Thursday, 29 November 2018

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 28 November 2018

On the World of Nature

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

Tuesday, 27 November 2018

Rousseau: The Noxious Force in Modern Civilization

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

Monday, 26 November 2018

On Philosophy and Science

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 25 November 2018

Rousseau and Robespierre

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

Saturday, 24 November 2018

Rousseau’s Account of General Will and Freedom

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

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

Friday, 23 November 2018

On Rousseau’s Attack on the Enlightenment Project

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

Thursday, 22 November 2018

Embracing the Absurd

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

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

Wednesday, 21 November 2018

The Great Switch: The Morphing of Liberalism into Socialism

Jacques Barzun, in his book From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to The Present, notes that the European intellectuals and politicians threw political vocabulary into disorder by morphing liberalism into socialism. Here’s an excerpt from Part IV, Section I, “The Great Illusion,” of Barzun’s book:
What Shaw and all the other publicists who agitated the social question helped to precipitate was the onset of the Great Switch. It was the pressure of Socialist ideas, and mainly the Reformed groups in parliaments and the Fabian outside, that brought it about. By Great Switch I mean the reversal of Liberalism into its opposite. It began quietly in the 1880s in Germany after Bismarck "stole the Socialists' thunder"—as observers put it—by enacting old-age pensions and other social legislation. By the turn of the century Liberal opinion generally had come to see the necessity on all counts, economic, social, and political, to pass laws in aid of the many—old or sick or unemployed—who could no longer provide for themselves. Ten years into the century, the Lloyd George budget started England on the road to the Welfare State.
Liberalism triumphed on the principle that the best government is that which governs least; now for all the western nations political wisdom has recast this ideal of liberty into liberality. The shift has thrown the vocabulary into disorder. In the United States, where Liberals are people who favor regulation, entitlements, and every kind of protection, the Republican party, who call themselves Conservatives, campaign for less government like the old Liberals reared on Adam Smith; they oppose as many social programs as they dare. In France, traditionally a much-governed country, liberal retains its economic meaning of free markets, and is only part of the name of one small semi-conservative party; Left and Right suffice to separate the main tendencies. In England also, the new Liberal party numbers very few. Conservative and Labor designate the parties that elsewhere are known as Conservatives in opposition to Social Democrats. The political reality, the actual character of the state, does not correspond to any of these labels. It is on the contrary a thorough mixture of purposes and former isms that earlier would have seemed incompatible. Nowadays, a sensible voter should call himself a Liberal Conservative Socialist, regardless of the election returns. Changes of party mean only a little more or a little less of each tendency, depending on the matter under consideration.
Barzun recommends a book by G. Lowes Dickinson, A Modern Symposium, which, he says, contains “arguments, briefly and beautifully dramatized long ago about shades of political opinion” which became common because of the reversal of liberalism into socialism. I am now planning to read A Modern Symposium.

Tuesday, 20 November 2018

The Opinionated Professors: Lenin and Russell

Bertrand Russell
Paul Johnson, in his essay “Bertrand Russell: A Case of Logical Fiddlesticks’,” (Chapter 8; Intellectuals: From Marx and Tolstoy to Sartre and Chomsky), notes that Bertrand Russell was as opinionated as Lenin, and that both were blind to human nature and had contempt for the people. Here’s an excerpt:
The curious thing is that Russell was quite capable of detecting-and deploring-in others the same dangerous combination of theoretical knowledge and practical ignorance of how people felt and what they wanted. In 1920 he visited Bolshevist Russia and on 19 May had an interview with Lenin. He found him ‘an embodied theory’. ‘I got the impression,’ he wrote, ‘that he despises the populace and is an intellectual aristocrat.’ Russell saw perfectly well how such a combination disqualified a man from ruling wisely; indeed, he added, ‘if I had met [Lenin] without knowing who he was I should not have guessed that he was a great man but should have thought him an opinionated professor.’ He could not or would not see that his description of Lenin applied in some degree to himself. He too was an intellectual aristocrat who despised, and sometimes pitied, the people.  
Moreover, Russell was not merely ignorant of how most people actually behave; he had a profound lack of self-awareness too. He could not see his own traits mirrored in Lenin. Even more seriously he did not perceive that he himself was exposed to the forces of unreason and emotion that he deplored in common people. It was Russell’s general position that the ills of the world could be largely solved by logic, reason and moderation. If men and women followed their reason rather than their emotions, argued logically instead of intuitively, and exercised moderation instead of indulging in extremes, then war would become impossible, human relationships would be harmonious and the condition of mankind could be steadily improved.  
It was Russell’s view, as a mathematician, that pure mathematics had no concept which could not be defined in terms of logic and no problem which could not be solved by the application of reasoning. He was not so foolish as to suppose that human problems could be solved like mathematical equations but he nonetheless believed that given time, patience, method and moderation, reason could supply the answers to most of our difficulties, public and private. He was convinced it was possible to approach them in a spirit of philosophical detachment. Above all, he thought that, given the right framework of reason and logic, the great majority of human beings were capable of behaving decently. 
In my opinion, the politicians and intellectuals who are convinced that they are men of reason and logic are generally unreasonable, illogical and dictatorial. I am wary of all those who pugnaciously claim to be the fount of reason and logic. 

