Monday, 23 April 2018

On the Notion of Art in Ancient Times

Paul Oskar Kristeller
In his essay, “The Modern System of Fine Arts: A Study in the History of Aesthetics, Part I,” (Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 12, No. 4, Oct., 1951), Paul Oskar Kristeller argues that the modern notion of “art” was essentially an invention of the eighteenth century, and that the pre-eighteenth century world lacked any comparable notion of “art.” He points out that the term which the ancient Greeks (and the Romans) used for “art” did not connote “fine art” in the modern sense, rather it applied to all the crafts and sciences.

Kristeller notes in his article that during the ancient period the social and intellectual prestige of the artists was quite low. Here’s an excerpt from his article:
When we consider the visual arts of painting, sculpture and architecture, it appears that their social and intellectual prestige in antiquity was much lower than one might expect from their actual achievements or from occasional enthusiastic remarks which date for the most part from the later centuries. It is true that painting was compared to poetry by Simonides and Plato, by Aristotle and Horace, as it was compared to rhetoric by Cicero, Dionysius of Halicarnassus and other writers. It is also true that architecture was included among the liberal arts by Varro and Vitruvius, and painting by Pliny and Galen, that Dio Chrysostom compared the art of the sculptor with that of the poet, and that Philostratus and Callistratus wrote enthusiastically about painting and sculpture. Yet the place of painting among the liberal arts was explicitly denied by Seneca and ignored by most other writers, and the statement of Lucian that everybody admires the works of the great sculptors but would not want to be a sculptor oneself, seems to reflect the prevalent view among writers and thinkers. The term [Greek word], commonly applied to painters and sculptors, reflects their low social standing, which was related to the ancient contempt for manual work. When Plato compares the description of his ideal state to a painting and even calls his world-shaping god a demiurge, he no more enhances the importance of the artist than does Aristotle when he uses the statue as the standard example for a product of human art. When Cicero, probably reflecting Panaetius, speaks of the ideal notions in the mind of the sculptor, and when the Middle Platonists and Plotinus compare the ideas in the mind of God with the concepts of the visual artist they go one step further. Yet no ancient philosopher, as far as I know, wrote a separate systematic treatise on the visual arts or assigned to them a prominent place in his scheme of knowledge. 
The ancients believed that art, like any craft, can be taught and learned, whereas modern aesthetics stresses that art cannot be taught or learned. In the Middle Ages too, art was seen as a lowly craft. The term “artista” coined in the Middle Ages stood for either a craftsman or a student of liberal arts. Kristeller says that neither Dante nor Aquinas have used the term “art” in the sense that we do today. For Aquinas shoemaking, cooking, juggling, grammar, and arithmetic were as artistic as painting, sculpture, poetry, and music.

Sunday, 22 April 2018

Happy Birthday Immanuel Kant

Immanuel Kant (22 April 1724 – 12 February 1804) is one of the most prominent promoters and propagandizers of the concept of the Enlightenment. Here's an excerpt from his 1784 essay, "What is Enlightenment?":
Enlightenment is man's emergence from his self-imposed nonage. Nonage is the inability to use one's own understanding without another's guidance. This nonage is self-imposed if its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in indecision and lack of courage to use one's own mind without another's guidance. Dare to know! (Sapere aude.) "Have the courage to use your own understanding," is therefore the motto of the enlightenment. 
Laziness and cowardice are the reasons why such a large part of mankind gladly remain minors all their lives, long after nature has freed them from external guidance. They are the reasons why it is so easy for others to set themselves up as guardians. It is so comfortable to be a minor. If I have a book that thinks for me, a pastor who acts as my conscience, a physician who prescribes my diet, and so on--then I have no need to exert myself. I have no need to think, if only I can pay; others will take care of that disagreeable business for me. Those guardians who have kindly taken supervision upon themselves see to it that the overwhelming majority of mankind--among them the entire fair sex--should consider the step to maturity, not only as hard, but as extremely dangerous. First, these guardians make their domestic cattle stupid and carefully prevent the docile creatures from taking a single step without the leading-strings to which they have fastened them. Then they show them the danger that would threaten them if they should try to walk by themselves. Now this danger is really not very great; after stumbling a few times they would, at last, learn to walk. However, examples of such failures intimidate and generally discourage all further attempts. 
Thus it is very difficult for the individual to work himself out of the nonage which has become almost second nature to him. He has even grown to like it, and is at first really incapable of using his own understanding because he has never been permitted to try it. Dogmas and formulas, these mechanical tools designed for reasonable use--or rather abuse--of his natural gifts, are the fetters of an everlasting nonage. The man who casts them off would make an uncertain leap over the narrowest ditch, because he is not used to such free movement. That is why there are only a few men who walk firmly, and who have emerged from nonage by cultivating their own minds. 
It is more nearly possible, however, for the public to enlighten itself; indeed, if it is only given freedom, enlightenment is almost inevitable. There will always be a few independent thinkers, even among the self-appointed guardians of the multitude. Once such men have thrown off the yoke of nonage, they will spread about them the spirit of a reasonable appreciation of man's value and of his duty to think for himself. It is especially to be noted that the public which was earlier brought under the yoke by these men afterwards forces these very guardians to remain in submission, if it is so incited by some of its guardians who are themselves incapable of any enlightenment. That shows how pernicious it is to implant prejudices: they will eventually revenge themselves upon their authors or their authors' descendants. Therefore, a public can achieve enlightenment only slowly. A revolution may bring about the end of a personal despotism or of avaricious tyrannical oppression, but never a true reform of modes of thought. New prejudices will serve, in place of the old, as guide lines for the unthinking multitude. 
This enlightenment requires nothing but freedom--and the most innocent of all that may be called "freedom": freedom to make public use of one's reason in all matters. Now I hear the cry from all sides: "Do not argue!" The officer says: "Do not argue--drill!" The tax collector: "Do not argue--pay!" The pastor: "Do not argue--believe!" Only one ruler in the world says: "Argue as much as you please, but obey!" We find restrictions on freedom everywhere. But which restriction is harmful to enlightenment? Which restriction is innocent, and which advances enlightenment? I reply: the public use of one's reason must be free at all times, and this alone can bring enlightenment to mankind. 
As far as I know, there is not a single prominent historian or philosopher who used the phrase "the Enlightenment" before the publication of Kant’s 1784 essay "What is Enlightenment?"

Saturday, 21 April 2018

Plato and Mimesis

Mimesis, the most long-lasting theory of art in Western philosophical tradition, is heavily influenced by the writings of Plato, Aristotle and other ancient Greek thinkers.

In The Aesthetics of Mimesis, Stephen Halliwell argues that Plato’s role as the founding father of mimeticism has not reaped enough appreciation because of the poorly grounded view of some writers that Plato held an unchanging and consistently negative attitude to the subject. Halliwell says that in Plato’s works we find several instances of mimesis terminology being deployed in a range of contexts—in connection with issues related to epistemology, ethics, psychology, politics, and metaphysics. Plato applies mimesis to not only music, poetry and the visual arts, but also to other human practices, including philosophy itself.

