The abuse of the physical frame by the young and seemingly immortal is a folly to be warned against but not prevented, a folly for which the pains of premature decrepitude are the just tax; whereas a youth spent cultivating the delights of study pays rich dividends as the years roll on. For, as Holbrook Jackson (The Anatomy of Bibliomania, 121 f.) maintains:
No labour in the world is like unto study, for no other labour is less dependent upon the rise and fall of bodily condition; and, although learning is not quickly got, there are ripe wits and scholarly capacities among men of all physical degrees, whilst for those of advancing years study is of unsurpassed advantage, both for enjoyment and as a preventative of mental decay. Old men retain their intellects well enough, said Cicero, then on the full tide of his own vigorous old age, if only they keep their minds active and fully employed; [De Senectate, 22, tr. E. S. Shuckburgh, 38] and Dr. Johnson holds the same opinion: There must be a diseased mind, he said, where there is a failure of memory at seventy. [Life, ed. Hill, iii, 191] Cato (so Cicero tells us) was a tireless student in old age; when past sixty he composed the seventh book of his Origins, collected and revised his speeches, wrote a treatise on augural, pontifical, and civil law, and studied Greek to keep his memory in working order; he held that such studies were the training grounds of the mind, and prophylactics against consciousness of old age. [Op. cit. 61-62]
The indefatigable Mr. Jackson continues in this vein for another closely printed page, most interestingly, but most taxingly for your humble transcriber. I must now quit the scriptorium and the 'sphere to sally forth in quest of vittles for the evening's repast.
More and more, I find myself attempting to have difficult conversations with people who hold very different points of view. And I consider our general failure to have these conversations well—so as to produce an actual convergence of opinion and a general increase in goodwill between the participants—to be the most consequential problem that exists. Apart from violence and other forms of coercion, all we have is conversation with which to influence one another. The fact that it is so difficult for people to have civil and productive conversations about things like U.S. foreign policy, or racial inequality, or religious tolerance and free speech, is profoundly disorienting. And it’s also dangerous. If we fail to do this, we will fail to do everything else of value. Conversation is our only tool for collaborating in a truly open-ended way.
[. . .]
. . . conversation is our only hope.
Fascinating and worthy of careful thought. Here are the main points I take Harris to be making.
1. A successful conversation produces a convergence of opinion and an increase in good will between the participants.
2. The failure to have such conversations is the most consequential problem that exists.
3. Apart from violence and other forms of coercion, all we have is conversation with which to influence one another.
4. Our failure to have civil and productive conversations about important matters of controversy is dangerous.
5. If we fail to do this, we will fail to do everything else of value.
Should we agree with any or all of these points?
Ad (1). We shouldn't agree with this. It would not be reasonable to do so. Neither of the two conditions Harris specifies are necessary for a successful conversation. I have had many successful philosophical and other conversations that do not issue in agreement or convergence of opinion. And I am sure you have as well. What these conversations issue in is clarification. The topic becomes clearer, as well as its implications for and relations with other topics, the arguments on both sides get better understood, as well as one's views and one's interlocutor's views. Mutual clarification, even without agreement, even with intractable disagreement, is sufficient for successful conversation. If we come to understand exactly what it is we disagree about, then that is very important progress even if we never come to agree.
In fact, I consider it utopian and indeed foolish to think that one can achieve (uncoerced, rational) agreement on truly fundamental matters. On some matters rational agreement among competent interlocutors is of course possible; but on others just impossible. If this is right, then agreement on all important matters of controversy cannot be an ideal for us, a goal we ought to pursue. Ought implies can. If we ought to pursue a goal, then it must be possible for us to achieve it. If a certain goal is impossible for us to achieve, then we cannot be obliged to achieve it.
A reachable goal is clarity, not agreement; toleration, not consensus.
Consider religion. Is it a value or not? Conservatives, even those who are atheistic and irreligious, tend to view religion as a value, as conducive to human flourishing. Liberals and leftists tend to view it as a disvalue, as something that impedes human flourishing. This is an important, indeed crucially important, question. Does Sam Harris really think that, via patient, civil, mutually respectful conversation, no matter how protracted, he is going to convince those of us who think religion important for human flourishing to abandon our view?
If he thinks this he is naive. I respect Harris, something I cannot say about some other New Atheists. But Harris is out beyond his depth in philosophy and religion. And he has a foolish belief in the power of reason to resolve the issues that are of deepest concern to us. Reason is a magnificent thing, of course, but Harris appears to have no inkling of its infirmity.
As for the other condition, an increase in good will, surely it is not necessary for a successful conversation. The quantity of good will may stay the same in a discussion without prejudice to the discussion's being productive. It may even decrease. Admittedly, without a certain amount of initial good will, no fruitful conversation can take place. But it is false to say that a successful conversation increases good will.
Ad (2). If (1) is false or unreasonable, then so is (2). Suppose I have a conversation with an atheist such as Harris and fail to budge him from his position while he fails to budge me from mine. Such a conversation can be very productive, useful, successful, not to mention transcendently enjoyable. The life of the mind is of all lives the highest and best, and its being these things is not predicated on achieving agreement about the lofty topics that engage our interest while quite possibly transcending our ability to resolve them to our mutual satisfaction. The failure to meet Harris's conditions need be no problem at all, let alone the most consequential problem that exists.
Ad (3). Harris tells us that it is either coercion or conversation when it comes to influencing people. This is plainly a false alternative. One way to non-violently and non-coercively influence people is by setting a good example. If I treat other people with kindness, respect, forbearance, etc., this 'sets a good example' and reliably induces many people in the vicinity to do otherwise. In fact I needn't say a word, let alone enter into a conversation. For example, with a friendly gesture I can invite a motorist to enter my lane of traffic. In doing so, I ever-so-slightly increase the good will and fellow feeling in the world, profiting myself in the process. In this connection, a marvellous aphorism from Søren Kierkegaard, Journals, #1056:
The essential sermon is one's own existence.
But more importantly, there is teaching which in most cases is a non-violent but also a non-conversational mode of influencing people. For example, teaching someone how to change a tire, play chess, use a computer. If I have a skill, I don't discuss it with you, I teach it to you. Much of elementary education is non-violent but also non-conversational. Teaching the alphabet, the moves of the chess men, the multiplication tables, and so on. There is nothing to discuss, nothing to have a conversation about. The elements have simply to be learned. Controversial topics open to debate will arise late on. But there is no point in discussing the Peano axioms if one does not know that 1 + 1 = 2.
What about ethical instruction? Only a liberal fool would advocate conversations with young children about theft and murder and lying as if the rightness or wrongness of these acts is subject to reasonable debate or is a matter of mere opinion. They must be taught that these things are wrong for their own good and for the good of others. Discussion of ethical niceties and theories comes later, if at all, and presupposes ethical indoctrination: a child who has not internalized and appropriated ethical prescriptions and proscriptions cannot profit from ethical conversations or courses in ethics. You cannot make a twenty-year-old ethical by requiring him to ake a course in ethics. He must already be ethical by upbringing.
Harris's thesis #3 is plainly false. But this is not to deny that respectful conversation is much to be preferred over coercive methods of securing agreement and should be pursued whenever possible.
Ad (4). Harris tells us that it is "dangerous" to not have civil and productive conversations about important and controversial matters. But why dangerous? Harris must know that even among competent and sincere interlocutors here in the West who share may assumptions and values we are not going to come to any agreement about God, guns, abortion, capital punishment, same-sex 'marriage,' the cluster of questions surrounding 'global warming' and plenty of other economic, political, and social questions. How can it be dangerous to not have interminable, inconclusive conversations? Conversations that go nowhere? That are more productive of dissensus than consensus? That contribute to polarization? Well, I suppose you could say that if we are talking we are not shooting.
