Saturday, 16 February 2019

Can Philosophy be polemical?

Stephen C. Pepper’s notes that good philosophy is not polemical. Here’s an excerpt from his book World Hypothesis (Page 101):

"Yet a great proportion of philosophical—and not only philosophical—books give a large part of their space to polemic, finding the faults in rival theories with an idea that this helps to establish the theory proposed. The cognitive value of a hypothesis is not one jot increased by the cognitive errors of other hypotheses. Most polemic is a waste of time, or an actual obfuscation of the evidence. It is generally motivated by a proselytizing spirit supported on dogmatic illusions. If a theory is any good it can stand on its own evidence. The only reason for referring to other theories in constructive cognitive endeavor is to find out what other evidence they may suggest, or other matters of positive cognitive value. We need all world hypotheses, so far as they are adequate, for mutual comparison and correction of interpretative bias."

Friday, 15 February 2019

On the Connection Between Athenian Democracy and Warcraft

Greek bust of Herodotus 
The Ancient Athenians had developed their democratic constitution and political institutions more than a century before Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.

With the adoption of Solon’s constitution and the reforms of Cleisthenes, Athens had become a democratic state with a federal structure, and this seems to have led to an improvement in the military capabilities of the Athenians. In 506 BCE when Athens was attacked from three sides, they were able to mobilize an army and defeat the invaders.

Herodotus, in his The Histories, connects the performance of the Athenians in the battle of 506 BCE to their democracy. Here’s an excerpt from The Histories (Book 5, Chapter 78):
The Athenians at this point became much stronger. So it is clear how worthy an object of attention is equality of public speech not just in one respect but in every sense. Since when they were ruled by tyrants, the Athenians did not stand out from their neighbors in military capability, but after disposing the tyrants, they became overwhelmingly superior.  
This, then, shows what while they were oppressed, they were, as men working for a master, cowardly, but when they were freed, each one was eager to achieve for himself. 
According to Herodotus, people who are not free cannot be expected to do their best in a battle. He thinks that the Athenians won the battle because they were the collective masters of their own collective fate. They were not being ruled by a tyrant.

Thursday, 14 February 2019

Eric Voegelin On The Experience of Tension in Existence

Eric Voegelin, in his essay, “Equivalents of Experience and Symbolization,” talks about man being in a permanent place situated between two poles of existence. He calls the permanent place “Metaxy”—a term that has been defined in Plato's Symposium as the "in-between" or "middle ground”. Here’s an excerpt from Voegelin’s essay:

The question of constants in the history of mankind, it will have become clear, cannot be answered through propositions concern­ing right order, or through a catalog of permanent values, for the flux of existence does not have the structure of order or, for that matter, of disorder, but the structure of a tension between truth and deformation of reality. Not the possession of his humanity but the concern about its full realization is the lot of man.

Existence has the structure of the In-Between, of the Platonic metaxy, and if anything is constant in the history of mankind it is the language of tension between life and death, immortality and mortality, perfec­tion and imperfection, time and timelessness; between order and disorder, truth and untruth, sense and senselessness of existence; between amor Dei and amor sui, l’âme ouverte and l’âme close; between the virtues of openness toward the ground of being such as faith, love, and hope, and the vices of infolding closure such as hybris and revolt; between the moods of joy and despair; and be­tween alienation in its double meaning of alienation from the world and alienation from God.

If we split these pairs of symbols, and hypostatize the poles of the tension as independent entities, we destroy the reality of existence as it has been experienced by the creators of the tensional symbolisms; we lose consciousness and intellect; we deform our humanity and reduce ourselves to a state of quiet despair or activist conformity to the “age” of drug addic­tion or television watching, of hedonistic stupor or murderous pos­session of truth, of suffering from the absurdity of existence or in­dulgence in any divertissement (in Pascal’s sense) that promises to substitute as a “value” for reality lost. In the language of Heraclitus and Plato: Dream life usurps the place of wake life.

Ultimate doctrines, systems, and values are phantasmata engen­dered by deformed existence. What is constant in the history of mankind, i.e., in the time dimension of existence, is the structure of existence itself; and regarding this constant structure certain propositions can indeed be advanced.

Wednesday, 13 February 2019

Steven Pinker: The True Believer in Climate Alarmism

Steven PInker’s book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress is aimed at championing the liberal enlightenment worldview. There is not a single page in this book, in which he is not propagandizing for the liberal establishment. All his blather about human progress and optimism about the future is aimed at establishing the thesis that the "enlightened" liberal politicians and intellectuals (like him) are responsible for much of the progress that humanity has achieved in the last 250 years.

He is so convinced of the moral and intellectual supremacy of people like himself that he makes no effort to prove that there is a linkage between human progress and liberal enlightenment ideas. He takes that for granted. His method in the book is to offer lot of data on human progress (which he could have easily collected by using a team of researchers) in a certain area, throw in some cliched sentences on reason and humanism, and then have a discussion of the liberal views on the same area. But by merely presenting the data on progress alongside the liberal talking points one does not establish a correlation between the two.

This blog is on Pinker’s advocacy of the Global Warming/Climate Change agenda which is dear to the modern liberals. So I will go directly to the Chapter 10, “Environmentalism,” in which Pinker asserts that he is a supporter of enlightened environmentalism.

