Bacon and de la Mettrie Discussion


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In Week 1, we read works by Bacon and de la Mettrie,both natural philosophers who argued that we must look at the world asit exists in order to understand it. In the latter case, de la Mettriewent so far as to argue that, lacking evidence, we cannot even say thatour mind/soul is separate from our body—which is to say the materialworld.

In Week 2, we read authors like Voltaireand Kant. Voltaire questioned the norms of society, mocking theirrational aspects of a Europe still dominated by nobles, priests, andreceived wisdom. Kant meanwhile argued that all people are capable ofreason. Yet, in both cases, we also saw that these seemingly universalideas were mixed up with assumptions about the racial and genderednature of rationality. We also read Rousseau, who also argued that weare rational beings, existing in nature with no expectation of outside,unnatural intervention. In order to escape a world of individual forcesbouncing against each other, canceling each other out, our best hope isto come together in a “social contract.” I suggested to you that wemight even think of his solution as a “political technology” in so faras it helped individuals achieve something greater than themselves.

In Week 3,we read Mary Shelley’s novel, written just a few years after the FrenchRevolution (inspired by writers like Voltaire and Rousseu) and theNapoleonic Wars had come to an end. Seen from one perspective, the novelcritiques how individual reason and ego, detached from consideration ofothers, can lead to terrible outcomes. Though this is hardly the onlyinterpretation, it certainly resonates with aftermath of the FrenchRevolution, when Shelley was writing …

Now, in Week 4, we move fully into the 19th century. Our readings this week include The Communist Manifesto inwhich Marx and Engels, similar to La Mettrie, look at materialconditions and describe an inevitable historical process driven in largepart by changes in production and technology. In Ernst Kapp’s writing,we find the argument that technology is actually an extension ofourselves, an “organ projection” that allows us to remake the world inthe form of ourselves. In doing so, he suggests, we come to understandourselves. Furthermore, in the lectures, we begin to touch onimperialism, which can be understood (following Marx and Engels) as aresult of changing means of production/technology or (if you’ll allow meto make a big jump from Kapp) a “technology” of its own which allowsEuropeans to extend themselves around the world, to reshape othersocieties in their own image, and to understand themselves.

AreMarx and Engels right? Has industrial technology destroyed the feudalorder? How? And why does it make the destruction of the bourgeoiseinevitable? Do the arguments they make still apply to the present-day aswell or are they only referring to their own time and place (c. 1848)?(200-300 words)

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