At long last my translation of Descartes second meditation is done...
"Beyond the Fact-Value Dichotomy": Hilary Putnam takes on scientism, arguing that such guiding principles as simplicity, coherence and continuity are themselves values and, moreover, are values whose understanding depends on contexts.
Philosophie im tragischen Zeitalter der Griechen: the young Friedrich Nietzsche hones his philological and rhetorical prowess on the Pre-Socratics, and in doing so intimates his future course as philosopher. So for instance in his exposition of Heracleitus we find the roots of his later attacks on the self-identical and the concepts of good and evil. Damned fine writing. Maybe I'll do a translation with commentary one of these times.
A smattering of books touching on post-colonialism and the CIA. In The Shock Doctrine, Noami Klein makes the case that you usually hear from the right, viz, that barbarity follows when the abstractions of university intellectuals are imposed upon living cultures. Just as the brain-erasure techniques of MK Ultra amount to instruments of violence, Klein argues, so too did the free-market fundamentalism of Milton Friedman and his epigones at the University of Chicago turn the ostensibly tabula rasa economies of South America into bloodbaths. But Paul Johnson (Modern Times) tells a very different story. So do we attribute the economic turmoil and political repression of Argentina to Juan Peron's efforts in nationalization and welfare, or to what followed? Did Thatcher rescue a foundering economy or spoil an equitable society? Was the Bandung generation largely a collection of savages, political dilettantes and intellectual poseurs, or did they represent an ernest and justified hope for self-determination outside the ambit of the two great superpowers? To what extent were the heavy-handed methods of the US and Britain justified? Stephen Kinzer, in The Brothers, seconds Klein's basic moral indictment of the CIA in the early years of the Cold War: on his telling lack of oversight, lack of accountability, stakeholder involvement, a basic disregard for the lives of third world peoples, along with Manichean anti-communism of Allen and John Foster Dulles, all converged to create a series of human rights outrages the world over. But is this a problem with intelligence per se, or does it stem from the specific configuration of the CIA and the haste with which it was launched? And how much of the problem lay, not in too much intelligence but from not enough intelligence? Kinzer briefly observes that the agency knew so little about their enemy that they missed the glaring fact: in the wake of WWII Russia was in shambles. How much of the Dulles brothers' missionary zeal rested on a gross overestimation of Russia's capabilities? Or, as Tim Weiner puts it in Legacy of Ashes, how would history have played out had the early American cold warriors known that the conflict was to be settled economically and not militarily? We need intelligence, Weiner argues, but we've been going about it all wrong, to which the long string of CIA fiascos attests. OK, he as much as admits, there was the ouster of the communists in the 1948 election in Italy, which the CIA backed. And the long standing anti-left politics of Japan, another CIA coup. And other successes, such as, well, I guess I don't know what they'd be, and nor would Weiner--or Johnson, Kinzer or Klein--because CIA operations tend to be only visible to the extent they fail. CIA people--so I've been told--tend to shake their head with an "if only they knew" when they look at the headlines. But they can't let us in, because that would blow covers and entire operations. So the question is, how much should we be willing to trust? It's an awful question to have to ask.
I'm devoting some time this summer to working up my Latin -- making vocab cards, reading Hobbitus Illus, doing a bit of translation. Check out my St. George and the Dragon. And some of my other translation etudes.
Digging through some old school papers I came up with this minor gem, which I jammed out one night while struggling through Lyotard's Differend.
Scene 1: A Lyotardian Differend
after class, in the hall
TA: Lyotard-lite, can you tell me why a differend cannot be resolved by recourse to a higher reason that encompasses both plaintiff and defendant?
LL: Because all reason is local. Universal reason is a chimera.
TA: And why is that?
LL: Because, following Wittgenstein, the meaning of any word is its use in a specific, lived context.
TA: But isn’t Wittgenstein’s argument itself just such an instance of reason counting in all cases?
LL: Only on the surface. Wittgenstein handles the self-reference problem by recourse to “family resemblances”.
