I am reading Bertrand Russell's "History of Western Philosophy" and in the chapter on Pythagoras the author commented that the influence of mathematics on philosophy is unmistakable and unfortunate. As a neophyte I am not formally studied in philosophy and was curious why Russell would characterize the impact of mathematics on philosophy as unfortunate.

Perhaps someone schooled in philosophy could shed some light. Would it be incorrect to assume that mathematics and logic would be considered intrinsic to philosophical thought?   

Tags: Bertrand, Russell, mathematics

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I would say that mathematics teaches you how to think clearly, and philosophy courses teach you how to spout other people's ideas and bullshit and make it sound like it should mean something.  Mathematics is the best training for philosophy you can get.  It's all about practical clear thinking, handling concepts and wrapping them up succinctly.  Nobody should ever do a philosophy course, who wants to be taken seriously (by me anyway). 

It seems your opinion of philosophy is sprinkled heavily with contempt and disregard. Why so?

Certainly there are worthy ideas/truths to be learned from our so-called Great Thinkers of Yesteryear. 

"Certainly there are worthy ideas/truths to be learned from our so-called Great Thinkers of Yesteryear." - in all honesty, I can't think of a single one.  What I do admire is the approach of people like Socrates and Nietzsche. 

I think it was Socrates who said that the virtuous life makes you happy.  But for (in my opinion) the wrong reasons.  So I agree with that. 

Perhaps you could look at it another way, Simon. 

Learning multiplication tables, allows you to 'spout numbers'.  It isn't the learning of the tables that is the end purpose, though.  They are simply a tool to enable you to use multiplication effectively.  You could say that now we have calculators and computers, elementary mathematics is purposeless.  Of course it isn't, we all understand how learning the building blocks of a subject enables us to understand it conceptually so much better.

We read classical literature, and derive great joy from the flow and pattern of thoughts from diverse writers.  But to do this, we had to learn to read, and that began with learning the alphabet by rote.  Building blocks, again.

Now let's take philosophy.  Certainly, beginners in the study will learn different aspects of thought from reading famous philosophers, and that may certainly include quotations from their discourses that seem to encapsulate a particular point.  But this is just the building block level for philosophy, in the same way as the alphabet is a building block for language.  Philosophy in usage, enables hypothetical issues to be debated, and indeed is the basis upon which we can establish what is ethical and what is moral in our society. 

Until comparatively recently, all science was considered philosophy.  Now that the subjects have so much content in their own areas, they have been separated out, but Simon, if you get a Masters degree from a university in Mathematics, you will be awarded a PhD. This is an abbreviation for "Doctor of Philosophy".  To get a Masters degree, you have to write a thesis.

The term "thesis" comes from the Greek θέσις, meaning "something put forth", and refers to an intellectual proposition.  An intellectual proposition is the application of philosophy to the subject of your study.  Philosophy is the way we apply facts to examine, improve or amend our societies.  Mathematics is one of the ways we establish those facts, that then need application to have a purpose.

It may be that your own mind is more suited to black and white information, with categorical answers.  That's fine, but fortunately others have minds suited to more ambiguous activity.  It is through having our diverse approaches to the study of Life that we are able to progress, and to correct ourselves as necessary for a society to develop.

Making a flat statement that the study of philosophy is pointless is at best an extremely narrow viewpoint, and at worst an uninformed and prejudicial statement that indicates that only your approach to life is the correct, and indeed superior one, and anyone else's, if different to yours, is wrong, pointless and undeserving of respect. 

I'm sure you don't really believe that to be true.

@Strega - I like to read about philosophy because of some of the questions it raises.  It's just that so much of it is horrible crap.  I don't understand why students of philosophy are so keen on following other people's ideas, when it's really not worth it.  Much better to study mathematics and learn to think rigorously.  Again, I challenge anybody to give a result from philosophy which is useful. 

Somebody mentioned Gödel's incompleteness theorem, which is a mathematical proof that you can't prove all statements in a logical system by using only other statements from that system.  Well, much of philosophy is suffocating in its inward-looking, self-referential attitude.  It only works when it can connect to something else. 

By far the most useful philosophy has been the religious philosophy of people like Mohammed, Jesus, Buddha, and the Dalai Lama. *irony*

Secular philosophy has had some successes [that I am aware of] in developing the various political philosophies we have today, and perhaps in applied ethics. 

