Happy Birthday, H.P. Grice!

In honor of this anniversary of H.P. Grice’s birth on March 13th, 1913, let me share an undergraduate paper I had an especially good time writing.

Heads up: this paper features a lot of colorful and crude language, examined philosophically of course, and comedians’ opinions.

To learn more about the brilliant Grice, I recommend Richard E. Grandy and Richard Warner’s excellent bio and exploration of the ideas of this philosopher of language, in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Enjoy!

Slang and Grice’s Cooperative Principle

In “Logic and Conversation”, H. P. Grice outlines the unspoken but fixed rules of conversation that not only explain the workings of ordinary language, but account for implicature.

In a paper written only three years later in 1978, “Is Slang a Word for Linguists?”, Bethany K. Dumas and Jonathan Lighter develop a set of criterion for distinguishing slang from other language, through analysis of historical definitions and attitudes and description of its characteristics. In the contemporary F**k, A Documentary, Steve Anderson presents a more informal exposition of a particularly controversial yet ubiquitous slang word, interviewing a host of linguists, politicians, social critics, and entertainers on issues surrounding the use, abuse, and censorship of the term. These interviewees contribute a variety of insights into the nature of slang and its influence on language generally as well as on social thought and attitudes. In this paper, I explain how Grice’s rules of conversation, besides accounting for implicature, also provide an excellent explanation of the mechanism by which slang originates, develops, and conveys meaning.

Question: if sentences and terms refer to things in the world and/or express thoughts, how is it that so many utterances actually convey meaning without using apparently appropriate or specific terminology?

In his paper, Grice considers this phenomenon of pragmatics, or language behavior. He explains that implicature, the ability of a statement to convey meaning without including literal or explicit terms, is possible because acts of language are governed by rules and maxims. The Cooperative Principle (1) contains four rules: quantity, quality, relation, and manner. Each rule, in turn, contains one or more maxims, or principles of linguistic etiquette. Grice proceeds to explain how exploiting these rules and maxims enables a speaker to implicate what they want to say without expressing it literally. Implication serves countless linguistic functions: irony, the discreet sharing of gossip, insult, raising doubts, avoiding or expressing rudeness, social and political critique, proclaiming membership in a social group, artistic expression, etc. Implication is so integral to conversation, so effective for conveying meaning while tailoring the needs of expression to the context of a given situation, that Grice argues that a philosophic theory of language is incomplete without an explanation of it.(2)

Dumas and Lighter are concerned with formalizing a set of criteria for determining what constitutes slang. Prior to their paper, ‘slang’ was a variously defined, often maligned, and poorly understood category of language.(3) The paper opens with a series of descriptions and characterizations of slang over time by linguists, academics, and authors, many of whom dismiss slang as, at best, an unfortunate habit engaged in by the uneducated, lazy, and the thoughtless, or at worst, a corrosive force on language and morals. A few of these figures, however, are much more impartial in their assessment, characterizing slang as a side product of social change or simply a sort of code; a few (Walt Whitman, for example) even approve of its use. Dumas and Lighter demonstrate an attitude of professional detachment in their exploration of slang, considering their paper a much-needed contribution to this academically neglected subject; they recognize, contrary to the dismissive commentary of their peers, that slang is an important area of pragmatics. Like Grice, they narrow their criteria of what constitutes slang language to four: it lowers the dignity of formal/serious speech or writing; it implies a special familiarity between speaker and hearer or speaker and referent; it’s taboo in higher-status social circles; and it’s a euphemism to protect the user from social discomfort or the necessity of elaboration.(4)

Anderson’s documentary, unlike the scholarly works summarized above, is an informal and irreverent romp aimed at a mainstream audience, yet it provides informative insights into the usage and functions of slang.(5) It’s an exploration into a specific slang term, ‘fuck’, widely considered offensive and confrontational by society generally. Yet, it’s a subtle term as well, capable of conveying very complex meanings in various shades, and often considered especially useful for ‘expressing the inexpressible’. (Comedian Billy Connolly provides a particularly charming example of this: “…’fuck off!’…is international; I don’t care where you are…if someone’s fucking with your bags…in Tibet…and you say…’fuck off!’ …he knows exactly what you mean…and off he will fuck!”) Some of the interviewees in this documentary enjoy using this word, some consider it obscene and find hearing or using it offensive, and some are uncomfortable with it, but consider right to free speech so democratically essential that they oppose any sort of coercive censorship of its use. Many of the interviewees (even some of those who disapprove of it generally) acknowledge that ‘fuck’ and other slang/obscene terms have historical significance for challenging and testing social norms and institutions, and many entertainers, authors, academics, and reporters consider this category of language as an important element in artistic and political expression. The academics interviewed in the film, such as Geoffrey Nunberg and Reinhold Aman (the latter humorously billed as ‘a cunning linguist’) discuss why ‘fuck’ is an interesting word strictly linguistically as well, including for its venerable pedigree and for its variety of forms.

Dumas and Lighter’s quote from James Sledd: “the most crucial feature of slang: it is used deliberately, in jest or in earnest, to flout a conventional social or semantic norm”(6) neatly dovetails Grice’s characterization of the way implicature likewise works, by flouting or exploiting conventions of use. Between the the two, Dumas and Lighter’s paper and Anderson’s documentary contain at least one specific discussion or pragmatic example for each rule and maxim of Grice’s Cooperative Principle; and I’ll present and explore these examples following Grice’s arrangement.

