tiistai 12. syyskuuta 2017

David Ricardo: On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation (1817)


The main aim of David Ricardo’s work is to find the natural measure for evaluating different commodities in economy. Ricardo continues in the footsteps of Adam Smith, who had suggested that corn - or more extensively, nourishment - provided such a natural measure, in other words, that one could always determine the true value of a thing by checking how much food one could get with it. Yet, Ricardo pointed out, the value of food fluctuated as much as the value of any other commodity - during a year when fields produced more corn, its value would be considerably lower. If one wanted to use some commodity as a measuring stick for other commodities, one might as well use gold, the quantity of which didn’t change as radically as the quantity of corn. Still, even the value of gold could fluctuate somewhat, e.g. if new mines were found, so even gold was not the best possible answer for the desired criterion.

Ricardo’s answer was then that the true value of a thing was determined by the amount of human work required for producing that thing. For instance, if a machine could be used for reducing the need of manpower in producing corn, the value of corn would be lowered. At first sight this seems like a strange thing to say - surely the value of a thing would have something to do with how much demand a thing has. Ricardo’s answer appears to be twofold. Firstly, he insists that this effect of demand is in some manner built in to his model of value - work of a jeweler is qualitatively more difficult than work of a farmer. This solution seems a bit of a cop out, especially as Ricardo never develops the idea of qualitative differences in work, but in practice speaks only of things that can be easily mass produced, like shoes or corn. Indeed, one might suggest that a growing part of modern economy happens in a qualitatively higher level than mere simple production of commodities, because e.g. design of a thing may raise its value, although it wouldn’t require that much more work to make it.

Ricardo’s second answer is that he is speaking of the natural value of a thing, which may differ from the actual price a thing has in the market. Ricardo’s point is, first of all, based on the hypothesis that prices of commodities, if left to themselves, would inevitably tend to move towards their natural values. For instance, if it would become more difficult to produce corn, more workers would be required for producing the same amount of corn, thus, the person selling the corn would have to eventually raise the price of corn if he wanted to get some profit from his business.

An obvious objection to Ricardo’s suggestion is that the price of work or the wages of workers can also fluctuate. Suppose, for instance, that the population of a country would grow larger through reproduction or through immigration and that there would then be more potential workers than before. In a non-regulated system and with more competition for all jobs, the employers wouldn’t have to pay that much money to their employees, thus making it possible to for them to get more profits with the same products, although the amount of work required for doing something would have stayed same. Ricardo’s answer is simple. Surely once the wage costs of a manufactured good diminish, someone would come to the market and start selling it with smaller price. In time, other producers would be forced to change their prices, if they wanted to remain in the business of selling things. The price of things in general would be lowered and thus the workers would get the same amount of goods with their money, although their wages would have been seemingly lowered.

Ricardo’s explanation makes one suspect that in many cases the eventual behavior of a commodity cannot be so straightforwardly determined or that the so-called natural values might never be reached, except in very idealised conditions. Indeed, there is a clear moralistic tendency in Ricardo’s theory of natural values - government should leave the economy alone and we would soon be in those idealised conditions. One example of this tendency is the Malthusian strain in Ricardo’s ideas. If the wages of workers would be generally lowered, the worker population would diminish, because workers wouldn’t have enough money to provide for a big family. Diminishing population would then eventually then lead to a rise of the wages to their normal level, where a worker has just enough to sustain himself and a modest family. At least in Western world, this Malthusian link between the price of work and the amount of population has broken, because workers clearly have more than enough money for providing for their families and still the population growth has reached almost a standstill. The reason for this, as I pointed out when speaking of Malthus, is that the link between the satisfaction of basic sexual needs and the family size is no longer in effect, because of developments with contraceptives, changes in moral outlook of Western world and other things.

Although Ricardo’s theory is supposed to be true in all circumstances, it is hence evidently built on the context of his own time. One peculiarity is his theory of the rent of land. On some land, production of some good, say corn, is peculiarly easy, on others, it requires more effort. At first, only the lands easy to till are in use, but as the economy grows, even the less suitable lands will be used for farming. The result of this change is then that the landowners of the better lands will start to ask for a rent from the farmers. The worse and worse are the lands used for farming, the more and more grows the rent in the better lands. This whole story Ricardo makes up is evidently meant to apply to the English society, in which the landowners did not till their lands themselves, and indeed, in which the main use for land was farming. In a modern urban society, value of land is determined more by its environment than its use in production - one square piece near or within a buzzling city is far more in value than a good farmland far away from cities.

