Tuesday, 22 May 2018

Schopenhauer—As a Mimeticist Thinker

As a concept mimesis is obsolete; the artists in the last two hundred years of modernism and postmodernism have been showing little interest in imitation of nature. But in his book The Aesthetics of Mimesis, Stephen Halliwell says that German romanticism, under some kind of influence of mimesis, has fostered a change in attitude towards language and art and this has had a seminal impact on several succeeding thinkers.

Halliwell offers the example of Arthur Schopenhauer who, he says, embraces a version of the doctrine of aesthetic “disinterestedness” that had emerged from Enlightenment, and especially from Kantian, aesthetics. Within the terms of his own system Schopenhauer translates such disinterestedness into freedom from “willing,” from the ceaseless, painful operation of the will that otherwise characterizes all life. According to Halliwell, Schopenhauer “manages to combine this notion with a larger model of art that does not disconnect it from the interest, meaning, and value of life as a whole.”

Here’s an excerpt from Halliwell’s The Aesthetics of Mimesis (Chapter 12, “An Inheritance Contested: Renaissance to Modernity”):
Works of art, for Schopenhauer, continue to depict and evoke possible features of experience, as well as to require in those who contemplate them—and here he diverges sharply from Kant—cognitive and emotional responses that draw on the general understanding of reality. At a very basic level, in fact, Schopenhauer remains a kind of mimeticist thinker, for he holds that all the arts, with the special exception of music (though even this, he believes, stands in a peculiar kind of “imitative” relationship to the ultimate ground of reality, the will itself), are species of “representation” (Darstellung) and produce objects that stand in the relation of “copy to original” (wie Nachbild zum Vorbilde). But he turns his mimeticism into a strikingly Platonic, or rather Neoplatonic, form by maintaining that the particulars depicted in all artworks (except those of music) become expressions, and promote knowledge, of quasi-Platonic ideas, the universal forms that underlie all the phenomena of the world. On Schopenhauer’s model, therefore, while aesthetic experience, as a will-less, disinterested act of contemplation, is one of very few routes of escape from the trammels of the individual’s suffering existence, it is an experience that does not avert its gaze from reality but engages with it at a deeper level of truth, the level of universal, eternal essences. This helps to explain how Schopenhauer can preserve and adapt an old motif of mimetic thinking in referring to the will-less knowledge mediated through and experienced in art as the “pure, clear mirror of the world” (blosser, klarer Spiegel der Welt), and can speak of the beautiful images of life that are possible not in life itself but only in the “transfiguring mirror of art or of poetry” (im verkla ̈renden Spiegel der Kunst oder der Poesie). 
Halliwell's book offers an interesting account of how mimesis, a theory of art which originated in ancient Greece, has traversed huge span of time and cultural distances to have an impact on modern thought. 

Monday, 21 May 2018

Immanuel Kant’s Letter to Frederich Schiller

Kant's statue in Belo Horizonte, Brazil
The letters that Immanuel Kant wrote to many of the leading thinkers of his day is rich in philosophical content. But his correspondence with Frederich Schiller is businesslike.

On June 13, 1794, Schiller wrote from Jena, requesting Kant to contribute an essay in his new literary magazine Die Horen. Johann Gottlieb Fichte too wrote to Kant supporting Schiller’s request. Schiller wrote again on June 17, 1794 and again on October 6, 1794. In his letters, Schiller assured Kant that he was devoted to the Kantian moral system and he thanked Kant for illuminating his spirit.

On March 1, 1795, Schiller once again requested Kant to contribute an essay to Die Horen, and he also sent two issue of the magazine. In his letter he informed Kant that he was the author of the book Letters on the Aesthetic Education of the Human Race and that he hoped that Kant would like his book which he believed was an application of Kantian philosophy.

On March 30, 1795, Kant responded to the multiple letters from Schiller. Here’s Kant’s entire letter:

Esteemed Sir,

I am always delighted to know and engage in literary discussions with such a talented and learned man as you, my dearest friend. I received the plan for a periodical that you sent me last summer and also the two first monthly issues. I found your Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Mankind splendid, and I shall study them so as to be able to give you my thoughts about them. The paper on sexual differences in organic nature, in the second issue, is impossible for me to decipher, even though the author seems to be an intelligent fellow. There was once a severely critical discussion in the Allgemeine Literaturzeitung about the ideas expressed in the letters of Herr Hube of Thorn concerning a similar relationship extending throughout nature. The ideas were attacked as romantic twaddle. To be sure, we sometimes find something like that running through our heads, without knowing what to make of it. The organization of nature has always struck me as amazing and as a sort of chasm of thought; I mean, the idea that fertilization, in both realms of nature, always needs two sexes in order for the species to be propagated. After all, we don't want to believe that providence has chosen this arrangement, almost playfully, for the sake of variety. On the contrary, we have reason to believe that propagation is not possible in any other way. This opens a prospect on what lies beyond the field of vision, out of which, however, we can unfortunately make nothing, as little as out of what Milton's angel told Adam about the creation: "Male light of distant suns mixes itself with female, for purposes unknown." I feel that it may harm your magazine not to have the authors sign their names, to make themselves thus responsible for their considered opinions; the reading public is very eager to know who they are.

For your gift, then, I offer my most respectful thanks; with regard to my small contribution to this journal, your present to the public, I must however beg a somewhat lengthy postponement. Since discussions of political and religious topics are currently subject to certain restrictions and there are hardly any other matters, at least at this time, that interest the general reading public, one must keep one's eye on this change of the weather, so as to conform prudently to the times.

Please greet Professor Fichte and give him my thanks for sending me his various works. I would have done this myself but for the discomfort of aging that oppresses me, with all the manifold tasks I still have before me, which, however, excuses nothing but my postponement. Please give my regards also to Messrs. Schütz and Hufeland.

And so, dearest sir, I wish your talents and your worthy objectives the strength, health, and long life they deserve, and also the friendship, with which you wish to honor one who is ever.

Your most devoted, loyal servant

I. Kant

Sunday, 20 May 2018

Reinhold’s Letters on The Kantian Philosophy

Karl Leonhard Reinhold
Karl Leonhard Reinhold’s letters on Kantian philosophy were published in the journal Teutscher Merkur from August 1786 to September 1787. A much larger version of the letters were compiled together and published in a book Letters on The Kantian Philosophy in 1790. An updated version of the Letters containing several new topics was published in 1792.

With his Letters, Reinhold became Kant's first major interpreter. An interpretation was critical because when the Critique of Pure Reason appeared in 1781, several scholars, including Mendelssohn and Goethe, found the work impenetrable. Kant was criticized by reviewers for the idealistic content of his work. In 1783, Kant offered a shorter version of his critical philosophy in the Prolegomena, but this work too failed to make his philosophy accessible to scholars.

