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Jean-Jacques Rousseau – Creative genius on the edge

Graeme Garrard traces the origin of the Counte...

Rousseau (Photo: Wikipedia)

Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-78) was a French speaking political writer and educator born in Geneva, Switzerland.

After taking various odd jobs this self-taught intellectual moved to Paris in 1741, meeting up with Denis Diderot and the Encyclopedists.

A kind of romantic naturalism pervades much of his work, which many equate with the idea of the “noble savage.”

Many see the noble savage as one who rejects stultifying conventions and religious promises of an afterlife in favor of spontaneous desire and worldly affections.

But this is another myth that students of Rousseau say does not apply to his work. In reference to Rousseau’s belief in stages of human development, Wikipedia notes:

Rousseau believed that the savage stage was not the first stage of human development, but the third stage. Rousseau held that this third savage stage of human societal development was an optimum, between the extreme of the state of brute animals and animal-like “ape-men” on the one hand and the extreme of decadent civilized life on the other. This has led some critics to attribute to Rousseau the invention of the idea of the noble savage, which Arthur Lovejoy conclusively showed misrepresents Rousseau’s thought.¹

Voltaire & Rousseau

Voltaire & Rousseau by Anne via Flickr

In 1754 Rousseau wrote Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality Amongst Men, outlining an apparently innate sense of freedom and perfectibility in human beings, in contrast to the corrupting powers of institutions.

In Luxembourg from 1757-1762 he wrote The Social Contract, which had a significant bearing on the French revolution, as exemplified by Rousseau’s cry for ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.’ The Social Contract produced the famous line, “man is born free, but everywhere is in chains.” This work remains a cornerstone in modern political theory, but has roots in ancient Greece and Rome.

In 1762 Rousseau published the novel, Emile. Its critique of the monarchy and government bureaucracy got him into hot water with the authorities. To avoid arrest he retreated to Switzerland, ultimately to end up in England with the support of the philosopher David Hume.

Rousseau later wrote his Confessions and returned to Paris in 1767, ignoring the threat of an outstanding arrest warrant. He continued to write but became hypersensitive to perceived threats. Some of these threats may have been real and others exaggerated. For instance, he believed that Hume was conspiring against him, which may have been partly true. And Voltaire accused him of burning down the theater at Geneva in 1768.²

Devon Hollahan – Paranoid android via Flickr

Some say that Rousseau was paranoid during this period. But I prefer to think of him as confusing actual and perceived threats.

When people are threatened, possibly traumatized and lied to, and all they have is their intuition to guide them, it’s hardly surprising that they make interpretive mistakes. They sense the bad vibes from others, which are real. But unless they train themselves to treat every perceived threat as a hypothesis instead of a fact, they could become overwhelmed and see some non-threats as threats.³

Rousseau also took some heat for his views on religion, which challenged both Catholic and Calvinist teachings. Rousseau was a precursor to those Romantics who see God in natural creation and society as something other and potentially corrupting. He rejected the belief in original sin and was upset that his views gained much criticism while the religious authorities were indifferent to the atheistic philosophers of the day.4

Related » Enlightenment

The house where Rousseau was born at number 40, Grand-Rue. – Wikipedia


² Ibid. Hume had offered to filter and forward Rousseau’s more important incoming mail, to which Rousseau agreed. But there is some evidence that Hume also read Rousseau’s outgoing mail, which was not agreed upon. This only goes to show that creeps who somehow think they’re justified in violating personal privacy – just because they can – have been around for a very long time. It’s not something unique to the cyber age.

³ Of course, it’s not easy to support or reject these hypotheses because some threatening people are pathological liars and polished fakers. As for those generating the bad vibes, I believe God will deal with them – fairly – in good time.

