A Trip Around Philosophy

  • Sumo


John S Moore


2 Tragedy
3 Socrates
4 Plato
5 Aristotle
6 Stoics
7 Chuang Tsu
8 Neoplatonism
9 Buddhism
10 St Augustine
11 Pseudo-Dionysius
12 Maimonides
13 Aquinas
14 Duns Scotus
15 Kabbalah
16 Plethon
17 Ficino
18 Giordano Bruno
19 Bacon
20 Boehme
21 Descartes
22 Hobbes
23 Spinoza
24 Locke
25 Leibniz
26 Vico
27 Berkeley
28 Butler
29 La Mettrie
30 Reid
31 Hume
32 Rousseau
33 Kant
34 Paley
35 Bentham
36 Fichte
37 De Maistre
38 Schelling
39 Hegel
40 Schopenhauer
41 Feuerbach
42 De Tocqueville
43 Stirner
44 John Stuart Mill
45 Bauer
46 Kierkegaard
47 Marx
48 Lange
49 Dilthey
50 Eduard Von Hartmann
51 William James
52 Nietzsche
53 F H Bradley
54 Georges Sorel
55 Frege
56 Magic
57 Freud
58 Durkheim
59 Bergson
60 Husserl
61 Gurdjieff
62 Russell
63 G E Moore
64 Berdyaev
65 Weininger
66 Spengler
67 Nicolai Hartmann
68 Carl Schmitt
69 Collingwood
70 Bauemler
71 Wittgenstein
72 Heidegger
73 Ryle
74 Ayn Rand
75 Sartre
76 Simone Weil
77 Hare
78 Feyerabend
79 Deleuze
80 Science
81 Foucault
82 Winch
83 Debord
84 Colin Wilson
85 Kripke
86 Dawkins


First I must make clear what this book is not. It is not a history of philosophy, nor is it an introduction. There are eighty five chapters, most of them devoted to single figure. Many other philosophers are mentioned in passing. My aim is not to present a summary of the philosophy of any of these main figures, only to say something interesting about each one. By that I mean something interesting to me, primarily, but also I hope to others. For those who want more basic information I suggest reading in conjunction with Wikipedia or a good dictionary of philosophy.

There are a few philosophers I would have liked to have written about but on whom I have not gathered enough material. Benedetto Croce, Ernst Mach, John Scotus Eriugena and Nicholas Cusanus come to mind. Those are all thinkers about whom I would like to know more, but I would need time to assimilate my reading before I felt justified in giving my thoughts about them. Others like Auguste Comte interest me less but I feel should have been included. There are countless more I do not even mention, often worthy of the highest admiration, whose work would repay serious study.

I have restricted each chapter to between 600 and 700 words, and taken care not to diverge from this. My focus is overwhelmingly on western philosophy though with glances at some Arab, Indian and Chinese traditions.

I have not hidden my sympathies and aversions, nor, following Bertrand Russell’s practice in his History of Western Philosophy have I shied away from occasional bold generalisations, to be taken more as provocative guides than authoritative judgements.

It may be seen that the philosophers who have most influenced me are Nietzsche and Wittgenstein, which is not to say I consider the chapters on them to be my best.


Before philosophy there was myth. Recently there have been moves to contest the originality of the Greeks. It is claimed that philosophy appears among the earliest written texts from Sumer and Egypt, and that there was no pre-logical pre-philosophical mode of thought.

Traditionally, however, western philosophy began among the Ionian Greeks who were living in what is now Turkey in the early seventh century BC. These old Greek philosophers, or ideas of them, have managed to inspire and influence major thinkers right up to the present day. Philosophy proper was said to have begun with Thales of Miletus (c. 620 – 546 BC), who said most famously that everything is water, but also that all things are full of gods, and that a magnet moves iron because it has a god in it.
If the attribution of soul to inert matter seems primitive and mythical, something comparable is returning in the latest thought, with the attribution of potential consciousness to computers. Daniel Dennett (b. 1942) in his book Consciousness Explained seems to be moving towards a new belief system in which machines can be considered animate. Thus it appears that philosophy is close to having come full circle.

Fifth and Sixth century Greek philosophy was in some respects a premature growth. There were a lot of brilliant beginnings that lacked the power to develop into what, with modern hindsight, we would have wished of them. Democritus (c. 460–370 BC), for example, taught a mechanistic theory that did not really begin to bear practical scientific fruit till the time of Galileo.

Parmenides (520–c.410 BC) is credited with the first sustained philosophical argument. He argued forcefully that the only reality is the One. His influence has been persistent. F H Bradley, is often classed as a Hegelian, but his idealism is more suggestive of Parmenides.

Pythagoras (c. 570 – 495 BC) first identified philosophic understanding with attainment of the divine, adapting an Orphic idea. The divine was the principle of order in the cosmos, the only way to participate in it is to understand it. Order is contrasted with chaos, which is nothing.

Heraclitus (c. 535 – c. 475 BC) disagreed, or at least presented a another aspect of existence. We may see his philosophy in terms of a reaction against Pythagoras, and the latter’s assumption that goodness and, truth are eternal. For Heraclitus the only eternal is conflict, which sustains the universe. Plato is often held to have produced a synthesis combining the antithetical positions of Heraclitus and Parmenides.

A number of moderns have excitedly hailed Heraclitus as a precursor of their own ideas. Nietzsche saw Heraclitus as his most important precursor. In his autobiography, Ecce Homo, he says Heraclitus is closer to him than anyone else. One difference is that Heraclitus was contemptuous of the obscenity of Dionysus worship, and identified it with the worship of chaos, which to him was death. Marx’s praise of Darwin for providing “a basis in natural science for the historical class struggle” was trumped by Lenin’s appropriation of Heraclitus as expounder of “the rudiments of dialectical materialism”. More recently Heraclitus has been counted as prefiguring linguistic deconstruction. Heraclitus was always known as “the dark” meaning obscure, and it seems presumptuous to commandeer him for godfather of the latest philosophical fad.

In fact Nietzsche was very enthusiastic about most of the pre-Socratic thinkers. He wanted to get back to the spirit and mentality of archaic Greeks. This impulse was taken up by Heidegger. Heidegger appears to have understood going back to the Greeks in terms of a revival of pre-Socratic philosophy, seeing Nietzsche himself as a dead end, last of the heirs of Plato. Nevertheless it appears that Heidegger himself owed a great deal to Nietzsche in formulating this aim.

A creative philosopher is someone who comes up with original philosophical arguments. Parmenides pupil Zeno of Elea (c. 490 –430 BC) was such a figure, one of the most impressive of the pre-socratics. His sceptical paradoxes continue to exercise philosophers up to the present day. On the basis of a different but comparable scepticism, Hume famously argued for the meaninglessness of metaphysics, inspiring a lasting anti-metaphysical current which has tried to avoid dogmatic premises.


Like the nineteenth century Russian novel, ancient Greek tragedy was a vehicle for philosophical thought. Tragedy has been extolled as the highest form of literature, confronting the deepest of life’s perplexities. If the tragedians were philosophers, as has been maintained, Aeschylus (c.524 –455 BC) and Sophocles (c. 497–406 BC) come before Socrates in the history of the subject.

Literature helps us order our experience. Tragedy is the obverse of allegories like The Pilgrims Progress, or Amor and Psyche, tales of success, where correct principles have been followed. Tragedy teaches moral lessons but not ethical ones.

Plato’s Laws and Dante’s Divine Comedy have both been described as tragedies, though this is not how the term is normally understood. There is mystery in why the portrayal of the most harrowing events should be so exhilarating. Aristotle’s theory was that the life enhancing effect comes about by a process of catharsis, purging, of negative emotions such as pity and terror, which it excites to an extreme pitch. Left without any proper outlet, these emotions can harm us. Tragedy has the effect of removing the spiritual waste products from the system. He gives a mixture of the medicinal and the moral.

The idea of metaphysical truth in it has more mystery and is more attractive. Schopenhauer wrote that tragedy is the summit of poetic art because it reveals the terrible true nature of the world, the horrible self-antagonism of the thing-in-itself, the will, at the highest grade of its objectivity. With such knowledge comes wisdom, complete resignation, abandonment of the will to live. Art, by liberating from the will, makes people aware of things as they are, even things as abstract as the flow of phenomena.

Nietzsche wrote about the ritual and mythical origins of tragedy, interpreting it as the affirmation of life in its most difficult problems.

Collingwood argued that Aristotle misunderstood the seriousness of early tragedy, producing what amounted to a defence of the essentially decadent amusement art that had been attacked by Plato. Aeschylean tragedy was a form of magical art, aiming to evoke certain emotions intended to be usefully discharged in the activities of everyday life.

Freud held that, like all important religious developments, tragedy was an attempt to resolve the deep seated conflicts in the human psyche deriving from memory of past guilt. Its liberating effect comes from the release into consciousness of repressed material.

Kierkegaard saw tragedy as belonging to a primitive ethical universe. He saw it as black pessimism ultimately depressing and to be rejected.

However, for most critics tragedy is not pessimistic. The philosophical question is how it can be thought to express the highest wisdom of pagan antiquity. Many have contrasted the tragic conception of life with the optimism of Judaic thought. Ordinary life contains tragedy, such as premature death. It can seem that optimism is not equal to this.

A tragic masterpiece is a pinnacle which is only attainable in very special conditions. The full tragic vision returns with Shakespeare, not as a mere imitation of the classical model. It is as if some fundamental truth had been rediscovered.

Several poets have managed to write perfectly respectable Greek tragedies, usually more for reading than for performance. Such tragedies may include a moral meaning but there is always some philosophy that even great critics find hard to capture in rational thought.

The urge to greatness, admirable in itself, is tragic because it leads to conflict, with disastrous consequences. There is a measure of the tragic hero’s own guilt, which seems an inexorable part of fate. He is brutally confronted with the cruelty of things. In that sense Greek tragedy is antichristian. Tragic consciousness is incompatible with Christian conscience. Guilt comes from polluting ancestral crimes, and is nothing to do with freewill. This, rather the humanistic optimism of New Age, is authentic paganism. Catastrophe is real but it is redeemable in future generations. This thought does not lessen tragedy but it counteracts despair.

Tragedy wrenches its audience out of habitual patterns of thinking. They adjust their attitude towards their own lives and experience an accompanying exhilaration. The first tragedians were subtle psychologists interacting with their audience, almost public servants.


470 – 399 BC

Socrates explains his mission in Plato’s Apology. His friend Chaerephon having been told by the oracle at Delphi, that there was no one wiser than Socrates, he had to find out what that meant. Added to this was his daimon, a voice that he used to hear and which guided him throughout his life, a warning rather than a directly inspiring one. Once he declared:- Our greatest blessings come to us by way of madness, provided the madness is given us by divine gift. He is equipped with a destiny over which he has little control.

Most of what we know of him comes from Plato’s portrayal in his dialogues. It is generally assumed that Socrates is Plato’s mouthpiece. This view is not universal. Leo Strauss (1899–1973) argued that Plato’s own real opinion in the Republic was not that of Socrates, but his opponent Thrasymachus, who asserts that justice is the interest of the stronger, which was Strauss’s own opinion. For Ryle it was Plato himself, rather than Socrates, who was charged with corrupting youth, so according to him Plato’s picture was even less historical than usually thought.

Plato’s Socrates was not really content just to ask questions. He formed strong views of his own, and was passionately concerned to persuade. The fascinating structure built of his personality assisted this aim.

In his Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche blames Socrates for destroying the old culture, but expresses admiration for him as the founder of the long scientific movement. Later, Nietzsche came to think of Socrates as engaged in similar project to his own, that of overcoming the decadence of his society. Nietzsche says that Socrates’ remedy of moral control was called for because the instincts of the Athenians had all become anarchic and were no longer to be trusted. However his remedy could not succeed. Whether we think of Socrates’ own decadence as his vicious instincts, or the fact they needed to be controlled, the working of his dialectical method were too dependent on his own personality. The cure he offers requires submission to himself as doctor, the domination of his own particular mind. Socrates’ own personal solution of restraint was, the only way he could flourish, but the model was itself decadent. Nietzsche’s solution is not open to the same objection. Contemporary decadence as he understood it involved falsification of reality. The solution is a perspective that exposes the falsification that has taken place. Such a solution is independent of the personality defects of the person who devised it.

In Socrates’ day conservatism meant something like the religious values of Aeschylus. Socrates delivers an attack on the so-called wisdom of established power, which hits back and kills him. The effect of his execution is so moving on his friends as immeasurably to reinforce their feeling of opposition to that power. Plato was so successful in preserving that personality in memory that we feel the same. The old order was subverted. After Socrates, Greek culture is embarked on a different path. Four to five hundred years later the gospels performed a comparable function. Both Socrates as he appears in Plato, and Jesus as he appears in John’s gospel are obviously victims of persecution, but the wrong of this appears in both cases to rest solely on their alleged possession of the truth.

Hegel managed to approve the condemnation of Socrates, as well as Socrates himself. He regards this as tragedy. Seeing thought as evolving by means of contradiction he accepts the possibility of a complete change of mind, like the child, identifying with the chorus rather than the hero.

A popular view of evil is to see it essentially as abuse of power or strength. But there is another perfectly honourable view according to which evil is something it is impossible to desire, a state of inevitable ignorance, pain even, which was how Socrates saw it. Bad conscience arises naturally from the inconsistent working out of principles, not just the breaking of some rule.

There are apparent parallels between the Chinese Confucian Mencius (385 – 302 BC) and Socrates. Both promote an idea of innate goodness, equating reason with virtue and virtue with happiness.


428 –347 BC

Unhappy with the relativism and scepticism of the Sophists, the weaknesses of which he associated with the evils brought by democracy, Plato sought a basis for certainty. Against the teaching that there are only different points of view, he aimed to make valid universal judgements possible. He thought he achieved this through his concept of reminiscence. Where Pythagoras had numbers, Plato puts Ideas or Forms, clearly perceived in a prenatal vision which it is the object of philosophy to recapture.

Rather than elucidating the will of some supreme being, Plato sought to develop ruling concepts. Mystery has its place but only the clearest thought is worthy to rule. One way of looking at his work is to see it as a programme for philosophers. In his Republic, philosophy, love of wisdom, is placed at the summit of society. Mere rhetoric must not usurp the function of providing ruling ideas. Relativism distorts the real meaning of the terms we habitually use.

Plato is criticised for otherworldliness, but the central issue with which he is concerned is understanding. He gives a framework around which philosophy can progress. Rather than trying to dictate values, he offers co-ordinating concepts. Arguing that the highest human life is lived under the guidance of reason, he wanted a society founded upon understanding rather than mere appetite. For him immorality is a kind of disorder. His main contribution to western thought lay not in the detail of his reasoning but the aspiration he promoted.

However, there was another side to him. Every Greek, it is said, desired to tyrannise, which explains much in Plato. Plato’s totalitarianism has had a long influence, rationalising persecution. It sits uneasily with the liberating character of much of his thought. In Laws, his last book, he has shed Socrates in more ways than one. Even his idea of the state as something that promotes virtue comes across as an oppressive thought, reached by a series of sophisms. He advocates busybodies, informers, snoops, nosy old women. Recognising that many of the laws he would like to establish would be resented, he would not allow intellectual credence to the opposition. He likens the book to a tragedy which he has composed. He is the artist tyrant.

Staying short of Popper’s (1902 –1994) thesis that Plato’s support for Socrates was a sham, concealing a consistently authoritarian agenda, it still seems paradoxical that one who acknowledges no dogmatic authority should think it right to destroy freedom for others. Plato was not interested in the sort of psychological understanding that preoccupies moderns. That was not part of his programme. He did not want to create equals, but to dominate future generations. Such ambition may be counted a vice of philosophers.

Even if he did more than anyone before him to create the demand for the universalisable, he does not appeal to it. In this respect his is a still half oriental world of prophets and revelations. Reading Plato is to see how the concept of knowledge had to advance beyond him. Once a doctrine has to be universally persuasive, the pleasure of intellectual tyranny is no longer possible. The quest for true knowledge replaces the urge to impose ideas upon others for ones own satisfaction. But if that was one line of development; there were others. It is possible to look at Christianity as a Greek creation, expressing the domination of one man’s mind, that of Plato. In rather different ways he was a seminal influence on Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism and Judaism. While the gospels reiterate the theme of the Apology in a cruder, more populist form, the persecuting spirit of the middle ages is arguably attributable to him.

In the Crito, Socrates and Plato show a respect for established law that was by no means general among their contemporaries. This is something very different from the individualism of the Hobbesian tradition, a desire for an intensely sociable freedom to coerce and dominate others.

A tradition of esoteric philosophy derives from Plato, actually, say some, from a misunderstanding of his jocular comparison of philosophical discovery to initiation in the mysteries. On this view the whole edifice of Hellenistic neoplatonism is a sad degeneration.



384 – 322 BC


Remarkably, in the last days of its greatness Athens produced an encyclopaedic body of work, attributed to one man, out of character with the rest of its achievement, that would lay the foundations for the very different accomplishments of new civilisations over a thousand years later.

Aristotle was firmly convinced that most of the problems that occupied all his predecessors had been solved with his own discovery of the four causes. He criticises materialism for not recognising the good as a cause. We can see his philosophy of substance as a way of determining what questions are substantial as distinct from just verbal. Important terms in his lexicon are his concepts of prior and posterior. Such tools provide the basis for a comprehensive system.  His crowning idea of the  unmoved mover, is actually a very life affirming philosophy. His God is all about pleasure and desire. Some argue that the substance attribute distinction only makes sense within Aristotle’s subject predicate logic, which in turn derived from contingent features of the grammar of Indo-European languages.

Plato liberates, despite the rigidity of some of his specific views. Aristotle’s categories (forms) have an immanence and a more concrete quality. With concepts like actuality and potentiality, he promotes the idea of a true end for each particular thing.

Plato’s procrusteanism comes from projecting downwards his own whims and particular opinions, by which he felt empowered, as the manifestation of the Forms in the sublunary world. We are free to prefer his abstractions, since whims and opinions differ from person to person. Where Plato would guide us to common rational ground on which we could reach agreement Aristotle’s scheme leads along a single path.

Aristotle has effected a synthesis which aims to make further radical speculation redundant. The philosophical quest is reduced to a set of tools we are to employ systematically. He shows us possible explanations, less convincingly why they should or must apply. He provided a programme for future science, a logic within the context of which all problems may be solved. This includes answers to some questions originally posed by Plato.

Mediaeval civilisation was given secure principles for a collective project. Only after his conceptual map has been well established, does the solution manifest as coercive, even misguided. Basic problems re-present themselves. At the Renaissance, “The Philosopher” was transformed into “The Pedant”.  Some say Democritus would have made a better authority than Aristotle. However, what survives of Democritus is thin, beyond one very fruitful hypothesis.

The origin of both Plato and Aristotle’s political philosophy is in the flaws of the city state, in the frustrated desire that it inculcates. But there is something different in Aristotle from Plato’s drive towards tyranny. He describes man as a political animal. Economic needs come before the desire to dominate. The momentum of Empire carried beyond the political into culture generally. Problems are treated as answered. Eventually one comes to forget the nature of the problems solved, originally posed as they were by people reluctant to give up their freedom.

To those who believe he misunderstood the Forms, Aristotle could not have been in Plato’s inner circle. To others he was Plato’s best commentator and critic. Even Plato’s understanding of the virtues of contemplation is rooted in the unsatisfactoriness of life in society. His reservations may be applied to forms of community other than the city state, a university for example. The flaws, vices and frustrations to which that is subject lead to the search for a new ideal to be held in the mind. The platonic solution to the shortcomings of life in society, is not entirely a retreat, more preservation of doctrine, by holding an idea in memory. With Plato’s rejection of current reality comes the need for a reality outside and above the given doxa, or received opinion. This is the origin of this sort of religious truth, which later comes to be tyrannically conceived. Aristotle, with from much the same starting point, tries to avoid this move, aiming at correcting the principles of the state, to avoid its evils. Less concerned to impose his power upon others he brings massive commonsense, rather than revolutionary power.



After Aristotle, intellectual interests shifted, and philosophy focussed more on how to live a good and happy life. Schools such as Stoicism, Scepticism, Epicureanism and Cynicism, came to prominence. Stoicism meant different things to different exponents and adherents. Nonetheless the philosophy of the slave Epictetus (55–135), was little different from that of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius (121–180), confounding any straightforward distinction between master and slave values.

On a personal level it was a philosophy of life. For some it was about principles like not loving your children too much because it is so upsetting when they die. Stoics saw the possibility of suicide as a proof of human freedom. As a way of coping with suffering and the perils and dangers of life, a form of Stoicism flourished among the criminal classes, of pre-Victorian England, when the risk of being hanged for minor crimes was real enough. It was said that:- “There’s nothing to hanging but a wry neck and wet breeches”.

With the disappearance of the Greek city state, fondly remembered in later centuries as an ideal form of political organisation, new political conceptions came to the fore. In comparison with Periclean democracy these may seem to mark a falling off, but they fitted changed circumstances. Some of the ingredients that went into building the civilisation of the Roman Empire may have represented decline by the standards of the highest Greek culture. Stoicism was one such ingredient, post-Socratic, post-Platonic philosophy. Stoicism is a philosophy that may seem appropriate for empire, like utilitarianism or some Chinese philosophies. It is a form of radical rationalism, imagining society to be a clean slate and building from there. An abstract theory of equal rights is the sort of idea that might appeal to an artist tyrant.

The founder of Stoicism was Zeno of Citium (334 – c. 262 BC), thought to be of Phoenician descent. His philosophy has been said to mark the entry of a non-Greek spirit into philosophy. Nietzsche wrote that :- “The Stoic is an Arabian sheik wrapped in Greek togas and notions“. He seems to have seen Stoicism as an alien form of master morality.

Zeno followed Plato by writing his own Republic, in which he called for a form of equality. His pupil Chrysippus (c. 279 –206 BC) wrote a commentary in which as a consistent rationalist, he went so far as to defend incest and cannibalism. Such a thoroughgoing rationalism, might seem very alien to the essence of Christianity. Nevertheless lot of Stoicism went into the new religion.
Stoic conceptions of virtue and law promoted unity and stability, anticipating aspects of Christianity, which was not in its core an ethical teaching. Stoicism apparently sprang not from revolutionary motives but from a rationalistic love of order. Gaining authority it set up its own principles which acquired force as custom morality, which could subsist without the need for an underlying religious value or even philosophical justification. For Stoicism the pursuit of virtue put man in tune with logos, with nature, the purpose of existence. This was a departure from Aristotle and Plato’s Socrates, who connected morality fairly directly with egoism. It had a long after influence.
Eighteenth century British moral philosophy looked back to the egoistic foundations of the earlier Greeks. These ideas came to France, where they played an important part in the enlightenment.

Interest in the Stoics came from a different source, the classicising cult fostered by Rousseau, involving the fashionable imitation of antique models. The German obsession with morality ultimately derived from this French movement. Out of it came Kantian ethics which continues to influence prevailing moral attitudes up to the present day.

In recent years Foucault, with his fund of obscure classical learning, found something to admire in Stoicism. However Stoicism is not usually thought very interesting these days, though recognised as a counteragent to certain evils of its time.


Chuang Tsu

369 – 286

Chuang Tsu

369 – 286


Rather than Epicurus (341–270 BC), I include a chapter on Chuang Tsu whose attitudes are similar, but more positive and substantial.


In the Hellenistic world, decline of the city state led to an erosion of the classical ideal of fulfilment through civic activity. By the time of the Roman Empire, inward looking philosophies of Stoicism and Epicureanism competed for the allegiance of the educated citizen. Some blame the hedonism of the latter for contributing to what is popularly understood as Roman decadence.


Movements of ethical speculation among the Chinese may be seen as a response to despotism. The Chinese philosopher, Mo Tzu (c. 470 –391 BC) taught universal love. He was severely criticised by Mencius, Chuang Tsu and others. Chuang Tsu advised against ambition, which in his day involved the court. For corresponding modern institutions we might think of the universities or the BBC. Worldly ambition is still a motive in the modern world, even when pressure to conform to egalitarian values is steadily eroding its character of independence.


In Rome, increasing despotism narrowed the outlet for ambition ever further. Classical freedom was replaced by a movement towards equality, as more and more shared the rewards of citizenship. The old pagan motives of ambition were channelled into acceptance of doctrine. Christian orthodoxy imposed itself as a political movement. The rewards of power came at the price of mental conformity. To reject that was to reject power, suggesting a mood of pessimistic resignation.


While Lao Tsu is cryptic and mysterious. Chuang Tsu at his best is lucid. As a philosopher he is classified as a radical sceptic. His book begins with a description of the enormous fish, k’un, in a passage that makes a radically relativistic point. One usually reads it less as philosophy than as wisdom, rather as Christians see the Sermon on the Mount. Among modern westerners Christianity has lost much of its ground to fragments of oriental wisdom, picked up from books.


Ancient Chinese civilisation originated its own founding principles. Rigid traditionalism is one pole, another being openness to drastic change. For deeper explanation, we may identify the religious source of the culture as the eternal Tao and polarity of yang and yin. These was the creative forces in China, rather than an anthropomorphic God, or the eternally repeated cycles of the Indians. A way of approaching the Chinese soul is to see this as its esoteric heart.


Lao Tsu said “non existence is called the mother of Heaven and Earth.” The Tao is the source of the greatest creative power. An approximation to the creative power of the universe is artistic and cultural creativity. Westerners have their anthropomorphic Father God; the Chinese have their indefinable Tao. The Tao is not only the mother of heaven and earth, but the source of all values, including the most intense ecstatic excitement, and passionate enthusiasm.


One image of old China is an emperor and his court, representing an ideal government; another is the Taoist immortal, god of longevity. The Taoist sage understands the conditions of happiness and the satisfactions to be got from the various stages of life. He seeks longevity, not because he believes that this is the only life there is but because he wants to live and enjoy. Repudiating the vanity of worldly ambition is not renunciation or weakness, but a clear perception of priorities. One could become a government minister, but that would be to chase a mere bauble, and a dangerous one too.


Fitzgerald’s Omar Khayyam enjoins us to  pity Sultan Mahmud on his throne. The Rubaiyat is Epicureanism for the Victorians. What is the point in becoming a mere prime minister, a director general, or a Lord Chief Justice?


The idealised picture of the Chinese court stands for successful ambition, the highest aims of the worldly mind. Yet for Chuang Tsu, to fulfil even the most honoured role is still merely to play a part. That feeds only vanity, not the deeper pride of the sage. Chuang Tsu refused high office.


A response to some oppressive circumstances of ancient China, this philosophy of rejecting established values has universal application, including to our own society, and is profoundly liberating.



Plato’s tension between freedom and tyranny is softened in Neoplatonism, as it was for the Gnostics, whom Plotinus (c. 204–270) wrote against. The consciousness of a form of spiritual oppression and the need to overcome it, it have influenced poets and artists down the ages .

The idea of the One is conceived philosophically, yet involves the mystical idea that such teachings are only to be fully understood from the vantage point of certain abnormal states of consciousness. The basic concepts with which mysticism works are revealed by the intellect, but the complete removal of perplexity will be an intense subjective experience. Perfect understanding is an object of aspiration, an image of ecstatic fulfilment. So philosophy comes to involve the postulation of a psychological condition. Complete understanding is identity with the One, the insight drained of all possible predicates. The One is in a sense nothing. It is understanding, but that is all that can be said about it. It has no particular content. It is the antithesis of perplexity, and therefore enticing, for we are most of the time at least moderately perplexed, and it is the overcoming of this resistance.

Once this desirable objective has been attained, what more is there for philosophy to do? Other states of mind can be conceived with are also desirable. Philosophy becomes magic. Neoplatonism developed allegorical interpretations of dogma, and magical ideas of manipulating ideas and concepts to produce desired effects.

Plotinus’ three hypostases correspond to inner contemplative experience. They are treated as producing the world. This might seem a primitive idea, but the relation is logical; procession is merely the reversal of return. It is the way you may get from the One to the many. It is not a scientific explanation. When you return to the world of things from an ecstatic state of contemplative enlightenment it is as if you create it.

Plotinus’ system is intellectual, the truth of his experience of enlightenment is made to depend on the cohesion of his intellectual construction. Inevitably this is subject to doubt. The One may be characterised as that philosophical insight that resolves philosophical perplexity. Yet insofar as the One is postulated as possible, it generates its opposite. Needing to make the experience more secure, later neoplatonists turned to theurgy and myth. However we admire the rationalist purity, its vulnerability to criticism threatens to undermine the mystical experience.

That Plotinus tended to be ignored by later neoplatonists was natural. Committed to reason rather than authority, they sought ways of anchoring and expressing the experience. Plotinus had been happy to submit his concepts to the test of reason. The One and Intellect are describable and approachable in different ways. This is an empirical method of showing what these Platonic forms are like, while referring to religious certainty and understanding.

Iamblichus (c. 245 – c. 325) and Proclus (412 –485) attempted to develop an understanding of how emanation is possible.

Ancient Neoplatonism is considered decadent, whereas its revival at the Renaissance was vital and fecund. The ancient world had lost its expansionist vigour and fell into inwardness and pessimism. The Renaissance reinterpreted Neoplatonism in the light of the conquering spirit that guided the Christianity of the contemporary west.

Neoplatonists like Iamblichus and Emperor Julian (c. 332 –363) have been derided for their doomed attempt at a pagan counter revolution. Yet it was this line of development that was taken up again at the renaissance. Christian orthodoxy formed a systematic unity in a manner in which paganism never did.

Proclus, the last great pagan philosopher, was one of the most directly and indirectly influential philosophers in the history of thought, yet he is little known or read. He presented his philosophy in a systematic, logical format that recalls Spinoza. It is said he was as intolerant as the Christian fathers. Though a counter-revolutionary, eager to replace harmful decadent propaganda with positive, healthy alternatives, he resisted communist oppression in the name of a tyranny opposite and equivalent.

Neoplatonism was taken up not only by pagans and Christians but also by Muslims. For Al Farabi (870 – 950), the purpose of religious symbolism is to transmit the teachings of the philosophers.



Some western philosophers have found in Buddhism a rich source of inspiration. The culture of late nineteenth century romanticism harmonised with the philosophy of Schopenhauer, which was essentially Buddhistic. As the Buddhist seeks release from suffering (dukkha), so Schopenhauer turns to art as release from the frustration of the will, rejecting ideals of man or woman possessed with desire and delighting in it. For some moderns Buddhism suggests the idea of cure for mental illness, which is one obvious form of dukkha.


Early Buddhism is sometimes dismissed as narrow and sectarian, lacking the scepticism about itself that is one of attractive features of the later Mahayana schools. The early scriptures advise you not to take their doctrine on faith, but try it for yourself. For the Mahayanist talk of Buddhas and enlightenment may not have ultimate truth or value.

In saying that “meaning is use” Wittgenstein ruled out a private meaning for his sentences as much as for anyone else’s. Chris Gudmunsen, in his book Wittgenstein and Buddhism (1977), argued that Nagarjuna’s (c. 150–250) Madhyamika philosophy expresses a similar insight with the concept of Sunyata, the Void, or emptiness. Gudmundsen compares the earlier Abhidharma philosophy to Russellian logical atomism, and Nagarjuna’s criticisms of it to later Wittgenstein. The Vedanta, against which the Abhidharma was itself a reaction, he compares to Bradley’s monism. All Buddhist philosophy, however, relates to trances (dhyana), in which the truths of philosophy are clearly understood.

According to this teaching, suffering is unreal, because all phenomena are unreal. Phenomena have only illusory reality, like dreams. Perceive them truly and they do not exist. Salvation is not to be sought by making permanent some particular mood or experience, but comes from an understanding of the ordinary. The objective is still Nirvana, which is declared to be void. Understanding truth is empty, and language is empty. This is not the same as saying there is no truth, which would be self-contradictory.

Dharmas, the elements into which the Abidhamma analyses experience, are not useful or significant ideas. They lack inherent existence. Things exist as they appear, but only in a phenomenal way. There is nothing hidden. In the Sunyata doctrine dukkha means getting trapped by (illusory) bad dharmas.

As Nagarjuna was against the Abhidhamma so Dharmakirti (c. 600–660) was against him. Dharmakirti’s Yogachara, the Mind Only school, lays particular emphasis on the traditional no-soul doctrine, Anatta. You posit a soul to show how you are the same person as you were yesterday, but the past does not exist. All that does is the now. One set of mental phenomena produce another set. There is nothing constant; the only continuity is that one past state is the cause of this present state . When I say the past me was me I mean no more than that what is now present was caused by that which was past. The idea of a soul would suggest that the past does in a manner continue, that my past belongs to me in a way that suggests it is still present.

Stcherbatsky’s (1866 –1942) commentaries on his translations of Yogachara philosophers in his Buddhist Logic try to demonstrate the truth of Dharmakirti’s ideas, or their superiority to certain western ideas. His philosophical excursions give an interesting perspective on Kant.

Buddhists were considered to be arrogant nihilists by the other Indian schools. Denying the existence of the past suggests O’Brien’s philosophy of history, from 1984. What makes statements about the past true of false? Only the relation they have to the present, to memory and to extrapolated sequences of cause and effect. Even the present is constructed. What has reality apart from my immediate consciousness? How much reality do I give the past?

Such thoughts give plausibility to the Buddhist idea of the Kantian thing-in-itself as the infinitesimal point-instant. If the past does not exist, if it is only construction and extrapolation, if we could extrapolate differently might this not be just as true? In a world where there is an unlimited possible things that could be thought, why not think what we like, or at least what we can? Why not believe in ghosts, spirits, and other gratifying things?


St Augustine

354 –430

The Christianity of Origen, (184–254) the first Christian philosopher, who studied with pagan neoplatonists, might be interpreted as one answer to problems set by Plato. Later the original problems were forgotten in face of an overriding authority and command to believe. Christianity became a presupposition of thought, and philosophy a way of making sense of it, rather than justifying belief to the honest sceptic.


There was a route from Plotinus’ supposedly rational mysticism into Christian thought. A neoplatonic element was grafted onto the Church. Marius Victorinus was a fourth century Neoplatonist philosopher who converted to Christianity in extreme old age and contributed to Trinitarian ontology, influencing St Augustine of Hippo.

Plato’s application of dialectic, gave intellectual credence and self assurance to a revolutionary motive. Augustine took it to its limit the Socratic example of subverting classical civilisation from within. Nor was this the only way that Socrates’ influence was exerted on him. One line led from Plato via Neoplatonism, patristic theology, to mediaeval Catholicism. There is another, which includes Alcibiades, and the sceptics of the later academy like Carneades (214–129 BC). We think of Socrates as the moraliser Plato presents, but he insisted that the only thing he knew was that he knew nothing, and was very fond of Alcibiades. The nihilistic scepticism of the New Academy was another path towards the dogmatism of Christianity, which was much helped by the conviction there can be no truth. For dogmatists to feel strong and confident in what power and authority they have achieved, they need to feel they have refuted the possibility of effective resistance. The sceptic may have no qualms about espousing whatever beliefs and values bring fame, power, wealth and other recognised social goods.

St Paul’s Judaic, anti-pagan impulse was something for which the mature Augustine showed a striking affinity, taking it to a new level of sophistication. For him the concepts with which we are to approach mystical experience are fixed and unalterable. This was the way of dogmatic authority.

Augustine spoke for a pessimistic mood that was becoming increasingly prevalent. Weltschmerz is a sense of the incapacity of anything in life to satisfy. With cultural decline those values which should normally have the power to console are robbed of meaning. Art has become mere amusement. There has been such coarsening that normality itself is experienced as an oppression that affirming it would only compound. Man’s task is to recover meaning, releasing the joy that should be there. To this end all life is conceived within a supposedly universal moral framework identified with God. You are to live either with this meaning or none.

There was comparable disillusion at the time of Buddha, if the solution was different. Schopenhauer sympathised with Augustine, sharing his abhorrence of life affirmation.

The first few centuries AD saw the growth of ascetic values, in paganism as well as Christianity. Neither St Paul nor St Augustine were concerned with what a modern would consider to be social health or psychological hygiene. To Augustine sexuality brought disillusion and despair. His sense of sin was something relatively new, at least in the Graeco-Roman world. He regarded the world of sensuality as dirty. Not all his contemporaries took such a path, but he expressed a mentality that was increasingly influential. We all have some memory of how a naughty child feels. The God of the Jews comes across as a stern parent in the sky. The Olympian gods were not experienced like this; there was too much conflict between them. The one God of the philosophers had to become personalised before He could infantilise.

