Two somewhat neglected 18th Cent Philosophers

The most accessible introduction to great philosophers, for me anyway, are the You-Tube programmes made by Bryan Magee maybe some 30 years ago. Particularly interesting was Iris Murdoch talking about Philosophy and Literature. Then there was the lucid conversation with Anthony Quinton on Spinoza and Leibnitz. The clearest philosophy book I managed to grasp however, was Language, Truth and Logic by A.J.Ayer. Freddie Ayer used to appear on the Brains Trust on Sunday afternoons -such excellent stimulating elevating television as we seem to see but rarely nowadays. True conversation seemingly in short supply.

However, skimming through Herman’s delightful book on The Scottish Enlightenment, I came across the intriguing philosopher, Francis Hutcheson (1694-1746). Here is how Herman concludes upon him…”He challenged other forms of oppression, which Locke and even Shaftesbury had ignored…….One was the legal subjection of women. Hutcheson defined rights as universal, and did not recognise any distinction based on gender. The other, even more important was slavery. ‘Nothing’, he said, ‘can change a rational creature into a piece of goods void of all rights.’ In fact Hutcheson’s lectures, published after his death under the title A System of Moral Philosophy, were ‘an attack on all forms of slavery as well as denial of any right to govern solely on superior abilities or riches.’ They would inspire anti-slavery abolitionists, not only in Scotland but from London to Philadelphia.

The second philosopher who had a more psychological interest and lived a little later and for the same number of years was David Hartley (1705-1757). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Hartley_(philosopher)

His thoughts on what he terms variolation are certainly pertinent to our contemporary discussions on vaccination. However, his interest in an early study of the philosophy interface with psychology also makes for a certain claim to fame on behalf of this doctor from Yorkshire. According to the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, Hartley wrote a significant treatise. “The Observations gained dedicated advocates in Britain, America, and Continental Europe, who appreciated it both for its science and its spirituality. As science, the work grounds consciousness in neuro-physiology, mind in brain. On this basis, the central concept of “association,” much discussed by other British philosophers and psychologists, receives distinctive treatment: the term first  names the physiological process that generates “ideas,” and then the psychological processes by which perceptions, thoughts, and emotions either link and fuse or break apart. In keeping with this physiological approach, Hartley offers a conceptually novel account of how we learn and perform skilled actions, a dimension of human nature often left unexplored in works of philosophy. Such actions include those involved in speech—and, by extension, the conduct of scientific inquiry.”

Although difficult perhaps to penetrate his writings in detail it seems to me that in relation to certain aspects of volition, memory, sensation and associations are a significant forerunner of Freud and psychoanalysis. It is often stated that Nietzsche’s thought have such an influence but Hartley should be recognised for his insights at much earlier period.

By penwithlit

Freelance writer and radio presenter

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