15 May 2022
Take a whistle-stop tour of great philosophical ideas, from Socrates' notion that change comes from within, to Arendt's exploration of the nature of evil and Wollstonecraft's manifesto for women's equality.
In 4th-century BC Athens, a strange and untidy figure became popular with young people by explaining his ideas about change. It wasn’t Jeremy Corbyn… it was one of the greatest philosophers the world has ever known: Socrates. He suggested that by critically examining your own ideas, you could use reason and reflective thinking to set yourself on the path to becoming a good person.
Many people have thought about the origins of everything that exists. Aristotle and Aquinas were two thinkers who looked carefully at ideas of cause and effect. They thought that all the things we see around us must have come from somewhere, and they suggested this trail would lead us back to the First Cause – the principle that started everything off. For Aquinas this had to be God.
According to the French philosopher Descartes, doubt is not just about experiencing unsettling worries. He thought doubt could be used to strip away our false beliefs, and through following a kind of thought experiment to see how far we could go in doubting things, we could then start to build knowledge on more secure foundations. This is the start of the idea of a scientist as a person with an inquiring mind. Descartes hated getting up early in the morning though.
Isaac Newton was a genius when it came to ideas about the physical world. He studied the patterns of moving objects, and suggested the universe was following a series of laws that were regular, occurred everywhere in the same way and could be understood by humans. The universe as a giant machine! Alan Turing extended part of this idea in a different direction through his work on computer codes, and, by exploring the idea of the mind as machine, laid the foundations for modern artificial intelligence.
Energetic French maverick Denis Diderot created a massive collection of knowledge in his 28-volume Encyclopaedia, which took 12 years of hard work to complete. It was published in 1772. He faced financial ruin, persecution, censorship, unreliable contributors and unscrupulous editors. When Tim Berners-Lee invented the internet many years later, could he have predicted that Wikipedia would become such a powerful standard reference source? And that its editor-in-chief James Wales would face some of the same challenges as Diderot?
Mary Wollstonecraft wrote a book called A Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1799. Inspired by the motto of the French revolutionaries calling for human rights in the name of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity (brotherhood), she became angry about injustice and oppression. She couldn’t help noticing, though, that the brotherhood part left a few people out… namely all women. Her book didn’t make her popular at the time – she was called ‘a hyena in petticoats’ and the book quickly went out of print. It took a few more years for women to get their point across.
In 1961 a writer called Hannah Arendt went to observe the trial of a famous Nazi, Adolf Eichmann, in Jerusalem. He was on trial charged with crimes against humanity, and for his part in the Holocaust where 6 million Jewish people died. Arendt expected to see a monster, but Eichmann turned out to be a dull and unimaginative man, who kept repeating that he had only followed the orders of his superiors, and so was not responsible for anything that happened. Arendt wrote that the administrative bureaucracy of the Third Reich had been so machine-like it had blunted the sense of morality of those who were enforcing it, and this was the real face of evil in the modern age.
Australian philosopher Peter Singer argues that we are closer to animals than some people might think, and because of this we have a duty to respect animals, not to harm them, and certainly not to breed them to be eaten. Singer is a vegetarian and an outspoken supporter of animal rights. He takes a moral stance which is based not only on animals’ similarity to humans but also a defence of their right to lives that can be lived free from inflicted pain or cruelty.
By Alison Ainley
Head, School of Humanities and Social Sciences
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