Sec. 1: Different kinds of Philosophy

Moral philosophy is the science of human nature

  • It can be treated in two different ways
  • Each way:
    • has its own special merit and
    • may contribute to people’s entertainment, instruction, and reformation
  1. One considers man chiefly as:
    • born for action, and
    • guided in his conduct by taste and sentiment
      • He pursues one object and avoids another according to:
        • the value they seem to have and
        • how they are presented.
  • Virtue is the most valuable thing one could pursue.
  • Philosophers of this kind paint virtue in the most charming colours.
    • They get help from poetry and eloquence.
    • They treat their subject in a popular and undemanding manner best fitted to please the reader’s imagination and arouse his affections.
    • They select the most striking observations and examples from common life.
    • They set up proper contrasts between opposite characteristics such as:
      • virtue and vice,
      • generosity and meanness
    • They attract us into the paths of virtue by visions of glory and happiness.
    • They direct our steps in these paths by the soundest rules and the most vivid examples.
    • They make us feel the difference between vice and virtue.
    • They arouse and regulate our beliefs and feelings.
    • They think they have reached their goal if they can bend our hearts to the love of honesty and true honour.

 

  1. Philosophers who do moral philosophy in the second way focus on man as a reasonable rather than as an active being.
    • They try to shape his thinking more than to improve his behaviour.
    • They regard human nature as a subject of theoretical enquiry.
    • They examine it intently, trying to find the principles that:
      • regulate our understanding,
      • stir up our sentiments, and
      • make us approve or blame an object, event, or action.
    • They think it disgraceful that philosophy:
      • hasn’t yet established an agreed account of the foundation of morals, reasoning, and artistic criticism.
      • goes on talking about truth and falsehood, vice and virtue, beauty and ugliness, without being able to fix the source of these distinctions.
    • While they attempt this hard task, no difficulties deter them.
    • They move from particular instances to general principles, then push their enquiries further to get to principles that are even more general.
    • They don’t stop until they arrive at the basic principles that set the limits to human curiosity in every branch of knowledge.
    • Their speculations seem abstract and even unintelligible to ordinary readers but they aim at getting the approval of the learned and the wise.
    • They think themselves well enough compensated for their lifetime’s work if they can bring out into the open some hidden truths that may be good for later generations to know.

 

Generally, people will always prefer the relaxed and obvious kind of philosophy to the accurate and abstruse kind.

  • Many will recommend the former as being the more agreeable and useful of the two kinds.
    • It enters more into common life.
    • It moulds the heart and affections.
  • Because it involves principles on which people act, it:
    • reforms their conduct and
    • brings them nearer to the model of perfection that it describes.

 

  • On the other hand, the abstruse philosophy is based on a mental attitude that cannot enter into everyday business and action.
    • So it vanishes when the philosopher comes out of the shadows into daylight.
    • Its principles cannot easily influence our behaviour.
  • The feelings of our heart, the agitation of our passions, the intensity of our affections:
    • scatter all its conclusions and
    • reduce the profound philosopher to a mere peasant.
  • The easy philosophy has achieved more lasting fame than the other, and rightly so.
  • Abstract reasoners have sometimes enjoyed a momentary reputation, because:
    they caught the fancy of their contemporaries or the latter were ignorant of what they were doing