The first Cooperative Principle is Quantity, containing two maxims; the first is “Make your contribution as informative as required”. ‘Fuck’, ‘dude’, and other slang terms can abbreviate a large amount of information (7) (as demonstrated previously by Billy Connolly), especially between the speaker and an ‘insider’ audience, a subgroup who uses terms familiar to the speaker. So, using any of these terms exploits this maxim by violating it when speaking within the wider community, since using this term either conveys no information, or is ambiguous meaning in meaning, in this context. However, the maxim is not violated if such a term is used within the subgroup. The mirror maxim, “Do not make your contribution more informative than is required”, is exploited in one way by the element of connotation essential for slang, another method of using a term or expression to informally convey an additional amount of information not gleanable from the general term or expression itself. (8) For example, this information can include contextual information about the speaker, approval or disapproval of the content of the discourse, or compliments or insults directed at the audience.

Quality, the second Cooperative Principle, also contains two maxims. “Do not say what you believe to be false” is exploited when a speaker intentionally breaks with conversational convention by using a term that would not be true or accurate if understood according to its usual definition. (9) The following sentence is an example Dumas and Lighter provide, a slang term inserted into an otherwise conventional sentence, as an instance of flouting this maxim.”The Federal government spends nearly one hundred billion bucks annually for defense.” (10) Traditionally, ‘bucks’, as the term for male deer, would understood according to that definition, and the above sentence would be false. However, ‘bucks’ as a slang term for ‘dollars’, is accurately used within this sentence, but the truth of the statement is only preserved for others familiar with the slang usage, or for those who accept the propriety of its usage. In this case, the choice of the slang usage of ‘bucks’ in place of ‘dollars’ could convey the additional meaning of disrespect for the Federal government, or of identification with the same social group as the audience, and so on. In this way, an apparent falsity actually functions as an more efficient method of conveying the additional meaning with a simple switch of terms. “Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence” is a more idealistic maxim, though I grant that most people expect the speaker to have some justification their statement, be it independently verifiable evidence or at least an accurate, relevant anecdote. However, in ordinary conversation, it’s sometimes important for a speaker to extricate themselves from a difficulty caused by the conversation itself. Perhaps the speaker is in a position to be embarrassed by their own lack of knowledge of the subject discussed. Or, perhaps the speaker is impatient with the conversation, out of lack of interest or in a state of offense at the subject matter, or has a personal dislike of the other participant(s) in the conversation. Whatever the reason, using slang, or more specifically obscenity, can “…protect the user from the discomfort or annoyance of further elaboration.” (11)

Relation is the sole Cooperative Principle with only one maxim: “Be relevant.” Walt Whitman, quoted by Dumas and Lighter, shares the slang speaker’s disdain for strict adherence to this maxim: “Slang, or indirection, [is] an attempt of common humanity to escape from bald literalism, and express itself illimitably….”(12) Whitman here extols the potency of slang terms, in much the same way as entertainers, artists, and free speech advocates such as Billy Connolly, Lenny Bruce, Shakespeare, and Sam Donaldson do, (13) for conveying force and shades of meaning the speaker finds unconveyable in conventional terms. These slang/obscene terms import some of this meaning precisely from the novelty, unexpectedness, or seeming irrelevance of the terms. While singer Pat Boone, for example, may advocate (sometimes humorously) elegant expressions using traditional, even terms for the more intimate functions of the human body as creative ways to express wrath, insult, or depths of passion (14), this general manner of speaking simply doesn’t convey other shades of meanings, such as disapprobation of a political body or philosophy, or declaration of membership in a subgroup, or disgust with corruption, or humorous social commentary, and so forth, that’s essential to political or artistic discourse or is more relevant to the context in which slang is used.

Grice’s final Cooperative Principle, Manner, contains four maxims. Sam Donaldson, veteran anchorman of ABC news, enjoys the term ‘fuck’ as an all-purpose word unlike most others, for its versatility as a substitute for an amazingly large number of other terms while retaining its own particular shade of meaning. (15) Yet ‘fuck’ clearly violates, on its face, the first maxim “Avoid obscurity of expression”, as it seems to rarely denote its original and specific referent, but instead any one of a numerous other things (often within in a noun phrase): as a substitute for actions such as ‘destroy’, ‘harm’, or ‘undermine’, descriptions such as ‘drunk’, ‘wrong’, or ‘in trouble’, or exclamations such as ‘that’s wonderful!’, ‘that’s awful!’, or ‘that’s amazing!’ It appears to be an obscure expression until the context is considered, making it an excellent one for interpersonal and other specific conversational usage but inexcusably ambiguous (according to the maxim) for formal discourse. With ‘fuck’, as with all slang, novelty is important (16), as is the speaker’s intention (17). What the speaker wishes to express is often something they find ordinary words insufficient for: conveying such additional meanings as mentioned earlier: biographical details, general attitudes about life or mood of the moment, or status in society or with a particular subgroup, to give a few examples. (18)

“Avoid ambiguity” is closely related to the obscurity maxim. Again, ‘fuck’ provides an excellent example of slang interpreted through Grice’s Cooperative Principle. As funnyman Billy Connolly explains, it has a guttural sound which aids its expressiveness; a “primal word” (19) that, while to Connolly is unambiguous in its general meaning, is ambiguous in reference to literal translatability: the hearer can understand the word to mean a whole variety of things, depending on the circumstances. Slang is also often used as a euphemism to allay the discomfort of the speaker in a given situation, for example, saying “I love you” can seem too formal, or serious, or connote a level of commitment to the hearer that the speaker is not prepared to make. Instead, a slang phrase such as “you’re cool” or “I dig you” conveys the meaning of some level of affection of the speaker for the hearer, but in a strategically ambiguous way.20 The speaker can later claim that the statement expressed merely friendly feelings or passionate emotion, whichever best suits the speaker at the time.

