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Showing posts from October 23, 2011

Hume and the political philosopher 1

There is a famous dispute, among the intellectual historians of the early American Republic, about the extent to which Madison borrowed from Hume. The dispute may, on the surface, be about ‘borrowing’ ideas, but underneath it is about the mechanisms by which nations are formed, and the place of ‘ideas’ in history, one of the great arguments in the White Mythology. It was Douglass Adair who gave the dispute its modern form by emphasizing, against the economicist views of Charles Beard, the effect of intellectual history on the shaping of the Constitution. Adair pointed to the borrowings from Hume in the Federalist 10. Adair pictured Madison with a book of Hume’s essays, opened to “Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth”, in which Hume wrote: “Though it is more difficult to form a republican government in an extensive country than in a city; there is more facility, when once it is formed, of preserving it steady and uniform, without tumult and faction.” Hume goes on to suggest a two fold

The Lockian subject in Lilliput

I'm recycling this post from 2005. It is certainly pertinent to my character under capitalism theme. ... There’s a tradition in the literature about Gulliver’s Travel that extracts the Lockean Gull in Gulliver. The argument goes back to a very fine essay by W. B. Carnochan entitled, Gulliver’s Travels: An Essay on the Human Understanding? Carnochan’s argument is straightforward: “Lemuel Gulliver, like the mad projector of the Modest Proposal, appears to be a version of the Lockean man.” Carnochan is probably on solid ground in thinking that the perceptual changes on which Swift plays like a jazz xylophonist are suggested by Locke’s theory that the human mind is shaped by sensation – ideas themselves being the end product of an experience that begins externally (mysterious as that beginning may be) with the encounter of a sense instrument and an object. As is well known, this theory leads elsewhere in the empirical tradition – that moment of non-experience hardening into a thi

Ladies and gentlemen, a round of applause for the Holocene!

In his nobel prize speech, Faulkner, at his most Polonian, said that man will ‘not only endure. He will prevail…” This may have made some sense at the dawn of the nuclear bomb age, and perhaps these words have to be set as a sort of defiant humanism against a global war that killed 50 million people. However, the hope of man prevailing has steadily lost altitude over the last couple of decades, and will, I think, continue to seem more and more the long shot. Man prevailing has meant man creating a treadmill of production and a treadmill of consumption that now seems both unstoppable and disastrous. Parents, today, calmly expect the fish to disappear from the oceans by the time their children have achieved middle age. The elephant, the tiger, and the rain forest are all marked down to be remembered as theme park accessories. As man prevails, he destroys the Holocene in which he was born, nourished and flourished, and he does this with the calm lack of attention with which a person,

notes on the treason of the clerks

Let’s make a square: Eternal ---------- Partial Contemporary-------- Universal These are the parameters of Benda’s conception of the clerk, or the intellectual, in the 20th century. They also fit, to a degree, Gramsci’s reflection on organic intellectuals – which runs counter to Benda’s notion of the clerk - and Mann’s 1919 idea of the Non-political intellectual. Mann’s non-political intellectual is the most complex case, because Mann’s irony creates odd combinations, linking the partial (German values) to the eternal (transcendent cultural values), which is an inherently unstable pairing – irony, here, is not simply a rhetorical trope, but a shy conceptual synthesis, one that never quite gets made. In fact, from the point of view of the contemporary (say, the engaged Intellectual against which Benda fought), it is rather easy to ‘unmask’ the eternal and the universal. After all, these two categories are identified, in th