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)