Here’s an excerpt from Halliwell’s book, (Chapter 1: “Representation and Reality: Plato and Mimesis”):
Plato’s prolonged and profoundly ambivalent relationship with mimesis stems… “from two main roots, which are partly, perhaps inevitably, entangled. One is Plato’s critical attention to the workings and influences of cultural forces in his society, especially in the domain of the musicopoetic arts (with all their educational prestige) but also in relation to the images of figurative art forms. The other consists of his various and unending attempts to grapple with larger philosophical questions of representation and truth, questions embracing the whole relationship between human thought and reality. Mimesis increasingly insinuated itself into those attempts, eventually reaching the point, in his late works, where he could allow the idea to be voiced that “everything we say must surely be mimesis and image making.” The result is a history of complex fluctuations in the way mimesis is treated and regarded in the dialogues, fluctuations that scholars have often been too keen to smooth out and neutralize. But such complexity is connected to a characteristic tension between discrepant impulses in Plato’s thinking. The first, a kind of “negative theology,” which leads sometimes in the direction of mysticism, is that reality cannot adequately be spoken of, described, or modeled, only experienced in some pure, unmediated manner (by logosnousdianoia, or whatever). The second is that all human thought is an attempt to speak about, describe, or model reality—to produce “images” (whether visual, mental, or verbal) of the real. On the first of these views, mimesis, of whatever sort, is a lost cause, doomed to failure, at best a faint shadow of the truth. On the second, mimesis—representation—is all that we have, or all that we are capable of. In some of Plato’s later writing this second perspective is expanded by a sense that the world itself is a mimetic creation, wrought by a divine artist who, at one point in the Timaeus, is expressly visualized as a painter. That being so, philosophers are not only, as the Republic would have it, painters in a different medium, or, as the Laws suggests, writers of the truest tragedy. They are also interpreters of a cosmic work of art. 
On one hand Plato has brought philosophical reasoning to mimesis, but on the other he has left comments which suggest that philosophy and art are somehow at odds with each other and perhaps the differences between them are irreconcilable.

Thursday, 19 April 2018

Immanuel Kant on the Possibility of Ugliness

In Values of Beauty: Historical Essays in Aesthetics, (Chapter: “Kant on the Purity of the Ugly”), Paul Guyer points out that, according to Kant, our response to the beauty of a thing on one hand and the ugliness of a thing on the other have fundamentally different sources. Our response to beauty is a purely aesthetic response, whereas the feeling that a work is ugly is an impure aesthetic judgment—in many cases we perceive a thing as ugly because we feel discomfort at the thing’s failure to satisfy our expectations or because we find it to be morally offensive or physically disagreeable.

Some authors have argued that there is nothing that Kant finds ugly. But Guyer rejects that argument. He cites several instances of Kant specifically identifying things that are ugly—the furies, diseases, and the devastations of war. Guyer also refers to the comments that Kant has made on ugliness in his lectures on logic and metaphysics. For instance, Kant says: “That which pleases through mere intuition is beautiful, that which leaves me indifferent in intuition, although it can please or displease, is non-beautiful; that which displeases me in intuition is ugly. Now on this pleasure rests the concept of taste.”

There also exists a room for purely aesthetic displeasure in Kant’s theory. In his account of the experience of the sublime, Kant “explicitly describes as including an element of displeasure as well as an element of pleasure, and as thus on the balance a “negative pleasure” akin to the mixed moral feeling of respect rather than a purely positive pleasure.” Kant opens his discussion of the sublime in the Critique of the Power of Judgement by stating that “Since the mind is not merely attracted by the object, but is also always reciprocally repelled by it, the satisfaction in the sublime does not so much contain positive pleasure as it does admiration or respect, i.e., it deserves to be called negative pleasure.”

Here’s an excerpt from Guyer’s essay:
While Kant obviously recognizes the existence of ugliness, he does not hold that our experience of ugliness is a pure aesthetic experience. The ugly is what we find physically disagreeable or morally offensive, and although the latter experiences place limits on the freedom of our imagination in its play with the understanding, they are not themselves pure aesthetic experiences. Further, while there might seem to be a place for a purely aesthetic displeasure in the experience of the sublime, this experience does not, as might be thought, involve any disharmony between imagination and understanding that could be an alternative to the harmony between these two faculties that is the core of the experience of beauty, and it is in this case by no means clear that the experience of the sublime in either of its forms is a pure rather than mixed aesthetic experience. So on Kant’s theory, only the experience of beauty can be a pure aesthetic experience; the experience of the ordinary or indifferent is the simple absence of aesthetic experience, and the experiences of the sublime and the ugly are at beast mixed aesthetic experiences.

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

A Theory of Laughter

Arthur Koestler
In An Act of Creation, Arthur Koestler suggests that when a man laughs he is rebelling against his biological urges and departing against instinctive behavior. The act of laughing can be seen as a man’s refusal to remain a creature of habit. Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 2, “Laughter and Emotion,” of Kostner’s book:
Laughter, as the cliche has it, is 'liberating', i.e. tension-relieving. Relief from stress is always pleasurable, regardless whether it was caused by hunger, sex, anger, or anxiety. Under ordinary circumstances such relief is obtained by some purposeful activity which is appropriate to the nature of the tension. When we laugh, however, the pleasurable relief does not derive from a consummatory act which satisfies some specific need. On the contrary: laughter prevents the satisfaction of biological drives, it makes a man equally incapable of killing or copulating; it deflates anger, apprehension, and pride. The tension is not consummated—it is frittered away in an apparently purposeless reflex, in facial grimaces, accompanied by over-exertion of the breathing mechanism and aimless gestures. To put it the other way round: the sole function of this luxury reflex seems to be the disposal of excitations which have become redundant, which cannot be consummated in any purposeful manner.
Koestler tries to find support for his theory of laughter by looking at what some of the major philosophers of the past have said on this subject. Here's another excerpt from the chapter:
Among the theories of laughter that have been proposed since the days of Aristotle, the 'theory of degradation' appears as the most persistent. For Aristotle himself laughter was closely related to ugliness and debasement; for Cicero 'the province of the ridiculous ... lies in a certain baseness and deformity'; for Descartes laughter is a manifestation of joy 'mixed with surprise or hate or sometimes with both'; in Francis Bacon's list of laughable objects, the first place is taken by 'deformity'. The essence of the 'theory of degradation' is defined in Hobbes's Leviathan:
The passion of laughter is nothing else but sudden glory arising from a sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves by comparison with the infirmity of others, or with our own formerly.
Bain, one of the founders of modern psychology, followed on the whole the same theory: 'Not in physical effects alone, but in everything where a man can achieve a stroke of superiority, in surpassing or discomforting a rival, is the disposition of laughter apparent.’
For Bergson laughter is the corrective punishment inflicted by society upon the unsocial individual: 'In laughter we always find an unavowed intention to humiliate and consequently to correct our neighbor.' Max Beerbohm found 'two elements in the public's humor: delight in suffering, contempt for the unfamiliar'. McDougall believed that 'laughter has been evolved in the human race as an antidote to sympathy, a protective reaction shielding us from the depressive influence of the shortcomings of our fellow men.' 
This is a pessimistic view of laughter—the view that laughter is not a sign of some kind of supreme joy, but a way of releasing the suppressed feelings of derision, contempt and hatred. But it can't be denied that people often break into laughter at the sight of things that are clownish and degraded.

