Archive for March, 2012

In an earlier post I talked about some arguments in Bayle’s Dictionary. In notes to the article ‘Dicaearchus’ Bayle argues against the view that certain material things can think because of the way their parts are arranged. I suggested at the end of that post, rather hesitantly, that one might gloss the conclusion as ‘the only way to be a materialist is to be Spinoza’. That still strikes me as not quite right. But Bayle does provide the materials to construct an argument for a somewhat Spinozistic sort of materialism, one that does not rely on the arrangement of material things to explain why some material things can think.


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At this most recent Central APA, there was a session called “Learning from the Past: Why Study the History of Philosophy?” which I was, unfortunately, unable to attend.  Fortunately, Robert Pasnau’s contribution to that session, “Philosophical Beauty“, is available on his website.  I am fairly sure that everyone I know who works in historical philosophy has, at some point, wrestled with the question of what it is that we are up to when we do historical philosophy, and how our projects are related to a) philosophy, more generally, and b) history, more generally.  I was originally planning to summarize Pasnau’s article and then also discuss my views on the question, but I think I’ll have to save sharing my views for later, and this post is just going to highlight some things that I found interesting in Pasnau’s paper.

Pasnau opens his paper with a puzzle about progress and historical philosophy:

Here is a dilemma for the historian of philosophy: Either philosophy has progressed over the centuries or it has not. If it has not, then what good is philosophy? If it has, then what good is its history? Of course, there are many ways around, or through, this dilemma, but still it will serve as a useful starting point for considering the different sorts of reasons one might have for studying philosophy’s history.

The highroad through the progress dilemma – the road more traveled – holds that philosophy progresses, but only fitfully, and that often the traces of true progress can be discerned only retrospectively, sometimes after a great many years have passed. The historian of philosophy then plays the role of a peasant following behind the harvester, gleaning from the field any stray truths that happen to have been missed by the onrushing course of philosophical inquiry.

I myself have sometimes thought of the history of philosophy in this sort of way – except that it has often seemed to me that the portion of truth left unreaped amounts to more than just a few scattered remnants – that row upon row of choice philosophy has been left unharvested, and that those of us who linger in the past have the luxury of wandering these verdant fields in unhurried peace, plucking from whatever tender stalk strikes our fancy.

Pasnau goes on to note that the highroad approach dictates that the value of historical philosophy is dependent (entirely) on the contributions it winds up producing for contemporary philosophical inquiry.  This makes it a contingent matter whether historical philosophy is worth doing:

For it certainly is possible that our discipline’s respect for the history of its subject amounts to nothing more than a bad case of idol worship – that we are wasting our time propping up these edifices from the past when we should just let them quietly crumble to dust on their library shelves. The noble path through the progress dilemma demands that we take this possibility seriously, because it pins the worth of historical scholarship to the contingent question of whether such research in fact yields philosophical insights. If we had some accurate way of assessing this question, and if it turned out that in fact historical research is not productive in that way, then the noble path would push us toward reforming the philosophical curriculum along the lines of mathematics or physics. Now I think, as I have indicated, that this is a challenge the historian can meet, but even so there seems something deeply worrisome about the noble path. For it strikes me as just absurd to treat the study of philosophy’s history as contingent on whether such study contributes to progress in philosophy today. As confident as I am that such contributions regularly occur, I do not think philosophical historians need to justify their studies in this way. The noble path misses something important about the value of the history of philosophy, and about the value of philosophy in general. What it misses, I now want to argue, is that philosophy possesses a kind of beauty that makes its study intrinsically valuable quite apart from whatever claims to truth it might possess.

The remainder of the article concerns this “philosophical beauty”, which Pasnau regards as a source of value for historical philosophy independent of potential contributions to contemporary debates:

To praise philosophy for its beauty is not to praise it for the pleasure it brings us; on the contrary, it brings us pleasure because it is beautiful. Nor is the beauty of philosophy a function of its capacity to uncover the truth – what we might call its scientific mission. Good philosophy certainly is well suited to that scientific mission, and that mission of course has tremendous value. But good philosophy also has a further kind of intrinsic value, a goodness, even in cases where the truth lies many miles away.

And Pasnau goes on to note that his approach is a way of sidestepping the progress dilemma:

This is not, to be sure, the highroad through the progress dilemma. It is a road less traveled; indeed, philosophers have paid astonishingly little attention to the question of whether philosophy might have some value apart from its scientific mission. Once we embrace this idea, however, we can understand why the progress dilemma should have little grip on the historian of philosophy. Let philosophy progress as much as you like; let the ideas of Aristotle, Aquinas, and Locke be as superannuated and superseded as you please. Still, they are beautiful, and worthy of study for that reason alone.

