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

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

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

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

(Find Part One here)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is not a religious experience.

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

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

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

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

More layers of complexity within Substance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Semper Sapere Aude! (Always Dare to Know!)

Charles M. Saunders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Birthday, Aimé Césaire!

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

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

Learn more about the great Aimé Césaire:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Birthday, W.V.O. Quine!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Birthday, Adam Smith!

Adam Smith statue on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, Scotland

Adam Smith was a philosophical disciple and life-long friend of David Hume, and as such, I encountered his ideas regularly while I was following the life and ideas of Hume some years ago in Edinburgh. Smith wrote a moving account of Hume’s last days. I also encountered his ideas regularly in my undergraduate studies in moral philosophy.

Smith was baptized and perhaps born on June 5th, 1723 in Kirkcaldy, Scotland (a fishing village near Edinburgh) and died on July 17, 1790 in Edinburgh. He attended university at Glasgow and Oxford and found the former intellectual milieu more stimulating by orders of magnitude. Glasgow and Edinburgh were vigorous centers of Enlightenment thought in philosophy, natural philosophy (as the sciences were then known), linguistics, history, political theory, mathematics, and more. David Hume, Adam Smith, and their fellow leaders in the Scottish Enlightenment joined the ranks of this philosophical tradition’s greatest and most influential thinkers.

Like pretty much everyone who’s interested at least in the basics of economic theory, I’d heard a lot about The Wealth of Nations, Smith’s treatise on political economy, and had read excerpts as well as a lot of commentary on it. The Wealth of Nations is considered a foundational theoretical work on capitalism and therefore, Smith is regarded as a key figure in economic theory. But when I returned to university a few years ago to study philosophy, and when researching the life and ideas of Hume and his contemporaries for my aforementioned project, I spent more time with Smith’s moral philosophy. So I’ll focus this aspect of his thinking here. After all, this was his main arena of inquiry: he was not an economist, but a professor of moral philosophy at Glasgow. His Theory of Moral Sentiments was, and still is to a lesser consent, respected as a major work in moral philosophy.

Portrait medallion of Adam Smith by James Tassie at the National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments merges from a sort of compendium of elements of moral philosophy, in which Smith fuses what he considers the best and most coherent elements of moral philosophy into one compelling system. In it, one recognizes Humian sentimentalism, Kantian-type reason-based morality (Immanuel Kant’s work on this topic came after Smith’s, though the men were direct contemporaries), consequentialism, and Aristotelian virtue ethics. Like Hume, Smith thinks that the emotions play a central role. Before Hume, morality was widely considered to be primarily a matter of reason, and morality required us to quash our emotions, or as Hume put it, passions, because human are naturally and by default selfish, greedy, profane, lazy, and in myriad others way fallen creatures. Hume, however, does not agree. He believes that human beings naturally identify with the pains and joys of others, internalizing them and causing us to want to ameliorate their circumstances, and it’s this direct emotional response that drives the moral sense. Smith largely agrees, but not wholly. He also stresses the importance of sympathy (close to the sense that we’d usually now mean empathy) in making moral judgments. Smith explains that the moral agent is like an impartial spectator who participates in the daily lives, sufferings, and joys of our fellow human beings through our emotional response to their situation.

Adam Smith portrait by John Kay from 1790 (the year of Smith’s death), at the National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh

But Smith also believes that sympathy (empathy) is not enough: our sympathies can and should be corrected by reason since our emotional responses can become inappropriate to the situation, corrupted by ignoble impulses such as greed, ambition, selfishness, and so on. An impartial, uncorrupted spectator would not consider indifference or cruelty, for example, as proper emotional responses to the plight of others. (I see shades of John Rawl’s ‘veil of ignorance‘ here.) One way to help us maintain moral ‘propriety’, as Smith put it, is to apply reason, and one way our reason can help us judge whether our moral sentiments are correct is to consider the consequence of actions we feel inclined to do. While the consequences of our actions don’t determine their rightness or wrongness as they do in consequentialist moral theories, they are an important consideration and in some cases, such as those in which human life hangs in the balance, they should take precedence. And finally, Smith agrees with Aristotle that we can’t rely on a pre-determined, reason-derived, emotionally-detached set of inflexible moral principles to differentiate right from wrong, good from bad, as Kant would have it. Rather, we naturally recognize and respond to virtue when we see it. We admire its beauty and goodness and have the desire to emulate it. Aristotle sees virtue as a perfect balance between opposing qualities in the same sphere: courage is the virtue on the right part of the spectrum between cowardliness and recklessness; temperance between licentiousness and insensibility; friendliness between obsequiousness and cold indifference. Smith likewise stresses the importance of balance in our moral character but focuses more on attuning our sympathies so they are in propriety, thereby driving us to act in the kindest, most honest, and fairest way towards one another as a matter of course.

