Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Philosophy 1776

European Philosophical Thought in 1776

I propose to consider three philosophers who overlap the year 1776 and to some extent span the range of thought at that time; Hume, Rousseau and Kant. To Bertrand Russell [1] Hume and Kant represent two philosophical giants; Rousseau a mere 'philosophe', a philosophical lightweight, though a dangerously influential one. But that is Russell's view. To ordinary readers, where Hume appears sensible, and Kant obscure, Rousseau strikes as breathtakingly exciting, accessible, and persuasive. Carlyle said [2] that the second edition of Du Contract Social was bound in the skins of aristocrats. (I acknowledge much grateful use has been made throughout this essay of the web-based "Wikipedia".)

The Personalities

David Hume

David Hume (1711 – 1776) born in Edinburgh, son of an advocate, and gentleman, Joseph 'Home'. His father an advocate and his mother the daughter of a judge, it was presumed that the studious boy was suited to the law. He attended Edinburgh university at the young age of 12, but found himself uninterested in everything except philosophy. Something fired his imagination during his student days (it is not known exactly what) and he spent 10 years in intense study, driving himself to the verge of a nervous breakdown.  As a younger son he had to pay his own way in life, so at the age of 23 it was suggested that he enter commerce, in Bristol. But that suited him no better than law and he took himself off to France to trim his expenditure to his means for 4 years, and to write what is acknowledged to be his most original and most significant work – "Treatise of Human Nature" (published 1738, London). He was disappointed at its poor reception. In a letter to a fellow philosopher he wrote: "How happens it, that we philosophers cannot as heartily despise the world as it despises us? I think in my conscience the contempt were as well founded on our side as on the other." He re-wrote parts of the Treatise in more popular style and his "Essays, Moral and Political" were successful. As also was the major re-working of the Treatise under the title "Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding"*, which caught the eye of Kant. However, two attempts at gaining an academic post (1744, 1751) were unsuccessful, perhaps because of his perceived atheism. (His views on religion were carefully guarded, for it was as recently as 1697 that an 18 year old Edinburgh student was hung for blasphemy, the last such hanging in Britain.) Hume obtained a small post as keeper of the advocates library in 1752, and real fame with "Political Discourses" (1752) and his monumental 5 volumed "History of England" (1754-62). He was lionized in Paris where he lived for two years (1763-5) as secretary to the Ambassador. So, by his death, he was a well-fed, well-respected, well-satisfied, bachelor, gentleman; a pillar of the illustrious Edinburgh intelligentsia.

*C.f. Locke "An Essay Concerning Human Understanding" (1690, London).


Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Rousseau was born in 1712, one year after Hume, in the Calvinist free-city of Geneva. His father was a watchmaker cum dancing master. His mother died soon after his birth. He attended a Calvinist school till the age of 12, and was then applied to several apprenticeships, all of which he hated. He ran away to Italy (on foot) in 1728 (aet. 16). He found assistance from a kindly priest, and was introduced to a 'Baronne de Warens', a divorced convert to Catholicism only some 12 years his senior, who received a pension form the King of Savoy-Piedmont-Sardinia 'for services to (Catholic) religion'. After converting to Catholicism, Rousseau was invited to live with the Baronne and he became her protégé, secretary, factotum, and at the age of 20 her lover, staying with her for 9 more years (1732 – 41). From this remarkable woman he learnt many things, including in particular, botany and music. Aged 29, Rousseau wished to present to the Paris Academie an new method of notating music which he hoped would make his fortune, so he resumed his walk to Paris. The notation flopped, but Rousseau, returning to Savoy and finding himself displaced as de Warens' lover, took himself back to Paris and supported himself successfully with secretarial work and music copying. Indeed, he thrived. After a year in Venice as a secretary, he wrote a successful opera ("Les Muse Galantes"), met Diderot and contributed many articles on Music and political economy to L'Encyclopédie. His genius was not in originality, but in expressing ideas in an original way. He started sleeping (1745) with a servant girl, Thérse, to whom he stayed attached the rest of his life, she bearing 5 children, all of which were sent to the foundlings 'orphanage'. (Ironically he was later to become an influential authority on the rearing and education of children.) Bertrand Russell suggests that what attracted him to this ignorant woman was the feeling it gave him of undoubted superiority, and her dependence; she was a pet, essentially, with whom he slept. However, that is Russell's view. In 1750 Rousseau became famous by winning a prize essay offered by the Dijon Academie on the title "Have the arts and sciences conferred benefits on mankind?". His provocative answer was "No, the reverse." He acquired greater acclaim still with a second opera (1754), which so pleased the king that he offered Rousseau a lifetime pension, which however, Rousseau rejected!! Then a second essay for the Dijon Academie on "The origins of inequality", in 1755. This one did not win the prize. Voltaire, on receiving a copy, replied: "I have received your new book against the human race and thank you for it. Never was such a cleverness used in the design of making us all stupid. One longs, after reading your book, to walk on all fours" .  Voltaire treated Rousseau as a mischievous madman while Rousseau spoke of Voltaire as "that trumpet of impiety, that fine genius and that low soul" [1].

