The purpose in doing these “Best” bits is to create something that might helpfully fill a niche.  It is to create an easy to remember, extremely condensed, encapsulation of those aspects of famous philosophies most relevant to the lives of ordinary people.  Here there are none of the critiques that so commonly interrupt philosophy.  Only the good stuff.


Virtue Theory

  • His definition of virtues divided them into two types: moral, which are shaped through early training and reinforced to become matter of habit, and intellectual, untitledwhich can be rationally taught.
  • All virtues have the common structure of falling between two extremes at a point called the Golden Mean. Virtues are the mean between excess and deficiency.
  • He believed that because every action and decision aims at some good, the good has been well described as that at which everything aims.
  • A virtuous response or action is intermediate. For example, it is not good to feel angry too often, or too little, because then one can be taken advantage of.
  • There are child prodigies in chess, math, and music, but never in morality, because moral knowledge comes not genetically, but only by experience.
  • According to his virtue theory, philosophy should concern itself with defining conditions of flourishing, or eudaimonia, for humans.


  • His concept of eudaimonia, which is sort of like human flourishing, is promoted by certain ways of living, just as certain ways of caring for a cherry tree will cause it to grow, blossom, and fruit.
  • We are what we repeatedly do.
  • According to his concept of eudaimonia, a tragedy toward the end of your life can potentially put a slant on whether your entire life as a whole went well. This implies the truth of the converse; that a wonderful event toward the end of your life can positively alter an otherwise bad one.

Ancient Science and Logic

  • Begins with the conviction that our perceptual and cognitive faculties are basically dependable, that they for the most part put us into direct contact with the features and divisions of our world, and that we need not dally with skeptical postures before engaging in substantive philosophy. Accordingly, he proceeds in all areas of inquiry in the manner of a modern day natural scientist who takes it for granted that progress follows the assiduous application of a well trained mind, and so, when presented with a problem, simply goes to work.
  • Aristotle saw logic as a tool that underlay knowledge of all kinds, and he undertook its study because he believed it to be a necessary first step for learning.
  • Aristotle’s most important contribution to logic was the syllogism. A syllogism consists of certain assumptions or premises from which a conclusion can be deduced. Aristotle referred to the terms as the “extremes” and the “middle.” The middle term is the conclusion that links the two extremes. A traditional example runs as follows:
    • All men are mortal.
    • All Athenians are men.
    • Therefore all Athenians are mortal.

Buddhism’s Eightfold Path

Buddhism’s Noble Eightfold Path may be one of the best concepts to ever come out of any religion.  Buddhist tradition ascribes it as the fourth of the four noble truths, taught by the original Buddha, Gautama Buddha, as the way of overcoming life’s inevitable suffering.  While many may see the four truths’ admonition of life’s crappy nature as too pessimistic, it is much harder to find fault with its advice that we can better ourselves by periodically contemplating the habits of our ideas and our actions.  There are many excellent explanations of the Eightfold Path on the internet that can easily be Googled, and that go into more detail than the very basic outline I’ll provide here:

Here’s a good visualization of The Eightfold Path, from the Mindful Teachers website.

Right View – One aspect of this is that we should really try to understand The Noble Truths.  Another aspect of Right View – that the world, and us, and our possessions are impermanent – can truly help us come to separate our views of things from how things really are.

Right Intention – It’s not enough to just do the right things.  We must habituate doing the right things for the right reasons.

Right Actions – We should attend to the effects of our actions, and attempt to adjust our future actions accordingly.

Right Speech – Be aware of the harm our words can do, especially gossip and non-constructive criticism.

Right Livelihood – I like this one, because I’ve really seen nothing like it anywhere else.  Sure, we all have to earn a living, and often we have to do things we’re not crazy about in order to provide for our families, but sometimes this involves doing things which help small groups of people at the expense of society as a whole.  A well contemplated life will involve scrutiny of one’s vocation as well as the consideration of change if necessary.

Right Effort – Buddhism stresses the middle way.  We should be constantly considering our actions and efforts involved.  This involves our time resources.  It may be that we are putting too much time and effort in one area, and this time and effort can be better spent somewhere else, but we can only know this through consistent deliberate attention.