Some slang actually exploits the third maxim “Be brief” (or, “Avoid unnecessary prolixity”) by obeying it to a fault. ‘Fuck’, ‘dude’, and other slang words are often used to abbreviate longer sentences, as briefly discussed two paragraphs earlier in the “Obscurity”section. Many pop-culture favorites such as commercials, video skits, and comedy films such as “Baseketball” feature characters who conduct entire conversations mostly or even entirely composed of repetitions of a single slang term, variously inflected, to express entire statements of approbation, anger, surprise, inquiry, or command (a web browser search for videos, using the single keyword ‘dude’, will quickly provide multiple examples of this). Yet, this brevity of speech is only successful in conveying the desired meanings when the speaker and hearer belong to the same social group that uses the slang term this way. (21) The general community that conducts conversations according to the Cooperative Principle will not understand such usage. The fourth and final maxim, “Be orderly, is exploited by slang terms (rather obliquely) in their function of punctuating sentences with unconventional words so as to make them more informal, less “dignified”. (22) A more direct example of this, once again, is a particular way the word ‘fuck’ is used: this time, by inserting it in the middle of another word or phrase, interrupting its expression so as to lend it additional dynamic force, in a positive (“fan-fucking-tastic”, “abso-fuckingly-lutely”) or negative manner (“no-fucking-way” or “jeezus-fucking-christ”) (23). Besides the slang classification of such terms by the conversational community, the slang terms inserted into sentences in such a way obtains its forcefulness from the very fact that it interrupts an otherwise orderly sequence of syllables or words.

From my very first reading, I was impressed, and remain so, by Grice’s explanatively powerful, tidy, and intuitive theory for how ordinary conversation and implicature function.

As my research for this paper progressed, I was also surprised by how neatly Grice’s Cooperative Principle and Dumas and Lighter’s description of slang fit together. From Dumas and Lighter’s retelling of historical descriptions and accounts of slang, it appears that there was a poverty of theoretical work on its origins and pragmatics. It appears clear that this was due to an attitude of academic aloofness, if not outright disdain, towards this essentially populist form of expression. Yet slang provides a living laboratory for observing the dynamics of the evolution of language and the way new terms and expressions come into being, as slang originates, changes, and disappears so quickly. It’s the linguistic fruit fly for evolutionary research! And the sheer number of scholarly articles I found on the subject of slang while I was doing my research indicates that scholars of language have discovered this.

While I share the scholar’s high valuation of precision in discourse, I also value vibrancy of expression in many forms including that such as that slang provides, as Walt Whitman did, and as the contemporary comic and author Stephen Fry does: “Imagine if the structure, meaning and usage of language was always the same as when Swift and Pope were alive. Superficially appealing as an idea for about five seconds, but horrifying the more you think about it. If you are the kind of person who insists on this and that ‘correct use’ I hope I can convince you to abandon your pedantry. Dive into the open flowing waters and leave the stagnant canals be. But above all let there be pleasure. Let there be textural delight, let there be silken words and flinty words and sodden speeches and soaking speeches and crackling utterance and utterance that quivers and wobbles like rennet. Let there be rapid firecracker phrases and language that oozes like a lake of lava. Words are your birthright …Don’t be afraid of it, don’t believe it belongs anyone else, don’t let anyone bully you into believing that there are rules and secrets of grammar and verbal deployment that you are not privy to. Don’t be humiliated by dinosaurs into thinking yourself inferior because you can’t spell broccoli or moccasins. Just let the words fly from your lips and your pen. Give them rhythm and depth and height and silliness. Give them filth and form and noble stupidity. Words are free and all words, light and frothy, firm and sculpted as they may be, bear the history of their passage from lip to lip over thousands of years.” (24)

Damn straight, Stephen Fry!

*A version of this post was previously published at Ordinary Philosophy

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NOTES:

1 – Grice, H.P. “Logic and Conversation” in The Philosophy of Language, ed. A. P. Martinich, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2008, 173
2 – Ibid, 172
3 – Dumas, Bethany K. and Jonathan Lighter. “Is Slang a Word for Linguists?”. American Speech, Vol. 53 No. 1 (Spring 1978) pp 5-17, 10
4 – Ibid 14-15
5 – Anderson, Steve. F**k, A Documentary, 2005
6 – Dumas and Lighter, 12
7 – F**k
8 – Dumas and Lighter, 13
9 – Ibid, 13
10 – Ibid, 14
11 – Dumas and Lighter, 15
12 – Ibid, 5
13 – F**k
14 – Ibid
15 – Ibid
16 – Dumas and Lighter, 7
17 – Ibid 11-12
18 – Ibid 13-14
19 – F**k
20 – Dumas and Lighter, 15
21 – F**k
22 – Dumas and Lighter, 14
23 – F**k
24 – Fry, Stephen. “Don’t Mind Your Language” Stephenfry.com.

Happy Birthday, Michel de Montaigne!

Michel de Montaigne, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Michel de Montaigne, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Let us remember and honor the great Michel de Montaigne (Feb 28, 1533 – Sep 23, 1592), a thinker after my own heart, on this anniversary of his birth.

