The following exercises are based on the ideas of key philosophers and are designed to consolidate a student’s knowledge of the subject.
Existence of external bodies
Summarise the argument in the following passage. Analyse and critically assess its implications.
But, say you, surely there is nothing easier than for me to imagine trees, for instance, in a park, or books existing in a closet, and nobody by to perceive them. I answer, you may so, there is no difficulty in it; but what is all this, I beseech you, more than framing in your mind certain ideas which you call books and trees, and the same time omitting to frame the idea of anyone that may perceive them? But do not you yourself perceive or think of them all the while? This therefore is nothing to the purpose; it only shows you have the power of imagining or forming ideas in your mind: but it does not show that you can conceive it possible the objects of your thought may exist without the mind. To make out this, it is necessary that you conceive them existing unconceived or unthought of, which is a manifest repugnancy. When we do our utmost to conceive the existence of external bodies, we are all the while only contemplating our own ideas. But the mind, taking no notice of itself, is deluded to think it can and does conceive bodies existing unthought of or without the mind; though at the same time they are apprehended by, or exist in, itself. A little attention will discover to anyone the truth and evidence of what is here said, and make it unnecessary to insist on any other proofs against the existence of material substance.- Berkeley, G. A Treatise concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge (1710) in T.E. Jessop (ed.) Berkeley, Philosophical Writings (Austin TX: University of Texas Press, 1953), paragraph 23.
Aristotle argues that the highest good is happiness, because it is the ultimate end – an end in itself and not a means of achieving some other end. But what is happiness? To get a clearer idea he focuses on the ‘functions’ of a human being on the grounds that if we could identify this then happiness could be defined as achieving this function to the best of our abilities. In the following passage he develops his argument. Break the argument down, showing how Aristotle develops it from one point to the next. Then critically assess it: are there assumptions in his argument that you believe cannot be sustained?
But no doubt people will say, “To call happiness the highest good is a truism. We want a more distinct account of what it is.” We might arrive at this if we could grasp what is meant by the “function” of a human being. If we take a flautist or a sculptor or any craftsman – in fact any class of men at all who have some special job or profession – we find that his special talent and excellence comes out in that job, and this is his function. The same thing will be true of man simply as man – that is of course if “man” does have a function. But is it likely that joiners and shoemakers have certain functions or specialized activities, while man as such has none but has been left by Nature a functionless being? Seeing that eye and hand and foot and every one of our members has some obvious function, must we not believe that in like manner a human being has a function over and above these particular functions? Then what exactly is it? The mere act of living is not peculiar to man – we find it even in the vegetable kingdom – and what we are looking for is something peculiar to him. We must therefore exclude from our definition the life that manifests itself in mere nurture and growth. A step higher should come the life that is confined to experiencing sensations. But that we see is shared by horses, cows, and the brute creation as a whole. We are left, then, with a life concerning which we can make two statements. First, it belongs to the rational part of man. Secondly, it finds expression in actions. The rational part may be either active or passive: passive in so far as it follows the dictates of reason, active in so far as it possesses and exercises the power of reasoning…Now let us assume for the moment the truth of the following propositions. (a) the function of a man is the exercise of his non-corporeal faculties or “soul” in principle. (b) The function of an individual and of a good individual in the same class – a harp player, for example, and a good harp player, and so through the classes – is generically the same, except that we must add superiority in accomplishment to the function, the function of the harp player being merely to play on the harp, while the function of the good harp player is to play on it well. (c) The function of man is a certain form of life, namely an activity of the soul exercised in combination with a rational principle or reasonable ground of action. (d) The function of a good man is to exert such activity well. (e) A function is performed well when performed in accordance with the excellence proper to it. – If these assumptions are granted, we conclude that the good for man is “an activity of soul in accordance with goodness” or (on the supposition that there may be more than one form of goodness) “in accordance with the best and most complete form of goodness."-Thomson, J.A.K. (trans). The Ethics of Aristotle(Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1956), pp. 37-9.
