BOOKS: by Max TeichmannNews Weekly
On Enlightenment, by David Stove
, April 5, 2003
by David Stove
Transaction. For further information contact News Weekly BooksThis is one of the posthumous collections of philosophical essays by Australian philosopher, David Stove - a thinker regarded as unpardonably incorrect by many of his contemporaries, but having the last laugh as one collection after another of his incisive and elegant writings appears.
Stove was primarily focused upon logic and the philosophy of science, but here, as in many other places, he tackles themes and issues in social philosophy.Implications
This collection starts with the philosophy of the Enlightenment, its psychological underpinnings and its moral and social implications and consequences. So, the concepts of liberty, equality, perfectionism, rationalism, secularism, and what connection there might be between an increase in knowledge and a corresponding increase in human happiness and wellbeing, are examined in turn.
I'll just say that Stove is sceptical. He is also critical of the Enlightenment claims regarding inevitable progress, and picks off some of the more naïve or muddled definitions of progress.
But, he thinks the highlighting of the role of reason and rationality by the Enlightenment is praiseworthy and of particular value in attacking and dispelling what he calls "the falsity of religious claims". The final chapter in this book tells us why we should be conservatives but, he is a secular conservative.
Now, many conservatives, be they personally religious or not, not only consider religion an indispensable part of a living organic society (as against a mass society aspiring to become a machine), but also believe that "reason" or "rationality" are unlikely to disabuse many people of their religious beliefs - especially if these are based on faith, and further, that reason and rationality throw little light upon why so many people are host to religious feelings and aspirations, no matter what name
they may put on these aspirations.
Indeed, Stove himself asks, would the elimination of "superstition" or of religious beliefs and strivings, lead to greater personal happiness? He is by no means certain. In some cases, yes; but others, possibly not.
It is this careful, case-by-case approach which distinguishes conservatives such as Stove.
Like Edmund Burke, he sees the world as "a sea of multitudinous causes", or as Bishop Butler would have it, "each thing is itself, and not another thing". So, with social change, you proceed step-by-step because of the law of unforeseen consequences. Given the size and complexity of modern societies and their institutions, our flawed quality control over our subject matter, the greater will be the margin of error.Human happiness?
Sweeping, irreversible changes introduced by ambitious governments have produced as many disasters and injustices as they have increased the amount of human happiness and freedom. This is because we cannot foretell the future with any degree of accuracy, nor understand the inner nature of Man.
In saying such things, Stove, whether he likes it or not, is setting the limits beyond which reason or rationality cannot plausibly operate.
But the core of this book concerns Malthus, his theories and his influence, and whether either his critics or subsequent historical change have rebutted him.
Stove then moves to Charles Darwin. These parts are closely reasoned and at one point go into the realm of Social Darwinism, asking, among other things, whether Social Darwinism is no more than an independent option which people may choose or reject without affecting their biological point of view.
I won't attempt to summarise these chapters, but suffice to say, Stove sees gaps and shortfalls in Darwin's grand picture but nevertheless considers his contribution to knowledge and understanding as monumental and still pretty much intact.
The editor of these essays, Andrew Irvine, has written a very interesting Introduction in the course of which he quotes J.M. Keynes, whose judgments he thinks are very close to Stove's own.
"We repudiated all versions of the Doctrine of Original Sin ... We were not aware that civilisation was a thin and precarious crust erected by the personality and the will of very few, and only maintained by rules and conventions skilfully put across and guilefully preserved. We had no respect for traditional wisdom or the restraints of custom. We lacked reverence ... for everything and everyone.
"It did not occur to us to respect the extraordinary accomplishment of our predecessors in the ordering of life (as it now seems to me to have been) or the elaborate framework which they had devised to protect this order."
"Keynes, like Stove, thereby came to oppose the view that there is 'a continuing moral progress by virtue of which the human race already consists of reliable, rational, decent people, influenced by truth and objective standards, who can be safely released from the outward restraints of convention and traditional standards and inflexible rules of conduct, and left, from now onwards, to their own sensible devices, pure motives and reliable intuitions of the good'."
As Stove might ask, where might one find such people?
Incidentally, the Keynes quotes come from Essays in Biography
(Meridian Books, 1956, p. 253).