Posts Tagged ‘Hegel’

“The point is to change the world”

November 28, 2012

It’s not enough for an inquisitively industrious species merely to understand, we seek transformation. “We” includes Marxists and pragmatists and eco-activists and maybe even some (pragmatized) stoics. So we turn to John Lachs’ second chapter in Stoic Pragmatism today in CoPhi, and to Ecotopia in EEA. Final report presentations begin as well.

“It is unseemly to question one’s heritage.” I don’t think Lachs really means that, not fully. Philosophy questions everything, especially what’s been passed along without critical assessment. But he’s right to notice that there’s no shaking our origins, even when we manage to rise above them. “You can take the boy out of the country,” the midwest, etc., but if he’s been steeped early in (say) Hegel, as Dewey was, he’ll have a hard time entirely letting go.

My first philosophical collaboration was with undergraduate peers at Mizzou in the ’70s. We hung out on Friday afternoons at Michael’s pub on campus (long gone) and tried to settle the universe’s hash (including one memorable occasion when one of us thought he could prove free will by doing something really stupid with a beer stein). We called ourselves “The Hegel Society” (possibly aping the St. Louis Hegelians of local memory),  and in spite of my developed preference for pragmatism I still can’t help thinking in terms of geist. (But, I no longer think progress is inevitable, or that history often isn’t simply one damned meaningless thing after another).

So… sometimes we reflect our heritage most when we’re trying hardest to distance ourselves from it. Might as well own our starting places, then move on. That’s real growth, the “progressive enrichment of experience and improved control over circumstances” that comes from deep self-knowledge.

Lachs acknowledges his own growth in moving on from his earlier epiphenomenal phase. You can’t change the world if your very consciousness is an ephemeral by-product disengaged from events.  He distances himself as well from Hegel’s detached, owlish, spectatorial stance towards history, and steps up to offer guarded support for Peirce’s focus on the future while holding on to a special fondness for luminous “firsts,” immediacies, and non-verbal experiences. “Delightful absorption” in the present is hard to beat, and “much of what is interesting and truly important in life cannot be put into words.” Philosophers don’t like to admit that, for obvious vocational reasons. We must continually “fire our volley of vocables,” after all. But silence can be golden.

I don’t think, with Lachs, that pure non-verbal presence is “the only spirituality open to nonreligious people”– I still hold a brief for Dewey’s “continuous human community,” in that regard– but it’s right up there.

Lachs is also a friend of progress. “If we do not permit ourselves to suppose that we progress, we ban pragmatism as a mode of thought and a way of life.” Progress is not inexorable or inevitable, as Hegel and some Marxists would once have had it, but it is real. A pair of Steves, Pinker and Johnson, have lately been making this point.

Steven Pinker (The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined) says violence has been in steady decline for quite some time, while Steven Johnson (Future Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked Age) says the “networked” present marks the high-water mark (so far) of human achievement. When Sully Sullenberger landed his plane safely in the East River, well, he didn’t land that all by himself. Many humans, many technologies, many evolved support systems were his co-pilots. [Pinker on Social Science Bites with Nigel]

Only time will tell for sure, of course, but I’ll bet not many of us would volunteer to go back and live in an earlier century when medicine was primitive, human intercourse was fierce and brutal, and longevity was predictably brief. What does that tell us?

Such a rich chapter, and I’ve not yet even mentioned Lachs’s mention of my two favorite James essays (“Blindness” and “Moral Philosopher“). Tomorrow, and tomorrow. Speaking of which…

Is “ecotopia” our glorious Tomorrowland? Can we ditch the fossil fuel burners, get off the grid, give up heavy consumerism and the forty-hour workweek, and get on with better lives in the great Pacific Northwest? Doubtful, but for some of us irresistibly alluring (except for the war-games and some of the emotional histrionics and cringe-inducing male casual-sex fantasies). But even if the late Ernest Callenbach‘s vision is all a pure fictional fantasy,

Ecotopia still poses a nagging challenge to the underlying national philosophy of America: ever-continuing progress, the fruits of industrialization for all, a rising Gross National Product.

Well… there’s progress, and then there’s real progress. We need not “give up any notion of progress,” just the debilitating and self-destructive one we’ve been burning at both ends. And we really should give up our traditional and habitual greed, short-sightedness, superstition, ignorance, and fear. Just listen to JL. Just read Callenbach’s last letter.

Will we ever get there, to a genuine and sustainably “stable state” in balance with nature? Surely so, if we can plausibly imagine there will  be a flourishing and recognizably-human civilization still here in a century. Surely not, if we’re committed to keeping on doing what we’ve been doing. We need to commit to something better.

That’s my prediction. Please don’t wake me if I’m wrong. And maybe don’t wake me period. As John Lachs says, there is “something deeply appropriate in dying when our purposes are fulfilled.” And as the other JL would agree: if we want to progress, we really must “clear the field for the next generation.”

Kant to Marx

November 11, 2010

Hume snapped Kant out of his early infatuation with Leibniz and Rousseau, led him to draw a line between phenomenal knowledge and noumenal speculation, and (ironically) cracked the door just enough to imply the possibility of a rational faith. That’s a lot of philosophical heavy (though inadvertent) lifting, for a skeptic. [Kant’s answerbbc]

Kant said we constitute (kant-stitute, if you please) the objects of our experience, so we don’t have to infer or prove their  reality. Convenient, and revolutionary in a Copernican sort of way.

