Delight Springs

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Kant, Bentham, Hegel, Schopenhauer

It's three Germans and an Englishman today in CoPhi, a reflection of my own heritage - or so family legend has it. I haven't checked with 23 and me. (Everyone I know who has, has been surprised or disappointed. Maybe it'd be best simply to claim the broadly and inclusively human heritage.)

But whatever the DNA says, I've tilted to the Anglo side of my lineage. I find quirky Jeremy Bentham more to my philosophical taste than any of the Teutons. "Greatest happiness for the greatest number" sounds like a worthy plan, so long as the rights of the lesser number are also respected. Plus, he named his walking sticks! (Dapple & Dobbin). Things in Themselves, Categorical Imperatives, historical zeitgeists, and pervasive pointless Wills hold less appeal, but seem to occupy a greater chunk of our curriculum.

Immanuel Kant's noumenal/phenomenal distinction appears sensible, but doesn't it also take the appearances down a notch by implicit comparison? His analytic/synthetic & a priori/a posteriori distinctions are inescapable, in the philosophy curriculum, but in the real world it's not always clear where to draw the lines. His "great insight," that reason reveals the relevance of our own minds in structuring the world of our experience and knowledge, may or may not be correct. But his ringing exhortation to sapere aude, to have the courage to think, has to be. If we did, maybe we'd finally give peace a chance.

Kant's moral philosophy requires either courage or insensitivity, declaring the normal range of human sympathy - the source of David Hume's morality - irrelevant. If you do the right thing for any reason other than dutiful reason, he says, you're wrong. That can't be right, can it?

Never lie. Ever. In any circumstances. That advisory marks Kant as the un-Trumpiest ethicist of all. No general principle can rationally endorse behavior that, universalized, would destroy the very practice it purports to govern. If we lie, we destroy the possibility of credibly telling the truth.  But our duty to truth is absolute, our imperative is categorical. Consequences be damned. What evildoers do with the truth is no concern of ours. Really?

Which brings us to friend Bentham, for whom positive consequences are to be treasured more than anything. His Greatest Happiness principle has its heart in the right place, the place where happy consequences ensue for as many of us as we can manage. Calculate everyone's felicity. But to do that, you can't also say that individual rights are "nonsense on stilts."

Another apparently-false legend is that it made Jeremy so happy to contemplate an eternity of staff meetings that his will stipulated the presence of his auto-icon at council meetings of the University College of London. Too bad. I've been present in the mode of absence at a few academic confabs too, without the excuse of being an immobilized ex-utilitarian.

Robert Nozick's Experience Machine, thought the late libertarian Harvard professor, challenges Bentham's view of the ubiquity of pleasure as a source of human motivation. (And reminds some of The Matrix.) But is that fair? Was Bentham talking about the greatest simulated experience of happiness for the greatest number? The greatest illusion of happiness? The greatest simulacrum of pleasure? "All ways of bringing about pleasure are equally valuable" is not a principle he ever articulated, or would likely affirm. This is an ungenerous solecism, surely, propelled by a narrative committed to polishing J.S. Mill's comparatively-superior progressive pedigree. Mill was great, but there's no need to purchase his greatness at the cost of Bentham's.

Hegel's twilight "owl of Minerva" seems to carry a white flag, surrendering on philosophy's behalf to history's disappointments and vicissitudes. We know what that feels like, at this historical moment. Don't we? Maybe it was a concession that the hubris of youth, if it lives long enough, must always give way to the resignation of years. Young Hegel imagined he'd caught Geist by the tail and pinned it into his Phenomenology of Spirit. Old Hegel was more circumspect.

Think of young Wordsworth and his rapturous ode to life at the crossroads of revolution and history. "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven!" And then think of old Wordsworth, turned Tory. The spirit of youth is intoxicating, that of maturity sobering. You don't have to choose, if you can manage to stick around.

Politics aside though, as today's poem reminds, you can always strive to be young at heart. "My heart leaps up when I behold A rainbow in the sky: So was it when my life began; So is it now I am a man; So be it when I shall grow old, Or let me die!

Hegel always rejected Kant's vanishing noumenal realm, but his confidence in history's march to self-revelation and total freedom may finally have struck him as historically suspect, not born out by the actual course of events. The whole notion of geist, though, rendered as the progressive awakening of nature as spirit through us, is a heady one. Maybe it's just the right mindset for a philosopher who deeply values his own words. It's long-view optimism.

I can never mention Hegel without recalling James's half-serious reflections on some Hegelisms. The nitrous oxide philosopher thought Hegel could be clearer, and undertook an experiment to see if clarity could be ingested through laughing gas. "Let me transcribe a few sentences: What's mistake but a kind of take? What's nausea but a kind of -ausea? Sober, drunk, -unk, astonishment.
Everything can become the subject of criticism—how criticise without something to criticise? Agreement—disagreement!! Emotion—motion!!!"

And so it goes on, until sobriety returns to erase the perception of deep Hegelian insight. But at least he gave long-view optimism a try.

And the opposite of that? The "blind driving force" of Schopenhauer's voracious, insatiable, ubiquitous Will. Reality was for him best symbolized by a yapping hound, yapping perennially and pointlessly, magnifying our cycles of striving and desire and despair, making subtle spirits like Arthur wish for it all to just stop.

But on the other hand, he loved art and music and fine restaurants and little poodle dogs like his Atman. (His series of Atmans.)  And there's much to be said for his thought that "other people aren't external to me," though it seems that if you really believed that you might be less inclined to push an old lady down the stairs and then make puns about her demise.

Some questions: Do we all wear conceptual "spectacles" of some kind? If so, does that present a problem for the possibility of mutual understanding between ourselves and/or other kinds of knowers? Does the spectacles analogy really even work, given the impossibility of actually removing our conceptual spectacles or changing prescriptions? Is knowing the appearances enough? If you help someone because you feel sorry for them, have you behaved morally? Does history mean anything, either in advance or in retrospect? Or is it, as Henry Ford said, "bunk"? Was George Santayana right, that if we don't learn from history's mistakes we're doomed to repeat them? Is the world becoming more conscious, somehow, even as many individuals seem to become less so? Does nature come to know itself through us? If we could somehow know that the world had no ultimate purpose, would pessimism and despair be an appropriate response? Do art, literature, and music offer some kind of redemption?
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Good news: "by learning and regularly practicing skills that promote positive emotions, you can become a happier and healthier person... as little as two weeks’ training in compassion and kindness meditation generate(s) changes in brain circuitry linked to an increase in positive social behaviors like generosity..."

College admissions advice: be kind. "Colleges should foster the growth of individuals who show promise not just in leadership and academics, but also in generosity of spirit."

Today in 1748, excavations began to unearth the doomed city of Pompeii, where nearly 11,000 people were killed in place and buried under 80 feet of ash by the sudden eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79... It’s the birthday of biophysicist James Dewey Watson, who with Francis Crick and Rosalind Franklin discovered the structure of DNA to be a double helix. “To succeed in science, you have to avoid dumb people [...] you must always turn to people who are brighter than yourself.” And, he should have added, kinder. WA

5:30/6:27, 44/61/39, 7:11

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