perjantai 28. marraskuuta 2014

George-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707 - 1788)

Buffon himself
If one wants to investigate the development of biology into its modern shape, one must surely study the works of Buffon. Including him in a discussion of philosophy might seem less reasonable, but considering the importance of Darwin's theory of evolution to a modern way of thinking and Buffon's value as a step towards Darwin, his inclusion seems more understandable.

Buffon's main work is Histoire naturelle, a huge, multivolume study on such varied topics as cosmology, geology and biology. Going through all of these volumes would be an arduous task, and so I've chosen to read only a selection of what should be especially philosophical portions of Buffon's works. Even in comparison with this selection, my post will be just a quick summary of some interesting features found in Buffon's writings.

We might begin from Buffon's methodological remarks. Buffon sets out himself between what he considers two faulty extremes. First of these extreme was symbolised by Aristotle, who according to Buffon had no real method at all in his biological writings – he just enumerated arbitrary observations on the behaviour of animals, without trying to make the observations into a coherent system. The other extreme, on the contrary, tried to use an artificial, rigid and external classification for making sense of the living world – Buffon mentions especially Linné as a representative of this group. Buffon's own attempt is to find natural classification and systemification of nature. Of course, one cannot just directly start from such a classification, but one can still try to proceed toward such a classification – man-made classifications are only a starting point, which must be constantly compared with empirical data.

A good example of Buffon's reliance on empirical data is his attitude towards the history of Earth. While some of Buffon's contemporaries still tried to fit Earth's development with the account of Genesis, Buffon wanted to justify his view of Earth's history more through proper research. Of course, he still wasn't ready to throw out all of the Bible and accepted, for instance, the idea of a worldwide deluge. Yet, he didn't base this idea merely on Bible, but also noted how fossils of sea animals could be found on dry land.

Fossils were indeed an important piece of evidence for Buffon, because they show that animals of previous times have been different than they now are – elephants of ancient times (mammoths, that is) were considerably larger than they current counterparts. Buffon still isn't an evolutionary thinker, but believes that there has been a fixed number of species since the generation of life on Earth. These species could have varied in their features and especially they might have degenerated, like elephants have become smaller – earlier Earth had more vigour in producing animals, Buffon explains. Still, no truly new species is ever born. Here he justifies once again his statement through fossils – all species of current times have been found from fossil sources.

Although Buffon believes in the fixedness of certain genera of living things, he does think there is a certain continuum of life. For instance, he suggests that there is no clear division between plants and animals, because certain entities, like corals, share features of both animals and plants. Somewhat inconsistently, Buffon then insists on a leap from the level of animals to the level of human beings. While animals are irrational, human beings are rational, and there cannot be any middle road between irrationality and rationality. This very traditional division implies, according to Buffon, that while for animals mere satisfaction of physical desires is enough, human happiness relies on harmony between reason and sensuous impulses.

The most intriguing aspect of Buffon's thought is then how he manages to unify quite revolutionary ideas with some rather traditional and even conservative thoughts. Earth and especially its living denizens have a history, but this history does not entail that all species are related to one another.Living beings form a continuum, but humans are still far removed from other species.

As most of Buffon's works concern rather specific questions of biology and other particular sciences, I shall leave my account of his work to this rather general level and turn again to American philosophers.

torstai 11. syyskuuta 2014

Étienne Bonnot de Condillac: Essai sur l’origine des connaissances humaines (1746)

Enlightenment thinker Condillac (1714 - 1780)

If one wanted to name one philosopher as the strongest influence on works of abbé Condillac, it would clearly be John Locke, which is shown well by Condillac's first book, which investigates the origin of human knowledge. Almost all other modern philosophers are discarded, because they have based their philosophies on abstract principles, which Condillac considers to be a completely topsy-turvy method, because such principles are usually the most difficult topic to master properly. Condillac makes especially fun of Christian Wolff's metaphysics: Wolff defines e.g. existence as a complement of possibility, although this statement tells us almost nothing about existence or possibility, and indeed, fails to note that existence is actually the more fundamental notion.

