Category Archives: The Enlightenment

Metaphysical Bloviation?

Over at talkingphilosophy blog Jeff Mason has an elegant essay on metaphysics that takes the Kantian view that the physical sciences are the source of all knowledge and everything else is mere speculation. My problem with this essay, and Kant’s critique, is that they are the worst examples of the very thing that they are complaining about—making, as they do, grandiose excessively-general statements about the nature of reality that are quite immune from empirical or logical examination, the most extravagant metaphysical conceit of them all. The genre really should be called metametaphysics as it installs itself as the last arbiter on truth and preemptively disqualifies, tout court, anything that could offer an alternative to its dogmatically positivistic understanding of reality.

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Diana Effect?

Marc Ambinder:

In the wake of Tim Russert’s I’ve noticed among a lot of my journalistic friends an enormous amount of introspection and self-assessment, even among those who, like me, did not know Tim well. It is a perfectly appropriate to remark upon and even to criticize, the fact that the media treats a death in its family like a death in its family. But Tim’s death seems to have hit the Washington political community by an order of magnitude greater than the passing of a loved one.

Is Marc really saying that the impact of the death of Tim Russert is an order of magnitude greater than the death of a partner or parent?

Mansfield Park and The Culture Wars

After a hiatus I have posted an article, Everything of Higher Consequence, on my Mansfield Park blog. Here I have brought together some of my thinking on the novel which also intersects with some recent thoughts on what makes progressives and conservatives tick. Given that the two stream of thought originated with the French revolution and Edmund Burke’s reaction to it, and the way that the baby-boomer culture wars have been fought out in Austen criticism (see Conservatives and Progressives) and Barack Obama’s objective to move beyond these culture wars (see about half of the posts on Andrew Sullivan’s blog), you can see strong convergence in these seemingly disparate areas covering philosophy and the enlightenment, Jane Austen’s writing and contemporary politics.

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The Two Cultures

The Daily Duck wants to know why the seemingly perpetual interest in inter-disciplinary scholarship, especially when comes to jamming fields as disparate as the arts and sciences together.

More to the point, what’s the problem? Is literature suffering from it’s distance from science? Is science suffering? No. There is no magical middle ground between science and art where some mystical synergy kicks in to enable fantastic realms of new possibilities. Like most border areas it is a dead zone, a no-man’s land of barbed wire and trenches. That’s what keeps Germans in Germany and what keeps scientists productive.

Apparently C.P. Snow’s Two Cultures is being cited as an inspiration for this. This I think is highly ironic as I agree with F. R. Levis’s critique, that Snow was neither especially proficient in the arts or the sciences, and in any case most of the Two Cultures was poorly thought through, the Two Cultures being itself an illustration of why simply ramming the arts and sciences together is unlikely to produce much of lasting value.

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Earthquake Follies

[Part of a series of articles reviewing blogs and websites (here Talking Philosophy) on my blog-roll; see the about page.]

After picking up Peter Singer on his inability to even attempt to address the ‘problem of evil’ seriously I see Julian Baggini has written a similar article on karma in the wake of Sharon Stone’s clumsy remarks. Just as Singer chose a hopelessly weak foil, one that is not known for any mastery of theology to make his point Baggini has chosen Glen Hoddle and Sharon Stone. As I suggested in the earlier article this I think fits a pattern of a particular kind of atheism, the faith system being based on the incompetence of the religious. This can’t be stated too clearly: the object of their faith, the thing to be protected, is the belief in the irrationality, stupidity, confusion, corruption, etc., of religious people. It is a profoundly negative belief system.

The earlier article, Why I am not an Atheist, avoided getting down into the issues themselves as I was convinced that this would trigger a tedious repetition of entrenched positions. Also not being a Christian I didn’t feel it was my place to wade in, but I have since promised to engage the issues and write a blog article, Theism for non-Theists. Here I do get involved with the Buddhist issues and you can consider it a bridge to the promised article, as the misunderstanding of karma and failure to grasp the Christian approach to the ‘problem of evil’ seem have similar underlying causes.

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Baddiel on Austen

David Baddiel has an interesting take on both Jane Austen and the way she is being depicted in bioepics, slyly suggesting that they may have it about right for popular children’s entertainment, making a refreshingly bold case for her merit that avoids the usual apologetics and condescension.

Because here’s the thing about Jane Austen. She was a very great genius. She is possibly the greatest genius in the history of English literature, arguably greater than Shakespeare. And her achievement is not that much to do with love, although that was her subject matter. It’s to do with technique. Before her there are three strands in English fiction: the somewhat mental, directly-reader-addressing semi-oral romps of Nashe and Sterne and Fielding; the sensationalist Gothic work of Horace Walpole and Ann Radcliffe; and the romances of Eliza Haywood and Fanny Burney.

However great these writers are, none could be read now and considered modern. When Austen gets into her stride, which she does very quickly with Sense and Sensibility, suddenly, you have all the key modern realist devices: ironic narration; controlled point of view; structural unity; transparency of focus; ensemble characterisation; fixed arenas of time and place; and, most importantly, the giving-up of the fantastical in favour of a notion that art should represent life as it is actually lived in all its wonderful ordinariness. She is the first person, as John Updike put it: “to give the mundane its beautiful due”, and her work leads to Updike as much as it does to George Eliot.

