Saturday, 18 August 2018

Auguste Comte and Karl Marx

Auguste Comte developed his philosophy of positivism with the intention of correcting the problems which he believed led to the failure of the French Revolution. He saw himself as a successor the French revolutionaries of 1798—and in the Jacobin cult of reason he saw an anticipation of his philosophy of positivism. Albert Camus, in his essay on Marxism, “State Terrorism and Rational Terror,” (The Rebel; Page 137 to 190), outlines in a single paragraph the intellectual debt that Marx owes to Comte. Here’s an excerpt:
As for the necessity of evolution, Auguste Comte, with the law of three stages of man which he formulates in 1822, gives the most systematic definition of it. Comte’s conclusions are curiously like those finally accepted by scientific socialism. Positivism demonstrates, with considerable clarity, the repercussions of the ideological revolution of the nineteenth century, of which Marx is one of the representatives, and which consisted of relegating to the end of history the Garden of Eden and the Revelation which tradition had always placed at the beginning. The positivist era which was bound to follow the metaphysical era and the theological era was to mark the advent of a religion of humanity. Henri Gouhier gives an exact definition of Comte’s enterprise when he says that his concern was to discover a man without any traces of God. Comte’s primary aim, which was to substitute, everywhere, the relative for the absolute, was quickly transformed, by force of circumstances, into the deification of the relative and into preaching a new religion which is both universal and without transcendence. Comte saw, in the Jacobin cult of reason, an anticipation of positivism and considered himself, with perfect justification, as the real successor of the revolutionaries of 1789. He continued and enlarged the scope of this revolution by suppressing the transcendence of principles and by systematically founding the religion of the species. His formula ‘set aside God in the name of religion’ meant nothing else but this. Inaugurating a mania which has since enjoyed a great vogue, he wanted to be the Saint Paul of this new religion and replace the Catholicism of Rome by the Catholicism of Paris. We know that he wanted to see, in all the cathedrals, ‘the statue of deified humanity on the former altar of God’. He calculated with considerable accuracy that they would be preaching positivism in Notre-Dame before i860. This calculation was not as ridiculous as it seems. Notre-Dame, in a state of siege, Still resists: but the religion of humanity was effectively preached towards the end of the nineteenth century and Marx, despite the fact that he had not read Comte, was one of its prophets. Marx only understood that a religion which did not embrace transcendence should properly be called politics. Comte knew it too, after all, or at least he understood that his religion was primarily a form of social idolatry and that it implied political realism, the negation of individual rights and the establishment of despotism. A society whose scientists would be priests, two thousand bankers and technicians ruling over a Europe of one hundred and twenty million inhabitants where private life would be absolutely identified with public life, where absolute obedience ‘of action, of thought, and of feeling’ would be given to the high priest who would reign over everything, such was Comte’s Utopia which announces what might be called the horizontal religions of our times. Convinced of the enlightening powers of science, Comte forgot to provide a police force. Others will be more practical the religion of humanity will be effectively founded; on the blood and suffering of humanity.

Instead of correcting the problems in the French Revolution, Comte enshrined its worst features in his positivist philosophy. Instead of trying to protect people from state interference and oppression, he proposed that a new ruling class of technocrats should use a scientific method to regulate people’s behavior. As Camus points out in his essay, the scientific method, which entails suppression of all signs of independent thought, can only be implemented through the extensive use of the police machinery. And that is what the communist regimes are doing. Comte detached religion from theology, but attached it to communism. 

Friday, 17 August 2018

The Philosophical Difference Between Original Art and a Fake

Rembrandt’s Lucretia
Why do people prefer an original work of art to an exact-copy of it when they cannot tell the difference between the two? It cannot be due to aesthetic reasons because the two look similar. It is possible that if the copy which looks like the original is a counterfeit, we will be averse to it for purely moral reasons, just as we are averse to any act of fraud.

But even if the copies do not entail any act of counterfeiting, they can evoke some kind of negative response from people. For instance, there are copies of Leonardo da Vinci’s Monalisa and other famous masterpieces that are openly labelled as exact-copies. If the original and the exact-copy are displayed side-by-side in a museum, people will queue up in front of the original.

Nelson Goodman offers a perspective on the philosophical difference between an original and a copy in Chapter 3, “Art and Authenticity,” of his book Languages of Art: An Approach to A Theory of Symbols. He argues that we prize an original more than a copy because we realize that even though we do not detect the difference between them today, we may in future have the knowledge and the tools to discern the difference. He writes:
Although I cannot tell the pictures apart merely by looking at them now, the fact that the left-hand one is the original and the right-hand one a forgery constitutes an aesthetic difference between them for me now because knowledge of this fact (1) stands as evidence that there may be a difference between them that I can learn to perceive, (2) assigns the present looking a role as training toward such a perceptual discrimination, and (3) makes consequent demands that modify and differentiate my present experience in looking at the two pictures. 
According to Goodman, even if the copy is better than the original, people will prefer the original. He argues that we derive more aesthetic pleasure from a work of art that we know is original. He offers the example of Rembrandt’s Lucretia—even if we have an exact molecule-for-molecule copy created by an advanced computer of the painting, we will still want to look at the original because our aesthetic need can only be quenched by looking at a painting that has been created by Rembrandt.

The history of a work of art plays an important role in the way we judge it and the pleasure that we derive from looking at it. Goodman says that “a forgery of a work of art is an object falsely purporting to have the history of production requisite for the (or an) original work of art.”

In a passage in The Critique of Judgement, Immanuel Kant offers an argument similar to Goodman’s. Kant talks about the joy of hearing the song of a nightingale on a quiet moonlit summer evening and notes that the sound may not be enjoyable if we came to know that it was being produced by a some clever, roguish boy hiding in the bushes with a reed in his mouth. “Our interest vanishes completely as soon as we realize that we have been deceived.” Therefore the history of a work of art plays an important role in the pleasure that we derive from it.

Thursday, 16 August 2018

Michel Foucault’s Analysis of Las Meninas

Las Meninas by Velázquez
Michel Foucault begins his popular book The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences with a chapter titled, “Las Meninas,” which contains his analysis of Diego Velázquez’s 1656 masterpiece, Las Meninas. Foucault notes that the painting’s complex and enigmatic compositional structure presents an uncertain relationship between the viewer and the figures depicted. Here’s an excerpt from his interesting description of the painting:
[W]e are looking at a picture in which the painter is in turn looking out at us. A mere confrontation, eyes catching one another’s glance, direct looks superimposing themselves upon one another as they cross. And yet this slender line of reciprocal visibility embraces a whole complex network of uncertainties, exchanges, and feints. The painter is turning his eyes towards us only in so far as we happen to occupy the same position as his subject. We, the spectators, are an additional factor. Though greeted by that gaze, we are also dismissed by it, replaced by that which was always there before we were: the model itself. But, inversely, the painter’s gaze, addressed to the void confronting him outside the picture, accepts as many models as there are spectators; in this precise but neutral place, the observer and the observed take part in a ceaseless exchange. No gaze is stable, or rather, in the neutral furrow of the gaze piercing at a right angle through the canvas, subject and object, the spectator and the model, reverse their roles to infinity. And here the great canvas with its back to us on the extreme left of the picture exercises its second function: stubbornly invisible, it prevents the relation of these gazes from ever being discoverable or definitely established. The opaque fixity that it establishes on one side renders forever unstable the play of metamorphoses established in the centre between spectator and model. Because we can see only that reverse side, we do not know who we are, or what we are doing. Seen or seeing? The painter is observing a place which, from moment to moment, never ceases to change its content, its form, its face, its identity. But the attentive immobility of his eyes refers us back to another direction which they have often followed already, and which soon, there can be no doubt, they will take again: that of the motionless canvas upon which is being traced, has already been traced perhaps, for a long time and forever, a portrait that will never again be erased. So that the painter’s sovereign gaze commands a virtual triangle whose outline defines this picture of a picture: at the top – the only visible corner – the painter’s eyes; at one of the base angles, the invisible place occupied by the model; at the other base angle, the figure probably sketched out on the invisible surface of the canvas. 
The painter is not the only element that is inside the painting but represents a point of reality outside the painting; there are also the two elements, the mirror image (containing the reflections of King Philip IV and Queen Mariana Teresa) and the shadowy man in the background.  All three elements are part of the painting, even though they represent a point of realty that exists outside the painting. Therefore what lies outside the painting is meant to provide a meaning to what exists inside it.