Here’s an excerpt:
Whenever we burn wood, coal, oil, or gas, the carbon in the fuel is oxidized to form carbon dioxide, which wafts into the atmosphere. Though some of the CO2 dissolves in the ocean, chemically combines with rocks, or is taken up by photosynthesizing plants, these natural sinks cannot keep up with the 38 billion tons we dump into the atmosphere each year. As gigatons of carbon laid down during the Carboniferous Period have gone up in smoke, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has risen from about 270 parts per million before the Industrial Revolution to more than 400 parts today. Since CO2, like the glass in a greenhouse, traps heat radiating from the earth’s surface, the global average temperature has risen as well, by about .8° Celsius. The atmosphere has also been warmed by the clearing of carbon-eating forests and by the release of methane from leaky gas wells, melting permafrost, and the orifices at both ends of cattle. It could become warmer still in a runaway feedback loop if white, heat-reflecting snow and ice are replaced by dark, heat-absorbing land and water, if the melting of permafrost accelerates, and if more water vapor (yet another greenhouse gas) is sent into the air. 
If the emission of greenhouse gases continues, the earth’s average temperature will rise to at least 1.5°C above the preindustrial level by the end of the 21st century, and perhaps to 4°C above that level or more. That will cause more frequent and more severe heat waves, more floods in wet regions, more droughts in dry regions, heavier storms, more severe hurricanes, lower crop yields in warm regions, the extinction of more species, the loss of coral reefs (because the oceans will be both warmer and more acidic), and an average rise in sea level of between 0.7 and 1.2 meters from both the melting of land ice and the expansion of seawater. Low-lying areas would be flooded, island nations would disappear beneath the waves, large stretches of farmland would no longer be arable, and millions of people would be displaced. The effects could get still worse in the 22nd century and beyond, and in theory could trigger upheavals such as a diversion of the Gulf Stream (which would turn Europe into Siberia) or a collapse of Antarctic ice sheets. A rise of 2°C is considered the most that the world could reasonably adapt to, and a rise of 4°C, in the words of a 2012 World Bank report, “simply must not be allowed to occur.”
Pinker wants his readers to blindly accept that rising levels of CO2 is responsible for Global Warming or Climate Change. But what is the proof? CO2 levels have been rising and falling on this planet before human beings even evolved. For instance, in the Jurassic Period, the CO2 levels were much higher. But Pinker is alarmed by the present levels of CO2 and he calls for all kinds of coercive measures, including the policy of carbon pricing, which entails “charging people and companies for the damage they do when they dump their carbon into the atmosphere.”

I think, Eric Hoffer would have called Pinker a true believer.

Tuesday, 12 February 2019

On Skepticism, Atheism, and Dogmatism

Atheism means skepticism about the existence of God, but if this position is taken seriously, then it necessarily leads to a dogmatic belief in God’s nonexistence. Therefore every utter atheist is essentially a dogmatic believer in a negative, which is God’s nonexistence.

Here’s a perspective from Stephen C. Pepper’s World Hypothesis (Page 4-5):

"What can the utter skeptic himself mean? Does he mean that all facts are illusory and all statements are false? But this position is not one of doubt, but of downright disbelief. It is disbelief in the reliability of all evidence and in the truth of all statements; or, contrariwise, it is belief in the unreliability of all evidence and the falsity of all statements. For every instance of disbelief is simply the reverse of belief; it is belief in the contradictory of what is disbelieved. If a man disbelieves in the existence of God, he necessarily believes in the nonexistence of God. A dogmatic atheist is as little of a doubter as a dogmatic theist. It is the agnostic who completely doubts the existence of God. He genuinely doubts. That is, he finds the evidence on both sides so evenly balanced in this matter that he neither believes nor disbelieves, but holds the proposition in suspense."

Monday, 11 February 2019

Eric Mack’s Rescue Operation for Ayn Rand’s Ethics

Ayn Rand
Today I read Eric Mack's essay, “Problematic Arguments in Randian Ethics,” (The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies; Vol 5; No. 1; Fall 2003; Page 1–66), which, the author declares, is a rescue mission to save Ayn Rand’s deep ethical insights from her own awful line-by-line arguments.

Mack approaches Rand’s ethics through Craig Biddle’s book Loving Life: The Morality of Self-interest and the Facts that Support It, which is a primer on Rand’s ethics. While conducting a critical analysis of Biddle's presentation of Rand's arguments, Mack conducts a critical analysis of Rand’s own writings in ethics.

That Mack is inspired by Rand’s ethics is beyond doubt—why would he launch a rescue operation if he wasn’t? He writes:

“I think that Rand has offered us some very deep ethical insights, e.g., about the essential relationship between valuing and the human good and about the relationship of affirming the ultimate separate value of each individual's good and affirming each individual's possession of moral rights. Beyond that, Rand is simply without peer as an insightful, powerful and heroic ethical crusader on behalf of individualism, individual freedom, and a free social and economic order.”

But in the lines that follow, Mack notes that Rand’s arguments are awful:

“Unfortunately, I also think that line-by-line many of Rand's ethical arguments are just awful. It is not merely that she does not bother with fine distinctions and academic niceties. Rather, her arguments all too often consist of gross misrepresentations of her opponents's views, conflations of importantly distinct doctrines, crucial equivocations, and massive beggings of the questions at hand. And the awfulness of these arguments is compounded by the arrogance, contempt, and hostility with which they are usually expressed.”

