Thursday, June 19, 2014

Jean-Jacques Rousseau



 Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), writer, musician and political theorist, penned the well-known Social Contract in 1762. While his controversial writings contributed to the Romantic Movement and allegedly inspired the French Revolution, he emerged from fairly humble beginnings. He was born in Geneva, Switzerland, 28 June, 1712, the second son of Isaac Rousseau, descendant of French Huguenots, and Susanne Bernard (who died a week after he was born). Young Jean’s Calvinist father went into exile when he was charged with poaching and tried to slash his accuser. Sent by his maternal uncle to a parsonage for basic religious schooling, Rousseau endured the severe straits of harsh discipline that would later form his basis of hatred towards authority. With school finished he attempted a few unsuccessful apprenticeships. The practically orphaned Rousseau (who felt he was responsible for his mother’s death) spent much of his spare time alone exploring his first love, nature, which he escaped to in life as a vagabond in 1728. His wanderings led him out of Geneva to Sardinia then France, where he met Madame de Warens, who for the next ten years provided for him an education and much needed moral support and maternal love. At this time Rousseau converted to Catholicism.

In 1742 while living in Paris, Rousseau hoped to establish himself in a musical career, unsuccessfully proposing a new system of music to the Academy of Sciences. He published musical theory and wrote for the opera, attracted the attentions of King and court, but ended up concentrating on the development of his political theories towards social reform. He also met Therese le Vasseur who became his mistress with whom he had five children. They married near the end of his life.

Portrait of Rousseau

It was not until 1750 that he won his first prize for an essay A Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts, its basis being that man (from his naive state of goodness) had become corrupted by society and civilization's progress. In 1755 he published his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, stating that original man was preferable while isolated from the corruption of social institutions; that vices develop out of a society where man starts to compare himself to others and becomes prideful. His next and most controversial work, The Social Contract (1762) while starting with the opening line "Man was born free, but he is everywhere in chains." suggested that there was still hope for mankind’s future, that he is essentially good, a `noble savage’, if only he realized the importance of a state of nature and worked to disarm the constraints of society. The publication of these two works caused uproar among French Catholics and Calvinist censors who were deeply offended and publicly burnt the books. Orders for his arrest were issued. Enduring this persecution but becoming paranoid and insecure, Rousseau lived in exile in Prussia and later England, to live with Scottish philosopher David Hume for a period of time. He returned to France under a false name after accusing Hume of disloyalty.

 Rousseau claims that human beings were originally 'noble' savagely, largely peaceful, solitary, preoccupied with demands of securing their immediate needs. The problems faced by humanity are actually those of social existence and the inequality it inevitably engenders.Rousseau argues that it was the emergence of private property that that spelt the death knell of noble savage. As soon as the first person claimed ownership of land we were on downward spiral. Civil society followed because of the need to justify and regulate ownership and inequality. The solution he put forward was the use of 'general will'. He argues that once people live in social group , in fixed relations with other people they are no longer absolutely free to pursue their own selfish interests. This modified form of freedom can to retained by agreeing to a social contract, which establishes that every individual member of the group forms part of group's sovereign body. Freedom  then consists in acting in accordance with the 'general will' of the group.

Rousseau continued to work in secret on his Confessions (1764 – 1778), inspired by St. Augustine’s Confessions as well as the Essays of Montaigne. His last opus proves to be a progressively more and more disquieting assay of self-justification, Rousseau seeming to need to plead his case for posterity, confess his sins. As he says at the start of his Confessions, comparing himself to other men, "If I am not better, at least I am different."

Rousseau is considered an Age of Reason or Age of Enlightenment social thinker because he’s rationally investigating and critiquing the status quo (of rulers/ruled, of economic and social inequality, of received tradition in general).But also considered a Romantic Age precursor because of his "back to nature" idea. The notion that civilization itself is the great corrupter and the concept of the "noble savage" largely come from him. It would be easy to call him a discontent whiner. However, a different way of looking at him is to ponder his reflections on how our identities (out of the state of nature) are hopelessly mediated by envy, prestige needs, and so on. Rousseau in essence says we are not ourselves once we enter into "civil" society—we are fundamentally alienated from true being.