TA: But then isn’t the appeal to “resemblance” itself a universalizing appeal? And moreover one that forces us to consider what it is about things that warrants us, regardless of our language game, to recognize similarities? To ask what it is out there that answers to our repetition of a term? Aren’t we then stuck with the old problem of deciding between realism, conceptualism and nominalism?
LL: One might say that this problem arises from the deceptive use of metaphors, as in Nietzsche’s On Truth and Lies in a Non-Moral Sense.
TA: Which is to decide in favor of nominalism… But let’s agree to disagree on this one — I can accept that we are from different philosophical planets.
TA: But allow me to return to the first question another way. You say you cannot give a universally applicable argument for why a differend cannot be settled by a higher reason. Is this to say that there is no reason why I should adopt your view of the differend?
LL: But that is precisely what I mean by a differend! In insisting that only universal reason can expose the differend for what it is, you have monopolized the establishment procedures! You have conjured up a chimera — universal reason — and now you wish it to breathe fire on any who oppose its reality!
TA: So if you were to experience a burning sensation about now, to what might you attribute it, other than the beast before you?
LL: This is going nowhere.
TA: Agreed. Exeunt.
Scene 2a: An Aristotelian Differend
the student commons
§1. The consummation of some 50 years of legal and cultural activism, SCOTUS has just ruled the biological factor in marriage irrelevant. Marriage is now officially reduced to a merely affective union, maybe permanent, maybe exclusive, maybe fruitful, heck, for that matter maybe even affective or maybe not. In principle, it is now no more than a legal contract on par with any other, stipulating whatever to whomever for any reason whatsoever.
§2. And as for affection: why, oh why, must we ask the state to recognize our love for one another? Or rather specifically those forms of love currently on headlines? Because wouldn't it naturally follow to demand the state to recognize my intense feelings of love for my nephew? To deploy fleets of lawyers to officially declare our love of chocolate truffles and scratchy Barry Manilow records?
§3. Of all possible pairings of human beings, exactly one is capable of acts reproductive in kind if not in fact; and when these acts do result in children the burden on the parents is so enormous, and the rights and demands of the child (including to know, love and be loved by his/her own biological parents where possible) so profound, and the impact on society so foundational (family instability, for instance, being one of the great predictors of future criminality)...Is it not irrational to fail to create a privileged institution promoting the formation and maintenance of stable families? Should we really allow exceptions to trump ideals that clearly flow from the reality of our bodies?
§4. And further: does not this official rejection of the biological mark one further step in our collective Cartesian error, according to which the body merely a sub-personal aspect of ourselves, so much raw material to be employed according to our will, tastes and whims? That the body has nothing of consequence to tell us about ourselves, that it gives us no norms but those instrumental to our disembodied dreams? For this is surely one of the great ironies, that by attending too closely to the body's passions we lose sight of what the body is.
§5. I consider it great progress that our children can come to understand their sexuality free of some of yesterday's stifling tabus (and they were at times, and sadly even remain, very cruel). But to genuinely, objectively flourish as humans, to discover our deepest identity, we must also discover the virtue of temperance, by which along with the other virtues--prudence, justice, fortitude, faith, hope and love--we shall come to be who we truly are. Our deepest identity is neither straight nor gay--those crude categories introduced by 19th century social scientist in their emulation of physical science; it is rather that we are such beings as, though cultivation of the virtues, to find our completion in the gaze of that which is Being itself, face to face, πρόσωπον πρὸς πρόσωπον.
Yes, somebody actually asked that on a chat group the other day.
Adding to the poignancy of the question was that I had just been watching Conspiracy, about the 1942 Wannsee Conference, in which Reinhard Heydrich and his cronies hammered out the details of the Final Solution.
A throng of problems has always attended this recurring question. But one interesting problem specific to its current incarnation, in this tellingly clumsy formulation, concerns the ambiguity of multiculturalism and tolerance as popularly understood: celebrate those expressions of diversity pre-approved for celebration by those who celebrate the same expressions of diversity. And woe betide those who don't celebrate said groups: whoever cannot keep up with this protean feedback cycle, or harbors scruples regarding its methods, shall be known as a hater.
