“Reason is, and ought to be, the slave of the passions”.
“Reason is the slave of the passions” might be interpreted as a cry of despair – a position that human beings could not control themselves, and are the slaves of urges (either instinctive from our biological evolution, or from environmental experiences – the pointless “nature v nurture” debate, pointless because there is no room for real human choices, for humans to actually be “beings”, either way). Just because something is a cry of despair does not mean it is not true – human agency (free will) might be an “illusion” (although who is having the illusion if there are no agents, no beings, no “reasoning I”, no MINDS to have the illusion?).
But reason OUGHT to be the slave of the passions?
So if, for example, a man has a passion to rape and murder women (before there is a comeback – I fully accept that David Hume was personally the mildest of men), not only will he be unable to resist this passion, but that he OUGHT not to resist it? That the thing he OUGHT to do is to use his reason (reason defined as no more than a problem solving ability – no different from a computer) to work out the best way to rape and murder women without getting caught.
“Because it is inevitable Paul – because reason is the slave of the passions…..”.
But is that not an “ought from an is” – of which David Hume is not supposed to approve?
Whatever this Humeian doctrine is, it is not “conservative”, it does not represent either the mainstream of Judiao-Christian tradition or the tradition of the mainstream classical world (including the athiest parts of that tradition that are athiest – such as the philosphy of Epicurus).
Yet David Hume is often called a “conservative” inspite of the intense radicalism of the above. This would have astonished even friends of his – such as Edmund Burke (an example of how two people can be friends without either one accepting the other’s philosophy).
The conservative position in philosophy was (then as now) represented by Artistotelianism (please not “Aristotelianism” does not mean “everything Aristotle said”) – although also by the “Scottish” or “Common Sense” School.
What was that?
Well it was the following positions…
That the material universe is real – that it exists independently of our mind’s perception of it.
That the mind also exists, that is not an “illusion” (who is having the illusion if the mind does not exist?).
And that right and wrong, good and evil (I am not going to go into the technical differences between “the right” and “the good” here) exist – they are not just whatever we want them to be. NOT just “boo and cheer words” as the “Logical Positivists” (great admirers of David Hume) were later to put it.
Sound familar at all?
It should – because these three things are also the foundations of Aristelianism (in all its forms – from Thomistic Christian to Randian athiest). It could be argued that the “Scottish School” simply stripped these concepts of Scholastic language (and thus with associations with the Roman Catholic Church).
However, strict Calivinists were quick to claim that the Common Sense school “sat man in judgment of God” so that if (for example) God ordered people to rape, rob and murder this was NOT automatically right just because God ordered it (like mainstream Islam, strict Calvinism DEFINES good and evil by what God orders and forbids – there is no room for reason in fundemental judgement).
Be that as it may, the Common Sense “Scottish Philosophy” School (basically Artistotelianism presented in a Protestant form) contiuned in the United States till very late 19th century (with such people as Noah Porter of Yale and especially James McCosh of Princeton) then the “Pragmatists” (more on them later) and others took over.
Under different names the essential position of both Artistotelianism and the Common Sense school continued. For example, in England with the “Oxford Realists” – Cook Wilson, Harold Prichard (a favourate of mine) and Sir William David Ross (it is no accident that Ross was also a leading scholar of Aristotle – and there were many other students of Aristotelianism at Oxford in the period).
Such people had no great need of the Scottish School – after all they could look back to the Aristotelian tradition of Oxford itself (thanks to the Church of England never falling fully into the hand of strict Calivinists). Or, if they wished, the independent (but fundementally akin) philosophy of Ralph Cudworth of Cambridge (the great foe of Thomas Hobbes).
Cudworth being the chaplin of Parliament during the Civil War. A man who rather confuses historians (a problem they get round by ignoring him) by being chaplin to the side that often claimed to be “The Elect” (a term meaning the saved, the people who have been chosen by God to go to heaven – the term has a strong Calvinist-Augustinian implication that they were chosen before they were born, indeed at the begining of time) whilst also being the strongest FOE of the doctrine of predestination (the doctrine that people are chosen to go to be saved before they were born – and it is naught to do with that they CHOOSE to do) in the 17th century English speaking world. Of course some people of a Presbyterian (Church of Scotland – not Cumberland Presbyterian) background deny that predestination, even so called “double predestination”, implies determinism (the denial of human agency – i.e. that humans are “beings”), indeed James McCosh denied it (to do otherwise would have meant he had to break with the Presbyterian Church). But I have no intention of examining such a position – for the brutal reason that I hold it is not worth examining.