If Ricardo’s take on rent looks back on the last feudal vestiges in English society, his ideas about the use of machines show how uncertain he still was of the effects of the industrial revolution. In the original edition, Ricardo was certain that the use of machines could be nothing but beneficial for the workers as well the machine owners, because they could buy cheaper commodities. In a later edition, Ricardo corrected himself that this would be literally true, only if workers would still be able to find work somewhere, even if machines took care of production of commodities. He suggested that the best hope would be if the machine owners would start to live like medieval nobility and hire workers to do menial work for them. This suggestion is in one sense ahead of its time, since in the current Western world it is a quite distinct possibility that the number of workers in service sector might grow when the number of workers in industrial sector diminishes. In another sense, it is another sign of Ricardo’s times - Ricardo speaks of individuals as owners of machines, while in modern world, industries often belong to companies.

Ricardo’s individual-centred view on economy is glaringly obvious in his ideas about foreign trade. He states as a certain truth that capitalists rarely move their industry from one country to another, because they are accustomed to the habits and culture of one country. This may well be generally true of individual owners, but when it comes to large companies with no clear single owner, the case is rather different. Indeed, in the globalising world it is not at all uncommon that one company moves its production to a completely different continent, for instance, to avoid large wage expenses. Workers, on the other hand, are often in a situation where such a movement is practically impossible due to just mentioned cultural differences.

If Ricardo’s blindspot reveals an intimidating possibility of a world where global enterprises can take advantage of workers in one country and leave workers of another country completely destitute, one distinction he makes raises a more hopeful possibility. Ricardo distinguishes between value and richness - while value means the relation of commodity to work required in producing it, richness is for Ricardo the collection of all goods and commodities available to a certain nation. Now, he notes that there is no clear correlation between the two quantities. If a nation uses more workers to produce more commodities, the total value of commodities in a nation grows and at the same time the nation becomes richer. Then again, it is quite possible that nation becomes richer without any increase in value, if the commodities produced are made by machines. Indeed, one might say that the common human being is more interested of richness, which is a general indicator of how much goods people have in their use. One might even suppose that the society would become more ideal if it became richer through use of machines - provided that this increase of richness would make everyone richer, instead of filling up only some pockets. In fact, in such an ideal society all commodities would have quite a low value, because of ease in making things.

sunnuntai 27. elokuuta 2017

Henri de Saint-Simon: Industrie (1816)


Saint-Simon’s work forms a kind of synthesis of several strands in the French philosophy around the time of Revolution. Firstly, we might note his enthusiasm for scientific progress. In a manner reminiscent of Condorcet, Saint-Simon describes in his writings the supposed development of humanity from the most primitive stages to the current European society. Remarkably, Saint-Simon, just like Lamarck, supposes that there’s no great difference between animals and humans. Humans just happen to have the best organised societies and by means of this organisation and skills of reasoning based on language they have been able to take control of Earth. If humans would for some reason disappear, another animal species would most likely take over and go through same phases of development - Saint-Simon places his bet on beavers.

The development of humanity, as envisioned by Saint-Simon, follows especially the development of religion. Here, an innovation is first made by a select group in one culture, but it becomes popular only in the next stage of development. Thus, Egyptian priests had already replaced crude magic with complex polytheism, but it was only Greeks who really made polytheism into a popular religion, while monotheism of Socrates was later followed by Christianity. The next stage in this progress of metaphysical systematisation had been gradual replacement of God with the notion of the laws of nature, which would some day, Saint-Simon predicted, be reduced into a single overarching law.

Saint-Simon, just like Maine de Biran, wanted to situate himself philosophically between the schools of speculative rationalism and empiricsism, or as Saint-Simon called them, a priori Platonism and a posteriori Aristotelianism. Like most French philosophers of the time, Saint-Simon favoured the empirical side of the dispute, but noted that a true scientific discourse would need both methods. The a priori side was especially important for Saint-Simon, because it was an important route to the study of human life.

This study of human behaviour, and especially the behaviour of human societies, was were Saint-Simon thought the next scientific breakthrough should appear. Here Saint-Simon’s theoretical interests meet another strand of his thought, namely, his desire for practical changes in the society. Saint-Simon notes that mere theoretical collection of information serves no purpose in human life, but it must happen in interaction with a more practically oriented development of society, which on its part would be completely blind without the guidance of good theories. The first fruit of such an interaction was L'Industrie, a series of pamphlets containing articles from notable scholars on such themes as economy and politics. Although Saint-Simon did not write all of this text, his ideas set the tone for the whole work.

Although Saint-Simon so envisages a sort of symbiosis between theory and practice, he clearly seems to favour the practical side of the equation - the worth of theory lies in its use in practice, not e.g. in pure enjoyment of theory as such. Indeed, he is highly critical of any idlers, who serve no purpose in a society. Although Saint-Simon’s main target are obviously nobles and clergy and he does appreciate e.g. the life of a scientist or philosopher, this evaluation of an individual being on basis of the work he does seems quite peculiar in a time, when technological advancement might make the work of some people completely unnecessary.