He takes Rand to task for her tirades against historical philosophers, chiefly David Hume and Immanuel Kant. “One of the major defects in Ranďs ethical expositions is antecedent to her arguments per se. It consists in her frequent misdescription of the targets of her criticism and her conflation of distinct philosophical stances under a single label.”

On Biddle’s remark on Hume, Mack says:

“Biddle's remark reveals colossal ignorance about a man [Hume] who, e.g., articulated a powerful theory about the rationality of compliance with principles of justice and who, throughout his life, strove to advance a secular, religion-free defense of commercial society. Biddle's linkage of Hume to Hider replicates the lowest moments of Randian rhetoric.”

On Biddle’s remark on Kant, Mack says:

“Rand condemned Kant; so Biddle feels that somewhere he must also do so. He does this by declaring Kant to have been the "father"of "social subjectivism" which, in the relevant paragraph, is characterized as "the notion that truth and morality are the creations of the mind of a collective (a group of people)—or matters of social convention.” Now there is a sense in which the mind, as reason, does have primacy in Kantian metaphysics and ethics. But this primacy of mind as reason is a long way from the subjectivism that Biddle has targeted—in which the notion of arbitrary, nonrational will is paramount. Whatever the ultimate philosophical errors of Kant, it is a canard to accuse him of advocating the primacy of arbitrary will in metaphysics or ethics.”

Mack goes on to note three interconnected features in Rand’s writing:

“The first is enormous ignorance about the actual views of the thinkers discussed—especially the views of those on Ranďs philosophical enemies list The second is an inclination to conflate into one strawman many distinct views, so that these views can all be tarred with the same broad brush. The third is a tendency to cast all opposing views in their most unfavorable light—as views that only an idiot or moral monster would advocate.”

The problem, according to Mack, is that Rand exercises such power on the mind of her followers that they cannot conceive of making any corrections and improvements in her arguments. The mere thought that Rand can be wrong on anything is an anathema to her followers, who continue to use her awful arguments in their own writing. There is, however, much more in Mack’s essay than what I can say in this article.

Saturday, 9 February 2019

The Ancient Greeks and Their Walls

Part of Themistocles's wall in Kerameikos
In his book The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece, Josiah Ober points out that as the city-states in Ancient Greece grew wealthier they began to fortify themselves by investing in long walls and other systems of defense. Plato was against the idea of border walls, while Aristotle favored walls. Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 2, “Ants Around a Pond: An Ecology of City-States”:

In the Early Iron Age of the eleventh and tenth centuries BCE, Greek settlements were unwalled. But in subsequent centuries, along with developing forms of social organization that prompted effective mobilization of soldiers, Greek poleis increasingly invested in substantial fortifications: urban circuits, and later in long walls connecting cities to harbors, and forts and towers to protect rural populations and assets. The preference for strong walls was not universal: Sparta remained unwalled throughout the classical period, believing that “our men are our walls.” Some Greek political theorists, notably Plato in the Republic, argued against walling the city on the grounds that brave men ought willingly to fight their enemies in the open field. But by the end of the classical period, this was a minority position: Aristotle thought it badly outdated. Fortification policy was one way in which Greek poleis became more similar to one another over time.

Fortification walls were costly… Yet the no-wall option clearly became less attractive over time, as Greek poleis grew wealthier. Fortifications figured in early stages of Greek state formation and, from the early fifth century BCE to the fourth century, more Greek cities were increasingly heavily fortified. Late classical city walls were on the whole more substantial (built of stone, rather than mud-brick), more highly developed (towers, crenellations, indented trace), and in many cases augmented with outworks and elaborate systems of rural defense (forts, watchtowers, pass-control walls).

Friday, 8 February 2019

On The Economic Success of Ancient Greece

Good philosophy usually flourishes in a society with a flourishing economy. In Ancient Greece, the politicians and businessmen came before the philosophers, and they created a stable society with a healthy economy which could sustain the institutions of philosophy, science, and art.

I am currently reading Josiah Ober's The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece. In the first chapter, “The Efflorescence of Classical Greece,” he offers an interesting account of the economic conditions in Ancient Greek city-states. Here's an excerpt:
The powerful role that specialization and cooperative (mutually beneficial) market exchange can play in promoting economic growth was recognized and described in the later eighteenth century by Adam Smith in the Wealth of Nations. Greek specialization was often more horizontal (workshop and individual craftspeople specializing in the production of specific goods) than vertical (factories employing specialist labor at each phase of a production process). And ancient Greek writers never produced a work of economic analysis to rival Smith’s hugely influential book. Yet it is now very clear that specialization and exchange flourished at different levels in Hellas and, moreover, that the core principles of relative advantage and rational cooperation were understood by the ancient Greeks. 
According to Ober, the individual Greek city-states had developed specialities based on resource endowments relative to other city-states. The competition, specialization, and cooperation among them gave rise to a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship.

Thursday, 7 February 2019

The Modern Dwarfs

Such proud modesty is not to be found in most modern philosophers who call themselves the philosophers of reason:
“We are like dwarfs, seated on the shoulders of giants. We see more things than the Ancients and things more distant, but it is due neither to the sharpness of our sight nor the greatness of our stature, it is simply because they have lent us their own.” ~ Bernard of Chartres 
You can’t possibly preach about reason without first preaching about what is reasoning and what isn’t reasoning, that is, without talking about logic.

