Looking out a Window on a Cold Saturday Morning


What is this bourgeois idealism,

This preparing-to-be-there,

Amid reticence and lassitude,

Against a child’s fortitude?

Is this not sheer resolution?

And whither these preparations in the end?

Duty-bound though they be,

Have they yet resolved (a memory of Sartre?)

How they might be free?


Behold these delights:

A fox running in the snow

And geese taking flight,

Some snapping as they go.

Yes, and would the dog really like

To chase them on the lake?

–Just as the wind appears to do,

Sweeping up and creating a swell?

Ah, but the wind feels divine,

So fresh as it enlivens anew,

We breathe, and then let go

Amid the wild and sweet rushes.








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The Best Way to Learn Ancient Greek

I have recently arrived at the point where I can more or less read almost anything at mid-level ancient Greek without too much difficulty.  I arrived at this point after many years of labor-the kind of labor I am sure anyone setting out with a grammar book and dictionary is undoubtedly familiar with.  Along the way, I was always thinking that there must be a way to learn ancient Greek that would see me through the labyrinth of forms and grammatical surprises.

One method I tried early on was one that helped me learn French in a much shorter period of time: reading along with  a translation.  The interesting thing is that this was very effective for one author: Aristotle.  I think I can attribute this to the fact that I was very familiar with Aristotle’s text before I started the work of translating it.  I reasoned that the situation might be the same as that with translating the New Testament: because of the familiarity I had with the translation I could almost guess at the Greek text and come out more or less right.  An added factor was I think that the range of vocabulary used in Aristotle’s texts is more or less very regular and predictable in most cases.  The latter was what helped with French.

My method was to look up one word on each line and simply slog through whatever was unclear until I had enough vocabulary to see my way through the text.  I worked well enough so that at the end of one summer I was able to read most of Aristotle’s corpus after spending around 3-4 hours per day on the project.  By building up my vocabulary, I eventually started to get an intuitive feel for the way the language worked.  Over time, I got better and better with it.

The difficulty was that the same method didn’t apply very well to Plato.  It applied somewhat well to the early dialogues, but not at all to the Republic.  The answer was simply that I lacked sufficient vocabulary, but a further problem was that the syntax remained more or less bewildering in ways that I felt should be worked out once I had enough vocabulary. Moreover, the vocabulary suddenly seemed far more difficult to learn.  I spent a long period of time attempting to work through to the same point I achieved with Aristotle, using the same method and telling myself that a tipping point was inevitable.

What finally produced the breakthrough was to finally spend a lot of time, not on vocabulary, but on the grammatical forms.  I don’t feel I actually became comfortable reading mid-level Greek until I knew not just some of the grammatical forms, but just about every list in the first half of Smyth to the point where I could recite them by heart.  It was only when I reached that point that the syntactical mysteries began to disappear and my level of reading reached what I achieved with Aristotle.  Once I did reach that point, using the method I used to read Aristotle helped me to make further progress.

Along the way, I was told that I should not rely on facing translations.  I have mixed feelings.  On the one hand, they certainly helped me read easier Greek in a short period of time and being able to read the translation kept the work from being absolute drudgery.  On the other hand, the method kept me far from the shores of mid-level Greek until I finally came home only after a serious dedication to learning every paradigm I could find. Suddenly, too, the vocabulary was far less mysterious.

Was the optimal thing to have begun with the massive effort at learning them from the beginning? That would certainly have smoothed the path to the next level. However practically speaking, when a beginner is confronted with a Greek text, the task of looking up many, many vocabulary words to find to right sense or to ensure that a preposition applies as it should can, if carried out long enough, be nothing short of stunting to the intelligence. One can get lost in a de-motivating maze of forms and mesh of vocabulary words to the point where all other worthwhile ends are finally sacrificed and the investment no longer appears to be worth the reward.

I believe the moral to this story, my own conclusion is that different levels of Greek demand different levels of familiarity with the grammar.  There is simply no way around learning every paradigm to the point where any one of them can be recited if mid-level Greek is to be really and truly attained.  I hope to move up to an advanced level in the near future organically by reading as much Greek as is necessary to feel like my vocabulary base at the mid level is sufficient, and along the way looking into every Grammatical nicety that comes my way.  I think I will have attained that level when I can read mid-level texts without translation.  I have an OCT text of the Republic that has beckoned for many years.

