Posts Tagged ‘Peirce’

Where to, humanity?

October 3, 2011

Cards & Phils are all tied up, 4-4, in the 6th inning of Game #2 (we’ll not talk about Game #1), as I sit down on Sunday night to think about Monday’s class. Mill, Darwin, Nietzsche, Emerson, Thoreau, Peirce, Dewey, James… they were all evolutionists, but were any of them baseball fans? Well, Mill was a cricketer, Nietzsche a “footballer.” Dewey praised the “tense grace of the outfielder.” One of James’s students tried to interest him in the game once, without success:

Morris Rafael Cohen records, “When my revered friend and teacher William James wrote ‘The Moral Equivalent of War‘ I suggested to him that baseball already embodied all the moral value of war, so far as war had any moral value. He listened sympathetically and was amused, but did not take me seriously enough. All great men have their limitations.”

And that’s a good segue to Mill, Darwin, and Nietzsche. All were concerned, in one way or another, with the prospective greatness of humanity. A common misunderstanding of Darwin’s evolutionary hypothesis had him defending the “survival of the fittest” ethos as social policy. But Darwin was no Social Darwinist, preferring instead the cooperative liberal vision of his countryman Mill.

And then there’s Nietzsche, heralding the Ubermensch (“I teach you the Overman. Man is something that shall be overcome. What have you done to overcome him?”), aspiring to a personal future “beyond good and evil,” heaping scorn and abuse on comfortable “couch potato” English values (like democracy and “utility”), and insisting that hardship is the cost of greatness.

Nietzsche liked Emerson, and his “self-reliance.” The “Divinity School Address” must have pleased him too, with its repudiation of Judeo-Christian(-Islamic) supernaturalism and “monstrous distortion” of Jesus’ message that our life is a natural miracle, “one with the blowing clover and the falling rain.”

Nietzsche read German translations of Emerson’s essays, copied passages from “History” and “Self-Reliance” in his journals, and wrote of the Essays: that he had never “felt so much at home in a book.” Emerson’s ideas about “strong, overflowing” heroes, friendship as a battle, education, and relinquishing control in order to gain it, can be traced in Nietzsche’s writings. Other Emersonian ideas-about transition, the ideal in the commonplace, and the power of human will permeate the writings of such classical American pragmatists as William James and John Dewey. SEP [affinity]

Thoreau reputedly lived a lot like Nietzsche, in (relative) hermetic isolation. But did you know that during his sojourn at Walden pond, on property owned by Emerson, he made regular town-rounds and dropped his laundry off at Mom’s? [pics]

Peirce imagined the ideal end of intellectual history, defining truth as the view destined to be agreed upon. “Agreement” is not a term often associated with Nietzsche.

And what did James think of Nietzsche? Lumped him with Schopenhauer as a pair of rats, and pitied “poor Nietzsche’s antipathies.”

(5-4 Cards in the  7th…)

Are We Still Evolving?… Darwin & friendsEvolution & cooperationbest idea evermeanings evolvebest way to begin each day (Nietzsche?!)… nothing Nietzsche couldn’t teach yainto thin air (Nietzsche on hardship)…recurrence (“When N. Wept”)… “I am dynamite

NOTE TO STUDENTS: We’ll finish PW this week. On Monday & Tuesday,

M 3 PW 104-113. Mill & Darwin, Nietzsche, Emerson & Thoreau, Peirce & Dewey, James.

And note: next week it’s time to declare your report intentions: solo or collaborative, presentation or essay, and what’s your topic? Signups on the 10th & 11th.

See you all in class.

PostscriptCards win!

I wonder: does an interest in spectator sports help or hinder the evolution of our species? This morning my feeling is, if the future has no MLB postseason I don’t want to go. “If heaven ain’t a lot like Dixie…”

Introducing classic American philosophy

April 12, 2011

Time for American philosophy, which is something other and more than philosophy produced by Americans or in America… “classic” American philosophy, we sometimes call it. These are my people. They’re not saps, just SAAPs.

American philosophy generally, as previously noted,  has been very friendly to the evolutionary hypothesis, in many ways a direct and favorable response to it. Pragmatism is America’s indigenous philosophy – unless we’re talking about the thought of its indigenous peoples, of course.

Charles Sanders Peirce (our text misspells his name, and you’ll mispronounce it if you don’t rhyme it with “purse”) was the eccentric and bumptious genius William James tried to credit with the original idea of Pragmatism as a distinctively American approach to philosophy. Peirce shunned the praise, though, and said he’d rename his position “pragmaticism” to keep it safe from kidnappers. What an ingrate.

Peirce said: “The irritation of doubt causes a struggle to attain a state of belief. I shall term this struggle inquiry… When doubt ceases, mental action on the subject comes to an end; and, if it did go on, it would be without a purpose.” (Fixation of Belief)

That’s very different from Descartes’ method of hyperbolic doubt, which he despised. “Inquiry” as he defines it proceeds by steps, is self-correcting and non-dogmatic (without “tenacity”), and does not rely on unquestioned authorities. It’s tools are experience and honest observation. “Do not block the road of inquiry,” he challenged, lest you compromise the integrity of your belief.

