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A Wittgensteinian Answer to the “Problem” of Induction: Why the Scare Quotes are Merited

January 11th, 2009 Comments off

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A standard Wittgensteinian response to philosophical problems is that they are reducible to mere linguistic puzzles. Since the origins of the so-called problem of induction lie in David Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature (1740), we might naively expect an inimical view to Hume from a Wittgensteinian standpoint. However, given Hume’s general spirit of philosophy elsewhere, Hume’s empiricism, from the Wittgensteinian standpoint, is at least very robust and sensible. So much ground is shared between these two grand thinkers, that to criticize Hume for his shortcomings is to be unfairly anachronistic toward the first philosopher to truly shatter the grandiose illusions of traditional philosophy. Further, these illusions were the very same ones which Wittgenstein would later come and elegantly but almost perplexingly smash further. Yet, not only must we afford Hume respect and credit for his ideas relative his place in time, as we often do with other philosophical giants, but we must still contend with his ideas in a very real sense in the present. In fact, the ground we will share here with Hume is indeed so great that an effective critique of Hume on any epistemic issue—like problem of induction—does not come easily, and we can only accomplish it with careful precision. –more–>The problem of induction can be characterized as having two sides: the epistemological problem, which is how to distinguish between good and bad inductive methods, and the metaphysical problem, which is how to altogether distinguish between good and bad inductions. [1] On the Wittgensteinian view put forward here, we will offer agreement with Hume’s response to the epistemological problem. However, the epistemological response is only possible when predicated upon some idea of a good induction—before we can determine reliability, which is a tabulation of frequency of “successes,” we must first determine what we mean by “success. ” Fundamentally, the question of good and bad inductions is what underlies the real crux of an attack on induction: in most cases, how we might traditionally define truth (particularly in a realist fashion) is going to lead to a susceptibility of our inductions to skeptical objection. Indeed, some have been inclined to, in accepting Hume’s arguments on induction, concede that the metaphysical problem of induction is insoluble. [2] Given their criteria for truth and falsehood, this is not surprising.

First, by investigating the terms used in Hume’s argument—particularly “necessity”—we will show how the argument against induction must presuppose induction to succeed. Then, by clarifying our picture of truth, we will argue that the metaphysical problem is in one sense irrelevant to our own position, but show a sense in which we do account for how good inductions are separated from bad inductions. Before proceeding into our arguments, however, we must explain Hume’s arguments against induction.

Hume on the Problem of Induction[3]

In Book I, Part III of the Treatise of Human Nature (1740), Hume formulated what would come to be known as the problem of induction so commandingly—especially for his time—that the problem is also accordingly named “Hume’s Problem. ” While the contemporary terminology of induction does not enter his discussion, Hume’s primary concern in Part III was with notions of causality and causal inference.

Because we have no impression of the relation of causation, Hume seeks to alternatively couch causation in terms of human thought, and hence defines a “cause” like so: “An object precedent and contiguous to another, and where all the objects resembling the former are plac’d in like relations of precedency and contiguity to those objects that resemble the latter. ” He provides several definitions in the course of his work, but this adequately characterizes his general notion of causation.

Hume distinguishes causal belief from causal inference, the latter of which is only the anticipation of similar conjunctions between a precedent and some state from past conjunctions when the precedent is observed. Causal beliefs, on the other hand, are of the form “[Precedent] X causes Y,” which comes about from reflection on causal inferences. Hume’s framing of the problem of induction, implicitly through his discussion about causation, then, is as follows: in trying to find an account for good or reliable inductions, if we take the statement “all past experiences of X have also been Y” to be a statement of causation, then adding “t is X” to it should yield the good induction “t, not yet observed, is also Y. ” However, since causality is not an objective feature of the world, this is not a possibility. The Humean problem, then, is to adjudicate among inductive habits in the absence of any objective distinction like causality, broken down into the epistemological and metaphysical parts described in the introduction. Broadly speaking, Hume’s point is that judgments about future or otherwise unknown instances are problematic, because such judgments are neither a report of an experience, nor a logical consequence of prior experience. This leaves an uncertain space in which we have multiple means of making those judgments that yield different results, but must find a way of choosing the best one (the epistemological problem). Further, we must define “best” in this context (the metaphysical problem).

Some have suggested that Hume has set induction up for failure by making induction far too stringent in suggesting that it proceeds from the premises “All observed Fs have also been Gs” and “a is an F” to the conclusion “a, not yet observed, is also a G. ” Instead, they contend that the proper conclusion is “it is therefore probable that a, not yet observed, is also a G. ”[4] Hume’s response is simple enough: probabilistic connections are no different from causal connections in that they are not to be found in our experience of the world, but they depend on habits of the mind. Thus, while we can complicate matters more by incorporating probability, the same problem remains.

