Delight Springs

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Spinoza, Locke, Reid, Berkeley, Voltaire & Leibniz, Hume, Rousseau

Back from the conference in Ottawa and KC, where I've now comfortably rebooted my old tradition of resetting the season and preparing the return to life known as Opening Day (met the author of a book by that title in Ottawa, celebrating the heroic courage of Jack Roosevelt Robinson). It was easier to walk across the hall for the annual baseball conference, but as Baruch Spinoza would tell you if he could, easy is overrated.

Spinoza didn't make it easy on himself by affirming pantheism, but perhaps he found the solace of solidarity with nature and the universe sufficiently off-setting and worth the cost in personal terms. He thought he'd touched all the bases: God, nature, freedom, emotion, everything. QED (Not quite easily done.)

He "claimed to demonstrate both the necessary existence and the unitary nature of the unique, single substance that comprises all of reality. Spinoza preferred the designation "Deus sive Natura" ("god or nature") as the most fitting name for this being, and he argued that the its infinite attributes account for every feature of the universe."

An infinite God leaves no remainder, but also leaves individuals without a personal savior. He didn't think he needed one, with his rationalist's intellectual love of God. Free will may be an illusion, but a Spinozism of freedom is supposed to free us from reactionary passions like anger and self-pity. He would have been pleased by Einstein's endorsement. “I believe in Spinoza's God, who reveals Himself in the lawful harmony of the world, not in a God who concerns Himself with the fate and the doings of mankind..."

But, freedom? "It would be moral bondage if we were motivated only by causes of which we remain unaware, so genuine freedom comes only with knowledge of what it is that necessitates our actions. Recognizing the invariable influence of desire over our passionate natures, we then strive for the peace of mind that comes through an impartial attachment to reason." Much easier said than done. But again, Spinoza wasn't about easy.

John Locke's empiricism overstated the blankness of our slates, and relied too heavily on memory as a guarantor of personal identity. Thomas Reid was not in his league, but may still have had a better idea with his overlapping memories thesis. Until we become cyborg, total recall will not be an option.


Locke "greatly admired the achievements that his friends in the Royal Society had made in physics, chemistry, and medicine, and he sought to clear the ground for future developments by providing a theory of knowledge compatible with such carefully-conducted study of nature. The goal of his An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) was to establish epistemological foundations for the new science by examining the reliability, scope, and limitations of human knowledge in contrast with with the pretensions of uncritical belief, borrowed opinion, and mere superstition. Since the sciences had already demonstrated their practical success, Locke tried to apply their Baconian methods to the pursuit of his own philosophical aims. In order to discover how the human understanding achieves knowledge, we must trace that knowledge to its origins in our experience."

Samuel Johnson's stone-kicking refutation of Bishop Berkeley's idealism is usually met with derision, but as a practical response I place it in the same category as Diogenes' ambulatory refutation of Zeno's paradoxes. Works for me.

Berkeley's idealistic immaterialism ("in which he employed strictly empiricist principles in defense of the view that only minds or spirits exist") deserves some derision, though it also makes a perverse kind of sense if we don't repudiate Locke's representational realist assumption about ideas and their putative inferential sources. Better to repudiate, and admit that experience gives us the world - not just ideas of a world. But it gives us a world in need of elaboration and refinement, which was always the point of reflecting on experience in the first place.

Better also to repudiate the idea that being and perceiving are one. But, Berkeley's Three Dialogoues between Hylas and Philonous (1713) is still an entertaining read. "Here Berkeley spoke through Philonous ("Mind-lover"), who tries to convince his reluctant friend Hylas ("Woody") that it is only by rejecting the artificial philosophical concept of material substance that skepticism can be finally defeated and the truths of common-sense secured."

The poet Pope, like the Panglossian metaphysician Leibniz, said Being can't be improved on. What a demoralizing thought. "Superficiality incarnate," James called it. "Leibniz's feeble grasp of reality is too obvious to need comment from me. It is evident that no realistic image of the experience of a damned soul had ever approached the portals of his mind..."

