Hegel, Schopenhauer, Mill, infinity, & One

We’re well into the 19th century, in CoPhi: Hegel, Schopenhauer, and Mill. And the Philosophy Bites interview is with Adrian Moore, on the concept of “infinity“-and beyond? Is the universe infinite? Not only do we not know the answer to that, just try solving Zeno‘s Paradoxes. [Paradox #1YouT… How big is infinity? An animated TEDexplanation] Or getting a plumber on the weekends.

Hegel was the ultimate optimist, Schopenhauer the uber-pessimist. And Mill? I’d call him a realist with strong aspirations. [Hegel up@dawn]

They’re all in the song, if that helps. Let’s see… Schopenhauer and Hegel were both out-consumed by David Hume. And Mill, of his own free will, “on half a pint of shandy was particularly ill.”

But it would probably be more helpful to relate the Germans to their predecessor Kant, and to bring Mill to bear on his countryman Bentham.

First the Germans: both 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!”)

I have to admit: for a 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.

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 in general? I’m with him. I love what he says about Socrates and truth.

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.”

I’m with Gus Speth too. We finish with his book in EEA today. In the penultimate chapter he cites the Earth Charter‘s preamble:

…we are one human family and one Earth community with a common destiny. We must join together to bring forth a sustainable global society founded on respect for nature, universal human rights, economic justice, and a culture of peace.  [We] declare our responsibility to one another, to the greater community of life, and to future generations.

The survival and growth of our species, the charter continues, is “about being more, not having more.” That’s what his Yale mentor Reich’s Greening of America was all about, with its Consciousness III and “a new way of living” built around “fulfillment, not wealth.” If it was also “too enamored with the youth culture of the sixties,” well, there was a lot of that going around then.

We began with Greening, and will move on to Bill McKibben’s Global Warming Reader next time. It’s helpful of Speth to conclude with a nod to McKibben, easily our best living  writer on climate and nature.

As for the Charter: I think Hegel and Mill would have signed. So will I. As they say: it starts with one.


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