Generally, Hume puts forward the following dilemma to demonstrate the impossibility of justifying any sort of induction. Given that any justification must be either deductive or inductive, deductive conclusions (which are necessarily true) can not justify inductive conclusions (which are never necessarily true). On the other horn of the dilemma, inductive justification of induction would be circular, since it uses the very principle it sets out to defend. Thus, it is clear that by this reasoning, induction is unjustifiable.

Hume qualifies this conclusion by saying that we may review our inferences and reflect upon their reliability, forming a hierarchy of meta-level inductions—specifically, a chain of inductions about inductions about inductions and so on. Reflecting on these inductions in sequence progressively increases our uncertainty ad infinitum, leading Hume to ask how we “retain a degree of belief, which is sufficient for our purpose, either in philosophy or in common life? [5] Hume’s answer, in short, is to propose two general epistemic rule types: those that lead us to singular predictive inferences (in other words, our basic inductive methodology), and those that we apply as corrective or qualificatory measures toward the products of rules of the first type. The former could be described as some system of sorting out confirming and disconfirming instances, and the establishment of a threshold of evidence at which we accept or reject an inference.

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A Wittgensteinian Answer to the “Problem” of Induction: Why the Scare Quotes are Merited (Part 2)

January 11th, 2009 Comments off

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This could also be framed probabilistically (e. g. Bayesian induction). The latter type of rule would form some system of delimiting the precise significance of an inference given its evidence; for example, it might show us in what ways an inference may be falsified, and thus the level of certainty with which we should treat a particular proposition.

The Non-Problem of Induction

A Wittgensteinian response to any philosophical “problem” can be described as a reduction of the problem to a linguistic puzzle, and a subsequent resolution of that puzzle. In short, a linguistic puzzle is a seemingly insoluble contradiction that can be successfully rectified by clarifying the definitions of the terms in use. Once the definitions have been clarified, the next stage is to determine whether the conclusion (whose terms have also been clarified) still follows from the premises, and whether the premises are true. Once this has been done, a problem should have been shown to be merely confusion. This methodology is most strongly associated with Wittgenstein’s most significant work, Philosophical Investigations. [6]

Given this background, we can now freely address the problem of induction. To show how the problem of induction can be reduced to a linguistic puzzle, we will first return to a simplified formulation of it: no inductive conclusions necessarily follow from their premises, because we have no justification for believing that the unobserved will be like the observed once we observe it (a generalization of “the future will be like the past. ”) The justificatory problem of induction, put in simple terms by Hume, states it similarly: the definite outcomes of deduction can not justify the indefinite outcomes of induction, and induction can not justify induction without circularity. Thus, we are not justified in believing the conclusion of an inductive argument.

Now, to prove that this is merely a linguistic puzzle, we have to show how clarifying our terms in this argument will dissipate the problem, whether in showing some self-contradictory aspect of the argument, showing that the conclusion that follows from those definitions is unimportant to us, showing that the desired conclusion of the argument does not follow from the premises, etc. By an “unimportant conclusion,” we only mean that all further implications of that conclusion do not constitute anything that merits addressing or reparation. In other words, the conclusion made to have followed from the premises is not a philosophical problem requiring a solution on our part, but just some proposition that conforms to its premises. Our criteria for importance is not simply soundness, as there are many sound arguments that are not of philosophical concern to us. Thus, it is certainly the case that if we define “justification for a belief” as “immunity to the logical possibility of subsequent falsifying events,” we could easily concoct an argument from skeptical premises that (properly) concludes that we are not “justified” in believing any proposition because we have not immunized it from subsequent falsifying events. But, as we will see, this conclusion sounds important because it uses a word which is usually of epistemic importance (justification), but is in fact unimportant because it fails to have any implications worth considering.

We can apply this method to the problem of induction by first investigating the employment of the idea of necessity in the argument against induction. Asserting that there is no necessary connection between matters of fact is not incorrect, given a particular meaning of the word “necessary”—namely, where “necessity” implies conformity to the rules of deductive reasoning. Given that induction has been identified as non-deductive because of the “unfounded” assumption that the future will be like the past, then we can conclude that there is no “necessary” connection between inductive arguments and their conclusions. Asserting that this poses some sort of epistemic problem is a mistake, however. In other words, clarifying the definitions as we have, this conclusion follows from the premises, but it does not tell us anything important. The sense in which we mean “necessary” to establish this conclusion is much connected to the sense in which we used “justified” above: it produces a conclusion that sounds scary because of what we associate with the words in it, but can only establish its conclusion by redefining those words in a way that makes the conclusion ineffective.

