Over-reaching when we promote philosophy

By | January 15, 2013

by Juan Bernal


When I was a mere neophyte in my humanities studies (late 1960s), some professors in my Literature and History courses would complain that too often people in philosophy talked as if only philosophers were the real thinkers (supposedly historians and literary scholars were not real thinkers) and complain also that philosopher all too often claimed credit for many beneficial developments in history, as if only philosophers had made major contributions to social progress and humanitarian development.  They must have had good reasons for complaining since I remember walking away from introductory classes in philosophy thinking that philosophy was where the real thinking took place and philosophy contributed a great deal to the development of civilization.  (I did not know any better!)

We hear the same prejudice expressed today when enthusiasts of philosophy claim that critical thinking is taught mainly, if not exclusively, in philosophy courses, ignoring the fact that students learn critical thinking in a variety of disciplines and courses of study.


 We invented everything of worth! 

Some of your older readers might recall that during the Cold War between the Western Powers and the Soviet Union representatives of the USSR (e.g. Nikita Krushchev) would claim that scientists in the USSR had invented such things as electrical power and the telephone, contrary to conventional claims that Western scientists and engineers actually invented and developed those technologies.  Sometimes we even heard that the USSR invented democracy and equal rights for women.  Of course, any cursory look at historical accounts of how these things and institutions arose quickly refuted those fantastic claims by spokesmen for the Soviet Union.  The Soviets were simply exaggerating their role in historical developments and “puffing themselves up” so as to bigger than they really were.

Do we have a similar situation with the claims as to all that has originated from the work of philosophy by some enthusiasts of philosophy?  Don’t we often hear that the roots of science, democracy, and all progressive social developments are found in the work and rational arguments of some philosophers?


Philosophers as Major Players in the Demise of Slavery – Another case of Over-Reach?   

At one of his musical performances, Yanni (piano-keyboards-band leader) declares that “everything good that has happened to people begin with just one idea in the mind of one person.”  Like many things that people say, this sounds good but probably will not hold up when applied to what has really happened in histories of societies and cultures.

In similar fashion, Rebecca Goldstein (“Speaking Prose All Our Lives,” Humanist, Jan-Feb 2013 volume) declares that

all humanitarian developments started out as theoretical moral arguments.” (p. 19)

She states this in the process of arguing that rational moral arguments, like those offered by Immanuel Kant and Jeremy Bentham, inspired the social movements against slavery and also against the long-standing denial of women’s rights.  She cites John Locke as offering the “first abstract argument against slavery and includes a passage by Locke:

“Freedom of men under government is, to have a standing rule to live by, common to every one of that society, …. a liberty to follow my own will in all things, where that rule prescribes not; and not be be subject to the inconstant  , uncertain, unknown, arbitrary will of another man, as freedom of nature is to be under no other restraint but the law of nature.”

Is this an “abstract argument against slavery”?  Goldstein is correct to say that Locke’s reasoning can be applied against slavery, but it is just as likely that John Locke did not have slavery in mind at all, but was arguing for the liberty of Englishmen against the threat of a tyrannical authority (King or dictator).  At any rate, according to Goldstein,  Locke  makes a strong statement against the institution of slavery.  She would offer this an example of what she calls the

“provenance of the moral “intuitions” harbored within moral philosophy.” (see page 20)

But are these claims of the significance of philosophical arguments in the development of humanitarianism and the anti-slavery movement really credible?  How do they measure up to the historical events and social processes from which a more conscientious humanitarianism arose, and gave basis for the movements to eradicate the institution of slavery?  When you look, even cursorily, at the historical events and social developments that led to progress in these areas you find that philosophers – with their rational arguments – did not play the major role that Goldstein insinuates.   A cursory look at the history of anti-slavery and abolitionists discloses the involvement a variety of persons and the play of social-economic forces.

It is true that some philosophers, such as those associated with the Enlightenment who wrote of the rights of all people in the face of Royalist tyranny and others who emphasized the importance of human freedom, played a role in changing some peoples’ thinking on the status of some human beings as mere property of the slave owners.   But probably a greater role was played by political movements such as the French Revolution and by religious leaders who seriously questioned the compatibility of Christian values and the institution of slavery.  In England where the anti-slavery movement started we hear of the activism of Quakers (e.g., Anthony Benezet, a Quaker whose family moved to America in the late eighteenth century) and people like Thomas Clarkson, who was a great early organizer of abolitionists.  Neither of these men were philosophers and we don’t have reason for thinking they were inspired by abstract, philosophical arguments to take up the cause of anti-slavery.

In both England and America, many of the early abolitionists had religious motivation for their stand against slavery.  It would be hard to find philosophical abstract arguments motivating an abolitionist like John Brown and his followers, who resorted to violence to fight slavery.  And we cannot overlook the role that victims of slavery themselves played in bringing about changes that inspired society to oppose slavery:  the Haitian slaves’ insurrection of the 18th century, for example.  The writings and activism of former slaves like Frederick Douglas and the example of Nat Turner, who led a slave rebellion in Virginia in 1831.  These people were not acting because of “abstract moral arguments” by some distant philosophers, but acting from the horrors and suffering that the institution of slavery brought to them and others like them.

Moreover, most probably economic forces and social change (having nothing to do with philosophy) played a big role in bringing about an atmosphere (in thinking, values, and political processes) that led to the end of slavery as an accepted institution.  When commerce and manufacturing resulted in a decrease in the profitable use of human slavery in some advanced societies, the entrenched thinking and ideologies that had supported institutionalize slavery for many centuries begin to weaken.  You don’t have to be a Marxist to recognize that economic forces and commercial interests play a greater role in changing the direction of societies than do the abstract moral arguments of philosophers, not to mention the role that religious faith play in shaping peoples beliefs and values.

Consequently, it seems that Goldstein over-reaches on behalf of the relevance and effectiveness of rational argument and the role that philosophers – with their rational arguments –  played in bringing about an end to slavery and the plight of women (regarded as second-class members of society).  Like with Yanni’s grand statement, so with Goldstein’s declaration of rational philosophy being the starting point of humanitarian developments, when we test the grand statement against the actual social and historical developments we find much reason for doubting and rejecting them.

The humanitarian movements that have helped to bring about the end of the institution of slavery have included social, historical, and economic forces not at all philosophical in nature; and have been executed by different people of different backgrounds, most of whom were not inspired by the “theoretical moral arguments” of some philosopher or other.

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