It is then no wonder that Condillac instead wants to begin with what we experience. Experience provides us with ideas, which we then can use as building material for further ideas (e.g. we can abstract the idea of horseness from ideas of individual horses, or we could combine idea of a headless body of a horse and idea of human head to form the idea of centaur). It is by analyzing the genesis of our ideas that we make them clearer and gain a better understanding of what we actually know, while of abstract principles and concepts we usually have only a very murky idea. This is all very Lockean, as is the division of ideas into simple (certain shade of green) and complex (green apple).

What Condillac develops more than Locke is the psychological framework of different mental capacities required for turning perceptions into knowledge and complete science. What is truly remarkable is Condillac's attempt to reduce all mental phenomena into nothing more than sensation and attention. It is undoubtedly to be expected that according to an empiricist sensation would be the origin or basis of knowledge, but it truly appears radical to say that sensation is almost all there is to human mind. Thus, we sense things and we can choose some object as the focus of our sensation, but we can also focus our attention on the fact that what we now sense is something that we have sensed earlier – this is just what memory is about and therefore, Condillac concludes, memory is just another form of sensation.

Now, I find this reduction of all mental faculties into sensation deeply problematic, because there could be organisms that sense, but still fail to have e,g. memory. Such an organism could, for instance, note the presence of a certain chemical, detrimental to its condition, in its environment and then react with a movement taking its backwards, away from the source of that chemical. There's no need for any memory, just an unpleasant feeling and an automated reaction to that feeling. The existence of such an organism would be even evolutionarily reasonable, because this capacity would greatly enhance the survival of such an organism.

Indeed, a capacity for memory appears to require something else – some way to storage features of past sensations. Of course, this requirement of memory storage seems more imminent in a materialistically grounded theory of consciousness. Condillac, in yet another move away from Locke, commits himself to a non-materialistic theory of soul, and for reasons that strikingly remind one of Wolffian psychology: self-consciousness just cannot be explained through a complex substance. It is probably more reasonable to suppose that to such an immaterial soul it is just a matter of directing your attention to view some sensation as resembling past sensations.

Yet another area in which Condillac goes beyond Locke's philosophy is the role of language, which Condillac admits is almost a necessity for more abstract ideas and required, for instance, in advancing mathematics beyond simple calculations. Condillac even provides the reader with a hypothetical history of forms of language, starting from what Condillac calls a language of action, by which he apparently means a language using natural gestures and cries for communicating one's thoughts and emotions to others.

It might be that Condillac understood the importance of language from the example of ”wolf kids” who had grown up outside human communities and learned language only later in their life – at least this is a topic Condillac was quite interested of. It might also be an inspiration for Condillac's main work, in which he experiments with the idea of a person born without all the senses and upbringing of an average Frenchman – but this is a topic I'll return to later.

sunnuntai 3. elokuuta 2014

D'Alembert: Traité de dynamique (1743)

Jean le Rond d'Alembert is a name more often heard in a history of mathematics than in a history of philosophy. Yet, his connections to the world of philosophy in French Enlightenment are not non-existent, because he was one of the editors of the famous Encyclopédie, an encyclopedia meant to cover all human knowledge of the time. D'Alembert was particularly entrusted to care for all the articles engaged with natural sciences, but he also wrote a preliminary discourse explaining the purpose of the work and also engaging with some philosophical underpinnings of it and presenting a general framework for all sciences.

Jean le Rond d'Alembert

The book I am engaged with here belongs on the surface to d'Alembert's more scientific works, as even the name suggests. In effect, the purpose of d'Alembert in this treatise is, firstly, to present some fundamental principles for movement of material objects, such as inertia, and secondly, based on these principles, to solve some tricky problems, in which, for instance, the velocity of a body hanging from a thread is to be determined.

