Monday, January 11, 2021

Donald Trump’s Assault on Democracy: A Day that Shall Live in Infamy


A Response to Donald Trump’s Assault on Democracy

America is an idea. An idea that’s stronger than any army, bigger than any ocean, more powerful than any dictator or tyrant.  Joseph R. Biden

On January 6, 2021, my wife and I joined millions of people who turned on their television sets to witness what most thought would be a contentious but traditional event at the U.S. Capitol.  This was the day when the entire Congress would assemble, count, and accept the electoral votes for President of the United States.  The task of the presiding officer, Vice President Mike Pence, was to open the envelopes containing the votes and announce the results. 

We knew beforehand that the electoral votes of some states won by Joseph Biden would be challenged  by a minority of Republican representatives and senators on the grounds that the voting procedures in those states were “unconstitutional,” even though these complaints had been adjudicated in state and federal courts as “without merit.” We also knew that the real objective of the complainants was not to overturn the election of Joseph R. Biden as president of the United States.  They did not have the floor votes that would make this happen.  Rather, their objective was to curry favor with Donald Trump so that he would continue to support them in future elections. 

At the same time, we knew that after many hours of tiresome debate, reality would prevail and the results of the electors would confirm Joseph R. Biden as our next president.

There was another group of people on that day who also wanted to overturn the election.  At the behest of the president, about 10,000 of his supporters had assembled in the ellipse of the Mall, located within a short walk to the Capitol building.  This group was not there to protest the election results.  They were incited by the president to ignore the lawful procedures followed by Congress and use intimidation and other means to change the vote. 

To our astonishment, horror and disbelief, as we were watching, the scene on our television set turned from a congressional debate to a riot taking place at the U.S. Capitol.  Trump’s rally audience had gone en masse to the Capitol,  breaching doors and windows, threatening the lives of members of Congress, fighting Capitol police, killing one officer, while destroying and looting Capitol property.  It was if we were watching a coup taking place in a banana republic. This was not a protest.  It was an insurrection, a violent domestic uprising against the government of the United States of America.

The aim of Trump and the insurrectionists was to intimidate Congress into rejecting the final results of the election.  The ultimate goal of some was to destroy democracy itself and replace it with a dictatorial monarchy headed by Donald Trump. Some carried signs or wore shirts announcing their allegiance not to America but to the Nazi Party or the Ku Klux Klan.  Others carried the flag of the Confederacy, as if the Civil War was to be revived.   Many of the insurrectionists carried and waved the American flag as a way of showing that their patriotic duty included breaching and looting the U.S. Capitol.

The latter group of insurrectionists did this because (some said) they wanted to force Congress to give Trump the electoral results that he (falsely) said he had won.  This lack of trust in the electoral process was shaped by a year-long Twitter campaign from Trump that the November election would be “rigged” in favor of his opponent Joseph Biden.  Trump convinced his followers, without giving evidence, that he, not Biden had won.  Their conviction about this was not based on objective evidence of the election results but on what they were being told many times, on a daily basis by Donald Trump and his far-right media supporters. 

When told that all of the governors had certified the election results in their state, Trump answered that the governors and election officials in the states that he had lost were corrupt or confused.  When told that he had lost all 60 lawsuits in federal and state courts claiming election errors and fraud, Trump answered that the judges were either incompetent or co-conspirators in a dark scheme to swing the election to Biden. 

As a result of this drumbeat of lies, Trump’s followers at his January 6 rally had already accepted his claims about the election results (“I won the election by a lot, by millions of votes”) instead of believing what they heard from mainstream news outlets.   Why?  Because Trump had told them multiple times that the official news they were hearing about him or about the election results was “fake” and news reporters were “enemies of the people.”

What brought them to accept these false beliefs?  Why did the insurrectionists not trust the rules and procedures of our constitutional democracy?  In his press conference of January 8, Joe Biden conjectured that the Capitol rioters are the victims of “The Big Lie,” referring to the tactic of the Nazi leader Joseph Goebbels who infamously said “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”  Goebbels also conjectured that for a dictatorship, truth was much more dangerous than a lie.

