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These introductions and Enrichments are taken from my online class. 
They are optional but will deepen your understanding of material we are covering in each unit. 
I hope you will partake of them!

Just click on the unit link:

Unit 2 - Myth and Wonder
Unit 3 - Natural Philosophers
Unit 4 - Sophists and Socrates
Unit 5 - Plato
Unit 6 - Aristotle

Unit 7 - Two Cultures and the Middle Ages
Unit 8 - The Renaissance and The Baroque
Unit 9 - Descartes and Spinoza
Unit 10 - The British Empiricists
Unit 11 - Kant and the Enlightenment
Unit 12 - Hegel and Romanticism
Unit 13 - Kierkegaard and Marx
Unit 14 - Darwin and Freud
Unit 15 - Existentialism and Postmodernism
Unit 16 - Being Human in a Vast Universe


An "Alice-in-Wonderland" Tale

We are about to embark on an Alice-in-Wonderland type adventure with Sophie Amundsen, a young girl who begins receiving philosophy lessons from a mysterious philosopher named Alberto. He says to “Sophie dear” that he is concerned she does not “grow up to be one of those people who take the world for granted.”  He follows this with some “thought experiments” to show her what he means. All very strange coming from someone she doesn’t even know!

While the story is as—well—weird, as such an “Alice” tale can be, and it takes a turn at the end that is totally unexpected and a little bizarre, the philosophy lessons themselves effectively track, in simple terms, the history of thought of the Western mind—that mind that today sets the worldview for much of the planet—for better or worse!

So, I say to you, dear student, I hope Alberto and I can convince you not to be one of those people who takes the world for granted—or has no idea of the heritage of your thought!

My lecture will give you an introduction to what philosophy is, as well as cover some of the key threads of thought we will follow through the semester. I will also discuss a concept key to Greek, and any other philosophy or theology—archetypes. Alberto will then lead us in a look at ancient Greek mythology and culture and their role in laying the foundation for an utterly new way of looking at the world, taken up by a handful of pre-Socratic natural philosophers who are credited with the birth of philosophy.

Your Discussion Worksheet (DW) and Reading Quiz (Quiz a), which will cover Alberto’s lessons, will lay the groundwork for your Special Focus about worldviews.  Our entire semester study is, in fact, about worldviews, and how they have shifted over the centuries to our current times.  Your Special Focus is a thought-provoker about worldview shifts that may come in the future.

In our discussion we will consider some of the political and cultural conditions of the early Greek period that led to the birth of philosophy, and whether there are any parallels in our world today.  Remember, though this question is broad, and admittedly even a bit vague, you don’t need to be comprehensive, just cover a particular thread of thought that intrigues you.

Next week we will move on to learning about that “entirely new way of thinking.”  And it was exactly that!  I still marvel at the huge shift in human consciousness that this new thinking represented.  Enjoy.


INTRODUCTION TO UNIT 3: Natural Philosophers

Is there a basic substance that everything else is made of?

Alberto launches Sophie’s studies of the natural philosophers (the Pre-Socratics) with three questions: 

            Is there a basic substance that everything else is made of?

            Can water turn into wine?

            How can earth and water produce a live frog?

Sophie finds these questions “pretty stupid” but they point to the foundation of thought pursued by the natural philosopher, which is the focus of this unit’s studies.  As we learned last unit, there were several cultural and political factors in the Greek world that seemed to have initiated the shift to a quest for understanding the world as a natural phenomenon. These included leisure, democracy, and cross-cultural exposure. 

But perhaps the most fascinating factor was the reification (making real or concrete) of the Greek myths accomplished by simply writing them down—in the form, for instance, of the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey.  Once they were written they could be discussed.  Once they were discussed they began to appear much too much like human conceptions of all too human characters. The search for more natural, and less capricious, explanations for the forces and changes in the world around us was on!  In my lecture I discuss some of the important foundational concepts of the natural philosophers in this search.

Your Discussion Worksheet (DW) and Reading Quiz (Quiz a), Special Focus (SF), and Context Enrichment (CE) will all focus on the remarkable shift that the natural philosopher’s made from a mythological worldview to a worldview that attempted to observe the world around them and draw conclusions from it.  It is important to remember that they were not modern scientist, but rather had faith in the capacity of their human reason, to work out possible natural solutions to questions of change and being.  They were amazingly prescient but were by no means applying a scientific method to their inquiries.

