Sunday, September 30, 2018

Hume’s Retelling of an Anecdote from Don Quixote

Don Quixote & Sancho Panza, by Gustave Doré 
David Hume, in his Of the Standard of Taste, retells an anecdote from Cervantes’s Don Quixote to bring clarity to his definition of delicacy of taste.

In Part II, Chapter XIII, of Don Quixote, Sancho Panza narrates to Don Quixote an anecdote about his two kinsmen, who, he brags, are such sensitive judges of wine that they can detect the taint of iron and leather imparted to a hogshead by the presence in it of a key on a thong. Here’s Hume’s retelling of Sancho Panza’s anecdote:
It is with good reason, says Sancho to the squire with the great nose, that I pretend to have a judgment in wine: This is a quality hereditary in our family. Two of my kinsmen were once called to give their opinion of a hogshead, which was supposed to be excellent, being old and of a good vintage. One of them tastes it; considers it; and, after mature reflection, pronounces the wine to be good, were it not for a small taste of leather, which he perceived in it. The other, after using the same precautions, gives also his verdict in favour of the wine; but with the reserve of a taste of iron, which he could easily distinguish. You cannot imagine how much they were both ridiculed for their judgment. But who laughed in the end? On emptying the hogshead, there was found at the bottom an old key with a leathern thong tied to it.
There are several differences between Hume’s retelling of the anecdote and what Cervantes has originally written. For instance, whereas Hume has the two tasters deliberating over their wine pronouncing it good, except for the slight taste of leather or iron, Cervantes says that the first only tried it with the tip of his tongue and the second sniffed it, without tasting any at all. Also, Hume says, “both were ridiculed for their judgement,” but this reaction is not there in the original. Finally, Hume refers to the cause of the taint as the “old key,” whereas Cervantes calls it the “little.”

Hume goes on to make the point that “sweet and bitter” are bodily tastes which refer to bodily experience, whereas “beauty and ugliness” are mental tastes, which can only be appreciated by those who possess a delicate and practiced sensibility.

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Evolutionary Psychology and Art

I am now reading Denis Dutton’s The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution. In this book, Dutton is endorsing the view that evolutionary psychology has a significant role to play in modern man’s responses to works of art. He is suggesting that literature, music, and paintings have been influenced by the evolutionary adaptations that mankind has undergone since the Pleistocene era.

Dutton attacks cultural constructivism by providing evidence to show that people in all kinds of cultures, including those which have developed in isolation, show some kind of similarities in their artistic tastes. He argues that the cultural influences are subordinate to the much broader similarities in human psychology. According to his evolutionary aesthetics, mankind’s responses to art are limited by the nature of the human mind.

In the first chapter, “Landscape and Longing,” Dutton emphasizes the length of time that mankind spent in the Pleistocene era. Here’s an excerpt:
From the viewpoint of our ancestors, this way of life had no conceivable beginning or end. From our day back to the time of Socrates and Plato is a mere 120 generations. If we go further back from their Athens to the invention of writing, agriculture and the first cities, it is a lot longer: another 380 generations. But the Pleistocene itself—the evolutionary theatre in which we acquired the tastes, intellectual features, emotional dispositions, and personality traits that distinguish us from our hominid ancestors and make us what we are—was eighty thousand generations long. 
I am currently in the third chapter, “What is Art?” The book is interesting, but it is preaching the controversial thesis that the process of evolution has determined not just man’s biological makeup, but also the character of his mind. I think lot of scientific evidence is needed for establishing this kind of a theory of the mind, and of art. I am not sure that Charles Darwin would have endorsed Dutton’s theory. But, as I said, I am currently at the chapter three, and despite my doubts about Dutton’s theory, I look forward to seeing what he has to offer in rest of the chapters.

Friday, September 28, 2018

On The Art of NOT Reading

When it comes to my reading, I have a rule—I avoid books that are being overhyped by the mainstream media. I never consult the bestseller lists for making my reading choices, and I don’t own any book written by a major politician, bureaucrat, film star or sportsman. My bookrack is a boring place, it is free of bestsellers, but I like it that way.

I am in agreement with the view on the art of not reading that Arthur Schopenhauer offers in his popular essay, “On Books and Writing,” (Arthur Schopenhauer: Essays and Aphorisms; Edited by R. J. Hollingdale; Pages 198–211). Here’s an excerpt:
The art of not reading is a very important one. It consists in not taking an interest in whatever may be engaging the attention of the general public at any particular time. When some political or ecclesiastical pamphlet, or novel, or poem is making a great commotion, you should remember that he who writes for fools always finds a large public. — A precondition for reading good books is not reading bad ones: for life is short.
Schopenhauer begins his essay by pointing out that here are three category of writers:
Writers can be divided into meteors, planets, and fixed stars.  The first produce a momentary effect: you gaze up, cry: ‘Look!’—and then they vanish forever.  The second, the moving stars, endure for much longer.  By virtue of their proximity they often shine more brightly than the fixed stars, which the ignorant mistake them for.  But they too must soon vacate their place, they shine moreover only with a borrowed light, and their sphere of influence is limited to their own fellow travelers (their contemporaries).  The third alone are unchanging, stand firm in the firmament, shine by their own light and influence all ages equally.
I would rather read the works of “fixed star” category of writers. But they are usually not to be found in the bestseller lists; you have to do your own research to identify them.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

The Pessimism of Arthur Schopenhauer

Arthur Schopenhauer has a bleak worldview, his writings illustrate the nature of pessimism, but he is still a delight to read. He writes so nicely and wisely that you look forward to having a tour through his world in which he finds nothing except suffering and boredom.  

In his essay, “On the Vanity of Existence,” (Arthur Schopenhauer: Essays and Aphorisms; Edited by R. J. Hollingdale; Page 51–54), Schopenhauer notes that suffering is the inescapable condition and the only recourse is acceptance of annihilation. Here’s an excerpt:
That human life must be some kind of mistake is sufficiently proved by the simple observation that man is a compound of needs which are hard to satisfy; that their satisfaction achieves nothing but a painless condition in which he is only given over to boredom; and that boredom is a direct proof that existence is in itself valueless, for boredom is noting other than the sensation of the emptiness of existence. For if life, in the desire for which our essence and existence consists, possessed in itself a positive value and real content, there would be no such thing as boredom; mere existence would fitful and satisfy us. 
Here’s another excerpt:
Yet what a difference there is between our beginning and our end! We begin in the madness of carnal desire and the transport of voluptuousness, we end in the dissolution of all our parts and the musty stench of corpses. And the road from one to the other too goes, in regard to our well-being and enjoyment of life, steadily downhill: happily dreaming childhood, exultant youth, toil-filled years of manhood, infirm and often wretched old age, the torment of the last illness and finally the throes of death — does it not look as if existence were an error the consequences of which gradually grow more and more manifest?
He is of the view that everything that happens to men is calculated to produce disillusionment at some point in life.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Schopenhauer’s Daily Routine

Arthur Schopenhauer
R. J. Hollingdale, in his Introduction to Arthur Schopenhauer: Essays and Aphorisms, has a section titled, “An Immovable Mind,” in which, through five pieces of biographical information, each only a paragraph long, he illustrates Schopenhauer’s most pronounced characteristics. Here’s the piece number 5 in which Hollingdale offers an insight Schopenhauer’s daily routine:
From the age of 45 until his death 27 years later Schopenhauer lived in Frankfurt-am-Main. He lived alone, in ‘rooms’, and every day for 27 years he followed an identical routine. He rose every morning a seven and had a bath but no breakfast: he drank a cup of strong coffee before sitting down at his desk and writing until noon. At noon he ceased work for the day and spent half-an-hour practicing the flute, on which he became quite a skilled performer. Then he went out for lunch at the Englischer Hof. After lunch he returned home and read until four, when he left for his daily walk: he walked for two hours no matter what the weather. At six o’clock he visited the reading room of the library and read The Times. In the evening he attended the theatre or a concert, after which he had dinner at a hotel or restaurant. He got back home between nine and ten and went early to bed. He was willing to deviate from this routine in order to receive visitors; but with this exception he carried it through for 27 years. 
Hollingdale notes that such a fixed routine is indicative of inertia or immovability—Schopenhauer was incapable of abandoning or modifying an attitude of mind once adopted. A man of fixed habits, he would obstinately stick to his routine which included going out for a two hour daily walk no matter what the weather.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Theory and Practice

In theory, a theory is abstracted practice, and a practice is applied theory. But, in practice, that is not the case. Most intellectuals are unable to reconcile their theories with practice, which is why much of philosophy appears impractical.

