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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Immanuel Kant & The German Idealists

Will Durant explains Kant and the German Idealists quite well in "The Story of Philosophy", albeit quite briefly. The biographical sketch is both informative and entertaining, but lacks the theoretical vigor of the chapters on Voltaire and even the slim one on Spinoza. Of course Durant qualifies the book as a small outline of philosophy, and his explanation is quite sufficient. I only hope he had touched upon Hegel's dialectics a bit more. Of course, I know this is my preference, as it is Durant's to cover some philosophers more than others. It was Hegel's dialectics (and Nietzsche's nihilism) that first turned me on to philosophy. Immanuel Kant, on the other hand, remained unintelligible to me for many years. I've come to understand him better after this re-reading of Durant's expose.

The reason Kant is so misunderstood is the fact that he grapples with the balance between reason and the metaphysical world. Logic dictated to him things reason only made dance on other philosophers' heads before him. Either way, Kant's "Critique of Pure Reason" advocated the consideration of other elements contemporaries deemed "irrational." By his insightful analysis of the lacks in reason, Kant exposes a theory which only fails were his contemporaries ability to comprehend it. Kant influences were more insightful when it comes to understanding the man and the philosopher, and it is good that Durant includes them before he "hits" on Kant directly. Of these Rousseau and Hume are closer ideologically and theoretically. The battle between sense and the concrete then hit Western philosophy quite hard. "... to save religion from reason, and yet at the same time to save science from scepticism--this was the mission of Immanuel Kant." This was a noble aim, to be sure, but how would Kant convey this to his contemporaries, let alone explain it clearly enough so that the authorities didn't throw him in jail? Enter "The Critique of Pure Reason," a book so complicated most politicians and clergy of the age were unable to dissect it and pin anything on Kant. Durant explains the premise: "... what if we have knowledge that is independent of sense-experience, knowledge whose truth is certain to us even before experience--a priori? Then absolute truth, and absolute science, would become possible, would it not? Is there such absolute knowledge? This is the problem of the first Critique... 'My question is [and here Kant picks up] what we can hope to achieve with reason, when all the material and assistance of experience are taken away.... Experience is by no means the only field to which our understanding can be confined. Experience tells us what is, but not that it must be necessary what it is and not otherwise." Of course this sounds quite confusing, but one has to look at the larger picture here. Kant continues: "It therefore never gives us any really general truth; and our reason, which is particularly anxious for that class of knowledge, is roused by it rather than satisfied." Certainly, an attack of this magnitude will grant Kant a number of enemies in both secular and religious camps, but "The Critique of Pure Reason" goes a step further: "Mathematical knowledge is necessary and certain; we cannot conceive of future experience violating it. We may believe that the sun will 'rise' in the west tomorrow, or that some day, in some conceivable world, fire will not burn a stick; but we cannot for the life of us believe that two times two will ever make anything else than four. Such truths are true before experience; they do not depend on experience past, present or to come." This is a bit like the Zen koan of a tree falling in the woods and no one there to hear it fall. The certain truth exists despite our recognition of it. Metaphysically, you may argue the same premise with the question of God. If man didn't exist, would God exist? Reason brings down the tree of that argument based on the following: "Sensation is unorganized stimulus, perception is organized sensation, conception is organized perception, science is organized knowledge, wisdom is organized life: each is a greater degree of order, and sequence, and unity. Whence this order, this sequence, this unity? Not from the things themselves; for they are known to us only by sensations that come through a thousand channels at once in disorderly multitude..." In some way, then, Kant straddled both theoretical stands. One would think that this would have allowed him to gain favor in both reason and theological camps, but this was not the case. Humanity doesn't operate at the level of geniuses. It is here that Durant grants Kant the crown of being the first Pragmatist. Kant certainly influenced William James a great deal, so I can see the connection. Later, by correlating the idea of beauty (as humans experience it) and creation with some systematical process (due to symmetry), he was able to placate criticism from the theologists. By "correlating design and beauty... the beautiful, he thinks, is anything which reveals symmetry and unity of structure, as if it has been designed by intelligence." I am unaware of creationists attaching themselves to this argument and using Kant to further their desires. Does anyone know? Could you respond?

