Home - Wittgenstein's Logic of Language | Bibliography

Philosophy and Wisdom

Subject: What is the relation between philosophy and wisdom? How are they different? What is the difference between philosophy and religion? Contrast the thought of classical Greece with Confucian China.

Background: How is language with meaning distinguished from nonsense in the discussion of philosophical ideas? That is the subject of "logic of language", but it is also a question in the history of philosophy, as it must be answered before it is asked whether the thoughts discussed here are true or false.

Outline of this page ...

There follow four searches ("queries") from this site's Internet logs.

The Wise Men of Greece

Query: was Socrates doing the work of Apollo?

According to Plato, Socrates is acting in obedience to the god (Apology 23b, 28e-29a, 29e-30a, 37e), testing all claims to knowledge, to see who is wise and who is not, e.g. to see who knows how man should live his life and who only thinks he knows but does not. (And that belongs to my own picture of who Socrates was.)

Although for the Greeks the precept "Know thyself" is a religious imperative, for Socrates it is an imperative to be obeyed through the thoroughgoing use of natural reason examining man's experience of the world. That is the basis of Socratic ethics. Greek philosophical wisdom is rational, and its spirit and method is to question all things.

Query: in what sense does Socrates conceive his mission as a religious calling?

We can point to a religious origin for Socrates' mission in the story of the words of Apollo's oracle at Delphi that no one was wiser than Socrates and the perplexity the god's words threw Socrates into (Plato, Apology 21a-d). But Socrates' response to his perplexity was to ask himself what Apollo meant by those words; and he set out to put the meaning of the god's words to the tests of reason and experience, using the method of cross-questioning (question and answer in order to distinguish what we know from what we presume we know but do not, to agree to knowledge and refute ignorance). That is to say that Socrates' mission in philosophy was not to give religious instruction; his call may have been religious in origin (ibid. 28e) -- and it may have been his belief that not to obey it would be to disobey God (ibid. 37e) -- but his call was not to preach a religion, but instead to awaken men to the questions of philosophy (or the thorough-going use of natural reason). ["Socrates' Delphic mission in philosophy" | Socrates, the Apollonian command "Know thyself", and Socratic ethics]

Query: Socrates as a follower of Apollo.

Apollo was the patron of philosophy, philosophers; and the Oxford Classical Dictionary (2e, "Apollo") says of him that

He is often associated with the higher developments of civilization ... inculcating high moral and religious principles [Herodotus 6.86.15] ... and favoring philosophy (e.g. he was said to be the real father of Plato).

Abraham and Socrates

Query: compare Socrates and Abraham.

There is a sharp contrast between "the father of philosophy", as Socrates is called, and "our father in faith", as Abraham is called (Genesis 22.1-19). The difference is this: that Socrates would say (cf. Apology 21b) to himself, "God would not command me to do something evil; that would not be right. What then does God mean by telling me to kill a child?" That is the difference between the life of thoroughgoing reason and the life of obedience, between the life of a man and a child's life, that despite Socrates and Abraham both being religious men, Socrates would put God's words to the test of reason, asking: what does God mean by telling me to kill a child? (Distances in time: Abraham, Socrates, Descartes)

For the author of Abraham's story, God would say, "Of all men living, Abraham is the most wise", because the highest wisdom for man is to do whatever God commands him to do. That may have been true when man was still an animal, i.e. before he learned to know good and evil (Genesis 3.5), but afterwards it was not. If God is good, then what God commands and what is good must be the same: God would not command Abraham to do what is evil. And therefore if the plain (straightforward) reading of God's command is that Abraham should do something evil, then that reading of God's words must be incorrect (just as the plain reading of Apollo's words, namely that Socrates was a wise man, was incorrect). And if Abraham had questioned all things as a philosopher questions all things, he might have seen this.

Query: define 'piety' in an example from the Bible.

According to Abraham, killing his own son is an act of piety; Plato gives this general definition: 'piety' = 'correct conduct (or doing one's duty) towards God' (Gorgias 507a-b). (Cf. Plato's Euthyphro in the dialog named for him: that piety is to prosecute one's own father for murder for the death of a slave. How would Abraham define 'piety' -- as 'obedience to the command of God regardless of what that command may be'?)

[Had Abraham been a philosophical Greek, how might he have responded to God's command?]

