Help is on the way

April 20, 2015

I have somehow lucked into happy, unsolicited association with an enthusiastic volunteer Research Assistant, who has eagerly agreed to help me delve deeper into the world’s buried archival treasury of peripatetic-philosophical literature. HOO-ray and woo-HOO!

RA’s greatest assistance will be to expand my Walking bibliography, and eventually the world’s, by contributing to the creation of the long-simmering new volume I keep threatening to complete.

Between this unanticipated good fortune and that new ballpark downtown, it’s shaping up to be a summer of forward movement. Onward!

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Walk away

April 17, 2015

I walk every morning for a little more than an hour. I’ve been doing that for many years. I’ll continue doing it until I can no longer lift a leg.

I’ve been saying that for many years too. Then yesterday, this:

The sweet spot for exercise benefits, however, came among those who tripled the recommended level of exercise, working out moderately, mostly by walking, for 450 minutes per week, or a little more than an hour per day. Those people were 39 percent less likely to die prematurely than people who never exercised… nyt 

Yesterday, too:

Not even the thought that the author of Sickness Unto Death would die at 42.

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Kierkegaard and Marx

April 16, 2015

Today in CoPhi it’s Kierkegaard (and Clare Carlisle on Abraham & Isaac in Fear and Tremblingand Marx. (Not the funny one.)

Kierkegaard (whose name means “graveyard”) said something similar to what Hegel more cryptically assigned to the owl of Minerva, when he said “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” He also said
The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.

People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use. 

Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.

The most common form of despair is not being who you are. 

Once you label me you negate me.

To dare is to lose one’s footing momentarily. Not to dare is to lose oneself. 

If I were to wish for anything, I should not wish for wealth and power, but for the passionate sense of the potential, for the eye which, ever young and ardent, sees the possible. Pleasure disappoints, possibility never. And what wine is so sparkling, what so fragrant, what so intoxicating, as possibility!

But what about the possibility of overriding the ethical, humane, and parental demands and privileges of fatherhood in the name of a sacrificial faith? The  Abraham and Isaac story still chills, especially in an age when young women around the world continue to be sacrificed by their pious fathers, brothers, and other young men.

“What if Abraham was wrong?” Or delusional, or sick? His actions “can’t be understood, and can’t be admired, on the basis of any socially acceptable notion of morality.”

And what if some modern Abraham thinks God has commanded him to (say) shoot an 11-year old schoolgirl for being “anti-Taliban and secular,” i.e., for advocating girls’ right to education? [Malala’s story… Daily Show]

Honor killings,” such atrocities are sometimes euphemistically camouflaged. There’s nothing honorable about them, and nothing a respectable philosopher can say in their defense.

It’s not just Islamist fundamentalists, btw, who support the abuse and murder of children in God’s name. Ophelia Benson cites an Arkansas congressional candidate who says “God’s law” decrees death for “rebellious children.”

But Clare Carlisle reads Kierkegaard’s pseudonymously-delivered message as less commital, and more philosophically inquisitory: “What is faith?” Is it immoral (“morally abhorrent” in Abraham’s case), irrational, and yet somehow elective and excusable?  Whatever it is, she says he’s saying, it’s not anything to be complacent about. And it’s not something you have just because you go through the motions (i.e., attend church services and criticize atheists). 

Fair enough. But if “the truth of human existence can’t be adequately grasped or expressed in terms of rational thought,” we may be in big trouble.

David Wood, who drove down from Vandy to our campus last April to deliver a Lyceum lecture, has interesting thoughts on why we still read Kierkegaard (and Nietzsche):


A Day in the Life of David Wood

Marx said some things too.


History calls those men the greatest who have ennobled themselves by working for the common good; experience acclaims as happiest the man who has made the greatest number of people happy. 

As Prometheus, having stolen fire from heaven, begins to build houses and to settle upon the earth, so philosophy, expanded to be the whole world, turns against the world of appearance. The same now with the philosophy of Hegel. 

Communism is the riddle of history solved, and it knows itself to be this solution.  

The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force… The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas.

The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.

The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a communist revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Working Men of All Countries, Unite!