Monday, 19 November 2018

Why did Schopenhauer lose out in his competition with Hegel?

Schopenhauer’s Bust in Frankfurt
Randall Collins, in his book The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change, makes several points on the rivalry between Schopenhauer and Hegel. Here’s a paragraph (from Chapter 12: "Intellectuals Take Control of Their Base: The German University Revolution”) that I find most interesting:
The meshing of outer and inner layers helps explain too why Schopenhauer’s pessimism and political conservatism, though mixed with genuinely Idealist ingredients, lost out in competition with Hegel. Schopenhauer was seeking a turf to distinguish himself from the Fichteans. Since Hegel had appropriated the dialectic, Schopenhauer downplayed any dialectic of contradictions and progress toward a higher unity. Although Schopenhauer declared that he was returning to the Kantian dichotomous universe, he too was post-Fichtean in claiming access to the thing-in-itself, recognizable within one’s own self. Fichte had opened the path by identifying the self with will. Schopenhauer depicted the will as a blind striving, not freedom but a trap. Schopenhauer exposed his teacher’s central concept in a new light, recombining cultural capital in order to oppose the Fichteans while maintaining his membership in the intellectual movement. History is an endless round of battles going nowhere; the Kantian sphere of ideas is a higher ground, not for scientifically comprehending the empirical world, but for transcending its change. Against the moral religion of Kant, the activism of Fichte, and the constitutional legalism of Hegel, Schopenhauer propounded a religion of escape. This position coincided with the social and political biases of Schopenhauer’s network; his earliest contacts were with conservative French émigré circles, and his origin was in the salon society of the wealthy rather than the Idealist milieu of pastors and tutors struggling to shape academic career paths. But Schopenhauer was no typical representative of the conservatives, and his position was creative in precisely the way it used the concepts of the intellectual core. 
In the 19th century, Schopenhauer was definitely beaten by Hegel, but I think from the second half of the 20th century the situation has changed. Today Schopenhauer is far more relevant than Hegel—at least, to me, he is. I think Schopenhauer’s exposition of the Kantian philosophy is classic and there is great wisdom in his writing.

Sunday, 18 November 2018

The Academic Revolution in Philosophy

Randall Collins, in his book The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change,   (Chapter 12: "Intellectuals Take Control of Their Base: The German University Revolution"), notes that one of the themes of the Enlightenment was the death of traditional philosophy (metaphysical speculation and anything connected with supernatural religion) and its replacement with empirical science. Yet the post-Enlightenment period saw one of the greatest outpourings of philosophical thought in the history of mankind. Immanuel Kant opened the door to this outburst of philosophy in the form of German idealism in 1781 with the publication of his first Critique.

The rise of German idealism coincided with the rise of several new universities in Germany and other parts of Europe. Such a large network of universities had never existed before.

Collins says that German Idealism “was the intellectual counterpart of the academic revolution, the creation of the modern university centered on the graduate faculty of research professors, and that material base has expanded to dominate intellectual life ever since. Kant straddled two worlds: the patronage networks of the previous period, and the modern research university, which came into being, in part through Kant’s own agitation, with the generation of Kant’s successors.”

The academic revolution has enriched philosophy by creating a multitude of philosophical disciplines in which the philosophers can specialize. “Structurally, the academic revolution divided the old all-purpose intellectual role of the philosopher into a multitude of academic specialties. The process of specialization, not yet ended today, has affected the contents of intellectual life in several ways.”

German idealism can seen as the ideology of the university or academic revolution in Europe and America. To support this premise, Collins offers four kinds of evidence:

“1) the major German Idealists were among the prime movers of university reform; (2) the contents of the Idealist philosophies justified the reform, and the succession of major Idealist positions closely corresponded to contemporary prospects of the reform movement; (3) the French Revolution, as surrounding context, produced an Idealist ideology of spiritual freedom only in Germany, where it meshed with the interests of the university reformers, whereas by contrast in England and France the chief ideologies of the revolutionary period were neither Idealist nor university-oriented; and (4) whenever the German university reform was adopted elsewhere, a generation of Idealist philosophers appeared, often in indigenous form.”

Saturday, 17 November 2018

Newton’s Epicurean Theory of Structure of Matter

Newton's portrait by Godfrey Kneller (1702)
Isaac Newton was influenced by the Epicurean theory of atomism, which he discovered mainly in the works of Pierre Gassendi. But he also read Lucretius’s De rerum natura directly. Here’s an excerpt from Optics in which Newton is talking about the elementary particles from which the world is created:
It seems probable to me that God, in the beginning, formed matter in solid, massy, hard, impenetrable, moveable particles, of such sizes and figures, and with such other properties, and in such proportions to space, as most conduced to the end for which He formed them; and that these primitive particles, being solids, are incomparably harder than any porous bodies compounded of them, even so very hard as never to wear or break in pieces; no ordinary power being able to divide what God had made one in the first creation. While the particles continue entire, they may compose bodies of one and the same nature and texture in all ages: but should they wear away or break in pieces, the nature of things depending on them would be changed.
Newton followed Gassendi in fusing the Epicurean or Lucretian theory of atoms with the Christian doctrine. In Gassendi's atomic model there is a rejection of the basic principles of Epicurus—that nothing is created out of nothing and that God has no role to play in creation of the universe. Gassendi asserts that God created the universe, the void, and the atoms from nothing, but he supports the Epicurean theory of everything being created through the interactions between atoms. Newton admits this view of atoms in his ontology.