Wednesday, 6 February 2019

On Pre-Moderns, Moderns, and Postmoderns

We like to call ourselves modern and postmodern, but we are essentially grappling with the same philosophical problems which exercised the thinkers 200 years ago. When our philosophy is mostly pre-modern, there is no justification for using the labels modern or postmodern. Here’s an interesting paragraph from Gertrude Himmelfarb’s The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments (Page 235):

The sociology of virtue, the ideology of reason, the politics of liberty—the ideas still resonate today. But they carry with them the accretions of more than two centuries of historical experiences and memories. And other ideas now compete for our attention: equality, most notably, but also nationality and ethnicity, class and gender, cultural diversity and global homogeneity. If the three Enlightenments ushered in the modernity—or at least a new stage of in modernity, or new variations on modernity—the postmodernists may be justified in calling this a postmodern age. Yet the ideas of virtue, liberty, and reason did not originate in modernity; nor have they been superseded or superannuated by postmodernity. We are, in fact, still floundering in the verities and fallacies, the assumptions and convictions, about human nature, society, and the polity that exercised the British moral philosophers, the French philosophes, and the American Founders.

Tuesday, 5 February 2019

The Art of Reclaiming a Word: Ayn Rand and Deirdre McCloskey

Ayn Rand; Deirdre McCloskey
In her moral theory, Ayn Rand aspires to reclaim the word “selfishness.” In her economic theory, Deirdre N. McCloskey aspires to reclaim the word “bourgeois.” But there is a significant difference in the method adopted by the two thinkers for reclaiming the word of their choice.

Rand’s case for the word “selfishness” is contained in a few short essays in her only book on ethical theory The Virtue of Selfishness. But these essays do not hold up very well because many of her assertions are not backed by evidence. She does not acquaint the readers with the background of the problem: How did the concept of selfishness originate? How did the wrong meaning got attributed to this word?

Rand does not consider the actual arguments of the other thinkers who have philosophized on the concept of selfishness. Did she believe that she was the first thinker in history to regard selfishness as a virtue? I don’t know the answer to that, but what I know is that the idea of selfishness being a virtue has been expressed by several thinkers before Rand.

One of these thinkers is Bernard Mandeville (1670-1733)—in his famous work The Fable of the Bees or Private Vices, Public Benefits, he has challenged the traditional ideas of morality and religion. He argues that happiness and progress are possible only when men are left free to pursue their material self interest. But there is no mention of Mandeville in Rand’s book. I am not saying that Mandeville’s conception of selfishness is same as that of Rand, but he was writing in the 18th century and for his time he was a very original thinker on this subject.

By neglecting the philosophical evolution of the word “selfishness,” and confining her thesis to merely lambasting the traditional conceptions of morality and religion, Rand has created a rather weak system of morality. Her thesis on selfishness being a virtue is not convincing.

In contrast to Rand, Deirdre McCloskey offers an engrossing thesis on the word “bourgeois.” She has written three books (combined length of around 2000 pages): The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce; Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can't Explain the Modern World; Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, Not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the World.

McCloskey talks about the way in which the philosophers and theologians have vilified the markets for almost two millennium, and the scornful manner in which the intellectuals, artists, and politicians have treated the bourgeois class in the last 150 years. She offers arguments to prove that the arguments against the markets and the bourgeois class are wrong, and shows that the bourgeoisie is a noble class, that it is the chief repository of the virtues instilled by commercial life, and that there is a strong correlation between bourgeois virtue and laissez-faire capitalism.

Rand’s case for reclaiming the word “selfishness” is not strong because she is unable to offer convincing philosophical arguments. McCloskey has done a far better job in making a case for reclaiming the word “bourgeois.”

Monday, 4 February 2019

The Myth of Vincent van Gogh’s Madness

Self Portrait of Vincent van Gogh (1887)
Vincent van Gogh is remembered as a tortured artist who battled with mental illness for much of his life. His paintings are regarded as the works of a mad genius. The problem with this view of van Gogh is that it is not true.

Deirdre N. McCloskey, in her book The Bourgeoisie Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce, (Chapter 13: “Van Gogh and The Transcendent Profane”), points out that “Vincent was a poet in paint, a self-educated sophisticate. He read novels and journals of opinion ravenously in four languages, taking themes for paintings directly from them, and wrote letters in three of the languages often and well, especially to his equally sophisticated art-dealer brother, Theo.”

Van Gogh was a sane, rational, sophisticated, and artistic man for almost his entire life. He was ill only for the last nineteen months of life, and that too, only from time to time. McCloskey writes:
Van Gogh’s illnesses did not make his art. They blocked it. In his estimation, sex did, too. He declared in a letter of June 1888 to his young artist friend Émile Bernard: “Painting and fucking a lot don’t go together, it softens the brain. Which is a bloody nuisance.” His art certainly did not derive from his madness, or from his sexual activity, or from his bodily pains, or from his drinking. He painted when he was well and sober. His art had nothing to do with being sick.  
What is this insistence on the mad, alcoholic artist? Such a man (always a man) is above all imprudent. He does not plan. He can’t handle money. He injures himself. The bourgeois is known as a seeker of safety—this against the fact of risk in a commercial life. The mad artist rejects safety. The myth is an antibourgeois faith in the autonomous human spirit—this against the opportunities for expression in a commercial life. Who is in love with the myth? Sons and daughters of the bourgeoisie. 
McCloskey doubts the famous story of van Gogh cutting his ear. She suggests that the painter Paul Gauguin could be responsible for that incident. “In his painting van Gogh was not foolish or mad. There is even doubt, by the way, about the circumstances of the ear-cutting-off. A German art historian, Rita Wildegans, claims that Gauguin did the ear-cutting, and that van Gogh was covering up for his friend by claiming that he himself did it.”

