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May 01, 2001
Feb 01, 2010
This is a highly recommended work of intellectual history with major insights into the construction of the American mind. Menand's approach can be eas...more This is a highly recommended work of intellectual history with major insights into the construction of the American mind. Menand's approach can be easily summarised. He takes the lives of four significant American intellectuals - William James, Charles Peirce, Oliver Wendell Holmes and John Dewey - and weaves a history around them, their associates and historical events.
The purpose is to elucidate the pragmatic turn of mind that emerged as a central element in American political and intellectual life after the horrors of the Civil War. It reached its high point in the first half of the next century. He presents pragmatism in its various forms as a reaction to the absolutism and certainty that had led to war.
He closes by hinting (though not going much further) that the ways of seeing represented by these men have been replaced by more absolutist attitudes in more recent decades.
This book has so much breadth and depth to it that it is hard to suggest anything more than that it should be read. There is no easy summary of its contents. This is fitting. Pragmatic thinking is a response to the human complexity that became increasingly obvious in industrial society.
This required a turning away from simplicities offered by Christian Fundamentalists, Kantians, Hegelians and other believers in the Absolute. Pierce, for example, remained someone with a sense of the absolute but his role is much like that of Kierkegaard's in the equivalent European existentialist revolt against intellectual grand design.
Both men were trying to understand how the world might be interpreted in the light of experience while retaining God. Peirce's philosophy of signs and wonders and Kierkegaard's leap of faith created pragmatic tools for others who required no deity - not what either man intended.
Pragmatism may even be the reason why Marxism could never take hold in the American elite. The central aspect of pragmatism is its lack of ideology - ideas and concepts are just tools. Tolerance of the struggle for mastery over ideas was to be the hall mark of Americanism expressed as democracy.
Pragmatism happens to be the philosophy of action (alongside existentialism as philosophy of being) that I find most amenable so I have a bias here.
Nevertheless, it would be hard to find a more basically decent human being than William James, one of the key figures in Menand's analysis. It is rare to read a book nowadays where a major figure comes out better than you expected - usually, 'great men' (a silly concept) come out human-all-too-human in the worst sense.
Here, James comes out human-all-too-human in the best sense - inquiring, tolerant, decent, humane and providing space for possibility at every opportunity when it comes to us humans. This is a progressive man, not in the sense of the interfering matriarchical busybody who wants us to be 'better' but as someone who sees life as a process of improvement and development from within.
James also re-opened the door for religion not as an imposed morality instigated from above but as a life choice that could be respected even if it was 'wrong'.
What also comes across in the book is just how interconnected the American intellectual class was in the nineteenth century. Make no mistake - American democracy was constructed by elites. Although this changes as the century progresses, the story is almost entirely one of a network of individuals who all knew each other and had family connections in New England.
These are people who grow up and go to war together and deal together with problems raised by the piety, real or assumed, of their parents' generation through argument and struggle. These are not radicals at all. Quite the contrary. They are reacting to a political radicalism about principle that had resulted in violence. Menand is persuasive on this.
These are also highly intelligent people struggling with the processes of transition within a relatively undeveloped proto-industrial economy.
In traditional capitalist New England, merchant families maintained order and morality through an appeal to a puritan God. After the Civil War, a rival conservative culture based on agrarian values was crushed but modernity did not allow the New Englanders much time to bask in their absolute values of righteousness and good order.
Industrial society became continent-wide and complex, leading to tensions between bourgeois paternalism and labour rights. This was compounded by the 'pull' of migrants from overseas looking for a better life and the complex interweaving of science and race with the politics of interest.
Pragmatic thought was the right philosophy for the times. It recognised the sheer scale of the problem of differing interests and the uselessness of resolutions of difference by force and violence.
It is interesting perhaps that 'absolutism' (in the form of the aggressive export of democratic values in the declaration of war of 1917) emerged from the circle of a Southern Democrat. This declaration of war was also associated with an aggressive use of the law to supppress dissent. Many of the New England 'liberals' (William James was conscious of his debt to JS Mill) opposed the war.
Dewey, the youngest, who straddled the liberal/progressive divide, was one of the war mongers but later regretted his position. This became a breach between the true pragmatists and the militant progressives and is underestimated as a longstanding tension between two responses to American democracy.
The liberal pragmatist's prime concern is in making democracy work well in and for itself to avoid disorder and violence. The progressive, like the socialist, wants to make it work for a prior idea or interest.
Oliver Wendell Holmes, for example, was interested in process to ensure the law worked well in a pragmatic way. Personally quite conservative, this might often result in liberal or progressive results. Sometimes this meant that he was supportive of the more tyrannical statist changes and sometimes resistant of them.
The total effect of this pragmatic philosophy of letting judges make the law out of the law was a constant liberal adjustment to changed conditions despite his own conservatism. Menand makes his case well that the construction of American liberal democracy owes a great deal to the confluence of views and adaptation to new realities of this relatively small group of intellectuals.
Perhaps in some ways pragmatism went too far, opening the door to a new phase that was to prove more problematic but this would still accord with pragmatic philosophy. Although I happen to think there is a flaw in this approach, the pragmatist would tend to see process as value-free eventually leading to the best outcome - a counterpart to the market.
In fact, the argument for a struggle of interests within democracy eventually degenerated into the identity politics we see today. Although Menand does not deal with the later period, he gives insights. Ethnic and religious individuals began to see no future in being American alone but in becoming competing blocks within American democracy as ethnic or faith-based Americans.
The pragmatists cannot be held responsible for this development because pragmatism presupposes a common core culture within which other socio-economic interests struggle but the philosophy enabled it to happen. They were not to know that the struggle between socio-economic interests would come to involve the revival of race and of ethnicity, and then of gender and sexual orientation, as organising principles.
A democracy designed to manage the clash of labour and capital in the wake of the traumatic Pullman Strike eventually became a vehicle for culture wars between vast coalitions of identity groups. By the twenty-first century, these were constructing themselves in opposition to each other in a blind process of call and response. Voters would vote on tribal attribute rather than individual interest.
Perhaps the most degenerate phase will be when a woman president is elected not because she is the best person but because liberal women will vote en masse for one of their own.
The State also became powerful in itself as arbiter between labour and capital and so was enabled to become, in stages, 'imperial'. It had learned to undertake war internally between 1860 and 1865 and then practised these dark arts against Indian tribes and the little brown brothers in Cuba and the Philippines.
The new rampant State ceased to be liberal without ceasing to be democratic when it entered the European War with a specific brief to spread values which had by then ceased to be 'pragmatic'. Menand does not deal with this late phase but we can. Pragmatism was displaced by a new democratic absolutism - American democracy not as organic creation but as exportable total system against 'tyranny'.
In the twentieth century, not just in 1917 but in stages throughout the century, America became an illiberal democracy (in the sense that a British person or New Englander would have understood 'liberal'). The new 'liberalism' that has emerged is, like its counterpart conservatism, definitely not a pragmatism but closer to the transcendental belief system of pre 1860 New England radicals.
If conservatism has not lost God. American liberalism (or progressivism) has a vision of what is absolutely right that is not wholly without merit. Sometimes 'real' liberalism fails to deliver. Menand rightly points out that it took an absolutist who believed in God (Martin Luther King) to trigger the changes required to move forward in dealing with racial discrimination.
However, cultural struggle in America today, a stand-off between cultural conservatives and liberals, means partial disconnection from basic socio-economic struggles and this not quite so 'pragmatic'. American democracy is not all that it often claims to be. The current struggle, expressed in terms of Democrats and Republicans, certainly works within certain rules set by the Constitution.
However, the US is not the common culture on which pragmatists had relied for their philosophy of tolerance and pluralism to work, the function of a meritocratic elite which crushed its main rival in war. The America of the twenty-first century is different in fundamental ways from the world of the pragmatists while, in practical terms, within a complicated legal framework, Americans remain pragmatic.
However, making democracy work as process (the aim of political pragmatists) has been replaced by a determination to treat the state, judiciary and legislature as instrumental in a different way. The Constitution is robust but the cultural wars within the US and the imperial adventuring outside seem to have reached a pitch of intensity where the Constitution simply no longer has all the answers required.
Since 2003, the US has engaged in a series of wars that have been fruitless and expensive, culminating in a bloodless defeat in Syria, without any sense of the nation being united any more than in 1917. Similarly, the state's surveillance operations seem to have been undertaken by an executive that is out of control, without legislative scrutiny or opportunity for judicial review.
Neither of these issues appear to engage the mass of Americans who seem to live under the radar screen of any politics that is not pre-set by their cultural identity. The economic losers (once the interest group of concern to pragmatists) are now wholly without a voice, not even the voice that Menand noted existed a hundred years earlier simply by dint of them existing.
Something is up with America. Some crisis that has not yet expressed itself. This book is an invaluable guide in trying to think through what that crisis might be and how it might have come to be. Perhaps, by thinking about the strengths and weaknesses of pragmatic thinking, it might also help Americans think about what might be done to overcome that crisis as it unfolds over the coming years.(less)
Notes are private!
Dec 22, 2013
Feb 18, 1988
Feb 18, 1988
This quarter century old basic introduction to the history of continental philosophy still stands up to scrutiny. Robert Solomon has a mildly polemica...more This quarter century old basic introduction to the history of continental philosophy still stands up to scrutiny. Robert Solomon has a mildly polemical intent in that (in my opinon quite correctly) he clearly wants us to be unpersuaded by the transcendental claims of the great essentialists - Rousseau, Kant, Hegel and their followers.
The book's narrative perhaps hinges on the great anti-philosopher and so the greatest philosopher of the continental tradition, Nietzsche. It is as if progress was not possible until he had spoken though we can offer some thanks to the intellect of Kierkegaard.
Looking back, everything before Nietzsche looks increasingly like ideology and everything after him an attempt at science, the striving towards a philosophy that had the measure of man as he is in relation to the world or a somewhat futile attempt to salvage what he wrecked.
Of course, ideology returns in the synthesis between it and existentialism of the flawed genius Sartre, the squabbles with Camus (untreated here) and the important explorations of identity of De Beauvoir but it has to take account of the existential impulse in order to salvage a somewhat intense and over-wrought version of meaning.
By the time we get to the last chapter, we are too close to the period in which Solomon is writing. He is wisely cautious about what will and will not matter to future generations. In the mid-1980s he can reasonably judge that Althusser and Lacan were effectively damp squibs and have the jury out on Derrida and Foucault (though the last is clearly joining the greats as time passes).
In fact, what does strike us is just how good Solomon's judgment is in nearly every case. Even today, we would give Marx the due given by Solomon and we have since thrown Freud over board as influence on philosophy perhaps too easily.
But (given the closing of the story in effect in the middle of the twentieth century) what remains striking is that the long tail of Kantian and Hegelian nonsense is still so culturally dominant today outside philosophy itself.
