Intros to European Philosophy: Rousseau


Previously Read: Not that I recall

Key texts: The Social Contract

Overall impression: The concept of the social contract seems to be wielded much as Kant spoke glowingly of the categorical imperative or Comte (to an amazing extent) waxed about positivism.   Or, he spoke glowingly of an idea I did n’t understand, similar to your professor’s pet philosophy term which does n’t explain what (s)he tells you it does.  Perhaps you ‘re surprised to hear me fret over misunderstanding him, but I ‘m leaning towards he did n’t understand (few of us do) what his ideas sounded like to others.

Still I admire some of his social insights piecemeal while unsure of what the social contract truly would look like in practice.


“Aristotle was right; but he took the effect for the cause. Nothing can be more certain than that every man born in slavery is born for slavery. Slaves lose everything in their chains, even the desire of escaping from them: they love their servitude, as the comrades of Ulysses loved their brutish condition. If then there are slaves by nature, it is because there have been slaves against nature. Force made the first slaves, and their cowardice perpetuated the condition. (European Philosophers from Descartes to Nietzsche, ed. M. Beardsley, p. 323)”

Wow. Blaming slaves for lacking the will to shake off their chains is… Wow. Stating that it is easier for the disempowered to accept their disempowerment (because they could always change their state) ignores the fact that subversive power is necessary both to establish and maintain the institution.  Having just finished 1984 again, I must say that dehumanization is a difficult process and one whose effects we should refrain from laying on the abused.

Far more sensible is:

“War is constituted by a relation between things and not between persons; and, as the state of war cannot arise out of simple personal relations, but only out of real relations, private war, or war of man with man, can exist neither in the state of nature, where there is no constant property, nor in the social state, where everything is under the authority of laws. (European Philosophers, p. 326)”

As he applies this to deny the supposed right of a state to execute its war captives (and then mercifully enslave them or ‘killing his enemy usefully’), I appreciate this. It may be I misunderstand his idea of socialization of slavery’s scope, but at least he denies this ‘right of the state’ to enslave. “Individuals are enemies only accidentally” sums this up well (accidental in the Aristotelian sense) (ibidem, p. 326).

Now that I ‘ve gone and invoked Orwell, I wonder what Rousseau would have had to say about modern warfare in the nuclear age.  It seems so unimaginable; the gulf between those who could imagine a society without war and our annihilationist age of fear which serves to justify perpetual war without relation.

“[T]ruth is no road to fortune, and the people dispenses neither ambassadorships, nor professorships, nor pensions. (p. 338)”

Love it.  That ‘s easily a favorite quote from European Philosophers as a whole.

  • Also, I enjoyed this footnote attributed to the Marquis d’Argenson: “Every interest has different principles. The agreement of two particular interests is formed by opposition to a third. (ibidem)”  ‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend’ much as Oceania is alternately friend to Eastasia or Eurasia based not on some overriding relation but on anti-relation to the other.  Theology too is defensively targeted to defend principles from external and internal opposition (Cf. Ghazali).


And a moment of hubris:

“All my ideas are consistent, but I cannot expound them all at once. (p. 343)”

Sorry, that kind of genius is reserved for the world from whence it comes. Genius is a term given from the outside, a recognition, it is not to be bestowed on oneself when one is unable to communicate adequately. If we must accept all of your precepts pre-simultaneously, we shall reserve our energies for better pursuits.

“The question ‘What absolutely is the best government?’ is unanswerable as well as indeterminate; or rather, there are as many good answers as there are possible combinations in the absolute and relative situations of all nations. (p. 357)”

You’ll have to forgive him, clearly he didn’t feel the impending approach of God’s penultimate kingdom come to earth that is enjoyed in our country (which kingdom?). We must forgive the poor Frenchman who did not see our most glorious day.

On representation:

“As soon as public service ceases to be the chief business of the citizens and they would rather serve with their money than with their persons, the State is not far from its fall. When it is necessary to march out to war, they pay troops and stay at home: when it is necessary to meet in council, they name deputies and stay at home. By reason of idleness and money, they end by having soldiers to enslave their country and representatives to sell it… In any case, the moment a people allows itself to be represented, it is no longer free: it no longer exists. (pp. 358 & 360-361)”


Intros to European Philosophy: Pascal

BLAISE PASCAL (1623-1662)

Previously read: I have forgotten, so this was a welcome section of European Philosophers from Descartes to Nietzsche (ed. Monroe Beardsley).

Key texts: Thoughts or Pensees.  Basically, these are scraps from his diary.

Overall impression: Most famous for his ‘wager’, he at least attempted a less rational argument for following God, but still one based in fear.  At least he did not try to defend rationality as grounds for a Christian defense.  Further, Pascal pointed to those who had chosen to submit their passions to God rather than the strength of an argument.

But Pascal is most interesting for me when he speaks of what we are as humans.  For instance, ‘we are something, and we are not everything’ (p. 103).  We are caught between the Infinite of the great and the Infinite of the little.


“77.  I cannot forgive Descartes.  In all his philosophy he would have been quite willing to dispense with God.  But he had to make Him give a fillip to set the world in motion; beyond this, he has no further need of God. (p. 105)”

“397.  The greatness of man is great in that he knows himself to be miserable. (p. 129)”

“792.  The infinite distance between body and mind is a symbol of the infinitely more infinite distance between mind and charity; for charity is supernatural. (p. 132)” 

Yep, that last one stings; especially as I read pieces of these ‘thoughts’ on the subway – surrounded by the mystery of other people and least disposed to anything resembling charity.  My lasting impression of Pascal has little to do with the wager and yet I wonder if I have any more need of God in my works than Descartes.  So for me Pascal is a sobering voice, but I invite better readers of him to fill out the picture with better colours than I have managed here.

