Tag Archives: Philosophy

Comparing Kant to Plato

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I was asked to write a post on how a given philosopher’s views might be different to Immanuel Kant’s, specifically Kant’s ethical philosophy. As I’ve just finished a classical philosophy course, I figured it would make sense to use Plato.

First of all, this post will make a whole lot more sense if you’ve read my post on Kant’s categorical imperative first, or if you’ve studied the CI before. But the basic features of Kant’s moral philosophy are these; it’s deontological (i.e. rule based) and normative (concerned with establishing the difference between right and wrong and creating moral rules, as opposed to, for instance, practical ethics which looks at individual moral dilemmas and tries to figure out what the ethically correct response might be), values autonomy (so everyone should arrive at his conclusions by exercising their own reason, rather than simply taking his word for it), holds that people can never be used as means to an end (i.e. you can’t kill or manipulate people “for the greater good”), and holds that rationality is the key to making the right decisions in ethical situations. It is often praised for the fact that it provides people with a relatively simple decision-making procedure that they can use when an ethical decision needs to be made, and criticized for its rigidity and lack of emotion.

By contrast, Plato’s ethics are virtue-based and eudaimonistic, like that of most Ancient Greek philosophers. I’ll explain the eudaimonistic part of that briefly. Ancient Greek ethics wasn’t concerned so much with how we should act as it was with how we should live. And it was more prudential (concerned with well-being) than it was moral. Philosophers like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle were more concerned with how people should live their lives in order to be happy than they were with figuring out what the difference between right and wrong was. They wanted to work out how to achieve eudaimonia, the optimal state of being for any human, and help their fellows achieve it as well. Fortunately, they all shared a belief that being a good person was essential for accomplishing this. They believed that eudamonia could be achieved through the cultivation of various virtues and the elimination of vices. “Virtue” in this case is slightly different in meaning to what we think when we hear the word today. It’s a somewhat inadequate translation of the Ancient Greek word arete, which really just refers to excellence (it doesn’t have the moral tinge inherent in “virtue”).

So virtue ethics was about developing a strong character, which often involved developing typically moral characteristics like bravery and compassion (though it could also involve developing, say, excellence at cobbling or wine-making). When it started to be considered as an ethical theory in the modern sense (rather than as a way of life that was meant to help you flourish as a human being), it was argued that developing good character will allow you to act well without having to think about it – a moral person does the right thing instinctively. Therefore, it’s better to focus on becoming a good person, rather than trying to think rationally about the right thing to do in any given situation.

This is one of the primary differences between Platonic and Kantian ethics. While Kant thought that the way to make the best decisions in life was to take the time to think them through rationally, Plato may well have argued that we often don’t have time to stop and think every time we have to make an important decision. A lot of the time we have to rely on our instincts, so they should be our focus – train yourself to be a good person, and you will act the right way without having to think about it first. That said, Plato (as well as most other Ancient Greek philosophers) was very fond of rationality. It’s important to remember that Kantian ethics and virtue ethics are not mutually exclusive. The Kantian practice of rationally examining moral situations can be a valuable tool in developing virtue. The real difference lies in the focus of each theory; one looks at a person’s actions, whilst the other looks at the person. A person could adopt a fairly Platonic virtue ethic and decide that it is virtuous to know the difference between right and wrong, and then use Kant’s categorical imperative to help her with this. However, Plato wasn’t quite such a fan of autonomy; his ideal state, expounded in the Republic, was one in which the ruling class decided what people should do, be it baking bread or waging war, and giving them little choice in the matter.

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Deductive Soundness and Validity (How to win arguments part 2)

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In my last post, I explained what a deductive argument is and looked at conditional statements, which play a central role in deductive reasoning. Now I’d like to talk about soundness and validity. Being able to establish quickly whether a deductive argument is valid or not allows you to work out if you need to devote more time and energy to unpacking it. If it’s invalid, you don’t have to examine it any further; you can put it aside and focus your attention on other arguments. But if it’s valid, it’s time to start the arduous process of working out whether it’s sound (and, thus, whether you have to accept its conclusion).

But what do these terms mean? We use them in various ways in our every day life, but in the realm of critical thinking they have specific definitions. Validity refers to an argument’s form; a deductively valid argument is one that has one of two forms. Basically, the premises need to guarantee the conclusion. You may remember from my previous post that this is the definition of a deductive argument. So, when we’re saying that an argument is deductively valid, all we’re really saying is that it actually is successfully deductive. To determine whether it is or isn’t, we have to look at the conditionals.