In our discussion we will consider how this rational vs. empirical, transcendence vs. immanence approach seems reminiscent of our same conflicts in today’s global society.  Remember, though the question for your forum is broad, and admittedly even a bit vague, but you don’t need to be comprehensive, just cover a particular thread of thought that intrigues you.

Next week we will meet the pivotal figure of Socrates, who pursued philosophy in a whole new way.  He pursued it with his life.  He lived philosophy for his salvation and died for his belief in the truth quest.  Alberto tells Sophie that Socrates “called philosophy down from the sky and established her in the towns and introduced her into homes and forced her to investigate life, ethics, good and evil.”


INTRODUCTION TO UNIT 4: Sophists and Socrates

In this unit we consider the Sophists—itinerate teachers who were skeptical that either truth or true knowledge could be accessed, if they existed at all. “Man is the measure of all things” was their approach to life.  We also consider the cultural, political, and intellectual context of Athens at the time of the Sophist, and their philosophical counterpart, Socrates. Alberto uses one of his back-of-the-envelope questions to lead Sophie into the world of Socrates: “Wisest is she who knows what she does not know.”  In Passions we can find insight into the meaning and of this question and its relationship to the mission, or philosophical project, of Socrates:

Socrates eventually concluded that he was the wisest in Athens because he alone recognized his own ignorance. While the Sophists had held genuine knowledge to be unattainable, Socrates held rather that genuine knowledge had not yet been achieved”  “The discovery of ignorance was for Socrates the beginning rather than the end of the philosophical task, for only through that discovery could one begin to overcome those received assumptions that obscured the true nature of what it was to be a human being. Socrates conceived it his personal mission to convince others of their ignorance so that they might better search for a knowledge of how life should best be lived (Tarnus p. 33)

Socrates’s philosophical project was not focused on the metaphysical questions of the Natural Philosophers, but on the ethical question of how one ought to live. And he searched for this truth with his life.

Your unit work will focus on Socrates’s remarkable life and death, and his search for true knowledge, using his rational mind and distrusting his senses. In our discussion we will consider Socrates life and death within the context of the world in which he lived. 

Next week we will meet Socrates’s most famous student, Plato, who systematize and expanded his beloved mentor’s message and beliefs. He essentially immortalized Socrates—and himself in the process.



Plato, as we know, was a disciple of Socrates. One of the first he did after Socrates’ death was to write down the account of Socrates’ trial and his defense before the jury of 500 (in Apology). Socrates continued to play an important role in Plato’s prolific writings. It is, in fact, quite difficult to know for sure what Socrates actually thought and said, and what was Plato’s evolving and expanding philosophical interpretation of what he perceived to be the intent of words of his friend and mentor. Nevertheless, it is not entirely a matter for concern as to what Socrates actually said since the Western mind was built on the words of Plato.

“In Plato’s vision, Socrates appeared as a living embodiment of goodness and wisdom, the very qualities Plato considered to be the foundational principles of the world and the highest goals of human aspiration.  Socrates thus became not only the inspiration for but also the personification of the Platonic philosophy.  From Plato’s art emerged the archetypal Socrates, the avatar of Platonism” (Passions p. 40)

In this unit we study, in a sense, that archetypal Socrates created by Plato. We also consider the archetypal nature of Plato’s Theory of Forms (Ideas) and the solution he proposed for what he saw as the weakness in the thought of the pre-Socratics. For Plato, the question was that of what actually caused a bunch of Lego-type building blocks to assemble in to a crocodile, or an elephant, and not into a crocophant.  He searched for ontological order (forms) and epistemological certainty (reason) and in the process shaped not only the Western mind, but as we shall see, through Augustine, the Christian mind as well for the next more than 2300 years—to our current day.

You may enjoy this short biographical video of Plato to give you a sense of his life and worldview.  (6:59 min)


Next week we will meet Plato’s most famous student, Aristotle, who turned his teacher’s theory of forms upside down, bringing it out of the transcendent world into this world in which we live. Another turn from rationalism to empiricism, from transcendence to immanence.



