James McCune Smith Predicted African American Preeminence in U.S. Art and Culture

James McCune Smith Predicted African American Preeminence in U.S. Art and Culture

In the 1843 published version of his 1841 lecture “The Destiny of the People of Color,” African American physician, intellectual, author, classicist, and human rights activist James McCune Smith (1813–1865) reflected on the future of his oppressed people. From the midst of their shared struggle for freedom from slavery and prejudice, he found hope:

For we are destined to write the literature of this republic, which is still, in letters, a mere province of Great Britain. We have already, even from the depths of slavery, furnished the only music this country has yet produced. We are also destined to write the poetry of the nation; for as real poetry gushes forth from minds embued [sic] with a lofty perception of the truth, so our faculties, enlarged in the intellectual struggle for liberty, will necessarily become fired with glimpses at the glorious and the true, and will weave their inspiration into song. We are destined to produce the oratory of this Republic; for since true oratory can only spring from honest efforts on behalf of the right, such will of necessity rise amid our struggle. . . . In fine, we are destined to spread over our common country the holy influences of principles, the glorious light of Truth.(1)

McCune Smith’s predictions may have struck many readers as far too optimistic given the dire situation so many African Americans of his time faced, whether within the United States’ slave system or in the “caste” system it produced.(2) Even when not legally enslaved, nominally free African Americans were routinely denied access to education, lucrative jobs, good housing, transportation, and services, and they were almost universally denied equal political rights and representation. Yet McCune Smith’s observations of certain aspects of U.S. society and his political and sociological studies of past civilizations provided him with sources of hope and confidence for a better future for his people. This better future would center largely on the outsize role that African Americans would come to play, as they were sure to do, in the development of U.S. culture, especially in the artistic and intellectual realms.

In “Destiny,” McCune Smith expressed some of his observations within the context of analogies he drew from them. First, as a social and political activist as well as a devout Christian, McCune Smith observed that the clergy, largely excluded as they were from politics and the acquisition of wealth, nevertheless wielded great spiritual and moral influence. Therefore, they might have played more significant roles in the formation and development of U.S. society than those who wielded more direct political and economic power.(3) McCune Smith compared this soft power of the clergy to that which he believed African Americans held, or at least would come to hold. Likewise excluded from wealth and politics, in this case by law and by prejudice, African Americans had the moral sympathy of those who recognized that such oppressions contravened God’s law and the United States’ founding principles as outlined in the Declaration of Independence, which were likewise centered on moral, and therefore political, equality.(4) He predicted that as the general public recognized the logic and justice of arguments for equality, their sympathy must, then, necessarily increase, and with this, the moral influence of African Americans. As the above quotation confirms, McCune Smith saw the “influence of principles” as “holy,” and since the United States was founded on lofty principles rather than on nationality or ancestral considerations of birth and status, the principled fight for freedom and equal rights was holy as well—perhaps even more holy, and more inspirational, than the spiritual teachings of the clergy. Over time, this moral influence would change hearts and minds and bring about recognition of African Americans as human beings, equal in dignity and as deserving of rights as all other United States citizens.

None of this is to say that McCune Smith discounted the importance of direct political action or other sources of influence, such as increased access to the wider economy, greater social mobility, and more educational opportunities. He believed that African Americans had a right to these as well and worked hard throughout his life to facilitate their access to them.(5) Yet in “Destiny,” McCune Smith predicted that African Americans would likely win their equal place in United States society through moral victories first.

Looking to the past as well as the present, the classicist and political theorist McCune Smith drew another analogy: the struggle for equality by African Americans resembled freedom struggles in great republics of the past. As he observed, African Americans were routinely excluded from much of the “bustle of practical everyday life” within their own republic, the United States, through discriminatory laws and social practices.(6) African Americans were also, numerically, very much in the minority. Many other historical republics were founded on noble principles but oppressed those they conquered and enslaved; the latter usually represented the majority of the population, who rebelled once their oppression grew intolerable or a leader rose up to unite them. However, oppressed African Americans could not turn the tables on their oppressors by sheer force of numbers through violence or politics. Yet regardless, every republic that betrayed the principles on which it was founded inevitably came under the control of the people it had previously oppressed in one way or another.(7) McCune Smith believed that this same destiny awaited African Americans. It was their fate to dominate their oppressors, he insisted, because those oppressed by every republic throughout history, from the ancient Greeks onward, eventually did so.

Freedom from oppression did not historically come only from the downfall of oppressive republics. It also came from oppressed peoples finding their own ways to endure, then to succeed, and then finally to dominate. McCune Smith wrote,

The Jews, for example, in comparatively modern times have been persecuted and oppressed very much in almost every European kingdom. . . . And yet we find that the Jews, the so pitilessly oppressed minority, now hold in their hands the rule, the very fate of some of the kingdoms who were formerly foremost in persecuting them.(8)

Jewish people had found an avenue to freedom in finance, and Irish Catholics had found one through politics.(9) African Americans faced a different set of circumstances in their oppression, and they would therefore find another way. Because they were numerically a minority, and because the peculiar nature of their unconstitutional oppression primarily required intellectual and moral opposition, African Americans would also find themselves drawn to, as McCune Smith put it, “the more abstract studies,” removed from the mainstream struggle up the social ladder, fighting for justice all the while on intellectual grounds. In other words, instead of the struggle for rights and equality being a case of “might makes right,” African Americans could win only by demonstrating that, as McCune Smith phrased it, “right makes right.” Their bloodless victory would be not only a moral one but intellectual and artistic as well.(10) (McCune Smith came to believe that force was also necessary to end slavery; as it turns out, he was also prescient in that regard.)(11)

McCune Smith recognized signs that this African American artistic and intellectual revolution was not only to be glimpsed in the future; it was already beginning. For example, as he asserted in the quote which opened this essay, African Americans had created the first original form of U.S. music (more on this below), and they were “the source and subject of many essays, speeches, arguments &c., &c., which unfold with clearness and eloquence, true Republicanism to the prejudice-blinded eyes of the multitude.”(12) Though African Americans did not yet dominate the intellectual and artistic spheres, they had made inroads. This was especially impressive given the obstacles placed against their mere survival, let alone social, economic, and political advancement. African Americans largely refused to leave the land of their birth—because, as McCune Smith argued, “We are not a migrating people. The soil of our birth is dear to our hearts”; had shown their moral superiority over their oppressors by “returning Good for Evil”; contributed hugely to the nation through their labor; and flourished even in areas of the United States where the harshest and most prejudicial laws were arrayed against them.(13)

In many works throughout his literary career, McCune Smith would identify and celebrate the myriad ways in which African Americans took a leading and influential role in the development of U.S. art and culture, as well as the ways that people of African descent were influencing world culture more broadly. McCune Smith believed it was essential to explore, describe, and highlight the significance of the artistic and intellectual achievements of people of African descent throughout the world as well as in the United States to demonstrate how African Americans would come to dominate the nation’s artistic and intellectual culture. These demonstrations served not only to show how his optimistic predictions would come true for African Americans, but also to encourage them to “love, respect, and glory in our negro nature!” and thereby to not be dissuaded by prejudice from fulfilling their artistic and intellectual destiny.(14) As African Americans became more aware of the extent and significance of African contributions to artistic and intellectual culture around the world, their self-confidence would rise, enhancing their potential to fulfill McCune Smith’s predictions of their destiny in their own country.

In his “Lecture on the Haytien Revolutions,” published in 1841, McCune Smith celebrated the intellectual as well as the revolutionary legacy of Haitian freedom fighter Toussaint Louverture (1743–1803). Louverture’s legacy as a revolutionary was well known; McCune Smith believed it essential that his intellectual contributions be appreciated as well.(15) As well as being a skilled and inspired revolutionary leader, Louverture “had a mind stored with patient reflection upon the biographies of men, the most evident in civil and military affairs; and [was] deeply versed in the history of the most remarkable revolutions that had yet occurred amongst mankind.”(16) Louverture’s “lofty intellect” was expressed not in works of art and literature but in diplomacy, in his primary authorship of a new constitution, in his lawmaking, and in “his principles [which] were so thoroughly disseminated among his brethren.”(17) McCune Smith believed that much of the African American intellectual legacy would likewise be derived, directly and indirectly, from its own role in the struggle for freedom.