Right Mindfulness – This involves not spending too much time in the past or in the future, but instead attending to the present task at hand.

Right Concentration – Can we block out distractions effectively?  Can we properly distinguish between distractions and what’s really important?  If not, try to do better.


  • Untitled1
    Because his name, like his writing, is so long winded, people tend to call Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel by his last name only.  And they tend to pronounce it, “Hay-gull.”

    Famous for the Dialect, which stressed that history does not move forward in a linear way, but rather in a “dialectical way,” a way with three parts: a thesis, an antithesis, and a synthesis.

  • The dominant thesis, interacts and clashes with the antithesis – the reaction to the thesis. Because both parts have exaggerations and distortions, and because of their struggle against one another, their best aspects tend to emerge, and their distortions tend to be jettisoned.
  • History’s most successful periods have been syntheses, which are periods of progress resulting from the struggle between previous events’ lurching from one extreme to another. Hegel provides good real-life examples from history as support.  As the synthesis becomes the new thesis, it develops its own weaknesses, which are exploited by future antitheses, causing the whole cycle to continue on.
  • When things seem to be going badly, one can take solace in Hegel’s dialectic, for bad times are necessary to purge the weaknesses that develop during the good, and inevitably after this purge, progress prevails. Also, there seems to be no reason why during good times, people can’t use history’s lessons to predict the synthesis’s bad aspects, work toward discarding them, thus prolonging the periods of progress.
  • Mankind’s ability to reason, however limited and finite, enables an inevitable progression toward self knowledge.
  • His dialectic was personalized – applied to the individual – by Jose Ortega, who claimed that life is a dialectic between the self and the situation it finds itself. He believed that “I am myself and my circumstances, and my life is a task,” a project in which the individual creates himself. Reason is a tool in this task.
  • Popularized the concept which came to be called, Zeitgeist, the idea that society consists of a collective consciousness, which moves in a distinct direction dictating the actions of its members.

David Hume

An idealized version of David Hume’s self in his hometown of Edinburgh

The Self

  • Hume subtracted anything supernaturally special from the concept of the self, arguing that there is no coherent self or “I.” Instead, each of us is nothing but a bundle of perceptions. “When I enter most intimately into what I call myself,” he wrote, “I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception.” This subtraction may seem initially disheartening. Further reflection, however, reveals its many benefits.
  • Losing the supernatural means we can invigorate our focus on all that is reality. Whether their sources are mystical or natural, the moon is still as bright; our compassions are still as deep; and the success of our predictions are still as dependent upon past truths.
  • Who we are depends on how we think, what causes our actions, and how we choose to live.  Who we are is what we construct, not what we discover.

How to Think

  • There is no such thing as chance in the world, yet nothing is more free than the imagination of man.
  • Reason requires the existence of a motivating desire, but reason also informs and corrects the passions.
  • “There is just one phenomenon which may prove that it is not absolutely impossible for ideas to arise independent of impressions. Suppose a person, enjoying good sight, be presented with all the shades of blue from the deepest to the lightest, except a single one. Even if he has never had the fortune to meet with the missing shade, it will be possible for him to imagine it.”
  • Hume beguiled many later philosophers with his problem of induction – a large number of something doesn’t prove conclusions based on that large number. That all observed swans were white didn’t mean that all future swans would be white, which was proven upon the later discovery of black swans.
  • He divided the mind’s contents into impressions and ideas. Impressions are our immediate perceptions, and ideas are our concepts and thoughts that we are able to form of the things we are no longer experiencing.  The point was to insist that there is nothing in the mind – even the most abstract thought – that is not simply sensation transformed.
  • If an idea can’t be traced back to its original impressions, then it can not be an idea based in reality, but rather imagination.  Hume used this notion to skeptically critique the ideas of a devine occupier, the self, and causation.