This week we move on to Plato’s most famous student, Aristotle.  Being the son of a Macedonian physician, Aristotle was particularly disposed to examination of the natural world—on “all fours” as Alberto rather ineloquently puts it. We find that Aristotle essentially turned Plato’s ontology upside down. “For Plato, the particular was less real, a derivative of the universal; for Aristotle, the universal was less real, a derivative of the particular. Universals were necessary for knowledge, but they did not exist as self-subsistent entities in a transcendent realm” (Passions p.57)—As Alberto puts it “laying on a shelf somewhere.”

Tarnus gives us timeless understanding of Aristotle:

“To understand the basic tenor of Aristotle’s philosophy and cosmology is prerequisite for comprehending the further movement of Western thought and its succession of world views. For Aristotle provided a language and logic, a foundation and structure, and, not least, a formidably authoritative opponent—first against Platonism and later against the early modern mind—without which the philosophy, theology, and science of the West could not have developed as they did.” (Passions p. 40)

In this unit we will explore the many branches of philosophical and scientific inquiry that Aristotle developed, from his theory of forms as immanent in the things of this world, to his idea of how to live a life of happiness. It’s a lot to cover in one unit but diligent attention to your Discussion Worksheet should move you well forward in your understanding, as well as prepare you for your Reading Quiz and you Discussion Forum.

Your Special Focus (SF) is a short reading from Aristotle’s Metaphysics that I have annotated to help you in your understanding of it. You will find it to be a great example of Aristotle’s view of reality through which we have come to understand his philosophical ideas, and an example of his writing style.

The Content Enrichment video will give you a closer look at Aristotle’s ideas on the good life, i.e. a happy one! Yeah!  (7.5 min):  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=csIW4W_DYX4

Next week we will look at the influence of Plato and Aristotle on the coming together of two great Western world cultures in the birth of Christianity. We will fly with Plato (and Augustine) through the Middle Ages and land a thousand years later with the rediscovery of Aristotle (through Aquinas). It is a bit of a wild ride!


UNIT 7: Two Cultures and the Middle Ages

Consolidating 1200 years of Western intellectual and spiritual history into a single week’s study is essentially a hopeless task. Yet, if Gaarder can get it done in two chapters (Two Cultures and  The Middle Ages), we will rise to the task in this unit. There is so much important material in both Sophie’s World and Passions that I found it incredibly difficult to single out what would help you focus on the most important concepts. I wish it were possible to share more of Passions with you—this is such a fascinating period in history—a cataclysm through the coming together of the cyclical and linear worldviews in the rise of Christianity, a tragedy in the fall of the Greco-Roman world and the destruction of a civilization, the long period of recovery and the eventual renewal of Classical Greek thought, and the final bursting out of intellectual passion in the Renaissance.

I don’t wish to overburden you with quotations from Passions—you have more than enough reading this week. But I feel compelled to give you the richest possible perspective for following the philosophical threads of Plato’s rationalism and Aristotle’s empiricism out of antiquity and into the early modern mind—and subsequently through the rise of science and the pivotal figure of Descartes. I think of Augustine at the beginning of the Middle Ages, and Aquinas at the end of the Middle Ages, as a sort of pair of “book ends” to a long period of intellectual quietude. 

Augustine and Plato.
“Despite its having entirely distinct origins from the Judaeo-Christian religion, for many ancient Christian intellectuals the Platonic tradition was itself an authentic expression of divine wisdom, capable of bringing articulate metaphysical insight to some of the deepest of Christian mysteries.”  “Fundamental Platonic principles now found corroboration and new meaning in the Christian context [through early Church Fathers and particularly through St. Augustine—note the Socratic influence!]: 

The existence of a transcendent reality of eternal perfection,
the sovereignty of divine wisdom in the cosmos,
the primacy of the spiritual over the material,
the Socratic focus on the ‘tending of the soul,
the soul’s immortality and high moral imperatives,
its experience of divine justice after death,
the importance of scrupulous self-examination,
the admonition to control the passions and appetites in the service of the good and true,
the ethical principle that is better to suffer an injustice than to commit one,
the belief in death as a transition to more abundant life,
the existence of a prior condition of divine knowledge now obscured in man’s limited natural state,
the notion of participation in the divine archetype,
the progressive assimilation to God as the goal of human aspiration”
     (Passions p. 102—I have listed out a paragraph of principles to make each principle more available).

