Oh Man, Dad's Showing Brain

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 24/01/2020 - 11:54pm in



On Sex Equality, Original Sin, Rousseau, and François Poullain de la Barre

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 24/01/2020 - 10:59am in



Even the wisest legislators found no interesting role for women when they founded their republics. All laws seem to have been made to keep men in their present position of power. Men we regard as fonts of wisdom have never said anything good about women. In fact, men’s behavior towards women in all places and at all times is so uniform that it seems to be part of an organized movement. Some people have even thought that men are impelled to behave this way through some hidden instinct ordained universally by the Creator of nature.
This view is all the more easily justifiable when we consider the way women themselves tolerate their situation. They see it as being their natural place. Either because they do not think at all about what they are, or because they are born and raised in a state of dependency, they share the male point of view. In all these things, both men and women tend to believe that their minds are as different as their bodies and that the distinctions that necessarily exist between them should be extended to all aspects of life. This opinion, however, like most of the ones we hold about custom and usage, is pure prejudice, and is dictated by superficial appearance rather than close analysis. We would certainly reject it if we took the trouble to go back to its origin. We could find many examples of things that were done formerly that we could compare with the things we do now, and we could weigh ancient customs against present-day ones. If we had followed this rule more often, we would have avoided a lot of mistakes. As far as women’s present situation is concerned, we would have realized that it is simply the rule of the stronger that has put them in such a subservient position, and we would understand that it is not through any natural deficiencies that they have been denied the advantages enjoyed by our sex.
Indeed, when we think honestly about human history, both past and present, we realize that there is one common denominator: reason has always been the weakest element in our decisions, and all stories seem to have been made up for the sole purpose of demonstrating what we see in any lifetime, that from man’s very origins might has always prevailed. The greatest empires of Asia owe their beginnings to usurpers and brigands, and the inheritors of the ruins of Greece and Rome were upstarts who thought they could resist their masters and dominate their equals. All societies exhibit the same kind of conduct. If men behave in this way towards their equals, then it is most likely that they behaved in the same way first of all towards women. Here, more or less, is how it came about.
Men, realizing they were the stronger and physically superior sex, imagined they were superior in all respects. This was of no great consequence for women at the beginning of the world, when a very different state of affairs prevailed from today. There was no government, no learning, no employment, no established religion; dependence was not considered irksome. I imagine that people lived like children, and winning or losing was part of the game. Both men and women, who were naive and innocent, contributed equally to the tasks of tilling and hunting as savages do today. A man went about his business and a woman hers; the person who made the greatest contribution was the most respected.--François Poullain de la Barre (1673) On the Equality of the Two Sexes Translation by Vivien Bosley, Part 1.**

I tend to ignore Poullain de la Barre because he lacks the biting satire I enjoy so much in Gournay or Mandeville, and because I find many of his arguments a bit cringe-worthy, especially because he is so sincere . But re-reading the passage -- made famous by Simone de Beauvoir (see also Marina Reuter here) -- above reminded me that it is quite amazing that Poullain de la Barre died of natural causes.  Beauvoir uses the passage in her argument that men "sought to make the fact of their supremacy a right." I don't disagree with Beauvoir, but there is more here worth noting.

First, the whole paragraph is structured around a contrast between what "some people" think and the truth (according to Poullain de la Barre). What most people think is that the male instinct to dominate, and to dominate in solidarity with each other, is part of human nature. And that this is part of God's providence. This view has a complex relationship to original sin. 

By contrast, according to Poullain people, are naturally cooperative, naturally embrace the division of labor, and more or less accurately track in their praise and blame people's contribution to group welfare. This natural sociability view comes very close to denying original sin altogether by suggesting that an original golden age was actually possible. 

Second, as it happens, our natural sociability is a bit like Locke's pre-political state of nature because there does exist some property. I mention Locke because Poullain de la Barre also associates this child-like friendly state of nature with really existing 'savages.' But, and this indeed anticipates Rousseau (as Reuter notes), it's when states are originated that (great) inequality and permanent gendered structures of hierarchy come into being. And, in fact, according to Poullain de la Barre all polities (I am avoiding the confusing use of 'societies') originate in acts of theft and overthrowing of basically pacific social orders.  This is not just true of all the great empires of the past, but "All...exhibit the same kind of conduct." He is essentially saying that all polities have illegitimate origins that they perpetuate in present conduct.

Third, this last point is a feature and not a bog of his argument because he thinks all (socially significant) gender inequality is grounded, ultimately, in a social order that is inherently violent (see also Reuter) and devalues reason and peace.  So, rather than seeing political society as a solution to the problem of violent or Hobbesian state of nature, it just is the Hobbesian state of nature. To be sure, Poullain is not an anarchist. He ultimately wishes to reform/re-order society on rational grounds in which peace and our true intellectual contributions (not just by women, but also women) are valued--but that is a normative ideal nowhere reality.*

Fourth, political dominance founded in violence and hierarchy always generates an ideology in which the superiority is projected onto other features of the dominant group. He associates the workings of such ideological projection with imagination. (For Poullain de la Barre reason seems both pacific and truth-apt in ways the imagination is.) 

