Happy Birthday, Helvétius!

Claude-Adrien Helvétius, born on January 26th, 1715, is often credited with being a father of utilitarianism, or at least, for planting its philosophical seeds. Also an uncommonly egalitarian thinker for his time and place, he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, perhaps filled with a tincture of some sort from time to time: Helvétius was the son and grandson of very wealthy physicians who ministered to royalty. Through these connections, Helvétius was appointed to a lucrative post as a tax collector and grew very wealthy when he was relatively young. By the time he was thirty-six and newly married, Helvétius had tired of courtly life, and retired to a country estate to take up a life of letters and scholarship.

The first published fruit of his study and writing was his famous philosophical work De l’esprit (Of the Mind). After it came out in 1758, it created an uproar at the University of Paris, among the clergy, among other philosophers, and at the court; on more than one occasion, it was publicly burned. To keep himself out of trouble, Helvétius was forced to publicly renounce the book. But as it is with so many things, all the controversy sparked intense public interest, and De l’esprit became one of the most widely read books of his time. And what exactly was it about the book that caused so much consternation? Salonnière, intellectual, and consummate letter-writer Madam du Deffand quipped that this was due to Helvétius putting into writing what everyone was already secretly thinking but not allowed to say.

More specifically, Helvétius’ controversial ideas include the notion that all animals, human beings included, form their mentalities from sensation and experience (thereby implicitly challenging religious concepts of the soul); that all actions we call right or just, wrong or unjust are ultimately the result of self-interest (though self-interest is so often bound up with our conception of ourselves as part of larger groups, such as nations, religious communities, tribes, and so on, so that self-interest and the interests of others can become virtually indistinguishable); that the passions are both the ultimate disguisers of truth while simultaneously providing the necessary drive to seek it at all; and that all human motivation consists of seeking the most pleasure and avoiding the most pain. The latter is a central tenet, in some form or another, of utilitarianism, and was developed into more comprehensive philosophical and ethical systems by those fathers of utilitarianism Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill.

Helvétius also had a theory of education and human aptitude that’s refreshingly egalitarian to modern sensibilities. He believed that everyone is just as capable of great learning and achievements, but that the only reasons people don’t equally achieve are either because they don’t care to, or because they were not taught well. While Helvétius did not have the benefit of later studies in psychology and the social sciences which reveal the picture to be more complicated than that, he did make the case that everyone could and should be able to develop themselves according to their interests and potential, and that the positive transformative power of education for individuals and societies is nearly boundless.

After Helvétius’ death on December 26, 1771, his widow, Anne-Catherine, never remarried. She spent much of her time hosting a famous salon; some years ago, I visited the place where she welcomed the erudition, wit, and flirtation of Benjamin Franklin (who was a special friend and admirer), Thomas Jefferson, Condorcet, Napoléon, and other luminaries, and shocked John and Abigail Adams.

Learn more about the sophisticated, free-thinking, and well-read Helvétius at

Claude-Adrien Helvétius ~ NNDB

Claude Adrien Helvetius (1715—1771) ~ the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Claude Adrien Helvetius (1715 – 71) ~ by David Pearce for Utilitarianism.com

Claude-Adrien Helvétius: French PhilosopherEncyclopaedia Britannica

Enlightenment ~ by William Bristow for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Helvétius appears in sect 2.2, ‘Ethical Theory‘)

Grand Illusions ~ Claude-Adrien Helvétius on passion blinders, republished in Lapham’s Quarterly

Madame Helvétius and Ben Franklin ~ at Rodama: A Blog of 18th Century & Revolutionary French Trivia

Salonnière Madame Helvétius ~ by Kristen O’Brien for The Salonnière blog

See also the works by Helvétius available online at the Internet Archive

~ 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!

Teach Kids Philosophy, It Makes Them Better at Math, by Drake Baer for New York Magazine

2993d-elementary_school_class_on_american_indian_cultureBut of course!

Drake Baer writes for New York Magazine:

‘The nature of truth. Theories of fairness. The essence of bullying. These are big, weighty subjects, and apparently 9- and 10-year-olds just eat them up.

As in, according to a Quartz piece by Jenny Anderson, placing grade-schoolers in weekly philosophical discussions has surprising effects on their academic performance. The program in question, called Philosophy for Children, led to improvements in math and reading scores on par with an extra two months of instruction, with bigger gains for disadvantaged kids. The 3quarksdaily blog highlighted it all earlier this week….read full article here

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

O.P. Recommends: Professor Watchlist Could Make McCarthyism Look Like a Picnic, by Ellen Schrecker

2993d-elementary_school_class_on_american_indian_cultureI heard of Professor Watchlist a little while ago and when I glanced at it, it creeped me out a little: it looked like Yelp for cranks, but I didn’t think much of it. But when I read this letter, I realized it’s an example of something more serious: the sort of self righteous tendency to witch-hunt, on the left and on the right, that the Internet fosters, and that can all too easily destroy reputations and careers. I’m a believer in free speech and the marketplace of ideas, but we all need to keep it a place that fosters liberty too, by keeping a diligent watch on our own and others’ excesses. Let’s make sure that the court of public opinion is not allowed to turn into a kangaroo court.

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Thank You, Khan Academy!

GRE study materials, photo 2016 by Amy CoolsI’m hard at work these days studying for the general GRE and have found that maths, other than practical arithmetic, have a way of slipping away from memory with utter thoroughness if they haven’t been practiced in awhile. And as is often the case, my restless habit of constantly piling new projects on top of others I’m already working on led me to start studying in earnest far too last-minute.

