Philosophy Classic Texts in Philosophy Higher and Intermediate 2 7670

Classic Texts in Philosophy
Higher and Intermediate 2
Summer 2000
Classic Texts in Philosophy
Higher and Intermediate 2
Support Materials
Introduction & Tutor’s Guide
Student’s Guide
Background Information
The Republic
Revision exercises
Background Information
Revision exercises
Background Information
Nichomachean Ethics
Revision exercises
Background Information
An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding
Revision exercises
Philosophy: Classic Texts in Philosophy (H/Int 2)
Philosophy: Classic Texts in Philosophy (H/Int 2)
1. Introduction and Tutor’s Guide
This guide is designed to assist the teacher or lecturer in the delivery of Classics Texts
in Philosophy at Higher and Intermediate 2. Teachers and lecturers should
supplement these materials with material devised appropriate to specific groups. It is
also expected that teachers and lecturers will require time for clarification, exposition
and discussion. These support materials also contain suggestions for student centred
activities, but it is expected that the teacher or lecturer may wish to devise their own
activities appropriate to the group.
The Study of Classic Texts
This unit is designed do develop philosophical thinking through the study of the
history of ideas as presented in classic philosophical texts. Each text is very different
in style and content.
Those who are unfamiliar with philosophy may ask why they are directed to read
ancient and arcane texts. Surely if philosophers are still reading Plato, goes the
objection, this can only mean that philosophers have been spinning their wheels for
the last 2000 years or so. Another common concern is that concentration on historical
texts may detract from the real business of philosophy, namely the treatment of
current philosophical problems. As to the latter, the Higher unit ‘Problems in
Philosophy’ discusses current philosophical issues and problems. But why read
ancient and classic texts in philosophy?
A study of classic texts is vital to the student of philosophy because we are likely to
deal with a philosophical issue more competently if we are familiar with the treatment
it has received from great thinkers in history. As Aristotle says in the opening
chapters of De Anima, the philosopher reads what others have said on a particular
topic ‘in order that we may profit by whatever is sound in their suggestions and avoid
their errors.’ Anyone familiar with the history of philosophy will recognise that
certain issues remain alive today that can be traced back to the ancient Greeks. The
direct impact and influence of Descartes and Hume on current philosophical issues is
indisputable (in fact both philosophers have spawned many current debates).
However, the treatments of philosophical issues and problems have progressed and
tend now to be more sophisticated than they once were. This progress would have
been difficult if thinkers had not been able to build on the work of their predecessors.
There are other reasons for studying classic texts. For one, exposure to masterful
presentations of difficult material is likely to lead to improvements in thinking. But
perhaps more importantly, these texts are among the great achievements of
intellectual history, and that history has a place in our wider understanding of Western
European civilisation as a whole. This point is easily appreciated when one recognises
that Plato, Aristotle, Descartes and Hume, if not exactly household names, are
familiar to many who have never studied philosophy in any formal context at all.
Philosophy: Classic Texts in Philosophy (H/Int 2)
Learning and Teaching Approaches
The study of specific philosophical texts gives the teacher or lecturer the opportunity
to encourage the articulation of the student’s own thoughts and experience in
connection with ideas expressed in the text. Most people think philosophically or
abstractly, albeit at a basic and untutored level. It is beneficial if the tutor uses or
devises a wide range of imaginative individual and group activities to enhance
exposition and understanding. This can be accomplished by using OHTs, student
reading and class discussion of a topic.
Tutors will have their own preferences concerning the organisation of the course and
the allocation of time within it. They may opt to approach the texts in chronological
order, which may bring out more effectively the nature of philosophy’s historical
development or they may organise the course around more thematic concerns. In any
event, since the texts are products of their time, some historical background could be
provided by way of introduction. Themes may include Plato’s reaction to the
Sophists; Aristotle’s reaction to Plato; Descartes’ response to the advances of
scientific method and the Reformation; Hume’s reaction to the doctrine of innate
ideas and rationalism.
Teacher and lecturers should bear in mind that philosophy is also available at
Advanced Higher, and, where appropriate, they should consider likely progression
routes for students.
Formative assessment should be continuous, and the opportunity for consolidation of
learning ought to take place alongside summative assessment.
Philosophy: Classic Texts in Philosophy (H/Int 2)
2. Student’s Guide
What do I need to know?
This unit introduces you to some classic texts in the history of philosophy. By the end
of the course you will have become familiar with three such texts. There are classic
texts from four philosophers in this unit, and you must study at least three of them.
The four philosophers and the texts are:
Classic Texts
The Republic
Nichomachean Ethics
An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding
The texts of both Plato and Descartes are mandatory – you must study them. You
must study the texts of one of the other two philosophers – Aristotle or Hume.
Although the philosophers and their texts are the same for both Higher and
Intermediate 2, there are clearly differences between what is expected at each of the
The content varies between Higher and Intermediate 2 and the table below shows the
text references for each level:
Intermediate 2
• Plato – The Republic
Book V, 473d – Book VII, 518b
Book V, 475c;
• Descartes – Meditations (Meditations I, II and VI)
(Meditation s I, and first
4 paragraphs of Med II
• Aristotle – Ethics
Books I, II, III (Chapters 1-5),
Book X
Book II, chapters 2 and 6
• Hume – Enquiry…
Sections II-V, VII and X
Section II, Parts 11-20
At whatever level you are studying the course, you will be expected to demonstrate
understanding, analysis and evaluation of the philosophical texts. The table below
indicates the outcomes and performance criteria for each level.
Philosophy: Classic Texts in Philosophy (H/Int 2)
Philosophy: Classic Texts in Philosophy (H/Int 2)
Evidence requirements
Evidence for Outcomes 1, 2 and 3 will be provided in the form of an
essay response for three of the prescribed texts.
Performance criteria
(a) Evaluate in a reasoned and structured manner an argument from
the text.
(b) Present a well-supported and coherent conclusion.
Evaluate an argument from each prescribed text in a reasoned and
structured manner.
Performance criteria
(a) Analyse an argument in a reasoned and structured manner with
reference to the text.
(b) Present a detailed explanation of the relationship between the
argument and the central theme
of the text.
Analyse an argument from each prescribed text in a reasoned and
structured manner.
Performance criteria
(a) Present an accurate description of the theme.
(b) Demonstrate knowledge and understanding of the theme.
Demonstrate knowledge and understanding of a central theme in
each prescribed text.
Evidence requirements
Outcomes 1, 2 and 3: evidence in the form of an extended response
of approximately 400 words for each of three of the prescribed texts.
Performance criteria
(a) Comment upon the strengths and weaknesses of the passage.
(b) Present a clear conclusion.
Evaluate the content of the passage.
Performance criteria
(a) Describe the relevant theme.
(b) Explain the relationship between the theme and the specified
Explain a relevant theme relating to each passage.
Performance criteria
(a) Describe a passage from each prescribed text.
(b) Refer accurately to each passage.
Demonstrate knowledge of a passage from each prescribed text.
Intermediate 2
What are sources and how do I use them?
At Higher where there is mention of 'primary' and 'secondary' sources, the 'primary'
sources are the classic texts, the works you are required to understand; 'secondary'
sources are works which provide commentary on the primary sources.
You should refer to sources of information frequently, especially where this helps to
show your understanding of a theme or argument and its various aspects. You are
encouraged to use direct quotations if you can remember them, but there are also other
ways of referring to texts and other sources:
naming the title of the source, and its author
paraphrasing the source (putting the main ideas in your own words)
by a combination of these methods.
At Intermediate 2, it is not required that you read the primary texts, although you
must be aware of their content. Generally speaking, these texts are contain complex
and abstract ideas and it is more important that your tutor – who understands them –
explains their meaning. Certain passages are reasonably straightforward and your
tutor will select those which are appropriate. It is more important that you understand
what the relevant passages mean, what is the central theme of each philosopher; and
that you have discussed in class the strengths and weaknesses of the themes in the
prescribed passages.
How and when will I be assessed?
Typically, the outcomes of the unit are expressed in ways which help you to use the
knowledge and skills mentioned. You will be asked to complete three responses –
each of which will cover all the outcomes for one prescribed text. The responses
should be approximately:
600 words in length for a response at Higher
400 words in length for a response at Intermediate 2.
However, you should not waste time counting words as responses which are relevant,
informative and well structured will not be penalised if they are more or less than the
suggested number of words.
What help will I get?
You will be given a lot of support, particularly in the completion of the first response
so that you have a clear idea of the methods involved. Philosophy demands that you
think in systematic ways. In subsequent assessments you will most likely require less
support as you become accustomed to the nature of philosophical thinking. You will
naturally start organising your answers in the systematic method which you have been
Philosophy: Classic Texts in Philosophy (H/Int 2)
What if I fail any of the assessments?
It would be unusual if everything went smoothly, but you need not panic. There is
time set aside to allow you to be reassessed. The teacher/lecturer might simply ask
you to re-work the piece of writing already assessed, after you have been made aware
of the strengths and weaknesses of your first attempt. Alternatively, the tutor will set
a different question on the same text.
Philosophy: Classic Texts in Philosophy (H/Int 2)
The Republic:
Book V, 473d – Book VII, 518b (H)
Book V, 475c; Book VII, 514 – 518b (Int 2)
Background information
The Republic is devoted primarily to Plato’s political philosophy, the nature of justice
and his account of the ideal political State. But the Republic is more than a work of
political philosophy. In order to lend plausibility to his political views Plato discusses
a wide range of related topics. For example, we are offered extended discussions on
the theory of education, reflections on the after-life, the role of woman, war and much
more. It is for this reason that large sections of the dialogue, including the assigned
passages, do not deal directly with the institutions of his ideal State. The most famous
section of the Republic shows the development of Plato’s most important
philosophical doctrine: his theory of Forms and the theory of knowledge which
underpin his account of the ideal State.
Background: Socrates
Plato was inspired by his mentor Socrates (470-399BCE) and therefore indirectly
Socrates has had a profound influence on the development of Western thought. He
wrote nothing down but appears in many of Plato’s dialogues. Plato’s portrayal of
Socrates is of a man brilliant in dialogue and argument. Socrates was nothing short of
a interrogator of anyone willing to engage with him, especially the Sophists. Plato was
obviously influenced by this dialectical style of debate and the philosophy
underpinning it.
Socrates was put to death by the Athenian state in 399 BC, the date which launched
Plato’s career as a philosopher. Plato, like many of his young contemporaries, was
traumatised by the death of Socrates. Although immensely popular with his pupils and
followers, Socrates was regarded with suspicion by those in authority. His attitude
towards the democratic state and the established religion of the time was regarded as
subversive. Socrates was charged with heresy and corrupting the morals of the young
and put to death in 399BCE. Plato’s Apology is the dialogue which gives an account
of Socrates’ masterful, but ultimately doomed defence at the trial. He carried out his
sentence by famously drinking a cup of hemlock.
Philosophy: Classic Texts in Philosophy (H/Int 2)
Background: Plato
Plato is the first Western philosopher whose written works have survived and to
which we have access. Plato was thirty one when Socrates died and his philosophical
career began. He founded the Academy, his famous school in Athens, which is
regarded as the prototype of the university. Almost all of his writings are in dialogue
form where his philosophical ideas, arguments and criticisms are put into the mouths
of different interlocutors, one of whom is nearly always Socrates. As a result, Plato is
not a systematic philosopher, rather, his philosophical ideas and doctrines are
scattered throughout his dialogues. The most famous of these dialogues is The
Reading The Republic
The best way to approach this text (and most philosophical texts for that matter) is to
read it fairly quickly all the way through, without worrying about passages you cannot
follow or understand. In this way, you will achieve a general understanding of what it
is about, and a feel for Plato’s central ideas, themes and concepts. There are many
sections of the Republic you may find irrelevant to the content of the unit, other parts
archaic, and you may even find many of his views offensive! However, with the
whole text will also provide the context for the sections focused on in this unit.
