Up@dawn 2.0

Monday, March 28, 2016

Quiz March 29

Kant & Bentham
 1. Kant said we can't know the _______ world of things-in-themselves, but we can know the _______ world of appearances as presented by our mental "spectacles."

2. If (and only if) you help an injured stranger because _________ (it's your duty, you feel sorry for him), Kant says, you've acted morally.

3. Jeremy Bentham's utilitarianism affirms the Greatest ______ Principle, defining _____ as pleasure and the absence of pain.

4. According to Nigel, the best way for a Benthamite to maximize pleasure and minimize pain would be to plug into what? OR, who was Bentham's famous pupil and critic, who said maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain is not all there is to the good life?

5. What's the difference between analytic and synthetic knowledge, and what does a priori mean?

6. According to Moore, where does Kant rank among philosophers?

BONUS: Who said “
Immanuel Kant was a real pissant who was very rarely stable"?

BONUS+: Who did Kant say "awakened [him] from his dogmatic slumbers”?

BONUS++: Who had a walking stick he called "Dapple" and a teapot called "Dick"?

BONUS: What Irish-born critic of the French Revolution said it was a sham, proclaiming equality as a pretext for redistributing property?


  • Do you think it would be possible to communicate with an intelligent alien, whose mental "spectacles" might not perceive space, time, cause-and-effect, etc., as we do? How? Or do you think such categories must be universal among all forms of intelligence? Why?
  • Have you ever gone out of your way to help a stranger? Did you do so because you thought it was the right thing to do, because you felt sympathetic for the stranger's plight, or for some other reason? Do you agree with Kant that dutifulness alone is morally relevant to such acts?
  • Is it better to "do unto others as you would have them do unto you," or as they would have you do...?
  • What does it mean to you to "use your reason" and think for yourself? Does that require a particular form of courage? (Kant: "Sapere Aude," have the courage to use your reason...)
  • Do you agree that maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain are the main (if not exclusive) criteria of ethical action? Why or why not?
  • There's a (false) old saying that he or she who finishes the game with the most toys wins. What about finishing with the most blissful experiences? Would that make you a winner? Would a lifetime of blissful experiences, "real" or not, be tempting to you?
  • What's so funny about liberty, equality, and fraternity? (An Elvis Costello question) 
  • OR, Is redistributivist activism a pretext, or a legitimate political program?
  • Who, in your opinion at this stage of your philosophical education, is #1 (in terms of insight, influence, wit and charm or whatever)?

“Dare to think!”

“He who is cruel to animals becomes hard also in his dealings with men. We can judge the heart of a man by his treatment of animals.”

“Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.”

“Two things fill the mind with ever-increasing wonder and awe, the more often and the more intensely the mind of thought is drawn to them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.”

“Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.”

“For peace to reign on Earth, humans must evolve into new beings who have learned to see the whole first.”

"The day may come when the rest of animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been withholden from them but by the hand of tyranny. The French have already discovered that the blackness of the skin is no reason why a human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor. It may one day come to be recognized that the number of legs, the villosity of the skin, or the termination of the os sacrum are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same fate. What else is it that should trace the insuperable line? Is it the faculty of reason, or perhaps the faculty of discourse? But a full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day or a week or even a month old. But suppose they were otherwise, what would it avail?" 

“Every day will allow you, --will invite you to add something to the pleasure of others, --or to diminish something of their pains.”

“No power of government ought to be employed in the endeavor to establish any system or article of belief on the subject of religion.”

“What is the source of this premature anxiety to establish fundamental laws? It is the old conceit of being wiser than all posterity—wiser than those who will have had more experience,—the old desire of ruling over posterity—the old recipe for enabling the dead to chain down the living.”

“The quantity of pleasure being equal, push-pin is as good as poetry.”

An old post-
Today in CoPhi we'll talk Immanuel Kant, who said the starry heavens struck him with awe (and Adrian Moore on Kant's metaphysics), Jeremy Bentham, and Richard Bourke on ancestral conservative Edmund Burke. [Kant & Bentham quote gallery]

Immanuel Kant was a real pissant who was very rarely stable.”*

No, he wasn’t. Not at all. But that’s still the first thought that ever pops into my head when I hear his name, thanks to the Bruces, and my old Kant professor from grad school whose Brooklynese made his “how I met my wife” story downright vulgar.

