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A Brief History of Western Philosophy - From Socrates to Hegel


A Brief History of Western Philosophy - From Socrates to Hegel

Student Lecture Notes

Key concept is the global media society...

The Global Aspect

In the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Bloc, we saw the expansion of market relations throughout the world

Since 1990, we have seen the penetration of market relations throughout Soviet Bloc and, crucially, China.

The power of the Communist party has not stopped the rapid - now exploding - of market relations into China.

Communication Technologies

During same period, since 1989, we have also seen the simultaneous proliferation and intensification of new media technologies and symbolic forms ... channels of communication

From media standpoint ... more / faster / smaller / advanced technologies more accessible to larger numbers of people at lower costs.

Media: A Theoretical Definition

What do we mean by media from a theoretical point of view: For our purposes here, we are defining media as an institution of consciousness that simultaneously does three things:

1) Reflects

2) Refracts

3) Creates

the consciousness of the society of which it is a part.

What Is Consciousness ???

Very simply, we mean by consciousness what people think and feel - no more, no less.

In this regard, what does it mean to talk about media as an institution of consciousness ???

Media is all about ideas, words and images.

It is about the communication of words and images. It does not do anything other than that.

It therefore exists as an index of the consciousness of the society of which it is a part.

Whatever form the media takes - internet, tv, magazines, whatever - it is all about consciousness.

Reflection / Refraction / Creation

What about reflection / refraction / creation of consciousness ???

At any moment, we can see in any form of media - understood as an institution of consciousness - examples of simultaneous reflection / refraction / creation of consciousness ...

We can find things in media that are a reflection of the world.

Also can see things in the media that refract the world by presenting certain aspects of what we are experiencing, but not exactly what's going on. Through a glass darkly. Not the whole reality or significant elements that are distorted.

Media also creates b/c people can learn about things going on in society.

At one time / all the time, the media is simultaneously reflecting / refracting / and creating the consciousness of the society of which it is a part.

Media As Consciousness Squared

When looking at media as an institution of consciousness that is simultaneously reflecting / refracting / and creating the consciousness of the society of which it is a part,

we can see that media is a phenomenon of incredible complexity, moving at the speed of light / going in all different directions / at the same time.

From a philosophical point of view, this means that media can be most fruitfully understood as consciousness squared.

That is, it is an institution of consciousness that is simultaneously creating / reflecting / and refracting the consciousness of the society of which it is a part.

Seen in this way, we begin to get a sense of why media is so complicated and hard to understand.

Understanding Media: Consciousness Cubed

Everyone's consciousness is formed simultaneously by society and by media, which we have seen can best be defined as consciousness squared.

So when we, as individuals or a group, try to look at media, we are doing so with our own consciousness that has been formed by both society and media.

Therefore, from a philosophical or theoretical point of view, when we try to analyze media - which we see as consciousness squared - that process has to be understood as consciousness CUBED -

that is, we - with our own consciousness formed by both society and media - are attempting to look at an institution of consciousness - media - that simultaneously reflects / refracts / creates the consciousness of the society of which it is a part.

No wonder it's so difficult to understand media - especially the global media society of which we are all a part ;-) !!!

Theory: The Key To Understanding Media

When we try to look at media, how do we get a handle on it?

If indeed we are correct in saying that, from a philosophical point of view, attempting to understand media is consciousness cubed, how do we get a handle on media?

The key to getting a handle on media is theory.

But what, exactly, do we mean by "theory" ???

Global Systems of Thought

Theory is one of three global attempts at explanation.

  • Theory

  • Ideology

  • Religion

Each one of these attempts to give a large scale explanation for the whole world, which is why we consider them "global systems of thought."

Each one has similarities and differences.

  • Theory is an attempt to explain the world in fundamentally secular terms WITHOUT implications for action. Attempt at simple explanation. Limited to the observable, empirical world.

  • Like theory, ideology is an attempt to explain the world in similar, secular terminology. Un-like theory, ideology draws from that secular explanation of the world definite implications for action.

