Taxonomic Impulse

Michel Foucault

Michel Foucault (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What is the “taxonomic impulse” as discussed by Outram on page 68 and elsewhere?

Michel Foucault introduced the term “taxonomic impulse” to describe the scientific impulse to classify and categorize the objects in the natural world (Outram 68). This desire allowed scientists to distinguish between human beings around the world, but instead of allowing them to learn about the differences in a positive way, this impulse led to the conclusion that certain races are inferior to others. This consideration, as a result, led to less rather than more open mindedness about those races and cultures. Once something is classified as inferior, it demands

very little interest. Thus, it was reasonable (if you agree with the originally flawed premises of this argument) to then argue that blacks were inferior, as many Enlightenment thinkers unfortunately did.

To me, taxonomic impulse seems to be only the beginning stage of understanding or categorizing the world. At some point, we need to move past categories and superficial elements like external characteristics and go deeper in our understanding. Research in sociology, education, and psychology have elevated our understanding of the world around us and how similar we all can be given certain conditions. But this work is yet to be done in relationship to other creatures on earth.  For example, we are still only mainly talking about animals in terms of group dynamics and what their species tends to or tends to not do. Thus, we only understand them on a basic categorical (species-only) level. However, there are now beginning to be some psychological and social studies on animals as well. Pet owners already know that no two animals in their household are alike in personality, much in the same way that children vary in personality and temperament. But now science is discovering this as well. Thus, it is natural to infer that no two tigers or sea lions or elephants are exactly alike. These animals, like people, are influenced not only by their natures, but also by the kind of family group that they were raised in and the kinds of environmental factors that influence them. For example, many dogs who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan are suffering with PTSD, just like other (human) veterans.

What we need now are more of these studies and more of this kind of holistic thinking when it comes to animals. That way, we can move away from classifying and understanding other creatures on a classification or categorization level (that is driven by taxonomic impulsiveness, which can and so far does result in us thinking that animals are inferior to humans and that certain animals are inferior to other animals) and toward a more wholesome study of animals (one that considers their psychologies and sociologies). But as with slavery and the Enlightenment, this will also mean that we will have to reevaluate our farming/food consumption practices.

Outram, Dorinda. The Enlightenment. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Print.

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Slavery and Enlightenment

On page 63 Outram talks about the “intractable paradoxes in the relationship between the existence of slavery and the Enlightenment.” Explain what she means, evaluating her statement in the context of her larger discussion.

Slavery was essential to the globalization, “the increasingly integrated world economy,” of the Enlightenment (Outram 64). It was highly profitable, especially for colonial plantation production, and these profits “primed the economic pump, and provided higher tax revenues to the ever-expanding governments”(Outram 65). Slavery affected all aspects of world’s economies and people could not imagine the costs that would accrue if they were to abolish it. The institution of slavery was a highly profitable business and like any business, which other businesses depend on for survival, slavery was very difficult to get rid of. A contemporary equivalent might be the oil business. Many people agree that it is damaging to the environment and expensive for consumers, but many businesses depend on it for survival; thus, it is very difficult to get rid of (or transition it into green technologies).

But as Enlightenment ideas grew in popularity, the movement faced an increasing and powerful paradox. Slavery was totally against any notions of the Enlightenment in that the Enlightenment was a movement that aimed to promote equality and universal rights. True equality could not exist within a country that supported or had slavery. Similarly, I predict we will at some point reach a saturation point in consuming oil and other environmentally hazardous things for energy. At some point, people will choose to pay more for more environmentally friendly solutions because other choices will just be considered irresponsible. Thus, there will be a need for companies that sell these products and the world will be better for it.

Outram, D. The Enlightenment. 2nd ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University. 2005. Print.

Function of Kant’s Guardians

True or false: the function of “guardians” is essentially hostile to individual thought and initiative. Make sure your response to this focuses on specific passages from the essay. In other words, don’t simply generalize.

The function of guardians is not essentially hostile to individual thought and initiative; it depends on which sphere it is used in. Kant argues that “the public use of reason must at all times be free, and it alone can bring about enlightenment among men; the private use of reason, however, may often be very narrowly restricted without the progress of Enlightenment being particularly hindered” (59-60). The public sphere is a place where people are free from obligation of their calling, and subjects are free to write or speak critically (Outram 2). The private sphere is a place where people have an actual duty to restrain the expression of wayward political judgment, in the interest of upholding the ruler’s will and lessening the likelihood of the outbreak of chaos (Outram 2). Therefore, in the private sphere, the soldier must not criticize his superior officer, and the curate must not criticize the bishop, even if their commands seem absurd and wrong (Outram 2). In general, Kant is not very optimistic of the entire Enlightenment process. In particular he points out that “a public can achieve enlightenment only gradually. A revolution may perhaps bring about the fall of an autocratic despotism…, but he can never bring about the true reform of a way of thinking” (59). Instead, new prejudices will replace the old, “as the leading strings of the faultless masses” (59). Therefore the free public use of reason is the only way that enlightenment among men can be achieved.