With Hegel, Durant is less objective and kind. Again, dialectics aside, Hegel is not a powerful influence of future Western thought (at least Durant thinks). Hegel was arrogant, that's true, but one cannot judge the theories based on the man. Picasso was a fifth rate human being, but he was a first rate genius. Certainly this doesn't explain his behavior away, but we cannot judge his art based on his human actions... philosophy, like art, is beyond that.

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Monday, February 23, 2009

Paul Auster, the Master Speaks...

I am not sure which rock I was sleeping under while this took place, but here it is. I found it this past weekend.

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Thursday, February 19, 2009

Francis Bacon, Spinoza and Voltaire's Enlightment

Durant's coverage of Plato and Aristotle is very good, and the sharp reader would be quick to raise expectations with the rest of "The Story of Philosophy." I am not that sharp a reader and I seem to exist in a simpler world than the complicated one of trying to outline the history of Western thought. Having said that, a sharp reader will find Durant's jump from Aristotle all the way to Francis Bacon a bit disconcerting. Again, I am not that reader (especially since I am re-reading this). The motivation of Will Durant to jump from Aristotle to Bacon stems from his theory that once Aristotelian structures of philosophical and scientific analysis were established, no other philosopher really deviated from them until Francis Bacon came around. The chapter on Francis Bacon begins with a historical outline "From Aristotle to the Renaissance," and while Durant does a very good job covering the events, most of it gets lost in between a diagnosis of what brought about Stoicism. He details the Epicurian ideas of balance, and exposes one little treasure of philosophy: ataraxia. Durant defines it as "tranquility, equanimity, repose of mind." I suppose it might be what today is commonly known as "Serenity Now!" from the famous Seinfeld episode. From here Durant follows other developments that lead to the advent of the Christian church, and analyzing the connection between religious and philosophical ideas, Durant states that "From Epicurus 'Dissertations' and Aurelius' 'Meditations' there is but a step to 'The Imitation of Christ," referring, of course, to the famous little book by Thomas a Kempis.
Issues with Papacy and developments in Rome lead eventually to advances in technology which brought about an abundance of good and more leisure time (increase of literacy) and the Birth of the Renaissance. How does Francis Bacon fit in all of this? He doesn't, but that is where Durant leaves us off and picks up the trail of our English philosopher.

The second part of the chapter deals directly with Francis Bacon's biography and major accomplishments. Durant's examinations of "The Essays" by Bacon leaves us wanting for more analysis: "Nothing could be more injurious to health as the Stoic repression of desire; what is the use of prolonging a life which apathy has turned into premature death?.... let no man trust his victory of nature too far; for nature will lay buried a great time, and yet revive upon the occasion or temptation." What is left out of this analysis is, of course, the fact that the Church--struggling for power against secular influence--promoted this passionless/dry life in order to convince men that it was worth dying for a cause rather than dying for nothing. Deprive yourself of earthly pleasures because eternal life is more important. Brilliant. Of course Bacon fought this tooth and nail, and the results were leaps and bounds in the battle against religious influence in daily life. For this reason (and perhaps this is the cause of the major drift between religion and philosophy), Bacon and most of the following philosophers were deemed atheists or anti-Christs. Could we then blame Francis Bacon for this? Durant thinks not (and, after all, it shouldn't be a matter of blame): "A little philosophy inclineth a man's mind to atheism; but a depth in philosophy bringeth men's minds about to religion." I wonder, then, how it all turned out the way it did in history. Francis Bacon's "The New Organon" appears to Durant as the "love all, save all" work philosophy had been waiting around for: "The first step, therefore, is the Expurgation of the Intellect. We must become as little children, innocent in isms and abstractions, washed clear of prejudices and preconsceptions." If you are thinking tabula rasa, you are absolutely right... although a few centuries off. Durant explains Bacon's later thoughts on the matter quite well, but the philosopher's sketch turns again from an examination of his theories to biographical facts. The story of Bacon being sent to the Tower for a complaint against a suit not being made to measurement or some such thing concludes the chapter on this remarkable (and some what over-rated philosopher).