    • But they haven’t been able to maintain their high standing with later generations that were not biased in their favour.
  • It is easy for a profound abstract philosopher to make a mistake in his intricate reasonings.
  • One mistake is bound to lead to another, while the philosopher drives his argument forward and isn’t deterred from accepting any conclusion by its sounding strange or clashing with popular opinion.
  • Not so with a philosopher who aims only to represent mankind’s common sense in more beautiful and more attractive colours:
  • if he accidentally falls into error, he goes no further.
  • Rather than pushing on, he:
    • renews his appeal:
    • to common sense and
    • to the mind’s natural sentiments
    • gets back onto the right path, and
  • protects himself from any dangerous illusions.
  • The fame of Cicero flourishes presently.
    • But the fame of Aristotle is utterly decayed.
  • La Bruyère is read in many lands and still maintains his reputation.
    • But Malebranche’s glory is confined to his own nation and to his own time.
  • Addison, perhaps, will be read with pleasure when Locke has been entirely forgotten.
  • To be a mere philosopher is usually not thought well of in the world, because such a person is thought to:
    • contribute nothing to the advantage or pleasure of society
    • live remote from communication with mankind, and
    • be wrapped up in principles and notions that they can’t possibly understand.
  • On the other hand, the mere ignoramus is still more despised.
  • At a time and place where learning flourishes, having no taste at all for learning is regarded as the surest sign of an ill-bred cast of mind.
  • The best kind of character is supposed to lie between those extremes:
    • retaining an equal ability and taste for books, company, and business;
    • preserving in conversation that discernment and delicacy that arise from literary pursuits, and
    • preserving in business the honesty and accuracy that are the natural result of a sound philosophy.
  • In order to spread and develop such an accomplished kind of character, the most useful are the writings in the easy style and manner which:
    • stay close to life,
    • require no deep thought or solitary pondering to be understood, and
    • send the reader back among mankind full of noble sentiments and wise precepts, applicable to every demand of human life.
  • By means of such writings:
    • virtue becomes lovable
    • the pursuit of knowledge agreeable
    • company instructive, and
    • solitude entertaining.
  • Man is a reasonable being.
    • He gets appropriate food and nourishment from the pursuit of knowledge.
  • But the limits of human understanding are so narrow that we can’t hope:
    • for any great amount of knowledge or
    • for much security in respect of what we do know.
  • As well as being reasonable, man is a sociable being.
    • But he can’t always enjoy or want agreeable and amusing company.
  • Man is also an active being.
    • From this and various life necessities, he must be busy at something.
  • But the mind requires some relaxation.
    • It can’t always devote itself to careful work.
  • It seems that nature has:
    • pointed out a mixed kind of life as most suitable for the human race, and
    • secretly warned us not to tilt too far in any of these directions and make ourselves incapable of other occupations and entertainments.
  • Nature says:
    • ‘Indulge your passion for knowledge but seek to know things that are human and directly relevant to action and society.
    • I prohibit abstruse thought and profound researches.
    • If you engage in them, I will severely punish you by:
      • the brooding melancholy they bring the endless uncertainty in which they involve you
      • the cold reception your announced discoveries will meet with when you publish them.
    • Be a philosopher, but amidst all your philosophy be still a man.’
  • If people were contented to prefer the easy philosophy to the abstract and profound one, without throwing blame or contempt on the latter, we probably could go with this general opinion and to allow every man to enjoy his own taste and sentiment without opposition.
    • But the friends of the easy philosophy often carry the matter further, even to point of absolutely rejecting all profound reasonings, or what is commonly called metaphysics.
  • This rejection should be challenged.
  • What can reasonably be pleaded on behalf of the abstract kind of philosophy?
  • The accurate and abstract kind of philosophy has one considerable advantage: it is a service to the other kind.
  • Without help from abstract philosophy, the easy and human kind can never be exact enough in its sentiments, rules, or reasonings.
  • All literature is just pictures of human life in various attitudes and situations.
  • These inspire us with different sentiments of:
    • praise or blame,
    • admiration or ridicule, according to the qualities of the object they set before us.
  • An artist must be better qualified to succeed in presenting such pictures if, in addition to delicate taste and sensitive uptake, he has an accurate knowledge of:
    • the internal structure and operations of the understanding,
    • the workings of the passions, and
    • the various kinds of sentiment that discriminate vice and virtue.
  • This search into men’s interiors may appear to be difficult.
    • But it is to some extent needed by anyone wanting to describe successfully the obvious and outward aspects of life and manners.
  • The anatomist presents the most hideous and disagreeable objects.
    • But his science is useful to the painter in presenting even a Venus or a Helen.
  • While the painter employs all the richest colours of his art, and gives his figures the most graceful and engaging airs, he still has to attend to:
    • the inward structure of the human body,
    • the position of the muscles,
    • the structure of the bones, and
    • the function and shape of every organ.
  • Accuracy always helps beauty.
    • Solid reasoning always helps delicate sentiment.
  • It would be pointless to praise one by depreciating the other.
  • In every art or profession, even those of the most practical sort, a spirit of accuracy (however acquired) makes for greater perfection.
  • It renders the activity more serviceable to society’s interests.
  • Even if philosophers keep themselves far from the world of business and affairs, the spirit of philosophy, if carefully cultivated by a number of people, must gradually:
    • permeate the whole society and