We can push to one side the clowning of Zizek but philosophy today is either soundly analytical but increasingly sceptical of itself, striving to give up bits of itself to the cognitive sciences, or it is attempting to find out what it is to be human (the followers of Heidegger) or how power, text, language and the social actually operate (Foucault) rather than piddle around with non-existent universals.
Philosophy remains dynamic and questioning and yet our political and artistic culture, having disposed of both Freud and Marx, seems stuck in the world created by the absolutist transcendentalists.
My own theory on this relates to psychology. The class that sits in a manipulative position over the masses has no tools left but an invented idealism in order to guide and control them.
It is not that Kantian rights theory or Hegelian dialectic (shorn of its Marxist overlay now) are true but that, as tools, they are useful, whereas the insights on what it is to be human of Heidegger (after Nietzsche) or Foucault may be true but they are not useful except to individuals and (were they but to know it) the masses themselves.
The search for meaning thus intersects with a struggle over power and the Absolute has become a pragmatically useful replacement for God. It can both give a spurious meaning to people desperate for meaning (even if it not be true) and be a tool for power while posturing as progressive or advanced thought.
No wonder the liberal intelligentsia and administrative classes find it difficult to give these essentialisms up - it would be like the cynical Constantine giving up Christianity even after someone had pointed out that it was based on invented nonsense.
The invented nonsenses of Christianity were too obvious by the Enlightenment so the arrival of Rousseau and his ilk was like (excuse the joke) a 'deus ex machina', ready and waiting for the new 'democratic' ideologies of conscription and manipulation.
Heidegger and Sartre drifted into the same trap in different ways (and were unlike Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, even if a perverted form of the last was utilised by evil forces later).
Heidegger, whose early and core philosophy stands as the most profoundly 'realistic' account of how we humans exist in the world, drifted into a mystical stance later that might easily have become transcendental in its own right if taken further.
Sartre, a true manipulative genius, merged existentialism with Cartesianism to turn philosophy into a weapon once again but (as Marx did) one for the damned and discontented of the earth to use if they were so minded. That Sartre turned to Marx as tool to hand should occasion no surprise.
Neither 'turn' was persuasive because both wanted to reinvent meaning where there was no necessity for it, either for the individual in the world or as a tool for action in the world. Neither seemed to be able to reconstruct sufficient 'pagan virtue' but had to invent alienations where none need have existed. The theory of alienation, of course, actually being at its worse in the hysterically ridiculous value judgments emerging in the 'horreur' of commodification and objectification from the dimmer type of late Marxist.
Today, we seem to live in a world where philosophy exists in three layers: a top layer of serious investigation that informs how science is being done and how people may live in the world; an intermediate layer of celebrity performance whose sole purpose appears to be pander to the prejudices of a certain type of graduate terrified of becoming declasse; and the level below this where liberal rights activism and administrative conservatism rely on philosophical systems that are outdated and, bluntly, plain wrong.
Below these three layers are the population at large, controlled by the layer immediately above (and half persuaded where they are not holding to traditional world views of their rightness), confused by and disconnected from the layer above that and not realising that the things that will decide their future and their world live in that fertile top layer.
What we have as the world trundles towards a revolutionary situation based on technological change is a cultural milieu in which rights and the dialectic have simply replaced traditional religion. It is no surprise to see, equally threatened by the new world, faith-based groups and many intellectual 'Leftists' converging in conservative opposition to the technological and freedom agenda emerging (albeit mostly accidentally) out of much current philosophy.
We are entering a time of struggle. The reactionary forces in this struggle include Enlightenment absolutism as much as people who believe in supernatural forces - both the Absolute and God are really simply variations on the same theme. However, that is looking at things a quarter of a century on from this book.
In the meantime, Solomon's narrative should be taken as one of the best short and very readable guides to the continental tradition, from Rousseau to the existentialists and phenomenologists, and is recommended.
Notes are private!
Oct 27, 2013
Mar 03, 2003
May 01, 2005
This is an important work in the undermining of the universalism that has afflicted private discourse and public policy in the West since the age of P...more This is an important work in the undermining of the universalism that has afflicted private discourse and public policy in the West since the age of Plato.
Nisbett explores a simple issue - whether, how and why East Asians and Americans (though he insists on referring to them as Westerners) think in different ways.
It is more exploratory than decisive. There is no psychological experiment that is not contingent in time and space by the very nature of its subject matter but much of his material is persuasive.
In essence, Nisbett is suggesting that East Asians in general and Americans more particularly have different modes of thought and different ways of seeing the world that inform their actions.
The implications are important in international relations but also in the types of respect we accord the 'other'.
The book dates from 2003 and, of course, is a thesis not a proof. It demands more research from a social science perspective but anyone involved in inter-cultural relations does not have to wait on the intellectuals.
Common sense and praxis teaches us that, while the situation is always as variable as the number of persons in the world, systems do approach problems in different ways that are fundamentally cultural.
There is, of course, little or no evidence (perhaps some at the margins in rare cases not covered in this book) that actual brain structures have evolved differently. This is not the issue by any means.
Nisbett's evidence seems to suggest quite the contrary - that people from one culture aculturate to the norms of thought of another with some ease if obliged to by circumstances.
This leads to an interesting short debate at the end about the degree to which one mode of thought (Western or East Asian) is functionally superior. It also raises questions about the benefits of cultural hybridisation that he does not address.
Naturally, there is no simple answer to 'superiority' because the types of situation that humans find themselves in could suggest an either/or or perhaps a neither/nor. Nisbett does not look into European distinctiveness, 'Latin' or Russian or African thought processes.
However, what is clear is that, once we accept one simple universal - the huge variability in problem-solving and ways of seeing the world - most of the other claimed universals start to disappear.
A paradox intrudes here. The lack of universalism in ways of seeing and thinking reinforces mutual respect at the most basic level of humanity - we really are all equal just differently circumstanced.
It also condemns all forms of aggressive mental imperialism and forces each side to adapt to the other if it wants to solve a problem involving both.
Again, we must say that Nisbett is hypothesising for further research and the social sciences are not like the hard sciences in that they are contingent and probabilistic. We must always be cautious.
We are currently in the middle of a series of crises where international relations has not yet caught up with these findings. There is often a thirty year lag between knowing amongst the few and doing amongst the many.
Most senior American policymakers, for example, are still embedded in the enlightenment liberal universalism of their schooling in the 1970s and 1980s.
The result has been the twin lunacies of multiculturalism (which is patronising) and the exports of rights ideology, sometimes through the barrel of a gun.
The last has been a consistent foreign policy disaster where it is clear that its proponents are inadequately equipped to understand why. They simply continue, creating negative reactions that undermine their own security.
The coup in Egypt and the protests in Turkey that are happening as I write this suggest that there is no simple equation between rights, democracy and freedom where democracy simply aids the arrival of obscurantism and authoritarian soldiers may be defenders of freedom.
The Middle East is distinctive but it still part of the 'Western sphere' but East Asia is different again. Relations between China and its neighbours and between China and America are probably of far more global significance even than protection of Israel and energy flows.
Nisbett's research and that of others - Nisbett has also done important work on honour cultures which could usefully inform strategy in relation to the Arab world - must now be working through the system.
The rethinking of 'universalism' should start to inform the more intelligent Westerners within a decade or two. Sadly, a lot of people may have to die before it gets to the sort of person who may be President in 2016 or, more likely, 2020.
If so, however, we may see some interesting changes in approach, especially to negotiations - continued differences of ambition, stance and opinion but mutual appropriations of method, especially when use of artificial intelligence is added to the analytical pot.
It is my own belief that the difference between, say, European and American culture is no less significant in the long term and that constant hybridisation of cultural forms, far from creating the future prospect of universalisation of culture, promises the exact opposite - almost infinite variation and 'difference'.
I see this in my own family - difference within a common core way of seeing. More widely, this owes a great deal to the sheer range of mental inputs provided by the internet.
The way that the internet 'ennobles' difference that might have been forced into a 'norm' within more rigid cultural systems - whether Western or other - is liberatory in a way that elites seem unable to cope with because their mental models belong to the past already.
This all suggests that the human mid-century will be very different, not merely from the age of competing ideologies but also from the now-rapidly degenerating age of imperial liberal universalism.
There are universal values - mutual respect, equality of persons, very basic aspirations (not rights which are after the fact inventions), maybe one or two clear rights (to cognitive freedom, the means to live reasonably well and a good death) - but these are surprisingly few.
We just need a generation of rigid thinkers, raised on post-Marxism and the rejection of Marxism, to move on and for genuinely liberal minds to resist the reactionary rise of past obscurantisms and let them die out of their own accord with prosperity and education.
As for the book, it is obviously recommended but be aware, as a general reader, that the central sections are rather dry accounts of psychological and social scientific experimentation that it will be hard to evaluate if you are a layman or woman.(less)
Notes are private!
Jul 04, 2013
Jan 01, 1986
Although almost thirty years old, Searle's (relatively) easy to read popular classic of analytical philosophy still stands up as a corrective to the e...more Although almost thirty years old, Searle's (relatively) easy to read popular classic of analytical philosophy still stands up as a corrective to the exuberant claims of non-philosophers about the nature of the mind and of the world.
The book is the slightly adapted text of six radio lectures for the BBC and, like Merleau-Ponty before him, Searle rose well to the challenge of concision and clarity for an educated lay audience.
The book should be seen as a strike back by the Anglo-Saxon analytical tradition at failures to use terms (such as science) correctly and logically in the enthusiasm to promote the (then) new cognitive sciences.
In general, Searle make his case and the book was influential in forcing cognitive scientists and social scientists to stop and start to 'think' about how they thought.
Philosophy is now much more integrated into the technological projects surrounding machine intelligence and neuroscience, albeit with sloppy thinking still rife amongst the more excitable transhumanist element.
Nevertheless, the text is not a Bible and things move on. Analytical philosophy is a primary tool for removing obfuscations and defining possible meanings but it often comes to a halt in making the world meaningful.
Searle himself expresses something of this in his inconclusive approach to the hoary old determinism and free will debate.
He successfully (in my view) explains why the equally hoary old mind-body problem was a non-problem but analytical approaches that work so well here seem to fail him on free will which we will come to again towards the end of this review.
Nevertheless, his criticisms of assumptions that were then popular about artificial intelligence and the applicability of the term 'scientific' to the social sciences still, broadly, stand up.
But there are comments and criticisms to be made, if only that analytical philosophy takes us a long way in removing stupidity and obscurantism from debate but that it can get stuck in its own logic.
For example, Searle is very assertive that his claims that artificial intelligence cannot become conscious stand regardless of exponential growth in computing power.
His analysis of the difference between the syntactical and the semantic strike me as sensible but his famous Chinese Locked Room thought experiment is not as conclusive as first appears.