Naturally, a defender of induction would be impelled to ask “why is the assumption that the future will be like the past unfounded? ”; but note that we are returning to the justificatory dilemma once again. In the dilemma, Hume has ruled out induction justifying induction, on the basis that it is a circular argument. But Hume must find circular arguments unacceptable for some reason: specifically, because of deductive logic. We know from this that the only way to “justify” anything, as the word is used in the argument, is to find a deductive argument for it. So it is evident that understanding the exact implications of accepting the notion of necessity as it arises in deductive logic as our standard for justifiability will help us understand why the conclusion that there is no “necessary” connection between inductive arguments and their conclusions is not important. In fact, we will now show how using deductive logic as a standard of justifiability (in this context) renders the argument against induction useless.

Much like the concept of infinitude, the concept of necessity has no direct referent in our sense experience. Because we have implicitly rejected an a priori account for it, we can only say that the notion of necessity is an effect of our repeat experiences and interactions with the world which represents an effective certitude with which we expect some association to hold. We say that by necessity, the sun rising in the east is associated with morning, but this is an expression of an effective certainty than a certainty so as to assert our omniscience; we simply have little incentive to mention the remaining logical possibility that the sun might not rise in the east. Hume’s account of necessity is the same:

Upon this head I repeat what I have often had occasion to observe, that as we have no idea, that is not deriv’d from an impression, we must find some impression, that gives rise to this idea of necessity, if we assert we have really such an idea. In order to this I consider, in what objects necessity is commonly suppos’d to lie; and finding that it is always ascrib’d to causes and effects, I turn my eye to two objects suppos’d to be plac’d in that relation; and examine them in all the situations, of which they are susceptible. I immediately perceive, that they are contiguous in time and place, and that the object we call cause precedes the other we call effect. In no one instance can I go any farther, nor is it possible for me to discover any third relation betwixt these objects. I therefore enlarge my view to comprehend several instances; where I find like objects always existing in like relations of contiguity and succession.

Clearly, Hume adheres to our view that the epistemic origins of an idea must reside in sense-experiences (“impressions”). Though he was speaking about causal necessity in this passage, his reasoning ensures that he accepts that our idea of deductive logic is also the consequence of a series of impressions.

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A Wittgensteinian Answer to the “Problem” of Induction: Why the Scare Quotes are Merited (Part 3)

January 11th, 2009 Comments off

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So, given that, we have actually gone ahead and strengthened Hume’s justificatory dilemma by turning it into just a lemma: the option of justifying induction deductively is nonsensical for reasons that prevent us from even admitting it into our discussion. To justify using deduction, we must first justify induction.

Hence, the conclusion of the argument that constitutes the problem of induction, that we are not “justified” in believing the conclusion of inductive arguments, is itself dependent on an inductive argument. Here, we have reached the skeptical error of externalizing logic, which creates arguments more paradoxical than unimportant on this account. If the logical possibility that things could be some other way than we believe them is used to undermine all of our beliefs, then no beliefs undermined in this way can be believed while constructing logical possibilities. But the construction of logical possibilities is only possible given the inductive process that creates our idea of necessity. Further, we cannot sensibly falsify (or take any other action standing outside of) logic, since we can not describe what a non-logical world would look like. [7] Yet this is precisely what, by implication, skepticism requires by questioning our foundations for logic, which are the very experiences and thus inferences from experience that they challenge.

Because Hume does not want to make extra-sensory assertions at all, he is then also committed to holding to this account for the very logical principles he uses to criticize inductive statements. Thus, we have established that the argument attempting to establish that induction is problematic implicitly must assert what it intends to disprove. By showing how we can not use deductive necessity as a criteria for justification (at the epistemic level), we have eliminated the standard by which induction is considered to be problematic. More generally, we have implied that some coordination of repeat sense impressions is the only means we have of generating any criteria of justification. And we can properly call such coordination “induction,” as it is indeed in what “the problem of induction” purports to show defect. By this, we have shown how the general argument against induction fails.