The eventual resuscitation of the pagan spirit was to restore especially those aspects so condemned by Augustine. In the visual arts the Florentine renaissance saw the development of the tradition of the nude. Lyrical enthusiasm for the naked body was part of the “filth” that Augustine was condemning, following Judaic tradition. After renaissance artists, the unravelling of Christianity, recapturing something of the pre-Christian joy of the senses was continued by eighteenth century scholars and antiquaries. While enlightenment involved some simplification Edward Gibbon (1737 –1794), for example, had an anti-Christian vision as coherent as Augustine’s Christian one.




“Since Dionysius the Areopagite, nobody in the West, neither Leonardo da Vinci nor Paracelsus, nor Goethe nor Nietzsche, has been in deeper communion with the cosmos than Dalí”. – Abstract painter Georges Mathieu (1921 – 2012).

Forgetting about Salvador Dali, this is extravagant praise for Pseudo-Dionysius, from a viewpoint that is not especially Christian. Yet even serious Christians have linked Dionysius to Nietzsche. It was suggested, by the English translator of these mystical writings that had Nietzsche known them he would never have felt obliged to leave the Christian “fold”.

Whatever Nietzsche’s problems with getting heard, anonymous publication and pseudepigraphy were not for him. But such practices have had great influence upon literature. One example was that of the Rosicrucian manifestos. Before that were the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius, the fountainhead of Christian mysticism, as well as an influence on the Kabbalah via Eriugena (c.815–c.877). He invented the world “hierarchy” in his work on The Celestial Hierarchies. His cosmology provided the model for much mediaeval political speculation.

Pseudo-Dionysius brought neoplatonic enlightenment into Christianity with his apophatic theology Latinised as the via negativa. Proclus had made Neoplatonism severely logical, mostly eliminating the mystical element. While making use of Proclus’ system, Dionysius is usually seen as a mystic, who asserts rather than argues. Nonetheless he brings severe logic into Christianity, minimising most of the emotional and superstitious aspect. Much of scripture becomes ‘mystery’ not to be interpreted in the anthropomorphic style that was characteristic of Jewish thought of the time, and which persists in Freud’s ingenious psychological interpretations of the origins of the faith. Instead of centring around human beings and human relationships, fatherhood, commandments, love, earthly miracles and the like, Dionysius achieves a high level of abstraction. The scriptures could be seen as raw educative material. Well read in Greek philosophy he wants to preach or teach something with the Jewish scriptures providing the symbolic groundwork. He uses them to procure an existence in the world for his own thoughts, much as he would explicitly disclaim such a motive.

Pseudo-Dionysius refuses to make goodness or even truth into the ultimate value. For him the highest aim was not truth but something which transcended truth. The way to understand him is not with the intellect alone; rather by openness to his concept of the super essential godhead, that which he cannot adequately even name, as being prior to truth, which is a kind of clearing to it.

Unlike Paul’s God who has some human qualities like folly and weakness, and Augustine’s emotional conception of lover and beloved, Dionysius’s neo-platonic deity is to be approached through his perfections.

The Oneness of Plotinus, the Void of Nagarjuna, as well as the above oneness of Pseudo-Dionysius, may all be taken to refer to a state of supreme mystical enlightenment. Each represents a genuine psychological experience. The problem is describing it or even indicating it in words. Any attempt to define a state of supreme enlightenment is liable to generate its opposite of total horror and oppression. Dionysius admits there are great difficulties in expressing what he means to say. He will talk around a subject, confessing that his words can only suggest what it is he wants. He is not held down by anything, for nothing has any permanent truth or reality unless it be that which is beyond all this and on that level does not matter. Yet there are provisional levels of truth and reality, all unified in that yearning for that Absolute which is nothing in particular. So all knowledge is a unity. Truth can be approached from many sides all of which cohere. There is no need to become fixated on any idea whatever against one’s will, enlightenment requires that harmony superior to any phantom of intellectual integrity. Ideas do not have to cohere from below, they will do so if they are sufficiently developed. His method is impressive, it needs to be followed in its application.

Confronted with his transcendent-super-essence, atheism tends to lose its point. Judged from its standpoint the dogmatic framework that builds up to it need not even be true. Dogmatism has a clear political aspect, however and may be objected to on that ground.




After the Arab conquest, Greek higher education continued in Syria and Egypt. Syriac speaking Christians translated works of Greek philosophy into Arabic. So there developed a high Arab culture that was inspired by the Greek. Several Islamic philosophers took inspiration from Aristotle. Avicenna (980 –1037) in turn influenced in different directions. One branch led to the rationalism of Averroes (1126 –1198) which became known in Europe, and another, by contrast, to the neoplatonic influenced theosophy of Suhrawardi (1155–1191) which came to prevail in much of the Muslim world.

From the twelfth until the eighteenth centuries Muslim philosophy was regularly studied in western universities. That is no longer the case. The Jewish philosopher Maimonides, writer of the Guide for the Perplexed is sometimes studied though. We may take him as a representative of Arab civilisation. He just belonged to a slightly different faction, as did Spinoza in relation to the western tradition. Jews were important mediators between the Arabs and the Christian west.

Moses ben Maymun, Maimonides in Latinized form, was born in Cordoba, Moorish Muslim Spain, like his near contemporary Ibn Rushd, whose name was Latinised as Averroes.

Maimonides takes issue with a group of Muslim philosophers called the Mutazilites. These were atomists and occasionalists, with a number of intriguing speculations, like time-atoms, that may still be of some interest to metaphysicians.

Maimonides’ object was to make Jewish sacred scripture compatible with Aristotle, as Averroes was doing for the Muslim ones. It is instructive to read how this was achieved and how natural it can seem. He had ways of reading in the light of what was already taken to be the truth. Reading Maimonides one can get a feel for the joy of scholasticism, which was applied Aristotle. This was mediaeval philosophy, as it came to be pursued in the college and the cloister.

Maimonides writes of God as having no attributes. This is to say He has no positive attributes in the Aristotelian sense. He distinguishes between negative and positive attributes. In describing anything positive, like any form of happiness, it is necessary to express something of the negative state of mind that has been overcome or the communication will be meaningless.

Maimonides has an interesting theory about emanation, explaining rationally how it could operate, but creation ex nihilo is important to him as permitting something to operate other than blind nature. Religion and philosophy get joined together. Religion, taken as the vehicle for truth, is open to interpretation and allegorisation. He can almost make it appear right that it should. Nowadays we have little use for these schemes, but should understand how they could work or a mind like his. Religion is treated as something like a symbolic language. Similar methods might be used for forms of purported wisdom other than religious dogma. In some ways he is most plausibly rational.

Maimonides, following Aristotle, despises the pleasures of touch as merely animal. He says that trouble overcome is much better than a life of ease. He argues cleverly for religious dogmas and gives a reasonable account of the meaning of the Jewish Law. It may seem he was writing not so much of what was true as of what it would be the best thing to have people believe. That could be a fully rational motive. His disagreement with what he presents as the superstition of the Sabaeans is persuasive. He writes of their worship of stars, all sorts of mumbo jumbo, recalling for modern readers the state of the Hindus before the impact of the British in India, and the foundation of reform movements like the Arya Samaj. This suggests the idea of more advanced races putting things in order when cultural decadence seems an inescapable reality.

However most modern readers would object to Maimonides’ homicidal intolerance, which one supposes goes back to Plato. Though he quotes Deuteronomy for this, he might have tried to explain that away allegorically. Also from Deuteronomy he discusses the case of “the beautiful captive woman”, endorsing the justification of wartime rape.

He has influenced some recent Jewish philosophers like Leo Strauss (1899 –1973).



1225 –1274

Mediaeval west European Catholic civilisation produced much beautiful architecture. It is notable how often those works of art alleged to be the supreme human achievements are the exemplification of some philosophy. The Sistine chapel ceiling is a form of neo-Platonism, Wagner’s great music dramas express Schopenhauer, and Dante’s Divine Comedy is Aquinas, a philosophy which may be thought to exhaust the whole of his mystery. On the other had there seems to be no philosophical system behind Shakespeare’s work.

Aquinas is very highly rated by some intellectuals with Catholic backgrounds or sympathies. There are modern equivalents of orthodoxy to which he may be found congenial. Alasdair MacIntyre (b. 1929) invokes him for a sort of soft Marxism. He counts himself an Aristotelian but he says he prefers Aquinas to Aristotle.

Twelfth century Catholicism strongly appealed to a strain of twentieth century romanticism. T S Eliot (1888 –1965) extols the perfection of Aquinas’ system as found in Dante’s great poem. For him Dante (1265 – 1321) is the paradigm of a poet, because he adopted complete a ready made philosophy, and wrote entirely within that framework, rather than trying to think original thoughts like Blake. Catholic philosopher Brian Davies (b. 1951) claims that in Aquinas’ commentary on Book II of Aristotle’s Physics section 243, there is a “neat anticipation of Darwin‘s theory of natural selection”. Roger Scruton (b. 1944) praises Aquinas for his allegedly unparalleled understanding of human emotion.

Aquinas’ synthesis works as a solution to preceding problems. Frozen into authority it becomes a straitjacket. Protestantism was an impulse towards building a civilisation rooted in an ideal of freedom that was based upon revolt against the totalitarian spirit of the Roman Catholic church. Such a spirit appeared to have reached its summa in the Summa of Thomas Aquinas. Milton wrote of “our sage and serious Poet Spenser, whom I dare be known to think a better teacher then Scotus or Aquinas.” Eliot has little respect for the protestant spirit that was probably always present, if only as heresy. He lacks sympathy for Milton, even for much of Shakespeare.

Many a Christian looks to establish his own idea of justice, which involves imposing his own view of things on the recalcitrant while disclaiming any personal satisfaction involved. For Aquinas the righteous pleasures of watching the sufferings of the damned in Hell, are to be distinguished from the cruel joys of the merely vengeful. Yet according to him one of the main joys of Heaven was to be this sadistic gloating. By way of mitigation some claim that in Aquinas’ concept of hell the damned are punished not through sensations but through frustration of desire.

Reading Aquinas it can be hard to tell which is Aristotle and which is himself. His proofs of God are ingenious and he has done a good job of harmonising Aristotelian doctrine and reconciling it with Christianity. But there are general weaknesses in this type of scholasticism, for all its achievements in detail. One of them is simply its vast complexity. It cannot plausibly ask for complete conviction as there are so many interesting alternatives at every point. Yet by Pope Leo XIII Thomism was declared the official philosophy of the Roman Catholic Church.

There are hints among some modern philosophers of a post-Descartes return to Aristotle and Aquinas, which others see as evasion of intellectual conscience. Aquinas represents the dogma of the Church, so that we should not see him as offering a rational argument against Descartes, useful to non-Catholics.

He neatly explains that Christianity is concerned with this-worldly happiness as well as next-worldly. In fact that is not altogether logical; we might even think it smug. It cuts across philosophical criticism by asserting what is convenient.

The transparency of his rationalism results in an unmystical type of philosophy. He is clearly a very Christian thinker. If we can detect dishonesty, it is not to be found in his proofs of God’s existence, rather when it comes to justifying the terms used to describe His attributes. Given the descriptions applied to God:- wisdom, justice etc., there is tension in the reconciliation of reason and revelation.


Duns Scotus

1266 –1308

 Duns Scotus has written very well … and has endeavoured to teach with good system and correctly. Occam was an intelligent and ingenious man … Thomas Aquinas is a gossiping old washerwoman. — Martin Luther (1483 –1546).

The widespread assumption that Aquinas is so much greater than Duns Scotus or Ockham (c.1287– 1347) is far from self evident. It is tempting to see him as a very competent commentator on Aristotle. The orthodoxy both of his Aristotelianism and his Christianity may seem to make for a lack of the originality one would seek in a great philosopher.

Even some people who have generally disdained English philosophy have conceded it had a glorious beginning with Duns Scotus and William of Ockham (c. 1287–1347). Duns Scotus was a Scot who studied and taught at Oxford and Paris, dying in Cologne.

While Aquinas had a grand coherent system, Ockham and Duns Scotus were more free minded, original and open. It was with Scotus that scholastic philosophy began to reflect on itself. Rather than adapting all philosophical argument to fit the dogmas given by the Church Fathers, Scotus turned the light of critical reflection onto these arguments themselves. The objective of philosophy as he conceived it was therefore different from what it was for Aquinas, and consequently his argument is far more subtle and confuses those who look for proof of church doctrines. On some questions he discussed he did not reach a conclusion. He was known as Doctor Subtillis. The term “dunce” was not directed at him personally, but at his followers in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries who rejected the new learning. Girodano Bruno had great respect for Scotus as well as for Ockham.

It was Heidegger who asserted that it wasn’t until Leibniz that the question of why there is something rather than nothing came to be put forward. It is by no means clear he was right. Duns Scotus, with whom Heidegger was familiar, was much exercised with proofs of God’s existence based on possibility. This suggests at least something of Leibniz’s concerns. Philosophers like Spinoza and Leibniz, also to some extent Descartes, invoke the idea of possibility as a ground, a concept that is supposed to make the world more comprehensible. Duns Scotus might be thought to have anticipated them in this. Unhappy with Aquinas’ proofs of God’s existence, he focuses on understanding God as the metaphysical ground of possibility.

Seeing that Aquinas represents the dogma of the Church, it is arguably misleading to look to him for a rational arguments that can appeal to non Catholics, as some modern philosophers have tried to do. Scotus is more original than Aquinas. He has said things about individual uniqueness that suggest some remarks of Stirner, as well as Heidegger and other existentialists. Ever since the “Hacceity, or “thisness”, of Scotus, philosophers have sought a label for the most uniquely individual. Heidegger fused all kinds of influences, of which Scotus was one and Kierkegaard another.

One of Scotus’ objectives was to remove the Augustinian elements from Aquinas and so restore a pure Aristotle, free from neoplatonic elements. If in Neoplatonism there is much which can be given a rationally acceptable interpretation, its nature philosophy, as present in St Augustine, was from a scientific point of view deeply unfortunate. Among those neoplatonic elements in Aquinas was a system of intellectually necessary connections, which left little room for freedom or contingency. The Aristotelian project was never fully carried out in his own day. So even if we understand Scotus as trying to restore a pure Aristotle, this was not a reactionary thing to do, rather strongly progressive. His emphasis on will and possibility tended to break the chain of necessary connections.


There is an idea that beyond the truth of any philosophy, should lie something like a map of all possible ideas. This would be the path of Kabbalistic enlightenment. The Kabbalah is like a practical combination of neoplatonism and Gnosticism, absorbing influences from the hierarchies of Pseudo-Dionysius via Eriugena. It needs a lot of study to be appreciated.

The capacity of some major philosophers to generate thought can suggest the Kabbalah, where the ecstasy of intellectual thought is harnessed in the service of the individual will. In the obscurity of Hegel the reader gets something resembling a mystical idea of something to be understood at the end. Along the way there are flashes of understanding as if Hegel had already thought everything. His air of knowingness is that of the Kabbalah. There is a similar motivation, an excitement and a hope of complete understanding.

The Kabbalisitc Tree of Life offers a symbolism for handling the entire range of possible thoughts and ideas, based on the ten divine emanations, or attributes, known as the sephiroth. Given a Malkuth and a Kether, all the other sephiroth are gradations in between, arranged according to an ingenious combination to allow for maximum expressive power.

Combinations of the sephiroth can allegedly cover everything. The Kabbalistic scholar starts studying one thing, one. He makes discoveries. Then his illumination spreads to surrounding fields as he gradually gains the insights he seeks. The ecstatic freedom of the mystic contrasts with the depressing thraldom of superstition. The Kabbalists’s object is not to bind and subjugate. He is reliving and exploring possible modes of experience. To get into this is not to be shackled by superstition.

Seeking an overview of every possible idea, one does not dispense with a creed or structure of belief. Any religion or ideology has a predominant and original tendency. The more successful the more it absorbs the whole framework of debate, so that all differences of opinion are to be discovered within its symbolic framework. Thus those who oppose the predominant and original tendency will, rather than rejecting the religion, sophisticate and deepen it.

Kabbalah is like a way of classifying all the components of the world of ideas in which one moves, which was originally that of holy scripture. New ideas are stimulated in the memory by playing with words and numbers. Bible reading leads to a sort of emotional debauchery, a fantastic indulgence, for certain people. Other writings can be substituted for the Bible. In the principle of the kabbalah, all delightful possibilities open up to the mind.

States of mind produced by following associations, form patterns that can bring creative inspiration. Infusing words, letters and numbers with power gives techniques of jumping from idea to idea with the object of inducing mental states to which special concepts apply. This is a form of lucid intoxication such as occurs with certain drugs, a trip around what one knows, and may otherwise forget.

Gershom Scholem (1897–1982) says the Kabbalah brings myth into the heart of Judaism, which is normally averse to it. It introduces a philosophy of life that makes desire paramount, and can therefore be found liberating. One myth is the idea of exclusion or exile, others are to do with sexuality. The Sephira Yesod, is the Foundation, the Pillar, the lower righteousness, the phallus. Kabbalah is mystical commentary on dogmas. Dogmas mean constraint, repression. The mystical is a way round that with almost Freudian suggestions of the place of sexuality in life. Freud was absorbed in Jewish problems of mysticism and sabbatianism, which helped to inspire his theories of sexuality. These ideas, including those of the book Zohar, contribute to creativity of thought but also the aggression. There was the idea of the yoke of the law as the price to be paid for power offered.

For Shahak (1933–2001) the real meaning of the Kabbalah is crude sexual mythology. He also says Jewish hatred for the goyim reaches a climax in here. According to him Scholem disguises these essential features. Yet Jewish mysticism gives a fascinating perspective which has contributed much to western civilisation. The Kabbalah long influenced gentiles. There was a Christian Kabbalah.




In Constantinople a Christian neoplatonic tradition flourished for some centuries. The distinguished philosopher and historian Michael Psellus (1017-1078) led an eleventh century classical revival which influenced the arts. He sought to reconcile paganism and Christianity, and for the first time for centuries some people began to take the pagan gods seriously again. He commented on the Chaldean Oracles, as did his fifteenth century successor Plethon, who attributed them to Zoroaster.

Born George Gemistos, this neoplatonist adopted the name of Plethon, because it sounded like Plato. Based at Mystra in the despotate of the Morea, near the site of ancient Sparta, he lived in the last days before the fall of Constantinople to the Turks.

He came to Florence in 1439 in an unsuccessful attempt to heal the schism between the eastern and western churches. There he met Marsilio Ficino, and brought Greek learning to the west. If there was one person who consciously decided to produce the Italian Renaissance, it was he.

Plethon himself was uninterested in art. Yet art is one of the forms in which philosophy may survive, as renaissance platonism could and did. Platonism in the west had a vitalising, energising, culturally creative effect, recapturing something of the life affirming spirit of the ancients. Even Proclus is genuine Greek tradition. The Greeks back to Homer and beyond are the root of western civilisation. Neoplatonism helped to clarify a somewhat anti-Christian tendency.

We may see Plethon as a religious thinker. He wrote pagan hymns which are however said to show no religious feeling. He is recorded as saying that in a few years Christianity would be a replaced a by a new religion, which would be the neopagan one that he had just invented. This involved a trinity of Zeus, Poseidon and Hera. All the gods lived in harmony and filial obedience to their father Zeus. They were thus very different from the lustful and amoral gods of Homer. In his new religion he taught polygamy, the temporal infinity of the universe and that human souls would be reincarnated an infinite number of times.

Historians have ridiculed his project. Arnold Toynbee (1889 –1975) criticised his character for “unwarranted self assurance and unrealistic pedantry” but nevertheless concludes that there is something to be said for the restoration of paganism, putting awe back into nature in opposition to the Hebrew injunction from Genesis (chapter 1 verse 28) to “replenish the earth and subdue it and have dominion” which, says Toynbee, is bringing about ecological catastrophe.

For a cultural reformer like Plethon, Plato was more useful than Aristotle. Plethon’s totalitarian intolerance derived from Plato’s Laws. He prescribed the death penalty for unbelief in his own made up religion. In their repressive illiberalism both Plato and Plethon were trying to protect cultural values they saw as under threat. As old men they both showed great intolerance and callousness. Plethon’s advocacy of burnings as punishment for dissent from his philosophical opinions strikes us as extremely inhumane and repellent. One would like to think his suggestion was ironical, but it was apparently sincere. His tyrannical lack of sympathy, argues a kind of autocratic megalomania. His aim is to make man God. Going beyond his ancient predecessors, he preaches a harsher intolerance to defeat the evils identified in the decadence around him.

According to Plethon’s Aristotelian orthodox opponent, Scholarios (1400 -1473) who was to become Patriarch of Constantinople under the Turks, Plethon’s teacher was one Elissaeus Judaeus, , apparently a Jew who had become a pagan and was burnt at the stake. He in turn is said to have been influenced by the Iranian mystic Suhrawardi, who drew Platonic and Zoroastrian themes into his sufistic theosophy. Scholarios himself had an underlying obsession with religious orthodoxy, which may come across as intellectual dishonesty.



1433- 1499


Plethon brought with him to Florence some works of Plato previously unknown in western Europe. Before tackling these, Ficino was asked by Cosimo de Medici to translate the writings of Hermes Trismegistus, which he had also received. Under such influences Ficino developed a neoplatonic philosophy of his own and became one of the most influential philosophers of the Italian Renaissance.

In the fourth century Roman Empire, Iamblichus had brought oriental theosophical traditions into philosophy, many of which involved elaborate cosmologies. Ficino saw himself as a link in the great chain of Platonists, which included Hermes, Zoroaster, Plato, and more lately Nicholas Cusanus (1401–1464). The philosophy lent itself to visualisation in the form of diagrams, simplifications for practical use. Hermeticism involved ecstatic theosophy. The neoplatonic mystic aimed towards the most desirable state, in the context of various images of the structure of the cosmos. Imaginary cosmologies and pedigrees of wisdom had provided the atmosphere in which the ancient world moved to Christianity.

One substantial difference between ancient and renaissance neoplatonism was that the long centuries of Christian tradition had given formulae on which Ficino could draw. There was an established language of symbolism, so unlike Plotinus and Plato he did not need constantly to invoke his own concrete experience. Another difference was in the gradualness of his hierarchies. There is no sudden elevation to a transcendental insight, but it can be approached by small steps. For him the soul was the mid point of reality, the intermediary of all things.

Ficino’s optimism marks a difference from the pessimism of ancient neoplatonists. He upheld the idea of the perfection of nature, rather than the need for its salvation, and had much to say of the bond of love. He said the trouble with the pleasures of the senses is not that they are pleasures, but that they do not last. His pupil Pico de Mirandola (1463 –1494) is even more notable for his optimism, the life affirmation natural to a wealthy, well born young man. Pico was the author of the impressively written Oration on the Dignity of Man.

Pico and Ficino have been accused of childishness in their love of mystery. People like Ockham, were strongly opposed to Platonism, with its ideas of emanation. They demanded an essentially scientific approach to explanation. The emotional aspect of Neoplatonism was also rejected by Aristotelians, who demanded a colder intellectual basis. Aristotelianism is congenial to established power. It dwells in the exoteric. A purely intellectual, rational coherence is far more appropriate to it. By contrast neoplatonism tends to the esoteric as a source of wisdom that involves mystery. Whatever its critical shortcomings, as religion it offers an escape from the dominant ideology of the time. In mystery is a refuge for wisdom.

The variations different neoplatonic philosophers produced in the hypostases, the causes, and the nature of substance, can give an arbitrary feel to some of those systems. Ficino’s aesthetic impulse was for the unity of nature. He emphasised the scholastic principle that Natura non facit saltum. Reality was deduced from possibility. The idea of the esoteric tradition has been a fertile source of original ideas even if we accept it is made up of mistaken connections and arbitrary link ups.

At the Renaissance, neoplatonism took root in several countries including England, where there was a motive to get rid of the old clutter. These ideals survived in art. Even in the Victorian age such Renaissance ideals still managed to inspire.

Like eighteenth century French enlighteners and the nineteenth century Russian intelligentsia, renaissance neoplatonists were concerned with building a society, and a culture. Arguably of the three groups they showed the greatest mental flexibility. Theirs was the most comprehensively rationalistic outlook, largely because they were less restricted by a narrow definition of what is rational. The Russian intelligentsia had essentially the same values as the French enlighteners.

Neoplatonism brought allegorical interpretations of dogma. Magic meant manipulating ideas and concepts to produce desired specific effects. The neoplatonic conception of enlightenment emphasised the magical power of ideas and involved the urge to include as many different traditions of wisdom as possible. Modern theosophy by comparison lacks intellectual discipline.


Giordano Bruno


1600 years after the birth of Jesus Christ Giordano Bruno was burnt as a heretic in Rome. “I think you are more afraid to pronounce sentence than I am to hear it“, he said to the judges about to condemn him. Bruno’s death coincided with the beginning of the baroque, a movement using naturalism for the expression of symbols. His idea of infinite worlds was an advance on neoplatonism.

Nietzsche criticised Bruno, and implicitly the Reformation, questioning the point of being a martyr for truth. Without admitting a necessity to die for the truth, some may admire Bruno’s martyrdom simply as an expression of his sovereign will. That people die for their countries is generally counted admirable, even heroic. Nietzsche was following Renan (1823–1892) in his oversimplified view of Bruno as a martyr for truth.

Bruno has gone down as a great heretic. As late as 1942 the Vatican was still justifying the judgement and sentence against him. He excites admiration both for his character and the originality of his thought. Historically those found most worthy of honour, are not necessarily the most accomplished in any particular field. He is admired for his moral and intellectual virtues. That we recognise greater philosophers than Bruno, does not necessarily mean we should admire them more. There may be more important sources of wisdom than pure philosophy. To get the best out of neoplatonism we have to be capable of reverence, sensitive and receptive to the daemonic influence of the magus.

Philosophies of affirmation were something Schopenhauer recognised and explicitly rejected. He writes of Bruno as having produced such a philosophy.

Bruno takes up the idea of God as possibility, offering in this sense an explanation of the universe. The possibility of a thing is a logical matter. God as the foundation of a thing, is its possibility, its imaginative concept, and further than that its necessity. What is possible is necessary and vice versa. God is simply limitless possibility, boundless abundance. Actual existence is a form of limit, really a form of non-existence. The fact that a thing exists springs from the fact that it is conceivable.

There is a clear line from Bruno to Leibniz, taking possibility as the underlying explanation of the animated universe. Soul is the source of all change. The purpose of change is the realisation of possibility. Soul directs the universe as the individual manifestations of God, God being pure possibility. Perhaps atoms are the ultimate points of analysis which underlie possibilities. Bruno’s minima are connected with his conception of possibilities, which may yet be conceivable without them. His atomism is arguably an irrelevance to his pure possibilism, while interesting as physical hypothesis.

Bruno was influenced by the occult philosopher Cornelius Agrippa (1486 –1535) from whom he derived much of his conception of magic. Bruno has a far more positive view of magic than had been usual. He said it is possible to recognise the forces that are hidden in nature by which God himself operates though the intermediary of the soul , and that it is possible and entirely legitimate to use them for the benefit of man.

On his visit to England Bruno berated the Oxford Doctors for denying that good works are necessary to salvation, suggesting that with such beliefs good works would never get done, hospitals, schools or colleges built. He also attacked as pedantry their delight in minute distinctions, as if finding these really interesting, were the mark of a truly serious character.

Bruno wanted to heal religious divisions. He remained a Catholic, even if he was no longer a Christian. Politically he was attached to the anti-Guise, Gallican Catholic party of Henri III in France. He traced Christianity back to an original Egyptian religion. Insofar as early Christianity involved to a great extent a reform of Isis worship he had a valid historical point. He wanted magic in his religion, favouring transubstantiation because of its magical quality. We may trace a line from Agrippa to Bruno, to Leibniz, to Kant.



1561 –1626

Francis Bacon’s vision suggests the affirmation of triumphant human will.  William Blake (1757 –1827) wrote that “Bacon’s philosophy has ruined England”, accusing him of encouraging the kind of technologically obsessed superficiality that plagues the modern world. Taking the will as an aesthetic phenomenon, how much triumph is one to approve of or admire aesthetically or otherwise? Suppose that Baconian man achieves the goal of universal prosperity, the earth might be ruined and man himself might be  altered beyond recognition.


Whatever the shortcomings of Bacon’s philosophy he was said to have brought the middle ages to a close with his thoroughgoing secularisation of human objectives. Erdmann (1805—1892) described Bacon and Hobbes as the final figures of mediaeval philosophy. He says they were still living according to the division of sacred and secular, though they put all their interest in the secular. Some find it significant that the mediaeval period should have been  brought to an end by English Protestants, as if this was the English historical mission.


Bacon followed a path pioneered by the Telesio (1509–1588) whom he described as “the first of the moderns,” though he counted himself his superior. Telesio’s groundbreaking insistence on empirical experiment anticipated Bacon’s main thought.


For Frances Yates Bacon resembles a secularised magician, rationalising the projects and imaginings of the renaissance mage. She made a case for his being influenced by the Rosicrucian manifestos. Wonder working fantasies and ambitions are actually fulfilled by modern technology, even if the wonder has evaporated.


Bacon’s attack on “idols” is useful for eliminating undesirable trains of thought and all the feelings associated with them. This was an influence on Nietzsche when he wrote of the twilight of the idols.


Philosophy can have a number of different roles to play. Discovery, the resolution of intellectual perplexity, or the seminal role, that of supplying the concepts which are to underlie all the various aspect of a culture. The baconian ideal is a programme for applied science and technology. Philosophy is offered as a new foundation for human knowledge. By contrast Descartes’ immersion in mathematics pervades his philosophy.


As we see by comparing  Bradley, Russell, Descartes, Bacon, Wittgenstein, different philosophers have different aims, scientific, anti-scientific, or religious. There is a tradition of scientifically orientated philosophies, from seventeenth century manifestos, all the way down to modern scientific philosophies, such as those concerned to incorporate the latest ideas in physics into philosophy.


For Lewes  (1817–1878) Comte is the Bacon of the nineteenth century. Comteans were caricatured by Flaubert as M. Homais.


Bacon’s most famous slogan was “knowledge is power”.  He also used the metaphor of “putting nature to the  question“, i.e. torture, to find out its secrets.


His Essays show the range of his interests. Nietzsche embraced Baconianism, apparently adhering to the rather silly theory that Bacon was Shakespeare. Perhaps NIetzsche was creating a mythical hybrid, a sort of super genius as a pointer towards the Ubermensch. Shakespeare on his own was great enough, but combined with the philosopher his achievement would have appeared truly superhuman.



However, at one point his is apparently dismissive:-

Bacon represents an attack on the philosophical spirit
generally, Hobbes, Hume, and Locke, an abasement, and a
depreciation of the idea of a “philosopher” for more than
a century

But the strength required for the vision of the
most powerful reality is not only compatible with the
most powerful strength for action, for monstrous
action, for crime – it even presupposes it
” (from Ecce Homo
Spengler thinks of himself as doing Goethean science This seems to involve looking at phenomena from a strongly aesthetic point of view. Not for him the humility of the Baconian scientist, rather the insistence that phenomena should harmonise as much as possible with the intuitions of the investigator.


Today’s readers tend to go along with the criticisms of scholasticism made by Bacon and Descartes, without realising that in some respects they are reverting to something worse. Certainly the scholastics accepted authority to a great extent but what alternative was there? And how do people do any differently today? And they practiced hard and fierce debate.













Jacob Boehme was a self-taught German Protestant mystic who worked as a shoemaker. His first book, Aurora, is a literary masterpiece, which brought him honour in his lifetime. He did not consider he was writing literature, rather he staked a claim for our allegiance, as in their different ways did Mohammed, Luther, Freud, Jung, Marx and other prophets and ideologues.

He was a significant influence on Hegel and William Blake (1757 –1827). It has been suggested he influenced Heidegger. Coleridge (1772–1834) praises both him and Bruno in his Biographia Literalis. After reading Boehme, Schelling gave up philosophy for a while in favour of theology. In England Boehme influenced the Quakers. His English follower and translator, William Law (1686 –1761) was a literary figure in his own right.

Boehme offers an alternative form of spirituality to neoplatonism. Guided by the need to reconcile biblical teaching with the fervent honesty of his own mind, he is unlike traditional Christian apologists. His striking originality both as philosopher and mystic has been attributed to his ignorance of theology. Thinking only what is found satisfying to all the instincts, you think what you want to think within the limits of what you can.

Over the next two centuries his writings appealed to people who sought alternatives to scientific rationalism. His was a more effective alternative than the scientific philosophy of the Cambridge Platonist Henry More (1614 –1687), who acted as a foil for Newton (1642 –1726) and other scientists. Because on some matters he was so wrong More helped to shift thought decisively away from the spiritual explanations that attracted him. He is defeated on a ground of his own choosing. He came to seem silly in a way Boehme did not. Boehme’s philosophy explores questions that are not explained or examined by Cartesian mechanism. The test of experiment is hardly applicable in the same way.

His God is an attractive concept, approached though a dialectic of natural forces. As Blake expresses it, “without contraries is no progression”. On those principles Boehme’s explains the growth of a flower in a passage of extraordinary poetic beauty. In human terms the fiery, wrathful quality is associated with the sense of isolation and fear and needs to be counteracted by the sweet waters of sympathy. Action is needed to arouse the sweet waters. We are not to suppress evil, but mollify it with the sweet waters and so generate energy.

As a form of Christianity Behmenism is strong on consolation, and forgiveness of sin, resonating with common human moods, such as the feeling one’s anger has created too much opposition. In the eighteenth century Church of England, Wesley and Law were opposing tendencies. John Wesley ( 1703 –1791) represents a harsher side of Protestant Christianity, one that can easily repel.

In his treatment of the history of Lucifer, we discover Boehme’s solution to the problem of evil. He suggests a way of conceiving that evil does not exist or at least not in a full sense. The wrath of God means possibilities disorganised in the memory. It is a mistake to pursue the path to greatness through Luciferian pride of ego. All feelings can be satisfied, rather than compacted to burn more brightly.

Boehme introduced into mysticism what seems like a strikingly original viewpoint, though perhaps indirectly influenced by the kabbalah. Schopenhauer detected an influence from the Valentinian Gnostics.

Hegel called him “the first German philosopher“. Part of Hegel’s appeal is the same as the appeal of Boehme. From Boehme there is this seductive vision of the balance of thrusting, fighting forces which sustain the present. But while there are parts of Hegel which continue to be found liberating, there is much which reads like dogmatic theology. Hegel follows Boehme by offering reconciliation, but his Absolute is mixed up with his personal will. He falls short of the suggestiveness of Boehme. One would not want to say that Blake succeeds either in embodying Boehme’s vision, again his solution is too purely personal. Boehme’s God is sympathetic, but the word “God” is itself an undefined and symbolical term widely open to individual interpretation. There are natural forces. Without contraries is no progression.



1596 –1650)

If much of Descartes seems obvious, is that just because his way of thinking has so thoroughly penetrated our culture and education that it has come to seem natural? Even his view of mind and matter as two separate substances, sounds not unreasonable, unpopular as it has been with most philosophers. Some maintain that Einstein’s conception of time and space will one day seem as obvious as that the earth revolves round the sun. Others doubt this.

Despite its concern with the elimination of final causes, Cartesianism remains in some sense a scholastic philosophy. There are similarities with some mediaeval projects. Descartes once said that his own analytical geometry was a replacement for Ramon Lully’s (c.1230–1315) Art of Universal Knowledge. The occult philosophies and manifestos that preceded him were purged of their magic to become rationalistic. Sometimes where he did try to escape from what he thought mediaeval and magical, such as force operating at a distance, he was unfortunate.

In the Discourse on Method Descartes defers to authority in matters of religion. His reasons were apparently as much congenial as prudential. His orthodoxy is not usually questioned. Nevertheless in delegating the disputes of religion to an authority to decide Descartes is concurring with Hobbes. Cudworth (1617-1688), the Cambridge Platonist, denounced the atheism he saw in Hobbes, and raised similar suspicions of Descartes. More recently Leo Strauss has argued that Descartes’ real intention was to promote scientific materialism, and that the presence of God in his system was a blind.

Different philosophies have different, often opposing inspirations. Some are scientific, some anti scientific or religious. Descartes looks forward to modern scientific philosophies, like those concerned to incorporate the latest ideas in physics into philosophy. He is central to some of the issues still fought over by modern philosophers. Crucial as he was for the development of modern science, there are those who believe that his fundamental errors can be unravelled, thereby solving some of the deep problems of our civilisation.

