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 a few 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 all Americans interested in basic economic theory, I’d heard a lot about The Wealth of Nations, Smith’s treatise on political economy. You likely have as well, since here you are reading a birthday tribute to Adam Smith! The Wealth of Nations is considered the 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, 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 God and our 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 (which, thus far, is only beginning and therefore not nearly enough): for all his prodigious learning and accomplishments, Khayyám honestly acknowledges the limits of human understanding, and seems to tell us that while the great work of discerning the truths of the universe is a great, noble, even necessary endeavor, we do well to keep in mind that we can never know everything, whether through science or religion. 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:

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

Omar Khayaam, 1048–1131 – The Poetry Foundation

Omar Khayyam – Encyclopædia Britannica.

Avicenna (Ibn Sina) – by Sajjad H. Rizvi for The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Umar al-Khayyam (Omar Khayyam) – for Muslim Heritage

*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, 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 younger freethinking self, disenchanted with the religion of my youth 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 never a less-than-fascinating one.

Learn more about the brilliant and idiosyncratic Bertrand Russell at:

Bertrand Russell – by Ray Monk for Encyclopedia Britannica

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

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, David Hume!

In honor of David Hume‘s birthday, May 7, 1711, let me share anew my history of ideas travel series and other pieces I’ve written in honor of my favorite philosopher if I was pressed to chose only one. I fell in love with his 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 furthering my education at his alma mater, the University of Edinburgh. It would have been even more impossible to predict that the window of my flat would be located directly across the 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 great Enlightenment thinker has influenced my life.

Here they are 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

~ 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, Søren Kierkegaard! By Eric Gerlach

S. <>Søren Kierkegaard (May 5, 1813 – Nov. 11, 1855 CE), the great Danish philosopher and forerunner of existentialism, was born in the Danish city of Copenhagen, and throughout his life he enjoyed walking through the city, greeting everyone he met as his equal regardless of their station in life.  As a young boy, Kierkegaard’s father drilled him with difficult lessons so he would be the top student in his class, but to prevent his son from developing selfish pride, the father demanded that his son get the third best grades in the class, purposefully making mistakes to prevent the boy from being recognized as first or second student.

Caspar_David_Friedrich_-_Wanderer_above_the_sea_of_fog

For Kierkegaard, genuine truth is human subjectivity and perspective, and it is only the individual who accepts subjectivity who comes to realize the greater truth insofar as it is achievable by individuals.  For Kierkegaard, truth is not objective, but subjective, not an object achieved, but a test withstood, not a hurdle overcome, but an experience endured.  Kierkegaard argued that no social system can authentically give the individual meaning and truth. Individuals must make choices, and if they choose to go along with the masses, they have sacrificed their own ability to give truth meaning.  Kierkegaard wrote that he could have, like most scholars of his day, become a voice pronouncing the greatness and objectivity of his race, his country, his historical period, his fellow scholars, but rather than commit treason to truth he chose to become a spy, a solitary individual who chronicled the hypocrisy of all claims to objectivity.

472px-Kittinger-jump

To be an individual is to experience “a vertigo of possibilities”, the monstrosity of spontaneity.  Kierkegaard wrote, “We are condemned to be free”.  It is our freedom, the experience of the infinite, undefined and unbounded, which unites us most intimately with our world.  Kierkegaard argued that one can overcome the angst, the vertigo of possibilities, by making a leap of faith, by choosing to believe in something and act with some purpose in spite of the fact that beliefs and purposes can never be fully justified.  Only this is authentic individuality and truth, having chosen what one is to be, with the honest recognition of the freedom involved in the choice.

373px-Head_of_Socrates_in_Palazzo_Massimo_alle_Terme_(Rome)

Kierkegaard saw himself as a true follower of Socrates, who argued that he knew that he did not know, which is why the Oracle at Delphi said that no man was wiser than he.  Kierkegaard wrote his college thesis on Socrates, irony, and indirect communication, much as Kierkegaard himself indirectly communicated through his pseudonyms.  Socrates never made great claims to truth, and would instead use analogy, myth, and paradox to show that human judgments and beliefs are problematic and contradictory even as they assert themselves with certainty, which Kierkegaard argued was also the method of Jesus.  Kierkegaard wrote that Socrates “approached each man individually, deprived him of everything, and sent him away empty-handed”.  Socrates showed others that they did not truly know what they believed themselves to know, and he was killed by the Athenian assembly just as Jesus was killed for questioning the Pharisees.