In effect, the cause of putting an end to in-groups has only succeeded in creating a new one, but one with the conceit that it has overcome in-groups.
And then there are the magically benevolent powers it assigns to science...
Or at least to some degree. Here’s Mark Kurlansky on the great effect of some pretty mundane factors on the national discourse in the 60s:
In 1968 most television news was still shooting sixteen-millimeter black-and-white film, usually from cameras mounted on tripods…Because the film was expensive and time-consuming to process, it could not be shot indiscriminately. The cameraman would set up and then wait for a signal from the correspondent. When the correspondent judged that the scene was becoming interesting—sometimes the cameraman would make the decision himself—he would give a signal, and the cameraman would push the button and start filming. “You could shoot ten minutes to get one minute,” said Schorr [a CBS correspondent], “but you couldn’t shoot two hours.”
As Kurlansky notes, demonstrations underwent a similar escalation of intensity, and for much the same reasons:
By the Spring of 1968, college demonstrations had become such a commonplace event in the United States, with some thirty schools a month erupting, that sen high schools and junior highs were joining in. In February, hundreds of eighth graders jammed the halls, took over classrooms, and set off fire alarms at Junior High School 258 in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. They were demanding better food and more dances.
But it was not just a matter of escalation of intensity, but also of originality. "Violence requires few ideas, but nonviolent resistance requires imagination." Such as turning the water in the fountain in Trafalgar Square red. (p.84)
Now, I imagine there is a natural limit on how strident one can become. At a certain point, in order to maintain the escalation, you probably do have to turn violent, as did the Weather Underground, or go off some other deep end. The day then belongs to the one with the best stunts, and civil discourse, the critical feedback cycle that ought to be the life blood of government by consent, becomes a mere power struggle. (Nota bene: in this case persuasion and force are no longer opposite principles as they were for Socrates (Republic, 327c). Now they are gradations of the same phenomenon.)
Attention grabbing still lies at the heart of news reporting today, but I think its safe to say that the 60s era of grandstanding has passed. How did this occur? How did attention grabbing diminish? How much did it really diminish? How much of its decline has to do with jaded viewers (who, after all, wants to be confronted with turmoil every day)? And: after its decline, did it reach a stasis, or does it fluctuate?
In part to balance out my study of history, which I have been getting from Paul Johnson lately (Modern Times), I will soon be turning to Eric Hobsbawm's Age of Extremes. Flipping ahead I struck upon a passage that resonated quite well with one who spent the 90's on the college campus:
Never was the word "community" used more indiscriminately and emptily than in the decades when communities in the sociological sense became hard to find in real life--"the intelligence community," "the public relations community," the "gay community." The rise of "identity groups"--human ensembles to which a person could "belong," unequivocally and beyond uncertainty and doubt, was noted from the late 1960s by writers in the always self-observing U.S.A...
So the prattle of "community" arises in the wake of community's departure, just as, I would say, discussion of "incommensurability" typically takes place among those already quite on the same page in other regards. Which is not to trivialize "community" and "incommensurability", themselves very rich themes.
Another distantly related term to throw in here is "experience": the American experience, the user experience, your shopping experience. The bastard child of an all encompassing consumerism and a tawdry philosophical subjectivism, "experience" inflates the trivial into the very stuff of life--because, I suppose, that is where the market and the spiritually impoverished individual can agree.
But is this all really a tragedy as Hobsbawm would have it, or just an innocuous distraction, material for another NPR show (where they take this stuff oh so seriously)? I guess I'll have to dig in and find out what he means.
Just one more snarky entry before I return to more substance.
I. In a clip going around Facebook these days NASA scientist Michelle Thaller muses: “So what is human existence? How can we actually sum it up? It turns out it’s really pretty simple. We are all dead stars looking back up at the sky.” Followed by a bunch of stuff about star formation, hydrogen, heavier elements, a little spotlight on iron. The gradual demise of all the stars. Some speculation on what our descendants might say of the golden era that we live in, prior to universal stellar death (assuming that anything could survive that event...). Evidently, this ought to blow our minds.
