Also recommended: (How to Live, ch1); LISTEN Sarah Bakewell on Michel de Montaigne (PB); A.C. Grayling on Descartes' Cogito (PB); WATCHMontaigne(SoL); Descartes (HI) Reports conclude-all remaining groups.
Th 30 - no class, I have another out-of-town conference (the last this semester, I promise). ASSIGNMENT: read LH 13-14, post 250+words on Spinoza, Locke, &/or Reid
2. Did Descartes claim to know (at the outset of his "meditations") that he was not dreaming?
3. What strange and mythic specter did Gilbert Ryle compare to Descartes' dualism of mind and body? ("The ____ in the ______.")
4. Pascal's best-known book is _____.
7. (T/F) By limiting his "wager" to a choice between either Christian theism or atheism, says Nigel Warburton, Pascal excludes too many other possible bets.
- Sarah Bakewell says Montaigne's first answer to the question "How to live?" is: "Don't worry about _____."
- What was Montaigne's "near death experience," and what did it teach him?
- Montaigne said "my mind will not budge unless _____."
- What pragmatic American philosopher was Descartes' "most practical critic"?
- (T/F) A.C. Grayling thinks that, because Descartes was so wrong about consciousness and the mind-body problem, he cannot be considered a historically-important philosopher.
- What skeptical slogan did Montaigne inscribe on the ceiling of his study?
Are you essentially identical with or distinct from your body (which includes your brain)? If distinct, who/what/where are you? How do you know? Can you prove it? OR, Do you believe in immaterial spirits? Can you explain how it is possible for your (or anyone's) material senses to perceive them?
- At what age do you hope to retire? What will you do with yourself then? Will you plan to spend more time thinking?
- Have you had a near-death experience, or known someone who did? What did it teach you/them? How often does the thought occur to you that you're always one misstep (or fall, or driving mistake) away from death?
- What have you learned, so far, about "how to live"? Have you formulated any life-lessons based on personal experience, inscribed any slogans, written down any "rules"?
- Do you agree that, contrary to Pascal, most nonreligious people would consider it a huge sacrifice to devote their lives to religion? Why?
- Is the choice between God and no-god 50/50, like a coin toss? How would you calculate the odds? At what point in the calculation do you think it becomes prudent to bet on God? Or do you reject this entire approach? Why?
- Is there anything you know or believe that you could not possibly be mistaken about, or cannot reasonably doubt? If so, what? How do you know it? If not, is that a problem for you?
Montaigne in The Stone...
- “How to Live,” Sarah Bakewell’s elegant portrait of Montaigne, the 16th-century patriarch of the genre, and an edited volume by Carl H. Klaus and Ned Stuckey-French called “Essayists on the Essay: Montaigne...May 26, 2013 -
- In August of 1563, Michel de Montaigne, the famous French essayist, was introduced to three Brazilian cannibals who were visiting Rouen, France, at the invitation of King Charles the Ninth. The three men had never before left...February 17, 2013 -
- getting on board a student’s own agenda. Sometimes understanding is best reached when we expend our skeptical faculties, as Montaigne did, on our own beliefs, our own opinions. If debate is meant to be a means to truth — an idea...September 03, 2013 -
- questions have no logical or empirical answers. They are philosophical problems par excellence. Many thinkers, including Cicero, Montaigne, Karl Jaspers, and The Stone’s own Simon Critchley, have argued that studying philosophy is...
Tuesday, March 17, 2015
Montaigne was originally scheduled for just before our Spring Break, but it got a jump-start week before last. Looked like a snow-globe out there for awhile. Now, it's practically Spring!
Older Daughter and I went and did what we'd been talking about doing for years, now that her Break and mine finally coincided: went to Florida's Grapefruit League Spring Training! Day after day of waking to 72 degrees, on the way to high 80s. Baseball and bliss.
But that was then. Now, Montaigne (& Bakewell on How to Live acc'ing to M)...
One good way to live, he thought, was by writing and reflecting on our many uncertainties. Embracing and celebrating them, in fact. That makes him an anti-Descartes, a happy and humane modern skeptic.
One thing we know for sure is the historical timeline. Montaigne comes first, but since I always introduce him as the anti-Descartes he rarely gets top billing. The late Robert Solomon did the same thing. Not fair, for a guy who gave us the essay and (as Sarah Bakewell says) is so much "fun" to read. Unlike Descartes he was a true skeptic (again though, not so far over the cliff as Pyrrho) and "quite happy to live with that." His slogan was Que sçais-je?
