AOK: The Mathematical Projection

The Mathematical Projection of Nature

What is the Mathematical Projection?

In discussing Mathematics as an AOK, we wish to explore what we understand as the “mathematical” and how “calculative thinking” has come to dominate our modern way of thinking. We tend to think that what is understood as the “mathematical” deals in numbers; but the use of numbers is but one aspect of what is meant by the “mathematical” and this view of mathematics as numbers has only come to dominate historically after the great change which erupts during that age we call the Renaissance.

In the following we will examine the arrival of the “mathematical projection” as the approach to what we have come to define as Human Being. It should be understood that this is not a criticism of the mathematical itself nor is it “anti-science”, but it is a reflection upon the implications and consequences of what this interpretation of human being, beings, and Being brings about. What we wish to show is that this understanding of ourselves and of what we think knowledge to be has great implications for our human being-in-the- world and our destiny or fate as beings as we totter towards the apogee of what and how we see through the technological world-view.

“Projection” is ‘to throw’; it suggests ‘throwing away, off’, and is thus related to ‘jacio’ (Lat. ‘to throw’) and subject/object. Projection originally meant ‘to form a picture, design’ in weaving by turning the shuttle to and fro. It then came to apply to literary and mental formation. It acquired the sense of provisional, preliminary drafting under the influence of the French projeter, ‘to plan, lit. throw before’. Today “projection” means ‘to sketch, design, draft, draw up, depict, outline’. Similarly, a “project” is a ‘sketch, outline, design, blueprint, draft’. The words are thus aptly translated as ‘project’ and ‘projection’, from the Latin proicere, ‘to throw forward’. Think of the steps of the Design Cycle which you learned in your MYP courses and how these are a “throwing forward”, or the projection you have made in the planning of your Exhibition. A projection is not a particular plan or project; it is what makes any plan or project possible. In TOK we have given various accounts of what is projected: a world; the being of beings or the ‘constitution of their being’; fundamental scientific conceptions of being such as the mathematical view of nature; Human Being itself. Human Being understood as the animale rationale is the projection of something onto something else: the understanding projects the being of Human Being onto its ‘For-the-sake-of’ and onto the significance of its world; understanding, or Human Being itself, projects Human Being onto its possibilities or onto a possibility; beings are projected onto their being (space); being is projected onto time.

A project (ion) is ‘free’. It is not determined by our prior knowledge or desires, since it is only in the light of a project that we can have any specific knowledge or desires. A project is not projected piecemeal, by gradual steps, but all at once, by a leap ahead so it is prior to reasoning and algorithmic thought. In Kant’s terms, the “projection” is the transcendental intuition and the transcendental imagination working in consort to give us a world in which we may live. There are three main types of project.

Any Human Being must project a world and have a pre-ontological understanding of being, i.e. project being, including its own being. Such a projection occurs at no definite time: it is an ‘original action’ of Human Being. This projection enables Human Being to understand, for example, what a tool is or what another person is, independently of the particular tools and persons it encounters. It is comparable to one’s overall understanding of what a town is and one’s general sense of direction which are prior to any creation and consultation of a map. The projection is how we can even conceive of the journey towards knowledge in the metaphor of a map. A science involves a project (ion) of the constitution of the entities/things it deals with, e.g. Galileo’s and Newton’s projection of being as mathematical which we shall discuss further. Such a project is not grounded in the experience of beings: the project decides in advance what counts as a being and as experience. Nor is it grounded in a previous project or in criticism of it: a new project is not commensurable with its predecessor; it alters our whole view of being and beings.  A mathematical physicist still needs a pre-ontological understanding of tools, people, time, etc. A scientific project is analogous to a selective map of a town; it cannot dispense with one’s overall pre-ontological understanding of beings any more than a map-user can do without a sense of direction. Think of this in relation to Thomas Kuhn’s The Nature of Scientific Revolutions and the paradigm shifts which he speaks of in that understanding.

As we attempt to think in TOK we acquire a conceptual, ontological understanding of being, which involves an understanding of the projects outlined above. It is not enough to simply painstakingly describe these projects without a prior specifically determined projection. The nature of being, of Human Being for example, is ‘covered up’, not open to unvarnished empirical inspection. We must project a being (e.g. Human Being) ‘onto its being and its structures’ which are given prior. We understand something, x, by projecting it onto something else, y, the ‘Upon-which’ of the projection and the ‘sense’ of x. There is thus a ‘stratification’ of projects. We might want to understand this as what we call the Reduction Thesis. We understand beings by projecting them onto Being. We understand Being by projecting it onto time. The regress ends with time: time is ‘self-projection’; it need not be projected onto anything else to be understood. Our projections proceed in the reverse direction to the projection they conceptualize, Human Being’s basic project. This agrees with Aristotle’s view: what is prior in itself is posterior for us. Time is prior to being and makes it possible; Being is prior to beings and makes them possible. But owing to the obscurity of these relationships, we proceed from beings to Being, and thence to time or what we would call “historicity”.

A project involves ‘anticipation’ and the ‘apriori‘. What a tool is such as a map; other people; that there is a world: these are apriori within the project, and thus for every Human Being. That things are exactly measurable: this is apriori for mathematical physics. That Human Being ‘exists’: this is apriori for us.

Apriori‘ comes from the Latin for ‘what comes before, earlier’; the apriori is ‘the earlier’. The apriori is not ‘true’ or ‘correct’ beyond the project which it helps to define, just as a map is not true or correct beyond that which it defines: ‘The apriori is the title for the essence of things, their “whatness”. The apriori and its priority are interpreted in accordance with our conception of the thinghood of the thing and our understanding of the being of beings in general. A project is more like a decision than a discovery (this is a response to the question “Is mathematics discovered or invented?”); it cannot be correct or incorrect: correctness, and the criteria for it, only applies within the light shed by the project. What the light of a project reveals are possibilities – for our everyday knowledge, but also for other everyday dealings with beings, the beings understood and delimited/defined by the project. Thus in projecting, human being always projects itself on its possibilities, though the range of possibilities varies depending on whether human being is resolute or not. In doing this it understands itself in terms of the possibilities open to it.

Human being projects itself in its own project – one of the meanings of the claim that a project is thrown forward. Human being does not have a constant, project-independent understanding of itself: it first understands itself, or understands itself anew, after the projection. 

The mathematical projection of nature is the broadest in scope, and it is at the core of the methodologies in the sciences and the conceptual tools used in the sciences. This projection predetermines the ontology or the Being of the things encountered in experience: it predetermines what and how things are, how we view a tree, a rock, a child or a road.  It pre-determines what we, in the West, have come to call our ‘knowledge’. This projection and its manner of seeing is based on the principle of reason, nihil est sine ratione “nothing is without reason”, “nothing is without a reason/cause”, the principle of non-contradiction, and the “I-principle” of Cartesian philosophy.

The mathematical projection does not occur out of nowhere or out of nothing. Newton’s “First Law of Motion”, for instance, is a statement about the mathematical projection the visions of which first began to emerge long before his Principia Mathematica. Newton’s First Law states that “an object will remain at rest or in uniform motion in a straight line unless acted upon by an external force”. It may be seen as a statement about inertia, that objects will remain in their state of motion unless a force acts to change that motion. But, of course, there is no such object or body and no experiment could help us to bring to view such a body. The law speaks of a thing that does not exist and demands a fundamental representation of things that contradicts our ordinary common sense and our ordinary everyday experience. The mathematical projection of a thing is based on the determination of things that is not derived from our experience of things. This fundamental conception of things is not arbitrary nor self-evident. It required a “paradigm shift” in the manner of our approach to things along with a new manner of thinking.

Galileo, for instance, provides the decisive insight that all bodies fall equally fast, and that differences in the time of fall derive from the resistance of the air and not from the inner natures of the bodies themselves or because of their corresponding relation to their particular place (contrary to how the world was understood by Aristotle and the Medievals). The particular, specific qualities of the thing, so crucial to Aristotle, become a matter of indifference to Galileo.

Galileo’s insistence on the truth of his propositions saw him excommunicated from the Church and exiled from Pisa. Both Galileo and his opponents saw the same “fact”, the falling body, but they interpreted the same fact differently and made the same event visible to themselves in different ways. What the “falling body” was as a body, and what its motion was, were understood and interpreted differently. None denied the existence of the “falling body” as that which was under discussion, nor propounded some kind of “alternative fact” here.

Galileo in his Discourses stated: “I think of a body thrown on a horizontal plane and every obstacle excluded. This results in what has been given in a detailed account in another place, that the motion of the body over this plane would be uniform and perpetual if the plane were extended infinitely.” In another place he states: “I think in my mind of something movable that is left entirely to itself”. This “to think in the mind” is that giving to oneself a cognition about the determination of things, of what the things are. Plato speaks of such thinking in his dialogue Meno and we must remain mindful of the Greeks’ understanding of the mathematical as “that which can be learned, and that which can be taught”.

There is a prior grasping in the mind, a representation of what should be uniformly determinative of the bodily as such, what the thing is. All bodies are alike. No motion is special. Every place is like every other place. Every force is determinable only by the change of motion which it causes, the change of motion being the change of place. This fundamental design of nature creates the blueprint wherein nature is everywhere uniform.

In Galileo, the mathematical becomes a “projection” of the determination of the thingness of things which skips over the things in their particularity. The project or projection first opens a domain, an area of knowledge, where the things i.e. facts, show themselves. What and how things or facts are to be understood and evaluated beforehand is what the Greeks termed axiomata i.e. the anticipating determinations and assertions in the project, what we would call the “self-evident”.

Galileo’s projection entailed six conclusions about the essence of “the mathematical”. First, it was a projection which “skips over the things”; 2. It was axiomatic, which is to say it prescribes certain features by which entities/things are to be understood before they are encountered; 3. This prescription regarding the being of beings goes to the very essence and structure of beings,, what they are and how they are; 4. It established a uniform field in which all entities will be encountered; 5. The “mathematical” realm requires that entities be accessed through experimentation; 6. And finally, it establishes measurement, in particular numerical measurement, as the uniform determinant of things. It is only through and along with this transition to the “mathematical” approach to nature that the analytical geometry of Descartes and the calculus developed by Newton and Leibniz could have been possible as well as necessary.

Newton entitles the section of his work in which things are fundamentally determined as moved “The Axioms or Laws of Motion”. The project or projection is “axiomatic” and it is what determines the laws. As what we call thinking and cognition in the sciences is expressed in propositions, the cognition (the way of seeing, the beholding) in the mathematical project is of such a kind as to set things upon their foundations in advance; they are defined and delimited in advance. The axioms are fundamental propositions, “a positing that is put forward”. Because the mathematical project is axiomatic, what things are as bodies is taken in advance and the mathematical project becomes the basic blueprint (schema, framework) of the structure of every thing and its relation to every other thing in advance. What the thing will be and can be is determined in advance. It is a priori. This is the result of Kant’s great effort in his three Critiques of Pure Reason, Practical Reason and Judgement.

The framework or blueprint provides in advance what we call “areas of knowledge” and how the things within those areas are to be determined, classified and defined and, thus, knowable beforehand. The more the numerical can be applied and the things brought to light through it, the more precise and correct the definitions are considered to be. Unlike in Aristotle, nature is no longer an inner capacity of a body determining its form of motion and its place; circular motion is of no greater dignity than rectilinear motion. With Galileo and Newton, Nature now becomes the realm of uniform space-time with regard to the context or place of uniform masses in motion which are outlined in the project and within which alone bodies can be bodies as part of it and anchored or positioned within it.

Nature as understood within the axiomatically pre-determined mathematical project requires a mode of access to the objects that have been thus determined. The mode of access and the manner of questioning and our cognitive determinations of nature (what we in TOK have called our “ways of knowing”) are no longer ruled by traditional opinions and concepts. A new form of questioning and conceptual thinking is required. Bodies have no concealed qualities, powers, and capacities. Natural bodies are only what they show themselves as within this projected realm i.e. masses in motion in relation to places and time points; and once they are determined as such, they then can be measured as masses and working forces.

The mathematical project determines the mode of taking in and studying what shows itself, what we call “experience”. Because inquiry is now pre-determined by the axiomatic outline of the project, how we question and inquire is determined in advance and nature must answer one way or another. Upon the basis of the mathematical project (“what can be learned and what can be taught”), “experience” becomes the modern “experiment”. The experiment is the setting up of the controlled environment that will allow us to gain access to the “facts”, the things. The experimental urge to the “facts” is a consequence of the initial mathematical skipping over of all facts and this has many consequences for our thinking in all areas of knowledge and our day-to-day lives. When the skipping ceases, mere facts are collected and we have what we know today as “positivism” where “knowledge” becomes mere “information”.

The Mathematical Project as Numerical

Because the mathematical project has established a uniformity of all bodies according to relations of space, time, and motion, it also makes possible and requires a universal uniform measure as an essential determinant of things i.e. numerical measurement. This numerical measuring is what we know as “mathematics” in its narrower sense. The new form of modern science of Galileo and Newton, Descartes and Leibniz did not arise because mathematics became an essential determinant within it. The particular type of mathematics had to come into play as a consequence of the mathematical projection, of how the things can be known and taught. The founding of analytic geometry by Descartes, infinitesimal calculus by Newton, and differential calculus by Leibniz are not the causes of the mathematical projection that is the paradigm shift from the ancient to the modern, but its necessary consequences. As Galileo himself said: “the book of nature is written in the language of mathematics”.

What is provided here is merely an outline within which unfolds the entire manner in which we pose questions and experiments, establish laws in our politics, and disclose new areas of things in order for us to have knowledge of them. The questions regarding space and time, motion and force, body and matter remain open and we are attempting to discuss them here in TOK. Every manner of thinking is a doing, a carrying out, that is a consequence of our manner of being-in-the-world, of the fundamental position that we take towards beings so that they show themselves and, thus, their truth. It is fundamentally ethical.

The mathematical projection of the world finds its apotheosis in current studies of the philosophy of science as the “Reduction Thesis”. It is the hypothesis that modern natural science, in all of its manifestations, is ontologically dependent on mathematical physics. This connection of mathematics to physics and of physics to mathematics is a limitation which both physics and mathematics cannot overcome. Experiments in Physics must report their results in the language of mathematics if they are to provide certainty.

The “Reduction Thesis” asserts a complex correspondence between science and the world. The world, in ascending order of complexity, is composed of elementary particles (states of energy), higher, more complex, structures such as those observed by chemistry, yet more complex ones such as organisms, and, lastly, human beings and their institutions. Analogously, the sciences can be rank-ordered in corresponding fashion with mathematical physics at one end (the Group 4 subjects) and, at the other, the sciences concerned with the human: anthropology, sociology, psychology, and political science, among others (the Group 3 subjects). This viewing impacts all AOKs and is what we have been calling the “mathematical projection”.

It is not just the new method of the physical sciences which warrants the scientific character of the modem science of politics, for instance. Just as ontologically, or in actuality, the world is in the final analysis “mathematical”, so the sciences (if the “Reduction Thesis” is a guide to modern convention or normative standards) make contact with the world through mathematical physics. And, as we have stated, Jacob Klein in his book Greek Mathematics and the Origin of Algebra takes us a long way in understanding a deep-seated conceptual connection between method and ontology in modem consciousness which reveals and discloses this dual authority of modern natural science in our Cave.

Distinctions Between Ancient and Modern Mathematics

GalileoModern: Galileo’s understanding of mathematics: Whereas ancient and medieval investigations sought out “the metaphysical essence and hidden causes of the appearances that impose themselves on us in immediate reality, Galileo’s science signifies something fundamentally new in its method. It seeks to gain mastery over the diversity of appearances by means of “laws.” Both the ontological (the essence of what Nature is in its Being), and the epistemological (the knowledge of the “how” that Nature happens to be the way it is) assumptions of modern mathematics are evident in Galileo’s famous mathematization of nature (“The book of nature is written in the language of mathematics”). Galileo’s new method posits measurable and comprehensible relationships between phenomena (epistemological knowledge claims), and admits only these knowable entities and their relationships to the plane of existence (ontological claims): “tracing all appearances back to the basic mathematically definable laws of a general dynamics, or motion.” The ground of Galileo”s view of Nature are the axiomatic principles of mathematics which through the principle of reason account for the “laws” of motion. Galileo’s mathematics will have a great influence on the science of Bacon and on the political philosophy of Thomas Hobbes. Technology and the Human Sciences Pt. 1


Ancient Mathematics: Aristotle’s understanding of the mathematical: mathematics is the attempt to understand sophia (wisdom) and the opposition between sophia and immediate, everyday, pre-scientific “common sense” or phronesis.  According to Aristotle, sophia is distinctive as the “most rigorous” mode of inquiry because it “touches the foundations of beings in their Being”, what we call “metaphysics”. Moreover, inquiries characteristic of sophia are determined from their outset by archai, first principles, which “require the greatest acuity to be grasped…because they are the fewest”. Only “because the archai are limited is a determination of beings in their Being possible” at all. The examples Aristotle gives of this “rigorous science” are the mathematical disciplines of arithmetic and geometry both of which are axiomatic, or that which is worthy or self-evidently true in itself.

Mathematics is characterized as “that which shows itself by being withdrawn from something and specifically from what is immediately given. The mathematika are extracted from the physika onta, from what immediately shows itself.” It is important not to read Aristotle through Cartesian or Kantian lenses: for Aristotle, this withdrawal from the immediately given is not a givenness to a subject, but a withdrawal from the natural place of the object (“place belongs to beings themselves”), or what the Greeks referred to as the topos. The mathematical, however, does not have a place, a topos; this is what distinguishes it from natural reflection about objects or what we refer to as “experience”. Whereas “the natural man sees a surface as peras, as the limit of a body,” the mathematician “considers the mathematical objects purely in themselves.” Because the mathematician is not recasting her objects as providing some different peras or some alternate motion in our experience of them, she is not in danger of distortion. This is not to be conceived of as some kind of “subjectivity”. 

But within mathematics itself, the distinction between arithmetic and geometry will prove to be of crucial importance for the later development of modern mathematics. Whereas mathematical abstraction properly leaves behind the topos of its objects, including the kinoumena – or determinate relation to motion – which is the concern of natural observers, the physicist does not recognize topos and therefore kinesis or motion as natural aspects of the object in question which must then be left behind in the artificial (though not distorting) process of abstraction; this mis-recognition in turn allows him to make “of these archai genuine beings, among which finally even kinesis itself becomes one.” (Heidegger, Plato’s Sophist 71, hereafter referred to as PS) The German philosopher, Heidegger, thus opposes the mathematician, for whom kinesis is not another archai but rather “the topos itself whereby Being and presence are determined” (PS 71) to the (Platonic) physicist, who is guilty of insufficient abstraction who does not determine an object’s being by its kinesis or motion. If we regard topos as what we understand by “space” and kinesis as what we understand as “time”, we can understand the importance of these differentiations. We also may be able to grasp what Plato meant when he said that “Time is the moving image of eternity”.

The distinction between geometry and arithmetic clarifies the opposition between the two. Monas, unit, is the solitary element of arithmetic; the most basic concern of geometry, however, is stigme, the point, which is a monas with a thesis added to it. (PS 71) This thesis makes all the difference: while both monas and stigme “are ousia, (presence)(something that is for itself” (PS 72), the thesis operative in geometry signifies that the object in question has been wholly divorced from its natural place, and has acquired “an autonomy over and against the physical body.” (PS 76) For Aristotelian metaphysics proper, place is a natural, integral part of a being: “the place is constitutive of the presence of the being” (PS 73) – rocks fall because the ground is their natural topos, fire naturally goes up, etc.The difference between the kinds of abstraction taking place in geometry and arithmetic are exemplified in the ways each relates the basic units of its operation to one another: for Aristotle, neither number nor the line is merely a construction of ones or points. The first number is in fact two, and the line is comprised of more than its points: “number and geometrical figures are in themselves in each case a manifold. The ‘fold’ is the mode of connection of the manifold.” (PS 76) What is being spoken of here is the difference between geometrical and numerical relation. What is the connection between a one and a two? What is a “one”?

While geometrical objects retain some similarity to those physical objects from which they are derived, for example the quality of continuous extension, Aristotle derives his understanding of continuity not from geometry itself but from his reflections on physics.

The relation characteristic of geometry is synekhes, the continuum: “what is posited in this thesis is nothing else than the continuum itself. This basic phenomenon is the ontological condition for the possibility of something like extension, megethos.” (PS 81) The argument against Platonic theoretical construction – where a line would simply be the collection of its points – is that such a collection may still have something infinitely large or different between the points that would disrupt their succession (the paradox of Zeno, for instance). The addition of a thesis typical of geometry ensures that, in positing the continuum, the quality of extension can be understood. In absence of a thesis, the relation characteristic of arithmetic is therefore ephekses: “for there is nothing between unity and twoness” (PS 80), i.e. the nothing between 1 and 2 is of a different ontological nature than the numbers that bound it. Because geometry must posit a supplement, a pros-thesis, in order to constitute itself, whereas arithmetic requires no such thesis, Aristotle finds number to be ontologically prior: it characterizes being “free from an orientation toward beings” (PS 83) –which is why Plato’s radical ontological reflection starts with number. But although arithmetic is dependent on sufficiently few archai, Aristotle does not admit it as the science of beings because its genuine arche, monas, is itself no longer a number i.e. “one” is not a number. (PS 83) With that Aristotle, and Heidegger, turn to sophia as the genuine candidate for the science of being.

Descartes sees extension as “basically definitive ontologically for the world,”; he predetermines what kinds of beings will be encountered in or admitted to experience. The res corporea or bodies are characterized above all by extension – size, length, thickness, etc. – in space, and this is defined as the constitutive quality that enables things to express all of their other qualities. 

Heidegger asserts that Descartes’ interpretation is not only “ontologically defective,” but that he has failed to “securely grasp” the entities he was after. Since the only ontologically admissible entities are res extensa, “the only genuine access to them lies in knowing, intellectio, (noetic) in the sense of the kind of knowledge we get in mathematics and physics….That which is accessible in an entity through mathematics, makes up its Being.” (Being and Time 128) Heidegger’s objection to this understanding is that despite his claims, Descartes’ ontology “is not primarily determined by his leaning towards mathematics…but rather by his ontological orientation in principle towards Being as constant presence-at-hand, which mathematical knowledge is exceptionally well suited to grasp.” (BT 129) In other words, the mathematics half of the “mathematical physics” to which Descartes appeals is inessential. Heidegger’s counterexamples bear this out: they dispute the physical sense of Descartes’ claims rather than their mathematical validity. Against the famous example of the melting wax, Heidegger retorts that the continuation across time of the malleable substance tells us nothing ontologically interesting about it – thus being is either inaccessible as such (which neither party is prepared to accept) or extension itself does not reveal being. Likewise, in the example of a hard substance resisting pressure, Heidegger replies that in abandoning everything but the hardness or resistance-property of the entity under consideration, Descartes also abandons the possibility of distinguishing between the two entities in contact: the mere closeness of a thing “does not mean that touching and the hardness which makes itself known in touching consist ontologically in different velocities of two corporeal Things.” (BT 130) Only if a being has the kind of being which Human Being has will it be shown hardness or resistance. The first example seeks to undermine the certain grasp of entities in the world; the second undermines the self-knowledge of the subject. The overall impact of Descartes’ orientation is that he has “made it impossible to lay bare any primordial ontological problematic of Dasein (Human Being); this has inevitably obstructed his view of the phenomenon of the world”.

What “conditions implied in Dasein’s state of Being” (BT 408) are necessary for the theoretical attitude to emerge. Theory, Heidegger notes, is not a simple withdrawal from or absence of engaged physical praxis; rather, it has a kind of praxis all its own, (BT 409) whether highly specialized as in the preparation of archaeological experiments, or simplistic measurements of a hammer which seems too heavy. In fact, the simple assertion that “the hammer is heavy” already signifies a switch to the theoretical attitude, and this is not a minor variation but a modification in which “our understanding of Being is tantamount to a change-over.” (BT 413) Not only is the hammer’s readiness-to-hand as a tool abandoned, but an essential feature of its presence-at-hand, its place, is also overlooked. “[I]ts place becomes a spatio-temporal position, a ‘world-point,’ which is in no way distinguished from any other.” (BT 413) This sounds remarkably similar to Heidegger’s description of geometric thesis from the 1924-25 lectures, in which objects are no longer considered in their natural places but as points on a grid or as surfaces in space. The crucial historical example of the emergence of this theoretical attitude is in fact the prevalence of mathematical physics since Galileo, Newton, and Descartes: What is decisive for its development does not lie in its rather high esteem for the observation of ‘facts,’ nor in its ‘application’ of mathematics in determining that character of natural processes; it lies rather in the way in which Nature herself is mathematically projected. (BT 413-4)

Only when nature has been predetermined and projected as knowable can entities/things be encountered as inert matter ready for experimentation and measurement. The crucial feature of mathematical physics is that it “discloses something that is a priori…the entities which it takes as its theme are discovered in it in the only way in which entities can be discovered – by the prior projection of their state of Being.”

Newton’s obliteration of the distinction between earthly and celestial bodies; the removal of the ancient priority of circular over linear motion; the neutralization of natural place, inherent force and capacity, and motion; the relativization of the ancient notion of violence against nature into a notion of violence as simple change of motion; the abandonment of nature as an inner expressive principle in favor of nature understood as an aggregate of motion and forces; and therefore the establishment of a radically unjustified method for questioning nature (i.e. the scientific method). It would take Kant to ground these views.

The link between metaphysics and the mathematical is shown in the rise of the mathematical and marks the emergence of a self-grounding knowledge, a self-binding form of obligation, and a new experience of freedom as such as is demonstrated in the works of Descartes. Modern mathematics as “mathematical” coincides with the abandonment of the Church and faith as the grounds of knowledge: in the essence of the mathematical “lies a specific will to a new formation and self-grounding of the form of knowledge as such.” Thus modern science, mathematics, and metaphysics “sprang from the same root of the mathematical in the wider sense.” Insofar as Descartes participated in the widespread project of extending and developing what would become the “mathematical” orientation toward the knowledge of what is, with the elevation of the proposition – the positing, the asserting characteristic of “mathematical” thinking – to the status of the first and the only given principle, reason becomes the highest ground of inquiry.  The problems of Cartesian philosophy and modern metaphysics in general are not only philosophical problems, but ontological problems as well.

The essence of technology is called Framing or “En-framing [Ge-stell],” which means “the gathering together of that setting-upon which sets upon man, i.e., challenges him forth, to reveal the real, in the mode of ordering, as standing-reserve.” (Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology and other Essays” QT 20) En-framing corresponds fairly precisely to the concept of “the mathematical”. Heidegger says as much: “man’s ordering attitude and behavior display themselves first in the rise of modern physics as an exact science. Modern science’s way of representing pursues and entraps nature as a calculable coherence of forces.” (QT 21) En-framing, this distinctively modern attitude that approaches beings as “calculable in advance” (QT 21) displays how we determine the being of beings in advance and what we mean when we say that we have “knowledge” of those beings. 



OT 4: Religion, Knowledge and Idolatry

Simone Weil
Simone Weil

“Things of the senses are real if they are considered as perceptible things, but unreal if considered as goods.” (Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace, p. 45)

To understand the statement above, one must see it in the light of Plato. It has been said, with some justice, that every philosopher is either a Platonist or an Aristotelian, and there is no doubt that Simone Weil is a Platonist and was hostile to Aristotle. What can it mean to say that things such as health and fitness, food and drink, property and progeny, are illusory goods?

We wish to look for counterclaims to positions that we have been given in our social and cultural contexts, in our education, for our goal is to attempt to get beyond our Caves. The quest for knowledge is a moral impulse. The essence of education is liberation. We wish to stop saying silly Russellian things like ‘God is as incredible as a celestial teapot’, or some other such comments that issue from propagandist ‘scientists’ who in their public speaking have ceased to be scientists and have become sophists at best, or politicians at their worst. Human beings will have their gods whether they recognize them or not; the goal of liberation or education is to ensure that one is not worshiping false gods.

What we call our ‘personal knowledge’ is the adopting of a position where an ineluctable element of de-cision, a cutting off of reflection and an engaging of the will, has been made: one must decide (and, indeed, has decided) what one will believe and how one will live. These decisions are grounded in the choices provided by our our culture, our ‘shared knowledge’, from our Caves. They are the products of what that kind of thinking which the Greeks understood as phronesis establishes. There is no argument, or set of arguments, that definitively establishes or grounds the desired conclusion, or justifies one’s personal way of life; and if one thinks that one has found that argument or set of arguments, then one has decided in favor of that argument or set of arguments without, perhaps, realizing that one has done so. If nothing else, one has decided to leave off investigating the matter. One has chosen, like some of the prisoners in the Cave, to return to the realm of the shadows. In most cases, it is our social and cultural contexts, our shared or historical knowledge, which grounds our de-cisions and our ceasing to inquire and to reflect.

What does it mean to say that the world of the senses is the world of shadows in the Cave and what relation does this have to knowledge and religion?

First of all, to call the things of the senses ‘shadows’ does not mean that such things when conceived as goods have no reality whatsoever; the point is rather that they lack absolute reality, according to Plato. When Macbeth, for example, sees a dagger before him, it has a ‘reality’, but its reality is as a shadow; it is the construct of a mind that sees daggers. (The dagger could also be interpreted in a positive sense in that it is the “last warning” to Macbeth before he makes his decision and acts). It is a construction of Macbeth’s de-cision: he is going to kill Duncan. Because the shadows lack an absolute reality, they cannot satisfy us ultimately (as Macbeth’s crime will not ultimately satisfy him). This delusion of desires/needs is the foundation of consumerism and of those societies based on the appetites.

The Idea of the Good is that which imparts to things their goodness. For Plato, the Ideas determine the ‘essence’ or the ‘what-ness’ of some thing. Birches, oaks, and larches all share in the idea of ‘treeness’, but the individual tree is not the idea of the tree itself. So with all the things of the world: what is good in them is given by the idea of the Good, but is not the Good itself. Their ‘goodness’ is a shadow of the Good just as a photograph of a loved one is not the loved one themselves, but a ‘shadow’ or an image of them.

Because human beings are by nature the religious animal in that they are capable of being moved by gods, we can approach the question of what is most important with regard to knowledge and religion via the notion of idolatry. The essence of idolatry lies in the absolutizing of the relative, or of the universalizing of the particular. This is, in fact, what Aristotle does in his interpretation and understanding of Plato’s idea of the Good (agathon), and his interpretation of the ideas in general. A finite good becomes an idol when it is treated as if it were an infinite good, i.e., one capable of satisfying our infinite desire. That our desire is infinite is shown by the fact that it is never satisfied by any finite object or series of finite objects. Not even an infinite series of finite objects (novelties or ‘experiences’) could satisfy it since what we really want is not an endless series of finite satisfactions but, though we don’t know it, the absolute good which is the Good itself. This is why our releasement from the chains in the Cave must be done by “force”, and involves some “violence”, and why the experience of this releasement is a painful one. Our enchainment to the desire to experience “experiences” is one of the roots of the difficulties for us in understanding ourselves. Self-knowledge for the Greeks was called “wisdom” or sophia and this involved contemplating the eternal things.

Ultimately, all desire, all need is the desire or need for the Absolute. A desire or need that understood itself, that was transparent to itself, would understand this fact about itself. But our deluded desire thinks it can find satisfaction in the finite. Therein lies the root of idolatry. We give our love to that which is not deserving of our love. In the West, this need/desire was seen in eros whom the Greeks recognized as a god i.e. infinite. Yet Eros, and our experience of Eros is, curiously, both infinite and temporal.

In the East, the Buddha understood this very well: he saw that desire is infinite in that it desires its own ultimate quenching or extinguishing, its own nibbana (, but that finite quenchings are unsatisfactory in that they only exacerbate desire by giving birth to new desires endlessly. Contrary to the Buddhist belief that all being is suffering, in the West, this has been seen in the figure of eros or need. Both Plato and the Buddha see this desire in the element or metaphor of Fire, a fire that does not extinguish itself. No desire or need is finally sated; each is reborn in a later desire. (See, for example, the discussion of King Lear on the wheel and its relation to the Pythagorean doctrine under Mathematics and Religion). This wheel of cyclical desire in Buddhism is the wheel of Samsara ( The more one is driven by the appetites looking for the ultimate satisfaction, the more frustrated one becomes. The desire to consume or possess the Beautiful has been understood mythologically as the ‘fall’ of human beings; it is in our nature to consume/possess because we are the needing beings. We believe that taking something into ourselves will somehow make us whole and our desire/need will find rest.

So the Buddha understood the nature of desire or need as infinite in the needing human being. But since he had convinced himself that there is no Absolute, no Atman (see the following link for a discussion of this difficult concept in Buddhism,) nothing possessing self-nature, (in this he can be distinguished from both Plato and Aristotle who saw in physis a self-nature or essence of what something is) he preached salvation through the extirpation of desire/need itself. Desire as such is at the root of suffering, dukkha, not desire for the wrong objects; so the way to salvation is not via redirection of desire upon the right Object, but via an uprooting of desire itself. This uprooting is a ‘violence’ that must be present in detachment from the things of the world, and this detachment, again, is a painful experience.

In Buddhist terms, we could say that idolatry is the treating of something that is anatta, devoid of self-nature, as if it were atta, possessive of self-nature. Idolatry arises when some finite foreground object is falsely ascribed the power to provide ultimate satisfaction. This is the conception of knowledge in the sciences; but in our sciences, there is no conception and no place for the world to be seen as beautiful as the world is seen as ‘object’. This de-cision of our sciences is a closing down rather than an opening up of the world of perception.

The distinction between Buddhism and the thinking that originated in the West is that for Socrates and Plato the world is conceived as good. The drawing power of eros is necessary for us to be led to the Good, and this drawing power is the beauty of the world. The world itself is a souvenir, a remembrance or reminder of the ultimate Good of which it is a testimony. Again, think of it as a photograph of someone we love. The photo is a reminder of the being who draws our love, but is not the real person themselves. This world and all its goods are but a reminder of the ultimate Good itself. Our error lies in mistaking the two as identical.

It is not without reason that the peculiar madness of the lover (Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet as an example) is the taking of the finite for the infinite. For Plato, there is the presence of the Good in all things that are; and this good is given to us through the perception of the Beautiful which, in its erotic power, draws us towards the Good itself. We can mistake the Beautiful for the Good itself, and this is what creates our ‘values’: we value what we consider the beautiful and what we think the beautiful itself to be, as the Good, and we consider this good of our own making since it is we who impose values on things. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, no?

According to the Pythagoreans, whether or not the absolute Good exists is not the question: reason suggests that we should love the finite as finite, that our love should be attuned to, and commensurate with, its object or its ‘otherness’. To love the finite as infinite is to go beyond the limits (to attempt to exceed the circumference of the circle) and is, essentially, hubristic. Romeo and Juliet love not ‘wisely’ but ‘too well’. The desire/need that is infinite is such because it is for the Infinite and can only be satisfied in the Infinite. Eros is both god and mediator, both finite and infinite as Christ Himself becomes in Christianity. As a young William Blake would conclude in his text “There is No Natural Religion”: Conclusion. If it were not for the Poetic or Prophetic Character the Philosophic & Experimental would soon be at the ratio of all things, and stand still, unable to do other than repeat the same dull round over again. Application. He who sees the Infinite in all things sees God. He who sees the Ratio only sees himself only. Therefore God becomes as we are, that we may be as he is.” What Blake had come to realize here is that “ratio” understood as “reason”, or the principle of reason, the metaphysics of the experimental sciences, gives the “eternal recurrence of the Same” (as understood by the German philosopher Nietzsche). To counteract this, the Prophetic character of the imagination was, for Blake, required.


CT 1: Our Knowledge and Reason

Georgegrant“When one contemplates the conquest of nature by technology one must remember that that conquest had to include our own bodies.”—George Grant, “In Defence of North America” (1969)

One of the most common words used today by students in TOK classes is “mindset”, but when asked what exactly this word means the users of the word are at a loss to explain it. “Mindset” is one of the words that we use without thinking, or hearing. This writing will attempt to explore the relationship of reason to what we understand as our knowledge (which the historicists preclude is the product of a ‘mindset’) and how reason is, actually, the ground of the ‘mindsets’ that we think we have chosen in our “freedom”, or what we call our “empowerment”. When we speak of ‘mindsets’, we are speaking of human cognition, how we think, perceive and understand the world around us, the language and the concepts that we use, and how the manner (methodology) of this thinking, perceiving and understanding has come about (historical background). We shall understand “cognition” as an (intellectual) processing of (intellectual) contents, the contents which are what we have come to understand as “data”. As we shall see, we have a relation to the self only insofar as we have a relation to others.

What we call reason as a way of knowing is grounded in the principle of reason: nihil est sine ratione, “nothing is without reason” or “nothing is without a reason”. The principle of reason holds that each and every thing that is, no matter how it is, has a reason. Whatever happens to be actual has a reason for its actuality. Whatever happens to be possible has a reason for its possibility. Whatever happens to be necessary has a reason for its necessity. 