Kant, Immanuel. “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?” (1784). Trans. James Schmidt. 58-64.

Dorinda Outram, The Enlightenment, 2nd ed., Cambridge Univ. Press, 2005. ISBN: 9780521546812

Kant’s Guardians

What does Kant mean in his essay by the term “guardians” on page 58? Is he absolutely opposed to all forms of social and intellectual “guardianship” or is his position more complex than that?

Guardians are people who “take up the oversight of mankind” for others (58). For example, a guardian is a pastor who supplements for an individual’s conscience; a guardian is a doctor who judges the individual’s diet. These guardians set themselves up as guardians for immature individuals and make sure that the majority of people view the step to maturity as both difficult and dangerous. Guardians make immature individuals stupid domestic animals and prevent “these placid creatures from daring to take one step out” beyond the cart to which they are tied (58 – 59). Guardians instill fear into immature individuals by saying that they are capable of proceeding on their own. While the danger is actually not that great, guardians instill fear and make immature individuals timid and easily frightened. As a result, it is difficult for any individual “to work himself out of any maturity that has become almost natural to him” (59). For Kant, guardians are representatives of social structure who tried to keep individualism down in order to preserve the status quo. He argues that rules and formulas are “the fetters of an everlasting immaturity” (59). Kant is not absolutely opposed to all forms of social and intellectual guardianship. He divides society into two spheres, public and private. The public sphere is a place where people are free from obligation of their calling, and subjects are free to write or speak critically (Outram 2). The private sphere is a place where people have an actual duty to restrain the expression of wayward political judgment, in the interest of upholding the ruler’s will and lessening the likelihood of the outbreak of chaos (Outram 2). Therefore, in the private sphere, the soldier must not criticize his superior officer, and the curate must not criticize the bishop, even if their commands seem absurd and wrong (Outram 2).

Kant, Immanuel. “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?” (1784). Trans. James Schmidt. 58-64.

Dorinda Outram, The Enlightenment, 2nd ed., Cambridge Univ. Press, 2005. ISBN: 9780521546812

The Social basis of the Enlightenment

What does Dorinda Outram mean by the phrase, “the social basis of the Enlightenment”? Try to get at some of the complex meanings indicated by the word “social.”

Outram uses the phrase “social basis of the Enlightenment” to discuss new interests of historians in the 1970s. These historians were becoming more interested in the social basis of the Enlightenment, “in the problem of how ideas were transmitted, used and responded to by society” (4). As a result, instead of focusing on a few select works by great minds, these historians were doing research on the many forgotten professional writers “who wrote for the market anything from pornography to children’s books, two handbooks for the traveler, to textbooks on Roman history” (4). These writers were commercial and were far more widely read than the great writers we know today. Like all social movements, the Enlightenment is based on the relationship between the individual and his society. According to the traditional interpretation, enlightenment is a desire for individuals to be guided by rationality instead of faith and superstitions. Accordingly, the social basis of this interpretation pits the rational individual against traditional society. This individual and this kind of society are hostile to religion, and in constant search for freedom and progress. Thus, the focus on popular writers of the time aims to uncover “the social basis of the Enlightenment” or the everyday ideas/thoughts that people were interacting and dealing with. It is these social ideas, ideas of the public ilsphere, which likely had the biggest impact in changing the ways in which common folks thought about their place in the world.

Dorinda Outram, The Enlightenment, 2nd ed., Cambridge Univ. Press, 2005. ISBN: 9780521546812

New interpretation of the Englightment

Dorinda Outram says her interpretation of the Enlightenment is a “new” one. In what way does she make a new interpretation? What is she paying attention to that previous scholars, like Ernst Cassirer and Peter Gay, neglected?

Cassirer bounded the period by the lives of two philosophers, Leibniz and Kant, implying that the period was “a-political” while contemporary interpretations go beyond the works of leading thinkers of the time and closer to general history (3). Cassier’s views were “to a large extent reproduced” by Gay “in the leading synthesis of the postwar period” (3). He classifies the first period of the Enlightenment as that of Voltaire, the second as that of Dennis Diderot, D’Alembert, and Rousseau, and the last as that of Lessing and Kant. Outram’s interpretation of the Enlightenment incorporates the relationship between the Enlightenment and the creation of a global world. Globalization is “the study of the history of the factors which, with accelerating speed since the Enlightenment, have come together to make the world a single system… A world drama” (8-9). Outram points out that very few historians have tried to “integrate the creation of a unified world within the structures of Enlightenment thought” (9). As a result, instead of understanding the Enlightenment has ultimately a unitary phenomenon, Outram argues that another way of thinking about it is as “a series of interlocking, and sometimes warring problems and debates” (2). This new interpretation sees the movement as “a group of capsules or flashpoints where intellectual projects change society and government on a worldwide basis” (2).

Dorinda Outram, The Enlightenment, 2nd ed., Cambridge Univ. Press, 2005. ISBN: 9780521546812