He describes the actuality of intelligence based on formal processes but what he does not take into account is the emergence of self-reflexion by artificial intelligence that has access to a different but equal range of (sensory) inputs and can evolve into a mode of being based on a determination to exist for itself.
Now, before we go too far, this is not to accept the nonsense of much of the singularity brigade who continue to misunderstand what consciousness is (much as Searle pointed out) but it is to suggest that, just as we evolved into consciousness from a material substrate so might a technological invention of ours.
Similarly, his rather sharp negative view of the social sciences as science is also unanswerable as it stands but we should not confuse a terminological problem with an actual problem in the world.
Writing thirty years ago, Searle was still dealing with the false claims of such analogical and magical thinking as Freudianism which constructed vast edifices and lucrative careers on a bed of sand.
Indeed, the twin intellectual absurdities of behaviourism and Freudianism implicitly underpin the very Anglo-Saxon determination of Searle to find a middle way that actually works.
Today, we are more critical but we are also in danger of throwing the baby out with the bath water insofar as the social sciences are not credibly scientific but they are still useful.
The question becomes now almost a political one - how are they useful and to whom are they useful and a dash of Foucault might help us here alongside our 'analysis'.
Perhaps we need a new term for what the social sciences are, based on their probabilistic and contingent nature and (certainly and unlike the hard sciences) they need to be placed under much more aggressive individual and social scrutiny in regard to their claims.
The problem area today is something that Searle might not have predicted - the claims of 'hard' neuroscientists to be able (in due course) to provide explanations for default human behaviour.
From this comes the theoretical model of all human behaviour being predictable no less than the weather - that is, not in the specifics which prove to be unknowable after only a short period of forward analysis but in the general processes and systems.
The danger here is not only 'hubris' but the prediction becoming true not because it is true but because it can be made to be true by intervention. This 'nudge' interventionism which has become fashionable amongst the dimmer sort of centrist politician desperate to control what cannot be controled.
Such projects are either doomed to failure because of the chaotic system in which they operate or they will require the type of de-humanising tyrannical interventions that Aldous Huxley feared in order to be (or seem to be) effective.
In this respect, the work that Searle has started requires continuation for a new generation of simple minds with funds and careers on the line and weak politicians holding the grant strings.
The final area where criticism may be due is in his surprisingly limited analysis of the determinism and free will debate where there is no analytical solution because determinism is logical and yet the actuality of choice is embedded in our experience of the world.
Of course, the set of philosophers who have tended to have the most cogent criticism of determinism are the continental existentialists but, hey, this book was written at a time when the analytical and continental schools did not talk to each other.
Searle is moving towards categorising the determinism/free will problem as a non-problem as he ably does with the mind-body problem which I characterise (again, in quasi-existentialist terms) as one of consciousness being an emergent property of matter where only matter exists.
However, he cannot make the same leap and I suspect that is because determinism is logical but not true and an analytical philosopher cannot accept that something that appears logical (and the assumptions are sound) may not be true - that is, consistently meaningful.
The point here is that free will is also an emergent property of consciousness which is an emergent property of matter and that, though matter is determined all things being equal, the arrival of self-reflexion and thought, within constraints, can change the nature of the matter that would otherwise have been predetermined.
To say that the subsequent matter was predetermined is logical but not true because it is meaningless in the context of the arrival into the system of an emergent consciousness.
Searle offers a useful corrective to the dreamy new age invention of quantum physics as cause for consciousness (though one should retain an open mind) and, since then, as cause for the last ditch defence of platonic mathematical truths.
In essence, the quantum elements within classical physics simply cohere into the physical substrate from which we derive.
My consequent argument is that, just as indeterminacy is lost as the system organises itself into the material substrate of the world, so indeterminacy re-appears at the higher level with awareness of oneself as having choices, even if these choices are heavily constrained by the nature of matter.
We might take the invention of manned flight as an example where it was not determined that man fly but that a will to fly created sets of choices whereby he did fly but was constrained by the determinism of matter as to what was possible and thereby following certain technologically determined paths once the choices were made.
The other factor not taken into account in assessing free will is the illusion of the future. The future is always assumed to exist but it only exists as an extrapolation of the unfolding of materiality.
In fact, the future is as probabilistic as the social sciences. It probably will happen but it need not exist unlike the past which has unfolded already as a result of the working out of material laws (and some choices) that have been experienced.
This, of course, is the problem of time but arguments from cosmology, physics and mathematics (and science fiction) do not trump this philosophical truth that the future only exists when it has happened.
This rather puts the kybosh on a lot of ideas about time including those of J. W Dunne which were a last refuge for many spiritualists and other romantics.
In the real world, our understanding of scientific rules and processes makes the world thoroughly predictable regardless of this fact that the future does not exist until it has happened but the indeterminacy of consciousness means that the future can also be changed.
It is this latter indeterminacy that creates the science fiction hope that the future determined by the working out of what we see around us might be changed by an act of will.
Again, in the real world, human power to change the future is limited, suffers from inadequate knowledge of consequences and is often collective (that is, it averages out in the 'wisdom of crowds' or serious change gets 'croweded out' by a default thinking which is barely conscious).
We must be clear here. Being human does not intrinsically mean that a human being is capable of self-reflexive choice and so of not being determined.
It is the exercise of a capability of being human - self-reflexive choice and the 'weighing up' of intentionalities - that creates freedom.
Most people most of the time are determined by their conditions and, of course, most people most of the time may have little choice in their conditions. Free will is thus a possibility but not inherent in being human simply by dint of being an evolved ape.
Nevertheless, the fact that indeterminacy is an evolved quality of consciousness in the context of a state of being where the future is only set because of determinacy and not because it exists means that evolved consciousness can change the 'determined' future.
This is not an argument for the hysteria surrounding multiverses which is another extreme mathematical invention but it is an argument for accepting that free will and effective determinism within classical physics can co-exist, especially as the free will is extremely limited in scope.
Free will can rearrange existing molecules for micro-utilitarian purposes but it cannot change the structure of reality that permits the survival of the organism. In any case, the organism's sphere of influence is tiny and highly localised in space and time.
So, there is no free will/determinism problem any more than there is a mind/body problem.
The value of this book is the value implicit in the discussion above. It makes you ask questions. Like all the best philosophers, Searle does not assert the truth but gives a view of the truth that keeps open the door to disagreement.
In a time when we are surrounded by the rise of dim-witted text-based religious assertion, new age wish-fulfilment flummery and ecstatic claims by 'scientists' who think that science fiction is a true representation of the world, this sort of thinking is invaluable.
Notes are private!
Jun 05, 2013
Feb 01, 2011
Jul 16, 2012
This review of contemporary thinking on the question of existence represents the best of North American intellectual journalism where the writer tries...more This review of contemporary thinking on the question of existence represents the best of North American intellectual journalism where the writer tries to represent the intelligent 'ordinary joe' in his search for knowledge.
Of course, it has its irritations. The American literary style is almost defined by its narcissism - the fact that Jim Holt is sitting in the cafe that was patronised (or matronised) by Sartre and De Beauvoir is of very little interest.
We want to get to the meat but that's just how they do things over there and he is possibly the least narcissistic of American literary types that I have come across in a long time. At least he does not spend ten pages describing the snow in Nebraska as if it was a creative writing class.
What is of interest is the selection of well edited interviews with various leading academics and intellectuals on the meaning of existence, interspersed with some excellent guidance notes from Holt himself.
When he stops being fascinated by local colour, his own personal reactions to such fundamental matters as death are well written and thoughtful. I am averse to sentimentality over animals but he helps me to 'get' why the death of his 'pooch' actually matters. That is quite an achievement.
Indeed, death is the existentialist sub-text - a close call on the road with Professor Grunbaum, the atheist, and the interview with Updike just before his death, the death of the dog and the death of the author's mother. The dog and the mother seem to be strikingly equalised in death.
Holt's final conclusions are mine because there seems to be no other conclusion. Rarely, I won't reveal what that conclusion is because, equally rarely, the 'detective story' structure of the book would make that a spoiler.
What I can say is that this highly readable book will give an intelligent lay person an insight into the general trends in modern thought on the question of existence with plenty of solid background on the history behind such thinking that is necessary to get a sense of what is going on here, especially for those with no significant philosophical background. This really should work as a book for the general reader.
We have the aggressive Jewish-atheist secure in his lack of interest in the big questions, the outre theories of physicists and cosmologists as well as their more measured responses, the rather soppy theism of Swinburne and the unconvincing aestheticism of the mathematical Platonists.
I rather liked the idea of the universe coming into being as the accidental by-product of some alien lab experiment where the alien universe continued to exist quite happily with us having no way of knowing who our absent-minded and disinterested creators may have been. But it is just an idea.
We then have the completely unjustified insistence on prior ethical meaning of Leslie (talk about 'wishful thinking'!), the response of Parfit to the question of existence as the contribution to the book of traditional analytical philosophy and a humane if perhaps philosophically unconvincing coda from the very type of the American liberal litterateur, John Updike.
Any one of these interview-essays would be a stimulating article in itself in 'The New Yorker' (Holt's journalistic home) but, taken together with the excellent introductions, explanations and personal experiences, they all create a book that will inform, educate but, best of all, make you think.
My own non-spoiler conclusion on the book is that it helps to bring these extremely clever people down to earth for us. There are some questions where, for all their intelligence, they know no more than we may know.
The intellectual legerdemain and intense and complex constructions of theoreticians and moralists all end up eventually where we all end up - making our own choices about meaning on the basis of our own stance in relation to the world.
The interview with Swinburne on his theism perhaps brings this out most clearly but it is a theme throughout the book - even the Platonists who seem to have at least Number on their side fall at the last gate on the possibility that we cannot know that number does not break down beyond our own comprehension of it. Mathematics may describe our world but not the world - which may be unknowable.
One senses the long shadow of ultimate unknowability over the book and the resort to belief of anyone who goes beyond the somewhat rigid and closed-in world of Grunbaum. It is as if we are all engaged in a sentimental 'best bets' strategy based on preferences and that rather does throw one back on to classic existentialist views of our relationship to meaning and to the world. Certainly, the book is a corrective to the enthusiasm of those who think higher mathematics and cosmology necessarily rather than possibly describe the ultimate nature of existence.
Nevertheless, the sheer pleasure, aesthetics and excitement of trying to understand the world and making discoveries on the way (since philosophy gives us a scientific approach of sorts to language and phenomena as well as to science itself) come out of this book. It shows us that philosophy is what (intelligent) humans do.
Perhaps this is best expressed by the severely analytical Oxonian Derek Parfit who must be regarded as the thinker's thinkers in terms of rigour. This does not mean that he is the most right but only the most committed to the method: indeed, one suspects that his rigour can often 'miss the point' even where his actual argumentation stands up but that is another matter.
