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September 10, 2009 6:06 AM   Subscribe

So, what are the universally accepted axioms in philosophy, if any?

While tracking another askmefi question regarding questions in philosophy, I have noticed that philosophical arguments seem to make a lot of assumptions. As simple examples, the "Utility Monster" and "P-Zombie" thought experiments seem to make assumptions that life is mostly static and that people's beings don't change over time. In producing these thought experiments are these philosophers utilizing a well-regarded set of assumptions that I should be aware of? Is there even such a thing?

Also, how do I make Philosophy less semantically confusing? Because often when I read Philosophical arguments I'll think, 'sure that makes sense, if I assume that X means Y, but sometimes X means Z, or X will mean Z at a later date.'

Disclaimer: I haven't read any real philosophy since undergrad, but I remember this imprecision being a thing that turned me off from 'early' works. At the time, I remember reading Plato and Descartes and thinking to myself, 'yeah this is interesting, but wow they make a lot of assumptions that I don't necessarily agree with.'
posted by TheOtherSide to Religion & Philosophy (26 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
(1) Descartes is not an "early" philosopher

(2) If you are looking for precision study physics or chemistry not an abstraction like philosophy.
posted by dfriedman at 6:30 AM on September 10, 2009

The only useful axiom I know, was given by Schopenhauer, in Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung. Zweiter Band, Erstes Buch, Kapitel 17, stating that nobody should even try metaphysics, without knowing what physics had already made clear.

It's not an axiom many philosophers go by.

And this is why I am a science historian, not a science philosopher, though there are no strict boundaries between the two.
posted by ijsbrand at 6:34 AM on September 10, 2009 [2 favorites]

Raymond Smullyan makes the claim that systems of morals are finitely axiomatizable and can be reduced to precisely one axiom: everyone one may do as s/he chooses (ref: The Tao is SIlent). I doubt that this is universally accepted.
posted by plinth at 6:37 AM on September 10, 2009

I don't really understand why you think the utility monster presupposes that people don't change over time. Or the p-zombie. Maybe if you could explain this we'd better understand what you mean by "assumptions".

I don't know if you'll find any assumption common to all philosophy. There have been some pretty outlanding philosophies. There is such a thing as: assumptions that are more or less recurringly dominant throughout Anglo-American philosophy, or assumptions that dominated, say, German philosophy of the 19th century. I'm thinking of things like: rationality by itself can't produce specific motivations, they have to be already given, or: the subject of rationality cannot be in space and time. But philosophers are always attacking these assumptions.
posted by creasy boy at 6:42 AM on September 10, 2009

So, what are the universally accepted axioms in philosophy, if any?

There aren't many. Here's a list of 12, but I don't agree that all of them are universally accepted -- which is a good example of the fact that it's hard to think of many philosophical statements that are.

In philosophy, knowledge doesn't accumulate and become solidified the way it does in other disciplines. The whole thing is really chaotic. A philosopher making an argument is mainly relying on the persuasive value of that specific argument, not firmly resting on a body of settled propositions.

Also, how do I make Philosophy less semantically confusing?

Simon Blackburn's Dictionary of Philosophy. Well-written, thought-provoking, entertaining.
posted by Jaltcoh at 6:43 AM on September 10, 2009 [2 favorites]

Anyway, philosophers certainly don't assume that all things are static, although a few of them might have concluded that.
posted by creasy boy at 6:44 AM on September 10, 2009

rationality by itself can't produce specific motivations, they have to be already given

John Searle critiques this assumption.
posted by Jaltcoh at 6:44 AM on September 10, 2009

everyone one may do as s/he chooses... I doubt that this is universally accepted.

Not only isn't it universally accepted, but I doubt that anyone (even Smullyan) accepts it!
posted by Jaltcoh at 6:48 AM on September 10, 2009

As far as I could tell, after four years of philosophy, the whole point of axioms was moot. Half of the classes I took were "Philosophy of X" which, by and large, tend to mean tearing down X until X itself carried no inherent meaning.