Ad (5). Harris is really over the top on this one. Exercise for the reader: supply the refutation.
Conclusion: Conversation is overrated. If it is our only hope we are in very bad shape. We need fewer 'conversations,' not more. And we need more tolerance of opposing points of view. More tolerance and more voluntary separation. We don't need to talk to get along. We need to talk less while respecting boundaries and differences. We need less engagement and more dis-engagement. Everybody needs to back off. Trouble is, totalitarians won't back off. They want a total clamp-down on belief and behavior. And it doesn't matter whether they are 'liberal' totalitarians or Islamist totalitarians.
So there looks to be no way to avoid a fight. Unfortunately, it is reason herself who teaches that it is often the hard fist of unreason that prevails and settles the issue when the appeal to reason is unavailing.
When philosophy is done with others it takes the form of dialog, not debate. It is conversation between friends, not opponents, who are friends of the truth before they are friends of each other. Amicus Plato, sed magis amica veritas.
Ideally speaking, of course. Pushing a bit further into the Ideal:
In a face-to-face philosophical discussion, three is a crowd. As a rule, if not always.
If Al and Bill are talking philosophy, the first thing that has to occur, if there is to be any forward movement, is that the interlocutors must pin each other down terminology-wise. Each has to come to understand how the other is using his terms. It is notorious that key philosophical terms are used in different ways by different philosophers. This terminological fluidity, though regrettable, is unavoidable since attempts to rigidify terminology will inevitably beg key questions.
The following is a partial list of terms used in different ways by different philosophers: abstract, concrete, object, subject, fact, proposition, world, predicate, property, substance, event. Take 'fact.' For some, it is a matter of definition that a fact is a true proposition. But as I use the term, a fact is the truth-maker of a true proposition. Suppose you use 'fact' as interchangeable with 'true proposition.' Then I can accommodate you by distinguishing between facts-that and facts-of. Thus, the fact that Bill is blogging is made true by the fact of Bill's blogging. But we must sort out these definitional questions if we are to make any progress with the substantive issues. A substantive question would be: Are there facts? Obviously, we cannot make any headway with this until we agree on how we are using 'fact.' For more on this topic see Three Senses of 'Facts' and other entries in the Facts category.
And of course we can't stop here. If you say that a fact is a true proposition, then I will ask you how you are using 'proposition.' Do you mean the sense of a context-free declarative sentence? Are propositions for you abstract objects? But now we need to get clear about 'abstract' and 'object.' Do you use 'object' and 'entity' interchangeably? Or can there be objects that are not entities and entities that are not objects? (An hallucinated pink rat counts for some philosophers as an object that is not an entity, and a being that has never been the accusative of any intellect might count as an entity that is not an object.) Someone who uses 'object' in such a way that there is no object without a (thinking) subject is not misusing the word: that is a traditional use. But equally, a person who uses 'object' to mean entity is not misusing it either. So the use of 'object' needs clarification.
And then to add to the bloody mess there are those who use 'object' to mean entity belonging to the category of individuals.
One might use 'abstract' and 'concrete' as follows: X is abstract (concrete) iff X is causally inert (causally active/passive). But I know of at least one name philosopher who uses 'abstract' interchangeably with 'nonspatiotemporal.' On this usage, God would be an abstract object, while on the first definition God would be concrete.
Note that an abstract entity on either of these two definitions can be a substance (another word with about ten meanings!), i.e., a being capable of independent existence. But 'abstract' is used by philosophers as diverse as Hegel and Keith Campbell (the Australian trope theorist) to refer to non-independent objects. And indeed, their use is the classical, and etymologically correct, use.
Talk of 'abstract objects' is Quinean, not classical.
There are philosophers who think that 'Cambridge' changes and real changes are mutually exclusive. Thus they think that if a change is Cambridge, then it is not real. This is a mistake if we go by the terminology as it was originally introduced by Peter Geach. Real changes are a proper subset of Cambridge changes. See here for details.
A word or phrase catches on and then people start using it idiosyncratically.
And then there is 'bare particular,' a phrase that can be and has been used in about four different ways. (See second article referenced below.)
How about de dicto and de re? I am not in the mood to touch that terminology with an eleven-foot pole, which is the pole I use to not touch something I won't touch with a ten-foot pole.
And so it goes. Suppose Carla is present at Al and Bill's discussion. Will she help or hinder? Experience teaches that, for the most part, three's a crowd: the third interlocutor, in her zeal to contribute to the discussion will only interfere with the protracted preliminary clarification that Al and Bill need before they can get to work on the substantive questions that interest them.
Note 1: The above applies to face-to-face discussions, not to on-line exchanges. Note 2: I seem to recall Roderick Chisholm making the 'three is a crowd' remark. So I may have picked up the thought from him.
I wanted to bring to your attention a passage I came across in Nicholas Rescher’s Philosophical Standardism (Pittsburgh, 1994):
“The old saying is perfectly true: Philosophy bakes no bread. But it is also no less true that we do not live by bread alone. The physical side of our nature that impels us to eat, drink, and be merry is just one of its sides. Homo sapiens requires nourishment for the mind as urgently as nourishment for the body. We seek knowledge not only because we wish, but because we must. The need for information, for knowledge to nourish the mind, is ever bit as critical as the need for food to nourish the body.” (p. 67)
I was struck by what I believed was the distinctively Vallicellan retort, “But it is also no less true that we do not live by bread alone.” I’m curious: Is this a well-known retort among philosophers? If not, did you get that from Rescher, he from you, or is this just an instance of great minds thinking alike?
To the philistine's "Philosophy bakes no bread" you should not respond "Yes it does," for such responses are patently lame. You should say, "Man does not live by bread alone," or "Not everything is pursued as a means to something else," or "A university is not a trade school." You should not acquiesce in the philistine's values and assumptions, but go on the attack and question his values and assumptions. Put him on the spot. Play the Socratic gadfly. If a philistine wants to know how much you got paid for writing an article for a professional journal, say, "Do you really think that only what one is paid to do is worth doing?"
I wouldn't say that the not-by-bread-alone retort is standard among philosophers, especially not now when Christianity is on the wane and one cannot assume that philosophers have read the New Testament. Professor Rescher, of course, knows the verse at Matthew 4:4.
I didn't get the retort from Rescher: Philosophical Standardism is not a book of his that I have read. The retort occurred to me independently as I am sure it has occurred independently to many of a certain age and upbringing.
And of course Rescher did not get the line from me since his book was published in 1994 long before the blogosphere.
And it is not a case of great minds thinking alike since neither of our minds are great. It is more like above-average minds thinking alike, though I concede his to be more above-average than mine.
Is there anyone in philosophy more prolific than Rescher? Here is a list of just his books. Forty years ago I heard the joke about the Nicholas Rescher Book-of-the-Month Club. And he is still happily scribbling away. Here is another Rescher joke:
A student goes to visit Professor Rescher. Secretary informs her that the good doctor is not available because he is writing a book. Student replies, "I'll wait."
Occasionally, Robert Paul Wolff says something at his blog that I agree with completely, for instance:
To an extent I did not anticipate when I set out on life’s path, books have provided many of the joys and satisfactions I have encountered. I am constantly grateful to the scholars and thinkers who have written, and continue to write, the books from which I derive such pleasure, both the great authors of the past . . . and those less exalted . . . .
Gratitude is a characteristically conservative virtue; hence its presence in Wolff softens my attitude toward him.
As Wolff suggests, our gratitude should extend to the lesser lights, the humbler laborers in the vineyards of Wissenschaft, the commentators and translators, the editors and compilers and publishers. Beyond that, to the librarians and the supporters of libraries, and all the preservers and transmitters of high culture, and those who, unlettered themselves in the main, defend with blood and iron the precincts of high culture from the barbarians who now once again are massing at the gates.