Montaigne was a deeply philosophical thinker, though he never developed a complete philosophical system or moral theory. He invented, or at least popularized, a revolutionary way of writing: the essay. In his essays, he wrote about anything and everything he found interesting enough to observe and think deeply about which was …well, just about everything, especially his inner life. His Essays are a rich source of wonderful philosophical and moral insights. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes: “… under the guise of innocuous anecdotes, Montaigne achieved the humanist revolution in philosophy. He moved from a conception of philosophy conceived of as theoretical science, to a philosophy conceived of as the practice of free judgment’. Judgment, in this sense, involves applying both our cultivated moral sense and our reason, enriched with knowledge, to navigating the complexity and variety of situations we face throughout our lives; it also refers to the expansive, tolerant attitude we should display towards each other and towards the whole of reality.

While Montaigne highly valued education, he also recognized that it can be overemphasized to the detriment of learning from our own experiences. In his day, education often consisted largely, even mostly, of rote memorization of a vast quantity of facts. This learning method can stifle our ability to exercise practical judgment and serve to blunt social skills as well, preventing us from learning from and about each other, which is essential for cultivating moral understanding. We should learn as much about the world and each other as possible, Montaigne thought, through interpersonal interaction as well as through more formal types of education.

Montaigne also thought that sometimes, our big, smart brains can even hinder our quest for wisdom. For example, we can become ashamed, insecure, even hateful of our own bodies when we contrast the refinements of education and the arts to the material, often messy, even disgusting reality of caring for the body and satisfying its needs. This distaste for our bodies is ungenerous and ungrateful, said Montaigne, considering how we rely on our bodies for so much. In fact, even to this Catholic Christian man who believed in the soul, we are our bodies in an essential way. Our bodies are much more than just meat that our souls inhabit, they are intimate partners of souls, and together, they comprise whole human beings. As such, our bodies deserve our compassion, gratitude, love, and respect.

Our big brains can make also make us too proud, unable to recognize wisdom in humble or unexpected places. Those of little or no education, Montaigne maintains, sometimes display more wisdom than the most rigorous scholar. This includes animals, who, especially, are sometimes wiser than we are; for example, they live their whole lives with the natural, unembarrassed, proper attitudes towards their own bodies that allows them to unapologetically enjoy the pleasure of being alive. Montaigne believed that we should learn from them and imitate them in these respects. Those who have the most wisdom to teach us, then, can come from all walks of life, and the wisest person will be receptive to the lessons that can be learned anywhere.

Furthermore, we shouldn’t limit our exposure merely to our own cultures, but should learn about as many other cultures and beliefs as possible. Montaigne, like Confucius, believed that before you can be a philosopher or a moral theorist, you must first be an anthropologist. A wide-ranging education and exposure to the world has two major advantages. First, the information you have to work with will be much more vast, your scope much wider, than if you merely stuck to the received wisdom of your own culture. Secondly, you will cultivate in yourself the very virtues that characterize the wise and moral person: tolerance, benevolence, respect, kindness, generosity, understanding, and so forth. Conversely, narrowness of outlook and xenophobia lead to hatred, violence, and so on, as the horrific stories coming back from the conquest of the New World made him all too aware. Montaigne believed we shouldn’t base our attitudes about right and wrong on habit, which is morally lazy and which a narrow education can easily lead us to do; rather, we should temper our moral attitudes with reason, and our reason, in turn, should be informed by an expansive and ever-expanding body of knowledge.

michel-de-montaigneThis can make Montaigne seem like a moral relativist, but I don’t think that this is so. He was a committed Catholic, which seems to rule that out. Yet he did recognize that some things society traditionally recognized as wrong are in fact both bad and good, sometimes one or sometimes the other depending on the circumstances, sometimes both at the same time. For example, consider drunkenness. It can be bad, such as when it gets you fired or leads you to violence. But, it can also be good, such as promoting sociability or artistic disinhibition. Montaigne recognized that if there are universally true moral maxims, they’re likely to be few. Rather, his approach to philosophy is a skeptical one: he recognized that an attitude of uncertainty and doubt is a fruitful one for gaining wisdom. When you don’t easily accept the first easy answers that come along, when you’re always waiting for more information to come in, when you generally accept that there’s a possibility you are wrong, you are practicing a wise skepticism; otherwise, you cheat yourself out of the opportunity to learn.

Ethically, Montaigne espoused some behaviors as universally preferable: those that are inspired by tolerance, joyfulness, sociability, generosity, benevolence, curiosity, a good-humored attitude towards other people and their varied ways of living, and so on; he specifically denounced cruelty and narrowness in thinking and feeling. He described his ethical theory not by outlining a rigorous system, however, but by enacting and describing a moral attitude that inspired moral behavior in others. In sum, he may or may not have been a relativist when it comes to a specific theory or set of maxims, but he was definitely not relativistic in the overarching value he placed on the art of being a good, complete human being, and on promoting the same in others.

Montaigne’s Essays demonstrate that the most well-reasoned advanced moral theory may never be quite as convincing, effective, or influential when spelled out as that which is lived out. Montaigne showed us how we can all be philosophers, how we can live ethically, and how we can discover it all for ourselves.

Philosophers, if they’re doing it right, will be the happiest of all people since philosophy can and should be a joyful enterprise, and we should all be philosophers.

