Wednesday, 14 November 2018

Kant’s Journey from the External World to the Inner World

Kant & Friends at Table
Painting by Emil Doerstling (1892-3)
When Immanuel Kant began his academic career his interest was mainly in the external world—his lectures and writings were directed towards mathematics, geography, and natural science. In his book Kant: His Life and Doctrine, Friedrich Paulsen says:
As the literary fruit of his cosmological investigations and studies of the natural sciences, he published, in addition to some small essays on physical geography, in the year 1755, a work entitled Universal History of Nature and Theory of the Heavens, or an Attempt to Treat of the Formation and Origin of the Entire Structure of the World according to Newtonian Principles. This work is of great significance, standing as it does at the beginning of Kant’s activity as an author. It was dedicated to Frederick II., but appeared originally without the name of the author. It was not until later that it received the recognition which it deserved; at first, through the failure of the publisher, it remained almost unnoticed. That Kant attached great importance to it appears from the fact that he twice called attention to its main content by giving summaries of it (1763, 1791). The problem which he set for himself in this work was to explain genetically the structure of the cosmos, and especially of our planetary system, entirely in accordance with physical principles. 
Paulsen notes that Kant was a firm believer in the Newtonian principles of gravitation and the results of modern astronomy. His attitude was more scientific than that of Newton, because he tried to explain the origin of the universe in terms of purely physical forces. “Newton had regarded the first arrangement of the world system as the direct work of God. But Kant begins where Newton had left off, and shows how through the immanent activity of physical forces, cosmic systems arise and perish in never-ending rotation. The direct interposition of God is here neither necessary nor applicable.”

In the 1760s there was a shift in Kant’s philosophical priorities. The concerns of the inner world, the realm of man and his moral nature, became the most important subject for him. He realized that science and mathematics are not the absolute ends, rather they are the means to a higher end whose purpose is to serve the moral destiny of mankind. Paulsen writes: “The primacy of the moral over the intellectual, in the evaluation of the individual and in the determination of the purposes of the race, remains hereafter a constant feature of Kant’s thought.”

Kant has credited Rousseau for making him aware that philosophy must begin with an investigation into the inner world. In his book, Paulsen offers the following quote from Kant:
I am by inclination an investigator. I feel an absolute thirst for knowledge, and a longing unrest for further information. There was a time when I thought that all this constituted the real worth of mankind, and I despised the rabble who knew nothing. Rousseau has shown me my error. This dazzling advantage vanishes, and I should regard myself as of much less use than the common laborers if I did not believe that this speculation (that of the Socratic-critical philosophy) can give a value to everything else to restore the rights of humanity.

Tuesday, 13 November 2018

Herder’s Praise for his Teacher, Kant

A painting of Herder (1785)
Johann Gottfried Herder was Immanuel Kant's student at the University of Königsberg from 1762 to 1764. In his 1793 work Briefe zur Beförderung der Humanität, he draws a reverential sketch of Kant from memory:
I have had the good fortune to know a philosopher who was my teacher. In the prime of life he possessed the joyous courage of youth, and this also, as I believe, attended him to extreme old age. His open, thoughtful brow was the seat of untroubled cheerfulness and joy, his conversation was full of ideas and most suggestive. He had at his service jest, witticism, and humorous fancy, and his lectures were at once instructive and most entertaining. With the same spirit in which, he criticized Leibniz, Wolff, Baumgarten, Crusius, and Hume, he investigated the natural laws of Newton, Kepler, and the physicists. In the same way he took up the writings of Rousseau, which were then first appearing, — the Emile and the Heloise, — as well as any new discovery with which he was acquainted in natural science, and estimated their value, always returning to speak of the unbiased knowledge of nature, and the moral worth of man. The history of men, of peoples, and of nature, mathematics, and experience, were the sources from which he enlivened his lectures and conversation. Nothing worth knowing was indifferent to him. No cabal or sect, no prejudice or reverence for a name had the slightest influence with him in opposition to the extension and promotion of truth. He encouraged and gently compelled his hearers to think for themselves; despotism was foreign to his disposition. This man, whom I name with the greatest thankfulness and reverence, is Immanuel Kant; his image stands before me, and is dear to me. (Immanuel Kant: His Life and Doctrine by Friedrich Paulsen; Page 40—41) 
Herder was Kant's favorite student. The extensive notes that Herder made of Kant’s lectures enjoy a special standing among Kant scholars. But by the 1780s,  profound philosophical differences had emerged between Herder and Kant. In 1785, Kant did an unsympathetic review of Herder's book Ideas upon Philosophy and the History of Mankind. Herder, in turn, repudiated Kant’s Critical philosophy which, he asserted, was incapable of explaining the realities of the world. But he continued to admire Kant as a teacher and human being. 

Monday, 12 November 2018

On Paulsen’s Kant

Friedrich Paulsen (1907)
Friedrich Paulsen, in his book Immanuel Kant: His Life and Doctrine, suggests that the real purpose of the Kantian philosophy is to overcome the opposition between faith and knowledge that has extended through the history of human thought. According to Paulsen, Immanuel Kant believed that by properly fixing the limits of knowledge and faith, he had engineered an honorable and enduring peace between them. To knowledge, Kant gave the entire world of phenomena to be investigated through science; and to faith he gave the eternal right to interpret life and the world from the standpoint of value.

Here’s an excerpt from the Introduction in Paulsen’s book:
There is indeed no doubt that the great influence which Kant exerted upon his age was due just to the fact that he appeared as a deliverer from unendurable suspense. The old view regarding the claims of the feelings and the understanding on reality had been more and more called in question during the second half of the eighteenth century. Voltaire and Hume had not written in vain. Science seemed to demand the renunciation of the old faith. On the other hand, the heart still clung to it. Pietism had increased the sincerity and earnestness of religion, and given it a new and firm root in the affections of the German people. At this point Kant showed a way of escape from the dilemma. His philosophy made it possible to be at once a candid thinker and an honest man of faith. For that, thousands of hearts have thanked him with passionate devotion. It I was a deliverance similar to that which the Reformation had brought to the German spirit a century or two earlier. Indeed, one may in a certain sense regard Kant as the finisher of what Luther had begun. The original purpose of the Reformation was to make faith independent of knowledge, and conscience free from external authority. It was the confusion of religion and science in scholastic philosophy against which Luther first revolted. That faith had been transformed into a philosophical body of doctrines, that fides had been changed to credo, seemed to him to be the root of all evil. To substitute for belief in a human dogma the immediate certainty of the heart in a gracious God reconciled through Christ, to emphasize the importance of the inner disposition, as opposed to outer acts, was the soul of his work. Kant was the first who definitely destroyed the scholastic philosophy. By banishing religion from the field of science, and science from the sphere of religion, he afforded freedom and independence to both. And at the same time he placed morality on a Protestant basis, not works, but the disposition of the heart. 
However, the modern interpreters of Kant like Paul Guyer have a different take on the Kantian contributions to the scope of faith. In the Introduction to his book The Cambridge Companion to Kant and Modern Philosophy, Guyer says:
Or as Kant more succinctly but also more misleadingly puts it, “I must therefore suspend knowledge in order to make room for belief,” or, as it is often translated, “faith”. This is misleading if it is taken to mean that Kant intends to argue that knowledge must be limited in order to allow us some nonrational basis for belief about important matters of morality. Rather, what Kant means is that the limitation of the foundational principles of the scientific worldview to the way things appear to us is necessary not only to explain its own certainty but also to allow us to conceive of ourselves as rational agents who are not constrained by the deterministic grip of nature but can freely govern ourselves by the moral law as practical reason (although certainly not all forms of religious faith) requires.