I am going to stop summarizing the paper at this point, because it is becoming apparent that if I continue in this vein, I’ll simply be posting an abridged version of his paper on this blog.  It is a really interesting paper, and while I am not at all sure I agree with Pasnau’s central claims, I do think the stance he takes is well worth discussing.  It, if nothing else, reflects a strikingly different conception of the field of philosophy from some other, frequently discussed, outlooks.

At any rate, I am curious what other people think of Pasnau’s paper/conception of the value of (historical) philosophy.

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“The being of God may be argued from the desirableness and need of it.  This we see in all nature everywhere, that great necessities are supplied.  We should be miserably off without our light in the night, and we have the moon and stars.  In Egypt and India they are very much without rain, and they have the floods of Ganges and Nile and great deserts.  In Greenland the sun’s rays are exceeding oblique, and he is above the horizon so much the longer to make it up.  Moles have poor eyes, and they have little occasion for them.  Beasts are without reason, and they are guided by instinct that supplies its place as well.  Men are without natural weapon to fight, and they have reason and hands to make weapons.  The young of insects are not able to provide for themselves nor do their dams take care of them, but they, by instinct, are laid where they have their food round about them.  Camels are forced, being in dry countries, to go long without water, and they have a long vessel within them which, being filled, supplies them a long time.  And so it is in everything.”

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Early Modern Mixology

At the request of our blog leader, I submit to you the cocktail invented on the occasion of ‘Malebranche Day’ – a workshop hosted at UCSD this past November. 

The Search After Vermouth

Equal parts: sweet vermouth, dry vermouth, gin, pineapple juice.
Stir, serve on ice. Drink. (Optional: ensure to direct the love excited by the pleasure of its consumption to God, not to the drink itself…)

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Apologies for missing a week or two of posts in the “Sentimental Sundays” series.  I was busy with conference travel, and all sorts of other professional responsibilities trumped blogging.  But I am back with more blogging about Smith’s “Theory of Moral Sentiments”.

Today’s post concerns TMS 1.1.3, “Of the manner in which we judge of the propriety or impropriety of the Affections of other Men, by their concord or dissonance with our own.” (all page citations are to the Penguin Classics edition, edited by Ryan Patrick Hanley).

As indicated by the chapter title, Smith wants to fundamentally ground our judgments of the propriety of other people’s emotions in our sympathetic emotional reactions.  His opening statement actually appears to commit him to something stronger, however:

When the original passions of the person principally concerned are in perfect concord with the sympathetic emotions of the spectator, they necessarily appear to this last just and proper, and suitable to their objects; and on the contrary, when, upon bringing the case home to himself, he finds that they do not coincide with what he feels, they necessarily appear to him unjust and improper, and unsuitable to the causes which excite them. To approve of the passions of another, therefore, as suitable to their objects, is the same thing as to observe that we entirely sympathize with them; and not to approve of them as such, is the same thing as to observe that we do not entirely sympathize with them.  The man who resents the injuries that have been done to me, and observes that I resent them precisely as he does, necessarily approves of my resentment. (p. 22)

Smith goes on to provide several further examples.  Note here, though, that the judgment is identified with an observation about the concord (or lack of concord) between our sympathetic emotions and their emotions.  In a paragraph or so, Smith is going to retreat from this claim slightly, but first, I think it is important to note that Smith draws a comparison to our assessments of the propriety of judgments that others make:

To approve of another man’s opinions is to adopt those opinions, and to adopt them is to approve of them. If the same arguments which convince you, convince me likewise, I necessarily approve of your conviction; and if they do not, I necessarily disapprove of it: neither can I possibly conceive that I should do the one without the other.  To approve or disapprove, therefore, of the opinions of others is acknowledged, by every body, to mean no more than to observe their agreement or disagreement with our own. But this is equally the case with regard to our approbation or disapprobation of the sentiments or passions of others. (p. 22)

There are a couple of things to note about this portion of Smith’s discussion.  The parallel being drawn about agreement/disagreement in emotion and cognition is made by Alan Gibbard (I believe I came across that in “Thinking How to Live”).  Specifically, Smith and Gibbard put forward the idea that there is a common category of agreement that can be applied both to the case of agreement in belief as well as agreement in the conative realm.  However, there is, here, a key disanalogy between the two realms.  In the case of emotion, we have a comparison between the sympathizer’s sympathetic emotion and the subject’s original emotion.  In the case of judgment, we simply compare our original judgment to that of another person.  I don’t know that this will raise any problems, but it is worth flagging.

