Up@dawn 2.0

Thursday, November 13, 2014

James reads Hegel; and some quotes from Schopenhauer, Mill, and Darwin

HE has short hair and a long brown beard. He is wearing a three-piece suit. One imagines him slumped over his desk, giggling helplessly. Pushed to one side is an apparatus out of a junior-high science experiment: a beaker containing some ammonium nitrate, a few inches of tubing, a cloth bag. Under one hand is a piece of paper, on which he has written, "That sounds like nonsense but it is pure on sense!" He giggles a little more. The writing trails away. He holds his forehead in both hands. He is stoned. He is William James, the American psychologist and philosopher. And for the first time he feels that he is understanding religious mysticism... (from "The Nitrous Oxide Philosopher"... "The Subjective Effects of Nitrous Oxide"... Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit)

But despite the density and difficulty of his prose style, "friend Hegel" had a fairly straightforward message:
To the degree that we are thinking beings, Hegel says, we have to consider ourselves as part of a larger whole and not as neatly individuated. He calls this mental whole Geist, or Spirit, [or Absolute Reason,] and tries to work out the rules by which it develops through time… Robert Prowse
The message is that we're all a part of a progressive history, towards freedom and enlightenment. 
Hegel thinks that one important movement in history is the movement from thinking that just one of us is entitled to freedom (a king, say) to some (the patricians of ancient Athens, say) to all of us, where obviously this development relates to changing views of what freedom is, what we are, how we relate to one another... I'm not free unless I'm working for the good of society.  Robert Stern
Less mystifyingly expressed, Hegel seems to be saying the same thing Carl Sagan used to say: we are the universe, coming gradually but steadily to know itself. History (personal, social, and natural) is the process of dawning self-awareness. We're waking up. This is good!

So Hegel's an optimist, unlike his countryman Schopenhauer* and perhaps oddly more like the Brits Mill and Darwin.**

A few pithier-than-usual Hegel quotes:
“Only one man ever understood me, and he didn't understand me.” 
“Truth is found neither in the thesis nor the antithesis, but in an emergent synthesis which reconciles the two.” [There's a pedestrian example of what Hegel means by "dialectic" in The Cave and the Light: think of automobiles as the thesis, traffic jams as the antithesis, and stop signs & traffic laws as the synthesis... and so on, ho hum.]
“We may affirm absolutely that nothing great in the world has been accomplished without passion.” 
“What experience and history teaches us is that people and governments have never learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it.” 
“To be independent of public opinion is the first formal condition of achieving anything great.” 

*Schopenhauer was darker, maybe deeper, probably not nicer. He's another philosopher who loved dogs, probably more than people.

“The assumption that animals are without rights and the illusion that our treatment of them has no moral significance is a positively outrageous example of Western crudity and barbarity. Universal compassion is the only guarantee of morality.” 

“We will gradually become indifferent to what goes on in the minds of other people when we acquire a knowledge of the superficial nature of their thoughts, the narrowness of their views and of the number of their errors. Whoever attaches a lot of value to the opinions of others pays them too much honor.” 

“It is difficult to find happiness within oneself, but it is impossible to find it anywhere else.” 

“It would be better if there were nothing. Since there is more pain than pleasure on earth, every satisfaction is only transitory, creating new desires and new distresses, and the agony of the devoured animal is always far greater than the pleasure of the devourer.”

“What disturbs and depresses young people is the hunt for happiness on the firm assumption that it must be met with in life. From this arises constantly deluded hope and so also dissatisfaction. Deceptive images of a vague happiness hover before us in our dreams, and we search in vain for their original. Much would have been gained if, through timely advice and instruction, young people could have had eradicated from their minds the erroneous notion that the world has a great deal to offer them.” 

**That's enough of him. Mill and Darwin, who unlike their German couterparts today are both on Team Aristotle, look more on the bright side of life.

“He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side, if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion... Nor is it enough that he should hear the opinions of adversaries from his own teachers, presented as they state them, and accompanied by what they offer as refutations. He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them...he must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form.” 

“Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.” 

It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to beSocrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, is of a different opinion, it is only because they only know their own side of the question.” 

“In this age, the mere example of non-conformity, the mere refusal to bend the knee to custom, is itself a service... That so few now dare to be eccentric, marks the chief danger of the time.” 

“The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it. Each is the proper guardian of his own health, whether bodily, or mental or spiritual. Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest.” 

“If I had my life to live over again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week.” 

“...But I own that I cannot see as plainly as others do, and as I should wish to do, evidence of design and beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidæ with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice... I feel most deeply that the whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind ofNewton. Let each man hope and believe what he can.” 

“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.” 

“The love for all living creatures is the most noble attribute of man.” 

“Besides love and sympathy, animals exhibit other qualities connected with the social instincts which in us would be called moral.” 

“In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.” 

The vigorous, the healthy, and the happy survive and multiply.
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Also: check out today's dawn post, with several informative and entertaining videos (including two from the Pythons).

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