More clarification of the unproblematic nature of induction is still worthwhile, nonetheless. For one, we are still pressed with the question of importance of skeptical arguments such as the argument against induction, as suggested earlier. If the lack of necessity of inductive conclusions prevents us from attaining omniscience—an immunity of our theories to subsequent falsifying events—and can validly offer no prescriptive changes in our behavior, there seems to be no value in pointing it out. It is part of the unavoidable limits of our world. We can label this state as our being “unjustified” in believing inductive conclusions, but what have we changed by doing so? We could easily say a belief is unjustifiable when it does not reduce its conclusions to the properties of cheese. We must ask, “Unjustified relative to what? ” The word must be put in some context to have any implications. Saying that we are “unjustified” because we can not look beyond the limits of our world—a precise lack of context—can not have any condemning epistemic implications, for the simple reason that there is no prescription that could ever conceivably change it! To speak meaningfully about “justification,” then, we must affix it to some sensory phenomena to which we can appeal to differentiate among the justified and the unjustified. In this regard, there is still a sense in which we have “justification”; in Humean terms, that sense is predicated on the notion that some inductions are more reliable than others.

Finding out how to distinguish the reliability of different inductive methods is the epistemological component of the problem of induction. More or less, Hume’s response to this part of the problem works quite well: Hume’s intuition that induction about induction begins to yield how we separate good inductive habits from bad ones is straightforward enough. We look at different inductive methods applied over time, and see how often each method produced a good induction. From this, we discern the reliability of different methods.

It is in reference to the so-called metaphysical problem of induction that we can offer more clarity regarding the validity of induction. Certainly, the metaphysical problem, if unanswered, leaves the epistemological problem insoluble as well: after all, we do need some account for what is a “good” versus “bad” induction in order to determine which inductive methods are more reliable than others. Yet, having tossed out criteria for “good” and “bad” such as “corresponding with the external world,” the answer is quite simple: there is no metaphysical problem because there is no metaphysics (at least in the relevant sense).

One posing the metaphysical problem might ask: if we only have sense experiences, what is there that could possibly provide objectivity? Indeed, what reason do we have to sort and organize different experiences to form theories? Without constraints, our sense experiences are simply floating variables from which we could construct an infinite amount of different theories with no difference in consequence. Thus, just as a 2-variable equation has infinite solutions until another equation constrains it, so too does what is “true” have infinite solutions until we affix some constraint to our interpretations. In short, our interpretation of sensory phenomena only has implications when those phenomena arise to some degree outside of our will, and we have particular goals for those phenomena. We have particular desires to bring about certain things in our sense experiences, but we can not simply will these things to come about. We wish to taste something sweet, but no amount of willing a taste of sweetness into our mouths gets us that. Ultimately, this lies against a background of what we understand to be necessary for accomplishing our goals (life) and what we understand to be the end of all accomplishment (death). Simply put, our “metaphysics” is one of life versus death.

That we can not merely will certain things to occur is a basis for objectivity in interpreting our sense experiences; our acceptance of mortality is what gives us the motive to take one interpretation over all and call it “truth,” even if only by the actions we take. 14th-century explorers had two competing views of the earth, one saying it was flat, one saying it was round. Without fear of death or fear of a voyage done for nothing (both objective constraints), this debate would have been meaningless. After all, there are infinite logical possibilities as to why a flat-earth theory might still prevail over a round-earth. But that explorers found new lands and, after sailing in one direction long enough, wound up in the same place, and have acted on the principle of “circumnavigation” successfully up until the present, has compelled people to accept a round-earth theory over a flat one. People who have acted on this principle, other things equal, have achieved the goals they set out, and they and others will continue to act on that principle. In this sense, people have accepted the round-earth theory as truth; it was a “good” induction.

Thus, good inductions are separated from bad ones on the basis of how successfully they inform our goal-directed actions, where success is measured by the presence of a desired sense experience.

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A Wittgensteinian Answer to the “Problem” of Induction: Why the Scare Quotes are Merited (Part 4)

January 11th, 2009 Comments off

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By our having thrown out realism, the only case of error that can even be meaningfully considered is where some theory posited based on sense experiences is later falsified by a subsequent sense experience. On our view, this is no longer a problem with induction, of course. It is merely a case in which a particular induction has been identified as “bad” through induction.

Undoubtedly, we can be continually pressed to justify each successive answer we have given. Why shouldn’t we doubt mortality, or anything else foundational to the above discussion? Certainly, there is a point at which we can no longer give any justification, yet it is the very point from which we get our notion of justification. We do superficially agree with the skeptic that such foundational propositions lie beyond any empirical verification, but this is only because our notion of empirical verification is solely derived from these kinds of propositions. At some point, we must reach bedrock: certain beliefs “underlie all questions and thinking. ”[8] Even if we imagined the most hard-core doubter telling us that we have “no reason” to believe the “biological myth” of death, he could not be using anything but human-contextual concepts in, say, appealing to our self-interest through telling us that what we believe is false and that we ought to change it. In that way, doubt is only possible with knowledge, so an all-encompassing, ‘hyperbolic’ doubt is clearly nonsensical; in even thinking of that doubt, much more communicating that doubt, we are invariably asserting things that we know.

