Up@dawn 2.0

Thursday, March 30, 2017

John Locke

Olivia King

John Locke was born in 1632 in Wrighton, Somerset. He was one of the most famous philosophers of the 17th century. Locke has been called the “intellectual father of our country” by the John Locke Foundation. He attended Christ Church, one of Oxford’s most prestigious schools, where he was educated in philosophy and medicine.  After graduating, he returned to get a Master of Arts and eventually took on tutorial work at the school. Locke had many important theories, some of them regarding the separation of church and state, religious freedom, and liberty. One of his main beliefs was in Natural Law, which mean that man had natural rights; they weren’t given to him by a ruler. Man got these rights just for being human. He went on to write many famous pieces of literature, one of them called “Two Treatises of Government.” In this literature, he talked about his ideas on natural rights and the social contracts. These writings turned England upside down and were helped give rise to the American and French revolutions. Once these revolutions happened, people started to turn on Locke. He was eventually exiled to Holland, and wrote “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.” It ended up being four books long and examined the human knowledge and how it worked. He eventually returned to England, and his writings made a lasting impact. John Locke was an extremely successful and influential philosopher, his works are still highly revered and respected today. Because of all this, John Locke is one of the most important philosophers of all time.
Baruch Spinoza, born in Amsterdam and raised Jewish, is said to be the first philosopher who was really atheist, even though he would beg to disagree. He said he practiced more Pantheism which is the belief that God is everywhere and everything. Part of the reason people say he was atheist because he was excommunicated from the Jewish community and cursed by the rabbis when he was 24 years old. He was most likely excommunicated because he questioned the tenants and he vocalized his his doubts about the religion. He then moved from Amsterdam to The Hague and made his small income as a lens grinder for scientific instruments like microscopes and telescopes. Spinoza used geometrical reasoning to come to logical conclusions about God, freedom, nature, and emotion. As quoted in Little History, “he wrote philosophy as if it were geometry. The ‘proofs’ in his book Ethics look like geometrical proofs and include axioms and definitions.” It was only after his early death at the age of 44, caused by constantly inhaling glass fragments, that his most popular book, Ethics, was published. As previously stated, Spinoza reasoned that God is infinite which means that there cannot be anything that is not God. So all people are a part of God as well as fish and non living things like all door knobs and cardboard boxes. When he thought of God, he didn’t think of the kind man who loves humanity and answers personal prayers, he thought of God as an “it” who did not care for anyone or anything and was very impersonal. Another quote from Little History is “the God he describes is so completely indifferent to human beings and what they do that many thought Spinoza didn’t believe in God at all and that his pantheism was a cover. They took him to be an atheist and against religion altogether.” It was hard for me to wrap my mind around why people would think that Spinoza was an atheist if he thought that everything was composed of God. He said he had a love for God based on deep understanding achieved by reason, so how can you have love for something that you do not believe in?
-Lillia Hendrickson-10

John Locke & Politics

John Locke (1632-1704) was an English philosopher, who is one of the most influential political philosophers of the modern day and is often called the “Father of Liberalism”.  His works would later influence Voltaire, Jean-Jacque Rousseau, and many others in the Revolutionary War.  In fact, Locke’s writings on his liberal theories can be detected in the lines of the Declaration of Independence!  In his work Two Treatises of Government, Locke argued that all men are free and equal under the laws of nature, and that people have rights to life, property, liberty, and other things as such.  He believed that governments are a result of social contact between citizens, and that because it exists by the consent of the population, people transfer some rights to the government so that it can better protect their lives and promote the goodness of the public.  Should the government fail to do so, the people will resist it and replace it with a different form of government.  Lock was also a firm believer in the principle of majority rule, that any law or elected official should be chosen based on the decision of the majority of the population.  He also believed that the legislative and executive powers should be kept separate from one another, never to intervene or coerce the actions and decisions of one another.  Another point he argues is that the church should not have any power whatsoever over members of the government, that the church and the state should be separate.  Whatever you may think about his political philosophies, John Locke is widely regarded as one of the most important and influential philosophers of the modern era.

