Happy Birthday, James McCune Smith!

James McCune Smith, closeup of engraving by Patrick H. Reason

On this anniversary of Dr. James McCune Smith’s birth, I’d like to share the story of this great thinker and activist’s life and why I’ve chosen him as the subject of my Ph.D. studies. Rather, in a way, I think he chose me. While researching the life of his colleague, friend, and frequent star at Ordinary Philosophy Frederick Douglass, I came across McCune Smith and was drawn in by his intelligence, passion, writing styles, and fascinating life story. I’m now working on writing the first full-length biography of this great and far-too-little known pioneering African American physician, intellectual, activist, and community benefactor who also made important contributions to history, literature, anthropology, physiology, medicine, constitutional theory, and the emerging field of statistics.

McCune Smith was born in New York on April 18th, 1813, the son of self-emancipated slave Lavinia Smith and, likely, her former master, a merchant named Samuel Smith. From an early age, little James excelled in his studies at New York City’s African Free School No. 2 on Mulberry St. There, he was a classmate of, and over the years, a lifelong friend, colleague, and in some cases biographer of such luminaries as minister and activist Henry Highland Garnet, mathematician and educator Charles L. Reason, engraver Patrick H. Reason, and Shakespearean actor Ira Aldridge. All of these, as well as others among their classmates, went on to become leaders in the fight for abolition and equal rights.

Drawing of Napoleon Francois, Charles Joseph, by James McCune Smith, 1825. Published at O.P. with the kind permission of the New-York Historical Society

Upon finishing his studies at the Free School, McCune Smith continued his studies independently and with tutors, focusing on Greek, Latin, and the classics; over the years, he would come to be fluent in Greek and Latin, and to gain a working knowledge of French, German, and Hebrew. When his applications for admission were rejected from the medical schools at Columbia and Geneva in New York on account of his African ancestry, McCune Smith applied to the University of Glasgow in Scotland, which had no racial restrictions. He completed his bachelor’s degree there in 1835, his master’s degree in 1836, and his medical degree in 1837, receiving several honors along the way. Upon his return to his native New York City in 1837, he was said to be the most educated African American of his time.

Though he had enjoyed great freedom and opportunity in Scotland, McCune Smith decided to make New York City his permanent home. There, he continued the freedom struggle he had engaged in as a founding member of the Glasgow Abolition Society, this time in his native United States where he felt his efforts were most needed. While he was establishing his pharmacy and medical practice at 93 West Broadway St, McCune Smith also jumped right into political activism, fighting to remove the discriminatory $250 property qualification that applied only to black voters. He is most well known today for his activism in abolitionist societies such as the American Anti-Slavery Society, the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, and the Radical Abolitionists, as well as his leading role in the Colored Convention movement. Yet much, if not most, of McCune Smith’s freedom struggle took place on a personal, community, and grassroots level. He fought for greater economic and educational freedom and opportunity for his fellow New Yorkers of color, regularly gave lectures to raise money for black charities, was a founding member of the Committee of Thirteen dedicated to helping those escaping from slavery, and was the attending physician to the Colored Orphan Asylum for over twenty years.

McCune Smith Cafe & Shop, Glasgow, Scotland, photo January 2019 by Amy Cools

McCune Smith married Malvena Barnet in the early 1840s and together they had (about) 11 children, five of whom survived to adulthood. McCune Smith and Malvena loved raising children and grieved hard over the loss of so many. It must also have been uniquely hard for McCune Smith in his role as a physician administering to children, not being able to save so many of his own from their ultimately fatal illnesses. Yet he managed to keep his hope alive and his energies up, leading an incredibly productive professional, intellectual, and creative life. In addition to his groundbreaking work as the first African American to have a case report presented to a mainstream medical association and to have an article published in a medical journal, McCune Smith wrote prolifically and brilliantly in statistics, several sciences, history, travel, and literature. His writing ranged from concise and clinical to lyrical; from erudite to plain and direct; from sharply critical to experimental; from sarcastic to witty; from righteously angry to tender; from wry to comical.

It was not only suffering the loss of so many children that could have kept McCune Smith down. The Colored Orphan Asylum that he had loved and labored for so long was burned down in New York City’s draft riots of 1863, leading McCune Smith to move his family to the safety of Williamsburg in Brooklyn. He felt frustration, anger, sorrow, and even despair at the intractability of racism and oppression directed at his fellow African Americans despite their abilities, potential, and invaluable contributions to American prosperity and culture. McCune Smith also suffered from bouts of heart disease, lung ailments, and edema for about twenty years, and though he had many health scares over that time, he always seemed to rally and push on. Yet as he wrote occasionally throughout the middle and later years of his life, McCune Smith suspected he would not live a long life. He was right. McCune Smith died of congestive heart failure on November 17th, 1865, at only 52 years old. He had lived to see the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation, the end of the Civil War, and the passage of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, but died just before that Amendment was fully ratified.