But even if it was true that some states had voting procedures that were arguably unconstitutional, why did Donald Trump and his gang of insurrectionists think that the patriotic solution was to invade the Capitol and force members of Congress to overturn the election in his favor?  A true patriot would not confuse the rule of law with the rule of force.  A patriot would know that democracy itself would be destroyed if elections were always decided by those who had the most power (physical ability) to determine winners and losers.

Looking to the future, here is the most important question.  Assuming that Americans want the U.S. Capitol and other government buildings to be protected from further assault, what can be done to prevent attacks like the one we witnessed on January 6?

 One obvious answer is to bolster the physical protection of government buildings, government events (like the inauguration of the president), the people who serve the government, and those who attend political events.  At this writing, I understand that this is already taking place.  We cannot risk another assault on our democracy. 

Second, we must practice deterrence by making sure that all of those found guilty of crimes committed during the breach of the Capitol on January 6 are punished to the fullest extent of the law.  These punishments must be advertised loudly and far, so that those who would attempt to repeat these assaults on democracy will know that their behavior will be met with severe fines and lengthy imprisonment. Again, steps are now being taken to punish the instigators and it will continue for several months.

Third, and perhaps of most importance, we must find a way to restore faith in democracy.  This cannot be accomplished by force.  Might makes fright but it does not make faith.  We can frighten a Trumpian rioter to say the words “I support the Constitution,” but we cannot force him or her to believe in it and our other democratic institutions. 

The rejection of force as a cure for restoring faith in democracy leaves us with two voluntary paths we might take: the restoration of community in our society and the revival of civic education in our public schools. 

When people see themselves as members of a community, they treat one another in the way that they would treat members of their family, their friends or their neighbors.   In a community, the relation people have to one another does not arise from a contract.  It arises from the very nature of the communal relationship.  If my cousin, friend or neighbor needs my help, then I attempt to provide this help, not because I have made a promise or signed a contract to provide help.  I help them because they are a cousin, friend or neighbor.  Political and religious differences are irrelevant.  If my Trump-supporting neighbor needs help, I would go to her aid as quickly as I would go to the aid of my Biden-supporting neighbor.

Now try to imagine a large society in which each member conceives themselves as a member of the same community.  Let’s call this society “the American community.”  As members of the American community we would go to the help of one another in times of need and we would expect such help from others members when we are in need.  We would see one another as friends not as political enemies.  When we argue with one another about law and policy differences we would treat one another with respect. 

Americans have a history of protecting one another when the community is in danger of serious harm.  We saw the universal desire to protect when we feared invasion by foreign countries during World Wars I and II, and when the twin towers were attacked by foreign actors on September 11, 2001.  During these wars and attacks, Americans set aside their political differences as they rushed to help the fallen and take up arms to protect their country. 

The second component of the path toward restoring faith in democracy is to revive civic education in public schools.  “Civics” was once a permanent component of public-school education because  the Founders insisted that all children should be prepared to be active participants in the democracy when they reached the legal age to vote.  But it has steadily dropped off the curriculum in the last 50 years.

Civics courses do not teach “blind devotion to the state or its leaders.”  And it is not enough to teach a child how to cast a vote, to memorize the opening paragraph of the Declaration of Independence or the Bill of Rights.  Our young people must understand the content of what they are reading and saying.  They must understand the significance of these great documents.  They must be shown how to think critically about various forms of government, including not only constitutional democracy but how the Founders came to reject monarchy and oligarchy through argument and discussion.

Can we do this?  Can we protect our democracy by restoring the soul of America, understood here as a community of citizens, devoted to democracy, who will help and protect one another?  Can we re-establish a system of civic education of our young people who are prepared to think critically about candidates and issues before they cast their first vote? 

The American idea of which Biden speaks in the epigraph is the idea of democracy, an idea that is “stronger, bigger and more powerful” than the insurrectionist mob that invaded the U.S. Capitol on January 6.  This daring idea, enshrined in the Constitution, survived the burning of the Capitol by the British in 1814 and the constant threat of the Confederate Army to destroy the Capitol building during the Civil War. 

The good news is that the idea of American democracy, an idea that reflects the soul of America, will long survive Donald Trump and the traitors he incited to breach and loot the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021.  Our democracy has survived several damaging foreign attacks on our soil. It can surely survive this act of domestic terrorism.  We shall always overcome.



Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Descartes' Mind and Plato's Cave

Prisoners of Solipsism and Prisoners of the Cave

In meditation II of his Meditations on First Philosophy, Descartes writes that the only things he knows with certainty is “I am," "I think” and “I am a thinking thing”. 

I am--I exist: this is certain; but how often? As often as I think; for perhaps it would even happen, if I should wholly cease to think, that I should at the same time altogether cease to be. I now admit nothing that is not necessarily true. I am therefore, precisely speaking, only a thinking thing, that is, a mind (mens sive animus), understanding, or reason, terms whose signification was before unknown to me. I am, however, a real thing, and really existent; but what thing? The answer was, a thinking thing. [4.2.1]

At this point in  his meditations Descartes reports that he does not know anything else that is certain, including his lifelong belief that there are things “external” to him, for example, physical objects, human bodies, other thinking things, and God.  Descartes finds himself quite alone. But not alone in the universe because for all he knows, he is the universe.  He does not know if there is a universe that exists apart from the content of his own mind.

Descartes knows with certainty that he exists as a thinking thing, that is, a thing that has thoughts, doubts, affirms, denies, and has a multitude of visual, auditory, olfactory and tactile sensations, including the feelings of pain and pleasure.  What he does not know is whether there are any other thinking beings.  He might see or hear what appears to be another human being, but he does not know with any certainty whether he is dreaming or hallucinating the thing that he senses.  

This is a theory now known a solipsism, or as some would call it, “all-alone-ism.” It is the theory that although I can know with certainty that I exist, I cannot know with certainty that there are any other thinking beings, nor for that matter, any non-thinking beings. For example, I now have a mental image of a rose bush.  But this is not sufficient to allow me to draw the certain conclusion that there is an actual rose bush, existing external to my mind, that is causing me to have this mental image.  For all that I know, the rose bush I claim to sense might not exist at all.  I might be hallucinating or dreaming about a rose bush. 

In meditation VI, Descartes summarizes the reasons why he cannot confirm that physical objects are the cause of the images of physical objects that are in his mind.  His senses give him confusing information about the size and shape of objects.  He cannot distinguish between the ideas he allegedly gets through his senses and the ideas that he has when he is dreaming.  And although he cannot control the images that appear to come into his mind from his senses, this is not sufficient to confirm the existence of an external world because these images could just a well have been caused by some unknown faculty within himself. 

Descartes’ solution to these problems is to invoke both the existence and participation of God.  In meditations III and V, Descartes believes he has proved the existence of a supremely perfect God.  He asserts that God has created human beings who “naturally” assume that the mental images or ideas that they have of material objects are caused by real material objects in an external world. The dubious natural “habit” of believing that what we learn from the senses is true is a gift of nature, and “nature, … is nothing more than God himself.” Since God is all-good, he would not deceive us about our natural belief that there is a world external to our mind, populated by physical objects and human beings like us.   Although Descartes admits that the ideas (images) of objects that we receive from or through the senses do not always perfectly resemble the material objects that causes these ideas, he believes that he has made a convincing argument for the claim that solipsism is false.  We live in a world of material objects and other human beings.  We are not alone. 

This leaves the reader with two questions.  If there is no convincing argument for the existence of a supremely perfect deity and/or that God would not allow us to be deceived by our senses, are there alternative ways to avoid solipsism?  To be specific, based only on Cartesian assumptions about the large conceptual gap between the internal world of mental ideas (images) and an external world of other minds and material objects, is there a way to bridge the gap that does not involve the deity?

Plato might be of some help here.  In Republic, Book VII, Plato has the character Socrates entertain his friend Glaucon with one of the most famous thought experiments in the history of philosophy: The Allegory of the Cave.

In the allegory, the character Socrates asks Glaucon to imagine prisoners “living in an underground, cave-like dwelling, with an entrance a long way up, which is both open to the light and as wide as the cave itself.  They’ve been there since childhood, fixed in the same place, with their necks and legs fettered, able to see only in front of them, because their bonds prevent them from turning their heads around” (Republic, VII, 514).  They stare at a cave wall on which images are projected. These images are cast from carved figures (puppets) illuminated by a fire and carried by people on a parapet above and behind the prisoners. They see nothing of themselves and one another.  They only see “the shadows that the fire casts on the wall in front of them.”  If one of the prisoners is released from his chains “and suddenly compelled to stand up, turn his head, walk, and look up toward the light, he would first see the puppets and the fire" (id., 515).