Nor should we forget the dedicated teachers, mostly women, who taught us to read and write and who opened up the world of learning to us and a lifetime of the sublime joys of study and reading and writing.
Immanuel Kant was born on this date in 1724. He died in 1804. My dissertation on Kant, which now lies 36 years in the past, is dated 22 April 1978. But if, per impossibile, my present self were Doktorvater to my self of 36 years ago, my doctoral thesis might not have been approved! As one's standards rise higher and higher with age and experience one becomes more and more reluctant to submit anything to evaluation let alone publication. One may scribble as before, and even more than before, but with less conviction that one's outpourings deserve being embalmed in printer's ink. (Herein lies a reason to blog.)
So finish the bloody thing now while you are young and cocky and energetic. Give yourself a year, say, do your absolute best and crank it out. Think of it as a union card. It might not get you a job but then it just might. Don't think of it as a magnum opus or you will never finish. Get it done by age 30 and before accepting a full-time appointment. And all of this before getting married. That, in my opinion, is the optimal order. Dissertation before 30, marriage after 30. Now raise your glass with me in a toast to Manny on this, his 290th birthday. Sapere aude!
Our man in Boulder, Spencer Case, here interviews Roger Scruton. I have reproduced the whole piece, bolding those portions I consider most important. To my pleasure, I find myself in agreement with what Scruton maintains below, though he ought to have avoided the "ideological concentration camp" exaggeration. I reproduce the whole of the interview to preserve it in case the link goes bad or the site goes down.
In this exclusive interview with The College Fix, globally renown British philosopher and polemicist Roger Scruton addresses the decline of the modern university.
Scruton, a highly respected, decorated scholar and author of more than 30 books, including his recent How to Think Seriously About the Planet: The Case for Environmental Conservatism, suggests colleges today have become more like “closed, ideological … concentration camps.”
He explores why that happened, why it’s wrong, and offers solutions. The interview was conducted by College Fix contributor Spencer Case last week at the University of Colorado – Boulder.
SC: So, I want to know how you would describe the state of the university. And I’m thinking in particular about the United States, but in other places as well. Do you see things generally moving in a positive direction or a negative direction, and why?
RS: I’m unusual in that I’m somebody with an academic status but who’s not part, not really part, of a university. I’ve been twenty years freelancing, supporting myself through writing and various small business-type activities, because I value my own independence, really. So I have observed it from the outside, but I do have the impression that there are things which are going wrong.
One is the way in which the difficult topics, the difficult subjects, rather, in the humanities, are being displaced by purely ideological subjects. It used to be the case that at the heart of the humanities there were difficult things like the classical languages, modern languages, literature –read properly and critically discussed – and so on, the “Great Books” and all the rest, in music the study of harmony and counter-point, in philosophy the analytical discipline that we know about so well. All those were real intellectual disciplines. But I see more and more they’re being replaced by gender studies and other forms of essentially ideological confrontation with the modern world.
SC: Now since you’re on that, that’s a great segue to another question. The question is: there is a kind of tension between, I think, more traditional type philosophers and people who are into feminism, gender studies, this kind of stuff. I’m sort of the mind that these fields inject politics and political activism too much into philosophy. But they have responses to that. One of their responses is: “We’re concerned about justice, we’re concerned about authority, and these really are perennial philosophical issues.”
RS: Yeah, sure. There is plenty of room for people to include as part of the philosophical discussions of justice the whole question about the relation between man and woman, all the questions that feminists consider. There’s absolutely no reason why that shouldn’t be included. But, if the assumption is that one has to be a feminist, one has to arrive at a particular conclusion as a result of studying this, then what is involved is not philosophical discussion but ideology. The whole defining nature of philosophy is that you start from free inquiry and you don’t actually know what you’re going to come up with as a result of your arguments. To think that you have to have the conclusion prior to the investigation is effectually to say that this is a form of indoctrination.
SC: I mean, don’t you think that you hold certain conclusions in advance of investigation? I mean, you probably knew in advance of investigation that you weren’t likely to become a global skeptic, for instance.
RS: Of course there are certain things. All of us hold certain premises on which our world view rests and we find it very difficult to question those premises. But we also know that there are controversial areas in which other people do not agree with us, and when we enter those areas it is our obligation as philosophers to open our minds, consider the arguments, and perhaps arrive at conclusions that we didn’t expect. And surely, this area about the nature of the relation between the sexes and so on is one of those. It’s quite clear that the feminist position is not accepted by everyone in the world around us, that it isn’t something that you have to have as a premise for your worldview if we are to see the world in which we live as it is. It’s not like the morality which tells us “Thou shalt not kill” and so on. And there is a kind of a closing of the mind that has happened here which excludes those that disagree with a particular position. And considering that some of those are highly intelligent people who don’t just wallow in their own prejudices, this is obviously a threat to our academic freedom.
SC: When you look at the current state of higher education, is there one philosophical mistake that you see implicated in getting us to the current sorry state of things?
RS: Well, yes. I would say that … [pause] yeah, I think there is one basic weakness in all the developments that I most would criticize. And that is that they are based upon embodying an ideological conclusion into the curriculum rather than a method of inquiry. And I think all of the humanities that have made our university so important and so great and made them contribute to the surrounding civic order, they all had this idea in their hearts of free inquiry into a subject matter, a defined subject matter, real intellectual questions, and a body of literature that helped people to understand the area. But I think what has happened is that new subjects, or new disciplines, so called, have come into being which do not require methods of inquiry, but they do require adherence to a particular conclusion.
SC: Alright, well I want to ask you about the thesis of a book I’m reading now by Robert Nisbet. The book is The Degradation of the Academic Dogma. And he basically argues that the university is the last medieval guild, the last medieval institution, to have survived the influences of modernism. And it requires certain things, like the respect for seeking truth for its own sake and scholarship, and it requires a kind of authority structure and it requires things that are really sort of out of place in the modern world. And he sees that the university is now being eroded by a cultural outlook that is incompatible with the values it requires. And I’m wondering if you could comment on that.
RS: Yes. I haven’t read this book, but I do have a tendency to agree with Robert Nisbet when I read him. I think the universities have certainly changed from what they were, from what they were when I was educated, actually. It is no longer possible to see them as uniquely involved in the dispassionate pursuit for truth for its own sake. That is something that is gone, for the reasons that I’ve said earlier, that in the humanities at least disciplines which pursued truth for its own sake have been replaced with disciplines that pursue political conformity. And the indoctrination of a specific worldview which is that of a very small minority, which has, I think, no relation to the way that normal people live. So in a sense he’s right.
But I don’t think – after all, the university isn’t entirely dominated by the humanities. On the contrary, the humanities have had a dwindling role to play for the very reason that they’ve become politicized. So they’ve become uninteresting to many students. A good university has a flourishing science section, and flourishing professional sections devoted to medicine and law and so on, and that’s always been the case, since the Middle Ages.
SC: Now, that’s great that you segue into the humanities. If you’re looking at the university today and the trends that are affecting it – even superficially – one of things that you’re going to notice is this decline in the humanities. And I’ve noticed that there are really two different components to this trend. There’s a sort of “bottom-up” trend of students not being as interested in it, fewer choosing to take up the topic. And there’s also a “top-down” component to it. The top-down component is administrators seem hostile to the humanities …
SC: … and it seems philosophy in particular. So if there are funding cuts, we know who’s going to bear most of the brunt of that. And I wonder, do you think that they are simply responding to the desires of the students, the preferences of the students, or is there some greater ideology or something behind that?