Monday, 16 April 2018

On The Origins of Creativity

In his foreword to Arthur Koestler’s The Act of Creation, Professor Cyril Burt says that the outcome of an act of creativity must embody a concrete and articulate form, it must be new, and it must be useful. But what enables certain men to be creative? Koestler’s book is devoted to finding an answer to this question. Cyril Burt, in his foreword, offers an assessment of the way in which creativity is generally understood. Here’s an excerpt:
If there is such a thing as creativity as thus defined, then it is clear that civilization must owe much, if not everything, to the individuals so gifted. The greater the number and variety of genuinely creative minds a nation can produce and cultivate, the faster will be its rate of progress. However, the pastime of debunking the 'cult of great men', which became so popular when Spencer and Buckle were laying the foundations of social and political theory, has once again become fashionable; and in these egalitarian days it requires some courage to pick up a pen and defend the concept of 'creative genius' against the onslaughts of the scientific sceptic. It is, so the critics assure us, not the gifted individual, but the spirit of the age and the contemporary trends of society—what Goethe called the Zeitgeist—that deserve the credit for these cumulative achievements; had Julius Caesar's grand-nephew succumbed to the illness which dogged his early youth, another son of Rome would have reorganized the State, borne the proud title of Augustus, and been duly deified. Had Copernicus, Kepler, and Newton fallen victims to the plague, one of their contemporaries would sooner or later have hit upon the scientific laws now coupled with their names. Certainly, Aut Caesar aut nullus is not an axiom to which the modern historian would subscribe either in these or any other instances. Yet to build up an empire on the ruins of a republic, to devise the theories which govern modern astronomy, would still have needed the vigour and the brain of an individual genius. And can anyone believe that, if William Shakespeare, like his elder sisters, had died in the cradle, some other mother in Stratford-upon-Avon or Stratford-atte-Bow would have engendered his duplicate before the Elizabethan era ended? 
Here’s Cyril Burt’s view of Koestler's investigation of the subject of creativity in The Act of Creation:
[Koestler] begins with human creativity as exemplified in art, science, and literature; and to these fascinating topics the first half of his book is devoted. But he holds that creativity is by no means a peculiarly human gift; it is merely the highest manifestation of a phenomenon which is discernible at each successive level of the evolutionary hierarchy, from the simplest one-celled organism and the fertilized egg to the adult man and the highest human genius. It is, to adopt his phraseology, an Actualization of surplus potentials’—of capacities, that is to say, which are untapped or dormant under ordinary conditions, but which, when the conditions are abnormal or exceptional, reveal themselves in original forms of behaviour. This 'actualization he seeks to trace through morphogenesis, neurogenesis, and regeneration, and the various departures from simple instinctive behaviour in lowlier creatures, up to the more ‘insightful' forms of learning and of problem-solving exhibited by animals and man. At every stage, so he maintains, much the same 'homologue principles', derived from the hierarchical nature of the basic part-whole relation, can be seen to operate. This is of necessity the most technical and the most controversial part of his work, but it is also the most original and illuminating.

Saturday, 14 April 2018

The Making of the Oxford English Dictionary

The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English
By Simon Winchester
Harper Perennial 

In 1857, the London Philological Society began its ambitious project for creating the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). The project took 70 years to complete, the 12 volumes of the OED finally getting published in 1928. Professor James Murray was the editor of the OED project. To complete the dictionary, Murray enlisted the help of thousands of contributors who submitted illustrative quotations of words with which the dictionary would be populated.

One of Murray’s most prolific contributors was Dr. William Chester Minor, an American citizen who had joined the Federal Army and participated in the Civil War. But he was discharged from military service when he developed severe mental problems. Soon after his discharge, he left America and arrived in London. But here he suffered from delusions of the Irish militia trying to kill him. In 1872 he rushed out of his hotel in pursuit of an imaginary Irish assassin and shot to death an innocent man who was on his way to work. This led to his incarceration in England’s Broadmoor asylum for the criminally insane where he lived for the rest of his life, dying 48 years later in 1920.

The professor in Simon Winchester’s book is James Murray, and Dr. William Chester Minor is the madman. The book’s subtitle “A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary,’' brings together the major themes of the engrossing story—an insane man commits a murder for which he is incarcerated in a lunatic asylum but he becomes the contributor to a professor's historic dictionary project.

Prof. Murray had used Dr. Minor’s services for several years before he came to know that Dr. Minor was being treated in the Broadmoor Lunatic Asylum. But after learning the truth, Murray began to visit Dr. Minor regularly and they became lifelong friends.

Dr. Minor was supported by the pension that he was got from the American military and his stay at Broadmoor was comfortable. He had ample time to devote to the OED project which was of great interest to him. Winchester points out that Dr. Minor supported the widow of the man that he had killed in a fit of delusion. The widow regularly visited him in Broadmoor and used to bring him all the books that he needed from London shops. It is in one of the books that she brought to him that Dr. Minor found Prof. Murray's call for contributors to the OED project.

The Professor and The Madman is an imaginative account of how one man’s insane mind made a valuable contribution to another man’s dictionary project. The book also offers an interesting account of the problems that scholars faced when the English language didn't have any good dictionaries, and how the dictionaries gradually evolved over the centuries until finally the OED came into being in 1928. Winchester reminds the reader that Shakespeare didn't have any dictionary available to him when he was writing his plays.

“Whenever [Shakespeare] came to use an unusual world, or to set a word in what seemed an unusual context—and his plays are extraordinarily rich with examples—he had almost no way of checking the propriety of what he was about to do. He was not able to reach into his bookshelves and select any one volume to help: He would not be able to find any book that might tell him if the word he had chosen was properly spelled, whether he had selected it correctly, or hadn’t used it in the right way in the proper place.”

While helping Professor Murray in finding the meaning to numerous words, Dr. Minor brought some kind of a meaning to his own ruined life.

Thursday, 12 April 2018

Aristotle’s Theory of Light

In De Anima, Aristotle says that vision (or seeing) is the primary sense, and he models his analysis of the other senses on vision. But vision is not possible unless there is light, so Aristotle goes on to explain the nature of light.

In Aristotle, (Chapter 5, “The Power of Selective Response: Sensing and Knowing”), John Herman Randall notes that even though Aristotle didn’t have access to the kind of scientific and mathematical knowledge on light that we have today, his theory of light is so much like our own. Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 5 of Randall’s Aristotle:
Aristotle’s theory of color and light is quite a remarkable achievement. It runs: There is a transparent medium, to diaphanes, the Diaphanous, which is potentially light, and which becomes actual light when the sun or fire imparts motion to it. This motion of the transparent or diaphanous medium, when actualized as light, in turn actualizes the color of the wall—which is thus a kind of “second light”—in the seeing of the eye. Thus the answer to the question, What makes us see? What is the efficient cause of seeing? is that it is ultimately motion that makes us see, the motion imparted to the transparent medium by the light of illumination, and transmitted from the colored surface to the eye. For motion is the only agent, the only efficient cause, to be found in Aristotle: only motion can ever “make” things happen to him.  
Aristotle attempts to generalize from this example of seeing. The motion of some medium becomes for him the efficient cause of every kind of sensing: the motion of the transparent in seeing, of air or water in hearing, etc. He is generalizing from the distance receptors, and so he naturally gets into trouble when he comes to touch. What he comes out with is that “flesh” seems to be medium with that kind of sensing. The microscopic discovery of nerves would undoubtedly have delighted him. 
In other words, sensing for Aristotle is a “natural” or “physical” process, and not a “mental” one. He saw color, images, imagination, pain, pleasure, and all the passions and emotions as physical phenomena and not mental ones. According to Randall, it is doubtful if we have gone further than Aristotle in answering the question, What is light?

