Thursday, October 19, 2017


Ontology, the philosophical study of being in general, or of what applies neutrally to everything that is real. It was called “first philosophy” by Aristotle in Book IV of his Metaphysics. The Latin term ontologia (“science of being”) was felicitously invented by the German philosopher Jacob Lorhard (Lorhardus) and first appeared in his work Ogdoas Scholastica (1st ed.) in 1606. It entered general circulation after being popularized by the German rationalist philosopher Christian Wolff in his Latin writings, especially Philosophia Prima sive Ontologia (1730; “First Philosophy or Ontology”).

History and scope

Wolff contrasted ontology, or general metaphysics, which applied to all things, with special metaphysical theories such as those of the soul, of bodies, or of God. Wolff claimed that ontology was an a priori discipline that could reveal the essences of things, a view strongly criticized later in the 18th century by David Hume and Immanuel Kant. In the early 20th century the term was adopted by the German founder of phenomenology, Edmund Husserl, who called Wolff’s general metaphysics “formal ontology” and contrasted it with special “regional ontologies,” such as the ontologies of nature, mathematics, mind, culture, and religion. After renewed criticism and eclipse under the antimetaphysical movement known as logical positivism, ontology was revived in the mid-20th century by the American philosopher W.V.O. Quine. By the end of the century, largely as the result of Quine’s work, it had regained its status as a central discipline of philosophy.

The history of ontology has consisted largely of a set of fundamental, often long-running and implacable disputes about what there is, accompanied by reflections about the discipline’s own methods, status, and fundamental concepts—e.g., being, existence, identity, essence, possibility, part, one, object, property, relation, fact, and world. In a typical ontological dispute, one group of philosophers affirms the existence of some category of object (realists), while another group denies that there are such things (antirealists). Such categories have included abstract or ideal Forms, universals, immaterial minds, a mind-independent world, possible but not actual objects, essences, free will, and God. Much of the history of philosophy is in fact a history of ontological disputes.

Once they have been brought into the open, ontological disputes tend to concentrate on questions of several recurrent kinds. The fundamental question, of course, has the form, “Are there Xs?” or “Do Xs exist?” Negative answers to the fundamental question are accompanied by attempts to explain away any appearances to the effect that there are such things. If the question is answered affirmatively, there are subsequent questions. Do Xs exist independently of minds and languages (objectively), or do they depend on them in some way (subjectively or intersubjectively)? Are they discovered or created? Are they basic, irreducible constituents of reality, or can they be reduced to others? For example, in the millennia-long dispute about universals, realists have affirmed mind-independent universals, whether existing apart or only in things; conceptualists have taken universals to be mental or mind-created entities; moderate nominalists such as Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) have taken them to be words or linguistic entities; and extreme nominalists have denied that there are any universals at all. Among modern Platonists, some take universals to be basic or sui generis, while others take them to be reducible to sets.

In general, a philosopher who believes in many fundamentally different kinds of object has a rich ontology, and one who believes in only a few kinds of object has a sparse ontology. Rich ontologists include Plato, who recognized immaterial Forms as well as material bodies, and the Austrian philosopher Alexius Meinong (1853–1920), who embraced merely possible and even impossible objects alongside actual objects. Sparse ontologists include William of Ockham (c. 1285–1347), who accepted only qualities, or properties, and the substances in which they inhere, as well as a few relations; and Quine, who accepted only things (material bodies) and mathematical sets, professing an ontological taste for “desert landscapes.”


The methods of ontology vary according to the extent to which the ontologist wishes to rely upon other disciplines and the nature of the disciplines he wishes to rely upon. The most common method since the 20th century, the logical or linguistic method, relied upon theories of meaning or reference—as applied to either artificial logical languages or to natural languages—to dictate the kinds of entity that exist. Typically, lists of basic categories reflecting this method tended to correspond closely to broad linguistic (or syntactic) categories—e.g., substance (noun), property (adjective), relation (transitive verb), and state of affairs (sentence). A shortcoming of the logico-linguistic method, however, is that it is generally possible to change the ontology it produces by varying the semantic analysis of the natural or formal language in question.
Other ontological methods have been based on phenomenology (Husserl, Meinong), on the analysis of human existence, or Dasein (Martin Heidegger), and on epistemology. Husserl and Meinong contended that the basic categories of objects mirror the various kinds of mental activity by which they are grasped. Thus, there must be four basic kinds of objects corresponding to the mental activities of ideation, judgment, feeling, and desire. Heidegger held that it is a mistake to base the ontology of human existence on Aristotelian concepts such as matter and form, which are suitable only for artifacts.

The most widely used linguistic criterion of existence is due to Quine, who coined the slogan “To be is to be the value of a variable.” According to Quine, the propositions of a scientific theory should first be expressed in terms of predicate logic, or the predicate calculus, a logical language consisting of names, variables (which may be substituted for names), predicates (or properties), logical connectives (such as and, or, and if…then), and quantifiers. (Quantifiers can be combined with predicates and variables to form sentences equivalent to “Everything has such and such a property” and “There is at least one thing that has such and such a property.”) The scientific theory is then ontologically “committed” to those classes of entity whose members must be capable of replacing variables (i.e., capable of being the value of a variable) if the sentences of the theory are to be true.

Quine rejected any primacy for ontology, claiming that ontological categories should be suggested by natural science. Yet this did not prevent him from sometimes intervening on an apparently ad hoc basis to reduce the ontological commitments of classes of scientific theories to those of his minimal ontology of things and sets. His streamlining of scientific ontology to the minimum needed to keep the structure of scientific discourse intact led him to the doctrine of “ontological relativity,” according to which there is no privileged category of objects to which a given scientific theory is ontologically committed.

In contrast to Quine, philosophers such as Alfred North Whitehead (1861–1947) in England and David Armstrong in Australia regarded ontology as a core philosophical discipline that cannot depend to such a decisive extent on any other philosophical or scientific study. Its results can be evaluated only in terms of the adequacy of the overall system in the light of experience.

Peter+M. Simons

Monday, October 16, 2017

Aristotle’s Legacy

Since the Renaissance it has been traditional to regard the Academy and the Lyceum as two opposite poles of philosophy. Plato is idealistic, utopian, otherworldly; Aristotle is realistic, utilitarian, commonsensical. (This viewpoint is reflected in the famous depiction of Plato and Aristotle in Raphael’s Vatican fresco The School of Athens.) In fact, however, the doctrines that Plato and Aristotle share are more important than those that divide them. Many post-Renaissance historians of ideas have been less perceptive than the commentators of late antiquity, who saw it as their duty to construct a harmonious concord between the two greatest philosophers of the known world.

By any reckoning, Aristotle’s intellectual achievement is stupendous. He was the first genuine scientist in history. He was the first author whose surviving works contain detailed and extensive observations of natural phenomena, and he was the first philosopher to achieve a sound grasp of the relationship between observation and theory in scientific method. He identified the various scientific disciplines and explored their relationships to each other. He was the first professor to organize his lectures into courses and to assign them a place in a syllabus. His Lyceum was the first research institute in which a number of scholars and investigators joined in collaborative inquiry and documentation. Finally, and not least important, he was the first person in history to build up a research library, a systematic collection of works to be used by his colleagues and to be handed on to posterity.

Millennia later, Plato and Aristotle still have a strong claim to being the greatest philosophers who have ever lived. But if their contribution to philosophy is equal, it was Aristotle who made the greater contribution to the intellectual patrimony of the world. Not only every philosopher but also every scientist is in his debt. He deserves the title Dante gave him: “the master of those who know.”

