Technology and the Human Sciences Pt. 1


(This post has been updated with a list of suggested readings.)

The following writing attempts to direct itself to the new TOK guidelines for May, 2022. The guidelines centre on a core theme (which is obligatory) and two of five choices of optional themes. The Core Themes are: CT 1 Me as a knower and a thinker; CT 2 My perspectives, biases, and assumptions; CT 3 The origins of our values; CT 4 Navigating the world; CT 5 Detecting manipulative information or ‘spin’. In addition to the core theme, the two out of five optional themes are: OT 1 knowledge and technology, OT 2 knowledge and language, OT 3 knowledge and politics, OT 4. knowledge and religion, and OT 5. knowledge and indigenous societies. How these themes are relevant to our world today and shape our perspectives and identities will be the efforts of these reflections.  Your understanding of these themes will be demonstrated and assessed through the TOK Exhibition and the Prescribed Essay. 

Overview: Scope


The following writing focuses on CT 2 and CT 3: the origins of our perspectives, biases, and assumptions and the origins of our “values” while at the same time addressing that area of knowledge called The Human Sciences, particularly political philosophy and political science (OT 1, OT 3). Aristotle, the Greek philosopher, called human being the ‘religious animal’ by which he meant that human beings in societies need systems of belief, whether true or false, that will bind together the lives of their members and give them some consistency of purpose. What systems of belief are currently operational in our societies and what binds our lives together in terms of our perspectives, biases and assumptions? In education today, the issue is not the teaching of religion but the content of the religion to be taught since we, as human beings, will have a religion whether we like it or not or whether we are aware of it or not. As stated in the other blogs, here religion is understood as that which we look up to or bow down to, not the view that “religion” is one of the five great traditional religions in communities around the world. Our religion, the religion that determines our way of-being-in-the-world, the religion which we teach and learn, is technology. We do not teach Darwin’s theory of evolution and modification, for example, as “theory” but as “fact”. Our religion today transcends the atheisms of the political right and the political left, those who call themselves socialists or communists or capitalists, and it creates fundamental existential problems and questions for those who believe they adhere to one of the more traditional religions. In this blog, “the religion of progress” is understood as being a religion just as much as the traditional theological religions.

The most sacred doctrine of our technological religion is our understanding of ourselves, our essence, as “freedom”, the priority of our wills over our reason or any of the other ways that we know and encounter our world (CT 2); and this belief in our understanding of ourselves as “radical freedom”, “subjectivity”, is in direct conflict with what has come to be handed down and known through the traditional religions. As the German philosopher, Martin Heidegger, noted: “The greatest care must be fostered upon the ethical bond at a time when technological man, delivered over to mass society, can be kept reliably on call only by gathering and ordering all his plans and activities in a way that corresponds to technology” (Heidegger, “Letter on Humanism”) (OT 3). “The ethical bond” of which Heidegger speaks is our politics, our actions in the world, both as individuals and as groups.

In this writing  we will explore how this “freedom”, this subjectivity, that we use to define ourselves is expressed and has been expressed in how we have organized ourselves socially i.e. in our politics. We will explore how “freedom” is associated with our understanding of “will” and how this predominance of will, associated with emotion and passion, came to the fore during that period which we call the Renaissance and flourished during those historical periods we call “The Age of Reason” and “The Age of Enlightenment”.

It may be said that two of the overarching political systems within which we have come to express our religion, the religion of technology or the religion of progress, are communism and capitalism or how we view and relate to Nature as property, its ownership, and so its disposability. Communism and capitalism are predicates of the subject technology. In saying this we are not saying that technology is founded on, and driven by, capitalism and communism but the reverse: communism and capitalism are the products of the way of being-in-the- world that came into being with the arrival of technology as a way of knowing and viewing the world and the objects within it, and these systems rival one another in what they believe is the best manner of keeping that technology dynamic, the “ordering and the gathering”. In fact we could say that all “isms” are products or predicates of the subject technology, that is, they are all ways of “ordering and gathering”; and this shall be shown as we move forward.

An “-ism” may be understood as a representation in thought, an idea; it is representational thinking. All “representational thinking” rests on “ideas” and is key to what we call knowledge and the knower, what we call “knowledge” and how we understand ourselves as “knowers”. (CT 1) As a suffix  “-ism” arrives on the scene through language in 1680, but its origins are in Greek, Latin and French. Our use is closely associated with its French derivative, not the least because of the thinking of the French philosophers Rene Descartes and Jean Jacques Rousseau. It is not a coincidence that the arrival of “-isms” is coeval with the arrival of algebra in mathematics as calculus, and with the thinking of the French philosopher Descartes and, through him, the development of modern mathematical science in Newton. We also have the “co-incidental” development of art understood as “aestheticism” at this time. These roots of “ism’s” origins should always be kept in mind when trying to understand the great paradigm shift that occurs in human beings’ being-in-the-world and their relations or stances to that area of knowledge that is called The Human Sciences. “-Isms” express themselves in “ideologies”, systems of ideas and ideals, “the ordering and the gathering”, especially ones which form the basis of economic or political theory and policy.

The societies and communities developed from these politics and economics are based on the “subjectivism” of our interpretation of ourselves as freedom. “Freedom”, through the modern efforts of thought, came to replace “virtue” as understood by the ancients as constituting the essence of what human beings are i.e. what human beings are “fitted for”, what “fittedness” is, and what human beings are most “fitted”.  The world becomes related to as “objects”, and in The Human Sciences it is we, as human beings, who are the objects of study. One can see how the “ethics”, the actions that we take, are already understood in this viewing to begin with. The distinctions and the gaps between facts and values may not be so wide as we have been led to believe, nor that between theory and practice.

Freedom and Technology (OT 1)

We have discussed the common assumption that technology can be understood as simply a collection of practical techniques and tools (“know how”) in other writings in this blog and we have attempted to show how this understanding, while true, is inadequate because it does not get to the essence of what technology is. We see technology as a set of instruments, procedures, devices or tools that we can use in our freedom to achieve the ends that we choose. We see technology as something outside of ourselves that we, in our choices, can use well or badly. But, as we have tried to show, technology is not just a tool or instrument the use of which leaves the user unchanged. It is our way of being-in-the- world, a way of knowing and of relating to the world and to the other inhabitants and beings in it. Technology is our ‘objective’ way of grasping our environment as objects as something outside of ourselves as “subjects”, and technology determines our command, control and commandeering of nature’s “energy” for our own uses. (We sometimes forget that “money”, capital,  is really a form of ‘congealed energy’, and this is also the title of Marx’s greatest work Das Kapital). This determination of what Nature is or is going to be and our judgements of its ‘uses’ is what we call our ‘freedom’ and it relates to what we think the ‘good’ of something is, its potential for use, its “value”. This “freedom” becomes the determiner of the new delimitation or definition of what it means to be human. (CT 3)

Technology as our way of being- in-the-world (as all our ways of knowing are “ways of being-in-the-world”) directs us to and in a world of objects whose laws we can create and discover and whose processes we can more easily adopt and adapt to our own advantage. It turns us away from focusing on our own minds/souls or our human subjectivity, and in this turning away we have become lost in this world that we view though the lens of subject/object, in this world that we ourselves have created. We have become alienated (to use a modern concept). Technology, for instance, leads us to deal with other human beings as objects to be manipulated through careful calculation whether in our politics, our social networking, or in the more personal aspects of our personal relationships, our sexuality.