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The Basic Conflict Between Phenomenology and Empiricism and Why it Matters


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Perhaps someone can explain exactly how phenomenology is actually different from phenomenalism when it comes to the question of objectivity. I think that the only difference might be Huserl’s idea about intersubjectivity-but that is consistent with phenomenalism. At the core of each is the idea that perception is the only foundation for objectivity. The move that empiricists would want to make is to say that there must be some grounding for our subjectivity that must ground our perception of the world whether we perceive it or not.
The existence of things in the world, in other words, can’t just depend on our perception of them. Is this a trap that phenomenalism and phenomenology fall into? It does seem that intersubjectivity involves the presumption that someone must perceive an object in order for it to be considered a reality. I don’t think it manages to avoid Hume’s more objectionable skepticism about unperceived objects, in other words.
Intersubjectivity seems about as good as it gets if you want to take phenomena as the basis for reality, however, since it is basically consistent with science. And yet it does seem to fall into the trap of Cartesian skepticism that perception makes the world rather than the other way around, or that it is our perception that validates the existence of things rather than that it is the existence of things that validates our perception. The trap being simply that no actual world apart from my perception needs to exist at all for the phenomenological viewpoint to follow. In other words my reality is consistent with a dream if the phenomenologist is right.

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Russia and the Emails as an Ethical Dilemma

Consider the following argument:
(1) Information is provided that appears to be evidence that someone has committed a crime or otherwise acted inappropriately in ways that are very significant. It may also provide evidence that exposes systematic corruption.
(2) But the information was provided by a source that is disreputable and possibly even hostile.
(3) Therefore the information should be ignored.

Some might say that the information itself and who is providing it are two separate issues. If you take the present actors out of the situation and look at it as a question of ethical norms, it does appear that a case could be made for either side and that there might actually be cases where you might agree with (3) for the good of the country. I think it poses an interesting ethical dilemma and not one easily resolved for or against (3).
In the case of the present election, I think it turns out that the further a Trump presidency fades from reality, the more it begins to look as if the Russians have actually done us a service by exposing possible corruption. It will hopefully make our political processes less suspect by exposing corruption where it exists and make us into less of a country where elites who are able to manipulate the system are able to get the upper hand. If there is a flaw it really is that Trump’s side is the side presenting the information and for that reason it will likely be ignored for partisan reasons. But it will be interesting to see what happens after the election.

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Foundationalism and the Fracturing of Philosophy


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It appears that as we move away from the postmodern era, all attempts at foundationalism in the modern era have failed. Empiricism, Rationalism, Kantiansim and Linguistic philosophy have all made foundationalist claims, and while may all work to some degree, none can claim to be the kind of ultimate foundation for knowledge a philosopher in the classical sense might have hoped for-the kind of foundational knowledge Descartes sought.

The modern era in philosophy began with various attempts at discovering a foundation for truth.  For the rationalists there was, beginning with Descartes, the attempt to found truth upon pure reason; for the British empiricists, there was the attempt to base all truth upon the senses; and finally, with Kant there was the attempt to ground all truth within the workings of the mind itself.  Each of these early modern approaches has led to interesting developments both within and outside of philosophy, but none has truly succeeded in giving us an indubitable starting point for seeking knowledge.

This succession of failures has affected the way philosophers consider themselves and their objectives.  With the rise of postmodernism and deconstruction, the leading philosophers defined themselves in terms of their opposition to foundationalist projects. Normally, when we think of traditional philosophy, we think of the attempt to construct systematic worldviews, and yet there no longer seems to be any enthusiasm for such undertakings. Instead, most people seem to spend their time burying themselves in a small corner of philosophy in an attempt to master whatever area they can. Is the budding philosopher to lose himself (or even his enthusiasm for life) in such a corner?  In the process, philosophy is becoming a more and more fractured discipline, less and less accessible to generalists within the field itself. Philosophy as a whole seems to be losing itself in this fracturing.

Gaining a perspective on the failure of attempts at foundationalism may assist the perplexed contemporary philosopher: “What should I study?”  “What direction should I take?”  These questions are more difficult to answer now than at other periods in time when philosophy itself had more of a clear sense of direction.  In what follows, what I would like to do is to take a look at modern and contemporary attempts at foundationalism in particular, in hopes of assessing where we are and how we might move forward.  Philosophy appears to be fracturing from within as a result of the failure of those attempts.  Are we currently in a post-foundationalist era?  What’s a philosopher to do?

Philosophy in the 20th Century


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The story here, it seems, should begin with Frege.  In his “On Sense and Reference” (1892) he uses the analogy of a telescope in indicating that there is something objective about sense (or meaning).  He writes that the image projected through a telescope that we have of the moon when viewing it is very much like the sense or meaning that relates a word to its object.  For example, either “the Morning Star” or “the Evening Star” are phrases we could use to refer to the planet Venus.  One might say  that they represent two distinct ways of “looking at” Venus.  But inasmuch as the “sense” that each one represents counts as a way of seeing, or referring to Venus, it can also be seen that they are not private or purely subjective: anyone using the language, who understands English in this case, has access to those ways of referring or senses of Venus, in the same way that more than one person might be able to use a telescope to see the same image of the moon being projected through it.  What is subjective is the idea we have of the moon, not the ways in which we refer to it.

