maanantai 22. tammikuuta 2018

Hugues Felicité Robert de Lamennais: Essay on indifference in matters of religion, volume III

Lamennais’ argument for taking Christianity as the true religion was based on four characteristics the true religion should have: unity, universality, perpetuity and sanctity. I talked about Lamennais’ case for the unity of (Catholic) Christianity, which meant essentially just that Christianity did not tolerate any other religions. Even if we accepted such intolerance as a characteristic of the supposed one true religion, the problem is that many other religions share the same characteristic.

Lamennais’ case for the universality of Christianity is based on an almost opposite justification, namely, on the supposed similarity of aspects of other religions with some dogmas of Christianity. Lamennais goes to great lengths in quoting authorities on other religions to show that e.g. belief in one divine creator and an idea about an upcoming savior are accepted throughout the world. Lamennais wants to say that other religions are mere modifications of Christianity and its dogmas. The obvious problem with this line of attack is that one might think Christianity itself is just a modification of the true religion, which might be one of the other religions having these supposedly universal characteristics. This problem is augmented by the fact that some distinctly Christian dogmas, such as trinity or incarnation, are not as universally accepted.

If by universality Lamennais tried to emphasise that Christian dogmas could be found all around the globe, by persistence he meant to say that Christianity, in one of its forms, could be found at all times. This characteristic tied in with Lamennais’ insistence on a chain of authority running through the Catholic tradition, all the way to the supposed creation of humankind. In fact, Lamennais even stated that such a chain could be found in other traditions and noted that many religious thinkers and philosophers emphasised the ancient religious customs as the purest and most suitable for worship of divine. In case of these other traditions, this chain just had at some point broken, by idolatry and materialistic philosophy.

Lamennais’ case for the perseverance of Christianity is, of course, based strongly on the assumption that Bible is a reliable history. We obviously cannot expect that Lamennais would have had any idea of the future findings of archaeology, which make it rather clear that many Bible stories cannot be literally true - e.g. there probably was no great migration of Hebrew nation from Egypt. Even so, many of his arguments for the reliability of Bible are quite full of holes. For instance, Lamennais finds it unconvincing that Jewish nation would have suddenly forgotten its history, when it had been handed from parents to children in an unbroken succession. The obvious problem here is that even if this line would be unbroken, the message might well change, like in a game of Chinese whispers. Indeed, Lamennais notes this possibility in case of e.g. Indian traditions, which shows a clear double standard on his part.

Just as unconvincing as Lamennais’ defence of the reliability of Bible is his defense of Biblical prophecies, especially of those that have concerned events which are now past - because these prophecies came to be true, Lamennais thinks that we can trust that the other prophecies will also. The clear problem is that Lamennais takes it as granted that these prophecies derive from the era of the supposed author of the texts, for instance, that the prophecies of Daniel concerning the rise and fall of ancient kingdoms were reported at a period before these risings and falling had occurred. Yet, one might well make the assumption that such prophecies were actually written after the events mentioned, and in fact, in case of Daniel’s prophecies, it seems clear that their author knows much more about this future history than about the time when Daniel was supposed to live.

The unreliability of Bible in general and prophecies in particular affects also Lamennais’ case for the fourth characteristic of the true religion or sanctity - that is, if Bible and prophecies are full of falsities, it makes it questionable that they and Christianity as a whole would be divinely inspired. We shall return in more detail to the case of the sanctity of Christianity in the next and final post on Lamennais’ work.

tiistai 16. tammikuuta 2018

Hugues Felicité Robert de Lamennais: Essay on indifference in matters of religion, volume II

With the second volume of his essay, De Lamennais enters the region of epistemology. It is especially the question of the foundation of all certainty that interests him. He considers three possible answers to the question, all of which he finds wanting. First of these answers is the classical empiricism, in which certainty is based on sensations - Lamennais calls this possibility materialism. His criticism is predictable: sensations give us no certainty on anything, because we do not know how or even whether they are connected to a thing existing independently of sensation.

The second answer Lamennais considers is idealism, which he says to be exemplified by Berkeley and Kant. This pairing might raise some eyebrows and even more suspect is Lamennais’ suggestion that such an idealism based certainty on sentiment. Lamennais does not offer a serious justification of this characterisation, but one might suspect that it is especially the post-Kantian idea of intellectual intuition as the method of philosophy, which lies behind his suggestion. In any case, Lamennais can quickly note just that sentiment is no better a foundation than sensation, because different people have diverse sentiments of same topics.