Sunday, 11 November 2018

The Brain, Consciousness, and Computers

I am currently reading The Mystery of Consciousness by John R. Searle. In Chapter 1, “Consciousness as a Biological Problem,” Searle explains how brain research can proceed to solve the problem of consciousness. Here’s an excerpt:
The brain is an organ like any other; it is an organic machine. Consciousness is caused by lower-level neuronal processes in the brain and is itself a feature of the brain. Because it is a feature that emerges from certain neuronal activities, we can think of it as an “emergent property” of the brain. An emergent property of a system is one that is causally explained by the behavior of the elements of the system; but it is not a property of any individual elements and it cannot be explained simply as a summation of the properties of the elements. The liquidity of water is a good example: the behavior of the H2O molecules explains liquidity but the individual molecules are not liquid. 
Computers play the same role in studying the brain that they play in any other discipline. They are immensely useful devices for stimulating brain processes. But the simulation of mental states is no more a mental state than the simulation of an explosion is itself an explosion. 
Searle rejects the theory that the mind can be seen as a computer program running on brain’s hardware (a position that he calls Strong AI). However, he is of the view that computers can be a useful tool for doing simulations of the mind (he calls this position Weak AI).

Saturday, 10 November 2018

Karl Marx: ‘Howling Gigantic Curses’

Paul Johnson, in his essay “Karl Marx: ‘Howling Gigantic Curses’,” (Chapter 3; Intellectuals: From Marx and Tolstoy to Sartre and Chomsky, by Paul Johnson), says that Karl Marx had a taste for violence and he lusted for power. Here’s an excerpt:
The undertone of violence always present in Marxism and constantly exhibited by the actual behavior of Marxist regimes was a projection of the man himself. Marx lived his life in an atmosphere of extreme verbal violence, periodically exploding into violent rows and sometimes physical assault. Marx’s family quarrels were almost the first thing his future wife, Jenny von Westphalen, noticed about him. At Bonn University the police arrested him for possessing a pistol and he was very nearly sent down; the university archives show he engaged in student warfare, fought a duel and got a gash on his left eye. His rows within the family darkened his father’s last years and led eventually to a total breach with his mother. One of Jenny’s earliest surviving letters reads: ‘Please do not write with so much rancor and irritation,’ and it is clear that many of his incessant rows arose from the violent expressions he was prone to use in writing and still more in speech, the latter often aggravated by alcohol. Marx was not an alcoholic but he drank regularly, often heavily and sometimes engaged in serious drinking bouts. Part of his trouble was that, from his mid-twenties, Marx was always an exile living almost exclusively in expatriate, mainly German, communities in foreign cities. He rarely sought acquaintances outside them and never tried to integrate himself. Moreover, the expatriates with whom he always associated were themselves a very narrow group interested wholly in revolutionary politics. This in itself helps to explain Marx’s tunnel-vision of life, and it would be difficult to imagine a social background more likely to encourage his quarrelsome nature, for such circles are notorious for their ferocious disputes. According to Jenny, the rows were perpetual except in Brussels. In Paris his editorial meetings in the Rue des Moulins had to be held behind closed windows so that people outside could not hear the endless shouting. 
There is nothing in Josef Stalin’s political method that is not distantly prefigured in Marx’s violent and boorish behavior. Johnson says: “That Marx, once established in power, would have been capable of great violence and cruelty seems certain. But of course he was never in a position to carry out large-scale revolution, violent or otherwise, and his pent-up rage therefore passed into his books, which always have a tone of intransigence and extremism.”

Marx led the life of a bohemian intellectual. He rarely washed, groomed or changed his clothes, and he was often drunk. Johnson traces Marx’s angry behavior to his unhealthy lifestyle:
[Marx] led a peculiarly unhealthy life, took very little exercise, ate highly spiced food, often in large quantities, smoked heavily, drank a lot, especially strong ale, and as a result had constant trouble with his liver. He rarely took baths or washed much at all. This, plus his unsuitable diet, may explain the veritable plague of boils from which he suffered for a quarter of a century. They increased his natural irritability and seem to have been at their worst while he was writing Capital. ‘Whatever happens,’ he wrote grimly to Engels, ‘I hope the bourgeoisie as long as they exist will have cause to remember my carbuncles.’ The boils varied in numbers, size and intensity but at one time or another they appeared on all parts of his body, including his cheeks, the bridge of his nose, his bottom, which meant he could not write, and his penis. In 1873 they brought on a nervous collapse marked by trembling and huge bursts of rage.
The Marxists claim that their theory is scientific, but Johnson notes that Marx was neither a scientist nor a scholar. Marx did not care for the truth, his only interest was to proclaim his political viewpoint. He had the tendency to look for facts which would support his preconceived political theory. He indulged in deliberate and systematic falsification to prove his thesis that capitalism had worsened the plight of the workers.

Thursday, 8 November 2018

On the people who join mass movements

Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movement is a good book for understanding the nature mass movements. Here’s a passage in which Hoffer suggests that the poorest members of the working class tend to avoid mass movements because they are too busy trying to make a living:
Discontent by itself does not invariably create a desire for change. Other factors have to be present before discontent turns into disaffection. One of these is a sense of power. Those who are awed by their surroundings do not think of change, no matter how miserable their condition. When our mode of life is so precarious as to make it patent that we cannot control the circumstances of our existence, we tend to stick to the proven and the familiar. We counteract a deep feeling of insecurity by making of our existence a fixed routine. We hereby acquire the illusion that we have tamed the unpredictable. Fisherfolk, nomads and farmers who have to contend with the willful elements, the creative worker who depends on inspiration, the savage awed by his surroundings—they all fear change. They face the world as they would an all-powerful jury. The abjectly poor, too, stand in awe of the world around them and are not hospitable to change. It is a dangerous life we live when hunger and cold are at our heels. There is thus a conservatism of the destitute as profound as the conservatism of the privileged, and the former is as much a factor in the perpetuation of a social order as the latter. 
On the kind of people who are the first to join mass movements:
The men who rush into undertakings of vast change usually feel they are in possession of some irresistible power. The generation that made the French Revolution had an extravagant conception of the omnipotence of man’s reason and the boundless range of his intelligence. Never, says de Tocqueville, had humanity been prouder of itself nor had it ever so much faith in its own omnipotence. And joined with this exaggerated self-confidence was a universal thirst for change which came unbidden to every mind. Lenin and the Bolsheviks who plunged recklessly into the chaos of the creation of a new world had blind faith in the omnipotence of Marxist doctrine. The Nazis had nothing as potent as that doctrine, but they had faith in an infallible leader and also faith in a new technique. For it is doubtful whether National Socialism would have made such rapid progress if it had not been for the electrifying conviction that the new techniques of blitzkrieg and propaganda made Germany irresistible.

Wednesday, 7 November 2018

Does Philosophy Need a Methodology?

Unlike scientists and mathematicians, most philosophers do not rely on empirical data—they philosophize from the armchair. But armchair philosophizing often leads to the development of ideas which look good in theory, but do not work in practice. Perhaps some kind of philosophical methodology is needed to ensure that philosophical theories are in tune with reality.

Today I started reading The Cambridge Companion to Philosophical Methodology, edited by Giuseppina D’Oro and Søren Overgaard. In the book’s introduction, the editors talk about two forms of philosophical methodology — descriptive and normative. Here’s an excerpt:
Within philosophical methodology, one can distinguish between descriptive and normative questions. Descriptive questions concern the methods that philosophers actually use (or advocate), or have used (or advocated) historically. We might inquire, for example, how large a proportion of the current philosophical community design and conduct experiments as part of their philosophical research. By contrast, normative philosophical methodology concerns not what philosophers actually do, but what they ought to be doing: what the correct or proper methods of philosophizing are. Since most will agree that the majority of philosophers actually conduct their research from the armchair, arguably the most interesting challenge that methodological ‘naturalists’ raise is a normative one. 
As most philosophers are armchair philosophers, the chapters in the book discuss and defend the normative methodology for developing and propagating philosophical ideas. Unlike science and mathematics, philosophy does not add to the human knowledge, it only provides a clear understanding of what is already known. But if philosophy is not adding anything to the human knowledge, then why should it be based on empirical methodology?