The Political Background of The Republic
Plato’s Republic is his major work in political theory. He attempts to create the ideal
state by concerning himself with the nature of justice. The central questions of The
Republic are ‘What is a just state?’ and ‘How would a just individual behave in such a
The assigned sections of The Republic is unified by one principal theme, namely the
justification of perhaps the most famous of Plato’s pronouncements:
‘… there will be no end to the troubles of states, or indeed . . . of humanity
itself, till philosophers becomes kings in this world, or till those we now call
kings and rulers really and truly becomes philosophers’ (Book V, 473d-473e).
The remainder of Books V and VI and the opening passage of Book VII provide the
concepts and arguments required to make sense of this bold claim. In particular Plato
discusses what it is to be a philosopher. In so doing he introduces concepts such as
wisdom, knowledge, belief and opinion, and of course his Theory of Forms. He
illustrates these by way of an inter-related set of allegories or parables. All this serves
to illustrate in metaphorical terms just what the life of the philosopher is like. Once
we know what true philosophers are and how they should behave, it is obvious, thinks
Plato, that only philosophers can be rulers.
Philosophy: Classic Texts in Philosophy (H/Int 2)
The Theory of Forms
The main philosophical theme or doctrine underling this part of the Republic is the
Theory of Forms or Ideas. Plato assumes that corresponding to terms such as
‘beautiful’, ‘just’, ‘good’, ‘equality’, ‘large’, ‘beds’ and other such terms and artefacts
there are forms or ideas. Thus he speaks of the ‘form of the beautiful’, the ‘form of
the good’, ‘the form of the just’, and so on. He also uses terms such as ‘beauty’,
‘goodness’, ‘justice’, ‘the beautiful itself’, ‘the good itself’, ‘the just itself’ when
referring to Forms or Ideas.
The origins of the theory
Plato nowhere provides an explicit or clear argument for the existence of these socalled Forms. He appears to assume that anyone on reflection will see that there must
exist these forms.
Socrates search for definitions
Socrates searched for definitions of terms such as ‘justice’ and ‘courage’. For
example he wanted to find what is common to all courageous acts and
courageous people and distinguish them from acts and people who are not
courageous. He believed that only if we can do this can we really know what
courage is.Socrates’ quest for definitions was generally unsuccessful. For
example, someone might suggest that to be courageous is to stand firm in battle.
But there are occasions when courageous men retreat – we can show courage in
many circumstances apart from battles. Similarly when it is suggested that it is
just to give back what you have borrowed, Socrates points out that if you
borrow weapons from a friend who then goes mad it would not be just to return
them. So it seems that courage and justice cannot be identified with any
particular things or sets of things in ordinary experience.
Similarly Plato seems to have concluded that nothing in this world is ever
completely just (or completely beautiful, completely courageous etc.). For
example a beautiful picture might look ugly under a microscope or from an
unusual point of view. A beautiful person might be ugly by comparison with a
god or goddess. So it seems that ordinary experience can never give absolutely
unambiguous examples of justice, beauty and the like.These points seem to
suggest that when we think of someone or something as courageous or just we
cannot be thinking purely of items in the world of ordinary experience. We
must have some consciousness of entities which are somehow outside ordinary
Philosophy: Classic Texts in Philosophy (H/Int 2)
The Influence of Mathematics
Plato seems to have parallels here with Mathematics:
In Mathematics we talk about numbers, but numbers are not things in the world
of ordinary experience. For example, you may meet three pigs, three
musketeers or three wise men, but you will never meet the number three.
We talk of straight lines, circles and the like, but nothing in ordinary experience
is ever perfectly straight or circular.
So it seems that when we do Mathematics we are talking about entities which
are somehow beyond ordinary experience.
So Plato seems to have concluded that when we use terms such as ‘courage’, ‘justice’,
and ‘beauty’, and when we use mathematical or geometrical terms such ‘one’,
‘triangle’ and ‘circle’, we are really referring to entities which somehow exist outside
the world of ordinary experience, even though they play an essential part in enabling
us to understand that world.
What is a Form?
Plato nowhere expounds this doctrine in detail but some of the things he seems to say
about the Forms are indicated below (using the form of the beautiful as an example).
The Form of the Beautiful
Although there are many beautiful things in the world of ordinary experience,
there is only one Form of the beautiful.
The many beautiful things of ordinary experience will also be found to be ugly in
some respect. But the Form of the Beautiful is beautiful without qualification.
The beautiful things of ordinary experience are accessible to the senses. The
Form is grasped by reason alone. We can therefore have knowledge of the Form,
whereas we can at most have belief about the particular beautiful things of
ordinary experience.
The Form is not liable to change or decay. It is outside time and space.
The many beautiful things in some sense owe their beauty to the Form. They may
be said to resemble it or participate in it.
The Form of the Beautiful is fully real and may be said truly to exist. The many
beautiful things in some way lack reality or true being.
Plato makes similar points about other Forms, of which he mentions quite a few, for
example, the Form of the Good, The Form of the Just, the Form of Sameness and
Difference, the Form of Equality, the Form of Man.
Philosophy: Classic Texts in Philosophy (H/Int 2)
Interpretation of the Forms
Traditional interpretations generally suggest that Plato has a ‘two worlds’ view.
Besides the changing world of ordinary experience there is another world, or a higher
level of reality, in which there are perfect, unchanging instances of goodness, justice,
circularity, manhood etc. This world is outside time and space but we all have a faint
‘recollection’ of it. Philosophers may come to know the Forms directly. Ordinary
people who do not contemplate the Forms cannot have genuine knowledge: they just
have belief or opinion.
Recent commentators have mostly tried to play down the ‘otherness’ and ‘separation’
of the Forms. Some, for example, would argue that Plato does not really mean to
suggest that we cannot know things in the ordinary world. They interpret him to
mean that to know things about this world I must have a grasp of the Forms.
Problems with the Forms
There are a great many problems with the theory. Plato himself seems to have been
well aware of these.
Some would say it doesn’t make much sense to talk about entities which we
cannot know through the senses.
ii. Plato sometimes talks as though the form of the beautiful thing is itself beautiful,
and sometimes as though it is an abstract entity ‘beauty’. Many would argue that,
while the objects of experience may be beautiful, beauty is not the sort of thing
that can be beautiful. Similarly, they would say, courage cannot be courageous
and so on.
iii. Plato is very vague about the relationship between Forms and particular things.
He talks of ‘participation’ or ‘resemblance’ but these metaphors do not seem to
make literal sense.
iv. It is not clear for what range of things there are Forms. Plato mostly uses moral,
aesthetic and mathematical examples. Sometimes he refers to forms of natural
kinds, like human beings and animals and sometimes of Forms of artefacts like a
bed. Some of his arguments seem to suggest that there must be a form
corresponding to every adjective and common noun. In this case there would
have to be forms of such things as mud, hair and Irn Bru. Plato would not be
impressed. He seems to want to limit himself to entities such as beauty, justice
and so on.
What is a philosopher? (475e-480a)
If the ideal state that Plato has described will only ‘see the light of day’ if kings
become philosophers or philosophers kings, then it is important to be able to say just
what it is to be a philosopher. What distinguishes a philosopher from the nonphilosopher? And what makes philosophers the only men suitable for the role of
ruler? These are the questions that occupy Plato in the assigned passages.
Philosophy: Classic Texts in Philosophy (H/Int 2)
The Distinction between Philosophers and Non-philosophers
In this first section Plato begins by saying that the philosopher is a ‘lover of wisdom’,
but until we know what wisdom is, we are not much further forward. We are told that
the lover of wisdom is the person who recognises the distinction between knowledge,
belief and ignorance, and who strives for knowledge, valuing it above all else, even
though mere true beliefs suffice for day to day purposes.
Argument assuming that there are Forms
Socrates argues as follows:
The lover of sights recognises only the many beautiful things of this world so is like
someone asleep and dreaming. In other words the lover of sights mistakes images for
Only the philosopher recognises the one true form of beauty and knows that the many
beautiful things are only imitations of it. The philosopher is therefore like someone
The philosopher has knowledge: the lover of sights has only opinion (or belief).
Argument addressed to the lovers of sights themselves (476d-480a)
1. Socrates first argues as follows:
(a) Knowledge, belief and ignorance are all faculties or powers.
(b) Faculties or powers are distinguished by their objects and by their effects.
(c) Knowledge, belief and ignorance must therefore have different objects.
(d) Knowledge is concerned with reality (what is); ignorance is concerned with
unreality (what is not); so belief must be concerned with something between
reality and unreality (between being and not being).
2. Socrates argues the many beautiful things of this world will also be found to be
ugly. Thus they are between being and not being. The same goes for the many just
things, the many large things and so on.
3. Socrates concludes that those concerned with the many beautiful things have
belief, not knowledge.
The distinction Plato makes between philosophers and non-philosophers is interwoven
with one of his central themes: the distinction between ‘appearance’ and ‘reality’, and
its relation to knowledge. Knowledge is not arrived at easily, for knowledge is not of
‘appearances’ (which are available even to the unreflective), but of ‘reality’, which
according to Plato, lies outside the realm of sense experience. So the philosopher is
the person who looks beyond the phenomenal world to the ‘real’ world, the realm of
the Forms, and as shown above, this theme is illustrated with reference to beautiful
objects and the form of beauty itself.
Philosophy: Classic Texts in Philosophy (H/Int 2)
But why does the philosopher have to look beyond sense experience for knowledge?
A second theme in this passage is Plato’s account of the distinction between
knowledge, belief and ignorance, which is very different from our own. Those who
have studied the unit Problems in Philosophy will know that knowledge is usually
defined as justified, true belief. Plato discusses, but does not accept, this definition of
knowledge (see the Theatetus). Instead Plato distinguishes knowledge and opinion by
reference to the objects of knowledge and opinion. One can have knowledge only of
those objects and processes that are eternal and unchanging, while opinions are held
of objects that are temporal and subject to change, i.e., all the objects of phenomenal
experience. The former are ‘real’, while the latter are ‘mere appearances’. Ignorance,
on the other hand, is of non-being. These claims are among the most difficult in the
assigned passages, and it is advisable that the extended commentaries be consulted for
further discussion.
Problems with the argument
On the face of it the argument seems very poor.
(a) Knowledge and belief are not faculties and there is no reason why they should
have different objects. In ordinary language we say that one person knows
something while another person merely believes it.
(b) From the fact that something is beautiful in one respect and not beautiful in
another it does not follow that the thing in question is between reality and
unreality. It looks as though Plato has been arguing as follows:
i. X is beautiful in one respect and not in another;
ii. X is both beautiful and not beautiful at the same time;
iii X both is and is not;
iv. X is between reality and unreality.
If this is right then Plato is confusing different senses of ‘is’.
Various interpretations have been offered to show that Plato is not making such
simple logical mistakes. Plato often uses what looks to us a bad argument to make a
good point. His point could be that we should confine our use of the word
‘knowledge’ to cases where we have complete certainty and understanding. But we
cannot achieve complete certainty and understanding when we talk about particular
things in the world. I may feel sure that there is a table in front of me but I could be
mistaken. The nearest we come to this kind certainty and understanding is when we
do Mathematics. But when we do Mathematics we are not talking about particular
things in this world but about numbers or geometrical figures. So Plato might argue
that we can achieve complete certainty and understanding only when we contemplate
the Forms. So he might claim that we should strictly speaking describe ourselves as
having knowledge only when we are concerned with the Forms.
Philosophy: Classic Texts in Philosophy (H/Int 2)
Another suggestion, related to the above, could be that something of Plato’s attitude
remains in Science’s attempt to discover the laws of nature. Scientists are interested in
facts derived from observation; but they are more interested in the universal laws that
govern the observable phenomena. In other words, scientists are looking for what is
permanent and unchanging. Now if Plato defines knowledge in this way, and this is
combined with the fact that there is nothing stable in the world of sense experience,
then, if knowledge is to be possible, a realm of stable, eternal objects is required - the
Theory of Forms is in part a response to this need.