The final answer is Cartesian dogmatics, which in Lamennais’ opinion bases everything on reasoning. Although Lamennais regards dogmatics most favourably of the three answers, he is quick to point out that all reasoning must have some starting point or use some axiom which is not based on further reasoning. Thus, even reason is no final answer to the question of certainty and Descartes must accept the bane of Pyrrhonian skepticism.

Having denied the validity of these three answers, Lamennais introduces his own solution. Certainty, he says, cannot be based on thoughts of a single individual, but this does not mean that it couldn’t be based on a group of individuals. Indeed, Lamennais insists, whenever we are arguing and come to a standstill, we ask the opinion of other people. In other words, it is the intersubjective criterion of authority, which Lamennais takes as the foundation of certainty. There is certain feasibility in this ideas, since e.g. when discussing a difficult scientific theory, we are more likely to accept the opinion of an expert than that of a layman with a clear feeling about the correct solution, because the expert is more of an authority than the layman. Still, what we could consider an acceptable authority and what Lamennais considers it to be are two different things.

It is then no wonder that when Lamennais starts to consider the existence of God that he uses the common opinion of all humanity as a proof of this existence. He does mention more meatier proofs, notably what Kant called an ontological proof - surely God must exist, since he is just “that who is” or the epitome of all existence, which must exist, never mind what else there is. So convinced Lamennais is of his authorial justification that he puts all the other proofs he uses in a footnote.

The existence of God is not just some very theoretical statement, which doesn’t concern human life, Lamennais thought. Instead, a number of important truths follow from the existence of God, he said. Notably, humans, created by God, must have some laws governing their nature, just like all things, and furthermore, they must follow these laws of their nature, if they are to find true happiness. For instance, Lamennais noted, human beings need to know the truth, but as he supposedly showed, all truth is based on authority and ultimately on authority of God himself, who is supposed to know all the truth.

The purpose of Lamennais’ argument is then clearly to show that human beings need a relation to God, in order to satisfy their own yearning for truth. The relation of human being to God, then, is obviously meant to be the defining moment in religion. Yet, not just any relation to God satisfies Lamennais, but he insists that there is only one proper religion, since the natures of human being and God are not variable - they are like two puzzle pieces that can be combined in only one manner. This means that all the other supposed religions are then just falsifications of the one true religion.

The next question is obviously then what criteria we should use for discerning this true religion and distinguishing it from all false religions. Lamennais considers again the possibility to use sentiment or reasoning as a criterion - apparently sensation just has nothing to do with religion in Lamennais’ eyes. Both possibilities are easily shown to be unfeasible. Sentiment cannot be the basis of one religion, since different cultures have had different feelings about the true religion, while reason is again incapable of fending off doubts even about the simplest truths.

The only possible option left, Lamennais insists, is authority, this time of the society. God has created human being as an essentially social entity, who has to find his certainty through education given by others. Since this flow of education cannot be infinite, it must end at a stage where human beings were directly educated by God himself - hence, the need for revelation.

It is to be expected that the true revealed religion Lamennais has in mind is Christianity in its Catholic form. In the next post I shall enter into more details of the justification Lamennais gives for this thesis, but we can already note the emphasis on the unity on religion - a clear statement against any tolerance of opinions. Indeed, Lamennais is quick to dismiss all pagan religions because of such a tolerance of different viewpoints, which appears to be the worst form of idolatry. Furthermore, he regards almost all non-Christian religions as such an idolatry. The only exceptions are Judaism, which Lamennais thinks was just a temporary phase in the development of true religion and is now just a lifeless husk, and Islam, which he considers to be just another heretical form of Christianity.

torstai 28. joulukuuta 2017

Hugues Felicité Robert de Lamennais: Essay on indifference in matters of religion, volume I (1817)


It is always interesting to find thinkers who in their later life completely reverse or at least significantly modify their thoughts in some manner. Catholic priest de Lamennais is an example of such a thinker. While he was originally quite conservative in his opinions, disparaging French Revolution as a destroyer of traditional social and religious values, later on he would become a devout democrat, who would attempt to combine Christianity with a more liberal attitude toward affairs of state.

De Lamennais’ four-volume work, Essai sur l'indifference en matière de religion belongs still to the conservative period of his thinking. He is evidently inspired at least by de Bonald, whom he quotes approvingly several times in the first volume. But while de Bonald emphasised more the role of society, de Lamennais focuses on religion and especially the battle of philosophy against it.

