Michael Ruse on On Purpose

Can we live without the idea of purpose? Should we even try to? Kant thought we were stuck with purpose, and even Darwin’s theory of natural selection, which profoundly shook the idea, was unable to kill it. Indeed, teleological explanation—what Aristotle called understanding in terms of “final causes”—seems to be making a comeback today, as both religious proponents of intelligent design and some prominent secular philosophers argue that any explanation of life without the idea of purpose is missing something essential. In On Purpose, Michael Ruse explores the history of the idea of purpose in philosophical, religious, scientific, and historical thought, from ancient Greece to the present. Read on to learn more about the idea of “purpose,” the long philosophical tradition around it, and how Charles Darwin fits in.

On Purpose?  So what’s with the smart-alecky title?

It was a friend of Dr. Johnson who said that he had tried to be a philosopher, but cheerfulness always kept breaking in.  Actually, that is a little bit unfair to philosophers.  Overall, we are quite a cheerful group, especially when we think that we might have been born sociologists or geographers.  However, our sense of humor is a bit strained, usually—as in this case—involving weak puns and the like.  My book is about a very distinctive form of understanding, when we do things in terms of the future and not the past.

In terms of the future?  Why not call your book On Prediction?

I am not talking about prediction, forecasting what you think will happen, although that is involved.  I am talking about when the future is brought in to explain things that are happening right now.  Purposeful thinking is distinctive and interesting because normally when we try to explain things we do so in terms of the past or present.  Why do you have a bandage on your thumb?  Because I tried to hang the picture myself, instead of getting a grad student to do it.  Purposeful thinking—involving what Aristotle called “final causes” and what since the eighteenth century has often been labeled “teleological” thinking—explains in terms of future events.  Why are you studying rather than going to the ball game?  Because I want to do well on the GRE exam and go to a good grad school.

Why is this interesting?

In the case of the bandaged thumb, you know that the hammer hit you rather than the nail.  In the case of studying, you may decide that five to ten years of poverty and peonage followed by no job is not worth it, and you should decide to do something worthwhile like becoming a stockbroker or university administrator.  We call this “the problem of the missing goal object.”  Going to grad school never occurred, but it still makes sense to say that you are studying now in order to go to grad school.

Is this something that you thought up, or is it something with a history?

Oh my, does it ever have a history.  One of the great things about my book, if I might show my usual level of modesty, is that I show the whole problem of purpose is one with deep roots in the history of philosophy, starting with Plato and Aristotle, and coming right up to the modern era, particularly the thinking of Immanuel Kant.  In fact, I argue that it is these three very great philosophers who set the terms of the discussion—Plato analyses things in terms of consciousness, Aristotle in terms of principles of ordering whatever that might mean, and Kant opts for some kind of heuristic approach.

If these thinkers have done the spadework, what’s left for you?

I argue that the truth about purposeful thinking could not be truly discovered until Charles Darwin in his Origin of Species (1859) had proposed his theory of evolution through natural selection.  With that, we could start to understand forward-looking thinking about humans—why is he studying on such a beautiful day?  He wants to go to grad school.  About plants and animals—why does the stegosaurus have those funny-looking plates down its back?  To control its temperature.  And why we don’t use such thinking about inanimate objects?  Why don’t we worry about the purpose of the moon?  Perhaps we should.  It really does exist in order to light the way home for drunken philosophers.

Why is it such a big deal to bring up Darwin and his theory of evolution?  Surely, the kind of people who will read your book will have accepted the theory long ago?

Interestingly, no!  The main opposition to evolutionary thinking comes from the extreme ends of the spectrum: evangelical Christians known as Creationists—biblical literalists—and from professional philosophers.  There are days when it seems that the higher up the greasy pole you have climbed, the more likely you are to deny Darwinism and be a bit iffy about evolution generally.  This started just about as soon as the Origin appeared, and the sinister anti-evolutionary effect of Bertrand Russell and G. E. Moore and above all Ludwig Wittgenstein is felt to this day.  A major reason for writing my book was to take seriously Thomas Henry Huxley’s quip that we are modified monkeys rather than modified mud, and that matters.

Given that you are a recent recipient of the Bertrand Russell Society’s “Man of the Year” Award, aren’t you being a bit ungracious?

I have huge respect for Russell.  He was a god in my family when, in the 1940s and 50s, I was growing up in England.  One of my greatest thrills was to have been part of the crowd in 1961 in Trafalgar Square listening to him declaim against nuclear weapons.  But I think he was wrong about the significance of Darwin for philosophy and I think I am showing him great respect in arguing against him.  I feel the same way about those who argue against me.  My proudest boast is that I am now being refuted in journals that would never accept anything by me.

One of the big problems normal people today have about philosophy is that it seems so irrelevant. Initiates arguing about angels on the heads of pins?  Why shouldn’t we say the same about your book?

Three reasons.  First, my style and approach.  It is true that most philosophy produced by Anglophone philosophers today is narrow and boring.  Reading analytic philosophy is like watching paint dry and proudly so.  Against this, on the one hand I am more a historian of ideas using the past to illuminate the present.  That is what being an evolutionist is all about.  Spending time with mega-minds like Plato and Aristotle and Kant is in itself tremendously exciting.  On the other hand, I have over fifty years of teaching experience, at the undergraduate level almost always at the first- and second-year level.  I know that if you are not interesting, you are going to lose your audience.  The trick is to be interesting and non-trivial.

Second, I don’t say that my book is the most important of the past hundred-plus years, but my topic is the most important.  Evolution matters, folks, it really does.  It is indeed scary to think that we are just the product of a random process of change and not the favored product of a Good God—made in His image.  Even atheists get the collywobbles, or at least they should.  It is true all the same.  Fifty years ago, the geneticist and Nobel laureate Hermann J. Muller said that a hundred years without Darwin is enough.  That is still true.  Amen.