Learn more about this great master of introspection here:

Essays ~ by Michel de Montaigne

Me, Myself, and I: What Made Michel de Montaigne the First Modern Man? ~ by Jane Kramer for The New Yorker

Michel de Montaigne ~ by Marc Foglia for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Michel de Montaigne ~ Melvin Bragg discusses Montaigne’s life and thought with David Wootton, Terence Cave, and Felicity Green (my Intellectual History advisor!) for the BBC’s In Our Time

Michel de Montaigne ~ from The Book of Life

Michel de Montaigne (1533—1592) ~ by Christopher Edelman for Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) ~ by Terence Green for Philosophy Now

Michel de Montaigne: French Writer and Philosopher ~ by Tilde A. Sankovitch for Encyclopædia Britannica

Montaigne on Death and the Art of Living ~ by Maria Popova for Brain Pickings

Can We Have More Than One Friend? According to Montaigne, No ~ by Manuel Bermudez

Philosophy: A Guide to Happiness – Montaigne on Self-Esteem ~ by Alain de Botton

*A version of this piece was previously published at 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, Jeremy Bentham!

Jeremy Bentham's Auto-Icon at University College London, 2003 by Michael Reeve, GNU Free Documentation License Version 1.2

Jeremy Bentham’s Auto-Icon at University College London, photo 2003 by Michael Reeve

Jeremy Bentham, the great English moral and legal philosopher born on February 15, 1748, was a very strange man. A brilliant one, but strange nonetheless. He was a precocious child and advanced in his studies very early, finding Westminster and Queen’s College at Oxford too easy and therefore rather boring. He was trained as a lawyer but decided not to practice law after hearing William Blackstone’s lectures. Blackstone’s treatise Commentaries on the Laws of England is still considered one of the most authoritative and foundational works on English law, so for a guy to consider them so flawed that he’d want to give up his career seems a bit… well, presumptuous. But he demonstrated his own great intellectual capacities through his lifetime of prolific writing, mostly on legal theory, moral philosophy, and social reform. In the end, he earned the right to a certain degree of arrogance.

Bentham is generally considered the father of utilitarianism, the moral philosophy which judges anything that can be judged as right or wrong, good or evil, according to how conducive it is to ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number.’ Utilitarianism, then, is a type of consequentialism, which holds that a thing is right or wrong based on its consequent harms or benefits. Bentham did not invent the principles of utilitarianism; he discovered them in the writings of Cesare Beccaria (who authored the ‘greatest happiness’ axiom), David Hume, Claude Helvétius, and Joseph Priestley. But he spent a lifetime synthesizing these principles into a cohesive, fleshed-out moral philosophy founded on utility, whether a law or action increases or decreases pleasure or happiness. This principle can seem too subjective to apply to matters of law or public policy; after all, what makes one happy can make another less so, and how can we determine whether the happiness of one is greater, or more important, than the happiness of another? Bentham, careful and systematic in his approach to this as he was to everything else, devised his ‘Felicific Calculus’ to solve this problem. Bentham believed that pleasure, a natural phenomenon like everything else in the world, was likewise quantifiable. He hoped his method of assigning unitary measurements to pleasure, then determining their relative values through mathematics, was a way to make his moral philosophy practicable, conducive to real social reform.

To many, the idea that pleasure and happiness could be reduced to mathematical formulas seems very strange; some think he may have had Asperger’s syndrome or another cognitive feature that caused Bentham to view emotion with such scientific detachment. But as socially awkward as he and his ideas often were, his utilitarian philosophy led to him to some moral conclusions that we now consider extremely progressive and much more caring than those typical of his times. For example, he was an early proponent of racial equality, women’s rights, and animal rights. As to animal rights, just as for all classes of human beings, considering only the pleasure and pain of some sentient beings and not others when it comes to morals is unscientific and therefore unjustifiably biased. After all, animals, like all human beings, have feelings too, and their feelings are just as important to them as ours are to us. So, a moral system based on feelings must consider all equally important, so that one unit of pig happiness, for example, is just as morally significant as one unit of human happiness. The only correct way to balance them out in matters of morals and public policy is to apply the Felicific Calculus to determine how much pleasure or pain each experience in any given situation.

At the end of his long and productive life, the committed naturalist arranged to have his body publicly dissected, both for scientific inquiry and to provide an example to others; he believed that a perfectly good body should never go to waste and that everyone should donate their body to science. He also arranged to have his head and skeleton preserved, dressed in his clothes and stuffed to look as lifelike as possible, to be displayed in some public place. The preservation of Bentham’s head, with its glass eyes he had purchased some years before, left much to be desired; the expression it ended up with creeped people out. So his Auto-Icon, as he called it, sits today in its glass case at University College, London with a nice lifelike wax head in its place. His real head is safely stored away where students, who had stolen it over the years in a series of pranks, can no longer get to it.

Read more about the brilliant and eccentric Bentham at:

Jeremy Bentham – by James E. Crimmins for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Jeremy Bentham – University College London website

Jeremy Bentham on the Suffering of Non-Human AnimalsUtilitarianism.com

~ 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, Frederick Douglass!

Frederick and Joseph Douglass, from the Library of Congress archives, via Lion of Anacostia b

Frederick Douglass and his grandson Joseph, concert violinist who inherited his love of music from his grandparents, from the Library of Congress archives

Let us remember and salute the great human rights activist and Enlightenment thinker Frederick Douglass, on this near-anniversary of his birth.