Rousseau's most fruitful period saw a novel (1760), and two years later a treatise on education ("Emile"), and most famous of all "The Social Contract" . Emile set out in an appendix the principles of natural religion as seen by Rousseau (who had by then reconverted to Calvinism). This, by declaring it unimportant which sect was followed so long as it inculcated virtue, upset both Protestant (Calvinist) and Catholic churches, and his books were burned from the pulpit. But The Social Contract was even more dangerous to the government, for it advocated democracy, and denied the divine right of kings. His fame greatly enhanced, Rousseau had nevertheless to flee; but where to go that was neither Catholic, nor enthusiastically Protestant, nor despotic? Fortunately, Hume was in Paris at the time and invited Rousseau to Britain. (In a ludicrous little episode, James Boswell found himself escorting the abandoned Thérse le Vasseur by coach to rejoin Rousseau in England. During the tedious trip he asked her if she would not like to try a vigorous young lover in place of the aging Rousseau and she said she would. The smug Boswell asked her afterwards if sex was not better with him; no, she replied, she preferred it with the more experienced Rousseau.) In Britain Rousseau's sense that he was being persecuted degenerated into clinical paranoia, directed at Hume. After their rupture he was able to return to Paris initially under a false name, but on promising to publish nothing more he was allowed to stay legally. He eventually married Thérse (who turned out a marvellous cook), copied music, lived in poverty, and gave public readings of the books he was not allowed to publish. His Confessions, published posthumously, achieved a fame second only to the Social Contract. Characteristically readable, and brilliantly original, it inaugurated the genre of autobiography.

Diderot described Rousseau as being, "false, vain.., ungrateful, cruel, hypocritical, and wicked.." David Hume mildly summed him up as given totally to feeling; "He is like a man who was stripped not only of his clothes, but of his skin"; (The kindest summary, concluded Russell, in any way compatible with the facts.)

Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804)

Kant's grandfather was a Scot, and his father (who spelt his name 'Cant') a Lithuanian harness maker. He spent his entire life within 100 miles of Königsberg (which was then Prussia; but is now Russia). The household was pietist, inculcating religious devotion, humility and a literal approach to the Bible. The young Kant was a solid though not outstanding student, learning Latin at the pietist grammar school from the age of 8. He enrolled at Kønigsberg university at the age of 16. At 22, his father died of a stroke and young Kant left the University for some years and took some tutoring jobs, but continued his studies privately. His progress in Natural Sciences and Logic impressed the University and after some years he was offered a lectureship. His early publications are rather surprising; in 1755 (aet. 31) he published a theory of the heavens pipping Laplace to the concept of nebulae and galaxies, and pipping Herschel (by 25 years) to the discovery of Uranus. He also wrote on earthquakes, winds, and the slowing effect of tides on the rotation of the earth []; powerfully original and insightful work, but not sufficiently grounded in evidence to count as science. By 1760 his work was largely philosophical; logic, God, beauty. He was elected professor of Logic and Metaphysics in 1770 (aged 45). It was then that he read Hume and realized he had a problem; he immured himself for 11 years, then produced the Critiques [Critique of Pure Reason, 1781; Critique of Practical Reason, 1786; Metaphysics of Morals, 1785; Critique of Judgment, 1790]

He was a steady, methodical, man who never married; it is said that neighbours would set their watches by his regular afternoon walk.


The Philosophies

David Hume

Hume effectively neutered reason, and abolished Self (soul), Causation, and Induction.

Regarding pure reason he concluded that "All our ideas are nothing but copies of our impressions, or, in other words, that it is impossible for us to think of anything, which we have not antecedently felt, either by our external or internal senses. ...Reason is a lackey of the feelings". It might seem unreasonable to eat aluminium foil. But if you like to do that, it is not unreasonable; reason will help you find the stuff. Is it (he asks) unreasonable to frustrate your own desires? Absurd, maybe; but not unreasonable. Hume proposed that morality ultimately rests upon sentiment, with reason only paving the way for our sensitive judgments by analysis of the moral matter in question.

Hume further concluded that there is no 'self' and therefore no 'soul'. What we think of as our 'self' is a bundle of thoughts and perceptions and memories, but not the same bundle now as 5 years ago (and definitely not the same bundle as after we die). The self/soul is like a commonwealth; it is dispersed among the participants (C.f. Rousseau's General Will, below), that is to say amongst our memories, impulses, sensations, and thoughts.

