Intros to European Philosophy: Comte


Previously read: non

Key texts: General View of Positivism, the. Ch. I and VI (abr.)

Overall impression: He’s way too fond of the word ‘Positivism’ and was keen to consistently aver that it solved many problems, only he could never seem to successfully explain how.  Needless to say, I was rolling downhill in the European Philosophers from Descartes to Nietzsche and Comte warranted less mental energy than Mach (a pleasant surprise) or Nietzsche.


occasion for theology

“It is to the fact that theology arose spontaneously from feeling that its influence is for the most part due. (European Philosophers, ed. M. Beardsley: p. 735)”

In the previous sentence he states that the life of the individual and of the race is always based in feeling, so this is not a particularly mean or weak conception.  But he’s convinced that the new philosophy will eventually supersede theology’s place in society.  Perhaps there has been a blending such that most theology is this ‘new philosophy’, but he never satisfactorily explains for me what means he by this new philosophy – this positivism(  So I’m disinclined to be so generous with my analysis.

  • trivia note, as per Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (entry by Michael Bourdeau): Brasil’s motto, Ordo e Progresso is at least in part a signal of Comte’s influence


atheism is too theistic

“Atheism, even from the intellectual point of view, is a very imperfect form of emancipation; for its tendency is to prolong the metaphysical stage indefinitely, by continuing to seek for new solutions of Theological problems, instead of setting aside all inaccessible researches on the ground of their utter inutility. (ibidem, p 745)”

This seems most logical; if I were atheistic I would be so in the truest sense and therefore anti-theism on theological grounds would occupy as little of my precious time as possible.  That is, true emancipation would n’t look like the antithesis of theism, but theistic concerns would be minimal at best.  In taking up the opposing point, one legitimates the opponent even as the right for the opponent to occupy that discursive space is argued.


Intros to European Philosophy: Hegel


Previously read: Nothing, but I ‘ve wanted to.  After reading Spinoza for the first time I was interested to see how Hegel and Spinoza might compare as interpreters/appropriators of Aristotle.

Key texts: Introduction to the Philosophy of History and Logic (Part I of the Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences), Ch. 7, A

Overall impression: Similar to when I first encountered Nietzsche (in European Philosophers from Descartes to Nietzsche, ed. M. Beardsley), I expected a bit more naivete from Hegel.  I had heard little past thesis-antithesis-synthesis; his perspective seems more careful than I had heard from the textbooks.

Unconscious participation in the unfolding Idea – it’s an interesting conception (European Philosophers, p. 563).  For Fichte to be conscious of it and wend not where it may go…unforgivable.


“Every writer of history proposes to himself an original method… Instead of writing history, we are always beating our brains to discover how history ought to be written. (ibidem, p. 540)”

And, perhaps more brilliantly:

“But what experience and history teach is this: that peoples and governments never have learned anything from history or acted on principles deduced from it. (ibidem, p. 541)”

Concerning the historian:

“One Reflective History therefore, supersedes another.  The materials are patent to every writer: each is likely enough to believe himself capable of arranging and manipulating them; and we may expect that each will insist upon his own spirit as that of the age in question. (p. 542)”

`It is too easy to read history and say “why didn’t he or she see X”.  One often smacks the forehead in amazement; but fails to see the very shortsightedness with which the reader of history is himself plagued.  In reading, one sees oneself reflected and too few are appropriately disgusted.  If they were, they would be slower to read their perspective in the age in question.


“The only Thought that Philosophy brings with it to the contemplation of History, is the simple conception of Reason; that Reason is the Sovereign of the World; that the history of the world, therefore, presents us with a rational process.  This conviction and intuition is a hypothesis in the domain of history as such. (ibidem, p. 544)”

`Precisely what Foucault is seeking to avoid in Archaeology of Knowledge; that intuition is moreso the product of experience-histories than the means by which to construct a history.  The result is closer to the previous quote about Reflective History.


“Even the ordinary, the “impartial” historian, who believes and professes that he maintains a simply receptive attitude, surrendering himself only to the data supplied him, is by no means passive as regards the exercise of his thinking powers.  He brings his categories with him, and sees the phenomena presented to his mental vision exclusively through these media. (European Philosophers, p. 546)”

`So much for aspirations to doing history objectively.