Friday, 16 November 2018

Kant’s Debt to Lucretius

In Universal Natural History and Theory of Heaven Or Essay on the Constitution and the Mechanical Origin of the Whole Universe according to Newtonian Principles,  Immanuel Kant says that he won’t completely deny that he agrees with some aspects of the Epicurean philosophy, and that his theory of heavens owes a lot to Lucretius’s theory of atoms. He writes:
I will therefore not deny that Lucretius’ theory or that of his predecessors, Epicurus, Leucippus, and Democritus, has much in common with mine. Like those philosophers, I posit a first state of nature as a universal dispersion of the original material of all world-bodies, or atoms as they call them. Epicure posited a heaviness that caused these elementary particles to fall and this does not seem to be very different to Newtonian attraction, which I accept.  
However, Kant rejects Lucretius’s mechanical method of explaining the universe which he points out was first proposed by Leucippus and Democritus:
[Lucretius] also accorded them a certain deviation from the straight linear motion of their fall, even though he had absurd notions of their causes and effects: This deviation to some extent corresponds to the change in the straight fall that we attribute to the repulsive force of the particles; finally, the whirlpools that arose out of the perturbed motion of the atoms were a centrepiece of the theories of Leucippus and Democritus, and they will also be found in ours. The close relationship with a doctrine that was the proper theory of the denial of the divine in antiquity, will not, however, drag mine into association with their errors. Even in the most senseless opinions that have succeeded in gaining the applause of men, we will always find some truth. One false principle or a few ill-considered connecting principles will lead men from the path of truth via imperceptible errors right into the abyss. Despite the similarity I have just mentioned, there does nonetheless remain one basic difference between ancient cosmogony and the current one, which allows us to draw quite opposite conclusions from the latter.

Thursday, 15 November 2018

Schopenhauer’s Argument Against Anarchism

Commemorative stamp on Schopenhauer
Arthur Schopenhauer, in The World As Will And Idea (Translated by R. B. Haldane and J. Kemp; Volume I), supports the existence of the state on the ground that the right of awarding punishment to wrongdoers belongs only to the state. Here’s an excerpt:
It is certain that apart from the state there is no right of punishment. All right to punish is based upon the positive law alone, which before the offense has determined a punishment for it, the threat of which, as a counter-motive, is intended to outweigh all possible motives for the offense. This positive law is to be regarded as sanctioned and recognized by all the members of the state. It is thus based upon a common contract which the members of the state are in duty bound to fulfill, and thus, on the one hand, to inflict the punishment, and, on the other hand, to endure it; thus the endurance of the punishment may with right be enforced. Consequently the immediate end of punishment is, in the particular case, the fulfillment of the law as a contract. But the one end of the law is deterrence from the infringement of the rights of others. (Page 445)
He is against the idea of a man taking revenge for the wrong done to him because no man has the right to set himself up as a judge—that right belongs only to the state. He says that the existence of the state and the law is necessary to distinguish punishment from revenge.
For, in order that every one may be protected from suffering wrong, men have combined to form a state, have renounced the doing of wrong, and assumed the task of maintaining the state. Thus the law and the fulfillment of it, the punishment, are essentially directed to the future, not to the past. This distinguishes punishment from revenge; for the motives which instigate the latter are solely concerned with what has happened, and thus with the past as such. All requital of wrong by the infliction of pain, without any aim for the future, is revenge, and can have no other end than consolation for the suffering one has borne by the sight of the suffering one has inflicted upon another. This is wickedness and cruelty, and cannot be morally justified. Wrong which someone has inflicted upon me by no means entitles me to inflict wrong upon him. The requital of evil with evil without further intention is neither morally nor otherwise through any rational ground to be justified, and the jus talionis set up as the absolute, final principle of the right of punishment, is meaningless. (Page 445-446)
He rejects the Kantian theory of punishment because Kant talks only about punishing the guilty, and not about preventing crime in future:
Therefore Kant's theory of punishment as mere requital for requital's sake is a completely groundless and perverse view. Yet it is always appearing in the writings of many jurists, under all kinds of lofty phrases, which amount to nothing but empty words, as: Through the punishment the crime is expiated or neutralized and abolished, and many such. But no man has the right to set himself up as a purely moral judge and requiter, and punish the misdeeds of another with pains which he inflicts upon him, and so to impose penance upon him for his sins. Nay, this would rather be the most presumptuous arrogance; and therefore the Bible says, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.” But man has the right to care for the safety of society; and this can only be done by interdicting all actions which are denoted by the word “criminal,” in order to prevent them by means of counter-motives, which are the threatened punishments. And this threat can only be made effective by carrying it out when a case occurs in spite of it. (Page 446) 
The punishment that the state awards to the wrongdoers is meant to serve as deterrence from crime. If instead of condemning the wrongdoers, the state becomes merciful towards them, then the crime will be repeated and the innocent will suffer. If the state can diligently perform its duty of maintaining law and order, then, according to Schopenhauer, it may succeed in eliminating all evil and create something resembling an utopia.

