“I read as one who abdicates.”

Fernando Pessoa, writing (or reading) as Bernardo Soares in The Book of Disquiet:


I read and am liberated. I acquire objectivity. I cease being myself and so scattered. And what I read, instead of being like a nearly invisible suit that sometimes oppresses me, is the external world’s tremendous and remarkable clarity, the sun that sees everyone, the moon that splotches the still earth with shadows, the wide expanses that end in the sea, the blackly solid trees whose tops greenly wave, the steady peace of ponds on farms, the terraced slopes with their paths overgrown by grape-vines.

I read as one who abdicates. And since the royal crown and robe are never as grand as when the departing king leaves them on the ground, I lay all my trophies of tedium and dreaming on the tiled floor of my antechambers, then climb the staircase with no other nobility but that of seeing.

I read as one who’s passing through. And it’s in classical writers, in the calm-spirited, in those who if they suffer don’t mention it, that I feel like a holy transient, an anointed pilgrim, a contemplator for no reason of a world with no purpose, Prince of the Great Exile, who as he was leaving gave the last beggar the ultimate alms of his desolation.

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Artefactual language as the enabler of Spirit

Cultural information rains down on the landscape of our genetically endowed mental capacities, mouldering the paths along which future information must travel, eroding and shaping the patterns of our thoughts and reactions (Distin 2011, 177-8)

Chasing down some of Sloterdijk’s references has led me to two early-20th-century thinkers who recognize the reality of our conceptual artistry and try to provide some sort of foundation for it. (Or is it a foundation? Perhaps it is just a further improvisation upon the mystery of being capable of thought).

Both Max Scheler and Ernst Cassirer put forward the claim that human beings are amalgams of Life and Spirit. (Scheler and Cassirer both studied under Georg Simmel, and on this topic at least were swayed powerfully by him.) But, refreshingly, they know better than to reify These Capitalized Entities; they seemed to know that what they were saying had serious metaphorical weight to it, but only metaphorical. Life is the world of causality: it is our genes, triggered by environment, and the interplay of psychological forces and other material forces. Life has its own life, so to speak, but pushes forward blindly, greedily, Dionysianly. Spirit is the world of reasons, beauty, “ought”, and thought, and if we want to explore it thoroughly, we have to traipse through other territories, like philosophy, ethics, and aesthetics. Scheler and Cassirer say we are Spirit immersed in Life, or beings capable of thought having to work our ways through Life’s complications, understanding those complications, correcting for them, and striving for some measure of transcendence – and, of course, failing in all these endeavors either sometimes or always.  For, as Nietzsche and Freud taught, our motivations are rarely if ever what they seem to be, and Life secretly pushes us along when we think Spirit is in charge. But coming to realize this, and dealing with it, is a matter that can be pursued only through Spirit, oddly enough: in any predicament like this, we have no choice but to think our way through it. (Well; either that or just give up, I guess.)

cult evoThe foggy reflections upon Life and Spirit are interesting in their own ways; but luckily I have also been reading Kate Distin’s more recent and clearer book, Cultural Evolution (Cambridge 2011). Distin is in the camp of Dennett & Co., seeking to extend Darwinian explanation into the domain of culture through the invocation of memes and language. The rough story is that, at some crucial point, our ancestors developed the capacity for communication and for conveying information to others in increasingly effective ways. Thus natural language. But natural language has its limits, so long as we can shout only so far and remember only so much. Eventually artefactual language developed, or representations pressed into clay or (later) marked onto paper-like surfaces. This is, basically, the addition of a hard drive to our operating system, as it hugely expands our information storage capacity. It also enables us to keep track of how many sheep I owe you, or how many I gave you last time; and it also enables us to falsify records, and so prompts us to develop more secure information technology that can’t be faked or tampered with.

But artefactual language is more than just record keeping and enhanced storage capacity. As Distin argues, it is no longer merely about communication, but about representation: the scratchings on the medium are things representing things:

Just as other artefactual languages have evolved for the representation and manipulation of concepts that could not be managed so efficiently by natural language, so the written language serves our representational purposes. It has the potential to preserve our ideas in a permanent, unambiguous format, and in the evolution of jargon we can see the same sorts of conceptual tools as are provided by nonlinguistic symbols. Writing is a means of representing our thoughts as well as of communicating them (103).

