Monday, 17 December 2018

On Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man

In Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man we see that our complex modern culture is a product of not only the advancements that mankind has made after civilization began about 3000 years ago, but also of mankind’s learning and experiences during the pre-historic, pre-agricultural, and even the pre-language era. Every learning creates an avenue for new learning; new innovations can result from chance discoveries, collective efforts, as well as the work of geniuses working by themselves. The ancient cave dwelling of the stone age man became an inspiration for the huts when the first agricultural settlements appeared, and the huts, in turn, became an inspiration for the modern palaces.

Here’s an excerpt from Bronowski’s book (Chapter 1: “Lower Than The Angels”):
Among the multitude of animals which scamper, fly, burrow and swim around us, man is the only one who is not locked into his environment. His imagination, his reason, his emotional subtlety and toughness, make it possible for him not to accept the environment, but to change it. And that series of inventions, by which man from age to age has remade his environment, is a different kind of evolution—not biological, but cultural evolution. I call that brilliant sequence of cultural peaks The Ascent of Man.  
I use the word ascent with a precise meaning. Man is distinguished from other animals by his imaginative gifts. He makes plans, inventions, new discoveries, by putting different talents together; and his discoveries become more subtle and penetrating, as he learns to combine his talents in more complex and intimate ways. So the great discoveries of different ages and different cultures, in technique, in science, in the arts, express in their progression a richer and more intricate conjunction of human faculties, an ascending trellis of his gifts. 
Of course, it is tempting – very tempting to a scientist – to hope that the most original achievements of the mind are also the most recent. And we do indeed have cause to be proud of some modern work. Think of the unravelling of the code of heredity in the DNA spiral; or the work going forward on the special faculties of the human brain. Think of the philosophic insight that saw into the Theory of Relativity or the minute behaviour of matter on the atomic scale.  
Yet to admire only our own successes, as if they had no past (and were sure of the future), would make a caricature of knowledge. For human achievement, and science in particular, is not a museum of finished constructions. It is a progress, in which the first experiments of the alchemists also have a formative place, and the sophisticated arithmetic that the Mayan astronomers of Central America invented for themselves independently of the Old World. The stonework of Machu Picchu in the Andes and the geometry of the Alhambra in Moorish Spain seem to us, five centuries later, exquisite work of decorative art. But if we stop our appreciation there, we miss the originality of the two cultures that made them.

Sunday, 16 December 2018

The Festival of Unhappiness

The Storming of the Bastille
The French Revolutionaries turned every Enlightenment value upside down. They equated truth, reason, and logic with blind obedience to the will of the revolutionary council; virtue with crime, pity, and suffering; liberty with despotism and tyranny; happiness with moral weakness.

Robespierre went to the extent of calling for a new celebration, a national Festival of Unhappiness. Here’s an excerpt from Susan Dunn’s Sister Revolutions: French Lightening, American Light (Page 119):
Rousseau had taught the revolutionary generation that pity was the super-virtue, the source of all social virtues. “What is generosity, clemency, humanity,” he asked, “if not pity applied to the weak, the guilt, the human species in general?” True patriots would know the pleasure of shedding tears for the people and communing with their suffering. Robespierre admitted that he himself delighted in “this tender, imperious, irresistibly delicious torment of magnanimous hearts, this profound horror for tyranny, this compassionate zeal for the oppressed, this sublime and holy love for humanity.” He even proposed a touching new celebration, a national Festival of Unhappiness—“La Fête à malheur”—which would honor unhappiness. The Revolution he confessed, could not entirely banish unhappiness from the earth but it could comfort and console the wretched and abject people in France. 
However, Robespierre’s vision of a community ruled by the ideals of virtue, pity, and suffering was not an inclusive one—he believed in Rousseau’s saying that “pity for the wicked is a great cruelty toward men.” So Robespierre and his fellow revolutionaries did not show any pity to their political rivals, who, they thought, were wicked and traitors to the fatherland.

Saturday, 15 December 2018

On Hume’s Clash with Rousseau

The 1760s were a period of great tension for Jean-Jacques Rousseau. His books had been condemned by political and cultural institutions. Warrants for his arrests had been issued in Switzerland and Paris, and in a few places there were instances of his books being publicly burned. He saw real and imaginary enemies in every direction, and since 1763, he had been moving from place to place to save himself.

When David Hume learned of Rousseau’s plight, he immediately offered him a refuge in Britain—initially Rousseau turned down the offer because he disliked the English and did not speak their language. But when the hostility that he thought he was facing became too much for him to bear, and Hume renewed his offer for assistance, Rousseau accepted, proclaiming that he was “pleased to be indebted to the most illustrious of my contemporaries, whose goodness surpasses his glory.”

In mid-December 1765 Rousseau met Hume in Paris and they crossed the English Channel on January 4, 1766. Hume had been warned by some of his Parisian friends that Rousseau was a viper who could never be trusted, and that he had betrayed everyone who had tried to do him good in the past. But Hume dismissed these warnings, even though between him and Rousseau there were immense temperamental and philosophical differences.

Rousseau started seeing supposedly sinister intentions in Hume while they were still on way to their destination in England, and within days of reaching London his suspicions were further inflamed. He did not enjoy living in London because of the large crowds, so Hume arranged a refuge for him in the countryside. However, Rousseau continued to be plagued with suspicions and his stay soon became unbearable; on March 19, 1766, three months after they first met, he departed, never to see Hume again.

Egged on by his companions, Rousseau continued to nurse his paranoid suspicions and detected an international conspiracy, headed by none other than Hume, to defame him. On June 23, Rousseau wrote an angry letter to Hume accusing him of trying to control him. Hume demanded an explanation from Rousseau.

In his 38 page long letter of July 10, Rousseau revealed his view of the gigantic Hume-led international plot against him. He says in the letter that the kindness that Hume had shown to him — bringing him to England, finding a suitable place for him to stay, securing him a pension from George III — was a way of gaining control over his mind, making him feel indebted.

Rousseau was convinced that Hume was motivated by the desire of destroying his greatest philosophical rival in Europe. In the letter, he alleges that Hume was in contact with his enemies in France, and that Hume had inspired the newspapers to publish unflattering stories on him. Hume was baffled by Rousseau’s letter, and regarded it as a “perfect frenzy.” But he was worried that Rousseau, who was one of Europe’s most powerful and popular authors, would use his pen to ruin his reputation.

Looking for sympathy and advice, Hume told a few of his close friends about this “foolish affair.” His friends rallied by his side and with his permission they published a book in which all the facts were presented to enable the readers to make up their mind. The French edition of the book was published in October, and its English edition titled A Concise and Genuine Account of the Dispute between Mr. Hume and Mr. Rousseau was brought out in London in November.