Foucault says that the relatively detached and abstractive standpoint that the painting displays is illustrative of basic principles that define the intellectual temperament of the Classical period, by which he means the seventeenth and eighteenth century. He writes:
Perhaps there exists, in this painting by Velàzquez, the representation as it were, of Classical representation, and the definition of the space it opens up to us. And, indeed, representation undertakes to represent itself here in all its elements, with its images, the eyes to which it is offered, the faces it makes visible, the gestures that call it into being. But there, in the midst of this dispersion which it is simultaneously grouping together and spreading out before us, indicated compellingly from every side, is an essential void: the necessary disappearance of that which is its foundation – of the person it resembles and the person in whose eyes it is only a resemblance. This very subject – which is the same – has been elided. And representation, freed finally from the relation that was impeding it, can offer itself as representation in its pure form.
Such an impression is created because the painting contains the twice-removed reflections of King Philip IV and Queen Mariana Teresa, who are the implied observers of the painting, and the implied subjects of the painting. They are the subject of the painting by Velàzquez, but their representation in the painting is vague; they appear in a distant mirror, while their bloodline, in the person of their five-year-old daughter Infanta Margaret Theresa, is at the center of the painting along with an entourage of duennas, maids of honor, courtiers, and dwarfs.

Wednesday, 15 August 2018

Rousseau and The Regicide of 1793

Execution of Louis XVI
Albert Camus, in The Rebel (Chapter: “The Regicides”), says that Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract served the purpose of legitimizing the regicides, including that of Louis XVI in 1793. He notes that The Social Contract presents a magnified view of a new religion whose god is reason, confused with Nature, and whose representative on earth, in place of the king, is the people considered as an expression of the general will.

Rousseau attacks the traditional political system which was based on the divine rights of the king and dogmatically demonstrates that the privileges of the royalty are an outcome of the pact between the people and the king and therefore the general will has precedence. Camus says, “Until Rousseau’s time, God created kings who, in their turn, created peoples. After The Social Contract peoples create themselves, before creating kings. As for God, there is nothing more to be said for the time being. Here we have, in the political field, the equivalent of Newton’s revolution. Power, therefore, is no longer arbitrary, but derives its existence from general consent.”

By substituting the will of god himself with the will of the people, Rousseau deprived Louis XVI of his power, made him appear as a violator of the general will. The enemies of the monarchy were able to use his arguments to make the case that that Louis XVI has committed the ultimate crime of violating the general will and he must pay the ultimate price. Camus says that Rousseau gave rise to a new god, the will of the people, which is an expression of the eternal truth, and it is for this reason that the words like “absolute,” “sacred,” and, “inviolable,” are found very often in The Social Contract.

The French Revolutionary Louis Antoine Léon de Saint-Just, who was elected as a deputy to the National Convention in 1792, spearheaded the campaign to execute Louis XVI. He was inspired by Rousseau's arguments in The Social Contract. In his famous speech, he argued that the royalty is a manifestation of the eternal crime of violating the general will of the people and every trace of it must be destroyed. Here’s an excerpt from Camus’s essay:
Saint-Just, therefore, postulates that every king is a rebel or a usurper. He is a rebel against the people whose absolute sovereignty he usurps. Monarchy is not a king, ‘it is crime’. Not a crime, but crime itself, says Saint-Just; in other words, absolute desecration. That is the precise, and at the same time, ultimate meaning of Saint-Just’s remark the import of which has been stretched too far*: ‘No one can rule innocently.’ Every king is guilty, because any man who wants to be king is automatically on the side of death. Saint-Just says exactly the same thing when he proceeds to demonstrate that the sovereignty of the people is a ‘sacred matter’. Citizens are inviolable and sacred and can only be constrained by the law which is an expression of their common will. Louis himself does not benefit by this particular inviolability or by the assistance of the law, for he is placed outside the contract. He is not part of the general will; on the contrary, by his very existence he is a blasphemer against this all-powerful will. He is not a ‘citizen’ which is the only way of participating in the new divine dispensation. ‘What is a king in comparison to a Frenchman?’ Therefore, he should be judged and no more than that. 
By taking advantage of the ideas invented by Rousseau, Saint-Just successfully charged the king with the crime of tyranny. He argued that the general will can forgive any crime, but not the crime of tyranny because such a crime is against the ultimate nature of things. With such arguments, Saint-Just blocked every egress for the king, except the one that led to the guillotine where the king met his fate on 21 January, 1793.

Tuesday, 14 August 2018

Camus on Nietzsche’s Rebellion

In The Rebel, Albert Camus discusses Friedrich Nietzsche in detail. He presents Nietzsche as the philosopher who has understood that nihilism is the decisive crisis of modernity. But Nietzsche’s nihilism is not without moral restraints and it aims to be the fountainhead of a rebellion. Nietzsche believed that one can only create good or evil by first destroying all values. In The Genealogy of Morals, he says, “To raise a new sanctuary, a sanctuary must be destroyed, that is the law.”

Here’s an excerpt from Camus’s essay, “Metaphysical Rebellion,” (The Rebel, Page: 41):
Nietzsche’s philosophy, undoubtedly, revolves around the problem of rebellion. More precisely, it begins by being a rebellion. But we sense the change of position that Nietzsche makes. With him, rebellion begins at ‘God is dead’ which is assumed as an established fact; then rebellion hinges on everything that aims at falsely replacing the vanished deity and reflects dishonour on a world which undoubtedly has no direction but which remains the only proving-ground of the gods. Contrary to the opinion of certain of his Christian critics, Nietzsche did not form a project to kill God. He found Him dead in the soul of his contemporaries. He was the first to understand the immense importance of the event and to decide that this rebellion among men could not lead to a renaissance unless it were controlled and directed. Any other attitude towards it, whether it were regret or complacency, must lead to the apocalypse. Thus Nietzsche did not formulate a philosophy of rebellion, but constructed a philosophy on rebellion. 
Camus points out that Nietzsche’s idea of freedom rests on the idea of duty. Nietzsche understood that real emancipation is only possible when there is acceptance of new obligations. A free mind is not a comfort; it is something that can only be achieved through a long struggle. Camus says in his essay (Page 44):
If nothing is true, if the world is without order, then nothing is forbidden; to prohibit an action, there must, in fact, be a standard of values and an aim. But, at the same time, nothing is authorized; there must also be values and aims in order to choose another course of action. Absolute domination by the law does not represent liberty, but nor does absolute freedom of choice. Chaos is also a form of servitude. Freedom only exists in a world where what is possible is defined at the same time as what is not possible. Without law there is no freedom. If fate is not guided by superior values, if chance is king then there is nothing but the step in the dark and the appalling freedom of the blind. At the conclusion of the most complete liberation, Nietzsche therefore chooses the most complete subordination. ‘If we do not make of God’s death a great renunciation and a perpetual victory over ourselves, we shall have to pay for that omission.’ In other words, with Nietzsche, rebellion ends in asceticism. 
The acceptance of what is necessary is a sign of freedom for Nietzsche (Page 46):
The free mind willingly accepts what is necessary. Nietzsche’s most intimate concept is that the necessity of phenomena, if it is absolute, does not imply any kind of restraint. Total acceptance of total necessity is his paradoxical definition of freedom. The question ‘Free of what?’ is thus replaced by ‘Free for what?’