This open-access kind of objectivity of sense (as well as of language as such) might be very useful if you were attempting to find a straightforward way in which the elements of a logical expression (e.g. Russell is a philosopher or (∃x)(Rx ∧ Px) in Russell’s later formulation) map onto and might be said to be true of the objects it is about.  Because the idea or image or internal experience we have of objects is subjective, sense, at least, gives us an objective starting point for making truth claims: in the example, if anything matches the sense we understand to be sufficient for referring to Russell and our understanding of what a philosopher is, the whole expression may be true of its objects.  Here, sense acts as a foundational element for making formal logic useful at all.

In the twentieth century, Russellian logical atomism and Wittgenstein’s Tractatus emerged as systematic attempts to see the world from a logico-linguistic standpoint.  It was thought that there might be a way to map language onto the world in terms of a one-to-one relationship: by mapping language onto the world starting from the most basic elements of language (logical subjects) a logico-linguistic map of reality could be created.  It would be the final stage in the application of Russell’s new logic, which could be applied more closely to ordinary language, and onto the world itself.  The project came to be known as “Logical Atomism.”  In a sense, it could be thought of as a re-boot of Aristotle’s original philosophical project, but with better tools.

But the project foundered and was ultimately defeated by Wittgenstein’s later realization that language does not really map onto the world in a straightforward fashion.  This was, in effect, an attack on language as a foundational medium for building a once and for all philosophical system.  Against Russell’s argument in “On Denoting” in favor of removing the intermediacy of sense (so that denoting phrases simply refer to their objects and all sense is a matter of propositional sentences), Wittgenstein came to see that the meaning relation that ties a word together  with its referent was arbitrary in ways that can be said to ultimately defeat logical atomism.

Specifically, Wittgenstein came to see that the meaning relation or semantic tie that established reference between a word and its object was actually a matter of the way in which we use language rather than a matter of establishing some set of facts about the objects themselves.   This thesis was later strengthened by Quine’s discussion of the linguistic webs he called conceptual schemes as subject to endless revision and then by the more sociological investigations of the same theme with reference to the evolution of scientific theories and even worldviews themselves by Thomas Kuhn and Michel Foucault in the 60’s and 70’s.

Linguistic Philosophy and Foundationalism


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As we get further and further away from the heyday of early analytic philosophy and attempts at system building fade into the background, problems associated with those enterprises continue to interest philosophers despite the loss of the overall system-building project they were once associated with.  Questions about semantics, for example, and the precise nature of the dispute between Frege and Russel over the basis of reference continue to be the subject of articles and books.  But it would seem that the problems have outlasted the projects themselves.

It might be wondered what further value the study of philosophy of language has.  Is the debate over the metaphysical or ontological nature of propositions important to study? What about the whole debate over the nature of reference?  It appears very much as though such discussions, once motivated by the system building projects they were once a part of no longer give us much reason to be interested in them apart from a historical interest-which may, nevertheless, prove very fruitful.  And yet, many people believe that philosophy of language has ultimate, foundational value because they believe that language structures reality or even determines our thought about reality.

It is true, even at first glance, that language does, in fact, structure reality, but this should not be taken to mean that language has some claim to structure reality independent of all experience (except perhaps in mythologies or in works of fiction).  Whatever we take reference to be, there must ultimately be a pragmatic level at which things either fit our experience or else do not.  When language fails to fit reality, it arises in the form of a realization of the “fictionality”of past world views or  in the falsity of certain past scientific structurings of reality.  This shows that while language itself may be responsible for the structuring of reality as its medium, whatever language-based structures are created must always be subject to plausibility and evidence if they are to be taken on or to survive.  However undeniably necessary language is in its structural role and to whatever extent theorists may be tempted to venture into realms of purely linguistic speculation, ultimately, experience seems to be the ultimate determinant of what we take to be fact or fiction.  Nevertheless, there is a sense in which language determines reality that applies well to sociological matters: the ways in which we refer to people or to other cultures or nations may have an impact upon the way that we, as individuals, think about them.  In such cases, experience may also prove to be the best way to bring about change.