Peirce was also big on something he called “evolutionary love,” but despite its seeming squishiness he really was pretty hard-nosed, in a positivistic sort of way. Our cartoonish text puts a few words in CSP’s mouth, depicting him as a philosophic gunslinger out of the wild west (he was actually the son of a Harvard mathematician)  but they’re pretty much in the spirit of his thought, and of his particular variety of pragmat(ici)ism:

If words mean anything, we should be able to test them… if they relate to qualities about which we can discover no practical effects, then they are meaningless.

It is astonishing to see how many philosophical disputes collapse into insignificance the moment you subject them to this simple test of tracing a concrete consequence… almost every proposition of ontological metaphysics is either meaningless gibberish or else downright absurd…

Excepting “evolutionary love” maybe, Chuck? But CSP’s greatest love was for truth pursued scientifically, for

to avoid looking into the support of any belief from a fear that it may turn out rotten is quite as immoral as it is disadvantageous. The person who confesses that there is such a thing as truth, which is distinguished from falsehood simply by this, that if acted on it should, on full consideration, carry us to the point we aim at and not astray, and then, though convinced of this, dares not know the truth and seeks to avoid it, is in a sorry state of mind indeed.

Peirce’s friend and frequent rescuer William James did not think there was any insuperable incompatibility between religion and the new Darwinian science. But for himself, he said,

I believe myself to be (probably) permanently incapable of believing the Christian scheme of vicarious salvation, and wedded to a more continuously evolutionary mode of thought.

But James was more receptive than Peirce to the possibility, at least, that one person’s “meaningless gibberish” might be another’s raison d’etre. “Concrete consequences” for him were tied more to persons and their experience, than to the meanings of their words. Others might find the “Christian scheme of vicarious salvation” more believable, i.e., more actionable and more productive of positive consequences.

Here’s a terrific James site… and a pretty good book about his philosophy… and Richardson’s bio… and some of his letters (IIIIImore & more), which are what drew me to his thought in the first place. And here’s Louis Menand’s Metaphysical Club, of which James and Peirce were real members (along with Oliver Wendell Holmes and others) and John Dewey an honorary/retrospective one.

For lots more about WJ, just enter his name in this site’s search box (and in Delight Springs‘).

John Dewey called his version of pragmatism “instrumentalism,” and set up an experimental school to try it out. He wrote The Influence of Darwinism on Philosophy (and other essays on this theme).

If all organic adaptations are due simply to constant variation and the elimination of those variations which are harmful in the struggle for existence that is brought about by excessive reproduction, there is no call for a prior intelligent causal force to plan and preordain them…

Philosophy forswears inquiry after absolute origins and absolute finalities in order to explore specific values and the specific conditions that generate them…

a philosophy that humbles its pretensions to the work of projecting hypotheses for the education and conduct of mind, individual and social, is thereby subjected to test by the way in which the ideas it propounds work out in practice. In having modesty forced upon it, philosophy also acquires responsibility.

What I like most about Dewey is his insistence that philosophers ought to devote themselves less to the intellectual problems posed by other philosophers and more to the practical problems of ordinary men and women.

The very best, of course, do both. A.C. Grayling is trying… but he’s no John Dewey.

Harvard’s turn-of-the-century philosophy department was a hotbed of pragmatism, but also included the metaphysical idealist Josiah Royce (who was James’s office-mate and next-door neighbor in Cambridge, MA) and the Spanish ex-pat George (“those who do not remember the past”) Santayana. Lately, Richard Rorty (of Princeton and UVA, among other places) wore the mantle of neo-pragmatist.

Another recent Harvard philosopher, John Rawls, wrote A Theory of Justice. His colleague Bob Nozick came up with the Experience Machine.  Their colleague W.V.O. Quine (who I met in one of my professors’ kitchen in 1978, btw) said experience is a “web of belief.”

James’s favorite contemporary philosopher Henri Bergson, a “vitalist,” said there’s a mysterious “life force” behind everything…

But that’s enough for now. “Whereof one cannot speak, one must pass over in silence.” So we’ll get to Wittgenstein et al next class.

James bio – 10

November 13, 2009

wj 1899Robert Louis Stevenson, James’s favorite author, dies as this week’s installment begins. Stevenson is only 44. And, it so happens, today is Stevenson’s birthday.

It’s the mid-’90s, James is lending financial and moral support to the brilliant but erratic philosopher “Charley” Peirce, who would later bite the hand that fed him by refusing James’s noblesse in crediting him with inventing pragmatism.

He’s also reflecting on the allegedly-false happiness of alcoholic intoxication, which ravaged his brother. Better to “replace the ideal of drinking with the ideal of having a constitution in perfect health,” an example of Spinozistic positive psychology. Stick to the nitrous, when you want to experiment with an expanded yea-saying consciousness.

