Delight Springs

Monday, March 31, 2014

Kant, Bentham, Burke, PC

It's finally, really Opening Day! I've been at work all weekend on my presentation for Friday's "Baseball in Literature & Culture" conference, as reassuring a sign of spring as I could want. "Coming Home" is my theme, and after so many years this annual event - like the pastime it celebrates - has itself come to feel like home.

On a less hopeful note, the IPCC has released its latest dire report. My Environmental Ethics course is coming around again, with a more urgent interest in how to convert activism to sustainable action on everyone's part (including the president of our university). As it says in The Sustainable University, which I'm reading with one of my favorite green activists, democracy is a crucial element of sustainability. We'll see if that's ultimately to be a source of hope or despair.

Here's an unequivocally hopeful thought: last night's new installment of Cosmos reminds us not only of the ghostly nightlights in the sky, the light that reaches us long after the stars that kindled it have expired, but also of the light one luminous human can shed on the next generation (astronomer Herschel and his son the inventor of photography, for instance) and for generations to come. NDT again concluded with a lovely tribute to his mentor CS. Hope lives. If (as CS always said) we can manage not to destroy ourselves, the stars await.

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, Richard Bourke on ancestral conservative Edmund Burke, and Carlin Romano on (among other things) political correctness.

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 with Rousseau 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.

"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 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 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.
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.

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

Another thought on American brows from Carlin Romano, via UCal-Berkeley historian Lawrence Levine: we should not allow dubiously-absolute scales of value, with their "tired old binary symbols and metaphors" (like highbrow and lowbrow), to prevent us from philosophizing together. Let a hundred conversations bloom!
"We should look back to the critic Gilbert Seldes for the principles of the democratized, brow-removed culture we've become--at least outside of philosophy... Only in philosophy have the high/low binaries continued to rule, with professors typically belittling popular thinking..." 
Not guilty. I'm definitely not one of those hostile turf-guarding epistemological alpha male academics. I'm Open Court's biggest fan.

The PC debate of recent years was kinda silly, and widely misunderstood. Of course we should try to be "correct," not because the keepers of culture will slap us for violating their proprieties but because correct, properly understood, means right. Or at least, honest.

What is political correctness, exactly? It's become a slippery term, but the people's encyclopedia has it pretty much right I think:

Political correctness (adjectivally, politically correct; both forms commonly abbreviated to PC) is a term that refers to language, ideas, or policies that address perceived or actual discrimination against or alienation of politically, socially or economically disadvantaged groups. The term usually implies that these social considerations are excessive or of a purely "political" nature. These groups most prominently include those defined by genderracereligionethnicitysexual orientation and disability.

Common sense is the ultimate correction here. "Not a common sense in which everyone [thinks] the same" (etc.) but one with no bulldozing. Here's a wise and timely tweet from HDT, to the point:

"Say what you have to say, not what you ought. Any truth is better than make-believe."  
And I almost forgot: 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.

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