RS: I’m not sure, because I don’t know the situation in American universities as well as you do. I would say that administrators are obviously very concerned to raise funds for the university, and if it’s a question of closing down a department, they’re not going to close down a department that brings in funding. And of course, the humanities departments, on the whole, don’t bring in funding in the way that science departments do, or law departments. So, they are vulnerable. And, having become vulnerable, they make themselves more vulnerable, of course, if they simply become centers of trouble-making ideological conformity. That inevitably will have a negative impact. But I don’t know whether the administrators have an ideological motive.
In the university where I taught part-time recently, at St. Andrews in Scotland, they have closed down departments because of lack of funding, and it has been entirely on financial grounds. But it’s interesting that the department they closed down first was music, while keeping open business studies and things like that which are, on my view, complete non-sense, really, for a university to be involved in. But the business studies departments produce money, the music department didn’t, even though, of course, music, from Plato’s day, has been the fundamental discipline in the humanities. Plato made it fundamental to the university when he invented the academy, and it should have remained so. But it is vulnerable because it’s expensive to run and doesn’t bring in money. And yet, it seems to me, a university that doesn’t have a flourishing music department doesn’t really deserve the name.
SC: Final question. Also in Nisbet’s book he makes the point that the decline of the university doesn’t necessarily mean the decline of higher learning. The decline of the university could herald the dawn of new institutions that fill the same role, and perhaps may do the same things even better. I think of things like the Khan Academy and the Teaching Company, and the Teaching Company allows people to buy cds of lectures on various topics. And it seems to me that if you want to be an autodidact this really is the best time in which to live. You just have the ability to learn a lot on your own, and pretty cheaply. And I wonder if that is encouraging to you.
RS: It is, in a way. I would hate to see the universities disappear because they are fundamental institutions in Western society. They have been symbols of intellectual freedom, symbols of the civic virtue which I think most distinguishes us. Namely, the ability of people of different views to live together and to discuss their differences. That is a fantastic thing, and the university is a symbol of that. But I agree that the more universities become these closed, ideological sort of concentration camps, the more people will look for their education outside. With the internet and everything, nothing there can stop them. And one has to accept that. And maybe that will force universities to become a bit more realistic about what they’re offering.
SC: That’s all I have. Is there anything you would like to add?
RS: Oh, what would I like to add? [laughter] I think I would like to add one thing, which is it seems to me that universities need to make an effort to reach out to those who disagree with the general liberal ideology, that they ought to be more self-knowing about all this. They ought to ask themselves the question “how is it that we got into this position, where only one point of view is represented, and also that any other point of view is persecuted?” which seems to be the growing reality. And I think universities do need to go through a period of self-criticism where they ask themselves that, and whether an effort shouldn’t be made simply to open things again.
Fix contributor Spencer Case is a philosophy graduate student at the University of Colorado. He is a U.S. Army veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan and an Egypt Fulbright alumnus.
Would you please start a series of posts akin to the "Saturday Night at the Oldies" except about books? A few books presented every week, each with a one sentence description, from as wide a thematic range as possible -- fiction, history, philosophy, biography and others. I would profit from it immensely, as would many others.
An excellent idea. So, in keeping with my masthead motto "Study everything," here are (some of) my recent reads. Disclaimer: Much of what follows are quick bloggity-blog remarks scribbled mainly for my own use. They are not intended as balanced reviews.
1. Hugh J. McCann, Creation and the Sovereignty of God (Indiana University Press, 2012).
I am finishing a review article about this book for American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly. Three sentences from the introduction: "Hugh McCann is an old pro in action theory and the philosophy of religion whose expertise is well-displayed in the eleven chapters of his magisterial Creation and the Sovereignty of God. [. . .] McCann’s central conviction is that God is absolutely sovereign, so much so that God is not only sovereign over the natural order, but also over the moral order, the conceptual order, and the divine nature itself. [. . .] The book can be summed up by saying that it is a detailed elaboration in all major areas of the consequences of the idea that God is absolutely sovereign and thus unlimited in knowledge and power.
2. Greg Bellow, Saul Bellow's Heart: A Son's Memoir (Bloomsbury 2013). Held my attention to the end. A son comes to grips with his relation to his famous conservative father. I found the son's uncritical liberalism annoying in places.
3. Colin McGinn, Problems in Philosophy: The Limits of Inquiry (Blackwell, 1993). One-sentence summary: The central problems of philosophy have naturalistic solutions, but we are prevented by our cognitive architecture from ever knowing them. Here is Peter van Inwagen's review. (A tip of the hat to sometime MavPhil commenter, Andrew Bailey, for making PvI materals available online.)
4. Marcia Clark (with Teresa Carpenter), Without a Doubt (Viking, 1997). Marcia Clark was the lead prosecutor in the ill-starred O.J. Simpson trial. Simpson was accused of first-degree murder in the brutal deaths of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, but acquitted. Clark's side of the story. I'm at p. 159 of 486 pp.
5. Dominick Dunne, Another City, Not My Own: A Novel in the Form of a Memoir (Crown, 1997). Another book about the Trial of the Century as Dunne calls it (the Simpson murder trial) by the late novelist, socialite, reporter, and gossip. Aficionados of that vast, sprawling monstrosity know as the City of the Angels will find this and the previous title of interest. I'm from there, so that helps explain my interest.
6. Aurel Kolnai (1900-1973), Ethics, Value, and Reality: Selected Papers of Aurel Kolnai (Hackett, 1978). I thank my young friend Kid Nemesis for bringing Kolnai's work to my attention. One of the ten papers collected here is Kolnai's seminal "Forgiveness" (orig. in Proc. Arist. Soc. 1973-74). David Wiggins and Bernard Williams co-author a useful introduction to Kolnai's life and work.
7. Josef Pieper, Hope and History: Five Salzburg Lectures, tr. D. Kipp (Ignatius, 1994, orig. publ. as Hoffnung und Geschichte by Koesel-Verlag in 1967). The German Thomist meditates on hope with the help of Kant, Teilhard de Chardin, Franz Kafka, and the Marxist Ernst Bloch. Pieper very politely criticizes Bloch's Marxist idiocies which cumlinate in the simultaneously outrageous and hilarious Ubi Lenin, ibi Jerusalem!
8. Ralph C. Wood, Flannery O'Connor and the Christ-Haunted South (Eerdman's 2004). A study of themes from the work of a Catholic novelist in the fundamentalist South.
9. Daniel C. Dennett, Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking (W. W. Norton 2013). Is Dennett a philosopher or a pseudo-philosopher? He is undoubtedly brilliant, as brilliant as he is sophistical, snarky, and unserious. I find the man and his works repellent. But Colin McGinn, atheist, naturalist, and apparently also a liberal, I find simpatico. McGinn is a real philosopher! You want to know my criteria? Some other time. My Dennett drubbings are here.
Correction. Monterey Tom correctly points out that " the title 'Trial of the Century' should go either to the Hiss Case or the Rosenberg case, both of which had social and political ramifications far beyond the mere sensationalism of the Simpson fiasco. The only reason why so few college graduates, even graduate students specializing in national security affairs, are familiar with the Hiss and Rosenberg cases is that both trials disprove one of the essential tenets of PC, namely that there never were any Communists in the first place. Of course, only a system as twisted as PC could require people to believe at the same time that while there never were any Communists they were good people."
Critical thinking is not necessarily opposed to the status quo. To criticize is not to oppose, but to sift, to assess, to assay, to evaluate. The etymology of krinein suggests as much. A critical thinker may well end up supporting the existing state of things in this or that respect. It is a fallacy of the Left to think that any supporter of any aspect of the status quo is an 'apologist' for it in some pejorative sense of this term. After all, some aspects of the status quo may be very good indeed, and others may be unimprovable without making things worse in other respects.