Saint-Simon’s dislike of nobles is no secret. Indeed, he takes nobility to be a remnant of feudal times, in which military might was the important factor in social relations. While the economy of ancient Greek and Rome had been based on slavery, the economy of Europe in Middle Ages was based on the control of land and serfs tilling it, while this control was ultimately founded on a historical conquest of Rome by barbarian soldiers. The other side of feudalism was in Saint-Simon’s eyes legalism, which was just another form of control - lawyers merely defined who was to rule whom. Thus, French Revolution, overtaken by legalists like Robespierre, soon plunged into a dictatorship and finally reverted back to feudalism in the emperorship of Napoleon.

A true social change away from feudalism to what Saint-Simon called industrialist society would actually be peaceful, he stated, because its instigators - the class of industrialists or those who did the actual work - were by nature peaceful and understood that war and anarchy is bad for business. Thus, Saint-Simon spoke for a relatively peaceful move away from absolute into a constitutional monarchy, where the state still had a feudalist remnant in the shape of king, while the parliament was a sign of a more modern society. Then again, he thought this form of state would be only a temporary way station toward a truly industrialist society.

If Saint-Simon’s idea of a peaceful reformation of society seems quite idealistic in light of the future events of history, even more naive seems his opinion that the rise of industrialism and abolition of feudalism would obliterate all warfare. Saint-Simon speaks of a union of European states into one constitutional monarchy and quite optimistically hopes that industrialists of England and France would sway their governments into uniting their countries and that the rest of Europe would eventually have to bow to the superiority of these two nations. Saint-Simon did not foresee the rise of nationalism, which would plunge Europe into even more terrible wars and which still hinders a total unification of Europe, even if it seems closer than in Saint-Simon’s days.

keskiviikko 26. heinäkuuta 2017

Arthur Schopenhauer: Of the fourfold root of the law of sufficient reason

1788 - 1860

With Arthur Schopenhauer I faced an important decision on my blogs. Without a shadow of a doubt, Schopenhauer's philosophy belongs to post-Kantian period known as German idealism. Despite his vitriolic rhetorics against them, Schopenhauer has much more in common with German idealists than he cared to admit. World of experience as a mere phenomenon, will or activity as the true reality behind it, art as a pathway to understanding world of experience and partially even the ultimate reality – all of these primary foundations of Schopenhauer's philosophy are themes discussed by some German idealists. Even Schopenhauer's interest in Indian philosophy was nothing unusual for the age.

Despite all the similarities, I simply had to include Schopenhauer as the part of this blog, detailing the development of modern philosophy, because of one crucial element in his philosophy, namely, his pessimism. It is debatable how original even that sentiment was – although the public image of the classic German systems was one of progress, they still showed an inkling of the angst and suffering involved in the human condition. Still, pessimism as expressed by the figure of Schopenhauer was an important instigator for much German philosophy of the late 19th century and beyond, because it forcefully raised the question of the meaning of life to public discussion.

Schopenhauer's first serious philosophical work, Über die vierfache Wurzel des Satzes vom zureichenden Grunde, contains already in nuce many of the important elements of his later work on world as both representation and will. Yet, it seemingly considers a very specific question: the famous proposition, supposedly invented by Leibniz, that all things must have a reason. Even in this work Schopenhauer shows his talent of ridiculing the ideas of his predecessors, often even for no reason. Schopenhauer's main task is to note that while the principle of sufficient reason is correct, it should also be divided into several subprinciples, because the principle as such is quite too abstract to help anyone. This supposed innovation is not that original, because even many pre-Kantian philosophers had criticised Leibniz and his supposed lackey, Christian Wolff, for not noticing that the principle of sufficient reason was actually just an abstraction out of many different principles. Remarkably, even Wolff himself had said that reasons came in many different forms – Schopenhauer himself knows this, but insinuates that Wolff had just managed to make a muddle in his attempt to classify different kinds of reasons.

Even if Schopenhauer was quite willing to make fun of Wolff and companions, he was also happy to just steal their terminology, whenever needed. Thus, Schopenhauer borrows from Wolff the notion of ratio essendi – reason for the existence of something – but changes the meaning of the term, because he is not satisfied with what Wolff meant by it. For Wolff, the actual existence of things is eventually based on God's free decision, while the possible existence of a thing – what something is or would be, if it existed – depends on its essence, which is supposedly a kind of kernel of thing's properties.