Copernicus recognized that the movement of the stars cannot be explained by making them revolve around the observer; it is the observer that must be revolving. Analogously, Kant argued that we must reformulate the way we think about our relationship to objects. It is the mind itself which gives objects at least some of their characteristics because they must conform to its structure and conceptual capacities. Thus, the mind’s active role in helping to create a world that is experiencable must put it at the center of our philosophical investigations. The appropriate starting place for any philosophical inquiry into knowledge, Kant decides, is with the mind that can have that knowledge.

As for Descartes’ res cogitans? Kant said it’s not yours or mine, it’s ours in the most inclusive/collective sense imaginable.  The ubiquitous transcendental ego knows all… except what it kant. (Sorry for the puns, it’s Harrison’s fault: “You, Kant, Always Get What You Want.”)

Kant said freedom’s what you get when you suppress inclination and do your duty, as per the Categorical Imperative. But “categorical” means no exceptions, so there doesn’t seem to be much real wiggle room for an ethical Kantian.

Kant said “without faith, our experiences of injustice are bound to discourage us away from morality.” I haven’t found that to be the case at all, myself. Injustice is discouraging, but moral rectitude is strong in those who affirm it on any  grounds. That goes for theists, agnostics, humanists, secularists, naturalists, and atheists. Morality is multi-cultural and resolute.

The concept of a world-historical individual is bracing, even if you’re not Napoleon (or Hegel). Who wouldn’t want to  contribute to the material unfolding of philosophy’s and life’s final goal? But is there such a thing?

Spirit” is bigger than any of us. But so is time, so is history, so is generational succession in general. “The things in civilization we most prize are not of ourselves…” Is it a coincidence that Dewey began as a Hegelian? And is it a big surprise that such a cosmic optimist would eventually fall to earth with the retrospective “Owl of Minerva“? (Marx disagreed, saying the point is to change.)

Old Hegel was pessimistic when pessimism wasn’t cool, but Schopenhauer [squashed] came along just in time to become the romantic pessimists’ rock star. Kant’s thing-in-itself became his voracious Will. He seemed to enjoy it. Jennifer Hecht says he got off the funniest statement in the history of doubt, saying of believers:

For if we could guarantee them their dogma of immortality in some other way, the lively ardor for their gods would at once cool; and… if continued existence after death could be proved to be incompatible with the existence of gods… they would soon sacrifice these gods to their own immortality, and be hot for atheism.

Kierkegaard, the first Existentialist, said live passionately and leap before you think.

Feuerbach‘s pun was serious: “Man ist was Man isst“? Much depends on dinner.

And, again, Marx turned Hegel upside-down: the clash of ideas is a sideshow, compared to the clash of classes.

Kant, Hegel, Marx…

November 9, 2010
Immanuel Kant was a real pissant who was very rarely stable.”*
No, he wasn’t. Not at all. But  that’s still the first thought that ever pops into my head when I hear his name, thanks to the Bruces.* (The second involves my old Kantian professor from grad school, whose Brooklyn accent made semi-shocking his story of “how I met my wife.” But never mind.)
Kant was actually the most soberly stable and fastidious of men. They “set their watches by him as he went on his daily walk” in 18th-century Konigsberg, Prussia. That’s probably the thing about him I like most. He well knew the truth of William James’s  later observation that steady habits are our greatest productive ally. Kant was as productive as he was un-flashy.
“Awakened from his dogmatic slumbers” and his romantic dalliance with Rousseau and  Leibniz by David Hume’s dash of cold water skepticism, he assigned appearance and reality to the phenomenal and noumenal worlds, respectively. He didn’t mean that phenomena are unreal or unknowable, just that we know them through the categorical spectacles of our projective understanding. We don’t know them “in themselves,” the “ding-an-sich” is a non-starter.
But Kant knew what he knew. The stars are awesome, and so is a dutiful conscience (“the moral law within”). Fealty to the latter led him to his “Categorical Imperative” and its “silly” obsession with inflexibly rational consistency.
Kant. Obsessive, punctual of habit, semi-gregarious, a mouth-breather, fond of Cicero, and also a philosophical walker (but with a weird aversion to sweat). Famous last  word: “Sufficit.” Enough. (I like his countryman Goethe’s better: “Mehr licht.” More light. (Or was it “Mehr nicht,” No more?) Famous living words: “Sapere aude.” Have the courage to think.
Hegel said “the real is the rational & the rational is real,” implying a tightly-interlocked jigsaw of spirit, nature, and mind unfolding progressively over time. The zeitgeists of successive eras reflect “the march of reason.”
The end-point of all that marching: the “Absolute,” when nature finally comes to know itself through the self-consciousness of rational agents like, well, like Hegel himself. Seems a bit self-indulgent, doesn’t it? Schopenhauer (“Hegel is a stupid and clumsy charlatan”) and Kierkegaard definitely thought so. They objected to his turgid, convoluted style as well as his project of reducing all to Reason.
Kierkegaard was contemptuous of Hegel’s rational ambitions, doubting there was any place in his grand system of  objective reality for living individuals. Was his “leap of faith” a fatal leap from the bridge of reason, “rational suicide”? Or is it just another way of affirming the will to believe?
“The negation of the negation…” Sounds like gobbledy-gook of the sort that might inspire another philosopher to ingest laughing gas, but it is possible to read Hegel non-mystically as saying some very sensible things about life in its experiential and historical unfolding. He did not believe in disembodied spirits or the immortality of the soul, but he did believe in Spirit as communal self-knowledge. Turn it over and you get hard-boiled history and the political struggle for justice that Hegel (and Feuerbach) provoked in Marx. Hegelian philosophy resembles his student Roebling’s Brooklyn Bridge, an impressive structure built on sand.

