Western Philosophy: How to be Smart and Happy at the Same Time (pt. 4)

David Hume Quotation
David Hume on demanding proof of miracles.

The Evolution of Western Philosophy

Western Philosophy has slowly evolved and refined itself over thousands of years.  And like all evolution, there has been dead ends, costly mistakes that we’ve had to correct, and strange twists that simply won’t go away, even though they have done us little good.

Western Philosophy is a place where ideas come to be challenged; no idea escapes being examined, questioned, and argued.  Like an animal in an ecosystem, often only the fittest ideas will survive.  Just like evolution, however, it has led to the creation of a robust and powerful culture that has been an incredible boon to its followers.

The most powerful mechanisms that has allowed Western Philosophy to evolve the way it has is The Marketplace of Ideas. Understanding it is critical to understanding how Europeans went from being the most backward and retrograde people on Earth to the most wealthy, healthy, and technologically advanced ones in a very short time period.


The first part of understanding the Marketplace of Ideas is to understand Individualism.  Before Socrates was executed by the Sophists, people accepted that an individual person is just a part of a bigger tribe.  What that one person wants, feels, or thinks is not as important as what the tribe as a whole needs to be prosperous.

If the Tribe was short on food, it had a right to let some members starve.  If the tribe needed to go to war, it had the right to send as many young men as it wanted into the meat grinder to get the resources that they wanted.  If the tribe needed more children, it had a right to tell a woman when to have babies and with whom – never mind what she felt.

In pre-Western and most non-Wester cultures the Tribe, is the basic moral unit, not the person. The specific shape of the Tribe varies, it can be a literal tribe, a clan, a caste, a large family, a kingdom, or a nation-state.  Whatever it is, doing what is good for the Tribe as a whole is how right and wrong is judged.  Arranged marriages, honour killings, press-ganging children, human sacrifice, ritualized genital mutilation, and blood feuds are all considered perfectly justifiable, as long as they make the Tribe stronger.

In Ancient Greece, people had already started doubting the value of focusing on the tribe.  Tribalism had created hundreds of years of pointless, bloody warfare.  The execution of Socrates was a breaking point in our culture.  His students, especially Plato suddenly asked themselves, “What do I really owe my Tribe?  Does it really have the right to decide whether I live or die?  Is it right to kill someone because he rocks the boat?  Can we really survive, if we are afraid that we will be killed if we speak an inconvenient truth?”

Starting with Plato, and evolving through the the Liberals of the 17th Century, our answer has been to say “Our Tribe doesn’t own us!  We are a part of the Tribe, it protects and helps us, and in turn we have some duties to it, but the moment it tries to use us without our consent, or to hurt us, then we have a right to walk away, or to rebel.”

Any Rand on Society being made up of Individuals.

In Western Society we see the Individual as the basic moral unit.  It is the choices that an individual adult person makes that are right and wrong.  A person can be good or evil, right or wrong.  The Tribe is nothing but a group (a “Society”) of individuals, all working together.  A good person will generally wind up being decent and helpful to other individuals, and in the process helps create a better Society.  A bad one will probably make Society worse by cheating, stealing, and hurting the people around him or her.

And when we looked at the Individual as a moral actor, we came to realize a few important things.  First, that each person knows their own business best.  A King a hundred miles away doesn’t know how to best raise your children, and a planning committee in the city rarely does a good job telling people in the country what crops to plant and how to grow them.  When we leave individuals to make their own choices, and give them compelling reasons to make the right ones, we end up with a better, healthier society.  Which means we do our best work when we give as much freedom to the individual as we can.


It understanding the Marketplace of Ideas also means understanding the importance of Skepticism.  In Ancient Greece, the Skpetics and Cynics were orders of priests whose job it was to remind people that the gods were not all-powerful.  When things were going horribly wrong, people sometimes imagined that the gods hand turned against them, that they were cursed and either might as well give up and die,or should perform some great sacrifice to the gods to appease them. Before they did anything drastic, they would visit a Cynic and explain all the terrible things that happened.  They Cynic’s job would be to offer an alternate explanation – be it bad-luck, self-sabotage, foolishness, or the the like, and then offer the person something practical they could try before they bloodied an altar needlessly.

Likewise, if a person was certain they knew the future, or what the gods wanted, and started making plans to change the way business was done, pick a fight, or go to war, they went to speak to a Skeptic.  The Skeptic’s job was to remind them that people don’t get to know the minds of the gods.  They demanded a person be humble and come up with good worldly reasons as well as godly ones before they did anything drastic.