In a lovely passage, Parfit(who is rather obviously being very patient with his slightly less capable interviewer) comes to a view of the self (which I happen not to share) that might depress others but says:
"My life seemed like a glass tunnel, through which I was moving faster every year, and at the end of which there was darkness."
He felt himself liberated from the self by dint of analysis and "the walls of my glass tunnel disappeared. I now live in the open air" [Page 260]
Others will recognise the sentiment though it is just sentiment. The point is not whether Parfit was right or wrong in his analysis of the self but that, ultimately, his stance (in his case, the virtue of analysis as enabling description of the world) led to a 'way of seeing' that made him happier or more whole or more integral (whatever!).
This is what philosophy does - not necessarily make people happier or more integral but it changes them and enables them to become more aligned with who they are (with the risk that who they are is something that wants not to be). The power of the intellect (as is shown in almost every example in the book) is placed at the service of a stance towards existence.
We do not understand existence so much as invent it. And the ending of the detective story (which will not be revealed) tells us more about Holt (and probably me) than it does about the world.
Notes are private!
Dec 08, 2012
Nov 24, 2011
Jan 13, 2012
Another short introduction from the Oxford University Press series. In this case, we have an analytical philosopher, with a good understanding of the...more Another short introduction from the Oxford University Press series. In this case, we have an analytical philosopher, with a good understanding of the latest developments in the sciences of matter and mind, explore the meaning of reality in a number of guises.
Analytical philosophy can appear to be an elaborate language game, This, in itself, may have little relationship to reality so it is to the credit of Westerhoff that he makes every effort to take us through variant definitions of reality from different perspectives.
What is clear is that (like love or so many other general terms), what we mean by reality is highly situational. Debates on issues of reality can become heated, a waste of time simply because the participants in the discussion have not defined their terms or their stance.
Unfortunately, constantly defining terms as analytical philosophers are wont to do can soon take the fun out of things. This makes this book especially valuable.
It is a crib sheet for all those theories of reality that should perhaps be outlined before we even start considering what we mean by a particular instance of the 'real'.
Thus, Westerhoff looks at the reality of our own existence (are we dreaming ourselves?), at the reality of matter, at the reality of ourselves as persons and at the reality of time itself through the lens of five general theories.
We can see something as real if it appears to us as real, if it appears as real to most other persons, as anything not imagined, as what is there if we were not there or as what is left after everything has been reduced to core of being by analysis.
Any of these is plausible but none are definitive and they are not fully compatible with each other as a whole.
My own view is the relaxed one that the term 'reality' as descriptor of anything specifically meaningful is as useless as the terms 'love' and 'freedom'. These are rhetorical terms where the meaning lies not in the word but in the use of it to assert a position without full explanation.
It is also an 'introducer' word - it is useful for introducing us to something that does exist for us functionally by acting as a portmanteau 'folder' for many things that are mostly not like each other but which have similarities, being more like each other than they are like anything else.
The introducer word, far from representing something real (certainly not the nonsensical Platonic Ideal), represents an attribute of all things within its folder.
Reality 'really' means a word used to bring a lot of related ideas together through the shared attribute of presuming that they describe the nature of the world as existing. Any flaw in the book is simply the inherent flaw in analytical philosophy.
Having been given a word, the analytical philosopher feels that he must discover its meaning through the language game of analysis. The folder must, it would seem, be obliged into meaning to make sense of the academic or intellectual world.
Naturally, all that happens in this book is that our very capable analytical philosopher can come to no conclusion that is finally plausible, providing merely a menu of intellectually coherent possibilities which we probably chooose between on grounds of aesthetics more than logic.
There are small points of analysis where I find myself disagreeing with Westerhof while appreciating the crispness of his reasoning and the depth of his knowledge of science (and the clarity of his exposition) only because he simply cannot not rely on a 'given' language that maybe a false friend.
One area of discomfort is the way that the coding theory of ultimate reality is allowed to remain in the air as a gateway to a logic that may not be there.
It is as if the academic community simply cannot cope with the possibility that Platonism, logic and mathematics (the 'intellectual') might break down at a certain point - and that this must not be allowed to happen at any costs.
The paradox is that the determined attempt to ensure that all things can be encompassed within the intellectual results in a door being opened to the non-intellectual in a way that is more disturbing than the mere unknowable absolute irrationalism of the abyss.
This is the problem of 'theory' which has plagued humanity with often murderous results since the class of priest and intellectual first emerged.
Every description of ultimate reality is so concerned to extrapolate human-scale thought process into the abyss of unknowing, beyond the limits of current science, that it falls into the trap of allowing space for 'spirit' or a 'code' from outside.
It is as if a deep irrationalism at the base of reality is so terrifying that the intellectual (of whatever background) must be prepared to accept a rationalised irrationality rather than accept that there may not be anything rational there at all.
Westerhoff, to his credit, cannot be accused of going beyond his brief but I worry more than a little about leaving a gap where logic or mathematics ends and then not debating what might fill it on terms that say more positively - "we simply cannot know".
The 'silence' leaves a gap into which anything may flow as if it knew the answer to the implicit question.
This is rather dangerous because it is allows an irrationalist spirituality in through the back door, as those who are desperate for meaning seize hold of the fact that something has (it would seem) to fill the gaps left by (say) the limits of quantum mechanics.
The constant desperate attempt by New Age fluffies to link quantum effects to the existence of some universal consciousness is terribly sad but is not helped by scientists who start extrapolating ancient myths into the territory that defeats their best endeavours at final knowledge.
As a result, culturally, we find ourselves with increasingly hysterical appeals to the spirit in order to explain what is simply not understood matter. Instead of continuing to use a rational language of materialism to describe the unknown, the unknown gets reinvented as 'God' or worse.
Perhaps what is lacking in the book is simply the courage to leap ahead and say that not only do we not know X or Y, we may never know and, in that gap, we can either admit our lack of knowledge and remain embedded in material realities which function for us as we are ...
... or we can engage in the fluffy thinking of filling what we do not know with copies of our thought processes and then reinventing what is known as some sort of spirit or consciousness, an absurd tautology loaded with socio-political threats.
A second area of cultural interest is in the continued attempt to denigrate our sense of self simply because of the logical truths of our own perceptions and biology that lead to uncertainty - and the insistence of taking some reified permanent self at face value (as supplied by history) as our 'Aunt Sally'.
This is bound up with a third issue, the reality of time, where, again, a non-issue from our perspective as humans in the world (the subjective reality of the arrow of time) is exploited to create functional uncertainty in ourselves in relation to our perception of the present.
The point is that our primitive view of self and of time as 'real' (in the fixed sense required by our historic culture) may be entirely false without it diminishing the reality of ourselves as Selves and of Time, not merely to us but as a functionally useful and consistent social reality.
The problem lies in the conventional separation of Past, Present and Future. Westerhoff falls into the trap of taking it face value as if he can only communicate with his readers by accepting their 'givens'. But there never is a Present for human beings because of their perceptual apparatus.
What we have is a currently-being-processed immediate past (that we call the present) that is anticipating from experience an wholly unknowable future and matching the most recent data to not only internal memories and habits but the fixed capital of society and the material world.
Once we think of things in this way then our position as conscious beings becomes less passive, less of the instant loss of the future into the past through an unknowable but apparently perceived present and more the creation of the future through the immediate past's fast-moving and creative dialogue with the inherited past.
The Self thus becomes a very real entity as the processing unit creating immediate futures out of the dialectic of recent pasts and out of the materiality and history of the 'given' (the 'real' past to all intents and purposes).
The continuity that creates the Self is this process of moving forward at a rollicking pace until death or some other disruption (such as severe mental illness or incapacity).
The fact that much of the recent past is lost into the 'given' (albeit that some of this becomes embedded in the sub-conscious, unused memory and somatic symptoms) does not make the Self any less real. It ensures that it is making choices (often sub-conscious) about its own future.
The arrival of uncertainty at the margins of science, combined with the desperate desire to imagine meanings and seek certainties where none are to be found, offers profound cultural threats to humanity.
The idea that there is gap in what we know that must be filled with something (when there is no reason to fill it with anything) creates the space for the new obscurantism now leaching out from a troubled America into Europe.
This is the New Age nonsense of insisting on spirit without evidence except as lack while the idea that we are not selves but fluid objects in the given environment without free will is dangerous when governments and authorities are looking for excuses to deprive us of that free will.
The fact that the assault on freedom is given a false scientific basis should worry us exceedingly because scientists are now far too ready to jump from what they do know (through scientific method) to what they do not know but is politically convenient to know.
Here is an example from the Neuro-Scientist Head at the NIDA in a recent interview:
" Dr. Volkow generally forswears any interest in politics per se, but midway through a long day of meetings last month she sighed and acknowledged, “science and politics are intertwined.” We think we have free will, she continued, but we are... foiled at every turn.
" First our biology conspires against us with brains that are hard-wired to increase pleasure and decrease pain. Meanwhile, we are so gregarious that social systems — whether you call them peer pressure or politics — reliably dwarf us as individuals. “There is no way you can escape.”"
She is wrong - more worryingly, she is in an influential position in being wrong. Her scientific expertise is not in doubt but her judgement on society and politics is as flawed as that of an autistic Soviet engineer.
In fact, we can and do challenge societal norms and we can rewire our plastic brains through the exercise of will and thought in ways that are not simple matters of pleasurable or painful instinct. We can even unlearn pain and revise our pleasures.
What is going on here is that a desperate scientific and political elite subconsciously (if not consciously) wants the tools to ensure that we never question norms that are convenient to them.
Perhaps a particular vision of our late liberal society in despair demands that we never exercise the free will and reason that our masters increasingly wish to claim is deficient or even non-existent.
This attitude is dangerous because we are being persuaded to trust that scientists are right about things that are outside their competence. This is a new liberal-totalitarianism which echoes how Darwinism was once used to justify racial politics in its use of the new neuroscience.
In these two areas - the creation of the aware and free self through its mastering of data in time (expressed as an arrow, despite the analytical theoreticians) and the construction of humanity without recourse to mystification - the over-reaching of science and analytical philosophy is in danger of letting in the dead weight of obscurantism and tyranny by the back door.
Naturally, this book cannot be held responsible. It remains a superb little guide to the various way we interpret reality and how scientific discovery has to taken us to the limits of understanding what it is that we mean by reality (in any objective sense).
It is true that, objectively, reality is a very wobbly concept. It does not stand up to scrutiny without constant addition of explanatory clauses but this does not mean that one particular kind of reality - the reality of the individual - is not generally adequate to the task.
Something like seven billion realities compete to build a multiple of social realities that are all engaged in dealing with wants and desires in the context of a 'given' material reality based on the laws of physics operating at a human level and mediated through communications and technology.