  • Religion is both similar and different. Religion is a guide to action that is rooted in explanation of the world that is fundamentally dependent, not on a secular explanation, but on faith. In this sense, religion begins where ideology leaves off.

In our view, the key to dealing with life in the global media society lies in theory and explanation, not ideology or religion.

In this sense, the whole Medianalysis project is about understanding - it is NOT about agreement.

The Symbolic Tsunami

Living in the global media society, we are confronted with this ever cascading surf of word, thought and image - 24 hours a day / 7 days a week / 365 days a year.

People feel increasingly overwhelmed and addicted, finding it almost impossible to disengage, even if they wanted to, which, usually, they don't.

Given this situation, our only way out, our only chance of being able to - somehow - surf successfully the symbolic tsunami of the global media society - is theory.


Media & The Central Problem of World Philosophy

Because when we understand media as consciousness squared - and the effort to understand media as consciousness cubed -

we come up directly against the key issue in both Eastern and Western philosophy:

what is the relationship between consciousness and material conditions ???

Thus, when we think about media, we are confronting in a very concrete and immediate way the most enduring and difficult problem in world philosophy.

As a result, we urgently need theory to help us navigate the turbulent and confusing waters of the symbolic tsunami thrown up 24 / 7 / 365 by the global media society.

But not the old kind of theory - instead we need a new kind of theory.

The Old Theory - Theory As Answer

We call the old theory "theory as answer", by which we mean the following:

An attempt to take a preconceived conceptual framework and impose that framework on any particular concrete situation,

whether that situation is political economic / symbolic communicative / or bio-ecological in nature.

Theory as answer constitutes 99.9% of what happens in conventional academia.

This is problematic under any circumstances.

But it is especially inappropriate and inadequate for life in the global media society.

Put simply, the almost infinite variety of representations you see in media of any form - whether tv or the internet or movies, whatever - is simply too large for any "single" explanatory framework to account for.

Theory as answer may be able to explain SOME situations - but it will clearly not be able to explain others.

And those "other" situations are often just as - if not more - important as the situations any "answer" may be able to explain.

It's not that theory as answer is "wrong," although often it is ;-) - but it IS radically in-complete.

That's why life in the global media society demands a NEW kind of theory, one able to help us deal with the infinite variety of concrete situations communicated to us through media of all sorts.

The New Theory - Theory As Question

In this context, the purpose of theory as question is to sensitize the observer to the internal structural dynamics of any specific concrete situation -

whether that situation is political economic / symbolic communicative / or bio-ecological in nature.

It is about finding similarities and differences among concrete situations at the same time.

It helps people to recognize the fact that there are always going to be similarities and differences between any concrete situations.

And it helps them see what's similar in specific situations, without blinding them to the differences.

This is crucial in general, and it is especially so given the symbolic tsunami of the global media society that threatens to overwhelm us if we don't have some way to surf the ceaseless wave of image and idea that confronts us every day.

In this context, the first theorist we will examine in detail is Karl Marx.

Why ???

Because Marx is the single most powerful example of the old kind of theory - theory as answer.

Therefore, it's important to understand both the power and weakness of Marx as the ultimate example of the old kind of theory - theory as answer.

And in order to understand Marx, we have to understand his great teacher, Hegel.

And in order to understand Hegel, we have to understand the entire tradition of Western philosophy - starting with Socrates - of which Hegel was, as he himself understood, the final culmination.

So it is now to a brief history of Western philosophy that we now turn.

Socrates - The Founder of Western Philosophy

The founding figure of western philosophy as we know it is Socrates.

The Socrates that we usually know comes to us from Plato ... mainly the dialogues in which Socrates plays the hero.

The strength of Plato and his interpretation of Socrates is that Plato chooses to present his philosophical ideas in a dramatic form.

This is highly ironic, because in his greatest work - The Republic - Plato strongly attacks art as undermining philosophy.

Yet the power of Plato's philosophy lies precisely in the profoundly artistic way in which he presented his ideas.