Plato's Cave

There is more to the allegory, and there are many interpretations of it.  I will not enter this debate.  I want only to indicate that in the allegory, the prisoners discover and can verify that the images they see on the wall are in fact shadows caused by puppets that are paraded in front of a fire.  The prisoners see all at once the images, the fire and the puppets, thereby confirming the causal connection between them.

Compare this to Descartes’ “prisoners of solipsism.”  They are thinking beings who live in the internal world of their own minds and yet have a “natural” habit of believing that there is an external world of material objects from which their ideas of material objects proceed.  But these prisoners have no way to confirm this causal connection. Unlike the cave prisoners who upon release, see puppets casting shadows on the cave wall, Descartes’ thinking beings cannot put themselves in another  location from which they can “see”  images being projected into their mind by material objects that exist outside their mind. Plato’s prisoners can turn around and see the puppets being manipulated in such a way that they cast shadows on the wall.   But Descartes’ prisoners are trapped in their own mind.  They cannot break out of their mind, go out into the external world and watch corporeal objects cause their mind to be populated with new images.

 If Descartes’ hypothesis of a causal connection between the external world and the mind cannot be verified or falsified,  then surely an agnostic solution of the solipsism problem collapses.  If there is no God to assure the prisoners that their senses can be trusted, then they will never know whether there is an external world and other minds.  They can theorize about an external world but there is no way they can either confirm or falsify these theories.

This brings us to a second question.   Is the problem of solipsism a problem of Descartes’ own making, based on false assumptions, or is it a genuine problem, worthy of our attention?  If it is a pseudo-problem, then Descartes (and those philosophers who he inspired) need to be liberated from their false assumptions.  As the twentieth century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein famously put it, the job of philosophy is “to show the fly the way out of the fly bottle.”  Is Descartes a fly trapped by his own unsupported assumptions? 


For more commentary and critique on Descartes, see Laurence Houlgate's new book Understanding Descartes: The Smart Student's Guides to Meditations on First Philosophy, available through his website:    Also: once on the website, go to the tab that has a short video in which the allegory of the cave is enacted by clay puppets.

Sunday, November 1, 2020



This philosophy study guide for Descartes' Meditations on First Philosophy is the seventh book in the Smart Student's Guides to Philosophical Classics series. Like the other books in the series, it is much more than an outline or a set of notes and flash cards. It is a book for “smart students” who are serious about understanding and thinking critically about one of the most consequential books ever written in the history of philosophy. Part I of the book has the complete text of John Veitch's translation of the original Meditations, presented in a way that makes it much easier for a beginning philosophy student to understand and think critically about Descartes’ classic work. Each of the six Meditations is divided into smaller sections with sub-titles, followed by Professor Houlgate’s commentary and critiques. Questions for thought and discussion are at the end of each chapter. These questions are intended to help students prepare for examinations and give them ideas and topics for term papers. Part II takes the student deeper into Descartes’ meditations. It includes two chapters on method, analyses of Descartes’ arguments and comparisons to and criticisms of other philosophers on important philosophical problems and theories. These are presented in a way that invite students to do their own thinking about the meditations, engage with their professor in classroom discussion, and organize and write a successful term paper.

Now available at as an eBook or  paperback.  Go here for details.

Saturday, October 10, 2020

Rene Descartes: Final Days

Rene Descartes

It was very cold and he was shivering as he stumbled through the halls of the dark, damp and drafty castle. He could not get warm, despite the fact that he had wrapped himself in as many clothes as he could find in his closet.  His name was René Descartes, and he was on his way to give an early morning tutorial in philosophy to Christina, the queen of Sweden.

The year was 1650.  At the age of 53, the acclaimed French philosopher had accepted an invitation from Christina to come north to Stockholm to take a position as court scholar.   Four years earlier,  the highly educated 40-year-old queen had started a correspondence with Descartes through the mediation of the French ambassador to Sweden. Their long letters explored the nature of love, the question of the universe’s infinity, and the nature of the sovereign good.   Christina wanted to meet Descartes.  She offered him a position on the court and urged him to come north.