Philosophy: Classic Texts in Philosophy (H/Int 2)
THE REPUBLIC 502c-521c
The Form of the Good
i. How should philosopher rulers be trained? 502c-505a
The guardians must be capable of the highest knowledge – the Form of the Good. The
true philosopher, then, must have perfect insight into the true nature of the Good.
The Form of the Good is essential to all knowledge. (505a-b)
ii. Two popular conceptions of the Good
Socrates dismisses the ideas that the good is pleasure and that it is knowledge.
iii. Plato’s conception of the Good
While knowledge has the Forms as its object, Socrates insists that the Form of the
Good is vital to all knowledge. He says:
‘… if we are ignorant of it [the Good] the rest of our knowledge, however perfect,
can be of no benefit to us, just as it’s no use possessing anything if you can’t get any
good out of it. . . . Is there any point in having all other forms of knowledge without
that of the good, and so lacking knowledge about what is good and valuable?’ (505b)
So what is the Good? The ensuing discussion of the nature of the Good can be
compared with Aristotle’s account of eudaimonia (happiness) in the Nicomachean
Ethics. Both agree that it is not pleasure, and both agree that ‘The good . . . is the end
of all endeavour, the object on which every heart is set.’ (505e) While Aristotle goes
on to locate the Good (for people) in the fulfilment of human nature (achieved
through the proper performance of our constitutive activity) Plato links the
achievement of the Good to the possession of knowledge of the Form of the Good.
iv. The Simile of the Sun 506e-509d
Socrates is asked to describe the Good, but professes himself unable to do so directly.
He offers instead an account of the ‘child of the Good which is most like the Good’.
This turns out to be an image in the visible world, the Sun. So we have a simile in
which the role of the Good in the realm of knowledge is described by comparing it
with the role of the sun to the realm of sight.
The point of the simile is that the Good is to intellectual knowledge as the Sun is to
visual perception. The Sun is the source of light. Without the light of the Sun the
world would not be illuminated and sight would be impossible. The capacity to see is
given to us by the Sun.
Similarly, without knowledge of the Good, we can’t really make sense of the objects
of knowledge. It is important to point out that knowledge of the Good is neither
knowledge nor truth itself, but an essential prerequisite of both. Without it we don’t
really know what anything is for, and to what purpose things are to be set. It
transcends all the other Forms, and, as Socrates says, the form of the Good is ‘beyond
being in dignity and power’.
Philosophy: Classic Texts in Philosophy (H/Int 2)
Simile of the Sun
Sun (source of light)
Visible Objects
Form of the Good
It is important to recognise that the simile of the Sun is not an argument, but a
particularly vivid analogy used to convey Plato’s philosophical vision.
So what is Plato’s argument? It seems to run as follows:
i. In the realm of knowledge the Good is not identical with knowledge but it is the
cause of knowledge.
ii. The Good is itself an object of knowledge.
iii. The Good gives the objects of knowledge their being and reality.
iv. But the Good is itself ‘beyond being’
Problems with the argument
It is difficult to see just what the Form of the Good amounts to from this and
following passages. Many commentators (Melling and Jowett for example) suggest
that the Form of the Good is not the abstract concept of goodness, like the Form of
Justice, or more mundane objects like tables and chairs, or cats and dogs. Rather the
Form of the Good is ‘the one individual totally good and all-embracing plan of what
ought to be.’ (Jowett, p.61) In other words, as Melling points out (p. 102), ‘perhaps
what Plato intends to convey is that knowledge has a normative dimension’.
These suggestions are helpful because they make sense of the claim that Plato is
trying to justify, namely, that philosophers should rule. If philosophers are those who
possess knowledge of how things ought to be, then they are obvious candidates for the
role of ruler. When this is combined with the Platonic thesis that to know the Good is
to do the Good (knowledge is virtue, while all wrong-doing is a form of ignorance)
then the conclusion is that philosophers, unlike the rest of the population, know what
ought to be done, and have the moral character to see that it gets done.
While this is a plausible interpretation of Plato’s idea of the good, it does not square
with everything he says. In fact he admits at the beginning of the discussion of the
Good that ‘our knowledge of it is inadequate’ (505a), which he would probably not
say of this account of the ideal state. Some take the Form of the Good to be a kind of
super-form, ‘a form of formness’ (see Pappas). If the Forms are all exemplars, if they
indicate the real nature of things, then they are the best representatives of those
natures. If so, then the Forms have something in common, the quality of ‘bestness’,
which is captured in the notion of the Form of the Good. If this is the case then the
Good is the highest possible intellectual abstraction.
Philosophy: Classic Texts in Philosophy (H/Int 2)
However a clear interpretation of the Form of the Good is not easy to extract from the
text of The Republic. To understand the text in The Republic, we may have to look at
Phaedo 97c ff. Here Socrates suggests that to really understand something we have to
understand why it is good for it to be as it is. So, for example, to understand why the
earth is placed where it is in the universe we have see why it is best for it to be in that
place. The underlying thought here is that the universe is an orderly harmonious
whole in which everything is arranged for the best. We thus understand things when
we know how they play their part in the harmony of the universe. In other words he
seems to be asking for teleological explanations.
Socrates seems to be maintaining that the forms are perfect. They are therefore fully
intelligible because they are fully good. Things in the world of ordinary experience
are not perfect and are therefore not fully intelligible. This world is therefore a realm
of belief rather than knowledge.
The Simile of the Divided Line 509d-511e
Socrates moves on to a second image in his attempt to distinguish knowledge and
opinion by reference to their objects.
Socrates asks his listeners to imagine a line divided into unequal parts. One section
represents the realm of knowledge, the other the realm of opinion. The realm of
opinion is then further divided into two sections one comprising ‘animal plants and
everything grows and is made’ and the other comprising reflections, shadows and the
like. This illustrates the point that the relationship between the world of the forms and
the world of ordinary experience is analogous to that between ordinary objects and
mere images of them.
Socrates also divides the upper section. The principle of this is much less clear but he
evidently means that within the world of knowledge the philosopher, who practices
dialectic, deals with objects at a higher level of reality than does the mathematician.
The mathematician makes assumptions, or hypotheses, which he takes for granted and
uses visible diagrams. The philosopher deals only through Forms and rises to an
‘unhypothesised beginning’.
There is much debate about the meaning of this. It seems that the unhypothesised
beginning must be the form of the Good. So the point may be that the philosopher can
ultimately achieve a grasp of the Form of the Good which is the self-evident source of
all truth. In the analogy of the divided line Plato sets out these relationships
explicitly, mapping each cognitive state onto a corresponding object.
This is a difficult passage which has sparked much commentary. But the point is
made that the intelligible world is not the world of sense experience. Everything
below the dividing line is the realm of opinion, which is matched by entities found in
the physical visible world. Everything above the line is intelligible, and finds its
object in the realm of the forms.
Philosophy: Classic Texts in Philosophy (H/Int 2)
The Simile of the Cave (514-518b)
The simile of the cave is perhaps the most famous passage in all of philosophy. The
presentation of this simile ends the assigned passages of The Republic, and serves to
sum up all the key points that Plato’s philosophical vision.
Socrates asks his listeners to imagine an underground cave with a long and deep
entrance open to the outside world. In the cave there are people who have been
imprisoned there since childhood. They are chained neck and foot in such a way that
they can only see straight ahead to the shadows cast on the wall in front of them by
the light of a fire which burns behind them. They are not aware of their condition.
They think the flickering shadows on the wall are realities. These prisoners are ‘like
ourselves’ says Socrates.
Socrates then asks us to imagine a prisoner being released, turned to face the fire and
then escaping the cave. The prisoner realises that the shadows he once took for reality
are mere illusions. Once out of the cave the escapee gradually becomes accustomed to
the light of outside world until he can at last raise his eyes to the sun. He realises that
the sun is the ultimate source of everything
It the prisoner were to return to the cave he would at first have difficulty in making
out the shadows. But once he became accustomed to the gloom he would be able to
discern them more clearly than the other prisoners. If he attempted to relate his
experience to the other prisoners they would condemn him as a fool. During this
period the philosopher is the object of ridicule.
Interpretation of the Simile of the Cave
The image of the Cave represents the ascent of the mind from the world of illusion
to the world of Forms or reality and finally to the Good (the Sun).
The simile is intended to describe the progress of the philosopher. The ascent of
the philosopher to knowledge of the Forms is like that of the escaped prisoner who
goes to the upper world and ultimately sees the sun
The simile also makes the point that the philosopher must ‘return to the cave. That
is, philosophers must leave their contemplation of the Forms and take part in
ruling the state. The philosopher then has great difficulty persuading the
remaining prisoners that he has made real discoveries.
The simile also illustrates Plato’s view of education as a ‘turning’ of the whole
soul towards the truth rather than as just the acquisitions of bits of knowledge.
The simile is intended to illustrate the ordinary human condition (the prisoners).
The prisoners who never escape from the cave, and who never experience anything
more than the shadows and images on the wall, are the analogue of the common,
non-philosophical human being. They never have true knowledge of anything.
With this the passage comes to a close. It began with the claim that until philosophers
are kings humanity’s troubles will never cease. We have seen why Plato thinks this is
the case. But we end with a rather pessimistic assessment of the chances of this ever
occurring. The Republic should then perhaps be seen not as a realistic blueprint for
politicians, but as a Utopia which allows us to see clearly the shortcomings of any
political system.
Philosophy: Classic Texts in Philosophy (H/Int 2)
Review Questions
Think of everyday words like ‘tree’, ‘animal’, ‘house’, ‘table’, ‘brave’ etc. Can
you define them (as opposed to merely giving examples)? If you can’t define
them how do you know what they mean?
Does it make sense to say that there are entities (the Forms) which could never
be perceived by the senses and which are not in time and space?
Does it make sense to say that we do not have knowledge of the objects of
everyday experience?
Must knowledge, belief and ignorance have different objects?
Does it make sense to speak of something coming between reality and
Can you make sense of the idea that the Good is the source of knowledge?
Even if a philosopher did have a clear grasp of the Good would it be right to put
him or her in charge of the state?
In what sense are the prisoners in the Cave like ourselves?
What is the relationship between the three similes?
Do they just describe the same thing in different ways?
Philosophy: Classic Texts in Philosophy (H/Int 2)
(I, II and VI) (H)
(I and II – the first four paragraphs) (Int 2)
Background information
In order to make sense of the Meditations it is important to place it in its historical
context. The Meditations begins a new phase in the history of philosophy by placing
the emphasis on epistemological concerns, particularly the quest for certainty.
Although philosophers have always been keen to justify their views, for Descartes
previous justifications (particularly those of the Scholastics) that fall short of certainty
are no longer sufficient.
It must be remembered that Descartes is writing in the 1600s, just after several
momentous events in Western intellectual history. The first is the collapse of
Aristotelian Scholasticism. Since about 1100 Aristotle had been the outstanding
philosophical authority. With the arrival of the Renaissance, the rediscovery of Plato
and the advent of Humanism, and for various ‘internal’ reasons, Aristotle’s authority
was no longer what it was. This had the effect of creating philosophical and scientific
uncertainty. The second momentous event was the Reformation, the effects of which
are still with us today. The Reformation dealt a serious blow to the authority of the
Church in religious matters. Finally, we should not forget the discovery of the New
World. The discovery of an entire continent, hitherto totally unknown, further
undermined the established order and confidence in old beliefs. The effect of all three
events together on the intellectual life of Europe was considerable.
On the one hand there was the tendency to lose all confidence in our ability to know
anything at all. The scepticism of Montaigne, well known to Descartes, is a good
example of this attitude. On the other hand this atmosphere of uncertainty allowed
people to entertain weird and wonderful theories in some of the sciences, since there
were no recognised authorities to discredit them. Some of the views of the alchemists
are a case in point. Finally, in religious matters there was a tendency to Fideism, the
view that reason on its own cannot tell us much, and that faith in revelation is
required. Pascal, the brilliant mathematician and contemporary of Descartes, is
representative of this tendency.
