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Great Ideas of Philosophy, 2nd Edition

Great Ideas of Philosophy, 2nd Edition

Professor Daniel N. Robinson Ph.D.
Philosophy Faculty, Oxford University; Distinguished Professor, Emeritus, Georgetown University
Course No.  4200
Course No.  4200
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Course Overview

About This Course

60 lectures  |  30 minutes per lecture

Humanity left childhood and entered the troubled but productive world when it started to criticize its own certainties and weigh the worthiness of its most secure beliefs. Thus began that "Long Debate" on the nature of truth, the scale of real values, the life one should aspire to live, the character of justice, the sources of law, the terms of civic and political life—the good, the better, the best.

The debate continues, and one remains aloof to it at a very heavy price, for "the unexamined life is not worth living."

This course of 60 lectures gives the student a sure guide and interpreter as the major themes within the Long Debate are presented and considered. The persistent themes are understood as problems:

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Humanity left childhood and entered the troubled but productive world when it started to criticize its own certainties and weigh the worthiness of its most secure beliefs. Thus began that "Long Debate" on the nature of truth, the scale of real values, the life one should aspire to live, the character of justice, the sources of law, the terms of civic and political life—the good, the better, the best.

The debate continues, and one remains aloof to it at a very heavy price, for "the unexamined life is not worth living."

This course of 60 lectures gives the student a sure guide and interpreter as the major themes within the Long Debate are presented and considered. The persistent themes are understood as problems:

  • The problem of knowledge, arising from concerns as to how or whether we come to know anything, and are justified in our belief that this knowledge is valid and sound
  • The problem of conduct, arising from the recognition that our actions, too, require some sort of justification in light of our moral and ethical sensibilities—or lack of them
  • The problem of governance, which includes an understanding of sources of law and its binding nature.

The great speculators of history have exhausted themselves on these problems and have bequeathed to us a storehouse of insights, some so utterly persuasive as to have shaped thought itself. In these coherent and beautifully articulated lectures you will hear Plato and Aristotle, the Stoics and Epicureans, the Scholastic philosophers and the leaders of Renaissance thought.

In addition, you will learn about the architects of the Age of Newton and the Enlightenment that followed in its wake—all this, as well as Romanticism and Continental thought, Nietzsche and Darwin, Freud and William James. This course is a veritable banquet of enriching reflection on mental life and the acts of humanity that proceed from it: the plans and purposes, the values and beliefs, the possibilities and vulnerabilities.

Some of What You Will Learn

In these lectures you will:

  • Explore three basic philosophical questions: What can I know? How should I behave? Is this tribe or polis able to preserve our knowledge, protect our interests, lead us to a more meaningful life?
  • Understand why we should aspire to moral excellence through habitual striving and a devotion to self-perfection, and how we might attain a flourishing form of life.
  • Explore the four assessments of what constitutes the good life. These have come and gone over the course of time in many forms.

The titles of the lectures in this course reveal its scope. In every lecture, there is substance that can change your view of the world and its history.

You will see the creation of rational thought. Dr. Daniel N. Robinson addresses in one lecture why such a rich tapestry of thought would begin in ancient Greece and why, weaved together during the lives of three specific men, it would never be equaled.

Most famous was Socrates, the pagan philosopher whom St. Augustine would revere because he was willing to die for truth. Socrates's student, Plato, wrote so powerfully on almost every issue in philosophy that Alfred North Whitehead later commented that all of Western philosophy was a footnote to Plato. (But British philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell described Plato as a "garden-variety" Fascist.)

How We Live Determines Character

Aristotle, Plato's student, had possibly the most fruitful mind in human history. He laid the foundations for virtually every science, and his treatises on friendship and the good life have never been surpassed. As Dr. Robinson concludes: "Aristotle makes quite clear that our character is shaped by our works. That is, we make ourselves into the sorts of beings we are in virtue of the manner in which we conduct our lives."

After Greece, the lectures explore the beginnings of Christian philosophy in the work of the Roman Stoics, the exceptional debt of civilization to Roman law and to Islamic scholars who preserved and extended Greek thought while Europe became a backwater in the Dark Ages.

Early in the 17th century, Francis Bacon defends the scientific mode of knowledge. Experience and not speculation is the central source of learning. He observed that "words are but the pictures of matter," and that to fall in love with words was as mistaken as to "fall in love with a picture."

Bacon's program to rely on experience was not embraced by the genius René Descartes, inventor of analytic geometry, whose division of the mind and the body has been a rupture in Western philosophy ever since. Professor Robinson describes one reply to Descartes' proof of his own existence:

"The Scottish 'commonsense' philosopher Thomas Reid is kidding around a bit when he gets to Descartes' famous 'Cogito, ergo sum.' Descartes would not accept his own existence until he could come up with a very good rational argument that culminates in a conclusion that he exists. Reid says a man who disbelieves his own existence is no more fit to be reasoned with than one who thinks he's made of glass."