The Princeton Review GRE books are pretty helpful (found in the reference section of any good library), but they seem to me to focus more on ways to game the test than they do re-instilling a thorough understanding of the mathematical processes and ideas behind the questions. This may work well for many people, but it was leaving me feeling lost and confused at times since there are so many kinds of gaming techniques that it’s hard to remember them all, especially if you don’t feel you have a good grasp of the kind of problem you’re solving to begin with. I expect this is the same for many of you as well: my memory won’t hold onto a fact or idea unless it fits into some larger idea or system. If I don’t understand the why, I just can’t seem to remember the what.

So I was feeling pretty stressed out by the feeling of working very hard but gaining too little, and decided I needed to back up and get a good solid grasp of the basic concepts again. The company that creates and administers the GRE has a list of Khan Academy lessons and practice sessions that pertain to the test posted on their website. They are so well designed, so well-explained, and they’re free, hooray! I feel so much better now about the progress I’m making, and re-discovering the fun of basic and intermediate algebra. Once I had gotten the hang of it, it had always seemed more like games than work to me!

So thank you from the bottom of my heart, Sal Khan and the good people at Khan Academy, you are the best. And yes, I will donate to your Indigogo campaign to fund courses on American government.

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Interview with Peter Adamson on Indian and Islamic Philosophy

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Listen to this podcast episode here or subscribe on iTunes

I’m honored to present my second interview guest, Peter Adamson, creator and host of the History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps podcast and Professor of Philosophy at the Munich School of Ancient Philosophy and at King’s College London. I’ve listened to his History of Philosophy podcast series for many years: it’s now almost 5 ½ years running, and if you are interested in philosophy, I’m hard pressed to think of a source that’s more comprehensive, thoughtful, and well-researched than Adamson’s.

In this interview, we focus on non-Western philosophy, specifically Indian and Islamic philosophy, since that’s his focus right now at his History of Philosophy series. We touch on Western philosophy as well, especially regarding the ways that Islamic and Indian philosophy influence and intersect with Western philosophy.

Listen to Adamson’s excellent series on the History of Philosophy (without any gaps)

and his Indian philosophy series co-authored by Jonardon Ganeri

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and is ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Ordinary Philosophy is Pleased to Introduce Eric Gerlach

Eric GerlachHello dear readers,

I’m so pleased to welcome Eric Gerlach as a regular contributor to Ordinary Philosophy!

Eric was my teacher some years ago when I returned to college to study philosophy. I attended his Introduction to Philosophy class, and it very much inspired and influenced me to this day. In the class, he emphasized and explained the connections between human thought in all times and places in a friendly, warm, and easygoing style, and ancient philosophy from all over the world seemed as relatable, timely, and relevant today as it ever was. He still teaches this excellent class, which I very much recommend if you’re ever enrolled at Berkeley City College. I’ve been continuing to enjoy his work at his blog for some years now.

I’m so thrilled that Eric accepted my invitation to lend his voice to Ordinary Philosophy, and I’m sure you’ll find his work as interesting and edifying as I always do. Please join me in extending Eric a warm welcome to O.P.!

~ Amy Cools, creator and editor of Ordinary Philosophy

 

What Ordinary Philosophy’s All About: Clarifying the Vision

People in a Public Square, Image Creative Commons via PixabayIt’s been an especially busy few weeks for me: studying, researching, writing, planning for my upcoming traveling philosophy journey and for the expanded future of Ordinary Philosophy. This year so far, I’ve had the great good fortune to meet some inspiring new people: passionate, thinking, active, and creative. I’ve also gotten to know others better as well, and am opening new doors and making new contacts every day. Our conversations have been inspiring me to think more clearly and deeply about my vision for Ordinary Philosophy, about my hopes, dreams, and goals, and about the wonderful people who will work with me to accomplish them in the future.

So I’ve just been looking over my introductory statement about Ordinary Philosophy, and thought it needed some clarifying and expanding. Here’s my vision as it stands now, best as I can describe it, and it’s beautiful to me. I hope it is to you too!

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Ordinary Philosophy is founded on the belief that philosophy is an eminently useful endeavor as well as a fascinating and beautiful one, and that citizen philosophers and academic philosophers alike share in making it so.

So why the name Ordinary Philosophy?

The ‘Ordinary’ in Ordinary Philosophy means: Philosophy is not only pursued behind the walls of academia.

It’s an ordinary activity, something we can do regularly whatever our education, background, or profession, from our homes, workplaces, studies, public spaces, and universities. It’s applicable to ordinary life, since it’s about solving the problems we all encounter in the quest to pursue a good, happy, and meaningful one.

It’s about seeking answers to the ‘big questions’ we ask ourselves all the time: ‘What’s the right thing to do?’ ‘What’s a meaningful life, and how can I make mine so?’ ‘What’s the truth of the matter, what does truth mean anyway, and how do I know when I’ve found it?’ ‘What does it mean to have rights?’ ‘How did reality come to be as it is?’, and so on.

It’s also just as much about the ordinary, day-to-day questions: ‘Should I take this job, and will it help fulfill my highest aspirations?’ ‘It is wrong to put my interests first this time, even if it will harm someone else?’ ‘What’s the difference between just talking about other people and malicious gossip?’ ‘Why should I go out of my way to vote?’

And in the end, it’s about living philosophy, about philosophy in the public square, and the stories and histories of philosophy as it is realized, personified, lived out by activists, artists, scholars, educators, communicators, leaders, engaged citizens, and everyone else who loves what’s just, what’s beautiful, and what’s true.

All of this is philosophy.

~ Amy Cools, founder and editor of Ordinary Philosophy