Aquinas and Aristotle
Alberto tells Sophie the Aquinas adopted many areas of Aristotle’s philosophy. These included logic, a theory of knowledge, his natural philosophy, and his “scale of nature.” In doing so he inadvertently paved the way for the humanism and skepticism that proceeded the rise of science. In many ways, Aquinas belongs to the next unit on the Renaissance, Galileo, and Science.  Because of this, we will revisit him in a bit more depth in the next unit.


UNIT 8: The Renaissance and Baroque

In our last unit we saw that a series of events and preconditions precipitate both the rise of Christianity and the destruction of the Greco-Roman world. As that world disintegrated, and Christianity spread throughout the bygone empire, the Roman Catholic Church began to fill both the spiritual and political vacuum. It increasing created a unifying, if God and church-centered society, and towards the end of the Middle ages, as that society began to stabilize, a robust educational system, and a desire to know and even control, the natural world.

With the recovery of Aristotelian philosophy and the humanism (individual human is valued) of the Classical Greek world, the Renaissance breaks out of the Middle Ages with an exuberance that, as Alberto puts it “attempted to exceed all boundaries.” “Cracks begin to appear in the unifying culture of Christianity.” Ultimately, one of those cracks is the Reformation which “…opened the way in the West for religious pluralism, then religious skepticism, and finally a complete breakdown in the until then relatively homogenous Christian world view” (Passions, 240). It also opened the way to the Scientific Revolution.

In this unit we consider this transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the strange but indicative period of the Baroque, by following the development of the “early modern mind” as it turns to education, the resurrection of antiquity, the sense of its own worth in exploring the world. It lays the ground work for the new scientific method, based on experiment that results from observation, rather than speculation as to the cosmic meaning of the observation, as Aristotle did.

Your SF is a portion of a PBS Nova special called Galileo’s Battle for the Heavens. It will help you “live in” Galileo’s era and get a sense for how he revolutionized science by his insistence on experimentation.

Your Context Enrichment gives you a choice, but I hope you will choose both! One choice is a rather funny video about how the Renaissance didn’t really happen.  Funny or no, it is really good history, and makes an important point that can be applied to almost all the intellectual eras we study in this course—they usually apply only to the “ivory tower” so to speak—to those who have the time and leisure to think about big pictures. Nevertheless, they eventually move whole cultures forward, usually with a lot of people kicking and screaming along with it.  This is actually happening right now in our own time.

The second is a selection of material drawn from Passions "The Transformation of the Medieval Era: Selections from Passions of the Western Mind by Richard Tarnus"  (yes, I selected and typed each paragraph just for this class) that will give you a bird’s eye, flying overview of the progress of the Western mind out of the Middle Ages and into the Scientific era. It is only two pages, and I very much hope you will take just a few moments to read it!

Also, you might enjoy this Context Enrichment video (about 11 minutes): The Renaissance: Was it a Thing?

Here is the link to "The Renaissance: Was it a Thing?  This is a rather funny video about how the Renaissance didn’t really happen.  Funny or no, it is really good history.


Next week we tackle the first philosopher to develop a full philosophical system since Plato and Aristotle—Rene Descartes. He epitomizes the consequences of the deliberations of the early modern mind.  He is a man of his time.  And he, as a devote Catholic, essentially, puts the nail in the coffin of the unified Christian culture of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance!


 INTRODUCTION TO UNIT 9: The Rationalist!

In this unit we meet the ultimate rationalist in Rene Descartes. He radically separates the body and mind, the material and the spiritual, into two entirely separate substances—forms of reality—that have no contact with one another and gives primacy to the rational mind. This dualist position was to split asunder the way we think about the world—no longer as an integrated whole, but as two separate realms.  In doing so he provided critical impetus to the growing worldview that there is a mechanistic universe that runs entirely by natural laws, and, we can explore this universe through science without reference to the spiritual or religious sensibilities.

Descartes was born in 1596 in France. When he was one year old, his mother died. His father Joachim was a member of the Parliament. In 1606, at the age of 10, he entered the Jesuit College where he was introduced to mathematics and physics, including Galileo's work. By the age of 20 he had graduated and went on to a degree and license in law from the University of Poitiers. He was brilliant and essentially a child-prodigy.

