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Sunday, May 17, 2015

Lesson Four: The Age of Revolution (1750-1900)


So there we were...

The year: 1750

The expectation: That we had finally arrived.

When suddenly, out of nowhere (well, Switzerland) a man walks down a street in France and sees a poster advertising an essay contest, sponsored by the Academy of Dijon. He sets about writing an answer to the question being asked: "Has the restoration of the sciences and the arts contributed to refining moral practices?". The Reader's Digest version of his answer to the question is a resounding "Non!" And just like that, the whole Enlightenment project begins to crumble. 

The man is Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778).  He wins the contest, but gains a posse of enemies too. This is, after all, a high moment in the History of Western Philosophy - a time when European thinkers are feeling pretty good about themselves and the state of thinking more generally, having picked up the shards of Classical Greek philosophizing post Dark Ages and, through a heady though not entirely resolved showdown between Continental rationalism and British empiricism, brought it up to speed with a world rendered infinitely more certain by Science. Exactly! It is one of those "phew" kind of moments that nobody in their right mind would want to challenge. But then along comes Rousseau, arguing that all this scientific progress and so-called enlightened thinking is for naught; that, counter to Hobbes, man in his 'natural' state and left to his own devices is a far more compassionate and empathetic and creative creature than the man produced of regulatory laws, of civilizing practices, and of the privatization of property. And there goes the neighbourhood...Faster than you can say "Counter-Enlightenment," the Age of Reason gives way to the Age of Revolution.

Though Rousseau died 11 years before the storming of the Bastille in 1789, his notion of a social contract organized around the General Will of the people and his contention that, though born free, it is the fate of civilized man to end up in chains, provide the philosophical underpinnings of the French Revolution. In fact, Rousseau even coins the motto that the revolutionaries will go on to adopt: "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity." Like all good revolutions, however, the winds of change that sweep across France for a time soon morph into a case of plus ca change...That worryingly exclusionary third term in Rousseau's rallying call - fraternity - providing an insight into just one of the many oversights accompanying this particular man-led revolution. As Adrienne Rich would go on to comment some 200 years later, look carefully at the "R" word and you will see that, in itself, it contains "a key to the dead-endedness of male politics - the revolution of a wheel which returns in the end to the same place."  

And certainly, Rousseau  - for all that he speaks of equality and liberty for everyone - is content to leave women in their chains: deferring to their husbands and selflessly attending to the needs of the family unit. A firm supporter of the "vive la difference" school of thought when it comes to how girls and boys should be educated, Rousseau's radical curriculum for boys - a kind of back-to-nature, learn-at-your-own-pace, love-peace-and-granola affair that heralds in the movement known as Romanticism - is by no means applied to girls. On the contrary, Rousseau insists that the education of 'the fairer sex' should revolve around mastering those skills that equip girls to become good wives and mothers, and towards which they are naturally inclined - a point with which Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) famously takes issue. Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) is penned, in part, to challenge Rousseau's different strokes for different folks approach to education: arguing that nature has nothing to do with it and that if only girls were given the same educational opportunities as boys, they would prove every bit as capable of developing their powers of reason and becoming fully fledged intellectual and moral beings. In insisting that "the mind has no gender," what Wollstonecraft brings to the philosophical table is a whole new way of understanding women and, by extension, a whole new slant on the nature versus nurture debate. Not that she is the first woman to voice this idea, nor indeed to even write it down. But she manages, unlike a good number of equally spirited and brainy female thinkers who both pre-date and succeed her, to claw her way into philosophical his-story and become generally acknowledged as the first feminist philosopher.  

So women are finally on the Western Philosophical map. But we're a mere blip on the Age of Revolution radar, and we'll have to wait another seventy-five years before we see ourselves and our concerns represented again - this time, in the form of Pragmatist Parliamentarian John Stuart Mill's (1806-1873) failed attempt to secure for British women the legal right to vote. In the meantime, there are serious metaphysical issues at stake and no more so than in Germany, where another one of those philosophical 'golden ages' that the discipline gets so excited about is underway. With Transcendental Idealist Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) at the helm and a whole crew of bright young men following in his wake - Fichte, Schelling, Hegel...they have grown up in the shadow of the French Revolution, they are giddy with the spirit of the age - yet another attempt is being made to settle, for once and for all, if there is another world out there that can become known to us and heck, while we're at it, just what in fact is Reality? Kant comes up with an answer that seems to knock the pants off of all those paying attention. Even Kant is pretty impressed with himself, judging his division of Reality into two spheres - the phenomenal world, which we can experience and come to know, and the noumenal world, which is so entirely external to us that we will never know it, and might as well give up even trying - to rank right up there with the Copernican Revolution. 