Brooklyn_Museum_-_Saint_John_the_Baptist_and_the_Pharisees_(Saint_Jean-Baptiste_et_les_pharisiens)_-_James_Tissot_-_overall

Kierkegaard’s works are dominated by theological concerns, wondering on many pages about the individual’s relationship to God and Jesus.  For Kierkegaard, the meaning of Christianity was not the achievement of objectivity, but the acceptance of subjectivity, of individually lacking the God’s eye view.  Kierkegaard was brutally critical of the Danish Lutheran Church for presenting itself as the objective truth, and argued that it is only as an individual that one can be a genuine Christian.  Kierkegaard argued that Christianity began as a rebellion against the status quo, but then became the entrenched regime.

450px-Image-Søren_Kierkegaard_grave_4

After healing a blind man, Jesus rebuked the Pharisees, the political and religious establishment of his time, and said that because they think they see they are in fact blind.  In his later years, Kierkegaard attacked the Danish Church without mercy, and at his funeral a fight broke out when young theology students, progressive and inspired by Kierkegaard, protested that the church was attempting to hijack his name and fame by calling him one of their own after he had so bitterly attacked their hypocrisy for decades.  Kierkegaard wanted his tombstone to read only, “The Individual”, though his relatives decided otherwise.

*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!

Philosophers Should be Keener to Talk About the Meaning of Life, by Kieran Setiya

Saudade (Longing), by José Ferraz de Almeida Júnior, oil on canvas, 1899. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Philosophers ponder the meaning of life. At least, that is the stereotype. When I risk admitting to a stranger that I teach philosophy for a living and face the question ‘What is the meaning of life?’, I have a ready response: we figured that out in the 1980s, but we have to keep it secret or we’d be out of a job; I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you. In fact, professional philosophers rarely ask the question and, when they do, they often dismiss it as nonsense.

The phrase itself is of relatively recent origin. Its first use in English is in Thomas Carlyle’s parodic novel Sartor Resartus (1836), where it appears in the mouth of a comic German philosopher, Diogenes Teufelsdröckh (‘God-born devil-dung’), noted for his treatise on clothes. The question of life’s meaning remains both easy to mock and paradigmatically obscure.

What is the meaning of ‘meaning’ in ‘the meaning of life’? We talk about the meaning of words, or linguistic meaning, the meaning of an utterance or of writing in a book. When we ask if human life has meaning, are we asking whether it has meaning in this semantic sense? Could human history be a sentence in some cosmic language? The answer is that it could, in principle, but that this isn’t what we want when we search for the meaning of life. If we are unwitting ink in some alien script, it would be interesting to know what we spell out, but the answer would not have authority over us, as befits the meaning of life.

‘Meaning’ could mean purpose or function in a larger system. Could human life play that role? Again, it could, but yet again, this seems irrelevant. In Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s books, the Earth is part of a galactic computer, designed (ironically) to reveal the meaning of life. Whatever that meaning might be, our role in the computer program is not it. To discover that we are cogs in some cosmic machine is not to discover the meaning of life. It leaves our existential maladies untouched.

Seeing no other way to interpret the question, many philosophers conclude that the question is confused. If they go on to talk about meaning in life, they have in mind the meaning of individual lives, the question of whether this life or that life is meaningful for the person who is living it. But the meaning of life is not an individual possession. If life has meaning, it has a meaning that applies to us all. Does this idea make sense?

I think it does. We can make progress if we turn from the words that make up the question – ‘meaning’ in particular – to the contexts in which we feel compelled to ask it. We raise the question ‘Does life have meaning?’ in times of anguish, or despair, or emptiness. We ask it when we confront mortality and loss, the pervasiveness of suffering and injustice, the facts of life from which we recoil and which we cannot accept. Life seems profoundly flawed. Is there meaning to it all? Historically, the question of life’s meaning comes into focus through the anxiety of early existentialist philosophers, such as Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche, who worried that it has none.

