History of Philosophy – Lesson 1: Introduction

…a New York City skyscraper, with everything that it implies, with the thirteenth story labeled ‘fourteen’ because thirteen is an unlucky number.
— Leonard Peikoff, “History of Philosophy” course, ARI, Lesson 1.
(A building without the 13th floor. Man is a mixture of extreme rationality and irrational mysticism. The blame is on philosophy — the solution, too.)

In this introductory lesson of the History of Philosophy course, Peikoff first invites us to look at the world around us today: What do we see?

Painting represents smears; music, noise; literature, nonsensical sequences of letters; education, feelings and social adjustments instead of reasoning and knowledge; religion, endless wars between sects; science, arbitrary assumptions, no more objective than religion.

The result?

Psychologically: anxiety.

Socially: violence.

Politically: threat of nuclear war and some form of fascism or communism.

He was asking these questions during the 70s, but just open any newspaper and you’ll see how contemporary he is.

How to explain it?

His metaphor is very good: just as a psychotherapist searches the past of a neurotic patient to understand his condition, so must we search the intellectual history of our culture — the history of philosophy — to understand its condition.

If we want to do something about our world, we must know the enemy. We must learn its arguments and identify its flaws — only then can we combat it.

But let’s first understand what philosophy is.

Etymologically, philosophy is the love (philein) of wisdom (sophia), but that’s too shallow. I myself would rather paraphrase Ayn Rand’s definition:

Philosophy is a systematic and integrated view of existence founded on principles.

I therefore see philosophy as the most human of all man’s activities, since it is his rationality operating at its broadest conceptual level.

Philosophy is composed of five branches: at its base, metaphysics and epistemology.

Metaphysics deals with the fundamental nature of existence as a whole. What constitutes reality? Is there another dimension? Is there only matter or mind and soul too? Are there universal laws? It looks for fundamental principles that underly it all.

Epistemology defines the nature and means of human knowledge. Is there such thing as knowledge? If so, do we acquire it by reason, revelation, or wishful thinking? Can we be certain of anything? Is our sense-experience valid or a figment of our imagination? What are concepts (if they even exist)? Answering these questions is a pre-condition for all subsequent philosophy.

Only then can we go up the three other branches. Ethics asks what should be our purpose in life, our values, choices and actions. Politics asks what is the nature of society and the proper functions of government. Finally, aesthetics asks what is the nature of art and how to evaluate it.

Philosophy can be chronologically divided into three main periods: ancient, medieval and modern. To simplify:

Ancient philosophy begins when man first demands rational explanations about the world, and ends when Christianity tells him to stop.

Medieval philosophy then lasts until man decides to use his reason again.

Modern philosophy, in turn, lasts until man stops reasoning once more and begins, mainly, to just feel, which is when Post-Modernism sets in.

The course, however, goes only up to Kant (1724-1804), who marks the beginning of the long denouement of modernity.

But, for now, we are still rational: Thales and the birth of philosophy are up next.

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