Regarding causation, Hume asserted that our idea of causation consists in little more than expectation. He noted that, although we perceive one event following another, we don't perceive any necessary connection between the two. We believe in causation, but it is an unreasonable belief. (Bang goes all those proofs of God as 'the un-moved mover', or 'first cause'!) (Does poverty cause ill-health, or ill-health cause poverty?)

Hume also found induction to be 'unreasonable'; The past is not a sure guide to the future. That 'induction worked well in the past', cannot justify induction, because that becomes circular. The justification of 'induction' is itself based on induction; if induction were sound, then we could indeed extrapolate past success to justify the belief in its soundness. But we cannot do that till we know that induction is sound.

In summary, Hume, the most reasonable philosopher in the age of reason, abolished self,  causation, and induction, and emptied reason of all useful content.

Jean Jacques Rousseau

The Rhetoric — Kant complained that he had to read Emile several times over to understand it; the prose was so beguiling that he overlooked the matter! I suspect that many readers of Rousseau encountered the same problem, without always realizing. "Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains."  "As long as a nation is compelled to obey, and obeys, it does well; as soon as it can shake off the yoke and shakes it off, it does  better!" Hurrah! I can almost hear the strains of the Marseillaise. But is man born free? And is it better to throw off the yoke that fetters us, than to submit willingly? The idea is as daft as the prevalent (but daft) idea that we should avoid paying taxes if at all possible. "The arts..and the sciences..fling garlands of flowers over the chains which weigh (men) down. They stifle in men's breasts that sense of liberty,..cause them to love their own slavery, and so make of them what is called a civilised people." Who can argue against 'garlands' and 'chains', 'liberty' and 'slavery'; the argument is won before the mind is engaged!

The Noble Savage —The key idea that pervaded Rousseau's thinking was that of the "noble savage", the conviction that natural man is innocent, and that reason and culture corrupt that innocence. It is not original to Roussseau, but is found in Gilgamesh, Parsifal, Shaftsbury, Dryden, and Pope, to name only a few. We can doubt that Rousseau ever met a natural, innocent, savage, but he could certainly see the corrupting effects of reason and culture. He could also see that conscience (i.e. feeling) makes us unselfish and reason makes us selfish. So, by extrapolating backward, he accepted the proposition that uncultured man is unselfish, moral, and generous. Another key to Rousseau's thought is the preference for feeling over thinking; if ever there is a clash between sentiment and reason, Rousseau is wholly on the side of sentiment. This does not impress Bertrand Russell, nor does if seem promising in a Philo-Sopher. There is, however, one significantly original idea that Russell credits Rousseau, that of proving the existence and nature of God, not with reason, but with emotion. In the words of Russell (admittedly an extreme rationalist): "The rejection of reason in favour or the heart was not, to my mind, an advance. In fact no one thought of this device so long as reason appeared to be on the side of religious belief."

Rousseau's ideas on education stem from the same basic premise — that man is born, not only free, but also innocent. "Everything is good as it leaves the hands of the Author of things; everything degenerates in the hands of man." However, Rousseau is full of good advice on the creation of the Citizen, and Emile stands as (in somebody's words) "The greatest book on education ever written". He encouraged breast-feeding which he suggested would lead to morals reforming themselves, Nature awakened in every heart, and  France re-peopled. The rhetoric is deliberate hyperbole no doubt, but extraordinarily stimulating, effective, and influential, for France did reform itself and largely abandon wet-nursing (where 50% of babies died). In the book Rousseau teaches geometry to the 10-year-old "Emile" by flying kites, advocates the learning of a manual skill, and finally when "Emile" is a teenager, teaches the active, thinking, boy the importance of feeling to the whole man. Children, Rousseau argues, are not capable of understanding correctly the complicated concepts of religion which should be no part of the education of a young person. (How right he is!)

The Social Contract — Rousseau was not the originator of the concept of a 'Social Contract' as a basis for a philosophy of society, politics, and government; it had been extensively developed (though in somewhat different ways) by two English philosophers a century earlier: Thomas Hobbes (1651), John Locke (1689). Rousseau took it that "might" does not confer "right", and that slavery is immoral. He found that the only legitimate source of law is a voluntary concession by "the sovereign people". Rousseau admitted that at the time (1762) the British were no doubt the freest people on earth, but he did not approve of 'Representative Government' and believed that direct power by the people was the proper system. (He was no doubt thinking of his home town of Geneva, population 25,000 in 1780, rather than a state the size of Britain, 10 million at that time.) His special twist to the 'Social Contract' theory was the concept of the 'General Will'. The head of state, who might be a monarch, or a cabinet, must submit to the general will; or be forced to do so. But so must the individual citizen; "..whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be compelled to do so by the whole body.  This means nothing less that that he will be forced to be freeÉ..".  This unique and narrowly focussed source of legitimacy proved a dangerous tool in the hands of Robespierre some 30 years later.