These traditions made it possible for the Ancient Greeks to understand that not every compelling thought was the right one.  When Socrates was executed, it became clear to many youths in Athens, and then across Greece that not only could individuals, or even kings be wrong – but it was possible for huge groups of people to be wrong all at once. That your Tribe could be wrong, and one single man who questioned them could be right.

And that meant the only way to be correct and wise was to look for proof and good reasons to believe something.  “Common knowledge” and the popularity of an idea are not enough. Most of Europe thought the world was flat once upon a time, and most of Europe was wrong, it was a few naysayers who were right.

The Marketplace of Ideas, in Brief

The Marketplace of Ideas is how we have ensured that our philosophy has grown and evolved on the principles of Individualism, and Skepticism.  In essence, anyone is allowed to make an argument or talk about anything, based on their perspective… but they aren’t allowed to just make assertions.  You have to be ready to persuade people of the truth of your ideas by providing a logical argument, and evidence that your idea is true.  Nobody has to accept your ideas just because you say so – not even if you have power, influence, or a fancy degree.  Your ideas are only as good as your ability to back them up.

And anyone has the right to question them.  They don’t have to be nice or kind about it, because Truth is more important than a few hurt feelings.  If they find a hole in your logic, or establish a hole in your evidence, then your argument fails.  Your ideas are thrown on the trash heap of history.

John Stuart Mill quote
Quote from John Stuart Mill, on Truth being more important than popularity.

In essence the Marketplace allows people to see what ideas are working, and which ones are falling apart.  It lets them see both the pros of an idea, and the cons.  And as the flaws in an idea keeps coming, eventually the only people who will buy into it are those too foolish to listen to the arguments, and those who care more about the ideas that make them feel good than the ideas that will actually make them happier people.

The Power (and Limitations) of the Marketplace

The Marketplace of Ideas has given us incredible things.  Science was a way of taking the rules of the Marketplace of Ideas and making sure any study of the natural world was subject to it, so that better experiments and better evidence were always taken over less useful ones.  Science in turn has given us medicine, computer technology, and business models that is slowly destroying poverty across the entire world.  The system of Human Rights, the Rule of Law, and the Equality of Opportunity that our society focuses on- (and sometimes succeeds in-) creating are also a major products that were created in and continue to have a market share in the Marketplace.

Of course, the principles of Individualism and Skepticism mean that we can’t force people to accept an idea, even if it seems vary true and right – because we all could be wrong.  And we can’t force people to give up an idea, even if it is incredibly stupid and wrongheaded.

Because of this we have never been able to completely eliminate the impulse for Tribalism, we find new ways to dress it up and put it back on the marketplace over and over again in new packaging.

Take Racism.  Racism is totally inconsistent with the basic idea of Individualism.  If we treat one group of people as monsters or inferiors, then we are working against the most basic principles of our own culture.  It is Tribalism at its most blatant and stupid.  We are potentially missing out on brilliant ideas, amazing businesses, or scientific breakthroughs because we can’t see past the colour of a person’s skin.

And for the most part, Racism died at the Marketplace of Ideas back in the 1960s.  Genuine hatred and dismissal of people based on their racial traits is very rare today. And yet it refuses to die completely.  In fact, it keeps coming back in different forms over and over again, and under different names.

Today the idea of “intersectionality” provides a beautiful cover for Racism, for example.  Instead of calling racial minorities stupid or inferior, and in need of colonization in order to keep them civilized, Intersectionality says that racial minorities are helpless victims who need elite (White, leftist, Marxist) intellectuals to tell them what to think and feel in order to lift them up to “equality.”  It’s the same White Man’s Burden bullshit, only this time they’ve put the proverbial pig in the taffeta dress of intellectualism.

Where Western Philosophy is Going

In the 20th Century and 21st there was a movement away from Philosophy.  Many influential ideologues declared that the inquiry was over for one reason or another.

Some declared that we had reached the pinnacle of our evolution, and all people needed to do now was study what had come in the past… or better yet, just accept that our current culture was the final product.  This group usually wanted to create a large number of people who didn’t think or question, who just trusted the government to rely on “experts” to come up with the right plans.  This was a popular strategy among fascists and other totalitarian groups.  This group, when discussed in education is called The Prussian School, and can also be called the Elitists.  They hold that the world does not need or want everyone to think, and in fact, a lot of knowledge in the hands of an innately stupid person is a waste of resources.  Instead, they feel that only a select few (namely themselves) ought to think for themselves, and everyone else ought to only be educated as much as necessary for them to be useful for Society.