Third, deliberately, I have made this book very personal.  At the end, I talk about purpose in my own life.  Why, even though I am a non-believer, I have been able to find meaning in what I think and do.  This ranges from my love of my wife Lizzie and how with dedication and humor we share the challenges of having children—not to mention our love of dogs, most recent addition to the family, Nutmeg a whippet—through cooking on Saturday afternoons while listening to radio broadcasts of Metropolitan Opera matinees, to reading Pickwick Papers yet one more time.  I suspect that many of my fellow philosophers will find this all rather embarrassing.  I mean it to be.  Philosophy matters.  My first-ever class on the subject started with Descartes’ Meditations.  Fifteen minutes into the class, I knew that this was what I was going to do for the rest of my life.  Nearly sixty years later I am still at it and surely this interview tells you that I love it, every moment.

So, why should we read your book?

Because it really does square the circle.  It is cheerful and philosophical.  It is on a hugely important topic and there are some good jokes.  I am particularly proud of one I make about Darwin Day, the celebration by New Atheists, and their groupies of the birthday of Charles Darwin.

Which is?

Oh, hell no.  I am not going to tell you.  Go out and buy the book.  And while you are at it, buy one for your mum and dad and one each for your siblings and multi-copies for your students and….  I am seventy-seven years old.  I need a bestseller so I can retire.  You need a bestseller so I can retire.

RuseMichael Ruse is the Lucyle T. Werkmeister Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Program in the History and Philosophy of Science at Florida State University. He has written or edited more than fifty books, including Darwinism as Religion, The Philosophy of Human Evolution, and The Darwinian Revolution.

He died as he lived: David Hume, philosopher and infidel

As the Scottish philosopher David Hume lay on his deathbed in the summer of 1776, his passing became a highly anticipated event. Few people in 18th-century Britain were as forthright in their lack of religious faith as Hume was, and his skepticism had earned him a lifetime of abuse and reproach from the pious, including a concerted effort to excommunicate him from the Church of Scotland. Now everyone wanted to know how the notorious infidel would face his end. Would he show remorse or perhaps even recant his skepticism? Would he die in a state of distress, having none of the usual consolations afforded by belief in an afterlife? In the event, Hume died as he had lived, with remarkable good humour and without religion.

The most famous depiction of Hume’s dying days, at least in our time, comes from James Boswell, who managed to contrive a visit with him on Sunday, 7 July 1776. As his account of their conversation makes plain, the purpose of Boswell’s visit was less to pay his respects to a dying man, or even to gratify a sense of morbid curiosity, than to try to fortify his own religious convictions by confirming that even Hume could not remain a sincere non-believer to the end. In this, he failed utterly.

‘Being too late for church,’ Boswell made his way to Hume’s house, where he was surprised to find him ‘placid and even cheerful … talking of different matters with a tranquility of mind and a clearness of head which few men possess at any time.’ Ever tactful, Boswell immediately brought up the subject of the afterlife, asking if there might not be a future state. Hume replied that ‘it was possible that a piece of coal put upon the fire would not burn; and he added that it was a most unreasonable fancy that we should exist for ever’. Boswell persisted, asking if he was not made uneasy by the thought of annihilation, to which Hume responded that he was no more perturbed by the idea of ceasing to exist than by the idea that he had not existed before he was born. What was more, Hume ‘said flatly that the morality of every religion was bad, and … that when he heard a man was religious, he concluded he was a rascal, though he had known some instances of very good men being religious.’

This interview might show Hume at his brashest, but in the 18th century it remained mostly confined to Boswell’s private notebooks. The most prominent and controversial public account of Hume’s final days came instead from an even more famous pen: that of Adam Smith, Hume’s closest friend. Smith composed a eulogy for Hume soon after the latter’s death in the form of a public letter to their mutual publisher, William Strahan. This letter was effectively the ‘authorised version’ of the story of Hume’s death, as it appeared (with Hume’s advance permission) as a companion piece to his short, posthumously published autobiography, My Own Life (1776).

Smith’s letter contains none of the open impiety that pervades Boswell’s interview, but it does chronicle – even flaunt – the equanimity of Hume’s last days, depicting the philosopher telling jokes, playing cards, and conversing cheerfully with his friends. It also emphasises the excellence of Hume’s character; indeed, Smith concluded the letter by declaring that his unbelieving friend approached ‘as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man, as perhaps the nature of human frailty will permit’.

Though relatively little known today, in the 18th century Smith’s letter caused an uproar. He later proclaimed that it ‘brought upon me 10 times more abuse than the very violent attack I had made upon the whole commercial system of Great Britain’ – meaning, of course, The Wealth of Nations (1776). Throughout his life, Smith had generally gone to great lengths to avoid revealing much about his religious beliefs – or lack thereof – and to steer clear of confrontations with the devout, but his claim that an avowed skeptic such as Hume was a model of wisdom and virtue ‘gave very great offence’ and ‘shocked every sober Christian’ (as a contemporary commented).

Boswell himself deemed Smith’s letter a piece of ‘daring effrontery’ and an example of the ‘poisonous productions with which this age is infested’. Accordingly, he beseeched Samuel Johnson to ‘step forth’ to ‘knock Hume’s and Smith’s heads together, and make vain and ostentatious infidelity exceedingly ridiculous. Would it not,’ he pleaded, ‘be worth your while to crush such noxious weeds in the moral garden?’

Nor did the controversy subside quickly. Nearly a century later, one prolific author of religious tomes, John Lowrie, was still sufficiently incensed by Smith’s letter to proclaim that he knew ‘no more lamentable evidence of the weakness and folly of irreligion and infidelity’ in ‘all the range of English literature’.

In the 18th century, the idea that it was possible for a skeptic to die well, without undue hopes or fears, clearly haunted many people, including Boswell, who tried to call on Hume twice more after their 7 July conversation in order to press him further, but was turned away. Today, of course, non-believers are still regarded with suspicion and even hatred in some circles, but many die every day with little notice or comment about their lack of faith. It takes a particularly audacious and outspoken form of non-belief – more akin to the Hume of Boswell’s private interview than to the Hume of Smith’s public letter – to arouse much in the way of shock or resentment, of the kind that attended the death of Christopher Hitchens some years ago. (Indeed, there were a number of comparisons drawn between Hitchens and Hume at the time.) The fact that in the 18th century Smith endured vigorous and lasting abuse for merely reporting his friend’s calm and courageous end offers a stark reminder of just how far we have come in this regard.Aeon counter – do not remove

Dennis C. Rasmussen is associate professor of political science at Tufts University. His books include The Infidel and the Professor and The Pragmatic Enlightenment. He lives in Charlestown, Massachusetts.