Descartes accepted the invitation, but not because he had enthusiasm for Sweden or for the court of Queen Christina.  He was more concerned about what life was going to be like for him in the Netherlands during a never-ending, five-year long campaign of a Dutch theologian to suppress Descartes’ writings and damage his reputation.  He decided that he needed to leave his home in the Netherlands, at least temporarily.

After getting settled at Court in September of 1649, Christina ordered Descartes “to put all of his papers in order, and secondly, to put together designs for an academy.” (Gaukroger, p. 415) There is no evidence that this was done.  However, in early January of 1650, Christina required  Descartes to give her lessons in philosophy.  He could not complain – she was the queen after all.  But added to the pain of freezing in the long halls and rooms of an ancient stone castle, Descartes learned that the lessons started at 5 a.m. The lessons would conclude five hours later at 10 a.m.  (Descartes’ usual waking hour was 11 a.m.)

The other problem confronting Descartes’ tutorials was that Christina did not want to hear about his latest work in philosophy.  Instead, she had a new interest in learning the language of ancient Greece, a topic about which he had no interest at all.  As a consequence of this stand-off, Descartes had tutored Christina only four or five times by the end of January.  Things were not going well.  In a letter to a friend, dated 15 January 1650, Descartes expressed reservations about his decision to come to Sweden. He sees himself to be “out of his element,” the winter so harsh that “men’s thoughts are frozen here, like the water” (Adam and Tannery, V 467; Cottingham, et al, III 383).

The lesson he was to teach on that freezing morning was the last.  Descartes caught a head cold on February 1, 1650.  The tutorials were cancelled.  Descartes took to bed.  He had a history of respiratory problems since childhood. In the harsh cold of northern Sweden in winter, his cold soon turned into pneumonia.  René Descartes died on 11 February at the age of 53.


From Laurence Houlgate, Understanding Rene Descartes: The Smart Student's Guide to Meditations on First Philosophy.  Now available as an eBook or paperback, at B08M8DS3BX

Wednesday, September 30, 2020



David Hume Study Guide


In the eighteenth century, the words “natural religion” referred to religious beliefs based on reason and evidence instead of revelation. In Understanding David Hume, Professor Laurence Houlgate guides beginning philosophy students through the labyrinth of arguments for and against the existence and infinite nature of God, focusing mainly on the famous Design Argument. 

This is a philosophy study guide for students who want more substance than the "notes" that are found online.  Professor Houlgate breaks down the more lengthy dialogues into discrete and understandable short chapters, emphasizing critical thinking, but allowing students to easily navigate through the book. 

 Professor Houlgate uses the same approach to help students understand Hume’s essays concerning Miracles, Suicide and Immortality of the Soul. 

Questions for thought and discussion and ideas for student essays and term papers are to be found at the conclusion of each section.

Because of the frequent condemnation by the conservative Christian clergy in England and Scotland, it is no wonder that most of David Hume’s Dialogues and other writings on natural religion were not published until after his death. Hume was often accused of atheism and other heresies and was denied several university positions, despite his rising fame in eighteenth century scholarship. But Hume never gave up. He insured that his most contentious essays on natural religion would be published posthumously. Although he did not live to see it, David Hume is now regarded as one of the greatest philosophers of the Enlightenment and his writings are considered essential reading in most university courses in the philosophy of religion.


 Understanding David Hume is available at low cost in digital and print versions at



Thomas Hobbes Study Guide

 Thomas Hobbes' 17th century book Leviathan has been called "the greatest single work of political thought in the English language.” But it is not the most accessible work. Beginning philosophy students continue to struggle with Hobbes' old-English words and prose style.. 

Professor Laurence Houlgate's guide to Leviathan solves these problems by organizing each chapter into short sections while using contemporary examples and prose to explain the more difficult arguments and ideas. The result is an understandable student guide to Hobbes' Leviathan. 

Houlgate also provides two chapters showing how Hobbes answers the central questions of political philosophy, and compares Hobbes' answers to those of Plato and John Locke. 

As a bonus, each chapter ends with questions for thought and discussion, thereby helping students with exam preparation and providing ideas for successful term papers. 

The book concludes with an imaginary dialogue between Hobbes, Locke and James Madison on the impeachment clause of the U.S. Constitution.