Freedom, that concept which has come to define what we think we are as human beings, becomes our ability to change the world through mastery; we lose sight of anything worthy of knowing that we cannot change but our belief is such that we can change anything if our wills are strong enough. Our activities that have less and less to do with changing the world are in decay. Students engage in those studies that lead to the power to affect change. Our personal relations serve ends beyond themselves; our art becomes mere entertainment.

Historical Background:

With the coming to be of modern philosophy and modern science through the thinking of men like Rene Descartes and Isaac Newton, human beings’ essence came to be defined as their primordial freedom prior to any relationship to the community and to the state. Dualisms such as “subject” and “object”, individuals and societies, personal and shared knowledge arose in how we understood and interpreted our world. The fusion of  theoretical knowledge with the practical knowledge, of pure reason with practical reason, of “science” and its “applications”, of viewing the world and the “know how” of being-in-the-world, what is referred to as technology in these writings, came to the fore as the ‘what’, the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ of human beings’ understanding of themselves and their world. (CT 5) We will explore how this “know how” historically determined the relationships of human beings to the world and why these determinations came about and how they have brought about the societies which we see about us today. “Moral and ethical principles” are already embedded in this viewing of the world, and we will try to understand how our understanding of morals and ethics unfolded from our “theoretical viewing”.

Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527)

We will begin our discussions of the historical background of Individuals and Societies or The Human Sciences with a statement which some will find controversial: the modern Human Sciences find their origins in the thinking of the Florentine political philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli. Historically, Machiavelli was seen as an “evil” man by many, not the least of which was William Shakespeare.

When we speak of the word “virtue”, we are usually speaking about “quality of life”, the “ethical”, “the great society”, etc. But do we know what “virtue” is? What does Machiavelli have to say about “virtue”? How did this word which originally meant “the manliness of a man” come to be understood as “the chastity of a woman”?

The beginnings of the West find their origins in two great traditions: 1. the writings of Greece and Rome, and 2. the Judaeo-Christian Bible, or the two great cities where many of these thoughts originated, Athens and Jerusalem (one might include a third city, Rome, in this list). From these communities and their writings come quite different understandings of what “virtue” is.

The Greek philosopher Socrates, for example, stated that “virtue” is that which was “most fitting” for human beings i.e. to live within communities and to make everyday speeches through dialectic (conversations with friends) about virtue; we could say that this is piety since the end of these conversations is to lead toward the Good. This was most fitting for human beings as the human being was defined as the zoon logon echon, the animal capable of speech, and this defined what human beings were. This was also equated with justice: the rendering to other human beings what was due to them, and this rendering or action was understood as “ethics”. For Aristotle in his Ethics, the virtue of the first order was “magnanimity”, which may be defined as the habit of claiming high honours for oneself with the understanding that one was worthy of them. This became understood as “recognition” (which needs to be “public recognition” within the community one inhabits). In Aristotle’s Ethics we also find that “shame” is not a virtue. Shame is appropriate for the young who, due to their immaturity, cannot help making mistakes but it is not an appropriate for well-bred, educated human beings who always do the right and proper thing. Aristotle assumes that educated human beings know what the right and proper thing is.

In the Judaeo-Christian Bible, however, the sense of “shame” is one of the primary “virtues” when one attempts to recognize what human being is. The Bible is replete with examples of where the recognition of shame is appropriate for human beings in their recognition of what they are, beginning with the “Book of Genesis” and Adam and Eve’s recognition of their ‘nakedness’ after the Fall, through the Prophets (particularly Isaiah), through to the New Testament with its Gospels and Epistles. For the Greeks, there is no “holy God” or “God of Hosts”, although there is a god who “sometimes wishes and sometimes does not wish to go by the name of Zeus”. In the Bible, the sense of shame arises in human beings from their recognition of their “sinful pride” which distinguishes them from the ‘perfection’ of their “holy God”.

So who is right: Athens or Jerusalem? Must we concede that human wisdom and reason is unable to give us an answer to this question and that every answer is based on an act of faith? A philosophy based on faith is no longer philosophy and here we must distinguish between faith and trust. Perhaps it is our inability to answer this question and resolve this conflict that has prevented Western thinking from ever coming to rest, although in our modern age this question and conflict is simply overlooked.

It is in trying to understand our modern philosophy that we come across the figure of Machiavelli. Machiavelli’s politics or political teaching exists and will continue to exist even though the politics are not directly associated with him. It is a politics guided by expediency where “the good end justifies any means”, where the “good end” is conceived as one’s “fatherland” or country, but also the use of the country for the self-aggrandizement of the politician or statesman or one’s political party. One finds Machiavelli’s thinking providing much of the ground for Karl Marx’s communism as we shall later demonstrate, but it is a thinking and its subsequent actions which have also motivated demagogues throughout Western history.

For Plato and Aristotle, the actualization of the “best regime” or society is based upon “chance”, what Machiavelli called Fortuna, and is something beyond human control. According to Machiavelli, however, Fortuna is a woman who must be whipped and beaten to be kept under control. Fortuna or chance can be conquered by the right kind of man. (Obviously, Machiavelli does not sit well with most women’s movements in the modern age, but his techniques based as they are on the principle of reason’s understanding of causality “if this…then this” are quite gender neutral i.e. they transcend gender). Machiavelli looks towards achieving the best political order possible by not looking at how human beings ought to live, but how in fact they actually do live. The ideal and the actual can be made to converge. This convergence of the ideal and the actual, of the theoretical and the practical, is but one aspect of what is understood as technology in these writings.

Machiavelli uses History to derive his examples to illustrate his intentions. His primary intention is that on the basis of the knowledge of how human beings actually do live, he can teach princes and rulers how they ought to rule and how they ought to live i.e. their “ethics”. He re-writes Aristotle’s Ethics. For Machiavelli, for example, it is better to be loved than feared for a ruler, but if one has to choose between the two, it is better to be feared. One is reminded of the Marlon Brando character, Don Corleone, in the film The Godfather and many of his lines regarding those who he perceives as his “enemies”. The “Italian Mafioso” is today’s “prince”. Other examples in our entertainments and our arts abound. In American politics, one has no doubt that were it possible, Donald Trump would follow the example of Russia’s Vladimir Putin and have reporters and journalists who he perceives as his “enemies” assassinated.

Machiavelli’s examples from history include Hannibal who was to be admired for his “inhuman cruelty”, a virtue in the eyes of Machiavelli, and Cesare Borgia who used his henchman Ramirro d’Órco to commit atrocities to pacify a rebellion, and who Borgia proceeded to tell his people that the cruelties were not committed by himself but by overzealous followers. We can see and hear such rationales echoed in any news of the day today. Machiavelli’s new “ought” was the requirement of the use of both virtue and vice according to the requirements of the circumstances. He also shows in his Discourses on Livy that one rises from a low or abject position to an exalted one through “fraud” rather than through “force”.

Machiavelli compares himself to Columbus in that he believes he has discovered new modes and orders, that he has taken a path never walked by anyone before. He believes he is the Columbus of the moral-political world. He believed that there is something fundamentally wrong with approaching a politics which culminates in a utopia, in the description of a regime whose actualization is highly improbable. Machiavelli shifts the highest objective which a society might choose to pursue and lowers the standards to what societies actually do choose. Machiavelli consciously lowers the standards of human action. This lowering of the standards is meant to lead to a higher probability of the actualization of the best regime possible. The scheme, the plan is constructed in accordance with the lower standards, and the dependency upon chance is reduced; chance will be conquered.

