Following in Mary Wollstonecraft’s Footsteps in London

Portraits of Mary Wollstonecraft and Thomas Paine at the National Portrait Gallery in London. Photo by Amy Cools, 2018

In honor of the great philosopher and founding mother of modern feminism Mary Wollstonecraft‘s birthday April 27, 1759, let me share the story of two 2018 visits to London in which I visited places associated with her life and legacy.

On January 11, 2018, I visited my friend Steven in London, who was studying history at King’s College after retiring from a successful law career. He kindly toured the city with me, showing me many of his favorite spots and accompanying me to others of my choosing, the latter mostly having to do with great thinkers and doers I admire and write about. It was great fun to run around London with a fellow energetic and restlessly curious traveler!

Among the sites I chose, the first stop was at the National Portrait Gallery to see the original 1797 portrait of Wollstonecraft by John Opie. It was painted when Wollstonecraft was pregnant with her daughter Mary, who would become Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein.

Wollstonecraft’s portrait is hung among those of other British radicals, including that of her husband, eventual biographer, and father of her daughter Mary, the anarchist philosopher William Godwin. Below Wollstonecraft’s, I find a 1791 portrait by Laurent Dabos of her friend and ideological ally Thomas Paine. Both Wollstonecraft and Paine wrote in favor of using reason to design more just social structures and, contrary to Edmund Burke, in favor of the French Revolution. However, over time, Wollstonecraft and Paine found many reasons to become disillusioned with it. From an understandable and perhaps even laudable revolt against a massively unequal and unjust social system, the French Revolution developed into a wholesale bloodbath of the aristocracy and of real and perceived intellectual and political foes. For more connections between Paine and Wollstonecraft’s lives and ideas, please see my series ‘To Paris, France I Go, In Search of Revolution-Era Thomas Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Thomas Jefferson.’)

Oakshott Court, London, at the site of 29 The Polyglon, where Mary Wollstonecraft died. Photo by Amy Cools, 2018

Portrait of William Godwin by James Northcote, 1802, at the National Portrait Gallery in London, England. Photo by Amy Cools, 2018

A few months later, on May 5th, my sweetheart Laurence accompanied me as I sought out two more sites, the day after we went on a fascinating tour of the Tower of London. Both are within easy walking distance of King’s Cross and St. Pancras stations. Our first destination was Oakshott Court, which stands at what used to be 29 The Polyglon, or Polyglon Square. Here, Wollstonecraft and her husband William Godwin settled in April of 1797 to enjoy a happy, if sometimes tumultuous, love. Wollstonecraft and Godwin had met many years before at a 1791 dinner held in honor of Paine, but had disliked each other at first. Both were passionate, opinionated people prone to speaking their minds, and they spent much of that first meeting arguing about religion. Godwin was also described by people who knew him as awkward with women. But the two had mutual friends and met again occasionally over the years, slowly warming to one another. In January of 1796, Godwin read Wollstonecraft’s travel book A Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark. As Godwin wrote in his biography of Wollstonecraft, the book increased his respect and admiration of her, and after she called on him in the spring of that year, they became real friends, then lovers.

At first, they lived apart. But when it became clear that Mary was pregnant, they decided to marry, though they both considered marriage an outmoded, superstitious, and even ridiculous institution. Wollstonecraft and Godwin decided that they didn’t want to subject their child to the social difficulties of growing up with unmarried parents. Godwin was also acutely aware of the struggles Wollstonecraft had faced raising her first daughter Fanny as a single mother, and wanted to spare her a repeat of that experience. Besides, Wollstonecraft gloried in the domestic lifestyle she and Godwin had settled into, so marriage didn’t feel like much of a sacrifice on her part. According to Godwin, they ‘declared’ their marriage in April 1797 though they had already married a short while before. They moved to the Polyglon house on April 6th, but their newfound joy was not to last long. The delivery of little Mary went well at first, but Wollstonecraft died 11 days later, on September 10, 1797, of an infection following the surgical removal of her undelivered placenta.

