torstai 28. syyskuuta 2017

Samuel Taylor Coleridge: Biographia litteraria (1817)


Coleridge is best known for his evocative poetry, such as Kubla Khan, but he had his hand also in introducing continental and especially German philosophy into Great Britain. Coleridge’s role was, firstly, quite straightforward as he was the first translator of some works of Schelling in English. Yet, he was more than just a passive translator of German thought. Coleridge was actively engaging with the thoughts of post-Kantian philosophy and preparing a book on the topic. Still, he never managed to prepare a finished philosophical work.

Closest to what we have of philosophy in his published works is Coleridge’s Biographia Litteraria. The title suggests that the book would be a biography, and Coleridge does recount some tales e.g. of his journeys on the continent. Yet, the true import of the book lies in an aesthetical question what forms a proper work of poetry.

Incitement for Coleridge’s question lies in theory of poetics by another poet, William Wordsworth. What especially irked Coleridge in Wordsworth’s ideas was latter’s insistence that poetic language differed in no manner from language of good prose, which in no manner differed from language of ordinary people. Coleridge himself notes that while some lines in poems could be part of a prose text, especially if changes in word order, made due to metre and rhyming, would be cancelled, there are some lines which have an inherently poetic nature. Furthermore, this poetic nature is something completely different from crude speech used by rustic people. Coleridge even reprimands Wordsworth for including in his poems dramatic parts, in which ordinary people speak in their own words - if they truly speak in their own words, it is not poetic, if it is poetic, it is not faithful to the language of ordinary people.

Coleridge’s position is quite traditional - one would think he would be even more horrified of a modern poetry - and it is quite difficult to fathom what is this essential ingredient making a text poetic. Coleridge first states the common element in poems and fictional prose texts: they are both meant to cause pleasure, not to convey truth, like philosophical treatises. Thus, Plato’s dialogues are not poems, although they do have a certain poetic flair.

The external signs of poetry, such as rhyming and metre, are not completely external to the idea of poetry in Coleridge’s eyes. The purpose of them is to hold our attention throughout the whole poem and weave all the details described into a coherent whole. It is indeed this attention to wholes or totalities that is the distinguishing mark of poetry for Coleridge - a poem must form an organic system, in which all details, including such seemingly minute things as the tone of the words, must serve the grand purpose of the poem.

Coleridge connects at once this idea of poems as organic wholes to his notion of imagination. Unfortunately, Coleridge doesn’t actually explain what he means by imagination - an anonymous proofreader was of the opinion that Coleridge’s account of imagination was far above the understanding of an ordinary reader, so it was removed from the final published work. We do hear that imagination is different from fancy, which is a mere mechanical association of ideas. Instead, it appears to be closely connected with the basic forces responsible for the generation of human experience. Here Coleridge’s Schellingian tendencies appear most vividly, for Schelling too connected artistic imagination with the primal forces behind human experiences.

Coleridge paints himself as not just an imitator of Schelling. Instead, he just happened to have similar influences as Schelling did, which inevitably led both to similar conclusions. Coleridge mentions explicitly such names as Plato, Plotinus, Giordano Bruno and Jacob Boehme, all of whom were important also to Schelling - and all of whom had tendencies toward mysticism and pointed philosophy towards a search for something ineffable and beyond human experience. Kant was also important for Coleridge, as showing the limits of ordinary reasoning and as hinting about vistas beyond ordinary human experience. Fichte is also appreciated, as pointing out that truth behind everything lies in activity and not in mechanistic matter, but Coleridge disparages him for ignoring nature as an organic totality - all very reminiscent of Schelling.

It is then no wonder that Coleridge has in metaphysics a strikingly Schellingian attitude. We must look at things from both the viewpoint of the object or nature and the viewpoint of subject or intelligence. When we look at nature, Coleridge says, we inevitably come to laws, which are no mere matter, but intellectual things. As laws are supposed to reveal the deep structure of nature, we end up seeing that nature itself is basically intellectual. Of course, this conclusion presupposes that we accept laws as pre-existing patterns of nature’s movements and not just as our subjective generalisations from natural events.

Starting from the viewpoint of the subject, we have the immediate certainty of our own existence. We also appear to be certain of the existence of quite a number of things, which we assume to be completely independent of ourselves. Yet, as we have no gateway to things outside us, these seemingly external things appear to vanish into mere dreams. Coleridge’s wish is to uphold the every-day realism - these things we see are truly real. Paradoxically, his strategy is to hold that they are in a sense ideal. In other words, their existence is connected organically to my own existence, which means that I can be equally certain of their existence as I am of my own existence.

Coleridge’s justification of his position follows also Schellingian routes. He assumes that it is meaningful to speak about truth - something we might well concede to him, since otherwise we might as well stop caring about philosophy. Now, truth - or more likely, true thoughts - are not something self-sufficient, but dependent on the existence of things (if I know a table, the table must first exist). Then again, a series of truths, if it is to be completely reliable, must be based on something self-evident, which is certain to be true by itself. This self-evident truth must then also be based on something existent, which, Coleridge argues, must then be something, which doesn’t require the existence of anything else (notice how closely we are threading through very traditional theological notions).

What is this object of true knowledge? Firstly, it should be the source of all existence, because it shouldn’t be dependent on anything else. Secondly, it shouldn’t be a mere object or an ordinary thing, because such things would always require a further explanation - it would be something beyond ordinary experience. This means, primarily, that the object of ultimate knowledge must actually be also the subject of this ultimate knowledge. In other words, if we ever could approach this state of final knowledge, we would literally turn into God. The closest we can humanly approximate this state is in our self-consciousness, which is at least certain to ourselves, even if it is not absolutely certain. Secondarily, since this primary object of knowledge cannot be a mere passive thing, it should be an activity, that is, it is a process creating itself as its own object. This act of self-creation is then a part of all self-consciousness and it is apparently this power, which the power of poetic imagination should resemble.

This subjective side of Coleridge’s - or Schelling’s philosophy - is equally suspect as the objective side and for quite similar reasons. Why should we assume that the absolute ground of our self-consciousness resembles us and deserves the name of self-consciousness? How do we know that there is such an ultimate ground of knowledge and not just passing, contextually accepted foundations?

I will not decide the issue of the believability of Coleridgean metaphysics here. Instead, I shall end with his attempt to show how the empiricist school of philosophy can also be reconciled with this metaphysical picture. On a superficial level, the two positions appear to be contradictory - one bases knowledge on the divine self-knowledge, the other on immediate sensations. Yet, Coleridge solves this problem simply by stating that the empiricist describes correctly the generation of knowledge - we simply have no starting point for knowledge seeking but our sensations. Still, we can never said to have found an absolute foundation for even our sensations, before we have experienced ourselves the divine self-knowledge, which is ontologically at the basis of even sensations.

tiistai 12. syyskuuta 2017

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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