Kant was actually the most soberly stable and fastidious of men. They “set their watches by him as he went on his daily walk” in 18th-century Konigsberg, Prussia. That’s probably the thing about him I like most. He well knew the truth of William James’s later observation that steady habits are our greatest productive ally. Kant was as productive, eventually, as he was un-flashy.“Awakened from his dogmatic slumbers” and his romantic dalliance withRousseau and Leibniz by David Hume’s dash of cold water skepticism, he assigned appearance and reality to the phenomenal and noumenal worlds, respectively. He didn’t mean that phenomena are unreal or unknowable, just that we know them through the categorical spectacles of our projective understanding. We don’t know them “in themselves,” the “ding-an-sich” is a non-starter.Russell: "The 'thing-in-itself' was an awkward element in Kant's philosophy, and was abandoned by his immediate successors, who accordingly fell into something very like solipsism." Or what may be worse, into the conceit of thinking they had themselves discovered the things-in-themselves: for Hegel, History, for Schopenhauer, Will, etc.

"It's as if we have innate spectacles through which we look at reality," and knowledge is what we get from "reflecting on the nature of our own spectacles." The spectacles give us categorical knowledge of space and time, causality, and all the other things Hume called mere habituation and custom, or constant conjunctions. "Science is concerned with how things appear to us through the spectacles," continues Adrian Moore, and the result (nicely summarized by Nigel) is supposed to be the protection of the possibility of God, free will, the moral law, etc., "even though we can't be absolutely sure about these things."

But Kant knew what he knew. The stars are awesome, and so is a dutiful conscience (“the moral law within”). Fealty to the latter led him to his “Categorical Imperative” and its “silly” obsession with inflexibly rational consistency.Kant. Obsessive, punctual of habit, semi-gregarious, a mouth-breather, fond of Cicero, and also a philosophical walker (but with a weird aversion to sweat). Famous last word: “Sufficit.” Enough. (I like his countryman Goethe’s better: “Mehr licht.” More light. (Or was it “Mehr nicht,” No more?) Famous living words: “Sapere aude.” Have the courage to reason and think.Kant & Hegel from Osopher [Kant/Hegel slides]

What I love most about my teaching job is that it keeps teaching me new things about our subjects. Utilitarian pioneer Jeremy Bentham is a good example.

It should come as no surprise that the philosopher who had his body preserved and housed for public display (though he keeps losing his head) in University College London had other charms and quirks, but I learned of them only recently. The first volume of Parekh’s Critical Assessments reports that (like Kant and Rousseau) Bentham also was a walker and an eccentric, an understatedly “amusing” man.

Bentham was an extremely amusing man, and in many respects rather boyish. Most of his life he retained an instinctive horror of being left alone… He had a large black tom cat of an ‘uncommonly serious temperament’ which he nicknamed the ‘Doctor’ and ‘The Reverend Doctor Langborn’… He had amusing names for his daily activities and favourite objects. His favourite walking stick was called Dapple, after Sancho Panza’s mule, and his ‘sacred tea-pot’ was called Dick. His daily routine included ‘antejentacular circumgyration’ or a walk before breakfast, an ‘anteprandial circumgyration’ before dinner, and an ‘ignominious expulsion’ at midnight accompanied by the ‘putter-to-bed’, the ‘asportation of the candle’ and the ‘transportation of the window.’So yes, he was weird. But also “basically a warm, generous, and kind” man. He wanted to reform the misery-inducing industrial culture of his time and place, and to improve the basic quality of life of his fellow human beings. So, this cartoon featuring Bentham's zombie auto-icon confronting Phillipa Foot is unfair. But not unfunny.

Create all the happiness you are able to create: remove all the misery you are able to remove. Every day will allow you, will invite you, to add something to the pleasure of others, or to diminish something of their pains. And for every grain of enjoyment you sow in the bosom of another, you shall find a harvest in your own…

Sorry, Mr. Mill, that’s just not what I’d call a “pig philosophy.” It’s humane and compassionate, and it deserves a hearing too.Russell says Bentham was nicer than his philosophy per se encourages people to be, "seduced by his own kindly and affectionate nature" into expecting everyone to pursue not only their own pleasure but to seek to maximize others' as well. I think that's an unduly (but not uncommonly) literalist reading of "greatest happiness for the greatest number." The greatest number would be wholly inclusive. The trouble comes when he dismisses individuals' rights, our ultimate safeguard against unjust discriminatory exclusion, as "nonsense on stilts." A utilitarian need not endorse that dismissal.

A note from a friend currently in painful convalescence from surgery says Bentham was right, the Stoics were wrong: ignoring pain does not work, we've got to work actively to replace it with pleasure.