  • There are always causes, even if the power behind them is hidden from us, as with medicines or clouds.
  • We associate ideas because of their resemblance (we see a painting and think of the original), their contiguity (resemblance in time and place), or their perceived cause and effect (think of a wound and we can not avoid thinking of pain).
  • He wrote that, “If you tell me that any person is in love, I easily understand your meaning, but can never mistake that conception for the real passion, for even the colors of poetry can never paint natural objects.”
  • We assume that certain things are connected just because they commonly occur together, but a genuine knowledge of any connection is mere habit of thought.

How to Live

  • Hume’s Law is generally put as “It is never possible to deduce evaluative conclusions from factual premises.” This is also known as the is/ought problem. Basically, being judgmental belongs more in the realm of emotions than facts. You can say, “You should be “blankety blank,” because that would make me feel better,” but not because of anything factual about “blankety blank.”
  • Hume held that people can exhibit qualities that give happiness to themselves as well as being useful to others. These qualities were justice, faithfulness, and politeness, in addition to benevolence, which he regarded as the highest general quality a person can have.
  • Virtues, such as justice, faithfulness, politeness, and benevolence, are qualities that a person can develop. In this sense, overall altruism toward others is a sign of personal development.
  • To ascertain our obligation, we naturally place our sentiments into the public arena for scrutiny to see if others concur.
  • We should not let philosophy interfere too much with real life. Be a philosopher, but amidst all of your philosophy, be still a man. This was Hume’s response to the inclination of taking his skepticism too far (Many observations of white swans does actually make it very likely your next swan will also be white).

Immanuel Kant

Knowledge: Just as Copernicus seemed to shift reality itself by by switching the Sun and the Earth in their roles as the perceived center of everything, Kant’s self proclaimed “Copernican Revolution” upended the very concepts of space and time. He asserted that both space and time are not actually independent, objective real things, but instead human tools that arrange and categorize the inputs given to the senses. And so…

  • When attempting to gain knowledge, we must take into account the human based filters that all of the elements of knowledge must pass through. And, because the forms and frameworks of all possible experience are dependent upon the nature of our bodily apparatus, the nature of independent reality is unimaginably different from anything that we can apprehend.
  • He found it helpful, when trying to gain knowledge, to divide all statements into one of two types. A statement where the truth is contained within itself, such as “All black houses are houses.” is an example of Kant’s analytic or a priori judgment. Knowledge that is synthetic or a posteriori is derived from sensible experience as including sensible impressions or states.

Morality: While much of his writing was famously dense, one of his quotes has been often repeated as a beautiful summary of Kant’s moral reasoning: “Two things fill the mind with ever increasing admiration and awe the oftener and more steadily we reflect on them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.” Kant’s rendering of knowledge was certainly influential; however, his system of morality took philosophical influence to levels not seen since Aristotle.

  • In his deontological ethical system, similarly to Christian ethics, certain rules apply regarding how we should act, regardless of the consequences of our actions. This is generally the opposite of more consequentialist or utilitarian ethical systems. The intentions, or general principles, which are behind any act are maxims. An example of this is always help those in need because it is your duty to do so.
  • kant-picThe categorical imperative was Kant’s rationale for ethical behavior. He distinguished categorical imperatives from hypothetical ones, which are duties you ought to do to achieve or avoid a certain goal. Categorical imperatives, on the other hand, are ones that should be universalizable.
  • Kant’s system of ethics has been criticized for seeming to not apply to specific dilemmas, such as what if an ax murderer asks where my friend is hiding? The critique is that I either have to lie or betray my friend, thus breaking one maxim or the other. However, this critique can be addressed by making the maxim even more specific, e.g. “Never tell ax murderers the location of a hiding friend.” He also addressed this possible criticism with other general admonishments that one should strive to prefer the lesser of two evils.
  • Since, according to Kant, we can only be held responsible for things over which we have some control – or as he put it, “ought implies can” – and because the consequences of our actions are often outside of our control, these consequences can’t be crucial to morality.
  • Because making free choices guided by reason is good without qualification, a version of the categorical imperative tells us not to prevent the exercise of such free choices in any rational being – as long a they do not interfere with the choices of others. This is Kant’s second formulation of the categorical imperative in the second Critique, which bids us to treat humanity, in ourselves and others, as an end and never as a mere means.