Just like Chateaubriand earlier, at least in the first volume of his work de Lamennais does not even try to give a theoretical argument for the truth of religion in general and Catholic Christianity in particular, but he merely emphasises the practical need for religion. All humans strive for happiness, de Lamennais begins his apology. Yet, any being can be happy only if it satisfies laws of its own nature. A presupposition of this step in de Lamennais’ argument is that it must be possible that a human being can live without satisfying those laws - thus, fatalism must be simply false, de Lamennais says, because in a fatalist world we would all follow the laws of our nature and be happy, which is clearly not the case. Of course, one would easily make this argument collapse by choosing a completely different criterion for human happiness, such as pleasure and pain. Still, if we follow de Lamennais a step forward, we notice that to become truly happy we must know our place in the world, as designed by God, which is the job of religion.

Although individual human happiness is then one thing that de Lamennais uses in his defence of religion, it is especially the social benefits of religion - and particularly of Christianity - which he takes as his primary justification. All societies have been based on religion, and the longer the mores of a society have been in touch with the original religious consciousness, the longer it has lasted. Especially noteworthy in de Lamennais’ eyes is Christianity, which has stabilised and civilised Europe since the fall of Rome - and like Chateaubriand, de Lamennais is quick to compare the havoc caused by French Revolution with the education of Paraguay by Catholic priests.

From modern perspective one might note that Christianity has also been one of the forces stifling the development of society, but for de Lamennais this objection would not be valid, because he is still quite enthused about the conservative ideal of society, in which people are bound in a clear hierarchy, with different obligations and authorities assigned for different classes and genders. The philosophical counterpoint - the story of a pact made to form a society - is not favoured by de Lamennais, because it essentially confuses authority given by divine power with the force of majority to make others follow the laws dictated by them (of course, one might ask, what is meant to be the basis of divine authority, if not the supposed infinite force behind it).

One common enemy of Christianity and liberal politics de Lamennais find in slavery, which cannot really be tolerated. Yet, even here de Lamennais finds the policy of Catholic Church much more reasonable than the attempts of philosophical reformists - while latter try to change the state of African slaves in one enormous upheaval, Church tries to educate men to stop taking people as slaves. One might think that while such slow reform can often be pragmatically best option, it is quite peculiar that Church as the supposed mouth of God in the material world still renounces its own principles and advocates for a pragmatic solution.

The opponents of the Church de Lamennais divides into three categories, all of which are in some measure indifferent to the importance of religion. The first and clearest of these are atheists, who turn their back completely to God. While atheists would nowadays just deny the worth of religion, the supposed atheists of French Enlightenment might have been of different opinion and they could have admitted that religion is a useful tool for upholding society. Or at least de Lamennais says they have admitted this, mentioning at least Voltaire’s quip that he wouldn’t accept atheists as servants (we can ignore for now that Voltaire most likely wasn’t an outright atheist). De Lamennais finds in this attitude a sort of inconsistency, but upholding publicly what one deems as false is not a real contradiction, just a lie - and perhaps such an atheist could say that lies might be necessary and hence acceptable in the matters of society.

A further problem de Lamennais finds in the assumption that religion has been expressly invented as a deceit when creating the first society - such an invention would already require a society, for which it should have been basis. Yet, one need not either take religion as a conscious invention or suppose its divine origin. Instead, we might suppose that religions have grown accidentally from pre-social experiences and interactions of human beings and thus can fail to be true descriptions of the relation between humans and the supposed divinity, while still having an important role in the growth of civilization.

The second category of opponents includes deists, the foremost example of which for de Lamennais is Rousseau, as expressed by the speech of the Savoyard priest in the book Emile. Deists accept the existence of God, but they deny the need for any specific revelation, embodied expressly in the figure of divine mediator or Jesus. De Lamennais follows the official Biblical announcement that Jesus is the only true way toward knowing God and thus easily concludes that deists can really know nothing about God. Their only supposed source for the knowledge of God is human reason, but that is in de Lamennais’ eyes a fickle thing and something prone for errors, as shown by the fact that no two philosophers can agree on the nature of divinity. De Lamennais even uses Hume to show that reason can really say nothing about the existence of God, thus suggesting that deism just paves the way for straight atheism. The only content left for religion in deism is ethics, but this is especially something that cannot be decided by reason, de Lamennais insists, as shown by different customs of different nations. De Lamennais’ work reeks of an attitude where deism is not taken seriously, but is regarded as a mere lightweight substitute for religion - an attitude that doesn’t understand that religiousness can be embodied also in uncertain searching for something divine and not just in a faith founded on strong foundations.