And following up on Rousseau and Kant and the mystery of what it was about the former’s Emile that kept the latter off the streets– “Everybody who does Education has to read Emile cover-to-cover,” says this jet-lagged Yale lecturer– Rousseau’s Dog is instructive:

According to one anecdote, the fastidious Immanuel Kant, whose daily routine was so rigid and undeviating that people set their watches by him, became so absorbed in Émile that he bewildered his neighbors by forgetting to take his usual post-lunch constitutional… Rousseau understood, he thought, the paradox of autonomy—that freedom meant conformity to a rule. As he was writing his own masterpiece, the Critique of Pure Reason, he had a single portrait in his house—of Jean- Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau’s Dog

So while it was Hume whom he credited with waking him from his “dogmatic slumber,” it was the somber Swiss who really inspired his work and set his Copernican Revolution spinning.

But, Kant "realized that Rousseau's picture of the noble savage was an ideal construct:'This wish for a return to an age of simplicity and innocence is futile.'" (Cave&Light)

In other words: we must live in our own age, not retreat to a romantic and probably false dream of an idyllic Eden. We must continually work to make our complex and "civilized" arrangements and institutions genuinely civilizing. The melioristic impulse is also in our nature.

But I still wonder what the dog thought. [Chains, laws, stars, push-pin & poetry]

I'm not a big fan of Burke, with his defense of aristocracy and the 1% solution. But I do love the quote from him that most everybody knows: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” If he said it. I know he didn't say one of the other things commonly and falsely attributed to him on the Internet: “Those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it.”

That last is actually a misquotation of Santayana. Or maybe Abe Lincoln. But don't believe everything you read on the Internet.

For discussion. The Kantian mental spectacles that allegedly give us our phenomenal world might very well also prevent us from seeing someone else's. Imagine an alien intelligence, whose world must look very different. Could it be that, on Kantian grounds, the search for ET is doomed? Or are the languages of math and physics literally universal?

Kant's commitment to dutifulness as the sole determinant of correct moral action is distressing to most of us, who want to feel virtuous in our sympathies and not deflected from the paths of righteousness. Why can't solicitude for strangers be dutiful and compassionate, and moral in equal measures?

Is there any reason why the impulse to maximize pleasure and minimize pain must be strictly egotistical? Why do critics of utilitarian ethics make this assumption?

There's a (false) old saying that he or she who finishes the game with the most toys wins. What about finishing with the most blissful experiences? Would that make you a winner? Would a lifetime of blissful experiences, "real" or not, be enviable or pitiable? (What would Neo or Professor Nozick say?)

An Elvis Costello question: What's so funny about liberty, equality, and fraternity? OR, Is redistributivist activism a pretext, or a legitimate political program?

Finally, and in anticipation of next week's exam extra credit discussion prompt: Who, in your opinion at this stage of your philosophical education, is #1 (in terms of insight, influence, wit and charm or whatever)? Moore says Kant. I can't agree. I do love Russell's impish question concerning the Sage's bachelorhood:

The Encyclopaedia Britannica remarks that 'as he never married, he kept the habits of his studious youth to old age'. I wonder whether the author of this article was a bachelor or a married man.You probably have to be married (though not necessarily male) to get what's impish about that.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Quiz March 24

Hume, Rousseau (LH); WATCH: The Is/Ought Problem; LISTEN:Peter Millican on Hume's Significance, Melissa Lane on Rousseau on Civilization (PB); Hume & the philosophy of good taste (HI); Hume (IOT); Hume the greatest philosopher? (IOT)

Also of interest: "How Hume helped me solve my midlife crisis, Simon Blackburn on David Hume, David Hume's essays on happiness; see also Essays Moral, Political, LiteraryThe ScepticDavid Hume-a new perspective; LISTEN: Gopnik on Hume & Buddhism (PB); WATCH: Hume on miracles
Podcast... Dawn post-Supremely happy

1. (T/F) Hume thought the human eye so flawless in its patterned intricacy that, like Paley's watch, it constitutes powerful evidence of intelligent design.

2. (T/F) Hume's view was that it's occasionally more plausible to believe that a miracle (the unexplained suspension of a law of nature) has happened, than not.

3. Rousseau said we're born free but everywhere are in ____, but can liberate ourselves by submitting to what is best for the whole community, aka the _______.

4. The ______ is what we say we want, when we think selfishly.

5. Which of Hume's books was published posthumously?

6. What was Hume's Epicurean deathbed statement to Boswell?

BONUS: Whose ex-boyfriend said the eye was proof of intelligent design?

BONUS: Melissa Lane says it was a paradox of civilization for Rousseau that we're in a society of plenty, but are less _____ than when we wandered naked in the glades of some barbaric past.

BONUS+: Who has a "walk" in Edinburgh? Who had a dog?

BONUS++: Bertrand Russell says Hume cannot refute the lunatic who thinks he's a what?


1. What's your reaction to the claim that nature is full of design without a designer (as reflected in the eye), complexity without a goal, adaptation and survival without any ulterior purpose? Is this marvelous or weird or grand (as in "grandeur") or what?

