Monday, October 23, 2006
Cliff's Edge Notes for the below post
The blog entry below this one is dense. I wrote it all at one throw, in a stream of consciousness, and like a lot of bad stream of consciousness writing, it required that you have read the same books as I at the same time and understood them the same way. Well, that might work for some people, but I'm nobody and have ambition to one day be nothing. No clove cigarette from my lips, beret on my shaggy head, no chaps on my broad thighs, no New York acclaim is mine. Therefore, I'll try to be less opaque.
I. Why I failed to communicate:
Well, the big thing is that the first paragraph is comprehensible enough, but then I have two paragraphs of etudes on 18th century philosophers and poets whom I hardly identify and do not explain. I then go to a fully frenzied rant about conservatives. That's normal enough, but no one's reading by that point.
II. The schoolboy philosophy
1. John Locke
Locke's empiricism begins with the senses. He maintains that we are made of our experiences, made by them, and not by an inherent essence. We are not born to be a king or a pauper, but we are made into a king or pauper by our experiences. Furthermore, we know nothing without perception. Percept leads to concept -- the inward shape of the outward sense -- through synthesis and distinction in the human mind. Now, what's important is that you not put a Nehru jacket on him: he is not B. F. Skinner in a periwig. He's closer to Arthur Koestler than that. Locke does not see us as wholly without innate qualities, and he believes that we have a sixth-ish sense, the sense of commonality, the common sense. It is this that allows us to combine disparate sensations into types, to form generalizations, to make predictions. This is coupled with judgment or wit, which allows us to distinguish individuals and to analyze complexes into their components. Remember this common sense.
2. Shaftesbury (the not-Zimri one) and the Killer B.
Shaftesbury had suggested that there is a different innate sense, a sort of common sense of morality. There is, he thought, an inward sense of the right. This (we mustn't call it a moral sense yet, historically, but it was in all but name) sense told us what is right and good, and it responded to that which is harmonious. According to Shaftesbury, we are all inherently inclined toward goodness. Now, we go awry, of course, but, left alone, we would be good if we could. In opposition to this was Bernard de Mandeville, whose "The Grumbling Hive" and "Fable of the Bees," suggested that, in fact, we're much more beastly than that. We are, at heart, selfish, and this selfishness does not result in anarchy. Instead, greedy, carnal, miserly, spendthrift, and rapacious individuals generate a social good by their very vices, that they employ people, that they generate surplus wealth that must flush out into a generalized economy. That's a cheap version of Mandeville, who is really quite nuanced, but it's not unfair. Mandeville saw humans beneficial in aggregate, not in individuals.
Francis Hutcheson was going to save Shaftesburian optimism (the sort of optimism even Pope wouldn't have endorsed) by reiterating and systemizing the sense of goodness Shaftesbury had posited in a Lockean system. He's the one who argues that the moral sense is a sense as natural as the sense of commonality in Locke. He suggests something akin to a pleasure sense, a sense of fitness and beauty inherent in the human mind. This allows us to have a universal sense of beauty and a universal sense of morality.
III. The screed about Conservative "Thinkers"
I was pissed off that my edition of Hutcheson came from The Liberty Fund, Inc. The problem is that there are mutliple funds and institutes like this that are interested in bolstering the "heritage" of conservativism. They do this by appealing to the 18th century in England almost without fail. However, they either don't read all of it or they pretend that they're unaware of the debates that the "heroes" of conservativism were engaged in. They seem to have read passages of Locke, but ignore the fact that he was trying to overthrow absolute monarchism. They have headlines from Shaftesbury and Hutcheson, but no awareness of Mandeville or Hobbes. They especially like to cut out paper dolls from Adam Smith, but never understand his Theory of Moral Sentiments or even the introduction to Wealth of Nations.
IV. The quick summary of the blog post below
There exists a trend in America where right wing groups have decided that they need "intellectuals." Therefore, they have these groups who have read excerpts from the 18th century and publish them for everyone. The members of these groups then get rolled out on dollies whenever conservatives need "intellectuals." They're not intellectuals, or not intellectually honest, because they have a clip-art view of 18th century political philosophy. By stopping the clock at various points to grab one tired Scotsman or another by his collar and hauling him out to say something, they're missing the entire context of 18th century Insular philosophy, which was a dialog of empiricism trying to deal with its glaring epistemological shortcoming (i.e. "How can we be only our experiences and yet not be plants spinning about in phototropism?). Each of philosopher tried to spackle over the dent at the bottom of the system, and their opponents were no better at system building than they were, but the very imperfection and mortal stature of the philosophers kept them going at it.
Conservatives these days don't have intellectuals, because their practical system is antithetical to everything the empiricists would have endorsed, and their quoted fathers, Locke and Hutcheson and Shaftesbury, would have had Barry Goldwater brought to the Old Bailey, while they would have had W. Bush committed to a private asylum. All the same, conservatives fool themselves and apply small dabs of ointment to their intellectual consciences by saying, 'Oh, yes, what we're doing is firmly rooted in the best part of intellectual history.' What they're doing is, in fact, global rape, but they convince themselves of the lie and then expect the gullible and the long gummed to believe it, too.