The Invention of Ideology


Monday, 13 August 2018

Albert Camus: The Dandies' Rebellion

Albert Camus, in The Rebel (Chapter 2, “Metaphysical Rebellion”), says that dandyism is a degraded form of asceticism and a refusal to submit to the traditional norms. He writes:
The dandy creates his own unity by aesthetic means. But it is an aesthetic of singularity and of negation. "To live and die before a mirror": that, according to Baudelaire, was the dandy's slogan. It is indeed a coherent slogan. The dandy is, by occupation, always in opposition. He can only exist by defiance. Up to now man derived his coherence from his Creator. But from the moment that he consecrates his rupture with Him, he finds himself delivered over to the fleeting moment, to the passing days, and to wasted sensibility. Therefore he must take himself in hand. The dandy rallies his forces and creates a unity for himself by the very violence of his refusal. Profligate, like all people without a rule of life, he is coherent as an actor. But an actor implies a public; the dandy can only play a part by setting himself up in opposition. He can only be sure of his own existence by finding it in the expression of others' faces. Other people are his mirror. A mirror that quickly becomes clouded, it is true, since human capacity for attention is limited. It must be ceaselessly stimulated, spurred on by provocation. The dandy, therefore, is always compelled to astonish. Singularity is his vocation, excess his way to perfection. Perpetually incomplete, always on the fringe of things, he compels others to create him, while denying their values. He plays at life because he is unable to live it. He plays at it until he dies, except for the moments when he is alone and without a mirror. For the dandy, to be alone is not to exist. 
The connection that Camus draws between romanticism and dandyism is quite interesting:
Romanticism demonstrates, in fact, that rebellion is part and parcel of dandyism: one of its objectives is appearances. In its conventional forms, dandyism admits a nostalgia for ethics. It is only honor degraded as a point of honor. But at the same time it inaugurates an aesthetic which is still valid in our world, an aesthetic of solitary creators, who are obstinate rivals of a God they condemn. From romanticism onward, the artist's task will not only be to create a world, or to exalt beauty for its own sake, but also to define an attitude. Thus the artist becomes a model and offers himself as an example: art is his ethic. With him begins the age of the directors of conscience. When the dandies fail to commit suicide or do not go mad, they make a career and pursue prosperity. Even when, like Vigny, they exclaim that they are going to retire into silence, their silence is piercing.

Sunday, 12 August 2018

An Existentialist’s Critique of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism

Ayn Rand; Jean-Paul Sartre
Jean-Paul Sartre started calling himself an existentialist in the 1930s. To explain the tenets of his philosophy he wrote like a novelist—which is not a cause for surprise since he was a fiction writer. In 1938 he came up with a novel called Nausea which is regarded as a manifesto of existentialism. He went on to write several philosophy books to further explain his ideas on existentialism.

Like Sartre, Ayn Rand too was a fiction writer; unlike him she did not give a name to her philosophy in the initial years of her writing career. Her novel The Fountainhead in which she offers an account of her philosophy of individualism was published in 1943, but she started looking for a name for her philosophy after the publication of Atlas Shrugged in the 1950s. She felt that word “existentialism” would have been a good name for her ideas, but this word was already taken—Sartre’s existentialism had become a major intellectual force in Europe by the end of the Second World War. Eventually Rand picked up the word “objectivism” in 1958.

After Sartre died in 1980, existentialism started fizzling out, and by the end of the decade, the movement was extinct. The fate of Rand's philosophy was not too different. Objectivism had been meandering confusedly since 1968 when Rand had a nasty breakup with her main disciple and associate Nathaniel Branden. Soon after her death in 1982, objectivism ran out of steam and it currently has a very small following.

But in the 1960s, when existentialism was at its zenith, and objectivism seemed to be on the ascendent, several scholars had started believing that the two philosophies were destined to collide and compete. In the 1960s no one could have predicted that by the end of the 1980s, existentialism (with a capital “E”) and objectivism (with a capital “O”) will become irrelevant.

Hazel E.Barnes, in her book An Existentialist Ethics (1967), has devoted the Chapter 6, “Egoistic Humanism: Ayn Rand’s Objectivism,” to objectivist ethics. As Barnes, in the 1960s, was an existentialist devotee of Sartre, it is understandable that she finds several flaws in objectivist ethics and total perfection in existentialist ethics. In her essay on objectivist ethics, she offers an extensive critique of Rand’s ethical theory. Here’s an excerpt from her essay:
Ayn Rand has made her own position on existentialism very clear. In her essay, "For the New Intellectual," she writes, "The majority of those who posture as intellectuals today are frightened zombies, posturing in a vacuum of their own making, who admit their abdication from the realm of the intellect by embracing such doctrines as Existentialism and Zen Buddhism." Despite all this, the popular images of the Rand hero and the Existentialist have something in common. Both are commonly held to be totally selfish and solitary individuals who acknowledge no authority save their own arbitrary whims, whose human relationships are motivated solely by immediate self-interest, who recognize no responsibilities. If we forget about these popular distortions and leave the level of overgeneralization, we find that the task of comparing to two is surprisingly complex. There are a few precise similarities; there are some obvious sharp divergences. [….] 
It would not be a distortion to say that both Objectivism and existentialism call for the assertion of the free individual against those theologies and those oppressively conformist societies which seek to make him deny his unique self in the interests of ready-made social molds and values. Both oppose a psychology which would reduce man to the animal level or to a mechanistic pattern of stimulus and response. They are equally opposed to the soul-body dichotomy of traditional theology. Objectivists and existentialists argue that every person is responsible for what he has made of his life Each man is ultimately a free choice. In so far as they claim that man himself is his own end and purpose, both may properly be called humanistic. This is an impressive list of parallels. One might easily suppose that with the sympathetic sharing of such fundamental premises, the general similarity in their over-all positions would outweigh any differences in detail. 
Only what emerges is not a common point of view. It is not merely that Rand and Sartre differ as to how the individual should go about engaging his freedom and asserting his newly discovered self. One discovers that somehow words have not meant the same things in these descriptions. The self and its freedom do not mean for Rand what they mean for Sartre. If we examine these basic premises and starting points closely, we find that only one is left standing as a common landmark. That is the rejection of God or of any form of belief in an eternal spiritual world beyond the human. Man remains the author of his own destiny, the creator of his own values.
Further in the essay, Barnes points out that Rand and Sartre have serious disagreement on existence and man’s place in it. She is essentially saying that Rand says,  “Existence is identity,” Sartre says, “Existence precedes essence,” and the two shall never meet. Rand believes that it is possible for a man to undertake an action that is completely good, whereas Sartre holds that when it comes to specific choices in the real world, the complexity of life is such that no action is pure and every man must make the best possible choice based on his own judgement.