As we shall see, Schopenhauer doesn't believe that anything truly new would ever be generated, but he does appear to accept that things in the world around us do have a sort of abstract essence. Yet, unlike with Wolff, this essence is not a conglomeration of basic forces, but instead, the sum of all spatiotemporal properties of a thing. Here Schopenhauer shows his enthusiasm for Kant's idea of space and time as forms of sensation. Primary one of these two appears to be time, where a series of temporal points determines the next one in a very simple manner: if we have four temporal points, they will be followed by a fifth. Schopenhauer is here following the supposedly Kantian idea that arithmetic is somehow determined by time. Just like with time, spatial elements determine one another. The difference is, firstly, that the three-dimensionality of space allows more complex relations, and secondly, that these determining relations are often reciprocal – any two angles of a triangle determine the third angle.

One might ask why Schopenhauer didn't distinguish the temporal and spatial grounding relations, which are clearly dissimilar. His classification seems even more arbitrary, when we look at the next species of grounding relation. When we do not regard merely space or time, but their filled combination – world of experience – we find, Schopenhauer insists, that all spatio-temporal events require a cause that temporally precedes them. This sort of ground or reason Schopenhauer calls, again following Wolff, ratio fiendi, that is, a reason for a change. Note that it is only a reason for change Schopenhauer is here talking about, and since every change presupposes something that remains same, he is confident to draw the conclusion that we can assume the existence of something (matter) that remains same throughout all changes. Since all changes require a previous cause, the series of causes goes on to infinite past, Schopenhauer insists. One might wonder how Schopenhauer argues for these statements, but in a sense, he does not – these truths are just self-evidently true, because they characterise the world we experience, which is just a world as we experience it and not as it is in itself.

Although Schopenhauer then seems to take all kinds of causes as belonging to one class, he does distinguish causes in the living world as different from all the rest of the causes. While a mere cause determines necessarily what its effect will be, a cause acting on, say, a plant, will be a mere stimulus for the plant's own life processes. Even more distinct are such causes in the animal world, which do not merely start a reflex, but make the animal motivated to act in some manner. Peculiarly, while Schopenhauer does not want to make stimuli into a distinct group of grounds or reasons, he does make motives into an independent class. His justification is that we humans experience motives in a different manner from other causes – when we want or desire something, we are conscious of ourselves as an active agent wanting or desiring something. One might ask Schopenhauer if we do not also have a peculiar experience of stimuli causing reflexes. For instance, when the doctor hits our knee, we feel our leg moving and this feeling clearly differs from us seeing a rock fall – yet, we also feel the movement as not being instigated by ourselves or as involuntary.

Whatever the potential faults in Schopenhauer's classification are, we have dealt now with three of his four types of sufficient reason. While these three types concern three different kinds of objects – abstract spatio-temporal figures, concrete physical objects and ourselves as acting agents – the fourth type is more about representations of objects. This is in Schopenhauer's eyes the peculiarly human type of reason, and indeed, concerns our ability of reasoning. To put it shortly, this type is about the question what we can hold as true. The short answer is, of course, that we should have a reason for this. These reasons could be other truths, but here an infinite regress is not possible, Schopenhauer says. Instead, there must be a link to objects of our experiences or at least to the general formal properties characteristing the whole experience.

tiistai 11. heinäkuuta 2017

Maine de Biran: Essay on the fundaments of psychology (1812?)

When I last time considered the philosophy of Maine de Biran, we saw him follow in the footsteps of a tradition of Condillac and Cabanis, when he tried to describe different capacities of human mind considering also the viewpoint of physiology.

In Essai sure le fondements de la psychologie, not published in his life time, Maine de Biran adds to this sensualist tradition of philosophy also considerations of the traditional Cartesian and Leibnizian metaphysics, and what is even more striking, of Kant, Fichte and Schelling. Maine de Biran groups all of these philosophers together as dealing with mere abstractions, instead of the concrete embodied mind, like in the Condillacian tradition – worst example in his eyes is Schelling's philosophy of identity, which tries to start from the notion of existence common to both physical nature and human mind. Yet, he is also quick to point out that the philosophers of abstraction have some interesting contributions to the discussion of the capacities of human mind.

One particular discovery of Kantians Maine de Biran mentions is the remark that Lockean ideas or sensations are not as simple as they appear to be, but consist of two components. One is the affection as such, the mere feeling or mood that we just passively receive in sensations (say, that something greenish in front of us). The other component is the appropriation of this feeling as belonging to me. It is just this act which turns mere feeling into a proper sensation, Maine de Biran says. Human sensation is for him, then, born of two different things. Even Descartes had an inkling of this duality in human experience, when he separated physical nature from human soul – still, Descartes made a mistake in substantialising these two different fields of experience.