Inscribed inside the temple of Apollo at Delphi

And [the ancient Greeks] met together and dedicated in the temple of Apollo at Delphi, as the first-fruits of their wisdom, the far-famed inscriptions, which are in all men's mouths -- "Know thyself", and "Nothing too much". Why do I say all this? I am explaining that this Lacedaemonian [Spartan, Laconic] brevity was the style of primitive philosophy. (Protagoras 343b, tr. Jowett; Guthrie's translation has: "Moreover they met together and dedicated the first fruits of their wisdom to Apollo in his temple at Delphi, inscribing those words which are on everyone's lips, 'Know thyself' and 'Nothing too much'. I mention these facts to make the point that, among the ancients, this Laconic brevity was the characteristic expression of philosophy.")

"Nothing too much"

Query: know thyself, nothing too much.

"Know your limits. Do not over-reach yourself: acknowledge the limits of your strength and weakness." That was the common meaning: prudent self-restraint. But Socrates extended the meaning of "Know thyself" in philosophy -- where it means: Seek rational self-knowledge of yourself -- to include, not only practical self-knowledge of one's own natural virtues, but also moral virtue. (We use the word English 'virtue' ambiguously, for there are two kinds of virtue: natural virtue and moral virtue, the word 'virtue' being used to render the Greek word areté, which is itself ambiguous.)

"Nothing too much" (in either direction, neither going over nor under) is often rendered "Nothing in excess". Aristotle's middle course between extremes is an expression of this precept, as e.g. courage lies between cowardice and foolhardiness. (Between "too much" and "too little": Aristotle on the mean as the rule of moral virtue.)

"Nothing in excess" was a call, C.E. Robinson wrote, to impose reason on "barbaric instinct" and base habits -- i.e. it was a call to self-mastery, self-control, temperance (Hellas (1955), i, 3). The individual must learn his own individual "too muches" (not only those of man as such) -- both upper and lower, so that he may neither over-reach nor under-reach his own ability -- by putting his knowledge of those limits to the tests of reason and experience in Socratic discussion (question and answer and cross-question) with himself alone or with his companions, because (according to Socrates) self-control, like all moral virtue, is knowledge of the good.

Who were the Seven Sages?

On Apollo's temple at Delphi were inscribed sayings of the Seven Sages or Wise Men of Greece. To Thales belongs the proverb "Know thyself" (Diog. L. i, 39). The proverb "Nothing too much" is ascribed both to Chilon of Lacedaemon (ibid. i, 41) and to Solon (i, 63) [Chilon: What is hard? "To keep a secret, to employ leisure well, to be able to bear an injury." (ibid. i, 69)]. But in fact the saying of the Sages "are variously reported, and are attributed now to one now to the other ... Nor is there agreement" about who belongs in the list of the Wise Men: "different people make different selections" from among as many as seventeen men (i, 41-42); for Plato's selection see Protagoras 343a (Diog. L., tr. Hicks, p. 42n). According to Paul Harvey, these four were always included: Solon, Thales, Pittacus of Mitylene, and Bias of Priene (Oxford Companion to Classical Literature (1937)). But among the Wise Men of Greece, only Thales was a philosopher.

"Proverbial wisdom, a preliminary phase of Greek philosophy"

Here belongs the group of the so-called seven sages, who however were rather men of practical life. Short sayings were attributed to them, which contained precepts for the conduct of life, such as: "Know thyself", "Nothing in excess", "The beginning shows the man", "Occupy thyself with serious things", "Go bail for someone and you will regret it", "It is difficult to be honest", etc. (Eduard Zeller, Outlines of the History of Greek Philosophy, 13e, tr. Palmer (1980 repr., orig. 1931), p. 18-19)

But is it philosophy?

Are proverbs philosophy? Are "wise men" (sages) philosophers? It is true that they are "lovers of wisdom" (origins of the word 'philosophy'), but "conclusions" without investigations are not philosophy; oracles are not philosophy. I would say this, that the only sage in philosophy is the herb growing in the kitchen garden, outside philosophy. There is no authority in philosophy, and this is why there are no sages in philosophy. The precept "Know thyself" cannot be accepted as true unless it has been cross-questioned in discussion that has been unable to refute the proposition that "one should know oneself". The "conclusions" of the sages are the theses of the philosophers -- they must be put to the tests of reason and experience; prior to those tests, they are not philosophy.

Confucius, Wisdom and Philosophy

The great scientist von Baer sees the superiority of Europeans over Asiatics in their trained ability to give reasons for what they believe ... Europe has gone through the school of consistent, critical thinking; Asia still does not know how to distinguish between truth and poetry, and is not conscious whether its convictions are derived from personal observation and methodical thinking or from fantasies. (Human, All-Too-Human, v, 256, tr. Kaufmann)

The distinction Nietzsche makes here between truth and poetry (or fantasy) is important, even if his Europe versus Asia distinction is hyperbole, for he cannot claim for all Europeans what belongs only to European philosophers or that no one in Asia is capable of rational thought. For Nietzsche Europe ends at Greece, and Asia begins at the Levant (and possibly ends with India), but a lot of that Asia was welcomed into Europe, e.g. the Orphism that Plato tried to make rational. (Note that the use of reason within a fantasy does not change the fantasy's being fantasy.)