The notion that critical thinking entails opposition to the status quo presumably has its roots in the nihilism of the Left. Leftists are often incapable of appreciating what actually exists because they measure it against a standard that does not exist, and that in many cases cannot exist. It is the leftist Nowhere Man who judges the topos quo from the vantage point of utopia. There is no place like utopia, of course, but only because utopia is no place at all.
Just as leftists do not own dissent, they are not the sole proprietors of a critical attitude. Kritische Theorie as used by members of the Frankfurt School is a tendentious and self-serving expression.
Today I begin my tenth year as a 'blogosopher.' Traffic is good: rare is the day when the page view count drops below 1200, and there are numerous surge days above 2000. I'm in this game 'for the duration,' as they say: as long as health and eyesight hold out.
In Praise of Blogosophy
Philosophy is primarily an activity, not a body of doctrine. If you were to think of it as a body of doctrine, then you would have to say there is no philosophy, but only philosophies. For there is no one universally recognized body of doctrine called philosophy. The truth of course is one not many. And that is what the philosopher aims at: the one ultimate truth about the ultimate matters, including the ultimate truth about how we ought to live. But aiming at a target and hitting it are two different things. The target is one, but our many arrows have fallen short and in different places. And if you think that your favorite philosopher has hit the target of truth, why can't you convince the rest of us of that?
Disagreement does not of course prove the nonexistence of truth, but it does cast reasonable doubt on all claims to its possession. Philosophy aspires to sound, indeed incontrovertible, doctrine. But the quest for it has proven tough indeed. For all we know it may lie beyond our powers. Not that this gives us reason to abandon the quest. But it does give us reason to be modest and undogmatic.
Philosophy, then, is primarily an activity, a search, a quest. Somewhere deep in the bowels of the Kritik der reinen Vernunft, Kant remarks that "Philosophy cannot be taught, we can at most learn to philosophize." I agree. It cannot be taught because it does not exist as teachable doctrine. Philosophy is not something we profess, except perhaps secondarily; it is something we do. The best professors of philosophy are doers of philosophy. A professor, obviously, need not be a paid professor, an academic functionary.
How then should we do philosophy? Conversation face-to-face with the like-minded, intelligent, and sincere is useful but ephemeral and often hard to arrange. Jetting off to conferences can be fun especially if the venue is exotic and the tab is picked up your department. But reading and listening to papers at conferences is pretty much a waste of time when it comes to actually doing productive philosophy. Can you follow a technical paper simply by listening to it? If you can you're smarter than me.
So we ought to consider the idea that philosophy in its purest form, its most productive form, is 'blogosophy,' philosophy pursued by weblog. And there is this in favor of it: blogging takes pressure off the journals. Working out my half-baked ideas here, I am less likely to submit material that is not yet ready for embalming in printer's ink.
I am a foe of misquotation, misattribution, the retailing of unsourced quotations, the passing off of unchecked second-hand quotations, and sense-altering context suppression. Have I ever done any of these things? Probably. 'Suffering' as I do from cacoethes scribendi, it is a good bet that I have committed one or more of the above. But I try to avoid these 'sins.'
This morning I was reading from Karl Menninger, M.D., Whatever Became of Sin? (Hawthorn Books, 1973). On p. 156, I found this quotation:
Our youth today love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority, disrespect for older people. Children nowadays are tyrants. They contradict their parents, gobble their food, and tyrannize their teachers.
At the bottom of the page there is a footnote that reads: "Socrates, circa 425 B. C. Quoted in Joel Fort, The Pleasure Seekers (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1969)."
I was immediately skeptical of this 'quotation.' In part because I had never encountered the passage in the Platonic dialogues I have read, but also because the quotation is second-hand. So I took to the 'Net and found what appears to be a reputable site, Quote Investigator.
. . . was crafted by a student, Kenneth John Freeman, for his Cambridge dissertation published in 1907. Freeman did not claim that the passage under analysis was a direct quotation of anyone; instead, he was presenting his own summary of the complaints directed against young people in ancient times.
A mark of intellectual maturity is the ability to tolerate uncertainty without fleeing to dogmas that make false certainties of objective uncertainties, but also without falling into a self-vitiating relativism. The ideal is a love of truth that does not flag but also accepts no substitutes.
We want to develop breadth of mind, to practice comparative study, to keep the horizon before us; these things cannot be done without much reading. But much and little are opposites only in the same domain. . . [M]uch is necessary in the absolute sense, because the work to be done is vast; but little, relatively to the deluge of writing that . . . floods our libraries and our minds nowadays.
[. . .]
What we are proscribing is the passion for reading, the uncontrolled habit, the poisoning of the mind by excess of mental food, the laziness in disguise which prefers easy familiarity with others’ thought to personal effort. The passion for reading which many pride themselves on as a precious intellectual quality is in reality a defect; it differs in no wise from other passions that monopolize the soul, keep it in a state of disturbance, set it in uncertain currents and cross-currents, and exhaust its powers.
[. . .]
The mind is dulled, not fed, by inordinate reading, it is made gradually incapable of reflection and concentration, and therefore of production; it grows inwardly extroverted, if one can so express oneself, becomes the slave of its mental images, of the ebb and flow of ideas on which it has eagerly fastened its attention. This uncontrolled delight is an escape from self; it ousts the intelligence from its function and allows it merely to follow point for point the thoughts of others, to be carried along in the stream of words, developments, chapters, volumes.
[. . .]
[N]ever read when you can reflect; read only, except in moments of recreation, what concerns the purpose you are pursuing; and read little, so as not to eat up your interior silence.
A.G. Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods ( Catholic University Press, 1998), pp. 145 - 149.
I agree with the above, except for the extreme statement, "Never read when you can reflect."
100 Reasons NOT to Go to Graduate School is now at #79. Despite its unrelenting negativity, prospective applicants to graduate programs may find the site useful. I cannot criticize it for being negative since that is its implied purpose: to compile 100 reasons not to go. But there is something whiny and wimpy about it.
Suppose you are paid to spend five years, from age 22 to age 27, studying in depth a subject you love and have aptitude for in the idyllic environs of a college campus. You have been give tuition remission and a stipend on which to live. You really enjoy reading, writing, thinking, and studying more than anything else. You have good sense and avoid the folly of assuming debt in the form of student loans. You live within your very modest means and have the character to resist the siren songs of a society bent on crazy consumption. A little monkishness never hurt anyone. You spend five years enjoying all the perquisites of academic life: a beautiful environment, stimulating people, library privileges, an office, a flexible work schedule, and the like. At age 27 you are granted the Ph. D. But there are few jobs, and you knew that all along. You make a serious attempt at securing a position in your field but fail. So you go on to something else either with or without some further training.
Have you wasted your time? Not by my lights. Hell, you've been paid to do what you love doing! What's to piss and moan about? You have been granted a glorious extension of your relatively carefree collegiate years. Five more years of being a student, sans souci, in some exciting place like Boston. Five more years of contact with age- and class-appropriate members of the opposite sex and thus five more years of opportunity to find a suitable mate. (But if you marry and have kids while a grad student, then you are a fool. Generally speaking, of course.)
Of course, if your goal in life is to pile up as much loot as possible in the shortest possible time, then stay away from (most) graduate programs. But if the life of the mind is your thing, go for it! What's to kvetch about? Are you washed up at 27 or 28 because you couldn't land a tenure-track position? You have until about 40 to make it in America.
For more on this and cognate topics, see my Academia category.
Noting your desire to correct spelling, here are two that I spotted: "...gave an argment [sic] a while back (1 August 2010 to be precise) to the conclusion that there cannot, as a matter of metaphyscal necessity [sic]..."