Considering the Catholicism of de Lamennais, it is no wonder that the third opponent of true religion for him is protestantism in its various forms. If atheism tried to severe humans from God and deism from Jesus, protestantism attacks the relation between individual and church. One might think that this is a too severe judgement, because the protestants do have churches also, but it is more the unity of church de Lamennais is talking about. While Luther or Calvin might just have wanted to reform the original church, what they managed to bring about was a number of petty congregations, squabbling with one another. The problem in the whole reformist attitude, according to de Lamennais, is practically same as with deism - it tries to replace Catholic tradition with individual reason and conscience. What de Lamennais criticizes is the multiplicity of possible individual opinions on faith and God, while it is just this tolerance of individual opinions we might cherish as the true benefit derived from Reformation.

torstai 14. joulukuuta 2017

Antoine Destutt de Tracy: Elements of ideology, parts 4 and 5. Treatise on will and its effects (1815)

The unfortunately final piece of Destutt de Tracy’s Elements of ideology seems like a patchwork or a combination of disparate parts. Firstly, Destutt de Tracy uses the occasion to introduce a supplementary topic that should have been included somewhere in the first three parts of his work, namely, probability. The aim of this supplement is merely to show that probability requires no independent science of its own, but instead, all sciences should contain a part which deals with uncertainties.

The topic of the book proper is volitional part of human consciousness. Just like in his study of the cognitive side of consciousness, Destutt de Tracy divides his topic into three different parts, yet, he now also begins with a general introduction for all of these parts, dealing with will in general. We have already seen that Destutt de Tracy regards will as a completely passive faculty - it is mere perception of what one finds preferable or what one desires. We have also noticed that Destutt de Tracy considers our self-conception to arise from this volitional perception - we identify these preferences as belonging to ourselves, whereas all hindrances against attaining the preferable seem contrary to ourselves. Despite this rather passive view of volition, Destutt de Tracy admits that there is something active in human nature, namely the muscular system, which serves as our means for fulfilling our desires.

Going somewhat further with the basic concepts, Destutt de Tracy introduces such familiar notions like richness, freedom, right and duty. Richness means for him simply owning things one finds preferable (one wonders how this definition could be used as a basis for actual measuring of one’s riches). Freedom, on the other hand, is for Destutt de Tracy merely the absence of any constraint for one’s actions (what later would be called negative freedom).

Even more peculiar is Destutt de Tracy’s idea that desires determine our rights. Simply put, he says that all basic rights come back to the fact that living entities should have the right to fulfill their desires - a somewhat rash statement, since surely then many rights of different people would clash with one another, like the desire of having some slave serve you would contradict the slave’s desire of walking freely. Similarly, all duties should be determined by our actual means of obtaining things (one might suppose that Destutt de Tracy thinks here that one is morally obligated to use all means to gain what one desires).

The first part of the general science of volition Destutt de Tracy calls economy, which he defines as a study of human actions. Evidently, he is not speaking of just individual actions, but of the actions produced by the society in general. Indeed, Destutt de Tracy indicates that group work is a necessary ingredient in human manner of doing things, since it gives certain advantages to everyone, such as the ability to let each person concentrate on one aspect of a certain work process.

Destutt de Tracy goes even so far as to suggest that society can be divided into three classes according to the parts of a general scheme for all work processes. That is, since all work processes require at most three types of people, a theoretician knowing the general laws governing world, applicationist knowing how to apply theories and a practical person performing the actual work, society should be divided into three parts: scientists, entrepreneurs and workers. In practice, Destutt de Tracy quickly incorporates scientists into the workers, or generally, hirelings of entrepreneurs, and he also introduces a third class of sterile owners, who get their money e.g. from rents and do not actually produce anything new.

Why are the renters then sterile? This statement just reflects what for Destutt de Tracy is the goal to be sought in economy, that is, the production of useful things. This seems quite a materialist dream, although obviously a lot might depend on what is meant to be useful. Unfortunately, Destutt de Tracy’s answer just avoids this issue - the utility of something is evaluated by the number of sacrifices one is willing to make to obtain it. We seem to be walking in circles here - we should do things that are valuable, but valuable are just those things we are willing to do most.

The more we get to the details of Destutt de Tracy’s economy, the more quaint it appears. He divides the work to be made into two different types - the one or industrial produces new things (Destutt de Tracy includes agriculture in this type), while the other or commercial moves things to where they are most needed. It is very notable that the service sector is altogether missing from Destutt de Tracy’s scheme, which just accords with his notion of where the true value in economy lies. Indeed, the only place where he speaks of service work is in connection with the sterile renters, who pay for other people to serve their needs. Since such a service does not produce any new goods, Destutt de Tracy condemns it as a mere luxury, which just consumes the wealth of the society.