What we call 'philosophy' is the practice of giving reasons for what we believe: "Socrates held that if a man knew anything, he could give an account of it to others" (Xenophon, Memorabilia iv, 6, tr. Guthrie) -- that is, he could explain what he knew and offer a justification for his claim [thesis] that could face the tests of criticism [cross-questioning in dialectic].

Confucius, Analects

Nietzsche notwithstanding, there were wise men in China, but were they philosophers? The following selections are from The Analects of Confucius [analect: a collection of teachings], by William Edward Soothill, 2nd ed. (1910).

-- The Master said: "The man of noble mind seeks to perfect the good in others and not their evil. The little minded man is the reverse of this." (Book xii, Chapter xvi)

-- The Master said: "The wise man in his attitude towards the world has neither predilections nor prejudices. He is on the side of what is right." [Legge's translation:] "The superior man, in the world, does not set his mind either for or against anything; what is right he will follow." (Book iv, Chapter x)

Confucius: "Your duty is at the bottom of a well."

-- [Confucius' student] Tsai Wo asked, saying: "An altruist, even if some one said to him, "There is a man in the well," would, I suppose, go in after him?" "Why should he act like that?" answered the Master. "The higher type of man might hasten to the well, but not precipitate himself into it; he might be imposed upon, but not utterly hoodwinked." (Book vi, Chapter xxiv)

[Soothill's characterization of this: "Self-denial does not mean self-destruction." But this depends on the "emendation" of a Chinese character; the original says: "Your duty to your fellow-man is at the bottom of the well." "Tsai Wo feared that altruism meant destruction." [Note: there is no one in the well to rescue; that is a deception.] [Legge's translation:] "A benevolent man ... may be made to go to the well, but he cannot be made to go down into it ...... be fooled."]

-- The Master said: "Neglect in the cultivation of character, lack of thoroughness in study, incompetency to move toward the recognized duty, inability to correct my imperfections, -- these are what cause me solicitude." [Ku's translation:] "Neglect of godliness, study without understanding, failure to act up to what I believe is right, and inability to change bad habits, [etc.]" (Book vii, Chapter iii)

[Soothill: "... these are four important rules for daily renovation."]

-- The Master said: "When walking in a party of three, my teachers are always present. I can select the good qualities of the one and copy them, and the unsatisfactory qualities of the other and correct them in myself." (Book vii, Chapter xxi)

-- The Master said: "My disciples! Do you think I possess something occult? I have nothing occult from you. I do nothing that is not made known to you, my disciples, -- that is the real Ch'iu." [Legge's translation:] "... that I have concealments ...... nothing which I do is not shewn to you ..." [Ku's translation:] "Do you think, my friends, that I have some mysterious power within me ...... For if there is anyone who shews to you everything which he does, I am ..... that person." [Couvreur's translation:] "Pensez-vous, mes enfants, que je vous cache quelque chose? ...... Voila comme je suis." (Book vii, Chapter xxiii)

[Soothill: the disciples found his teaching [i.e. way of life] difficult to attain, and imagined that he had some power that he kept hidden from them; but "whether active or at rest, speaking or silent, he had nothing that he did not teach them" [i.e. he shows them everything that he does, everything the makes up his way of thinking and of living; what they see is the entire reality of Confucius: everything is exoteric, nothing esoteric.].]

Could not this wisdom of Confucius have been as well spoken by Epictetus? And is not the way of life of Confucius -- always directed toward growing in what is good -- also the life of Socrates? But the question is: should we therefore classify Confucius -- or Epictetus for that matter --, not only as a moral teacher, but also as a "philosopher"? I would not say that; but I would point to their different intellectual origins, and on that account I would classify Epictetus, but not Confucius, as a philosopher.

The atmosphere is different: Confucius advocates deference to the authority of the past [This statement is too vague] rather than to "reason alone" [although there is certainly a love of truth in the teachings of Confucius]. -- Whereas philosophy is inherently revolutionary [anarchistic]: it does not -- and cannot of its very nature -- defer to any authority.

