Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Reacting to the Industrial Revolution

Yes, the Industrial Revolution was a big deal in history. Not merely because steam, coal, and iron changed the way, and the quantity, in which goods were manufactured, but also because it changed the way in which people lived. The focus for the ordinary person changed from rural to urban, from self-sustaining semi-independence to economically integrated inter-dependence, from the gentle rythms of sunrise/sunset and the four seasons of the year to the demanding harshness of the factory's whistle which marked the exact beginning and end of one's exhausting shift.

These large and dramatic changes in ordinary life for millions of people triggered various reactions. Much of the intellectual, artistic, and political life of the 19th century can be seen as various reactions to the Industrial Revolution.

The Romantic poets reacted by escaping: writing verses about knights riding across countrysides with blue skies and green grass, while living in a grey and smoke-filled urban landscape.

John Stuart Mill, and the modern political liberalism associated with his name, called for reform programs in order to make the lives of the working millions more humane.

Marx and the various socialist and communist movements of the era called for revolution, not reform; only a complete overthrow of the economic structure would satisfy them.

William Blake, in a category of his own, wrote verse, not in order to escape the misery, but to record it accurately, unflinchingly capturing the images and misery.

Kropotkin and Bakunin, reacting less to the Industrial Revolution and more to the political harshness of their own government, called for anarchy, setting off a wave of terrorism which included bombs (which exploded unexpectedly in ordinary peaceful cities, killing people who were going about their daily lives) and assassinations at the end of 19th century and into the first few years of the 20th century.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Who Really Won the Cold War?

The "Cold War" is generally considered to be that era from 1945 until 1990, when there were extreme tensions between the USA and the USSR. It was called "cold" because there was never a direct military confrontation: the US Army never fought the Soviet army directly. There were "proxy wars" between nations which were associated with the US and the USSR; in this way, they fought indirectly.

The fall of the Soviet Union in 1989/1990 lead to increased freedom for millions of people in several different nations, but who gets the credit for "winning" the war?

Historians do not agree; a number of different individuals are named as those who "won" the Cold War: President Ronald Reagan; Polish leader Lech Walesa; and Pope John Paul II. Other historians say that not one individual, but movements of people, were the "winners": in East Germany, there were student movements in Leipzig and Dresden which undermined the authority of the communist dictatorship. In Romania, groups met on a regular basis in churches, in direct defiance of communist directives. These groups can be seen as the ones who made the decisive difference.

So it is not clear who "won" the Cold War for the free countries. But, in any case, it remains an interesting phenomenon, because both the USA and the USSR engaged in huge weapon building programs, but these weapons were never used. The fact that hundreds and thousands of very powerful atomic weapons were built but never used demonstrates the power of the concept of "deterrence": by building powerful weapons, one can ensure peace and justice, because no nation would risk the horrifying destruction which would be the result of such an armed confrontation.

In our era, after the Cold War, we live with terrorism; terrorism is conducted by small, quasi-political organizations, not by legitimate nation-states. The tactic of deterrence does not work as well against terrorist organizations as it does against sovereign states.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Locke's Legal Impact

John Locke made contributions to both pure philosophy and to political philosophy.

Locke's purely philosophy ideas dealt with empiricism, distinguishing between an object's primary and secondary qualities, a rejection of innate ideas, and his famous "tabula rasa" metaphor: humans are born like "blank pieces of paper", so that the source of all our knowledge is, and must be experience.

Politically, Locke is known for locating the source of sovereign authority in the people; the legitimacy of a government comes from the consent of the governed. He also stressed property rights, and one's duties to society.

There is a connection between Locke's purely philosophical thoughts and his political doctrines: given that human beings are born as "blank slates", then Locke would never allow the defendant in a criminal trial to excuse himself from responsibility for his crimes because "he was born that way". Locke would argue that one could not claim an in-born factor which would cause one to become a thief, murderer, arsonist, or rapist. There would be no genetic determiner of behavior, as a consequence of the denial of innate knowledge.

Locke would be likely to allow a the attorney defending the accused to claim that "environmental factors added up to make him that way": negative factors in an individual's experiences could, perhaps, drive that individual to develop "mal-adaptive coping mechanisms". These, developed subconsciously or semi-consciously or unconsciously, would be neither fully responsible moral choices nor innate/genetic determinations of behavior.

So Locke's abstract philosophical psychology could have a very practical impact in the courtroom.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

What is the Purpose?

Why does society exist? Why do people form towns, cities, states, and countries? Well, different thinkers give different, but similar, answers.

