Tag Archives | Antiquity

True Grit

I recently came across the following striking passage in William Hope Hodgson’s 1912* story “The Thing Invisible”:

I was fighting with all my strength to get back my courage. I could not take my arms down from over my face, but I knew that I was getting hold of the gritty part of me again. And suddenly I made a mighty effort and lowered my arms. I held my face up in the darkness. And, I tell you, I respect myself for the act, because I thought truly at that moment that I was going to die. But I think, just then, by the slow revulsion of feeling which had assisted my effort, I was less sick, in that instant, at the thought of having to die, than at the knowledge of the utter weak cowardice that had so unexpectedly shaken me all to bits, for a time. …

Do I make myself clear? You understand, I feel sure, that the sense of respect, which I spoke of, is not really unhealthy egotism; because, you see, I am not blind to the state of mind which helped me. I mean that if I had uncovered my face by a sheer effort of will, unhelped by any revulsion of feeling, I should have done a thing much more worthy of mention. But, even as it was, there were elements in the act, worthy of respect.

What’s noteworthy about this passage is how closely it follows (whether intentionally or by coincidence, I can’t say) the ethical doctrine of Immanuel Kant. On Kant’s view, a moral action is worthy of respect only if it is motivated by a good will – a respect for the moral law for the moral law’s own sake. If it is motivated instead by some sort of inclination or sentiment (such as charitable acts being motivated by feelings of sympathy), the action is no longer worthy of respect, because if one’s actions depend on favourable sentiments – sentiments whose presence or absence is not under the control of the agent’s will – then that implies that if those favourable sentiments had happened to be absent, the agent would not have performed the action, and so the agent’s having done the right thing is fortuitous and not the expression of a reliable commitment to duty.

Hodgson’s narrator is making a similar point here, holding that since his act of courage was largely motivated by a feeling of revulsion at his own cowardice, it is less worthy of respect than it would have been if motivated by “a sheer effort of will.”

The narrator does not follow Kant entirely, however, since he suggests that his action is still worthy of some respect. For Kant (as I understand him), if an action is motivated partly by duty and partly by inclination, the crucial question is whether the dutiful part of the motivation would still have been sufficient to produce the action, had the inclination been absent. If the answer is yes, then the action is wholly worthy; if no, then the action is wholly unworthy. There is no room in Kant’s account for Hodgson’s notion that an action of mixed motivation might have an intermediate degree of worthiness.

This possibility of intermediate worthiness aligns Hodgson’s conception more closely to Aristotle’s view than to Kant’s, though the alignment is not perfect. For Aristotle, a continent person is one who has to overcome strong temptations in order to do the right thing, whereas a temperate person is able to do the right thing with little or no contrary temptation – though (and this aspect of Aristotle’s theory is often missed) the temperate person is such that he would still do the right thing if strong temptations were present (so the objection that temperate people don’t really deserve credit because right actions are too easy for them doesn’t apply). In Kantian terms, then, both the temperate and the continent person act from duty and not merely inclination, though in one case the inclinations favour the action and in the other case they oppose it.

Kant would regard the temperate and continent persons (and actions) as having equal merit; but Aristotle regards the temperate person (and action) as superior to its continent counterpart, since for Aristotle a virtuous action is supposed to express a healthy and harmonious character, not one (ordinarily) riven by conflict. However, the continent person and action do have some merit. So Aristotle, unlike Kant, allows for intermediate merit here.

But this doesn’t quite apply to Hodgson’s example. In Hodgson’s case it’s not that will is sufficient though inclination is lacking; it’s that inclination is sufficient though will might not have been. Since Aristotle in effect treats will-plus-inclination (temperance) as having more value than will alone (continence), that might mean that he grants some positive moral value to inclination alone (which is more or less what he calls “natural virtue”). But I can’t recall his saying so explicitly.

* Strictly speaking, although the story was first published in 1912, the quoted passage occurs in this form only in the revised 1948 version, the corresponding passage in the 1912 version being much less interesting. But since Hodgson died in the First World War, the revision was presumably made closer to 1912 than to 1948.

The Invisible East

In the 3rd edition of Classics of Philosophy – which is, ironically, one of the texts I’m using in my “Philosophy East and West” course – Louis Pojman and Lewis Vaughn write:

The first philosophers were Greeks of the sixth century B.C. living on the Ionian coast of the Aegean Sea, in Miletus, Colophon, Samos, and Ephesus. Other people in other cultures had wondered about these questions, but usually religious authority or myth had imposed an answer. … The Great Civilizations of Egypt, China, Assyria, Babylon, Israel, and Persia … had produced art and artifacts and government of advanced sorts, but nowhere, with the possible exception of India, was anything like philosophy or science developed. Ancient India was the closest civilization to produce philosophy, but it was always connected with religion, with the question of salvation or the escape from suffering. Ancient Chinese thought, led by Confucius (551-475 B.C.), had a deep ethical dimension. But no epistemology or formulated logic. (pp. 3-4)

Is this true?