“Reason is Thought conditioning itself with perfect freedom. (p. 548)”  `That seems a mite naïve.  It is continued on p. 553 of European Philosophers as such:

“The History of the world is none other than the progress of the consciousness of Freedom…”


“But even regarding History as the slaughter-bench at which the happiness of peoples, the wisdom of States, and the virtue of individuals have been made victims, the question involuntarily arises: to what principle, to what final aim these enormous sacrifices have been offered. (ibidem, p. 554)”

`I love the imagery here – its poetry.  See also:

“The History of the World is not the theatre of happiness.  Periods of happiness are blank pages in it, for they are periods of harmony, periods when the antithesis is in abeyance. (p. 560)”


“If we go on to cast a look at the fate of these World-Historical persons whose vocation it was to be the agents of the World-Spirit, we shall find it to have been no happy one.  They attained no calm enjoyment; their whole life was labor and trouble; their whole nature was nothing but their master-passion.  When their object is attained they fall off like empty hulls from the kernel.  They die early, like Alexander; they are murdered, like Caesar; transported to St. Helena, like Napoleon. (p. 564)”

`Perhaps we ought to be a little more careful of that urge to raise our children to greatness; happiness will be far off (and it won’t be a joy to the family either, but a sorrow).  It is not that nothing is worth the sacrifice, but too many want greatness without knowing to what end.

“No man is a hero to his valet de chamber…but not because the former is no hero, but because the latter is a valet. (p. 565)”

Concerning language & grammar:

“For Grammar, in its extended and consistent form, is the work of thought, which makes its categories distinctly visible therein… Exercises of memory and imagination without language are direct [non-speculative] manifestations. (p. 593)”

Grammar is the medium which orders thought and the pre-lingual is communicated only by means of such language ordered by grammar.


“Time is the negative element in the sensuous world.  Thought is the same negativity, but it is the deepest, the infinite form of it, in which therefore all existence generally is dissolved… (p. 606)”

`I ‘m not sure what exactly constitutes a ‘negative element’ in this sense.  We recognize the motion of objects and call this the progression of time.  How existence is dissolved in thought…I ‘m less clear on; but for both cases I believe I ‘ve failed to understand Hegel on these points.  As a reader the imagery appears pregnant, but to what end?


“It will now be understood that Logic is the all-animating spirit of all the sciences, and its categories the spiritual hierarchy… But things thus familiar are usually the greatest strangers.  Being, for example, is a category of pure thought; but to make “Is” an object of investigation never occurs to us. (p. 609 from Logic (Part I of the Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences))”

`At least till Heidegger…


“In common life truth means the agreement of an object with our conception of it.  We thus presuppose an object to which our conception must conform.  In the philosophical sense of the word, on the other hand, truth may be described, in general abstract terms, as the agreement of a thought-content with itself. (p. 610)”

`Perhaps I might gloss the difference as facticity (at this moment, I would define this as relation to the world of experience) versus internal consistency (in this sense, we might speak of truth as grammatical).  I do n’t know if I ‘ve done this justice, but philosophers often mean something other than common people (and often ought to; but they should meet at some point).

“The foundation of all determinateness is negation (as Spinoza says, Omnis determinatio est negation). (p. 622)”  Actually, that is n’t quite the case.  Strange that something which is Spinoza out of context becomes so key to Hegel’s logic.

Intros to European Philosophy: Fichte


Previously read: nil

Key texts: Vocation of Man, Bk. 3

Overall impression: It only seems natural that philosophic discourse should finally focus its lens on will as the pendulum had swung far too to the search for knowledge.  Why do we contemplate at all?  Not for the accumulation of knowledge, but for action – for the application of will.  However, I remain surprised that such a thinker would wave aside the frustration which focus on the will to action (and therefore the frustration of being thwarted) would lead to.  If there is some world-will or Spirit guiding matters, am I to accept its whims so readily?


“Knowledge is not this organ [by which to apprehend the reality of Spirit]: no knowledge can be its own foundation, its own proof; every knowledge presupposes another higher knowledge on which it is founded, and to this ascent there is no end.

(European Philosophers from Descartes to Nietzsche, ed. M. Beardsley: pp. 494-495)”

Perhaps not ascent or descent, but knowledge is no set limited series of possibilities – it is a progression followed by a digression, which is occasionally an improvement.

~~“Conscience alone is the root of all truth. (ibidem, p. 495)”  As I think conscience to be our internal ideals mirrored back upon the self so that it either accepts, abrogates, or noticeably winces at the perceived reflection, my opinion differs.  Truth is culturally expressed and so is conscience; otherwise I find this definition interesting but not particularly useful.