Reinhold’s Letters achieved what Kant's Prolegomena could not achieve—it offered a much simpler presentation of the philosophy of the Critique, and this brought great amount of attention to Kant and Kantian philosophy. Kant was pleased with the way his ideas were presented in Reinhold’s Letters. Here’s an excerpt from Kant’s letter to Reinhold (December 28, 1787):
I have read the lovely Letters, excellent and kind sir, with which you have honored my philosophy. Their combination of thoroughness and charm are matchless and they have not failed to make a great impression in this region. I was therefore all the more eager somehow to express my thanks in writing, most likely in the Deutscher Merkur, and at least to indicate briefly that your ideas agree precisely with mine, and that I am grateful for your success in simplifying them. 
The remarkable thing is that in his Letters, Reinhold does not cite the full name of Kant’s work—he speaks of “the critique of reason.” In Kant and the Historical Turn: Philosophy as Critical Interpretation, Karl Ameriks offers the following explanation for Reinhold’s dropping of the word “pure” from the title of the Kant’s book:
Reinhold never makes explicit his rationale for omitting the word ‘pure’, but this tactic can be understood as presumably his way of indicating from the start that his concern—like Kant’s as well—is not merely with a book but rather with the very notion and whole movement of a critique of reason. By also not citing pages of the Critique directly, and often not naming Kant at all, Reinhold’s procedure reinforces the thought that the critique of reason is a general project, one that might be carried out in a number of places—perhaps in ancillary works by Kant, or perhaps in efforts by supporters, such as the Letters itself.  ~ (Chapter 7, “Reinhold’s First Letters on Kant”) 
A paragraph later Karl Ameriks notes:
Whatever its source, there is a very significant philosophical complication arising from Reinhold’s omission of the word ‘pure’ in his constant use of the short phrase ‘critique of reason’. The advantage of his phrase is that it calls attention, all the more easily, to critique as a general process, and hence as a process that can, and does, involve two kinds of double meanings. It concerns reason in the double meaning of something that is carried out by and applied to reason; and it concerns critique in the double meaning of something negative, in the sense of an attack, and something positive, in the sense of a knowledgeable assessment and vindication (as in the English term ‘literary criticism’). The disadvantage of Reinhold’s short phrase is that it is misleading about exactly what Kant means to attack and what he means to vindicate.  
It is important for Kant to use the term ‘pure’ in his title because his book’s intent is to criticize—in the sense of ‘attack’—not reason in general but only those theoretical uses of reason that try to proceed too ‘purely’, that is, without recognition of our need to refer to sensory, spatiotemporal contexts in order to make warranted determinate claims. Reinhold’s main point is that Kant means to vindicate reason in its practical use, and thereby to silence those who are totally negative about reason. Thus, an initial way one might try to express Kant’s project is to say that the Critique is written to limit theoretical reason, especially in the face of dogmatic rationalism or supernaturalism, and to liberate practical reason, especially in the face of dogmatic empiricism or skepticism. To be accurate, however, some important qualifications must be added, qualifications that Reinhold generally fails to provide. 
Reinhold was committed to the Enlightenment before he had even heard of Immanuel Kant. He wanted to discover a philosophy that would support social and political reform so that all members of society can lead a completely free life. He thought that the philosophy that he was looking for was available in Kant’s Critique. In his Letters, he has organized the discussion around the insight that the aim of the Critique is to attack the metaphysical doctrines of materialism and spiritualism. Reinhold does not directly talk about the metaphysical basis and the implications of the Kantian attack on these doctrines but he manages to bring out many of the special virtues of Critical philosophy.

Friday, 18 May 2018

Kant, Hamann, and the Rise of the Sturm und Drang

A 20th century drawing of Johann Georg Hamann
Johann Georg Hamann (1730-1788) had been deeply influenced by the Enlightenment ideals, but due to the personal problems that he experienced during his stay in London in 1757-58, he had a religious awakening and he slowly fought his way back to the belief that God and church were the only salvation not only for himself, but for everyone.

When he returned to Königsberg in March of 1759, he was a changed man—he had discarded his belief in the Enlightenment ideas which he had shared with several friends, and intellectuals like Immanuel Kant, in Germany. Now he had rejected science and reason, and embarked upon an inflexible kind of faith in the religious doctrines preached by the Church.

His employer Bernes noticed the change in Hamann and enlisted the help of Kant to make Hamann realize that he should discard his new philosophy and once again become an advocate of the Enlightenment. Bernes and Kant met Hamman in early July 1759 at a rural inn outside Königsberg  but the meeting didn’t go well. The philosophical differences between Kant and Hamann were too wide. On July 24, Kant and Bernes gave a visit to Hamann and they offered Hamann the task of translating some articles from Diderot’s Encyclopedie. Kant was hopeful that Hamann would return to his senses while translating the classic of the Enlightenment. But Hamann did not accept the offer. Instead, he sent a strong letter to Kant rejecting his role as a mediator.

Frederick C. Beiser’s The Fate of Reason: German Philosophy from Kant to Fichte, (Chapter 1, “Kant, Hamann, and the Rise of the Sturm und Drang”), offers an interesting account of how the interactions between Kant and Hamann became the catalyst for the rise of the Sturm und Drang. Here’s an excerpt:
Hamann's letter to Kant, dated July 27, 1759, is a significant historical document. It has good claim to be the first clash between the Aufklarung and Sturm und Drang, the first battle between Kant and his pietistic opponents. Apart from its personal content—the rejection of Kant's mediation—the letter consists mainly in a defense of faith and feeling against the tyranny of reason. Hamann casts himself in the role of a prophet who is persecuted by the 'priests' of the Aufklarung. The dramatis personae are now clear to him: if Kant is Socrates, and if Berens is Alcibiades, then Hamann is the genius who speaks through Socrates. This genius represents divine inspiration, the voice of prophecy, which is what "little Socrates" needs if he is to explain "the mystery of faith" to "big Alcibiades." But Hamann fears that Kant, as a mere philosopher, has no understanding of the heart. Hence he tells Kant that he writes to him in epic rather than lyric style since a philosopher cannot comprehend the language of feeling. Hamann then ridicules Berens' use of a philosopher to change his beliefs: "I nearly have to laugh at the choice of a philosopher to change my thinking. I see the best demonstration like a sensible girl sees a love letter, and I see a Baumgartian definition as a fleuret.” 
In his closing paragraph, however, Hamann cites one philosopher who does understand the need for faith: "the Attic philosopher," David Hume. If Hume is right that reason cannot prove or disprove the existence of ordinary things, then it a fortiori cannot prove or disprove the existence of 'higher things'. If we can only believe in the existence of tables and chairs, then a fortiori we can only believe in the existence of God. Hume is "a Saul among prophets" since he sees that reason cannot make us wise, and that we need faith "to eat an egg or to drink a glass of water.” 
Hamann's appeal to Hume here is strangely, and perhaps intentionally, ironic. Hume argues that there are no rational grounds for the belief in the existence of God in order to attack faith; but Hamann reverses his argument and uses it to defend faith. The argument is the same; but its uses conflict. To Hamann, the merit of Hume's skepticism is not that it challenges faith, but that it secures it from the criticism of reason. 
Whatever the merits of his interpretation, Hamann's citation of Hume in his July 27 letter proved fateful. It is the earliest evidence of Kant's acquaintance with Hume. Here was the spark that later awakened Kant from his "dogmatic slumber." Hume also played a decisive role in the development of Hamann's philosophy, particularly his defense of faith against the attacks of reason. In citing Hume against Kant, Hamann also set a precedent for those philosophers who eventually launched a Humean counterattack upon Kant. 
The influence of Hamann on the Sturm und Drang movement is beyond dispute, but Kant, despite his opposition to the movement, ended up playing a catalytic role in the movement. His conflict with Hamann helped create the Sturm und Drang movement, which was in essence a counter-Enlightenment movement. Hamann was inspired by Kant, but he developed his own philosophy in a reaction to Kant’s pro-Enlightenment philosophy.