The legend of van Gogh’s madness was created by the art critics six months before his death. McCloskey says that the critics might have been inspired by Émile Zola's 1886 novel L'Œuvre. Zola was advancing the theories of the doctor and criminologist Cesare Lombroso that men of genius were mentally ill—for example, epileptic. Van Gogh objected to being labeled insane. He wrote a letter to an art critic called Albert Aurier and pointed out that the kind of paintings that he was doing could not be the work of a madman. But the legend of his madness became unstoppable.

McCloskey says that the critics and moviemakers continued to depict van Gogh as a madman because “it fits well the late-Romantic, wannabe-aristocratic notion of the mad artist, as in Kirk Douglas’s riveting but nutty performance in the movie Lust for Life.” She conjectures that if van Gogh had not fallen sick in 1888 and he had not committed suicide in July 1890, then “we would have more of his art, with the same qualities—which were technical developments, not effusions of madness—at a lower price per painting, unhyped by the Romance of his illness and death.”

Sunday, 3 February 2019

On The Counter-Enlightenment

A Painting of Rousseau (1753)
The term “counter-enlightenment” became popular about 200 years after the Enlightenment, when Isaiah Berlin used it in his essay, “The Counter-Enlightenment,” to refer to the opposition to the French Enlightenment. The essay was published in 1973, and in 1981, it was reprinted in a collection of his works, Against the Current: Essays in the History of Ideas.

Berlin argues that the central principles of the French Enlightenment were “universality, objectivity, rationality, and the capacity to provide permanent solutions to all genuine problems of life or thought, and (not less important) accessibility of rational methods to any thinker armed with adequate powers of observation and logical thinking,” and the opposition to it “occurred in various forms, conservative or liberal, reactionary or revolutionary, depending on which systematic order was being attacked.”

He names philosophers like Giambattista Vico, Johann Georg Hamann, Joseph de Maistre and a few others as the chief architects of the Counter-Enlightenment. Berlin describes in detail the illiberal ideas of de Maistre to establish the point that the Counter-Enlightenment was a force of evil. Here’s an excerpt:
In a striking image de Maistre says that all social order in the end rests upon one man, the executioner. Nobody wishes to associate with this hideous figure, yet on him, so long as men are weak, sinful, unable to control their passions, constantly lured to their doom by evil temptations or foolish dreams, rest all order, all peace, all society. The notion that reason is sufficient to educate or control the passions is ridiculous. When there is a vacuum, power rushes in ; even the bloodstained monster Robespierre, a scourge sent by the Lord to punish a country that had departed from the true faith, is more to be admired - because he did hold France together and repelled her enemies, and created armies that, drunk with blood and passion, preserved France - than liberal fumbling and bungling. Louis XIV ignored the clever reasoners of his time, suppressed heresy, and died full of glory in his own bed. Louis XVI played amiably with subversive ideologists who had drunk at the poisoned well of Voltaire, and died on the scaffold. Repression, censorship, absolute sovereignty, judgements from which there is no appeal, these are the only methods of governing creatures whom de Maistre described as half men, half beasts, monstrous centaurs at once seeking after God and fighting Him, longing to love and create, but in perpetual danger of falling victims to their own blindly destructive drives, held in check by a combination of force and traditional authority and, above all, a faith incarnated in historically hallowed institutions that reason dare not touch.
Berlin notes that the failure of the French Revolution to achieve its objective of creating a better society marks the end of the French Enlightenment as a movement and a system. But the surprising thing is that he does not hold the philosophers of the French Enlightenment—Rousseau, Diderot, and others—accountable for the bloodbath of the French Revolution. He absolves them, even though the French Revolution was an outcome of their teachings.

Saturday, 2 February 2019

On The Philosophy of Labor

Karl Marx looked at labor as the very essence of man. He proposed a system of education that was weighted towards labor. In his Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, he says: “When the working class comes to power, as inevitably it must, technical instruction, both theoretical and practical, will take its proper place in the working class schools.” He believed that such technical education (vocational training) would make workers fit for “a variety of labors, ready to face any change of production,” thus solving the problems of excessive specialization and redundancy in the division of labor.

Gertrude Himmelfarb, in her book The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments, Page 65),  makes the following comment on Marx’s thoughts on education and labor:

"This concept of education was no passing thought on Marx’s part. Almost twenty years earlier, in The Communist Manifesto, he had derided the “bourgeois claptrap” about education, proposing, as an intermediate step on the road to communism, free education with the proviso: “combination of education with industrial production.” One is reminded of Hannah Arendt’s observation that no thinker ever reduced man to an animal laborans as totally as Marx did. Locke made of labor the source of property; Smith made of labor the source of wealth; Marx made of labor the very essence of man."

Friday, 1 February 2019

On The Modesty of Adam Smith

Portrait of Smith by John Kay, 1790
Why did the British Enlightenment succeed in creating a better society, while the French Enlightenment led to the bloodbath of the French Revolution? I think, we can draw some inferences from a comparison between the character of the British philosophers and their French counterparts.

