Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Thoughts on thought

I did a short philosophy course at university. It covered the history of philosophical thought starting with ancient Greece up to the current century. What struck me about the course was that pretty much all of it came down to the argument between two Philosophers, Plato and Aristotle. Their conflicting viewpoints were first expressed in classical Athens and the argument has raged ever since. The argument is about which is more important: reason or experience?

Plato's viewpoint was that the world of ideas and reason is "real", and that what we see is just a dim representation of those ideals.

Aristotle's opposing viewpoint was that the world you see and experience is "real", and that any expression of ideas is just an attempt to express reality in an inexact manner.

Before Plato (who predated Aristotle), the big debate in Philosophy was between Protagoras and Socrates. Protagoras suggested that right and wrong were not absolute but were subjective - that "man is the measure of all things". In other words, what's wrong for a Greek isn't necessarily wrong for a Persian. Protagoras had travelled extensively (for his day) and in particular commented on the Persian practice of eating dead relatives, which appalled the Greeks.

Sokrates in contrast felt that there were absolute standards of right and wrong, whether or not the Greeks or Persians understood them or chose to follow them. It occurred to me recently that this too is just the Plato versus Aristotle argument: Protagoras was arguing from experience, whereas Sokrates was arguing from logic.

I came across these two arguments on the philosophy course, but since then I've seen them more and more in everyday life. As an example, when I worked for the department of transport, I went to a conference on the "value of time". We discussed the question: what is the value of a small time saving? The argument split into two factions. One said that small time savings have no value, because if you ask people what it's worth to them getting home thirty seconds quicker, they say "nothing". The other said that obviously small time savings were proportionately less valuable than large time savings, so thirty seconds are 1/120th as valuable as an hour. During the debate it occurred to me that this was an example of Aristotelian versus Platonic argument.

Some more examples. Christianity is stronly Platonic. What's the point of "I am the way, and the truth, and the life" if really that just means "I am the truth for those who follow me, others have their own truth and that's ok?" Who'd die for that?

Democracy is inherently Aristotelian: it is based on the balance of individual perception, rather than searching for absolutes. That said, it's possible to argue for democracy from a platonic viewpoint, as given the nature of humanity it's a pretty good "least bad" political system in most situations. [Memo to self: Maybe I should write something about democracy?]

Modern postmodernist culture is similarly Aristotelian. Where once we had "any colour you like as long as it's black", we now have 57 varieties of everything, and everyone's viewpoint is equally valid - excepting of course paedophiles, islamic terrorists and illegal immigrants.

So it seems to me that pretty much the whole history of human thought hinges on these two Greek chaps from over two thousand years ago. There truly is nothing new under the sun.

Origially posted 2004-05-27


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