Old St. Pancras and churchyard, London, England. Photo by Amy Cools, 2018

Mary Wollstonecraft’s original sarcophagus at St. Pancras Old Church burial ground, London, England. Photo by Amy Cools, 2018

Laurence and I then headed a few blocks northeast to St. Pancras Old Church, just past the north end of St. Pancras International station and on the west side of the tracks. We were in search of the gravesite where Wollstonecraft, Godwin, and Godwin’s second wife Mary Jane (Clairmont) Godwin were buried. I had read a description of the site but when we arrived, we found there was no map of the graveyard. It took some searching to identify it from the weathered inscriptions. Laurence spotted it first: a simple, tall, rectangular sarcophagus with a flared lid. Wollstonecraft and Godwin are no longer buried here: after Mary Shelley died in 1851, her parents’ remains were moved to join hers at the Shelley family burial ground at St. Peter’s in Bournemouth.

St. Pancras was a lovely place to be on such a lovely day; the leaves and grass were lush and green and lavishly sprinkled with flowers. I was happy to see that Wollstonecraft’s memory was still being honored, with flowers and other little tributes placed on the top. I suspect that it was Godwin who chose this elegant coffin and specially for Wollstonecraft, since she lived so independently of her family and was the first to be buried here. Its clean lines emphasize the carved text on the front: ‘Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, Author of Vindication of the rights of Woman, Born 27th April 1759, Died 10th September 1797.’ This inscription also reflects Godwin’s intellectual love of Wollstonecraft. In the title of her biography, Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, he repeated this emphasis on her immortal ideas contained in her most memorable work.

The churchyard at Old St. Pancras, London, with Wollstonecraft’s sarcophagus second from the right. Photo by Amy Cools, 2018.

Wollstonecraft’s life was short, only 38 years, but oh, how fully she lived it! For my take on her fascinating life, please see my essay ‘Mary Wollstonecraft, Champion of Reason, Passionate in Love.

For more about the indefatigable Wollstonecraft, please see:

Articles and essays:

Mary Wollstonecraft ~ by Sylvana Tomaselli for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Mary Wollstonecraft: English Author ~ by the editors for Encyclopaedia Britannica

Wollstonecraft, Mary (1759–1797) ~ by Barbara Taylor for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

and various excellent essays about Mary Wollstonecraft~ by Maria Popova for Brain Pickings


The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft ~ by Claire Tomalin

Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman ~ by William Godwin

Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft ~ by Lyndall Gordon

~ 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!

Into the Last Remaining Unexplored Region on Earth: The Human Mind, by Charles M. Saunders

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

Why Spinoza, Why Now?

A Series of Six Essays for Ordinary Philosophy – A Condensed Version of the Ethics – Examined in Detail

Part 1: Into the Last Remaining Unexplored Region on Earth: The Human Mind

Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) was a respected scholar of Jewish ancestry who eventually became known for his philosophy and political writings. For his philosophy, he selected what he hoped would be a straightforward system: the geometrical method. Rather than lengthy and technically oriented arguments and rhetorical mechanisms, he wrote in somewhat simple Latin and in short, clear, concise statements. He assigns unique connotations to his lexicon which present additional challenges to those who attempt to study his writings. But these are not insurmountable.

In order to make his views on metaphysics, ontology, epistemology, ethics, and psychology clear and to present them as logically and as unadorned as possible, he selected a method which mimics that used by Euclid in his geometry. He was not seeking any type of mathematical certainty to support his hypotheses. But what he did hope would come through was the logical interconnection in descending inductive order within the axioms, definitions, propositions, explanations, demonstrations, and scholia (explanatory notes added to the margins) which make up the body of the text.

Unfortunately, what Spinoza thought would come across as a self-evidently true and accurately phrased demonstration has been and continues to be viewed as one of the most difficult documents to comprehend in the history of ideas. In order to begin the process of unraveling his Gordian knot of text, this essay presents a type of abstract from Letters to No One in Particular: a Discussion and Illustration of Spinoza’s Fragment or On the Improvement of the Understanding. That means, that to understand clearly and to grasp Spinoza’s intended meaning the study must begin outside the bounds of the Ethics itself.

For this first installment in the six essays which will comprise this ‘condensed’ study of the Ethics, it is critically important to begin with the brief treatise written prior to the it, On the Improvement of the Understanding (or, as it is also called, the Fragment), because it is the only place where Spinoza explicitly details his completely unique concept of ‘idea.’

