Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Philosophers in 90 Minutes (Part Four)

     Author Paul Strathern is largely more comfortable writing about philosophers whose contributions fall in the political realm than he is in discussing how Augustine or Aquinas integrated Ancient Greek philosophies into the Christian tradition.  He spends much of Locke in 90 Minutes (1999) not so much discussing (or even mentioning) specific contributions Locke made – using one of the more traditional cop-outs in maintaining that we would only look upon them as common sense" – but in humanizing Locke.  He also does a better than average job of covering the history of the era (considering the brevity of the book).
     At the same time, Strathern takes the time to do some quality English-bashing.  While this is usually tame, he does rise up to show what may be some contempt rather than playfulness in exploring the nature of the English.  See the following example:
           The English have always been very good at being boring,
           and several times in history have emerged for 
           considerable periods as undisputed world masters in the 
           field.  This was one of them.  Under the Puritans all 
           conspicuous signs of enjoyment were banned.  Even 
           Christmas was banned, despite what it celebrated.    
          Citizens were expected to work all day and spend the rest 
          of their time conforming.  Life was given over to Puritan 
          indoctrination, the thought police, informers (on the likes of 
          wicked Christmas pudding eaters), and long sessions spent 
          studying the principles of Markism, Lukism, and Johnism.  
          Until in the end even the English had had enough, and 
          decided to invite Charles II to take over.  They preferred to be 
          ruled by a drunkard who lived with a prostitute, that than do 
          without Christmas pudding. [p. 19-20]
     Strathern also exposes his distaste for actual philosophy (this is made clear in a different book discussed later in this post) by attacking the contributions of philosophers who dared to believe that metaphysics is a fit subject to explore.  I have no idea where this fits in with mainstream, working (in academia) philosophers; it certainly was not prominent at any of the various colleges/universities that saw fit to let me take classes in the subject.  He is more couched in his criticism here, allowing some merit at least to Kant, but only in the aesthetics of the system he created (German philosophers really do have an innate love of systems), not in value derived from the system.
           Without Descartes there might have been no modern philosophy.  
           But it was Locke who fathered its main line of development—the 
           British empiricists, who then provoked Kant to produce the 
           greatest philosophical system of them all, which in turn gave rise to 
           the elephantine folly of Hegel, and the consequent disbelief in all 
           systems by anyone except Marxists and optimistic punters. [p. 42]
     I would have preferred for Strathern to give more attention to Locke's works – he even goes a little light in quoting from them in the excerpts at the end of the book – but I cannot find a lot of fault in the book as a general overview.  It does help to be familiar with Locke's writing going in, but as a short biography of the man, his time, and his general ideas, this book is fine.