The British philosophers of that period were modest and down-to-earth—they were not autocratic; they did not see themselves as intellectually and morally superior to other human beings; they philosophized extensively about the common human nature and the natural equality of all people.

Adam Smith, the most important figure of the British Enlightenment, asserts the common humanity of the street porter and the philosopher. Here’s an excerpt from Smith’s The Wealth of Nations (Book I, Chapter 2):
The difference of natural talents in different men, is, in reality, much less than we are aware of; and the very different genius which appears to distinguish men of different professions, when grown up to maturity, is not upon many occasions so much the cause, as the effect of the division of labour. The difference between the most dissimilar characters, between a philosopher and a common street porter, for example, seems to arise not so much from nature, as from habit, custom, and education… By nature a philosopher is not in genius and disposition half so different from a street porter, as a mastiff is from a greyhound, or a greyhound from a spaniel, or this last from a shepherd's dog. 
David Hume and Edmund Burke have also philosophized on the idea of all men being created equal. On the other hand the major French philosophers of the 18th century were autocrats; they thought that the philosophers like themselves are superior to everyone else in society. It is impossible to imagine Rousseau and Diderot likening themselves to a street porter. They believed that they were destined by nature to pick up the burden of guiding the political and cultural future of their country.

Thursday, 31 January 2019

Edmund Burke’s Enlightenment

A Painting of Edmund Burke
Edmund Burke often gets labeled as a thinker of the Counter-Enlightenment, by the historians who see the Enlightenment as a project conceived by the 18th century French philosophers. Gertrude Himmelfarb disagrees with this view. She  notes that Burke, an avowed disciple of Adam Smith, has played an important role in the British Enlightenment through his contributions in aesthetics, economic theory, moral theory, and political theory. Here’s an excerpt from Himmelfarb’s book The Roads to Modernity, (Chapter 3: “Edmund Burke’s Enlightenment”):
Unlike the American Revolution, which was a political revolution, the French Revolution, [Burke] insisted, was nothing less than a moral revolution, a total revolution, he insisted, a revolution of sentiment and sensibility penetrating into every aspect of life. Burke is often accused today (as he was in his time) of being excessive, even hysterical, in his descriptions of that revolution: “a ferocious dissoluteness in manners… an insolent irreligion in opinions and practices… laws over-turned, tribunals subverted, industry without vigor, commerce expiring… a church pillaged… civil and military anarchy… national bankruptcy…” All this, it must be remembered, was written in 1790, well before the creation of the republic, the execution of the king and queen, the declaration of war, and the institution of the Terror. Yet much had happened by 1790 to alarm Burke: the storming of the Bastille, the march to Versailles and removal of the king to Paris, the abolition of the nobility and feudal privileges, the confiscation of church property, the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, the jacqueries in the countryside and riots in towns, prisons liberated, runs on the banks, and the devastating effects upon the schools, charities, hospitals, and all the other functions traditionally performed by the church. What is remarkable is not that Burke reacted so strongly, and adversely, to these events, but that many thoughtful people (and not only young poets like Shelley or Wordsworth) took so benign a view of them.  
Even more remarkable is Burke’s anticipation of the more momentous events that were to come. Regicide, war, and terror are all prefigured in the Reflections, as if they had already happened. Burke took the measure of the Revolution at the outset. It was then, when the Paris mob marched to Versailles and seized the king, that “the most important of all revolutions” took place, “a revolution in sentiments, manners, and moral opinions.” This moral revolution was later to become the rationale and dynamic of the Terror, an event that Burke dramatically foretold. “Justifying perfidy and murder for public benefit, public benefit would soon become the pretext, and perfidy and murder the end; until rapacity, malice, revenge, and fear more dreadful than revenge could satiate their insatiable appetites.” 
Himmelfarb points out that Burke’s principal contribution to the British Enlightenment was his method of looking at political ideology through the lens of moral theory. He made the “sentiments, manners, and moral opinions” of men the basis of the social and political culture. He brought together the supposedly disparate elements: reason, religion, morality, liberty, manners, sensibility, rule of law, nationalism, individualism, and progress without overthrow of political and cultural traditions.

Wednesday, 30 January 2019

Deirdre McCloskey On Taxation

Immanuel Kant
Deirdre McCloskey, in her book The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce, makes a good use of Immanuel Kant’s second categorical imperative to make a case against taxation. Here’s an excerpt (from Page 44):

"The tempting shortcut of taxing the rich has not worked, for two reasons. First, I repeat, taxation is taking, and as the philosopher Edward Feser puts it, “Respecting another’s self-ownership… [reflects] one’s recognition that that other person does not exist for you…The socialist or liberal egalitarian…rather than the Nozickian libertarian… is… more plausibly accused of ‘selfishness.'” No left egalitarian has explained how such takings square with Kant’s second formulation of the categorical imperative: “So act as to use humanity, both in your own person and in the person of every other, always at the same time as an end, never simply as a means.” Taxing Peter to pay Paul is using Peter for Paul. It is corrupting. Modern governments have been encouraged to think that any abuse of Peter is just fine, that Peter is a slave available for any duty that the ruler has in mind. A little like nonmodern governments."