Montaigne retired in his mid-30s to think and write, and ponder what must have felt to him (ever since his unplanned equine-dismounting event) like ever-looming mortality. He inscribed the beams of his study with many of his favorite quotes, including "nothing human is foreign to me" and "the only certainty is that nothing is certain."
Some of Montaigne's life-lessons and rules for how to live, as decoded by Sarah Bakewell: Don't worry about death; Pay attention; Question everything; Be convivial; Reflect on everything, regret nothing; Give up control; Be ordinary and imperfect; Let life be its own answer.
Montaigne leaps from the page as mindful, both ruminative and constantly attentive to the present moment. He has good advice for the walker. "When I walk alone in the beautiful orchard, if my thoughts have been dwelling on extraneous incidents for some part of the time, for some other part I bring them back to the walk, to the orchard, to the sweetness of this solitude, and to me."
There's just something irresistibly alluring about the candid and disarming familiarity of his tone, that's drawn readers to this original essayist for four and a half centuries and obliterates the long interval between him and us. He makes uncertainty fun.
"The highest of wisdom is continual cheerfulness"...
[Montaigne @dawn... M on Self-esteem (deB)... M quotes... M's beam inscriptions... M "In Our Time" (BBC)...M's tower...M's Essays...]
Also today, we'll consider the philosophical status of science. Montaigne the fallible skeptic actually had a better handle on it than Descartes, the self-appointed defender of scientific certainty. That's because science is a trial-and-error affair, making "essays" or attempts at evidence/-based understanding through observation, prediction, and test, but always retreating happily to the drawing board when conjectures meet refutation.
To answer some of my own DQs today:
Q: Are there any "authorities" (personal, textual, political, religious, institutional, traditional...) to whom you always and automatically defer? Can you justify this, intellectually or ethically? A: I don't think so. Whenever I feel a deferential impulse coming on I remind myself of the Emerson line about young men in libraries...
Q: Can you give an example of something you believe on the basis of probability, something else you believe because it has to be true (= follows necessarily from other premises you accept as true), and something you believe because you think it's the "best explanation")? Do you think most of your beliefs conform to one or another of these kinds of explanation? A: Hmmm... The sun will probably rise within the hour. I'm mortal. Life evolves. Yes.
Q: Do you think science makes genuine progress? Does it gradually give us a better, richer account of the natural world and our place in it? Is there a definite correlation between technology and scientific understanding? Do you think there is anything that cannot or should not be studied scientifically? Why? A: Yes, yes, yes, no. Science is a flawed instrument, because the humans who practice it are finite and fallible; but we have nothing to take its place. We shouldn't be scientistic, to the neglect of all the other tools in our kit (including poetry, literature, history, humor), but we definitely should be as scientific as we can.
Wednesday, March 18, 2015
Rene Descartes, not at all (Pythons notwithstanding) a "drunken fart," simply wanted to know what he could know for certain. He asked his version of the Howard Baker question. (The majority of students in my Tennessee classrooms could not identify the statesman-Senator when asked, the other day. Sigh.)
His skepticism was methodological, his goal was indubitable certainty. This, he thought, would serve the new science well. He misunderstood the self-correcting, probabilistic, fallibilistic nature of empirical reasoning. But most philosophers still think it’s worth wondering: how do you know you’re not dreaming, not being deceived by a demon or by your senses, not mistaking your own essential nature?
Still, cogito ergo sum overrates intellect. You don’t have to think, to demonstrate your existence. You just have to do something… even, as an old grad school pal used to say, if it’s wrong. (NOTE TO CLASS: I flip-flopped Descartes and his predecessor Montaigne, the anti-Descartes, on our syllabus: Descartes before the horse M. fell off of.)
Descartes' different aspects - mathematician, scientist, Catholic etc. - might suggest his split allegiance between Teams Aristotle and Plato. Both would probably like to claim him. I think he belongs with the armchair Platonists.
Reducing the operations of the universe to a series of lines,circles, numbers, and equations suited his reclusive personality. His most famous saying, “I think, therefore Iam” (cogito, ergo sum), could be stated less succinctly but more accurately as 'Because we are the only beings who do math, we rule.'
For Descartes, the essence of mind is to think, and the essence of matter is to exist-and the two never meet... we are the ghosts in the machine: souls in a world machine that operates inexorably and impersonally according to the laws of geometry and mechanics, while we operate the levers and spin the dials." The Cave and the Light
I usually think of Charles Sanders Peirce as Descartes’ most practical critic, and I agree with him that a contrived and methodological doubt is not the best starting place in philosophy.
