Machiavelli, Hobbes, Descartes, Fricker, & Poore Richard

MachiavelliHobbesDescartes, and Fricker are on tap today, in CoPhi. Some of them sound like cricketers, but they all have a sharp point of view worth considering. But first…

modfamOsophyWhat a night of televiewing! The girls were time-shifting Modern Family when I got home, and there was the very book I need to send our senior off to college with: Phil’s Osophy. “The most amazing things that can happen to a human being will happen to you if you just lower your expectations.” Priceless wisdom for the ages.

Then, my favorite brewpub and brunch venues got their fifteen seconds of glorious hi-def prime time exposure on “Nashville“: the mayor and his new fling strolling up and down in front of Fido’s, across from Bosco’s.  Too cool.

As Walker Percy might have said, my familiar places suddenly felt “validated.”

And second…

I almost always show my CoPhi collaborators a particular “Jesus and Mo” cartoon, to introduce the free will/divine foreknowledge problem. Usually it elicits a few snickers, but only rarely an overt complaint, and almost never an articulate one.

Yesterday was different. This time, a couple of students indicated extreme umbrage and suggested that the mere act of acknowledging the existence of that strip and those images was contrary to the spirit of cosmopolitan “citizen of the cosmos” acceptance of difference we’d been discussing in connection with Anthony Appiah’s PB interview.

Well,  I respectfully disagree. As Appiah says, being cosmopolitan doesn’t mean submerging or ignoring or fuzzing the differences between us. It means registering, appreciating, and finally celebrating them. It means giving ourselves permission to talk about them openly, to explore our different ways of being human, and to engage criticism without feeling threatened by it.

I’ll continue to use “Free Willy” in my classes. But I’m going to have to work on polishing my provocation “disclaimer,”* it doesn’t seem to have done the job this time.

*As I always must say, when referencing this strip: that’s not Jesus of Nazareth, nor is it the Prophet Mohammed. They’re just a couple of cartoonish guys who often engage in banter relevant to our purposes in CoPhi. It’s just harmless fun, zealots, not blasphemy. But if it provokes a little thought, it’s useful.

Anyway, I do appreciate the spirited exchange those images provoked. We may all have actually learned something from it.

But back to our regularly-scheduled program.

Fricker’s probably the one you’ve not heard of. She’s our contemporary, and she has possibly the most constructive observation of any of our philosophers du jour: we too frequently fail to listen to one another, for entirely unexamined and indefensible reasons. We write one another off, for falling into one or another stereotyped identity. We don’t take one another seriously, just because we think we’ve found the right pigeon-holes to place one another into. Whites and blacks, theists and atheists, Republicans and Democrats… we all commit “testimonial injustice.”

This is a new term, a new way of indicting our ancient ancestral blindness. I’ll admit, the topic doesn’t quite spring to life in Fricker’s accounting. But read William James’s “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings,” then give her another listen. She’s definitely onto something, a perennial weakness in our species. We need to open our eyes to these prejudices, and close our minds to them.

Mistrust, suspicion, refusal to really listen to others: these are symptomatic features of the world as Machiavelli and Hobbes knew it. Maybe if they’d heard Fricker’s podcast they’d have written different books and articulated kinder, gentler philosophies.

And maybe if she’d lived in 16th century Italy or 17th century England, she’d have committed more  ”testimonial injustice” too.

Niccolo Machiavelli praised virtu’ in a leader: manliness and valor are euphemistic translations, ruthless efficiency might be more to the point. A wise prince, he said, does whatever it takes to serve the public interest as he sees it. But does he see it aright? Hard to tell, if you can’t believe a word he says.

A new detective mystery starring Nicco has recently been published, btw, and was featured on NPR. “What would happen if two of the biggest names of the Renaissance — Niccolo Machiavelli and Leonardo da Vinci — teamed up as a crime-fighting duo?” Beats me, may have to read The Malice of Fortune.

Thomas Hobbes is one of my favorite “authoritarians”: a walker who kept an inkwell in his walking stick, hehobbes-walking-stick lived to 91 in the 17th century and believed humans could be saved from themselves with the right kind of contract. Contrary to a student essay I once graded, he did not say humans were once “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Hobbes did say that’s what it would be like to live in a “state of nature,” without civil authority or police or government to keep the peace and impose order. It would be a “war of all against all.” If you don’t agree, asks Nigel, why do you lock your doors? Not, surely, because you think everyone’s out to get you. But it only takes a few miscreants, doesn’t it, to create an atmosphere of paranoia and mistrust?

I’d like to think Hobbes might reconsider the extremity of his position, were he transported to our time. On the other hand, we might reconsider the benignity of ours, were we transported to his. Those were tough times: civil war, a king executed, murderous politics, etc. How much freedom would you trade for peace and safety, if there were no other way to  secure it?

I for one do not agree that it’s better to be feared than loved. And as I place an even greater premium on being listened to, and understood, I owe it to others to really listen to what they’re saying too. It’s when we write one another off, isn’t it, that suspicions arise and conflict ensues?

Rene Descartes, not at all a drunken fart, simply wanted to know what he could know for certain. His skepticism was methodological, his goal was indubitable certainty. This, he thought, would serve the new science well. He misunderstood the self-correcting, probabilistic, fallibilistic nature of empirical reasoning. But most philosophers still think it’s worth wondering: how do you know you’re not dreaming, not being deceived by a demon or by your senses, not mistaking your own essential nature?

Still, cogito ergo sum overrates intellect. You don’t have to think, to demonstrate your existence. You just have to do something… even, as an old grad school pal used to say, if it’s wrong.

I usually think of Charles Sanders Peirce as Descartes’ most practical critic, and I agree with him that a contrived and methodological doubt is not the best starting place in philosophy.

But it occurs to me that an even more practical alternative to what I consider the misguided Cartesian quest for certainty is old Ben Franklin’s Poore RichardHis is not armchair wisdom, it comes straight from the accumulated experience of the folk. Some of that “common sense” is too common, but plenty is dead-on. “Early to bed, early to rise…” has definitely worked for me. I do try to write things worth reading, do things worth writing, and not lie down with dogs more often than I have to.


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2 Responses to “Machiavelli, Hobbes, Descartes, Fricker, & Poore Richard”

  1. Jon Gill Says:

    I notice more and more that Monty Python may very well be part of your philosophical understanding of life–I believe I’ve caught at least one fleeting reference every day. Not a bad thing!

  2. osopher Says:

    Every day, really? I wasn’t aware of the frequency… but I guess I’m ok with admitting that degree of Pythonism in my worldview. Hope I’m mentioning James almost as often!

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