In his 1855 essay “The Critic at Chess,” McCune Smith described another way that people of African origin contributed to the arts, highlighting an example in which he believed Congolese warriors influenced white European literature. He perceived the rhythm and structure of a Congolese war chant within a stanza from Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem “Charge of the Light Brigade.”(18) McCune Smith chose a quote from author Gustave d’Alaux to demonstrate the chant’s influential and liberating power: “When these incomprehensible words . . . rolled out on the midnight air . . . the old St. Domingo planter had need to count his slaves, and the patrol to be on the alert” as it “transformed indifferent and heedless slaves into furious masses.”(19) Tennyson, McCune Smith believed, recognized its rousing power and translated that within his own expression of military rhythm.

Artists and intellectuals of African descent, as McCune Smith would describe, also revealed their power to touch the heart and mind and inflame the imagination beyond the realms of war and politics. In another 1855 essay, “The Black Swan,” McCune Smith paid tribute to the “genius” of U.S. singer Elizabeth Greenfield and French author Alexandre Dumas. The essay revolves around McCune Smith’s review of a Greenfield concert he attended at the Broadway Tabernacle in New York City, where the African American population suffered greatly due to legal and social discrimination, as they did throughout most of the United States.(20) Greenfield, whose popular moniker provided the title for the essay, nevertheless achieved a level of commercial success and widespread popularity few African Americans enjoyed, even in deeply prejudiced and segregated communities such as New York City. Dumas, McCune Smith wrote, was also a “first class original genius . . . of new proportions and unheard of fecundity of imagination” whose “grandest peculiarities are purely Negroid.”(21) Greenfield and Dumas were great artists whose ability to touch hearts and minds cut through and stepped over the petty boundaries that racial prejudice sought to erect around them. As pioneering music historian James M. Trotter wrote in 1878, “The haze of complexional prejudice has so much obscured the vision of many persons, that they cannot see . . . that musical faculties, and power for their artistic development, are not in the exclusive possession of the fairer-skinned race.”22 In his writings, McCune Smith showed how artists of African descent would open the people’s eyes and help them see past those prejudices: “True art is a leveler . . . never was the Tabernacle so thoroughly speckled with mixed complexions.”(23) As this example so well demonstrated, African Americans and peoples of African descent throughout the world would find that artistic and intellectual expression served as their most powerful weapon against oppression and marginalization in a prejudiced culture, and in dismantling the “caste” system that slavery had created.

Artists such as Greenfield and Dumas did not only break down racial barriers within their own times. As McCune Smith related, both artists, in part due to their unique racial heritage and their experiences in a prejudiced world, took their forms of artistic and intellectual expression to new heights, creating bodies of work that could only later be recognized for their true significance and thereby influencing and inspiring the work of future generations. McCune Smith wrote that Greenfield’s work as an innovative and consummate artist as well as an unapologetically “black woman” made her a “Priestess in the Temple” of the art world. She took her genre beyond what contemporary experience and sensibilities could appreciate, creating “a new revelation of Art [which] must be comprehended before it is chronicled in fitting terms.” Dumas did likewise with his literature, for which “the rules of European criticism are too small for the accurate measure of his proportions.”(24) Their accomplishments demonstrated the artistic and intellectual “influence which it shall be our [African and African American] destiny to possess.”(25)

McCune Smith believed that the analogies he drew among African American experience in the United States, the moral influence of the clergy, and various ways in which oppressed peoples liberated themselves; other lessons of history; and historical and contemporary examples of innovative and influential African-descended artists and intellectuals justified his prediction that African Americans would come to predominate in the development of many aspects of U.S. art and culture. Yet his predictions regarding the gamut of artistic expression and creativity were fulfilled to such a degree that even he, inspired with the confidence his words reveal, might marvel at it, as we can see in the following.

Since McCune Smith made his striking prediction nearly two hundred years ago, we have witnessed the rise to preeminence of African American artists, writers, intellectuals, ministers, scholars, orators, and poets. From journalists and educators Frederick Douglass and Ida B. Wells to activists, orators, and religious leaders Martin Luther King and Malcolm X; to intellectuals and authors W.E.B. Du Bois, James Baldwin, and Maya Angelou; to poets and playwrights Angelina Weld Grimké, Langston Hughes, Lorraine Hansberry, and Audre Lorde, to name only a very few, African Americans of letters, ideas, and oratory have played central roles in U.S. arts and culture. McCune Smith himself came to play an essential if still underrecognized role in creating the “Republic of Letters” that he envisioned in his 1852 essay “The Black News-Vender,” which he described as “that glorious commonwealth, perpetually progressive, free from caste . . . which smiles upon all her citizens, if they be but true, which holds triumphant sway and is crowned with perennial laurel in the coming ages!”(26) That essay forms but a tiny part of McCune Smith’s innovative and expansive body of work, which includes writings in medicine, science, history, social and political theory, rhetoric, biography, and social commentary.

In addition to his predictions in “Destiny,” McCune Smith made several other significant observations. One was that African Americans had, in his time, invented the only uniquely American form of music. He did not specifically identify this form, but from the quote which opens this essay (“We have already, even from the depths of slavery, furnished the only music this country has yet produced”), we can infer he meant songs which enslaved African Americans used to lighten the drudgery of enforced labor and which would give rise to many other forms of African American music. (27) While referring to a singular form may have been close enough to accurate in 1843, the myriad types of music invented, developed, or hugely influenced by U.S. citizens of African descent have multiplied by orders of magnitude. If it seems impossible to name every influential African American of letters and oratory, it seems even more impossible to name every influential African American musical artist. Such artists of creative and diverse genius as Scott Joplin, Memphis Minnie, Rosetta Tharpe, Ray Charles, Nina Simone, Prince, and Run-DMC created or refined genres of music that touch the heart, stir the soul, heat the blood, and move the body like no others. From spirituals to rap, from ragtime to jazz, from gospel to soul, from blues to rock-n-roll, from rhythm and blues to the Motown sound, from funk to hip-hop, these forms not only dominate American music but have become some of the most popular and influential throughout the world.(28)

McCune Smith saw much to be optimistic about in the long term regarding the great potential for human and specifically U.S. progress in interracial and intercultural connections, even as the political and social ramifications of race-based slavery and prejudice often left him weary, depressed, or in despair.(29) This potential would be realized most dramatically and forcefully, McCune Smith believed, in the realm of artistic and intellectual culture. The history of the United States following McCune Smith’s writings on African Americans in art and culture offers a multitude of vindicatory evidence of his deeply insightful predictions. While some fear the threat of artistic and cultural appropriation, African Americans have nevertheless “attain[ed] the influence” McCune Smith predicted.30 African Americans have indeed played a central and formative role in so many aspects of U.S. art and culture that a hypothetical United States devoid of their great contributions would be wholly unrecognizable and deeply impoverished.

The text of this article was originally published in Kalfou: A Journal of Comparative and Relational Ethnic Studies, Vol. 7 No. 1 (2020)