Hume later claimed that he “never consented to anything with greater reluctance in his life.”

Friday, 14 December 2018

Ayn Rand and the Creation of Dominque

Jennifer Burns, in her book Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right (Chapter 2: “Individualists of the World, Unite!”), makes an interesting revelation on how Ayn Rand developed the heroine of The Fountainhead, Dominique. According to Burns, Rand created Dominque through a process of introspection and by combining the introspection with an analysis of her husband Frank O’Connor. Here’s an excerpt:
To capture the psychology of Dominique, a bitter and discontented heiress, Rand conjured up her own darkest moods. She tapped into all the frustration and resentment of her early years, her feeling that the world was rigged in favor of the mediocre and against the exceptional, and then imagined, “[W]hat if I really believed that this is all there is in life.” In the novel Howard would teach Dominique to let go of these poisonous attitudes, just as Rand herself had become more optimistic with her professional success and freedom to write. 
She combined this introspection with a new analysis of Frank, her beloved but troubling husband. When they first met, Frank was brimming with hopes and plans for his Hollywood career. He had several near misses, including a screen test with D. W. Griffith for a part that helped establish Neil Hamilton (later famous on TV as Batman’s Police Commissioner Gordon). But as Rand’s fortunes soared ever upward, Frank’s collapsed. In New York, with Rand’s income sufficient to support them both, Frank idled. He took charge of paying the household bills but made little effort to establish himself in a new line of work. It was an inexplicable turn of events for Rand, who valued career above all else. 
Now, as she crafted Dominique, Rand hit on a satisfying explanation for Frank’s passivity. Dominique, like Frank, would turn away from the world in anger, “a withdrawal not out of bad motives or cowardice, but out of an almost unbearable kind of idealism which does not know how to function in the journalistic reality as we see it around us.” Dominique loves Howard, yet tries to destroy him, believing he is doomed in an imperfect world. Confusing and conflicted, Dominique is among Rand’s least convincing creations. More important, though, was the effect this character had on Rand’s marriage. Seeing Frank as Dominique glossed over his professional failures and cast his defeated resignation in terms Rand could understand. 
Before I read Burns’s book, I didn’t know that Frank O’Connor was the inspiration for Dominque. In the Footnote, Burns refers to Rand’s Biographical Interview as the source for this information. As far as I know, the Biographical Interview is not available in the market.

Thursday, 13 December 2018

David Hume’s Response to Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments

Portrait of Smith by John Kay, 1790
Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments is heavily influenced by the moral theory of his friend, David Hume. When the book was published in 1759, Smith naturally sent a copy to Hume who responded with an affectionate and charming letter, dated 12th April, 1759. Hume begins the letter by thanking Smith for “the agreeable present of your Theory.” But after that he concocts distraction after distraction to delay his opinion of the book.

Finally he comes to Smith’s book and says:
But what is all this to my book? say you.—My dear Mr. Smith have patience: Compose yourself to tranquillity: Show yourself a philosopher in practice as well as profession: Think on the emptiness, and rashness, and futility of the common judgments of men: How little they are regulated by reason in any subject, much more in philosophical subjects, which so far exceed the comprehension of the vulgar.
After one more distraction, he delivers his verdict on the book:
Supposing, therefore, that you have duly prepared yourself for the worst by all these reflections, I proceed to tell you the melancholy news, that your book has been very unfortunate; for the public seem disposed to applaud it extremely. It was looked for by the foolish people with some impatience; and the mob of literati are beginning already to be very loud in its praises. 
Hume gave copies of The Theory of Moral Sentiments to highly placed politicians and intellectuals, including Edmund Burke. He also wrote an anonymous review for the Critical Review in May 1759 and brought further attention to Smith’s work. He praises Smith throughout the review, even though he does not pronounce a judgement on the ultimate soundness of Smith’s ideas, insisting that “time alone is the great test of truth.” When the time came for a new edition of Smith’s book to be published, Hume suggested some additions and alterations.

Dennis C. Rasmussen, in his book The Infidel and the Professor: David Hume, Adam Smith and the Friendship that Shaped Modern Thought, opines that Hume’s congratulatory letter to Smith must rate as one of the most charming letters in the entire history of philosophy. Here’s an excerpt from Rasmussen’s book (page 111 - 112):
Altogether, Hume’s response to The Theory of Moral Sentiments—the mixture of praise, critical engagement, and unconditional support—was entirely characteristic of Hume’s interactions with his friends. Smith had paid Hume the ultimate compliment by making him the key (even if unnamed) interlocutor in his first book, and Hume returned the favor by boosting Smith’s spirits on its release, helping to publicize his book, and pushing him to refine his ideas. What more could one want from a philosophical friendship?

Wednesday, 12 December 2018

Will Philosophy Have a Future?

Philosophy is the discipline which explores the most abstract portion of intellectual space. As our intellectual space expands, there will be new abstract areas to explore. Therefore philosophy will always have a future.

Randall Collins offers an interesting perspective on philosophy’s future in his book The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change. Here's an excerpt (Page 856 - 857):

To say that philosophy is coming to an end is tantamount to saying that the abstraction-reflexivity sequence is coming to an end. It is to say that there are no more deep troubles to drive oppositions, no more law of small numbers dividing the attention space, no more rearrangements of the networks in reaction to shifts in the organization bases of intellectual life.

It is a partisan theme which announces that the era of foundational questions is over, a move within the normal oppositions of struggle over intellectual attention space. The call for the end of philosophy is recurrent, a standard ploy in intergenerational rearrangements, usually a prelude to a new round of deep troubles and new creativity. The version popular in the 1980s and 1990s is couched in the terms of heightened reflexivity of this era. It fails to take sociological reflexivity far enough to perceive the nature of philosophical turf. The search for permanent foundations is another recurrent ploy, the standard terminology of staking a claim on a certain region of the intellectual battleground. Neither side perceives that philosophy is the terrain of struggle, and that deep troubles, not permanent solutions, are the treasures which are the implicit focus of the struggles for possession of the attention space. Philosophy is the turf of intellectuals who perpetually re-dig their conceptual foundations. Foundations are their terrain, not because they are bedrock, but because they are the ever-receding apex of the abstraction-reflexivity sequence—receding not upward to the heavens but downward and inward. This endless digging no more dissolves philosophy into nothingness than Leibniz’s infinitesimal calculus made an unreality out of the continuum. 