Tuesday, 29 January 2019

The True History of the Enlightenment

Gertrude Himmelfarb’s The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments corrects the widespread misunderstanding about the Enlightenment. She notes that the Enlightenment is generally associated with the 18th century French philosophers, but the real Enlightenment happened in Britain and America.

The historians tend to focus on the French Enlightenment while neglecting the British and American Enlightenments, because the British and American philosophers never saw themselves as a distinctive class of enlightened thinkers, whereas the French philosophers had formed a cohesive group, a society of men of letters. They saw themselves as philsophes with a coherent ideology, character, and purpose. They claimed to have a monopoly on reason, and they preached that salvation of all can only be achieved when their version of reason is blindly accepted by all.

The French philosophers believed that the masses are incapable of comprehending the spirit of the Enlightenment and they have to be forced to give up religion and monarchy and accept reason. In contrast, “The driving force of the British Enlightenment was not reason but the “social virtues” or “social affections.” In America, the driving force was political liberty, the motive for the Revolution and the basis for the republic. For the British moral philosophers, and for the American Founders, reason was an instrument for attainment of the larger social end, not the end itself. And for both, religion was an ally, not an enemy.”

Here’s Himmelfarb’s encapsulation of the three Enlightenments:
The British Enlightenment represents “the sociology of virtue,” the French “the ideology of reason,” the American “the politics of liberty.” The British moral philosophers were sociologists as much as philosophers; concerned with man in relation to society, they looked to the social virtues for the basis of a healthy and humane society. The French had a more exalted mission: to make reason the governing principle of society as well as mind, to “rationalize, as it were, the world. The Americans, more modestly, sought to create a new “science of politics” that would establish the new republic upon a sound foundation of liberty. 
The French philosophers, with their insistence on making reason a governing principle, paved way for the bloodbath of the French Revolution. Their philosophy of reason was in essence a cult of reason. It was a disaster. But in most history books they are eulogized as the leaders of the Enlightenment. Himmelfarb’s book corrects this mistake.

Monday, 28 January 2019

On The Importance of Philosophical Differences

The task of a philosopher is to grapple with the “big questions” regarding mankind, the universe, and mankind's place in the universe. But as the information available is not sufficient, the philosophers have to conjecture, rationally as far as possible, by taking into account their personal experiences, and philosophize about the possible answers.

The experiences of the philosophers are bound to be different, because no two human beings can have exposure to the same historical, political, cultural, and economic circumstances. They may possess contrasting information on the same subject, or they may use contrasting methodologies to study their information. The philosophy that they develop will carry the influence of their experiences and the philosophical methods that they use.

I am not advocating relativism—I am not saying that philosophical conclusions have to be dependent on the personal inclinations of the philosophers. But it is true that a rational philosopher can philosophize on the big questions only on the basis of the experience and information that is available to him. Therefore, it is difficult, if not impossible, to find two rational and independent minded philosophers who agree on every issue.

The differences among the philosophers are not bad for philosophy. Through their arguments and counter-arguments, the philosophers are often able to identify the problems in their thought and if they manage to resolve these problems their philosophy becomes more consistent and complete.

A philosophy thrives when the intellectuals are talking about it. It doesn’t matter if they are arguing against the philosophy; as long as they are arguing about it, they are ensuring that it remains relevant. Even if a philosophy is refuted, it can remain relevant as long as the intellectuals don’t abandon it. There are several examples in history of refuted philosophies growing from strength to strength and acquiring great social power.
To propagate his philosophy, a philosopher must to get other philosophers to talk about it. He must welcome philosophical differences—because a philosophy thrives when there is controversy about it. The bigger the controversy, the better it is. A philosophy can survive (it can even thrive) after being decisively refuted, but if it is ignored, it is dead.

Saturday, 26 January 2019

On The Philosophy of Reason

Those who contend that their philosophy is the philosophy of reason have a poor understanding of philosophy and reason. The evolutionary way has firmly placed mankind in the province of reason, and for a creature of reason there is no alternative to philosophizing. Therefore, every philosophy, whether rational or irrational, is a philosophy of reason.

You can’t conceive of a philosophy without using reason. Even if you want to undercut reason, you need to philosophize using reason.

F. H. Bradley hit the nail on the head in his 1893 book Appearance and Reality: “The man who is ready to prove that metaphysical knowledge is wholly impossible has no right here to any answer. He must be referred for conviction to the body of this treatise. And he can hardly refuse to go there, since he himself has, perhaps unknowingly, entered the arena. He is a brother metaphysician with a rival theory of first principles… To say the reality is such that our knowledge cannot reach it, is a claim to know reality; to urge that our knowledge is of a kind which must fail to transcend appearance, itself implies that transcendence.”

One can abandon philosophy, one can abandon reason, but one cannot make a case for the abandonment of philosophy and reason without arguments, and when you are arguing, you are philosophizing, you are using reason, and you are proving the efficacy of reason.

Friday, 25 January 2019

On The Self-centeredness of Philosophy

Philosophy is the most self-centered of all disciplines. The major philosophers of the past have given special attention to philosophizing on philosophy. Their areas of concern include the following topics: “what is philosophy,” “the methods of philosophy,” “the history of philosophy,” “the language of philosophy,” “the role of philosophy in society,” “how can we use philosophy.” I think the one key difference between science and philosophy is that science looks outward and it is always the science of something, whereas philosophy can look inward and be the philosophy of itself. My estimate is that around 75% of all philosophy is the philosophy of philosophy.