In summary, while language is the medium through which we structure reality, there does not seem to be a very good case for claiming that it has a determining role in relation to the way we think about reality.  There may be a loose sense in which this is the case, where prejudice and institutional and personal goals create distortions of reality out of touch with our experience, but such misuse of language should not be considered as determinative of reality in any ultimate, foundational sense.  Perhaps the best argument that language, purely as a medium shapes our “perception” of reality comes from Strawson’s book Individuals, in which he argues for the primacy of the subject-predicate relation as structuring the way we see reality.  Nevertheless, Russell has also shown that there is nothing absolutely ultimate about such structures: it is possible to do away wtih them by formalizing away the classical subject-predicate structures of classical logic.  Strawson is right in practice, but not in principle-the something which is needed for carrying off foundational and not merely pragmatic claims on the nature of reality.

The Current Crisis in Philosophy


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Over the centuries, philosophy more and more gave way to the empirical sciences and to the role of assessing the worldview they generated.  The Aristotelian-Scholastic vision of the unity of the sciences has, in a sense, fractured under the intense drive toward specialization, which, in turn, resulted in the creation of autonomous sciences that once belonged under the umbrella of philosophy.  In another sense, inasmuch as philosophy was always about exploring the “Why?” of things, and seeking principles and foundations for explaining the world around us, it could be argued that philosophy has flourished and is flourishing more greatly than ever before in the sciences-albeit at the expense of departments that concern themselves purely with what is left of philosophy proper.   But with respect to philosophy as an academic discipline, if it began as a branch with many leaves, it now appears to be loosing much of its foliage.

This history has a very philosophical underpinning and, in fact, a foundationalist one at that: the basically pragmatic turn in modern science toward viewing any legitimate knowledge as generated by hypotheses confirmed by facts.  Because philosophy does not engage in empirical investigation itself, it is relegated to the outskirts of the  search for truth in the modern world.  Indeed, if we consider the subjects philosophy itself takes up that are not already discussed by theorists outside philosophy, we are left with perhaps only metaphysics and ethics, and areas of psychology or of science that are not at present accessible to empirical investigation, such as the relationship between the mind and body (or mind and matter) or the nature of consciousness or the origin of everything, or whether something can come from nothing.  Philosophy thus occupies a precarious position: it holds sway only in areas where empirical investigation has not yet found a way in.  At present, physicists and psychologists are beginning to discover ways to investigate just such questions.  As they become the subject of such investigation, speculation will give way to empirical research.

It might be argued that, for example, physicists such as Steven Hawking do not do an adequate job in working on the philosophical side of their discipline.  At any rate, it is a constant subject of discussion on blog pages and in comment threads.  But there are a couple of compelling reasons for not leaving bigger picture considerations up to philosophers: firstly, the kind of synthetic work involved in creating generalizing views is inevitably based upon familiarity with the specific facts of the research involved.  Who better to draw general conclusions about black holes or about string theory than the scientists who are intimately familiar with the data and theory building themselves?  Philosophers can always be educated to become familiar with the specifics, but who better than the experts and those who worked out the theories to discuss them and their broader implications?  Secondly, it is the sciences themselves who are working out the synthesis of their own proper fields.  String theory provides one example; theories of consciousness another.  In each case, a theory that will unify the field is being worked out by the scientists themselves.  A hypothesis by an uncommonly well-informed philosopher might conceivably help to further those fields, but as both the study of philosophy as an academic discipline and fields such as physics and psychology become more specialized, it seems much more reasonable to expect such hypotheses to come from the sciences themselves.  In the long run, it seems far more likely that philosophy will come to be defined by whatever problems are specific to it while other fields will be characterized by their specific domains.

Thus, the problem for philosophy in this crush of specialization would then seem to be to define its own particular subject matter; and yet, its traditional understanding of itself and of its own relevance is as a synthetic “science” of sciences.  The considerations outlined above indicate that the possible field for philosophy as an autonomous discipline is narrowing, perhaps to the subjects of metaphysics and ethics and to the purely speculative areas of the natural sciences. Moreover, it seems that they will eventually recede from their speculative role in relation to the empirical sciences as they sciences begin to attempt to find answers to those speculative problems (e.g. the origin of the universe, the nature of time and space, consciousness, and the possibility of free-will) through empirical means.

But, finally, many philosophers today also question the possibility of metaphysics-a necessary adjunct to any foundationalist system building.  The influence of figures such as Derrida and Foucault has made contemporary thinkers far more aware of the difficulty making of any foundational universal claims: the postmodern era worked to demonstrate that all claims toward universality of any kind are inevitably contextualized.  As such, the project of discovering the Being of things (to use the Heideggarian sense) even with the proper transcendental apparatus in place, would appear to be a mistaken adventure.

