Philosophy For Dummies®, UK Edtion

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Table of Contents

About This Book
Conventions Used in This Book
What You’re Not to Read
Foolish Assumptions
How This Book Is Organised
Part I: What Is Philosophy?
Part II: The History of Philosophy
Part III: The Nuts and Bolts of Philosophy
Part IV: Exploring the Mind, Consciousness and Morality
Part V: Philosophy and Science
Part VI: The Part of Tens
Icons Used in This Book
Where to Go from Here
Part I: What Is Philosophy?
Chapter 1: What’s Philosophy All About?
Defining the Job
So what is philosophy?
So what is the point of philosophy?
Loving Wisdom
Deciding What Counts as ‘Real’ Knowledge
Crunching Up Three Types of Knowing
Exploring the Physical World Around You
Testing whether the Earth is moving
Looking for Locke’s Sock
Being mystical with Bishop Berkeley
Chapter 2: Discovering Why Philosophy Matters
Laying the Foundations for Science
Thales gets his hands dirty
Philosophers running out of Time and finding Nothingness
Finding some space
Exploring space with dream power
Getting to Know the Physical World
Imposing order on a disorderly world
Free will and determinism
Inventing Systems and Logic
The laws of thought
Doubting Everything You Don’t Know
Chapter 3: Becoming a Philosophical Thinker
Having a Philosophical Conversation
Debating with Socrates
Imagining things with Galileo
Taking it step-by-step with Plato
Peeking Inside the Philosopher’s Mind
Perplexing people with paradoxes
Searching for patterns in the data
Part II: The History of Philosophy
Chapter 4: Looking at Ancient Philosophies
Laying the Groundwork with the First Greek Philosophers
Introducing Thales and his apprentice, Anaximander
Being enigmatic with Heraclitus
Summing up Pythagoras
Plating Up Plato (and Serving Up Socrates)
Figuring out the Plato/Socrates connection
Discovering Plato’s Republic and other works
Arguing with Aristotle
Everything has a purpose
Making a splash in the Islamic world
Writing his way to recognition
Finding the truth
Chapter 5: Moving from the Dark Ages to the Modern Day
Proving God’s Existence in Medieval Europe
Getting to grips with Saint Augustine
Understanding God: The ontological argument
Examining the evidence with Thomas Aquinas
Trying to Do Without God
Dealing with doubting Descartes
Seeking out Spinoza
Looking at Locke
Barking at Berkeley
Being woken up by Hume
Thinking Like Machines
Learning to love Leibniz
Marching alongside Hegel to the beat of dialectical reason
Waking up Kant from his dogmatic slumbers
Pushing Aside Philosophy with Mathematics
The maths of counting dogs
Analytic philosophy
Chapter 6: Looking at Eastern Philosophy
Contemplating the Mysterious Tao
Tao Te Ching
Doing the I Ching
Honouring Confucius
Meeting up with Mencius
Fluttering with Chuang Tzu
Debating with Buddha
Accepting suffering: Hinduism
Getting born again: Reincarnation
Chapter 7: Understanding the ‘Isms’
What’s an Ism?
Choosing between Empiricism and Idealism
Begging for a more practical approach
Stuffing chickens with Francis Bacon
Trying to Pinpoint Idealism
The ideal idealist
Making magic potions with George Berkeley
Applying Utilitarianism
Letting Everything Hang Out with Relativism
Rejecting Emotion with Stoicism
Doubting with the Sceptics
Avoiding Dangerous ‘Isms’
Part III: The Nuts and Bolts of Philosophy
Chapter 8: Seeing the Limits of Logic
Understanding What Logic Really Is
Appreciating the Things Aristotle Got Right
Drawing inferences
Surveying Syllogisms
Out with informality – in with formal systems!
When is an argument valid?
Rules and Tools
Telling the Truth via Tables
Fixing the Things Aristotle Got Wrong
Developing modern logic
Proving your arguments and arranging your terms
Spotting Fallacies
Fallacious fallacies and tactics in informal argumentation
Examining Meaningless Statements
Chapter 9: Understanding Knowledge
Laying the Foundations of Knowledge
Getting your tongue around epistemology
Knowing things instinctively
Admiring intuition
Decoding Empiricism and Rationalism
Deducing Impressive Truths with Descartes
Descartes’ second meditation
Spending a lazy week with Descartes dreaming in the oven room
Chapter 10: Separating Fact from Fiction
How Do You Know You’re Not Dreaming Right Now?
Doubting Everything with Descartes
I think, therefore I am
Remembering the Role of Memory
Using the mind as a storehouse
Examining questions of identity
Using mind-transfer machines
Listening to the stories of the subconscious mind
What Happens When the Brain Goes Wrong?
Dr Sacks and his curious tales
Philosophy meets neuroscience
Chapter 11: Interpreting Language
Deconstructing Language
Chatting with the Ancient Greeks
Building up structuralism
Relying on grammar
Playing games with words
Conducting Philosophical Investigations with Wittgenstein
Poking at Colour Terms with Pinker
Investigating the Causes of Fires with Benjamin Whorf
Finding Linguistic Relativity Amongst the Hopi Indians
Having Another Go at Deconstructing Language with Derrida
Part IV: Exploring the Mind, Consciousness and Morality
Chapter 12: Exploring the Strange Notion of Mind
Getting to Grips with Philosophy of Mind
Probing the Pesky Problem of Other Minds