Once a rich capacity for representation is developed, we can begin representing representations (what Distin calls “metarepresentation”), and then we really are off to the conceptual races. To run with the metaphor I’ve been using, artefactual language enables us to build arches. Writing, particularly for economic or cryptographic ends, forces us to consider both medium and message. It introduces questions of both content and style, and forces us to make words about words. And I can’t help but think that the act of transcribing a sound – of turning what’s heard but invisible into a tangible thing that can be seen – encourages abstractions, or reifications of words, which is all anyone needs to get arches going. When I put Distin’s work together with Scheler and Cassirer, what I get is that artefactual language is the enabler of Spirit, built upon nothing more than what Life has made, but enabling distinctly new capacities of which Life is necessarily ignorant. Writing enables a dialogue between a representing mind and concepts, and at that point we find ourselves with many new words – and through them, many new worlds.

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Jordi Savall, “Celtic Universe”

For a long time I’ve longed to hear Jordi Savall play. If you haven’t heard of him, he’s probably the most famous musician you haven’t heard of. He discovers and resurrects European and Mediterranean music from the medieval to the early modern period, assembles groups of musicians who have amazing talents with old instruments, and thus builds human bridges across times and spaces. He’s received the Léonie Sonning Music Prize, which is the Nobel prize of music.

Jeannine and I traveled to Denver for an overnighter to hear the maestro perform, alongside Carlos Núñez (Galician bagpipes and other pipes), Pancho Alvarez (guitar), Xurxo Núñez (percussion), Andrew Lawrence-King (harp and psaltery), and Frank McGuire (bodhran, or Celtic drum). Their music was mostly Celtic, though there was a Basque section of the program that included a heartbreaking lullaby (“Aurtxo txikia negarrez”) with wonderful Arabic tones.

Below is a sung version of the lullaby:


What a marvelous performance in both style and content!

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The Hope of Concepts (or, some sorely needed arch support)

(Loosely reflecting while re-reading Peter Sloterdijk’s You Must Change Your Life…)

As in Spheres, PS’s aim is to create (or at least open up a space for) a new life-support system for humans, a post-religious quasi-religion grounded in practice and values that can support us and remain believable even when we realize that we have just been making stuff up. His efforts encourage me to also “change my life”, or find a way to think about and live about value.

It is as if his verbal visions, and those of other concept-artists, provide us with an access to insight and value, in something like the way the language of mathematics opens up the inner secrets of nature. No one has ever seen a 2. But pretend that you can know it, and – kazam! – a new world opens up, a world which encompasses and surpasses the world revealed by eyes and ears. No one has really explained the power of mathematics, but no one really has denied its truth. Similarly, might there not be a similar move possible in the domain of concept artistry, even if we cannot explain it? Is this in fact what it is to be alive to wonder – to feel the tug of conceptual dynamics? Or is this just giving philosophical weight to the prettiness of words?

ARCH11Well, if there is anything to it, then this may be where my flat-footed naturalism can restore its arches. An arch (now turning to the not-footly variety) is raised from the ground up, of course; but its structural integrity relies upon the capstone, which keeps its height by resisting the inclination of the arch stones to collapse in on themselves. Similarly, the ideals we hold keep themselves aloft precisely by pushing against a natural tendency to collapse. Collapse, obviously, is always possible; it is as natural as free-fall, and without gravity, there can be no capstone, and no arch. But collapse can be forestalled; that is the hope of concept artistry.

What all that architectural metaphor amounts to is that the hope of concepts is the suspension of an ideal made possible through the gravity of collapse. We raise an ideal or a principle, knowing full well who and what we are. We recognize at all points our crippling stupidities, our cruel self-deceptions, and our bad faiths made manifest in institutions. And yet … what guards against the collapse of an ideal is an insistence that has the form, “But despite all this….” We manage to respond to the pull of gravity with new revelations, criticisms, and creations, and even at times new practices, all made possible through thinking.