Please stay tuned for more about McCune Smith as I continue my research into his life, ideas, and legacy…

Sources and inspiration (not exhaustive by any means, but these are some readily available to share with you online):

AFS Bios: James McCune Smith’. Examination Days: The New York African Free School Collection

Associated Press. ‘White Descendants Gather to Honor 1st Black US Doctor, Put Tombstone on His Unmarked NYC Grave’. FoxNews.com, 26 September 2010

Lujan, Heidi L. and Stephen E. DiCarlo. ‘First African-American to Hold a Medical Degree: Brief History of James McCune Smith, Abolitionist, Educator, and Physician.Advances in Physiology Education 43, no. 2 (April 2019): 134-39

Morgan, Thomas M. ‘The Education and Medical Practice of Dr. James McCune Smith (1813-1865), First Black American to Hold a Medical Degree.’ Journal of the National Medical Association 95, no. 7 (July 2003): 603–14

Obituary of James McCune Smith’. The Medical Register of the City of New York for the Year Commencing June 1, 1866, 1866, 201–4

Smith, James McCune, and John Stauffer. The Works of James McCune Smith: Black Intellectual and Abolitionist. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006

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

Happy Birthday, Thomas 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!

Happy Birthday, H.P. Grice!

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

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

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

Slang and Grice’s Cooperative Principle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Damn straight, Stephen Fry!

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

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NOTES:

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

Happy Birthday, Michel de Montaigne!

Michel de Montaigne, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Michel de Montaigne, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Learn more about this great master of introspection here:

Essays ~ by Michel de Montaigne

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

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

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

Michel de Montaigne ~ from The Book of Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Birthday, Angelina Weld Grimké!

angelina-weld-grimke-image-public-domain

Angelina Weld Grimké

El Beso

Twilight—and you
Quiet—the stars;
Snare of the shine of your teeth,
Your provocative laughter,
The gloom of your hair;
Lure of you, eye and lip;
Yearning, yearning,
Languor, surrender;
Your mouth,
And madness, madness,
Tremulous, breathless, flaming,
The space of a sigh;
Then awakening—remembrance,
Pain, regret—your sobbing;
And again, quiet—the stars,
Twilight—and you.   (via Poets.org)

Let us celebrate the memory of Angelina Weld Grimké (Feb. 27, 1880 – Jun. 10, 1958), the far-too-little-known author of this gorgeous poem and so many other wonderful works of art and literature on the anniversary of her birth!

Alix North of Island of Lesbos writes of Grimké:

Angelina Weld Grimké was born [on February 27th, 1880] in Boston, the only child of Archibald Grimké and Sarah Stanley. Angelina had a mixed racial background; her father was the son of a white man and a black slave, and her mother was from a prominent white family. Her parents named her after her great aunt Angelina Grimké Weld, a famous white abolitionist and women’s rights advocate.

Angelina received a physical education degree at the Boston Normal School of Gymnastics in 1902. She worked as a gym teacher until 1907, when she became an English teacher, and she continued to teach until her retirement in 1926. During her teaching career, she wrote poetry, fiction, reviews, and biographical sketches. She became best known for her play entitled “Rachel.” The story centers around an African-American woman (Rachel) who rejects marriage and motherhood. Rachel believes that by refusing to reproduce, she declines to provide the white community with black children who can be tormented with racist atrocities. “Rachel” was the only piece of Angelina’s work to be published as a book; only some of her stories and poems were published, primarily in journals, newspapers, and anthologies.

Only her poetry reveals Angelina’s romantic love toward women. The majority of her poems are love poems to women or poems about grief and loss. Some (particularly those published during her lifetime) deal with racial concerns, but the bulk of her poems are about other women, and were unlikely to be published for this reason. Only about a third of her poetry has been published to date…  (The orginal site at http://www.sappho.com/poetry/a_grimke.html is no longer active)

…and learn more about the luminous Angelina Weld Grimké at:

Angelina Weld Grimké, American journalist and poet, 1880-1958, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Angelina Weld Grimké, American journalist and poet 1880-1958, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Angelina Weld Grimké ~in Encyclopedia of African American Women Writers, edited by Yolanda Williams Page

Angelina Weld Grimké ~ by Judith Zvonkin for The Black Renaissance in Washington, D.C.