2. Have you encountered or directly experienced an event you would consider a "miracle" in Hume's sense of the term? Was it a "miracle on ice" when the U.S. beat the U.S.S.R. in 1980? Is it a miracle that K.C. almost won the World Series? Is it a miracle that you and I are alive? Do we need a better word for these events?

3. Do you think we should attempt to balance personal freedom with the public interest? Are taxes and other civic obligations (including voting) examples of an attempt to do that? Can anyone ever be compelled to be free? Can an individual be truly free while others remain "chained"? Would life in a "state of nature" be a form of freedom worth having? Is anti-government libertarianism a step forward or back, progress or regress? If Rand Paul had been President in the 1960s, would there have been an effective Civil Rights movement in America?

4. Can freedom be forced? Would we be more free or less, if the law didn't compel us to pay our taxes and behave lawfully? How would you feel, as a law-abiding citizen, if your neighbor could get away with lawlessness? 

5. Comment: [We have insufficient experience of universes, to generalize an opinion as to their probable origins.]

6. Comment, in light of Boswell's last interview with Hume (see "Supremely happy"), on the cliche that "There are no atheists in foxholes."

No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish…. Whoever is moved by Faith to assent to [miracles] is conscious of a continued miracle in his own person, which subverts all the principles of his understanding, and gives him a determination to believe what is most contrary to custom and experience. David Hume
Are you an Inductivist? Do you regularly anticipate, worry about, plan for the events of the day? Would it be reasonable or prudent to do otherwise? What is the practical point of entertaining Humean skeptical arguments about what we can know, based on our experience? Do such considerations make you kinder and gentler, less judgmental, more humble and carefree? Or do they annoy you?

Do you trust the marketplace to provide justice, fairness, security, and a shot at (the pursuit of) happiness for all? Are there some things money cannot buy, but that the public interest requires us to try and provide for one another? Is there an internal mechanism ("hand") in capitalism to insure the public interest's being met? Is capitalism inherently geared to short-term private profit, not long-term public good? Can a market-oriented economy deal adequately with climate change? (On this issue, see Naomi Klein's new book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate.)

Asking again: Are you happy? Would you be happier if you had better access to health care, if college costs were lower, if career competition were less intense, if you didn't have to commute to school and work, if your neighbors were your closest friends, if your community was more supportive and caring, ...? What if any or all of that could be achieved through higher taxes and a more activist government?
An old post-
Thursday, April 2, 2015

Hume & Rousseau

In CoPhi today: David Hume and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (LH), Millican on Hume, Phillipson on Hume's pal Adam Smith, and Melissa Lane on Rousseau.

Also note: not assigned but highly recommended, Alison Gopnik's recent PB discussion of the Hume-Buddhist connection.

David Hume (follow his little finger) has a public "walk" in Edinburgh.

In 1724 the town council bought Calton Hill, making it one of the first public parks in the country. The famous philosopher David Hume lobbied the council to build a walk ‘for the health and amusement of the inhabitants’, and you can still stroll along ‘Hume Walk’ to this day.He agreed with Diderot that good and honest people don't need threats to make them so, they just need to be well nurtured and postively reinforced in the customs and habits of a good and honest society. Divine justice, he thought, is an oxymoron. “Epicurus’ old questions are still unanswered… (continues)”

Everyday morality is based on the simple fact that doing good brings you peace of mind and praise from others and doing evil brings rejection and sorrow. We don’t need religion for morality… religion itself got its morality from everyday morality in the first place… JMH

Hume was an interestingly-birfurcated empiricist/skeptic, doubting metaphysics and causal demonstrations but still sure that “we can know the world of daily life.” That’s because the life-world is full of people collaboratively correcting one another’s errors. Hume and friends “believed morality was available to anyone through reason,” though not moral “knowledge” in the absolute and indubitable Cartesian sense. Custom is fallible but (fortunately) fixable. [Hume at 300… in 3 minutes... Belief in miracles subverts understanding]

On the question of Design, intelligent or otherwise, Hume would definitely join in the February celebration of Darwin Day. Scientific thinking is a natural human instinct, for him, for "clever animals" like ourselves, providing "the only basis we have for learning from experience." (Millican) [Hume vs. design (PB)... Hume on religion (SEP)]

Open your eyes,” Richard Dawkins likes to say. They really are an incredible evolutionary design. Not “perfect” or previsioned, but naturally astounding.

An early episode of the new Cosmos takes a good look at the eye as well.

Julia Sweeney's ex-boyfriend notwithstanding, an evolving eye is quite a useful adaptation at every stage.

