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. 

Friday, 12 October 2018

Outlines of Pyrrhonism by Sextus Empiricus

Most of the works of Sextus Empiricus have come down to us in more or less the complete form in which he composed them, but we know very little about his life. What we know is that he was a Greek philosopher who lived in the second or third century CE. He himself tells us in his Medical Treatises that he is a doctor. We know from Diogenes Laertius that Sextus was the penultimate head of the skeptical school.

His most important work Outlines of Pyrrhonism (commonly abbreviated as PH) is a sort of summary of the Pyrrhonian sceptical doctrine (a kind of skepticism named after Pyrrho). The book is divided in three parts: Book I is a general introduction to the sceptical philosophy. The two other books are devoted to attacking the “dogmatic” systems of thought. Book 2 deals with the “logical” part of philosophy, Book 3 with the physical and ethical parts.

Here’s the opening paragraph in Outlines of Pyrrhonism:
Those who investigate any subject are likely either to make a discovery, or to deny the possibility of discovery and agree that nothing can be apprehended, or else to persist in their investigations. That, no doubt, is why of those who undertake philosophical investigations some say that they have discovered the truth, others deny the possibility of apprehending it, and others are still pursuing their investigations. Those who are properly called dogmatists - such as the Aristotelians and the Epicureans and the Stoics and others - think they have discovered the truth; Clitomachus and Carneades and other Academic philosophers have said that the truth cannot be apprehended; and the sceptics persist in their investigations. 
According to Sextus, the sceptics are students or researchers who ‘persist in their investigations’. The sceptic students or researchers must persist in their investigations because they have not discovered the object that they are searching for and they have not reached the conclusion that what they search for is beyond their powers of investigation. They have no opinion on the matter and they keep investigating. So the sceptics are the ones who have suspended judgement, they neither believe nor disbelieve, neither affirm or deny. They doubt everything and there is no end to their doubt. The Greek term “skeptikos” means “to inquire” or “to consider”.

Pyrrhonian skepticism can be seen as a reaction to the schools that Sextus calls dogmatic: ‘Aristotelians and the Epicureans and the Stoics’. He accuses them of making claims that cannot be verified through actual observations. During the time of Sextus, the word “dogmatic” did not have the pejorative tone that it has today—in that period a dogmatic was someone who was stickler for dogmas or doctrines.

Thursday, 11 October 2018

The Decline and End of the Platonic Academy

Carneades of Cyrene
In Richard Bett’s The Cambridge Companion to Ancient Scepticism, there are three essays which analyze the skeptical period of the Platonic Academy. The first essay (chapter 3), “Arcesilaus and Carneades,” is by Harald Thorsrud; the second essay (chapter 4), “The sceptical Academy: decline and afterlife,” is by Carlos Levy; and the third essay (chapter 5), “Aenesidemus and the rebirth of Pyrrhonism,” is by R. J. Hankinson.

The Platonic Academy became a fountainhead of sceptic ideas in the ancient world when Arcesilaus became its head in 268 BCE. By his innovative reading of the Platonic dialogues, it appears, Arcesilaus discovered the arguments which show that knowledge is not possible. It is also possible that he was impressed by the fact that various interlocutors of Socrates were unable to justify their beliefs. However, Zeno of Citium, the founder of the stoic school, had found a different Socrates in the Platonic dialogues. Arcesilaus probably saw Zeno’s stoicism as a threat to his own sceptic interpretation of Plato and Socrates, and throughout his life he made considerable efforts for refuting the ideas of the Stoic School.

Academic skeptic thought started making lot of progress after Carneades of Cyrene became the head of the Platonic Academy. He was sent to Rome in 156-155 BCE where he caused consternation among the politicians by his way of lecturing on a certain conception of justice on one day and refuting his own arguments the next day. He believed that justice is impossible to achieve. The Roman politician, Cato the Elder, was appalled by Carneades’s skepticism. He thought that Carneades would have a corrupting influence on the youth, and he requested the Roman senate to send him back to Athens. Carneades returned to Athens and resumed his work as the head of the Platonic Academy. He dedicated his life to refuting the stoic doctrines and also argued against epicureanism.

Clitomachus, who had studied philosophy under Carneades and was a skeptic, became the head of the Academy after Carneades left voluntarily in 137 BCE. There are no written records of Clitomachus teachings. According to Cicero, Clitomachus's life was dedicated to preaching the views of Carneades. Philo of Larissa, the pupil of Clitomachus, was the next head of the Academy. Initially, Philo was an ardent defender of skepticism and a staunch opponent of stoicism, but his views evolved after he left Athens at the time of the war against Mithradates and arrived in Rome (around 88 BC). He was soon teaching a moderate view of skepticism, and was permitting provisional beliefs without certainty.