4 This situation has been tentatively explained by the sociological “in-group / out-group” theory. According the theory, people in an in-group feel more threatened or irritated by an out-group when the out-group shares some but not all of the in-group’s views and practices. So for example, some Americans and Canadians look down on and insult one another because inhabitants share some but not all elements with the other country. But neither Americans nor Canadians become emotionally invested or insulting toward peaceful, faraway lands that are fundamentally different. Most just couldn’t care less. It’s the partial similarity that stirs up discontent between in-groups and out-groups.

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Reductio ad absurdum – An old school way of saying “take the flipside” or “take it to the limit”

Image via Wikipedia

Image via Wikipedia

Reductio ad absurdum [Latin: “reduce to the absurd”] is a method of argumentation said to

  • prove a statement to be true by demonstrating the contradiction, absurdity and therefore impossibility that would result if it were untrue


  • prove a statement to be false by taking its assertions and implications to their logical endpoint

Example for the first type of reductio ad absurdum

English: Queen Christina of Sweden (left) and ...

Queen Christina of Sweden (left) and René Descartes (right). Detail from René Descartes i samtal med Sveriges drottning, Kristina. Pierre Louis Dumesnil. Museo nacional de Versailles. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Consider the French philosopher René Descartes famous line, I think, therefore I am.

And its falsification: I think, therefore I am not.

Here one can ask: If a person thinks that she or he does not exist, who is doing the thinking?

By falsifying the original statement, the ensuing absurdity apparently proves the original statement to be true.

The depth psychologist Carl Jung uses a form of reductio ad absurdum to try to refute the Buddhist notion of no-self; that is, the Buddhist idea that individuality is an illusion. Jung asks: Who experiences the bliss of Nirvana if no self is present to experience it?

This might seem clever and amusing but Buddhists could reply that the center of consciousness merely shifts from illusory individualism to actual totality.¹

Example for the second type of reductio ad absurdum

Crime Time

Crime Time (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Consider the argument, sometimes heard today, that it’s okay to do crime because everyone is a sinner and the whole world is corrupt.

If one takes that to its logical conclusion we get:

It’s not okay to do crime because if the whole world didn’t resist sin, corruption and crime we’d have violent, lawless chaos.

¹ This stance is not accepted by those who believe that individual souls have a relationship with the godhead.

Related » Anatman, Theism

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Dialectical Materialism – It sounds like “diabolical” but it’s not quite that bad

A portrait of Karl Marx.

A portrait of Karl Marx. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Dialectical Materialism is a school of thought which emerged from Karl Marx‘s theory of history. Marx is said to have turned the Hegelian dialectic on its head. That is, Hegel envisioned the world as spirit unfolding in matter and, by implication, human relations and history.

Marx, on the other hand, did not believe in God nor spirit and saw history as unfolding due to internal tensions within the material, social and conceptual world.  These tensions have often been simplified into a dialectical process. Just how this dialectical process takes shape has been variously discussed by different Marxist commentators.

Like Marx, much of our common understanding of Hegel comes through secondary writers who interpret the original works—sometimes from translations, sometimes not. So we often hear that Hegel believed in a “thesis” and “antithesis” which precede a greater “synthesis.” But apparently Hegel never used these exact terms. Not systematically, anyhow. So this simplification (or handy schema) mostly comes from writers interested in Hegel but not from Hegel himself.

Similarly with Marx, writers like G. A. Cohen make his theory seem quite rational and conceptually ordered. The problem is, other writers interpret Marx differently, so we have to look at Marx’s actual writings to find out what he really meant. I sincerely tried to study Marx with several of his works but found them to be heavy and laborious (which is a nice way of saying “boring”), so must limit myself to talking about people talking about Marx.

If you need proof that a plethora of interpretations of Marx can be found, just follow these links:¹

Michel Foucault

Michel Foucault (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I personally don’t find Marx interesting enough to spend hours trying to pretend I am an expert on him when I’m not. It seems to me that writers like Michel Foucault just smash his clunky arguments. And I don’t really see much point in turning back.

In fairness to Marx, he apparently was a good family man, had a creative sense of humor and really cared about social injustice. I am sure his intentions were good. But any analysis without treating God as an agent will, in my view, fall short. And this applies to both Marx and Foucault.