Now available in digital and print versions, at low cost, at             




John Stuart Mill Study Guide

Understanding John Stuart Mill is the third book in a series of philosophy study guides for the classics of philosophy. The series is designed for beginning and intermediate philosophy students who would like more depth than they would ordinarily get from "Notes" books that only give outlines of the philosopher's thoughts and theories. 

At the same time, the Smart Student's books are not scholarly monographs designed for graduate students and professors.

Understanding John Stuart Mill focuses on both content and philosophical method in the sections on Mill's famous Utilitarianism and in his later but equally famous On Liberty. 

Each chapter breaks down the arguments of the philosopher into understandable parts, showing how the philosopher reaches his conclusions and how he defends against possible objections. Each chapter concludes with a set of questions for thought and discussion. Some of the questions are on topics that provide an excellent starting point for term papers. 

References to other books about the philosopher or the topic can be found at the end of the chapter, in footnotes, textboxes or at the end of the book.

Also in the Smart Student's Guide series are: Understanding Plato: The Socratic Dialogues and the Republic;  Understanding John Stuart Mill: Utilitarianism and On Liberty; Understanding Thomas Hobbes: Leviathan; Understanding John Locke: Second Treatise of Government

All books are available at, at low cost, in both digital and print versions.



Immanuel Kant Study Guide

This book is fourth in a series of philosophy study guides devoted to helping students understand some of the great works in ethics, social and political philosophy. 

 It has been said that Kant's Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals "is the single most important work in modern moral philosophy" (Henry Allison). 

 It is also one of the most difficult books to comprehend, especially for beginning philosophy students. Understanding Immanuel Kant makes Kant accessible to students while at the same time showing why his writings have had such a powerful influence on philosophical ethics.

Professor Houlgate's book is not a scholarly monograph on Kant, nor is it a bare-bones outline of Kant's writings. Instead, the book gives the reader an interpretation of Kant in ordinary language, explaining the technical words Kant uses ("analytic," "synthetic," "categorical imperative," "autonomy of the will") and using examples of moral problems drawn from everyday life. 

The book also shows how Kantian ethics differs from the theories of the other great philosophers represented in the series (Plato, Locke, Hobbes, Hume and Mill).

Each chapter concludes with questions for thought and discussion and within these questions students will find many topics that can be pursued in term papers. 

Understanding Immanuel Kant can be purchased at low cost at



Plato Study GuideUnderstanding Plato is the prize-winning first book in the six-book series on the classical philosophers. The series is designed for beginning and intermediate philosophy students who would like more depth than they would ordinarily get from books that give only notes and outlines of the philosopher's thoughts and theories.

Unlike other philosophy study books, each book in the series focuses on both content and philosophical method. Each chapter breaks down arguments of the philosopher into understandable parts, showing how philosophers reaches their conclusions and how they defend against possible objections. 

Each chapter concludes with a set of questions for thought and discussion. Some of the questions are on topics that provide an excellent starting point for term papers. References to other books about the philosopher or the topic can be found at the end of the chapter, in footnotes, textboxes or at the back of the book.

Understanding Plato  contains a complete discussion of four of the early Socratic dialogues (Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno) and Plato's longer and more famous work, The Republic.

Available at low cost in digital and print versions at


Sunday, August 30, 2020


If you are one of those readers who likes the feel of a book in your hands instead of a small smart phone or a bulky PDF, here is the long-awaited paperback version of 

The Smart Student's Guide to Reading and Writing Philosophy 

Available now for $4.99 + postage

Reviews of a few books in the Smart Student's Guides to Philosophical Classics series:

Understanding Plato: The Socratic Dialogues and the Republic
“I highly recommend this excellent introduction to Plato's dialogues. The writing is crystal clear and accessible, with a rich, analytical treatment of Plato's historical context, issues of concern, dialectic method and complex lines of reasoning.”
Understanding John Locke: Second Treatise of Government
“It's hard to combine scholarship with accessibility, but this little volume does it. It is very scholarly, yet clearly written and eminently accessible to undergraduate students.”
Understanding John Stuart Mill: Utilitarianism and On Liberty
“Houlgate writes clearly and students should be able to follow his explanations and distinctions, though they will need to think… This book, like the others in Houlgate’s Smart Student’s Guide series, will be a good supplemental text for students, and the professor can benefit from it too.”

See all books at