The simplistic faith that science can solve everything has created its own forms of oppression. This is sometimes traced back to Descartes’ mechanistic hypothesis. La Mettrie criticised Descartes from the viewpoint of materialism, saying Descartes was wrong to reject Aristotle’s idea of matter as capable of sensation.

Descartes’ superficial treatment of the problem of mind came from his need to establish mechanism as the principle of science. His few dogmatic remarks about it gave rise to great confusion among his followers. Some now say that Wittgenstein has freed the philosophy of mind from Descartes’ errors, and so led us back to Aristotle. But to adopt Aristotle without going through all the argument would seem retrograde step.

What Locke was to the British, Descartes was to the French. Descartes was the greater figure in the history of civilisation, a major scientist and mathematician, as well as a philosopher with imposing if specious rational argument. He is Catholic, Locke Protestant. Locke does not insist on belief, but on careful attention to empirical reality. Descartes has a grand idea, effective, influential, if flawed.

As a philosophical foundation Descartes’ cogito is not a logical ground but an intuitive certainty. He insists on the importance of retaining his insights clearly in the memory. Though he based his system on what he said were indubitable premises, these were supposedly arrived at by a process of stripping the mind of all preconceptions. Someone who traces presuppositions behind this method will presumably not be a strict Cartesian.

His speculation about a deceiving demon are his starting point. This is not to say he experienced it in the form of a threat. His meditation may or may not have been an intellectual game to Descartes, but it is possible to experience it quite seriously and it needs to be able to stand up to that. Personal crises and mystical experiences have historically had a large part to play in philosophy. Insofar as clear and distinct ideas are like mathematical ideas, he aimed to build up a body of knowledge in the same way mathematical ideas can. In rebuilding philosophy from scratch, he re-established Christian dogmas on what he considered a more acceptable basis.





Hobbes’ political thought grows naturally out of his general philosophy. His solution to the conflicting results from the reasoning of different men, is their agreement to set up an authority.

What he understands by the state of nature, is not total moral chaos. He takes egoism and self-seeking as fundamental. The dissemination of false moral and political philosophy results in a state that is founded upon unenlightened principles. Hobbes’ system does not presuppose a condition where any idea, however base and superstitious, might emerge supreme. Essential to his analysis of political power is the concept of a disseminated political wisdom. Now, he says, that the nature of political states has been scientifically explained, we can set about understanding them properly, and as we do so social life will improve. That is despite what to many people is the pessimistic view that human nature is egoistic, power seeking and individualistic.

Hobbes is deeply unwilling to pass any extraneous moral judgement on the beast in man. He accepts man as he is because he has no ground to condemn him. To this extent he is anti-Christian. Acknowledge your wildest lusts and desires, but admit that they are ultimately restrained by force, which it is only comfortable to recognise as a moral rule of life. I am deterred from crime, because I am afraid of punishment. That is a sound enough reason. On that basis I can form a social contract. I acquiesce in the limitations on my will formed by membership of a civil society. I do not need to commit crimes to prove my freedom. To think otherwise is a dangerous perversity. If I find it in myself I need to put safer principles in its stead.

Hobbes is not advocating some startlingly original form of individualism in a radical departure from Aristotle’s understanding of man as a political animal. With his idea of universal egoism he is only analysing recognised reality. Mediaeval man had his loyalties which could all be seen in terms of self-interest. You fulfil yourself in society and don’t need to be engaged purely in a war of all against all. Some people take Aristotle’s idea of man as a political animal as if there is no need to justify obligation.

Hobbes was not so much setting up an argument for unconditional obedience as arguing against those who maintain that there is an obligation to be disobedient. We all have our own lives to lead, each pursues his own ends. We are not morally bound to support any ideal of freedom or independence. There is a perfectly sound justification for recognising whatever de facto government exists, though that reason loses its force when the government can no longer protect us.

It is rarely in the interests of the individual to take up a revolutionary stand. Hobbes argues that it cannot be morally compelling. The only escape from the state of nature is an agreed authority and that is moral because it asks for the subordination of private egoistic motives. Hobbes “moral principle” is designed to avoid the prospect of civil war, with all it entails in loss of liberty. Morality, as for Socrates, is a tool to increase our liberty.

If government can enforce its will it is obviously in my interest to obey it. The only ground for giving up a self-interest is a more important self-interest. Hobbes, is laying spooks, like Stirner, like Wittgenstein. If everyone is selfish, society is more likely to cohere. People will not be led astray by fanatical enthusiasms.

The so called Taylor (1869 –1945) thesis, detaching Hobbes’ ethics from his egoistic psychology, reflects an unwillingness to stomach the idea of egoistic morality. It relates not to seventeenth century Christianity but the modern English Christianity of the 1930s. If there is a problem about moral obligation, it is not how obligation can oblige; it obliges to the extent that we want it to. The real question is what can lead us to suspend with honour our particular objectives and adopt a moral perspective. We are only moral as long as we want to be.



1632 –1677

Spinoza’s reaction to Descartes’ proof of God’s existence is to identify God, the ground of all phenomena, with the whole, the all. Whether he is seen as a pantheist or an atheist, Spinoza appeals to people who are drawn to his doctrines of psychological egoism, determinism, and irresponsibility in all their ramifications, moral and emotional. Others are repelled by the same features. Yet it is wrong to see him as simply a mechanistic materialist. He writes of God:-

The laws of his nature were so comprehensive as to suffice for the creation of everything that infinite intellect can conceive…“.

Beyond this essentially logical point of God as what is possible, comes the decidedly metaphysical idea that what is possible in this sense necessarily exists in actuality. The world is perfect because it contains everything possible, meaning conceivable. It necessarily exists, if not now then somewhere in eternity. It seems that there is here a metaphysical explanation of “the whole” in terms of the perfection of God. Unlike Leibniz, Spinoza only accepts one possible world, and that perfect.

The desire for metaphysical certainty is to be satisfied by a form of contemplation. There is a programme for complete understanding, reaching being through its ground. He writes of blessedness, and the intellectual love of God. He says God loves himself. Pleasure is described as the result of passing from a lower state of perfection to a higher. He sees pain as an inadequate idea. Like Nietzsche he understands happiness as resistance overcome.

Though his pantheism is one possible consequence of Descartes’ God, it is far more than a development of Descartes. His religion suggests atheism in its absence of moral commandments. He fuses Descartes and Hobbes, to arrive at a universal principle he calls the conatus “each thing, as far as it lies in itself, strives to persevere in its being“.

Spinoza belonged to the admirable tradition of subtle and penetrating seventeenth century psychologists. He does not think it wise to arouse the passions. He says that envy is only between equals. He has a lot to say about pride and self-love, and how one would like to be seen. I may want to be seen as my heroes are seen, or as I see my heroes. He is not quite the saint Russell considers him to be. His acquaintance with malevolence and frustration is profound, but he is concerned with broadening the perspective on all his interests and passions. Arguably the philosophical type itself is especially subject to strong frustrating passions.

One arouses the passions with a hope of satisfaction that is generally frustrated. Others consider that arousal is nevertheless in the end worthwhile. In retrospect it appears to have value. Against Spinoza, they may claim superiority not the basis that they are free from passions, but actually on the basis of all their own feelings and passions.

Antisemites have accused Spinoza of typically Jewish egoism, but his egoism is something he apparently takes from Hobbes. His Jewishness may have bearing on his view that emotion is essentially a bad thing, that strong feelings are to be considered as something dangerous. He advocates detachment from all firm emotional commitment, any strong revolutionary feeling. The strong feeling that things should be one way rather than another can pose a threat to a minority group like Jews. Here again though, we detect the influence of Hobbes’ concern to avoid civil war. It is as if in general you can have no reason for expecting other people to share your attitudes, interests or opinions. Nietzsche’s idea of will to power bears some similarity to Spinoza’s only it is less anaemic. It may be right to stimulate the passions and emotions even where the result is acute frustration.

Hegel considers Spinozism a necessary stage in all philosophy, the withdrawal from all determinateness. He says he should deduce more, and points to the inadequacy of his geometrical method. He sees his own objective of a true idealism as leading to an explanation of the inadequacies of Spinoza and a deep explication of Leibniz and his monads. Russell suggests that Leibniz would have thought like Spinoza were he not concerned to preserve orthodoxy.



1632- 1704

In its comprehensiveness John Locke’s Essay on Human Understanding has something scholastic about it. Nevertheless scholasticism is a way of thinking which he thinks he has got rid of. He has a clean way with the metaphysical temptations surrounding concepts of identity and substance. His nominalist objection to Platonic forms gives a fresh perspective on the whole subject. What he writes on the linguistic confusion that underlies most argument about morality is effective and radical.

When applauding the overthrow of scholasticism we should not overlook its appeal and what it actually accomplished. While Locke did clear away much debris, his method contributed to the superficiality of eighteenth century psychology. For understanding the sources of one’s own satisfactions a Lockean analysis gives a thin abstraction. For determining what is needful to procure human satisfaction in general it leaves out some major factors. In describing any form of happiness, failure to convey the negative state of mind that has been overcome means the description lacks fullness and context. This affected his politics. Liberalism based on a limited conception of human nature produces a conception of freedom which is at best a useful political weapon.

In his Autobiography Edward Gibbon writes of Locke as the foundation of the Whig settlement. Locke robustly and rebelliously proclaimed that “we make the king”. Gibbon describes how the threat of French invasion in 1759 ended the Jacobitism of the country gentlemen, who then transferred their loyalty to the House of Brunswick. In the following years Locke was a formative influence on the culture and society of the new United States. The influence persists, so much so that be anti-American is usually to be anti-Locke, rejecting his model of enlightenment.

Advocating freedom for desire, one would naturally want one’s own, or as much of it as necessary, to be effective. While liberal principles call for the release of desire and energy, there are implicit restrictions on what is to be counted as relevant. Locke is no artist tyrant imposing his will upon the future. There is a receptiveness to change that can seem commendably open-minded. The empiricist philosophy understood and misunderstood, can inspire an unpredictable future together with a reluctance to control or determine it. Viewing the contents of the mind as Lockean ideas, a lack of psychological penetration is balanced by a willingness to embrace the unexpected.

Preserving memory is the business of historians, archaeologists and artists. The destruction of memory is a negative effect of enlightenment. In the next century Herder (1744 –1803) spoke up for desires and motives of which Locke had not taken account.

For the writer reconciled to, and perhaps favoured by, the current order, it is easy to take the establishment values for granted. Those uncomfortable with them will want to resist the demoralising insistence that present ways of thinking are acceptable. Though one sees one’s own motives as pure and noble, there are others who want to interpret them as squalid. If you do not get those rewards offered by the established order why should you accept what is frustrating? One looks for a more honest alternative to a limited and depressing psychology.

Philosophers are held to be involved with every cultural historical development. Fukuyama (b. 1952) says that the bourgeoisie was created as a deliberate stroke of social engineering by people like Locke and Hobbes, by emphasising the desiring part of man as against the “thymotic” which means the desire for recognition. This implausible theory seems to come from Hegel inspired revolutionary principles. Rather than overturning Locke’s psychology, this simply modifies it for political ends. From a more Tory perspective on the hierarchies into which society is divided, potential desire is neutralised by the lack of any realistic prospect of satisfaction.

Scepticism can mean doubting what ought not to be doubted. The scepticism of Locke and Hume was something light and pagan. Subsequently cultural changes brought the dominance of journalism, and an order guided less by philosophy than by strident opinions claiming equal rights. What was understood as enlightened understanding is a delicate plant threatened by the coarsening effects of mass democracy.



1646 –1716
 Leibniz found certain fields of human knowledge in a mess and tried to set them in order. Seeing all possible views as parts of a whole, his concern was to exalt the idea of the whole. So the right to adopt any position or opinion depends on acknowledgment of this perspective. If this is denied your right goes too. Your position has no just claim to authority when it can always be countered by the opposite idea.

Leibniz’s desire for rational transparency led him to the bizarre metaphysics of the Monadology. When Kant denies the meaningfulness of certain types of speculation, one imagines his target is Leibniz’s theory of why there is anything at all.

When trying to escape the pressure of some particular point of view how can one assert another point of view as true or real? How can anything be true that is not immediately perceived? What justification is there for holding there to be a higher court of appeal than the immediate proposition one feels pressure to assent to? The past and future have no reality, but possibility is the seed of the future. The real danger in scepticism is not in doubting the reality of the external world, or of other minds. It is in being unable to repudiate what seems omnipresent but repels us, to advance beyond any immediately given, such as whatever happens to possess authority at the moment.

Leibniz’s powerful intellect created a form of religious vision equal to any, strongly marked by originality, far from just apologetic for doctrines devised at some other time and place.

Russell distinguishes between an exoteric and an esoteric doctrine in Leibniz, the latter being implicit Spinozism, meaning atheism. Leibniz’s “God” is everywhere a highly sophisticated concept. It is disputable the “exoteric” doctrine was as crudely religious as Russell makes it. Russell argues that Leibniz’s esoteric system is the logical consequence of subject predicate logic. Russell wanted to replace this with what was to emerge in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, with its concept of atomic facts.

Leibniz’s doctrine of possibility removes all the problems in the concept of causality. The ground is possibility, what we call God. The principle of sufficient reason may in fact not have universal application, but when we try to explain why things are as they are, the most obvious ground of their being is possibility. A possible idea has a form of existence that is apparently transparent, so we say reality has its source in possibility, which we call God. Here there is no mystery about the existence of God, or the origin of reality. The mystery is the principle of God’s creation. Possibility is what it is possible to be thought. Reality is limitation. Taking my own life history, everything about myself, if it is like a story, there is no mystery in it. But to make me a substance to which things happen is to reintroduce mystery. To avoid solipsism I must assume there are other people with equal reality, likewise grounded in possibility. So already there is more than one monad, more than one substance.

Mystery enters with the identity of indiscernibles. It is senseless to complain I might be a different possibility. For If I were you and you me, how could it be discerned? The concept of possibility does offer an explanation, while cause and effect are essentially mysterious.

Leibniz probably was heretical, if not in the way Russell suggests. If we conceive of God as possibility there would seem to remain the prospect of absorption back into God which suggests Averroism. The individual personality would not do this, because that is a limitation. But the ground of this personality is possibility.

Individual personalities are nothing but these stories. God is in each one as the root and source. There is no unfairness, because we are all equally God at play. By the identity of indiscernibles, if the limitation ceases we revert to possibility, that is to God. And God is all possibilities in every monad. So behind the individual personality there is an I that is God. Insofar as I am God my total enjoyment is in nowise limited to this monad.



1668 – 1744

Vico says we know mathematics perfectly as only God knows the universe, because it is entirely or own creation. This is the model for our understanding of history. Vico denies the concept of human nature, saying that it is like chess rules, from which an infinite number of combinations might be formed. This suggests a measure of idealism, the possibility of something we feel we have the power to create. Such views can give succour to relativism.

Vico shows much brilliance mixed with superstition. It is notable how Christian a writer he is. He writes as an Italian for whom Christianity represented civil society, and not something in need of justification. His commitment to the divine revelation of the Jews, is something he takes very seriously. He has theories about giants. Abandoned by their mothers they grew up in their own faeces, which meant they absorbed nitrates, which made them grow to a huge abnormal size. The Jews on the other had were clean and grew normally.

He believes firmly in divine providence and in Christian sexual morality. He speaks up for moral restraint, and respectable virtues. He has the surprising idea that sex outside marriage is only for plebeians. His conception of “abominable promiscuity” is an example of the abhorrence he has for certain aspects of plebeian lifestyle. He expresses the sexual puritanism of the emergent middle class who want to differentiate themselves from the mass, as they do all over the world.

He is clearly against the Reformation, that impulse that fed so much of what was most creative in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. He is Counterreformation, but humanely so. One is led to wonder whether this motive finds an echo in people strongly influenced by Vico, like Croce (1866–1952), Collingwood and Isaiah Berlin (1909 –1997). What might they be defending? Sometimes it is morality against egoism.

Vico’s rejection of the idea of ancient wisdom, appears original. He dismisses the idea of the wisdom of the ancient Egyptians, as merely a Greek fantasy. He does not think much of Iamblichus. He attacks the idea of the esoteric wisdom of Homer, as well as heroic morality, the aristocratic spirit of his own age.

He claims the Romans had a heroic age on exactly the same pattern as the Greeks, except that the Romans were more articulate and managed to express their history without the need for myths. He rejects the idea that we have declined from an ancient wisdom. Vico’s concept of decadence is quite simple. Increasing civilisation brings over refinement, effeminacy, and foreign conquest.

Against the idea that the mythologies and symbolism of the past contain an essential wisdom, and that the men of the past were ruled by elites of sages, he says their thought forms, were simply more primitive than ours. We cannot really learn from them, except about the genesis of what we are now. For some this viewpoint may be found depressing and sterile, but more fruitful is his idea that the object of historical investigation is to uncover what men thought, rather than simply classifying what happened according to our own schemes.

The subject of the history of ideas shows a tendency towards idealism, as with Berlin’s glorification of Vico. Tracing trees of ideas is a fascinating activity, but liable to mislead. While it is an important part of historical or sociological scholarship to understand what people were thinking and saying in their own terms, the idea that understanding this amounts to understanding the reality of the situation they were in is a metaphysical dogma.

Peter Burke (b. 1937) offers a counterweight to Isaiah Berlin, who he says was writing within the Croce tradition, ignoring the element of system and pattern in Vico’s theories.

Vico is good on the nature of the psychic/poetic imagination. He also found a way, through idealism, of expressing and describing human uniqueness. Unfortunately with idealism comes the priestly impulse. There is an attack on materialistic ideas of scientific reality in favour of the belief that human beings have the power to create their own reality. Potentially this bids to put power into the hands of an intellectual or priestly caste.



It has not been clearly demonstrated that in his own interpretation of “ideas” Berkeley misunderstood Locke, as is sometimes claimed. Idealism is the philosophy that the stuff of the world is mental rather than material. Berkeley was one sort of idealist. Hegel was another.
Many see Berkeley’s arguments against matter as an uncomfortable paradox that calls for refutation. The brilliance of his argument is admitted. It is sometimes said that philosophers typically oversimplify the great complexity of life by taking some principle to absurd conclusions. Thus Berkeley denies matter, Hume causation, Leibniz denies interaction, According to some Wittgenstein denies the whole realm of private experience and Nietzsche that of morality.

By the standards of ordinary commonsense Berkeley’s beliefs were apparently very strange. He holds that to be is to be perceived, and gives God a direct and immediate role in implanting all our perceptions. This is counter intuitive, so it can be surprising how he has managed to influence modern science.

Several modern philosophers have found much of value in Berkeley. Vaihinger (1852–1933) applauds Berkeley’s view of mathematics, notably his way of understanding calculus. He said Berkeley’s understanding of infinitesimals and fluxions, was the key to his own theory of fictions. According to Russell, relativity gives support to Berkeley, with its strange hybrid world, part idealist, part materialist. Mach (1838 –1916) admits he was originally influenced by Berkeley in forming his conception of the universe.

Looking at his ideas as interesting speculations we should at first be less interested in refuting than in understanding him. In the Dialogues, Berkeley’s mouthpiece, Philonous, expresses his desire to protect the Christian faith. We detect a touch of sanctimoniousness, suggesting the Plato of Laws.

Berkeley’s complete system is found in his late work Siris or The Virtues of Tar Water. The odd subject matter may add to the misconception that Berkeley was a crank. He was not; he enters fully into the mainstream of neoplatonist thought.

Siris is a fascinating work from the early days of science when speculation free, unconstrained by the received bodies of knowledge a scientific education gives today. It is far from tedious or especially difficult. Here Berkeley shows his immaterialism to be in tune with contemporary science as well as religion. While recognising the Hermes Trismegistus writings as forgeries, he believes they contain some genuine Egyptian philosophy. Isis meant nature, and Osiris the intelligence that animates it. He plays with some of the speculations of alchemy, which at the time he wrote were far from discredited.

He is concerned to show that Plato and Aristotle were not atheists, though Spinoza and Hobbes were. His immaterialism enables him to see alternatives to Cartesian mechanism, proposing principles of attraction and repulsion as “merely and altogether on the good pleasure of the Creator, in the original formation of things”. The apparent system of natural causes is all designed for man’s benefit, to help him find his way.

He rejects Newton’s hypothesis of a luminferous ether. He argues against the deistic idea of seeds. He sees the regularity of nature as purposely designed for men. He admires Newton’s theory of colours. He himself ventures into scientific and experimental hypothesis, treating of the possible connections and system of scents as Newton did for colours. He presents a case for religion without the usual dishonesty.

Writing long before modern Irish nationalism he describes himself as living in one of the poorest parts of the kingdom. Being Irish, Berkeley has been commandeered by imaginative Irish nationalists like Yeats, a Londoner. Yeats opposes him to the English materialism of Locke. Thus nationalism can make smaller, truncate a tradition.

One curiosity relating excrement to philosophy is The Unconscious Origin of Berkeley’s Philosophy by John Oulton Wisdom, 1953. He draws heavily on Siris to give a Freudian explanation Berkeley’s philosophy in terms of infantile attitude towards faeces, which became the matter that was concerned to eliminate.

Interpretation IX p 149 “For Berkeley in adult life faeces were poison.

We can also the root of the pure cement that Berkeley sought, and we can see that he feared that the good faeces would be destroyed by the bad, or reduced to its level.



1692 –1752

Bishop Joseph Butler had a vision of a harmonious form of life, one which more or less already existed, and which ideas are made to serve rather than the other way round. He states all his assumptions clearly. His appeal to self-interest gives a sympathetic moral starting point. Butler’s philosophy is primarily a moral vision.

To live morally is different from being governed solely by considerations of narrow self-interest, or egoism. Ultimately my interest and my morality will harmonise. In attacking the hedonistic doctrine that all men act selfishly all of the time Butler pointed out that we have a word “selfish” and a word “unselfish” and that there does not seem to be much point in coalescing the two. When in Plato’s Republic Thrasymachus argues that justice is the interest of the stronger, at least that is an advance on the complete absence of morality. Where it is false is that it contradicts the language of justice if it is introduced into any moral system.

The theory of psychological hedonism is convincing to many. Butler shows another perfectly rational way of looking at human experience. Referring us back to the logic of ordinary language, unselfish actions become possible again because people feel they are performing them. Psychological hedonism cannot prove its case to those determined to reject it. The same goes for determinism and irresponsibility.

English values of freedom and eccentricity meant that a lot of people had very much their own ideas on religion, within orthodoxy as well as without. Butler was an interesting and original thinker, orthodox in a technical sense, but espousing what came very close to an egoistic ethic, eccentric in traditional Christian terms. Though Butler does not identify morality with egoistic self-interest, at least he has not led it far away from that.

In his Sermons Butler does not succeed in refuting Hobbes or La Rochefoucauld (1613–1680), though he claims to do so in the name of common sense. After Hobbes, Englishmen were writing in a time of settled peace. In Butler’s world there is a fixed order of things. For him men are guided by self-love, and there is no hidden motive or unconscious will beyond what is explicit. Butler’s model of the universe is static, with a psychology which presupposes a given set of beliefs and values.

Critics would say that his psychology disregards all the all the desire that is denied expression. It is not difficult to uphold benevolence, peace and love, when one’s own comfortable position is not challenged. Selfishness, in its common meaning, becomes apparent when all desires and potential desires throughout the system are explicated. Then it is evident that there can be no “abundance” that would put an end to conflict. The very nature of social interaction means that the required goods must be scarce. It is as in a dog pack, not everyone can be leader. This applies in many spheres of human activity.

Philosophical egoism has a moral and religious dimension. Far more than a chafing at mere restraint it is the assertion of a value against unacceptable views of life. There are some drives and impulses that few would want to encourage. So education requires much thought, given one wants to pass on one’s own values.

In Butler’s Analogy of Religion the justification of ordinary ways of speaking against philosophical criticism is clever and perceptive, but it might be thought he takes this to excess. He is very rational about his beliefs, but his is an odd sort of rationalism, rescuing what may seem quite childish concepts. From today’s perspective he was wrong in his defence of the historicity of the Christian revelation, clever as his arguments are for accepting miraculous testimony. Mostly the book is addressed to Deists, but not all of it. Butler mentions moral sense arguments he says he has not used to defend Christianity.

He argues for freewill against eighteenth century ideas of necessity and irresponsibility. He defends ordinary ways of talking against philosophical attack with cleverness and originality. Butler’s reading of the scripture is plausible. Everything fits into a rational scheme, different from Deism but not very much so.


La Mettrie

1709 – 1751

One aspect of the mid-eighteenth century zeitgeist was an exhilarating defiance of Christianity. Even the sober Hume was attuned to this somewhat blasphemous tendency that ranged from Wilkes’ Essay on Woman (1725 –1797) to Gibbon’s gentler irony. This is evident in his brilliant Dialogues, which a recent critic has understood as expressing “irreligion” rather than straightforward scepticism. Although “despisers of Christianity” were a small minority they were often the intellectual leaders.

Few people were bold enough openly to espouse atheism. An influence on one of the first who did, Holbach (1723 – 1789) was the materialist La Mettrie, author of the scandalous L’homme Machine. In his Treatise on the Soul La Mettrie opposes Descartes’ idea that matter is mere extension, a picture that makes materialism so incomprehensible. Bypassing Descartes, he goes back to the ancients. The trouble with ordinary materialism was its reliance on Cartesian mechanism, as if that is the model of all explanation. To the two attributes of matter given by Descartes, extension and motive power, he would simply add the faculty of feeling. which he says has been recognised by philosophers in all ages and the rejection of which has led the Cartesians into labyrinthine difficulties from which they try to rescue themselves by the absurd idea that animals are unfeeling machines. When La Mettrie argues that humans too are machines, he does not mean this.

Gilbert Ryle’s Concept of Mind recalls the materialism of La Mettrie and both recall certain Buddhist conceptions. Ryle was not a Cartesian, nor was his master Wittgenstein. Some have held this takes philosophy of mind back to Aristotle. Not all anti-Cartesians believed in God. As a materialist La Mettrie invokes Aristotle in a way that suggests Ryle’s argument. It cannot be said that this removes all the mystery of life. As in some oriental religion there is a mystery that does not require God.

Far from incidental to the appeal of early materialism was the defiant excitement it conveyed. Also much eighteenth century materialism was infused with a spirit of very intense sensuality, as we see from the rococo voluptuousness in La Mettrie’s writing. Here are the seeds of De Sade’s (1740 –1814) philosophy. De Sade’s novels can read like a commentary on la Mettrie, who was a major influence on his thinking. This eighteenth century quality, this materialism with its peculiar anti-moral charm, accounts for much of his liberating appeal. The poet Apollinaire (1880–1918) was to call Sade “the freest soul that every existed”.

More recent versions of hedonism have less power to shock. Inextricably bound up with authority, they commonly retain a context of secularised Christian values. La Mettrie writes for the rococo era. His antireligious pleasure is explicitly opposed to remorse. From his observations as a medical doctor, he discovers in death itself a voluptuousness, so it might actually be enjoyed. He praises the power of opium to abolish suffering.

The subversive tradition was always around, if usually suppressed. Enthusiastic modern atheists have floated the idea of Descartes as an esoteric thinker, suggesting that his real intention was a form of scientific materialism and that the God stuff was a blind. However they tend to dislike the “occult” aspects of esotericism. Conscious of the defensive, and underplaying the enjoyable aspects of the esoteric project, they shut himself off from much of the thrill even in the materialism they uncover, immune to La Mettrie’s rococo voluptuousness.

Nietzsche commends the intense hedonism of the rococo, by-product of the Counterreformation, as a way back to the Greeks. But much of this hedonism was clearly and consciously inspired by libertine philosophers like the grossly materialistic La Mettrie. If there is a state of mind you desire to promote it is more effective to do it directly by means of rational philosophy rather than by irrational magic. So arguably the rococo is not really a Counterreformation spirit at all, rather a protestant one as was indeed that of the French enlightenment.




According to Kant, Thomas Reid and his Scottish school of common sense were “a set of pretended philosophers who appealed to the judgement of the crowd”. This is unfair to Reid and his intelligent commentator Stewart (1753–1828), though less so to Oswald (1703 – 1793), and Beattie (1735 – 1803). Hume and Reid respected each other. Beattie was a crude populariser, if a talented writer, accused of the simplification of Locke and his successors. He attracted Hume’s sneers.
Some class Reid among major philosophers, most do not. The common sense view that we perceive objects directly and not via the medium of ideas, is argued persuasively, against the Lockean philosophy. There are arguments for the former of which the unphilosophical crowd are necessarily innocent. Rather than reverting to the views of the crowd, Reid offers an enhanced understanding of how language works, something with which readers of Wittgenstein will be familiar. From the point of view of modern, especially Wittgensteinian, philosophy it can seem Reid promises much but does not altogether deliver. Though very suggestive in criticising Locke, he does not go far enough. While attacking the theory of ideas in a way that seemingly anticipates Wittgenstein, he is much under its spell. When it comes to his treatment of secondary qualities he falls back on it.

Reid’s primary target is the doctrine of perception as found in Locke and Hume, and implicit in Descartes. He also goes beyond the earlier Aristotelian or scholastic philosophy of perception which also involved ideas, but naively, as something outside as well as within the mind.

Reid’s account of the origin of language through natural signs is also of interest. He argues man could never have developed conventional language unless there were natural signs. Blueness of hills is a sign of their distance, facial expressions signify emotions. The universal natural language is the foundation of art, as well as science and common sense. A painting can represent an object in a way that is universally understood. This is nothing like Chomsky’s (b. 1928) version of universal grammar, and Reid is not reverting to Descartes’ innate ideas. His concept of natural signs is promising, but again not well developed. The effect is to bring him closer to Berkeley than he recognises. There is much that cannot be explained or even needs to be. It can be referred directly to the will of God.

He makes an interesting attempt to defend freewill, which he understands as a mark of personal identity. He distinguishes between efficient cause and motive, the former being mysterious, as it is in Hume. He says Descartes clarified the commonsense distinction between mind and matter. The soul used to be described in terms of a subtle form of matter.

For his philosophy of ethics he was surprisingly late in giving up Humean emotivism. Having done so he feels able to treat both beauty and morality as objective, on the principle of common sense. While the attack on the subjectivity of the doctrine of ideas may convince, he takes it much further and defends religion.

Reassurance about the existence of the physical world is both comforting and inspiring. His defence of established morality and religion is a different matter. He comes close to claiming that belief in God is given by common sense, a view made explicit by Oswald. This gave the whole common sense philosophy an idealistic tendency.

Sir William Hamilton (1788 –1856) modified common sense philosophy bringing it more in line with Kant, distinguishing things in themselves from things as they appear. Even these tendencies of the common sense school were not enough to rescue it from the charge of dogmatism. For the common sense philosophers, the philosophical justification demanded for perception judgements, ethics and other forms of discourse does not work, nor is it needed. For J S Mill this was not enough. His book An Examination of William Hamilton’s Philosophy restored a form of empiricism. Detaching knowledge from sense experience had left too much irrationality.

Leading ideas of the Scottish school of common sense became an orthodoxy in France, with Cousin (1792 –1867), and they dominated British philosophy in the first part of the nineteenth century.




David Hume is often described as the greatest philosopher who wrote in English. Some rate his writings on religion among the best ever produced. In his Dialogues on Natural Religion he argues effectively against the argument from design, dealing the death blow to Deism. Others give a higher status to the sceptical arguments of his Treatise.

His idea that certain questions do not permit of rational answers has appeal to the nihilism natural to many young people. Hume’s’ philosophy might seem to disengage questions of value from issues of fact. Hume the Tory would dismiss the idea that it is a reasonable ambition to change the parameters in pursuit of power.

Those who do not find Kant’s solutions satisfactory may see Hume as the greater philosopher.

Even if we take a Wittgensteinian line against him, Hume is saying something of importance for modern science, famously influencing Einstein (1879 – 1955). His idea that there can be no empty space because the concept is illogical is an interesting alternative to our common picture of space as a receptacle.

For Hume, Newton’s science involved the assumption that the concept of a cause is self explanatory. But if science is mathematics applied to qualities, causation is not the key which explains it. A fundamental issue in all science is that of what are willing to count as an explanation. Quantum theorists manage to dispense with causality.

Yet Hume only takes his atomism and scepticism so far. He leaves the mind with a rich fund of ideas and impressions with which to piece together a world, but these are more fictions than he would admit. He treats our ideas and impressions as if in a kind of mental cabinet that can be taken out and surveyed in succession, without explaining how it is possible to get beyond the immediacy of the here and now. He says the duration of an unchanging object is measured by changes that occur in coexisting objects. This in itself divides the object into parts. How can we say these parts are of the identical object? Hume concedes that an object may be extended. It is made up of contiguous parts, atoms or minima. Does not existence itself provide a similar problem to causation? Part of the problem with that is what there is in the idea beyond constant conjunction. The idea of extension contains more than the conjunction of a lot of minima.

When we make a judgement it is already theoretical. A great deal of possibility is supposed that goes far beyond the immediately given. It seems we cannot justify a lot of basic categories are yet cannot do without them. This might be taken as showing we should accept certain beliefs which go beyond the immediately given. Yet the given may be a belief or idea which repels us, which we are unwilling to accept but which seems inescapable.

In his psychology Hume shows a pre-romantic honesty about what would now be called the sadism intrinsic to society. He is socially at ease and gregarious, but his is still more honest than most modern psychologists about the mismatch between individual desire and the demands of others.

In ethics Hume takes virtues at their simple face value and has no truck with Pascalian sin complexes. He claims to prove a universal urge towards the public good. At very most he manages to demonstrate benevolence towards some community of human beings, actual or possible, large or small. Could there be a society made up of the obsequious, malicious, conceited and self deluded? Insisting that it must come to grief would amount to a dubious claim, however distasteful we find it. Perhaps Butler and Hume are quite right on the level of the humane decent human company in which most of us are at least to some extent interested. Ill natured human beings find it difficult to participate in the richness of human relations generally and at their best.

Applying his own principles, if I do not believe in Hume’s philosophy his ideas strike me with less force and vivacity than they would if I did.



1712 –1778

Rousseau divides opinion even among his enemies. Some identify him with a degree of individualism and egoism that leads to anarchy. Others see him as anti-egoistic, his submission to the majority and the general will as tending to the sort of imaginary freedom available under a communist dictatorship.

He is like Wordsworth in calling for enhanced emotional openness and sensitivity such as anyone may feel when in love. While such moods can be deeply enriching, emotional abandonment presupposes an intellectual framework which is not questioned. It has been argued that in practice Rousseau’s ideas lead to a revival of Catholicism.

Late eighteenth century European imagination was captivated by Rousseau. He did much to transform sensibility. Emotion purporting to be the fulfilment of everything found expression in Beethoven’s music. For all the erotic satisfaction attached, and its claim as the only cultural opportunity on offer, it lures into what was to many a depressing consensus. All kinds of sympathetic ideas are linked up with others that are far less so.

Rousseau learns from but alters Hobbes. While Hobbes finds a justification for authority, Rousseau in his Social Contract uses similar sounding concepts to justify an order of things that does not yet exist. He lays down an ingenious intellectual construction proposed as foundation for society. In this sense he is revolutionary, though his moral tastes were conservative in tendency.

In his self absorption Rousseau is the heir of Montaigne (1533 –1592). Any clear description of what the self is like is to beg a number of questions. Rousseau advocates a possible self totally determined by ideas. His educational methods develop not the self, which must always be present, but an ideology that the self is given, one limited set of supposedly natural concepts with which to operate.

This connects with his social atomism. The individual is conceived as self-contained, realising himself not through natural conflict but through a set of beliefs. As “Man is born free but is everywhere in chains” Rousseau would remove the chains by creating a culture where everything is immediately acceptable to the emotions. His spontaneity cult leaves a large space which can easily be filled by repressive principles.

There is an intimate connection between Rousseau’s primitivism and his politics. An ideology and associated propaganda will give strength to resist all the appeals of argument, so remaining firm in one particular outlook. His search is not for philosophical understanding but for recovering a lost paradise of innocence and independence, when we shall be free to yield to passing impulses. With shared common values there is less to fear from mind against mind, so much the less to learn. You preserve your self image intact. There is an agreed code for promiscuous interaction rooted in a common ideology.

