Posts Tagged ‘Simon Critchley’

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.

Critchley, R.I.P.

April 14, 2010

That’s Critchley’s book we’re putting to rest for the semester today in Intro, not Simon himself. He’s a step ahead of us on that anyway, in his Book of Dead Philosophers. The last entry is

Simon Critchley


Exit, pursued by a bear.

His pre-posthumous “last words” make it clear that the point of examining philosophers’ exits was not merely to indulge  a morbid curiosity, but to help us stand more fully in the light that casts the shadow of mortality, to confront the terror of annihilation that enslaves us and free ourselves from it. No easy task, but well worth tackling. (And as we were saying in A&S yesterday, it is the project of a non-theistic spirituality.) To philosophize is to learn to love that difficulty. Or, to learn to die. Or live. Same coin.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Hans-Georg Gadamer. Asked to comment on 9/11, at age 102, he said: “people cannot live without hope; that is the only thesis I would defend without any restriction.” About his limited mobility he said: “Thank God, one does not have to think with one’s legs.” Well, maybe he didn’t.

Jacques Lacan. Last words:  “I’m obstinate. I’m dying.”

Theodor Adorno. Another mountain-climbing philosopher with a weak heart. Supposedly no prude, he was unable to enjoy being covered in flower petals (and etc.) by three uninhibited women students in the unbuttoned ’60s. Sad.

Emmanuel Levinas. A French P.O.W. held by the Germans, he was originally drawn to Heidegger but recoiled from the discovery of the latter’s Nazi affiliation and tried to invert his philosophy of authenticity. Death is not that by virtue of which the self becomes authentic, but is rather [an] ever-unknowable event… death is not mine.

Jean-Paul Sartre. What a strange thing for an atheist existentialist to say:

I do not feel that I am the product of chance, a speck of dust in the universe, but someone who was expected, prepared, prefigured. In short, a being whom only a Creator could put here.

Mrs. Premise and Mrs. Conclusion ought to have asked him about that.

Simone de Beauvoir. Sartre’s “Beaver,” groundbreaking feminist, close observer of aging as a widening of the gap between subjective and objective self-knowledge. Lying about one’s age is in extremely bad faith.

Hannah Arendt. Heidegger’s lover (talk about “banality of evil”!), but still regarded as a philosopher of integrity who was quite right to notice that “natality” has been too long neglected. The symmetry of death and birth is obvious. Who will write The Book of Newborn Philosophers? Does Alison Gopnik’s Philosophical Baby count?

Maurice Merleau-Ponty. A very sensible phenomenologist. The remedy for death is not to turn away in fright, but to move through it and back to our elemental vitality. Back to the middle of the bright field, away from the abyss. Just remember it’s there, and waiting patiently for you.

W.V.O. Quine. I met him in a kitchen once, as an undergrad. He was talking with Wilfrid Sellars, trying to remember what state he was in (Missouri, semi-inebriation), and discoursing on the futility of metaphysics. He was a fascinating and talented guy, but a philosopher without a question mark on his keyboard is as close to an oxymoron– or just moron– as I can imagine.

Simone Weil. I don’t think she meant to renounce her will a la Schopenhauer, but not eating will achieve the same result. Sad to think of her last hungry words celebrating “the joy and spiritual signification of the feast.”

A.J. Ayer. His near-death experience led this confirmed atheist to speculate on the persistence of consciousness after death, but he said it didn’t incline him to re-consider the god-hypothesis. Oxygen deprivation will lead people to say interesting things. I love his wife’s comment: “Freddie has got so much nicer since he died.”

Albert Camus. “The point is to live.” His life ended in a pointless car crash in the year of Simon Critchley’s birth. He was 44. We must imagine him no longer happy. But I’ll bet he’d get a laugh out of the recent controversy over his mortal remains.

Roland Barthes. The “Death of the Author” author said aging was “slow suicide,” and then he demonstrated his meaning. A teacher to the end.

