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Words from the Captain

What is Great Voyages?

Great Voyages is Phl. 302 The History of Western Philosophy. This is a course in the history of Western philosophy which covers a period roughly from the Renaissance and Reformation to the Englightenment, or from the voyages of Vasco de Gama and Columbus in the late fifteenth century to those of Captain Cook in the 1770s. The scale of change is a different order of magnitude than in other periods of history. One might think of Columbus sailing out of the Tagus river in August 1492 in his tiny ships, so confused about the geography of the world that when he reached the islands of the Caribbean, he thought he had reached the Spice islands or Japan. Compare that with a carrier task force sortie at night in August 1992 from the same river, monitored to the meter by a sattelite system 300 miles in space, and with its position mapped precisely on a grid of the globe. Things have changed, so have ideas.

Some of the most important intellectual events in the history of Western and indeed world culture occured during this time period. Thus the intellectual discoveries were as important as the discoveries made by ship and on foot. In studying this history, the most important activity is reading and understanding the works of such giants as Las Casas, Montaigne, Descartes, Locke, Berkeley and Hume. For these are among the most talented, insightful and articulate voices of intellectual inquiry from the period we are studying. These are the intellectual explorers of the period. Understanding the selections from the texts of these authors is thus a big focus for us. If you graduate without ever having studied the works of Las Casas, Montaigne, Locke and the other philosophers we study, there will be a significant gap in your education. There are dimensions to your own culture which you will not grasp effectively. What does it mean to be a skeptic, or a rationalist, or an essentialist?

This course is also cental to the philosophy curriculum. We require our majors and minors to take it because in it you learn about philosophical movements, schools, positions, manuevers and arguments which are still of general interest to philosophers. To understand these philosophers one must analyze and evaluate arguments, weigh the evidence for competing hypotheses, and so forth. Happily this activity amounts to doing philosophy.

The History of Philosophy

What is the history of philosophy? Why is it important? These are questions worth considering. Many students start reading a philosopher with just a few questions in mind. Do I agree with what this philosopher says? Is it true? Often you will find that for one reason or another you don't agree, and that often enough, given any particular issue, what a certain philosopher has to say may well not be true. To pursue this approach is to treat philosophers from centuries past as if they lived at the same time as you. They become pen pals with odd and perhaps ridiculous views. Because they look at the history of philosophy in this way, many students go away without learning much.

Part of what is important about the history of philosophy is that it helps one to learn what one might call philosophical geography. To understand Descartes' view that the mind is a distinct entity from the body and that they can exist apart from one another is to understand one possibility among many. As one learns about the views of Spinoza, Berkeley and Hobbes, for example, one discovers that there are more possibilities. It may well be that one or the other of these possibilities seems more likely to be true than the others, but it is enormously important to know what the possibilities are. Thus, when one is beginning one's philosophical explorations, it is best to stop worrying about whether a particular view is true, and simply make an effort to understand it. It is one of the possibilities.

Possibilities become resources. One of the functions of the history of philosophy to the discipline is to bring to light unexploited resources, to bring back for consideration solutions to problems which may have been largely forgotten, in short to find treasure! Many contemporary philosophers would happily get rid of the notion of consciousness if they could. It is a bother. It is a mystery which contemporary philosophy could do without. The late seventeenth and eighteenth century was a period in which consciousness was of great concern to philosophers. It is entirely possible that by studying the writings from that period we can learn things which may supplement or modify contemporary debates about consciousness. Philosophical ideas are extraordinarily plastic. You can take an idea which appears completly false, make a distinction, or otherwise modify it slightly, and come to the conclusion that that idea is enormously useful. This is why it is important to learn what the possibilities are.

Part of the history of philosophy is a sort of story telling. We tell stories about the influence of one philosopher on another, or how over time a problem which was not solved effectively by one philosopher was solved by another. We tell stories about how philosophy progresses. Some of these stories are true. Others are not true, or perhaps represent significant simplifications or over-simplifications of what actually happened. Aristotle, for example, describes the pre-Socratics in terms of his own system. This one understood material causes but not final causes. That one grasped efficient causes but not final causes. It appears that each was inadquately grasping after the Aristotelian system. This gives one the impression that Greek philosophy leads up to and culminates in Aristotle. But, then again, perhaps it didnÕt. Perhaps Aristotle, looking through the glasses of his own system, is distoring the history of Greek philosophy so that it seems to lead up to his system. The same might be said about Kant. Kant tells a story of two great philosophical traditions, empiricism and rationalism, each inadquate in its own way. From each he took elements, combining them into an effective solution of all the problems. Once again it appears that philosophy leads up to Kant. But perhaps this too is an oversimplified view. So, part of the history of philosophy involves figuring out which of the stories is most plausible. We come to see how our ideas have changed over time. It is this part of the history of philosophy which helps us to judge whether we are making progress or not.