John Locke says, "the great and chief end, therefore, of men uniting into commonwealths, and putting themselves under government, is the preservation of their property." In that sentence, Locke not only says something about the purpose of governments, but also hints about a social contract.

Hobbes, in reviewing different forms of government, speaks of "their aptitude to produce the peace and security of the people; for which end they were instituted."

What subtle differences, or similarities, do you see between Hobbes and Locke? What was happening during Locke's life? What happen during the lifetime of Hobbes? Certain major events in English and European history may have shaped the slight differences in their views.


The cause of much misery throughout history has been the idea that human beings, either individually or as the collective human race, are perfectible. Everyone dreams of a perfect society, and can describe what it might be like, but some people believe that it is possible in this world. Others recognize that humans, although they may be very good, are never quite perfect, and that there will be no perfect society, and no perfect human beings, in this life. As for the next life ... well, we'll leave that discussion for another time!

But, to get specific (which is, after all, what it takes to get a good grade on your essay test!), we see Metternich saying that the twenty-five years of bloodshed and chaos (ten years of French Revolution and fifteen years of Napoleonic rule) which dominated European history was caused largely by "presumption; the natural effect of the rapid progression of the human mind towards the perfecting of so many things." What he's saying is this: our minds constantly turn toward the idea of perfection - we image the perfect weather, the perfect music, the perfect school, the perfect car, the perfect vacation, etc. But we are carried away by passion, which makes us forget that the world, and the human beings in it, are good, but not quite perfect, and that they are essentially imperfect, i.e. by nature imperfect, and thus cannot be ultimately perfected. We can always make the world a better place, but we can never make it a perfect place. So Metternich concludes, "one must not dream of reformation while agitated by passion; wisdom directs that at such moments we should limit ourselves to maintaining."

Edmund Burke had a similar view: given the reality of the world's imperfection, the practical way of organizing human society will be found "in compromises sometimes between good and evil." Human societies face different problems, and we cannot fix each one perfectly: "it is better that the whole should be imperfectly and anomalously answered," i.e., on average we can do a good job taking care of the problems which face society, but not a perfect job.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Hobbes, Kant, and Wittgenstein

In our Humanities course, we read Hobbes. We don't read or discuss Kant or Wittgenstein, but they are two important philosophers who lived later than Hobbes, and whom we would discuss if we had more time!

Anyway, Hobbes has one idea which makes him similar to these other two: Hobbes says that we must "captivate our understanding to the words; and not to labor in sifting out a philosophical truth by logic, of such mysteries as are not comprehensible, nor fall under any rule of natural science." What does he mean?

He means that we can't rationally or logically discuss some parts of human life and some aspects of this universe. Human reason, Hobbes believes, is extremely powerful, but there are a few things that it can't do. And so we are left with some mysteries in life which we contemplate, but about which we cannot reason. Luckily, we can at least reason about why can't reason about them!

What Does It Mean To Be Human?

We human beings are diverse: different languages, religions, and races. Yet we all share some of the same features which make us human. All of those features together are what we call "human nature". Humans are different from animals in several ways: for one, we can deny our desires. If an animal is hungry, it eats, and cannot stop itself; if an animal desires sexual activity, it performs that action, and cannot do otherwise. But a hungry human can decide to wait, and eat later; or even go on a "hunger strike". This is what makes us human: the ability to say "no" to our drives, instincts, and desires. What if, in the middle of a delicate brain operation, the surgeon suddenly became hungry, and walked out of the hospital to get a hamburger?

Monday, April 04, 2005

The Death of Pope John Paul II

The recent death of the Pope reminds us that, from a historical perspective, the organization of the Roman Catholic church is important in understanding history. One cannot properly understand historical phases and events, like the beginning and rise of the university and concepts of Scholastic philosophy, or understand historical persons, like Rene Descartes or Emperor Joseph II or Empress Maria-Theresa or Metternich or Edmund Burke, without understanding this institution.

This is true, no matter what your own personal belief system is.

There are several different belief systems which are crucial for understanding world history:

* Ancient Pagan Polytheism - Human Sacrifice
* Judaism
* Christianity

Under the heading of "Christianity", several sub-categories merit study:

* Early Christianity (Syrian, Persian, Ethiopic)
* Roman Catholicism
* Lutheranism
* Post-Luther Protestantism

These are the major religious influences which have shaped the world in which we live, both in the present, and over the past 4,000 years. Can you define and describe the terms on the lists above?