The exact day of Douglass’ birth is unknown. We know the year, 1818, from his entry in the slave ledger of his master Aaron Anthony. His likely birth month, February, is an estimate. In his later years, Douglass chose to celebrate his birthday on February 14th because, he said, his mother Harriet once called him ‘my Valentine’.

Douglass is among my favorite people that ever inhabited the earth. He was born into slavery in Maryland, was mostly self-educated, escaped to freedom when he was 20, married the loving and strong Anna Murray, and became one of the most eloquent and influential advocates for civil rights in American, and, indeed, world history. He was an author, orator, preacher, activist, statesman, patriarch, musician, and world traveler. I had the joy of following the life and ideas of this motivated, resourceful, brilliant, complicated, and incredibly fascinating person through the United States, and now I’m continuing my research in Scotland, where he spent a relatively brief but very influential part of his life.

Here are a few links to some articles and works of art by, about, and inspired by the great Frederick Douglass, including my own work.

7 Haunts of Frederick Douglass in New York City ~ by Amy Cools for Untapped Cities

Frederick Douglass ~ by Melvyn Bragg and guests Karen Salt, Nicholas Guyatt, and Celeste-Marie Bernier for In Our Time

Frederick Douglass – by Ronald Sundstrom for Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Frederick Douglass  ~ Melvin Bragg discusses the life and ideas of Frederick Douglass with Karen Salt, Nicholas Guyatt, and Celeste-Marie Bernier for In Our Time

Frederick Douglass: In Progress ~ by Leigh Fought

Frederick Douglass Papers ~ at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis

Frederick Douglass Papers ~ at the Library of Congress

Frederick Douglass: United States Official and Diplomat ~ by the Editors for Encyclopædia Britannica

Frederick Douglass and a Valentine, Emily Dickinson and a Snake – by Rob Velella for The American Literary Blog

Frederick Douglass in Washington, D.C.: The Lion of Anacostia – by John Muller

Frederick’s Song– Douglass’ words arranged and set to music by SayReal and Richard Fink

From Oakland to Maryland, New York, and Massachusetts I Go, in Search of Frederick Douglass – History of ideas travel series by Amy Cools for Ordinary Philosophy

Interview with Ken Morris, Anti-Slavery Activist ~ by Ken Morris and Amy Cools for Ordinary Philosophy Podcast

Interview with Leigh Fought on Anna and Frederick Douglass ~ by Leigh Fought and Amy Cools for Ordinary Philosophy Podcast

Frederick Douglass in the British Isles ~ History of ideas travel series by Amy Cools for Ordinary Philosophy in Scotland, England, and Ireland, 2018-2019

*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, Charles Darwin!

A Charles Darwin display at the Kelvingrove Museum, Glasgow, Scotland

Let’s remember and salute Charles Darwin, the thinker who came to understand the basic mechanism by which we and all other species on earth come to be.

Born on February 12, 1809, Darwin was the grandson of Enlightenment physician, poet, and botanist Erasmus Darwin, who posited his own theory of evolution, as had many others, who observed its effects but had not successfully formulated a theory to explain how it worked. Given that his father was also a physician, it seemed natural that young Charles would take up the family profession. He studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh (my university!) from the age of 16 to 18. Darwin would have attended classes in the original building on South Bridge, now called the Old College, beautifully designed by Robert Adam (it didn’t yet have the dome it has now). While he loved the excellent science education he received there, Darwin decided being a physician was not for him.

Old College Building on South Bridge, University of Edinburgh, where Darwin attended classes

His father then sent Darwin to Christ’s College, Cambridge, with the idea that he could be a minister instead. Darwin did well at Christ’s College, but it was his pursuits as a naturalist that really captured his imagination and into which he poured his best efforts. After he completed his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1831, he continued his scientific study of animals and geologic formations. When the opportunity arose to travel to South America on the HMS Beagle later that year, Darwin took it, and spent the next five years gathering specimens and making detailed notes of his observations of the natural world. Among the wealth of valuable scientific information he amassed, Darwin’s observations of the appearance of apparently designed adaptations in living things; fossils of known and unknown animals sometimes found in the most unexpected places (remains of ancient sea life embedded in rocks at high elevation?!?); and the incredible amount of waste and suffering throughout the natural world, from wasps who laid their eggs in living caterpillars so that the growing grubs would devour them slowly from within to the genocide and slavery routinely practiced against the native people there, gave him much to think about.

Finches in a Charles Darwin display case at the Kelvingrove Museum, Glasgow, Scotland. The adaptations of finch beaks to food sources provided Darwin a perfect example of how natural selection works to produce the appearance of design.

With his experience broadened, his understanding deepened, and his body strengthened by the rigors of his expeditions, Darwin returned to England a wiser, stronger, more serious man. The first publications of his findings, together with his friendships with influential scientists such as the geologist Charles Lyell, made him famous. Darwin had found his profession. He began to pull together the evidence of his own eyes with the work of other naturalists and scientists to formulate a theory that would explain it all. What would explain a world of living things replete with beauty and waste, some joy and contentment but far more suffering, animals marvelously wrought but more often than not hidden from the human eye either by remoteness, incredibly tiny size, or time through extinction? It was the work of Edinburgh’s own self-made geologist James Hutton, popularized and developed by Lyell, which gave Darwin one key to the mystery. Since it had become clear that the earth was indeed ancient, not young as popular interpretations of the Bible would have it, species had plenty of time to adapt and change to their environment as needed, just as the earth itself had plenty of time to form as it is.