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Kieran Setiya on Midlife: A Philosophical Guide

How can you reconcile yourself with the lives you will never lead, with possibilities foreclosed, and with nostalgia for lost youth? How can you accept the failings of the past, the sense of futility in the tasks that consume the present, and the prospect of death that blights the future? In Midlife, a self-help book with a difference, Kieran Setiya confronts the inevitable challenges of adulthood and middle age, showing how philosophy can help you thrive. Ranging from Aristotle, Schopenhauer, and John Stuart Mill to Virginia Woolf and Simone de Beauvoir, as well as drawing on Setiya’s own experience, Midlife combines imaginative ideas, surprising insights, and practical advice. Writing with wisdom and wit, Setiya makes a wry but passionate case for philosophy as a guide to life. Read on to learn more about the process of writing the book, the pervasiveness of the midlife crisis, and how philosophy can help.

How did you come to write this book?

You can probably guess! I think academic life is perfectly structured to induce a midlife crisis: decades of relentless striving in conditions of uncertainty, culminating either in failure or in a form of success that you leaves you wondering how you got here and what comes next. That’s how it was for me, anyway. Through a combination of luck and hard work, I had a tenured position in a good department and I found myself off-script for the first time in fifteen years. I recognized how fortunate I was, comparatively speaking: what I felt was not pointlessness, but nostalgia for lost alternatives, something like regret, a sense of emptiness in the relentless grind, and a visceral awareness of how short life is. It occurred to me that philosophy should have something to say about these challenges, which turn on the temporal structure of human life and the projects that occupy it—but that it hadn’t been said. The idea was to use my problem to solve itself: writing about the midlife crisis would be my answer to the midlife crisis. Midlife is the product.

How widespread is the midlife crisis?

That is a contentious question. The phrase comes from a 1965 essay by psychoanalyst Elliott Jaques, whose patients were experiencing their malaise in the midst of relative success. The idea caught on in the 1970s, with the publication of Gail Sheehy’s Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life. But the first serious attempts to test the prevalence of the midlife crisis were decidedly mixed. The MacArthur Network on Midlife Development conducted a huge survey in the 1990s and found that credible reports of a midlife crisis were not widespread. Social scientists rushed to declare the midlife crisis a myth. But the idea has been revived. According to influential research by economists David Blanchflower and Andrew Oswald, levels of life-satisfaction around the world take the shape of a gently curving U, starting high in youth, reaching their nadir in midlife, before recovering in old age. Not a crisis, necessarily, but a predictable dip in life-satisfaction that occupies middle age. Controversy continues to rage. Every six to twelve months, newspapers report a study that claims to prove the reality of the midlife crisis or debunk it as a myth. For what it is worth, my money is on the U-curve. But even if midlife is no more difficult than childhood or old age, it brings distinctive challenges: intense demands on one’s time, the legacy of an imperfect past, a limited but substantial future, and the repetition of projects that fill one’s days. These are the problems I confront in the book.

Can philosophy really help?

I think so. The idea of moral philosophy as a literature of self-improvement or self-help has a distinguished history: it is the divorce between these aims that is the novelty. What is distinctive of my approach is that, unlike other philosophers who have written self-help books, I don’t look primarily to the past. I am not trying to revive or rediscover the lost wisdom of the Stoics, for example, but to apply philosophy to the problems of midlife in original ways. There was no guarantee that the results of doing this would be consoling, but as it happens, I believe they are. There are philosophical ideas and arguments that help to address the feelings of regret, of missing out, of finitude, of emptiness and repetition, that we associate with middle age. I want to share these insights.

What sort of guidance do you offer? Can you give us an example?

I won’t give away all my secrets here, but I will introduce one.  It comes from an unexpected source: nineteenth-century pessimist and philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer. Interpreting his argument about the futility of desire, I draw a crucial distinction between two sorts of activities: ones that aim at an end-point, projects like earning a promotion, getting married or writing a book, and ones that don’t, like going for a walk or spending time with friends. A characteristic defect of midlife – certainly, of mine – is excessive investment in projects. But projects are inherently self-subversive: to engage with them successfully is to complete them and so to expel them from your life. The solution is not to deny that projects matter but to invest more fully in the process, to value what I call “atelic” activities (from the Greek “telos” or end). For every project, there is a process of engagement: as well as finishing this book, there is the activity of reading and writing about philosophy; as well as making dinner for your kids or putting them to bed, there is the activity of parenting. Unlike projects, atelic activities do not aim at end-points at which they are completed; to engage with them is not to exhaust them; the satisfaction they provide is not deferred to the future but realized here and now. The final chapter of the book explains how to fill the void in the pursuit of projects by valuing the process, drawing comparisons with the appeal to mindfulness in Buddhism and clinical psychology. It is not an easy transition to make, but it can change your life.

What was it like to move from writing for colleagues to addressing a wider audience?

What I realized in working on Midlife is that the editorial voice in my head when I write for other philosophers is frustratingly argumentative. The nagging questions are “Do you mean X or Y?” and “What about this objection?” The result of listening to that voice is often a tiresome clarity. Not much fun to read. The voice in my head when I wrote Midlife was just as critical, but the refrain was very different. I think about an anecdote I heard from a friend whose family became impatient with stories recounted at the dinner table. When they got bored, they would chant in unison: “Faster! Funnier!” I can’t say how fast or funny I managed to be, but that is more or less the voice I had in mind. Making arguments and distinctions is unavoidable in a work of philosophy, but I tried to keep complexity to a minimum, to make things personal, and to write with my tongue ever so slightly in my cheek. There is a delicate synthesis of sincerity and irony in attempting to write a self-help book without pretending to have it all figured out. For the most part, I enjoyed the balancing act.

Is your book only for the middle-aged?