Wednesday, 11 April 2018

Jordan Peterson on Ayn Rand and Objectivism

Jordan Peterson’s appraisal of Rand’s fiction and philosophy is similar to what Nathaniel Branden has said in his lectures and essays (after his breakup with Rand). In a recent interview with Dave Rubin, here's what Peterson had to say on Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism:
Well, I like the emphasis on individual responsibility. You know, I think that’s very important… I think she was more powerful as a fiction writer than as a philosopher. And that’s not a denigrating comment because I don’t believe that philosophy is a higher calling than fiction… They have their own domains. I think my sense is that I don’t regard Ayn Rand as a great mind. I don’t think that her take on things was sufficiently differentiated and sophisticated. Like I said, she had reasons to be anti-communist. (Laughs). There can be plenty of reasons for being anti-communist and I can resonate with her critiques of collectivism and I like the romanticism in the books. I enjoyed reading Atlas Shrugged. I read it again recently, I enjoyed it again. But I also don’t think that it is great literature and the reason for that is she doesn’t place the struggle between good and evil inside her characters. It is always between characters and that’s a mistake. Because even your most radical leftwing revolutionary is mostly not a  radical leftwing revolutionary.
So you have to show the struggle within more, and I don’t think that she does a very good job of that. Her noble people are too noble and her ignoble people are too ignoble. And it divides the world too much into the bad guys and the good guys. It is like — that’s comforting and there is an archetypical element to it too, but it’s not sufficiently differentiated enough or sophisticated enough. 
 Here's the YouTube video of the conversation between Dave Rubin and Jordan Peterson: 


Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Kant: On the Relationship Between Beauty and Utility

In Values of Beauty: Historical Essays in Aesthetics, (Chapter 4, “Beauty and Utility in Eighteenth-Century Aesthetics"), Paul Guyer offers an interesting account of the eighteenth-century debate on beauty and utility between the British philosophers Shaftsbury, Hume, Hutcheson and Burke. But the focus of Guyer’s essay is on the important contributions that Immanuel Kant made to that debate at a later stage.

Guyer points out that in his Critique of the Power of Judgement, Kant holds that the judgement of beauty is independent from any judgement of utility. But Kant also recognizes a form of beauty that is connected to utility or even dependent on it. Here’s an excerpt from Guyer’s essay:

"Kant does recognize a form of beauty that is connected to utility or even dependent upon it. This is what he calls “adherent beauty.” Here Kant now calls the pure case of beauty he has been analyzing up to this point — that which “presupposes no concept of what the object ought to be” — “free beauty,” but he contrasts it to a second kind of beauty that “does presuppose such a concept and the perfection of the object in accordance with it,” namely, adherent beauty, which, “as adhering to a concept (conditioned beauty) [is] ascribed to objects that stand under the concept of particular end” (Critique of the Power of Judgement). And in many cases of adherent beauty, the concept of the end of what the thing ought to be that is presupposed by the judgement of its beauty is clearly a concept of its intended use and of the features necessary for it to serve that intended use."

Kant holds that the human mind has a fundamentally teleological character, and he bases his aesthetic theory on the assumption that the pleasure that we derive from a thing of beauty is caused by the recognition of the attainment of an end. Guyer says that Kant’s Critique of Aesthetic Judgement “is a complex analysis of our tendency to seek purposiveness and utility throughout nature: Kant argues that we naturally look at everything in nature as if it were designed for a  purpose, that this attitude is by itself theoretically unjustified, but that certain things in nature—namely, organisms—force the thought of design upon us…”

Guyer further illuminates Kant’s position with these lines:

"We should understand Kant as resolving the eighteenth-century debate over the relationship between beauty and utility with the thesis that utility is a necessary although not sufficient condition for beauty in those sorts of objects where we would expect utility, a condition that can be explained by the inherent tendency of the human mind to seek purposiveness and to be frustrated when it does not find it where it expects to — the case of utility — and to be particularly pleased when it finds it where it does not expect to — the case of beauty."

In Chapter 5, “Free and Adherent Beauty,” (Values of Beauty), Guyer offers a more detailed explanation for what Kant means by the concepts of free and adherent beauty. I will talk about it in another blog. 

Sunday, 8 April 2018

On The Hellenistic Philosophical Schools

The Nike of Samothrace (2nd Century BC) is
a masterpiece of Hellenistic sculpture
In The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics, Martha C. Nussbaum, says that unlike modern philosophy which is in most cases detached and academic, the Hellenistic philosophical schools in Greece and Rome—Epicureans, Skeptics, and Stoics—were devoted to addressing the  critical problems of human life. Here’s an excerpt from her book:
They [The Hellenistic philosophical schools] saw the philoso­pher as a compassionate physician whose arts could heal many pervasive types of human suffering. They practiced philosophy not as a detached intellectual technique dedicated to the display of cleverness but as an im­mersed and worldly art of grappling with human misery. They focused their attention, in consequence, on issues of daily and urgent human significance-the fear of death, love and sexuality, anger and aggression­ issues that are sometimes avoided as embarrassingly messy and personal by the more detached varieties of philosophy. They confronted these issues as they arose in ordinary human lives, with a keen attention to the vicissi­tudes of those lives, and to what would be necessary and sufficient to make them better. 
Nussbaum points out that the Epicureans, Skeptics, and Stoics have enjoyed far greater influence than Aristotle and Plato. Even the founders of USA were heavily influenced by Stoic and Epicurean ethical thought.
Twentieth-century philosophy, in both Europe and North America, has, until very recently, made less use of Hellenistic ethics than almost any other philosophical culture in the West since the fourth century B. C. E. Not only late antique and most varieties ofChristian thought, but also the writings of modern writers as diverse as Descartes, Spinoza, Kant, Adam Smith, Hume, Rousseau, the Founding Fathers of the United States, Nietzsche, and Marx, owe in every case a considerable debt to the writings of Stoics, Epicureans, and/or Skeptics, and frequently far more than to the writings of Aristotle and Plato. Especially where philosophical conceptions of emo­tion are concerned, ignoring the Hellenistic period means ignoring not only the best material in the Western tradition, but also the central influ­ence on later philosophical developments. 
The Hellenistic period covers the period of history between the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC and the conquest of the last Hellenistic kingdom by Rome in 31 BC in the Battle of Actium. As Aristotle died a year after Alexander, Hellenistic philosophy is often regarded as post-Aristotelian philosophy. But in The Therapy of Desire, Nussbaum takes Aristotle as the starting point of Hellenistic philosophy and uses Aristotelian ethics as a benchmark. 