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NOTES

  1. James McCune Smith, “The Destiny of the People of Color,” in The Works of James McCune Smith: Black Intellectual and Abolitionist, ed. John Stauffer (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 59.
  2. In his essay “Civilization: Its Dependence on Physical Circumstances,” written in 1844 and revised for publication in 1859, McCune Smith defined “caste”—a term he used often—as “the general term for that feature in human institutions which isolates man from his fellow
    man” (James McCune Smith, “Civilization: Its Dependence on Physical Circumstances,” in The Works of James McCune Smith, 261).
  3. McCune Smith, “The Destiny of the People of Color,” 57–58.
  4. Ibid., 52–53.
  5. For more on McCune Smith’s community work and social justice activism and journalism, see Rhoda Golden Freeman, “The Free Negro in New York City in the Era before the Civil War” (Ph.D. diss.: Columbia University, 1966), 40–41, 46, 144–147, 184–186, 194, 196–197, 241, 247, 264, 270, 276, 305–306, 310, 352–354, 373.
  6. McCune Smith, “The Destiny of the People of Color,” 58.
  7. Ibid., 50–51, 54–55, 57–58.
  8. Ibid., 56–57.
  9. Ibid., 57.
  10. Ibid., 57–59.
  11. John Stauffer, The Black Hearts of Men: Radical Abolitionists and the Transformation of Race (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), 124; James McCune Smith, “James McCune Smith to Gerrit Smith, 1 / 31 Mar 1855,” March 1, 1855, Box 34. Gerrit Smith Papers, Syracuse University Libraries.
  12. McCune Smith, “The Destiny of the People of Color,” 55.
  13. Ibid., 51–53, 56.
  14. James McCune Smith, “The Black Swan,” in The Works of James McCune Smith, 120.
  15. For more about McCune Smith’s “promot[ion] of the black leader as intellectual, urbane, and historically conscious,” see Philip Edmondson, “To Plead Our Own Cause: The St. Domingue Legacy and the Rise of the Black Press,” Prospects: An Annual of American Cultural Studies 29 (October 2005): 137–138, 140–142.
  16. McCune Smith, “Lecture on the Haytien Revolutions,” in The Works of James McCune Smith, 39.
  17. Ibid., 41–45.
  18. James McCune Smith, “The Critic at Chess,” in The Works of James McCune Smith, 110.
  19. Quoted in ibid., 110–111.
  20. Freeman, “The Free Negro in New York City in the Era Before the Civil War,” 435–436.
  21. McCune Smith, “The Black Swan,” 120.
  22. James M. Trotter, Music and Some Highly Musical People (Boston: Lee and Shephard, 1878), 4, available via the Internet Archive at http://archive.org/details/musicsomehighlym00trot. As well as a music historian, James Monroe Trotter (1842–1892) was an educator, a Civil War veteran from the 54th Massachusetts regiment, a postal worker, and the next African American following Frederick Douglass to serve as recorder of deeds for Washington, DC (William J. Simmons, Henry McNeal Turner, and A. G. Haven, Men of Mark: Eminent, Progressive and Rising [Cleveland, OH: George M. Rewell, 1887], 833–842, available via the Internet Archive at http://archive.org/details/06293247.4682.emory.edu).
  23. McCune Smith, “The Black Swan,” 121.
  24. Ibid., 120–121.
  25. McCune Smith, “The Destiny of the People of Color,” 58.
  26. James McCune Smith, “The Black News-Vender,” in The Works of James McCune Smith, 190.
  27. McCune Smith, “The Destiny of the People of Color,” 59; Trotter, Music and Some Highly Musical People, 256, 263, 267, 324, 327.
  28. Burton W. Peretti, Lift Every Voice: The History of African American Music (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2009), 170.
  29. D. W. Blight, “In Search of Learning, Liberty, and Self Definition: James McCune Smith and the Ordeal of the Antebellum Black Intellectual,” Afro-Americans in New York Life and History 9, no. 2 (1985): 19.
  30. McCune Smith, “The Destiny of the People of Color,” 58. Many theories, characterizations, and posited examples of cultural and artistic appropriation are problematic in many respects, especially in the way they so often conflate or obscure the differences between influence and emulation, which empower the artist or culture, and exploitation and failure to give credit, which disempower the artist or culture. This is not to dismiss widespread failures to credit artists and cultures for their creations, particularly in the music and fashion industries, or the fact that such practices are particularly problematic when it comes to historically disadvantaged groups. McCune Smith hinted at this problem when he identified Tennyson’s possible and uncredited adoption of the rhythm and structure of the Congolese chant in his poem “Charge of the Light Brigade.” It is important, however, not to lose sight of the fact that such exploitations and failures to give appropriate credit often occur within the wider context of popular recognition, admiration, and influence these historically disadvantaged artists and cultures have achieved. McCune Smith’s remarks about Tennyson’s poem also reveal his evident pride and satisfaction in the inspirational and influential power of the Congolese chant, including within the work of that Western poet whom McCune Smith so admired (McCune Smith, “The Critic at Chess,” 109–111).

 

To Lockdown, or Not to Lockdown

Liberate Minnesota protest at the Governor’s Residence in St Paul, Minnesota by Lorie Shaull, via Wikimedia Commons

Protests which have recently arisen in parts of the United States and Brazil claim that economic disruption caused by lockdowns imposed to halt the spread of SARS-CoV-2 are more dangerous than Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Protestors in the United States, in public spaces and online, also argue that the lockdowns consist of unconstitutional violations on personal rights to move freely, to assemble, and to work, and that Covid-19 is not very deadly anyway. These protests are often joined by those who trumpet conspiracy theories. One is that the billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates helped create SARS-CoV-2 so that he could sell vaccines and/or implant subcutaneous dyes or capsules to track and spy on the world’s population. Another that all lockdowns are really seized opportunities by those who wish to turn their governments into massive, all-powerful police states.

The latter claim embraces and expands an element of fear shared by many on the left, right, and center. China’s stringent lockdown of Hubei province, which includes Wuhan – the city where the virus originated – appeared to many to be overly invasive, exemplary of authoritarian forms of government and, therefore, not to be replicated in free societies. Viktor Orbán and his government, through the Hungarian Parliament which they control, took advantage of the emergency to seize the power to ‘cancel all elections, suspend its own ability to legislate, and give the prime minister the right to rule by decree—indefinitely,’ as Anne Applebaum writes.

Fears that the lockdowns might lead to the erosion of civil liberties are not entirely misguided, even if overblown. Many democratic societies, such as South Korea and Taiwan, have instituted robust virus control policies which included contract tracing, targeted shutdowns, and quarantines without eroding overall civil rights or arbitrarily expanding government power. Not only have such policies been highly effective, they made total lockdowns unnecessary; because of them, relatively few have thus far had their rights to move freely, assemble, and work curtailed. The United States has long – since shortly after its founding, in fact – imposed restrictions on movement, assembly, and speech, and compelled citizens to take certain actions, during wars and public health crises without becoming an Orbánian- or Chinese Communist Party-style authoritarian regime, whatever extremists on the left or right would argue.

World leaders and heads of state and local governments acknowledge, as common sense indicates, that lockdowns cannot continue indefinitely: as members of a social species, most people need regular contact with others to maintain their mental health; most people need to get back to work to support themselves and their families; governments need tax revenue to maintain social welfare and defense systems, essential infrastructure needs workers and funds to maintain it; dental care, elective surgeries, and other deferred healthcare must be resumed before overall health deteriorates; and so on. The debate is not over whether lockdowns will be eased and lifted, but when and how, while minimizing suffering and death as much as possible along the way.

The debate is complicated by the fact that so little is still known about actual infection rates; how many people carry the virus without falling ill of Covid-19; actual death rates; and how these rates might change without nonmedical interventions such as lockdowns, quarantines, and voluntary and enforced social distancing. Early results seem to indicate what many have long suspected: the rates of all of these are significantly higher than official tallies indicate. A recent study at Stanford University, based on results from a new antibody test, indicate that far more people have been exposed to the virus, which, if so, may indicate that the death rate is far lower than initial estimates indicated. However, initial takeaways from the as-yet-not peer-reviewed study may be deeply flawed since it was not randomized, relied on a test whose accuracy is questionable, and cannot yet take into account actual rather than reported death rates since actual rates are still unknown. Some countries and municipalities which publish mortality figures without long lag times show large spikes in general mortality rates unaccounted for by confirmed Covid-19 deaths. This helps explain why so many places throughout the world are experiencing such dire situations as hospitals, morgues, crematories, and cemeteries are unable to keep pace with its ravages.

It is telling that countries and localities that have experienced the worst of the virus thus far are not reporting the kinds of anti-lockdown protests that are occurring elsewhere. Hard-hit western Europe and New York State, for example, know what it is to suffer mass casualties, and those who live in those places who would prefer to see the virus run its course in hopes to attain herd immunity – a still theoretical goal since we still know so little about how the virus affects those exposed to it, and those who have not yet – appear to be few and far between.

For those who insist that the lockdown cure is worse than the disease, they need to be honest about the risks and our still profound ignorance about how the virus affects people and how it might do if left to run through the population unchecked, or mitigated only by voluntary or limited measures. They need to acknowledge that the evidence regarding the mortality rate is still mixed; that even if the percentage of people who suffer and die from the virus is relatively small, the total number of casualties may still be unacceptably high if the majority of the population catches the virus; and that many who survive infection still suffer greatly from it, including damage to kidney, heart, vascular system, digestive system, and brain.