There is ... an essential relationship between Greek Stoicism and Chinese philosophy. The difference between them is that the first had its origin in well-developed, logical thinking, the second in intuitive thinking that was undeveloped yet marvelously profound. (Albert Schweitzer, Out of My Life and Thought, tr. A.B. Lemke, (NY: Holt, 1990), Epilogue, p. 229)

On the other hand, in the following, although a contrast is made to Socrates ("rules" [the method of definition]), the technique of Confucius is not "intuition" -- i.e. "whatever seems right" -- (for there is reason at work here):

"Confucius taught the art of reasoning not through rules" but through holding up to the light "the opinions of his pupils". "Clarity and honesty of thought and expression were the first lessons of the Master." (Will Durant, Our Oriental Heritage (1935), p. 666)

On the reform of language

Confucius: "The whole end of speech is to be understood.... When you know a thing, to hold that you know it; and when you do not, to admit [this] fact -- this is knowledge. [Confucius:] "What is necessary is to rectify names": If a father who was not a fatherly father should cease to be called 'father', "then men might be stirred to reform abuses too often covered up with words". (ibid.)

"The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper names" because, the idea is, names say what the nature of the thing named is. If we had such fragments from an ancient Greek, what would we say? No one will deny Confucius the title of 'moral teacher' or 'wise man'. But if we call him a 'philosopher', it is clear that we do this only because his thinking resembles in certain ways the thinking or spirit-of-thought of certain Greeks or Roman Stoics (and some would not call the latter philosophers).

"Confucius taught his students that being able to distinguish what you know from what you don't know -- That is wisdom" (cf. Analects Book ii, Chapter xvii). But maybe that account of what Confucius taught is an example of reading the West (Socrates) into the East (Confucius).

... only through education does one come to be dissatisfied with his own knowledge, and only through teaching others does one come to realize the uncomfortable inadequacy of his knowledge ... [and feel] stimulated to improve himself. (Hsuehchi, Liki, Chapter xviii, tr. Lin Yutang, in The Wisdom of Confucius (1938), p. 242)

This sounds very Socratic, until one asks what kind of knowledge -- and the spirit in which it is sought -- Confucius was talking about.

"To maintain the traditions of our fathers"

To gather in the same places where our fathers before us have gathered; to perform the same ceremonies which they before us have performed; to play the same music which they before us have played; to pay respect to those whom they honored; to love those who were dear to them ... (Chungyung: originally Liki, Chapter xxxi, tr. Ku Hungming, in The Wisdom of Confucius, p. 115)

That is the spirit of religion, not of philosophy. Tradition was the source of China's unity (i.e. social stability, but also complacency, which is the antithesis of the spirit of philosophy).

Education is to listen, not question

When characterizing the thought-world of the 18th Century, Albert Schweitzer wrote of "its magnificent lack of respect for all existing things, whether belonging to the past or the present" (Civilization and Ethics, 2nd ed., tr. Campion, viii, p. 91). But Confucius does not ask his followers to in all cases question everything.

The young ones are supposed to listen and not to ask questions, so that they may know their own place.... the most difficult thing is to establish a respect for the teacher [because then the subject he teaches will be respected, and therefore also learning, or, scholarship will be respected]. [The good teacher] is good at drawing ingenious examples to make people understand him ... to make others follow his ideal.... the art of being a teacher is the art of learning to be a ruler of men.... When he sees a student is doing his best but is lost, then he explains it to him, and if after the explanation, the student still does not understand, he may as well leave the matter alone. (Hsuehchi, Liki, Chapter xviii, op. cit., p. 244, 248, 249)

Questioning everything, especially questioning all authority, is not a Confucian value. In Confucian societies "social harmony" is valued more than truth, but silencing the truth for the sake of "peace" is not the spirit of philosophy. And therefore ancient Chinese thought does not breathe the air of philosophy. Europe is the heir of Socrates rather than the heir of Confucius.

Eastern (rote) learning

They study philosophy, but they never philosophize. The answers like the questions are found in their textbooks; the scholar's role is to memorize them (Philosophy as a calculus, like arithmetic). In other words the questions are not questions; this is rote learning.

Confucianism is a pre-Enlightenment ("Dare to doubt!") way of thinking.

Argument by Analogy

"The scholars of ancient times learned the truth about things from analogies." (ibid. p. 250) But analogies can never teach us the truth: they can only show us a way of looking at things: analogy = comparison, not identity; suggestion, not proof. (Socrates, however, often used analogies.)

Query: why do you think that Confucius used short riddle-like statements to explain his philosophy instead of telling people directly what he meant?

Riddles make you think, to seek the answer for yourself, to learn to seek when there no longer is a master to guide you. But riddles also protect one from being held to account: "objective, but not categorical" (It is a fact, but not unequivocally so); the Master lived in dangerous times for the expression of ideas.

"What is know?"

