Tuesday, April 30, 2019

On the Absence of Dogmatism in Socrates

Socrates was not a dogmatic thinker. He was tolerant and open-minded. In the Platonic dialogues, he is willing to hear the other side; he listens to objections, gives others a chance to express their ideas, and often points out that it is important go on learning. Here’s an excerpt from Allan Bloom's “Interpretive Essay,” in his book The Republic of Plato (Page 331): "The intellectual voice of the city can become tractable as the city never will. The Republic, a book about a perfect city, is characterized by having perfect interlocutors, that is, men without whom a city could not be founded and who are, at the same time, persuadable, whom argument can convince to adapt to a new kind of world which is contrary to their apparent advantage. Just as one must have almost unbelievable conditions to found the best city in deed, so one must have exceptional interlocutors to found it in speech."

Monday, April 29, 2019

Eric Voegelin on Karl Popper: Rascally, Impertinent, Loutish

Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin were contemptuous of Karl Popper’s work on political theory The Open Society and Its Enemies. They believed that Popper’s depiction of Plato as a philosopher of totalitarianism was scandalous and a complete fabrication. In the 1950s, Popper was auditioning for an appointment at the University of Chicago. This alarmed Strauss. In his letter dated April 10, 1950, Strauss wrote to Voegelin: "May I ask you [Voegelin] to let me know sometime what you think of Mr. Popper. He gave a lecture here [at the University of Chicago], on the task of social philosophy, that was beneath contempt: it was the most washed-out, lifeless positivism trying to whistle in the dark, linked to a complete inability to think "rationally," although it passed itself off as "rationalism" -- it was very bad. I cannot imagine that such a man ever wrote something worthwhile reading, and yet it appears to be a professional duty to become familiar with his productions."

Voegelin replied in just eight days. In his letter dated April 18, 1950, he wrote: "The opportunity to speak a few deeply felt words about Karl Popper to a kindred soul is too golden to endure a long delay. This Popper has been for years, not exactly a stone against which one stumbles, but a troublesome pebble that I must continually nudge from the path, in that he is constantly pushed upon me by people who insist that his work on the “open society and its enemies” is one of the social science masterpieces of our times. This insistence persuaded me to read the work even though I would otherwise not have touched it. You are quite right that it is a vocational duty to make ourselves familiar with the ideas of such a work when they lie in our field; I would hold out against this duty the other vocational duty, not to write and publish such a work. In that Popper violated this elementary vocational duty and stole several hours of my lifetime, which I devoted in fulfilling my vocational duty, I feel completely justified in saying without reservation that this book is impudent, dilettantish crap. Every single sentence is a scandal, but it is still possible to lift out a few main annoyances."

Voegelin listed four major flaws in Popper’s work. His complete letter can be read here. He summed up his argument against Popper in these lines: "Popper’s book is a scandal without extenuating circumstances; in its intellectual attitude it is the typical product of a failed intellectual; spiritually one would have to use expressions like rascally, impertinent, loutish; in terms of technical competence, as a piece in the history of thought, it is dilettantish, and as a result is worthless." It took Strauss a few months to write a reply. He thanked Voegelin for the detailed letter on the problems in Popper’s thesis and revealed that he had taken the liberty of showing Voegelin’s letter to an in influential colleague “who was thereby encouraged to throw his not inconsiderable influence into the balance against Popper’s probable appointment here [at the University of Chicago]. You thereby helped to prevent a scandal.”

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Kant and the Capacity to Judge

In her book Kant and the Capacity to Judge: Sensibility and Discursivity in the Transcendental Analytic of the "Critique of Pure Reason," Béatrice Longuenesse cites an example given by Immanuel Kant (in Lectures on Logic, translated by Michael Young) to illustrate the rule-governedness of the apprehension that precedes the formation of concepts in which these rules are expressed discursively. Here’s Kant’s description of the situation in the Lectures of Logic: "If, for example, a savage sees a house from a distance, whose use he does not know, he admittedly has before him in his representation the very same object as someone else who knows it determinately as a dwelling established for human beings. But as to form, this cognition of one and the same object is different in the two cases. In the former it is mere intuition, in the latter it is simultaneously intuition and concept."

According to Longuenesse, the savage cannot recognize a house as a house not only because he lacks the concept but also because he misses the schema (an essential condition for developing a concept). The savage receives the same sensory information on the house as someone familiar with the concept of a house does but he does not possess the procedure to process the information in a determinate way. Here’s an excerpt from Longuenesse’s book (Page 119):

"Kant's savage intuits a combination of sensations according to relations of contiguity in space, differences in color, light, and shadow, similar in "matter" to those intuited by "someone else" who knows that what he has before him is a house. Thus, in his intuition of the house, the "savage" is conscious of the "combination of representations with each other." He is also conscious of a relation of these representations "to (his) senses," that is, conscious of them not merely as presenting an object to him but as sensations within him, perhaps associated with feelings of pleasure or displeasure. But the system of comparisons into which the content of his intuition is channeled has nothing in common with ours. He has never seen anything similar (in the way "a spruce, a willow, and a linden" are similar) from which he could have obtained a common concept by comparing objects according to their similarities and differences, reflecting similar features and abstracting from the differences (in material, size, shape, and so on). In his apprehension there is no rule guiding him to privilege certain marks and leave aside others, so that a concept of house might apply. Should someone point to the object and call it 'house', this might suggest to him a proper name for the singular object he has in front of him, but even this is uncertain: how is he to know what is being referred to—the door, the color, the shape, the site, or what? Only the "application in a comparison," that is, the gradually dawning consciousness of a "rule of apprehension" common to the representation of various objects serving the same purpose, would pick out analogous marks and bring forth the concept of a house. This application alone will complement the intuition of Kant's savage with a discursive form similar to that acquired by the man who throughout his life passed his nights in a warm house in Königsberg."

In the above passage, it's to be noted that Longuenesse says that “there is no rule guiding him to privilege certain marks and leave aside others, so that a concept of house might apply.” This means that, according to Kant, in order to recognize a thing a human being needs not only the concept of the thing but also the precondition for acquiring the concept of the thing, namely its schemata.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

On Hegel’s Historicism

Frederick C. Beiser, in his essay, “Hegel’s Historicism,” (Chapter 9; The Cambridge Companion to Hegel, Edited by Frederick C. Beiser), says that Hegel’s historicist thought has engineered a revolution in history of philosophy: "Hegel's historicism amounted to nothing less than a revolution in the history of philosophy. It implied that philosophy is possible only if it is historical, only if the philosopher is aware of the origins, context, and development of his doctrines. Hegel thus threw into question the revolution with which Descartes began modern philosophy. It is not possible to create a presuppositionless system of philosophy a la Descartes, Hegel believes, by abstracting from the past and by simply relying upon one's individual reason. For if Descartes were a completely self-sufficient, self-enclosed mind, transcending the realm of history, he would not have been able to produce his philosophy. The aims of his system, and the ideas he defended in it, were typical products of the culture of seventeenth-century France. So if philosophy is to be truly presuppositionless, Hegel maintains, then it must not abstract from, but incorporate history within itself."