Wednesday, 14 November 2018

Kant’s Journey from the External World to the Inner World

Kant & Friends at Table
Painting by Emil Doerstling (1892-3)
When Immanuel Kant began his academic career his interest was mainly in the external world—his lectures and writings were directed towards mathematics, geography, and natural science. In his book Kant: His Life and Doctrine, Friedrich Paulsen says:
As the literary fruit of his cosmological investigations and studies of the natural sciences, he published, in addition to some small essays on physical geography, in the year 1755, a work entitled Universal History of Nature and Theory of the Heavens, or an Attempt to Treat of the Formation and Origin of the Entire Structure of the World according to Newtonian Principles. This work is of great significance, standing as it does at the beginning of Kant’s activity as an author. It was dedicated to Frederick II., but appeared originally without the name of the author. It was not until later that it received the recognition which it deserved; at first, through the failure of the publisher, it remained almost unnoticed. That Kant attached great importance to it appears from the fact that he twice called attention to its main content by giving summaries of it (1763, 1791). The problem which he set for himself in this work was to explain genetically the structure of the cosmos, and especially of our planetary system, entirely in accordance with physical principles. 
Paulsen notes that Kant was a firm believer in the Newtonian principles of gravitation and the results of modern astronomy. His attitude was more scientific than that of Newton, because he tried to explain the origin of the universe in terms of purely physical forces. “Newton had regarded the first arrangement of the world system as the direct work of God. But Kant begins where Newton had left off, and shows how through the immanent activity of physical forces, cosmic systems arise and perish in never-ending rotation. The direct interposition of God is here neither necessary nor applicable.”

In the 1760s there was a shift in Kant’s philosophical priorities. The concerns of the inner world, the realm of man and his moral nature, became the most important subject for him. He realized that science and mathematics are not the absolute ends, rather they are the means to a higher end whose purpose is to serve the moral destiny of mankind. Paulsen writes: “The primacy of the moral over the intellectual, in the evaluation of the individual and in the determination of the purposes of the race, remains hereafter a constant feature of Kant’s thought.”

Kant has credited Rousseau for making him aware that philosophy must begin with an investigation into the inner world. In his book, Paulsen offers the following quote from Kant:
I am by inclination an investigator. I feel an absolute thirst for knowledge, and a longing unrest for further information. There was a time when I thought that all this constituted the real worth of mankind, and I despised the rabble who knew nothing. Rousseau has shown me my error. This dazzling advantage vanishes, and I should regard myself as of much less use than the common laborers if I did not believe that this speculation (that of the Socratic-critical philosophy) can give a value to everything else to restore the rights of humanity.

Tuesday, 13 November 2018

Herder’s Praise for his Teacher, Kant

A painting of Herder (1785)
Johann Gottfried Herder was Immanuel Kant's student at the University of Königsberg from 1762 to 1764. In his 1793 work Briefe zur Beförderung der Humanität, he draws a reverential sketch of Kant from memory:
I have had the good fortune to know a philosopher who was my teacher. In the prime of life he possessed the joyous courage of youth, and this also, as I believe, attended him to extreme old age. His open, thoughtful brow was the seat of untroubled cheerfulness and joy, his conversation was full of ideas and most suggestive. He had at his service jest, witticism, and humorous fancy, and his lectures were at once instructive and most entertaining. With the same spirit in which, he criticized Leibniz, Wolff, Baumgarten, Crusius, and Hume, he investigated the natural laws of Newton, Kepler, and the physicists. In the same way he took up the writings of Rousseau, which were then first appearing, — the Emile and the Heloise, — as well as any new discovery with which he was acquainted in natural science, and estimated their value, always returning to speak of the unbiased knowledge of nature, and the moral worth of man. The history of men, of peoples, and of nature, mathematics, and experience, were the sources from which he enlivened his lectures and conversation. Nothing worth knowing was indifferent to him. No cabal or sect, no prejudice or reverence for a name had the slightest influence with him in opposition to the extension and promotion of truth. He encouraged and gently compelled his hearers to think for themselves; despotism was foreign to his disposition. This man, whom I name with the greatest thankfulness and reverence, is Immanuel Kant; his image stands before me, and is dear to me. (Immanuel Kant: His Life and Doctrine by Friedrich Paulsen; Page 40—41) 
Herder was Kant's favorite student. The extensive notes that Herder made of Kant’s lectures enjoy a special standing among Kant scholars. But by the 1780s,  profound philosophical differences had emerged between Herder and Kant. In 1785, Kant did an unsympathetic review of Herder's book Ideas upon Philosophy and the History of Mankind. Herder, in turn, repudiated Kant’s Critical philosophy which, he asserted, was incapable of explaining the realities of the world. But he continued to admire Kant as a teacher and human being. 