John Locke - Clayton Thomas (10)

     Think back, to the time you were a baby. Now compare that to who you are now.Very different people correct? Well John Locke seems to believe otherwise. John Locke (1632-1704) believed that we remain the same human over time remaining the same 'human animal' as we were compared to childhood. According to Locke, "I could be the same 'man, but not the same person I was previously." He claimed that what makes us the same person over time is our consciousness, our awareness of our own selves.
    Locke's ideas seem to be on the right track to understanding ourselves and how we define who we really are, but the logic doesn't seem to be quite there. Using Locke's logic, your personal identity only extends back as far as your memory; therefore, unless you can remember being a baby you are now a different person, which seems to be a bit absurd. We remain in the same body our whole lives, so the continuity of life in the same body should show enough that we are the same person. Just because we cannot remember being a baby doesn't take away the fact that we were one babies with thoughts and emotions which we began building our knowledge of life.
    Thomas Reid was one such philosopher whom tried to disprove Locke's logic by using the example of a soldier. It follows that, an old soldier can remember his bravery in battle as a young soldier, as a young soldier he could remember being hit as a boy for theft of apples from an orchard, yet in his old age he could not remember being struck as a child. So by Locke's logic, the old man and the young boy are different people,     Think back, to the time you were a baby. Now compare that to who you are now.Very different people correct? Well John Locke seems to believe otherwise. John Locke (1632-1704) believed that we remain the same human over time remaining the same 'human animal' as we were compared to childhood. According to Locke, "I could be the same 'man, but not the same person I was previously." He claimed that what makes us the same person over time is our consciousness, our awareness of our own selves.
    Locke's ideas seem to be on the right track to understanding ourselves and how we define who we really are, but the logic doesn't seem to be quite there. Using Locke's logic, your personal identity only extends back as far as your memory; therefore, unless you can remember being a baby you are now a different person, which seems to be a bit absurd. We remain in the same body our whole lives, so the continuity of life in the same body should show enough that we are the same person. Just because we cannot remember being a baby doesn't take away the fact that we were one babies with thoughts and emotions which we began building our knowledge of life, but the the old man and the young soldier are the same person and the young soldier and the child are the same person. Which is like saying A=B and B=C, but A doesn't equal C. So this contradicting statement by Reid has disproved Locke's logic.

Quiz Apr 4

1. Spinoza's view, that God and nature (or the universe) are the same thing, is called _______.

2. If god is _____, there cannot be anything that is not god; if _____, god is indifferent to human beings.

3. Spinoza was a determinist, holding that _____ is an illusion. 

4. According to John Locke, all our knowledge comes from _____; hence, the mind of a newborn is a ______. 

5. Locke said _____ continuity establishes personal identity (bodily, psychological); Thomas Reid said identity relies on ______ memories, not total recall.

6. Who kicked a stone to try and refute Berkeley's idealism?

7. Bishop George Berkeley was a metaphysical idealist because he believed all that exist are____; he was an immaterialist because he denied that ______ exists; he was an _______ because he said all knowledge comes from direct personal experience.

8. Esse est percipi means what?

9. What was Pope's way of saying that this is the best of all possible worlds? What German philosopher agreed, with his Principle of Sufficient Reason? What French writer disagreed, writing an acerbic philosophical novel?

10. What cataclysmic event did Voltaire use to make his case against Leibniz's optimism?

11. To what "faith" did Pangloss cling? 

12. What does "cultivate our garden" mean?

13. Whose friends told him not to publish what during his lifetime?

14. What was Hume's view of miracles? What view did he share with Epicurus?

15. Who said we're born free but find ourselves "in chains"? How did he say we could break them? (By embracing what?)

16. What's the difference between the Will of All and the General Will?

BONUS: Who said “the sources of art in human experience will be learned by him who sees how the tense grace of the ball-player infects the onlooking crowd"?