Friday, October 13, 2017

The Methods of Rene Descartes and Francis Bacon

Rene Descartes (1596-1650)

It has been said that both modern philosophy and modern mathematics began with the work of Rene Descartes. His analytic method of thinking focused attention on the problem of how we know (epistemology), which has occupied philosophers ever since. Descartes was educated at the renowned Jesuit school of La Fleche where he was taught philosophy, science, and mathematics. He earned a law degree and then volunteered for the military in order to broaden his experience. When his duties allowed he continued his studies in mathematics and science. Eventually he became dissatisfied with the unsystematic methods utilized by the previous authorities in science, since he concluded they had not "produced anything which was not in dispute and consequently doubtful" (1, p. 6). The only exception to this was in the field of mathematics which he believed was built on a "solid foundation" (1, p.5). Medieval science, on the other hand, was largely based on authorities from the past rather than observations in the present, therefore Descartes decided to conduct a personal plan of investigation. But, for Descartes, even his personal observation of the "book of nature" (1, p. 7) was not sufficiently beyond doubt because of his concern about the "deception of the senses." After consideration of all the previous methods of inquiry Descartes decided that there must be a better way; and in his Discourse on Method he wrote, "I eventually reached the decision to study my own self, and choose the right path" (1, p. 7).

Descartes aspired to rebuild a new system of truth based upon an unquestionable first principle which, like the fulcrum of Archimedes, would allow him to "move the earth from its orbit and place it in a new orbit" (2, p. 23). The first principle that he finally felt was self evident was summarized in the statement, "I think, therefore I am" (1). Descartes believed that he could then use his new method of reasoning to build on such a first principle, ultimately leading to the unification of all knowledge. The method developed by Descartes was based on the following rules (1, p. 12):

    - The first rule was never to accept anything as true unless I recognized it to be evidently such: that is, carefully to avoid precipitation and prejudgment, and to include nothing in my conclusions unless it presented itself so clearly and distinctly to my mind that there was no occasion to doubt it.

    - The second was to divide each of the difficulties which I encountered into as many parts as possible, and as might be required for an easier solution.

    - The third was to think in an orderly fashion, beginning with the things which were simplest and easiest to understand, and gradually and by degrees reaching toward more complex knowledge, even treating as though ordered materials which were not necessarily so.

    - The last was always to make enumerations so complete, and reviews so general, that I would be certain that nothing was omitted.

In short, his method required (1) accepting as "truth" only clear, distinct ideas that could not be doubted, (2) breaking a problem down into parts, (3) deducing one conclusion from another, and (4) conducting a systematic synthesis of all things. Descartes based his entire philosophical approach to science on this deductive method of reasoning.

Descartes was highly optimistic about his plan to reconstruct a new and fully reliable body of knowledge. He even wondered if among "all things knowable to men" there might not be a proper application of his method so that "there cannot be any propositions so abstruse that we cannot prove them, or so recondite that we can not discover them" (1, p. 13). The apparently global scope of Descartes' speculations might lead some to conclude that his epistemology demanded the rejection of all authority, including the Bible. In point of fact, he considered himself a good Catholic and with respect to the "truths of revelation" he clearly stated, "I would not have dared to ... submit them to the weakness of my reasonings" (1, p.5). Ultimately it was his religion that kept him from living in a cocoon of personal introspection. However, Descartes did plant the seeds for later dissent from the theistic view of the world allowing for the humanistic dependence on human reason alone. It was left to the humanists who followed to assert an all encompassing rationalism that would take human reason as the sole measure of what constitutes "truth."

Francis Bacon (1561-1626)

Francis Bacon has been called the major prophet of the Scientific Revolution. At the age of twelve Bacon went to study at Trinity College, Cambridge, later acquired an education in law, and was eventually admitted to the bar. He next embarked on a political career in the hope that it would allow him to advance his emerging ideas for the advancement of science. In due time he acquired a seat in the House of Commons, was knighted, held the position of Lord Chancellor and Baron Verulam, and Viscount St. Albans. He gained fame as a speaker in Parliament and as a lawyer in some famous trials in which he was considered an expert on English constitutional law. An outstanding thinker, Bacon was motivated to write in areas as far-reaching as science and civil government in a battle against the old order of scholasticism with its slavish dependence on accepted authorities. He advocated the view that whatever the "mind seizes and dwells upon with particular satisfaction is to be held in suspicion" (3, p 477). His passion for the advancement of natural philosophy was rooted in his belief that science was dependent on and the key to technological progress. Much of his greatest philosophical effort was applied to the Novum Organum in which he described the inductive method of reasoning for the interpretation of nature.

Bacon was very critical of those in the scholastic tradition who jumped from a few particular observations to remote axioms, and then deduced intermediate axioms through syllogistic demonstration. He also took a dim view of those empiricists who had been side-tracked with experiments done in depth without reference to related phenomena, since they were unjustified in the breadth of their generalizations. According to Bacon there were four categories of false knowledge, or "idols," that had captured the minds of the men of his day. They are paraphrased as follows (3, pp. 470, 471):

    - Idols of the tribe: False notions due to the human nature and common to all men. An example would be geocentricity which was due to the limits of human insight.

    - Idols of the cave: Personal interpretations due to individual makeup or disposition. An example would be Gilbert's "magnetic world view."

    - Idols of the market-place: The problem of language and the confusion of words and terms. An example of this relates to the problem with definitions of words which likewise depend upon words.

    - Idols of the theatre: The dogmas of philosophies that are received from wrong "laws of demonstration." This involves the results of the Aristotelian method of syllogistic argumentation.

In contrast to these, Bacon said that a true science progressed "in a just scale of ascent, and by successive steps not interrupted or broken, we rise from particulars to lesser axioms; and then to middle axioms, one above the other; and last of all to the most general" (3, p. 519). In short, his method required (1) accumulating a store of particular empirical observations, (2) from these inductively inferring lesser axioms, (3) from these inductively inferring middle axioms, (3) and then proposing the most general of notions, each in progressive steps. If we read modern meaning into the language used by Bacon, we might see a foreshadowing of the idea of a hypothesis in a "lesser axiom" and a theory in the "middle axiom." This would make his method agree with the mature conception of science in use today; however, the context indicates that his ideas were not yet so fully developed. Bacon also argued that this inductive method "must be used not only to discover axioms, but also notions," which may be taken to correspond to the concept of a paradigm, but again this may be reading into the text. In any case, it is clear that Bacon's view of the scientific method is progressive and cumulative.

The radical commitment to empiricism advocated by Bacon may imply for some that he did not accept any knowledge that was not received by personal observation. This is a mistakenly narrow interpretation of Bacon's view of natural philosophy which he believed was given as the "most faithful handmaid" of religion (3, p. 509). Bacon actually saw his new way of acquiring knowledge as a fulfillment of Biblical prophecy concerning the last days: "Many shall go to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased" (Dan 12:4). Further, he saw the technological advancement of science as a restoration of the "dominion mandate" (Gen 1:28), and thus he wrote, "man by the fall fell at the same time from his state of innocency and from his dominion over creation. Both of these losses however can even in this life be in some parts repaired; the former by religion and faith, the latter by the arts and sciences" (4, p. 267). There was, however, reason to believe that Bacon's views would play into the hands of humanistic concerns, since he also believed that his inductive method would "extend more widely the limits, of the power and greatness of man," and one day "embrace everything" (3, pp. 527, 536). For those who later advocated a "scientific world view," this prediction was claimed to be fulfilled.