In addition to questioning the logical feasibility of Hume’s general argument against induction, we have now also supplemented it with an answer to the fundamental question of how we separate good inductions from bad inductions. Most importantly, we have shown how a careful examination of the terms at play in the argument against induction demonstrates how it relies on a contrived sense of necessity as a criterion for justification and improperly treats this idea of necessity as standing independently of induction. In this, we showed how induction is, in fact, the basis of all criteria in evaluating the justification of our beliefs. Then, in addressing the metaphysical problem, we showed how meaningful criteria are generated against a back-drop of goal-oriented action.

With this answer to the supposed problem of induction in hand, we have a kind of argument which, when generalized, defeats skeptical arguments against empiricism. By reducing our criteria for the truth or falsehood of a proposition to its relation to strictly sensory phenomena, we have removed the possibility of skeptical error, and brought the concept of error within the boundaries of the senses: we can only be mistaken in a sense that is relative to other sense experiences. Hume, imaginably, would have appreciated this, as he did not desire to be a thoroughgoing skeptic; he only wished to fight off philosophical phantoms, much like Wittgenstein did. Again, like Wittgenstein, he sought a rational basis for our norms of speech and action, but found the answers of philosophers to be mystical and woefully deficient. Indeed, he did not see a convincing means of showing how we could justifiably believe in induction, and retreated to a seemingly resigned position of “custom and habit. ” Our goal here, as was Wittgenstein’s goal, was to show how we are justified in believing in our senses, and thus induction—without resignation.


[1] Vickers, John, “The Problem of Induction”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed. forthcoming URL <http://plato. stanford. edu/archives/win2008/entries/induction-problem/>.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid. This exposition of Hume’s account of the problem is paraphrased from this source.

[4] Ibid. section 2: “Hume”

[5] Ibid. section 7: “Hume’s Dilemma Revisited”

[6] The Wikipedia entry on Philosophical Investigations explains Wittgenstein’s approach well, at http://en. wikipedia. org/wiki/Philosophical_Investigations#Method_and_presentation

[7] Tractatus, 3. 031

[8] On Certainty pp. 415.

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The Primacy of Concepts in Belief Systems: How Concept-to-Instance Reasoning Contradicts the Empirical

November 1st, 2008 No comments

Imagine the famous scene in the 1973 movie American Graffiti involving mischievous persons attaching the rear axle of a stationary police car via steel cable to a post, an accomplice speeding by, and the intent police officer pulling away in pursuit only to find the car jerked into the air and its rear axle pulled away from under it. With that in mind, now imagine there were two very science-focused vandals intent on wreaking havoc upon police property. One postulates to the other, “Remember American Graffiti? We could attach that police car’s rear axle to a pole; then the car will be immobilized like in the movie, and then the police will look embarrassingly bad in front of everyone!”

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Categories: Epistemology, Ideology, Language, Metaphysics Tags:

Social Necessity without Metaphysical Necessity: Why Mythology and Religion Interest us, but Shouldn’t

August 24th, 2008 2 comments

In the relationship of mankind to nature, there is absolutely no place in it for religion or mythology, just as there is no place for any other false metaphysical statements. As one of my favorite quotes goes (best uttered in a booming voice): “Nature, to be commanded, MUST BE OBEYED.” It turns out that the world has issued us no commands for us to obey relating to worship or ritual, as evidenced by the fact that nature is just so bafflingly indifferent to our commands in dances, sacrifices, very focused thoughts with clasped hands, shuffling processions, and organized flames in front of an idol. Yet lots of people, even those free of myth’s delusions, spend an inordinate amount of time discussing it with great intellectual furor. Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens are two of many scholars who have made a fortune crusading against Christ. Why? What could the intense study of imaginative, but false stories offer? We can certainly watch the Star Wars films, play its games, and read it books. That’s plenty fun. But are there thousands of Star Wars scholars engaged in constant debate? Put aside the forum geeks for a moment, and focus solely on those in the respected intellectual institutions of society: how many people care about the force, Death Stars, and X-wings?