But – again –  it’s crucial that the arch remain a terrestrial structure, and not one we imagine as supported by heavenly block-and-tackle. For the little bit that we know tells us that that is impossible engineering. Thinking happens in brains – and not merely in brains, but in vast networks of historical, cultural, political, and economic influences. Our age is resolutely post-miraculous. And yet … we can build arches. Rule by law (though doubly imperfect, both in the rule and the law), refutation through clinical trials, jazz improvisations, after-school programs, poetry readings, vaccinations, and on and on – there stand endless rows of arches one would never have predicted if entranced by the spirit of gravity alone.

But what about eugenics, global slave trade, fascisms, various wicked dimensions of capitalism, and all manner of brutal ideologies? Are these not also arches? They are too well-organized to be seen as anything else. Capstones, we can see, issue from all manner of material. The central moral challenge of the conceptual artist is to develop a practice of arch critique, developing further principles of arch construction which selectively favor some arches over others. How do they accomplish this? How does one establish such high principles? Through the construction of further arches, the answer must be – erecting further ideals, supported by stones placed upon the earth. We turn toward human dignity, toward autonomy, and we elevate the sympathy placed in us through evolution to charity toward strangers.

This is what we do – meaning, this is all humans ever ever done: we construct ideals, both cruel and beneficent, from a variety of building materials: biological, historical, philosophical, psychological, cultural, etc. We engage in critique of those ideals, weighing practical consequences (or rather our judgments of those consequences, issuing from capstones of our own making) against seemingly transcendent principles of design (and note well the seeming). This business of critique follows its own weird logic, as it is conditioned by our own place and time: criticism takes place within a particular realm of concept artistry, one we live and think in. Under the optics of that particular realm, we construct our arches and make our judgments, all the while being acted also upon by decidedly non-archly forces like markets and inherited biases.

When described from this high altitude, it sounds pretty pathetic and ridiculous: we are ants, contemplating the Metaphysics of the Mound as we scurry about shifting materials from one place to another. There is material aplenty here for satirists. But when we ourselves are in the midst of it all, it is gripping and meaningful; and even the satirists are in the grip of the perspective they inhabit as they launch their satire. I guess that it should come as no surprise that, when we are thinking or criticizing or satirizing, concepts are gripping and meaningful. But the wonderful fact is that this illusion (if illusion it is) is possible in the first place. This fact is itself an arch, probably made possible by artefactual language – but more on that in another post.

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Enlightenment now

(Reading Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now)

pinkerI am totally down with this book. Its main thesis is that the core values of the Enlightenment – Reason, Science, and Humanism – have resulted in human life being better in every measurable way. And if anyone wishes to deny this, they will have a big job in front of them, as Pinker provides 70+ charts over 16 chapters documenting the decline of social, medical, and economic evils and the growth of corresponding goods over the last three centuries. It turns out that, over time, a general trend in the direction of building science and more responsible social institutions, and setting to the side Iron Age religious ideologies, can do a lot for a species.

Pinker is not blind to human weaknesses, nor to the real evils that accompanied the Enlightenment, like slavery and colonialism. But to say that the Enlightenment was only about slavery and colonialism, or that these twin evils and others are necessarily bound up with the essence of science, is to leave unexplained the rather astounding improvements of life that have coincided with the Enlightenment – and not just for wealthy capitalists, but for for people generally across the globe. As Pinker notes, we usually take these astounding improvements for granted:

… newborns who will live more than eight decades, markets overflowing with food, clean water that appears with the flick of a finger and waste that disappears with another, pills that erase a painful infection, sons who are not sent off to war, daughters who can walk the streets in safety, critics of the powerful who are not jailed or shot, the world’s knowledge and culture available in a shirt pocket. (4)

And, yes, there are still too many tragic cases where these benefits are wholly absent – but many, many fewer than ever before in human history. That’s Pinker’s point. The chief causes of human misery that have dogged our steps through history – plague, war, and starvation – are not really chief anymore. One could try to claim that all of these improvements have happened despite the work done by humans under the banners of Enlightenment ideals – but really? by whom? Faith healers? Existentialist Marxists? God? Faeries? And when your child has a serious infection, or when you try to broker a peace deal, or when you decide what crops to plant next year, it is to these entities you turn for guidance?