It is not surprising that Destutt de Tracy thinks government resembles more the sterile property owners who merely consume without adding to the wealth of society. State in his eyes is just a necessary evil, and indeed, its only function appears to be just to protect its citizens from other states. The inevitable conclusion then is that the state budget should be restricted as much as possible and that the state should not meddle with the economy any more than it needs to. One can raise many obvious objections, the foremost being that there is no a priori reason why state couldn’t also be productive in the sense demanded by Destutt de Tracy; it is then a different question whether such a state-controlled production of goods is as effective as private production, but since he is not treating this as an empirical question, neither need we. Furthermore, we might well also ask whether state could not have other important functions, not involving production of goods, such as construction of infrastructure, education etc., which are handled by many modern states.

Despite the rather right-wing attitude toward state and his enthusiasm for the entrepreneurs, Destutt de Tracy does not forget the salaried workers. Although he does state that some inequality of wealth is almost inevitable, inequality is still unjust and an inherently wrong state of affairs. Despite this, he still denies that the poor would need any special economic policy. Instead, the general development of economy should help also the salaried workers, by giving them more work and cheaper goods.

What developments Destutt de Tracy then expects of the economy? His general attitude is anti-mercantilist in that he advocates for a completely free foreign trade, which in his opinion just serves to combine all parts of the globe, moves goods to where they are most needed and incites even internal trade. He is also somewhat Malthusian, because he thinks population shouldn’t increase unless the means of sustaining them also increase - unemployment does no good for workers. Despite these at the time modern attitudes, deeply conservative is his idea that valuable metals, gold and especially silver, are the only possible form of currency and that especially paper money just encourages swindling and causes disturbances in the economy. One might hear people proclaiming nowadays that we should return to gold standard, but Destutt de Tracy speaks for an even great leap backwards in history. He is again speaking especially for the workers, who apparently are best served by stable prices - this would be a controversial statement nowadays, when a low, but steady inflation is taken as the best state in economy.

Although Destutt de Tracy has emphasised more the means of action instead of its goals in his economy, he might have said something about the latter in the fifth part of his ideology, which would have covered morality, by which he meant the study of human emotions. Indeed, Destutt de Tracy himself suggested that the two books would have been complementary, regarding the same topic from different viewpoints, in a manner reminiscent of Adam Smith. Unfortunately, Destutt de Tracy managed to write only a small part of the beginning of morality, leaving his whole ideology unfinished.

What Destutt de Tracy did manage to complete was an introduction to the book, describing his view on the metaphysical underpinnings of our will in particular and our personality in general. He endorsed the idea of Cabanis that one’s physiology in large part determines what one is like and especially what one fancies and desires. Interestingly, Destutt de Tracy still in a sense upheld the Leibnizian pre-established harmony. Of course. his interpretation of it was rather original - Destutt de Tracy suggested that Leibniz had tried to express the notion that within human body happen some yet unobserved movements, which cause both our experience of wanting something and the corresponding perceivable movements of body attempting to achieve what is wanted. Indeed, if one just replaces Leibnizian soul with the far less ontologically loaded consciousness, this interpretation appears not that far-fetched.

When it comes to the actual emotions of a human being, Destutt de Tracy managed to just begin a chapter on love, which he called the most positive emotion possible. One might speculate that love might have offered him a similar basis for goal of human being as general sympathy did for some British moralists, but this is all a mere speculation. Even less to say we have of the planned sixth part of ideology, which would have completed the section on volitional part of human consciousness. We do know that this part would have dealt with the art of governing societies, but since we have already seen that Destutt de Tracy wanted to restrict the role of government, it would probably been quite a short work.

torstai 16. marraskuuta 2017

Antoine Destutt de Tracy: Elements of ideology, Third part, Logic (1805)

The main feeling after reading the third part of Destutt de Tracy’s magnum opus is one of futility - why did he have to write the book or at least why did he have to use so many pages for it? The main point of the work is so simple and could have been said in far fewer words.

Destutt de Tracy’s first point is that traditional logic has followed a completely misleading route. The aim of logic should have been to find the ultimate reasons why we sometimes stumble into error and methods for avoiding such errors. After Aristotle had put so much effort in classifying the various species of valid syllogisms, every logician was under the impression that these rather quaint formulas were the essence of logic, although they were sterile and quite useless in producing new truths.