In this context, there are two different possible interpretations of what Socrates said.

And it's precisely the rich and multi-faceted nature of his thinking - which gave rise to two not just different, but profoundly opposing, traditions - that makes it legitimate to think of Socrates as the founding figure of Western philosophy.

Indeed, the greatness of Socrates is that he was - somehow - able to inspire two deeply conflicting ways of viewing the world.

The first tradition, represented by Plato, is philosophical idealism.

The second, articulated by Plato's student Aristotle, is philosophical materialism.

Plato and the Idealist Tradition

In the tradition of philosophical idealism, mind creates body / spirit creates matter / the meta-physical creates the physical / the in-visible creates the visible.

In this tradition, Plato's specific take is that there is a world beyond that which we see.

This world of mind and spirit is populated by "the forms".

What Plato argues is that in this world, the forms represent the eternal and unchanging ideas that give rise to the world we experience directly though our senses.

For example, I have in my hand a watch.

Plato would argue that in the world of spirit, there exists a perfect watch, and any concrete manifestation will inevitably be an inferior and imperfect representation of that which exists in the world of spirit.

There are thus two key aspects of Plato's philosophical view:

  1. There exists an invisible world of the forms that we cannot see, and

  2. That anything we can see or otherwise experience through our senses must necessarily be inferior to what exists in the meta-physical world.

In this sense, philosophical idealism underlies almost any religious viewpoint.

It creates a strong philosophical underpinning for a whole range of religious ideals.

Jesus and the Idealist Tradition

Indeed, it can be said that Jesus - or, at least, Jesus as interpreted by Paul - represents the most powerful incarnation of the idealist tradition.

In this sense, Christianity can be said to represent the merging of Platonic idealism with two powerful elements of Judaism:

monotheism - the belief in one god; and social ethics - the idea that all members of the community have a responsibility for the well-being of all other members of that community.

Now here we do have to differentiate slightly what Jesus may or may not have said from the interpretation of his message put across by Paul, who, like Jesus, was a Jew, but who, unlike Jesus, had been educated in the Greek idealist tradition.

While we won't explore this fully until the first cultural history course, let me note here that we can see a very direct relationship between the theology of Paul and the views of Martin Luther.

And it is this connection that made it possible for the Protestant Reformation that Luther led in the 1500s to take such strong root and survive in the ideological and theoretical soil of Christianity.

Idealism as the Dominant Tradition in Western Thinking

In no small measure due to Christianity's emergence as the religion of the West, philosophical idealism came to represent the dominant tradition of western philosophy.

Indeed, from before the collapse of the Roman Empire until the beginning of the 19th century, philosophical idealism represented the basic framework of Western thinking,

including, in another deep irony, the very Enlightenment that ended up overthrowing the societal power of all organized religion, at least in Europe.

Kantian Idealism

In this context, the most important philosopher is the German Immanuel Kant, who represents the most powerful example of pre-Hegelian idealism.

Kant was extremely interested in both epistemology - theory of knowledge - and ethics.

In the realm of ethics, Kant's key concept was the categorical imperative.

This is the idea that there is a philosophical principle implicit in every action, and that if you take an action, you must be willing and committed to have that principle applied to you.

If you hit someone, for example, Kant argues you must be willing for others to hit you.

As Jesus allegedly put it, do unto others as you would have them do unto you ...

And this notion of categories is also crucial for Kant's epistemology, or theory of knowledge, how we know things - or, as he might say, how we think we know things.

Kant argues that we apprehend or understand everything in the world through categories of perception.

In his view, we actually have no direct experience - we only experience the world through pre-existing categories of perception.

These categories of perception are the only things that we can say for sure that we know "exists".

Kant argues that we are only able to see certain things. Therefore, we only know what our pre-existing categories of perception and knowledge allow us to see.

Similarly, our pre-existing categories of thought and cognition determine how and what we are able to think.