They need to understand that such arguments as ‘just because people die with Covid-19 doesn’t mean they die of Covid-19′ – another one I have frequently encountered on social media – are disingenuous and dangerous. They are disingenuous because people are routinely killed by disease or accident which is listed as the primary cause of death though they had another ongoing health issue. A person might have a suppressed immune system because of a condition or medication following a transplant or cancer, but their primary cause of death might still be Covid-19. Even if such a person caught the virus more easily or suffered worse effects from it than they might have otherwise, if they hadn’t caught it, they’d still be alive. The same goes for people who routinely live for years or decades with high blood pressure, obesity, heart or lung ailments, clotting disorders, old age, or other risk factors or disease. To argue that people with comorbidities did not really die of Covid-19, or that the virus merely hastened their inevitable deaths, is dangerous because it implies that the preservation of life in the face of disease or injury is itself pointless and unnecessary. Those who died of Covid-19 who had other risk factors – well, their deaths don’t count. Brush them under the rug.

In sum: when making an argument to extend or to lift lockdowns, be honest about what you’re arguing. If you’re arguing to extend the lockdown, acknowledge the side effects to physical and mental health, and to overall material and financial well-being. If you’re arguing to end the lockdown, don’t pretend that we know more than we do about the potential consequences, or pretend Covid-19 is not really such a big deal. No time is the time for lies, obfuscation, conspiracy theories, or hyperbole, but this is especially not it.

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Camp Funston, at Fort Riley, Kansas, during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic

Better Times A’Comin?

US Capitol Building under repair, Washington DC, photo 2016 by Amy Cools

In her new opinion piece in The New York Times, Anne Marie Slaughter identifies and describes a heartening array of individuals, organizations, and businesses in the United States and around the world that have done things right, and new and better attitudes and practices that may arise out of the COVID-19 crisis.

Slaughter doesn’t address the issue directly in this piece, but it’s been my hope that this crisis will finally force government and business sectors to develop efficient, targeted work training and redeployment of workers who have found themselves unemployed as industries that once employed them shrink or disappear. This must be done, quickly and on a mass scale, to prevent the kind of economic and social disasters which many communities have been experiencing in recent decades as the economic rug was pulled out from under them, as factories, mines, and other industries that drove their local economies were closed, relocated, or automated.

So far, such training and reemployment efforts have been piecemeal and have left vast swaths of unemployed or underemployed people in the lurch. Meanwhile, political figures, parties, and pundits have largely responded with non-solutions, such as point-scoring with symbolic but futile gestures of bringing a few jobs back in dying or robotizing industries (coal mining, manufacturing, etc), or by pitting Americans against each other by adopting and amplifying identity politics and other socially corrosive ideological battlegrounds. Meanwhile, the wealthy and connected few vacuum up most of the economic gains, aided and abetted by a national government that has become their increasingly corrupt and self-serving handmaiden.

The United States can do better, as it has done in many other crises. Now, in this period of mass mobilization unlike anything seen since the Second World War, is the time to do it.

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Say What? Frederick Douglass on Righteous Indignation

Frederick Douglass c. 1855, and the first edition of his first newspaper The North Star, Dec 3 1847, public domain via the Library of Congress

‘We should be cautious how we indulge in the feelings of virtuous indignation. It is the handsome brother of anger and hatred’

~ Frederick Douglass, The North Star, Aug. 15, 1850

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American Contempt

US Capitol Building under repair, Washington DC, photo 2016 by Amy Cools

Like so many others, I’m deeply disturbed, and yes, frightened, by the recent diatribe by the President of the United States against the legitimacy and patriotism of four United States Congresswomen, and by those who support his remarks. My native country has long been a beacon of hope and a refuge for those around the world who rejoice that there’s a country, founded and built by immigration, which is dedicated to universal principles of human rights. That beacon is currently being dimmed by the mud of hatred, bigotry, and distrust being flung around with wild abandon in this dark and dangerous time. These recent remarks of the President are the most egregious example of this, no less because of the enormous responsibility entrusted in him to represent all United States citizens and all who its laws protect.

In response, I make these points:

  1. Every United States citizen, with the exception of Native Americans and a few others, is either themselves, or a descendant of, people who did not ‘go back’ to their countries of origin to ‘fix’ them. (This is true of the President of the United States as well, whose own grandfather was a recent immigrant.) They elected, instead, to settle in the United States to build a better life for themselves, their families, and their posterity. A relative few have also made efforts to make things better in the countries of their ancestry or origin in some way, such as through charitable organizations or sending money to help their extended families, but most have dedicated themselves entirely to the fortunes and future of their adopted country. The ‘go back’ sentiment, therefore, is an expression of contempt for every citizen, as well as every legal resident and aspiring citizen-to-be of the United States.
  2. With the exception of those made through corruption and the outsize influence of monied special interests, every United States law and policy adopted or reformed is the result of the belief of citizens that the United States government is not doing right by its citizens in some way, and is not yet fully fulfilling its mission laid out in its Declaration of Independence or its Constitution. Whether those beliefs are correct or not is a matter of debate, not a question of ‘hating’ the United States. If it is, then the current President hates the United States, since he ran on a platform that its government was doing all manner of things wrong, and that it was a ‘swamp’ in need of reform. To advocate change and reform is what United States citizens do as a matter of course, from the American Revolution onwards. The idea that elected members of the United States government are ‘vicious’ for trying to change current laws or policies, as their constituents voted them in to do, is an expression of contempt for the United States’ democratic-republican system of government set up in the Constitution and reformed by its citizens through amendments over its history.
  3. Nearly every wave of immigration to the United States was met with hostility by many descendants of immigrants, though by no means all. These hostiles had grown complacent and entitled in their belief that the United States was their exclusive domain, though they descended from people who had been there for a very short time compared to the citizens of nearly every nation on earth. They attempted to justify their hostility on religious grounds, promoting hatred for Catholics, Jews, and others; on grounds of ethnicity or nationality, promoting hatred for Italians, Irish, and others; on racial grounds, promoting hatred for African, Asiatic, and other peoples; and on charges that immigrants were taking their jobs, promoting hatred for anyone new who competed with them in the job market. This sort of self-righteous, entitled, lazy-minded, hard-hearted bigotry, sadly, continues today, though many of these previously hated groups of people are now appreciated for their unique contributions and hard work in making the United States among the most dynamic nations on earth. The sentiment expressed in the idea that a foreign-born Congresswomen should be ‘sent back’ though she’s now a citizen through hers and her family’s efforts, and that three of these Congresswomen are ‘originally’ from elsewhere because their ancestors were, expresses the same contempt for immigrants and descendants of immigrants as the Know-Nothings, the Ku-Klux-Klan, the National Alliance, and all other groups and individuals who have characterized their fellow Americans as permanent outsiders because of their religion, ethnicity, original or ancestral nationality, or race, rather than their status as citizens or their desire and their efforts to make the United States their chosen home.

I may add to this as I have more time to reflect and write on these matters. I thank you, friends, for your patience in reading this, as I attempt to relieve my mind and soothe my heart a bit by putting these thoughts in writing.

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

Happy Birthday, Ida B. Wells!

Ida B. Wells, head-and-shoulders portrait, published, 1891, Image retrieved from the Library of Congress LC-USZ62-107756, public domainIn the course of my journey following the life of Frederick Douglass in 2016, I was so glad to have the opportunity to visit the place in New York City where he may have first met the great Ida B. Wells. It was late 1892, and the fiery young newspaperwoman had published her controversial piece of investigative journalism in the New York Age on June 25, 1892. It was expanded and published as a pamphlet later that year as Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases.

Many people at that time thought of lynching as an unfortunate and somewhat rare excess of race-hatred by frustrated Southern whites. And many more saw it as a lawless but not entirely unjustified species of vengeance against black men who had raped white women. But Wells (born in Mississippi on July 16th, 1862) would change all that. In early 1892, three of Wells’ friends were lynched after a dispute between themselves and white owners of a rival business. She was outraged and began an investigation of the practice and history of lynching.

