Archive for November 14th, 2011

Philosophy’s unsung women, Darwin’s bulldog, and more 19th century wisdom

November 14, 2011

We’re on to the 19th century in CoPhi, including Feuerbach, Marx, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Mill, Darwin, a smattering more of Nietzsche, and lots of fascinating women most of us have never heard of. [Feminism] I think it was philosophy’s best century so far, when doubters really took possession of their identity as affirmers who were for an alternative vision of human progress.


Time to think again about final reports, students. Presentations begin again, after Thanksgiving.

Feuerbach said “der Mensch ist was er isst.” That’s a materialist pun, and he was definitely one. He called eating a religious act. He was one of the first sociologists of religion, kind of a 19th century Joseph Campbell hoping to learn important things about humans by studying their religious myths.

God is our projection of ourselves onto the heavens… everything about God was real; our only mistake was in thinking it came from outside us.

Moses Mendelssohn influenced Kant, and perhaps his three daughters. (We Dads are never sure they’re listening.) They were in the vanguard of Romanticism, the salon-centered movement that rejected rationalism in favor of feelings and personal passion.

The poet Heine, for instance, had an interesting thought: “In dark ages people are best guided by religion,” but it’s better to wear Spinoza’s lenses if you can.

Hegel was a Romantic sort of rationalist, viewing

history as the unfolding self-revelation of world-spirit… with the mind of God coming into being as the minds of his creatures… Human progress is the developing self-consciousness of the cosmos.

Anne Newport Royall (“Good works instead of long prayers”) defended Native Americans and was admired by Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. She called religion a “plot of the priests.”

This was the age of Bentham and Mill, Utilitarians out to maximize the greatest happiness for the greatest number. Mill’s friend and wife Harriet Taylor was also his collaborator, and not only with respect to women’s issues. The Mills were classic libertarians, and defenders of personal eccentricity as the best antidote to the conformist “tyranny of opinion.”

Harriet Martineau, one of many Unitarian freethinkers to dot the history of this century and the “happiest woman in England,” wanted more secular children’s books so the next generations might grow up more critically-minded than their parents. (Dale McGowan has been saying the same, lately.) Martineau retained a vague residual belief in an afterlife, even after losing her religion. But then at last she shook that too, and found herself

a free rover on the broad, bright breezy common of the universe… a portion of the universe, resting on the security of its everlasting laws… [going] forth into the sunshine and under the stars to study and enjoy…

No more “air-built castle” of superstition for her. The concept of a creative Deity was for her “so irrelevant as to make me blush.”

Frances (Fanny) Wright was another Unitarian and another of Andy Jackson’s favorites. Thomas Jefferson’s, too, and Bentham’s, and Whitman’s. Walt said “we all loved her.” Audaciously she converted a Baptist Church into a Hall of Science, and was the first woman in America to address a mixed-gender lecture audience. “Observe, compare, reason, reflect, understand,” she implored, but don’t frighten yourselves and your children with fables of perdition and hell-fire.

Ernestine Rose wore the ringlets that gave freethinking its 19th century feminist-reformist style. Opponents of women’s rights who invoked the authority of the Bible provoked her special ire:

Books and opinions, no matter from whom they came, if they are in opposition to human rights, are nothing but dead letters.

And she had a good answer to the misplaced piety of fundamentalists who thought blind Kentucky  cave-fish somehow implicated intelligent design. She knew her evolutionary biology before its time, and she testified to the ethical character of her fellow freethinkers. “Whatever believers would do in hope of heavenly reward , the Atheist would do simply because it is good.”

Marx was a student of Epicurus and Democritus (and Hegel and Feuerbach) before he became the great philosopher of revolution. We hear of Godless communism, but Marx was mostly indifferent to religion and actually even sympathetic to its original impulse. “It would fall out as soon as things got better.” Didn’t, did it? But maybe it’s too soon to tell.

‘Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness.

Real happiness and real good are what we all really want, or should. It doesn’t come from beautiful lounge suites or from English football, eh Karl?

Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote The Woman’s Bible and complained about “clergymen still preaching sermons on the ‘rib origin’…”

Schopenhauer, the oddly-cheerful pessimist, said Kant was right in denying that we could know “things-in-themselves”s but wrong in not naming the one great “thing-in-itself,” the pointlessly-willful universe. But after all, “the human body is suited to survive in this world, not to seek truth.” I’m still going for both.

Schopenhauer was an inadvertent and incomplete evolutionist, more like Spencer (who was the only sibling of nine to survive, JMH notes) than Darwin in noticing the dog-eat-dog quality of a world in which struggle and suffering outpace insight, cooperation, and progress. What we need is a “doggy-dog world” (if you’re a fan of Modern Family you might get that reference) in which both the strong and the sweet (in Darwin’s own words “the vigorous, the healthy, and the happy survive” and flourish. “There is grandeur in this view of life…”

“Darwin’s Bulldog” T.H. Huxley gave us agnosticism. “Agnostics reject superstition and doubt supernaturalism but “totally refuse to commit” to its denial. There may just be Saturnians, and until we prove otherwise we should keep our belief-ledger open. In “Evolution and Ethics” he warned against Social Darwinism and the conflation of nature with society. “Of moral purpose I see not a trace in nature. That is an article of exclusively human manufacture.” One of our better productions.

Schopenhauer’s dialogue between Philalethes and Demopheles pits the voice of philosophy against the voice of the people, and condescends to the religious “metaphysics of the masses” in a patronizing way. I say let’s not declare “how stupid most people are” until we’ve made an honest attempt to offer them a philosophical education, from the elementary grades on up.

Kierkegaard invoked the infamous Abraham and Isaac legend, almost deploring his own humanity for thinking himself incapable of following what Bart Ehrman calls God’s “horrible directive” to sacrifice his own son as a “burnt offering.”

If anyone found a man today who was taking his son someplace to murder him because a voice told him to do it, we would attempt to stop him and we would despise the fellow… Humanly speaking he is insane. JMH

Precisely. What is there to debate or conscience-wrestle with, in that?

Finally, Nietzsche again. Did his prophet come too soon to proclaim the death of God and the birth of Superman? Yes. Forever too soon, it seems, around these parts. But he’s not the only one, as Thomas Hardy’s funeral oration attests.