Descartes avoids all these paths. His aim is to overcome scepticism concerning our
ability to know anything at all, without giving way to the weird and wonderful. He
hoped to achieve both ends by showing that we can know something with certainty. If
this could be achieved he would confound the sceptic, and by placing strict limits on
what we can claim to know, he would avoid the fanciful. With this accomplished, he
could then go on to build a new philosophical and scientific system to replace that of
Philosophy: Classic Texts in Philosophy (H/Int 2)
The Method of Doubt and the arguments for radical scepticism (Meditation I)
Although Descartes’ aim is to overcome scepticism, he begins the Meditations with a
survey of all the traditional arguments for scepticism (and throws in a fresh one of his
own). What is more, he recognises their force. At the end of the first meditation he
states that he is not sure he can believe anything at all. Descartes’ strategy here is
known as the method of doubt. Descartes’ aim is to find a belief that he can hold with
certainty. The idea is to consider all the arguments for scepticism in order to see if
there is any belief that they are unable to destroy. If such a belief can be found, thinks
Descartes, then he will have found something he can believe with certainty.
i. Descartes’ procedure: to raise doubt of all things in general
‘But inasmuch as reason already persuades me that I ought no less carefully to
withhold my assent from matters which are not entirely certain and indubitable
than from those which appear to me manifestly to be false, if I am able to find in
each one some reason to doubt, this will suffice to justify my rejecting the
The following grounds of doubt are designed to cast doubt not just on individual
beliefs, but on the various sources of belief. If a source of a type of belief is found
wanting, then all the individual beliefs that flow from that source can be rejected,
even though they haven’t all been studied individually (which saves a lot of time).
ii. Cartesian grounds of doubt
Note Descartes’ continual emphasis on raising doubts about the senses and their
capacity to put us in the possession of truth.
Disagreement of the learned
Descartes shows that we cannot trust authorities of any kind in matters of belief.
Strictly speaking this argument is in the Discourses, but it is implied here at the
beginning of the First Mediation.
‘It is now some years since I detected how many were the false beliefs that I had
from my earliest youth admitted as true, and how doubtful was everything I had
since constructed on this basis.’
Humdrum everyday mistakes.
‘But it may be that although the senses sometimes deceive us concerning things
which are hardly perceptible, or very far away…’
Philosophy: Classic Texts in Philosophy (H/Int 2)
Deceitful impressions of the senses.
Descartes rejects the testimony of the senses:
‘All that up to the present time I have accepted as most true and certain I have
learned either from the senses or through the senses; but it is sometimes proved
to me that these senses are deceptive, and it is wiser not to trust entirely to
anything by which we have once been deceived.’
Descartes attempts to show that all empirical beliefs are unreliable as well, because
the senses are deceptive.
The dream argument
Now a fresh doubt arises:
‘How often has it happened to me that in the night I dreamt that I found myself
in this particular place, that I was dressed and seated near the fire, whilst in
reality I was lying undressed in bed!’
Descartes is saying that if it is possible that I am now dreaming, then even such
seemingly straightforward common-sense judgements such as ‘that I am here in my
dressing-gown’ may be open to doubt. Descartes goes on:
‘I see so manifestly that there are no certain indications by which we may
clearly distinguish wakefulness from sleep…’
In other words, that we are all in this classroom at such and such a time, writing notes,
listening to me, seeing me and the classroom, feeling your pen and the chair beneath
you…could all be part of a dream, because you cannot distinguish between dreaming
and waking states.
The dream argument can be seen as an attack on all sources of knowledge, for if we
cannot distinguish between waking and sleeping states, then we are constantly open to
total error.
Philosophy: Classic Texts in Philosophy (H/Int 2)
However, according to Descartes, two things seem to escape the scepticism of the
dream argument:
i. A possible external world of some kind:
‘… we must at least confess that the things which are represented to us in
sleep are like painted representations which can only have been formed as the
counterparts of something real and true, and that in this way those general
things at least, i.e. eyes, a head, hands, and a whole body, are not imaginary
things, but things really existent.’
In other words, there must exist some kind of external world which contains things
about which we dream. Even the most fictitious compositions we dream up must
conform to simple and universal things which are real such as:
‘To such a class of things pertains corporeal nature in general, and its extension,
the figure of extended things, their quantity or magnitude and number, as also
the place in which they are, the time which measures their duration, and so on.’
ii. Mathematical propositions:
‘For whether I am awake or asleep, two and three together always form five, and
the square can never have more than four sides, and it does not seem possible that
truths so clear and apparent can be suspected of any falsity [or uncertainty].’
Mathematics and truths of reason go unscathed until the final grounds for doubt.
The Demon Hypothesis.
However, the two things which seem to survive the dream argument, do not do so for
long. Now an even more worrying doubt emerges for Descartes - perhaps there is an
omnipotent God who has:
‘But how do I know that He has not brought it to pass that there is no earth, no
heaven, no extended body, no magnitude, no place, and that nevertheless [I
possess the perceptions of all these things and that] they seem to me to exist just
exactly as I now see them?… how do I know that I am not deceived every time
that I add two and three, or count the sides of a square…?’
Or perhaps God is a fiction, Descartes goes on to suggest. In that case, says
Descartes, he is even more likely to be deceived all of the time…
Descartes concludes that: ‘there is nothing in all that I formerly believed to be true, of
which I cannot in some measure doubt’.
Philosophy: Classic Texts in Philosophy (H/Int 2)
Despite this sceptical conclusion, Descartes has difficulty accepting it:
‘For these ancient and commonly held opinions still revert frequently to my
mind, long and familiar custom having given them the right to occupy my mind
against my inclination and rendered them almost masters of my belief; nor will I
ever lose the habit of deferring to them or of placing my confidence in them.’
At the end of the First Meditation, Descartes proposes the Demon hypothesis,
commonly regarded as the ultimate sceptical position, as a way of bolstering his
sceptical conclusions against the habit of assenting to his opinions:
‘I shall then suppose, not that God who is supremely good and the fountain of
truth, but some evil genius not less powerful than deceitful, has employed his
whole energies in deceiving me…’
In other words, the whole of the external world may be a complete delusion:
‘… the heavens, the earth, colours, figures, sound, and all other external things
are nought but the illusions and dreams of which this genius has availed himself
in order to lay traps for my credulity; I shall consider myself as having no
hands, no eyes, no flesh, no blood, nor any senses, yet falsely believing myself
to possess all these things…’
Some things seem to survive previous grounds of doubt: apparent truths like those of
Mathematics, and (seemingly) the proposition that there exists some sort of external
world. But Descartes thinks the Demon Hypothesis gives grounds for doubting even
these. If all our thoughts are a result of a demon out to deceive us, then we cannot
even trust Mathematics. So the two main sources of knowledge, the senses and
reason, have been found wanting. Diabolic doubt ends the First Meditation.
Philosophy: Classic Texts in Philosophy (H/Int 2)
The Second Meditation opens with a metaphor to describe his state of mind:
‘… just as if I had all of a sudden fallen into very deep water, I am so
disconcerted that I can neither make certain of setting my feet on the bottom,
nor can I swim and so support myself on the surface… But I was persuaded that
there was nothing in all the world, that there was no heaven, no earth, that there
were no minds, nor any bodies: was I not then likewise persuaded that I did not
Descartes’ bedrock foundation: ‘I think, therefore I am’
Note that the more famous version of the Cogito, ‘I think, therefore I am’, does not
appear in the Meditations.
Perhaps the most famous statement in all of philosophy, Descartes believes he has
found the one belief that survives even the evil demon argument, the foundational
proposition I exist.
So, in answer to the above question ‘I myself, am I not at least something?’ Descartes
‘Not at all; of a surety I myself did exist since I persuaded myself of something
[or merely because I thought of something]. But there is some deceiver or other,
very powerful and very cunning, who ever employs his ingenuity in deceiving
me. Then without doubt I exist also if he deceives me, and let him deceive me as
much as he will, he can never cause me to be nothing so long as I think that I am
something. So that after having reflected well and carefully examined all things,
we must come to the definite conclusion that this proposition: I am, I exist, is
necessarily true each time that I pronounce it, or that I mentally conceive it.’
In other words, ‘I exist’ must be true whenever it is thought. For even if the evil
demon can deceive Descartes about all else, Descartes must exist in order to be
deceived (one cannot deceive what does not exist).
Necessary truth
Descartes looked for propositions which could not be doubted logically (being absurd
to doubt something is not good enough for Descartes). After going through this
process of systematic doubt, he unearths a proposition which is immune to diabolic
doubt: ‘I am, I exist’ which is necessarily true i.e. it is not logically possible to deny it
without falling into contradiction. Try thinking the proposition ‘I am not thinking’ or
‘I do not exist’ or ‘I doubt that I am doubting’. Doing so implies a contradiction. So,
as doubting is a form of thinking, then the foundation on which all other knowledge is
built is the indubitable proposition ‘I am thinking’. (Descartes deduced from this
proposition the indubitability of a mind alongside the existence of God).
Philosophy: Classic Texts in Philosophy (H/Int 2)
Problems with the Cogito
This version of the Cogito has several serious flaws.
‘I exist’ is no longer foundational, since it follows from ‘I think’, and the
suppressed premise ‘Whatever thinks exists’.
2. The suppressed premise is a universal generalisation, and so subject to doubt since
it is the conclusion of an inductive argument. However it is difficult to imagine
that it could be false, for its falsehood would entail the possibility of thinking
going on without a thinker, an idea of dubious coherence. Nonetheless, the unity
of the thinker (the ‘I’), which is assumed by Descartes to underlie the thinking,
does not follow from the existence of thought itself. (See Hume’s theory of the
self as merely a ‘bundle’ of perceptions.)
3. This version of the Cogito assumes that the laws of logic (reasoning) are reliable;
but they too could be found to be unsafe because of the evil demon argument.
Why should logic escape the ultimate in scepticism?
But the Meditations version of the Cogito is immune to these difficulties, since it says
only that there is something quite special about the statement ‘I exist’, namely that to
say it is enough to guarantee its truth. (Nevertheless, the unity of the ‘I’ remains a
The ‘clear and distinct’ rule
Building on the foundation
The Cogito is the foundation upon which Descartes is going to construct his edifice of
certain knowledge. Starting from the indubitable proposition he thinks he has
established, Descartes seeks to validate other human knowledge. But he quickly
realises that the Cogito, while certain, does not have many interesting consequences
(nothing much follows from it), and he does not use it as a premise of further
In this enterprise great weight is placed on what might be called ‘clear and distinct’
perception. Clear and distinct perception gives rise to a psychological state of
irresistible certainty about something. We can assume that it establishes the certainty
that I am - it appears that one cannot safely say more than that I am a subject of
consciousness. This leads him to deduce the distinction between body and mind.
Thus, for Descartes, it is our primitive thoughts and feelings that have certainty. This
is a solid basis from which to begin the pursuit of knowledge.
He maintained, then there are certain innate ideas which we know independently of
Philosophy: Classic Texts in Philosophy (H/Int 2)
But meditation on the Cogito itself recognises that it is certain because he clearly and
distinctly perceives it to be true and leads to the adoption of what is called the clear
and distinct rule. Descartes thought that the interesting feature of the Cogito is that he
‘clearly and distinctly’ perceived it to be true. This he took to be the mark of truth. He
extracts the following rule: ‘All that we clearly and distinctly perceive…is true’.
The idea then is that if he should come across any other propositions that were clear
and distinct to him, he would accept these as true as well, and could build on them.
Just what ‘clear and distinct’ means is unclear, as is the method of deciding if a
proposition is clear and distinct.
A further point about the clear and distinct rule. Descartes says that he can trust his
clear and distinct perceptions because ‘God is no deceiver’.
Rationalism and the Wax Example (Meditation II)
The Wax Example
That it is not our senses that establish that a single thing persists through all
sensible changes.
ii. That our senses do not disclose the real nature of the wax.