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Categories: Ideology, Metaphysics, religion Tags:

Summary and Critique of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract

April 1st, 2008 Comments off

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At the foundation of modern moral justifications for the establishment of a coercive state is the voluntarization of that coercive power – in other words, the implication that obedience to governments is in some way chosen and thus morally binding. The philosophical construct that has come to embody this approach is described by the term “social contract. ” Though the works of important philosophers like Hobbes and Locke employed a version of the social contract, the work which came to inhabit and popularize the phrase was Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s influential 1762 treatise, Du Contrait Social (“The Social Contract”). –more–>Summary (where not specified, statements are written in the voice of Rousseau)

In Book I, Rousseau begins his exploration of politics by pondering the source of the legitimacy of political authority. He rejects that its source is found in nature, because such a position implies the inherent natural superiority of the rulers over the ruled, though the superiority that may exist is only sustained by force. In turn, he argues that force is not the basis for legitimacy either: the idea that “might makes right” is nonsensical because it can not imply that the less strong “ought” to follow the stronger, since who is stronger is always determined by who triumphs. There would be no political authority since those who can do, will do. Instead, legitimate political authority is based on a kind of “social contract” created between society’s members. Unlike the argument of Grotius, which proposed a kind of covenant between king and people based on “a right to slavery,” one’s freedom can never be surrendered in a fair exchange. Furthermore once freedom is surrendered, then all rights are forfeited which eliminate any demand for something in return.

Why should such a contract ever be necessary? In short, there comes a point in the state of nature at which society must be formed in order for mankind to survive. The social contract’s purpose is to resolve the problem of how to bind people to each other without infringing upon their freedom, and it does this by requiring the unconditional surrender of the individual’s freedom to the whole community. The important implications of this definition are that the contract will impose the same conditions for all, creating no interest for one person making the conditions difficult for others; there will be no rights that remain that stand in opposition to the state, because the contract is formed unconditionally; and finally, because each person enters the contract on equal terms, no person loses their natural freedom. The ultimate reduction of the social contract can be described thus: “Each of us puts his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will, and, in our corporate capacity, we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole. ”[1] The new entity, the whole, that is formed as a result of this contract comes to be known as the “Republic” or “body politic,” or, depending on the context, the State, the Sovereign, or the Power. Those who formed the contract come to be collectively known as the people; when sharing in the sovereign power, citizens; and in being under the laws of the state, subjects. The contrast between nature and civil society is important here: though in joining the contract we lose the physical freedom to act upon our personal appetites, we gain liberty via the limitations of reason and the general will being placed upon our behaviors.

In book II, Rousseau’s conception of the state begins with the idea that society functions in correspondence to the interests that people hold in common. Hence, the ultimate end of any state is “the common good. ” Acting on the general will expressed by the Sovereign is the only way to achieve this common good. Incidentally, the general will can never coincide with a particular will.

The expression of the general will ultimately takes the shape of law. Law must be made by the people as a whole (i. e. made by the sovereign) and applicable to the whole. But how can the people, especially a large number of them, jointly create a set of laws? Rousseau proposes the lawgiver: an intelligent and selfless individual who will create laws in an unbiased fashion, who lies outside the authority of the Sovereign. However, Rousseau himself admits that “Gods would be needed to give men laws. ” Furthermore, what will compel people to follow the laws? Besides textbook coercion, such as the death penalty for those who break the law and thus break the social contract, Rousseau suggests that an appeal to the supernatural origins of laws (much as Moses claimed that the Ten Commandments were given by God) is one way of convincing men to follow them.

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Summary and Critique of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract (Part 2)

April 1st, 2008 Comments off

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The end of Book II consists of Rousseau’s exploration of the kinds of circumstances under which law is most effectively made, specifically in reference to the people for whom the law is to be made, and the nature of those laws. For example, he explains that states are ideally small-to-medium-sized: small enough to be effectively manageable, but large enough so as not to be overrun by neighboring states. The creation and implementation of laws must be timed perfectly, as a people may not yet be ready to be guided, or may have become prejudiced and resistant to the positive changes brought about by good laws. Also, the state in which laws are being established must be in a condition of at least relative peace and plenty, because of the temporary vulnerability and instability caused by a period of laws being implemented.

The goal of any system of law is reducible to two ends: liberty and equality. Here (chapter 11), equality is understood to mean not the complete absence of differences in wealth, but the absence of such differences that would damage the balance of citizens in the state: “but that power shall never be great enough for violence, and shall always be exercised by virtue of rank and law; and that, in respect of riches, no citizen shall ever be wealthy enough to buy another, and none poor enough to be forced to sell himself. ” Overall, the general criteria for how laws ought to be made depend on circumstances that differ from people to people and place to place.