Thursday, 17 May 2018

Philosophers as Fiction Writers: Friedrich Schiller and Ayn Rand

Portraits of Ayn Rand and Friedrich Schiller
In Schiller as Philosopher: A Re-examination, Frederick C. Beiser notes that Schiller’s philosophy should not be seen separately from his poetry and plays. This is because the leitmotif of Schiller’s literature is to transmit his political, moral, and aesthetic philosophy. Here’s an excerpt from Beiser’s Introduction to his book:
In vindicating Schiller’s stature as a philosopher, it is important not to separate his philosophy from his poetry and drama. If we make such a separation, we simply fall victim to the academic division of labour from another direction. It is a false abstraction to think that poets cannot be philosophers just as it is to think that philosophers cannot be poets. There is indeed an important sense in which Schiller’s deepest philosophy comes not from his essays but from his plays and poems. If philosophy should come from the experience of life itself, then the best philosophy derives from those media that are closest to that experience: poetry and drama. If this is the case, then the best treatment of Schiller’s philosophy should make no separation between his poetry and discursive essays; it should show how his fundamental themes and problems are found equally in his poetic and discursive works.
I think Beiser’s viewpoint on the Schiller’s poetry and plays being a prime resource for his philosophy is also applicable to Ayn Rand’s literature. She has used the medium of novels to give her readers an almost lifelike experience of her philosophical vision. I think that her novels (We The Living, The Fountainhead, and Atlas Shrugged) provide a far better insight into her philosophy than the essays that she wrote during the 1960s and 1970s when she was no longer writing fiction and was a full-time philosopher.

The writing career of Schiller and Rand has followed a similar trajectory. They began as fiction writers and their works made them immensely popular. In the later part of their life they were drawn to writing philosophical essays because they wanted to do something to improve the political and cultural condition of their society.

Schiller was a famous poet and playwright in the late 1780s when he began to prepare himself for writing a series of essays on philosophy. He read the original works of several philosophers, especially Immanuel Kant. His essays on aesthetic philosophy (Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man), on Sublime, Grace and Dignity, etc., are a masterpiece. Rand, on the other hand, made the transition from a celebrated fiction writer to a professional philosopher almost directly, with little acquaintance with the original works of the past philosophers.

It is noteworthy that Rand believed that Schiller was the greatest playwright of the Romantic School, but she has nothing to say about his philosophy. Her favorite play by Schiller was Don Carlos. Her heir Leonard Peikoff has given a lecture of around 2-hours on Don Carlos and he is full of praise for Schiller’s literary capabilities. I wonder if Rand and Peikoff read Schiller’s philosophical essays? Did they know about the intellectual debt that Schiller owed to their philosophical bête noire, Immanuel Kant?

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

A Comparison Between Schiller and Kant

In Schiller as Philosopher: A Re-examination, Frederick C. Beiser is making the case that Friedrich Schiller’s achievements in philosophy are as important as his achievements in literature. From the book’s Preface and Introduction, which I read today, it seems that Beiser’s agenda is to build up Schiller’s reputation at the cost of Immanuel Kant.

In the Introduction, Bieser compares Schiller’s philosophy with Kant’s. He summarizes the chief merits of Schiller’s philosophy vis-à-vis Kant’s in the following six propositions:
Schiller’s philosophy retains the rational core of Kant’s ethics but dispenses with its mystical shell. In other words, he accepts Kant’s rigorism and rationalism; but he rejects his transcendent Christian conception of the highest good, replacing it with an entirely immanent and secular one.  
Schiller’s account of aesthetic judgement is superior to Kant’s because it recognizes that it is necessary to give reasons for such judgements, reasons that refer to objective qualities of a work of art.  
Schiller has a more complete account of moral action than Kant, because he recognizes that an action has moral worth only if it derives from moral character or virtue.  
Schiller’s aesthetic conception of freedom avoids the problems of the Kantian moral conception.  
Schiller avoids the inconsistencies and vacillations in Kant’s treatment of the relationship between aesthetics and morality, and he demonstrates the aesthetic dimension of morality without lapsing into the danger of aestheticism, i.e. making beauty replace or mingle with moral principle as a motive for human action.  
Schiller has a conception of aesthetic autonomy that does not deprive art of its moral significance of relevance. 
Beiser offers a brief explanation to the six propositions in the Introduction, leaving detailed defense and exposition for the later chapters. However, I am not impressed by the idea of pitting Schiller against one of the most influential philosophers in history, Kant. Schiller offers lot of value, but he is not equal to Kant.

Also, I think there is a problem in the scope of Beiser's book, because its Preface says: “This study is partly thematic and partly textual. It does not attempt to be a complete study of Schiller's philosophy. It limits itself mainly to Schiller's aesthetic writings.” But this is surprising because the title is “Schiller as Philosopher.” Why confine the book to aesthetics, when Schiller has done lot of work in several other areas of philosophy?

I will have more to say on the book when I read rest of the chapters.

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

Friedrich Schiller and The French Revolution

German stamp depicting Schiller
Friedrich Schiller’s play The Robbers was an instant success when it was premiered in 1782. The play’s message of deliverance from a corrupt regime was so influential that in 1792 the new French Republic made Schiller an honorary citizen.

During the early days of the French Revolution, Schiller sympathized with the revolutionaries, but he was appalled when the violence began. The Jacobin Terror and the execution of Louis XVI forced him to give up play writing and turn his attention to political and aesthetic philosophy. Between 1791 and 1796, he wrote a number of theoretical works in which he examined the philosophical reasons behind the intricate political and cultural problems of his times.

Written in 1795, as a series of letters to Prince of Schleswig-Holstein-Augustenburg, Schiller’s Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man, was not only a response to the excesses of the French Revolution, but also a critique of the Enlightenment era political and aesthetic philosophy. In these letters he deals with questions such as how a traditional monarchical society (like France’s Ancien Régime) can be transformed so that there is civil liberty; what kind of role does the educated middle class play in the political transformation; should the process of transformation of the nation be initiated from top echelons of society or from the bottom?

Schiller’s verdict on the French people is quite stark—he blames them for the failure of the French Revolution. Here’s an excerpt from his July letter:
The attempt by the French people to realize themselves in their sacred rights of man and thereby achieve political freedom has merely revealed their own incapacity and unworthiness, casting not only this unhappy people, but also, with them, a considerable part of Europe, back a whole century in barbarism and servitude. 
He notes that political freedom cannot be achieved until the citizens are intellectually and morally fit for liberty.
Political and civic freedom remains eternally the most sacred of all things, the most deserving aim of all effort, the great center of all culture; but this wondrous structure can only be built on the solid foundation of an ennobled character. One has to begin with the creation of the citizens for a constitution, before these citizens can be granted a constitution.
Many of the Schiller’s letters are deeply inspired by Immanuel Kant’s transcendental aesthetic philosophy in The Critique of Judgement.

By 1794, the political situation in France had stabilized, and the new French government entered into a treaty with the German government. This led Kant to write his essay, Towards Perpetual Peace, whose aim is to explain the means by which peace can be secured between different nations. Schiller has dealt with this subject in his letters and he believed that the problem of peace between nations has to be addressed in the same way in which the conflicts within the mind of individual and among individuals is resolved.

Sunday, 13 May 2018

Plato’s Romantic Puritanism

Roman copy of Plato’s bust by Silanion
Friedrich Nietzsche, in The Genealogy of Morals, calls Plato the greatest enemy of art. But he also feels a sardonic respect for Plato, because he believes that Plato had rightly understood the dangerous power of art. In the Republic, Plato denounces poetry, which he says has the power to enter the mind, take hold of its beliefs and emotions, and mould the personality of all those who are exposed to it. He outlines an authoritarian scheme for censoring Greek poetry.

In his essay, “Romantic Puritanism: Plato and the Psychology of Mimesis,” (Chapter 2; The Aesthetics of Mimesis), Stephen Halliwell proposes that Plato’s attitude towards poetry and other mimetic arts show that he was a romantic puritan. This is because the romantic in Plato understood the seductive power of poetry; he himself wrote his philosophy in a literary style. But the puritan in him feared poetry’s corrupting power.