We require reasons for the assertions that we make in knowledge claims. We insist upon a foundation for every attitude when we explore our emotions and how these emotions shape and determine, attune, our human cognition, our processing of contents. It is from within this principle of reason that we determine who among us is sane and who among us is not. In our search for reasons we begin with the immediate reasons for the things in front of us and then proceed to attempt to get to the bottom of, or ground of, the more remote reasons and, finally, ask about the ultimate reason.

The principle of reason is ubiquitous in all that we do, and it is so because it is “illuminating”. Nothing happens without a reason: nothing happens without a cause. Every cause is in some way a reason. Not every reason brings about something in the way of causation, however. For example, the universally valid statement “All men are mortal” contains the reason for seeing that Socrates is mortal, but the statement does not bring about, is not the cause for, the fact that Socrates dies. As we shall see, the principle of reason is not the same as the principle of causality; it is broader and encompasses the principle of causality.

The principle of reason requires that reasons must be rendered for all that is. The rendering of reasons is carried out through logos or language as a way of knowing. Logos is any type of rendering; it is not merely that which can be expressed in words. In fact, the dominant logos of our age is mathematics and in the sciences, the providing of sufficient reasons for propositions must occur mathematically.

We need to explain three questions that arise from this: 1. how come a reason is always a rendered reason? 2. How come a reason must be rendered in the first place, that is, explicitly brought forward? 3. to whom or to what is a reason rendered?

Gottfried Leibniz: The Founder of Finite Calculus

The German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz was the first to formulate the principle of reason as a statement and as a principle in the 17th century. He insisted that it was the principle. What does it mean? Why did it take so long in the history of ideas and philosophy for this statement to be uttered and why was it written in Latin by Leibniz?

Leibniz answers our first question with the observation that a reason is a rendered reason “because a truth is only the truth if a reason can be rendered for it.” For Leibniz, truth is always a correct judgement. Judgement is the connection of what is stated with that about which the statement is made. We call this the correspondence theory of truth. As the philosopher Kant stated: “Judgement is the seat of truth”. What the statement indicates is that which, as the unifying unity of subject and predicate, supports their being connected is the basis, the ground of judgement: it gives a justification for the connection. Reason renders an account of the truth of judgement. “Account” in Latin is called ratio. There is a connection between reason and language here. The ground of the truth of judgement is represented as ratio. The first principle for Leibniz is the fundamental principle of rendering reasons.

With regard to the second question “how come reasons must be brought forward whatever reasons”, Leibniz says that reason is ratio, that is, “an account”. If an account is not given, a judgement remains without justification. It lacks evidence of its correctness. The judgement itself is not truth. Judgement only becomes truth when the reason for the connection is specified and accounted for, when the ratio, that is, an account, is given. Such a giving of an account is in need of a site where the account can be delivered and rendered. This site may be as formal as an experiment or an essay or an exhibition, or it can be as informal as a statement made over coffee and donuts. The rendering of reasons is because reason is ratio, an account. If it is not given, the judgment remains without justification. It lacks the evidence, the support or the ground, for its correctness. It remains “subjective”.

In answer to the third question: to whom or to what must reasons be rendered, the answer is to human beings who determine objects as objects by way of a representation that judges. “Representation” is representare: to make something present to humans, to present something, to bring something to a presence, to bring it forward. The “account” is that which brings forward into presence.

Since Descartes, and followed by Leibniz and all modern thinking, humans are experienced as an “I” (an ego, a self) that relates to the world such that it renders this world to itself in the form of connections correctly established between its representations, its ideas and images—its judgements—and this “I” sets itself over and against this world as to an object. Judgements and statements are correct, that means true, only if the reason for the connection of the subject to its predicate is rendered, given back to the representing “I”. A reason is this sort of reason only if it is a ratio or an account that is given about something that is in front of a person as a judging “I”, and is given to this “I”. An account is an account only if it is handed over. This handing over of reasons can be experienced in the human cognition in the form of works of art either as performances, paintings or language, as discoveries in the sciences through experiment or observation, or the personal experiences that one grasps and possesses through one’s own cognition. A reason is a reason to be rendered. When the reason for the connection of representations has been directed back and expressly rendered to the “I”, what is represented first comes to a stand so that it is securely established as an object, that is, as an object for a representing subject.

But a rendered reason only effects such a bringing-to-a-stand of objects when it gives in a sufficient way an account that is adequate for the secure establishing of objects. The reason rendered must be a ratio sufficiens or a “sufficient reason”. This is the principle behind all assessments in the IB Diploma and in all human cognition in general. It is the ‘mindset’ that demands “results” which in themselves satisfy the principle of sufficient reason. Doing well or not doing well in your assessments is whether or not you have sufficiently rendered the reasons in securely establishing the object about which you are making assertions whether it be in mathematical equations or in writing the TOK essay.

Leibniz says: “Nothing exists for which the sufficient reason for its existence cannot be rendered.” The reason that demands its being rendered in every judgement about an object at the same time demands that, as a reason, it suffices—which means that it be completely satisfactory as an account. Of and for what? So that in every way and for everyone it can bring an object to stand in the entirety of its stance. The completeness of the reasons to be rendered—perfectio—is what guarantees that something is firmly established—secured in its place—as an object for human cognition. Only the completeness of the account, perfection, vouches for the fact that every cognition everywhere and at all times can include and count on the object and reckon with it. It is the principle of reason that gives security to the woman in Moscow, Idaho and the man in Moscow, Russia that their proceedings in their experiments or their mathematical propositions are correct. “Nothing is without reason”. The principle now says that every thing counts as existing when and only when it has been securely established as a calculable object for cognition. It is from this reckoning and calculability that we have “subjective” and “objective” statements regarding the things that are. “Subjective” statements are denigrated because they lack “reality”, they lack “objectivity”, they lack sufficient reasons in their rendering.

It is not accidental that what is called the “theory of aesthetics” and the term “aesthetics” itself as the determination of works of art appears coincidentally with the announcement of the principle of reason. “Aesthetics” and its various theories rule in the domain or AOK the Arts. Sufficient reasons must be rendered for our “experiences” of a work of art and in our determinations of what a work of art is. The work of art must be experienced as “object” otherwise our responses to it are “subjective”. The Greeks, for example, never had any theories of aesthetics. They did not view or experience their art in the manner we are asked to experience it.

This distinction between “subjective” and “objective” statements is what Leibniz determined as the “grandness” of the principle of reason. In the thinking of Leibniz, the Principle (here capitalized because it means the “first” or primary, the arche, or the axiom) decrees what may count as an object of cognition, or more generally, as a being/thing. What Leibniz is saying here is that human cognition is governed by the principle of reason and is under its power. Cognition becomes Rational and governed by Reason. For over 2000 years, ratio has meant not only an “account” in the sense of that which stands to account for something else, but also ratio means to “account for” in the sense of “vindicating”, of confirming something as being in the right, of correctly figuring something out and securing something through such reckoning or “accounting” so that it may be “counted on”. Reckoning is the way humans take up something, deal with it, and take it on; how, in general, human beings perceive something. Ratio is a manner of perceiving, which means, it is Reason. It is the determining power of our “mindset” which is sometimes called “world-view” in these writings.

Rational cognition follows the principle of reason. Reason first fully develops its essence (what it is) as Reason through the principle of reason. The principle of reason is the fundamental principle of Rational cognition in the sense of a reckoning (an accounting) that securely establishes something. One speaks of rational grounds, of evidence. Leibniz’s articulation of the principle of reason brings to fruition what we call “modernity”. The principle of reason comes to determine all cognition and behaviour, in other words, our “personal knowledge”. Since Leibniz’s articulation, the principle of reason has embedded itself in our human being and determines the manner in which we, as human beings, are moving forward into the future. But we are not fully aware of how the principle of reason operates in our day-to-day activities.

How do we hear this claim of the principle of reason in the determination of our “mindset”, how we understand our “experiences” in our day to day activities? The manner in which the claim of the principle of reason is most heard is in the distinction between “subjective” and “objective” mentioned earlier. Today, we measure what is “great” and what is “grand” only where the principle of reason is authoritative. We see the evidence of the principle of reason in our technology as it drives forward the bringing of its contrivances and products to an all-encompassing greatest possible perfection. Perfection consists in the completeness of the calculably secure establishing of objects, in the completeness of reckoning with them, and with the securing of the calculability of possibilities for reckoning. Our contrivances and products (computers and hand phones, for instance) are not merely instruments, equipment and tools like hammers and pens. The contrivances and products of technology rest on the understanding of the world about us that has become secure in its calculability. This calculability arranges the objects about us so that they are secure and at our disposal; the things are turned into “data”, “information”. It is this securing of the disposability of the objects about us which brings algebraic calculation to its height as the determination of what is considered knowledge in our age. This knowledge comes about through the applications of the methodologies in the various AOKs which follow the principle of reason.

The striving for perfection in our technology is an echo of the demand for perfectio which means here the completeness of a foundation. It asks and answers the two fundamental questions: “why” and “because”. The “how” questions are secondary responses to the fundamental questions. The principle of reason is a striving which demands the rendering of sufficient reasons for all that is. Perfection is based on the thoroughgoing calculability of objects. The calculability of objects presupposes the validity of the principle of reason. The authority of the principle of reason determines the essence of the modern, technological age and it empowers the modern age.

What role does human freedom play in this ceaseless technological striving for perfection? In our personal knowledge and how we experience our lives, we must come to terms with the distinction between calculative thinking and reflective thinking. We may begin our reflection on why this age is called the “Information Age” and “The Atomic Age” in order to illuminate the differences in the forms and ways of being-in-the-world in which human beings are captured and enslaved by the principle of reason. We shall attempt to determine the distinction between the calculative thinking which the principle of reason prescribes and reflective thinking.

The Principle of Reason and Information

How does the principle of reason operate within the “information age”? “Information” is sometimes called knowledge by students in their essays and exhibitions. Information is the bringing of what is encountered to a stand in the “form” in which it can “in-form” (in + form + ation). It is the principle of reason that is the suffix –ation, from the Greek aitia, or “that which is responsible for” the “form” so that it may “inform”. Data are those things that must be placed within a form so that they can become things that can “inform” or be rendered. The rendering of data as information requires the principle of sufficient reason to organize and classify the data so that it can “be” as object and as something calculable.

To “inform” is to render an account, to pass on what has been brought to a stand in human cognition as representational thinking. We require that this rendering or “giving an account” be as quick, comprehensive and efficient in bringing about results in the most efficient manner possible in order to assist us in securing our necessities, requirements, and satisfactions. We speak of this rendering of accounts as “empowerment”.  So it is that in our age the representation of language as an instrument of information has come to dominance and shows itself in our attempts to create machines with artificial intelligence and ever bigger, greater, more efficient computing frameworks with capacities for ever larger calculations. These attempts are based on our understanding of “intelligence” as information and contribute to the organizing within the framework that the principle of reason as the technological has established for itself.

In order to be passed on, what is encountered must be “trans-formed” into data so that it can be manipulated and controlled. As said above, the suffix “a-tion” comes from the Greek aition which was interpreted and translated as “cause” by the Romans. In this trans-formation of what is encountered into what is called in-formation, into data, what is encountered ceases to be an “object” for us and only retains its validity, its reality, as long as it retains its sense as data. As data, it ceases to be an independently standing object. The principle of reason requires that all that is encountered is understood as data. Until it is so understood, the thing encountered does not have a “reality” for us; it is not a “fact”.

Why this need for everything we encounter to be rendered as “information”? Because in its rendering as “information”, the principle of sufficient reason can hold sway. What is the consequence of seeing and hearing language and speaking as information? Because of this hearing and speaking, the possibility of a thoughtful conversation with a tradition that is considered to be our shared knowledge, a shared knowledge that could invigorate and nurture us, is lacking. Because language has been consigned to information, reflective thinking is pushed aside and is considered as something useless and superfluous. It is to the IB’s credit that it wishes to have TOK at the core of the Diploma program so that whatever embers might lie within our thinking that are the remnants of reflective thinking may still be able to catch fire and flame out as something other than calculative thinking.

What is the relation of the principle of reason to our personal knowledge and what we have come to call empowerment? It is the power of the principle of reason that “empowers” what we think personal knowledge is. The principle of reason governs all modern thought and action in the sense that it makes all modern thought and its consequences possible. It is the principle of reason that “empowers” the modern age to be what it is. At the same time, the principle of reason “overpowers” all thought and action making it difficult, if not impossible, to think and act except in the manner prescribed by the principle of reason. Our enchainment to the principle of reason requires that we “hear” what is being said in it and, at the same time, how the “mighty” principle” (in Leibniz’ word) has come to determine what is understood here as “technology” and its “empowerment” of human beings in the modern age. This attentive “hearing” requires that we begin to listen to what we hear which we have previously been inattentive to in the principle of reason; and this hearing and seeing requires a responsiveness, responsibility on our part to what is and what we are, and what we conceive ourselves to be, as human beings.






OT 1: Knowledge and Technology: Ethics

Digital data hex code symbolsInquiry question: How does technology, when viewed as merely instruments and tools that are used in assisting human beings to achieve their ends or in other human activities,, obfuscate the ethical issues that arise from within it?

As anyone who is involved in the top level of the informational technological sciences can tell us, it is impossible to work in the field without engaging in social engineering or cybernetics. One of the aspects of cybernetics is the creation of “communities” within which human beings feel the “freedom” to create themselves, to be “empowered”, but with the corollary consequence of their dehumanization through lack of empathy and humanity, or their sense of “otherness” and “owingness”.

The instrumental view of technology sees technology as a tool like any other and that it can be used for good or ill.  As we have gone along our path to thinking of technology, we have seen that technology is more of a “fate”; it is a mode or way of being-in-the-world that has arisen from particular historical conditions (Western European sciences) and social circumstances (historical contexts). The view of information technology examined here arrives from the view of reason and nature that came from these mastering sciences. Such a view cuts human beings off from any notion of a transcendent good (the Sun in Plato’s allegory of the Cave) and from any notion of a transcendent justice (a standard of justice other than that of our own making). The ethical implications should be made clear from this understanding of what allowed the technological to become possible. The essence of the technological is not left behind when its results are brought into being. It is these technological products and activities (techniques) that we view as what technology itself is, but this view is insufficient.

The situation in which we find ourselves currently seems obvious: we are faced with calamities concerning climate, the environment, population, resources, and pollution if we continue to pursue the policies that we have pursued over the last few centuries. The attempts to deal with these interlocking emergencies will require a vast array of skills and knowledge; and that is what most of you are being educated towards. Technological mastery will need to be used to solve the problems that technology has created. The focus of this mastery will be in the human sciences with efforts to change human behaviour. As the German philosopher Martin Heidegger has pointed out, the governing and determining science of the future is inevitably going to be cybernetics.

The realization of the cybernetic future will find its place most securely in the medical profession, particularly the biomedical field. We here in Singapore see a realization of this through the Singapore government’s focus on bio-medicinal research as one of its core industries of the future. What has been called “late stage capitalism” increasingly attempts to establish itself as “the mental health state” with the necessary array of dependent arts and sciences. The practical wisdom of politics was called by Plato “the royal techne”—that art which is higher than all particular arts because it is called to put the other arts in a proper order of least important to most important. It established a hierarchy. We have noticed in the TOK that the hierarchy established is “our self” as knower in the centre along with “ourselves” or “a community of knowers”. Our living in communities is “politics”, both in the ancient and modern sense. So what had been called “politics” by the ancients has been replaced by “social psychology” for the moderns. This “social psychology” is “cybernetics”—the mastery and manipulation of humans by other humans through various machinations. From this perspective, we get our terms “human resources” or “human capital” which appear benign in themselves but really are not.

In most of the TOK discussions that occur (and will occur), the difficult choices which will be necessary in the future are discussed within the assumptions of the ‘values’ and ‘ideals’ which shall direct our creating of history.  If we are to deal with the future “humanely” (that is, in a “human” fashion), our acts of ‘free’ mastery in creating history must be decided within the light of certain ‘ideals’ so that we can preserve certain human ‘values’ and see that ‘quality of life’ and quantity (economic prosperity) is safeguarded and extended. Clearly, the problem of dealing with these future crises involves great possibilities of tyranny, and we must be careful that in meeting these decisions we maintain the ‘values’ of free government.

In our TOK discussions, the way we put the questions/themes that relate to the tasks of the future, the future of our students (your futures) as the leaders of that future, involves the use of concepts such as ‘values’, ‘ideals’, ‘persons’ or ‘our creating of history’. The use of these concepts obscures the fact that these very concepts have come forth from within the ‘technological world-view’ to give us an image of ourselves from within that within. These terms are used “unthinkingly” from within this “world-view” and do not allow us to gain the openness necessary to be able to discuss the questions in any meaningful way.

The task in TOK is thus a negative one: to allow the concepts to come to light in their essence so that we may be free for something positive beyond them.

To do this we will look at “information technology as a fate” or a destining of human beings. This discussion arises from our radio show from last year, in which our two guests, experts in information technologies, both held the instrumental view of technology: that the information technology does not impose on us the ways that they should be used. They believed that human beings have the command and choice to determine whether information technologies will be used for good or ill.

The use of the word “should” implies a choice. The statements made by these men came from their intimate knowledge of information technology. But such a statement transcends that intimacy in the sense that the statement is more than a description of any given information technology or what is technically common to them as machines; the question goes beyond hardware and software. Because our guests wished to make statements about the possible good or evil purposes for which information technologies can be used, they expressed what information technologies are in a way which is more than a technical description. According to our guests, they are instruments made by human skill for the purpose of achieving certain human goals. They are “neutral” instruments in the sense that the morality or ethics of the goals for which they are or can be used is determined outside of them.

In expressing the instrumental view of technology, we can see that information technologies are obviously instruments because their capacities have been built into them by human beings; and it is human beings who must set up the operating of those capacities for the purposes that they have determined. All instruments can potentially be used for wicked purposes and the more complex the instrument, the more complex the possible evils. But if we apprehend information technologies for what they are, as neutral instruments, (according to these gentlemen) we are better able to determine rationally their potential dangers. That is clearly the first step in coping with these dangers. We can see that these dangers lie in the potential decisions human beings make about how to use information technologies, and not to the inherent capacities of the machines themselves.

This view is the instrumental view of most of us regarding technology and it is so strongly given to us that it seems common sense itself. It is the box. We are given an historical situation which includes certain objective technological facts. It is up to us as human beings in our freedom to meet that situation and to shape it with our ‘values’ and ‘ideals’, to put our IB Learner Profile into action and to act ethically .

Despite the decency and common sense of the statement “Information technologies do not impose on us the ways they should be used”, when we try to think about what is being said in the statement, in our thinking it becomes clear that information technologies are not being allowed to appear before us for what they are. They remain in the “shadows” for us.

The “not” or negation in the statement “information technology does not impose” concerns information technology’s capacities or capabilities, not its existence. Yet, clearly, information technologies are more than their capacities or capabilities. They are put together from a variety of materials, beautifully fashioned by a vast apparatus of fashioners. Their existence has required generations of sustained efforts by chemists, metallurgists, and workers in mines and factories. They require a highly developed electronics industry and the physics that lies behind that industry in the history of science and technique and their reciprocal relations. They have required that human beings wanted to understand nature, and thought the best way to do so was by putting it to the question as object so that it could reveal itself. They have required the discovery of modern algebra and the development of complex institutions for developing and applying that algebra. Nor should this be seen as a one-sided relationship in which the institutions necessary to the development of the machines were left unchanged by the discovery of algebra (here I am speaking of the universities and the more recent colleges of applied arts and technology).

To understand our educational system is to know that the desire for these machines shapes our institutions at their heart in our curriculum, in what the young (you) are encouraged to know and do (any view of the universal student choices in Group subjects in the IB Diploma indicates this). The information technology’s existence has required that the clever of our society be trained within the massive assumptions about knowing and being and making which have made algebra actual. Learning within such assumptions is not directed towards a “leading out” (educare + ation = that which is responsible for the “leading out” i.e. “education”) but towards an “organizing within”. This means and entails that those who rule any modern society will take the purposes of ruling increasingly to be congruent with this account of knowing. The requirements for the existence of information technologies is but part of the total historical situation (the word ‘fate’ or ‘destiny’ might be too ambiguous to be used here) which is given to us as modern human beings. The conditions of that historical situation are never to be conceived as static determinants (as something which cannot be changed), but as a dynamic interrelation of tightening determinations (the “box” gets smaller in terms of choices).

Information technologies are, obviously, within modern common sense, instruments, and instruments are always things which are made to be at human disposal. However, when the capacities or capabilities of these machines are abstracted from their historical existence, and when their capacities or capabilities are morally neutralized in the negative ‘do not impose’, we shut ourselves off from what ‘instrumentality’ has come to mean and how it has changed its meaning in the modern world.

Information technologies are one kind of technology. But “technology” is a very recently arrived word. Two Greek words, techne and logos are brought together in a combination that would have been unthinkable until recently. The word ‘technology’ is not to be found anywhere in the Greek lexicon. The new word ‘technology’ is able to stand and perdure because it brings forth to us the new situation: a quite novel dependence of science upon art and a quite novel dependence of art upon science—in fact, a quite novel reciprocal relation between ‘knowing’ and ‘making’. Look at the Mac Book Pros, hand phones and tablets in front of us and one can see the flowering of this reciprocal relationship. One can see here how aesthetics meets physics, how the “knowing” and the “making” come together.

This novel relationship of making and knowing stands at the heart of the modern era (by the “modern era” I mean since Newton’s science). The simple characterization of  information technologies as neutral instruments makes it sound as if instruments are now what instruments have always been and so hides from us what is completely novel, unique and new about modern instrumentality. This gulf in our understanding was made explicit by our guests’ use of the discovery of fire as an example of technology’s neutrality. In comparing the discovery of fire to the making of information technologies, our guests hid from us (not in any malevolent way) what we have to understand if we are to understand technology, as if the instrumentality of modern technologies could be morally neutral.  This account of information technology as neutral rises up in the statement, in opposition to that neutrality, an account of human freedom which is just as novel as our new instruments.

Human freedom is conceived in the strong sense of human beings as autonomous—the makers of our own laws and our own selves. This is also a quite new conception. It is first thought systematically in the writings of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant. It is also a conception without which the coming-to-be of our modern civilization would not and could not have been. But it is a conception the truth of which needs to be thought because it was not considered true by wise men of many civilizations before our own. The statement “information technology does not impose” holds a view of the world with neutral instruments on one side and human autonomy on the other. But it is just this view that needs to be thought if we are concerned with understanding the essence of technology and of understanding the essence of modern instrumentality, and if we are to see these as being a ‘fate’ or ‘destiny’.

How widely are we being asked to take the word ‘ways’ in the assertion that information technology does not impose the ways? Even if the purposes for which the tools or gadgets of information technology’s capabilities should be used are determined outside of itself, are not its inherent capabilities determinative of the ‘ways’ it can be used? We use information technologies to record students’ skills and ‘behaviours’. We use the data to control or assist teacher training in our PYP, MYP, and DP programs. The facts of our day-to-day instruction are abstracted so that they may be classified. Where classification rules, identities and differences can only appear in its terms (results as data). Classification is used by us both in our desire to know but also because of the convenience of organization. As our institutions of education grow larger, this ‘convenience of organization’ will come to dominate and will eliminate the heterogeneity of what those institutions were in the past: uni-versities become multi-versities. The point being made here is simply that the statement about information technologies tends to hide the fact that their very capabilities entail that the ways they can be used are never neutral. They can only be used in homogenizing ways. And the question about the goodness of homogenization or decentralization is excluded from thinking about the essence of technology.

A clearer example might be in using the automobile: “the automobile does not impose the ways it will be used”. All of us have experienced the inconvenience in this part of the world of societies in which the automobile has not, as of yet, come to dominate. Societies where automobiles dominate tend to be much the same as each other and we find these societies much more efficient and convenient for ourselves.  Yet, we cannot represent the automobile to ourselves as a ‘neutral instrument’. Here in Singapore, 20% of land use is given over to the infrastructure required for the automobile. But also, if we represent the automobile as a neutral instrument, we have abstracted the productive functions of Honda, Toyota and General Motors or Standard Oil and the other major oil conglomerates from their political and social functions, just as their public relations people would want. Moreover, we would have abstracted the automobile from the relations between such corporations and the public and private corporations of other countries. After all, to any sane person, the Iraq War was over oil; and the subsequent loss of lives, according to the British Medical Journal, The Lancet, was one and a half million Iraqi citizens, a number significantly higher than that given by the members of “the coalition of the willing”. When one thinks of ‘values’ and ‘ideals’ from within technology, one cannot ignore the continued homogenization of the central corporations in our everyday lives and the tremendous growth in their power over our lives, including the ability of driving us into wars.

Aristotle has pointed out that human beings are the ‘religious animal’, and the religion for most human beings who have lost any kind of transcendental faith in a god is the ‘belief in progress’. This belief can be described as the good progress of the race in the direction of the universal society of free and equal human beings, that is, towards the universal and homogeneous state. It is captured in the phrase “the ascent of man”. The followers of this religion of progress assert that the technology, which comes out of the account of reason given in the modern European sciences, is the necessary and good means to that end. That account of reason assumes that there is something which we call ‘history’ over against nature, and that it is in that ‘history’ that human beings have acquired their rationality. In the thought of the French philosopher Rousseau about the origins of human beings, the concept of reason as historical makes its extraordinary public arrival. Darwin’s Origin of Species is not possible without, first, the thought of Rousseau. Technology and The Human Sciences Pt 2: Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, Marx

The German philosopher Heidegger has said that capitalism and communism are simply predicates of the subject technology: the Presidents of the USA and China float down the same river (technology) in different boats (political ends). To put this in the context of our discussion, the same apprehension of what it is to be ‘reasonable’ leads human beings to build information technologies and to conceive of the universal, homogeneous society as the highest political goal. The ‘ways’ such machines can be used must be at one with certain conceptions of political purposes, because the same kind of ‘reasoning’ made the machines and formulated the purposes or the ends. To put the matter extremely simply: the modern ‘physical’ sciences and the modern ‘human sciences’ have developed in mutual interpenetration, and we can only begin to understand that mutual interpenetration in terms of some common source from which both sciences found their grounding. This common source is technology understood as a way of knowing the world and as a way of being-in-the-world.

To think ‘reasonably’ about the modern account of reason is of such difficulty because that account has structured our very thinking over the last centuries. Because we are trying to understand reason in the very form of how we understand reason is what makes it so difficult; that is, we are trying to use reason to grasp the essence of reason. The very idea that ‘reason’ is that reason which allows us to conquer objective human and non-human nature controls our thinking about everything; in other writings we have called it the principle of reason. This principle of reason is the box that we are required to try to somehow to think out of.

The root of modern history lies in our experience of ‘reason’ or the principle of reason and the interpenetration of the human and non-human sciences that grew from that root, or what has come to be called “the reduction thesis”. It is an occurrence that has not yet been understood, and it is an event that must come to be thought here in TOK. The statement ‘information technologies do not impose on us the ways they should be used’ hides that interpenetration. To repeat: the instrumental understanding of technology simply presents us with neutral instruments that we in our freedom can shape to our ‘values’ and ‘ideals’. But the very concepts of ‘values’ and ‘ideals’ come from the same form of reasoning that built the information technologies. ‘Information technology’ and ‘values’ both come from that stance which summoned the world before it to show its reasons and bestowed ‘values’ on that world. Those ‘values’ are supposed to be the creations of human beings and have, linguistically, taken the place of the traditional concept of ‘good’ which was not created but recognized. Information technologies do not present us with neutral means for building any kind of society. All their alternative ‘ways’ lead towards the universal, homogeneous state. Our use of them is exercised within that mysterious modern participation in what we call ‘reason’, and it is this participation that is most difficult to think in its origins.

TOK Question: Should we hold people responsible for the applications of technologies they develop/create?

The strongest ambiguity in the statement ‘ information technologies do not impose on us the ways they should be used’ is presented to us as if human beings ‘should’ use these machines for some purposes and not for others. But what does the word ‘should’ mean in advanced technological societies? Is not the essence of our difficulty contained in that this ‘shouldness’, as it was once understood and affirmed, can no longer hold us in its claiming?

‘Should’ was originally the past tense of ‘shall’. It is still sometimes used in a conditional sense to express greater uncertainty about the future than the word ‘shall’: (‘I shall get a raise this year’ is more certain than ‘I should get a raise this year’.) ‘Should’ has gradually taken over the sense of ‘owing’ from ‘shall’. (In its origins ‘owing’ was given in the word ‘shall’ when used as a transitive verb. See the concepts of ‘indebtedness’ and ‘responsibility’ in the discussion of technology in the unit blog on technology as a way of knowing.) In the sentence ‘information technology does not impose on us the ways it should be used’, we are speaking about human actions that express ‘owing’. If we change the statement to a positive form “information technology does impose on us the ways it should be used’, the debt would probably be understood as from human beings  to the machine. We can say of a good car that we ‘owe’ it to the car to lubricate it properly and maintain it properly if we want the car to do what it is fitted for—which is, in the traditional usage, its good—then we must look after it. But the ‘should’ in the statement about information technology is clearly not being used about what is owed from human beings to the machine. What is, then, the nature of the debt spoken? To what or to whom do we human beings owe it? Is the debt conditional? For examples, if human beings ‘should’ use information technologies only in ways that are compatible with constitutional government and never as instruments of tyranny, to what or to whom is this required support of constitutional government owed? To ourselves? To other human beings? To evolution? To nature? To history? To reasonableness? To God?

To characterize the great change that has taken place among those who consider themselves to be ‘modern people’, ‘goodness’ is apprehended in a much different way from previous societies. ‘Goodness’ is now apprehended in a way which excludes from it all sense of ‘owingness’ or ‘indebtedness’. What was the traditional Western view of ‘goodness’ is that which meets us with an excluding claim and persuades us that in obedience to that claim we will find what we are fitted for as human beings i.e. justice. Macbeth, for example, knows that he should not kill Duncan. The modern view of ‘goodness’ is that which is advantageous to our creating ‘richness of life’ or ‘quality of life’ i.e. it is exactly the choice Macbeth does make in choosing to kill Duncan because by doing so he believes he will increase his richness and quality of life.

What is true of the modern conception of goodness (which appears in advanced technological societies and distinguishes them from the older conceptions of goodness and the societies realized within those conceptions) is that the modern conception of goodness does not include the assertion of an ‘owed’ claim which is intrinsic to our desiring. ‘Owing’ is always provisory on what we desire to create. Our discussion of Aristotle’s conception of causality in our attempts to understand the essence of technology are relevant here. OT 1: Knowledge and Technology

Obviously, we come upon the claims of others and our creating may be limited particularly by the state because of what is currently permitted to be done to others. However, such claims whether within states or internationally, are seen as contractual, that is, provisional. This exclusion of non-provisional owing from our interpretation of desire means that what is summoned up by the word ‘should’ is no longer what was summoned up among our ancestors.  It always includes an ‘if’. The arrival in the world of this changed interpretation of goodness is interrelated to the arrival of technological civilization. The liberation of human desiring from any supposed excluding claim, so that it is believed that we freely create ‘values’, is a face of the same liberation in which human beings overcame chance by technology—the liberty to make happen what we want to make happen; to change the world through mastery.

The statement ‘information technology does not impose on us the ways it should be used’ asserts the very essence of the modern view (the human ability to freely determine what happens) and then puts that freedom in the service of the very ‘should’ that the same modern apprehension has denied. This is only possible with the conception of technology as instrument. The resolute mastery to which we are summoned in ‘does not impose’ is the very source of difficulty in apprehending goodness as ‘should’. Therefore, the ‘should’ has only a masquerading resonance when it is asked to provide moral content to the actions we are summoned to concerning information technologies. It is a word carried over from the past to be used in a present that is only ours because the assumptions of that past were criticized out of existence. The statement therefore cushions us from the full impact of the uniqueness it asks us to consider. It makes us forgetful against wondering and questioning about the disappearance of ‘should’ in its ancient resonance, and what this disappearance might portend for the future.

The commonality of statements in our modern world and in our education such as ‘information technology does not impose on us the ways it should be used’ are needed to buttress our morality in our daily decisions. The more it becomes possible to conceive that we might not be able to control the immensity of the technological apparatus and the constant emergencies it presents us with, the more intense become the calls for moral ‘values’ and ‘ideals’ as is demonstrated in the Guide for May 2022. Technological society is presented to us as a neutral means, something outside ourselves, and human beings are presented as in touch with some constant or permanence, from out of which they are called upon to deal with the new external crises. But obviously, all that is given us in the technological sciences denies that constancy or permanence, that standard, that eternality. What happens is that constancy is appealed to in practical life and denied in intellectual life. The language of the ‘eternal’ or ‘standards’ that we do not measure but by which we are measured is removed from all serious public realms. The residual and unresonant constant appealed to in the statement about information technology is ‘should’, but the intellectual life that allowed the coming into being of that information technology has also made that ‘should’ unthinkable.

When we speak of ‘values’ and ‘ideals’ in education as a way of approaching technological situations, we must realize that ‘values’, ‘ideals’, ‘persons’, and ‘the creating of history’ are at the very heart of what technological civilization is and are a language that has developed from out of this technological civilization.

Ontology refers to our way of being in the world. Every scientific discovery or application emerges from an ontology which so engrosses us that it can be called our Western destiny. Technology is not something over against ontology; it is the ontology and metaphysic of the age. It is for us an almost inescapable destiny. The question is: what is the ontology which is declared in technology since technological civilization enfolds us as our destiny?

Coming to meet us out of the very substance of our past, that destiny has now become not only our own but that of the species as a whole. Moreover, this destiny is not alone concerned with such obvious problems that we can blow ourselves up or can cure diabetes or have widespread freedom from labour or watch our distant wars on television or other media devices. It is a destiny that presents us with what we think of the whole, with what we think is good, with what we think the good is, with how we conceive insanity and madness, beauty and ugliness. It is a destiny which enfolds us in our most immediate experiences: what we perceive when we encounter a bird or a tree, a child, or a road. This destiny is not one in which we can pick and choose: it is a package deal. As the Greeks said, “the future comes to meet us from behind”.

[1] Martin Heidegger in 1935 defined the political movement of National Socialism in Nazi Germany as “the meeting of modern man with a global technology”. Today, we define this coming together of man and technology as ‘globalization’. Having an opportunity to change this definition of National Socialism in 1953 with the publication of An Introduction to Metaphysics, Heidegger chose not to do so.

AOK: Mathematics

History of Mathematics: Its relation to CT 1

“The book of nature is written in the language of mathematics”. –Galileo

To be is to be the value of a bound variable.” —Willard Van Orman Quine

However, I maintain that in any particular doctrine of nature only so much genuine science can be found as there is mathematics to be found in it”. — Immanuel Kant, Preface to “Metaphysical Beginning Principles of Natural Science”

Questions: Is absolute certainty attainable in mathematics? Is there a distinction between truth and certainty in mathematics? Should mathematics be defined as a language? What does it mean to say that mathematics is an axiomatic system? How is an axiomatic system of knowledge different from, or similar to, other systems of knowledge?


Science as “the theory of the real”, the “seeing of the real”, is the will of this science to ground itself in the axiomatic knowledge of absolutely certain propositions; it is Descartes’ cogito ergo sum, “I think, therefore I am” . An axiom is a statement that is taken to be true, and serves as a premise or starting point for further reasoning and arguments. The word comes from the Greek axíōma: ‘that which is thought worthy or fit in itself’ or ‘that which commends itself as evident’. This “fittedness” and “self-evidentness” relates to the correspondence theory of truth, but it has its roots in the more primal Greek understanding of truth as aletheia, that which is “unconcealed” or “that which is revealed”. The axiomatic ground-plan or blueprint for all things allows the things to become accessible, to be able to be known, by establishing a relation between ourselves to them. But today, the relation of the knower to what is known is only of the kind of calculable thinking that conforms to this plan which is established beforehand and projected onto the things that are. Initially, this relation to things was called logos by the Greeks. The word initially meant “speech” or “communication”, but today it means “reason”, “logic” and is sometimes referred to as “theorems”.

If we use an analogy, we see the things as “data” or “variables” that are much like the pixels on a computer screen that require a “system”, a blueprint, a framework so that the pixels/data/variables can be defined and bound, and in this defining and binding the things are made accessible so that they can conform to something that can be known, some thing that we bring with us beforehand which will allow them to be “seen” i.e. the body of the bodily, the plant-like of a plant, the animal-like of the animal, the thingness of a thing, the utility of a tool, and so on. The blueprint or mathematical projection allows the “data” to become “objective”; the data are not objective until they are placed within the system or framework. If they cannot conform to the blueprint, the framework, the system, to this manner of knowing, then we consider them “subjective” and they somehow have less “reality”; they are not a “fact” because they are less “calculable”. One sees the effect of this framing in our language and the texting that is now a popular mode of discourse for us. Grave consequences are the result of the thinking that is bound by, and bound to, the “mathematical projection”.

