Great Philosophers and their Starsigns
Another look at the ancient debate over the scientific credibility of the of the devilish science
So now, on the occasion of the 100th birthday of the Philosophical Society of England, (a Society with a long tradition of thinking ‘outside the box ‘, as it were), let us try a simple astrological experiment of our own and attempt to examine, if not exactly ‘scientifically ‘, then at least without distaste, whether astrology really does tell us something profound about humanity.
Let us take as our starting point and experimental sample the special case of ‘great philosophers ‘, along with the evidence of their published views and writing, and then compare this with conventional astrological wisdom to see if there are any patterns or tendencies that astrologers might have anticipated. This, mark you, is a tough test for the esoteric science, allowing as it does only the use of their crudest tool, the twelve zodiacal sun-signs. But we can afford a little experimental bias towards conventional science.
Aries philosophers . . . from 'ego sum' and 'each against all' to 'transcendental ego'
And starting our methodical inquiry with the first sign, Aries (March 22 - April 21), we immediately find a strange coincidence. Aries people are supposed to be exceptionally creative and insightful, but also very ambitious. In astrological lore, if each sign has a motto, the motto for Aries is ‘I am ‘. In terms of the body, the sign governs and thus emphasises the head and brain. And Aries, it turns out, is also the birth sign of René Descartes (31 March), the great rationalist and fountainhead of modern philosophy, whose motto is… ‘I think, therefore, I am ‘. Here in his celebrated one line argument is all the egoism you could wish for.
|Cogito ergo SUM, ego sum, ego existo|
Descartes himself admits that the cogito is not a piece of reasoning. The poet and philosopher Paul Valery calls it ‘a fist coming down on a table ‘. He adds:
|[it is] the explosion of an act, a shattering blow . . If the cogito turns up so often in his work, if it is found again and again in the Discourse, the Meditations, the Principles, it is because it is an appeal to his essential egotism. He takes it up as the theme of the lucid Self; it is the clarion call to his pride and the resources of his being. . . . I say that the real method of Descartes ought to be called egotism . . .|
Aries represents the violence of birth, as well as the miracle. The infant ‘s screams must be accommodated. Descartes ‘ ‘I am ‘ immediately confronts the Other and in so doing opens a Pandora ‘s box of dualisms, the discords that will fly about causing harm for centuries: mind/body, subject/object, self/other, conscious/unconscious, certainty/doubt.
In astrological tradition too, Aries is ruled by Mars, the planet or god, and represents irresistible force, birth, emergence, sunrise. Descartes turns up a surprisingly martial swashbuckler in the familiar Frans Hals oil sketch. He carried a silver sword. He disarms a rival lover on the Orleans road. He defeats a band of brigands on a Freisland ferry. He attends battlefields all over Europe. His philosophical dream takes place in a military barracks, while directing munitions and studying ballistics. He has contempt for the past, the intellectual authority of the schools, dead languages, even books.
In the Discourse, Descartes often uses the metaphor of battle writing, for example: ‘perhaps we should make the comparison with army chieftains' and that 'For to try to conquer all the difficulties and errors which stand in our way when we try to reach the truth is really to engage in battle; and to reach a false conclusion on an important issue is to lose the battle.‘
To become ‘masters and possessors of nature‘ he calls for an organised campaign of science. He calls for an army of paid mercenaries and forecasts the regiments of modern techno-science. Blood flows around Descartes. For a time, he purposely lives near a slaughterhouse. He defends vivisection in the name of knowledge, cuts out the heart of a living dog, and measures the pulsations along the aorta with his bare hand. ‘I have spent much time on dissection during the last eleven years, and I doubt whether there is a doctor who has made more detailed observations than I. ‘ Blood then is the start of the zodiac, and the start of so-called ‘modern ‘ philosophy.
There is one other canonical philosopher born under Aries: Thomas Hobbes (5 April) whose long life span enclosed Descartes‘ short one. Does Hobbes introduce the Political Subject as Descartes did the Philosophical Subject? The idea has been entertained. Hobbes, like Descartes, set philosophical debates in geometrical style, ‘clear and distinct,‘ offering his own famously terse battle cries: ‘war of each against all‘, and life, ‘nasty, brutish and short‘. His convincing justification of ‘might makes right‘ make him politically incendiary. Think of Hobbes as Descartes‘ henchman in the battle for reason. Like Descartes, Hume is rumored to be an atheist, even openly accused of causing the Great Fire of London by blasphemous writing. He is dubbed ‘the monster of Malmesbury ‘ and forced into exile.