The traditional approach was that morality was something substantial; it is a force in the soul of human beings however ineffective it may be in the affairs of human beings. For Machiavelli, virtue in a society is a product of vice and the passions and virtue is only possible within societies. Human beings are educated to virtue through customs, laws, etc. Morality is possible only within a context which creates morality, for morality cannot create itself i.e. it is not something permanent. The context for morality is immorality; justice is grounded in injustice. Human beings are not, by nature, directed towards virtue but are motivated by vice and the passions. Machiavelli concludes that human beings are bad and must be compelled to be good. This is done through institutions, the right kind of institutions, institutions with “teeth in them”.  This shift from concern with the morality of human beings to institutions is based on Machiavelli’s first principle: one must lower the standards in order to make probable, if not certain, the actualization of the right or desirable social order or in order to conquer chance.

Human beings are not, by nature, ordered toward virtue or perfection. There is no natural end or purpose for human being. Human beings are free to set for themselves any end they desire. According to Machiavelli, human beings are infinitely malleable. The power of human beings is much greater, and the power of nature much smaller, than the ancients thought.

The “wholly new prince” of the highest kind, the founder of new states, is animated by nothing but “selfish ambition” and his public tasks are only done to further his designs and enhance his desire for glory. He is distinguished from the great criminals merely by the fact that the criminal lacks a defensible opportunity; the moral motivation is the same.

The “technology of the helmsman”, of the “wholly new prince”, represents an amazing contraction of the definition of human being from that proposed by the classics. Machiavelli saw that the aspirations of Christianity in its “charity” to desire the salvation of human beings’ “immortal souls” required actions that were “inhuman and cruel”. Their “aiming too high” unintentionally increased the inhumane actions of human beings towards their fellow human beings. (See Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “The Grand Inquisitor” for a brilliant literary elucidation of this principle.) The “aiming too high” that was Christian “charity” was to be replaced by “calculation”, by a utilitarianism that will control human beings’ bestiality and preserve the state. The passion behind Machiavelli’s teaching is grounded in anti-theological anger which continues to show itself in various guises today.

Machiavelli’s teaching required that he demonstrate that no knowledge can be had of human beings’ “natural ends” i.e. that there is no “natural purpose” or purposes in nature itself, or in other words, there are no essences of things. The proof for this belief was thought to be supplied in the discoveries in the Natural Sciences in the 17th century. But Machiavelli’s scheme had to be modified because of its revolting character. The man who mitigated Machiavelli’s scheme but retained his primary intention and principle was Thomas Hobbes.

Suggested Readings:

Machiavelli, Nicollo The Prince:

Thomas Hobbes
Thomas Hobbes

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679)

If we are to arrive at any clear understanding of who we are as thinkers and knowers, then we must understand that what are called “modern ideas” in the Human Sciences are of British origin and, therefore, of English-speaking origin. Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) attempted to create a moral and political philosophy based on “scientific principles” which he thought would contribute to the establishment of civic peace and friendship among human beings by showing how human beings could attain peace by fulfilling their duties to society. In Hobbes, we see the development and growth of what today are called the Human Sciences from their original germination in the thinking of Machiavelli where the theoretical and the practical are interconnected. Hobbes agreed with the Machiavellian account of nature, that nature is to be viewed as a product of necessity and chance which can be overcome and conquered. Hobbes spent many hours in conversations with Bacon and Galileo, and from them came away with the belief that everything could be explained in terms of motion, what we will refer to as “energy” here.

For Hobbes, the “state of nature” is not an historical “fact” but a philosophical necessity i.e. it is a “metaphysical” proposition. The geometry of Galileo was the theoretical key to arriving at an inductive and deductive method of reasoning that could be applied to human beings and their lives both in nature and in societies. Human passions and motives, their wills, could be explained ‘mechanistically’ like the actions of a watch. For Hobbes, “mechanistic psychology” was seen as the primal force moving human beings to motion, and the chief motivator was ‘fear of violent death’ and the need for ‘self-preservation’. (See his book Leviathan where the first Five chapters deal with the “metaphysics” upon which he illustrates how human beings operate and behave. For Hobbes, “thoughts” and “passions” correspond to Descartes’ and Locke’s “ideas” and these will later become the grounds of the principles of pleasure/pain adopted by the utilitarians. Chapter Six deals with the impulsions or Appetites and Aversions that come from “behind” and push human beings ‘forward’ into action (what we today call the “instincts”), and the next Five Chapters set out the mechanisms by which human beings must operate or behave if they are to ensure peace and comfortable living in a society. Hobbes found the oneness of human beings in the body, not in the “consciousness” as “perceptions of the mind” as David Hume did).

Hobbes was a great revolutionary in that he sought to overturn the views of what was traditional natural law as given to the West by Plato and Aristotle. Traditional natural law is primarily and mainly an objective rule and measure, a binding order prior to, and independent of, the human will and was best discerned through reason, while modern natural law is, or tends to be, primarily a series of ‘rights’ of subjective claims originating in the human will. For the ancients, natural law was not something which we measure, but something by which we are measured. The notion of “rights” originates with the Romans and was primarily related to their possession of slaves and what legal controls they had over them i.e. of human beings as commodities. Nature as hierarchy and order as understood by the ancients was dismissed. Hobbes asserted the priority and superiority of emotion/passion over reason as a way of knowing and as a means of understanding what is “natural law”.

The violating of the traditional natural law resulted in the outcomes one sees in the great Greek tragedies, and this violation is what the Greeks called hubris which we have generally determined to be “pride” or “vanity”, but the term refers to much more than this. Hobbes sees pride and vanity as the great causes of strife among human beings because human beings are “competitive’ by nature. The rules of traditional natural law were what later came to be called “categorical imperatives” by the German philosopher Kant, but more on this later.

For Hobbes, “scientific” was mathematical or geometrical knowledge–calculation. Philosophy as science proceeds either deductively from “synthetic” reasoning (reasoning that is not based on “experience”) of the first causes to apparent effects, and “analytically” through reasoning from perceived effects or facts to possible causes of their generation. The first principles are body/matter and motion or change of place. In accordance with the deductive or synthetic method, one would begin with the laws of physics in general and from them deduce the causes of the behaviour of individual human beings, and from the passions deduce the laws of social and political life. However, it is through the analytic means, the analysis based on “sense experience” that one arrives at what Hobbes considered were adequate definitions of the first principles themselves. Hobbes indicates that his understanding is based on “pre-scientific knowledge” or what we would call “common sense experience” i.e. what every human being already knows. This common sense “know how” furnishes Hobbes with the system he needs to construct his political philosophy.

Hobbes, like his predecessor Machiavelli, believed that the classical writings of the Greeks and Romans had failed human beings because they “aimed too high”. They had based their doctrines on human beings’ highest aspirations (“virtue”) which rendered the societies they recommended ineffective in dealing with the “realism” of human beings as they actually are in the “real” world. The study of philosophy came to take second place to the study of history in the 16th century. The precepts of philosophy were “too high” for the ordinary human being, while the “experience” of the real deeds of real men were felt to provide the concrete examples by which human beings would come to learn of the importance of prudence in their actions. This shift from physics and metaphysics occurs, according to Aristotle, as soon as human being is considered the highest being in the world, ‘the most excellent work of nature’. With this shift, what we call The Human Sciences begin and we find this extrapolated in the philosophy of the English scientist and philosopher Francis Bacon. (In literature, one may find an extraordinary parallel in Dostoevsky’s “The Grand Inquisitor” chapters in his novel The Brothers Karamazov). Hobbes, like Machiavelli and Bacon before him, separated “natural law” from the idea of the moral perfection of human beings or from that to which they are “most fitted” as the ancients understood it. Justice comes to be understood as a matter of laws. Hobbes arrived at his conclusion by deducing that what is most powerful in human beings is not reason but passion. The origin of human beings’ appetites is not perception but vanity.

