Archive for November 4th, 2010


November 4, 2010

The classic Rationalists (Descartes, Leibniz, Spinoza) were pretty confident they could get to the metaphysical bottom of things by shutting out ordinary worldly distractions and sensory confusions, thinking hard, and coming up with the foundational (“substantial”) First Principles of everything.

The Empiricists answered with a classic triumvirate of their own: Locke, Berkeley, and Hume. They were sure we would need some data, built of sensations and subsequent reflection thereupon, to have any shot at all at knowledge.

That approach led John Locke (no, not that John Locke) to his tabula rasa, Bishop George Berkeley to his “esse ist percipi” slogan and his “don’t blink” philosophy of divine oversight, and David Hume (not Desmond*) to his billiard table and the conclusion that philosophy is a good pastime but ought not be allowed to ruin anybody’s day.

Our text mentions unicorns as an example of an idea Locke would say is drawn from experience, though the beast is mythical. They devoted a whole program on the BBC to unicorns this week, in case you ever wanted to know all about them.

Hume was the freest free-thinker of the bunch, but Locke the Deist said to improve life, do not ask God for help. He also said that everything the churches had added to the claim that there was a creator God is “bunk.”

Locke also inspired Jefferson and Paine et al. That might explain why he snipped the Bible, to get the bunk out.

Jesus would reject all Christianity. Abstracting what is really his from the rubbish in which it is buried was Jefferson’s attempt, when he took scissors to the Bible. The resulting  Jefferson Bible, he intended, would reflect “the most sublime and benevolent [and humane and natural] code of morals” yet devised by mortal man, and it would nestle safely behind the sacred wall so many of our self-righteous contemporaries have been so eager to tear down. That’s one founder’s “original intent” they consistently ignore.  He was a Deist, but considered that his personal business and none of the state’s. (Check out Maira Kalman’s tribute to the Sage of Monticello.)

Jennifer Hecht is especially helpful on Hume, noting his debt to Cicero, recounting his remarkable trip to Paris in 1763 (where he met the leading lights of the French Enlightenment, Diderot, d’Holbach et al), and citing his inversion of the usual wisdom concerning morality. Doing good brings you peace of mind and praise from others and doing evil brings rejection and sorrow, so

We don’t need religion for morality, and what is more: religion itself got its morality from everyday morality in the first place.

So, he agrees with the DalaiLama:

I am convinced that everyone can develop a good heart and a sense of universal responsibility with or without religion.

Hume’s “ought/is” distinction was in service of moral skepticism, but not an attempt to de-nature our ascriptions of value. He thought Ben Franklin was our first world-class philosopher, btw. Maybe it’s time to trot out again old Ben’s proposal for a new political party, our old ones haven’t worked well together for a very long time. A United Party for Virtue, composed of excellence-seekers “acting only with a view to the good of mankind,” is a pretty dream. (Maira Kalman is a fan, too. And of Jefferson.)

Hume’s pal was Adam Smith, usually cited (praised or excoriated) for his mysterious  “invisible hand” and his seeming apologia for acquisitive  selfishness. But Smith actually was  a Humean about morality and politics:

Smith believed that people are not essentailly selfish or self-interested but are essentially social creatures who act out of sympathy and fellow-feeling for the good of society as a whole. A decent free-enterprise system would only be possible in the context of such a society. PW

Thomas Hobbes didn’t call himself an atheist but his Leviathanstate was widely perceived to be a God substitute, an authority to keep us all in awe. Hell, he said, was just a fantasy to control people. Foolish people, “they that make little or no enquiry into the natural causes of things…”

Voltaire, a Deist who found no grounds for believing in a worship-worthy Creator, probably inspired more people to reject their childhood religion than anyone else at that time… “Ecrasez l’infame!”

Hume in 3 minutes:

& Locke, & Descartes… Voltaire… Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and his dog show meLost*… body language… rationalists & empiricists R.I.P.

My view is that the classic empiricists fail, for not being “radical” enough. More on that when we come to William James‘s “radical empiricism.” Suffice for now to invoke the spirit of Emerson, which is to my mind the quintessential spirit of empiricism (nothwithstanding his having called himself a Kantian transcendentalist):

Meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views, which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon, have given, forgetful that Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young men in libraries, when they wrote those books.