Descartes’ famous Wax Example is a notoriously difficult passage in the Meditations
because it is not obvious what the example is meant to establish. This difficulty may
be due in part to the fact that the wax example can be put to different purposes. On the
one hand it supplies a further illustration of the limits of empiricism while underlining
the importance of rationalist principles. But it also serves to establish a premise that
will play an important role in a crucial argument in Meditation VI – the so-called
argument for the real distinction (which is not explicitly mentioned in the content of
Classic Texts). The Wax Example is supposed to lend weight to Descartes’
contention that it is easier to know our minds than it is to know external material
The Wax Example follows quickly upon the discovery of the Cogito. But once
Descartes is certain that he exists, he has to admit that he still has no idea what he is
(he does not even know if he has a body!). The task of discovering his true nature
comes to the fore. It is in this context that the Wax Example makes its appearance. It
is used as a lesson in how to proceed – the lesson being that arriving at knowledge of
material bodies is very difficult indeed. Descartes’ favoured route, that of the
rationalist, will be to turn in upon the resources of the mind itself, forsaking the
external world at least for the time being, because the mind is easier to know than
external bodies.
Philosophy: Classic Texts in Philosophy (H/Int 2)
All of this is meant to be gleaned from the fairly uncontroversial observation that wax
at room temperature has one set of properties, and another when heated. The key point
is that the wax is assumed to be the same parcel of material at both temperatures. But
how do we know this? If we know the nature of wax by observing its properties, then
we ought to say that the wax is not the same wax at both temperatures, because the
properties it has are not identical. If we ‘go with our senses’ (the basis of empiricism),
then we ought to say that the wax at room temperature has been replaced by another
substance. But we think the wax has merely undergone a change, and that no
replacement has occurred. If we do know this, it is only because the mind (the basis of
rationalism) is able to go beyond the senses and intuit or understand what is really
happening. Hence the two conclusions:
(1) empiricism must be rejected in favour of rationalism; and
(2) it is very difficult to discover the nature of material bodies, for what remains of
our idea of wax and other substances once their observable properties are
removed? Simply that of an extended thing occupying space. As Locke was to put
it later, material substances become ‘a thing I know not what’. If this is the case,
Descartes thinks, then one had better turn one’s attentions to the mind itself, since
it appears easier to know.
Responses to doubts raised in Meditation I (Meditation VI)
At the end of the Meditations Descartes returns to the sceptical arguments he began
with in Meditation. I. Since he has managed to arrive at what he considers to be a
number of important knowledge claims, something must have been wrong with these
On the reliability of the senses: Descartes remains a rationalist throughout the
Meditations, but he does rehabilitate the senses somewhat. God plays an
important role. Since God has made us and provided us with sense organs, they
cannot be totally unreliable.
The dream argument: Descartes now believes he has discovered how to
distinguish waking from sleeping states. Waking states form a continuous and
largely coherent narrative. I wake up in the bed I went to sleep in last night, and
the conditions of my life are roughly those of the night before. (Depending on
the quality of one’s life, one could say, ‘I’m bored, fed up, still here, therefore
I’m awake!’) Dreams are altogether different. There is no continuation of last
night’s dreams tonight when I go to sleep - they do not form a coherent
narrative. This is enough for Descartes to be able to tell when he is awake,
which is all he needs to defeat the argument.
The demon argument: again Descartes relies on God. Even if such a demon
should exist (and there is little reason to think there is) God would not allow it
to interfere with our cognitive processes.
Philosophy: Classic Texts in Philosophy (H/Int 2)
Review Questions
Is Descartes a sceptic?
Why does Descartes cast doubt on the knowledge of his teachers?
Why does Descartes cast doubt on knowledge acquired through the senses?
Why does Descartes ask us to imagine that we are dreaming?
What knowledge ‘survives’ the dream argument?
Why is the evil demon argument the ultimate in scepticism?
Why does he think the Cogito is immune to the demon argument?
What makes the Cogito different from other knowledge claims like ‘I’m
walking’ or ‘I’m having lunch’?
How successful is Descartes in answering the various sceptical problems he
sets up for himself? Choose one and discuss it.
What is Descartes trying to show with the Wax Example?
What is the clear and distinct rule?
In Meditation VI, how far do you think that Descartes is able to answer the
sceptical arguments he discusses is Meditation I?
Philosophy: Classic Texts in Philosophy (H/Int 2)
Nicomachean Ethics:
(Books I, II, III Chapters 1 – 5, Book X) (H)
(Book II, Chapters 2 and 6) (Int 2)
Background Information
Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics has had an extraordinary influence on moral
philosophy, and yet there is much in this work that is counter-intuitive to modern
readers. It would be useful to highlight some of the differences in order to prevent
possible, even likely, misunderstandings.
Firstly Aristotle does not see himself primarily as providing a normative or metaethical theory, although considerations of these kinds do appear in the text. Nor is he
concerned with what today we would call ‘situation ethics’. Rather his primary
consideration is to provide some guidance (ostensibly to those interested in Politics)
on how we can improve our behaviour and our lives, and the lives of our children.
This is not a task that most modern theorists set themselves.
Secondly, Aristotle is not particularly concerned with the moral status of individual
actions, as is the case with modern normative theories in ethics. His focus is rather on
the moral status of a life taken as a whole. His guiding concern is to determine what
the good life for human beings consists in, and how can we lead such a life? As a
consequence, he is not interested in ‘getting it right’ on individual occasions; rather it
is the virtues or character traits that are conducive to the leading of a good life that
demand attention. One common way of marking this distinction is to say that Aristotle
(and most ancient philosophers, including Plato) is interested in an ‘agent centred’
ethics, as opposed to an ‘act centred’ ethical theory.
Finally, a good life is a happy life (to be defined below), and the good human being is
a happy human being. There is a tendency in modern times (under the influence of the
Judeo-Christian tradition) to think that the person who struggles to be good, who
fights himself to overcome his natural inclinations, is morally praiseworthy on
account of the effort required to be good. This is a tendency that Kant would approve
of. But Aristotle would not approve. The person who struggles to be good, isn’t really
good therefore isn’t happy. The truly good person does good deeds easily and with
pleasure. This may seem odd, but ask yourself which type of life seems preferable:
Would you prefer to be ‘naturally’ good on the Aristotelian model, or fight against
yourself for all your moral victories? How would you like your children to be if you
could choose for them? As far as Aristotle is concerned, there is only one possible
answer. The Nicomachean Ethics is supposed to provide some guidance on how this
kind of life can be realised.
Philosophy: Classic Texts in Philosophy (H/Int 2)
The nature of Eudaimonia and its relation to the concept of Function
(Book I, Ch 7-8)
Aristotle’s approach to ethics is teleological: when judging the moral value of an
action or, in this case, a virtue or character trait, one must look to the consequences of
performing that action or of possessing that virtue.
Aristotle and Kant
So Aristotle’s is clearly at odds with Kant’s deontological approach to ethical theory:
when judging a moral action where one must look to the motives behind the action,
not its consequences.
Aristotle and Utilitarianism
The difference between Aristotle and the Utilitarians is more subtle. The goal of
action for the Utilitarians is pleasure and the avoidance of pain. The goal for Aristotle
is somewhat different. The goal is the attainment of eudamonia, often translated as
‘happiness’, but more accurately rendered as ‘human flourishing’, or ‘human wellbeing’. The attainment of eudamonia is indeed pleasurable, but it is not a temporary
emotion or state, as the pleasures of a Bentham could be. Nor is it subject to change.
Modern Utilitarians admit that pleasures are variable from time to time and place to
place – in other words, there is a conventional aspect to the pleasurable in modern
theory. By contrast, Aristotle’s eudamonia is grounded in a view of human nature,
which is taken to be universal and constant. The virtues that Aristotle discusses are
then presented as the character traits required of anyone who is going to achieve the
‘good life’.
Aristotle and Eudaimonia
Eudamonia is really a type of life, the good life for human beings given their essential
nature, at least as Aristotle understands it. Aristotle’s project is to identify the good
life for human beings, and then consider the means whereby this type of life can be
brought about. The first part of this task involves the investigation of human nature
and the exploitation of the notion of function. The virtues are then seen as means to
the achievement of this goal.
In Book I, Ch 7-8 Aristotle states that all agree that the end of all human action is the
attainment of happiness, or eudamonia. But there is less agreement about what
happiness is. Aristotle considers and rejects some contemporary views of human
happiness before going on to sketch an outline of his own position. He rejects the life
of honour, fame, wealth, brute animal pleasures, etc., not because they aren’t pleasant
or useful, which they can be, but because they are not ends in themselves. Honour,
fame, wealth etc., are all means to some further end. Since happiness is desired for its
own sake, as an end in itself, it cannot be identified with any of the foregoing.
Philosophy: Classic Texts in Philosophy (H/Int 2)
He also rejects the idea that the good human life requires knowledge of Plato’s Form
of the Good. The Forms, and knowledge of them, are so remote from human
experience that they are not likely to help in the practical running of one’s daily life.
Human good must be sought here, among human beings, not in another realm
altogether. So what is the nature of eudamonia? What is the good life?
Aristotle’s concept of function
Aristotle approaches this problem by asking what makes anything good. What makes
for a good knife? What makes for a good flute player? (Both are his examples). His
answer, in short, is that each has a function (ergon – sometimes translated as
‘constitutive activity’), and each is deemed good if it performs that function well, and
bad if it does not. For example, a good knife is one that cuts well, since that is what
knives are for. Similarly, a good flute player is one who plays well. If goodness is tied
to function in these cases, then it is natural to assume that if we can find the function
of human beings, thereby identifying our constitutive activities, then we will have
identified the good life for human beings. The good life is one in which we fulfil our
function well. The good, excellent, or ‘flourishing’ person (all being synonymous)
will be the one living such a life. A side-effect of this activity is the pleasure that
accompanies fulfilling one’s nature.
Attention then turns to the identification of our function. What are our constitutive
activities? What sets us apart from all other creatures? What is it that human beings
can do, in virtue of being human beings, that no other creature can do? Aristotle’s
answer is that human beings are rational – this is what distinguishes us from
everything else. Consequently a distinctly human life will involve the exercise of our
rational capacities. In short, a good human life is a life lived in accordance with
Contemplation as the highest good (Book I, Ch 5 and Book X, Ch 1-8)
It would be well to say something immediately about Aristotle’s conception of the
highest good for humanity, for it is likely to produce misunderstandings. Aristotle
does maintain that the highest good for individuals lies in contemplation. This is
likely to strike most as at best widely implausible, since relatively few human beings
seem given to such activities, at worst as elitist in the extreme. Aristotle would not be
concerned with the charge of elitism, if that meant striving for excellence, for that was
precisely what he was aiming at.
The following can be said in his defence, however. Since the capacity for theoretical
contemplation is something distinct to human beings, it must be part of our highest
good if the rest of Aristotle’s argument is sound. But what is more important to stress
is that Aristotle makes provision for other types of rational activity as well. One need
not be a professor to lead a good life (although he does maintain that the most
pleasant life is the life of contemplation).
Philosophy: Classic Texts in Philosophy (H/Int 2)
Aristotle states that we are rational in two distinct senses. First, we are rational in as
much as we are able to obey the rules of reason; but we are also rational in the sense
that we actually possess and exercise the power of reasoning (1098a). This distinction
is accompanied by two types of reasoning:
(i) The first type of reasoning is ‘practical’ – we organise and plan our daily lives,
adjusting our means to our desired ends.
(ii) The second type of reasoning is theoretical. Theoretical reasoning and
contemplation aims at truth for its own sake, rather than the successful prosecution
of actions.
Now Aristotle thinks that both types of reasoning are essential components of the
good life. Moreover, ethical thinking tends to be far more practical than theoretical in
nature. While the highest goal of human life might involve engaging in abstract
theoretical speculations, practical decision making, the correct choice of means to the
attainment of desired ends, is its sine qua non. This point can be emphasised with the
following quote:
‘Virtue, then, is a state of character concerned with choice, lying in a mean, i.e.,
the mean relative to us, this being determined by a rational principle, and by that
principle by which the man of practical wisdom would determine it.’ (1106b 37)
This quote also leads into the final two concepts that will occupy us here, namely the
doctrine of the mean, and the theory that virtue is a disposition to choose the mean.