The final lesson I took from philosophy? He (or she) who controls then givens/axioms controls the argument. In other words, if someone is arguing something, and they are even halfway decent at logic, the second you agree to even part of their "given" in an argument, they have proven their point. If the given is solid, then clearly, the conclusion must therefore follow. This lead me to believe (perhaps wrongly) that philosophy is, at best, an argument over the givens. Whoever manages to create a strong enough argument for their givens must necessarily win the argument, as no properly stated "given could fail to prove the argument at hand.
posted by Ghidorah at 7:30 AM on September 10, 2009

wouldn't the three axioms of logic count?

1) a implies a
2) if a implies b and b implies c, then a implies c.
3) if a implies b, then not b implies not a.
posted by chicago2penn at 8:16 AM on September 10, 2009

There are no universally accepted axioms, not even this one.
posted by Phanx at 8:27 AM on September 10, 2009 [2 favorites]

Every philosopher proceeds with assumptions, just as every person does in every argument. Of those, the only ideas that I've seen carry through are mathematic. Geometric proofs are accepted by pretty much everyone, and this forms a mode of arguing best exemplified by the Analytics, because they're the most obvious and straight-forward in their use of if-then statements.

But again, every philosopher makes assumptions, and it's the duty of the reader to attack those assumptions with all of their skill, because if the assumptions withstand the assault of logic, the conclusions follow. That's also why the most dickish internet arguing maneuvers—also the most ultimately effective—involve endless wrangling over the ground terms and framing, and why conceding points is so contentious; ideally, you only concede points that ultimately prove your case, so conceding them is at least vaguely facetious.

One last thing—there's no real way out of solipsism, at least that I've seen, aside from refusing to engage. Solipsism is a rather fundamental rejection of many, many philosophical principles and the principles of conversation. But while it's nigh impossible to argue against a skilled solipsist, it's also not a fundamental rejection of all philosophical axioms. So, proceeding from that, we see that to have a substantive argument in a public space means granting things like the existence of all parties, a common language, etc. Those assumptions also come with corollaries, but there you are.
posted by klangklangston at 8:27 AM on September 10, 2009

You won't find a set of universally accepted axioms in philosophy, but a big part of doing philosophy is being extremely clear about the scope of the problem that you are trying to address, to head off certain unproductive lines of criticism. Suppose that I'm trying to show that if we accept a set of assumptions A, then conclusion C follows. One critic might argue that we shouldn't accept A; another might argue that our background practice of reasoning from assumptions to conclusions is flawed. In an important sense, neither critic is really engaging you, in the way that a critic does who takes all of your assumptions on board and shows how C doesn't really follow from A. The latter critic is finding flaws internal to your project, while the former two are addressing questions that you aren't really trying to answer.

(You can see how even the paragraph that I've written above takes on assumptions about what constitutes a productive philosophical engagement that some continental or eastern philosophers might be inclined to reject. I'm not sure that is even such a thing as a universally accepted axiom anywhere...but I'll take on the assumption that such a thing exists for the purpose of engaging with you)

Hopefully you can start to see how this is wrapped up in why philosophical arguments can be so semantically difficult: you have to try to understand what the position is taking on and try to frame your agreement or disagreement by taking on those same assumptions, rather than beating back the argument by making different assumptions about meaning, or about anything else. It can be expedient when doing philosophy to make these off target types of criticisms seem petty or small-minded: if you are clear in the beginning that assumption A.1 is controversial due to the work of philosopher X but supported by the work of philosopher Y and you're explicit that you're taking a Y-ian line for the purpose of this project, then you've cut off the X-ian jerkoff in the third row before he can waste everyone's time.
posted by Kwine at 8:56 AM on September 10, 2009 [2 favorites]

As others have addressed, in the domain of philosophy, you can find someone, somewhere, who will question pretty much anything. There can be certain schools of thought that assume a shared background - that will start from a point of 'since x proved y' and move on, so that you have to know those theories to understand what they're working from. It is definitely not universal among all who consider themselves philosophers, though (and not all philosophers recognize all others who consider themselves such as legitimate, either...)

Disclaimer: I haven't read any real philosophy since undergrad, but I remember this imprecision being a thing that turned me off from 'early' works.

