keskiviikko 5. elokuuta 2015

Joseph Priestley (1733 – 1804)

I am once again tackling a figure whose work lies on the borders of philosophy and science. I haven't read any one book from him, but instead, I have investigated a selection, the title of which (Priestley on science, philosophy and politics) reflects the variety of the thinker's interests. Because Priestley was also interested of religion, one might say that he played altogether four different roles.

Starting first from the role of a scientific investigator, we may note that Priestely is famous as one of the first people to separate oxygen from air. But Priestley's discovery is an important indication how different it is to do an experiment and to interpret it correctly, as he did not believe he had found a new element – instead, he thought he had managed to purify air from phlogiston, the element that supposedly caused all phenomena involving fire. Priestely quickly noted that this purified air was more invigorating than ordinary air and he also noted that plants appeared to emanate such air.

In addition to dabbling with scientific experiments, Priestly was also a historian of science and worked on an history of electrical studies. Still, perhaps most interesting work of Priestely on the topic of science are his plans for systematising scientific research. Priestly suggests that instead of founding huge societies responsible for all kinds of scientific study, there should be many small societies specialised for a small subfield in science and responsible for collecting funding for that field. In effect, Priestly is suggesting an idea common these days, that universities should concentrate their research on their strong areas.

Priestley's innovative skills were not restricted to mere research politics, but he was, secondly, an eager political thinker. His model of good society was clearly based on United States of America, as he was a stout defender of republicanism and demanded the right of citizens to have an extended field of action, in which state should have no say at all – Priestly goes even so far as to suggest that education should be no business of the state. Furthermore, Priestley speaks vehemently against any privileged class or nobility, except in case of such a class serving the needs of state. And while Priestley did condemn rebellions, he also noted that fight against tyranny was no true rebellion. In line with Priestley's rather Republican ideal of society is his insistence that criminals should be punished hardly, in order to deter anyone from committing a crime. Ironically, Priestly congratulates USA of not being a colonial power and of never falling into a civil war – a mere century would have proven him wrong.

An important part of Priestley's liberal ideal of state is a demand that all religious sects should be tolerated. This is an important element in his third role as religious thinker. Priestley was a unitarian, who thought that Christ did not have a divine nature. Indeed, his philosophical views went even farther away from the traditional religious views. For instance, Priestly denied the possibility of spontaneously working will, but insisted that all actions require some motive – even the act of going against a motive is never unmotivated. Somewhat surprisingly, in addition to basing this thesis on the universal validity of causal principle, Priestley also uses a religious argument – God could not foresee things ahead, if the events of the world would not work in a strictly deterministic manner. Furthermore, he also notes that morals would not work without complete determinism, since a randomly acting person could not be improved in any manner – she could always accidentally act in a completely different manner.

In addition to being a determinist, Priestly was also a materialist. Or, to put it better, he did not believe that there was any wide cleft between material and spiritual phenomena. Matter was not a plenuum or completely solid, but must have been full of emptyness, since it e.g. could be a medium for movement of light. And if matter was really not material in the brute sense of the word, Priestley argued, why could we not say that so-called soul is also made of matter?

keskiviikko 15. huhtikuuta 2015

Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot: Reflections on the Formation and Distribution of Wealth (1774-1776)


If the history of economy should begin somewhere, it might began in 18th century, when thinkers like Adam Smith produced first analyses of the formation of prices of goods. Instead of Smith, I am studying a French economist, Turgot, and his main work, Réflexions sur la formation et la distribution des richesses.

Turgot's main point might be summarised as all wealth begins with land – a common assumption of the so-called physiocratic school of economy. The most concrete signal for this is that agriculture is almost a necessary requirement for human life. I am saying ”almost”, since human beings have lived before the invention of agriculture, through hunting and gathering. In Turgot's time the pre-historical human condition was, of course, not known, but even Turgot admits that cattle raising probably preceded the agricultural style of living.