Destutt de Tracy’s second point is that the true source of certainty can actually be found in the two previous parts of his ideology. All human thinking is just sensation, and in a sense, all sensations are as such reliable. Although this might appear rather far-fetched, Destutt de Tracy’s point appears to be simply that when we sense or experience something, we are certainly having that experience and something either outside or inside us is making us experience things in that manner. This means especially that simple sensations of things present are a completely reliable source of knowledge - if we sense red, then we are sensing red and something is making us sense red.

An error comes into the picture only with judgement. There’s no question about it that we sense red and that something makes us see red, but the question is can we say what this red-sensation-making thing is and whether it is even an object outside us or just some hallucination inducing state within us - or, to take another object, if we see a crooked stick, whether this sensation of crookedness is caused by a truly crooked stick or by a straight stick together with the refraction of water.

Now, judgements are also, Destutt de Tracy said, sensations - they are experiences of one idea being connected to another idea. Thus, there is no particular reason why judgements as such couldn’t be as reliable as ordinary sensations. For instance, if we note that a certain sensation must be produced by an external object, because it resists our efforts to change it, we can be fairly certain that this judgement is reliable.

The reason making certain judgements unreliable, Destutt de Tracy suggests, is essentially our bad memory. We have a sensation and are convinced that this sensation resembles sensations we used to have. If our memory of these earlier sensations were faulty, we would then be in error. Since all our general concepts are just abstractions from earlier sensations, according to Destutt de Tracy, this source of error can easily cause much damage in our cognitive state.

“Base your knowledge on present sensations and try to avoid faulty memories” is then the simple answer to most questions of logic - Baconian empiricism is the solution to everything. The only other thing we need to take into account is the role of language, since most of our cognitive processes happen through words. Indeed, when we learn things just through reading - a favourite point of ridicule, of which scholastics used to be accused - we are just having sensations of certain signs, which have the ability to induce in us some ideas, although these ideas might have no resemblance with our direct sensations. Language is thus another possible source of misinformation, but it is also a possible source of correct information, as long as we just know the semantics of the language used.

And this was it! No further methodology is required, Destutt de Tracy appears to say, and a more cynical reader might ask if experience and semantics is truly enough for finding new truths, although they are undoubtedly good tools for avoiding errors.

Apparently just to add some more pages to his book, Destutt de Tracy chose to give a general outline of what his ideology should contain. Despite its supplementary nature, this is by far the most interesting piece of the work. The three books Destutt de Tracy had published thus far formed only the first third of the whole ideology, or in more detail, the part dealing with human cognitive capacities. Even in this part Destutt de Tracy had noticed that human beings had something beyond mere cognition or sensations, namely, active drives, which we sense as volitions. The second part of ideology should then be formed by the study of our volitional side. Since this part of ideology Destutt de Tracy managed to at least partially publish, I shall not handle it now.

The third planned, but never published part should have then dealt with things external to humans. As we saw already with the first part of Ideology, Destutt de Tracy thought our belief in things external to us was based on our volition and especially on the feeling of resistance we have, when we are prevented from getting what we want. This resistance and its various kinds form then in Destutt de Tracy’s view the basis on which physical sciences would have to be founded.

In addition to physical sciences and concrete bodies, this third part of ideology would deal with the abstraction of distance, which we measure with our movement. Thus, we get the ideas of spatial dimensions and shapes, which form the topic of geometry.

Finally, the third part would have to deal with the imaginary world of numbers, which we create from the abstraction of units and an imagined collections of such units. On basis of this simple beginning can be built more and more complex ways to manipulate numbers, which retain their certainty because of their connection with these original notions of unit and addition and because of precision involved in mathematical language. Despite this world of numbers being completely imagined, Destutt de Tracy said, it could be used in real world, just because and when we could find suitable items to take as units.

Next time, we shall see the conclusion to the story of ideology.

keskiviikko 1. marraskuuta 2017

Antoine Destutt de Tracy: Elements of ideology, Second part, Grammar (1803)

Although second part of Destutt de Tracy’s grand work is supposedly about grammar, it is more a book about language in general. Thus, it contains, among other things, an account of the genesis of language. Destutt de Tracy thinks that human beings come with a natural language, consisting of cries, signs and tactile impulses. One might find here a delightful admission that a language need not be aural, but could be something like a sign language or Braille writing. Yet, Destutt de Tracy does not really develop the implications of this idea and considers only speech as a fixed and conventionalised modification of the original language of action

In a quite believable manner Destutt de Tracy considers the original speech to consist of individual expressions indicating whole sentences, somewhat like a child could cry “Milk”, when she wanted to drink milk. The development of language means then a sort of analysis of parts implicit in these original interjections. First, Destutt de Tracy says, language users differentiated a subject from verb, making subject-verb the general form of all language. Here, subject indicates an existing thing and verb signifies its mode of existence (e.g. “Bob runs” says that a thing indicated by the name Bob exists runningly). With the invention of the general and neutral verb “being”, it is possible to abstract attributes or adjectives, which are otherwise like verbs, but lack the idea of existence. Further developments include the introduction of more complex noun and verb forms through the use of prepositions and the capacity to subjunct sentence to other sentences with the general conjunction “que” (that) and later with other, derivative conjunctions.