Hume, open-eyed but possibly blind to the worst implications of his skeptical brand of empiricism, is on Team Aristotle. Russell, though, says we must look hard for an escape from the "dead-end" conclusion that real knowledge must always elude us, that (for instance) we cannot refute "the lunatic who believes that he is a poached egg." Russell says this is a "desperate" result. I say it would be more desperate to feel compelled to refute Mr. Egg in the first place. Remember the old Groucho line? "My brother thinks he's a chicken - we don't talk him out of it because we need the eggs."
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, of Team Plato along with other celebrants (like the other Marx) of "a communitarian ideal based on men's dreams," was an emotional thinker with a romantically-inflated opinion of human nature and the “noble savages” who would have embodied it in a hypothetical state of nature.

What’s most interesting to me about Rousseau is that his Emile so arrested the attention of Immanuel Kant that he allowed it to disrupt his daily walking routine “for a few days.” Nothing short of seriously-incapacitating illness would do that to me. Apparently Kant was typically the same way, except for just that once.
Kant could get very upset if well-meaning acquaintances disturbed his routines. Accepting on one occasion an invitation to an outing into the country, Kant got very nervous when he realised that he would be home later than his usual bedtime, and when he was finally delivered to his doorstep just a few minutes after ten, he was shaken with worry and disgruntlement, making it at once one of his principles never to go on such a tour again.

So what’s in Emile that could so dis-comport a creature of such deeply ingrained habit? A generally-favorable evaluation of human nature, and a prescription for education reflective of that evaluation. Kant thought highly enough of Rousseau’s point of view to hold us all to a high standard of reasoned conduct. We should always treat others as ends in themselves, never as mere means to our own ends. We have a duty to regard one another with mutual respect.
The character of Emile begins learning important moral lessons from his infancy, through childhood, and into early adulthood. His education relies on the tutor’s constant supervision. The tutor must even manipulate the environment in order to teach sometimes difficult moral lessons about humility, chastity, and honesty. IEP

Yes, fine. But what precisely in Emile kept Kant off the streets, until he was finished with it?

Could have something to do with other characters in the story. “Rousseau discusses in great detail how the young pupil is to be brought up to regard women and sexuality.” Now maybe we’re getting somewhere.

Or not. Rousseau’s observations regarding women sound pretty sexist and ill-informed, nothing Kant (as a relatively un-Enlightenend male) wouldn’t already have shared.

Maybe it’s what Emile says about freedom that so arrested Kant? “The will is known to me in its action, not in its nature.”

Or religion? “It is categorically opposed to orthodox Christian views, specifically the claim that Christianity is the one true religion.” Maybe.
The Vicar claims that the correct view of the universe is to see oneself not at the center of things, but rather on the circumference, with all people realizing that we have a common center. This same notion is expressed in Rousseau’s political theory, particularly in the concept of the general will.
That’s very promising. Kant’s Copernican Revolution etc.

I wonder if the mystery of Kant’s lost walks could be related, too, to another of fellow-pedestrian Rousseau’s books, Reveries of the Solitary Walker?
The work is divided into ten “walks” in which Rousseau reflects on his life, what he sees as his contribution to the public good, and how he and his work have been misunderstood. It is interesting that Rousseau returns to nature, which he had always praised throughout his career… The Reveries, like many of Rousseau’s other works, is part story and part philosophical treatise. The reader sees in it, not only philosophy, but also the reflections of the philosopher himself.
That may not be a clue but it’s a definite inspiration for my own Philosophy Walks project, still seeking its legs.

Melissa Lane, like me, is very interested in Rousseau's walking.

BTW: we know Rousseau had a dog. Did Kant? If so, wasn’t he neglecting his duty to walk her?

Is nature full of design without a designer (as possibly reflected in the eye), complexity without a goal, adaptation and survival without any ulterior purpose? Is this marvelous or weird or grand (as in the "grandeur" of nature, in Darwin's view) or what? Most designers sign their work unambiguously, even ostentatiously.

We talked miracles earlier in the semester, so this may be redundant. But so many of us were so sure that we'd encountered or directly experienced suspensions of natural law that it seems worth a second pass. Was it a "miracle on ice" when the U.S. beat the U.S.S.R. in 1980? Is it a miracle that K.C. almost won the World Series? Isn't it a miracle that you and I are alive? Or that your friend or loved one, who'd received the very bad prognosis, is? Well, not exactly. All of those are plenty improbable, given certain assumptions. But none of them is an obvious law-breaker. We need a better word for these events, a word that conveys astonished and grateful surprise but does not court woo. Or I do, anyway.