Image result for spinoza quotes

1. Do you agree that, contrary to Pascal, most nonreligious people would consider it a huge sacrifice to devote their lives to religion? Why?

2. Is the choice between God and no-god 50/50, like a coin toss? How would you calculate the odds? At what point in the calculation do you think it becomes prudent to bet on God? Or do you reject this entire approach? Why?

3. Can we freely choose to renounce free will? Or freely choose to affirm it? Or seek new desires? (Schopenhauer: "We can do what we want, but not want what we want.")

4. Can a rationalist pantheist endorse delusional sources of happiness? Or cheer meaningfully for the home team? (See my dawn post...)

5. Was Einstein being disingenous or misleading, when he affirmed "Spinoza's God"?

6. Comment: "There isn't an inch of earth where God is not."


BONUS+: What's the function of brains, according to Campbell?

1. If the inner world of a newborn is a "blooming buzzing confusion," as William James said, does that show Locke to be right about the contentlessness of the natal mind? Does the mind really start from scratch, an empty vessel? Or might people like the linguist Noam Chomsky and psychologist Steven Pinker be right, to say that the human mind comes equipped with specific, evolved structures for learning language and other things?

2. What's your earliest stored memory? How do you know you're the same person you were before your first recorded memory? Would this be an especially frightening question if you had Alzheimer's? If you ever experience significant or total memory loss, will that be the end of you?

3. Do you notice a difference in the quality of your various experiences. such that some feel immediate and direct (a sunset, an interpersonal encounter, an "epiphany" etc.) while others are more remote, filtered, or "mediated" (a televised sunset, an online chat, a familiar thought)? Is that feeling of immediacy real? What do you think you are encountering, when you have an immediate experience: sensations, perceptions, concepts, ideas... or the world that causes them?

4. How would you fill out the phrase Esse est ____, To be is to be _____?

5. Do you support separation of chuch and state? Do you value and practice "toleration"? Or is even that too mild an acceptance of others' freedom? Would you want to live in a society whose rules were imposed by Imams, Ayatollahs, or the pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church?

6. What do you think of Morpheus' speech in The Matrix, when he says if you think of things you can touch, feel, hear, see etc. as "real," then reality is just electrical signals in the brain? Agree? Does that make you a skeptic? Can you draw the distinction between primary and secondary qualities, as Locke did, without becoming either a skeptic or a metaphysical idealist like Berkelely? If you did agree with Berkeley, how would that change your daily life and experience? Is this ultimately a distinction (Primary & Secondary Qualities) without a difference, hence irrelevant from a pragmatic POV?

Toleration and the Separation of Church & State

John Locke (b. 1632, d. 1704) was a British philosopher, Oxford academic and medical researcher. Locke's monumental An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689) is one of the first great defenses of empiricism and concerns itself with determining the limits of human understanding in respect to a wide spectrum of topics. It thus tells us in some detail what one can legitimately claim to know and what one cannot. Locke's association with Anthony Ashley Cooper (later the First Earl of Shaftesbury) led him to become successively a government official charged with collecting information about trade and colonies, economic writer, opposition political activist, and finally a revolutionary whose cause ultimately triumphed in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Among Locke's political works he is most famous for The Second Treatise of Government in which he argues that sovereignty resides in the people and explains the nature of legitimate government in terms of natural rights and the social contract. He is also famous for calling for the separation of Church and State in his Letter Concerning Toleration. Much of Locke's work is characterized by opposition to authoritarianism. This is apparent both on the level of the individual person and on the level of institutions such as government and church. For the individual, Locke wants each of us to use reason to search after truth rather than simply accept the opinion of authorities or be subject to superstition. He wants us to proportion assent to propositions to the evidence for them. On the level of institutions it becomes important to distinguish the legitimate from the illegitimate functions of institutions and to make the corresponding distinction for the uses of force by these institutions. Locke believes that using reason to try to grasp the truth, and determine the legitimate functions of institutions will optimize human flourishing for the individual and society both in respect to its material and spiritual welfare. This in turn, amounts to following natural law and the fulfillment of the divine purpose for humanity... SEP