Such atomised hedonism rejects the sceptical attitude of Socrates. It promotes massive self-confidence on the part of the atomised individual. There is firm resistance to the suggestion that the presumptions of the established culture might need revising. Rousseauite anti-intellectualism gives the equivalent of immovable intellectual pride to the non-intellectual. Ideas may still be discussed but they are of no real importance. The effect is to undermine criticism of the social career structure of an established status quo. The simplest way of ensuring common ideology.

There is much about the modern Rousseauite ideal of freedom that promotes depression. Rousseauite culture is sustained by guilt producing morality. Guilt is not, pace Heidegger, something about missed opportunities, it is to do with not matching up to some value system by which you allow yourself to be judged. Guilt in this sense covers all forms of self-hatred, not only consciousness of wrong doing but feelings of inadequacy, where that inadequacy is value determined.

Rousseau invented the republican mythos to replace the monarchist Bourbon mythos. The conception of loyalty to the king was replaced by that to the general will. Those ideas had strong appeal to many contemporaries, including Kant. The moral life came to be seen as somehow filling a gap. Rousseau’s historical significance went further than that though. However rational the previous settlement, Rousseau opened up new possibilities of power, changed the rules of the game.



1724 – 1804

Kant’s solution to Hume’s doubts about causation was to treat the belief in causal efficacy as an inextricable feature of our cognitive apparatus. What to Hume had been something incomprehensible, was for Kant a necessary precondition of thought. Kant objected to Hume’s critical scepticism on more than just theoretical grounds; it represented a world view which he found distressing and objectionable. We might see the whole Kantian project as to do with saving religion and freewill.

Kant’s things-in-themselves have been understood in various different ways. Hegel makes them into the whole world of phenomena; for Bradley they are the subject of every judgement; for Schopenhauer they are Will. Not subject to categories, it cannot be said they are either singular or plural. Stcherbatsky interprets the thing-in-itself as the infinitesimal point instant described in some Buddhist philosophical texts. Understanding reality as sensation, Vaihinger treats the thing-in-itself as a useful fiction. For Lange it is only a theoretical limit.

Those looking for the sources of modern nihilism, may discover some implicit in Kant. Reacting against what to him were the nihilistic implications of Hume’s empiricism, he retained much scepticism in his own system. While metaphysics may lead us astray, it may also anchor us in a supposed world of common sense. Get rid of it and we feel we have become free. Kant suggests there is metaphysical truth but it is unknowable. Thus he makes the innermost nature of things bloodless and obscure, leaving the field clear for varieties of irrationalism.

The conception of the thing-in-itself offers a different kind of explanation from the physical/mathematical. Whatever the shortcomings of Kant’s transcendental deduction, he managed to open the door to a new range of explanation. The dangers of rationalism are overcome by curtailing its scope. It is observed that there are two sides to Kant’s philosophy, the scholastic or critical versus the mystical, or dogmatic. If someone other than Kant had first suggested the possibility of direct experience of things-in-themselves, the influence of these two strands could never have been anything like as great as Kant as he was. Kant’s analytical technique lends authority to his mystical views. His explicit aim is not to open new questions but to close old ones, and his solutions introduce a dogmatic motive which continues in Hegel. Another line goes through Schopenhauer to Nietzsche. Laying open the possibility of discovering new kinds of relationship, he brought new subject matter for science.

It might plausibly be argued that a form of Kantianism is the philosophy behind much modernism in art and literature. The esotericism of modernism would turn out to be the emotional exploration of the Kantian idea that the reality behind appearances is something about which nothing definite may be said. Thus this gets used as a species of esoterism that, resisting criticism, only reinforces a form of authority. Many people when pressed appear to take this Kantian thought for granted, no matter what other ideas they profess. People hail his greatness insofar as they think he was right. Others may dispute that he puts us especially in touch with the nature of things or that his concept of the thing-in-itself manages to resolve many difficulties.

Kant’s scepticism opens a door not only to religious faith but also to the secular dogmas of modern democracy. In this respect he contributed to the ethical relativism that permits the successful democratic party to present itself as morality.

Schopenhauer said that that, by divorcing the concept of theological authority from that of moral duty, Kant’s ethical theory rendered moral language as he wishes to use it meaningless. However admirable we consider pre-Kantian ethics, Kant’s achievement in pointing out another dimension is undeniable. The seeming absurdity of his moral obsession may be interpreted differently as creative power. Far more than a set of prohibitions, for Kant morality becomes a whole life programme, bringing with it a gratifying sense of power and authority. What is sought is not ordinary knowledge, but a certainty that is strong and emotional. Kant’s claim to freewill involves a metaphysical pride, as if the laws of cause and effect are themselves a constraint and one wants a magical power to control everything.



1743 – 1805

William Paley was an English churchman born in Peterborough. At Cambridge in 1763 he was senior Wrangler, a position once regarded as the highest intellectual attainment in Britain. His defence of Christianity became standard works of Anglican theology.

Much of Paley’s philosophy came from his reading the work of the eccentric country gentleman Abraham Tucker (1705 – 1774), whose ideas he systematises. Paley is interesting for a pre-Darwinian view of ethics, bringing a rationalist’s God into all the equations. God is conceived as desiring the good of his creatures.

Paley brings Christian rationalism into his attack on fornication and licentious literature. There is a logic behind this, even if we think it sophistical. To twenty first century readers his moral values can suggest the sexual puritanism of modern Muslims. Yet in general he is reasonable and his humane.

He writes of the code of honour that was the aristocratic alternative to his Christian values. He is not talking about military ideals. He means those for whom the object of life is pleasure, meaning aristocrats, a class whose values have since spread far more generally throughout society. Theirs is a simple uncomplicated value, a programme without depth or nuance.

Paley’s traditional Anglican wisdom is of considerable historical interest. He expounds very explicit and conscious values, putting meaning into ordinary life.

His appeal to the will of God makes more obvious sense than later secular versions of utilitarianism. With those there is the problem of understanding why any individual would or should equip himself with such a godlike will. Taken on the right level he is rational and admirable. When philosophy students are introduced to utilitarianism by John Stuart Mill the basic principles may come across as a faith, like Christian dogma. Even Bentham would be more useful. Bentham has been said to owe his philosophy to the French enlightener Helvetius (1715–1771), but Paley was an independent influence.

Paley impresses by his eighteenth century reasonableness. Nonetheless he sticks up for some of what were considered reactionary causes. He defends the logic of unreformed elections and the notorious bloody code. To him they are rational. He perfectly expresses the instincts of a class.

The 1911 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica is somewhat disdainful of the 18th century derivation of ethics from selfishness:-
Paley, though an excellent expositor and full of common sense, had the usual defect of common-sense people in philosophy – that of tame acquiescence in the prejudices of his age. His two most famous definitions are that of virtue as “the doing good to mankind, in obedience to the will of God and for the sake of everlasting happiness,” and that of obligation as “being urged by a violent motive resulting from the command of another”: both of which bring home to us acutely the limitations of 18th-century philosophizing in general and of theological utilitarianism in particular.
Bentham’s interpretation of human nature was not more exalted than Paley’s. Like Paley, he regards men as moved entirely by pleasure and pain, and omits from the list of pleasures most of those which to wellnatured men make life really worth living:

These “limitations of 18th-century philosophizing in general” should perhaps rather be seen as virtues. The “exalted” idea of morality introduced by Kant is something we may want to get away from. At least Nietzsche seemed to have thought we should.

Paley was also famous for his version of the design argument for the existence of God, based on the analogy of a watch and its watchmaker. Though it had already been undermined by Hume, this argument was successful and popular, and in the twentieth century neo-Darwinist Dawkins still found it worth arguing against in The Blind Watchmaker.



1748 –1832

Jeremy Bentham formed a project of reforming the criminal code. He himself was grounded in eighteenth century prejudice about liberty, and would not have envisaged the later revolutionary use that would be made of his philosophy. For his purpose the greatest happiness of the greatest number was a useful rational formula, not a tool for transforming the whole culture, though it also supplied a meaning to terms like “ought,” “good,” “evil,” “right,” and “wrong”, which, he says, otherwise had none.
Utilitarianism contributed substantially to British philosophical radicalism, a self assured body of doctrine whose heyday coincided with the middle class coming to power in France in the revolution of 1830. Just like socialists of a later era, philosophical radicals held to the idea that their new order could resolve all discontents, and coercion would not be felt once change has been effected.

Bentham had a decisive influence on nineteenth century judicial reform. A target was the jurist Blackstone (1723–1780), with his concern for traditional safeguards, and warnings of the flaws in law and the dangers of government. According to Dicey (1835 -1922, Blackstone’s “Old Toryism” prevailed till about 1830, then came Benthamism, then towards the end of the century a current of collectivism. Only then did utilitarianism became the sort of scheme that might appeal to a Chinese emperor, or some other imperial ruler able to feel he was writing on a blank slate.

Disregarding Bentham’s ideals of personal freedom, or laisser-faire, which he largely took for granted, later figures took the greatest happiness principle and turned it into something like a moral demand. Accordingly he is misunderstood. Utilitarianism then became an expression of an authoritarian will, a supposedly rational pattern the rulers would like to impose on a malleable humanity. In Bentham it was merely a useful rule of thumb for judicial reform, far from an excuse for empire or for socialism.

In his book Freedom and Betrayal: Six Enemies of Human Liberty Isaiah Berlin listed Helvetius (1715–1771), along with Hegel, Fichte, Rousseau, Saint-Simon (1760 –1825) and De Maistre as one of the six “enemies of freedom” who constituted the ideological basis for modern authoritarianism. Berlin and Nietzsche both saw Helvetius as the major influence on Bentham. There were other influences on him; utilitarianism was in the air, and the theological utilitarianism of Paley had some credence. More importantly Bentham did not employ utilitarianism as a dogmatic creed. He sought a formula for some much needed reforms and it was no part of his plan to destroy liberty in the name of utilitarianism, though later followers were not so restrained. Bentham might have found Helvetius’ formulations useful, but his purpose would have been different from theirs.

Times changed though. In an appendix to his England and the English, published in 1836, Bulwer-Lytton (1803 –1873) writes of a time when the passion for liberty that had inspired the American Revolution was a relic of the past, an old cause. Now there was philosophical radicalism. His book shows the Victorian project at its inception. As he describes it, it comes across as reasonable enough; the flaws came out later. When we look back on Victorianism we may miss the rational project behind what comes across as irrational moralising convention.

In criticising Byron (1788 –1824), Bulwer diagnoses a pernicious influence of aristocracy on British society. He writes of cynicism that would presumably have sneered at the youthful enthusiasm of 1830. He attributes many of the features of the English character to the effects of aristocratic power. While is questionable whether national character depends so completely on the constitution as he asserts, England and the English is in a sense the programme for the Victorian era which was to come. Though generally favourable to Bentham, he has the following reservation:-

In his list of motives, though he includes sympathy, he omits conscience, or the feeling of duty: one would never imagine from reading him that any human being ever did an act merely because it is right, or abstained from it merely because it is wrong“.
The drawbacks to this revisionism would become apparent much later in the century.



1762 –1814

The first mystery of post Kantian idealism is how one gets from Kant’s thing-in-itself to the philosophy of Fichte. Reinhold’s (1757 – 1823) Letters on the Kantian philosophy is said to be the most influential book on Kant ever written. He simplifies with the aim of making Kant utilisable for an enlightenment project. Here is one clue as to why and how Kant led on to Fichte.

Fichte divided all philosophy into two classes, idealism – his own – and dogmatism -everyone else’s.

Russell gave very little space to Fichte in his History of Western Philosophy writing that he “carried subjectivism to a point which almost seems to involve a kind of insanity”.

Fichte’s idealism recalls the Hindu doctrine of the identity of Atman and Brahman. The subjective is to be grasped as the same as the objective, Thou art That, the innermost truth of both is one. There is a dangerous temptation to solipsism; the trick is to avoid that. To make up for the lack of an external reality Fichte, invokes laws of thought. He says Berkeley is not an idealist but a dogmatist, presumably because Berkeley’s God stands in for matter. If  Fichte is an atheist, he is not the usual sort, most of whom are materialists. Nor is he concerned with cause and effect because causality is merely phenomenal.

Solipsism does not have to mean egoism. Fichte’s philosophy is intensely moralistic. He insists that the ultimate end is not some passionless state, but realised activity, suggesting a western approximation to the dance of Shiva, the ancient Hindu alternative ideal to the passivity of the Buddhist Nirvana. Life is about the rational conquest of the ego over whatever it experiences as alien to itself.

Fichte’ shied away from a traditional identification of the will to live with sexuality. His ideal of activity is ethical. His plebeian background may partly account for this preference. As with some other thinkers, the moral obsession may be connected with hostility to the hedonistic lifestyle of aristocrats. The enthusiastic emotion that the previous age had looked down upon was now in favour, and devotion to duty, secularised in the name of serving humanity, was extolled as an alternative to the egoism now denounced as class oppression.

This movement was fed by an originally Christian attack on the tradition of Locke and Hume which had taken root in pre-revolutionary France. This French idea came to be understood as distinctively German. Vaihinger observed that the German cult of idealism led to a disregard of reality, and contempt for the philosophical traditions of neighbouring countries, bringing a dangerous mental and moral underestimation of their people.
Isaiah Berlin included Fichte among the six architects of modern authoritarianism, who undermined liberal democracy. The surrender of individual will in favour of a fanatical devotion to the common cause had intellectual roots traceable back to the Christian middle ages.

In the Vocation of Man Fichte writes of regime of justice arsing from the ranks of the utterly downtrodden, those goaded to the point where they have no special interests and can only desire fairness. This proto-Marxist thought was published in 1800. The will and energies of the strong were to be directed into the promotion of the supposedly rational society.

Fichte’s ethical bent, joined to a passion for power, tended naturally to fascist style conformism. Taking my will as an ought, I form the desire that everyone should think the same. Then I have arrived at a kind of philosophy telling us what we have to think. So it can even come to look as if I have discovered a method of ascertaining truth with respect to the most important questions. That can be very exciting and reassuring.

We are back with a moralistic philosophy, purged of Christianity but with a similar theologising intent. With the excitement of feeling that philosophy alone has told me what I must do, Fichte extrapolates from an individual to a more general compulsion. For answers to the great questions of life this is very satisfying to some. It is like having God on my side, so this kind of conformism can give a great boost to self confidence.


De Maistre

1753 – 1821

Joseph de Maistre is famous for his contention that the executioner is the indispensable foundation of society. His obsession with this subject has led some to describe him as sick in the head. He began as an enthusiast for enlightenment, even associating with the Illuminati whom he mentions, not unsympathetically, in his Petersburg Dialogues. He turned against the Revolution early on however, to take up a position that was extremely reactionary.

How we value the French Revolution depends much on class and national perspective. British readers often find Burke sympathetic. Unlike De Maistre, Burke (1729 –1797) does not attack rational enlightenment, only what he views as the shallow pretence of that. He objects to stirring up the masses with ideas, which may always turn fanatical whatever their provenance. The faith of the Jacobins passes for rational because it used language with which we can still identify and argue about. If I think some dominant idea is true then to me it is more than just a dominant idea. I may see it as the irruption of light into the world.

Isaiah Berlin’s suggestion that De Maistre looks forward to Nietzsche cannot be sustained. Both Nietzsche and De Maistre were hostile to the supposedly rationalistic ideology of the French Revolution. To one who derives his own values from that ideology, however much modified and amended, these two may seem to pose a similar kind of threat. They both attack his basic beliefs or faith, and may therefore both appear to be sinister nihilists. But the societies they would favour would be very different. De Maistre is for the Inquisition. Nietzsche accepted many liberal ideas and could allow the political sphere a form of autonomy, without needing to derive it from religion or philosophy. One can easily exaggerate Nietzsche’s radicalism.

De Maistre is perversely fascinating for some people, with the appeal of the apparently irrational. Baudelaire was attracted to him. See the cynical pessimistic romanticism of his intimate journal, Mon Coeur Mis a Nu.

Comtean positivism, the nineteenth century version of the enlightenment was arguably plebeian in character. Against it aristocratic sympathisers failed to construct an alternative enlightenment. An earlier phase was preferred in which religion had become shallow, informal, immoral. In France, even for progressives like Comte and Renan, emotional attachment to aspects of Catholicism was often surprisingly strong.

For a while De Maistre was ambassador to St Petersburg. He wrote presciently on the Russians, explaining why they should not liberate the serfs. This was the early nineteenth century when the genius of Russian literature and music had scarcely begun to show itself. He saw the force of desire in the Russian character. His Petersburg Dialogues suggest the reactionary Plato of Laws. He is generally but not always rational in his arguments. He attacks Voltaire with an idea of providence that may strike readers as superstitious. Like Blake, De Maistre sees Bacon as the source of much evil. Against Hobbes he argues that sovereignty is always taken, never given.

De Maistre gets well into his stride with his attack on Locke, whose philosophy he sees as sectarian, which is to say Protestant. He holds that Protestantism leads to Socianism and Mohammedanism. He does admire scientists however. He says hereditary monarchy seems irrational, but experience shows it is the best system. The religious idea of sacrifice and vicarious atonement, are not defensible by reason, but universal and necessary.

One of De Maistre’s Petersburg characters strays into metaphysical explanations, and is reproved by another who says evil is inexplicable division, and that there is a movement towards unity which is good. He means unity with family, with ancestors. Then another character argues for the value of superstition.

De Maistre has won high praise from some surprising quarters. J F C Fuller suggested a connection between his thought and Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

“The flower which springs from the dunghill assimilates into itself particles of matter, transforming them into the ruby of the poppy and the sapphire of the cornflower; so it is with us. It is synthetically that we rise and not analytically. Blake grasped this, and so did Joseph de Maistre.”




Friedrich Schelling is something of an anomaly in the line of major philosophers. He radically changed his philosophical opinions several times. The chain of rigorous argument was broken. He is included because he was a vital link between Kant and Hegel. Like Fichte, he was addressing the desires that Kant stimulated and left unsatisfied, the need to get rid of what have been called his “pernicious dualisms”. These difficulties had early been identified as early as the criticism of Kant’s contemporary Maimon (1753 –1800). One of Schelling’s philosophies is called the philosophy of nature, where the unifying principle is a notion of force or life. Another is the philosophy of identity, in which subjectivity and objectivity are the same, to be understood as the Absolute.

He constantly interacted with Hegel and Fichte. As a student Schelling shared a room with the former, and for a while they were friends. It is said that Hegel’s work was essentially a clarification and systematisation of Schelling’s philosophy. Schelling, however, eventually turned against Hegel, claiming to have put an end to German idealism when he retracted the views he considered Hegel had adopted. Ultimately Hegel comes out of Schelling.

Out of Schelling’s inconsistent yet seminal musings Hegel claimed to have produced a coherent system. Part of the difficulty of grasping Hegel lies in missing the consistency of his motive. There are guiding principles which are central to everything he says. It is misleading to treat this simply as the conclusions of abstract philosophical argument. That could only lead him along a track which had already been followed. There is in him, much of the perverse pleasure of obedience, an almost masochistic desire to submit to authority, in his case the authority of history. He does take satisfaction in defending what is established. So it is important to remember how much of Hegel involves assimilation of the work of Fichte and Schelling.

It was Schelling who brought back religious dogma into philosophy at the expense of logical argument. It appeared a reactionary move when he turned away from philosophical ideas like the Absolute as a unity of subjective and objective, for of the more traditional God of the orthodox. This was when he developed an interest in Boehme, and gave up philosophy for theology.

He expressed contempt for the English philosophical tradition, saying explicitly that he despised Locke. Empiricists have sometimes returned the contempt, pointing out the crudity of his nature philosophy from a scientific viewpoint.

Schelling’s influence was not just on German idealism. His location of the solution of a philosophical problem in the enjoyment of art had obvious appeal to literary people. One influence was on the nature mysticism of English romantics like Wordsworth and Coleridge, who, inspired by philosophies like his, thought in terms of a live Spirit of Nature with whom it was possible to commune. Whether or not the philosophical underpinning holds up, it obviously opens the gates to intense and valued forms of experience that a rigid materialism tends to exclude. If we want to apply philosophical analysis, it is up to us to try to find a new explanation which will not destroy the experience, but avoids the philosophical confusions. Coleridge in turn had an influence on American transcendentalism.

Kierkegaard’s idea of freedom was influenced by Kant via Schelling. Kierkegaard rejects the supposed rationalistic demands of Hegel’s philosophy. Any state of drifting in a sea of doubt is to be taken as failure to see the way out of a spurious orthodoxy. The “leap of faith” is irrationalism, initially liberating much like surrealist painting. That may express a personal spiritual crisis that some people have. So we might trace Kierkegaard to roots in Christian mysticism. For a starting point for philosophy it appears more formal than anything else. It would take the place of Cartesian doubt.


1770 –1831

With the identification of the noumenon with thought about the phenomenon, reality is assimilated to thought about it. This form of idealism denies the reality of that outside not the perceiving, but the judging mind. The individual depends for his reality upon a total system. Except for a world historical figure, who progresses through the pain of contradiction into a new truth, “the truth” is no more than the most advanced thought of the time. The ordinary dissident is not following “Reason”. Reason involves a seemingly inevitable conjunction and succession of ideas.

For Hegel the reason we have to accept cannot escape being one-sided and limited. The best we can hope for is that it will be less so than its alternatives. His end point is already given to him. His philosophy is a justification of what he thinks and feels. It seems wrong to reproach him with his conformism, because that is really his whole inspiration. We can see his thought as the exemplification of an essentially simple principle. All the complexity is really in the detail.

With no external thing-in-itself, reality is mental. Solipsism is avoided by monism. All minds being one, disagreement between minds counts as contradiction. The obscurities presented by these ideas are interpreted as difficulties to be overcome. Full understanding is promised for some time in the future. Mind being one, there is a necessity to conform, and objective progress is a fact.

The paradoxical conclusion that everything really is nothing but mind is both liberating and disturbing. Freedom cannot be unlimited. The restraint proposed is more anthropomorphic than that demanded by a materialistic world. Philosophy comes to imply specific beliefs and even particular emotions. The only reality is mind because there is no external thing-in-itself. What you can think, is determined by the stage consciousness has reached.

Rather than simply learning what Hegel says one needs to grasp why these sometimes repellent ideas can seem so attractive. The Absolute Idea is the viewpoint of complete understanding, a rational replacement for God, a supposedly rational explication of religion. His whole philosophy is centred around that, as a theophany centres around God. Sometimes he is extremely suggestive, at others almost absurd. To understand everything he says would take long study, of dubious value.

Any attack on his philosophy is treated as only a phase of thought, one moment on the vast canvas of the rational. Of your objection it is said that Hegel thought it through many years ago and that it collapses because of its internal contradictions. The apparent collapse and destruction of the enemy produces a triumphant feeling, which is true Hegelianism.

Unless you are in sympathy with his aims you are unlikely to understand Hegel fully. There are ways of showing you how you might come to do so, even if it is at present alien to you. What it comes down to is that there is a doctrine and a way of bringing you to accept it. The person who was totally converted would not feel constrained, consequently he would be free. Hegel treats questions that had been discussed by no one else. He tries to include all possible ideas and puts them in a historical order. Presumably this order could be different, but what sense could there be in altering it?

Against accusations of Hegel’s system being arbitrary it is insisted how important it was for him to pay attention to he actual world as it was and had developed. There is a tendency to support authority more than it deserves. Favouring some kind of established or feasibly to be established power, the sceptical element in his idealism can be used to undermine rational objections claiming to appeal to truth. In Hegel, the seeming arbitrariness of reality is like the arbitrariness of authority.

Every excitement to be got from contemplating any cultural manifestation from the past, is said to be here now, in a deeper and richer form, if only we understand the present and its most advanced philosophy. History reveals exciting possibilities which we can feel we have already appropriated, and that everything we do is obscurely aimed towards this most desirable goal.



1788 –1860

“Schopenhauer’s writings are almost wholly evolved from Fichte’s later works” says Everyman’s Encyclopaedia, 1913. It is easier to trace the derivation from Kant. From Kant’s view of the unknowability of the world behind phenomena, it is concluded that only unanalysed immediate experience actually exists. So any state of present and immediate distress can become intensified into a hell. The vital necessity is to find a means of escape. This fits in neatly with the primary Buddhist objective which is to end suffering.

The rather arbitrary character of much post Kantian German philosophy extends to Schopenhauer’s will as thing-in-itself. The principle of sufficient reason he sees as the ground of all differentiation. He can say something about the thing-in-itself providing he keeps short of the range of this principle. There are difficulties. Will is effective as phenomenon. To claim it as the ultimate explanation of everything seems paradoxical. Yet Schopenhauer’s insight has appeal. Why is it that out of all the lives that are lived I am so concerned with my own? The reason is will. Will is the source of all pleasure and pain. My own life is of passionate interest to me; the countless realities it is beyond my power to affect cannot frustrate me. Hence the primary reality is will, rather than the conscious knowing ego.

Schopenhauer introduced life negation into western philosophy, inspiring other advocates of ascetic and altruistic morality like Tolstoy (1828–1910). Schopenhauer cannot deny that happiness is sometimes possible, and even states the conditions for it, as he understands them. He regards the pleasures of art as enduring. Beyond the Indian strand there is a theme of Christian self-hatred in his concepts of asceticism and morality. Altruism is abnegation of self as phenomenon in favour of others as phenomena.

Youth meets obstacles to ambition. Why not just follow any of the programmes held open to you? Why should not Schopenhauer have gone into trade? Why is ordinary life unsatisfying? Perhaps this is a question best left unanswered. Schopenhauer’s misogyny connects with his hostile attitude towards life in general, and especially Hegel. Women threaten to seduce, like Hegel, into an unacceptable optimism. Schopenhauer’s mother wrote letters to him saying how you can achieve anything to which you set your mind, a shallow pushy wisdom that apparently infuriated him. It has been often said that he bore a grudge against life from early experience of office work and that his character was marked by an unusually persistent obstinacy. Explicitly, Schopenhauer’s morality is suicidal, bad temper directed against the self.

Weltschmerz comes from frustration of some particular desire. Identifying the self with the will, it becomes intolerable that desire should be frustrated. In contemplation one renounces the desire, escaping what seemed to be a trap. What pleasures Schopenhauer experiences come as consolation and escape. For him the aesthetic means renouncing his individual will for a state of mind where will no longer operates. According to Nietzsche, Schopenhauer affirms where he dishonestly claims to negate.

The Buddhist thought that immediate desire is mostly frustrated is one form of pessimism. Schopenhauer’s solution is contemplation. You think that if you get your desire, it will make you happy. Being frustrated, and contemplating yourself, your life seems a failure. But to contemplate is to take pleasure in what is observed. This is not really retreating from life and will, only refraining from searching for happiness in the direction of hot desire. In practice neither Buddhism nor Schopenhauer’s philosophy are life negating. Though we associate art with negation and death that is hardly its reality. The idea that “it is better not to be than to be” is not honestly applied. Buddhism may involve much happiness and joyful activity.

The self consciously decadent romanticism of the later nineteenth century was congenial to this attitude. Much Catholicism of the era was bastard Buddhism. Art offered release from the frustration of the will. Nietzsche concedes Hegel’s dishonesty, but identifies the same fault in Schopenhauer. If Hegel is oppressive in one obvious way; Schopenhauerian art, as exemplified in Wagner, can be insidious. If Hegel suggests communism, Wagner’s prefigures Nazism, with its seductive aesthetic.



1804 –1872

How did Hegel manage to build such a following with his strange philosophy systematised from selected speculations of Schelling, that their originator had come to repudiate? It can hardly be his central argument, as to how he advances beyond Kant. It’s not as if everything else follows logically from that. He put out a lot of ideas and introduces a great range of subjects. People, even when they came to reject him, often treated him as a baseline. Much is to do with force of personality. There is less difference than there is thought to be between the authority of a great western philosopher and that of an oriental sage.

Hegel’s early followers, called Young Hegelians, divide into what were called right and left. Together with Karl Marx, Feuerbach, David Strauss (1808 – 1874), Bruno Bauer and others, Feuerbach was one of the left group.

For Feuerbach Hegel’s system is the most advanced philosophy. Accepting this he allows a quite considerable freedom to speculation. To understand his position, we might substitute for Hegel whoever we think of as the most advanced philosopher. There remains with idealism, a final mystery, a circle to be squared. Feuerbach says Hegel he thinks he is the German Aristotle but he is only the Proclus. And he claims for a decisive objection what is one of the most initial and obvious.

Hegelians and Marxists consider that Feuerbach got Hegel wrong. They say he was completely rooted in the human subject, taking philosophy back to the individualism of the mid eighteenth century. Most later nineteenth philosophers are criticised as successors of Feuerbach, failing to have assimilated Hegel.

Among the left Hegelians there was much discussion about Christianity. As against Bauer, who was more concerned with the error in it, Feuerbach treated Christianity as a projection of true humanistic values.

Feuerbach’s critique of religion appear in his The Essence Of Christianity, and a later short, and supposedly more sophisticated book Principles of the Philosophy of the Future. With German post Kantian philosophy there are a number of background ideas with which one needs to be familiar for full understanding. For example Feuerbach makes a lot of references to the philosophy of identity, which is Schelling, and few people these days are well up on that. Because we are unlikely to agree with it we do not study it very hard. But there is much interest in why and how we do disagree. There are patterns which reappear in later philosophy, and which can throw light on that.

Feuerbach writes that “God is derived only from man” and “Only in man’s wretchedness does God have his birthplace.” Accordingly he sets up something like a secularised form of Christian values.

Feuerbach had some influence on artistic culture, In 1848 Wagner was a revolutionary socialist. The original ideas for The Ring cycle were socialist allegorical, and Feuerbach contributed to a strain that continued to be important to him. Later Wagner put Schopenhauer’s ideas into The Ring, giving a additional layer.

Feuerbach considers both God as abstract and God as sensuous. Taking of the sensuous route, we end up with pantheism, which tends to turn into materialism. Feuerbach gives his objection to Spinozan pantheism as the material element in the godhead. God as abstract is just an objectification of man’s reasoning powers.

Few these days would share the faith in Hegel’s achievement that Feuerbach takes as his starting point, nor would the justification of humanism that Feuerbach draws from adapting him be especially convincing. However, Hegel’s ideas adapt conveniently to different philosophical projects. If we could grant that Hegel’s philosophy achieved all it set out to do and was the consummation of philosophy, there arises the project of constructing a new German ideology. Imagine in advance that all one’s own objections to this philosophy could be assimilated into something like a perfect solution with all ideas in their place. If it is puzzling how this prospect seemed so plausible to so many with different preoccupations, we should start by trying to understand why some people want it to be true, and the sort of triumph that might seem to have been achievable.


De Tocqueville

1805 –1859

De Tocqueville’s Democracy in America clarifies common European perceptions of the USA. There are democratic assumptions which pervade American culture, even, perhaps especially, when it is at its most self righteous and imperialistic, a revolutionary impulse not to be explained simply by material forces. However much the US has changed since his day, many people still see De Tocqueville as an admirable guide to the American mindset. That he was so perceptive so early is to do with the nature of the democratic ideology, and the fact that he was intimately acquainted with some very different forms of social order. Europeans often have feelings about America Americans themselves do not accept as legitimate. When Americans protest that their country is one of extreme cultural heterogeneity they are talking at cross purposes.

The democratic spirit described by De Tocqueville was blatantly incompatible with slavery. The first phase of Yankee imperialism was the destruction of the hierarchical society of the southern states; a later phase involved the elimination of the British Empire.

Many aspects of democratic society usually taken for granted are seen by De Tocqueville from his point of view as mind numbingly tedious. He finds servility in democracy, and inevitable frustration. Putting his finger on the paradox of apparent liberty with apparent conformity, he himself does not escape the confusion, combining admiration for the free citizen with contempt for his mediocrity. He identified phenomena rarely articulated. It is suggested that he misunderstood Anglo-Saxon culture and credited democracy with more than its due. Throughout history forces that made for mediocrity have coexisted with their antibodies. Nevertheless he could brilliantly describe what he saw. He is like a man going into a fog. Those who live in it cannot understand it as fog, to them the fog is the clearest daylight they know. One may want to say that democratic consciousness is not just another point of view of equal value with the aristocratic, but it took Nietzsche and his idea of the will to power to reconcile this desire with rationalism.

Conceding America to be a society in which all reasonable human objectives are satisfiable it is hard to resist the natural demand for equality, or the utilitarianism that such a psychology suggests. The misfit, rejecting the dogmas of the new society is unable to share fully in the satisfactions it offers. He is made to seem mean and nasty for not wishing great wealth for all. While Nietzsche located will to power at the heart of human nature the egalitarian dogma atomises needs and desires. De Tocqueville believes in equality as probably ordained by God, but he recognises that much will be lost. For some people what is being lost may be all that makes life worth living.

De Tocqueville explains how the ideas of progress and of the infinite perfectibility of the human race belong to democratic ages. The wisdom and commonsense of aristocratic eras is increasingly obscured as alternatives pertaining to democratic culture establish dominance.

Pessimism comes from seeing democracy as the inevitable future. His critics would dispute that America represents the consummation of enlightenment or the fulfilment of history. The root causes of American prosperity may include factors other than democracy. The ideal of freedom, does not necessarily entail a framework of equal rights. Efforts to overcome some of the unfortunate effects of democracy have sometimes meant throwing out babies with the bathwater.

De Tocqueville’s pessimism was a personal characteristic, not an inevitable conclusion from what he saw. Divided in his sympathies, his view on the French Revolution was far from Carlyle’s (1795–1881). As De Tocqueville showed, all the seeds of post revolutionary France were already present under the Bourbons. In The Old Regime and the French Revolution, he praises the warm, generous, youthful spirit of the Revolution. Seeing hatred in gregarious enthusiasm, not love, one may want to express contempt. Unfortunately such contempt must extend to a lot of one’s friends. I cannot cut myself off from friends who hold different opinions. Seeing no will to power, while far from blind to the hatred and envy that are essential to revolution, De Tocqueville lacked the tools altogether to defy it.




The concept of a line great philosophers can promote a kind of tendentious detachment. Max Stirner was by most valuations a very minor thinker, but he anticipated Nietzsche with an egoistic refutation of Hegel and Feuerbach. There is some evidence that Nietzsche knew Stirner’s book The Ego and His Own. Stirner himself is credited by some historians of philosophy with putting an end to the Hegelian movement, until its revival later in the century. For Stirner all metaphysical and moral ideas are just Gespenster, a term translated as “spooks”. Stirner argues that in every age new ones arise to chain the ego.

For the egoistic rebel, orthodoxy is the refuge of the weak. All faiths should be treated with contempt, as constraints on the independence of the mind, attractive to mediocrity and inferiority. There is disdain for the enthusiasms of the mass, including the prejudices of democracy. Those who feel at home in conventional thought naturally want to defend it against this demoralising attack.

Marx’s attack on Stirner in The German Ideology shows how he might have replied to Nietzsche had he been confronted with his position. Marx devoted more pages to Stirner than to any other of his opponents. Dismissing Stirner’s idea of communism as only a phantom of his own mind, he vehemently attacked the interpretation of his own ideas as religious dogmas. Virtually his only argument against him, apart from the appeal to some prejudices of popular morality, is the allegation that Stirner’s is just a class point of view, that of petit bourgeois handicraftsmen.

Whether or not one prefers Marx or Stirner comes down to a question of belief rather than the straightforward pursuit of economic interest. Yet Marx accuses Stirner of vastly overestimating the power of mere thought to determine reality. According to Marx, ideology and beliefs are only the expression of economic forces. This includes the beliefs Stirner finds so oppressive. From Stirner’s viewpoint, an essential feature of the projected socialist society is this very tyranny of doctrine.

Marx theorises that in the socialist future the desires which are incompatible with his doctrine, would either no longer be present, or would be simply satisfiable. He speaks for the oppressed proletarian. Modern Marxists hold that we now should share these convictions, rather than taking a more cynical view. Christian millenarian movements of the past would likewise claim to be not merely beliefs, but true insights.

Marx views as pointless Stirner’s exercise of turning all values into the holy and then repudiating them as impotent spooks. He dismisses Stirner’s spooks as insignificant. Bourgeois morality, which is only hypocrisy, never inhibited anyone, he says. All Stirner sticks up for is the right of an alienated self to its opinions.

Appetites may be satisfied as a slave or as a master. If the only important thing is to satisfy the appetites, perhaps it is best to be a slave. While Stirner rhapsodises about crime, socialists may interpret him as advocating raw capitalism. He attacks the depressing implications unwilling submission to other people’s ideas. If I am the captain of my soul, then ideas of class are mere devices which may or may not serve my purpose.