Donald Davidson. Not the Fugitive Poet, but the author of the influential “On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme.”  Intriguing perspective: freedom  and determinism are not pulling in opposite directions… the meaning of death depends upon our freely chosen attitude towards it.

John Rawls. Justice is fairness, and fairness requires the  disregard of our particular identities. Sounds incontestable, until you  really think about it. But nobody’s come up with a better theory so far.

Michel Foucault. Michael Pollan’s twin, separated at birth? Life can be a work of  art… for better or worse.

Jean Baudrillard. “The very fact of your absence makes the world distinctly less worthy of being lived in.” Nice line.

Jacques Derrida. If Critchley’s right, I’ve been picking on him– as Post-modern Deconstruction‘s most visible target– too much all these years. “The dead live on, they live on within us… wherever a philosopher is read, he or she is not dead.” Another nice line.

Bye, Simon.

NOTE TO STUDENTS: Some of you have been on unofficial Spring sabbatical. See you in class.

heroes & villains

April 7, 2010

We read about most of these guys for Monday’s class…

Edmund Husserl, besides being the founding phenomenologist— a radical empiricist on steroids, I called him on Monday– was also Heidegger’s teacher. The contrast between them couldn’t be sharper. Heidegger, succeeding Husserl at Freiburg, denied his former mentor library privileges. That’s low!

For Husserl, philosophy is the freedom of absolute self-responsibility and the philosopher is “the civil servant of humanity.” That first phrase sounds Sartrean. The second doesn’t at all, to Husserl’s credit. He “died as a philosopher”– no foxhole conversions for him.

George Santayana, James’s student and then colleague in the glory days of Harvard philosophy, died in a convent during the Second World War. He professed to take no interest in the event (of the war), however. “I know nothing, I live in the Eternal.”  But he was no Roman Catholic, either.  Mostly he was a man of the margins, a keen spectator of the passing “genteel” American scene but not an active participant. American philosophers sometimes lay claim to some aspects of his elegantly-composed philosophy as representative of the American grain, but he was no pragmatist. He was an inspiration to his students, some of whom– Robert Frost, T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens– became our greatest poets. As Stevens would write, he did indeed live in two worlds… but mostly, as time went by, in the eternity of his own mind.  He was a wise man by any measure. My favorite Santayana line: “To be interested in the changing seasons is a happier state of mind than to be hopelessly in love with spring.” These last several glorious spring days in middle Tennessee remind me that I’m hopeless, in these terms. But as Older Daughter likes to say, I’m working on it.

Despite a reputation for austerity, there was a strong Epicurean side to him, too. He said “there’s no cure for birth and death, save to enjoy the interval.” And I love Critchley’s wine anecdote, next time I have more than I can swallow, I’ll douse my cake just like George.

I think my favorite Santayana book, and the one that brings him closest to the American tradition in philosophy, is Scepticism & Animal Faith. How wonderfully it begins

A recent reviewer notes:

Santayana is most remembered today for a single, painfully overquoted sentence: “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But in his lifetime he achieved stature as a philosopher for a whole series of books about the nature of human reason, the sense of beauty and the value of religion. His greatest subject was perhaps his adopted homeland. His writings about America still have the freshness of new discoveries, and they are enlivened—like nearly everything he wrote—by sharp turns of phrase and pungent judgments.

And he thought his adopted homeland was full of secretly-unhappy people whose false cheer made them superficial and unserious. But he seems to have liked it here well enough. I recall reading somewhere that one of his favorite diversions was to take in a Harvard baseball game from time to time. He enjoyed being an observer of spectators, even further removed from the action.

Antonio Gramsci, the greatest communist philosopher in Italy or arguably anywhere (aren’t you embarrassed to know so little of him?), is important if only because he shows that a Marxist does not have to be a narrow historical determinist, explaining all events strictly in terms of their economic causes.