But, furthermore, if the Kripke-Putnam version of essences is accepted, and the microstructure of things is taken to be the determining factor in deciding their essential Being, so that modern science does investigate essences of a kind after all-and in an empirical way, and on an empirical basis-it is difficult to see how philosophy finds itself in any better position to become a synthetic science. Many scholars, in the excitement over the return of essences that Kripke’s work ushered in have not adequately recognized the limitations of these new essences: because they are always framed from the our current epistemic standpoint (cf. Putnam’s argument for taking H2O to be water in “Meaning and Reference” (1973)) rather than in terms of some fundamental way of looking at them, this view of essence is ultimately a pragmatic one. While Putnam’s argument does lay claim to essence, when understood as defined in terms of microstructure, as a way to differentiate kinds across possible worlds, what it does not claim is that our way of understanding water represents the Being of water in a final sense: the argument does nothing to defeat Quine’s notion of conceptual schemes as infinitely revisable.  Even with the rehabilitation of essences in hand, the currently accepted theory would leave science in a better position to tell us about the essences of things than any amount of philosophical speculation could.

Possibilities and the Philosophy of the Future


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But even if all this is the case and the field of academic-philosophical speculation is truly narrowing, then perhaps a  synthetic possibility emerges for philosophy: to simply devote itself to synthesizing knowledge as it is discovered by the sciences in hopes of developing a world view that would be beyond the reach of any individual science with the help of the resources of the history of philosophy. Such a worldview, or progress toward such a worldview could include or might highlight, ethical considerations.

This kind of project might be carried out by an individual philosopher, but as a project for an entire discipline would require some restructuring of the questions and aims philosophers take themselves to be concerned with.  Contemporary philosophers most often take themselves to be concerned with particular questions within particular debates, which, it is hoped, will eventually have an overall effect greater than the sum of its parts.  There are many artisans in the cathedral of contemporary philosophy.  Do their efforts contribute to an overall synthesis of the humanities?  A glance at the articles found in contemporary philosophy journals will indicate that their sentiments lie elsewhere.  It appears that the actual state of academic philosophy is that scholars devote themselves to problems of a theoretical nature that is in many cases on par with theoretical mathematics: their results may prove useful, but are deemed to be important for their own sake.  The difficulty for that kind of position is that if philosophy is to be the synthetic science par excellence its success or failure will obviously be bound up with the further question of its relevance.

Another possible response often heard in academic contexts when philosophy departments attempt to advertise their importance and relevance goes as follows: the questions that philosophy raises and the answers given in the history of philosophy by Plato or Aristotle or Kant have a lasting relevance.  There is an undeniable truth behind such a view: philosophy is a treasure of lasting value with contributors spanning civilizations, nationalities, and political persuasions of all kinds.  It is a kind of documentation of the progress of cultural development of entire civilizations and, at its best, can represent the wisdom they have attained. But the difficulty with this view of philosophy is that it turns it far too much in the direction of becoming a specialized branch of history.  Undoubtedly, philosophy as an academic discipline can lay claim to its own history as a field of study, but it has always also attempted to speak to current concerns and its ability to do that in an age of intense specialization appears to be eroding: if philosophers speak to physicists or to mathematicians or to political scientists they must not merely recite answers past philosophers have given but be able to make a strong argument as to why the specialists ought to reconsider their own views-something much discussed among historians of philosophy but rarely carried out in practice with any success.  Important contributions by historically oriented philosophers such as Thomas Kuhn have come about through the intense study of specialized areas outside philosophy: by studying the history, in Kuhn’s case, of science, and by drawing up important perspectives.  But Kuhn is a-typical as a philosopher: his PhD was in physics and he didn’t become interested in the history and philosophy of science until afterward, when he was granted the freedom to study the history and philosophy of science as a Harvard Junior Fellow.  Cases such as Kuhn’s do nothing to encourage the idea that the current structure of philosophy departments can foster such specialized, first-hand knowledge of outside disciplines.   Such cases further highlight the need for philosophy to define its own native area of focused expertise.

A further possibility would also seem to emerge from the evolution of the sciences themselves.  It has been said that the fracturing of philosophy has gone hand in hand with the specialization of areas that were once  traditionally considered part of philosophy.  But it has also been observed that synthesis has been going on within the sciences themselves (e.g. string theory in physics).  It is possible that the sciences may reach a turning point where the move toward specialization will eventually be overtaken by a move toward synthesis: as each science moves toward discovering the foundational principles of its discipline and begins the work of refining and simplifying itself as a discipline they might begin to become more accessible to those working outside their own proper fields.  Uncertainty and flux would give way to structure building, and structure, in the best case, to simplicity and elegance.  In such an environment, philosophy could begin to find itself with an important role that no other discipline has had the traditional role of carrying out.  The difficulty with this view, is of course, that it does not provide any immediate solution for philosophy-it belongs to the “Philosophy” of the future-and it is difficult to see how it can itself work toward that future without taking on the work of turning its students into specialists in outside fields.