Another group that seeks to end philosophical investigation are the Marxists.  Followers of the philosophy of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and to a lesser extent, Robert Owen, this group believes that all of history is in fact a Tribal conflict – one between the rich and the poor (“Capitalists” and “Proletariat”), and that philosophy is just a distraction meant to confuse and bewilder people into accepting ideas that make the poor easy to manipulate.  Marxists hold that Individualism is a toxic idea, and that everyone should be more interested in creating a perfect paradise where everyone works for the good of everyone else.

One particularly popular strain of Marxism, sometimes called Leninism, or The Frankfurt School holds that the average person is too ignorant and brainwashed to understand that thy are being controlled and “Oppressed”, that art, culture and philosophy all are designed to brainwash us into accepting the power of the “Oppressors”, that only a few intellectuals should be trusted to think at all, and the rest should be forced to have a violent revolution against the Captialists, whether they want it or not, and then art and culture should be replaced with propaganda that keeps people thinking in a Marxist manner.

Because Marx, and his student Lenin wrote extensive practical advice on starting revolutions, their ideas have influenced many others.  Today large groups of people have adapted the basic binary of Marx of “Oppressor” and “Victim” and applied it to all kinds of Tribal groups – Whites vs. Minorities, Men vs. Women, Religious vs. Atheists, etc.  These groups have appropriated a Soviet term – Social Justice Warriors as a self-description.  They see whatever their chosen struggle is as fundamentally about protecting a victim class – by any means necessary.

These groups are often aware that their ideas are delicate and don’t stand up to strong debate, and cannot survive in the open marketplace. To protect their ideas, they have developed a code of speech that demands that any attack on their arguments be seen as an attack on the victim group they represent; question a feminist SJW and you’re a sexist; question a race-oriented SJW and you’re a racist.  This system of speech control is often termed Political Correctness, a term that like “Social Justice Warrior” itself, has its origins in the Soviet Union.

Political Correctness is fundamentally at odds with the political marketplace.  It demands that people automatically “listen and believe” when it comes to statements made on behalf of victim groups.  It turns Skepticism and argument into an act of “hate speech” or “cyberviolence”.  Once they can make the act of subjecting an idea to the Marketplace seem dangerous, they can call debate dangerous and make it seem “unsafe” and demand that people who engage in philosophical inquiry be silenced – a tactic called “No Platforming.”

Finally there are groups of people who have concluded that Logic and Reason are no longer necessary for a functional society.  These groups, Nihilists and Postmodernists suggest that philosophy, and the human mind itself, fail after  certain point.  That instead emotions, artistic expression, and human impulses should be considered our guide, even when those things are irrational or destructive.

All of these groups are currently trying to shut down the Marketplace of Ideas for different reasons and using different methods.  Each of them have different political and financial motives for doing so.  All of them ultimately want to control how people act,think, and behave, and either have the power of the police to use violence on people who disagree, or in the case of the Nihilists, the right to enact violence without consequences to those who disagree with them.  They are, in essence Authoritarians, who are looking to create new structures of power that let them control others through force.

(And yet the Marxist and SJW groups at the same time argue without irony that “oppression” is wrong.)

Quote from Johnathan Ruach on the Marketplace of Ideas.
Quote from Johnathan Ruach on the Marketplace of Ideas.

Right now, these groups are powerful and influential.  They appela to our natural inclination towards Tribalism, where we can be the “good guys” and have victory over “bad guys.”  Philosophical education is becoming rare, and accordingly the Marketplace of Ideas is becoming stagnant.  Without it, the structure that underpins our freedoms may also fail.

The next hurdle for Philosophy is to become not just relevant, but active again.  We are beginning to see a revival in the interest in understanding the philosophy of the Classical Liberals, like Locke and Rousseau, and in protecting the Marketplace of Ideas, through a movement called Cultural Libertarianism, which in particular is focused on protecting freedom of speech and the right to remain skeptical of popular ideas.

We also are seeing a rise and evolution of Objectivism, which is a philosophy that states that “Yes there is a reality outside your head, and if you want to lead a good and healthy life, you need to accept that and live with it.”  While this movement started with the writer Ayn Rand in the 1940s as Aristotle, plus Science, plus Austiran Economics, it is only now just beginning to evolve past rand and become something of a living philosophy where debate occurs.

If we are going to see Western Culture, with its hallmarks of Individuality, Reason, Skepticism, and its incredible effects on ending poverty, reducing warfare, and bringing basic rights and freedoms to the world, we need more dialogue, and to revitalize the Market.  We need to leverage the tools of the Internet to not just teach Western Philosophy, but to do Western Philosophy, to start discussing where we need to go to keep building a society that affords the greatest freedom, prosperity, and happiness to humanity as a whole.

