Monthly Archives: February 2017

Duty to Nature

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Summary and update (added October 14, 2018): When we do something, or propose to do something, we may explain it or justify it—give a reason for it—as being useful, right, or dutiful. Such is the theory of Collingwood, analyzed here, especially with regard to a question that has increasing urgency: have we a duty, not only to one another, but to nature?

When I originally composed this post, I had recently analyzed several relevant chapters of Collingwood’s New Leviathan:

Those chapters are the last in Part I, “Man.” Part II, “Society,” returns to the same ideas in Chapter XXVIII, “The Forms of Political Action.” I would analyze this, 18 months later; it has an example of abuse of the concept of duty, by the German political theorist Treitschke.

By one interpretation of a passage in Herodotus, the ancient Persians perceived a duty to nature, by a teaching now attributed to Zoroaster. His teachings influenced Manichaeism, and thus in turn the “Albigensian heresy,” the subject of Chapter XLIII of the New Leviathan.

We tend to explain what happens in the world the way we explain what we ourselves do. If our ethics are utilitarian, then, like the ancient Greeks, we may see things in nature too as serving purposes. If we govern, or aim to govern, our own behavior by laws, then we may also seek laws of nature, as physicists do now.

Being general in form, utility and law provide incomplete accounts of exactly what we do. Though we may not always use the word this way, duty is to be conceived as providing a complete account of what we do. Conscience tells us that we have a duty; then we have to reason out what it is. The corresponding science of the world is history, which studies us as free agents. Collingwood does not describe a corresponding science of nature as such, at least not in the New Leviathan; but at the end of his first book, Religion and Philosophy, he concluded that everything that happened must be an act of will. This was in the chapter called “Miracle,” which I looked at especially in “Effectiveness.”

It may be hard to distinguish lawful action from dutiful action. Here I look at the examples of

  • paying off a student loan;
  • smoking cigarettes, when rules restrict it;
  • collecting armaments, because, at the Last Supper, by the account in Luke, Jesus recommended buying swords;
  • Islam, as a rule-bound religion;
  • Christian denigrators of Islam, who find in it rules that they think believers must be bound by, even as some Muslims find inspiration in the teachings of Prophet Jesus.

I conclude with an Episcopal priest called Stephen Blackmer, for whom nature is a church and a member of his congregation.


This is a synthesis of some ideas from a recent spate of posts in this blog. A theme is the question of why we do what we do, and whether what we do to Nature in particular—how we think of Nature—can change.

Farhang Mehr, The Zoroastrian Tradition, cover with image of Zarathustra Continue reading

Freedom to Listen

“It’s a free country, so shut up!”

On Thursday, February 16 of this year (2017), at Bosphorus University, a talk on the subject of freedom of speech was given by a Guardian columnist who was a history professor at Oxford. This was Timothy Garton Ash, who observed that freedom of speech and of the press had been severely curtailed in Turkey. For a defender of the regime, the accusation might be belied by the speaker’s freedom to make it. Academics can still come from abroad and give their critical talks. However, as Professor Garton Ash detailed, many Turkish academics have been fired from their positions; many journalists have been imprisoned; other journalists cannot get their articles published. Continue reading

NL XVIII: “Theoretical Reason”

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Reason is primarily practical: it explains why we do what we do. Secondarily, reason explains why others do what they do (18. 1): this makes reason theoretical, though not entirely so, since questions about others arise from, and are answered by, our relations with those others (18. 11). The experimental method involves such relations: we do something to the world, to see how it will respond (18. 12). Continue reading

NL XVII: “Duty”

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New England Primer

“In Adam’s Fall,
We sinned all”
(New England Primer)

We are trying to understand reason in its original form, practical reason. Why do we do what we do? It may be useful for something else, or right according to some law or rule. A third possibility is that what we do may be our duty: the fulfilment of an obligation. Continue reading

NL XVI: “Right”

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Follower of Pietro Perugino, Saint Jerome in the Wilderness, c. 1490/1500, tempera on panel (National Gallery of Art, Washington; Samuel H. Kress Collection)

Follower of Pietro Perugino, Saint Jerome in the Wilderness, c. 1490/1500, tempera on panel (National Gallery of Art, Washington; Samuel H. Kress Collection)

We continue to investigate how two purposes x and y can have a relation symbolized by yx. In the previous chapter, the relation was that x was useful for y; now the relation will be that x is right for y, meaning x “conforms with the rule y” (16. 3). Continue reading

NL XV: “Utility”

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George Inness (American, 1825–1894), The Lackawanna Valley, c. 1856, oil on canvas (National Gallery of Art, Washington; gift of Mrs. Huttleston Rogers)

George Inness (American, 1825–1894), The Lackawanna Valley, c. 1856, oil on canvas (National Gallery of Art, Washington; gift of Mrs. Huttleston Rogers). See footnote

In the previous chapter, “Reason,” we have seen that an intention x may have another intention y as a ground or reason; and we may symbolize this relation by yx. In Collingwood’s example now, x is giving a sum of money to a tobacconist, and y is receiving a pound of tobacco (15. 17). Continue reading

NL XIV: “Reason”

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Rogier van der Weyden (Netherlandish, 1399/1400-1464), Portrait of a Lady, c. 1460, oil on panel, Andrew W. Mellon Collection

Rogier van der Weyden (Netherlandish, 1399/1400–1464), Portrait of a Lady, c. 1460, oil on panel (National Gallery of Art, Washington; Andrew W. Mellon Collection)

Introduction on Context

There was a rumor that Collingwood had become a communist. According to David Boucher, editor of the revised (1992) edition, the rumor was one of the “many reasons why The New Leviathan failed to attract the acclaim which had been afforded Collingwood’s other major works.” Continue reading

NL XIII: “Choice”

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Adolph Gottlieb, “Centrifugal,” gouache on paperboard, 1961 (National Gallery of Art, Washington; gift of the Woodward Foundation)

Adolph Gottlieb, “Centrifugal,” 1961 (National Gallery of Art, Washington; gift of the Woodward Foundation)

The key idea of Chapter XIII of New Leviathan is the correct statement of the “problem of free will”: Continue reading

NL XII: “Happiness”

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Judith Leyster (Dutch, 1609–1660), Self-Portrait, c. 1630, oil on canvas (National Gallery of Art, Washington; gift of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Woods Bliss)

Judith Leyster (Dutch, 1609–1660), Self-Portrait, c. 1630, oil on canvas (National Gallery of Art, Washington; gift of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Woods Bliss)

Continue reading

NL XI: “Desire”

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Pablo Picasso, The Lovers (1923; National Gallery of Art, Washington)

Pablo Picasso, “The Lovers,” 1923 (National Gallery of Art, Washington)

Continue reading