Saturday, 7 April 2018

Nietzsche’s Account of Epicurus’s Joke on Plato

In Beyond Good and Evil Friedrich Nietzsche mentions a joke that Epicurus is said to have made on Plato. Here’s an excerpt from Beyond Good and Evil:
How malicious philosophers can be! I know of nothing more stinging than the joke Epicurus took the liberty of making on Plato and the Platonists; he called them Dionysiokolakes. In its original sense, and on the face of it, the word signifies "Flatterers of Dionysius"—consequently, tyrants’ accessories and lick-spittles; besides this, however, it is as much as to say, "They are all ACTORS, there is nothing genuine about them” (for Dionysiokolax was a popular name for an actor). And the latter is really the malignant reproach that Epicurus cast upon Plato: he was annoyed by the grandiose manner, the mise en scene style of which Plato and his scholars were masters—of which Epicurus was not a master! He, the old school-teacher of Samos, who sat concealed in his little garden at Athens, and wrote three hundred books, perhaps out of rage and ambitious envy of Plato, who knows! Greece took a hundred years to find out who the garden-god Epicurus really was. Did she ever find out?
Nietzsche saw Epicurus as a great human being who invented “heroic-idyllic philosophizing” (The Wanderer and His Shadow). But he finds Epicurus’s joke on Plato malicious. This joke was first mentioned by Diogenes Laertius in Lives of the Eminent Philosophers (Chapter 10: “Epicurus”). Laertius’s account gives the impression that Epicurus was capable of being malicious and petty with his intellectual rivals. Here’s an excerpt from Lives of the eminent Philosophers:
Epicurus used to call this Xausiphanes jelly-fish, an illiterate, a fraud, and a trollop; Plato's school he called "the toadies of Dionysius," their master himself the "golden" Plato, and Aristotle a profligate, who after devouring his patrimony took to soldiering and selling drugs; Protagoras a pack-carrier and the scribe of Democritus and village schoolmaster; Heraclitus a muddler; Democritus Lerocritus (the nonsense-monger); and Antidorus Sannidorus (fawning gift-bearer); the Cynics foes of Greece; the Dialecticians despoilers; and Pyrrho an ignorant boor.
Epicurus was hostile to Plato. He rejected the idea of Platonic forms and an immaterial soul, and believed that skepticism is indefensible because it is possible for human beings to gain knowledge of the world by relying upon their senses. Unlike Plato, he believed that the goal of human action was to attain happiness (eudaimonia) for oneself. He scoffed at the Platonic idea of philosopher kings and preached the gospel of freedom.

Friday, 6 April 2018

Epicurus on Philosophy and Pleasure

Marble bust of Epicurus
Epicurus believed that philosophy is vital for achieving health of one’s soul. As he writes in his Letter to Menoeceus:
Let no one be slow to seek wisdom when he is young nor weary in the search thereof when he is grown old. For no age is too early or too late for the health of the soul. And to say that the season for studying philosophy has not yet come, or that it is past and gone, is like saying that the season for happiness is not yet or that it is now no more. Therefore, both old and young ought to seek wisdom, the former in order that, as age comes over him, he may be young in good things because of the grace of what has been, and the latter in order that, while he is young, he may at the same time be old, because he has no fear of the things which are to come. So we must exercise ourselves in the things which bring happiness, since, if that be present, we have everything, and, if that be absent, all our actions are directed toward attaining it. 
Here’s a paragraph from the letter in which Epicurus is explaining his view of pleasure:
When we say, then, that pleasure is the end and aim, we do not mean the pleasures of the prodigal or the pleasures of sensuality, as we are understood to do by some through ignorance, prejudice, or willful misrepresentation. By pleasure we mean the absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul. It is not an unbroken succession of drinking-bouts and of merrymaking, not sexual love, not the enjoyment of the fish and other delicacies of a luxurious table, which produce a pleasant life; it is sober reasoning, searching out the grounds of every choice and avoidance, and banishing those beliefs through which the greatest disturbances take possession of the soul. Of all this the d is prudence. For this reason prudence is a more precious thing even than the other virtues, for ad a life of pleasure which is not also a life of prudence, honor, and justice; nor lead a life of prudence, honor, and justice, which is not also a life of pleasure. For the virtues have grown into one with a pleasant life, and a pleasant life is inseparable from them.

Thursday, 5 April 2018

John Locke: On The Natural Right to Rebellion

John Locke is the foremost theorist of the right to rebellion. He holds that the right to rebellion is a natural right. In the Second Treatise of the Goverment (Chapter 13: “Of the Subordination of the Powers of the Common-wealth”), Locke writes:
There remains still in the people a supreme power to remove or alter the legislative, when they find the legislative act contrary to the trust reposed in them: for all power given with trust for the attaining an end, being limited by that end, whenever that end is manifestly neglected, or opposed, the trust must necessarily be forfeited, and the power devolve into the hands of those that gave it, who may place it anew where they shall think best for their safety and security. And thus the community perpetually retains a supreme power of saving themselves from the attempts and designs of any body, even of their legislators, whenever they shall be so foolish, or so wicked, as to lay and carry on designs against the liberties and properties of the subject.
He goes on to say that when a government does not follow the rule of law, it declares a war on its people. Such a government should be opposed with force. Here’s an excerpt:
It may be demanded here, What if the executive power, being possessed of the force of the common-wealth, shall make use of that force to hinder the meeting and acting of the legislative, when the original constitution, or the public exigencies require it? I say, using force upon the people without authority, and contrary to the trust put in him that does so, is a state of war with the people, who have a right to reinstate their legislative in the exercise of their power: for having erected a legislative, with an intent they should exercise the power of making laws, either at certain set times, or when there is need of it, when they are hindered by any force from what is so necessary to the society, and wherein the safety and preservation of the people consists, the people have a right to remove it by force. In all states and conditions, the true remedy of force without authority, is to oppose force to it. The use of force without authority, always puts him that uses it into a state of war, as the aggressor, and renders him liable to be treated accordingly.
He is not advising that people should rebel when their natural rights are violated—he is predicting that they have the power to rebel and that they will exercise this power if the government becomes oppressive. In the book’s Chapter 19, “Of the Dissolution of Government,” he writes:
For when the people are made miserable, and find themselves exposed to the ill usage of arbitrary power, cry up their governors, as much as you will, for sons of Jupiter; let them be sacred and divine, descended, or authorized from heaven; give them out for whom or what you please, the same will happen. The people generally ill treated, and contrary to right, will be ready upon any occasion to ease themselves of a burden that sits heavy upon them. They will wish, and seek for the opportunity, which in the change, weakness and accidents of human affairs, seldom delays long to offer itself.
In A Letter Concerning Toleration, he forcefully asserts the right to armed resistance against oppression:
What else can be expected, but that these men, growing weary of the Evils under which they labour, should in the end think it lawful for them to resist Force with Force, and to defend their natural Rights (which are not forfeitable upon account of Religion) with Arms as well as they can?

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

The Epicureanism of Thomas Jefferson

1483 copy of De rerum natura 
Thomas Jefferson was heavily influenced by the philosophy of Epicurus. He has revealed his debt to Epicurean philosophy in his several letters

In a letter to William Short (October 31, 1819), Jefferson proclaims that he is an Epicurean. He writes: “I too am an Epicurean. I consider the genuine (not the imputed) doctrines of Epicurus as containing everything rational in moral philosophy which Greece and Rome have left us.”