What astrologers call the natural belligerence of the Aries temperament is today too at the forefront of militant atheism, where reason is antagonist of God. All of the four Horsemen of the New Atheism, Richard Dawkins (26 March), Daniel Dennett (28 March), Sam Harris (April 9), and the laid-to-rest Christopher Hitchens (13 April), vie with each other in abrasiveness.
Dennett, the professional philosopher among them, is famously rebarbative, holds closely to the Cartesian issues of mind and mechanism, pores over Descartes ‘ original illustrations, evaluates every possible ‘meat robot ‘, mind-in-tank proposal, freely dissecting brains in imaginary thought experiments. Another leading light of philosophy of mind, David Chalmers (20 April) contemplates zombies. ‘Automata‘ and ‘artificial life‘ occur in the very first paragraph of Hobbes‘ Leviathan. And legend tells of 'Francine', an automaton constructed by Descartes, in imitation of his deceased daughter, thrown overboard on orders of the Captain.
Two other twentieth century Aries philosophers have also been impressive Cartesians: Edmund Husserl (8 April), who repeats or renews the radical Beginning, and Jacques Lacan (13 April) for whom engagement with the cogito is fundamental. So much for sign number one. Some curious similarities and affinities, undeniably. Next up is Taurus the Bull: polarity negative, element earth, modality fixed.
Taurus philosophers . . . from the 'cement of the universe' and the 'thing-in-itself' to 'The world is all that is the case.'
Born under the sign of the Bull, sign associated by astrologers with realism, stubbornness and determination, we find the philosophers David Hume (7 May), Immanuel Kant (22 April), John Stuart Mill (20 May), Karl Marx (5 May), Ludwig Wittgenstein (26 April), and Soren Kierkegaard (5 May). What can they all be said to have in common, other than rare philosophical fame? A certain way of taking up space that might be called Taurean?
Six great philosophers is a big number to be found randomly corralled at random in one of twelve possible pens. Especially considering that out of our benchmark ‘Twenty Greats ‘, drawn from the Leiter poll, four - Plato, Socrates, Aristotle and Aquinas - are without recorded birth-dates. Thus, six out of sixteen major ‘thinkers with birthdates' of western civilisation were born under Taurus, around five times the statistical expectation. Could that be what good social science researchers call ‘significant‘?
For astrologers, Aries and Taurus together make up the primal pair, the first positive, the second negative. Scrying the source horoscopes of modern philosophy reveals that Descartes' sun was in Aries, his moon in Taurus, while for Kant it is just the reverse, his sun in Taurus and moon in Aries. The correlation of astrological emphasis with historical judgment here seems almost heavy-handed.
If Aries runs with blood and sword; the Taureans, by contrast, are mostly settled and steady. Indeed, Kant‘s regularity is legendary. Hume was purposive to a fault. As a youth, he committed himself to ten years of disciplined intellectual self-development, which he completed on schedule; likewise later he planned and executed a fifteen-year project, his mountainous History of England, which, as calculated, was an immense publishing success. Always a large man, he grew extremely stout.
The attachment of J. S. Mill to the reassuring authority of his felicific calculus fits too, as does the patient labour of Marx in his famous seat in the British Library, carefully jotting down the thousands of pages of notes that eventually would make up the multiple volumes of Das Kapital - all this is worthy of Taurus.
Hume places an immovable object in the path of Descartes ‘ irresistible force by setting strong limits to reason. ‘The Passions which are and ought to be master of Reason, ‘ are products of the depths of unknowable, pre-rational physical Nature. Hume has no need to prove either that he exists or that the world is not an illusion. In reply to Descartes ‘ excited horn-blowing, Hume seems bovine, emitting great, placid moo-o-os, Recall this, from the Abstract of the Treatise of Human Nature of 1740:
|Des Cartes maintained that thought was the essence of the mind; not this thought or that thought, but thought in general. This seems to be absolutely unintelligible, since everything that exists is particular . . a peach, for instance.|
Moo-oo! Or later, where he writes:
|But our experience in the past can be a proof of nothing for the future, but upon a supposition that there is a resemblance betwixt them. This, therefore, is a point which can admit of no proof at all, and which we take for granted without any proof.|
|It is not, therefore, reason which is the guide of life, but custom. That alone determines the mind, in all instances, to suppose the future conformable to the past. However easy this step may seem, reason would never, to all eternity, be able to make it.|
Descartes frets over melting wax; Hume placidly observes "When the sun shines on the stone, it grows warm."