Turgot begins from an idealised condition, in which everyone has enough land to satisfy his needs. He is quite aware that this is only a fiction, because difference e.g. in the types of land and in the needs of different persons would soon produce some noticeable differences. This fiction is just meant to emphasise how even in such equal circumstances difference of classes would soon arise.

Thus, Turgot notes that even in such a fictional state farmers would have difficulties in producing enough for their whole family. They would then need from time to time to hire people's help for some purposes – for instance, they might occasionally need someone to sew them new clothes that they wouldn't have time to do themselves. The outcome would be a division of populace to two classes: the producers tilling the land and the artisans or labourers.

Somewhat surprisingly, Turgot appears to say that the artisans do not truly produce any new wealth to the system. In a sense this is quite right, since artisans do not produce new raw materials, but in another sense it is also an exaggeration. Surely, say, finely crafted shoes are quite a different thing from materials it is made of (leather etc.), and indeed, more useful to many people than these materials, which is reflected in the price of the final product.

A further development of the economical system involves the differentiation in the amount of land producers own – some farmer might have more children to inherit him, so his land will be divided into smaller pieces, some people might use their economic or military power to gather up more lands etc. The final result of this development, according to Turgot, is that some people will have more farming land than they can themselves tend to, which means they must hire (as labourers) or force (as slaves) some people to till the land for him or rent the land forward and just take a share of the products of the land. In any case, this means that the class of land owners is distinguished from the producers, who are now in as bad condition as artisans, tilling the land just for their survival. Still, Turgot considers the producers more beneficial than artisans, since they bring about the real wealth.

A further development in the economy is provided by property that could be circulated, and hence, traded for other goods more freely than land – a farmer can barter barrels of wine for grains etc. Now, if every transaction would be completely independent of other transactions, there would be no general rule for e.g. how many barrels of wine one has to give for a certain portions of grain. Turgot insists that transactions are not independent – if one is unhappy with the prize, one can go and negotiate with another person. This possibility should create suitably fixed prizes in terms of trading one good for another. What Turgot doesn't consider is the possibility that the markets are not in general completely fair (e.g. one person might have access to a place, in which some commodity has a better prize than in another) and therefore one side of the transaction might be in disadvantage. Of course, this is all meant to be more of a description of how the market works than an ethical decision about its fairness.

The final change in the economy happens when some special type of commodity – usually a metal like gold or silver – has been chosen as a monetary unit, according to which all calculations can be measured. Turgot states that because money is changed into commodities, it must always be a commodity itself, thus, no mere artificial currency can exist. A somewhat closer to the truth, in light of later developments in economy, would be to say that every currency, and indeed any unit of trade, inevitably can become a commodity – something which can be bought and sold and which has its own fluctuating value that can be measured e.g. in comparison with other currencies.

The accumulation of wealth makes it then possible that some people live just by their money. In other words, a wealthy person with lot of money or other liquid assets can use his riches to finance enterprises that will bring him more profit. Using money to produce more money is according to Turgot far more profitable for the economy than wasting it to luxury, which by itself would just ruin the whole economy. Of course, this is a bit of an exaggeration, since luxuries would have to be bought somewhere, which would mean more circulation of wealth.

Behind Turgot's dismissal of luxury lies perhaps then a more ethical point – the circulation of wealth should be such that it produces most benefit to the whole society. Thus, Turgot notes that growth in the number of capitalists willing to finance leads to the prize of the loans (that is, the interest paid for loans) falling so that more people have a possibility to lend money. What Turgot seems to be missing is the possibility that this apparent growth of economic prosperity might lead to some people falling behind in the development and remaining in a state of relative or even absolute poverty.

Even more crucial is that while Turgot does talk of the importance of the land in forming wealth, he doesn't consider the idea that the resources of the land might be essentially limited, which would thus set finite bounds to the development of economy. Reading between the line, one can see in Turgot's claims a romantic vision of nature as an infinitely creative source of life and resources, which would sustain economic growth to all eternity, if just silly cultural restrictions would be lifted.