The topic of d'Alembert's treatise is then something that modern students of physics might find useful to consider. On the other hand, d'Alembert's method of presenting his result has some quaint elements, which show his work to belong to a transitional period between a geometric presentation of Greeks and algebraic presentation familiar in modern mathematics and physics. This is firstly shown by d'Alembert's assumption that everyone knows truths that have been demonstrated by Euclid in his Elements, as he without any explanation refers to a property of a circle that if two lines AB and AC are drawn from the same point A outside circle so that AB touches the circle on B and AC goes through a point D of the circle and then cuts circle also in the point C, then the square of the side AB equals a rectangle formed by AD and DC or AD x DC. While a modern student of mathematics might even have some difficulties following this description, let alone being convinced of it, any connoisseur of mathematics from d'Alembert's time would instantly recognise this statement as the proposition 36 in the third book of Euclid'sElements.

Even more clearly this transitional nature is seen in d'Alembert's habit of embodying quantities like velocity, time and others with lines, which for an eye unused to geometric way of presentation seem to have no connection with each other, although one acquainted with this method could see what mathematical relation the different lines are supposed to exhibit. Then again, in more difficult cases d'Alembert prefers algebraic denotations of mathematical relation. What makes it all even more confusing is that while d'Alembert clearly had an inkling that some quantities (e.g. forces) have a direction, neither the geometric presentations nor algebraic formulas clearly distinguish between scalar and vector quantities. Add to all this the rather muddled view of infinitesimals at the time, in which e.g. differentials of various levels were represented by lines that are supposed to be infinitely small, and a modern reader is bound to feel some puzzlement.

Philosophically most interesting part of the book is, as is often the case with such treatises, the preface. Here we find d'Alembert's take on the muddled question of ”living forces”, seemingly physical problem that still interested such philosophers as Descartes, Leibniz and Kant. The controversy itself started from the apparently obvious notion that something remains same in various interactions of bodies, such as collisions and that this same element would represent the quantity of motion itself. Descartes, among others, had suggested that this must be what is nowadays called momentum or mv, in which m means mass of the bodies involved and v their velocity. Some people, such as Leibniz, objected that what is conserved is actually a more intricate quantity, ½(mv^2). Leibniz also asserted that this quantity expressed a living force of the moving bodies themselves, while momentum was connected only with dead forces affecting bodies externally.

D'Alembert strategy, at least in the first edition of the treatise. is to deny that there is any true controversy. Momentum is conserved in momentanous collisions of bodies, while Leibnizian quantity of motion is conserved in cases where e.g. a medium continuously resists the movement of a body. Now, the case of a resisting medium can be regarded as an infinite sum of infinitely small collisions, which mathematically means that Leibnizian quantity of motion must be an integral of momentum, as it truly is. Which one to take as the more essential expression, d'Alembert concludes, is just a verbal quibble.

Although d'Alembert's solution is, as far as I know, quite correct, it also expresses a more general tendency of disregarding all philosophical problems as verbal quibbles – something quite common for modern scientists. This tendency is shown by d'Alembert also with a question concerning the status of physical laws : are they necessary or contingent? D'Alembert attempts once again to show that both sides are in a sense correct: laws of physics are contingent, because world could have worked according to different laws, but they are also necessary, if you take into account the empirical evidence about the motion of bodies. D'Alembert fails to notice that he has actually endorsed one side of the dilemma – contingency – and rephrased the other side, so as to fit with the first side. Furthermore, from a modern viewpoint, he has accepted a rather strong position . Not many would accept that empirical data would fit in with just one physical theory and thus necessitate it.

So much for d'Alembert, next time another philosopher from French Enlightenment.

torstai 31. heinäkuuta 2014

Benjamin Franklin: Two Dialogues between Philocles and Horatio, concerning Virtue and Pleasure (1730)

A student of philosophy might think that American philosophy sprang straightaway from the heads of Charles Peirce and William James or even that before Quine nothing of note happened at the other side of Atlantic. Undoubtedly philosophy in America cannot have as long roots as philosophy in Europe, but it still wasn't as recent innovation as it might seem. Indeed, the Founding Fathers of United States have often been described as philosophers. Admittedly, they are far from systematic and scholarly philosophers, and many of them might be better characterised as men of letters, concerned with things like the relation of an individual and a society and the role of religion in modern state. Furthermore, instead of a theoretical framework, their main achievement is of a more practical nature, that is, the constitution of the independent United States of America.

Historically important, but where they philosophers?

