Review: Philosophy and the Social Problem–The Annotated Edition

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Will Durant

6 Star Special So VERY Relevant Today–Absent Philosophy, No Amount of Money Will Suffice

October 14, 2008
This book, first published in 1916 in 1000 copies of which only 100 sold, is a gem. It is Will Durant’s doctoral thesis simplified for the public, and I found it to be extraordinary. This book *preceded* his life’s work in creating the History of Civilization with his wife Ariel Durant, and I now understand, from this book, how Durant first devised and then applied his personal intellectual & philosophical framework of “Perspectivism.”

Early on he states that philosophy should be the foundation for politics qua political-economic decision-making, but it is not. He shares E. O. Wilson’s view articulated in Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge that philosophy is what SHOULD be unified with science in order to produce social solutions (today he would no doubt say *sustainable* social solutions. He laments the relegation of philosophy to the “ivory tower” of academia, lost to politics and lost to the public. (Conservatives would say they still live by a philosophy but I would disagree–most of them simply parrot dogma–the liberals have neither, they offer platitudes and are just as corrupt and partisan.)

In his view so early in his career, philosophy plus history equals wisdom; and politics without either cannot resolve “the social problem” regardless of how much money might be thrown at specific solutions.

The first five chapters review Socrates, Plato, Bacon, Spinoza, and Nietzsche. In keeping with his “Perspectivism” he neither seeks to refute nor ignore but instead to *relate* diverse philosophies to the present circumstances (reading Plato, and then Durant as of 1916, I am struck by the timeless wisdom–money creates hoarding and speculation, inheritance incentivizes same, neither is good for society as a whole).

“The social problem” and the task of philosophy is to achieve balance between emergent individualism and the larger social construct that needs civic duty and contributions from all if the group is to be safe and be prosperous.

I am fascinated throughout this book, beginning with Socrates inheriting a war of all against all as wealth creates a leisure class that “buys” knowledge and leads to analysis destroying morals. I am struck by Durant’s emphasis on how a civilization may be characterized by its conception of virtue, and think immediately of how the USA is a The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans Are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead based on Rule by Secrecy: The Hidden History That Connects the Trilateral Commission, the Freemasons, and the Great Pyramids and managed by two criminal parties each Running on Empty: How the Democratic and Republican Parties Are Bankrupting Our Future and What Americans Can Do About It.

We are, today, in the midst of the battle for the soul of the Republic and also The Battle for the Soul of Capitalism and the wisdom of Will Durant could not be more timely or relevant.

Durant defines duty not as unquestioning submission to the group but rather individual excellence in thinking and action–for a modern presentation of this, see Integral Consciousness and the Future of Evolution.

From Socrates to Spinoza and on, Durant finds that morality is not about freedom of will or individual purpose, but rather about how the group and the individuals as part of the group relate means to ends (or we could say now, means (revenue) to ways (policies) to ends (endless war or peace, distributed prosperity or concentrated wealth and broad slavery).

I find guidance and solace for Colin Powell in Durant’s rendition of Plato, and am just blown away by how we must give the best to education, that until we do so, until we give our best brains to education, no amount of money will reduce our social ills. Here is the quote for Colin Powell:

“When Plato says that the office of minister of education is ‘of all the great offices of state the greatest,’ and that the citizens should elect their very best man to this office (Laws 765-6), he is not pronouncing a platitude, he is making a radical, revolutionary proposition.

Durant draws out (mostly from Spinoza) the importance of NOT having a standard government-defined education, of making education fun, exploratory, diverse, and open-ended. I cannot help but recall how the author of Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving with Grace suggests we beat the creativity out of children by the fourth grade, and how my hacker friends consider schools to be prisons.

In reviewing Bacon, Durant sees the destruction of philosophy by religion, and states clearly that this is something we must undo. I favor the concept of Faith- Based Diplomacy Trumping Realpolitik and see no conflict between secular philosophy and faith.

He cites Bacon as seeking to inspire more cooperation and less chaotic rivalry in research, and this is one reason I believe Colin Powell would be foolish to settle for Secretary of Education. Instead he should suggest that there be three Deputy Vice Presidents: himself for Education, Intelligence, and Research; one for National Security; and one for the Commonwealth. This will allow the bloated $75 billion a year secret intelligence budget to be used as bill-payer for both Education and Research, at the same time that an Open Source Agency makes it possible to dismantle 80% of the hydra of relatively useless secret sources and methods (they acquire 4% of what we need to know while ignoring all the rest in 183 languages we do not understand).

For Spinoza as for Plato compulsion is a negative force, useful for inhibiting attacks but not for inspiring collaboration.

It is from Spinoza that Durant draws his ultimate vision, one shared by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison: for a democracy to be successful, something other than an anarchist mob, the spread of intelligence–wisdom, knowledge, decision-making skills, is essential.

In the transition to Nietzsche, Durant offers marvelous one-line dismissals (each) of Descartes, Locke, Leibniz, Bishop Berkeley, Hume, Voltaire, Compte, John Stewart Mill, Spencer, Kant, Fichte, Hegel, Schopenhauer, and Hildebrand.

In Part II Durant explores various solutions and objectives, and then circles around again to his bottom line: the purpose of philosophy, the mission of philosophy, is to facilitate the growth and spread of intelligence among men. Unlike history, which reconstructs the past, philosophy seeks to reconstruct the future. Instead of analysis, synthesis; instead of categorization, reconstruction and redirection, innovation from diversity mixed in diverse ways.

See also his The Lessons of History and the new publication with 55 authors, Collective Intelligence: Creating a Prosperous World at Peace.

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