Hobbes sees human beings as capable of being understood according to a “mechanistic psychology” of the passions (Leviathan Chap. vi.) as those forces which push us from “behind”. This mechanistic psychology is not to be understood as those things which attract from “in front” i.e. the ends of human beings or the objects of desire of the passions. The objects of the passions vary with each individual and depend on that human being’s constitution or education. Good and evil are relative to the human being using those terms and good and evil characterize the individual’s desires and aversions. Thinking understood as reason is a “spy” or a tool which is used to attempt to find the way to the thing desired. (Leviathan Chap. vi.). Thinking as technology or the “know how” derived from experience should be kept in mind here.

Hobbes asserts that human beings are not inclined to live in communities “by nature”. Hobbes deduces the “state of nature” from the passions of human beings. The state of nature provides the reasons, the purposes, or the ends for the sake of which political societies are born. It is the passions which will ground the forming of human communities, the chief of which is the desire for power and property in order to secure the individual’s self-preservation. Hobbes asserts that all human beings are equal in their capacity to kill each other. Self-preservation based on the passion of fear of violent death is the most powerful passion. What human beings seek is the security to continually progress towards one object of desire or another: “…in the first place, I put a general inclination of all mankind, a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death”. (Leviathan ix.). This seeking for the assurance of security makes it necessary that human beings control necessity and chance through the knowledge they obtain through the sciences. With the influence of Christianity, greed and vanity become emancipated while human sexuality and relationships become enchained.

Another problem facing human beings in civil society is the love of “glory”, pride or vanity. “Glorifying” is based on the good opinion a person has or receives of themselves based on their power. These self-opinions are always based on comparisons with others. According to Hobbes, the three great causes of war among human beings are competition, distrust, and glory which create a state of every person against every other person or conditions where “the life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” (Leviathan Chap. viii.). The state of nature, for Hobbes, is good only for the possibility of getting out of it. It is not far from Hobbes’ writings to the idea of the “conquest of nature”. By understanding human nature mechanistically, we become capable of manipulating and overcoming it so that our fear of death and the desire for comfort can be realized through a state of peace. This can be done by overcoming the desire for glory or human pride. The rules of reason are the Laws of Nature, and the Moral Law are the dictates of reason. In Hobbes one sees the secularization of what was originally Biblical language and this may account for one of the reasons why his view of Nature became acceptable to Protestant Christians.

For Hobbes, the right to self-preservation is realized in the overcoming of the primary fear of violent death. Individual rights are derived from the selfish passions and desires of human beings, the desire for a comfortable living founded on the fear of violent death. Human selfishness is legitimized in his thinking. He prepares the ground for the later coming into being of liberalism and today’s cybernetics. For Hobbes, intelligent calculation of self-interest is all that is required for a human being to be just.

Suggested Readings:

Hobbes, Thomas Leviathan Chaps. xiii-xv, xvii-xviii, xxi, xxiv, xxvi-xxx, xlvi.

Click to access Leviathan.pdf

John Locke
               John Locke

 John Locke (1632-1704)

If Hobbes may be said to be the political philosopher of power relations established between the individuals and the societies in which they live, John Locke (1632-1704) may be said to be the political philosopher of money and property and their relation to labour, and how these concepts establish the relations between individuals and their societies. Locke’s influence is very much with us today as it was he who wrote: “…no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions…”. This statement in truncated form is, of course, re-echoed in the beginning of the American constitution where “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” were held as “self-evident truths” by the founding fathers of the USA being under the influence of Locke, the French philosopher Rousseau, and Rousseau’s student Thomas Paine. Other ideas and concepts of Locke permeate the lives of US citizens today and are to be found in the UN Declaration of Human Rights.

For Locke as it was for Hobbes, self-preservation is the primary motivator among human beings: “For the desire, strong desire of preserving his life and being, having been planted in (man) as a principle of action by God himself, reason, which was the voice of God in him, could not but teach him and assure him that, pursuing that natural inclination he had to preserve his being, he followed the will of his Maker…” Conduct which is directed towards self-preservation is not only in accord with reason, which is the law of nature, but it is the very definition of “reasonable behaviour” or of the animal rationale and is the will of God. For Locke, God’s will is scrutable. God’s favour is shown in the possession of property that leads to the life of comfortable self-preservation. We will not go into the connection between Locke’s “materialism” and labour and the new Protestant Christianity which was beginning to flourish in Europe at that time. Suffice it to say that Locke himself was an atheist, but his thinking found wide acceptance among those English-speaking Protestants. For Locke, freedom or individual liberty is necessary for the pursuit of acquisitiveness. Machiavelli’s discovery or invention of the need for an immoral or amoral substitute for morality becomes victorious in Locke’s discovery that that substitute is acquisitiveness. A totally selfish passion, whose satisfaction does not require the spilling of any blood and whose effect is the improvement of the lot of all provides the solution to the political problem by economic means. Machiavelli comes of age.

The two chief texts for understanding Locke are his An Essay Concerning Human Understanding and Two Treatises of Government. In his “Human Understanding” essay, Locke outlines his metaphysics; in the second treatise of the “Two Treatises”, he outlines his political philosophy which is founded upon those “metaphysics” and how the idea of money and property are related to those metaphysics. We will try to give an impertinent precis of some of the ideas contained in those writings here.

Locke begins the laying out of his “representational thinking” with the concept of the “idea”, something that exists in the mind which gives it the ability to perceive and think. He contrasts thinking with will or volition which are based on the appetites or instincts. Locke’s “ideas” are not to be confused with the ideas of Plato because, for Locke, the “ideas” only exist in the mind of the thinker/perceiver, the “beholder”, while the Platonic ideas are not the creations of human beings but have an existence of their own outside of human beings. Locke’s “ideas” are Descartes'”ideas”; having ideas and perception are the same thing i.e. human cognition and ideas are the same thing. Thinking follows from the existence of these ideas. The “object” of the thinking is that which the thought is about, and there is no thought without an object.

For Locke, our “experience” of life is key, for the human mind is a tabula rasa, a blank slate upon which any thing may be written, again informing us that human beings are infinitely malleable. Memory as a way of knowing, with the aid of language as a way of knowing, assists the mind in creating the visual contents that are stored in the memory. Real ideas “have a Foundation in Nature; have a Conformity with the real. Being, and Existence of Things, or with their Archetypes”. “Real ideas” are distinguished from “Fantasies” which have no real being. Real ideas perfectly represent those “Archetypes” while those that do not are considered “inadequate”. Truth and falsehood are not considered properties of the ideas themselves but exist only in the propositions or judgements that human beings make; they are the products of logic and reason. Real ideas are “simple ideas” and our ability to call an idea true is what gives it reality. The real ideas are the properties of things, those things that can be calculated mathematically and constantly produce the same results. The real ideas are mathematical entities or algebraic calculation based on logic’s steps.