-- The Master said: "Yu! Shall I teach you the meaning of knowledge? When you know a thing to recognize that you know it, and when you do not know [something] that you do not know [it], -- that is knowledge." [Ku's translation:] "To know what it is that you know, and to know what it is that you do not know, -- that is understanding." (The Analects of Confucius, Book ii, Chapter xvii)

Lin Yutang gives the translation "in Chinese fashion" and seems to regard this remark principally as an example of Confucius' wit: "Know, know; don't know, don't know -- that is know." (Wisdom of Confucius p. 33; cf. "You ask me; who do I ask?") "To know what you know and know what you don't know is the characteristic of one who knows" (ibid. p. 179). It is easy to see philosophy where there is no philosophy but only similarity [cf. e.g. Paul's "Question everything; keep what is good"]. Is Confucius here making the distinction Socrates made in philosophy -- i.e. distinguishing between what one knows and what one only thinks one knows but does not? [Reading/translating Confucius through Western eyes.]

Chan nodded. "When you know, to know that you know, and when you do not know, to know that you do not know -- that is true knowledge, as the master said." (Earl Derr Biggers. Behind that Curtain (1928), viii)

The Charlie Chan who is a Western invention quotes the Confucius who is also a Western invention, the Socratic Confucius rather than the Chinese Confucius.

The Latinization of Confucius

Query: what "know thyself" meant for Confucius the philosopher.

Why make Confucius into what he wasn't -- maybe that is what the Latinized "meaning" of the -- (variously transcribed, but Schweitzer used this form) -- Chinese name Kung-tse, namely the Latinization of Confucius' thinking, i.e. the inappropriate [i.e. unjustified by the original] assignment of Western philosophical meaning to his words. But "maybe" is not "is", and in fact the aim was just the opposite, namely to adapt Latin terms to make them express Confucius' Chinese thought. This was Matteo Ricci's aim in rendering the Chinese classics into Latin.

Of course we might ask this question from Apollo's temple at Delphi about Confucius. His answer was "The measure of man is man", which may be the same answer as given the Greeks, although it does not in itself say how the individual man, in contrast to man as such, is to be judged.

Question: when Confucius called to his student [disciple] Yu and said, "Let me tell you what is know", what did Yu expect [hope] to learn?

Regulate the people "by threat of punishment [i.e. by criminal law], and the people will try to keep out of jail, but will have no sense of honor or shame." Guide them by good example and "the people will have a sense of honor and respect". (ibid. p. 12)

There is no such thing as "business ethics" because ethics does not come after anything. But if a man is ethical, he will be an ethical businessman ... and he will likely fail at business; because as a Chinese proverb says, "Businessmen only care about business" -- and that means that they do not put anything before or above business, which is precisely the place of ethics.

The traditional view of Confucius among ordinary people

"I was educated at a private school, and was very well versed in Confucianism. I was kind to others. I had never harmed anyone or harbored any ill feelings toward others." (Liao Yiwu, The Corpse Walker (2002), tr. Wen Huang [2008], "The Former Landowner" [12])

I think Confucius was right when he said, "All occupations are base. Only book learning is exalted." (id. "The Public Restroom Manager" [3], the manager speaking)

"Nowadays [people] are so degraded and selfish. Confucius used to call China a nation of formalities and kindness." (id. "The Feng Shui Master" [7])

"Nowadays, people no longer follow the traditional practice of having suona [Chinese woodwind] during weddings and funerals.... playing the suona in the old days was never considered a degrading profession.... Actually, the pioneer and founder of this profession was his holiness, Confucius. In his early years, he played the suona to support his mother. He played at funerals dressed in mourner's outfit made from white linens.... That's why you see the portraits of Confucius, or his memorial tablets in many suona players' homes." (id. "The Professional Mourner" [1])

Whether the biographical story is true, I don't know, but that it is told seems to show how Confucius has been traditionally viewed by ordinary people.

The standard by which to judge man (Confucius)

Confucius had a vision of what a good man is however few good human beings there may be. In this respect he was an idealist: "the fellow who knows that a thing can't be done and still wants to do it" (ibid. p 26).

"The measure of man is man" (ibid. p. 17), by which I think Confucius means: the measure of man is man as he should be, or, in the Greek way of thinking: the life that is consonant with the specific excellence that is proper to man is just that -- the excellence that is proper to man, not to a fish, not to a donkey, not to a god, but to man. Man is the standard against which to measure man.

[The words "The proper study of mankind is Man" are from Alexander Pope's poem Know Thyself (They are preceded by the words "Know then thyself, presume not God to scan").]