A conditional deductive argument will always contain a conditional statement, some kind of follow-up statement, and a conclusion. An example of this would be: “If something is a green plant, it photosynthesizes. My cactus is a green plant. Therefore, it photosynthesizes.” The follow-up statement in this case is affirming the sufficient condition. This is one valid form of deductive argument, also known as a modus ponens argument. The other form of valid deductive argument is known as a modus tollens argument – this is an argument in which the second premise denies the necessary condition. An example of this might be “If something is a green plant, it photosynthesizes. My cat does not photosynthesize, therefore it’s not a green plant.” In each of these arguments, the premises guarantee the conclusion. If a conditional deductive argument denies the sufficient condition or affirms the necessary condition, the result is an invalid argument: “If something is a green plant, it photosynthesizes. My cat is not a green plant, therefore it doesn’t photosynthesize.” The way I was taught to remember this is to look for matching letters – affirming the sufficient and denying the necessary are the valid forms. It’s possible for an invalid argument to have only true premises and a true conclusion, as in the example just given – validity refers only to whether or not the conclusion is guaranteed by the truth of the premises.

What about soundness? A sound deductive argument is a valid deductive argument with only true premises (and, thus, has a true conclusion – if a deductive argument is shown to be sound, you can’t disagree with its conclusion). This is what people want to achieve when they construct a deductive argument. But it’s hard to establish whether an argument really is sound, because determining whether it’s premises are true can be difficult and may involve subjective reasoning. Note that validity and soundness are two different things; an argument can be valid without being sound (though it can’t be sound without being valid). Consider my first example in the paragraph above. Cacti are indeed green plants. And they do photosynthesize. But it’s not true that all green plants photosynthesize; dodder, a kind of parasitic plant, can have a green colour but does not photosynthesize. So the first premise and the conclusion are true, but the second premise is false. The argument is valid, but it isn’t sound.

Knowing how to identify valid deductive arguments can allow you to have far more fruitful discussions with people; you can get straight to the work of examining the premises of their valid arguments to determine whether they’re true, without wasting time on arguments that are structurally flawed. Hopefully this post will help you learn how to do so.

Conditionals (How to win arguments part 1)

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Being able to argue properly, with yourself and others, is an incredibly valuable skill. Being able to critically evaluate arguments is not only extremely useful in the workplace – it can help you make better life choices for yourself and the people around you. This skill is generally known as “critical thinking”, and it is a philosopher’s bread and butter. Now, there’s no point in denying that we all use our brains differently, and that some of us are naturally good at this kind of thinking. But anyone can get better at thinking critically by studying arguments, including those to whom it comes naturally. So, for your entertainment and edification, I’ve decided to put together a few posts on the topic.

Let’s start with deduction. A deductive argument, simply speaking, is one in which the premises (if true) guarantee the conclusion. In other words, if the premises of a valid deductive argument are true, the conclusion can’t possibly be false. An example of this could be; “If I don’t study for my philosophy exam on wednesday, I will not get a good mark on it (first premise). I’m not studying for my philosophy exam on wednesday (second premise), therefore I will not get a good mark on it (conclusion)”. As you can see, if the premises of this argument are true, the conclusion must also be true. Note that this doesn’t mean that the conclusion actually is true, because the premises might be false. Compare this to; “If I don’t study for my philosophy exam on wednesday, I will not get a good mark on it. I will study for my philosophy exam on wednesday, therefore I will get a good mark on it”. This is a bad argument, deductively speaking, because the premises don’t guarantee the conclusion. This is because the form of the argument is invalid. I’ll get to validity later, but for now I want to focus on conditionals.

Conditional statements (often shortened to “conditionals”) are statements like the first premise in the example arguments above. “If then” statements, essentially. Conditional statements contain two different conditions (hence the name): a necessary condition and a sufficient condition. To put it very simply, the sufficient condition is the one that comes after the “if”, and the necessary condition is the one that comes after the “then”. In the examples above, “not studying for my philosophy exam” is the sufficient condition and “not getting a good mark on it” is the necessary condition. The “if” and “then” are not part of the conditions. Knowing the difference between these different kinds of condition, and being able to identify them, is an essential skill when it comes to evaluating deductive arguments.