Barnes is critical of Rand’s theory of selfishness. She says:
I reject Objectivism, not because it is self-centered or because it seeks self-aggrandizement. I criticize it for being selfish in the pejorative sense of restricting the horizons of the Self so as to leave the self-center, not enriched but impoverished, not blown up but withered and blighted. The Self of the Objectivists runs the risk of the only child—it is not unloved, but it is likely to be spoiled, ailing, and fretful, due to the overprotection and the too close attention which prevents the growth of responsible freedoms. 
Barnes finds a lot of disagree with in Ayn Rand’s famous essay, “Racism.” She accepts Rand’s viewpoint that racism is the result of collectivist thinking, but she disagrees with the broad historical and political perspectives that Rand offers on collectivism. Barnes says:
Given her definition of “collectivism,” however, equated with “statism” and applied indiscriminately to Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and any liberal government which does not definitely eschew the concept of Welfare State, then Rand’s statement that “historically racism has always risen and fallen with the rise or fall of collectivism” is not supported by evidence. This was not the case with the ancient Graeco-Roman world. The thesis is particularly hard to sustain for the United States. Rand attempts it by stating, “It is the capitalist North that destroyed the slavery of the agrarian-feudal South in the United States.” It is true that the North, because of its greater industrialization, had less need for slaves, but it was not the capitalist leaders of the industry who became fervent abolitionists. It was the liberal intellectuals and religious idealists. Nor should one equate the near-feudalism of the South with collectivism. Rand entirely ignores the fact that, in the twentieth century, it has been the Liberals who have consistently spearheaded the pressure for civil rights and nondiscriminatory legislation. 
There are several problems in Barnes’s critique of objectivist ethics, but a part of her criticism is right. For instance, she is right that Rand has used bad historical evidence to prove that there is a connection between collectivism and racism. Indeed, it was not the businessmen of the North who were fervent abolitionists—it was the liberals and religious idealists (who can also be seen as collectivists), and all the farmers of the South were not collectivists.

Friday, 10 August 2018

The Argumentative Existentialists: Koestler, Camus, and Sartre

Camus; Koestler
The existentialist movement dominated the cultural life in Europe after the Second World War, but by the 1980s, it had fizzled out, and the word “existentialist” with a capital  “E” was seen as an embarrassment. But why did existentialism fail? It failed because the movement was more about identity and less about philosophy; it had too many rockstars and too few thinkers.

Sarah Bakewell, in her book At The Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails, offers an account of the of emotional and egoistical conflicts between the rockstar existentialist thinkers. Here’s an excerpt:
Their intellectual battles form a long chain of belligerence that connects the existentialist story end to end. In Germany, Martin Heidegger turned against his former mentor Edmund Husserl, but later Heidegger’s friends and colleagues turned their backs on him. In France, Gabriel Marcel attacked Jean-Paul Sartre, Sartre fell out with Albert Camus, Camus fell out with Merleau-Ponty, Merleau-Ponty fell out with Sartre, and the Hungarian intellectual Arthur Koestler fell out with everyone and punched Camus in the street. When the philosophical giants of each nation, Sartre and Heidegger, finally met in 1953, it went badly and they spoke mockingly of each other ever after. 
Bakewell’s description of the drunken brawl between Koestler, Camus, and Sartre is revealing of the mindset of the existentialist elite:
Sartre, Beauvoir, Camus and Koestler had previously become good friends, debating political topics in high spirits during convivial, drunken evenings. During one of their wild nights out at an émigré Russian nightclub around 1946, the question of friendship and political commitment came up. Could you be friends with someone if you disagreed with them politically? Camus said you could. Koestler said no: ‘Impossible! Impossible!’ In a sentimental buzz of vodka, Beauvoir took Camus’ side: ‘It is possible; and we are the proof of it at this very moment, since, despite all our dissensions, we are so happy to be together.’ Cheered by this warm thought, they boozed on happily until after dawn, although Sartre still had to prepare a lecture for the next day on, of all things, the theme of ‘The Writer’s Responsibility’. They all thought this was hilarious. At dawn, they left each other in exuberant spirits. And Sartre did somehow get the lecture written in time, on almost no sleep.  
During another late-night carousal in 1947, however, the friendship question came up again, and this time the mood was less good-humored. Koestler clinched his side of it by throwing a glass at Sartre’s head — not least because he got the idea, probably rightly, that Sartre was flirting with his wife Mamaine. (Koestler was known as an unscrupulous seducer himself, and an aggressive one to say the least.) As they all stumbled outside, Camus tried to calm Koestler by laying a hand on his shoulder. Koestler flailed out at him, and Camus hit him back. Sartre and Beauvoir dragged them apart and hustled Camus off to his car, leaving Koestler and Mamaine on the street. All the way home, Camus wept and draped himself on the steering wheel, weaving over the road: ‘He was my friend! And he hit me!’ 
The flight from existentialism started soon after Sartre’s death in 1980, and within a few years the movement was finished. Many of those who left existentialism branded themselves as structuralists, post-structuralists, deconstructionists and postmodernists. 

Thursday, 9 August 2018

Kierkegaard and Existentialism

Unfinished sketch of Kierkegaard (1840)
Soren Kierkegaard used the word “existential” to refer to a new way of looking at the problems of human existence. The word appears in the long attention grabbing title that he gave to his 1846 work Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments: A Mimical-Pathetical-Dialectical Compilation, An Existential Contribution.

Sarah Bakewell, in her book At The Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails, offers the following insight into Kierkegaard’s existentialist treatment of man’s place in the world:
Kierkegaard was well placed to understand the awkwardness and difficulty of human existence. Everything about him was irregular, including his gait, as he had a twisted spine for which his enemies cruelly mocked him. Tormented by religious questions, and feeling himself set apart from the rest of humanity, he led a solitary life much of the time. At intervals, though, he would go out to take ‘people baths’ around the streets of Copenhagen, buttonholing acquaintances and dragging them with him for long philosophical walks. His companions would struggle to keep up as he strode and ranted and waved his cane. One friend, Hans Brøchner, recalled how, when on a walk with Kierkegaard, ‘one was always being pushed, by turns, either in towards the houses and the cellar stairwells, or out towards the gutters’. Every so often, one had to move to his other side to regain space. Kierkegaard considered it a matter of principle to throw people off their stride. He wrote that he would love to sit someone on a horse and startle it into a gallop, or perhaps give a man in a hurry a lame horse, or even hitch his carriage to two horses who went at different speeds — anything to goad the person into seeing what he meant by the ‘passion’ of existence. Kierkegaard was a born goader. He picked quarrels with his contemporaries, broke off personal relationships, and generally made difficulties out of everything. He wrote: ‘Abstraction is disinterested, but for one who exists his existing is the supreme interest.’
Kierkegaard’s spirit of rebellion is apparent in his argumentative manner of dealing with the past philosophers. For instance, he disagreed with Rene Descartes’s saying, “Cogito ergo sum.” According to Kierkegaard, Descartes had things back to front. Existence, he insists, is not the result of a logical deduction. Human existence comes first and is the starting point of all we do. To counter G. W. F. Hegel’s theory that the world is evolving dialectically and will eventually become united with the Absolute Spirit, Kierkegaard poses an awkward question: “What if I don’t choose to be part of this ‘Absolute Spirit’? What if I refuse to be absorbed, and insist on just being me?”

In his 1844 treatise The Concept of Anxiety: A Simple Psychologically Orienting Deliberation on the Dogmatic Issue of Hereditary Sin,  Kierkegaard says that anxiety is an outcome of the dizzying effect of freedom, of paralyzing possibility, of the boundlessness of one’s own existence. Here’s an excerpt from Kierkegaard’s The Concept of Anxiety:
Anxiety may be compared with dizziness. He whose eye happens to look down the yawning abyss becomes dizzy. But what is the reason for this? It is just as much in his own eye as in the abyss, for suppose he had not looked down. Hence, anxiety is the dizziness of freedom, which emerges when the spirit wants to posit the synthesis and freedom looks down into its own possibility, laying hold of finiteness to support itself. Freedom succumbs to dizziness. Further than this, psychology cannot and will not go. In that very moment everything is changed, and freedom, when it again rises, sees that it is guilty. Between these two moments lies the leap, which no science has explained and which no science can explain. He who becomes guilty in anxiety becomes as ambiguously guilty as it is possible to become.
Kierkegaard holds that anxiety is a kind of existential paradox of choice, a viewpoint that also features in Jean-Paul-Sartre’s work.

