The Panorama of Philosophy: An Introduction

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The Panorama of Philosophy: An Introduction

<p>Philosophy is for most of us a body of works full of difficult ideas. But intrinsically, these doctrines are a schooling for thought. They rest on the belief that we are rational creatures, that


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Philosophy is for most of us a body of works full of difficult ideas. But intrinsically, these doctrines are a schooling for thought. They rest on the belief that we are rational creatures, that reason is our defining attribute, and that this capacity helps us to understand truth and falsehood. Therefore it is possible for us to demonstrate some things “beyond reasonable doubt”, and to built coherent theories about life and the world even without knowing everything about them. In this course we examine in depth the fundamental ideas of philosophy and their life in our civilisation over 2500 years since the Greeks.


  • Bertrand Russell: A History of Western Philosophy
  • Bryan Magee: The Story of Philosophy
  • Ortega y Gasset: What is Philosophy?
  • George Santayana: The Life of Reason
  • Alfred North Whitehead: Adventures of Ideas


  • LIFE, HUMAN EXISTENCE, RATIONAL CONSCIOUSNESS: Philosophy’s first concern must be with the agent of thought—with us. We are creatures of rational existence. Therefore everything human is grist to the mill of philosophy: Life itself, reason, thought, imagination, but also our emotional and instinctive life. As we are social creatures, political and ethical systems provide guidelines; as we are inquisitive, we have theories of knowledge; and as we see the world through the filter of our senses, we seek to understand aesthetic experience. This and the next session is where metaphysics is at home.
  • REALITY AND APPEARANCE: Philosophy must also occupy itself with the real things that comprise our habitat as animals. As thinking animals, however, we are aware that we see reality through a kind of screen. So the dichotomy of mind and matter moves into focus, as well as notions of causality and autonomous agency. And so we wish to know more: Is matter basic and mind its product; or is mind fundamental and dressed up in flesh and bones? Behind all this looms the question of what ‘existence’ means in itself.
  • THE EXISTENCE OF AN OBJECTIVE WORLD: “Reality bites”. This is how we know that objects definitely exist. But how? Usually we can measure them—so long, so wide, such weight etc. They have a finite body and are divisible. But where does their motion come from? What is energy? Questions like this seem to belong to physics; but prior to this philosophy must establish groundwork of ontology, where such hard questions are posed and answered.
  • WHAT WE CAN AND CANNOT KNOW: Things which exist must be amenable to discovery, demonstration and proof. There has to be an indubitable ‘sufficient reason’ for their existence. Reliance on sense certainty is treacherous, which is why we prefer automata. From such findings we can contrive a theory of knowledge, which is centred on doubt and belief, sensation and perception. Logical thinking steers us in the direction of ‘building blocks’ (substances, essences) and the verification of phenomena. This is the school of epistemology.
  • POLITICAL THOUGHT: Politics pertains to settled societies. All societies are economic and military agents. They are necessarily rivals; and states of war are frequent conditions. All societies are ruled by someone. Hence, political philosophy enquiries into the forms of government and seeks to establish which is best under which circumstances. Monarchies, aristocracies, tyrannies, democracies, plutocracies and others have all been tried and we have ambiguous relations with all of them. Other aspect involves civil services, industry, commerce, economy, the institutionalisation of religion, arts and business.
  • ETHICS AND MORALS: Living in society mean living together with other people. First, the family. Then various associations – clubs, sports, business, politics. Also police and military, and finally the government. In all we find moral and ethics, customs and traditions being preserved. The people fundamentally wish to lead a happy life. So at the bottom of all such groupings are questions of justice, of honesty and fraudulence, crime and punishment. Frequently they are in conflict with each other. They also tend to change over time. Ethics is a philosophy that enquiries from humans what is best for them in terms of their striving as individuals and as member of a society.
  • ART AND THE BEAUTIFUL: Humans wish to be diverted. Life is hard and entertainment a pleasant interlude. The instinct for beautification is universal; we find it in all societies on earth, especially among primitive tribes. But on a higher plane, there is more to it: In Art, the spirit speaks, which is so often suppressed for other goals. Art preserves eternal values. It facilitates self-expression through the medium of poetry, song and dance. It is a form of meditation, removed from the practical world, about the station of humans in the whole gamut of creation. This is the metier of aesthetics.
  • THE PERIODS OF WESTERN PHILOSOPHY: Philosophy is the liberator of the human spirit. Not surprisingly it arose in the first democratic environment – the ancient Greeks of Anatolia and Italy. It was then called “Philo-Sophia”, the love of wisdom. Also: “The Queen of Knowledge”. But philosophy cannot thrive in bonds. In the Middle Ages, when theology pointed the path to salvation, she became a recluse and chamber maid to the One God. The rediscovery of Aristotle inaugurated modern philosophy. In the last two centuries, her daughter Science has tried to free herself from the apron strings of philosophy. We end on the worrisome issue of their rivalry in today’s world.

By the end of this course, students should be able to:

  1. Gain a comprehensive appreciation of the value of philosophy in civilisation.
  2. Form a basis for the intelligent discussion of philosophical principles and the philosophical metier.