Posts Tagged ‘John Stuart Mill’

Hegel, Schopenhauer, Mill, infinity, & One

October 8, 2012

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 #1...YouT... 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.

“Are we still evolving?”

April 7, 2011

That’s the question of the day, along with “Where to, humanity?” But who to ask?

Most days lately, the answer would have to be: doesn’t seem so. Jerry Coyne, some researchers at Duke, and Time all say yes. But they’re not really asking the  more important and pointed question:  are we evolving culturally? Are we becoming a better, kinder, more peacable and cooperative species? Again, appearances usually suggest not. But it would have been easier to think otherwise a century and a half ago.

The 19th century was a crowded one, probably philosophy’s best so far. John Stuart (“of his own free will”) Mill is the most famous English utilitarian, but Jeremy Bentham is the one who came up with the “hedonic calculus” for determining the greatest good of the greatest number. (It’s not very reliable, unfortunately.) He’s under glass, now.

Auguste Comte was a positivist who also preached the  ”religion of humanity,” sometimes aka “secular humanism.”

As for Darwin’s “friends,” you might say that with pals like these he didn’t need Intelligent Designers

Herbert Spencer, for instance, came up with “survival of the fittest” and (according to most mainstream evolutionists) badly misapplied evolutionary ideas to society in general. Social Darwinism is un-Darwinian.

But American philosophy generally  has been very friendly to the evolutionary hypothesis, in many ways a direct and favorable response to it.  Pragmatism is America’s indigenous philosophy – unless we’re talking about the thought of its indigenous peoples, of course.

The evolution vs. creation  debate had been raging in America even before Darwin published, in 1859. Ernestine Rose, one of many neglected female freethinkers in the 19th century spotlighted by Jennifer Hecht in Doubt, had an answer to those early IDers who were sure that oddities like blind fish somehow attested to divine architecture in nature.

What did she make of the world without a creator? One believer had told her that an eyeless fish living in a cave in Kentucky proved that there was a creator, since this showed design. Rose explained, “He forgot the demonstrable fact that the element of light is indispensable in the formation of the organ of sight, without which it could not be formed… [Inherit the Wind...What is "holy to the agnostic" (Darrow cross-examines Bryan)... Hecht on the Scopes Trial... Winterton Curtis... on Darwin...15 answers to creationists...theistic evolution...theistic evol DS1...DS2Coyne vs. Shermer...Hitch on theistic evol...defining religion...evol & meaning (Galaxy Song)] [meaning & evolution... grandeur... Everybody's Story... Evolution for Everyone... Darwin's Dangerous Idea...Only a Theory (K. Miller)...   Greatest Show on Earth... only a theory (Dawkins & Krauss)... Why Evolution is True... Trials of the Monkey...40 Days and 40 Nights]

NEXT WEEK: O 138-152, PW 108-119 (Peirce, James, Dewey, Wittgenstein, Russell)

James bio – 5

October 9, 2009

Last time James proclaimed “my first act of free will… to believe in free will.” Now we begin to find him acting assertively, though still experimentally, on that belief. Results are panning out well. He’s discovering the power of intention– not Wayne Dyer‘s recent invention– and especially of attention.

As this week’s installment begins in 1874, 32-year old William has just returned from yet another European trip and is sitting down to break bread with the septuagenarian, aphasic, addled Emerson, now clearly in mental decline. The Sage’s large influence on William, as a frequent household presence throughout childhood but more importantly in maturity as philosophical source material, was attested firsthand  in William’s remarks at the 1903 Emerson centenary.

Richardson notes as well Emerson’s poetic imprint, as William copied out passages of Emerson’s poem “Give All to Love.” The concluding lines “When half-gods go, The gods arrive” may have struck young James as an invitation to open himself to personal possibilities of growth and creativity he’d not imagined, “gods” signifying goals and ideals rather than transcendent deities. Emerson’s message of individualism and self-reliance would have found eager ears in the young man who’d at last wholeheartedly embraced his own free will and attentive powers.

rwe 1879James must’ve registered and filed in long-term memory this passage from “The American Scholar,” which he marked in his personal copy: “Action is with the scholar subordinate, but it is essential. Without it he is not yet a man. Without it thought can never ripen into truth.” As noted in a previous post, James’s pragmatic view of truth is that we must unpack the facts and apply them to the actual circumstances of living before we can begin to speak of truth (and falsehood).  Truths emerge from facts when we act, not before. Truths don’t come ready-made, pre-packaged, and labeled in advance for our use.

Another big influence beginning now to impress young James was the utilitarian and libertine John Stuart MillOn-Liberty (“of his own free will,” the Pythons sang), later Pragmatism‘s dedicatee as the philosopher “from whom I first learned the pragmatic openness of mind and whom my fancy likes to picture as our leader were he alive today.”

During this time James is teaching anatomy and physiology at Harvard, putting his medical degree to use. But he is also beginning to think and write philosophically. He publishes “The Sentiment of Rationality” in 1878, arguing for a concept of rationality marked by “a strong feeling of ease, peace, rest [and] a feeling of the sufficiency of the present moment.” This is not a narrow scientific rationality (though he did not see it, nor do I, as incompatible with scientific values). It is a proposal to regard our happiness as a reasonable aspiration, and reality as potentially “congenial” and cooperative.

Thinking of Pascal’s Wager, he proposes a shift of metaphors: belief is not a gamble, it is a vote. “The decisions we make about how to live are not bets but ballots for a particular kind of world.” The forward-looking meliorist philosopher is starting to surface.

AliceGibbensIn May 1877, William (age 35) proposes (again) to Alice Gibbens. She accepts. By the end of the following summer, Alice is  pregnant. The conflicted, indecisive, self-berating, noncommittal young man of all those earlier crises is just about gone for good. Life is being built, as he’d forecast, in “doing and creating.” And not, at last, in  so much pointless self-absorbed “suffering.”


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