In a letter to Charles Thomson (January 9, 1816), Jefferson says that Epicureanism is the most rational philosophical system of the ancients “notwithstanding the calumnies of the Stoics and caricatures of Cicero.” He says that Epicureanism is “as frugal of vicious indulgence, and fruitful of virtue as the hyperbolical extravagances of his rival sects.”

In a letter to his nephew Peter Carr (August 10, 1787), Jefferson gives an account of his Epicurean philosophy. Here’s an excerpt: “He who made us would have been a pitiful bungler if he had made the rules of our moral conduct a matter of science. For one man of science, there are thousands who are not. What would have become of them? Man was destined for society. His morality, therefore, was to be formed to this object. He was endowed with a sense of right and wrong, merely relative to this.  This sense is as much a part of his Nature, as the sense of hearing, seeing, feeling; it is the true foundation of morality, and not the [beautiful], truth, &c., as fanciful writers have imagined.  The moral sense, or conscience, is as much a part of man as his leg or arm.  It is given to all human beings in a stronger or weaker degree, as force of members is given them in a greater or less degree. It may be strengthened by exercise, as may any particular limb of the body. This sense is submitted, indeed, in some degree, to the guidance of reason; but it is a small stock which is required for this: even a less one than what we call common sense. State a moral case to a plowman and a professor. The former will decide it as well, & often better than the latter, because he has not been led astray by artificial rules.”

In Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic, Matthew Stewart says that Jefferson, at times, walked around with Lucretius’s poem De rerum natura (which is written with the goal of explaining Epicurean philosophy) in his pocket. In 1815, the library that Jefferson turned over to Congress included eight editions of De rerum natura. Jefferson collected translations of the poem in English, French and Italian. Jefferson also owned Pierre Gassendi’s three volume set on the philosophy of Epicurus.

The principle of “pursuit of happiness,” which Jefferson included in the Declaration of Independence is inspired by Epicurean thought.

Monday, 2 April 2018

The Origins of the Pursuit of Happiness

First Edition of
Locke's Two Treatises of Government 
In the Second Treatise of Government (1690), John Locke says that man has the natural rights of “life, liberty, and estate.” By “estate” he means “property.” But in the Declaration of Independence (1776), Thomas Jefferson lists the unalienable rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Jefferson was inspired by Locke; his view of unalienable rights of man mirror what Locke has said, with one exception: He replaced "estate" with the "pursuit of happiness."

Carli N. Conklin, in his essay “The Origins of the Pursuit of Happiness,” seeks to discover the meaning of the phrase “pursuit of happiness.” He offers some interesting perspectives on how the Founders (particularly Jefferson) were influenced by Locke’s Second Treatise of Government,  William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England, and the ideas of Greek and Roman philosophers like Aristotle, Epicurus, Epictetus and Cicero. Conklin argues that the word “happiness” which Jefferson has used in the Declaration of Independence can be best defined in the Greek sense of eudaimonia or human flourishing.

Here’s an excerpt from Conklin’s essay:
far from being a “glittering generality” or a direct substitution for property, the pursuit of happiness is a phrase that had a distinct meaning to those who included that phrase in two of the eighteenth-century’s most influential legal documents: William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765–1769) and the Declaration of Independence (1776). That distinct meaning included a belief in first principles by which the created world is governed, the idea that these first principles were discoverable by man, and the belief that to pursue a life lived in accordance with those principles was to pursue a life of virtue, with the end result of happiness, best defined in the Greek sense of eudaimonia or human flourishing. The pursuit of happiness is a phrase full of substance from Blackstone (and before) to the Founders (and beyond). It was part of an English and Scottish Enlightenment understanding of epistemology and jurisprudence.334 It found its way into eighteenth-century English sermons and colonial era speeches and writings on political tyranny. It had meaning to those who wrote and spoke the phrase in eighteenth-century English and American legal contexts, and it had meaning to its listeners. 
The principle of “pursuit of happiness” is evocative of the Enlightenment understanding of the laws by which the natural world is governed. It represents a belief that to pursue a life lived in accordance with the natural laws is to pursue a life of virtue, which can lead to happiness (in the Greek sense of eudaimonia or human flourishing). Conklin points out that Jefferson saw the pursuit of happiness as a public duty to govern in harmony with the laws of nature and a private right to pursue a life lived in accordance with the laws of nature.
If the phrase “pursuit of happiness” seems empty, or too general, to us today, it is not because we, as a people, have lost the desire to pursue that which makes us happy, but because the most common contemporary understanding of the word “happy” aligns today with what the eighteenth- century philosophers would have called a “fleeting and temporal” happiness versus a “real and substantial” happiness. The first is a happiness rooted in disposition, circumstance, and temperament; it is a temporary feeling of psychological pleasure. The second is happiness as eudaimonia—well-being or human flourishing. It includes a sense of psychological pleasure or “feeling good” but does so in a “real” or “substantial” sense. It is “real” in that it is genuine and true. It is substantial in that it pertains to the substance or essence of what it means to be fully human. 
Jefferson did not completely discard Locke’s view that man has the right to his estate or property. According to Conklin, the phrase “pursuit of happiness” includes the idea of ownership of property “in John Locke’s narrower view of property as that which results from the application of man’s labor or his broader view of property as consisting of man’s life, liberty, and estate.”

Saturday, 31 March 2018

John Locke on the Pursuit of Happiness

Portrait of John Locke 
John Locke, in his An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, says that the greatest good for man is to realize himself as an intelligent being. He relates happiness with the “highest perfection of the intellectual nature” and “our greatest good.” He says that by being good and happy we establish the “necessary foundation of our liberty.” His idea is clearly reminiscent of the Epicurean philosophers.

Here’s an excerpt from Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (Chapter 21: “Of Power”):
"The necessity of pursuing true happiness [is] the foundation of liberty. As therefore the highest perfection of intellectual nature lies in a careful and constant pursuit of true and solid happiness; so the care of ourselves, that we mistake not imaginary for real happiness, is the necessary foundation of our liberty. The stronger ties we have to an unalterable pursuit of happiness in general, which is our greatest good, and which, as such, our desires always follow, the more are we free from any necessary determination of our will to any particular action, and from a necessary compliance with our desire, set upon any particular, and then appearing preferable good, till we have duly examined whether it has a tendency to, or be inconsistent with, our real happiness: and therefore, till we are as much informed upon this inquiry as the weight of the matter, and the nature of the case demands, we are, by the necessity of preferring and pursuing true happiness as our greatest good, obliged to suspend the satisfaction of our desires in particular cases.”