-- The Master said: "... A man of honour never disregards Virtue, even for the space of a single meal. In moments of haste he cleaves to it; in seasons of peril he cleaves to it." [Ku's translation:] "A wise man never for one single moment in his life loses sight of a moral life; in moments of haste and hurry, as in moments of danger and peril, he always clings to it." (The Analects of Confucius, Book iv, Chapter v)

"... that is knowledge." However, did the Master [That word signifies "revered teacher"; Socrates is so called in Plato's Phaedo] make explicit what were to count as the criteria for 'knowing' or 'not knowing' something? Need he have? Would it not be enough if his questions had led his students to examine their own opinions? I don't think that would be enough for philosophy. Jesus Christ taught in parables, which require thought to be understood, but that did not make him a philosopher.

Why, in the saying of the Delphic Oracle, is no one wiser than Socrates? Because Socrates can distinguish [does distinguish] between what he knows and what he does not know [cf. Confucius: "This is knowledge"]. He is wiser therefore than the people he questions because, although they know things that Socrates does not know, they also mistakenly believe they know things that they do not know. (Apology 21-22)

But why does Socrates say that even he himself is "worthless with respect to wisdom" then? Because Socrates sets a standard for saying whether or not someone knows something, a standard [criterion] which he himself cannot meet: "Socrates held that if a man knew anything he could give an account of it to others" (Memorabilia iv, 6, 1) -- e.g. if anyone knew how human life is best conducted, how a human being should live in more than the general way, then he would be able to state the "essence of goodness", i.e. the universal standard of measurement saying what is to be done in each and any set of circumstances in our life. But like all those he questions, Socrates is unable to do this.

The setting of an explicit criterion for knowing is what makes Socrates' thought philosophy, just as criticism of that standard [criterion] according to other criteria is philosophy. [Socrates' Logic of Language] [Socratic wisdom]

His philosophy is not deep ... It is thoroughly practical and terrestrial, and it avoids theology and metaphysics and all those subjects that Confucius could not make clear by example and apply rigidly as rules of life. (John H. Cornyn, Encyclopedia Americana 1954)

That suggests, anyway, what kind of examples Confucius used, and so, perhaps, what sense he gave 'to know':

[There is a fable of some] street urchins who ridiculed the Master when he confessed his inability to answer their simple question -- "Is the sun nearer to the earth at dawn, when it is larger, or at noon, when it is hotter?" (Our Oriental Heritage op. cit. p. 667)

Socrates also did not know, or in any case, did not concern himself with physics, but only with how man should live his life (ethics, with logic as its tool). Is 'philosophy' the name of the Greek type of wisdom? Is there an essential definition of 'wisdom' -- and would that be: an account of how man should think about our life? But philosophy is concerned with more than wisdom in that sense of the word 'wisdom' (Its three subjects are: Logic, Ethics, Metaphysics: how to reason, how to live, what is real). And the Greek poets also taught wisdom, but not the kind that has its source in reasoning philosophically.

In China Confucius was regarded as a religious teacher (in a broader sense of the word 'religion' than ours, meaning that Confucius was the teacher of a 'world-picture embodying a way of life'; cf. the thought of Diogenes the Cynic). Socrates was also a religious man, but it does not follow that his thought ought to be categorized as religion rather than philosophy. They taught [both by exhortation and by their own examples] a way of life (self-control), a set of values (Pursue always the good [although of the two of them, only Confucius exalted the study of history and the maintenance of tradition as good]); but Socrates also taught a technique, a method of enquiry (step-by-step question and answer) and a logic -- that is, Socrates showed his companions how to philosophize.

"How to philosophize ..." Is the relation of philosophy to wisdom like that of ethics to values -- i.e. is philosophy the application of reason to wisdom? "The wise man will ..." But how do you know we should live our life that way, by what criterion of truth? Plato argues; he defends and refutes in his Gorgias; philosophy is not simply "The Master said ..."; in philosophy wisdom must be shown to be wisdom.

[Confucius spoke of "the black-haired race" of "a land of flowers". The Chinese called China the "Flowery Kingdom" or, rather than the "Middle Kingdom", the "Middle Flower" or the "Middle Flowery Kingdom". But that does not come in here. Nor does the following paragraph.]

[Wittgenstein did not have an ethics, not in Socrates' sense of the word 'ethics'. He had only categorical imperatives ("absolute value"). He could be judgmental, intolerant, dogmatically religious in outlook rather than philosophical. Schweitzer, on the other hand, had an ethics, and unlike Plato he was tolerant. People who met Schweitzer felt they had made a friend; most people were afraid of Wittgenstein (Students who wanted to get some logic-philosophy out of him came as supplicants and feared being judged unworthy and sent away like the rejected suitors of a pretty girl).]