So Pinker’s case is powerful. The majority of his book is spent on gathering and displaying evidence for his overarching claim that human life is continuously getting better, and pointing out the likely causes for these improvements – which, in general, comes down to humans using their science and reason to make life better. A smaller portion of the book is devoted to explaining why some intelligent people resist the conclusion that the Enlightenment is on the whole a good thing. Part of the explanation is that news of calamity sells better the news of goods we take for granted. We won’t be seeing headlines celebrating the eradication of smallpox in the natural world anytime soon, despite the fact that every morning we should wake up and cry tears of joy over that fact. (In the 20th century, something like 70 million people died in the two world wars; in the same century, over 300 million died from smallpox. And smallpox only had three quarters of that century to do that much.)

The other part of the explanation for under-appreciating the Enlightenment has to do with humanist scholars like me. Granted, a big part of our job is to explore the shadows, and provide alternative narratives, and challenge prevailing orthodoxies. The fact that Pinker knows that individuals and societies, while doing their best to be rational, can nevertheless get swept up into all sorts of cruel and evil projects is at least in part the consequence of thinkers like Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Foucault, who went ahead and challenged a prevailing blind optimism in progress and science. But Pinker is right that this humanist challenge to orthodox opinion has itself become an orthodox opinion in the academy, and it is time to temper the denouncements of the Enlightenment with some close attention paid to real data. It is time to challenge those who challenge Enlightenment ideals.

This is a critical discussion that I hope the humanists themselves will begin to undertake (though I rather doubt they will, for tribal reasons). For Pinker is clearly not the guy to do it. In his final pages, he launches pretty stupid invectives against Nietzsche and undergraduate philosophy classes which demonstrate only the limits of his own studies. His criticisms of religion probably are apt for the bulk of believers, particularly in the U.S., but he shows no awareness of more sophisticated theologies. These lapses at the end are a bit surprising, as I generally admire Pinker’s intellectual demeanor, and his efforts to be fair and square in his conclusions. But some sort of anti-humanist demon gets hold of him in the final chapters, and like many other scientists he gives in to the temptation to believe that he really does know better, even without much study. Alas. Enlightenment ideals are good ones we all fail to live up to. But that doesn’t mean we all shouldn’t try.

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Philosophy as an art of concepts

portrait of a woman

Picasso, Portrait of a Woman (1910)

Around the beginning of the 20th century, the intellectual landscape changed radically and forever. The old view, let’s say, presumed the intelligibility of a God’s eye perspective: a vision of Things as They Are, or Things as They Really Are (if that helps). Moreover, according to this view, humans can gain that vision, or at least approximate it, through history, science, and philosophy. It requires only the Victorian virtues of discipline and patience. But along came Einstein, who of course did not entirely repudiate a God’s eye perspective, but reduced its scope so dramatically that it became one reachable by us only through mathematical tricks (and this was only amplified by quantum mechanics). Along came deeper and more sympathetic explorations of non-western, “primitive” cultures, whose ontology and metaphysics was incommensurable with our own. Along came Nietzsche with Freud in his wake, undermining our confidence in our own thoughts and theories, given the psychological viper’s nest from which they issue.

(I’m setting aside the political and economic upheavals for now, though obviously they can’t be ignored. The new visions were made possible by colonialism, industrialization, and kleptocratic parliamentarianism; in treating the new visions, we are looking at symptoms of deeper social transformations. But anyway….)

Artists responded with cubism, music of alternative scales, paradigm-challenging architectures, and novels lacking omniscient narrators. Their works aimed at bringing all of us into conversation with the new reality, or new realities, and our own complicities in them. Historians and scientists soon realized their jobs had become a whole lot harder, for now they had to consider not just what they found in archives and in nature, but also the baggage they were carrying with them into their inquiries – presuppositions, expectations, and values. But philosophers for the most part found two ways of sidestepping the revolution. Some of them retreated deep into The Subjective, construing their free association of ideas as unimpeachable revelations from an inner oracle. Others exiled themselves into the Land of Logical Forms, where there never is any change. Either way, philosophers disengaged with the 20th century, and the legacies of those departures haunt their houses to this day.

