From the middle of the 19th century to the present, the philosophy of Hegel (1770-1831) would have a profound influence, at times a nearly revolutionary influence. In Hegel, one finds the merging and creative synthesis of many of the strongest tendencies in Romantic thought. First is the idea of progressive and evolving reality–not the staid mechanical repetitiousness of mere causality, but an active principle at work in the natural world. Second, there is the criticism of science as not being up to the task of comprehending this world, tied as it is to reductive schemes.

The first step in the direction of understanding, then is the identification not of a cause but of a reason. Hegel has as the reason for the evolution of human mind and society a rather Gothic and terrifying “Absolute” that uses the conflicts of history to realize itself ever more fully. The modern state is seen as the culmination of this struggle.

Hegel shares with his immediate predecessors, and with Romanticism at large, the judgment that science, as traditionally understood as “perfected” in the age of Newton, is a narrow, one-sided, misleading affair.

If science stays at the level of mechanistic explanation and the particularization of the complex into some reduced non-reality, then it will be capable of explaining very little. Science will, in fact, become merely an exercise in the vindication of its own flawed methods.

The subject of truth itself is what has real being, in the sense of nothing being added or modified by peculiar or merely conventional modes of analysis.

Descartes’s own revolution was never lost on Hegel. As understood by Hegel, Descartes’s achievement was to recognize that knowledge in all its forms is but “the unity of thought and being.”

Though he admires Newton, Hegel regards Newton’s work as making it possible for Locke’s philosophy to become nearly official. The commitment to perceptual modes of knowledge and shunning of deeper metaphysical considerations are products of this mode of thinking.

  1. If the world is defined as merely the action of corpuscles, the laws governing corpuscles will be all that will be studied; everything else will be ignored.
  2. And the discovered causal laws could, in fact, be entirely different without raising any surprise or concern. If instead of F = ma, the relationship had been F = 5m + 3.2a, it would be no occasion for debate.
  3. Thus, the scientist gives us no complete comprehension of the natural world. Through these mere summaries of correlations and cause-effect sequences, he never arrives at what the rest of us call “reality.”

Nothing in the Newtonian achievement explains just why the laws are as they are. Why is everything the way it is and not some different way instead?

To include Hegel within the tradition of Romanticism or German Romantic Idealism requires that we turn to Johann Fichte. Indeed, the famous “Hegelian” triad of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis is actually Fichte’s contribution and was rarely employed by Hegel himself.

  1. Fichte recognized a fundamental conflict in Kant’s epistemology: If there is a conceptual or logical barrier between reality as it is and reality as it is perceived, philosophy must commit to either bypass mind in every possible way or to accept that it is mind that is the worthy object of attention.
  2. Fichte argues that the ultimate reality is that of idea, the starting  point of philosophy then being the transcendental ego.
  3. According to Hegel, we ought to be looking not merely for those causal connections revealed in scientific laws but for the reason behind the laws, because reality is rational.

To understand an event is finally to identify the reason behind it, and reasons are not “causes” by another name.

  1. Causes can be final or merely efficient, but they carry no sense of necessity with them; they are merely contingent facts of the world.
  2. But knowing the reason for an event is to understand that the event had to take the form it did.

Hegel applies this to human history itself. There is a distinct evolutionary perspective in Romanticism. There must be a reason for human development: from basic survival to human communities to literacy and rationality, each stage higher than the previous one.

Romanticism perceives an evolutionary struggle–Sturm und Drang–that produces new and better things not predictable in a mechanistic view.

Human history is the result of something trying to work itself out or realize itself through this great evolutionary struggle. It is out of the struggle itself that something gets resolved. And it is in the resolution that we find life lived at a higher plane. There is reason in human history.

Hegel gave several names to this something, most commonly “the Absolute” but also “soul” or “spirit”–Geist.

In Hegel’s day, the Absolute expresses itself in the state, declared by Hegel to be “the march of God in the world”! So called “Hegelians of the right” would defend the claims of the state against any and every claim from the mere individuals who live in it.

Hegel finds that the state, as the ethical aspect of the Absolute, takes precedence over Kant’s “good will” of the individual.

Kant claimed that good will was the only pure good in the universe: the will to bring about, if we could, that which we would bring about in our most rational moments.

For Hegel, this dependence of the will of the moral agent leaves room for arbitrary and even wicked conduct. The claims of conscience have a moral superiority over mere convention but cannot be substituted without peril for the commands of the just state.

Hegel prefers the formulations of the brilliant young philosopher Fichte: The greatest freedom of the will consists in surrendering freedom for the sake of the whole.

What really exists does so in virtue of an essentially dialectical process. Reality is the synthetic outcome of affirming and negating forces.

Fichte is important philosophically as the architect for the Hegelian ontological logic that features the famous dialectical triad of thesis, antithesis, and the synthesis–the progress through conflict reality arising from opposing tendencies.