Examining mind in more comfort, some time later
Meeting the mysterious other
Making computers take tests in the Chinese Room
Exploring Existentialism with Ryle’s Ghost in the Machine
Clinging to your sense of personal identity
Discovering the Will to Philosophise
Finding the will to live in French philosophy
Ethics as the encounter with the other
Chapter 13: Looking at Ethics and Morality
What Would God Do?
Pinning Down the Difference Between Right and Wrong
Achieving balance in Ancient China
Acquiring just a bit of justice
Making life-and-death decisions
Looking at business practices
Sorting out torture
Looking at the three Rs of the law
Understanding Key Ethical Theories
Separating ethics and metaethics
Weighing up utilitarianism and consequentialism
Making sure to do your duty
Being virtuous with Aristotle
Getting emotional with relativism, emotivism and anti-morality
Applying Ethics to Hard Cases
When is it okay to kill?
Getting rid of old folks
Sorting out the planet
Examining environmental ethics
Giving animals rights
Taking up vegetarianism
Chapter 14: Political Philosophy
Meeting the Great Political Philosophers
Choosing Between Authority and Anarchy: Plato
Needed: A few good Thatchers
Entering Plato’s Republic
Saluting Hegel and Totalitarianism
A bloody battle
The Absolute
Fearing Hitler and the Bewitching Effects of Propaganda
Mein Kampf
Manipulating public opinion with propaganda
Marching for Marxism
The Communist Manifesto
The trouble with capitalism
Marxist economics: Predictions of doom
Marxism and human psychology
Signing Up to the Social Contract
Worrying about Hobbes’ wicked world
Challenging Hobbes
Applying Machiavelli’s Social Glue
Chapter 15: Looking Out for Liberty
Praising Liberty: The American Declaration of Independence
Making amends
Guarding the Constitution: The Supreme Court
The Constitution and politics
Profiting from the Slave Trade with John Locke
Everyone’s equal (well, almost)
Slave-owning: It’s all right, philosophically
Taking the Democratic Turn with J. S. Mill
Voting for Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Wealth
Searching for Equality of Outcome or of Opportunity
Chapter 16: Aesthetics and Human Values
So, Just What Is Art?
Arguing about Art and Intentions
Figuring out forgeries
African art or high street kitsch?
Censoring books
Appreciating the Aesthetic Sense
Considering Aesthetics, Art and Beauty
Glossing Kant’s sublime view
Recognising the beauty trap
Respecting Nietzsche’s nasty view
Choosing between Banned and Approved Art
Diotima on Greek Sex
Testing the limits of Free Speech
Getting Back to Nature
Walking in the woods with Thoreau
Valuing the wonders of Nature
Part V: Philosophy and Science
Chapter 17: From Ancient Science to Modern Philosophy
Theorising on Everything With Early Greek Philosophers
Seeing water everywhere with Thales
Breaking everything down into atoms with Democritus
Carving Up the World with Natural Philosophers
Non-being and nothingness
Fighting it out over science: Aristotle and Plato
Opening up the book of nature with Isaac Newton
Making friends with Nature
Explaining evolution with Darwin
Discovering relativity with Galileo
Chapter 18: Investigating the Science of Society
Understanding the Science of Society
Keeping Positive with Comte
Socialising with Durkheim
Rules and society
Simple and complex societies
Being Bureaucratic with Weber
Treating People as Economic Entities
Feeling Adam Smith’s hidden hand
Manipulating the market with J. K. Galbraith
More manipulation of poor consumers
Discrediting Ayn Rand’s capitalist hero
Discovering markets and chaos theory
Chapter 19: Exploring Scientific Truth and Scientific Fashions
Setting the Scene: Reason and Science
Ptolemy and the spheres
Kant: Reason and the unreasonable
Causing Science Problems with the Problem of Causation
Comprehending cause and effect
Being challenged by Hume
Letting Black Swans Destroy Favoured Theories
Shifting Paradigms and Causing Scientific Revolutions
Analysing how scientists really work: Thomas Kuhn
Abolishing method with Paul Feyerabend
Comparing Quantum Mechanics to Common-or-Garden Mechanics
Querying quantum theory
Wondering about indeterminacy
The theory of incompleteness
Strange forces being invented to link the atoms back together again
Part VI: The Part of Tens
Chapter 20: Ten Famous Philosophical Books – and What They Say
The Critique of Pure Reason, by Immanuel Kant
The Republic, by Plato
Fear and Trembling, by Søren Kierkegaard
Ethics, by Baruch Spinoza
Discourse on Method, by René Descartes
A Treatise of Human Nature, by David Hume
Leviathan, by Thomas Hobbes
Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous, by George Berkeley
Ethics, by Aristotle
Existentialism and Humanism, by Jean-Paul Sartre
Chapter 21: Ten Philosophical Puzzles to Keep You Thinking
Probing Protagoras’s Problem
Playing in the Sandpit with the Sorites Problem
Identifying Locke’s Sock
Knowing Your Own Mind with Swampy Things
Losing Your Marbles with Professor Davidson
Squabbling over the Plank of Carneades
Giving Up Reality with the X-perience Machine
Jumping Up for the Cosmos
Worrying about What Happens After the Sun Goes Out
Getting Relativity in Einstein’s Elevator
Cheat Sheet