I hope not. While I had my midlife crisis right on cue at thirty-five, friends have told me that they had theirs earlier or that it is yet to come. You can face up to regret and missing out, to mortality and the tyranny of projects, at almost any age. I think these challenges are especially pressing around midlife, when you are likely to have made serious mistakes and irreversible decisions, when you have achieved success in your ambitions or must finally give them up, when you face the death of parents and loved ones, and when your own death is no longer an abstraction. But they do not go away, and you are welcome to confront them in advance! A case I dwell on in the book is that of Victorian activist and philosopher, John Stuart Mill, who had his crisis at the age of twenty. Not midlife, I know, but Mill was precocious. His attempt to philosophize his nervous breakdown was a major inspiration for my book.


setiyaKieran Setiya is professor of philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the author of Reasons without Rationalism and Knowing Right from Wrong. He lives in Brookline, Massachusetts with his wife and son.

Dennis Rasmussen: The Infidel and the Professor

David Hume is widely regarded as the most important philosopher ever to write in English, but during his lifetime he was attacked as “the Great Infidel” for his skeptical religious views and deemed unfit to teach the young. In contrast, Adam Smith was a revered professor of moral philosophy, and is now often hailed as the founding father of capitalism. Remarkably, the two were best friends for most of their adult lives, sharing what Dennis Rasmussen calls the greatest of all philosophical friendships. The Infidel and the Professor is the first book to tell the fascinating story of their friendship—and how it influenced their world-changing ideas. Read on to learn more about the relationship between these two towering figures in Western philosophical thought.

Who were David Hume and Adam Smith, and why are they important?
Hume and Smith were eighteenth-century Scots who ended up becoming two of the most significant figures of the Enlightenment, and indeed the entire Western tradition. Hume is widely regarded as the greatest philosopher ever to write in the English language. He’s also among the most provocative of philosophers: a powerful critic of both religion and the capacities of human reason, as well as a forceful champion of commerce and the all-around benefits of civilization. Smith is almost certainly history’s most famous theorist of commercial society, or what we’d now call capitalism—in fact, he’s often hailed as the founding father of capitalism. As his modern interpreters never tire of pointing out, though, Smith was far more than an economist who theorized the invisible hand and championed free trade. Instead, he was a professor of moral philosophy who included political economy as just one of his many intellectual interests, and he recognized—to a greater degree than Hume, as a matter of fact—a number of potential dangers and drawbacks associated with commercial society. It’s truly remarkable that two thinkers of this stature were best friends for most of their adult lives; that’s a big part of what inspired me to write the book.

It’s certainly remarkable that they were best friends, but you go so far as to claim that theirs was the greatest of all philosophical friendships. That’s a big claim.
Yes, it is, but I think it’s a warranted one. In fact, it takes some effort to think of who the closest rivals would be. During the course of writing the book this became something of a parlor game that I played with fellow political theorists, philosophers, and intellectual historians: What was the greatest friendship in the history of philosophy? Most people’s first instinct is to say Socrates and Plato, but given the four-decade age disparity between them, their relationship was probably more one of teacher and student, or perhaps mentor and protégé, than one of equals, and in any case the record of their personal interactions is scant. Ditto for Plato and Aristotle. Locke and Newton admired one another, but could hardly be said to be close friends. Heidegger and Arendt had more of a (stormy) romantic relationship than a friendship, as did Sartre and de Beauvoir (with somewhat less drama). As for Montaigne and La Boétie, Lessing and Mendelssohn, Bentham and James Mill, Hegel and Schelling, Marx and Engels, and Whitehead and Russell, in each of these cases at least one member of the pair falls considerably below Hume and Smith in terms of impact and originality. Emerson and Thoreau approach closer to their level, if we choose to count them as philosophers rather than literary figures. The leading contenders among philosophers are probably Erasmus and Thomas More, but in terms of influence and depth of thought most would give the clear nod to Hume and Smith.

You suggest that the context in which Hume and Smith’s friendship took place was almost as remarkable as the friendship itself; can you say a bit more about that?
Hume and Smith were the leading figures of what’s now known as the Scottish Enlightenment, which was really one of history’s intellectual golden ages. Scotland began the eighteenth century as a poor, backward outpost on the fringe of Europe, but Hume’s and Smith’s lifetimes saw the arrival of a vibrant new age of economic prosperity and cultural achievement. Some of the important men of letters of the period, in addition to Hume and Smith, included Hugh Blair, Adam Ferguson, Henry Home (Lord Kames), Francis Hutcheson, John Millar, Thomas Reid, William Robertson, and Dugald Stewart. This Scottish renaissance also comprised natural scientists like the founder of modern geology, James Hutton, the chemist Joseph Black, and James Watt of steam engine fame, as well as artists like the painter Allan Ramsay, the playwright John Home, and the architect Robert Adam. Hume and Smith knew all of these figures personally, and they each play a role in the book. I also describe their encounters with some of the luminaries of the age beyond Scotland, including Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Johnson, James Boswell, Edward Gibbon, Edmund Burke, and Voltaire.

Did Hume and Smith influence one another’s ideas and writings, in addition to being close friends on a personal level?
Hume was almost certainly the single greatest influence on Smith’s thought. There are numerous references to him, both explicit and implicit, throughout Smith’s writings. The reverse is less true, as Hume—the older of the two by a dozen years—had composed almost all of his works before Smith even began to publish his, though Hume did write an anonymous review of Smith’s first book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, soon after its release. That’s not to say, however, that Smith simply adopted Hume’s views wholesale. On the contrary, he modified almost everything he touched. The book explores where and how Smith drew on his friend’s thought and where and how he challenged it on a host of topics, including morality, economics, politics, religion, and the workings of the human mind more broadly.