But it occurs to me that an even more practical alternative to what I consider the misguided Cartesian quest for certainty is old Ben Franklin’s Poore Richard. His is not armchair wisdom, it comes straight from the accumulated experience of the folk. Some of that “common sense” is too common, but plenty is dead-on. “Early to bed, early to rise…” has definitely worked for me.
Still, says A.C. Grayling, "we may disagree with Descartes that the right place to start is with the private data of consciousness" rather than the shared world of language and common experience; but even if he was wrong he was "powerfully, interestingly, and importantly wrong." Russell concurs.
The thing is, the quest for certainty in philosophy tends to go hand-in-glove with the assertion of rational necessity. That, in turn, courts determinism and fatalism. Do we really want to rubber-stamp everything that happens as fated, not free? Hobbes (the contractarian and the cat) did. Calvin learned not to.
Is there anything we know or believe that we could not possibly be mistaken about, or cannot reasonably doubt? Certainly not, speaking at least for myself. But I'm next to certain that I'm more-or-less awake, at this hour, as the coffee drains.
I'm also pretty darn sure that I am (and do not "have") a body/brain. When I think of who, what, and where I am, though, the answer is interestingly complicated by all my relations (I don't just mean my familial relations): I am inclusive of a past and a future (though it keeps shrinking), and of wherever my influence (for better or worse) manages to stretch. I am vitally related by experience (actual, virtual, vicarious, possible, personal, interpersonal) to points far and wide. And, to actual physical objects in the extended world - not merely to possibilities of familiar object-like patterns of perception, as the phenomenalist has it. I'm not trapped in my skin, and we are definitely not alone in a solipsistic universe. Like Dr. Johnson, contra Berkeley, I find the pain in my toes (or hips) decidedly more substantial than an immaterial idea.
I don't believe in ghosts, except metaphorically. (I am haunted by opportunities missed, possibilities unnnoticed, diems uncarped.) But most of my metaphorical spooks are Casperishly friendly (albeit incoherent, dualistically speaking). This is true of most people who read and think a lot, isn't it? We're in constant, happy communion with the dead, the remote, and the prospective members of our continuous human community. Books transport us to their realms, and to the great undiscovered country of our future.
Thursday, March 19, 2015
Pascal & the mind
Somewhere in Walden Thoreau says something about needing a little water in his world, to provide a reflective glimpse of eternity. He also has things to say to today's headliner Pascal, about not being cowed by the scale of the cosmos. Pascal famously confessed: "the eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me." (No wonder he was frightened, say J & M.) Henry said, in reply to neighbors who wondered if he wasn't lonely out there by the lake in the woods:"Why should I feel lonely? is not our planet in the Milky Way?" Unlike his French predecessor, our transcendentalist was at home in the universe. He was less so, sadly, in the society of his peers.
Trivial pop-culture factoid: last night on "Madam Secretary," the husband (a teacher)mentioned Pascal.
Less trivially, Voltaire (we'll soon see him skewering Leibniz) intervened in the Pascal-Montaigne conflict. He called Pascal a "sublime misanthropist" whose vision of humanity as imprisoned and terrorized by the immensity and uncertainty of the cosmos was "fanatic."
Bertrand Russell mostly felt sorry for him, approvingly citing Nietzsche's critique of Pascal's "self-contempt and self-immolation." He meant Pascal's intellectual suicide, driven by fear.
Fortunately there’s much more to Blaise Pascal than his famous Wager [SEP], which we've already encountered in CoPhi.
Besides his mathematics and "Pascaline," his proto-computer, there are all those thoughts ("Pensees"-you can listen for free, here) and there’s also his antipathy for his fellow philosophe Francais, Montaigne. I usually compare-&-contrast Montaigne and Descartes, so this makes for a nice new menage a trois. Blaise is hostile to both Rene and Michel but is a cautious gambler, finding Descartes’ God too antiseptic and too, well, philosophical. And he finds Montaigne a self-absorbed, trivia-mongering potty-mouth.
But Montaigne would not at all disagree that “the heart has its reasons which reason knows not.” And isn’t it funny to think of Descartes philosophizing in his hypothetical armchair, asking if his fire and his body (etc.) are real, pretending to speculate that all the world and its philosophical problems might be figments of his solipsistic or dreamy or demon-instigated imagination? And then funnier still to come across this quote from Pascal: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” But look what happens when a philosopher sits quietly in a room alone: you get the Meditations!
Pascal also said
“Truth is so obscure in these times, and falsehood so established, that, unless we love the truth, we cannot know it.” And “It is man’s natural sickness to believe that he possesses the Truth.”
