AC Grayling: The History of Philosophy

From Sunday Morning, 10:04 am on 21 July 2019

British philosopher Professor AC Grayling has written numerous books on philosophy, politics and history.

His latest The History of Philosophy, a huge endeavour, looks back on 2000 years of philosophical thought.

He told Jim Mora philosophy was, and remains, an important intellectual pursuit.  

Professor A C Grayling

Professor A C Grayling Photo: AFP / FILE

“Well the first thing to remember is that philosophy, in its original meaning, just meant rational and careful inquiry, thinking about everything, trying to discover and make sense and to achieve some kind of understanding of our world and of ourselves.

"So, the very earliest philosophers were not just philosophers but scientists and historians and psychologists, they were just trying to make sense of things.”

He says generations of philosophical thinkers have profoundly changed the way we see the world. Modern philosophical enquiry alone has given us the natural sciences, psychology, sociology and empirical linguistics, he says.

“In the 20th century philosophy has contributed enormously to computer science and to cognitive science. It's an attempt to find the right way to formulate, and then to answer all the great questions that really press on us.”

His three philosophical titans are Plato, Aristotle and Kant, he says.

“They really did change the way people thought and debated things. Plato, and by the way one wouldn't want to live in Plato's Republic, it was a bit sort of Fascist in a way, but he was a tremendous genius who identified all the really important questions to ask and tried to wrestle with them in a way which has triggered a whole tradition of debate about those matters.

“Aristotle was his pupil of course, also a universal genius, but of a very different cast of mind. He was a much more empirically-minded person. In fact, he did quite a lot of empirical science. He examined the sexual life of the frog in a swamp up to his knees in mud. He was interested in that kind of thing too.

“[Immanuel] Kant did the same thing in the modern period that they did in the classical antiquity, and that was to offer a way of thinking about the most fundamental problems in philosophy. These are the problems of knowledge, of existence, of the nature of reality, of the self and of identity.

“Great questions about whether or not there is a deity and what the foundations of ethics are and he, liked them, made a tremendous difference in the way we think about these these things; really shifted the foundations. And that's why they stand out as sort of Himalayas among a lot of foothills in philosophy.”

Philosophy, Grayling says, can “heal the soul".

“Philosophy is quite a broad enterprise with a number of different things going on in it. And one of them is this question, the great Socratic question indeed, about how we should live and what values we should live by. And that's what Epicurus was addressing himself to, so also with the Stoics, so was also indeed Aristotle and Plato before him and their great teacher Socrates.

All asking this question; how should we live? What sort of person should I be? How shall I conduct myself in life? You see the word ethics comes from an ancient Greek word ‘ethos’ which means character.

“So it's really a question about one's character, about how one acts and that question is the question which every single human individual must ask himself or herself and must try to come up with an answer, so that a life can have a shape and a purpose and thereby a meaning.”

Philosophers from antiquity believed reason was the key that would unlock the door to a good life, a notion with which Grayling agrees but we mustn’t overlook out “non-rational” side, he says.

“I don't mean the irrational side, but I mean our emotions, our affections and the whole point about living a reflective life, an educated life, that is one where we educate our sentiments and emotional responses, is so that we can govern our emotions.

The Stoics understood, he says, the importance of reason and emotion.

“So, it's not all just cold, dispassionate reason, it's about coupling reason and emotion.”

Eminent scientists, not least the late Stephen Hawking in The Grand Design, have said philosophy is dead as it hasn’t kept up with scientific advances and leaps in knowledge – particularly in physics.

Bertrand Russell

Bertrand Russell Photo: / Creative Commons

Grayling says Hawking was firing his arrows at a school of thought not representative of all philosophers.

“People like [Jacques] Derrida and [Martin] Heidegger and so on, where there has been a tendency to try to put science into the same bag as any other view of the world, as if they were all on the same footing and were of equal validity.