Here’s Halliwell’s analysis of the psychological core of Plato’s critique of poetry:
The psychological core of Plato’s critique of poetry and drama, with the moral and political authoritarianism it brings with it, is rooted ultimately in a fear of the imagination as such, a fear of what imagination can enact within each of us (“the city in the soul”) as well as, by extension, within whole communities. The many selves into which the soul can be diffracted exist potentially within each person; Plato’s philosophical psychology declares that the possibility of this disordered or constantly changing multiplicity is given by the very nature of the human mind. Plato’s fear is that the imagination, in the peculiarly potent forms activated by compelling fiction, can easily serve to foster these different selves and the desires on which they live. Except under specially limited conditions, he seems to believe, the imagination must be dangerously inimical to reason, precisely because its dynamics are those of self-transformation: for what can transform the self or the soul can subvert and destroy its chances of happiness. 
On the subject of the connection between Romanticism and Platonism, Halliwell has this to say:
Romanticism and Platonism are both devoted, in part, to a quest for the spiritual harmony and integrity of the individual. But for the romantics that integrity requires the imagination as one of its primary agencies, because imagination carries with it a potential for self-creation, self-exploration, and self-renewal, which is taken to be indispensable for spiritual growth and fulfillment. The many selves that Plato sees lurking in every mind, and which he thinks need to be integrated into a single, stable self under the rule of reason, become, for romanticism, nothing less than an essential source of freedom and discovery. 
According to Halliwell, imagination is potentially subversive of identity for Plato, but for romanticism, it is formative and even partly constitutive of the self.

Saturday, 12 May 2018

Thomas Carlyle on Schiller and Kant

Portrait of Schiller by Ludovike Simanowiz
In the Life of Friedrich Schiller, Thomas Carlyle goes into raptures about Friedrich Schiller's noble life and achievements in literature, but his account of the development of Schiller’s philosophical beliefs is tasteless. This, I think, is because Carlyle is not ready to acknowledge the debt that Schiller owes to Immanuel Kant.

Carlyle allows his own biases to creep into the biography, and devotes several pages to attacking Kant’s writing style and philosophy. He briefly mentions that Schiller was enthusiastic about Kant’s aesthetic philosophy, but he does not point out that Schiller’s On The Aesthetic Education of Man is inspired by Kant’s The Critique of Judgement.

In one of the passages, Carlyle is blaming the makeup of the German mind as an explanation for Schiller’s enthusiastic response to Kantian thought:
The air of mysticism connected with these doctrines [Kantian] was attractive to the German mind, with which the vague and the vast are always pleasing qualities; the dreadful array of first principles, the forest huge of terminology and definitions, where the panting intellect of weaker men wanders as in pathless thickets, and at length sinks powerless to the earth, oppressed with fatigue, and suffocated with scholastic miasma, seemed sublime rather than appalling to the Germans; men who shrink not at toil, and to whom a certain degree of darkness appears a native element, essential for giving play to that deep meditative enthusiasm which forms so important a feature in their character.
On the difficultly of reading and understanding Kant, here’s what Carlyle has to say:
To an exoteric reader the philosophy of Kant almost always appears to invert the common maxim; its end and aim seem not to be 'to make abstruse things simple, but to make simple things abstruse.' Often a proposition of inscrutable and dread aspect, when resolutely grappled with, and torn from its shady den, and its bristling entrenchments of uncouth terminology, and dragged forth into the open light of day, to be seen by the natural eye, and tried by merely human understanding, proves to be a very harmless truth, familiar to us from of old, sometimes so familiar as to be a truism. Too frequently, the anxious novice is reminded of Dryden in the Battle of the Books: there is a helmet of rusty iron, dark, grim, gigantic; and within it, at the farthest corner, is a head no bigger than a walnut. 
Carlyle calls Kant’s system a laborious dream, and its adherents crazy mystics. He claims that in England (the country to which he belonged) Kant has been rejected, perhaps with enough reason. He also talks about the night of Kantianism which perplexes rather than enlightens. On the whole, this is a strange biography which does not do any justice to Carlyle and is certainly unfair to Kant. 

Friday, 11 May 2018

The “Hero Cult” of Epicurus

Marble bust of Epicurus
Martha C. Nussbaum, in The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics, is full of praise for Epicurus’s ethical teachings. Her explanation makes it seem that Epicureanism is more conducive for achieving the Greek ideal of eudaimonia than the ethical teachings of Aristotle. But in the book’s Chapter 4, “Epicurean Surgery: Argument and Empty Desire,” she gives a glimpse of the “hero cult” that Epicurus had established. In Ancient Greece and during the Roman era, Epicurus was venerated as the savior of mankind by his disciples.

Here’s an excerpt from the Chapter 4 of Nussbaum’s book:  
Accordingly, all ancient accounts of Epicurus and Epicureanism agree in depicting an extraordinary degree of devotion and deferential obedience toward the master. The pupils, from Lucretius to Cicero's Torquatus, con­cur in celebrating him as the savior of humanity. He is revered as a hero, even as a god. Plutarch reports that one day, while Epicurus was lecturing about nature, Colotes fell at his feet, seized him by the knees, and per­formed a prokunesis act of obeisance appropriate to a divinity or a self-deifying monarch; he quotes a letter from master to pupil in which Epicurus recalls the incident with approval, stressing that Colotes "seized hold of (him) to the full extent of the contact that is customary in revering and supplicating certain people". Epicurus makes the vague claim that he would like to "revere and consecrate" Colotes in return—presumably a wish that Colotes should eventually attain his godlike condition. But this just further underlines the asymmetry of the give-and-take of argument: either you are a god or you are not. If you are not, your proper response to the arguments of the one who is, is acceptance and worship. In a letter to Idomeneus, Epicurus makes a request: "Send us, then, an offering of first­ fruits for the care [therapeian] of our sacred body [hierou somatos], on behalf of yourself and your children". Philodemus tells us that the student's fundamental attitude is: "We will obey the authority of Epicurus, according to whom we have chosen to live”. We have already seen evidence (supported by Diskin Clay's new work on the papyri-Clay 1986) that Epicurus established a hero cult of himself as a focus of the pupils' communal attention. Try imagining Aristotle taking this role, and you will have some measure of the distance we have traveled. Seneca tells us that the Stoics, too, reject the Epicurean conception of philosophical authority: "We are not under a king. Each one claims his own freedom. With them, whatever Hermarchus said, whatever Metro­dorus said, is ascribed to a single source. In that band, anything that anyone says is spoken under the leadership and command of one alone" 
The Epicurean normative ethics has played a positive role in the history of last 2300 years, but it seems that the school was quite dogmatic and cultist during the early years of its existence.

Thursday, 10 May 2018

Schiller on Art and Freedom

Friedrich Schiller believed that political liberty cannot be achieved until there is an inner transformation of the population, and the traditional way of thinking is countered, through exposure to magnificent works of art. Here’s an excerpt from his “Second Letter,” (On The Aesthetic Education of Man):
But this voice does not seem to favor art; at least not the kind of art to which my study will be devoted. The course of events has lent the spirit of the age a direction that threatens to render the art of the ideal ever more  remote from this spirit. This art has to leave the realm of reality, and with proper audacity elevate itself above simple need; for art is a daughter of freedom, responding not to the demands of matter, but to the necessity in our minds. For the present, need prevails, and bends a sunken humanity to its tyrannical yoke. Utility is the great idol of the age, to which all powers are in thrall and all talent must pay homage. On this code scale the spiritual virtues of art have no weight and, bereft of all encouragement, it disappears from the tumultuous market of our century. The spirit of philosophical inquiry strips the power of imagination from one province after another; the borders of art shrink as science extends its bounds. 
However, Schiller was a witness to the terror and brutal slaughter that got unleashed during the French Revolution and therefore he insists in the final lines of the “Second Letter” that the political problem can only be solved by taking the aesthetic path—“for it is by the way of beauty that one approaches liberty.”
I hope to convince you that this matter is far less alien to the needs of the age than it is to its taste; and that if one is to resolve this political problem one must in practice take the aesthetic path, for it is by way of beauty that one approaches liberty. This proof cannot be made, however, without my reminding you of the principles by which the exercise of reason is guided in the work of political legislation. 
Schiller has attacked Immanuel Kant on a number of issues, but he was deeply influenced by the Kantian aesthetic philosophy. His view of art providing an intellectual and moral direction to political liberty is in line with what Kant has preached in The Critique of Judgement.