I will have more to say on this topic after I have finished reading this book.

Tuesday, 6 November 2018

Will the Twentieth Century be Seen as a Dark Age?

What will be the verdict of the intellectual historians, who are living more than 100 or 150 years from today, on the twentieth century? Will the twentieth century be seen as an Age of Enlightenment or Reason—after all, in these 100 years, material prosperity has increased more than in all of the rest of human history? But it is also possible that the twentieth century may be regarded as an Age of Darkness because this period saw the rise of several collectivist movements—socialism, communism, nazism and fascism—which massacred millions of people.

Technology is one area in which twentieth century has excelled. So can this period be seen as an Age of Technology?

Randall Collins, in his book The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change, points out that human beings recognize what is creative only by contrast. This means that if the technological advancement in rest of twenty-first century and the twenty-second century is on a much greater scale, then the twentieth century technology will, in comparison, look like an age of mediocrities.

Here’s an excerpt from Collins’s book, Chapter 9, “Academic Expansion as a Two-Edged Sword: Medieval Christendom,” (page 501):
Studies of intellectual life have preferred to focus on periods of creativity. Yet we recognize what is creative only by contrast. Comparison of the dark side against the light, and against the gray in between, is necessary for seeing the structural conditions associated with all of the varieties of intellectual life. A second reason to study stagnation is perhaps of greater immediate significance. There is no guarantee that we ourselves—denizens of the late twentieth century—inhabit a period of creativity. There is some likelihood that future intellectual historians looking back will concentrate on the great ideas of the first third of the century, and regard the rest as a falling off into mediocrity. 
In the area of philosophy and art, the twentieth century has not achieved much. Many of the philosophical and artistic movements of the twentieth century—logical positivism, existentialism, postmodernism, and others—have had an embarrassingly short career. So the intellectual historians who are looking at the twentieth century from the vantage point of more than 100 to 150 years in the future, may arrive at the conclusion that little philosophical work got done in this period. We look at the Middle Ages as the Dark Ages, but we might be in a similar situation today.

Monday, 5 November 2018

William Blake's Visions and The Bicameral Mind

Blake in a portrait
William Blake’s artistic life was full of visions; he has made several claims of hearing the voices of angels and dead people. But did he really see visions? It is difficult to accept literally. Is it possible that he was lying to impress his guests? Perhaps he wanted to establish himself as an antirational Romanticist thinker.

Julian Jaynes, in his article, “The Ghost of a Flea: Visions of William Blake,” (Chapter 2; Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness, by Marcel Kuijsten), uses his theory of bicameral mind to explain the visions or hallucinations that Blake used to experience. Here’s an excerpt:
I would like to suggest that with the notion of the bicameral mind, the realization that all of us to a greater or less extent, have locked away within us an ancient mentality based on hallucinations of the speech and visions of gods, that with this new understanding of the origins of mind, we can for the first time be comfortable with genuine Blake who ‘heard’ his poetry and ‘saw’ his paintings.  
Blake was not insane. Schizophrenic insanity, being a partial relapse to the bicameral mind, is indeed usually accompanied by ‘voices’ and ‘visions’ of religious nature. But it is also accompanied by panic, distress, and inability to be coherent in conversation, to know who and where one is, to manage one’s own affairs, to sustain ordinary human relationships. And Blake was the opposite of these.  
He was indeed what one of his friends called him, “a new kind of man,” one who had both consciousness and a bicameral mind, and probably unique in modern art history. 
The visions that Blake had were the sustaining force of his artistic life; many of his poems are inspired by his visions. According to Jaynes, Blake used to be fully conscious when he was not having any kind of a vision, but at the time when he had his visions, his mind operated like a bicameral mind, and the left hemisphere of his brain talked to the right hemisphere.

Sunday, 4 November 2018

Thomas Aquinas: The Philosopher and The Politician

Randall Collins, in his book The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change, notes that Thomas Aquinas was not only a great philosopher but also an astute politician. Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 9, “Academic Expansion as a Two-Edged Sword: Medieval Christendom,” of Collins’s book (Page 479):
The greatness of Thomas Aquinas is as an intellectual politician. He was a man of moderation, going as far as possible with the new intellectual capital of the time, but sharply distinguishing himself from the radicals. It is not surprising that the church in centuries long past his time would lean increasingly upon him for its official doctrine in a world of secularism and science. Aquinas strikes the balance between science and theology, and he does it far on the side of reason and, as much as possible, of empiricism. Aquinas holds that each level of being has its mode of knowledge. Since humans are not angels (which are simultaneously pure forms, logical species, and Intelligences), we cannot directly apprehend the intelligible world of universals, as the “Averroists” claimed; instead humans must proceed by means of particulars. It is emblematic of Aquinas that he places man in the very middle of the metaphysical cosmos: highest of the material order, the human soul is just below the angels, which are the immaterial Ideas leading up to God. 
Aquinas systematized the philosophical and theological doctrines and completely reconstructed the premises of the philosophical argument to bring about a compromise between the Aristotelian radicals (the Averroists) and the Augustinian theocrats.

Saturday, 3 November 2018

On Philosophy and Philosophizing

I think that it is possible for an unwise man to be a philosopher, but only a man of wisdom is capable of philosophizing. Arthur Schopenhauer was a very wise man. I find his wisdom to be more inspiring and impressive than his philosophy.

Here are three excerpts from R. J. Hollingdale’s translation of Schopenhauer’s aphorisms in Arthur Schopenhauer: Essays and Aphorisms (Section, “On Philosophy and the Intellect”; Pages: 117-118):

Schopenhauer on the two main requirements for philosophizing:
The two main requirements for philosophizing are: firstly, to have the courage not to keep any question back; and secondly to attain a clear consciousness of anything that goes without saying so as to comprehend it as a problem. Finally, the mind must, if it is really to philosophize, also be truly disengaged: it must prosecute no particular goal or aim, and thus be free from enticement of will, but devote itself undivided to the instruction which the perceptible world and its own consciousness imparts to it. 
On the difference between a poet and a philosopher:
The poet presents the imagination with images from life and human characters and situations, sets them all in motion and leaves it to the beholder to let these images take his thoughts as far as his mental powers will permit. That is why he is able to engage men of themes different capabilities, indeed fools and sages together. The philosopher, on the other hand, presents not life itself but the finished thoughts which he has abstracted from it and then demands that the reader should think precisely as, and precisely as far as, he himself thinks. That is why his public is so small. The poet can thus be compared with one who presents flowers, the philosophers with one who presents their essence. 
On the vital role that the sceptics play in philosophy:
Mere subtlety may qualify you as a sceptic but not as a philosopher. On the other hand, scepticism is in philosophy what the Opposition is in Parliament; it is just as beneficial, and indeed necessary. It rests everywhere on the fact that philosophy is not capable of producing the kind of evidence mathematics produces. 
Even if you disagree with Schopenhauer on an issue, chances are that you will be impressed by his thoughtful perspective and beautiful expression.