Thursday, 29 March 2018

Epicurus and The Pursuit of Happiness

Marble bust of Epicurus
Matthew Stewart in Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic argues that Epicurean philosophy is the fountainhead of the idea that virtue is happiness and that a man is free to pursue happiness. Here's an excerpt from the book (Chapter 6: “The Pursuit of Happiness”):
Virtue is happiness in this world. The pursuit of happiness is the animating force of the Epicurean philosophy, just as it is the animating force of Epicurean humankind. Every other doctrine that Epicurus produced, from theology to the philosophy of mind, is provisional and in a way unserious, inasmuch as all ultimately answer to the teachings of his ethics, that happiness is the only point of life. Behind the lifestyle teachings that glosses its surface, nonetheless, Epicurean ethics is at bottom an attempt to apply the guiding principle of philosophy to the question of how one may live.  
Epicurean ethics begins in a formal sense with the doctrine that pleasure is the only true good and pain is the only true evil. This claim generally goes under the name of “hedonism” — from the Greek word “hedon,” meaning pleasure—though that label is often the source of more misunderstanding than insight. The common view, abetted by Epicurus’s enemies in the early Christian church, falsely construes Epicurus’s hedonism as the claim that we should gratify our immediate sensual desires at the expense of all other goods. It is on this account that the term “epicurean” remains even today a synonym for “sybaritic,” “decadent,” or just “scrumptious.” Yet those who trouble themselves to look beyond his unearned reputation—as Diderot, for example, did—soon discover that Epicurus’s  idea of the good life is one of moderate, sociable, and rather ascetic virtue. While Epicureanism is everywhere associated with fine wines and fatty foods, its founding philosopher lived on a diet of plain salads and fruits. “A man’s great wealth is to live sparingly with a tranquil mind,” says Lucretius; “for there is never a shortage of little.” While hedonism is usually thought to be a selfish creed, Epicurus was famous for the value he played on friendship. “You should be more concerned about whom you eat and drink with than what you eat and drink,” says Epicurus. It is “more pleasurable to confer a benefit than to receive one.”  
The point of Epicurus’s hedonism is not that pleasure is the highest or best good, but that it is the only conceivable good. The distinctive feature of Epicurean ethics is not that it rejects those dispositions of character that we typically unite in the idea of virtue—prudence, fortitude, charity, honesty, and so forth—but that it explains and defends them as expressions of pleasure and pain.

Monday, 26 March 2018

Hume on Happiness Through Sharing of Life’s Experiences

An engraving of Hume from the
first volume of his The History of England (1754) 
David Hume believed that human beings have a natural urge to share their feelings, especially their good experiences, with each other. A life in the company of friends is more conducive to happiness than a lonely existence, according to Hume.

Here’s an excerpt from Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature:
In all creatures, that prey not upon others, and are not agitated with violent passions, there appears a remarkable desire of company, which associates them together, without any advantages they can ever propose to reap from their union. This is still more conspicuous in man, as being the creature of the universe, who has the most ardent desire of society, and is fitted for it by the most advantages. We can form no wish, which has not a reference to society. A perfect solitude is, perhaps, the greatest punishment we can suffer. Every pleasure languishes when enjoy’d a-part from company, and every pain becomes more cruel and intolerable. Whatever other passions we may be actuated by; pride, ambition, avarice, curiosity, revenge or lust; the soul or animating principle of them all is sympathy, nor wou’d they have any force, were we to abstract entirely from the thoughts and sentiments of others. Let all the powers and elements of nature conspire to serve and obey one man: Let the sun rise and set at his command: The sea and rivers roll as he pleases, and the earth furnish spontaneously whatever may be useful or agreeable to him: He will still be miserable, till you give him some one person at least, with whom he may share his happiness, and whose esteem and friendship he may enjoy.
In his An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, Hume states even more forcefully that a solitary life can be devoid enjoyment:
Reduce a person to solitude, and he loses all enjoyment, except either of the sensual or speculative kind; and that because the movements of his heart are not forwarded by correspondent movements in his fellow-creatures. The signs of sorrow and mourning, though arbitrary, affect us with melancholy; but the natural symptoms, tears and cries and groans, never fail to infuse compassion and uneasiness.

Saturday, 24 March 2018

John Dewey on Aristotle’s Naturalism

John Herman Randall, in his book Aristotle (Chapter: “Science as Right Talking: The Analysis of Discourse”), says that “the relations of the syllogistic instrument of science to the conception of science itself, and to the kind of world in which that instrument functions, are summed up in the following statement” from John Dewey’s article:
Aristotle was above all a naturalist. He asserted that the universal is united with particular existences, binding them together into a permanent whole (the species) and keeping within definite and fixed limits the changes which occur in each particular existence. The species is the true whole of which the particular individuals are the parts, and the essence is the characteristic form. Species fall within a graded order of genera as particular individuals fall within the species. Thinking is the correlate of these relations in nature. It unites and differentiates in judgement as species are united and separated in reality. Valid knowledge or demonstration necessarily takes the form of the syllogism because the syllogism merely expresses the system in which, by means of an intervening essence, individuals are included in species. Definition is the grasp of the essence which marks one species off from another. Classification and division are counterparts of the intrinsic order of nature.
The above text is from John Dewey’s article on “Logic” (published in Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, IX, 599). In a footnote on the same page of Aristotle where he offers the excerpt from Dewey’s article, Randall says that he sees a problem in Dewey’s view. Randall writes: “It is doubtful whether Aristotle thought of the universal as “keeping within definite and fixed limits the changes which occur in each particular existence.””

Friday, 23 March 2018

What is Final Causality or Teleology?

Edward Feser, in his book Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide (Chapter 2, “Metaphysics”), offers the following explanation for teleology:
“for the Aristotelian, final causation or teleology…is evident wherever some natural object or process has a tendency to produce some particular effect or range of effects. A match, for example, reliably generates heat and flame when struck. and never (say) frost and cold, or the smell of lilacs, or thunder. It inherently “points to” or is “directed towards” this range of effects specifically, and in that way manifests just the sort of end- or goal-directedness characteristic of final causality, even though the match does not (unlike a heart or a carburetor) function as an organic part of a larger system. The same directedness towards a specific effect or range of effects is evident in all causes operative in the natural world. When Aristotelians say that final causality pervades the natural order, then, they are not making the implausible claim that everything has a function of the sort biological organs have, including piles of dirt, iron filings and balls of lint. Rather, they are saying that goal-directedness exists wherever regular cause and effect patterns do.”

Thursday, 22 March 2018

John Locke’s Debt to Spinoza

Spinoza; Locke
When he was accused by the Bishop of Worcester of being a follower of Spinoza, John Locke replied, “I am not so well read in Hobbes or Spinoza to be able to say what were their opinions in this matter.”

But there is evidence to show that Locke, Spinoza’s exact contemporary, acquired Spinoza’s works immediately after their publication and thoroughly studied them. The philosophy that Locke developed was built almost entirely on the foundations of Spinozism.

Locke did not want to acknowledge his debt to Spinoza, because, during those days, Spinozism was seen as a threat to the traditional way of religious and philosophical thinking. The political and intellectual establishment regarded Spinoza with horror; his works were forbidden in Holland, England and several other countries in Europe. Locke knew about the controversies surrounding Spinoza, and for his own safety he wanted to downplay his connection with Spinozism. In fact, Locke published his own political writings anonymously to avoid any personal risk.

Matthew Stewart, in his book Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic, devotes several chapters to making the case that the foundational concepts in Locke’s philosophy are in essence a reproduction of Spinoza’s work. He writes: “So-called Lockean liberalism is really just Spinozistic radicalism adapted to the limitations of the common understanding of things.” In another book, The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza and the Fate of God in the Modern World, Stewart points out that Leibniz regarded Locke as a feeble imitation of Spinoza.