¹ Thanks to the wonderful, customizable MultiSearch for K-Meleon Browser. I just discovered this and plan to use it to dig up as much stuff as possible for!

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Auguste Comte

Auguste Comte (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sociology is usually defined in terms of the scientific or systematic study of society, two notions that postmodern – and just serious – thinkers today openly question. In fact, a recent check at Wikipedia reveals that the word “academic” has been highlighted.¹ So we could say that sociology is the “academic” study of social institutions, tendencies, and how they fit together. But I think this also falls short because it tends to give a potentially undeserved legitimacy to sociology and sociologists, when really, it’s not always right to do so.

Many sociologists stress empirical methods but, on closer examination, the validity of these methods are usually open to debate and sometimes downright bogus. Others dive deep into their books, stressing that they want to do “content” studies instead of empirical work or theory. This is fine, but it’s hardly anything different than what any serious book lover would do. Just because a person gets a paycheck and retirement income for being a sociologist,  it doesn’t necessarily follow that their thinking is rational, integrated or helpful to society.

Another branch of sociology looks at what is called “theory;” that is, some kind of “critical,” “postmodern” and more recently, “digi-performative” or “digi-modern” theory. To be critical in the theoretical sense doesn’t necessarily mean to cut everything down. Ideally, it means to try to look at things behind their face value. To question, examine, in some cases intuit,² and to think. However, some academic, communist-leaning ideologues try to push their special agendas—but only as far, of course, as they can without losing their (big fat Capitalist) paychecks.

Modern Type & Sociology Books by liikennevalo

Modern Type & Sociology Books by liikennevalo

The sociologist Peter Berger was a pioneer in the theoretical approach to knowledge. Along with Thomas Luckmann , Berger contributed to a groundbreaking book called “The Social Construction of Reality” (1966). This has been hailed as one of the most important books in the Sociology of Knowledge. Before that, Berger wrote “Invitation to Sociology” (1963) which was still being used in universities when I did my undergrad in the 1980s. Berger argues for a multiplicity of perspectives and suggests that being a sociologist necessitates standing “outside,” to some degree, from the taken for granted truth claims within one’s culture. It’s like being an historian of the present.

An example of this idea would be questioning the latest dogmas about climate change. Now that Pope Francis is on board with that agenda, even more people will probably unquestioningly accept it. But that’s not doing sociology. It’s just mindlessly following the crowd.³

Historically, the term sociology is usually said to have been coined by Auguste Comte (1798-1857). But many others were thinking sociologically – examining social trends and truth claims – well before his time. In the New Testament story, we hear Pontius Pilate say “what is truth” (John 18:38) And this idea is elaborated on in the rock opera, Jesus Christ Superstar (1973):

Bronze prutah minted by Pontius Pilate. Revers...

Bronze prutah minted by Pontius Pilate. Reverse: Greek letters TIBEPIOY KAICAPOC (Tiberius Emperor) and date LIS (year 16 = AD 29/30) surrounding simpulum (libation ladle). Obverse: Greek letters IOYLIA KAICAPOC (Julia, i.e. Livia, the Emperor’s (mother)), three bound heads of barley, the outer two heads drooping. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Pontius Pilate: Then you are a king.
Jesus: It’s you that say I am. I look for truth, and find that I get damned.
Pontius Pilate: And what is ‘truth’? Is truth unchanging law? We both have truths. Are mine the same as yours? 4

Also, the ancient Greeks Plato and Aristotle, along with the ancient Chinese thinker, Confucius, asked what could be seen as essentially sociological questions.

¹ Always changing with the weather, Wikipedia provides good coverage of the main players in what is now understood as sociology »

² A leading figure here is Michael Polanyi »

³ See, for instance,


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Voltaire fought intolerance and fanaticism, an...