What’s the significance of the title—why The Infidel and the Professor?
One of the running themes of the book is that Hume and Smith adopted broadly similar views, but very different public postures, toward religion and the religious. Hume was a religious skeptic; he never denied outright the existence of a higher power, but he deemed the principal arguments on behalf of one highly implausible, and he considered the effects of religion to be mostly pernicious. This will be somewhat controversial, but I argue that Smith’s views on this score were substantially closer to Hume’s—that is, substantially more skeptical—than is usually assumed. In making this case I place a special emphasis on a controversial public letter that Smith wrote soon after Hume’s death in which he chronicled—some would say flaunted—the cheerfulness and equanimity of Hume’s final days and described his unbelieving friend as a paragon of wisdom and virtue. Whereas Hume was fairly forthright about his lack of faith, however, Smith generally went to great lengths, in both his writings and his personal life, to avoid revealing his religious beliefs (or lack thereof). These contrary postures led to equally contrary reputations: Hume was christened “the Great Infidel” and was deemed unfit to teach the young—he twice sought professorships, but in both cases the clergy opposed his candidacy decisively—while Smith became a respected professor of moral philosophy.

Does the book break any other new ground?
The literatures on Hume and Smith taken individually are vast, but this is—nearly unbelievably—the first book on the two of them considered together, so it’s easily the fullest account of their personal and intellectual relationship. On a related note, the book also provides the first systematic treatment of Smith’s responses to Hume’s thought over the course of his entire career, from his early essay on the history of astronomy (which was written by 1746) through the final edition of The Theory of Moral Sentiments (which was published in 1790). Still further, the book aims to shift the usual assumptions regarding what’s original and important in Hume’s and Smith’s writings. For much of the twentieth century Smith’s philosophical writings were deemed to be little more than a series of footnotes to Hume’s, and as an economist Hume has long been regarded as a minor predecessor of Smith, insofar as he is taken notice of at all. Ironically, putting the two side by side serves to highlight the importance of Smith’s contributions to moral philosophy and Hume’s to political economy. Smith followed Hume in developing a moral theory based on human sentiments, but his version of moral sentimentalism incorporated several significant improvements on Hume’s. Conversely, Hume argued for free trade and stressed the moral, social, and political benefits of commerce several decades before The Wealth of Nations appeared, and it’s striking how much of that work builds on Hume’s insights.

RasmussenDennis C. Rasmussen is associate professor of political science at Tufts University. His books include The Pragmatic Enlightenment. He lives in Charlestown, Massachusetts.

Dennis Rasmussen: National Friendship Day

Today, August 6, is National Friendship Day. Rather than celebrate this Hallmark holiday by sending a slew of greeting cards, as its originators hoped, I propose to use it to raise and answer a fascinating but seldom-asked question: What was the greatest friendship in the history of philosophy?

I am convinced that the answer is clear, once the leading contenders have been considered: the greatest of all philosophical friendships was that of David Hume and Adam Smith. Hume is, after all, widely regarded as the most important philosopher ever to write in English, and Smith is almost certainly history’s most famous theorist of commercial society, or what we would now call capitalism. They are two of the most significant figures in the entire Western tradition, and they were best friends for most of their adult lives. My new book, The Infidel and the Professor, follows the course of Hume and Smith’s friendship from their first meeting in 1749 until Hume’s death more than a quarter of a century later, examining both their personal interactions and the impact that each had on the other’s outlook.

During the course of writing the book I frequently invited fellow political theorists, philosophers, and intellectual historians to nominate alternative friendships as the greatest in the history of philosophy. Most people’s first instinct was to say Socrates and Plato, but given the four-decade age disparity between them, their relationship was probably more one of teacher and student, or perhaps mentor and protégé, than one of equals, and in any case the record of their personal interactions is scant. Ditto for Plato and Aristotle. Locke and Newton admired one another, but could hardly be said to be close friends. Heidegger and Arendt had more of a (stormy) romantic relationship than a friendship, as did Sartre and de Beauvoir (with somewhat less drama). As for Montaigne and La Boétie, Lessing and Mendelssohn, Bentham and James Mill, Hegel and Schelling, Marx and Engels, and Whitehead and Russell, in each of these cases at least one member of the pair falls considerably below Hume and Smith in terms of impact and originality. Emerson and Thoreau approach closer to their level, if we choose to count them as philosophers rather than literary figures. The strongest contenders among philosophers are probably Erasmus and Thomas More, but in terms of influence and depth of thought most would give the clear nod to Hume and Smith.

Given their stature and influence it is remarkable that no book has heretofore been written on Hume and Smith’s personal or intellectual relationship. One likely reason for this is that friendships are more difficult to bring to life than feuds and quarrels: conflict makes for high drama, while camaraderie does not. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that there have been many books written on philosophical clashes—think of David Edmonds and John Eidinow’s Wittgenstein’s Poker and Rousseau’s Dog, Yuval Levin’s The Great Debate, Steven Nadler’s The Best of All Possible Worlds, Matthew Stewart’s The Courtier and the Heretic, and Robert Zaretsky and John Scott’s The Philosophers’ Quarrel, to name only a few recent titles—but far fewer on philosophical friendships. Even biographies of Hume tend to devote less attention to his long friendship with Smith than to his brief quarrel with Rousseau, which, sensational as it may have been, was not nearly as central to Hume’s life and thought.

The relative lack of attention paid to philosophical friendships, while understandable, is unfortunate. Friendship was understood to be a key component of philosophy and the philosophical life from the very beginning, as even a cursory reading of Plato or Aristotle should remind us. The latter famously claimed that friendship is the one good without which no one would choose to live even if he possessed all other goods, and Hume and Smith clearly concurred. Hume held that “friendship is the chief joy of human life,” and Smith proclaimed that the esteem and affection of one’s friends constitutes “the chief part of human happiness.” Indeed, Hume proposed a small thought experiment to prove Aristotle’s point. “Let all the powers and elements of nature conspire to serve and obey one man,” he suggests. “Let the sun rise and set at his command: The sea and rivers roll as he pleases, and the earth furnish spontaneously whatever may be useful or agreeable to him. He will still be miserable, till you give him some one person at least, with whom he may share his happiness, and whose esteem and friendship he may enjoy.”