Aristotle has a comment in his Metaphysics (little alpha, i think) about how some people are annoyed by the imprecision of certain thinkers, and others by the overly rigid calculating works of those who attempt to describe things too precisely (since the world's more complex than our simplistic symbols...). In other words, it's hard to please everyone. Some think philosophy is more of a science, and some that it is more of an art. Some think there are answers to be reached, others that its goals are more subtle...
posted by mdn at 10:01 AM on September 10, 2009

The only axioms that I found to be relatively universal were foundational ones like chicago2penn mentions above. I've also never heard an argument to counter the foundational "I think therefore I am." (Or at least, to counter the statement that something, somewhere, exists.) But that's about it.
posted by kingjoeshmoe at 10:07 AM on September 10, 2009

I've also never heard an argument to counter the foundational "I think therefore I am." (Or at least, to counter the statement that something, somewhere, exists.)

Bertrand Russell argued against "I think therefore I am" in his History of Western Philosophy (along the lines of your parenthetical):
"The word 'I' is really illegitimate; he ought to state his ultimate premise in the form 'there are thoughts.' The word 'I' is grammatically convenient but does not describe a datum."
posted by Jaltcoh at 10:21 AM on September 10, 2009

As far as I'm concerned, the only real axiom in philosophy is 'whereof one cannot speak one must be silent.' Wittgenstein, Tractatus, prop. 7.

As far as semantics in philosophy? Well, I'm biased, but it's my view that philosophy is semantics.
posted by Lutoslawski at 10:36 AM on September 10, 2009

So, what are the universally accepted axioms in philosophy, if any?

There aren't many. Here's a list of 12, but I don't agree that all of them are universally accepted

I completely disagree with this list, the premise of the list, and the notion that philosophy can be 'solved.'
posted by Lutoslawski at 10:40 AM on September 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

My logic prof in college made the point that it has not been proven that "~false=true".

That's the basis for all logic and mathematics right there. Nthing what Phanx said. That's splitting the hair too finely, though.

The definition of an axiom:
# S: (n) maxim, axiom (a saying that is widely accepted on its own merits)
# S: (n) axiom ((logic) a proposition that is not susceptible of proof or disproof; its truth is assumed to be self-evident)

Going by the second definition, all axioms are accepted as universal truths. Going by the first one, none of them are.
posted by Xoebe at 12:55 PM on September 10, 2009

One last thing—there's no real way out of solipsism, at least that I've seen, aside from refusing to engage.

Luckily, solipsism isn't warranted by the mere fact that we can't directly access other people's thoughts, which is the way it's usually argued for: "But how do you know, you can't really be sure, can you?" Well, sure, but that lack of certainty isn't evidence for solipsism. It just establishes that it's possible that solipsism is true, not that it is true.

Nagel's got a good and very brief discussion of this in his little intro phil book, What does it all mean?

That's the basis for all logic and mathematics right there.

This is simply false. There are at least countably infinite logical systems with more than two truth values. There are even logics that allow for a proposition to have different truth values at the same time. (Google "paraconsistent logic" if your curiosity is piqued.)

About the OP's question. From the standpoint of someone working in analytic philosophy, I think that the most interesting philosophical work is just finding out what the assumptions behind a given thought are.
posted by voltairemodern at 7:24 PM on September 10, 2009

Present-day philosophers
In present-day analytic philosophy, one of the major goals is precision, especially precision in language and precision about what assumptions are being made. Lots of assumptions do indeed get made, and much of the philosophy takes the form "suppose for the sake of argument that x, y, z. Would q follow?"

There is also the more confusing argument technique called reductio ad absurdum (aka argument by contradiction) where you assume something you expect will turn out to be *false* (suppose triangles have four sides), and show that it leads to a falsehood or a contradiction (then they will have interior angles adding to more than 180 degrees), as a way of demonstrating that that original assumption is false.

Philosophers have jargon like any other field, and philosophers do define terms to mean what they intend -- so, they might say "in this paper, by 'basic rights' I mean that package of political and economic entitlements that each person needs to minimally lead a good life. By a 'good life' I mean..." etc. Coming into the field cold, there are often times when an ordinary-looking term is being used in a highly technical way (with a definition that's very unlike the ordinary meaning) -- this is a major source of frustration for people in the early stages in any field of philosophy. It just takes time to get used to the terms that are used in a given sub-area. Philosophy dictionaries can help with this. This is not the same thing as using ambiguous terms; it's more like the first time you meet some people who have been friends for a long time -- they'll sometimes make reference to some private joke about something that happened years ago, "the fish!", and you'll kind of laugh along not knowing what's so great about fish, and it takes a while of knowing them before you start to get in on some of those things.

