Great Philosophers and Their Questions consists of ten mini-lectures by Leszek Kołakowski on the great philosophers of the West, the earliest, ancient and mediaeval philosophers. The book seems at first sight modest and naïve, and the author of these “lecturelets” talks about the apparently simple goal he set himself: “In talking about the great philosophers, for each of them I would like to pick out one idea that is important to him as one of the pillars of the house he built, but is also intelligible to us now, and strikes a chord in our minds, instead of just providing some historical information.”
And at first that’s how it seems to be, as if what we’re dealing with here is a clear, expressive display of the fundamental thought of each of the philosophers covered in the book. But here, straightaway, is Kołakowski’s first devilish trick, because while reproducing this one single idea alone, quite imperceptibly he also manages to reveal the rest, all the foundations of the thought of each sage in turn, though naturally only in basic outline.
This is why, despite Kołakowski’s assurances, his book is a perfectly good, perfectly decent supplement to his university lectures on the history of philosophy, capable of helping scholars to sort out and organise a large amount of material.
But Kołakowski is also bound to unsettle them, right at the point where, at the end of each argument, each reconstruction, all of a sudden out comes the “poker”, the lesser devil to stir things up. Because suddenly we find that Kołakowski has cunningly caught the great philosophers in their own net, a net of paradoxes, contradictions and doubts contained within the ideas that are fundamental to them. And so he asks them, Saint Augustine, for example, if it is possible to reconcile God’s terrible device of predestination with human free will, or Saint Anselm, with his “I believe in order to understand”, whether it is a symptom of lack of reason “to believe in God, if one knows that there is no reliable proof of His presence that would stand up to scientific analysis”.
Thus the simple paths of philosophy down which we initially follow Kołakowski suddenly turn out, at the end of his tales of the great philosophers and their great ideas, to lead towards the intricacies of reason, and to be roads into darkness and complete confusion. And here we stand, like the great philosophical figures who have taught, and continue to teach us so much, but looking like prisoners in the Platonic den, helpless slaves of our Logos, our consistent, two-value logic. In short, slaves of the relentless dichotomies that are typical of our traditions of thought, we become the slaves of doubt, wandering in a vicious circle that, as Kołakowski reminds us in the words of Sextus Empiricus, contains the simplest of our syllogisms: “All men are mortal. Socrates is a man, therefore Socrates is mortal”. “For in order to know,” repeats Kołakowski after the great sceptic philosopher, “that all men are mortal, we must already know that Socrates is mortal”. Here is Kołakowski’s “poker” at its demonic best. And at his instance – is this sad or encouraging? – the European tradition of philosophy gradually starts to remind us of the “sub-officer’s widow who flogged herself” in Gogol’s The Government Inspector. Perhaps this points to our helplessness with regard to all the “accursed problems” of philosophy, or maybe – as we should rather believe, following Kołakowski’s example – just a lack of dogmatism in our spiritual tradition.
Two series of lectures have been published: I (from Socrates to Meister Eckhart) and II (from Thomas Aquinas to David Hume).
Is there anything we can know for certain? With a certainty that is beyond even a shadow of a doubt? Descartes was not the first to tackle the question, but the nature of his reply transformed European philosophy. […]
[…] Descartes wanted to find the absolute beginning of knowledge, the starting-point that is immune to error and doubt. And since we are sometimes mistaken, we must, he thought, begin by investigating the causes of error.
When we dream, Descartes observes in his famous argument, our dreams seem real to us; could it be that what we perceive when we are awake is also a kind of dream, a picture with no corresponding reality? Perhaps a malicious demon is deceiving us, deluding our senses with false impressions, leading us astray for reasons best known to himself? We think our impressions are real, but they may be just as illusory as our dreams. Is there any way to escape the clutches of his hypothetical deceiver? Yes, there is: for there is one thing the deceiver cannot deceive me about, namely the fact that I am experiencing something – perceiving something, thinking something. Therefore I exist. On this point I cannot be wrong; here no demon, however powerful, could be leading me astray.
This insight, expressed in the formulation “I think, therefore I am”, became one of the fundamental reference-points of modern philosophy. […] What follows from it? A great deal, according to Descartes. […] When I consider my consciousness, my thinking self, I find in it the idea of a supreme, perfect being – the idea of God. Since I myself am not perfect (the very fact of my doubting is proof of this, if proof were needed), I could not have come up with such an idea on my own. (Descartes, unlike Aquinas, did not believe that we could acquire knowledge of God from our knowledge of nature; there was no way from sense-experience to God. The only way was through the idea of Him that is in our mind.) So this idea cannot be a figment of my imagination; it must have been implanted in my mind by that very being of which it is the idea, namely by God. Therefore God exists. […]
God’s existence leads to conclusions which can form the basis of our trust in knowledge, in the possibility of natural cognition. The malicious demon cannot deceive me about one thing at least: my conscious experiences, the fact of my existence. But God, being absolutely perfect, cannot deceive me at all, because deceit cannot coexist with perfection. We can therefore, once we have assured ourselves of His existence, safely trust our instinct that our world is real, not a dream or an illusion, and that everything we perceive clearly and distinctly, all the things that seem obvious to us, are really true. Now we can trust our knowledge and overcome doubt; we know what we may accept as true and what kinds of things we may doubt.
[…] Thus Descartes thought he had arrived at the absolute and compelling starting-point for human knowledge. […] Of course, not everyone was convinced by his arguments. Both Catholic thinkers and rationalists of various hues pointed out the mistakes in his reasoning. You cannot, they said, appeal to your sense of obviousness in order to prove the existence of God and then make God the guarantor of that criterion of obviousness, for then you are caught in a vicious circle. […] And God’s goodness is no guarantee that He cannot deceive us: He might want to deceive us for our own good. And do we really know for certain what “I exist” or “I am” means?
Descartes rejected these objections. He was unshaken in his conviction that he had found an infallible signpost, indeed an infallible foundation on which the whole edifice of knowledge could be rebuilt, relying on reason alone. […]
There were some attempts to yoke Descartes to the Christian tradition, but they were not successful. Catholic philosophers generally tried to demonstrate that he was the source of the fundamental errors into which modern thought had fallen. He did, it is true, suggest that the only things we can know directly are the contents of our minds: our perceptions and mental experiences. And even though he went on to prove (as he thought) that these perceptions and mental experiences have a corresponding reality, he was forced, in order to achieve this, to appeal to God’s truthfulness, and left behind him the problem of the so-called bridge: the problem of how to get from our perceptions to reality. Thus, willy-nilly, he created the suspicion that the world is a figment of our imagination. In other words, he opened the way to idealism, of which Catholic philosophy took a very dim view.
Furthermore, since Descartes believed that the world was ruled by the laws of mechanics, he seemed to be denying the possibility of divine intervention. […] He did not explicitly deny miracles, but if one believed in a Cartesian world, one could not really believe in them. […] Thus he was accused not only of idealism, but also of godless materialism. […]
Here are just a few of the puzzling questions that almost every sentence of Descartes’ suggests:
Let us assume that a malicious demon really is deceiving us and that everything we believe to be real is mere illusion; perhaps the world does not exist at all, or perhaps it is quite different from what we think. Would this make any difference (assuming that our perceptions are unchanged)? Furthermore, if we assume […] that the world was created just a minute ago, together with our memories and everything we take to be evidence of the past, would that make any difference to our lives or to the way we think? Why should we find such an assumption disturbing?
Would it be true to say that my existence is the same as my consciousness of my existence?
And finally, if the truths of mathematics really are arbitrarily decreed by God, what does it mean to say that they are true?
Translated by Agnieszka Kołakowska