But Feuerbach thought he was on to something. Some thing: material, social, economic reality. “The philosophical cure consists in overcoming alienation, demystifying Christianity and bringing human beings towards a true self-understanding.” We should stop kneeling before visions of remote perfection that we’ve projected onto Christ (and other iconic objects) and stand up on our own feet.
Schopenhauer, like most post-Kantian Germans, couldn’t resist saying too much about the “thing-in-itself.” For him it was blind, striving, implacable, insatiable will (aka desire, attachment, ambition) which must be renounced and denied. “Sounds like Buddhism to me,” too, but without HHDL’s lightening chuckle.

“You are what you eat,” said Feuerbach. Marx construed “eat” broadly,  in

material and economic terms, and agreed with Hegel that human progress unfolds historically and dialectically. But our ideas (“consciousness”) must catch up to social reality, not the other way around. When they finally do, he predicted, we’ll throw off our chains, abolish private property,  and for the first time really know Eden.
Utopian? So far.
[more realityGermans (mostly)…  Kant to Marxsourpuss…]
NOTE TO STUDENTS: Exams are graded, essays are not. Thanks for not asking. More report presentations this afternoon.

Germans (mostly)

March 24, 2010

Here they come, let’s see if they can put some life into the match. But first a Frenchman, a Scot, a Swiss, an Englishman.

But before that, and speaking of believers: did you catch the debate on ABC’s Nightline last night between Michael Shermer and Sam Harris arguing against “the future of God,” versus Deepak Chopra and Jean Houston? It was a riveting show of belief and counterpoint, though the edited-for-TV version barely conveyed the rare excitement of actual ideas being exchanged in public for purposes of both enlightenment and entertainment. So I stayed up to catch the whole thing in its entirety, online. Check it out. All of the participants had interesting things to say, Sam Harris stole the show, and Deepak Chopra lived up to Julia Sweeney‘s past billing. He really does “layer” the quantum flap-doodle in ways that imply a specious expertise. There should be more of this sort of fare in the popular media! We’ll watch, you & me, and they’ll get decent ratings. Right? But back to our business…

Voltaire. Hectored by a parish priest on his deathbed to repent and declare Jesus’ divinity he protested: “In the name of God don’t speak to me any more of that man and let me die in peace.” He thought hell was a pretty silly idea, and like his friend Ben Franklin he was a Deist and a friend of the Society of Friends, a Quaker-sympathizer.

Hume. “By what arguments or analogies can we prove any state of existence, which no one ever saw, and which no wise resembles any that was ever seen?” Such were the sentiments that roused Kant from his slumbers and led him to “postulate” the unseen noumenal/transcendent realm of God, freedom, and immortality. But “le Bon David” was a skeptic to the end. “The morality of every religion was bad,” though he admitted having known some good religious men. By all accounts he was a good man too. His pal Adam Smith called him as close “to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man” as could be. He was calm in the face of his demise, cheerful and in good humor, without anxiety.

Rousseau. Difficult, paranoid, vain, ungrateful to his benefactor Hume [Rousseau’s Dog, Philosophers’ Quarrel], and “born again” (and then  eventually killed, Critchley speculates) at the paws of a Great Dane.  A strange man, but given to saving spurts of calm– especially when walking.

Bentham. Stranger still: he attends meetings of the University College London council, but does not vote. His perpetual presence in corpore is intended as “a posthumous protest against religious taboos surrounding the dead.” Inspiring.

Kant. Another strange dude. Obsessive, punctual of habit, semi-gregarious, a mouth-breather, fond of Cicero, and also a philosophical walker (but with a weird aversion to sweat). Famous last  word: “Sufficit.” Enough. (I like his countryman Goethe’s better: “Mehr licht.” More light. (Or was it “Mehr nicht,” No more?) Famous living words: “Sapere aude.” Have the courage to think.

Hegel. “The negation of the negation…” Sounds like gobbledy-gook of the sort that might inspire another philosopher to ingest laughing gas, but it is possible to read Hegel non-mystically as saying some very sensible things about life in its experiential and historical unfolding. He did not believe in disembodied spirits or the immortality of the soul, but he did believe in Spirit as communal self-knowledge. Turn it over and you get hard-boiled history and the political struggle for justice that Hegel (and Feuerbach) provoked in Marx. Hegelian philosophy resembles his student Roebling’s Brooklyn Bridge, an impressive structure built on sand.

Feuerbach. “The philosophical cure consists in overcoming alienation, demystifying Christianity and bringing human beings towards a true self-understanding.” We should stop kneeling before visions of remote perfection that we’ve projected onto Christ (and other iconic objects) and stand up on our own feet.

Schopenhauer. When we’ve stood up, he says, we need to look mortality in the eye. Life is “a loan received from death, with sleep as the daily interest on this loan.” Why, if he felt this way, didn’t he stuff it? Apparently because he didn’t want to feed the voracious monster “Will.” The problem with suicide is that it maintains the illusion of wilfullness. The only permissible suicide is the self-starvation of the ascetic. No thanks, I’ll just keep eating and pushing that round object. Move over, Albert. You must consider us happy. Even if, like Artur, we’ve had our poor hearts broken. As Emerson prods: “Up again, old heart.” (Is there consolation for too much grading?)

Kant to Marx

March 22, 2010

Immanuel Kant, jostled out of his Leibnizian dreamscape by David Hume’s wake-up call, but equally  frightened by the latter’s skepticism, proposed to limit knowledge to make room for faith, distinguishing experience from things beyond experience, the “things in themselves” we can never know because we know them only by applying our human concepts to the raw stuff of life.