Monday, 12 November 2018

On Paulsen’s Kant

Friedrich Paulsen (1907)
Friedrich Paulsen, in his book Immanuel Kant: His Life and Doctrine, suggests that the real purpose of the Kantian philosophy is to overcome the opposition between faith and knowledge that has extended through the history of human thought. According to Paulsen, Immanuel Kant believed that by properly fixing the limits of knowledge and faith, he had engineered an honorable and enduring peace between them. To knowledge, Kant gave the entire world of phenomena to be investigated through science; and to faith he gave the eternal right to interpret life and the world from the standpoint of value.

Here’s an excerpt from the Introduction in Paulsen’s book:
There is indeed no doubt that the great influence which Kant exerted upon his age was due just to the fact that he appeared as a deliverer from unendurable suspense. The old view regarding the claims of the feelings and the understanding on reality had been more and more called in question during the second half of the eighteenth century. Voltaire and Hume had not written in vain. Science seemed to demand the renunciation of the old faith. On the other hand, the heart still clung to it. Pietism had increased the sincerity and earnestness of religion, and given it a new and firm root in the affections of the German people. At this point Kant showed a way of escape from the dilemma. His philosophy made it possible to be at once a candid thinker and an honest man of faith. For that, thousands of hearts have thanked him with passionate devotion. It I was a deliverance similar to that which the Reformation had brought to the German spirit a century or two earlier. Indeed, one may in a certain sense regard Kant as the finisher of what Luther had begun. The original purpose of the Reformation was to make faith independent of knowledge, and conscience free from external authority. It was the confusion of religion and science in scholastic philosophy against which Luther first revolted. That faith had been transformed into a philosophical body of doctrines, that fides had been changed to credo, seemed to him to be the root of all evil. To substitute for belief in a human dogma the immediate certainty of the heart in a gracious God reconciled through Christ, to emphasize the importance of the inner disposition, as opposed to outer acts, was the soul of his work. Kant was the first who definitely destroyed the scholastic philosophy. By banishing religion from the field of science, and science from the sphere of religion, he afforded freedom and independence to both. And at the same time he placed morality on a Protestant basis, not works, but the disposition of the heart. 
However, the modern interpreters of Kant like Paul Guyer have a different take on the Kantian contributions to the scope of faith. In the Introduction to his book The Cambridge Companion to Kant and Modern Philosophy, Guyer says:
Or as Kant more succinctly but also more misleadingly puts it, “I must therefore suspend knowledge in order to make room for belief,” or, as it is often translated, “faith”. This is misleading if it is taken to mean that Kant intends to argue that knowledge must be limited in order to allow us some nonrational basis for belief about important matters of morality. Rather, what Kant means is that the limitation of the foundational principles of the scientific worldview to the way things appear to us is necessary not only to explain its own certainty but also to allow us to conceive of ourselves as rational agents who are not constrained by the deterministic grip of nature but can freely govern ourselves by the moral law as practical reason (although certainly not all forms of religious faith) requires.

Sunday, 11 November 2018

The Brain, Consciousness, and Computers

I am currently reading The Mystery of Consciousness by John R. Searle. In Chapter 1, “Consciousness as a Biological Problem,” Searle explains how brain research can proceed to solve the problem of consciousness. Here’s an excerpt:
The brain is an organ like any other; it is an organic machine. Consciousness is caused by lower-level neuronal processes in the brain and is itself a feature of the brain. Because it is a feature that emerges from certain neuronal activities, we can think of it as an “emergent property” of the brain. An emergent property of a system is one that is causally explained by the behavior of the elements of the system; but it is not a property of any individual elements and it cannot be explained simply as a summation of the properties of the elements. The liquidity of water is a good example: the behavior of the H2O molecules explains liquidity but the individual molecules are not liquid. 
Computers play the same role in studying the brain that they play in any other discipline. They are immensely useful devices for stimulating brain processes. But the simulation of mental states is no more a mental state than the simulation of an explosion is itself an explosion. 
Searle rejects the theory that the mind can be seen as a computer program running on brain’s hardware (a position that he calls Strong AI). However, he is of the view that computers can be a useful tool for doing simulations of the mind (he calls this position Weak AI).

Saturday, 10 November 2018

Karl Marx: ‘Howling Gigantic Curses’