In the book that I am currently reading, Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful, I found the following comment on theory and practice (Part 1, “Conclusion”):
It is, I own, not uncommon to be wrong in theory, and right in practice: and we are happy that it is so. Men often act right from their feelings, who afterwards reason but ill on them from principle; but as it is impossible to avoid an attempt at such reasoning, and equally impossible to prevent its having some influence on our practice, surely it is worth taking some pains to have it just, and founded on the basis of sure experience.
Burke is essentially suggesting that he does not really care about the Ivory Tower intellectual stuff. Like most conservatives, he will be happy if things work out in practice.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

My Personal Philosophy

People often ask me, what is the name my personal philosophy? But I don’t think it is possible for me to describe my personal philosophy by a single word.

The definition of labels like liberal, conservative, individualist, libertarian, capitalist, individualist, Aristotelian, epicurean, stoic, Humean, Kantian, etc., is open to question. These labels can mean different things to different people. So I have written the following note which gives an approximate description of my personal philosophy:
I am a Platonist of the worldly kind; an Aristotelian of the epicurean and stoic kind; a liberal of the classical kind; a conservative of the constitutionalist kind; a libertarian of the moral kind; a capitalist of the radical kind; an individualist of the social kind; a Humean of the Kantian kind.
This is the closest that I can come to describing my personal philosophy.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Burke’s Discussion of Sublime and Beautiful

Immanuel Kant, writing his Critique of Judgement more than three decades after Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful first appeared, criticizes Burke for not going far enough and of offering an ‘extremely fine’ but ‘merely empirical’ and ‘psychological’ analysis.

In his Critique of Judgement, Kant writes: “To make psychological observations, as Burke did in his treatise on the beautiful and the sublime, thus to assemble material for the systematic connection of empirical rules in the future without aiming to understand them, is probably the sole true duty of empirical psychology, which can hardly even aspire to rank as a philosophical science.”

However, Kant accepted Burke’s aesthetic dualism, which entails the reduction of aesthetic categories to the two chief qualities of beauty and sublimity. Moses Mendelssohn has also criticized Burke’s Enquiry, but he judged that it offered philosophical ideas which could give a systematic mind an opportunity for reflection. Burke's Enquiry was translated into German by Christian Garve in 1773.

The subsequent aestheticians like Arthur Schopenhauer and even Friedrich Nietzsche also accepted Burke’s aesthetic dualism. Nietzsche’s distinction between the ‘Apollonian’ and ‘Dionysian’ in The Birth of Tragedy is in essence a treatment of the distinction that was first originated by Burke. So despite the criticism that Burke’s Enquiry has received, the book has been enormously influential.

In Part I, Section VII of the Enquiry titled “Of The Sublime,” Burke writes:
Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling. I say the strongest emotion, because I am satisfied the ideas of pain are much more powerful than those which enter on the part of pleasure. Without all doubt, the torments which we may be made to suffer are much greater in their effect on the body and mind, than any pleasure which the most learned voluptuary could suggest, or than the liveliest imagination, and the most sound and exquisitely sensible body, could enjoy. Nay, I am in great doubt whether any man could be found, who would earn a life of the most perfect satisfaction, at the price of ending it in the torments, which justice inflicted in a few hours on the late unfortunate regicide in France. But as pain is stronger in its operation than pleasure, so death is in general a much more affecting idea than pain; because there are very few pains, however exquisite, which are not preferred to death: nay, what generally makes pain itself, if I may say so, more painful, is, that it is considered as an emissary of this king of terrors. When danger or pain press too nearly, they are incapable of giving any delight, and are simply terrible; but at certain distances, and with certain modifications, they may be, and they are, delightful, as we every day experience. The cause of this I shall endeavour to investigate hereafter.
In the passage, “Of Beauty” (Part I, Section X), he says:
The passion which belongs to generation, merely as such, is lust only. This is evident in brutes, whose passions are more unmixed, and which pursue their purposes more directly than ours. The only distinction they observe with regard to their mates, is that of sex. It is true, that they stick severally to their own species in preference to all others. But this preference, I imagine, does not arise from any sense of beauty which they find in their species, as Mr. Addison supposes, but from a law of some other kind, to which they are subject; and this we may fairly conclude, from their apparent want of choice amongst those objects to which the barriers of their species have confined them. But man, who is a creature adapted to a greater variety and intricacy of relation, connects with the general passion the idea of some social qualities, which direct and heighten the appetite which he has in common with all other animals; and as he is not designed like them to live at large, it is fit that he should have something to create a preference, and fix his choice; and this in general should be some sensible quality; as no other can so quickly, so powerfully, or so surely produce its effect. The object therefore of this mixed passion, which we call love, is the beauty of the sex. Men are carried to the sex in general, as it is the sex, and by the common law of nature; but they are attached to particulars by personal beauty. I call beauty a social quality; for where women and men, and not only they, but when other animals give us a sense of joy and pleasure in beholding them, (and there are many that do so,) they inspire us with sentiments of tenderness and affection towards their persons; we like to have them near us, and we enter willingly into a kind of relation with them, unless we should have strong reasons to the contrary. But to what end, in many cases, this was designed, I am unable to discover; for I see no greater reason for a connexion between man and several animals who are attired in so engaging a manner, than between him and some others who entirely want this attraction, or possess it in a far weaker degree. But it is probable, that Providence did not make even this distinction, but with a view to some great end; though we cannot perceive distinctly what it is, as his wisdom is not our wisdom, nor our ways his ways.
In his Introduction to Burke’s Enquiry, Paul Guyer says that although Burke is regarded as a conservative defender of tradition, in his Enquiry he has argued vigorously against the entire tradition of Western aesthetics. He notes that Burke has attempted to overthrow the entire system of thought “about beautiful and sublime going back to Plato, Aristotle, and the first-century CE Greek critic known as Longinus.” 

Friday, September 21, 2018

Immanuel Kant’s Legal Philosophy and Lies to Murderers and Nazis

Immanuel Kant’s writing on lying to a murder at the door seems to suggest that he believed that it is always wrong to lie and that one must not lie even to a murderer asking for the whereabouts of his victim. After the Second World War, some scholars replaced the murderer at the door with a Nazi officer looking for Jews hidden in people’s homes, thus making an even grimmer interpretation of the Kantian position.

In her essay, “Kant and Lying to the Murderer at the Door . . . One More Time: Kant’s Legal Philosophy and Lies to Murderers and Nazis,” Helga Varden shows that the traditional interpretation of Kant offers a seriously mistaken analysis of his view on lying to the murderer at the door.

Kant makes his statements on this issue in response to a challenge posed by Benjamin Constant in 1797. In his response, Kant is answering two questions: “the first question is whether a man — in cases where he cannot avoid answering Yes or No — has the right to be untruthful. The second question is whether he is not, indeed, bound to be untruthful in a certain statement which he is compelled to make by an unjust constraint, in order to prevent a threatened misdeed to himself or to another.”

Verden points out that the traditional reading of Kant’s position on the issue is developed by considering his account of the moral law in Groundwork. Verden writes;

“In [Groundwork], we learn that all moral actions must be based on a maxim that can be universalized and that we must do the right thing because it is the right thing to do—or from duty. When viewed this way the “Supposed Right to Lie,” including passages like the one quoted above, is seen as accomplishing two goals: it simply repeats how one ought never to lie as the maxim of lying cannot be universalized, and it cashes out the implications of this moral principle with regard to people’s enforceable rights and duties against one another. Because lying is not a universalizable maxim, Kant is seen as saying, lying to the murderer is a crime. And of course, it is continued, this must mean not only that one cannot lie to a run of the mill murderer at the door, but also not to the worst of murderers, such as the Nazis. Lying to Nazis is therefore also a crime.”