“There are two equally dangerous extremes: to exclude reason, to admit nothing but reason.”
“The nature of man is wholly natural, omne animal. There is nothing he may not make natural; there is nothing natural he may not lose.”*
“The weather and my mood have little connection. I have my foggy and my fine days within me…” [Or as Jimmy Buffett says, carry the weather with you.]
And all military veterans especially should appreciate this one:
“Can anything be stupider than that a man has the right to kill me because he lives on the other side of a river and his ruler has a quarrel with mine, though I have not quarrelled with him?”
And this will be an epigraph for my Philosophy Walks (or its sequel Philosophy Rides):
“Our nature lies in movement; complete calm is death.”
Reminds me of what Montaigne said about needing to kickstart his mind with his legs.
But Pascal does finally blow the big game of life, for betting too heavily on self-interest. He’s obsessed with “saving [his] own soul at all costs.” That’s a losing proposition.
[*That statement about us being "omne animal" sounded flattering, to me, being a philosophical naturalist and a friend to animals. But later epigraphs indicate Pascal's platonist perfectionism and his derogatory attitude towards humanity and its natural condition. Without God's grace, he writes, we are "like unto the brute beasts." He doesn't seem pleased about that, but I'm with Walt Whitman: "I think I could turn and live with animals, they're so placid and self contain'd... They do not sweat and whine about their condition... They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God..."]
Julia Sweeney, donning her no-god glasses, gets to the nub of what’s wrong with Pascal’s Wager:
So how can I come up against this biggest question, the ultimate question, “Do I really believe in a personal God,” and then turn away from the evidence? How can I believe, just because I want to? How will I have any respect for myself if I did that?
And probably not Richard Rorty, for whom philosophy is not about nailing down the unequivocal Truth but rather continuing the never-concluding Conversation of humankind.
Rorty was the most controversial philosopher on the scene back when I began grad school, having just published his brilliantly and infuriatingly iconoclastic Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature.
Everybody had to have a view on it, and on his view that philosophy's long quest to represent "external reality" accurately was a waste of time we were free to give up. We could ditch our "comic" efforts "to guarantee this and clarify that."
Philosophers get attention only when they appear to be doing something sinister--corrupting the youth, undermining the foundations of civilization, sneering at all we hold dear. The rest of the time everybody assumes that they are hard at work somewhere down in the sub-basement, keeping those foundations in good repair. Nobody much cares what brand of intellectual duct tape is being used.My current position, after several oscillations, has settled at last into the earnest wish that more philosophers wrote as wittily and as well as he did. Almost none do. Did he get pragmatism and truth right? I guess that's what he'd call a duct tape question.
Rorty, with his metaphor of mind as (cloudy) mirror, is a good segue to the discussion of philosophy of mind, also on tap today.
Dualism gets us ghosts and spirits and other non-physical entities. Scary! But not for most students, I've found, so deeply have most of them drunk from the holy communion trough. It's not a question of evidence but of familiarity and fear, in many cases - fear of the alternative. A student expressed that just the other day, asking with incredulity and contempt how anyone could possibly ponder facing the end of mortal existence without an immortal safety net firmly in place (in mind).
Why do they think the evolution of mind so closely parallels that of the brain? They don't think about it, mostly.
Nor do most think much about the possibility of mind and body being on parallel but never-converging tracks, pre-arranged to keep a synchronous schedule and never throw up a discordant discrepant "occasion." And forget too about epiphenomenalism (which Sam Harris seems to be trying hard to revive).
If neuroscientists ever succeed in mapping the brain (TED) and modeling the causal neurological events correlated with thinking, will that solve the mystery of consciousness? [John Searle's view...] Is there a gap between the explanation and the experience of pain, pleasure, happiness, etc.? I say no and yes, respectively. But let's try and draw that map, it may take us to interesting places none of us have thought about.
Tuesday, March 24, 2015
Spinoza & art
Today in CoPhi: Baruch (nee Benedict) Spinoza (and Susan James on his concept of thepassions).
Spinoza ("Spinozer," my old teacher from Brooklyn called him) believed in Einstein’s God (or would have), and vice versa. Gambling with your soul? Einstein famously said God does not play dice with the universe. God doesn’t play at anything, or listen to anyone, or save or punish or forgive or do anything intentional and deliberate. No more than nature does, anyway. God just is. Paul Davies:
Sometimes (Einstein) was really using God as just a sort of convenient metaphor. But he did have, I think, a genuine cosmic religious feeling, a sense of admiration at the intellectual ingenuity of the universe. Not just its majesty, but its extraordinary subtlety and beauty and mathematical elegance.