Ideas in the mind are not everything, but nor are they nothing. An oppressive structure of ideas can be countered by opposing ideas. At least that offers a remedy against depression. Whether or not the matters affected by philosophical speculation are large or small, they nevertheless have their sphere. Marx dubiously promises that embracing his ideas will produce enormous benefits. Stirner’s idea of liberation he sees as merest illusion.

Much of Hegel is a defence of the faith generated by the French Revolution. For Marx, Rousseauism at the time was politically inevitable. The German Ideology is interesting to someone who takes the Nietzschean side. He may feel he needs to arm himself against its assaults.

Stirnerism has its limitations. The view of life as an amoral conflict of wills is only for the very strong and the very weak. It clears much ground, but openly avowed it may be self defeating. Such egoism may appeal to the young as a strengthening of the character against being swamped by alien will.


John Stuart Mill

1806 –1873

Scottish utilitarian James Mill (1773 –1836) took his beliefs very seriously and turned his son John into a model educational product of the English enlightenment. The truth of utilitarianism was systematically implanted in his mind. On Hartleyan principles, he was given an emotional disposition towards “virtue”. John’s inconsistencies as a thinker can be seen in relation to what amounted to a deep commitment to aspects of a rationalistic creed from which he did not want to break free. His Utilitarianism, may suggest to readers a Christian grappling with some of the intellectual difficulties of his faith, and trying to produce a more up to date and enlightened version of it. If we interpret his philosophy as an exploration of the Christian ideal of disinterested benevolence, set into a purely rationalistic framework, Mill promoted pity in England as Schopenhauer did in Germany.

As philosopher legislator, he formed a programme for the reconstruction of society. His System of Logic was meant as a foundation for science, including social science. One ingredient was Hartley’s (1705–1757) associationism, with which he had been educated. From this limited psychological theory he derived such ideas as that in The Subjection of Women that there is no significant psychological difference between men and women.

Mill was a major presence in Victorian Britain, both expressing and influencing the thought of the age. Loosening utilitarianism from laisser-faire, he absorbed an influence from the French St Simonians, and looked forward to a new “organic” phase of society. This was in some conflict with his reservations about progress and mass democracy. He presumably bridges the gap between liberty and socialism with his plans for education. This pleasure-pain mechanism implied the unlimited conditionability, malleability, of man.

Mill was sympathetic to De Tocqueville’s reservations about democracy and depressed by advancing mediocrity. The principles of his Liberty, offer a defence against democratic tyranny. Another influence was Von Humboldt’s (1767 –1835) ideal of maximising individuality. Mill’s refers favourably to him in the essay. Mill’s wanted to allow individuals to expand as much as they can without obstructing others. His ideal has played a large part in recent western culture. Against those who blur the concept by conflating liberty with other values, his views were individualistic in origin and orientation. Mill praised the strong contribution of his wife Harriet to Liberty. His essay is so passionate for freedom as to support the opium wars on libertarian grounds.

For all his powerful influence on Victorian opinion, it is said the lucidity of his writing contrasts with the unclarity of his thought. His Liberty essay was the final expression of a strain that was originally in Benthamism. Yet by promoting increased freedom of discussion and opinion it undermined the consensus that underlay the Benthamite reforms.

Liberty has always found opponents. In nineteenth century Britain, its enemies didn’t need to debase the concept by pretending they actually believed in freedom. Fitzjames Stephen (1829 –1894) invoked the greatest happiness principle against Mill. He was a judge in British India, and he valued the power to enforce moral values with harsh floggings. What he demands is also in a sense freedom, in his case the freedom of rulers to coerce the ruled.

Progress enthusiasts chided Mill for being too short-sighted to perceive the benefits of socialism and mass democracy. Mill was fully aware of what he was doing in taking up a stand which would be hostile to many modern developments. Egalitarian ideology clashes with traditional ideas of English freedom from Milton to Mill.

Liberty taken in its most general sense is a disquisition on the merits of free thought. The intellectual supports a doctrine of liberty for the same reason that the Norman barons supported liberty against the king. Despotic power unless it is your own is likely to be used against you. Compulsory benevolence is established as a value by those in a position to fear the possible malignity of the powerful. Utilitarianism is interesting because it explores and systematises this fundamental principle of Christianity, making it the foundation of socialisation. It has continued to provide much of the imperial dynamic of western civilisation, like the universalising principle behind expansionist democracy.




We find in Hegel all sorts of suggestions and there are several different ways in which he is seen. For a fully rounded view of his historical significance we would need to consider all the different takes on him. Different understandings of Hegel  had their own historical parts to play. One that was influential in its day was that of Bruno Bauer. Bauer, with the simplifying turn he gives Hegel can make the way of thinking more sympathetic.

Bauer is said to have been the last important Hegelian before the British Idealists took up some Hegelian themes later in the nineteenth century. In his day he was very well thought of and influential, though now he is virtually forgotten.

Despite Hegel’s own pretensions, orthodox Christians have usually counted him as heterodox at best. In the 1840s Friedrich William IV King of Prussia persecuted Hegelians for what was effectively seen as their heresy. At that time there was a famous split into what were called right and left Hegelians. The right were conservative, while the left adopted radical, often revolutionary views. Bruno Bauer was originally regarded as a right Hegelian, for he set out to defend Hegel’s views on Christianity against the humanistic reinterpretations of Feuerbach and David Strauss (1808-1874). As time went on it appeared he should rather be classed with the radical group. His Hegelianism took the form of outright atheism, which is expressed in his book Christianity Exposed.

Unlike Feuerbach or Strauss Bauer did not try to reinterpret or revise Christianity as some form of humanism.  He places its origin squarely in the context of the ancient world. On his view its motives were neither  wholesome nor rational, and its effects have been more repressive than any other religion. Christianity is intrinsically intolerant.

Restoration in the political sense was Bauer’s main target. He applied Hegelian philosophy for a justification  of revolutionary doctrines. He denounced the 1815 settlement  as reactionary repudiation of all the progress the Revolution had stood for. He declares himself for French atheism as against English Deism, praising the universal claims of the French revolutionaries as opposed to English radicals whom he saw as looking for freedom in the past. Yellowed parchments are contrasted with  French newness. Such neophilia was the enthusiasm which brought Carlyle’s scorn.

Bauer urges that  that we should quite reject religion. Then we shall see human individuals creating themselves and realising their freedom. This is the Hegelian ingredient that needs to be added to the eighteenth century materialistic atheism of Holbach (1723 – 1789. Far from rejecting the humanism of Strauss and Feuerbach  Bauer expects these values to be realised with the disappearance of Christianity.

The mistake of the materialists was failing to see that:-

The human being is not product of nature but the work of his own freedom.

Enlightenment is to be brought about by the State, which as for Hegel was understood as the vehicle for human fulfilment.

From such a non conflict model of human nature a dissident like Nietzsche (whom Bauer had first hailed as an ally) is made to seem unreasonable, greedily wanting more  when everybody can fit harmoniously together.

Marxists have usually regarded Bauer’s ideas as superseded and irrelevant.  Marx was as sarcastic about Bauer as he was about his other contemporaries. For Marx religion was merely superstructure, little more than a cover for economic interests. Nevertheless much of this mindset was incorporated into bolshevism and one might say it gives a view into its idealistic core.

For the revolutionary enthusiast there was a need to qualify materialism. The problem with English deism from the revolutionists point of view, was the scepticism that came with it. You could speak intelligibly about desire but not about the form it ought to take. Following Hobbes’ explicit intention, it placed a check on utopian visions of human nature. This had been. What was known as enthusiasm, primarily religious, was undermined by the materialistic philosophy. When after the Revolution people wanted to justify secular enthusiasm many felt they needed a new philosophy. If the conservative felt a need to restore religion, the radicals needed to justify their revolutionary programme, turning to some of the same philosophical sources.




Kierkegaard opposes Hegel’s essences differently from Stirner. Stirner’s aim was dominate them, having shown their insubstantiality. Kierkegaard wishes to escape by moving into a form of subjectivity where he is immune from criticism.

As Kierkegaard understood Hegel’s philosophy, we are expected to conform to the concepts prevalent in the society around us, and to derive our meaning in life from these. Kierkegaard was an introvert reacting against this, but he was still under its spell. He conceded the Hegelian significance of essence, but said that existence precedes essence, meaning not that these Hegelian concepts have no meaning, but that the individual has the right to dispense with reason. Kierkegaard thus presents himself as a champion of freedom, pinpointing a form of oppression perpetrated by something claiming to be reason. Disregarding these essences means disregarding the necessity to communicate. We can preoccupy ourselves with whatever ideas we like, and aim at the salvation of our souls.

Argument is by means of essences and these threaten to make us think thoughts that we may not want. Kierkegaard is like a contemplative mystic, dedicated to the internal quest, but who nevertheless decides to write about it. For such a man rational truth is an oppression of the spirit. He escapes it with the idea that the feelings of the individual take precedence over anything that can be argued.

While a philosopher may accept the possibility of mystical truth, typically he would prefer it expressed itself within the most enlightened conceptual framework. The mystic finds argument an irrelevance. As far as he is concerned truth is whatever assists him on his personal quest. That is all he means by truth, so it is meaningless to discuss the abstract possibility of the best conceptual framework or to point out the restricted character of his presuppositions.

Kierkegaard is important for coming up with reasons for believing in Christianity, which otherwise might seem outmoded. Thought such as his is often behind modern neo-Christian movements. He is the equal if not superior to Pascal (1623–1662) as a religious thinker. Life-negative thought is profound, subtle and insidious. What is defeated by reason may yet win with its seductive poetry, its siren claim to monopolise religious ecstasy, teaching that everything except itself is really despair. Kierkegaard attracts, his Christianity is not simply ressentiment.

In The Present Age, he argues for Christianity as the only alternative to a bleak and sterile socialism. His era he sees as characterised by the levelling process, which is rationally inescapable. As no one has the right to set himself up as an authority in opposition to this, the only solution is the interiority of private religion, which teaches by the example of suffering or martyrdom.

Islam, Buddhism, or Satanism, are not considered. Kierkegaard is saying that Christianity is uniquely appropriate. This is a contentious assertion. Considered in itself, as a body of doctrine, apart from the emotional associations to do with the fact of its survival, with all its barbaric mythology of the dying god, Christianity may appear alien to the modern world. But there is a way of reading Augustine by which it can be made to appear in a very different light. Kierkegaard writes as a man too sensitive to the enthusiasms of the time. In Copenhagen he felt the zeitgeist, responded to it, resisted it.

Spiritual pride might seem to be the foundation of his whole position. The Christian injunction to mortify such pride, he takes very seriously. For him the final stage of enlightenment is a kind of suicide. His The Sickness unto Death resembles a work of Catholic mysticism. It is so thoroughly Christian it is hard to imagine how its thought might be secularised. It expresses Christianity in some of its most despotic forms. This self become God is left with no freedom whatever.

Read as a novel, his Either Or is tedious. It confronts the Byronic aestheticism of the time, remnant of old aristocratic values and precursor of later decadence. The alternative ethical ideal fights back. This idea of choice as something fundamental is just another religious idea.

A Christian critic has observed it was Kierkegaard’s obsession with God’s otherness that ultimately destroyed him.



1818 –1883

At the end of his French Revolution Carlyle says that the majority of Frenchmen were never happier, because better fed, than under the Terror. Is not such a thought the seed of Marxist-Leninism, proletarian economics, and revolutionary extremism?

Carlyle tells us that the Jacobin law of the maximum seemed to ignore the established laws of political economy. So socialism required new laws of political economy. These Karl Marx developed following the supposed loophole in the traditional system discovered by Ricardo (1772 –1823), that connecting surplus value with exploitative rent. He developed on these lines an alternative system of economics, vast and complex in its scope, that appropriate to a socialist state. When Marx was writing, such a system had not been tried, it was all mostly speculation.

Marx applies his economic determinism to demonstrate how your political ideas are determined by your economic livelihood. Marxists criticised many of their opponents for expressing the values of a class of rentiers or petit bourgeoisie. The reality, they say, for the vast majority, is of progressive proletarianisation, or enslavement. One’s ability to make a living and a decent life, is inevitably precarious.

Marx’s theory to explain away alternative ideologies is held to be a metatheory, a theory about theories, and therefore not subject to the same class determination as the theories it tries to explain. It is not accepted that Marx’s opponents also have metatheories, that compete directly with Marx and Hegel, who are simply used to explain them away. On this level it is not conceded that he may have worthy opponents.

Dangerous tendencies of Marx’s ideas were recognised early on by people who knew him and his thought well, like Bakunin (1814–1876) and Max Stirner. Their criticisms were borne out by experience. In the history of twentieth century China, for example, we can follow how the well meaning Marxism of the university student turned into the almost incomprehensibly atrocious tyranny of thought reform.

Marx discussed forces which would have had to have been discussed soon because they were becoming ever more apparent. Socialists felt a need to unite in a quasi-religious way. Once a doctrine had been provided which met the essential requirements it would have been inconsistent to try to invent another. The urge for originality is bourgeois individualism. It is its divisiveness that is being opposed.

The programmes of the utopian socialists like St Simon (1760 –1825), Fourier (1772–1837), or Robert Owen (1771–1858), left unanswered the question of why the socialist laws should be made and observed when there are other possible paths that reason might show us. Why once passed and tried out, should laws not be changed again and again? It used to be important for the architect of a state to be able to attach divine sanction to his constitution. The French revolutionaries claimed to be rational. Marx went further and claimed to have made socialism scientific. Science took over the role of Numa’s nymph Egeria. Marx aspired to give scientific sanction to socialist principles, thus securing them the required conceptual sophistication. For Aquinas religious dogma was as true as is ordinary commonsense, and any philosophical position had to come to terms with this body of truth. Marx, on the other hand, was not concerned with reconciling truth with truth, but with rendering something capable of being believed.

Whatever we think of the truth claim of Marxist doctrine, arguably its real function is that of securing obedience to a new order with an equivalent to divine sanction. Marx’s idea of the centrality of “production” has some plausibility. If you have never thought about it, it looks as though it might be the one thing that is really important, that has always been overlooked. But so is Freud’s system plausible, and many others.

Many find the thought of the young Marx to be more easily comprehensible than his mature philosophy. To formulate an idea clearly one has to leave it open to criticism. Once this is done, however, Hegelian method comes in useful as a way of sewing up the doctrine from the inside, rendering it logically secure.



1828 – 1875

With the demise of the original Hegelian movement “back to Kant” became a fashionable slogan among German philosophers. Originally a follower of Mill and Marx, Lange became a neo-Kantian, adhering to the critical rather than the metaphysical side of Kant. He is most famous for his Geschichte des Materialismus- History of Materialism. Lange is not himself altogether a materialist, he believes in an unknowable thing-in-itself, regarding it as a theoretical limit.

Lange is contemptuous of Aristotle and instead praises Democritus whose atomistic theory was revived in the seventeenth century. Accepting action at a distance, the atomic theory of Leucippus (c.470-400 BC) and Democritus, had a direct influence on modern science. Lange saw nominalism in England as a stage in the emancipation from Aristotle. Defining matter as mere extension was where Descartes went wrong. Allow that matter can have sensation, and what does materialism mean? Does it mean atheism?

Whether the world is ruled by a conscious principle or not has always been a matter of dispute, however successfully orthodox religion has suppressed the atheist alternative, at least on the popular level. Darwin’s achievement was to have destroyed so called “natural religion”, the successor to eighteenth century deism. This did great service for the cause of atheistic enlightenment.

With small reservations Lange’s concern was with such enlightenment. As he emphasised, with atheism tended to go egoism, something he did not like, identifying it with material greed. Adam Smith (1723–1790) he sees as a simplifier. He says The Ego and His Own is the most extreme of which he is aware and that Stirner could have written another book, a “good” and “moral” one. Lange disapproves of some aspects of La Mettrie, sharing a Victorian style prejudice that sensuality is frivolous.

Egoism had found expression in characteristically English science. It spread to France, with the eighteenth century enlightenment. It was opposed by Kant and particularly by Hegel, who reintroduced an anti-egoistic moralising strain into philosophy. In rising up against Hume and his irreligious philosophy, Kant followed in the footsteps of Hamaan (1730 –1788) and other pietists.

Lange was not in sympathy with idealistic developments of Kantian tradition. He included Leibniz in his History of Materialism as one who offered what would these days be called a naturalistic explanation of the universe.

Nietzsche first read the History of Materialism in 1866, the year following his discovery of Schopenhauer. Much of Nietzsche’s understanding of the philosophical tradition came through Lange’s History which he seems to have read through at least three times in different editions. In a letter of 1868 he described it as “a book which gives infinitely more than the title promises, a real treasure house to be looked into and read repeatedly”.

While Nietzsche would not have called himself a neo-Kantian, after rejecting Schopenhauer, Kant might easily seem as far as philosophy had got, and he followed Lange’s take on this as on other subjects. When Nietzsche sneers that Kant was most proud of his categories, that is from Lange. Much of what he says about art as illusion is Lange’s Kant rather than his own insight into the nature of truth. From the Islamic world, Lange praised the Assassins for their atheism and the egoism which seems to go with it, a view many find shocking in Nietzsche who echoed it.

An English translation was reprinted in 1925 with an introduction by Bertrand Russell, whose own History of Western Philosophy was noticeably influenced by it.

In the edition of 1875, there is fascinating material on theoretical physics, including a reference to Ernst Mach (1838 – 1916) grandfather of logical positivism. Mach suggests more than three dimensions to make things explicable. Speculations about atoms and their reality, are all set within a somewhat Kantian framework. For Lange the significance and status of entities like atoms comes down to theory of knowledge, raising important questions of scientific methodology. Neo-Kantianism was a precursor of later positivism. Lange maintains that questions of knowledge determine all our most basic categories. Scientific concepts like “atom” and “force” should not be understood metaphysically, but in terms of this.



1833 –1911

Readers of Being and Time discover many references to Wilhelm Dilthey, about whom Heidegger has a lot to say. In Heidegger there is much that can appear arbitrary. To elucidate “Being” he uses the “existentials” instead of traditional categories. His view of what is important seems to be formed of an eclectic mix of intellectually fashionable influences such as Kierkegaard, Dilthey and Husserl. Dilthey was arguably more easily understandable as a background influence on him than Husserl, if only by way of reaction.

For this reason alone it is useful to know something of Dilthey, who also influenced philosophers of history such as Croce (1866–1952) and R G Collingwood, and is deep and interesting in his own right. He wrote of infinite possibilities of meaning. This opens questions of how one is to grasp all the possibilities there are. There are some possibilities that must survive, to which we are committed.

Heidegger takes Dilthey from such an idiosyncratic point of view he is of little help in understanding him. He all the time argues his own ontological approach as more fundamental. He is not so much responding to problems raised by Dilthey as following the line of criticism put forward by Dilthey’s correspondent Yorck von Wartenburg (1835 -1897). Yorck’s idea was that philosophy should lead scientific enquiry rather than follow behind it. Philosophers needed to criticise, even deconstruct.

Dilthey brings up certain interesting issues to do with Weltanschaungen as no one else I can think of, more honestly than the Hegelians. He blames Schelling for much of the rigidity of Hegel’s logic.
Dilthey’s philosophy starts with the self analysing its experience of the world. This was an influence on Husserl’s phenomenology. Unlike many of his successors Dilthey was inspired by an anti-metaphysical motive. Avoiding metaphysics, he tried to write clearly, without preconceptions. In seeking a methodology for the human sciences, he rejected positivism, such as expressed by Comte (1798–1857). He was contemptuous of the utilitarians.

He was an influence on what has been called a German renaissance in the reception of Nietzsche and Hölderlin (1770 –1843), which began before 1914 and flourished in the 1920s, when attitudes to those figures were a measure of one’s views on art, literature, philosophy, politics and the meaning of the First World War.

Dilthey was one of the two main sources of what came to be called Lebensphilosophie, life philosophy, Nietzsche being the other. Nietzsche and Dilthey, it is said, understand different things by “life”. This is true enough, but does not show that they contradict each other or even disagree. The concept “life” has a different place in the biological sciences from what it has in the human sciences for which Dilthey was trying to work out the methodology. When speaking of life Nietzsche was often applying the term in a biological context. Had he been talking about the conditions of historical understanding he would not have written in the same way. We should not take him as offering an answer to some great general question “What is life?“. The will to power, though, is not so restricted by context, and Nietzsche would hold that it underlies all life, in both the historical and the biological understanding.
For German Lebensphilosophie Nietzsche is often understood as opposing life to knowledge and science. It is said that he sees life in terms of instinctual needs, something which could be threatened by knowledge and science. Dilthey’s concept of life is contrasted with this. It seems unlikely that this is a generalisation that Nietzsche himself would have made. Nietzsche was open-minded on a lot of philosophical questions. There is little in his thinking which was really antagonistic to Dilthey’s work.


Eduard von Hartmann

1842 –1906

Much nineteenth century German philosophy forms a continuous discussion. Hegel’s Logics, Marx’s German Ideology, Stirner’s Ego and is Own, and Von Hartmann’s Philosophy of the Unconscious, are all full of ideas but hardly easy reading. Except for Schopenhauer it is largely a trudge through arid realms of metaphysics, but some of the most important questions are treated, great issues like collectivism and individualism, orthodoxy and dissidence, optimism and pessimism, affirmation versus negation. The turgidity of Stirner or Marx is nothing special; it is typical. These discussions sometimes echo those of ancient India. Influenced by the clarity of French literature, it was Nietzsche’s achievement to write about these subjects in a much clearer style. In this great movement of nineteenth century German metaphysics minor figure like Stirner and Hartmann are historically very important. To look just at the major thinkers as if they represented the philosophy of the time is to miss out crucial minor figures who were essential to the whole discussion that was being carried on. It may be that the minor figure has a position that only lacks a genius to defend it better.
Pessimism in the sense of a pervasive unhappiness and sense of inevitable compromise, is perennial. Intellectualised as in Schopenhauer, Thomas Hardy, Leopardi (1798 –1837), or Von Hartmann, pessimism was a recurrent ninetieth century theme. Much of it can strike us as dishonest even a bit daft. Solovyev, (1853–1900) writing in 1878, was conscious of the pessimism of the zeitgeist, and the fashionable denial of the will to live. His Christian philosophy takes it seriously, as Nietzsche did, even builds on it to overcome it.
With cultural change, the values that helped you to cope are thrown into confusion, in face of a crude rationalism which, because it seems so right and inescapable, comes with depression and gloom. To this we can attribute the pessimism of sensitive minds like Eduard von Hartmann, Baudrillard (1929 –2007) and Marshall McLuhan (1911–1980) , whose cheery facade hid a temptation to despair.

Hartmann was still inspired by revolutionary ideals. In future, according to him, there will be no art or serious culture. This is progress and it is good. Love will also disappear from society in the future of mediocrity. This will mean an increase in happiness, because love involves more pain than pleasure, even though the pleasure is intense.
If Schopenhauer’s philosophy was negative, Von Hartmann’s was more consistently so. His pessimism was bleaker. Yet it is not necessarily optimistic ideas that promote feelings of wellbeing, Both philosophies contributed a lot to art. Hartmann influenced Hardy. The narrator in Tolstoy’s Kreutzer Sonata was all for human extinction. The poet Laforgue accepted Schopenhauer and Von Hartmann, or certainly explored their aesthetic possibilities. This philosophy was said to be popular among the German officer class.
For Von Hartmann, Schopenhauer himself is really a Quietist, which amounts to no more than an Epicurean. He claims to improve him by reconciling him with Hegel, which he does, though through a point of view that is fantastic. We are all one, he says, so not only is suicide useless, even individual salvation is too. Our innermost essence, the Unconscious, unites us all. So the extinction that is preferable to existence is not possible on an individual level. It will be possible, finally and absolutely, in the distant future, when a majority of the will in existence in the universe decides to will annihilation. This majority will be human. Lower forms of life and intellect do not so clearly perceive the great truth that nothingness is better than existing. Evolution therefore consists in an advance in misery and pessimism. This is desirable, because it is to bring about the ultimately desirable end, extermination of lower life forms, and the decision for the will to annihilate itself, and therefore everything. This is progress, and we must commit ourselves to it, as the Hegelians demand.

Lange compares Von Hartmann’s Unconscious to the Devil Devil of the Australian aborigine, a big word which explains nothing. Yet he says that if his ideas had exerted wider literary influence he would have counted as an important German philosopher like Hegel or Schelling.



1842 –1910)

William_James is as famous a psychologist as a philosopher. He says that “the books of all the great philosophers are like so many men.” He applies his concepts of tough or tender minded to philosophies as well as human temperaments. Of Hegel he remarked that that he would not say that all Hegelians were prigs, but that he thought all prigs ought really to be Hegelians. He was unsympathetic to both Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, preferring more Christian forms of spirituality.

He himself was a notable representative of the American tradition inherited from Locke. He had a number of ingenious ideas like his neutral monism, an alternative to materialism and idealism. His book Pragmatism is often seen as his most important contribution to philosophy. The original pragmatist, Peirce (1839–1914), was horrified by this book and renamed his own ideas “pragmaticism” in response. He thought James was much too crude, that his theory of meaning let in nonsense and threatened to exclude mathematics.
With his concept of a “stream of consciousness”, James rejects Locke’s classification of ideas under different headings as both breaking the continuity of consciousness and imposing a “sameness” on things that are different. One could almost say that on this view the Lockean account lends itself to Platonism. However, James’ own account could be accused of assimilating the contents of consciousness far too closely to things. One may doubt that introspection reveals the things he says it reveals and question its significance. Even a mental image should not be thought of as a copy of material thing, as a painting or a photograph is. If Peirce’s philosophy of signs were intended as a rebuttal of this its point would be very clear.

Linking thought to brain physiology is obviously valuable, but simply to attempt to observe mental contents is an unusual act, which will produce experiences of an unusual nature. Nor is an experience anything like a material object. We cannot bypass memory to find what the truth about an experience was like at the time it was felt. Even if we could there would always be the medium of the present interpreting mind.

James says we can understand physical causation better than mental causation, indeed that physical causation might be the only kind. But Hume had dealt with this. Mental causation and physical causation are not radically different in kind, the idea is the same in each case. James found the idea of physiological determinism distressing. All his talk of brain activity, associationism etc. seemingly leaves no place even for a pleasure principle as strictly interpreted.

James wrote of how in living one’s life one has to be selective as there are many possible pathways one might embark upon. He gives list of possible ambitions, including philosopher and lady-killer:- “and the philosopher and the lady-killer could not well keep house in the same tenement of clay”.

His Varieties of Religious Experience is a good account of certain psychological phenomena. He distinguishes between the experience of the sick soul, and the religion of healthy mindedness, which he advocates. He clearly describes what can be shallow about a religion of healthy mindedness. Set against facile optimism, he favours an optimism that has been sick and recovered, what the calls a “twice born” consciousness.

What James says about Whitman (1819 –1892) not being really pagan is very perceptive. He doesn’t really consider him a shallow optimist, but something altogether stranger.
In an essay published in 1910, James envisaged an inevitable socialist future, which he admits would be intolerably stifling unless balanced by something more exciting. Rather than such spontaneous solutions as drug culture and football hooliganism, what he proposes sounds more like conscription, outward bound projects and boot camps. The pre-1914 zeitgeist involved elements of collectivism in many people’s thinking which today may often be found repellent. James is discussing militarism and what value there might be in its point of view. The boring nature of the predicted socialist future may be less to do with the achievement of economic security than with the dominance of oppressive ideas which have not been overcome.



1844 -1900

Although Nietzsche is recognised as a very great philosopher, his achievement is far from transparent. What he said is subject to much interpretation, opening questions that go to the heart of philosophical disputation. The same thinker is used as a weapon by people with diverse opinions and outlooks. Different kinds of philosophy clash, all clamorous for our attention. Yet Nietzsche does not come across as someone who can be read in all kinds of different ways. When we think we understand we feel as if we have done so correctly. So this feature must be taken into account in any effort to make him intelligible. It might be one risks misunderstanding in going beyond his actual words, but these cannot be said to be altogether intelligible as they stand.

That he intended Will to Power and The Transvaluation of Values for the titles of his never completed definitive last book. indicates that he saw these concepts as encapsulating his mature thought. On the perspective of universal will to power, psychological understanding has a certain character. Putting this understanding into effect means transvaluation, which involves looking at everything in a fresh way.

Nietzsche tells us that all life is a dispute about taste. From his own taste flows a worldview. A complete philosophy often comes down to the personality of the original philosopher. All the different strands are connected, and the connections may be learned. This is where to look for his consistency. Apart from the rigour of rational argument there are his artistic, creative and legislative activity. The idea of the philosopher meets that of the sage.

Nietzsche’s philosophy belongs to an established type of worldview, the life affirmationism which Schopenhauer identified and rejected. Nietzsche does not offer affirmation for its own sake but in the framework of certain clear ideas. There is a an irreducible intellectual minimum apart from which he could not be imagined to say of someone that he has understood him correctly. Master morality, slave morality, ideas of ascending or declining life, may be associated with many different doctrines. It is not simply that he wishes to promote a certain type of feeling; he wants to associate it with his own intellectual discoveries.

On the perspective of universal will to power, in all life innumerable possibilities are suppressed. This is not a metaphysical proposition but a factual one of a most ordinary kind. Whatever criticisms Nietzsche makes of truth as a concept, he insists on factual reality and the possibility of falsification. Those who disagree with him he aspires to convict of denying realities it is possible to demonstrate.

As philosophy, Nietzsche’s is a way of understanding the relations between the various beliefs and values that exercise themselves over the minds of humans. It is also such a belief itself. Ignoring him is a possible position, but not a philosophical one. He challenges every opposing position to defend itself.

On the will to power perspective, that anybody thinks and feels whatever they are naturally considered to think and feel is not questioned or denied. Nevertheless there is also will to power. The concept of universal will to power is invoked for a specific purpose to do with the desire for a particular kind of enlightenment. To satisfy other desires other concepts may be called upon.

From his viewpoint the pressure to accept what he calls the morality of the weak is rooted in lies, and has to be resisted. This is not because it frustrates any unreasonable ambition. Nietzsche is not a revolutionary. He indulges in all sorts of daydreams, but the only degree to which he seriously expects to alter the power hierarchy is so far as recognition of the truth he believes he has discovered will make a difference. By resisting falsification he would change some things, even profoundly, but less things than is often alleged. My strength is such as I have got, within the moral and material universe in which I operate. I cannot pretend to have more.



1846 – 1924

James Stirling’s (1820 – 1909) The Secret of Hegel (1865) is important in the history of British philosophy. It is hard to follow, but a literary tour de force. It influenced Bradley, who wanted weapons against Mill.

Much of Bradley’s argument for the impossibility of relations is not worth following in detail, being really outmoded. The useless metaphysics, however, inspired by way of reaction the very useful Russellian logic. Bradley’s motive is interesting and arguably he does show up some of the deficiencies of Aristotelian logic. His philosophy is valuable background for appreciating Russell’s creative achievement. Russell’s superior logic is useful for science rather than ethics or religion, but what drove that may turn out to be a sort of intellectual question. Why science? Much of it grows out of pure intellectual curiosity.

For those used to Wittgenstein’s dissolutions, it may be hard to get much of an angle on Bradley’s view of the unreality of relations. There is some assumption to do with the subject-predicate logic, that we have no possible understanding of how a relation can relate. Two concepts being quite separate, it is suggested that the connection is incomprehensible. Presumably we can understand separate things and logical connections like tautologies.

Oakeshott (1901-1990), Collingwood and other conservatives have found idealism of the Bradley type congenial. This is not so much a defence of orthodoxy, though it may be making room for religion. As a way of promoting openness to experience it may be effective. The Times editor William Rees-Mogg’s (1923 – 2012) once wrote a famous article attacking post-Russell philosophy and praising the “noble” idealism of Bradley. There may even be something in that idea of the value of looking at the whole.

Bradley lacks Hegel’s offensiveness, despite the fact that they both work towards a mysterious solution of everything. Even his ethics is peculiarly seductive, and hardly Kantian. Self-assertion and self-sacrifice both transcend each other. Normally an ethics of self-assertion may seem either not ethics at all or even oppressive, as some sort of extraneous demand.

Bradley lets in a form of religion through his concern with wholeness. There is some resonance between his philosophy, which is not exactly religion, and the occult movements of the 1890s. Likewise Russell’s criticism of his logic connects with the sort of society we have today with its scientific and technocratic bent. There is a question whether today’s extreme rationalism may have its limitations in a piecemeal logic. There are objectives we take completely for granted, even being prepared to follow them to ultimately destructive consequences. Arguably modern society is ultimately sustained by a logic by which the part can subsist independently of the whole. From this come individualism and pluralism, in politics liberalism tempered by humanitarianism.

Bradley was not really a Hegelian, but there are strong Hegelian elements in his thought. He adapted Hegelianism into something rather like a private religion, divorcing it from history and the progress doctrine as well as from “contradictions in reality”. Hegel’s logic is circular and thus has no compulsory hold on our attention. For Bradley, organising our judgements in accord with it the Absolute, is very much like setting our goal on instinctual perfection. It offers, much like the thing-in-itself, a more completely satisfying explanation involving our feelings as much as our logic.

Hegel’s logic aims to show that in any specific idea there is an imbalance, a shortcoming which does not affect his own philosophy, or it would negate itself. Therefore consciousness must be a constant process of change. This is normally used to justify immersion in the process. Bradley applies the logic for what seems to be contrary purpose, to insist on an awareness of the whole in everything we do, not to look to the particular for the realisation of truth but to feel the total limitation of everything particular. In this respect Bradley is the opposite of Marx who was closer to Hegel. Bradley is not for those who want to justify change as right, and explain it by means of the concept of a mutating truth.

Bradley was the main philosophical influence on the early T S Eliot. There are references to his philosophy in The Wasteland.


Georges Sorel

1847 – 1922

Sorel’s Reflections on Violence is apparently inspired by a desire to overcome decadence and re-establish master morality. It could be taken as a Nietzschean gloss on Marx; however the references to Nietzsche are so few that he cannot really be accounted a French Nietzschean. With his idiosyncratic, highly individual synthesis he nevertheless puts forward an original understanding of how to get rid of Nietzschean decadence. He also compares interestingly with Spengler. Though Bergson’s influence on him is commonly emphasised, Sorel is not concerned with Bergson’s idealist conception of “novelty”, rather with heroic morality. But Bergson’s idea of the evolutionary function of myth applies.

In his ideas of socialism and heroic values Sorel employs conscious myth. He seems to accept Marx’s political theory, even though he makes it into myth. He himself makes new ones, almost like Marx himself. He does not entirely escape from believing in his own. A lot of his ideas have gone into subsequent Marxist propaganda. His interest is in the future, and how energy can be galvanised, but he has very interesting things to say on a number of historical subjects.

Sorel’s contention that homeric virtues are exhibited by the Yankee businessman connects with his sympathies for those who produce as against those who consume. He goes further than Spengler’s view that that this is inevitably what Nietzsche reduces to in the modem age. The slave owner and the capitalist entrepreneur are producers, as much as the proletariat. The important thing is to have control of the conditions of one’s being. For him, being a producer or a consumer can seem to come down to states of mind. Political detachment would be taken as a sign of accepting a role as consumer, enjoying the benefits of civilisation without attempting to control its development.

The Hellenistic philosophies, from which modern ethical thought derives, are decadent philosophies for consumers. Sorel says of Aristotle’s “transition” ideology, that the good to be aimed at had become friendship between cultivated gentlemen. No longer concerned with war and production it became important always to keep to a happy medium.

When Christianity conquered the Roman Empire it did not regenerate it because it took over a dying system. For Sorel, a regenerative movement must not compromise with the old order. Economic interdependence means infection with its decadence. Today this would be the case with parliamentary socialism. Aristotle’s ethics is still admired by Catholic theologians who take the consumer’s point of view. Protestantism was successful because associated with a new economic order. Luther’s Reformation, in protecting against renaissance ideas, preserved Roman education and with it the discipline and acquiescence in inequality that were the best virtues of the Romans.

Sorel saw the only hope of salvation from modern decadence in the access to power of a new revolutionary class, uncontaminated by the morality of the weak.

The French Revolution was made by lawyers. These had been used to ensure discipline in the Bourbon administration following the example of the Inquisition. Accordingly lawyers got used to performing essentially non judicial functions, instead of just protecting the individual against crime. The Inquisition’s identification of dissent with crime was taken further by Robespierre.