The Doctrine of the Mean (Book II, Ch 2)
One of the characteristic doctrines of Aristotle’s ethics is the doctrine of the mean.
Aristotle contends that virtues are always ‘located’ between two vices. For example,
courage (one of the four cardinal virtues along with temperance, justice and prudence)
is the mean between foolhardy bravado or rashness on the one hand, and cowardice on
the other. Each vice involves either an excess or deficiency of what is required - the
coward not enough courage, the foolhardy an excessive and uncalled for desire to face
Some comment is required. Firstly, some vices have no name in ordinary language, so
it is not always easy to label the vices that flank each virtue. Nonetheless, Aristotle
still insists that each virtue is converted into a vice either by excess or deficiency,
whether names are available for these vices or not. Secondly, Aristotle does
recommend moderation in all things, but his is not a doctrine of mediocrity. All the
virtues are all excellences of character, and the virtuous person is quite literally an
excellent human being, not a middle-of-the-road non-entity. Finally, the mean is not
the same for all people. The mean depends on the circumstances, because what is
appropriate, or called for, in one case will not be appropriate in another. This is part of
the challenge of ethical reflection. Since there are no hard and fast rules concerning
the mean, each situation must be considered on its own merits. An essential part of
being virtuous is being able to determine, to ‘perceive’, what each situation requires,
i.e., the skill associated with practical reasoning and wisdom.
Philosophy: Classic Texts in Philosophy (H/Int 2)
Moral virtue is the disposition to choose the mean (Book II, Ch 6)
How does one achieve practical wisdom? How does one become virtuous? On these
crucial matters Aristotle has much to say. First there is the distinction between the
intellectual and moral virtues. The first set are acquired through teaching. Acquiring
the moral virtues associated with practical wisdom is somewhat different. We will
concentrate of the moral virtues here.
The first point he makes is that practical wisdom is not within the reach of the young,
because they lack the life-experience necessary for such complex decisions. But it is
not a sure thing for adults either. A good upbringing by one’s parents is required
because one becomes virtuous by doing virtuous deeds from an early age. The proper
habits must be instilled at an early age so that one acts appropriately even before one
understands why these habits are the right ones to have. A person must recognise how
he or she ought to live, even if one cannot yet justify this life theoretically. Part of the
task of moral philosophy (engaged in by those who have reached a level of maturity)
is to reach an understanding of the habits one has already accepted, perhaps rejecting
some of them if they do not stand up to critical scrutiny.
All this talk of habits is fundamental to Aristotle’s theory of virtue. As the above
quote states, virtue is a stable disposition (it is not an emotion, nor a faculty) to choose
the mean. Now practical wisdom is a necessary condition of virtue, for one must be
able to identify the mean; but this is not enough for virtue – the individual must also
choose the mean, i.e., act upon it, and do so with pleasure. As mentioned in the
introductory comments, a truly good person does good deeds easily and with pleasure,
not fighting against her or his inclinations out of a sense of duty or a fear of
disapproval or the threat of punishment.
An essential component of this view is the claim that virtue is neither against nature,
nor from nature (there is no original sin in Aristotle, but we are not born virtuous
either – Hobbes and Rousseau are both wrong according to Aristotle). Rather we are
born with the unrealised capacity for virtue (and vice). The seeds of our character, our
second nature, lie in our actions and the habits we pick up in youth as a result of our
education and upbringing. So it is vital that we get into the habit of acting virtuously
as children, so that we learn to enjoy being virtuous. (Unfortunately this means that a
certain amount of luck is involved in becoming virtuous, something that Aristotle
does not deny.) With these habits in place, the transition from the identification of the
mean to the choosing of it becomes almost automatic.
Philosophy: Classic Texts in Philosophy (H/Int 2)
Review Questions
How does Aristotle’s approach to ethical theory differ from more modern
Aristotle can be described as a consequentialist; but how does his version of this
approach differ from Utilitarianism?
What does Aristotle mean by ‘happiness’, or more precisely, ‘eudamonia’?
How is human well-being related to the notion of ‘function’ or ‘constitutive
What is the function of human beings according to Aristotle?
Do you think it makes sense to say that human beings have a function?
What is a ‘virtue’, and how do they fit into Aristotle’s ethical thinking?
How does one become ‘virtuous’?
Aristotle says that virtues are located between two vices. Explain what he means
by this and give some examples.
Does the doctrine of the mean make Aristotle a champion of middle-of-the-road,
timid individuals?
Aristotle implies that being virtuous is to some extent a matter of good luck. Do
you agree with this view?
Philosophy: Classic Texts in Philosophy (H/Int 2)
An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding:
(Sections II-V, VII, X) (H)
(Section II, Parts 11 – 20) (Int 2)
Background information
Hume’s Enquiries is a reworking of his masterpiece, A Treatise of Human Nature. For
various reasons the Treatise fell ‘still born from the presses’, no one taking any notice
of it. The Enquiries is a more accessible, even popular work, including discussions
that never appeared in the Treatise (the chapter On Miracles, for example). This work
met with much success, and Hume went on to have a significant influence. (Much of
Kant’s work can be seen as a reaction to problems identified and discussed by Hume.)
Eventually the Treatise itself was recognised for what it is. Teachers and lecturers
may want to consult parallel passages from both texts when preparing lessons.
Turning to more philosophical matters, Hume can be a difficult read, even with the
help of commentaries. This is not due to a want of literary technique, but rather to the
fact that Hume is not always consistent. This lack of consistency is due in part to a
lack of care; but apparent inconsistencies arise from the fact that Hume wears several
hats simultaneously. On the one hand he is most famously known for his scepticism.
But he adopts almost without alteration the epistemological views of Locke, the first
of the three great British empiricists (Berkeley and Hume himself being the other
two). What is more, Hume is a notable contributor to the Scottish Enlightenment
project, namely the development of the ‘sciences of man.’ Hume wanted to do for the
sciences of man what Newton had done for physics, i.e., identify a set of fundamental
laws that govern all the phenomena of the chosen area of study. Now it is not
immediately obvious how all of these tendencies and projects can exist together in one
coherent package. Indeed, it appears on occasion that Hume says one thing while
wearing one hat, and quite another when wearing another.
The ‘sciences of man’
Hume’s primary project is the development of the sciences of man, i.e., he is looking
to identify the laws of human nature. He asks:
‘May we not hope, that philosophy, if cultivated with care, and encouraged by
the attention of the public, may carry its researches still further, and discover, at
least in some degree, the secret springs and principles, by which the human
mind is actuated in its operations?’ (Section I)
Hume is particularly interested in what we might now call Cognitive Psychology or
Philosophy of Mind. But crucial to such topics are issues concerning how we come to
know anything, i.e., epistemological issues, since acquiring knowledge is one of the
primary operations of the mind. Now it is in the pursuit of his primary interest that
Hume adopts Locke’s empiricism and theory of ideas, for he sincerely believes that
Locke’s theory of ideas is sound, and that any philosophy of human nature will have
to be built upon it. (He rejects for example any truck with innate ideas.)
Philosophy: Classic Texts in Philosophy (H/Int 2)
Hume’s scepticism
Hume follows Berkeley in pointing out that sense experience cannot be the source of
many important, common place, ideas or concepts. This part of his work has gained
him the reputation for scepticism - if we are empiricists, says Hume, then there is
much that we cannot know, and many of our most cherished ideas have no basis in
experience. Now if this were the end of Hume’s work he would be a sceptic, pure and
simple. But he uses these sceptical results to draw inferences about human nature. For
if these cherished concepts do not stem from experience, where do they come from?
Hume’s answer is that they find their origin in human psychology, in human nature.
In other words, by identifying which ideas are based on experience and which are not,
Hume is able to gain insights into the workings of the human mind, his primary goal.
If the interconnections between Hume’s primary project, his empiricism and his
scepticism are borne in mind it is often easier to deal with apparent inconsistencies.
Philosophy: Classic Texts in Philosophy (H/Int 2)
Empiricism and the Origin of Ideas (Section II)
Hume accepts Locke’s assumption that the human mind prior to experience is a tabula
rasa, a blank slate. It has no knowledge, and no ideas. Knowledge and ideas (which
are inseparable, since knowledge claims involve the use of concepts) make their
arrival in the mind together once that mind has been able to enjoy some sense
experience. As the Scholastics would say, there is nothing in the mind that was not
first in the senses. These are the central tenants of classical empiricism. Its
philosophical opponents are the rationalists and the defenders of the notion of innate
ideas (both Plato and Descartes are in this camp).
Distinction between impressions and ideas
Hume also accepts the distinction between impressions and ideas. By an impression
he means both what we might refer to as percepts or sense data, as well as emotions or
sentiments like love, hate, desire etc. On the other hand, ideas, or what we might refer
to as concepts, are ‘faded’ impressions, pale traces of the once ‘lively’ and ‘vivid’
impressions. Hume has a difficult task in trying to distinguish between ideas and
impressions, and the best he can do is say that impressions come unbidden, and tend
to be more forceful, lively and vivid than ideas. Ideas on the other hand, are less
‘vivid’ and can be ‘called up’, entertained and dismissed at our pleasure. We will not
press Hume’s difficulties here, and focus instead on the philosophical interest behind
the distinction.
The point of the distinction is the empiricist claim that all ideas are derived from
impressions. If we leave aside for the moment those impressions that we would refer
to as sentiments, we are left with sensory experience. These impressions are in some
sense ‘received’ from the outside world, and function as sense data reports. Once
these impressions have entered the mind, the mind performs a variety of operations on
them (combining them in new ways, abstracting certain aspects, noting associations,
etc.) thereby transforming them into ideas.
Now the point of all this for Hume is as follows: if we cannot trace an idea back to its
roots in sense experience, then that idea has nothing corresponding to it in the real
world. (In his less careful moments he says they are spurious, or meaningless. We will
see later why he cannot really say this.) This does not mean that we must have had an
experience corresponding to every idea we have had.
Philosophy: Classic Texts in Philosophy (H/Int 2)
Distinction between complex and simple
Hume distinguishes between complex and simple ideas, and only the latter require a
direct corresponding experience. An example will help. The complex idea of a gold
mountain (his example) has no corresponding object in the real world, for there are no
gold mountains; but the idea is not meaningless for all that. According to Hume, we
have taken the impression of gold and combined it with a separate impression of
mountains to arrive at a complex idea of a gold-mountain. This is an example of the
kind of operation that the mind is capable of carrying out. But some very important
simple ideas, says Hume, cannot be traced back to experience in this way.
Hume now has a very powerful tool at his disposal. He can reject out of hand many
abstract notions employed by philosophers by showing that they cannot be traced
back to sense experience (Section II, paragraph 17). But he has a problem. If Locke’s
theory of ideas is correct, and all ideas are derived from experience, then there ought
not to be any ideas he can reject out of hand in this way, for they should not exist in
the first place. But if we remember Hume’s primary project we can see the point. It is
not that all ideas come from sense experience, but only those ideas that have
something answering to them in the real world. Unfortunately Hume sometimes says
that an idea that cannot be traced back to experience must be ‘consigned to the
flames’ as meaningless, when in fact its existence is highly significant indeed.
The missing shade of blue (Section II, paragraph 16)
As soon as Hume has outlined his adopted theory of ideas he presents an ostensibly
powerful counter- example to it, only to ignore it out of hand. He considers what
would happen if one were presented with all the shades of blue ordered from dark to
light, with one shade missing. If one had not encountered the missing shade of blue at
any other time, would one be able to form an idea of this missing shade of blue (in
other words have the idea without the corresponding impression)? His surprising
answer is yes. Even more surprising is his reaction: ‘... this instance is so singular, that
it is scarcely worth our observing, and does not merit that for it alone we should alter
our general maxim.’ (Section II, paragraph 16)
This is an infamous example of Hume’s often cavalier attitude. It is perhaps more
understandable if we bear in mind that, in the end, many ideas will find their origin in
human nature – and ones far more philosophically important than ideas of missing
shades of blue.