From John Locke's "Letter Concerning Toleration" (1689)-
...Nobody, therefore, in fine, neither single persons nor churches, nay, nor even commonwealths, have any just title to invade the civil rights and worldly goods of each other upon pretence of religion. Those that are of another opinion would do well to consider with themselves how pernicious a seed of discord and war, how powerful a provocation to endless hatreds, rapines, and slaughters they thereby furnish unto mankind. No peace and security, no, not so much as common friendship, can ever be established or preserved amongst men so long as this opinion prevails, that dominion is founded in grace and that religion is to be propagated by force of arms.
In the third place, let us see what the duty of toleration requires from those who are distinguished from the rest of mankind (from the laity, as they please to call us) by some ecclesiastical character and office; whether they be bishops, priests, presbyters, ministers, or however else dignified or distinguished. It is not my business to inquire here into the original of the power or dignity of the clergy. This only I say, that, whencesoever their authority be sprung, since it is ecclesiastical, it ought to be confined within the bounds of the Church, nor can it in any manner be extended to civil affairs, because the Church itself is a thing absolutely separate and distinct from the commonwealth. The boundaries on both sides are fixed and immovable. He jumbles heaven and earth together, the things most remote and opposite, who mixes these two societies, which are in their original, end, business, and in everything perfectly distinct and infinitely different from each other. No man, therefore, with whatsoever ecclesiastical office he be dignified, can deprive another man that is not of his church and faith either of liberty or of any part of his worldly goods upon the account of that difference between them in religion. For whatsoever is not lawful to the whole Church cannot by any ecclesiastical right become lawful to any of its members.

Johnson refutes Berkeley

Or does he?
After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley's ingenious sophistry to prove the nonexistence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it -- "I refute it thus." Boswell's Life 
Calvin and Hobbes 

Also: Locke vs. Reid re: personal identity. "Reid's second criticism is his most famous and is often referred to as the case of the Brave Officer":

Suppose a brave officer to have been flogged when a boy at school, for robbing an orchard, to have taken a standard from the enemy in his first campaign, and to have been made a general in advanced life: Suppose also, which must be admitted to be possible, that when he took the standard, he was conscious of his having been flogged at school, and that when made a general he was conscious of his taking the standard, but had absolutely lost the consciousness of his flogging.
These things being supposed, it follows, from Mr LOCKE's doctrine, that he who was flogged at school is the same person who took the standard, and that he who took the standard is the same person who was made a general. When it follows, if there be any truth in logic, that the general is the same person with him who was flogged at school. But the general's consciousness does not reach so far back as his flogging, therefore, according to Mr LOCKE's doctrine, he is not the person who was flogged. Therefore the general is, and at the same time is not the same person as him who was flogged at school (Essays, 276).
An old post-

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Locke, Reid, & Berkeley

Today in CoPhi it's John Locke (not the "Lost" one) and Thomas Reid on personalidentity (and John Dunn on Locke's concept of toleration), George Berkeley, and John Campbell on Berkeley's Puzzle.

John Locke has become a more difficult figure to research, ever since the Lost television series pushed his namesake to the forefront of popular consciousness and search results. The fictional John Locke can walk, not back in civilization but on his freaky island. (But I can't listen to this song.)

The real John Locke, "apostle of the Revolution of 1688" (Russell) apparently had trouble walking too.

He was naturally very active, and employed himself as much as his health would permit. Sometimes he diverted himself with working in the garden, which he well understood. He loved walking, but not being able to walk much, through the disorder of his lungs, he used to ride out after dinner...
[I have to keep reminding myself that these "riding" philosophers were on horseback, not bikes. Philosophy Rides, the sequel, will not be a historical survey.]
His bad health was a disturbance to none but himself... his usual drink was nothing but water...Good for him, I guess. He's not the philosopher I'd most like to spend time in a pub with, though I admire his most pragmatic statement that "the actions of men [are] the best interpreters of their thought."

