3QD: Reflections on It-ing and Thou-ing

We find ourselves always in the middle of an experience. But it’s what we do next – how we characterize the experience – that lays down a host of important and almost subterranean conditions. Am I sitting in a chair, gazing out the dusty window into a world of sunlight, trees, and snow? Am I meditating on the nature of experience? Am I praying? Am I simply spacing out? Depending on which way I parse whatever the hell I’m up to, my experience shifts from something ineffable (or at any rate, not currently effed) to something meaningful and determinate, festooned with many other conversational hooks and openings: “enjoying nature”, “introspecting”, “conversing with God”, “resting”, “procrastinating”, and so on. Putting the experience into words tells me what to do with it next.

Essay here

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3QD: Conversation with a Genie

Essay here.

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Back to 3QuarksDaily

After a bit of a break, I’m going to resume contributing monthly essays at 3QuarksDaily. The first essay is now up, alongside the fascinating essays, poems, and insights from the other contributors.

How To Be Kind

“There’s only one rule I know of, babies — ‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’” —Kurt Vonnegut, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater

Despite Vonnegut’s strong counsel to babies entering the world, kindness seems to be in short supply. Little wonder. Our news media portray to us a world of power politics, corporate greed, murders, and cruel policies which are anything but kind. Our popular forms of entertainment, much more often than not, are stories about battles that shock and thrill us and gratify our lust for bloody vengeance, leaving no room for wimpy, kind sentiments. Success is advertised to us as requiring harsh discipline, dedication, and focus, and kindness, it appears, need not apply. Even though we all like to give and receive kindnesses, they seem to play no role in our political, social, and cultural economies.

The rest here.

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The impact of Boris Hessen

Reading: Gerardo Ienna and Giulia Rispoli, “Boris Hessen at the Crossroads of Science and Ideology from International Circulation to the Soviet Context”, Society and Politics, 2019, 13:37-63.

[These are just some preliminary notes on a very complex story I am only beginning to understand. I was introduced to the topic through discussion of a Facebook post by Martin Lenz.]

If Boris Hessen is known among historians today, it is primarily for playing a foundational role in launching “externalist” views in the history of science, or paying close attention to the social, political, and economic forces at work in the development of scientific theories. In a 1931 lecture presented at a conference in London, Hessen argued that Newton’s physics was inextricably bound up with a burgeoning early modern capitalism (“The Socio-Economic Roots of Newton’s Principia”). It was a Marxist exposition of Newtonianism, and it forcefully challenged the received opinion that Newton and his cohort were simply a bunch of politically neutral boys interested in the truth for truth’s sake. Hessen’s work led directly to Robert K. Merton’s dissertation and subsequent work which expounded “the Merton thesis”, which specifically claimed that early modern science in England had a lot to do with Protestantism, and generally claimed that, even in intellectual history, it’s not only ideas that matter.

But there is much more to Hessen than this. A short history: Hessen was born in modern-day Ukraine in 1893. He studied physics at St. Petersburg and Edinburgh, where he developed an interest in the history of science.  In 1914 he returned to Russia, and a few years later joined the Red Army to fight in the revolution. He continued his studies in physics and history in Moscow and in 1928 moved to Berlin to collaborate with Richard von Mises. Von Mises directed Hessen’s attention to Ernst Mach and the Vienna Circle, which was to prove fateful. He returned to Moscow in 1930 and became engaged in philosophical controversies over whether a good Communist could also support Einstein and be a Machian idealist. He lost these arguments – in the sense that he was accused by the Communist Party of conspiracy in 1934, and was secretly tried, convicted, and executed in 1936. He was officially rehabilitated in 1956, which probably would have pleased him had he not been dead already for 20 years.

It may seem surprising that anyone could be convicted and executed for being an idealist, but the dialectical space of the Soviet Union was a treacherous place. Earlier in the century, Lenin had argued that attempts to ground scientific knowledge in an individual’s fluctuating experience leads to the conclusion that scientific theories are necessarily open to revision as experience demands, which meant that Marxism in particular was open to revision. Hessen and his colleagues were arguing that Machian idealism (which is basically a ramped-up version of Berkeley’s idealism) was in fact a kind of lawbound materialism, inasmuch as “matter” could be  reduced to measurements and experience, and bound by lawful regularities. But in the estimation of Stalin’s courts, these arguments were insufficient – or, one speculates, the simple fact that Lenin’s word was not sufficient for these uppity philosophers was reason enough to convict them of something.