Comparison and Contrast of the Methods of Descartes and Bacon

The differences between the methods of Descartes and Bacon are many and deep, but there are also many things they have in common. Each of these pioneers advocated the complete overthrow of all the methods and most of the results of the authorities that came before them. Both of these men demanded a new standard of precision, since there were so many examples of sloppy reasoning and observation that littered the path of the science of the past. There was also a common commitment to doubt in general and a concern about the "deceptions of the senses" (3, p. 474). In addition, they believed in the reduction of problems to their smallest constituent parts as a general principle. Descartes and Bacon each saw himself primarily in the role of an advocate for science and therefore they contributed very little to any particular field of empirical science (5). Finally, both of these men were uniquely gifted to promote the particular aspects of science that were eventually crucial to its advance.

The most obvious difference in methodology between Descartes and Bacon was related to their procedures for reasoning. Descartes began with intuitively derived principles that were taken as the premises in the standard deductive method of reasoning, but Bacon began with empirical observations that were used to inductively educe higher axioms. Descartes' method was a "top down" approach, whereas Bacon's was "bottom up." So strong is this particular contrast that it seems at times that Bacon was writing specifically about Descartes' method as an example of what was wrong in science. A crucial difference in the background of the two men is seen in the mathematical mastery of Descartes as compared to the mathematical neglect of Bacon. Descartes is noted for his great accomplishments in the areas of algebra and geometry, whereas Bacon's spoke little of mathematics since his area of expertise was law. Background may explain the similarities in the method of Descartes which parallels that of mathematical proofs. For Bacon the empirical observations he emphasized for science may parallel the kind of "eye witness" evidence he required when building a case in a court of law. In view of Descartes background it appears obvious that his exemplar would be found among the mathematicians who he said "alone have been able to find some demonstrations, some certain and evident reasons." Therefore, he decided to "begin where they did" (1, p. 13). In spite of Bacon's distinguished background he was actually very pragmatic in his pursuit of an exemplar which he found among the "mechanics." It was the "mechanical arts which were founded on nature and the light of experience" (3, p. 493). Because of this observation he was greatly impressed with the discovery of printing, gunpowder, and the magnet. In his view "no empire, no sect, no star seems to have exerted greater power and influence in human affairs than these mechanical discoveries" (3, pp. 538, 539). It is important to note that as different as the methods of Descartes and Bacon were, when the their exemplars are synthesized into one, we have an anticipation of the modern mathematical-experimentalist. We can now see that when taken together, Rene Descartes and Francis Bacon were germinal for the modern scientific method.


1. Rene Descartes, Discourse on Method, Trans. L. J. Lafleur. (Bobbs-Merrill, 1950).
2. Rene Decartes, Meditations, Trans. L. J. Lafleur. (Bobbs-Merrill, 1960).
3. Hugh G. Dick (ed.), Selected Writings of Francis Bacon. (New York: Modern Library, 1955)
4. Fulton H. Anderson (ed.), The New Organon. (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1960)
5. Descartes did, however, contribute greatly to mathematics which is the proper place of application for his deductive method.


Tim Nordgren,  5-17-98

Monday, October 2, 2017

Alfred North Whitehead

Alfred North Whitehead was a notable mathematician, logician, educator and philosopher. The staggering complexity of Whitehead’s thought, coupled with the extraordinary literary quality of his writing, have conspired to make Whitehead (in an oft-repeated saying) one of the most-quoted but least-read philosophers in the Western canon. While he is widely recognized for his collaborative work with Bertrand Russell on the Principia Mathematica, he also made highly innovative contributions to philosophy, especially in the area of process metaphysics. Whitehead was an Englishman by birth and a mathematician by formal education. He was highly regarded by his students as a teacher and noted as a conscientious and hard-working administrator. The volume of his mathematical publication was never great, and much of his work has been eclipsed by more contemporary developments in the fields in which he specialized. Yet many of his works continue to stand out as examples of expository clarity without ever sacrificing logical rigor, while his theory of “extensive abstraction” is considered to be foundational in contemporary field of formal spatial relations known as “mereotopology.”

Whitehead’s decades-long focus on the logical and algebraic issues of space and geometry which led to his work on extension, became an integral part of an explosion of profoundly original philosophical work He began publishing even as his career as an academic mathematician was reaching a close. The first wave of these philosophical works included his Enquiry into the Principles of Natural Knowledge, The Concept of Nature, and The Principle of Relativity, published between 1919 and 1922. These books address the philosophies of science and nature, and include an important critique of the problem of measurement raised by Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity. They also present an alternative theory of space and gravity. Whitehead built his system around an event-based ontology that interpreted time as essentially extensive rather than point-like.

Facing mandatory retirement in England, Whitehead accepted a position at Harvard in 1924, where he continued his philosophical output. His Science and the Modern World offers a careful critique of orthodox scientific materialism and presents his first worked-out version of the related fallacies of “misplaced concreteness” and “simple location.” The first fallacy is the error of treating an abstraction as though it were concretely real. The second is the error of assuming that anything that is real must have a simple spatial location. But the pinnacle of Whitehead’s metaphysical work came with his monumental Process and Reality in 1929 and his Adventures of Ideas in 1933. The first of these books gives a comprehensive and multi-layered categoreal system of internal and external relations that analyzes the logic of becoming an extension within the context of a solution to the problem of the one and the many, while also providing a ground for his philosophy of nature. The second is an outline of a philosophy of history and culture within the framework of his metaphysical scheme.


Alfred North Whitehead was born on February 15th, 1861 at Ramsgate in Kent, England, to Alfred and Maria Whitehead. Thought by his parents to be too delicate for the rough and tumble world of the English public school system, young Alfred was initially tutored at home. Ironically, when he was finally placed in public school, Whitehead became both head boy of his house and captain of his school’s rugby team. Whitehead always looked upon his days as a boy as a rather idyllic time. The education he received at home was always congenial to his natural habit of thinking, and he was able to spend long periods of time walking about in English country settings that were rich with history.

While Whitehead always enjoyed the classics, his true strength was with mathematics. Because of both its quality, and the unique opportunity to take the entrance examinations early, Alfred tested for Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1879, a year before he would otherwise have been allowed to enter. Whitehead’s focus was in mathematics, as were those of about half the hopefuls that were taking the competitive exams that year. While not in the very top tier, Whitehead’s exam scores were nevertheless good enough to gain him entrance into Trinity for the school year beginning in 1880, along with a £50 scholarship. While the money was certainly important, the scholarship itself qualified Whitehead for further rewards and considerations, and set him on the path to eventually being elected a Fellow of Trinity.

This happened in 1884, with the completion of his undergraduate work and his high standing in the finals examinations in mathematics for that year. Whitehead’s early career was focused on teaching, and it is known that he taught at Trinity during every term from 1884 to 1910. He traveled to Germany during an off-season at Cambridge (probably 1885), in part to learn more of the work of such German mathematicians as Felix Klein. Whitehead was also an ongoing member of various intellectual groups at Cambridge during this period. But he published nothing of note, and while he was universally praised as a teacher, the youthful Alfred displayed little promise as a researcher.

In 1891, when he was thirty years of age, Whitehead married Evelyn Wade. Evelyn was in every respect the perfect wife and partner for Alfred. While not conventionally intellectual, Evelyn was still an extremely bright woman, fiercely protective of Alfred and his work, and a true home-maker in the finest sense of the term. Although Evelyn herself was never fully accepted into the social structures of Cambridge society, she always ensured that Alfred lived in a comfortable, tastefully appointed home, and saw to it that he had the space and opportunity to entertain fellow scholars and other Cambrians in a fashion that always reflected well upon the mathematician.