Verden says that the readers should be skeptical about ascribing to Kant such a flat-footed position as the traditional interpretation seems to suggest.  She says that traditional interpretations have given insufficient attention to the conception of rightful, external freedom that Kant offers in Doctrine of Right. “It is in the Doctrine of Right that Kant discusses rightful interaction in the empirical world.”

According to Verden, the Groundwork is not the right work for analyzing Kant’s response to constant. This is because Kant is looking at the issue of lying to the murderer at the door from the point of view of justice or right and not from that of ethics or virtue. Therefore Doctrine of Right is fundamental to clarifying his position on this issue.

Kant is talking about cases in which someone is unjustly coerced into saying something to avoid wrongdoing to oneself or someone else, and cases in which the person answering the door does not have the option of asking the murderer to go away. His aim is to establish how a pubic court should judge cases where a person is forced to tell the truth about the victim’s hiding place to a potential murderer.

Verden notes in her essay that “Kant’s focus is not to unravel complicated scenarios such as those involving Nazis and other unjust regimes, but on how a just state’s legal system should handle cases involving an innocent private person’s imparting of information about a victim to a potential wrongdoer. His basic claim is that if a person chooses to stay out of the interaction between the murderer and his potential victim by telling the truth to the potential murderer, then a public court of justice cannot punish her for having done so. In these situations, only the murderer can be punished because the entire action is traceable only to him. In contrast, when a person lies to someone, she deliberately deceives another person (the potential murderer) with regard to his perception of the empirical world, and in this way she becomes a co-author of the action undertaken. The liar, therefore, is punishable for the bad consequences of the lie.”

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Stendhal’s Passages on Battle of Waterloo

The passages on the battle of Waterloo, narrated from the perspective of the young Italian aristocrat Fabrizio Del Dongo who is in search of his life’s purpose, are the most interesting elements in Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma. Fabrizio is an idealist, he is inspired by Napoleon, but he is untrained in the arts of war. He tries to be brave in the front, but instead of displaying valor he ends up getting drunk and sleeping through much of the battle.

Here’s an excerpt from Stendhal’s battle of Waterloo scene:

But the din at that moment became so terrific that Fabrizio could not answer him. We must admit that our hero was very little of a hero at that moment. However, fear came to him only as a secondary consideration; he was principally shocked by the noise, which hurt his ears. The escort broke into a gallop; they crossed a large batch of tilled land which lay beyond the canal. And this field was strewn with dead.

“Red-coats! red-coats!” the hussars of the escort exclaimed joyfully, and at first Fabrizio did not understand; then he noticed that as a matter of fact almost all these bodies wore red uniforms. One detail made him shudder with horror; he observed that many of these unfortunate red-coats were still alive; they were calling out, evidently asking for help, and no one stopped to give it them. Our hero, being most humane, took every possible care that his horse should not tread upon any of the red-coats. The escort halted; Fabrizio, who was not paying sufficient attention to his military duty, galloped on, his eyes fixed on a wounded wretch in front of him.

“Will you halt, you young fool!” the serjeant shouted after him. Fabrizio discovered that he was twenty paces on the generals’ right front, and precisely in the direction in which they were gazing through their glasses. As he came back to take his place behind the other hussars, who had halted a few paces in rear of them, he noticed the biggest of these generals, who was speaking to his neighbour, a general also, in a tone of authority and almost of reprimand; he was swearing. Fabrizio could not contain his curiosity; and, in spite of the warning not to speak, given him by his friend the gaoler’s wife, he composed a short sentence in good French, quite correct, and said to his neighbour:

“Who is that general who is chewing up the one next to him?”

“Gad, it’s the Marshal!”

“What Marshal?”

“Marshal Ney, you fool! I say, where have you been serving?”

Fabrizio, although highly susceptible, had no thought of resenting this insult; he was studying, lost in childish admiration, the famous Prince de la Moskowa, the “Bravest of the Brave.”

Suddenly they all moved off at full gallop. A few minutes later Fabrizio saw, twenty paces ahead of him, a ploughed field the surface of which was moving in a singular fashion. The furrows were full of water and the soil, very damp, which formed the ridges between these furrows kept flying off in little black lumps three or four feet into the air. Fabrizio noticed as he passed this curious effect; then his thoughts turned to dreaming of the Marshal and his glory. He heard a sharp cry close to him; two hussars fell struck by shot; and, when he looked back at them, they were already twenty paces behind the escort. What seemed to him horrible was a horse streaming with blood that was struggling on the ploughed land, its hooves caught in its own entrails; it was trying to follow the others: its blood ran down into the mire.

“Ah! So I am under fire at last!” he said to himself. “I have seen shots fired!” he repeated with a sense of satisfaction. “Now I am a real soldier.” At that moment, the escort began to go hell for leather, and our hero realised that it was shot from the guns that was making the earth fly up all round him. He looked vainly in the direction from which the balls were coming, he saw the white smoke of the battery at an enormous distance, and, in the thick of the steady and continuous rumble produced by the artillery fire, he seemed to hear shots discharged much closer at hand: he could not understand in the least what was happening.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Maimon’s Acrimonious Correspondence With Reinhold

Maimon; Reinhold
Karl Leonhard Reinhold received a copy of Salomon Maimon’s book on Kantian philosophy Worterbuch der Philosophie in 1791 through a mutual friend K. P. Moritz, and he promised to review the book and also expressed a willingness to get into correspondence with Maimon. As Reinhold was the foremost Kantian scholar of that period, Maimon, eager to prove his superior understanding of Kant, immediately wrote to him. But their correspondence did not go well; it quickly deteriorated into an acrimonious exchange in which the two Kantians disagree over a number of issues.

Their correspondence has been described by Frederick C. Beiser, in his essay “Maimon’s Critical Philosophy” (Chapter 10; The Fate of Reason: German Philosophy from Kant to Fichte). Here’s an excerpt:
Maimon and Reinhold's acrimonious correspondence ranges over a number of issues, but perhaps the most important concerns the justification of Reinhold's first principle, the proposition of consciousness. In his opening letter Maimon bluntly tells Reinhold that this principle is vulnerable to skepticism. It cannot answer the simple skeptical question 'How do I know this?' he claims. Of course, this principle is supposed to describe 'a fact of consciousness'. "But," Maimon asks Reinhold, "how do you know that it describes a fact? ... And, indeed, how do you know that it describes a primary and immediate fact rather than a derived and mediate one?"  
Reinhold's response to these aggressive and difficult questions did not satisfy Maimon, who quickly insinuated that his correspondent was being deliberately evasive. In his first reply Reinhold proudly states that his first principle could demonstrate the fundamental beliefs of morality and religion. "But that is not the question," Maimon impatiently answers. "The issue is not whether this principle can demonstrate others, but whether it is true." Reinhold seemed to be forgetting that we might deduce true propositions from false premises. After further attempts by Maimon to pin him down, Reinhold finally states his bottom line: "All philosophy must begin with self-evident facts," he writes, "and these are indemonstrable since they are the basis of all demonstration.” But this stance only increased Maimon's exasperation. He again protests that this was not the point. "Of course all philosophy must begin with self-evident facts," he concedes, "but the question is how we know the principle of consciousness expresses such a fact." In the end the debate reached a stalemate. Reinhold assured Maimon that it was just a fact that the proposition of consciousness expresses a fact; and he pleaded that it would be self-defeating for him to justify this. But Maimon dug in his heels and refused to accept Reinhold's assurances, which he regarded as dogmatic. 
With the conservation having degenerated into mutual recrimination, in a fit of anger Maimon published their conversation (with Reinhold’s permission), leaving the public to decide who was right and who was wrong. They broke off their correspondence, but Maimon did not stop thinking about the difference between his philosophical position and that of Reinhold. In his later works, he further clarified his views and accused Reinhold of being dogmatic.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Marcel Proust’s Reminiscences of a Church

