Sunday, 27 January 2013

Practical Stupidity

Unlike Bacon, the French philosopher Descartes allowed himself few explicitly utopian moments.  While as a good English Protestant Bacon could live his life at home, in the 1630s Descartes stayed out of France and found freedom abroad.  In the safe haven of the Dutch city Leiden, he published his Discourse on Method as an alternative to the medieval philosophies taught by the clergy who controlled the French universities.  Illustrated on its title page by a peasant digging his field, it insisted in clear and simple language that every movement or change in nature had to be explained mechanically, that is, by the pulling and pushing of bodies against one another.  No spirits or magical agents, no inherent tendencies, belonged in a philosophy of nature that encompassed everything from the movement of the planets to the action of the nerve endings in the human hand.  In the Cartesian universe, pain results not from an affliction of the soul, but from impulses travelling to the brain.  In the place of speculations by medieval philosophers and theologians, Descartes proclaimed that “a practical philosophy can be found by which… we thereby make ourselves, as it were, masters and possessors of nature.”

Safe from the Inquisition that in 1613 had condemned Galileo, Descartes lived and wrote in the Dutch and largely Protestant cities because, as he explained, in them men got on with their business and left others to their speculations  (Telling the Truth About History, by Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt & Margaret Jacob.  My emphasis.)

Non-utopian; tending to one’s own business; the emphasis on practical knowledge; a reference to “a peasant digging his field”… Sound familiar?

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Neither the Future nor the Past

I haven’t taken the standard line.  But is the obvious always so right and so certain?  Professor John Butt is without doubt correct when he writes that Candide is a satire on the optimistic philosophers of the 18th century; a group of intellectuals who believed all things were part of the universe's preordained pattern where everything, even suffering, was necessary for it to work.  Their attitude one of indifference to generalized pain.  This sounds right.  But how much are we saying, when we say this?

Isn’t such a view, signposted very clearly by the author, just a little too obvious and simple-minded to sustain a book over two centuries?  Why didn’t it die once the fad had ended?  Pangloss, in this interpretation, reduced to a simple caricature of just one kind of ideologue, the Philosophic Optimists, rather than a representative of a type common throughout the ages; Voltaire’s wit demolishing not only 18th century metaphysicians but today’s deterministic disciples of Darwin, the latest in a very long line of rationalist simpletons.

Friday, 11 January 2013

Killing King Reason

Pangloss was right.  And he can prove it!  Oh, and very easily.  In his own experience he did live in the best of all possible worlds; living as he did on Baron Thunder-ten-tronckh’s rich and well-managed estate, tutoring the Baron’s beautiful daughter, making love to an attractive young lady, who reciprocated his affections, he could easily demonstrate that no other world could possibly compare with it.  Bliss! and truth.  Nothing, nothing, can compare with this.  Here indeed was a world sufficient unto itself, and it was ideal; a real life utopia that only ignorance and contingency could destroy.  He knew it, and thus stated a truism that should be obvious to us all.   To attack him as a fool is to reveal the limits to our own understanding, while exposing both our prejudices - against wealth, against luxury, against the old aristocracy – and our envy.  If we had been so lucky, hey?

Friday, 4 January 2013

Tuesday, 1 January 2013