The process of decline of the Platonic Academy began after the departure of Carneades. Carlos Levy, in his essay, “The sceptical Academy: decline and afterlife,” notes that the decline of the Academy may have something to do with the method that Arcesilaus and Carneades used for preaching their ideas. Neither of them wrote any philosophical work. But the thing is that oral teachings are susceptible to contradictory interpretations, which can fuel differences and schisms. The problem was worsened by the fact that Carneades, as is befitting for a good skeptic, would not allow the skeptic Academic thought to be elevated into a doctrine.

The contrasting interpretations of the utterances of Platonic masters led to acrimonious debate among the Platonic academics. After the death of Philo of Larissa, the Academy broke into several factions which eventually sank into oblivion. Carlos Levy points out in his essay that “the demise of the institution allowed the autonomous development of two modes of thought that were undoubtedly already present in Philo’s Roman books. Fidelity to Plato became Middle Platonism, mitigated skepticism was radicalized into neoPyrrhonism. Aspects of the new academy survived in both of them, to the considerable enrichment of Western thought.”

Wednesday, 10 October 2018

Arendt on The Dreyfus Affair

In The Origins of Totalitarianism Hannah Arendt notes that the Dreyfus Affair was much more than a bizarre imperfectly solved crime; it contributed to the rise of antisemitism in France and eventually gave brith to the Zionist movement, which, she says, is the “only political answer Jews have ever found to antisemitism and the only ideology in which they have ever taken seriously a hostility that would place them in the center of world events.”

Here’s an excerpt from The Origins of Totalitarianism, Chapter 4, “The Dreyfus Affair”:
While the Dreyfus Affair in its broader political aspects belongs to the twentieth century, the Dreyfus case, the various trials of the Jewish Captain Alfred Dreyfus, are quite typical of the nineteenth century, when men followed legal proceedings so keenly because each instance afforded a test of the century's greatest achievement, the complete impartiality of the law. It is characteristic of the period that a miscarriage of justice could arouse such political passions and inspire such an endless succession of trials and retrials, not to speak of duels and fisticuffs. The doctrine of equality before the law was still so firmly implanted in the conscience of the civilized world that a single miscarriage of justice could provoke public indignation from Moscow to New York. Nor was anyone, except in France itself, so "modern" as to associate the matter with political issues.6 The wrong done to a single Jewish officer in France was able to draw from the rest of the world a more vehement and united reaction than all the persecutions of German Jews a generation later. Even Czarist Russia could accuse France of barbarism while in Germany members of the Kaiser's entourage would openly express an indignation matched only by the radical press of the 1930’s. 
The dramatis personae of tile case might have stepped out of the pages of Balzac: on the one hand, the class-conscious generals frantically covering up for the members of their own clique and, on the other, their antagonist, Picquart, with his calm, clear-eyed and slightly ironical honesty. Beside them stand the nondescript crowd of the men in Parliament, each terrified of what his neighbor might know; the President of the Republic, notorious patron of the Paris brothels, and the examining magistrates, living solely for the sake of social contacts. Then there is Dreyfus himself, actually a parvenu, continually boasting to his colleagues of his family fortune which he spent on women; his brothers, pathetically offering their entire fortune, and then reducing the offer to 150,000 francs, for the release of their kinsman, never quite sure whether they wished to make a sacrifice or simply to suborn the General Staff; and the lawyer Démange, really convinced of his client's innocence but basing the defense on an issue of doubt so as to save himself from attacks and injury to his personal interests. Lastly, there is the adventurer Esterhazy, he of the ancient escutcheon, so utterly bored by this bourgeois world as to seek relief equally in heroism and knavery.
According to Arendt, the Dreyfus Affair received such great attention from the politicians, intellectuals, and the public, and continues to be relevant after two World Wars, because of two elements which grew in importance during the twentieth century: “The first is hatred of the Jews; the second, suspicion of the republic itself, of Parliament, and the state machine.”

Arendt connects the Dreyfus Affair with the Panama Scandal, which broke out a few years before Alfred Dreyfus was accused and convicted of espionage for Germany. The Panama Scandal exposed several French politicians and civil servants who were using Jewish middlemen to accept bribes for keeping quiet about the financial woes of a shady company engaged in building a canal in Panama. The involvement of the Jews contributed to the rise of French antisemitism.