Ideas Engender Democracy

The course carefully examines the ideas of Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and Reid, and the impact of those ideas on governments—particularly on the new democracy in America.

The Enlightenment program of scientific knowledge undermined the possibility of human freedom because a world completely determined by material causes made freedom an illusion. The course examines the ongoing debate, exemplified by the conflict between Hume and Kant, over whether there can be any truly moral acts taken in a causally determined world.

And the course shows how this debate is amplified in the German Romantic thought of Goethe and Schiller, in which freedom becomes the defining feature of human being. In Nietzsche, the lectures show how the argument for freedom takes on a full, dark, and possibly more honest aspect.

The course also examines the collision between the inherently social understanding of meaning created by Wittgenstein and the vastly different estimation of human thought created by the code-breaking genius Alan Turing—and the subtle reply to him from American philosopher John Searle.

Further lectures, unique to the second edition of this course, examine the concept of reality itself:

  • Do ideas of natural law and moral reality exist in the larger universe, independent of us or our sentiments?
  • How should moral problems affect medical and ethical decisions?
  • Is war ever justified?

You will see how natural law theory has evolved through the Enlightenment and the writings of Jeremy Bentham and John Austin, among others. Theories of a "just" war, beginning with St. Augustine and including St. Thomas Aquinas and Francisco Suarez, set forth the principles by which engaging in and conducting war are justified.

Finally, after exploring the concepts of aesthetics and beauty, we take a concluding look at history's greatest theological debates about the existence of God.

A Great Teacher

This course is the integration of a lifelong student of these issues who has thought and published in every area covered by these lectures. Professor Robinson is one of those rare teachers whose tremendous respect for his audience, vast expertise, relish for language, and engaging rhetorical flair create an exceptionally enjoyable learning environment.

Dr. Robinson's lectures make the ideas of philosophy thrilling, passionate, human, and divine. Customers agree: "Professor Robinson explains multiple disciplines like no one since Aristotle. His scope is awesome. A professor's professor." Another writes: "Enjoying these tapes is one of the most rewarding experiences of my life at this time."