Philosophy For Dummies®, UK Edition

by Martin Cohen


About the Author

Martin Cohen is a full-time writer and editor of philosophical books. He has both taught and researched philosophy at a number of universities in the UK and Australia but is best known for his books advocating and developing a method of teaching philosophy sometimes known as modularity. This is a technique, (which is very appropriate to the Philosophy For Dummies style) in which big complex problems are broken down into bits, each part of which is (as much as possible) independent and self-standing. He was originally encouraged in the approach by George MacDonald Ross, for whom he was a researcher on an ambitious project to change the way philosophy is taught in UK universities in the 1980s, and to make it less ‘stuffy’ and more practical.

Martin’s earlier books include: 101 Philosophy Problems, 101 Ethical Dilemmas, Political Philosophy, Wittgenstein’s Beetle and Other Classic Thought Experiments, Philosophical Tales, and Mind Games.

As well as having been a lecturer and researcher, Martin is also a professional school teacher, who in the distant past taught in schools in Yorkshire and Staffordshire, with children from ages as young as seven. He remains an advocate of ‘philosophy for children’ and his ‘101’ books are popular with many teachers.

Although his book Philosophical Tales paints rather an unkind picture of Karl Marx, Martin sees the ‘point of philosophy’, as Marx once said, to be not merely to interpret the world but to change it, and he has been active on many ethical and environmental issues.

Author’s Acknowledgments

For Dummies style does not allow footnotes (which is surely right – out, out damned footnote!) nor even end notes. However, that can be a little bit of an invitation to borrow without acknowledgement. So this section is an effort to catch up with some of the many people who really ought to be acknowledged, as indeed this book is not all my own ideas, but merely my distillation of reading, research, and discussions with others. Here are just some of those philosophical folk whose ideas I have benefited from and attempted to communicate to a new audience:

Brenda Almond, Gideon Calder, Anna Cohen, James Danaher, Pierre-Alain Gouanvic, Wendy Hamblet, Trevor Jordan, Colin Kirk, Mary Lenzi, Yuli Liu, George MacDonald Ross, Tom Morris, Chris Onof, Andrew Porter, John Sellars, Daniel Silvermintz, Dean D’Souza, Stephen Thornton, Zenon Stavrinides and Brad Weslake.

On the production side, I should also like to thank all those ‘professional Dummies’ at Wiley – notably Nicole Hermitage, who introduced me to the idea of For Dummies, and Simon Bell, who coped very patiently with my occasional incredulity at the requirements of ‘Dummies Style’. I would also like to thank the various readers of the manuscript, especially Zenon, for their careful comments, corrections and advice.

