Philosophy as an academic subject is regularly maligned in popular discourse. Philosophy majors get told that their studies are useless. Philosophy professors find their budgets cut, their courses scrutinized, and their character grossly impeached in propagandistic religious feature films. It’s enough to make one despair over the turgid air of anti-intellectualism that stifles conversation.
But before we start pining for bygone golden ages of rigorous critical thought, let us remember that philosophers have been a thorn in the side of the powerful since the inception of Western philosophy. After all, Socrates, the ancient Greek whose name we associate with philosophy’s most basic maxims and methods, was supposedly put to death for the crime of which today’s professorate so often stand accused: corrupting the youth.
We mostly know of Socrates’ life and death through the written dialogues of his star pupil, Plato, whom Alain de Botton calls in the first video above, “the world’s first true, and perhaps greatest, philosopher.” De Botton quickly explains in his animated School of Life introduction that the core of Plato’s philosophy constitutes a “special kind of therapy” geared toward Eudaimonia, or human fulfillment and well-being. From Plato, De Botton's series of quick takes on famous philosophers continues, moving through the Enlightenment and the 19th and 20th centuries.
Key to Plato’s thought is the critical examination of Doxa, or the conventional values and “popular opinions” that reveal themselves as “riddled with errors, prejudice, and superstition.” Plato’s most famous illustration of the profound state of ignorance in which most of us live goes by the name “The Allegory of the Cave,” and receives a retelling with commentary by De Botton just above. The parable doesn’t only illustrate the utility of philosophy, as De Botton says; it also serves as a vivid introduction to Plato’s theory of the Forms—an ideal realm of which our phenomenal reality is only a debased copy.
The dualism between the real and the ideal long governed philosophical thought, though many competing schools like the Stoics expressed a healthy degree of skepticism. But we might say that it wasn’t until Immanuel Kant, whom you can learn about above, that Plato really met his match. Along with his famous ethical dictum of the “categorical imperative,” Kant also posited two distinct realms—the noumenal and the phenomenal. And yet, unlike Plato, Kant did not believe we can make any assertions about the properties or existence of the ideal. Whatever lies outside the cave, we cannot access it through our faulty senses.
These central questions about the nature of knowledge and mind not only make philosophy an immanently fascinating discipline---they also make it an increasingly necessary endeavor, as we move further into the realm of constructing artificial minds. Software engineers and video game developers are tasked with philosophical problems related to consciousness, identity, and the possibility of ethical free choice. And at the cutting edge of cognitive science---where evolutionary biology and quantum mechanics rub elbows—we may find that Plato and Kant both intuited some of the most basic problems of consciousness: what we take for reality may be nothing of the kind, and we may have no way of genuinely knowing what the world is like outside our senses.
As 17th century French philosopher and mathematician Rene Descartes feared, but found impossible to believe, our perception of the world may in fact be a deceptive, if useful, illusion. Learn more about Descartes above, and see De Botton’s full School of Life philosophy series at the top of the post. Or watch the series on Youtube.
There are 25 videos in total, which let you become acquainted with, and perhaps corrupted by, a range of thinkers who question orthodoxy and common sense, including Aristotle, Epicurus, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Friedrich Nietzsche, Michel Foucault, Arthur Schopenhauer, Albert Camus, Soren Kierkegaard, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Baruch Spinoza.
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