Bertrand Russell we already know a lot about. His words as he approached the end of a very long, very un-religious road that spurned the solace of any “divine plan,” are spine-stiffening:

I am not young and I love life. But I should scorn to shiver with terror at the thought of annihilation. Happiness is nonetheless true happiness because it must come to and end…

I cringe to speak of Moritz Schlick, he reminds me of the crazed woman in Huntsville who couldn’t handle not being tenured a few weeks ago. The Vienna Circle positivist was murdered by a mentally deranged student… Serious stuff, but Critchley still finds a funny angle. Schlick said, before he died (as Yogi Berra might point out), that he could imagine witnessing his own funeral. It is not known whether Schlick was able to empirically verify this remark. Ha! So it might be meaningless.

Ludwig Wittgenstein (who didn’t really look this much like Lyle Lovett) famously echoed Epicurus’ view that “death is not an event in life.” Sounds good, doesn’t play so well in practice for most of us. But it’s not a bad place to set the bar, most of the time.

Same for his statement, when he knew his cancer had  nearly run its course, that my interest is still all in this life. Critchley may be thinking of William Blake when he says this attitude bought Wittgenstein an eternity in those waning days:

To see a world in a grain of sand

And a heaven in a wild flower

Hold infinity in the palm of your hand

And eternity in an hour

Reminds me of the late sci-fi author Isaac Asimov, who said if he was told he had an hour to live he’d “just type faster.” Me too, I hope. (Unless the loved ones were less than an hour away, of course.)

Wittgenstein was a model conversationalist, to judge from his view that a discussion shoyuld not be broken off until it had reached its proper end. “Model” for philosophers, anyway. Socrates felt the same way, and many of his interlocutors were only too happy to break it off.

The single factoid I’ve learned from Critchley that I love the most: Wittgenstein’s alleged last (or nearly last) words, “Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life.” May we all have the opportunity and the impulse to make that our parting instruction too.

When Wittgenstein survived Russian attack in the First World War it left him with such a desire to live.

Heidegger, by contrast, steered clear of the shooting but thought a lot about death. Being and Time is a meditation on death, and time. Authentic living requires us to project our lives onto the horizon of our death. Grasp your finitude, consider your own life-and-death more important than others’. But this is “morally pernicious.” Insulating oneself from grief and mourning for the loss of others is inhuman. [A pilgrimage to Heidegger’s hutHeil HeideggerDoes A Nazi deserve a place?]

A recent review notes: Emmanuel Faye has done both history and philosophy a valuable service, digging up documentary proof of Heidegger’s real sympathies: “Only where leader and led together bind each other in one destiny, and fight for the realisation of one idea, does true order grow. Then spiritual superiority and freedom respond in the form of deep dedication of all powers to the people, to the state, in the form of the most rigid training, as commitment, resistance, solitude, and love. The existence and the superiority of the Fuhrer sink down into being, into the soul of the people and thus bind it authentically and passionately to the task.”

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?)

rationalists & empiricists, R.I.P.

March 17, 2010

Happy St. Pat’s Day, & Happy Birthday, Sis!

We were talking about Thomas Hobbes on Monday, about his negative evaluation of human nature as conducing to that “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, short” state of nature we supposedly contracted out of. This stands in such striking contrast to David Hume’s and Adam Smith’s notion that humans are naturally un-selfish (and that that’s why we can even begin to entertain the thought of a free-market economy).

I pick on Hobbes at every opportunity, for being so down on the human race. But he’s kind of a role model anyway. Simon Critchley notes: he walked vigorously every day in order to work up a sweat and lived to 91, in the desolate 17th century (when most were lucky to hit 40).  And he had a sharp wit. His epitaph of choice: “This is the true philosopher’s stone.” Don’t tell Harry Potter.

Descartes didn’t fare so well, dying at (yikes!) 53.  But no wonder, with this attitude: “My soul, you have been held captive a long time… leave the prison… relinquish the burden of this body.”

Before giving up his ghost, Descartes corresponded with Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia. She pushed him on his problematic dualism: If the thinking mind is separate from the extended body, then how do mind and body interact? She was among the first of many to be underwhelmed by his speculative response that maybe it happens in the pineal gland.

