The Two Most Important Philosophers Who Ever Lived | Peter Kreeft | From "Socrates
Meets Descartes" | IgnatiusInsight.com
The Two Most Important Philosophers Who Ever Lived | Peter Kreeft | The Introduction to
Socrates Meets Descartes: The Father of Philosophy Analyzes the Father of Modern
Philosophy's Discourse on Method
This book is one in a series of Socratic explorations of some of the Great
Books. Books in this series are intended to be short, clear, and non-technical,
thus fully understandable by beginners. They also introduce (or review)
the basic questions in the fundamental divisions of philosophy (see the
chapter titles): metaphysics, epistemology, anthropology, ethics, logic,
and method. They are designed both for classroom use and for educational
do-it-yourselfers. The "Socrates Meets . . ." books can be read and understood
completely on their own, but each is best appreciated after reading the
little classic it engages in dialogue.
The setting Socrates and the author of the Great Book meeting in
the afterlife need not deter readers who do not believe there is
an afterlife. For although the two characters and their philosophies are
historically real, their conversation, of course, is not and requires
a "willing suspension of disbelief ". There is no reason the skeptic cannot
extend this literary belief also to the setting.
This excerpt is the Introduction to Socrates
Socrates and Descartes are probably the
two most important philosophers who ever lived, because they are the two who
made the most difference to all philosophy after them. Socrates is often called
"the Father of Philosophy" and Descartes is called "the Father of Modern
Philosophy." The two of them stand at the beginning of the two basic
philosophical options: the classical and the modern.
At least seven features unite these two
philosophers and distinguish them from all others.
First, each was an initiator, a
revolutionary, virtually without predecessors. No other philosophers depended
so little on previous philosophers, and no other philosophers made subsequent
thinkers depend so much on them. Socrates' method, Socrates' questions, and
Socrates' answers differed almost totally from the so-called pre-Socratic
philosophers; and Descartes tried to begin philosophy all over again as if the
two thousand years of it before him simply had not existed. No one else in the
history of thought has ever done this as thoroughly as these two did.
Second, each began by doubting and
questioning everything, or nearly everything, even the commonplaces everyone
else took for granted. Both understood that the first and most important step
of a truly scientific method is to assume nothing, or at least to question all
assumptions, to get prejudices out, out from the subjective side of
consciousness and into the objective side, where they can be part of the
examinees rather than part of the examiners.
Many other philosophers agree with this,
of course, but none ever did it more thoroughly or originally than these two.
Socrates had few books, no schools, and little philosophical tradition before
him to work with; Descartes had much, but deliberately doubted it all (or tried
to). Thus both relied on the direct experience and thinking of the individual,
not the authority and tradition of the community.
Third, each made the quest for the
knowledge of the self the central philosophical quest, though they meant
somewhat different things by it. What Socrates meant by "know thyself" was "know
Man's essence, know universal human nature." What Descartes meant was "know
your own existence as an individual."
They also undertook this quest for
different reasons. Socrates' reason was obedience to the command of the god of
the Delphic oracle, over whose temple "know thyself " was inscribed. Descartes'
reason was to overcome the skepticism of many of the best thinkers of his time
(especially Montaigne) by discovering the one absolute certainty that could be
used as the starting point of a new, more certain philosophy: "I think,
therefore I am." But both men turned to the "I", the self, the soul, the mind,
as their fundamental interest, much more than any other philosophers had.
(Descartes' only rivals here are Augustine, twelve centuries before him, and
Pascal, his contemporary; Socrates had no other preceding or contemporary
rivals at all.)
Fourth, each identified the self with
the soul rather than the body. Each was a "dualist", that is, they believed
that reality is dual (twofold): matter (including our bodies) and spirit
(including our souls). No philosophers were more famous dualists than Descartes
and Socrates (via his disciple Plato).
Fifth, each focused on the
epistemological question, or "the critical problem" of How do you know?
Socrates asked this question about every particular claim anyone made to know
anything, while Descartes asked it about knowledge in general. Unlike Socrates,
Descartes demanded a reason for trusting reason itself before using reason to
construct a philosophy, as a carpenter might check his tools before building a
house. Perhaps this is an answerable question, perhaps not. But in any case, no
two philosophers ever focused more attention on the question How do you know?
than these two.
Sixth, each offered a new method to
philosophy, though both came to traditional conclusions through their new methods.
In both cases, the new method demanded more severe criteria, tighter, stricter
grounds for our beliefs and opinions. Each philosopher narrowed "reason".
Before Socrates, it had included myth, intuition, and tradition. Without
rejecting any of these older things, Socrates demanded something new: clear
definitions and logical arguments. Descartes narrowed "reason" further, from "wisdom"
to "science", from philosophical logic to scientific logic, from Socrates' "dialectical"
(dialogue) method to the scientific method. No other philosophers ever offered
new methods that changed philosophical thinking itself as much as these two.
And no philosopher's method ever proved more popular, more universally imitated
by his successors, than these two.
Seventh, each believed he was divinely
commissioned to philosophize by a supernatural sign. For Socrates, it was the
Delphic oracle, who, by announcing to Socrates' friend Chairophon that no one
was wiser than Socrates, inveigled Socrates to question others to find someone
wiser than himself, and in so doing inveigled Socrates to develop the Socratic
Method of philosophizing by logical cross examination.
Socrates also confessed that he had a
private "spiritual sign" or "divine voice", which often stopped him from some
course of action but never specifically commanded any. Like most idealistic
Athenian citizens of his time, Socrates had aspired to a political career, but
the "divine voice" forbade him. So together, the Delphic oracle and the "divine
voice" led him into philosophy. In his Apology, he defends not only himself but
his troublemaking vocation of philosophizing: every single time he mentions
philosophy in that speech, he mentions "the god" as its source.
Descartes, too, became a philosopher due
to an apparent divine intervention. Already at age twenty three he was clearly
a scientific genius, and he delayed publishing only because of the condemnation
of Galileo. On the night of November 10, 1619, he had a life-changing dream in
which he believed that the divine Spirit of Truth came to him and directed him
I need not add that this is not how most
philosophers and philosophies begin. Socrates and Descartes are strikingly
unusual and strikingly similar in these seven different ways. Yet they are also
strikingly different from each other, as different as the ancient (classical)
and modern (scientific) worldviews of which they were major founders.
So a dialogue between Socrates and
Descartes is a dialogue between the two fundamental stages in the history of
philosophy, the history of consciousness, and the history of Western culture.
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Peter Kreeft, Ph.D., is a professor
of philosophy at Boston College who uses that dialog format in a series
published by Ignatius Press, called "Socrates Meets..." So far,
Dr. Kreeft has written Philosophy
101 by Socrates, Socrates
Meets Marx, Socrates
Meets Machiavelli and Socrates
Dr. Kreeft has written more than forty books, including C.S.
Lewis for the Third Millennium, Fundamentals
of the Faith, Catholic
to Virtue, and Three
Approaches to Abortion. His most recent Ignatius Press books include
Can Understand the Bible, The
God Who Loves You, and The
Philosophy of Tolkien. (A complete list of Ignatius Press books
by Kreeft can be viewed on his IgnatiusInsight.com
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