Such a solution might benefit a few individuals with the right training in the short-term, and might be a way for philosophy to re-invent itself as a discipline in the long run. But it would require specializing its students in outside disciplines (requiring them to take years of neuroscience and biology, for example) whose study might not be compatible with philosophy as a specialized discipline in its own right unless “philosophy” could itself be transformed into a study of outside disciplines by integrating their study more and more into its own proper curriculum.  Such an outcome would re-invent philosophy as a study in the synthesis of the sciences.  Such a transformation would, however, seem to amount to a degraded role for philosophy in comparison with its traditional aspirations.

And thus, the final possibility that seems to emerge is that some new form of foundationalism might emerge from the sciences themselves-perhaps from physics in its search for the first principles of nature.  Once accomplished, such a foundationalism could eventually fall under the special provenance of the philosophy of the future.  Such a philosophy might be envisioned as a fully humanized form of scholasticism philosophers could work on for centuries, that might eventually crystallize the prior achievements of human kind.

For the present, philosophers could do a great amount of good for humanity by making the study of ethics and politics more accessible and pertinent that it is in its current state.  Philosophy should not be afraid to popularize itself in order to achieve a much-needed relevance.  In the age of the internet, such relevance can be more easily achieved than ever before, and a genuine, meaningful synthesis of theory and social practice in social matters would be an achievement for any contemporary philosopher to be proud of.

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Some Thoughts on the Postmodern Critique of Enlightenment


Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightnment is a now classic source for the critique of the modern-era enlightenment ideal.

In the second half of the twentieth century there was either pessimism about or else just outright rejection of the ideal of “enlightenment,” a concept which could be characterized as the foundation for all discussion of politics in the modern era. “Enlightenment” as a Western European political concept, is essentially the idea that reason and rationality can show us the way toward social progress. That progress would be the result of ongoing dialogue. Democracy and other forms of government that allow for reasoned discussion and disagreement, which put the fewest impediments in the way of liberty and freedom of expression, are best according to that ideal, since they allow for the best chance of that development which depends upon free discussion.

Nevertheless, we can see actual and potential problems with liberty (gun control legislation or even the growth of fascism) and with freedom of speech (which seems to be subject to the influence of the media, or muted by political partisanship) present in our society and in modern history. The conclusion of some critics is that liberty is something too dangerous to be handed to the masses. There is too much potential for liberty to be manipulated in ways that lead the masses astray, sometimes with horrific results (e.g. the holocaust).

All this could very well make one think that the enlightenment project was misguided. I think a mistake was made in overestimating the extent to which we have actually developed. There is a distinction that must be made between knowing what is right and building that knowledge into a cultural norm that can be called true progress. In other words, the step from rational discussion to actual cultural changes, rooted in changes in actual human behavior, is much, much longer than the enlightenment philosophers expected.

The twentieth century bears witness to this: while to many people living at the start of the twentieth century authoritarianism, totalitarianism and fascist ideologies might have seemed obviously wrong, there were equally obviously the seeds for such developments in human nature which were allowed to grow and were exploited by open societies that permitted such growth. If true enlightenment was attained at the end of the twentieth century, it would be in the form of the establishment of new cultural norms that reject such ideals and have the effect of guiding everyday people away from such behavior in their private lives. It would amount to a shift in consciousness and behavior on a social level.

This seems like a nice attainment, but certainly runs very much counter to the optimism of the 17th and 18th centuries. It seems that we must wait to learn things culturally, adopt ideals as cultural norms, even if just about everyone agrees upon them. Despite the extent to which the 20th century has disappointed our sense of our own progress, in a sense, putting such things as unjust authoritarian behavior behind us though a revaluation of values would be a major accomplishment. Arguably, such things as the growth of truer forms of equality in the latter part of the 20th century and early 21st may have received some impetus by the growth of such consciousness; and again, what some perceive as fascist tendencies in Trump would not be so ruthlessly criticized were it not for the growth of such awareness.

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On First Looking into Sontag’s Barthes Reader


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Despite my allusive title, I have mixed feelings about the Barthes Reader.  Before actually reading Barthes, I had read that he was maybe the either the most important or “greatest” author of the twentieth century. I have worked my way through half of the Reader now and “my two cents” is: a few really good essays, but not too sure about the overall coherence of his ideas. He draws a lot on linguistics and formalism and later enters a deconstructive mode, and he’s ahead of the curve in terms of literary movements. But his work seems to be more about gestures at ideas than fully articulated ones. Sartre, by contrast, tries to work his ideas out on paper. I think in the long run that I prefer the more fully articulated approach. He is kind of Borgesian in his gestures. Perhaps my lack of awe is just due to the fact that the movements he’s initiating aren’t really new to me and linguistic structuralism and formalism just aren’t really very exciting topics (cf. his tenacious “Structural Analysis of Narratives.”)  That being said, his wrestling-themed essay and his essay on the Eiffel Tower are great reads and probably even classics.  