Sorel’s remarks on justice give his view on the nature of progress. The law in a developed society should assume given differences of opinion and interest. Using it to impose opinion, or for social engineering, is primitive and reactionary. That there should be freedom is more than just another opinion. It is tempting to call it progress, though remembering that facile egalitarian ideas of progress are part of the rhetoric of decadence. Law as developed by the Romans was comparable to the industrial revolution of modern times. It enabled a lot more things to be done; more complex human relations became possible.

Reflections on Violence has been called a very dangerous book. In Doctor Faustus Thomas Mann (1875-1955) finds Sorel pernicious. Perhaps the use that was made of Sorel was indeed so. Myth lends itself to irrationalism, and the book was admired by fascists. From a Nietzschean who was open to Marx, Sorel’s philosophy was very far from Orthodox Marxism. Lenin, whom he admired, concluded Sorel was a “muddlehead”.



1848 – 1925

Back in the 1890s Bradley’s Absolute idealism was all the rage in England and its demolition by Moore and Russell is generally seen as progress. Together with a powerful contribution from the German logician Gottlob Frege, modern analytical philosophy was born. This is one side of the division between the continental and the analytic, traditions, which persists.

Having elaborated Frege’s conception of a logically perfect language, Russell’s pupil Wittgenstein, produced what were long taken to be decisive arguments against his own project, so advancing philosophy further on the path of analysis.

Frege is often credited as the founder of analytic philosophy. At first he worked in relative obscurity. He was discovered by Russell to have been working on the same lines as himself as early as the 1870s. He had moved well beyond Aristotle’s subject predicate logic to produce a new notation of his own, which could be used in the attempt to derive mathematics out of pure logic. Connected with this was a philosophy of language, with its famous distinction between sense and reference.

For analytic philosophers, logical analysis and philosophy of language offer the key to solving philosophical problems. The traditional questions of philosophy are approached with logical rigour. Questions of value may arise but are separable from strictly logical ones. Accordingly Frege’s own personal and political views, such as his strong antisemitism, are not considered to have any bearing whatever on his achievement.

To advocates of the continental, analytic philosophy as it has developed is mostly boring logic chopping. To analytic philosophers continental philosophy has become arbitrary and pretentious.

A few years ago one of my friends took a degree in media studies. Postmodernism, a form of continental philosophy, was very much a part of it and at beginning of the course he was told two extraordinary things. One was that the French Revolution of 1789 was the most important event in the whole of history and the other was that some work by Saussure (1857 –1913) was the most important book of the twentieth century. For an analytical historian of philosophy like Roger Scruton, Saussure is worthless. As he writes, Saussure is not read by analytic philosophers because he is seen as philosophically second rate, especially compared with Frege. Why then is Saussure rated so highly? He is often described as a figure of the most crucial importance. One answer would be it is a form of French cultural imperialism. Deleuze and Foucault were apparently not aware of Frege, and used instead Saussure who was much less rigorous but lent himself to certain wild chains of thinking.

It is sometimes held to be significant that even the father (or grandfather) of analytic philosophy was himself a German. However great the German contribution, philosophy is and has been international. Nationalism has no place in philosophy unless it is nationalistic philosophy. Much of the quarrel between the Anglo-Saxons and the continentals is less misunderstanding than straightforward philosophical disagreement, as for example on the merits of the late Husserl. Go back as far as Meinong (1853–1920), and there was a common influence on both Husserl and Russell.

The disputes within what is called analytic philosophy are themselves acrimonious. The term itself is contentious. Russell’s view of Wittgenstein inspired ordinary language philosophy was as contemptuous as any now directed towards the continentals. Some Wittgensteinian consider that analytic philosophy that turns its back on Wittgenstein is no longer worthy of the title.

Deciphering Frege’s thinking can involve some absorbing intellectual puzzles. He was vulnerable to paradox. Discovering exactly how Russell’s class paradox applies to his thought one may baulk at descriptions of Frege’s paradox about value range, which can look like mystification by means of logic. From an arbitrary function (x) y create }(s~) x being interpretable as a value range. There again that kind of philosophy can be fun to teach, whatever its wider significance.

What Gödel’s theorem is supposed to have shown in 1931 is that arithmetic is not derivable from formal logic in the way people like Frege and Russell were trying to do. That was the whole point of his paradox. Unlike Zeno’s paradoxes it was not meant to challenge everyday thinking.


Philosophers and others have found uses for the distinction between magic and science as enunciated by J G Frazer (1854 – 1941), not so as completely to reject magic, but to assign it a suitable place. For Frazer magic was proto-science, the attempt to produce effects using mistaken laws of nature. The connection between the cause and the effect is in a sense arbitrary or imaginary. Against this, Malinowski (1884–1942) stressed the socially useful function of magic. Yet while magic may serve to arouse useful emotion, practitioners would hardly be likely to admit this gave the explanation of their practices.

The thought systems described by Frazer in The Golden Bough have application over many fields. Taking magic in Frazer’s sense, it clearly works for much of the time and still has a function in the modern world. There is right wing magic and left wing magic. What we call pseudoscience can work as magic. Magic features in psychotherapy as well as politics. Marxist and Freudian elements in our culture could be seen more magical than scientific. Jung opposed magic not as scientific error but for the sort of reason the church did.

Magic reaches into spheres where modern science is ineffective. Working for the satisfaction of desire, it aims to tap the treasure house of all possible experience. Much art and culture may be thought of as systems of magic with the zeitgeist itself as a magical medium. By contrast with magic, religion appeals to supernatural power, supplicating it for assistance. Frazer thought religion was an advance on magic. Religion can be reduced to magic as desire. Often the objects of desire are more internal than external.

If these concepts are to be made relevant, we need to distinguish between magic as false laws of nature, and the magician’s aim of causing change in conformity with will. Magical philosophy is concerned with this, rather than the pseudo-science for which the concept still offers a useful analytical tool. Throughout history the magician has been a recognised type. Many of his accomplishments were perfectly real, however dependent on the conventions of his society. Although magic may be either individual or collective, the possibility of dispensing with religious authority gives a tendency toward individualism. Systematic use of magical technique is a refinement of egoism. The magician manifests as a form of egoistic philosopher turning his personality and practice into a dramatic work of art.

Taking a magical perspective one considers ideas insofar as their deployment answers to various public and private objectives. There is a point of view from which the distinction between faith and doubt is unimportant. Either faith or doubt may be seen as satisfying. It could be argued that a type of magical philosophy originally generated Christianity, as dogmatic belief opened up new experiences. All Frazer’s magical ceremonies are concerned with the will. The magician is not bound by the demands of metaphysical consistency. In ceremonial magic there are formal rituals to bring about desired states of mind. The connection between the ritual and the desired state is not unalterable, or fixed in nature.

Insofar as religion is a system for the regulation, direction and control of desire, the outlook underlying magical practice is recalcitrant to religious constraint. By the standards of religion, individualistic magic is actively immoral. There have been primitive societies of sorcerers, delightfully oblivious of some of our most immovable taboos. Channelled into magic, malevolent impulses of aggression and envy work themselves out without great harm ensuing and without provoking much  sense of guilt.

Magic has inspired grand spiritual ambitions. For the individual Magus the path to attainment is through magical philosophy, not the magical hopes embodied in utopian schemes. At the renaissance magicians would aspire to at least a representative sample of the whole range of possible experience, making any part of it accessible at the command of the individual. Rather than committing himself to one perspective, identifying himself with opposition to an alternative point of view, the magically inspired artist aspires to contain all viewpoints within his own, even when he is only concerned to express a segment of what he understands as the whole. The part gains from the consciousness of the whole.



1856 –1939

If Freud’s theories now come across like a mixture of obsolete medicine and something approaching cocaine psychosis, to realise this is not to shift them. Psychoanalysis is still much respected as a body of knowledge. Much of its appeal is it that it initiates into a surreal world where dreams can be as satisfying as reality.

Freud followed Haeckel’s (1834 – 1919) theory that the infancy of man recapitulates the infancy of the race, leaving layers of repressed memory. His idea of sublimation suggests sympathetic magic. A desire is treated as a concretisation of an underlying energy that might have found a different path. Some say Freud developed not a science nor even a pseudo-science, but a mythology. One attempts to pigeonhole what he did, fitting it into a familiar category.

Ingenious and plausible, his ideas promise practical results. The ground of their seductive appeal is magical. Frazer’s theory of magic both influenced Freud’s theories and explains much of their charm. Instead of the analytical methods of nineteenth century science, psychoanalysis is a resuscitation of magical modes of thinking. The main danger with Freud, as with Marx is of monopolising a department of thought, killing creative thinking that might directly compete with his own ideas.

His dream theory suggests insight into what we really want, a hidden clue to the real sources of satisfaction, locatable in unconscious wishes from infancy. The idea lends itself to much elaboration. Instead of what one normally wants, one may come to desire this infantile satisfaction. Yet this would mean return to the powerlessness and fear of childhood, the neurosis that is the normal childhood state.

Freud emphasises the dangerousness, hence the fear, of uninhibited instinct. If we believe with him that these basic drives demand to be satisfied directly, then real satisfaction is scarcely possible in modern conditions. Freud comes to the depressing conclusion that only raw instinct promises real happiness, and that increased civilisation inevitably represses that. If you think like this you will not see learning and civilisation as a path to a deeper, richer power and enjoyment.

Freud’s work in overthrowing sexual repression was double-edged. To see the true object of life as pleasure, rather than power, tends to reinforce current standards. Freud’s concept of neurosis turns most human life into failure, making adjustment crucial for mental health. Trying to adhere to this ideal generates guilt. The guilt attached to sex, especially perverted sex, spread to all the spheres where unconscious motivation supposedly operates. Innocent sexual energy was driven out of many of the places where it used to dwell. The identification of so many different kinds of perversion tended to lead to a desexualisation of life. Once the whole of life was suffused with feelings that were simply welcomed as pleasure and not, before Freud, associated with shame and guilt. Sublimation was ultimately conscious enough but regarded as laudable rather than a pathetic substitute.

Jesus extended guilt from acts to thoughts, Freud from conscious thoughts to unconscious ones, that is possible thoughts and motives that may be elicited. There is a difference between self-deception which can be sorted out by a moment’s serious reflection, and something requiring a long process of analysis. To discount unconscious motives is not necessarily ignorant or perverse. One may quite, reasonably refuse to count them as of any significance.

The shockingness of reducing everything to sex nevertheless has a powerful attraction. Detached from the consideration that people really believe in them, his theories have a decadent fascination.

Freud was influenced by traditional Jewish mysticism. Reacting to the virulence of contemporary Viennese antisemitism he felt a strong Jewish commitment. There is a traditional idea of the yoke of the law as the price to be paid for power. Despite Freud’s antinomianism, in some respects the yoke was retained. Psychoanalysis was presented as science, and for decades it dominated the mind of western man. There is often dishonesty in the desire for your ideas to flourish in the world. Presenting yourself to your followers as a humble servant of truth, you fail to teach them your real secret, which is that of being a king in the realm of thought.




Along with Karl Marx. Durkheim is hailed as the presiding genius of modern sociology. Much social policy is founded on this. Social surveys are devised by people trained in sociology, and sociology at least in the UK has a clear left-wing tendency.

From one commentator we learn that notable influences on Durkheim were:- Kant’s moral view of reality, orthodox Judaism with its rule bound moralising way of life, and a commitment to French republicanism, that is the values and ideals of the 1789 Revolution.

I was led to think about Durkheim by what struck me as a very odd view put forward by a friend. He responded to a Darwinian point about not promoting genetic defects on the ground that it is better to be healthy, that this is happier and more fulfilling, by saying that this selfish way of looking at life is not the only one. People with various disabilities could contribute to society. He mentioned ideas like pulling your weight in society, which I said is repressive rubbish. He then told me about the perspective he learnt form his sociology, how you live not for yourself but for society as part of a collective. On his view disabilities may be seen as good, as adding to the contributions made to society the end of which is not to be thought of as the happiness of the individual. So it is logically possible to favour a programme that does not even favour individual happiness, is even inimical to it. Instead it may favour the ants nest value of contributing to society.

Going by the values on which they justify themselves, some people do not believe that their actions are directed towards their own happiness or fulfilment. Their critics, including Marx, might object that “morality” is mere hypocrisy or a cloak for self interest. Others would say in profound disagreement with the English eighteenth century, that the moral interpretation gives the true significance of all action, that it is the egoism from Hobbes onwards that is distorted.

A key text here would be Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason. Kantianism removes morality from the invisible hand. It suggests that it is something that has to be directly willed. Durkheim praises Kant’s view on the moral law.

Anti-individualism is a French Revolutionary idea, found in Durkheim and other republican writers, who attack what they see as Anglo-Saxon individualism. So here there may be discerned a hidden agenda of French cultural nationalism. While the words of the Marseillaise harmonise with a traditional English view of freedom, the more collectivist ideas came later and were perpetuated by Durkheim and subsequent sociologists. Not all have counted him as on the left. Durkheim’s anti-individualist tradition has been described as coming from De Maistre via Taine (1828-1893). Sorel’s gives his endorsement to some of his remarks.

Durkheim has also been put to the service of American nationalism. In sociology of the 1950s “modernity” is identified with what is typically American, the socially mobile population of the mid-twentieth century. The atmosphere of fifties America involved resigned submission to intense conformist pressure. There was gregariousness and an almost excessive awareness of social constraint. The democratic pattern had persisted since de Tocqueville day. Accordingly Durkheim was quite popular in America. His “social facts” are presentation of human experience without the individual psychological dimension.

Durkheim transfers the moral or anti-egoistic dimension to the level of unconscious reality. While psychological egoism claims to explain even altruism by invoking what may be unconscious, Durkheim’s philosophy does the opposite, explaining even egoism in terms of conformism. This gives a peculiar emotional tone to everything, as indeed does egoism. In that respect it might be thought that both distort. The social facts may have an order of their own that egoistic reductionism does not bring out. On the other hand they are mysterious, and call for psychological explanation. As an analytical tool an egoistic explanation of collective feeling is potentially comprehensive. Durkheim’s way of understanding and experiencing life may appear to hide or deny conflict. To overthrow it one would need to show some falseness in its assumptions capable of convincing those who do not necessarily share the same philosophy of truth.



1859 – 1941

TS Eliot wrote how the French intellectualise even when they are at their most shallow and vulgar, instancing Bergson.

With his concept of élan vital Bergson claims to have found the most scientific explanation for evolution and also an answer to decadence and pessimism, returning to something like the optimism of Comte. Creative evolution is different from Lamarckism. Rather than inheritance of acquired characteristics, it means a kind of directional impulse. Intelligence is furtherance of instinct by other means. Bergson protests against determinism, insisting on the uniqueness, which makes history unlike an exact science. His idea of radical novelty in the world depends on idealist assumptions different from Hegel’s, which were supposedly logically determined.

Bergson talks of grasping reality through intuition, as it cannot be through rational thought. Many have found this doctrine exhilarating. Tuning into the life force, while carrying on with your normal activities, you may feel justified, confident that the great question of philosophy have been solved.

At the beginning of the twentieth century the British journal The New Age, hailed Nietzsche and Bergson as the philosophers of modernity. Futurists took much from both. Sorel combined Nietzsche, Marx and Bergsonian life philosophy into a heady brew that contributed significantly to fascism. Russell argued against Bergson’s upholding of intuition against the importance of logic. Bergson is essential to making sense of Whitehead (1861–1947).

Bergson felt no great urge to engage with Nietzsche. He states that self-interest is but one among a number of alternative principles from which it is possible to deduce morality. He says that Nietzsche’s mistake was not seeing that the ruling and the servile qualities coexist to some extent in everybody.

In Time and Western Man Wyndham Lewis (1882 – 1957) denounced what he called “time philosophy”. He blames Bergson for everything he dislikes, including democracy and materialism. Marshall McLuhan (1911 – 1980) was later to express a similar analysis, welcoming what Lewis deplores. From much the same view of modernity as surging chaos, McLuhan follows the maxim “if you can’t beat ’em join ‘em”.

Sometimes the effect of art is to reinforce a mindset rather than resolving a problem. Lewis is hostile to much of the avant-garde. Rather than providing solutions to the flaws in modernity, for him it expresses ideas to which he is hostile. McLuhan’s is a Bergson type philosophy, disparaging the intellect to advocate other forms of experience. He assimilates the avant-garde to modern advertising, affirming precisely the postmodern chaos, the “sea of meanings”. The underlying philosophical pattern they both see is not the only discernible one. Much twentieth century art and literature are open to a variety of interpretations.

Lewis describes Bergsonism as the philosophy for the nouveau-riche philistine. He quotes Bosanquet (1848–1923) on Bergson as the fount of all irrationalism. He identifies a political motive behind the exaltation of action and active hostility to the life of leisure.

Ideas in one sense decadent are in another fertile and productive. Bergson makes some quotable remarks about magic and religion. About social and cultural evolution he has some good things to say and a clever turn of phrase. What he says about moral heroes like Jesus is unimpressive. His idea of human progress is conformist in implication.

Bergsonism helped to show that mysticism need not be tied to concepts of memory. Like the Sufism of Idries Shah (1924 – 1996), who offers what he presents as a richer, wiser, form of experience, Bergson’s energy mysticism has been influential, and there are traces of it in Leary (1920 – 1996).

Like Schelling, Bergson ends up with conceptions close to the orthodox God of faith. With the suspension of the critical intellect the discoveries made through intuition depend upon intellectual presuppositions which are not to be criticised.

Bergson fails to transcend the clichés of his time and place. Intuition brings certainty when presuppositions are unexamined, resulting in mysticism that does no more than fill out the dogmas of the Christian religion. Bergson sets out thinking he has made a tremendous discovery in vital energy, and ends up with old Nobodaddy, the ordinary God of the Christians. Among his successors were Catholics like Maritain (1882–1973) and Teilhard de Chardin (1881–1955).



1859 –1938

Speaking historically, there are innumerable philosophers who might profitably be read and studied. No one can read them all.

J N Findlay (1903 –1987) translated Husserl’s Logical Investigations into English, invoking it as an alternative to Wittgenstein. He writes:- It is the masterly procedure of Husserl when he wrote the Logical Investigations, not the screamingly unqualified dogmatically assertive procedure of his of his later writings, whose faults the existentialists further magnified and multiplied.

Husserl is the point where modern “continental” philosophy divides from the Anglo-Saxon analytic tradition. In the English speaking world he is often seen as preoccupied with exploded problems using badly outdated methods. Phenomenology may seem almost transparently wrong. The great and varied influence of phenomenology is can be puzzling.

French phenomenologist Merleau Ponty (1908 –1961) replied to such criticism:- Even if this were the case, there would still be a need to understand the prestige of the myth and the origin of the fashion, and the opinion of the responsible philosopher must be that phenomenology can be practiced and identified as a manner or style of thinking, that it existed as a movement before arriving at a complete awareness of itself as philosophy.

Although Husserl redefined it and made it his own, the term “phenomenology” was well established. Hegel speculated that it might have originated in the school of Wolff (1679 –1754).

We should not rule it out of hand, however dubious it seems initially. At the outset Husserl admits his phenomenology has no practical use. This is disingenuous. He wants his logic to provide the foundation for all the sciences. He was influenced, even if negatively, by Mill’s System of Logic and his ideas were later taken up by critics of science who wanted more wholeness, influenced by some of the currents started by Nietzsche, a philosopher Findlay did not appreciate.

A lot of distinctions Husserl draws are real enough, if generally otiose once we reject his starting point. He attacks empiricist theories of abstraction, which he says lead to infinite regress. He talks interestingly about universals. He has criticisms of what he calls modern nominalism, his term for the starting point of Locke, Hume, Mill and their heirs. He attacks sense data theory. Later logical philosophies effectively overcome these errors without needing to invoke phenomenology.

In his treatment of wholes and parts he wants meanings to be subject to the same or very similar analysis to that of objects. He is interesting on the synthetic a priori.

What use is his logic? Does not Wittgenstein undermine it? Early Wittgenstein influenced Logical Positivism, which was not favourable to projects like Husserl’s. Moritz Schlick’s (1882 –1936) dismissal of phenomenological analysis, angered Husserl for what he considered its crass misunderstanding. He is completely sure of the soundness of this method which he has invented.

Taking the perspective of the later Wittgenstein, the data from Husserl’s phenomenological introspection contributes precisely nothing to a philosophical explanation of meaning. For Husserl it uncovers the building blocks of all thought and experience.

Even unsympathetic readers, however, may unconsciously pick up something from Husserl’s method of close analysis. It is interesting how he proposes to develop his project, starting with his disciplined intuitions. His chapter on sensuous and categorical intuitions is more interesting than most of what preceded it.

Only when nearly at the end of the book do we get to the real point and the source of his appeal. He is very ambitious, even arrogant, claiming to have explained for the first time the nature of knowledge and truth. The ultimate purport is about distinguishing between authentic and inauthentic thinking, by full logical phenomenological analysis, so that mere opinion can be distinguished from well founded knowledge, “fulfilled intuitions”. This is a most ambitious enlightenment project. It can obviously attract followers, but the value will depend on whether he was right. This is why he is of present, rather than mainly historical interest. Other philosophers have put forward plausible alternatives to his starting point.

It is interesting to set him against Wittgenstein for number of reasons, including their different views of enlightenment. One might imagine Husserl would dismiss most religion as inauthentic thinking, but apparently he did not.



1866 –1949

For Gurdjieff a glaring fault of our civilisation is its lack of a coherent established tradition of personal evolution. Concentrating on the average, modern culture is death to the higher man. Gurdjieff brings a refreshing note of contempt for European civilisation, seeing it as inspired by shallow ideas without roots. He has the nose for the potential appeal of such wholesale condemnation, and constructs a mystical exoticism around what is essentially the Muslim society of central Asia. Orientals are supposed to possess a spiritual self-confidence which doubt torn westerners lack. Western civilisation also seems to be ruining all others.

Philosophers often overrate the importance of their own discipline, as if only good philosophy can produce truly original thought. Yet much philosophy is only continuation of argument by other means. Gurdjieff should be seen as a creative and original mind, not a philosophical primitive.

There is an easy understanding of mystical enlightenment that works for some people. For Gurdjieff life must be difficult. He insists on effort. His cosmological mythology looks ridiculous on the face of it but it is reminiscent of some of the old Gnostic systems like Manichaeanism. He employs barbarous concepts like the Kundabuffer, and humans as providing food for the moon.

Many would agree that civilisation should be founded on a basis of enlightened understanding but begin with premises which demand something like a leap of faith. The more curious will wish to explore every path. They cannot discover their truth in terms the vulgar will understand, because they are intrigued by the coexistence of apparently contradictory possibilities. Esoteric knowledge claims to resolve these contradictions. One hopes for a society which encourages the aspirations of such seekers after truth, Muslim dervishes, Indian swamis, some Christian mystics and esoterists, alchemists, magicians, kabbalists.

Wanting to become a spiritual force of value to humanity, I am obstructed by material problems, which ought to be behind me. For Gurdjieff “… a mark of the perfected man is his ability to play to perfection any desired role in his external life while inwardly remaining free”. The perfected man has risen above the limitation of his own character. He is in the world but not of it, having overcome his personal problems, which is not to say he has never had any.

To be continually reminded of the sense and aim of his existence” is what Gurdjieff calls “self remembering”. He advises performing some acts against one’s conscience for the sake of this. The need to assert individuality against morality, suggests mild Satanism. God’s motive in alienating Lucifer was “self remembering” rather than justice.

The way of the development of hidden possibilities is a way against nature and against God.

Like Blavatsky (1831–1891), Gurdjieff was part charlatan. He brings to the west the wisdom of the Sufis, as Blavatsky brought Mahayana Buddhism.

Gurdjieff holds that we are not even worthy of the categories by which we normally describe ourselves. We think we have freewill and coherent selves, we think we are awake. He says we do not and are not, but seeks to make us so. He developed a method for making people feel more alive. The idea of multiple selves made more practical sense in his thought than it did in Nietzsche’s. Gurdjieff aspires to make them work in harmony.

Far more than his pupil Ouspensky (1878–1947), his influence, on modern western culture is impressive. He influenced the Sufi message of Idries Shah, as well as Aldous Huxley’s Doors of Perception, thence Leary and the hippies. Other influences were on Colin Wilson and Werner Erhard’s ( born 1935) EST movement.

Growing up anywhere one is exposed to religious ideas which help determine one’s most intense poetic experiences, revelations and religious insights. What seems true and obvious depends much on books read. In the modern west many of these no longer Christian. People used to read the Bible for spiritual sustenance. Spiritually the world has become much wider. There are better religious ideas out there.

Unlike Lao Tsu Gurdjieff advocates- Travel and movement, internal and external.

Strike—and you will not be struck.

But if you do not strike—they will beat you to death, like Sidor’s goat.


1872 –1970

Bertrand Russell’s philosophising was inspired less by the pain of philosophical doubt than by a dislike of current solutions. It has been said he misunderstood the British Idealists. That was deliberate, he did not want to be drawn into their way of speaking about philosophical problems. The Idealist philosophy was a phenomenon of high culture, brilliant enough in its own terms, but offering wisdom only to the thoroughly initiated.

Russell says about continental rationalism, as against Locke, that it all hangs on disputable arguments. His conception of philosophy was to make empiricism work logically. The philosophy Wittgenstein delineated in the Tractatus is a development of Russell’s logical atomism. The world is explained by being shown as a concatenation of atomic facts. It can be explained in terms of simple propositions being true or false. If we construct a framework within the context of which we can understand this then the universe can be demystified. Its metaphysical structure is the logical structure by which we come to understand anything about it. Understanding the logical structure dispels metaphysical disquiet.

As Fichte deduced the categories, so Russell deduced mathematics, from logic. One assumes logic is more self evident than maths. At first the value of this seemed restricted to the fascination of particular intellectual problems. As it turned out it did find considerable practical use. Any philosophy we believe to put in touch with ultimate truth that will excite us. But truth itself is very doubtfully achieved. His project ran into paradox, which he resolved with some ad hoc rules.

Russell wanted to eliminate metaphysics by dispensing with the need for it. His vision had beauty that Wittgenstein’s later criticism could not entirely undermine.

Russell envisaged a culture of the future with a philosophy like his own providing the backdrop. This philosophy would be characterised by hostility towards spiritual interpretations of the world. The authority of the Church would be replaced with a form of rationalism.
In 1916 Russell wrote that the main personal desire of his life was for power over people’s minds. Later, arguably corrupted by the mental atmosphere of Bloomsbury, he turned away from his admission. As litterateur he managed to achieve power like that of the French enlighteners, and some would say he abused it. In his later work Russell discusses romanticism as something egoistic, anarchistic and immoral. It appears that he feels the appeal of these values but rejects them. His criticism tends to equate romanticism with fascism, self-divinisation, and the “search for godlike exaltation”. Instead he exalts pity and universal love, reinforcing Christianity in the sense of the values of the weak.

It is easy to be ironic about pundits like Russell and other thirties populists, intoxicated with the power of their rhetoric. Critics have remarked on Russell’s fickle mind. Rejecting Nietzsche, he makes do with alternatives. All sorts of ideas might serve his own will to power. The project of an objective rationalism included ideas of progress, and elements of scientism, replacing religion with science and transferring religious emotions onto scientific objects. One reason why socialism became so powerful in the world, was that respected intellectuals, Russell, Orwell and so many other twentieth century philosophes, asserted it was necessary.
As enlightener and educator, Russell charts out a position and attitude of his own, untroubled by radical doubts. Overcoming Christianity brought a sense of defiance. The rebellious quality is lost when his ideas become convention and virtue.
Russell is an example of how in trying to do good it is your own personality you impress upon the world. In promoting happiness one promotes one’s own version for others to adopt. The alternative would be cold calculating formulae like Bentham’s or Kant’s. Russell lived the life of an aristocrat. The liberation he offers is a future humanity more like himself. Marriage and Morals has been described as the most personal book he wrote. Its defence of adultery caused scandal in America. The moral climate of a hundred years ago looks like superstition from today’s viewpoint. Russell’s values, as taught in that book were in context a form of rebellion. Now everything has changed and they are to a great extent the established values of society.


G E Moore

1873 – 1958

Back in the 1890s Bradley’s Absolute Idealism was all the rage in England and the demolition of this by Moore and Russell in Cambridge is usually seen as clear progress. Together with a powerful contribution from the German logician Gottlob Frege, modern analytical philosophy was born.

The analytical revolution in philosophy looked back to empirical and logical traditions which had developed independently of Kant. Growing out of this were radically anti-metaphysical movements associated with the two philosophies of Russell’s pupil, Wittgenstein, who produced what were long taken to be decisive arguments which advanced philosophy further.

Moore had obvious limitations, though he was said to be characterised by a spotless integrity that led some to see him as a saint. He was hailed as a genius by his Cambridge colleagues, though few readers today would endorse that judgement. Wittgenstein inherited that role and better fitted it. Nevertheless Moore was representative of much British intellectual culture, its virtues as well as its failings. His attack on Hegel was a substantial achievement, carried out in a style that suggested a scrupulous honesty.

Like Thomas Reid he appealed to common sense in his attempts to solve important philosophical issues. This may recall Dr Johnson’s reply to Berkeley when he kicked a stone saying “I refute him thus”, or his solution to the freewill problem- “We’ve got freewill and there’s an end on it”. Kant disparaged Reid and his school as “appealing to the judgement of the crowd”. Against Wittgenstein, Moore would not accept that no more could be said when he had deeply discussed the use of an expression, insisting that a problem remained. Of his later years it was said he moved away from his dialectical brilliance for a pedantic concern with the minutiae of language.

Wittgenstein learned much from Russell and Moore as well as from Otto Weininger and other Viennese contemporaries. In this sense he bridged two cultures. In 1931 Wittgenstein tried to interest Moore in Weininger. Moore was not receptive; he could not even accept Nietzsche.

Moore became presiding philosopher of the Bloomsbury Group. Their culture may be thought a poor substitute for much of the brilliance that came out of continental Europe in that era, especially Vienna. The story of antagonism towards Nietzsche is often as interesting as that of his direct influence. Nordau’s Degeneration (1895) set the tone for English prejudice against him. Later the Bloomsbury Group were an anti-Nietzschean force. This deeply influential movement in British cultural life, relates to Nietzsche as his opponent. Instead they looked to Moore and his version of the distinctly feminine aestheticism of Walter Pater (1839 –1894).

His biographer compares Moore to Dostoyevsky’s Prince Myshkin, stressing his innocence and lack of the perversity of mind that inspired Bradley or McTaggart (1866 –1925). The Myshkin archetype was significant for Russia, influencing both its literature and its political future. In literature it sometimes became a cliché. This charismatic saint ideal of unselfish devotion, an obvious survival from Orthodox Christianity, was one element that went into Russian communism. It seems the Myshkin type was also important for English philosophy and culture generally. One may appreciate it, while disliking the preciousness of Bloomsbury and its heirs with all the anti-Nietzscheanism, just as one values the intellectual refutation of Hegelianism.

Those who find Moore admirable for his demolition of Absolute Idealism may yet consider him somewhat effete. Moore’s Bloomsbury values do not widely appeal today. His own life ideals as propounded at the end of Principia Ethica may not strike us as especially inspiring, especially considered as an alternative to the more exciting continental enthusiasm he repudiates.

There was an influence of G E Moore on T E Hulme (1883 –1917). Hulme’s interest was very different from that of Bloomsbury. Moore’s ethics, with his idea of goodness as an objective “non natural quality” appealed to Hulme’s anti-humanist and purportedly anti-romantic agenda.

Opposition to Moore and Russell’s revolution has not been confined to the conservative right. Some leftist Hegelians see Moore and Russell’s revolution, the fountainhead of a great philosophical movement, virtually as if this was part of some xenophobic syndrome, and that they ought to have accepted Hegel.



1874 – 1948

Like Dostoyevsky, Berdyaev was a revolutionary in his youth, suffered arrest and exile and became a Christian thinker.

Himself an ex-Marxist, he understands Marx’s communism as a secularised version of ancient Jewish chiliasm. He says that though Marx rejected Judaism, he retained messianic ideas in his subconscious, transferring them from Israel to the proletariat. Marxist communism is a religious idea that could never have been reached by scientific methods. Berdyaev says the subconscious is always stronger than the conscious mind. In The Russian Revolution he explores the Russian roots of the communist revolution in the nihilism of the eighteen sixties, in Orthodoxy, and in the Raskolniks, or Old Believers.

The Orthodox idea of Russia’s destiny as the Third Rome, got a new twist with the alienation of the people from the authorities when the religious schism took place under Peter. Religious messianism took new shapes in a proliferation of sects on the extreme wing of the Raskolniks. The same spirit infected the upper cultured classes among nineteenth century writers and thinkers like Belinsky (1811–1848) and the nihilists, hardening into a secularised enthusiasm among the revolutionaries.

Jewish messianism met and merged with a native Russian variety. Marx’s proletariat was interpreted as the Russian people Writing about the Jews, Berdyaev attacks racial and everyday antisemitism. As a Christian though, he opposes Judaism. He sees Jewish influence on the world as largely unconscious rather than a conscious desire to stick together and promote Jewish interests. Here as elsewhere he provokes questions of whether unconscious motives really are as important as claimed, or whether there are more rational explanations.

In The Meaning of History he cites H S Chamberlain (1855–1927) as an Aryan thinker who rejected the whole semitic tradition. By contrast Berdyaev values the semitic perspective. The Christian value of forgiveness and redemption plays out against that background. In his book on Dostoyevsky, he gives a Christian reading of the novelist’s thought. This is the religion he himself believes. He says Dostoyevsky foresaw socialism but not Marxism.

Dostoyevsky’s Christianity is not unlike William Blake’s. Like Nietzsche, Blake and Dostoyevsky believe in instinctual liberation and the happiness of the elect; they also agree in accepting a degree of evil, but believe that man will work through, purge his evil impulses to emerge into a peaceful state unlike Nietzsche’s unpredictable pagan.

Dostoyevsky’s Christianity is not the missionary evangelical kind which wants to force the Christian symbolism on everybody. For Blake and Dostoyevsky Christ meant “everything that says yes to life”; they are for desire, even in some destructive manifestations. Nietzsche is with them against the Grand Inquisitor, against moral repression, and “priests in black gowns”. The difference is in what they all expect to find at the end of the road. Blake and Dostoyevsky see the Jesus of their childhood, Nietzsche sees the image of Dionysus, who is also that of Shiva Nataraja, Kali, or Pan. But neither Blake Dostoyevsky not Berdyaev are concerned about imposing the Christ image on those who do not want it.

Berdyaev finds a sort of bankruptcy in Nietzsche. With the Ubermensch, he says, it is as if in his effort to do whatever he is doing Nietzsche has had to go beyond humanism into something inhuman. Nevertheless in his own rationalisation of Christian history Berdyaev describes mediaeval saints as embarked on the great historic task of rising superior to the natural man. He himself claims to have identified the moral bankruptcy of anarchism and socialism with their roots in renaissance humanism.

There is a clear influence of Boehme, on Berdyaev’s Christianity. Within the Christian framework a Gnostic tendency asserts itself, responding to the kind of noble enjoyment that Boehme finds in Christianity. Boehme makes history exciting by identifying the psychological principles that make up excitement.

Berdyaev writes of the tragic destiny of the Russians. In his response to Spengler, he takes up his concept of Russia as a fresh young culture with a thousand years ahead of it, separate from western as that was from the classical, but holds out the hope she may be able to avoid the otherwise inevitable decline from culture into civilisation by means of religious transfiguration.
1880 – 1903

Otto Weininger’s father was a Viennese goldsmith of the highest creative skill, Jewish but sympathetic to antisemitic views, for whom Wagner’s achievement was the consummation of art. He was an intensely moral man who refused to see his brother on his death bed because he had left his wife.

Otto is famous for one book, Sex and Character, was highly influential in its day. Spengler counted it one of the landmarks of “the actual and effective philosophy” of the epoch, not a view that would find much acceptance nowadays. Wittgenstein said one could put “not” in front of any of Weininger’s statements and they would be just as interesting. Weininger grew to manhood in a Vienna where cultural life was largely Jewish, dominated by Schopenhauer’s and Nietzsche’s philosophies. He committed suicide at the age of twenty-three.

Weininger explores the concept of genius, which he understands as primordial maleness. The culture of the late Habsburg empire was rich in achievement but arguably careless of its foundations. Weininger says that England is less successful at producing geniuses than other European countries. The genius is like the despot, he does not have to pay too much attention to the legitimacy of his ideas.

