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

Fundraising Campaign for Frederick Douglass’ Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas Series

Frederick Douglass with his second wife Helen Pitts and her sister Eva, public domain via Wikimedia CommonsAs you may know, dear readers, I’m embarking on the travel portion of my fifth philosophical-historical themed adventure in mid to late March. I’m off to Baltimore, MD, New York, Washington DC, and other East Coast sites to follow in the footsteps of Frederick Douglass.

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.

Every single bit helps, from $1 on up: directly through your contribution, and indirectly by inspiring confidence and enthusiasm in others who see the support already given.

As always, I count on you to help me accomplish what I do here; thanks to all who have contributed in the past, and thanks in advance to all who contribute in the future!

What the Frederick Douglass Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas Series project will produce:
– A series of essays on the ideas of Frederick Douglass, how they relate to his time and ours
– A series of travel accounts of sites associated with Douglass’ life and ideas throughout the East Coast. I’ll be seeking insights into how the places informed the man, and vice versa. These will double as historical-philosophical investigations to bring Douglass to life in the mind of the reader, and as inspiration for other traveling history enthusiasts
– A series of downloadable walking tours to accompany the travel series: just subscribe and download in iTunes, and you’ll have your own travel guides to East Coast places I travel to for this series
– Free educational resources: supplementary teaching materials on the life and ideas of Douglass
– And if all goes as planned, a book!

Budget: In the interests of transparency and so you know exactly where your hard-earned, generously donated funds go, here’s the breakdown:

Primary Goal: $2,500 – To cover airfare, lodging, ground transportation, and advertising for Frederick Douglass’ Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series
– Airfare: to DC or NYC about $500 (w/taxes and fees)
– Car Rental: average $28 / day = $392
– Lodging: average $50 per night, will be staying with friends some nights = $700
– Parking / Fuel / Public Transportation: average $25 per day = $350
Subtotal = $1,942

Any amount I’ve saved on the above costs or amount collected in excess will be spent on paid advertising (Facebook, Google Adwords, Bing, Pinterest, etc, even a radio spot if funds allow!), which will be listed here, so that the total spent comes to $2,500. (I also advertise in a wide array of free venues)

Secondary Goal: $1,500 – Monthly wages
This year, O.P. is making a big push to include an expanded and more in depth history of ideas travel series, more regularly published podcast with downloadable history of ideas travel guides, interviews with fascinating people, scholarship and educational materials, more great guest posts, and so much more! To accomplish all this, O.P. will need to pay its own expenses and if possible, wages, so I can throw spend less time at other occupations, throwing myself into O.P. with all the heart, time, and energy I long to dedicate to this project.

Please visit the Subscribe, Submit, and Support page to help me fund this project.

I thank you in advance, from the bottom of my heart, for any support you can offer

Sincerely,

Amy Cools

 

Interview with Clay Jenkinson as Thomas Jefferson, Jan 16th 2016

I’m ple6759b-amy2band2bjeffersonased to announce that the 33rd episode of the podcast is a super special one, as it’s Ordinary Philosophy’s first interview, and my distinguished guest is Clay Jenkinson, humanities scholar, author, and creator of the Thomas Jefferson Hour radio show and blog.

I’m a long time listener of the show; in fact, I believe I’ve listened to just about every single episode, many of them more than once, and relied on Clay’s work to inform my own, especially in the two Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series I did following the life and ideas of Thomas Jefferson.

I highly, highly recommend you give the Thomas Jefferson Hour a listen, you can find it at www.jeffersonhour.com, along with many other resources on the life and ideas of Jefferson, and Clay’s other work in the humanities.

You can find the accounts of my two series on Jefferson, as part of the Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series, here and here.

I interview Clay here in character as Thomas Jefferson, as he does on the Thomas Jefferson Hour, discussing various issues as Jefferson himself might have viewed them, informed by Clay’s extensive scholarship on his life and expressed views.

I hope you enjoy our discussion as much as I did!