With Spinoza, however, Durant is less kind. The biography paragraphs are very nicely written and engaging, but the rest of the chapter on Spinoza seems to overlook many of his foremost theories. I love Will Durant, please don't get me wrong, but he strikes me as a scholar who overwhelms the read with those things he loves best and doesn't do justice to those that do not capture his fancy as much. At any rate, Spinoza's important work is describe as follows: "The Tractatus Theologico-Politicus is perhaps the least interesting of [Spinoza's work] to us today, because the movement of higher criticism which Spinoza initiated has made into platitudes the propositions for which Spinoza risked his life.... The essential principle of the book is that the language of the Bible is deliberately metaphorical or allegorical; not only because it partakes of the Oriental tendency to high literary color and ornament, and exaggerated descriptive expressions; but because, too, the prophets and the apostles, to convey their doctrine by arousing the imagination, were compelled to adapt themselves to the capacities and predispositions of the popular mind." After being excommunicated from his Jewish community, Spinoza full knew the double-edgeness of religion. Durant states it best when he says that "Nothing is so terrible as solitude; and few forms of it so difficult as the isolation of a Jew from all his people." Spinoza, of course, after settling on a remove village of the Netherlands, could (with the benefit of distance) recognize that his work was part analysis, part self-introspection: "'I have often wondered that person who make boast of professing the Christian religion--namely, joy, peace, temperance, and charity to all men--should quarrel with such rancorous animosity, and display daily toward one another such bitter hatred, that this, rather than the virtues which they profess, is the readiest criterion of their faith.'" The reference to Christianity was an attempt to salvage the few bridges he had left after his excommunication, but most of the rabbis knew he was directing the statement at them as well. I can only say that his words come home to me like truth. In the "Improvement of the Intellect," Spinoza tackled more than just the metaphysical. He covered the varied themes of ethics, nature and God, matter and mind with what Durant calls "Euclidean clarity." I have to agree with Durant, as Spinoza theorizes on the dichotomy of mind and matter in this fashion: "'The body cannot determine the mind to think; nor the mind determine the body to remain in motion or at rest, or any other state.... the decision of the mind, and the desire and determination of the body are one and the same thing.'" The idea, it appears to Durant, was a novel concept at the time, and it wasn't until Immanuel Kant and the other German Idealists that the core of this philosophy jelled.

Will Durant loves Voltaire with a passion that is not only palpable but also lengthy. The pages covering Voltaire go from 152 to 190, and it is by far the longest chapter in my edition (1943, Garden City Publ). The biographical sketch is intertwined with theories and Voltaire's long list of famous friends parade before the reader in an amusing fashion. There's Frederick the Great, Louis XIV, Fontenelle, Chevalier de Rohan, Catherine of Russia, among many others. There are, of course, the scandals and Voltaire's handful of trips to the Bastille (courtesy of the Regent). Surely, as an intellectual Voltaire must be admired beyond reproach, but the way Durant presents Voltaire's philosophical principles and theories lacks the luster of the thinker himself. Much time is dedicated to Voltaire's biographical connections to characters in his plays such as "Zadig," and "Candide." Don't get me wrong, I love Durant and I love this book, but I am seeing how 20+ years since I last read it has filled my brain with better books on the history of philosophy. Voltaire gets his due when it comes to his philosophy, but it is at the end of the chapter, when the clash between rationalism, atheism and religion. By the time Durant reaches "The Encyclopedia and The Philosophic Dictionary," Voltaire had done his "damage" to the establishment (and rightly so), and Durant has run out of space in the book to cover it at more detail. Some of the explanatory text that stands out from this chapter begins with, "Conscience is not the voice of God, but the fear of the police; it is the deposit left in us from the stream of prohibitions poured over the growing soul by parents and teachers and press. Morality must be founded not on theology but on sociology; the changing needs of society, and not any unchanging revelation of dogma, must determine the good." Despite the fact that Voltaire did not consider himself an atheist, and to a large extent believed that there was a function for theology within the spirit of man. The problem was always how it applied to monarchical domination and church abuses. Nevertheless, Voltaire did go to his grave praised among the French secularist, damned by the religious populace, and even W.A. Mozart weighed in in a letter to Leopold back in Salzburg: "Voltaire," Mozart wrote, "that Godless pig, just recently died and since has written no more poetry."