Tuesday, 9 October 2018

Nazi Nationalism and Soviet Communism

Hannah Arendt, in The Origins of Totalitarianism, shows that the conditions that led to the rise of Nazi Nationalism and Soviet Communism are essentially the same.  There is also similarity in the global ambitions of these regimes and the political methods that they deployed to subdue the masses. Here’s an excerpt:
Nazis were not simple nationalists. Their nationalist propaganda was directed toward their fellow-travelers and not their convinced members; the latter, on the contrary, were never allowed to lose sight of a consistently supranational approach to politics. Nazi "nationalism" had more than one aspect in common with the recent nationalistic propaganda in the Soviet Union, which is also used only to feed the prejudices of the masses. The Nazis had a genuine and never revoked contempt for the narrowness of nationalism, the provincialism of the nation-state, and they repeated time and again that their "movement," international in scope like the Bolshevik movement, was more important to them than any state, which would necessarily be bound to a specific territory. And not only the Nazis, but fifty years of antisemitic history, stand as evidence against the identification of antisemitism with nationalism. The first antisemitic parties in the last decades of the nineteenth century were also among the first that banded together internationally. From the very beginning, they called international congresses and were concerned with a co-ordination of international, or at least inter-European, activities. 
In the following passage, Arendt is reflecting on the use of arbitrary terror by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union:
A fundamental difference between modem dictatorships and all other tyrannies of the past is that terror is no longer used as a means to exterminate and frighten opponents, but as an instrument to rule masses of people who are perfectly obedient. Terror as we know it today strikes without any preliminary provocation, its victims are innocent even from the point of view of the persecutor. This was the case in Nazi Germany when full terror was directed against Jews, i.e., against people with certain common characteristics which were independent of their specific behavior. In Soviet Russia the situation is more confused, but the facts, unfortunately, are only too obvious. On the one hand, the Bolshevik system, unlike the Nazi, never admitted theoretically that it could practice terror against innocent people, and though in view of certain practices this may look like hypocrisy, it makes quite a difference. Russian practice, on the other hand, is even more "advanced" than the German in one respect: arbitrariness of terror is not even limited by racial differentiation, while the old class categories have long since been discarded, so that anybody in Russia may suddenly become a victim of the police terror. We are not concerned here with the ultimate consequence of rule by terror—namely, that nobody, not even the executors, can ever be free of fear; in our context we are dealing merely with the arbitrariness by which victims are chosen, and for this it is decisive that they are objectively innocent, that they are chosen regardless of what they may or may not have done.
The Soviets and the Nazis weaponized their ideologies for indoctrinating large sections of their population. Their ultimate goal was not limited to coercing the masses; they wanted to instill complete obedience.

Monday, 8 October 2018

Immanuel Kant on Space and Time

In his Inaugural Dissertation of 1770, Immanuel Kant denies the realty of time and space and of temporal and spatial form. He writes:
Time is not something objective and real, neither a substance, nor an accident, nor a relation. It is the subjective condition necessary by the nature of the human mind for coordinating any sensible objects among themselves by a certain law; time is a pure intuition.  
Space is not something objective and real, neither substance, nor accident, nor relation; but subjective and ideal, arising by fixed law from the nature of the mind like an outline for the mutual co-ordination of all external sensations whatsoever.
It is noteworthy that Kant is not implying that the existence of objects perceived in space and time is dependent on the nature of the human mind. Rather he is saying that the existence of mind-dependent forms like time and space make it possible for the human mind to precisely observe the mind-independent objects.

Sunday, 7 October 2018

Of Experience by Michel de Montaigne

Portrait of Montaigne
Michel de Montaigne, in his final essay, “Of Experience,” (The Essays of Michel de Montaigne; Chapter 13), talks about his lifelong quest for self knowledge through life’s experiences. He begins his essay with these lines: “There is no desire more natural than that of knowledge. We try all ways that can lead us to it; where reason is wanting, we therein employ experience.”

In the last paragraph of the essay, he writes:
The pretty inscription wherewith the Athenians honoured the entry of Pompey into their city is conformable to my sense: “By so much thou art a god, as thou confessest thee a man.” ’Tis an absolute and, as it were, a divine perfection, for a man to know how loyally to enjoy his being. We seek other conditions, by reason we do not understand the use of our own; and go out of ourselves, because we know not how there to reside. ’Tis to much purpose to go upon stilts, for, when upon stilts, we must yet walk with our legs; and when seated upon the most elevated throne in the world, we are but seated upon our breech. The fairest lives, in my opinion, are those which regularly accommodate themselves to the common and human model without miracle, without extravagance. Old age stands a little in need of a more gentle treatment. 
What he is essentially saying in the above paragraph is that no matter that we may mount on stilts, we still must walk on our own legs; and on the highest throne in the world, we still sit only on our own bottom.

