Monthly Archives: April 2016

Some Striking Similarities between the Political Philosophy of Ancient Cultures


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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.

Addendum:

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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An Application of the Taoist/Confucian Idea of “The Process.”


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Pound’s translation of The Unwobbling Pivot, No. 5 reads as follows: “The Philosopher said: they do not proceed according to the process. No, people do not use the main open road.”
Some have written that Chinese philosophy and culture is very practical. Others have noticed that works like the Tao Te Ching seem anything but practical. This particular quote and illustration shows how the two fit together.   Many people, and especially young people today feel alienated from American capitalism.  The following is meant as an exposition of a Confucian viewpoint that might be taken of things.
First, “The Process” 
What is mean by “the process”? Its simply the way of things, the way things are, and the way things come to be. Talking about it seems to have such an air of generality that it appears to lack much practical application. However, there is a way in which it can usefully be applied to some of today’s cultural problems.
Use the Open Road! What open road?
Our society is a capitalistic one. This means that if you want a decent living you are going to have to sell things or compete with others for employment. This is the way of things in our society. Going against that way would make things difficult. Not necessarily impossible and not necessarily not to one’s benefit, but certainly difficult.
The practical thing for most people to do, with the exception of all but a very small few (we’re being practical about this), is to embrace the way of things to whatever extent works to your benefit and to the benefit of your society. Embracing competition, or simply an ethos of bettering oneself in a way that is economically advantageous, is a turn of mind that can make your life go more smoothly. It is a very, very strong tide that would be very difficult to go against. This dynamic is at the core of our society.
It is not suggested that adhering to this process or way should become the core or center of one’s being-that is not the center but what whirls about the center. It is change, not stillness, not rest. And yet we need change as individuals just as nature does. It should also be emphasized that embracing the way of things need not involve doing so without a sense of how to make things better.
How does this help solve cultural problems?
This answer is: by helping people to better come to terms with the society they live in and to help them see what is advantageous for them while they are living in it. It hopefully shows how it might be possible to do what is advantageous, work for whatever changes might be needed, and find their place in the process-and even shape it and guiding it. One should not simply live for oneself without compromise; one must also live for and even make sacrifices for the betterment of one’s society.
Of course, there may be those who reject this process altogether. In that case, it seems that there are two options: reject capitalism and leave this society or reject capitalism and remain in society. But on a practical level, be advised that this won’t be easy. The worst option of all would seem to be to go against the process, remain in society, and do nothing to change it. Practically speaking, that would be to no one’s benefit.
This is a very practical way of looking at things. It is also tied to seemingly airy metaphysical way of looking at things at a high level of generality. It illustrates how the two fit together to guide decision making.
I welcome your comments.

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