     Strathern has probably his best (certainly of those that I have read) book in the series with J.S. Mill in 90 Minutes (2002).  This isn't because Mill is the most influential philosopher he has covered – everyone after Kant has been trying to answer him, and Kant himself was just setting out to refute Hume, and Hume...well, he tried his best to establish that philosophy had no relation to the day-to-day life most of us engage in, the one that lets us hold a job, earn a living, have a good time...basically survive – but rather because Strathern finds many pointed ways to make Mill's arguments in favor of Utilitarianism and general equality easily recognizable in modern Western society.
     Not that the book has an encouraging start.  The entire introduction is dedicated to Jeremy Bentham, with Strathern seemingly eager to reduce Mill to simply repeat the ideas and take the credit.  Strathern does make the effort to show where Mill branched off on his own in regards to the philosophy, but he does so with much amateur guessing as to the psychological motives behind his work (having already exposed his distaste for psychology/psychiatry; it being a fake science, like economics, according to Strathern). 
      He does – supposing on Mill's sexual experience on resentment of his father aside – a rather elegant job of not letting the history of the man or his era overwhelm the deeper thoughts expressed in the philosophy while still doing justice to them.  Here are the various bits of the book that caught my attention:
           A few years later [after entering the civil service at the age of eighteen] 
           John Stuart Mill  also took on the task of of editing the influential 
           Westminster Review, which attracted such writers as Coleridge and
           George Eliot.  (Among this magazine's many philosophical and literary
           achievements were the introduction of Kant to general English 
           readership and a review of of the unknown Schopenhauer, which 
           overnight made him  belatedly famous in Germany. [p. 26]
     This really doesn't stress Mill's importance with the Westminster Review as it does the Review's importance all on its own.  Mill is, by extension, important early on because of his relationship to it rather than vice versa.
           Metaphysics Mill was content to dismiss, but German metaphysics was
           one of the few subjects that provoked his passionate outbursts.  He 
           even declared that being conversant with Hegel "tends to deprave one's
           intellect." [p. 27]
     This combines Strathern's general distaste for metaphysics and his outright hatred of Hegel (or at least the Hegelian philosophic system).  But at the same time it gives good insight into the otherwise proper – to the point of being a caricature of the trait – Mill having human emotions.
      Strathern points out Lobachevsky's introduction of non-Euclidean geometry, which rendered mathematics that "often had no correlate in the physical world.  Mathematical space and physical space were in no way identical: here experience and mathematics were two entirely different things." [p. 36]  This is related to how empiricism cannot explain a complete and thorough understanding of mathematics, a problem which Mill never quite overcame.
           Mill realized that the laws that govern economics are concerned with 
           production, not with distribution.  The productivity of labor, of the soil, of 
           machinery—these can all be organized more or less efficiently according 
           to certain objective laws.  These laws are affected by certain limiting 
           factors, such as nature (glut or famine), productivity (of labor, or machine),
           and so forth.  Wealth is thus produced according to laws and objective 
           factors which enable us to maximize its quantity. [p. 37]
     This is a huge breakthrough in terms of viewing economics.  It had, to date, only been concerned with looking at one half of the equation.  Mill argued that what had long been ignored was the moral component to the distribution of goods, services, and wealth.  It could not be approached with only efficiency or a desire to maximize transactions as the sole guiding principles.
           Utilitarianism remains at least the guiding principle in all labor-market 
           bargaining, union negotiations, and executive salary levels.  It may not be 
           adhered to, but it undeniably informs all such social interaction—it is the 
           one common denominator.  It remains a yard stick by which most of us 
           judge the distribution of wealth.  Ludicrously inflated earnings for senior 
           executives of large corporations are said to be "what the market dictates."  
           This is seen as a matter of production, beyond moral debate.  Objections to 
           such practice make use of Mill's original distinction and insist that it is a 
           matter of distribution.  This means that such remunerations are subject to 
           more than simply economic considerations.  They fall within the realm of 
           moral judgment.  And the most pertinent application here would seem to 
           many to be the Utilitarian idea of the common good. [p. 40-41]
     I would like to think that passage speaks for itself.
           Mill is well aware of Hume's argument and seeks to circumvent it.  He 
           does not smuggle an ought into his argument, where previously there had 
           only been an is; instead he presents a psychological fact.  At this point it is 
           worth reiterating in full Bentham's core Utilitarian principles, to which Mill 
           continued to subscribe: "Nature has placed mankind under the governance of 
           two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure.  It is for them alone to point out 
           what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do....
           The standard of right and wrong [is] fastened to their throne.  They govern us 
           in all we do, in all we say, in all we think: every effort we make to throw off 
           subjection will serve but to demonstrate and confirm...[this] principle of 
           utility."  Mill concurs: "I regard utility as the ultimate appeal in all ethical 
           questions." [p. 46-47]
     Hume had a primary objection of how moral systems inserted ought to and ought not to into arguments without any real logical connection to the is and is not statements that preceded them.  While I find Utilitarianism to be a deeply flawed system for determining proper moral action, it was still an improvement over philosophies that stifled the sense of and role of self in determining moral choice.
           Bentham's concept of liberty had not been entirely theoretical.  His belief in the
           freedom of the individual had even led him to suggest that the law forbidding 
           homosexuality should be repealed: "How a voluntary act of this sort by two 
           individuals can be said to have anything to do with the safety of them or any 
          other individual whatever, is somewhat difficult to be conceived."  Such 
          advanced ideas were not widely promoted at a time when those "caught in 
          buggery" ended up on the gallows.  Betham's opinion on homosexuality, 
          especially coming from a man of high-minded principles who had no 
          sexual experience whatsoever—he remained chaste throughout his life—speaks 
          volumes for the liberalizing effect of his Utilitarianism. [p. 57-58]
     This is the kind of 1830s thinking that I would be okay with us returning to.  I'm not really sure if Bentham's sexuality, or thorough lack of sexual inclination, has any bearing on the merits of his argument; I wouldn't have presented it in a book about Mill. 
           At one point he was asked, "Did you declare that the English working 
           classes, though differing from some other countries in being ashamed of 
           lying, were yet 'generally liars'?"  Mill immediately replied, "I did."  The 
           working-class members of the audience responded with appreciative 
           applause, and Mill was duly elected. [p. 63-64]
     This is a funny story, made better because Mill's original plan for running for office was to do no campaigning, give no speeches, and engage in no debates – thinking that this freed up to voters to make informed choices without undue influence from the candidate.
           "So long as an opinion is strongly rooted in the feelings, it gains rather than 
           loses in stability by having a preponderant weight of argument against it. For 
           if it were accepted as a result of argument, the refutation of the argument 
           might shake the solidity of the conviction; but when it rests solely on feeling, 
           the worse it fares in argumentative contest, the more persuaded its adherents 
           are that their feelings must have some deeper ground, which the arguments 
           do not reach."  [p. 65]
     And that is how Mill crushes the faith-based/intuitive argument.
           "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, is of a 
          different opinion, it is because they only know their side of the question." 
          [p. 75, from Utilitarianism]
     Rather strong words for a man who was largely arguing in favor of pleasure (of a sort) at all times for the most people.
           "Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign." 
           [p. 76, from On Liberty]
     I would like to think the implications of that are easy to recognize.  And yet there is an entire political party dedicated to proving this is not the case, all the while arguing for limited government interference in the lives and over the rights of the individual.

     As strong as the book on Mill was, Hume in 90 Minutes (1999) proved to be a total disaster.  Not only does Strathern spend most of his time expressing how much he loves Hume (in that he is a Humean), he does this while failing to give an engaging (and possibility inaccurate) account of Hume's life. 

     Strathern clearly has a selective reading of Hume's philosophical works (nothing on the Clever Knave, nothing on how the mundane life is anathema to philosophical pursuits is mentioned here). Worse, he seems to have a fundamentally flawed view of it, thinking that there is something more than a general reduction to general uncertainty (on principle, not practicality, logic, reason, or experience). 
     I am not an expert on Hume.  I have read most of An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751) as well as most of An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748), with the support structure of a great professor and competent classmates to help me make sense of the material.  It would seem that Strathern either didn't read them or has a completely alien understanding of the general points of them. 
     If there were a book in this series to avoid, this is it.  Not because it is likely to offend, but because it really does nothing to help the reader gain a better understanding of the man or his works.

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