The mathematical and numbers are obviously connected, but what is it that makes “numbers” primarily mathematical? The mathematics and its use of number and symbol that we study in Group 5 is a response to but does not ground our will to axiomatic knowledge i.e. the knowledge that comes from the axioms and the first principles that follow from those axioms. Modern mathematics, modern natural science and modern metaphysics all sprang from the same root that is the mathematical projection in the widest sense. It is within the “mathematical projection” that we receive our answers to the questions of “what is knowing?” and “what can be known?” i.e. to those chief concerns of our “Core Theme”.

The change from ancient and medieval science to modern science required not only a change in our conceptions of what things are but in the “mathematics” necessary to realize this change, our “grasping” and “holding”, our “binding” of what the things are, what we ourselves bring to the things. The change is one from “bodies” to “mass”, “places” to “position”, “motion” to “inertia”, “tendencies” to “force”. “Things” become aggregates of calculable mass located on the grid of space-time, at the necessity of forces which are partly discernible and with various predictable jumps across the grid that we recognize as outcomes, values or results. When new discoveries in any area of knowledge require a change in design (what is sometimes called a “paradigm shift”, but are not, truly, paradigm shifts), the grid itself remains metaphysically imposed on the things. This grid, this mathematical projection, is at the mysterious heart of what is understood as technology in these writings.

Modern Natural Science (physics, chemistry, biology) is dependent on mathematical physics. Modern Natural Science views the world through the lens of what is known as the “Reduction Thesis”: that there is a correspondence between science and the world, and that this correspondence can be demonstrated within the correspondence theory of truth using the principle of reason, the principle of non-contradiction, the principle of causality, and the principle of sufficient reason. Science is the theory of the real. The world, in ascending order of complexity, is composed of elementary particles (states of energy), higher, more complex, structures such as those observed by chemistry, yet more complex ones such as organisms that are observed in biology, and, lastly, human beings and their institutions (the Human Sciences). In a similar fashion, the sciences can be rank-ordered in a corresponding way with mathematical physics at one end and, at the other, the sciences concerned with the human: sociology, psychology, political science, among others which require more than simple mathematical results.

The status of mathematical physics (where algebraic calculation becomes authoritative for what is called knowledge) turns on its ability to give us an account of the essential character of the world (essence = its whatness), rather than merely describing some of its accidents (an “accident” is a “non-essential” category for what a thing is. You have brown eyes and I have blue eyes but these are “accidents” and have no impact on our both being, essentially, human beings). Can mathematical physics make such a claim i.e. does mathematical physics describe or give an account of what and how the world really is? its essence?

 Ancient and Modern Representation of Number:

“Representation”, through the correspondence theory of truth, includes the conceptual tools which inform a world-view, or, to mix ancient and modern analogies, “representation” refers to the horizons, the limits defining this or that Cave, city, nomos (convention), civilization, or age. These definitions or horizons are the ‘paradigms’, ‘the stamp’ of what is considered to be knowledge in those Caves and determines what will be education in them. In the narrower sense, representation refers to the operations of the mind as it deals with concepts as well as its reflections on those operations, such as what we are trying to do here in TOK. We will examine the narrower sense here. We will note that the notion of a “concept” has been completely taken up in modern representation through imagination and reason, and these bring about the “knowing” and “making” that is the essence of technology. We shall try to do this with a reflection on the nature of number.

The Greek concept of number has a meaning which, when considered by First Philosophy (metaphysics), yields an ontology (the knowledge of ‘being-in-the-world’ and the beings in it) of one sort. The modern concept of number, on the other hand, while remaining initially faithful to this Greek meaning, yields an ontology or a way of being-in-the-world of a very different sort.

For the Greeks (and the tradition subsequent to them) number, the Greek arithmos, refers, always, to a “definite number of definite things”. Five or cinq or penta can refer to either five apples or five people or five pixels, but it must refer to a definite number of definite things. Alexander, one of the Aristotelian commentators, said: “Every number is of some thing”; the Pythagoreans said “The things are numbers”.  As for counting per se, it refers to things or objects of a different sort, namely monads or units, that is, to objects whose sole feature is unity, being a “one”. For example, it would be as unthinkable for an ancient mathematician such as Diophantus to assume that an “irrational ratio” such as pi, which is not divisible by one, is a number as it is for us moderns to divide a number by zero. (The neologism, “irrational ratio”, only means a ratio which yields, in our terminology, an irrational number.)

Similar considerations hold for geometry. A triangle drawn in sand or on a whiteboard, which is an “image” of the object of the geometer’s representation, refers to an individual object, for example, to a triangle per se, if the representation concerns the features of triangles in general. For the Greeks, the objects of counting or of geometry are, if considered by the arithmetical or geometrical arts, in principle, incorporeal, without body. Hence a question arises as to their mode of existence.

Plato’s and Aristotle’s answers (whatever the differences between them, they are agreed on this) are that to account for what it means to say that there are pure monads or pure triangles must begin from the common ground which has been condescendingly called “naive realism” by the moderns. For Plato, pure monads point to the existence of the Ideas, mind-independent objects of cognition, universals; for Aristotle, monads are to be accounted for on the basis of his answer to the question “What exists?”, namely mind-independent particulars, like Socrates, and their predicates, that is, by reference to substances (subjectum, objects) and their accidents. An accident, in philosophy, is an attribute that may or may not belong to a subject, without affecting its essence. Aristotle made a distinction between the essential and accidental properties of a thing.

A few words on “intentionality” are needed here and to distinguish between first-order intentionality and second-order intentionality. We say that computers can be said to know things because their memories contain information; however, they do not know that they know these things in that we have no evidence that they can reflect on the state of their knowledge. Those computers which are able to reproduce haikus will not do so unless prompted, and so we can really question whether or not they have “knowledge” of what it is that we think they are capable of doing i.e. constructing haikus. They do not have “intelligence”, per se.

Much of human behaviour can be understood in a similar manner: we carry out actions without really knowing what the actions are or what the actions intend. Intentionality is the term that is used to refer to the state of having a state of mind (knowing, believing, thinking, wanting, intending, etc) and these states may only be found in animate things. In these writings these states are referred to as Being or ontology. Awareness of the thought of Being is the purpose of this TOK course and this may be called a “second-order” intention. So first-order intentionality refers to the mind directed towards those beings or things which are nearby, ready-to-hand. They are the concepts that we use to understand the non-mental or material things. Second-order intentions deal with abstract, mental constructs. Much discussion of this is to be found in Medieval philosophy in their attempts to understand Aristotle.

“First intention” is a designation for predications such as: ‘Socrates is a man’, ‘Socrates is an animal’, ‘Socrates is pale’. It not only serves as a designation for such statements or assertions about a thing, but it also characterizes their ontological reference or the ‘thing’ to which they refer i.e. to the being of what the thing is. Each of the predications listed above (man, animal, pale) has as an object of reference, a “first intention”; in Aristotelian terms a substance, in the Latin subjectum e.g., Socrates. It carries with it a “pointing towards”. (In this explanation, it is important to note language as “signs” in the word “de-sign-ation”. It is also important to note how our “reasoning” is based on the grammar/language of our sentences in English due to its roots in ancient Greek and Latin.) “First intentions” refer to our “first order” of questioning i.e. asking about the categories or characteristics of the things, their descriptions. We may say that the questioning about these characteristics is “first order” since they look at our assertions about the character of the the things and not about the thing’s “essence”. They are of the “first order” because they arise from our initial perceptions of the thing.

According to the Greeks number refers directly, without mediation, to individual objects, to things, whether apples or monads. It is, in the language of the Schools (the medieval Scholastics), a “first intention”. Number, thus, is a concept which refers to mind-independent objects. In order to understand the modern concept of number, it is useful to say a few words about the distinction between first and second intentions and show how these have come to be related to our understanding of “first order” and “second order” questioning.

With reference to representational thinking as understood by the ancients, not only is abstractness misapplied in this case of a ‘subject’ and its ‘predicates’, but the modern concept of number stands between us and an appreciation of why this is so. The Greek concept of number, arithmos, as stated in, say, penta, is a first intention i.e. it refers to mind-independent entities, whether it is apples or monads (things, units). The modern concept of number as “symbol generating abstraction” results from the identification, with respect to number, of the first and second intentions: both the mind-independent objects and the inquiring mind and its concepts are combined. It is what we have been calling the mathematical projection here. In order to make sense of the notion of a “symbol-generating abstraction”, we need to go to the modern concept of number.

Symbolic mathematics, as in post-Cartesian algebra, is not merely a more general or more abstract form of mathematical presentation. It involves a wholly new understanding of abstraction which becomes a wholly new understanding of what it means for the mind to have access to general concepts i.e., second intentions, as well as implying a wholly new understanding of the nature and the mode of existence of general concepts, and thus, a wholly new determination of what things are through a wholly new manner of questioning. This new ‘representation’ allows symbolic mathematics to become the most important achievement of modern natural science. Let us look at how this came about.

Viete and Descartes and the New Understanding of the Workings of the Mind:


 In order to display where Viete departs from the ancient mode of representation, we need to focus on the use of letter signs and Viete’s introduction of letter signs into mathematics in the West. We think that a letter sign is a mere notational convenience (a symbol in the ordinary sense of the word in our day) whose function is to allow for a greater generality of reference to the things it refers to. But this use of symbols, as the character of “symbol generating abstraction”, entails a wholly new mode of ontology or being-in-the-world and the representation of things of the world.

Every number refers to a definite multitude of things, not only for ancient mathematicians but also for Viete. The letter sign, say, ‘a,’ refers to the general character of being a number; however, it does not refer to a thing or a multitude of things. Its reference is to a concept taken in a certain manner, that is, to the concept’s and the number’s indeterminate content, its variableness. In the language of the Scholastics, the letter sign designates a “second intention”; it refers to a concept, a product of the mind. But what is of critical importance:  it does not refer to the concept of number per se but rather to its ‘what it is’, to “the general character of being a number”. The letter sign, ‘a‘, in other words, refers to a “conceptual content”, mere multiplicity for example which, as a matter of course, is identified with the concept.  This matter-of-course, implicit, identification is the first step in the process of “symbol generating abstraction”. This step, which is entailed by Viete’s procedures and not merely by Viete’s reflections on his procedures, makes possible modern symbolic mathematics. In other words, at the outset, at the hands of its “onlie begetter” Viete, the modern concept of number suggests a radical contrast with ancient modes of representation.

KleingFor Plato and Aristotle logos, discursive speech/ language, is human beings’ shared access to the “content” of a concept, what was known as “dialectic”. It is through language, and as language, that mathematical objects are accessible to the Greeks.  Not so for modern representation. The letter sign refers and gives us access to “the general character of being a number”, mere multiplicity (arithmos) (although it was left to Descartes to work out the implications of this mode of representation. More will be said on Descartes below.) In addition, the letter sign indirectly, through rules, operational usages, and syntactical distinctions of an algebraic sort, also refers to things, for example, five units. This leads directly to the decisive and culminating step of “symbol generating abstraction” as it emerges out of Viete’s procedures. It occurs when the letter sign is treated as independent; that is, when the letter sign, because of its indirect reference to things or units, is accorded the status of a “first intention” but, and this is critical, all the while remaining identified with the general character of a number, i.e. a “second intention”. Jacob Klein in Greek Mathematical Thought and the Origin of Algebra sums up this momentous achievement: a potential object of cognition, the content of the concept of number, is made into an actual object of cognition, the object of a “first intention”. From now on, number is both independent of human cognition (not a product of the imagination or mind) i.e. objective, and also without reference to the world or any other mind-independent entity, which, from the point of view of the tradition (if not common sense) is paradoxical.

What all of this means, according to Klein, is that “the one immense difficulty within ancient ontology, namely to determine the relation between the ‘being’ of the object itself and the ‘being’ of the object in thought is . . . accorded a ‘matter-of-course’ solution . . . whose significance . . . (is) . . . simply-by passed”. We can see now how the Quine statement beginning this writing (“To be is to be the value of a bound variable”) relates to this arrival of algebraic calculation. The mode of existence of the letter sign (in its operational context) is symbolic.

Let us try to grasp Klein’s suggestion about what symbolic abstraction means by contrasting it with the Platonic and Aristotelian accounts of mathematical objects. For Plato the correlate of all thought which claims to be knowledge is the mind-independent form, the “outward appearance” (eidos) and the idea (idea) or, in the case of number, the monad, the “unique”, singular one; none of these are the ontological correlates of the symbolic, modern grasp of mathematics. For Aristotle the object of the arithmetical art results from abstraction, but abstraction understood in a precisely defined manner. The abstraction of Aristotle is diaeresis  where attention is paid to the predicates of things rather than the whole of a thing and the predicate is subtracted from the whole so that individual attention may be given to it. The subtracted thing has real existence outside of the mind.

The mode of existence of what the letter sign refers to in modern mathematics is not abstract in this Aristotelian sense, but is symbolic; it is more general. In the modern sense, both the symbol and what it refers to are not only unique, arising out of the new understanding of number implied by the algebraic art of Viete, they are, as well, logical correlates of one another, symmetrically and transitively implying each other i.e. such that, if a relation applies between successive members of a sequence, it must also apply between any two members taken in order. For instance, if A is larger than B, and B is larger than C, then A is larger than C.. That is, symbol in “symbol generating abstraction” is not a place marker which refers to some thing, as in the ordinary sense of symbol of our day such as a stop sign; rather it is the logical, conceptual, and thus quasi-ontological correlate of what it refers to, namely the “conceptual content” of the concept of number i.e. multiplicity. From this will follow (Newton) that all ‘things’ become ‘uniform’ masses located in ‘uniform’ spaces. The philosopher Kant will ground this viewing in his Critique of Pure Reason.

But at the same time, while bound to the ancient concept, the modern version is, paradoxically, less general. “Abstraction” in the non-Aristotelian sense, the label for symbolic modes of thought, can be grasped in at least two ways. First, it presents itself as a term of distinction as in the pair abstract/concrete. Whereas the concrete stands before us in its presence or can be presented through or by an image, the “abstract” cannot. Alternatively, “abstract” in the modern interpretation can also be illustrated by an ascending order of generality: Socrates, man, animal, species, genus. The scope of the denotation, or the extension, increases as abstractness increases, and, once again, the more general is also the less imaginable. But this is precisely what symbolic abstraction is not. The mathematical symbol ‘a‘ in context has no greater extension than the ancient number, say, penta. Rather, the symbol is a “way” or, in the modern interpretation of method which Descartes inaugurates, a step in a “method” of grasping the general through a particular (links to inductive reasoning and the scientific method may be made here as well as to the Greek understanding of dianoia).  It is a way of imagining the unimaginable, namely the content of a “second intention”, which is at the same time through procedural rules, taken up as a “first intention”, i.e., something which represents a concrete ‘this one’. One consequence of this reinterpretation of the concept of arithmos is that the “ontological” science of the ancients is replaced by a symbolic procedure whose ontological presuppositions are left unclarified” (Klein, Greek Mathematical Thought, p. 184). What are the things which are represented here?

Rene Descartes

Descartes’ suggestion that the mind has such a power answers to the requirements of Viete’s supposition that the letter sign of algebraic notation can refer meaningfully to the “conceptual content” of number. The “new possibility of understanding” required is, if Descartes is correct, none other than a faculty of intellectual “intuition” (which we commonly call imagination). But this faculty of intellectual intuition is not understood in terms of the Kantian faculty of intellectual intuition. The Cartesian version, implied by Descartes’ account of the mind’s capacity to reflect on its knowing, unlike its Kantian counterpart, is not informed by an object outside of the mind. (Of course, since for Kant the human intellect cannot intuit objects outside the mind in the absence of sensation, there is no innate human faculty of “intellectual intuition”. It is, for Kant, a faculty that is impossible and illustrates a limitation on human knowing.)

Moreover, this power of intuition has “no relation at all to the world . . . and the things in the world” (Klein, p. 202). In other words, it is not to be characterized so much as either incorporeal or dealing with the incorporeal but, rather, as unrelated to both the corporeal and the incorporeal, and so perhaps is an intermediate between the “mind the core of traditional interpretations of Descartes. In the simplest terms, the objects of mathematical thought are given to the mind by its own activity, or, mathematics is metaphysically neutral; it says nothing about the being of a world outside of the mind’s own activities; it stresses subjectivity and subjectiveness.” The consequences of such thinking are immense and have been immense.

Nonetheless, this unrelatedness of mathematics and world does not mean that mathematical thought is like Aristotle’s Prime Mover merely dealing with itself alone. It requires, according to Descartes, the aid of the imagination. The mind must “make use of the imagination” by representing “indeterminate manyness” through symbolic means” (Klein, p. 201). A shift in ontology, the passage from the determinateness of arithmos and its reference to the world, even if it is to the world of the Forms of Plato, to a symbolic mode of reference becomes absorbed by what appears to be a mere notational convenience, its means of representation, i.e., letter signs, coordinate axes, superscripts, etc., thus preparing the way for an understanding of method as independent of metaphysics, or of the “onto-language” of the schools of our day. The conceptual shift from methodos (the ancient “way” particular to, appropriate to, and shaped in each case by its heterogeneous objects) to the modern concept of a “universal method” (universally applicable to homogeneous objects, uniform masses in uniform space) is thus laid down. Through this, the way is prepared for a science of politics (and all human sciences) whose methodology is “scientific” and to their reference within these sciences of human beings as objects and ‘masses’.

The interpretation of Viete’s symbolic art by Descartes as a process of abstraction by the intellect, and of the representation of that which is abstracted for and by the imagination is, then, “symbol generating abstraction” as a fully developed mode of representation (Klein, pp. 202, 208; cp. pp. 175, 192). Consider two results of this intellectual revolution.

1. In order to account for the mind’s ability to grasp concepts unrelated to the world, Descartes introduces a separate mode of knowing which knows the extendedness of extension or the mere multiplicity of number without reference to objects universal or particular outside of the mind. This not only allows, but logically implies, a metaphysically neutral understanding of mathematics.  A mathematician in Moscow, Idaho, and one in Moscow, Russia, are dealing with the same objects although no reference to the world, generic or ontological, needs to be imputed.

2. “Symbol generating abstraction” yields an amazingly rich and varied “realm” (to use Leibniz’s sly terminology) of divisions and subdivisions of one and the same discipline, mathematics. For confirmation, one need only glance at the course offerings of a major university calendar under the heading “Mathematics”. Yet the source of this “realm” is at once unrelated to the world and deals with the “essence” of the world through mathematical physics in its essentialist mode. This is possible because the imagination is Janus-like. It is the medium for symbol generating and also a bridge to the world, since the world and the imagination share the same “nature” i.e., corporeality or, what comes to the same thing, the “real nature” of corporeality, extension.

Viete for one, as well as Fermat, simplified their achievements. They understood the “complex conceptual process” of symbol generating abstraction as merely a higher order of “generalization” thereby setting the stage for what has come to be habitual for modern consciousness, the passing over of the theoretical and exceptional, so that, in Klein’s phrase, it is simply “by-passed” or overlooked (Klein, p. 92). (All this is an inversion of Heidegger’s insistence that the passing over of the ‘proximal’ and ‘everyday’ must be overcome to appropriate Being in our day.) But this blindness to its own achievements, from which the modern science of nature suffers, is a condition of its success. Only if the symbol is understood in this way merely as a higher level of generality can its relation to the world be taken for granted and its dependence on intuition be “by-passed”. Only if symbol is understood as abstract in modern opinion’s meaning of the word would it have been possible to arrive at the bold new structure of modern mathematical physics on the foundations of the old.

It is important to grasp the conditions of the success of the modern concept of number. One of these is that modern mathematics is metaphysically neutral. This means, first of all, that modern mathematics does not entail, of itself, or presuppose of itself, metaphysical theses concerning what exists or what is the meaning of Being. For a contrast, one need only follow Klein’s patient exegesis of Diophantus’ Arithmetic; there, object, mode of presentation, scope of proof, and rigor of procedure are intermingled with metaphysics (Klein, pp. 126-49). Klein shows that “Aristotle’s theory … of mathematical concepts . . . was assimilated… by Diophantus and Pappus. Secondly, and more conclusively, the proofs and content of modern mathematical arguments need not be considered in conjunction with the metaphysical orientation of the mathematician presenting the argument, and so, whereas the pre-modern world could distinguish between Platonic and, say, Epicurean physics, no analogous distinction is viable in the modern world. There is yet a third way in which modern symbolic mathematics is metaphysically neutral and this in the strongest sense. It is neutral because it is all consistent with all metaphysical doctrines, nominalist or realist, relativist or objectivist. Whatever the metaphysics, to date, there is an interpretation of modern mathematics which leaves it unscarred. This is not the case for the ancient conception. For example, Euclid’s division of the theory of proportions into one for multitudes and another for magnitudes is rooted in the nature of things, in an “ontological commitment” to the difference between the two. Only after the metaphysical neutrality of the modern conception is taken for granted and bypassed, is it possible to do away with Euclid’s division as a matter of notational convenience.-

None of this holds true for mathematical physics in its authoritative mode, as arbiter of what there is (and what can, therefore, be claimed to be knowledge),  in the version it must assume to serve as a ground for the acceptance of the victory of the Moderns over the Ancients at the level of First Principles (metaphysics). Mathematical physics does make in this mode metaphysical claims. It is not metaphysically neutral. Elementary particles are, for example, if mathematical physics is arbiter of what there is. But are they? One can see a corollary application of this thinking in the “objectlessness” of modern art. 

Take, to begin with, the most influential version of ontology for those who accept the Reduction Thesis, that is, Willard Van Orman Quine’s famous dictum that “to be means to be the value of a bound variable.” Drawn as the dictum is in order to make metaphysics safe for physics, does it entail the existence of, say, elementary particles? All we know is that if we claim that particles are, that is, are in reality and not merely operationally defined then our claim will fit this semantic model. Conversely, sets, aggregates, mathematical infinities also qualify as “existents” in this semantic sense, but they cannot give us any knowledge of the world, since we need not impute to them any reference to a world outside the mind when we deal with them as pure objects of mathematics. In other words, as long as, in Cartesian terms, the identification of the real nature of body as extendedness with the objects of mathematical thought remains unproven and is merely, in effect, asserted, Sir Arthur Eddington’s hope that mathematical physics gives us an essentialist account of the world will remain just that, a hope.

All of the above means that Klein’s book is a key to understanding modernity’s most profound opinion about the nature of Being, of bringing to light the very character of these modern opinions in a manner which discloses not only their historical genesis but lays open to inspection why they are not only opinions but also conventions. Thus his book Greek Mathematical Thought and the Origin of Algebra is a key to renewing that most daunting of human tasks, liberating us from the confines of our Cave.

CT 1: Knowledge and the Knower

“I know because…”/ “We know because…”

Inquiry Questions:  1) Why (how) has algebraic calculation come be the paradigm of knowledge for our age and how does this affect my thinking? 2) How is learning a “giving to one’s self what one already has” and how does this determine how I understand what knowledge is? How do we acquire knowledge? What constitutes a “good reason” for us to accept a claim? Are intuition, evidence, reasoning, consensus and authority all equally convincing methods of justification? Does knowledge always require some kind of rational basis? How do our expectations and assumptions have an impact on how we perceive things? What are the advantages and disadvantages of requiring that all knowledge is verified by a group?

The priority of understanding who we as the “knowers” is obvious since knowers are either individuals or communities. What is this “knowledge” that they and I “know”? And how do they and I know it? In the Renaissance, human beings were given priority by being placed in the centre of the world as it was given, and from this, “humanism”, in any of its various guises, came to dominate thinking in our age. Our study of TOK remains within this “humanistic” legacy that we have inherited.

In arriving at how we know things, we have come to view reason as an instrument because our encounters with the world we live in are encounters with chaos, a chaos that must be controlled through the dominating application of the knowledge which we have received from the reasoning of our sciences. When we say “I know be-cause…” and “we know be-cause…”, we are stating that the principle of causality dominates how we understand the being of what something is and how it is i.e. “be”, the being of what is, “cause” the reason for the being of what is. The principle of causality is but one aspect of the principle of reason: nihil est sine ratione “nothing is without (a) reason“.

Thinking in our age is an empowering and overpowering activity and we shall try to see how it might be possible to have a receptive kind of thinking and what this might entail. It is this priority, to think about thinking, which spurs the inquiry into who the knowers are and what the things that they know are, how the knowers establish the horizons of things in their definitions and classifications of those things, their possibilities. The inquiry into the “how” of definitions and classifications is a search for an understanding of the “key concepts” that are used in TOK and in learning today. We may learn of these by learning of their origins. We are driven at the same time to find answers to the questions of who and what we are as human beings since this knowing determines how we understand ourselves and this understanding determines our actions, our ethics, in the world we live in. It is the old Delphic command of “Know Thyself” which is both a command to know who we are as an individual and, as an individual, to take up the journey that is the search for knowledge.

Historical Background: The Key Concepts

We return to the ancient Greeks to understand the essential beginnings of our principles and “key concepts” and how we know something. This return is required to understand the thinking that has come to be the historical knowledge of the West, the historical background if you like, but it is also the map we use in our search for knowledge. This thinking begins with the assertion about what some thing is and its key is to be found in logic. The human being is understood as the animale rationale, the “rational animal” that uses “logos” to understand the world around it.

As a proposition, a “position” put forward, a “stand” through which we hope to “understand” the simple assertion is a saying, a logos (we cannot, ultimately, separate the ways of knowing of reason and language) in which the “how” and the “what” of something is is said or asserted about something e.g. “The book is green”.  Here ”green” is said of the book.  That of which it is said (“the book”) is what underlies; it is the subject. Therefore, in the attribution of “greenness” something is said from above down to what lies underneath. In the Greek language, kata means “from above down to something below”. “Greenness” and all color is a category or an attribute of some thing. The some thing itself is the subject in Greek not what we understand as “object”.

Much can be said “down to a thing”, about it. “The book is green”. “The book is thicker than the one beside it”. “The book is big”. “The book is on the desk”. “The book is a new IB Higher Level Physics textbook”. It is the categories which determine the “thingness” of some thing. The statements that we make about the categories of the things are assertions

Using these assertions as guides, we can follow how some thing is determined at any given time to be a thing. Now, we do not pay attention to this particular thing in the example, the Physics textbook, but to that which in every such assertion of this sort characterizes every thing of this kind in general. “Green” says in a certain respect, namely in respect of color, how the thing is constituted.  A trait or quality is attributed to the thing. In the attribution, “big” becomes size, extension (quantity). With the attribution “thicker than”, there is asserted what the book is in relation to another book; “on the desk”: the place; “new”: the time in which the book came into appearance. This representation of the thing is called the correspondence theory of truth i.e. what is spoken about the thing corresponds to what we believe the reality of the thing is. This “truth” lies in the correspondence of the categories: that the statements made about the thing are true. The statements bring the thing to presence and illuminate the thing so that we may have certainty about what is being spoken about. 

Quality, extension, relation, place are determinations that are said in general of the book but also about any thing (the categories are universals). These determinations name the characteristics of the things and how they exhibit (show) themselves to us if we address them in the assertion and talk about them; they are the perspectives from which we view the things. Insofar as these determinations are always said down to a thing, the thing itself is already co-asserted as already present.

What is said or asserted about the thing, the subject, is called by the Greeks katagoria, which we understand in English as “categories”. What is attributed to the thing is then nothing other than the being characterized (green), being extended (big), being in relation to (next to), being there (on the desk), and the being “now” of the book as something that is. In the categories, the most general determinations of the being of some thing that is are said and we have provided a description of the thing. When we talk about “the things known” we mean the being of the things as some thing that is; the being of the thing has presence in itself and is something that is shared. Those determinations, which constitute the being of some thing that is i.e. of the things themselves, have received their name from assertions about them. The assertions define the limits and horizons of the thing so that it can be known to be what it is: “How do I know x? How do we know y?” From these assertions about the thing, we are able to classify it as some thing; it is a “this” and “not this”.

In naming the being of things as modes of assertedness lies a unique interpretation of the being of some thing, of who and what we are as human beings, and what the things about us are. In Western thinking, the determinations of being and beings are called “categories”: the structure of some thing (what some thing is) is connected with the structure of the assertion (corresponds) about it. It is here that what is called Western metaphysics begins and this beginning is to be found in the principle of reason which we have determined is to be found in logic. These beginnings are to be found in a text called Aristotle’s Physics.

Aristotle_Altemps_Inv8575The knowledge embedded in an assertion is true insofar as it conforms to its object. Truth is the “correctness” of the correspondence. In Medieval times, this correctness was called “adequation”, “assimilation”, or “correspondence”. These conventions or key concepts belong to Aristotle. Aristotle conceives of truth in the logos (assertion) as “assimilation”. The representation, the idea in the mind, is assimilated to what is to be grasped. The representational assertion about the book being on the table, or representation in general, pertains to the “psyche” or “soul”, something “spiritual” according to Aristotle; we, of course would say “the mind” or “the brain”. Latin interpretations of Aristotle arrived at the definition of human being as the animal rationale. What does this definition of human being imply?

OT 2: Knowledge and Language: Logos–Ratio—Reason

The assertion about the thing is a kind of legein—“addressing something as something” for the Greeks. This implies that something is taken or grasped as something. Considering and expressing something as something in Latin is called reor, ratio. Therefore, ratio becomes the translation of logos. The simple asserting simultaneously gives the basic form in which we articulate meaning and think something about things. This basic form of thinking, and thus of thought, is the guideline (principle) for the determination of the “thingness of the things”. The categories or universals determine, in general, the being of what is. To ask about the being of what is, what and how what is is at all, is called prima philosophia or “first philosophy”. We come to understand this word as what we mean by metaphysics.

Thought as simple assertion, logos, ratio is the “guideline” (principle) for the determination of the being of what is i.e. “the things known”. “Guideline” (principle) means that the modes of asserting direct the view (cognition) in the determination of the presence of something i.e. of the being of what something is (this is called hypothesis which combines the prefix hypo meaning “underneath” or “below” with thesis meaning “assertion” about what some thing is that needs to be proved or supported). This thinking has brought about our relation to all that is as “object”, and the object must respond to the manner of the questions which are imposed on it in order to be considered a “being”.

Logos and ratio are translated into English as “reason” i.e. logic and rational. Human being is determined as the “rational animal”. There is, thus, a connection between the things that are known, the what and how they are as known, and the what and how of human beings as knowers, and reason. The history of Western philosophy is a long discussion about this connection.

The Modern Mathematical Science of Nature and Reason:

The rise of modern natural science became decisive for the definition of what something is and, at the same time, what we as human beings are. That this should be the case required a transformation of human beings in their relationship to the things that are (this transformation is what we call ontology, the science of being and beings). How this transformation came to be requires that we get a clear picture of the character of modern natural science. To do so, we will avoid specific or special questions and deal with the general. Three modes are involved: the thing, our stance toward the thing (here referred to as ontology), and human being. How do our “key concepts” devolve from this?

The transformation of science basically took place through centuries of discussion about fundamental concepts and principles of thought i.e. the basic approach to things and toward how what is is at all. The paradigm shifts which Thomas Kuhn speaks of in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions are related to the twofold foundation of science: 1) experiment (or experience) i.e. the direction or method and the mode of mastering and using what is; 2) metaphysics i.e. the pro-jection of the fundamental knowledge of being, out of which what is knowledge develops. Experience (experiment) and the pro-jection of being (key concepts) are reciprocally related to one another and always meet in a basic feature of attitude or disposition (stance/ontology; ethics) towards what knowledge is. What this stance or stand may be is a product of the historical situation, or so we understand it. Is it possible to find a “stand” beyond the historical situation (or what for the Greeks was called “nature”/physis)? Are ethics, human actions, historical and therefore subject to change or are they arrived at through universal principles and therefore permanent?


It is sometimes said that modern science starts from “facts” while medieval science started from general speculative propositions and concepts. This is true in a certain way. But it is equally true that the ancients and medieval scientists also observed the facts and modern science also works with universal propositions and concepts. His contemporaries criticized Galileo, one of the founders of modern science, in much the same manner. The contrast between ancient and modern science is not “there concepts and principles and here facts”; both deal with them. It is the way the facts are conceived and interpreted and how the basic concepts are established that is decisive.

The scientists of the 16th and 17th centuries understood that there are no mere “facts”: a “fact” is only what it is in light of the fundamental conception (the Principle of Reason) and how far that conception reaches.  Please understand that we are not talking about the absurd notion of “alternative facts” here. Science has always attempted to get beyond sophistry in its search for the truth, and the interpretations of science are not to be confused with, or placed on, the same level as has been asserted by the “alternative facts” followers. Our current experience of the Covid-19 pandemic should give us ample evidence of this where the prevalence of an “anti-science” perspective has resulted in thousands upon thousands of deaths and millions of infections.

Positivism, which relies on sensory perception, thinks that it can sufficiently manage with “facts” and “new facts” while the concepts are merely expedients which one somehow needs but should not get too involved with since that would be philosophy or metaphysics. Such a view may, perhaps, be the reason that positivist scientists are only (and have only been) capable of average and subsequent work as compared to those who change or “revolutionize” science, such as Einstein and Heisenberg. The positivist view remains present in the current TOK course: we are to utilize and question the “key concepts” already given to us and apply them to “real life situations” without too much concern for “truth” or “philosophy”. Those who shift the “paradigms”, in Kuhn’s words, the Einsteins, Bohrs and Heisenbergs, the founders of modern nuclear physics, were first philosophers and created new ways of posing questions and in holding out in the questioning of what is questionable. Their science was a product of their means of questioning and of their imaginations in their search for the language (mathematics) in which to express their thinking and their findings. They had to literally think “outside of the box” or frame that the principle of reason and causality constructs in order to arrive at the truths of their propositions. The principles of reason and causality as the grounds for establishing the nature of things have become highly questionable under their scrutiny and interrogation. New questions regarding the nature of knowledge have arisen.

It is sometimes said that the difference between the old and new science is that modern science “experiments” and “experimentally” proves its cognitions (sense perceptions).  But the experiment, the test, to get information concerning the behaviour of things through a definite ordering and arrangement of things and events was also familiar in ancient times and in the medieval period. It is not the experiment as such in the wider sense of testing through observation, but the manner of the setting up of the test and the intent with which it is undertaken and in which it is grounded that is decisive. The scientific method is connected with a kind of conceptual determination of the facts and the way of applying concepts i.e. with the kind of hypothesis about things. It is primarily a way of viewing. For the Greeks “viewing” was called theoria, the root of our word “theory”. Science is the theory of the real or the way we have of looking at the real.

Besides the two characteristics noted: 1. Science of facts; 2. Experimental research, there is the third, and that is that modern science is a calculating and measuring investigation based on a synthesis of the categories that were spoken of earlier. But this is also true of ancient and medieval science which worked with measurement and number. Again, it is a question of how and in what sense calculating and measuring were applied and carried out, and what importance they have for the determination of the being of the objects themselves.

With these three characteristics of modern science, that it is a factual, experimental, measuring science, we are still missing its fundamental characteristic which determines the basic movement of science itself.  This characteristic is the manner of the working with the things and the metaphysical projection of the “thingness of the things”. This fundamental feature is that modern science is mathematical.

What do “mathematics” and the “mathematical” mean here? Mathematics, the Group 5 subject area and one of our Areas of Knowledge, is itself only a particular formation of the “mathematical”. So, what is the “mathematical”?

Learning/Knowing as Practice: Techne as Knowledge

Learning is a “grasping” and “a making one’s own” (“appropriating”, we take something into ourselves). We have the wonderful phrase in English “I get it” when we feel we have learned something. But not every “getting” or taking is a learning. We can get or take a seashell and make it part of a collection. In a recipe, it says “take two spoonfuls of sugar” i.e. use. “To take” means to take possession of a thing and have some disposal over it. Now, what kind of taking is learning? Mathemata—things insofar as we learn them. But strictly speaking, we cannot learn a “thing”; we can only learn of its use. Learning is therefore a way of taking and making one’s own in which the use of the thing is made “one’s own”. Such making one’s own occurs in the using itself. We call it practicing. But practicing is only a kind of learning. Not every learning is a practicing. What is the essential aspect of learning in the sense of mathesis? Why is learning a taking? What kinds of things are taken, and how are they taken?

Let us consider again practicing as a kind of learning. In practicing we take the use of the computer i.e. we take how to handle it (the keyboard; the software) into our possession. We master the way to handle its various commands in order for it to do what we intend. This means that our way of handling the computer is focused upon what the computer itself demands; “computer” does not mean just this individual computer of a particular serial number. We become familiar with the thing; learning is always “a becoming familiar with”. Learning has different directions: learning to use and learning to become familiar. Becoming familiar also has different levels. We become familiar with one particular model of the computer, but also with all computers in general be they PCs or Macs. With practice, which is learning its use, the “becoming familiar” involved in it remains within a certain limit. There is “more” to become familiar with about the computer, the thing i.e. programming, web design, the raw materials needed to make the computer, and so on. But to use the computer, we do not need to know all these things. How the computer works belongs to the thing. When a computer we are practicing to use must be produced, in order to provide and produce it so that it can be at our disposal, the producer of the computer must have become familiar beforehand with how the thing works and how the thing is supposed to work. With respect to the computer, there is still a more basic familiarity, whatever must be learned before, so that there can be such models and their corresponding parts and software at all; this is a familiarity with what belongs to a computer at all and what a computer is and what it is supposed to do.