    • bring philosophical standards of correctness to every art and calling.
  • The politician will acquire greater foresight and subtlety in apportioning and balancing power.
  • the lawyer more method and finer principles in his reasonings; and the army general more regularity in his discipline, and more caution in his plans and operations.
  • The growing stability of modern governments, compared with the ancient, has been accompanied by improvements in the accuracy of modern philosophy.
  • It will probably continue to do so.
  • Even if these studies brought no advantage beyond gratifying innocent curiosity, that shouldn’t be despised.
  • Because it is one way of getting safe and harmless pleasures—few of which have been bestowed on human race.
  • The sweetest and most inoffensive path of life leads through the avenues of knowledge and learning.
  • Anyone who can either remove any obstacles along the path or open up new views should to that extent to be regarded as a benefactor to mankind.
  • These accurate and abstract researches may appear difficult and fatiguing.
  • Some minds are like some bodies endowed with vigorous and flourishing health that they:
    • need severe exercise, and
    • get pleasure from activities that most people would find burdensome and laborious.
  • Obscurity is painful to the mind and the eye.
  • But to bring light from obscurity is bound to be delightful and rejoicing, however hard the labour.
  • But this obscurity in the profound and abstract kind of philosophy is objected to:
    as painful and tiring, and
  • as the inevitable source of uncertainty and error.
  • The fairest and most plausible objection to a large part of metaphysics is that it isn’t properly a science but arises either:
    • from the fruitless efforts of human vanity, trying to penetrate into subjects that are utterly inaccessible to the understanding, or
    • from the craft of popular superstitions which, being unable to defend themselves by fair arguments, raise these entangling metaphysical brambles to cover and protect their weakness.
  • Each of these is sometimes true.
  • The misuse of metaphysics by the friends of popular superstition is vexatious.
  • Chased from the open country, these robbers run into the forest and wait to break in on every unguarded avenue of the mind and overwhelm it with religious fears and prejudices.
  • They can oppress the strongest and most determined opponent if he lets up his guard for a moment.
  • Many of their opponents, through cowardice and folly, open the gates to the enemies—the purveyors of superstition.
  • They willingly and reverently submit to them as their legal sovereigns.
  • But is this a good enough reason for philosophers to hold back from such researches, to retreat and leave superstition in possession of the field?
  • Isn’t it proper:
    • to draw the opposite conclusion, and
    • to see the necessity of carrying the war into the most secret recesses of the enemy?
  • It is useless to hope that frequent disappointment will eventually lead men to:
    • abandon such airy pursuits as the superstitious ones, and
    • discover the proper province of human reason because:
  • Many people find it to their advantage to be perpetually recalling such topics.
  • Furthermore the motive of blind despair should never operate in the pursuit of knowledge.
  • Because however unsuccessful former attempts may have proved there is always room to hope that the hard work, good luck, or improved intelligence of succeeding generations will reach discoveries that were unknown in former ages.
  • Each adventurous thinker will:
    • still leap at the elusive prize, and
    • find himself stimulated rather than discouraged by predecessors’ failures, while he hopes that the glory of succeeding in such a hard adventure is reserved for him alone.
  • So the friends of superstition and bad philosophy will never just give up.
  • The only way to free learning from entanglement in these abstruse questions is:
    • to enquire seriously into the nature of human understanding, and
    • through an exact analysis of its powers and capacity, show that it is utterly unfitted for such remote and abstruse subjects.
  • We must submit to this hard work in order to live at ease.
  • We must cultivate true metaphysics carefully, in order to destroy the false and adulterated kind of metaphysics.
  • Laziness protects some people from this deceitful philosophy, but others are carried into it by curiosity;
    • and despair, which at some moments prevails, may give place later to optimistic hopes and expectations.
  • Accurate and valid reasoning is the only universal remedy, fitted for all people of all kinds—·lazy and curious, despairing and hopeful and it alone can undercut that abstruse philosophy and metaphysical jargon that gets mixed up with popular superstition, presenting the latter in a manner that casual reasoners can’t understand, and giving it the air of real knowledge and wisdom.
  • So an accurate scrutiny of the powers and faculties of human nature helps us to reject, after careful enquiry, the most uncertain and disagreeable part of learning; and it also brings many positive advantages.
  • It is a remarkable fact about the operations of the mind that, although they are most intimately present to us, whenever we try to reflect on them they seem to be wrapped in darkness, and the eye of the mind can’t easily detect the lines and boundaries that distinguish them from one another.
  • The objects of this scrutiny—i.e. the operations of the mind·—are so rarefied that they keep changing; so they have to be grasped in an instant, which requires great sharpness of mind, derived from nature and improved by habitual use.
  • So it comes about that in the pursuit of knowledge a considerable part of the task is simply to know the different operations of the mind, to separate them from each other, to classify them properly, and to correct all the seeming disorder in which they lie when we reflect on them.
  • This task of ordering and distinguishing has no merit when it’s performed on external bodies, the objects of our senses.
  • But when it’s directed towards the operations of the mind it is valuable in proportion to how hard it is to do.
  • Even if we get no further than this mental geography, this marking out of the distinct parts and powers of the mind, it’s at least a satisfaction to go that far.
  • The more obvious these results may appear (and they are by no means obvious), the more disgraceful it must be for those who lay claim to learning and philosophy to be ignorant of them.