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60 Lectures
  • 1
    From the Upanishads to Homer
    Before ancient Greek civilization, the world hosted deep insights into the human condition but offered little critical reflection. Homer planted the seeds of this reflection. x
  • 2
    Philosophy—Did the Greeks Invent It?
    The ancient Greeks were the first to objectify the products of their own thought and feeling and be willing to subject both to critical scrutiny. Why? x
  • 3
    Pythagoras and the Divinity of Number
    How can we comprehend the very integrity of the universe and our place within it, if not by way of the most abstract relations? x
  • 4
    What Is There?
    How many kinds of stuff make up the cosmos? Might everything, in fact, be reducible to one kind of thing? x
  • 5
    The Greek Tragedians on Man’s Fate
    The ancient philosophers were only part of the rich community of thought and wonder that surrounded the world's first great dramatists and their landmark depth psychologies. x
  • 6
    Herodotus and the Lamp of History
    Can history actually teach us? Herodotus looked at what he took to be certain universal human aspirations and deficiencies and concluded that indeed history could. x
  • 7
    Socrates on the Examined Life
    Rhetoric wins arguments, but it is philosophy that shows us the way to our humanity. x
  • 8
    Plato's Search For Truth
    If one knows what one is looking for, why is a search necessary? And if one doesn't know, how is that search even possible? Socrates versus the Sophists. x
  • 9
    Can Virtue Be Taught?
    If virtue can be taught, whose virtue will it be? A look at the Socratic recognition of multiculturalism and moral relativism. x
  • 10
    Plato's Republic—Man Writ Large
    This most famous of Plato's dialogues begins with the metaphor—or perhaps the reality—of the polis (community) as the expanded version of the person, with the fate of each inextricably bound to that of the other. x
  • 11
    Hippocrates and the Science of Life
    Hippocratic medicine did much to demystify the human condition and the natural factors that affect it. x
  • 12
    Aristotle on the Knowable
    Smith knows that a particular triangle contains 180 degrees because he has measured it, while Jones knows it by definition. But do they know the same thing? x
  • 13
    Aristotle on Friendship
    If true friendship is possible only between equals, how equal must they be—and with respect to what? x
  • 14
    Aristotle on the Perfect Life
    What sort of life is right for humankind, and what is it about us that makes this so? x
  • 15
    Rome, the Stoics, and the Rule of Law
    The Stoics found in language something that would separate humanity from the animate realm, and that gave Rome a philosophy to civilize the world. x
  • 16
    The Stoic Bridge to Christianity
    The Jewish Christians, Hellenized or Orthodox, defended a monotheistic source of law. x
  • 17
    Roman Law—Making a City of the Once-Wide World
    Roman development of law based on a conception of nature, and of human nature, is one of the signal achievements in the history of civilization. x
  • 18
    The Light Within—Augustine on Human Nature
    Thoughts and ideas from the fathers of the early Christian Church culminated in St. Augustine, who explores humanity's capacity for good and evil. x
  • 19
    Islam
    What did the Prophet teach that so moved the masses? And how did the Western world come to understand the threat embodied in these Eastern "heresies"? x
  • 20
    Secular Knowledge—The Idea of University
    Apart from trade schools devoted to medicine and law, the university as we know it did not come into being until 12th-century Paris. x
  • 21
    The Reappearance of Experimental Science
    There were really two great renaissances. The first occurred at Oxford in the 13th century: the recovery of experimental inquiry by Roger Bacon and others. x
  • 22
    Scholasticism and the Theory of Natural Law
    Thomas Aquinas's treatises on law would stand for centuries as the foundation of critical inquiry in jurisprudence. x
  • 23
    The Renaissance—Was There One?
    From Petrarch in the south to Erasmus in the north, Humanistic thought collided with those seeking to defend faith. x
  • 24
    Let Us Burn the Witches to Save Them
    Even in the time we honor with the title of Renaissance ran an undercurrent of a heady and ominous mixture of natural magic, natural science, and cruel superstition. x
  • 25
    Francis Bacon and the Authority of Experience
    Francis Bacon would come to be regarded as the prophet of Newton and originator of modern experimental science. x
  • 26
    Descartes and the Authority of Reason
    Descartes is remembered for "I think, therefore I am." With his work, the authority of revelation, history, and title was replaced by the weight of reason itself. x
  • 27
    Newton—The Saint of Science
    In the century after Newton's death, the Enlightenment's major architects of reform and revolution defended their ideas in terms of Newtonian science and its implications. x
  • 28
    Hobbes and the Social Machine
    As the idea of social science gained force, Hobbes's controversial treatise helped to naturalize the civil realm, readying it for scientific explanation. x
  • 29
    Locke’s Newtonian Science of the Mind
    If all of physical reality can be reduced to elementary corpuscular entities, is the mind nothing more than comparable elements held together by something akin to gravity? x
  • 30
    No matter? The Challenge of Materialism
    When Berkeley reacted to Locke with an extravagant critique of materialism, he unwittingly reinforced claims of skeptics he meant to defeat. x
  • 31
    Hume and the Pursuit of Happiness
    David Hume was perhaps the most influential philosopher to write in English, carrying empiricism to its logical end and thus grounding morality, truth, causation, and governance in experience. x
  • 32
    Thomas Reid and the Scottish School
    Thomas Reid was Hume's most successful and influential critic, with a common sense psychology that was both naturalistic and compatible with religious teaching and which reached America's founders. x
  • 33
    France and the Philosophes
    The leading French thinkers of the 18th century—Voltaire, Rousseau, Condorcet, and Diderot—appealed directly to the ordinary citizen, encouraging skepticism toward traditional authority. x
  • 34
    The Federalist Papers and the Great Experiment
    The extraordinary documents written in support of the proposed constitution represent a profound legacy in political philosophy. x
  • 35
    What Is Enlightenment? Kant on Freedom
    Here the limits of reason and the very framework of thought complete—and in another respect undermine—the very project of the Enlightenment. x
  • 36
    Moral Science and the Natural World
    Kant traced the implications of a human life as lived in both the natural world of causality and the intelligible world of reason (where morality arises). x
  • 37
    Phrenology—A Science of the Mind
    In founding the now-discredited theory of phrenology, Franz Gall nevertheless helped define today's brain sciences. x
  • 38
    The Idea of Freedom
    The idea of freedom developed by Goethe, Schiller, and other romantic idealists forms a central chapter in the Long Debate over whether or not science has overstepped its bounds. x
  • 39
    The Hegelians and History
    Hegel's Reason in History and other works inspired a transcendentalist movement that spanned Europe, Great Britain, and the United States. x
  • 40
    The Aesthetic Movement—Genius
    By the second half of the 19th century, the House of Intellect was divided between two competing perspectives: the growing aesthetic concept of reality and the narrowing scientific view. x
  • 41
    Nietzsche at the Twilight
    A student of the classics, Nietzsche came to regard the human condition as fatally tied to needs and motives that operate at the most powerful levels of existence. x
  • 42
    The Liberal Tradition—J. S. Mill
    When can the state or the majority legitimately exercise power over the actions of individuals? The modern liberal answer is set forth in the work of Mill, an almost unchallenged authority for more than a century. x
  • 43
    Darwin and Nature’s “Purposes”
    From social Darwinism to sociobiology, the evolutionary science of the late 18th and 19th centuries dominates social thought and political initiatives. x
  • 44
    Marxism—Dead But Not Forgotten
    After years of influence, the Marxist critique of society is now more a subtext than a guiding bible of reform. x
  • 45
    The Freudian World
    Marx, Darwin, and Freud are the chief 19th-century architects of modern thought about society and self—each was nominally "scientific" in approach and believed their theories to be grounded in the realm of observable facts. x
  • 46
    The Radical William James
    Mortally opposed to all "block universes" of certainty and theoretical hubris, James offered a quintessentially home-grown psychology of experience. x
  • 47
    William James's Pragmatism
    Working in the realm of common sense, James directed the attention of philosophy and science to that ultimate arena of confirmation in which our deepest and most enduring interests are found. x
  • 48
    Wittgenstein and the Discursive Turn
    Meaning arises from conventions that presuppose not only a social world but a world in which we share the interests and aspirations of others. x
  • 49
    Alan Turing in the Forest of Wisdom
    Turing is famous for breaking Germany's famed World War II Enigma code, but, as a founder of modern computational science, he also wrote influentially about the possibilities of breaking the mind's code. x
  • 50
    Four Theories of the Good Life
    The contemplative. The active. The fatalistic. The hedonistic. There are good but limited arguments for each of these. x
  • 51
    Ontology—What There "Really" Is
    From the Greek ontos, there is a branch of metaphysics referred to as ontology, devoted to the question of "real being." Ontological controversies have broad ethical and social implications. x
  • 52
    Philosophy of Science—The Last Word?
    Should fundamental questions, if they are to be answered with precision and objectivity, be answered by science? We consider Thomas Kuhn's influential treatise on scientific revolutions. x
  • 53
    Philosophy of Psychology and Related Confusions
    Psychology is a subject of many and varied interests but narrow modes of inquiry. Today cognitive neuroscience is the dominant approach, but other schools have reappeared. x
  • 54
    Philosophy of Mind, If There Is One
    The principal grounds of disagreement within the wide-ranging subject of philosophy of mind center on whether the right framework for considering issues is provided by developed sciences or humanistic frameworks. x
  • 55
    What makes a Problem "Moral"
    Is there a "moral reality"? We examine especially David Hume's rejection of the idea that there is anything "moral" in the external world. x
  • 56
    Medicine and the Value of Life
    What guidance does moral philosophy provide in the domain of medicine, where life-and-death decisions are made daily? x
  • 57
    On the Nature of Law
    Philosophy of law is an ancient subject, developed by Aristotle and elaborated by Cicero. We see how natural law theory has evolved through the Enlightenment and the writings of Jeremy Bentham and John Austin. x
  • 58
    Justice and Just Wars
    Theories of the "just war," beginning with St. Augustine and including St. Thomas Aquinas, Francisco de Vittoria, and Francisco Suarez, set forth principles by which engaging in and conducting war are justified. x
  • 59
    Aesthetics—Beauty Without Observers
    The subject of beauty is among the oldest in philosophy, treated at length in several of the dialogues of Plato and in his Symposium, and redefined through history. What is beauty? Is there anything "rational" about it? x
  • 60
    God—Really?
    We consider various theological arguments for and against belief in God, including those of Thomas Aquinas, Thomas Reid, and William James. x