Anyway…. Certainly even in the 18th century English thinkers such as Josiah Tucker (Dean of Gloucester) did not need to run up to Scotland to find out what to think about theology, philosophy, or even economics (for true economics must be based upon the concept of the reasoning, the choosing, “I” – this Tucker understood just as Ludwig Von Mises understood it). They were perfectly capable of working these things out from first principles that are common to human mind – regardless of nationality, “race”, “class” or “historical period”. Kant (greatly influnenced by Hume of course) may have been wrong about many things – but he was not wrong about the universal nature of the human mind (as Ernst Cassirer showed in the 20th century – even a modern German philosopher does not have to submit to irationalism and absurdity, not if he CHOOSES not do so).
Of course there are pressures upon human beings. Biological pressures (for example it is difficult to think clearly if one is in terrible pain – or if one is born with brain damage) and environmental pressures.
For example, it would be difficult for a German philsopher (in certain periods) to come to nonabsurd conculsions – when their education carefully excluded nonabsurd writers (neither the various schools of Aritstotelianism or the “Scottish” Philosophy of Common Sense were much taught in Protestant Germany) – difficult but NOT impossible, as the already mentioned example of Ernst Cassirer shows. Cassirer was given the same education in Kantian philosophy as Shopenhauer or Nietzsche, but did not come to the same conclusions. Of course Nietzsche may be a tragedy – as, it is CLAIMED, we will never know how much the physical damage to his brain impared his thinking, much the same excuse is given to explain the rantings of Martin Luther in old age, his physical illness, it is claimed, may have disordered his mind.
EFFORTLESS agency is not given to human beings. We must make an effort (sometimes a very great effort) to overcome both our bilogical passions and environmental conditioning (even if it is not formal brainwashing – which in the case of much modern “education” it actually is). And sometimes, the effort is simply too great, but that does not mean it always is – that humans are always just flesh robots (not beings) with no choice in what they do and, therefore, no moral responsbility for what they do. The human mind (the reasoning “I”) does exist (contrary to Shopenhauer – our very self awareness PROVES it exists) – and we can free ourselves (to some extent) so that we can think and work out alternatives – and choose between them.
Now the “Pragmatists”.
William James was not the first of this school (that was Charles Pierce) nor was he the longest lived of its major figures (that was John Dewey – warning on him, he lived long and changed his opinions a lot), but William James was in his time the most influential Pragmatist.
And William James is often cited as a “conservative” philosopher – after all he “saved religion”, he was the most cited modern thinker in American pulpits (other than both Catholic and “fundementalist” Protestant pulpits -by the way the first “Fundementalists” did NOT reject biological evolution, it was only later when natural science became fused, in culture, with false theology and philosophy, that many “fundementalists” made the tragic error of rejecting BOTH false philosphy/theology AND rejecting natural science).
But errrr…. .how did William James “save religion”?
When one cuts away all the double talk and evasion he “saved” relgion by denying the existance of objective truth.
If there is no such thing as objective true and false, then religion can not be objectively wrong (because nothing is), or (a slightly different dodge) there may be objectively right and wrong things in some matters (such as natural science), but not in matters of opinion (this is the position of the Logical Positivists – see above for them, or see CEM Joad “A Critique of Logical Positivism”, 1950, for why the doctrines of A.J. Ayer and co do not make sense – even in terms of natural science). This sort of thinking leads such modern philosphers such as John Gray (not a logical positivist, in case you are getting confused at the back there – or are you too busy looking out the window…) to mock the very idea that religion is about “truth claims” – how silly says this BBC “A Point of View” thinker – as William James showed……
Wiliam James neither believed in objective truth or objective right – as he put it “the right is just the expendient in our way of thinking”. So if people WANTED to believe in religion – that was fine.
Better, a thousand times better, honest athiesm than this sort of dishonest (and utterly vile) “defence” of religion.
The honest athiest tries to refute religion. But the William Jamesite (or the Logical Positivist for that matter) does not even take its claims seriously (no more than Shopenhauer did – or his “enemies” the Hegelians did).
How “simple minded” to treat a religion as making truth (objective truth) claims. As “intellectuals” we do not bother with such sillyness…. If religion is “true” it is “true” in a different sense……
A pox on all of this.
Anyway this way of thinking is treat religion (and athiest philosophical truth claims also) as “myths” – things to live by, but which have no objective truth.
This is to be seen in Sorel (directly influenced by William James) who invented “myths” in order to justify violence – as his belief (which is as valid, according to this way of thinking, as any other belief) was that violence was the only way that people could live worthwhile lives – so myths had to be invented to justify violence.
It should come as no surprise to anyone that Mussolini loved the work of Sorel (as well as aspects of Nietzsche – and of Karl Marx when the bearded one responded to vast amounts of logical argument and empirical evidence against his theories, by attacking the very CONCEPTS of BOTH logical reasoning and empirical evidence).
What mattered was to give people a reason to live – and to expand and take POWER. It did not matter if the reason was true or not – because nothing was really true.