Fifth, and most striking organized religion is itself one of the institutions that facilitate domination and is an exercise of such imaginative ideological projections.+ It only comes into being after polities come into being and then it is inevitably tainted by, if not a tool of, the violence of male hierarchy. 

Let me close with a modest moral. It is a recurring feature to situate Poullain in the Cartesianism of his age (see this excellent piece by Schmitter) That's not all false, and I will return to that link some time. But it also raises expectations about the philosophical nature of his work. In many ways, his evidential and conceptual arguments do not really make one think one is dealing with an especially promising Cartesian (natural philosopher or metaphysician). But unlike most of the Cartesians of his age (and here I am relying on Alex Douglas' wonderful book on Spinoza), who preferred to focus on medicine and science, Poullain did not shy away from very important political and theological issues and consequences of the Cartesian revolution in philosophy. And in so doing he landed in a place that is as radical and far-reaching as, say, Hobbes and Spinoza, and in some ways closer to enduring significance. 

*I call these true intellectual contributions because thinks much of what passes for learning is just rank prejudice. 

+In 1688 he converted from Catholicism to Calvinism and moved to Geneva. Perhaps he thought that religion could be less awful in more republican and egalitarian environment.

**I am  indebted to Katharine Gillespie and her students for prompting this post.

This Bird is Probably a Sinner

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 24/01/2020 - 12:04am in



That Lap was Two Seconds Slower

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 21/01/2020 - 11:43pm in



On Cugoano on Hume on Race, and the Protestant Work Ethic

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 21/01/2020 - 7:16am in


Racism, Religion

But as a hindrance to this, the many Anti-christian errors which are gone abroad into the world, and all the popish superstition and nonsense, and the various assimilations unto it, with the false philosophy which abounds among Christians, seems to threaten with an universal deluge; but God hath promised to fill the world with a knowledge of himself, and he hath set up his bow, in the rational heavens, as well as in the clouds, as a token that he will stop the proud ways of error and delusion, that hitherto they may come, and no farther. The holy arch of truth is to be seen in the azure paths of the pious and wise, and conspicuously painted in crimson over the martyrs tombs. These, with the golden altars of truth, built up by the reformed churches, and many pious, good and righteous men, are bulwarks that will ever stand against all the forts of error. Teaching would be exceeding necessary to the pagan nations and ignorant people in every place and situation; but they do not need any unscriptural forms and ceremonies to be taught unto them; they can devise superstitions enough among them|selves, and church government too, if ever they need any.

And hence we would agree in this one thing with that erroneous philosopher, who has lately wrote An Apology for Negro Slavery,

But if the slave is only to be made acquainted with the form, without the substance; if he is only to be decked out with the external trappings of religion; if he is only to be taught the uncheering principles of gloomy superstition; or, if he is only to be inspired with the intemperate frenzy of enthusiastic fanaticism, it were better that he remained in that dark state, where he could not see good from ill.

But these words temperate, frenzy, enthusiastic, and fanaticism may be variously applied, and often wrongfully; but, perhaps never better, or more fitly, than to be ascribed as the genuine character of this author's brutish philosophy; and he may subscribe it, and the meaning of these words, with as much affinity to himself, as he bears a relation to a Hume, or to his friend Tobin. The poor negroes in the West-Indies, have suffered enough by such religion as the philosophers of the North produce; Protestants, as they are called, are the most barbarous slave-holders, and there are none can equal the Scotch floggers and negroe-drivers, and the barbarous Dutch cruelties. Perhaps as the church of Rome begins to sink in its power, its followers may encrease in virtue and humanity; so that many, who are the professed adherents thereof, would even blush and abhor the very mention of the cruelty and bloody deeds that their ancestors have committed; and we find slavery itself more tolerable among them, than it is in the Protestant countries.--Ottobah Cugoano (1787), Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil of Slavery and wicked traffic of the slavery: and commerce of the human species, humbly submitted to the inhabitants of Great-Britain, 144-146. [HT Chike Jeffer's "Rights, Race, and the Beginnings of Modern Africana Philosophy"]

In the context of the quoted passage (which is close to the culmination of his argument), Cugoano (recall) is very clear that philosophers writing at the center of maritime power are co-responsible in creating the conditions of the horrors of slavery. What they call 'philosophy' is really "brutish" and de facto an ideology of exploitation and imperialism. I use 'ideology' to capture Cugoano's use of 'religion' in order to avoid confusion. For most of Cugoano's arguments in the book convey the idea that the possible (and providential) spread of true religion is just  about only valuable thing to come out of slavery which is a part and parcel of a (false and) anti-christian religion (characterized by frenzy/enthusiasm/fanaticism and inhumanity). 