Aristotle divides friendships into three types: those motivated by utility, those motivated by pleasure, and—the highest and rarest of the three—those motivated by virtue or excellence. Smith draws a similar distinction in his first book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, though he insists that the latter alone “deserve the sacred and venerable name of friendship.” Smith’s relationship with Hume represents a nearly textbook model of this kind of friendship: a stable, enduring, reciprocal bond that arises not just from serving one another’s interests or from taking pleasure in one another’s company, but also from the shared pursuit of a noble end—in their case, philosophical understanding.

An examination of Hume and Smith’s personal and intellectual relationship thus allows for a different kind of reflection on friendship than is found in the works of Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Montaigne, Bacon, and the like. Whereas these leading philosophers of friendship tend to analyze the concept in the abstract—the different forms that friendship takes, its roots in human nature, its relationship to self-interest, to romantic love, and to justice—a consideration of Hume and Smith allows us to see that rare thing, a philosophical friendship of the very highest level in action: a case study, as it were. As my book aims to show, it is a friendship very much worth celebrating.

RasmussenDennis C. Rasmussen is associate professor of political science at Tufts University. His books include The Pragmatic Enlightenment. He lives in Charlestown, Massachusetts.

Which Heretic are You?

Steven and Ben Nadler’s Heretics is a graphic novel account of the seventeenth-century thinkers who challenged the authority of church and king—risking excommunication, imprisonment, and even execution—to lay the foundations of modern philosophy and science. But which of these radical philosophers would you have been? Take our quiz and find out:

Do you believe that God is:

When a tree falls in a forest, do you think that:

When one body gravitates toward another, is it because:

Do you believe mind and body are:

Are miracles possible?

What is the source of a political sovereign’s authority?

Is this the best of all possible worlds?

What happens when you die?

Steven and Ben Nadler: Happy Father’s Day

by Ben Nadler


It’s now been two years since I began a collaboration with my dad, a philosophy professor, on a graphic book. He was wanting to do a philosophy book that would reach a wide readership, especially high school and college students, and I was fresh out of art school and looking for something big to do. When he suggested we do a project together, I didn’t hesitate at all. With his knowledge of seventeenth-century philosophy and my training in illustration, we could do something really original and exciting. Although he was in Madison, Wisconsin, and I was living in Seattle, we were able to work through hundreds of emails and phone calls. He would send me the text for the book, and I’d give him some comments and suggestions on what seemed to work and what didn’t. Then I would send him my pencil sketches and he would give me feedback as I tried to make these philosophers and their abstract ideas into a visually engaging and philosophically and historically informative story. Now, when people ask me what it was like working with my dad, it is hard to come up with even one example of friction or disagreement that took place during the process. We are both really happy with the final result, a 200-page graphic book that makes seventeenth-century philosophy—perhaps the most important and fascinating period in the history of philosophy—accessible and entertaining. In addition to having this book to show for our work, which I am incredibly proud of, I now have a far greater understanding of what my dad does for a living. And because he has an understanding of what it is about comics I find so compelling, we’re even closer now than before we worked together.


NadlerSteven Nadler is the William H. Hay II Professor of Philosophy and Evjue-Bascom Professor in the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. His books include Spinoza: A Life, which won the Koret Jewish Book Award, and Rembrandt’s Jews, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He lives in Madison. Ben Nadler is a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design and an illustrator. He lives in Chicago. Follow him on Instagram at @bennadlercomics. They are the author and illustrator of Heretics!: The Wondrous (and Dangerous) Beginnings of Modern Philosophy.

Bart Schultz on The Happiness Philosophers

SchultzIn The Happiness Philosophers, Bart Schultz tells the colorful story of the lives and legacies of the founders of utilitarianism—one of the most profoundly influential yet misunderstood and maligned philosophies of the past two centuries. Best known for arguing that “it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong,” utilitarianism was developed by the radical philosophers, critics, and social reformers William Godwin (the husband of Mary Wollstonecraft and father of Mary Shelley), Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart and Harriet Taylor Mill, and Henry Sidgwick. Schultz recently took the time to answer some questions about his new book.

What do you hope to achieve with this book?

Well, I suppose it represents one of the ways in which I try to “do good better,” as the saying goes.  Among other things, I would like to see it help spark a more critical approach to the so-called “happiness industry,” that vast literature (both popular and academic) on the subject of happiness that far too often lends itself to questionable political (or apolitical) agendas.  The great nineteenth-century utilitarians—Godwin and Bentham, Mill and Sidgwick—developed and deployed their notions of happiness as part of their tireless efforts to advance social reform, e.g. seeking to promote happiness by securing political and social equality for women.  They had their failings, but their energetic reformism was often admirable and their example remains relevant to our political situation today.  Were they around today, they would all be participating in the Women’s Marches, fighting global poverty, and sounding the alarm about global warming.

Many people might not think of utilitarianism in that way, or of academic philosophy as holding that potential.

Yes, but those are views that I am out to challenge.  I hope that my book will inspire people in many different walks of life, academic or not, both to revisit the classical utilitarians and to engage with the wonderful utilitarian philosophizing at work in the world today, as evidenced by the journal Utilitas.  Curiously, although there is a laudable and widespread interest in the work of Peter Singer, particularly the animal liberation and effective altruism movements that he did so much to advance, that interest often fails to extend to the philosophical roots of his utilitarian perspective in the work of Henry Sidgwick, the greatest of the nineteenth century utilitarians.  But if the philosophizing and activism of Singer can so engage people, the work of Sidgwick and the other great utilitarians should be able to inspire them as well.  True, the old, malicious caricatures of the classical utilitarians are still far too common.  In my own experience teaching at the University of Chicago for thirty years, even many of the brightest young students of philosophy harbor views of classical utilitarianism that owe more to the hostile depictions of it by critics than to the classical utilitarian writings themselves.  They have read Michel Foucault on Bentham, but not Bentham; John Rawls on Sidgwick, but not Sidgwick, and so on.

How will your book change that?