Wednesday, 8 August 2018

Camus, Sartre, and Existentialism

Paris, 1944; Seated: Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus;
Standing: Jacques Lacan, Pablo Picasso, Simone de Beauvoir
Albert Camus, it is generally believed, was an existentialist like Jean-Paul Sartre. But Camus has rejected existentialism and distanced himself from Sartre in several interviews and essays.

In his interview to Les Nouvelles Littéraires (15 November, 1945), Camus declares: “I am not an existentialist.” He points out that his book The Myth of Sisyphus is directed against existentialism: “Sartre and I are always surprised to see our names linked. We have even thought of publishing a short statement in which the undersigned declare that they have nothing in common with each other and refuse to be held responsible for the debts they might respectively incur. It’s a joke actually. Sartre and I published our books without exception before we had ever met. When we did get to know each other, it was to realize how much we differed. Sartre is an existentialist, and the only book of ideas that I have published, The Myth of Sisyphus, was directed against the so-called existentialist philosophers.”

He goes on to say that he and Sartre should not be herded into the same philosophical school simply because they do not believe in god. “Sartre and I do not believe in God, it is true. And we don’t believe in absolute rationalism either. But neither do Jules Romains, Malraux, Stendhal, Paul de Kock, the Marquis de Sade, Andre Gide, Alexandre Dumas, Montaigne, Eugene Sue, Moliere, Sait-Evermond, the Cardinal de Retz, or Andre Breton. Must we put all these people in the same school?”

In The Myth of Sisyphus, he compares existentialism with “philosophical suicide,” accusing the existential philosophies of trying to deify what crushes them. “Now, to limit myself to existential philosophies, I see that all of them without exception suggest escape. Through an odd reasoning, starting out from the absurd over the ruins of reason, in a closed universe limited to the human, they deify what crushes them and find reason to hope in what impoverishes them. That forced hope is religious in all of them.” Unlike Sartre, Camus had a Greek reverence for nature. In The Myth of Sisyphus he depicts Sisyphus (despite being consigned to fruitless hard labor) achieving unity with nature and leading a happy life.

In the 1950s, political differences emerged between Sartre and Camus. Sartre believed in communism; he idolized the Soviet Union and thought that revolutionary violence was necessary to decimate the existing world order and create a communist society.

Camus rejected communism and he abhorred violence. In The Rebel, he articulated a philosophy of revolt, which in essence makes the political case for rejecting anti-freedom systems such as communism. He says: “Russian Communism, by its violent criticism of every kind of formal virtue, puts the finishing touches to the revolutionary work of the nineteenth century by denying any superior principle. The regicides of the nineteenth century are succeeded by the deicides of the twentieth century, who draw the ultimate conclusions from the logic of rebellion and want to make the earth a kingdom where man is God. The reign of history begins and, identifying himself only with his history, man, unfaithful to his real rebellion, will henceforth devote himself to the nihilistic revolution of the twentieth century, which denies all forms of morality and desperately attempts to achieve the unity of the human race by means of a ruinous series of crimes and wars.”

He goes on to call communism a bundle of lies that has made future its only god:

“Thus the ideological consequence has triumphed over the economic consequence: the history of Russian Communism gives the lie to every one of its principles. Once more we find, at the end of this long journey, metaphysical rebellion, which, this time, advances to the clash of arms and the whispering of passwords, but forgetful of its real principles, burying its solitude in the bosom of armed masses, covering the emptiness of its negations with obstinate scholasticism, still directed toward the future, which it has made its only god, but separated from it by a multitude of nations that must be overthrown and continents that must be dominated. With action as its unique principle, and with the kingdom of man as an alibi, it has already begun, in the east of Europe, to construct its own armed camp, face to face with other armed camps.”

In his review of Sartre’s Nausea, Camus was appreciative, but he also found an important flaw which he says prevents the novel from becoming a success. He starts his review by pointing out that “a novel is never anything but a philosophy put into images” and that in a good novel the philosophy becomes one with the images. On this account he faults Nausea—he says that Sartre has broken the balance between the novel’s philosophy and its life, resulting in there being a mismatch between the novel’s descriptive and the philosophical aspects. It is noteworthy that Camus’s review of Nausea was published on October 20, 1938, before he and Sartre had met.

Tuesday, 7 August 2018

Rousseau’s Fondness for Coffee

A Painting of Rousseau (1753)
Jean-Jacques Rousseau had a great fondness for coffee. He would often get up at two in the morning and take coffee to clear his head and have some energy.

In 1771, Rousseau made a new friendship with Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, a world traveller and naturalist, who went on to achieve literary fame with his 1788 novel Paul and Virginia. They met frequently and Bernardin made notes on their meetings with the intention of writing a book on Rousseau. The book was never completed, but the notes have survived and are a valuable source of information on Bernardin’s conversations with Rousseau.

In one of his notes, Bernardin relates that one day when he was walking with Rousseau in the Tuileries, they caught the aroma of roasting coffee. Rousseau turned towards Bernardin and ecstatically said, “I love that perfume. When they roast coffee in my entryway, some of my neighbors close their doors, but I open mine.” (Source: Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Restless Genius by Leo Damrosch).

After that Bernardin sent Rousseau a packet of coffee from his travels and received this answer: “We have scarcely made each other’s acquaintance, and you begin with gifts. This makes our association too unequal; my fortune does not permit me to do the same. Choose either to take your coffee back or never to see each other again.” But Bernardin managed to persuade Rousseau to keep the coffee, accepting in return a ginseng root and a book on ichthyology.

In Rousseau’s correspondence, there are several letters in which he is thanking his acquaintances for sending him coffee as gift. He wrote a letter to M. du Peyrou on June 11, 1765, reminding him to pack some coffee for their planned excursion to the mountain called Le Chasseron.

Here’s an excerpt from Rousseau’s letter:

“Let me recommend to you not to forget, among the provisions for our expedition, some coffee, sugar, a coffee-pot, a steel and flint, and all the necessary articles to facilitate our making coffee in the woods when we are so inclined. Take Linnaeus and Sauvage, a book that may amuse us, and some sort of game at which several persons may play, should it happen that we are obliged to stay in houses on account of bad weather. We should use every precaution against want of occupation and listlessness.” (Source: Original correspondence of Jean Jacques Rousseau with Mad. La Tour de Franqueville, and M. du Peyrou)

Francois-Louis d’Escherny who accompanied Rousseau and others to Le Chasseron has left an account describing how they made fires and prepared coffee. 

Monday, 6 August 2018

The Great Appeal of Imperfect Doctrines

Randall Collins, in his book The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change, examines the evolution of philosophical thought in ancient Greece, China, Japan, India, the medieval Islamic and Jewish world, medieval Christendom, and modern Europe, and comes up with a sociological theory of intellectual change. He argues that the relationship between the great intellectuals in various periods of history plays a seminal role in the origin, development and propagation of great ideas.