Realities are thus constructed instantaneously seven billion times every living moment with collaborative or tyrannically imposed projects bringing increasing levels of complexity into some kind of working order, tested against facts on the ground.
Anything outside this 'reality of realities' might reasonably be considered only of interest as a speculative curiousity or as giving us more 'facts on the ground' for billions of minds to play with. It is either meaningless play or functionally useful, ludic or pragmatic, and centred on us.
But all analyses of reality that take playfulness as seriously meaningful are on the edge of psychotic, likely to make us unable to deal functionally with facts on the ground.
It would be disturbing to think that, having escaped twentieth century neurosis, we should fall into twenty-first century psychosis.
Alternative realities that bring in gods, spirit and God or which deny the creative role of each one of those individual consciousnesses striving, like the animals they are, for pleasure, survival or personal meaning are, albeit accidental, enemies of humanity as a progressing species.(less)
Notes are private!
Dec 28, 2011
Jul 14, 2011
Continuum have recently published a number of new English translations of Martin Heidegger’s work. This is, in effect, the first draft of his masterpi...more Continuum have recently published a number of new English translations of Martin Heidegger’s work. This is, in effect, the first draft of his masterpiece, ‘Being and Time’. ‘Being and Time’ is a very difficult work and this early version is no piece of cake.
However, although incomplete in its thinking, it is a surprisingly clear account of the core of his philosophy as early as 1924 and it can be recommended (with care) as a decent bridge between a general textbook account of his philosophy and his larger work.
The ‘care’ resides in the advice to the non-academic reader to accept that they are not going to get very much out of the highly detailed and difficult Third Chapter on ‘Dasein and Temporality’.
The translator states at the beginning that it ‘makes few concessions to the reader’ - that is an understatement. Having said this, Chapter 2 on ‘The Original Ontological Characteristics of Dasein’ is remarkably useful.
The essence of Heidegger’s radical adoption of a phenomenological approach to our Being-in-the-World is here and it is an exciting read for anyone who ‘gets’ that this philosophical genius changed forever the way we can and should think about ourselves and the world.
While Nietzsche is a polemicist of existentialism against Christian and Hegelian essentialism, it is Heidegger who thinks through why essentialism is absurd and who presents us with a model for the individual human condition (Dasein) that places it firmly in a context of Time, of Heraclitean flux.
After Heidegger, it is no longer possible to consider any situation or person as fixed or essential nor to see a person as not embedded not merely in the material but in the social, constructed by their circumstances until that point when they become conscious of their being constructed.
The philosophy cannot be summarised without failing to do justice to Heidegger’s insights and the care with which he builds up his anti-system. Heidegger moves us beyond the idea of pure individualism and of socialisms into entirely new territory (at least in 1924).
There is no being in the world that is not experienced phenomenologically by the individual in relation to the world.
Such an individual is not fully created as person until the moment before they cease to exist. Death is central to Heidegger’s philosophy because it is a culmination of a process.
However, the world of the individual is created not only within brute material existence but also through the constructed phenomenal reality of many other individuals now and in the past so that history becomes a formative part of the process of ‘becoming’ until death.
At one point, Heidegger writes with brilliance about how generations construct their world and suggests how some individuals can think outside their generation just as they can think outside of their society.
His interest in history, of course, is to some extent a response to both Hegelian process and to German historicism. He recasts history not as forces with an essence of their own but simply as the phenomena of the ‘deals’ (my term) that are struck between people simply to get from A to B.
We are thrown into the world with a pre-existent history, we make our history as we move along our trajectory towards death and we leave behind a ‘given’ history for others to accept or change as consciousness and will permit. What this history is not is a thing outside the people who create it.
The book is primarily about time as the title suggests and how time and death at the end of personal time dictate what we are – a process that can never allow us to be a thing-in-itself unlike those things in the world that we make use of in our own process of becoming.
The world is to hand in this sense and this helps us to see how we use people as objects as if they were hammers while having relationships where our loneliness is assuaged by attempting to see persons as like us, things not in themselves but as others who are Dasein.
This is a rethinking of our old Kantian friends – the subject and the object – but it helps us to see that the imaginative universalist construction of humanity as a thing-in-itself is nonsensical. It is an aspiration that speaks of our anxieties but says nothing about the world.
A person who is Dasein can only relate to others as Dasein on an individual level of connectedness and, even then, the engagement is relative and not absolute. We cannot, as Heidegger rightly insists, live another person’s life because we can never live their death.
It is not accidental that some people with a strong universalist attitude to humanity find it difficult to engage in a direct and passionate relationship with others on an unconditional and non-exploitative way. The two attitudes – essentialist and existentialist – crowd each other out.
Being in the world (this is the concept of Dasein) is very much being in the world together with others. This social construction of self through time is at the heart of this short book.
Perhaps Heidegger over-privileges language over non-verbal communication (he was of his time and of the text-based culture of Western Europe) but, whether linguistic or non-verbal, the interplay of oneself with others and both with matter creates what we understand by culture and society.
Heidegger himself is conservative in orientation but there are no necessary conservative conclusions to be drawn from this (as Sartre attempted to demonstrate but then became trapped in his own Cartesianism and assumed Marxism).
The individual consciousness has to understand the material and social limitations of its position and the fact that there is no escaping final extinction but the process of steering oneself through the material and social in order to create the ‘right’ self might be a truly radical one.
Humanity in general is faced with anxiety (according to Heidegger) over its own dissolution, a dissolution without meaning, so it tends to construct false meaning and to adopt (Sartre extended this) a social role to avoid ‘being’.
'Becoming’ and process are frightening so the tendency is to fix things as essences.
In practice, avoidance of dealing with anxiety, death and lack of meaning merely creates a ‘false consciousness’ (Sartre again, not Heidegger) which embeds the anxious state so that the person never becomes anything other than their own historical or social construction.
Material limitations are real but history and social limitations are more or less flexible. The question is then whether the person not only understands how to manage matter ('scientia') but also how to manage and command the social and move beyond one’s past.
We have moved decades beyond Heidegger’s master work into Sartrean territory but the importance of this book and of “Being and Time” itself is that they create the possibility for individual liberation and choice without diminishing the power of the material, the social and the historical.
Adolescent irrational assertion of pure individualism and a cowed submission to the social and to the past become two sides of the same coin of incomprehension about the world and our place in it.
In addition, once death and anxiety are faced, they, like the bully, lose their power – if the knowledge does not send you insane or to suicide, it liberates in precisely the way proposed by Nietzsche even if it was not an outcome for him.
It is possible, of course, to be a Christian or a Marxist or a Liberal or whatever and accept this world view but the acceptance of such ideology or belief is then undertaken in a wholly different spirit.
There is the Kierkegaardian leap of faith or a simple acceptance of ‘what one is’ or of ‘what one chooses to be in the context of society and history’ - what it is not any more possible is a simple acceptance of what others choose one to be.
To construct meaning as a ‘leap’ is certainly very different from constructing meaning out of anxiety without further thought or curiosity. It may still be a leap derived from anxiety but one leaps knowing that this anxiety must be alleviated in this way.
For others, this no-meaning is the liberation and death is simply the last of many successive presents.
This general review fails to do justice to an excellent translation with exceptional academic support.
To read Chapter 2 of this book, supported by Chapters 1 and 4, is to see the world in an entirely different way. A difficult but recommended text – one which you might read and then return to later for more insights.
Notes are private!
Jul 10, 2011
Jan 01, 1975
Nov 13, 2001
Originally published in 1975 but frequently reprinted since, this was an attempt by Professor Herbert Guenther and the Tibetan-Buddhist Chogyam Trungp...more Originally published in 1975 but frequently reprinted since, this was an attempt by Professor Herbert Guenther and the Tibetan-Buddhist Chogyam Trungpa to provide a more grounded view of Tantra at a time of ‘New Thought’ ferment on the West Coast of America.
Care must always be taken with such books – the interpretation of two men is as representative of all tantric thought as two nice liberals might be in interpreting Christianity to India. The Buddhist strand is only half the story – there is a Hindu strand as well – and Buddhists come in many schools.
Nevertheless, Guenther is learned and Trungpa sincere and able to meet the West half-way. At this early stage of the introduction of Buddhist Tantra to the American West, perhaps no better collaboration could have been hoped for.
As it stands, this remains an excellent introduction (although it is not an easy read as it should not be). The last two dialogues (the bulk of the book is a readable stage by stage explanation of central concepts) are operating at a high level of philosophy for specialists.
One of the longstanding debates within the Eastern cultures, as they come face-to-face with the West, is whether they are ‘doing philosophy’. Regardless of Zen purists, this tradition and cognate Eastern ones represent a philosophical mentality co-existing with a spiritual one.
If you were to mean the Western analytical tradition from Plato, then Zen and Tantra are not comparable but both ‘think’ deeply about reality (as do the monist strands in Hinduism) along lines that are comprehensible to post-essentialist existentialists, phenomenologists and post-structuralists.
Nevertheless, the two traditions, West and East, remain distinct, less because of means (since Westerners are perfectly happy to consider Eastern traditions as providers of technology for altered states, personal transformation and phenomenological insight) but because of their ends.
The original dualism of the West has broken down into a new monism at its intellectual elite level but this is still a largely materialist one.
The East, on the other hand, still thinks in terms of universal consciousness, reincarnation and the altered state being an access to reality rather than simply another form of reality.
Yet the dialogue between advanced Western philosophies and the Eastern traditions is a highly fruitful one so that understanding the basic tenets of traditionalist Tantra (and of Zen) is a useful tool in a Westerner’s ability to critique his own history and move forward.
This does not mean that Eastern thought is displacing that of the West. In the end, a belief in universal consciousness – even when experienced as ‘real’ through training or chemical means – is only a belief, about as provable or as unproven as the existence of God.
Tantra still falls into the category of religion with a philosophy attached (much like Thomism is to Catholicism). Anyone not trained in it will struggle with the alienating use of Sanskrit and ultimate ends that requires an underlying absurd belief no different in commitment to that of Kierkegaard.
The spiritual technologies of Tantra are, however, impressive, honed over hundreds of years within both the Hindu and Buddhist traditions.
This book, at the least, steers the reader away from excessive pride in Westernisation and the associated belief that adopting Eastern ways will provide an easy path to dealing with life’s stresses.
Prof. Guenther and Chogyam Trungpa alternate chapters so I shall refer only to the authors in general and let you draw out any differences of emphasis between them.
What they make clear is that the tantric mentality is one of relations to the world and involves a constant process of growth – to an extent one might see it as a psychology without psychologism.
By (like Zen) moving within and then outside language, the tantric mentality detaches the mind from the limitations of language in order to place the person in direct relationship to experience.