Paul Johnson, in his essay “Karl Marx: ‘Howling Gigantic Curses’,” (Chapter 3; Intellectuals: From Marx and Tolstoy to Sartre and Chomsky, by Paul Johnson), says that Karl Marx had a taste for violence and he lusted for power. Here’s an excerpt:
The undertone of violence always present in Marxism and constantly exhibited by the actual behavior of Marxist regimes was a projection of the man himself. Marx lived his life in an atmosphere of extreme verbal violence, periodically exploding into violent rows and sometimes physical assault. Marx’s family quarrels were almost the first thing his future wife, Jenny von Westphalen, noticed about him. At Bonn University the police arrested him for possessing a pistol and he was very nearly sent down; the university archives show he engaged in student warfare, fought a duel and got a gash on his left eye. His rows within the family darkened his father’s last years and led eventually to a total breach with his mother. One of Jenny’s earliest surviving letters reads: ‘Please do not write with so much rancor and irritation,’ and it is clear that many of his incessant rows arose from the violent expressions he was prone to use in writing and still more in speech, the latter often aggravated by alcohol. Marx was not an alcoholic but he drank regularly, often heavily and sometimes engaged in serious drinking bouts. Part of his trouble was that, from his mid-twenties, Marx was always an exile living almost exclusively in expatriate, mainly German, communities in foreign cities. He rarely sought acquaintances outside them and never tried to integrate himself. Moreover, the expatriates with whom he always associated were themselves a very narrow group interested wholly in revolutionary politics. This in itself helps to explain Marx’s tunnel-vision of life, and it would be difficult to imagine a social background more likely to encourage his quarrelsome nature, for such circles are notorious for their ferocious disputes. According to Jenny, the rows were perpetual except in Brussels. In Paris his editorial meetings in the Rue des Moulins had to be held behind closed windows so that people outside could not hear the endless shouting. 
There is nothing in Josef Stalin’s political method that is not distantly prefigured in Marx’s violent and boorish behavior. Johnson says: “That Marx, once established in power, would have been capable of great violence and cruelty seems certain. But of course he was never in a position to carry out large-scale revolution, violent or otherwise, and his pent-up rage therefore passed into his books, which always have a tone of intransigence and extremism.”

Marx led the life of a bohemian intellectual. He rarely washed, groomed or changed his clothes, and he was often drunk. Johnson traces Marx’s angry behavior to his unhealthy lifestyle:
[Marx] led a peculiarly unhealthy life, took very little exercise, ate highly spiced food, often in large quantities, smoked heavily, drank a lot, especially strong ale, and as a result had constant trouble with his liver. He rarely took baths or washed much at all. This, plus his unsuitable diet, may explain the veritable plague of boils from which he suffered for a quarter of a century. They increased his natural irritability and seem to have been at their worst while he was writing Capital. ‘Whatever happens,’ he wrote grimly to Engels, ‘I hope the bourgeoisie as long as they exist will have cause to remember my carbuncles.’ The boils varied in numbers, size and intensity but at one time or another they appeared on all parts of his body, including his cheeks, the bridge of his nose, his bottom, which meant he could not write, and his penis. In 1873 they brought on a nervous collapse marked by trembling and huge bursts of rage.
The Marxists claim that their theory is scientific, but Johnson notes that Marx was neither a scientist nor a scholar. Marx did not care for the truth, his only interest was to proclaim his political viewpoint. He had the tendency to look for facts which would support his preconceived political theory. He indulged in deliberate and systematic falsification to prove his thesis that capitalism had worsened the plight of the workers.

Thursday, 8 November 2018

On the people who join mass movements

Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movement is a fine book for understanding the nature mass movements. Here’s a passage in which Hoffer suggests that the poorest members of the working class tend to avoid mass movements because they are too busy trying to make a living:
Discontent by itself does not invariably create a desire for change. Other factors have to be present before discontent turns into disaffection. One of these is a sense of power. Those who are awed by their surroundings do not think of change, no matter how miserable their condition. When our mode of life is so precarious as to make it patent that we cannot control the circumstances of our existence, we tend to stick to the proven and the familiar. We counteract a deep feeling of insecurity by making of our existence a fixed routine. We hereby acquire the illusion that we have tamed the unpredictable. Fisherfolk, nomads and farmers who have to contend with the willful elements, the creative worker who depends on inspiration, the savage awed by his surroundings—they all fear change. They face the world as they would an all-powerful jury. The abjectly poor, too, stand in awe of the world around them and are not hospitable to change. It is a dangerous life we live when hunger and cold are at our heels. There is thus a conservatism of the destitute as profound as the conservatism of the privileged, and the former is as much a factor in the perpetuation of a social order as the latter. 
On the kind of people who are the first to join mass movements:
The men who rush into undertakings of vast change usually feel they are in possession of some irresistible power. The generation that made the French Revolution had an extravagant conception of the omnipotence of man’s reason and the boundless range of his intelligence. Never, says de Tocqueville, had humanity been prouder of itself nor had it ever so much faith in its own omnipotence. And joined with this exaggerated self-confidence was a universal thirst for change which came unbidden to every mind. Lenin and the Bolsheviks who plunged recklessly into the chaos of the creation of a new world had blind faith in the omnipotence of Marxist doctrine. The Nazis had nothing as potent as that doctrine, but they had faith in an infallible leader and also faith in a new technique. For it is doubtful whether National Socialism would have made such rapid progress if it had not been for the electrifying conviction that the new techniques of blitzkrieg and propaganda made Germany irresistible.

Wednesday, 7 November 2018

Does Philosophy Need a Methodology?

Unlike scientists and mathematicians, most philosophers do not rely on empirical data—they philosophize from the armchair. But armchair philosophizing often leads to the development of ideas which look good in theory, but do not work in practice. Perhaps some kind of philosophical methodology is needed to ensure that philosophical theories are in tune with reality.