Obviously, philosophers could have taken other paths. They probably could not have followed in a path parallel to those of the historians and scientists, because Wittgenstein was profoundly right in observing that philosophy does not have its own subject matter. There is not some special set of facts philosophers discover through special methodologies. They can join forces with historians and scientists, of course; but then they are simply historians and scientists, though on the more theoretical end of the spectrum of practitioners – and there is nothing wrong with this. Philosophers might boast of a special ability to clarify empirical findings and think through the logics of disciplines, but in truth this is not a special ability. It’s just clear thinking, which is always in short supply, but always in some measure of supply everywhere; philosophers are not the sole suppliers.

But here is an idea: what if philosophers followed the artists? What would that mean? It’s never safe to offer a universal pronouncement of what art is all about, but it’s not clearly wrong to say that artists try to provoke us to think about the human experience in new ways without telling us what to think. (I’ve lifted this from Maya Lin, who lifted it from Kant.) Philosophers, by temperament, like to tell us exactly what to think. But this need not be so. If they armed themselves with a more informed vision of their discipline’s own limitations, together with an appreciation for the revolution described above, they might content themselves in starting new discussions rather than in trying to end old ones.

The philosopher as artist is not providing poems or paintings. They are producing new visions, or new orientations in the cognitive landscape. There isn’t really a way to argue “here’s the right way of seeing things”; each new vision should be judged on the basis of how it intrigues us, how it opens up new possibilities for us, and how deeply it challenges our preconceptions. All these qualities are what we expect great works of art to do. Philosophers paint with concepts. Reason is necessarily involved, in the way that the logics of composition and logics of technique are inextricably part of an artist’s creation. We require philosophical works to make sense, but they must make sense to us, with our sensibilities, and not win over the sympathies of some disembodied observer.

It is an interesting possibility, and highlights just how different philosophy is (or rather should be). As with scientific theory, there is a concern to provide a well-grounded perspective that coheres with empirical discoveries. But philosophical theories are radically under-determined by scientific discovery, just as the compositions of paintings are underdetermined by the chemistry of pigments. As with literature and the arts, there is a concern to speak to the subjective dimensions of human experience. But philosophy always tries to provide some sort of judgment and direction, and does not rest content with reflecting that subjectivity. It’s preachy in a way art isn’t (or tries not to be). One might characterise this style of philosophy as an open-ended attempt to illuminate who we are, where we are, and where we might go from here.

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Hadot, Sloterdijk, and the Idol of Eternity

meditationI have recently read both Pierre Hadot’s Philosophy as a Way of Life and Sloterdijk’s The Art of Philosophy. Both books place at their centers an ideal of the philosopher as one who is able to lift themselves from their particular circumstances and adopt a perspective from eternity, blankly reflecting how things are and perhaps seeing in all things some variety of sublime necessity. For Hadot, this ideal was the point of philosophy in ancient times: philosophy was a practice, or set of spiritual exercises, aimed at training the initiate into being a sage. For Sloterdijk, this ideal has been “murdered” over the last two centuries, and is no longer defensible as an ideal. The question for him is what comes next.

Hadot insists that the “spiritual exercises” of the ancients do not necessarily imply any spiritual stance, but it is hard for me to believe this. The point of training for this sort of philosophical enlightenment is to attain a perspective from a supernatural place: a place where life makes no demands of you, and where you have no name or history. If it is at all possible to attain this perspective, it is hard to see why it should be privileged. If by undergoing Stoic or Epicurean brainwashing, I am able to dissociate myself from life as we all know it, why should the resulting perspective be regarded as wiser, juster, or better? The only answer I can imagine involves a supernatural defense: that being out of this world is better than being in it, and garden-variety mortality is inferior to eternal changelessness. Maybe it is true merely that adopting this perspective ends up making the initiate happier, or more tranquil, or at least not thoroughly disappointed. But in that case, the training does not carry with it any more philosophical validity than a prescription for Prozac.