However, identifying them can be difficult, because conditional statements are often not given in the standard “if then” form. In such sentences, it’s possible to work out which is which by looking at the meaning of the statement (what is necessary and what is sufficient), but it’s also possible to translate it into “if then” form. Consider this statement: “only people who don’t study for their philosophy exam will get a bad mark on it.” This translates into: “if you get a bad mark on your philosophy exam, then you didn’t study for it.” The original sentence does not say that everyone who doesn’t study for their philosophy exam will get a bad mark on it; rather, it says that those who do get a bad mark will not have studied. This becomes a lot clearer when the sentence has been translated, because it’s easier to identify the conditionals.

There are various different ways in which you can go about translating conditional statements, such as memorizing certain key words and phrases (“only if”, for instance, usually precedes a necessary condition), but I’ve found that the easiest way is to use a conditional statement that you know is true (preferably one that’s very obviously true), and seeing how it would be rearranged in the form of the sentence you’re translating. I tend to use “if you’re a father, then you’re a parent”, which was the example given to me when I was learning how to do this. Consider the example sentence I gave you earlier. If I translate my “if then” sentence into the form it has, I get “only parents are fathers” (since the “if then” sentence is true, it must still be true when it’s rearranged – that’s how I know where to put the “father” and where to put the “parent” – “only fathers are parents” would be a false statement). I can now see that the necessary condition and sufficient condition have changed place, with the necessary condition coming first. All I have to do now is identify what the original conditions were (“not studying for your philosophy exam” and “getting a bad mark on it”) and lable them as necessary and sufficient.

Translating conditional statements like this is a skill, and as such you have to practice doing it. There’s a great little game on Khan Academy that let’s you do just this (don’t worry, it’s not too mathsy): https://www.khanacademy.org/math/geometry/logical-reasoning/e/conditional_statements_2

You can also find more information on conditional statements and deductive arguments on that page – I’ll be following up on this post with one on deductive validity in the near future. Until then, I hope you are well, and as always if you have any questions or suggestions please leave a comment below!

Some Preliminary Musings on Happiness

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Okay, so, it’s finally happened; I am actually studying at the University of Sydney, right now. I’ve been waiting six months for this! And, in a sense, so has this blog. I said I’d start posting again once I was at uni and I intend to make an honest attempt at keeping that promise. This semester I’m only taking one unit of philosophy, “The Philosophy of Happiness”, but as this is a topic that I find very interesting I should be able to squeeze a fair few posts out of it (I’m even creating a whole new category for it). Hopefully, you’ll enjoy them. If not, you’re free to go and do something else with your time.

Right; first things first – this isn’t some kind of silly, frivolous topic of philosophy that’s all about love and fluffy kittens. Like all areas of philosophical enquiry, it’s taken quite seriously. That was one of the first things I realized when my lecturer told me to go check out the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on “happiness”. By the way, am I the only one who didn’t know that that website existed? Anyway, I’ll include a link at the bottom of this post so that you can check it out for yourself – it gets pretty deep and technical at times, but it’s definitely an interesting read. The main thing I took away from it is that this is a tricky topic without any easy, straight forward answers and with plenty of difficult questions. One of the big problems is figuring out what “happiness” means. What do we mean when we ask “what is happiness?”. Do we want to know about a certain state of mind (happiness in the psychological sense)? Or do we want to know about well-being? Which of the two is a more accurate definition of happiness? Apparently, this is were a lot of the debate in the philosophy of happiness comes from, as different happiness theorists talk about different kinds of happiness; there’s no proper consensus with regards to what we mean when we talk about “happiness” and how to achieve it. So you’ll have some philosophers talking about how to attain a certain state of mind, whereas others will talk about how to to increase your well-being. And then everyone gets confused because both groups use the same word – happiness – to describe what their talking about.