The intended meaning of his ‘idea’ has effectively eluded and flummoxed even the finest minds that have commented on the Ethics. That is for two reasons: 1- Without an adequate grasp of the details in the Fragment which efficiently serves as the linchpin for the Ethics, Spinoza’s revolutionary grasp of human epistemology and the existence and operating functions of the active mind, will remain out of reach. And 2- Most if not all of the commentators on the subject, pre-supposed that by ‘idea’ Spinoza intended either: a judgment, a mental image, a propositional statement, or an abstraction formed from impressions from the sensible world. But he meant none of these things, and that is precisely why we are here today. An important reminder – In the Fragment [TIE] Spinoza emphasized that the ‘idea’ does not, in any way, involve words. With this firmly in mind, let us continue.

In this essay, an outline and explanation of the main message of the Fragment will be presented which will be accompanied by quotations from one of the true scholars of Spinozan explication, Professor Errol E Harris. The quotes are taken from his Salvation from Despair, A Reappraisal of Spinoza’s Philosophy (The Hague, Martinus Nijhoff, 1973), pp 87-88.

In the Proemium to the Fragment, Spinoza announces his intention to make known and accessible to the reader the nature of the human character which comprises the innate and organic operation and functioning of the mind. He describes it thusly: ‘What that character is we shall show in due time, namely, that it is the knowledge of the union existing between the mind and the whole of nature.’ (TIE). What we need to ferret out is exactly what constitutes this ‘union’.

From that axiomatic starting point, he sets out to discover if there is any possibility that the human mind has any built-in capacity or potential to obtain to any type of knowledge which can be affirmed to be absolutely certain, that is, true. To do this, Spinoza begins by detailing the four kinds of knowledge (perception) which taken together, constitute the spectrum of inputs which every person absorbs from the extended world.

The first three, he discovers, each serves its own limited purpose and can, up to a point, prove useful in everyday living (imagination), in gathering unverifiable information (sensation), and in solving problems and thinking rationally (reasoning). None of these three involves certainty because they are involved with ‘images’, and ultimately Spinoza realized that only with the fourth kind, intuitive understanding, could certainty be achieved. By ‘intuitive,’ he means a type of knowing which includes encapsulating the efficient or proximate cause of the object being considered.

Spinoza discovered that this certainty was only made possible due to the activity and presence in every human mind of the adequate idea. This idea is innate, within the mind, and serves as a tool or agency-in-act, which organically connects and effectively anchors the mind in its union existing between it and the whole of nature. This means that the extended world and the mind are virtually inter-operationally connected. A most startling and revolutionary claim, to say the least.

Let us pause here for a moment to dwell on the enormity of what has just been stated. What Spinoza discovered in the idea runs counter to virtually every depiction of any possibility for human knowledge ever discussed or imagined possible. Every philosopher before or after him and virtually all of contemporary science posit humans as passive receptors of impressions from the sensible world. These impressions then formulate, by various descriptions, mental images which serve as unverifiable judgments or mental entities, usually depicted as some distillation of the empirical paradigm or materialism.

Now along comes Spinoza and says, no way, my friends, you’ve got it all wrong.

Since the time and space available makes demands on us to be brief, elaboration on this revolutionary discovery by Spinoza will not be possible, for now. It is incumbent on us, to move along and to offer a bit more of detail on this process before signing off. At this point, Harris will assist us to flesh out Spinoza’s revolutionary assertion.

In order to expand on this organic aspect of the mind, its role as agency-in-act along with its element of the ‘idea,’ and its role of potency-in-act, we will lay a bit of groundwork for Harris’ compressed and succinct demonstration of the idea. The role of the idea, both in its role as conduit for the absorption of data cum knowledge, as well as performing as the active ingredient, so to speak, in its function of melding with the world of extension, represents Spinoza’s breakthrough in his discovery of the primary functioning operations in the assimilation and accumulation of an individual human’s knowledge base. One currently ascribed to misapprehension about human experience, which caused Leibniz to posit windowless monads, must be addressed.

As an integral part of the whole of nature, people are not segregated off from the world. We are as interconnected as any other integrated element in nature which comprises the universal system.