J-J Rousseau seems to have been a self-indulgent paranoiac scoundrel, but he wasn't wrong to say we need to balance personal freedom with the public interest. Minimally, we need to tax ourselves enough to provide good public education, reliable infrastructure, and a secure peace. And we need to vote. (I'll ask in class how many are registered and how many will actually cast a ballot tomorrow, then I'll ask what would J-J say.)

Maybe he was just phrase-making, but "compelled to be free" has a chillier aspect from our end of the twentieth century. Whenever we act to pad our own nest wile neglecting the well-being of others, we reinforce the "chains" of oppression. Yet life is a chain. We should remember that a chain is no stronger than its weakest link.

Whenever I hear libertarians rail against government activism, I wonder: if a Rand Paul had been President in the 1960s, would there have been an effective Civil Rights movement in America?

Last Fall I tried to buoy the spirits of my friend from Kansas City, after his upstart Royals fell to the Giants. I pointed out that teams more often rally when down 3-2 than not. His pessimistic reply: I'm a skeptic about induction. It was a joke, and maybe Hume was joking too. Aren't we all Inductivists, regularly anticipating, worring about, planning for the events of our days? Would it be reasonable or prudent to do otherwise?

Of course we could do with less worry, but that's because experience has taught the truism that most of our worries are unfounded. So what, really, is the practical point of entertaining Humean skeptical arguments? It's not to urge us over the Pyrrhonic cliff, but to redouble our curiosity and our humility: to make us kinder, gentler, less neurotic friends and fellow citizens. As Hume said, "Be a philosopher; but amidst your philosophy, be still a man."

Melissa Lane's interview on Rousseau raises important questions for our time, when the marketplace so clearly has faile to provide justice, fairness, security, and a shot at (the pursuit of) happiness for all. Michael Sandel rightly says there are some things money cannot buy, but that the public interest and common decency nonetheless require us to try and provide for one another.

Adam Smith's "invisible hand" seems more invisible than ever, short-term private profiteering more prevalent. Can a market-oriented economy deal adequately, for instance, with climate change? Naomi Klein's new book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate says no.

More Rousseau-inspired challenges: Are we happy? Would we be happier if we had better access to health care, if college costs were lower, if career competition were less intense, if you didn't have to commute to school and work, if your neighbors were your closest friends, if your community was more supportive and caring, ...? What if any or all of that could be achieved through higher taxes and a more activist government?

But let's be real, Jean-Jacques: most of that was never on offer in any realistic state of nature.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Quiz Mar22

Voltaire & Leibniz (LH); WATCH: The Life of Leibniz; LISTEN: Voltaire's Candide, In Our Time... Podcasts-Cultivating our garden... Pangloss and meliorism

1. What English poet declared that "whatever is, is right"?

2. What German philosopher, with his "Principle of Sufficient Reason," agreed with the poet?

3. What French champion of free speech and religious toleration wrote a satirical novel/play ridiculing the idea that everything is awesome?

4. What 1755 catastrophe deeply influenced Voltaire's philosophy?

5. What did Voltaire mean by "cultivating our garden"?

6. Was Voltaire an atheist?
1. If "whatever is, is right," is political reform or personal growth and change ever an appropriate aspiration? Does anyone ever really act as if they believe that this is the best of all possible worlds? What would you change about the world or your life, if you could?

2. Even if there's a logical explanation for everything, does it follow that there's a justification?

3. If you agree that "Panglossian" (Leibnizian) optimism is ridiculous, what form of optimism isn't? Are you an optimist? Why?
4. Why do you think people who survive earthquakes, floods, tornadoes etc. so frequently praise god for sparing them, even or especially when their neighbors are not so fortunate? What does this say about human nature and religion focused on personal salvation?
5. Was Voltaire's play an example of "cultivating your garden"? What other examples can you think of? 
6. Do you like Deism? Is it more defensible, against charges of divine indifference, than mainstream theism?