Publisher’s Acknowledgements

We’re proud of this book; please send us your comments through our Dummies online registration form located at

Some of the people who helped bring this book to market include the following:

Commissioning, Editorial, and Media Development

Project Editor: Simon Bell

Content Editor: Jo Theedom

Commissioning Editor: Nicole Hermitage

Assistant Editor: Ben Kemble

Copy Editor: Charlie Wilson

Technical Editor: Dr Zenon Stavrinides

Publisher: David Palmer

Production Manager: Daniel Mersey

Cover Photos: Sly/Fotolia

Cartoons: Ed McLachlan

Composition Services

Project Coordinator: Kristie Rees

Layout and Graphics: Timothy C. Detrick

Proofreader: Laura Albert

Indexer: Sharon Shock


Philosophy For Dummies! How about that! Actually, it doesn’t sound quite right. Philosophy For Thoughtful People, maybe. Philosophy For Geniuses. yes, I like that. But Philosophy For Dummies, no. Because philosophy has a certain cachet: it has a certain, rather grand, status. You don’t think so? How many ancient geographers or chemists or astronomers are lovingly quoted everyday, not just for historical interest, but as authorities? But philosophers certainly are. How many subjects can survive simply reprinting old essays without having to come up with new material? But philosophy is like that. We’d much rather read the words of an ancient philosopher or at least a very highly respected dead one, than listen to the latest ideas of some still living professor who quite likely won’t even be remembered in a thousand years.

So yes, philosophy has a bit of a weighty, serious side, and suits weighty serious types. But that’s just one way to look at it. It’s also a surprisingly sexy subject. After all, how many Geography Cafés are there? Informal gatherings of young people discussing geography in public bars? Not many. But there are philosophy ones. And how many people rush to take courses in teaching, say, chemistry to very young children – calling it Chem4Children, perhaps? But Philosophy for Children (meaning the under sevens by and large) has really taken off – and the little ones love it!

What’s more remarkable, the ‘little ones’ are pretty good at it. And that’s why Philosophy For Dummies is actually not such a Dumb Idea. The real issues, and the real ideas of philosophy belong to everyone, and if philosophy has traditionally been stuck a little bit too much on its pedestal, a little too full of its obscure jargon, Latin terms and so on, then that’s all the more reason to bring it down a peg or two, and return it to where actually it started, the public arena as a pursuit for everyone. I hope by the end of this book to have convinced you that you too can ‘do philosophy’ – and equally importantly, that maybe some of those philosophical experts whose boring books might have put you off before, aren’t quite as on top of the subject as they think they are. Subversive? Well, yes. But that’s philosophy. That’s why it matters. And that’s why everyone should have a go at it.

About This Book

Philosophy For Dummies provides you with two things. First, the essential facts – the nuts and bolts – of 3000 years of people philosophising. And secondly, it provides you with a toolbox of methods and techniques for dealing with problems and tricky questions. These tools are really what makes philosophy valuable. For they can be used equally well throughout life, not just on traditional philosophical problems.

Conventions Used in This Book

To help you get the most from this book, I follow a few conventions:

check.png Italic emphasises and highlights new words or strange terms that I go on to define . . .

check.png Sidebars (the grey boxes you come across from time to time) contain tasty extracts from classic philosophical works, typically based on the standard contemporary translations, but occasionally slightly reworded, to make them read more naturally.

check.png I don’t give dates all the time, for example for philosophers or their books, except where I feel it is directly useful to the passage.

What You’re Not to Read

The book is divided into five parts, plus the usual For Dummies ‘Part of Tens’. These, like the chapters themselves, can be read in any order. Similarly, within each chapter, extensive use of sidebars, headings and sub-headings both invites you and enables you to dip in and out of the text. There’s no need to plough through this book, just take it idea by idea, debate by debate. And do a lot of pausing to think, of course!

You’ll also see plenty of icons above text which you can take or leave: I hope you’ll enjoy the ‘Lousy Idea’ icon, which of course is a little bit tongue-in-cheek, and check out the ‘Thought Experiments’ whenever the icon appears.

Foolish Assumptions

In writing this book, I made a few assumptions about who you are:

check.png You’re curious and motivated to find out more about philosophy, even though you may not be 100 per cent sure how to go about it.

check.png You have an open mind, and have not already filled it up with rigid options – especially philosophical ones.

check.png You’re interested in hearing about the links between different philosophical traditions and ideas.

check.png You’re open to the idea that philosophy is a pretty broad field, sweeping across natural science and sociology as well as the traditional pursuits of standard college courses.

