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Friday, May 12, 2017

The British Moralists: Introductory

In the many university philosophy courses I took in my time — undergraduate and graduate — there were interesting figures who, for whatever reason, got left out of the canon. I went through my entire education without hearing the names of Thomas Reid or the Earl of Shaftesbury uttered in class. These are two figures who ended up having an important influence on my thinking, but about whom I had to learn for myself. Regular readers of this blog will know that the latter was beyond influential for me; without exaggeration, I can say that he was life-changing. So it is perhaps understandable that I feel I was shortchanged when it comes to my formal philosophical education.

Now, Western philosophy has a 2,500-year-old history, so perhaps we can be charitable and accept that the neglect of certain figures is inevitable; not everybody can be fit into the curriculum. But it is also true that that curriculum is itself partly a product of the whims, fancies, and tenure-seeking aspirations of a given generation of professional philosophers. The teachers of my generation unfortunately seemed to have been obsessed with Rawls, Wittgenstein, and Hume. Most of Rawls is really just obvious stuff, pilfered from other disciplines, mixed with some over-processed Kant, and packaged in the fashionable liberalism of mid-20th century America. Wittgenstein truly was a genius, but that genius was sadly wasted on a narrow set of philosophical problems that seems to outsiders a bit lacking in real-world relevance. And Hume, well, as a philosopher he was presented to me stripped of all philosophical or historical context except for his relation to Berkeley and Locke. His moral philosophy especially was therefore distorted beyond all recognition, because the people teaching it had no familiarity with Shaftesbury, Butler, or Wollaston (nor with Fielding, Richardson, or Johnson, for that matter).

These three names — Shaftesbury, Butler, Wollaston — demonstrate that sometimes it is not just isolated figures but entire movements and traditions that get left off philosophy’s curriculum. This is less excusable. The extraordinary flowering of moral philosophy in Britain between, say, 1650 and 1800 to me deserves to be considered almost as important an achievement as that more famous eruption of philosophical activity that occurred in ancient Athens. Hume was a Johnny-come-lately to that flowering, and frankly of lesser importance when set in his place within the tradition. In terms of their influence on thought, on literature, and on the arts of the long 18th century, certainly Shaftesbury and Bernard Mandeville must be rated the more important moralists. And yet, neither of these latter names was ever heard in a philosophy course that I attended. Instead, we were stuffed to overflowing with Hobbes and Hume.

(Why? I'm not sure. Perhaps the deep scepticism and non-cognitivism of these two men accorded more with the temper of mid- to late 20th-century academic moral philosophy.)

It was not always thus. There was still much interest in this heterogeneous group of philosophical moralists when L. A. Selby-Bigge published his two-volume anthology British Moralists in 1897. By 1969 they were still of enough importance that a new two-volume collection was thought to be warranted, The British Moralists, 1650-1800, edited by D. D. Raphael. Since then, there have been occasional monographs published on the subject, most prominent of which perhaps is Stephen Darwall’s 1995 book The British Moralists and the Internal ‘Ought’: 1640-1740. However, Darwall’s is characteristic of many of these, at least of the ones written by philosophers, which tend to present these thinkers as modern philosophers, using modern philosophical concepts to engage in modern philosophical debates, and stripped of their close connections to the broader artistic and literary context of their times.

I have commonplace books full of notes on these British moralists, and I have decided that I would like to make some use of them in this blog. I shall therefore periodically profile some of these people under the label “British moralists”. I will not bother with such figures as Hobbes and Hume, since they are not neglected in the schools and stand in no need of resurrection; in any case, I have nothing to say about them that hasn’t been said already. Instead I will profile the unsung heroes, such as David Fordyce, John Brown, Richard Cumberland, and the Cambridge Platonists. In doing so, I hope to be able to show that I am not engaging in hyperbole when I compare this flowering of philosophy to that of ancient Athens. I also hope to demonstrate what philosophy may be when (i) it deigns to engage with the real world, and (ii) when it does so in elegant literary prose, for many of these philosophers were also writers of real merit.

If this topic bores you, I promise that these posts will be only occasional, and I envision them being fairly brief.

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