9 thoughts on “Western Philosophy: How to be Smart and Happy at the Same Time (pt. 4)

  1. Brian, you say
    “… Philosophical education is becoming rare,…”
    Was it ever common? Before about 150 years ago, education in general was pretty rare in the UK, and outside of the upper classes, would have consisted of basic literacy, numeracy and some form of religious instruction/indoctrination. You would have got it at the highest universities, assuming you were studying a “generalist” degree. If you were reading for sciences, engineering, medicine, surgery etc you might be introduced to the scientific method, but you probably wouldn’t have seen much discussion of the schools of philosophic thought after about 1850 or so. The discussion of philosophy and its effects were the preserve of philosophy students, and perhaps those studying politics/economics.

    I can’t help thinking that is was always the preserve of the elite, and that we are simply more aware now that people don’t understand it, especially in the context that general access to education is better.

    1. This really depends on region. Certainly before mass literacy the study of the formal discipline of philosophy was more difficult to achieve, but that did not make it uncommon among the masses. Philosophy was often disseminated very differently, but still shared. Consider the ban on coffeehouses during the reign of George III… and the frequent calls for it before his reign. The basic reason was that Englishmen would sit around and share thoughts and ideas – often ones like the works of Locke – or its notions in the abstract if not in specifics.

      Or consider the ban that Louis XIV placed on the opera – this was the same problem. Mozart in particular was infamous for working elaborate philosophical discourse into his plays, which the aristocracy was (correctly) concerned would start talk that would end in rebellion.

      In the Netherlands, dissemination of treatises and texts among factory workers was considered a massive nuisance in the 18th century.

  2. Brian, to what extent is the enemy not idealogues but apathy? Outside the rarefied ruling classes, other than in times of revolution, when was “discussing where we need to go to keep building a society that affords the greatest freedom, prosperity, and happiness to humanity as a whole” a subject of discussion?

    Can you explain the difference between feeling good and being a happier person?

    1. Apathy and ideologues go hand in hand. There were only a few Nazis in Germany, and only a few Bolsheviks in Russia. In both cases, however, those who were apathetic, by their inaction allowed the ideologues into power. And once they were in that power, the same apathetic Germans and the Soviets blithely accepted what they were told from the government. They allowed children to be indoctrinated, and thus through their apathy became ersatz ideologues and created more ideologues.

      Large numbers of apathetic people are not the enemy, but they are grist for the enemy’s mill. Or, as the great English statesman Edmund Burke put it:

      “All that is required for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”

    2. Happiness, is not “feeling good”, that would be “joy” or “cheer.” Although these days the word Happiness is badly misused – a side-effect of the pop-psychology of the 1960s and 70s that used it mostly correctly, but carelessly.

      Happiness is being in a state where you are free to pursue personal growth, creativity, and to create a legacy. It is the state where you are not struggling for survival, or merely concerned with basic moral action, but where you actually have the luxury -and motive – to pursue Beauty in the philosophical sense of the world. It is not about feelings alone, but about potential. Happiness requires a good income, a moral character. honest company, personal growth, and the luxury intellectual pursuit. It is made possible only with a healthy frame of mind, and can be out of reach for people who lack a sense of personal agency.

      When a psychologist talks about being “happy” they mean emotionally and mentally well enough to function above mere survival mode. When statesmen before the 20th century used the term “Happy” they meant having a measure of safety, security, and liberty to pursue a greater standard of living.

      It was the degeneration of psychology to pop culture in the seventies that allowed this sly inversion to occur. Rather than “Happy” as the capacity to do the things that will create lasting worthy and good feelings, it became the good feelings themselves. Which ideologues and cults could then sell as their end product.

      1. “Happiness requires a good income, a moral character. honest company, personal growth, and the luxury intellectual pursuit. ”

        So basically it’s a gift to those who are above the level of basic work? I’m sorry Brian, but you aren’t selling this as anything to do with ordinary people, but a thing of those that have enough people below them to ensure they can indulge themselves.

        Among philosophy, there seems to be a thread of Humpty Dumpty: “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

        The people who went to coffee houses in the reign of George III weren’t common people – they were the equivalent of today’s stockbrokers, newspaper columnists, technology entrepereneurs etc. Nor were those listening to opera in Paris from the lower working people – they weren’t the ostlers and carters and the like.