The same can be said for the diagnosis that philosophy becomes exhausted as its contents eventually split free to become empirical sciences. This conception rests on dim awareness that there are branching paths of the abstraction-reflexivity sequence, a polemical awareness that identifies philosophy with the cosmological sequence alone. This misperceives the character of the philosophical attention space, and fails to see that sciences find their niche at a lower level of abstraction. The social practices of modern rapid-discovery natural science are not those of intellectual networks in philosophy, and their niches in attention space to do not supplant one another. The end of philosophy was proclaimed yet again when the modern social sciences split off from philosophical networks. As we have seen, there have been substantive repercussions of both these breaks within the contents of modern philosophy. It would be the wrong inference to see in this anything more than the energizing flows that happen in intellectual networks when their surrounding material bases are changed, opening up the factional space for creative realignments. 

Most recently, the organizational revolution of the modern university made it possible to expand the number of specialized disciplines, and each new alignment provides new topics for argument on the most abstract intellectual space. Philosophy is more than the womb of disciplines, and there is no danger of its emptying out to find nothing left of its own. On the contrary, the splitting off of specific empirical disciplines has laid bare the core topics and deep troubles of the abstraction-reflexivity sequence. 

As long as there are intellectual networks capable of autonomous action to divide their own attention space, there will be philosophy. If we but knew the social structure of the intellectual world from now until the end of human-like consciousness in the universe, we could chart as long a sequence of future generations of philosophers.

Tuesday, 11 December 2018

The Purge of All for The Salvation of All

The French Revolutionaries, at the height of the terror executed close to 50,000 people, but they kept discovering new traitors and conspirators who were a threat to the nation’s unity. Ultimately they reached the stage where no sacrifice was too great for them and they were ready to purge all for the salvation of all. Here’s an excerpt from Susan Dunn’s Sister Revolutions: French Lightening, American Light (Chapter 3: “Conflict or Consensus”):
“I would rather let 25 million French men and women perish a hundred thousand times,” the Jacobin Hydens declared, “than let perish one single time the united and indivisible Republic.” Robespierre even indicated that a purge of the majority of citizens was not unthinkable, for he had come to believe that most of the people in France were the dupes of the Revolution’s enemies. After first reassuring his startled audience that he was “far from claiming that the majority of people in the country are guilty,” he disclosed that “in truth, the majority is paralyzed and betrayed; foreign intrigue has triumphed!”  
So elusive were the unity and unanimity that Robespierre pursued that he ultimately declared in one of his most bizarre, paranoid fantasies that France’s enemies—Austria, England, Russia, Prussia, and Italy—had established within France a rival government that had achieved the unity that the French themselves were incapable of mastering. 
The last speech that Robespierre made to the Convention before he was overthrown and guillotined was a 15,000-word rambling harangue about corruption and conspiracies, ending with a final exhortation to his colleagues to wake up to the vast plot against public freedom. “This conspiracy owes its strength to a criminal coalition that weaves its webs inside the Convention itself… What is the remedy for this disease? Punish the traitors,… purge the Comité de Sûreté Générale, purge the Comité de Salut Public itself, and use the full weight of national authority to decimate all factions!” Cosnpiracies factions, traitors purges, death—the monotonous, paranoid litany never varied, neither for Robespierre nor for his fellow Jacobins nor even for their more moderate adversaries. 
The French Revolution is a good example of a philosophical and political movement that was dedicated to the ideals of liberty, individualism, reason, and science, but it gave rise to a totalitarian state which wanted to purge all for the salvation of all.

Monday, 10 December 2018

A Machiavellian View of the “Tumult” in Trump Presidency

Everyday I come across new stories on the chaos in Donald Trump’s administration. He is criticized for using his Twitter account to attack his opponents, and for being in perpetual conflict with the mainstream media, intellectual community, political establishment, and even with the powerful institutions of his own government and the members of his own staff.

Is the chaos that we see in the Trump presidency a good thing or bad thing for the Republic (USA)?

If we go by the insights on a republic that Niccolò Machiavelli offers in The Discourses on Livy, then we can draw the inference that the Trump presidency is a fairly good form of republican government. Machiavelli was of the view that a republic is energized by conflict. Without conflict, there can be no politics and no freedom for the citizens. The interests of the citizens can be safeguarded only when the political and intellectual circles are mired in conflicts of all kinds.

Machiavelli uses the word “tumult” several times in his book to describe the noisy and disorderly political culture in ancient Rome. He notes that the tumult between Rome's political factions, and between its nobles and plebs had a beneficial impact—it energized the Roman republic and preserved the freedom of its people. He is the first philosopher to assert that the conflict between political factions and sections of society is useful and good.

He writes in Chapter 4 of The Discourses:
I say that to me it appears that those who damn the tumults between the nobles and the plebs blame those things that were the first cause of keeping Rome free, and that they consider the noises and the cries that would arise in such tumults more than the good effects that they engendered.
In another passage, Machiavelli says that the tumults were a “guard on Roman freedom,” and that if Rome had been more tranquil, it would have lost its energy. If the period of tranquility were to last for too long in any republic, then instead of being strengthened, the society would lose its energy, and its political and intellectual culture would see a steep downfall.

Machiavelli understood that the very nature of politics is conflictual, and only when the ruling class is tolerant of conflict and chaos that there is freedom for the citizens. I am convinced by Machiavelli’s arguments on the functioning of a republic, and I think that Donald Trump should be cheered for his chaotic governing style.

Sunday, 9 December 2018

On Philosophers Who Demand Immediate Perfection

The Storming of the Bastille, 14 July 1789
Alexis de Tocqueville points out in his book The Old Regime and the Revolution that the French Revolution was doomed because it was being led by philosophers whose learning came mostly from books and who had no experience of running an institution or a country. These philosophers demanded immediate perfection. They destroyed all the political and cultural institutions in France in order to make a new beginning. They naively believed that a great new nation can be built quickly by the ideas of “reason” alone.

Susan Dunn looks at Tocqueville’s analysis of the French Revolution in her book Sister Revolutions: French Lightening, American Light. Here’s an excerpt from chapter 2, “Revolutionary Leadership”:
Ultimately, the men who were attuned to change, who had insight into the movement of society, were not men of experience of power but rather men of imagination and vision: France’s men of letters. Whereas experienced politicians dismissed as a preposterous fantasy the idea of radically changing France’s political and social structure, intellectuals possessed the audacity and imagination to believe that people could transform French society. Only they had the creativity and vision to think that they could build, on top of the ruins of the old order, a just society. 
Here’s another passage from the chapter:
And yet, French men of letters went too far. Tocqueville deplored their plan to replace in one swift move complex and ancient institutions with abstract systems, with “simple and elementary rules.” The basic societal changes that took place may have been both inevitable and desirable, but Tocqueville thought it neither inevitable or desirable that they should be brought about through convulsive and traumatic means. It was the brutal and violent character of the Revolution, not its underlying political principles, aims, or vision, that Tocqueville condemned and for which he faulted, not politicians, but men of letters. He did not blame intellectuals for wanting to destroy the hated abuses of the Old Régime, he explained, but he did blame the naive, arrogant manner in which they went about this “necessary destruction.” 
The irony is that the philosophers who were the proponents of this total and sudden transformation of French society could not escape the fury of the Revolution. They too were consumed by the violence that swept France. 