Fichte’s description of the dialectical realization of human freedom is an example:

  1. Man is born free (thesis).
  2. But he cannot know this until his freedom is first opposed and constrained by others (antithesis).
  3. In the synthesis, or final stage, man passes the stage of freedom for its own sake and comes to know freedom as an instrumentality to be used for the good of all.

The dialectical ontology defended by Fichte enters Hegel’s metaphysics at every point.

Romanticism brings the recognition that with the sublime comes a dialectic of terror and conflict and conflagration, the progress is won at a price, that history is organic. Nothing stays in place. And reality is always more than what we see.

— Daniel N. Robinson


The late Enlightenment hosted a counterculture, centered in the little duchy of Weimar and featuring Goethe, Schiller, and other luminaries. Though the sources of the Romantic rebellion lay largely in the work of the rationalist empiricists of the previous 100 years, the German Romantics and their followers were convinced that the mechanistic philosophies developed in the wake of the Newtonian achievement were both incomplete and misleading. They returned to the book of nature, wherein they found mystery and transcendental powers, powers of an essentially aesthetic character grounded in freedom. In Goethe’s Faust and in Schiller’s Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man, freedom is offered as the very definition of our humanity.

Romanticism is one of the perennial achievements of the human imagination and, in its philosophically developed expression, one of the significant productions of the 19th century.

If Romanticisim is a reaction to and rejection of the Enlightenment, its origins are clearly traced to the Enlightenment itself.

  1. The principle agenda of the Enlightenment is to challenge traditional authority through the tools and resources of a scientific worldview.
  2. Thus, the Enlightenment sets itself up against what is taken to be artificial contrivances–the overly analytical Scholastic philosophies, the authority of Scripture or revelation, the invented powers of rank and title, and slothful acceptance of tradition and the alleged wisdom of bygone times.
  3. If Descartes is one of the fathers of the modern worldview, let us recall that he helps to set the stage for the Enlightenment by rendering doubt the beginning of all knowledge.

With Rousseau, we get what might be regarded as the beginning of a veritable religion of nature. His writings show what was immanent in the ethos of the Enlightenment from the first: namely, a religion of nature that cannot be fully described with the artificial instrument of language.

Kant inserted this insuperable barrier between the world of phenomena and the noumenal reality behind that world.

  1. Kant’s philosophy at once entices us to get to the bottom of things, to see what’s behind the screen, and to understand at the outset that the formalisms that guide and edit perception are of little avail.
  2. But if perception in this rule-governed sense will not disclose the real nature of things, and if science is based primarily on observation, and if we know that observation reveals merely phenomenal, not noumenal, reality, then science has built-in limitations.
  3. Kant’s moral theory also places us as rational beings in that “intelligible real” outside the causal order of the natural sciences.

We now begin to hear deep resonances to the effect that what really defines us is our freedom, that freedom renders us unique in the entire cosmos, apart from all other things.

The so-called Romantic rebellion conveys the sense of the mystery behind the reality, which somehow is uncovered through the genius of art and literature. It’s not accessible to the eye until the eye is liberated from the formalisms of science, logic, and philosophy itself.

Goethe (1749-1832) is one of the very souls of Romanticism. His Farbenlehrer (1810) is one of the most detailed analyses to that date of color vision! Goethe argues that the Newtonian theory of light explains everything except what we see!

  1. There is nothing in the physics of light that tells us anything about how the world appears to us.
  2. It tells us nothing about the perception of beauty.

Goethe’s 10-year friendship with Friedrich Schiller was decisive in Goethe’s writing of Faust. In Schiller’s Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man, freedom creates and determinism limits and kills.

  1. We are never our authentic selves so fully as when at play.
  2. The idea is that the divinity within us expresses itself most fully when we do something for the sheer intrinsic worth of activity itself and not for anything external to it.
  3. This is Schiller’s sense of the authenticity of play, his aesthetic creed.

The Faust legend depicts the limits of science and the transcendental nature of freedom.

The Faust of Part 1 is the bored polymath who, knowing everything, finds nothing in knowledge that offers abiding pleasure. What it would take for Faust to pledge his soul is for Mephistopheles to create in him an experience of such a nature that he would never tire of it.

  1. “What would you sell your soul for?” is the questions at the bottom of the play.
  2. What is clear is that a scientific knowledge of the world does not make us at home in it.
  3. Clear, too, are the lengths to which one goes in order to achieve the transcendent– an experience of such quality and sublimity as to command time to stop in her tracks.
  4. It is only our autonomy, our radical freedom, that allows us to enter into such “Faustian bargains”–the soul being bet on the possibility of total satisfaction.

The Faust of Part 2, created by Goethe years later, is one for whom the transcendentally joyous experience is the freedom of others: the spectacle of a free people, engaged in the art of life. The question in Part 2 is how this whole Faustian bargain is going to work out.

