Liberty and Pity-Charity
March 15, 2012

Portrait of John Locke, by Sir Godfrey Kneller...

John Locke, via Wikipedia

I’m working my way through Bertrand Russell’s The History of Western Philosophy right now. It’s been slow going, but I’ve managed to claw my way all the way up to the Enlightenment, where I was struck by this quote from John Locke (emphasis mine):

I can as certainly no this proposition to be true as that a triangle has three angles equal to two right ones. Again: ‘No government allows absolute liberty:’ the idea of government being the establishment of society upon certain rules or laws, which require conformity to them; and the idea of absolute liberty being for any one to do whatever he pleases: I am as capable of being certain of the truth of this proposition as of any in the mathematics.

In Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government, Philip Pettit defines the classical liberal position as being that liberty equals freedom from interference. That’s not exactly what Locke, the father of liberalism, says here. Instead, he offers up what would seem like a fairly commonsense definition of liberty as the freedom to do whatever you’d like. (Russell writes repeatedly that Locke championed common sense at the expense of a lot of other philosophical virtues.)

But as blandly intuitive as Locke’s definition might seem, the small-r republican must take exception. I think the classic republican master-slave thought experiment can help us understand why Locke’s definition is lacking. As an added bonus, contrasting the republican definition of liberty with the Lockean understanding might shed some light on the philosophical roots of certain modern policy disagreements.

Republicanism, as I’ve previously explained at length, takes liberty to mean freedom from domination, not interference. To illustrate what he means, he makes frequent reference to the case of the master and the slave (a recurrent theme in republican writings going all the way back to the days of Rome). The question we should be attending to is, what makes a slave unfree? (more…)


September 26, 2010

Washington dc
Image via Wikipedia

Made it in late last night, and now I’m dividing my time between unpacking, exploring my new neighborhood, and ducking into various cafes to check my email (our Wi Fi isn’t set up yet). Tomorrow I start work—and, by extension I suppose, adult life in the bizarre simulacrum of the real world that is our nation’s capital.

I’m not entirely sure what’s going to happen to this blog when that starts. I’d like to continue writing it, but how much time I’ll be able to allocate towards future blogging remains to be seen. One thing’s for sure: it’s likely to get even less overtly political than in recent weeks. I’m going to be thinking about, discussing, researching, and writing about politics for a large enough chunk of my waking life without giving this space over to it. Me being me, I’ll still visit the topic occasionally, but I’ve been liking the mix of cultural criticism and straight philosophy so far, and hopefully you have too.

I’m also finding the Nietzsche Blogging to be an enormous pleasure, and I’d like to do the same with other works of philosophy and political theory in the future (taking a break in between tomes to do some more recreational reading). I’d still like to visit Russell’s History of Western Philosophy, but before we get there, Peter and I have been talking about jointly tackling Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.

Let me know what you’d like to see in this space in the future. And if you’re at all familiar with DC, what I should be doing here as a local.

Nietzsche Blogging: Introduction
August 23, 2010

Walter Kaufmann - The Portable Nietzsche
Image by lungstruck via Flickr

A couple days ago I asked whether I should blog my way through The Portable Nietzsche or Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy. Only four people responded (clearly I am a powerhouse blogger and my audience is legion), and they were evenly divided on the topic. But the half of my respondents (and by half, I mean two) who voted for Nietzsche were the ones who happened to be philosophy majors, so I gave greater weight to their ballots. And besides, I’ve been eager to dig into Nietzsche myself. So. Nietzsche it is.

The introduction by translator and renowned Nietzsche scholar Walter Kaufmann already has me pretty excited. In this introduction, he takes great pains to emphasize that Nietzsche was a brilliant prose stylist as well as a philosopher, and that he was a much more nuanced character than the popular caricature gives him credit for. “Almost as different from his popular caricatures,” Kaufmann writes, “as a character in Shakespeare, or more likely in Dostoevski, is from the comic strip version of Superman.”

Nietzsche, he writes, was not a dour anti-Semite but a man with a keen sense of both justice and humor, whose messy estrangement from Richard Wagner was largely motivated by the composer’s hypocrisy and anti-Semitic views. Moreover, Kaufmann’s characterization of Nietzsche’s philosophy is fascinating to me: he describes it as a marriage of enlightenment rationalism, post-enlightenment romantic passion, and psychological insight. He also argues that Nietzsche is the first truly post-religious philosopher, rejecting both Christianity and the eastern-influenced metaphysics of Hegel and Schopenhauer.

All of this strikes a chord—or, rather, I guess I’m expecting it to strike a chord. And with that in mind, I think I’m taking the right approach in reading my way through this whole collection, cover to cover, rather than picking and choosing individual works. Kaufmann describes them all as chapters of a single, larger project, and suggests that trying to climb the mountain is well worth your time.

“What one gets out of Nietzsche may be vaguely proportionate to the sustained attention one accords him,” he writes. And later: “[Nietzsche] challenges the reader not so much to agree or disagree as to grow.”

This is going to be fun. I’m pumped.

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Philosophy Book Blogging
August 21, 2010

Cover of "A History of Western Philosophy...
Cover of A History of Western Philosophy

I’ve finished Nausea and I’m now kicking back and taking it a little easy by reading Franny and Zooey. But once I’m done with that book—which probably won’t be too long from now, since, as Salinger himself writes, it is “pretty skimpy-looking”—I was thinking of tackling one of those hefty books on philosophy I picked up from the Book Barn, and blogging my impressions of it. The books are: The Portable Nietzsche, and Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy. I’d like to read both at some point, but have no strong preference regarding which one I should read first.

So I thought I’d open it up to the floor: is there one in particularly any of you folks would rather see blogged about?

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