His near-dying words were that we should regard this world and life as nothing but a vanity and "a state of preparation for a better." Repugnant words, to a happy humanist and to all those "atheists in foxholes - there is indeed a list." And yet, other words of his ("all mankind being equal and independent, none ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty") inspired some of our greatest social and political experiments.

And some of our strangest television. Don't tell me what I can't do.

The Locke who inspired the eighteenth century was the philosopher who wired Aristotle's most important insight, that all knowledge comes through experience, into the modern western mind. (Cave & Light)

Locke said the key to personal identity is memory. Oh-oh! But Thomas Reid, Mr. Scottish Common Sense, helpfully said you can get there from here: if you remember yourself in (say) 1998, and that Self remembers itself in 1980, and that one remembers version 1975, and so on… well, you’re the same person you were back in the day. Whew! That’s a relief. The Ship of Theseus may be seaworthy, after all.

But Walter ("That's the way it is") Cronkite used to ask “Can the world be saved?” Honestly, it’s too soon to tell. But I think William James had it right when he wrote: “The world may be saved, on condition that its parts shall do their best. But shipwreck in detail, or even on the whole, is among the open possibilities.”

Cesar Kuriyama told TED he intends to record, splice, and archive a second of every day of his life. He wants never to forget. What would Locke say? Or Nietzsche?
“Consider the herds that are feeding yonder: they know not the meaning of yesterday or today; they graze and ruminate, move or rest, from morning to night, from day to day, taken up with their little loves and hates and the mercy of the moment, feeling neither melancholy nor satiety. Man cannot see them without regret, for even in the pride of his humanity he looks enviously on the beast’s happiness. He wishes simply to live without satiety or pain, like the beast; yet it is all in vain, for he will not change places with it. He may ask the beast—“Why do you look at me and not speak to me of your happiness?” The beast wants to answer—“Because I always forget what I wished to say”; but he forgets this answer, too, and is silent; and the man is left to wonder.”

Gayatri Devi says if you want a better memory you must make yourself forget more.

Locke is more familiar to Americans as the underwriter of our pursuit of life, liberty, and property. (Thomas Jefferson, we know, edited Locke on that last point.) He defended separation of church and state (as did Thomas Jefferson), and toleration. [AU] A very enlightened guy, for his time and place, but still not clear-sighted about freedom from worship for those who choose it. [Matthew Stewart, Nature's God reviewed... Locke's radical idea (Cave&Light)]

And, we can blame him in large part for Bishop George Berkeley‘s (careful with that pronunciation) startling esse est percipi thesis, since Berkeley drove through the hole Locke's representational realism had opened. Also today, John Campbell on Berkeley's Puzzle.

Bishop Berkeley was one odd empiricist, insisting that we “know” only our ideas and not their referents. Here’s that famous scene with Dr. Dictionary:
After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the nonexistence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it — “I refute it thus.” Boswell’s Life of Johnson[Johnson's Boswell]

The conventional judgment of philosophers, in relating this funny little story, is that Johnson missed Berkeley's point. Mine is that Berkeley missed the point of Johnson's demonstration: nobody really lives exclusively in his own (figurative or literal, res cogitans or res extensa) head. Not even distracted bishops or philosophers.

Berkeley gave his name (though not its pronunciation) to the California town and college campus where there’s lately been a revival of interest in him.
There’s a story that when George Berkeley, the future philosopher, was a student he decided to see what it was like to approach death. He hung himself, arranging to have a friend cut him down and revive him after he lost consciousness…Berkeley is now hung again, as large as life, but only in portrait form on the campus that is his namesake.

