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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Review of The Square and the Tower

IMG_20180331_093532Niall Ferguson’s The Square and the Tower is a caution against seeing our new, networked world as an unalloyed blessings. Human history (and NF’s book) is filled with examples of networks and hierarchies, many worth celebrating and equally many worth decrying. NF’s central worry is that our latest networks make us vulnerable to economic and political anarchy. He sees the rise of the internet as very similar in important ways to the print revolution, and no student of history can regard that revolution as smooth and peaceful. So we should be concerned about the sorts of disruption and anarchy our own networky revolution encourages.

We’re naturally wired to form social networks – up to about 150 friends, if the research is to be believed. Human culture, at its core, is just distributed cognition over a social network. Yet humans have also been enthralled to hierarchies which (unlike other networks) have a top and a bottom. How come? NF mentions the advantages of making communal action more efficient, and providing greater social cohesion. I would add that hierarchies make group strategies possible: in a battle, it helps to have a general on the hill whose commands must be obeyed. Also, who can deny that, once a hierarchy forms, it behooves those at the top to preserve and perpetuate that hierarchy, regardless of any benefits that might trickle down? One important question that comes up tangentially from NF’s discussion is whether networks naturally become hierarchies over time: the most densely connected nodes become bosses, just in virtue of the wealth of their connections. But NF is acutely concerned about the opposite transformation, from hierarchy to network: “Hierarchs have long been uneasily aware that fraternizing amongst subordinates can be the prelude to a palace coup” (41).

From his introductory coverage of network theory, NF draws seven insights: 1. No man is an island. 2. Birds of a feather flock together. (Networks are prone toward clusters of homogeneity.) 3. Weak ties are strong (meaning, if there are lots of connections among nodes, the network is strong). 4. Structure determines virality (“some ideas go viral because of the structural features of the network through which they spread”). 5. Networks never sleep. 6. Networks network (when networks confront one another, usually something very dynamic happens). 7. The rich get richer: “Because of preferential attachment [see #2], most social networks are profoundly inegalitarian” (47).

The thickest middle of the book – parts two through seven, or chapters 11-49 – is a long history of various sorts of networks and hierarchies. We encounter the Renaissance bankers, the empires of colonization, the Reformation, the Republic of Letters, scientific societies, the Freemasons, the royal families of the Victorian era, the empires of industrialization, the Rothschilds, Chinese dynasties, networks of spies, the clubs of extraordinary British gentlemen, the transmissions of plague, the Bolshevik revolution, the Nixon-Kissinger White House, and the delicate balance of European powers which, when it fell apart, became WWI. It is a considerable tour de force, and the reader may be excused for finding the particular accounts so fascinating as to forget from time to time whether any sort of overarching thesis is being established.

We eventually arrive at our own doorstep: the internet, Al-Qaeda, the crisis of 2008, ISIS, the rise of FANG (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, and Google), and the most recent results of hyperconnected network activity: Brexit, and the election of a baboon to serve as President of the United States. Alongside FANG, BAT has developed in China: Baidu (Chinese Google), Alibaba (Chinese Amazon), and Tencent (Chinese Facebook or Twitter, approximately, as it includes the messaging app WeChat). In a hazy way, the development of these two incredibly powerful systems of networks demonstrates that the injunction to “only connect” does in no way guarantee that connectivity automatically brings democratic free expression in its wake.

Whenever there is networked power unchallenged by any sort of law-governed structure, we should worry. That is fundamentally NF’s point. Hierarchies can accomplish all manner of evil, it is true; but so can non-hierarchical networks. The choice, it would seem, is between the dangers of tyranny, and the dangers of anarchy. NF is alive to both dangers, and the point of his book is to make sure we are too.

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The mind, as under construction

The human mind is a moving target. We might trick ourselves into believing it is a thing, with a definite nature and a set of properties to call its own, but in fact the mind is always under construction. At an early age, we begin to learn what to say about our minds – I see, I understand, I don’t get it, I feel confused, part of me thinks so, but another part isn’t so sure … – and, depending on the feedback we get from our conversational partners, we are brought into a general conformity with the rest of our culture. But that whole culture says what it says about our minds because of a long development of literature, philosophy, art, and science. Mind is about as much of a thing as art is. And, like art, part of what mind is depends on the things we say when we start talking about what mind is. With mind, as with quantum mechanics and the interpretation of novels, what we see depends a lot on what we are looking for.

Consider the greatest mind thingifier of all time, Descartes. When he meditates in his stove-heated room and finds that he is because he thinks, he is only one half step away from declaring that the mind is an independently existing substance, res cogitans. About a century later, when David Hume looked inward, he found only a scattering of impressions and memories with no thing at the base to serve as their foundation. Hume had read Descartes, but he had also read Locke’s skeptical treatment of selves and souls, and had very likely also been speaking with a Jesuit who had recently returned from Japan with insights from Buddhism. A couple of generations later, Fichte and Hegel had realized that humans work out who they are as individuals in communication with others, and by recognizing their place within a social and political structure. The self is a social construction – not discovered on one’s own in a stove-heated room. And later on, Nietzsche, Freud, and Joyce all begin to suspect that the mind is spun from the warp and woof of grammar: our words make us. And, needless to say, they did not believe that language issued from the grand sense of social purpose that fuelled the idealists’ views of mind.

