“History is philosophy teaching by example” said Bolingbroke.
Philosophy has a reputation for being abstract, which it is. Philosophy also has a reputation for being impractical or pointless, which it certainly is not. Here is my nine-minute explanation for why philosophy is life or death.
(Much thanks to Christopher Vaughan for his fine video and graphics work.)
“But I do not feel obliged to believe that that same God who has endowed us with senses, reason, and intellect has intended to forgo their use and by some other means to give us knowledge which we can attain by them. He would not require us to deny sense and reason in physical matters which are set before our eyes and minds by direct experience or necessary demonstrations.”
The immediate context was the great debate over the geocentric and heliocentric models. The larger context was the tension between religious philosophy, which stressed faith in revelation and tradition, and Renaissance philosophy, which stressed observation and reason. How, for example, should we decide whether the earth or the sun is at the center of our cosmos? Should we trust the views handed down to us by the best theologians of the centuries, those views derived primarily from Scripture? Or should we trust the views presented to us by scientists, their theories based on observational data from telescopes and other instruments and mathematical calculations of that data?
The traditionalist position was that reliance on observation and reason — when that conflicts with Scripture and tradition — is heresy. Giordano Bruno was convicted and executed, in part, for such heresy. When reason conflicts with faith, reason must give way. Or else.
Galileo’s solution is to argue that God wrote Scripture, of course, so Scripture contains the truth — and that God also created nature, and so nature also contains truth. God also created us humans, giving us sense organs and intelligence. So we can study Scripture rationally and learn important truths, as theologians do. But we can and should study nature rationally and learn important truths, as scientists do. And since both Scripture and nature come from the same author — God wrote two books, so to speak — the best theology and the best science should be compatible.
Consequently, the real heretics are those who place faith over reason and who use apparent theoretical conflicts as a pretext for persecuting or killing their intellectual opponents. The truly devout, by direct contrast, are those who use their best intelligence, as God intended when He gave it to us, to try to understand the universe and who, when intellectual conflicts arise along the way, use reasonable methods — discussion, debate, and further investigation — to resolve them.
I call this “the modern compromise” because versions of it are also found in Francis Bacon, René Descartes, and John Locke. In Galileo’s version, the intellectual turf is divided into two realms — the natural and the supernatural — and as long as scientists and theologians stick to their own turf, there should be no problems.
Locke uses the same dualist point is used to argue for the separation of church and state: “The boundaries on both sides are fixed and immovable. He jumbles heaven and earth together, the things most remote and opposite, who mixes these two societies, which are in their original, end, business, and in everything perfectly distinct and infinitely different from each other” (A Letter concerning Toleration ).
So the early modern compromise is to use a strong metaphysical dualism to separate the natural and the supernatural, the realm of science and the realm of religion, the scope of the state’s power and the scope of the church’s, the physical and the spiritual, the factual and the moral. As long as everyone stays on their side of the line, we can avoid conflict.
I sometimes wonder to what extent the dualism was a genuine metaphysical claim by these founding modern thinkers — and to what extent it was a tactical claim to create a safety zone for naturalistic life and inquiry, given the often-dangerous religious orthodoxies of the time.
Despite having lost much of Europe to the Protestants over the preceding century, the Catholic Church was far from toothless, especially in southern Europe, and in 1616 it issued a Codex with a formal response to Galileo’s argument and the threat of heliocentrism:
“Propositions to be forbidden: That the sun is immovable at the center of the heaven; that the earth is not at the center of the heaven, and is not immovable; but moves by a double motion.”
Thus the stage was set for continued tension on both sides and Galileo’s trial for heresy in the 1633.
I’ve started reading Guillermo M. Yeatts’s 2010 Plunder in Latin America. Yeatts lists thirteen American countries’ per capita GDP in 2008 US dollars, first alphabetically by country:
Brazil 8,379 Canada 46,826
I re-arranged them by GDP from highest to lowest:
What a range. The two North American countries in the middle 40s. Five countries in the 8-10 range. Another five in the 3-5 range, and one around 2.
Yeatts raises the natural question: Why are the North American countries spectacularly more prosperous than the Latin American countries? Both are well endowed with natural resources, he points out, so that can be ruled out as the explanation. Several early hypotheses for our consideration:
* Religious differences: The majority of North Americans are Protestant and the majority of Latin Americans are Catholic.