The reference to Hume caught my attention. Hume is, of course, a great critic of enthusiasm and fanaticism in religion. I am familiar with Hume's racist (and even anti-semitic) writings (recall here, and here). Even so, I was unsure how to take the sentence in which he figures because I did not understand the "relation" between Hume and the passage quoted from Gordon Turnbell's (1786)* An Apology for Negro Slavery. ("Tobin" is a reference to James Tobin's (1785) Cursory Remarks upon the Reverend Mr. Ramsay's Essay.) For, while Hume was not against the extension, even violent extension, of 'civilization,' Hume would have little interest in turning anybody into a true Christian (unless he could be allowed to redefine true Christianity.) Moreover, Hume was a genuine critic of slavery.+ But a turn to Turnbull clarifies the situation at once. The one and only reference to Hume occurs in the following passage:

IT is not without the ſemblance, at leaſt, oſ probable conjecture, or reaſonable hypothefis, that Mr. Hume, and ſome other eminent writers, imagined the negro-race to be an inferior ſpecies oſ mankind. But, allowing that they are born equal with white men, yet, a minute obſervation, or thorough knowledge of their character and diſpoſition, ſeems to evince, that they are not at all fitted to fill the ſuperior ſtations, or more elevated ranks in civil ſociety.

Turnbull is clearly aware of Hume's footnote in "Of National Character." And, in larger context, he treats the inferiority and lack of work ethic of negroes ("very idly disposed) as part of his justification of slavery. I'll spare you the details but it turns ethnic/race based slavery -- with a nod to the great chain of being (which gives the 'chain' in it a whole new association for me) -- into something that fits the proper order of nature. 

As an aside, on the next page Turnbull quotes (from Chapter XVI of the Spirit of the Laws) Montesquieu to compare the (purported) lenient slavery on the plantations of the West-Indian islands with the (purported) lenient kind of slavery found in classical Athens. Some other time I return to Turnbull's use of Montesquieu because Montesquieu's views on the natural causes of slavery clearly frame his whole argument (but recall here).

Be that as it may, Cugoano's criticism of Turnbull points us to the fact that the very idea of a work ethic as a mark of superiority is developed by protestant authors, in part, to justify race-based slavery.** Cugoano clearly thinks that such ideology is a predictable consequence of great inequalities of power. (He hopes, for example, that the Catholic Church's reduced power will lead to a more humanitarian philosophy among it.) But he also thinks that it is a duty, even a true Christian duty, to combat the spread of oppressive ideologies of one's age.


*I am unsure when the first edition of Turnbull's book appeared, but it seems to be 1786. I have only access to the second edition which appeared in 1786.

+Here is the relevant passage from "Of Populousness of Ancient Nations:"

Some passionate admirers of the ancients, and zealous partizans of civil liberty...cannot forbear regretting the loss of this institution; and whilst they brand all submission to the government of a single person with the harsh denomination of slavery, they would gladly reduce the greater part of mankind to real slavery and subjection. But to one who considers coolly on the subject it will appear, that human nature, in general, really enjoys more liberty at present, in the most arbitrary government of EUROPE, than it ever did during the most flourishing period of ancient times. As much as submission to a petty prince, whose dominions extend not beyond a single city, is more grievous than obedience to a great monarch; so much is domestic slavery more cruel and oppressive than any civil subjection whatsoever. The more the master is removed from us in place and rank, the greater liberty we enjoy; the less are our actions inspected and controled; and the fainter that cruel comparison becomes between our own subjection, and the freedom, and even dominion of another. The remains which are found of domestic slavery, in the AMERICAN colonies, and among some EUROPEAN nations, would never surely create a desire of rendering it more universal. The little humanity, commonly observed in persons, accustomed, from their infancy, to exercise so great authority over their fellow-creatures, and to trample upon human nature, were sufficient alone to disgust us with that unbounded dominion. Nor can a more probable reason be assigned for the severe, I might say, barbarous manners of ancient times, than the practice of domestic slavery; by which every man of rank was rendered a petty tyrant, and educated amidst the flattery, submission, and low debasement of his slaves.

It is notable that Hume's criticism anticipates the spirit of Kant's formula of the universal law of nature. Also, the target of this passage is clearly Montesquiu who had suggested that Athenian slavery was lenient (in a passage quoted by Turnbull in the next page).

**On the use of 'race'--it is pretty clear that Turnbull and Cugoano (and others) are debating the effects of a color line on political practices. How their geographically based ethnic contrast maps onto more nineteenth century scientific racism is a complex question. But as regular readers know (recall) ethnic population based eugenics is clearly present in Berkeley so we should not overstate the contrast between eighteenth and nineteenth century views. (See Justin Smith's book for a useful conceptual and historical apparatus.)

How Many Lives WilI Wreck?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 15/01/2020 - 11:39pm in



No, That Must Have Been You

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 07/01/2020 - 12:06am in



Everybody But Me is Shit

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 03/01/2020 - 12:13am in



In Some Weird Countries, Elections Depend Entirely on Religious Fanatics

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 01/01/2020 - 6:14pm in

There is a Civil War between Christian evangelists in the United States over whether or not to support Donald Trump. Some Christians point to his moral degeneracy. Others say that God often works with flawed people. I just wonder, why do we have to care about what these crazy people think?

Fresh audio product

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 27/12/2019 - 8:14am in

Just added to my radio archive (click on date for link):

December 26, 2019 Adam Kotsko, author of “The Evangelical Mind,” on the life and thought of that tendency • Shailja Sharma on India’s new citizenship law and protests against the country’s drift into fascism