Here’s a handy mnemonic: Kant says we constitute (kant-stitute) the world as we know it, and so should feel fine about knowledge. And here is Kant’s response to Hume’s skepticism. We do not in any sense have to infer or prove its existence, we’re the  suppliers of its very warp and woof. We ourselves, as “transcendental ego.” But this is a “thinking thing” much more spread out and amorphous and no less problematic than the “res cogitans” of Descartes.

But, it gives rise to a moral philosophy  that– if it succeeds– puts a bandage on that Humean pricked finger, in the form of Kant’s “categorical imperative.” Because we all have the same faculty of reason within us, Kant was convinced that we [should] all reach the same conclusions regarding morality. You should always be able to universalize any rational rule (“maxim”), and if you can’t: don’t do it. (That’s imperative.)

Here’s the “making way for faith” part: without faith, our experiences of injustice are bound to discourage us away from morality. We need to believe that, ultimately, moral behavior converges with happiness. Ergo: God, immortality, and an eternal afterlife. This can’t (kant) be experienced on the phenomenal plane (where we empirical egos live) , but is on the Kantian view a rational postulate nonetheless.

Kant was also interested in the concept of the aesthetic “sublime,” when the starry skies and other large natural phenomena put us in mind of an infinity our imaginations still boggle at.  We gain a further sense of our dignity as rational beings in this way, while at the same time experiencing our relative insignificance in the natural scheme of things. For Kant, this too points to the possibility of a rational faith. To me it points to itself: the wonder of nature, and us a part of it all. Nothing “insignificant” about it.

Hegel. In a squashed nutshell: history matters, opposites can be rationally, “synthetically” reconciled in the great perpetual dialectical processes of time and “geist” (spirit).  Michael Prowse: “What Hegel does better than most philosophers is explain how individuals are linked together and why it is important to commit oneself to the pursuit of the general or common good.” We are all in this together.

At the far end of his own dialectical journey, Hegel got owly and cryptic. “The owl of Minerva flies only at twilight,” he solemnly pronounced, apparently taking back some of  his earlier confidence in the power of philosophy (and a philosophy of history) to make history happen.

But, if there is a point to human history, you could do worse than to agree with Friend Hegel (as one of my old profs called him) that it is the realization of human freedom. But now the interesting debate begins: how much of freedom is strictly an individual concern? How much concerns the public interest, the common good, the weal of the collective?

That’s where Marx will come in, soon. (btw: there really is a Hegel Society. Don’t know if they meet for drinks like we did…)

Then comes Schopenhauer, aka ScroogeSourpussHis antipathy toward Hegel was profound. What Schopenhauer most despised in Hegel was his optimism, his sense that humanity was improving. And though he followed Kant in emphasizing the importance of human volition, he departed from Kant by denying the rationality of the will. Will is ultimately without purpose. An  animal is born. It struggles to survive. It mates, reproduces, and dies. Its offspring do the same, and the cucle repeats itself generation after generation. What could be the point of all of this? Use your imagination, Artur! (We’ll see, with Alain de Botton’s chapter, that actually he did. He found refuge from a world he claimed was otherwise unredeemable, in art.)

Kierkegaard.  Existence is not just “being there” but living passionately. Good. But to my taste his emphasais on “subjective truth” is not so good, as a thesis about truth (as opposed to a commitment to seeking your passion).  His skewering of Hegel for ignoring “the existing, ethical individual” is often entertainining and funny, though.  The 19th century rationalists took themselves pretty seriously. Kierkegaard told ’em to take a “leap of faith.”

Feuerbach. Unlike many other Germans of his day, this one was a down-to-earth materialist who punned that “Man ist was Man isst.” You are what you eat. Practically speaking, the dialectical upshot of this view combined with Hegel’s yielded the new Marxian synthesis.

Karl Marx turned to converting Hegel’s dialectic of ideas into a theory about the power of economics. In place of Hegel’s World Spirit were the forces of production. In place of ideas in confrontation were competing socioeconomic classes. The goal of a classless society sounds good.  It doesn’t seem near. Would Marx have consoled himself with a beautiful lounge suite?

James bio – 6

October 16, 2009

jameslThe story continues. It’s the late ’70s, James is about to become a family man (Henry III was born in May ’79), his philosophical future is resolving into sharper focus, his brilliant but troubled sister Alice has begun a steep, inexplicable decline (diagnosed as “neurasthenic”), and his parents are nearing their respective ends.

William is now articulating some of his most distinctive positions. For instance,

On habit: “The great thing is to form habits which then leave the hemispheres free for higher flights…” 

On emotion: “No conscious event can occur without some parallel event occurring in the nervous system on which the conscious event depends… the bodily event is the condition, the mental event the consequence. What we esteem the highest is at the mercy of the lowest…”

On consciousness and human evolution: It “means the end of the reign of chance and the beginning of the reign of intelligence.”

On human “powers” and free will: We may profess a “natural faith that our delights and sorrows, loves and hates, aspirations and efforts are real combatants in life’s arena, and not impotent, paralytic spectators of the game.” And: “The trouble with determinism, fatalism, pessimism, the unconscious, and materialism is that in our better hours we feel such limited and limiting forces… to deny our most intimate powers all relevancy…” And: “the inmost nature of the reality is congenial to powers which you possess.”

On attention: “Emotional interests are the great guides to selective attention.”

On life as an adventure, without guarantees: “All that the human heart wants is its chance.”

