. Both are slaves to passions and desires that dominate them.

Aristotle’s Ethics Examined

Posted in Philosophy with tags , , on November 20, 2012 by taylorvincentroche

A defense of Aristotle’s theory of happiness as presented in my previous post:

Given Aristotle’s definition and necessary and sufficient conditions it seems that the activity of study is the only activity that fits Aristotle’s criteria. For this reason the examination of Aristotle’s theory must begin and end in an examination of his conditions for happiness. In chapter five of Book I Aristotle examines “three lives.” It is in this examination that he tries to defend a portion of his claims about the nature of happiness. In this chapter he considers, most specifically, the lives of “gratification” and of “political activity”.

In the examination of the first life Aristotle considers whether or not simple pleasure is sufficient for happiness. Aristotle dismisses this rather quickly, positing that this is a slavish life like those of animals grazing in a field.

Now it might appear to some that what Aristotle calls “slavish” could easily be understood rather as a kind of desiring, perhaps the same kind of desiring that people exhibit towards happiness. This could lead someone to disagree with Aristotle, believing that happiness really is pleasure. However, this is clearly not the case. Aristotle refutes such a belief in Book X, showing that pleasure is better when accompanied with virtue. This could not be the case if pleasure was the ultimate end in and of itself, entirely self sufficient. No one can deny that at some point in their lives they have experienced pleasure both with and without virtue. Clearly reality is in fact how Aristotle claims, pleasure in accordance with virtue is better than pleasure alone, proving that pleasure is merely a good among other goods not the ultimate good in itself. The second manner of life Aristotle considers is that of political activity. He judges the life of political activity to be aimed at honor, and seeks to refute the thought that honor is happiness. This he does with some ease, claiming that this “seems to depend more on those who honor than on the one’s honored, whereas we intuitively believe that the good is something of our own and hard to take from us.”

This also seems to be a true statement of happiness, primarily because happiness is a kind of internal thing, not dependent on others. Considering these two arguments for Aristotle’s theory, there is still one more that is perhaps the strongest yet.

Happiness appears to be something all creatures seek. It would be quite difficult to prove a dog seeks happiness, but considering how dogs can be conditioned and trained it seems that animals too seek at the very least pleasure. However the topic in consideration is human happiness, or human flourishing. Therefore since it is happiness or flourishing specific to humans, it follows that the activity of happiness will be an activity specific to humanity. Aristotle states, “Activities that differ in species are also completed by things that differ in species.”

No one would argue that the activity of happiness in a person is different than the activity of happiness in an animal. Because this is the case, these activities will be completed by things that differ in the species themselves. So what activity is specific to the human species? The activity specific to the human species certainly seems to be the activity of contemplation. This is not to say that animals are incapable of thinking, but rather that animals are incapable of thinking and reasoning in the same fashion that human beings think and reason. It seems unlikely that anyone would challenge this claim. However from this it follows that the Final Cause, the ultimate end, the self sufficient good, the activity of happiness of humanity, is nothing other than that activity specific to humanity which is contemplation, reason, and study.

Aristotle’s Ethics

Posted in Philosophy with tags , , on November 18, 2012 by taylorvincentroche

The question, what is the ultimate end of mankind? Is one that many have contemplated on a universal scale. Three hundred and fifty years before Christ this question was already being discussed, by a philosopher name Aristotle. In some of his writings on ethics, which later came to be titled Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle searched for ultimate end of humanity. His search led him to conclude that “happiness” or “eudaimonia”, in ancient Greek, was the end which all human endeavors strived for. Of course simply stating the ultimate end of mankind was happiness would be a gross oversimplification of Aristotle’s work. This essay seeks to examine what Aristotle meant by “happiness” and defend his position as the correct one.

The ancient Greek word “eudaimonia” should really be understood as “flourishing” rather than “happiness”.

From the first page of Nicomachean Ethics this concept of human flourishing captivates Aristotle, and indeed he spends the rest of his book articulating what it is and how exactly it functions in the human experience. From the very onset Aristotle proposes that there is an end beyond all others, that is to say an ultimate end. Aristotle explains that every action has an end, and because each action has an end, there are as many ends as there are actions.