You can also subscribe to the Ordinary Philosophy and Thomas Jefferson Hour podcasts on iTunes.

*Thank you, Shane and David, for your help and technical support

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!

Self-Soothing by Way of Erasing the Complexity of Human History, by Clay Jenkinson

Statue of Thomas Jefferson at his Memorial in Washington D.C., photo 2015 by Amy Cools My beloved mentor in the humanities, Everett C. Albers, taught me the most important of all lessons: “Judgement is easy, understanding is hard.”

You probably have been following the recent spasm of righteousness on some of our college campuses. Some students wish to erase all traces of Woodrow Wilson at Princeton University, because he was a racist who undid what little integration his predecessors had managed in the federal government; because he was a sexist, who actively worked against women’s suffrage. Some students wish to have statues of Thomas Jefferson removed from the campus of the University of Missouri, because he was a racist, a slaveholder, and a sexual predator (if you read the Sally Hemings story in the darkest possible way). Some students at Oxford University wish to erase all traces of Cecil Rhodes, after whom Rhodesia was named, because he was a racist and an imperialist.

And so on.

It is true, by our standards as exemplars of perfect enlightenment, these men were all racists and indeed apartheidists. I have a close connection with two of them: Jefferson, whom I have been studying for thirty years, and Rhodes, whose scholarship I freely accepted back in 1976, and under whose financial legacy I studied for four wonderful years at Oxford University. I know the life and achievement of Woodrow Wilson less well, but I have read a handful of books about him over the years.

I regard this growing trend of purification rituals as wrong-headed and misguided for a number of reasons. I’ll list them as briefly as possible.

1. What will they say of us? Sometimes I try to anticipate what the righteous ones of the future will say about us? I met a petrochemical engineer a number of years ago. We talked for several hours about oil as a miracle carbon. I asked her what the epitaph of Western Civilization would be. She said. “They burned oil.” This morning I’m wearing shoes, socks, boxers, trousers, and a shirt, not one item of which was made in the United States. If I could trade each item of clothing back to the factory of its manufacture, I doubt that I would sleep well tonight. I’m with Jesus, John 8:7, “let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”

2. The whole man theory. As Jefferson wisely explained to his daughter Martha (see above), every human being is a mixed bag: enlightenment and blind prejudice, generosity and narcissism, benevolence and malevolence, good day and bad day, clarity and blind spot, outstanding in some ways, deplorable in others. Think of Lance Armstrong, Bill Cosby, Benito Mussolini, Bill Clinton, Mother Teresa, Margaret Thatcher, for example. In selecting our culture heroes, we have to assess the whole life and the entire achievement.

Jefferson was a racist and a slaveholder. These factors should weigh heavily in any rational assessment of his life and character. But we must also place in the balance his magnificent labors as a benefactor of humankind: decimal coinage, the rectangular survey grid system, separation of church and state, the University of Virginia, the organizational principle of the Library of Congress, the Louisiana Purchase, the design for the Capitol at Richmond, VA, fundamental work in paleontology, the Declaration of Independence, and the software of the American dream.

For all of his faults–and they do not begin and end with slavery–is Jefferson, in the final analysis, a benefactor or a degrader of humankind? On balance, how shall we evaluate him? Looking at his whole 83 years, his mass of writings, his range of practical achievements, his acts of greatness and his weakest moments, how shall we finally assess him?

3. Hamlet’s view. When the aging courtier Polonius tells Hamlet he will treat the visiting theater group “according to their desert,” Hamlet responds passionately: “God’s bodykins, man, much better! Use every man after his desert, and who should ‘scape whipping.” — Precisely. Where does this erasure of the past, more reminiscent of Stalin’s USSR and Orwell’s 1984 than of an enlightened democracy, end exactly? George Washington was a slaveholder. Lincoln had race views that would get him razed from Mount Rushmore by the narrowly righteous. Elizabeth Cady Stanton said remarkably ugly things about African-Americans when black men got the vote but white women did not in the wake of the Civil War. Franklin Roosevelt was an adulterer. Theodore Roosevelt was at times a warmonger. His views on American Indians are so dark at times that one hates even to read them in a scholarly arena. John F. Kennedy, LBJ, Ronald Reagan, Eisenhower, Bill Clinton, (where does this list end?) broke their marriage vows. Martin Luther King was a womanizer and he plagiarized his doctoral dissertation. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush evaded military service during the Vietnam War. Presidents Obama, Clinton, and GW Bush smoked dope. JFK dropped acid in the White House!