When Wells wrote Southern Horrors, she had already been an activist and writer promoting black rights for many years. In 1884, she resisted being forced out of the first class train car into the ‘colored car’; she later sued the train company, won the first suit, then lost on appeal. This incident (which echoes Douglass’ train protest in 1841) led to many other lawsuits, articles, and activism against anti-black laws and social practices. In 1892, her investigation of lynching revealed to Wells that lynching was far from just vengeance for rape or other violent crimes; it served as vengeance for or a public warning against alleged insubordination or impertinence, petty crimes, idleness, drunkenness, and so on. It was also put to such uses as eliminating business competition (as was the case for Wells’ friends), getting rid of inconvenient owners of coveted land, or scapegoating black people for the crimes of others. She discovered that lynchings were not all that rare, either, and came to the conclusion that they constituted a form of social control that replaced the terrorism (the system of coercion which included whippings, deprivations, rape, and threats of being sold ‘down the river’) of slavery.

Douglass was inspired and energized by Wells’ writing and anti-lynching work, and his letter in praise of Southern Horrors served as the pamphlet’s introduction. He visited her in New York City where she was living for a little while as a writer for and part owner of the New York Age, which was (probably) published at the site I visited in Harlem. I also visited a second site that happened to be associated with Wells two days after my New York visit: she delivered one of her hard-hitting speeches in her speaking tour following the publication of Southern Horrors at Tremont Temple in Boston on Feb 13th, 1893.

Education was another driving force in her life. Her first job was as a teacher at age 14, and she taught for many years, over time supplementing her teaching with journalism, writing and editing for the Evening Star, The Living Way, and the Free Speech and Headlight. Another of her most controversial, consciousness-raising articles was published in 1891 in the Free Speech about the conditions in black schools: the poor quality of the buildings which housed them, and of the education and morals of the teachers and school boards who administered them. She was not fired outright, but the school refused to hire her for the next school year. She then went on to work full-time for the newspaper, promoting the Free Speech from city to city and writing articles along the way, until the Free Speech‘s offices and printing press were destroyed by angry whites after the publication of her ‘Lynch Law’ piece. Adversity only served to strengthen Wells’ resolve, each attack causing her to re-double her efforts on behalf of her people.

Wells went on to have a long and distinguished career in writing, investigative journalism, and activism for black rights and women’s suffrage. She worked with Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. DuBois, toured the United States and Europe as a speaker and activist, founded Chicago’s Alpha Suffrage Club, served as secretary of the National Afro-American Council, founded and became the first president of the Negro Fellowship League, and helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), among many other things.

For a long time, Wells thought of marriage and romantic relationships as oppressive, where women were expected to defer to men and flatter their vanity. But one day, she met a man who must have made her feel very differently, an attorney, writer, and fellow advocate for black rights named Ferdinand Barnett. She married him and they raised four children.

If I ever manage to accomplish the tiniest fraction of what she did in my own life, I would consider myself a great success!

Here are some excellent resources for learning more about the brilliant and irrepressible Ida B. Wells:

Barnett, Ida Wells (1862-1931) ~ by Tyina Steptoe for BlackPast.org

Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells. ~ by Ida B. Wells, Ed. Alfred Duster. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1970.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett ~ by Beckett Graham and Susan Vollenweider, The History Chicks podcast episode 51

Ida B. Wells-Barnett ~ by the editors of Encyclopædia Britannica

Ida B. Wells: Crusade for Justice ~ by Jennifer McBride for Webster University’s website.

New York Age ~ by Heather Martin for the Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance: K-Y

Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases ~ by Ida B. Wells (1892) via Project Gutenberg

*A version of this piece was previously published in Ordinary Philosophy

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

Why Spinoza, Why Now? Essay Two, by Charles Saunders

Portrait of Baruch de Spinoza (1632-1677), ca. 1665, by an unknown artist

A Reason to Believe
Spinoza’s Explication of the Many Facets of the Divinity
In Ethics Part One – Concerning God

Plus, a Challenge for the Reader – Pascal’s Wager with a 21st Century Twist

(Find Part One here)

Spinoza’s convention of the Triumvirate of Substance/god/Nature as synonymous interchangeable parts will be adhered to throughout this essay.

On our contemporary scene, where arguments for or against the existence of God are quietly receding into the background, the question of why to re-introduce the nearly ancient Pascal’s Wager concerning the existence of God, even with a so-called twenty-first-century twist, might appear as nothing more than a quaint anachronism.

Nevertheless, since it meanwhile appears evident that the significance and import of Spinoza’s designation of Substantia sive Deus sive Natura (Substance or God or Nature) as the cornerstone of his masterwork, and precisely why the Ethics and the subject matter of ‘Part One – Concerning God’ has not received its due as the most accurate depiction of the undeniable existence and nature of the Divinity, it is now the time to re-visit Pascal’s appellation and Spinoza’s assertion.

Pascal’s Wager is an argument in philosophy presented by the seventeenth-century French philosopher, mathematician and physicist Blaise Pascal (1623–62). It posits that humans bet with their lives that God either exists or does not.

Summary of Pascal’s Wager: Believing in God has an infinite expected utility. Not believing in God has a finite gain or negative expected utility. Believing in God has a much higher expected utility than not believing in God. You should do that which has the higher expected utility.

In the vernacular- If one acts as if God exists and God does exist, then that person wins the wager. If one acts as if God does not exist and God does exist then that person loses for eternity. Therefore, we should make our wager that God does exist.

Brief Capsule – Contemporary Science in Support of Substance/God/Nature?

Everything which we have so far learned from the application of the scientific method about the extended universe tends toward supporting Spinoza’s concept of the one substance which constitutes the being of and beyond that which serves as the cause of everything. This assertion of Spinoza is often referred to as Substance Monism. His specific version of this theory is that Substance or God or Nature is the immanent cause of all creation. Nothing exists outside of God. This is very challenging to grasp. Spinoza employed this triumvirate terminology to amplify and make explicit that the three terms enfold and envelope one into the other to form one being: Totius Facies Universi, or The Face of the Universe.

Milky Way, by Unsplash, Creative Commons via Pixabay, cropped

Meanwhile, in the scientific recounting, life as we know it began with the weirdly named Big Bang Theory, which posits that all objects in the known universe emanated from one source. This source originated in an unimaginably huge detonation which exploded from its compressed state and transformed itself into all of the matter and the dark matter which taken together account for all that is visible, invisible, and measurable: galaxies, constellations, solar systems, planets, and people.

Each of these objects, considered individually, is comprised of concatenations of elements in the atomic table. That is, the chemical composition and physical exchanges of energy are all replicated from the outer reaches of the cosmos, down to the deepest depths of the oceans.

The chemical composition of gaseous matter present during the birth of stars and the molecular chemical structure of the cause of life forms on earth stand in direct relation. They can be said to be constituted as one contiguous whole. That is exactly how Spinoza described the Facies totius universi, or Face of the Entire Universe. Spinoza put it this way in Part 2; given time, the similitude will become clear.

PROP. XXVIII. Every individual thing, or everything which is finite and has a conditioned existence, cannot exist or be conditioned to act, unless it be conditioned for existence and action by a cause other than itself, which also is finite, and has a conditioned existence ; and likewise this cause cannot in its turn exist, or be conditioned to act, unless it be conditioned for existence and action by another cause, which also is finite, and has a conditioned existence, and so on to infinity.

Along with similar atomic and molecular elements, all life forms further share the source of their inception: unimaginably potent pressure and energy, fueled by either fission or fusion.

The Big Bang, which for our purposes can be considered at the very least as the proximate cause of the universe, begat the matter which forms virtually each and every elemental structure to include all of the heavenly bodies and all planetary life forms.

Long before it would have been conceived possible, Spinoza intuited one self-caused substance which could not be conceived of as other than existing, and which further must be understood to comprise a state of infinite being. This essentially pairs Spinoza’s contention with what science describes as the makeup of the elements in the universe.

If the enormity of the size of the known universe can be somehow captured and reflected upon by the individual human mind, one thought and understanding emerges and remains inescapable.

This thought is not ephemeral or phantasmagorical; it lies in the formation and presence in the human mind of the concept which takes the form of an adequate idea. That idea is of one eternal substance; essentially this is God. The type of thinking required to entertain these thoughts, which we can term expansive.