But the true innovation in Maine be Biran's eyes is to be found in the Fichtean notion of I and its contrast to not-I. He is not satisfied with mere naming of these concepts, but also notes that the source of this separation lies in human striving and resistance of the environment against this striving. Because of these two elements, we regard some affections a belonging to our body – those we can change easily – while others we view as belonging to space outside us – those that we cannot change so easily. Again, this is a very Fichtean notion, although Maine de Biran tries to give this idea a more physiological twist by situating the striving in human brain.

The hierarchy of different capacities of human mind follows more or less closely Maine de Biran's work on habit, although here it is perhaps a bit clearer that the capacities are arranged according to the level of control the active side of human mind has over the passive side. Thus, perceptions differ from mere sensations, says Maine de Biran, because in perceiving we actively put our attention to some facets of what we sense. This capacity of attending is then basis for various other capacities like making comparisons and making generalisations based on similarities.

The highest state of human capacities for Maine de Biran is then the capacity of reflection. This involves, firstly, capacity of making deductions, which is for Maine de Biran essentially a capacity based on memory – the individual steps of deductions should be immediately convincing and memory just assures us that we have considered all the steps in the process (notice how psychological Maine de Biran's notion of deduction is – there's no consideration of cases where a machine would have made the necessary deductive moves, but we humans couldn't verify the truth of these moves, because the proof would be too long for humans to comprehend).

It is quite clear that such deductions alone cannot furnish any truths, unless some truth would have been given before deductions. Here Maine de Biran faces the very Kantian question of synthetic a priori judgements, and his answers are also quite similar as with the followers of Kant. Maine de Biran suggests that we have some basic experiences, which can be taken as such basis for deductions. For instance, we have a fundamental experience of some resistance, and even more, of resistance situated in space. Geometrical axioms are then mere abstractions from this original intuition.

In addition to mathematics, Maine de Biran accepts the existence of such fundamental experience in metaphysics or psychology. If mathematics is based on our primal experience of what is not me, metaphysics, on the other hand, is based on our primal experience of ourselves – we have the ability to recognise ourselves as existing, which Fichte expressed with the formula I = I. Maine de Biran is quick to point out that we cannot use this primal experience in Cartesian manner to deduce that we would be some sort of ”thinking substances” - following Kant's criticism of paralogisms, Maine de Biran suggests that this would involve confusing our experience of ourselves (thinking) with us as we are in ourselves. Indeed, we are not just thinkers, Maine de Biran says, but essentially also active doers, and we wouldn't know ourselves as ourselves without our active striving.

The main thing one can base on this primal experience of ourselves as active agents, according to Maine de Biran is what Kant would have called categories. We are unified agents and in a sense stable elements of our experience – through abstraction, we can then get such categories like unity or substance. What is especially important is Maine de Biran's idea that we draw the notion of causality from our own acting – we think other things as causes, because we first experience ourselves as active agents and then draw analogies from our own case. Similarly, the account of modalities is generated from our original experience that some things we can freely decide, while others are necessarily decided by other things.

Maine de Biran's work presents then an interesting take on Kantian philosophy. It would undoubtedly not satisfy purist, formalist Kantians, who want to keep Kant completely removed from psychological and anatomical considerations. From a more extensive perspective, Maine de Biran offers a refreshing take on a too familiar philosopher.

sunnuntai 4. kesäkuuta 2017

Jean-Baptiste Pierre Antoine de Monet, Chevalier de Lamarck: Philosophical Zoology (1809)


Lamarck's name has been shadowed by that of Charles Darwin. And yet, Lamarck's Philosophie Zoologique was in modern times the first serious endorsement of the idea that animal species had evolved from one another. There had been ancient philosophers saying something similar, but these suggestions had never really caught on. Instead, the most respected theory in these matters was Aristotle's suggestion that plant and animal species had an inherent power to reproduce themselves – power that might not always work, due to deficiencies in the matter used, leading to the birth of monstrous degenerates – and that they had reproduced themselves forever, just like world had remained mostly similar for all eternity. The only novelty introduced to this theoretical framework was the Christian notion that the world was not eternal, but created by God, just like the first specimens of numerous animal and plant species.

Although the belief in the stability of plant and animal species ruled the field, this did not mean that all species would have been considered equal. On the contrary, animals as such were considered to be more perfect than plants, and human beings, if they were taken as part of animal kingdom, were considered as the apex and ruler of that kingdom. It was also common to evaluate different animal species according to their supposed proximity to humans as the most perfect specimen of animals.