“Alcoholics Anonymous” makes extensive practical use of Jamesian aids to learning and personal reform. “When AA invokes a ‘higher power,’ it does not mean Jehovah; it means a power higher than oneself.  A small community of two or three will do nicely.” No need to bring in supernatural forces. We’ll all get by with a little help from our friends.

The naturalistic bent of James’s curiosity is reflected in his slight shift, around this time, away from studies of abnormal psych and the paranormal and towards varieties of religious experience. Richardson makes more of this, though, than he should. Religious experiences may be natural for human beings, but some of the case studies of conversion and “sick souls” James presents in Varieties are as “abnormal” as anything he’d encountered as a student of clinical psychology, and are not prime examples of what Spinoza must have meant when he advised us to re-frame our aversions in terms of positive goods.

James still insists that we not ignore the negative side of life. We must address ourselves to the unpleasant task of hearing what the sick souls, as we may call them in contrast to the healthy-minded, have to say of the secrets of their prison-house, their own peculiar form of consciousness. Let us then resolutely turn our backs on the once-born and their sky-blue optimistic gospel; let us not simply cry out, in spite of all appearances, “Hurrah for the Universe!—God’s in his Heaven, all’s right with the world.” Let us see rather whether pity, pain, and fear, and the sentiment of human helplessness may not open a profounder view…

For himself, though, life is good. “As William James turned fifty-three, in January 1895, his life was rich and full… He was happily, solidly married– though he contracted a mad crush on every other woman he met.” Mid-life can be treacherous. “I have been happy, happy HAPPY!” he wrote Mrs. James, after meeting one of his crushes.

In April ’95 James delivered a talk to the Harvard YMCA called “Is Life Worth Living?” It included this distinctively-Jamesian statement about personal subjectivity:

The deepest thing in our nature in this binnenleben, this dumb region of the heart in which we dwell alone with our willingnesses and unwillingnesses, our faiths and fears. As through the cracks and crannies of subterranean caverns the earth’s bosom exudes its waters, which then form the fountain-heads of springs, so in these crepuscular depths of personality the sources of all our outer deeds and decisions take their rise. Here is our deepest organ of communication with the nature of things.

Another noteworthy publication from this period: “The Gospel of Relaxation,” in which James issues the best pedagogical advice I’ve ever received:  The advice I should give to most teachers would be in the words of one who is herself an admirable teacher. Prepare yourself in the subject so well that it shall be always on tap: then in the class-room trust your spontaneity and fling away all further care.

And there’s good advice here for students, too: If you want really to do your best in an examination, fling away the book the day before, say to yourself, “I won’t waste another minute on this miserable thing, and I don’t care an iota whether I succeed or not.” Say this sincerely, and feel it; and go out and play, or go to bed and sleep, and I am sure the results next day will encourage you to use the method permanently.

Will to Believe,” maybe James’s most famous essay, comes in 1896. Here he tackles that delicious enfant terrible [William Kingdon] Clifford, who wrote: “Belief is desecrated when given to unproved and unquestioned statements for the solace and private pleasure of the believer…. It is wrong always, everywhere, and for every one, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”

James: 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.

No one of us ought to issue vetoes to the other, nor should we bandy words of abuse. We ought, on the contrary, delicately and profoundly to respect one another’s mental freedom: then only shall we bring about the intellectual republic; then only shall we have that spirit of inner tolerance without which all our outer tolerance is soulless, and which is empiricism’s glory; then only shall we live and let live, in speculative as well as in practical things.

“William James at fifty-five seemed a man of unlimited energy.”  But, he wrote a friend, there’s just too much for an academic to read. “One lives on an inclined plane of hopes as regards reading, on which like the snail of mental arithmetic one slips back more in 24 hours than one gains.” Tell me about it.
James finally has an experience of the sort he’d always hungered for, one that  he would characterize as vaguely mystical though not entirely instructive. He called it his Walpurgisnacht, an extraordinary experience of “spiritual alertness” on a magnificent starry night after days of strenuous hiking. Of course it was an experience that, by the very terms of its mystical ineffability, he literally could not speak of in any detail. But, he cryptically said, “I now know what a poet is.”
On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings” (discussed in last week‘s post) is published in 1898. “The truth is too great for any one actual mind… The facts and worths of life need many cognizers to take them in. There is no point of view absolutely public and universal. The practical consequence of such a philosophy is the well-known democratic respect for the sacredness of individuality.”
Democracy, as we know, does not always evince so great a respect for the individuality of other peoples and nations. The Phillippines crisis of 1899 provoked James’s ire. he saw American policy as naked imperialism, “crushing out the sacredest thing in this great human world– the attempt of a people long enslaved to attain to the possession of itself… to be free.” He complains bitterly:  “The stars and stripes are now a lying rag.” Sound familiar?
As the fin de siecle approaches there are troubling signs of health challenges ahead. Ever since his Walpurgisnacht he’s noticed “queer cardiac symptoms,” a “valvular insufficiency”… the sort of thing Daniel Dennett recently had occasion to “thank goodness” for rescuing him from. But James was born too soon to enjoy the opportunity of that particular form of rescue.

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.