So much for Turgot, next time I shall take a look at certain English chemist.

keskiviikko 25. maaliskuuta 2015

Sir William Blackstone: Commentaries on the Laws of England (1766)

No wonder how silly it seems to us nowadays, it has been traditional in universities that students of law did not learn the laws of their own countries, but laws of ancient Rome. This was not just a perverted antiquarian interest, but Roman law was often felt to be an ideal to which modern systems of law should strive for – indeed, especially in the continent many courts did adopt some predicts from it. Furthermore, the Roman law was followed by one important institution in Europe, namely, the Catholic Church.

Sir William Blackstone's commentaries are meant to rectify the lack of knowledge for English students of law. At the same time, Blackstone attempts to show how reasonable the English laws are – for instance, he emphasises the respect of freedom in English law, which is so great that even a slave landing in English soil will automatically gain liberty.

I am obviously not going to go through the whole of this large treatise, and one might even wonder what such a book on law has to do with philosophy. It is now more of a case who was interested of the book – or more likely, who was interested enough to insult it. Bentham, a philosopher I will read some time in the future, was apparently quite critical of Blackstone's treatise – Bentham thought that no laws should be thought good just because they were handed down by the tradition.

In any case, Blackstone's book does have its more philosophical parts, especially in the introductory section, in which he explains what it means to be a law. Rather traditionally, Blackstone relates laws of nature as laws governing the movement of bodies with laws of human behaviour. Furthermore, he also follows tradition in speaking of a natural law, that is, law that naturally governs all human behaviour and decides what is morally right and wrong, permissible and not. Like in case of laws of nature, Blackstone thinks that the validity of the natural law is grounded on God's will. This might sound a bit old-fashioned these days, but the very idea of a culturally neutral basis on which to decide right and wrong – and especially on which to decide if laws of a nation are right and wrong – is one that seems still viable today.

When one accepts the existence of natural law, it becomes then quite natural to ask what makes it right that states make more laws to govern human behaviour. Following Locke, Blackstone follows a very common idea – that of a social contract – governments can pass laws, because the people have agreed to follow such laws or any laws government decree. Blackstone does not completely accept the theory, but admits the idea of an original contract to be nothing else than a convenient fiction – people implicitly accept the laws of the land they've chosen to live in. This sounds a bit spurious, since people sometimes have not accepted the laws of their home country, and indeed, often have no say on the matter where they live, political, cultural and even language barriers truncating the possibilities considerably.

I suspect this suffices for a quick look on Blackstone's book, since I am not about to go to technicalities of English law. Next time I shall look in more detail at some French notions of politics and economy.

torstai 19. maaliskuuta 2015

Jonathan Edwards: The End for Which God Created the World (1749), Nature of True Virtue (1749) and Original Sin (1758)

Jonathan Edwards 1703-1758

It appears that the first philosophers of the later United States of America were either politicians or clergymen. Jonathan Edwards (1703 – 1758) belongs especially to the latter group, and as is to be suspected, the topics of his works are rather biblical. Yet, they contain some obvious references to philosophical discussions of the time, and writers like Locke, Hutchinson and Hume are explicitly mentioned.

I shall begin somewhat nonsensically from the latest work, the posthumous book on original sin, mainly because the biblical/philosophical -ratio is heavily balanced on the biblical side. Edwards' target is apparently John Taylor, who wrote a rather non-traditional work on original sin, in summary proclaiming that it is actually not a biblical doctrine. I shall not go into great details to Edwards' argumentation that the doctrine does have a background in Bible. Far more interesting are the slight bits of philosophy hidden among all the biblical quotes and exegesis. For instance, Edwards considers the at first sight rather odd demand that Adam as the first human being could be seen as forming a one entity with all his progeny, thus making it reasonable to punish all mankind for Adam's sin. Edwards defends this view by simply noting that God as the creator of all laws, moral and natural, can decide that there is a lawful connection between the sin of Adam and the guilt of all humankind. Edwards thus jiggles towards God, when it comes to the famous Euthyphro dilemma: does God decide what is good or is good independent of God's decision?