Angelina Weld Grimké ~from Encyclopædia Britannica

Grimke, Angelina Weld (1880-1958) ~ by Claudia E. Sutherland for Blackpast.org

Grimkè’s Life and Career: The Introduction to The Selected Works of Angelina Weld Grimké ~ by Carolivia Herron for Modern American Poetry at the Department of English, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Further reading: Selected Women Writers of the Harlem Renaissance: A Resource Guide – Angelina Weld Grimké 

*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, W.E.B. Du Bois!

W.E.B. Dubois, Photograph taken by J.E. Purdy in 1904, public domain via Library of Congress

W.E.B. Dubois, photograph taken by J.E. Purdy in 1904, public domain via Library of Congress

Let us honor the life and legacy of the great American writer, historian, journalist, professor, activist, philosopher, and race theorist W.E.B. Du Bois, born on February 23, 1868.

The NAACP (of which he was a founder) writes of Du Bois:

‘William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (February 23, 1868 – August 27, 1963) was an American civil rights activist, leader, Pan-Africanist, sociologist, educator, historian, writer, editor, poet, and scholar. He became a naturalized citizen of Ghana in 1963 at the age of 95.

…In 1891 Du Bois got his master of arts and in 1895 his doctorate in history from Harvard. His dissertation, The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States of America, 1638-1870, was published as No. 1 in the Harvard Historical Series. This important work has yet to be surpassed. In 1896 he married Nina Gomer, and they had two children. …[A]t the University of Pennsylvania… he conducted the pioneering sociological study of an urban community, published as The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study (1899). These first two works assured Du Bois’s place among America’s leading scholars.

Du Bois’s life and work were an inseparable mixture of scholarship, protest activity, and polemics. All of his efforts were geared toward gaining equal treatment for black people in a world dominated by whites and toward marshaling and presenting evidence to refute the myths of racial inferiority’ …

Read his NAACP bio in full here

Donald J. Morse writes of Du Bois for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

‘W. E. B. Du Bois was an important American thinker: a poet, philosopher, economic historian, sociologist, and social critic. His work resists easy classification. This article focuses exclusively on Du Bois’ contribution to philosophy; but the reader must keep in mind throughout that Du Bois is more than a philosopher; he is, for many, a great social leader. His extensive efforts all bend toward a common goal, the equality of colored people. His philosophy is significant today because it addresses what many would argue is the real world problem of white domination. So long as racist white privilege exists, and suppresses the dreams and the freedoms of human beings, so long will Du Bois be relevant as a thinker, for he, more than almost any other, employed thought in the service of exposing this privilege, and worked to eliminate it in the service of a greater humanity. Du Bois’ pragmatist philosophy, as well as his other work, underlies and supports this larger social aim. Later in life, Du Bois turned to communism as the means to achieve equality. He envisioned communism as a society that promoted the well being of all its members, not simply a few. Du Bois came to believe that the economic condition of Africans and African-Americans was one of the primary modes of their oppression, and that a more equitable distribution of wealth, as advanced by Marx, was the remedy for the situation ….

Read the full IEP bio here

You will find another good short bio and list of Du Bois’ writings at The Pennsylvania Center for the Book’s website

*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, John Rawls!

John Rawls, image via BBC's Will and Testament blog

John Rawls, image via the BBC

Let’s remember and celebrate John Rawls, Feb 21, 1921 – Nov 24, 2002, the great political and moral theorist who thought of justice as fairness, on his birthday.

Among his greatest contributions is the thought experiment called the original position, behind a ‘veil of ignorance’. It’s a beautifully simple tool for picturing what a just society would look like. Imagine you’re to be placed into society with no idea what you would be: rich, poor, or middle-class; tall or short; intelligent or not; of which gender; outgoing or shy; of which race; employed and at what kind of job or not at all; and so on.

Given that you have no idea what your roles in life will be, what cultural practices, laws, policies, governmental system, economic system, and so on, would you put into place? Remember, behind that veil of ignorance, you’ll have to decide what kind of society benefits everyone the most since you could end up being anyone. If you were really in that situation, imagine just how fair and circumspect you’d be. Perhaps, as Rawls imagines, we’d all be far better off if that was really how the world works.

Learn more about the great John Rawls:

John Rawls ~ by Leif Wenar for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

John Rawls ~ by Henry S. Richardson for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

John Rawls: American Philosopher ~ by Brian Duignan for Encyclopædia Britannica

John Rawls and Modern American Liberalism ~ by Garrett Sheldon for Lectures in History

On John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice ~ Nigel Warburton interviews Jonathan Wolff for Philosophy Bites

Philosopher Angie Hobbs on the Veil of Ignorance ~ Angie Hobbs discussion with Leif Wenar, and David Runciman for BBC Radio 4’s A History of Ideas

and my own work featuring Rawls:

Behind the Veil: Rawls, Locke, de Tocqueville, and Human Connection in a Liberal Society

Communitarianism, Writ Large

*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!