Friday, 2 November 2018

Nietzsche’s Normative Conception of Freedom

In his essay, “Freedom as a Philosophical Ideal: Nietzsche and his Antecedents,” Donald Rutherford looks at the affinity between Friedrich Nietzsche’s normative conception of freedom and the conception of freedom developed by the Stoics and Spinoza. Here’s an excerpt from Rutherford’s essay:
An ideal of freedom is central to the normative stance Nietzsche defends in his mature writings. The autonomous person is an example of a “higher human being” (The Gay Science 2), whose value judgments are a product of a rigorous scrutiny of inherited values and an honest expression of how the answers to ultimate questions of value are “settled in him” (Beyond Good and Evil 231). The autonomous person is thus in a position to take responsibility for his value judgments in a way that conventional agents are not.  
The notion of responsibility invoked here is distinct from traditional notions of moral responsibility, of which Nietzsche is sharply critical. Indeed, Nietzsche stresses how, for him, the ideal of freedom is consistent with, and even demands, the affirmation of fate. It is characteristic of the autonomous person that she is capable of affirming the particular shape of her own fate, thus becoming, in Nietzsche’s terms, “what she is.”  
I have argued, finally, that Nietzsche’s conception of freedom can be understood as the culmination of a long line of thought in the history of philosophy—one which, beginning with the Stoics and extending through Spinoza, finds no inherent contradiction between the affirmation of fate and the realization of freedom, but which restricts this freedom to relatively few higher or “noble” individuals, who escape the bondage of conventional mores and passive emotional states. Although Nietzsche rejects key assumptions made by both the Stoics and Spinoza, his positive ethical stance can be interpreted as an extension of their efforts to elaborate the notion of freedom as a normative ideal. 
It is worth noting that Nietzsche’s conception of freedom is clearly opposed to the libertarian view of freedom which is based on the freedom of will and choice. Nietzsche’s ideal, as Rutherford points out in his essay, is a development of the ideas advanced by the Stoics and Spinoza.

Thursday, 1 November 2018

Philosophers and Slaves

Friedrich Nietzsche in The Gay Science (translated by Walter Kaufmann):

“The Greek philosophers went through life feeling secretly that there were far more slaves than one might think—meaning that everybody who was not a philosopher was a slave. Their pride overflowed at the thought that even the most powerful men on earth belonged among their slaves. This pride, too, is alien and impossible for us; not ever metaphorically does the word ‘slave’ possess its full power for us.” (Book 1; Section 18)

Wednesday, 31 October 2018

On Nietzsche’s Obituary in the New York Times

Friedrich Nietzsche died on August 25, 1900, and his obituary appeared in the New York Times on August 26, 1900.

Of little over 300 words, the obituary is too brief for a philosopher of Nietzsche’s importance. But in 1900, Nietzsche was not seen as an important philosopher, and no one could have imagined that in a few decades the Nazis will attain political power in Germany and Nietzsche will be regarded as the prophet of Nazism.

Here’s an excerpt from the NYT’s obituary:
Prof. Nietzsche was one of the most prominent of modern German philosophers, and he is considered the apostle of extreme modern rationalism and one of the founders of the socialistic school, whose ideas have had such a profound influence on the growth of political and social life throughout the civilized world. Nietzsche was largely influenced by the pessimism of Schopenhauer and his writings, full of revolutionary opinions, were fired with a fearless iconoclasm which surpassed the wildest dreams of contemporary free thought. His doctrines however, were inspired by lofty aspirations, while the brilliancy of his thought and diction and the epigrammatic force of his writings commanded even the admiration of his most pronounced enemies, of which he had many. 
There are lot of things that the NYT has got wrong in its short obituary. For instance, the obituary says that Nietzsche is “considered the apostle of extreme modern rationalism and one of the founders of the socialistic school.” It also says that “Nietzsche was largely influenced by the pessimism of Schopenhauer.” I don’t think that Nietzsche can be seen in these terms.

Tuesday, 30 October 2018

Ideas are Not a Substitute for Creativity

A first-century AD bust of Cicero
Randall Collins, in his book The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change, shows that the creativity of cultures which import philosophical ideas often gets stifled, whereas the creativity of the cultures which export philosophical ideas is likely to get stimulated. Here’s an excerpt from chapter 8, “Tensions of Indigenous and Imported Ideas: Islam, Judaism, Christendom”:
Translating philosophical texts from a foreign culture inhibits creative philosophy among the receivers. When the eminent figures in the philosophical community are the translators or expositors of alien philosophies, their imported capital becomes a substitute for creating their own. This does not violate the structural principles of the intellectual field but follows from them. Under the law of small numbers, there is room for three to six positions to command public attention; it does not matter whether these are filled up by new creations or come from abroad. Presenting a foreign philosophy can preempt one of these slots. Where there is little competition from others, the chief idea importers become energy stars, pseudo-creators in their own right. 
Consider the reputation of Cicero, in the generation when Greek philosophy made its first impact on the Roman intellectual world. Not himself a translator of texts (that was a low-status activity of slaves), he was patron of the slave-curators and editors of Greek manuscripts, and reaped the fame of the Greek philosophers by expounding several of them with literary polish for his Roman audience. Varro did much the same for Greek science. Lucretius was the competitive counterweight to Cicero in his generation, giving literary expression to Epicurean philosophy, the one major Greek position Cicero did not appropriate. Rounding out the range of oppositions of the Roman intellectual community were their first Stoics. There were no indigenous creators, as the entire field was divided up among the idea importers.

Monday, 29 October 2018

The Beginnings of Formal Logic

The Topics was written before the Prior Analytics, and in both works, deductions (syllogismoi) have an important role to play. But it is generally believed that the Prior Analytics marks the beginning of formal logic. So what are the grounds on which Aristotle’s discussion of deductions qualify as formal in the one treatise but not in the other?

Marko Malink, in his essay, “The Beginnings of Formal Logic: Deduction in Aristotle’s Topics vs. Prior Analytics,” (Phronesis; Volume 60; Issue 3; 2015), offers four reasons to establish that the Prior Analytics, and not the Topics, qualifies as a treatise of formal logic. The four reasons are:
First, the Prior Analytics abstracts from speaker meaning and only takes into account the literal meaning of the sentences involved in a deduction. Nothing of relevance is left to tacit understanding between speaker and hearer. Every aspect of the meaning that is relevant to an argument’s counting as a deduction is made explicit by some linguistic expression, even if Aristotle is not formalistic and does not prescribe which expressions to use. 
Secondly, Aristotle is concerned to make explicit all premises that are necessary to deduce the conclusion in a given argument. 
Thirdly, Aristotle provides a criterion for determining when all the necessary premises have been made explicit. The criterion is (largely) sound with respect to modern conceptions of valid deductive inference. 
Fourthly, deductions are formulated in a language that is supposed to be free from homonymy and ambiguity.
These four features are present in the Prior Analytics but are absent in the Topics. If they had been present in the Topics then the Topics would have marked the beginning of formal logic. However, Aristotle himself does not use the terminology of ‘form’ and ‘formal’ in his logical works, and Malink points out in his essay that the Aristotelian syllogistic is not formalistic or formalized, even though the logic in the Prior Analytics is accepted as formal.

Sunday, 28 October 2018

Definition and Measurement in Physics

Peter Caws, in his essay, “Definition and Measurement in Physics,” (Measurement : Definitions and Theories; Edited by C. West Churchman and Philburn Ratoosh; 1959), looks at the differences between definition and measurement and the way in which they affect one another. He begins the essay with the remark, “Measurement presupposes something to be measured, and, unless we know what that something is, no measurement can have any significance.”

On page 3 and 4 of the essay, he writes:  “Definition and measurement certainly have functional similarities which make it almost inevitable that a discussion of one should sooner or later involve the other. They both have the character of leading to relations which set the entities of science in order with respect to one another. The kinds of order that they establish can be broadly differentiated, but they run together in many cases, so that there are times when the two procedures seem to amount almost to the same thing. Definition, in general, is concerned with the systematic order of the conceptual schemes of science, and with nature of the relations between different entities. Measurement has a more limited function, that of establishing metrical order among different manifestations of particular properties, and of making scientific events amenable to mathematical description. Often the relation between different properties is not clear unless measurements have been carried out on both in some case where they appear together; nowadays much definition is expressed in a mathematical form which presupposes measurement.”

On page 5, he comes close to suggesting that definition and measurement can be the same: “Definition requires the replacement of one symbol in an expression by another symbol or symbols; measurement requires the replacement of a symbol by a number, itself also a symbol. It is not far from this point to an identification of the two processes.” But in rest of the essay he goes on to distinguish definition from measurement.

