Schopenhauer and James

Another fundamental error of Christianity is that it has in an unnatural fashion sundered mankind from the animal world to which it essentially belongs and now considers mankind alone as of any account, regarding the animals as no more than things. This error is a consequence of creation out of nothing, after which the Creator, in the first and second chapters of Genesis, takes all the animals as if they were just things, and without so much as the recommendation to kind treatment which even a dog-seller usually adds when he parts with his dogs, hands them over to man for man to rule, that is to do with them as he likes; subsequently, in the second chapter, the Creator goes on to appoint him the first professor of zoology by commissioning him to give the animals the names they shall thenceforth bear, which is once more only a symbol of their total dependence on him, i.e. their total lack of rights.

Arthur Schopenhauer, in The Horrors and Absurdities of Religion

Another in the Penguin Great Thoughts series, and I think Schopenhauer nails the way in which contemporary strong humanists (most of whom are vociferous atheists) owe more to Christian theology than they might like to think (see my post on Lewis Wolpert).

I'm also reading the William James collection, On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings, and apart from the shared concern for animals, they couldn't be more different. Schopenhauer negative about life (he adopted the worst interpretation of the Buddhist preoccupation with suffering, a "life will always be shitty" fatalism), James positive (you could interpret parts of his philosophy as an early form of cognitive behavioural therapy to treat his own depression). Schopenhauer bracingly right about religion ("The Rationalists say to the supranaturalists: 'Your doctrine isn't true.' The latter retort: 'Your doctrine isn't Christianity.' Both are right."), James still wanting to make the leap of faith in the absence of proof, and remain a Christian while abandoning historical Christianity. James wants to believe, but I'm never quite sure what he left himself to believe in.

Old fashioned theism was bad enough, with its notion of God as an exalted monarch, made up of a lot of unintelligible or preposterous 'attributes'; but, so long as it held strongly by the argument from design, it kept some touch with concrete realities. Since, however, Darwinism has once for all displaced design from the minds of the 'scientific,' theism has lost that foothold...

William James, from Pragmatism



I've resisted Penguin's Great Ideas series until now, but bought a few last week. They have lovely covers and are an interesting selection of extracts from longer works or short books shorn of introductions and notes. The selection of Kant's political writing, unlike most of the others, isn't based on a Penguin book but on one of the Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought. I don't think it's Kant at his best - he adopts his usual lofty tone of detachment, and argues from pure a priori principles that the best form of government that could possibly exist is an enlightened absolute monarchy. By a remarkable coincidence, Kant was a subject of Frederick the Great. Some interesting thoughts on open government, though (Kant says any policy which has to be kept secret from others - the citizens or foreign governments - has to be wrong). He also quotes Hume at the end of Is the Human Race Continually Improving?, a passage I hadn't come across before:

'When I now see the nations engaged in war', he says, 'it is as if I witnessed two drunken wretches bludgeoning each other in a china-shop. For it is not just that the injuries they inflict on each other will be long in healing; they will also have to pay for all the damage they have caused.'


Elephant souls

...the dissection of an elephant, which led Locke to joke that if this revealed that this huge animal's pineal gland was proportionably large, the Cartesians would have to say it had a large soul: "but if it is true that elephants can write I wouldn't want them to be given paper and ink lest they leave to posterity in their memoirs that we are nothing but machines and that only they have understanding".

Locke is often thought of as rather bloodless and austere, and the biography by Roger Woolhouse doesn't do a lot to dispel that image, but there are occasional flashes of wit.


Locke on conscience

He now thought that a law to which we conscientiously object is an imposition on our conscience and that we should disobey it. At the same time, however, we are bound "quietly to submit to the penalty the law inflicts".

Roger Woolhouse Locke: a Biography, p84

This is what contemporary "martyrs" don't understand, I think. "Quietly" need not mean "without protest", but certainly without the disingenuous claims that it is somehow immoral or outrageous that they should be subject to a law which goes against their conscience.


Yale and Hobbes

I'm listening to Steven B Smith's podcasts from Yale, an introductory course in political philosophy. Good so far (Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli), albeit rather smug and Smith is obviously one of those people who sees the American constitution as the perfect ideal that lesser nations are blindly struggling towards.

However, he has got on to Hobbes now and I'm wincing. A fulsome introduction claiming Leviathan is to English prose as Paradise Lost is to epic poetry, and then some really horrendous errors in the overview of Hobbes's life. Some may seem trivial - Hobbes's father famously disappeared after a fight outside the church where he was vicar, and his uncle paid for his education (Smith says his father was a "pastor" and sent him to Oxford). Hobbes left England in 1640, before the civil war broke out, under threat of imprisonment by parliament for his outspoken royalism, although he did write Leviathan during the war (Smith has him driven out of England by rampaging "republican" armies led by Cromwell, who in fact did not lead the army until well into the civil war). But to say that Leviathan endorses the view that "the sovereign owes his authority to the will or the consent of those he governs"? The sovereign owes his authority to the social contract, and once that contract is in effect, the will and consent of the subjects is completely irrelevant - Hobbes has a lot to say about the transfer of authority in the book. I haven't even started Martinich's biography of Hobbes yet, and all these things are familiar to me, so I would expect a professor at Yale, especially one who spends so much time self-importantly talking about how he's teaching the American elite, to have done his homework a little better.