Matters of Fact vs. Relations of Ideas (Section IV, Part I)
This distinction has come to be known as ‘Hume’s Fork’, and is the inspiration behind
the verificationist theory of meaning championed by the Logical Positivists in the first
half of this century. Hume divides all human knowledge into two categories. A
proposition is either a matter of fact derived from observation (e.g.. ‘The cat is on the
mat’), or a relation among ideas (e.g. ‘2+2=4’, ‘All bachelors are unmarried males’).
The first group includes what today would be called ‘observation statements’, and all
are taken to be contingently true, if true, and contingently false, if false, and at best,
known with a degree of probability, never with certainty.
Philosophy: Classic Texts in Philosophy (H/Int 2)
By contrast relations of ideas ‘are discoverable by the mere operation of thought’, and
are necessarily true, if true, and necessarily false, if false, and can be known with
certainty. In modern terminology, matters of fact are contingent, synthetic, a
posteriori propositions while relations of ideas are necessary, analytic, a priori
propositions. Hume’s contention is that all genuine propositions fall into one or other
of these camps, and no other camps exist.
Again Hume has a powerful weapon at his disposal. When considering any
proposition one must first ask to which group does it belong. If it fails to belong to
either group, then it is a piece of nonsense and can be ignored. As we shall see, many
interesting propositions belong to neither of these groups.
The argument concerning the necessary connection between cause and effect
(Section VII, paragraphs 48- 61)
We can now see Hume’s distinctions at work on a philosophically significant concept
and its associated propositions. Hume turns his attention to the notion of causation,
specifically to the nature of the relation between a cause and its effect. It is commonly
assumed that there is a necessary connection between causes and their effects,
inasmuch as we think it is impossible for the effect not to follow the cause once the
cause is in place. The necessity of the connection is usually thought to reside in the
laws of nature. Now Hume asks if the simple idea of physical necessity is rooted in
any impression. For if it is not, then we are not permitted to assume that there are
necessary connections between causes and effects. Since the sciences of his day
sought the necessary laws of nature, much hung in the balance of this investigation.
Hume’s famous answer is that the idea does not have its origin in any impression.
While we see effects invariably following on from their causes, we do not have any
impression of their necessity to follow on from their causes. At issue is not that
effects follow their causes, but how. Consequently, any proposition about objects in
the world that mentions necessity must be spurious, for it is neither a matter of fact
nor a relation of ideas. An example might help. Consider Newton’s mythical apple
falling from a tree. If Newton were to say ‘That apple had to fall to the ground given
the law of gravity’, Hume would ask ‘Is that a Matter of Fact or a Relation of Ideas?’
And he would provide his own answer, saying, ‘It cannot be a Matter of Fact, for you
have no impression corresponding to the notion of necessity; nor can it be a Relation
of Ideas, for it is not true by definition. Given that it falls into neither camp, we must
conclude that your statement is senseless.’
Nonetheless we do have the idea of physical necessity. So where does it comes from
if it is not based on experience? Hume’s answer is psychological. Human nature is
such that we cannot avoid thinking that A follows B with necessity if we have
repeatedly seen it do so, and have never seen it not do so. The ‘constant conjunction’
of A with B leads to an intellectual habit of expecting A in the presence of B. Once
this habit is ingrained we can no longer imagine effects not following on from their
causes – that is the origin of the notion of necessity. It has no basis in experience,
stemming rather from the psychological make up of human observers. Here we have a
good example of how Hume’s empiricism has led to scepticism, which can then be
pressed into service in his primary task, the investigation of human nature.
Philosophy: Classic Texts in Philosophy (H/Int 2)
Hume applies this line of thinking to such notions as ‘God’, the ‘self’, and moral
values; and his distinction between matters of fact and the relation of ideas does
further serious damage to the ambitions of science when he shows that one can never
accept the conclusion of an inductive argument. Scientific laws are supposed to be
universal generalisations, true everywhere and at all times. But such propositions
cannot be justified by experience since our experience is always limited to a few
cases; and they aren’t true by definition. But we all believe in universal
generalisations of some kind; and we believe that we have a unified ‘self’. So where
do these beliefs come from?
The Argument against Miracles (Section X)
If the preceding considerations tell against religious beliefs, Hume advances another
(totally unrelated) argument to the same effect in Section X. Hume’s contention is that
all religious beliefs are supported by an appeal to miracles. Whether or not this is a
credible position, Hume thinks that if he can discredit miracles in general he will have
struck a blow against superstition.
Some preliminary comment is required. This argument was not included in the
Treatise, and was probably included in this work because of its intrinsic interest rather
than its philosophical continuity with the rest of the work. It is worth pointing this out
lest anyone look for the notions previously discussed to make an appearance in this
argument against miracles. They do not.
Hume’s argument is simple enough. His target conclusion is not that miracles never
happen, but that it is never rational to believe that they do. Hume argues that the
reasonable person holds beliefs with a degree of conviction commensurate with the
available evidence. For example, I believe strongly that 2+2=4 because it is fully
justified, given the meaning of ‘2’, ‘4’, ‘+’ and ‘=‘. I also believe, though slightly less
strongly, that the law of gravity will still be in effect tomorrow, since the available
evidence points in that direction. I also believe that Scotland could win the World Cup
one day, although to maintain the right to be deemed ‘rational’ I must then go on to
say that the available evidence is slim indeed. The point Hume is making is that being
rational is not really a matter of what one believes, but more matter of adjusting one’s
strength of conviction to the available evidence. If one believes something strongly in
the absence of any supporting evidence, then one is no longer rational.
Hume then asks us to consider two options, and to determine which option is the more
likely given the available evidence. The first is that miracles occur, or at least did
occur in the ‘age of miracles’. The second is that no such miracles occur, and that
people are either mistaken, ignorant of the causal mechanisms that bring about odd
phenomena, or lying. The bulk of the section is devoted to showing that any
reasonable person would have to conclude that the second option is the more likely.
Philosophy: Classic Texts in Philosophy (H/Int 2)
A miracle as a violation of a law of nature
In support of this contention Hume points out that a miracle is a violation of a law of
nature. Since the laws of nature and other common sense beliefs are based on age old
experience of the workings of nature, an experience common to the human race as a
whole, there is a lot of evidence to suggest that nature is law-like, and that it suffers
no violations. Any miracle would be very surprising indeed, and the rational person
would insist on a lot of supporting evidence before it could be taken seriously. He
‘... as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof
against a miracles, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument
from experience can possibly be imagined.’ (paragraph, 90)
Indeed the rational person will not believe a miracle has occurred unless its not
occurring is more miraculous than its occurrence. On the other hand, our experience
with human beings is such as to give many reasons to assume that miracles are tall
i) Firstly, no miracle has been attested to by witnesses that inspire confidence, i.e.,
people of learning, good sense and undoubted integrity.
ii) Secondly, people like fantastic stories; they are entertaining and likely to be
repeated, often with extra embellishments.
iii) Thirdly, the integrity of most witnesses is not what it could be. Indeed, most
people are ignorant of the subtler powers of nature and easily deceived; many
others are outright liars who can profit in some way or other by the telling of these
iv) Hume also asks why it is that miracles always seem to happen somewhere else,
where the reports cannot be verified, in countries not known for their advanced
v) Finally, since Hume believes that all religious beliefs rely on miracles for support,
the fact that the religions disagree on fundamentals points to the weakness of their
supporting evidence, i.e., the miracles.
In short, Hume thinks he has established that it is never rational to believe that a
miracle has occurred, because the balance of probabilities is so overwhelmingly
against it.
Philosophy: Classic Texts in Philosophy (H/Int 2)
Review Questions
Is Hume a ‘scientist of human nature’, an empiricist or a sceptic? How can he
be all three at once?
What is the key element in the relationship between impressions and ideas
according to Hume?
How does Hume distinguish between impressions and ideas?
What is the ‘missing shade of blue’, and what does Hume say about it?
What is ‘Hume’s Fork’, and how can it be used as a philosophical tool?
How does Hume’s theory of causation differ from the ‘common sense’ view?
How does Hume’s theory of causation emerge from his empiricism?
If Hume’s theory of causation is correct, what are the implications for the
sciences (including his own)?
What is Hume’s definition of a miracle?
Hume agues that no rational person can believe that a miracle has occurred.
How well does he defend this claim?
Does Hume argue that miracles never happen, or just that it is never rational to
believe that one has occurred?
Choose an explanation of Hume’s which attempts to support the idea of
scepticism – the idea that we can never have certain knowledge of anything.
How far does Hume’s argument makes sense in your opinion and why?
Philosophy: Classic Texts in Philosophy (H/Int 2)
Suggested reading for this unit is selections from the classic texts themselves.
However, there are several introductory books – many designed for A-level
(Advanced Higher) students and first year university students hence some of the
material offers greater depth than is required at Higher and Intermediate 2. Teachers
and lecturers should be selective in their recommendations for suggested reading. The
following list is a example of many commentaries and textbooks available:
J. Annas:
Christopher Biffle
Christopher Biffle
Simon Blackburn
Martin Cohen
R. C. Cross &
A. D. Woozley:
James A. Gould
Martin Hollis
R. Kraut (ed):
David Melling
Adam Morton
Nickolas Pappas
Popkin & Stroll
Tom Sorell
Mel Thompson
Nigel Warburton
Nigel Warburton
Bernard Williams
An Introduction to Plato’s Republic (Oxford)
A Guided Tour of Descartes’ Meditations (Mayfield, 1996)
A Guided Tour of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics
Think (OUP, 1999)
101 Philosophy Problems (Routledge, 1999)
Plato’s Republic (Macmillan)
Classic Philosophical Questions (Prentice-Hall, 1998)
An Invitation to Philosophy (Blackwell, 1997)
The Cambridge Companion to Plato (Cambridge)
Understanding Plato (OUP, 1987)
Philosophy in Practice (Blackwell, 1996)
Plato and The Republic (Routledge, 1995)
Philosophy Made Simple (Butterworth, 1996)
Descartes (OUP, 1987)
Philosophy An Introduction (Hodder & Stoughton,1995)
Philosophy: The Classics (Routledge, 1998)
Philosophy: The Basics (Routledge, 1995)
Descartes (Penguin)
Further reading
Frederick Copleston.
Etienne Gilson
R.M Hare
Stephen Priest
Margaret Wilson
A History of Philosophy, Vol 1, Part II. New York: Double
Day, 1962.
The Unity of Philosophical Experience, New York:
Scribner’s, 1937.
Plato, Oxford: OUP, . (Past Masters series)
The British Empiricists. London: Penguin,
Descartes, London: Routledge, 1991.
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8. Glossary of Terms
There are many good dictionaries of philosophical terms available on the market at
the moment, and students are advised to consult such works in case of need. However,
this glossary, although no substitute for a proper dictionary, contains short
explanations of some of the key terms used in these classic texts and in commentaries
upon them.
analytic: A type of proposition. Usually defined as a proposition which is true (or
false) in virtue of the meanings of the terms used to express it. E.g. ‘Bachelors are
unmarried males’. In some accounts it is said that the meaning of the predicate term is
‘contained’ within the meaning of the subject term. (See synthetic for contrast)
a posteriori: A type of proposition. In particular, a proposition whose truth value can
only be determined by recourse to sense experience. E.g. ‘There is no food in my
refrigerator.’ (See a priori for contrast)
a priori: A type of proposition. In particular, a proposition whose truth value can be
determined without recourse to sense experience. E.g. ‘The whole is larger than its
parts’. (See a posteriori for contrast)
Cartesian: A term used to describe doctrines, themes, arguments etc., ascribable to
Cartesian circle: The Cartesian circle concerns the relationship between Descartes’
clear and distinct rule and his belief in God. Descartes requires the clear and distinct
rule in order to proceed beyond the Cogito. But in order to justify his reliance on this
rule he needs to appeal to God, the alleged guarantor of the reliability of clear and
distinct perceptions. However, in order to prove that God exists, Descartes must use
arguments which assume the reliability of clear and distinct perceptions. So Descartes
is caught in a vicious circle.