  1. Complete freedom is the authenticity that comes from what we have freely chosen to do.
  2. The German philosopher Johan Fichte, one of Kant’s young contemporaries, asked: How do we know when we are free? He answers: when we meet opposition.
  3. Having gone through the range of possibilities that only the devil can present, Faust has an utterly novel experience–the transcendent joy of having his lands given over to all the people who have toiled on them.
  4. Romantic freedom is ultimately selfless, the absorption into a totality, freely giving up private freedom for the sake of others.
  5. Thus, Faust is redeemed in the end of the story.

The idea of freedom, centered to Kant’s moral philosophy and celebrated by Goethe, Schiller, and their kindred “Romantic idealists,” is an informing chapter in the long debate.

What the aesthetes concluded was that science in the wake of Newton had become mechanical, reductive, indifferent to the human condition, and depreciating of the human condition when it does consider it.

What they would put in its place is the truth of nature against the fabrications of the natural philosopher, a generous recognition of the creative power of genius, and the transcendent sources of beauty and wonder. The attribute of wonder is central to our humanity in the Romantic view. Any philosopher who would explain the world mechanically has not seen the world.

— Daniel N. Robinson


The Starry Heavens

Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me. I do not seek or conjecture either of them as if they were veiled obscurities or extravagances beyond the horizon of my vision; I see them before me and connect them immediately with the consciousness of my existence.

— Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason

Moral Science and the Natural World

Hume had made a strong case for the proposition that the grounds on which we judge things to be good or bad is not some abstract external moral reality, but the manner in which the event in question affects us cellularly and physiologically.

Hume’s moral theory arises from his epistemology. Once the problem of knowledge is “solved” in favor of impressions and ideas, moral issues can be collapsed into questions about impressions and ideas.

  1. But “since morals, therefore, have an influence on the actions and affections, it follows that they cannot be derived from reason, and that because reason alone, as we have already proved, can never have any such influence.”
  2. “Morals excite passions, and produce or prevent actions. Reason of itself is utterly impotent in this particular. The rules of morality, therefore, are not conclusions of our reason.”

The principal adversary to latter-day versions of utilitarianism is in the form of moral theories patterned after Kant’s and referred to as deontological theories.

  1. Central to any deontological moral theory is the idea that it takes the imperative of certain moral precepts to be unconditional (that is, a given action is right or wrong under all circumstances).
  2. Deontological moral theories are explicitly opposed to utilitarian theories, to the idea that something is right because it achieves good or desirable outcomes.

Kant accepted an essentially scientific conception of human nature but rejected the proposition that the merely natural dimensions of human life exhaust the characteristics of our humanity.

However, in addition to being subject to the laws of nature, human beings are also rational beings. What that means is that in addition to occupying the natural realm, we occupy what Kant calls the intelligible realm.

  1. In the intelligible realm, we account for events not by invoking physical causes but by examining reasons.
  2. We understand the course of action taken in the intelligible realm by understanding the reasons that guide the action.

The other feature central to Kant’s moral theory is autonomy of the will.

  1. If our actions were entirely determined by our physical constitutions, they would simply be reactions.
  2. Autonomy is the necessary condition for any moral ascriptions or judgments to apply to any actions.

Kant argues that we arrive at the concept of freedom via our intuitive awareness of moral law.

  1. The means by which the concept is reached is rational, not empirical. There can be no “scientific” proof of freedom.
  2. “Laws of freedom” sounds contradictory, but only because one thinks of laws in the scientific sense of strict determinism.
  3. The morally autonomous person is one whose freedom is governed by laws he gives himself.

The reasons to act in one way or another are of two sorts: hypothetical imperatives and categorical imperatives.

If the choice of one alternative over another is made to attain a specific end, it is called a hypothetical imperative.

  1. Hypothetical imperatives are tied to a particular context and to the needs and desires of natural creatures under the press of the need to survive, to avoid pain and gain pleasure.
  2. Decisions thus grounded are non-moral, because they arise from our natures not as rational beings but merely as human beings: They are essentially reactions.

The categorical imperative, on the other hand, declares an action to be morally necessary in itself, without reference to any purpose.

  1. Morality begins with a rational and autonomous being in the intelligible realm, where we are called on to have reasons for action.
  2. We must find a rule or precept or principle that guides actions of a given kind and that is universal.

The categorical imperative is not tied to a particular desire or impulse or motive; rather, it asserts its own moral authority.

One of the characteristics of a moral precept is that it’s universalizable, not tied to a particular condition and, hence, dependent on the contingent facts of the natural world.

Moral maxims, as reasons for acting, are applicable to all situations in which generically that given kind of action might take place.

  1. The categorical imperative is not tied to a particular desire or impulse or motive; rather, it asserts its own moral authority.
  2. The authority of the imperative is contained in the maxim itself, not something that it brings about, not some contingent outcome.