One can see from this short summary of Destutt de Tracy’s account of grammar that he is engaging in a sort of attempt at universal grammar in the fashion of Chomsky. As with Chomsky, the problems in Destutt de Tracy’s account are evident when one looks beyond the restricted number of languages he considers. One can e.g. argue that subject-verb is not the general form of all sentences (indeed, there are languages, in which subject is not required at all and one might insist that in sentences like “It rains” there is no real subject) and that verbs do not always convey the idea of existence (like when one is discussing fictional things).

It is not just the generation of grammar in speech Destutt de Tracy considers, but also the generation of written signs representing speech. It had been a pet idea of 18th century thinkers like Leibniz that a system of ideogrammatic symbols, like Egyptian hieroglyphs or Chinese characters, which represented complete ideas, would be a perfection of written language, since it would allow turning language into a direct calculation. By the beginning of 19th century, this idea had lost its charm, since ideograms were so obviously difficult to work with. Destutt de Tracy considered them to have a stunting effect to a culture of a nation - ideograms formed a sort of second language, which required years of learning and the use of which was thus restricted to a certain class.

Destutt de Tracy was thus convinced that phonogrammatic symbols, like regular alphabets, which represented sounds of speech, were more suitable for development of sciences. Still, he did not believe that alphabets would have developed out of hieroglyphs - so certain he was that a culture with ideogrammatic writing could invent anything. Instead, he regarded alphabets as an alternative line of development. While hieroglyphs were invented for the purpose of expressing ideas, Destutt de Tracy insisted, alphabets were invented for the sake of music, which required signs by which to indicate different sounds in singing. Although a rather beautiful idea, it is most certainly quite false, since e.g. Hebrew alphabets were a direct development out of Egyptian hieroglyphs.

Just like Destutt de Tracy appeared to dream of a universal grammar, he was also keen on finding a universal alphabet, which would be able to represent all kinds of sounds used in human languages. It doesn’t require much consideration to notice how utterly unmanageable as a practical writing tool such a universal phonetic system would be. Indeed, when one looks at phonology of a single language, one sees how utterly confusing it might even be - a single language doesn’t use all possible sounds humans can produce, and in fact, some sounds are alternatives, which to a language user sound just like arbitrary variations of the same sound (phoneme, in technical terms).

Destutt de Tracy actually isn’t so bold as to suggest that all languages in the world should start to use a phonetically perfect alphabet, because he knows that such innovations would not be easily accepted by the majority of language users. Indeed, even a more modest attempt to turn the writing of a given language into phonologically perfect terms, in which one phoneme were represented by a single letter, might be quite difficult to achieve. In fact, what Destutt de Tracy suggests is to use this phonetic writing as a tool for language learning - if words were written with such phonetic signs, one could instantly know how to pronounce a word of foreign language. Of course, even this is a bit too idealistic notion - even phonetic signs don’t teach you to actually pronounce the required sounds, let alone make speaking a language completely natural.

On the whole, Destutt de Tracy is critical of any idea to artificially construct a more perfect language, in which one could just calculate what connections of ideas are true - another pet idea of Leibniz. Destutt de Tracy admits that such a language can exist in a limited setting, such as algebra, but it could never form a complete and living language. Even if one would be able to overcome the resistance of the common people, one would still face a great obstacle. The very structure of thinking varies widely from one person to another and there is no guarantee that two different persons would have even remotely similar ideas of the same things. Thus, in building a perfect language, one would not have any single system of ideas to represent. Indeed, the best one could do in aiding thinking was to cultivate a science of good thinking or logic - the topic of the next part of the series.

torstai 12. lokakuuta 2017

Antoine Destutt de Tracy: Elements of ideology, First part, Ideology in the proper sense (1804)


Destutt de Tracy is a figure I should have considered far earlier. His influence especially on Maine de Biran’s philosophy is remarkable, but even Ricardo borrowed a few quotations from his work. His probably most important work, Élémens d'idéologie, was originally meant as a textbook for the growing citizens of revolutionary France. The work and especially it first part on Idéologie proprement dite was intended as a sort of theory of theories, that is, a kind of methodological bedrock, upon which all the other sciences could be founded.

