In addition to the great work being done on Virtue Theory at the Pacific APA (the subject of the last Pacific APA post), there was also thought-provoking work being done on individual philosophers. While at the conference I attended sessions on two major Anglo-American thinkers: John Rawls and David Hume. Both sessions addressed misconceptions about each thinker, and discussed the right way to view them in the context of their time.
The first session was an author meets critics session on the book Radicalizing Rawls: Global Justice and the Foundations of International Law. The author, Gary Chartier, used the book to make the argument that there should be no priority to domestic law, as Rawls argues in Law of Peoples. Rather than run Rawls’ “original position” thought experiment twice (once for the domestic case and once for the international case), Chartier argues for a “Law of Persons” that covers everyone at the same time. Chartier goes on to argue for a libertarian, market-anarchism view that prescribes a global order without a state.
The critic for the session, David Reidy (the other critics unfortunately could not make it), began his critique by arguing that while he thinks Charter’s book to be valuable, he ultimately will not be joining Chartier in his market anarchism revolution. The key misunderstanding Reidy saw in Chartier’s work is that he doesn’t recognize how Rawls’ system is built on a foundation that requires community. Chartier’s argument for market anarchism ultimately rests on a foundation of natural rights, but for Rawls such individual rights, as well as individuals themselves, do not exist independently of the community. As Reidy put it, “you can’t be a person without the community.”
What this means is that Rawls’ system is about more than just defending individual rights, it is also about affirming mutual duties to each other. Society is about developing a system of what is reasonable, and that emerges in people gradually. There is a push for common good just as much as there is for individualism. In other words, individual rights are the outcome of reasonableness and do not preexist reasonableness’s development in society. The goal of market anarchy and a global order independent of a state can only exist if a community structure is already in place to help it develop, and that is going to require the very things that Chartier wants to get rid of.
In response to this critique, Chartier emphasized that there is an irreducible tension between individuals and communities. Chartier said Reidy’s critique is dependent upon the ability to see communities as moral persons, but we must recognize that any shared conception of the good is always going to trample over minority viewpoints and privilege those who already have power. The danger in emphasizing community as much as Reidy and Rawls do is that it will undermine dissent by preventing the development of concepts of what is good which run counter to the dominant conception of the good pushed by society.
The session on Hume looked at James Harris’s Hume: An Intellectual Biography. Unlike the session on Rawls, which focused on whether Rawls was right, this session focused on how Hume should be interpreted. The major claims made by Harris’s book which were critiqued were that Hume’s Treatise on Human Nature is logically consistent all the way through, that the Stoic Hutchinson was a big influence on Hume’s life.
The first speaker, John Wright, took the stance that the Treatise is not fully consistent. To prove this point he said that if you look closely at the different parts of Hume’s Treatise, you can see important logical differences between the ideas. For instance, Hume’s description of human nature is at times described as social, while at other times it is described as solipsistic. Similarly, in Book 1 of the Treatise Hume is skeptical about the existence of external objects, while in Book 2 Hume assumes them.
At the same time that Wright was critiquing Harris, he also praised Harris for pointing out that Hume did change his mind over time, and that this was a virtue. Hume was interested in raising uncomfortable questions for his time, and in not phrasing his questions in the form of polemics. Hume’s goal was understanding rather than rhetorical renown. It is this goal of understanding which let Hume change his views, even though it opened him to the claim of inconsistency. Hume preferred to grasp the truth than to win an argument.
The second critic, David Raynor, tracked the intellectual development of Hume to try to call into question Harris’s claim that the stoic Hutchinson had an important influence on Hume early in life. By delving into some of the details of Hume’s life, Raynor made the argument that some of Hume’s major ideas, such as the critique of causality, came much earlier in Hume’s life than Harris gives credit for. If it is the case that Hume was developing his radical skepticism as early as he was, then it is unlikely that Hume was ever interested in rehabilitating Stoicism, as Harris claims. The idea that Hume had this interest is the result of placing a stronger emphasis on the relationship between Mandeville and Hume than is justified.
Author James Harris responded to these claims in turn. With regard to Raynor’s claim, he said there was evidence that, early in life, Hume did philosophize like a stoic. In particular, Harris pointed to Hume’s letters expressing a sympathy with the ideas and aspirations of the Stoics. Hume might have been using the Stoics as a guide to emotional life at first, but this changed later. Harris admitted that Raynor’s interpretation is not disproven by the evidence, but rather that the evidence doesn’t admit for a conclusion at all, and that his book’s interpretation remains just as valid.
With regard to Wright’s criticism, Harris began by saying it would be odd if Hume’s Treatise were not internally coherent, as both books 1 and 2 were worked on extensively and published at the same time. The specific inconsistencies that Wright mentioned are not inconsistencies per se, but due to the fact that the discussions occur at different points in Hume’s argument. The question of human nature’s solipsism vs. sociality is not a contradiction so much as a recognition that you have to begin with the former to get to the latter. Human nature has both attributes, but you cannot reach conclusions about the sociality of human nature without beginning first with solipsism and moving outwards. Similarly, the question about external objects is a recognition that some discussions require that we not be skeptical of everything. Hume was not internally inconsistent, but aware that to begin to discuss the topics taken up in book 2 some ideas he was initially skeptical of must be assumed.
What I enjoyed most about each session was the discussion of each thinker’s intellectual background. While it did not come out in the presented papers at the Rawls session, the conversation that followed the papers delved into a discussion of what Rawls’ correspondence and personal writings had to say about the protests of the 60s, the other intellectuals of his day, and the goals he was trying to accomplish (stability was a big one). Just like Hume, the speakers at the Rawls session emphasized that Rawls spent great amounts of time thinking about how best to understand the world and communicate that understanding to those around him. I came away from both sessions with a stronger sense of how the discipline of philosophy developed, and how it can be put to good use advocating for a better world.