Locke’s discussion of property combines the modern critique of ancient philosophy’s view of science and nature with the Judaeo-Christian view of nature (although the word “nature” and the concept of nature are not to be found in the Bible). Human beings are given the created world as an object to exploit by God i.e. nature is not perceived as a “garden” to be tended, but as a wasteland to be exploited, a wasteland that is “useless” without human endeavour to make it fulfill our needs. The original condition or “state of nature” was an abundance of almost worthless provisions, not an actual plenty, but made a potential plenty that becomes actual by human labour and invention through human ingenuity. Initially, human beings have this created world in “common”, and from it Locke elaborates how private property came into being.

Locke separates the fruits of the “common” from the common itself. While human beings have equal right to every part of what is “common”, every human being does not have a share of ownership of what is common. In the state of nature, there is no property: the only property that anyone has a right to is that of his own body and person and the labour and work that are produced from it. All other property is derived from this original property in the state of nature. Nature’s plenty was available to all. If someone wanted the fruits that you had gathered, that someone was after your labour not the fruits themselves. And they do not have any right to that labour, according to Locke.

The combination of what is common and what is private is dominated by what is private because it is “labour” that puts the “value” in everything and distinguishes the “worth” of some thing. Labour constitutes the entire value of the thing, and land without labour would scarcely be worth anything. It is labour that makes the land “one’s own”. Nature, for its part, without labour is worthless; it is Nature’s “use” to human beings that gives it its value.

The ready-to-hand oversupply that is Nature also contributes to its “worthlessness” as Locke arrives at a “supply/demand” notion of value. The state of nature is not one of actual plenty but only potential plenty. The poverty of the Native Peoples of America, which Locke alludes to in his writings, is their lack of labour, such as it is, in relation to the labour of Locke’s native England. Locke’s view of property and ‘civilized society’ and its contrast with the Native Peoples of North America was certainly a contributing factor that led to the genocide of the Native Peoples by the European settlers: they were considered “sub-human” because they lacked any European notion of “civilization” and could therefore be killed without any qualms.

In Locke’s view, a limiting of accumulation is required only in the case where there is a scarcity of goods. There cannot be “natural property” in the state of nature if there is a scarcity of goods. In this scarcity, the right to property becomes the “might” of the holder to retain that property. Natural scarcity or “spoiling” of perishable goods can be altered only by a change in the prevailing conditions or the natural order of things. Agriculture is the beginning of this change. Land in nature is “waste land”. From these beginnings, money came into being according to Locke because it was made of metal and not perishable. Through the invention of money human beings solved the problems of perishability and scarcity. Money came into being before civil society.

It was money or “capital” that made possible the owning of large tracts of land. Locke shows the origins of private property and justifies the inequality of possessions: “…it is plain that men have agreed to a disproportionate and unequal possession of the earth, they having, by a tacit and voluntary consent, found a way how a man may fairly possess more land than he himself can use the product of…” (italics added). This is done through the invention of money and through the agreement of its use. This is, of course, unfair. Locke’s solution is increase. 

In his Two Treatises, Locke solves the problem of increase. Human beings by their labour, invention and arts (i.e. through the applications of technology) make “increase” possible and thereby solve the problem of scarcity and perishability found in the original natural condition; but they make the original condition of nature impossible to continue. They are driven to civil society for the protection of their property. The possessions of the “industrious and rational” must be protected from the “fancy or covetousness of the quarrelsome and contentious”. Locke’s theory of property and increase is the foundation for his theories of society and government and its structures and became the foundations of the American Constitution. The protection of the rights to property became the 2nd Amendment to that Constitution.

From these initial seeds we can see how “empiricism” and “materialism” began to find its form in English thinking. The “essence of materialism” does not consist in the assertion that everything is simply matter but in a metaphysical assertion and determination where every thing or being appears as the material of labour. The modern metaphysical essence of labour as it was stated by the German philosopher Hegel is the “self-establishing process of unconditioned production, or the objectivization of the actual through human beings’ definition and understanding of themselves as “subjectivity”. The essence of materialism is hidden in the essence of technology. Technology as a way of knowing rests in the manner in which it makes things become manifest or appear, and their appearance or presence is that of object. We shall follow the thread of this thinking through the work of the English philosopher David Hume.

Suggested Readings

Locke, John Second Treatise

David Hume

David Hume (1711-1776)

David Hume (1711-1776) is best known as a skeptic and is considered the founder of what has come to be known as the “fact/value” distinction in The Human Sciences where rational judgements of “value” were not tenable as opposed to judgements of “fact” based on the “rationalism” of mathematical analysis. Hume stressed sense perception as a way of knowing where a “perception” is whatever is present to the mind; and nothing is present to the mind but its perceptions. Hume does not consider these perceptions as the products of reason.

Hume distinguished between two kinds of perceptions: the first are impressions of what is in our minds “when we hear, or see, or feel, or love, or hate, or desire, or will”; the second is ideas about what is in our minds, “when we reflect on a passion or an object which is not present”. The difference between the two is that impressions are much stronger and “lively” than ideas. All ideas are derived from impressions. “We can never think of anything which we have not seen (or in some way sensed) without us or felt in our own minds.”

According to Hume, we cannot have knowledge with full and absolute certainty concerning matters of fact and real existence, but only concerning “the relations of ideas”. The realm of necessity binds the imagination, the way of knowing of the realm of the “possible”. “Whatever is conceivable is possible”. We can only have knowledge of the world of ideas but not knowledge of the “world of realities” i.e. facts. For example, it is a fact that all that is mortal must die. Hume conceives of all matters of fact as parts of a system of universal necessity. There is a distinction between the realm of the possible and the realm of the necessary.

Hume asserts that all of our reasoning about matters of fact is based on the relation of the ideas of cause and effect, the principle of reason. Without our concept of causation we cannot go beyond our sense perception and memory of those sense perceptions as ways of knowing the things. Through the concept of causation we are able to infer the existence of objects and occurrences beyond our experience: “probability” rests in causation. Hume’s most famous example of his critique of causation is of a billiard ball moving across a table and striking another. We conclude from “experience” that the second ball will be set in motion. But a problem is present: how can we learn from experience the very principle that makes it possible to learn from experience? The answer for Hume: reason and experience are “forms of habit”. These habits or judgements are formed in the imagination and strengthened by belief as a way of knowing. They feel different from ideas that one does not believe in. It is the belief that gives to us what we conceive our notion of reality to be. It would take nothing less than Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and his discussion of synthetic judgements a priori as possible and necessary to overcome Hume’s radical skepticism regarding reason’s judgements.

From the billiard ball example, Hume contended that our notion of cause is purely an impression in the mind and nothing in the objects themselves; the necessity lies not in the objects but in ourselves. How does one, then, justify correct reasoning? How does one arrive at normative judgements or standards of judgement? Hume’s suggestions on reasoning at first appear to be the foundation of false reasoning and prejudices; many examples could be used to support this with regard to bias, racism, etc. where one makes judgements regarding things or human beings based on the “experiences” they have had in the past, or one might look to the current “alternative facts” movement present among those who perceive themselves on the political right. But, contrary to these examples, Hume says that the “rules of logic” are stronger than those established by habit or “experience” since these habits and experiences are based on emotions or sentiments. Hume’s metaphysics is intended to explain not only the “reasoning” of animals, but also to justify the science of Newton. But how can this be done with simply habit and emotion? To put it another way, Hume uses the principle of reason to critique that principle and this gives rise to many contradictions in his thought.