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Koestler on The Evolution of Scientific Ideas

Arthur Koestler, in The Act of Creation, begins the chapter 10, “The Evolution of Ideas,” by mentioning a theory proposed by George Sarton, and held as self-evident by many scientists, which says that “the history of science is the only history which displays a cumulative progress of knowledge; that, accordingly, the progress of science is the only yardstick by which we can measure the progress of mankind; and moreover, that the word 'progress* itself has no clearly defined meaning in any field of activity—except the field of science.”

Koestler devotes rest of the chapter to proving that Sarton’s theory of scientific knowledge increasing in cumulative manner is not correct, and that instead of being gradual and continuous, the advances in science are often jerky, unpredictable and unscientific. He offers several examples from last 2500 years of critical scientific discoveries being forgotten, and rediscovered many centuries later. He notes that simple truths of science often get buried under manmade heaps of rubble, which are difficult to clear.

There are large number of scientists whose lives have been wasted in frustration and despair because their discoveries pass unnoticed. “The history of science has its Pantheon of celebrated revolutionaries—and its catacombs, where the unsuccessful rebels lie, anonymous and forgotten.”

Here’s an excerpt from the summary that Koestler offers at the end of the chapter:
The history of science shows recurrent cycles of differentiation and specialization followed by reintegrations on a higher level; from unity to variety to more generalized patterns of unity-in-variety. The process also has certain analogies with biological evolution—such as wastefulness, sudden mutations, the struggle for survival between competing theories.  
The various phases in the historic cycle correspond to the characteristic stages of individual discovery: the periods of creative anarchy to the period of incubation; the emergence of the new synthesis to the bisociative act. It may emerge suddenly, sparked off by a single individual discovery; or gradually, as in die history of electromagnetism, where a series of individual discoveries acted as 'links'. Each revolutionary historic advance has a constructive and a destructive aspect: the thaw of orthodox doctrines and the resulting fertile chaos correspond to the regressive phase of the individual reculer-pour-mienx-sauter phenomenon. Lastly, the process of verification and elaboration of individual discoveries is reflected on the map of history as the consolidation of the new frontier—followed by the development of a new orthodoxy, a hardening of the collective matrix—until it gets blocked and the cycle starts again. 
The developments in science, according to Koestler, follow the same historical pattern that we find in the areas of literature, music, painting, or architecture.

Tuesday, 8 May 2018

Aristotle on Pity

"Aristoteles," Painting  by Francesco Hayez 
Aristotle’s list of painful and destructive evils for which a man may feel pity include bodily injury, illness, deformity, weakness, old age, death, lack of food, lack of friends, the coming of evil from a source that ought to have brought good fortune, and a few other situations.

In Rhetoric, Aristotle identifies three cognitive conditions for a man to feel pity:

1. The person who is being pitied must be undeserving of the misfortune. A belief in the goodness of the person who is being pitied is essential for someone else to feel pity for him. Those who believe that evil is inherent in human beings will not feel pity for they will think that misfortune is deserved.

2. The person who pities must be filled by the notion that he or she is vulnerable to the misfortune that has struck the person who is the object of pity. Aristotle points out that those who think that they are immune to suffering of any kind will not feel pity. He sees a connection between pity and fear: we pity the misfortune of another when we fear that a similar misfortune may strike us.

3. A man will feel pity when he is convinced that the size of the misfortune that the other person has suffered is really significant.

Here’s an excerpt from Rhetoric (Book 2, Chapter 8):
Let us now consider Pity, asking ourselves what things excite pity, and for what persons, and in what states of our mind pity is felt. Pity may be defined as a feeling of pain caused by the sight of some evil, destructive or painful, which befalls one who does not deserve it, and which we might expect to befall ourselves or some friend of ours, and moreover to befall us soon. In order to feel pity, we must obviously be capable of supposing that some evil may happen to us or some friend of ours, and moreover some such evil as is stated in our definition or is more or less of that kind. It is therefore not felt by those completely ruined, who suppose that no further evil can befall them, since the worst has befallen them already; nor by those who imagine themselves immensely fortunate—their feeling is rather presumptuous insolence, for when they think they possess all the good things of life, it is clear that the impossibility of evil befalling them will be included, this being one of the good things in question. Those who think evil may befall them are such as have already had it befall them and have safely escaped from it; elderly men, owing to their good sense and their experience; weak men, especially men inclined to cowardice; and also educated people, since these can take long views. Also those who have parents living, or children, or wives; for these are our own, and the evils mentioned above may easily befall them. And those who neither moved by any courageous emotion such as anger or confidence (these emotions take no account of the future), nor by a disposition to presumptuous insolence (insolent men, too, take no account of the possibility that something evil will happen to them), nor yet by great fear (panic-stricken people do not feel pity, because they are taken up with what is happening to themselves); only those feel pity who are between these two extremes. In order to feel pity we must also believe in the goodness of at least some people; if you think nobody good, you will believe that everybody deserves evil fortune. And, generally, we feel pity whenever we are in the condition of remembering that similar misfortunes have happened to us or ours, or expecting them to happen in the future. 
So much for the mental conditions under which we feel pity. What we pity is stated clearly in the definition. All unpleasant and painful things excite pity if they tend to destroy pain and annihilate; and all such evils as are due to chance, if they are serious. The painful and destructive evils are: death in its various forms, bodily injuries and afflictions, old age, diseases, lack of food. The evils due to chance are: friendlessness, scarcity of friends (it is a pitiful thing to be torn away from friends and companions), deformity, weakness, mutilation; evil coming from a source from which good ought to have come; and the frequent repetition of such misfortunes. Also the coming of good when the worst has happened: e.g. the arrival of the Great King’s gifts for Diopeithes after his death. Also that either no good should have befallen a man at all, or that he should not be able to enjoy it when it has. 
The grounds, then, on which we feel pity are these or like these. The people we pity are: those whom we know, if only they are not very closely related to us-in that case we feel about them as if we were in danger ourselves. For this reason Amasis did not weep, they say, at the sight of his son being led to death, but did weep when he saw his friend begging: the latter sight was pitiful, the former terrible, and the terrible is different from the pitiful; it tends to cast out pity, and often helps to produce the opposite of pity. Again, we feel pity when the danger is near ourselves. Also we pity those who are like us in age, character, disposition, social standing, or birth; for in all these cases it appears more likely that the same misfortune may befall us also. Here too we have to remember the general principle that what we fear for ourselves excites our pity when it happens to others. Further, since it is when the sufferings of others are close to us that they excite our pity (we cannot remember what disasters happened a hundred centuries ago, nor look forward to what will happen a hundred centuries hereafter, and therefore feel little pity, if any, for such things): it follows that those who heighten the effect of their words with suitable gestures, tones, dress, and dramatic action generally, are especially successful in exciting pity: they thus put the disasters before our eyes, and make them seem close to us, just coming or just past. Anything that has just happened, or is going to happen soon, is particularly piteous: so too therefore are the tokens and the actions of sufferers-the garments and the like of those who have already suffered; the words and the like of those actually suffering-of those, for instance, who are on the point of death. Most piteous of all is it when, in such times of trial, the victims are persons of noble character: whenever they are so, our pity is especially excited, because their innocence, as well as the setting of their misfortunes before our eyes, makes their misfortunes seem close to ourselves.
In Poetics, Aristotle defines tragedy as a kind of imitative poetry that provokes pity and fear. He suggest that the audience identifies with the sufferings of the hero whose downfall results, not from unpleasantness or vice, but from an error in judgement.

