Kant & Bentham

Today in CoPhi we’ll talk Immanuel Kant, who said the starry heavens struck him with awe (and Adrian Moore on Kant’s metaphysics), Jeremy Bentham, and Richard Bourke on ancestral conservative Edmund Burke. [Kant & Bentham quote gallery]


Immanuel Kant was a real pissant who was very rarely stable.”*

No, he wasn’t. Not at all. But that’s still the first thought that ever pops into my head when I hear his name, thanks to the Bruces, and my old Kant professor from grad school whose Brooklynese made his “how I met my wife” story downright vulgar.

Kant was actually the most soberly stable and fastidious of men. They “set their watches by him as he went on his daily walk” in 18th-century Konigsberg, Prussia. That’s probably the thing about him I like most. He well knew the truth of William James’s later observation that steady habits are our greatest productive ally. Kant was as productive, eventually, as he was un-flashy.“Awakened from his dogmatic slumbers” and his romantic dalliance withRousseau and Leibniz by David Hume’s dash of cold water skepticism, he assigned appearance and reality to the phenomenal and noumenal worlds, respectively. He didn’t mean that phenomena are unreal or unknowable, just that we know them through the categorical spectacles of our projective understanding. We don’t know them “in themselves,” the “ding-an-sich” is a non-starter.Russell: “The ‘thing-in-itself’ was an awkward element in Kant’s philosophy, and was abandoned by his immediate successors, who accordingly fell into something very like solipsism.” Or what may be worse, into the conceit of thinking they had themselves discovered the things-in-themselves: for Hegel, History, for Schopenhauer, Will, etc.

“It’s as if we have innate spectacles through which we look at reality,” and knowledge is what we get from “reflecting on the nature of our own spectacles.” The spectacles give us categorical knowledge of space and time, causality, and all the other things Hume called mere habituation and custom, or constant conjunctions. “Science is concerned with how things appear to us through the spectacles,” continues Adrian Moore, and the result (nicely summarized by Nigel) is supposed to be the protection of the possibility of God, free will, the moral law, etc., “even though we can’t be absolutely sure about these things.”

But Kant knew what he knew. The stars are awesome, and so is a dutiful conscience (“the moral law within”). Fealty to the latter led him to his “Categorical Imperative” and its “silly” obsession with inflexibly rational consistency.Kant. Obsessive, punctual of habit, semi-gregarious, a mouth-breather, fond of Cicero, and also a philosophical walker (but with a weird aversion to sweat). Famous last word: “Sufficit.” Enough. (I like his countryman Goethe’s better: “Mehr licht.” More light. (Or was it “Mehr nicht,” No more?) Famous living words: “Sapere aude.” Have the courage to reason and think.Kant & Hegel from Osopher [Kant/Hegel slides]

What I love most about my teaching job is that it keeps teaching me new things about our subjects. Utilitarian pioneer Jeremy Bentham is a good example.

It should come as no surprise that the philosopher who had his body preserved and housed for public display (though he keeps losing his head) in University College London had other charms and quirks, but I learned of them only recently. The first volume of Parekh’s Critical Assessments reports that (like Kant and Rousseau) Bentham also was a walker and an eccentric, an understatedly “amusing” man.

Bentham was an extremely amusing man, and in many respects rather boyish. Most of his life he retained an instinctive horror of being left alone… He had a large black tom cat of an ‘uncommonly serious temperament’ which he nicknamed the ‘Doctor’ and ‘The Reverend Doctor Langborn’… He had amusing names for his daily activities and favourite objects. His favourite walking stick was called Dapple, after Sancho Panza’s mule, and his ‘sacred tea-pot’ was called Dick. His daily routine included ‘antejentacular circumgyration’ or a walk before breakfast, an ‘anteprandial circumgyration’ before dinner, and an ‘ignominious expulsion’ at midnight accompanied by the ‘putter-to-bed’, the ‘asportation of the candle’ and the ‘transportation of the window.’

So yes, he was weird. But also “basically a warm, generous, and kind” man. He wanted to reform the misery-inducing industrial culture of his time and place, and to improve the basic quality of life of his fellow human beings. So, this cartoon featuring Bentham’s zombie auto-icon confronting Phillipa Foot is unfair. But not unfunny.