One of the Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin, is especially famous for having founded the American Philosophical Society. Yet, the name is somewhat misleading, since by philosophy often all kinds of learning were meant in those days. Thus, American Philosophical Society might well be considered a republican version of the British Royal Society. In this sort of philosophy Franklin was, of course, famous, as is proven by the description of him often found in history text books – holding a kite and waiting lightning to strike it.

At least the tale's good for dramatic portraits

Franklin's collected works take up ten volumes, getting to know which I am not going to spend all my time, especially as Franklin seems to have no clear major work engaged with philosophical issues. Instead, I chose a short dialogue explicitly concerned with such philosophical issue as good life. The dialogue was published, when Franklin was quite young, so it should definitely not be seen as his final statement on the topic.

The participants of the dialogue are called Philocles and Horatio – I am not sure if Franklin chose intentionally a Greek and a Roman character or whether he just couldn't tell the ethnicity of the names. Whatever the case, Horatio is clearly presented as a traditionally Epicurean character, caring only about pleasures, while Philocles opts for a loftier standpoint.

It comes as no surprise that Franklin sides with Philocles. Yet, his strategy is not to disparage pleasures altogether, but only to argue for a hierarchy in pleasures: some pleasures are inherently better than others (John Stuart Mill would later become famous for saying something like that). Horatio of the dialogue, on the other hand, assumes that there is no objective criterion for the worth of pleasures and that everyone must decide for themselves what pleasures are worth pursuing.

Franklin lets Philocles attack Horatio by stating that certain pleasures will lead to unwanted consequences: a man spending all his money and health on intense sensual pleasures will become economically and physically broke in very young age and have no viable alternative, but commit a suicide. This unwanted end can be prevented, Philocles continues, only through self-denial, that is, by avoiding such intense pleasures. Further in the dialogue, in its second part, Philocles then sets out his own alternative: while sensuous pleasures are always fleeting, altruistic pleasures arising out of helping other people are lasting and should thus be pursued.

One can at first point out that Franklin's dialogue is far from a theoretical work on metaethics, but instead is very down-to-earth, discussing practical mores and not high-blown principles. Even more, the outlook of Franklin is utilitarian: what makes altruism viable is the pleasure it produces. While I find sympathetic a position that defends altruism for increasing pleasure (altruist is happy not just of his own good luck, but also of the good luck of others), Franklin's argumentation has still some glaring holes. He concentrates on good works improving the condition of others. But what if everyone already lives in a content state, how then to improve their condition? Furthermore, it seems obvious that such an altruistic enjoyment is dependent on the enjoyment of another human being and that ultimately this series of enjoyment must end in some independent enjoyment, which does not depend on enjoyment of another human being – that is, non-altruistic enjoyment. In other words, while altruism can multiply pleasure, it cannot be its only source.

Even more suspect is the argumentation in the first part of dialogue. Franklin want us to conclude that a short life full of intense pleasures is inherently worse than a long life with less intense pleasures. Yet, if the only criterion of the worth of a life is its pleasantness, it could well be that a sum of intense pleasures during a short life would exceed a sum of less intense pleasures during a long life – just like a rectangle with a short base and a long height could have greater area than a rectangle with a longer base, but shorter height.

Furthermore, Franklin's suggestion that it is always better to deny some pleasure, if it leads to better life in the future, is somewhat misleading. Consider a person who always leaves half of his year's earnings unused, in order to have a decent fortune that would sustain him in his old years. If this person dies now in his sixtieth year, without ever having used the fortune he had collected, the fortune never really served him, and on the contrary, he had to life a paltry life because of his savings.

This is all I'll say about the dialogue. Next time I shall turn my eyes from the Founding Fathers of USA towards thinkers of French Enlightenment.

keskiviikko 30. heinäkuuta 2014

A new beginning

I began blogging about history of philosophy because of very selfish reasons. I had this foolishly ambitious notion of reading through majority of what had passed as philosophy, starting from ancient Greek and all the way to modern times. I thought that by writing down in concise form the content of my readings, I could have some concrete results from my effort and if I would load it to Internet, I would have a convenient storage place for accessing my writings, if I ever wanted to go back to them. With that end in mind, I began my first blog, ”Philosophy for ignorants”, where the ignorant of the title was supposed to be myself.