In Chapter 1, “Coalitions of the Mind,” he notes that great ideas are produced and propagated by great minds that are in coalition with each other or have developed an intellectual community. He  points out that the power of an intellectual community is contingent on not only the greatness of its doctrine, but also the greatness of the imperfections that the doctrine contains. He offers the example of Platonism and the more recent Vienna Circle to show how the ambiguities in a doctrine can inspire a range of competent scholars to come up with their own elaborations and form strong intellectual communities. Here’s an excerpt:
Great intellectual work is that which creates a large space on which followers can work. This implies that the imperfections of major doctrines are the source of their appeal. But there must be greatness on both sides: great doctrines, great imperfections. One reason why Plato was such a dominant figure in late antiquity is that the ambiguities in his doctrine of Ideas led to many elaborations, and even to the formation of divergent schools. His shifting theories of the soul, of immortality and reincarnation, were one source of his popularity and fruitfulness. Similarly, the Vienna Circle had already run into a major problem as soon as it was formed in the 1920s; its aggressive emphasis on the verifiability and empirical grounding of meaningful statements soon led to difficulties in expounding and verifying its own principles. But although the contradictions were to become the object of attack by its opponents, they provided a hidden social strength of the group, insofar as they gave materials for creative work to many members of the circle. If Schlick’s original doctrine had proven simple to put into operation, the problems of philosophy would have immediately dissolved, and the group would have put itself out of business.  
In the next paragraph, Collins points out that the intellectuals are not looking for mere ambiguities; they are primarily focused on solving the puzzles that they think will play a significant role in the philosophical activities that take place in the future:
Intellectuals do not go looking for contradictions to propagate. They try to solve problems, not create them. The surface of the intellectual world, the sacred objects it focuses upon, and the structural underpinnings of the intellectual community do not line up symmetrically. Consciously and intentionally, intellectuals are oriented toward what they believe is the truth. They do not want to undermine their own truths, even though it is socially useful to have flawed truths which will keep their names alive in subsequent generations of creative workers. The crucial cultural capital, then, must be something into which intellectuals feel their way. What they learn that makes them eminent is an awareness of not only the great solutions of the past, the ingredients that they can put into their own creations, but also where the action next will be. They need to appropriate the puzzles which have the greatest significance for the future activities of their colleagues. This sense of how to relate to the intellectual field is the most important item of cultural capital individuals take from their teachers. This is one reason why there is a link from eminence to eminence in the chains across the generations. 
I can empathize with this point of view. Immanuel Kant’s philosophy is great, but it is also full of great ambiguities—perhaps this is one of the reasons why it has been such a great attraction for scores of scholars who have devoted their lives to developing explanations for Kantian theories.

Saturday, 4 August 2018

Mises on Hegel and Comte

Here’s an excerpt from Ludwig von Mises’s Human Action: A Treatise on Economics, (Part I; Chapter 3: “Economics and The Revolt Against Reason”):
There was Hegel. He was a profound thinker and his writings are a treasury of stimulating ideas. But he was laboring under the delusion that Geist, the Absolute, revealed itself through his words. There was nothing in the universe that was hidden to Hegel. It was a pity that his language was so ambiguous that it could be interpreted in various ways. The right-wing Hegelians interpreted it as an endorsement of the Prussian system of autocratic government and of the dogmas of the Prussian Church. The left-wing Hegelians read out of it atheism, intransigent revolutionary radicalism, and anarchistic doctrines.  
There was Auguste Comte. He knew precisely what the future had in store for mankind. And, of course, he considered himself as the supreme legislator. For example, he regarded astronomical studies as useless and wanted to prohibit them. He planned to substitute a new religion for Christianity, and selected a lady who in this new church was destined to replace the Virgin. Comte can be exculpated, as he was insane in the full sense which pathology attaches to this term. But what about his followers?  
Many more facts of this kind could be mentioned. But they are no argument against reason, rationalism, and rationality. These dreams have nothing at all to do with the question of whether or not reason is the right and only instrument available for man in his endeavors to attain as much knowledge as is accessible to him. The honest and conscientious truth-seekers have never pretended that reason and scientific research can answer all questions. They were fully aware of the limitations imposed upon the human miid. They cannot be taxed with responsibility for the crudities of the philosophy of Haeckel and the simplism of the various materialist schools. 
In 1949, Murray N. Rothbard wrote of Human Action: "Every once in a while the human race pauses in the job of botching its affairs and redeems itself by producing a noble work of the intellect.... To state that Human Action is a ‘must' book is a greater understatement. This is the economic Bible of the civilized man."

Friday, 3 August 2018

Newton, Monster and Saint

Newton's portrait by Godfrey Kneller (1702)
Biographers have idolized and sanitized Isaac Newton’s character to such an extent that the saint and the monster that resided inside him is extremely difficult to discover or understand. Arthur Koestler offers a brief glimpse of the hidden aspect of Newton’s character in his book The Act of Creation (Chapter: “Appendix II”):
On the one hand [Newton] was deeply religious and believed—with Kepler and Bishop Usher—that the world had been created in 404 B.C.; that the convenient design of the solar system—for instance, all planetary orbits lying in a single plane—was proof of the existence of God, who not only created the universe but also kept it in order by correcting from time to time the irregularities which crept into the heavenly motions —and by preventing the universe from collapsing altogether under the pressure of gravity. On the other hand, he fulminated at any criticism of his work, whether justified or not, displayed symptoms of persecution mania, and in his priority fight with Leibniz over the invention of the calculus he used the perfidious means of carefully drafting in his own hand the findings, in his own favour, of the 'impartial* committee set up by the Royal Society. To quote M. Hoskin (from "The Mind of Newton"; The Listener by M. Hoskin):  
No one supposes that the committee set up by the Royal Society of which Newton had then been president for several years, was impartial. But we can only realize the extent of Newton's share in its conclusions when we examine a much-corrected draft summary of what were to be the findings of the committee. The draft is written in Newton's own hand, and it is fascinating to watch Newton debating with himself whether the committee ought to say 'We are satisfied that he [Newton] had invented the method of fluxions before' 1669, or whether it would sound better if they said 'We find that he invented the method of fluxions before' 1669; or deciding that to say 'We are satisfied that Mr. Newton was the first author of this method’ was too terse, and that several more lines of explanation ought to be inserted before the conclusion 'for which reason we reckon Mr. Newton the first inventor’.
Koestler notes that Newton represents a “pettiness on a heroic scale,” which is hard to reconcile with his “heroic vision of the universe worked out in minute detail.”

Thursday, 2 August 2018

Aristotle on The Motivation of Greek Science

The motivation of Greek science is summed up in a passage by Aristotle in his first book of Metaphysics. Here’s the passage (as quoted by Benjamin Farrington in Greek Science; page 130-131):
That it is not a productive science is clear, even from the consideration of the earliest philosophies. For men were first led to study philosophy, as indeed they are today, by wonder. At first they felt wonder about the more superficial problems; afterwards they advanced gradually by perplexing themselves over greater difficulties; e.g., the behaviour of the moon, the phenomena of the sun, and the origination of the universe. Now he who is perplexed and wonders believes himself to be ignorant. Hence even the lover of myths is, in a sense, a philosopher, for a myth is a tissue of wonders. Thus if they took to philosophy to escape ignorance, it is patent that they were pursuing science for the sake of knowledge itself, and not for any utilitarian applications. This is confirmed by the course of the historical development itself. For nearly all the requisites both of comfort and social refinement had been secured before the quest for this form of enlightenment began. So it is clear that we do not seek it for the sake of any ulterior application. Just as we call a man free who exists for his own ends and not for those of another, so it is with this, which is the only free man's science: it alone of the sciences exists for its own sake.
It is noteworthy that Aristotle severs the origins of this branch of philosophy from the techniques of production. He believed that as a free man is to his slaves, so is philosophy to the practical sciences. He also notes that applied science had completed its task long before his time.

In another passage from Metaphysics (quoted by Farrington, in Greek Science, Page 131), Aristotle says:
It was natural that in the earliest times the inventor of any Art which goes beyond the common sense-perceptions of mankind should be universally admired, not merely for any utility to be found in his inventions, but for the wisdom by which he was distinguished from other men. But when a variety of arts had been invented, some of them being concerned with the necessities and others with the social refinements of life, the inventors of the latter were naturally always considered wiser than the former because their knowledge was not directed to immediate utility. Hence when everything of these kinds had been already provided, those sciences were discovered which deal neither with the necessities nor with the enjoyments of life, and this took place earliest in regions where men had leisure. This is why the mathematical arts were first put together in Egypt, for in that country the priestly caste were indulged with leisure.
The key point that Aristotle is making this passage is that knowledge which is not directed to immediate utility is of the higher kind, and that true knowledge of reality originates through men who have leisure and not from those who are interested in finding out how things work. 