Critchley says Descartes refused to take seriously Gassendi‘s objection that our ideas, even the clear-and-distinct ones, might be out of touch with reality. Well, though… he at least pretended to take it seriously, to motivate his “meditations” with hyperbolic doubt. I find that strategy suspect, and think we’re right to consider ourselves “in touch” most of the time. That doesn’t mean we can ever be indubitably certain that all our ideas are correct. It does imply that we should not  invent reasons to doubt in our studies what we cannot deny in our lives.

La Rochefoucauld thought the philosophers protested too much, those who tried so fervently to convince us that death is nothing to fear. “Neither the sun nor death can be looked at steadily.” And neither can safely be disregarded.

Blaise Pascal‘s snapshot of the human condition is bleak, but also reminiscent of Plato’s cave-dwellers: “Let us imagine a number of men in chains and all condemned to death, where some are killed each day in the sight of others.” If you’ve heard of his wager you probably thought he was a hyper -rationalist, but for Pascal reason is limited and cannot establish its own first principles… left to itself it leads to endless and unanswerable scepticism.” So maybe David Hume was being disingenous when he declared reason beside the point.

Where did Leibniz get his “monad” idea? Possibly from Anne Conway, who argued against materialism and against any distinction between mind and matter. What did Bertrand Russell think of Leibniz? “Optimistic, orthodox, fantastic and shallow.” Similarly, William James called Leibniz’s theodicy “superficiality incarnate.” Some have construed Leibniz’s bizarre monadology as a front for a very orthodox conception of God as master-planner and micro-manager. Ironic, then, that the name “Leibniz” was popularly derided as “glaubt nichts,” or unbeliever.

John Locke was much more modest and circumspect about the scope of philosophy, tracing ideas to each individual’s idiosyncratic “sensation and reflection.” But he didn’t think he could prove it, and that opened the door to critics who wanted to nail things (and ideas) down more definitively.

Spinoza said a free human being is one who lives according to reason alone and is not governed by fear. That would seem to exclude Hume, who insisted that life is not lived by reason alone (or even by reason in the greatest measure) and that death is the transformation of one natural being (a living human being) into another natural being (the corpse as natural being). Pardon me if I don’t find that entirely consoling.

How civilized are humans, really? According to Vico, there is a constant danger of a cataclysmic return to a new age of the beasts.

English freethinker John Toland invented the term “pantheism,” commonly taken for atheism but  really a form of spiritual materialism. Yes, Virginia, there is such a thing.

For George Berkeley, the independent reality of the material world is nowhere affirmed in the Bible. So, being a strict constructionist, he found nothing real in death. Again, pardon me if I don’t find that wholly persuasive.

Sometimes there just aren’t enough rocks to kick.

NOTE TO STUDENTS: Thanks in advance for not asking when your papers will be graded. The invariable answer, of course, is: ASAP. (That’s “the memo”– the one I’ll refer you to, if you ask me that question.)

medievals and scholastics

February 24, 2010

What fun, teaching my evening class last night to an engaged, intelligent, impassioned group of adult learners whose eagerness to discern the spiritual possibilities inherent in a world without gods matches my own! We didn’t quite solve the challenge: how to create a self-sustaining, mutually supportive, visibly active community of non-believers in this region of the country, traditionally so inhospitable to non-belief. But we sure took a good first step, proclaiming (like those Whos down in Whoville) we are here, we are here...

And that on the heels of a terrific A&S class yesterday, led by Miso’s report of his interview with a Muslim friend who grew up here but left his heart in Kurdistan, considering American culture crass and licentious. The profile of the young man he painted for us so vividly struck me as chilling– just as the late John Updike’s young man in Terrorist was chilling, at home in neither world, a kind of ticking bomb just waiting for tinder to set him off.

But this is a post about medievals and scholastics, who we’re reading about in Intro. [NOTE TO STUDENTS: come to class today, all your questions about the Friday exam, reports, presentations etc. will be answered.]