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Friday, February 06, 2009

Plato & Aristotle: Is Charles Darwin a Plagiarist?

The title for this entry is inflammatory on purpose, but I'll get to that later. "The Story of Philosophy" by Will Durant is a magnificent little outline of philosophy written primarily with the "lay person" in mind. It serves as a introduction to the major philosophers of the Western canon with both biographical sketches and studies and critiques of their major works and ideas. It is a satisfying re-read, really, considering the first time I tackled this book I was in the middle of my undergraduate years, and a lot of it went right over my head.

I am most impressed by Durant's treatment of Plato. It is easy to see--with the benefit of distance and time--how many of the laudatory praise Durant gives Plato could be misinterpreted here (the book was published originally in 1926). Certainly, philosophy has changed in recent years to a more inclusive account of Eastern philosophies (despite their metaphysical content), and other handful of more obscure cultural phenomena. Durant's account of Plato is succinct and informative. Problems arise, of course, with Plato's ideological utopia. The idea of the philosopher-king is introduced and sparks begin to fly (as it always does even in the most diplomatic of classrooms). Plato ignores or assumes that most people would understand the communistic elements of sacrifice and asceticism in opposition to riches and extravagance. To the question of why aren't there more Utopias, Plato answers that "... greed and luxury" poisons the pristine element needed for such a form of government to work. "Men are not content" Plato continues "with a simple life: they acquisitive, ambitious, competitive, and jealous; they are soon tire of what they have, and pine for what they have not; and they seldom desire anything unless it belongs to others." I am fascinated as to how all of these things seem to still apply to society today, and, specifically, to our present economic crisis. One of the main calls President Obama has made to the nation is restrain and sacrifice... will anyone listen? Other things Plato elaborates on here are also applicable. Regardless of political affiliation, consider of any of this makes sense: "[I]n politics, we presume that every one who knows how to get votes knows how to administer a city or a state. When we are ill we call for a trained physician, whose degree is a guarantee of specific preparation and technical competence--we do not ask for the handsomest physician, or the most eloquent one; well then, when the whole state is ill should we not look for the service and guidance of the wisest and the best?" Again, I am not citing this to promote any criticism against any of the political parties or their candidates, but one can see how reflective this is of what has become of the American democracy. The problem with Plato--again--is the fact that he calls for a philosopher-king to rule; that only those with the training in the specific rules of philosophy are equipped with the knowledge of how to rule: Until philosophers are kings, or the kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy, and wisdom and political leadership meet in the same man, cities will never cease from ill, nor the human race."

Plato's major contribution to philosophy is in the formation of an educational system that incorporates both the physical and the artistic intuitions (I am a product of such a system). From ages 1 through 10, healthy children will be trained in the gymnastics and other physical activities. From 10 years old on, the individual will be trained for intellectual matters, beginning, most surprisingly with music: "We do not want a nation of prize-fighters and weight-lifters. Perhaps music will solve our problem: through music the soul learns harmony and rhythm, and even a disposition to justice; for can he who is harmoniously constituted ever be unjust?.... Music moulds character, and therefore shares in determining social and political issues." Isn't it terrible that the arts are usually the first things to go when a school levy is not passed by our voters? But Plato recognized his issues early on and was ready to accept the problems his utopia was unable to overcome: "He admits that he has described an ideal difficult of attainment; he answers that there is nevertheless a value in painting these pictures of our desire; man's significance is that he can imagine a better world, and will some part of it at least into reality; man is an animal that makes Utopias." One can almost hear Lennon's lyrics from "Imagine" here.