The effect of Hessen’s 1931 lecture on anglophone historians and philosophers of science was complex. On the one hand, there emerged several varieties of externalist approaches to the history of science, emphasizing economics, religion, culture, psychology, and politics in varying degrees. Some (e.g., John Desmond Bernal) held to a strictly Marxist line, putting economic considerations in front of everything else, while others (e.g., George Norman Clark and Robert K. Merton) assembled multi-causal explanations of scientific development. On the other hand, in opposition to Hessen, other historians and philosophers (e.g., Alexandre Koyré) leaned toward internalist explanations, maintaining that it was clear-eyed empiricism and logic that pushed science forward, and social factors could be safely ignored. Inasmuch as such internalist accounts were rooted in conceiving individuals as behaviorally free from social determination, they served to promote the ideology of liberal capitalism. It is not surprising that, for the most part, internalist approaches to the history and philosophy of science dominated anglophone academics for the better part of the 20th century. The principal exception was the sociology of scientific knowledge program (SSK), founded in Edinburgh by David Edge, advanced in following years by Barry Barnes, David Bloor, Steven Shapin, and Simon Schaffer.

I *think* it’s safe to say that the principal holdout nowadays for thoroughly internalist historical approaches is a sect of historians of philosophy, trained in philosophy departments with very little exposure to history. But even here, there is a steadily advancing wave of more externalist or “contextual” approaches, though these approaches still typically steer clear of economics, politics, and culture. They are contextualist only in the sense that they pay attention to lesser-read texts published in the period they study. So their subjects are still free, disembodied minds, though these minds have read more broadly than imagined previously.

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Is there such a thing as the history of philosophy?

(Reading Christia Mercer. “The Contextualist Revolution in Early Modern Philosophy.” Journal of the History of Philosophy 57, no. 3 (2019): 529-548.)

Christia Mercer has revisited the methodological battles that have waged among scholars of the history of philosophy. She uses as her starting point a 2015 exchange between Michael Della Rocca and Dan Garber. Garber charges Della Rocca with being engaged in “rational reconstruction” of Spinoza’s Ethics. What this means is that Della Rocca is not concerned so much with Spinoza’s historical context as with the integrity of Spinoza’s thought. With such an approach, Della Rocca is prone to creating new arguments on Spinoza’s behalf, and considering objections Spinoza never conceived, in an attempt to push Spinoza’s philosophical system to its greatest philosophical potential. Garber, by contrast, is more interested in situating historical philosophers in their social and political contexts, without caring so much about whether the resulting interpretation of their views makes for “legitimate” philosophies, as judged by contemporary standards. 

Mercer’s main claim is that these two apparently different approaches really have more in common than one might initially think, and that since the 1980s there has been a decisive trend among historians of philosophy to pay closer attention to both texts and contexts. Until the 1980s, the prevalent methodology could be seen as “extreme appropriationism”, where so-called historians of philosophy in fact did not care at all about historical questions, and instead raided the works of dead philosophers for new ideas whose value rested in their applicability to the philosophical questions currently en vogue. But steadily over the following decades, according to Mercer, philosophers began to care about issues of translation, and so historical contexts, and so the relevance of other thinkers then important but now forgotten. Historians of philosophy as a group traveled in the direction of obeying a “Getting Things Right Constraint” (GTRC), which means paying attention both to historical context as well as philosophical intelligibility, with different individual philosophers perhaps placing more weight on one dimension than the other. In short: historians of philosophy have gotten much better at their craft, and as a whole are providing accounts and interpretations that are both historically informed and philosophically fruitful.

In short, a methodological revolution has come upon us like a thief in the night:

As the philosophical advantages of a non-appropriationist approach became increasingly evident and as innovative early modernists exposed the richness of the period’s philosophy, contextualism and its commitment to the GTRC gained a momentum that could not be stopped. Early modernists are now committed contextualists in that they aim to explicate as clearly as possible the authentic views of a wide range of historical texts, although they differ in the skills used and projects selected to attain that goal.

Mercer adds a further interest that historians of philosophy would do well to consider, which is to explore the ways in which historical philosophers, in their particular contexts, may have light to shed upon social and political problems of our own day. Some things, alas, never change; and understanding how Spinoza or Wollstonecraft responded to problems of their own day may give us further material to consider as we grapple with our own, and especially issues of diversity and inclusion.