The first figure discussed by Simon Critchley in today’s reading is The Venerable Bede, who apparently faced his end considerably less venerably than the poet advised, without “unfaltering trust.” With his dying words he quoted Paul, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God,” breaking down and weeping over the dread departure of the soul from the body and the prospect of God’s judgment. This is disappointing: I always thought Bede had earned his name. Wallace Stegner cited his “truest vision of life” as analogous to a bird flying out of darkness into a lighted hall, and then soon out again (Spectator Bird). My wife and I used that quote on our wedding-scroll tokens.

Then there’s the Neoplatonist John Scottus Eriugena, who (like Plotinus) said the world is best understood as a dynamic process of emanation from the divine One. His view anticipated the pantheism of Spinoza— “Atheism is reversed Pantheism,” said Feuerbach (who also said you are what you eat) and the “heresy” of Giordano Bruno, burned at the stake in 1600 for discovering a few astronomical truths and speculating about other worlds. The human being is the microcosm of the divine macrocosm of nature. Perhaps your fear in passing judgment on me is greater than mine in receiving it,” he said as he batted away the crucifix that would supposedly have saved him.

The Inquisitors were more successful in extracting a recantation from Galileo, but it’s nice to believe he did mutter “Pero si muove” under the breath of his confession.”Philosophy is written in this grand book, the universe, which stands continually open to our gaze.”

It’s so refreshing to be reminded of the Islamic “falsafa” tradition, committed (as in the case of Al-Farabi) to combining logical rigor and empiricism with their neoplatonic mysticism. Avicenna‘s concupiscible faculties are impressive. “I prefer a short life with width to a narrow one with length.”

Critchley has a good answer to Anselm. I can conceive of neither death nor God. They both passeth understanding. The ontological proof comes up short, the soul remains elusive (or illusory).

Poor Abelard. Hard to say his name without cringing.

Averroists defended the autonomy of philosophy and its separation from questions of theology and religious faith. We still wage that battle. Can’t we all just co-exist? No, our magisteria really do overlap, Professor Gould notwithstanding.

MaimonidesGuide for the Perplexed was a perennial best-seller throughout the middle ages: a measure of the perplexity many faith traditions engender, when running up against the realities of modernity.

Aquinas argues against the separation of the natural and the spiritual and in favor of their continuity. Me too! But not quite like he says.

Bonaventure worried that the separation of the worlds of faith and reason would ultimately culminate in atheism. Could be.

Duns Scotus gave us haecceity, a very useful word that never comes up in casual conversation. It means the uniqueness or the indivisible “thisness” of a person.

Ockham gaves us a razor. Machiavelli a manual, Erasmus a satire. More lost his head. Luther played with paradox and renounced philosophy. Copernicus re-oriented us. Montaigne invented the essay…

Gotta love Francis Bacon’s death by empiricism, when his strange sudden impulse to stuff a chicken with snow backfired and he caught his death. Curiosity and the experimental imperative killed him, it seems, but generations of carnivores ever-after were gratified by his sacrifice.

dead stoics society

February 10, 2010

Simon Critchley has as eye for the bizarre and unseemly side of philosophy.  In today’s reading we learn that Diogenes abused himself in the marketplace, saying he wished it were as easy to relieve hunger by rubbing his stomach. It’s not too surprising to learn that he never married, but it is dispiriting to think of him as the original poster boy for cosmopolitanism.* Maybe he just meant to abuse public decency laws everywhere in the world… like fellow Cynics Hipparchia (herself a disappointing “first female philosopher” who was bettered by Hypatia**) and Crates. I do like his comment on Plato’s metaphysics: The table and cup I see, but I do not see tableness and cupness.

*Carl Sagan’s notion of what it means to be a cosmopolitan, a citizen of the cosmos, is far more inspiring. We speak for Earth:

Also noted by Critchley:

>There is no more relevant ancient philosopher for our time than Epicurus, who said “when it comes to death we human beings all live in an unwalled city… living well and dying well are one and the same.”

>For Seneca, anxiety is caused by fear for the future… The philosopher enjoys a long life because he does not worry over its shortness. He lives in the present… the only immortality that philosophy can promise is to permit us to inhabit the present without concern for the future.