Saturday, 8 December 2018

David Hume, As a Free Market Economist

An engraving of Hume from
The History of England (1st volume) 
In 1752, David Hume published his book the Political Discourses, which is a collection of essays on a subject that was in his time called political economy and is today known as economics. The ideas that he presents in these essays are broadly similar to the economic theory that Adam Smith describes in his The Wealth of Nations, published in 1776. Hume has exercised heavy influence on Smith’s economic thinking. There are numerous references, both explicit and implicit, to Hume in virtually all of Smith’s writings.

Dennis C. Rasmussen, in his book The Infidel and the Professor: David Hume, Adam Smith and the Friendship that Shaped Modern Thought, notes that within a month of the publication of Hume’s Political Discourses, Smith gave an account of Hume’s economic thinking to a gathering of professors. He was impressed by Hume’s empirical argument against British mercantilism. This can only mean that Hume had shared the work with Smith prior to publication.

Here’s an excerpt from Rasmussen’s book:
Judging from the rough report known as the “Anderson notes,” it appears that Smith also discussed Hume's Political Discourses— specifically, the essay “Of Interest”—in his jurisprudence lectures beginning quite early in his time at Glasgow. In his later lectures, we know, he showered praise on a concept that Hume outlines in “Of the Balance of Trade” and “Of Money” and that has come to be known as “Hume’s specie-flow mechanism.” Hume, Smith proclaimed, had “very ingeniously” proven the “absurdity” of the common worry about losing gold and silver through an unfavorable balance of trade. Given that prices and wages adjust automatically to the amount of money in circulation, any attempt to restrict the export of gold and silver would be self-defeating. Smith pronounced to his students that “Mr. Hume’s reasoning is exceedingly ingenious,” though he also chided Hume for having “gone a little into the notion that public opulence consists in money”—presumably a reference to Hume’s strictures on the use of paper money in the early editions of the Political Discourses. Based on Hume’s “ingenious” argument and a host of others, Smith concluded that “Britain should by all means be made a free port… and that free commerce and liberty of exchange should be allowed with all nations and for all things.” 
Rasmussen points out that many of Hume’s arguments anticipate those of Smith’s great work. Hume holds that the true source of a nation’s wealth is not gold or silver or a positive balance of trade but a productive citizenry, and that free trade works to the benefit of all parties involved—the rich and the poor, the government and the populace. He speaks against the numerous regulations that England and other European nations have put on trade. In his essay, “Of Luxury,” which in the later editions he retitled “Of Refinement in the Arts,” Hume insists that there is nothing particularly noble or redeeming about poverty, nor anything intrinsically objectionable about luxury.

Hume’s Political Discourses was widely read and praised in Britain and France. In his biography My Own Life, Hume singles out this volume as “the only work of mine that was successful on the first publication.” It is also worth noting that Hume was a Conservative Tory in his politics.

Friday, 7 December 2018

On the Friendship Between David Hume and Adam Smith

The Infidel and the Professor: David Hume, Adam Smith and the Friendship that Shaped Modern Thought, by Dennis C. Rasmussen, provides an interesting portrait of the intellectual environment in which David Hume and Adam Smith did their work, and the deep friendship that developed between them after their first meeting, which, according to Rasmussen, happened in 1749. Hume has exercised an amazing amount of influence on several important thinkers. Immanuel Kant, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, and Adam Smith were influenced by him.

Rasmussen compares the friendship between Hume and Smith with the relationship between Socrates and Plato. Here’s an excerpt:
Whereas these leading philosophers of friendship tend to analyze the concept in the abstract—the different forms that friendship takes, its roots in human nature, its relationship to self-interest, to romantic love, and to justice—a consideration of Hume and Smith allows us to see that rare thing, a philosophical friendship of the very highest level in action: a case study, as it were… Indeed, there is arguably no higher example of a philosophical friendship in the entire Western tradition. It takes some effort, in fact, to think of who the closest rivals would be. Socrates and Plato? Given the four-decade age disparity between them, their relationship was probably more one of teacher and student, or perhaps mentor and protégé, than one of equals, and in any case the record of their personal interactions is scant.
Hume is generally seen as a philosopher who is interested in abstract metaphysical and epistemological questions, while Smith is seen as a philosopher of practical matters, like economic theory. Also, Hume was a conservative Tory in his politics, while Smith was a liberal Whig; and Hume was a skeptic with regard to religion or perhaps even an atheist, while Smith had cultivated for himself the image of a confirmed believer. But going beyond these caricatures, Rasmussen shows that the intellectual interests of Hume and Smith overlapped a great deal as both were interested in almost everything. Hume has argued for free trade decades before Smith, while Smith has written extensively on moral theory which is inspired by Hume’s thoughts.

Rasmussen traces the evolution of their friendship through not only the contents of their letters but also from the salutations that they use. “The earliest of the letters open with a formal “Dear Sir,” but it was not long before they transitioned to the more affectionate “Dear Smith” or “My Dear Hume,” then “My Dear Friend,” and finally “My Dearest Friend”— an epithet that neither of them used with any other correspondent during the course of their friendship.”

I am currently on the page 70 of the book. I will have more to say on it in my future posts.

Thursday, 6 December 2018

How to Mark a Book

Here’s Mortimer J. Adler’s suggestion for marking a book intelligently and fruitfully (from his essay, “How to Mark a Book”):
1. Underlining: of major points, of important or forceful statements.