Fran├žois-Marie Arouet, aka Voltaire, agreed acerbically and hilariously with James. But there was nothing funny about the Lisbon quake, or any natural cataclysm. If we have grounds for optimism it's not in the fact of such events, but in the constructive and ameliorative human response to them. Rebecca Solnit points this out effectively in her book A Paradise Built in Hell:  The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster. She cites James's firsthand account of the great San Francisco quake of '06, wherein he details the sense of "social uplift" he took away from the willingness of people to pitch in and help one another through disaster. Hope springs eternal, for those who can keep their heads in a crisis.

Brains, John Campbell says in his Berkeley Philosophy Bites interview, are a big asset. "It's very important that we have brains. Their function is to reveal the world to us, not to generate a lot of random junk."

Voltaire, dubbed by Russell "the chief transmitter of English influence to France," was an enemy of philosophical junk, too. One of the great Enlightenment salon wits, a Deist and foe of social injustice who railed against religious intolerance (“Ecrasez l’infame!”) and mercilessly parodied rationalist philosophers (especially Leibniz, aka Dr. Pangloss). "Pangloss was professor of metaphysico-theologico-cosmolo-nigology. He proved admirably that there is no effect without a cause, and that, in this best of all possible worlds, the Baron’s castle was the most magnificent of castles, and his lady the best of all possible Baronesses…" Candide [V&L, u@d]

“There is a lot of pain in the world, and it does not seem well distributed.” [slides here]

Plenty of people believe in a "pre-established harmony," and seem to find comfort in it. I've never understood the mindset of feeling blessed by the hurricane that obliterates the other side of the street, but that reflexive response seems always on tap for people in hurricane alley. It's hard to cultivate your garden if you and your garden have been blown away.

David Hume was a cheerful and clear-headed freethinker, prudently advised by friends not to say everything he thought in so many words. The dialogue form gave him just enough cover to keep people guessing as to the full extent of his heresies. But he was plenty clear that miracles, if by the term we mean anything other than an exceedingly improbable (though perfectly possible) event, do not happen. “No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavors to establish.” Hume also said
  • “Reading and sauntering and lounging and dosing, which I call thinking, is my supreme Happiness.” 
  • “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.” 
  • "'Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger."
  • "A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence.” 
  • “He is happy whose circumstances suit his temper, but he is more excellent who can suit his temper to his circumstance.”
  • “Be a philosopher; but, amidst all your philosophy, be still a man.” 

He was also clear that he thought Epicurus had the right attitude towards life and death, annoying Johnson and Boswell with the calm he brought to his final hours.

And he thought Epicurus asked good questions. “Epicurus's old questions are still unanswered: Is he (God) willing to prevent evil, but not able? then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? then whence evil?”

Hume tried to be a friend to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, but they became "enlightenend enemies." The bumptious Swiss was a peripatetic but also a bit of narcissist and rogue, and an advocate for the public interest (the General Will) as deserving priority over personal self-interest. He was right, if we're going to go to the trouble of creating civil institutions we really need to fund them. We all need to pay our share. But we all need to have a voice in identifying the public interest, too. We're finding out, aren't we, if that model will work in our time.
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On this day in 1832, Charles Darwin (books by this author) traveling aboard the HMS Beagle landed on the shores of Rio de Janeiro as part of a five-year trip. “There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the [parasitic wasp] with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars.” But he remained hopeful that "the vigorous, the healthy, and the happy survive and multiply."
Hope is the subject of another terrific book by Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark... and of today's eponymous poem by Lisel Mueller. "It is the singular gift/we cannot destroy in ourselves, the argument that refutes death, the genius that invents the future, all we know of God."

Solnit: “Perfection is a stick with which to beat the possible.” And, "To hope is to give yourself to the future - and that commitment to the future is what makes the present inhabitable.” And, “Hope just means another world might be possible, not promise, not guaranteed. Hope calls for action; action is impossible without hope.”

And, someone concluded his book on William James with:

Hope-the need for it, the possibility of it, the sense of it as the only reputable alternative to inadmissible despair-is the center of his vision as I see it. The prime requisite of hope is confidence that what we do matters and may make all the difference further along the chain of life... "Hope" is that thing with feathers/That perches in the soul/And sings the tunes without the words/And never stops at all.


5:30/6:30, 61/78/58, 7:09

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