There is a long philosophical/social thought tradition in the "Western" world of brooding about a peculiarly Western/modern malaise. It begins with Rousseau and goes thru Sigmund Freud's "Civilization and its Discontents" (the title sums it up) and Karl Marx, whose basic point is about unsatisfactory labor pleasure for the masses of workers in a capitalist economy/culture. And there is also a whole mob of existentialists (Sartre, Camus, Heidegger) who moan and groan about modern "being" (Sartre's big philosophy treatise is called "Being and Nothingness)".Come to think about it: the vast bulk of 20th-century philosophy/social thinking essentially asks the question: are we happy? and if not, why not?

If we strip this being  of all the artificial faculties he can have acquired only by a long process; if we consider him, in a word, just as he must have come from the hands of nature, we behold in him an animal weaker than some, and less agile than others; but, taking him all round, the most advantageously organised of any. I see him satisfying his hunger at the first oak, and slaking his thirst at the first brook; finding his bed at the foot of the tree which afforded him a repast; and, with that, all his wants supplied. The body of a savage man being the only instrument he understands, he uses it for various purposes, of which ours, for want of practice, are incapable. Give civilised man time to gather all his machines about him, and he will no doubt easily beat the savage; but if you would see a still more unequal contest, set them together naked and unarmed, and you will soon see the advantage of having all our forces constantly at our disposal, of being always prepared for every event, and of carrying one's self, as it were, perpetually whole and entire about one.

With respect to sickness, I shall not repeat the vain and false declamations which most healthy people pronounce against medicine; but I shall ask if any solid observations have been made from which it may be justly concluded that, in the countries where the art of medicine is most neglected, the mean duration of man's life is less than in those where it is most cultivated. How indeed can this be the case, if we bring on ourselves more diseases than medicine can furnish remedies? The great inequality in manner of living, the extreme idleness of some, and the excessive labor of others, the easiness of exciting and gratifying our sensual appetites, the too exquisite foods of the wealthy which overheat and fill them with indigestion, and, on the other hand, the unwholesome food of the poor, often, bad as it is, insufficient for their needs, which induces them, when opportunity offers, to eat voraciously and overcharge their stomachs; all these, together with sitting up late, and excesses of every kind, immoderate transports of every passion, fatigue, mental exhaustion, the innumerable pains and anxieties inseparable from every condition of life, by which the mind of man is incessantly tormented; these are too fatal proofs that the greater part of our ills are of our own making, and that we might have avoided them nearly all by adhering to that simple, uniform and solitary manner of life which nature prescribed. If she destined man to be healthy, I venture to declare that a state of reflection is a state contrary to nature, and that a thinking man is a depraved animal.

So long as men remained content with their rustic huts, so long as they were satisfied with clothes made of the skins of animals and sewn together with thorns and fish-bones, adorned themselves only with feathers and shells, and continued to paint their bodies different colours, to improve and beautify their bows and arrows and to make with sharp-edged stones fishing boats or clumsy musical instruments; in a word, so long as they undertook only what a single person could accomplish, and confined themselves to such arts as did not require the joint labour of several hands, they lived free, healthy, honest and happy lives, so long as their nature allowed, and as they continued to enjoy the pleasures of mutual and independent intercourse. But from the moment one man began to stand in need of the help of another; from the moment it appeared advantageous to any one man to have enough provisions for two, equality disappeared, property was introduced, work became indispensable, and vast forests became smiling fields, which man had to water with the sweat of his brow, and where slavery and misery were soon seen to germinate and grow up with the crops.

The savage and the civilised man differ so much in the bottom of their hearts and in their inclinations, that what constitutes the supreme happiness of one would reduce the other to despair.The former breathes only peace and liberty; he desires only to live and be free from labor. Civilised man, on the other hand, is always moving, sweating, toiling and racking his brains to find still more laborious occupations: he goes on in drudgery to his last moment, and even seeks death to put himself in a position to live, or renounces life to acquire immortality. He pays his court to men in power, whom he hates, and to the wealthy, whom he despises; he stops at nothing to have the honour of serving them; he is not ashamed to value himself on his own meanness and their protection; and, proud of his slavery, he speaks with disdain of those, who have not the honour of sharing it. What a sight would the perplexing and envied laborers of a European minister of State present to the eyes of a Caribbean! How many cruel deaths would not this indolent savage prefer to the horrors of such a life, which is seldom even sweetened by the pleasure of doing good! But, for him to see into the motives of all this solicitude, the words power and reputation, would have to bear some meaning in his mind; he would have to know that there are men who set a value on the opinion of the rest of the world; who can be made happy and satisfied with themselves rather on the testimony of other people than on their own.