In Swann’s Way, (Chapter 2: “Combray”), Marcel Proust reflects on a church from the narrator’s youth in a beautiful sentence of 432 words:
All these things and, still more than these, the treasures which had come to the church from personages who to me were almost legendary figures (such as the golden cross wrought, it was said, by Saint Eloi and presented by Dagobert, and the tomb of the sons of Louis the Germanic in porphyry and enamelled copper), because of which I used to go forward into the church when we were making our way to our chairs as into a fairy-haunted valley, where the rustic sees with amazement on a rock, a tree, a marsh, the tangible proofs of the little people’s supernatural passage — all these things made of the church for me something entirely different from the rest of the town; a building which occupied, so to speak, four dimensions of space — the name of the fourth being Time — which had sailed the centuries with that old nave, where bay after bay, chapel after chapel, seemed to stretch across and hold down and conquer not merely a few yards of soil, but each successive epoch from which the whole building had emerged triumphant, hiding the rugged barbarities of the eleventh century in the thickness of its walls, through which nothing could be seen of the heavy arches, long stopped and blinded with coarse blocks of ashlar, except where, near the porch, a deep groove was furrowed into one wall by the tower-stair; and even there the barbarity was veiled by the graceful gothic arcade which pressed coquettishly upon it, like a row of grown-up sisters who, to hide him from the eyes of strangers, arrange themselves smilingly in front of a countrified, unmannerly and ill-dressed younger brother; rearing into the sky above the Square a tower which had looked down upon Saint Louis, and seemed to behold him still; and thrusting down with its crypt into the blackness of a Merovingian night, through which, guiding us with groping finger-tips beneath the shadowy vault, ribbed strongly as an immense bat’s wing of stone, Théodore or his sister would light up for us with a candle the tomb of Sigebert’s little daughter, in which a deep hole, like the bed of a fossil, had been bored, or so it was said, “by a crystal lamp which, on the night when the Frankish princess was murdered, had left, of its own accord, the golden chains by which it was suspended where the apse is to-day and with neither the crystal broken nor the light extinguished had buried itself in the stone, through which it had gently forced its way.”

Monday, September 17, 2018

Maimon’s Critical Commentary on Kantian Philosophy

Salomon Maimon
In April 1789, Immanuel Kant received a large manuscript from his old student and friend Marcus Herz. The manuscript was a critical commentary of Kant’s first Critique written by Salomon Maimon.

Frederick C. Beiser, in his essay “Maimon’s Critical Philosophy” (Chapter 10; The Fate of Reason: German Philosophy from Kant to Fichte) says that “Kant, who was sixty-six, in failing health, and eager to finish the third Kritik, nearly returned the parcel, citing his age and health as an excuse. After a glance, however, he was so convinced of the quality of the manuscript that he felt compelled to read through several sections and to write a lengthy reply.”

In his May 26, 1789, letter to Hertz, Kant gave this verdict on Maimon’s manuscript: "... but a glance soon enabled me to recognize its merits and to see not only that none of my opponents had understood me so well, but that very few could claim so much penetration and subtlety of mind in profound inquiries of this sort.”

Here’s Beiser’s description of Maimon:
The author of this strange manuscript was himself a very strange character. A Polish-Russian Jew, in fact, a rabbi, he came from the most humble circumstances and was then leading a precarious existence in Berlin. Having never received a university education, his only philosophical training came from the Talmudic tradition. His native language was an almost incomprehensible combination of Hebrew, Lithuanian, Yiddish, and Polish, so that upon his arrival in Berlin only such a skilled linguist as Mendelssohn could understand him. His life had been a long tale of woe: he had lived in constant poverty; he had a broken marriage behind him; he was exiled from his community because of his unorthodoxy; and for several years he was even a wandering beggar. Understandably, he was a man of few social graces. He was crude, naive, and simple, and frequently embarrassingly outspoken in expressing his radical views. Since he often drank away his misery, he spent most of his time in taverns, where he would write his philosophy on wobbly tables, and where anyone could buy his amusing conversation for a few drinks. In short, this character was the Rameau's nephew of eighteenth-century Berlin. But we must not forget: he was also the man whom Kant regarded as his best critic. This was Salomon ben Joshua, or as he liked to call himself in honor of Moses Maimonides, the twelfth-century Spanish-Jewish philosopher, Salomon Maimon. 
On Maimon’s contribution to Kantian philosophy, Beiser says:
Just as Kant was awakened by Hume's skepticism, so Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel were challenged by Maimon's skepticism. What shook them out of their Kantian slumbers was Maimon's attack upon the transcendental deduction. According to Maimon, the central question behind the deduction—How do synthetic a priori concepts apply to experience?—could not be resolved on Kantian premises. Kant had created such an unbridgeable dualism between understanding and sensibility that it became impossible for synthetic a priori concepts to correspond to experience. This argument created a new and daunting task for Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel: to find a more plausible solution to the problem of the deduction. Like Kant, they were eager to defend the possibility of synthetic a priori knowledge; but they had to admit Maimon's point that such knowledge is not possible given Kant's dualism.
In his essay Beiser shows that there is some kind of coherence in Maimon’s philosophical thought. He credits Maimon with developing a critical middle path between skepticism and dogmatism, even though Maimon did not carefully articulate his pivotal ideas. The task of developing the full implications of Maimon’s thought fell on Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Maimon’s great successor.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Maxim Gorky’s Notes on Lev Tolstoy

Tolstoy with Gorky (1900)
Lev Tolstoy and Maxim Gorky met frequently when the former was living in Oleise and the latter was living in Gaspra, in the Crimea. Gorky made some notes of their interactions on scraps of paper which have been bound together in a book called Reminiscences of Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy.

Gorky’s notes have great merit as was jotting them down for his personal use,  and he had no reason to develop a false narrative of any kind or embellish his conversations with Tolstoy. He offers a convincing picture of Tolstoy’s bearing, inner thoughts, and habits.

To Gorky, Tolstoy was almost a God, not the God of Greece or Judea, but a Russian God. In one of the notes, Gorky writes:  “He is like a god, not a Sabaoth or Olympian, but the kind of Russian god who "sits on a maple throne under a golden lime tree," not very majestic, but perhaps more cunning than all the other gods.”

In the same note, Gorky praises Tolstoy’s hands and speculates if Leonardo da Vinci too had such hands: “He has wonderful hands—not beautiful, but knotted with swollen veins, and yet full of a singular expressiveness and the power of creativeness.  Probably Leonardo da Vinci had hands like that.  With such hands one can do anything.  Sometimes, when talking, he will move his fingers, gradually close them into a fist, and then, suddenly opening them, utter a good, full-weight word.”

Here’s an entry from the book in which Tolstoy is talking about Dickens and Balzac:

“Dickens said a very clever thing: ‘Life is given to us on the definite understanding that we boldly defend it to the last.’ On the whole, he was a sentimental, loquacious, and not very clever writer, but he knew how to construct a novel as no one else could, certainly better than Balzac. Some one has said: ‘Many are possessed by the passion for writing books, but few are ashamed of them afterwards.’ Balzac was not ashamed, nor was Dickens, and both of them wrote quite a number of bad books. Still, Balzac is a genius. Or at any rate, the thing which you can only call genius…”

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Marcel Proust’s 960 Word Marathon

Marcel Proust’s 7-volume novel In Search Of Lost Time (sometimes translated as Remembrance of Things Past) has several sentences of more than 200 words. The long sentences demand extra attention from the reader, but the effort is worth it as you get the chance to appreciate the literary skill with which Proust describes, through a single sentence, the multiple aspects of something. The long sentences can be broken up into 10 or more shorter sentences, but then the beauty of the novel will be lost.