On page 16, he notes the important role that measurement (of any kind) plays in the formation of the concepts that we hold in our mind: “The mind inevitably organizes units, thing like concepts, on which relations converge. Confronted with unrelated sense data, it creates the category “thing”; confronted with scientific data, it creates the category “construct.” The construct is not a visual image, nor is it external to the mind; it is analogous to a piece in a game which thought plays. Chess requires not only rules but also men, and physics requires not only laws but also constructs. One could change the rules in chess, yet still play with the same men; and similarly it is not always necessary to replace the old intuitive construct with a new, rigidly formalized one, even if a new technique of measurement appears, as long as one understands the new relations into which it enters.” 

Saturday, 27 October 2018

The Riddle of Nietzsche’s Philosophy

Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche is often severely criticized for twisting Friedrich Nietzsche’s legacy and creating the impression that he was a Nazi prophet. The book that I am currently reading, Ben Macintyre’s Forgotten Fatherland: The Search of Elisabeth Nietzsche, has some good insights on Elisabeth's own thought and the role that she played in Nietzsche’s life and literature. On pages 18 - 19, Macintyre notes how Nietzsche has been associated with all kinds of movements:
Despite his opposition to codified systems of belief, Nietzsche’s name has been associated with practically every ‘movement’, intellectual or otherwise, in this century: feminism and structuralism, Marxism and anarchism and behaviourism, as well as fascism. If you put into one room everyone who considered themselves a Nietzschean, there would be a bloodbath. Nietzsche saw it coming: ‘Whoever believed he had understood something of me’, he wrote in his autobiography Ecce Homo, ‘had dressed up something out of me after his own image — not uncommonly an antithesis of me, for instance an “idealist”; whoever had understood nothing of me denied that I came into consideration at all.’ And he admitted that it pertained to his nature as a philosopher ‘to want to remain a riddle in some respects’. 
I will have more to say on the book once I finish reading it.

Friday, 26 October 2018

On the Bicameral Minds in Homer's Iliad

Julian Jaynes, in his book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, presents his theory that consciousness is a learned process which mankind developed about 3000 years ago. If this is true, then it means that the human beings, as we find them today, have developed in less than 100 generations.

Before human beings developed consciousness, they had a bicameral mind, in which, according to Jaynes, the right cerebral hemisphere talks to the left cerebral hemisphere. When the man with bicameral mind faced a difficult situation, he would have an auditory hallucination—which entailed auditory commands based on the experience stored in the right hemisphere of the brain being provided to the left hemisphere. The man would interpret the auditory commands as the voice of God, chiefs or rulers, and obey them. Jaynes posits that the bicameral mind could have developed around 9000 BC at the time when human beings were coming out of nomadic hunter-gatherer way of life and becoming part of tribal societies based on agriculture.

But why did the bicameral mind which brought huge success to humanity in the agricultural civilizations evolve into a conscious mind? Jaynes suggests that the discovery of writing about 3000 years ago, particularly in the era of Hammurabi when use of writing became widespread, weakened the power of the audio medium. Men did not need audio commands in order to make their decisions, as they could consult the written texts. The spread of writing, the complexities of overpopulation, and the chaos of huge migrations as one population invaded others created a new evolution in the human mind and that was the beginning of consciousness.

In his essay, “Consciousness and the Voices of the Mind,” Jaynes makes some interesting observations on the bicameral mind of the characters in Homer’s epic Iliad. Here’s an excerpt:
First, let me make a few generalizations about the Iliad. To me and to roughly half of classicists, it is oral poetry, originally spoken and composed at the same time by a long succession of aoidoi or bards. As such, it contains many incongruities. Even after it was written down in about 800 B.C., perhaps by someone named Homer, it had many interpolations added to it even centuries later. So there are many exceptions to what I am about to say, such as the long speech of Nestor in Book XI for example, or the rhetorical reply of Achilles to Odysseus in Book IX.  
But if you take the generally accepted oldest parts of the Iliad and ask, “Is there evidence of consciousness?” the answer, I think, is no. People are not sitting down and making decisions. No one is. No one is introspecting. No one is even reminiscing. It is a very different kind of world.  
Then, who makes the decisions? Whenever a significant choice is to be made, a voice comes in telling people what to do. These voices are always and immediately obeyed. These voices are called gods. To me this is the origin of gods. I regard them as auditory hallucinations similar to, although not precisely the same as, the voices heard by Joan of Arc or William Blake. Or similar to the voices that modern schizophrenics hear. Similar perhaps to the voices that some of you may have heard. 
Jaynes notes that the evolution human consciousness has not come to an end. The process of consciousness continues to evolve and perfect itself.

Thursday, 25 October 2018

Thus Faked Zarathustra

In his WSJ article,  Robert P. Crease takes Steven Pinker to task for the incorrect interpretation of Nietzsche in Pinker's book Enlightenment Now. Here's an excerpt from Crease's article:
The danger is not Mr. Pinker’s silly interpretation. It’s the confident assumption that one can cull a sentence out of context, take it literally, and know its meaning. That may be fine for scientific papers, but most language does not work like that. In everyday life, humans often find they express themselves more effectively by speaking allusively, evocatively, breezily, playfully, impressionistically, satirically, provocatively, imperatively or even wickedly than by speaking with scientific literalness. They also need to know the full story behind which the words are spoken. 
Mr. Pinker’s certainty about his take on Nietzsche’s words—as well as the pass that reviewers have given him concerning his remarks about philosophers—reflects the urge to cram language into a single, scientific model to which all language should conform. That’s antithetical to the humanities as a discipline, one of whose ambitions is to cultivate fluency in the full sweep of human expression. 
Interpreting intellectual remarks out of context threatens not only the humanities but the climate in which culture, to say nothing of good scholarship, thrives. The humanities need some equivalent of Carl Sagan or Richard Dawkins, speaking for the rest of our knowledge and practices the way they did for the sciences, to take on the mission of blasting away degradations of intellectual discourse.
Ouch. 

Wednesday, 24 October 2018

On the Romanization of Greek Philosophy

After the sack of Athens by the Roman soldiers led by Sulla in 86 B.C.E., Greece became a Roman protectorate and the philosophical schools started by the Greek masters began to align themselves with Roman culture. According to Randall Collins, the romanization of Greek philosophical schools led to a new kind of philosophical innovation. Here’s an excerpt from Collins’s book The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change (Chapter 3, "Partitioning Attention Space: The Case of Ancient Greece”):
In the transition to the Roman base comes an outburst of innovation, which then yields to a different way of intellectual life. Stoicism receives a new system with Posidonius, Epicureanism its classic formulation in Lucretius. Aristoteleanism loses its independence from Platonic Idealism, while Platonism repudiates skepticism and goes back to an emanationist religious ontology, in syncretism with a revived neo-Pythagorean numerology. Skepticism, set adrift by the counterrevolution in the Platonic school, is picked up as the medical schools undergo their own doctrinal realignment, and receives its classic formulation at the hands of Aenesidemus. 
In Greece, the Aristotelian school had moved away from Aristotle’s philosophy virtually from the time of his death and in a few generations the school collapsed. In the Roman environment, the teachings of Aristotle were seen as a modification of the Platonic theory. Randall writes:
The Aristoteleans, who were already fading from intellectual prominence in the previous century, took the typical path of a weakening position and were becoming eclectic, wavering toward Epicureanism and Pythagoreanism. By the time Aristotelean doctrines came into Rome around 70 B.C.E., they were no longer carried by members of the Peripatetic school but by freelance scholars such as Tyrannio and Andronicus of Rhodes. The materialism of the intervening period was forgotten, and Aristotle’s texts were now seen as a modification of the Platonic doctrine of Forms. 
It was only around 1250 A.D., with the work of Thomas Aquinas and Averroes, that interest in Aristotelian ideas was revived and Aristotle became known as “The Philosopher” that we are familiar with today.