On effort and free will: “What makes it easy to raise the finger, hard to get out of bed on a cold morning, harder to keep our attention on the insipid image of  a procession of sheep… It is a question of getting to the point where we want to will something or other…”

In January 1879 James publishes “Are We Automata?” No, he insists, and would insist to Dan Dennett today with his neuroscientific idea that our minds are assemblages of billions of miniscule cellular robots. But T.H. Huxley’s argument in the affirmative had sounded some characteristsic Jamesian themes too. For example: “In men as in brutes, there is no proof that any state of consciousness is the cause of change in the motion of the matter of the organism.” Remember, on James’s early psychological view we are sad because we cry, not the other way ’round.

But in “Are We Automata?” James is mainly concerned to keep free will in the game, and this seems to require a big role for the emotions as selective, attentive, and integral to the possibility of real human choices and acts. In the process, he says things that might remind you of Cartesian homunculi. The point of consciousness is to allow us to choose, just as a ship’s passenger may choose to seize the helm and “raise, lower, or reef the sail, and so, in small but meaningful ways, direct the voyage. Such a person, taking such actions, cannot be called an automaton.”

No. But neither is it clear that such an understanding of the role emotion plays in our lives is quite consistent with the James-Lange theory. When concept-laden theory confounds our actual experience, James will always opt for the preservation of experience. The details may need working out, but he’s typically happy to go back to the theoretical drawing board rather than deliberately distort perceptual reality in the name of a tidy but misleading picture.

(BTW: James would be fascinated by a story that appeared in the Times science section this week, suggesting the possibility that the Hadron Super-collider might actually interfere with time itself. Perhaps what we do really does alter the space-time causal landscape in tangible ways… does wiggle our dominoes, to return to a strange metaphor that came up in the course of one classroom discussion this week.)

It was during this time that James began experimenting with various psycho-active substances to see what effect they might have in expanding his consciousness and recognition of reality. Hilariously, he read Hegel under the influence of nitrous oxide with predictable results.

1882 was a year of loss. Darwin died, Emerson died. His mother died at age 71. Before the year was out, his father followed suit. James was abroad when his Dad began his final descent, and quickly drafted a letter that preceded him back to Boston. But it did not arrive in time for Henry Sr. to read.

It is a remarkable letter, one which I found it fitting to read to my own father* when his remaining days were few. William was still aboard ship on Dec. 21, continuing his Atlantic transit,  when his brother Henry stood at their father’s graveside  and  read aloud from that letter that began: “Darling Old Father…”

“The letter concludes: “As for us… we will stand by each other and  by Alice, try to transmit the torch in our offspring as you did in us… And it comes strangely over me in bidding you goodby how a life is but a day and expresses mainly but a single note, it is so much like the act of bidding an ordinary goodnight. Good night my sacred old Father. If I don’t see you again– Farewell! A blessed Farewell! -Your William”

Richardson rightly observes: “Letters, even undelivered, outlast life. It was a scene a novelist would be hard-pressed to improve.” *It sure was.

down the road

October 7, 2009

You keep lyin’ when you oughta be truthin.‘ Nancy Sinatra

charles-darwin-tree-of-life-sketch-1837“Truth” continues, first with a cryptic statement from our authors I consider a howler: “One need not attack science to reject Darwin’s theory of evolution.” No?

Granted, Darwin’s theory of evolution is not to be conflated with evolution per se. It’s not a necessary truth that Darwin’s version, or indeed that natural selection in general,  is a comprehensively correct account of how species originate and evolve on Earth. It’s a contingent matter of fact that Charlie Darwin (and not Alfred Russell Wallace, or even Charlie’s grandpa Erasmus, or who knows who) was the guy who assembled and finally propounded in public the most cogent account of biological nature’s modus operandi. Fact is, though, it has yet to be supplanted after 150 years. It keeps looking more and more elegant and right, as far as it went. It didn’t go far enough to incorporate the facts of DNA and the double helix, for instance. But neither did it block Crick’s and Watson’s way. It was a fruitful hypothesis that has multiplied.

So don’t hold your breath looking for reputable scientists willing to “reject Darwin’s theory” outright. Jerry Coyne speaks for many: “We are the one creature to whom natural selection has bequeathed a brain complex enough to comprehend the laws that govern the universe. We should be proud that we are the only species that has figured out how we came to be.” Why Evolution is True

Ken Miller, a prominent theist, has testified that it’s “the cornerstone of modern biology… a powerful and expanding theory that unites knowledge from every branch of the life sciences into a single science.”  Only a Theory

Theories are not, as Darwin’s critics often fail to grasp, unsuccessful aspirants to factual status. “Facts get interpreted according to theories.” Without theories, there could be no facts. Gravitation is a theory, and most of us would say it’s a fact too. If we’re Humeans, we won’t say it’s an item of certain knowledge; but then we don’t need to say that, in order to stand our ground and navigate it. If we’re pragmatists, we’ll say it’s an extraordinarily useful belief that’s paid its way so far, one we’re perpetually prepared to act on. That’s pretty solid ground.

Fortunately, it gets better in this chapter. “We want to say that truth means something more than “very well confirmed”; it means “the way the world really is.” That’s the presumption, balanced in science by the humble admission that our inquiry into truth is nowhere near completion. That’s why C.S. Peirce— recall him from the James bio: the brilliant but bumptiousRoad_Closed_Ahead_sign.svg[1] philosopher James thanklessly helped and publicized– called truth the view which is destined to be arrived at in the vanishingly remote long-run. Meanwhile, we must regard all truth claims as fallible and all disconfirmations as progressive, useful, suggestive, & encouraging. Peirce gave science its best rallying cry: “Do not block the road of inquiry!’