This is because the post-modern way of thinking about things is very resistant to the idea that there is a right way to think about the world and a right kind of methodology to pursue. So, there has been a resistance to that from the continental tradition of philosophy especially as the twentieth century went on, so the resistance became stronger.”

Grayling says he belongs to the Anglophone tradition.

“Analytic philosophy, which is the tradition to which I belong, is very knowledgeable about science, very interested in science and learns a lot from it.

“So Hawking, and indeed a number of other people I know in the sciences, take their pot shots at the continental philosophers, mainly because they don't really know, or haven't really appreciated, the fact that there is this very important distinction between the two traditions.”

Kant, one of Grayling’s philosophical “Himalayas”, thought women cleverer than men and yet women are under-represented in philosophy.

“Well firstly he was right about that, women are vastly more clever than men, and I think New Zealand is a living example of it at this moment.”

Immanuel Kant

Immanuel Kant Photo: Creative Commons

Women's voices have been silenced throughout history, he says.

“Denying women an education, denying them an opportunity to participate in discussions, denying them an opportunity to write and to publish as much as they would like to have done - that has been the norm.

“But that's changed, and from the middle of the 20th century onwards at any rate, great contributions have been made to philosophy by people who are very good at philosophy. And it doesn't matter whether they're male or female, come from one part of the world or another part of the world, that's an irrelevance.

“The interesting thing is that we all, as human beings, have this deep and passionate desire to try to make sense of things and philosophy is the enterprise of making sense of things.”

 Grayling believes we are presently living in an age of great “philosophical flourishing”.

“More people are actively and professionally engaged in philosophy today than there ever were at any point in history."

He says out of that has come some very detailed work.  

“Opening up areas of inquiry which were unimaginable before, not least because science and the developments in logic have provided more and more in the way of weaponry really to think about these problems, to think about the nature of consciousness let's say, or to think about the nature of time, or to think about what could possibly constitute the deepest and most underlying nature of reality.”

“So, we've lived in an age of great philosophical flourishing and I think great philosophical discovery. Things have really moved on a lot in those more technical areas of the philosophical debate.”

The digital age we live in now could further turbo-charge philosophical discovery, Grayling says.

“At this point of time we are still in the unfolding, in the increasingly rapid unfolding, of that great revolution of thought that occurred in the 17th Century. And, of course, at any moment there might be a revelation of some kind, an epiphany of some kind, which throws a whole lot of new light across the landscape of our thought, and which will yet again shift our perceptions and we could be on the cusp of that because of these new technologies.

So the digital age might advance us or indeed bring us to an end. I mean there's always the thought, isn't there?, that a super intelligent AI system might ask itself the question what's the most pesky thing on the planet - and the answer is not far to seek.”   

AC Grayling

AC Grayling Photo: supplied

Can we educate ourselves out of unreason?

After World War I, distinguished philosophers such as Bertrand Russell, Karl Popper and Ludwig Wittgenstein believed education was the only way to save humanity from itself.

“They got involved in education, got involved in school teaching, because they thought that the horrors and destruction of the First World War could only be avoided by educating future generations to be more thoughtful, more considerate, more knowledgeable about history, better able to reason their way through conflict and difficulty.

They, all three of them, failed and, in general education has never achieved the great result that we've always hoped that it would achieve.”

Grayling believes we need to approach education differently, with more imagination, if we are to really change lives.

“If we were to think much, much more imaginatively about education, really put the resources in - one teacher per pupil would be absolutely the ideal but it would cost a bucket of money to do it - but it might start to make the kind of difference, to produce people who think, who reflect, who have a wide-horizon view, who have a sense of the past, who are able also to distinguish particularities - to see that no two things are really identical. You know all that would be marvellous.”

Bertrand Russell however was skeptical about humans dedicating themselves to deep thought, Grayling says.

“Bertrand Russell famously said most people would rather die than think, and most people do. And that's the great tragedy of the world isn't it? Because we stagger from one mistake to another mistake, one disaster to another, because people don't think enough.”