 Rousseau has many sharp perceptions and stimulating ideas. Thus, he remarks that kingship has changed over the centuries; formerly we had the 'King of the Persians', now the 'King of France'; the King is no longer the sovereign of the People, for he has arrogated to himself the whole property of the State. Whatever the weaknesses of the "Social Contract" to philosophers of political theory it was enormously influential at the time. Rousseau was invited by the once powerful but by then ailing state of Poland-Lithuania to submit a constitution to them for consideration, which might protect their prized "Golden Liberty" in the face of Russian and Prussian expansion. This he did, in the form of another essay ["Considerations on the Government of Poland; 1772, but published posthumously].

Immanuel Kant

Kant said that reading Hume (on causation) woke him from his dogmatic slumbers. Why is it that we believe in 'causation' if (as shown by Hume) it is not justified by reason? Imagine a see-saw in which you can see only a person at either end, but cannot see the plank and the pivot; you notice that whenever one end goes down the other end comes up. Is the former causing the latter, or are they merely correlated in time? If you can see the whole plank the problem vanishes. Kant pondered on this for 11 silent years. The answer he came up with was bafflingly complex. Basically, if we cannot justify a belief in causation by experience, it must be justified by the construction of our brains. An argument or proposition is called a priori  if we know it is true without requiring sensory proof; e.g. the angle-sum of a triangle is 180¡. If we SEE a as CAUSING b, Kant argued that we have achieved a type of knowledge which is "a priori " even though it its about the outside world (i.e. is "synthetic"). This "synthetic a priori" knowledge is however a trick of the mind.

Having postulated this "trick of the mind" Kant had to find a way of talking about the external world independently of it being seen by the human mind; he talks about the "thing in itself". The "thing in itself" is perhaps what you would see if you could see 'the whole see-saw'; or perhaps anything as God might see it [my cheeky suggestion, not Kant's.] Using this concept Kant extrapolated; he concluded that space and time are concepts that the brain imposes on the world. (In this regard contemporary philosophy and physics find Kant's thinking interesting; once again we see he was ahead of his time.)

Kant's approach works for the external world. But (perhaps from his Pietist upbringing, or from the prevailing climate of the times) Kant felt drawn to tackle the more difficult world of Metaphysics: God, the soul, life-after-death. It is ironic that the probable, but uncertain, knowledge of Humeian induction is arguably good enough for farming, and navigating the oceans; but it was on the harder moral issues that Kant wanted certainty. By a further extrapolation of his concept, Kant found that morality is innate, and comes out as a priori. Hence the famous "Categorical Imperative" . He was dissatisfied with Utilitarian morals which he saw as something as flawed as "Don't commit a crime in case you get caught". He wanted more support for RIGHT behaviour than 'reason' could supply. Kant conceded (with Rousseau) that reason tends to wrong action; only the moral use of reason lead to right action.

We live in a different age, a post-Darwinian and post-Dawkins age. It seems strange to us to struggle in such a turgid and stressful way just to conclude that our sense of morality is hard-wired; of course it is! But so is our tendency to believe in ghosts, and other silly things. Bertrand Russell admitted that he did not share the high opinion of Kant that was (and still is) 'received opinion', and indeed one sometimes wonders if the obscurity of Kant's oeuvre contributes to the respect it is paid. From that period onwards, Philosophy split; on the one hand there was 'Continental' philosophy, the descendents of Kant (Fichte, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Sartre,..), and on the other hand, pursued in English-speaking countries, 'Empirical' philosophy, the descendents of Hume (Bentham, Mill), followed more recently by 'Analytical' philosophy (Frege, Whitehead, Moore, Russell, Wittgenstein, Ayer).

It is ironic, but perhaps also significant, that the work of the two 'important' philosophers (Hume and Kant) makes scarcely any difference to anyone, whereas Rousseau's jumble of hopes and non-sequiturs has inspired millions to liberty, and revolution.


1.  Russell, B (1946) "A History of Western Philosophy"
2.  A favourite saying of RGR West, possibly from T. Carlyle "The French Revolution".
3.  West, Ranyard (1942) "Conscience and Society", Methuen, London.
4.  Rousseau, JJ (1762) "The Social Sontract".
5.  Rousseau, JJ (op posth) "Confessions"
6.  Rousseau, JJ (1762) "Emile, or On Education".
7.  Kant, I (1781)  "Critique of Pure Reason".


Ian West, 24th March 2010