The genius has a perfect understanding of the coherence of his own life, and there lies the source of his creativity. His is the most developed form of human memory. In woman the memory of her own life is episodic. Between the genius and the woman is the mediocre man. Much of what Weininger says about memory is insightful. Even his idea of the polarity of male and female is brilliantly developed, however unacceptable.

Woman, says Weininger, is not even animal but plant like. The image emphasises the profoundly biological character of sexual attraction. He says the sexual impulse is actually opposed to the conception of beauty. What concerns him are the values of creativity. The prospect of sex induces confusion, trivialising and feminising the pursuit of the will. Affirmationism glories in the will, and is prepared to accept suffering. We must not identify the joy of life too closely with the object of some particular desire.

Male homosexuality is to be understood in terms of weakness and inadequacy, but lesbianism is a good and positive thing, womanhood trying to overcome its limitations.

Weininger’s ideal of culture eclectically lumps together all sorts of other books as part of a general wisdom, as if all the separate insights all put together make a whole.

Weininger grew up in an atmosphere of Viennese antisemitism. He was influenced by H S Chamberlain In such an atmosphere even basic Christianity took an anti-Judaic taint. Weininger emphasised the femininity of the Jew.

For Weininger man is moral and woman amoral. To be moral is to be master. The master wants to be lawgiver. He needs to be in charge of the value he sets upon his actions and experiences. Consequently he will not delight in transgression after the fashion of a child. Weininger attacks Nietzsche for wanting to shock. Guilt to him is something hardly to be borne. His power and freedom are bounded by moral principles. Weininger has a Kantian view of lying. Christianity he sees as a manly teaching, unlike Judaism. Weininger says that Jewish attachment to the commonplace results from the slavishness inculcated by their religion. For him the Jewish means the feminine, with an additional ingredient of aggression. There is a pull back to normality, to family and childhood.

Woman only represents something higher for a brief phase of her existence, as when looking for a mate. In opposing the deviance of the male she opposes his originality. Unlike the woman, who lives entirely for her sexuality, the man has a choice how to use his own. He may will to become either a Don Juan, a monk or something in between. Weininger felt he had to reject woman and the senses, even while recognising her as man’s sexual complement. By impressing the man with her view of things, woman weakens him in his true work. The pull back to normality, to family, childhood, opposes male deviance, as well as male originality.




Orwell (1903 –1950) said that cyclical theories of history appeal to those who hate equality and want to negate progress. If Oswald Spengler is now considered unworthy of serious study that may be less to do with defects in his scholarly method than with the Marxification of our culture. Political morality now centres around an idea of equality. As in early Christianity, the loss of intellectual freedom is presented as liberation. The real argument is not just whether one is for or against some decent value, but whether or not it is dishonest and hypocritical.

Spengler has praise for Metternich (1773–1859), with his mistrust of democracy and the people ruling themselves. He writes of the bankruptcy of modern ideas. Though ideals of equality are still held with the most passionate fervour, they are only persuasive in a state of spiritual poverty. Then it comes to appear intolerably unjust that differences should persist and rational to iron them all out.

After socialism will come scepticism, a sense of purposelessness, the final purpose being at least to make that plain. Yet it is only a class that feels like this, intellectuals driven to nihilism. Sometimes a decadent rationalistic idea thrown up by a dying caste will be seized upon by a new people, as a suitable vehicle for its energies.

There is much suggestiveness to Spengler’s general scheme. The guiding idea of a culture may be thought of as its programme. Over centuries this runs through different stages until decadence, exhaustion, ensues due to the victory of a plebeian spirit, when the popular type of mind emerges supreme. When the inspiring principles have become fully diluted, spread downwards throughout society, then massiveness and grandiosity are the best that can be achieved in the way of creative expression.

He writes of the actual and effective philosophy of the epoch as something different from that pursued in universities. In his time is was something like life force.

Spengler identifies western Christianity with a will to power impulse. He called western man Faustian. He says that intolerance is basic to the whole Faustian world view, inescapable whether you are an anarchist, a romantic Catholic or a Buddhist. All such people Spengler expects to find among his readers. He conveys a sense of intellectual and spiritual adventure.

Wyndham Lewis saw Spengler as vulgar and populist, asserting the superiority of the Faustian at every point. This was not Spengler’s intention. He insisted that that classical civilisation, for example, had its own standard of perfection which is inaccessible to us. Spengler insists that we do have to recognise this before we can begin to evaluate.

He writes from a perspective of relativistic detachment on all ideas and philosophies. He is the sceptical observer. For him all the forms taken by civilisation, including its art, science and political doctrine, are manifestations of life energy. He sees a progressive decline in the quality and originality of those forms, largely to do with the eventual triumph of a democratising egalitarian spirit.

One of his happiest inspirations was the identification of the “Magian” culture and civilisation, around the eastern Mediterranean between the decline of the classical and the rise of the Faustian, with associated concept “pseudomorphism”. Much in that culture was repressed by what we have come to know as orthodoxy. The heretical works, gospels of the Mandaeans etc., attract us because they have been forbidden. We hope that, had they been successful, they would not have imposed repressive orthodoxy of their own, as it is they can inspire us in their lives.

The German intellectual tradition is still felt to be dangerous. Some of the best German literature is most skilful and profound rhetoric in favour of anti-democratic forces. In Spengler’s later writings there is a clear racist theme. The cultural task of creating a Germany that keeps its profundity while remaining benign, is by no means easy, for the anti-democratic culture can be alluring. What makes Spengler so exciting is the sense of the destiny of a culture as an exercise in pure will to power. This is an elementary life affirming view of history, even if he says it is no longer possible.


Nicolai Hartmann

1882 –1950

For Heidegger “the thicket of values” was a trap into which Nietzsche had fallen. Nicolai Hartman tackled the subject of values head on, producing an intriguing ethical philosophy that has been unjustifiably neglected by both analytical and continental philosophy.

Of particular interest is a section of his Ethics which has been translated as Moral Values. As a book to guide your life it compares very favourably with Being and Time or the works of Freud. All aspects of life are connected. Values are all important, and moral values are the highest of them. Fully real, they are axiological, not ontological, and possess a dimension of strength as well as one of height.

Too often an ethical philosophy of life suggests the coercive ideals of finger wagging moralisers, Christian or socialist. There is a temptation to understand morality as asceticism and renunciation, except for those groups whose interest it directly serves. But we are all concerned with values. Hartmann points out that value is a concept in economics, as well as ethics, describing “goods value” as more fundamental than moral value. Moral value is however higher than economic, in the hierarchy, an idea he got from Max Scheler (1874 –1928). Hartmann praises Kant’s glorification of duty, while attacking his rigorism. He writes simply of “values”, which would be acceptable even to Nietzsche, though doubtless there is a universalism which Nietzsche would have disliked.

Hartmann’s views on conflict echo Heraclitus:-

What Heraclitus called the cosmic “war” and regarded as the “father and king” of all things, exists also in ethical actuality; the element of restlessness and of “flux” which carries all things, that inexhaustible productivity of new and ever new relations, situations and demands, with their endlessly new conflicts and puzzles.

He cites Pascal and Scheler as suggesting ways of the heart by which values are discerned. How we decide is up to our conscience. Faced with conflicting values that are at the same time equally mandatory and impossible to combine, we are inevitably involved in guilt, willingly borne by the morally mature.

After describing suffering as an important value, he moves on to a higher one, richness of experience. He emphasises the morality of truth and trustworthiness, focusing on friendship rather than the more complex subject of the relations between the sexes.

He agrees with Scheler in rejecting Nietzsche’s reduction of brotherly love to resentment.

Hartmann largely sympathises with Nietzsche, but says he was liable to extremism, which is true, if not necessarily in the sense Hartmann implies. He identifies an important value discovered by Nietzsche he calls “love of the remote”. This is desire to impose one’s will upon the future. The communists had this desire as did the Nazis, who extolled it together with the brotherly love he says Nietzsche unjustly maligned. Hartmann’s own record under Nazism was clean, and unlike most German philosophers after the war he was not considered to require denazification.

Hartmann book is surprisingly rich, for psychology as well as ethics. It may be considered applied Nietzscheanism. Hartmann rejects the universality of Nietzsche’s will to power. His Nietzsche is not especially defensive, and does not confront the radical assault on his comfortable assumptions. Will to power is itself a seminal and suggestive idea. Universal will to power is something else, a specific defensive perspective against relativistic attack, but Hartmann is not interested in this.

After describing the different values, Hartmann moves on to an equally fascinating discussion of how they are related. He corrects Aristotle account of the virtues and the golden mean. Each of Aristotle’s virtues, he says, is a synthesis of two values. To each of these there is an opposite disvalue. The dimension of strength relates to the imperative quality of the disvalue.

Hartmann’s take on morality is to a degree transvalued. A form of Nietzscheanism could be fitted into his scheme without inconsistency. He is all for morality, but not for the sort of thing that Nietzsche rejects when he calls himself an immoralist. He praises Kant’s glorification if duty, but strongly repudiates other aspects, such as his opposing of morality to inclination.


Carl Schmitt


Carl Schmitt has so many interesting things to say that he can hardly be excluded from the canon of major philosophers on the grounds of his Nazi record.

His Nomos of the Earth, 1950, discusses some principles of international law. Schmitt gives credit to Halford Mackinder (1861 –1947), creator of the geopolitical theory of the Heartland and the World Island, which suitably modified, was the inspiration for his understanding of the respective historical roles of continental Europe and England. Etymological analysis at the end of the book explains how Nomos, meaning something like law, was originally to do with land appropriation.

Augustine was one source of the mediaeval settlement, covering just Western Christendom. As in the ancient world, different cultural spheres had little understanding of each other. An enemy tended to be seen as criminal, and just wars were wars of annihilation.

The discovery of the new world made possible for the first time a workable nomos of the whole world. This became reality with the peace settlement reached at the Conference of Westphalia, ending the thirty years war between Catholics and Protestants. This order, which lasted for 200 years, Schmitt saw as in many respects ideal. He brings to our attention jurists, unfamiliar to most students of philosophy, who he says were of vital importance in developing this. Gentili (1552 –1608) and Zouch (1590 –1661) working in Oxford, helped prepare the world order which came into being after 1646.

It was Gentili who succeed in creating a new concept of war based on the sovereign state and the aequalitas of the iusti hostes rather than on the justice or injustice of the reasons for war offered by either side.

By Rousseau’s day war is no longer a fight to the death but “a relation between one state and another”.

Schmitt sharply distinguishes between anarchy and nihilism. Anarchy means the absence of a supreme authority, and can involve much agreement on basic values. Schmitt’s idea of international anarchy shows the influence of Stirner’s union of egoists. International law like morality, arises out of conflict between sovereign wills.

The idea of ending the state of nature with a social contract establishing a sovereign power was the beginning of enlightenment. Schmitt sees Hobbes as initiating a new Eurocentric world order. This differs from standard interpretations, in that Hobbes is seen as creatively setting up a whole new rational order. Hegel insistence on the state accurately reflects contemporary reality.

Discovery of the new world meant much free land was open to appropriation. The sea became another space where sovereignty did not apply. Balance of power meant the possibility of bracketing war, which now could be waged in a relatively civilised manner.

This system eventually broke down in the catastrophe of the First world war. The breakdown was largely to do with ignorance and incompetence:-

“towards the end of the nineteenth century European jurists of international European law not only had ceased to be conscious of he spatial presuppositions of their own international law, but had lost any political instinct, any common power to maintain their own spatial structure and the bracketing of war.”

Radically different philosophical principles underlay the nations of Europe and the US. Hobbes’s solution was not applied in the New World, giving sense to Hegel’s observation that the USA is not yet a state. Isolated in the western hemisphere, with free land within its own borders, America had a different model of enlightenment, rooted in the secularisation of the Calvinist elect.

Schmitt’s explanation for American exceptionalism, is an advance on De Tocqueville’s. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the USA was still to some degree in the state of nature, a situation which only ended in 1890 with the closing of the frontier, leaving a sense of special American destiny and contradictory aspirations for international law. There the thought of nature evoked not Hobbesian war of all against all, but more Rousseauite pictures of innocence.

The Monroe doctrine divided the world into two hemispheres, with the idea of a western hemisphere free from the corruption of the old world. With it a came revival of the old idea of a just war, rather than a just enemy.



1889 – 1943

For R G Collingwood metaphysics is the science of “absolute presuppositions”. He held that different eras embody different perspectives that depend upon different absolute presuppositions, which we may think of as metaphysical and which are not to be thought of as either true or false. To articulate them is the business of philosophy.

From this standpoint we can identify a zeitgeist that is not subject to rational criticism. This could fit in with some of the attitudes of postmodernism. It is believed there are forms of knowledge that do not come down to factual truth. History becomes the history of changing consciousness. The only truth or falsity to such beliefs is whether people in fact thought what they are said to have done. The historian cannot take sides, hardly even generalise.

However, if presuppositions cannot be wrong, metaphysics can be. Collingwood argued that classical civilisation made the fatal mistake, leading to sickness, decadence, and institutional breakdown, of misinterpreting the presuppositions of its own science, which is another way of saying that its metaphysics were inaccurate. Christianity was a successful attempt to correct this metaphysical error, and for example the creed of Athanasius is in reality a sound example of metaphysical analysis.

Such relativism may serve the interest of those who wish to promote certain unpalatable ideas. Would be dissidents and critics are told their hasty judgements are more or less worthless. Only the scholar can show them the true state of affairs as to what people thought and said, enabling you to understand rather than judge it. Hence Collingwood’s notorious hectoring style, and apparent contempt for the views of those who are not scholars. Historical knowledge becomes something esoteric, as well as the key to moral judgement. The knowledge of a true historian would seem to be largely devoted to putting people down. Having explained, in a very learned way, the shortcomings of most of their opinions, he does not replace them with very much. We are to seek knowledge for its own sake.

Collingwood says it is wrong to treat the events of history as Spengler does as natural objects; you have to think them. Virtually you have to accept these ideas, as sound in themselves but you incorporate them into a higher synthesis. You will not understand that Christianity was the right response to circumstances until you have thought, felt, appreciated its appropriateness. St Augustine understood his era and the remedies required. Against Collingwood one might say this is just putting yourself on the side of the big boys. History is not just the grand central drama.

Collingwood’s scheme is hostile to the materialism which sees interest or power as the motive force of history, rather than adherence to one set of views as against another. He sees and endorses Kant’s idea of history as the realm of freedom. He gives an illuminating perspective on post-Kantian idealism. History is the unfolding of ideas according to a dialectical pattern.

Collingwood hostility to the distortions of sciences like sociology and psychology is not unsympathetic. Historical knowledge is very different from that of the relations between phenomena.

Writing of art, he understands the creative process as the expression of emotion. With what appears to be a gross oversimplification, true art is distinguished from false art, which attempts this and fails, and magic and entertainment, which are something less than true art. Thus insistence on a distinction between true and false values is likely to end up as a dualism. Seeing the motive force of what has been good for man as “correct thinking”, wrong thinking becomes the source of all bad, and since it is extremely dangerous it requires constant vigilance.

Collingwood is very interesting but very much of his time. He disdains Frazer and Spengler, but seems influenced by them both. He has an interpretation of magic, and believes in decadence. He is much taken by T S Eliot’s Wasteland, admittedly a great poem but perhaps not quite as authoritatively definitive of its era as some would have it.



1887 – 1968

He [Heidegger] and Bauemler and Carl Schmitt are three very different academics who each strove for the intellectual leadership of the National Socialist movement.- Karl Jaspers (1883- 1969)

Heidegger’s folly lay in thinking he could exert any influence upon Nazi ideology. He backed off when he had clearly lost out to rival philosophers like Bauemler.

After the war Heidegger had his famous U-turn, his “Kehre”, and went on to influence the green movement and deconstruction. Schmitt transferred his hopes and ambitions for the saving of civilisation to the USA. It is alleged he had an influence on Leo Strauss (1899–1973) and neoconservativism, and that his writings provided justification for controversial policies in the war on terror, like “enhanced interrogation” and “non-combatant status”.

Bauemler was the only one of the three to serve a prison sentence for his Nazi activities, and the only one not to be rehabilitated. For a while Nietzsche’s reputation went down with him. To many in the thirties and forties Bauemler’s interpretation was virtually synonymous with Nietzscheanism. After the war, in the fifties and sixties, Nietzsche himself had to be disentangled from Bauemler, and commentators like Kaufmann and Hollingdale referred contemptuously to his distortions.

Bauemler, however, was not intellectually negligible. In the history of Nietzsche exegesis nearly every interpreter has coloured or distorted to some extent in accordance with his own beliefs and values. Bauemler had a philosophy of his own which, while not Nietzsche, is arguably as worthy of notice as those of Heidegger or Schmitt.

Nietzsche’s attack on Wagner can be read as a scathing attack on proto-fascism, and the key to a rationalistic individualistic understanding of the modern world. Bauemler took the same material for opposite ends. He set Nietzsche’s “power”, power for him being seen in collectivist terms, compatibly with the conformism and mass enthusiasm of the Nazi state, against Wagner’s “world-redeeming love”.

Bauemler’s main departure from Nietzsche’s thought does not so much consist in taking some of the more aggressive statements out of context, as in a deliberate rejection, in accordance with the collectivist spirit, of the 1930s, of Nietzsche’s whole individualistic orientation. Bauemler recognised there was much in Nietzsche that he could not accept as a National Socialist. The collectivism in fascism is hard to reconcile with Nietzsche’s individualism and Bauemler did not make the attempt. So arguably he was not really a Nietzschean at all, even a bad one.

Almost any follower of Nietzsche would find something in his writings to discount, where his master appears to fall below his own best standards. Reinterpreting their predecessors in the light of their own beliefs is what philosophers do all the time. That Bauemler only emphasised those statements of Nietzsche which seemed to anticipate National Socialism reflects the fact that those were what he thought were important. He preferred Nietzsche’s unpublished notes, the Nachlass, as the most authentic source of his philosophy. Others have also argued that the Nietzsche’s notes are more important than the work he published. It has been said that there we can catch Nietzsche off his guard. However Bauemler claimed to discern a system, which he unfortunately based around the divisions of the posthumously published Will to Power. This collection of notes was put together and published by Nietzsche’s sister Elisabeth and the divisions were hers, not her brother’s. So Bauemler’s interpretation was mediated by the nationalistically minded Elisabeth Forster-Nietzsche’s editorial activity.

Bauemler proposed a curious variation on the thesis of Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy. Rejecting the idea that the Greek drama originated in the anarchic enthusiasm of Dionysian orgies, he traced it more respectably to the cult of the heroes, with its heroic dithyramb. His Dionysus was associated with the souls of dead heroes, suggesting an application to the German war dead of 1914-18. Like other German thinkers of the time, including Heidegger, he embraced the idea of revivifying civilisation by getting back to the spirit of archaic Greece, including pre-Socratic thought. The rebirth of myth which the early Nietzsche hoped for from Wagner, Bauemler applied to Hitler as representative of the war dead, and all the symbolism of the Nazi state. This move has been described as ludicrous.



1889 – 1951

Factors besides the force of his arguments affected Wittgenstein’s reception. Whatever the brilliance of his Tractatus, it contains manifest contradictions. When a philosophy exhibits fairly obvious weakness, strength of personality, which Wittgenstein had in abundance, may ensure that these are not immediately fatal, and that the focus of intellectual work can be shifted onto the problems now seen as important.

Much scholarship was devoted to unravelling the complexity of Wittgenstein’s mind. He has been portrayed as a charismatic source of mysterious wisdom. There survives much dated writing on meaning from an era when people were still working to understand him properly. Typically there are many interpretations of a major philosopher. Wittgenstein has been used to legitimise various desired forms of discourse, some developments of real understanding, others plain misinterpretations.

It is said the Wittgensteinian faith of the 1970s was dead by the turn of the millennium. There had been something to be said for the faith. To be converted by a philosophical argument with no clear way out is to confront something important. Only by focussing on Wittgenstein’s claim to have dissolved the problems of philosophy is new development possible. If the claim is to be rejected it must first be understood.

Wittgenstein wrote convincingly on Gödel’s (1906 –1978) paradox, but is arguably open to paradox himself. To identify inadequacy in his philosophy, opening possibilities of further development, we may take the notion of philosophical perplexity. Wittgenstein offers a technique for dissolving this. Applying the technique is itself a language game. A state of puzzlement is resolved through contemplating facts about how language is used. This is how the language game is played, there is puzzlement and a way of removing it. Taking language as used as a court of appeal, we have an unlimited number of mutually hostile opinions. Our own game is itself only one of these. How can ours be shown to be better than another which insistently denies it, once that has been formulated? In allowing all language games, we allow the possibility of disastrous paradox.

Focussing on the permissibility of language games we suspend belief in any other guide, which could only be internal to some particular game. To question the idea that there are only language games produces a genuinely depressing sceptical paradox. Any way of discourse has been understood as something like a game which we may or may not play. How can I put restrictions on what is to be said? Is there a point where the method breaks down, and an irresolvable perplexity ensues?

Conceding that Wittgenstein is essentially right in teaching that philosophical problems do spring to a large extent from befuddlement of language, yet the mere form of language can hardly forbid what you can say. Philosophy is given a role in untangling confusion. What security does it give us? We hardly want to conclude that each language game is so self-secure that no criticism can undermine it. What if language turns on itself?

One result of the belief that Wittgenstein had settled all the big questions was a trivialisation of philosophy. Pedantic verbal investigations were held to be valuable and interesting. However not all Wittgensteinians followed that path. An alternative was a shift from solving philosophical problems to justifying “forms of life” in terms of language games, letting in religion via a form of idealism.

Wittgenstein claims to destroy only houses of cards. The corollary of this is that every value that is worth having is capable of being rescued. There is nothing to regret in the destruction of illusions. Whatever joy there was can be salvaged. The philosophical task of the future is to mine the spiritual treasure of the ages. Wittgenstein suggests that error is somehow valuable, and that the cure can leave you better than before. The idea is obscure and has the gnomic character of sage-like wisdom.

Wittgenstein is heavily criticised for his openness to Spengler and Weininger, both intriguing and persuasive writers peripheral to his main thought. He says there are bedrocks of certainty in the values one simply absorbs, which seems true enough. But how far can and should doubt go?



1889 – 1976

Heidegger wants to open up exciting new possibilities. When he talks of the temptation to fall into hearsay, he speaks strongly to people whose experience of life is precisely the constant temptation to live as everyone else lives. Against this “lostness” in the world, he teaches “authenticity”.

He wants to uncover presuppositions that are allegedly at the root of our language, and change them. This is a new take on the familiar dream of recapturing the brilliance and freedom of the ancient Greeks. Heidegger was aware of the objections that naturally occur to us. He states over and over again that he does not mean what his critics might easily take him to mean. One might think there is no need for philosophy to be so complicated. Essential to Heidegger’s claim is that he has something profound to teach us.

From the viewpoint of traditional grammar or logic his concepts are scarcely simple. They come from the method of phenomenology, making primary what seems far from it. Philosophy becomes mythological.

He reaffirms Yorck von Wartenburg’s criticism of Dilthey, that philosophy should lead scientific enquiry rather than follow it. He attacks Dilthey’s premises, persistently arguing his own “ontological” approach as more fundamental. The phenomenological treatment of the demand for the philosophical guidance on how to live involves preserving an original motivation, to generate a life philosophy that answers some of the obvious objections.

The point of his obscure jargon is to evoke and preserve an experience that otherwise becomes theory laden. Angst is a response to the basic philosophical question of how to live. “Falling” happens when one loses sight of the original problem. Before discovering whether it can be answered one must feel the question in all its disturbingness. Even if I never feel in a state where I have to choose arbitrarily, I may like to think of other people like that. My own choice may be less of what to think and value as what to teach, what to lead with. To identify with this angst can be pleasurable because it brings a feeling of power.

Heidegger’s aspires to guide culture and society. He finds his Archimedean fulcrum in physis. His judgements claim immunity from ordinary logical criticism because his subject matter is the non-logical ground of logic itself. Some questions he doesn’t get beyond posing, so he may feel quite unauthoritarian.

Existentials” appear in place of traditional categories. Thus our starting point is something already quite complex. It seems possible to ask questions of Being. Constantly keeping this experience in mind is a philosophical method that relates to the torments of some Christian religionists. Heidegger rejects the neoplatonic element in Augustine, what he calls his “hierarchisation”. Like Luther he prefers the primal experience of Paul. The possibility he delineates is a form of creative vision. However, he claims to be not a poet, but a philosopher, an ontologist.

How we perceive the world determines how we use the concept “being” and vice versa. The attempt to express truth in intellectual terms Heidegger would take as presupposition laden. He seeks authority for his judgements in his recondite etymological analyses. In his masterwork Being and Time, time is “the perspective governing the disclosure of being”.

There is no point in uttering obvious criticisms of his intellectual method. We are to forget values, intellectual ideas, return to the particular, the primordial experience, where being and truth lie. Originally being meant individual discovery of it. Heidegger calls upon us to experience discovery of being in immediate experience, bypassing intellectual problems rather than solving them. The philosophical themes underlying western civilisation have allegedly run themselves into complete confusion. It is a common idea in continental Europe that Nietzsche was superseded, undermined by Heidegger’s discovery that rationalism is quite played out, that to concern ourselves with “values” is to pursue the rationalistic will-o’-the wisp.

Heidegger does not promise a gregarious faith. He offers an intensely finite, individualised death bounded framework which is to provide the foundation for a complete revitalisation of civilisation. It has been criticised for its moral irrelevance. His post-war attempt to backtrack, saying “only God can save us now” still suggests a sort of feminine passivity.




The venerable mind body problem is solved neither by the dogmatic assertions of the medical materialist nor those of the Catholic theologian. Some believe Wittgenstein dissolved it, in a way brilliantly expanded by Gilbert Ryle in The Concept of Mind. Scruton writes of Ryle’s thesis that some have found the same idea in the later writings of Wittgenstein. It is surprising the connection should be questioned. Wittgenstein once said Ryle was the only one who properly understood him. When Ryle unfortunately conceded that his work might be considered behaviourist he laid himself open to misinterpretation. It is unlikely the work of behaviourist psychologists like Watson (1878 – 1958) had any significant influence on him.

Ryle showed that materialism need not involve intractable problems. One objection is that there are other views that may be defended with the same philosophical methods, even with a similar appeal to common usage.

Ryle’s book is a persuasive demolition of the idea of the “ghost in the machine”, which he achieves by carefully unravelling the puzzlement engendered when one form of language is taken as paradigmatic for something with a very different logical structure. Some people see nothing puzzling about the relation of mind to body. The puzzlement of others they would solve dogmatically, asserting that consciousness is known to be a form of matter. Admitting this is a difficult thought to grasp, they affirm more of a statement of faith than a philosophical demonstration.

Ryle introduces the idea of category mistake with which he carefully unpicks the assumptions of mind body duality. He says he is not offering new knowledge about minds but rectifying “the logical geography of the knowledge we already possess.

Ryle and Wittgenstein reject not just Cartesian dualism, but the whole way the problem has been presented in most western philosophy at least since the seventeenth century.

Ryle was not a pupil of Wittgenstein, but he worked on parallel lines in Oxford, and became one of the leading figures in what came to be called linguistic, or ordinary language philosophy. Many attacked this movement as sterile, pedantic and boring. Bryan Magee (b. 1930) said Oxford philosophy was “about words rather than about the world”. He says as a student he learnt to master linguistic philosophy, even though rejecting it.

Wittgenstein and Ryle claimed philosophical discoveries concerning the aetiology of philosophical errors and problems. However there is a tendency for Ryle and his school to protect and reinforce conventional beliefs. On the question of what we are think of life after death Ryle brings us back to the commonsense view that people die and there is nothing left of them when their bodies die. Ryle could dispose of most arguments against mortalism by uncovering unnoticed grammatical peculiarities. He shows how it is possible to be a logically consistent mortalist. Yet Wittgenstein himself allowed for the possibility of religious belief. Whatever is desired to be said we may find a grammar, a logic, in which it may be expressed. We homogenise and systematise logical differences. On his own principles does Ryle have any particular right to a mortalist position except that he finds it natural? Towards the end of the book Ryle somewhat lets himself down by seemingly endorsing the scientific pretensions of psychoanalysis.

In the second world war Ryle worked on code breaking and psychological warfare. He later applied his skills to deciphering mysteries in Plato. He advanced the thesis that Plato was himself put on trial for corrupting youth. According to Ryle, Plato’s portrayal of Socrates is not at all historic. Often he was writing about himself. Forbidden to teach dialectic he began to compose his philosophical dialogues out of frustration. Ryle also argues the controversial theory that Plato abandoned the theory of ideas.

Angered by a bad review of his translation of The Republic American critic Allan Bloom (1930 –1992) excoriated Ryle for expunging the erotic from his understanding of Plato. Admittedly Ryle does exhibit some of the vices commonly attributed to Oxford, dryness, arrogance and contempt for enthusiasm. Personal beauty, as well as intellectual brilliance has indeed been counted a philosophical virtue, right into modern times, as we read from accounts of Moore and Wittgenstein at Cambridge.


Ayn Rand

1905 –1982

When American teenagers reject Christianity and altruism it is less likely to be in the spirit of Nietzsche, than for some new barbarism like the “objectivism” of Ayn Rand that means little to the rest of the world. Rand does not travel well. She is a peculiarly American figure, appealing to Middle America’s hostility to hierarchy ridden Europe. Her America is the land of bad taste become assertive.

Rand was not born in the United States. Her family were Russian Jews who fled the Revolution. She considers herself an original thinker but her “philosophy” is tied up in unexamined assumptions. She is for “egoism” but her egoist is completely the product on the society around him. If he is to be encouraged that must be for utilitarian reasons. Her novel The Fountainhead portrays a romantic idea of individual genius, in the form of a brutalist architect. Glorifying the successful, patriotic, mystically absorbed in American national beliefs, she is a groupie of the American ideal.

A European may think of himself as libertarian without insisting on the right to bear arms, or the abolition of welfare. He embraces a concept of liberty like Mill’s, that while affirming such rights as that to take drugs, and the iniquity of censorship, rejects those American demands, not out of compromise, but as irrelevant. His concepts are not diluted versions of Rand’s, but rooted in his own cultural traditions.

Some see Rand’s philosophy as an embarrassing caricature of Nietzschean or Stirnerite egoism. To Nietzsche she was explicitly hostile. A socialist might misrepresent Stirner as advocating the sort of capitalist society she wants. Vulgarised affirmationism tends to become fascism, though Rand is tied to laissez-faire capitalism. Some prominent Americans respect her as a philosopher. Alan Greenspan (b. 1926) was a friend and follower. Her books were said to have attracted President George H Bush.

To hostile critics her philosophy is not even second-rate, a mass of unanalysed and dogmatic assertion, revealing a mind of sentimental vulgarity, filled moreover with ineffable conceit. Rand counted herself the greatest philosopher of all time, and was undecided whether her lover, Nathanial Branden (1930–2014), was slightly above, or slightly below Aristotle.

She gives us her views on art in The Romantic Manifesto. Victor Hugo is her favourite novelist. She likes tap dancing, Ian Fleming, ballrooms, and skyscrapers. She has very feminine tastes. A character in The Fountainhead is said to be based on the Nazi sculptor Thorak (1889–1952), rival of the more famous Breker (1900–1991). She shares with the Nazis and Stalinists contempt for the “degenerate” and advocacy of the heroic, which can appear like reversion to the worst kind of kitsch.

She hates and misunderstands modern art but is right to see it as an attack on her worldview. In one sense her instinct is true, sensing a distaste for her standards of taste and judgement so great that a clear distance has to be created. Her worship of heroism and achievement contains a great deal of the crudely erotic. She admires the kind of man who arouses or excites her.

If art is an escape from the authority of the ordinary, what she calls “the folks next door” one of the things it escapes is precisely an interpretation of reality such as hers. Bad taste is a bad substitute like bad food. On a Schopenhauerian aesthetic, it is failure to discern true form, revelation of which is release from what is felt to be the pressure of false doctrines. Rand loathes Schopenhauer, classing his among ideas she does not like or understand, as degenerate.

She escapes from the mundane only into something equally mundane. It does not irritate her; she happily submits, has no wish to struggle against its limitations. A philosophy supposedly of energy, individualism and heroic action is actually nothing of the kind. Invoking a spectacle of heroic action, in most ways she is profoundly passive. She dwells in a mental world that empowers her to believe that tap dancing is a significant art form. The illusion of extraordinary freedom comes from cutting off the hierarchical values, and with them the distinctive satisfactions they promise.



1905 – 1980

Reading Being and Time it becomes quite understandable that someone might want to produce a more practical, popular version of this philosophy. Heidegger calls out for popularisation and literary treatment. In this sense Sartre was Heidegger’s natural successor. There were other influences. After the war Sartre was emulating Andre Breton (1896 –1966), turning existentialism into a popular movement and recruiting artists to its cause.

The Sartrean left has much in common with the right. For “my country right or wrong” it substitutes commitment. With this may come a Nietzschean irresponsibility. Sartre, would say that Nietzsche’s was only a class perspective.

Sartre’s book on antisemitism, an attack on fellow novelist Céline (1894 –1961), was itself attacked by Orwell for its crudity. Arguably Céline achieved an authenticity that Sartre didn’t. Sartre hung around in cafés and bedded a lot of students. In pursuit of chic he arguably forsook authenticity. Céline stuck his neck out and suffered for it, a fate from which we can learn.

Sartre’s “bad faith” means a wrong way of looking which affects experience. Values of authenticity may be applied to career or more excitingly to the understanding of sexuality. Nietzsche says the philosopher does not chase women, but they may come to him. Seducing one’s students was for long one of the rewards of a successful academic career, as much for a logical positivist like Ayer as metaphysicians like Sartre and Heidegger. It can make a man feel really good about himself. Sex ceases to be seen as part of the “they world“, and can be authentically enjoyed.
In Paris in the fifties Sartre was the centre of a national mood which he could to a large extent manipulate. Many with little interest in exploring the intellectual basis were attracted to the style.

Existentialism had an impact on some schools of psychology. With his assimilation of Sartre’s existentialism R D Laing brought a concern for the autonomy of the individual which was more appealing to the general reader than conventional psychiatry.

Sartre was a sort of counter-mystic. As a counterbalance to humanistic rhapsodies about the beauty of the natural world, anti-hero Roquentin’s feelings of revulsion about the roots of a tree in his novel La Nausee were a revelation about the whole of existence. Significantly Sartre’s experience of mescaline was hellish. In his play Huis Clos we learn that hell is other people. Other people’s experience can impose a false necessity on us, false ideas of truth, reality or nature. For the individual as self-creating, other peoples experience imposes on him in his weakness. Huis Clos suggests an encounter group, but with the original proviso that there will not and cannot be a satisfactory solution. It is only fully effective as drama when it is made clear that this is a picture of hell.

Sartre’s Words presents a ruthless self analysis, relentless self criticism. He projects his own philosophy back onto his childhood. Here as elsewhere his outlook on life is striking for its originality. Neurotic as his character may have been, he is still charismatic. And it does seem that he has a distinctive mission, much as he repudiates it. He seems to admit this repudiation as a form of pride though expressing himself more subtly. He comes across as a great neurotic Pied Piper.

To negate his own vision in the way he does at the end of Words risks trivialising it. He well fulfilled his childhood destiny but he declares himself to be curiously empty. However, rather than rendering it worthless, this adds to his originality. He is a soul pursuing a path not quite pursued before. His vision is not inspired by pure benevolence. He imposes his own neurosis on us throughout.

One picks out in memory those things one now considers important as defining oneself. In his own autobiography Dali recorded surrealist acts, like naughtily cutting off his grandmother’s treasured lock of hair. Sartre describes the mauvais foi of his humanistic ambition to join the company of the writers of books. His mother said he misunderstood his childhood. A mother’s perspective is limited, she encourages tendencies making for adjustment, and discourages those which tend towards trouble.


Simone Weil

1909 –1943

Simone Weil showed a way of being left wing without being Marxist. Back in fifties Britain she was a much discussed figure. Several books have been written on her philosophy. Her student dissertation hardly deserves the attention it received. Much about her is very interesting but her metaphysics is only really for Weil devotees. Nevertheless there is something to be learnt from such literature about why there are so few women philosophers, though there are many female mystics.

