Wednesday, June 09, 2004

Lacuna in the Literature

For various reasons my dissertation has ended up (at least for the half of it that has been written so far) discussing a number of issues about how theological issues shape Malebranche's philosophical work. I had expected this to be the case, to some degree, but I've found that the secondary literature on him is astoundingly deficient in this respect. So I've had to look elsewhere, and I've discovered a sort of pattern in the scholarship. The 17th and 18th centuries are a heavily religious period; even writers who are relatively non-religious, like Hume, the freethinkers, the French philosophes, &c. tend to be heavily influenced by religious themes. Most of the major thinkers in the period devote a good portion of their work to religious issues, and write works that (in one sense or another) can be regarded as religious. Christianity pervades even the least Christian thinkers of the period, if for no other reason than that they need to deal with Christianity head-on to distinguish their own views. Yet this is an aspect of the period that is surprisingly little examined, and in general the works most symptomatic of this period tend to get ignored. Thus, for instance, Kant scholars struggle to try to fit Kant's Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, with its talk of grace, radical evil, the Son of God, &c. into the greater scheme of Kant's work, or else ignore it. Something similar is the case with Locke's Reasonableness of the Christian Religion, although it's changing. It's also the case with Hume's Natural History of Religion. Thinkers with whom one cannot isolate their more religiously influenced thought from the rest (as one can, to at least some extent, do with Hume, Locke, and Kant) tend to be ignored, or surgery gets performed on them in the attempt to work around the 'theology' (this is what happens with Malebranche). It's curious, and I'll need to think about it a bit more....

Tuesday, June 08, 2004

On the Wittgensteinian View of Philosophy, Part II

Some thoughts, in no particular order.

Compare two views of philosophy. Philosophy is an attempt to escape the confusions created by language, vs. Philosophy is 'courting truth with a kind of romantic passion' (Mary Astell's characterization of her own philosophical work). Which best characterizes philosophy, i.e., the love of wisdom?

Wittgensteinians are people who think there is only one sort of sophism, the fallacy of the form of the expression, and think that philosophy is just persuading people that they are guilty of it. They are like people who think the moral weakness to which they are most susceptible is the only moral weakness, and think that ethics consists entirely in convincing people they have it.

Their view of philosophy wrecks the history of philosophy. It becomes just a long series of eminent confusions that need to be corrected. But they are bad at showing this. To see the history of philosophy this way you must 1) know they are confused; 2) recognize the right sort of confusion. But when has a Wittgensteinian ever correctly diagnosed the confusion of anyone outside the twentieth century? They always turn out to have misread. If you see the philosophical past as serial confusion, you encourage habits of misreading. They have a little rut around which they go, and they try to force everything into that rut.

How extensive, really, is this confusion-due-to-the-form-of-the-expression? One sees people straightfacedly analyzing the 'grammar' of the phrase 'mental object' as an analogy with 'physical object'. But only they do anything so silly as to treat 'mental object' as a metaphor derived from 'physical object'; one needs to say to them: But this is not how it actually happened, this is not how the phrase actually developed, this is not how this or that thinker actually treats it. And they do this constantly. There is no doubt that this fallacy has happened in the history of philosophy--the medievals were better at spotting it than the moderns. But they have no conception of how one thing is relevant to another. They sometimes manage to do good philosophical work (e.g., Bouwsma on evil deceivers). But they are misguided in thinking that it applies to what they claim to be discussing. They are like people who say, "Aha, he uses the phrase 'hook, line, and sinker'. So he thinks errors are like fishing tackle." To which one responds: It is you who are in error; it is you who are misled by language.

They confuse the opposing of one sophistical refutation (in Aristotle's sense) with the whole of philosophical work. But that does not even cover the whole Sophistical Refutations, much less the whole Organon, much less the whole of philosophical work. How can they honestly think they are covering everything? They take a drop of water for an ocean, a one-night stand for a marriage.

They do not realize that philosophy is less a matter of language than a matter of personal life and the things we find there.

There is something fundamentally wrong with a view that says: everyone is wrong except us. Everyone is confused except us. We have nothing to learn from you except what we can learn from the confusion (which we've already assumed is a confusion).--There is an ethical flaw to this approach. And it means that no real learning occurs; the problems of philosophy get 'solved' off the top of one's head, in an armchair.

In practice the method of Wittgenstein is little more than a rhetorical persuasion to see the matter in a certain way. It is the use of one set of analogies and metaphors to try to make another set of analogies and metaphors look silly. This would make sense if it were only one of the many, many things philosophy does.

Wittgenstein's genius is coming up with cogent particular examples to discuss. But it would be silly to say that only this is genuine philosophical work.

They treat philosophy as though it were--journalism!