Saturday, 6 October 2018

Who Should Be The Judge?

In Metaphysics 4.6, Aristotle summarizes the arguments from his skeptic opponents in this paragraph:
There are, both among those who have these convictions and among those who merely profess these views, some who raise a difficulty by asking, who is to be the judge of the healthy man, and in general who is likely to judge rightly on each class of questions. But such inquiries are like puzzling over the question whether we are now asleep or awake. And all such questions have the same meaning. These people demand that a reason shall be given for everything; for they seek a starting-point, and they seek to get this by demonstration, while it is obvious from their actions that they have no conviction. But their mistake is what we have stated it to be; they seek a reason for things for which no reason can be given; for the starting-point of demonstration is not demonstration.
According to Aristotle, when anyone inquires about who is likely to judge rightly on each class of questions, he is seeking to cast doubt on opinions of one’s preferred experts and authorities. If you say that you prefer the beliefs of X to that of Y, the skeptic will undermine the grounds for which you are preferring X. The question is do we accept that we are justified in believing a particular issue only by appealing to some further principle—if such a condition to accepted then nothing can be judged because every principle will need a further justification.

Therefore Aristotle says that it is futile to appeal to the authority of any figure—the analysis should begin with what requires proof and what does not, and in case something requires proof, then what kind proof is required. I think these arguments from Aristotle have implications for modern politics. Today there is too much of focus on who should be allowed to handle political power, when what is required is a careful consideration of what kind of governance and jurisprudence is required for well-being of society.

Friday, 5 October 2018

Was Charles Darwin a Teleologist?

An 1871 caricature of Darwin
published in The Hornet, a satirical magazine
It is generally believed that Charles Darwin has provided a non-teleological theory of evolution through adaptation, but James G. Lennox, in his article, “Darwin was a Teleologist,” shows that there is a teleological element in Darwin’s explanations of adaptations. In his works, Darwin uses terms like 'final Cause,’ ‘purpose,' 'end for which,’ and 'good for which’ quite frequently.

According to Lennox, Darwin was acquainted with the concept of teleology, and while at Cambridge, he admired the argument from design in Paley’s work. Lennox says that Darwin was “apparently ready to accept creation by design as the most reasonable explanation for adaptation when the Beagle sailed. Less than ten years later he was confident of the main outlines of a theory which explained adaptation, and the creation of new species, by references to natural causes, and was an avowed agnostic.”

In his article, Lennox looks at Darwin’s two explanations of adaptations. The first explanation of adaptation is of the species of Primula which have been observed to be adopting a particular strategy, by means of particular structures. The second explanation of adaptation is of Orchids about which Darwin has commented in his Various Contrivances.

In his conclusion to the article, Lennox provides a summary of his key arguments:
By carefully examining Darwin's actual use of teleological explanation, one finds an explanatory structure which is at once irreducibly teleological, and at the same time unlike any of the standard forms of teleology in the nineteenth century. Indeed it is only rather recently that there is a model of teleological explanation to which Darwin's reasoning conforms. Moreover, though Darwin occasionally endorses his own teleology, to my knowledge he never provides a philosophical commentary on it.  
This last fact is closely related to the puzzle of Darwin's public silence on how he intends his readers to understand his use of terms such as 'Final Cause', 'purpose', 'end for which', 'good for which'. After all, his letters and notebooks indicate that he thought about it a good deal. Puzzling as this is, however, it is not a special puzzle about his teleology. The same sources show that he thought deeply about the nature of inductive support for theories, but his published books and papers leave such issues alone. Darwin read and thought much on the philosophy of biology — he published nothing at all on the subject. There is no reason to think he would deal with the question of final causation any differently. A skilled rhetorician knows when to speak, but more importantly, when to be silent. That followers as different as T.H. Huxley and Asa Gray could both find a teleology that they could live with in Darwin's explanatory practice indicates that, as usual, Darwin was a skilled rhetorician. 
Lennox notes that while Darwin’s explanatory practices are not in line with the dominant philosophical justifications of teleology at his time, they are in conformity with the recent defenses of the teleological character of selection explanation.

Thursday, 4 October 2018

Anthony Powell’s A Question of Upbringing

Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Tune of Music of Time is a challenging journey, because it is too long—spanning across 12 volumes. But I have now started reading the first volume, A Question of Upbringing.