John Stuart Mill believed that Kant’s categorical imperative was a license to perform absolutely hideous acts.

  1. Kant’s pure categories of the understanding do not supply content but the framework governing the possibility of understanding.
  2. Kant advised that we “act in such a way that the maxim of your action would, if you were able, be instituted as a universal law of nature.”
  3. What troubled Mill was the prospect of, say, an arsonist invoking the categorical imperative and wishing to install as a universal law of nature the successful destruction of property by fire.

The fear can arise only from a misunderstanding of Kant’s entire argument.

  1. Any ignoble end or any end whatever tied to considerations of pleasure or keen desire or emotion comes under the heading of a hypothetical imperative, not a categorical imperative.
  2. The imperative is a law the will gives to itself. There are sufficient resources within Kantian moral thought to rule out arson as a candidate universal law!

Kant offers another version of the categorical imperative: “Man is never merely a means to an end, but always an end unto himself.”

  1. To use another person as a means or a tool is to deny that person the very moral autonomy on which “right” and “wrong” becomes possible.
  2. To do so would mean that you qualify for the same treatment. As Abraham Lincoln said, “As I would not be a slave, I would not be a master.”
  3. Kant is famous for concluding from this that one must never lie. If Smith lies to Jones to get Jones to do something that Jones would not do if properly informed, Smith trumps Jones’ moral autonomy, thus violating the categorical imperative.

Kant’s epitaph summarizes much about him: “The starry sky above him, the moral law within him.” Kant gives us moral law, not as a means to seek pleasure or avoid pain, but as a way of doing the right thing and, thus, substantiating ourselves as moral beings.

— Daniel N. Robinson

Kant on Freedom

Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) devoted most of his adult life to the three following questions: “What can I know, what ought I to do, what can I hope?”

In one of his more accessible essays–“What is enlightenment?”–he asked and answered a different question.

  1. His answer was that enlightenment was synonymous with intellectual freedom, with expressing one’s own authentic ideas, not echoing the thoughts of others.
  2. “Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity… For enlightenment of this kind, all that is needed is freedom. And the freedom in question is the most innocuous form of all: freedom to make public use of one’s reason in all matters.”

Kant is, at once, the culmination of Enlightenment thought and the author of a philosophy that would set worrisome limits on the entire Enlightenment project.

Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason credits Hume with awakening the author from his “dogmatic slumber.”

  1. Hume argued convincingly that everything we know is the product of experience. The concept of causation should be understood chiefly as a kind of habitual mode of mental operation. Morality is the domain of passions and sentiments, grounded in considerations of self-interest and utility.
  2. Kant can also be shown to have been influenced by Reid’s concept of common sense.

Kant’s Critique (not a broadside or polemic against reason but an inquiry into it, into what can be known using our rational resources and what cannot) takes up these challenges.

In his “first critique” (the second is the Critique of Practical Reason and the third, his Critique of Judgment), Kant agrees with Hume in insisting that all of our knowledge arises from experience. However, he makes a fundamental distinction, saying it is a mistake to assume that because our knowledge arises from experience, that it is grounded in experience.

According to Hume’s theory of causal concepts, we come to regard A as the cause of B, when A and B have been constantly conjoined in experience. This is not the conclusion of an argument but merely a habit of the mind.

In Kant’s terminology, cognitive or epistemic holdings that are not the result of experience are referred to as “pure.”

  1. Pure in Kant’s sense refers to what is non-empirical.
  2. A Critique of Pure Reason means a critical examination of the forms of rationality that could not come from experience but make up the framework within which experience is possible.
  3. There cannot be experience except by way of time and space. Thus, Kant reaches the concept of the pure (non-empirical) intuitions of time and space. Kant uses the word intuitions to mean a necessary precondition for something else to come about.
  4. Logically, then, this precondition must be prior to all experience–Kant’s famous terminology a priori–or there could be no experiences.

Kant argues that there is something fundamentally lacking in Hume’s account of “knowledge” and experience. Again, all knowledge may be said to arise out of experience but may not be grounded in experience.

In his “Analytic of Concepts,” Kant seeks to provide the framework for all knowledge. He contends that in all instances, knowledge involves a judgement, formed within a universal categorical framework that includes entities that could not possibly be gained by experience.

Kant presents four “Pure Categories of the Understanding” that could not be “given” in experience and that admit of no possible exceptions:

  1. There are categories of quantity: unity, plurality, and totality.
  2. There are categories of quality: reality, negation, and limitation.
  3. There are categories of modality: possibility, existence, and necessity.
  4. And there are categories of relation: inherence, causality, community, and correlation.