This familiarity with the computer must be known in advance, and must be learned and must be teachable. This becoming familiar is what makes it possible to produce the computer; and the computer produced, in turn, makes its practice and use possible. What we learn by practice is only a limited part of what can be learned of the thing. We do not first learn what a computer is when we become familiar with a PC or a Mac. We already know that in advance and we must know it; otherwise, we could not perceive the computer as such at all, nor whether it is a Mac or PC and these names would make no sense to us. We might make the mistake of seeing a media pad as a cutting board. Because we know in advance what a computer or a tablet is, and only in this way, does what we see laid out before us become visible to us as what it is.

Of course, we know what a computer is only in a general and indefinite way. When we come to know the computer in a special and determined way, we come to know something which we really already know. It is this “taking cognizance” (grasping, appropriating, “getting it”, cognition) that is the genuine essence of learning, the mathesis. The mathemata are the things insofar as we take cognizance of them as what we already know them to be in advance: the body as the bodily, the plant-like of the plant, the animal-like of the animal, the thingness of the thing, and so on. This genuine learning is therefore an extremely peculiar taking, a taking where the taken (what is learned) is something that one actually already has. It is from this that the AOKs are determined and it is the ground of the methodology used in the AOKs.

Teaching, in whatever mode we may feel is most “useful”, corresponds to this learning. Teaching is a giving, an offering; but what is offered in the teaching is not the learnable, for the student is merely instructed to take for himself what he already has. If the student only takes over something which is offered (rote learning) he does not learn. The student comes to learn only when they experience what they take as something they themselves already have. True learning only occurs where the taking of what one already has is a self-giving and is experienced in this way. Today we call this “empowerment”. Teaching does not mean anything else than letting the others learn i.e. to bring the others to learning, to facilitate the learning. Learning is more difficult than teaching; only the one who can truly learn can truly teach. The genuine teacher differs from the student only in that he or she can learn better and that the teacher more genuinely wants to learn (the necessity for “passion” in teaching). In all genuine teaching, it is the teacher who learns the most.

The most difficult learning is to come to know all the way what we already know. In TOK we continually ask with a mind to their usefulness, the same obviously useless questions of what a thing is, what technology is, what tools (instruments) are, what a human being is, what a work of art is, what the state and what the world are. This is disorientating and disruptive for students: they want their learning to be useful and such use is usually directed towards the future, but their desire for “results” is already pre-determined by the system that is already in existence and has been in existence for a long period of time.

The mathemata, the mathematical, is that “about” things which we already know. We do not first “get it” out of things, but in a certain way we bring it already with us. From this we can understand why number is something mathematical. We see three chairs and say that there are three. What the “three” is the three chairs do not tell us, nor three apples, nor three cats, nor any other three things. Moreover, we can count three things only if we already know “three”. In grasping the number three, as such, we explicitly recognize something which, in some way, we already have.

This recognition is genuine learning; it is a “taking cognizance” of something. The number is something in the proper sense “learnable” i.e. something mathematical. Things do not help us to grasp “three” i.e. its “threeness”. What is a “three”? It is the number in the natural series of numbers that stands in the third place. In “third”? It is only the third number because it is a three. And “place”—where do places come from? “Three” is not the third number but the first number. “One” really isn’t the first number. For instance, we have before us a book, a desk. This one and, in addition, another one. When we take both together we say “both of these”, the book and the desk. Only when we add a whiteboard marker to the book and desk do we say “all”. Now we take them as a sum i.e. a whole of so and so many. Only when we perceive it from the third is the book a one, and the desk a second, so that one and two arise, and “and” becomes “plus”, and there arises the possibility of places and series. What we now “take cognizance” of is not created from any of the things. We take what we ourselves somehow already have. What must be understood as mathematical is what we can learn in this way.

We “take cognizance” of all this and learn it without regard for the things. Numbers are the most familiar form of the mathematical because, in our usual dealing with things, when we calculate or count, numbers are the closest to that which we recognize in things without creating it from them. For this reason, numbers are the most familiar form of the mathematical. In this way, this most familiar mathematical becomes mathematics.

In TOK, when we speak of “knowledge and the knowers”, mathesis is the manner of learning and the process itself while the mathemata is what can be learned in the way indicated i.e. what can be learned about the things without taking it from the things themselves. The mathematical is that evident aspect of things within which we are always already moving and according to which we experience them as things at all, and as such and such things. The mathematical is the fundamental position we take toward things by which we take up things as already given to us, and as they should be given. Therefore, the mathematical is the fundamental presupposition of the knowledge of things.

Plato-raphaelPlato is noted in the 6th century A.D. Neo-Platonist philosopher Elias Philosophus’ Commentary on Aristotle’s Categories to have put over the entrance to his Academy: “Let no one who has not grasped geometry enter here!” For Plato, the mathematical was geometry (not only one subject, but the foundation of all knowing). Those who enter the Academy must first grasp that the fundamental condition for the proper possibility of knowing is the knowledge of the fundamental presuppositions of all knowledge and the position (stand; the ethical) we take based on such knowledge. This type of knowledge is to be distinguished from opinion. Plato also states: “The god is forever the geometer”. By this he means “the god” is forever present in the learnable and the knowable.


Reason as the principle of reason and as a way of knowing is related to the mathematical. Our maintaining that the basic character of modern science is the mathematical brought about this “short” reflection on the essence of the mathematical. After what has been said, this cannot mean simply that modern science employs mathematics. But how does the principle of reason as a way of knowing and the mathematical come to be algebraic calculation? What happens to “nature” and “the world” once “knowledge as calculation” comes to the fore? How this unfolding came about and how mathematics unfolds its essence in the modern sciences needs to be examined in the next section. The discussion on Mathematics as an Area of Knowledge also attempts to reveal the essence of the mathematical. In these reflections we are trying to illuminate the mystery that is technology and arrive at a greater knowledge of who we are as human beings.

Descartes’ “Cogito ergo Sum”: The Subject/Object Distinction

Rene Descartes

Modern philosophy is usually considered to have begun with Descartes (1596-1650) who lived a generation after Galileo. It is no historical accident that the philosophical formation of the mathematical foundation of the modern stance/stand in Being is primarily achieved in France, England and Holland.

During the Middle Ages philosophy stood under the exclusive domination of theology and gradually degenerated into a mere analysis of key concepts and elucidations of traditional propositions and opinions, an approach similar to what is taken in TOK currently. Descartes appeared and began by doubting everything, but this doubt ran into something which could no longer be doubted, for inasmuch as the skeptic doubts, he cannot doubt that he, the skeptic, is present and must be present in order to doubt at all. As I doubt I must admit that “I am”. The “I” is indubitable. As the doubter, Descartes forced human beings to doubt in this way; he led them to think of themselves, of their “I”. Human subjectivity came to be declared the centre of thought. From here originated the “I”-viewpoint of modern times and its subjectivism, and also the grounding of what we call “humanism”. Concurrently, the world came to be viewed as “object” and the things of the world understood as objects, ob-jacio “the thrown against”. What is “thrown against” the world when it is understood as “object”?

Philosophy was brought to the insight that doubting must stand at the beginning of philosophy: reflection upon knowledge itself and its possibility. This is in contrast with the Greeks where “trust” stands at the beginning of philosophy and “doubting” led one to see why that “trust” was an appropriate response to the things that are. With Descartes, a theory of knowledge had to be erected before a theory of the world i.e. a “map” of the mind and its seeking had to be created before the world could be “discovered”. Descartes’ stand required ‘certainty‘ and ‘correctness‘ regarding the world and its being and these were to be derived through theory. (Our course is called Theory of Knowledge. Its description in the TOK and its contents illustrate that it is conceived as a “modern” product. The Greeks, for example, did not have “theories of knowledge”.) From Descartes on, epistemology is the foundation of philosophy (TOK is really a course in epistemology), and this is what distinguishes modern from medieval philosophy. Much of the modern translations and interpretations of Plato and Aristotle are attempts to make them epistemologists.

The main work of Descartes is called Meditations on First Philosophy (1641). This is the first philosophy of Aristotle, prima philosophia, the question concerning the being of what is in the form of the question concerning the thingness of things. Meditations on First Philosophy—nothing about “theory of knowledge”. The sentence in its assertion (subject + predicate) or proposition constitutes the guide for the question about the being of what is (for the categories, what is spoken down to something).  (The connection between Christianity and Greek metaphysics that prioritized certainty and which made the development and the acceptance of the mathematical possible (the certainty of Christian salvation), the security of the individual as such—will not be considered here, though these are the roots of what is called “humanism” and why we as human beings have a special place in the TOK course design.)

In the Middle Ages, the doctrine of Aristotle was taken over in a very special way. In later Scholasticism, through the Spanish philosophical schools, especially through the Jesuit Suarez, the “medieval” Aristotle went through an extended interpretation. Descartes received his philosophical education from the Jesuits. The title of his main work expresses both his argument with this tradition and his motivation to take up anew the question of the being of what is, the thingness of things, and “substance”.

For about a century following Galileo, mathematics had already been emerging more and more as the foundation of thought and was pressing toward clarity. Algebra was becoming the language in which the mathematical spoke. The world-view was changing and needed “grounding”.

“The mathematical” wills to ground itself in the sense of its own inner requirements which are based on the principle of reason. It expressly intends to make explicit that it is the standard of all thought and to establish the rules that require that it be so. Descartes participates in this reflection upon the fundamental meaning of the mathematical (that which can be learned and that which can be taught). Because this reflection concerned the totality of what is and the knowledge of it, this had to become a reflection on metaphysics—a meditation on first philosophy. This need for a foundation of mathematics (the mathematical) and of a reflection on metaphysics characterizes his fundamental philosophical position. We can see this outlined in his Rules for the Direction of the Mind. 

“Rules”: basic and guiding propositions in which mathematics submits itself to its own essence (axioms); “for the Direction of the Mind”: laying the foundation of the mathematical in order that it, as a whole, becomes the measure or standard of the inquiring mind, the compass which provides the direction for the mind in its questioning. By announcing the mathematical as subject to rules as well as the “freedom” of the determination of the mind, the basic mathematical-metaphysical character is already expressed in the title. By way of reflection upon the essence of mathematics, Descartes grasps the idea of a “universal science” (scientia or knowledge), to which everything must be directed and ordered as the one authoritative science. Descartes expressly states that it is not a question of “vulgar mathematics” (common calculation or what we know as “arithmetic”) but of “universal science”. We will only look at three of the twenty-one rules, namely, the third, fourth and the fifth. Out of these, the basic character of modern thought leaps before our eyes.

 Rule Three: 3. “As regards any subject we propose to investigate, we must inquire not what other people have thought, or what we ourselves conjecture, but what we can clearly and manifestly perceive by intuition or deduce with certainty. For there is no other way of acquiring knowledge.” (See both the Coherence theory of truth and the correspondence theory of truth as well as the principle of reason). This is what we have come to call “Scope” and “Perspectives” in our latest TOK guide.

Rule Four: 4. “There is need of a method for finding out the truth.” This rule does not mean that a science must also have its “method” but it wants to say that the procedure i.e. how in general we are to pursue (proceed) to the things, our path to the things decides in advance what truth we shall seek out in the things. Method or the methodology is not one piece of equipment of science among others but the primary component out of which is first determined what can become an object (objectified) for the science and how it becomes an object. This entails all areas of knowledge for “method” is what determines what can be called “knowledge” in all areas of knowledge. In our latest guide, this is referred to as “Methods and Tools”; and while the plural indicates a variety of methods and tools, they are all fundamentally grounded in the axiomatic nature of mathematics.

A note on the distinction between abstract and concrete is required here. One reaches the abstract when one “skips over” or abstracts from some features implied in the “concrete” or “the real”. When in speaking of a tree, for instance, one abstracts everything which is not a tree (the earth, air, the sun) and one is speaking of an abstraction that does not exist in reality, for the tree can only exist if there is earth, air, and sun etc. Hence, all the particular sciences deal, in varying degrees, with abstractions and must do so if they are to be “mathematical”. The “isolated particular” is by definition “abstract”. The journey of the mind is an attempt to rise to the “general ideas” which are the “concrete”.

Rule Five: 5. “Method consists entirely in the order and disposition of the objects towards which our mental vision must be directed if we would find out any truth. We shall comply with it exactly if we reduce involved and obscure propositions step by step to those that are simpler, and then starting with the intuitive apprehension of all those that are absolutely simple, attempt to ascend to the knowledge of all others by precisely similar steps.” That “method” is the “ordering and the gathering” or disposition of the objects which are under investigation is the mathematical pro-jection that is part of the essence of technology.

From these three rules we must now determine the relationship of the mathematical (that which can be taught and that which can be learned) with traditional “first philosophy” (metaphysics) and how modern philosophy came to be determined and so, too, to understand the reason why algebraic calculation has come to be what is called “knowledge” today.

To the essence of the mathematical as a “projection” (a “throwing forward” or a “throwing toward”) belongs the axiomatical, the arche or the beginning of the basic principles or concepts upon which everything further is based in a “coherent”, insightful order. If mathematics, in the sense of a universal learning, is to ground and form the whole of knowledge, then it requires the formulation of special axioms.

These axioms must: (1) be absolutely first in order, intuitively evident in and of themselves, i.e. absolutely certain. This certainty participates in deciding their truth. (2) The highest axioms, as mathematical, must establish in advance, concerning the whole of what is, what is in being and what being means, from where and how the thingness of things is to be determined. According to the tradition, this happens along the guidelines of the proposition. But up till now, the proposition, “the position that is thrown forward”, had been taken only as what offered itself, as it were, of itself. The simple proposition about the simply present things contains and retains what the things are. Like the things, the proposition is the framework of the things and for the things. 

However, there can be no pre-given things for a basically mathematical position. The proposition cannot be an arbitrary one. The proposition must itself be “grounded”. It must be a basic principle—the basic principle absolutely. One must find the basic principle of all “positing”/”projecting” i.e. a proposition in which that about which it says something, the subjectum is not just taken from somewhere else. That underlying subject must emerge for itself in this original proposition and be established. Only in this way is the subjectum an “absolute ground” purely posited from the proposition as such, a basis and, as such, an “absolute ground” that is unshakable and absolutely certain. Cogito, ergo sum. Because the mathematical now sets itself up as the principle of all knowledge through the principle of reason, all knowledge up to now must necessarily be put into question, regardless of whether it is tenable or not.

Descartes does not doubt because he is a skeptic; he must doubt because he posits the mathematical as the absolute ground and seeks for all knowledge a foundation that will be in accord with it. It is a question of finding not only a fundamental law for the realm of nature, but finding the very first and highest basic principle for the being of what is in general. This absolutely mathematical principle cannot have anything in front of it and cannot allow what might be given to it beforehand. If anything is given at all, it is only the proposition in general as such i.e. as a thinking that asserts. The positing, the proposition, only has itself as that which can be posited. Only where thinking thinks itself, is it absolutely mathematical i.e. a “taking cognizance” of that which we already have. Insofar as thinking and positing directs itself toward itself, it finds the following: whatever and in whatever sense anything may be asserted, this asserting and thinking is always an “I think”. Thinking is always an “I think”, ego cogito. Therein lies: “I am”, sum. Cogito, sum—this is the highest certainty lying immediately in the proposition as such. In “I posit”/”I assert”, the “I” as positer is co- and pre-posited as that which is already present as what is. The being of what is is determined out of the “I am” as the certainty of the positing.

The formula which Descartes’ proposition sometimes has (“Cogito ergo sum”) gives the common misunderstanding that there is an inference here. Descartes emphasized that no inference is present. The sum is not a consequence of the thinking, but vice versa: it is the ground of the thinking. In the essence of positing lies the proposition: I posit. That is a proposition which does not depend upon something given beforehand, but only gives to itself what lies within it. In it lies: “I posit”. I am the one who posits and thinks. This proposition is peculiar since it first posits that about which it makes an assertion, the subjectum. What it posits in Descartes’ case is the “I”.  The “I” is the subjectum of the very first principle. The “I” is therefore a special something which “underlies” (subjectum) the subjectum of the positing as such. Here one sees Aristotle turned upside down.

Since Descartes’ time, the “I” has been called the “subject”. The character of the ego as what is especially already present before one remains unnoticed. Instead, the subjectivity of the subject is determined by the “I-ness” of the “I think”. That the “I” comes to be defined as that which is already present for representation (the determination of what is “objective” in today’s sense) is not because of an “I-viewpoint” or perspective, or any subjectivist doubt, but because of the essential predominance and the definitely directed radicalization of the mathematical and the axiomatic.

This “I” which has been raised to be a special “subject” on the basis of the mathematical, is, in its meaning, nothing “subjective” at all, in the sense of an incidental quality of just this particular human being. This “subject” designated in the “I think”, this I, is subjectivistic only when its essence is no longer understood i.e. is not looked at from its origin considered in terms of its mode of being: “I am this thinking…”

Until Descartes, everything present-at-hand for itself was a “subject”; but now the “I” becomes the special subject, that with regard to which all the remaining things first determine themselves for what they are as such. Because—mathematically—they first receive their thingness only through their founding relation to the highest principle and its “subject” (the “I”), they are essentially such as stand as something else in relation to the “subject”, something which lies over against it as objectum. The things themselves become “objects”, the “over against”.

The word objectum goes through a corresponding change of meaning. Up to Descartes, the word objectum denoted what was thrown up opposite as one’s mere imagining: I imagine a golden mountain. This representation—an objectum in the language of the Middle Ages—is according to the usage of language today, merely something “subjective”; for a golden mountain doesn’t exist “objectively” in the new meaning.

The reversal of the meanings of the words subjectum and objectum from Aristotle’s understanding of these concepts is simply not a casual change of usage; it indicates a radical change in human beings’ orientation to what is i.e. the enlightenment of the being-of-what-is on the basis of the predominance of the mathematical. To say that human being is “enlightened” means that it is enlightened in itself as “being-in-the-world” but not through any other entity, so that it is itself this enlightenment. This enlightenment is the principle of reason’s unfolding in the essence of the mathematical. What is present-at-hand but hidden in the dark becomes accessible only for an entity enlightened in this way. With Descartes begins the era called the Age of Enlightenment.

Reason as the Highest Ground: The Principle of the “I”: The Principle of Contradiction:

After Descartes, the I as “I think” is the ground upon which all certainty and truth becomes based. But thought, assertion, logos is, at the same time, the guideline for the determination of the being of some thing through the categories. These are found in the “I think”, in the viewing of the “I”. Because of the fundamental significance of the foundation of all knowledge in the “I”, the “I” becomes the essential definition of a human being. With this emphasis on the “I” i.e. with the “I think”, the determination of the rational and of reason takes priority—for thinking is the fundamental act of reason. Up to Descartes, and later, human beings had been apprehended as the animal rationale as a rational living being. With the “cogito—sum” reason becomes explicitly posited according to its own demand as the first ground of all knowledge and the guideline for the determination of the things. The philosopher Kant will later assert: “the mind makes the object”. 

Already in Aristotle, the assertion, the logos, was the guideline (axiom) for the determination of the categories i.e. the being of what is, the “how” of what is. However, the centre of this guideline (axiom)—human reason, reason in general—was not characterized as the subjectivity of the subject. With Descartes, reason has been set as the “I think” and becomes the “highest principle” as the guideline (axiom) for all determinations of being and of what things are. The highest principle is the “I” principle: cogito—sum. It is the ground axiom of all knowledge; but it is not the fundamental (ground) axiom, simply for this one reason, that in this I-principle itself there is included and posited yet another one, and therefore with every proposition. When we say “cogito—sum”, we express what lies in the ego (subjectum), the subject. If the assertion is to be an assertion, it must always posit what lies in the subjectum. What is posited and spoken of in the predicate cannot speak against the subjectum. The assertion must always be such that it avoids the “saying that is a speaking against”, the contradiction: the principle of contradiction.

Since the mathematical as the axiomatic project posits itself as the authoritative principle of knowledge, the positing is established as “the thinking”, as the “I think”, the “I-principle”. “I think” signifies that I avoid contradiction and follow the principle of contradiction. This is why the position of “alternative facts” is not tenable: it posits contradictions i.e. it is a form of “madness” because it is not “rational”.

The “I-principle” and the principle of contradiction spring from the nature of thinking itself, and in such a way that one looks only to the essence (what something is) of the “I think” and what lies in it and in it alone. The “I think” is reason, and the is its fundamental act (“I am”); what is drawn solely from the “I think” is gained solely out of reason itself. Reason so understood is purely itself, pure reason (and, thus, we later have Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason).

Descartes’ principles, which agree with the fundamental “mathematical” feature of thinking, spring solely from reason, and become the principles of knowledge proper i.e. metaphysics, the determination of the being of what is. The principles of “mere reason” become the axioms of pure reason. Pure reason, logos so understood, the proposition in this form (the assertion) becomes the axiom and standard of metaphysics i.e. the court of appeal for the determination of the being of what is, the thingness of things. The question about what something is is now anchored in pure reason i.e. the mathematical unfolding of its principles through the principle of reason, nihil est sine ratione: “Nothing is without reason. What is “subjective” is that which is confined to the individual alone and is not provided with sufficient reasons for its being. 

In Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason lies the logos of Aristotle, and in the “pure” a certain special formation of the “mathematical”.

Summary of Knowers and what is Known:

In following the history of the question of the thing, we noticed that it was characterized by the mutual relation of the thing and the assertion (logos), the axiom along which the universal determination of what something is is established. The assertion, the proposition was viewed in a “mathematical” way as principle; and the principle sets forth the principles that lie in the essence of thinking (reason), of the proposition as such i.e. the I-principle and the principle of contradiction. With Leibniz there is added the principle of sufficient reason, which is also already co-posited in the essence of a proposition as a principle. These propositions originate purely out of mere reason, without the help of a relation to something previously given before one. They are thinking’s giving to itself that which thinking in its essence already has in itself. It is the essence of our knowledge questions.

For Descartes, the fundamental axioms i.e. the absolute axioms are the I-Principle, the principle of contradiction, and the principle of sufficient reason. The whole of our understanding of what something is is to be based on them, and that which we call “cognition” (sensory perception, awareness) is also to be based on them. This means that we must address what is as a whole and our questioning of the particulars is already determined by our understanding of what that whole is. 

In our writing on knowers and the things known, we attempted to describe the turn from earlier knowledge of nature to modern thought. We limited ourselves to a part of what is as a whole. We also did not discuss how this limited part (nature) belongs into the whole of what is.

Since the ascendancy of Christianity in the West (not only in the medieval period but also in the modern), nature and the universe were considered as created. In Christianity, a hierarchy of what is as a whole is established. What is most real and the highest is the creative source of all that is, the one personal God as spirit and creator. All of what is that is not godlike is the created. Among all that is created, humanity is distinctive, and this is because the eternal salvation of humanity is at stake and in question. God as creator, the world as created, humanity and our eternal salvation, these are the three domains defined by Christian thought within what is as a whole.

In Western thought, the questions of the “what is” kinds are called “metaphysics”: what is as a whole, what something within the whole is, why it is as it is. The West has been concerned with God (theology), the world (cosmology) and humanity’s salvation (psychology). In agreement with the character of modern thought as mathematical, Christian metaphysics, too, is formed out of the principles of pure reason, the ratio. Thus the metaphysics of God becomes a “rational theology”, the doctrine of the world becomes a “rational cosmology” and the doctrine of humanity becomes a “rational psychology”.

Christianity’s impact on modern metaphysics can be arranged in this way: (1) the Christian conception of things as “created”; and (2) the basic mathematical character of the things. The first indicates the content of metaphysics; the second its form. This structure as determined by Christianity forms not only the content of what is treated in thought, but also determines the form, the “how” it is treated. Insofar as God as the creator is the cause and the ground for all that is, the how, the way of asking the questions, is orientated in advance toward this principle. Vice-versa, the mathematical is not only a form clamped over this Christian content, but it itself belongs to the content. Insofar as the I-principle, the “I think” becomes the leading principle, the “I” and consequently, human beings, reach a unique position within the questioning about what is. The “I” designates not only one area among others, but just that one to which all metaphysical propositions (“what is” questions) are traced back and from which they stem. Metaphysical thought moves in the variously defined domains of subjectivity (dispositions, attitudes, metacognition). After Descartes, Kant will say “All questions of metaphysics i.e. those of the designated disciplines (our AOKs) can be traced back to the question: What is man? (i.e. who or what is the knower?)”. In the priority of this question is concealed the priority of the method outlined in Descartes’ Rules for the Direction of the Mind.

If we use the distinction of form and content to characterize modern metaphysics (such as in done in empiricism), then we must say that the mathematical belongs as much to the content of this metaphysics as the Christian belongs to its form.

The essence and the possibility of this “what is” must be determined in each case rationally, out of pure reason i.e. from concepts gained in pure thought. If what is and how it is must be decided in thinking and purely from thought, then before the definitions of what is as God, the world, and humanity there must be a prior guiding concept of what is as such. Especially where this thinking conceives itself mathematically and grounds itself mathematically, the projection of what is as such must be made the foundation (axiom) of everything. Thus, the inquiry that asks about what is in general must precede the inquiry into the particulars of the areas of knowledge.

But because metaphysics has now become the “mathematical” (what can be learned and what can be taught), the general cannot remain what is only suspended above the particular, but the particular must be derived from the general as the axiomatic according to the principles (“the mind makes the object”). This signifies that in the general of what can be learned and what can be taught what belongs to what is as such, what determines and enframes the thingness of the things as such must be determined in principle according to axioms, especially according to the first axiom, according to the frame of positing and thinking as such. What is a thing must be decided in advance from the highest principle of all principles and propositions, i.e. from the principle of pure reason, before one can reasonably deal with the divine, worldly and human.


OT 3: Knowledge and Politics Part III

The Greeks understood that all human being is interpretive; it interprets itself as well as everything that is a being/thing in whatever sense. These interpretations are done through language and symbol; they arise from human relations to the beings that are. But speech or language as a way of knowing and revealing is not the primary manner in which the truth of the beings that are is revealed. In speech, truth may be disclosed but does not necessarily have to be disclosed. Language can either reveal or conceal. As the distinguishing feature that makes human beings the animals that they are, the zoon logon echon, human beings, too, can be in the world in a manner that reveals or conceals.

Moderns see “judgement” as the proper bearer of truth (Kant: “Judgement is the seat of truth”), but this was not the case for the Greeks. The sophists’ manner of being-in-the-world is through language: he dwells in language; and as a dweller in language, what is revealed by the sophist may be either true or false. The sophist is an orator, one whose purpose is to form an opinion, a belief, a conviction among the many who are his listeners. He is today’s politician who is looking for “partisans” for his cause, or one of the many “talking heads” that one views on the social media. The sophist’s emphasis is on emotions and the appetites and on entrapping his audience into beliefs that may or may not be true. The sophist moves in a world of very determined opinions and he strives for a conformity to those opinions whether those opinions regard political things or knowledge itself. His use of speech at most times is not to “unconceal” the truth of things but to “cover” them over in order to produce “distortion” and “deception” for his self-benefit or for the benefit of partisans of the cause to which he belongs.

In the days of Aristotle and Plato, the sophists were “materialists” in the sense that they understood Being as “presence in bodies”. “Materialists” were represented by both Plato and Aristotle as notoriously hard-nosed and stubborn when both wrote about them in their dialogues and treatises, but the materialists are also shown to be not very bright. Today’s “materialists” are known as “pragmatists”, those who deal with “real” things whether political or theoretical. They are opposed to the “idealists” since their “realism” is considered practical and sound “common sense”. But they do not have “knowledge” of the things of which they are speaking in any traditional way that “knowledge” is understood.

All ways of knowing serve to establish a relation between ourselves and the world we live in and the things within that world. Logos is the mode of access to the beings or the things of the world and logos defines the possibilities within which something can be experienced about beings and their Being. In the English language, any addressing of something as something, the thing that is addressed or what is said about the thing, what and how the thing says of itself i.e. “gives” itself to us, our way of addressing the thing i.e. the proposition and the structure of the addressedness itself requires, either explicitly or implicitly, the verb “to be”. In our language, the being of the thing has always been an issue for language, and if we are to say anything about something, we must say something about its being. The “as something”, the “how” of the thing addressed, is also a necessity for language. How are the beings encountered in language as a way of knowing? The issue of the “being” of something is already presupposed and understood and these presuppositions and understandings predetermine how that thing will come to presence.

In Plato’s Sophist, the sophist himself is difficult to find for he dwells in darkness. The philosopher is difficult to see because of the brightness of the divine that surrounds him. Such distinctions should not be seen as “opposites” but as “deprivations” of some other third thing i.e. rest is not the opposite of motion but the deprivation of motion, and vice versa. The sophist is deprived of the knowledge that the philosopher somehow possesses (sophia, the divine) but he has the potential or the possibility of such knowledge as all human beings do but only a few attain to it. This lacking is, simply, the light. It is the presence of deprivation in the beings themselves that turn all beings into non-beings, that is, into something that they are not, according to Plato. “The light” is not an analogy or metaphor; it is meant literally in Plato.

How can something be other than what it is and can therefore be classified as a “non-being” and yet still be at the same time? We can say of our own human being that without self-knowledge of who we are as a human being then we are not a full human being. This lack of fullness, completeness or perfection would be as our “non-being”; we are, but we are not. We are irrational numbers or incommensurables, in the language of mathematics. We are not human beings, for example, when we are “inhumane” for “humanity” is one of the qualities required for being a full human being. But as the being that we are, we still use the words “human being”. Beings contain within themselves both the potentiality or possibility for being what they are or for not being what they are in relation to their being-in-the-world . They are not when they are deprived of that quality that makes them what they are in truth i.e. when they are not fully revealed to themselves or to others and have not yet reached the perfection of their “full potential”. To give a simple example: “the chair is wood” attributes both “woodness” and “chairness” to the chair i.e. woodness is something present in the chair as chair. Both woodness and chairness can be attributed to the same thing and still be other i.e. wood is not a chair in itself and it is possible to have chairs other than wooden ones. So it is with human beings.

The development of the argument of the non-being of beings is very long and complicated in the Sophist. The sophist’s language uses eidolon (“idols”) or false images in order to render the content of what he is speaking about to others. His language focuses on that aspect of the human soul (he is a “hunter” or “angler” for human souls) that is its desire for that which is good. The human soul is both eternal or permanent and in motion, the movement of the human soul being its desire for things that are permanent; it seeks rest from its motion. Both desire (movement) and the eternal (rest) are co-present in the human soul and the human soul’s desire is shown in the “appetites” which in themselves are constantly in motion because they are insatiable and they seek as their goal something which in itself can never be an end in itself because it, too, is in motion and never comes to rest.

Every being/thing must have the possibility of being both itself and being other than itself in relation to something else. In the human soul, movement as desire is co-present with the eternal as rest. It is the presence of deprivation or difference that turns all beings into non-beings i.e. shadows (for Plato). Being other is the non-being of beings including human beings. But how can a “non-being” be? They are, but they are not “what” they are but “other” than what they are i.e. “different”. The reality of evil is its deprivation or difference from what truly is i.e. when it is “revealed” in its truth. Until it is done so, it dwells in darkness and is not “knowledge”. What has traditionally been understood as “opposites” is not the case since “opposites” would be separate entities.

Thus, the sophist is a deprivation of the philosopher as a being, and his knowledge is a deprivation of the knowledge of the philosopher for the sophist holds opinions on everything. But the “non-being” is no less present than the being of which it is an “otherness”, “difference”, or a “deprivation”. The non-being itself is visible as a being and has its own eidos or “outward appearance”. The ironic analogy which Plato uses is the “exchange of money” by showing how a single, large denomination may be parceled out in smaller denominations while retaining the same look i.e. money. The point Plato is making is that a non-being is not a “nothing” but a “some thing”.

That the discussion of the non-being of things should lead to a discussion of language is Plato’s attempt to show what dialectic is i.e. the letting be seen of what is properly visible, the eide, of the beings themselves. The highest relation between human beings is “friendship”. Friendships are possible among “two or three”, not two or three thousand. It finds an echo in the words of Christ: “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” (Matthew 18:20) The “friends” of Facebook and other social media are not the “friendships” spoken of by the Greeks. The language that is used to communicate on our social media is not the language of dialectic, the conversation of friends. To be capable of being a friend, one must first have the proper education so that one can engage in the dialectic or conversation that involves the revealing of things among friends.

The distinction in the language of dialectic and the language of rhetoric can be seen in Plato’s dialogue The Apology of Socrates. Plato’s The Apology is an account of the speech Socrates makes at the trial in which he is charged with not recognizing the gods recognized by the state, of inventing new deities, and corrupting the youth of Athens. Socrates’ speech, however, is by no means an “apology“, nor is it in any way a “dialectic”, in our modern understanding of the words. It is an example of Socrates’ use of rhetoric, not dialectic, for one cannot use dialectic before a multitude or before a mob. The distinctions between Brutus’ speech and Marc Antony’s speech before the Romans following Caesar’s assassination in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar shows clearly the nature of speech and the nature of language before crowds. Brutus’ appeal to reason is utterly defeated by Antony’s appeal to the emotions of the Romans. Both Aristotle and Plato found poetry to be more philosophic than history. History is favoured by rhetoricians, not by philosophers.

A few words need to be said regarding language and conversation and how we understand them in the modern. Our conversation today is more closely akin to “idle talk”. “Idle talk” controls the ways in which one may be curious or become an inquirer and is the manner in which knowledge is shared. “It says what one ‘must’ have read and seen.” (Heidegger, Being and Time, 217) “Idle talk” is connected to language as a way of knowing and being in the world; but either of these ways-to-be (curiosity, idle talk) drags the other along with it: curiosity for which nothing is closed off, and idle talk, for which there is nothing that is not understood, provide human being(s) with the guarantee of a ‘life’ which, supposedly, is genuinely ‘lively’. (Our phrase “Get a life” is caught up with this understanding of human being in that it points to getting distractions and socializations which lead the individual human being (Human Being) into the they-self). But more must be said about “idle talk” so that this phenomenon of everydayness is made clearer.

The phenomenon of “idle talk” is rooted in the manner and methodology of inquiry and research. It is not to be seen as a disparaging term, but is to be understood as the kind of Being of everyday human being’s understanding and interpreting. It is expressed through language, primarily the language of the sophist. We need to remember that in our modern age, there is no distinction between the regime that rules and the institutions that dominate life within those regimes. But, since these use language, the understanding and interpretation already lie in what is being expressed; it is our ‘shared knowledge’ which is used by our modern sophists and comes to determine most of what we post on our social network walls. In language, as the way things have been expressed or spoken out, there is the concealed way in which the understanding of what human being is has already been interpreted. To put this in another way somewhat reflective of the philosopher Kant: the theory is the practice; the ‘scope’ is the ‘methodology’. This interpretedness of our human being delivers human being over and controls the possibilities of average understanding and of the state-of-mind belonging to it, and modern sophists rely on it. This understanding which is present-at-hand in the way that things have been expressed relates just as much to our understanding of things in the world and to our own understanding of ourselves and what we think we are as human beings. We perceive Others as “things”, resources, and in this perception our sense of “otherness” is gradually, and finally, dimmed and eroded to disappearance. 

“Idle talk” determines our “shared knowledge”. The technites who create the shadows in our Caves are those who rule, politically or otherwise. The discourse of communication between the rulers and the ruled is language, either written or spoken. In spoken language what is spoken when one expresses oneself is an “average intelligibility”, and what is communicated can be understood to a considerable extent, even if the hearer does not bring herself into such a kind of Being towards what the discourse is about (topic or theme) as to have a thorough, original understanding of it. We do not so much understand the things which are talked about; we already are listening only to what is said in the talk as such. What is said in the talk gets understood; but what the talk is about is only understood approximately and superficially. “We have the same thing in view, because it is in the same averageness that we have a shared understanding of what is said”. (Heidegger, Being and Time, 212)

The primary relationship towards the topic or theme of what is talked about is not “imparted” by communication; it is in the being-with-one-another (social constructs) and the manner of being-with-one-another. The primary relationship to what the discourse is about is never reached and what is passed along or communicated is “gossip”. What is said in the talk spreads and takes on an authoritative character. Things are so because “they” say so. The grounds on which the original topic or theme stand are groundless. One sees the effect of such groundlessness in much of what is occurring in the politics of the USA today, but it is also occurring in the politics throughout the world. So much of what is occurring with the current covid-19 pandemic provides ample concrete examples of the point being made here.