“Our thought is not founded on itself alone, independently of our impulses and affections; man does not consist of two independent and separate elements; he is absolutely one.  All our thought is founded on our impulses; as a man’s affections are, so is his knowledge. (European Philosophers, p. 496)”

**no comment, just ponder.

“The good cause is ever the weaker, for it is simple, and can be loved only for itself; the bad attracts each individual by the promise that is most seductive to him; and its adherents, always at war among themselves, so soon as the good makes its appearance, conclude a trace that they may unite the whole powers of their wickedness against it.  Scarcely, indeed, is such an opposition needed, for even the good themselves are but too often divided by misunderstanding, error, distrust, and secret self-love…Thus do all good intentions among men appear to be lost in vain disputations, which leave behind them no trace of their existence; while in the meantime the world goes on as well, or as ill, as it can be without human effort, by the blind mechanism of Nature – and so will go on forever. (pp. 506-507)”

Very astute.  The idealist wants everyone to agree with her particular application of the ideal while wickedness offers many rewards with less personal cost (only the cost of being a person).  And Nature chugs along while Wisdom cries in the streets.

“There is no man who loves evil because it is evil; it is only the advantages and enjoyments expected from it and, in the present condition of humanity, likely to result from it, that are loved. (p. 511)”

Someone’s been reading Augustine.

~*~“Reason is not for the sake of existence, but existence for the sake of reason. (p. 513)”  Aye, only we find that existence is not a set object so that we speak of existences and, therefore, reasons which are chosen because they serve the more desired modes of existence.

**~“Alas!  Many virtuous intentions are entirely lost for this world, and others appear even to hinder the purpose they were designed to promote. (p. 514)”  I ‘ve been shewing Descartes to have fallen into this trap; in fact it is the very danger of being understood (as Nietzsche would have it).  The greatest enemies to one’s ideals are too often oneself (and close supporters).

“I am indeed compelled to believe, and consequently to act as if I thought, that by mere volition my tongue, my hand, or my foot, might be set in motion; but how a mere aspiration, an impress of intelligence upon itself, such as will is, can be the principle of motion to a heavy material mass, this I not only find it impossible to conceive, but the mere assertion is, before the tribunal of the understanding, a palpable absurdity; here the movement of matter even in myself can be explained only by the internal forces of matter itself.

(European Philosophers, p. 522)”

Oh the absurdities of life which we assume.  Likewise the following: “I see everywhere only myself, and no true existence out of myself. (ibidem, p. 529)”

Intros to European Philosophy: Kant

IMMANUEL KANT (1724-1804)

Previously read: I used his rejection of the transcendental argument for God’s existence in a paper (though I didn’t understand it well), but mostly encountered him through secondary sources and key ideas in other people’s courses – both in undergrad and graduate studies.  It’s nice to at least dig into the abridged text of Critique here.

Key texts: Critique of Pure Reason (abr)

Overall impression: It feels like dealing with Kant in an abridged form is at once necessary and lamentable.  I’d really like to trace his complete thought, and I’m almost ready to fruitfully understand him I feel, but I must admit I don’t have the time to treat him as his status deserves.    Perhaps one day I’ll do better, for now I’ve merely sharpened my teeth a little more for that day when I can begin this task in earnest. 

His contributions to metaphysics and ethics are unavoidable even in their secondary form in academia.  So this was a frustrated but perhaps fruitful familiarizing with several important philosophical utterances sourced in one voice.


“There can be no doubt that all our knowledge begins with experience… In the order of time, therefore, we have no knowledge antecedent to experience, and with experience all knowledge begins. (European Philosophers from Descartes to Nietzsche, ed. M. Beardsley, p. 375)”


“In what follows, therefore, we shall understand by a priori knowledge, not knowledge independent of this or that experience, but knowledge absolutely independent of all experience.  Opposed to its empirical knowledge, which is knowledge possible only a posteriori, that is, through experience. (ibidem, p. 376)”

  • “Experience teaches us that a thing is so and so, but not that it cannot be otherwise. (p. 376)”  This meets well with Ghazali’s critique of the philosophers in Incoherence/Tahafut.  It’s easy to assume that a thing can be no other way than what it has been previously, but our experience is far too limited to tell us how probable or exclusive such knowledge is.  “Secondly, experience never confers on its judgments true or strict, but only assumed and comparative universality, through induction. (ibidem)” 


  • Analytic judgments are connected by means of identity; without identity it would be synthetic (p. 380).  So all judgments of experience are synthetic. 