Certain categories may be given by experience, but nothing in experience “gives” totality or necessity, for example,

  1. We can know unity, and we can know plurality, but nothing in experience allows us to know totality. Nonetheless, we know, without counting, that there is an infinite number of integers.
  2. Likewise, nothing in the world of sensible matter can be known to be necessarily the case–anything could imaginably be different. Experience can only lead to inferences of greater or lesser probability.
  3. But even those inferences are intelligible only within the framework of necessity: That is, something is “probable” to the extent that it is not necessary.

If, however, we are beings of a different sort, would the categories be different? Do they arise out of our natures? No, they are the necessary condition for knowledge of anything. As the pure intuitions are the necessary forms of experience, the pure categories are the necessary forms of knowledge.

Kant claims that Hume is wrong to say that no “synthetic” propositions can be known to be true a priori, only “analytic” ones. What is meant by these terms?

An analytic proposition is one in which subject-term and predicate-term are essentially synonymous: All bachelors are unmarried men. The truth of analytic propositions is known a priori, which is to say, prior to, and independently of, experience, for what is involved here are mere truths about words.

A synthetic proposition is a factual statement about items and events in the world: Bill is wearing shoes. In Hume’s epistemology, no synthetic proposition can be known to be true except by way of experience, that is a posterior.

The Kantian rebuttal depends on the pure intuitions and pure categories.

  1. Every experience we shall ever have is within the intuited framework of space and time.
  2. All our knowledge claims will match with the categories of quantity, quality, and so on.
  3. Thus, every empirical statement we make will have certain properties that can be established a priori.
  4. Therefore, we can make synthetic statements whose truth is known a priori; for instance, “Every experience will take place in space and time.”

Forms of knowledge, like forms of experience, are not themselves given in experience but determine the ordering, organizing, and patterning of all possible knowledge.

Thus, in a manner of speaking, for Hume to be right, Kant has to be right. The Kantian a priori framework is required for Hume’s account of causation and knowledge to work.

When Kant grants that Hume was right to conclude that all knowledge comes from experience, he is recording his own modest credentials as an empiricist. He is also stating his position to be in the province of the ideal theorist, as Reid used the term.

The world known and the world knowable is the world as processed by the organs and principles of perception.

  1. What we know of the external world factually takes the form of phenomena. The question is: How accurately does our mental representation of reality reflect actual reality?
  2. Kant makes a distinction between phenomena and the realm beyond experience, which he refers to as noumena–the thing as it really is. The phenomenon is the experience it creates in a percipient.
  3. The knowable is confined to the categorical framework within which all elements of the understanding are located. Reason can step outside of this and, thus, has a certain reach superior to the understanding, but its reach is not limitless.
  4. There is a lot of Hume in Kant and very little Kant in Hume. But in Kant, we begin to see what a rationalist critique of a systematic and relentless empiricism looks like–it looks a lot like Kant’s first critique.

— Daniel N. Robinson

The Federalist Papers and the Great Experiment

Did we get a republic? What is a republic?

Madison says that a political regime is a republic only when the government’s power is derived entirely from the people and “administered by persons holding their offices during pleasure, from a limited period, or during good behavior.”

  1. Nothing in this is new or controversial. But Madison observes that history shows the closer something comes to that sense of a republic, the sooner it dies.
  2. The republics that seem to make it are what he refers to as a kind of puritanical republic.

John Adams was behind that view of republics. He said that only “pure religion or austere morals” will be capable of holding a republican form of government together.

With these concerns at the forefront, Madison distinguishes between pure democracies, subject to the factionalism that leads to anarchy, and the right sort of republic, in which power is delegated by the people.

The nearly paralyzing tension, of course, arises from the need for a central government that is able to secure the finances and defense of the nation and the jealously guarded freedoms of the individual states.

The Bill of Rights. Was it necessary?

A remarkable feature of the Convention of 1787, which drafted the Constitution, is that it specifically refused to incorporate a Bill of Rights. The omission was a deliberate act based on vitally important understandings.

A self-governing people should decide what its own rights are–to list them is to limit them.

The federal government should not trump the communities that compose the federation: The people of Maryland or New York have formed self-governing communities based on their own views of theirs rights.

You have no need of federal guarantees of your rights against your local community: Its laws and principles are your own, and you need no defense against it.

The lesson taught by Montesquieu was that there are at base only three types of government:

A despotism rules by will, and in it, the people must cultivate reverential fear.

A monarchy, with rule by law in the hands of a single person, calls for the cultivation of honor.

A republic depends on the cultivation of virtue. Power must be separated lest its concentration convert the republic into a tyranny.

  1. We find this in the Stoic outlook of Washington and many of the other founders–the recognition that the republic will succeed, because we have the resources to create and preserve lives of virtue and self-sacrifice.
  2. Power in this new republic (as the founders of the American Republic believed) would come to be taken by a natural aristocracy that would arise when the free exercise of virtue is permitted and encouraged.