      2. Keep in mind the point, from Aristotle on has been to figure out how to expand these luxuries to as many people as possible.

        Aristotle did not believe Happiness could be for everyone. he advocated convict and POW labour to enable happiness for citizens. For many early medieval philosophers Happiness was an issue for the Aristocracy and the Clergy, and would be extended to all in Heaven… which was at the core of Martin Luther’s objections to the Catholic Church… that it did not care for the happiness of the working man.

        Plato argued that Happiness ought to be the concern of the intellectual elite, as they could then use their leisure time to figure out how to spread some modicum of Happiness, or at least Order to the masses. His strain of philosophy did eventually create the Elites, who yes, argue that Happiness is possible only for the few.

        It is what prompted the development of the science of economics, and why we ultimately developed the system s of modern democracy and capitalism that we have today. A general expansion of the capacity for happiness. That is what made the “Pursuit of Life, Liberty, and Happiness” clause of the American Declaration of Independence so radical/ The idea that a political system must be constructed in such a way that everyone has the opportunity to create happiness foe themselves – if not the guarantee of it.

        I suspect that your picture of history is coloured by modern historiography, too. We tend to see the lives of serfs as being particularly miserable and back-breaking throughout European History, but until the 16th century, rents were low enough that a subsistence farmer in Europe could fulfill his duty to his landlord on around 6 – 12 hours of labour per week, and his own needs met on half of that. Excessive hard work was seen as Unchristian – as it showed lack of faith in God to provide.

        The miserable toil and abject poverty we imagine that the middle-class suffered is as much poverty-porn for the modern man as it is historical fact. Of course, there are major exceptions – Western Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire, the era of the Black Death, and the famines of the 100 Year’s War all created major periods where no one had leisure time.

      3. The precision in lingusitic definitions comes into play because the works are incessantly translated. Remember that the Ancient Greeks had at least four words that we all lump under “Love” in English. Most Western philosophy has been produced in High German, English, Ancient Greek, French and Latin. If you are not obsessively precise in definitions, you start losing the logical thread of the arguments.

        The only other option is to insist on using original language terms, but then you burden yourself with lengthy and excessive definitions ahead of time.

        Usually a philosophical definition of a term remains strongly held in the academic circles, but tends to lose definition in the living language of the vernacular. “Happiness”, “Love”, “Republic”, “Justice”, and “Liberty” all are great examples of words whose meanings are very specific and have very heavily laden meanings in philosophy that are bound to their time, or a body of work, which varies greatly form the 20th century vernacular.

        This is, for example, why I am doing a 5-part series. The discussion of happiness in part one is necessary for the mention of it here to make any sense. I could, of course have chosen to say choosing between things that make a person feel good, and the choices that actually give them the time, energy, and freedom to create meaningful works and grow as human beings – but as you can imagine this would inflate the language infinitely.

        It does not help that in the 20th century a lot of governments have deliberately played silly buggers with the meaning of words for propaganda pieces.

        But your point is an important one because it limits the accessibility for texts, too. if I need a 2,500 essay, plus that again in comments to be precise in my meaning, obviously I need new words that resonate with a new audience for philosophy to be viable.

  3. But if
    “Usually a philosophical definition of a term remains strongly held in the academic circles, but tends to lose definition in the living language of the vernacular. “Happiness”, “Love”, “Republic”, “Justice”, and “Liberty” all are great examples of words whose meanings are very specific and have very heavily laden meanings in philosophy that are bound to their time, or a body of work, which varies greatly form the 20th century vernacular.”

    Then is it not inevitable the philosophy becomes inaccessible outside people who are deeply steeped in it? I guess you might say that the answer is that everyone should be, at which point it ceases to be a problem. I would say the same about science, which suffers from the same issue: precision, accuracy, reproducibility, repeatability, sensitivity all have highly specific meanings in the field which are sufficiently different from vernacular use to make the subject confusing. Equally, I would say that everyone ought to understand science, in order to understand how the world works, as well as philosophy (how the world OUGHT to work!). However, in a context where education struggles to bring a good level of literacy and numeracy to many people I think both of us will be waiting a long time.

    “things that make a person feel good, and the choices that actually give them the time, energy, and freedom to create meaningful works and grow as human beings” Why would you do these things if they didn’t make you feel good? Who determines what is “meaningful”? To a British sense it sounds a bit like what what be called “dull and worthy”, rather than anything that one would actively pursue with zeal.

    Finally, a cheeky one: to what extent is philosophy an example of Maslow’s “Law of the Instrument” – if you’re a philosopher, everything can be solved with sufficient philosophy?

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