Moo-oo! Moo-oo! But what now, about the philosopher who wanted to make reason triumphant, Immanuel Kant? He was 'awakened' by Hume and continued to build with Hume's cement. The ‘thing-in-itself,‘ the laying of Groundwork, the totalizing solidity of his intellectual project, the ‘architectonic‘ plan, the monumental density, all these (for astrologers) bespeak the fixed earth sign. Remarkable too that centuries later, in the Vienna Circle, a bullpen clustered around a stubborn Ludwig Wittgenstein, including Bertrand Russell (18 May), Rudolf Carnap (May 18), Moritz Schlick (14 April), and Wilfred Sellars (May 20). The philosophical centre (a fact acknowledged explicitly by Russell) was the Chief Bull, David Hume.
What shall we make of Kierkegaard? Surely less a bull than a lamb? Can we say that he also sets limits to reason and leave it at that? Wittgenstein and Kierkegaard are the foundation stones of the two dominant modes of twentieth century philosophy, the Anglo-positivists and the Continental negativists. Each of them posits an inexpressibility. The apodictic does not need dialogue. Why can ‘t it all just stop here, asks the cow in the meadow? Great plus has joined great minus: why go on? Why change? Why the why? Kierkegaard, who designated God as ‘the Unchanging ‘, introduces Anxiety to philosophy, as our intrinsic aversion to choice, freedom, dualism. Wittgenstein pursued ‘deep disquietudes‘, the fly in the bottle the bull's tormenting gadfly. Kant‘s fears left him imprisoned in his own routines, while his writing abounded with ‘categorical imperatives‘. The doubt that Aries briskly sleeps off in a night seems in Taurus to cast a longer shadow.
The philosophers born under the first two signs, doubtless by chance and selectivity, seem to establish a cornerstone. The cusp of Taurus and the next sign, Gemini, offers a surprise: Socrates and Plato are both said to have been born then, a generation apart (Socrates on the 6th and Plato on the 7th of Thargelion, roughly today ‘s 20-24 May).
Gemini philosophers . . . . from 'metaxy' to 'simulacrum'
For philosophers, the significance of the Plato-Socrates tandem is the argument that consciousness is not merely immediate perception, but lives in language and dialectic. Thus in Gemini - the Twins - originates not only Truth, but also the Lie, both representation and deception, intelligence but also cunning. The Ancient Greek Geminis undercut the certainties of the modern Aries and Taurean philosophers. Hermes/Mercury, tutelary of Gemini, is the god of thieves, having himself stolen the oxen of Apollo at an early age.
Indeed, Plato and Socrates are the Philosophical Guardians at the gate, checking our papers at the border of true and false. Yet, apart from these legendary birthday attributions, philosophy is sparse on the ground under Gemini.
In our source list of ‘major ‘ philosophical birthdays only Jean-Paul Sartre (21 June), Jurgen Habermas (18 June) and Henry Sidgwick (31 May) occur under Gemini; and Sartre is only half a Twin, the sun at his birth being half-way into the next sign, Cancer. But the title Being and Nothingness is baldly dualistic and secures Sartre to Gemini. Ditto, his autobiography: Les mots. Jurgen Habermas is a communication theorist and inter-subjectivist for whom ‘the boundaries of truth are movable.‘ Henry Sidgwick‘s presence on this short and distinguished list is a puzzle, but if we wish to wear the scientific hat of objectivity, then that forces us to acknowledge him, a Cambridge utilitarian who died in 1900.