What I’m getting at here is that it’s very difficult to find a definitive definition of what happiness is. It’s such a broad term, and it’s generally used in highly subjective ways, with different people having different ideas about what it is. This is an incredibly important issue, because there are a lot of people who want to know how to become happy. As a result, there are tons of self-help and spiritual advice books out there, ostensibly telling people what they need to do in order to be happy or to live happy lives. But can this be done properly until we understand what happiness is, and what people mean when they say that they want to know how to be happy? Arguably not, as these books aren’t necessarily telling people how to be happy, but how to adopt a state of mind or a life style that the author thinks will lead them to become “happy” according to their personal definition of the term. So while this whole “what is happiness” thing may seem like a silly, fatuous line of enquiry that’s just clouding the waters, it’s actually vitally important. That said, it’s still possible to theorize about how to be happy without having resolved the former question. We do have many theories about what it means to be happy (most people have at least some intuitive sense of what the term implies); it’s fully possible, and perhaps even advisable, to take one of those theoretical definitions and figure out how people can make it a reality. For instance, you might like the Aristotelian concept of happiness, “eudaimonia” or “human flourishing”, and you’re free to figure out how to achieve that state of being, and to tell others how they might achieve it as well. It’s just a question of coming up with a personal definition of happiness before moving on to the next step. But it’s important to take into account the fact that such a definition might in some way be incorrect, and that happiness could – objectively speaking – be something else entirely.

I hope that’s given you some food for thought. I’m still trying to process most of it myself! But I’m interested in what you think; what is your definition of happiness? What does it mean to be happy, or to have a happy life, in your opinion? Perhaps you feel that the term “happiness” refers to several different things, or that it’s just a naturally vague term? Anyway, till next time; keep on reflecting!

Philosophy and Popular Culture

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Philosophy and Popular Culture

Hey there, people!

So I’m not, strictly speaking, a “normal” 19 year old guy. I spend inordinate amounts of time sitting in front of my computer, one of my favourite pass times is reading, I detest physical activity and one of my all-time heroes is Stephen Fry. But I’m not that unusual, and while I do have a great love for knowledge, I’m quite picky about where I get that knowledge from. I prefer to get my information from sources that I find both entertaining and intellectually engaging. Often, I find myself favouring the entertainment aspect just a little. Unfortunately, one of the topics I’m interested in is philosophy, and studying philosophy involves spending considerable amounts of time reading books with daunting titles like “The Genealogy of Morals” and “Meditations on First Philosophy”. Now don’t get me wrong, those books are both fantastically rewarding reads (they’re definitely intellectually stimulating) and I think the world might just be a better place if more people read them (carefully), but they’re just not… that… fun.

Philosophy has a bit of a PR problem, and has had for a few years. A lot of people think it’s just a load of pseudo-intellectual bull crap that isn’t of any real value to society, or that it’s just an incredibly dry and stuffy subject, or both. Of course, none of these ideas are true! I could – and might – write a whole post just on that one subject, but this post is about a series of books that have been and are being written in an attempt to adress the underlying issue; the Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture Series. These books have been around for a while now, but I only just discovered them the other day, and I just finished reading “The Ultimate Harry Potter and Philosophy: Hogwarts for Muggles”. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a real gem, and if the other books in the series live up to it, I think these people might just be on the right track. One thing they show beyond any doubt is that popular culture is completely saturated with philosophy, whether we realize it or not.

The thing about books like these is that they manage to make learning fun, and while that learning might not be as broad and deep as that which might be had from a more formal source, that aspect of fun is vitally important. I’m more likely to remember a philosophical theory if it’s presented to me in an interesting and funny manner, and I’m more likely to take an interest in a philosophical movement if my introduction to it is one that I find to be entertaining. I think there’s often a resistance amongst certain intellectuals to the whole idea of popularization, because it’s seen as something that threatens the integrity of a subject. But the whole point of academic research and thinking – at least as I see it – is to enrich human life through reflection and the accumulation and spreading of knowledge, and that enrichment can’t happen in a vacuum.

Obviously, popularization cames with a few problems. It’s practically impossible to take a complicated topic, like the mind/body debate, and discuss it in a short, funny essay without a certain degree of simplification. Context and other vitally important bits of information have to be left out in favour of keeping things concise and interesting. Some people might be persuaded to think of this as a “fatal flaw” of this kind of popularization, but personally I disagree. Any form of information communication is going to have some problems, because communication is difficult. A “popularized” account of Kant’s Categorical Imperative might be a little over-simplified, but a more traditional, academic approach (favouring information and preciseness over entertainment value) may well be too dry. When reading a dense, academic essay on a complicated topic, it’s easy to start to lose focus and drift off, thus missing important information even though it’s present in the text. That’s why these latter kinds of essay’s need to be read over and over again, just as the former kind need to be taken as more of an introduction/summary than an infallible source of knowledge.

