Archive for August, 2015

Margaret D. Wilson

Margaret D. Wilson

Jeff McDonough has retrieved a crisp general audience talk by Margaret Wilson on Pascal and Spinoza, titled “Pascal and Spinoza on Salvation:  Two Views on the Thinking Reed”. The lecture was published in the Harvard Graduate Society Newsletter (Fall 1992: 8-13). Framing her lecture as addressing ‘a central humanistic issue’, Wilson surveys Pascal’s and Spinoza’s views on reason, passion and how to achieve salvation.

Some excerpts:

‘Both Pascal and Spinoza express in their writings a strong sense of urgency about finding the correct values and commitment in life, about being saved, together with an implicit conviction that there is a unique and universal right answer to be found.’ (p. 9)

‘At the heart of both Pascal’s and Spinoza’s conceptions of the situation of man in nature is the contrast between man as a finite being with strong egoistic drives, but brief duration and limited powers, and nature as vast, all powerful, limitless, infinite, and completely incommensurable with human purposes.’ (p. 10)

‘Both philosophers also stress that as finite and dependent beings, we are subject to endless external emotional influences and disturbances. These perturb our reason and constantly affect our state of mind, our sense of pleasure and misery, in ways we may be powerless to control or even to understand. To this extent, it is part of human nature to be “wretched”, as Pascal often puts it, or to be subject to the “bondage” of the emotions and of inadequate understanding, in the terminology favored by Spinoza.’ (p. 10)

Wilson observes three key differences between Pascal and Spinoza’s attitudes. These concern: (1) their view on reason’s power (or lack of it) to ‘remove us from the state of wretchedness or bondage’; (2) their respective conceptions of happiness or salvation; and (3) their account of the role and appropriateness of fear—in particular the fear of death. Wilson states:

‘Pascal believes that a correct and reasonable perception of our position in the universe naturally and appropriately produces terror. (…) Spinoza would regard Pascal’s outlook as unenlightened, morbid, and weak.’ (p. 12)

The talk ends with a number of evaluations, including the following:

‘The central problem for Spinoza’s position is that he does not provide a clear or persuasive account of the notion of absolute rational insight on which it depends. (…) In some respects, Pascal’s position seems the more accessible and believable. True, Pascal may have exaggerated the impossibility of human beings fathoming by sense and reason the infinities of nature. Our powers of extending our knowledge have not proved so easily daunted or radically hedged as Pascal apparently imagined. But it seems to me, he still looks to be more nearly right than Spinoza and some other seventeenth-century rationalists in his claims about reason.’ (p. 13)

Read the full lecture here.


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Three things

Markku Roinila has updated his Leibnizian Resources page, which links to Leibniz texts and all sorts of other online material. That link goes to the front page, which lists the many updates. I notice that the Texts page includes links to all the online Academy edition volumes, including the preliminary Vorausedition and transcription files.

Secondly, it’s amazing what you find when you type ‘Spinoza’ into the youtube search box. Among other things, this video of a talk by Susan James, “Why Should We Read Spinoza?”, in which she talks about Spinoza’s theory of emotions, and uses that to think about the emotions of the historian of philosophy.

Thirdly, this post by Miriam Burstein, Updated Advice to Graduate Students on the Fine Art of Buying Books (in the Age of Digitization), is certainly relevant to the history of philosophy.

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The Modern Tippling Philosophers

Lest you think that Plato and Monty Python were alone in imagining the philosophers drinking, I’ve presented below (for your amusement) a poem by James Beattie in which he jokingly attributes modern philosophers’ shortcomings to their fondness for drink. (James Beattie is not the English footballer but the eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher who mostly sides with Reid against Hume and wrote the Essay on Truth.) The poem can be found in a collection of his poetry, dialogues, and miscellaneous writings, which is available here and elsewhere in various editions. I’ve identified elided authors in brackets.

If you want the highlights, I recommend the verses on Descartes, Mandeville, and Huygens.

“The Modern Tippling Philosophers”

Father Hodge had his pipe and dram,
And at night, his cloy thirst to awaken,He was served with a rasher of ham,
Which procured him the surname of Bacon.
He has shown, that, though logical science
And dry theory oft prove unhandy,
Honest truth will ne’er set at distance
Experiment aided by brandy.

Des Cartes bore a musquet, they tell us,
Ere he wish’d, or was able, to write,
And was noted among the brave fellows,
Who are bolder to tipple than fight.
Of his system the cause and design
We can no more be posed to explain:—
The materia subtilis was wine,
And the vortices whirl’d in his brain.

Old Hobbes, as his name plainly shows,
At a hob-nob was frequently tried:
That all virtue from selfishness rose
He believed, and all laughter from pride.
The truth of this creed he would brag on,
Smoke his pipe, murder Homer, and quaff;
Then staring, as drunk as a dragon,
In the pride of his heart he would laugh.

Sir Isaac discovered, it seems,
The nature of colours and light,
In remarking the tremulous beams
That swom on his wandering sight.Ever sapient, sober though seldom,
From experience attraction he found,
By observing, when no one upheld him,
That his wise head fell souse on the ground.

As to Berkeley’s philosophy—he has
Left his poor pupils nought to inherit,
But a swarm of deceitful ideas
Kept, like other monsters, in spirit.
Tar-drinkers can’t think what’s the matter,
That their health does not mend, but decline;
Why, they take but some wine with their water,
He took but some water to wine.

One Mandeville once, or Man-devil,
(Either name you may give as you please)
By a brain ever brooding on evil,
Hatch’d a monster call’d Fable of Bees.
Vice, said he, aggrandizes a people;
By this light, let my conduct be view’d;
I swagger, swear, guzzle, and tipple;
And d——— ye, ’tis all for your good.

———[David Hume] ate a swinging great dinner,
And grew every day fatter and fatter;
And yet the huge hulk of a sinner
Said there was neither spirit nor matter.
Now there’s no sober man in the nation,
Who such nonsense could write, think, or speak:
It follows, by fair demonstration,
That he philosophized in his drink.

As a smuggler even P——[Priestly] could sin,
Who, in hopes the poor gauger of frightening,
While he fill’d his case-bottles with gin,
Swore he fill’d them with thunder and lightning.
In his cups, (when Locke’s laid on the shelf)
Could he speak, he would frankly confess it t’ye,
That, unable to manage himself,
He puts his whole trust in Necessity.

If they young in rash folly engage,
How closely continues the evil!
Old Franklin retains, as a sage,
The thrift he acquired when a devil.
That charging drives fire from a phial,
It was natural for him to think,
After finding from many a trial,
That drought may be kindled by drink.

A certain high priest could explain,
How the soul is but nerve at the most;
And how Milton his glands in his brain,
That secreted the Paradise Lost.
And sure, it is what they deserve,
Of such theories if I aver it,
They are not even dictates of nerve,
But merely muddy suggestions of claret.

Our Holland philosophers say, Gin
Is the true philosophical drink,
As it made Doctor H———[Huygens] imagine
That to shake is the same as to think.
For, while drunkenness throb’d in his brain,
The sturdy materialist chose (O fye!)
To believe its vibrations not pain,
But wisdom, and downright philosophy.

Ye sages, who shine in my verse,
On my labours with gratitude think,
Which condemn not the faults they rehearse,
But impute all your sins to your drink.
In drink, poets, philosophers, mob, err;
Then excuse, if my satire e’er nips ye:
When I praise, think me prudent and sober,
If I blame, be assured I am tipsy.

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