Monday, May 01, 2017

The times they are a-changin’

Since I created this philosophical website ten years ago, I have published more than 500 blogs. Nonetheless, if the reader wants to know what the main themes in philosophy are, it has no sense to list the themes of my blogs, since they don’t show what is important in philosophy but only what my philosophical interests are. Moreover, since I am not a philosopher by education but a sociologist who later became interested in philosophy, I even haven’t a good overview of the field. So, I got the idea to browse a bit on the Internet and to enter the words “problems in philosophy” in the Google search machines and see what I would get. Well, what did I find? Pages and pages with entries referring to Bertrand Russell’s book The problems of philosophy. I could even download the book for free, which was not necessary though, since I have it already. As such the result was not bad, but the book is already from 1912. However, because I wanted to see what the main philosophical problems were then according to Russell, I took my copy, read the contents and thumbed it through. What was it that Russell considered the major philosophical issues? I’ll spare you an enumeration of the fifteen subjects he discussed but they concern all the nature of reality and matter (ontological problems) and knowledge related problems (epistemological problems like induction, intuition, truth, universals). Although I lack a good overview of the field, as said, also for me it’s striking what Russell does not discuss in view of what is regarded philosophically important today. It’s true that Russell wrote in the foreword of his book that he had “confined [him]self in the main to those problems of philosophy in regard to which [he] thought it possible to say something positive and constructive ... For this reason, theory of knowledge occupies a larger space than metaphysics ..., and some topics much discussed by philosophers are treated very briefly, if at all.” And it’s also true that some problems became important only after Russell had published the book. Even so, it is useful to mention a few subjects that Russell ignored, albeit only for illustrating what has changed in philosophy. So here are a few themes that are absent in his book:
- Themes from ethical and moral philosophy. But didn’t already the ancient Greek philosophers, including Plato and Aristotle, talk about questions of right and wrong and the best way of life and about what they meant for us? These themes have always been present in philosophy since then, and maybe they are now even more popular than before.
- What is consciousness and what does it mean for human experience.
- The relationship between mind and body. The theme has become important since Descartes made his famous statement “I think so I am”. In Russell’s time it was still mainstream philosophy that mind and body were different substances. How much has changed, especially since brain research has started booming with all philosophical consequences involved like whether there is a free will.
- If “we are our brain”, as some philosophers and brain scientists say, what does remain then of the idea of the free will? Although this theme has become especially important since the rise of modern brain research, it was not new when Russell wrote his book.
- The philosophy of action, so questions about what actions are, how we study them, what makes how we act and so on. Although action philosophy developed as a special philosophical field not before the end of the 1950s, already in the 19th century there was a debate whether the humanities need a method of their own which is different from the method of the natural sciences. Although this discussion had many epistemological implications it was ignored by Russell, as it was by most other main stream philosophers studying epistemological themes.
- What is a person? What is personal identity? The question was raised by John Locke in 1689 and again and again it attracted the attention of philosophers, till today.
I am the first to admit that my list of problems of philosophy is casual and incomplete, also as a supplement to Russell’s list. Moreover, one cannot blame Russell for not mentioning problems that were not relevant in his days or even did not yet exist. Nonetheless, his list was one-sided, but what is more important, his choice shows that the main themes of philosophy have changed. Epistemological problems have become less important; ontological problems like the essence of matter and reality have become hobbies for specialists. What are important now are questions in the philosophy of mind on the consequences of brain research, for instance, like their effects on our idea of free will. Or ethical questions about good life and how we give sense to what we do. The times they are a-changin’, and so is philosophy.

Russell’s The problems of philosophy can be found on several websites, for example and

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