Tuesday, 23 October 2018

On Corruption: The Weapon of Superfluous Mediocrity

A honest man is the common enemy, if society is mired in corruption. Here’s an excerpt from the monologue by Jacques Collin, the thief who has cheated death and goes by the name of Vautrin, to Eugène de Rastignac in Honoré de Balzac’s Father Goriot (Le Père Goriot):
There are fifty thousand young men in your position at this moment, all bent as you are on solving one and the same problem—how to acquire a fortune rapidly. You are but a unit in that aggregate. You can guess, therefore, what efforts you must make, how desperate the struggle is. There are not fifty thousand good positions for you; you must fight and devour one another like spiders in a pot. Do you know how a man makes his way here? By brilliant genius or by skilful corruption. You must either cut your way through these masses of men like a cannon ball, or steal among them like a plague. Honesty is nothing to the purpose. Men bow before the power of genius; they hate it, and try to slander it, because genius does not divide the spoil; but if genius persists, they bow before it. To sum it all up in a phrase, if they fail to smother genius in the mud, they fall on their knees and worship it. Corruption is a great power in the world, and talent is scarce. So corruption is the weapon of superfluous mediocrity; you will be made to feel the point of it everywhere. You will see women who spend more than ten thousand francs a year on dress, while their husband’s salary (his whole income) is six thousand francs. You will see officials buying estates on twelve thousand francs a year. You will see women who sell themselves body and soul to drive in a carriage belonging to the son of a peer of France, who has a right to drive in the middle rank at Longchamp. You have seen that poor simpleton of a Goriot obliged to meet a bill with his daughter’s name at the back of it, though her husband has fifty thousand francs a year. I defy you to walk a couple of yards anywhere in Paris without stumbling on some infernal complication. I’ll bet my head to a head of that salad that you will stir up a hornet’s nest by taking a fancy to the first young, rich, and pretty woman you meet. They are all dodging the law, all at loggerheads with their husbands. If I were to begin to tell you all that vanity or necessity (virtue is not often mixed up in it, you may be sure), all that vanity and necessity drive them to do for lovers, finery, housekeeping, or children, I should never come to an end. So an honest man is the common enemy.  
But do you know what an honest man is? Here, in Paris, an honest man is the man who keeps his own counsel, and will not divide the plunder. I am not speaking now of those poor bond-slaves who do the work of the world without a reward for their toil—God Almighty’s outcasts, I call them. Among them, I grant you, is virtue in all the flower of its stupidity, but poverty is no less their portion. At this moment, I think I see the long faces those good folk would pull if God played a practical joke on them and stayed away at the Last Judgment.

Monday, 22 October 2018

Conflicts are the lifeblood of the intellectual world

Randall Collins, in his book The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change, notes that creativity is not a trait of groups; it is mostly the outcome of an individual working alone, usually for several hours of the day. However, the philosophers who do original work are mostly unable to effectively propagate their own ideas. Their work becomes known to the world through the mouth and pen of the network of several lesser known philosophers (supporters as well as rivals).

This means that to be influential, a philosopher needs not only a group of intellectual supporters who dedicate their lives to further developing and propagating his ideas, but also a group of determined intellectual rivals whose focus is on exposing the problems in his ideas. The greater the rivalry between the supporters and rivals, the greater becomes the scope of the ideas that have been developed by the original philosopher. Philosophy thrives when there is rivalry and argumentation.

According to Randall, the output of a creative mind gets disseminated in society through a process of opposition and synthesis. Here’s an excerpt from his The Sociology of Philosophies (Chapter 3, "Partitioning Attention Space: The Case of Ancient Greece"; Page 80 - 81):
Creativity involves new combinations of ideas arising from existing ones, or new ideas structured by opposition to older ones. Conflicts are the lifeblood of the intellectual world. This is rarely recognized by intellectuals in the heat of action. Their focus is on truth, and they attack their predecessors and compatriots for failing to arrive at it. The theme recurs across the millennia, from Heraclitus to the Vienna Circle to the foundationalist controversies of today. Kant’s version was to complain about the sorry state of metaphysics, allegedly once queen of the sciences. This is a ritual incantation, a preparation for battle, for there is no previous period in which metaphysics rules serenely without disagreements.  
The crucial feature of creativity is to identify an unsolved problem, and to convince one’s peers of the importance of solving it. It is typical for intellectuals to create problems at the very moment they solve them. In India the issue of how to escape from the bonds of karma did not exist until the Buddhists proposed a means of escape. Epicurus made fear of the gods an issue at the same time that he propounded a solution to these fears. Kant discovered that science was threatened when he announced a Copernican revolution to end the threat.  
A single philosopher in isolation rarely develops a new issue or a new way of resolving it; this usually happens to two or more philosophers in the same generation but rival lineages. The emergence of new problems is part of the transformation of the whole intellectual problem space. The underlying dynamic is a struggle over intellectual territory of limited size. Creativity occurs both as this space opens up and as it closes down; the result is two kinds of intellectual innovation, by opposition and by synthesis.

Sunday, 21 October 2018

On Rousseau’s Challenge (from Balzac’s Father Goriot)

Honoré de Balzac
It is well known that Fyodor Dostoevsky had done an extensive study of Honoré de Balzac's works.  He was inspired by Balzac's style of writing. In fact, Dostoevsky's first literary publication was his translation (in 1844) of Balzac's Eugе́nie Grandet.

I can see a little bit of Dostoevsky (Crime and Punishment) in the following exchange between Eugène de Rastignac and Bianchon in Honoré de Balzac’s novel Father Goriot (Le Père Goriot):

“Have you read Rousseau?” 

“Yes.”

“Do you remember that he asks the reader somewhere what he would do if he could make a fortune by killing an old mandarin somewhere in China by mere force of wishing it, and without stirring from Paris?”

“Yes.” 

“Well, then?”

“Pshaw! I am at my thirty-third mandarin.” 

“Seriously, though. Look here, suppose you were sure that you could do it, and had only to give a nod. Would you do it.” 

"Is he well stricken in years, this mandarin of yours? Pshaw! after all, young or old, paralytic, or well and sound, my word for it… Well, then. Hang it, no!” 

“You are a good fellow, Bianchon. But suppose you loved a woman well enough to lose your soul in hell for her, and that she wanted money, lots of money for dresses and a carriage, and all her whims, in fact?” 

“Why, here you are taking away my reason, and want me to reason!” 

“Well then, Bianchon, I am mad ; bring me to my senses. I have two sisters as beautiful and innocent as angels, and I want them to be happy. How am I to find two hundred thousand francs apiece for them in the next five years? Now and then in life, you see, you must play for heavy stakes, and it is no use wasting your luck on low play.” 

“But you are only stating the problem that lies before every one at the outset of his life, and you want to cut the Gordian knot with a sword. If that is the way of it, dear boy, you must be an Alexander, or to the hulks you go. For my own part, I am quite contented with the little lot I mean to make for myself somewhere in the country, when I mean to step into my father's shoes and plod along. A man's affections are just as fully satisfied by the smallest circle as they can be by a vast circumference. Napoleon himself could only dine once, and he could not have more mistresses than a house student at the Capuchins. Happiness, old man, depends on what lies between the sole of your foot and the crown of your head; and whether it costs a million or a hundred louis, the actual amount of pleasure that you receive rests entirely with you, and is just exactly the same in any case. I am for letting that Chinaman live.”

Saturday, 20 October 2018

On Nietzsche’s Sister, Elisabeth

Elisabeth shaking hands with Hitler
Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche became Friedrich Nietzsche’s guardian and assumed control of his legacy after he suffered a mental collapse. She was an anti-semite and several scholars (including Walter Kaufmann) have criticized her for twisting Nietzsche’s legacy and creating the impression that he was a Nazi prophet. It is said that she published The Will to Power, a selection of fragments from Nietzsche’s notebooks, with the intention of depicting him as a proto-Nazi. The book has several aphorisms which dwell on the importance of breeding and the need to exterminate the weak.