* Colonial motivation: The Spanish colonists of Latin America were motivated primarily by extracting gold and silver and the earliest British colonists of North America were motivated by the desire to practice their religion freely.
* Philosophical: The North Americans adopted a Lockean view of the priority of individual rights over the power of government, while the Latin Americans accepted the Rousseauian priority of democratic majoritarianism over individual rights.
Along the way Yeatts introduces Douglass North’s institutional theory and James Buchanan’s Public Choice theory for further discussion, and that makes sense.
Whatever the full explanation turns out to be for the difference between North and Latin America, the differences within Latin America are also important. Why are Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina on average twice as wealthy as Venezuela, Cuba, and Peru? And why are the latter three nations on average twice as rich as Bolivia?
Here is a flowchart I’ve developed for use in some upcoming talks. The chart diagrams the positive claims about liberal capitalism by its defenders — John Locke, Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, Ludwig von Mises, Ayn Rand, Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, and others. Click on the image for full size or check out this zoomable version at zoom.it.
Most advocates of liberal capitalism believe that most or all of the above claims are true. But they differ among themselves about which claims are most significant in morally justifying liberal capitalism. And that is the follow-up topic of my upcoming talks. More to come.
(Thanks to Chris Vaughan for the graphical design of the chart.)
“restrictions on our autonomy may lie at the heart of a great deal of our unhappiness. Studies show, for example, that one of the greatest sources of dissatisfaction among doctors isn’t having to deal with insurance companies or paperwork but lack of control over their daily schedules. (I’ve found this to be true: nothing distresses me more in the course of my work day than feeling hurried and unable to control how I spend my time.) I simply hate feeling forced to do things—even things I would want to do if I weren’t being forced to do them.”
The good physician’s self-reflection is squarely within the long tradition of philosophical liberalism:
John Locke, for example: “We naturally, as I said, even from our cradles, love liberty, and have therefore an aversion to many things, for no other reason, but because they are injoined us.”
John Stuart Mill is another: “Many a person remains in the same town, street, or house from January to December, without a wish or thought tending towards removal, who, if confined to that same place by the mandate of authority, would find the imprisonment absolutely intolerable.”
And all three above are deeply, deeply opposed to the illiberal tradition that seeks to deny or crush individual autonomy: Augustine, Sulzer, Kant*, and Fichte.
Sources and note:
 Alan Lickerman, “The Desire For Autonomy”. The Creativity Post, November 30, 2012.
 John Locke, Some Thoughts Concerning Education , Section 148.
 John Stuart Mill, Collected Works of John Stuart Mill: Principles of Political Economy. Robson, J. M., ed. Books I-II. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2006, p. 213.
* Yes, Kant is a mixed case.
This quotation from twentieth-century education theorist Jean Piaget — “Play is the answer to how anything new comes about” — reminds me of a passage from seventeenth-century philosopher John Locke’s Some Thoughts concerning Education.
“Great care is to be taken, that [education] be never made as a business to him, nor he look on it as a task. We naturally, as I said, even from our cradles, love liberty, and have therefore an aversion to many things, for no other reason, but because they are injoined us. I have always had a fancy, that learning might be made a play and recreation to children; and that they might be brought to desire to be taught, if it were proposed to them as a thing of honour, credit, delight, and recreation, or as a reward for doing something else, and if they were never chid or corrected for the neglect of it.”
To my knowledge, Locke is the first modern theorist to emphasize liberty and play as foundational to education. Locke is in contrast to two of the great classical theorists of education, Plato and Augustine, who emphasize compulsion, obedience, and punishment as foundational. In Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, learners are compelled to stand and forced to turn and move toward the light, and Augustine famously said Per molestias eruditio (”True education begins with physical abuse”). A century after Locke, Immanuel Kant explicitly disavowed the view that education should be based on the student’s “inclination” and argued that it should be based on obedience and duty.
So: play versus top-down structure, self-motivation versus compulsion, recreation versus duty, liberty versus obedience. And the debate goes on.
Professor Kline visited Rockford College on Tuesday to give a talk on four major thinkers — Hobbes, Locke, Hume, and Smith — who in large part established the intellectual framework for our modern business world. Kline is a professor of philosophy at the University of Illinois, Springfield. Here is my seven-minute follow-up interview with Kline after his talk.