Historical philosophers
As to which assumptions historic philosophers make, different ones make different assumptions. It helps to know the time period, and this sort of thing gets easier with practice. It's fine for them to make assumptions, and we as readers just need to try to get clear about what those assumptions are. Then we can think about whether the assumptions are plausible or not, or whether there are interesting and worthwhile things to take away from the philosopher's work even if we reject some of their assumptions.

But basically:
If you think a philosopher is assuming something that's false, then you can object to their view on that basis. (As in Jaltcoh's example above of Russell objecting to Descartes' "I think therefore I am".) The philosopher is on the hook to defend all his or her assumptions, even the ones not explicitly stated. If you can show that an assumption is wrong, you may have undercut their view.

Of course, you want to be choosy about which assumptions you question, since it's easy to get sidetracked on some assumption that isn't significant for the particular question the philosopher is trying to look at. For example, if you're reading a book on political rights, it would be weird to object because the philosopher assumes that human beings can persist through time. That's a fine thing to worry about, but if that's the discussion you want to have, you should be over in metaphysics/ontology of persons, down the hall. (Pretty much every political philosopher will assume that, for example, so it's not really an objection to the work of the person you're reading.) This is just a practical tip. It's not that you would be wrong about objecting to the sidetracky thing. It's just going to make discussion harder, and may make it harder to follow what you're reading if you let yourself get too hung up on things like that. One method is to note your objections in the margin as you go, in pencil. Then as you look back over the text you can decide whether you think your objection is telling in the context of the argument as a whole. Maybe it's a red herring, maybe it's a deep problem.
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:05 PM on September 10, 2009 [2 favorites]

Law of Identity: A is A
Law of non contradiction: A cannot be B and at the same time be A
posted by yoyoceramic at 8:22 PM on September 10, 2009

About your example:
the "Utility Monster" and "P-Zombie" thought experiments seem to make assumptions that life is mostly static and that people's beings don't change over time. In producing these thought experiments are these philosophers utilizing a well-regarded set of assumptions that I should be aware of?

Most basic point about philosophical thought experiments: remember they are meant to be sets of assumptions, and the question is what follows from the stipulated assumptions. Many students will try to wriggle out of the assumptions by saying things like "but there IS no such monster". Objections of that sort miss the point of the thought experiment. The question is what would follow if there WERE, so whether the monster really exists is beside the point.

I take it you're not making that objection. One possible objection is, the idea of the utility monster is incoherent (for some reason that would need to be explained), so such a creature COULD NOT exist. An objection of this sort (the stated assumptions of the thought experiment are literally impossible) can be effective but requires strong arguments to show the impossibility of the assumptions. But I don't think that's your objection either.

I think you're objecting to the idea that a "normal person" can convert resources into happiness-units at a given fixed rate, and the utility monster can convert resources into happines-units at a different fixed rate. I think you're objecting to the idea of the fixedness of these rates. Your thought is: people change over time, sometimes they are quick to convert resources to happiness, sometimes slow. So that assumption is incorrect.

Is that your objection?
If so, I think it's a poor objection. Here's why: it could be perfectly true, and still wouldn't undercut the point of the thought experiment.

Suppose that you're correct, and people change in their efficiency (converting resources to happiness) over time. Ok. Suppose that at one time I am at 20% efficiency, and at another time I am at 80% efficiency. Still, we can imagine the utility monster goes from 99% to 100% efficiency. He's still much more efficient than I am, even though we both change over time. This means that Nozick's point stands -- (to simplify) if utilitarianism is right, we should give all the resources to the utility monster and that will maximize the total happiness in the world, which means that will be what's ethically best. This is an objection to utilitarianism, because it seems incorrect that giving all the resources to one person would be ethically best. This is meant to show that utilitarianism doesn't line up with our intuitive sense of what's ethical. The power of the thought experiment to show this is not affected by your point about people changing over time.
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:30 PM on September 10, 2009

This seems to be a common question among scientific-minded people approaching philosophy for the first time. When I was starting to learn about philosophy, I asked the same thing. If only someone could tell me the axioms, I could figure it all out in no time! But it's the wrong question to ask. Instead of answering it, I'll do what philosophers often do: try to address the misconception that causes the question. I'll compare philosophy to math, the only field that really has axioms.