In reality, the source of all these differences is, that the savage lives within himself, while social man lives constantly outside himself, and only knows how to live in the opinion of others, so that he seems to receive the consciousness of his own existence merely from the judgment of others concerning him.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Descartes:The Father of Modern Philosophy



Philosophy had gone to sleep and no philosopher contributed to any new idea since Aristotle.Rene Descartes indeed was the man to wake up philosophy once again. Descartes was born in 1596, south of Tours in France. Descartes  prepared for life as a lawyer but quickly saw that it wasn't for him. He became a soldier and then something of a wanderer, mixing with people of diverse ranks and temperament. He experienced many testing situation while being with these people, he got into gambling debts and even fought a duel over a romantic connection. After gaining much experience and excitement from life he sequestered himself in Holland for many years where he pursued mathematics, science and philosophy. His work in mathematics and philosophy is of supreme importance. Among other contributions his most important contribution is in analytical geometry. 

The culmination of his efforts is a large treatise called The World , which lays out a general system that Descartes hoped might supersede Aristotle's physics and metaphysics. Among other things it defends heliocentric view of solar system. But just as he was about to publish this work Galileo came with the same view but with great reluctance and so Descartes put the project on hold. Instead he started to publish parts of The World, these parts of his treatise later were known as Discourse on Method. The book proved to be successful not only among  theologians, scientist but also everyday people. People were right there with Descartes in his search for truth. Carefully reasoning  his methods while his model is  mathematics Descartes identified four rules for the direction of thought:

1. Never to accept anything for true which I did not clearly know to be such; that is to say, carefully to avoid precipitancy and prejudice, and to comprise nothing more in my judgment than what was presented to my mind so clearly and distinctly as to exclude all grounds of doubt.
 2. To divide each of the difficulties under examination into as many parts as possible, and as might be necessary for its adequate solution.
 3. To conduct my thoughts in such order that, by commencing with objects the simplest and easiest to know, I might ascend by little and little, and, as it were, step by step, to the knowledge of the more complex; assigning in thought a certain order even to those objects which in their own nature do not stand in a relation of antecedence and sequence.
 4. To make enumerations so complete, and reviews so general that I might be assured that nothing was omitted.

Four years after producing Discourse on Method  Descartes published Meditation on First Philosophy. This book was meant for theologians and men of letters. The book was an attempt to begin afresh by blasting away everything and starting from scratch.


Portrait of Rene Descartes


Descartes’ Meditations are divided into six parts, each of which is numbered and titled according to the subject matter it discusses. 

The first part, labeled “Meditation One: Concerning Those Things That Can Be Called Into Doubt” discusses his view of how to build a rational philosophy from the ground up. According to Descartes, we cannot go through life with whatever views we adopted in our youth and only change them when they begin to fail us. To do so would prevent us from establishing “anything firm and lasting in the sciences” .Instead, we must begin by doubting everything we have learned over the course of our lives until we find a proposition that it is impossible to doubt. Then we must build everything we believe in the future only on what can be proven to be a logical consequence of that proposition. This way we will be certain that everything we believe is absolutely true.However, Descartes’ view of what constitutes “something that it is impossible to doubt” is problematic. Descartes does not believe that those things which are directly perceived through the senses are self-evident. Instead, he concludes that even these must be called into doubt. His argument for the position that the senses can be doubted is that we cannot ever be sure that we are not dreaming, and therefore we cannot know that what our senses are telling us is actually the truth .One could respond to Descartes’ argument by saying that dreams simply do not look or feel the same as reality and it is quite easy to tell them apart. Although Descartes does consider this as a possible rebuttal to his argument, he ultimately concludes that it fails by saying “As if I did not recall having been deceived on other occasions even by similar thoughts in my dreams!” .He seems to think that he has settled the matter at this point. However, it is unclear why he thinks so. Most of us have had dreams in which we have considered the idea that we might be dreaming. If we think back to those times, there were always clues that led us to think such things. Dreams contain a “dream-like” quality that is fundamentally different from waking life. When we are awake, such a quality does not exist and we find ourselves never seriously considering the idea that we are sleeping. As such, Descartes’ argument for the idea that we might be dreaming (and therefore that our senses may not be reliable) is unconvincing.