Nicholas Jenkins is the narrator of the entire 12 volume series. In volume one the focus is on his life as a student in a nameless public school. In the opening scene, Jenkins witnesses a group of workmen in the street and is reminded of Poussin’s famous painting A Dance to the Music of Time. This excerpt gives a taste of Powell’s writing style:
For some reason, the sight of snow descending on fire always makes me think of the ancient world — legionaries in sheepskin warming themselves at a brazier: mountain altars where offerings glow between wintry pillars; centaurs with torches cantering beside a frozen sea — scattered, uncoordinated shapes from a fabulous past, infinitely removed from life; and yet bringing with them memories of things real and imagined. These classical projections, and something in the physical attitudes of the men themselves as they turned from the fire, suddenly suggested Poussin’s scene in which the Seasons, hand in hand and facing outward, tread in rhythm to the notes of the lyre that the winged and naked greybeard plays. The image of Time brought thoughts of mortality: of human beings, facing outwards like the Seasons, moving hand in hand in intricate measure: stepping slowly, methodically, sometimes a trifle awkwardly, in evolutions that take recognisable shape: or breaking into seemingly meaningless gyrations, while partners disappear only to reappear again, once more giving pattern to the spectacle: unable to control the melody, unable, perhaps, to control the steps of the dance. Classical associations made me think, too, of days at school, where so many forces hitherto unfamiliar, had become in due course uncompromisingly clear. 
As Jenkins points out in the last sentence of the above excerpt, the thought of Poussin’s painting makes his mind go back in time to his final year at an unnamed public school, and he finds himself contemplating the instant when he first set eyes on a fellow student Kenneth Widmerpool, who he regards as a muddled and unpopular figure. He also thinks of a visit from Uncle Giles and the practical joke that Stringham played on school’s housemaster.

Jenkins’s penchant for indulging in long reminiscences of past events brings a Marcel Proust like feeling to the novel. But Powell’s writing style is not Proustian; his sentences are shorter and easier to read.

Wednesday, 3 October 2018

Anaximander’s Theory of Evolution

A 3rd century mosaic showing
Anaximander holding a sundial
2500 years before Charles Darwin, people were wondering where human beings came from. Anaximander, the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher who lived in Miletus, a city of Ionia, was the first to come up with the idea that living organisms evolve through time from other living organisms.

He claimed that life sprang from the sea, and that human beings were initially hatched from a race of fish-people. He talks about the fish-people rearing human babies.

Censorinus, the 3rd century Roman thinker, says in his De Die Natali: “Anaximander of Miletus considered that from warmed up water and earth emerged either fish or entirely fishlike animals. Inside these animals, men took form and embryos were held prisoners until puberty; only then, after these animals burst open, could men and women come out, now able to feed themselves.”

Anaximander probably had some kind of an experience with human fetuses in early stages of development. To him, the earliest stage of the fetus must have seemed like a fish and this could have led him to conjecture that the fish-people were the ancestors of the human race in the evolutionary chain.

Tuesday, 2 October 2018

When Darwin Got Sick of Peacock’s Tail

Darwin's Caricature
Vanity Fair (Sept 30, 1871)
On April 3, 1866, about a year after the publication of The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin, in a letter to Asa Gray, a professor of natural history in Harvard University, said: “It is curious that I remember well time when the thought of the eye made me cold all over, but I have got over this stage of the complaint, & now small trifling particulars of structure often make me very uncomfortable. The sight of a feather in a peacock’s tail, whenever I gaze at it, makes me sick!”

The colorful panoply of feathers in a peacock’s tail are a challenge to the fundamental principles of the Darwinian theory of natural selection. These feathers are expensive to grow, requiring large amounts of energy which the peacock can deploy more fruitfully elsewhere. Encumbered with the weight of the feathers, the peacock moves at a much slower speed, and the dazzling design on the feathers makes it visible to a range of predators, thus vastly reducing its chances of survival in the Asian habitats where it has evolved.

The process of natural selection ought to have freed the peacock from the colorful tail feathers; in fact, the peacock should never have had such a tail. Later on Darwin came up with a theory of sexual selection by which he tried to explain what his theory of natural selection could not. While natural selection is the “struggle for existence,” sexual selection is the “struggle for mates”. He asserted that the tail is there in a peacock because the peahen admires it.

In a letter to Alfred R. Wallace, (dated March 24, 1968), Darwin wrote: “In regard to sexual selection. A girl sees a handsome man and without observing whether his nose or his whiskers are the tenth of an inch longer or shorter than in some other man, admires his appearance and says she will marry him. So I suppose with the peahen; and the tail has been increased in length merely by on the whole presenting a more gorgeous appearance.”

However, this means that, according to Darwin, man is not the only creature with an aesthetic sense—other creatures too have a sense of beauty.