Monday, 30 April 2018

The Snares of Language

Arthur Koestler
Arthur Koestler notes that words are a blessing which can turn into a curse. The words give articulation and precision to vague images and hazy intuitions but they can also restrict thought in the particular area which they are defining. Koestler points out that the deceptively simple words, “space,” and “time,” have traditionally been defined in such a way that before the scientific revolution man lived in a closed universe with firm boundaries in space, a few million miles in diameter, and time, a few thousand years in duration. It took centuries of work for mankind to realize that space and time are abstract concepts.

Here’s an excerpt from Koestler’s The Act of Creation (Chapter 7: “Thinking Aside”):
Words are essential tools for formulating and communicating thoughts, and also for putting them into the storage of memory; but words can also become snares, decoys, or strait-jackets. A great number of the basic verbal concepts of science have turned out at various times to be both tools and traps: for instance, 'time', 'space', 'mass', 'force', weight', ether', 'corpuscle', 'wave', in the physical sciences; 'purpose', 'will', 'sensation, 'consciousness', 'conditioning', in psychology; 'limit', 'continuity', 'countability', 'divisibility', in mathematics. For these were not simple verbal tags, as names attached to particular persons or objects are; they were artificial constructs which behind an innocent facade hid the traces of the particular kind of logic which went into their making. As Sidney Hook has put it: 'When Aristotle drew up his table of categories which to him represented the grammar of existence, he was really projecting the grammar of the Greek language on the cosmos.' That grammar has kept us to this day ensnared in its paradoxes: it made the grandeur and misery of two millennia of European thought. If Western philosophy, to quote Popper, consisted in a series of footnotes to Plato, Western science took a full two thousand years to liberate itself from the hypnotic effect of Aristotle, whose encyclopedic philosophy penetrated the very structure of our language. It determined not only what was 'science' but also what was 'common sense'. 
Koestler argues that true creativity often starts where language ends because language can often become a screen between a thinker and reality.

Sunday, 29 April 2018

Kepler and Modern Cosmology

“I have cleared the Augean stables of astronomy of cycles and spirals, and left behind me only a single cartful of dung.” ~ Johannes Kepler (Cited in Arthur Koestler's The Act of Creation)

What Kepler describes as a cartful of dung is the non-uniform motion in non-circular orbits of the planets which could only be justified and explained by using arguments derived not from geometry, but from physics. His was the first serious attempt to explain the mechanism of the solar system in terms of physical forces, and it resulted in the formerly separate fields of physics and astronomy coming together. 

Saturday, 28 April 2018

Laughter as a Political Weapon in Ancient Sparta

In his book Greek Laughter: A Study of Cultural Psychology from Homer to Early Christianity, Stephen Halliwell says that “in Greek culture laughter was associated with the unruliness of the young, the surging energy of bodily instincts, and the insolence, even subversiveness, of mockery.”

The militaristic Spartans were especially averse to laughter. The intellectuals of the classical period project an unsympathetic image of the Spartans as generally dour and, by implication, averse to laughter.

But even the Spartans with their rigorous militaristic values could not implement a complete social control of laughter. In The Histories, Herodotus refers to an instance where laughter is deployed as a political weapon in Sparta. Here’s an excerpt from Halliwell’s book (page 49):
As it happens, a story in Herodotus gives us something at least approximating to one glimpse of a real (at any rate credible) use of devastating laughter as a political weapon in late archaic Sparta. It concerns the occasion, in the late 490s, when Demaratus, deposed from the kingship on the grounds of doubts about his paternity and now the holder of a lesser magistracy, was publicly insulted by his royal successor Leotychidas. Herodotus narrates how the latter sent a slave to ask Demaratus in public, at the festival of the Gumnopaidiai, what it was like to be a mere magistrate after having been king. Leotychidas’ motive, according to the historian, was to direct laughter and contempt against Demaratus. The festival setting is intriguing: was Leotychidas ironically taking advantage of the more general conventions of festive mockery which later sources report (see on Plutarch above)? Demaratus is said to have attempted a barbed rejoinder (including a thinly veiled threat) before leaving the gathering in shame, with his head covered, and shortly afterwards defecting to Persia. But was Leotychidas’ behavior appropriate for a Spartan king? Whatever its historical credentials, the anecdote could be thought to send ambiguous signals. It shows laughter being employed in a manner which reflects a pent-up power perhaps indicative of Spartan psychology, while at the same time leaving one to wonder whether its calculated offensiveness conforms to or breaches Spartan protocols of self-discipline. The use of a slave to relay the question from king to ex-king nicely encapsulates the problem: it adds to the public humiliation while avoiding face-to-face ridicule. Leotychidas himself laughs, as it were, from a distance. It is not merely pedantic to point out that Herodotus’ text does not tell us whether other Spartans, hearing the question put to Demaratus, actually laughed too. But the historian’s own narrative does later recount how Leotychidas ‘paid the price’ for his treatment of Demaratus. He suffered his own ignominy and died in exile.