The Almanac recognizes Sam Johnson's sidekick James Boswell, who was also Voltaire's friend. A good segue for us:
It's the birthday of James Boswell (books by this author), born in Edinburgh, Scotland (1740). He is best known as the author of Life of Johnson (1791), a biography of Dr. Samuel Johnson, which is considered by many people to be the greatest biography ever written in English. As a young man, Boswell's father wanted him to settle down and take care of the family's ancestral estate in rural Scotland. Boswell wanted adventure, excitement, and intrigue, so he ran away to London and became a Catholic. He began keeping a journal in London, and instead of describing his thoughts and feelings about things, he wrote down scenes from his life as though they were fiction. He described his friends as though they were characters and recorded long stretches of dialogue.
As a young man, Boswell was the life of the party, and everyone who met him liked him. The French writer Voltaire invited him to stay at his house after talking to him for only half an hour. David Hume asked him to stay at his bedside when he died. He hung out with the philosopher Rousseau, and Rousseau's mistress liked him so much that she had an affair with Boswell. He was even friends with the pope. And then on May 16, 1763, he met the scholar and writer Samuel Johnson in the back room of a bookstore. Johnson was a notoriously unfriendly man, but Boswell had long admired him and tried hard to impress him. The next time they met, Johnson said to Boswell, "Give me your hand. I have taken a liking to you." Johnson was 30 years older than Boswell and he was the most renowned literary scholar in England. Boswell was undistinguished compared to Johnson's other friends, but Boswell never tried to compete with Johnson's intellect. Their relationship was like an interview that went on for years. Boswell would just ask questions and listen to Johnson talk, and then he would go home and write it all down in his journal. 
The two men eventually became great friends. They talked about everything from philosophy and religion to trees and turnips. Boswell knew early on that he would write Johnson's biography, but he didn't start until after Johnson's death. The work was slow going. He watched as several others published books about Johnson, and he worried that no one would care about his book when he finished it. He had to fight with his editor to keep the odd details, like the things Johnson had said to his cat and what kind of underwear he thought women should wear. He felt that these were the details that revealed who Johnson really was. When the book finally came out, it was a huge best-seller. No one had ever written such a personal biography that so completely captured a life, and no one has done so since.==
It's possible that he, like Yogi Berra, didn't say everything he said. Abe Lincoln warned us not to believe everything we read on the Internet. But these lines attributed to Voltaire are good:

  • “Let us read, and let us dance; these two amusements will never do any harm to the world.”
  • “‎Life is a shipwreck, but we must not forget to sing in the lifeboats.” 
  • “Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.” 
  • “Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.” 
  • “Every man is guilty of all the good he did not do.” 
  • “The most important decision you make is to be in a good mood.” 
  • “I have chosen to be happy because it is good for my health.” 
  • “Doubt is an uncomfortable condition, but certainty is a ridiculous one.” 
  • “Cherish those who seek the truth but beware of those who find it.” 
  • “What is tolerance? It is the consequence of humanity. We are all formed of frailty and error; let us pardon reciprocally each other's folly - that is the first law of nature.” 
  • “The human brain is a complex organ with the wonderful power of enabling man to find reasons for continuing to believe whatever it is that he wants to believe.”
  • “One day everything will be well, that is our hope. Everything's fine today, that is our illusion” 
  • “The greatest consolation in life is to say what one thinks.” 
  • “Let us cultivate our garden.” 

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz
...La Monadologie (Monadology) (1714) is a highly condensed outline of Leibniz's metaphsics. Complete individual substances, or monads, are dimensionless points which contain all of their properties—past, present, and future—and, indeed, the entire world. The true propositions that express their natures follow inexorably from the principles of contradiction and sufficient reason.

The same themes are presented more popularly in the Discours de Metaphysique (Discourse on Metaphysics) (1686). There Leibniz emphasized the role of a benevolent deity in creating this, the best of all possible worlds, where everything exists in a perfect, pre-established harmony with everything else. Since space and time are merely relations, all of science is a study of phenomenal objects. According to Leibniz, human knowledge involves the discovery within our own minds of all that is a part of our world, and although we cannot make it otherwise, we ought to be grateful for our own inclusion in it.

And the meliorist just wants to make it better.

William James, in Pragmatism:
Truly there is something a little ghastly in the satisfaction with which a pure but unreal system will fill a rationalist mind. Leibnitz was a rationalist mind, with infinitely more interest in facts than most rationalist minds can show. Yet if you wish for superficiality incarnate, you have only to read that charmingly written 'Theodicee' of his, in which he sought to justify the ways of God to man, and to prove that the world we live in is the best of possible worlds... (continues)
...there are unhappy men who think the salvation of the world impossible. Theirs is the doctrine known as pessimism.

Optimism in turn would be the doctrine that thinks the world's salvation inevitable.
Midway between the two there stands what may be called the doctrine of meliorism, tho it has hitherto figured less as a doctrine than as an attitude in human affairs. Optimism has always been the regnant DOCTRINE in european philosophy. Pessimism was only recently introduced by Schopenhauer and counts few systematic defenders as yet. Meliorism treats salvation as neither inevitable nor impossible. It treats it as a possibility, which becomes more and more of a probability the more numerous the actual conditions of salvation become.
It is clear that pragmatism must incline towards meliorism... (continues)
An old post-

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Voltaire & Leibniz

Brains, John Campbell was saying in his Berkeley interview, are a big asset. "It's very important that we have brains. Their function is to reveal the world to us, not to generate a lot of random junk."