Holy moly! Thanks. I just corrected them, and then found three more.
My current frustrations stem from mental mistakes, not typos. Thinking clearly about philosophy is more difficult for me than writing about my thoughts, which makes me suspect that I should write more (summary papers, counterarguments) while I'm working through the material instead of just taking notes along the way.
Right. Reading by itself is too passive to be very profitable even if done while alert in a quiet environment in an upright position. So one ought to take notes and mark passages (assuming you own the book). But even this is not enough. The only way properly to assimilate a philosophical text is by writing a summary and a critique of it. The summary is an attempt to understand exactly what the author's thesis or theses are, and (just as important) what his arguments are. Having done that, one advances to critical evaluation, the attempt to sort out which theses and arguments you consider true/valid and which false/invalid. Blogging can be very useful for this purpose and can lead to worthwhile exchanges and the refinement and testing of one's ideas.
As I see it, there is no point in seriously studying anything without a decision as to whether or not one should take on board the author's theses and arguments and incorporate them into one's own thinking.The point of study and inquiry is to get at the truth, not to know what someone else has maintained that the truth is.
I have just completed a semester of Searle's intro to the philosophy of mind via podcast. I worked through the primary readings and also studied his textbook. It was very difficult and rewarding. Now it is time to tackle his semester on language.
Searle is good. You will learn a lot from him. My posts on Searle are collected in the aptly-named Searle category.
Always enjoy your posts. Occam's Razor is sorely abused by apologists from all corners of the debate.
The place of philosophy in college curricula is often defended on the ground that its study promotes critical thinking.
Now I don't doubt that courses in logic, epistemology, and ethics can help inculcate habits of critical thinking and good judgment. And it may also be true that philosophy has a unique role to play here. So, while it is true that every discipline teaches habits of critical thinking and good judgment in that discipline, there are plenty of issues that are not discipline-specific, and these need to be addressed critically as well.
What I object to, however, is the notion that philosophy needs to justify itself in terms of an end external to it, and that its main justification is in terms of an end outside of it. The main reason to study philosophy is not to become a more critical reasoner or a better evaluator of evidence, but to grapple with the ultimate questions of human existence and to arrive at as much insight into them as is possible. What drives philosophy is the desire to know the ultimate truth about the ultimate matters. Let's not confuse a useful byproduct of philosophical study (development of critical thinking skills) with the goal of philosophical study. The reason to study English literature is not to improve one's vocabulary or to prepare for a career as a journalist. Similarly, the reason to study philosophy is not to improve one's ability to think clearly about extraphilosophical matters or to acquire skills that may prove handy in law school.
Philosophy is an end in itself. This is why it is foolish to try to convince philistines that it is good for something. It is not primarily good for something. It is a good in itself. Otherwise you are acquiescing in the philistinism you ought to be combating. Is listening to the sublime adagio movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony good for something? And what would that be, to impress people with how cultured you are?
To the philistine's "Philosophy bakes no bread" you should not respond "Yes it does," for such responses are patently lame. You should say, "Man does not live by bread alone," or "Not everything is pursued as a means to something else," or "A university is not a trade school." You should not acquiesce in the philistine's values and assumptions, but go on the attack and question his values and assumptions. Put him on the spot. Play the Socratic gadfly. If a philistine wants to know how much you got paid for writing an article for a professional journal, say, "Do you really think that only what one is paid to do is worth doing?"
Admittedly, this is a lofty conception of philosophy and I would hate to have to defend it before the uncomprehending philistines one would expect to find on the typical Board of Regents. But philosophy is what it is, lofty by nature, and if we are to defend it we must do so in a way that does not betray it.
It might be better, though, not to stoop to defend it at all, at least not before the uncomprehending. It might be better to show contempt and supercilious disdain. Not everyone can be reasoned with, and part of being reasonable is understanding this fact.
There is serious reading and there is bed reading. Serious reading is for stretching the mind and improving the soul. It cannot be well done in bed but requires the alertness and seriousness provided by desk, hard chair, note taking and coffee drinking. It is a pleasure, but one stiffened with an alloy of discipline. Bed reading, however, is pure unalloyed pleasure. The mind is neither taxed nor stretched or much improved, but entertained.
Alfred North Whitehead's The Aims of Education and Other Essays (Macmillan, 1929) begins with this paragraph:
Culture is activity of thought, and receptiveness to beauty and humane feeling. Scraps of information have nothing to do with it. A merely well-informed man is the most useless bore on God's earth. What we should aim at producing is men who possess both culture and expert knowledge in some special direction. Their expert knowledge will give them the ground to start from, and their culture will lead them as deep as philosophy and as high as art. We have to remember that the valuable intellectual development is self-development, and that it mostly takes place between the ages of sixteen and thirty. As to training, the most important part is given by mothers before the age of twelve. A saying due to Archbishop Temple illustrates my meaning. Surprise was expressed at the success in after-life of a man, who as a boy at Rugby had been somewhat undistinguished. He answered, "It is not what they are at eighteen, it is what they become afterwards that matters."
That few today understand what education is is betrayed by the readiness of all too many to use 'educate' in place of 'inform.' Suppose you tell me about some petty fact. You have not 'educated' me, you have given me a scrap of information. The educated person is not the one whose head is stuffed with information, but the one whose experientially-honed judgment is capable of making sense of information. To become well-informed is not difficult; to become well-educated is a task of self-development for a lifetime.
Michael Gilleland, the Laudator Temporis Acti, in his part-time capacity as 'channel' of Aristotle, submits this delightful missive:
Dear Dr. Vallicella:
"Society and its various coercive and noncoercive arrangements exist for the sake of the individual and not the other way around. Given that the individual is the locus of value and the reason for the being of state and society, the latter cannot be ends in themselves, whence it follows that the political life, useful as it is, cannot be the highest life."
I once argued otherwise, in my Nicomachaean Ethics 1.2.8 (tr. H. Rackham):
"For even though it be the case that the Good is the same for the individual and for the state, nevertheless, the good of the state is manifestly a greater and more perfect good, both to attain and to preserve. To secure the good of one person only is better than nothing; but to secure the good of a nation or a state is a nobler and more divine achievement."
Aristotle the Stagirite
I will begin by thanking your for your interest in my humble weblog. If it were not for you and your teacher Plato -- to whom, if I may say so, you do not accord sufficient respect in your otherwise outstanding writings -- none of us epigoni would be so much as thinkable. But now to the matter at hand.
You do indeed argue that politics is the master science of the good in Book I, Chapter 2 of your excellent Nicomachean Ethics, and you do indeed state at 1094b8 that the good of the state is nobler than the good of the individual. But I must remind you of what you say in the tenth and last Book of Eth. Nic. beginning in Chapter 6 and continuing until the concluding Chapter Nine. May I be so bold as to summarize the immortal thought of these inspiring chapters?
Chapter Six: Happiness and Activity. Happiness is a an active state, not one of passivity or amusement. Happiness, as the ultimate goal of human striving, cannot be identified with pleasure as certain 19th century English blockheads thought, and certainly not with bodily pleasures. (The German philosopher Nietzsche, whom you may have heard of, once quipped, "Man does not seek pleasure, only the Englishman does." I think you would approve of that line.) Happiness is an activity of the soul, not the body, in accordance with virtue.
Chapter Seven: Happiness, Intelligence, and the Contemplative Life. Now if happiness, eudaimonia, is an activity of the soul, an ergon of the psyche, in accordance with virtue or excellence, then it ought to be an activity in accordance with the highest virtue or excellence. You wisely distinguished the moral from the intellectual virtues and gave precedence to the latter. But among the intellectual virtues theoretical knowledge or contemplation, what you call theoria, stands in first place. Thus the highest life is the bios theoretikos, the life of theory, of contemplation, of philosophy. This is what your students in the Middle Ages called the vita contemplativa.