However, it is not an either/or mentality. Detachment is what it says on the tin so that the first problem for any Western mind dealing with the conceptual framework is that no word appears to mean what it would mean in its Latin derivation – notably compassion.
I often think that, instead of Westerners losing themselves in trying to master Sanskrit, Tibetan or Chinese, a more profitable approach might be to reverse engineer the conceptual frameworks of the Tantric.
Perhaps we can create a new language with Western root words to re-create the technologies. If Japanese engineers can pull apart a mouse trap to make a better one in the material sphere, Western intellectual and thinkers should be able to do the task in reverse when it comes to psychic technologies.
The mind-set of the Buddhist tantric (let alone the Zen practitioner or the Hindu Tantrika or the hard-boiled Western existentialist) is radically different, from its very first base, to the normal presumptions and assumptions of ‘pragmatic’ man operating as an individual enforcing his will on matter.
But there are misunderstandings. Tantra is a way of being and of seeing and it need not make the tantric (or any of the other alternative thought-models) impractical in the ways of the world. In some ways, such philosophies might be more effective – though this has yet to be demonstrated.
The essence of contemporary Western and Eastern thought is, regardless of differing belief systems, the actuality of experience as one driving both mentalities and the integration of body and mind and then body-mind with the social and with the world of phenomena.
Integration with the ‘universal’ may be the point of difference here. Direct experience – the nearest equivalent being the Gnostic mentality in Western history – is also matched by that complex and internally disputed Sanskrit or Tibetan language of definition and description.
A resolution for the East appears to have been a socially determined one - the emergence of initiation, whereby those capable of seeing beyond the detail can be drawn by their teacher (the guru being a way rather than a person) into a new way of seeing, without damaging the social order.
Although Tibetan clerics appear cuddly and liberal in the West, they are, of course, far from so in history. Tantra is politically neutral but only up to a point.
Its traditionalism of lineages and secret knowledge is deeply conservative, based on scarcity and no more valid as a mode of spiritual liberation (in that respect) than Catholic clerical control of society in the European Middle Ages.
The traditionalist initiatory process thus strikes this reader as a sociologically-driven formulation, institutionally matching the ‘need to believe’ (i.e. the possibility of a continuance beyond this life in the hope of ultimate disillusion/dissolution).
Most advanced Westerners have no requirement for this. Nevertheless, this is an excellent introduction to what may be very useful to anyone and might bear reading twice – the second with more attention to detail for those who really find this path amenable.
One of the book’s great virtues is that, even if it cannot always be clear about the answer to a question, the book is always clear that the simplistic answers of ‘pop’ Tantra or Buddhism are misleading to the point of utter uselessness. New Age fluffiness is not wanted here.
Right at the end, I was struck by Chogyam Trungpa’s short disquisition on chaos and how this, and other thoughts of his, worked against the driving force in many edgy Westerners’ adoption of what they believe to be Tantra, the need for tranquillity or at least a salve against anxiety.
The Western Christian tradition is a constant striving for ‘peace’ (in the next world if not in this) and many Westerners carry this over to their new faith.
The reaction to Western divine essentialism, from Kierkegaard and Nietzsche onwards, involved an embracing of anxiety. Tantra is ahead even of nineteenth century Nordics in this respect.
As with existentialists, Buddhist Tantra represented questioning and struggle in which moments of peace are stage posts to the next part of the process of struggle.
Chogyam Trungpa writes: “Working with conflict is precisely the idea of walking on the spiritual path ... As far as the occupation of our mind is concerned, the chaos of the path is the fun.”
All that is being said here is that, as far as our relationship to Being is concerned (as opposed to our ability to manipulate matter or others to our own ends), the Western analytical tradition (as Heidegger pointed out most forcefully) is inadequate.
A struggle with Heraclitean flux is more likely to make us true to our relation to Being than trying to avoid the struggle or thinking the struggle can be won through brute linguistic force.
The technologies offered by Tantra simply permit increasing opportunities for both momentary peace and progress in relating to ourselves as integral elements within Being.
Tantra does not (in my opinion) have all the answers, but it offers an interesting route towards some answers and it act as an experimental ‘control’ for similar thinking in more advanced circles in the West.
In that context, although over 35 years old, this short book is to be recommended, as a starting point.
Notes are private!
May 30, 2011
Jul 22, 1992
May 01, 1996
This is another of Icon Books' graphic introductions to difficult subjects. In this case, Osborne and graphic artist Van Loon have probably taken on a...more This is another of Icon Books' graphic introductions to difficult subjects. In this case, Osborne and graphic artist Van Loon have probably taken on a bit too much - the whole of Eastern philosophy. Nevertheless, this 176-page picture book provides a sufficient overview of Indian, Buddhist and Chinese philosophy that it will act as a useful guide to those aspects of these traditions that you might want to explore further. It provides a basic primer on the underlying cultural attitudes of an East that is likely to become much more obviously equal to the West in economic terms over the next century.
At the risk of gross over-simplification, we can see that these three traditions are all going to inform Eastern attitudes for many decades and centuries to come - and perhaps, as they grow and prosper, influence us in the West as much as we have influenced them during the Imperial Age.
India is, in my view, a tougher nut for the Western mind to crack. The Westernisation implicit in the British Imperial project seems to have proved less embedded than we might have thought. The rise of an Indian nationalism of the Right is also a commitment to a particular vision of Vedanta that is unlikely to want radical reform of the caste system or the role of women. The whole 'karma' thing might appeal to the Western New Age but it is essentially a conservative model of the universe that is unlikely to appeal to anyone angered by the unresponsiveness or incompetence of their elected Governments. The conservatism of the New Indian Right may come to prove very problematic for Western liberals and especially for British liberals who have to cater for these elements in their own Hindu communities and coalitions.
Osborne tries to show that the Eastern traditions have more in common with each other than any do with the West. I, for one, am not entirely persuaded that they are not distinct. The irruption of Buddhism into China was an alien graft from South Asia that, by the time it reached Tibet and Japan, eventually transmuted into something very different in Tibetan Tantra and Zen with their very different philosophical stances.
What they do have in common is the lack of any notion of revelation outside the person and the use of texts as learning tools and advisories rather than as the basis for Truth. Much of the dynamism of the West comes from its revolt against the sclerotic belief in single texts (Bible or Koran) being repositories of Truth and so against limitations being put on philosophical investigation, much as small competing states energised technological innovation through near-perpetual warfare.
Any Western Right that wants a return to tradition is asking for a return to text-based sclerosis and does not fully understand that Indian, Chinese and European pagan models may not have been very dynamic (based as they were on agrarian societies) but they were far more culturally dynamic than the book-obsessed over-intellectualised learning of the Christian, Jewish and Islamic Middle Ages.
In the end, a lot of Western and Eastern philosophy is just dancing around the unknowability of raw existence and around the relationship between things and minds perceiving things in that context. One value of this book is in showing that there is not much that has been thought of in the West that has not appeared in the East - and vice versa.
Nevertheless, there are significant differences in 'mentality'. The West has tended to separate out 'science' from 'faith' and to see them in challenging opposition. The West loves struggle because it is creative - its culture is based on intellectual war and on crowing victory from the rooftops before falling to the next challenger. The quintessential Western philosophy is Hegelianism with its thesis facing off an anti-thesis to create a synthesis that becomes a thesis. The Chinese approach is to see things in terms of opposites that must be recognised as being engaged in a permanent struggle. We, in the midst of it all, must be actively engaged in calibrating these forces into a middle way. This is the natural way, the flow of a stream around boulders to the sea.
The Chinese, despite the incursion of Buddhism, which eventually beaches in two cultures wary of their great neighbour (Tibet and Japan), have their own internal philosophical yin and yang in the competing but also mutually accommodating traditions of Confucius and the Tao. There is something deeply humane about the original Chinese solution to the problem of organising and living in an agrarian society - family life and the State are ordered in ritual and duty while the individual flows through the vicissitudes of life with an attitude of withdrawal and self-development.
The Indians have a similar model but treat, in a more essentialist and less natural way, the individual as preparing himself to be first a functioning part of society and, then, passing on to what may be called a form of living death of contemplation in the hope that the next reincarnation will raise his status in life. Both are philosophies of hopelessness about radical reform or change except towards some kingly or monkish ideal but the Chinese does permit the existence of a private life alongside the public, whereas Indian philosophy (in its ideal form)turns a man into simply the body for a travelling soul. In that sense, to return to the Nietzschean analyses on which we so often fall back, the Chinese way is essentially life-affirming and the Indian way life-negating, with the challenge and irruption of Buddhism being an attempt to moderate negation in one culture only to import it into the other.
Fortunately, East Asian cultures, like Western cultures much later, have proved surprisingly resilient in the long run. Tibetan Buddhism, Zen and Neo-Tantra are far removed from Vedanta. But even Vedanta is far from fixed in its thinking. Yet, within its basic framework, its many strands generally remain coherently Indian and different from the West. Yes, there has been some influence from Western methodologies but these have been absorbed and are perhaps now being reversed as Indian nationalism makes it increasingly less difficult to not be overly-submissive to British-inspired modernisation and 'reform'.
The Chinese similarly have not allowed the West to decide how they are to think with one major exception for which the ground was prepared by the regrettable but possibly necessary introduction of Neo-Confucian ideas. The cultural strength of China lay in the calibration of Confucian and Taoist thinking but it assumed an agrarian Middle Earth that was not disrupted by international trade, by more innovative invaders and by massive population pressures. The political and economic situation of China was often far from stable. The constant calibration was painful and increasingly ineffective. The arrival of 'foreign' Buddhism in itself is perhaps a sign of stress with Buddhist reincarnation have the same effect on the suffering poor or relatively deprived as Christian Salvation had on a flailing Roman Empire.
Neo-Confucianism and Imperial Paganism in the West have much in common functionally but the latter fell before demotic Christianity in a way that Neo-Confucian Order did not before Buddhism. In Europe and the Mediterranean, Christianity and Islam and their texts triumphed but the Chinese traditional order fought back with an assertion of hard-line quasi-textual Confucianism over Taoist withdrawal. On top of this, the second serious collapse of the old order under Western Imperial pressure saw Marxism-Leninism arrive as a useful appropriation by Mao of the nearest invader philosophy available to the traditional Yin-Yang model that was normal to Chinese thought processes - bringing us back to the essentialism of Hegel by the back door.
Today, China is two steps away from its traditional and relatively humane model of balancing individualism and nature (the Tao) and public order and duty (Confucius). It has shifted sharply to the Right (authoritarian neo-Confucianism) and then to the 'Left' (a form of social or collectivist Anti-Taoism derived ultimately from Hegel) and it has now settled into a form of Socialist Confucianism that represents a major intellectual, philosophical, cultural and now military and economic challenge to the rest of the world.
This leaves us with the question of the effects on the West of all these traditions that have evolved over thousands of years - with Buddhism the relative parvenu alongside the religions of the book.