On the interpretation that this context suggests, the meaning of life would be a truth about us and about the world that makes sense of the worst. It would be something we could know about life, the Universe and everything, that should reconcile us to mortality and loss, suffering and injustice. Knowledge of this truth would make it irrational not to affirm life as it is, not to accept things as they are. It would show that despair, or angst, is a mistake.

The idea that life has meaning is the idea that there is a truth of this extraordinary kind. Whether or not there is, the suggestion is not nonsense. It is a hope that animates the great religions. Whatever else they do, religions offer metaphysical pictures whose acceptance is meant to bestow salvation, to reconcile us to the seeming faults of life. Or if they do not supply the truth, if they do not claim to convey the meaning of life, they offer the conviction that there is one, however hard to grasp or articulate it might be.

The meaning of life might be theistic, involving God or gods, or it might be non-theistic, as in one form of Buddhism. What distinguishes Buddhist meditation from mindfulness-based stress-reduction is the aim of ending suffering through metaphysical revelation. The emotional solace of Buddhism is meant to derive from insight into how things are – in particular, into the non-existence of the self – an insight that should move anyone. To come to terms with life through meditation for serenity, or through talk therapy, is not to discover the meaning of life, since it is not to discover any such truth.

Albert Einstein wrote that to know an answer to the question ‘What is the meaning of human life?’ means to be religious. But there is in principle room for non-religious accounts of meaning, ones that do not appeal to anything beyond the given world or the world revealed to us by science. Religion has no monopoly on meaning, even if it is hard to see how a non-transcendent truth could meet our definition: to know the meaning of life is to be reconciled to all that is wrong with the world. At the same time, it is hard to prove a negative, to show that nothing short of religion could play this role.

Philosophers are prone to see confusion in the question ‘What is the meaning of life?’ They have replaced it with questions about meaningful lives. But the search for life’s meaning will not go away and it is perfectly intelligible. I cannot tell you the meaning of life or give assurance that it has one. But I can say that it is not a mistake to ask the question. Does life have meaning? The answer is: it might.Aeon counter – do not remove

~ Kieran Setiya is a professor of philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His latest book is Midlife: A Philosophical Guide (2017). He lives in Brookline, Massachusetts. (Bio credit: Aeon)

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

~ 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, Morton White!

Morton White in 1981

The world lost Morton White (April 29, 1917 – May 27, 2016) less than two years ago, and I first learned of him through reading his obituary in The New York Times. As I read, I knew this is a man and an approach to philosophy I must learn more about.

White was a philosopher and historian of ideas. According to the Institute for Advanced Studies, ‘he maintained that philosophy of science is not philosophy enough, thereby encouraging the examination of other aspects of civilized life—especially art, history, law, politics and religion—and their relations with science’. And as William Grimes put it for TNYT, his ‘innovative theory of “holistic pragmatism” showed the way toward a more socially engaged, interdisciplinary role for philosophy’.

I studied philosophy with great love and enthusiasm as an undergraduate, yet I found myself then as now just as curious about other disciplines, especially history and the arts, and have often felt that the lines dividing these areas of study are sometimes artificial and even impediments to understanding. Since then, I’ve been pursuing my studies in the history of ideas more broadly, informally for the past several years, formally now at the University of Edinburgh. No doubt, White has influenced the direction my studies in intellectual history will take in ways I’ll learn as I go along, and in many more ways than I’ll ever know.

Learn more about White and his fascinating ideas:

Holistic Pragmatism and the Philosophy of Culture‘ – chapter 1 of A Philosophy of Culture: The Scope of Holistic Pragmatism, New Jersey: Princeton University Press 2002, in which White summarizes what his holistic pragmatism is all about

Morton White, Philosopher of Holistic Pragmatism, Dies at 99‘ – Obituary by William Grimes for The New York Times, June 10, 2016

Morton White 1917–2016 – His memorial page at the Institute for Advanced Study website, June 08, 2016

And you can find his selected bibliography at Wikipedia

*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!