Beyond those, I’ve not assumed too much, I hope. This book is for you whether you’re seven or seventy, a PhD or a Member of Parliament.

How This Book Is Organised

A bit more now about the six parts of Philosophy For Dummies.

Part I: What Is Philosophy?

Great place to start! But honestly, ‘what philosophy is’ is harder to pin down than it really ought to be. My interpretation is not like most other philosophers’ versions, although I’m far from alone in arguing that philosophy is actually a practical tool for dealing with real issues. This part sketches out the overall aims and ‘scope’ of philosophy, making sure that what we now call ‘science’ is put back where it belongs – at the heart of the subject. And Part I closes by setting out some of the techniques you’ll need to actually start ‘doing’ philosophy, practising philosophy as an activity.

Part II: The History of Philosophy

This part covers everything you need to know about what philosophers’ have said and argued and indeed done in the past. From the origins of many of philosophy’s debates in both Ancient Greece and China, to the latest confusing philosophical isms (like existentialism and utilitarianism) this part spells the debates out clearly and puts it all in context.

Part III: The Nuts and Bolts of Philosophy

This is the ‘How to’ section – how to use ‘logic’ effectively, how to find things out (rather than just think you have found something out and be mistaken!) and how to step back from everything you just found out and realise that you still don’t really know it. That might sound more like undoing the nuts and bolts of your philosophical go-kart, but hey, that’s kind of useful too. Trouble is, no one knows (yet) how to put everything ‘we used to know’ back together again.

Part IV: Exploring the Mind, Consciousness and Morality

This is without doubt the most valuable part of the book. Why do I say that? Because it is to do with values. And although that sounds a bit ‘preachy’ – go home Vicar! – by the time you’ve read this, I think you’ll maybe want to call the Vicar back again, sit him down for tea and biscuits and discuss many of the issues raised here, from ‘What is art?’ to whether economic forces always work for the best.

Part V: Philosophy and Science

Philosophers are a bit sniffy about science. In fact, most philosophy introductions and quite a few universities consider philosophy of science to be not proper philosophy at all – and maybe to belong in a separate book (or classroom) a long, long way away. That’s a pretty dumb view, as this part will show. And indeed, science is increasingly at the cutting edge of philosophy, with trad philosophers struggling to join in with their supposedly practical colleagues. Don’t get left behind – read this and join in the big new debates!

Part VI: The Part of Tens

Every For Dummies book has one. The Part of Tens offers two bite-sized chapters filled with tempting philosophical puzzles and tasty morsels of philosophical texts.

Icons Used in This Book

Sprinkled through the book you’ll see various icons to guide you on your way. Icons are a For Dummies way of drawing your attention to important stuff, interesting stuff, and stuff you really need to know to watch out for.

acloserlook.eps Key pieces of information which repay, well, a closer look.

greatidea_philos.eps This is stuff you may want to add to your memory bank – the very best bits of philosophy.

jargonbuster.eps Philosophers love their obscure terminology and exclusive lingo. This icon points you to clear, straightforward translations.

lousyidea.eps And the other side of the coin – this is stuff you may want to delete from your memory bank – but don’t be tempted to do so, these ideas are still influential and still part of the history of philosophy.

thoughtexperiment.eps These are imaginary scenarios that investigate philosophy problems in a more scientific manner.

tip.eps Little nuggets of information to smooth your understanding.

warning_bomb.eps Take careful note of the advice under this icon, and you’ll avoid calamities.

Where to Go from Here

I’ve organised this book so that you can just dip in and out of it as you like. It isn’t specifically written to be read from start to finish, although you can do that if you want. In general, though, you’ll probably find that you look up what you want to read about in the Table of Contents or the index and dive straight in at that section. Or, if you prefer to read in a more conventional way, reading Part I will give you the basics for getting started in philosophy from scratch, and point you towards places later in the book where you can hop to for more detailed information on topics in which you’re particularly interested.

Best of luck, and . . . happy philosophising!

Part I

What Is Philosophy?


In this part . . .

Philosophy is a pretty posh name for a pretty posh subject. Not one most of us need know anything about, you’d think. Gardening, how to drive cars, maybe a bit of computers these days – but philosophy? Wake me up when the professor’s gone!

But philosophy’s not boring or useless at all. This part explains why you actually just might find it incredibly useful to read the rest of the book, and why you really might enjoy finding out all about those strange philosophical questions, puzzles and ideas. Ready? Now get stuck in!