Friday, May 30, 2008

Wollstonecraft: Truth is the same for man and woman

"I...deny the existence of sexual virtues," Wollstonecraft wrote. "For man and woman, truth, if I understand the meaning of the word, must be the same..." By "sexual virtues," she means any virtues assigned primarily to one sex or the other. She would be happy to learn that, in the United States today, there is general agreement that we should not have "double standards" of virtue for men and women, especially in areas such as education, career, athletics, sexual behavior, and child rearing.

But on another point of Wollstonecraft's, there is less agreement. She continued: "I do earnestly wish to see the distinction of sex confounded in society..." Many people, including feminists, do not want to promote androgyny for everyone or the erasure of differences between the sexes and genders. Some believe that there are biological differences between males and females, the importance of which should not be discounted; others simply feel that differences in gender performance make the world a more interesting place.

Yet it is hard to see how these two claims can be separated from each other. How can one make the former claim that men and women are alike in all morally relevant respects without also making the latter claim that there should be no social distinction between them?

Mary Wollstonecraft. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. (1792) Chapter 3: The Same Subject Continued, and Chapter 4: Observations on the State of Degradation to Which Woman Is Reduced by Various Causes.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Wollstonecraft: The formation of the human heart

Mary Wollstonecraft wrote: "Children, I grant, should be innocent; but when the epithet is applied to men, or women, it is but a civil term for weakness." "Innocent" comes from the Latin for non-harmful. Wollstonecraft used it in the sense of ignorant, pointing out that ignorance entails weakness. She defended the right of women to have access to education so that they are not forced into intellectual subservience to men.

She believed that "every being may become virtuous by the exercise of its own reason; for if but one being was created with vicious inclinations, that is positively bad, what can save us from atheism? or if we worship a God, is not that God a devil?"

This view assumes that God creates humans with the desire to be virtuous so that they may perfect themselves. Education must be a central part of a social program "to strengthen the body and form the heart. Or, in other words, to enable the individual to attain such habits of virtue as will render it independent. In fact, it is a farce to call any being virtuous whose virtues do not result from the exercise of its own reason." But isn't this contradictory? It attempts to take both sides of the question of whether we are shaped by nature or nurture. If God forms our hearts, why should we need education to do it for us? What types of virtues or inclinations, we might ask, must be implanted in us by God (if we are to maintain a theism worth its salt, in Wollstonecraft's opinion) and what types may be acquired through education?

Mary Wollstonecraft. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. (1792) Chapter 2: The Prevailing Opinion of a Sexual Character Discussed.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Hobbes: "Essence" is a useless concept

Not all languages join subject and predicate by the verb is. Speakers of such languages will say "man a living creature" rather than "man is a living creature"; those who use the former construction make just as much sense and are just as rational as those who use the latter. Hobbes concludes "it is evident that philosophy has no need of those words essence, entity, and other the like barbarous terms."

Some philosophers incorrectly believe that qualities can be separated or "abstracted" from their bodies or subjects, and unfortunately "from hence proceed the gross errors of writers of metaphysics; for, because they can consider thought without the consideration of body, they infer there is no need of a thinking-body..." Hobbes's statement in favor of the mind's necessary grounding in the body was unusual for his day and remains controversial today, even given recent revolutions in cognitive science.

We human individuals have no essence? Really? Another round of drinks, please.

Thomas Hobbes. Elements of Philosophy Concerning Body. (1655, Latin; 1656, English.)
Part 1: Computation or Logic. Chapter 3: of Proposition.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Hobbes: Bullshit artists make "nothing but words"

"What, then, can be imagined to be the cause that the writings of those men have increased science, and the writings of these have increased nothing but words, saving that the former were written by men that knew, and the latter by such as knew not, the doctrine they taught only for ostentation of their wit and eloquence?" -- Hobbes

This is an excellent writing tip. Wouldn't most people prefer to belong to "those" people who contribute to human knowledge, rather than to "these" people who clutter the Internet and waste pages?

Thomas Hobbes. Elements of Philosophy Concerning Body. Part 1: Computation or Logic. Chapter 1: Of Philosophy. (1655, Latin; 1656, English.)

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Hobbes: You Can't Ratiocinate God

Philosophy, Hobbes says, "excludes Theology, I mean the doctrine of God, eternal, ingenerable, incomprehensible...It excludes the doctrine of angels, and all such things as are thought to be neither bodies nor properties of bodies; there being in place for ratiocination [reason]."

The world indeed would be a better place if we did not pretend to engage in rational debates about incomprehensible subjects! The assumption of God's existence should not masquerade behind a cloak of philosophical or scientific words.

On the other hand, some types of theology are well-suited to rational discussion. Faced with a Biblical passage that promotes invading a neighboring village and smashing their sacred statues, believers in the moral authority of the Bible might debate whether that particular directive should be followed today, and in what manner it should be followed. The ethical concern is comprehensible and can be assessed rationally. To pretend that the ethical concern cannot be discussed, simply because the issue is ultimately faith-based, is to hide behind the cloak of the incomprehensibility of God.

Philosophy is a smokescreen for beliefs that do not require it. Avoidance of philosophy is a smokescreen for beliefs that do require it.

Thomas Hobbes. Elements of Philosophy Concerning Body. Part 1: Computation or Logic. Chapter 1: Of Philosophy. (1655, Latin; 1656, English.)