By providing fuller portraits of the lives and works of the classical utilitarians taken together.  The philosophizing and the activist life of, say, William Godwin (but the others as well) were genuinely inseparable, and one gets a much better sense of what his philosophy actually meant by looking at how it was realized in his life—for example, in his relationships with the amazing Mary Wollstonecraft and the daughter they had, Mary Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein.  When students meet classical utilitarianism only through one or another stylized argument (often not one that was actually made by the great utilitarians), as in the popular “Trolley cases,” they do not gain a good sense of the resources of the utilitarian perspective, of its potential as a change agent.  Thus, much of what people today champion as a many-sided liberal education—the kind of education that Martha Nussbaum has done so much to articulate and defend—was in fact defended by such figures as Mill and Sidgwick, on utilitarian grounds.  They loved and promoted the humanities, and often criticized the universities for failing to support philosophy, literature, and the arts, as well as for failing to open up educational opportunities for all.  On these topics and others, we still have much to learn from them.

What is your biggest worry or regret about your book?

Naturally, I wish that I could have spent another ten years on it—there is still so much research to do, especially on Bentham.  Also, it breaks my heart that Derek Parfit, who died on January 1st, will not around to read the final published version.  He read various drafts, especially of the chapter on Sidgwick, and was very, very supportive and helpful, as he always has been.  My first major publication was an article contributed to the 1986 Ethics symposium on Reasons and Persons, an article to which he wrote a Reply, and I think that from that time to this I have never published anything without wondering what he would think of it—and fortunately, very often finding out, since he was so generous in his comments.  Some of my more recent work was devoted to On What Matters.  And I was profoundly honored to include him in the book symposium that I edited on Kasia de Lazari-Radek and Peter Singer’s recent book, The Point of View of the Universe.  Readers familiar with Derek’s work will see how parts of my Sidgwick chapter, relating to personal identity and other issues, are addressed to some of the points that he made about Sidgwick.  I once remarked to him that I thought his work was ultimately more about reasons, and mine more about persons, in the full biographical sense.  But really, he was the one who, with J. B. Schneewind, gave me the confidence and courage to pursue my Sidgwick studies, which in turn led to this book.  I am glad to have this opportunity to explain just how much I owe to both of them.

Bart Schultz is senior lecturer in the humanities and director of the Civic Knowledge Project at the University of Chicago. He is the author of The Happiness Philosophers: The Lives and Works of the Great Utilitarians.

Steven and Ben Nadler on Heretics!: An enlightening graphic novel

NadlerThis entertaining and enlightening graphic narrative tells the exciting story of the seventeenth-century thinkers who challenged authority to lay the foundations of modern philosophy and science and help usher in a new world. With masterful storytelling and color illustrations by father-son duo Steven Nadler and Ben Nadler, Heretics! offers a unique introduction to the birth of modern thought in comics form. These contentious and controversial philosophers—from Galileo and Descartes to Spinoza, Locke, Leibniz, and Newton—fundamentally changed the way we look at the world, society, and ourselves. Heretics! tells the story of their ideas, lives, and times in a vivid new way. Read on for a conversation between Steven and Ben about the process of working together on a graphic novel, their favorite illustrations, and what they each learned along the way.

Ben:  So Dad, tell me, what gave you the idea for us to do a graphic book together on modern philosophy?

Steven: Well, my editor at Princeton University Press had asked me to write a big new history of philosophy, perhaps with some illustrations done by you. But I wasn’t sure that was something I wanted to do. However, I was intrigued by the notion of doing something really creative with a history of philosophy in the seventeenth century, my specialty. And then, with you recently graduated from art school, I thought it would be really fun to do something together. And it was! Let me ask you: why did you want to do it?


Ben: It was an offer I could not refuse. I was an intern in Seattle just out of RISD, but not really employed as an illustrator. So I was hoping this book would be a good way to get that career started. I was also part-way through a graphic novel that didn’t seem to have an end in sight, so the idea of doing a more collaborative project that had some structure and a deadline was appealing. Plus, it was a chance to bond with my father! What were your expectations going into it?

Steven: I was hoping that we could find an engaging and entertaining way to introduce a broad audience to a really interesting period of philosophy and a fascinating group of philosophers. I want this book to be read not just by professional philosophers and philosophy students, but general readers of all kinds, including high school and college students. It had to be really accessible and tell a good story. The hard part for me, in writing the text, was to avoid two extremes: on the one hand, being too dry and academic, and, on the other hand, being condescending and patronizing. I had to find the right balance between academic writing and simplistic popularizing. What was the hard part for you?


Ben:  The hardest part was finding the right visualizations for some of the really abstract, conceptual and heady ideas that you wrote about. It’s one thing to draw biographical comics about philosophers, and another to try to illustrate Leibniz’s concept of “monads.”

Steven: Yes, I do remember your panicked phone call asking me what the hell a monad is.  We had to give a lot of thought to how to depict a monad visually, and I checked in with various colleagues to see if they had any ideas.  Everyone was kind of stumped.  I think you came up with the best solution.  The other tough challenge was how to illustrate a person’s soul (as distinct from their body). Again, I think you did a great job with that visually.  What’s your favorite page or chapter of the book?


Ben: The page where the two guys are getting pushed out the window was really tough, I had to spend a whole day trying to get the perspective right. That might be my favorite illustration, because of how much work went into it and seeing the final pay-off. I also tend to like the later pages, after I settled into my drawing habits and improved over the year and a half we worked on the book. I completely re-drew the first twenty pages or so after everything else was finished, just to try to maintain a consistent look. What about you? I’m going to guess it’s God waving goodbye as the earth gets on the school bus.

Steven: Yes, I love that image of God waving goodbye to the world.  And the illustration of the defenestration is wonderful, really bold.  I also like the corpuscle in motion, roller-blading with headphones, in the section on Gassendi, and the image from the Newton chapter showing the earth and the moon being tugged toward each other by gravity as they hold on to the edges of the panel.  In the end, did you enjoy the experience of illustrating philosophy? It’s hard to do, and I think you did a brilliant job—but then again, I’m your father, and a little biased.


Ben: Thanks, Dad! I did enjoy it, it was challenging and fun. I learned a lot about what makes a book come together. I especially liked researching and implementing all of the costume design and set pieces for 17th century Europe, it was a really immersive way to learn about western philosophy.