Edwards also tries to answer the rather obvious criticism of original sin that an assumption of an inborn tendency to evil would undermine all morality, which can be applied only in cases where a free choice is made by the will – if a person already has a tendency to certain actions, he cannot be thought responsible of them, unless this tendency follows from an earlier sinful choice leading to that tendency. Edwards sees a problem in this argument. If one could not determine the guilt of someone not merely from his tendency to do evil actions, but only from a sinful choice, an infinite regress would ensue. The choice itself would be an action, the sinfulness of which could not be determined by a mere tendency to do such choices, if the chooser is to be responsible. Thus it would have to be caused by a further sinful choice and so on. In effect, Edwards is arguing that either all notion of responsibility must be null or then even a given tendency to do evil things can be judged evil. Edwards is obviously endorsing the second prong of the dilemma, but it might well be asked whether his arguments could be used for denying validity of all moral evaluations.

The short writing on the end of the world has also a religious theme and Biblical exegesis is also used as an argument, but the work contains also interesting arguments. The main result of the work feels rather Neo-Platonist: God must, as it were, emanate and let his perfection become an active force, or otherwise it wouldn't be so perfect. In other words, God is like an artist that must unleash his creativity and create a world that perfectly reflects himself. One might of course ask why God has not created world for the living beings and their happiness and think of God as self-centered, because of his motives, but Edwards notes that the two ends need not necessarily contradict one another. To this end, Edwards introduces an important distinction between ultimate and final end. Final end is just an end that is not means and there could well be many final ends. Still, some of these final ends are more important than others and most important of these is what Edwards calls the ultimate end.

Edwards also explains the distinction between final and ultimate ends through the following analogy. Picture a man who tries to get married, not for the sake of anything else, but for the sake of marriage itself. The marriage is thus a final end of the man. Now, after the marriage is in force, the man might have another final end, like living a peaceful life of a husband. Still, the original ending was more ultimate, because the man couldn't have even hoped for the new final end without first reaching the first end. Similarly, one might imagine that God had at first just the final end of creating the world as a representation of his own glory, but later on God decided to also care for the denizens of the world. Note the interesting hint that Edwards might apply temporal terms to God's existence, which appear to imply that even God could change his mind.

The work on the nature of true virtue seems by far the least finished, but it is most clearly a philosophical work, but I will only have space to note some interesting points. The true virtue for Edwards is the love of God as the true source of all being. In other words, in loving God, a person loves also everything else, as reflecting God, while mere love towards anything else – even the whole universe – will contain only a limited fraction of all the possible love and will thus be deficient and even evil in comparison with the ultimate love. Out of this rather religious and mystical basis Edwards manages to make rather intriguing comments on ethics in general.

For instance, Edwards raises the question whether self-love can be a basis of virtue. He notes that the question is actually ambiguous, because self-love can be understood in two different manners. Firstly, self-love might just refer to a want of feeling good. In that sense, Edwards states, self-love can truly be basis of virtue, because, contrary to Kant would later say, even a virtuous person can and even should feel good about what he does – by loving and helping others, one also loves and helps oneself.

Secondly, self-love might also mean caring for one's own advantage. Such a selfish desire will inevitably restrict one's love in some manner and will thus close of a person from true virtue, Edwards concludes. Then again, he admits that such selfishness need not be completely closed off from love of other people. A selfish person might well note that e.g. taking care of some limited group of persons (say, one's family or country) one does good to oneself also. Thus, self-love in the second sense can at least be basis of limited love of others.

Edwards also discusses the idea of Hume and Hutschinson that morality is ultimately not based on reasoning, but on some feelings, like sympathy. Edwards agrees with the sentiment partially. He admits that morality is quite likely to be genetically based on feelings. Indeed, he suggests that God himself must have instilled such instinctual feelings to human mind, in order to guide them towards good life. Then again, Edwards does not accept the idea that feeling would be the ultimate foundation of all morality – even if we would become aware of morality through feelings, this does not mean that we could not argue for morality through proper reason. Edwards especially wants to steer away from the idea that a beginning of morality in feelings would make morality somehow relativist. Instead, Edwards emphasises that certain basic moral sentiments are spread universally throughout human race and are therefore most likely absolute decrees of God.