Well, the idea of him is now hung again anyway. If a portrait hangs in a gallery but nobody looks at it, does it make an impression? Its subject surely did, we always talk about him between Locke and Hume. Why is that? He was an empiricist only nominally, not temperamentally and (despite the extremity of his view) definitely not radically: Radical Empiricists [wiki]who think like William James perceive the relations in experience that connect us and our sometimes-whacky ideas to the real "external" world.

Campbell (who, btw, speaks in the most charming Scots brogue) nonetheless describes Berkeley's puzzle and its solution as radical, tearing at the roots of everyday common sense. "If all I've got to go on is this wall of sensation, how can I even frame the idea of something beyond that?" His solution is no solution: "You can't, it's just an illusion... All we have are our ideas." That's a really bad idea, Bishop B.

Campbell himself makes more sense. There are "different levels in the description of reality," and everything we experience, from colors and smells and tastes (the so-called secondary qualities of experience) to quantum phenomena to observer-independent quantitative/"objective" features of the world, is "out there," i.e., real... but appropriately described in different terms. James again clarifies: "Common sense is BETTER for one sphere of life, science for another, philosophic criticism for a third; but whether either be TRUER absolutely, Heaven only knows."

That last bit is purely rhetorical, James didn't think heaven has a dog in this hunt. It's up to us to decide when to speak the language of common sense and when to defer to some corrective scientific or critical or other specialized vocabulary. Levels. And brains, "it's very important that we have brains. But their function is to reveal the world to us, not to generate a lot of random junk."

Russell again: "There is therefore a justification for common sense in philosophy, but only as showing that our theoretical principles cannot be quite correct so long as their consequences are condemned by an appeal to common sense which we feel to be irresistible."

This In Our Time is all about Berkeley.

Calvin, btw, seems to have taken the Bishop seriously.

Locke & Berkeley, HP 604-610, 623-633, 647-659 (Bk 3, Part I, ch XIII, XVI); PW 22

1. Locke founded what two 'isms?

2. What was Locke's metaphor for the mind?

3. What kind of people does Locke imagine inhabiting a state of nature?

4. By what is Locke driven to "absurd lengths"? 

5. What did Berkeley deny the existence of, and where was a town named after him?

6. How does Russell define "matter" and "mind"? 


  • Do you think Berkeley was right about Locke's Primary/Secondary Quality distinction? 606
  • Do you agree that "revelation must be judged by reason"? Why or why not? 607 
  • Is Locke right to be "contemptuous of metaphysics"? 609
  • Would you have been happy to live in a state of nature? 624
  • Do we have to believe ourselves "God's property" in order to acknowledge that we ought not to harm one another? 625
  • Should you have the right, at age 21, to decide not "to be bound by the contract which inaugurated the United States"? 631
  • Is there more to being than being perceived? How do you know a tree exists when nobody's around to percieve it?

Image result for george berkeley cartoon

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.
  • How many irreducible substances do you think compose the universe?
  • Can you be free, if your own thoughts and actions are part of an eternal, timeless universe all of whose parts are necessary just as they are? 
  • What do you think it means to see the world sub specie aeternitatis? Is that possible for humans?
  • Is it possible to alter the future? 574
  • If you accept that all things are necessary, will you have greater control over your emotions? 575
  • If you accept that personal survival after death is an illusion, is there still something eternal in the mind or soul? 577
  • Do you agree with Russell that you can reject Spinoza's metaphysics but still accept large parts of his ethics? 578
  • Are there circumstances in life that should not be met with "philosophic calm"? 579
  • Are there bad events in life that can never be redeemed or "made good"? 580
  • Do you consider it possible or plausible that we all live as "windowless" substances like Leibniz's monads, in a pre-established harmony of interior perception? Would that be "admirable evidence" of God? 583-4
  • Have you read Candide? What did you think of it?
  • What's the difference between an optimist and a pessimist? Are you one or the other?
  • What are the first improvements you'd make in the world, if you could?