Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Dickens & Cobbett

Historical context

The Napoleonic wars cost the United Kingdom a lot of money; an income tax was therefore created in 1799. While other European countries were at war, the UK started to build its empire: India, Singapore, South Africa and Sri Lanka. The country also benefited from the Triade which was the trade of slaves, cotton and food between Europe, Africa and America. Slavery was abolished in 1833.
Some cities such as Manchester grew dramatically thanks to the industrial revolution: Manchester grew from 17,000 inhabitants in 1760 to 180,000 in 1830. Inventions such as gaslight allowed people to work late at night in factories.
The end of the war meant the end of the boom, which resulted in a fall in employment and wages. The government created the Corn Law, which was a tax on imported grains. Living conditions in cities were terrible, people were sick, poor and left without any help. In addition to that, there was a policy of brutal repression towards poor people because the British government feared that the French revolution encouraged British people to revolt against the Government. The country was very agitated, there was a great risk or revolution. In 1846, the Corn Law was repealed and the bread became cheaper.

Industrial farming began and landholding peasantry came to an end. Rural farmers were strongly opposed to new advanced technology, which required less people and less time to do the work.

Poor people had to rely on the Speenhamland system which was a sort of charity to help poor people buying bread. The money was given by landowners. In 1834, the New Poor Law act was created to discourage poor people to seek assistance from the Government. People who wanted help were put in workhouses and were forced to work in harsh conditions for a very low wage.


Cobbett was an anti radical who became radical. The rapid industrialisation made him change his mind and he thought that progress was going to destroy British traditions. He spent 20 years abroad, in the army. When he returned to England, he was shocked to see how the country has changed. He was a journalist and was jailed twice for libel. He campaigned and agitated against industrialisation, he described farms workers as walking skeletons. Farms workers were getting poorer and landowners wealthier as he stated: "When farmers became gentlemen, labourers became slaves." He also created the two-penny-trash which was a leaflet designed to inform people who couldn't afford to buy newspapers. He was almost 60 when he started Rural Rides.


Dickens was obsessed with city life. At that time, London was overcrowded and living conditions were very poor. He was against the New Poor Law which he saw as an oppressive regime for poor people. He was also a journalist, he used to report on politics but he was not as controversial as Cobbett. He mainly showed his opinions in his novels, where he tried to encourage people to help the poor.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Seminar paper - Kant

German Idealism

Idealism is the theory according to which the nature of reality only relies upon the mind. Therefore, the external world does not exist if no one perceives it (example of the tree falling in the forest). Although this theory exists since Antiquity, Kant gave birth to a new current, German Idealism, which started to spread in the XVIIIth century and influenced many philosophers such as Hegel, Fitche and Schopenhauer. Kant was a philosopher who covered many subjects: science, mathematics, astronomy, metaphysics, religion, morality, human reason, aesthetic etc. Given this very wide range of topics, it is impossible for me to sum up each of his theories. However I am going to cover his main work, Critique of Pure Reason and Critique of Practical Reason.

Critique of Pure Reason

Critique of Pure Reason was published in 1781 and is considered as one of the most influential works in philosophy. In this work, Kant tries to determine what empirical and a priori knowledge are and their extents. His main goal is to show that knowledge revolves around a thinking mind, like Copernicus showed that the Earth rotates around the Sun. The thinking mind controls knowledge and not the contrary. As a result, it is impossible to know the external reality because knowledge entirely depends on the perception of the mind and its interpretation. This is what Kant called noumenal reality. Like John Locke in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Kant tries to define the limits of human understanding. According to him, reason and experience should be used together to get to any kind of knowledge. In Critique of Pure Reason, Kant explores the concepts of time and space and finds out that both are necessary to allow men to think and perceive the external world.

Kant’s concept of space and time (Critique of Pure Reason)

According to Kant, space is not a concept we can acquire from experience. It is an a priori idea or intuition which means that it is included in our understanding without having to prove its existence. Space is the basis of any external perception. For example, we could not place/locate items if space didn’t exist. However, you cannot depict space itself; you can only imagine an empty space. Objects entirely depend on space because space allows them to exist.
Like space, time is an a priori intuition. However, it has another quality space hasn’t: time is the basis of any intuition or perception. If we didn’t have the intuition of time, we wouldn’t be able to think or perceive anything. Therefore, any intuition, reflexion or perception is included within the intuition of time.

Critique of Practical Reason

Critique of Practical Reason was published in 1788 and is considered to be the continuation of Critique of Pure Reason. This work is about moral philosophy and ethics. Kant gives up the analysis of reason to work on its practical use.

Kant’s theory of God

Given that mankind cannot have an objective knowledge of the external world, therefore nobody can be sure that God exists. Anybody who pretends to tell the truth by claiming that God exists is just being dogmatic, according to Kant. On the other hand, anybody who claims that God does not exist is also being dogmatic. Transcendental ideas are beyond human understanding, says Kant. Here, the philosopher distinguishes knowledge from belief. However, Kant says that believing in God is necessary to achieve freedom and happiness. In Critique of Practical Reason, Kant claims that mankind is driven by the idea of eternal life and freedom. The idea that God looks after them and will reward them with eternal life pushes men to act morally.

Kant’s theory of morality (Critique of Practical Reason)

To be able to act morally, Kant gives the rule of the categorical imperative: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law." Kant believes that an act is moral only if you’re not seeking your own interest. To be moral, you need to truly mean well when doing your action to be moral. The consequences of the action could be absolutely dreadful, as long as the person meant well, the action is still moral. According to Kant, very few actions are moral simply because men usually seek their own interest when doing something. And even if the action seems moral to other people, how can we make sure that the person doesn’t act well just to get other people’s sympathy? There is no way to know, and here Kant applies the Cartesian doubt.

One of the first philosophers Kant greatly influenced was Hegel, who developed a philosophy based on Kant’s ideas even if he often criticised him. According to Russell, Hegel’s philosophy would have never existed without Kant.