The works of Edwards show thus an interesting interaction between religion and philosophy that has been quite apparent in the few American philosophers I have now read. Next time I shall move back to the Old World and to laws of England.

perjantai 6. helmikuuta 2015

Edmund Burke: A vindication of natural society (1756) and A philosophical enquiry into the origin of our ideas of the sublime and beautiful (1757)

Edmund Burke (1729 – 1797) is probably best known for his work against French Revolution, but before that he also published these two interesting writings. First of these is, at least according to the editorial introduction, a satirical pastiche aimed against Lord Bolingbroke, leading deist of the time. Bolingbroke had argued that original Christianity had been defiled through centuries of convention by all sorts of mystical rituals, which were disastrous to believers and against reason, thus calling for a return to this supposed natural belief. Burke makes an analogical move and argues that by same token civilized societies are artificial and therefore a return to natural state is in order.

Vindication might be satirical, but Burke's argument can be taken quite seriously. The existence of polities and states has meant almost a constant continuation of territorial skirmishes, often leading to total warfare. If Hobbes had thought that commonwealths were founded as an antidote to constant battle, the medicine proved to be even more poisonous, Burke points out.

Even in times of peace, a commonwealth is not a pleasant place to live, Burke continues. If the power lies in the hand of a single individual, freedom of everyone else is subdued under a tyrannical power. The case is not mush better, if the power is given to a small group of aristocrats, because that just means there are more tyrants to subdue everyone. Even democracies are far from pleasant, because the people or rabble can be even more intolerant in its decisions than all tyrants together – besides, rabble usually just follows some demagogue and thus produced just a new tyranny.

These arguments are interesting, because they sound quite similar to what one might expect from, on the one hand, anarchist, on the other hand, libertarian thinkers – states are a form of oppression that artificially divide the world into hostile areas. Of course, one could be more of a Hobbesian and ask whether living in societies has some positive consequences, which would weigh more than the supposed loss of freedom. Another question is whether the supposed natural or original state of humans is not just another artificial construction, which just reflects the mores of our own times.

Second work I shall study is Burke's book on philosophical aesthetics. It was a success at least on the continent, and such German philosophers as Moses Mendehlsson and Immanuel Kant were inspired by his work. Burke's basic attempt in the book is to explain the difference between two aesthetic notions, sublime and beautiful. Of the two, beauty seems a more familiar concept, so I am going to begin with it, although Burke prefers the opposite order.

A common idea of beauty has been that it has something to do with harmony and is thus mathematical in nature, because harmony is defined by numerical proportions. Burke has a bit of fun with the idea, noting that our sense of beauty is immediate and not dependent on taking exact measurements of e.g. limbs of an animal. A related theory of beautiful has connected beauty with fitness or utility, which is often decidable by mathematical proportions (for instance, an animal with limbs quite out of proportion cannot live). But Burke will have none of this. True, we do find quite unhealthy specimens grotesque, but we do also meet often healthy animals and people that we do not think beautiful.

Instead, Burke characterizes beauty through the notion of love, which beautiful things make us feel. Here, love appears to be used not in any Platonic, but in quite sensuous sense. Indeed, when we hear Burke describing smoothness as one type of beauty and read him describing the lure of a beautiful roundness of female breasts, it becomes rather obvious that Burke's love is more like sexual or at least sensual titillation. Quite noteworthy is then that Burke's description of beautiful seem to come from the perspective of a heterosexual male: beautiful thing must be small and weak,just like beautiful women are supposed to be. We might then say that Burke's notion of beauty is quite conservative, but at least open about its bias.

