Today in CoPhi we take another pass at John Locke, this time contrasting him with Bishop George Berkeley‘s (careful with that pronunciation) odd esse est percipi thesis. Also Voltaire vs. Leibniz, Hume vs. Design & miracles [SEP], and Canadian philosopher Will Kymlicka‘s Philosophy Bites interview on rights.
And we’ll grade last week’s exam.
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
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 at least.
Voltaire was one of those 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]
Voltaire’s countryman Diderot offered a sharp rejoinder to those who said nonbelievers couldn’t be trusted. “An honest person is honest without threats…”
David Hume (follow his little finger) agreed, attributing goodness and upstanding personal character to the positive reinforcement of social custom and collective experience. 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…
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…
In EEA today, Gus Speth’s Chapter Six 6 takes up one of my favorite topics (and courses), happiness. And Chapter Seven concludes with another manifesto to rival Speth’s, this one from Wendell Berry. [Backing off]
The clear message, if it can be heard above the cacophony of advertising and Jonesing in our frenzied consumer culture: the deep feeling of personal well-being and meaningful, purposive engagement in life cannot be bought, is not for sale. We must climb down from our hedonic treadmills, stop assuming that more is always better, start focusing on “things that would truly make us better off.” A sustainable planet, the precondition of real security, is the big one.
So many philosophers (including Wendell Berry) have proposed presence as the key to happiness: living in the now, being fully here, not fretting for the future or regretting the past that’s gone, not forever making plans. And they have a point.
But so have the Long Now thinkers who rightly point out that we don’t have the luxury of occupying a pure present, when so many past and present acts have already compromised our children’s children’s future. As always, balance is elusive. And crucial. Our manic, dysphoric, self-consuming pursuit does not work and will not last. A recent immigrant from the U.K. writes:
The American approach to happiness can spur a debilitating anxiety. The initial sense of promise and hope is seductive, but it soon gives way to a nagging slow-burn feeling of inadequacy. Am I happy? Happy enough? As happy as everyone else? Could I be doing more about it? Even basic contentment feels like failure when pitched against capital-H Happiness. The goal is so elusive and hard to define, it’s impossible to pinpoint when it’s even been achieved — a recipe for neurosis. HuffPo… Happiest Colleges
We were talking about the Gandhi model of activism the other day. Check out PB’s 200th podcast, on that very topic.