I have no idea how a mainly home-educated rector’s daughter came by all that, but I know that imagining her as a kind of acerbic spinster flattens out this genius. It becomes all about the subject matter and not at all about the huge creative advance her work represents.

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Conservatives and Progressives

[This article is the second in a series on Elitism, Conservatives and Progressives.]

Andrew Sullivan has been chewing over what it means to be a conservative and I would like to clarify my own ideas here. I agree with Sullivan in seeing Edmund Burke as the founder of modern conservatism. (Of course, that I am a Bristolian and the Anglo-Irish Burke represented the city in parliament doesn’t bias me in the least.) Modern conservatism arose as a reaction to the French Revolution, which is not to say that it was a reactionary movement, there being much to be said for the point of view that the French Revolution was a glorious mistake (the same could been achieved much less violently) and that conservatism offers a valuable critique, with Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France setting the terms of the debate.

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Elitism: The Democrats Self-Inflicted Wound?

[This article is the first in a series on Elitism, Conservatives and Progressives.]

I have been meaning to get my ideas straight on elitism for some weeks now, but little did I realise how central it was to so many philosophical issues that I am talking about on this blog. The catalyst for this series of articles was my previous article on Obama’s Appalachian problem, which I thought was explained brilliantly by Senator Jim Webb. Webb is an Appalachian of Scottish-Irish descent, the very demographic that has been causing so many problems for Obama. I will return to the attitudes of progressive elites to the ‘racism’ of the Appalachians later.

One of the clearest explanations of Elitism in US politics was written by Jonathan Chait in a short article, Popular Will, where he says:

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The Madness of Modernity

Over at Thought Experiments, Nige makes some interesting observations in Ethical Voyeurism and Selective Squeamishness about how susceptible we have become to being manipulated by video imagery–citing the gratuitous voyeuristic images that come out of disaster tele-journalism and the way footage of late abortions , and the proscribing thereof, have been used in the debate over late abortions, finishing with a reflection on how the opinions of scientists become accepted with an authority that it is not clear is merited or healthy.

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Inayat’s Choice

Over at Comment is free Inayat has another potboiler at the top of the leader-board (heading for 300 comments at the time of writing).

In my late teens I read a book by the Pakistani Islamic scholar and exegete of the Qur’an, Amin Ahsan Islahi. Islahi urged young Muslims to beware of wasting their time with frivolous activities and called on them to adopt a serious reading programme. Naturally, reading and trying to understand the message of the Qur’an was No 1 on his list, but he also recommended searching out books that he said would encourage greater contemplation and self-assessment and pointed us towards the Bible, books on philosophy and the biographies of influential figures in history.

Keen to make the most of my time, I generally avoided fictional literature, though I had immensely enjoyed reading Catch-22 and Animal Farm (oh, and two of the early Adrian Mole books) etc when I was younger.

Inayat’s problem is that he has rather neglected fiction and now feels he has some catching up to do, tried Lucky Jim, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Portnoy’s Complaint from Time’s recent top 100 since its first issue in 1923, only to be somewhat disappointed, and is looking for recommendations. I suggested he might like to consider going back to the source, that he might have a particularly good reason for looking at Jane Austen:

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A Philosophical Manifesto (Contents)

In this series of articles I explain my own understanding of philosophy and why I think the writings of Jane Austen should be of interest to to anyone interested in modern morality and ethics.

  1. A Philosophical Manifesto
  2. Classical Philosophy
  3. George Berkeley
  4. The Enlightenment
  5. Immanuel Kant
  6. Joseph Butler
  7. David Hume and Jane Austen
  8. A Short Digression: David Hume in Perspective
  9. The Romantics
  10. The Cynics
  11. Postscript (A Personal Anecdote)

    Postscript (A Personal Anecdote)

    A few years I visited The National Portrait Gallery to view the portrait of Jane Austen by her sister. I walked all over the gallery in search of it, until someone pointed out that it was in ground-level display case, and sure enough, once I stopped craning my neck at the grand canvases there was Cassandra’s portrait in front of me.

    The Cynics

    To get a feel for the kind of problems that Austen presents for her critics, consider the Margaret Oliphant (1870) review, an article prompted by the publication of the Austen-Leigh (1870) memoir, triggering as it did the resurgence of interest in Austen that continues to the present.

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    The Romantics

    “I did not know before,” continued Bingley immediately, “that you were a studier of character. It must be an amusing study.”

    “Yes, but intricate characters are the most amusing. They have at least that advantage.”

    “The country,” said Darcy, “can in general supply but a few subjects for such a study. In a country neighbourhood you move in a very confined and unvarying society.”

    “But people themselves alter so much, that there is something new to be observed in them for ever.”

    “Yes, indeed,” cried Mrs. Bennet, offended by his manner of mentioning a country neighbourhood. “I assure you there is quite as much of that going on in the country as in town.”