Here is a link to a great site for taking your Kantian knowledge to the next level.

Friedrich Nietzsche

  • We should each strive to create for ourselves t
    Nietzsche suffered a nervous breakdown after seeing a horse being beaten.  He lived the final 11 years of his life in a mental asylum.  (Image courtesy of

    he kind of life we would not mind repeating over and over again.  This is what we should take out of Nietzsche’s idea of Eternal Recurrence.  When evaluating a future course of action ask yourself if you would want this in your “do over” life, if one were to exist.

  • Nietzsche’s will to power depends upon a desire to improve and to move forward, and is highly individualistic, as opposed to the humility and submission advocated by certain religions.  Having this will to power helps to deter exploitation.
  • His Ubermensch, loosely translated as Superman, was meant to be the ultimate aspiration of every man.  Ultimately we are each responsible to create our own life’s meaning, and Nietzsche created an exemplar model of how this may look.  The main point is that we do it ourselves, for our own lives, especially by rising above the herd mentality of others.  If your values come uncritically from others, it’s time to at least begin critically examining them.
  • Nietzsche’s idea that God is dead was not presented as something good or bad, but as an observation, the point being that people create values based on themselves.  Since there’s no omnipotent father figure looking out for our needs, we better do our best to help ourselves.
  • Probably my favorite of Nietzsche’s many quotes and aphorisms, (here slightly paraphrased):  “If you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.”  Sure, it benefits mankind to critically examine bad stuff, but take care not to dwell, and make sure not to forget the positive in life too.  Our worry itself too easily makes things worse.  Our worries deepen the abyss.  Even when things seem bad, at least you’re alive, and it helps everybody not to forget to focus some on that.
  • If you want more information, many others are out there to help you.  Many others, with much more.

John Rawls

  • He was an American philosopher who lived from 1921 to 2002.rawls-pic
  • Rawls reconciled liberty and equality in one way by saying that each citizen has the right to the maximum basic personal and political liberties that are compatible with a similar system that can be afforded to others.  His difference principle states that social and economic inequalities should be to the most benefit of the least advantaged members of society.
  • We should put our effort into ensuring that the rules of the game are fair. Once society is organized around a set of fair rules, people can set about freely playing the game without interference.
  • The adoption of his original position would allow individual people to make political decisions which may benefit more people than the current democratic systems prevalent throughout much of the world which typically rely on rules and structures inherently beneficial to those already with power.
  • His veil of ignorance was the tool required to achieve his original position. According to this hypothetical tool, justice is best achieved by creating starting points which ignore factors extraneous to a situation. While Rawls focused on society at large, and a desire to eliminate factors such as parents’ wealth, height, skin color, etc., as is so often the case, a sports analogy may help make things clearer. Fantasy football leagues usually start from behind a veil of ignorance in which players’ draft positions are chosen only by luck.  The NFL draft does not have this veil, as it starts out with knowledge of the previous season’s records and gives extra advantage to those who need more, in an effort to create more parity.

Jean Paul Sartre


  • In people, existence precedes essence.  Sartre uses the example of a butter knife as the opposite, because the knife exists only after it’s purpose is known.  Man first exists without purpose or definition, finds himself in the world and only then, as a reaction to experience, defines the meaning of his life, per Sartre.This is the basic gist of his existentialism.
  • Everything we do affects not only ourselves, but by our choices and actions we are constantly setting examples for the rest of mankind.  This is similar to the old, “actions speak louder than words” adage.
  • When people would rather adhere to existing rules and norms rather than face the “terrifying” freedom of creating ourselves, we willingly possess what Sartre called, “bad faith.”  Man has no other destiny than the one he forges for himself on this Earth.
  • We should not just remain open to change, we should be vigilantly seeking change to improve ourselves and our world.
  • “Hell” is other people.  This could be interpreted to mean  that it is important to sometimes seek time to ourselves.  And if it often feels as though the only thing holding you back in your quest for a nice life is the constant interference of others, well then, you’re not alone in feeling this way.  Perhaps a little stoicism is in order.
  • Man is never compelled. Even if a man is imprisoned or a gun held to his head it is his choice whether to comply or defy.