Voltaire, dubbed by Russell "the chief transmitter of English influence to France," was an enemy of philosophical junk, too. One of the great Enlightenment salon wits, a Deist and foe of social injustice who railed against religious intolerance (“Ecrasez l’infame!”) and mercilessly parodied rationalist philosophers (especially Leibniz, aka Dr. Pangloss).
Pangloss was professor of metaphysico-theologico-cosmolo-nigology. He proved admirably that there is no effect without a cause, and that, in this best of all possible worlds, the Baron’s castle was the most magnificent of castles, and his lady the best of all possible Baronesses… Candide“There is a lot of pain in the world, and it does not seem well distributed.” [slides here]
William James called Leibniz's theodicy "superficiality incarnate": "Leibniz's feeble grasp of reality is too obvious to need comment from me. It is evident that no realistic image of the experience of a damned soul had ever approached the portals of his mind..." And James's comments continue, in a similarly scathing vein. He was particularly incensed by the disconnect between Leibniz's philosophy and the suffering of a distraught Clevelander whose plight and ultimate suicide stands for the despair of so many through the ages. But if you like Leibniz's defense of the ways of god, maybe you'd love his monadology. Maybe not. But if one substance is good, how good is a practical infinity of them?

Russell raises the basic objection to Leibniz's "fantastical" scheme of windowless monads: if they (we) never really interact, how do they (we) know about each other? It might just be a bizarre collective dream, after all. And the "best possible world" claim is just not persuasive, though many will want to believe it.

People wish to think the universe good, and will be lenient to bad arguments proving that it is so, while bad arguments proving that it is bad are closely scanned. In fact, of course, the world is partly good and partly bad, and no ' problem of evil' Voltaire’s countryman Diderot offered a sharp rejoinder to those who said nonbelievers couldn’t be trusted. “An honest person is honest without threats…” [Voltaire @dawn...Leibniz@dawn... Spinoza Leibniz slides... Voltaire_Leibniz_ James]

"Whatever is, is right." I don't care which Pope* said that, it's crazy. No way to think and live.

Submit.—In this, or any other sphere,
Secure to be as blest as thou canst bear:
Safe in the hand of one disposing pow'r,
Or in the natal, or the mortal hour.
All nature is but art, unknown to thee;
All chance, direction, which thou canst not see;
All discord, harmony, not understood;
All partial evil, universal good:
And, spite of pride, in erring reason's spite,
One truth is clear, Whatever is, is right.
*An Essay on Man

Everything happens from a cause, sure, but not "for a reason" if that's code for "for the best."

Irremediably, irredeemably bad things happen. Regret is an appropriate first response. Of course we should try to prevent recurrences of the worst (by our lights) that happens.

Voltaire's Candide may be the most devastating parody ever penned. A "logical explanation for everything" leaves the world much as it found it, less than perfect and easy to improve. Feeding the hungry, curing the sick, educating the ignorant, saving the earth, etc., are obvious improvements to begin with. "All is well," Miss Blue? (An obscure reference to a sweet-hearted cleaning lady I used to hear on the radio when I was young, who ruined that phrase for me.) I don't think so.

But the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 did nothing to block Voltaire's "Pangloss" from continuing to insist that everything is the result of a pre-established harmony. What must it be like, to live in a bubble of denial so insulated from reality as to permit a learned person to believe that?

After tornadoes, earthquakes, and other fatal natural disasters, people interviewed on television frequently thank god for sparing them. Hardly a reasonable response, even if a lifetime of indoctrination and insulation makes it "understandable." But to say it in the hearing of survivors whose loved ones weren't spared? Unspeakably insensitive. If "acts of god" (as the insurance companies put it) take life randomly, and you happened to be one of the random survivors, is gratitude really the humane response?

Candide's statement that "we must cultivate our garden" is a metaphor for not just talking about abstract philosophical questions but instead doing something for our species while we have the opportunity. It's a plea for applied philosophy. I'm fresh from a philosophy conference where, I'm sorry to report, the old bias in favor of Grand Theory still has its champions. Spectators, not ameliorators, more concerned to polish their conceptual palaces than rebuild the crumbling human abode. (Thinking in particular of an environmental ethics session, where activists were slighted for being less than rigorous.)

Voltaire, as noted, was a deist, a freethinker, and a pre-Darwinian. He was not an atheist. But is that just an accident of history? If he'd come along a century later, might he have embraced godlessness?

Hard to know. He marveled at nature's universe, wondered at (didn't shrink from) the stars, and burned with a passion to make a better world. The highest powers are those aligned with that quest, not the complacent and wildly premature contention that this is the best of all possible worlds. His god, in any age, would not have been an excuse for passivity or indifference to the fate of the earth and its riders.