At the beginning of Book III, Rousseau explains the executive powers of government in terms of will and strength:

Every free action is produced by the concurrence of two causes; one moral, i. e. the will which determines the act; the other physical, i. e. the power which executes it… The body politic has the same motive powers; here too force and will are distinguished, will under the name of legislative power and force under that of executive power. [2]

The government is, importantly, to be distinguished from the Sovereign; in fact, confusion of the two is dangerous. The government deals with particulars (decrees) while the sovereign deals with the general (laws). Somewhat similar to the contract in Hobbes, the government itself is not a party to the social contract; somewhat different from Hobbes, this is because the government is an intermediary body that is created by the general will and can be freely disbanded by the general will.

As to possible forms of government, there are three primary kinds: democracy, when all or almost all the citizens are magistrates; aristocracy, where less than half are magistrates; and monarchy, where few or one are magistrates. However, there is not one universally superior form of government. In the previous chapter, Rousseau notes that the larger the population of a state, the fewer magistrates there should be. Hence, large states are best suited to monarchy, medium to aristocracy, and small to democracy. Though he personally preferred democracy, Rousseau expresses ambivalence toward democracy as well as monarchy. While he explains his concerns about monarchy’s dangerous efficiency and potential for corruption, he also claims, “there has never been a true democracy, and there never will be. ” Only small states with simple and unambitious citizens could remain stable under democratic rule. Overall, though simpler forms of government are preferable to Rousseau, he suggests that mixing forms of government may dissipate the powers of the government relative to the Sovereign.

The Sovereign can maintain itself by meeting in periodic assemblies. Though an impractical demand on the face of it, ancient cities such as Rome managed to do it to some degree. The assemblies are critical because within them, all citizens are as powerful as the magistrates. Because of this, the government may take actions to dissuade such assemblies, which over time may erode the freedom and authority of the Sovereign. At this juncture, Rousseau makes sure to point out that sovereignty can not be represented: “…The moment a people allows itself to be represented, it is no longer free: it no longer exists. ”

As part of a set of entailments of the general will, the latter half of Book IV expresses some specific ideas Rousseau has about the state. In some cases, dictatorship is necessary to avert the collapse the state, though the dictator does not represent the people or the laws; the dictator only acts in accordance with the general will so long as the avoiding the collapse of the state is in it.

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Summary and Critique of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract (Part 3)

April 1st, 2008 Comments off

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The establishment of a censor’s office is also put forward, as the vanguard of public opinion. Because public opinion is connected to public morality and virtue, and those are connected to law, the censor’s office upholds the laws by influencing public opinion. Finally, Rousseau recommends that people be free to pursue religion as they please so long as it does not conflict with public interest, but also recommends that they be required to adhere to a civil religion with essential qualities: belief in the existence of a just god, belief in the afterlife, faith in the sanctity of the social contract and its laws, and emphasis on tolerance to reduce civil strife.

Critique

The most obvious problem in Rousseau’s argument is the mostly unaddressed question of how the general will is to be determined. In a world with no gods and only men, there is no ultimate and authoritative arbiter of truth and justice. Evidence may stand on one side, but there is no guarantee of an impartial and fair supreme force that binds persons to the correct judgment. This is a phenomenon that applies to all things, even the physically tangible and empirically observable. When it comes to something very abstract and complex like the general will, the problem is amplified further as evidence one could possibly appeal to for his position is necessarily indirect and intuitive at best (see: epistemic critique), lending greater power to those of stronger expressive faculty. [3] Of course, that the determination of physical fact or right and wrong is subject to this uncertainty is not an objection, since this can be leveled against any theory. However, what is questionable is the insistence that every person must be subjected to a violence-backed decision making process that may often not agree with their own judgments. If this poses a problem, there is really no way out: Rousseau makes it clear that The Social Contract is not there merely as a suggestion for those who accept it; it is intended to be a factual and categorical description of human nature and the good society. Thus, even if we accept the general will as real, the question is still left open as to whether the general will is best achieved by organizing society into government as outlined in The Social Contract.

Another development of interest in this particular work is that Rousseau insists on a sharp distinction between nature and civil society, holding that the latter is not part of the former and is instead “artificially” created. This is essentially connected with his notion that “this [the social contract’s] act of association creates a moral and collective body composed of as many members as the assembly contains voters, and receiving from this act its unity, its common identity, its life, and its will. ” In other words, Rousseau makes the metaphysical claim that the Sovereign forms a whole greater than the sum of its parts, essential to the idea that the state can not only solve problems that individuals could not possibly solve voluntarily amongst themselves, but that there is a goodness which always supersedes the good of the individual. “Artifice” enters the equation here: once society organizes along the lines of the social contract, civil society becomes possible where it was not possible before. This is critical to Rousseau’s argument, because it is the means by which the individual is given an ethical demand to consent to the social contract and all its entailments, or, conversely, the means by which force is ethically justified against the individual.