We inherit all these views, and others. When the clutter of life abates we think about who we really are. In the throes of struggle, we know too well the jumbled feelings and impressions that surface. In heartfelt conversations, we hear ourselves putting our selves into words that seem both disingenuous and also the sorts of things we are expected to say. And when we turn to write an essay on what mind is, we can’t resist giving the concept a starring role in some long developmental story.

Posted in Metaphysical musings | 4 Comments

Niall Ferguson’s Hegelian aspirations

SquaretowerI have just started reading Niall Ferguson’s new book, The Square and the Tower. This comes after reading some of his other books, and hearing him in interviews. He’s an extraordinarily well-read, well-spoken, and intelligent fellow – and, I gather, viewed with some hostility by academics because he sells a lot of books and is a swaggering conservative. But I’m still looking for a critical engagement with his views that goes beyond disparaging these qualities.

The Square and the Tower is a history of the influence of networks, which means looking not so much at what people try to do and believe so much as at how the connections among people amplify, dampen, exalt, or destroy what people try to do and believe. People can be connected in various ways, in different sorts of hierarchies or in different styles of networks. Ferguson’s question is: to what extent does the structure or form of a social network affect the advance or decay of a culture or civilization?

As I said, I’ve only started the book, but I’ve been struck early on by the Hegelian dimensions of it. (It’s no coincidence that students and I are studying Hegel now, so I’m likely to see Hegel everywhere. Bear with me.) According to Hegel, if we want to make sense of human history, we need to understand the logic of evolving human structures. For history is not just one damn thing after another, but a story that makes sense; and if we want to grasp the plot, we need to understand how the elements of history – ideas, institutions, and the occasional great person – follow from previous elements and give rise to future ones. Once again: there is a logic in history, and historians will always come up short so long as they ignore that logic.

the-square-and-the-tower-by-niall-ferguson-17-638Ferguson’s book is peppered with diagrams of kinds of networks, and how they compare along various dimensions. Some networks are resilient, and some are fragile; some rely critically upon a few hubs, and some are “scale free”, or more equal in terms of how well-connected each node is. The upshot seems to be that, if you want to understand human history, you need to bear in mind the logic of the structure of human networks. (*) For example, Luther’s attempt at reformation would have been forgotten had it not been for the ways in which the printing press extended and amplified the networks of proto-Protestant people; and the plague spread much faster in Europe than in China precisely because of Europe’s (relatively) scale-free networks.

I nearly fell out of my Hegelian armchair when Ferguson at various points characterized ancient China as a rigid hierarchy in which only the emperor was allowed flexibility; ancient Greece as a network of limited flexibility; and early modern Europe as one with such flexibility as to allow for the emergence of science and global trade. Actually, Ferguson’s claims more careful and nuanced than this hasty sketch suggests, but I’m putting it this simplistic way because his conclusions mirror Hegel’s bold claims that in China one man was free, while in Greece some men were free, and in Germany (of course) all men are free. The close parallel between Ferguson and Hegel makes me wonder to what extent the form of an author’s approach determines the conclusions they are likely to draw. Does the structure of the network in an historian’s own head determine the kind of story that gets told?

I doubt that Ferguson is eating the entire Hegelian burrito, and prophesying a grand telos for human history. But he might claim that, given the logic of networks, there is a most-stable sort of social structure which, once we get into, we’re unlikely to get out of. We’ll see.

I’m sure I’ll write about the book again as soon as I finish it, but right now I’m having a grand time thinking through the broad territory Ferguson is taking on.

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(*) Sid Meier’s Civilization V provides some modeling of  a society’s formal structure in its “Choose an Ideology” mechanism.

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“Are students snowflakes?” on Access Utah

DQmbemu1Wx7EadWkPC8C4bg6oe2BYEhi1RFHrBctFMhmW2FHost Tom Williams interviewed my colleagues Erica Holberg and Harrison Kleiner and me about the alleged “snowflake” phenomenon on campuses (students who can’t bear to hear any claims that run counter to their own values). Interview here. Certainly there are episodes which sound plenty snowflakey here or there; one question is whether these episodes are indicative of any general trend. A related question is what to do when the cherished ideal of free speech on campus collides with the more sensationalistic and irresponsible speech that seems to be on the rise – white nationalists, xenophobic ranters, and so on. It’s always fun to be on Tom’s show!

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Essay on philosophy and the humanities on Aeon

By the title, “Why philosophers should hang out at the humanists’ parties” – here.

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