I am always heartened to see someone offer a friendly, ecumenical approach, and so am cheered to read Mercer’s insights into recent history of history of philosophy. I think she is right to see that scholarship has gotten much better as a whole over recent decades, and that there is room within the GTRC for a variety of approaches, questions, and methods. But I would like to add to her insights some further issues about academic disciplines that her account does not address.

I think the bigger question that lies below Mercer’s discussion of methodological disagreements is the question of whether philosophy, and history of philosophy in particular, is to be counted among the humanities. It is a question about the sort of scholarly activity philosophy is: is it in the same general category that literature and history fall within, or is it something else? Historians and scholars of historical literature do work that often overlaps. An historian studying early 17th century London and a literary scholar studying Shakespeare will read each others’ works with great delight and profit, and can expect to have interesting disagreements. Some historians of early modern philosophy will be able to join in this discussion, especially those who are studying Francis Bacon in contextual fashion. But many others will twiddle their thumbs on the sidelines until a properly philosophical topic comes up for discussion, like the adequacy of empirical induction as a basis for science. The first group places philosophy within the humanities, and is interested in reading literature and learning history in order to deepen their understanding of the philosophers of the period. The second group cannot find much of interest in all this talk of guild formation and Atlantic trade routes. Their concern is over something the historian and literature scholar are ignoring: namely, whether Bacon (or whomever) managed to come up with anything of genuine philosophical interest, and not “merely” of historical or literary interest.

The “humanities” as a group of disciplines was a 19th century invention, and it has never been exactly clear where philosophy fits. Practically, of course, the academic departments have been shoe-horned into colleges of humanities, mainly because there has been nowhere else to put them. Several subdisciplines of philosophy – like metaphysics, epistemology, logic, and philosophies of action, mind, and science – really have nothing to do with other humanistic disciplines. Really nothing: the separation is entire and complete. History of philosophy, political philosophy, and ethics are mixed cases, depending on the sorts of interests of the individual scholars. A philosopher interested in the ways in which gender has been portrayed in films will have much to discuss with humanists, as will a philosopher interested in the politics of race. But a philosopher interested in the legitimacy of Rawls’ theory of justice or rule-based utilitarianism can expect to have little to say to other humanists, and little to learn from them. (For the most part; again, individual types of interest vary considerably.) 

When it comes to the history of philosophy, this disciplinary aporia gets played out in disputes over methodology. Questions over “the right way to do history of philosophy” are in fact questions about the sort of discipline philosophy is. Normally questions over methodology can get settled at least somewhat by trying to see which methodology yields the best results. But what is at issue here is what counts as best results. Do we want a richer understanding of the world in which Spinoza crafted his philosophy, and why his context led him to raise some questions while ignoring others? Or do we want to explore the conceptual space in which Spinoza carved out a distinctive niche? The answer here depends on the philosopher, and what gets them excited, or at least which group of peers they are trying to engage.

In this way, history of philosophy (and perhaps also ethics and political philosophy) come to resemble “multidisciplinary disciplines” like religious studies, international studies, or gender studies. There isn’t a single disciplinary model, no shared methodology, which brings unity to these areas of study. That is not to say they are not valuable, of course, but they are not, properly speaking, disciplines. They are instead “areas of study” admitting of different kinds of questions and different methods. A scholar in religious studies may be more of a historian, or more of a sociologist, in terms of method and approach. The same is true of historians of philosophy, as they may be more historical or more philosophical. Just as it would be futile to try to establish a single method for religious studies, it would be futile to do so for history of philosophy.

(That being said, I will state my own preference. I think philosophers ought to be humanists, mainly because that suits my own inclinations. It also is a good idea, I think, for academic programs to try to integrate with others, where possible; and, frankly, no one else has much interest in the non-humanistic endeavors of philosophers. But this latter point is merely one of strategy in the politics of academia.)

In all, I suppose this leads me to a question I would like Mercer and others to reflect upon – namely, whether there really is a discipline of history of philosophy, which has its own distinctive kind of methodology. I suspect the answer is no, which means we should stop looking for the right way to do it. Let’s just do it, and see what we learn.

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Hobbes and coins

Thomas Hobbes saw humans as purely mechanical devices. External objects press against us in one way or another, setting off a chain reaction of interior pulleys, wheels, and ratchets that engage one another and result in some version of “Cuckoo!” escaping our lips. In some way that he saw no need to explain, the motions of our inner works are paired up with the contents of our experiences: our ideas, premonitions, appetites, urges, and fears. And so when one idle thought casually links up with another, there is at the same time some mechanical action causally linking up with another.

