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Tuesday, May 30, 2006

jean jacques juge par tout le monde

This week’s philosophical spat is about a spat between philosophers. At least in the U.K., there were reviews in all the major venues of Rousseau’s Dog, a book about Hume and Rousseau by the team that is doing all the quarrels of all the philosophers (Popper vs. Wittgenstein, Bullwinkle vs. Rocky), David Edmonds and John Eidinow. Ophelia Benson, over at Butterflies and Wheels, is naturally taking the Humean side. The review in the Sunday Times is a sad commentary on the currently low wattage of the conservative intelligentsia. The reviewer ropes the book together with one on Voltaire’s mistress, says various astonishing things about how boring and unread Voltaire is (the more astonishing as he seems to think Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas is just the antidote for the tedium of Candide – although one suspects that Rasselas is a distant memory, given the reviewer’s general state of incredible barbarism), and then repents a bit – it turns out Voltaire, like Donald Trump, made money, so he is a good guy all the way around. In the Spectator the reviewer concentrates much bile on poor old David Hume, accusing him of wanting to burn all books that didn’t contain mathematics – surely a reading of Hume that underemphasizes the irony.

The Guardian takes a chapter from the book. Unfortunately, if this passage is representative, we are not about to read the whole thing. Here’s the intro to Rousseau as the Johnny Depp character from the Pirates of the Caribbean:

“The year was 1766 and Rousseau had just cause to fear for his life. For more than three years he had been a refugee, forced to move on several times. His radical tract, The Social Contract , with its famous opening salvo, "Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains", had been violently condemned. Even more threatening to the French Catholic church was Emile , in which Rousseau advocated denying the clergy a role in the education of the young. An arrest warrant was issued in Paris and his books were publicly burned.

In The Confessions , a literary landmark described as the first modern autobiography, Rousseau spoke of "the cry of unparalleled fury" that went up across Europe. "I was an infidel, an atheist, a lunatic, a madman, a wild beast, a wolf . . ."

Fleeing France, he had found safe haven in a remote village in his native Switzerland. But soon the local priest began to whip up hatred against him, charging him with being a heretic. The atmosphere turned ugly. Rousseau was abused in the street. Some believed this lean, dark man whose eyes were full of fire was possessed by the devil.”

Notice the remarkable profusion of the passive tense in the first paragraph. The Social Contract was condemned, an arrest warrant was issued. The invisible hand is everywhere. And then, dropping or drooping down to the second, we meet the ‘described as’ of the Confessions… No reference, nor any standing up and simply ‘describing’ it oneself. This is the kind of thing that I cordially hate – or that I can be described as cordially hating.

As for the intro to Hume – it is, if anything, worse, since it takes one of Hume’s great phrases – that the Treatise of Human Nature fell “stillborn from the press” – and squashes it into a gummy muddle:

“Today, Hume is known above all for his philosophy, but then he was renowned for being an historian. His first philosophical work, The Treatise of Human Nature , had been, if not exactly ignored, then certainly not acclaimed as the sublime work of genius it is.” This isn’t writing – this is a species of cribbing.

Since Popper and Wittgenstein, the last in the series of battling philosophes, represent genuinely different philosophical positions, it is tempting to pit Hume against Rousseau as similar champions. The Spectator turns them into factotums of that dismal perennial, the Analytics vs. the Continentals.

This is how Edmonds and Eidenow sum the two men up:

“In hindsight, it seems unlikely that they were ever going to get along, personally or intellectually. Hume was a combination of reason, doubt and scepticism. Rousseau was a creature of feeling, alienation, imagination and certainty. While Hume's outlook was unadventurous and temperate, Rousseau was by instinct rebellious; Hume was an optimist, Rousseau a pessimist; Hume gregarious, Rousseau a loner. Hume was disposed to compromise, Rousseau to confrontation. In style, Rousseau revelled in paradox; Hume revered clarity. Rousseau's language was pyrotechnical and emotional, Hume's straightforward and dispassionate. JYT Greig wrote in his 1931 biography of Hume, "The annals of literature seldom furnish us with two contemporary writers of the first rank, both called philosophers, who cancel one another out with almost mathematical precision."

While they may be described now as thinkers in "the Age of Enlightenment", how far "Enlightenment" covers a common national experience or meaning is a matter of vigorous dispute. A particular reading of French history tends to shape the general idea of "the Enlightenment" as, broadly, the French philosophes ' belief that the application of critical reason to received traditions and structures would bring human advancement. The dominating Enlightenment narrative becomes a small and easily identifiable group of brilliant people, a central activity, the Encyclopedie ; the sweetness of the salons balanced by the risk of imprisonment, the focus on reason, and the whole enterprise terminating in the guillotine.”

The chain of opposing characteristics loops about itself a bit – rebellious, certain, pessimistic, paradoxical – and Hume revering clarity is a bit of a twist – in fact, it is a bit of a twist to oppose the clear and the paradoxical, given the way empiricism proceeded by ‘problems’ like the Molyneaux cube.

Hume’s little brochure on the matter can be found here.

And this is from Hume’s correspondence:

“You will see that the only possible alleviation of this man's crime is that he is entirely mad; and even then he will be allowed a dangerous and pernicious madman, and of the blackest and most atrocious mind. The King and Queen of England expressed a strong desire to see these papers, and I was obliged to put them into their hand. They read them with avidity, and entertain the same sentiments that must strike every one. The king's opinion confirms me in the resolution not to give them to the public, unless I be forced to it by some attack on the side of my adversary, which it will therefore be wisdom in him to avoid.' Private Corres. p. 210.
Rousseau to Lord Marischal.
'[Wooton] 7 Septembre. Il [Hume] a marché jusqu'ici dans les ténèbres, il s'est caché, mais maintenant il se montre à découvert. Il a rempli l'Angleterre, la France, les gazettes, l'Europe entière, de cris auxquels je ne sais que répondre, et d'injures dont je me croirais digne si je daignais les repousser.' Œuvres de Rousseau xxiv. 393.
Up until now, he has advanced in the shadows, hiding himself, but now he walks uncovered. He has filled England, France, the newspapers, and all of Europe with cries to which I can’t help but respond, and insults of which, if I deigned to push back against them, I would think myself justified.
And here’s Voltaire:
Voltaire to Damilaville.
'[Ferney] 15 Octobre. Il [Hume] prouve que Jean-Jacques est un maître fou, et un ingrat pétri d'un sot orgueil; mais je ne crois pas que ces vérités méritent d'etre publiées; il faut que les choses soient ou bien plaisantes, ou bien intéressantes pour que la presse s'en mêle…. Je pense que la publicité de cette querelle ne servirait qu'à faire tort à la philosophie. J'aurais donné une partie de mon bien pour que Rousseau eût été un homme sage; mais cela n'est pas dans sa nature; il n'y a pas moyen de faire un aigle d'un papillon: c'est assez, ce me semble, que tous les gens de lettres lui rendent justice, et d'ailleurs sa plus grande punition est d'être oublié.'

“He proves that Jean Jacques is a master fool, and an ingrate kneaded by the stupidest vanity; but I don’t think these are the kind of truths that need to be published; things have to be either more amusing or interesting than this for them to be mixed up in the newspapers. … I think that the news of this quarrel will only serve to make philosophy look bad. I would have given a good part of my property to have made Rousseau a wise man; but it isn’t in his nature; you can’t make an eagle out of butterfly. It is enough, I think, that all the gens de letters think that Hume is right. Besides, Rousseau’s greatest punishment will be to be forgotten.”

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