One of the arguments you give for the superiority of the theoretical life is the argument from sufficiency (1176b25 ff.) One who practices such virtues as justice, courage, and self-control needs other people. Thus a just legislator, a just judge, and a just executive requires other people as a condition of his virtuous behavior, a fact which brings in its train a lack of self-sufficiency. But he who follows the bios theoretikos needs little beyond the necessities of life. As you put it, "a wise man is able to study even by himself, and the wiser he is the more he is able to do so."
You go on to point out that the theoretical life is legitimately regarded as an end in itself and is a life of true leisure. By contrast, those who engage in military and political pursuits live in unleisurely and servile fashion, and insofar forth can do little to advance the cause of culture. As you point out, we are busy in order to have leisure just as we wage war for the sake of peace. The vita activa is for the sake of the vita contemplativa. Have you read Josef Pieper's Leisure The Basis of Culture? He does an excellent job of expounding this idea of yours. All neg-otiation, whether econonomic or political, is for the sake of otium, leisure. Sorry to employ the inferior language, Latin, but it is nearer to me and my readers than Greek.
Your view, then, is that the contemplative life stands higher than the political life. As the first to investigate logic systematically, you will not take it amiss if I set forth your view in a syllogism:
1. The highest activity is self-sufficient, an end in itself, and productive of the highest pleasure attainable. 2. Only theoretical, but not political, activity is self-sufficient, an end in itself, and productive of the highest pleasure attainable. Therefore 3. The highest activity is theoretical, not political, activity.
Chapter Eight: The Advantages of the Contemplative Life. The contemplative life is the happiest life since it is the life in accordance with the best in us, nous or intelligence, that in us which make us godlike and self-sufficient.
Chapter Nine: Ethics and Politics. If I may say so, this chapter, something of a grab bag of tentative considerations, does not attain the level of the chapters I have just summarized, and indeed leaves unresolved a tension that you must have felt while composing the various parts of your excellent book.
Is politics the master science of the good, as you say in Book One, so that ethics is a branch of politics? That would seem to suggest that the good of the polis is superior to the good of the individual, and that the happiness and self-realization of the individual must be subordinated to the welfare of the state. But this conflicts with your plain commitment to the thesis that the theoretical life is superior to the political life, not to mention the economic life and the pleasure-seeking life.
I don't need to point out to you that the theoretical life is the individual life par excellence. Indeed, you underscore its solitariness and self-sufficiency as key advantages of it. It is not a group life. And its thinking is not group-think. Indeed, your god, the primum mobile (pardon the Latin!) is noesis noeseos, thought thinking itself, in your beautiful phrase. And you would be the first to admit that no group of thinkers is a thinker.
So I think there is a bit of a tension here. Is politics the master science of the good, or is ethics? Which is subordinated to which? You can't have it both ways, and I would resolve the tension by giving the palm to ethics and to the happiness of the individual. And I would do so invoking your authority!
If over the centuries you have come to any further conclusions on this weighty matter, I should like to hear them, either directly, or via the good graces of your acolyte the estimable Dr. Gilleland.
One mark of intellectual maturity is the ability to tolerate uncertainty, the ability to withhold assent, the ability to withstand contradiction and recognize the merit of opposing views -- all of this without lapsing into skepticism or relativism. The intellectually immature, by contrast, bristle when their pieties and subjective certainties are called into question. Their doxastic security needs trump their need to inquire into the truth.
Such thinking is not in the service of self-will or subjective opining, but in the service of submission to a higher authority. We think for ourselves in order to find a truth that is not from ourselves, but from reality. The idea is to become dependent on reality, rather than on institutional and social distortions of reality. Independence subserves a higher dependence.
It is worth noting that thinking for oneself is no guarantee that one will arrive at truth. Far from it. The world is littered with conflicting opinions generated from the febrile heads of people with too much trust in their own powers. But neither is submission to an institution's authority any assurance of safe passage to the harbour of truth. Both the one who questions authority and the one who submits to it can end up on a reef. 'Think for yourself' and 'Submit to authority' are both onesided pieces of advice.
Weight lifters and body builders in their advanced states of muscular development appear ridiculous to us. All that time and money spent on the grotesque overdevelopment of one's merely physical attributes ___ when in a few short years one will be dust and ashes. But isn't the intellectual equally unbalanced who overdevelops his logical and analytical skills to the neglect of body, emotions, and spirit? Is the intellectual wrestler all that superior to the physical one? Is one kind of hypertrophy better than another? What good is discursive hypertrophy if it is paid for in the coin of mystical and moral and physical atrophy?
Morris Raphael Cohen (1880-1947) was an American philosopher of naturalist bent who taught at the City College of New York from 1912 to 1938. He was reputed to have been an outstanding teacher. I admire him more for his rationalism than for his naturalism. In the early 1990s, I met an ancient lady at a party who had been a student of Cohen's at CCNY in the 1930s. She enthusiastically related how Cohen had converted her to logical positivism, and how she had announced to her mother, "I am a logical positivist!" much to her mother's incomprehension.
We best honor a thinker by critically re-enacting his thoughts. Herewith, a passage from Cohen's A Preface to Logic, Dover1944, pp. 186-187:
...the exercise of thought along logical lines is the great liberation, or, at any rate, the basis of all civilization. We are all creatures of circumstance; we are all born in certain social groups and we acquire the beliefs as well as the customs of that group. Those ideas to which we are accustomed seem to us self-evident when [while?] our first reaction against those who do not share our beliefs is to regard them as inferiors or perverts. The only way to overcome this initial dogmatism which is the basis of all fanaticism is by formulating our position in logical form so that we can see that we have taken certain things for granted, and that someone may from a purely logical point of view start with the denial of what we have asserted. Of course, this does not apply to the principles of logic themselves, but it does apply to all material propositions. Every material proposition has an intelligible alternative if our proposition can be accurately expressed.
These are timely words. Dogmatism is the basis of all fanaticism. Dogmatism can be combatted by the setting forth of one's beliefs as conclusions of (valid) arguments so that the premises needed to support the beliefs become evident. One can also show by this method that arguments 'run forward' can just as logically be 'run in reverse,' or, as we say in the trade, 'One man's modus ponens is another man's modus tollens.'
In Cohen's day, the threats to civilization were Fascism, National Socialism, and Communism. Today the threat is Islamo-totalitarianism. Then as now, logic has a small but important role to play in the defeat of these threats. The fanaticism of the Islamic world is due in no small measure to the paucity there of rational heads like Cohen.
But I do have one quibble with Cohen. He tells us that "Every material proposition has an intelligible alternative..." (Ibid.) This is not quite right. A material proposition is one that is non-logical, i.e., one that is not logically true if true. But surely there are material propositions that have no intelligible alternative. No color is a sound is not a logical truth since its truth is not grounded in its logical form. No F is a G has both true and false substitution-instances. No color is a sound is therefore a material truth. But its negation Some color is a sound is not intelligible if 'intelligible' means possibly true. If, on the other hand, 'intelligible' characterizes any form of words that is understandable, i.e., is not gibberish, then logical truths such as Every cat is a cat have intelligible alternatives: Some cat is not a cat, though self-contradictory, is understandable. If it were not, it could not be understood to be self-contradictory. By contrast, Atla kozomil eshduk is not understandable at all, and so cannot be classified as true, false, logically true, etc.
So if 'intelligible' means (broadly logically or metaphysically) possibly true, then it is false that "Every material proposition has an intelligible alternative . . . ."