Whether Kierkegaard’s and Marx’s words have ultimately been a force for emancipation and the change we need is a question for historians, and philosophers, and historians of philosophy, and philosophers of history. It’s probably best to leave the politicians out of it. [Kierkegaard and Marx @dawn… Kierkegaard and Marx at CoPhi… Marx for dogs]

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Mill & Darwin

April 14, 2015
“I have learned to seek my happiness by limiting my desires, rather than in attempting to satisfy them.” J.S. Mill‘s statement sounds surprisingly Buddhist/ascetic, for a philosopher whose name has come to be associated with libertarian self-actualization and (later) Jamesian liberalism. Understandable, perhaps, after an execrable childhood when his father pushed him much too hard to excel. He had a nervous breakdown at twenty. Cautionary tale, young scholars? [Mill’s Autobiography]

But he rebounded impressively, going on to become one of the most popular philosophers in the western world (definitely one of my personal favorites), an early champion of feminism, and a friend of personal freedom in general.

Mill tried to correct Bentham’s indiscriminate “happiness” by introducing a quality distinction among pleasures. I’d love to endorse this move, and say things like: unit for unit, an inning of baseball is far superior to a quarter of football. (We might agree, though, that both are superior to “push-pin” and some poetry.) But happiness, pleasure, satisfaction et al have to be left to the judgment of the beholder if they’re to be actual motivators of conduct. So, I agree with Mill in principle and in conscience, but must stick with Bentham in practice. [J.S. Mill up@dawn]

But the harm principle, and On Liberty (1859) in general? I’m with him.
The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it. Each is the proper guardian of his own health, whether bodily, or mental or spiritual. Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest.

I love too what he says about Socrates and truth. In Utilitarianism (1861) he adds,
It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. [JSM]


And remember this, when we discuss William James and “what works”: “The truth of an opinion is part of its utility. If we would know whether or not it is desirable that a proposition should be believed, is it possible to exclude the consideration of whether or not it is true? In the opinion, not of bad men, but of the best men, no belief which is contrary to truth can be really useful.”

Mill says we all know that some of our opinions are untrue, but must seek out or even invent the dissenting opinions that will correct them. But many or even most people are more like Thomas Hardy’s “Phillotson,” aren’t they? They don’t want to question everything, they don’t really want to question much of anything. They only “want to lead a quiet life.” Is that liberty? Or is it intellectual death?

Richard Reeves notes that Mill has by now become an English “national treasure,” losing some of the dangerous edge that made him relevant in the first place. But his message still resonates for many, right Brian? We must take responsibility for our own beliefs, actions, and lives, and for our unique personal potential. We’re all individuals. We don’t have to follow anybody. We can be “self-made.” (Hear that, B.F. Skinner?)

On Liberty wasn’t the only groundbreaking, earthshaking, worldview-making publication of 1859. What was the best mindless eye-opening idea anybody ever had, Dan Dennett?
If I were to give an award for the single best idea anyone has ever had, I’d give it to Darwin, ahead of Newton and Einstein and everyone else. In a single stroke, the idea of evolution by natural selection unifies the realm of life, meaning, and purpose with the realm of space and time, cause and effect, mechanism and physical law. Darwin’s Dangerous Idea [Darwin and philosophy… Darwin@dawn… evolution… DennettMatthew Chapman… Scopes Trial… Loyal Rue

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We were talking yesterday about Hegel’s idea of history as a progressive march to expanded human consciousness of reason and freedom, driven by ideas in conflict (“thesis-antithesis”). I think we all have to admit (though of course we-all don’t, in these environs) that Darwin’s discoveries were a big hitch ahead on that road. His autobiographical account of an argument he had with the Captain of his storied ship (the Beagle) over slavery is instructive in this regard:
In the voyage at Bahia in Brazil he defended and praised slavery, which I abominated, and told me that he had just visited a great slave-owner, who had called up many of his slaves and asked them whether they were happy, and whether they wished to be free, and all answered “No.” I then asked him, perhaps with a sneer, whether he thought that the answers of slaves in the presence of their master was worth anything. This made him excessively angry, and he said that as I doubted his word, we could not live any longer together.

Darwin and Fitzroy patched that one up, and history is now clear about the winner of that debate. Progress, right? Fitzroy would later regret his role in Darwin’s saga, and our species’ climb up the tree of life from ignorance and superstition.  But Darwin’s big idea, like Lincoln’s, was a great emancipator of the human spirit.  They shared a birthday, curiously, and (as Hegel might have said) a zeitgeist.

So Darwin offered an account of our proximate origins that does not require the theistic hypothesis. He himself remained agnostic on the question, unlike our contemporary Richard Dawkins. He’s reviled by many Americans (deluded or not), but I can only envy the “popular understanding of science” he and others have proffered students in the U.K. and that our public schools continue to neglect.