Lamarck's view of organic beings was still closely related to the traditional view. Firstly, he made a sharp demarcation between plants and animals. Animals were characterised by irritability – a fashionable concept referring to the tendency of all animals to respond to stimuli. Lamarck was convinced that plants were characterised by non-irritability, and supposed counterexamples, like mimosa, just had developed mechanisms responding e.g. to weight of external objects. Because of this complete separation of plants and animals, the former did not, according to Lamarck, form a part of an evolutionary line of animals.

It is indeed a single evolutionary line Lamarck appears to have had in mind. His hierarchy of animal species is still quite traditionally one-dimensional, starting from microscopical animals and going through various levels of invertebrates to vertebrates, from fishes to reptiles, birds and finally mammals. Nowadays we know that this is not literally how animal evolution happened – birds did not generate mammals. Indeed, Lamarck's theories feel a bit artificial because of this one-dimensionality. For instance, he has to suppose that after the development of animals into insects, arachnids and crustaceans, this complex organisation devolved into worms, just because worms are in some important sense closer to vertebrates.

What has often been pointed out as a defect in Lamarck's system is his manner of describing the mechanism behind evolution. This is somewhat unfair, since even Darwin did not get it all right in one brushstroke, having no idea of the mechanism behind the inheritance of characteristics, which was discovered later by Mendel.

Lamarck starts from two quite true observations, firstly, that animals appear to transfer at least part of their characteristics to their progeny, and secondly, that individual animals tend to change their characteristics through habituation and influence of external circumstances. He then combines these observations into a hypothesis that through continual habituation and influence of circumstances a whole species will inevitably changes. For instance, because giraffes have for a long time reached for taller and taller trees, their necks have grown to their current size. Although a natural reading of Lamarck's ideas is that he supposed inquired characteristics to be inheritable, it could be that he just suggested that external circumstances and habits of species have a tendency to develop animal species into some direction. What the exact causal mechanism was behind this process was left for later zoologists to fill out.

What was really incredible was Lamarck's willingness to take the step toward making humanity part of the line of animal development. He especially considers chimpanzees as the animal closest in kind to humans and speculates about the possibility of a similar ape species habituating itself to walking upright, using its now free hands for grabbing tools and developing language, which gave the species tools for abstract thinking. Although Lamarck was thus relating humanity to animals, he still endorsed the notion that humans were the rulers of all other animals. Indeed, this special state was in Lamarck's theory not just a gift from God (although Lamarck does retain the ambiguous terminology of nature as a sort of active agent molding animal species), but a product of humanity's own endeavours.

tiistai 18. huhtikuuta 2017

Joseph de Maistre: Essay for the generating principle of political constitutions and other human institutions (1809)


A Savoyard philosopher and diplomat, Joseph de Maistre, is a perfect example of a counterrevolutionary thinker. In his Essai sur le principe générateur des constitutions politiques et des autres institutions humaines, De Maistre outright states that one really cannot create constitutions out of thin air and that anyone attempting to do so will ultimately fail. The primary reason for this supposed fact lies, according to de Maistre, in the general truth that no great things have had great beginnings – this truth is apparently confirmed by experience. Thus, great empires, like Rome, have had humble beginnings, and while there has been no legitimate vote for the first king of a monarchic family, such dynasties have shown their legitimacy by their endurance.

De Maistre links the generation of constitutions with the generation of names. All constitutions involve names of, for instance, government officials with certain duties and powers. In a constitution created by a conscious choice, such names tend to be pompous and ultimately sound quite ridiculous, de Maistre suggests. In a naturally created constitution, on the other hand, the etymology of the names belies the humble origin of these offices – name has grown to its purpose. Then again, de Maistre warns us of confusing names with writing. True constitutions always have important practices that have not been written anywhere – a monarch cannot willy-nilly sentence people to death, but this has not been inscribed in any written document. Written constitutions can at best describe the living practices of a nation, although even such solidification of habits is often detrimental to the welfare of state.

One might object that endurance by itself is no criterion for the goodness of constitution – a state that has the power to maintain its authority might not be a happy one for its subjects. Yet, de Maistre is saying precisely that no popular vote could decide whether a state or indeed any social institution is good. The endurance of an institution, on the other hand, is for him a sign that it has developed through a divine plan, which works sometimes against particular human wishes. Human beings have no right to make constitutions for themselves, since God knows the requirements of human beings better, and especially in case of large countries, monarchies fare better than republics. Humans lack even the right to name the important offices of a state – Adam had the right to give names to things, but this right was forfeited after the Fall.