2. Vertical lines at the margin: to emphasize a statement already underlined.

3. Star, asterisk, or other doo-dad at the margin: to be used sparingly, to emphasize the ten or twenty most important statements in the book. (You may want to fold the bottom corner of each page on which you use such marks. It won't hurt the sturdy paper on which most modern books are printed, and you will be able to take the book off the shelf at any time and, by opening it at the folded-corner page, refresh your recollection of the book.)
4. Numbers in the margin: to indicate the sequence of points the author makes in developing a single argument.
5. Numbers of other pages in the margin: to indicate where else in the book the author made points relevant to the point marked; to tie up the ideas in a book, which, though they may be separated by many pages, belong together.
6. Circling of key words or phrases.
7. Writing in the margin, or at the top or bottom of the page, for the sake of: recording questions (and perhaps answers) which a passage raised in your mind; reducing a complicated discussion to a simple statement; recording the sequence of major points right through the books. I use the end-papers at the back of the book to make a personal index of the author's points in the order of their appearance. 
I have used all the seven methods to mark the books that I have read. But Adler notes that "marking up a book is not an act of mutilation but of love."

Wednesday, 5 December 2018

How to Study a Philosopher?

Bertrand Russell, in his A History of Western Philosophy, makes an interesting point on the right way of studying a philosopher. Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 4, “Heraclitus” (Book 1: Ancient Philosophy):

"In studying a philosopher, the right attitude is neither reverence nor contempt, but first a kind of hypothetical sympathy, until it is possible to know what it feels like to believe in his theories, and only then a revival of the critical attitude, which should resemble, as far as possible, the state of mind of a person abandoning opinions which he has hitherto held. Contempt interferes with the first part of this process, and reverence with the second. Two things are to be remembered: that a man whose opinions and theories are worth studying may be presumed to have had some intelligence, but that no man is likely to have arrived at complete and final truth on any subject whatever. When an intelligent man expresses a view which seems to us obviously absurd, we should not attempt to prove that it is somehow true, but we should try to understand how it ever came to seem true. This exercise of historical and psychological imagination at once enlarges the scope of our thinking, and helps us to realize how foolish many of our own cherished prejudices will seem to an age which has a different temper of mind."

Tuesday, 4 December 2018

Schopenhauer’s Lockean Critique of Kant’s Ethics

Commemorative stamp on Schopenhauer
Arthur Schopenhauer has referred to Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Johann Gottlieb Fichte more frequently than to John Locke but his remarks about Hegel and Fichte are mostly derisive, whereas he has some positive things to say about Locke. Also, he has referred to Locke more often than to David Hume and George Berkeley combined. Part of his motivation for frequently referring to Locke is that he wants to contrast him with Hegel and Fichte. In his Die beiden Grundprobleme der Ethik, Schopenhauer says that it must be to Locke’s credit that Fichte calls him the worst of all philosophers.

But there is another reason for Schopenhauer’s repeated references to Locke. In his essay, “Locke as Schopenhauer's (Kantian) Philosophical Ancestor,”  David E. Cartwright notes:
Why did Schopenhauer refer to Locke more frequently than he did to his fellow classical British empiricists? Why did Schopenhauer regard Locke as a summus philosophus? To answer these questions, it is necessary to understand how Schopenhauer viewed Kant's relationship to Locke, since he saw himself intimately related to Locke through a mediation by Kant: “Accordingly, it will be seen that Locke, Kant, and I are closely connected, since in the interval of almost two hundred years we present the gradual development of a coherently consistent train of thought”. Insofar as Schopenhauer considered himself a Kantian, and as he saw Kant as Lockean, Schopenhauer viewed his philosophy standing in a philosophical lineage traceable to Locke. Schopenhauer also tended to view his relationship to Kant in terms comparable to those through which he conceived Kant's relationship to Locke. Just as Schopenhauer claimed that his philosophy transcended Kant's, while retaining fidelity to Kantian insights, he claimed that Kant’s philosophy transcended Locke’s, while retaining fidelity to Lockean insights. But Schopenhauer's fidelity to Kant extends only to dimensions of his metaphysics and epistemology. Schopenhauer radically rejected Kant's practical philosophy, and he used the empirically minded Locke as an ally against Kant's ethics. 
Schopenhauer had several differences with Kant’s moral philosophy. In contrast to Kant’s non-empirical, prescriptive ethics of duty, Schopenhauer developed an empirically based descriptive virtue ethics. In his On The Basis of Morality, Schopenhauer makes it clear that his ethics “is in essentials, diametrically opposed to Kant’s.” In order to travel on the path of his kind of ethics, Schopenhauer had to appeal to the empirically minded Locke.

Monday, 3 December 2018

Thinkers Must Confine Themselves to the Area of Their Expertise

Thomas Reid; Ayn Rand
Thomas Reid, in the final paragraph of An Inquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense, notes that all the thinkers who attempt to develop a theory of everything, end up creating work that is lacking in quality and significance. He gives the example of Galileo and Newton, who, he says, managed to create works of timeless importance because they confined themselves to the core area of their expertise. Here’s an excerpt:
If Galileo had attempted a complete system of natural philosophy, he had, probably, done little service to mankind: but by confining himself to what was within his comprehension, he laid the foundation of a system of knowledge, which rises by degrees, and does honour to the human understanding. Newton, building upon this foundation, and in like manner confining his inquiries to the law of gravitation and the properties of light, performed wonders. If he had attempted a great deal more, he had done a great deal less, and perhaps nothing at all. Ambitious of following such great examples, with unequal steps, alas! and unequal force, we have attempted an inquiry only into one little corner of the human mind; that corner which seems to be most exposed to vulgar observation, and to be most easily comprehended; and yet, if we have delineated it justly, it must be acknowledged that the accounts heretofore given of it were very lame, and wide of the truth. 
These lines from Reid’s Inquiry make me think of Ayn Rand’s philosophy. The reason there are so many inconsistencies and errors in her thought is that she is a philosopher of the “whole,” virtually everything. She conceived of objectivism in the late 1950s as a complete system for living on earth. But the quest for a complete system for living on earth is as delusional as the quest for Bigfoot, which can never be found because it doesn’t exist. No one in the history of humanity has ever created a complete system for living on earth, and no one ever will in the future. Philosophy will keep evolving as the knowledge of mankind evolves in other areas of activity.

In her eagerness to create a complete system for living on earth, Rand wrote and spoke on a range of topics. From Metaphysics to Epistemology, Aesthetics, Ethics, and Politics; from Plato and Aristotle to Immanuel Kant and the Logical Positivists; from theory of mind and body to the theory of evolution; abortion, family life, education, sports, libertarianism, conservatism, foreign policy, race relations—in the Ayn Rand Lexicon, you can find a Rand quote on virtually everything. But in many cases, a small quote is all that we have from her on any particular subject, as she has not revealed the arguments on the basis of which she has developed her conclusions.

If instead of speaking on so many topics, she had focused on the core areas of her expertise, and given us the complete treatises on those areas, then she would have created a work of much more value under the banner of objectivism. I agree with Reid that thinkers must confine themselves to the area of their expertise if they want to leave behind a work of any value.