Why did people abandon Stoicism's "simple kind of philosophizing"?

Elemental ["elementary"] thinking starts from the fundamental questions about the relationship of man to the universe, about the meaning of life, and about the nature of what is good. It is directly linked to the thought that motivates all people. It penetrates our thought, enlarges and deepens it, and makes it more profound.

We find such elemental thinking in Stoicism. When as a student I began to study the history of philosophy, I found it difficult to tear myself away from Stoicism and to make my way through the utterly different thinking that succeeded it.... I had the feeling that this simple kind of philosophizing was the right one. I could not understand how people had come to abandon it. (Out of My Life and Thought p. 228)

Epictetus may account for why it was abandoned: "Wherefore we lie, but we are ready enough with the demonstration that lying is wrong". Contrast that with "A philosopher's school is a surgery: pain, not pleasure, you should have felt therein" -- The demands made by the teacher of wisdom are not "the easy way", but "the bloody hard way" (Wittgenstein). On the other hand, I do not think that is the entire answer, because human beings have always sought to discover "the reality beyond reality" or the "really real" -- to cross-question the foundations of wisdom (among which is the method of demonstration, the standard for knowing in philosophy).

Schweitzer's dismissive regard for the Middle Ages or, in other words, the for European age of Catholic Christianity, is, I think, further shown by his apparent [This is my perception] dislike of the Latin names given to the Chinese sages, as e.g. to "Cong-tse" the name "Confucius", ... notwithstanding that Latin was the language of the learned when those names were given, and that this Latin naming was the work of scholars who had so much respect for Confucius and the other Chinese sages that they were willing to translate quite massive works. This work was first done, whilst in China itself, by Matteo Ricci (1552-1610).

Poetry versus Reason

Philosophy "was at first a form of poetry, striving to free itself from mythology, animism, and metaphor." (Will Durant, Life of Greece (1939), p. 140)

That is not Plato's account of the origin of philosophy, and I don't it is correct: Thales is a break with poetry, not an evolution of poetic thought.

Poetry belongs to the period "when imagination is greater than knowledge". (ibid. p. 139)

But imagination will always be "greater than" knowledge in some things, as e.g. knowledge can't and never could [without re-conceptualization of the problem] answer for us the riddle of existence. For what would such knowledge look like? Of course one has no idea. Does Leibniz's question -- "Why is there something rather than nothing" -- belong in a poem? Is it nonsense ("sound without meaning")? (But nonsense which can convey meaning is not nonsense.)

Temples dedicated to Truth, which no man knows, and to Reason, which never dried a tear. (The Enlightenment in the view of Chateaubriand)

The following remarks have as much to do with reality as Nietzsche's remark about von Baer. And so it may seem that Asia (i.e. the Far East) is not Confucian, because it knows no inherent morality -- i.e. it has no concept 'right and wrong' -- but recognizes only whatever is imposed by force (power, authority), or in Mao Tse-tung's words, "Morality comes from the barrel of a gun", and the wise man submits (conforms) to this. Authority and conformity. Philosophy cannot arise from those. But, on the other hand, suppose it were argued that "social harmony" belongs to the excellence that is proper to man and that its promotion is the task of the wise -- i.e. good -- man. That would be a proposition (thesis) for dialectic. It is not an example of no concept 'right and wrong', but a possible principle of ethics. The question that occurs, however, is what the relationships between that principle and the other principles of the good for man are, e.g. "rebellion against injustice".

In the West the owl is a symbol of wisdom; in the East it is a symbol of stupidity or foolishness. The owl is the symbol of Athens, of Athena the "goddess of wisdom" ... but the Greek word translated by the English word 'wisdom' includes knowledge of how to do things (such as artisans have), and the patron of philosophy was instead Apollo, who was revered by all Greeks as indeed was appropriate as few philosophers were Athenians, although many were drawn to that city because of it was the place in Greece (and therefore the entire world) where speech was freest (Gorgias 461e).

Distances in time: Abraham, Socrates, Descartes

Query: age difference between Socrates and Abraham.
Query: how many years separate Socrates and Descartes?

If Abraham lived circa 2000 B.C. then about 1600 years older than Socrates. If Abraham lived 175 years, he lived about 105 years longer than Socrates. Do you really think there was an historical Abraham? What is the difference between believing that Abraham existed and that Alexander the Great existed?