In Swann’s Way (Volume 1 of In Search of Lost Time), the longest sentence of 601 words occurs in the opening section of the first chapter, “Overture”:
But I had seen first one and then another of the rooms in which I had slept during my life, and in the end I would revisit them all in the long course of my waking dream: rooms in winter, where on going to bed I would at once bury my head in a nest, built up out of the most diverse materials, the corner of my pillow, the top of my blankets, a piece of a shawl, the edge of my bed, and a copy of an evening paper, all of which things I would contrive, with the infinite patience of birds building their nests, to cement into one whole; rooms where, in a keen frost, I would feel the satisfaction of being shut in from the outer world (like the sea-swallow which builds at the end of a dark tunnel and is kept warm by the surrounding earth), and where, the fire keeping in all night, I would sleep wrapped up, as it were, in a great cloak of snug and savoury air, shot with the glow of the logs which would break out again in flame: in a sort of alcove without walls, a cave of warmth dug out of the heart of the room itself, a zone of heat whose boundaries were constantly shifting and altering in temperature as gusts of air ran across them to strike freshly upon my face, from the corners of the room, or from parts near the window or far from the fireplace which had therefore remained cold — or rooms in summer, where I would delight to feel myself a part of the warm evening, where the moonlight striking upon the half-opened shutters would throw down to the foot of my bed its enchanted ladder; where I would fall asleep, as it might be in the open air, like a titmouse which the breeze keeps poised in the focus of a sunbeam — or sometimes the Louis XVI room, so cheerful that I could never feel really unhappy, even on my first night in it: that room where the slender columns which lightly supported its ceiling would part, ever so gracefully, to indicate where the bed was and to keep it separate; sometimes again that little room with the high ceiling, hollowed in the form of a pyramid out of two separate storeys, and partly walled with mahogany, in which from the first moment my mind was drugged by the unfamiliar scent of flowering grasses, convinced of the hostility of the violet curtains and of the insolent indifference of a clock that chattered on at the top of its voice as though I were not there; while a strange and pitiless mirror with square feet, which stood across one corner of the room, cleared for itself a site I had not looked to find tenanted in the quiet surroundings of my normal field of vision: that room in which my mind, forcing itself for hours on end to leave its moorings, to elongate itself upwards so as to take on the exact shape of the room, and to reach to the summit of that monstrous funnel, had passed so many anxious nights while my body lay stretched out in bed, my eyes staring upwards, my ears straining, my nostrils sniffing uneasily, and my heart beating; until custom had changed the colour of the curtains, made the clock keep quiet, brought an expression of pity to the cruel, slanting face of the glass, disguised or even completely dispelled the scent of flowering grasses, and distinctly reduced the apparent loftiness of the ceiling.
But the longest sentence in the 7-volume set is of 960 words. It appears in the Introduction of Volume 4 In Search Of LostSodom and Gomorrah (sometimes translated as Cities of the Plain):
Their honour precarious, their liberty provisional, lasting only until the discovery of their crime; their position unstable, like that of the poet who one day was feasted at every table, applauded in every theatre in London, and on the next was driven from every lodging, unable to find a pillow upon which to lay his head, turning the mill like Samson and saying like him: “The two sexes shall die, each in a place apart!”; excluded even, save on the days of general disaster when the majority rally round the victim as the Jews rallied round Dreyfus, from the sympathy — at times from the society — of their fellows, in whom they inspire only disgust at seeing themselves as they are, portrayed in a mirror which, ceasing to flatter them, accentuates every blemish that they have refused to observe in themselves, and makes them understand that what they have been calling their love (a thing to which, playing upon the word, they have by association annexed all that poetry, painting, music, chivalry, asceticism have contrived to add to love) springs not from an ideal of beauty which they have chosen but from an incurable malady; like the Jews again (save some who will associate only with others of their race and have always on their lips ritual words and consecrated pleasantries), shunning one another, seeking out those who are most directly their opposite, who do not desire their company, pardoning their rebuffs, moved to ecstasy by their condescension; but also brought into the company of their own kind by the ostracism that strikes them, the opprobrium under which they have fallen, having finally been invested, by a persecution similar to that of Israel, with the physical and moral characteristics of a race, sometimes beautiful, often hideous, finding (in spite of all the mockery with which he who, more closely blended with, better assimilated to the opposing race, is relatively, in appearance, the least inverted, heaps upon him who has remained more so) a relief in frequenting the society of their kind, and even some corroboration of their own life, so much so that, while steadfastly denying that they are a race (the name of which is the vilest of insults), those who succeed in concealing the fact that they belong to it they readily unmask, with a view less to injuring them, though they have no scruple about that, than to excusing themselves; and, going in search (as a doctor seeks cases of appendicitis) of cases of inversion in history, taking pleasure in recalling that Socrates was one of themselves, as the Israelites claim that Jesus was one of them, without reflecting that there were no abnormals when homosexuality was the norm, no anti-Christians before Christ, that the disgrace alone makes the crime because it has allowed to survive only those who remained obdurate to every warning, to every example, to every punishment, by virtue of an innate disposition so peculiar that it is more repugnant to other men (even though it may be accompanied by exalted moral qualities) than certain other vices which exclude those qualities, such as theft, cruelty, breach of faith, vices better understood and so more readily excused by the generality of men; forming a freemasonry far more extensive, more powerful and less suspected than that of the Lodges, for it rests upon an identity of tastes, needs, habits, dangers, apprenticeship, knowledge, traffic, glossary, and one in which the members themselves, who intend not to know one another, recognise one another immediately by natural or conventional, involuntary or deliberate signs which indicate one of his congeners to the beggar in the street, in the great nobleman whose carriage door he is shutting, to the father in the suitor for his daughter’s hand, to him who has sought healing, absolution, defence, in the doctor, the priest, the barrister to whom he has had recourse; all of them obliged to protect their own secret but having their part in a secret shared with the others, which the rest of humanity does not suspect and which means that to them the most wildly improbable tales of adventure seem true, for in this romantic, anachronistic life the ambassador is a bosom friend of the felon, the prince, with a certain independence of action with which his aristocratic breeding has furnished him, and which the trembling little cit would lack, on leaving the duchess’s party goes off to confer in private with the hooligan; a reprobate part of the human whole, but an important part, suspected where it does not exist, flaunting itself, insolent and unpunished, where its existence is never guessed; numbering its adherents everywhere, among the people, in the army, in the church, in the prison, on the throne; living, in short, at least to a great extent, in a playful and perilous intimacy with the men of the other race, provoking them, playing with them by speaking of its vice as of something alien to it; a game that is rendered easy by the blindness or duplicity of the others, a game that may be kept up for years until the day of the scandal, on which these lion-tamers are devoured; until then, obliged to make a secret of their lives, to turn away their eyes from the things on which they would naturally fasten them, to fasten them upon those from which they would naturally turn away, to change the gender of many of the words in their vocabulary, a social constraint, slight in comparison with the inward constraint which their vice, or what is improperly so called, imposes upon them with regard not so much now to others as to themselves, and in such a way that to themselves it does not appear a vice.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Marcel Proust and Jean-Paul Sartre

Marcel Proust
Jean-Paul Sartre was an admirer of Marcel Proust’s literature. He saw Proust as not only a great fiction writer but also as a philosopher of subjective mental experience and its corollaries, such as consciousness and identity.

