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!