More podcasts

The OU has also made some of the audio material for A211 Philosophy and the Human Situation available on iTunes. This is the level two course in philosophy which is partly intended as an introduction to the subject proper (it is a component of the level one introductory course in humanities), so some of the audio material covers general guidance on logic, writing philosophy essays, and so on. What's left is a collection of fairly short presentations (20-30 minutes) on a wide range of subjects.

The philosophy department at the University of Bristol has a blog with podcasts (iTunes link) - some lectures (including a public lecture by Dan Dennett), some group discussions.


AA311 Podcast

Via Nigel Warburton - the OU has just released all the audio material associated with the (now defunct) course AA311 Reading Political Philosophy: Machiavelli to Mill as a podcast. It's a while since I listened to these (I did the course in 2007), but my recollection is that some of these were fairly closely tied to issues discussed in the course (Gerry Cohen on Marx), but some were of more general interest (Quentin Skinner is always worth listening to). I hope they are able to put some of the other material on OpenLearn eventually, but as the core of the course was a book which is still on sale (Nigel is one of the authors), maybe that won't be possible.



You know there is nothing that renders human counsels difficult, but the uncertainty of future time; nor that so well directs men in their deliberations, as the foresight of the sequels of their actions; prophecy being many times the principal cause of the event foretold. If, upon some prediction, the people should have been made confident that Oliver Cromwell and his army should be, upon a day to come, utterly defeated; would not every one have endeavoured to assist, and to deserve well of the party that should give him that defeat? Upon this account it was that fortune-tellers and astrologers were so often banished out of Rome.

Thomas Hobbes, Behemoth (p188 of the University of Chicago Press edition).

Premonitions of James again, almost - the will to believe affecting the outcome of events.


Free Libraries

Thomas Hobbes's Grave

The political philosophy course left me with a love of Thomas Hobbes and an interest in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries (which were also a major part of the course on the rise of scientific Europe). I read Leviathan last summer, since then On the Citizen, Human Nature and De Corpore Politico, and Behemoth is currently being carried around to read occasionally (including a trip to Hardwick Hall the other weekend). I'm saving Hobbes and Bramhall on Liberty and Necessity for a rainy day. Jonathan Israel's Radical Enlightenment is currently keeping me busy, bought after reading Matthew Stewart's The Courtier and the Heretic (which also led me to buy Spinoza's Theological-Political Treatise, edited by Israel and currently sitting on the large pile of books I haven't yet read).

That's a lot of money - upwards of a hundred quid, even before you add in Noel Malcolm's Aspects of Hobbes or the Cambridge Companion to Hobbes's Leviathan. I don't mind that - I can afford it, and I like to have proper books. I occasionally read things on my PDA or iPod Touch, but it isn't a comfortable or convenient way of reading for me.

But increasingly, some of the more unusual writings of this era are available online. Leviathan is the only text by Hobbes available from Project Gutenberg, but the other day I stumbled across the Online Library of Liberty. This has many of Hobbes's works, scanned in from a mid-nineteenth-century edition, including some which I've never seen mentioned before, let alone in print. And that's a drop in the ocean - there's a vast catalogue of good-quality HTML and PDF versions of all sorts of famous works and obscurities. The Liberty Fund is fundamentally about promoting conservative individualist libertarianism, but there's no partiality in the selection of libertarian authors - Shaw is there, Shelley, Hazlitt and Marx (to pick a few names from the nineteenth century).

Nigel Warburton recently tweeted a link to Jonathan F Bennett's collection of Early Modern Texts, annotated and edited versions of some of the major works of the period. I'm not keen (I find his style of annotation obtrusive), but if the OU's discussion forums are any indication, many students would find them helpful when struggling with unfamiliar styles of prose.

And finally, the Christian Classics Ethereal Library, no sign of Hobbes or Spinoza but they do have Samuel Clarke's criticism of both (mentioned in Israel).

Back from the dead, again.

Not quite as large a dead stretch as the gap from 2001 to 2007, but I haven't updated this in a year. Perhaps because I spent late 2007 and most of 2008 studying a couple of general humanities courses where the emphasis was more on history than philosophy - A207 (From Enlightenment to Romanticism 1780-1830), and AS208 (The Rise of Scientific Europe 1500-1800). I'm now doing AA308 (Thought and Experience: Themes in the Philosophy of Mind), the final module for a BA in Humanities with Philosophy. I'm not finding it hugely inspiring (it's not an area of philosophy I find interesting), but it's the only OU philosophy course I haven't done yet.