With Aristotle Durant is a bit firmer, but willing to overlook some other issues that caught my eye and gave rise to the inflammatory title of this entry. In the section "The Organization of Science, i. Greek Science Before Aristotle," Durant list Aristotle's accomplishments, as well as a number of other innovators from whom Aristotle borrowed or was inspired from. A venerable list of "who's who" follows: Thales (640-550 B.C), Anaximander (610-540 B.C.), Anaximenes (fl. 450 B.C.), Anaxagoras (500-428 B.C.), and most importantly one Empedocles (fl. 445 B.C. in Sicily) who "developed to a further stage the idea of evolution. Organs arise not by design but by natural selection. Nature makes many trials and experiments with organisms, combining organs variously; where the combination meets environmental needs the organism survives and perpetuates its like; where the combination fails, the organism is weeded out..." The problem is that I have not read "The Origins of the Species" by Charles Darwin, so I am quite unaware as to whether or not Mr. Darwin gave some credit to the ancient Greeks (in particular our good Empedocles). Does anyone know? Could you drop us a line?

Presently, I am reading the section on Spinoza. The section on Francis Bacon was very good, but I think a little overdone in terms of Bacon's achievements; these were mainly interpreted by Durant, and a little slanting or bias might be present. I will be writing on Bacon and Spinoza next.

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Tuesday, February 03, 2009

How Soon We Forget George.... Orwell, that is!

I made a terrible mistake when I wrote previously that my next volume on my reading was Will Durant's "The Story of Philosophy." It is true that presently I am engrossed in a re-read of Durant's compact outline of philosophy, but before I got there the schedule really took me to George Orwell's "Why I Write." I got this little volume on the strength that it contains "Politics and the English Language," which is one of my favorites from my undergrad years. The core of the book, however, "Why I Write," was really not about writing so much as it was a critique of the English establishment, and a sort of diatribe on the virtues of socialism. While I don't necessarily agree or disagree with socialist ideas, I think Orwell's piece is a little bit over the top when in reference to England and its people. One must remember that this is being written during the opening salvos of World War II, and that the English were very far from knowing what destiny had in store for them. Orwell speaks derogatorily of Hitler, of course, but spends more time "bashing" the English establishment than the enemy that is upon him. In fact, he actually blames the English establishment, culture, philosophy and frame of mind with the overwhelming force Germany is pressing down Europe with. While one may or may not disagree with such assessment (Lord Chamberlain notwithstanding), it strikes of hasty generalization. Here are some lines from the essay:

"... The policeman who arrests the 'red' does not understand the theories the 'red' is preaching; if he did his own position as bodyguard of the moneyed class might seem less pleasant to him.... It should be noted that there is now no intelligentsia that is not in some sense 'left.' Perhaps the last right-wing intellectual was T.E. Lawrence.... [A] marked characteristic is the emotional shallowness of people who live in a world of ideas and have little contact with physical reality.... England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality.... Pacifism is a psychological curiosity rather than a political movement...."

There's much more I could cite here as evidence. The essay, while sharp and informative, is a mass of generalizations that seem to protest the same manipulation of language Orwell so gallantly shouts at in "Politics and the English Language." Here's proof: "Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind." It may be a George thing, after all. :-)

Right now, I am up to Aristotle in Durant's magnificent little outline, "The Story of Philosophy." I have re-discovered how much I loved this book. It is the most clear and concise outline of philosophy based on ease of writing and understandable terminology and phrasing. What a great read. I will be writing on sections of TWO philosophers at a time.

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