Everything Old… New Again
At one time Greece had been known for its culture, its arts, its science of which philosophy was a major school. It was also known for democracy. However, democracy became little thought of with the fall of the city states of ancient Greece. It was not until a group of upstart colonists dared to take on a major European nation that a democratic society would once again make news.
The theory of knowledge had been a mostly German field until the middle of the nineteenth century. Few English-speaking people spoke German and so advancements made in philosophy and metaphysics stalled after the fall of the Roman Empire in England. Their contributions were in moral and political philosophy and since during this time England rules over twenty-five percent of the world, the application of these towards public policies had a powerful impact.
The Philosophical Radicals were led by Englishman Jeremy Bentham and they spearheaded reform movements in prisons, education, and laws governing sexual activity as well as corruption in government. These movements continue to be the hallmark of liberal movements today. Bentham advocated the policies of Scots-Irish philosopher Frances Hutcheson: “That action is best which procures the greatest happiness for the greatest numbers.” Known as Utilitarianism, this philosophical movement weighed the usefulness of an action and judged it accordingly. “Everybody is to count for one, and nobody for more than one.”
Another prominent Philosophical Radical was John Stuart Mill. Homeschooled by his father, Mill would become the most well-known of all English-speaking philosophers in the nineteenth century. It was mill who coined the term Utilitarianism and he also advocated for women’s equality. Writing a two-work volume in 1843 entitled “A System of Logic”, Mill combined philosophy as a whole and updated the empiricist philosophy without its skepticism or theology. In another work “On Liberty”, Mill wrote: “the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. You liberty to swing your arm ends where my nose begins.” Mill was the first since Plato to advocate for female equality. “Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.” I should add that in writing, the masculine pronoun was used as a formal designation, not as a specific for of gender identification. In stating “his”, Mill referred to both men and women.
Although establishing itself as a nation at the end of the eighteenth century and reaffirming that at the beginning of the nineteenth century, it was at the end of the nineteenth century that American philosophy came to be recognized. The “American Pragmatists” were three professors that came out of Harvard University – Charles Sanders Pierce, William James, and John Dewey. Considered the most original, Pierce believed that knowledge was activity. “The real, then, is that which, sooner or later. Information and reasoning would finally result in.” Pierce believed we gained knowledge when we participated in life. Knowledge, he felt, was not the result of being a spectator.
William James offered a similar opinion. “Everything real must be experienceable somewhere, and every kind of thing experienced must be real somewhere.” During the twentieth century the American philosophers led the charge in believing that none of the knowledge we possess is absolute, even science. All known knowledge is infallible, often improvable, and usually replaceable. What is “known” by one generation is questioned by later generations and often disproved or expanded upon to the point where it changes the original knowledge.
IT was the shy, not very studious John Dewey that would become the most influential of the pragmatic American philosophers. Dewey saw efforts to gain knowledge were most successful in the field of science and maintained this was because we learned by doing. Science had, after all, a structure process. The scientist began with a defined, critical form of inquiry, followed an accepted form of study and experimentation, and the drew logical conclusions which resulted in gained knowledge. “The more interactions we ascertain, the more we know the object in question.”
Few of us go through our daily lives thinking about which school of philosophy we are living. Most of us engage in mundane tasks without much though at all. Are we selling ourselves short when we do this? Watch a child taste guacamole for the first time and you will probably have a smile on your face. The soft texture will not give an indication of the taste for the first timer. Indeed. Most children are accustomed to sweet tastes in a similar texture so the taste of the guacamole would not only be tart bu totally unexpected. The puzzlement and then almost certain frown would be obvious.
Less obvious are our own feelings at times. Those are the instances in which we are tempted to follow the crowd and let public opinion be our conscious. Those are the times that cult leaders are able to sway followers. Not everyone who buys the latest iPhone will become a member of a radical cult but the hallmarks are very similar. When we seek acceptance instead of personal knowledge we open ourselves up to losing ourselves.
John Dewey wrote: “What is sometimes called an act of self-expression might be better termed on of self-exposure; it discloses character – or lack thereof – to others. In itself, it is only a spewing forth.” Dewey was a leader in modern education which, up to that point, had been the imposition of strict knowledge against mostly unenthusiastic students.
How we live shows our character whether we realize it or not. It is the simplest and most complex form of self-expression that we have. We must be certain that it becomes an accurate representation of who we are and what we believe. One cannot claim to believe in religious and/or spiritual charity and be a miser and deny others basic human rights and dignities. How we will spend the next twenty-four hours will illustrate our own personal philosophy of life, our personal philosophy of self. Who will we pass today in our living? What knowledge will we gain?