This blog is still an ongoing concern, although I quickly noted that my reading rate – few pages of a book in one day – was abysmally slow in comparison with the texts themselves, which often discussed several books and perhaps even several authors at a time.

As times went by, I started to be a little annoyed that I might never get round to my true field of expertise, that is, German idealism. The solution was obvious: I began a new blog, ”The rise and fall of Germanidealism”. From the very beginning, the new blog was meant to be much more scholarly. While the texts of my first blog were mostly just summarized compilations out of the works of various philosophers I had read, together with some notes as to some general remarks on historical matters, the new blog was supposed to contain more detailed analysis and exegesis of individual works, often in several blog posts, and occasionally even some comparisons with themes in modern philosophy.

The more scholarly approach also required a more extensive choice of source material. When compiling my original blog, I used to concentrate on the more important philosophers and on the more important works of those philosophers (well, I did read the whole Aristotelian corpus, just for the fun of it), but in the German idealism blog I wanted to be real thorough and check out all the minor philosophers and minor works of the period I just could get my hands on easily. This thoroughness meant also a change in languages I chose. My knowledge of ancient Greek is rather poor, so in my first blog I eagerly used translations. Because my capacity to read German was fair (and Latin, well, I just might learn Latin by reading the texts), I chose to use nothing but original materials, especially as most of what I was going to read had never been translated to English.

After a couple of years of writing two blogs, I again got a bit annoyed that I would never reach current philosophy, which was a theme I saw I should know more about. The natural answer was to start yet another blog, dedicated this time to modern philosophy. And here it is then.

When it comes to the level of scholarship, I wanted to avoid the intricate exegetics that I would eventually engage with in my German idealism blog. Instead, because many of the questions asked by the authors would still be relevant, I wanted to share more of my personal opinions of the matters discussed by them. Generally, the level of scholarliness would be somewhere between my other two blogs. I would certainly try to read all the works in the original language (we'll see if French will prove to be an obstacle, since it's been a decade since I've truly read anything in French). Furthermore, I did want to include more obscure authors, but still only on a general level, taking only a single outstanding work from the less known philosophers. I also estimated that my rate of update would fall somewhere in the middle of two blogs: more than just once a year, but not many times a month.

A difficult problem was where to start and which philosophers I should read. With my first blog the answer to the previous question was easy: I just could start where philosophy was traditionally thought to begin. Similar ease I showed when choosing what to read for the first blog: I just took note of prominent authors of the era, chose some of them and read a selection of their works. With the German idealism blog my take was far more serious, but the answers were almost as easy. I soon chose to begin with Christian Wolff as the founder of the first famous German school of philosophy (although in hindsight I should have begun with Thomasius). Furthermore, I could just easily take some old history of philosophy books on German Enlightenment and German idealism and write down every name I found.

Current philosophy is of course a term always in flux, because what is current now, is forgotten in a decade. Yet, what I mean by this epithet is the period began by the works of two philosophers, Frege and Husserl. A natural starting point would then be the works of these two philosophers. But just like with my German idealism blog I didn't want to to begin straight with Kant, before seeing his context, I wanted to also see what philosophical culture Frege and Husserl were living in. Thus, I began my study of current philosophy from quite far away, from 19th century philosophy – minus German idealism, of course.

Which philosophers then to read? For the beginning, I decided to use the help of Coplestone's massive history of philosophy and especially its three parts on the latest philosophy. I started to write down every name mentioned in these three books (not including the German idealists) and pick out one or two works by the authors thus chosen. The result was that my reading schedule was to begin with few 18th century philosophers. Particularly various American philosophers were included, because Coplestone had not discussed American philosophy before this point.

It is thus no wonder that I shall begin with one of the founding fathers of the United States. One may thus well note that many of the thinkers I will go through shall not be of such an interest for modern philosophers – I attempt to be as quick as I can with these cases. I think this is enough for introductions – onward to Benjamin Franklin!