Stewart can be accused of being too unkind to Locke—in some of the passages it seems he is not taking into account Locke’s full context, and is giving too much credit to Spinoza. But in his two books (the ones that I am mentioning in this post), Stewart offers several sentences from Locke’s writing which closely mirror what Spinoza has written.

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Nature’s God

Matthew Stewart, in Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic, offers an interesting perspective on the religious and philosophical origins of the American revolution. He finds ample evidence of the influence of philosophers like Epicurus, Spinoza and Locke in the writings of Jefferson, Franklin, Washington, Paine and other intellectuals.

Considerable attention is given in the book to the work of the two revolutionaries who were also outspoken deists, Ethan Allen and Thomas Young. Stewart’s thesis is that deism, which is a kind of "secular natural religion” inspired by the teachings of Epicurus, Spinoza and Locke, has played a critical role in the birth of America.

Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 5, “Self-Evident Truths,” in which Stewart is describing the influence of Spinoza and Locke on the development of the concept of freedom:
Spinoza captures most of the implications of these forbiddingly abstract and very counterintuitive ideas with a distinction between “active” and “passive” power. When a physical body acts in a manner that can be entirely employed through internal causes, it is active. When its actions are determined by outside forces (which is to say, when its actions are really reactions), it is passive. An active body is “free” in the sense of being determined to act through its own nature, while a passive body is not self-determined… The next step in Spinoza’s argument amounts to applying this same distinction between active and passive to minds as well as bodies. When the mind acts through ideas that adequately explain itself and its place in the world, it is active. When it acts through inadequate ideas, it is passive. Freedom in this sense is obviously not a binary, take-it-or-leave-it thing like the imaginary “free will”; it necessarily comes in degrees—degrees that match the adequacy of our ideas and range of our consciousness. Locke repeats the distinction between “active” and “passive” and then applies it to “actions of both motion and thinking” in language close enough to Spinoza to raise suspicion of direct borrowing.  
From the analysis that Locke and Spinoza share to this point, it follows that the freedom of mind, properly understood, does not consist in the ability to affirm propositions without reason or cause, as the common view supposes. Rather, freedom is just the power of the understanding itself. To be free it is necessary first to know oneself; and to know oneself it is necessary to first know the world. The absence of freedom, conversely, is just the lack of understanding. There is no such thing as an unfree mind according to this view; there are unfree individuals, but what they lack is a mind. In a formula, radical freedom is rational self-determination. Or, to use the phrase that Jefferson inserted into the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, the mind is “created… free.”

Monday, 19 March 2018

Immanuel Kant and The Origins of Modern Aesthetics

The philosophical discipline of aesthetics got its name in 1735 when twenty-one year old German student Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten used the term in his master's dissertation to refer to “a science of how things are to be known by means of the senses.” Baumgarten elaborated his definition of aesthetics in his Metaphysica (1739), and then in Aesthetica (1750).

Immanuel Kant was acquainted with Baumgarten's work. In his Critique of Pure Reason (1781), Kant says that Baumgarten’s aesthetics can never contain objective rules, laws, or principles of natural or artistic beauty. Here’s an excerpt from Kant’s Critique: “The Germans are the only people who presently have come to use the word aesthetic[s] to designate what others call the critique of taste. They are doing so on the basis of a false hope conceived by that superb analyst Baumgarten. He hoped to bring our critical judging of the beautiful under rational principles, and to raise the rules for such judging to the level of a lawful science. That endeavor is futile.”

Kant conformed to Baumgarten's usage of the word “aesthetic” in his Critique of Judgment (1790). With his analysis of aesthetic experience, aesthetic creativity, freedom of imagination, and the connections between the aesthetic and the moral, Kant enriched the field of aesthetics. His work contributed to a rise in importance of aesthetics in the academic practice of philosophy.

Paul Guyer, in his essay, “The Origins of Modern Aesthetics,” (Chapter I, Visions of Beauty: Historical Essays in Aesthetics) conducts a review of developments in aesthetics in the 18th century. He holds that the figure of Kant is central to our understanding of aesthetics. Here’s a paragraph from Guyer’s essay in which he is explaining the significant contributions that Kant has made to the modern conception of aesthetics:
Kant’s complex and delicate interpretation of the freedom of the imagination in the experience of beauty can be seen as the summation and synthesis of ideas set forth at the outset of the flowering of modern aesthetics in the first decades of the eighteenth century. Kant transformed the idea of the autonomy of aesthetic response that Hutcheson derived from Shaftesury’s much more limited conception of the disinterestedness of judgements of taste into his basic conception of the free play of the imagination. At the same time, he developed Baumgarten’s conception of the complexity of aesthetic representation into an elaborate conception of the content of art and the symbolic significance of aesthetic response itself into a structure that could make room for Du Bos’s conception of the engagement of the emotions through the imagination and Addison’s idea of our love for images of liberty without sacrificing his guiding ideas of the free play of the imagination. 
According to Guyer, in the post-Kant period several threads in Kant’s fabric of aesthetics became unraveled, and this lead to a dilution in the Kantian aesthetic vision.

Sunday, 18 March 2018

Immanuel Kant’s View of Genius

Paul Guyer, in his essay, “Exemplary Originality: Genius, Universality, and Individuality” (Chapter 10, Values of Beauty: Historical Essays in Aesthetics, edited by Paul Guyer) talks about a subject that was of great interest to Immanuel Kant and to Kant’s predecessors and successors, namely genius. Kant’s conception of genius as an instance of exemplary originality is markedly different from that of most other philosophers.

Here’s an excerpt from Guyer’s essay:
At the outset of the eighteenth century, genius was characterized simply as exceptional facility in perception and representation, where the latter is the object of artistic production and the former its precondition. As the century progressed, and as long into the nineteenth century as genius remained a lively topic, it came to be characterized as a gift for invention, leading to originality in artistic representation. But only by a few, whom we might for this reason call philosophical geniuses, were the implications of the new conception of genius fully embraced. Immanuel Kant was the first to recognize that genius, as exemplary originality, would be a stimulus and provocation to continuing revolution in the history of art…
Guyer points out that Kant in his Critique of the Power Judgement defines genius as “the talent (natural gift)” or “inborn productive faculty” “that gives the rule to art,” or more precisely “through which nature gives the rule to art.” Further in the essay, Guyer says:
Analysis of artistic beauty entails that truly successful art must always possess what Kant calls “exemplary originality”: originality, because the successful work of art can never appear to have produced contingency or novelty; yet exemplary, because it must at the same time strike us as pleasing in a way that should be valid for all. Originality by itself, to be sure, is easy to achieve: just make something that departs from all known rules and models. Of course, in this way a lot of nonsense will be produced, so what Kant calls “original nonsense” is easy to come by. The trick is to produce exemplary originality, objects which, “while not themselves the result of imitation… must yet serve others in that way, i.e., as a standard for judging,” or objects that strike us as original in appearing to depart from known rules and models but which can themselves be pleasing to all or a rule for all. Thus, in Kant’s view, all truly successful art must be the work of genius. 
Guyer’s essay also offers an interesting comparison between the views of Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill. But on that I will comment in a different blog.