What affirms Kant's rock star status, however (in certain philosophical circles there is even talk of Before-Kant and After-Kant, which would seem to put him on a par with Jesus Christ) is a clever manoeuvre he makes with Time and Space: moving them out of the realm of the world external to us, where previous philosophers have lumped them; turning them instead into knowable phenomena that we ourselves create through a combination of a posteriori lived sensory experience and a priori innate understanding. It is for this reason - this bringing together of something we do as humans (perceive) and something that is already there within us by virtue of us being human (Knowledge with a capital "K") -  that Kant is credited with finding a way to reconcile empiricism with rationalism. It is also why, ultimately, he remains in the rationalist camp - the father of German Idealism, insisting that we come out of the womb not as a tabula rasa (pace Locke) but with a pre-determined grasp of the world that sets us up for being properly human. 

Of Kant's many disciples, it is Georg Hegel (1770-1831) who emerges as a German Idealist superstar in his own right. Though an admirer of Kant's philosophy, Hegel considers his notion of the noumenal - that world external to us that we can never know - to be a bit of an intellectual cop-out. Moreover, Hegel is troubled by the static-ness of Kant's conception of Reality, as exemplified by those a priori categories that he sets up to explain how we humans perceive Reality. Surely, says Hegel, the world is constantly changing. Surely, says Hegel, we too are part of that ongoing evolution. Evolution, here, is the operative word, for Hegel - in proposing that Reality is in fact a historical process - is insistent that this process is a positive one, that we are moving forward, getting better, becoming ever-wiser, progressing steadily towards a point where the world will indeed be a perfect place. 

Being a monist - that is, a philosopher who believes that everything is made of one and the same substance - Hegel is a 'we are the world' kind of guy, meaning that if the world is progressing along nicely, then so are we. He calls the substance that we and everything else out there have in common 'Spirit.' And he calls the steady progression towards that perfect endpoint the Historical Dialectic. The dialectic operates in a checks and balances kind of way, with each new era playing its part in advancing the human condition. It goes like this: A certain understanding of the world as it stands at that particular moment in time is put forward (the thesis); Because we still have far to go in terms of getting things right, this understanding naturally contains some sort of contradiction or oversight within it, which in turn is put forward (the antithesis); When we bring the thesis and the antithesis into dialogue with each other, a synthesis emerges, which can also be understood as a new and improved thesis from which to start the process all over again. And so on and so forth...Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis...Until way down the line in some distant future we reach what Hegel calls the place of 'Absolute Spirit,' and basically know everything. 

There is something rather reassuring about Hegel's dialectic. It's like one huge great project that past, present and future generations all get to be involved in, meaning that even after we are dead our own tiny contribution to the progress of the world continues to live on in Spirit, meaning that there is actually some purpose to our being here, to our everything! There are those, however, who find Hegel's eternal optimism intensely irritating. Among these, German Idealist Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), who has no time for Hegel's Spirit - he posits instead an 'everything' that is erratic in its movement and indifferent to our pain and suffering and really, just a big oaf of an energy force without purpose or plan - and even less time for Hegel's dialectical approach to history. Instead, Schopenhauer sees our sad miserable lives as ultimately meaningless - a void only alleviated by immersing ourselves in the arts, especially music, and giving ourselves an escapist break from the harsh reality of, well, Reality. 

On that dreary note, we take leave of the Germans and drop in briefly on a melancholic Dane, Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855): bemoaning the general lack of interest in the individual amidst all this focus on General Will in France and non-subjective metaphysicality in Germany; foreshadowing Jean-Paul Sartre with his kill-joy (amidst all the Revolutionary hoop-la) observation that, "Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom." Meanwhile, in Britain, anyone with a social conscience and a penchant for pleasure is signing on with the Pragmatists: Jeremy Bentham (1724-1804) is the one who gets the ball rolling with his felicific calculus - an actual equation designed to measure the precise amount of happiness that this or that action is likely to produce; John Stuart Mill supports Bentham's belief in the greatest happiness for the greatest number but, unlike Bentham and in spite of his egalitarian political agenda, insists that not all happinesses are created equal. And then there is Karl Marx (1818-1883), shouting "Down with the Bourgeoisie!" and "Workers of the World Unite!" and sparking a chain reaction of mini-Revolutions across Europe with the publication of his and Engels' pot-boiler of a best-seller, The Communist Manifesto (1848). While way over on the other side of the pond, in America - a freshly minted nation following its own Revolution and successful bid for Independence in 1776 - men like William James (1842-1910) and C.S. Pierce (1839-1914) are closing out the 19th Century by evolving their own brand of down-to-earth, action-based Pragmatism. 

Oh, there are others - Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) picking up on Rousseau's Romanticism and urging us all to take to the woods and live "wild and free"; Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach (1804-1872) calling "God" a figment of our imagination and turning theology into a branch of anthropology - but isn't that just the way with revolutionary phases?...One bright idea after another cycling through at breakneck speed?...One brand new plan for remaking society being overthrown by the next faster than you can put up an Eiffel Tower, build a Crystal Place, colonize a Continent, mount an Industrial Revolution? 

All to say that the Age of Revolution is a busy 150 years. And that as the Modern Age dawns, we're busy catching our breath.