>For Stoics, like Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius, the human being is a compound of soul and body. But soul for the Stoics is “divine breath.” At death it is rejoins the “divine macrocosm”– not unlike the Taoist image of soul as a drop re-absorbed by Mother Sea.

>Epictetus, an early exponent of self-reliance, said we are “disturbed not by things but by the opinions which we have of things”… If we keep death constantly before our eyes and in our mouths, then our terror of it and our attachment to worldly things will fall away.

>Marcus Aurelius said “live each day as though one’s last”… Death is only a thing of terror for those unable to live in the present.

But, crucially: “living in the present” is not the same as not caring about the future. Real cosmopolitans care. We may cultivate an attitude of indifference towards our personal, individual deaths, but the prospective, premature,  self-inflicted death of our species would be something to mourn. It’s also– and this may be un-Stoical– something to deplore and to resist, while we’re still here to do it.

*Sagan also composed the best tribute I’ve seen to Hypatia, who said in a most Saganesque moment: To teach superstitions as truth is a most terrible thing.

Sagan’s Cosmos can be found here.


May 27, 2009

Simon Critchley, recently applauded here, has a nice new Times essay on happiness. He quotes 18th century Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the great  romantic dreamer of noble savagery in a benign state of nature, from “Reveries of a Solitary Walker”:reveries

If there is a state where the soul can find a resting-place secure enough to establish itself and concentrate its entire being there, with no need to remember the past or reach into the future, where time is nothing to it, where the present runs on indefinitely but this duration goes unnoticed, with no sign of the passing of time, and no other feeling of deprivation or enjoyment, pleasure or pain, desire or fear than the simple feeling of existence, a feeling that fills our soul entirely, as long as this state lasts, we can call ourselves happy, not with a poor, incomplete and relative happiness such as we find in the pleasures of life, but with a sufficient, complete and perfect happiness which leaves no emptiness to be filled in the soul.

Sounds a lot like what has been called “flow,” a state of body and mind in which time is mooted and we are  contentedly one with what we’re doing, as we’re doing it. Like Rousseau, I try to experience such reveries afoot – usually in the semi-solitude afforded by my companionable canines.  Perfect walks are infrequent, but very good ones are common. Happiness can be taken in stride.

There are degrees of walking reverie; at the upper end of the scale the experience is indeed a matter of sauntering in a spirit of receptive, contemplative spontaneity, making space for unbidden thoughts that “happen as they will,.” Then there are more meditative walks, aiming (like seated meditation) at a pleasant blankness.  And there are purposive problem-solving walks, each step confidently gaining on something.

Someone should write The Varieties of Perambulatory Experience. I’ll put it on my list.

But Critchley is also right to remind us that  reverie can be tapped from many sources, in many ways, at many angles of inclination… if we’re fully present to them.  It’s just that walking works most reliably for me, as apparently it did for J-J R.

Don’t fear the reaper

May 15, 2009

You might not expect The Book of Dead Philosophers to be funny and amusing and inspiring, but that’s what Simon Critchley has accomplished in this compendium of how “190 or so dead philosophers” got that way. I’ll save a recounting of some of the more startling and less well-known shufflings-off for another day, though I am especially and sympathetically struck by poor Montaigne‘s loss of speech at the end, he who had written that the most horrible death would be to die without the power of speech. (Nowadays, no doubt, many of us would say the worst would be to die without Internet access.)

But for now I simply note and endorse Critchley’s conclusion: accepting our mortality is the condition for courage and endurance in place of the despair that so many seekers of immortality (either in an imagined heaven or on a bio-technologically transformed Earth) must suffer. Most, including most Christians, “are actually leading quietly desperate atheist lives bounded by a desire for longevity and a terror of annihilation.” It is possible to lead an open and affirming atheist life, but only after looking the reaper square in the eyes and not flinching. I’m working on it. (Monty Python helps.)

“It is only in relation to the acceptance of self-loss that there might be a self to gain.”

woody and reaperI don’t want to achieve immortality through my work or through my children, said Woody Allen, but through not dying.  That’s desperation.