It is also in this period that Whitehead began work on his first major publication, his Treatise on Universal Algebra. Perhaps with his new status as a family man, Whitehead felt the need to better establish himself as a Cambridge scholar. The book would ultimately be of minimal influence in the mathematical community. Indeed, the mathematical discipline that goes by that name shares only its name with Whitehead’s work, and is otherwise a very different area of inquiry. Still, the book established Whitehead’s reputation as a scholar of note, and was the basis for his 1903 election as a Fellow of the Royal Society.

It was after the publication of this work that Whitehead began the lengthy collaboration with his student, and ultimately Trinity Fellow, Bertrand Russell, on that monumental work that would become the Principia Mathematica. However, the final stages of this collaboration would not occur within the precincts of Cambridge. By 1910, Whitehead had been at Trinity College for thirty years, and he felt his creativity was being stifled. But it was also in this year that Whitehead’s friend and colleague Andrew Forsyth’s long-time affair with a married woman turned into a public indiscretion. It was expected that Forsyth would lose his Cambridge professorship, but the school took the extra step of withdrawing his Trinity Fellowship as well. Publicly in protest of this extravagant action, Whitehead resigned his own professorship (though not his Fellowship) as well. Privately, it was the excuse he needed to shake up his own life.

At the age of 49 and lacking even the promise of a job, Whitehead moved his family to London, where he was unemployed for the academic year of 1910 – 11. It was Evelyn who borrowed or bullied the money from their acquaintances that kept the family afloat during that time. Alfred finally secured a lectureship at University College, but the position offered no chance of growth or advancement for him. Finally in 1914, the Imperial College of Science and Technology in London appointed him as a professor of applied Mathematics.

It was here that Whitehead’s initial burst of philosophical creativity occurred. His decades of research into logic and spatial reasoning expressed itself in a series of three profoundly original books on the subjects of science, nature, and Einstein’s theory of relativity. At the same time, Whitehead maintained his teaching load while also assuming an increasing number of significant administrative duties. He was universally praised for his skill in all three of these general activities. However, by 1921 Whitehead was sixty years old and facing mandatory retirement within the English academic system. He would only be permitted to work until his sixty-fifth birthday, and then only with an annual dispensation from Imperial College. So it was that in 1924, Whitehead accepted an appointment as a professor of philosophy at Harvard University.

While Whitehead’s work at Imperial College is impressive, the explosion of works that came during his Harvard years is absolutely astounding. These publications include Science and the Modern World, Process and Reality, and Adventures of Ideas.

Whitehead continued to teach at Harvard until his retirement in 1937. He had been elected to the British Academy in 1931, and awarded the Order of Merit in 1945. He died peacefully on December 30th, 1947. Per the explicit instructions in his will, Evelyn Whitehead burned all of his unpublished papers. This action has been the source of boundless regret for Whitehead scholars, but it was Whitehead’s belief that evaluations of his thought should be based exclusively on his published work.

Major Thematic Structures

The thematic and historical analyses of Whitehead’s work largely coincide. However, these two approaches naturally lend themselves to slightly different emphases, and there are important historical overlaps of the dominating themes of his thought. So it is worthwhile to view these themes ahistorically prior to showing their temporal development.

The first of these thematic structures might reasonably be called “the problem of space.” The confluence of several trends in mathematical research set this problem at the very forefront of Whitehead’s own inquiries. James Clerk Maxwell’s Treatise on electromagnetism had been published in 1873, and Maxwell himself taught at Cambridge from 1871 until his death in 1879. The topic was a major subject of interest at Cambridge, and Whitehead wrote his Trinity Fellowship dissertation on Maxwell’s theory. During the same period, William Clifford in England, and Felix Klein and Wilhelm Killing in Germany were advancing the study of spaces of constant curvature. Whitehead was well aware of their work, as well as that of Hermann Grassmann, whose ideas would later become of central importance in tensor analysis.

The second major trend of Whitehead’s thought can be usefully abbreviated as “the problem of history,” although a more accurate descriptive phrase would be “the problem of the accretion of value.” Of the two themes, this one can be the more difficult to discern within Whitehead’s corpus, partly because it is often implicit and does not lend itself to formalized analysis. In its more obvious forms, this theme first appears in Whitehead’s writings on education. However, even in his earliest works, Whitehead’s concern with the function of symbolism as an instrument in the growth of knowledge shows a concern for the accretion of value. Nevertheless, it is primarily with his later philosophical work that this topic emerges as a central element and primary focus of his thought

Saturday, September 30, 2017


1. Key Themes of Existentialism

Although a highly diverse tradition of thought, seven themes can be identified that provide some sense of overall unity. Here, these themes will be briefly introduced; they can then provide us with an intellectual framework within which to discuss exemplary figures within the history of existentialism.

a. Philosophy as a Way of Life

Philosophy should not be thought of primarily either as an attempt to investigate and understand the self or the world, or as a special occupation that concerns only a few. Rather, philosophy must be thought of as fully integrated within life. To be sure, there may need to be professional philosophers, who develop an elaborate set of methods and concepts (Sartre makes this point frequently) but life can be lived philosophically without a technical knowledge of philosophy. Existentialist thinkers tended to identify two historical antecedents for this notion. First, the ancient Greeks, and particularly the figure of Socrates but also the Stoics and Epicureans. Socrates was not only non-professional, but in his pursuit of the good life he tended to eschew the formation of a 'system' or 'theory', and his teachings took place often in public spaces. In this, the existentialists were hardly unusual. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the rapid expansion of industrialisation and advance in technology were often seen in terms of an alienation of the human from nature or from a properly natural way of living (for example, thinkers of German and English romanticism).

The second influence on thinking of philosophy as a way of life was German Idealism after Kant. Partly as a response to the 18th century Enlightenment, and under the influence of the Neoplatonists, Schelling and Hegel both thought of philosophy as an activity that is an integral part of the history of human beings, rather than outside of life and the world, looking on. Later in the 19th century, Marx famously criticised previous philosophy by saying that the point of philosophy is not to know things – even to know things about activity – but to change them.

The concept of philosophy as a way of life manifests itself in existentialist thought in a number of ways. Let us give several examples, to which we will return in the sections that follow. First, the existentialists often undertook a critique of modern life in terms of the specialisation of both manual and intellectual labour. Specialisation included philosophy. One consequence of this is that many existentialist thinkers experimented with different styles or genres of writing in order to escape the effects of this specialisation. Second, a notion that we can call 'immanence': philosophy studies life from the inside. For Kierkegaard, for example, the fundamental truths of my existence are not representations – not, that is, ideas, propositions or symbols the meaning of which can be separated from their origin. Rather, the truths of existence are immediately lived, felt and acted. Likewise, for Nietzsche and Heidegger, it is essential to recognise that the philosopher investigating human existence is, him or herself, an existing human. Third, the nature of life itself is a perennial existentialist concern and, more famously (in Heidegger and in Camus), also the significance of death.

b. Anxiety and Authenticity

A key idea here is that human existence is in some way 'on its own'; anxiety (or anguish) is the recognition of this fact. Anxiety here has two important implications. First, most generally, many existentialists tended to stress the significance of emotions or feelings, in so far as they were presumed to have a less culturally or intellectually mediated relation to one's individual and separate existence. This idea is found in Kierkegaard, as we mentioned above, and in Heidegger's discussion of 'mood'; it is also one reason why existentialism had an influence on psychology. Second, anxiety also stands for a form of existence that is recognition of being on its own. What is meant by 'being on its own' varies among philosophers. For example, it might mean the irrelevance (or even negative influence) of rational thought, moral values, or empirical evidence, when it comes to making fundamental decisions concerning one's existence. As we shall see, Kierkegaard sees

Hegel's account of religion in terms of the history of absolute spirit as an exemplary confusion of faith and reason. Alternatively, it might be a more specifically theological claim: the existence of a transcendent deity is not relevant to (or is positively detrimental to) such decisions (a view broadly shared by Nietzsche and Sartre). Finally, being on its own might signify the uniqueness of human existence, and thus the fact that it cannot understand itself in terms of other kinds of existence (Heidegger and Sartre).