What that indicates is that to effectively imagine, before the mind’s-eye, a facsimile of the expanded universe, we need to suspend disbelief and allow our perspective to enlarge. This might sound farfetched, but in a relaxed setting, an individual can expand the range of their thinking.

Spinoza maintained that every adequate idea in the human mind exists only because of its correlate, an existing object in extension. Every idea in our minds effectively exists by mirroring objective reality.

In Spinoza’s description of reality, this reflexive interaction between our thoughts and our experience in the world comprises the source of the self-evident truth. Once we can become comfortable with this method of seeing our minds at work, the possibilities to explore and understand more about the nature of our lives becomes doable.

Spinoza’s bequest to us lends us the ability to realize that human perception is not inherently flawed. It simply needs to be recognized, embraced, honed, and developed to its fullest extent.

Further, the ability of an individual person to encapsulate God’s essence within its individuality in the form of an idea in the mind is the only proof required for the existence of God. If we can understand it adequately, then it [God] exists. This may sound like foolish nonsense, but it is not.

Spinoza said that ‘…the finite demonstrates clearly the existence of the infinite.’ This fundamental understanding is ours for the taking. The time and strenuous mental energy which must be exerted to accomplish this understanding on our parts is a given and a necessity.

At the point in time when God’s essence and existence become clear in our minds, it will hit like the proverbial ton of bricks. But it will feel most welcome indeed.

This is not a religious experience.

Rather, it consists in the recognition of the marvelous interconnection in a world where we reside inside a huge dome of breathable oxygen and walk each day on an orb rotating at thousands of miles per hour while this same orb is hurtling through space at enormous speed. And what do we feel? Nothing whatsoever; in fact, we believe that when we stop moving that we are standing still.

Micro-evolution, in terms of the human mind and its capacity to self-reflect and to contemplate the origins of life itself, began to develop long ago. At some point in human evolution, we discovered within us what evolved into an innate skill to intuitively see through our extended world and to grasp intuitively the essence of substance itself. The concept of substance is not a picture which we can form in our minds, but rather an intuitional grasp.

This innate capability resides in a state of potential in every person born on this planet, regardless of geography, ethnicity, or cultural affinity.

Spinoza called this capability scientia intuitiva, or intuitive understanding. We may simply refer to it as understanding God as we stand in awe at the immensity of life.

More layers of complexity within Substance

It must be readily admitted that substance/God/nature remains indeed a strange concept. Positing something that is the cause of everything else in the universe while at the same time insisting that it is the cause of itself, and further has no observable presence in any object and can only be grasped indirectly through intuition, can certainly be viewed as difficult to comprehend.

The term substance has always been with us throughout the history of ideas, and has been employed as an attempt to capture in a single word something which is difficult to speak about or to clearly comprehend.

Spinoza chose it quite consciously to serve as the bedrock of his entire ontological and metaphysical structure. As such, it is up to each of us to struggle to capture his usage and intended meaning.

How can a person-less, non-judgmental God make any difference in our lives?

If, as Spinoza maintains, there is no persona or purpose in God, some might say that there now remains no need to speak of any type of god or substance whatsoever.

And so, the question must arise: why did Spinoza, a person who wrote only with single-minded purpose, begin his Ethics with a book chapter entitled ‘Concerning God’? If there is no one to pray to or to judge us or to ask for intercession, why bother pushing the point?

The answer must be that Spinoza realized that no other concept can replace this true encapsulation-in-identity of Nature and of God and of Substance displayed in the magnitude and incomparable beauty of the totality of creation. The moniker God, when placed before each human mind, is a concept so lofty that Spinoza consciously employed it to capture our undivided attention and our total respect. After all of the elapsed time since religiosity first became called into question, and once all religious ceremony and even organized religion itself falls away,

God/Substance/Nature remains alive and functioning as a necessary cause in each of us. We can know this and feel it in real time. And yes, we can feel reverent about human life, which we all share, and about this cosmos in which we live.

Artist’s logarithmic scale conception of the observable universe with the Solar System, Creative Commons via Wikimedia Commons

To be capable of grasping this significance and of internalizing its relevance in our lives may be the task of a lifetime, but this twist, as it were on the biblical notion of God, must still deserve our obeisance and love and obedience, even though this God has no persona, no anger, and no judgment, and requires nothing whatsoever from us. The arising of life on earth and our evolution from a salamander, 50,000,000 years ago, into today’s mindful person is a testimony in itself to the mystery and wonder in our universe.

Our next question must then become; what proof is there of this god’s existence, and how must we approach our understanding of the cause of itself to make it relevant in our lives?

The answer to this is strange and more than a bit bewildering at first because, in fact, we humans and our conatus or self-assertive impulse, serves as that demonstration. That is, our striving to sustain ourselves both as individuals and as a community, coupled with our innate cognitive function termed natural light of reason or guided intelligence, are the beginnings of the awareness of and proof of the existence of an intelligence and a self-instigated operability of universal procreation, maintenance, and regeneration.

What Spinoza recognized in his own intelligence and ability to contemplate the nature of God’s essence was that that capability, in and of itself, indicated that our adequate ideas must be sourced in the divine intelligence which brought virtually everything to life.

At some point, Spinoza realized that what he was thinking about the extent of the universe and the cause of the shaping of the world around him were not the products of his imagination. He saw that his thoughts were a mirror of what actually exists out there in space/eternity. What his mind was experiencing was a mirroring effect; a facsimile of everything in God’s creation.

Spinoza insisted that denying the existence and reality of God is tantamount to denying our own existence. Yes, this is difficult to understand, and no, it is not a threat or a put-down. It is an invitation to set our lives on a trajectory which leads to peace of mind and acquiescence to the necessity of what drives our micro-evolution forward.

In other words, because our ideas, when clearly and distinctly understood, must always have as their source an entity from which an image in our minds is formulated, then those ideas can only come from something everlasting and eternal and real. That source or object is and only can be God.

And now we have reached the place where a summary of what has been suggested must be joined with a recognition of our own mortality to formulate a Pascalian Wager with a 21st-Century Twist.

One more piece of information on recent discoveries in cosmology and astrophysics.

Scientists, in their never-ending quest to discover the origin of the universe, have detected a disturbing pattern in the subatomic radio-sonic waves which first emanated from the cosmic dust from the Big Bang. There remains an as-yet-indeterminate in nature yet measurable ‘noise’, an echo amidst the residue of the birth of our system which permeates virtually everywhere yet is not sourced from our cosmos. It has led them to begin to postulate a very real potential for alternative universes, juxtaposed in some form of arrangement with our own.

If this is the case, then this discovery supports Spinoza’s assertion that Substance/God/Nature is self-caused, eternal and truly infinite. Let us then summarize what this means to each one of us and why we should accept the affirmative side of this 21st-century wager.

Assume that there is no life after death, no reincarnation, no heavenly reward. This may indeed indicate that for us, our reward does not come after death. Perhaps our piece of eternity consists solely and completely in our lifetimes. So, the wager involves living our lives as if this day and every other one that we may have is our reward. The ‘Gift of Life’ is what Spinoza’s God has bequeathed to us.

This means that our responsibility lies, not in demeaning our existence or complaining about the poverty and disease and inequality we see, but rather to look for and to discover those most positive elements in life. All of the literally billions of happy people who take comfort in their families and the joys felt by being a part of each another’s community, village, city, and nation. If life is our gift then let your wager fall on the side that demands that you make the most of your time here while cheerfully accepting your responsibility to make a positive contribution during your stay on this marvelous planet.

After all, the choice is up to each one of us: shall we take this wager, with a twist, and believe in and act in obedience to our better nature, that little voice which we all hear and which tells us to do the right thing?

There is no time to waste. Now is the time to remember and honor the virtually millions of people who have come before us throughout the millennia. Those who courageously paved our way forward.

Now it is our turn to do our part to consciously work to further this human evolution!

Semper Sapere Aude! (Always Dare to Know!)

Charles M. Saunders

(The bulk of this essay is abridged from ‘To Discern Divinity’- A Discussion and Interpolation of Spinoza’s Ethics Part One – Concerning God by C. M. Saunders, 2016)
Free Download- charlessaunders5.academia.edu

The Logic Behind Spinoza’s Substance in its Simplicity and Irreducibility

This excerpt is from Baruch Spinoza and Western Democracy
Joseph Dunner (1955, The Philosophical Library,15 East 40th Street, New York, 16, N.Y.), pp. 40-41

“…if we assume, the plurality of self-created, self-sufficient substances, God becomes but one of “first causes”, one of many gods, and all His attributes of omnipotence and infinity fall by the wayside.