In his book, Discourse On The Method, he says "I entirely abandoned the study of letters. Resolving to seek no knowledge other than that of which could be found in myself or else in the great book of the world, I spent the rest of my youth traveling, visiting courts and armies, mixing with people of diverse temperaments and ranks, gathering various experiences, testing myself in the situations which fortune offered me, and at all times reflecting upon whatever came my way so as to derive some profit from it."

On a night November 1619, Descartes had a vision that a divine spirit revealed to him a new philosophy. From this he had formulated analytical geometry and the idea of applying the mathematical method to philosophy. He concluded from his vision that the pursuit of science would prove to be, for him, the pursuit of true wisdom and a central part of his life's work. Descartes also saw very clearly that all truths were linked with one another, so that finding a fundamental truth and proceeding with logic would open the way to all science. This basic truth, Descartes found quite soon: his famous “Cogito ergo sum.”   

How ironic that he received in a vision this idea that the pursuit of science was the pursuit of true wisdom!


INTRODUCTION TO UNIT 10: Working through Descartes’ philosophical dualism

The seventeenth century saw the rise of science as Galileo took up where Copernicus left off and laid the foundations for the modern experimental method. In this century we saw Descartes grappling with what could count as true knowledge in the face of rising materialism and the questioning that it brought of God’s place in this mechanistic and apparently deterministic universe. With the exception of Hume however, each of the Continental Rationalist and British Empiricists, like both Galileo and Newton, retained their belief in God while finding a place for empiricism and our senses in the world he had created. The British Empiricists, and Kant, even retained a touch of rationalism in their philosophies. Remember, this was the Baroque period, filled with seemingly irreconcilable tensions.

By the eighteenth century “Confidence in human progress, akin to the biblical faith in humanity’s spiritual evolution and future consummation, was so central to the modern world view that it notably increased with the decline of Christianity.” “But regardless of what attitude was maintained toward Christianity, the conviction that man was steadily and inevitably approaching entrance into a better world, that man himself was being progressively improved and perfected through his own efforts, constituted one of the most characteristic, deep-seated, and consequential principles of modern sensibility”(Passions p. 322-323).

“In Descartes’ vision, science, progress, reason, epistemological certainty, and human identity were all inextricably connected with each other and with the conception of an objective, mechanistic universe; and upon this synthesis was founded the paradigmatic character of the modern mind” (Passions p. 280).

Yet no sooner had Descartes laid out his vision than the empiricist took up his ideas and began to dissect them within the paradoxical nature of the time, sometimes building on Descartes, sometimes refuting him, retaining mechanistic worldview while find a place for belief in God. They particularly pushed back against Descartes dualism, since, if mind and body were two entirely different substances, it seemed impossible for them to function together as they obviously do in this world.  Connecting in the pineal gland, as Descartes suggested, seem an entirely unsatisfactory and ad hoc solution.

In this unit we consider the solutions the British Empiricist proposed to the problem of mind, body, and knowledge. Your SF is a triplet of short primary source reading from Locke, Berkeley, and Hume. In the next unit, we find Immanuel Kant attempting to synthesize their many ideas into the next great philosophical system.


INTRODUCTION TO UNIT 11: Kantian Philosophy

The last great philosophical system of the modern age.

As we saw in Unit 9, Descartes is considered the Father of Modern Philosophy because he was the first philosopher since the Classical Period to try to develop a full philosophical system.  In a way he kicked off the serious search for what can be constituted as knowledge in the face of the rising questioning of past paradigms and the increasing accuracy of empiricism. It is probably safe to say that Kant represents the final hurrah, so to speak, of that search. One can almost guess that Kant’s brilliant, but ridiculously complex work, may have served to point out that the quest to retain rationalism and faith as sure forms of knowledge was rather futile.

“Kant was too intimate with Newtonian science and its triumphs to doubt that man had access to certain knowledge.  Yet he felt as well the force of Hume’s relentless analysis of the human mind.  He too had come to distrust the absolute pronouncements on the nature of the world for which a purely rational speculative metaphysics had been pretending competence…” (Passions p. 342)

It seems clear though, that no matter how faithful Kant, and Locke and Berkeley too, were attempting to be to empiricism, they simply could not retain a place for God, Christian faith, and morality, without turning to rationalism. Kant thought that since we can’t experience God, and laws such as causality, time, and space, they clearly must be a priori “conditions of the human mind.”  Locke’s thinking was not so clearly developed, but certainly similar. Berkeley just leaped straight to everything being in the mind of God. And Hume, for all his empiricism, still had to come up with sensations and reflections in the mind to explain making sense of the world. Abandoning rationalism all together seemed to portend the loss of a place in the world for God—and offered little basis for morality.

