Archive for April 12th, 2018

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April 12, 2018

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Pierce & James, Nietzsche, Freud

April 12, 2018

Long day ahead: four classes, a couple of consultations, and the first of two MALA classes on “Cheating Truth” (as previously rehearsed in November). Look out, “opinion-y facts,” we’re about to call Bullshit.

Today in CoPhi it’s the American Pragmatism of Charles Sanders Peirce and William James (and John Dewey, R.I.P., and George Santayana, both neglected by Nigel), the godless post-nihilism of Friedrich Nietzsche, and the psychoanalytic therapeutics of Sigmund Freud.

In Fantasyland, Andersen says  “most mass killers in America are not psychotics or paranoid schizophrenics,  they’re role-playing fantasists “motivated by our besetting national dream of overnight fame… they’re citizens of Fantasyland, unhappy people with flaws and failures they blame on others,” they want to “force the rest of us to pay attention to them for the first time.” Thanks to the NRA’s “demented,” hysterical, reactionary opposition to the ’90s assault weapons ban, the killer fantasists have a powerful lobby working on their behalf.

Less violent (so far) but no less unsettling to Andersen (“it gives me the heebie-jeebies”) is the prospect of “augmented reality” now being funded in Silicon Valley to the tune of $1.4 billion. These new VR technologies promise to be “ridiculous, sublime, wonderful, [and] awful.” He can’t wait.

In A&P, it’s the purfuit of happiness chapter. Despite the widely-shared and unexamined false assumption, then and now, that freethinkers must be bad people, the freethinking deists who founded our republic were convinced that virtue (which includes but is not restricted to moral goodness) and happiness are twins. They did not affirm the common conception of morality that finds nihilistic disenchantment and valueless-ness in the radical philosophy of Nature’s God. Their “immanent” alternative saw nihilism a symptom, not a cause, of otherworldly/supernatural religion.

Jefferson declared himself an Epicurean. Locke was always cagier, but “it is in fact difficult to sound more Epicurean than Locke” when he said we all seek happiness, “which consists in the enjoyment of pleasure.” They would seem to have agreed that the summum bonum is “indolence of body, tranquility of mind,” that Happiness founded on virtue and measured by [social] utility is life’s great aim. There’s nothing “thoughtless, selfish,” amorally consumerist or materialistic about that. Or self-indulgent, or narcissistic (though it is a major theme of this chapter that a kind of self-love is at the heart of social conscience and public-spiritedness).

Stewart says the radical philosophy is not properly or exclusively a humanism, but is closer to naturalism. We should talk about that, both stand on the same side of my scale. Somebody needs to write that essay, in echo of Sartre: Naturalism is a Humanism.

Spinoza, Hume, Machiavelli, and others have charged that Christianity’s concern for otherworldly salvation “results in a selfish and bigoted diminishment of virtue.” Fair?

Jefferson famously wrestled with his conscience while consorting with a married Frenchwoman, in the form of a dialogue between Head and Heart. Stewart says it’s also a debate between deism (Heart) and stoicism (Head). Neither side scores a solid win, the happy and virtuous result is a draw. 

Franklin applauded the dual triumph of happiness and virtue. Stewart summarizes, perhaps startlingly: “if vice turned out to be a condition of happiness, then presumably God would clamor to see us vicious.” Hmm. That’s a bit jarring to the “peace of mind” that Spinoza said should result from good actions. Better return to Hume’s elegant summary: “Probity and honour were no strangers to Epicurus and his sect,” which was of course precursor to Franklin’s “virtuous hereticks.”

Image result for william james squirrel

Back to Pragmatism, and William James: we begin with a squirrel, whose circumnavigation of a tree was the improbable occasion for James’s account of the pragmatic method. (That’s the view from his summer place in New Hampshire atop my masthead, btw.) His camping companions couldn’t decide whether a scampering, circling squirrel was itself circled by the human observers who tried and failed to keep the frenetic rodent constantly in their sights or not.

…Mindful of the scholastic adage that whenever you meet a contradiction you must make a distinction, I immediately sought and found one, as follows: “Which party is right,” I said, “depends on what you PRACTICALLY MEAN by ‘going round’ the squirrel. If you mean passing from the north of him to the east, then to the south, then to the west, and then to the north of him again, obviously the man does go round him, for he occupies these successive positions. But if on the contrary you mean being first in front of him, then on the right of him, then behind him, then on his left, and finally in front again, it is quite as obvious that the man fails to go round him, for by the compensating movements the squirrel makes, he keeps his belly turned towards the man all the time, and his back turned away. Make the distinction, and there is no occasion for any farther dispute. You are both right and both wrong according as you conceive the verb ‘to go round’ in one practical fashion or the other.” Altho one or two of the hotter disputants called my speech a shuffling evasion, saying they wanted no quibbling or scholastic hair-splitting, but meant just plain honest English ’round,’ the majority seemed to think that the distinction had assuaged the dispute. What Pragmatism MeansA silly and trivial dispute, perhaps, but helpfully illustrative of how pragmatists think. Define your terms, say what practical difference the competing answers would make, and get on with more pressing concerns. It all depends on “why you want to know and what difference it will actually make,” if any. If none, forget about it.

Another way to illustrate the method: what’s your current velocity, right now?

Charles Peirce, not related to Benjamin Franklin Pierce, said the final truth is what we would end up with if we could run all the experiments and investigations we’d like to. We’ll never run them all, so the truth at any given time is always provisional, always tied to the present state of inquiry and always subject to revision or rejection in the light of further experience.