In order to decide if the stories which philosophers tell about the progress of philosophy are true or not, we need to understand the systems of the philosophers who are part of the story. The most basic issue here is accurately grasping the content. This is true on the level of particular arguments and also on the level of the system as a whole. If one does not accurately understand a philosophical system, it is a real waste of time to try evaluating it. Once one does understand it it becomes possible to determine to what degree it influenced later philosophers or others. In order to understand the content one often needs to understand the context in which a philosopher lived. What was going on in the society at large? What was the state of politics, science and religion? What problems was the society grappeling with, and what ideas seemed relevant? The context often helps us to understand what issues a philosopher was concerned about and the constraints on her ability to deal with the issues. Studying the context often also helps us the empathize with a particular philosopher. The Backgound sections of the web site are aimed to help you grasp the context in which the works we are reading were written. The Commentary sections aim to help you understand the particular ideas, arguments and positions set forth in the texts we are reading.

Once one accurately understands the content of a philosophical system, then one is in a position to evaluate that content -- to determine how good the arguments offered are, and how well the system coheres together, and where it fails, and where it points us towards the truth. We will be much more focused on accurately grasping the content than on the issue of evaluation. This is, after all, a survey course. To go beyond what a particular philosopher said to consider how good the arguments are, requires time which largely speaking we don't have. To do it right also requires skills in analysis and argumentation which you may not have. Still, there will be occasions where we will consider how good particular arguments are, and the strengths and weakness of certain positions and perhaps philosophical systems as a whole. This activity of judging cannot be avoided. But since one cannot effectively judge without understanding, the activity of accurately determining what position a particular philosopher holds is more fundamental than evaluating that position. It will take up the bulk of our time.

Studying the history of philosophy it is possible to acquire a taste for discussions about the nature of identity, causality, space and time or the good. Often students approach this material completly lacking a taste for these discussions, and find them of little interest or absurd. They go away seeing little value in them. But largely speaking this is because they have not been open to the material, not acquired the taste for these kinds of discussions. They have not allowed their education to show them the value of inquiry about topics concerning which they started out seeing no value. I would say that one of the biggest problems which students have coming to grips with this material, is having preconceptions about it which prevent them from engaging with it.

I have heard religious students say that they simply cannot get interested in the material we are studying because they are only interested in reading the Bible. This is a little ironic when you consider that the culture which produced these philosophers was vastly more dominated by religion than ours. I have heard students say that they cannot get interested in the material we are studying because it is so entertwined with religious ideas. I understand this claim, but find that there is much in the material of value to anyone, whether religious or not. I have heard students say that they cannot get interested in this material because they are uninterested in science. I have heard students claim that they cannot get interested in the material because it is written by dead white European males. What all of these views have in common is that they get in the way of seeing what is acutally there. They allow the material to be dismissed. Perhaps for some they provide an excuse or a reason for not doing the difficult work required to understand.

The best way to proceed is to set one's preconceptions aside and try to understand how people thought back two or three hundred years ago. Only when this is effectively achieved is it possible to talk about its relevance to contemporary thought. Only then can one see how it contributed to the development of our world view, and might help us to understand things better.

This course

This course is somewhat unique for a variety of reasons. First, as the course is usually taught it covers only issues about epistemology and metaphysics. I have added some parts about political philosophy in order to add variety and to give a certain perspective which one would otherwise not get. There is an emphasis in this course on the context of ideas which is often lacking in the standard version of the course.

The course is also somewhat unique in having been taught as a regular Oregon State University course together with an extensive supplementary web site since 1995. This is where the idea of Great Voyages came from in fact. This web site has a variety of materials which will prove useful to you, searchable electronic texts, materials which introduce you to the philosophers of the period and so on. The URL for this site is http://osu.orst.edu/instruct/phl302. For your course -- the OSU Statewide distance course -- we have constructed a web site which is unique to your course. It has its own look, and its own identity.