Category Archives: Philosophy

Society, Individualism, Laissez-Faire, and Eighteenth Century Sensibility

As we’ve been following the laissez-faire thread for some time, it’s nice to end up seeing it as part of a larger social and literary pattern.

From “Varieties of Eighteenth Century Sensibility”:

The feeling of an intensely social view of literature within the Augustan trend has to be qualified by an interpenetration of social and individual factors that were there from the beginning. The base of operations in Locke’s Essay is the individual human being, not the socially constructed human being: Locke’s hero stands detached from history, collecting sense impressions and clear and distinct ideas. Nobody could be less solipsistic than Locke, but we may notice the overtures in Spectator 413, referring to “that Great Modern Discovery . . . that Light and Colours . . . are only Ideas in the Mind.” The author is speaking of Locke on secondary qualities. All Berkeley had to do with this modern discovery was to deny the distinction between primary and secondary qualities to arrive at this purely subjective idealist position of esse est percipi, “to be is to be perceived.” If we feel convinced, as Johnson was, that things still have a being apart from our perception of them, that, for Berkeley, is because they are ideas in the mind of God. It is fortunate both the permanence of the world and for Berkeley’s argument that God, according to the Psalmist, neither slumbers not sleeps [Psalm 21:4]. But Berkeley indicates clearly the isolated individual at the centre of Augustan society who interpenetrates with that society.

The same sense of interpenetration comes into economic contexts. In the intensely laissez-faire climate of eighteenth-century capitalism there is little emphasis on what the anarchist Kropotkin called mutual aid: even more than the nineteenth century, this was the age of the work ethic, the industrious apprentice, and the entrepreneur: the age, in other words, of Benjamin Franklin. A laissez-faire economy is essentially an amoral one: this fact is the basis of Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees, with its axiom of “Private Vices, Publick Benefits.” The howls of outrage that greeted Mandeville’s book are a little surprising: it looks as though the age was committed to the ethos of capitalism, but had not realized the intensity of its commitment. (CW 17, 29-30)

Immanuel Kant

Immanuel Kant died on this date in 1804 (born 1724).

From The Double Vision:

The greatest of all philosophers who took criticism as his base of operations, Kant, examined three aspects of the critical faculty.  First was pure reason, which contemplates the objective world withing the framework of its own categories, and hence see the objective counterpart of itself, the world as it may really be eluding the categories.  Second was practical reason, where a conscious being is assumed to be a conscious will, and penetrates farther into the kind of reality we call existential, even into experience relating to God.  Third was the aesthetic faculty dealing with the environment within the categories of beauty, a critical operation involving, for Kant, questions of the kind we have just called teleological, relating to purpose and ultimate design.

For Kant, however, the formula of beauty in the natural world at least was “purposiveness without purpose.” The crystallizing of snowflakes is beautiful because it suggests design and intention and yet eludes these things.  To suggest that the design of a snowflake has been produced by a designer, whether Nature or God, suggests also that somebody or something has worked to produce it: such a suggestion limits it beauty by cutting of the sense of a spontaneous bursting into symmetry.  “Fire delights in form,” says Blake, and Wallace Stevens adds that we trust the world only when we have no sense of a concealed creator.  (CW 4, 191)

Descartes, “Meditations on First Philosophy”

On this date in 1619 Rene Descartes had the dreams that inspired Meditations on First Philosophy.

Frye in conversation with David Cayley:

Cayley: You begin Fearful Symmetry with Blake’s theory of knowledge and his attack on the unholy trinity of Bacon, Newton, and Locke, who often appear together in his writings as a sort of three-headed monster.  What did he have against them?

Frye: They all represent what most people now attach to Descartes.  That is, a theory of a conscious ego which is an observer of the world but not a participant in it and consequently regards the world as something to be dominated and mastered.  That is, his real hatred of what he calls Bacon, Newton, and Locke is based on what is ultimately a political feeling, that this kind of thing leads to the exploitation of nature and, as an inevitable by-product, the exploitation of other people.  (CW 24, 927-8)