Friday, 27 April 2018

On the Psychology of the Creative Act

Arthur Koestler in The Act of Creation notes that on one end of the scale we have discoveries which involve some kind of conscious, logical reasoning, and on the other end there are the sudden insights which seem to emerge from the depth of the unconscious.

He compares the predicament of a thinker faced with a creative problem which cannot be solved by traditional methods to that of a motorist who is heading for a frontier to which all the approaches are blocked. In such a situation the motorist’s skills as a driver will not help him; to reach the frontier, he must play a completely different kind of game—maybe he can change his car into a helicopter.

Here’s an excerpt from The Act of Creation, Chapter 5, “Moments of Truth: The Chimpanzee and the Stick”:
When all hopeful attempts at solving the problem by traditional methods have been exhausted, thought runs around in circles in the blocked matrix like rats in a cage. Next, the matrix of organized, purposeful behavior itself seems to go to pieces, and random trials make their appearance, accompanied by tantrums and attacks of despair—or by the distracted absent-mindedness of the creative obsession. That absent-mindedness is, of course, in fact single-mindedness; for at this stage—the 'period of incubation —the whole personality, down to the unverbalized and unconscious layers, has become saturated with the problem, so that on some level of the mind it remains active, even while attention is occupied in a quite different field…
Koestler’s comments regarding the nature of creative act are quite perceptive:
This leads to the paradox that the more original a discovery the more obvious it seems afterwards. The creative act is not an act of creation in the sense of the Old Testament. It does not create something out of nothing; it uncovers, selects, re-shuffles, combines, synthesizes already existing facts, ideas, faculties, skills. The more familiar the parts, the more striking the new whole. Man's knowledge of the changes of the tides and the phases of the moon is as old as his observation that apples fall to earth in the ripeness of time. Yet the combination of these and other equally familiar data in Newton's theory of gravity changed mankind's outlook on the world.
'It is obvious', says Hadamard, 'that invention or discovery, be it in mathematics or anywhere else, takes place by combining ideas… The Latin verb cogito for "to think" etymologically means "to shake together". St. Augustine had already noticed that and also observed that intelligo means "to select among”.’ 
But for a new discovery to take place a condition must be fulfilled that Koestler calls “ripeness.”
The 'ripeness' of a culture for a new synthesis is reflected in the recurrent phenomenon of multiple discovery, and in the emergence of similar forms of art, handicrafts, and social institutions in diverse cultures. But when the situation is ripe for a given type of discovery it still needs the intuitive power of an exceptional mind, and sometimes a favorable chance event, to bring it from potential into actual existence. On the other hand, some discoveries represent striking tours de force by individuals who seem to be so far ahead of their time that their contemporaries are unable to understand them.

Thursday, 26 April 2018

On the Therapeutic Model of Philosophizing

The purpose of Martha C. Nussbaum’s The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics is to investigate the therapeutic philosophy preached by the three major Hellenistic Schools, Epicurean, Stoic, and Skeptic. The view was widespread among the Hellenistic philosophers that human diseases can be cured by modifying the passions through reasoning and argumentation.

They believed that philosophy heals the diseases caused by false beliefs; and to deliver therapy, they deployed rhetorical and literary forms in complex ways.

Philosophy in the Hellenistic age was a tool for recognizing the error in one’s thinking. By diagnosing the errors, the philosophers endeavored to make things better and develop a radical norm of true human flourishing (Eudaimonia). Their outlook on nature was often teleological and normative; however, there is a difference in the degree to which the three schools based their ideas on such a view of nature.

Here’s an excerpt from The Therapy of Desire (Chapter I, “Therapeutic Arguments”):

“Epicureans and Skeptics vigor­ously repudiate any such project, deriving their norms of nature from a consideration of the ways living creatures operate in an indifferent uni­verse. The Stoics… are in a sense closer to the Platonists…, in that, although their account of nature is certainly value-laden, and does claim to derive both support and justification from the deepest of human desires and aims, they also believe that the universe as a whole is providentially constructed by Zeus, and that norms of human life are part of this providential design. What complicates the matter further is that the essence of the providential design is reason; and reason is the very thing we encounter in ourselves when we scrutinize our deepest judgments. Thus it is no mere accident that self-scrutiny gets things right. In that sense the Stoics are not Platonists: the connection between the deepest layers of our own makeup and the true good is not merely contin­gent. But a normative ethical structure does pervade the universe as a whole.” (Page 32)

Nussbaum explains that she begins her book with a chapter on Aristotle because his ethical philosophy is close to the account offered by the Hellenistic philosophers. “Aristotle accepts and develops at length the idea that ethical philosophy should resemble medicine in its dedication to the practical goal of ameliorating human lives. And he develops, in some detail, aspects of the analogy between the philosopher's and the doctor's tasks.” (Page 42). But Nussbaum also notes that there are several points on which Aristotle criticizes the medical analogy—he argues that there are some important ways in which ethical philosophy should not be like medicine.

