Delight Springs

Monday, April 7, 2014

Mill, Darwin, Gardner, Burke

Today in CoPhi it's John Stuart Mill (and Richard Reeves on Mill's On Liberty), Charles Darwin, Howard Gardner, and Kenneth Burke. 

“I have learned to seek my happiness by limiting my desires, rather than in attempting to satisfy them.” J.S. Mill‘s statement sounds surprisingly Buddhist/ascetic, for a philosopher whose name has come to be associated with libertarian self-actualization and (later) Jamesian liberalism. Understandable, perhaps, after an execrable childhood when his father pushed him much too hard to excel. He had a nervous breakdown at twenty. Cautionary tale, young scholars? [Mill's Autobiography]

But he rebounded impressively, going on to become one of the most popular philosophers in the western world (definitely one of my personal favorites), an early champion of feminism, and a friend of personal freedom in general.

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 (1859) in general? I’m with him.
The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it. Each is the proper guardian of his own health, whether bodily, or mental or spiritual. Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest.

I love too what he says about Socrates and truth. In Utilitarianism (1861) he adds,
It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. [JSM]

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.”

Mill says we all know that some of our opinions are untrue, but must seek out or even invent the dissenting opinions that will correct them. But many or even most people are more like Thomas Hardy's "Phillotson," aren't they? They don't want to question everything, they don't really want to question much of anything. They only "want to lead a quiet life." Is that liberty? Or is it intellectual death?

Richard Reeves notes that Mill has by now become an English "national treasure," losing some of the dangerous edge that made him relevant in the first place. But his message still resonates for many, right Brian? We must take responsibility for our own beliefs, actions, and lives, and for our unique personal potential. We're all individuals. We don't have to follow anybody. We can be "self-made." (Hear that, B.F. Skinner?)

On Liberty wasn't the only groundbreaking, earthshaking, worldview-making publication of 1859. What was the best mindless eye-opening idea anybody ever had, Dan Dennett?
If I were to give an award for the single best idea anyone has ever had, I’d give it to Darwin, ahead of Newton and Einstein and everyone else. In a single stroke, the idea of evolution by natural selection unifies the realm of life, meaning, and purpose with the realm of space and time, cause and effect, mechanism and physical law. Darwin’s Dangerous Idea [Darwin and philosophy... Darwin@dawn... evolution... Dennett...Matthew Chapman... Scopes Trial... Loyal Rue] 

We were talking about Hegel’s idea of history as a progressive march to expanded human consciousness of reason and freedom, driven by ideas in conflict (“thesis-antithesis”). I think we all have to admit (though of course we-all don’t, in these environs) that Darwin’s discoveries were a big hitch ahead on that road. His autobiographical account of an argument he had with the Captain of his storied ship (the Beagle) over slavery is instructive in this regard:
In the voyage at Bahia in Brazil he defended and praised slavery, which I abominated, and told me that he had just visited a great slave-owner, who had called up many of his slaves and asked them whether they were happy, and whether they wished to be free, and all answered “No.” I then asked him, perhaps with a sneer, whether he thought that the answers of slaves in the presence of their master was worth anything. This made him excessively angry, and he said that as I doubted his word, we could not live any longer together.

Darwin and Fitzroy patched that one up, and history is now clear about the winner of that debate. Progress, right? Fitzroy would later regret his role in Darwin’s saga, and our species’ climb up the tree of life from ignorance and superstition.  But Darwin’s big idea, like Lincoln’s, was a great emancipator of the human spirit.  They shared a birthday, curiously, and (as Hegel might have said) a zeitgeist.

So Darwin offered an account of our proximate origins that does not require the theistic hypothesis. He himself remained agnostic on the question, unlike our contemporary Richard Dawkins. He’s reviled by many Americans (deluded or not), but I can only envy the “popular understanding of science” he and others have proffered students in the U.K. and that our public schools continue to neglect.

Revisiting Darwin’s autobiography, and one of his more sagacious but plaintive reflections:
If I had to live my life again I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week; for perhaps the parts of my brain now atrophied could thus have been kept active through use. The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.

Don’t let it happen to you, kids. And remember: “the vigorous, the healthy, and the happy survive and flourish.” Actually he said they "multiply," but I think he'd be okay with my revision. 

Maybe that will help answer the student’s question that caught me so flat-footed one day in class: “What does any of this evolution stuff have to do with philosophy?”

Only everything, on my reading. Evolution by natural selection is possibly the best idea anyone ever had, as Dennett says. It brings our quest for meaning into meaningful harness with the rest of nature and life, provides the widest available perspective on our origins and destiny, links us to the primordial past and the possibility of a wondrous future for our species, and replaces disingenuous skepticism (a topic that came up recently in connection with scientific realism: can any reasonable person really doubt the existence of atoms etc.?) with a promising conceptual framework to unite all the disciplines of learning.

And as John Dewey said, in “The Influence of Darwinism on Philosophy“:
Origin of Species introduced a mode of thinking that in the end was bound to transform the logic of knowledge, and hence the treatment of morals, politics, and religion… making many sincere and vital efforts to revise our traditional philosophic conceptions in accordance with its demands.

Darwin helped us understand that the world and all its species, and possibly the entire universe, are in dynamic and mutually-formative relations with one another and with their respective environments. Those in closest proximity are vital environing influences themselves, competitors for existence and co-creators of life. They are change-agents, in perpetual process of growth and adaptation (or demise). Nothing is fixed and final and forever. Our thinking must be flexible and adaptive too.

But maybe the best answer to what’s philosophical about evolution can be explained in  simpler terms still. I’ll visit the kids’ section and get back to you. Meanwhile here’s a start:

The Tree of Life begins with Darwin’s childhood and traces the arc of his life through university and career, following him around the globe on the voyage of the Beagle, and home to a quiet but momentous life devoted to science and family… a gloriously detailed panorama of a genius’s trajectory through investigating and understanding the mysteries of nature.

As we noted recently, when discussing David Hume’s rejection of intelligent design, it’s all really pretty simple, and wondrous, and beautiful.

Carl Sagan’s version of the story is very good. (Neil deGrasse Tyson's is too, of course. Last night's episode, on light, reminds me of one of Darwin's more understated observations: "light will be thrown..." And as Tyson keeps saying: good thinking requires questioning every would-be authority, human and divine, if we're to see the light). Mill would agree, we "need the light of free expression to flourish."

But maybe you’ll find this easier to hum. Take it away, Eric the Orchestra Leader:

It’s the sun and you and me, and all the stars that we can see, and life, and everything in this amazing and expanding universe that philosophers are trying to understand. Makes you feel kinda small, but also kinda special. We’re the ones who get to be here and sing along.

Howard Gardner defends "multiple intelligences"-linguistic, musical, logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal. The more, the better. Our schools have not yet caught up with his insights, but the best are trying. 

"When I was in college," Gardner says, "my hero was Edmund Wilson." 

Wow. When was in college, I was reading To the Finland Station and Patriotic Gore. I'm still awe-struck at the guy's capacity to absorb and emit words.

I don't know much about Kenneth Burke, another logorrhea-ridden  "word man" and literary critic, but I do know I approve his message that we ought to conquer our "warlike impulses" and tame (if not "eliminate") "differences that defeat a sense of oneness."

And I can appreciate his style. "He made up his philosophical life as he rolled along." Didn't know there was any other way.

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