Today I started reading The Cambridge Companion to Philosophical Methodology, edited by Giuseppina D’Oro and Søren Overgaard. In the book’s introduction, the editors talk about two forms of philosophical methodology — descriptive and normative. Here’s an excerpt:
Within philosophical methodology, one can distinguish between descriptive and normative questions. Descriptive questions concern the methods that philosophers actually use (or advocate), or have used (or advocated) historically. We might inquire, for example, how large a proportion of the current philosophical community design and conduct experiments as part of their philosophical research. By contrast, normative philosophical methodology concerns not what philosophers actually do, but what they ought to be doing: what the correct or proper methods of philosophizing are. Since most will agree that the majority of philosophers actually conduct their research from the armchair, arguably the most interesting challenge that methodological ‘naturalists’ raise is a normative one. 
As most philosophers are armchair philosophers, the chapters in the book discuss and defend the normative methodology for developing and propagating philosophical ideas. Unlike science and mathematics, philosophy does not add to the human knowledge, it only provides a clear understanding of what is already known. But if philosophy is not adding anything to the human knowledge, then why should it be based on empirical methodology?

I will have more to say on this topic after I have finished reading this book.

Tuesday, 6 November 2018

Will the Twentieth Century be Seen as a Dark Age?

What will be the verdict of the intellectual historians, who are living more than 100 or 150 years from today, on the twentieth century? Will the twentieth century be seen as an Age of Enlightenment or Reason—after all, in these 100 years, material prosperity has increased more than in all of the rest of human history? But it is also possible that the twentieth century may be regarded as an Age of Darkness because this period saw the rise of several collectivist movements—socialism, communism, nazism and fascism—which massacred millions of people.

Technology is one area in which twentieth century has excelled. So can this period be seen as an Age of Technology?

Randall Collins, in his book The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change, points out that human beings recognize what is creative only by contrast. This means that if the technological advancement in rest of twenty-first century and the twenty-second century is on a much greater scale, then the twentieth century technology will, in comparison, look like an age of mediocrities.

Here’s an excerpt from Collins’s book, Chapter 9, “Academic Expansion as a Two-Edged Sword: Medieval Christendom,” (page 501):
Studies of intellectual life have preferred to focus on periods of creativity. Yet we recognize what is creative only by contrast. Comparison of the dark side against the light, and against the gray in between, is necessary for seeing the structural conditions associated with all of the varieties of intellectual life. A second reason to study stagnation is perhaps of greater immediate significance. There is no guarantee that we ourselves—denizens of the late twentieth century—inhabit a period of creativity. There is some likelihood that future intellectual historians looking back will concentrate on the great ideas of the first third of the century, and regard the rest as a falling off into mediocrity. 
In the area of philosophy and art, the twentieth century has not achieved much. Many of the philosophical and artistic movements of the twentieth century—logical positivism, existentialism, postmodernism, and others—have had an embarrassingly short career. So the intellectual historians who are looking at the twentieth century from the vantage point of more than 100 to 150 years in the future, may arrive at the conclusion that little philosophical work got done in this period. We look at the Middle Ages as the Dark Ages, but we might be in a similar situation today.

Monday, 5 November 2018

William Blake's Visions and The Bicameral Mind

Blake in a portrait
William Blake’s artistic life was full of visions; he has made several claims of hearing the voices of angels and dead people. But did he really see visions? It is difficult to accept literally. Is it possible that he was lying to impress his guests? Perhaps he wanted to establish himself as an antirational Romanticist thinker.

Julian Jaynes, in his article, “The Ghost of a Flea: Visions of William Blake,” (Chapter 2; Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness, by Marcel Kuijsten), uses his theory of bicameral mind to explain the visions or hallucinations that Blake used to experience. Here’s an excerpt:
I would like to suggest that with the notion of the bicameral mind, the realization that all of us to a greater or less extent, have locked away within us an ancient mentality based on hallucinations of the speech and visions of gods, that with this new understanding of the origins of mind, we can for the first time be comfortable with genuine Blake who ‘heard’ his poetry and ‘saw’ his paintings.  
Blake was not insane. Schizophrenic insanity, being a partial relapse to the bicameral mind, is indeed usually accompanied by ‘voices’ and ‘visions’ of religious nature. But it is also accompanied by panic, distress, and inability to be coherent in conversation, to know who and where one is, to manage one’s own affairs, to sustain ordinary human relationships. And Blake was the opposite of these.  
He was indeed what one of his friends called him, “a new kind of man,” one who had both consciousness and a bicameral mind, and probably unique in modern art history. 
The visions that Blake had were the sustaining force of his artistic life; many of his poems are inspired by his visions. According to Jaynes, Blake used to be fully conscious when he was not having any kind of a vision, but at the time when he had his visions, his mind operated like a bicameral mind, and the left hemisphere of his brain talked to the right hemisphere.

