Philosopher Meet ‘n’ Greet

Nietzsche

A week ago, browsing my local library (in person! with books! made of paper!) I came across a slim volume called Nietzsche in 90 Minutes. And Nietzsche brought his friends: the author, Paul Strathern, has a whole series including Descartes, Kant, Aristotle, Locke, on and on.

I’ve always been interested in philosophy, but I’d never spent much time reading about the great philosophers. For me, this was perfect. A brief summary of each man (and yes, they are all men), his life, his major works and ideas, actually readable in under 90 minutes, is the ideal short-and-stupid introduction to a subject that’s anything but.

If you go on Amazon, you’ll find lots of people moaning about how the books are shallow, Strathern misrepresents the philosophy, etc. These folks are missing the point. When you’re brand-new to a subject, your first task isn’t deep understanding. Your first task is to learn what there is to learn – the major players, who they were, when and where they lived, a quick and (necessarily) shallow idea of why they’re important. After you have a framework for your knowledge, you can begin to learn in earnest.

Anyhow – I’ve finished seven of these little books so far, with more to come soon. I’m devouring them like candy. Below are my initial thoughts. Anyone with more knowledge than me, you’re more than welcome to add to my comments.

  • Friedrich Nietzsche – German. In contrast to many other philosophers, Nietzsche didn’t have an overarching system of belief. He writes more in the form of parables and aphorisms, going from one point to another and leaving his reader to fill in the gaps. (This makes him blessedly readable, which may help account for his popularity today.) His main idea was the Will to Power, which focused less on morality than on individual self-determination.
  • Immanuel Kant – German. One of the most important and influential of the modern philosophers. In his Critique of Pure Reason, he tried to construct an intelligible system for the nature of existence, out of the ashes of Hume’s extreme empiricism. In the realm of ethics, his Categorical Imperative demanded that each person do what they would want others to do, which is sort of like Jesus’ Golden Rule, minus compassion and common sense.
  • David Hume – Scottish. Hume was the ultimate empiricist, meaning that for him, experience was the foundation of existence. We cannot know anything outside what our senses tell us, and the ideas we can build from those senses by reason. It is impossible to know, for instance, that anything truly causes anything else; we can only guess it by seeing one thing happen after the other, over and over. On the ethical side, Hume focused in the is-ought problem, showing that any information about how the world is cannot imply any direction on how we ought to behave ethically. Hume is my favorite so far, the one whose ideas seem most reasonable to me.
  • Martin Heidegger – German. Interested in the nature of Being, the question of what it means to exist. Unfortunately, his answer was to write massive books that are so complicated and dense as to be virtually unreadable. It’s hard for me to take someone like that seriously. Doesn’t help that he was a friggin’ Nazi.
  • Bertrand Russell – English, and another one of my favorites. One of the few great philosophers who was also a world-class mathematician. Russell spent ten years of intense effort constructing his Principia Mathematica, an attempt to reduce all of mathematics to raw logic, based on a handful of axioms. Although Kurt Gödel eventually demolished this skyscraper of logic (showing that no complex logical framework can be used to prove its own consistency), Russell’s vision of mathematics as resting on axiomatic set theory is fairly close to the foundations of math as they stand today. Also, Russell lived until 1970, meaning you can see videos of him speaking on YouTube. Cool!
  • John Locke – English. One of the first empiricists, whose line of thinking would eventually culminate in Hume. Locke is also important for his influence on political theory. His ideas about individual liberty, and government existing for the good of the governed, became part of the bedrock of the U.S. Constitution.
  • Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel – German. His writings are like his name: needlessly long. I find it even harder to take him seriously than Heidegger.

That’s it for now, friends and neighbors. Any comments you have are more than welcome. I plan to check out Plato and Sartre next.

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