adam smith_s grave in canongate kirkyard, edinburgh, scotland, 2017 amy cools

Adam Smith’s grave in Canongate Kirkyard, Edinburgh, Scotland

This is only a very short summary of Smith’s moral philosophy by one who not an expert on Smith’s life and thought. To learn more about the great philosopher and economist Adam Smith from those who are, and for more about the philosophical traditions that influenced him and which he influenced in turn, see:

Adam Smith (1723—1790) ~ Jack Russell Weinstein for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Adam Smith’s Moral and Political Philosophy ~ by Samuel Fleischacker for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Adam Smith pt. 1 – Specialization and Adam Smith pt. 2 – The Tip of the Iceberg Of Wealth ~ Stephen West discusses Adam Smith’s political economy for his blog Philosophize This!

Adam Smith on What Human Beings Are Like ~ Nicholas Phillipson discusses Adam Smith’s view of human beings with Nigel Warburton for Philosophy Bites podcast

Dennis Rasmussen on Hume and Smith and his book The Infidel and the Professor ~ with Russ Roberts for EconTalk

Enlightenment ~ William Bristow for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Moral Sentimentalism ~ Antti Kauppinen for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

The Problem With Inequality, According to Adam Smith ~ Dennis C. Rasmussen for The Atlantic

The Real Adam Smith ~ by Paul Sagar for Aeon

The Theory of Moral Sentiments ~ Adam Smith, first published in 1759

*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, Bertrand Russell!

Betrand Russell in 1938, image public domain via Wikimedia CommonsBertrand Russell lived an extraordinarily long life, in which he did an extraordinary number of extraordinary things.

Encyclopedia Britannica introduces him thusly: ‘Bertrand Russell ….born May 18, 1872, Trelleck, Monmouthshire, Wales- died Feb. 2, 1970, Penrhyndeudraeth, Merioneth, [was a] British philosopher, logician, and social reformer, founding figure in the analytic movement in Anglo-American philosophy, and recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950. Russell’s contributions to logic, epistemology, and the philosophy of mathematics established him as one of the foremost philosophers of the 20th century. To the general public, however, he was best known as a campaigner for peace and as a popular writer on social, political, and moral subjects. During a long, productive, and often turbulent life, he published more than 70 books and about 2,000 articles, married four times, became involved in innumerable public controversies, and was honoured and reviled in almost equal measure throughout the world…’

For myself, he was particularly influential to my youthful freethinking self, disenchanted with the religion of my childhood and seeking new and more satisfying ways of viewing the world. I read his History of Western Philosophy and Why I Am Not a Christian each several times over. I admire his clear, precise thinking and his principled anti-war stance which came at a significant cost, including jail time and loss of a prestigious job at the University of Chicago, and it’s always so enjoyable to watch him speak (you’ll find plenty of videos on YouTube) in his oh-so-aristocratic accent with a pipe often tucked into the corner of his mouth. He was not a perfect man, but he was a brilliant and never a less-than-fascinating one.

Learn more about the brilliant and idiosyncratic Bertrand Russell at:

Bertrand Russell ~ Melvyn Bragg in discussion with AC Grayling, Mike Beaney, and Hilary Greaves for BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time

Bertrand Russell ~ by Andrew David Irvine for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Bertrand Russell – Biographical ~ at NobelPrize.org

Bertrand Russell: British Logician and Philosopher ~ by Ray Monk for Encyclopedia Britannica

Stop Working so Much: In Praise of Idleness by Bertrand Russell ~ by Nat Eliason and Neil Soni for Made You Think podcast

Various pieces on Bertrand Russell ~ by Maria Popova for Brain Pickings

*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, Omar Khayyám!

By Adelaide Hanscom, from Edward Fitzgerald's The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, 1905, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Since Edward FitzGerald published his translation of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám in 1859, Omar Khayyám (May 18, 1048 – December 4, 1131) has been known, especially in the western world, first and foremost as a great poet, eloquently expressing the joy and beauty of life and our own struggles to live it with a sense of love and meaning. It’s a humanist work, with Khayyám writing much as an Epicurean or Skeptic here and a Stoic there, freely doubting and wondering at everything, unshackled from the orthodoxy one might expect from a famed teacher and writer of his time and place. Yet Khayyám, a devotee of Avicenna, took his Islamic faith very seriously and thought deeply about the nature of his God and humankind’s proper relationship to him.

Khayyám, born in Persia in 1048, was most famed in his own time as a mathematician, astronomer, and scientist. He wrote some of the most important medieval works in geometry and algebra, and helped reform the calendar, an even more accurate one than the Gregorian calendar we use today. But he was also an accomplished philosopher, and scholars are working on resolving the apparent contradictions between this work and his poetry.