But it is not “just” the above.
Those useless “Christian theologians” (in America as much as Germany) who so disgusted Dietrich Bonhoeffer (leading him to use savage language against “the Church” – langague which is gleefully used by the very “modernists” who were, in fact, the target of it).
These people did not care that the National Socialists told lies about the Jews, because they (the “theologians”) no longer believed in objective truth anyway (and where there is no truth – there can be no lies). Besides the “religion” of the “theologians” (and the great bulk of people who followed them) had become (following Hegel and others) just philosophy – and false and empty philosophy at that. They no longer believed they were making objective truth claims – claims that were nothing to do with “race” or “class” or “historical period”.
Who is going to be prepared to die for the truth – if they do not believe there is any such thing as (real) “truth” anyway?
Risking one’s life was for suckers – people who believed the various “myths” created for them. Most of the ministers of religion in Germany would not even risk their incomes (for their pay came from the state) let alone their lives – and nothing in the “philosophy” or the “theology” they were taught told them they were doing anything wrong.
Of course there were the “saving remnant” who managed to free their minds from what they had been taught, and worked out (from first principles) what was right and what was wrong – how they must stand with the truth. But a small minority of good people (no matter how brave – even smashing into the heart of the enemy like Paladins of old) are unlikely to defeat a great majority of the wicked, or the INDIFFERENT. That is why education is important – not because it invents truth and right (it does neither), but because good education can help people (at least some people) stand with what is true and right, and false education can corrupt people (no apology for the use of the word “corrupt”).
This is not to say that the wicked are not responsible for their actions. Even some of the most wicked had moments when they understood what they doing (for example when a helpess child appealed for mercy just before they murdered the child), but they hardened their hearts with the aid of what they had been taught (false philosphy and relativist “myths”) and continued.
“This is all old news Paul”.
The favourate philosopher of the Oslo mass murderer (I will not use his name – because he wished for his name to be famous) was William James, and for good reason.
If there is no objective truth than his claim that he was fighting a war (not killing the unarmed and helpless) can not be a false (because nothing is objectively true or false).
Also what he did can not be wrong (because there is no objective right and wrong) – so if it floats his boat, it is both “true” and “right” in the terms that William James and the Pragmatists (and so many others).
And, if David Hume is correct, then not only could the Oslo mass murderer not have done other than he did (because “reason is the slave of the passions” and he had a passion to kill people), but he OUGHT not to have done as he did – because reason OUGHT to be the slave of the passions.
If one has a passion to kill people the only role for reason (as with a computer rather than a human BEING) is to work out the best way to kill as many people as possible. And this is exactly what the Oslo mass murderer did.
Thus, from the point of view of modern philosophy (that revolt against Aristotelianism – against Common Sense) the Oslo murderer is on solid ground. No real point against him can be made.
However, if this revolt against old the traditions of human (of human agency) thought is what passes for “conservatism” then I want nothing to do with “conservatism”.
Just as if William James style religion is religion – then BUGGER RELIGION, better it perish from the Earth than be “defended” in such a vile way.
Human affairs are subject to certain laws – laws that do not deny human freedom (agency), but in fact include it.
Humans can not do anything they want to – we are constrained by the laws of the objective physical universe (if you deny this – try jumping to Mars, right now, just with the use of your physical body not with the aid of tools).
However, neither are humans just flesh robots whose every action is determined by genetics and/or environment. We do NOT have effortless agency (we are not Gods – we are subject to both biological and environmental pressures), but we do (to some extent) have agency (if we make the effort – sometimes a very great effort, and even with a very great effort we may still fail) – we are agents (beings), with some capacity to reason (truly reason) and to CHOOSE. Thus such words as “right and wrong” and “moral responsbility for your actions” are NOT empty and meaningless. Nor just a matter of “race”, “class” or “historical stage”.
My friend Antony Flew (sadly no longer with us) is often talked of in terms of religion – his opposition to it most of his life, and his move towards it in his last years.
However, this misses the point. The Antony Flew when he was an athiest was the same man as when he accepted God.
Antony Flew understood that the physical world was real – independent of our perceptions of it.
Antony Flew understood that our minds are real also – that the reasoning “I” actually exists (that agency is not an “illusion” – for, if the mind does not exist, who is having the “illusion”).
And Antony Flew understood that there really are such things as right and wrong, good and evil (again I am not going to get in a techical account of the differences between the right and the good – so if you demand such a technical account, please jump into the nearest lake).
Antony Flew is an example of how LITTLE difference religion makes in these three (fundementally connected) matters.
Religion, in the sense of Christianity, is a series of truth claims (notebly about the existance of God and who Jesus was – “but John G. says….” you know what you can do with that tosspot) it does NOT determine our response to the above.