The Federalist Papers and the grand experiment in self-government mark a special chapter in human history, a chapter in which there would be a convergence of political, scientific, and moral energies capable of overturning the old order by which most of life was shaped. But the signal feature of the enterprise was the direct, open, respectful address to the people, an attempt to gain support by appealing to the common sense and mature political understanding of those who, in virtue of being fit for the rule of law, are fit to rule themselves.

— Daniel N. Robinson



  1. Know when not to speak.
  2. Mind the rudeness of laconic response.
  3. Don’t be a self-righteous contrarian.


  1. The loud talker, who “silences the whole party by his sole power of lungs”.
  2. The excessive life-sharer, whom you no doubt know from your Facebook timeline.
  3. The clever bore “takes up every idle speech, to show his wisdom at a cheap rate”.
  4. The indifferent or apathetic bore parades his inattentiveness in your face.
  5. The lingering bore who overstays his welcome.
  6. The hobby-riders, who sound like a broken record.
  7. The Malaprops, with their special gift for choosing the least appropriate topics of conversation.
  8. The egotistical bore, who stifles with his vanity.

Do’s and don’ts:

  1. Don’t correct your conversation partner or go on righteousness crusades. It is a sign of, at best, vanity or, at worst, sheer rudeness to force your opinion on another.
  2. Be selective. Novelist William Gibson stressed the importance of a “personal micro-culture”. Susan Sontag wrote in her diary that she’s only interested in people engaged in a project of self-transformation. Artist Austin Kleon has astutely argued that “you are a mashup of what you let into your life.”
  3. Keep your commitments but give those who fail to keep theirs the benefits of doubt.
  4. Be mindful of your audience and don’t parade your knowledge before those less learned.
  5. Omission isn’t lying, it’s politeness. Learn to evade.
  6. Say “yes” whenever possible. When you say “no”, do so firmly.
  7. Let your opinion change — advice particularly apt in today’s hasty culture where not having an opinion is considered an embarrassment; seek to understand rather than to be right, and don’t be a know-it-all.
  8. Don’t be pretentious and do away with affectation.
  9. Practice genuine humility and avoid arrogance.

Link: /www.brainpickings.org/2013/04/17/the-art-of-conversation-martine-etiquette-1866/


Fashion freezes the moment in an eternal gesture of the-only-right-way-to-be. ‘Now is past’, and the ‘now’ of fashion is nostalgia in the making.

— Elizabeth Wilson


France in the 18th century was the nation of Voltaire, La Mettrie, Rousseau, Helvetius, Condorcet, D’Alembert, and Diderot, thinkers who appealed directly to the ordinary citizen and encouraged a widespread skepticism toward traditional forms of authority. These were the leaders of the French Enlightenment. They changed the world and supplied it with an idiom that still dominates political and social thought. If their collective effort was not a deep and enduring contribution to philosophy, it must rank as one of the greatest attempts to translate philosophy into social and political action. It is in their collective effect that the wider world would attach itself to scientific modes of analysis and scientific programs of reform. By providing ordinary citizens with encyclopedic accounts of the principles and discoveries of science, they aimed to defeat superstition and the tyranny of the lettered classes over the untutored. In the process, they did much to weaken the authority of religious teaching, including its moral lessons, and much to weaken the political authority that rested on this teaching.

What we take to be the modern worldview is less a contribution of the Renaissance than of the age of science that followed in the 17th century. But consider this pair of quotations:

“My works are the issue of pure and simple experience, who is the one true mistress. These rules are sufficient to enable you to know the true from the false” (Leonardo da Vinci [1452-1519]).

“Let us console ourselves for not knowing the possible connections between a spider and the rings of Saturn, and continue to examine what is within our reach” (Voltaire [1694-1778]).

Leonardo and Voltaire have much in common, though much, of course, divides them. Both are satisfied that the light of experience casts sufficient illumination for us to understand the nature of our difficulties. As vindication of his belief in experience, Voltaire had what Leonardo did not have: the inspiration and achievement of Newton.

We do not generally think of the witty and discerning minds of the Paris salons as “philosophers.” Few, if any, philosophy journal articles are written now on the musings of Diderot, Holbach, Helvetius, Condorcet, Voltaire, La Mettrie, and others of their ilk.

The so-called salon philosophes invited the intelligent parts of the world into the long debate. The did not reserve philosophy to the philosophers. They opened up, into the public discourse, issue that long had existed primarily at the level at abstract philosophy.

But sometimes, the wit and wisdom of the philosophes is in danger of losing the refinement of philosophy and dropping to the level of rank propaganda.

However, the philosophes weren’t actually out to prosecute the agenda of academic philosophy. They were out to change the world.