One thing I’ve gotten from my research on Khayyám (which, thus far, is not nearly enough): for all his prodigious learning and accomplishments, Khayyám honestly acknowledges the limits of human understanding. He tells us that while the great work of discerning the truths of the universe is a great, noble, and necessary endeavor, we do well to keep in mind that we can never know everything, through science, religion, or any other means. So, Khayyám seems tells us, we do well to work, to wonder, to seek, to do right, but also to live for today:

At first they brought me perplexed in this way
Amazement still enhances day by day
We all alike are tasked to go but Oh!
Why are we brought and sent? This none can say’. (Rubā‘iyyāt, Tirtha 1941, 18, from IEP)

‘As Spring and Fall make their appointed turn,
The leaves of life one aft another turn;
Drink wine and brood not—as the Sage has said:
“Life’s cares are poison, wine the cure in turn.” (Sa‘idī 1994, 58, from IEP)

Learn more about this great poet and thinker at:

How ‘The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám’ Inspired Victorian Hedonists ~ by Roman Krznaric

Omar Khayyam ~ by J. J. O’Connor and E. F. Robertson for the School of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of St Andrews, Scotland

Omar Khayaam, 1048–1131 ~ The Poetry Foundation

Omar Khayyam: Persian poet and astronomer ~ by the editors for Encyclopædia Britannica

Umar al-Khayyam (Omar Khayyam) – by the editors for Muslim Heritage

Umar Khayyam ~ by Mehdi Aminrazavi and Glen Van Brummelen for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

*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, David Hume!

In honor of the great Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume‘s birthday, May 7, 1711, let me share a series of excellent works about him, and share anew my own history of ideas travel series and other pieces I’ve written in honor of this favorite philosopher of mine, if I was pressed to chose one. Hume is the witty, cosmopolitan, skeptical, sometimes sarcastic, eloquent, and genial thinker that many of his fellow philosophers have called the greatest philosopher to write in English.

I fell in love with Hume’s native Edinburgh when I originally visited in the spring of 2014 but even so, I wouldn’t have predicted I would now be living here continuing my education at his alma mater, the University of Edinburgh. It would have been even more impossible to predict that the window of my first flat in Edinburgh would be located directly across a narrow square from the University’s David Hume Tower. I was moved to observe one day, and still am whenever I think or tell of it, that the windows of that glassy tower often reflect the light of the rising sun into my window. I could imagine no more poetic image than that of how this Enlightenment thinker has influenced my life.

Here are some excellent sources for learning about the great David Hume:

David Hume ~ by William Edward Morris and Charlotte R. Brown for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

David Hume ~ Melvyn Bragg and his guests Peter Millican, Helen Beebee, and James Harris in discussion for In Our Time

David Hume (1711—1776) ~by James Fieser for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

David Hume: Natural, Comfortable Thinking ~ by Jane O’Grady for the Times Literary Supplement

David Hume: Scottish Philosopher ~ by Maurice Cranston and Thomas Edmund Jessop for Encyclopædia Britannica

David Hume, the Skeptical Stoic ~ by Massimo Pigliucci for How to Be a Stoic

He Died as He Lived: David Hume, Philosopher and Infidel ~ by Dennis Rasmussen for Aeon

How an 18th-Century Philosopher Helped Solve My Midlife Crisis: David Hume, the Buddha, and a Search for the Eastern Roots of the Western Enlightenment ~ by Alison Gopnik for The Atlantic

Self Aware: How David Hume Cultivated His Image ~ by James Harris for the Times Literary Supplement

Here are my own pieces in the order I wrote them, starting several years back. Perhaps you’ll find, as I do when I return to old pieces from time to time, that my thinking has developed and my mind has changed, to various degrees, on some things:

First Day in Old Edinburgh: Hume Sites and Monuments
Hume’s New Scene of Thought, and, It’s Good to Be Able to Say ‘I Don’t Know’
Hume Sites and Monuments, Part 2
The Consolations of Philosophy, and A Death Free from Fear
Scotticisms
Happy 303rd Birthday, David Hume!
The Debate Over Government and Freedom
The Tale of the Magic Toe – Superstition? Or What?
Hume Sites and Monuments, Part 3
Water of Leith
Last Day in Edinburgh, May 13th, 2014
Hume, Aristotle, and Guns
A memory quilt I created for my Edinburgh trip:
A Hill and a Wall in Edinburgh, 2015, 102″ x 69″
Enlightenment Scotland: Site of James Boswell’s Home in James Court, Edinburgh
Enlightenment Scotland: Advocates Library, Edinburgh
Chirnside and Ninewells, Scottish Borders, Childhood and Summer Home of David Hume
Enlightenment Scotland: Edinburgh’s Select Society
Photobook: Robert Adam, Architect of Edinburgh
Photobook: Letter from David Hume to James Balfour, Mar 15, 1753

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