Create all the happiness you are able to create: remove all the misery you are able to remove. Every day will allow you, will invite you, to add something to the pleasure of others, or to diminish something of their pains. And for every grain of enjoyment you sow in the bosom of another, you shall find a harvest in your own…

Sorry, Mr. Mill, that’s just not what I’d call a “pig philosophy.” It’s humane and compassionate, and it deserves a hearing too.Russell says Bentham was nicer than his philosophy per se encourages people to be, “seduced by his own kindly and affectionate nature” into expecting everyone to pursue not only their own pleasure but to seek to maximize others’ as well. I think that’s an unduly (but not uncommonly) literalist reading of “greatest happiness for the greatest number.” The greatest number would be wholly inclusive. The trouble comes when he dismisses individuals’ rights, our ultimate safeguard against unjust discriminatory exclusion, as “nonsense on stilts.” A utilitarian need not endorse that dismissal.

A note from a friend currently in painful convalescence from surgery says Bentham was right, the Stoics were wrong: ignoring pain does not work, we’ve got to work actively to replace it with pleasure.

And following up on Rousseau and Kant and the mystery of what it was about the former’s Emile that kept the latter off the streets– “Everybody who does Education has to read Emile cover-to-cover,” says this jet-lagged Yale lecturer– Rousseau’s Dog is instructive:

According to one anecdote, the fastidious Immanuel Kant, whose daily routine was so rigid and undeviating that people set their watches by him, became so absorbed in Émile that he bewildered his neighbors by forgetting to take his usual post-lunch constitutional… Rousseau understood, he thought, the paradox of autonomy—that freedom meant conformity to a rule. As he was writing his own masterpiece, the Critique of Pure Reason, he had a single portrait in his house—of Jean- Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau’s Dog

So while it was Hume whom he credited with waking him from his “dogmatic slumber,” it was the somber Swiss who really inspired his work and set his Copernican Revolution spinning.

But, Kant “realized that Rousseau’s picture of the noble savage was an ideal construct:’This wish for a return to an age of simplicity and innocence is futile.'” (Cave&Light)

In other words: we must live in our own age, not retreat to a romantic and probably false dream of an idyllic Eden. We must continually work to make our complex and “civilized” arrangements and institutions genuinely civilizing. The melioristic impulse is also in our nature.

But I still wonder what the dog thought. [Chains, laws, stars, push-pin & poetry]

I’m not a big fan of Burke, with his defense of aristocracy and the 1% solution. But I do love the quote from him that most everybody knows: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” If he said it. I know he didn’t say one of the other things commonly and falsely attributed to him on the Internet: “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.”

That last is actually a misquotation of Santayana. Or maybe Abe Lincoln. But don’t believe everything you read on the Internet.

For discussion. The Kantian mental spectacles that allegedly give us our phenomenal world might very well also prevent us from seeing someone else’s. Imagine an alien intelligence, whose world must look very different. Could it be that, on Kantian grounds, the search for ET is doomed? Or are the languages of math and physics literally universal?

Kant’s commitment to dutifulness as the sole determinant of correct moral action is distressing to most of us, who want to feel virtuous in our sympathies and not deflected from the paths of righteousness. Why can’t solicitude for strangers be dutiful and compassionate, and moral in equal measures?

Is there any reason why the impulse to maximize pleasure and minimize pain must be strictly egotistical? Why do critics of utilitarian ethics make this assumption?

There’s a (false) old saying that he or she who finishes the game with the most toys wins. What about finishing with the most blissful experiences? Would that make you a winner? Would a lifetime of blissful experiences, “real” or not, be enviable or pitiable? (What would Neo or Professor Nozick say?)

An Elvis Costello question: What’s so funny about liberty, equality, and fraternity? OR, Is redistributivist activism a pretext, or a legitimate political program?

Finally, and in anticipation of next week’s exam extra credit discussion prompt: Who, in your opinion at this stage of your philosophical education, is #1 (in terms of insight, influence, wit and charm or whatever)? Moore says Kant. I can’t agree. I do love Russell’s impish question concerning the Sage’s bachelorhood: 

The Encyclopaedia Britannica remarks that ‘as he never married, he kept the  habits of his studious youth to old age’. I wonder whether the author of this article  was a bachelor or a married man.

You probably have to be married (though not necessarily male) to get what’s impish about that.

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