Related to anxiety is the concept of authenticity, which is let us say the existentialist spin on the Greek notion of 'the good life'. As we shall see, the authentic being would be able to recognise and affirm the nature of existence (we shall shortly specify some of the aspects of this, such as absurdity and freedom). Not, though, recognise the nature of existence as an intellectual fact, disengaged from life; but rather, the authentic being lives in accordance with this nature. The notion of authenticity is sometimes seen as connected to individualism. This is only reinforced by the contrast with a theme we will discuss below, that of the 'crowd'. Certainly, if authenticity involves 'being on one's own', then there would seem to be some kind of value in celebrating and sustaining one's difference and independence from others. However, many existentialists see individualism as a historical and cultural trend (for example Nietzsche), or dubious political value (Camus), rather than a necessary component of authentic existence. Individualism tends to obscure the particular types of collectivity that various existentialists deem important.

For many existentialists, the conditions of the modern world make authenticity especially difficult. For example, many existentialists would join other philosophers (such as the Frankfurt School) in condemning an instrumentalist conception of reason and value. The utilitarianism of Mill measured moral value and justice also in terms of the consequences of actions. Later liberalism would seek to absorb nearly all functions of political and social life under the heading of economic performance. Evaluating solely in terms of the measurable outcomes of production was seen as reinforcing the secularisation of the institutions of political, social or economic life; and reinforcing also the abandonment of any broader sense of the spiritual dimension (such an idea is found acutely in Emerson, and is akin to the concerns of Kierkegaard). Existentialists such as Martin Heidegger, Hanna Arendt or Gabriel Marcel viewed these social movements in terms of a narrowing of the possibilities of human thought to the instrumental or technological. This narrowing involved thinking of the world in terms of resources, and thinking of all human action as a making, or indeed as a machine-like 'function'.

c. Freedom

The next key theme is freedom. Freedom can usefully be linked to the concept of anguish, because my freedom is in part defined by the isolation of my decisions from any determination by a deity, or by previously existent values or knowledge. Many existentialists identified the 19th and 20th centuries as experiencing a crisis of values.

This might be traced back to familiar reasons such as an increasingly secular society, or the rise of scientific or philosophical movements that questioned traditional accounts of value (for example Marxism or Darwinism), or the shattering experience of two world wars and the phenomenon of mass genocide. It is important to note, however, that for existentialism these historical conditions do not create the problem of anguish in the face of freedom, but merely cast it into higher relief. Likewise, freedom entails something like responsibility, for myself and for my actions. Given that my situation is one of being on its own – recognised in anxiety – then both my freedom and my responsibility are absolute. The isolation that we discussed above means that there is nothing else that acts through me, or that shoulders my responsibility.

Likewise, unless human existence is to be understood as arbitrarily changing moment to moment, this freedom and responsibility must stretch across time. Thus, when I exist as an authentically free being, I assume responsibility for my whole life, for a ‘project’ or a ‘commitment’. We should note here that many of the existentialists take on a broadly Kantian notion of freedom: freedom as autonomy. This means that freedom, rather than being randomness or arbitrariness, consists in the binding of oneself to a law, but a law that is given by the self in recognition of its responsibilities. This borrowing from Kant, however, is heavily qualified by the next theme.

d. Situatedness

The next common theme we shall call ‘situatedness’. Although my freedom is absolute, it always takes place in a particular context. My body and its characteristics, my circumstances in a historical world, and my past, all weigh upon freedom. This is what makes freedom meaningful. Suppose I tried to exist as free, while pretending to be in abstraction from the situation. In that case I will have no idea what possibilities are open to me and what choices need to be made, here and now. In such a case, my freedom will be naïve or illusory. This concrete notion of freedom has its philosophical genesis in Hegel, and is generally contrasted to the pure rational freedom described by Kant. Situatedness is related to a notion we discussed above under the heading of philosophy as a way of life: the necessity of viewing or understanding life and existence from the ‘inside’. For example, many 19th century intellectuals were interested in ancient Greece, Rome, the Medieval period, or the orient, as alternative models of a less spoiled, more integrated form of life. Nietzsche, to be sure, shared these interests, but he did so not uncritically: because the human condition is characterised by being historically situated, it cannot simply turn back the clock or decide all at once to be other than it is (Sartre especially shares this view).

Heidegger expresses a related point in this way: human existence cannot be abstracted from its world because being-in-the-world is part of the ontological structure of that existence. Many existentialists take my concretely individual body, and the specific type of life that my body lives, as a primary fact about me (for example, Nietzsche, Scheler or Merleau-Ponty). I must also be situated socially: each of my acts says something about how I view others but, reciprocally, each of their acts is a view about what I am. My freedom is always situated with respect to the judgements of others. This particular notion comes from Hegel’s analysis of ‘recognition’, and is found especially in Sartre, de Beauvoir and Jaspers. Situatedness in general also has an important philosophical antecedent in Marx: economic and political conditions are not contingent features with respect to universal human nature, but condition that nature from the ground up.

e. Existence

Although, of course, existentialism takes its name from the philosophical theme of 'existence', this does not entail that there is homogeneity in the manner existence is to be understood. One point on which there is agreement, though, is that the existence with which we should be concerned here is not just any existent thing, but human existence. There is thus an important difference between distinctively human existence and anything else, and human existence is not to be understood on the model of things, that is, as objects of knowledge. One might think that this is an old idea, rooted in Plato's distinction between matter and soul, or Descartes' between extended and thinking things. But these distinctions appear to be just differences between two types of things. Descartes in particular, however, is often criticised by the existentialists for subsuming both under the heading 'substance', and thus treating what is distinctive in human existence as indeed a thing or object, albeit one with different properties. (Whether the existentialist characterisation of Plato or Descartes is accurate is a different question.) The existentialists thus countered the Platonic or Cartesian conception with a model that resembles more the Aristotelian as developed in the Nichomachean Ethics. The latter idea arrives in existentialist thought filtered through Leibniz and Spinoza and the notion of a striving for existence.

Equally important is the elevation of the practical above the theoretical in German Idealists. Particularly in Kant, who stressed the primacy of the 'practical', and then in Fichte and early Schelling, we find the notion that human existence is action. Accordingly, in Nietzsche and Sartre we find the notion that the human being is all and only what that being does. My existence consists of forever bringing myself into being – and, correlatively, fleeing from the dead, inert thing that is the totality of my past actions. Although my acts are free, I am not free not to act; thus existence is characterised also by 'exigency' (Marcel). For many existentialists, authentic existence involves a certain tension be recognised and lived through, but not resolved: this tension might be between the animal and the rational (important in Nietzsche) or between facticity and transcendence (Sartre and de Beauvoir).