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Is Free Will an Illusion? An Argument in Favor of the Possibility of Free Will

A recent article published in The Atlantic (http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/06/theres-no-such-thing-as-free-will/480750/?utm_source=atlfb) presents the case against free will-the idea that what we think of as self-determination is merely an illusion.  This is a point of view that the article claims is becoming more and more accepted. It presents the case for hereditary factors alone as determinative of our behavior, but, to my mind, doesn’t make a very convincing case. Perhaps the strongest argument it contains that free will is merely an illusion starts with the reductionist view that all our thoughts have a neurological (electrical) component. The argument that follows is, then, that if you somehow had all possible knowledge of all parts of a person’s brain and mental states it would be possible to predict what they might do or say next.

This seems like a very sophisticated (and vastly complicated) way of viewing the mind in the same way as you might view the possibility of predicting the trajectory or a cannonball. But the better model for comparison in this case would be a machine-a machine such as a computer. The behavior of computers can be predicted in principle. Moreover, because computers function strictly according to their programming and circuitry, free will seems impossible for them-as it would for us, were our minds the same as a computer in all respects. But the important question is whether consciousness would add something to the operation of the machine that can’t be reduced to simple stimulus and response-crucially, something that doesn’t come from without-from the environment-but something determined from within.


If a robot could be created to respond in multiple different ways to a single stimulus according to whatever is most advantageous, we would have something very much like a robot with “free will” so long as it also possessed self-awareness-something that might prove either difficult or impossible. With the ability to respond with any number of random responses according to perceived advantage it would be able to generate a response not automatically determined by environmental factors (or stimuli). In this case, its response would be unpredictable and would come from within. If such a machine were possible, then, in principle at least, it would have free will.  It would follow that free will is not merely an illusion, and, at the same time, something we could understand.

Finally, randomness as part of the machine’s set of possible responses provides some insight into our own sense of freedom.  Our own responses to external stimuli could be said to be programmed to various degrees, but the possibility of randomness in our behavior (doing something irrational, out of the box, creative) would undermine any final attempt to completely program our behavior.  In the case of the machine above, randomness could be introduced mathematically (the digits of pi are an example) so that any future response would be non-predictable.  The possibility of randomness would defeat the argument that our behavior could be seen as completely determined (something that the anti-free will argument requires to make its case).  The machine could be programmed to respond with either a standard or a random response (it could “decide” to show “Free Willy” at any moment.  Just as the machine has these two kinds of responses, programmed and non-programmed, so do we.  If we had only programmed responses, our “will” could not possibly be free.  From this perspective it can be seen than it is randomness in our own behavior that makes our own freedom possible and helps make sense of it.  It is through our irrationality and creativity that our freedom is affirmed.

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Some Striking Similarities between the Political Philosophy of Ancient Cultures


Confucius (wikimedia.org)


From time to time I notice some striking similarities between ancient cultures. I was reading about Mencius’ theory of social division into “mind-workers” and“hand workers.” Interestingly, Aristotle uses the exact term “xeirotechnes” (hand-worker/hand artisan) to refer to those who work with their hands and are at the bottom of the social ladder. In each case, their function is to supply food for the mind workers. The role of the mind workers is to guard the true way of kingship which was founded by the ancient kings. An interesting addition to the Chinese tradition is that there is either one or very few persons who qualify as a top mind worker, who are called sages and given the title “Hsien.” A Hsien (lit. “better”) is someone who is fit to guide the king in the way of true kingship.


Some further reading gives the historical background for the emphasis on guarding the way of the true kings. The last true kings were considered to be the first three emperors of China. A series of tyrants followed them who basically led to what seems to have amounted to a de-civilization of Chinese civilization. It was at the end of this period (the 4th century BC) that Confucius and later Mencius began writing of the first emperors as the true kings and of their way of rulership as the way of true kingship. Their traditionalism may be viewed as way of getting back to a civilized, orderly society. This may explain the emphasis upon observing familial relations and respect for status in the social order. It may have been an attempt to imitate the old order as the true “way,” rather than an attempt to re-grow a civilization organically.

