Watch Animated Introductions to 35 Philosophers by The School of Life: From Plato to Kant and Foucault

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 35 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. Watch all of the videos in the playlist right below.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Free Online Phi­los­o­phy Cours­es (140+ Free Cours­es)

6 Polit­i­cal The­o­rists Intro­duced in Ani­mat­ed “School of Life” Videos: Marx, Smith, Rawls & More

An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to Goethe, Germany’s “Renais­sance Man”

Alain de Bot­ton Shows How Art Can Answer Life’s Big Ques­tions in Art as Ther­a­py

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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