The two earliest Upanishads – the Brihadaranyaka-upanishad and the Chhandogya-upanishad – are generally dated to the 7th century BCE or earlier. They contain clear examples of philosophical argumentation. So why don’t their authors – or the thinkers whose views they purport to record (e.g., Yajñavalka and Uddalaka) – count as Indian philosophers antecedent to the Greeks?

Apparently because their views were “connected with religion” and “the question of salvation.” Yet Classics of Philosophy contains writings by Augustine, Anselm, Maimonides, Aquinas, Pascal, and Kierkegaard – for all of whom philosophy was closely bound up with religious questions. If this connection doesn’t invalidate their claim to be philosophers, why does it invalidate the like claim of their Indian predecessors?

In any case, it is not even true that all early Indian philosophical thought is connected with religion. The Charvaka or Lokayata school, which was atheistic, materialistic, and hedonistic, is generally dated to the late 7th century BCE as well – thus again antedating the Greeks.

As for why the early Chinese thinkers are ruled out as philosophers, we’re told it’s because, although they had a “deep ethical dimension,” they had “no epistemology or formulated logic.” So epistemology and logic are philosophy but ethics is not?

And anyway it’s not true that early Chinese thought had no epistemology or formulated logic. Even if we leave aside the exploration of logical paradoxes by such thinkers as Zhuangzi, Hui Shi, and Gongsun Long, we have a pretty clear example of epistemology and formulated logic in the Mohist Canons.

Of course the Mohist Canons date to around the 3rd century BCE, so if Pojman and Vaughn are making only a claim of chronological priority, they’re entitled to dismiss them. But the tone of the passage certainly offers no hint that these Chinese and Indian traditions got more philosophical later. And the fact that no Indian or Chinese sources appear in an anthology titled Classics of Philosophy (rather than, say, Classics of Western Philosophy) suggests that they don’t regard even later Chinese and Indian thought as containing anything worthy of the status of philosophic classic. The sophisticated logical and epistemological debates among the Navya-Nyaya, Purva-Mimamsa, Vyakarana, and Sautrantika-Yogachara schools, for instance, count for nothing, apparently.

It was bad enough when Antony Flew ignorantly declared in 1971 that Eastern Philosophy contains no arguments, but this is the 21st century, for petesake.

News to Me

In the most recent episode of Arrow, Cayden James, the show’s current main antagonist, tells his followers:

The Presocratic philosopher Thales of Miletus, known as the father of science, believed that for any event there was a natural cause, even if we couldn’t see it; and he thought that with perfect knowledge, man could control anything – everything.

Um … citation needed?

Descartes and Vitoria

I’ve long been a fan of interpretations of Descartes that lay at least as much stress on the continuity as on the discontinuity of his thought with Scholastic Aristoteleanism. (This is no doubt due in large part to the influence of Paul Hoffman, my first Descartes teacher: see here and here.)

I’ve just come across yet another point in which Descartes appears indebted to his Scholastic predecessors. In 1530, over a century before Descartes published his Meditations, Francisco de Vitoria of the University of Salamanca, best known for his defense of native American rights against the Spanish conquistadors, delivered a lecture On Homicide in which the following passage appears:

God could not create a habit which would incline toward what is false. … And by this reasoning, first principles also, even though they are self-evident, can be in a certain way proven. For what if someone were to say that he was forced to assent to this principle: “Every whole is greater than its part,” but would also say that he was afraid perhaps that he was deceived, just as a man sometimes is forced to believe something on the authority of men, in whom the man must have faith and yet it could happen that he be deceived? What, I say, if someone were to speak like this about first principles – could he not be induced by some reasoning to assent to them? Indeed, I think that if someone were to admit to me that God cannot lie nor deceive, he would also concede that it is necessary that a rational creature be created by God with this necessary inclination to consent to these principles, and would evidently be convinced that such principles are true. For if they are false, and God is forcing the human intellect to consent to them, it is plainly evident that God is deceiving men and consequently lying. Similarly, if God were to create any habit inclining toward what is false, He would rightly be accused of lying and deception. (Francisco de Vitoria, Relection on Homicide, trans. John P. Doyle [Marquette, 1997], p. 65.)

Kant Unbound!


[cross-posted at BHL]

I neglected to post about this while it was actually happening, but I just finished participating in a Cato Unbound exchange on Immanuel Kant’s place in classical liberalism – with digressions on, inter alia, Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and Rand. My interlocutors were a Kantian and two Randians.

Reading it is categorically imperative! Catch the phenomenal action here.

Caffeinated Philosophy of Happiness

This Wednesday (so either tomorrow or today, depending on your time zone) the Auburn Philosophy Club will be hosting a public panel on happiness at 5:00 at Mama Mocha’s coffeeshop (414 S. Gay St.); details here. My contribution will be to argue that Kant’s arguments against happiness-focused theories of morality, while they may work against some versions of that approach, don’t succeed against the ancient Greek versions (as represented, e.g., by Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics).

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