We have no problem dealing with animals being able to sense objects outside their visual range and to sense immanent unforeseen dangers in the form of severe storms and wildfire. Why should we believe that humans are walled off inside their bodies like kingdoms within a kingdom?

Once the significance of this comes clear, it becomes possible to begin to accept our active participation in the gathering of knowledge which has effectively allowed for civilization to grow and for science to advance. Now we must ask; How does this work? Enter Harris. Under the sub-title ‘Idea Ideae,’ in Salvation from Despair (p. 87). we find:

‘As the idea of the body is the mind, so the idea of that idea is the idea of the mind. In “de Intellectus Emendatione” [in TIE], Spinoza explains that every idea is the “objective essence” of its ideatum, of which the actuality is the “formal essence.” But the idea is a different entity (or mode) from its object (although they are identical in substance), if only because they exist in different attributes. The idea of a circle has no center or circumference [no properties]. So, he says, the idea has a formal essence of its own, of which the objective essence is the idea of the idea (idea ideae). This is further explained in the Ethics (II, xxi, S) as “nothing else than the form of the idea so far as it is considered as a mode of thought and apart from its relation to its object.” Its relation to its object, we already know, is substantial identity (or, as Spinoza says in some context of adequate ideas, exact correspondence).’

Simply stated, an idea has a real-time life of its own. For example: someone sees a movie, really enjoys it, and relates the entire experience to a friend. When that friend later views the same film, they report back that the experience of seeing the film was exactly the same as the ‘picture’ that formed in their mind when it had been described. That idea of the film was contained within the memory of one mind and conveyed, in its entirety, to the friend.

Thus the formal essence and the objective reality made a perfect match. The ‘idea’ is real. We use them every day; we just remain unaware of their presence and potency. That is, until now!

One final thought from Harris and we will sign off. When Spinoza titled his Fragment [TIE] On the Improvement of the Understanding, what follows is what he had in mind. Harris continues:

‘The inherent self-reflectiveness of consciousness is what enables us to purify the intellect and progress from confused and inadequate ideas [the first three kinds of knowledge mentioned above] to clear and true knowledge [the fourth kind of knowledge, intuitive understanding]. It is because we can reflect upon what we think, and know that we know, that we can criticize and improve our thinking. Idea Ideatum, therefore, is nothing but the consciousness of one’s own thinking, or the idea of one’s own mind. Spinoza speaks of a series of ideae idearum (ideas of ideas) ad infinitum, strictly no regress is involved, only an unlimited capacity for reflection or self-knowledge. The object of an idea and the idea of the object are substantially identical. Both are the same essence, one formal and the other objective. Thus the idea of an idea is strictly the same object or entity merely conscious (or more fully conscious) of itself.’ (Salvation from Despair)

Because it is so vital to see Spinoza’s idea at work in our own minds, let’s consider one more example:

Each morning when a person gets into the driver seat of their car and starts the engine or motor, they have no need to ask themselves if they know how to drive. They know that they know how to drive. Beyond that, if called upon to do so, anyone who drives could teach someone else to do so. This would involve dictating to the learner, from memory, the steps involved, such as: open the door, seat yourself, and attach your seatbelt. Before starting the car, check the mirrors, make sure your field of vision is unobstructed, etc, etc. In fact, many people could prepare a written outline of the entire process which would then serve as a training manual. Once the trainee obtains their operator’s license, it can be said that the instructor captured the idea encapsulated in their mind and transferred that adequate idea of how to drive to another person who successfully absorbed the contents of the idea, made it their own, and re-converted it into the reality of driving an automobile. This transfer of the idea from one mind to another demonstrates that the idea is a quantifiable, measurable entity and fulfills any empirical stricture placed upon it.

This idea exists as a real entity. It is measurable; remember the training manual. The idea (in mind) and the object (driving) are the same things expressed as micro-sets in modality of the two infinite attributes of thought and extension. Finally, the driver’s manual serves as the idea, of the idea (in the mind) of the idea (driving lesson). The manual, which could be used by virtually anyone to teach themselves how to drive, demonstrates the existence of an idea independent of the mind!

Exhausted yet? Have no fear, this is extraordinarily difficult to track and to take in whole.