These terms “fact” and “truth” often get jumbled and confused. James is again a voice of clarity. “Truths emerge from facts… the facts themselves meanwhile are not true. They simply are. Truth is the function of the beliefs that start and terminate among them.” And beliefs require believers, actors, doers. That’s us, the tellers and deniers of truth (and of falsehood), the theoreticians and experimentalists. When we respect logic and evidence and observation, mistrusting unexamined authority, we’re rational. That doesn’t mean we already own the truth, the whole truth etc., but simply that we’re on the road and on our way. We’re giving prejudice and superstition “down the road,” as my country cousins might say.

Sometimes truth runs afoul of our raisin’ (they might add); when it does, scientific rationality stiffens our resolve to stay on track. And scientific humility grants us leave to hit the occasional roadside attraction, in the form of  religious or spiritual speculation concerning matters that may range beyond our trip-tik and exceed the ambit of empirical inquiry: the ultimate questions of life, the universe, and everything. Science makes no advance declarations about this. Darwin himself pointed out that it’s more often those who know little, not those who know much, who are sure that a given inquiry is beyond science.

But the point here is that if we’re going to make time on our trip, we have to get back on the highway. We have to continue asking nature to yield specific information regarding particular matters of fact. Take care of the days, the years will take care of themselves: sound advice for students as well as scientists.

Why be rational? As Carl Sagan used to say, science isn’t perfect but it’s the best tool we’ve got. Acting rationally  maximizes our chances of getting knowledge, enjoyment, satisfaction, and the “occasional ego boost”  that comes from usin’ your noggin.

kierkegaard3Not many philosophers have openly embraced irrationality. (Many have courted her, but most often unwittingly or else with great reluctance and discretion.) Soren Kierkegaard, though, defended personal, “subjective truth.” His concern was not with how the world is, but with one’s own– his own– personal commitments in the face of “objective uncertainty.” If we can’t have the whole truth now, he implied, let us abandon the pretense of objectivity altogether and have ourselves a private, impassioned little fling. Let us take a leap of faith.

It’s a profoundly personal approach to faith and belief (less evidently to truth), but paradoxically there’s quite an extensive community of Kierkegaardians out there. (My old classmate George is one of their leaders.) They’re all individuals, they don’t have to follow anyone… but they choose to follow the melancholy Dane. For reasons, I imagine, not “because [they think]  it is absurd.” (Creo quia est absurdum, Kierkegaard liked to say.)

There is something willfully excessive about this view, but also something enticing– especially when weighing Kierkegaard against the philosophical giants of his time (Hegel especially) who were so confident of our human ability eventually to bring Geist, the great aborning  World Spirit of arch-Rationalist legend, to objective fruition.  But must there not be some reason why you or I should decide to “leap,” unless we’re comfortable with making life-defining choices arbitrarily? That really does seem irrational, and not in a good way.

But perhaps Kierkegaard gains in popular appeal by association with the romantic movement, and poets like “Bright Star” John Keats. If a short, intense, passionate life appeals, maybe Kierkegaardian irrationality does too. But still, is a preference for passion purely arbitrary? OK, that horse has suffered enough. I’ll stop.

Nietzsche’s perspectivism has a lot going for it, but “There are no facts” goes too far. Like Kierkegaard, his interest is not in the impersonal, objective truth but in personal passion and the expression of his own creative will. He treated life itself as his artistic canvas, and his personal style as an artful creation. The two great 19th century precursors of existentialism disagreed about God and another world, but their individualistic repudiation of Truth as something larger and more important than themselves is of a piece.

Much in our experience is subjective, but “it’s all subjective” really is a lazy untruth. That’s an ironic charge to lay at the feet of either the great self-styled philosopher of adversity (“What doesn’t kill me” etc.) or the tortured sufferer of “sickness unto death” but it seems accurate. Accuracy: another feather on the scale tipping toward some notion of objectivity as our goal in assessing matters of fact.

You’re on your own with Foucault and Habermas, I developed a blind prejudice against them both long ago. My  bad, I suppose.

W.V.O. Quine (1908-2000) was intriguing and original– I spent part of a party drinking with him in the kitchen once– but I’veQuine never had any trouble communicating about rabbits (“gavagai!”), even after a drink or two. (I used to wonder, with that string of initials,  if he might not have been a good spokesperson for the Seagram’s label.) His indeterminacy thesis seems overblown, but I’m sure he was right to emphasize holism and the web of belief. Novel experiences invite creative and experimental assimilation. That’s the spirit of science.

bertrandrussellthumbFinally, Lord Russell. He often said things he didn’t mean, for the sheer shock and amusement of it. I’m pretty sure he didn’t really mean it when he wrote, “Better the world should perish than I or any other  human being should believe a lie.” That’s on a par with Hume’s pricked pinky, an instigating statement designed to provoke serious “out of the box” reflection. And it echoes Clifford: “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for every one, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”

I’m with James on this, though: “Our errors are surely not such awfully solemn things. In a world where we are so certain to incur them in spite of all our caution, a certain lightness of heart seems healthier than this excessive nervousness on their behalf. At any rate, it seems the fittest thing for the empiricist philosopher.”

We’ve all swallowed our share of lies and inadvertent untruths, and peddled ’em too. Thankfully, the world has survived our collective duplicity and ignorance. We must hope it’s getting better at detecting the truth, and wanting to.

more reality

September 30, 2009

Or less…

I gave short shrift to the pre-Socratics, but Democritus (c.460-360 BCE)  was a genuine visionary. He “developed a picture of thedemocritus world that is remarkably close to our current scientific views.” He never appeared in public without laughing at human folly, hence his moniker “The Laughing Philosopher.” (Looks a little grim here, the sculptor may have been unsympathetic.) He had the last laugh, if it’s true that he lived past 100. He had good atoms.