Hutton’s Section near the foot of Salisbury Crags, Holyrood Park, Edinburgh, Scotland. On my twice-weekly hikes, I regularly pass by this rock formation. It sparked James Hutton’s realization that the earth must be ancient indeed to give the rocks time to layer, fold, and bend as they do here.

Another key to the mystery was the mass suffering and death Darwin observed. While he mourned it, it was no doubt a comforting realization that it was not designed into the natural world by a divine mind that he was nonetheless bound to worship. Rather, Darwin realized that the living things that could not survive in the environment they found themselves in left those better equipped to do so to reproduce and pass on their adaptations. This realization, this theory of natural selection, Darwin recognized to be explosive as well. It took him about twenty years of careful thought and self-questioning to publish this theory. He knew, for one, that his theory went against people’s natural squeamishness and desire to think of the earth as a friendly home. More than that, Darwin knew perhaps better than anyone what a profound challenge this theory was to orthodox Christianity. But when another naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace, independently arrived at the same theory, Darwin was galvanized to publish his findings in 1859. His On the Origin of Species went on to become one of the most influential works in the history of thought.

Another Charles Darwin display at the Kelvingrove Museum, Glasgow, Scotland

Darwin’s life is a fascinating one in so many more ways outside of the scope of this piece. To learn more about this husband, father, writer, and restless seeker for truth, I recommend the excellent works I’ve linked to below.

Before that, one more thing: I’ve always hated the term ‘Social Darwinism’ because I think it’s terribly misleading. It refers to the idea that societies can be structured so as to direct evolution in some way, for example, by allowing the weakest or least able, as defined by that society, to die off so that the strongest and most able are the most likely to survive and reproduce. But Darwin did not espouse that idea, nor do scientists now understand him to have implied it. For Darwin, as for those who understand the theory of evolution by natural selection as an explanation of a natural process rather than a policy of action, the reason why human beings have become such a successful species is precisely our capacity for empathy and solidarity. It’s the fact that we care about each other as individuals, that we help each other survive and develop our unique capacities that makes us so adaptable, so creative, so able to get by in such a wide variety of environments. Social Darwinism, then, is contrary to Darwin’s own theories about human evolution. Eugenics, ‘survival of the fittest,’ and other such ideas that later thinkers claimed as part of Darwin’s intellectual legacy are not, in fact, his, or ideas that he would endorse given what he actually wrote. The problem with putting Darwin’s name in the term ‘Social Darwinism’ is that it wrongly implies that it was his idea, and therefore leads many to think of him as a cruel and heartless thinker, responsible for ideas which have caused much suffering and death. He was nothing of the sort.

Charles Darwin’s gravestone in Westminster Abbey, London, England. I was naughty and snuck in a quick photo, though photography is not allowed in the city’s places of worship.

Charles Darwin placard at the Kelvingrove Museum, Glasgow, Scotland

Learn more about this most influential of scientists and thinkers:

Charles Darwin: British Naturalist ~ by Adrian J. Desmond for Encyclopædia Britannica

Charles Darwin: Evolution and the Story of Our Species ~ iWonder at the BBC

Charles Darwin: various articles ~ by Maria Popova for Brain Pickings

Darwin Correspondence Project ~ at the University of Cambridge website

Darwin’s Influence on Modern Thought ~ by Ernst Mayr for Scientific American, November 24 2009

Darwin Online ~ read Charles Darwin’s books, articles, and other publications online

The Evolution of Charles Darwin ~ by Frank J. Sulloway for Smithsonian Magazine, December 2005

The Origin of the Thesis ~ by Claire Pettitt for The Times Literary Supplement

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

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Happy Birthday, Simone Weil!

Simone Weil via Wikimedia Commons, public domain

Simone Weil, born on February 3, 1909, lived only thirty-four years. She died as an unintentional martyr to her ideals on August 24th, 1943; she contracted tuberculosis when her overworked, underfed, exhausted body, working for the French Resistance in England, could not fight off disease. As she had done before, Weil refused to eat more than wartime rationing allowed to others, or to accept extra medical help. In a sense, allowing herself to become so run-down that she collapsed and died soon thereafter seems inconsistent with one of her central beliefs: that morality is centered on obligations to one another. When she debilitated herself through overwork and malnourishment, she rendered herself unable to fulfill those obligations she believed in. Yet in working for the benefit of others among those doing the same work, and demanding of herself that she do so under the same hard conditions that many others had to struggle in, Weil continued her long practice of putting her ideals in practice and in the process, testing them. The idealist, deeply spiritual Weil, in this way, often acted as a sort of empirical ethicist.

Weil was born to well-to-do, agnostic Jewish parents who provided her a very comfortable, secure childhood. Her high level of intelligence was evident from a very early age, and she received an excellent education. She surpassed the brilliant Simone de Bouviour in her École Normale Supérieure postgraduate exams. Yet Weil resisted employment as a full-time academic; she was intensely interested in common human concerns such as labor rights and politics. While teaching philosophy, Weil took time to travel to Germany to help her determine why Nazism took such hold there, and donated much of her time and skills to groups who supported working people. She left teaching in 1934 to work in a factory for some months, to observe conditions for unskilled working women. Weil then followed her activist instincts into joining Spain’s Republican efforts against the far-right, authoritarian Francisco Franco’s revolt in the Spanish Civil War, but an injury rendered her unable to complete her combat training, so she lent her support through her primary skill, writing. After she and her parents fled the Nazis first from Paris (she worked for a time as a farm laborer in rural France during this period), then from France, Weil joined Charles De Gaulle’s Free France movement from their London center of operations. Weil’s practice of observing work conditions and political movements first-hand undoubtedly contributed greatly to the force of the ideas she drew from such experiences.