You could say the very same of Spinoza.
In HAP 101 last year we tried to make sense of the Buddhist-inspired statement that we're not part of nature but all of it. Spinoza offers another take on that disorienting notion.
In so far as the mind sees things in their eternal aspect, it participates in eternity.
I do not attribute to nature either beauty or deformity, order or confusion. Only in relation to our imagination can things be called beautiful or ugly, well-ordered or confused.
I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them.
Nothing in nature is by chance... Something appears to be chance only because of our lack of knowledge.
The passions of hatred, anger, envy, and so on, considered in themselves, follow from the necessity and efficacy of nature... I shall, therefore, treat the nature and strength of the emotion in exactly the same manner, as though I were concerned with lines, planes, and solids.
They were pantheists, Spinoza and Einstein, a lot less tormented by the vast and starry universe than Pascal (“the eternal silence of these infinite spaces" etc.) with his personal and possibly punitive God. As we note Jennifer Hecht noting, there’s a howling statistical error at the heart of Pascal’s specious reasoning: “We may be struck by lightning or not, but that doesn’t make it a fifty-fifty proposition.” Pascal's fright contrasts sharply with Spinoza's cosmic bliss. "What Pascal decried as the misery of man without the Biblical God, was for Spinoza the liberation of the human spirit from the bonds of fear and superstition."
[Descartes to Deism... Tlumak on free will...Descartes before the horse (& Spinoza/Einstein slides)... Spinoza @dawn...Pantheism SEP... FAQs... He's back (Goldstein)... The Curse]
Spinoza, says Susan James, was interested in our capacity to maintain ourselves as ourselves, which he called our conatus. How do we do that? By breathing, sleeping, fighting, friending,... but ultimately he thought our best bet was to resign ourselves to an acceptance of rational necessity.
"Spinoza thinks that, in so far as you're passionate," subject to external influence, "you're in bondage and unfree." How to free yourself? Become mentally active, get "a better understanding of yourself and the world," and experience his version of cosmic bliss or supreme happiness. And what does this maximal understanding come to, in a word? Pantheism.
In Spinoza's vision, there is no ultimate distinction between different individuals. We are all part of the same single substance, which is also God. This means that our sense of isolation from and opposition to one another is an illusion, and it also means that our sense of distance from God is mistaken... Given that the universe is God, we can therefore be confident that whatever happens to us happens for a reason. Passion for Wisdom
And still they called him heretic and atheist, and excommunicated him despite his "intellectual love of God," which he said was "the highest felicity." God only knew why.
He's still a good guy to follow on Twitter, btw.
Spinoza Quotes @BenedictSpinoza6 Oct
"[True #happiness & blessedness does not consist in enjoying wellbeing not shared by others or in being more fortunate than others]." (TTP)
Spinoza Quotes @BenedictSpinoza5 Oct
"It is the #nature of reason to conceive things under a form of eternity." (E5p29pr) @philosophyideasBut, there are difficulties involved in trying to internalize a "Spinozism of freedom"...
Spinoza is led to a complete and undiluted pantheism. Everything, according to Spinoza, is ruled by an absolute logical necessity. There is no such thing as free will in the mental sphere or chance in the physical world. Everything that happens is a manifestation of God's inscrutable nature, and it is logically impossible that events should be other than they are. This leads to difficulties... Bertrand Russell
= = = = = = = = = =
Also today: art. We'll try to discern the artfulness of Duchamp's Fountain, Dewey's ballplayer, maybe even Mapplethorpe's transgressive iconoclastic work. We'll introduce Wittgenstein's family resemblance, the Institutional Theory, and more.
And then we'll be done with Philosophy: The Basics.
Arthur Danto, premier aesthetician of his generation (and former MTSU Lyceum speaker), had interesting thoughts on what makes Andy Warhol's Brillo cartons and Marcel Duchamp's urinal(click, then scroll to the bottom to see his "Fountain") works of art. In a word: interpretation. Or in another word: philosophy. "Things which look the same are really different" is Danto's "whole philosophy of art in a nutshell." Thus spake the "weightiest critic in the Manhattan art world" of his generation. [The end of art]
I don’t claim to know what art is, or if Marcel Duchamp’s “fountain”should count. But like most of us, I know what I like: I like John Dewey’s approach in Art as Experience.
Dewey’s antipathy for spectator theories of knowledge did not block his acute perception of “the sources of art in human experience [that] will be learned by him who sees how the tense grace of the ball-player infects the onlooking crowd.”
The crowd at the fountain had best be careful not to be infected by something less delightful.