Does it tell us something about Gemini or philosophy that two Gemini thinkers of the highest grade, Blaise Pascal (19 June) and Ralph Waldo Emerson (25 May), fail to make the cut in any of the conventional lists, being considered too unsystematic and peripheral? Of Pascal the world knows well his Thoughts and his Letters, his anxious state of in-betweenity, the crucial sibling bond in his life, and his inventions: the mercury barometer, Paris‘s first postal system, an adding machine. Enough of Pascal. We know he would have written a shorter letter, but he did not have the time. Emerson too advises us to ‘Move fast on thin ice.‘ ‘The universe is only in transit, or, we behold it shooting the gulf from the past to the future‘, he writes, and adds: ‘I am part of the solar system. Let the brain alone, and it will keep time with that, as the shell with the sea-tide.‘
Emerson is an ecstatic binarist, nowhere more so than in the essay, Compensation
|An inevitable dualism bisects nature, so that each thing is a half, and suggests another thing to make it whole; as, spirit, matter; man, woman; odd, even; subjective, objective; in, out; upper, under; motion, rest; yea, nay. . . . All things are double, one against another. Tit for tat . . . the absolute balance of Give and Take.. . Love and you shall be loved. All love is mathematically just, as much as the two sides of an algebraic equation, . .|
In a poem he chants, ‘Balance-loving Nature / Made all things in pairs . . . ‘. And he muses:
|It is strange how fast Experience and Idea, the wonderful twins, the Castor and Pollux of our firmament, change places; one rises and the other instantaneously sets.|
Similarly, another Gemini philosopher to whom the hat must at least be tipped is Jean Baudrillard (20 June), no less a fine-grained dualist than Emerson, writing:
|Everything which offends against duality, which is the fundamental rule, everything which aims to be integral, leads to disintegration through the violent resurgence of duality – . . . . No one seems to have understood that Good and Evil advance together, as part of the same movement. The triumph of one does not eclipse the other—far from it. . . Good does not conquer evil, nor indeed does the reverse happen, they are at once both irreducible to each other and inextricably interrelated.|
What though shall we make of Henry Sidgwick, who makes it into the Leiter Top 40 of Great Philosophers - ahead of Whitehead, Ryle, Merleau-Ponty, Arendt, Habermas and Foucault? An early English admirer of Walt Whitman, Sidgwick ‘s utilitarian legitimations of concealment and asceticism seems to argue for a different kind of Gemini philosopher. But indeed, Sidgwick was also the founding president of the Society for Psychical Research, and ‘spent more hours in search of ghosts, communications from the dead, and other paranormal phenomena ‘ than on those Taurean efforts at ordering reality. Happy then that flexibility, balance and adaptability are said to be the hallmarks of his sign.
With the introduction of Gemini thinkers, the philosophical realm seems to broaden into considerations of social relations, language, communication, borders, margins and edges. There is less dogmatism, there is more examination, questions are raised more frequenty than answered.
Crabby philosophers . . . . from 'verum ipsum factum' to counter-enlightenment?
And finally, a look at Cancer, the Crab, the fourth sign, and one without on the face of it any grand aims in life. In astrological lore, Cancerians instead love home-life, the family and domestic settings. They are said to be traditionalist and to like operating on ‘a fundamental level ‘. Astrologers talk about those born under this sign as being fascinated with the beginnings of things - suggesting that everyday Cancerians will be interested in heraldry, ancestry and so on.
So how do our two stand-out philosophers here, namely: Gottfried Leibniz (July1) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (28 June) fit with this astrological antecedent? An inveterate tinkerer, Leibniz represents well Cancer ‘s practical side. And Leibniz's grand (Pythagorean) philosophical project was to make the world rational by reducing it to numbers and forcing it to obey the laws of mathematics. Yet, like Pythagoras, his fundamental building blocks for the project seem anything but rational - indeed Leibniz‘s monads are among the most mysterious objects in the universe. The "Universal Computer" goes from one Cancer to another, if it travels the road from Leibniz to Turing (23 June).
As for Rousseau, he aptly illustrates not only Cancer‘s practical side in his love of grand houses and homes, but also (in his philosophical appeal to ‘life before property' and quintessentially romantic view of human nature) the Crab's 'moon' spirit. Quite simply, Rousseau speaks up for the claims of feeling.
Once again admitting the small-fry into the tabulation we find among the earlier philosophers Gianbattista Vico (23 June), who insisted that Descartes had no right to privilege the ‘clear and distinct idea‘ beyond mathematics and physics. Then a cluster of continentals: Gaston Bachelard (27 June), who thought he could see in science the poetry and elemental psychology of Fire, Earth, Air and Water; Walter Benjamin (15 July), who looked for mysticism in historical materialism; and Jacques Derrida (15 July), eraser of the margins of the rational.
On opposite sides of the contemporary philosophic divide, two Crabby 'social constructivists', Thomas Kuhn (18 July) and the less well known Bruno Latour (22 June) both tried to undermine scientific certainty. Also on the analytic side of the fence is Willard Quine (25 June) whose strong objection to Derrida now resembles discomfort at sharing a zodiacal trait. If ‘to quine is to repudiate a clear distinction‘ then Derrida is a champion quiner. Likewise Michael Dummett (27 June) both read tarot cards and joined the Catholic Church.
Indeed, it is easy and fun to scan the lives and works of our Cancerian philosophers for references to the traditional concerns of that sign: the element water, the Moon, seashells and enclosures, the womb, organicity, the erosion of the linear by the ‘morphological ‘. And so it seems that once again, the astrologers perspective can yield a host of intriguing and subtle insights.
Quod erat demonstrandum.
——Really nearly final version of June TENTH ——-
This page is based on an essay by Martin Cohen and Mark Shulgasser for the magazine The Philosopher (Autumn 2012).