What is remarkable is that Burke allows a variety of different aesthetic notions: in addition to beautiful, we also have sublime. Of course, the notion of sublime is not Burke's own invention, but goes back to Longinus and his work on the topic. Sublime, Burke notes, is not a species of beautiful, but more like it's opposite. While beauty is connected with love, sublimity is connected with fear – it is pleasure caused by great proportions and immeasurable quantities that overwhelm us. While fear itself is not a pleasant feeling, sublime objects can awaken a sort of second order feeling, in which we reflect on our primal sense of fear and discomfort and find pleasure, when we understand and win our fear.

The notion of sublime is interesting, because it widens the realm of aesthetic notions – thing doesn't have to be traditionally pretty to be aesthetically interesting. Indeed, we could raise the question, whether the two notions truly are all the the aesthetic feelings we are capable of. If our sense of beautiful is caused by sensual titillation and our sense of sublime is caused by fearsome awe, could objects and events causing feelings like nausea or boredom cause also similarly aesthetic emotions as happens in case of sublime objects

Burke has still plenty of interest to say about e.g. the aesthetic effect of words (Burke notes that, unlike many modern thinkers had thought, words need not constantly produce images or representations of things they mean, but they can directly cause feelings, for instance, because of constant use – if virtue has been spoken of in suitably solemn occasions, the mere word will rouse that same solemn feeling again). Still, I am going to leave Burke's aesthetic theories here and move on to another philosopher.

sunnuntai 11. tammikuuta 2015

Étienne Bonnot de Condillac: Traité des sensations (1754)

When I last spoke ofCondillac, I mentioned that he was interested of the phenomenon of feral children, that is, children that grew up in savage conditions, without any contact to humans, and therefore did not have any possibility to learn language – he especially mentions a case of a child being raised by bears in Lithuania. Obviously such a child cannot have all the mental capacities of a child raised in civilised surroundings, but Condillac emphasises more what the child can do – e.g. distinguish herself from her surroundings, make generalisations and simple logical deductions etc.

A natural problematic is then how much of conceptual infrastructure a conscious being would have, if its mental capacities were diminished from those of an average human being. Condillac proposes an interesting thought experiment to this effect: let us consider a living statue that would otherwise resemble a human being, but would have only one sense, say, smell, and see what concepts this person could have.

It seems rather arbitrary why Condillac would have picked up smell as the starting point, but apparently Buffon considered it to be actually a sort of primary sense with animals. Indeed, we could well imagine an organism (probably living in water) that would only react to the presence of some harmful chemical by running away and to the presence of beneficial chemical by moving towards the supposed source of the chemical.

Condillac supposes that even an entity with such meager sensory input would have all sorts of ideas. He would notice that odours change, he could recognise some odours as resembling previous odours and he might classify odours into e.g pleasant, neutral and disagreeable. Furthermore, he could think of himself as the subject of the changing pattern of odours and he could associate pleasantness of the odours with his own well-being. Of course, in all of this Condillac supposes, just like in his first work, that no new mental capacities are required for passing from mere sensation to memory, intellect etc.

What is more interesting is the set of ideas that the odour-limited human being would not have. Clearly with mere smells there is no sense of space, but Condillac notes that temporal consciousness would also be deficient, because one couldn't make realiabe measurements of the passing of odours. Furthermore, the Condillacian statue would not have any notion of things separate from himself, as she would have no idea that odours were something else than just ever changing part of her own mental life.

Condillac then considers what would happen if the sense of smell would be changed to taste or hearing – nothing much is the expected conclusion. Even a combination of two or all of these three senses would not change the situation much. At most, the statue could make comparisons between the sensations of different sense and would then note that e.g. odours are somehow different from sounds. We might then also in a sense measure the progress of sensations of one sense by comparing it with the progress of sensations on another sense, thus making the notion of time more concrete.

Rather unexpectedly, the case of vision is not that different, says Condillac. True, a statue with nothing but vision would have an idea of two-dimensional space, but it could not have any notion of three-dimensional space nor of any bodies independent of the statue. One might object to Condillac that while a field of vision truly is two-dimensional, movement and ensuing changes in visual images would make the statue able to conceive three-dimensionality. Indeed, this is what philosophers like Descartes had assumed – we could geometrically count e.g. the distance of ourselves from an object just from its shape and apparent size, when looked at different angles.