Intros to European Philosophy: Descartes

In graduate school I quickly grew frustrated how limited my courses were in scope.  It seemed everything was an introduction, and often a disappointing one at that.  But this is also much of my experience of the quest for further wisdom.  Even my readings seem to halt at the introductory.  I find this anti-climax often in reading as in study.  In short, there’s rarely a sure foothold to be marked from such things.  The European Philosophers from Descartes to Nietzsche (2002) is no exception. 

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not truly disappointed.  I’m only disappointed that I haven’t progressed further by means of these readings.  But enough of that, I’ll speak of what may yet be helpful and my impressions.  After that, I leave to you to decide whether any meaningful insight has been gained (or could be gained by another better equipped).

RENE DESCARTES (1596-1650)

Previously read: only excerpts from his Meditations on First Philosophy and wrote some short essay about methodological doubt in college.  This paper was a case study for me on how his method could be misappropriated to serve thought-systems alien to Descartes’ purposes. 

Key texts: Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy

Overall impression: It’s nice to be able to locate these thinkers in relation to one another, at least when I can remember key terms.  For instance, Descartes’ confidence in something that is true whether dreaming or awake (2+3=5) is located for Kant in the analytic (and the arithmetical or geometrical examples are completed by intuition guided by linguistic definitions). 

The idea that I am a thinking thing isn’t nearly as helpful as Descartes asserts, but he spoke in a different discourse than I do. 

Surprises: Ego sum, ego existo (I am, I exist) is to be found, not the famous cogito ergo sum (p. 34).  I had heard that Je pense donc je suis was to be found, but it was not in the offered excerpts.  The idea can also be found in some measure in Augustine, if you’re interested.  It just isn’t made to be the ground of epistemological knowledge as it is in Descartes.

  • He doesn’t really doubt the senses when it comes right down to it.  Doubt is a path to speak of being guided by the ‘natural light’. 
  • He speaks of being a unitary whole, but still uses the language of being a sailor in a ship when speaking of his relation to sensations.

Useful: In ‘Infinity and the Idea of God’ [B] (trans. Haldane and Ross), Descartes averred that we ought to name things ‘indefinite’ instead of ‘infinite’ (p. 85).  This better contextualizes certain mathematical problems: ‘how long is half of an infinite line’ no longer poses the same issues for us.

the Will to Mis-Understanding

290.  Every deep thinker is more afraid of being understood than of being misunderstood.  The latter perhaps wounds his vanity; but the former wounds his heart, his sympathy, which always says: “Ah, why would you also have as hard a time of it as I have?”

~Beyond Good and Evil (trans. Helen Zimmern) from the European Philosophers from Descartes to Nietzsche (2002) the Modern Library, NY. ed. Monroe Beardsley: p. 849

If I had to make a guess where the concept (which I still can neither nail down, nor wish to by giving it a definite origin and limit its applications) of trying-to-be-misunderstood originates, my guess would be that the language of it at least sounds Nietzschian at first pass.  But then, what do I know? or so what?

Nietzsche put his finger on the psychology of introspective thinking.  There’s a strong tendency for me to not only believe that certain thoughts are ‘mine’ but further, to guard them as if they were.  Perhaps we should wonder why intellectual property is so closely guarded in Western societies.  It’s because we thinkers also want to have some say concerning how our ideas are appropriated – and sometimes with good reason!

But I’ll move past this thought to consider why any deep thinker would prefer being misunderstood to understanding.  Nietzsche here asserts that the psychological impulse rejects another’s claim to understand because a solitary thinker resists the assertion that her experience is common.  How can anyone else have suffered as I have suffered; this is worth far more to me for I have waited here in the damp cold for enlightenment, but what have you done?  Why should you be paid for the whole day’s work when I arrived before the dawn – when I have not rested!  That she is indignant is easy to grasp in theory, but her tears have been her own and we must not claim them.

So too the friend who has consoled another in hard moments should know better than to utter those ill-fated words I’ve been there.  Pain has its own language and few are permitted to speak it.  The rest of us may sit with him until he should speak, but entrance to this club is bought dearly should we wish to offer our own experience.  While the suffering of the thinker – the travails of her exile – may not amount to the same, it is for her to decide; not us.

Another word on the psychology of being understood (though I hope it will be readily seen that the right to claim understanding is not to be taken up lightly – even if it is not entirely the mourner’s or the thinker’s (I’m tempted to write tinkerer here to show better what I mean for that better approximates the task of the deep thinker) to decide who can speak): We’re talking about power.  After all, we’re drawing from Nietzsche – how could we avoid power talk?

Understanding is about the right to speak – if we understand her, there’s not much left for her to explain.  But if we’re dealing with a deep thinker, not enough can be explained.  It is not that we are unable to offer feedback, it’s that she ought to retain some right to answer.  Otherwise we deny the Will to Power for which she toils.  She approximates, scrapes not only for language with which to construct but also to best communicate her thoughts, and at last presents it.  It may be premature even to assert that she understands her project in full.  Instead she misunderstands well – she has developed a point from which to approximate and communicate her vision, she has a unique misunderstanding.  We may reply to her from our own vantage points, but we should hesitate before we too quickly assert that we understand her.

  • Update: my friend, Jess L, responded with an interesting bit of language that might, I think, be offered instead of the dubious ‘I understand’ – ‘I dig’