Thus, Kant succeeded in synthesizing the work of the Continental Rationalists and British Empiricists into a cohesive whole. “…he agrees with Hume and the empiricists that all our knowledge of the world comes from our sensations. But...he stretches out his hand to the rationalist—in our reason there are also decisive factors that determine how we perceive the world around us”(SW p. 321).  Yet he stands on the cusp of the triumph of empiricism. Reason—rationalism—that we have followed throughout the semester as knowledge of the mind, now becomes entirely identified with empiricism—as part of a modern meaning that all of us now understand:  “…based on facts [empirical] or reason and not on emotions or feelings…having the ability to reason or think about things clearly” (Merriam-Webster).

Your DW this week will help you work through the main body of Kant’s philosophical system, while the Special Focus will give you some insight (I hope) into his ideas on morality as “practical postulates.”  You will love the “categorical imperatives”—a rather complex way of stating the Golden Rule, as Sophie points out.  You should definitely watch the Three Minute Philosophy video—it is a remarkably good explanation of  Kant’s moral philosophy.


INTRODUCTION TO UNIT 12: Romanticism and Hegel

Romanticism – one of two streams of 18th century culture

The Enlightenment period was one of a rationalist based empiricism—and by the end of the 1800’s we see the rational and empirical mind thoroughly integrated into an increasingly science-based and materialistic worldview.  It was against this worldview that the Romanticist struggled, believing that it left out a substantial portion of human cognition and turned humanity into an objective observer and a mechanistic being. They sought to preserve and explore the subjective nature of the human experience in, as Alberto lists the catchwords: feeling, imagination, experience, and yearning.

“From the complex matrix of the Renaissance had issued forth two distinct streams of culture, two temperaments or general approaches to human existence characteristic of the Western mind. One emerged in the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment and stressed rationality, empirical science, and a skeptical secularism. The other was its polar complement, sharing common roots in the Renaissance and classical Greco-Roman culture (and in the Reformation as well), but tending to express just those aspects of human experience suppressed by the Enlightenment’s overriding spirit of rationalism.  (Passions p. 366)

Thus the Romantic sensibility advanced new standards and values for human knowledge. Through the self-creating power of imagination and will, the human being could body forth unborn realities, penetrate invisible but altogether real levels of being, comprehend nature and history and the cosmos’s unfolding—indeed, participate in the very process of creation. A new epistemology was claimed both possible and necessary.  And so the limits of knowledge established by Locke, Hume, and the positivist side of Kant were boldly defied by the idealists and romantics of the post-Enlightenment. (Passions p. 371)

It is in this world of Romanticism that Georg W.F. Hegel develops his historical philosophical method in an effort to encompass every aspect of reality—human thought, history, nature, the divine reality itself, through a conception of reality as the interplay of opposites (remind you of a Greek pre-Socratic?)

Whereas for most of the history of Western philosophy from Aristotle onward, the defining essence of opposites was that they were logically contradictory and mutually exclusive, for Hegel all opposites are logical necessary and mutually implicated elements in a larger truth. Truth is thus radically paradoxical. Yet for Hegel the human mind in its highest development was fully capable of comprehending such truth. In contrast to Kant’s more circumscribed view, Hegel possessed a profound faith in human reason, believing it was ultimately grounded in the divine reason itself….Hegel saw human reason as fundamentally an expression of a universal Spirit or Mind (Geist), through the power of which, as in love, all opposites could be transcended in a higher synthesis.  (Passions p. 379) [This is a very "Greek", rather than Enlightenment, view of human reason]


Kierkegaard and Marx

Kierkegaard and Marx: The demise (temporary) of metaphysics.

As we leave the Enlightenment and Romanticism behind, we gradually move away from the “modern mind” to the “post-modern mind” and the grand metaphysics of the past 2000 years.  My World of Ideas dictionary defines postmodernism as “the rejection of intrinsic meaning and reality, the repudiation of progress and cultural cohesion, and an ironic embrace of ambiguity….”  While it could be said that Marx found some intrinsic meaning in his material factors and relationships, Kierkegaard found none in our existential situation—meaning is meaning only for oneself. He is considered the father of existentialism.