In scholarship or “inquiry”, this communication takes the form of “scribbling” and is based upon superficial reading. The average understanding of the reader will never be able to decide what is drawn from original sources and how much is just “gossip” or “fake news”. And in the realm of “shared knowledge”, the average understanding will not want any such distinction, and does not need it, because, of course, it understands everything. (Heidegger, Being and Time, 212).

“Idle talk” is the possibility of understanding everything without previously making the thing one’s own (i.e. inquiring and learning). It is the saying and teaching of the sophists of ancient Greece who had opinions on everything and taught those opinions; in doing so they were contrasted with the philosophers who had genuine understanding of the whole. What develops from such teaching of such sophists is that it relieves one from the task of genuinely understanding the topic or theme and develops an undifferentiated kind of intelligibility for which nothing is closed off any longer.

Language has the possibility of becoming “idle talk” when it is understood as merely “information”. (see the writing on Language and Knowledge and the understanding of language as “information”); and when it does so, it serves not so much to keep Being-in-the-world open for us in an articulated understanding, as to close it off and cover up or cover over the things-in-the-world. This covering over is not done with the aim to deceive in most cases, and it does not aim to pass off something as something else at most times. It merely closes off rather than discloses. What is understood is always a “saying something”—that is, uncovering something. But “idle talk” is a closing off by its very nature since to go back to the ground of what is talked about is something which it leaves undone. The thing spoken about does not get to arrive. Because an understanding or conformity is supposedly reached, any new inquiry or disagreement is suppressed or held back.

The way things are interpreted and handed over to us in “idle talk” establishes our “personal knowledge” and thus our “shared knowledge” through discourse, and this everyday way establishes our “average understanding” from which it is very difficult to extricate oneself. All genuine understanding, interpreting and communication are performed within it, out of it, and against it. All of us are caught up in this way in which things have been interpreted and this determines the manner of our beholding of what we encounter. The “they” prescribe one’s state-of-mind and determine what and how one “sees”.

“Idle talk” is the kind of Being which belongs to human beings’ understanding when that understanding has been uprooted. In “idle talk” human being-in-the-world is cut off from genuine relationships towards the world, towards others, and towards itself. This phenomenon is demonstrated most clearly in our social media, politics and networks. This way of Being, this uprootedness, is human beings’ most everyday and most stubborn reality. It is the “evil” of which Hannah Arendt speaks that “grows like a fungus” on the surface of things. This uprootedness is not overcome by the cynical solipsism demonstrated in so many of the young these days and which has come to find political expression in populism when they are old enough to vote in democracies; this stance is pre-determined, and the poses of the young are already system-determined and system-determining through the They-self and within the They-self.

The combination of “curiosity” and “idle talk” as our everyday reality creates the third phenomenon of a triptych which is “ambiguity”. The knowledge problems for which we seek solutions or approaches in TOK are part of this experience of “ambiguity” or “confusion” in our everyday dealings. “When, in our everyday Being-with-one-another, we encounter the sort of thing which is accessible to everyone, and about which anyone can say anything, it soon becomes impossible to decide what is disclosed in a genuine understanding, and what is not.” (Heidegger, Being and Time, 217) This confusion or “ambiguity” extends not only to the world, but equally to our relations with each other and even to our understanding of ourselves. This “confusion” is shown with the particular emphasis given to “ethics” in the most recent TOK guidelines. Everything looks as if it were genuinely understood, genuinely taken hold of, genuinely spoken, though at bottom it is not; or else it does not look so, and yet at bottom it is.

Because our approach to the world is as subject/object understood within the principle of reason, ambiguity affects not only the way we approach and make available to ourselves what is for use and enjoyment and the way we manage it through our arts, but it also establishes itself in our understanding as potentialities-for-Being and in the way in which we, as human beings, project ourselves and our possibilities. This is what we have come to call our “empowerment” which in turn creates our “lifestyle”. “Idle talk” and “curiosity” take care, in their “ambiguity”, to ensure that what is genuinely and newly created is out of date as soon as it emerges before the public. (Being and Time, 218). The shortness of our memories in our “shared knowledge” and history is something that should inspire wonder although it does not.

OT 3: Knowledge and Politics Part II

All politics aims at preservation or change. When desiring to preserve or conserve, we wish to prevent a political change for the worse; when desiring to change, we wish to bring about something better. All political action is concerned with the ethical: it is guided by some thought of better or worse and, therefore, implies some thought of the Good. In politics, our desire is to establish “the best regime” and, thus, the best society. Our awareness of “this best regime” coincides with our awareness of the Good and our desire for it. 

Our awareness of the Good which guides all our actions is “opinion”: it is no longer questioned as to its existence, but its essence is, indeed, very questionable. The fact that we can question it directs us to the thought of the Good that is no longer questionable, that Good which is permanent in all times and places. It is a directive towards a thinking and reflection that is no longer opinion but knowledge, knowledge of the good life, of the good society. The “good society” and its form in the “best regime” would be the complete political good, something which would raise us beyond ourselves; it would make us “virtuous”. However, our modern social sciences say that the good life and the good society are things that it cannot say anything about because it can have no knowledge of what these things are because they are things that they see as changeable and in motion, as are all human things which continue to evolve. The human sciences are dominated by historicism, and this historicism permeates the sub-species of the human sciences in its understanding of what knowledge is in the areas of political science, psychology, sociology, anthropology, etc.

In Part I we claimed that we live in an age of sophism, that our opinions of what the whole are and what the best society is are formed by a language given to us in sophism and by sophists who have received them from the projection of the technological world-view in which the nature of human being is defined as historical. Philosophy, in contrast with sophism, is the quest for wisdom and truth, for knowledge of the whole. It is not the possession of such knowledge. If such knowledge were immediately available, the quest would not be necessary as we have seen in the philosophies of Hegel and Marx; but as Plato indicates, this knowledge must be “wrested from” hiddenness or “oblivion” and such wresting is both difficult and painful.

Philosophy is preceded by opinions about the whole. The quest for knowledge is to discover the “natures”, the “essences” of all things. The sophist claims to have such knowledge of the whole and that he is able to teach such knowledge, even if the things which he teaches are “unknowable” because they are inaccessible to reason and are, therefore, “subjective'”. The sophist’s claims regarding knowledge indicate that philosophy is not necessary; philosophy is used by many today to demonstrate that philosophy is not necessary, Russell and the English analytic philosophers being a primary example. We could claim that such a belief that philosophy is not necessary is prevalent today, for the state of the study of philosophy is in bad shape, and from this lack of thinking (or the lack of teaching of how to think, or the lack of ability to reflect on what the wisest of the past have handed over to us) arrives the confusion that is so prevalent in the language of politics today and in The Human Sciences overall. Such confusion is prevalent in our inability to distinguish between “morals” and “values”.

The clear grasp of a fundamental question requires an understanding of the nature of the subject matter with which the question is concerned, and TOK attempts to concern itself with “fundamental questions”. Political philosophy attempts to replace opinion about political things with knowledge of the nature of political things; it looks for that which is permanent in the nature of political things and is but one branch of philosophy. Today, it has been replaced by “political science”. Political things are ethical in nature and raise claims for our allegiances, decisions and judgements i.e. they are serious questions of goodness and badness, justice and injustice. But political thought today is not political philosophy; it is what is called “political science”.

angela merkelAs we stated in Part I, the sophist is not serious and does not take matters seriously because he knows his statements lack substance, particularly his political and ethical statements; or as the current German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, said in a general statement about politicians around the world, they “lack gravity, and therefore depth”. Today’s sophist’s statements may be said to be “political thoughts”. Political philosophy, on the other hand, attempts to answer the permanent questions regarding the nature of political things i.e. what is the best regime? what is the good life and how does one lead it in that society or regime? what is the goal of  the regime’s or the society’s striving? what is the nature of the human beings who live within various societies/regimes? and what is the nature of human being itself?

“Political science”, which is what is studied today, conceives of itself as the way towards knowledge of political things. Just as the natural sciences claimed to have genuine knowledge through empirical and experimental studies, so too will political science provide such knowledge through the scientific study of political things. By means of observation and the gathering of data, and the transformation of that data into a statistical form, followed by an analysis and critique of the data as statistics, political scientists hope to make conclusions which in turn may be hoped for in their arriving at statements about the nature of political things. The “permanent” is what is searched for, and this desire for the “permanent” is derived from the permanence of mathematics as statistics. The sciences, both Human and Natural, are non-philosophic. They need both the logic of their mathematics (understood as the principle of reason) and a methodology or the “design” or “plan”, metaphysics if you like, to carry out their practices, for metaphysics is the presuppositions and suppositions of such sciences. Such things are the way toward philosophy but are not philosophy itself. The failure of political science may be said to be found in its analyses and statements regarding the outcomes of the USA Presidential election in 2016.

We all have some political knowledge to some extent: we know that casting a vote is different from a trip to the shopping mall to buy a shirt. We know about laws, wars, taxes, police: we know that in war bravery deserves praise and cowardice blame. But we are not political scientists who collect and analyze politically relevant data and provide sometimes relevant statistical conclusions usually in the form of polls. But the political scientist is not the Statesman of Plato who possesses political knowledge, political understanding, political wisdom and political skill in the highest degree i.e. the techne of politics, the “royal art”, as Plato called it. With regard to the political things, the Statesman is as far from the political scientist as the sophist is from the philosopher.

The desire for knowledge of the political things is moved by an ethical impulse: a love of truth. Knowledge of political things implies assumptions not only about a given political situation but about political life or human life. Making correct political choices implies “self-knowledge” in the individual, and through this self-knowledge to the making of critical and coherent analyses. It involves the possession of phronesis, techne and nous as the modes of viewing of political things, the “lens” through which one views one’s world

The nature of political things is in question or “controversial” because the meaning of the “common good” is controversial and this controversy is due to the political’s comprehensive character. Because the political is so comprehensive, we try to evade or deny this comprehensive character and seek solace through our engagement on less than the whole situation such as social media platforms and the like. We go from the serious and weightiness of political things to something more mundane. We go to those things that are not “heavy”, that do not carry any weight or substance. We want to avoid controversy so we do not talk about politics and religion at dinner.

donal trumpToday, knowledge and politics is dominated by the relative knowledge of the “How” of those things that change and has abandoned the quest for understanding the “Why”, or the search for the principles that originate the political things and that do not change. One of the reasons for this abandonment is a consequence that results from the “fact-value” distinction where only factual judgements are within the competence of the social sciences because “values” and “value judgements”, meaning the things preferred and the principles of preference, these things and preferences are difficult to turn into “objects” and, thus, are inaccessible to reason. This stance of the social sciences has led to a “moral obtuseness” which social science believes is necessary in order to carry out its work scientifically. The consequences of such “moral obtuseness” are coming to flower in our societies/regimes today and are a part of what is the great concern in the new TOK guidelines. One does not need to look far to see the prevalence of this “moral obtuseness” throughout our politics, our current educational systems, and in our young people today.

But ethics demands “value judgements”; it requires distinctions between good and evil however good and evil may be understood. “Truth” is a “value” which one can either accept or reject in today’s world since as a “value” it is of human creation. Shakespeare’s Macbeth is a play which shows this moral obtuseness and its consequences most clearly. The play shows that in the rejection of truth, one does evil; and evil is, at bottom, “making wrong choices” to put it at its simplest, not having the self-knowledge to know what is fitting for oneself. It is, to repeat, Socrates’ statement: “No human being knowingly does evil”. But Plato has stated that the opposite of knowledge, of knowing, particularly self-knowledge, is not ignorance but madness; and if this is truly the case, then we must be living in a “mad society” and these must be “mad times” and we are living far from “the best regimes”.

Today’s sophists are the social scientists and the politicians whom they teach, which Plato outlines in his dialogue entitled Sophist. The purposes or aims of today’s sophist is not much different from the sophist of the past for it is to increase his safety, his income, and his prestige, and his techne is available to the highest bidder. He may be found in the various “think tanks” and lobby groups which surround the politicians. He is able to adapt to the “values” of whatever is posited by the society or regime of which he is a member as his research has given him an understanding of that complexity that Plato called “the great beast”; today we call it knowledge of the media. Social science positivism in the modern, when it takes political form, fosters conformism and vulgarity due to its thoughtlessness and lack of substantive content. We may say that this is the present condition of many societies today.

It is impossible to study social phenomenon, all important social phenomenon, without making “value judgements”. It is impossible to understand thought or action or work without evaluating it and we do so constantly in our everyday lives. This is part of our “common sense” and part of what we are as human beings. If we are unable to evaluate adequately, it is because we have not yet understood adequately. In their understanding of the multitude that is both their audience and the object of their investigations, the value judgements of the social scientists derive from the sciences of human beings, what is called psychopathology, psychology, and their conclusions might well be that the slick con man is as well-adjusted or even better adjusted than a good man or a good citizen. Because civil societies arise from their mutually agreed upon purposes, these purposes that civil societies have chosen necessarily serve as standards for judging other civil societies, as Plato demonstrates in Bk VIII and Bk IX of his Republic.

“Sophistic” reasoning rejects value judgements based on the notion that the conflicts between different values or value systems are essentially insoluble for human reason. This has led to the evasion of serious discussion of serious issues in many TOK classes by the simple device of passing them off as “value problems” and, therefore, “subjective” preferences. But as we have shown in Part I of this optional theme, knowledge and politics must begin by clarifying what the political things are and what is political. It must be done through “speech” i.e. dialectically, beginning with pre-scientific knowledge or “common sense” and using diaeresis and dianoia, the separation of what the things are and are not, arriving at a determination of what the political things are. Everyone is familiar with sociological studies driven by Cartesian doubt which “prove” the things that people already know through their “common sense”. It is in the attempt to move from “common sense” to philosophy that the quest for knowledge of the permanent things begins.

In order to answer the question regarding the nature of political things, “cross cultural research” is required i.e. knowledge of “indigenous systems” and “religious systems”. But it needs to be remembered that the conceptual scheme, the “lens” through which these systems are viewed must necessarily be that which originated in Western Europe. Therefore, it is an historical understanding that is primarily required. But a consequence of historical understanding is that modern science is but one way, a relative way, of understanding things which is not, in principle, superior to any others since it is dependent on the relative conditions and times in which it appears.

The sophist’s mode of being is language and his chief concern is with those things that are subject to change. This causes him to look down on the things which are permanent if not to treat them with outright contempt. It was, perhaps, this contempt for permanence which allowed the modern age’s greatest historicist and philosopher, Martin Heidegger, to welcome the least wise and least moderate part of his society (Adolf Hitler and Nazism) as fate’s dispensation to the people of Germany in 1933. That such an event occurred proves that human beings cannot abandon the questions of the good society, and that human beings cannot abdicate responsibility for attempting to answer the political questions through the proper use of reason. It rather proves the old adage that when it comes to politics the only thing required for evil to triumph is that good people remain silent and take no action whatsoever. It is the reason why the philosopher must return to the Cave once he has been outside the Cave, for the philosopher, too, has a responsibility to the others in the community where he resides.

The “regime” is the order, the form which gives a society its character. The regime is the society’s way of life, the form that life takes when human beings live together in communities. The manner of living depends on the predominance of human beings that are of a certain type: their lifestyles, their moral tastes, the form of society, the form of the state, the form of government, the spirit of the laws within the community i.e. what is called its “culture” . Individual life is the activity directed toward some goal; social life is directed to a goal that can only be achieved by a society. To be able to do this, a society must be ordered, organized, constructed and constituted in a way which is akin to that goal and the authoritative leaders must also be akin to the goal. For most modern societies, be they capitalist or communist, that goal is the emancipation of technological innovation and the progress that will keep that technology securely dynamic within that society. The Presidents of China and the United States sail down the same river in different boats, and that river is technology. The question then arises: what is the best regime given this technological dynamism? As was mentioned, the social sciences, political science cannot aid us in answering this question because they do not wish to make “value” judgments, but it is the tools and instruments of technological progress which has brought about our “age of progress”. 

In both Plato and Aristotle, the actualization of the best regime is a matter of chance for so many variables are involved in the comprehensiveness of what is political. In Aristotle’s Constitution of Athens the best regime will show us the “good citizen”. But what is the “good citizen”? The “good citizen” is seen as “the patriot”, one for whom the country comes first beyond any and all regimes. The “good citizen” of Hitler’s Nazi Germany would not be a “good citizen” in other regimes: he would be seen as a “bad citizen” as are the many neo-Nazis of Europe and America seen today. Whereas the “good citizen” is relative to the regime in which he resides, the “good man” does not have such relativity. The meaning of the “good man” is always and everywhere the same. The “good man” is only identical to the “good citizen” in the “best regime”. In Aristotle, the goal of the good man and the best regime are the same i.e. “virtue”, and “patriotism” or love of country is not enough for this virtue to come to presence. From the point of view of the “patriot”, the “good man” is a “partisan” (not to be confused with its military sense of the word) and a “traitor”. A “partisan” nowadays is understood as a committed member of a political party. In multi-party systems such as the USA, the term is used for politicians who strongly support their party’s policies and are reluctant to compromise with their political opponents. History is replete with examples of good men who have been destroyed at the hands of bad regimes and their “partisans”, the most notable being Socrates and Jesus Christ during the times of the democracy in Athens and during the Roman occupation of Palestine. 

In Part III of “Knowledge and Politics”, we will once again return to the sophist and examine more closely the world in which the sophist dwells through the language that he uses.

Technology and The Human Sciences Pt 2: Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, Marx

Take but degree away, untune that string,
And, hark, what discord follows: each thing meets
In mere oppugnancy; the bounded waters
Should lift their bosoms higher than the shores,
And make a sop of all this solid globe;
Strength should be lord of imbecility,                                                                                           And the rude son should strike his father dead;
Force should be right, or rather, right and wrong
(Between whose endless jar, justice resides)
Should lose their names, and so should justice too.
Then every thing includes itself in power,
Power into will, will into appetite,
And appetite, an universal wolf,
(So doubly seconded with will and power),
Must make perforce an universal prey,
And last, eat up himself. –Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida Act 1 sc. iii


If we look at the area of knowledge that is called The Human Sciences, we note that an answer to the ontological question “What are human beings?”  is prior to the political question, “How have human beings determined their arrangements for living in communities?”. The answer to the “what” determines the various interpretations of the “how”. That human beings are beings in bodies has created the dualism which informs many of the conflicts that focus on the answers to the “how”. In answering the ontological question, the primacy of reason or emotion (passion, will, appetite), sense perception and/or intuition come to the fore. We have the conflict between “materialism” and “idealism”, the conflict between “matter” and how that matter is understood.

Human beings as they are in nature and by nature, human being as an individual, and human beings in society, “civil society”, or a society of “laws” are all themes that need to be considered when discussing The Human Sciences. With regard to the nature of the laws, the issues of positive law (laws made by human beings) and natural law (laws that are outside of human beings and are, thus, permanent), and how the understanding of Nature changed with the arrival of modern Natural Science through Newton and its impact on our understanding of “natural law” and “positive law”, are things for consideration if one wishes to understand where our interpretations of beings and things comes from and in so doing come to some understanding of ourselves. (CT 1, CT 2, CT 3)

Nowadays, human beings are viewed as a species. species is a distinct group of animals or plants that have common characteristics and can breed with each other. In Middle English, species meant “a classification in logic,” borrowed from the Latin word meaning “kind or appearance,” from the root of specere, “to see.” Darwin’s great work, which has come to determine how we view or see human being in the present, is called The Origin of Species. The determination of species is arrived at through a taxonomy. As Wikipedia tells us: “Taxonomy is the practice and science of classification. The word is also used as a count noun: a taxonomy, or taxonomic scheme, is a particular method of classification. The word finds its roots in the Greek language τάξιςtaxis (meaning ‘order’, ‘arrangement’) and νόμοςnomos (‘law’ or ‘science’, ‘convention’). Originally (?), taxonomy referred only to the classification of organisms or a particular classification of organisms. In a wider, more general sense, it may refer to a classification of things or concepts, as well as to the principles underlying such a classification.” I have placed a question mark behind “originally” as behind the understanding of this word is the “wider, more general sense” that is the origin of the word “taxonomy”, and this is what is first in order. As we have attempted to demonstrate in these writings, the principle of reason is the ground of the “ordering arrangements” (logic) that we use to “see” and frame the world around us, and this viewing and framing of the world is a part of that whole that we have called “technology”.

In Part II, we shall continue to examine the historical background behind the understanding of what are called The Human Sciences today by providing precis or prefaces of the thinking of Rousseau, Kant, Hegel and Marx. In Part I, we examined primarily English-speaking political philosophers who found the grounds of their thinking in the Italian political philosopher Machiavelli. In Part II we shall examine the Continental political philosophers (for lack of a better term) who were critical of that thinking. Our purpose is to arrive at an understanding of the assertion that “Communism and capitalism are predicates of the subject technology” and in doing so arrive at a better understanding of what we mean by the being of human beings in communities and societies.

RousseauJean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778)

English-speaking teachers of philosophy have had a great deal of difficulty understanding and coming to terms with the French philosopher, Jean Jacques Rousseau. To many, Rousseau has been seen as an unsystematic poet, quite incapable of the sustained, disciplined thought necessary to the true philosopher. Such accounts can be found from Jeremy Bentham to Karl Popper. Bertrand Russell in his History of Western Philosophy goes so far as to say that Rousseau should not be called a philosopher; he is a self-indulgent poet. His thought is filled with contradictions of such an obvious nature that even a high school student of average ability could discover them. Russell concludes that Rousseau’s “insights” culminate politically in National Socialism, and so on, etc. However, when one reads Russell’s precis of the chief writings of Rousseau in his text, one cannot recognize Rousseau’s originals. 

That such interpretations of Rousseau have been sustained in English-speaking philosophy is curious since modern English thought is anti-theological in its intent and Rousseau is an atheist. It is in Rousseau that we find the old traditions destroyed by his saying that reason is acquired by human beings in a way that can be explained without teleology i.e. without an end or purpose. Our lack of attention to the thought of Rousseau, for those of us who are English-speaking, has limited our self-understanding and our self-knowledge (CT 1, CT 2, CT 3). 

Perhaps the cause of the lack of attention to Rousseau in the English-speaking world may be attributed to the long ascendancy of the English-speaking peoples, from the battle of Waterloo to the present USA, under the rule of various species of bourgeois. This word is almost a Rousseauian invention.  When the ruling classes believe their shared conceptions of political right to be self-evident and they are not seriously questioned at home, and when they are expanding their empires around the world, such a bias is hard to overcome. The IB program, for instance, is but one flowering of this bourgeois vision. As the cliche goes, the victors get to write the history and so to form the opinions that determine how they understand themselves. 

When we speak of the need for self-preservation today, we are immediately reminded of Darwin, but Darwin is not possible without first the thinking of Rousseau. It is in the thinking of Rousseau that we find the need for the history of the human species. Rousseau concluded that we cannot find the essence of what human being is if we merely study primitive societies i.e. anthropology, for we are still looking at human beings within societies and we must look for even more primordial beginnings. 

Rousseau begins by divesting human beings’ essence from reason since reason requires speech or language and language is only necessary within communities. What takes the place of reason, for Rousseau, is “freedom” of the will to make choices, and this liberty is evidence of the spirituality of the human soul: human being is aware of its own power as “potentiality”, as “possibility”. The human being is also aware of his “malleability” and “perfectibility” through the development of his faculties through education, his “shared knowledge”. “Natural man” has no definable essence at all; he is the “free animal” with no ends but only possibilities. This nature of human being leads him away from his original happiness in “nature” to the misery of civil life; but it also renders human being capable of mastering himself and nature. 

With communal interests arises a sense of morality, a sense of obligations. For Rousseau, the foundation of “private property”, the cultivation of the soil in agricultural activities, is that which brings the greatest evil to humanity. The farmer must think to the future, and the protection of his crops causes him to seek power. It is with the foundation of private property that we find the origin of inequality. There is a state of war between the “haves” and the “have nots”, those who have property and those who do not, and this state of war prompts the need for the “social contract”. Hobbes is right when he says that the human beings who are constrained to found civil society are hostile to one another and inflicted with infinite desires. He is wrong only in asserting that this is the nature of human being, according to Rousseau. Locke is right when he asserts that the purpose of civil society is to protect property. He also is wrong in asserting that property is natural to human being and that inequalities are stabilized by civil society’s conforming to real standards of justice. For Rousseau, human beings are naturally free and civilized society takes this freedom away; human beings become dependent on law and the law is made in favour of the wealthy and the powerful. 

For Rousseau, the political question is the moral question. He begins his Social Contract with the famous words: “Man was born free, and everywhere he is in chains…How did this change come to pass? I do not know. What can make it legitimate? I believe I can resolve this question.” Contrary to the Greeks (Plato and Aristotle), for Rousseau civil society is not a “natural” phenomenon because nature is too base, too low to bring forth such a phenomenon. Socrates asserted that the nature of man was “to live well in communities and think about the whole”. Such is not the case for Rousseau. Nature dictates only self-interest; nature is rejected as a standard for civil society. The passions require a stringent morality for civil society to be successful. Rousseau sees that a morality based on the calculation of self-interest would only lead to tyranny or anarchy as Plato had indicated in his Republic. Human beings must create their own morality. The resolution of the problem of the relation between individual freedom or between self-interest and duty and bondage to society is Rousseau’s effort in the Social Contract. 

The establishment of civil society is identical with the making of morality or the binding contractual commitments to others. What this illustrates is that human beings’ will is not limited by nature. Human being, as the makers of their own morality and of civil society, is the fulfillment of their definition as the free, undetermined being. Human being is the being that wills, and the capacity to do what they will is the essence of freedom or what human beings are. This freedom is independent of and opposed to morality, yet it is the sole source of that morality. There is no eternal reason which can and should control our actions. Reason and reasons are the essence of freedom. Each person has their own judgements based on their personal knowledge and experience and their actions are based on their particular wills and appetites. The political solution, for Rousseau, is that every person gives themselves entirely to the community with all their rights and property. Law is the product of this “general will”, and these laws apply to all.

In Rousseau, both nature and revealed religion are cast aside as sources for the moral law. Human beings in their freedom establish the laws and, thus, morality. The “amiable beast” of nature becomes a moral, ethical being and his “private will” is given over to the “general will” that now becomes “sovereign” through the “social contract”. Education and punishment constrain the individual to act according to the “general will” from which true human dignity and nobility arises. Individuals must be citizens in the classical sense and this requires a very severe, self-imposed morality. Rousseau disagrees with democracy as we traditionally understand it because, as Plato indicated, it was driven by an anarchy of self-interests. The education to virtue is not the end of society but, paradoxically, the means to freedom.

How technology (understood as Reason and the discovery of reasons) influenced or determined Rousseau’s political philosophy is in the manner that he attempted to combine the theory of political philosophy with the art of the classical political philosophy of Aristotle in the actions of the statesman/legislator i.e. the lawmaker or, in Rousseau’s case,  “ordinary” human beings. The state is a product of the wills of these “legislators”, not prior to them. Good governments arising from these wills were very “iffy” and so it was necessary to do what one could to overcome this chanciness through institutions. The separation of the legislative and executive branches, the lawmakers and those who executed those laws, was also a requirement and this prefigures the separation of the state and society that is so important for us today. This separation is in direct contrast with the classical thinkers who viewed the society as being determined by the form of government i.e. the regime determines the character of the society and its members.

Rousseau never envisioned that a common use of the world’s resources was feasible. As with civil society itself, private property and civil society are bound together. Both civil society and private property are not ‘natural’ and are always a cause of inequality. Private property is the root of power in civil society and will determine the laws within it. Money has a great deal to do with the capacity to remove impediments to freedom and allow access to the realm of the arts and sciences where this freedom is empowered. The arts and sciences promote inequality rather than allay it. Society protects the rich, and the poor have much less to lose and perhaps much to gain in the destruction of the established order and its laws. Private property becomes a difficult question after the words “legitimate civil society”. Marx would resolve this question with the abolition of private property.

The difficulty in Rousseau’s thinking regards the nature of human being. The virtue, the living according to principle, that aims at human perfection and is demanded by civil society is antithetical to the animal and emotional nature of human beings. What was essentially good in itself for human beings according to the ancients is not so for Rousseau. Rousseau makes a distinction between the moral human being and the good human being. The moral human being acts from a sense of duty and is a trustworthy citizen. The good human being is one who follows his natural instincts, that first primordial nature uncorrupted by vanity. For Rousseau, civil society does not satisfy much of what is deepest in human beings. He did not believe that human beings could become entirely social.

So why should we read Rousseau? If we wish to understand ourselves as human beings, we need to understand how the presence of the concept of “history” arises on the English-speaking stage. By “history” is meant that process in which human beings are believed, by some, to have acquired their abilities. History is not a form of study but a realm and a way of being-in-the-world, one possible realm and one possible way. The understanding of history requires a “philosophy of history”.

History took its place upon the public stage in the English-speaking world through Darwin, and Darwin is central for the English because he dealt with the natural sciences. English-speakers do not teach Darwin as theory but as fact. What was important for Darwin was not evolution as natural selection, but how evolution took place. In 1863 he wrote: “Personally, of course, I care much about Natural Selection; but that seems to me utterly unimportant compared to the question of Creation or Modification.” (Life and Letters, Vol. 2, p. 371). Modification is, of course, the central question and modification in this sense is a synonym for “history”. How does “modification” relate to Rousseau?

Rousseau was the great critic of Locke and his contractualism. Locke’s contractualism is ahistorical and what has occurred in the English-speaking world is a continuous attempt to hold together an ahistorical account of reason along with an historical account of nature. The attempts are made to maintain the contractualism of human beings living in societies freed from any ontological statements about what human beings are. Darwin knew that this was not possible. The debate between Creationism and Modification is an ontological one, for in it human beings are defined. You cannot hope to combine successfully an ahistorical political philosophy within a natural science which, at its core, is historical.

With the idea of modification as history, we are led back to Rousseau for it is Rousseau who said that what we are as human beings is not given to us by nature but is the result of what human beings were forced to do to overcome chance or to change nature, “improve” it, and make it useful for our ends; technology is the determiner of what human beings are and will be by “modification”. Human beings have become what they are and are becoming what they will be. We are the free, undetermined animal who can be understood by a science which is not teleological. We can be understood “historically”. This is Rousseau’s great achievement.

Suggested Readings

Rousseau, Jean Jacques. Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts.

Rousseau, Jean Jacques. Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality among Men.

Rousseau, Jean Jacques. Social Contract Bks I and II.


Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)

Immanuel Kant

The philosopher Immanuel Kant is credited with achieving a “Copernican revolution” in the area of metaphysics. Just as Copernicus put the sun at the centre of our “solar system”, Kant puts human beings at the centre of their worlds and grounds what we have come to call “humanism”. Kant’s achievements are immense, and it is quite impertinent on my part to attempt to summarize them in a short precis such as this one.

Kant attempts to resolve the conflict between science and morality, the tension that exists between the physics of Newton and its determinism and the moral conscience that was expressed by Rousseau in his notion of freedom of the will. To do so, Kant  distinguished between the “phenomenon” or the beings and things (objects) as understood by science, and the “noumena” which were the objects of morality. In order to understand what Kant meant by these terms, we must say a few words about Kant’s “transcendental” methodology. In doing so we ask the question: how are the “phenomenon” and “noumena” possible?

In the history of thinking, things are experienced through many different concepts and names and are constantly under scrutiny with respect to the “how” of their being, of what they are and how they are. Their “how” is never posited first by human cognition. Our experience of Life is that it gives itself to us as a temporal space for all human activities, what we do as human beings, including our stance towards the beings that are within it. 

In his Critique of Pure Reason, Kant elaborates how rational cognition, the rendering of sufficient reasons for what can and cannot appear to human beings as a being, an object, is to be decided in the judgement of the rendering of sufficient reasons. Kant demonstrates that what we understand as the “objectness of experienceable beings” is based on the principle of sufficient reason. This “objectness of objects” is prior to our cognition of them as such and rests in the subjectivity of Reason, the ego cogito of Descartes. The method that surpasses objects and comes to determine them is called by Kant “transcendental”. 

The “transcendental method” is not a procedure that moves around external to objects. The method of rendering sufficient reasons is “transcendental”, not “transcendent”, because for Kant what is “transcendent” is that which lies beyond the limits of human experience and is unknowable. The “transcendent” surpasses objects along with their objectness without rendering sufficient reasons for their possibility of being founded or grounded. To use our common term, the “transcendent” and its conception is “subjective”. Something that is “subjective” remains to be grounded; it remains within the realm of “opinion”. According to Kant, a cognition is “transcendent” that pretends to know objects that are inaccessible to experience. In contradistinction to this, the transcendental method has a view to the sufficient ground of the objects of experience, the reasons behind experience, and thereby the grounds of experience itself.  It can answer the what, the how, and the why questions for it renders reasons. The transcendental method moves with the grounds (Reason) that found and ground the objects of experience in their possibilities. 

Because the transcendental method remains within the circle of sufficient reason for the possibility of experience, the essence of experience, the transcendental method is immanent. It sets the boundaries for the authority of the “transcendent”. The transcendental method covers all the immanence, the inwardness of subjectivity i.e. it traverses that cognition or “consciousness” wherein the objects of representation reside in their sufficient reasons i.e. their objectness, their being as beings/things. Kant asserts: “The mind makes the object”.

It was Hume’s skepticism that awakened Kant from his “dogmatic slumber”. Hume maintained that our fundamental notions of necessity and causality are validated by experience and convenience, not by reason. Kant demanded that the principles that support our understanding, especially causation, be better grounded than upon mere experience lest their necessity and universality become unintelligible and the possibility of science, particularly mathematical physics, be lost. He does so through the distinction of analytic and synthetic judgements.

An analytic judgement is, in Kant’s example, “All bodies are extended”. In thinking of a body we can’t help but also think of something extended in space, something that is part of what is meant by “body.” The subject (body) implies the predicate (extension). The validity of analytic judgements is independent of experience; such judgements are a priori. He contrasted this with “All bodies are heavy,” where the predicate (“are heavy”) “is something entirely different from that which I think in the mere concept of body in general”, and we must put together, or “synthesize,” the different concepts, body and heavy. The predicate adds something to the subject. Judgements based on experience are necessarily synthetic, and they are a posteriori meaning they follow after experience. This is the position of Hume and of empiricism. But experience itself is not possible if there are not synthetic judgements a priori, judgements that are incapable of being validated by experience. “Synthesis” is the rational gathering of the categories that make up what we mean by the word “object”.

For example, all experience presupposes the principle of causality. Hume had failed to see that the principle of causality is not derived from experience but is the presupposition for all possible experience. The principle of causality is only one aspect of the principle of reason itself (“nothing is without reason (a reason”) and the whole system of categories and the forms of pure intuition (space and time) supply the framework that renders possible the science of nature. This framework is the mathematical calculus that make objects possible. We have called this framework and its system of ordering and gathering “technology” in these writings. Science of nature, of the “phenomenal world”, is not a contemplation of a reality outside ourselves but is the laying down of laws to nature by ourselves. It is a summonsing of nature to give us its reasons and it is a willing on the part of human beings. Because it is an act of will and, thus, a product of what Kant calls “practical reason”, Kant is able to fuse the theory of the phenomenal world with the morality of the noumenal world. Our modern emphasis on action instead of contemplation finds its source here in Kant’s autonomy of the human will as “subject”. Morality is the only “fact” of reason, as Kant had said.

Kant’s understanding and restructuring of “subjectivism” rests in his transcendental methodology in that in the determination of the objectness of objects, the method itself belongs to “objectness”: “The mind makes the object”; but the mind, too, can be known as an object as is shown in the area of psychology. Cognition renders sufficient reasons when it brings forward and securely establishes the objectness of objects and thereby belongs itself to objectness, that is, to the being of experienceable things. The transcendental method belongs to and responds to the claim of the principle of reason, and through it the human being experiences their freedom. Our experience of the world is one of being amid objects and all other determinations of the being of these objects is precluded. What makes the being of objects possible is Reason itself. This is what we mean by the “personal knowledge” of experience for which sufficient reasons must be rendered in order for it to be considered “knowledge”. Without the sufficient reasons supplied for our “experience”, we would be utterly unsure if it was not madness.

When we say that the objectivity of objects is based upon “subjectivity” we mean that this objectivity is not confined to a single person as something fortuitous to their individuality, situation, and discretion. Subjectivity is “the lawfulness of reasons which provide the possibility of an object”. Subjectivity does not mean “subjectivism” but rather is the presence of the claim of the principle of reason which has as its consequence the inauguration of The Human Sciences and, further, the Information Age in which the particularity, separation and validity of the individual disappears in favour of a total uniformity in a similar manner to how the uniformity of matter in The Natural Sciences is conceived. This unleashing of the principle of reason demands the universal and total reckoning up of everything as something calculable. Without such reckoning up, our computers and hand phones would be quite useless to us, but this reckoning is also a definition of what we are as human beings. We are the reckoners and the calculators of our own “interests”. 