The only political figure I know who seems to have passed the righteous test in full purity is Jimmy Carter. That alone should give us pause. Where does this wave of righteous expurgation end?

4. ‘Tis better to wrestle than erase. My mentor Ev Albers believed that the duty of the humanities scholar is to examine and explore, to try to put any text or historical act or individual in its context, to try to understand how things shook out as they did and not otherwise. The duty of the humanist is to explore the past for its complexity, richness, unresolvedness, nuance, paradox, and problematic nature, and not to engage in the lazy enterprise of making glib judgments. Judgement is easy, understanding difficult. It does no good to portray Jefferson as a lover of liberty who unfortunately was born into a world of slavery, but who treated his slaves well and tried to change the world of Virginia and the United States to the extent that he could; and equally it does no good to portray Jefferson as a contemptible hypocrite who talked the language of liberty and equality, but who was quite content to breed slaves for the marketplace, and who dismissed African-Americans as physically and mentally inferior. One could make either argument plausibly enough, for there is a huge and not always consistent body of evidence in Jefferson writings and actions.

But surely we gain more by wrestling with the paradoxes in Jefferson’s life, illuminating, clarifying, teasing out nuance, attempting to understand his own (changing) thinking about race and slavery, his own strategy for preserving his reputation as an apostle of liberty while buying and selling human beings, who, as he freely acknowledged, “did him no injury.” After spending thirty years thinking and writing about Jefferson, I am not at all sure I understand his relationship to race and slavery. I’m not done trying. But I refuse simply to condemn him before I fully understand him.

We cannot understand ourselves if we do not understand the unresolved and perhaps unresolvable complexities of our heritage. Jefferson’s greatest biographers have said that the contradictions and unresolved principles in his life (1743-1826) are also the contradictions and unresolved issues in the American experiment. To understand ourselves, we must try to understand him. To judge him in a simplistic and self-satisfying way, means that we are short-circuiting our attempts to understand ourselves.

It would be insane, I think, to refuse to name an elementary school Martin Luther King, Jr., because he broke his marriage vows, or plagiarized his dissertation. It would be equally insane to remove Jefferson’s statue from the campus of the University of Virginia or the University of Missouri or William & Mary. Much better to use the “offending” icons as a text to discuss, debate, wrestle with, maybe even throw eggs at on occasion. But to remove those statues because Jefferson has disappointed us, US!, is to lose an opportunity for a very serious conversation about the dynamics that produced the America of 2016.

The Culture of Outrage represents a very dreary path in our pursuit of happiness and justice. In my view, on the whole, all things considered, Thomas Jefferson (as well as Woodrow Wilson, though I’m not quite as sure about Cecil Rhodes) must be seen as a net benefactor of humankind. But I would not remove a statue of Jesse Helms, George Wallace, or for that matter Pitchfork Ben Tillman from its pedestal. Better to deliberate and debate, perhaps at the top of our lungs, than to erase that which we think we have transcended.

– Clay S. Jenkinson is the author, educator, and scholar who created The Thomas Jefferson Hour, and is a sought-after historical impersonator, speaker, and media commentator, providing a deep but playful context to today’s events. (Bio credit: The Thomas Jefferson Hour, edited by A.C.) To discover more about Clay and his work, please visit http://jeffersonhour.com/

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Further Reading:

» American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, by Joseph Ellis
» Thomas Jefferson: America’s Paradoxical Patriot, by Alf Mapp, Jr.