Our ways of knowing construct relations of ideas through inductive reasoning and inference between our understanding of the objects that exist outside ourselves, but these relations are driven by our own necessities and are not necessities in the objects themselves. Hume challenges what has been traditionally known as the “correspondence theory of truth”. We shall see in Part II how Kant responded to this challenge.

Hume’s critique of reason as a way of knowing is extrapolated to his critique of morality: good and evil, virtue and vice. Good and evil are not relations or “matters of fact”. They are not objects of the understanding, and because of this, the sense of morality does not help us in understanding and discovering what they are.  The objects about us are calculable in terms of their presence in time and space and are “matters of fact”. Through making comparisons (identity and difference) or what the Greeks called “diaeretic knowledge”, the relations between the objects themselves could be discovered in order to establish inferences of “matters of fact”, something you will be attempting to do in your Exhibition. For Hume, reason is an instrument, a tool of the passions: “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them”. Reason cannot teach us what we ought to do or should do; it can only make predictions through calculations about what the outcomes will be if we do do it. Morality itself cannot be found out through reason.

Hume sees morality as what we are “forced” to do and this “forcibleness” is determinable through reason and its calculations. But reason is unable to determine whether this “force” is “fitting” or “virtuous”.  For Hume, the human imagination is the ground of science and human emotions; likes and dislikes are made the ground of morality. Virtue is virtue because it is approved, either individually or collectively; there is no virtue in itself i.e. there is no “good in itself”. 

For Hume, emotion provides us with a moral sense; virtue and vice are not discovered by reason. The ‘fact’ is that we feel in our hearts that something is good or bad, but these are not objects accessible to reason. “Morality is felt, not judged of”–to paraphrase Hume. Good and bad are discovered by emotion and are constituted by emotion. Virtue is virtue because it is approved. By being approved, it is a “value”. It is so because it is habitually united in the imagination. “To have a sense of virtue is nothing but to feel a satisfaction of a particular kind…” Morality is rooted in pleasure and pain: the “good” is identified with the pleasant, the “bad” is associated with the painful.

In requiring that morality be related to the passions or emotions, Hume is following Locke and Hobbes. Hume differs from Hobbes and Locke in that they both asserted that “self-interest” was the dominant passion; and the greatest self-interest is security from violent death i.e. survival. Hume felt that this exaggerated the power of reason. Hobbes, for example, finds that self-preservation or fear of death is the strongest, most fundamental of passions. Virtue was obedience to the laws of nature which are the dictates of reason for avoiding death and preserving life. Locke finds the best solution to the fear of death in the unlimited acquisition of “property” i.e. food, energy. Hume contends that the passions provide no incontrovertible axiom to reason and, hence, reason can furnish no authoritative guidance to conduct. The standards of moral judgements are not “dictates of reason” derived from the passions; they are themselves “passions” i.e. moral sentiments or feelings. For Hume, morals are matters of taste, but there are right and wrong tastes.

For Hume, morality is determined and distinguished by sentiment or feeling based on the experience of pleasure or pain: an action is virtuous or vicious, considered good or evil whether it results in pleasure or pain. Since we can never be mistaken about what gives us pleasure or pain, moral judgements are “perfectly infallible”. However, our sentiments vary according to our situations and our feelings may be quite different from others faced with the same situation. 

But how do judgements about “matters of fact” stand on different grounds than those regarding the passions? For Hume, reason gives knowledge concerning truth and falsehood and this differs from taste which is the source of moral sentiments. Reason “discovers objects as they really stand in nature, without addition and diminution”, whereas taste “has a productive faculty and gilding or staining all natural objects with the colors, borrowed from internal sentiment, [which] raises in a manner a new creation”. The standard of reason is “eternal and inflexible” whereas the standard of taste arises from the “frame and constitution of animals” or is instinctual. But as Hume recognizes, if “morality is more properly felt than judged of”, in the same way “all probable reasoning is nothing but a species of sensation. ‘Tis not solely in poetry and music we must follow our taste and sentiment”, but in the experimental sciences as well. Virtue and vice are not matters of fact, or rather they are internal matters of fact i.e. our tastes of moral approval or disapproval. But the same is true of the connection between cause and effect. “Objects have no discovererable connection together…” The causal relation is nothing in the object but something in the mind. 

Hume recognizes the contradictions that his thinking faces here for to salvage causal reasoning and logic, he must distinguish it from fantasy and prejudice. He must also do the same to distinguish “correct taste” in morality from “incorrect taste”.

The “state of nature” is for Hume a fiction of the philosophers. Because human beings are the “needing” beings and weak, only in society can their wants and needs be met, including those which society itself engenders. Hume sees sexuality and families giving rise to societies; social problems are engendered from this, however. Human beings love “their own” more than others in their communities. The scarcity and instability of external goods which are of insufficient quantity to satisfy everyone’s needs and desires produce the chief impediment to society: the “insatiable, perpetual, universal” desire of acquiring possessions for ourselves and those near to us. The other passions are necessarily restrained and are not so disruptive to social order, but human greed is a difficult nut to crack. Vanity, for example, is not so difficult as it is a social passion and “a bond of union among men”. (Think of our modern social media here.)

The passionate drive for the acquisition of goods cannot be controlled by our natural moral sentiments: it, rather, reinforces these sentiments. An artifice constructed by reason is necessary: “…a convention entered into by all the members of the society to bestow stability on the possession of those external goods, and leave everyone in the peaceable enjoyment of what he may acquire by his fortune and industry.” According to Hume this is the first law of Nature: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s goods”. The origins of capitalism and greed in the thinking of Locke and others are found to have a strange compatibility with the new Protestant Christianity emerging simultaneously in Europe and this has contributed to our propensity “to want to have it both ways” i.e. morally and politically.

The ideas of justice and injustice, human beings’ relations to and with each other, arise from the recognition of the common sense of common interests. This is a gradual, habitual process and the ideas of property, rights and obligations come from this recognition. The fundamental purpose of justice is the stability of property. The question of who owns what requires the transfer of property by consent. This is Hume’s second law and it is quite in keeping with the notion of a “progress” in the moral improvement of human beings through the individual’s being in a society i.e. the need to honour contracts or promises.

His third law of nature extends the obligation of promises or the rule of contracts, the penalty for the breaking of which is “mistrust” so it is in one’s self-interest to honour them. (Think of concern for “the brand” here).But why is justice a virtue and injustice a vice? The answer is that we recognize that justice is beneficial to society. We may not always act justly ourselves, but when we see the injustice of others we feel that we will suffer the consequences of their actions. The sentiment of “moral blame” teaches us to regard justice as honourable and to care for our reputations. The establishment of justice is based on self-interest and the moral sentiments against injustice are based on “a sympathy with the public interest”. It is government’s purpose to administer justice in the protection of property and the enforcement of contracts. 

Obedience to the government and the observance of the rules of justice are “artificial virtues” as distinguished from “natural virtues”. The “natural virtues” are those to which human beings are impelled and compelled by instinct or natural impulse. If left unchecked, these will lead to all kinds of social problems. The “artificial virtues” are those created by human beings after some thought and reflection. The “artificial virtues” are the product of reason and they arise out of human beings’ situations. Since reason is as much of human beings’ nature as the passions, Hume speaks of them as “laws of nature”. The “artificial virtues” are not contrary to the passions but are only so to their “heedless and impetuous movement”. The passions are better satisfied by being controlled and directed. 

