October 28, 2008

Thoughts on Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man

Filed under: philosophy,reading — crcb @ 10:22 pm
Tags: , , ,

I admire Thomas Paine greatly; he’s rather high up in my pantheon of saints. He was a brilliant polemicist, and he sacrificed everything to fight for human liberty. But he was not a subtle philosopher.

One error he falls into, and he’s certainly not alone in this, is the general statement of the form The purpose of X is Y, rather than A purpose of some X is Y. Examples of this fallacy are “The purpose of government is to protect our rights,” and “The purpose of art is to delight and instruct.” As if every thing of class X must have the same purpose, at all times and places, for everybody!

My own belief — and this is a prejudice, not a reasoned position — is that the purpose of each thing is to be what it is. The purpose of the Rembrandt’s The Night Watch is to be The Night Watch. The purpose of Rembrandt was to be — not an artist — but Rembrandt.

Admittedly, this makes the question of purpose somewhat tautological (how can anything not be what it is?) — but perhaps I don’t really believe in “purposes of.” (See how prejudices fall apart when you start thinking?) To explore this topic properly, we should define what we mean by purpose, and how a thing’s purpose differs (if it does) from its use.

Some other shortcomings in Paine:

  • He traces human rights back to a mythical state of nature, without explaining why that time (even if it existed) should have a special authority today.
  • He believes, against all evidence, that people will act rationally, and in their own interests. (Greenspan is in good company.)

1 Comment »

  1. polemicist? Dang, I had to look the meaning up! A well chosen word!

    Comment by ahrcanum — March 29, 2009 @ 7:27 pm | Reply

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