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Catherine Wilson

From The Philosopher, vol. 107, no. 1 ('Doing Philosophy'). 

Read more articles from The Philosopher, purchase this issue or become a subscriber.

The cryptic inscription on the tomb of the French social theorist Charles Fourier reads ‘Attractions are Proportional to Destinies.’ What Fourier meant by this claim was that every human being has a natural attraction to those activities for which he or she is physically and temperamentally fitted.

This is not entirely true as a statement of fact. People will persist doggedly at learning an instrument, or a dance, or a language when their fingers, or legs, or memories are from an objective perspective poorly matched to their ambition. But it is approximately true, and I can explain here what attracts me to the work I was – so it seems – destined to do.

I work in two areas. One is the history of early modern philosophy. If I were asked what research questions in this field drive me, I would have to say that I am almost always concerned with trying to find out what the core problem or problems is or are that account for what a particular philosopher is writing and for the puzzling gaps and sometimes contradictions that appear over their corpus. For example:

Q1. Why does Descartes’s for the most part a priori argued Meditations end with a long drawn out hypothetical chapter on the mechanics of the nervous system and its operations in perception, health, and disease?

Tombstone of Charles Fourier

Q2. Why does Locke say in the introduction to his Essay on Human Understanding that his aim in the book is to put morality and mechanism together when not a single chapter of the Essay ostensibly deals with this problem?

Q3. What are Kant’s real objections to the moral sentiments theory of Adam Smith and why is he so insistent that morality needs a metaphysics?

To answer questions like this, I try to construct an account of the deepest, most driving concerns of the philosopher I am studying. These concerns were invariably more evident to his or her contemporaries, and especially their critics, than they are to today’s reader.

One reason they are somewhat veiled is that we tend to teach the history of philosophy as a succession of philosophers responding with all their might and in all sincerity by way of extractable analytical arguments to the extractable analytical arguments of their deceased predecessor philosophers. Instead, I try to understand my subjects as human beings existentially concerned with matters of life and death, excited by or worried about the scientific and political developments of their time, impatient with many of their colleagues, and with a constant eye out for the reaction of the theological authorities with their powers of censorship, persecution, and destruction of reputation.
So my answers to the above questions have run something like this:

A1. Descartes’s overriding philosophical interest is in giving highly plausible explanations of all phenomena including vital phenomena, excepting only abstract thought, creativity, and language, in mechanical terms.

A2. Locke suspects that human beings may be purely material, composed of invisible corpuscles, and lacking incorporeal Cartesian souls (the souls to which Descartes allocated the three functions just cited.) The Essay explores this possibility and its implications for morality, education, and religion, along with scientific research.

A3. Kant finds no room for the notion of moral desert as an actual resident property of persons (rather than as a quality merely attributed to them by their fellows or by themselves). Without desert there is no justification for punishment and no reason for a person to be, rather than to seem, moral.

The answers in a way precede the questions. After immersing myself in the literature of a given period and forming an idea of what is going on, what the hot issues of the period are, questions that have not been addressed in the scholarly literature, especially of the text-internal as opposed to contextual variety, emerge as distinct figures against the background.

As a historian of philosophy I am struck by how dangerous philosophy was in the past and how safe it has become. Socrates was driven to suicide; Descartes and Locke had to flee their native countries to escape persecution; Leibniz developed a bad reputation; Spinoza was excommunicated and viciously deprecated; Kant was muzzled, and Bertrand Russell was deprived of his Trinity College fellowship for his opposition to World War I. But no one is going to come after you these days for the radical political or theological subtext of your views on analytic metaphysics and epistemology; if there is a subtext to them, few readers will pick up on it.


Turning to my other area of interest, moral philosophy, I have been especially concerned with the following questions arising from the empirical standpoint:

Q. Does ‘moral enquiry’ or ‘moral theory’ really aim at the truth? At discovering the facts about what to think and how to behave? How is it like or unlike the perceptual or instrument-mediated investigation of the physical world and its practical application?

Q. People differ from one another on various parameters including temperament, intelligence, emotionality, aspiration, and application, and in their social, cultural, and economic circumstances. Does it make sense to think of morality as a system of general rules ‘binding’ on everyone? If so from what source could its authority stem?

There is no space even to encapsulate my provisional answers to these questions. But you can see from the way they are formulated that to my mind a real contribution to moral philosophy is not a conclusion like ‘Torture is sometimes justified’ or ‘Meat-eating is wrong,’ a one-liner, supposedly deduced from a set of acceptable premises. What I hope to find in reading other moral philosophers is more like a well-plotted novel, or a tightly woven, hypnotic poem, or an elegant and stable building, or a chess game ending with a series of bold and dramatic move that actually succeeds, or movie that goes round and round in your head. To the extent that I can myself construct a piece of writing that even remotely resembles such a structure, I am reasonably satisfied.

To return to Fourier. Fourier really did not like philosophers and vice versa. But his dictum is one that has stuck in my mind. I like its non-utilitarian emphasis and its recognition of human diversity. So did Marx and Engels, who were inspired by Fourier to propose a ‘scientific’ account of how we will get to a utopia of self-expression and freedom from external coercion via dialectical materialism. This may not happen but the ‘freedom to philosophize’ was and still is a cherished possession of any culture.

Catherine Wilson is Anniversary Professor of Philosophy at the University of York. Her new book The Pleasure Principle: Epicureanism: A Philosophy for Modern Living was published in May 2019.

From The Philosopher, vol. 107, no. 1 ('Doing Philosophy'). 

Read more articles from The Philosopher, purchase this issue or become a subscriber.