“With Democritus the attempt to deanimate and demythologize the world was complete.” His “soul” was insubstantial except when embodied, and then was more like a breath than a spirit. “I would rather understand one cause,” he said, “than be King of Persia.” Carl Sagan celebrated him on Cosmos.

“With Democritus the attempt to deanimate and
demythologize the world was complete…”
Greek “soul” was insubstantial except when embodied,
and then was a “mere breath”…

Many of Democritus’ successors developed views remarkably inimical to current scientific wisdom.

descartes crcleRene Descartes (1596-1650) thought it useful to doubt the reality of everything; he was a mind-body dualist; and he demanded indubitable certainty as the gold-standard of scientific knowledge. All of these views have been doubted, if not flatly rejected, by most scientifically-minded moderns. His famed Meditations seem circular. (Here he is, squashed and truncated.)circular

Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) thought everything was part of one universal reality (or metaphysical substance). He was a pantheist. We’ve noted that Einstein was a fan: “I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals himself in the lawful harmony of all that exists, but not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and the doings of mankind.” It may well be that “Spinoza’s God” continues to capture more scientific respect than any more traditional alternative.

Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz (1646-1716), aka “Dr. Pangloss” in Candide, thought reality was almost  infinitely various, but also boxed and sealed. We are “monads,” self-contained substances (not unlike Neo, pre-Morpheus) experiencing a pre-arranged harmony

prearranged harmony of perceptions orchestrated by a very controlling Master Monad. We have “no windows.”

George Berkeley (1685-1753) said esse est percipi, “to be is to be perceived.” Don’t blink, God, or we’ll wink out of existence. The lexicographer and wit Samuel Johnson thought he had a practical refutation of Berkeley’s idealism.  He missed the point, but made one too: your philosophy of reality really ought to make a discernible difference in your experience of life .

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) said “things in themselves” (tits, as I’m afraid my undergraduate Kant professor taught me to abbreviate them) are out of reach. We deal strictly in phenomena, or appearances. But the good news for Kant is that we can be sure that appearances are not deceptive in at least one crucial respect: they appear as they must, in the light of our own categorical nature. We constitute the world through the categories our collective minds impose upon them, and thus are normally in touch with reality when we ply our minds and use our reason.

G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831) saw the world as a kind of universal Spirit, coming to maturity through the clash and conflicts of human history. He was the ultimate Systematic philosopher and devotee of Rationality, the antithesis of Kierkegaard (though some scholars have begun to challenge this). He made Schopenhauer crazy.

marxKarl Marx (1818-1883) “turned Hegel on his head,” seeing the world mainly in material terms. History was for him, as for Hegel, a grand unfolding process (“dialectic”) tending toward some higher “synthesis”  that would represent our apotheosis as a species. But as we know, his particular political synthesis has met with some resistance in recent decades.

Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860)– separated at birth from Ebenezer Scrooge– was the pessimist-par excellence: life (on his view) is no good, without purpose, the clatter of pointless striving will. But he wasn’t a total scrooge: he loved little dogs, and (as we’ll see) as a young man he loved at least one or two other human beings. That’s why Alain de Botton chooses him to exemplify “consolation for a broken heart.”


September 29, 2009

“They suffer, Majesty.”darius1_01

That’s the squashed version of human history, boiled down from 36 thick volumes for the King of Persia (as recounted by Matthieu Ricard).

“Yes, they suffer, at every moment and throughout the world. Some die when they’ve just been born; some when they’re giving birth. Every second, people are murdered, tortured, maimed, separated from their loved ones. Others are abandoned, betrayed, expelled, rejected. Some are killed out of hatred, greed, ignorance, ambition, pride, or envy. Mothers lose their children, children lose their parents. The ill pass in never-ending procession through the hospitals. Some suffer with no hope of being treated, others are treated with no hope of being cured. The dying endure their pain, and the survivors their mourning. Some die of hunger, cold, exhaustion, others are charred by fire, crushed by rocks, or swept away by the waters…

These are not mere words but a reality that is an intrinsic part of our daily lives: death, the transitory nature of all things, and suffering.”

Bleak. But not so bleak as the misnamed optimism of a Leibniz, one of those western philosophers “for whom suffering is inevitable and happiness out of reach” (though of course he’d never say so). Sartre, in his very different style, may be another. (He pretty much does say so, despite all the existentialist bravado about radical freedom.)

And so Buddhists commit to alleviating as much of it as they can for others, and liberating themselves.

Suffering is real, and an enumeration of instances can overwhelm. But all is not suffering. If it were, there could be no meaningful alleviation– let alone liberation. The problem of evil is mirrored by the happy problem of gratuitous good: there is a lot of “pointless” joy to be had in the world, by those who’ll have it. (“Cards win. Cards win!”)