Tuesday, 31 July 2018

Camus on The Absurd Life of Sisyphus

Sisyphus by Titian, 1549
Albert Camus notes in his essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus,” (Chapter 4; The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays by Albert Camus), that the Gods are wise because they understand that an eternity of fruitless labor is the most hideous punishment that can be inflicted on man.

Sisyphus lusted for happiness in his life but the Gods mete out to him the punishment of rolling a rock up a mountain only to have it roll back down to the bottom when he is close to the top. He must keep repeating the labor for eternity without any hope of success.

But even though his life is mired in ceaseless struggle, futility, and hopelessness, Sisyphus is not necessarily unhappy. Camus ends the essay with the sentence: “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” He says that Sisyphus can be happy if he accepts his fate—if he accepts that the meaning of life is futile, senseless labor, and there is nothing that he can do to change the situation. Here’s an excerpt from Camus’s essay:
All Sisyphus' silent joy is contained therein. His fate belongs to him. His rock is a thing. Likewise, the absurd man, when he contemplates his torment, silences all the idols. In the universe suddenly restored to its silence, the myriad wondering little voices of the earth rise up. Unconscious, secret calls, invitations from all the faces, they are the necessary reverse and price of victory. There is no sun without shadow, and it is essential to know the night. The absurd man says yes and his efforts will henceforth be unceasing. If there is a personal fate, there is no higher destiny, or at least there is, but one which he concludes is inevitable and despicable. For the rest, he knows himself to be the master of his days. At that subtle moment when man glances backward over his life, Sisyphus returning toward his rock, in that slight pivoting he contemplates that series of unrelated actions which become his fate, created by him, combined under his memory's eye and soon sealed by his death. Thus, convinced of the wholly human origin of all that is human, a blind man eager to see who knows that the night has no end, he is still on the go. The rock is still rolling.  
I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one's burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy. 
According to Camus, happiness and absurdity are closely connected. Happiness can come to a human being only when he accepts that life is absurd and there is nothing that he can do to change his fate. Men do not have any choice in the matter. We have to accept life as it dawns on us—to even think of bringing about an improvement in our condition is a recipe for unhappiness. Happiness is only possible to those who accept their fate— Sisyphus is happy because he accepted his fate. There is certainly too much of pessimism and fatalism in Camus. 

Sunday, 29 July 2018

Murray Rothbard, Nathaniel Branden, and Ayn Rand

Murray Rothbard
When Murray N. Rothbard met Ayn Rand in 1958, he was a great devotee of her literature and philosophy. He thought that Atlas Shrugged was the greatest book, fiction or nonfiction, ever written. But within six months Rothbard was excommunicated from Rand’s circle by Nathaniel Branden (then Rand’s main associate and lover) who was infuriated by Rothbard’s failure to acknowledge Rand as the source of some ideas on causality and free will that he had used in his essay.

Branden offers a brief description of this episode in his book My Years With Ayn Rand—but his account is not convincing, because he does not give any clue about the nature of the ideas that he believed Rothbard had picked up from Rand. In any case, Rothbard claimed (and proved) that he had got those ideas from an Aristotelian scholar in the Middle Ages and not from Rand. I think Branden got Rothbard excommunicated over a non-issue. If the ideas were originally developed by a philosopher in the Middle Ages, then there was no need for Rothbard to acknowledge Rand as the source. Rand didn’t originate those ideas; someone else did.

Rothbard’s excommunication didn’t go as smoothly as other Objectivist excommunications of that period. He was not a pushover—instead of disappearing quietly into the sunset, he retaliated by declaring an all out intellectual war on those who had dared to excommunicate him. He went on to write several articles in which he savagely attacked Rand and Branden, and brought to light a number of inconsistencies in their philosophy of Objectivism.

In 1968, it was Branden’s turn to get excommunicated from Rand’s circle. Of course, his excommunication was much more dramatic and emotionally charged than that of Rothbard.

Rothbard’s polemical essay, “The Sociology of the Ayn Rand Cult,” is a devastating critique of Rand's Objectivist movement. He sees two parts in Rand’s movement — the exoteric and the esoteric. The exoteric component is attractive as it is explicitly atheist, anti-religious, and an extoller of reason, but the esoteric component is problematic as it preaches “slavish dependence on the guru in the name of independence; adoration and obedience to the leader in the name of every person’s individuality; and blind emotion and faith in the guru in the name of Reason.”

He notes that the “Rand cult was concerned not with every man’s individuality, but only with Rand’s individuality, not with everyone’s right reason but only with Rand’s reason.” He reveals that when Branden was excommunicated by Rand, a former friend sent him a letter proclaiming that the only moral thing that he could do was to commit suicide. From this Rothbard infers that Rand’s movement is not pro-individual but pro-Rand.

According to Rothbard, the structure of the Objectivist movement was strictly regimented and hierarchical. Here’s an excerpt:
And the Randian movement was strictly hierarchical. At the top of the pyramid, of course, was Rand herself, the Ultimate Decider of all questions. Branden, her designated “intellectual heir,” and the St. Paul of the movement, was Number 2. Third in rank was the top circle, the original disciples, those who had been converted before the publication of Atlas. Since they were converted by reading her previous novel, The Fountainhead, which had been published 1943, the top circle was designated in the movement as “the class of '43.” But there was an unofficial designation that was far more revealing: “the senior collective.” On the surface, this phrase was supposed to “underscore” the high individuality of each of the Randian members; in reality, however, there was an irony within the irony, since the Randian movement was indeed a “collective” in any genuine meaning of the term. Strengthening the ties within the senior collective was the fact that each and every one of them was related to each other, all being part of one Canadian Jewish family, relatives of either Nathan or Barbara Branden. There was, for example, Nathan’s sister Elaine Kalberman; his brother-in-law, Harry Kalberman; his first cousin, Dr. Allan Blumenthal, who assumed the mantle of leading Objectivist Psychotherapist after Branden’s expulsion; Barbara’s first cousin, Leonard Piekoff; and Joan Mitchell, wife of Allan Blumenthal. Alan Greenspan’s familial relation was more tenuous, being the former husband of Joan Mitchell. The only non-relative in the class of '43 was Mary Ann Rukovina, who made the top rank after being the college roommate of Joan Mitchell. 
I find it strange that most members in Rand’s inner circle were Branden’s relatives and friends. Even Leonard Peikoff who took over after Branden was shunted out was the cousin of Branden’s wife, Barbara. Why couldn’t Rand find better people than the friends and relatives of Branden to develop and propagate her philosophy?

Rothbard’s conclusion in the essay is that Objectivism is not a philosophy of reason; it is a philosophy for a cult. He says that “power not liberty or reason, was the central thrust of the Randian movement.” He warns the libertarians that the history of Objectivism shows that “it Can Happen Here, that libertarians, despite explicit devotion to reason and individuality, are not exempt from the mystical and totalitarian cultism that pervades other ideological as well as religious movements.”

It is on Branden that Rothbard unleashes much of his ire. He says that Branden was a gatekeeper to Rand and the enforcer of her ideals on her followers.