Monday, 7 May 2018

Cicero on Private Property

Plato and Aristotle saw government as an instrument for improving public morality, but Cicero was probably the first intellectual to say that it is the government’s moral duty to protect private property. In De Officiis (On Moral Duties), Cicero devotes several passages to explaining the concept of private property and government’s role in defending it.

Here’s an excerpt from De Officiis (Book II, Passage 21):
He who administers the affairs of the state must take special care that every man be defended in the possession of what rightfully belongs to him, and that there be no encroachment on private property by public authority… Indeed, states and municipalities were established chiefly to insure the undisturbed possession of private property; for though under the guidance of Nature men were brought together, still it was with the hope of guardianship for their property that they sought the defence of cities. Pains should also be taken that there may be no need of levying a tax on property, which in the time of our ancestors was often done on account of the poverty of the treasury and the frequency of wars. 
Despite the fragile nature of the Roman Republic and constant threat to his own life, Cicero does not condemn human nature. His De Officiis has been instrumental in transmitting Stoic ideas from ancient Greece to the thinkers in the Renaissance and the Enlightenment era. This book has played an important role in the development of the modern world.

Sunday, 6 May 2018

Kant’s Connection Between The Aesthetic and The Ethical

In Ancient Greece, the philosophers did not recognize any difference between the aesthetic and the ethical. For instance, Plato believed that poetry can have corrupting influence on his guardians and he has talked about banning poetry from his republic.

According to Paul Guyer, line between the aesthetic and the ethical got drawn in the 18th century. Here’s an excerpt from Guyer’s essay, “Ethical Value of the Aesthetic: Kant, Alison, and Santayana,” (Chapter 8; Values of Beauty: Historical Essays in Aesthetics):
The separation of the aesthetic and the ethical is usually thought to have been introduced into modern philosophy in the eighteenth century by such thinkers as the Third Earl of Shaftesbury and Francis Hutchinson, but above all by Immanuel Kant, whose “Analytic of the Beautiful” in his third great critique, the Critique of the Power of Judgement of 1790, opens with the claim that the “satisfaction that determines the judgement of taste is without any interest,” thus that the satisfaction “of the taste for the beautiful is a disinterested and free satisfaction; for no interest, neither that of the senses, nor that of reason, extorts approval.” 
But Kant has also emphasized there are several ways by which the aesthetic can facilitate the achievement of morality while not being indispensable to that effort. Here’s Guyer’s perspective on this point:
Kant’s assertion of the disinterestedness of judgements of taste is only the beginning of a complex analysis of aesthetic experience, aesthetic judgement, and the nature of art, which ends up by drawing a large number of beneficial connections between aesthetic experience and moral conduct. Kant thus undermines the idea that there can or should be a rigid barrier between the aesthetic and ethical even before it gets off the ground and indeed introduces some connections between them…
The harmony that we find in the content, form, and material of the successful works of fine arts is according to Kant capable of inspiring ethical values. He suggests that aesthetic experience can be conducive to the development of sound politics as well as personal ethics.

Saturday, 5 May 2018

Is The Age of Enlightenment Real?

Which historian or philosopher began the trend of calling the 18th century the Age of Enlightenment? What is the name of the book and essay in which the phrase "Age of Enlightenment" was used for the first time to refer to the 18th century? What was the level of enlightenment of the intellectuals who popularized and propagandized the 18th century as the Age of Enlightenment?

According to the Wikipedia, "the term "Enlightenment" emerged in English in the later part of the 19th century, with particular reference to French philosophy, as the equivalent of the French term Lumières (used first by Dubos in 1733 and already well established by 1751).” The term “Lumières” became Aufklärung (aufklären = to illuminate; sich aufklären = to clear up) in the hands of German philosophers.

Immanuel Kant’s 1784 essay, "Beantwortung der Frage: Was ist Aufklärung?" ("Answering the Question: What is Enlightenment?”), offers a philosophical account of what it meant for a society to be enlightened.  The essay caught the imagination of Kant's contemporaries and continues to be influential till this day. But Kant has not said in his essay that the 18th century is the Age of Enlightenment. The chronological and geographical boundaries of the Age of Enlightenment was decided by the English scholars in the late nineteenth century.

There is no evidence to show that European scholars of the 18th century were more enlightened than the scholars in Ancient Greece, Renaissance and other periods of European history. So why do they call this period the Age of Enlightenment?

Friday, 4 May 2018

The Reliance of Aristotelian Ethics on Human Experience

In The Therapy of Desire ( Chapter: “Medical Dialectic: Aristotle on Theory and Practice”), Martha Nussbaum notes that Aristotle’s theories are based on his study of human experience. Here’s an excerpt:
All Aristotelian inquiries, ethics included, are bounded by the “appear­ances”—by human experience. In none does there appear to be the possi­bility of confirming results by comparison to an altogether extraexperien­tial reality. On the other hand, Aristotle does not mourn the absence of such standards: for the boundaries of experience are also, he holds, the boundaries of discourse and thought. The search for truth is the search for the most accurate account of the world, as we do (and shall) experience it. But this is unqualifiedly a search for truth; and no apologies need be made for using that word.  
Ethics, however, relies on human experience in a stronger sense. First, what it aims to describe is the good life for a particular species: and in so doing it must consider that species' characteristic capabilities and forms of life. The good human life must, in the first place, be such that a human being can live it: it must be "practicable and attainable for the human being" (Nicomachean Ethics). This is no trivial requirement. And in fact, Aristotle seems to hold something far stronger: the good life must be "common to many (polukoinon): for it is capable of belonging to anyone who is not by nature maimed with respect to arete, through some sort of learning and effort" (Nicomachean Ethics). (It is important to bear in mind that in Aristotle's view not many people are so "maimed": nothing like a view of original sin plays any role in his thinking.) He rejects the view that the good life is primarily a matter of luck or innate talent-and rejects these views as false ethical views—not on the grounds that some indepen­dent cosmic evidence refutes them, but on the grounds that such a view would "strike too false a note" (Nicomachean Ethics), be too out of line with people's aims and hopes. 
Aristotle’s philosophy is valuable because it is based on facts which he discovered by studying the experiences of the people who were part of his world. He also studied the views of the major Greek artists, politicians, scientists, historians, and philosophers—it is noteworthy that his work on almost every subject begins with a reference to the ideas of the past thinkers on that subject.

Thursday, 3 May 2018

Nietzsche on What Preserves the Species

Friedrich Nietzsche believed that evil is as vital for human flourishing as good. The fear of the evil prevents men from becoming complacent and lazy; it inspires them to develop better ideas and undertake powerful actions to subdue the forces of evil. When men are confronted by a great evil they have to fight with every means that is available to them—either they subdue the evil force or their society dies. The death of a weak society is a good thing because it frees up the space and resources for a better society to emerge.