In the 19th and 20th centuries, the human sciences (such as psychology, sociology or economics) were coming to be recognised as powerful and legitimate sciences. To some extend at least their assumptions and methods seemed to be borrowed from the natural sciences. While philosophers such as Dilthey and later Gadamer were concerned to show that the human sciences had to have a distinctive method, the existentialists were inclined to go further. The free, situated human being is not an object of knowledge in the sense the human always exists as the possibility of transcending any knowledge of it. There is a clear relation between such an idea and the notion of the 'transcendence of the other' found in the ethical phenomenology of Emmanuel Levinas.

f. Irrationality/Absurdity

Among the most famous ideas associated with existentialism is that of 'absurdity'. Human existence might be described as 'absurd' in one of the following senses. First, many existentialists argued that nature as a whole has no design, no reason for existing. Although the natural world can apparently be understood by physical science or metaphysics, this might be better thought of as 'description' than either understanding or explanation. Thus, the achievements of the natural sciences also empty nature of value and meaning. Unlike a created cosmos, for example, we cannot expect the scientifically described cosmos to answer our questions concerning value or meaning. Moreover, such description comes at the cost of a profound falsification of nature: namely, the positing of ideal entities such as 'laws of nature', or the conflation of all reality under a single model of being. Human beings can and should become profoundly aware of this lack of reason and the impossibility of an immanent understanding of it. Camus, for example, argues that the basic scene of human existence is its confrontation with this mute irrationality.

A second meaning of the absurd is this: my freedom will not only be undetermined by knowledge or reason, but from the point of view of the latter my freedom will even appear absurd. Absurdity is thus closely related to the theme of 'being on its own', which we discussed above under the heading of anxiety. Even if I choose to follow a law that I have given myself, my choice of law will appear absurd, and likewise will my continuously reaffirmed choice to follow it. Third, human existence as action is doomed to always destroy itself. A free action, once done, is no longer free; it has become an aspect of the world, a thing. The absurdity of human existence then seems to lie in the fact that in becoming myself (a free existence) I must be what I am not (a thing). If I do not face up to this absurdity, and choose to be or pretend to be thing-like, I exist inauthentically (the terms in this formulation are Sartre's).

g. The Crowd

Existentialism generally also carries a social or political dimension. Insofar as he or she is authentic, the freedom of the human being will show a certain 'resolution' or 'commitment', and this will involve also the being – and particularly the authentic being – of others. For example, Nietzsche thus speaks of his (or Zarathustra's) work in aiding the transformation of the human, and there is also in Nietzsche a striking analysis of the concept of friendship; for Heidegger, there must be an authentic mode of being-with others, although he does not develop this idea at length; the social and political aspect of authentic commitment is much more clear in Sartre, de Beauvoir and Camus.

That is the positive side of the social or political dimension. However, leading up to this positive side, there is a description of the typical forms that inauthentic social or political existence takes. Many existentialists employ terms such as 'crowd', 'horde' (Scheler) or the 'masses' (José Ortega y Gasset). Nietzsche's deliberately provocative expression, 'the herd', portrays the bulk of humanity not only as animal, but as docile and domesticated animals. Notice that these are all collective terms: inauthenticity manifests itself as de-individuated or faceless. Instead of being formed authentically in freedom and anxiety, values are just accepted from others because ‘that is what everybody does’. These terms often carry a definite historical resonance, embodying a critique of specifically modern modes of human existence.

All of the following might be seen as either causes or symptoms of a world that is 'fallen' or 'broken' (Marcel): the technology of mass communication (Nietzsche is particularly scathing about newspapers and journalists; in Two Ages, Kierkegaard says something very similar), empty religious observances, the specialisation of labour and social roles, urbanisation and industrialisation. The theme of the crowd poses a question also to the positive social or political dimension of existentialism: how could a collective form of existence ever be anything other than inauthentic?

The 19th and 20th century presented a number of mass political ideologies which might be seen as posing a particularly challenging environment for authentic and free existence. For example, nationalism came in for criticism particularly by Nietzsche. Socialism and communism: after WWII, Sartre was certainly a communist, but even then unafraid to criticise both the French communist party and the Soviet Union for rigid or inadequately revolutionary thinking. Democracy: Aristotle in book 5 of his Politics distinguishes between democracy and ochlocracy, which latter essentially means rule by those incapable of ruling even themselves. Many existentialists would identify the latter with the American and especially French concept of 'democracy'. Nietzsche and Ortega y Gasset both espoused a broadly aristocratic criterion for social and political leadership.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Montesquieu, French political philosopher

Montesquieu, in full Charles-Louis de Secondat, baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu (born January 18, 1689, Château La Brède, near Bordeaux, France—died February 10, 1755, Paris) French political philosopher whose major work, The Spirit of Laws, was a major contribution to political theory.

Early life and career

His father, Jacques de Secondat, belonged to an old military family of modest wealth that had been ennobled in the 16th century for services to the crown, while his mother, Marie-Françoise de Pesnel, was a pious lady of partial English extraction. She brought to her husband a great increase in wealth in the valuable wine-producing property of La Brède. When she died in 1696, the barony of La Brède passed to Charles-Louis, who was her eldest child, then aged seven. Educated first at home and then in the village, he was sent away to school in 1700. The school was the Collège de Juilly, close to Paris and in the diocese of Meaux. It was much patronized by the prominent families of Bordeaux, and the priests of the Oratory, to whom it belonged, provided a sound education on enlightened and modern lines.

Charles-Louis left Juilly in 1705, continued his studies at the faculty of law at the University of Bordeaux, graduated, and became an advocate in 1708; soon after he appears to have moved to Paris in order to obtain practical experience in law. He was called back to Bordeaux by the death of his father in 1713. Two years later he married Jeanne de Lartigue, a wealthy Protestant, who brought him a respectable dowry of 100,000 livres and in due course presented him with two daughters and a son, Jean-Baptiste. Charles-Louis admired and exploited his wife’s business skill and readily left her in charge of the property on his visits to Paris. But he does not appear to have been either faithful or greatly devoted to her. In 1716 his uncle, Jean-Baptiste, baron de Montesquieu, died and left to his nephew his estates, with the barony of Montesquieu, near Agen, and the office of deputy president in the Parlement of Bordeaux. His position was one of some dignity. It carried a stipend but was no sinecure.

The young Montesquieu, at 27, was now socially and financially secure. He settled down to exercise his judicial function (engaging to this end in the minute study of Roman law), to administer his property, and to advance his knowledge of the sciences—especially of geology, biology, and physics—which he studied in the newly formed academy of Bordeaux.

In 1721 he surprised all but a few close friends by publishing his Lettres persanes (Persian Letters, 1722), in which he gave a brilliant satirical portrait of French and particularly Parisian civilization, supposedly seen through the eyes of two Persian travellers. This exceedingly successful work mocks the reign of Louis XIV, which had only recently ended; pokes fun at all social classes; discusses, in its allegorical story of the Troglodytes, the theories of Thomas Hobbes relating to the state of nature. It also makes an original, if naive, contribution to the new science of demography; continually compares Islam and Christianity; reflects the controversy about the papal bull Unigenitus, which was directed against the dissident Catholic group known as the Jansenists; satirizes Roman Catholic doctrine; and is infused throughout with a new spirit of vigorous, disrespectful, and iconoclastic criticism. The work’s anonymity was soon penetrated, and Montesquieu became famous. The new ideas fermenting in Paris had received their most-scintillating expression.

Montesquieu now sought to reinforce his literary achievement with social success. Going to Paris in 1722, he was assisted in entering court circles by the duke of Berwick, the exiled Stuart prince whom he had known when Berwick was military governor at Bordeaux. The tone of life at court was set by the rakish regent, the duc d’Orléans, and Montesquieu did not disdain its dissipations. It was during this period that he made the acquaintance of the English politician Viscount Bolingbroke, whose political views were later to be reflected in Montesquieu’s analysis of the English constitution.

In Paris his interest in the routine activities of the Parlement in Bordeaux, however, had dwindled. He resented seeing that his intellectual inferiors were more successful than he in court. His office was marketable, and in 1726 he sold it, a move that served both to reestablish his fortunes, depleted by life in the capital, and to assist him, by lending colour to his claim to be resident in Paris, in his attempt to enter the Académie Française. A vacancy there arose in October 1727. Montesquieu had powerful supporters, with Madame de Lambert’s salon firmly pressing his claims, and he was elected, taking his seat on January 24, 1728.