It is then no wonder that de Maistre sees religion as an essential element of a good state – the most religious states have endured longest, de Maistre suggests. Indeed, religion is for de Maistre the true source of civilization. He is eager to point out that while secular states have merely subjugated American natives, missionaries have been instrumental in turning them into productive citizens. And just like constitutions should be based on tradition, similarly de Maistre thinks that a true religion is always founded of tradition, instead of basing it on some arbitrary declaration of principles – the only such declaration that has lasted is Ten Commandments, which was of divine origin. And it goes without saying that such catholic religion must be ruled by a single person, because it has even more subjects than any secular state.

One must wonder why then France as such a state based on catholic Christianity could have fallen. Here de Maistre makes some speculations concerning philosophy of history. He assumes that great evil can only appear amidst great goodness – and great evil apparently means, in addition to general immorality, especially anti-clerical philosophy. While Greek polytheism was not a great religion, its Epicurean criticism was also of no consequence. Then again, the greatest catholic country ever also had the bitterest rivals of the true source of civilization, namely, the Enlightenment philosophers. Together with the general depravity of manners, de Maistre concludes, Enlightenment was enough to plunge France into chaos.

De Maistre’s conclusions are truly quite in line with his principles, but it is just his principles that we might question. Even if we admitted that God controls the human history and the development of constitutions, we might well ask why these sudden revolutions were not also part of the divine plan. De Maistre does rely on certain general truths, which he supposedly can justify empirically, such as the meager beginning of all great things. One can contest such justification and ask whether de Maistre’s generalization really works, but one can also assume that divinity is not restricted by such empirical generalisations – surely God can bend the rules he himself has set out for history.

sunnuntai 16. huhtikuuta 2017

Charles Fourier (1808): Theory of the four movements and the general destinies


At times one reads a work where the conclusion appear to be - if not completely correct - at least plausible, but the argument is so flawed that one has difficulties to say what to think about the whole. This is particularly true of Fourier’s Théorie des quatre mouvements et des destinées générales, which presents an interesting view of an ideal society, but fails to argue for it in a convincing manner.

The book itself is merely a prospect for a much larger series of works - it just advertises interesting facets of Fourier’s theory, without giving a complete justification for it. Still, even from this brief glimpse it is quite possible to see what Fourier is up to and especially where he must fail. Indeed, what else but a failure could be a work which tried to reduce four types of processes - mechanical movement of planets and stars, organic movement of living beings, animal movement and social movement of humans - into a single all-encompassing formula.

The metaphysical basis of Fourier’s theory is broadly Platonistic. We have three principles accounting for everything in the world: passive matter, divinity, which in Fourier’s ideas becomes little more than just a force providing existence and movement to the universe, and finally a mathematical schema, which God supposedly follows in forming the universe out of the matter. It is especially the third element or the schema of the world, which interests Fourier.

Although Fourier doesn’t express himself in this manner, we might say that Fourier sees the importance of Gaussian distribution for every level of universe - whenever some quality can be expressed as a quantitative scale between two extremes, most of the instances of this quality occur in the middle of the scale, while towards the extremes the instances become less and less frequent.

In the prospect, Fourier is especially interested of expressing human passions in this Gaussian manner. Fourier takes the example of florists. Let us assume that all florists have a passion for flowers. Now, most of the florists are especially interested of certain common middle-of-the-road flowers, which we ordinarily call beautiful, like daffodils, and only quite few florists are interested of certain specialties, like cactuses.

Fourier’s example shows already the problematic nature of his theory. He is keen to see Gaussian distribution everywhere, but in some cases, like with passion for flowers, it is hard to say what would be the two extremes, between which the distribution should exist. In fact, it would seem that flowers and therefore also our passions for them could be measured according to various criteria, leading to quite complex distributions. Indeed, although Gaussian distribution is a real phenomenon, in practice Fourier tries to fit it in too many places, making the more intricate parts of his theory into a mere Pythagorean number magic.

The important consequence of this rather far-fetched theory derives from a further metaphysical assumption - God is good and he has reasons for creating what he does. In the particular case of human passions this means that all the passions within our hearts are good by nature - whatever flowers a florist would want to grow, it is a part of a greater good. Indeed, it is just this variety of passions, which the society should embrace - everyone should be able to follow the calling of her heart. Now, because our society does not do this, but emphasises only the so-called middle-of-the-road passions, it is clearly far from a perfect society, Fourier concludes.

In a perfect society, then, we would have people passionately dedicated to all types of creativity. In fact, Fourier says, in a perfect society each village would have its own Homer and Moliere - and each village would also be filled with all kinds of flowers, one might add. But it is quite evident that in addition to being an example of all types of industries, florists and their passions are also a euphemism for something else, namely, sexuality. Indeed, Fourier is quite willing to admit, while in his time people became bored in their life-long marriages with their first love, in a perfect society we would admit that some people have more diverse tastes and like to sample a variety of persons with different characters.

