Sunday, December 21, 2014

José Pablo Feinmann on thinking Louis XVI's head off, Philosophy Here and Now (Temporada 1-4) (Spanish-language video)

This is Chapter 4 of the first season of Argentine philosopher José Pablo Feinmann's public TV series Filosofía aquí y ahora, “T1 CAP 4. La filosofía corta la cabeza de Luis XVI” Encuentro n/d Filosofía y Praxis YouTube 02/05/2013:

The first segment of this installment deals with defining idealist philosophy. The dichotomy that is often drawn between the categories of Idealist and Materialist philosophies dates back in its current usage to Friedrich Albert Lange's (1828-1875) highly influential Geschichte des Materialismus und Kritik seiner Bedeutung in der Gegenwart (1866). But even Lange cautions his readers about assuming too casually a general and neat history of idealism vs. materialism (Book 1/Chapter 1 of Geschichte des Materialismus):

Da Aristoteles und Plato unter den griechischen Philosophen, deren Werke uns erhalten sind, an Einfluss und Bedeutung weit hervorragen, so ergiebt sich leicht die Neigung, sie in einen stark en Gegensatz zu bringen, als hatte man in ihnen die Vertreter zweier Hauptrichtungen der Philosophie: der aprioristischen Speculation und der rationellen Empirie.

[Because Aristotle and Plato stand out in influence and significance among the Greek philosophers whose works we retain, the tendency to bring them into a strong opposition can easily emerge, as though one had in them the representatives of two main directions of philosophy: a priori speculation and rational empiricism.]
Kant and Hegel are generally regarded as the two greatest figures of German Idealism. But Kant's philosophy was heavily influenced by the arch-empiricist David Hume. And Hegel criticized Kant's philosophy for being insufficiently empiricist.

Feinmann defines the idealist tradition as starting with Descartes, as that tradition that proceeds from the I, the ego, in its approach, as Descartes did with his cogito ergo sum. And he further defines idealist philosophers as "those who divide the subject in its work of knowing reality." ("Son los que parten del sujeto en su tarea de conomcimiento de la realidad.")

Here, Feinmann proceeds to Immanuel Kant, who he warns is listeners "is not an easy philosopher."

What does all this have to do with the lost head of Louis XVI? As earlier, Feinmann uses the French Revolution as a major signpost in the development of the historical period during which about about which the modern philosophers philosophized. He states the conventional (and correct) historical assumption, "Inf effect, with the taking of the Bastille and the decapitation of Loius XVI, the bourgeois capitalist class seized power" from the aristocracy and the nobles and the monarchy that ruled that established order. And in Feinmann's view, the philosophy of the time in Europe spoke to that broader historical development. "If the bourgeoisie is seizing power, Kant has a different relationship with external reality" than earlier thinkers like Descartes.

I tend to avoid terms like bourgeois and bourgeoisie, because they are French terms taken into English. But in American English, no one seems to know exactly what they mean. Even people who understand them in their general historical usage have to take account that other people use the terms in other ways. Both German and Spanish have their own equivalents of the French bourgeois: bürgerlich and burgues, respectively. And their usage is not so problematic as it is in American English.

Kant, he explains was part of the Enlightenment, a movement which breaks up Reason like a prism breaks up light, producing "the lights of reason." Feinmann says, "For a follower of the Enlightenment, Reason is that power that is capable of organizing all of reality." He presents this as analogous to the active spirit of capitalism that was shaping Nature and society in its own interests at a previously unprecedented pace. Enlightenment philosophy with its idea that people can form social reality according to the dictates of Reason, not just according to dogmas of the Church and monarchical traditions, proved to be a revolutionary one.

I suppose it's fair to say that such a presentation is reductionist, if only because covering centuries of complex ideas in a popular form in half-hour segments requires a certain amount of simplification. But he's not arguing in a larger reductionist way; he's not trying to present philosophical ideas as empty reflections of social or economic processes. Instead, he's talking about the ways ideas are formed by the human history in which they emerge and how they in turn help to form that larger historical reality. And the Enlightenment thinkers wanted humanity to make history in the name of the Rights of Man. (And, yes, they pretty much meant Man at the time.)

He refers here to two key leaders in Argentina of the early 19th century, Mariano Moreno (1778-1811) and Juan José Castelli (1764-1812).

Moreno was the most important leader in the early national independence movement. He was an admirer of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's political philosophy and a radical-democratic Jacobin in his outlook. Moreno translated Rousseau's The Social Contract into Spanish. Argentina's current President Cristina Fernández has named Moreno as one of the historical figures she most admires. Silvana Corozzi deals with Moreno's political philosophy in a recent study, Las filosofías de la revolución. Mariano Moreno y los jacobinos rioplatenses en la prensa de Mayo: 1810-1815 (2011).

Juan José Castelli was an early advocate for the rights of indigenous peoples in Argentina and leader of a political movement to defend those rights.

Mariano Moreno (1778-1811)

Here Feinmann brings up the great Enlightenment philosophers D'Alambert, Diderot and Voltaire. And he defines a person of the Enlightenment as "someone who is so sure of that which his reason tells him is needed [that he] fells justified in imposing his reason by deeds and in modeling (forming) reality in accord with what his reason tells him."

His explanation here is a good one, referring to the image of the Goddess of Reason invoked by the French Enlightenment thinkers: "The Goddess of Reason" - who advocates the Rights of Man [sic] - "is that which creates reality because she rises up again reality, that is, Reason is revolutionary, Reason doesn't believe in reality. When reality is not in accord with Reason, Reason revolutionizes reality to the point where this reality stands in relation to her like a mirror." In words, Reason rejects a reality that does not conform to the dictates of Reason and therefore acts to bring it into conformity with Reason.

Feinmann assures his listeners that if one understands this key notion of the Enlightenment, "it won't be so hard for you to understand Kant."

He also explains Enlightenment ideas with reference to Voltaire's literary character Doctor Pangloss from Candide. Pangloss was an advocate of an idea advanced by Leibniz, that we live in the best of all possible worlds. But from Voltaire's perspective Pangloss' idea made him into a reflexive supporter of existing social and political conditions. "Pangloss was a very miserable person," in Feinmann's reading, "destined to justify the unjustifiable."

Feinmann expands this into the observation that when a person in misery first fully understands their misery and says, "This can't be!", this represents a rupture in which the person is revolutionizing their particular situation be beginning to try changing it.

And Feinmann emphasizes that it was only ideas that made the French Revolution. "The French Revolution is not only the taking of the Bastille. It is also the Terror, it is Robespierre, it is Saint-Just, the guillotine." The role of the Enlightenment intellectuals in setting it off, he says, was to help people to see their disgrace under existing conditions in a new way, to look at it with a new consciousness, with a personal, subjective awareness that this needs to change and should change. "This has to change," was the sentiment that drove the French Revolution.

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