Voltaire fought intolerance and fanaticism, and was a prominent and very prolific philosopher of the Enlightenment. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Voltaire (1694-1778) was a psuedonym of French satirist François-Marie Arouet, regarded as the harbinger of the Enlightenment.

His work Candide criticizes the philosopher Leibniz‘s view that God created the best of all possible worlds. Candide‘s character Dr. Pangloss is a mouthpiece for the Leibnizian view. Pangloss clings to Leibniz’s optimistic theological outlook, despite undergoing horrendous personal sufferings.

Voltaire himself was a deist, believing in God but only in terms of natural, observable laws. He once said “heaven is where I am.” His view on religion is mixed. At times he singles out religious leaders as an example of how fanaticism can sway the masses. At other times he preaches religious tolerance.¹

His attacks on fanaticism do not only focus on religion. He writes at length about the merits of polite society in contrast to the laboring classes.

There is always, within a nation, a people that has no contact with polite society, which does not belong to the age, which is inaccessible to the progress of reason and over whom fanaticism maintains its atrocious hold…It is not the laborer one should educate, but the good bourgeois, the tradesman.²

Engraving of Voltaire published as the frontis...

Engraving of Voltaire published as the frontispiece to an 1843 edition of his Dictionnaire philosophique (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Voltaire distrusted the idea of democracy, favoring rule of the enlightened monarch. But his satirical political letters earned him a beating and 11 months of prison in the Bastille.

Finding favor, however, with Mme de Pompadour he became historiographer to Louis XV. He continued to write voluminously to many notables, and became one of Europe’s most prominent figures.


² Cited in Norman Hampson, The Enlightenment (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976, p. 160).

Related Posts » Juvenal, Gottfried, Wilhelm, Parallel Universes

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Enlightenment (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the Buddhist sense enlightenment means achieving absolute spiritual realization through loss of the ego and, ultimately, one’s individuality. Once enlightened the Buddhist believes they’re no longer reborn and, and through the annihilation of any kind of individuality, even spiritual individuality, they apparently free themselves from suffering.

Unlike Christianity, Buddhism has no positive sense of individuality, not even spiritual individuality in the afterlife. Being an individual is just bad news in Buddhism.

A spiritual meaning for the word enlightenment is not restricted to Buddhism, however. The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that, as far back as 1621, enlightenment has been used in Christianity to refer to the idea that God illuminates individual souls and that such souls are powerless to illuminate themselves with divine grace and understanding.

1621   R. Aylett Song of Songs i. iv. iv. 83   The Word, without the Spirits enlightenment, Is as good Seede sowne on vntilled ground.¹

The picture shows a gathering of distinguished...

The picture shows a gathering of distinguished guests in the drawing-room of French hostess Marie-Thérèse Rodet Geoffrin (1699-1777) who is seated on the right. There is a bust of Voltaire in the background. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the historical sense the period of “The Enlightenment” refers to an 18th-century philosophical movement emerging out of the 17th-century Scientific Revolution, to include the works of Adam Smith, Locke, Hume and Newton. It advocated reason and education over what was regarded as superstition, blind faith and historically laden dogmas. So in this context, the word enlightenment has a totally different meaning than the quotation above.

1836   N. Amer. Rev. July 176   When he [sc. Tieck] made his first appearance, it was, under the banner of Nicolai, as one of the Berlin advocates of enlightenment and reason, and enemies of superstition and mysticism.²

The Enlightenment championed the idea of “progress” as a challenge to entrenched forms of Christianity; however the idea of progress, and all the unspoken connotations that go with it, is now questioned by many. In France the Enlightenment produced the first great encyclopedias of Diderot and d’Alembert, with contributions from leading figures like Voltaire, Montesquieu, Condorcet and Rousseau.

In the Western contemporary sense enlightenment means a novel thought, a new way of looking at things, insight or the dispelling of ignorance.

¹ OED third edition, November 2010; online version March 2012. <;; accessed 01 May 2012. An entry for this word was first included in New English Dictionary, 1891.

² Ibid.