The name of the science, which Destutt de Tracy supposed to have found, ideology, refers back to Lockean term “idea”, which described the elements of human mental life - ideas was whatever we happened to have in our minds while thinking something. Thus, the primary question of this science of ideology, for Destutt de Tracy, was what we do when we happen to think. His simple answer was that all thinking was actually sensing, where sensations could be had not just of things outside us, but also of our own internal states. In a sense, one can undoubtedly ascribe to this idea - if by sensing we mean being aware or conscious of something, certainly when we are pondering something, we are conscious or aware of this something. The major unanswered question is whether this description merely loses some essential differences within our mental life - that is, whether being conscious of what lies in front of our eyes isn’t quite different from being conscious of, say, memory of what lied before my eyes yesterday.

Indeed, de Tracy himself admits as much, when he divides sensations into four different species: sensations proper, memories, judgements and volitions. Still, even here we find that de Tracy emphasises more their unity than their diversity. Firstly, he quite correctly points out that these four types rarely occur in isolation, but an individual experience is often a combination of many sorts of sensations - when we perceive an apple, we may also remember the taste of other apples, judge that the taste of an apple would be pleasant and desire to eat this particular apple. Secondly, de Tracy constantly emphasises that even memories, judgements and volitions are still just sensations. This insistence makes de Tracy’s idea of judgements and volitions especially peculiar. Judgements, he says, are nothing but sensations of agreement between other sensations or ideas. That is, judgement is not an active assertion of such an agreement, but just a passive perception of it. Similarly, volition is not for de Tracy an act of wanting something, but merely a passive perception of a need.

De Tracy appears to be quite oblivious of the possibility of describing mental life as consisting of acts rather than through mere concept of awareness. This ignorance might well be behind his opinion that all other supposed species of thinking or mental life reduce to the four basic types. For instance, attention is, according to de Tracy, no independent form of sensation, since it is just quantitatively differentiated sensation proper, in which some part of a sensation has greater vividness than other parts. Or deduction is on his opinion just a concatenation of many judgements. One might object that attention is quite a different act from mere perception or sensation - it is an active concentration on some part of sensation - while reasoning or deducing is quite a different act than mere judgement - it is an act of justifying one judgement through others.

Despite de Tracy’s rather passive notion of sensation, he does not completely forget the active side of human being. Instead, he speaks of active muscular movement as the other necessary ingredient of human life. This muscular movement is peculiarly connected with the type of sensations called volition - when we move voluntarily, we feel both a desire to move in a peculiar manner and at the same time the actual activity of our muscles. This combination forms our sense of self. On the other hand, when we feel that our movements are hindered, we conclude at once that this hindering is caused by another existing thing. Our activity is then our only link to the existence of other things.

Since the existence of other things is revealed especially through movement, de Tracy takes them to be especially characterised through attributes relating to movement. They can be moved, but they also resist attempts to be moved, and together these two features imply that they can also impart movement to other things. Space and time are then in a sense abstractions from movement. Duration is generally something pertinent to all processes, including movement, and duration becomes time, when we choose one type of movement - for instance, apparent movement of the sun around earth - for measuring how long some processes take. Distances are compared according to how long it takes us to traverse them with a constant effort, and when similarly a scale of measure is applied to them, we get a metric space. Because all things we can experience have limits in space, we get different shapes and can do basic geometry.

Something which Maine de Biran was to investigate was more detail was the influence of habit to our different mental faculties. Still, we can find some basic details of Maine de Biran’s theories already implicit with de Tracy. Habit makes mental activities easier and at the same weakens the vividness of the sensations - we can do more, but we are less aware of doing it. Indeed, one might ask if in this description de Tracy is implicitly accepting the idea that mental acts are something completely different from mental awareness and that both are necessary ingredients of human mental life.

The final chapters of de Tracy’s work provide a link to the following parts of Ideology. He investigates the use of signs in general and language in particular. De Tracy notes that we have a sort of natural language, consisting of gestures and interjections. Yet, it is only a proper language, in which the use of sounds and inscriptions is codified, that lets us truly think beyond some simple sensations - for instance, we couldn’t really understand mathematical truths, unless we could speak of units and their sums. But this is already more appropriate topic for de Tracy’s next book on grammar.