Saturday, 1 December 2018

An Examination of Nozick’s Randian Argument

Robert Nozick, in his essay, “The Randian Argument,” (Socratic Puzzles; Page 249 - 264), tries to show that Ayn Rand does not objectively establish the conclusions that she reaches in her work on moral theory. He says that it is not clear to him what Rand’s argument is so he must try to set out the argument as a deductive argument and then examine the premises.

So his methodology consists of reducing Rand’s moral theory (his understanding of it) into four arguments or conclusions, each one of which he examines in turn.

But his critique of Rand’s argument is not right. Douglas Den Uyl and Douglas B. Rasmussen, in their essay, "Nozick on the Randian Argument,” (Reading Nozick, Edited by Jeffery Paul, Page: 232 - 269), show that four conclusions that Nozick has set up for consideration cannot be attributed to Rand, because they are an outcome of his flawed understanding of her theory. And the multiple premises that Nozick uses to construct Rand’s argument for each one of the conclusions which he attributes to her are also not Randian.

Den Uyl and Rasmussen have done a complete autopsy of Nozick’s essay, they analyze each one of his conclusions and premises and show that Nozick fails to get even the most basic elements of Rand’s theory right. They note that “Nozick has completely failed to construct a Randian argument. Thus any effective criticisms he does make are effective only against his own constructions and not against Rand.”

In the final section of their essay, Den Uyl and Rasmussen offer their version of the Randian argument using the methodology that Nozick has used in his own essay. They point out that their Randian argument is not an “exhaustive and definitive statement of the Randian derivation. Since we are not quoting directly from Rand and other such derivations (certainly more complete ones) might be possible.” But I find their Randian argument to be quite useful.

Now the question is why did Nozick, an experienced Harvard professor, who is sympathetic to Rand’s libertarian views and has found her novels to be “exciting, powerful, illuminating, and thought-provoking”, write such a pointless critique of her moral theory? I have no answer to this.

Thursday, 29 November 2018

Thomas Reid on the Skepticism of Descartes, Locke, and Hume

Reid’s painting by Henry Raeburn (1796)
Thomas Reid critiques the skeptical philosophy of John Locke, David Hume, and other European philosophers in his An Inquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense. He points out that their philosophy leads to the conclusion that there are no substantial beings in the universe, neither bodies nor spirits. He considers this conclusion to be absurd.

In Section 3, Chapter 1, of the book, Reid looks at the Cogito, ergo sum argument which Descartes has deployed to prove his own existence to himself. Reid asks: “But supposing it proved, that my thought and my consciousness must have a subject, and consequently that I exist, how do I know that all that train and succession of thought which I remember belong to one subject, and that the I of this moment is the very individual I of yesterday and of times past?”

He notes that while Descartes has not addressed this doubt, Locke has done it. Locke’s method of resolving this doubt consists of determining that “personal identity consists in consciousness; that is, if you are conscious that you did such a thing a twelvemonth ago, this consciousness makes you to be the very person that did it. Now, consciousness of what is past can signify nothing else but a remembrance that I did it. So that Locke's principle must be, That identity consists in remembrance ; and consequently a man must lose his personal identity with regard to every thing he forgets.”

He accuses Locke and Hume of fomenting a series of unnecessary doubts which they consistently fail to resolve. Here’s Reid’s take on the role played by skeptic thinkers:
[They] have all employed their genius and skill to prove the existence of a material world; and with very bad success. Poor untaught mortals believe, undoubtedly, that there is a sun, moon, and stars; an earth, which we inhabit; country, friends, and relations, which we enjoy; land, houses, and moveables, which we possess. But philosophers, pitying the credulity of the vulgar, resolve to have no faith but what is founded upon reason. They apply to philosophy to furnish them with reason for the belief of those things which all mankind have believed, without being able to give any reason for it. And surely one would expect, that, in matters of such importance, the proof would not be difficult: but it is the most difficult thing in the world. For these three great men, with the best good will, have not been able, from all the treasures of philosophy, to draw one argument, that is fit to convince a man that can reason, of the existence of any one thing without him. 
Reid says, “A man that disbelieves his own existence, is surely as unfit to be reasoned with, as a man that believes he is made of glass.” Taken as a whole, Reid’s Inquiry can be seen as an answer to the ideas of the most important philosopher of skepticism, David Hume.

Wednesday, 28 November 2018

On the World of Nature

William A. Wallace, in his book The Modeling of Nature: The Philosophy of Science and the Philosophy of Nature in Synthesis, offers the following perspective on the world of nature:
Combining the two senses, we may characterize the world of nature as what is capable of coming into existence apart from human influence and as made up of things that have within themselves natures or internal sources of their distinctive activities. Nature is thus populated by plants and animals of various kinds, by chemical elements and compounds, by hosts of elementary particles, by galaxies, stars, and planets, all of which come into being and pass away and yet enjoy periods of relative stability during which they respond to, or interact with, objects around them. Some natures are animate whereas others are inanimate, yet all are knowable through observable properties and behavioral characteristics. To say of something that it is sulphur, or a geranium, or a horse, is to specify its nature; this we learn not merely from its appearance but from the way it acts and reacts in a variety of circumstances. Thus understood, there is something more enduring about natures than there is about the individuals that instantiate them. A plant may die, and when it does it ceases to be, say, a geranium, but its perishing does not entail that the nature of geranium ceases also. Other plants may continue to exist of which it is true to say "This is a geranium,” and thus the nature has a less transient character than the individuals of which it is predicated. 
He says that the human experience of nature is transempirical:
Again, to say of a horse that it is a large, solid-hoofed, herbivorous mammal is to describe, and indeed to define, its nature. The definition sets it apart from things that are not mammals, and among mammals it further differentiates the horse from small creatures, carnivores, and those without solid hoofs. This in fact becomes the meaning of the term "horse." Furthermore, the grasp of such meaning is the work of the intellect, not merely the work of the senses. Natures are a shorthand way of indicating the intelligible aspects of things in terms of which they can be understood and defined. Thus the concept of nature is not exclusively an empirical concept, if by empirical one means whatever can be measured or photographed or otherwise presented directly to the senses. It is transempirical. for although it takes its origin from sense experience it still requires going beyond the world of sense for its proper comprehension.  
To refer to the nature of a thing is therefore to designate an inner dimension that makes the thing be what it is, serves to differentiate it from other things, and at the same time accounts for its distinctive activities and responses. This inner dimension is not transparent to the intellect, for we usually do not achieve distinct and comprehensive knowledge of a nature the first time we encounter it in experience. Rather we grasp it in a general and indeterminate way that is open to progressive development and refinement on the basis of additional information. A veteran horse trainer or a veterinarian obviously knows more about the nature of a horse than does a youth with limited experience of horses. Yet even the child who is able to say "That is a horse" grasps the same nature as does the expert, even while doing so in a vaguer and less distinct way.  
When approached in this manner, nature loses some of the mysterious and occult character sometimes associated with terms such as essence and quiddity. To seek the essence of a horse is in effect to define it or determine its nature. To ask for its quiddity (from the Latin quiddilas) is similarly to ask what it is, and this is nothing more than to inquire into its nature. There is nothing spooky or metaphysical about such an inquiry. Rather it is a natural way of questioning for a human being who wishes to gain understanding of the world of nature and of the many natures of which it is constituted.