Take all the time necessary to reflect on this information, it is admittedly difficult to absorb and perhaps even challenging to accept. Find ways to see it operating in your own life. Once you have successfully accomplished this task you will stand ready to join those of us who understand that a human being is much more than a passive receptor. We are full-fledged and engaged participants in one of the universe’s most unique and ever-evolving possibilities, the creata!

Semper Sapere Aude! (Always dare to know!)

Charles M. Saunders

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

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

Happy Birthday, Averroes (Ibn Rushd)! By Eric Gerlach

Averroes by Giorgione893 years ago today, on April 14th, 1126, the great Islamic philosopher, theologian, political theorist, and scientist Ibn Rushd, or as he is known by the Latinate version of his name in Europe, Averroes, was born.

Among his many achievements, Averroes is credited with popularizing the study of Aristotle in Europe, inspiring the work of Thomas Aquinas and the Christian Scholastics.  Averroes was known as “The Commentator” and Aristotle “The Philosopher” to Aquinas and the Scholastics, as Averroes wrote multiple commentaries to help others understand Aristotle’s thought. To the left is an image of Averroes standing between and above an ancient Greek sage, likely Aristotle, and an Italian scholar of the Renaissance, sitting at their feet, painted by Giorgione of Venice. Averroes was also a major influence on Maimonides, Giordano Bruno, Pico della Mirandola, and Baruch Spinoza, and was one of the great souls that Dante wrote was dwelling in limbo with the Greek sages who lived before Jesus.

Aquinas Averroes and Scholastics

Thomas Aquinas

Averroes’ grandfather and father both served as chief judge of Cordoba, the place where Averroes was born, which later became part of Spain. Averroes wrote prolifically, twenty-eight works of philosophy as well as important treatises on law and medicine.  As a rationalist, Averroes argued that philosophy and religion teach the same truth and thus are not in conflict, such that intellectuals pursue the same matters that common people comprehend through religion and rhetoric.  He also argued that analytic thinking was important for the proper interpretation of the Quran, as Christian Scholastics would argue later about the Bible in Europe.  Averroes’ works were banned and burned in Islamic and Christian lands at different times, but they were revered enough to survive in both places.

Averroes was opposed to the work of Al-Ghazali, the Sufi mystic and author of The Incoherence of the Philosophers.  Ghazali argued that philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, Al-Farabi and Avicenna contradict each other, and are thus incoherent as a set, and also contradict the teachings of Islam.  Ghazali also argued that Aristotle and those who follow him are wrong to assert that nature proceeds according to established laws, as all things proceed directly through the will of God.  Averroes wrote his most famous work, The Incoherence of the Incoherence, in response to Ghazali. Averroes defended Aristotle and argued that philosophy does lead to coherent truth, which is not in conflict with Islam, and that nature proceeds indirectly from God via the laws of nature, which God established during creation.

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

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

Averroes is also famous for his idea of monopsychism, that we all share the same divine soul, mind, and awareness, with each taking a part such that the lower soul is individual and mortal but the higher soul is universal and immortal, the source of true inspiration and reason.  Spinoza, who said that each of us is like a wave on the great sea of being, was a pantheist, inspired in part by Averroes.  Much later, when Albert Einstein was asked if he believed in God, he said, in the spirit of Averroes, “I believe in Spinoza’s god”.

In these and countless other instances, we can discern the influence of Averroes throughout both Eastern and Western thought. Thank you for your wisdom and insight, Averroes!

*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!

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

Happy Birthday, Thomas Jefferson!

Thomas Jefferson by Charles Bird King, 1836, after Gilbert Stuart, at the Smithsonian Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. Photo 2016 by Amy Cools

In remembrance of Thomas Jefferson (April 13, 1743 – July 4, 1826) on his birthday, let me share anew my tributes to his memory, his life, and his ideas from over the years:

To Washington DC, Virginia, and Philadelphia I Go, In Search of Thomas Jefferson

To Paris, France I Go, In Search of Revolution-Era Thomas Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Thomas Jefferson

and my thrilling interview with Clay Jenkinson, Jefferson scholar

Interview with Clay Jenkinson as Thomas Jefferson

I hope you enjoy following me as I followed in the footsteps of Jefferson!

*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!