The best of Eastern thought has made an immeasurable contribution to the revival of serious thinking about the West's own inheritance. With the possible exception of the remarkable emergence of Zen in Japan and some aspects of Tantra (at a pinch), none of these traditions of the East can be called existentialist as such: they all, at the end of the day, have some essence of man or society to which they look. However, the sophisticated approaches to Being, Man and Society of Hindu and Tao thinkers in particular have allowed new ways of looking at the world that have worked to build understanding of the possibility of an actually lived existentialism as well as to explore the links between the mind and the body - and with social reality and 'things in the world' - with more data.
The Western rebellion against the text became fully radicalised only within the last hundred years and has converged with what might be called the 'religious common sense' findings of the Indian and Chinese sages. It is not that European thinkers are likely to adopt Eastern ways (that is for mystics and New Age types) but that the investigations and techniques of the sages add serious value to the post-modern philosophical questionings of the West - even if the research needs to be mindful that we are looking for diamonds and nuggets of gold in vast masses of ore nade up of Sanskrit obscurity and gnomic Chinese sayings that may mean nothing or everything.
At the other extreme of sophistication is the convergence of the creation of the 'new religions', often trying to emulate a pre-text paganism whose records have mostly been destroyed, with the discovery of the pagan reality of modern India and (underneath the modernisation) Tibet, China and Japan. We might add to this the rediscovery of indigenous shamanistic cultures and of African and Latin American folk religions. In a sometimes desperate search to find the true nature of lost Western paganisms - a frenetic process that is scarcely a century old and parallels the very separate process of the discovery of existentialism - the East is a fertile ground for uncovering data that might suggest how we should be thinking if we are to rediscover our 'natural' roots.
The first ports of call tend to be tantra, tao and zen because each of these can connect to pre-existing Western concerns. Tantra appeals to the transgressive and rebellious in a highly individualist and non-traditional society (despite being traditionalist par excellence in its own territory). It has developed a role in the 'dark arts' Magickal community, in the benign but shallow waters of New Age sexuality as Neo-Tantra and in the growth of more mainstream Buddhism, with its increasing 'Tibetan' bias, as a middle class response to the need for meaning in a world filled with ennui, powerlessness and anxiety despite apparent prosperity.
The Tao has emerged as the basis for new age thinking on health and the environment but has also become an influence by analogy in attempts to reconstruct the Neo-Pagan Heathen Way of Wyrd espoused by Brian Bates, a world in which the cultures of the North Europeans share dragons and shamanistic origins with our Eurasian Chinese brothers. Zen is where new popular thinking merges with the high thought of existentialism and phenomenology. Japanese culture intrigues many Westerners as being both one of the most modern and one of the most culturally coherent in itself. There may even be envy in some quarters at its dynamic purity - Zen is where the East meets the new existentialist concerns of the thinking Westerner who wishes to detach himself from politics and from the frenetic pace of modern media culture, often while working within it.
As for the future, Westernised derivatives from the East are unlikely to be of interest to the East itself - the flow is largely from there to here and the flow in the other direction is not 'spiritual' or intellectual but material and technological. They are revolutions within the West for the West that merely intensify its dynamic and innovative individualism and that bring yet more creative chaos, much to the despair of increasingly discredited ruling elites who would dearly like to introduce Augustan order to their crumbling empires.
However, Indian Nationalism and Chinese Socialist Confucianism are still relatively sclerotic intellectually. They are still way behind the West in terms of innovation and flexibility so that the real challenge here is whether East or West can live with each other under these conditions of difference. There will be Easterners who want Western freedoms and Westerners who will want to turn the West into a disciplined Enlightenment Fortress analogous to Neo-Confucianist solutions to disorder. There are Easterners who want more Western technology than the West is prepared to hand over and Westerners with a post-imperialist determination to export values into these rising giants. The room for misunderstanding and conflict is large and this little book is a useful primer on why West and East think about things differently - that this matters should not be a matter for debate.
Notes are private!
May 30, 2010
Oct 27, 1993
This book is part of a series of graphic accounts of significant modern philosophers and ideas. The original idea behind the series was that you could...more This book is part of a series of graphic accounts of significant modern philosophers and ideas. The original idea behind the series was that you could educate through a combination of image and crisp short summaries of the life and history of complicated people and concepts.
This is both absurd and helpful. None of these books (largely produced in the post-modern fervour of the 1990s) can do more than skim the surface of a subject. Ideas can be so foreshortened that they are meaningless to the uneducated subject. The graphics are often crude but they serve their purpose, only rarely adding to the obscurities instead of enlightening us.
On the other hand, they offer two hours (approximately) of comic book summary of the main tenets of a thinker or movement with valuable pointers to further reading or study. They are very useful and entertaining in that context.
To a great extent, they have been superseded by the internet. Wikipedia and a basic Google search can deliver similar short reliable summaries with links at the click of a mouse but they still have their role in opening up the minds of many people who would never otherwise come up against these ideas.
Personally, I am a great admirer of Nietzsche who, though not flawless, provided us with some very fundamental insights into human psychology and engaged deeply with some of the toughest metaphysical and other philosophical problems encountered in Western philosophy.
We have long since left Marx and Freud behind, largely because of the excesses of their followers, but we have scarcely touched the surface of Nietzsche's contribution to thought even if his analyses may never be fully acceptable in 'polite society'. He is the most inconvenient of philosophers.
There is no point in summarising a summary account of his life and thinking. I have my own theory of his 'madness' (about which, of course, doubts have been raised) so if you are not interested in this, do not read on and just make a judgement on the book on the basis of your need.
The probability is of a serious nervous breakdown and mental instability but it strikes me that it is not accidental that it was triggered by a horse being beaten by a man in public.
Nietzsche's thought derived in part from his absolute refusal to compromise in trying to understand the reality of 'herd' behaviour (in effect, social psychology) and in communicating his findings about that behaviour to a world that, by his own analysis, had too much at stake in seeing the bones beneath the skin.
It was not a truly free society - an intellectual elite acted as a thin veneer of public morality and of ideology within a system that remained fundamentally brutal in its demands for service from its members. The masters, indeed, had become slaves to their slaves in order to maintain order, both social and cultural.
Nietzsche was the liberationist of the individual against this system but was quite definitely one without much of an understanding of the components of the 'herd' outside his class. He thought that a man of the elite (he is ambiguous about women) could liberate himself from the obligations imposed by the collective from below without perhaps understanding that the elite had a great deal of material interest in creating this system of self-policing in a complex industrial society. Unlike Marx, Nietzsche clearly did not understand how industrial society was different from the pagan world of the past.
Within such a bourgeois culture, faced with a threat from within their own community, people like Nietzsche are handled not through attack but through a policy of isolation - as inconvenient and 'not to the point'.
This how the intelligentsia operates in any case, through systematic exclusion of those who do not accept the prevailing ideology. I am sure that many fine minds, with perhaps similar if much less developed ideas, have languished in obscurity unable, without leisure, to record their thinking, even in the lower ranks of bourgeois Germany.
Nietzsche was both lucky and unlucky in living at the cusp of a new age. On the one hand, there was sufficient freedom from cultural authority to enable free expression. On the other, there was an insufficient plurality of cultural communications for that free expression, at least in his life time, that might counter the dead weight of the existing German elite.
Part of Nietzsche's famous breach with Wagner derived from anger at the great artist's slow and steady absorption into this dominant culture rather than challenge it with a new 'pagan' affirmation of life. Wagner abandoned the Nibelungenlied for Parzifal.
Nietzsche can occasionally sound as if he is pessimistic in this context (which is certainly the view of most persons faced with the grim Doctrine of the Eternal Return) but, in fact, his entire work cannot be understood except as an attempt to affirm life in the face of the much grimmer pessimism of Schopenhauer. Schopenhauer's miserabilism might be regarded as the natural thinking response to the flummery of Christian duty but one that, as in Wagner's case, equally permitted submission to its demands. Amongst the elaborate lies we weave to keep ourselves 'sane', Wagner appeared to choose Schopenhauerian negation and Nietzsche never forgave him for this.
Nietzsche used up vasts amount of psychic energy in seeking out his own 'truth' (he never accepted that there could be a 'Truth') and his 'truth', which was based on a rigorous stripping away of layers of social illusion and convenient irrationalities (including the illusion of rationality itself), could only have value either to someone in a similar position to him (a bourgeois mind with a mission) or to a society that felt itself free to experiment with freedom. Nietzsche took his vision, often writing his books in a matter of days after months of cogitation, and laid it out remorselessly to his (then) non-readers in a drive for self-exploration that a critic might consider as neurotic in itself.
His thinking was a necessity, not a desire, and the resultant body of work, obscure though it may be in places, is one of the greatest creative uses of the mind in human history. It proved a revolution in thinking that spread first amongst intellectuals overseas, then returned to Germany in a bastardised form (irrelevant to all those truly interested in the thought). Once purged of its more absurd followers, bit ecame a central source for nearly all modern continental philosophy and for a critique of power that (in my view) has now become truly salient in the social conditions arising from rapid change in the technology of communications.
The point is that Nietzsche described the social world more accurately than any preceding philosopher and placed it in a metaphysical context. His observations now seem in closest accord with the dark findings of the cognitive scientists and the social psychologists about how we humans actually operate and command the world.
Many Enlightenment-trained intellectuals will run around like frightened rabbits and then sink into a gloom at Milgram's experiments or the Holocaust as if their thinking will change anything about these things. Nietzsche would not have been surprised in either case for it is just how he saw that the 'herd' operates and the educated elite responds. Even now, Western liberal thinking has still not come to terms with the death of Reason as substitute for Revelation and is turning to 'nudge' as its last desperate fling at dealing with inconvenient truths.
Where he was lucky in his legacy is precisely in not being acceptable too soon. Marx saw Marxism boom and bust as it seized power, perverted power and then died because Marx's undoubted insights were hobbled by Engels' scientific materialism. Freud was to have a similar problem with Freudians who became sucked, like Marxists, into complex and fixed ideologies of mind that soon came unstuck, in a perverse reversal of what happened to Marxism, by not being scientific enough!
Nietzche, on the other hand, was followed initially by maniacs who seriously perverted his message (the malign racial nationalism of his sister and of German radical nationalists) but who did this to such a ridiculous degree that his work not merely survived but emerged strengthened. 'For what does not kill, strengthens' in his often quoted aphorism. Nietzsche's approach to life survives precisely because it is individualistic and anti-ideological. It cannot be systematised like Marxism yet it embodies its critique of Reason in the terms of reasoning itself. It out-reasons Reason and brilliantly and entertainingly at that.
