Study units:If you are among the awe struck and feel the weight of such questions then you may be curious to proceed to “Classical Text 01” via the tab above. Each text can be read on its own, however if you are interested to make a study of Philosophy in a systematic way then it is advisable to read them in order, alternating with the “Critical Reasoning” units in which various tools and techniques of logical analysis are presented, both formally and informally. Because these units build one upon the other they must be read in order to make sense. Additional units will be added at irregular intervals, so come back and check for updates! Each study unit contains questions and feedback for self-assessment. Working through these will enhance your understanding and provide additional material for you to think through. Please do not submit material for assessment as all tasks are followed by feedback.
Why study classic texts? Certain philosophical problems have been studied and reasoned over for centuries, if not millennia, and some of the finest minds known to humanity have left a record of their thoughts, either in their own writings or in the form of notes compiled by their students. Many, such as Plato’s, can be appreciated for their aesthetic appeal as well as their ideas; however there are two other reasons for studying classic texts:
- So as not to “reinvent the wheel” every generation - When a concept has been clarified or a theorem has been proved by an earlier philosopher we should assimilate the concept or theorem as part of our own understanding, otherwise we would spend a lifetime reworking the ideas of others while making little progress of our own. In a letter to Robert Hooke, Isaac Newton claimed “If I have seen further it is by standing on ye sholders of Giants,” (sic.) so that, to follow the analogy, even if we are intellectual midgets ourselves, we might yet see further than even the world’s greatest thinkers if we can apprehend their discoveries and inventions and make them our own - and we can only do that by reading what they have written.
- Being exposed to some of the most discerning and timeless prose you will develop an appreciation of how the Human Spirit has been and continues to be moved, inspired and vexed by universal concerns such as the need to live a meaningful life and to understand both the world around us and our place in that world.
Why study critical reasoning? In Philosophy, as in life, it is more important not to be demonstrably wrong than to be necessarily right every time. One could waste years of one’s life perusing a line of enquiry or conducting a series of experiments only to discover that they were based on faulty assumptions or defective reasoning. Studying critical reasoning will equip you with the skills to tease apart and analyse texts, to perceive and understand the structure of the arguments that motivate them, rightly or wrongly.
Much of the activity of Philosophy has been referred to, tongue in cheek, as “taking out the trash.” As you become exercised in critical reasoning you will realise that majority of claims made in the name of reason, are simply untrue, confused or based upon faulty logic. “Taking out the trash,” in this sense entails debunking popular mythologies, propaganda and fundamentalist dogma, in short getting rid of just such so much rubbish to focus on what is logically compelling and worthy of serious inquiry. In doing so do not be surprised if you are made to feel that you are infringing upon cherished notions and offending inflated egos. Remember, though that there are no Sacred Cows in Philosophy (however see “A note on boldness and humility” below.)
The temptation however will be to skip over some of these units because everybody feels that they are fully capable of logical, rational thought, which might be true, however even the most logical of scholars succumb to fallacious arguments the moment they step out of their field of speciality. Studying critical reasoning will forearm you against such foibles as well as to help you to argue more rigorously, if not more rousingly for that is the art of rhetoric, not philosophy.
A note on boldness and humility: In Philosophy there is an imperative to boldly question every assertion and every assumption; however there is also often a tendency among some contemporary students of Philosophy to deprecate everything that went before, that we should guard against. We should remember that if we were transported back into antiquity, we would be regarded as very ignorant because very few of us would be able to navigate by the heavens, interpret spoor, prove Pythagoras’ Theorem from first principles or even recite Homer.