Some good places to find more on Sartre’s unique philosophy:  The Philosopher’s Mail; The Existential Primer; Sartre’s “Blog”

Arthur Schopenhauer

  • Wrote that the good man lives in a world of friendly individuals, the well being of whom he regards as his own.  There, however, is a dark force that permeates the universe, which he called the will, sort of like the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s, famous “…nature, red in tooth and claw”
  • There are two methods of liberation from the slavery of the will; one is through the arts and the other is through renunciation of the tyranny of the will, which Schopenhauer felt meant leading an ascetic life.
  • Believed that the cosmos itself is an entity evolving and seeking to achieve consciousness.Picture_of_Schopenhauer
  • Desire is a constant reminder of the things in life that we lack.
  • Schopenhauer’s analysis of will led him to the conclusion that emotional, physical, and sexual desires can never be fulfilled. Consequently, he eloquently described a lifestyle of negating desires, similar to the ascetic teachings of Vedanta, Buddhism, Taoism, and the church fathers of early Christianity.
  • Total absorption in his world as representation prevents a person from suffering the world as will. For example, art, in general, diverts the spectator’s attention from the grave everyday world and lifts them into a world that consists of mere play of images. (He was very pessimistic about human abilities to affect the will.)


Should Batman kill the Joker? While there is no objectively definitive answer, like there is say for “What is the capital of Australia?” the two main possibilities just so happen to be the two main opposing forms of moral philosophy: utilitarianism vs. deontology.

  • Utilitarianism advocates judging actions by their consequences. The consequences of killing the Joker would be to save the lives of everyone the Joker will kill in the future.
  • Utilitarianism contrasts with deontological ethical systems, such as Kant’s and Christian ethics, in that in those systems, certain duties apply regarding how we should act, regardless of the consequences of our actions. In this theory, no one should kill people ever, not even the Joker. (Note that even in deontological systems, rules can, and are often bent, such as the Christian prescription not to kill ever; well, except in cases of perceived self defense and war.)
  • There are two types of utilitarianism – act and rule. Act utilitarianism specifies that we should do actions with the best consequences, and rule utilitarianism specifies that we should adhere to rules that will lead us to the best consequences.
  • Act utilitarianism is basically the old-school form, that because it ran into problems in specific instances, came to be replaced in popularity by rule utilitarianism. For example, if you’re selling a lemon of a car because you need the money, act utilitarianism might prescribe that it’s okay if you need the money more than the person to whom the car is being sold, while under rule utilitarianism nobody would want to live in a world in which only car salesmen get to make these decisions.
  • Rule utilitarianism has the practical benefit that you don’t have to perform a complicated calculation every time you make a moral decision. For tricky moral situations, you simply ask yourself, “Would most people want to live in a world in which most people did this action in this situation?” And, one can’t take a single action, and ask if it is right or wrong, without taking the context into account.
  • Philosophy, in it’s seemingly perpetual mission to confuse, often uses the terms “utilitarianism” and “consequentialism” interchangeably.
  • One way of arguing for rule utilitarianism starts from a commitment to consequentialist assessment, and then argues that assessing acts indirectly, e.g. by focusing on the consequences of communal acceptance of decisions, will in fact produce better consequences than assessing acts directly in terms of their own consequences.

So, you can have rules, such as “don’t physically attack others,” “don’t steal,” “don’t break promises,” and “be generally helpful to others,” with the acknowledgment that sometimes in life’s myriads of situations, there will be times when the rules must be made

batman 2
The Joker would root for Batman to be deontological instead of utilitarian

more specific. Almost everyone all of the time can live under the rule “don’t kill,” just fine. But just in case you’re ever given superhero powers, and the realization that you can stop a lot of future evil by breaking this rule just this once, under rule utilitarianism, you can make your decision by asking yourself, “Do most people want to live in a world in which Batmans let Jokers live?”