In his Being and Nothingness, Sartre makes several references to Proust’s Remembrances of Things Past. I think the most interesting reference is on pages 168—169 where Sartre offers his perspective on the following passage from Swann’s Way (Remembrances of Things Past; Volume 1; Chapter 3: “Swann in Love”):
For the moment that Swann was able to form a picture of her without revulsion, that he could see once again the friendliness in her smile, and that the desire to tear her away from every rival was no longer imposed by his jealousy upon his love, that love once again became, more than anything, a taste for the sensations which Odette’s person gave him, for the pleasure which he found in admiring, as one might a spectacle, or in questioning, as one might a phenomenon, the birth of one of her glances, the formation of one of her smiles, the utterance of an intonation of her voice. And this pleasure, different from every other, had in the end created in him a need of her, which she alone, by her presence or by her letters, could assuage, almost as disinterested, almost as artistic, as perverse as another need which characterised this new period in Swann’s life, when the sereness, the depression of the preceding years had been followed by a sort of spiritual superabundance, without his knowing to what he owed this unlooked-for enrichment of his life, any more than a person in delicate health who from a certain moment grows stronger, puts on flesh, and seems for a time to be on the road to a complete recovery:— this other need, which, too, developed in him independently of the visible, material world, was the need to listen to music and to learn to know it.
Here’s Sartre’s analysis of the above passage:
This passage is obviously concerned with the psychic. We see feelings which, individualized and separated by nature, are here acting one on the other. But Proust is trying to clarify their actions and to classify them in the hope that he may thereby make understandable the fluctuations which Swann experiences. Proust does not limit himself to describing the conclusions which he himself has been able to make (e.g., the transition through "oscillation" from hate-filled jealousy to tender love); he wants to explain these findings. 
What are the results of this analysis? Is the unintelligibility of the psy­chic removed? It is easy to see that on the contrary this somewhat arbi­trary reduction of the great psychic forms to more simple elements ac­centuates the magic irrationality of the interrelations which psychic objects support. How does jealousy "add" to love the "desire to take her away from everyone else?" And how does this desire once added to love (always the image of the cloud of cream "added" to the coffee) prevent it from becoming again "a taste for the sensations which Odette's person gave him?" And how can the pleasure create a need? And how does love manufacture that jealousy which in return will add to love the desire to take Odette away from everyone else? And how when freed from this desire, is it going to manufacture tenderness anew? Proust here attempts to constitute a symbolic chemistry, but the chemical images which he uses are capable only of disguising the motivations and irrational acts. It is an attempt to draw us toward a mechanistic interpretation of the psychic which, without being any more intelligible, would com­pletely distort its nature. And yet Proust cannot keep from showing us between the estranged states almost interhuman relations (to create, to manufacture, to add), which would almost allow us to suppose that these psychic objects are animated agents. In his descriptions the intellectualis­tic analysis shows its limitations at every instant; it can effect its dis­tinctions and its classifications only superficially and on the basis of total irrationality. It is necessary to give up trying to reduce the irrational ele­ment in psychic causality. This causality is a degradation of the ekstatic for-itself, which is its own being at a distance from itself, its degradation into magic, into an in-itself which is what it is at its own place. Magic action through influence at a distance is the necessary result of this re­ laxation of the bonds of being. The psychologist must describe these ir­rational bonds and take them as an original given of the psychic world.
On page 366, Sartre talks about the relationship between Albertine Simonet (who first makes an appearance in Remembrances of Things Past, Volume 2, In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower) and the narrator in Proust’s novel, who is Proust himself. Sartre writes:
If Love were in fact a pure desire for physical posses­sion, it could in many cases be easily satisfied. Proust's hero, for example, who installs his mistress in his home, who can see her and possess her at any hour of the day, who has been able to make her completely dependent on him economically, ought to be free from worry. Yet we know that he is, on the contrary, continually gnawed by anxiety. Through her consciousness Albertine escapes Marcel even when he is at her side, and that is why he knows relief only when he gazes on her while she sleeps. It is cer­tain then that the lover wishes to capture a "consciousness." But why does he wish it? And how?

Sartre is full of praise for Proust’s literature. In his Introduction to Being and Nothingness, titled “The Pursuit of Being,” Sartre says: “The genius of Proust is neither the work considered in isolation nor the subjective ability to produce it; it is the work considered as the totality of the manifestations of the person.” There are references to Proust’s work in 13 pages of Being and Nothingness.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust

I read Swann’s Way, the first volume of Marcel Proust’s seven volume novel Remembrances of Things Past, about five years ago. Then I could not make an investment of time and attention that is required for reading the entire set of seven volumes (which consists of about 3000 pages). Now I am seriously thinking of finishing the six volumes that I couldn’t read earlier.

The title of Proust’s novel is inspired by the Shakespearean sonnet: “When to the sessions of sweet silent thought; I summon up remembrance of things past.” Proust loved music, and the first chapter of Swann’s Way, titled “Overture,” is designed to serve as an introduction to the drama that follows in rest of the opera (in this case the novel). “Overture” ends with the famous madeleine scene in which the narrator (Proust) offers a perspective on involuntary memory which contains the essence of the past.

Here’s an excerpt:
And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little crumb of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good day to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of real or of lime-flower tea. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it; perhaps because I had so often seen such things in the interval, without tasting them, on the trays in pastry-cooks' windows, that their image had dissociated itself from those Combray days to take its place among others more recent; perhaps because of those memories, so long abandoned and put out of mind, nothing now survived, everything was scattered; the forms of things, including that of the little scallop-shell of pastry, so richly sensual under its severe, religious folds, were either obliterated or had been so long dormant as to have lost the power of expansion which would have allowed them to resume their place in my consciousness. But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, still, alone, more fragile, but with more vitality, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unfaltering, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection. 
And once I had recognised the taste of the crumb of madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-flowers which my aunt used to give me (although I did not yet know and must long postpone the discovery of why this memory made me so happy) immediately the old grey house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like the scenery of a theatre to attach itself to the little pavilion, opening on to the garden, which had been built out behind it for my parents (the isolated panel which until that moment had been all that I could see); and with the house the town, from morning to night and in all weathers, the Square where I was sent before luncheon, the streets along which I used to run errands, the country roads we took when it was fine. And just as the Japanese amuse themselves by filling a porcelain bowl with water and steeping in it little crumbs of paper which until then are without character or form, but, the moment they become wet, stretch themselves and bend, take on colour and distinctive shape, become flowers or houses or people, permanent and recognisable, so in that moment all the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann's park, and the water-lilies on the Vivonne and the good folk of the village and their little dwellings and the parish church and the whole of Combray and of its surroundings, taking their proper shapes and growing solid, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea.
In the above scene the involuntary memory of the narrator comes back while he is eating tea soaked madeleine, and he finds himself reminiscing the time from his childhood when he used to eat tea soaked madeleine with his aunt.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Giordano Bruno’s Bad Experience at Oxford

Stature of Bruno, Rome
Giordano Bruno went to England in April 1583 with royal letters of recommendation to the French Ambassador in London, Michel de Castelnau, Marquis de Mauvissièr. Before he had settled down in the home of the ambassador, he was invited to participate in a discussion at the Oxford University. The results were disastrous.

In Go To Oxford, Bruno offers his perspective on the kind of discussion that he had with the Oxford intellectuals. Here’s an excerpt:
and let them recount to you what happened there to the Nolan when he disputed publicly with those doctors of theology in the presence of the Polish prince Alasco [sic] and others of the English nobility. Would you hear how they were able to reply to his arguments? How fifteen times, by means of fifteen syllogisms, a poor doctor whom on this solemn occasion they had put forward as a very Corypheus of the Academy, was left standing like a chick entangled in tow? Would you learn with what incivility and discourtesy that pig comported himself, and the patience and humanity of him who shewed himself to be born a Neapolitan and nurtured under a more benign sky? Are you informed how they closed his public lectures, both those on the Immortality of the Soul and on the Five-fold Sphere?
“The Pig” that Bruno talks about is Doctor John Underhill, Rector of Lincoln College and Chaplain to Her Majesty. But in the archives of Oxford there is no record of Bruno’s visit to the university. This is probably because his visit did not create any significant impression on the officials there. Bruno also tried to seek a teaching position at Oxford, but was unsuccessful.

In his Explanation of the Thirty Seals, published in London in 1583, there is brief letter which he wrote a letter to the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford. In the letter he asserts that his philosophical claims are right and those who reject him are propagators of folly and hypocrites. “[Bruno] whom only propagators of folly and hypocrites detest, whom the honourable and studious love, whom noble minds applaud."

Mordechai Feingold, in his essay, “The occult tradition in the English universities of the Renaissance: a reassessment,” says that "Both admirers and critics of Giordano Bruno basically agree that he was pompous and arrogant, highly valuing his opinions and showing little patience with anyone who even mildly disagreed with him.” Feingold also notes that the cause behind Bruno's bad experience at Oxford “might have been his manner, his language and his self-assertiveness, rather than his ideas.”