The second thing that I want to note is that there is an obvious concern for the view, as stated, in both the case of emotions and in the case of judgments:  there seem to be cases of disagreement that don’t prompt judgments of impropriety.  A friend believes it will rain tomorrow, I do not have the belief that it will rain (perhaps because I do not have a belief one way or the other).  But it does not follow that I automatically regard their judgment as improper.  A friend is happy because they are about to go on a camping trip, but I don’t find the prospect of camping that exciting. I do not regard their emotion as improper.  A natural solution to the concern for emotions is to observe that I could be attempting to sympathize with happiness about an upcoming camping trip, but I might also attempt to sympathize with happiness about getting to spend time doing what one loves.  The latter of these would produce concord, the former, not so much (another solution is that I imagine loving camping and getting to spend time camping).  There are concerns about this strategy though:  what is the general rule for determining which circumstance am I supposed to be imagining?  Do I approve of my friend’s excitement about doing something they find enjoyable while also disapproving of their excitement about camping?  I want to raise this worry here, but I am not going to try and address it just yet.

Smith is sensitive to a concerns about his account that differs slightly from the one I just raised:

There are, indeed, some cases in which we seem to approve without any sympathy or correspondence of sentiments, and in which, consequently, the sentiment of approbation would seem to be different from the perception of this coincidence. A little attention, however, will convince us that even in these cases our approbation is ultimately founded upon a sympathy or correspondence of this kind. I shall give an instance in things of a very frivolous nature, because in them the judgments of mankind are less apt to be perverted by wrong systems.  We may often approve of a jest, and think the laughter of the company quite just and proper, though we ourselves do not laugh, because, perhaps, we are in a grave humour, or happen to have our attention engaged with other objects. (p. 23)

Smith goes on to explain that this happens when we’ve experienced enough humor to have some general rules of what sorts of jokes we find funny.  Here, I think it becomes clear that Smith is giving an account on which sympathetic concord is evidential for us.  It can prompt us to form the judgment of propriety, but it cannot be constitutive of the judgment, since we can form such judgments without actually possessing the sympathetic concord.  Thus, when we can conclude that, if we weren’t ourselves in odd circumstances, we would have such concord, we take this, similarly, as evidence in favor of the proposition that the target’s emotional reaction is a proper one.

The other major element of Smith’s view that he draws out in this section is the distinction between an action’s (un)suitability and its (de)merit:

The sentiment or affection of the heart from which any action proceeds, and upon which its whole virtue or vice must ultimately depend, may be considered under two different aspects, or ion two different relations; first in relation to the cause which excites it, or the motive which gives occasion to it; and secondly, in relation to the end which it proposes, or the effect which it tends to produce.

In the suitableness or unsuitableness, in the proportion or disproportion which the affection seems to bear to the cause or object which excites it, consists the propriety or impropriety, the decency or ungracefulness, of the consequent action.

In the beneficial or hurtful nature of the effects which the affection aims at, or tends to produce, consists the merit or demerit of the action, the qualities by which it is entitled to reward, or is deserving of punishment.

I don’t think I’ve yet mentioned that the topic of 1.1 overall is “Of the Propriety of Action”, so it makes sense that Smith is concerned to connect this investigation into judgments of propriety of affections to a system for evaluating actions.  Smith—correctly, I think—observes that we are sensitive to more than intended outcomes of actions, but also to the emotions motivating those actions, when we judge the behavior of others.  Smith gives us his account of the two dimensions of assessing actions:  An action can be termed “suitable” when the emotion prompting it is proper, and the action can be termed “meritorious” when the emotion prompting it aims at/tends towards beneficial ends.

The subsequent chapter (1.1.4) is titled “The same subject continued.”, so we are not done yet with Smith’s discussion of the issue of our judgments of which emotions are proper.  But I will end this post by quoting Smith’s closing remarks from 1.1.3 (and returning to several of these interesting issues in next Sunday’s post):

Every faculty in one man is the measure by which he judges the like faculty in another. I judge of your sight by my sight, of your ear by my ear, of your reason by my reason, of your resentment by my resentment, of your love by my love. I neither have, nor can have, any other way of judging about them.

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