Hobbes offered an example of what seems like a “free” association in fact being causally determined by a host of associations and traces of memory:

For in a discourse of our present civil war, what could seem more impertinent than to ask (as one did) what was the value of a Roman penny? Yet the coherence to me was manifest enough. For the thought of the war introduced the thought of the delivering up the king to his enemies; the thought of that brought in the thought of the delivering up of Christ; and that again the thought of the 30 pence which was the price of treason; and thence easily followed that malicious question; and all this in a moment of time, for thought is quick.

Set aside the political point of the example, with the gratuitous comparison of Charles I with Our Lord and Savior. We might instead wonder who it was who raised such an “impertinent” question? Of course, it may have been just some fellow with whom Hobbes was conversing one day. Or, if you run a search on Early English Books Online, looking for any tract concerning ancient coins published during the civil war but before Hobbes’s publication of Leviathan (1651), you will find exactly one: The Scripture Calendar, Used by the Prophets and Apostles, and by our Lord Jesus Christ, paralleld with the new Stile, and Measures, Weights, Coyns, Customes, and Language, of Gods ancient people, and of Primitive Christians (London: printed by M. B. for the Company of Stationers, 1649), written by the clergyman Henry Jessey (1603-1663). For the most part, Jessey’s work is an estimation of just where notable Biblical events happened to fall on the calendar. But he also translated ancient measures and weights to more contemporary ones, and briefly calculated the contemporary values of several ancient coins, according to their weight in silver. In his estimation, the Roman penny, or drachma, was perhaps worth about seven pence. So that’s settled.

Jessey was an apt target for Hobbes’s example, as he was a somewhat radical Protestant and supported the revolution. Jessey would have been the sort of guy Hobbes would seek to skewer. More specifically, Jessey was a “Particular Baptist”, which is a baptist who restricts holy communion only to fellow Particular Baptists. A fellow member of this sect was a guy named “Praisegod Barebone” (c. 1598-1679), which you would think is one of the greatest names ever, at least until you learned that in fact his given name was “Unless-Jesus-Christ-Had-Died-For-Thee-Thou-Hadst-Been-Damned Barebone”. Good ole UJCHDFTTHBD Barbone was a leather worker who also offered the occasional brimstoney sermon, and was imprisoned for some time in the Tower because of the religious ruckus he stirred up. Praisegod was rewarded later by Cromwell with a position in the Nominated Assembly (the rebels’ form of parliament), which was ridiculed by its critics as “Barebone’s Parliament”.


Praisegod Barebone (Wikipedia)

Praisegod had a son with the considerably less flashy name “Nicholas Barbon” (1640-1698). Nicholas had a greater measure of worldly sense, and was one of several entrepreneurs who hit upon the idea of selling fire insurance in the aftermath of the London Fire in 1666. He seems to have been an expert manipulator, gathering his creditors into an ornate dining room and affecting such aggressive bonhomie as to guilt them into backing off on their demands. He is known today as an early “scientific” economist, as he thought in theoretical terms about the value of the tarnished lucre he was accumulating. He realized that it really did not matter what rare metals coins are made of, so long as everyone agrees to treat them as valuable. He argued for this view against John Locke, who viewed money as itself a commodity whose value depended on relative scarcity. (For more, see this account.) In the end, there may have been some truth in both views: money is what people think it is, but people at that time did think of money as valuable precisely because of the precious metals involved. Hence it was important to keep the pound as sound as a pound, which is why someone no less than Isaac Newton was assigned the role of Keeper of the Mint.

So, in all, it would seem that Hobbes was wrong, and it was not “impertinent” at all to speculate in the midst of civil war upon the value of the Roman penny.  Anyone trying to manage a government, let alone a revolution, would do well to pay attention to such things.

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What we know when we know particulars

Some reflections on the early sections of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit:

georg-wilhelm-friedrich-hegel-the-phenomenology-of-spiritIf we try to think about what is most obvious in our experience, and what the most basic elements of knowledge are, we turn to sense perception. For it seems like the more our minds and our concepts are mixed up with what we are trying to know, the more likely it is that there will be some “ideological pollution” through psychological or social forces. We would like to have something pure and basic that is what it is, no two ways about it. So we look to a green button, a patch of red on a coffee mug, the smell of mint. No matter how we have been raised, or what other confusions lurk within our minds, those sense experiences are simply and humbly given; we cannot change how they appear by changing our minds about them.