In math, you typically derive theorems from axioms. But when you're first starting out, you also derive axioms from theorems in the sense that you pick the axioms that give you theorems that seem intuitively right. Sometimes, different sets of axioms are equivalent (they lead to the same theorems). Sometimes there are competing sets of axioms where it's unclear which one is better than the other (e.g. set theory). Axioms and theorems are interdependent, and there's a feedback relationship between the two: start with a set of axioms, derive some theorems, adjust the axioms so the theorems make more sense, adjust the axioms some more, etc. The goal is to get a mathematical system that makes intuitive sense and is useful for its intended purpose.

Philosophers do something similar: they try to adjust a set of many interrelated propositions, with the overall goal of clarity in mind. But their job is a lot more complicated; I'll give you what I think are the two main reasons why.

First, they deal with natural-language concepts, not mathematical ones. These are a lot more fuzzy and complicated. For example, you may know what a triangle or an integer is, but what is a game, or a person, or an intentional act? If you were to lay down an axiom involving one of these concepts, it would be impossible to take into account everything "game" might mean in every context. Consequences derived from that axiom might apply only to certain meanings of a word and not others.

Second, while it is relatively easy to decide whether a given theorem in math makes intuitive sense, it is much harder for philosophy--both because intuitiveness is inherently more subjective in philosophy and because the intuitiveness of a "theorem" depends on the intuitiveness of its consequences, which may be too numerous and too subtle to understand all at once. (Much of philosophy consists of working out these consequences, and the consequences of those, etc., in an attempt to estimate how intuitive they might turn out to be.)

Since mathematicians can quickly figure out what should an axiom and what should be a theorem, they can quickly get to the point where they hold the axioms fixed and just derive more and more theorems. But philosophers do this very, very slowly and painstakingly, with many false starts and wrong turns. Over the very long term, the set of possible beliefs ("axioms" or "theorems") is adjusted so that contradictions are reduced or eliminated, and coherence gradually replaces incoherence. Or at least that's the goal; you can judge for yourself whether much has been accomplished.

Another important difference between philosophy and many other fields is that philosophy is not generally considered to have its own subject matter. (This only applies to contemporary philosophy; in the Enlightenment, for example, Leibniz and Spinoza thought tried to derive facts from reason alone and even proposed axioms with which to do it.) Unlike science, it's not about discovering new facts; it's about clarifying and improving the way we think about the facts we already have. It tries to eliminate incoherence and contradiction from other activities (like science, or everyday life).

Finally, note that the axioms of logic are not axioms of philosophy. There are many alternative sets of axioms for logic. Where do you think those axioms came from? How to you decide which one is best for describing a given situation?
posted by k. at 10:45 PM on September 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'd just like to point out that LobsterMitten seems to be the only answerer who's extensively discussed your specific example of the ulitity monster vs. the idea that people are "always changing." LobsterMitten has given a very thorough and correct explanation of why your objection to the utility monster argument doesn't work (and also an important broader point about a typical mistake made in Philosophy 101 classes: trying to sweep serious thought-experiments under the rug by claiming that they're unrealistic). This actually seems like a different question than the one almost everyone else focused on -- whether philosophy has universally accepted axioms. I just wanted to emphasize that, as LobsterMitten aptly pointed out, the utility monster argument works not by getting everyone to agree to some axiom that everyone always has the same characteristics (which would be very hard to get people to agree on!), but by positing an admittedly contrived state of affairs for the sake of argument. It may well be that there are flaws with the utility monster argument, but I don't think they'd have much to do with the idea that people are always changing or your broader question of whether there are uncontroversial philosophical axioms.
posted by Jaltcoh at 8:32 AM on September 11, 2009

The principle of non-contradiction.
posted by oddman at 8:40 PM on September 17, 2009

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