That which is most difficult to grasp because it is closest to us is ourselves (to paraphrase Aristotle).  Kant sets out to demonstrate how the things and beings of the world are objects for us. Our cognition’s reply to the objects that we experience is to give these objects their full determination as objects. The “transcendental method” does not occupy itself with the objects themselves but with the manner in which the objectness of objects and our knowledge of them is a priori. The “transcendental method” is how the objects can be objects for us. Whatever comes to presence in what is over-against us (ob-ject, jacio-“the thrown against”) and what comes to presence in objectness is that the status of an object is determined by cognition on the basis of the a priori conditions for the possibility of cognition. It is by referring back to the subject that cognition, so determined by Kant, goes about rendering the sufficient reasons for the presencing of what comes to presence as object. Through rendering the sufficient reasons, this cognition receives the unique character that determines the relationships that modern human beings take towards the world and this makes what we call  the technological possible.

Ratio, which comes from the Latin reor, means “to take something for something, to put something in its place, to put something in order for something else”. “To reckon” or “count on” something means to expect it and to see it as something upon which one can build. The original sense of “reckoning” does not relate to number.  “Calculus” is a playing piece in the ancient game of draughts used to “count things up”. “Calculation” is a reckoning as deliberation: one thing is placed over against another so as to be compared and evaluated. “Reckoning” with numbers is a “reckoning on” something; that which is thus reckoned is produced for cognition and brought into the open, into presence. Through such reckoning, something comes about; thus we have what is understood as “cause and effect” which we believe we can count on, and this belongs in the realm of ratio. When we reckon, we represent what must be held in view, that with which and in terms of which we reckon with some matter. In this reckoning, that which is is put in place and is taken up as some thing and is put in order so that something else may be built upon it. This is what happens when we use algorithms, for instance, whether that algorithm is as simple as a recipe for scones or the program for a super-computer. It is how we measure “intelligence” in our IQ tests and what we speak of when we are speaking of “artificial intelligence”. It is also what we mean when we speak of our art as “aesthetics”; it is the means by which we understand the work of art. The work must first be turned into an object so that it can be handled and dealt with.

Kant’s separation of the realm of freedom from the realm of nature also grounded what we call “the fact/value” distinction, a distinction which the practitioners of the Human Sciences claim is necessary for their efforts to be regarded as “science”. While such a distinction is made in the philosophy of David Hume, it is not grounded there. It is Kant who does so. The distinction rests on the understanding and separation of the world as “phenomenal”, the world of empiricism and science, from that world of “noumenal” things, those principles of reason which human beings give to nature to make “objectivity” possible. Kant grounds Descartes’ ego cogito ergo sum (“I think, therefore I am”) and in this grounding defines what human beings are (“I am this…thinking”).

This long, difficult preamble to Kant is necessary because in it Kant defines what human beings are and, thus, what The Human Sciences are going to be if they are to be “sciences”. There are few references to societies and politics in his three Critiques: The Critique of Pure Reason, The Critique of Practical Reason, The Critique of Judgement. We will examine Kant’s moral philosophy and his philosophy of history to illustrate his revolutionary vision of what modernity is and what we mean when we speak of The Human Sciences. This revolution of human being-in-the-world occurs through Kant’s own metaphysics which are outlined above (the phenomenon), and in his dealings with the ideas of modern natural right which one finds in the writings of Hobbes, Locke, and especially Rousseau. For Kant, peace depends on law and law depends on reason, and there is a drive in the nature of things towards a free, rational, peaceable state, that faith which is best exhibited in what we call the age of progress.

In Kant’s system, the world of the noumena is the world which is opened up by morality. In this world, Reason attains perfect freedom from the limiting effect of the realm of natural things or the Necessary, the realm of necessity where all that is is turned into objects because the object itself determines the best method to be used to determine it. Reason is the realm of freedom from the knowing, the doing, the making and the acquiring that is the world of natural things. In this way, Kant separates the empirical, the world of the sciences, from the noumenal world of morality and in so doing separates happiness and virtue: happiness is satisfaction of our empirical, natural inclinations, our appetites, while virtue is obedience to the moral law. Happiness belongs to the order of nature, while virtue belongs to the order of freedom.

Having separated the two realms of nature and freedom, Kant tries to reunite them by producing relations and correspondences between them. Kant’s politics may be understood on the basis of his morality, and his morality may be understood on the basis of his politics. Kant repeatedly acknowledges his debt to Rousseau for his political and moral doctrines. The priority of the practical (the ethical) over the theoretical, of the moral over the intellectual, its superiority over science and philosophy, is held by Kant to be the “voice of duty” in the soul of the simple citizen.

We need to examine this “voice of duty” more closely because in her book The Banality of Evil: Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt asserts that Eichmann claimed he did what he did (being one of those primarily responsible for the murder of six million Jews in the Jewish Holocaust during WW2) because he was following his “voice of duty” as he had heard it and learned it through Kant. Eichmann conceived of himself as “the good citizen” of the German Third Reich. and the psychologists who examined him all lauded his concern for his family, among other things: he was no “moral monster”. But for the majority of human beings, the Third Reich was “the worst of all possible regimes” which would, in turn, produce the worst of all possible human beings, the “worst citizens”. Does this problem of the moral inadequacy in our perception of the “good citizen” rest with Eichmann or with Kant? Arendt claims that what she was able to perceive in Eichmann was “an incredible inability to think” and because of this inability to think, an inability to act independently. Such statements are, of course, “value judgements” and, as such, are forbidden to The Human Sciences since one cannot make judgements on the is and the ought i.e. one cannot make judgments about what should be based on the “facts” of what is. A great number of problems arise from the consequences of such thinking if thinking is what it is i.e. we are incapable of passing judgement on Eichmann.

Kant’s political and moral doctrines are indebted to Rousseau. His “voice of duty” comes from Rousseau’s First Discourse, his notions of liberty as obedience to self-prescribed law based on reason and the generalization of particular desires as guaranteeing their universality and legality, are from the Social Contract, and his philosophy of history is taken from Rousseau’s second Discourse on the Origin of Inequality. Kant’s opening sentence to his Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals echoes and is indebted to Rousseau: “Nothing can possibly be conceived in the world, or even out of it, which can be called good without qualification except a good will.”  The good will as the good in itself is the highest good and it replaces both God and nature as possible sources of our knowledge and understanding of the Good. In the good will, the humble individual who submits to the law to the utmost is raised, through the goodness of will, to an unprecedented sovereignty. It is in Kant that humanism reaches its height. It is through such submission to the moral law that one experiences one’s freedom. In Kant one sees an attempt to fuse Christian charity (action and ethics) and Greek virtue to arrive at what he conceives to be the highest human being. (See introduction to Part I.)

Kant’s revolutionary doctrine of the priority and substance of morality in the good will has many political implications. First, it powerfully supports the belief in human equality, disparaging the various natural and social (empirical) sources of inequality and demonstrating a human being’s distinction depends entirely on the quality of his moral character. Every person can have a good will and it is the only thing needful and the only thing good in itself. From this good will proceeds the universal principle of Kant’s categorical imperative: “Act so that the maxim of your action might be elevated by your will to be a universal law of nature”. Human beings create their own laws and their own morality in their freedom. These creations have become known as our “values” (CT 3); and while for Kant these were to be “universal laws”, we today view them as “subjective” and relate them only to the individual because of the dominance of the “phenomenal” in our thinking which came about through the discoveries of 19th century science. Our laws that we have prescribed to nature are our “facts” (phenomenal); those that we have ascribed to our morality are our “values” (noumenal). We do not perceive our noumenal “values” as “facts”, although Kant asserted that morality was the “only fact of Reason” and that the world of phenomenal discoveries were simply interpretations.

This result of what we have come to mean by values is, of course, not how Kant envisioned it. The maxims based on Reason which governed actions were not to become impotent as “values” and be left to the discretion of various regimes to decide through their lawmaking or their enforcement. The maxims of Reason were obligations that existed between individuals and societies whether they were recognized or not. Did Kant underestimate the power of the appetites and what would become of those appetites when they were united with the power of the human will? To put it another way, did Kant underestimate the power of the irrational and in doing so, come to misunderstand what Rousseau was actually saying?

We have mentioned in the final comments to Part I of this section of this blog the impossibility of holding together an ahistorical account of morality with the historical account of nature given in the modern sciences. Kant was aware of this problem. How did he overcome it? Kant overcame the problem by equating the Necessary with the Good, thus overturning Plato, and thus beginning what we call “the age of progress”. Nature’s determinism is a machine (to use Newton’s term) that moves imperceptively towards the good.

Kant must show how the anarchy and injustice that human life projects and the unpredictability of the human will are driven by a conception of progress having both the purposiveness that he associates with morality and the good will with the Necessity corresponding to the physical determinism of Nature. Here Kant’s debt to Rousseau shows itself: for Kant, Rousseau is the Newton of the moral world. As Newton had demonstrated a physical world of simplicity and order marred by chance and contingency which could be overcome through human intervention as domination and control of chance (technology), Rousseau perceived for the first time how the multiplicity of the appearances of human nature, the multivarious human personalities, reflected a singular human nature whose hidden law in turn reflected Providence itself. There is a natural historical progression in the moral improvement of human beings which manifested itself in civilization and culture and directed itself towards a final human perfectibility. This is a great step: if savages were ignorant of the moral law, it was because reason had not yet sufficiently evolved within them. Both morality and nature are historical and they imperceptibly progress towards a final perfection of human being.

Kant’s philosophy of history is practical; it is a guide to actions. Historical progress, for Kant, does not come about through any particular action of human beings; it is a product of Nature’s mechanism rather than the product of any individual human consciousness. The task of theoretical reason is to show that the impossibility of progress cannot be demonstrated by an appeal to experience or empirical “facts”.

Kant does not assert that human beings have a duty to believe in the attainability of the ends of progress (“international mindedness”, for instance). The duty of human beings is to behave consistently with the desire for those ends as long as their unattainability is not certain. For Kant, once moral reason lays down the veto on war, for instance, the question of whether “perpetual peace” is attainable or not is replaced by the duty to act as if it were attainable and to create domestic and international institutions that this end demands (i.e. The United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, etc.) It is moral reason which liberates us from the dogmatism of theoretical or scientific reason and prevents us from becoming “mere beasts” submitting to the mechanism of nature. Kant demonstrates through his philosophy of history that there is no essential conflict between virtue and happiness, morality and nature, morality and politics, or duty and self-interest. Human beings are building unconsciously a societal structure whose perfection they will not be able to share. Like Moses, they may see but never set foot in the Promised Land. Kant’s philosophy of history directs our gaze towards the future, a future that is inevitable through Nature’s designs. Kant’s morality requires a new way of viewing nature, what we understand as experience, and what we understand as history. Morality is the one fact of Reason.  

Kant is the first philosopher in the West to make the autonomy of the will central to morality. With regard to the establishment of society, he remains within the tradition of contractualism established by Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau. In his first supplement to Perpetual Peace he writes: ‘The problem of organizing a state, however hard it may seem, can be solved even for a race of devils, if only they are rational (intelligent)’. Whereas Machiavelli, Bacon, Hobbes, Locke and Hume seemed to be emancipating human beings from the past because they turned from the eternal to things more immediate and ordinary such as self-preservation, survival, control of nature, etc., Kant’s emancipation deals with the highest things in human beings i.e. morality, freedom, and so on. It then became necessary for empiricism to adopt some of the metaphysics and ontology of Kant, for Kant’s theoretical (the phenomenal view of science) and his practical thought (the “good will” as the foundation for morality–the noumenal) were fused together. Kant’s thinking defines what is in a way that is the essential fact of modernity, of who and what we are.

Kant interprets Nature teleologically, that is morally, in that Nature’s end or purpose is the perfectibility of human beings through the use of their reason and their wills in freedom. Human beings set out from themselves and for themselves. Justice is commanded of us through the categorical imperative, and this justice is quite other than what we can know with certainty. Both Kant’s understanding of the phenomenal and noumenal worlds are a willing in that the summonsing of objects before us to give us their reasons through our use of the principle of reason (Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason is dedicated to Francis Bacon), and the realization of the categorical imperative rationally arrived at and willed into being are both products of human willing. Kant, through his categorical imperative, attempts to delay the account of justice which his science outlines and reverts to a more ancient account of justice. This is the reason why the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche called Kant “the great delayer”, for the “will to power” which issues forth from the sciences is an inevitability in how human beings will come to define themselves in the future. Kant’s own providential view of Nature assures us of this. Nietzsche does not say “God does not exist” but “God is dead”, and He is dead because He is no longer needed for human beings as an horizon, or an end and purpose for their willing. It is human beings in the name of their freedom who have killed God.

Suggested Readings

Kant, Immanuel. Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals.

Kant, Immanuel. On Perpetual Peace.,%20_Perpetual%20Peace_.pdf

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason. “Transcendental Dialectic” bk. I sec. I



Georg W. F. Hegel (1770 -1831)

“The owl of Minerva takes flight only at dusk.”–Hegel, “Philosophy of Right”

The German philosopher Hegel in his work Phenomenology of Spirit illustrates an answer to the development of personal knowledge and its growth towards what he called Absolute knowledge. Like the titles of Descartes’ works which show the steps that thought must take if it is to become “knowledge”, the works of Hegel illustrate “the journey” of how the individual self receives its induction or education to knowledge so that it can realize and arrive at the standpoint of purely conceptual thought from which what he called philosophy or thinking could be done.

The works of Hegel are a Bildungsroman (“a growing up story”, an “educational novel”). This genre of writing, having a universally conceived protagonist or hero, “the hero of a thousand faces”—the bearer of an evolving series of so-called shapes or states of consciousness or the inhabitant of a series of successive phenomenal worlds, is involved in a journey of progress which eventually leads to their “growing up”. The hero or protagonist, whose progress and set-backs the reader follows and learns from, proceeds from a state of “innocence”, pre-scientific knowledge or naivety, to one of “experience”, whether in the Romantic journeys of a hero such as Frodo in The Lord of the Rings or in the nihilistic journeys of the modern French writer Louis Ferdinand Celine. The individual self or the shapes/states of consciousness that are its personal experiences, its “personal knowledge”, later becomes replaced with configurations of human social life or communities. “Personal knowledge” was perceived as “subjective knowledge” by Hegel and this kind of knowledge led to the “objective knowledge” that living in communities provided for the individual. We have called this our “shared knowledge” in the constructs of the TOK course.

Hegel and his works show a progression (like those of Descartes) from The Phenomenology of Spirit to The Science of Logic to the Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences to the Elements of the Philosophy of Right. The works progress from the particular to the universal, from the individual to the social, from personal to shared knowledge. The interlinked forms of social existence and thought within which participants in such forms of social life conceive of themselves and the world is the journey of Hegel’s work.  Hegel goes on to show how this journey, understood as History, illustrates the direction of Western thought from the Greeks to the 19th century European sciences in his works after Phenomenology of Spirit.

For our purposes, we wish to understand Hegel’s term “Absolute knowledge” and how it relates to our understanding of who and what we are, both as individuals and as societies. This will be our focus here. We will see a close connection between Hegel’s thought and Kant’s “transcendental methodology”. 

The journey of the Self is represented by Hegel in four stages: 1. consciousness; 2. self-consciousness; 3. reason/logic; 4. Spirit. The four stages correspond to the titles of Hegel’s texts moving from Phenomenology to Elements, from personal knowledge to shared knowledge. The stages are a process or a movement: consciousness > self-consciousness > logic or reason > elements of right. The movement is from the individual or particular to the universal or general, from subjective to objective, from the individual to the community, from theoretical to ethical thought or what was called phronesis by the Greeks, although Hegel’s conception of ethical thought is quite different from the ancients.

The first stage is how the new guidelines for May 2022 are presented to us: consciousness or personal knowledge and its contents or shared knowledge (here “shared knowledge” is coeval with the term History) is the “core theme”. Consciousness at this “subjective” stage is already “absolute knowledge” for Hegel, but this knowledge is “alienated” from its contents in a negative way; there is a gap between how the individual consciousness and its objects are related to each other. For that gap to be overcome, consciousness must proceed to the second stage and view itself as self-consciousness, the ego cogito of Descartes. This movement can be viewed as creating the “open region” where the “space” is made available for the objects to come to presence as objects and we can make statements about them that will take the form of propositions like “I know because…” and “we know because…” In this “space”, reason and logic are used to arrive at “objective knowledge” of the things that are. 

For Hegel, “knowledge is the relation of the being of something for a consciousness” and this is why the title of Hegel’s second text is Science of Logic. It is through “logic”, the principle of reason, that beings/things get their “being” through human consciousness. Knowledge is itself a way of knowing and comprises all the other ways of knowing (what has been called “technology” in these writings). It is the “immediate knowing” that occurs through our sense perceptions and encounters with objects. At this stage consciousness must detach itself from the object it knows “mediatively”, that is through the various ways of knowing the object, in order to recognize that that which it knows is only a means towards “self-consciousness”. Hegel uses the plural pronoun “we” to describe these knowers. They are those who know “absolutely”, and they are the ones who are “empowered” in today’s language.

As it was for Kant, Reason and History are inseparable for Hegel. The historical process is fundamentally rational since it is human beings who consciously make their history in their free actions. It is only human beings as a species who are consciously aware of time and its passing. In their political actions, it is only through the state that the individual can achieve universality and, thus, achieve their true “reality” in “absolute knowledge”. Only the state can act universally by instituting laws. Morality, which seeks universality, can only be actualized through its realization in the institutions and education of the state. It is the state which determines the character of its members and this character is determined by the morals and manners (habits) which the individual gains through their education within the state. As it is with Kant’s thinking, it is the individual’s devotion to the state which assists their going beyond primitive spontaneous selfishness. Hegel relates the story of a father who asked a Pythagorean how to best raise his son morally, and the Pythagorean responded: “Make him a citizen of a state which has good laws.”

It is in Hegel where we find the concept of the universal and homogeneous state or “the final state” where the individual finds in it the truth of their existence, their duty, and their satisfaction, and where the state actualizes Reason in the external world. The relation between the individual and the state is reciprocal; the state finds its end or purpose in the enhancement of the individual’s liberty and satisfaction. In the state the individual goes beyond their mere primitive personal thoughts and wishes (which Hegel calls “the subjective mind” or “self-consciousness”) and learns, through reason and logic, to universalize their wishes to make them into laws and to live according to them. This reason/logic is Hegel’s “objective mind” or the third stage of the individual’s journey and growth. 

The fourth stage, the “absolute mind” is made possible by the state. The state is the source of art, religion, and philosophy (shared knowledge or “culture”) which in themselves transcend the state. The state is fundamentally informed by rationality, but this rationality is not beyond its time but is a product of its time. Hegel’s philosophy of history is historicism, a view which now dominates all our thinking and research or what is called our “shared knowledge”. The task of philosophy is to unfold the positive truth which is already present in reality, to bring this truth to unconcealment. Hegel wants to show that what is irrational and contradictory will finally be brought into harmony in the universally just and fully developed political order, the universal and homogeneous state where “absolute mind” is realized. The “final state” is in the natural order of things and political philosophy, philosophy itself, is transformed into the philosophy of history.

Human beings in the first stage of their journeys are caught up in a great struggle for “recognition”: the human being exists for themselves, is conscious of their person or their own freedom only to the extent that their consciousness and freedom are recognized as such by another human being. Because of the fear of violent death, one human being will consent to recognize the other without being recognized by that other. From this fight for recognition emerges the master-slave relation. This is the condition from which states emerged and the conflict itself is prior to the emergence of states. It is the equivalent of the state of nature in Hobbes; the vanity that is the desire for recognition and the fear of violent death.

For Hegel, it is the master-slave relationship that is the driving force of human history. The master forces the slave to work for him; and being idle himself, the master’s life is spent in the quest for recognition, prestige and glory through war. The slave does the work preparing things to satisfy the master’s needs, and in doing so transforms nature and himself. It is through the slave’s work that both the world of technique and society as the world of thought, art, religion (culture) are constituted. In the classical tradition, leisure had a higher dignity than work because it allowed the theoretical life to be possible, and the theoretical life was considered superior to the practical life. For Hegel, thought and the universal are on the side of work since it is through work that the plan of the techne can be realized through production; leisure is essentially warlike.

Neither the slave nor the master is satisfied in that the desire for recognition by another consciousness is not fulfilled for both. It is the state’s purpose to repair this situation. There is a tension between the “bourgeois” and the “citizen”, “civil society” and the state. The master/slave tension must be resolved. The conflict was viewed by Hegel as that between “subjective liberty” (individual consciousness and will pursuing its own goals) and “objective liberty” (the “general will”). Hegel says that “the union of the particular and the universal in the state is that upon which everything depends”. This “unity of its final universal end and the particular interests of the individual” is that “they have duties to the state in proportion as they have rights against it”. The right of consciousness is to recognize nothing of which it does not approve rationally.

Hegel makes distinct the difference between ancient and modern accounts of politics: “The right of the subject’s particularity, his right to be satisfied, is the pivot and centre of the difference between ancient and modern times.” The French Revolution was a great historical achievement for its decision to put thought and reason at the foundation of the state bringing about “subjective consciousness” and with it all the principles of liberty, equality, and the rights of human beings and citizens. But the revolution required Napoleon to bring together the abstract principles of individualism with the concrete form of the state. Individualism only brings upheaval, and individual liberties and rights as well as juridical equality does not ensure or lead to democracy. The individual should only be taken into account when he occupies a definite place in the organism that is the state, according to Hegel. 

A word of explanation on the distinction between “abstract” and “concrete” is required here. One reaches the “abstract” when one “skips over” or abstracts from some features implied in the “concrete” or “the real”. When I am speaking of a tree, for instance, each individual upon hearing that will abstract everything that is not a tree (the earth, the air, the sun, etc.) and perceive an “abstraction”, an “idea” that does not exist in reality for the tree can only exist if there is earth, air, sun, etc. Hence, all particular sciences deal in varying degrees with abstractions and this allows for the application of mathematics in realizing their “particulars” or objects of study. The isolated “particular” is by definition abstract. The journey of the mind is an attempt to rise to the “general ideas” beyond the abstractions, the “universals” which are the concrete or “the real”.

For Hegel, the modern state should represent a synthesis of the Greek polis (of which the unity, the citizens’ mutual confidence and their attachment to the whole, should be preserved) and the liberal society of political economy (the diversity and differentiation of individuals, the satisfaction of individual needs, the realization of the universal by the individual’s free will, should be preserved). Hegel wishes to effect a synthesis of classical morality with the Christian-Kantian morality, of the politics of Plato founded on the primacy of reason and virtue, and the politics of Machiavelli, Bacon, Hobbes, and Locke founded on the emancipation of the passions and their satisfaction.

History is the means of this synthesis. The end of history is the progressive revelation of freedom, the consciousness which the mind gains of itself through history. Freedom is now the essence of human being. This recognition of human being’s and freedom’s essence will only occur at the end of history since history is made up of the progressive appearances of incomplete principles, each one showing a new aspect of freedom, but each one being doomed because of its incompleteness. The “final state”, the universal and homogeneous state,  which is the product of “absolute mind” or “spirit” will be that historical moment when reason will find its completeness or perfection.

The progress of history occurs in three stages: 1. those societies which are barbaric because they do not recognize that they are free human beings and are merely individual consciousness; 2. the Greek society where consciousness of freedom first came to light; and 3. the Germanic societies where, through Protestant Christianity human beings recognize that spiritual freedom constitutes the nature of human beings. The Greek society’s lack of development and diversity (call it, if you will, technology) in contrast to the modern state’s foundations in Protestant Christianity and an economically and socially differentiated society illustrated, for Hegel, the superiority of the modern state.

It is only in the Protestant Christian society that the infinite worth of the individual makes its appearance. Only in Protestant Christianity is freedom actualized and effects its reconciliation with the world and the state. In Protestantism, there is no class of priests but a universal priesthood where the individual consciousness has the right to judge with regard to moral matters. This is eventually transformed into the right of the individual reason to judge with regard to the things of this world. In Protestantism arises the principle of the free mind: human beings decide by themselves to be free. In this process, the rational state can be constituted by leading “subjective freedom” to universality. Truth resides in the subject as such to the exclusion of all external authority. This, ultimately, includes both God and Nature as an external authorities.

By abolishing the difference between the eternal world of religion and the temporal world of the secular, religion is done away with while being fulfilled. Protestantism signifies the Christianization of the secular and the secularization of Christianity. While the modern state has Protestant Christian roots, it is accessible to all human beings in the principle of rational universality. Despite Napoleon’s efforts, the modern principle failed in Latin countries because they were Catholic: subjection to religion brings political servitude. This secularization is the first fundamental principle of the rational state.

The second fundamental of the principle of the rational state (which is universal and homogeneous) is economic and social differentiation based on the liberation of individual wants and needs. Because individual circumstances and needs are so multivarious, they make necessary the requirements for universal law. Hegel felt that there was not yet a true state in North America, for instance, because there was an absence of economic and social tension, the class struggle based as it is on the master-slave relationship, a requirement for the next stage. The development of this tension is historically inevitable in Hegel’s thinking. Perhaps one could say that 150 years after Hegel, North America has realized that tension in the present. Then again, one may not.

How is the individual connected to the universal? For Hegel, the family is the first basis of the state and they are related to “the agricultural class” because they provide for substantial, immediate basic needs such as food, shelter, sexuality, “security” and their satisfaction; these are “universals” for Hegel because they are things that all human beings need. The second basis of the state are “general groups” or “the industrial class” which is the reflective class since it provides the techne and the products necessary for the leisure of the bourgeois. The third class is the class of “civil servants” who are related to the state and find their purpose and satisfaction in the state. 

Virtue in the modern represents the individual’s adaptations to the necessities of the situations in which they happen to find themselves. The state itself, representing the whole, will realize its completion in a “constitutional monarchy”. The universal and homogeneous state is the result of the historical progress of the modern world. The object of universal history is the formation of the state wherein “absolute knowledge” is realized. Plato’s traditional classification of monarchy, aristocracy, oligarchy, democracy and tyranny are the historical products of “undifferentiated society”.

In the “final state”, the sovereignty of the state is realized as will in the person of the “universal monarch” or “universal despot”. Whether the final ruler is monarchic or despotic “is not important for the force of the state is in its reason”. Who exercises this “reason”? The government will exercise its reason through its universal class of civil servants, what we today call the “bureaucracy”. The democratic aspect of the rational state is that all its citizens can become civil servants and members of the bureaucracy. The civil servant represents the spirit of the regime. He replaces the aristocracy of the old order. The civil servant is the embodiment of the systematized and rationalized form of the government of the best, the end product of the framing and the ordering of technology. 

The universal and homogeneous state is the best social order or regime according to Hegel, and human beings advance to the establishment of such a social order through work. Alexander the Great, the pupil of Aristotle, was the first ruler who met with success in realizing a universal state, an empire, because he recognized that human beings shared a common “essence”, and that essence was what we call “civilization”, the product of reason, the culture of the Greeks which was the culture of reason itself. But Alexander could not overcome the distinction between masters and slaves. His universal state could not be a society without classes.

Class distinctions were overcome through Semitic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) and their belief in one God. But it was Protestant Christianity which emphasized the centrality of the individual human conscience and the human soul and in doing so negated Christian theism. As a consequence of this, the drive to the universal and homogeneous state remains the dominant ethical “ideal” to which our contemporary society appeals for meaning in its activities (CT 3). It is only through the negation of theism that it is possible to assert that there is progress, that is, that there is any sense or rationality or overall direction to history. 

The realization of the universal and homogeneous state will involve the end of philosophy. The love of wisdom will disappear because human beings will be able to achieve wisdom or “absolute knowledge”. But in political terms, the universal and homogeneous state will also, necessarily, be a tyranny (if it is realized) and, if Plato is correct, as a tyranny it will be destructive of humanity. As we have seen here in our journey through modern political science and the historical development of The Human Sciences, the substitution of freedom for virtue has as its chief ideal, an ideal which it considers realizable, a social order which is destructive of humanity. The technological realizes its end in the “technology of the helmsman” who will be, by necessity, a universal despot, and with the conquering of nature, this end will be the realization of cybernetics, the unlimited mastery of human beings over other human beings.

Suggested Readings

Hegel, G. W. F.  Philosophy of Right. Preface, Third Part

Hegel, G. W. F. Philosophy of History. Introduction; part II: “The Greek World”; part III chap. ii: “Christianity”; part IV sec. III, chap. i “Reformation”; chap. iii: “Enlightenment and Revolution”.

Hegel, G. W. F. Phenomenology of Mind. Chap. iv.. Sec. A: “The Master and the Slave”. (This is a challenged translation of the original, but it is probably the most popular text among translations of this work.)



Karl Marx (1818-1883)

Marxism presents itself as a comprehensive account of Being, that is, of both human life and Nature itself. It does so through a concept of time which is understood as History, and History understood as the evolution of the endless changes and modifications of things in Time, or what is called Becoming.

In his economic writings, Marx provides both his accounts of the present and also his teaching on history and metaphysics which provides his political philosophy or his account of societies or The Human Sciences in general. Marx’s philosophy of history is found in his earlier writings, particularly The German Ideology. His account of the present is found in his major work Das Kapital or Capital. It is through Marx and marxism that the technology of the humanist religion of the age of progress, a Western European ideal or “ideology”, reached Asia and flourished there. Why has this been the case, and how does it show the truth of the assertion that communism and capitalism are predicates of the subject technology?

Marx’s Das Kapital consciously follows the structure of Hegel’s Science of Logic with its scheme of being, essence, and idea. We will look at Marx’s political philosophy and his view of the Human Sciences in this manner: 1. a few comments on his dialectical materialism, or Marx’s theory of history and of the priority of the economic conditions within it; 2. some very brief comments on his labour theory of value and Marx’s account of the capitalistic present; 3. the convergence of the labour theory of value and dialectical materialism in the universal socialist state. The most important reflections are the comments on technology’s relation to the modes and means of production. We shall focus on Marx and not on his collaborator Friedrich Engels in our attempts to access Marx’s thought.

To begin, Marx was a Machiavellian in his politics. He repeatedly asserts that the study of human beings must concern itself with “real” human beings, not with human beings as imagined or hoped for or believed to be. Like Machiavelli he, too, believed that the good political end justifies any means. The foundation of The Human Sciences, the domain and the object of study, is not an idea of some wished-for human good such as one finds in Kant, or some reconstruction of “pure” natural human being that one finds in the thinking of Rousseau, but rather empirical human being as anyone could at any time observe him.

Empirical human being is a living organism consuming food, clothing, shelter, fuel, etc. and is compelled by nature to find or produce those things. Human beings may have begun as hunters/gatherers, but with the increase in population they were compelled to produce their necessities and thereby become distinguished from the beasts; they became agriculturalists in other words. The distinguishing feature of humanity, according to Marx, is conscious production–not rationality or political life as some maintained. But there is a lack of clarity in Marx’s writings upon this point: he concedes that human production differs from the “production” of bees or insects in that human being plans or conceives in advance the completed object of their labour (what we have been calling technology in these writings). Only human production, according to Marx, is characterized by rational intention and is, thus, unique in being the product of the rational animal.

Marx distinguishes the instruments or tools of technology from the technology itself. We could say that given Marx’s assertion, he would be more precise to say that rationality rather than production is more characteristic of the nature of human being, but Marx is prevented from doing so because the implications of that assertion would interfere with his materialism which argues that human beings’ rationality or “consciousness” is not fundamental but derivative. They are historical. These are the metaphysics that Marx learned from Rousseau. The primacy of production rests upon the presence of human beings’ needs that force them to continue to press onward to overcome those needs; and the content of human beings’ rationality is determined by conditions external to reason i.e. the necessary conditions which are strictly “material”, the external world. To overcome their needs and to enhance their security, human beings are compelled to conquer necessity and chance i.e. nature, including their own human nature. Marx learns from Hobbes that the scarcity present in nature brings about a competition which in turn brings a fear of violent death in the strife that is present for meeting the basic needs.

How do “material conditions” determine life and thought according to Marx? Marx begins by observing that in every epoch human beings have access to productive forces (the tools of technology), but these productive forces compel human beings to adapt themselves and their institutions to the requirements of that technology or those productive forces. We find many examples today of the conflict between the new technologies and our prevailing institutions. The conditions of production determine the prevailing property relations and social class structures at any given time: the waterwheel gives the serf/feudal lord; the steam engine gives the labourer/capitalist industrialist. Marx asserts that there are no “essences” to prevailing economic concepts such as consumption, distribution, exchange, money, etc. The understanding of these concepts as “permanent” is one of the defects of “bourgeois economics” that views historical phenomena as fixed categories having an “objective, essential, natural character” i.e. things to be understood once and for all because they exist once and for all. For Marx, all “categories” are historical products and the economics that believes in them proves itself to be merely historical by mistaking the transitory for the eternally true i.e. believing in laws supposedly founded in a changeless nature. It is the historical conditions that determine the definitions, suppositions and pre-suppositions of the concepts.

The economic science of capitalism is given its “categories” (wages, interest, profit, exchange, etc.) by the practices prevalent under capitalist production, and it takes up these categories without recognizing them as the products of their historical material conditions. Marx’s belief in the dependence of theories on historical conditions of production applies not only to economic theory but to morality, philosophy, religion and politics which depend on the environments that human beings have made through their determination of the modes of production. Marx does not believe that thought has independent status, and in this belief turns Hegel, his teacher, upside down. The essence of human beings, what human beings are at any given time, is determined by the conditions of production or the “material conditions” of their environments. The goodness or badness of human beings is dependent upon the nature of these material foundations. Existence precedes essence; human beings are perfectly malleable and can shape themselves or will be shaped given the changes (evolution) based on these historical material conditions.

The modes of production, how things will be produced and brought forth, have been the possession of the few and have not been shared by all human beings. The many have had to give the only thing they’ve got, their capacity for work, in order to gain a livelihood. All previous history shows the many dependent on the few, and their dehumanization is compounded by the poverty imposed upon them by their exploiters. Marx applies his “dialectical materialism” to the concepts of value, exchange, labour, profit, and work. All value is essentially energy. Work can be measured in units of time according to the length of its duration in the production of a commodity which will, in turn, determine its value. A commodity is a good privately produced for the sake of exchange or money. Money is congealed energy, congealed work. Rationally, the sum of all the individual labour in the community and the labour-power of the community itself should be adequate to satisfy all its wants and needs. What Adam Smith regarded as the peculiar virtue of private enterprise i.e. the voluntary performance of a social function under the desire for private advantage, is regarded by Marx as the ground of evil and instability in the prevailing capitalist system and its communities.

The study of Marx has been discouraged or even been given a hostile reception in the empires of capitalism, Britain and North America, but Marx is worth studying not only because of his influence in the history of Asia but also because he is a social theorist of the first rank who illustrates to us the diverse currents of that river that is the age of progress. It must be recognized that marxism (not capitalized here for the reasons which follow) is much profounder than those limited canals dug by the apparatchiks of the Communist Party in the East or West. As is the case with all great prophets, his disciples have consistently neglected and misinterpreted those aspects of his thought that did not serve their purposes. Marx must be studied because as a theorist he brought together the various streams of humanist thought, and in synthesizing them showed clearly to us the the doctrine of progress that gives meaning to and dominates our present learning.

Marx is essentially a philosopher of history, one who believes he knows the meaning of the historical process as a whole and derives his view of right action therefrom i.e. ethics, morality and justice. As we have seen in both Kant and Hegel, the philosopher of history replaces the old priesthood in attempting to vindicate divine providence in view of the existence of evil. Our search for meaning becomes necessary when we are faced with evil in all its negativity. Marx’s starting point is the indubitable fact of evil; reality is not as it should be. Human beings are not able to live properly because their lives are filled with starvation, exploitation, greed, and the domination of one human being by another. No thinker ever had a more passionate hatred of the evils that human beings inflict upon each other and that such evils should cease in the name of justice. To overcome the despair that exposure to overwhelming evil can bring, Marx developed his criticism of traditional religion and his theory of “dialectical materialism”.

Marx’s critique of traditional religion focuses on the traditional solution to the problem of evil. The falsity of that traditional belief is that it is based on the belief that all is really well and this has prevented human beings from dealing with the evils of the world. The idea that there is a God who is finally responsible holds human beings from taking their responsibility to eradicate evil seriously. If there is going to be pie in the sky when you die, then the evils of the world are not finally important. Religion is the opium of the people, as Marx says. To pretend that all is well is to disregard the suffering of others. The first task of thought must be the destruction of the idea of God in human consciousness. 

Marx’s position is stated clearly: “Philosophers up to now have been concerned with understanding the world; we are concerned with changing it”. What Marx is saying is that traditional philosophy has sought the meaning of the world that is already present;  Marx is concerned with the creation of meaning in the future of human beings. In order to do so, human beings must take their fates into their own hands and overcome the idea of God. Marx recognizes that if human beings are to pass beyond belief in God, religion must not only be denied but its truth must be taken up to buttress the humanist hope. Christianity’s truth, its “values”, must be secularized. This truth was the human desire to overcome the evil in its own nature, or to overcome its own “alienation”. “Alienation” is the condition of human beings in society that estranges them from the fulfillment of their freedom. The religious yearning to overcome evil will be fulfilled by human beings in history; history is where evil will be overcome.