Throughout all of this, Weil had many mystical experiences and converted to Christianity, with many of her beliefs overlapping Catholic doctrines, However, she refused to be baptized or ally herself with any one sect, prioritizing personal spiritual transformation over ritual. Weil wrote creatively and deeply on spirituality and theology; among her most original ideas was that the silence of God was necessary for creation to happen; he wasn’t dead, despite all appearances, he was just absent from the places where creation happens.

Weil had also long thought deeply about the liberal philosophy of human rights, and came to the conclusion that it was an ultimately empty concept on its own. Since it was not centered on a robust concept of human obligations, it was ultimately unworkable: rights, so conceived, could be and often were bought and sold, and while non-interference can mean rights are not violated, this means little when we need support that human rights theory doesn’t necessarily entail that we give to one another. It was only a commitment to fulfilling one’s obligations to others that well-being, bodily integrity, and every other aspect of each person’s humanity can be respected and protected. Weil put this idea to the test by working at that auto factory, as described above, where she observed the effects of the mechanical process of mass assembly on herself and other workers; to her, it appeared dehumanizing, harmful to the moral and spiritual self, instilling docility. In this and other institutions of a rights-based, private-property-centric society, Weil saw that aspects of humanity were rendered into something tradable in the marketplace, and interpersonal relations were reduced to contractual agreements, real or implied. Such a system allows for justice to be dispensed differently, or for differential access to basic human needs, according to one’s ability to pay. While I believe it’s true that liberal societies’ commitments to universal human rights have brought about a level of peace, prosperity, and individual liberty unparalleled in all other types of society throughout history, Weil’s ideas provide important insights into how a liberal system based on individual human rights might not consistently promote human well-being and personal fulfillment unless it is balanced by a robust ethic of interpersonal obligations.

Learn more about the spiritual philosopher and activist Simone Weil, who Susan Sontag called ‘one of the most uncompromising and troubling witnesses to the modern travail of the spirit,’ at:

‘God Isn’t Dead, He’s Silent’: Simone Weil Dies, Very Young ~ by Nettanel Slyomovics for Haaretz

Gravity and Grace ~ by Simone Weil

Should We Still Read Simone Weil? ~ by Heather McRobie for The Guardian

Simone Weil ~ by A. Rebecca Rozelle-Stone and Benjamin P. Davis for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Simone Weil ~ by Susan Sontag for The New York Review of Books

Simone Weil articles, assorted ~ by Maria Popova for Brain Pickings

Simone Weil: French Philosopher ~ at Encyclopaedia Britannica

What We Owe to Others: Simone Weil’s Radical Reminder ~ by Robert Zaretsky for The New York Times‘ Stone blog

~ 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, Thomas Paine!

Statue of Thomas Paine by Gutzon Borglum, 1938, Parc Montsouris, Paris, photo 2015 by Amy Cools

Statue of Thomas Paine by Gutzon Borglum, 1938, Parc Montsouris, Paris, photo 2015 by Amy Cools

Let’s remember and salute the great Thomas Paine, father of our American identity, on his birthday. Born on January 29th, 1737, this British-American expatriate, a former entrepreneur and corset-maker, became one of the pre-eminent political and humanist writers in the Enlightenment tradition. He wrote brilliantly in language readily understood by readers from all walks of life yet long studied by and widely influential to scholars and other authors, from wildly popular pamphlets which the case for American independence from Britain, to books and short works centered on his John Locke-inspired conception of human rights. He argued for the primacy of reason in epistemology, politics, science, and theology. Paine is a primary influence in my own concept of America as ever a work-in-progress bastion of liberty, of reason, of freedom of conscience, of the idea that the establishment of property rights entails the obligation to share the wealth with those who lack what they need to live.

Here are a few links to some articles and works of art by, about, and inspired by Thomas Paine, including some of my own work:

Common Sense – Thomas Paine (1776)

The American Crisis – Thomas Paine (1776-83)

The Rights of Man – Thomas Paine (1791)

The Age of Reason – Thomas Paine (1794)

Agrarian Justice – Thomas Paine (1795-96)

Thomas Paine – from The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

To Paris, France I Go, In Search of Revolution-Era Thomas Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Thomas Jefferson – history of ideas travel series in which I follow Thomas Paine’s life and ideas in the era of the French Revolution

Thomas Paine on Basic Income, and Why Welfare is Compatible with an Individualist Theory of Human Rights – my essay on how Paine’s ideas about property rights led him to advocate the unconditional allocation of public funds for the support of the young, the old, and the disabled

Pretty Pink Rose – David Bowie and Adrian Belew (1990) – ‘She tore down Paris on the tail of Tom Paine, but the left wing’s broken, the right’s insane’

As I Went Out One Morning – Bob Dylan (1968) ‘As I went out one morning to breathe the air around Tom Paine’s, I spied the fairest damsel that ever did walk in chains’

Tom Paine’s Bones – Graham Moore (1995) Recorded by Dick Gaughan in 2001. ‘Well they say I preached revolution but let me say in my defence, all I did wherever I went was to talk a lot of Common Sense’

*A version of this piece was previously published at 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!