Tuesday, 27 November 2018

Rousseau: The Noxious Force in Modern Civilization

A Painting of Rousseau (1753)
Conor Cruise O’Brien has a thoughtful essay, “Rousseau, Robespierre, Burke, Jefferson, and the French Revolution,” in The Social Contract and The First and Second Discourses: Jean-Jacques Rousseau, edited by Susan Dunn. In the final paragraphs of the essay, he sums up the noxious influence that Rousseau has in the major universities.  Here’s an excerpt:
Rousseau also holds an influential place within the English-speaking world through the vogue for the ‘‘politically correct’’ and ‘‘multiculturalism’’ now dominant in certain faculties of several major American universities. These work in Rousseau’s manner: through strong, repeated, unargued assertion: ‘‘Hey ho, hey ho, Western culture’s got to go’’ chanted the students. No matter that the students in question have no other culture than the culture of the English language, the only language that they know, or have any intention of knowing. They are in fact monocultural multiculturalists; intellectual monsters, incapable of doing anything except exercising a kind of power through agreed nonsense, and feeling good while doing so.  
All that is very much in the spirit of Rousseau. I believe that Rousseau has been, and still remains a noxious force within Western culture. He is noxious because of a fundamental lack of seriousness. He does not think or argue. He talks for effect and teaches others to do the same. Unfortunately there are some in every generation who are seduced either by his message or—more probably—by the example of his successes. The malignant magic of the grand charlatan is liable to be with us for a long time.

Monday, 26 November 2018

On Philosophy and Science

Here’s a message that I received from Prof. Douglas B. Rasmussen regarding the nature of philosophy and the difference between philosophy and science:

Philosophy is the attempt to know the fundamental nature of things. It proceeds by the use of common experience (as contrasted to special experience, e.g., a laboratory experiment) and reason (where reason is understood broadly to involve the ability to conceptualize, formulate propositions, and present arguments, theories, hypotheses). Philosophy can be motivated by religious faith, but it does not appeal to faith.

Philosophical inquiry is concerned with questions that require conceptual clarification—what do you mean by X?—and questions that are highly general or abstract and also most basic or foundational—questions not like what is a physical thing, but what is to be a thing or what is it to be. These questions require that one offer an explanation or why—mere assertions will not suffice. Yet, this does not mean that all knowing is discursive or that there may not be self-evident truths that are presupposed by their denials and are themselves directly known—e.g., the principle of non-contradiction. The fundamental areas of philosophy are:

Ontology or metaphysics—what does it mean to be and what are the ultimate kind of beings.

Epistemology—what is it to know? What are the basic ways of knowing?

Ethics—what is inherently good and what ought I to do?

Political Philosophy—what is the purpose of the political legal order and what distinguishes de facto political/legal power from legitimate power?

Aesthetics—what is an aesthetic object? What is beauty? What is the relation of art to other human endeavors?

There can also be philosophy of X—where you examine the fundamental subject matter and methods of particular intellectual disciplines or human activities. For example, philosophy of language, economics, mind. There is also philosophy of human nature, which may be the most important to us:  Who am I, what am I, and what am I for?

The distinction between philosophy and the science ultimately rests on the idea that philosophy proceeds from common experience, ordinary sense perception, and not experience that is arranged by an experiment. There can be general principles of what can be called philosophy of nature that is based just on common experience.  Science gets more involved with the how, and particular measurements.

A philosopher will examine the so-called distinction between the empirical and the conceptual or the perceptual and rational. As an Aristotelian, I do not think they can be neatly divided. This is not unrelated to the analytic-synthetic distinction. I discuss this in some of articles of mine.

Sunday, 25 November 2018

Rousseau and Robespierre

Cartoon of Robespierre guillotining
the executioner after having guillotined
everyone else in France.
The leaders of the French Revolution—Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès, Maximilien Robespierre, Saint-Just, and others—were mesmerized by Rousseau’s vision of General Will leading to the creation of total harmony and unanimity in France. In 1778, before the French Revolution began, Robespierre met Rousseau. Susan Dunn talks about their meeting in her Introduction to The Social Contract and The First and Second Discourses: Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Here’s an excerpt:
"I saw you in your last days," Robespierre recalled, "and this memory is a source of proud joy for me." According to Robespierre, Rousseau commented that he had prepared the field and sowed the seeds for the immense change that was about to take place in France, but, like Moses, he would not live to see the promised land. The young lawyer pledged to his master that he would be "constantly faithful to the inspiration" that he had drawn from Rousseau’s writings.
The book's final essay, Conor Cruise O’Brien’s “Rousseau, Robespierre, Burke, Jefferson, and the French Revolution,” begins with a description of Rousseau’s strong grip on the minds of Robespierre and other revolutionaries:
Rousseau was also, in a curious way, the guarantee of Robespierre’s impartiality, as a being above normal politics, spokesman for a mysterious and awe-inspiring entity: the General Will. In his address to the French of the eighty-three Departments in the summer of 1792—about the summit period of his personal authority—Robespierre came forward confidently in the persona of spokesman for the General Will, addressing the Jacobins whom he now totally dominated:  
"For us, we are not of any party, we serve no faction, you know it, brothers and friends, our will is the General Will."  
"Our will is the General Will." Once accepted as spokesman for the General Will, itself an absolute, Robespierre was able to wield absolute power, even at a time when he held no office.  
He was seen as the "guide" or "legislator" who makes his appearance in chapters 6 and 7 of Book 2 of The Social Contract. The function of the guide or legislator is to direct the General Will, "to show it how to see objects as they are, sometimes as they ought to be." 
In 1793–1794, to be designated by Robespierre, with no evidence at all, as opposed to the General Will, was invariably the prelude to the fatal prosecution of the individual concerned, to a trial with the result known in advance, and then to speedy execution.  
The cult of the General Will flourished, in a way, even after the fall of Robespierre. The Thermidorians, having killed Robespierre, declared that he had falsified Rousseau and that they themselves were the true heirs to Rousseau. On 14 September 1794 the Thermidorian-dominated Convention ordered that Rousseau’s remains be brought from his original burial place on the Isle of Poplars in Ermenonville and placed in the Pantheon in Paris with appropriate ceremony. Gordon MacNeil describes the central place of The Social Contract in the ceremonies: "The Social Contract, the ‘beacon of legislators’ was carried on a velvet cushion, and a statue of its author in a cask pulled by twelve horses."