Condillac is here following Berkeleyan criticism of the traditional Cartesian theory of vision: without the help of other senses, constantly changing visual images would appear incomprehensible. It is only by associating different groups of variable visual images to different tactile sensations that we can truly see e.g. a rose as an object independent of ourselves. The addition of touch thus perfects the human statue at least to a level of a feral child.

One might wonder, which side of the debate is more correct. Certainly the theory of Cartesians cannot be true in the sense that we would consciously make difficult calculations in order to make sense of our visual field. Still, we might suppose human beings have an automatic and instinctual ”program” that would calculate the results without any need of actual calculation. A more convincing argument against Cartesians would be that movement in a computer-generated virtual space does feel a bit weird, possibly because the tactual sensations do not correspond with what we see.

So much for Condillac, next time I shall turn my attention to an English philosopher.

torstai 8. tammikuuta 2015

Samuel Johnson: Elementa philosophica: containing chiefly, Noetica, or things relating to the mind or understanding: and Ethica, or things relating to the moral behavior (1752)

Samuel Johnson (1696 -1772)

Returning from the Old to the New World we meet the reverend Samuel Johnson and his Noetics and Ethics. The title page of the work reveals a connection to an earlier figure I've spoken about: the book was printed by none other than Benjamin Franklin.

What is more interesting is Johnson's connection with bishop Berkeley. It should be best to point out first that Samuel Johnson I am speaking of is not the Samuel Johnson who wrote the first dictionary of English and famously argued against Berkeley by kicking a stone – that man lived in London. This Johnson was in fact quite appreciative of Berkeley's philosophy and had even met the reverend, when Berkeley was visiting Rhode Island.

While Berkeley's most famous philosophical works are quite focused on few central topics – e.g. that existence can be defined through capacities of being perceived and perceiving, that matter as neither perceptible nor perceiving does not exist and God causing our perceptions directly – in Johnson's book these topics are barely mentioned. The first part, Noetics, focuses on questions that in continental Europe were addressed in books on logic: how does human mind work and how it is to be properly educated and used. Berkeley's theses work as a sort of ontological underpinning of this methodological framework – a novel attempt, at least.

Johnson's take on Berkeley's philosophy seems rather peculiar. He appears to think that the essential message of esse est percipi is that everything we see is as it is – there is no reality behind perceptions, which can then be directly identified with things themselves. So, we do know that there are horses, because we definitely see them running about. This is, of course, what Berkeley himself professed – he thought he was upholding the common sense against sceptical attacks inherent in Locke's philosophy.

More peculiar is that Johnson at once assumes many ontological notions Berkeley had suggested were quite unnecessary and meant really nothing. Thus, while Berkeley thought there was no reason to speak of any substance or substrate behind perceived properties, Johnson notes there is a perfectly valid sense of substance – certain combinations of simple perceptions just are substances. Furthermore, Johnson also find a use for the concept of matter, which Berkeley had discarded as leading to skepticism – material things just are those that are defined by being perceived. All of this is a symptom of Johnson taking universalisation and abstraction far more seriously – an understandable view in a study leading all the way to scientific generalities.

After the Berkeleyan underpinnings Johnson's Noetics seems a rather traditional work – once he gets to the level of concepts, he can just follow in the footsteps of traditional syllogistics. He also presents a rather traditional metaphysical account of world – being perceived (being acted upon) and perceiving (acting) define two kinds of beings, material things and spirits. Clearly spirits as the more active component are somehow more robust and more essential. Behind all the material things and spirits lies the perfect spirit or God.

Johnson's Ethics feels even more traditional. The aim of the second part is to secure human happiness, which is one purpose of God and which results not through excessive pleasure, but through moderation. Indeed, Johnson can point out to a result from Noetics that spirits are somehow more important than material things, which are nothing more than mere perceptions – one cannot find true happiness with mere passive perceptions, but it must be found in spiritual matters.

So much for Samuel Johnson, I'll now return to Condillac.