In the creation of political institutions, “every man must be supposed a knave” in seeking their own self-interest. The “good will” of rulers is to be relied on for the security of property and liberty i.e. a reliance on chance. Hume felt that “the world is still too young” for it to be fully known what human nature is capable of or what the effects of changes in “education, customs or principles” will be brought about. Hume sees the aim of political society as the ordering of the ends that are served by the natural actions of the passions without excessive reliance on “extraordinary goodness” i.e. chance. As he says: “All plans of governments which suppose a great reformation in the manners of mankind are plainly imaginary”. Human beings, in their “badness”, may not be as malleable as first thought. 

Every government is founded on opinion. For Hume, “custom” or habit is what preserves governments. Hume is “conservative” in that he believes the “oldest is best” and will get better as it is refined in time. He thus represents the “conservative” side of the “age of progress”.

Suggested Readings

Hume, David Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Secs. 2,3,4,5,6,7

Hume, David Treatise of Human Nature. Bk. III, parts i and ii.

Hume, David Essays. V.Of the Origin of Government”, IV “Of the First Principles of Government”, XII “Of the Original Contract”, XVI “Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth”.

 Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832)

Bentham is known for his principle of “utilitarianism”. In his work An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, he writes: “Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure.” The Utilitarianism Principle places its emphasis on what human nature is understood to be actually rather than potentially, and what human beings are everywhere rather than what human beings are under changing circumstances and conditions in which varying groups may find themselves. Pain and pleasure not only determine the psychological causes behind human beings’ ethical actions, they also provide the basis for what human beings ought to do.

Since human beings are motivated by pain and pleasure, Bentham writes: “By the principle of utility is meant that principle which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever, according to the tendency which it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question.” Bentham’s principle applies to all actions of human beings: those actions are right which promote the happiness of those concerned (pleasure) and wrong which promote unhappiness. In politics, those actions are right which further the happiness of the community and wrong which further the unhappiness of the community. The community itself is a fictitious body composed of individuals; the interest of the community is the sum of interests of the individuals who compose it. Since the purpose of government is the happiness of those who compose it, this is the only end that legislators should have in view.

Bentham classifies the sources of pleasure and pain into four categories: 1. physical (from nature); 2. political; 3. moral or popular (from public opinion); 4. religious. Bentham uses a calculus of pleasure and pain: pleasures and pains are all homogeneous and thus comparable and measurable in terms of their intensity, duration, certainty or uncertainty, the numbers affected by them, etc. This system, this calculus, gives the legislator (and the individual) a technique for determining the best course of action in terms of the utility-value of alternative choices. Bentham believed that human psychology is identical in human beings under all conditions and at all times.

Like Hume, Bentham believed that the state of nature and the social contract were fictions and unnecessary. Bentham agrees with Hume in seeing the so-called “state of nature” as family groupings. This he called “natural society”. The second stage was “political society” where the habit of obedience was acquired. The “social contract” is a fiction because fictions are no longer necessary as the basis of rights and obligations. The promises made between the governors and the governed are that the governors promise to promote happiness and the governed promise to obey. Bentham further agrees with Hume in that the answer to the political question is the principle of utility. Once this is recognized, the social contract is superfluous. We can appeal to the principle of utility to justify the rights and obligations of kings and subjects. The social contract does not help solve practical problems whereas the principle of utility does, or so Bentham thought. It was left to John Stuart Mill to resolve some of the contentions which the Utilitarians brought about.

Suggested Readings

Bentham, Jeremy. A Fragment on Government. Chaps. i, ii. Bentham, Jeremy. An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation Chaps. i-iv

JS Mill.jpg

  John Stuart Mill (1806-1875)

Mill was a utilitarian following in the footsteps of his father, James Mill. Attacks against the Utilitarians (and therefore his father) were based on a criticism of their approach to politics being grounded in the pleasure/pain principle of political philosophy and political action using the deductive approach i.e. from the general to the particular. The utilitarians deduced their principles from simple laws of human nature i.e. psychological axioms. These “psychological axioms” were a priori.

In his Science of Logic, Mill distinguishes between three types of deduction: direct, concrete and inverse. The “inverse deduction method” is what could be termed the “Historical” method. The procedure is to develop empirical laws of society on the basis of induction and then to “verify” those laws by deducing them from the a priori laws of human nature. Mill attempts to bring “human progress” within the scope of science. Social conditions which constantly change must be made compatible with History: the data of the changes for legislative proposals and the historical method when considering the effects of particular proposals on the progress of society to the next stage. 

Mill must be taken seriously because his thinking was the most popular at that moment when Britain had achieved its peak as an empire resulting in his thinking influencing, in some fashion, all English-speaking peoples throughout the globe. Mill’s thinking continues on today in the very IB program of which TOK is a part, and this influence should become clear as we proceed. Because of British imperial success at the time of Mill’s writing, the view of which societies were “civilized” and which were not led to some of the most crass and shameful remarks that we English-speakers today blush to recount. On a much more serious note, it also led to the genocides of a number of those “less civilized” peoples of which the Native Peoples of North America are but one example.

Mill’s philosophy of History was strongly influenced by the French philosopher Rousseau and his subsequent followers. Mill believed in the possibility and desirability of social progress, but not in its inevitability. Human beings, as we know from History, are capable of moving from barbarism to civilization, and this “progress” takes different forms and occurs at various speeds in different societies. There is a “rational order” to human progress and by the proper use of the historical method we can determine the stages through which any society must pass in its progress. This philosophy of history is understood as the as the philosophy of the progress of society and is basic for the practical science of politics. 

Mill’s theory is somewhat satisfactory if we are looking from the point of view of more advanced societies on lesser advanced societies. But what is the next stage for the advanced civilized societies? Mill attempts to fill the gap in a deductive fashion from a theory of human nature and a theory of ethics i.e. the ontological determines the ethical. 

Mill is not clear on what is the cause of social progress. He believes that progress is produced by the ideas, the examples, and the moral and intellectual leadership of superior individuals. He notes that superior individuals flourish under conditions of liberty, so liberty becomes a necessary condition for progress. The novelty required for the development of the sciences and the technological society requires liberty, freedom. The signs of civilization for Mill were the existence of responsible government and the emergence of scientific knowledge (technology). Progress was tied to the continued development of science (technology), particularly social science since he believed the natural sciences were on the verge of becoming complete. This is, of course, not the only error in thought which Mill made. He knew that further progress remained to be achieved and this could be done through a social science which aided political thinking. Scientific (technological) progress would promote equality, but equality carried too far would interfere with justice or what was due to those of intellectual and moral excellence who are responsible for progress overall.

Mill’s philosophy of history required a revision of the ethical theory of utilitarianism as it applied to politics. The pleasure/pain principle was inadequate, Mill felt, because it did not distinguish between lesser and superior pleasures. The idea of the utilitarians that pleasures and pains were homogeneous was not correct. Mill felt that the pleasures of the mind and intellect were superior to mere physical pleasures (this coming from a man who, some claim, remained a virgin throughout his life). Mill, as an empiricist, needed to claim that moral principles could not be known a priori and that the fundamental principle of morality could only be known through experience. But by wanting at the same time both the teaching about higher and lower pleasures and his empiricism, he becomes inconsistent. His secularism is in direct conflict with his Protestant ethical recommendations, the ethics of the society of which he was a member. 