Cartesian doubt: Closely allied to the method of doubt. Descartes employs sceptical
arguments in order to cast doubt on all of his beliefs. But he does this in order to
determine if any of his beliefs can withstand the sceptical onslaught. If any can, he
will have found his indubitable foundation. Hence Descartes employs doubt to
overcome doubt.
The term is sometimes used to refer to Descartes’ willingness to cast doubt on beliefs
for the slightest of reasons. Most doubt arises when one discovers some concrete
evidence which contradicts one’s beliefs. In Cartesian doubt, theoretical possibilities
(such the Evil Demon Hypothesis) are considered sufficient to cast doubt on even the
firmest beliefs.
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Cause: A cause is something that brings something else into being, namely, its effect.
Causes are interesting to philosophers because it is thought that explanations of
natural phenomena always refer to the cause or causes of the phenomenon in question,
for we understand something when we know why something is the way it is and how
it came to be the way it is. The common sense notion of causation also maintains that
causes bring about their effects of necessity in accordance with a law of nature. It is
this view of causation that Hume attacks.
Cogito: The ‘cogito’ is Descartes’ foundational truth, a proposition which he thinks
indubitable. There are two version of the cogito: The first, and more famous, is found
in the Discourse, and reads ‘I think, therefore, I am’. In the Meditations the
foundational truth is simply ‘I am, I exist’
Cognition: An act of the mind, usually involving some degree of awareness of, or
knowledge of, a particular mental representation or object.
constant conjunction: An important element of Hume’s theory of causation. In the
common sense understanding of causation, causes are thought to bring about their
effects ‘of necessity’ in virtue of a law of nature. Hume denies there is any such
necessary connection between causes and effects. The connection is simply one of
‘constant conjunction’. Causes do not bring about their effects of necessity, we simply
imagine that they do because we always see causes conjoined with their effects.
Contingent: A type of proposition, or a characterisation of a state of affairs or an
entity. A contingent proposition is one that refers to an actual state of affairs that
could have been otherwise, or to one that has yet to be actualised but is nonetheless
within the realms of possibility. Such propositions may be either true or false, the
truth value depending on what the circumstances happen to be. E.g. ‘Edinburgh is the
capital of Scotland’. While it is true that Edinburgh is the capital of Scotland, it could
have been otherwise (and in fact it has been otherwise in the past). (See necessary for
By extension, a contingent entity is one whose existence is possible, perhaps even
actual, but not necessary. E.g. The author of these materials is a contingent entity. I
happen to exist at the moment, but there was a time when I did not exist (before I was
born) and there will be another such time (after I am dead). By contrast, God is
alleged to exist and to be a necessary being, i.e., that it is impossible for God not to
contiguity: An element in Hume’s theory of the association of ideas. Hume thinks
that if the object of one idea is located closely in either time or space to the object of
another idea, then it is natural for the mind to move from the first to the second and
vice versa. (The other laws are resemblance and cause and effect.)
Contradiction: One has contradicted oneself if one maintains that something both is
and is not the case at the same time and in the same respect. E.g. Tony Blair cannot be
and not be the Prime Minister at the same time and in the same respect. He either is,
or he is not, the Prime Minister, not both. Contradictions are signs of serious
intellectual error, and are to be avoided at all costs.
Philosophy: Classic Texts in Philosophy (H/Int 2)
Deduction: A type of argument. A valid deductive argument is one whose conclusion
must be true if the premises of the argument are true. This feature of deductive
arguments is a function of their logical form. (By contrast, the conclusion of an
inductive argument does not follow of necessity if the premises are true. Inductive
arguments only raise the probability of the conclusion being true.)
Dualism: A position in the Philosophy of Mind or Metaphysics which asserts that the
world contains two fundamental substances. Descartes’ dualism includes a
commitment to material bodies and immaterial minds as separate substances that can
exist independently of the other. See monism for contrast)
empirical knowledge: knowledge gained via the various senses, as opposed to the
knowledge that a mind might be able to discover working on its own.
Empiricism: empiricism is the epistemological theory which maintains that
knowledge is impossible without recourse to sense experience. It is also committed to
the denial of the doctrine of innate ideas, i.e., the view that minds enter the world
furnished with concepts prior to any sensory experience. Classical empiricists include
Locke, Berkeley and Hume.
Ethics: Ethics is one of the main branches of philosophy along with Epistemology
and Metaphysics. Ethics is itself divided into sub-disciplines - normative ethics,
metaethics and applied ethics. Ethics generally is concerned with human behaviour.
Normative ethics is principally concerned to discover norms or rules which can be
used to justify our ethical beliefs and actions. Metaethics is concerned with the
explication of the language of ethical and moral judgements, i.e., with the meaning of
key terms like ‘good’ ‘bad’, ‘ought’, etc. Applied ethics is the attempt to apply
normative and metaethical theories to actual situations of moral interest or concern,
e.g. abortion, crime and punishment, animal rights issues, etc.
Epistemology: Epistemology is one of the main branches of philosophy along with
Metaphysics and Ethics. Epistemology is the study of knowledge, and the processes
by which we acquire knowledge. It is concerned to define key concepts such as
‘knowledge’, ‘opinion’, ‘truth’, ‘falsity’, ‘justification’. It is also the study of the
sources of knowledge. Consequently, it considers the nature and reliability of
perception, and issues concerning what the mind is able to know independently of
sense experience. Two main traditions in Epistemology are Rationalism (Plato and
Descartes) and Empiricism (Aristotle and Hume).
Philosophy: Classic Texts in Philosophy (H/Int 2)
Forms, Theory of: Plato posits the existence of a realm of entities that serve as
exemplars of all entities found within the realm of sense experience. Everything
encountered in the world of sense experience is taken to be a ‘copy’ of its exemplar
found in the realm of the forms. The forms are not within space and time, and are not
subject to decay or change of any kind. (For arguments for the Theory of Forms, and
the philosophical motivation for positing them in the first place, see Plato section of
these materials.)
Guardians: Plato’s Republic presents an ideal state which contains three main classes
of citizen, of which the Guardians are one. The state is comprised of ordinary
workers, the military (called ‘auxiliaries’), and the Guardians. This last group is made
up of philosopher-kings, and their principal role in the state is to rule. The assigned
section of the Republic contains Plato’s arguments for the claim that until
philosophers become kings, or kings philosophers, the troubles that beset the human
race will never cease.
Ideas and Impressions: Hume’s philosophy is based on the distinction between
impressions and ideas. Impressions are the result of immediate experience.
Impressions are divided into two types, impressions of external things (objects), and
impressions of interior events (emotions, sensations like pain). Ideas are faded copies
of impressions, and come in two forms, i.e., simple or complex. Simple ideas are
faded simple impressions, while complex ideas are the result of the mind combining
two or more simple ideas into one complex whole. The leading principle employed by
Hume concerning impressions and ideas is that one cannot have an idea without a
corresponding impression.
Induction: A type of argument (see deductive argument for contrast). Inductive
arguments are those whose premises are usually enumerations of particular instances
which are used to provide support for a universal generalisation. E.g. All observed
swans are white, therefore all swans are white. Inductive arguments are not valid in
the sense that perfectly good inductive arguments do not guarantee the truth of their
conclusions even if the premises are true. Inductive arguments can at best raise the
level of probability one can attribute to the conclusion.
innate ideas, the doctrine of: This doctrine is most closely associated with
rationalism, principal adherents to the doctrine being Plato and Descartes. According
to this doctrine, some (but not all) of our concepts are not derived from sense
experience, and so some of our knowledge is independent of sense experience as well.
Primary candidates for the status of innate ideas have included God, the laws of logic,
certain moral values, and recently, grammar. This doctrine was attacked and rejected
by the classical empiricists.
Philosophy: Classic Texts in Philosophy (H/Int 2)
Knowledge: The chief concern of Epistemology. Until relatively recently knowledge
was taken to be a form of justified, true belief. This is the so-called tripartite definition
of knowledge. According to this view, one has knowledge of p if p is true, one
believes that p is the case, and one is able to justify the belief in p with evidence
relevant to the truth of p. This definition is no longer unchallenged now that these
conditions have been seen to be neither necessary nor jointly sufficient. For other
definitions of knowledge consult a philosophical dictionary, or Blackwell’s
Companion to Epistemology.
Laws of nature: Laws of nature are recognised patterns in the behaviour of
phenomena in the natural world. Examples include Newton’s laws of motion, with
which he was able to make predictions concerning the movements of the planets.
Once these regularities have been noticed, scientists then look for theoretical entities
to account for these regularities. Newton posited the force of gravity in order to
account for the movement of physical bodies.
Metaphysics: One of the main branches of philosophy along with Ethics and
Epistemology. Unlike Ethics and Epistemology, there is no one concept or subject
matter which unifies the discipline. Rather it contains a number of related topics
concerning the nature of the external world, the mind, and human behaviour which it
is felt cannot be dealt with adequately by the natural sciences. Examples of
metaphysical topics include the nature of space and time, the concepts of possibility
and necessity, the existence of God, the nature of the mind, the free will debate, and
many more.
Miracle: Miracles are usually defined as instances of God’s intervention within the
course of nature, and are taken by some to be indications of God’s existence and
purpose. Hume, however, defines a miracle simply as a violation of a law of nature.
This definition can be accepted by both religious sceptics and some believers.
Perception: In Hume’s usage, anything that goes on in the mind is a perception.
Again, in Hume’s work, the contents of the mind are exhausted by impressions and
Philosophy: Classic Texts in Philosophy (H/Int 2)
Rationalism: A major theory in Epistemology. Its central tenant is that some
knowledge of the external world can be acquired without recourse to sense
experience. The mind working on its own and employing its own resources is thought
to be able to know some features of the external world. Descartes’ Wax Example is a
good case where rationalist principles are in play. The evidence of the senses is
ignored, and it is argued that the true nature of wax is discovered by the mind. These
view are denied by the Classical Empiricists.
Scepticism: The view that knowledge is impossible to attain. Sceptics may be global
sceptics (sceptics who deny that knowledge of any kind is impossible to attain) or
local sceptics (sceptics who deny that knowledge in particular areas is impossible to
Socrates: Mentor of Plato. Known for his claim that he knows nothing, and that his
wisdom lies in the fact that he knows that he knows nothing.
Sophist: Sophists were teachers in ancient Greece who charged for their services.
They claimed to be able to teach students what they needed to know in order to
succeed in Politics. Much hated by Plato because of their relativist views, which Plato
took as a mark of their disinterest in philosophical truth.
Syllogism: Arguments of the following form are called syllogisms:
1. All/No/Some A is/is not B
2. All/No/Some B is/is not C
3. All/No/Some A is/is not C
An argument form usually associated with Aristotelian logic.
Synthetic: A type of proposition. A proposition whose truth value is not determined
by the meaning of the terms used to express it. E.g. ‘Mount Everest is the highest
mountain in the world’. This is true, but not in virtue of the meaning of the terms
involved. It is true because of the facts of geology/geography.
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Universal: A universal is a term which can be applied to more than one thing. For
example, the term ‘dog’ can be applied to each and every individual dog, while the
term human being can be applied to each and every individual human being. By
contrast, proper names apply to only one thing. For example, the term ‘Mount
Everest’ applies to one and only one mountain (whereas the term ‘mountain’ is a
universal). The philosophical issue is what justifies our use of language in this way. Is
there something that all dogs have that explains why we refer to them with the same
name (realism) or is the name nothing more than a convenient term that we use to
refer to a range of individuals which could have been organised into different
categories had we so desired (Nominalism).
Universal generalisation: A universal generalisation is a statement of the form ‘All
x’s are y’s’. In such statements something is being said about the entire group of x’s,
each and every x, not just a few individuals. Inductive arguments have universal
generalisations as their conclusion.
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