In his review of Branden’s book Judgement Day (the book was later republished as My Years with Ayn Rand), Rothbard accuses Branden of living his entire life parasitically off Rand, “first as a worshipful disciple and cult organizer, then as a neo-Randian shrink who set up shop in California with the solid initial base of the RandCult's Nathaniel Branden Institute mailing list. And now, too, he is parasitically living off Rand as a scavenger and kiss-and-tell calumniator. Talk about your "social metaphysician!”

He also accuses Branden of “spending all of his life amid an endless array of shmucks, creeps, lowlifes, and assorted villains and morons.” I wonder who these shmucks, creeps, lowlifes, and assorted villains and morons that Rothbard is alluding to are? 

Saturday, 28 July 2018

Kant On Empirical Concepts

Immanuel Kant, in his First Introduction to the Critique of Judgment, talks about the conditions of forming a set of empirical concepts which cohere with each other. It is clear that some kind of coherence is necessary to ensure that the concepts that are obtained through comparison are connectable to each other in judgement.

In his most frequently discussed text from the First Introduction, Kant notes:
One may wonder whether Linnaeus could have hoped to design a system of nature if he had had to worry that a stone which he found, and which he called granite, might differ in its inner character from any other stone even if it looked the same, so that all he could ever hope to find would be single things — isolated, as it were, for the understanding — but never a class of them that could be brought under concepts of genus and species. 
Henry E. Allison, in his essay, “Reflective Judgment and the Purposiveness of Nature,” (Chapter 1;  Kant’s Theory of Taste: A Reading of the Critique of Aesthetic Judgment), offers the following analysis of the above quoted note by Kant:
This note makes “explicit the requirement that a classificatory system reflect an underlying order of nature. Thus, whereas any number of such systems might be possible, the assumption is that there is one (and only one) that, as it were, “carves nature at its joints.” And the goal or regulative idea of a systematizer such as Linnaeus is to provide the system that reflects this order (or at least comes as close as possible to doing so). Moreover, since the classification of phenomena has to be based on observed uniformities and differences, the operative assumption must once again be that outer similarities and differences correspond to inner or intrinsic ones. To use Kant’s own example, objects with the observable features of granite must also be similar in their inner character; for otherwise there would be no basis for inferring from the fact that an object has granite-like features that it will behave similarly to other objects with these features.” 
According to Kant, a hierarchical system of concepts (in which every concept is itself both a species of the concepts contained in it and a genus for the concepts falling under it) is a necessary condition for the application of logic to nature, that is, for empirical judgment. (By “logic” Kant does not mean formal logic, but rather our discursive, conceptual abilities.)

Friday, 27 July 2018

Kant and the Capacity to Judge

Béatrice Longuenesse, in her book Kant and the Capacity to Judge: Sensibility and Discursivity in the Transcendental Analytic of the "Critique of Pure Reason", cites an example given by Immanuel Kant (in Lectures on Logic, translated by Michael Young) to illustrate the rule-governedness of the apprehension that precedes the formation of concepts in which these rules are expressed discursively.

Here’s Kant’s description of the situation in Lectures of Logic:
If, for example, a savage sees a house from a distance, whose use he does not know, he admittedly has before him in his representation the very same object as someone else who knows it determinately as a dwelling established for human beings. But as to form, this cognition of one and the same object is different in the two cases. In the former it is mere intuition, in the latter it is simultaneously intuition and concept. 
Longuenesse posits that the savage cannot recognize a house as a house not only because he lacks the concept, but also because he is missing the schema (which is an essential condition for developing a concept). The savage receives the same sensory information on the house as someone familiar with the concept of a house does but he does not possess the procedure to process the information in a determinate way.

Here’s an excerpt from Longuenesse’s book (Page 119):
Kant's savage intuits a combination of sensations according to relations of contiguity in space, differences in color, light, and shadow, similar in "matter" to those intuited by "someone else" who knows that what he has before him is a house. Thus, in his intuition of the house, the "savage" is conscious of the "combination of representations with each other." He is also conscious of a relation of these representations "to (his) senses," that is, conscious of them not merely as presenting an object to him but as sensations within him, perhaps associated with feelings of pleasure or displeasure. But the system of comparisons into which the content of his intuition is channeled has nothing in common with ours. He has never seen anything similar (in the way "a spruce, a willow, and a linden" are similar) from which he could have obtained a common concept by comparing objects according to their similarities and differences, reflecting similar features and abstracting from the differences (in material, size, shape, and so on). In his apprehension there is no rule guiding him to privilege certain marks and leave aside others, so that a concept of house might apply. Should someone point to the object and call it 'house', this might suggest to him a proper name for the singular object he has in front of him, but even this is uncertain: how is he to know what is being referred to—the door, the color, the shape, the site, or what? Only the "application in a comparison," that is, the gradually dawning consciousness of a "rule of apprehension" common to the representation of various objects serving the same purpose, would pick out analogous marks and bring forth the concept of a house. This application alone will complement the intuition of Kant's savage with a discursive form similar to that acquired by the man who throughout his life passed his nights in a warm house in Königsberg. 
In the above passage, Longuenesse clearly says that “there is no rule guiding him to privilege certain marks and leave aside others, so that a concept of house might apply.” This means that according to Kant, in order to recognize a thing a human being needs not only the concept of the thing, but also the precondition for acquiring the concept of the thing, namely its schemata. 

Thursday, 26 July 2018

The Bounds of Sensibility and of Reason

Immanuel Kant, in two famous letters to Marcus Herz, written early in the so-called silent decade, talks about a philosophical project that he is working on. His fundamental concern is with metaphysics (or the possibility of metaphysics) and he says that his project will be an introduction to metaphysics and to it he has given the title, “The Bounds of Sensibility and of Reason.”

Here’s an excerpt from Kant’s June 7, 1771 letter:
Long experience has taught me that one cannot compel or precipitate insight by force in matters of the sort we are considering; rather, it takes quite a long time to gain insight, since one looks at one and the same concept intermittently and regards its possibility in all its relations and contexts, and furthermore, because one must above all awaken the skeptical spirit within, to examine one's conclusions against the strongest possible doubt and see whether they can stand the test. From this point of view I have, I think, made good use of the time that I have allowed myself, risking the danger of offending these scholars with my seeming impoliteness while actually motivated by respect for their judgment. You understand how important it is, for all of philosophy — yes even for the most important ends of humanity in general — to distinguish with certainty and clarity that which depends on the subjective principles of human mental powers (not only sensibility but also the understanding) and that which pertains directly to the facts. If one is not driven by a mania for systematizing, the investigations which one makes concerning one and the same fundamental principle in its widest possible applications even confirm each other. I am therefore now busy on a work which I call "The Bounds of Sensibility and of Reason." It will work out in some detail the foundational principles and laws that determine the sensible world together with an outline of what is essential to the Doctrine of Taste, of Metaphysics, and of Moral Philosophy. I have this winter surveyed all the relevant materials for it and have considered, weighed, and harmonized everything, but I have only recently come up with the way to organize the whole work. 
Kant provides further details of his project in his much longer February 21, 1772 letter to Herz, revealing that it consists of two parts, theoretical and practical. Here’s an excerpt:
I had also long ago outlined, to my tolerable satisfaction, the principles of feeling, taste, and power of judgment, with their effects — the pleasant, the beautiful, and the good — and was then making plans for a work that might perhaps have the title, The Limits of Sensibility and Reason. I planned to have it consist of two parts, a theoretical and a practical. The first part would have two sections, (1) general phenomenology and (2) metaphysics, but this only with regard to its nature and method. The second part likewise would have two sections, (1) the universal principles of feeling, taste, and sensuous desire and (2) the first principles of morality.
These letters show that in the 1770s, Kant recognized the philosophical importance of taste. Of course, in 1781, the work that he had initially thought of calling “The Bounds of Sensibility and of Reason,” was published as The Critique of Pure Reason