  1. To change the wolrd is to change minds. The only alternative is tyrannical oppression.
  2. This aspect of the Enlightment project is most apparent in the publication of Diderot’s Encyclopedia, which focused on the authority of experience, absent any dogmatic teaching or religious overtones.
  3. The outline of the massive project was given in the form of a “Tree of Human Knowledge,” developed by Diderot and d’Alembert, that includes everything from working with slate to our knowledge of God.

Voltaire (1694-1778) was a powerful influence on what became this Age of Enlightment.

As with Descartes, he had been educated by the Jesuits.

At 23, he is found serving nearly a year in the Bastille for derisive criticism of the government. This event was a harbinger, for within a decade, Voltaire was exiled to England for offending the chevalier de Rohan.

  1. Voltaire’s reverential attitude toward Newton is part of his general judgement that British philosophy has triumphed over Cartesianism.
  2. His Letters on the English makes this clear and ties the achievements in Britain to the intellectually liberated climate of thought: He compares membership in the Royal Society (science and achievement) to the French Academy (birth and orthodoxy).

Voltaire has a splendid model for this mode of casual criticism–Michel de Montaigne, whose famous Essais (1575) celebrates secular knowledge, common sense, common decency, the right way to work through problems, the philosophies worth having, and the gentle ridicule of the pomposity of self-appointed authority.

With Montaigne, too, there is an enlargement of the discursive community, a movement toward the democratization of knowledge.

Voltaire is in the direct patrimony of Montaigne: Knowledge is not meant to vindicate belief but to help us determine which beliefs are worth having.

The wit and iconoclasm, the attention to precision and machines duly noted, it is time to turn to a mind of a radically different cast, that of Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778).

Against the attention to science and technology, Rousseau looks to nature in the raw, unanalyzed, spared the “resolutive-compositive” methods of the tinkering classes.

Against the rationalism of the Enlightenment–its contempt for superstition and its reverence for high civilization–Rousseau draws attention to the inauthentic lives constrained and corrupted by civilization.

Rousseau is the harbinger of the Romantic rebellion but bears the same tools of high culture and literary astuteness that are the mark of Enlightenment thought.

In Emile, Rousseau takes the position that civilization works to the disadvantage of what is most authentic about us, that the very process of civilizing someone strips him of certain natural tendencies and sentiments.

In Du Contrat Social (1762), Rousseau offers one of the most summoning lines in all of political philosophy: “Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains.”

  1. Rousseau refered to the chained mind–the mind tied to orthodoxies that render it incapable of its own natural functions.
  2. We find in Rousseau, too, a particular form of naturalism, a concession to nature as the last word, a skepticism toward merely human contrivances and merely habitual modes of conduct.

In La Mettrie (1709-1751), naturalism tends toward materialism. Man–A Machine, La Mettrie’s bannded book of 1748, extends to its logical conclusion the materialistic drift of Descartes’s own psychology.

The human body is a machine that winds its own springs. It is the living image of perpetual movement.

Given that all the faculties of the soul depend on the actions of the body, the soul is an “enlightened machine.”

La Mettrie calls on the reader to come to grips with the fact that human life is biologically organized and that this organization is shaped by external conditions.

Locke’s translator in France, Etienne Condillac (1715-1780), introduces in his 1754 Treatise of Sensation the model of the sentient statue, a block of stone, shaped by its environment.

As the result of an incessant interaction with a stimulating environment, the statue comes to form elementary Lockean sensations, ideas, and more complext ideas.

The point, of course, is that our essence does not precede our actual existence in the world and that the kinds of beings we are serve as a record of the experiences we’ve had.

Not long after this, Thomas Paine, in his Common Sense, will speak of rank and titles as “a magician’s wand, which circumscribes human felicity.” Again, the guide in all things is nature. Newton and Bacon instructed us in how to read the book of nature without adding our own preconceptions to the facts.

Helvetius is in the same tradition of a radical environmentalist.

But Helvetius recognizes that the classes that exists in this world must have been made, because it is obvious that political forces are needed to preserve them.

Given that so much energy is needed to keep this sort of social organization in place, there must be something horrifically unnatural about it. If that much work has to be done to preserve it, it must be because it opposes natural forces.

Condorcet (1743-1794), at the end of the century, offers the promise of progress. To my mind, he represents what is most defining in this age of Enlightenment.

Condorcet reflects the dominant idea of his age and does so with special brightness and poignancy. It is the idea of progress.

  1. In its Enlightenment form, it is more analytical and scientific, more political and self-conscious than the earlier Renaissance version.
  2. Whereas the classical worldview conceives of a cosmos organized by principles of harmony and proportion, the notion of progress says that what is stationary is stagnant and the future is under no obligation to mimic the past.
  3. Condorcet’s Sketch for an Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind defends the plan to liberate the human imagination and, in the process, achieve something new, untried in world history.
  4. He concludes–in the shadow of his own impending death–with the hope that a grand association of the scientifically enlightened, drawn from diverse nations, “would meet no obstacles; and it would assure among all the sciences and all the arts directed by their principles.. an equilibrium of knowledge, industry, and reason necessary for the progress and the happiness of human race.”