Revisiting Darwin’s autobiography, and one of his more sagacious but plaintive reflections:
If I had to live my life again I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week; for perhaps the parts of my brain now atrophied could thus have been kept active through use. The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.

Don’t let it happen to you, kids. And remember: “the vigorous, the healthy, and the happy survive and flourish.” Actually he said they “multiply,” but I think he’d be okay with my revision. 

Maybe that will help answer the student’s question that caught me so flat-footed yesterday in CoPhi: “What does any of this evolution stuff have to do with philosophy?”

Only everything, on my reading. Evolution by natural selection is possibly the best idea anyone ever had, as Dennett says. It brings our quest for meaning into meaningful harness with the rest of nature and life, provides the widest available perspective on our origins and destiny, links us to the primordial past and the possibility of a wondrous future for our species, and replaces disingenuous skepticism (a topic that came up yesterday in connection with scientific realism: can any reasonable person really doubt the existence of atoms etc.?) with a promising conceptual framework to unite all the disciplines of learning.

And as John Dewey said, in “The Influence of Darwinism on Philosophy“:
Origin of Species introduced a mode of thinking that in the end was bound to transform the logic of knowledge, and hence the treatment of morals, politics, and religion… making many sincere and vital efforts to revise our traditional philosophic conceptions in accordance with its demands.

Darwin helped us understand that the world and all its species, and possibly the entire universe, are in dynamic and mutually-formative relations with one another and with their respective environments. Those in closest proximity are vital environing influences themselves, competitors for existence and co-creators of life. They are change-agents, in perpetual process of growth and adaptation (or demise). Nothing is fixed and final and forever. Our thinking must be flexible and adaptive too.

But maybe the best answer to what’s philosophical about evolution can be explained in  simpler terms still. I’ll visit the kids’ section and get back to you. Meanwhile here’s a start:



The Tree of Life begins with Darwin’s childhood and traces the arc of his life through university and career, following him around the globe on the voyage of the Beagle, and home to a quiet but momentous life devoted to science and family… a gloriously detailed panorama of a genius’s trajectory through investigating and understanding the mysteries of nature.


As we noted recently, when discussing David Hume’s rejection of intelligent design, it’s all really pretty simple, and wondrous, and beautiful.

Carl Sagan’s version of the story is very good.

But maybe you’ll find Eric Idle’s easier to hum. Listen to this:

It’s the sun and you and me, and all the stars that we can see, and life, and everything in this amazing and expanding universe that philosophers are trying to understand. Makes you feel kinda small, but also kinda special. We’re the ones who get to be here and sing along.

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The wisdom of years

April 10, 2015

In Bioethics we’re reading Atul Gawande’s Mortality, an excellent call to conscience for all of us who know, care for, or anticipate becoming senior citizens. To correct the worst tendencies of a youth-and-consumer-oriented culture to put older people out of sight and out of mind, and to defeat the denialism of those who just don’t like to think about growing old and dying as inevitable stages on life’s way, I’ve challenged us all to think of examples of wise elders who’ve left (or are still leaving) an inspiring legacy, who lived long and constructive lives, and who flourished ’til the end.

First name to come to mind, for me, was Stewart Udall (1920-2010). His “letter to my grandchildren“* is a priceless model of the kind of wisdom only years can bring. He did a moving interview with Bob Edwards not long before his death. Quite a legacy, indeed.

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*”Go well, do well, my children! Support all endeavors that promise a better life for the inhabitants of our planet. Cherish sunsets, wild creations, and wild places. Have a love affair with the wonder and beauty of the earth!”

Inspiring Centenarians

Wesley Ernest Brown was born June 22, 1907 and is a U.S. District Court judge who, as of 2010, is the oldest federal judge still hearing cases. (continues)

Life lessons from a nonagenerian

…He’s looking forward to his 100th birthday next May, which he hopes to spend with his family… “I feel pretty good about getting older. I may be 99, but I am still learning and experiencing new things everyday. You never stop learning. Age is not just a number, it’s a badge of all my life experiences.” 
The most important thing he’s learned? “Family is precious. Family is the most influential element of your life from the moment you’re born until the moment you die. Your family shapes who you are as a person.” Beautiful.
His full list of 25 life lessons:
  1. Always maintain a good sense of humor.
  2. Never be too good to start at the bottom.
  3. Exercise every single day, even when you don’t feel like it.
  4. Don’t spend more money than you make.
  5. Drink orange juice every day. 