But the melioristic impulse Ricard highlights in ch6 is admirable. I’ve written about it:

Above all, his keynote celebrates
the fight and the spirit of sober-yet-cheerful work (as we may
prefer to call it, with a less martial turn of mind), as we push
back against the stubborn sources of our discontent.
These reflections surely underscore the Jamesian refusal,
the radical empiricist’s refusal, to allow that either the
optimists or the pessimists, as conventionally and historically
defined, can be right. If “the optimist proclaims that we live in
the best of all possible worlds, and the pessimist fears this is
true,”13 James will insist on another way around or through the
poles of this dilemma. It cannot be true that total perfection
reigns in the actual world of our experiencing. We can only
believe so by shutting our eyes to the obviously real ills and
injustices by which humans are regularly visited—by disallowing,
in short, the evidence of our experience. Those rare individuals
who are personally charmed to lead lives free from affliction
must know—or, minimally, must have heard or read of—others who
are not; or else they are living ostrich lives and are more to be
pitied than envied.
What is more, unqualified optimism that denies real
suffering and deficiency in the world insults our real
capacities; it disables our remedial impulses. Can our
humanitarian and compassionate responses be so misguided, our
felt regrets so misplaced? James certainly had no tolerance for
dilettantism and the effusion of idle regret, disconnected from
responsive action. But what of the active regret that fuels
reform? Are the heroic deeds of good men and women, the noble
benefactors of humanity (not merely the acclaimed, the
Schweitzers and Mother Teresas, but the unsung and under-
appreciated community volunteers, the “Habitat for Humanity”
workers, et al.) superfluous? Or (what comes to the same thing
for anyone possessed of the kind of philosophical temperament
James exemplifies) necessarily ineffectual?
It needs saying, here, that of course the Leibnizian
optimist has his “theodicy” and his rational response and denies
that anything—absolutely anything—is “superfluous,” or gratuitous, or unnecessary. All is
Rational Necessity. For Hegel “the Real is the Rational, the
Rational is the Real.”14 What a startling, potentially
stultifying attitude, for anyone who purports to live and act in
the world of our collective experience!

Meliorists relish the fight and the spirit of sober-yet-cheerful work (as we may prefer to call it, with a less martial turn of mind), as we push back against the stubborn sources of our discontent.  These reflections surely underscore the Jamesian refusal, the radical empiricist’s refusal, to allow that either the optimists or the pessimists, as conventionally and historically defined, can be right. If “the optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds, and the pessimist fears this is true,” pragmatic meliorists will insist on another way around or through the poles of this dilemma. It cannot be true that total perfection reigns in the actual world of our experiencing. We can only believe so by shutting our eyes to the obviously real ills and injustices by which humans are regularly visited—by disallowing, in short, the evidence of our experience. Those rare individuals who are personally charmed to lead lives free from affliction must know—or, minimally, must have heard or read of—others who are not; or else they are living ostrich lives and are more to be pitied than envied.

What is more, unqualified optimism that denies real suffering and deficiency in the world insults our real capacities; it disables our remedial impulses. Can our humanitarian and compassionate responses be so misguided, our felt regrets so misplaced? James certainly had no tolerance for dilettantism and the effusion of idle regret, disconnected from responsive action. But what of the active regret that fuels reform? Are the heroic deeds of good men and women, the noble benefactors of humanity (not merely the acclaimed, the Schweitzers and Mother Teresas, but the unsung and under-appreciated community volunteers, the “Habitat for Humanity” workers, et al) superfluous? Or (what comes to the same thing for anyone possessed of the kind of philosophical temperament James exemplifies) necessarily ineffectual?

It needs saying, here, that of course the Leibnizian optimist has his “theodicy” and his rational response and denies that anything—absolutely anything—is “superfluous,” or gratuitous, or unnecessary. All is Rational Necessity. For Hegel “the Real is the Rational, the Rational is the Real.” What a startling, potentially stultifying attitude, for anyone who purports to live and act in the world of our collective experience!

And so I give Ricard and Buddhism all credit for working to make the best of suffering and even learn from it. “Resigning ourselves to it with a simple ‘that’s life!’ [ignores] any possiblity of the inner change that is available to everyone…”

Right. But this talk of mainly- inner change is a shift from the bolder meliorist resolve to push back at suffering’s external sources. I confess, I’m not much impressed by this suggested exercise:

gray cloud“Imagine that you are taking upon yourself, in the form of a gray cloud, the disease, confusion, and mental toxins of [suffering] people, which disappears into the white light of your heart without leaving any trace. This will transform both your own suffering and that of others… “

It will? Or will it transform how I feel about suffering? Sounds pretty Stoic. Is that the change we need?

Don’t misunderstand me: we should do what it takes, internally, to allow ourselves (amidst suffering) to “feel a great happiness.” But we should also refrain from describing that inner transformation as (in itself) effective remediation. Moral holidays are  necessary. They’re not sufficient.

body language

September 2, 2009

rodin_thinkerTo begin at the beginning: Rodin’s “Thinker” graces the cover of our Intro to Philosophy text, thinking no doubt about Big Questions.

But I don’t really like that image of the philosopher. He should be speaking and listening too, and perambulating a bit like Aristotle’s peripatetics

not just sitting like a bump on his solitary stump. He’d be more animated, expressive and upbeat if he did. Might even be happy.

As our text notes, Hegel and his students in the early 19th century lived in a world of great storm and stress (Napoleon’s troops were on their doorstep) but nonetheless remained confident and cheerful through it all. Why? Because their philosophy gave them a vision and a firm sense of themselves and their place in the scheme of life.

The Charlie Brown cartoon on my office door proclaims: “We all need a philosophy.” The student who was sure he did not exist sure did.

There’s another image in our text, facing the Introduction, that I do like: Raphael’s justly-famed “School of Athens.” It really captures the essential Plato and Aristotle, caught  in a perfect body language freeze-frame that epitomizes the subsequent centuries of disputation between what we’ve come to call Rationalists and Empiricists. “Transcend,” thunders Plato’s emphatic gesture . “Calm down, keep it real,” Aristotle rejoins. Or so I like to imagine.

Alfred North Whitehead got it only half right (at most), I think, when he wrote that “the safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” The history of western philosophy has been a series of footnotes to both of these guys. The great challenge is to appreciate their difference and still do right by them both. Natural transcendence, perhaps?