For Kant, then, the crucial factor in all aspects of life - whether ethics / perception / or knowledge - was the nature of the pre-existing categories through which we experience the world.

In this sense, Kant was as profoundly "idealistic" as Plato, arguing that it was the in-visible / meta-physical categories that determined what we were able to do / perceive / think in the visible / physical world of the senses.

Aristotle and The Materialist Tradition

The other tradition of western philosophy was represented by Aristotle, the greatest student of Plato, who, nevertheless, profoundly disagreed with his teacher.

While Aristotle himself has always been a celebrated figure in history, his approach has not been as powerful as Plato's,

partially, although not solely, due to his much less dynamic - more strictly academic, we might say today - mode of presenting his philosophical views, which was much less engaging than Plato's dramatic dialogues.

Substantively, Aristotle was the founder of philosophical materialism.

In this view, the assumptions are just the opposite of idealism:

Here, body gives rise to mind / matter gives rise to spirit / the visible gives rise to the invisible / the physical gives rise to the meta-physical.

The Three Great Ms of Materialism

Despite its subordinate position to idealism, the materialist tradition has nevertheless, given rise to several key figures in Western thinking, notably the Three Ms: Machiavelli / Montesquieu / and Marx.

The Florentine Machiavelli was a political materialist. For him, and his masterwork, The Prince, the root of all existence is political power.

Literally, for Machiavelli, might makes right / the winners write history / political power determines what people think is good and bad.

The Frenchman Montesquieu might be considered an ecological materialist.

In several books, but most notably, The Persian Letters, Montesquieu was one of the first people to try and consider in a systematic way the meaning of the fact that human beings grow up in many different societies.

He argued that every society was in some way reflective of its natural environment. Hot climates produce hot tempered people, cold climates produce cooler temperaments.

From a philosophical point of view, we would say that, for Montesquieu, a certain sort of matter creates a certain sort of spirit - materialism.

Marx, finally, was an economic materialist. For Marx, material conditions give rise to economic systems, and it is these that create consciousness, what people think and feel.

Thus, even though materialism was never the dominant strain in western thinking, it has, since the days of Aristotle, always existed as a subordinate, but nevertheless vital, alternative to idealism.

Hegel and the "End" of Idealism

It is in this general context that we now consider Hegel, in certain ways the greatest philosopher of the entire Western - and certainly the idealist - tradition ...

To understand Hegel, we can consider three of his greatest quotes.

"I Am the End of Philosophy"

The first is "Ich bin das ende von philosophie" - "I am the end of philosophy."

Indeed, Hegel really does represent the culmination of the entire idealist tradition of western philosophy. It is very different after him.

He is a profound idealist. There is no question that mind creates body.

However, he represents a fundamental revolution within the idealist perspective.

While Hegel accepts the idealism of Plato - the dominance of spirit over matter / mind over body / invisible over the visible / the meta-physical over the physical -

he nevertheless rejects Plato in one significant way: the static and unchanging nature of Platonic, and all subsequent idealistic, philosophy.

Instead, he makes philosophical idealism dynamic. He introduces history and change into the idealist tradition of philosophy.

"The owl of Minerva spreads its wings at dusk"

To understand the nature of this revolution, let's consider the second of Hegel's great "self-revealing" quotes: "The owl of Minerva spreads its wings at dusk."

Now, as I hope you know, Minerva is the Roman goddess of wisdom, and the owl was the totemic animal of Minerva.

In this quote, Hegel is saying that human beings can only understand the meaning of an experience - an event / a historical era - after that experience / event / epoch is over.

For Hegel, and, indeed, all POST-Hegelian philosophy, meaning is the quest of all human beings. And this quest is all the more difficult, because it is ephemeral and very hard to discern.

"Philosophy writes in shades of gray on gray"

This is the context for Hegel's third great "self-revealing" quote: "Philosophy writes in shades of gray on gray."

The idea here is that it is really hard to grasp the meaning of historical events until after they have run their course.