This official recognition of his talent might have caused him to remain in Paris to enjoy it. On the contrary, though older than most noblemen starting on the grand tour, he resolved to complete his education by foreign travel. Leaving his wife at La Brède with full powers over the estate, he set off for Vienna in April 1728, with Lord Waldegrave, nephew of Berwick and lately British ambassador in Paris, as travelling companion. He wrote an account of his travels as interesting as any other of the 18th century. In Vienna he met the soldier and statesman Prince Eugene of Savoy and discussed French politics with him. He made a surprising detour into Hungary to examine the mines. He entered Italy, and, after tasting the pleasures of Venice, proceeded to visit most of the other cities. Conscientiously examining the galleries of Florence, notebook in hand, he developed his aesthetic sense. In Rome he heard the French minister Cardinal Polignac and read his unpublished Latin poem Anti-Lucretius. In Naples he skeptically witnessed the liquefaction of the blood of the city’s patron saint. From Italy he moved through Germany to Holland and thence (at the end of October 1729), in the company of the statesman and wit Lord Chesterfield, to England, where he remained until the spring of 1731.

Montesquieu had a wide circle of acquaintances in England. He was presented at court, and he was received by the prince of Wales, at whose request he later made an anthology of French songs. He became a close friend of the dukes of Richmond and Montagu. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society. He attended parliamentary debates and read the political journals of the day. He became a Freemason. He bought extensively for his library. His stay in England was one of the most formative periods of his life.

Major works

During his travels Montesquieu did not avoid the social pleasures that he had sought in Paris, but his serious ambitions were strengthened. He thought for a time of a diplomatic career but on his return to France decided to devote himself to literature. He hastened to La Brède and remained there, working for two years. Apart from a tiny but controversial treatise on La Monarchie universelle, printed in 1734 but at once withdrawn (so that only his own copy is extant), he was occupied with an essay on the English constitution (not published until 1748, when it became part of his major work) and with his Considérations sur les causes de la grandeur des Romains et de leur décadence (1734; Reflections on the Causes of the Grandeur and Declension of the Romans, 1734). He had thought of publishing the two together, thus following an English tradition, for, as Voltaire said, the English delighted in comparing themselves with the Romans.

Montesquieu’s literary ambitions were far from exhausted. He had for some time been meditating the project of a major work on law and politics. After the publication of the Considérations, he rested for a short time and then, undismayed by failing eyesight, applied himself to this new and immense task. He undertook an extensive program of reading in law, history, economics, geography, and political theory, filling with his notes a large number of volumes, of which only one survives, Geographica, tome II. He employed a succession of secretaries, sometimes as many as six simultaneously, using them as readers and as amanuenses, but not as précis writers. An effort of this magnitude was entirely foreign to what was publicly known of his character, for he was generally looked on as brilliant, rapid, and superficial. He did not seek to disabuse the world at large. Only a small number of friends knew what he was engaged in. He worked much at La Brède, devoting himself also to the administration of his estates and to the maintenance of his privileges as a landed proprietor. But he continued to visit Paris and to enjoy its social life. He kept there a second library and also made use of the Bibliothèque du Roi. He attended the Académie, visited the salons, and enjoyed meeting Italian and English visitors. At the same time, he persistently, unostentatiously pressed on with the preparation of the book that he knew would be a masterpiece. By 1740 its main lines were established and a great part of it was written. By 1743 the text was virtually complete, and he began the first of two thorough and detailed revisions, which occupied him until December 1746. The actual preparation for the press was at hand. A Geneva publisher, J. Barrillot, was selected, further corrections were made, several new chapters were written, and in November 1748 the work appeared under the title De l’esprit des loix; ou, du rapport que les loix doivent avoir avec la constitution de chaque gouvernement, les moeurs, le climat, la religion, le commerce, etc. (The Spirit of Laws, 1750). It consisted of two quarto volumes, comprising 31 books in 1,086 pages.

L’Esprit des lois is one of the great works in the history of political theory and in the history of jurisprudence. Its author had acquainted himself with all previous schools of thought but identified himself with none. Of the multiplicity of subjects treated by Montesquieu, none remained unadorned. His treatment of three was particularly memorable.

The first of these is his classification of governments, a subject that was de rigueur for a political theorist. Abandoning the classical divisions of his predecessors into monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, Montesquieu produced his own analysis and assigned to each form of government an animating principle: the republic, based on virtue; the monarchy, based on honour; and despotism, based on fear. His definitions show that this classification rests not on the location of political power but on the government’s manner of conducting policy; it involves a historical and not a narrow descriptive approach.

The second of his most-noted arguments, the theory of the separation of powers, is treated differently. Dividing political authority into the legislative, executive, and judicial powers, he asserted that, in the state that most effectively promotes liberty, these three powers must be confided to different individuals or bodies, acting independently. His model of such a state was England, which he saw from the point of view of the Tory opposition to the Whig leader, Robert Walpole, as expressed in Bolingbroke’s polemical writings. The chapter in which he expressed this doctrine—Book XI, chapter 6, the most famous of the entire book—had lain in his drawers, save for revision or correction, since it was penned in 1734. It at once became perhaps the most important piece of political writing of the 18th century. Though its accuracy has in more recent times been disputed, in its own century it was admired and held authoritative, even in England; it inspired the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Constitution of the United States.

The third of Montesquieu’s most-celebrated doctrines is that of the political influence of climate. Basing himself on doctrines met in his reading, on the experience of his travels, and on experiments—admittedly somewhat naive—conducted at Bordeaux, he stressed the effect of climate, primarily thinking of heat and cold, on the physical frame of the individual, and, as a consequence, on the intellectual outlook of society. This influence, he claims, is not, save in primitive societies, insuperable. It is the legislator’s duty to counteract it. Montesquieu took care (as his critics have not always realized) to insist that climate is but one of many factors in an assembly of secondary causes that he called the “general spirit.” The other factors (laws, religion, and maxims of government being the most important) are of a nonphysical nature, and their influence, compared with that of climate, grows as civilization advances.

Society for Montesquieu must be considered as a whole. Religion itself is a social phenomenon, whether considered as a cause or as an effect, and the utility or harmfulness of any faith can be discussed in complete independence of the truth of its doctrines. Here and elsewhere, undogmatic observation was Montesquieu’s preferred method. Sometimes the reader is beguiled by this into the belief that Montesquieu maintains that whatever exists, though it may indeed stand in need of improvement, cannot be wholly bad. Although with a bold parenthesis or a rapid summing-up the reader is reminded that for Montesquieu certain things are intrinsically evil: despotism, slavery, intolerance. Though he never attempted an enumeration of the rights of man and would probably have disapproved of such an attempt, he maintained a firm belief in human dignity.

In the final books of L’Esprit des lois, added at the last moment and imperfectly assimilated to the rest, he addressed himself to the history of law, seeking to explain the division of France into the two zones of written and customary law, and made his contribution to the much discussed controversy about the origins of the French aristocracy. Here he displays not only prudence and common sense, but also a real scholarly capacity, which he had not shown before, for the philological handling of textual evidence.