  • Space is a pure intuition according to Kant.  To me that’s brilliant.  We necessarily intuit it in order to try to locate our world.  Even when we speak of multiple spaces, we are only representing to ourselves that one space (p. 389).  So, perhaps space is that which I project to the world around me in order to understand it.  In this sense, space may not be infinite in the sense that it is endlessly extensible but it is certainly indefinite in that it is the background against which all events in time are located.  “Space is nothing but the form of all appearances of outer sense. (p. 391)” 


“Permanence, as the abiding correlate of all existence of appearances, of all change and of all concomitance, expresses time in general.  For change does not affect time itself, but only appearances in time.  (Coexistence is not a mode of time itself: for none of the parts of time coexist; they are all in succession to one another.)  If we ascribe succession to time itself, we must think yet another time, in which the sequence would be possible. (p. 402)”

  • “[T]ruth consists in the agreement of knowledge with the object… (p. 404)”  Perceptio is representation with consciousness; a sensation is a perception which ‘relates solely to the subject as the modification of its state’ – we only notice a smell or a sound when it demonstrates change; knowledge is an objective perception – whether intuition or concept (empirical or pure); the pure concept is called a notion.  “A concept formed from notions and transcending the possibility of experience is an idea or concept of reason…” (pp. 414-415)  An idea, therefore, can have no sense-experience matching it.  Whew, maybe it’s easier to use Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.


  • “Reason does not really generate any concept.  The most it can do is to free a concept of understanding from the unavoidable limitations of possible experience, and so to endeavor to extend it beyond the limits of the empirical, though still, indeed, in terms of its relation to the empirical. (p. 419 found in Ch 2: ‘The Antinomy of Pure Reason’, Section 1)”  It seems that reason makes demands of understanding, and so constrains it or reminds it of the natural boundaries, but is not itself a system by which to produce concepts.  Understanding is by way of experience and we choose concepts or recognize their value by way of reason, but reason does not itself give rise to them.  It seems interesting that reason, as Kant would have it, is the very thing which reminds us of its own division from the conditioned.  Reason is herein its own limit (or the limit of our reason-discourse).  [Nothing is ever interesting if I have to say ‘it seems interesting’, but still I offend.]

“[Humanity] is thus to [it]self, on the one hand phenomenon, and on the other hand, in respect of certain faculties the action of which cannot be ascribed to the receptivity of sensibility, a purely intelligible object.  We entitle these faculties understanding and reason.  The latter, in particular, we distinguish in a quite peculiar and especial way from all empirically conditioned powers. (p. 446)” 

This aligns, I believe, with what I have attempted to say about understanding and reason in the previous segment. 

“That our reason has causality, or that we at least represent it to ourselves as having causality, is evident from the imperatives which in all matters of conduct we impose as rules upon our active powers.  ‘Ought’ expresses a kind of necessity and of connection with grounds which is found nowhere else in the whole of nature.  The understanding can know in nature only what is, what has been, or what will be. (ibidem)” 

He goes on to say that our ‘ought’ has no meaning when applied to nature.  It is simply our projection upon our experiences – our expectations.  This is ever so like Ghazali’s critique of those who would claim causality’s rulership as part of the world rather than God’s decision in Incoherence.  Causality is a concept we impose, not something inherently true of experience – at least it cannot be determined by way of experience.

  • “Therefore there is only one categorical imperative, namely this: Act only on a maxim by which you can will that it, at the same time, should become a general law. (p. 473)”  Is it possible that any such maxim can exist?  That we should wish for its existence is reasonable enough – who could then argue with it?  But it ‘s not so simple. 


Concluding Remark:

This is already too long, but summarizing Kant is (at this moment for me at least) an absurd task.  Please treat these as thoughtful musings, worthy of rebuke and further instruction, which may one day reach toward some useful understanding.  As of today they are still speaking a foreign language, but one which may one day be more familiar.

Helpful links:

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: (Michael Rohlf)

Intros to European Philosophy: Spinoza

BARUCH SPINOZA (1632-1677)

Previously read: zilch

Key texts: Ethics Demonstrated in Geometrical Order and Theologico-Political Treatise

Overall impression: Spinoza is perhaps what I expected Hegel to sound like.  Spinoza was one of the most difficult reads in this series of introductions (in European Philosophers from Descartes to Nietzsche, ed. M. Beardsley) and I’m not sure I slowed down enough to grab much from him.  It was interesting later to see how Hegel (mis?)appropriated him.  But as for Spinoza himself, the man had his own system (Geometrical Ethics…?!) which I couldn’t do much with, nor am I sure that I wish to.  It’s too…self-referential, I suppose for my taste.  Still, I’ll be interested to read of other appropriations of Spinoza later as his influence was largely unknown to me before.

Surprises: how many times one person can speak of ‘substance’ without me ascertaining his meaning fully.  Are we speaking of some acosmist non-world in which God alone exists as substance and nothing else in any meaningful way exists? 