Sunday, 4 November 2018

Thomas Aquinas: The Philosopher and The Politician

Randall Collins, in his book The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change, notes that Thomas Aquinas was not only a great philosopher but also an astute politician. Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 9, “Academic Expansion as a Two-Edged Sword: Medieval Christendom,” of Collins’s book (Page 479):
The greatness of Thomas Aquinas is as an intellectual politician. He was a man of moderation, going as far as possible with the new intellectual capital of the time, but sharply distinguishing himself from the radicals. It is not surprising that the church in centuries long past his time would lean increasingly upon him for its official doctrine in a world of secularism and science. Aquinas strikes the balance between science and theology, and he does it far on the side of reason and, as much as possible, of empiricism. Aquinas holds that each level of being has its mode of knowledge. Since humans are not angels (which are simultaneously pure forms, logical species, and Intelligences), we cannot directly apprehend the intelligible world of universals, as the “Averroists” claimed; instead humans must proceed by means of particulars. It is emblematic of Aquinas that he places man in the very middle of the metaphysical cosmos: highest of the material order, the human soul is just below the angels, which are the immaterial Ideas leading up to God. 
Aquinas systematized the philosophical and theological doctrines and completely reconstructed the premises of the philosophical argument to bring about a compromise between the Aristotelian radicals (the Averroists) and the Augustinian theocrats.

Saturday, 3 November 2018

On Philosophy and Philosophizing

I think that it is possible for an unwise man to be a philosopher, but only a man of wisdom is capable of philosophizing. Arthur Schopenhauer was a very wise man. I find his wisdom to be more inspiring and impressive than his philosophy.

Here are three excerpts from R. J. Hollingdale’s translation of Schopenhauer’s aphorisms in Arthur Schopenhauer: Essays and Aphorisms (Section, “On Philosophy and the Intellect”; Pages: 117-118):

Schopenhauer on the two main requirements for philosophizing:
The two main requirements for philosophizing are: firstly, to have the courage not to keep any question back; and secondly to attain a clear consciousness of anything that goes without saying so as to comprehend it as a problem. Finally, the mind must, if it is really to philosophize, also be truly disengaged: it must prosecute no particular goal or aim, and thus be free from enticement of will, but devote itself undivided to the instruction which the perceptible world and its own consciousness imparts to it. 
On the difference between a poet and a philosopher:
The poet presents the imagination with images from life and human characters and situations, sets them all in motion and leaves it to the beholder to let these images take his thoughts as far as his mental powers will permit. That is why he is able to engage men of themes different capabilities, indeed fools and sages together. The philosopher, on the other hand, presents not life itself but the finished thoughts which he has abstracted from it and then demands that the reader should think precisely as, and precisely as far as, he himself thinks. That is why his public is so small. The poet can thus be compared with one who presents flowers, the philosophers with one who presents their essence. 
On the vital role that the sceptics play in philosophy:
Mere subtlety may qualify you as a sceptic but not as a philosopher. On the other hand, scepticism is in philosophy what the Opposition is in Parliament; it is just as beneficial, and indeed necessary. It rests everywhere on the fact that philosophy is not capable of producing the kind of evidence mathematics produces. 
Even if you disagree with Schopenhauer on an issue, chances are that you will be impressed by his thoughtful perspective and beautiful expression.

Friday, 2 November 2018

Nietzsche’s Normative Conception of Freedom

In his essay, “Freedom as a Philosophical Ideal: Nietzsche and his Antecedents,” Donald Rutherford looks at the affinity between Friedrich Nietzsche’s normative conception of freedom and the conception of freedom developed by the Stoics and Spinoza. Here’s an excerpt from Rutherford’s essay:
An ideal of freedom is central to the normative stance Nietzsche defends in his mature writings. The autonomous person is an example of a “higher human being” (The Gay Science 2), whose value judgments are a product of a rigorous scrutiny of inherited values and an honest expression of how the answers to ultimate questions of value are “settled in him” (Beyond Good and Evil 231). The autonomous person is thus in a position to take responsibility for his value judgments in a way that conventional agents are not.  
The notion of responsibility invoked here is distinct from traditional notions of moral responsibility, of which Nietzsche is sharply critical. Indeed, Nietzsche stresses how, for him, the ideal of freedom is consistent with, and even demands, the affirmation of fate. It is characteristic of the autonomous person that she is capable of affirming the particular shape of her own fate, thus becoming, in Nietzsche’s terms, “what she is.”  
I have argued, finally, that Nietzsche’s conception of freedom can be understood as the culmination of a long line of thought in the history of philosophy—one which, beginning with the Stoics and extending through Spinoza, finds no inherent contradiction between the affirmation of fate and the realization of freedom, but which restricts this freedom to relatively few higher or “noble” individuals, who escape the bondage of conventional mores and passive emotional states. Although Nietzsche rejects key assumptions made by both the Stoics and Spinoza, his positive ethical stance can be interpreted as an extension of their efforts to elaborate the notion of freedom as a normative ideal. 
It is worth noting that Nietzsche’s conception of freedom is clearly opposed to the libertarian view of freedom which is based on the freedom of will and choice. Nietzsche’s ideal, as Rutherford points out in his essay, is a development of the ideas advanced by the Stoics and Spinoza.

Thursday, 1 November 2018

Philosophers and Slaves

Friedrich Nietzsche in The Gay Science (translated by Walter Kaufmann):

“The Greek philosophers went through life feeling secretly that there were far more slaves than one might think—meaning that everybody who was not a philosopher was a slave. Their pride overflowed at the thought that even the most powerful men on earth belonged among their slaves. This pride, too, is alien and impossible for us; not ever metaphorically does the word ‘slave’ possess its full power for us.” (Book 1; Section 18)