Problems with the Social Contract as a Moral Obligation

Without this metaphysical and meta-ethical foundation, Rousseau’s argument would be a non-sequitur the moment he leaps to the conclusion that one has a rational obligation to participate in forming the social contract. The social contract’s “resolution” of the problem of binding human beings together is suspect: Rousseau holds that the freedom of individual human beings is maintained by entering them into a contract on equal terms that imposes “equal” conditions on them. However, this is only so because of Rousseau’s definition of freedom, which downplays freedom of action in nature as largely meaningless due to unenforceability, reflecting the somewhat Hobbesian notion that such freedom is trivial compared to civil liberty, which is the guarantee of lesser freedoms always being protected by the community. More importantly, Rousseau places a great deal of significance upon his idea of moral liberty, which is the freedom from one’s appetites attained by obedience to “self-prescribed” laws.

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Summary and Critique of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract (Part 4)

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Certain questions must be asked: is joining in the social contract a necessity for moral liberty? Are equal terms and conditions in the letter equal for every individual? Does a man who is self-sufficient and who produces a surplus always stand to gain by entering into an obligation which can often require sacrificing a disproportionate amount of his property on behalf of others? What about someone who produces art or otherwise expresses himself in a way that would result in his censoring under the general will? Rousseau seems to presuppose a set of “right” values with relation to virtue, one’s opinions, etc. There is nothing wrong with this in itself, of course, but this certainly presses Rousseau to provide us with a convincing account of these values which holds as objective. The argument here rests on the validity of his answer.

Epistemic Critique

These objections are virtually trivial in comparison to the most critical problem with Rousseau’s work and works of a similar breed. Generally, they envision the existence of things which lie beyond empirical observation and meaningful rational analysis: in the case of Plato, it was the forms; with Hitler, it was the goodness of the Fatherland and the intrinsic deservingness of the Aryan race; in Rousseau’s case, it is the general will. In testing these theories, we can only observe a world in which people act as though those things exist, and another in which they do not, and then compare results. Yet by what standard do we gauge these results? For what are we exactly testing? For The Social Contract, we can not gauge it by pragmatic standards, because doing so would not be in accordance with Rousseau’s true theory, which states that the good is the general will. Yet we can never directly experience a form, magical Aryan goodness, or the general will. Lacking any epistemological reason to accept that such a thing as the general will exists, we have no other reason to accept it except, perhaps, as a “noble myth” which serves some other end (order, respect for tradition, etc.

The Dangers of Rousseau

Put in a historical context, Rousseau’s ideas can be said to be responsible for much bloodshed. On one hand, it may not seem fair to say that Rousseau himself was directly to blame for the brutality that ensued in the name of his or at least a mockup of his ideas. However, personal blame is not the thrust of the criticism of Rousseau’s ideas whose ideological cousins often result in death and destruction nor is it at all important. If not specifically attributable to Rousseau, many ideas similar to his have been at the root of acts of violence around the world, whether in the form of civil war between factions, or the more subtle “civil war” of members of the state against its citizens. When an analytic light is shined upon the work of Rousseau and similar works, that this occurred is not surprising.

When goodness is placed outside the realm of the empirical and the rational – as when the concepts of state, the people, etc. are made primary, ignoring the instances from which they were derived – the currency upon which morality trades becomes spiritual and intrinsic, generating similar phenomena to those of religious beliefs: martyrdom, persecution, atrocity, or otherwise a climate of self-proclaimed just violence. In such a situation, the nature of goodness is not accessible to everyone, but only to the “enlightened”: the philosopher kings, the popes and bishops, or the politicians. There is no scientific reason to believe that these human beings have a sixth sense that gives them greater access to such knowledge, yet they are perceived to have it. What phenomenon is capable of explaining how biologically similar human beings can be elevated to separate moral categories in people’s minds when there is no evidence to believe that it is the case? There is one lying in plain view which has pervaded most instances of human conflict, especially of this kind: the exercise of power. Rousseau’s theory lends itself to such a world; for this assertion we have not only the immediate evidence from the French Revolution and its many succeeding Republics, but the indirect evidence of the millions of lives ended by collectivism.

Instinctively, one may object that Rousseau believed that every person composing the Sovereign must play a role in the determination of the general will. Still, so long as there are both disagreement and forceful commitment of all participants to the decision ultimately rendered, the problem persists.

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