Steven Nadler is the William H. Hay II Professor of Philosophy and Evjue-Bascom Professor in the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. His books include Spinoza: A Life, which won the Koret Jewish Book Award, and Rembrandt’s Jews, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Ben Nadler, a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, is an illustrator. They are the author and the illustrator of Heretics! The Wondrous (and Dangerous) Beginnings of Modern Philosophy.


Nadler portraits

Presenting the trailer for Heretics!: The Wondrous (and Dangerous) Beginnings of Modern Philosophy

This entertaining and enlightening graphic narrative tells the exciting story of the seventeenth-century thinkers who challenged authority—sometimes risking excommunication, prison, and even death—to lay the foundations of modern philosophy and science and help usher in a new world. With masterful storytelling and color illustrations, Heretics! offers a unique introduction to the birth of modern thought in comics form—smart, charming, and often funny. A brilliant account of one of the most brilliant periods in philosophy, Heretics! is the story of how a group of brave thinkers used reason and evidence to triumph over the authority of religion, royalty, and antiquity. Watch the trailer here:


Heretics!: The Wondrous (and Dangerous) Beginnings of Modern Philosophy by Steven Nadler & Ben Nadler from Princeton University Press on Vimeo.

HereticsSteven Nadler is the William H. Hay II Professor of Philosophy and Evjue-Bascom Professor in the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. His books include Spinoza: A Life, which won the Koret Jewish Book Award, and Rembrandt’s Jews, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He lives in Madison. Ben Nadler is a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design and an illustrator. He lives in Chicago. Follow him on Instagram at @bennadlercomics.

A peek inside The Art of Philosophy by Susanna Berger

Delving into the intersections between artistic images and philosophical knowledge in Europe from the late sixteenth to the early eighteenth centuries, The Art of Philosophy shows that the making and study of visual art functioned as important methods of philosophical thinking and instruction. Featuring previously unpublished prints and drawings from the early modern period and lavish gatefolds, The Art of Philosophy reveals the essential connections between visual commentary and philosophical thought. Watch the trailer to learn more:

The Art of Philosophy: Visual Thinking in Europe from the Late Renaissance to the Early Enlightenment by Susanna Berger from Princeton University Press on Vimeo.

Susanna Berger is assistant professor of art history at the University of Southern California.

David Alan Grier: The Light of Computation

by David Alan Grier

When one figure steps into the light, others can be seen in the reflected glow. The movie Hidden Figures has brought a little light to the contributions of NASA’s human computers. Women such as Katherine Goble Johnson and her colleagues of the West Area Computers supported the manned space program by doing hours of repetitive, detailed orbital calculations. These women were not the first mathematical workers to toil in the obscurity of organized scientific calculation. The history of organized computing groups can be traced back to the 17th century, when a French astronomer convinced three friends to help him calculate the date that Halley’s comet would return to view. Like Johnson, few human computers have received any recognition for their labors. For many, only their families appreciated the work that they did. For some, not even their closest relatives knew of their role in the scientific community.

GrierMy grandmother confessed her training as a human computer only at the very end of her life. At one dinner, she laid her fork on the table and expressed regret that she had never used calculus. Since none of us believed that she had gone to college, we dismissed the remark and moved the conversation in a different direction. Only after her passing did I find the college records that confirmed she had taken a degree in mathematics from the University of Michigan in 1921. The illumination from those records showed that she was not alone. Half of the twelve mathematics majors in her class were women. Five of those six had been employed as human computers or statistical clerks.

By 1921, organized human computing was fairly common in industrialized countries. The governments of the United States, Germany, France, Great Britain, Japan, and Russia supported groups that did calculations for nautical almanacs, national surveys, agricultural statistics, weapons testing, and weather prediction. The British Association for the Advancement of Science operated a computing group. So did the Harvard Observatory, Iowa State University, and the University of Indiana. One school, University College London, published a periodical for these groups, Tracts for Computers.

While many of these human computers were women, most were not. Computation was considered to be a form of clerical work, which was still a career dominated by men. However, human computers tended to be individuals who faced economic or social barriers to their careers. These barriers prevented them from becoming a scientist or engineer in spite of their talents. In the book When Computers Were Human, I characterized them as “Blacks, women, Irish, Jews and the merely poor.” One of the most prominent computing groups of the 20th century, the Mathematical Tables Project, hired only the impoverished. It operated during the Great Depression and recruited its 450 computers from New York City’s unemployment rolls.

During its 10 years of operations, the Math Tables Project toiled in obscurity. Only a few members of the scientific community recognized its contributions. Hans Bethe asked the group to do the calculations for a paper that he was writing in the physics of the sun. The engineer Philip Morse brought problems from his colleagues at MIT. The pioneering computer scientist John von Neumann asked the group to test a new mathematical optimization technique after he was unable to test it on the new ENIAC computer. However, most scientists maintained a distance between themselves and the Mathematical Tables Project. One member of the Academy of Science explained his reservations about the Project with an argument that came to be known as the Computational Syllogism. Scientists, he argued, are successful people. The poor, he asserted, are not successful. Therefore, he concluded, the poor cannot be scientists and hence should not be employed in computation.

Like the human computers of NASA, the Mathematical Tables Project had a brief moment in the spotlight. In 1964, the leader of the Project, Gertrude Blanch, received a Federal Woman’s Award from President Lyndon Johnson for her contributions to the United States Government. Yet, her light did not shine far enough to bring recognition to the 20 members of the Math Tables Project who published a book, later that year, on the methods of scientific computing. The volume became one of the most highly sold scientific books in history. Nonetheless, few people knew that it was written by former human computers.

The attention to Katherine Goble Johnson is welcome because it reminds us that science is a community endeavor. When we recognize the authors of scientific articles, or applaud the distinguished men and women who receive Nobel Prizes (or in the case of computer science, Turing Medals) we often fail to see the community members that were essential to the scientific work. At least in Hidden Figures, they receive a little of the reflected light.

David Alan Grier is the author of When Computers Were Human. He writes “Global Code” for Computer magazine and products the podcast “How We Manage Stuff.” He can be reached at grier@gwu.edu.