Wednesday, 30 January 2019

Deirdre McCloskey On Taxation

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

On The Three Enlightenments

Gertrude Himmelfarb on the three Enlightenments (The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American 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."

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.

In his 1893 book Appearance and Reality, F. H. Bradley says: “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.”

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.

Wednesday, 23 January 2019

The Myth of Original Philosophy

If a philosophical school is filled with the conviction that the ideas of its founders are original and right, then you can presume that they are a bunch of immature thinkers and that their philosophy is useless. No one cares whether a philosophy is original or not—what matters is whether the philosophy 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 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. 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.

Saturday, 5 January 2019

Is Ayn Rand’s Objectivism a Philosophy?

Ayn Rand’s novels, like the works of a few other great writers, have a stunning impact on the mind when you read them for the first time. You get mesmerized by the larger than life characters that you discover in her novels, and the notion that philosophy has practical consequences gets inscribed in your memory.

Most people become acquainted with Rand by reading her novels and when they make inquiries about her, they come to know that she is the founder of a school called objectivism. After the publication of Atlas Shrugged in 1958, she decided to become a philosopher—with a band of inexperienced youngsters, she launched objectivism. She didn’t have any expertise or interest in philosophy; she had no clue what it takes to philosophize like a philosopher. Much of the work that she has done in the name of objectivism consists of short articles on the political and cultural excrescences of her own time. Her articles are interesting, but they are not philosophy.

Rand’s objectivist followers claim that her novels are an elucidation of the objectivist philosophy. But I believe that her novels are works of fiction; they are not philosophy. You can find in her novels an inspiration for a healthy sense of life, and a sense of the critical role that philosophy plays in the rise and fall of civilizations and in an individual’s life—but all this is not philosophy.

Philosophy, like physics, biology, and mathematics, has a methodology of its own. You can discover the philosophical truth only by following the philosophical method. You can’t do it by following a literary way—but that is what Rand tried to do. She developed objectivism by following a literary methodology and she could not produce a single treatise on any area of philosophy. The contrast between the massive scope of her novels, and the pettiness, ignorance, and dogmatism that we find in objectivism is so blatantly obvious that only the most dogmatic acolytes can claim that all is well in objectivism.

Etienne Gilson’s thought provoking words in The Unity of Philosophical Experience (page 7) come to my mind:
I wish I could make clear from the very beginning that in criticizing great men, as I shall do, I am very far from forgetting what made them truly great. No man can fall a victim to his own genius unless he has genius; but those who have none are fully justified in refusing to be victimized by the genius of others. Not having made the mathematical discoveries of Descartes and Leibniz, we cannot be tempted to submit all questions to the rules of mathematics; but our very mediocrity should at least help us to avoid such a mistake. There is more than one excuse for being a Descartes, but there is no excuse whatsoever for being a Cartesian. 
Taking an inspiration from Gilson’s words, I will say that there is more than one excuse for being an Ayn Rand, but there is no excuse whatsoever for being an objectivist. I am not trying to debase Rand as a fiction writer; she has written fine novels—she took philosophy seriously and was devoted to finding the philosophical truth. But she failed to create any value in objectivism because she was a fiction writer and not a philosopher. She made no effort to learn philosophy.