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

The Translation of Corpus Hermeticum

The Hermetica is reputed to contain the teachings of Hermes Trismegistus (the thrice born Hermes), who is associated with the Greek god Hermes and the Egyptian god Thoth, and is regarded as the scribe of the gods, the inventor of writing, and the patron of all the arts.

Several philosophers, including Augustine of Hippo, Cicero, Thomas Aquinas, Marsilio Ficino and Giordano Bruno have written about the legend and philosophy of Hermes. Cicero in his De Natura Deorum says that there were five deities named Hermes. The fifth Hermes killed Argus and consequently fled to Egypt where he gave to the Egyptians their laws and letters, and took the Egyptian name Thoth.

The Greek literature under the name of Hermes Trismegistus is concerned mainly with theology, astrology, astral magic, and occult sciences. But there has also developed a philosophical literature under the name of Hermes Trismegistus. The Corpus Hermeticum is one of the most important philosophical Hermetica to come down to us. It is thought to have been composed between the 1st and the 3rd century A.D.

Frances A. Yates in her book Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition, (Chapter 1, “Hermes Trismegistus”), offers a description of how the Corpus Hermeticum was translated by Marsilio Ficino, working under the instruction of Cosimo de' Medici, in the 15th century. Here’s an excerpt:
About 1460, a Greek manuscript was brought to Florence from Macedonia by a monk, one of those many agents employed by Cosimo de' Medici to collect manuscripts for him. It contained a copy of the Corpus Hermeticum, not quite a complete copy, for it included fourteen only of the fifteen treatises of the collection, the last one being missing. Though the Plato manuscripts were already assembled, awaiting translation, Cosimo ordered Ficino to put these aside and to translate the work of Hermes Trismegistus at once, before embarking on the Greek philosophers. It is Ficino himself who tells us this, in that dedication to Lorenzo de' Medici of the Plotinus commentaries in which he describes the impetus given to Greek studies by the coming of Gemistus Pletho and other Byzantine scholars to the Council of Florence, and how he himself was commissioned by Cosimo to translate the treasures of Greek philosophy now coming into the West from Byzantium. Cosimo, he says, had handed over to him the works of Plato for translation. But in the year 1463 word came to Ficino from Cosimo that he must translate Hermes first, at once, and go on afterwards to Plato; "mihi Mercurium primo Termaximum, mox Platonem mandavit interpretandum". Ficino made the translation in a few months, whilst the old Cosimo, who died in 1464, was still alive. Then he began on Plato.  
It is an extraordinary situation. There are the complete works of Plato, waiting, and they must wait whilst Ficino quickly translates Hermes, probably because Cosimo wants to read him before he dies. What a testimony this is to the mysterious reputation of the Thrice Great One! Cosimo and Ficino knew from the Fathers that Hermes Trismegistus was much earlier than Plato.
Yates points out that Ficino translated Corpus Hermeticum first because Hermes came earlier than Plato:
Renaissance respect for the old, the primary, the far-away, as nearest to divine truth, demanded that the Corpus Hermeticum should be translated before Plato's Republic or Symposium, and so this was in fact the first translation that Ficino made.  
Ficino gave his translation the title of Pimander, which is really the tide of only the first treatise in the Corpus Hermeticum, but which he extended to cover the whole Corpus, or rather the first fourteen of its items which were all that his manuscript contained. He dedicated the translation to Cosimo, and this dedication, or argumentum as he calls it, reveals the state of mind, the attitude of profound awe and wonder, in which he had approached this marvellous revelation of ancient Egyptian wisdom. 
Yates notes that the discovery of the Corpus Hermeticum demonstrated the piety of Hermes and associated him intimately with the reigning Platonic philosophy which resulted in rehabilitation of Asclepius, who had been condemned by Augustine as containing bad demonic magic.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Heidegger’s Philosophical Opposition to Space Travel

Martin Heidegger
Martin Heidegger, in his interview to Der Spiegel magazine on September 23, 1966, articulated his philosophical opposition to the idea that human beings might one day travel to other planets, leaving earth behind. Here’s an excerpt from the interview:
Der Spiegel: Well, we have to say that indeed we prefer to be here, and in our age we surely will not have to leave for elsewhere. But who knows if man is determined to be upon this earth? It is thinkable that man has absolutely no determination at all. After all, one might see it to be one of man's possibilities that he reach out from this earth toward other planets. We have by no means come that far, of course -- but where is it written that he has his place here?  
Heidegger: As far as my own orientation goes, in any case, I know that, according to our human experience and history, everything essential and of great magnitude has arisen only out of the fact that man had a home and was rooted in a tradition. Contemporary literature, for example, is largely destructive. 
In the interview Heidegger also says that he was "shocked to see pictures of the earth taken from the moon. We do not need atomic bombs at all [to uproot us] — the uprooting of man is already here. All our relationships have become merely technical ones. It is no longer upon an earth that man lives today." He was appalled by the idea of any man venturing too far from his place of birth.

For Heidegger, philosophy is all about preserving the traditions and coming home in the end. He insisted that in the time of death, a man must return to soil of his home. When he died, following his wish, his body was buried in the Church cemetery at Messkirch, the town of his birth, despite the fact that he had long since left the faith.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Merleau-Ponty’s Critique of Sartre’s Ultrabolshevism

Maurice Merleau-Ponty
The French existentialist philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty was a close friend of Jean-Paul Sartre. Like Sartre, Merleau-Ponty was a strong supporter of the Soviet Communism. In his 1947 book Humanism and Terror, Merleau-Ponty justifies the totalitarian methods that the Soviet regime was using, the show trails, prison camps, and the executions.

But in the 1950s, Merleau-Ponty’s political philosophy underwent a complete transformation. He became a vocal critic of communism.

He was on the editorial board of Les Temps Modernes, the leftist magazine established by Jean-Paul Sartre in 1945. In 1953, when the magazine came up with a pro-Soviet piece, Merleau-Ponty wrote an editorial remark to clarify that the views are not that of the magazine. But Sartre removed the remarks without informing Merleau-Ponty. When Merleau-Ponty came to know about the removal of his remarks, he had an acrimonious telephonic conversation with Sartre and with that their friendship came to an end.

In his 1955 book Adventures of the Dialectic, Merleau-Ponty offers his final rejection of Soviet Communism. In this book’s Chapter 5, “Sartre and Ultrabolshevism,” which is the longest chapter, he attacks Sartre for his support of communism. Here’s an excerpt:
If Sartre would openly give his reasons, if he would say that communism is a more profound pragmatism, he would expose to broad daylight the divergence between theory and practice, the crisis of communist philosophy, and, beyond philosophy, the change in meaning of the whole system. If he "understands" communism correctly, then communist ideology is deceitful, and we can ask the nature of the regime which hides itself in the philosophy it teaches instead of expressing itself there. If Sartre is right in grounding communism as he does, communism is wrong in thinking of itself as it does; it is not, then, entirely what Sartre says it is. Ultimately, if Sartre is right, Sartre is wrong. Such is the situation of the loner who incorporates communism into his universe and thinks of it with no regard for what it thinks of itself. In reading The Communists and Peace, one often wonders—without finding an answer, since the quotations from Marx are so equitably distributed—what distinction Sartre makes between Marx, the ideologies of Soviet communism, and his own thought. 
He goes on to attack Sartre’s dualism, Cartesianism, and his ontological conception of freedom:
In Sartre's thought, as in The Critique of Pure Reason, the consciousness of a connection comes from the consciousness of a pure connecting principle. From there comes the Kantian question which he always asks: Who will decide? Who will judge? From where does the syntheSiS come? And if one wants to measure the Party against a historical norm: "Who will unify the unifying principle?" The absolute authority of the Party is the purity of the transcendental subject forcefully incorporated into the world. This Kantian or Cartesian thought sees only organicism in the idea of an unconstructed unity.
In his later works, Sartre became critical of what he called the “stoical” and “Cartesian” view of freedom, but he stayed loyal to his ontological view of freedom.