For Mill, the individual is prior to the state, but not the individual as he or she is, but rather the individual that they may become with a proper education in a well-organized society. Human being as the perfectly malleable animal has a great variety of possible potentials, and society should provide the conditions in which each person can develop his or her special talents and make them available to the community. This can be done by promoting “the active life” of individuals as citizens. Mill felt that this was morally superior to one of passive obedience to the commands of a ruling group whatever the morality and justice of those demands.

Mill believed that his essay On Liberty was his best work because it combined his philosophy of history with his theory of government. Mill’s belief in progress from lower to higher stages of civilization culminated in the emergence of representative democracy as the best regime at the final stage. This final stage regime might be defined as the disappearance of the opposition between the government and the governed for the government would represent the interests of the governed. Mill’s theory of liberty is not applicable to all governments and to all human beings but only to those where society has become more important than the state. Progress towards civilization requires curbs on individual liberty while progress within civilization requires the emancipation of the individual from those curbs.

Mill grounds his principle of liberty in his moral theory: the only thing of ultimate value is the happiness of individuals, and individuals can best achieve their happiness in a civilized society when they are left free to pursue their own interests with their own talents as these have come to be understood and developed by them under an adequate system of education. The civilized human being is one who acts on what he understands and who exerts every effort to understand. 

How can society progress towards this goal? The principle condition is self-restraint. It requires as a foundation that each individual, groups of individuals, the government, and the mass of people refrain from interfering with the thought, expression, and actions of any individual. This is the basic principle of liberty. As Mill states in the introductory chapter to his essay:

The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion. That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action
of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. 

What Mill is attempting to say is that while thought must be free, the freedom of actions of individuals (the ethics, if you like) must be limited for the safety and security of society. The individual belongs to herself and is subject to social control only for the purpose of preventing her from harming others. We can see that we have not gone far from Hobbes here, and in the society whose foundations are based on commerce, the inadequacy of these ethics is demonstrated in our daily news.

The public expression of one’s private thoughts fall into the category of action. Mill believes the expression of thoughts requires the same freedom as thought itself since thought and its expression are so closely linked. The claim to limit the right to freedom of expression, Mill thought, the claim to limit the expression of opinions, presupposes “infallibility” on the part of those making the claim; and so no one can presuppose the right to make the claim and suppress opinion. Mill’s view of discussion in society assumes a mature public carrying on its discussion in a restrained, civilized way. Actions must be limited in that they can cause harm to others. Mill thought that the mere expression of opinion was not an action, but depended on the contexts and situations in which it was expressed. We can forgive Mill in his thinking here since he did not live in the age of social media where expressions of opinion do cause harm to others. All discussion is “political” in the widest sense of that word. Mill returns to the Protestant ethos of his society when the applications of restrictions to some individual actions (such as gambling, polygamy, etc.) are necessary; however, in our technological age mass conformism is required for the “ordering and the gathering” that has become the individual’s and the state’s purpose for being.

The problem that we have with Mill is that he is inconsistent, something which is tolerable in a politician but not in a philosopher. If we take Mill’s philosophy as a whole, there is nowhere within it an answer to the question of why it is good for human beings to be just. Mill is part of a long tradition of English empiricism that affirms that a pleasant life in space and time is what matters. He affirms that justice is right, yet at the same time rejects that Protestant morality theoretically that is the bulwark of that morality and that justice. The morality or “values” proposed are straw men in the conflict against the avarice and greed that a-re the hallmarks of the society based on commerce.

Suggested Readings

Mill, John Stuart. On Liberty, in Utilitarianism, Liberty, and Representative Government.

Mill, John Stuart. Representative Government. Chaps. i-vii.

Concluding Remarks to Part I

In concluding this section on technology and The Human Sciences, we must make a distinction between “shared knowledge” and “personal knowledge”. By “shared knowledge” is meant the philosophic and scientific knowledge which we as individuals take over from former generations, or from others. By “personal knowledge” is meant the philosophic or scientific knowledge that a mature scholar acquires in her unbiased discussions with others in the various areas of knowledge after knowing the origins, horizons and presuppositions of those various domains. Preparation for proper “personal knowledge” is what TOK’s purpose is, what it is all about. On the basis of the belief in progress, this distinction between personal and shared knowledge loses its significance. When we speak of a “body of knowledge” or the results of research, we assign to them the same cognitive status i.e. that personal and shared knowledge are not much different from each other. One is entitled to the “infallibility” of one’s opinion since it is “one’s own” whether it is what one “thinks” or what one “feels”. 

A special kind of effort is required to transform shared knowledge into genuine knowledge and to be able to discriminate between the genuine and the spurious elements of what claims to be shared knowledge (CT 5). The evident “panic” that appears to be present in the new TOK Guidelines with regard to the current state of political and ethical affairs is evidence for this. But we may sum this up by saying that the god who sometimes wishes and sometimes does not wish to go by the name of Zeus demands payment in blood for the worship of false gods or, in other words, believing the Good to be the Necessary or that which it is not. Scholarship and research are not thought but the enemies of thought because they are used as a substitute for thought. But scholarship can act as a prompt or propaedeutic to thought and this is the primary intention of this blog.

In Part I we have attempted to give a very brief history of English-speaking philosophy focusing on the political thinking of that philosophy since political thinking is the height of The Human Sciences. In The Natural Sciences, Charles Darwin was the great “biological” scientist. Darwin’s fate was to be born English, and there is a strong connection between Darwin’s science and the philosophy of his fellow English-speakers. This is found in his belief in “progress”: that all adaptations and modifications tend towards the “better” and ultimately to “perfection”. This is their “fittedness”, their ability in bringing about survival or preservation from death.

In Part II we will look at the “Continental” philosophers. The great discoveries of modern physics in The Natural Sciences are those of Einstein and Heisenberg. Both are German. There are some silly people who would like to claim that Einstein was an American, but if he had been, we would not have “Einstein’s theory of relativity”. We would have had the theory of relativity by someone else, in all likelihood a German. American education (English-speaking shared knowledge) simply could not have produced an Einstein, and Einstein’s genius was not solely and merely an act of his own creative imagination.

In saying this we also need to point out that politically the experiences of the 20th century’s worst regimes i.e. communism and national socialism, were also the products and results of German political thought. The French political philosopher, Montesquieu, felt that Athens and England had given us the best political regimes, and he pointed out that the English had wisely substituted the pursuit of commerce for the pursuit of honour as the core of their political regimes, thus indicating the superiority of the modern regime to the ancient. He believed that the pursuit of commerce was the best foundation of a free political order. We have seen the inadequacy of the ethics and the “values” that emerge from such regimes based on commerce, and we are suffering through this inadequacy at the present time as the technological society totters towards its apogee.

As we watch the slow disintegration and view the contradictions (our desire to have it both ways) of current English-speaking regimes due to their “technological fate”, it remains good for us who are English-speaking to remember that liberal principles are the only political principles we’ve got, and their defense is our duty in these times. Technology itself does not wish to “have it both ways”; it is consistent in its ordering and gathering. Though our defense may seem futile in the face of the blossoming forth of the technological, the true task of thinking is to understand and persevere in the hope and the efforts that an alternative may be possible.


Author: theoryofknowledgeanalternativeapproach


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Theory of Knowledge: An Alternative Approach

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