It seems generally accepted to Aristotle that the end of each action could be, at least loosely, labeled a “good”.

But Aristotle submits that there is a good beyond each of these individual goods, a chief end or  greatest good that all mankind seeks. Aristotle thinks the answer is widely agreed upon, namely that the chief good is “eudaimonia” or human flourishing.

However although many people might agree that the chief end is happiness or flourishing, there is much debate about what constitutes human happiness or human flourishing. Aristotle seeks to provide a definition of happiness in Book X of his work Nicomachean Ethics.

The discussion in Book X begins with the observation that pleasure must have something to do with happiness. Aristotle reaches this conclusion by pointing out that “when we educate children, we steer them by pleasure and pain.”

Eudoxus (a mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher c.390-c.340CE) is cited as claiming that pleasure is the ultimate good, primarily because all creatures seek pleasure. Both rational and irrational creatures seek pleasure in all that they do, making it the most “choice worthy”.

Aristotle objects to this, claiming that pleasure is certain a good, but is not the ultimate good. This is because if pleasure is added to another good, it is even more choice worthy than pleasure alone.

From is it is the Aristotle draws the conclusion that pleasure is but a good among other goods, not the ultimate good. Not only this but it appears that pleasures are different depending on the kind of thing something is, namely pleasures vary between species.

The ultimate good, or aim for the human species in happiness. This happiness is “not a state. For if it were, someone might have it and yet be asleep for his whole life.” Happiness is an activity, not the kind of activity that leads to some other end, but an activity for its own sake.

So what kind of activity, or what activity, is happiness? Aristotle thinks that the happy life is one that lives in agreement wisdom.

“If happiness is activity in accord with virtue, it is reasonable for it to accord with the supreme virtue, which will be the virtue of the best thing. The best is understanding, or whatever else seems to be the natural ruler and leader, and to understand what is fine and divine…Hence complete happiness will be its activity in accord with its proper virtue; and we have said that this activity is the activity of study…For this activity is supreme, since understanding is the supreme element in us, and the objects of understanding are the supreme objects of knowledge.”

It is the action of study therefore that Aristotle claims is happiness. He offers in support of this claim the following assertions. That study is a more continuous activity than any other action, and the pleasure that comes from study is the most “pleasant of activities in accord with virtue.”

The activity of study is also more self sufficient of any other activity, study is desired for its own sake, and most often discovered in leisure all of which is consistent with the human experience of happiness.

Happiness than for Aristotle is the activity in accordance with the highest virtue, that being wisdom, and as such the activity is that of study and contemplation. So the question now arises, is Aristotle right? Is the activity of study and contemplation true happiness and the ultimate end for humanity?

How do we know?

Posted in Philosophy with tags , , on November 15, 2012 by taylorvincentroche

If one does not know what something is, can one know anything about it? The answer depends on your definition of “know what something is”. If by “know what something” is you mean to know something as it is in itself than I am very skeptical about your ability to do that. If however, by “know what something is” you mean that you are aware of it, conscious of its presence, and sure of its existence though you may not know it as it exists in itself than my response is most hopeful. I am very skeptical about Man’s ability to know things (any things) as they are in themselves. This however does not lead me to believe that I do not know anything about anything. Consider even the subject of this reading, Meno.

Socrates manages to convince Meno, and most likely the reader too, that they do not know what virtue is as well as they thought they did. He might even convince them that they do not know what virtue is at all. But he cannot ever convince them that they do not know anything about virtue. How can it be shown that they know something about virtue? Namely because they talk about virtue, describe its effects, and can articulate when someone is acting virtuous or is not. Certainly there are somethings that I know not what they are and consequently I know nothing about them. But all the same there are a great many things that although I do not know what they are I know something about them. Of course I must acknowledge that I do not believe I am using the word “know” in the same way that Socrates is. But that is because there are different meanings and understandings of what it means to know. Socrates wishes to focus on the highest form of knowing, that is knowing something as it is in itself. In that regard I agree with him that there seems little hope of ever reaching that place. But there is a kind of knowing that conforms itself to my perceptions and becomes apparent to me. I may not know it in itself but I know its effects, some of its qualities, and I know the part of that thing which conforms to my perceptions.