Indeed, the very notion of a plurality of substances destroys the whole concept of substance. For if we assume the existence of two substances, as Descartes in his distinction between the mental and physical world did, either both substances are caused by a force outside of them, which is contrary to the definition of substance as caused by itself, or one is caused by the other, which again contradicts the definition and makes of substance a finite thing restricted in space and time. Consequently, there can be only one substance which can be defined as causa sui  [Cause of itself], and nothing can exist independent of this one and only substance. This unique substance Spinoza calls Deus sive Natura, God or Nature, implying that only God possesses infinite attributes and that nothing else can exist distinguishable from God and capable of delimiting and modifying Him. If only the theologians could have freed themselves from all anthropomorphic and anthropocentric fixations, making God a sort of super-man throned in the sky, they might have realized that Spinoza had given world humanity the most rational and most unfailing God concept ever conceived in history.”

These words from Joseph Dunner were positioned last in this essay both to emphasize the brevity and clarity of his depiction of the Nature of Spinoza’s Substance, and to serve as a takeaway for the reader.

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

*All views and opinions expressed by guest writers are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of Ordinary Philosophy’s editors and publishers

Happy Birthday, Aimé Césaire!

Aimé Fernand David Césaire, photo credit manomerci.comAimé-Fernand-David Césaire was a poet, playwright, philosopher, and politician from Martinique. In his long life (he was born on June 26, 1913, and died April 17, 2008), Césaire accomplished much in each of these roles, a rare feat as the disparate talents required for each rarely coincide in one person.

In turn mayor of Fort-de-France, deputy to the French National Assembly for Martinique, and President of the Regional Council of Martinique, this prolific writer and intellectual was also co-founder of Négritude, a ‘literary movement of the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s that began among French-speaking African and Caribbean writers living in Paris as a protest against French colonial rule and the policy of assimilation.’ (Encyclopædia Britannica). The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes Négritude as ‘the self-affirmation of black peoples, or the affirmation of the values of civilization of something defined as “the black world” as an answer to the question “what are we in this white world?”’. The term was chosen so as to be provocative, a way of re-claiming the word nègre which had become a racial slur, while simultaneously shocking those who heard or read it into paying attention. Through his philosophy, political writing, and especially his poetry and plays, the world pays attention still.

Learn more about the great Aimé Césaire:

Aime Cesaire: Martinician Author and Politician ~ by the editors of Encyclopædia Britannica

Aimé Fernand Césaire, 1913–2008 ~ by Meredith Goldsmith for The Poetry Foundation

Aimé Fernand David Césaire (1913-2008) ~ by Sylvia Lovina Chidi, as chapter 1 of The Greatest Black Achievers in History 

Négritude ~ by Souleymane Bachir Diagne for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

*A version of this piece was previously published in Ordinary Philosophy

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

Happy Birthday, W.V.O. Quine!

WVO Quine on the Bluenose II in Halifax, Nova Scotia, photo courtesy of Douglas Quine (cropped)

WVO Quine on the Bluenose II in Halifax, Nova Scotia, photo courtesy of Douglas Quine

The emphases in my undergraduate education in philosophy were Ethics, Politics, and Law, so I didn’t spend as much time studying Willard Van Orman Quine’s great contributions to philosophy as I would like. However, if my focus was Mathematical Logic, Epistemology, Philosophy of Language, or Philosophy of Science, I would have spent a lot of time with the prodigious output of his remarkable intelligence. But one of his important observations, which presented an epistemological quandary, often comes up in introductory philosophy classes: given that science continuously makes new discoveries, sometimes in the process overturning and replacing earlier theories, how can we ever say that we actually know anything about the world? Science relies on the fact that all theories are subject to revision, expansion, and being proved wrong. Does this mean, then, there’s no such thing as knowledge, since, in theory, anything we claim to know may be disproved by later discoveries?

For Quine (born on June 25th, 1908), there is no dividing line between science and philosophy; they are interconnected ways of discovering and understanding the world. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy puts it, Quine ‘denies that there is a distinctively philosophical standpoint, which might, for example, allow philosophical reflection to prescribe standards to science as a whole. He holds that all of our attempts at knowledge are subject to those standards of evidence and justification which are most explicitly displayed, and most successfully implemented, in the natural sciences. This applies to philosophy as well as to other branches of knowledge.’ The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy says further, ‘…Quine often appeals to [Otto] Neurath’s metaphor of science as a boat, where changes need to be made piece by piece while we stay afloat, and not when docked at port. He further emphasizes that both the philosopher and scientist are in the same boat (1960, 3; 1981, 72, 178). The Quinean philosopher then begins from within the ongoing system of knowledge provided by science, and proceeds to use science in order to understand science. …his use of the term “science” applies quite broadly referring not simply to the ‘hard’ or natural sciences, but also including psychology, economics, sociology, and even history (Quine 1995, 19; also see Quine 1997). But a more substantive reason centers on his view that all knowledge strives to provide a true understanding of the world and is then responsive to observation as the ultimate test of its claims…’

Oh, and he played the mandolin and piano, and learned a lot of languages just so he could deliver his lectures in the native language of the audience. Whatta guy!

Learn more about the great W.V.O. Quine:

W. V. Quine, Philosopher Who Analyzed Language and Reality, Dies at 92 ~ by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt for The New York Times, Dec 29, 2000

Willard Van Orman Quine ~ by Peter Hylton for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Willard Van Orman Quine: Philosophy of Science ~ by Robert Sinclair for The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Willard Van Orman Quine, 1908-2000: Philosopher and Mathematician ~ Website by Douglas B. Quine, W.V.O. Quine’s son

Willard Van Orman Quine ~ by Luke Mastin for The Basics of Philosophy: A huge subject broken down into manageable chunks

Willard Van Orman Quine ~ In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

*A version of this piece was previously published in Ordinary Philosophy

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

Freedom and Judgment, Part 2, by Sean Agius

Brain illustration from The Principles and Practice of Medicine…’ by W Osler, 1904, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Within the conclusion of a previous article titled ‘Freedom and Judgement,’ I implied that certain factors such as mental health, culture, and family, knowledge, and so on play a decisive role in determining the actions that one chooses to perform. In this article (which will be very creatively titled ‘Freedom and Judgement Part II’), I shall further expand upon this notion – concluding that the said factors, though singularly acting only as behavioural influences, in unison act as determiners – ultimately rendering one’s actions equally as determined as those of a rabies sufferer, consequentially demanding a rethink of the manner in which we judge other people’s moral value.

(Please note that since this article shall be utilising a case study described within the first article, it is highly recommended that one reads the said article before this one; otherwise, you may expend the majority of your mental energy trying to figure out who this ‘Paul’ character is.)

The first and most obvious factor in this regard, besides physical illness, is mental illness. Returning to the case study, let Paul suffer from schizophrenia instead of rabies. Having neglected to take his medication, he became convinced that everyone was prepared to murder him and thus acted in what was, in his mind, self-defense. Guessing again, I would say that, based on this information, our judgment of Paul has again become significantly more lenient since, due to his mental illness, he is not deemed fully responsible for his actions.

The mental illness variable also, however, begs a re-analysis of the sociopathic version of Paul. At face value, the cases may seem distinct, but the concept is at its core identical – how brain chemistry (which one usually bears little control over) influences actions. In essence, Paul did not choose to suffer from either schizophrenia or sociopathy. In the case of the latter, Paul has no choice but to suffer from brain dysfunctions that force him to thirst for blood.

Now one may still criticise this version of Paul, arguing that in spite of his lack of freedom from his desire, his actions were still his own. The vast majority of those people, though, probably never suffered from mental illness. As those who have or do suffer could tell you that the abstract possibility of doing or not doing something does not necessarily translate to an actual ability to do so. An illness (both physical and mental) by definition implies the lack of freedom from that which one suffers from, whether that be due to cholesterol in the case of somebody who suffers from heart disease or brain functions for somebody who suffers from mental illnesses. This is why someone with depression cannot just get out of the bed, or an OCD-sufferer just stop washing their hands. They suffer from a disease, caused by external forces outside of their realm of control, which compels them to act in the manner that they do. Sociopathy is similarly classified as a mental illness within the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) and therefore like OCD or depression equally influential in compelling the sufferer (in this case Paul) to act in the manner that he does.

