1. “The unexamined life is not worth living” – Socrates (470-399 BCE)
’ belief that we must reflect upon the life we live was partly inspired by the famous
phrase inscribed at the shrine of the oracle at Delphi, “Know thyself.” The key to finding value in the prophecies of the oracle was
self-knowledge, not a decoder ring.
Socrates felt so passionately about the value of self-examination that he closely examined not only his own beliefs and values but those of others as
well. More precisely, through his relentless questioning, he forced people to examine their own beliefs. He saw the citizens of his beloved Athens
sleepwalking through life, living only for money, power, and fame, so he became famous trying to help them.
2. “Entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily” – William of Ockham (1285 – 1349?)
Commonly known as Ockham’s razor, the idea here is that in judging among competing philosophical or scientific theories, all other things being
equal, we should prefer the simplest theory. Scientists currently speak of four forces in the universe: gravity, the electromagnetic force, the strong
nuclear force, and the weak nuclear force. Ockham
would certainly nod approvingly at the
ongoing attempt to formulate a grand unified theory, a single force that encompasses all four.
The ultimate irony of Ockham’s razor may be that some have used it to prove God is unnecessary to the explanation of the universe, an idea Ockham
the Franciscan priest would reject.
3. “The life of man [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” – Thomas Hobbes (1588 – 1679)
Referring to the original state of nature, a hypothetical past before civilization, Hobbes
no reason to be nostalgic.
Whereas Rousseau said, “Man is born free, and he is everywhere in chains,” Hobbes believed we find ourselves living a savage, impossible life
without education and the protection of the state. Human nature is bad: we’ll prey on one another in the most vicious ways. No doubt the state
imposes on our liberty in an overwhelming way. Yet Hobbes’ claim was that these very chains were absolutely crucial in protecting us from one
4. “I think therefore I am” – René Descartes (1596 – 1650)
began his philosophy by doubting everything in order to figure out what he could
know with absolute certainty. Although he could be wrong about what he was thinking, that he was thinking was undeniable. Upon the recognition that
“I think,” Descartes concluded that “I am.”
On the heels of believing in himself, Descartes asked, What am I? His answer: a thinking thing (res cogitans) as opposed to a physical thing extended
in three-dimensional space (res extensa). So, based on this line, Descartes knew he existed, though he wasn’t sure if he had a body. It’s a
philosophical cliff-hanger; you’ll have to read Meditations to find out how it ends.
5. “To be is to be perceived (Esse est percipi).” Or, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?”
– Bishop George Berkeley (1685 – 1753)
As an idealist, Berkeley
believed that nothing is real but minds and their ideas. Ideas do not
exist independently of minds. Through a complicated and flawed line of reasoning he concluded that “to be is to be perceived.” Something exists
only if someone has the idea of it.
Though he never put the question in the exact words of the famous quotation, Berkeley would say that if a tree fell in the forest and there was no one
(not even a squirrel) there to hear it, not only would it not make a sound, but there would be no tree.
The good news is, according to Berkeley, that the mind of God always perceives everything. So the tree will always make a sound, and there’s no need
to worry about blipping out of existence if you fall asleep in a room by yourself.
6. “We live in the best of all possible worlds.” – Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646 – 1716)
Voltaire’s famous novel Candide satirizes this optimistic view. And looking around you right now you may wonder how anyone could actually believe
it. But Leibniz
believed that before creation God contemplated every possible way the
universe could be and chose to create the one in which we live because it’s the best.
The principle of sufficient reason holds that for everything, there must be sufficient reason why it exists. And according to Leibniz the only
sufficient reason for the world we live in is that God created it as the best possible universe. God could have created a universe in which no one
ever did wrong, in which there was no human evil, but that would require humans to be deprived of the gift of free wills and thus would not be the
best possible world.
7. “The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk.” G.W.F. Hegel (1770 – 1831)
Similar to “vision is 20/20 in hindsight,” Hegel
’s poetic insight says
that philosophers are impotent. Only after the end of an age can philosophers realize what it was about. And by then it’s too late to change things.
It wasn’t until the time of Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804) that the true nature of the Enlightenment was understood, and Kant did nothing to change
the Enlightenment; he just consciously perpetuated it.
Marx (1818 – 1883) found Hegel’s apt description to be indicative of the problem with philosophy and responded, “the philosophers have only
interpreted the world differently, what matters is to change it.”