Bertrand Russell didn’t think much of this approach, and didn’t make much of an effort to grasp its intent. Pragmatists are often accused of denying the facts, when they explicitly acknowledge facts but propose that we understand truth (or falsehood) about the facts as what we say about them but never, in media res, entirely convergent with them. What we say is subject to the present stage of inquiry, the inconclusiveness of which requires an admission that what we would say at the ideal end of inquiry will surely differ. Hence the perpetual gap between facts and truths, and the pragmatists’ commitment to narrowing the gap in the long run while resisting unwarranted absolute claims in the interim.

So it’s not true, contrary to Russell’s derisive criticism, that pragmatists have to admit the truth of Santa’s existence. It may “work” for a four-year-old to think so, but toddlers don’t get the last word.

This is a contentious and contestable view, admittedly, but it is not the caricatured reduction to whatever is “expedient” in a situation James’s critics (like Bertrand Russell) made it out to be. It’s more like Richard Rorty‘s neo-pragmatic and (later) Wittgensteinian invitation to an open and ongoing conversation between all comers with something to contribute. It is decidedly not a “Santa Claus” philosophy of truth. Rorty said words are our tools and not symbolic snapshots corresponding to timeless propositional statements. Our task is to “cope” with the world, not just copy it.

James may have been wrong about truth, but (to paraphrase A.C. Grayling’s comment on Descartes) if he was, he was interestingly, constructively, engagingly, entertainingly, provocatively wrong.

Besides, he’s the best writer in the James family (sorry, Henry) and possibly the best writer in the entire stable of American philosophers. I call him my favorite because he’s the one I’d most like to invite to the Boulevard for a beer. Unfortunately he didn’t drink. (Too bad they don’t serve nitrous oxide.) Also, unfortunately, he died in 1910. Read his letters and correspondence, they humanize his philosophy and place his “radical” views in the context of their genesis: the context of experience, and of life.

James’s interest in religion was rooted in the lives and experience of individuals, not particularly in God, heaven, the afterlife and so on. He psychologizes and naturalizes religion. It’s mostly about life on earth, for Jamesians, not (again) old St. Nick.

Let me know if you’d like to buy a good bargain-priced book about him. About us all, really.

Friedrich Nietzsche said “God is dead” and seemed at turns dismayed and liberated to think so. Is a godless world one in which “everything is permitted” or one in which objective and authoritative permission is no longer available, in which the old rules have been mooted and “free spirits” are unleashed to create new rules for themselves? But is God dead, in Nietzsche’s terms? Maybe in old Europe, and maybe in more of the formerly sacred halls of worship in our own backyard than most of us will admit. Zarathustra may have come a century too soon in some quarters, and it may still be too soon in others, but it’s hard to deny that ours is an increasingly secular age. I don’t know many secularists who think everything is permitted.

Nor do I know many secularists who think compassion, kindness, and consideration are dead, dependent on a religious pedigree, or reflective of slavish resentment. That genealogy may explain the psychology behind some Christians’ worldview, but most people in my experience still want to be good for goodness’ sake. If your only motivation for being good, though, is to get to heaven, that’s not good. And it’s not goodness.

(We hosted a talk by a representative godless secular humanist who thinks you can be good without a god next Friday, at our annual Spring Lyceum: Ronald Aronson, author of Living Without God: New Directions for Atheists, Agnostics, Secularists, and the Undecided.)

If an Ubermensch is “not held back by conventional moral codes,” he’d better be held back by law and communal disfavor. There are other, better names for people who “want to have their way without consideration of other people’s interests”: selfish egoists. Spoiled brats. NPDs. Mr. President. Not Superman.

Nietzsche’s un-Kantian exaltation of unreason found partial alliance with Sigmund Freud, but is also placed on the shrink’s couch as a classic textbook case of subterranean wish-fulfillment and unresolved, unconsious discontent with modernity. The Freudian Unconscious may not quite rise to the revolutionary status of Copernicus and Darwin, Frood may not have figured it all out, Deputy, but it would explain a lot. As “talking cures” go, though, I think I’d usually rather talk to a philosophical analyst than a psycho-…

Nietzsche himself was an early-adopter of psychoanalysis, and needed to be. He had a gift for his analyst, as documented in the film When Nietzsche Wept: eternal recurrence, the gift that keeps on giving. Or doesn’t. Its up to you to affirm or negate, to receive the gift as a great liberation or the greatest weight.

Freud’s reductive account of religion rivals Marx’s, and like Marx’s probably captures a significant but not comprehensive segment of believers. Much of Freud’s universe is unfalsifiable, as Sir Karl said, but it’s not hard to find a devout person who wants and finds more in religion than a protective paterfamilias in the sky. On the other hand, he wasn’t entirely off base when he said “Most people do not really want freedom, because freedom involves responsibility, and most people are frightened of responsibility.” And, “man’s judgments of value follow directly his wishes for happiness-accordingly, they are an attempt to support his illusions with arguments.”

?s Does it really “work” to believe in Santa? Didn’t you continue to receive presents after you stopped believing? Is believing in Santa analogous to believing in God? When James said truth is what works, did he mean what works for me, now? Or for us, on the whole and in the long run? Are words tools, or more like pictures? Is it possible that God is dead for some but not others, in some places and times more and in others less? Are compassion and kindness distinctively religious values? Do you know any kind and compassionate atheists? Should we embrace the irrational and emotional aspects of human nature, or try to overcome them? Is Freudian dream symbolism (snakes and caves etc.) profound or silly?

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