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A Few Simple Questions for Phenomenologists, Husserlians, and Heideggarians or those Who Otherwise Claim to Be “In the know” Regarding their Views:

Kutal-giving-away-the-metaphor Giving away the metaphor by Firuz Kutal

“Giving Away the Metaphor,” by Firuz Kutal

Phenomenology is often credited with broadening the range of discussion of what is involved in perception. But what philosophical issues does it really resolve?  One major aim of the phenomenological movement is its attempt to resolve philosophical issues about subjectivity as a way to find a sure footing for knowledge.  Husserl attempted to find a way to ground our experience in the surest possible way.  The simple answer was to embrace our subjective experience as that ground and as the only possible ground for evaluating our experiences. But certainly not everyone has felt that subjetivity was sufficient : certainly Descartes, for example, wanted to get beyond subjectivity as the ground of experience.  Later, Husserl discussed expanding the range of subjedtive experience into the realm of intersubjectivity. Are there any compelling reasons for discontent with subjectivity?

Descartes, again, provides a foil.  Descartes famously attempted to find an objective basis for his subjective experiences in his faith in a benevolent God (one who would not decieve him).  To many, such an approach might appear extravagant, but it should be remembered that a) Descartes most likely did believe in God and b)his whole project was about finding a once-and-for-all  objective basis for knowledge.  At worst, his appraoch makes objectivity possible for those who believe in God.  But that doesn’t seem to satisfy philosophical minds who don’t buy his proofs for the existence of God.  But why was objectivity important for Descartes in the first place?

What he was after was a special kind of knowledge-a knowledge the truth of which could not possibly be doubted.  Such a knowledge would be based upon inbuditable first principles.  Its value? We could KNOW things.  But what on earth does such KNOWING amount to when it comes to our sensory experiences?  Apparently, that when I see a tree, I not only know a) that I am seeing a tree (uncontroversial) and b) (more exciting) that THERE REALLY IS A TREE THERE.  It seems odd to think that our subjective experiences couldn’t take us to that knowledge (can’t I just feel it, taste it, smell it, etc. to confirm its existence?).  Answer: not if you are Renee Descartes, who has found ways to doubt the truth of such experiences.  But if you are Descartes, presumably you can also reflect that God wouldn’t decieve you and that, therefore, there IS a tree there.


Is there anyone who does not find this silly?  It is, nevertheless, a problem that those who followed Descartes had to deal with and is, arguably, the setting for the split between continental and analytic philosophers.  Continental philosophers who follow Husserl bracket the question of the existence of their perceptions, putting it outside the parameters of what we can know.  Analytic philosophers often assume (e.g. Russell) that everyday objects do generally exist unless everyday perception can falsify that fact.  One can go further back: John Locke assumes that everyday objects must generally exist since something must have caused our perceptions.  Russell agreed that the problem was insoluble.  What, then does this dispute amount to?

Both sides agree that the problem of whether objects exist outside our perception is insoluble, but one side decides to assume that everyday objects exist whereas the other refuses to do so.  The Husserlians might claim to be more firmly grounded since they do not make an unwarranted assumption, but do so at the cost of maintaining a worldview that doesn’t even embrace the real existence of the phenomena they find present in it.

Husserl attempted to bridge the gap between subjectivity and objectivity through the idea of intersubjective analogical experience, with special implications for the realm of aesthetics.  A difficultly for this view is that it doesn’t take into account that there are certain things that we can never fully grasp even by analogy. Qualia are an example: no matter how empathetic one might feel, one may never really know what it is like to feel another person’s depression (or itch, or pain, etc.).  There remain gaps in our experience that leave us bereft (if it does matter to us) of any possibility of knowing certain things as they are in themselves that limit the boundaries of intersubjectivity that only add to the question of existence that must, at the end of the day, also be bracketed.                                                                                                                                                                                                                       Many people who study Phenomenolgy, however, do seem to think that it has put the question to rest by focusing our attention on the phenomena as they exist (in the mode of their presentation to us as existing phenomena (as it were)).  But Husserl explicitly brackets the question of existence and thus, in fairness to Husserl himself, it should be said that Phenomenology does not claim to solve the problem.  A preliminary question then is, if Phenomenology does not claim to solve this problem, does it make any progress toward solving it by bracketing it?  The answer should be straightforard.  If it does not, and it merely takes objects “as if” they really exsited, is it not making the same assumption as analytic philosophers do?  Analytic philosophers (Russell et al.) do not attempt to answer the question and thus bracket it in their own way.  They assume that objects exist.  Don’t their views on the problem of perception and existence really amount to the same thing in that case?  Lastly, if that is so, what greater claim to knoweldge, based upon its method, can phenomenology claim to make, besides the many caveats it enters against “objectivity” on the side of our subjetive experience?  While such caveats as the need for an awareness of the way that the past experience of an individual shapes his/her present experience are enlightening in some ways, do such caveats take us closer to the firmly grounded basis for knowledge that Phenomenolgy aspires to?





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Filed under Aesthetics, Continental philosophy, Early modern philosophy corner, Philosophy of mind/Consciousness