This is particularly so because, for Hegel, individuality and meaning lie at the level of the social and the collective, rather than on the level of the psychological and the personal.

What happens to individual people is highly arbitrary. The only place where meaning can be discerned is the level of the social, the group, and especially for Hegel, the nation or the state.

While he talks about world-historical individuals, occasionally he is referring to someone like Napoleon, but more usually, he is more likely to be talking about a nation like France, or a nation, at that time split into many different states, like Germany.

The Hegelian "Revolution"

So while Hegel is indeed a profound idealist, his is an idealism that is profoundly different from Plato's and almost all the idealists who came before him.

It is an idealism that is dynamic / historical / where change is the most important element of the human condition.

Now how does this hook up with not just Hegel's idealism, but his deep religiosity, because he was a deeply religious Lutheran ???

History As The Unfolding of God's Plan for Humanity

Basically, Hegel argued that all of human history had to be understood as the gradual unfolding and revelation of God's plan for humanity.

Hope you can see the deep and profound idealism of Hegel's approach AND its profound dynamism, which is quite different from Plato.

Indeed, what Hegel is doing is to take the story of human history and view it in an entirely new way.

Hegel is arguing that eventually there will be "an end of days" / "an end of history" / "a time of heaven on earth" - only we will not know it until it is already upon us.

A Dialectical Idealism

In this sense, we can see the profound difference between all previous idealists and Hegel.

For everyone from Plato to Kant, there was a radical disjuncture between the world of the forms / ideas / for Kant, categories, and the world in which we live.

Hegel, on the other hand, is introducing a very powerful and direct relationship between what is happening on earth and what is happening "above," if you will.

In this regard, he invents something new - transcendental or dialectical idealism.

The Hegelian Dialectic

It is important to understand this both in and of itself, and because what Marx does is to "turn Hegel on his head" - that is, he throws out the idealism, but keeps the dialectic.

So what is Hegel's dialectic ???

He argued that all of history has to be seen as a on-going conversation or conflict of dialogue - hence, dialectic - between differing principles or ideals.

How does this work ???

In every era, Hegel argued that there is a dominant idea or principle, which he called a thesis.

This is where it starts to get very trippy - and profound.

Hegel then argues that every thesis inevitably generates its own opposite.

This is called the anti-thesis.

What happens in history, then, is that every period / age / epoch is characterized by the conflict between the thesis and anti-thesis.

There is a titanic conflict for domination between the two.

Out of this conflict between the thesis and the anti-thesis comes something fundamentally new, that has elements of both the thesis and anti-thesis.

This new dominant idea or principle is called the synthesis.

Now, what happens ???

This synthesis -

this new idea or principle that has elements of both the previous thesis and anti-thesis, as well as other elements born during their struggle for domination -

then becomes the thesis of the new period in history.

But guess what ???

This NEW thesis inevitably generates its own new anti-thesis.

Then what happens ???

The NEW thesis and new anti-thesis then battle for domination -

out of which comes a NEW synthesis, which has elements of both the previous thesis and anti-thesis,

as well as other new elements that arise during the course of their struggle for domination.

And this new synthesis becomes the thesis of the new period in history - which will in turn generate its OWN new anti-thesis ...

These two will inevitably conflict with each other for world domination, out of which will come a new synthesis -

containing elements of both the old thesis and old anti-thesis, as well as elements churned up in their struggle -

which will, in turn, become the thesis of a NEW era, which will in turn generate its own NEW anti-thesis, the two of which will struggle for domination, etc. etc.

A Progressive - NOT Cyclical - Theory of History

Now a key point to remember here - where people often get confused - is that this is NOT a cyclical or circular theory of history.

While the dynamic of thesis / anti-thesis / conflict / synthesis may be the same in each era,

we are NOT ending up in the same place where we began, which what the term cycle means.

Instead, this is a PROGRESSIVE theory of history

The Hegelian Synthesis

Even though the mechanism is the same, the concrete content of each era is profoundly different. Where we end up is NOT where we began.

