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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Umberto Eco and Kitaro Nishida "On Being"

The interesting aspect of the first 100 pages of Umberto Eco's book "Kant and the Platypus: Essays on Language and Cognition" is the fact that it connects to Japan's only rational philosophy (at least historically) on the topic of "Pure Experience" and on "Being." Eco conventionally cites much Heidegger simply because one cannot write about Being without considering the great German. Having said that, Kitaro Nishida appears ignorant of Heidegger on theory and method, perhaps because he was writing before Heidegger became known, or even developed his ideas. This relates to that most obscure topic of serendipity, etc. I studied Nishida in 1994 while I lived and studied in Hikone, Japan. I came across his book "An Inquiry into the Good" by chance at the Michigan State University Center for Japan Studies right there in Hikone. Right away I knew I had to read this book. The introduction by Masao Abe alone is worth the price of admission. This introduction is brilliantly written; clear enough for a lay reader of philosophy like myself to be able to follow it and understand it on the first reading. Nishida, however, is a bit more complex and it took me several readings to understand at least half of what I read. While for the most part I am citing Umberto Eco's work, I am actually PDFing my notes on Nishida on this LINK. These are my original, handwritten notes from 1994.

Eco's first section of the book, entitled "On Being," covers for the most part the basic definitions of self-recognition and being that most people associate with Heidegger. However, Eco presents a clear and expertly shorten chronology on the ideas of self/being and recognition from Aristotle and Aquinas, to Descartes and Kant, and, as the expert semiotologist that he is, he refers to the process of how we recognize self/being and how symbols help us do so. Here's an example: "The problem with Aristotelian being lay not in the pollachos but in the leghetai [these are terms Aristotle uses to define the self/being from a substantial or transcendental or spiritual self/being]. Whether it is said in one or many ways, being is something that is said. It may well be the horizon of every other evidence, but it becomes a philosophical problem only when we begin to talk about it, and it is precisely our talking about it that makes it ambiguous and polyvocal." This is precisely what Kitaro Nishida problematizes when he creates the polemic of "Pure Experience" and "Reality" where he explores the phenomena of consciousness as the sole basis of reality. Because Eco is dedicated to the way we symbolize or recognize being (ourselves and others) he seems as disparate from Nishida, but a closer look reveals a distinct connection: both philosophers see language as a symbol used to recognized our own being. For that reason, symbols are primary as they appear in language and secondarily as material being. Eco continues "Being is that which enables all subsequent definitions to be made. But all definitions are the effect of the logical and therefore semiosical organization of the world.... if being is the horizon of departure, saying that something 'is' adds nothing to what was already self-evident by the very fact of naming that something as the object of our discourse." And here's a major clash with defining being/self as it appears to the cognition, especially as it refers to Heidegger. Heidegger's Dasein, and the problematic question he posted as "What is 'is?'" Eco explores that idea that since Heidegger begins and ends with language, he continues to be enslaved to language for a definition. To post it in an easier way... Could we recognize (cognition) the self and being without the intrusion of language? Do we need language in order to define our self/being? If language had never developed, would we be reasonable/logic-driven humans who recognize we exist and are substantially a being?

I am also reading a book on fiction writing theory where the author asks the reader/writer to create an emotional map of his/her history and try to sketch it in a way that is not biographically inspired. I find this exercise fascinating and very difficult to do, which is the reason why I am so engaged with it. I'll possibly be writing about this next here in the blog before continuing with Eco/Nishida.

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Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Being Good: An Introduction to Ethics

Being Good by Simon Blackburn is a re-read for me. Why now? Why re-read this book after re-reading Will Durant's "The Story of Philosophy" during my Year of Living Philosophically reading list? Because there's so much to this very slim and wonderful book and I want to share it in my blog. I am also teaching a World Literature advanced course (seniors only), and the main connecting theme is virtue/ethics. As a result, we've read a wide variety of entries on that topic, including "Meno," and a lot of Voltaire, Kant, Shopenhauer, and even Nietzsche. Blackburn's little book (like Durant's excellent volume) is a clear and concise summary of what it constitutes to live ethically. But the book is much more. Instead of beginning with a dull history, Prof. Blackburn starts with "The Seven Threats to Ethics." He actually doesn't get to the history or chronology until the last chapter, which deals primarily with the foundations of ethics. And even then the book doesn't turn into a chronology, but continues to relate ethics to different polemics and scenarios that make the reader think rather than read passively. This is a must for any student of ethics, or for anyone seeking a strong foundation of the study of right and wrong. Some of the examples Blackburn uses include (but are not limited to) abortion, summus bonus, etc. You can't go wrong with this quick and accessible read.

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