(Important note: the inclusion of mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, depression and OCD is in no way meant to liken sufferers from such disorders to murderers, but only to highlight the role that brain chemistry plays in determining actions.)

The point, however, still stands that such dispositions are not alone sufficient to render an action as determined. Not all sociopaths, after all, go on violent rampages. Furthermore, even if we do concede that certain actions are influenced by brain function, what about the first scenario – Paul the gangster? The case is seemingly rather clear-cut. Surely his action were not determined as he held full control over both his mental and physical capacities! There may however be one determining aspect which Paul (or anybody else for that matter) holds no control over – his circumstances, which though alone acting simply as influencers, in unison morph into determiners.

The first factors that come into play in this regard are cultural and familial backgrounds. That is how culture and family play a role in influencing aspects of an individual. For example, South Americans are significantly more likely to be football fans than North Americans for whom the sport is not as ingrained within the culture. The same can be said about individuals whose family either love or hate
the sport. It is somewhat absurd to conceive of the majority of North and South Americans choosing such disparate tastes independent of influential factors such as familial and cultural sensibilities which affect joys and annoyances.

If there are any North American football fan readers right now they are probably clutching on their LA Galaxy shirts screaming I’m North American and I’m a football fan! I don’t even call it soccer!’ The angry North American fan makes a salient point, not about the football/soccer argument, that I remain agnostic upon. The point here is that although culture and family could influence behaviour, they are not strict determinants.

Prior to tackling said issue however, I would like to highlight a few more influencing factors, the first of which being one’s life experiences. Life experience plays a significant influential role in our decision-making process – a dog-attack victim is for example significantly less likely to choose to enter a dog park than a non-victim.

Furthermore, since one attains knowledge predominantly through their life experiences (nobody is after all born knowing how to walk, talk, calculate complex sums or philosophise the concept of determinism), life experience plays an additional influencing role in this regard. Let us consider weight loss as an example, though weight-loss requires a large amount of will power from the loser’s end, it is nonetheless influenced by circumstances outside of one’s realm of control. Perhaps one was influenced to lose weight after learning about a new type of diet that motivated their interest, or by a personal trainer who proved the utility of exercise, or even by one’s knowledge of the simplest dietary concept of diets in/out, which though obvious to most is not an innately knowable concept. This, therefore, highlights the influential role that knowledge attained through life experience plays in influencing behaviour (as well as providing some half-decent dietary advice).

Another factor that was already touched upon but deserves further discussion is the role that neural chemistry plays in influencing decisions. Science has already proven what a major influential role the brain in general plays. Baba Shiv, a neural researcher, has shown that neuromodulators such as dopamine, serotonin, cortisol and so on have a significant effect upon who we are and the choices we make, even to the extent that one may be bound by said neuromodulators to make alternative decision in the morning and evening of the same day. The famous case of Phineas Gage further sustains this idea. After suffering a devastating head injury, Gage, a previously polite and respectful individual, began to display personality shifts – exhibiting animalistic behaviours such as irritability, impatience and so on. This was, it was hypothesised, due to the said brain injury which mainly affected his prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain associated with behavioural control).

Though the neurobiological link between the brain/neuromodulators and decision making seems concrete, there remain two apparent flaws to the deterministic argument: firstly, the fact that the discussed factors are influencers, not determinants; and secondly, the presence of choice. I shall begin by tackling the latter; the choice-based counterargument to determinism is a particularly pertinent one because it proves the theoretical possibility of a series of alternative end results occurring due to choices made by the agent, the term choice being the supposed checkmate. Whilst I accept this concept, I nonetheless sustain that one may bare the capacity for choice and yet conversely still not be free, even though it may initially sound like an oxymoron.

The theoretical capacity to choose to perform an action does not necessarily equate to free will. Whilst it is true that we make conscious decisions every day, we are often unaware of the forces that negate our freedom to act alternatively, thus producing alternative results.

To properly explain this distinction an analogy would be appropriate; if Tim makes a conscious choice to walk right rather than left, he may initially seem like a free being. Imagine, however, that unbeknownst to Tim, a stealthy sniper stalked him from a rooftop with strict orders to shoot on sight as he began to walk left. In this scenario, whilst it is true that Tim does possess the capacity to choose, he is in no way free. The sniper’s presence relegates alternative actions strictly within the abstract realm – although Tim theoretically bore the ability to choose to walk left instead of right, concretely he was never truly free to do so, only to choose to try and do so. Freedom, therefore, equates to not only the presence of choice but simultaneously the concrete possibility of an alternative result being possible.

Dominoes waiting to fall… by Enoch Lai at the English language Wikipedia, free to share under Creative Commons Licence CC BY-SA 3.0

This smoothly brings us back to the first objection to the deterministic world view, that the aforementioned factors (culture, family, knowledge, neuromodulators and so on) influence rather than determine our choices. Choice and freedom do not, however, equate to one another; whilst it is therefore true that one’s capacity to make choices is not eliminated, said factors do nonetheless serve to inhibit alternative results strictly within the realm of the abstract in the same manner (albeit less overt) as the sniper. The choices one makes are ultimately attributable to an intricate causal chain consisting of factors which, in their singularity, serve simply as influencers but in their aggregate bare a similar deterministic effect to that of a domino push.

The result of a domino-effect is fully attributable to circumstance – the positioning of the dominoes, the velocity of the push, the angle of contact and so on. Said factors alone only influence the push’s result but when added together form a causal pattern which absolutely and infinitely determines its results. Identically, an action is equally as causally determined by context, this context being the sum total of one’s circumstance – culture, family, life experience, neuromodulators and so on which together form the same type of deterministic chain of causality as that of the domino push. Whilst it was therefore theoretically possible for Paul to have gone on a peaceful stroll rather than a mass murder spree, said possibility is a strictly abstract one. No less relevant than the abstract possibility of an alternative domino push result. If one were to somehow accurately replicate Paul’s circumstances it would, like the domino push, produce the identical determined results in infinitum.

The two remaining masochistically-inclined readers may at this point be wondering what the point of this article is. Is it to claim that terrorists, murderers, and the like should be left to roam the streets uninterrupted, spreading their destruction in any manner they see fit? To any concerned citizen, I assure you that this is not the case. The rejection of freedom does not equate to the rejection of consequence. Take the multiple faces of Paul as an example – regardless of the determining factors behind the violent outbreak, Paul’s consequential physical detainment serves an obvious and practical function, whether that be to prevent further harm upon others or to deter similar actions. Though the rejection of freedom does not equate to a consequence-free world it should equate to a judgment-free one.

Justice et Inégalité – Les Plateaux de la Balance, by Frachet, 2010, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

To be clear, what I refer to as a judgement-free world does not translate to a nihilistic one in which everybody is trapped in a prison of meaninglessness, unable to judge something as good, or bad or anything else for that matter. Indeed judging the world around us is as natural as breathing, impossible not to do. The ability to judge murder as bad and charity as good is, for example, an integral facet of a healthy outlook which should be maintained for the benefit of society as a whole. Whilst determinism does not render judging the action of murder as fruitless it does render the judgment of the person performing the action to be.

If we are to adopt a deterministic worldview – postulating that actions are determined by a context outside of one’s scope of control, the line of difference that we draw between the rabid version of Paul and its alternatives is a false one. Due to the aforementioned factors which determine one’s choices, the sociopathic or gangster versions of Paul are no less victims of circumstance than the rabid one or anybody else for that matter. Whilst it is therefore proper to condemn the act of killing, one holds no basis for judging the person performing the action (or any other action for that matter). If there is one effect that I hope this article has upon the readers it would be to compel them to think twice before passing judgment upon others, as all other factors being equal they themselves would be determined to act identically. In many ways, everybody is simply a victim of circumstance, determined by context. Who knows perhaps this shift in mentality may even produce some positive effects – forming a more accepting and just society in which one is not defined by their mistakes or punished for them eternally.

– Sean Agius

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