How Can I Know Anything at All? BBC Animations Feature the Philosophy of Wittgenstein, Hume, Popper & More

How did every­thing begin? What makes us human? What is the self? How do I live a good life? What is love? We’ve all asked these ques­tions, if only with­in our heads, and recent­ly a series of BBC ani­ma­tions writ­ten by philoso­pher Nigel War­bur­ton and nar­rat­ed by a vari­ety of celebri­ties have done their lev­el best to answer them–or at least to point us in the direc­tion of answer­ing them for our­selves by not just telling but wit­ti­ly show­ing us what great minds have thought and said on the issues before we came along. Most recent­ly, they’ve tak­en on that eter­nal conun­drum, “How can I know any­thing at all?”

The already philo­soph­i­cal­ly inclined will have rec­og­nized this as the foun­da­tion­al ques­tion of epis­te­mol­o­gy, that for­mi­da­ble branch of phi­los­o­phy con­cerned with what we know, how we know, and whether we can know in the first place. Many famil­iar names in the his­to­ry of phi­los­o­phy have stepped onto this field, includ­ing Lud­wig Wittgen­stein, with whose thoughts this series of extreme­ly brief explana­to­ry videos begins. It lays out his anal­o­gy of the bee­tle in a box, where­in each per­son holds a box con­tain­ing what they call a “bee­tle,” but nobody can look inside anoth­er’s box to con­firm whether their idea of a bee­tle aligns with any­one else’s.

In Wittgen­stein’s view, says actor Aidan Turn­er, “there can’t be more to the pub­lic mean­ing of a lan­guage than we’re capa­ble of teach­ing each oth­er, and the pri­vate ‘something’—the ‘beetle’—can’t have a role in that teach­ing, because we can’t get at it.” The next video, in ask­ing whether we should believe in mir­a­cles, brings in Scot­tish Enlight­en­ment thinker David Hume, who thought that “if we fol­low the rule of pro­por­tion­ing our beliefs to the avail­able evi­dence, there will always be more evi­dence that the eye­wit­ness accounts were mis­tak­en than not.” Hume’s pre­de­ces­sor George Berke­ley makes an appear­ance to weigh in on whether any­thing exists—or, more pre­cise­ly, whether any­thing exists besides our minds, which con­vince us that we expe­ri­ence real things out there in the world.

Final­ly, the series lands on a method we can use to know, one sci­ence has relied on, with seem­ing suc­cess, for quite some time now: Karl Pop­per’s idea of fal­si­fi­ca­tion. “Rather than look­ing for sup­port­ing evi­dence, Pop­per argued that sci­en­tists go out of their way to refute their own hypothe­ses, test­ing them to destruc­tion,” leav­ing those that remain, at least pro­vi­sion­al­ly, as knowl­edge. Though none of these videos exceed two min­utes in length, each one, dense with both philo­soph­i­cal and pop-cul­tur­al ref­er­ences, will leave you with more knowl­edge about epis­te­mol­o­gy than you went in with—assuming they don’t leave you dis­be­liev­ing in knowl­edge itself.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

140 Free Online Phi­los­o­phy Cours­es

What is Love? BBC Phi­los­o­phy Ani­ma­tions Fea­ture Sartre, Freud, Aristo­phanes, Dawkins & More

What is the Self? Watch Phi­los­o­phy Ani­ma­tions Nar­rat­ed by Stephen Fry on Sartre, Descartes & More

How Did Every­thing Begin?: Ani­ma­tions on the Ori­gins of the Uni­verse Nar­rat­ed by X‑Files Star Gillian Ander­son

What Makes Us Human?: Chom­sky, Locke & Marx Intro­duced by New Ani­mat­ed Videos from the BBC

How to Live a Good Life? Watch Phi­los­o­phy Ani­ma­tions Nar­rat­ed by Stephen Fry on Aris­to­tle, Ayn Rand, Max Weber & More

How Can I Know Right From Wrong? Watch Phi­los­o­phy Ani­ma­tions on Ethics Nar­rat­ed by Har­ry Shear­er

Col­in Mar­shall writes on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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