This will soon bring us back to the flogged horse, so be patient. Because the flaw in Nietzsche's thinking arises from the conditions in which he did his thinking. You must imagine a man isolated but following the logic of his own thought in a way that others might have considered 'mad' well before his diagnosed 'madness'. Yet the brilliance and power of reasoning and determination could not permit such a judgement reasonably while he still thought and wrote. However, this man may have been hard on the human race's capacity for illusion but he was also hard on himself.
He knew the logic of the situation. He was seeing into the heart of the human condition. Evolution must eventually see humanity negate itself completely in its illusions (as many post-modern French thinkers seem to suggest is happening) or 'become' something else. This latter is the real 'trans-human' message behind the 'ubermensch', an individual transformation that evolves into a species-transformation or else sees humanity as an evolutionary dead end for humanity as a whole. Some may now expect the 'ubermensch' to be found in the world of artificial intelligence, raising the interesting conundrum of which sort of negation we might choose in the long run - spiritual or physical.
Whether he saw himself as an 'ubermensch' is unclear. It is unlikely. He was a prophet of the new type like his Zarathustra, a man crying 'God is dead' in a world that thought him 'mad'. And so we come to his fundamental flaw. He rightly castigated 'compassion'. He was right to do so in two senses. First, as the psychic vampirism of the liberal or Christian or progressive with power in hand whose 'compassion' is a form of power relation, denying the rights of the victim to be anything other than a victim. Second, in the Buddhist sense, of a distanced 'compassion' for the world, a 'compassion' which is the negation of existence, a refusal to engage in life.
In his determination to call the tune on the 'slave mentality' and the life-negating aspects of these two types of compassion, which are really forms of self-centred victimisation of others and of oneself respectively, he hardened himself and he forgot a third form of compassion. There was no energy left for this compassion and no insight into the self to see its necessity. This is the third form of compassion, one that arises from the Will to Power where another or others becomes existentially chosen, without illusion, to become part of oneself yet with respect for their own autonomy. It is, in short, 'love'. Poor Nietzsche never seems to have had the chance to experience this sense of worlds entwined and of the interconnection between equals that goes far beyond the nonsense of modern romanticism.
In his one big blind spot, he did not understand just how much his Will to Power was bound up with the libido (where we are indebted to Freud in raising its presence as unconscious drive). This is the energy designed to acquire 'more' and make oneself whole - being social animals, this includes relations with others. All relations with others are relations of power but, at a certain point, we can decide ourselves whether they are relations of power that are inherited, especially inherited by our slavish internal needs created by society for society (as in Christian cultural repression), or they are relations of power that we create and in which our true nature is best expressed by having relations of power that are calibrated to be as equal as possible. Why? Because that is how we get our greatest pleasure, conversing within an aristocracy of equals (not materially but existentially).
By the time of his madness, Nietzsche will have been very isolated and lonely. There was no love in his life. No interconnection. Certainly no aristocracy of existential equals. Nor could he expect such an aristocracy to emerge in his life time - indeed, one may be emerging only now with new forms of communication. When he saw that horse beaten (I surmise), he saw not merely himself beaten but the raw misery of a world in which one man may speak the truth of what is to come and yet know that no-one will understand until he is long dead (if at all). Worse, by the doctrine of the eternal return, his life would be an eternal round of such existential lonelinesses. This does not negate his affirmation of life but his surge of compassion for that horse is a rising up of compassion for a humanity that does not 'get it' and for himself as the person who does and is before his time.
Given everything that had gone before, his only 'choice' is an assumed or actual madness. In a parody of the Christian message which he excoriated mercilessly, Nietzsche is 'crucified' on the cross of his own humanity. (less)
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May 27, 2010
Jul 09, 2004
Mid-twentieth century revolutions in thought have overturned much of the basis for any easy acceptance of Descartes and later Kant as guides to life,...more Mid-twentieth century revolutions in thought have overturned much of the basis for any easy acceptance of Descartes and later Kant as guides to life, with Kierkegaard and Nietzche as early pioneers in unravelling the presumptions of essentialism.
Maurice Merleau-Ponty is a very significant figure in this context, not merely within modern continental philosophy but in preparing the ground for what looks likely to be seen as a much wider and consequent cultural revolution, one derived from the extension of the insights of the existentialist, phenomenological and hermeneutic schools, first into art and culture and increasingly into society and politics.
This slim volume represents seven radio lectures given by Merleau-Ponty in 1948. The form should warn you about the content. They are slight, an attempt to popularise complex thoughts and ideas, equivalent to the sort of 'Brains Trust'-type talks given by intellectuals like Bertrand Russell or JB Priestley in Britain (as well as the Brains Trust itself) around the same time.
They are of their place and time. Some of the ideas will seem oddly obvious to a later generation but the lectures were bringing ideas that were reasonably well understood at the leading edge of the French intelligenstia to the educated French middle classes.
Radio was an essential medium of public education at this time and Merleau-Ponty appears to be doing a reasonable job here of boilinmg down complex and radical thought to the level of a reasonably educated member of the French general public.
But the book could be slimmer. Thomas Baldwin's introductory notes add little to appreciation of material that stands on its own merits and his determination to put his own critique of Merleau-Ponty's claims is irritating when what we really want is an explication of what Merleau-Ponty was trying to get across to a mass audience - and why.
Similarly, the first four lectures are scene-setting potboilers. Complex research and thought is boiled down to short gobbets of information that are not always entirely clear.
The lectures only come alive, to become a useful summary of his ideas, in the last three: a sensitive critique of Cartesianism from what is clearly an existentialist point of view; how art must be seen as distinct from reality; and a powerful, short and, in my view, important critique of the assumptions of the Enlightenment.
To be honest, this book is for completists in French philosophy or for those interested in how philosophy was communicated to the French public in the vibrant 1940s. Merleau-Ponty's views are probably best investigated through more substantal works or through one of the very many general works on existentialism - even perhaps from Wikipedia.
Where the book is useful is in providing unusually succinct (for a working philosopher) expressions of his position. This reader is wholly persuaded by his approach. Merleau-Ponty seems to be describing not how educated people should think (as was the case in the 1940s) but how educated people actually think today, sixty years on.
This shows the extent of a revolution that marks out the wiser part of the liberal West today both from its ideological rivals overseas and from the fundamentalist version of liberal thinking that is fighting its own rear-guard action to preserve the dominance of its absolute values in a changing society.
Merleau-Ponty's legacy is the challenge being undertaken, as I write, to sustain in place some of the rigidities and essentialisms that were the consensus in 1948. These still hold sway in the elites of the West (though not necessarily in the general population) and are the basis of all the 'grand projets' that are so damaging within Western politics - from the American Empire through Israel to the European Union.
In essence, Merleau-Ponty's project is an extended critique of classical rationalism (though not, it should be said, a call for the rule of unreason).
For Merleau-Ponty, the rule of pure reason is neither possible nor truly human because we are, as human beings, embedded in our perceptions. We must be seen in the context of our history and of social reality and its history - as well as of the constant negotiation of our position with our own drives and with other persons.
This is the middle ground between matter and intellect where we actually live. As he puts it, rather than accepting the Cartesian dualism of their being, here, a mind and, there, a body, we should see ourselves and others as minds with bodies - "a being who can only get to the truth of things because its body is, as it were, embedded in those things." Let the man speak for himself:
" Humanity is not an aggregate of individuals, a community of thinkers, each of whom is guaranteed from the outset to be able to reach agreement with the others because all participate in the same thinking essence. Nor, of course, is it a single Being ... humanity is precarious: each person can only believe what he recognises to be true internally, and, at the same time, nobody thinks or makes up his mind without already being caught up in certain relationships with others, which leads him to opt for a particular set of opinions. Everyone is alone and yet nobody can do without other people ... there is no 'inner' life that is not a first attempt to relate to another person, In this ambiguous position, which has been forced on us because we have a body and a history (both personally and collectively), we can never know complete rest. We are continually obliged to work on our differences, to explain things that we have said that have not been properly understood, to reveal what is hidden within us and to perceive other people."
" The meaning 'table' will only interest me insofar as it arises out of all the 'details' which embody its present mode of being. If I accept the tutelage of perception, I find I am ready to understand the work of art. For it too is a totality of flesh in which meaning is not free, so to speak, but bound, a prisoner of all the signs, or details, which reveal it to me. Thus the work of art resembles the object of perception: its nature is to be seen or heard and no attempt to define or analyse it, however valuable that may be as a way of taking stock of this experience, can ever stand in place of the direct perceptual experience."
" In modernity, it is not only works of art that are unfinished: the world they express is like a work which lacks a conclusion."
" ... absolutely objective historical knowledge is inconceivable, because the act of interpreting the past and placing it in perspective is conditioned by the moral and political choices which the historian has made in his own life ... Trapped in this circle, human existence can never abstract from itself in order to gain access to the naked truth: it merely has the capacity to progress towards the objective and does not possess objectivity in fully-fledged form."
" ... if ambiguity and incompletion are ... written into the very fabric of our collective existence rather than just the works of intellectuals, then to seek the restoration of reason ... would be a derisory response ... liberal regimes should not be taken at their word ... noble ideologies can sometimes be convenient excuses."
Merleau-Ponty's message in these lectures is optimistic, far from the doom-and-gloom often ascribed to those moving in existentialist circles at this time.
Contestability and ambiguity are not becessarily bad things to Merleau-Ponty because they permit self- and social creation that accords with our complex natures. He stands in opposition to rationalist and intellectual models that bend humanity into fixed shapes.
Not only God but Reason are 'dead'. This is to be embraced but not from a position of reactionary conservatism. On the contrary, while clearly highly critical of the Soviet model, he is equally critical of Liberal nostrums (as he should be). The strong implication is that we can change things for us personally and for society in a progressive way through embracing uncertainty and making humane judgements for which we must take personal responsibility.
Of course, it is hard not to see this as part of the same movement that embraced Sartre, De Beauvoir, Camus and Arendt and so it is - but Merleau-Ponty should, I believe, be considered differently. His humane phenomenological approach leads him to existentialist conclusions but it does not lock him into its 'system' (such as it is) or ideology.
His ideological approach is, in fact, anti-ideological. He is sensibly respectful of science and is determined not to be led by the nose by Sartre whose genius and ego may place him amongst the 'greats' of Western philosophy but who must always be taken with a pinch of salt as a guide to life. For Merleau-Ponty, life need not be 'absurd' if we do not wish it to be.(less)
Notes are private!
Oct 04, 2009
Jan 01, 1986
Dec 01, 1992
Pedestrian 1986 biography with few real insights into the man or his thoughts but it does have the virtue of laying out the basic facts of Sartre's li...more Pedestrian 1986 biography with few real insights into the man or his thoughts but it does have the virtue of laying out the basic facts of Sartre's life clearly. One for the library as reference text but not otherwise particularly recommended.
Notes are private!
Jun 07, 2008
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