rationalists & empiricists, R.I.P.

Happy St. Pat’s Day, & Happy Birthday, Sis!

We were talking about Thomas Hobbes on Monday, about his negative evaluation of human nature as conducing to that “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, short” state of nature we supposedly contracted out of. This stands in such striking contrast to David Hume’s and Adam Smith’s notion that humans are naturally un-selfish (and that that’s why we can even begin to entertain the thought of a free-market economy).

I pick on Hobbes at every opportunity, for being so down on the human race. But he’s kind of a role model anyway. Simon Critchley notes: he walked vigorously every day in order to work up a sweat and lived to 91, in the desolate 17th century (when most were lucky to hit 40).  And he had a sharp wit. His epitaph of choice: “This is the true philosopher’s stone.” Don’t tell Harry Potter.

Descartes didn’t fare so well, dying at (yikes!) 53.  But no wonder, with this attitude: “My soul, you have been held captive a long time… leave the prison… relinquish the burden of this body.”

Before giving up his ghost, Descartes corresponded with Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia. She pushed him on his problematic dualism: If the thinking mind is separate from the extended body, then how do mind and body interact? She was among the first of many to be underwhelmed by his speculative response that maybe it happens in the pineal gland.

Critchley says Descartes refused to take seriously Gassendi‘s objection that our ideas, even the clear-and-distinct ones, might be out of touch with reality. Well, though… he at least pretended to take it seriously, to motivate his “meditations” with hyperbolic doubt. I find that strategy suspect, and think we’re right to consider ourselves “in touch” most of the time. That doesn’t mean we can ever be indubitably certain that all our ideas are correct. It does imply that we should not  invent reasons to doubt in our studies what we cannot deny in our lives.

La Rochefoucauld thought the philosophers protested too much, those who tried so fervently to convince us that death is nothing to fear. “Neither the sun nor death can be looked at steadily.” And neither can safely be disregarded.

Blaise Pascal‘s snapshot of the human condition is bleak, but also reminiscent of Plato’s cave-dwellers: “Let us imagine a number of men in chains and all condemned to death, where some are killed each day in the sight of others.” If you’ve heard of his wager you probably thought he was a hyper -rationalist, but for Pascal reason is limited and cannot establish its own first principles… left to itself it leads to endless and unanswerable scepticism.” So maybe David Hume was being disingenous when he declared reason beside the point.

Where did Leibniz get his “monad” idea? Possibly from Anne Conway, who argued against materialism and against any distinction between mind and matter. What did Bertrand Russell think of Leibniz? “Optimistic, orthodox, fantastic and shallow.” Similarly, William James called Leibniz’s theodicy “superficiality incarnate.” Some have construed Leibniz’s bizarre monadology as a front for a very orthodox conception of God as master-planner and micro-manager. Ironic, then, that the name “Leibniz” was popularly derided as “glaubt nichts,” or unbeliever.

John Locke was much more modest and circumspect about the scope of philosophy, tracing ideas to each individual’s idiosyncratic “sensation and reflection.” But he didn’t think he could prove it, and that opened the door to critics who wanted to nail things (and ideas) down more definitively.

Spinoza said a free human being is one who lives according to reason alone and is not governed by fear. That would seem to exclude Hume, who insisted that life is not lived by reason alone (or even by reason in the greatest measure) and that death is the transformation of one natural being (a living human being) into another natural being (the corpse as natural being). Pardon me if I don’t find that entirely consoling.

How civilized are humans, really? According to Vico, there is a constant danger of a cataclysmic return to a new age of the beasts.

English freethinker John Toland invented the term “pantheism,” commonly taken for atheism but  really a form of spiritual materialism. Yes, Virginia, there is such a thing.

For George Berkeley, the independent reality of the material world is nowhere affirmed in the Bible. So, being a strict constructionist, he found nothing real in death. Again, pardon me if I don’t find that wholly persuasive.

Sometimes there just aren’t enough rocks to kick.

NOTE TO STUDENTS: Thanks in advance for not asking when your papers will be graded. The invariable answer, of course, is: ASAP. (That’s “the memo”– the one I’ll refer you to, if you ask me that question.)

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