But Hegel asks us to think more carefully and try to grasp what it is we come to know when we turn to our sense perceptions. Let us take that patch of red as an example. In order to make a solid knowledge claim of the form, “I know that X”, we shall have to fill in the value for X. For starters, we might let X be “there is a red patch”. But there are many shades of red, and many shapes of patches. If we are seeking knowledge of a sense particular, and not knowledge of redness or shapedness, we shall have to be more specific. We might try “coral red” or “fire-engine red”, and we might try “trapezoidal” or “blobby and nose-shaped”. But these are also general qualities, and not sense particulars. If we want to make our knowledge claim focus on a given particular, and not general qualities, we shall have to somehow manage to refer to the this in our experience, the particular thing we are experiencing, and not its general features. If we allow ourselves to do so, what we can say we know is that this is here, or this is now – understanding “this”, “here”, and “now” to have a special emphasis and to somewhat mysteriously latch onto the elements of our experience. But we should not deceive ourselves; even with our special emphasis, “this”, “here”, and “now” are not particular items, but are general terms that can be applied in infinitely many other cases to infinitely many other objects. For there are many thisses, many heres, and many nows.

We have failed to come up with a specific object in our knowledge of sense particulars. Though we tried to find a value for X that was itself a particular, our best efforts resulted in knowledge not of a particular, but of terms or concepts that range over a broad array of cases. What we know in our sense perception is not anything particular, but only that “This is here now”, a claim which is always true of every sense perception. Hegel thinks the lesson to be learned from this failure is that our knowledge of sense experience is not of particulars, but of universals. We thought initially to turn to our senses in order to find a concrete thing that was unpolluted by concepts, and instead what we found is that our sense experience – at least, insofar as it can be articulated in language – is only of universals.

We might seize upon the qualification about language, and place fault there. We might insist we really are experiencing and knowing a particular, but due to a shortcoming of language we cannot find the right words to express it. But we should consider seriously whether we want to make this move. If we start allowing for knowledge that cannot be captured by language, we allow for knowledge that cannot be articulated and transmitted to others. We close off opportunities for testing, for experiment, and for disagreement or confirmation. We close off the public dimension of knowledge, and we should begin to wonder whether essentially private knowledge can do any of the work we normally expect knowledge to do. If it cannot be articulated, communicated, and assessed, then is it really knowledge?

Hegel puts the point this way:

We also express the sensuous as a universal, but here is what we say: This, i.e., the universal this, or we say: it is, i.e., being as such. We thereby of course do not represent to ourselves the universal This or being as such, but we express the universal; or, in this sense-certainty we do not at all say what we mean. However, as we see, language is the more truthful. In language, we immediately refute what we mean to say, and since the universal is the truth of sensuous-certainty, and language only expresses this truth, it is, in that way, not possible at all that we could say what we mean about sensuous being. (section 97; Pinkard translation)

In this case language is our teacher. We thought we meant one thing, but language shows us that we cannot possibly say it. What can be said, and what can be articulated as knowledge, is not what we mean when we inwardly point to our particular experience and call it “this”; the only value we can have for X is a universal. What language teaches us here, according to Hegel, is that so far as knowledge is concerned, what we learn through sense experience is not knowledge of particulars, but knowledge of universals.

Of course, there are further surprising consequences that this recognition leads to in Hegel’s philosophy, but we might pause to note that this result is obviously true. Consider the wide range of published items of knowledge: scientific papers, books, articles, etc. Not one of them makes use of any sense particulars, at least not any of the kind we were looking for at the beginning of this discussion. They make use of correlations, causal connections, generalizations, and, in short, universals. Someone might introduce a paper by cleverly noting, “At 12:01 a.m., I saw the black needle swerve to indicate 1.025”, but that would be of only passing interest, and would not itself play a crucial role in the articulation of what the author has learned. (Furthermore, as we have seen, such a claim would fail in conveying knowledge of any sense particulars anyway.) An article might include detailed tables and graphs of what has been observed, but the data would be meaningful only insofar as they were representative of some deeper and more universal phenomenon. Our knowledge is of generalities, not of particulars, and the more significant our knowledge is, the more this is true.

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