In Sophie’s World we are approaching the last chapters, which will take Sophie and Alberto on a rather wild adventure. We the readers will take a passage through the postmodern period to our current global world.  Tarnus does the same in Passions:

“We now approach the last stages of our narrative. What remains for us is to scan that trajectory taken by the modern mind as it developed from the foundations and premises of the modern world view just examined.  For perhaps the most momentous paradox concerning the character of the modern era was the curious manner in which its progress during the centuries following the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenments brought Western man unprecedented freedom, power, expansion, breadth of knowledge, depth of insight, and concrete success, a yet simultaneously served—first subtly and later critically—to undermine the human being’s existential situation on virtually every front: metaphysical and cosmological, epistemological, psychological, and finally even biological” (Passions p. 325)

“The peculiar phenomenon of contradictory consequences ensuing from the same intellectual advance was visible from the start of the modern era with Copernicus’s dethroning of the Earth as the center of creation. In the same instant that man liberated himself from the geocentric illusion of virtually all previous generations of mankind, he also effected for himself an unprecedentedly  fundamental cosmic displacement. The universe no longer centered on man; his cosmic position was neither fixed nor absolute. And each succeeding step in the Scientific Revolution and its aftermath added new dimensions to the Copernican effect, further propelling that liberation while intensifying that displacement” (Passions p. 326)


Darwin and Freud

Riding the naturalistic currents.

The naturalistic currents of the middle of the 19th century were flowing strong and Darwin and Freud were riding them. They, like their contemporaries, relied exclusively on natural phenomena, much as the Greek natural philosophers did, more than 2000 years before, but now there were no rationalistic speculations about those phenomena, or any hint of divine revelation. As naturalists Darwin concluded that humans are simply a biological phenomenon and Freud undermined the rational certainty that has prevailed throughout Western philosophical history, even in the interpretation of empiricism:

“For man could no longer assume his mind’s interpretation of the world to be a mirrorlike reflection of things as they actually were. The mind itself might be the alienating principle.  Moreover, the insights of Freud and the depth psychologists radically increased the sense that man’s thinking about the world was governed by nonrational factors that he could neither control nor be fully conscious of.  From Hume and Kant through Darwin, Marx, Freud and beyond, an unsettling conclusion was becoming inescapable: Human though was determined, structured, and very probably distorted by a multitude of overlapping factors…. In the end, the human mind could not be relied upon as an accurate judge of reality. The original Cartesian certainty, that which served as foundation for the modern confidence in human reason, was no longer defensible” (Passions p. 353).

“..the belief that the human mind could attain or should attempt an objective metaphysical overview as traditionally understood was virtually relinquished.” “There was no all-encompassing or transcendent or intrinsic “deeper” order in the universe to which the human mind could legitimately lay claim” (Passions p. 354).

“With both philosophy and religion in such problematic condition, it was science alone that seemed to rescue the modern mind from pervasive uncertainty. Science achieved a golden age in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with extraordinary advances in all its major branches….” “The optimism of the age was directly tied to confidence in science and in its powers to improve indefinitely the state of human knowledge, health, and general welfare” (Passions p. 355)

Your DW this week will help you work through both Darwin and Freud. Like Kierkegaard and Marx, I hope you will see Darwin and Freud in the larger context mentioned above, and think deeply about the affects their naturalism had on our contemporary times.

SPECIAL FOCUS: Darwin’s Dangerous Idea—Nova video

This video is just under 2 hours long but I hope however, that you might find time to enjoy this wonderful first part of a 7 part Nova special on evolution. It tells Darwin’s story, his voyage on the Beagle, his research, his marriage to his first cousin, his supportive and rascally brother, the loss of his beloved daughter Annie, his meticulous scientific approach to his work, his fears for its implications, and his eventual burial with great honors in Westminster Abbey, near the grave of Isaac Newton.  It also gives detailed descriptions of evolutionary processes along the way.

Here is the link:   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MCOc7Xqj-kQ

Pencil sketch of the HMS Beagle     Darwin's sketches of the Galapagos Island finch beaks
The HMS Beagle at anchor on the South American Coast.            Darwin sketches of the Galapagos finches


INTRODUCTION TO UNIT 15: Existentialism and Postmodernism.

