Posts Tagged ‘Locke’

rationalists & empiricists, R.I.P.

March 17, 2010

Happy St. Pat’s Day, & Happy Birthday, Sis!

We were talking about Thomas Hobbes on Monday, about his negative evaluation of human nature as conducing to that “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, short” state of nature we supposedly contracted out of. This stands in such striking contrast to David Hume’s and Adam Smith’s notion that humans are naturally un-selfish (and that that’s why we can even begin to entertain the thought of a free-market economy).

I pick on Hobbes at every opportunity, for being so down on the human race. But he’s kind of a role model anyway. Simon Critchley notes: he walked vigorously every day in order to work up a sweat and lived to 91, in the desolate 17th century (when most were lucky to hit 40).  And he had a sharp wit. His epitaph of choice: “This is the true philosopher’s stone.” Don’t tell Harry Potter.

Descartes didn’t fare so well, dying at (yikes!) 53.  But no wonder, with this attitude: “My soul, you have been held captive a long time… leave the prison… relinquish the burden of this body.”

Before giving up his ghost, Descartes corresponded with Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia. She pushed him on his problematic dualism: If the thinking mind is separate from the extended body, then how do mind and body interact? She was among the first of many to be underwhelmed by his speculative response that maybe it happens in the pineal gland.

Critchley says Descartes refused to take seriously Gassendi‘s objection that our ideas, even the clear-and-distinct ones, might be out of touch with reality. Well, though… he at least pretended to take it seriously, to motivate his “meditations” with hyperbolic doubt. I find that strategy suspect, and think we’re right to consider ourselves “in touch” most of the time. That doesn’t mean we can ever be indubitably certain that all our ideas are correct. It does imply that we should not  invent reasons to doubt in our studies what we cannot deny in our lives.

La Rochefoucauld thought the philosophers protested too much, those who tried so fervently to convince us that death is nothing to fear. “Neither the sun nor death can be looked at steadily.” And neither can safely be disregarded.

Blaise Pascal‘s snapshot of the human condition is bleak, but also reminiscent of Plato’s cave-dwellers: “Let us imagine a number of men in chains and all condemned to death, where some are killed each day in the sight of others.” If you’ve heard of his wager you probably thought he was a hyper -rationalist, but for Pascal reason is limited and cannot establish its own first principles… left to itself it leads to endless and unanswerable scepticism.” So maybe David Hume was being disingenous when he declared reason beside the point.

Where did Leibniz get his “monad” idea? Possibly from Anne Conway, who argued against materialism and against any distinction between mind and matter. What did Bertrand Russell think of Leibniz? “Optimistic, orthodox, fantastic and shallow.” Similarly, William James called Leibniz’s theodicy “superficiality incarnate.” Some have construed Leibniz’s bizarre monadology as a front for a very orthodox conception of God as master-planner and micro-manager. Ironic, then, that the name “Leibniz” was popularly derided as “glaubt nichts,” or unbeliever.

John Locke was much more modest and circumspect about the scope of philosophy, tracing ideas to each individual’s idiosyncratic “sensation and reflection.” But he didn’t think he could prove it, and that opened the door to critics who wanted to nail things (and ideas) down more definitively.

Spinoza said a free human being is one who lives according to reason alone and is not governed by fear. That would seem to exclude Hume, who insisted that life is not lived by reason alone (or even by reason in the greatest measure) and that death is the transformation of one natural being (a living human being) into another natural being (the corpse as natural being). Pardon me if I don’t find that entirely consoling.

How civilized are humans, really? According to Vico, there is a constant danger of a cataclysmic return to a new age of the beasts.

English freethinker John Toland invented the term “pantheism,” commonly taken for atheism but  really a form of spiritual materialism. Yes, Virginia, there is such a thing.

For George Berkeley, the independent reality of the material world is nowhere affirmed in the Bible. So, being a strict constructionist, he found nothing real in death. Again, pardon me if I don’t find that wholly persuasive.

Sometimes there just aren’t enough rocks to kick.

NOTE TO STUDENTS: Thanks in advance for not asking when your papers will be graded. The invariable answer, of course, is: ASAP. (That’s “the memo”– the one I’ll refer you to, if you ask me that question.)

live long and prosper

February 23, 2010

Jennifer Hecht’s Genesis poem includes a nod to Spinoza– Voltaire’s Enlightenment was nice but Spinoza led the Jews into light a good two centuries prior– and to Trekkies…

There is a flicker poetry to the universe and it had already started when we got here.  Yet we can star in it, standing there like Captain Picard. Our hearts on our sleeves like Commander Troi There are millions of galaxies to change our minds, yet we get our hearts replaced more often. Leonard Nimoy and Bill Shatner are both Jewish; the “live long and prosper” hand gesture rabbinical, a secret sign a young Nimoy spotted in shul when his father told him to close his eyes and he peeked instead. There they are on the bridge, Kirk and Spock, sailing into the universe where no one has ever gone before, exile upon exile, until nothing feels like home as much as further exile, further out, further on, ancient secrets furling secrets like fractals.

And lots more. She really sings the  spiritual side of natural oblivion, and makes it fun. What other kind of universe would you most want to be at home in, than one you had to leave?

Vulcan spirituality isn’t in today’s A&S readings (though it sorta was, in last week’s: Stoics and Buddhists are pretty Vulcan-ish). But it seems like everything else is: Galileo and Copernicus, Calvin and Hobbes, Erasmus, Luther, Rabelais, Montaigne, Spinoza, Voltaire, Hume, Franklin, Jefferson… and in for a cameo, all of doubt’s old friends from Raphael’s School of Athens.

Thomas Hobbes didn’t call himself an atheist but his Leviathan state was widely perceived to be a God substitute, an authority to keep us all in awe. Hell, he said, was just a fantasy to control people. Foolish people, “they that make little or no enquiry into the natural causes of things…”

Voltaire, a Deist who found no grounds for believing in a worship-worthy Creator, probably inspired more people to reject their childhood religion than anyone else at that time… “Ecrasez l’infame!”

Spinoza: No one, not human beings, not God, could have free will. Nature was self-causing. There were no miracles. Supernaturalism did not have to be rationalized– it could simply be dismissed. If all that sounds too austere, he consoles us with a dose of Epicureanism: nothing forbids our pleasure except a savage and sad superstition. He means pleasures like study, wine, good food, the beauty of green things, theater, and sports.

Hume (who loved Cicero): We don’t need religion for morality, religion itself got its morality from everyday morality– based on the simple fact that doing good brings you peace of mind and praise from others and doing evil brings rejection and sorrow–  in the first place. Somebody should tell Stanley Fish. (And tell him too that English deists like John Locke counselled: to improve life, do not ask God for help.)

Jefferson (who did not love Plato): Jesus would reject all Christianity. Abstracting what is really his from the rubbish in which it is buried was Jefferson’s attempt, when he took scissors to the Bible. The resulting  Jefferson Bible, he intended, would reflect “the most sublime and benevolent [and humane and natural] code of morals” yet devised by mortal man, and it would nestle safely behind the sacred wall so many of our self-righteous contemporaries have been so eager to tear down. That’s one founder’s “original intent” they consistently ignore.  He was a Deist, but considered that his personal business and none of the state’s. (If you missed it before, check out Maira Kalman’s tribute to the Sage of Monticello.)

And I’ll bet you didn’t expect the Spanish Inquisition. You should’ve.