Again, I challenge anybody to give a result from philosophy which is useful

RobertPiano gave one a little further down on this thread.  He asks "is the defendant guilty by reasons of insanity, or not?".  Each case will be different and not conform to a mathematical or factual logical formula.  That the defendant is guilty can perhaps be dealt with by logic.  Why the defendant is guilty, not so much so.

In practical terms, every decision that we make in what is called "a grey area" is made using philosophy.

A computer can manage logic and mathematics.  It takes a human being to apply philosophy in order to reach a useful conclusion.

@Strega - this is true. 

So you're saying that Hawking should have done something different that Einstein? The reason student's follow the train of thought of other philosophers is not because they're copying them, it's because they're checking their work, improving on ideas, and advancing the field. Just because you don't see the point in it, doesn't mean other people don't or shouldn't.

Again, I challenge anybody to give a result from philosophy which is useful.

How about a little modern philosophy from my favorite full time philosopher, and part time professional comedian, George Carlin:

  • Inside every cynical person, there is a disappointed idealist.

  • The very existence of flame-throwers proves that some time, somewhere, someone said to themselves, You know, I want to set those people over there on fire, but I'm just not close enough to get the job done.

  • Frisbeetarianism is the belief that when you die, your soul goes up on the roof and gets stuck.

  • Some people see things that are and ask, Why? Some people dream of things that never were and ask, Why not? Some people have to go to work and don't have time for all that.

  • I'm completely in favor of the separation of Church and State. My idea is that these two institutions screw us up enough on their own, so both of them together is certain death.

  • If it's true that our species is alone in the universe, then I'd have to say the universe aimed rather low and settled for very little.

  • I have as much authority as the Pope, I just don't have as many people who believe it.

Don't think that these are just jokes, these are incites into human nature. He realized that there are actually two human natures. Conscious Human Nature, and Unconscious Human Nature.

Conscious Human Nature is the way that human beings act when they're paying attention, and are aware of the world around them. Martin Luther King and Adolf Hitler are both prime examples of both extremes of Conscious Human Nature.

Unconscious Human Nature is the exact opposite. How people act when they're off in their own little world, auto piloting their way through life. You see it all the time when you're out and about, if you bother to pay attention. Someone with a sort of dazed look on their face as they walk down the street, they toss something in the general direction of a trash can, it misses, they see it and ignore it. They walk past homeless people, and don't even notice. They don't pay attention at the grocery store, and are surprised because they didn't add up the groceries before hand.

There have been some great examples of humanity in the past, but the average human is mundane, lazy, bored to tears, stuck in a rut so deep the closest surface is down. The goal of the philosopher is to shock this average person so much, jumpstart that groggy and bogged down mind so that they break the surface into Conscious Human Nature.

You don't get people excited about the world with math. Math bores the hell out normal people. Logic doesn't make sense or sink in unless the brain is working properly.

I am the disappointed Idealist. But rather than crack jokes like George, I prefer to work at getting people to understand my cynicism, and understand why Idealism isn't unreasonable.

@H3xx - I agree, this kind of informal everyday philosophy is useful.  When we need to get more abstract, however, then the math training is necessary to handle the careful analysis and rigour, in my opinion. 

Atheism is actually a good primer for philosophy too.  Atheists always insist on answers and justification, where the other disciplines do not see a need for this.  So the math and the atheism go together well.  I suspect that many atheists reject religion because the standard explanations, which satisfy the majority of people, are not rigorous enough and do not satisfy atheists. 

"Conscious Human Nature." - sounds like Mindfulness. 

I have yet to see very much that the "greats" did that is useful. 

I attempted a Philosophy major/Mathematics minor in school. I found that they are not easy bedfellows for one's 'cognition'. Mathematics has similar skills demanded as in Philosophy, but more rigorous tools.

In Philosophy, I started to notice a fall from juvenal couriosity to many times 'true believer' or 'nihilist' positions. The primary critique I received from theist friends for my Philosophy interest, 'so do you really believe anything?' My come back was mostly, 'I do not yet know enough to be certain, but I suspect a great deal!'

Sadly using logic learned during formal classes, seemed to imply that 'perfect knowledge' might not be possible, but 'good enough/practical' knowledge was rather easy with experience/time.

Mathematics can allow you to more formally make assumptions/assertions and test them out, looking for contradictions.

Philosophy can yield a maze of ambiguity, where decidability seems to retreat from our grasp the more questions we ask. In the end, how we 'ask our questions', can become the predictor of our result.


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