Thursday, 24 January 2019

Leibniz’s Rationalist Proof of God

Portrait of Leibniz
The Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR), which stipulates that everything must have a reason, cause, or ground, is most famously associated with the work of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. In his Monadology, Leibniz articulates PSR in these words: “And that of sufficient reason, by virtue of which we consider that we can find no true or existent fact, no true assertion, without there being a sufficient reason why it is thus and not otherwise, although most of the time these reasons cannot be known to us.”

Edward Feser, in his book Five Proofs of the Existence of God, (Chapter 5, “The Rationalist Proof”), explains how Leibniz’s conception of PSR can be deployed to prove the existence of God. Feser’s argument is that when everything has a cause, then there has to be an ultimate cause from which all other causes (and their effects) follow. The ultimate cause must go outside the series of must go outside the series of contingencies and must be necessary—this ultimate cause is God.

He offers a 27 point formal statement of the argument, in which he makes the leap towards proving the God’s existence in point 14: “But that there are any contingent things at all must have some explanation, given PSR; and the only remaining explanation is in terms of a necessary being as cause.”

In the final paragraph, Feser says:

“The universe’s existence cannot be explained in terms of its own nature, because it is not purely actual (given that it has potentialities), not simple (given that it has parts), and not subsistent existence itself (since it is as contingent as its parts are). Its explanation must therefore be found in something distinct from it. The difference between God and the world then is that not only one has an explanation and the other lacks it, but rather that one is self-explanatory while the other is not.”

Wednesday, 23 January 2019

The Myth of Original Philosophy

The Thinker by Auguste Rodin
If a philosophical school is filled with the intense conviction that the ideas of its founders are totally original and right, then you can be certain that they are a bunch of inept and immature thinkers and their philosophy is garbage.

Who cares whether a philosophy is original or not—what really matters is whether the philosophy is “true,” and whether it is well argued? No one accepts a philosophy merely because it is original, but they may accept it if they are convinced that they can benefit from it.

None of the major philosophers in history — Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Locke, Hume, and Kant — have claimed that they are propounding original ideas. In fact, in their treatises we find them making efforts to connect their ideas with the work of other eminent thinkers in their own time and from the past.

A wise philosopher will always acknowledge the intellectual debt that he owes to the great minds of the past—he will respect his predecessors even when he is disagreeing with them. It is noteworthy that Aristotle begins every book with a discussion of what the thinkers before him have stated on the subject.

Tuesday, 22 January 2019

Refutation May Not Impair the Health of a Philosophy

A philosophy does not die because it has been refuted—it dies when it has been abandoned by the intellectuals. Plato’s philosophy was decisively refuted in his lifetime by Aristotle, but Platonic philosophy continued to grow from strength to strength and continues to be relevant till today because the intellectuals have not abandoned it. In fact, every major philosophy in the history of humanity has been refuted several times, but that has not made them irrelevant.

Cicero’s Reasons for Philosophizing on the Nature of the Gods

A first-century AD bust of Cicero
Marcus Tullius Cicero, at the beginning of his The Nature of the Gods, gives three reasons for which he labored with great energy to write the book. The three reasons are:

He has leisure. He had very little to do because the Roman Empire was under Caesar’s will and guidance. Cicero was a man of action and idleness was abhorrent to him, so he devoted himself to philosophizing on the nature of the Gods.

He wants to achieve something great for Rome. He wanted to bequeath to his Latin speaking countryman a complete encyclopedia of Greek philosophy.

He is suffering from great sorrow. Cicero’s great sorrow was not related to the political turmoil that the rise of Caesar has caused in his country, but to the death of his daughter Tullia. His two marriages had failed and when his daughter died in 45 BC, Cicero was devastated.

Here’s an excerpt from Cicero’s The Nature of the Gods:
But if any one asks what considerations induced me to make, at so late a date, these contributions to letters, there is nothing I can more easily explain. It was at the time when I was feeling the languor of inaction, and the condition of the state necessitated its being directed by the will and guidance of one man, that I reflected that philosophy ought, in the first place for the state’s own sake, to be brought before our fellow-countrymen. For I thought that it nearly concerned our honor and glory as a nation that so important and exalted a study should have a place in the Latin literature as well, and I regret my undertaking the less as it is easy for me to perceive how many persons’ enthusiasm I have aroused, not only for learning, but also for exposition. The fact is that several who had been trained in the Greek school were kept from sharing their learning with their countrymen by a doubt whether the knowledge that they had received from the Greeks could be expressed in Latin, but in this department I seem to have been so far successful myself as not to be outdone by the Greeks even in abundance of vocabulary. A second inducement for betaking myself to these studies was my unhappiness of mind in consequence of a great and serious blow dealt me by fortune. If I could have found any greater relief for this unhappiness I would not have taken refuge in this form of it particularly, but there were no means by which I could better enjoy relief itself than by devoting myself not merely to the reading of books, but also to an examination of the whole of philosophy. And all its parts and members are most easily recognized when questions are followed out in all their bearings in writing, for there is in philosophy a notable kind of continuity and connection of subject, so that one part seems to depend upon another, and all to be fitted and joined together. 
Some scholars are of the view that Cicero’s primary objective in The Nature of the Gods is ethical philosophy. They say that his aim was to correct the philosophical errors that are injurious to morality. But Cicero does not say that reason in his book.