Anyway, the main thing I wanted to say is that the book was great, and I encourage people with an interest in fun philosophy to go check the series out. The writers have already covered a lot of ground, with books centred on subjects as diverse as X-men and The Big Lebowski. Now I’m going to go read about the philosophy of el Duderino.

Cya!

Link to the series’ website:

http://andphilosophy.com/

Say hello to a new blogger!

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Hi folks!

I’m afraid this isn’t going to be a proper post, just a little note to anyone who happens to stop by. I will start posting again soon, as my university studies will be starting in just under a month, whereupon I’ll be learning about the “philosophy of happiness”, and hopefully sharing that learning with you. I might actually write a couple of posts before that, just to get my brain back in gear. If you have any suggestions for good topics, give ’em up in the comments!

Anyway, what I wanted to say was this; my friend just started a blog! Now, the similarities between our blogs are not great. This is a philosophy blog, and his is a gaming blog. However, he’s a clever guy and his first post on the controversial ending of the third installment of the Mass Effect series is highly philosophical. I encourage anyone with an interest in gaming to go check out his blog, pixelpub.wordpress.com, and maybe leave a pleasant comment or two for him to read. He’s got a wonderfully weird sense of humour, too.

Hej svej!

Cynicism

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Right, so I thought I’d do some quick posts on three of the main schools of thought that came out of Ancient Greece and Rome back in the good old days. First up, Cynicism.

Cynicism was a philosophical way of thinking created by Antisthenes, a pupil of Socrates. The term “Cynic” comes from Ancient Greek and translates roughly to “dog-like” – it seems this name was given to the Cynics due to their canine approach to life; they were shameless and animalistic, but also loyal to their own and to their cause. Diogenes, perhaps the most infamous of the classical Cynics, was known as “the dog-man”.

The Cynics were concerned with virtue, honesty and integrity. Socrates was himself concerned with virtuous existence, but Antisthenes took his theories regarding this subject to their logical extreme, and founded an entire life-philosophy on them. The Cynics were concerned with analyzing society and the people living in it, and finding the flaws therein. They believed that civilization had taken a sort of wrong turn and was leading people away from a virtuous, natural life. Diogenes focused the Cynical “goal” or “vision” by adding that it was important to study basic human nature, and to see where civilization was leading people away from this natural state. Most Cynics lived rough, denouncing wealth, eating and even copulating on the streets – like dogs (I’d say a good way to understand the essence of Cynicism is to remember its literal meaning, as stated above). They were concerned with man returning to a natural existence, and thought that only when people gave up their desire for things like wealth, fame and power could they be happy. They were evangelical, striving at all times to show people the error of their ways. They taught by example and were known to preach in public places. Diogenes apparently walked the streets during the day with a lantern, saying that he was looking for a virtuous man. It’s important to note that the Cynics were not saying we should live like primitive beasts – they saw humans as “rational animals” and thought we should live as such.

Many of the Cynical ideas and theories later went into the making of Stoicism, another Hellenistic “way of life”. In the 19th century, academics began to focus on the negative aspects of Cynicism, which is how we arrived at the contemporary definition of the term “cynic”: an unpleasantly critical and excessively negative person.

Check out these links to learn more (open in a new window/tab):

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cynicism

http://www.i-cynic.com/whatis.asp

Unorthodox Views

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Yesterday, I bumped into a philosophical blog written by a man who’s views were of a definite non-mainstream nature. He wrote about how fat people are never beautiful and how homosexuality is fundamentally wrong, things like that. Now, he actually did this in an intellectual manner – it was clear from his writing that he was smart and well-educated, with a keen and critical mind. Some of what he said did have merit – but not all of it. He was evidently a highly cynical person who refused to accept authority of any kind, and wouldn’t allow himself to be swayed by mainstream thought. This I endorse, as it is a very good state of mind to adopt, especially if one has an interest in philosophy. But he failed to embrace a fully philosophical approach. He didn’t accept things as they were, but challenged them, which was good – but then he assumed that his conclusions were necessarily right, which was bad. I wanted to comment on one of his posts, to question some of his assertions and see whether I could draw him into a debate, but found that I couldn’t. He had decided to disband comments on his blog posts, I read, because he found that most people disagreed with what he said. Which, to be frank, didn’t surprise me.