Damasio, Spinoza and our Current Confusion about Cause and Effect, by Charles M. Saunders

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

In this article, Charles M. Saunders considers Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain by Antonio Damasio
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing, N.Y., 2003)

In 2003, one of our most capable and respected neuroscientists went searching for Spinoza. What Antonio Damasio found is both enlightening and alarming. It is laudable that an empirical scientist had the interest, care, and capability to analyze the sequencing and behaviors associated with what Spinoza terms ‘the Emotions.’ This is clearly a positive development. When our neuroscientist friend recognized that something about emotional response is measurable, he made strides for the entire scientific community. But by focusing his analysis only on chapters 3 and 4 of “The Ethics”, Damasio sidetracks Spinoza’s metaphysics, chapters 1 and 2 while presenting Spinoza as some sort of intuitive materialist. The alarming part in all of this is that chapters 3 and 4 are linked inexorably to 1 and 2 wherein Spinoza insists that our thoughts are as real as our experience. As notable as Damasio’s respect for Spinoza’s psychology may be there is a tremendous distance from his awakening to the import and physical reality of the emotions to an adequate understanding of the full impact of Spinoza’s discovery, that the human mind has the ability to form replications of objects so accurate that these ideas are essentially the same thing as the objects they represent.

This is an astounding claim that Spinoza makes and to this day, it has been overlooked or dismissed in light of the advances in contemporary science and its ability to “reduce” everything in its purview through observation and measurement. But cause and effect are not observable within the same time and space.

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

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

When the neuroscientist-researcher connects electrodes to a patient to monitor brainwaves there is no question that the observable patterns that emerge are exciting and are indicators of some brain activity related to behaviors that correspond to the patient’s emotional state and mood changes But to conclude from this that the patterns and their location in the brain somehow indicates the cause of the thinking process is a leap that indicates faulty reasoning and bad science. To draw a conclusion about the source of the thinking process from an electroencephalogram is akin to a person who while standing atop the tallest building in a large city before dawn observes the pattern of traffic lights below and concludes that the pattern of lights is the cause of the flow of traffic. No matter how many thousands of lights make up the discernable pattern of the flow of traffic, the actual cause of the traffic is not observable. The cause of the traffic resides elsewhere. It originates in the reasons that each individual driver leaves home and enters the flow: going to work, driving a friend to the hospital, making deliveries, police responding to emergencies and countless other actions are the actual cause of the traffic and they are entirely disconnected from one another. There is no common cause to be observed and reported on here.
This analogy demonstrates the confusion inherent in the empirical process. There is no argument about what the scientist sees during the study. But there is a strong argument against what he claims to have observed. If this mistaken insistence that causality must be observable resided solely in speculative neurobiology the harm might not be that negligible. Unfortunately for us, this curious misunderstanding of cause and effect permeates most of our scientific theory and practice, including applications in healthcare diagnosis and treatment.

Perhaps one of the most debilitating misapplications of the empirical process lies within the field of genetics and the supposed causal link observable in DNA. Crick and Watson never assigned any causal agency to their brilliant discovery. They clearly understood DNA for what it is; a marker not a cause. Assigning cause to DNA strands came later after arrogance and the same faulty reasoning process employed by Damasio came into play. Whether a person suffers from cancer or obesity or a predilection towards baldness, DNA is not the cause of the affliction it merely marks the presence of the condition. To carry the traffic lights/scientific research analogy a bit further, just as we can clearly understand that no matter how complicated or advanced the light pattern and system flow technology might be it cannot be said to be the cause of the traffic. That flow can only be understood by seeing the individual actions and behaviors that are the actual cause. So with DNA, it is a marker that notes the presence not the cause of disease.

The upshot of all this is that our current empirical/materialist science system that has brought about some of the most significant advances for humans in medicine and other sophisticated technologies contains a seriously flawed view of cause and effect. But by insisting on a research focus only on the world of external experience it ignores the rich world of experience’s counterpart and co-equivalent, the Human Mind. This now outmoded way of explaining our planet and our relationship to it must give way to a more sophisticated view. This view will credit the mind as the source and wellspring of any scientific achievement that we’ve ever accomplished and that it is the mind which provides us with the most magnificent tool at our disposal for unraveling Nature’s mysteries.

Charles M. Saunders

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

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

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

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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

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