Summarize Hume’s argument. Then, analyse and discuss critically its implications.
…when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe anything but the perception. When my perceptions are removed for any time, as by sound sleep, so long am I insensible of myself, and may truly be said not to exist. And were all my perceptions removed by death, and could I neither think, nor feel, nor see, nor love, nor hate, after the dissolution of my body, I should be entirely annihilated, nor do I conceive what is further requisite to make me a perfect nonentity. If any one, upon serious and unprejudiced reflection, thinks he has a different notion of himself, I must confess I can reason no longer with him. All I can allow him is, that he may be in the right as well as I, and that we are essentially different in this particular. He may, perhaps, perceive something simple and continued, which he calls himself; though I am certain there is no such principle in me.-Hume, D. A Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40) (London and New York: Dent and Dutton, 1966), Vol I, Book I, Part IV, 6., p. 239.
But setting aside some metaphysicians of this kind, I may venture to affirm of the rest of mankind, that they are nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement.
In the following passage Marx contrasts the philosophy of German idealists, particularly Hegel, and his own theory of historical materialism. In your own words describe the main features of this contrast. Do you agree with Marx that ‘Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life’?
Morality and religion
In direct contrast to German philosophy which descends from heaven to earth, here we ascend from earth to heaven. That is to say, we do not set out from what men say, imagine, conceive, nor from men as narrated, thought of, imagined, conceived, in order to arrive at men in the flesh. We set out from real, active men, and on the basis of their real life-process we demonstrate the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life-process. The phantoms formed in the human brain are also, necessarily, sublimates of their material life-process, which is empirically verifiable and bound to material premises. Morality, religion, metaphysics, all the rest of ideology and their corresponding forms of consciousness, thus no longer retain the semblance of independence. They have no history, no development; but men, developing their material production and their material intercourse, alter, along with this their real existence, their thinking and the products of their thinking. Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life. In the first method of approach the starting point is consciousness taken as the living individual; in the second method, which conforms to real life, it is the real living individuals themselves, and consciousness is considered solely astheir consciousness.-Marx, Karl and F. Engels. The German Ideology (1846), C. J. Arthur (ed). (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1982), pp. 47-8.
This method of approach is not devoid of premises. It starts out from the real premises and does not abandon them for a moment. Its premises are men, not in any fantastic isolation and rigidity, but in their actual, empirically perceptible process of development under definite conditions. As soon as this active life-process is described, history ceases to be a collection of dead facts as it is with the empiricists (themselves still abstract), or an imagined activity of imagined subjects, as with the idealists.
Explain Nietzsche’s account of the origins of morality. Do you believe he is right in arguing that the origins of freedom and the will can be traced back to a desire to determine guilt and responsibility and to punish?
The whole realm of morality and religion belongs under this concept of imaginary causes. The “explanation” of disagreeable general feelings. They are produced by beings that are hostile to us (evil spirits: the most famous case – the misunderstanding of the hysterical as witches). They are produced by acts which cannot be approved (the feeling of “sin,” of “sinfulness,” is slipped under a physiological discomfort; one always finds reasons for being dissatisfied with oneself). They are produced as punishments, as payment for something we should not have done, for what we should not have been (impudently generalized by Schopenhauer into a principle in which morality appears as what it really is – as the very poisoner and slanderer of life: “Every great pain, whether physical or spiritual, declares what we deserve; for it could not come to us if we did not deserve it.” World as Will and Representation II, 666)…-F. Nietzsche, ‘Twilight of the Idols’ in The Portable Nietzsche (ed). Walter Kaufmann (New York: Viking, 1968), pp. 498-500.
