Harvard Classics, Volume 37: British Philosophy

This volume of the Harvard Classics was a bit of a slog, covering three extremely influential British philosophers: John Locke, George Berkeley and David Hume. These three are giants of the Enlightenment, and so reading them was both elucidating, but something I found a bit tedious.

The work included to represent Locke was his Some Thoughts Concerning Education. This lays out his pedagogical positions starting from early childhood and working his way through late adolescence. The work also primarily concerns the private instruction of a student by a tutor, rather than in a classroom setting. His main recommendations were to use corporal punishment sparingly, focus on good health, and focus on useful subjects giving sufficient time to things commonly taught so the student didn’t look like an idiot when they grew up. Locke also wrote an extended section on bowel movements.

On most subjects, Locke was of a mind that students should learn enough not to embarrass themselves, but not to worry about things having a scholarly knowledge of Greek and Latin unless they intended to do scholarly work. In that era, however, Locke considered being able to read Latin as necessary, although he considered knowing all the finer points of grammar to be unnecessary. His big advice for learning Latin was to read the Gospels in that language, since these are works people should be familiar with prior to learning Latin anyways.

In George Berkeley’s Three Dialogues he lays out arguments against the skeptics and atheists of his age. I really dislike the dialogue format because the nature of the format makes it difficult to follow and breaks up ideas with competing arguments. The notion that Berkeley is trying to push ultimately is that, contrary to what Jung calls scientific materialism, ideas are what is real and everything else are projections of ideas. His case for the existence of God is that it becomes necessary for things to be constantly observed in order to exist, so God fulfills the role of universal observer.

Finally there is David Hume’s incredibly important work on epistemology, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. This work looks at the question of the extent that we can actually know things. He basically comes down on the side of you can know what you experience, and you can know solutions to abstract problems, and everything else has to be taken with a grain of salt depending on how well it fits what you already know.

I think Hume mostly gets things right when it comes to treating things with a healthy skepticism, but also acknowledging that being certain of something being false is just as hard as being certain that something is true. One of the things I thought would make this better is a dive into how the experience we have, and what information we choose to consume, has a large impact on what we believe. However, this is probably something that’s easier to see and work with in the information age.

In summary, none of these were life changing experiences, but they were important things to have read and to have grappled with. Next are a bunch of short works on medicine, followed by the big, multivolume set of English Poetry, American Historical Documents, Religious Writings, Elizabethan Drama, the works of Pascal, and finally Germanic Saga.

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