Unlike Hegel who viewed the Protestant Reformation as central to the development of the humanist notion of freedom, Marx saw the Incarnation Itself as central. With God becoming a human being, religion went as far as it could go. Because Christianity did not make the concept of the “God-Man” universally concrete, Marx claims to liberate what is true of Christianity by negating its other-worldly associations and showing how its truths can be universally realized in history. Through negation, he could take its truth into his philosophy and make the religious hope serve the humanistic purpose. He believes that natural science is the chief means of conquering evil and, thus, sees the activities of science as “ethical” since its purpose is to overcome the evil of scarcity. This will be done through its technological applications.

Marx’s debt to Hegel is great beginning with his philosophy of history to his interpretation and overturning of Hegel’s dialectic. Marx agrees with the Hegelian notion that history is the sphere in which “spirit” or “mind” is realizing itself in the world. “Spirit” realizes itself always in a conquering relation to nature. The distinction between spirit and nature is that nature is what it is and is not what it is not (the principle of identity). A stone is a stone and not something else. But human being is the self-conscious animal, and this self-consciousness is divided against itself. Human beings can transcend themselves and become what they are not in the present by their projecting into the future and in doing so negate what they are now. Spirit/mind has a logic different from the principle or logic of identity proper to nature. What is called History is the coming to be of this spirit in the world.

At this point we need to say a few words about Marx’s “dialectical materialism”, for in order to question Marx on the accuracy of the predictions that are his conclusions, one must examine the tools he used to make the predictions. We may say at the outset that Marx (like many of our contemporaries today) mistakes the instruments of technology, the material conditions, for the essence of technology itself. This occurs through his attack on the “German ideology” of Kant and Hegel. As we have seen with both Kant and Hegel, human beings experience their freedom through “mind” or “spirit” which creates the world in which they live through their giving to objects (material) their “objectness”, their “materialism”. The pro-jection of the ideas or representations of things (“ideology”) allows the world to be understood and rendered rationally prior to (a priori) the development of a plan or organization which will rationalize the need for controlling and domineering that world to meet the desires that human beings have to meet their basic needs. Technology itself, its essence, is prior to the modes and means of production.

“Dialectical materialism” is the answer to the question “what is being”? for Marx. To understand the character of all things as “material” for Marx, it is necessary to understand motion: all things are in a Heraclitean flux. This is a premise basic to all modern science from Galileo and Bacon to Newton and beyond. For Marx, the universal law of motion governs nature, history and thought. Motion is itself a contradiction: things are always both at rest and in motion. Marx follows Hegel in rejecting as “metaphysical” the view that there are finished “things” or “objects” which have a fixed, given, straightforward constitution, but whereas the historicism of Hegel views the flux in the determination of what things are as a product of “mind” or “spirit”, human freedom, Marx attributes these fluctuations in nature to matter itself and sees these fluctuations as teleological or purposeful. The fluctuations tend, inevitably, toward the “best”. They are progressive. For example, Marx rejects what is called “political economy” because it pretends to be based on historical “categories” and concepts which are intrinsic to economics under all circumstances and at all times. He denied that descriptions of particular economic arrangements were timelessly true descriptions of economic life. Marx believes that there are no timeless essences and, therefore, no timeless truths to things. Becoming takes the place of being; existence precedes essence. 

Things and their contradictions are necessary for development i.e. historical change. The affirmation–thesis, the negation–antithesis, and the negation of the negation–synthesis is what is called “dialectic”, and Marx believes that this is the universal law of nature. The cause of History are the modes of production and their changes i.e. the material conditions of production. These material conditions undergo change i.e. progress through time, and these changes are, naturally, for the better. This is what distinguishes dialectical “materialism” from the idealistic dialectic of Hegel, based as Hegel’s dialectic is on human dependent reason. Marx’s dialectic is in “the natural order of things”.

It is here that Marx finds the meaning of human freedom to nature. There is no nature without human significance and there is no significance to human freedom apart from the domination of nature to eliminate scarcity. The way that human beings have organized themselves in this project of domination, in their economic relations, is the key to history. In the economic organization in the past, Marx sees the cause of human evil; in the creation of a new relation he sees the overcoming of that evil. In this Marx is indebted to Rousseau.

Class society in Marx is based strictly on scarcity and the ownership of the means of production. The minority who controlled the means of production controlled the society’s pattern of government, its art, its religion, its morality, and the notions of property which arose from this control over the means of production. These came into conflict with the new modes of production brought about by the new tools of technology and the new ways of controlling nature. The new tools of technology, such as the steam engine, created different social classes. Whereas in agricultural societies the means of production were chiefly land, which created the classes of landowners and peasants or serfs, the tools of industrial production and manufacturing created a middle class, the bourgeoisie, as a result of the new economic conditions which ensued. The revolution of new industrial production created the tension where the old ruling class, the landowners, attempted to do all they could to retain their dying supremacy. 

As human beings’ control over nature becomes more complete, Marx felt that the social classes that came to power progressively through this domination serve the more universal interests of the whole of human being. They serve the emergence of freedom in the world. The role of capitalists and their capitalist society was to allow technology to flourish and, through their economic organization, to overcome conditions of scarcity. The achievement of capitalism was the destruction of the old natural world which prevented human freedom from coming to be. Capitalism rationalized society by rationalizing nature and, thus, ushered in the technological age.

At the same time as capitalism has created the conditions of liberation, it has intensified the conditions of oppression. As capitalism solidifies itself in the profit motive, it concentrates its economic control into fewer and fewer hands. The many are not only cut off from the means of production, they are also cut off from any control over the conditions of their work. The conditions of work condemn human beings to a life of drudgery with uncreative tasks over which they have no responsibility. This tension creates a situation that has only one outcome for Marx: technology has created the means by which human beings can be liberated and the many will take the means of production from private control and place them under social control. They will destroy capitalism and create socialism. In this new society, the basic cause of evil will be overcome: human beings will no longer be the objects for economic exploitation. How this change of ownership of the means of production will change the oppression that exists within the nature of the means of production themselves is not answered by Marx.

Marx refers to the majority of human beings as the “proletariat”. The proletariat are those who have no creative responsibility for the society through their work because they do not own the means of production with which they have to work. For Marx, the proletariat is not one class among many but is the universal condition of a vast majority of human beings in the age of the machine where machines and the machines that make the machines serve private interests. The proletariat can only liberate itself by eliminating the economic classes themselves; that is, they must create an appropriate economic apparatus which is not based on private profit. How this will change the logistics inherent in the modes of production themselves which are the sources of the oppression is not answered by Marx nor has it been answered by those who follow his doctrine.

Marx’s predictions focus on the fate of capitalism and the character of socialist society. His predictions regarding capitalism were based on a belief that an economic order has a life and being of its own, that it is an assemblage of material parts that when launched on its way will function mechanically according to the laws of the necessity present in nature. While Marx eschewed “metaphysics”, he nevertheless relied on the universality of logic and reason at the expense of “practical reason” or prudence. In free societies human beings rely on simple undialectical influences such as laws to mitigate the evils that capitalism, when unbridled, tends to propagate. This mitigation includes laws on minimum wages, limitations of working hours, etc. 

There is no way we can test Marx’s vision of life in the communist world since all current states claim to be in a period of transition toward socialism proper and every variation between reality and expectation is explained as “temporary”. Whether or not the disparities are temporary rests on the grounds upon which Marx’s expectations rested.

The ruling principle of Marxist socialist society is “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”. Such a maxim would seem appropriate among the “two or three” friends of which Plato spoke in his initial writings on “dialectic” i.e. “conversations among friends”, but one has a hard time conceiving its possibility among a society of “billions of friends” if such a society were ever possible among human beings who have no “virtue”. What would replace “friendship” would be “indifference”, not the universal love of all human beings towards one another which would make them act justly.

Marx’s vision for the general of humankind is equivalent to what Plato restricted to the highest possibility open to the wisest and the best–the mutual love of a few noble spirits who were elevated above every petty desire, free of every trace of envy or worldly ambition, willingly sharing in that good which does not pass away from its possessor, that good being wisdom. The conditions for rational benevolence would be fully met among the few who desire a good the pursuit of which does not corrupt. The perfect society would be one in which philosophy as the rule of life would become indistinguishable from justice, which is also the rule of life. The few perfectly just human beings would not require “justice” for they would be the embodiment of justice, the laws unto themselves, human beings who require no laws. The disappearance of justice into philosophy could be said to be the disappearance of the political into the philosophic life. This disappearance was denied by Plato. Marxism dreams of the disappearance of justice and political society not in philosophy but in rational economics and it is therefore fit for the mass of humanity not just for the very, very few.

Marx dreamed of that human condition in which good ends would be sought by good human beings using only good means and responding to (because possessing) only good motives. His dream was based on the generation of a new human being, or the regeneration of human being and the instrument of that regeneration would be the rational economy rightly understood. The ancients and the pre-Marxist moderns viewed the fact that political life rests upon human beings’ imperfection, and this human nature rules out the elevation of all human beings to the highest level of excellence. Rousseau, for example, noted that human beings can be social when uncorrupted but in a political community they prey and are preyed upon by one another. Rousseau’s doctrine of the perfectibility of man would seem to suggest that government could be replaced by society if human beings became “laws unto themselves”, but Rousseau did not suppose that all human beings would become philosophic nor that the full rationality of human beings would render political life dispensable. He did not believe that ordinary selfishness would disappear from humanity. 

Marx believed that the transformation of the property relations by the inauguration of a new economics would bring about the full perfection of human nature through the synthesis of production and its negation of exchange. Marx radicalizes Rousseau by replacing philosophic reason for historical reason. Philosophic reason, the nous of the intelligence of individual human beings, being unequally present among human beings, is replaced by Marx with historical reason which is the belief that there is “reason” inherent in history, in matter itself. Necessity is a machine for manufacturing the good. History abhors contradictions, according to Marx. The progressive resolutions of contradictions is historical reason. It overcomes philosophic reason or the intelligence of individual human beings not only through the natural evolution of human beings and human nature, but also determines that the differences among human beings will cease to have any political relevance. When the new human being is generated by the common ownership of the means of production, all human beings will be freed from scarcity in the perfectly rationalized society. Human beings would be united by abundance.

Marxism looks forward to not only the end of political life but also of religion. The ancient philosophical tradition taught that nature as a whole is good. Socrates said that if we could see justice in its true form we would be overwhelmed by its beauty. But nature is not unequivocally good and human beings require political life in order to render some semblance of justice among themselves i.e. the goodness of nature as a whole does not permeate all human life. Here there is a general ground of agreement between philosophy and religion: for all practical purposes, the goodness of the whole whether the whole is the natural and supernatural parts or the complex of form and matter, the Necessary and the Good, cannot be transformed into the goodness of humanity’s common life. In modern political philosophy as we have seen in these writings, the goodness of nature is not asserted and teleology or purpose was rejected. Nature required domination and control through the imposed laws of nature which were the laws of science, politics and economics. It was through the belief in the possibility of conquering and controlling nature through technology that the way was opened for Marx’s belief that the perfection of human life is possible and foreseeable under the influence of economic conditions and that both political life and religion as ways of being in the world would disappear and be replaced by rational society.

Classical political philosophy argues that human beings are by nature political and that political society is true human society when taking into view the characteristics of the nature of human beings generally. Philosophy assisted politics and The Human Sciences. The view of the end of political life, as is seen in Marx, had to await philosophy’s becoming the philosophy of history or the history of philosophy (as scholarship) and the final flowering and flourishing of technology’s domination of nature. The core of Marxism is the replacement of philosophy by history which allowed the conditions to be present for the replacement of politics and religion by society and economics, all brought about by the essence of technology which is coeval with what humanity understands as its freedom. One could say that in the Marxian binary of the subject/object, it is the object which negates the subject and transcends it into the objectification of human beings leading to the future world of cybernetics.

Suggested Readings

Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich. The Communist Manifesto.

Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich. The German Ideology. Part I

Marx, Karl. Theses on Fuerbach.

Marx, Karl. Capital. Bk. I, part I, chap. i, secs. 1, 2, 4.

Concluding Remarks on Technology and The Human Sciences

These writings on Technology and The Human Sciences are a serious attempt to understand and respond to those questions that are posed in the required Core Themes of “Knowledge and the Knower” through examining an Area of Knowledge: The Human Sciences. Since they are “the human sciences”, their object of study is humanity and individual human beings, what they are and how they act. Since human beings live in communities, the study of these communities is properly political philosophy since living in communities is politics and philosophy is, originally, the attempt to understand the whole. Political philosophy has now become “political science” and what was once political philosophy is now relegated to the re-search of the history of political philosophy. 

Today, the philosophical past is understood as “metaphysics”: the thinking of beings/things as a whole (nature as a whole, God, human beings) and their being, and the how of their belonging together in being. This thinking is representational thinking through ideas or images and it is a thinking that gives grounds (reasons). The being of beings historically shows itself as grounds (arche, aition, principle). The ground determines what beings as such are in their becoming, enduring and their passing away as something that can be known, handled, and worked upon. How the things come to presence determines their grounding: the causation of the actual (empiricism), the transcendental making possible of the objectivity of objects (Kant), the dialectical movement of absolute spirit (Hegel), the historical process of production (Marx), and the will to power positing values (Nietzsche).  

When Hegel and Marx speak of the end of philosophy, what is it that they are saying and what are its consequences? What Hegel and Marx are saying is that philosophy understood as metaphysics has achieved its completion. This completion is not a perfection. The philosophy is as it is; it is not a “world-view” which one may choose. The end of philosophy is the place where philosophy has achieved its completion. A “place” is a position. One now hears of philosophers speaking of “meta-positions”; those “meta-positions” remain in the realm of philosophy as metaphysics. With the reversal of metaphysics achieved by Marx, the apex of the possibility of philosophy is achieved.

In ancient Greece a decisive development occurred when the sciences came forth within the fields that philosophy had opened up (the areas of knowledge). The development of the sciences was at the same time their separation from philosophy and the establishment of their independence. This process belongs to the completion of philosophy. This process is ongoing today. Psychology, sociology, anthropology as cultural anthropology, or logic as symbolic logic and semantics illustrate how philosophy has become the empirical science of human beings with human beings as the object of study. All that can become for human beings as the object of their technology, the technology through which human beings establish themselves in the world by working on it in the many ways of making and shaping it, is done through the criterion of the scientific discovery of the areas of knowledge. The sciences that are now establishing themselves will soon be determined and regulated by the new fundamental science that is called cybernetics. The Human Sciences would be better named as The Cybernetics; technology and the cybernetics would be a redundancy in the naming.

Cybernetics is the determination of human being as an acting social being. Political differences are not important as cybernetics, being the theory of regulation and arrangement of human labour, unfolds as the unlimited mastery of human beings by other human beings in the “technology of the helmsman”. Cybernetics transforms language into an exchange of news i.e. social media and texting. The arts and their media become regulating instruments of information i.e. Fox News, CNN, Al Jazeera. The ending of philosophy finds its place in the socially active attitude of humanity. The fundamental characteristic of this attitude is its cybernetic, that is, technological attitude (the many “activist” movements present in our society). The need to question modern technology is dying out in that technology characterizes and directs the appearance of the totality of the world and the humanity within it.

The sciences will interpret everything in their structure in accordance with the rules of science, that is, technologically. Every science understands the categories on which it remains dependent as working hypotheses i.e. the “pros-thesis” that allows it to make its “stand” and to securely take up its place and position. The truth is the effect that these scientific applications bring about and the progress or value of these scientific truths is equated with the efficiency or simplicity of these effects. “Theory” has become the sup-positions and presuppositions of the categories which are only allowed a cybernetic function and any ontological meaning is skipped over. The model-based and operational character of representational-calculative thinking becomes dominant in the form of statistical mathematics.

The end of philosophy proves to be the victory of the manipulable arrangement of the scientific-technological world and the social order proper to it. The end of philosophy means the beginning of the world civilization that is based upon Western European thinking. Communism and capitalism are predicates of the subject technology. Novelty is the opium of the masses.











Technology and the Human Sciences Pt. 1


(This post has been updated with a list of suggested readings.)

The following writing attempts to direct itself to the new TOK guidelines for May, 2022. The guidelines centre on a core theme (which is obligatory) and two of five choices of optional themes. The Core Themes are: CT 1 Me as a knower and a thinker; CT 2 My perspectives, biases, and assumptions; CT 3 The origins of our values; CT 4 Navigating the world; CT 5 Detecting manipulative information or ‘spin’. In addition to the core theme, the two out of five optional themes are: OT 1 knowledge and technology, OT 2 knowledge and language, OT 3 knowledge and politics, OT 4. knowledge and religion, and OT 5. knowledge and indigenous societies. How these themes are relevant to our world today and shape our perspectives and identities will be the efforts of these reflections.  Your understanding of these themes will be demonstrated and assessed through the TOK Exhibition and the Prescribed Essay. 

Overview: Scope


The following writing focuses on CT 2 and CT 3: the origins of our perspectives, biases, and assumptions and the origins of our “values” while at the same time addressing that area of knowledge called The Human Sciences, particularly political philosophy and political science (OT 1, OT 3). Aristotle, the Greek philosopher, called human being the ‘religious animal’ by which he meant that human beings in societies need systems of belief, whether true or false, that will bind together the lives of their members and give them some consistency of purpose. What systems of belief are currently operational in our societies and what binds our lives together in terms of our perspectives, biases and assumptions? In education today, the issue is not the teaching of religion but the content of the religion to be taught since we, as human beings, will have a religion whether we like it or not or whether we are aware of it or not. As stated in the other blogs, here religion is understood as that which we look up to or bow down to, not the view that “religion” is one of the five great traditional religions in communities around the world. Our religion, the religion that determines our way of-being-in-the-world, the religion which we teach and learn, is technology. We do not teach Darwin’s theory of evolution and modification, for example, as “theory” but as “fact”. Our religion today transcends the atheisms of the political right and the political left, those who call themselves socialists or communists or capitalists, and it creates fundamental existential problems and questions for those who believe they adhere to one of the more traditional religions. In this blog, “the religion of progress” is understood as being a religion just as much as the traditional theological religions.

The most sacred doctrine of our technological religion is our understanding of ourselves, our essence, as “freedom”, the priority of our wills over our reason or any of the other ways that we know and encounter our world (CT 2); and this belief in our understanding of ourselves as “radical freedom”, “subjectivity”, is in direct conflict with what has come to be handed down and known through the traditional religions. As the German philosopher, Martin Heidegger, noted: “The greatest care must be fostered upon the ethical bond at a time when technological man, delivered over to mass society, can be kept reliably on call only by gathering and ordering all his plans and activities in a way that corresponds to technology” (Heidegger, “Letter on Humanism”) (OT 3). “The ethical bond” of which Heidegger speaks is our politics, our actions in the world, both as individuals and as groups.

In this writing  we will explore how this “freedom”, this subjectivity, that we use to define ourselves is expressed and has been expressed in how we have organized ourselves socially i.e. in our politics. We will explore how “freedom” is associated with our understanding of “will” and how this predominance of will, associated with emotion and passion, came to the fore during that period which we call the Renaissance and flourished during those historical periods we call “The Age of Reason” and “The Age of Enlightenment”.

It may be said that two of the overarching political systems within which we have come to express our religion, the religion of technology or the religion of progress, are communism and capitalism or how we view and relate to Nature as property, its ownership, and so its disposability. Communism and capitalism are predicates of the subject technology. In saying this we are not saying that technology is founded on, and driven by, capitalism and communism but the reverse: communism and capitalism are the products of the way of being-in-the- world that came into being with the arrival of technology as a way of knowing and viewing the world and the objects within it, and these systems rival one another in what they believe is the best manner of keeping that technology dynamic, the “ordering and the gathering”. In fact we could say that all “isms” are products or predicates of the subject technology, that is, they are all ways of “ordering and gathering”; and this shall be shown as we move forward.

An “-ism” may be understood as a representation in thought, an idea; it is representational thinking. All “representational thinking” rests on “ideas” and is key to what we call knowledge and the knower, what we call “knowledge” and how we understand ourselves as “knowers”. (CT 1) As a suffix  “-ism” arrives on the scene through language in 1680, but its origins are in Greek, Latin and French. Our use is closely associated with its French derivative, not the least because of the thinking of the French philosophers Rene Descartes and Jean Jacques Rousseau. It is not a coincidence that the arrival of “-isms” is coeval with the arrival of algebra in mathematics as calculus, and with the thinking of the French philosopher Descartes and, through him, the development of modern mathematical science in Newton. We also have the “co-incidental” development of art understood as “aestheticism” at this time. These roots of “ism’s” origins should always be kept in mind when trying to understand the great paradigm shift that occurs in human beings’ being-in-the-world and their relations or stances to that area of knowledge that is called The Human Sciences. “-Isms” express themselves in “ideologies”, systems of ideas and ideals, “the ordering and the gathering”, especially ones which form the basis of economic or political theory and policy.

The societies and communities developed from these politics and economics are based on the “subjectivism” of our interpretation of ourselves as freedom. “Freedom”, through the modern efforts of thought, came to replace “virtue” as understood by the ancients as constituting the essence of what human beings are i.e. what human beings are “fitted for”, what “fittedness” is, and what human beings are most “fitted”.  The world becomes related to as “objects”, and in The Human Sciences it is we, as human beings, who are the objects of study. One can see how the “ethics”, the actions that we take, are already understood in this viewing to begin with. The distinctions and the gaps between facts and values may not be so wide as we have been led to believe, nor that between theory and practice.

Freedom and Technology (OT 1)

We have discussed the common assumption that technology can be understood as simply a collection of practical techniques and tools (“know how”) in other writings in this blog and we have attempted to show how this understanding, while true, is inadequate because it does not get to the essence of what technology is. We see technology as a set of instruments, procedures, devices or tools that we can use in our freedom to achieve the ends that we choose. We see technology as something outside of ourselves that we, in our choices, can use well or badly. But, as we have tried to show, technology is not just a tool or instrument the use of which leaves the user unchanged. It is our way of being-in-the- world, a way of knowing and of relating to the world and to the other inhabitants and beings in it. Technology is our ‘objective’ way of grasping our environment as objects as something outside of ourselves as “subjects”, and technology determines our command, control and commandeering of nature’s “energy” for our own uses. (We sometimes forget that “money”, capital,  is really a form of ‘congealed energy’, and this is also the title of Marx’s greatest work Das Kapital). This determination of what Nature is or is going to be and our judgements of its ‘uses’ is what we call our ‘freedom’ and it relates to what we think the ‘good’ of something is, its potential for use, its “value”. This “freedom” becomes the determiner of the new delimitation or definition of what it means to be human. (CT 3)

Technology as our way of being- in-the-world (as all our ways of knowing are “ways of being-in-the-world”) directs us to and in a world of objects whose laws we can create and discover and whose processes we can more easily adopt and adapt to our own advantage. It turns us away from focusing on our own minds/souls or our human subjectivity, and in this turning away we have become lost in this world that we view though the lens of subject/object, in this world that we ourselves have created. We have become alienated (to use a modern concept). Technology, for instance, leads us to deal with other human beings as objects to be manipulated through careful calculation whether in our politics, our social networking, or in the more personal aspects of our personal relationships, our sexuality.

Freedom, that concept which has come to define what we think we are as human beings, becomes our ability to change the world through mastery; we lose sight of anything worthy of knowing that we cannot change but our belief is such that we can change anything if our wills are strong enough. Our activities that have less and less to do with changing the world are in decay. Students engage in those studies that lead to the power to affect change. Our personal relations serve ends beyond themselves; our art becomes mere entertainment.

Historical Background:

With the coming to be of modern philosophy and modern science through the thinking of men like Rene Descartes and Isaac Newton, human beings’ essence came to be defined as their primordial freedom prior to any relationship to the community and to the state. Dualisms such as “subject” and “object”, individuals and societies, personal and shared knowledge arose in how we understood and interpreted our world. The fusion of  theoretical knowledge with the practical knowledge, of pure reason with practical reason, of “science” and its “applications”, of viewing the world and the “know how” of being-in-the-world, what is referred to as technology in these writings, came to the fore as the ‘what’, the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ of human beings’ understanding of themselves and their world. (CT 5) We will explore how this “know how” historically determined the relationships of human beings to the world and why these determinations came about and how they have brought about the societies which we see about us today. “Moral and ethical principles” are already embedded in this viewing of the world, and we will try to understand how our understanding of morals and ethics unfolded from our “theoretical viewing”.

Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527)

We will begin our discussions of the historical background of Individuals and Societies or The Human Sciences with a statement which some will find controversial: the modern Human Sciences find their origins in the thinking of the Florentine political philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli. Historically, Machiavelli was seen as an “evil” man by many, not the least of which was William Shakespeare.

When we speak of the word “virtue”, we are usually speaking about “quality of life”, the “ethical”, “the great society”, etc. But do we know what “virtue” is? What does Machiavelli have to say about “virtue”? How did this word which originally meant “the manliness of a man” come to be understood as “the chastity of a woman”?

The beginnings of the West find their origins in two great traditions: 1. the writings of Greece and Rome, and 2. the Judaeo-Christian Bible, or the two great cities where many of these thoughts originated, Athens and Jerusalem (one might include a third city, Rome, in this list). From these communities and their writings come quite different understandings of what “virtue” is.

The Greek philosopher Socrates, for example, stated that “virtue” is that which was “most fitting” for human beings i.e. to live within communities and to make everyday speeches through dialectic (conversations with friends) about virtue; we could say that this is piety since the end of these conversations is to lead toward the Good. This was most fitting for human beings as the human being was defined as the zoon logon echon, the animal capable of speech, and this defined what human beings were. This was also equated with justice: the rendering to other human beings what was due to them, and this rendering or action was understood as “ethics”. For Aristotle in his Ethics, the virtue of the first order was “magnanimity”, which may be defined as the habit of claiming high honours for oneself with the understanding that one was worthy of them. This became understood as “recognition” (which needs to be “public recognition” within the community one inhabits). In Aristotle’s Ethics we also find that “shame” is not a virtue. Shame is appropriate for the young who, due to their immaturity, cannot help making mistakes but it is not an appropriate for well-bred, educated human beings who always do the right and proper thing. Aristotle assumes that educated human beings know what the right and proper thing is.

In the Judaeo-Christian Bible, however, the sense of “shame” is one of the primary “virtues” when one attempts to recognize what human being is. The Bible is replete with examples of where the recognition of shame is appropriate for human beings in their recognition of what they are, beginning with the “Book of Genesis” and Adam and Eve’s recognition of their ‘nakedness’ after the Fall, through the Prophets (particularly Isaiah), through to the New Testament with its Gospels and Epistles. For the Greeks, there is no “holy God” or “God of Hosts”, although there is a god who “sometimes wishes and sometimes does not wish to go by the name of Zeus”. In the Bible, the sense of shame arises in human beings from their recognition of their “sinful pride” which distinguishes them from the ‘perfection’ of their “holy God”.

So who is right: Athens or Jerusalem? Must we concede that human wisdom and reason is unable to give us an answer to this question and that every answer is based on an act of faith? A philosophy based on faith is no longer philosophy and here we must distinguish between faith and trust. Perhaps it is our inability to answer this question and resolve this conflict that has prevented Western thinking from ever coming to rest, although in our modern age this question and conflict is simply overlooked.

It is in trying to understand our modern philosophy that we come across the figure of Machiavelli. Machiavelli’s politics or political teaching exists and will continue to exist even though the politics are not directly associated with him. It is a politics guided by expediency where “the good end justifies any means”, where the “good end” is conceived as one’s “fatherland” or country, but also the use of the country for the self-aggrandizement of the politician or statesman or one’s political party. One finds Machiavelli’s thinking providing much of the ground for Karl Marx’s communism as we shall later demonstrate, but it is a thinking and its subsequent actions which have also motivated demagogues throughout Western history.

For Plato and Aristotle, the actualization of the “best regime” or society is based upon “chance”, what Machiavelli called Fortuna, and is something beyond human control. According to Machiavelli, however, Fortuna is a woman who must be whipped and beaten to be kept under control. Fortuna or chance can be conquered by the right kind of man. (Obviously, Machiavelli does not sit well with most women’s movements in the modern age, but his techniques based as they are on the principle of reason’s understanding of causality “if this…then this” are quite gender neutral i.e. they transcend gender). Machiavelli looks towards achieving the best political order possible by not looking at how human beings ought to live, but how in fact they actually do live. The ideal and the actual can be made to converge. This convergence of the ideal and the actual, of the theoretical and the practical, is but one aspect of what is understood as technology in these writings.

Machiavelli uses History to derive his examples to illustrate his intentions. His primary intention is that on the basis of the knowledge of how human beings actually do live, he can teach princes and rulers how they ought to rule and how they ought to live i.e. their “ethics”. He re-writes Aristotle’s Ethics. For Machiavelli, for example, it is better to be loved than feared for a ruler, but if one has to choose between the two, it is better to be feared. One is reminded of the Marlon Brando character, Don Corleone, in the film The Godfather and many of his lines regarding those who he perceives as his “enemies”. The “Italian Mafioso” is today’s “prince”. Other examples in our entertainments and our arts abound. In American politics, one has no doubt that were it possible, Donald Trump would follow the example of Russia’s Vladimir Putin and have reporters and journalists who he perceives as his “enemies” assassinated.

Machiavelli’s examples from history include Hannibal who was to be admired for his “inhuman cruelty”, a virtue in the eyes of Machiavelli, and Cesare Borgia who used his henchman Ramirro d’Órco to commit atrocities to pacify a rebellion, and who Borgia proceeded to tell his people that the cruelties were not committed by himself but by overzealous followers. We can see and hear such rationales echoed in any news of the day today. Machiavelli’s new “ought” was the requirement of the use of both virtue and vice according to the requirements of the circumstances. He also shows in his Discourses on Livy that one rises from a low or abject position to an exalted one through “fraud” rather than through “force”.

Machiavelli compares himself to Columbus in that he believes he has discovered new modes and orders, that he has taken a path never walked by anyone before. He believes he is the Columbus of the moral-political world. He believed that there is something fundamentally wrong with approaching a politics which culminates in a utopia, in the description of a regime whose actualization is highly improbable. Machiavelli shifts the highest objective which a society might choose to pursue and lowers the standards to what societies actually do choose. Machiavelli consciously lowers the standards of human action. This lowering of the standards is meant to lead to a higher probability of the actualization of the best regime possible. The scheme, the plan is constructed in accordance with the lower standards, and the dependency upon chance is reduced; chance will be conquered.

The traditional approach was that morality was something substantial; it is a force in the soul of human beings however ineffective it may be in the affairs of human beings. For Machiavelli, virtue in a society is a product of vice and the passions and virtue is only possible within societies. Human beings are educated to virtue through customs, laws, etc. Morality is possible only within a context which creates morality, for morality cannot create itself i.e. it is not something permanent. The context for morality is immorality; justice is grounded in injustice. Human beings are not, by nature, directed towards virtue but are motivated by vice and the passions. Machiavelli concludes that human beings are bad and must be compelled to be good. This is done through institutions, the right kind of institutions, institutions with “teeth in them”.  This shift from concern with the morality of human beings to institutions is based on Machiavelli’s first principle: one must lower the standards in order to make probable, if not certain, the actualization of the right or desirable social order or in order to conquer chance.

Human beings are not, by nature, ordered toward virtue or perfection. There is no natural end or purpose for human being. Human beings are free to set for themselves any end they desire. According to Machiavelli, human beings are infinitely malleable. The power of human beings is much greater, and the power of nature much smaller, than the ancients thought.

The “wholly new prince” of the highest kind, the founder of new states, is animated by nothing but “selfish ambition” and his public tasks are only done to further his designs and enhance his desire for glory. He is distinguished from the great criminals merely by the fact that the criminal lacks a defensible opportunity; the moral motivation is the same.

The “technology of the helmsman”, of the “wholly new prince”, represents an amazing contraction of the definition of human being from that proposed by the classics. Machiavelli saw that the aspirations of Christianity in its “charity” to desire the salvation of human beings’ “immortal souls” required actions that were “inhuman and cruel”. Their “aiming too high” unintentionally increased the inhumane actions of human beings towards their fellow human beings. (See Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “The Grand Inquisitor” for a brilliant literary elucidation of this principle.) The “aiming too high” that was Christian “charity” was to be replaced by “calculation”, by a utilitarianism that will control human beings’ bestiality and preserve the state. The passion behind Machiavelli’s teaching is grounded in anti-theological anger which continues to show itself in various guises today.

Machiavelli’s teaching required that he demonstrate that no knowledge can be had of human beings’ “natural ends” i.e. that there is no “natural purpose” or purposes in nature itself, or in other words, there are no essences of things. The proof for this belief was thought to be supplied in the discoveries in the Natural Sciences in the 17th century. But Machiavelli’s scheme had to be modified because of its revolting character. The man who mitigated Machiavelli’s scheme but retained his primary intention and principle was Thomas Hobbes.

Suggested Readings:

Machiavelli, Nicollo The Prince:

Thomas Hobbes
Thomas Hobbes

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679)

If we are to arrive at any clear understanding of who we are as thinkers and knowers, then we must understand that what are called “modern ideas” in the Human Sciences are of British origin and, therefore, of English-speaking origin. Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) attempted to create a moral and political philosophy based on “scientific principles” which he thought would contribute to the establishment of civic peace and friendship among human beings by showing how human beings could attain peace by fulfilling their duties to society. In Hobbes, we see the development and growth of what today are called the Human Sciences from their original germination in the thinking of Machiavelli where the theoretical and the practical are interconnected. Hobbes agreed with the Machiavellian account of nature, that nature is to be viewed as a product of necessity and chance which can be overcome and conquered. Hobbes spent many hours in conversations with Bacon and Galileo, and from them came away with the belief that everything could be explained in terms of motion, what we will refer to as “energy” here.

For Hobbes, the “state of nature” is not an historical “fact” but a philosophical necessity i.e. it is a “metaphysical” proposition. The geometry of Galileo was the theoretical key to arriving at an inductive and deductive method of reasoning that could be applied to human beings and their lives both in nature and in societies. Human passions and motives, their wills, could be explained ‘mechanistically’ like the actions of a watch. For Hobbes, “mechanistic psychology” was seen as the primal force moving human beings to motion, and the chief motivator was ‘fear of violent death’ and the need for ‘self-preservation’. (See his book Leviathan where the first Five chapters deal with the “metaphysics” upon which he illustrates how human beings operate and behave. For Hobbes, “thoughts” and “passions” correspond to Descartes’ and Locke’s “ideas” and these will later become the grounds of the principles of pleasure/pain adopted by the utilitarians. Chapter Six deals with the impulsions or Appetites and Aversions that come from “behind” and push human beings ‘forward’ into action (what we today call the “instincts”), and the next Five Chapters set out the mechanisms by which human beings must operate or behave if they are to ensure peace and comfortable living in a society. Hobbes found the oneness of human beings in the body, not in the “consciousness” as “perceptions of the mind” as David Hume did).

Hobbes was a great revolutionary in that he sought to overturn the views of what was traditional natural law as given to the West by Plato and Aristotle. Traditional natural law is primarily and mainly an objective rule and measure, a binding order prior to, and independent of, the human will and was best discerned through reason, while modern natural law is, or tends to be, primarily a series of ‘rights’ of subjective claims originating in the human will. For the ancients, natural law was not something which we measure, but something by which we are measured. The notion of “rights” originates with the Romans and was primarily related to their possession of slaves and what legal controls they had over them i.e. of human beings as commodities. Nature as hierarchy and order as understood by the ancients was dismissed. Hobbes asserted the priority and superiority of emotion/passion over reason as a way of knowing and as a means of understanding what is “natural law”.

The violating of the traditional natural law resulted in the outcomes one sees in the great Greek tragedies, and this violation is what the Greeks called hubris which we have generally determined to be “pride” or “vanity”, but the term refers to much more than this. Hobbes sees pride and vanity as the great causes of strife among human beings because human beings are “competitive’ by nature. The rules of traditional natural law were what later came to be called “categorical imperatives” by the German philosopher Kant, but more on this later.

For Hobbes, “scientific” was mathematical or geometrical knowledge–calculation. Philosophy as science proceeds either deductively from “synthetic” reasoning (reasoning that is not based on “experience”) of the first causes to apparent effects, and “analytically” through reasoning from perceived effects or facts to possible causes of their generation. The first principles are body/matter and motion or change of place. In accordance with the deductive or synthetic method, one would begin with the laws of physics in general and from them deduce the causes of the behaviour of individual human beings, and from the passions deduce the laws of social and political life. However, it is through the analytic means, the analysis based on “sense experience” that one arrives at what Hobbes considered were adequate definitions of the first principles themselves. Hobbes indicates that his understanding is based on “pre-scientific knowledge” or what we would call “common sense experience” i.e. what every human being already knows. This common sense “know how” furnishes Hobbes with the system he needs to construct his political philosophy.