We might say that this part of Fourier’s world is at least partly already in existence - although the ideal of a single life-long relationship is still endorsed by many, in practice people tend to do what Fourier thinks is more of the norm, that is, they spend their youth trying several people and only after cooling of their passions settle for a single person. We are still somewhat judgemental about people who never settle for anyone or settle for a number of people, but it has become a more viable option. Finally, Fourier even seems to have rightly foreseen the breaking of gender norms, both in sexuality and in life in general - while his main theory is ridiculously classified according to genders, down to having two different types of florists for male and female, he does accept as a biological fact that some members of one gender would have passions suitable for a member of the other gender.

Although the development of this part of our culture has progressed to the direction Fourier fathomed, we are still far from his perfect society when it comes to other parts. Notably, Fourier’s ideal society covers the whole globe and it appears to be heavily state organised - or at least the globe is segregated into small villages or cantons with intricate social structures and containing just enough persons for the development of all types of passions (here we see a perfect example of Fourier’s number magic). Of course, this is not meant to be a centralised dictatorship, but government merely provides the opportunity for every passion to flourish and the rest is done by human nature and its inherent needs.

A further element in Fourier’s theory is that we really don’t have to strive for the perfect society, but it is something that will happen eventually, in the course of time. You see, it is not just the range of human passions where Fourier applies the Gaussian distribution, but the whole human history. Here the distribution gets an evaluative character. The times of imperfect society, where human passions are stilted, are rare in comparison with the time of perfect society. In fact, it is the time of the extreme youth and the extreme old age of humanity in general, where the imperfection exists. This is just what God does even in case of individuals, who are at their prime in the middle of their life, and the longevity of this prime time exceeds the sufferings of the other ages (one might ask whether the inevitable corruption at the end doesn’t bring a sour taste to the life of the perfect age).

In yet another numerological outburst, Fourier suggests that his period is the fifth in the order of times, while the perfect society would start to appear around eighth period. At least in this prospect, Fourier is quite silent about the states between the current and the perfect society (and he has nothing to say about the future periods), but he does make some feeble attempts to account for the earlier history. The first period of human development already begun in a sense from a perfect society, because original humans could follow their passions without any cultural restrictions. Then again, due to the primitive nature of the first society, this paradisaical state of nature quickly succumbed to the forces of nature, such as ferocious beasts, and led to the second period of savagery. Fourier doesn’t really describe this second period that much, because “everyone knows what savagery is all about”, but he appears to refer to a kind of tribal life which native Americans were thought to live in westerns.

Savagery or second period was then replaced by the patriarchal life, found in the Old Testament tales of Abraham and Jacob. Fourier has almost nothing but scorn towards this supposed period, where all power resided in the hands of few men - it was certainly no paradise for women. Patriarchy was then replaced by barbarism - another nebulous period, but apparently Islam with its possibility of polygamy and supposed repression of women should represent that period of time. As one can already see, it is quite hard to put the whole of human history into the shackles of Fourier’s periods, since the assumedly fourth-period Islam was still a living factor in the fifth period Fourier thought he was living, or civilisation. In fact, Fourier himself admits as much, stating that many nations are actually combinations of many periods, for instance, China shows characteristics of patriarchy, barbarism and civilisation.

It is the period of civilisation, which Fourier describes in greatest detail in his prospect. It is in a sense progress, because monogamous marriages were improvement of the life of women, which according to Fourier has often been the sign of process in history. Of course, monogamy is still far from the sexual plurality Fourier endorses, wherefore civilisation cannot be the last stage of human history.

Indeed, Fourier continues, he is living at the declining period of civilisation, which began around the time when European nations started to navigate around the globe. It is especially the economic development where Fourier sees signs of decline. Embezzlements, financial speculations and series of bankruptcies all speak of an upcoming catastrophe, and philosophers like Adam Smith, Fourier ironically notes, speak highly of the economic savagery, which is destroying the civilisation and plunging world into a time of economic feudalism, in which stockbrokers and bankers live like parasites from the work of others.

Although Fourier’s furor against the speculators sounds quite moralistic, he is merely pointing out the flaws in a society, which allows such economical roguery - the individuals themselves are just living as well as they can in an perverted society. As an antidote Fourier regards the inevitably oncoming global government, which should put an end to such misuse of economy through instigation of a new world order. The main obstacle for this eventual unification in Fourier’s eyes has been Great Britain, which has through its position as the world’s foremost sea power used diplomatic means to keep Europe unifying under a single rule. Fourier at a time when Napoleon had been able to unite the nations of continental Europe against Britain, and Fourier was convinced that whichever side won, it would instigate first a European and then a global world order - a most far-fetched speculation in Fourier’s work.