Saturday, 24 November 2018

Rousseau’s Account of General Will and Freedom

A Painting of Rousseau (1753)
Rousseau’s communitarian vision of General Will can be seen as a forerunner of the Marxist vision of dictatorship of the proletariat. Both Rousseau and Marx believed that people do not subject themselves to any authority, except to the collective will of the people. For Rousseau, the collective will, is the General will; for Marx, it is the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Susan Dunn offers the following definition of General Will in  The Social Contract and The First and Second Discourses: Jean-Jacques Rousseau (Page 19):
Rousseau held that a democratic society possesses a General Will. This ‘‘will’’ reflects what enlightened people would want if they were able to make decisions solely as social beings and citizens and not as private individuals. Individuals may possess private wills that express their particular interests, but citizens must recognize and concur with the General Will that mirrors the good of all. The General Will is not tantamount to the will of all citizens. Nor is it the sum of all individual wills or the expression of a compromise or consensus among them. Nor is it the equivalent of the will of the majority, for even the majority can be corrupt or misguided. In other words, it is a theoretical construct. The General Will is general, not because a broad number of people subscribe to it but because its object is always the common good of all.  
Thus, hovering strangely above and beyond the wills of all, the General Will is ‘‘always constant, unalterable, and pure,’’always mirroring perfectly the common good of all members of the community. The ultimate authority—and ultimate sovereignty—thus reside not really in the people, who may err in their estimation of the General Will, unable to transcend their private wills, but rather in the infallible General Will itself—the power of Reason, the enlightened collective moral conscience.
According to Rousseau, true freedom is choosing to obey the General Will. He equates freedom with obedience. Susan Dunn explains (Page 20):
Rousseau recognized two different types of freedom. The first, enjoyed by people in the state of nature, denoted their freedom to act as they wished, in a variety of diverse ways. This was a negative form of freedom, freedom from constraints. But there is another, higher form of freedom, according to Rousseau, a positive freedom. This is not freedom from constraint, but rather freedom for some higher good, for the enjoyment of the good, moral life. This kind of freedom, more heroic and ambitious than negative freedom, can belong to the citizen who is able to suppress his private will and consciously choose the common good over his own desires and personal benefit. This individual has mastered himself, becoming a moral and hence a truly free being. The originality of Rousseau’s vision resides in his concept of freedom, not as the province of the autonomous individual but rather as that of the self-sacrificing citizen.  
Indeed, the more that people identify with the community, the ‘‘freer’’ they are. Whereas primitive individuals in the state of nature were thoroughly indifferent and unattached to one another, in Rousseau’s utopia, citizens are unreservedly involved with one another. The solitary independence that people may have enjoyed in the state of nature is not something that Rousseau aspired to recover. On the contrary, he wishes to see it transformed into its opposite—voluntary dependence and interdependence, happy obedience to the General Will.

Friday, 23 November 2018

On Rousseau’s Attack on the Enlightenment Project

In her Introduction to The Social Contract and The First and Second Discourses: Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Susan Dunn, the book’s editor, looks at the reasons which motivated Rousseau to attack the Enlightenment project. Here’s an excerpt:
Astonishingly, Rousseau turned against the entire Enlightenment project. He branded the daring intellectual, scientific, and artistic culture of eighteenth-century France a lie, a vast devolution, a symptom of alarming moral decline. Nothing more than a fake veneer, the century’s worldly accomplishments were all the more perfidious because they masked so effectively the deep corruption of a decadent, unequal society. The quest for knowledge and intellectual advancement was a superficial luxury that, instead of serving society, reinforced its self-indulgence and decay. "We have physicists, geometers, chemists, astronomers, poets, musicians, painters," he remarked, adding tellingly that "we no longer have citizens." 
People, Rousseau was convinced, had been deceived, seduced, and corrupted by the radiance of the Enlightenment. And what was worse, they cherished their corruption, for it seemed to mark the summit of progress and civilization. Everywhere Rousseau saw educated individuals who resembled "happy slaves," preferring the glitter of high culture to true freedom and happiness. The search for knowledge had merely taken on a life of its own, divorced from the real needs of society and citizens. 
Skepticism and vain inquiry attracted people more than a search for a meaningful life. People believed that they knew everything, Rousseau remarked, but they did not know the meaning of the words magnanimity, equity, temperance, humanity, courage, fatherland, and God. Overwhelmed by pretension, affectation, and deceit, the values that create robust citizens and a healthy society—self-sacrifice, sincere friendships, love of country—had disappeared. 
The principles of science and philosophy and the decadent values implicit in the arts on the one hand and the requirements of a healthy society on the other, Rousseau insisted, are irremediably at odds with one another. Whereas science searches for the truth by fostering doubt and undermining faith and virtue, a vigorous, patriotic society, Rousseau contended, requires assent to the principles of its foundation.
Rousseau believed that the Enlightenment project had led to the creation of a decadent society which is obsessed with luxury, prosperity, and a vain and senseless kind of free inquiry—he desired a Spartan society which imposes rules and discipline and demands sacrifices from its citizens. Essentially, he was against all symbols of modernity. His ideas were accepted by the Jacobin Revolutionaries in France, but were rejected by the American revolutionaries across the ocean.

Thursday, 22 November 2018

Embracing the Absurd

Marcel Duchamp's Fountain, 1917
Acceptance of absurd art and ideas is an essential facet of modern civilization. Jacques Barzun, in his book  From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to The Present (Page 757), says:

"A repertory of such doctrines and programs would be lengthy. Here are a few samples of the absurd in practice. Western nations spend billions on public schooling for all, urged along by the public cry for Excellence. At the same time the society pounces on any show of superiority as elitism. The same nations deplore violence and sexual promiscuity among the young, but pornography and violence in films and books, shops and clubs, on television and the Internet, and in the lyrics of pop music cannot be suppressed, in the interests of "the free market of ideas." Under that rubric, speech (at least in the United Mates) has enlarged its meaning to include action: one may burn the flag; with impunity; it is a statement of opinion. The legalism would seem to authorize assassination."