 

Nor can there remain any suspicion that this branch of knowledge—the pursuit of accurate and abstract philosophy·—is uncertain and illusory, unless we adopt a scepticism that is entirely subversive of all theoretical enquiry, and even of all action.

  • The mind is endowed with various powers and faculties that are distinct from each other.
  • What is really distinct to the immediate perception may be distinguished by reflection.
  • Consequently that in all propositions on this subject there are true ones and false ones, and sorting them out lies within the reach of human understanding.
  • There are many obvious distinctions of this kind, such as those between the will and understanding, the imagination and the passions, which every human creature can grasp;
    • the finer and more philosophical distinctions are no less real and certain, though they are harder to grasp.
  • Some successes in these enquiries, especially some recent ones, can give us a better idea of the certainty and solidity of this branch of learning.
  • Will we think it worth the effort of an astronomer to give us a true system of the planets, and to determine the position and order of those remote bodies, while we turn our noses up at those who with so much success determine the parts of the mind—a topic which for us comes very close to home?
  • But may we not hope that philosophy, if carried out with care and encouraged by the attention of the public, may carry its researches still further?
  • Might it not get beyond the task of distinguishing and sorting out the operations of the mind, and· discover, at least in some degree, the secret springs and drivers by which the human mind is actuated in its operations?
  • Astronomers were for a long time contented with proving, from the phenomena, the true motions, order, and size of the heavenly bodies; until at last a scientist, Isaac Newton, came along and also determined
    the laws and forces by which the revolutions of the planets are governed and directed. Similar things have been done with regard to other parts of nature.
  • There is no reason to despair of equal success in our enquiries into the powers and organisation of the mind, if we carry them out as ably and alertly as those other scientists did their work.
  • It is probable that one operation and principle of the mind depends on another;
    which may in turn be brought under a still more general and universal one;
    it will be difficult for us to determine exactly how far these researches can be carried—difficult before we have carefully tried, and difficult even after.
  • This much is certain: attempts of this kind are made every day even by those who philosophize the most carelessly;
    the greatest need is to embark on the project with thorough care and attention.
  • That is needed so that if the task does lie within reach of human understanding, it can eventually end in success;
  • If it doesn’t, it can be rejected with some confidence and security.
  • But this last conclusion is not desirable, and shouldn’t be arrived at rashly, for it detracts from the beauty and value of this sort of philosophy.
  • Moralists have always been accustomed, when they considered the vast number and variety of actions that arouse our approval or dislike, to search for some common principle on which this variety of sentiments might depend.
  • Though their passion for a single general principle has sometimes carried them too far, it must be granted that they are excusable in expecting to find some general principles under which all the vices and virtues can rightly be brought.
  • Similar attempts have been made by literary critics, logicians, and even students of politics; and their attempts have met with some success, though these studies may come even nearer to perfection when they have been given more time, greater accuracy, and more intensive study.
  • To throw up at once all claims to this kind of knowledge can fairly be thought to be more rash, precipitate, and dogmatic than even the boldest and most affirmative philosophy that has ever attempted to impose its crude dictates and principles on mankind.
  • If these reasonings concerning human nature seem abstract and hard to understand, what of it?
    • This isn’t evidence of their falsehood.
  • On the contrary, it seems impossible that what has hitherto escaped so many wise and profound philosophers can be very obvious and easy to discover
  • Whatever efforts these researches may cost us, we can think ourselves sufficiently rewarded not only in profit but also in pleasure, if by that means we can add at all to our stock of knowledge in subjects of such enormous importance.
  • Still, the abstract nature of these speculations is a draw-back rather than an advantage;
  • But perhaps this difficulty can be overcome by care and skill and the avoidance of all unnecessary detail.
  • So in the following enquiry I shall try to throw some light on subjects from which wise people have been deterred by uncertainty, and ignorant people have been deterred by obscurity.
  • How good it would be to be able to:
    • unite the boundaries of the different kinds of philosophy, by reconciling profound enquiry with clearness, and truth with novelty!
  • Still better if by reasoning in this easy way I can undermine the foundations of an abstruse philosophy that seems always to have served only as a shelter to superstition and a cover to absurdity and error!

 


Words: 3,614

 

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