Nevertheless, Descartes continues with his argument in “Meditation Two: Concerning the Nature of the Human Mind: That It Is Better Known Than The Body.” In this part, he considers whether it is possible to doubt his own existence. After pondering this idea, he concludes that he cannot doubt his own existence since the fact the he is considering whether he exists or not is proof that he does in fact exist. If he did not exist, he could not wonder whether he exists or not. This consideration, along with the idea that the senses may not be reliable, leads Descartes to conclude that we can be more sure of our existence as a thinking being than we can of our existence as a body.


Descartes continues in “Meditation Three: Concerning God, That He Exists”, where he finally gets to the issue of the existence of God. His argument for the existence of God rests on the idea of “perfection”. According to Descartes, it is impossible for anything more perfect to come from anything less perfect. He also states that he has in his mind the idea of  something “infinite, independent, supremely intelligent, supremely powerful, and that created me along with everything else that exists---if anything else exists” .He calls this idea “God”. He then argues that both he and all the ideas he gets from the senses are finite, whereas God is thought of as being infinite. He then concludes that something that is infinite is more perfect than something that is finite, and therefore could not have come from him or the senses. As such, the idea of  “God” must have come from God himself and therefore God does in fact exist. It unclear at this point exactly why Descartes thinks he has a valid argument. Why is an “infinite” being more perfect than a finite one? And what is “perfection” supposed to be exactly? Normally, we say that something is “perfect” in regards to some purpose for which it could be used. We may say that an axe is perfect for chopping trees or a shopping cart is perfect for holding groceries. But what is Descartes talking about when he says that the concept of God is “more perfect” than the concept of himself?  Descartes does not deal with this question adequately. Another argument that Descartes does not adequately deal with is the issue of whether it is really possible to think of an “infinite, supremely intelligent, supremely powerful being.” He states that he has such an idea in his mind. However, he then admits that he does not understand the infinite but that “the nature of the infinite is such that it is not comprehended by a being such as I, who am finite” .It is unclear exactly how our minds are supposed to contain an idea of something that Descartes admits is incomprehensible.The final three meditations rely on the first three in order to reach their conclusions, and so they are less important than the first three in understanding Descartes arguments. Nevertheless, I will summarize them below.

In Meditation Four, Descartes considers the problem of error. Why would God create human beings that are capable of error? Why not make us perfect and incapable of ever being wrong? His answer is that “there is no reason to marvel at the fact that God should bring about certain things the reasons for which I do not understand” .He also argues that there may be some purpose “in the universal scheme of things” to making human beings capable of error .In addition, he states that our errors are caused by the fact that our will extends further than our understanding.

In Meditation Five, Descartes makes a further argument for the existence of God. He states that God is a “supremely perfect being” and that a supremely perfect being cannot be thought of except as existing, since if it did not exist it would lack perfection .This argument suffers from the same flaws as the arguments in Meditation Three, since it relies on the idea of “perfection” and on the idea that a “supremely perfect being” can really be thought of.

In Meditation Six, Descartes argues that we can be sure that material things exist since God would not deceive us about it. In addition, he argues that since we can understand our own mind without understanding or even believing in our bodies, this means that the mind and body are distinct and that the mind can exist without the body.

The end result of this series of meditations is that Descartes reaches the conclusion that the existence of the external world can only be justified by first justifying the existence of God, and thus we can be more sure that God exists than we can that the external world exists.

Descartes says that he used to think of himself as man, as being made up of flesh and bones and having a body. He also thought of himself as having feelings and thoughts, and these he attributed to his soul. But if he thinks about the demon , can he be sure that are these things really 'in' him, genuinely part of his nature? Descartes introduces to philosophy what has become known as Cartesian dualism, the view that mind and body are two different kinds of substances. Descartes argues that causes have to have at least as much reality in them as the effects they produce. So how could something imperfect create something perfect? There is not enough 'reality' in the imperfect cause to create something as monumentally real as perfection. So a finite being like himself couldn't have created the idea of perfect being. Descartes is led to the thought that God must exist.

The existence of God, a good God who is not a deceiver  does a lot of heavy lifting for Descartes. If he is created by God, then he knows that God would not set him up to go systematically wrong when he applies his mind to a problem. On this basis of this foundation and rationalist method Descartes thinks that humanity needs to only get on with piling up the truths about world.