This is crucial because this is Hegel's whole argument - this is indeed the entire progression of human history.

Now, it is idealist for Hegel in that the outcomes of the battles between the theses and anti-theses are a direct result of God's will.

This whole view of history is all about the gradual unfolding and gradual revelation of that unfolding of God's will.

Now these two things are different:

the unfolding of God's will is what happens - the revelation of that unfolding is human understanding of the meaning of that historical dynamic.

This is Hegel's key contribution to modern philosophical and historical understanding -

the notion of a progressive conflict between different ideas / principles that represents the fundamental dynamic of history.

This is the first time in the West that we have a profoundly progressive theory of history.

Individuals and Nations in the Hegelian Dialectic of History

Now, in this framework, the key point is that the "meaning" of any time in history lies at the level of the social and collective / of nations and states -

and the fate of particular individuals, specific people is all dependent on what happens as a result of this great drama that is taking place at that social / collective level.

Now, let's take as an example what would happen to an individual person during the 1920's and 1930's ...

At that time, I think we can argue, the dominant idea in Europe was fascism / Nazism ... now fascism / Nazism developed their own anti-thesis, namely the western democracy represented by Britain and France ...

Indeed, we can go back a further stage in European history and argue that the dominant idea / principle / thesis of the 19th century was the naval-based British imperialism,

which created its own anti-thesis in the rise of German militarism as the dominant land power in Europe ...

which creates a synthesis, namely, World War I ...

Now WWI has elements of British imperialism AND German militarism and the new thesis that results from the titanic struggle of World War I are German Nazism and Italian fascism ...

US not an issue until the challenge posed by Nazism / fascism / Japanese militarism after World War I ...

US then emerges as the ANTI-thesis of those challenges from the 20s and 30s ...

We can then say that as a result of this titanic struggle - producing both World War I and World War II - we had the emergence of a NEW synthesis - let's call it global American capitalism ...

This new thesis, in turn, generated its own major anti-thesis: Soviet communism ...

And their struggle was what we called the Cold War, which lasted from, say, 1947 until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989,

and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe and then the Soviet Union itself a few years later ...

What's happened in the post-Cold War world has elements of the previous stages, but is definitely something different than what was going on during the period before 1989 ...

Still, we cannot identify whatever is going on until it is over ...

Example of death of German soldier at Stalingrad in 1943 - is it part of the glorious triumphs of the Aryan people, or a pointless death due to the insanity of Adolph Hitler ???

The meaning of his death has to be understood on the level of the social and the collective - and cannot be known until that battle, and the war of which it was a part, is over ...

Only in retrospect can we understand whether someone's death had purpose, and it has nothing to do with that individual ...

It has to do with the nature of the larger struggle taking place on the level of the social / collective / nation / state, in which that individual plays only a small part

Summarizing Hegel / Introducing Marx

This is the power of the Hegelian world-view of dialectic idealism, his understanding of the dynamics of history ...

History as dialogue / conversation / conflict among different ideas / principles ...

Eventually, at the "end" of the world, only then will humanity know the meaning of what God had in mind for human beings ...

Only at the end will humans understand the "meaning" of all the history that has come before ...

What Marx is going to do is say, "Hey, love the dialectic, hate the idealism" ...

Marx will say, "Yes, history is a dialectic, but not a dialectic of God's will, or dominant ideas or principles, but about the struggle of people to survive in the material world ..."

What Marx is going to do is take Hegel's extraordinary dynamism, to make history the subject of philosophy, but then, in the famous phrase, turn Hegel on its head ...

He will keep the notion of the dialectic, but argue instead that history is a dialectic not about God's will, because there is no God for Marx, but about human beings' material needs ...

The material in these lectures are for the private use of anyone who downloads them, and are not to be re-distributed without acknowledgement of the source. Any academic or intellectual use of the concepts contained within must be properly acknowledged and footnoted

All contents of this website copyright David Caploe, Ph.D., 1986, 1995, 1997, 2000, 2001, 2003, 2008.

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