Friday, September 7, 2018

Ancients, Modernists, and Postmodernists

Many members of the postmodernist movement have emerged from the Marxist and post-Marxist groupings in France. Intellectuals like Jean-François Lyotard and Jean Baudrillard were reacting against the totalitarianism within the Soviet Union and the authoritarianism in the French communist party. Postmodernists can be seen as Marxists who have stopped believing that a better world, or a utopia, can be created by using authoritarian means.

Lloyd Spencer, in his essay, “Postmodernism, Modernity, and The Tradition of Dissent,” (Chapter 19; The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism; edited by Stuart Sim), offers the following perspective on the connection between modernity and postmodernism:
The very term 'postmodern' is a paradox and a provocation. Modernity, in the sense of the 'now' which surrounds us is not something we can be 'post'. But the modernity referred to is not the 'now' of the thoroughly modern. Modernity is a long epoch of historical change, fuelled by scientific and technological development and dominated by the spread — extensively across the world and intensively into every nook and cranny of the soul — of the capitalist market economy. Throughout the modern era, cultural, philosophical and political debate have marked out an intellectual space between the declining authority of the church on the one hand and, on the other, the economic and technical imperatives forcing the pace of change. 
Modernity even in this sense, of a centuries-old tradition of change and debate about change, can hardly be said to have come to an end. In the industrial West the declining role of religion and the pace of economic and technological change are factors that will shape the future as decisively as they have shaped our past. But something has changed in the very nature of tradition and in the way that we relate to the past. Every aspect of the past is made accessible, available. But it is made available, mediated, packaged, presented and re-presented. Postmodernism could be described as that variant of modernism which has given up hope of freeing itself from the ravages of modernity or of mastering the forces unleashed by modernity. 
Spencer points out that even thought the postmodernists have moved away from modernism, they continue to make use of the ideas of modern and even the ancient age. Postmodernism thrives by citing, parodying, pastiching and using the past. He points out that in the 18th century, the modernists were seeped in ancient classics even though they were devoted to developing new standards.
At the start of the eighteenth century a great debate raged between the 'ancients' and 'modems'. The 'ancients' held that the classical civilizations of Greece and Rome were the source of all standards and all literary ideals. The 'modems' contended that new times required new standards and new forms of expression. What we should remember in this context is that this was a debate between men raised on Greek and Latin. Even those who belonged to the 'modem' camp, from whom emerged the leading figures of the Enlightenment, were steeped in the classics. All the participants to the debate were on familiar terms with Aristotle and Aristophanes, with Tacitus and Cicero. 
Postmodernism aspires to be anti-authoritarian. It can be seen as the critical, skeptical, dissenting, and even nihilistic reaction against the authoritarian trends, such as Marxism, in modernity. 

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Heidegger On Why He Misunderstood Nazism

Heidegger in 1960
Martin Heidegger hated to talk about his engagement with the nazis; he never came up with satisfactory explanation for why he appeared to be sympathetic to nazism, particularly in 1933 when the nazis acquired power in Germany.

In 1945, he wrote an essay, “The Rectorate 1933/34: Facts and Thoughts,” to explain what happened in 1933. He says in the essay that at that time he saw in the Nazi Party “the possibility of an inner self-collection and of a renewal of the people, and a path toward the discovery of its historical-Western purpose. I believed that the university, renewing itself, might also be called to significantly participate in the inner self-collection of the people.”

But he insists that he was never asked by any agency of the Nazi Party for any kind of political advise, and he never tried to have such a political participation, and that he never maintained any personal or political relations with the Party. He clarifies that as soon as he became aware that he had misunderstood the nature of nazism, he moved away from the Nazi Party. He portrays himself as a victim of nazis, claiming that after he resigned from the position of University Rectorate in 1934, he was attacked by the nazis in a disgusting manner.

The central message of Heidegger’s essay can be summed up as “I was too naive to understand nazism in the early 1930s, so please don’t blame me.”

In his book, A la rencontre de Heidegger. Souvenirs d'un messager de la Forêt-Noire, Frédéric de Towarnicki reminisces the conversation that he had with Heidegger while they were having wine in 1945. Towarnicki asked Heidegger why he was close to nazism in the early 1930s. Heidegger replied, “Dummheit.” (Stupidity). Heidegger also said that the political engagement with the nazis was "the greatest stupidity of his life" ("die größte Dummheit seines Lebens”).

However, many of the Heidegger’s former admirers and students, people like Hannah Arendt, Karl Jaspers, Herbert Marcuse, and several others, were not satisfied with the explanation that he offers in his 1945 essay. They insist that it was something other than “stupidity” that drew Heidegger to the nazis.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Horkheimer and Critical Theory

Horkheimer (front left); Adorno (front right); 1965
Often referred to simply as ‘theory,’ critical theory seeks to critique society and culture by applying knowledge gained from humanities. The critical theorists claim that they want to explain and reform all the circumstances that lead to enslavement of human beings. They are close to the Western European Marxist think-tank known as the Frankfurt School, which was developed in Germany in 1923.

Max Horkheimer, who took up the directorship of the Frankfurt School in 1930, is credited with first coning the term critical theory. In his 1937 book Critical Theory: Selected Essays, (Chapter 6, “Traditional and Critical Theory”), Horkheimer explains the difference between traditional and critical theories. He notes that while traditional theory is devoted to analysis and understanding of the social problems, the critical theory “urges a transformation of society as a whole.” He also points out that critical theory is “dominated at every turn by a concern for reasonable conditions of life.”

Here’s excerpt from Horkheimer’s essay, where he is suggesting that since critical theory deals with the actual and present condition of mankind, it always starts with the exchange economy:
The critical theory of society also begins with abstract determinations; in dealing with the present era it begins with the characterization of an economy based on exchange. The concepts Marx uses, such as commodity, value, and money, can function as genera when, for example, concrete social relations are judged to be relations of exchange and when there is question of the commodity character of goods. But the theory is not satisfied to relate concepts of reality by way of hypotheses. The theory begins with an outline of the mechanism by which bourgeois society, after dismantling feudal regulations, the guild system, and vassalage, did not immediately fall apart under the pressure of its own anarchic principle but managed to survive. The regulatory effects of exchange are brought out on which bourgeois economy is founded. The conception of the interaction of society and nature, which is already exercising its influence here, as well as the idea of a unified period of society, of its self-preservation, and so on, spring from a radical analysis, guided by concern for the future, of the historical process. The relation of the primary conceptual interconnections to the world of facts is not essentially a relation of classes to instances. It is because of its inner dynamism that the exchange relationship, which the theory outlines, dominates social reality, as, for example, the assimilation of food largely dominates the organic life of plant and brute beast. 
He also claims that critical theory offers the possibility of improving social relations:
There is still need of a conscious reconstruction of economic relationships. Indiscrim­inate hostility to theory, therefore, is a hindrance today. Unless there is continued theoretical effort, in the interest of a ration­ally organized future society, to shed critical light on present-day society and to interpret it in the light of traditional theories elaborated in the special sciences, the ground is taken from under the hope of radically improving human existence. The demand therefore for a positive outlook and for acceptance of a subordinate position threatens, even in progressive sectors of society, to overwhelm any openness to theory. The issue, how­ever, is not simply the theory of emancipation; it is the practice of it as well. 
Horkheimer’s critical theory can be seen as an attempt to achieve Marxist sociological and cultural aims without unleashing state oppression and violence on society. He denounces some of the Marxist concepts and combines several Marxist viewpoints with other philosophical and sociological systems. In the final paragraph of his essay, he expresses his concern for social justice: “The future of humanity depends on the existence today of the critical attitude.”

Today critical theory is no longer a homogeneous discipline or a unified movement. The modern critical theorists are active in several left-leaning social, political and artistic movements: Structuralism, Narratology, Marxism, Poststructuralism, Historicism, Psychoanalytic criticism, Deconstruction, Feminism, Gender and Queer theory, and Postmodernism.