Hobbes, like his predecessor Machiavelli, believed that the classical writings of the Greeks and Romans had failed human beings because they “aimed too high”. They had based their doctrines on human beings’ highest aspirations (“virtue”) which rendered the societies they recommended ineffective in dealing with the “realism” of human beings as they actually are in the “real” world. The study of philosophy came to take second place to the study of history in the 16th century. The precepts of philosophy were “too high” for the ordinary human being, while the “experience” of the real deeds of real men were felt to provide the concrete examples by which human beings would come to learn of the importance of prudence in their actions. This shift from physics and metaphysics occurs, according to Aristotle, as soon as human being is considered the highest being in the world, ‘the most excellent work of nature’. With this shift, what we call The Human Sciences begin and we find this extrapolated in the philosophy of the English scientist and philosopher Francis Bacon. (In literature, one may find an extraordinary parallel in Dostoevsky’s “The Grand Inquisitor” chapters in his novel The Brothers Karamazov). Hobbes, like Machiavelli and Bacon before him, separated “natural law” from the idea of the moral perfection of human beings or from that to which they are “most fitted” as the ancients understood it. Justice comes to be understood as a matter of laws. Hobbes arrived at his conclusion by deducing that what is most powerful in human beings is not reason but passion. The origin of human beings’ appetites is not perception but vanity.

Hobbes sees human beings as capable of being understood according to a “mechanistic psychology” of the passions (Leviathan Chap. vi.) as those forces which push us from “behind”. This mechanistic psychology is not to be understood as those things which attract from “in front” i.e. the ends of human beings or the objects of desire of the passions. The objects of the passions vary with each individual and depend on that human being’s constitution or education. Good and evil are relative to the human being using those terms and good and evil characterize the individual’s desires and aversions. Thinking understood as reason is a “spy” or a tool which is used to attempt to find the way to the thing desired. (Leviathan Chap. vi.). Thinking as technology or the “know how” derived from experience should be kept in mind here.

Hobbes asserts that human beings are not inclined to live in communities “by nature”. Hobbes deduces the “state of nature” from the passions of human beings. The state of nature provides the reasons, the purposes, or the ends for the sake of which political societies are born. It is the passions which will ground the forming of human communities, the chief of which is the desire for power and property in order to secure the individual’s self-preservation. Hobbes asserts that all human beings are equal in their capacity to kill each other. Self-preservation based on the passion of fear of violent death is the most powerful passion. What human beings seek is the security to continually progress towards one object of desire or another: “…in the first place, I put a general inclination of all mankind, a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death”. (Leviathan ix.). This seeking for the assurance of security makes it necessary that human beings control necessity and chance through the knowledge they obtain through the sciences. With the influence of Christianity, greed and vanity become emancipated while human sexuality and relationships become enchained.

Another problem facing human beings in civil society is the love of “glory”, pride or vanity. “Glorifying” is based on the good opinion a person has or receives of themselves based on their power. These self-opinions are always based on comparisons with others. According to Hobbes, the three great causes of war among human beings are competition, distrust, and glory which create a state of every person against every other person or conditions where “the life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” (Leviathan Chap. viii.). The state of nature, for Hobbes, is good only for the possibility of getting out of it. It is not far from Hobbes’ writings to the idea of the “conquest of nature”. By understanding human nature mechanistically, we become capable of manipulating and overcoming it so that our fear of death and the desire for comfort can be realized through a state of peace. This can be done by overcoming the desire for glory or human pride. The rules of reason are the Laws of Nature, and the Moral Law are the dictates of reason. In Hobbes one sees the secularization of what was originally Biblical language and this may account for one of the reasons why his view of Nature became acceptable to Protestant Christians.

For Hobbes, the right to self-preservation is realized in the overcoming of the primary fear of violent death. Individual rights are derived from the selfish passions and desires of human beings, the desire for a comfortable living founded on the fear of violent death. Human selfishness is legitimized in his thinking. He prepares the ground for the later coming into being of liberalism and today’s cybernetics. For Hobbes, intelligent calculation of self-interest is all that is required for a human being to be just.

Suggested Readings:

Hobbes, Thomas Leviathan Chaps. xiii-xv, xvii-xviii, xxi, xxiv, xxvi-xxx, xlvi.

Click to access Leviathan.pdf

John Locke
               John Locke

 John Locke (1632-1704)

If Hobbes may be said to be the political philosopher of power relations established between the individuals and the societies in which they live, John Locke (1632-1704) may be said to be the political philosopher of money and property and their relation to labour, and how these concepts establish the relations between individuals and their societies. Locke’s influence is very much with us today as it was he who wrote: “…no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions…”. This statement in truncated form is, of course, re-echoed in the beginning of the American constitution where “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” were held as “self-evident truths” by the founding fathers of the USA being under the influence of Locke, the French philosopher Rousseau, and Rousseau’s student Thomas Paine. Other ideas and concepts of Locke permeate the lives of US citizens today and are to be found in the UN Declaration of Human Rights.

For Locke as it was for Hobbes, self-preservation is the primary motivator among human beings: “For the desire, strong desire of preserving his life and being, having been planted in (man) as a principle of action by God himself, reason, which was the voice of God in him, could not but teach him and assure him that, pursuing that natural inclination he had to preserve his being, he followed the will of his Maker…” Conduct which is directed towards self-preservation is not only in accord with reason, which is the law of nature, but it is the very definition of “reasonable behaviour” or of the animal rationale and is the will of God. For Locke, God’s will is scrutable. God’s favour is shown in the possession of property that leads to the life of comfortable self-preservation. We will not go into the connection between Locke’s “materialism” and labour and the new Protestant Christianity which was beginning to flourish in Europe at that time. Suffice it to say that Locke himself was an atheist, but his thinking found wide acceptance among those English-speaking Protestants. For Locke, freedom or individual liberty is necessary for the pursuit of acquisitiveness. Machiavelli’s discovery or invention of the need for an immoral or amoral substitute for morality becomes victorious in Locke’s discovery that that substitute is acquisitiveness. A totally selfish passion, whose satisfaction does not require the spilling of any blood and whose effect is the improvement of the lot of all provides the solution to the political problem by economic means. Machiavelli comes of age.

The two chief texts for understanding Locke are his An Essay Concerning Human Understanding and Two Treatises of Government. In his “Human Understanding” essay, Locke outlines his metaphysics; in the second treatise of the “Two Treatises”, he outlines his political philosophy which is founded upon those “metaphysics” and how the idea of money and property are related to those metaphysics. We will try to give an impertinent precis of some of the ideas contained in those writings here.

Locke begins the laying out of his “representational thinking” with the concept of the “idea”, something that exists in the mind which gives it the ability to perceive and think. He contrasts thinking with will or volition which are based on the appetites or instincts. Locke’s “ideas” are not to be confused with the ideas of Plato because, for Locke, the “ideas” only exist in the mind of the thinker/perceiver, the “beholder”, while the Platonic ideas are not the creations of human beings but have an existence of their own outside of human beings. Locke’s “ideas” are Descartes'”ideas”; having ideas and perception are the same thing i.e. human cognition and ideas are the same thing. Thinking follows from the existence of these ideas. The “object” of the thinking is that which the thought is about, and there is no thought without an object.

For Locke, our “experience” of life is key, for the human mind is a tabula rasa, a blank slate upon which any thing may be written, again informing us that human beings are infinitely malleable. Memory as a way of knowing, with the aid of language as a way of knowing, assists the mind in creating the visual contents that are stored in the memory. Real ideas “have a Foundation in Nature; have a Conformity with the real. Being, and Existence of Things, or with their Archetypes”. “Real ideas” are distinguished from “Fantasies” which have no real being. Real ideas perfectly represent those “Archetypes” while those that do not are considered “inadequate”. Truth and falsehood are not considered properties of the ideas themselves but exist only in the propositions or judgements that human beings make; they are the products of logic and reason. Real ideas are “simple ideas” and our ability to call an idea true is what gives it reality. The real ideas are the properties of things, those things that can be calculated mathematically and constantly produce the same results. The real ideas are mathematical entities or algebraic calculation based on logic’s steps.

Locke’s discussion of property combines the modern critique of ancient philosophy’s view of science and nature with the Judaeo-Christian view of nature (although the word “nature” and the concept of nature are not to be found in the Bible). Human beings are given the created world as an object to exploit by God i.e. nature is not perceived as a “garden” to be tended, but as a wasteland to be exploited, a wasteland that is “useless” without human endeavour to make it fulfill our needs. The original condition or “state of nature” was an abundance of almost worthless provisions, not an actual plenty, but made a potential plenty that becomes actual by human labour and invention through human ingenuity. Initially, human beings have this created world in “common”, and from it Locke elaborates how private property came into being.

Locke separates the fruits of the “common” from the common itself. While human beings have equal right to every part of what is “common”, every human being does not have a share of ownership of what is common. In the state of nature, there is no property: the only property that anyone has a right to is that of his own body and person and the labour and work that are produced from it. All other property is derived from this original property in the state of nature. Nature’s plenty was available to all. If someone wanted the fruits that you had gathered, that someone was after your labour not the fruits themselves. And they do not have any right to that labour, according to Locke.

The combination of what is common and what is private is dominated by what is private because it is “labour” that puts the “value” in everything and distinguishes the “worth” of some thing. Labour constitutes the entire value of the thing, and land without labour would scarcely be worth anything. It is labour that makes the land “one’s own”. Nature, for its part, without labour is worthless; it is Nature’s “use” to human beings that gives it its value.

The ready-to-hand oversupply that is Nature also contributes to its “worthlessness” as Locke arrives at a “supply/demand” notion of value. The state of nature is not one of actual plenty but only potential plenty. The poverty of the Native Peoples of America, which Locke alludes to in his writings, is their lack of labour, such as it is, in relation to the labour of Locke’s native England. Locke’s view of property and ‘civilized society’ and its contrast with the Native Peoples of North America was certainly a contributing factor that led to the genocide of the Native Peoples by the European settlers: they were considered “sub-human” because they lacked any European notion of “civilization” and could therefore be killed without any qualms.

In Locke’s view, a limiting of accumulation is required only in the case where there is a scarcity of goods. There cannot be “natural property” in the state of nature if there is a scarcity of goods. In this scarcity, the right to property becomes the “might” of the holder to retain that property. Natural scarcity or “spoiling” of perishable goods can be altered only by a change in the prevailing conditions or the natural order of things. Agriculture is the beginning of this change. Land in nature is “waste land”. From these beginnings, money came into being according to Locke because it was made of metal and not perishable. Through the invention of money human beings solved the problems of perishability and scarcity. Money came into being before civil society.

It was money or “capital” that made possible the owning of large tracts of land. Locke shows the origins of private property and justifies the inequality of possessions: “…it is plain that men have agreed to a disproportionate and unequal possession of the earth, they having, by a tacit and voluntary consent, found a way how a man may fairly possess more land than he himself can use the product of…” (italics added). This is done through the invention of money and through the agreement of its use. This is, of course, unfair. Locke’s solution is increase. 

In his Two Treatises, Locke solves the problem of increase. Human beings by their labour, invention and arts (i.e. through the applications of technology) make “increase” possible and thereby solve the problem of scarcity and perishability found in the original natural condition; but they make the original condition of nature impossible to continue. They are driven to civil society for the protection of their property. The possessions of the “industrious and rational” must be protected from the “fancy or covetousness of the quarrelsome and contentious”. Locke’s theory of property and increase is the foundation for his theories of society and government and its structures and became the foundations of the American Constitution. The protection of the rights to property became the 2nd Amendment to that Constitution.

From these initial seeds we can see how “empiricism” and “materialism” began to find its form in English thinking. The “essence of materialism” does not consist in the assertion that everything is simply matter but in a metaphysical assertion and determination where every thing or being appears as the material of labour. The modern metaphysical essence of labour as it was stated by the German philosopher Hegel is the “self-establishing process of unconditioned production, or the objectivization of the actual through human beings’ definition and understanding of themselves as “subjectivity”. The essence of materialism is hidden in the essence of technology. Technology as a way of knowing rests in the manner in which it makes things become manifest or appear, and their appearance or presence is that of object. We shall follow the thread of this thinking through the work of the English philosopher David Hume.

Suggested Readings

Locke, John Second Treatise

David Hume

David Hume (1711-1776)

David Hume (1711-1776) is best known as a skeptic and is considered the founder of what has come to be known as the “fact/value” distinction in The Human Sciences where rational judgements of “value” were not tenable as opposed to judgements of “fact” based on the “rationalism” of mathematical analysis. Hume stressed sense perception as a way of knowing where a “perception” is whatever is present to the mind; and nothing is present to the mind but its perceptions. Hume does not consider these perceptions as the products of reason.

Hume distinguished between two kinds of perceptions: the first are impressions of what is in our minds “when we hear, or see, or feel, or love, or hate, or desire, or will”; the second is ideas about what is in our minds, “when we reflect on a passion or an object which is not present”. The difference between the two is that impressions are much stronger and “lively” than ideas. All ideas are derived from impressions. “We can never think of anything which we have not seen (or in some way sensed) without us or felt in our own minds.”

According to Hume, we cannot have knowledge with full and absolute certainty concerning matters of fact and real existence, but only concerning “the relations of ideas”. The realm of necessity binds the imagination, the way of knowing of the realm of the “possible”. “Whatever is conceivable is possible”. We can only have knowledge of the world of ideas but not knowledge of the “world of realities” i.e. facts. For example, it is a fact that all that is mortal must die. Hume conceives of all matters of fact as parts of a system of universal necessity. There is a distinction between the realm of the possible and the realm of the necessary.

Hume asserts that all of our reasoning about matters of fact is based on the relation of the ideas of cause and effect, the principle of reason. Without our concept of causation we cannot go beyond our sense perception and memory of those sense perceptions as ways of knowing the things. Through the concept of causation we are able to infer the existence of objects and occurrences beyond our experience: “probability” rests in causation. Hume’s most famous example of his critique of causation is of a billiard ball moving across a table and striking another. We conclude from “experience” that the second ball will be set in motion. But a problem is present: how can we learn from experience the very principle that makes it possible to learn from experience? The answer for Hume: reason and experience are “forms of habit”. These habits or judgements are formed in the imagination and strengthened by belief as a way of knowing. They feel different from ideas that one does not believe in. It is the belief that gives to us what we conceive our notion of reality to be. It would take nothing less than Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and his discussion of synthetic judgements a priori as possible and necessary to overcome Hume’s radical skepticism regarding reason’s judgements.

From the billiard ball example, Hume contended that our notion of cause is purely an impression in the mind and nothing in the objects themselves; the necessity lies not in the objects but in ourselves. How does one, then, justify correct reasoning? How does one arrive at normative judgements or standards of judgement? Hume’s suggestions on reasoning at first appear to be the foundation of false reasoning and prejudices; many examples could be used to support this with regard to bias, racism, etc. where one makes judgements regarding things or human beings based on the “experiences” they have had in the past, or one might look to the current “alternative facts” movement present among those who perceive themselves on the political right. But, contrary to these examples, Hume says that the “rules of logic” are stronger than those established by habit or “experience” since these habits and experiences are based on emotions or sentiments. Hume’s metaphysics is intended to explain not only the “reasoning” of animals, but also to justify the science of Newton. But how can this be done with simply habit and emotion? To put it another way, Hume uses the principle of reason to critique that principle and this gives rise to many contradictions in his thought.

Our ways of knowing construct relations of ideas through inductive reasoning and inference between our understanding of the objects that exist outside ourselves, but these relations are driven by our own necessities and are not necessities in the objects themselves. Hume challenges what has been traditionally known as the “correspondence theory of truth”. We shall see in Part II how Kant responded to this challenge.

Hume’s critique of reason as a way of knowing is extrapolated to his critique of morality: good and evil, virtue and vice. Good and evil are not relations or “matters of fact”. They are not objects of the understanding, and because of this, the sense of morality does not help us in understanding and discovering what they are.  The objects about us are calculable in terms of their presence in time and space and are “matters of fact”. Through making comparisons (identity and difference) or what the Greeks called “diaeretic knowledge”, the relations between the objects themselves could be discovered in order to establish inferences of “matters of fact”, something you will be attempting to do in your Exhibition. For Hume, reason is an instrument, a tool of the passions: “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them”. Reason cannot teach us what we ought to do or should do; it can only make predictions through calculations about what the outcomes will be if we do do it. Morality itself cannot be found out through reason.

Hume sees morality as what we are “forced” to do and this “forcibleness” is determinable through reason and its calculations. But reason is unable to determine whether this “force” is “fitting” or “virtuous”.  For Hume, the human imagination is the ground of science and human emotions; likes and dislikes are made the ground of morality. Virtue is virtue because it is approved, either individually or collectively; there is no virtue in itself i.e. there is no “good in itself”. 

For Hume, emotion provides us with a moral sense; virtue and vice are not discovered by reason. The ‘fact’ is that we feel in our hearts that something is good or bad, but these are not objects accessible to reason. “Morality is felt, not judged of”–to paraphrase Hume. Good and bad are discovered by emotion and are constituted by emotion. Virtue is virtue because it is approved. By being approved, it is a “value”. It is so because it is habitually united in the imagination. “To have a sense of virtue is nothing but to feel a satisfaction of a particular kind…” Morality is rooted in pleasure and pain: the “good” is identified with the pleasant, the “bad” is associated with the painful.

In requiring that morality be related to the passions or emotions, Hume is following Locke and Hobbes. Hume differs from Hobbes and Locke in that they both asserted that “self-interest” was the dominant passion; and the greatest self-interest is security from violent death i.e. survival. Hume felt that this exaggerated the power of reason. Hobbes, for example, finds that self-preservation or fear of death is the strongest, most fundamental of passions. Virtue was obedience to the laws of nature which are the dictates of reason for avoiding death and preserving life. Locke finds the best solution to the fear of death in the unlimited acquisition of “property” i.e. food, energy. Hume contends that the passions provide no incontrovertible axiom to reason and, hence, reason can furnish no authoritative guidance to conduct. The standards of moral judgements are not “dictates of reason” derived from the passions; they are themselves “passions” i.e. moral sentiments or feelings. For Hume, morals are matters of taste, but there are right and wrong tastes.

For Hume, morality is determined and distinguished by sentiment or feeling based on the experience of pleasure or pain: an action is virtuous or vicious, considered good or evil whether it results in pleasure or pain. Since we can never be mistaken about what gives us pleasure or pain, moral judgements are “perfectly infallible”. However, our sentiments vary according to our situations and our feelings may be quite different from others faced with the same situation. 

But how do judgements about “matters of fact” stand on different grounds than those regarding the passions? For Hume, reason gives knowledge concerning truth and falsehood and this differs from taste which is the source of moral sentiments. Reason “discovers objects as they really stand in nature, without addition and diminution”, whereas taste “has a productive faculty and gilding or staining all natural objects with the colors, borrowed from internal sentiment, [which] raises in a manner a new creation”. The standard of reason is “eternal and inflexible” whereas the standard of taste arises from the “frame and constitution of animals” or is instinctual. But as Hume recognizes, if “morality is more properly felt than judged of”, in the same way “all probable reasoning is nothing but a species of sensation. ‘Tis not solely in poetry and music we must follow our taste and sentiment”, but in the experimental sciences as well. Virtue and vice are not matters of fact, or rather they are internal matters of fact i.e. our tastes of moral approval or disapproval. But the same is true of the connection between cause and effect. “Objects have no discovererable connection together…” The causal relation is nothing in the object but something in the mind. 

Hume recognizes the contradictions that his thinking faces here for to salvage causal reasoning and logic, he must distinguish it from fantasy and prejudice. He must also do the same to distinguish “correct taste” in morality from “incorrect taste”.

The “state of nature” is for Hume a fiction of the philosophers. Because human beings are the “needing” beings and weak, only in society can their wants and needs be met, including those which society itself engenders. Hume sees sexuality and families giving rise to societies; social problems are engendered from this, however. Human beings love “their own” more than others in their communities. The scarcity and instability of external goods which are of insufficient quantity to satisfy everyone’s needs and desires produce the chief impediment to society: the “insatiable, perpetual, universal” desire of acquiring possessions for ourselves and those near to us. The other passions are necessarily restrained and are not so disruptive to social order, but human greed is a difficult nut to crack. Vanity, for example, is not so difficult as it is a social passion and “a bond of union among men”. (Think of our modern social media here.)

The passionate drive for the acquisition of goods cannot be controlled by our natural moral sentiments: it, rather, reinforces these sentiments. An artifice constructed by reason is necessary: “…a convention entered into by all the members of the society to bestow stability on the possession of those external goods, and leave everyone in the peaceable enjoyment of what he may acquire by his fortune and industry.” According to Hume this is the first law of Nature: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s goods”. The origins of capitalism and greed in the thinking of Locke and others are found to have a strange compatibility with the new Protestant Christianity emerging simultaneously in Europe and this has contributed to our propensity “to want to have it both ways” i.e. morally and politically.

The ideas of justice and injustice, human beings’ relations to and with each other, arise from the recognition of the common sense of common interests. This is a gradual, habitual process and the ideas of property, rights and obligations come from this recognition. The fundamental purpose of justice is the stability of property. The question of who owns what requires the transfer of property by consent. This is Hume’s second law and it is quite in keeping with the notion of a “progress” in the moral improvement of human beings through the individual’s being in a society i.e. the need to honour contracts or promises.

His third law of nature extends the obligation of promises or the rule of contracts, the penalty for the breaking of which is “mistrust” so it is in one’s self-interest to honour them. (Think of concern for “the brand” here).But why is justice a virtue and injustice a vice? The answer is that we recognize that justice is beneficial to society. We may not always act justly ourselves, but when we see the injustice of others we feel that we will suffer the consequences of their actions. The sentiment of “moral blame” teaches us to regard justice as honourable and to care for our reputations. The establishment of justice is based on self-interest and the moral sentiments against injustice are based on “a sympathy with the public interest”. It is government’s purpose to administer justice in the protection of property and the enforcement of contracts. 

Obedience to the government and the observance of the rules of justice are “artificial virtues” as distinguished from “natural virtues”. The “natural virtues” are those to which human beings are impelled and compelled by instinct or natural impulse. If left unchecked, these will lead to all kinds of social problems. The “artificial virtues” are those created by human beings after some thought and reflection. The “artificial virtues” are the product of reason and they arise out of human beings’ situations. Since reason is as much of human beings’ nature as the passions, Hume speaks of them as “laws of nature”. The “artificial virtues” are not contrary to the passions but are only so to their “heedless and impetuous movement”. The passions are better satisfied by being controlled and directed. 

In the creation of political institutions, “every man must be supposed a knave” in seeking their own self-interest. The “good will” of rulers is to be relied on for the security of property and liberty i.e. a reliance on chance. Hume felt that “the world is still too young” for it to be fully known what human nature is capable of or what the effects of changes in “education, customs or principles” will be brought about. Hume sees the aim of political society as the ordering of the ends that are served by the natural actions of the passions without excessive reliance on “extraordinary goodness” i.e. chance. As he says: “All plans of governments which suppose a great reformation in the manners of mankind are plainly imaginary”. Human beings, in their “badness”, may not be as malleable as first thought. 

Every government is founded on opinion. For Hume, “custom” or habit is what preserves governments. Hume is “conservative” in that he believes the “oldest is best” and will get better as it is refined in time. He thus represents the “conservative” side of the “age of progress”.

Suggested Readings

Hume, David Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Secs. 2,3,4,5,6,7

Hume, David Treatise of Human Nature. Bk. III, parts i and ii.

Hume, David Essays. V.Of the Origin of Government”, IV “Of the First Principles of Government”, XII “Of the Original Contract”, XVI “Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth”.

 Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832)

Bentham is known for his principle of “utilitarianism”. In his work An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, he writes: “Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure.” The Utilitarianism Principle places its emphasis on what human nature is understood to be actually rather than potentially, and what human beings are everywhere rather than what human beings are under changing circumstances and conditions in which varying groups may find themselves. Pain and pleasure not only determine the psychological causes behind human beings’ ethical actions, they also provide the basis for what human beings ought to do.

Since human beings are motivated by pain and pleasure, Bentham writes: “By the principle of utility is meant that principle which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever, according to the tendency which it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question.” Bentham’s principle applies to all actions of human beings: those actions are right which promote the happiness of those concerned (pleasure) and wrong which promote unhappiness. In politics, those actions are right which further the happiness of the community and wrong which further the unhappiness of the community. The community itself is a fictitious body composed of individuals; the interest of the community is the sum of interests of the individuals who compose it. Since the purpose of government is the happiness of those who compose it, this is the only end that legislators should have in view.

Bentham classifies the sources of pleasure and pain into four categories: 1. physical (from nature); 2. political; 3. moral or popular (from public opinion); 4. religious. Bentham uses a calculus of pleasure and pain: pleasures and pains are all homogeneous and thus comparable and measurable in terms of their intensity, duration, certainty or uncertainty, the numbers affected by them, etc. This system, this calculus, gives the legislator (and the individual) a technique for determining the best course of action in terms of the utility-value of alternative choices. Bentham believed that human psychology is identical in human beings under all conditions and at all times.

Like Hume, Bentham believed that the state of nature and the social contract were fictions and unnecessary. Bentham agrees with Hume in seeing the so-called “state of nature” as family groupings. This he called “natural society”. The second stage was “political society” where the habit of obedience was acquired. The “social contract” is a fiction because fictions are no longer necessary as the basis of rights and obligations. The promises made between the governors and the governed are that the governors promise to promote happiness and the governed promise to obey. Bentham further agrees with Hume in that the answer to the political question is the principle of utility. Once this is recognized, the social contract is superfluous. We can appeal to the principle of utility to justify the rights and obligations of kings and subjects. The social contract does not help solve practical problems whereas the principle of utility does, or so Bentham thought. It was left to John Stuart Mill to resolve some of the contentions which the Utilitarians brought about.

Suggested Readings

Bentham, Jeremy. A Fragment on Government. Chaps. i, ii. Bentham, Jeremy. An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation Chaps. i-iv

JS Mill.jpg

  John Stuart Mill (1806-1875)

Mill was a utilitarian following in the footsteps of his father, James Mill. Attacks against the Utilitarians (and therefore his father) were based on a criticism of their approach to politics being grounded in the pleasure/pain principle of political philosophy and political action using the deductive approach i.e. from the general to the particular. The utilitarians deduced their principles from simple laws of human nature i.e. psychological axioms. These “psychological axioms” were a priori.

In his Science of Logic, Mill distinguishes between three types of deduction: direct, concrete and inverse. The “inverse deduction method” is what could be termed the “Historical” method. The procedure is to develop empirical laws of society on the basis of induction and then to “verify” those laws by deducing them from the a priori laws of human nature. Mill attempts to bring “human progress” within the scope of science. Social conditions which constantly change must be made compatible with History: the data of the changes for legislative proposals and the historical method when considering the effects of particular proposals on the progress of society to the next stage. 

Mill must be taken seriously because his thinking was the most popular at that moment when Britain had achieved its peak as an empire resulting in his thinking influencing, in some fashion, all English-speaking peoples throughout the globe. Mill’s thinking continues on today in the very IB program of which TOK is a part, and this influence should become clear as we proceed. Because of British imperial success at the time of Mill’s writing, the view of which societies were “civilized” and which were not led to some of the most crass and shameful remarks that we English-speakers today blush to recount. On a much more serious note, it also led to the genocides of a number of those “less civilized” peoples of which the Native Peoples of North America are but one example.

Mill’s philosophy of History was strongly influenced by the French philosopher Rousseau and his subsequent followers. Mill believed in the possibility and desirability of social progress, but not in its inevitability. Human beings, as we know from History, are capable of moving from barbarism to civilization, and this “progress” takes different forms and occurs at various speeds in different societies. There is a “rational order” to human progress and by the proper use of the historical method we can determine the stages through which any society must pass in its progress. This philosophy of history is understood as the as the philosophy of the progress of society and is basic for the practical science of politics. 

Mill’s theory is somewhat satisfactory if we are looking from the point of view of more advanced societies on lesser advanced societies. But what is the next stage for the advanced civilized societies? Mill attempts to fill the gap in a deductive fashion from a theory of human nature and a theory of ethics i.e. the ontological determines the ethical. 

Mill is not clear on what is the cause of social progress. He believes that progress is produced by the ideas, the examples, and the moral and intellectual leadership of superior individuals. He notes that superior individuals flourish under conditions of liberty, so liberty becomes a necessary condition for progress. The novelty required for the development of the sciences and the technological society requires liberty, freedom. The signs of civilization for Mill were the existence of responsible government and the emergence of scientific knowledge (technology). Progress was tied to the continued development of science (technology), particularly social science since he believed the natural sciences were on the verge of becoming complete. This is, of course, not the only error in thought which Mill made. He knew that further progress remained to be achieved and this could be done through a social science which aided political thinking. Scientific (technological) progress would promote equality, but equality carried too far would interfere with justice or what was due to those of intellectual and moral excellence who are responsible for progress overall.

Mill’s philosophy of history required a revision of the ethical theory of utilitarianism as it applied to politics. The pleasure/pain principle was inadequate, Mill felt, because it did not distinguish between lesser and superior pleasures. The idea of the utilitarians that pleasures and pains were homogeneous was not correct. Mill felt that the pleasures of the mind and intellect were superior to mere physical pleasures (this coming from a man who, some claim, remained a virgin throughout his life). Mill, as an empiricist, needed to claim that moral principles could not be known a priori and that the fundamental principle of morality could only be known through experience. But by wanting at the same time both the teaching about higher and lower pleasures and his empiricism, he becomes inconsistent. His secularism is in direct conflict with his Protestant ethical recommendations, the ethics of the society of which he was a member. 

For Mill, the individual is prior to the state, but not the individual as he or she is, but rather the individual that they may become with a proper education in a well-organized society. Human being as the perfectly malleable animal has a great variety of possible potentials, and society should provide the conditions in which each person can develop his or her special talents and make them available to the community. This can be done by promoting “the active life” of individuals as citizens. Mill felt that this was morally superior to one of passive obedience to the commands of a ruling group whatever the morality and justice of those demands.

Mill believed that his essay On Liberty was his best work because it combined his philosophy of history with his theory of government. Mill’s belief in progress from lower to higher stages of civilization culminated in the emergence of representative democracy as the best regime at the final stage. This final stage regime might be defined as the disappearance of the opposition between the government and the governed for the government would represent the interests of the governed. Mill’s theory of liberty is not applicable to all governments and to all human beings but only to those where society has become more important than the state. Progress towards civilization requires curbs on individual liberty while progress within civilization requires the emancipation of the individual from those curbs.

Mill grounds his principle of liberty in his moral theory: the only thing of ultimate value is the happiness of individuals, and individuals can best achieve their happiness in a civilized society when they are left free to pursue their own interests with their own talents as these have come to be understood and developed by them under an adequate system of education. The civilized human being is one who acts on what he understands and who exerts every effort to understand. 

How can society progress towards this goal? The principle condition is self-restraint. It requires as a foundation that each individual, groups of individuals, the government, and the mass of people refrain from interfering with the thought, expression, and actions of any individual. This is the basic principle of liberty. As Mill states in the introductory chapter to his essay:

The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion. That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action
of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. 

What Mill is attempting to say is that while thought must be free, the freedom of actions of individuals (the ethics, if you like) must be limited for the safety and security of society. The individual belongs to herself and is subject to social control only for the purpose of preventing her from harming others. We can see that we have not gone far from Hobbes here, and in the society whose foundations are based on commerce, the inadequacy of these ethics is demonstrated in our daily news.

The public expression of one’s private thoughts fall into the category of action. Mill believes the expression of thoughts requires the same freedom as thought itself since thought and its expression are so closely linked. The claim to limit the right to freedom of expression, Mill thought, the claim to limit the expression of opinions, presupposes “infallibility” on the part of those making the claim; and so no one can presuppose the right to make the claim and suppress opinion. Mill’s view of discussion in society assumes a mature public carrying on its discussion in a restrained, civilized way. Actions must be limited in that they can cause harm to others. Mill thought that the mere expression of opinion was not an action, but depended on the contexts and situations in which it was expressed. We can forgive Mill in his thinking here since he did not live in the age of social media where expressions of opinion do cause harm to others. All discussion is “political” in the widest sense of that word. Mill returns to the Protestant ethos of his society when the applications of restrictions to some individual actions (such as gambling, polygamy, etc.) are necessary; however, in our technological age mass conformism is required for the “ordering and the gathering” that has become the individual’s and the state’s purpose for being.

The problem that we have with Mill is that he is inconsistent, something which is tolerable in a politician but not in a philosopher. If we take Mill’s philosophy as a whole, there is nowhere within it an answer to the question of why it is good for human beings to be just. Mill is part of a long tradition of English empiricism that affirms that a pleasant life in space and time is what matters. He affirms that justice is right, yet at the same time rejects that Protestant morality theoretically that is the bulwark of that morality and that justice. The morality or “values” proposed are straw men in the conflict against the avarice and greed that a-re the hallmarks of the society based on commerce.

Suggested Readings

Mill, John Stuart. On Liberty, in Utilitarianism, Liberty, and Representative Government.

Mill, John Stuart. Representative Government. Chaps. i-vii.

Concluding Remarks to Part I

In concluding this section on technology and The Human Sciences, we must make a distinction between “shared knowledge” and “personal knowledge”. By “shared knowledge” is meant the philosophic and scientific knowledge which we as individuals take over from former generations, or from others. By “personal knowledge” is meant the philosophic or scientific knowledge that a mature scholar acquires in her unbiased discussions with others in the various areas of knowledge after knowing the origins, horizons and presuppositions of those various domains. Preparation for proper “personal knowledge” is what TOK’s purpose is, what it is all about. On the basis of the belief in progress, this distinction between personal and shared knowledge loses its significance. When we speak of a “body of knowledge” or the results of research, we assign to them the same cognitive status i.e. that personal and shared knowledge are not much different from each other. One is entitled to the “infallibility” of one’s opinion since it is “one’s own” whether it is what one “thinks” or what one “feels”. 

A special kind of effort is required to transform shared knowledge into genuine knowledge and to be able to discriminate between the genuine and the spurious elements of what claims to be shared knowledge (CT 5). The evident “panic” that appears to be present in the new TOK Guidelines with regard to the current state of political and ethical affairs is evidence for this. But we may sum this up by saying that the god who sometimes wishes and sometimes does not wish to go by the name of Zeus demands payment in blood for the worship of false gods or, in other words, believing the Good to be the Necessary or that which it is not. Scholarship and research are not thought but the enemies of thought because they are used as a substitute for thought. But scholarship can act as a prompt or propaedeutic to thought and this is the primary intention of this blog.

In Part I we have attempted to give a very brief history of English-speaking philosophy focusing on the political thinking of that philosophy since political thinking is the height of The Human Sciences. In The Natural Sciences, Charles Darwin was the great “biological” scientist. Darwin’s fate was to be born English, and there is a strong connection between Darwin’s science and the philosophy of his fellow English-speakers. This is found in his belief in “progress”: that all adaptations and modifications tend towards the “better” and ultimately to “perfection”. This is their “fittedness”, their ability in bringing about survival or preservation from death.

In Part II we will look at the “Continental” philosophers. The great discoveries of modern physics in The Natural Sciences are those of Einstein and Heisenberg. Both are German. There are some silly people who would like to claim that Einstein was an American, but if he had been, we would not have “Einstein’s theory of relativity”. We would have had the theory of relativity by someone else, in all likelihood a German. American education (English-speaking shared knowledge) simply could not have produced an Einstein, and Einstein’s genius was not solely and merely an act of his own creative imagination.

In saying this we also need to point out that politically the experiences of the 20th century’s worst regimes i.e. communism and national socialism, were also the products and results of German political thought. The French political philosopher, Montesquieu, felt that Athens and England had given us the best political regimes, and he pointed out that the English had wisely substituted the pursuit of commerce for the pursuit of honour as the core of their political regimes, thus indicating the superiority of the modern regime to the ancient. He believed that the pursuit of commerce was the best foundation of a free political order. We have seen the inadequacy of the ethics and the “values” that emerge from such regimes based on commerce, and we are suffering through this inadequacy at the present time as the technological society totters towards its apogee.

As we watch the slow disintegration and view the contradictions (our desire to have it both ways) of current English-speaking regimes due to their “technological fate”, it remains good for us who are English-speaking to remember that liberal principles are the only political principles we’ve got, and their defense is our duty in these times. Technology itself does not wish to “have it both ways”; it is consistent in its ordering and gathering. Though our defense may seem futile in the face of the blossoming forth of the technological, the true task of thinking is to understand and persevere in the hope and the efforts that an alternative may be possible.


Theory of Knowledge: An Alternative Approach

Why is an alternative approach necessary?

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