Regardless, these are what jumped out at me:

  • He denied both intellect and will as pertaining to God’s nature (European Philosophers, pp. 154-155).  It’s not so surprising, but it’s problematic for me.  What’s the point of asserting that God exists if He doesn’t will?  It also seems incompatible with any Christian or Muslim faith-expression.  But this relates to my studies in Avicenna and Al-Ghazali (and I’m still trying to get a good grip on these).
  • Oh right, and he’s immutable — does n’t change in any meaningful way (ibidem, p. 157).  Difficult to reconcile with a God who acts in history, though its reiterated as gospel by many uncritically.

“There will now be need of many words to show that Nature has set no end before herself, and that all final causes are nothing but human fictions. (p. 166)”  from Ethics

“The second objection I answer by denying that we have free power of suspending judgment.  For when we say that a person suspends judgment, we only say in other words that he sees that he does not perceive the thing adequately.  The suspension of judgment, therefore, is in truth a perception and not free will. (p. 185)”

Intros to European Philosophy: Pascal

BLAISE PASCAL (1623-1662)

Previously read: I have forgotten, so this was a welcome section of European Philosophers from Descartes to Nietzsche (ed. Monroe Beardsley).

Key texts: Thoughts or Pensees.  Basically, these are scraps from his diary.

Overall impression: Most famous for his ‘wager’, he at least attempted a less rational argument for following God, but still one based in fear.  At least he did not try to defend rationality as grounds for a Christian defense.  Further, Pascal pointed to those who had chosen to submit their passions to God rather than the strength of an argument.

But Pascal is most interesting for me when he speaks of what we are as humans.  For instance, ‘we are something, and we are not everything’ (p. 103).  We are caught between the Infinite of the great and the Infinite of the little.


“77.  I cannot forgive Descartes.  In all his philosophy he would have been quite willing to dispense with God.  But he had to make Him give a fillip to set the world in motion; beyond this, he has no further need of God. (p. 105)”

“397.  The greatness of man is great in that he knows himself to be miserable. (p. 129)”

“792.  The infinite distance between body and mind is a symbol of the infinitely more infinite distance between mind and charity; for charity is supernatural. (p. 132)” 

Yep, that last one stings; especially as I read pieces of these ‘thoughts’ on the subway – surrounded by the mystery of other people and least disposed to anything resembling charity.  My lasting impression of Pascal has little to do with the wager and yet I wonder if I have any more need of God in my works than Descartes.  So for me Pascal is a sobering voice, but I invite better readers of him to fill out the picture with better colours than I have managed here.

Intros to European Philosophy: Descartes

In graduate school I quickly grew frustrated how limited my courses were in scope.  It seemed everything was an introduction, and often a disappointing one at that.  But this is also much of my experience of the quest for further wisdom.  Even my readings seem to halt at the introductory.  I find this anti-climax often in reading as in study.  In short, there’s rarely a sure foothold to be marked from such things.  The European Philosophers from Descartes to Nietzsche (2002) is no exception. 

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not truly disappointed.  I’m only disappointed that I haven’t progressed further by means of these readings.  But enough of that, I’ll speak of what may yet be helpful and my impressions.  After that, I leave to you to decide whether any meaningful insight has been gained (or could be gained by another better equipped).

RENE DESCARTES (1596-1650)

Previously read: only excerpts from his Meditations on First Philosophy and wrote some short essay about methodological doubt in college.  This paper was a case study for me on how his method could be misappropriated to serve thought-systems alien to Descartes’ purposes. 

Key texts: Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy

Overall impression: It’s nice to be able to locate these thinkers in relation to one another, at least when I can remember key terms.  For instance, Descartes’ confidence in something that is true whether dreaming or awake (2+3=5) is located for Kant in the analytic (and the arithmetical or geometrical examples are completed by intuition guided by linguistic definitions). 

The idea that I am a thinking thing isn’t nearly as helpful as Descartes asserts, but he spoke in a different discourse than I do. 

Surprises: Ego sum, ego existo (I am, I exist) is to be found, not the famous cogito ergo sum (p. 34).  I had heard that Je pense donc je suis was to be found, but it was not in the offered excerpts.  The idea can also be found in some measure in Augustine, if you’re interested.  It just isn’t made to be the ground of epistemological knowledge as it is in Descartes.

  • He doesn’t really doubt the senses when it comes right down to it.  Doubt is a path to speak of being guided by the ‘natural light’. 
  • He speaks of being a unitary whole, but still uses the language of being a sailor in a ship when speaking of his relation to sensations.

Useful: In ‘Infinity and the Idea of God’ [B] (trans. Haldane and Ross), Descartes averred that we ought to name things ‘indefinite’ instead of ‘infinite’ (p. 85).  This better contextualizes certain mathematical problems: ‘how long is half of an infinite line’ no longer poses the same issues for us.