Simone Weil’s horror of oppression expresses a feminine recoil against male aggression. She is much more of a saint than the Machiavellian Gandhi (1869–1948). In an intellectual sense she offers a way out for those tempted by fascism. Weil is the mystic of anti-fascism, an inspiring archetype. She died a young virgin, not an old maid, having undermined her health by working in factories to achieve solidarity with the working class. She was jealous of Christ’s crucifixion.

As a martyr she is the Catholic rather than the Protestant type like Bruno. Some say she had a masochistic quality amounting to a suicidal tendency. De Gaulle said she was mad. In the face of Nazism the time was ripe for her. All her thought it centred around how strong and genuinely she felt. Other thinkers one may convict of hypocrisy, passionate about one form of oppression while advocating another. We cannot point to logical errors or inconsistencies in her position. Hers is a plausible anti-fascism, something often difficult to state. Perhaps a Shelleyan idealism might approach it.

She insists on renunciation of the exercise of power, out of respect for the other person. We tend to think of power in terms of the seducer, and sometimes that of the seduced, but there is also the power of the virgin. To say she wants power for herself would be misleading. The satisfaction she seeks is different from that of the seducer. Her comments on the Iliad and on the Melians, exemplify her refusal to violate. All her desire not to be violated depends on a universal principle of non-violation. Schadenfreude is impossible to her. She refuses to accept violations as part of life. We recognise how virgins, like Lucrece, have been honoured as heroic points of resistance against tyranny.

Sometimes she overstates her case. The victorious Greeks were not lacking in imagination when wreaking their triumph, they were embracing the flow of life. That today I am the victor, and tomorrow I may be the vanquished, is the message of Pindar, and precisely what she rejects. To violate another is to violate herself. Her virginity has to be sacred or it is nothing.

Property, life, liberty, one may lose, but virginity is something more than that. To lose something many count as worthless, is yet to become something one did not want to become, involved in a vile complicity, undermined in the heart of one’s values, all one holds dear.She wrote an essay The Great Beast attacking ancient Rome. Rome was an open society as far as thought goes. Weil sympathises with tribalism. However brutal it may have been in its behaviour, Rome was not motivated by a system or a myth. Karl Popper was also left wing but spoke up for the open society. He favoured breaking open the closed societies which have her sympathy. Weil sees Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany the modern equivalents of Rome. She claims that national socialism and communism are identical, that the words in which they are expressed make no difference.

She thought it contradictory to feel admiration both for Rome and for her subject peoples struggling for impendence. There is none unless admiration for one must involve willing what it wills. One may mourn with the vanquished and triumph with the victors.

Perhaps with her Jewish background she feels Rome is no part of her. Freud also preferred Carthage. She wants to look at the world in the light of an overriding moral concern. George Steiner deplored her rejection of Judaism. He calls her a self hating Jew, and suggests some mystical ideas she is into could be found in the kabbalism of Isaac Luria (1534 –1572).



1919 – 2002

Some feel they have no cause to make moral judgements and that their interests lie in repudiating their very possibility. If I come to a point where I do want to make them, I have to show how that is possible. Then I may appreciate ethics as a study. One crucial task of the moral philosopher is to show how it is possible for someone to be objectively foul. Maintaining this view of my enemy requires a degree of confidence unavailable to someone in a weak position, as all of us are on occasion. What ground can I have for expecting others to accept my judgement? One ploy might be to identify myself with my vision of the universe, which I justify by rational argument. Dialectic is an alternative to intuition. People like my enemy make for ultimate disharmony. If conflict is eternal, all comes down to a question of who’s master.

British ethical philosophy moved from Hume and Shaftesbury (1671 – 1713), through the emotivism of Stevenson (1908 –1979) and Ayer (1910–1989), and intuitionists like Sidgwick (1838–1900) and Ross (1877–1971) to positions more satisfactory to those who want to make ethical judgements. Some argue that if the practice of justice were not conducive to personal interest, we would be foolish or timid to embrace it. Justice would not be virtue. This does go against common usage.

R M Hare is a dry old stick reminiscent of Kant, who thinks of himself as a Christian. He regards even supposed agnostics like Ayer as really Christian. “What else could they be?” he asks. Yet he admits there are alternatives. He claims to be a follower of Mill. He is strongly anti-relativist, unreceptive to the radical pluralism suggested by Wittgenstein’s idea of forms of life, by which one cannot finally prove any point of view to be wrong when it has its own grammar. Opposing that is the claim that there is some position one has to believe, rather than a lot of possible ones.

Morality is an autonomous kind of language, hardly to be systematised to the extent Hare does it. His rationalism simplifies and organises moral judgments into a philosophically appealing model. His own will involves an idiosyncratic pride in ascetic subjection to a standard of rationality. His explanation of morality centres upon an ideal of rational consistency. To say that moral beliefs typically derive from his principles of critical thinking would obviously be silly. It is possible that most users of moral terms would commit what Moore called the naturalistic fallacy if pressed, saying that good is a quality, and deny that Hare’s talk of commending and universal imperatives expresses adequately what they mean. An emotivist might use his ethical terms in a different way, and explain differently what he means by them.

Hare’s Moral Thinking, Its Levels Method And Point is an ingenious synthesis of ethical theories:- emotivism, intuitionism, utilitarianism, and Kant. He clarifies much with his theory of “levels”, one on which intuitions are valid, the other critical thinking.

His utilitarianism he takes to counterintuitive extremes. Preference utilitarianism does away with some difficulties to create others. Hard theoretical cases, he says, will never happen. Moral intuitions, he agrees, are a result of conditioning. He makes a lot of habits of being well brought up, and of the prudential motives for training children to be moral. He does not say much about conscience. In place of his own will, Hare, following Kant, would put this intellectual construction to which he affirms complete commitment.

An apparent weakness of his “prescriptivism” is its reliance on ultimate decisions. How can I expect another to accept my judgements if his ultimate decisions differ from mine? While to some such weaknesses are tiny holes in an impressive system, easily plugged, others might see them as vast breaches, allowing ample scope for their alternatives. Kant’s system has weak points too. Concentrating on these Hegel built a vast system that seems to negate most of what Kant stood for.

Hare’s theories had considerable success. He influenced Singer (born 1946) who is big on coercive morality, animal liberation and you giving away a large chunk of your income.



1924 –1994

The philosopher’s will to power shows in his desire that other people think within his framework. He invites others to follow him. This is what Paul Feyerabend said he once wanted to do but decided he had no right to. So he decided to call himself an anarchist or sometimes a Dadaist.

In Feyerabend one misses a clear argument to criticise. He is very suggestive and often sympathetic. In Against Method he writes that extreme positions have extreme value in helping to break conformist habits. However, he consciously removes himself from the sphere of philosophical argumentation to that of rhetoric. By preference he is more gadfly than systematic philosopher, yet it seems he should be a philosopher because he raises philosophical questions. His thought provokes argument, much of which he evades.

There are deep seated assumptions pervading his scepticism. Presumably, he would put them down to his tradition, but readers might want to interrogate them. Scepticism, to make itself workable, often needs to conceal other assumptions. Some of his tolerance seems to derive from principles other than his philosophy, assumptions one might attribute to Christianity, or to tolerance, or liberal minded anti-imperialism. Clearly he is leftish, and would want to exclude racism, for example, from his list of live options.

He lacks sympathy for western imperialism, which is a form of life after all. In speaking of other cultures that manage quite well on their own, he might be accused of lacking sympathy for their victims. It suggests a tolerance for rulers. Their poor underclasses, persecuted criminals, heretics etc. do not have especial call on our succour. This may be acceptable but the emotion on which he bases his conservationist views sometimes reduces to sentimentality. When he says that the spread of western culture has brought so much spiritual poverty and dissatisfaction one might agree, but he puts up little evidence for it And how can he defend his position against someone who argues the opposite? He offers no proof that people are not now happier. And on his principles should he even care whether they are or not?

His philosophy, such as it is, does not consistently support the freedom and tolerance he favours. He would say that this is not an objection because his aims are not so high. He is using rhetoric (like some of the poststurcturalists) to influence in a favoured direction. But then the justification for his position comes down simply to his will which only persuades if you are already inclined that way.

Is his conservationism rooted in benevolence or is it independent of such a motive? Can he give any of his preferences any higher status than prejudice? And if not doesn’t that reduce the force of whatever argument he puts up? Is he on any firmer ground than those other anti-Socratic espousers of rhetoric like Derrida?

He turned against his early mentor Karl Popper, whom he regards as merely the last in line of a procession of arrogant intellectuals, beginning with Xeonphanes, one of Popper’s heroes, who really had nothing of substance to say. He compares Popper unfavourably with a working scientist like Mach (1838 –1916). Like Paracelsus and Aristotle Feyerabend looks to the traditions established in the various crafts.

In Science in a Free Society he tends to conflate freedom and democracy without demonstrating why these two must coincide. There are clear inconsistencies. Somewhat disingenuously he defends the existence of contradictions in his work, even if limited in scope. Even Hegel admits that a contradiction involves a painful tension that needs to be resolved.

Feyerabend has an interesting take on Austin (1911–1960) who was similar in some ways to Wittgenstein but usually thought less interesting and somewhat arid. He writes of Austin’s revolutionary pre-platonic view of a world without depth. He is contemptuous of contemporary science for its abandonment of philosophy for business considerations, and modern scientists who “cannot make sense of anything transcending their domain of competence”.

More controversially he attacks the post-Galileo idea of the independence of reality from observation. One may be suspicious of any supposed advance in pure philosophy which dismisses that as merely a mistake.




The misconceptions in Deleuze’s book on Nietzsche influence many modern interpretations. Deleuze expounds a bizarre and scarcely comprehensible eternal recurrence theory, overthrowing the plain meaning of Nietzsche’s concept. He makes will to power into a metaphysical doctrine. His theory of active and reactive forces is extravagant hypothesis erected into dogma. He advocates becoming purely “active” force, which would be more than human, the creative energy of Dionysus. Worse is his idea of discriminating between active (good) and reactive force (bad). He proposes this ideal of happiness as an object of striving.

Nietzsche tentatively sought scientific backing for his will to power perspective. Deleuze produces an ideal of happiness which he has no reasonable ground for expecting others to accept. For Nietzsche, Dionysian affirmation is the joy that arises from satisfaction of one’s own particular projects, not a seductive promise that is held out.

Behind his philosophy is Deleuze’s own will to power. He does little to defend it against the “reactive” forces he describes. Though based on ideas culled from Nietzsche’s writings his programme resembles Wagner more than Nietzsche, preaching salvation, which he calls overcoming the human. The Nazis had one way of turning Nietzsche into Wagner, Deleuze has another. He invites us to join a common project, opening up new cultural possibilities. Despite its emotional allure this bears a much closer relation to what Nietzsche objected to in Wagner. Nietzsche declined the role of redeemer, having discovered something more compelling than an claim to have found the secret of happiness..

Deleuze and his fellow travellers had a substantial impact on what counts as modern art. Bookshops in art galleries were full of their theorising. People with very opposing opinions can feel confirmed by the same art. To those who enjoy art in a modernist way, postmodernism makes everything flat. Some of the values it embraces seem incompatible with aesthetic enjoyment, philistine pressure to believe, destructive of all special experience.

With the attempt to synthesise freespiritedness and egalitarianism all kinds of aggressive feelings are inhibited. Deleuze is invoked to restore mental freedom within a doctrinal framework. His Dionysianism is like explicating Christianity, or socialism.

Anti-Oedipus which he co-wrote with Guattari, resembles avant-garde literature. Its radical views have the charm of advanced chic. Taboo breaking is subject to a powerful principle of restraint in the sense of collective solidarity, supposedly so erotically satisfying that its repressive quality is not even apparent.

He intellectualises a number of prejudices of contemporary youth. The young person forms an ideal of freedom based on lack of restraint, believing that personal power will come from breaking through barriers including those of sense and reason. He feels a collective solidarity with those who share his aim. One experiences no conflict between one’s neighbour’s will and one’s own; the enemy is elsewhere. To the question of how to avoid fascism, the answer is the conformism of collective enthusiasm. Deleuze apparently accepts Nietzsche’s criticism of gregariousness, but applies it to the fascist crowd, not himself and his followers.

For Mill’s Liberty essay, rather than irrationally rejecting certain lines of thought as dangerous.we can look directly at the most extreme, most dangerous ideas. They need not sway us because we are secure in our own political identity.

Deleuze sees America as the essence of capitalism, decoding everything, the ultimate expression of an inexorable historical force. He writes of the oneness of the desire economy and the political economy, and of the “desiring machine”. Following Freud he has much to say about the anus. Philosophy has become obscene, or perhaps we should say medical. Fantasy is fused with reality in a way that suggests the baroque ecstasies of the Counter Reformation. Marx and Freud are used in the service of an atheist version of Catholicism.

The basic objection, as to other far less sophisticated thinkers, is that Deleuze links happiness, free flowing energy, with acceptance of particular principles. In however subtle a fashion he is trying to impose a standard of health. Resisting his promise of Dionysian enjoyment is like Nietzsche resisting Wagner. Nietzsche was not just offering happiness. Rather he was resisting happiness of one kind, refusing someone else’s offer in the name of truth.



The old men in Plato’s Laws scorn the ideal of individual freedom, from the viewpoint of age. They say the views of the young are like those of children, not to be taken seriously. The result is a vision of terrifying tyranny. Plato still puts argument before traditional authority, but in but his great mental energy has no check on it. Finding the checks is the beginnings of scientific enterprise, as developed by Aristotle and his scholastic successors.

Many centuries later Paracelsus (1493 –1541) turned to observation rather than scholastic speculation. Much of his achievement came from the systematisation not so much of facts, but of beliefs, which he discovered in unexpected places like the traditions of the crafts and the guilds. With a large database of imaginative theorising as found in popular magic and superstition, he arrives at a kind of scientific religion. His evidence was rather beliefs than facts, his system one to coordinate them, thus a science which allows for the soul of man freedom in all its movements.

From the realisation that a logic can be found for any belief comes the need to repel ideas that are self-defeating or threatening. Proposed ways of dealing with this range from arbitrary convention to a logical connection to what has to be agreed. Truth becomes the universalisable possibility of agreement.

Bacon and Locke brought a measure of discipline. For centuries free speculation continued to flourish. There was still a lively quality to the popular understanding even of physics in the later nineteenth century, eventually closed off by the authority of Einstein. Now Stephen Hawking (1942-) claims that philosophy is dead. In the human sciences, Platonic forms gave way to statistical average. Degeneration, for example, was taken as a deviation not from an ideal Form but from a standard that could only be statistical.

In the twentieth century the Vienna Circle came up with the verification principle, of which Popper’s falsifiability criterion was a variant. Such formulae are not to do not with criticism of scientific procedures, nor even with their justification, but with formal logical description of the meaning of scientific statements, giving logical grounds for their acceptability. Even on Popper’s test, falsification comes about only through the existence of a will to falsify, not an abstract will to truth.

Truth gets relativised in Kuhn’s (1922 –1996) philosophy of periodic paradigm shifts. If tenable historically, philosophically this threatens to curtail argument. There is absurdity in rejecting a concept of objective truth, even the humility of not venturing a truth claim. Philosophy is not science. It is not that it is less complex, rather that it is more fundamental. Persuasion needs to relate to the indisputable, not to some questionable theory that may or may not be accepted, its antithesis being no less plausible. There is no room for free choice between possible truths. If there were, then that there is free choice would be the ultimate truth. Philosophical theories are not hypotheses to be picked according to taste.

Scientific rationalism’s attempt to abolish metaphysics may itself have effects very like a metaphysic, licensing, for example convenient but counterintuitive beliefs in psychology. Rather than asserting dogmas, the hardened positivists apply their formulae to attack swathes of what might pass for normal commonsense, turning some long settled features of human experience into open questions. Refuting these moves is not a matter of producing empirical evidence, rather of overcoming the distorting factors, as Plato did for the sophists.

Not all philosophy is argument. As Popper writes:-

Theories are essentially argumentative systems of statements, their main point is that they explain deductively. Maps are not argumentative”.

Esoteric philosophy is more like a map than scientific or philosophical theory. Mysticism is something to be enjoyed. Rulers who denied their people mystical experience would be like the anti-fornication legislators of the old USA, but the anti-mystical attitude of crude positivists is more like the anti-sexual attitude of the child who does not fully understand what he thinks he is rejecting. Some philosophical systems are like multidimensional works of art, beautiful and enjoyable ways to think and to interpret everything. One problem is the positive one of coming to experience them just as this.



1926 – 1984

Cultural difference between England and France is a theme running through the history of modern thought. The popular hostility experienced by intellectuals in England bestows a particular perspective as they face the assaults of neo-Christian morality. The French public is far more tolerant. Among French intellectuals there persists a taste for the freedom of autocrat, from Louis XIV to Sartre. They can aspire to much freedom of a despotic sort. They can glory in nihilism and paganism and meet with indulgence.

Graduate of the Ecole Normale’s hothouse system for producing philosophers, Foucault seems vulnerable to the criticisms of intellectuals made by hostile writers like Nordau (1849–1923) and Carey (b. 1934). More than his nineteenth century predecessors, he is open to a dangerous, reckless, criminal kind of thought. Though Foucault did ultimately retreat somewhat from the revolutionary Maoism of his middle years. his death from Aids may seem an objection to his conception of the beautiful life. Some see his death as an ugly end to a life of distasteful excess. In sadomasochistic homosexual orgies he found his affirmation of the Dionysian.

Though they are regularly linked together, sympathy for Foucault need not exclude antipathy for Derrida (1930–2004), whose philosophy Foucault characterised as a mere rhetorical bag of tricks. Clever observations about Rousseau or Austin might be made by any acute critic. While Derrida is a dialectician, Foucault confounds with surprising facts. To those familiar with Nietzsche and De Sade his way of thought is congenial, if not altogether original.

Foucault’s politics seem only defensible as personal idiosyncrasy. He has a leftist will; to others who feel differently he has no real answer. Postmodernist art is like the decoration accompanying a certain type of political activity. Such art, like Foucault’s thought, only stays in the required channel because of some effectively extraneous injunction. Foucault is strongly anti-fascist, but the tendency of his principles is not. Eliminating the difference between art and entertainment, we could end up with something like the Roman Games, tied to a reactionary politics very different from what the postmodernists want to promote.

Deleuze’s book on Nietzsche was a strong influence on Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. Foucault and Deleuze are Nietzscheans only to the extent that that they have a particular project which they promote as will. It is no more a realisation of Nietzschean philosophy than would be the possession of great wealth. Every project involves a will. What form that takes may diverge from Nietzsche’s own.

Foucault writes fascinatingly on sex as power, as of the ars amatoria of the ancients as a way of justifying life in the face of death. He insists on the falsity of the repression/liberation dichotomy. Will to power is commonly understood in terms of suppression of possibility. Foucault’s development of it may be in some respects more profound.

Madness and Civilisation, starts out brilliantly, with accounts of mediaeval and renaissance attitudes to madness. Foucault writes of a paradigm shift to seventeenth and eighteenth century theories of madness and its aetiology.

He has been accused of writing brilliant fictions. The era of what sounds like sympathetic magic was succeeded, he says, by a moralising view of madness. It is questionable whether the new way of relating to madness should not instead be seen as more about cause and effect. And is this moral understanding really where modern man seeks his depth and his truth as Foucault tells us? Moral judgement is a form of command given to the self. Is this view of morality as our depth Kantian? How does it contrast with previous perspectives on the subject?

With the birth of the asylum the moralising view really took effect, he says. The book ends with Goya and De Sade, and a strange poetic exaltation of madness. He cites Artaud (1896 –1948), Hölderlin, and somewhat tendentiously Nietzsche whose madness is related to his Birth of Tragedy, affirming it. Foucault well expresses something in the zeitgeist of the early 1960s, the idea, rarely articulated to the full, that madness is the final act of wisdom. This was the perverse mysticism of the time, the irrationalism of the era, a form of nihilism that felt liberating.



1926 –1997

Following the continuity of Wittgenstein’s concerns from the Tractatus through to the Philosophical Investigations, Peter Winch made a powerful case for Wittgenstein’s mature philosophy as the consummation and legitimate heir of the entire analytic movement. What flaws or weaknesses there are in Winch may be carried over from Wittgenstein.

Winch links Wittgenstein to an idealist tradition derived ultimately from Hegel, through Croce and Collingwood. Idealism is one form of reductionism that can lead to scepticism, or dogmatism. Croce’s idea that all history is the history of judgements links with Wittgenstein’s concepts of forms of life and language games. For a strict Wittgensteinian, Croce reduces one language game (historical facts) to another (judgements and opinions about historical facts). However some strains in Wittgenstein’s thinking do have an idealistic tendency.

Almost any set of attitudes and opinions can be justified as language game or form of life. Questions of truth or untruth only arise within language games. Winch’s philosophy subverts the possibility of criticising ideologies and ways of life from outside. There is no rational criterion to fall back on, nothing to give a central point of reference in judging between ideologies. His logical exploration of different games is scrupulously honest but can provoke paralysis. We explore diversity at the expense of decisiveness, lost in the distinctions we make and keep in mind.

Winch applies Collingwood’s suspicion of scientific pretensions to sociology. He is ingenious in describing the possibilities of different “forms of life”, though it is questionable how much order can be saved. On his thesis it is hard to argue why some forms of life are to be taken at face value, while others are not. Arguably this type of philosophy, like other versions of idealism, lets in too much. We need to establish a criterion of judgement, which preserves the advantages of the permissive attitude to the great variety of forms of life.

Such a formula would be like a Hobbesian sovereign, ending anarchy and civil war, and enabling all the various classes, interests and occupations in the nation to get on with their own business to the benefit of all. Given the great variety of language games some look for an overriding concept of objective truth to achieve this.

Winch says it is no business of philosophy to promote any Weltanschaung. However, philosophy does have somehow to assert the superiority of its own perspective or it self destructs. My own form of life will be affected by my perception of other possibilities. The prospect of a choice between them may be unreal. Philosophy can have the effect of keeping us in a world where conventional meanings apply, as the philosophical arguments that discredit them are exposed as verbal confusion.

While it is an important task of historical scholarship to establish what people were thinking and saying in their own terms, to conclude that this understanding amounts to understanding the reality of the situation they were in is to go further. The idea that human beings have the power to create their own reality appeals to the ambitions of an intellectual, or priestly caste.

Winch’s philosophy is tolerant and inclusive, and not exposed to paradox and self contradiction. He would decline to “play that game” when it would lead into contradiction. He is self-confident and well defended in what he is doing.

Some Marxist philosophers have engaged with Winch, defending conventional ideas of progress against his apparent relativism, claiming Marx understood what was to become Winch’s position but moved beyond it. The claim is dogmatic, like that for religious faith, a class of games to which Winch and Wittgenstein are both indulgent. The suggestion is that religion has a logic or grammar of its own that offers the best answer to certain questions. Monotheism is said to add a dimension to life. Winch ignores the sense of oppression to which that can give rise as if that were a failure in understanding. He writes of the “pointlessness of much of our existence”, as something calling for a religious solution. This view on religion is hardly impartial. There is much conflict within religious discourse. Unorthodox, heretical and individual forms of religion also have their logic.



1931 – 1994

The political record of modernism has its questionable aspect. Pound, Eliot, Lawrence, Hamsun, and Nolde were all much drawn to forms of fascism, Sartre, Picasso, and Breton to communism. Marshall McLuhan tried to enlist modernism for American democracy. Many found his glorification of mass culture abhorrent. Guy Debord called McLuhan “the spectacle’s first apologist”.

Originally the idea of the spectacle, that of the world as a theatre where all is illusion, appeared in the Rosicrucian manifestos at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Debord got it from Barthes (1915–1980), whose work dates badly. In Society of the Spectacle and the posthumous Comments on Society of the Spectacle Debord expounded a philosophy called Situationism. He succeeds in capturing much that was important in the atmosphere of the time. There is in French revolutionary culture something that may inspire a deep distaste in the Anglo-Saxon, repelled by excited crowds like the revolutionary students of 1968. The French feel differently. Houellebecq writes that 1968 must have been a very happy time.

Debord has a number of interesting aperçus, but puts them into the framework of an implausible overarching thesis. His underlying Marxism affects the map he draws of the importance of ideas. Much of his attack on the modern world is sticking up for vanished standards of taste and integrity, but he is very left wing. His interpretation of the spectacle is at worst a paranoid vision, at best an amusing conceit.

Debord wrote of the USA “Prohibition in America (one of the finest examples this century of the state’s pretension to exercise authoritarian control over everything) handed over the trade in alcohol to organised crime for more than a decade”.

This is similar view to right-winger Spengler:-

There is the same dictatorship there as in Moscow (it does not matter that is imposed by society instead of a party) affecting everything – flirtation and church going, shoes and lipstick, dances and novels ala mode, thought food and recreation – than in the western world [sic] is left to the option of individuals.

Debord and Spengler share a scepticism about democracy. Reactionary and leftist make similar appeals to what is supposed to be common wisdom. Paradoxically political follies in countries like Germany and France, may be associated with high intelligence or independent mindedness more than with their absence.

Modern French thought includes fertile ideas, often mixed up with Marxism. There is a gregariousness, an enthusiasm and need to feel part of a movement. Once the Marxism has gone there still remains the desire for some overarching doctrine, even if it is only about all “grand narratives” now being superseded. Spiritually it is like absolute monarchy and Catholicism, all power to be concentrated at the centre, even when there is no reason why it should be.

American counterculture, is less intellectual but at least as rich in original ideas. Certain freedoms are valued in the US which are balanced against authoritarian tendencies emanating from continental Europe. Arguably prohibitionist values originating in America have done great harm in the world. They have no universal or world historical significance apart from being just American values. In world historical terms America’s message to the world can seem that of a gigantic will, like that of a capricious infant that it is in our interest to humour.

Hippyism in its way was loyal to the individualism of American democracy. French students were backward in embracing drug culture. Instead they intoxicated themselves with revolutionary philosophy. In the student revolt of May ’68 Situationist ideas appeared in graffiti all over Paris. Many were collected and later published. Here is a sample:-

In the decor of the spectacle, the eye meets only things and their prices.

Meanwhile everyone wants to breathe and nobody can and many say, “We will breathe later.”
And most of them don’t die because they are already dead.

Boredom is counterrevolutionary.

We don’t want a world where the guarantee of not dying
of starvation brings the risk of dying of boredom.

We want to live.

Don’t beg for the right to live — take it.

In a society that has abolished every kind of adventure
the only adventure that remains is to abolish the society.


Colin Wilson

1931 – 2013

In 1956 Colin Wilson’s The Outsider, popularising a form of Nietzschean existentialism, became an immediate best-seller. His conception of a sensitive, spiritual elite, superior to normal people, even in virtue of their confusion, is flattering and can be very appealing. Outsiders carry the spiritual burden of humanity. Immersed in modern literature, Wilson systematised the visions of a number of writers and artists into concepts like “the world without values”, and purported solutions to this. Outsiders are a spiritual elite, free, living more intensely. As an outsider you can feel a hero.

The book exalts what James called the sick soul. It is in the interests of those in power to encourage obedience to the values they have themselves created. The sick soul is disenchanted with these. Healthy mindedness involves straightforward competitiveness according to orthodox values. It is content with the publicly accepted sources of happiness and satisfaction.

Critical opinion, wildly enthusiastic at first, soon turned deeply hostile. Wilson recalled that reviews of his books that followed The Outsider would generally begin with something like “this intellectually confused and pretentious young man”. He was accused of lacking intellectual discipline. The pseudoscientific way he linked up his various interests and generated ideas betrayed scholarly ignorance. Because Wilson is held in such contempt he is an instructive example of what is to be avoided. It is said that his success was the merest stroke of luck, like winning the lottery, that there are hundreds of people who write like him, who get nowhere and who deserve to get nowhere.

If The Outsider was irritating to older people who were familiar with the people he wrote about, to adolescents finding out about them for the first time it often came as revelation.

In the introduction to a later edition of The Outsider he wrote of some sort of sexual experience being the solution to the outsider’s problems. He looked for a form of sexual enjoyment superior to the conjugal, expressive of his desire for power. He himself has a fetishistic interest in women’s underwear. Evidently he had murderous fantasies and has been very frustrated. He said, fairly enough, that male frustration is underrated in our society. He was interested in murderers as outsiders, writing that studying them gives an illumination like reading Ulysses, a novel of which he is a good critic.

Fellow angry young man, John Osborne, was accepted into the establishment as Wilson was not. Young Osborne’s socialism fitted the attitudes of the time. In saying that Wilson’s message “never stood a chance” he was not entirely right. Wilson had an impact. Reviled as he always has been, he has influenced a lot people throughout the world.

One common reaction to The Outsider in the fifties and sixties, was to condemn its emphasis on the exception as “fascist”. The socialist ideal was all for the norm rather than the exception, harmonising with the sort of Christianity Nietzsche attacked. The idea of genius is not fashionable in egalitarian times. Colin Wilson is famous for openly claiming himself as one.

The Angry Young Men insofar as they were a movement at all had two wings, leftists like Osborne, and the outsiders, Bill Hopkins (1928 –2011) and Colin Wilson. Although Wilson at one point described himself as a socialist, the leftist critics of the time would label anyone who was interested in Nietzsche, a fascist. Hopkins really was one. His novel The Divine and The Decay was often cited by Wilson. Readers might not have thought the protagonist, Plowart is meant to be a hero. He is a rapist and a murderer, as well as a fascist leader. To admire someone like that is like admiring one of the characters in Hopkins’ friend Wilson’s Encyclopaedia of Murder.

Outside British universities Wilson’s originality can be more recognised and respected. His book has educational value for young readers. He has some popularity in the Arab world. Col Gadaffy admired The Outsider. There were academics who lectured on him in Australia and the Soviet Union. Outside the western tradition there may be more you can get away with. The work of Japanese philosopher Nishitani (1900-1990) shows some resemblance to Wilson’s version of existentialism.




The later philosophy of Wittgenstein, as presented in the Philosophical Investigations, is not excessively hard to understand, at least in its main outlines, but it is notoriously difficult to expound or summarise without apparent distortion. For anyone interested in the traditional problems of philosophy Wittgenstein puts forward compelling arguments that are not to be lightly dismissed. For Wittgensteinians, he has largely dissolved the problems of philosophy.

Saul Kripke’s 1982 book Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language would be, from the viewpoint of an orthodox Wittgensteinian, an attempt to reduce the scale of Wittgenstein’s achievement. Read in this way, the book shows how it is apparently possible to reject Wittgenstein’s conclusions, from a well articulated position of sympathetic understanding. If this does not seem much, it should be recalled that other opponents of Wittgenstein, Russell for instance, have claimed not to see the point of what he was doing.

Kripke’s main target is the private language argument, which he treats as more fundamental than has generally been allowed.

For the Wittgensteinian, the aphorisms of the Philosophical Investigations are teaching aids, clarifying and elucidating Wittgenstein’s central insight, which it is pedantic and unhelpful to obstruct with nit picking objections. Kripke does not read them in this manner. He treats the Investigations as a continuous argument open to criticism at every step, rejecting the idea that much has to be accepted before it can be understood.

He says that Wittgenstein is led to reject the commonsense concept of meaning, apparently with the bizarre consequence that- “There can be no such thing as meaning anything by any word” . In speaking thus, Kripke naturally leaves open the possibility for the reintroduction of what he considers to be the commonsense concept.

Kripke writes of Wittgenstein’s “sceptical paradox”, for which he gives him credit as perhaps the most ingenious in the history of philosophy. He compares Wittgenstein’s ideas to those of Hume or Berkeley, in the sense that Hume rejects causation, Berkeley matter, and Wittgenstein private language.

Wittgenstein himself viewed his own philosophy as an attack on scepticism, which he saw as involving the attempt to interpret one language game by the rules of another on the assumption that only the latter game was paradigmatic.  Liberated from such constraining demands, we recognise that language games can take an unlimited variety of forms. Presenting Wittgenstein as a sceptic, is to undermine his objective.

Kripke speaks of Wittgenstein’s view of meaning as reducing to a “stab in the dark”. That is not how Wittgenstein would describe what he believes. He maintains the irrelevance of the feelings and pictures that keep cropping up in the mind, and which seem essential to what Kripke calls the commonsense concept. The question whether there can be a private language would be a side issue. The denial of private language is simply intended to elucidate.

Wittgenstein speaks of language games, which are something we can choose to play or not. If we do play we have complete freedom within the rules. What is missed, by those who dislike this way of thinking, is the element of compulsion, the idea of a concept of meaning that compels a rule being interpreted in one desired way. One of the most essential features of rules is the leeway they give.

In agreeing to abide by some rule or law, I have been given so much leeway. People may change the rules as much as they like, trying to compel assent to some inward concept of meaning that magically binds, but in so doing they still give rules to observe. It seems senseless to try to penetrate behind to some idea of private meaning. One might try to express this point by saying that what I mean cannot compel. In contradicting this, and saying that meaning does compel, one produces a concept of meaning that again need have no hold over anyone else, something possibly but not necessarily thinkable. Language can work very well without it. It may be possibly necessary, but not necessarily necessary. To avoid this one may create a new concept that is necessarily necessary, but this will still only be possibly necessarily necessary, not necessarily necessarily necessary, and so ad infinitum.


1941 –

It has been argued that Charles Darwin is the one great modern prophet left now the scientific claims of Marx and Freud have been discredited. For his most vociferous modern advocates, like Dawkins and Dennett he is much more than a beginning. Dawkins effectively suggests Darwin solved the riddle of the universe and puts him right at the centre of his own programme for atheistic enlightenment.

Dawkins defence of the natural selection thesis of Origin of Species is convincing enough. However, readers of Darwin’s later book the Descent of Man may feel that Dawkins and Dennett overrate their hero’s intellect. At least there appears to be some intellectual decline since the first edition of the Origin. If, as Darwin says, there are other principles driving evolution, how they could have come about would need explanation and it would seem that could only be natural selection unless we admit some sort of design. The primary purpose of the Descent to show the descent of man from the apes, against common religious objections, and it this it was obviously successful. From such an anti-religious work one might have hoped for a measure of Gibbonian irony. In the chapter Moral Sense his excursion into ethics, what Darwin calls the highest feature of mankind, his moral nature, he reduces to what his opponents would regard as base animal origins. However Kant has done his destructive work. Darwin explicitly repudiates eighteenth century egoistic derivations of morality, and bases all ethics on the Golden Rule.

One can fully accept natural selection while holding that Dawkins extrapolation into selfish genes and memes comes close to a reduction ad absurdum. Dawkins displaces selfishness onto the level of the gene, or to the cultural artefact, the meme. As qualifications these slogans and metaphors dilute the elegance, and hence explanatory power, of natural selection as Darwin conceived it.

Whether you find the concept of memes useful or illuminating depends on how much you hope from an explanation. As Shaw remarked, one could explain the existence of all the books on the shelves of the British Museum on a principle of natural selection. Ideas do not have desire or will. The factors that cause them to flourish are more significant than a metaphorical will to survive.

The theory of “the selfish gene” puts teleology in nature. To say that nature works for the survival of the gene, rather than the individual or the species is contentious, even as metaphor. To Nietzsche it is the individual that bears the burden of the (metaphorical) struggle for power. For him sexuality and reproduction were the highest interest of the individual. This can be taken as a criticism of the way of thought which finds modern expression in Dawkins’ principle.

Dawkins is an evangelist for an ersatz religion in which scientific wonder is to replace religious awe. In Bolingbroke’s (1678–1751) day irreligion was Tory and hedonistic. With Dawkins, atheism is taken as a defence of the leftish prejudices of the dominant group. The new atheism means breezy dismissal of spiritual problems. It is taken as an alternative to postmodernism.

It is hard to be satisfied with Dawkins’ extension of Darwin’s explanation of the origin of species into a philosophical justification for established morality. Dawkins would explain his own values as having evolved by a process of natural selection. This is true but trivial. They also express the complacency of his class. As the Rowan Williams remarked, whatever his scientific abilities, Dawkins is a poor philosopher.

As the university of the ruling class, Oxford stands less for original genius than for the dominance of the current order. According to Thomas Hardy, nineteenth century Oxford was “the most Christian city in the kingdom”. In modern Oxford, Dawkins, happy to call himself a secular Christian, accepts Christian morality quite uncritically, scarcely bothering to defend it.

The eighteenth century had made great strides in the scientific, i.e. egoistic understanding of morality. Kant spiked that in some respects, and Darwin took up the Kantian view. So while Darwin’s natural selection, on which he backtracked considerably, did a lot to free mankind from superstition, in other respects his influence was retrograde, and that continues today.