Having to reach this conclusion about the beautiful vision Hadot celebrates is, for me, the most disappointing consequence of my own flat-footed naturalism. Once I have rid my house of God and other invisible friends, I would still like to believe that some human experiences are more profound, more beautiful, and deeper than others. But my naturalism does not allow this. I remember being on a long plane ride, listening to Beethoven’s string quartets from first to last, and coming to the third movement of his A minor quartet (#15, op. 132). This is a piece LvB wrote in gratitude for surviving an illness; it is a prayer, lifted to the sky, in gratitude for being alive. Tears were streaming down my face, and I thought then that if I do not try to re-capture this gratitude in some sort of philosophical writing, then all that I would ever do would be entirely in vain. The joy and gratitude I felt was not remotely like the pleasure in hearing a pretty song; it was heartfelt, profound, transformative, and (yes) spiritual. But, according to my flat-footed naturalism, I can only say that this work of LvB – together with my cultural background and philosophical inclinations, etc, etc – caused in me some particular psychological state that is in itself nothing special; being in that state is not more closely aligned with The Way Things Are (or Should Be), for there is no such Way. Not really. It is a state I value being in, for psychological and cultural reasons, but this does not make it a revelation of anything, let alone anything that is holy or transcendent. If someone managed to develop a drug that caused such a state – “Profounderal” – then being in that state because of the drug would not be inherently less valuable than being in that state through more “legitimate” means (hearing Beethoven, losing one’s gaze among Van Gogh’s sunflowers, meditating in a zen garden, etc).

Similarly, Hadot relates the philosophical ecstasy of the view from above with precision and sympathy. His collection of essays is really just an historical meditation on an exhortation by his contemporary, Georges Friedmann:

Take flight each day! At least for a moment, however brief, as long as it is intense. Every day a “spiritual exercise,” alone or in the company of a man who wishes to better himself …. Leave ordinary time behind. Make an effort to rid yourself of your own passions …. Become eternal by surpassing yourself.

And there is no doubt that, for those who succeed in surpassing themselves, all else dwindles in significance – even philosophical and historical commentaries on the sages of the past. Hadot quotes Epictetus’s smack-down of scholars:

“Come and listen to my commentaries … I will explain Chrysippus to you like no one else can, and I’ll provide a complete analysis of his entire text … If necessary, I can even add the views of Antipater and Archedemos” … So it’s for this, is it, that young men are to leave their fatherlands and their own parents: to come and listen to you explain words? Trifling little words?

It is true: when one dwells in the Deep, it is impossible not to feel with certainty that most of what we do is trifling. But it’s an optical illusion. Even what we do down in the Deep is trifling. Nothing is inherently more significant than anything else – that’s the true meaning of naturalism. We feel some things to be more significant – but that feeling can be flat-footed away through the explanations of psychology so that, if we pay heed to those explanations, we realize the deep divide between Appearance and Reality. Significance dwells entirely on the side of Appearance.

This is the lesson we should have learned by now, if Sloterdijk is right. The ideal of the ideal observer – the one who dwells namelessly in eternal epoché, or suspended life – has been shown to be a hollow idol. There have been ten assassins of this ideal, all falling upon the ideal like dagger-wielding Roman senators falling upon Caesar. The assassins range from Nietzsche and Freud to Antonio Damasio, from Darwin and Marx to Judith Butler. What they have taught us is that there never is a view of No One from No Place. Every view comes from someone somewhere, in a class with psychological fixations and social agendas and the blinders of an age. When Hadot and Friedmann extolled the virtues of eternal escape, one suspects they were finding a way to carve out a safe haven for spiritual significance during the student revolts of the late 60s and 70s, as well as during the waves of consumerism and anti-intellectualism that followed. If the ancient sages were right, then it was still possible to live a superior life even when left behind by those on the move. In this, they were doing no more than repeating the defensive maneuvers of the ancients they esteemed.

As usual, it is not clear where this leaves us, in Sloterdijk’s view. He gives the last word to Fernando Pessoa, whose Kafka-like insights issue from dozens of pseudonyms. Perhaps the Hegelian dream of providing “our time in concepts” is irretrievable, and perhaps we are left only with the occasional piercing insight coming from someone we are pretending to be.

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