Here’s an interesting passage from Nietzsche’s The Gay Science (which I think is his finest work):
The strongest and most evil spirits have so far done the most to advance humanity: again and again they relumed the passions that were going to sleep—all ordered society puts the passions to sleep—and they reawakened again and again the sense of comparison, of contradiction, of the pleasure in what is new, daring, untried; they compelled men to pit opinion against opinion, model against model. Usually by force of arms, by toppling boundary markers, by violating pieties—but also by means of new religions and moralities. In every teacher and preacher of what is new we encounter the same "wickedness" that makes conquerors notorious, even if its expression is subtler and it does not immediately set the muscles in motion, and therefore also does not make one that notorious. What is new, however, is always evil, being that which wants to conquer and overthrow the old boundary markers and the old pieties; and only what is old is good. The good men are in all ages those who dig the old thoughts, digging deep and getting them to bear fruit—the farmers of the spirit. But eventually all land is exploited, and the ploughshare of evil must come again and again. 
The Gay Science, by Friedrich Nietzsche; Translation by Walter Kaufmann

Wednesday, 2 May 2018

Aristotle on Familial Motivation

Here’s Martha Nussbaum’s perspective on Aristotle’s criticism of Plato’s proposals for holding spouses and children in common:

“Aristotle points out that close particular attachments are fundamental to familial and political motivation. "There are two things above all that make people love and care for something: the thought that it is all yours, and the thought that it is the only one you have" (Aristotle in Politics). A person motivated in this way is unlikely to view her own particular spouse or child as simply the object of universalizable ethical obligations. Parental education is superior to public education, Aristotle argues, because it begins from a grasp of the child's particularity, and is thus more likely to hit on what is appropriate.”

(Source: The Therapy of Desire by Martha Nussbaum, Chapter: “Medical Dialectic: Aristotle on Theory and Practice”)

Monday, 30 April 2018

The Snares of Language

Arthur Koestler
Arthur Koestler notes that words are a blessing which can turn into a curse. The words give articulation and precision to vague images and hazy intuitions but they can also restrict thought in the particular area which they are defining. Koestler points out that the deceptively simple words, “space,” and “time,” have traditionally been defined in such a way that before the scientific revolution man lived in a closed universe with firm boundaries in space, a few million miles in diameter, and time, a few thousand years in duration. It took centuries of work for mankind to realize that space and time are abstract concepts.

Here’s an excerpt from Koestler’s The Act of Creation (Chapter 7: “Thinking Aside”):
Words are essential tools for formulating and communicating thoughts, and also for putting them into the storage of memory; but words can also become snares, decoys, or strait-jackets. A great number of the basic verbal concepts of science have turned out at various times to be both tools and traps: for instance, 'time', 'space', 'mass', 'force', weight', ether', 'corpuscle', 'wave', in the physical sciences; 'purpose', 'will', 'sensation, 'consciousness', 'conditioning', in psychology; 'limit', 'continuity', 'countability', 'divisibility', in mathematics. For these were not simple verbal tags, as names attached to particular persons or objects are; they were artificial constructs which behind an innocent facade hid the traces of the particular kind of logic which went into their making. As Sidney Hook has put it: 'When Aristotle drew up his table of categories which to him represented the grammar of existence, he was really projecting the grammar of the Greek language on the cosmos.' That grammar has kept us to this day ensnared in its paradoxes: it made the grandeur and misery of two millennia of European thought. If Western philosophy, to quote Popper, consisted in a series of footnotes to Plato, Western science took a full two thousand years to liberate itself from the hypnotic effect of Aristotle, whose encyclopedic philosophy penetrated the very structure of our language. It determined not only what was 'science' but also what was 'common sense'. 
Koestler argues that true creativity often starts where language ends because language can often become a screen between a thinker and reality.

Sunday, 29 April 2018

Kepler and Modern Cosmology

“I have cleared the Augean stables of astronomy of cycles and spirals, and left behind me only a single cartful of dung.” ~ Johannes Kepler (Cited in Arthur Koestler's The Act of Creation)

What Kepler describes as a cartful of dung is the non-uniform motion in non-circular orbits of the planets which could only be justified and explained by using arguments derived not from geometry, but from physics. His was the first serious attempt to explain the mechanism of the solar system in terms of physical forces, and it resulted in the formerly separate fields of physics and astronomy coming together. 

Saturday, 28 April 2018

Laughter as a Political Weapon in Ancient Sparta

In his book Greek Laughter: A Study of Cultural Psychology from Homer to Early Christianity, Stephen Halliwell says that “in Greek culture laughter was associated with the unruliness of the young, the surging energy of bodily instincts, and the insolence, even subversiveness, of mockery.”

The militaristic Spartans were especially averse to laughter. The intellectuals of the classical period project an unsympathetic image of the Spartans as generally dour and, by implication, averse to laughter.

But even the Spartans with their rigorous militaristic values could not implement a complete social control of laughter. In The Histories, Herodotus refers to an instance where laughter is deployed as a political weapon in Sparta. Here’s an excerpt from Halliwell’s book (page 49):
As it happens, a story in Herodotus gives us something at least approximating to one glimpse of a real (at any rate credible) use of devastating laughter as a political weapon in late archaic Sparta. It concerns the occasion, in the late 490s, when Demaratus, deposed from the kingship on the grounds of doubts about his paternity and now the holder of a lesser magistracy, was publicly insulted by his royal successor Leotychidas. Herodotus narrates how the latter sent a slave to ask Demaratus in public, at the festival of the Gumnopaidiai, what it was like to be a mere magistrate after having been king. Leotychidas’ motive, according to the historian, was to direct laughter and contempt against Demaratus. The festival setting is intriguing: was Leotychidas ironically taking advantage of the more general conventions of festive mockery which later sources report (see on Plutarch above)? Demaratus is said to have attempted a barbed rejoinder (including a thinly veiled threat) before leaving the gathering in shame, with his head covered, and shortly afterwards defecting to Persia. But was Leotychidas’ behavior appropriate for a Spartan king? Whatever its historical credentials, the anecdote could be thought to send ambiguous signals. It shows laughter being employed in a manner which reflects a pent-up power perhaps indicative of Spartan psychology, while at the same time leaving one to wonder whether its calculated offensiveness conforms to or breaches Spartan protocols of self-discipline. The use of a slave to relay the question from king to ex-king nicely encapsulates the problem: it adds to the public humiliation while avoiding face-to-face ridicule. Leotychidas himself laughs, as it were, from a distance. It is not merely pedantic to point out that Herodotus’ text does not tell us whether other Spartans, hearing the question put to Demaratus, actually laughed too. But the historian’s own narrative does later recount how Leotychidas ‘paid the price’ for his treatment of Demaratus. He suffered his own ignominy and died in exile.

Friday, 27 April 2018

On the Psychology of the Creative Act

Arthur Koestler in The Act of Creation notes that on one end of the scale we have discoveries which involve some kind of conscious, logical reasoning, and on the other end there are the sudden insights which seem to emerge from the depth of the unconscious.

He compares the predicament of a thinker faced with a creative problem which cannot be solved by traditional methods to that of a motorist who is heading for a frontier to which all the approaches are blocked. In such a situation the motorist’s skills as a driver will not help him; to reach the frontier, he must play a completely different kind of game—maybe he can change his car into a helicopter.