Secular history and archeological evidence -- consistency between the secular and religious accounts of history (e.g. if the religious text says that Abraham visited towns and cities which the archeological evidence shows were not founded until after the time Abraham is said to have visited them). Experience of life and world-picture (a world-picture is the basis of a community of ideas; that picture is that community's standard of "common sense"): knowing, or thinking one knows, what is sensible or plausible, what foolish, e.g. according to the belief of one community, the earth is no more than about 6,000 years old, Moses parted the Red Sea (The Bible, the Word of God, as historiography). The question of how literature is created, the many different aims of story-telling (The story of the Prodigal Son is not historiography). The existence of Jesus versus the existence of Abraham: in neither case is there secular literature to verify the religious. In the case of Jesus the only criterion is: does his non-existence create more questions than it answers? Whereas asking whether there was an historical Abraham is like asking if there was an historical Cadmus (who brought the Phoenician alphabet and art of writing to Thebes (Diog. L. vii, 30)), which again may be the question of a community of ideas' world-picture.

As to Descartes, Socrates died in 399 B.C. and Descartes was born in 1596 A.D., which is a distance between them of 1,995 years. So that there is a greater distance in time between Socrates and Descartes than between the Patriarch and Socrates, and yet the thought-worlds of Socrates and Descartes are much, much closer to each other than they are to the thought-world of Abraham. For Socrates and Descartes had at any rate -- philosophy.

Mo Tzu, Chinese philosopher?

Is Chinese thinker Mo Tzu (Motse) a philosopher in the Greek sense of 'philosopher'? Mo Tzu was a contemporary of Socrates, and like Socrates in the Euthyphro (6d-e), Mo Tzu seeks a standard or method by which to judge the truth of propositions in ethics.

And he sets this standard of truth: To be true a proposition must (1) be consistent with the best established conceptions (which, I think, means: views which long-use has established the soundness of, maybe equivalent to Aristotle's consensus of mankind), (2) be verifiable by experience (public experience was one of the two Socratic tests), and (3) be productive of desirable ends. These ends he identifies as "enrichment of the poor, increase of population, removal of danger, and regulation of disorder" (Y.P. Mei, The Encyclopedia of Philosophy (1967), vol. 5, p. 410).

Is there a difference between the "desirable ends" of Mo Tzu, and the Greek cardinal virtues (piety, justice, courage, self-control)? Mo Tzu appears to be advocating for particular "values" rather than advocating for reason (rationally chosen values). One can argue against piety being a moral virtue (and be refuted in argument), and it appears that one can cross-question the ends Mo Tzu calls desirable -- but what is fundamentally different between Socrates and Mo Tzu is this, that we don't call a proposition false just because it does not produce the ends we desire.

Tautologies and Questions

Mo Tzu may have preconceived what the good is for man ("desirable ends") and only be looking for the means to produce that presumed good. How is that different from the Greek view of the cardinal virtues, that they are what moral virtue consists of? The principal difference is that piety and justice -- i.e. correct conduct towards God and correct conduct towards men (Gorgias 507b are moral virtues is tautological (What is not tautological is just which conduct is correct) -- but are Mo Tzu's "desirable ends" (e.g. enrichment of the poor) tautological?

The question 'Should one act correctly towards God?' is nonsense (in contrast to the question 'What must one do to act correctly towards God?', which is not nonsense). But not only is the question 'What must be done to enrich the poor?' not nonsense, also the question 'Should the poor be enriched?' is not: i.e. the moral virtue in the case of "enriching the poor" has not been identified by Mo Tzu. Is the principle "One must have the same regard for the welfare of others as one has for one's own welfare" the moral virtue here? Is that equivalent to Plato's "It is not the function of the good man to harm anyone" (Republic 335b-e), that justice is to do good to (or benefit) others?

The causes of viciousness

The causes of social disorder Mo Tzu identifies as selfishness and partiality; these must be replaced by universality -- i.e. a man must have the same regard for the welfare of all others as he has for his own; thus Mo Tzu rejects Confucian "gradation in benevolence" (ibid.) (Confucius' idea may be equivalent to Plato's "geometric versus mathematical proportion".)

Socrates says that the cause of viciousness (in contrast to virtuousness) is not knowing oneself, thinking oneself wise (i.e. thinking one knows what the good is for man) when one is not.

Like Socrates and most men of their day, Mo Tzu believes that Heaven has given man laws and cares about his well-being (cf. Xenophon Memorabilia i, 1, 19). Of course, their shared belief is not philosophy.

Site copyright © September 1998. Send Internet mail to Robert [Wesley] Angelo. Last revised: 3 July 2019 : 2019-07-03 and 3 September 2020 : 2020-09-03 (Earliest revision April 2006)

The URL of this Web page:

Back to top of page

Wittgenstein's Logic of Language - Introduction and Table of Contents | Bibliography | Site Search | Site Map