As the implications of the science of Newton (law driven mechanistic universe), Darwin (evolution by natural selection, not by design), and Freud (we are bundles of primeval id) begin to sink in, so does the realization that Nietzsche came to:

“God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us?”

Nietzsche was not making a cosmological statement.  He was reflecting (and setting) the mood of his time—as all great philosophers do:

“As the twentieth century advanced, modern consciousness found itself caught up in an intensely contradictory process of simultaneous expansion and contraction.  Extraordinary intellectual and psychological sophistication was accompanied by a debilitating sense of anomie and malaise. An unprecedented broadening of horizons and exposure to the experience of others coincided with a private alienation of no less extreme proportions” (Passions p. 388)

“The anguish and alienation of twentieth-century life were brought to full articulation as the existentialist addressed the most fundamental, naked concerns of human existence—suffering and death, loneliness and dread, guilt, conflict, spiritual emptiness and ontological insecurity, the void of absolute values or universal contexts, the sense of cosmic absurdity, the frailty of human reason, the tragic impasse of the human conditions.  Man was condemned to be free” (Passions p 389).

Man was condemned to be free.  Alberto quotes Sartre: “Condemned because he has not created himself—and is nevertheless free.  Because having once been hurled into the world, he is responsible for everything he does” (p.451)There are no external values—we must make choices throughout our lives. We are thrust on the stage of life with no lines, no prompters.

Next week we will see the stunning success of the empiricism of science as it penetrates both macro and micro world mysteries and the resurgence of the value of subjective experience in redefining our understanding of ourselves, our world, our universe as we consider a path to the future. The grand finale!  For this course at least!


INTRODUCTION TO UNIT 16: Being Human in a Vast Universe

Your assigned chapter on the Big Bang, and the Discussion Worksheet for this unit, are intended to move your philosophical mind into the vast and essentially incomprehensible context of the universe as we have come to know it today—with all the implications for our human and planetary existence. We have only known of the mind-numbing size of the universe for roughly a hundred years out of the several hundred thousand that humans have been on Earth. One hundred years! That means that most of the philosophers we have studied this semester knew nothing of the Big Bang, the galaxies, the true nature of the stars and their role in birthing ourselves and our world. Their perspective was very “Earth-centric.” They had no clue of what science would eventually reveal.

“We have the post Copernican dilemma of being a peripheral and insignificant inhabitant of a vast cosmos, and the post-Cartesian dilemma of being a conscious, purposeful and personal subject confronting an unconscious, purposeless, and impersonal universe, with these compounded by the post-Kantian dilemma of there being no possible means by which the human subject can know the universe in its essence. We are evolved from, embedded in, and defined by a reality that is radically alien to our own, and moreover cannot every be directly contacted in cognition” (Passions p. 420) [You will see this also expressed in Hilde’s father’s discussion of why we can never know the universe as it is.] 

“Our psychological and spiritual predispositions are absurdly at variance with the world revealed by our scientific method.  We seem to receive two messages from our existential situation: on the one hand, strive, give oneself to the quest for meaning and spiritual fulfillment; but on the other hand, know that the universe, of whose substance we are derived, is entirely indifferent to that quest, soulless in character and nullifying in its effects. We are at once aroused and crushed.  For inexplicably, absurdly, the cosmos is inhuman, yet we are not.  The situation is profoundly unintelligible” (Passions p. 420).  

But Tarnus gives us hope:

“And why is there evident now such a widespread and constantly growing collective impetus in the Western mind to articulate a holistic and participatory world view, visible in virtually every field?  The collective psyche seems to be in the grip of a powerful archetypal dynamic in which the long-alienated modern mind is breaking through, out of the contractions of its birth process…to rediscover its intimate relationship with nature and the larger cosmos” (Passions p. 440). [And perhaps even with the divine!]

SPECIAL FOCUS: The Awakening Universe

Your Special Focus video, Awakening the Universe is one expression of this impetus to “articulate a holistic and participatory world view” and to “rediscover [our] intimate relationship with nature and the larger cosmos.

I look forward to our final Discussion Forum where we will share our ideas on what it means to be human in a vast and perplexing universe! Must our rational, subjective, spiritual selves be forever opposed to our empirical, objective, physical selves?