Naturally, he’s free to do whatever he wants to do, and I can understand his reasoning. Apart from anything else, judging from the content on his blog he would probably get a lot of vitriol thrown at him if he did allow comments. So, in a way, society is at fault. If we lived in the sort of world where, if we stumbled across someone who disagreed with our views, we would try to understand this person’s arguments and then question them in a polite and reasoned manner, he may simply have welcomed the opportunity to have his views challenged. But we seem to prefer to get angry and indignant. Nevertheless, it brought home a couple of important points for me. Firstly, that it really is very important to allow room for discussion when arguing against accepted norms – or when arguing in any way whatsoever. Secondly, that we should never forget that sometimes society is wrong, and people like this blogger are right; as said, some of what he had written made sense.

The Equality of Peoplekind

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Most of us are willing to say, when pressed, that all people are equal. Some are even willing to say that all animals are equal. The problem is, not everyone seems to be really convinced that it’s the truth (the first bit – the second bit is a topic for a different, much longer, post). Some of us get to thinking that there is such a thing as a “better” or “superior” person, especially if we’ve lived a life of privilege. Ironically, it’s probably the more intelligent – scholastically speaking – amongst us who are most prone to this kind of thinking. Being the fairy-eyed little hippie that I am, I of course don’t think it’s true. Fortunately, I do have a lot of great thinkers backing me up. Without further ado, then, allow me to present an argument I recently stumbled upon whilst doing a bit of reading on Stoicism.

It all comes down to a person’s attributes and assets. Very often, when we think “that person’s better than that person” we’ll justify it by saying things like “he’s kinder” or “he’s smarter” or even “he’s richer”. But this is an example of false reasoning. Look at the gorgeously beautiful picture of yours truly above. That’s a rather expensive suit, and it’s been tailored to fit me like a glove (there’s a point to this; I’m no just showing off). Does owning and wearing that suit make me better than someone wearing a poorly constructed, cheap, untailored suit? Of course not! My suit would be superior to this other man’s apparel, but he and I would still be equal. Similarly, does owning a fancy, shiny sports car make you better than a man in a rusty old second-hand car? Most certainly not! Your vehicle is superior, not you yourself. The attribute at the base of this is wealth. Does being richer than an other person make you better than him or her? Nope. Your wealth is superior, not you.

This goes for other things besides wealth. And this is perhaps where the matter at hand gets a tad trickier for some folks, because while it’s quite easy for most of us to see that wealth doesn’t make a person superior to others in more than a very shallow way, we find it harder to say the same for intellect, or kindness, or courage. But the distinction is still there. Are you more eloquent than someone else? That doesn’t make you better than them; all it means is that your skill with words is of a superior quality. Do you have a better sense of style? Again, it’s only your grasp of sartorial aesthetics that is genuinely “better”. Traditionally, one of the counter arguments given against the idea that someone’s better because they possess certain superior attributes is that other’s will possess other superior attributes. Quite often, this is true. You may be more perceptive than someone else, but they may well be more athletic or extraverted. However, this argument isn’t a complete defense. It is quite possible to conceive of a person who is better in every possible way than another (more handsome, more intelligent, wealthier, healthier, etc.). It’s also very easy for people to start thinking of some qualities as better than others (saying, for instance, that appearance is all that really matters, so beautiful people are superior to ugly people). The defense I’ve jotted down here bypasses this problem by taking a different approach.

We always think of a person’s attributes as being the things that make a person better, or worse, than others. But it isn’t logical to go from saying that Eric is a better swimmer than Adam to saying that Eric is superior to Adam. Nobody is ever better than anybody else; it’s only possible for our attributes to be better, or worse, than the attributes of others. Of course, the big kink here is that you can argue that what we are is no more than the sum total of our attributes (what is known as “bundle theory”, one of David Hume’s inventions). To exemplify this, imagine a bowling ball. It is a round, hard object of a particular colour, with holes to fit a person’s fingers. Now try to imagine a bowling ball without these properties, or any other properties. It’s impossible to do so, and the logical conclusion drawn from this is that any object is just a bundle of properties and no more. There’s no “substance” to them. Of course, this only changes the situation slightly. We might be tempted to think that bundle theory means a person is superior if their attributes (properties) are greater than those of others, but what the theory really says is that you don’t exist at all. There is no “self” – all we are is a bundle of properties, like the aforementioned bowling ball. Instead of “you” not being superior, “you” simply don’t exist. So, you’re either equal to everyone else, or you’re nonexistent. The choice is yours.