Here’s an excerpt from The Act of Creation, Chapter 5, “Moments of Truth: The Chimpanzee and the Stick”:
When all hopeful attempts at solving the problem by traditional methods have been exhausted, thought runs around in circles in the blocked matrix like rats in a cage. Next, the matrix of organized, purposeful behavior itself seems to go to pieces, and random trials make their appearance, accompanied by tantrums and attacks of despair—or by the distracted absent-mindedness of the creative obsession. That absent-mindedness is, of course, in fact single-mindedness; for at this stage—the 'period of incubation —the whole personality, down to the unverbalized and unconscious layers, has become saturated with the problem, so that on some level of the mind it remains active, even while attention is occupied in a quite different field…
Koestler’s comments regarding the nature of creative act are quite perceptive:
This leads to the paradox that the more original a discovery the more obvious it seems afterwards. The creative act is not an act of creation in the sense of the Old Testament. It does not create something out of nothing; it uncovers, selects, re-shuffles, combines, synthesizes already existing facts, ideas, faculties, skills. The more familiar the parts, the more striking the new whole. Man's knowledge of the changes of the tides and the phases of the moon is as old as his observation that apples fall to earth in the ripeness of time. Yet the combination of these and other equally familiar data in Newton's theory of gravity changed mankind's outlook on the world.
'It is obvious', says Hadamard, 'that invention or discovery, be it in mathematics or anywhere else, takes place by combining ideas… The Latin verb cogito for "to think" etymologically means "to shake together". St. Augustine had already noticed that and also observed that intelligo means "to select among”.’ 
But for a new discovery to take place a condition must be fulfilled that Koestler calls “ripeness.”
The 'ripeness' of a culture for a new synthesis is reflected in the recurrent phenomenon of multiple discovery, and in the emergence of similar forms of art, handicrafts, and social institutions in diverse cultures. But when the situation is ripe for a given type of discovery it still needs the intuitive power of an exceptional mind, and sometimes a favorable chance event, to bring it from potential into actual existence. On the other hand, some discoveries represent striking tours de force by individuals who seem to be so far ahead of their time that their contemporaries are unable to understand them.

Thursday, 26 April 2018

On the Therapeutic Model of Philosophizing

The purpose of Martha C. Nussbaum’s The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics is to investigate the therapeutic philosophy preached by the three major Hellenistic Schools, Epicurean, Stoic, and Skeptic. The view was widespread among the Hellenistic philosophers that human diseases can be cured by modifying the passions through reasoning and argumentation.

They believed that philosophy heals the diseases caused by false beliefs; and to deliver therapy, they deployed rhetorical and literary forms in complex ways.

Philosophy in the Hellenistic age was a tool for recognizing the error in one’s thinking. By diagnosing the errors, the philosophers endeavored to make things better and develop a radical norm of true human flourishing (Eudaimonia). Their outlook on nature was often teleological and normative; however, there is a difference in the degree to which the three schools based their ideas on such a view of nature.

Here’s an excerpt from The Therapy of Desire (Chapter I, “Therapeutic Arguments”):

“Epicureans and Skeptics vigor­ously repudiate any such project, deriving their norms of nature from a consideration of the ways living creatures operate in an indifferent uni­verse. The Stoics… are in a sense closer to the Platonists…, in that, although their account of nature is certainly value-laden, and does claim to derive both support and justification from the deepest of human desires and aims, they also believe that the universe as a whole is providentially constructed by Zeus, and that norms of human life are part of this providential design. What complicates the matter further is that the essence of the providential design is reason; and reason is the very thing we encounter in ourselves when we scrutinize our deepest judgments. Thus it is no mere accident that self-scrutiny gets things right. In that sense the Stoics are not Platonists: the connection between the deepest layers of our own makeup and the true good is not merely contin­gent. But a normative ethical structure does pervade the universe as a whole.” (Page 32)

Nussbaum explains that she begins her book with a chapter on Aristotle because his ethical philosophy is close to the account offered by the Hellenistic philosophers. “Aristotle accepts and develops at length the idea that ethical philosophy should resemble medicine in its dedication to the practical goal of ameliorating human lives. And he develops, in some detail, aspects of the analogy between the philosopher's and the doctor's tasks.” (Page 42). But Nussbaum also notes that there are several points on which Aristotle criticizes the medical analogy—he argues that there are some important ways in which ethical philosophy should not be like medicine.

Tuesday, 24 April 2018

Contributions of German Philosophers to Modern Aesthetic Theory

Moses Mendelssohn; Immanuel Kant 
The various arts are as old as civilization, but the manner in which we group them and evaluate their importance in our life and culture is a relatively recent development. With their theory of mimesis, the ancient Greeks had established a link between painting and sculpture, poetry and music, but they lacked a system of fine arts in which all the visual arts can be grouped with poetry and music. The development of such a system of fine arts had to wait till the eighteenth century.

In his essay, “The Modern System of Fine Arts: A Study in the History of Aesthetics, Part II,” Paul Oskar Kristeller offers an interesting account of the ideas with which the European philosophers enriched the field of aesthetics during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

The process of development of a system of fine arts began in England and France post Renaissance, in the seventeenth century. But towards the middle of eighteenth century the German philosophers started dominating the discussions on art. The term “aesthetics” was coined by Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten in 1735, but the meaning that he gave to the term is different from how it is understood today. He saw aesthetics as a theory of sensuous knowledge, which is a counterpoint to logic, the theory of intellectual knowledge.

In the interval between Baumgarten and Immanuel Kant, Moses Mendelssohn made valuable contributions. Here’s an excerpt from Kristeller’s essay:
Mendelssohn, who was well acquainted with French and English writings on the subject, demanded in a famous article that the fine arts (painting, sculpture, music, the dance, and architecture) and belles lettres (poetry and eloquence) should be reduced to some common principle better than imitation, and thus was the first among the Germans to formulate a system of the fine arts. Shortly afterwards, in a book review, he criticized Baumgarten and Meier for not having carried out the program of their new science, aesthetics. They wrote as if they had been thinking exclusively in terms of poetry and literature, whereas aesthetic principles should be formulated in such a way as to apply to the visual arts and to music as well. In his annotations to Lessing's Laokoon, published long after his death, Mendelssohn persistently criticizes Lessing for not giving any consideration to music and to the system of the arts as a whole; we have seen how Lessing, in the fragmentary notes for a continuation of the Laokoon, tried to meet this criticism. Mendelssohn also formulated a doctrine of the three faculties of the soul corresponding to the three basic realms of goodness, truth and beauty, thus continuing the work of the Scottish philosophers. He did not work out an explicit theory of aesthetics, but under the impact of French and English authors he indicated the direction in which German aesthetics was to develop from Baumgarten to Kant.
Sulzer established a systematic system and popularized the idea that all the fine arts are connected with each other. Herder did a critique of Lessing's Laokoon and made comparisons between poetry and music. Immanuel Kant made some major contributions to philosophy of aesthetics in his the Critique of Judgement.

Here’s Kristeller’s perspective on Kant’s contribution to aesthetics:
The system of the three Critiques as presented in this last volume is based on a threefold division of the faculties of the mind, which adds the faculty of judgment, aesthetic and teleological, to pure and practical reason. Aesthetics, as the philosophical theory of beauty and the arts, acquires equal standing with the theory of truth (metaphysics or epistemology) and the theory of goodness (ethics). 
In the tradition of systematic philosophy this was an important innovation, for neither Descartes nor Spinoza nor Leibniz nor any of their ancient or medieval predecessors had found a separate or independent place in their system for the theory of the arts and of beauty, though they had expressed occasional opinions on these subjects. If Kant took this decisive step after some hesitation, he was obviously influenced by the example of Baumgarten and by the rich French, English, and German literature on the arts his century had produced, with which he was well acquainted. In his critique of aesthetic judgment, Kant discusses also the concepts of the sublime and of natural beauty, but his major emphasis is on beauty in the arts, and he discusses many concepts and principles common to all the arts. In section 51 he also gives a division of the fine arts: speaking arts (poetry, eloquence) ; plastic arts (sculpture, architecture, painting, and gardening) ; arts of the beautiful play of sentiments (music, and the art of color).
Since the publication of the Critique of Judgement, Kant’s aesthetics has occupied a permanent place among the major philosophical disciplines.