II. Washington Post's Outlook section from a week or two ago:
Recently in the grocery store, one of our customers grabbed my arm. “You sold me ‘The Swerve,’ ” he said, his face lit up with joy. “What an incredible book. I give it to everyone now, and they think I’m a genius.”
The Swerve, wherein Stephen Greenblatt conjectures that the rediscovery of De Rerum Natura, Lucretius' poetic reworking of the ancient atomism of Democritus, kicked off the modern age of science.
III. In 2010, NPR's Terry Gross interviewed Brian May of Queen, who had completed a PhD in physics and published a book on cosmology. I recall hearing it on my way home from work:
Mr. MAY: The dust, yeah. And, in fact, all of the above is true. You know, a certain amount of dust is created in every event in the universe and particularly in supernovae - a lot of dust is put out. And we, human beings and all animals and all plants and everything on the Earth are made of the dust that has come out of supernovae. Now that's not something that I discovered but that's a fact. So when Joni Mitchell said we are stardust, we are golden, she was right. We are stardust. And I find that quite an amazing thing to think about. The material of our body did come from the insides of stars. It was made in the insides of stars.
Yes, of course, our bodies--all bodies—are made of material. By definition! And yes, every chunk of stuff we are made of predated us by a really long time and has been joined together with other stuff in other very different configurations beyond number. Stuff has history.
But, look, is it right to say that we are nothing but star-stuff, atoms, what have you? I mean, if you took my body apart and rearranged it into a bloody lump of flesh, or if you were somehow able to take it apart all the way down to its component particles and rearrange them into clouds of this or that gas, would you still be looking at me? Of course not, because a mere catalog of stuff does not suffice to identify an object, much less a living thing, and much, much less a living, sentient thing capable of abstract reasoning, moral deliberation, aesthetic contemplation, and all the rest. Western Philosophy practically begins with this insight—and the consequent, conscious overthrow of Democritus & Co. The third definition of knowledge in Plato's Theaetetus, for starters, and the entirety of Aristotle's Metaphysics, book I.
So why do we find ourselves back on square one even today, time and again? These days, probably to challenge jingoistic notions of human privilege—that is, for the same reasons they trumpet apparent findings on higher cognition in animals along with anything that seems to challenge the notion of human free will, such as Benjamin Libet's over-hyped experiments.
And why must we recruit specifically Thaller, Greenblatt and May to tell us half-truths we could just as easily deduce from a grade school textbook? Here I could do a little speculation of my own, but that would turn my snark into acid.
If I have a little time in the morning I like to go over the newspaper during breakfast. This is the virtuous thing to do. But often enough cold mornings and general indolence conspire against my best intentions. On those mornings I might I opt to make a small dent in whatever book I am currently working through. Or might I get caught up in conversation. Or I might work on some more Latin vocabulary (my goal: 2500 new words this summer.) Or I might fall back on channel surfing.
This morning I landed on "Unsolved Mysteries", now hosted by Dennis Farina, the snappy dressing guy from who "The Closer". This morning's mystery was the healings at Lourdes, France. I watched in growing astonishment as Jeanne Fretel's case was presented, matter of factly, event by event. Usually you don't see anything like Lourdes presented on television without frequently interspersed commentary by (a) a highly credentialed skeptical expert bent on explaining it away via reasonable-seeming arguments and maybe (b) a mild-spoken and limp ecclesiastic mumbling truisms. My astonishment had to do, not with Fretel's case, which I knew well enough, but with the total absence of any such commentary. I kept waiting for credential guy to show up, but he didn't.
Then came the commercial break. Guitar girl is jamming at home. Overdubbed voice: "Right now, my guitar is my baby". City shots, studio shots, a brief shot of her kissing her boyfriend. She is focusing on her career now and doesn't want children. But at any time she can take out her Skyla IUD and change that. And after a few more innocuous commercials the show was back with a more recent but officially unrecognized Lourdes cure.
I thought maybe Unsolved Mysteries would try to undo or at least sully their favorable depiction of Catholicism by moving straight from Lourdes into crop circles, implicitly putting the two on the same folklorish plane. But why go through the effort when you can outsource to your advertisers, and get paid for doing so?