(continues)

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Hegel & Schopenhauer

April 9, 2015

We’re into the 19th century, with Hegel (and Robert Stern on Hegel’s dialectic) and his arch-rival Schopenhauer. And here come the Germans now, led by their skipper Knobby Hegel… 

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And John Stuart Mill (and Richard Reeves on Mill’s On Liberty) and Charles Darwin.

Hegel was the ultimate optimist, Schopenhauer the uber-pessimist. I prefer to split the difference with meliorism, myself. More on that later. [Hegel up@dawn… pointless will… James reads Hegel; and some quotes from Schopenhauer, Mill, and Darwin]

They’re both in the song, if that helps. Let’s see… Schopenhauer and Hegel were both out-consumed by David Hume.

But it would probably be more helpful to relate the Germans to their predecessor Kant.

Schopenhauer and Hegel tried to go beyond Kant’s proscription against specifying the “thing-in-itself,” the ultimate “noumenal” reality beneath the appearances. For Hegel, History’s the thing. For Schopenhauer it’s Will.

An amusing sidelight: in spite of himself, and his intent to renounce personal will (so as to starve ultimate Will, or at least deprive it), Schopenhauer was stubbornly competitive with his philosophical rival Hegel. He insisted on lecturing at the same time as the more popular Hegel, with predictable results

But you have to wonder if his auditors understood a word Hegel said? Maybe free gas was provided? (See William James’s “observations on the effects of nitrous-oxide-gas-intoxication” and his essay On Some Hegelisms – ”sounds like nonsense, but it is pure on-sense!”)

That’s funny, but not entirely fair. Hegel wanted to fly with Minerva, through a glorious dawn. Any given snippet of Hegelian prose may be impenetrable, but his overall objective is clear enough: he wanted us to understand ourselves and our lives as active participants in the great progressive unfolding of history, of the coming-to-consciousness of spirit (“geist”), of the birth of enlightenment and freedom. Friendly aspirations all.

My old Mizzou prof often spoke of  “Friend Hegel,” and so did Michael Prowse.

To the degree that we are thinking beings, Hegel says, we have to consider ourselves as part of a larger whole and not as neatly individuated। He calls this mental whole Geist, or Spirit, and tries to work out the rules by which it develops through time… Hegel didn’t regard Geist as something that stands apart from, or above, human individuals. He saw it rather as the forms of thought that are realised in human minds… What Hegel does better than most philosophers is explain how individuals are linked together and why it is important to commit oneself to the pursuit of the general or common good.

And that’s why, as Stern points out, 

Hegel thinks that one important movement in history is the movement from thinking that just one of us is entitled to freedom (a king, say) to some (the patricians of ancient Athens, say) to all of us, where obviously this development relates to changing views of what freedom is, what we are, how we relate to one another… I’m not free unless I’m working for the good of society.

That’s not Schopenhauer’s view, nor is it even remotely close to his mindset and general sensibility. Anything at all ambitious, let alone something as grand as the liberation of society and triumph of good, was to him just more fuel for the Will. Will is a voracious, never-sated, all-devouring blind force or power that uses us, and everything else in its path, to no end beyond its own perpetuation and expansion.

Moreover, Schopenhauer was morose and constitutionally dis-affected. He despised happiness as a form of self-delusion.

But I have to admit: for such an old sourpuss, Schopenhauer’s a lot of fun to read. His aphoristic Art of Controversy is a good place to begin.
The average man pursues the shadow of happiness with unwearied labour; and the thinker, the shadow of truth; and both, though phantoms are all they have, possess in them as much as they can grasp. Life is a language in which certain truths are conveyed to us; could we learn them in some other way, we should not live. Thus it is that wise sayings and prudential maxims will never make up for the lack of experience, or be a substitute for life itself.

And his Studies in Pessimism are oddly cheerful.

One of the lesser-known but more intriguing facets of Schopenhauer’s philosophy was his belief that music is our point of entree to Will, and to ultimate reality.

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Schopenhauer, like Rousseau, loved his dog…So maybe he knew a little something about love.

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Kant & Bentham

April 7, 2015

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.

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Hume & Rousseau

April 2, 2015

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.


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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. 

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Voltaire & Leibniz

March 31, 2015
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 @dawnLeibniz@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.
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.

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Don’t forget to duck, atheists

March 27, 2015

What do atheists and ducks have in common, aside from the fact that both are gathering this weekend at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis?

Image result for peabody hotel ducks cartoon

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