On Frustration – because a better title eludes me

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A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away I watched a series of YouTube videos featuring Alain de Botton’s documentary based on his book “The Consolations of Philosophy”. Anyone who, like me, is interested in those aspects of philosophy that help us live happier, fuller lives should watch these – he discusses a lot of interesting points. Each video is centred around a particular philosopher and his or her work, and each one deals with a particular topic. As an example, there’s one on Epicurus and his ideas regarding happiness and how to attain it. Another one, which I found very interesting, was focused on Seneca, a Roman Stoic philosopher, and his thoughts on frustration.

I found this video intriguing because frustration is something I deal with on a daily basis, both my own and that of other people. Being a slow, pensive person, I tend to cause a lot of it. Seneca, apparently, was also dealing with quite a bit of frustration, working as the tutor of the emperor’s son, and frustration in that time and place was a dangerous thing. So it’s only natural that he ended up spending quite a bit of time trying to figure out how to prevent it. What he came up with is that frustration is caused by excessive optimism. It’s when we expect things to turn out well and they don’t that we get frustrated. Just think about it; imagine you have a friend who has a tendency to show up late to things. If you fully expect that said friend will arrive late to your party, and plan things accordingly, then you’ll be fine if he is late, and pleasantly surprised if he’s on time. However, if you don’t expect him to be late, but believe he’ll be on time on this occasion, and if you plan according to that, then you’ll be frustrated when he is late. We only ever become frustrated when things don’t work out the way we expect them to. Think back; can you remember a single occasion where you’ve genuinely said to yourself “oh, I’m sure this or that will happen, and if it does I’ll just have to deal with it in such and such a way” and then become frustrated when it did happen? Generally speaking, if we’re pessimistic about something from the start we’ll only find adversity mildly amusing. I, for one, think this is true. It’s that tried and true bit of advice; if your expectations are low you won’t be disappointed.

There is, however, one problem with this theory. Its conclusion is that we should adopt a more pessimistic attitude in order to avoid disappointment. We should be cynical, always expecting the worst. Many people believe that the opposite is better, that being optimistic is the best approach. I think a lot of people genuinely believe that if they’re positive and are sending out positive “vibes”, good things will come to them. Now, this might actually be the case. After all, if you wake up in the morning and convince yourself from the start that you’re going to have a good day, chances are it will be a good day. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, since you’ll get a kick of energy and will be more prepared to be active, and you’ll erect a sort of “bubble” of good-will and humour around yourself, dealing with problems more effectively. If you’re good at being optimistic, I think it’s possible to be quite content even on a fairly bad day. I recon it might even be possible to combat frustration with optimism. However, eventually you’ll hit a wall. Life has a way of keeping our feet firmly planted on the ground. If you’re pessimistic, on the other hand, you may be less happy in the short-term but you probably won’t be disappointed. It is, in many ways, an easier frame of mind to adopt and maintain than its opposite.

And yet, the idea that we’ll be more content if we’re cynical and pessimistic all the time seems counter intuitive, at least to me. It just doesn’t seem right. But maybe it’s not a question of being pessimistic. In fact, I don’t believe it is. What Seneca was saying was that we should always be prepared for the worst, but that doesn’t mean we can’t hope for the best. What he was advocating was realism, a simple acceptance of the fact that things really don’t always work out and that we’re bound to bump into problems from time to time. When we do, we should be prepared to say “ah well, that’s just the way of the world” and move on, rather than becoming angry and indignant. We should steep ourselves in reality, always ready to take the good with the bad. And when something goes wrong, we should try to take it philosophically. When the emperor ordered Seneca to kill himself, the man didn’t so much as complain. He took the knife, and then his life. Perhaps the perfect – if a tad lugubrious – illustration of what he was talking about.

On a side note, Alain de Botton has been criticized for popularising philosophy, over simplifying it to make it more accessible to “the masses”. To be frank, I’m not sure this is such a bad idea. I think philosophy has become a little too esoteric, a little too academic, and a little too lofty. Reading a philosophical text can be like trying to decipher some strange code. I believe it’s fully possible to express even the most complex philosophical theories in a simple manner. But I’ve only studied the subject for a while and can’t claim to be an expert. If you happen to have any thoughts on the matter, please share them!