But R. Kevin Hill, in his Introduction to The Will to Power (translated by R. Kevin Hill and Michael A. Scarpitti; Penguin Classics, 2017), offers a moderate impression of Elisabeth. He says that she did not actively participate in the creation of The Will to Power. Here’s an excerpt:
Most of the editorial work was done by Köselitz and his associates [the book’s publisher], and not by Elisabeth (as she herself explains in the preface to the 1901 edition, where she ‘stresses explicitly’ that she is ‘not even the editor of the book but at most and in the most modest sense of the word, a collaborator’), whose particular gifts lay more in the areas of administration and promotion. Köselitz appears to have made a good-faith effort to select the material that was of the greatest interest, and much of the editorial activity was merely ‘tidying’. Nor was it ever his intention, as some have claimed to convey the misleading impression of a magnum opus.
On the editorial contributions made by Elisabeth, Kevin Hill says;
Elisabeth’s editorial contribution seems to have been limited to her insistence that Nietzsche had produced a philosophical system that could compete with the systems of such figures as Kant and Hegel (for without that achievement, Nietzsche might be regarded as nothing more than a belletrist, an impression reinforced by the aphoristic style of many of his other works) and that the text presented that system. Köselitz’s editorial sin lay more in his silent acquiescence to her overall characterization of the material as Nietzsche’s crowing achievement… 
However, book’s title came from Elisabeth. Kevin Hill points out that she rejected the title that the editors had suggested, and gave the book the title, The Will to Power. Attempt at a Revaluation of All Values. (Studies and Fragments). She also suppressed an Introduction that the editors had written and replaced it with her own. The feeling that The Will to Power is associated with Nazism has been strengthened by the existence of a famous photograph in which Elisabeth is shaking hands with Hitler, who used to visit her frequently.

Friday, 19 October 2018

Ortega on Cynics, Nihilists, and Fascists

Painting of Diogenes
by John William Waterhouse
There are several passages in The Revolt of the Masses in which José Ortega y Gasset talks about the philosophical thinking and political issues in Ancient Greece, the Roman Empire, and the Middle Ages. Here’s an interesting passage in which he is drawing a connection between the ancient cynics and nihilists, and the modern fascists:
The present situation is made more clear by noting what, in spite of its peculiar features, [society] has in common with past periods. Thus, hardly does Mediterranean civilization reach its highest point—towards the 3rd Century B.C.—when the cynic makes his appearance. Diogenes, in his mud-covered sandals, tramps over the carpets of Aristippus. The cynic pullulated at every corner, and in the highest places. This cynic did nothing but saboter the civilization of the time. He was the nihilist of Hellenism, He created nothing, he made nothing. His role was to undo—or rather to attempt to undo, for he did not succeed in his purpose. The cynic, a parasite of civilization, lives by denying it, for the very reason that he is convinced that it will not fail. What would become of the cynic among a savage people where everyone, naturally and quite seriously, fulfils what the cynic farcically considers to be his personal role? What is your Fascist if he does not speak ill of liberty, or your surrealist if he does not blaspheme against art? 
Ortega believed that the intricate political and cultural problems that modern society faces have their roots in Ancient Greece, the Roman Empire, and the Middle Ages, and unless we have a good grasp of history we cannot find a viable way for overcoming these problems and clearing the path for society to progress.

Thursday, 18 October 2018

On Nietzsche’s Call for Renewed Aristocratic Sensibility

I am now reading the new translation of Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Will to Power, by R. Kevin Hill and Michael A. Scarpitti (Penguin Classics, 2017). Here’s an excerpt from Kevin Hill’s Introduction to the book:
...in the fourth book, “Discipline and Cultivation’, Nietzsche hints at a practical, perhaps even a political, solution to the crisis of Nihilism. For a part of Nietzsche’s diagnosis of modernity is that centuries of Christian influence have made us so submissive and mediocre that we willingly allow ourselves to become exploited politically and economically; as a result the world has become a kind of vast social machine with human beings as its cogs and wheels. Cultural creativity, ‘joyful fruitfulness’, becomes impossible for people like ourselves, and as a result higher culture begins to die. The principal modes of revolt against these conditions, whether liberal or Socialist, are rooted in levelling doctrines of egalitarianism which are themselves just so much secularized Christianity; only a renewed aristocratic sensibility, a new cultural elitism, can save us. 
In the end, Nietzsche does not seek to turn back the tide of levelling and the reduction of most people to mere social functions, even though he perceives this to be modernity's own form of slavery. Rather, noting that in the past, cultural achievement has always been the product of an aristocracy, and that every aristocracy presupposes some form of exploitation, he embraces this otherwise horrifying development (which in places he claims may culminate in some form of Socialism) as precisely the desired precondition for the emergence of a new cultural elite, an elite which will feed off this great social machine and use it in pursuit of its own ends. In order to do this, these new aristocrats will have to reject the enervating, egalitarian values which have prevailed among the many; for them to recognize that the world is will to power means to recognize that being a part of the dominating and exploiting elite is good.

Wednesday, 17 October 2018

Ortega on What it Takes for Philosophy to Rule

José Ortega y Gasset
José Ortega y Gasset in The Revolt of the Masses, (Chapter 13: “The Greatest Danger, The State”), talks about the devastating consequences of Statism.

He notes that instead of enabling people to live better, most states force them to live for the regime. “This is what State intervention leads to: the people are converted into fuel to feed the mere machine which is the State. The skeleton eats up the flesh around it. The scaffolding becomes the owner and tenant of the house.”

According to Ortega, unless philosophy holds sway in society, the state cannot be brought under control. But it is not Plato’s philosopher king that he has in his mind. He writes:

“For philosophy to rule, it is not necessary that philosophers be the rulers—as Plato at first wished—nor even for rulers to be philosophers—as was his later, more modest, wish. Both these things are, strictly speaking, most fatal. For philosophy to rule, it is sufficient for it to exist; that is to say, for the philosophers to be philosophers, For nearly a century past, philosophers have been everything but that—politicians, pedagogues, men of letters, and men of science.”

Tuesday, 16 October 2018

The Revolt of the Masses

The Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset (1883–1955) was inspired by Nietzsche’s philosophy. In his best known book The Revolt of the Masses, he defends the values of meritocratic liberalism against the attacks of communists and fascists. He is critical of the ordinary masses and is horrified by the idea that they may attain political power.

He begins his book by asserting that the rise of the masses is the greatest crisis that Europe faces. “As the masses by definition, neither should nor can direct their own personal existence, and still less rule society in general, this fact means that actually Europe is suffering from the greatest crisis that can afflict peoples, nations, and civilization. Such a crisis has occurred more than once in history. Its characteristics and its consequences are well known. So also is its name. It is called the rebellion of the masses.” (Chapter 1, "The Coming of the Masses")

Ortega upheld “a radically aristocratic interpretation of history.” As he explains in Chapter 2, “The Rise of the Historic Level”: “Radically, because I have never said that human society ought to be aristocratic, but a great deal more than that. What 1 have said, and still believe with ever-increasing conviction, is that human society is always, whether it will or no, aristocratic by its very essence, to the extreme that it is a society in the measure that it is aristocratic, and ceases to be such when it ceases to be aristocratic.”

In Chapter 7, “Noble Life and Common Life, or Effort and Inertia,” he establishes the difference in the character of the “mass-man” and the “noble man” and reveals his debt to the Ancient Greek thinkers:

"The mass-man would never have accepted authority external to himself had not his surroundings violently forced him to do so. As today his surroundings do not so force him, the everlasting mass-man, true to his character, ceases to appeal to other authority and feels himself lord of his own existence. On the contrary the select man, the excellent man is urged, by interior necessity, to appeal from himself to some standard beyond himself, superior to himself, whose service he freely accepts. Let us recall that at the start we distinguished the excellent man from the common man by saying that the former is the one who makes great demands on himself, and the latter the one who makes no demands on himself, but contents himself with what he is, and is delighted with himself. Contrary to what is usually thought, it is the man of excellence, and not the common man who lives in essential servitude. Life has no savour for him unless he makes it consist in service to something transcendental. Hence he docs not look upon the necessity of serving as an oppression. When, by chance, such necessity is lacking, he grows restless and invents some new standard, more difficult, more exigent, with which to coerce himself. This is life lived as a discipline—the noble life, Nobility is defined by the demands it makes on us—by obligations, not by rights. Noblesse oblige. “To live as one likes is plebeian; the noble man aspires to order and law ” (Goethe)."