    Pride and Prejudice (9.15)

    It is difficult not to understand this interchange between Elizabeth and Darcy as an anticipation of the debate within Austen criticism as to whether the restriction of her range reflected a limitation of the novelist, and—more to the point—whether this limitation should be reflected in the novels’ status in the canon. This debate will no doubt run and run, but there can be little doubt that this was a choice of Austen’s, a reflection of the judgement that the middle-range rural domestic arena—the familiar and the universal—was the place to be. And it has provoked a reaction from the Romantics reminiscent of Mrs Bennet’s, Charlotte Brontë’s witty response to George Henry Lewes’s provocations speaking for many:

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    A Short Digression: David Hume in Perspective

    David Hume was a great writer and a great philosopher but this doesn’t mean that he produced perfect philosophy. Two of the best assessments I have seen are one by William Russell (see What is Enlightenment?) and Gilbert Ryle.

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    David Hume and Jane Austen

    To have any prospect of succeeding in the study of ethics then we will have to look to authors that are read and discussed. David Hume’s works are widely discussed and read and admired, so by looking at what he did say we can learn a great deal about our modern ethic. His main move in the Treatise was to assert that the faculty of moral discernment was sentimental in nature, not rational.

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    Joseph Butler

    How could Kant’s system could possibly fulfil the function of any Practical Philosophy (i.e., ethics) if even the Kantian specialists’ mastery of it is questionable, unless it is an ethical system entirely for the use of a highly rarefied breed of academic philosopher.  Kant’s system grounded in duties, runs into predictable problems when different duties conflict, such as whether to lie in order to prevent someone from taking another’s life, and it is dead easy to construct these scenarios where the issues are straightforward, as when I decide to conceal an innocent party from some powerful people intent on immorally doing harm to them.  The issue is clear: I have decided to conceal, to mislead, to lie to a group of people in order to prevent them form carrying out a terrible crime.  Kant stuck to his guns and insisted that we must not lie, but if there was ever any doubt in the case, after what happened in Europe in the 1930s, it is manifestly clear that this is the wrong answer, which hasn’t prevented some highly intelligent people, such as Elizabeth Anscombe, from reaffirming it.

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    Immanuel Kant

    ‘There are few philosophical texts so confusing and so perplexing as Kant’s works.’ So opens T. K. Seung in his preface to Kant: A Guide for the Perplexed, before going on to lament that ‘it is the fate of his readers to get lost in his text before they can get perplexed with his ideas’. Unfortunately there is a great tendency for people to get ‘perplexed with his ideas’ even in the commentaries—the ’99 edition of the Concise Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Kant is free of any philosophical content, the editors judging (plausibly) that the average layman will be perplexed by any presentation of his philosophy. And the reason isn’t hard to find. As Seung says in the opening paragraph, ‘In Kant’s view, we can elevate our existence beyond the brute animal condition by transforming the a posteriori elements into rational experience through the a priori elements. He calls these a priori elements the transcendental conditions because they enable us to transcend the empirical condition. Hence his philosophy is called transcendental philosophy […].’

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    The Enlightenment

    From losing our minds metaphysically it was but a short step to losing them ethically. The wisdom of the ages had said that those with sharper faculties should use them for higher purposes, and certainly not self-aggrandisement. Self-knowledge was important to offset the tendency to spend one’s time looking for the motes in other people’s eye, habitually projecting our problems elsewhere. This is best summarised in Hume’s famous dictum from his Treatise of Human Nature (§2.3.3): ‘Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.’ There is no finer or more precise statement of our modern Enlightenment ethic; the modern mind spend its whole time dreaming up the most fabulous justifications for its sentiments and this habit has become so entrenched that we are no longer aware of it. The most powerful shared sentiment that moderns have is the idea that we are Enlightened, of course, far more sensitive, free thinking, wise and intelligent than anyone who has lived before or anyone today who doesn’t share our Enlightened values. It follows from this that our Enlightenment is guaranteed, that it will be a self-fulfilling prophesy.

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    George Berkeley

    George Berkeley (1685-1753) reacted to the move towards philosophical materialism of Hobbes, Descartes, Locke and Newton:

    Some truths there are so near and obvious to the mind that a man need only open his eyes to see them. Such I take this important one to be, viz., that all the choir of heaven and furniture of the earth, in a word all those bodies which compose the mighty frame of the world, have not any subsistence without a mind, that their being (esse) is to be perceived or known; that consequently so long as they are not actually perceived by me, or do not exist in my mind or that of any other created spirit, they must either have no existence at all, or else subsist in the mind of some eternal spirit—it being perfectly unintelligible, and involving all the absurdity of abstraction, to attribute to any single part of them an existence independent of a spirit. To be convinced of which, the reader need only reflect, and try to separate in his own thoughts the being of a sensible thing from its being perceived.

    — George Berkeley, A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, §6.

    Berkeley was reacting to the tendency in the light of Newton’s triumph towards extreme materialism. Berkeley never denied that matter existed—only a lunatic could believe that, and Berkeley was eminently sane; Berkeley’s point was that matter couldn’t make up the whole of reality, that reality had an inescapably ideal aspect. Before Galileo this would not have been an issue but the dazzling success of the atomistic natural philosophers called for pushback.

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