Lecture Titles

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Daniel N. Robinson
Ph.D. Daniel N. Robinson
Philosophy Faculty, Oxford University; Distinguished Professor, Emeritus, Georgetown University

Dr. Daniel N. Robinson is a member of the philosophy faculty at Oxford University, where he has lectured annually since 1991. He is also Distinguished Professor, Emeritus, at Georgetown University, on whose faculty he served for 30 years. He was formerly Adjunct Professor of Psychology at Columbia University, and he also held positions at Amherst College and at Princeton University.

Professor Robinson earned his Ph.D. in Neuropsychology from City University of New York.

He is past president of two divisions of the American Psychological Association: the Division of History of Psychology, from which he received the Lifetime Achievement Award, and the Division of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology, from which he received the Distinguished Contribution Award.

Professor Robinson is author or editor of more than 40 books, including Wild Beasts & Idle Humours: The Insanity Defense from Antiquity to the Present, An Intellectual History of Psychology, The Mind: An Oxford Reader, and Aristotle’s Psychology. He is former editor of the Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology. Dr. Robinson has also published widely on the constitutional history of the U.S. and its philosophical foundations, with original research appearing in the International Journal of Constitutional Law and The American Journal of Jurisprudence. He is coeditor of The American Founding: Its Intellectual and Moral Framework (London: Continuum, 2012).

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