The “explanation” of agreeable general feelings. They are produced by trust in God. They are produced by the consciousness of good deeds (the so-called “good conscience” – a physiological state which at times looks so much like good digestion that it is hard to tell them apart)…
Wherever responsibilities are sought, it is usually the instinct of wanting to judge and punish which is at work. Becoming has been deprived of its innocence when any being-such-and-such is traced back to will, to purposes, to acts of responsibility: the doctrine of the will has been invented essentially for the purpose of punishment, that is, because one wanted to impute guilt. The entire old psychology, the psychology of will, was conditioned by the fact that its originators, the priests at the head of ancient communities, wanted to create for themselves the right to punish – or wanted to create this right for God. Men were considered “free” so that they might be judged and punished – so that they might become guilty: consequently, every act had to be considered as willed, and the origin of every act had to be considered as lying within the consciousness…
Today, as we have entered into the reverse movement and we immoralists are trying with all our strength to take the concept of guilt and the concept of punishment out of the world again, and to cleanse psychology, history, nature, and social institutions and sanctions of them, there is in our eyes no more radical opposition than that of the theologians, who continue with the concept of a “moral world-order” to infect the innocence of becoming by means of “punishment” and “guilt.” Christianity is a metaphysics of the hangman.
Read the following passage. Analyse the dilemma Jim faces, revealing the ethical implications of the alternatives open to him. What would you do in such a situation? Justify your answer.
The principle of insulation
Jim finds himself in the central square of a small South American town.Bernard Williams, ‘A critique of utilitarianism’ in J.J.C. Smart & Bernard Williams, Utilitarianism For and Against, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973), pp. 98-9
Tied up against the wall are a row of twenty Indians, most terrified, a few defiant, in front of them several armed men in uniform. A heavy man in a sweat-stained khaki shirt turns out to be the captain in charge and, after a good deal of questioning of Jim which establishes that he got there by accident while on a botanical expedition, explains that the Indians are a random group of the inhabitants who, after recent acts of protest against the government, are just about to be killed to remind other possible protestors of the advantages of not protesting. However, since Jim is an honoured visitor from another land, the captain is happy to offer him a guest’s privilege of killing one of the Indians himself. If Jim accepts, then as a special mark of the occasion, the other Indians will be let off. Of course, if Jim refuses, then there is no special occasion, and Pedro here will do what he was about to do when Jim arrived, and kill them all. Jim, with some desperate recollection of schoolboy fiction, wonders whether if he got hold of a gun, he could hold the captain, Pedro and the rest of the soldiers to threat, but it is quite clear from the set-up that nothing of that kind is going to work: any attempt at that sort of thing will mean that all the Indians will be killed, and himself. The men against the wall, and the other villagers, understand the situation, and are obviously begging him to accept. What should he do?
Summarise the argument in the following passage. Then, analyse and critically assess its implications.
‘The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion. That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him must be calculated to produce evil to some one else. The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.’J.S. Mill, On Liberty, (1859) (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984), pp. 68/9
Explain in your own words what you think Kierkegaard means in the following passage by arguing that truth is living for an idea. Analyse and critically evaluate his contrast between this and mere knowledge.
In his journal (1835) Kierkegaard argues that to lead a ‘complete human life’ it must be based upon:
...something which grows together with the deepest roots of my life, through which I am so to speak, grafted upon the divine, hold fast to it, even though the whole world fell apart.Dru, Alexander. (ed.). The Journals of Kierkegaard 1834-1854 (London: Fontana, 1958), pp. 45-6.
For otherwise how near man is to madness, in spite of all his knowledge. What is truth, but to live for an idea? Ultimately everything must rest upon a postulate; but the moment it is no longer outside him, and he lives in it, then and only then does it cease to be a postulate for him...then all that knowledge will not be a chance assemblage, or a succession of details, without system and without a focusing point.’
I have tasted the fruit of the tree of knowledge, and often delighted in its taste. But the pleasure did not outlast the moment of understanding and left no profound mark upon me...One must know oneself before knowing anything else. It is only after a man has thus understood himself inwardly, and has thus seen his way, that life acquires peace and significance; only then is he rid of that tiresome, ill-omened fellow-traveller, the irony of life, which shows itself in the sphere of understanding, bidding true understanding begin with ignorance (Socrates) like God creating the world out of nothing.