Tuesday, 24 April 2018

Contributions of German Philosophers to Modern Aesthetic Theory

Moses Mendelssohn; Immanuel Kant 
The various arts are as old as civilization, but the manner in which we group them and evaluate their importance in our life and culture is a relatively recent development. With their theory of mimesis, the ancient Greeks had established a link between painting and sculpture, poetry and music, but they lacked a system of fine arts in which all the visual arts can be grouped with poetry and music. The development of such a system of fine arts had to wait till the eighteenth century.

In his essay, “The Modern System of Fine Arts: A Study in the History of Aesthetics, Part II,” Paul Oskar Kristeller offers an interesting account of the ideas with which the European philosophers enriched the field of aesthetics during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

The process of development of a system of fine arts began in England and France post Renaissance, in the seventeenth century. But towards the middle of eighteenth century the German philosophers started dominating the discussions on art. The term “aesthetics” was coined by Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten in 1735, but the meaning that he gave to the term is different from how it is understood today. He saw aesthetics as a theory of sensuous knowledge, which is a counterpoint to logic, the theory of intellectual knowledge.

In the interval between Baumgarten and Immanuel Kant, Moses Mendelssohn made valuable contributions. Here’s an excerpt from Kristeller’s essay:
Mendelssohn, who was well acquainted with French and English writings on the subject, demanded in a famous article that the fine arts (painting, sculpture, music, the dance, and architecture) and belles lettres (poetry and eloquence) should be reduced to some common principle better than imitation, and thus was the first among the Germans to formulate a system of the fine arts. Shortly afterwards, in a book review, he criticized Baumgarten and Meier for not having carried out the program of their new science, aesthetics. They wrote as if they had been thinking exclusively in terms of poetry and literature, whereas aesthetic principles should be formulated in such a way as to apply to the visual arts and to music as well. In his annotations to Lessing's Laokoon, published long after his death, Mendelssohn persistently criticizes Lessing for not giving any consideration to music and to the system of the arts as a whole; we have seen how Lessing, in the fragmentary notes for a continuation of the Laokoon, tried to meet this criticism. Mendelssohn also formulated a doctrine of the three faculties of the soul corresponding to the three basic realms of goodness, truth and beauty, thus continuing the work of the Scottish philosophers. He did not work out an explicit theory of aesthetics, but under the impact of French and English authors he indicated the direction in which German aesthetics was to develop from Baumgarten to Kant.
Sulzer established a systematic system and popularized the idea that all the fine arts are connected with each other. Herder did a critique of Lessing's Laokoon and made comparisons between poetry and music. Immanuel Kant made some major contributions to philosophy of aesthetics in his the Critique of Judgement.

Here’s Kristeller’s perspective on Kant’s contribution to aesthetics:
The system of the three Critiques as presented in this last volume is based on a threefold division of the faculties of the mind, which adds the faculty of judgment, aesthetic and teleological, to pure and practical reason. Aesthetics, as the philosophical theory of beauty and the arts, acquires equal standing with the theory of truth (metaphysics or epistemology) and the theory of goodness (ethics). 
In the tradition of systematic philosophy this was an important innovation, for neither Descartes nor Spinoza nor Leibniz nor any of their ancient or medieval predecessors had found a separate or independent place in their system for the theory of the arts and of beauty, though they had expressed occasional opinions on these subjects. If Kant took this decisive step after some hesitation, he was obviously influenced by the example of Baumgarten and by the rich French, English, and German literature on the arts his century had produced, with which he was well acquainted. In his critique of aesthetic judgment, Kant discusses also the concepts of the sublime and of natural beauty, but his major emphasis is on beauty in the arts, and he discusses many concepts and principles common to all the arts. In section 51 he also gives a division of the fine arts: speaking arts (poetry, eloquence) ; plastic arts (sculpture, architecture, painting, and gardening) ; arts of the beautiful play of sentiments (music, and the art of color).
Since the publication of the Critique of Judgement, Kant’s aesthetics has occupied a permanent place among the major philosophical disciplines.

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

Here's Jordan Peterson’s appraisal of Rand’s fiction and philosophy:
"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." 
  

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.”