After the book was published, praise came to Montesquieu from the most-varied headquarters. The Scottish philosopher David Hume wrote from London that the work would win the admiration of all the ages; an Italian friend spoke of reading it in an ecstasy of admiration; the Swiss scientist Charles Bonnet said that Montesquieu had discovered the laws of the intellectual world as Newton had those of the physical world. The philosophers of the Enlightenment accepted him as one of their own, as indeed he was. The work was controversial, however, and a variety of denunciatory articles amd pamphlets appeared. Attacks made in the Sorbonne and in the general assembly of the French clergy were deflected, but in Rome, in spite of the intervention of the French ambassador and of several liberal-minded high ecclesiastics and notwithstanding the favourable disposition of the pope himself, Montesquieu’s enemies were successful, and the work was placed on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum in 1751. This, though it dismayed Montesquieu, was but a momentary setback. He had already published his Défense de L’Esprit des lois (1750). Subtle and good-humoured, but forceful and incisive, this was the most brilliantly written of all his works. His fame was now worldwide.

Last years

Renown lay lightly on his shoulders. His affability and modesty are commented on by all who met him. He was a faithful friend, kind and helpful to young and unestablished men of letters, witty, though absent-minded, in society. It was to be expected that the editors of the Encyclopédie should wish to have his collaboration, and d’Alembert asked him to write on democracy and despotism. Montesquieu declined, saying that he had already had his say on those themes but would like to write on taste. The resultant Essai sur le goût (Essay on Taste), first drafted about 25 years earlier, was his last work.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Stoic principles of life – Stoic principles that still stand

Stoicism’ was a philosophy that flourished for some 400 years in Ancient Greece and Rome, gaining widespread support among all classes of society. It had one overwhelming and highly practical ambition: to teach people how to be calm and brave in the face of overwhelming anxiety and pain.

We still honour this school whenever we call someone ‘stoic’ or plain ‘philosophical’ when fate turns against them: when they lose their keys, are humiliated at work, rejected in love or disgraced in society. Of all philosophies, Stoicism remains perhaps the most immediately relevant and useful for our uncertain and panicky times.

Many hundreds of philosophers practiced Stoicism but two figures stand out as our best guides to it: the Roman politician, writer and tutor to Nero, Seneca [AD 4-65]; and the kind and magnanimous Roman Emperor (who philosophised in his spare time while fighting the Germanic hordes on the edges of the Empire), Marcus Aurelius [AD 121 to 180]. Their works remain highly readable and deeply consoling, ideal for sleepless nights, those breeding grounds for runaway terrors and paranoia.

1. Anxiety

At all times, so many terrible things might happen. The standard way for people to cheer us up when we’re mired in anxiety is to tell us that we will, after all, be OK: the embarrassing email might not be discovered, sales could yet take off, there might be no scandal…

But the Stoics bitterly opposed such a strategy, because they believed that anxiety flourishes in the gap between what we fear might, and what we hope could, happen. The larger the gap, the greater will be the oscillations and disturbances of mood.

To regain calm, what we need to do is systematically and intelligently crush every last vestige of hope. Rather than appease ourselves with sunny tales, it is far better – the Stoics proposed – to courageously come to terms with the very worst possibilities – and then make ourselves entirely at home with them. When we look our fears in the face and imagine what life might be like if they came true, we stand to come to a crucial realisation: we will cope. We will cope even if we had to go to prison, even if we lost all our money, even if we were publicly shamed, even if our loved ones left us, and even if the growth turned out to be malignant (the Stoics were firm believers in suicide).

We generally don’t dare do more than glimpse the horrible eventualities through clenched eyelids, and therefore they maintain a constant sadistic grip on us. Instead, as Seneca put it: ‘To reduce your worry, you must assume that what you fear may happen is certainly going to happen.’ To a friend wracked with terror he might be sent to prison, Seneca replied bluntly: ‘Prison can always be endured by someone who has correctly understood existence.’

The Stoics suggested we take time off to practice worst-case scenarios. We should, for example, mark out a week a year where we eat only stale bread and sleep on the kitchen floor with only one blanket, so we stop being so squeamish about being sacked or imprisoned.

Each morning, a good Stoic will undertake a praemeditatio, a premeditation on all the appalling things that might occur in the hours ahead. In Marcus Aurelius’s stiffening words: ‘Mortal have you been born, to mortals have you given birth. So you must reckon on everything, expect everything.’
Stoicism is nothing less than an elegant, intelligent dress rehearsal for catastrophe.

2. Fury

We get angry – especially with our partners, our children, and politicians. We smash things up and hurt others. The Stoics thought anger a dangerous indulgence, but most of all, a piece of stupidity, for in their analysis, angry outbursts are only ever caused by one thing: an incorrect picture of existence. They are the bitter fruits of naivety.

Anger is, in the Stoic analysis, caused by the violent collision of hope and reality. We don’t shout every time something sad happens to us, only when it is sad and unexpected. To be calmer, we must, therefore, learn to expect far less from life. Of course our loved ones will disappoint us, naturally our colleagues will fail us, invariably our friends will lie to us… None of this should be a surprise. It may make us sad. It must never – if we are Stoics – make us angry.

The wise person should aim to reach a state where simply nothing could suddenly disturb their peace of mind. Every tragedy should already be priced in. ‘What need is there to weep over parts of life?’ asked Seneca, ‘The whole of it calls for tears.’

3. Paranoia

It is easy to think we’ve been singled out for terrible things. We wonder why it has happened to us. We tear ourselves apart with blame or direct bitter venom at the world.
The Stoics want us to do neither: it may neither be our, nor anyone else’s, fault. Though not religious, the Stoics were fascinated by the Roman Goddess of fortune, known as Fortuna, whom they took to be the perfect metaphor for destiny. Fortuna, who had shrines to her all over the Empire, was popularly held to control the fate of humans, and was judged to be a terrifying mixture of the generous and the randomly wilful and spiteful. She was no meritocrat. She was represented holding a cornucopia filled with goodies (money, love etc.) in one hand, and a tiller, for changing the course of life in the other. Depending on her mood, she might throw you down a perfect job or a beautiful relationship, and then the next minute, simply because she felt like it, watch you choke to death on a fishbone.
It is an urgent priority for a Stoic to respect just how much of life will always be in the hands of this demented character. ‘There is nothing which Fortuna does not dare,’ warned Seneca.

Understanding this ahead of time should make us both suspicious of success and gentle on ourselves around failure. In every sense, much of what we get, we don’t deserve.

The task of the wise person is therefore never to believe in the gifts of Fortune: fame, money, power, love, health – these are never our own. Our grip on them must at all times be light and deeply wary.

4. Loss of Perspective

We naturally exaggerate our own importance. The incidents of our own lives loom very large in our view of the world. And so we get stressed and panicked, we curse and throw things across the room.

To regain composure, we must regularly be reduced in our own eyes. We must give up on the very normal but very disturbing illusion that it really matters what we do and who we are.

The Stoics were keen astronomers and recommended the contemplation of the heavens to all students of philosophy. On an evening walk, look up and see the the planets: you’ll see Venus and Jupiter shining in the darkening sky. If the dusk deepens, you might see some other stars – Aldebaran, Andromeda and Aries, along with many more. It’s a hint of the unimaginable extensions of space across the solar system, the galaxy and the cosmos. The sight has a calming effect which the Stoics revered, for against such a backdrop, we realise that none of our troubles, disappointments or hopes have any relevance.

Nothing that happens to us, or that we do, is – blessedly – of any consequence whatsoever from the cosmic perspective.


We need the Stoics more than ever. Every day confronts us with situations that they understood and wanted to prepare us for.

Their teachings are dark and sobering yet at the same time, profoundly consoling and at points even rather funny.

They invite us to feel heroic and defiant in the face of our many troubles.

As Seneca reminded us, ‘Look at your wrists. There – at any time – lies freedom.’

To counterbalance the enragingly cheerful and naive optimism of our times, there is nothing better than the bitter-sweet calming wisdom of these ancient sages.