The Enlightenment is, at once, a critique of traditionalism and a forward-looking movement of thought and action impelled by the methods and perspective of science. France would host some of the movement’s most persuasive writers and thinkers, including Voltaire, Diderot, Rousseau, and Condorcet. Their revolution in thought was to be matched by political and social revolutions based on the recovery of natural rights.

— Daniel N. Robinson


By common sense, Reid always referred to what was universally and pragmatically represented in nature, including human nature, as part of the “constitution” of the being in question, whether caterpillar or man.

The principle of common sense, for Reid, does not mean the wisdom of the crowd. It doesn’t mean the prevailing opinions, the settled ethos of a given community.

Rather, it is that which we are under an obligation to accept in all of the ordinary affairs of life. Reid illustrates the point with the “lowly caterpillar” that will crawl across  a thousand leaves until it finds the one that’s right for its diet.

At the core of Hume’s epistemology is the theory that all our knowledge is mediated. Hume, thus, continues a long, almost uninterrupted philosophical tradition that says the eternal world comes to be represented in some way via mediation by the senses, a view with which Reid disagrees.

These philosophers conclude that, because all our knowledge is filtered through our senses, we can never know the real world except by way of these representations.

What results are “ideas” about the external world, but there is no way of determining the adequacy of such ideas as actual records or copies of the world.

If this were so, then skepticism is entirely appropriate.

Reid rejects this so-called “copy theory.” More to the point, however, his analysis of the problem in this manner is intended to convey an experimental approach of the Baconian-Newtonian variety.

There is no evidence to support the view that the “impressions” made on the sense organs are what  the mind becomes aware of. Not even philosophers are aware of their sensory impressions.

There is, therefore, no evidence that the ideas or knowledge we have should be thought of as some sort of “copy” of these impressions.

Reid’s experiments demonstrate to him that the image of a right triangle projected on the spherical retina of the eye is itself curved; what we see, however, is not a curved triangle but the triangle as it is actually configured. We see what is there!

In fact, what happens is that physiological activity presents to the mind a system of natural signs; by a means Reid confesses he does not understand, the mind can decode these signs and move from the sign to the thing signified. There is a fit between our biology and the external world such that we are able to live in it.

The Humean conception of causation is at the very core of Hume’s skepticism. It is flawed in the same way, according to Reid.

Constant conjunction of two things cannot be the grounding of our belief that one causes the other.

  1. No two things are more constantly in temporal conjunction than day and night, yet no one thinks, “Day is the cause of night.”
  2. From constant conjunction alone, the concept of a “cause” would never arise.

The actual source of this concept is our own active powers. We know from infancy that we are able to bring things about; from this, we are led to the inference that events external to us are similarly produced by other powers.

In the same way, the ethical theory according to which morality is an essentially passion- or emotion-based set of self-interested actions is not the result of systematic inquiry and is defeated by such an inquiry.

Even the hedonist must calculate long-range consequences. Immediate sensations of pleasure and pain cannot account for our ability to swallow a nasty medicine for eventual benefit. Rationality is necessary presupposition even on the Humean account.

Philosophical principles ought to be able to account for evidence gathered in the real world. The long human record of altruism is not adequately explained by the Humean theory of it.

There must, in fact, be first principles of morals within us guiding our daily behavior, just as the caterpillar is guided to find the right leaf among thousands.

Hume on personal identity argues that the continuity of identity is based on the same principles that preserve the continuity of a parade formation of soldiers: As one or another marcher drops out, another takes his place, so that the “bundle of perceptions” is held together.

This is based on Hume’s theory of causation as “constant conjunction.” Because Reid considers this theory to be flawed, he does not believe it will work here either.

  1. Hume says, “When I observe myself, I see nothing but a bundle of perceptions.” And who, then is doing the observing?
  2. For there to be treason, there must be a traitor; for there to be a “bundle of perceptions,” there must be a percipient.

Reid saw Locke’s theory (upon which Hume’s was based) as hopeless from the outset: Remembering the loss of the Battle of Waterloo does not make one Napoleon!

  1. A man remembers himself to have once been a boy and knows that he is today a brave young officer; an aged general remembers that he was once a brace young officer but no longer remembers he was a boy.
  2. Thus, A = B and B = C, but A does not equal C!

Against the “idea” theory and its resulting skepticism, Reid offered a naturalistic, “common sense” alternative, according to which the creatures of nature, including human beings, are fitted out with what is needed for survival, for shared actions, and for valid knowledge of the external world. He insisted that Hume and Locke before him were not always faithful to the observational methods of Bacon and Newton, nor to their means of testing competing accounts.

— Daniel N. Robinson