After a few paragraphs, Ortega specifies why the mass-man is not noble: “For me, then, nobility is synonymous with a life of effort, ever set on excelling itself, in passing beyond what one is to what one sets up as a duty and an obligation. In this way the noble life stands opposed to the common or inert life, which reclines statically upon itself, condemned to perpetual immobility, unless an external force compels it to come outside itself. Hence we apply the terms mass to this kind of man—not so much because of his multitude as because of his inertia.”

Ortega blames the rise of mass-men on three factors which came together in the 19th century: “liberal democracy, scientific experiment, and industrialism.” His description of the mass man and noble man is reminiscent of Nietzsche’s contrast between the “overman” and the general mass of humanity. He recognizes that the progress of human civilization requires people who are striving to achieve transcendent goals. The noble man, who is motivated by transcendental goals, is, according to Ortega, truly alive, whereas the mass man is decadent and spiritless.

Monday, 15 October 2018

John Keats on the attitude of an artist

Sculpture of John Keats
John Keats was convinced that a man’s instinct to survive and thrive in the natural world is the force that drives his creativity. He has made this point not only in his poetry, but also in prose. As he wrote in his letter (dated: 19 March 1819) to his brother and sister:
The greater part of Men make their way with the same instinctiveness, the same unwandering eye from their purposes, the same animal eagerness as the Hawk. The Hawk wants a Mate, so does the Man — look at them both, they set about it and procure one in the same manner. They want both a nest and they both set about one in the same manner — they get their food in the same manner. The noble animal Man for his amusement smokes his pipe — the Hawk balances about the Clouds — that is the only difference of their leisures. This it is that makes the Amusement of Life — to a speculative Mind — I go among the Fields and catch a glimpse of a Stoat or a fieldmouse peeping out of the withered grass — the creature hath a purpose, and its eyes are bright with it. I go amongst the buildings of a city and I see a Man hurrying along — to what? the Creature has a purpose and his eyes are bright with it. But then, as Wordsworth says, “we have all one human heart ——” There is an electric fire in human nature tending to purify — so that among these human creatures there is continually some birth of new heroism. The pity is that we must wonder at it, as we should at finding a pearl in rubbish. I have no doubt that thousands of people never heard of have had hearts completely disinterested: I can remember but two — Socrates and Jesus — Their histories evince it.
Keats goes on to compare his own attitude as an artist (a poet) with the movements of a wild creature whose sole purpose is to live:
Even here, though I myself am pursuing the same instinctive course as the veriest human animal you can think of, I am, however young, writing at random, straining at particles of light in the midst of a great darkness, without knowing the bearing of any one assertion, of any one opinion. Yet may I not in this be free from sin? May there not be superior beings amused with any graceful, though instinctive, attitude my mind may fall into as I am entertained with the alertness of a Stoat or the anxiety of a Deer? Though a quarrel in the Streets is a thing to be hated, the energies displayed in it are fine; the commonest Man shows a grace in his quarrel. By a superior Being our reasonings may take the same tone — though erroneous they may be fine. This is the very thing in which consists Poetry, and if so it is not so fine a thing as philosophy — For the same reason that an eagle is not so fine a thing as a truth.

Saturday, 13 October 2018

Augustine and the Scepticism of the Platonic Academy

Against Academicians and the Teacher is Augustine’s first writing after his conversion from paganism to christianity. It is a surprising work, because instead of focusing on a study of scripture, as any new convert is expected to, Augustine engages in a purely philosophical discussion in which the name of Christ occurs only once.

The reason for his focus on philosophy can be found in his Confessions, where he has stated that in 384—385, after his Manichaean period, he went through a sceptical crisis. The sceptical crisis was so deep that, after his conversion, he had to try to refute the skeptical philosophers.

In the period when he was working on Against Academicians and the Teacher, Augustine wrote a letter to Hermogenian (Letter 1; The Letters of St. Augustine), in which he offers a surprising meta-argument on Academic Scepticism. He recognizes that he is unable to produce arguments that will bring down scepticism, and as he is unable to defeat people of such authority, he considers it best to imitate them. Here’s the complete text of Augustine’s letter to Hermogenian:
1. I would not presume, even in playful discussion, to attack the philosophers of the Academy; for when could the authority of such eminent men fail to move me, did I not believe their views to be widely different from those commonly ascribed to them? Instead of confuting them, which is beyond my power, I have rather imitated them to the best of my ability. For it seems to me to have been suitable enough to the times in which they flourished, that whatever issued pure from the fountainhead of Platonic philosophy should be rather conducted into dark and thorny thickets for the refreshment of a very few men, than left to flow in open meadow-land, where it would be impossible to keep it clear and pure from the inroads of the vulgar herd. I use the word herd advisedly; for what is more brutish than the opinion that the soul is material? For defense against the men who held this, it appears to me that such an art and method of concealing the truth was wisely contrived by the new Academy. But in this age of ours, when we see none who are philosophers — for I do not consider those who merely wear the cloak of a philosopher to be worthy of that venerable name — it seems to me that men (those, at least, whom the teaching of the Academicians has, through the subtlety of the terms in which it was expressed, deterred from attempting to understand its actual meaning) should be brought back to the hope of discovering the truth, lest that which was then for the time useful in eradicating obstinate error, should begin now to hinder the casting in of the seeds of true knowledge. 
2. In that age the studies of contending schools of philosophers were pursued with such ardour, that the one thing to be feared was the possibility of error being approved. For every one who had been driven by the arguments of the sceptical philosophers from a position which he had supposed to be impregnable, set himself to seek some other in its stead, with a perseverance and caution corresponding to the greater industry which was characteristic of the men of that time, and the strength of the persuasion then prevailing, that truth, though deep and hard to be deciphered, does lie hidden in the nature of things and of the human mind. Now, however, such is the indisposition to strenuous exertion, and the indifference to the liberal arts, that so soon as it is reported abroad that, in the opinion of the most acute philosophers, truth is unattainable, men send their minds to sleep, and cover them up forever. For they presume not, forsooth, to imagine themselves to be so superior in discernment to those great men, that they shall find out what, during his singularly long life, Carneades, with all his diligence, talents, and leisure, besides his extensive and varied learning, failed to discover. And if, contending somewhat against indolence, they rouse themselves so far as to read those books in which it is, as it were, proved that the perception of truth is denied to man, they relapse into lethargy so profound, that not even by the heavenly trumpet can they be aroused. 
3. Wherefore, although I accept with the greatest pleasure your candid estimate of my brief treatise, and esteem you so much as to rely not less on the sagacity of your judgment than on the sincerity of your friendship, I beg you to give more particular attention to one point, and to write me again concerning it — namely, whether you approve of that which, in the end of the third book, I have given as my opinion, in a tone perhaps of hesitation rather than of certainty, but in statements, as I think, more likely to be found useful than to be rejected as incredible. But whatever be the value of those treatises [the books against the Academicians], what I most rejoice in is, not that I have vanquished the Academicians, as you express it (using the language rather of friendly partiality than of truth), but that I have broken and cast away from me the odious bonds by which I was kept back from the nourishing breasts of philosophy, through despair of attaining that truth which is the food of the soul.
It is noteworthy that Augustine says in his letter that if he had let the sceptical image of the Academy persist, he would have encouraged his contemporaries to believe that they could not discover what Carneades (the great sceptic philosopher of the Platonic Academy) himself had been unable to discover.