May 31, 2003

BALL OF CONFUSION, THAT'S WHAT THE WORLD IS TODAY, HEY, HEY

-REVIEW: of Hobbes, Locke, and Confusion's Masterpiece: An Examination of Seventeenth Century Philosophy by Ross Harrison (Duncan Ivison, Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews)
The title of the book is taken from Shakespeare's Macbeth, and Macduff's lament for the murder of King Duncan, the consequence of which is that "Confusion now have made his masterpiece!". For Harrison, Shakespeare's portrayal of the undermining of moral and political order provides a leitmotif for thinking about seventeenth century political philosophy in general. The greatest works of this century--here meaning those of Hobbes and Locke--emerged out of moral and political confusion. Religious disputes over the nature of belief and religious practice generated murderous civil and international conflict. Philosophical disputes, and especially the revival of ancient skepticism and newer forms of modern skepticism, sowed deep philosophical doubts about the possibility of knowledge, natural or otherwise. Older philosophical frameworks, such as Aristotelianism and Thomism, were found wanting, and philosophers struggled to find new arguments to arbitrate between various warring doctrines, or indeed to transcend them.

For Harrison, skepticism is the most pressing moral and political problem faced by seventeenth century philosophy, and especially by Hobbes and Locke. And the problem of skepticism infects "the most fundamental problem in political philosophy" - the problem of political obligation. At times Harrison seems to suggest these are still our problems, and that one way we gain insight into them is by seeing the various options for their resolution as presented by Hobbes, Locke, and Grotius, among others. We gain this kind of insight by taking the history of philosophy seriously, and especially the contexts within which moral and political arguments are formed. Not surprisingly, since these remain our problems, Hobbes emerges as the most clear-headed in this history since he seems most willing to bite the bullet when it comes to the clash between self-interest, politics and morality. We need politics (the commonwealth) to solve the moral problem, given his subjectivist account of what is good and bad and of moral judgment. In a lovely aside, Harrison tells us that at one point he contemplated calling the last chapter "What's the Use?" in order to "reflect more generally on the possibility of political philosophy and on the use for political philosophy of the historical philosophers I have been describing". His answer to this question is rather elusive, but I take it that it is Hobbes? insight about the need for politics to help solve our moral conflicts that Harrison is suggesting is the master stroke of the "new" natural law. This and the various attempts at refuting Hobbes' argument, such as Cumberland's, point to the "beginnings of the contractualist method" of discovering the good by discovering those things into which everyone would contract. Harrison even suggests that Locke gestures at something like it in his 1692 note "Ethica A". But in another much bleaker note written the following year (which Harrison doesn't cite), Locke suggests that without God and his divine law what we get is moral chaos. Harrison admits that Locke is only "waving" at something about which Hobbes is much clearer.

As it stands, the main claims of the book are hardly novel. The central focus on skepticism fits into a pattern of thinking about the history of the seventeenth century that has its roots in Kantian and post-Kantian philosophy, and which has been central to the work of historians of philosophy like Richard Popkin, amongst others. Richard Tuck and Knud Haakonssen have also argued recently at great length and with great skill that the political thought of the seventeenth century--especially that of Hobbes and Grotius--was profoundly shaped by the challenge of skepticism mounted by writers such as Montaigne and Charron. But what is interesting about the book, at least for me, is the way it tries to balance historical and philosophical approaches to these questions in a manner not often attempted in the existing literature. To over-generalize somewhat, historically minded scholars often provide beautiful reconstructions of the context of an argument or period, but avoid asking the kinds of philosophical questions that inevitably emerge as one reflects on the relation between arguments then and now. On the other hand, and much more frequently, contemporary philosophers tend to wrench early modern arguments out of context altogether, and criticize or put them to work in modern guise without any hesitation whatsoever. Harrison tries to strike a balance between these two extremes, and it provides an interesting background for the work as a whole. [...]

Now Harrison argues that political philosophy has essentially three tasks. First, the task of explanation, that is, "promoting understanding of political aspects of our (social) world". Second, the "task of justification . . . we want to know why or whether we should have it, or in what way", and in this sense political philosophy is a normative subject, "a part of applied ethics". Third, it must explain motivation, that is, why people are or could be motivated to "produce" the desired outcomes or institutions. These various aspects can come apart and combine in various ways, as Harrison shows very nicely with regard to both Hobbes and Locke. But the crucial task for political philosophy is justification--in fact, the need for justification is entailed by the confusion caused by skepticism, and the responses by Hobbes and Locke are "masterpieces of justification". The structure of justification that Harrison presupposes goes something like this. Rationally binding norms are either self-grounding, on the basis of some account of self-interest, moral realism, or a conception of man as a rational self-governing being, or they bind in virtue of the superior wisdom and/or power of God.

It is the failure to find a "self-grounding" justification that has left us with only two alternatives: either morality must be grounded in God or else all behavior must be regulated by the State (this is regulation rather than morality precisely because it proceeds from the abandonment of the attempt to find justification). The main differences among the several nations of the West seem to be a function of how far along the path from Godish morality to Statism they find themselves, with America having proceeded the shortest distance and therefore being the most free of State control. Posted by Orrin Judd at May 31, 2003 6:44 AM
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