This just over the transom from a reader in Virginia:
I stumbled across your blog a year or two ago, and since then I've periodically dropped in to see what's going on. I enjoy what I understand of your material but, to be honest, I find much of it quite difficult to follow. I think the main problem is that, having never studied philosophy formally, I simply haven't developed sufficient fluency in the vocabulary and methods of thinking required by the discipline. (At the risk of sounding arrogant, I'm certain I possess the native intelligence to grasp at least the basics.) With less than a year to go until my fortieth birthday it may be a little late to start learning, but, for reasons that I won't get into unless you really want to know, I'd like to try. With that said, could you (and would you) suggest one or two books by way of introductory reading?
You are not even forty and you consider yourself too old for study? Nonsense. Nietzsche says somewhere that at thirty a man is yet a child when it comes to matters of high culture. Well, to employ a trendy manner of speaking, forty is the new thirty. Actually, fifty is the new thirty. It is a good bet that you have another forty years ahead of you. It is never too late to be learning new things. The mind declines much more slowly than the body and its decline is much more easy to offset by preventative measures. See Studiousness as Prophylaxis Against the Debilities of Old Age. It is also worth noting that the waning of one's libido is conducive to the sort of peace of mind that makes study a pure delight.
As for your native intelligence, I too am certain that you possess enough of it to grasp the basics. This is obvious from your letter which is flawlessly written and a model of clarity. Never start with the assumption that any subject matter is beyond your understanding. Always start with the opposite assumption and let experience teach you your limits. She will not fail to do so!
You say that you find much of what I write on this weblog hard to follow. That is only to be expected when the post is of a technical nature as many of my posts are, or when I simply presuppose even in non-technical posts that the reader has read Aristotle, Hegel, Heidegger, Sartre, Quine . . . .
You would like me to recommend one or two introductory books. I cannot think of anything I could wholeheartedly recommend in good conscience, but the following are worth a look: Bryan Magee, Confessions of a Philosopher, and Jay F. Rosenberg, The Practice of Philosophy. Mr. Google will be glad to assist you in locating copies. These books will give you some idea of what philosophy is about, even though I cannot endorse their particular slants or emphases.
But you really cannot learn philosophy by reading about it or attending lectures. You have to do it. It is an activity first and foremost, not a body of doctrine there to be learned. You have to have one or more burning questions that torment you, and then you have to try to work out (in writing!) your own answers to those questions as best you can, all the while consulting what others have said about them.
I have a few questions, they're very practical in nature. I was hoping if you could give me a brief outline of your method of study and how you read books? How do you keep track of such a vast amount of resources? I'm on information overload because, well, I'm a 21st century twenty-something who likes to read blogs, books etc.
Anyway, I enjoy your blog. Hope you can help! Thanks.
A great deal could be said on this topic. Here are a few thoughts that may be helpful. Test them against your own experience.
Your last post puts me in mind of the hoary old story of the timid student hovering outside his tutor’s door not knowing whether to knock and disturb the great man. At that moment one of the college servants walks past: “Oh, it’s all right dear, you can go in. The professor’s not doing anything, he’s only reading”.
Ambivalence towards reading and other activities in the life of the mind reflects the fact that we are embodied spirits. As spirits, we dream and imagine, think and question, doubt and despair. We ask what is real and what is not. It is no surprise, then, that we question the reality and importance of reading and writing and study when these activities are not geared to what is immediate and utilitarian such as the earning of money. Our doubts are fueled in no small measure by the lethargy and hebetude of the body with its oppressive presence and incessant demands. The spectator of all time and existence, to borrow a beautiful phrase from Plato's Republic, should fully expect to be deemed one who is 'not really doing anything' by the denizens of the Cave.
The bias against the spirit is reflected in the phrase 'gainful employment.' What is intended is pecuniary gain, as if there is no other kind. The bias, however, is not without its justification, as we are embodied beings subject to all the vicissitudes and debilities of material beings generally.
Rorty is dead, but a thinker lives on in his recorded thoughts, and we honor a thinker by thinking his thoughts with a mind that is at once both open and critical, open but not empty or passive. In Chapter Three of Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, Richard Rorty writes:
It is central to the idea of a liberal society that, in respect to words as opposed to deeds, persuasion as opposed to force, anything goes. This openmindedness should not be fostered because Scripture teaches, Truth is great and will prevail, nor because, as Milton suggests, Truth will always win in a free and open encounter. It should be fostered for its own sake. A liberal society is one which is content to call 'true' whatever the upshot of such encounters turns out to be. That is why a liberal society is badly served by an attempt to supply it with 'philosophical foundations.' For the attempt to supply such foundations presupposes a natural order of topics and arguments which is prior to, and overrides the results of, encounters between old and new vocabularies. (pp. 51-52, italics in original, bolding added.)
Morris R. Cohen, A Preface to Logic (Dover, 1977, originally published in 1944), p. 186, emphasis added:
It would certainly be absurd to suppose that the appreciation of art should justify itself by practical applications. If the vision of beauty is its own excuse for being, why should not the vision of truth be so regarded? Indeed is it not true that all useful things acquire their value because they minister to things which are not useful, but are ends in themselves? Utility is not the end of life but a means to good living, of which the exercise of our diverse energies is the substance.
Or as I like to say, the worldly hustle is for the sake of contemplative repose, it being well understood that such repose can be quite active, an "exercise of our diverse energies," but for non-utilitarian ends.
Even among calm and reasonable people, few are persuaded by argument, even when it satisfies the canons of logic. Changes of view under dialectical pressure are seldom seen. Most just dig in and fortify their defenses. This raises questions about the utility of argument, debate, and discussion. Call me sanguine, call me naive – but I believe in their utility. Herewith, a preliminary catalog of the uses of argument.
Ralph Nader, for example. Does he ever enjoy life, rest in contemplation, put aside for a time all his views and projects and schemes for improving the world? Does he consider consuming less jet fuel in his zeal to improve the unimprovable?
Chalk it up to my contemplative, quietistic bias, but activism as a way of life strikes me as ultimately meaningless. It is similar in meaninglessness to money-making as a way of life. And it doesn't matter whether one's activism points Left, Right, or sideways.
It is self-evident that money can only be reasonably pursued as a means to an end, and not as an end in itself. I would say the same about activism: the only reason to be active is to secure the conditions of contemplation. I intend the latter in a broad sense to include scientific and philosophical theorizing, artistic and literary creation, and the like.
But don't suppose that quietism rules out action and involvement: there are malefactors to smite and wrongs to right. One should do one's bit. I stay informed about the passing scene, I vote, I speak out. But that's all at the margin of my life, where it belongs. There is more reality in an hour of meditation or a ten mile run than in political activities.
If I had Nader's ear, I would say: You need to be more and do less. Enjoy what is, which, after all, is the constant and irremovable basis of all your frenetic advocacy and activity.
Setting aside his policies and programs, I admire Nader the man. His honesty and integrity are manifest. He is not in public life to feather his nest or advance himself in the usual ways. Still, a life consumed with activism falls short of the ideal.
If you can 'relate' — as we used to say in the 'Sixties — to what I have just written, then you have more than a few paleoconservative bones in your body.
Much as I disagree with Daniel Dennett on most matters, I agree entirely with the following passage:
I deplore the narrow pragmatism that demands immediate social utility for any intellectual exercise. Theoretical physicists and cosmologists, for instance, may have more prestige than ontologists, but not because there is any more social utility in the satisfaction of their pure curiosity. Anyone who thinks it is ludicrous to pay someone good money to work out the ontology of dances (or numbers or opportunities) probably thinks the same thing about working out the identity of Homer or what happened in the first millionth of a second after the Big Bang. (Dennett and His Critics, ed. Dahlbom, Basil Blackwell 1993, p. 213. Emphasis in original.)