The value of Wittgenstein is that he made twentieth-century philosophers begin to understand how silly they were. The problem of Wittgenstein is that he only cleared away a small part of the silliness, but some who follow him think he frees them from everything.

On the Wittgensteinian View of Philosophy

I have been reading O. K. Bouwsma's Commonplace Book: Remarks on Philosophy and Education. I like Bouwsma, but one of his great flaws is to fall hook, line, and sinker for the absurd Wittgensteinian view of philosophy. Some examples (I will deal with them in another post):

What can I now do? I can read Plato, Descartes, Locke, Berkeley, Hume - in a certain way....I think that what in all cases I do is to look for the analogy or analogies that are involved and then to elaborate the analogy. The elaboration of the analogy will serve to make what has been said ridiculous. Then I try to show what in the grammar of expression involved leads to the analogy in the first place. (from Pad 1.31)

Philosophy - as the stubborn effort to think clearly, to escape confusion, to escape the temptations of grammatical analogy. But why then did W. center his attention especially upon the thinking of, the language of, philosophers? I suppose because this is where confusion and the intensification of confusion is pursued and practiced with greatest zeal and success. (from Pad 1.40)

The history of philosophy. The history of magnificent confusions. Our concern is not with the beetle in the box, but with the boxed beetle. (Pad 2.22)

Philosophy isn't anything you learn. It is rather like your being entangled in a maze of barbed wire or like being lost in the wood. When you read a philosopher and you are not yourself lost, distressed, you are wasting your time. (from Pad 2.32)

If philosophers argue, it does not follow that their arguments are to be refuted. That is to treat what they say as philosophical and as a philosopher would. One is to do no more than to exhibit what the philosopher is saying or doing. He writes non-sense which is disguised. He builds houses of cards, writes down words which seem to have meaning. What is one to do but topple the house? (Pad 3.7)

Philosophy is the struggle against ordinary language motivated by an original misunderstanding. (from Pad 3.21)

Of course, philosophical questions are not concerned with the meanings of words. Tehy are not concerned with antyhing. They are expressions of confusions which arise out fo similarities and dissimilarities in the grammar of the relevant expressions in different situations. (Pad 3.27)

Philosophy is like a cage inside of which the philosopher paces up and down. Yes, that is how it is. And Wittgenstein sets a man free. The cage falls away. And what is the cage made of? Of twisted language. The man in the cage must learn to untwist, to disentangle the entangled, to separate the various strands. Thus, he can walk out. (Pad 3.48)

Monday, June 07, 2004

Houyhnhnm Land

I've created another blog, which I've named Houyhnhnm Land , an allusion to Gulliver's Travels. My idea is that I'll use it in an ongoing way as a teaching support for any early modern philosophy class I teach in the future. It's still in construction, and will be for quite a while. If anyone has creative suggestions as to how it might be modified to be a better teaching resource, I'd appreciate them greatly.

Living, Moving, and Being

I've read somewhere that the most quoted verse in the Middle Ages was Wisdom 11:20: "But you have ordered all things by measure and number and weight." A good candidate for the early modern counterpart would be Acts 17:28: "In Him we live and move and have our being". Someone should write a brief history of how this verse contributes to philosophy in the 17th and 18th centuries. Some contributions toward such a history:

* Hobbes uses the verse in Leviathan to argue that God must be a body.

* Malebranche uses it in support of the vision-in-God theory of ideas in The Search after Truth Book III, Part II, Chapter 6 (LO 235). I'm sure John Norris uses it somewhere, too.

* Henry More uses it (somewhere).

* Berkeley quotes it several times, e.g., in both the Principles and the Three Dialogues (Dialogue 2).

* Does Jonathan Edwards quote it? I suspect he would.

* Jonathan Swift uses it in his satire, A Tale of a Tub.

* It is quoted in support of Newton's theory of space in the General Scholium.

* Kant uses it in the Opus Postumum (22:118).

One thing that strikes me about this preliminary cast is that in several cases the verse is used to argue some sort of relation between God and space. This would be worth looking into, and no doubt would say a great deal about the 17th and 18th centuries. Berkeley and Malebranche use it to support their view of ideas. Since they advocate, in different ways, the view that God is (in a sense) our mind's 'environment' (the public, intelligible world, as Malebranche calls it).

The Real D-Day

This is a bit late (for the day, but not for the remembering), but I just found an excellent reminder of what D-Day was really about at Soldiers for the Truth.

Now I'm off to get some shut-eye.

Don't Worry; I May Be Ponderously Silly, But Not All The Time

It's worth noting, for anyone else who might be occasionally viewing this log, that the quantity with which I have been posting the past few days is (I suspect) not something that will continue much longer. It has a great deal to do with the fact that I have spent all weekend sitting at a computer trying to do revisions, and posting has been one of the (several) ways I take a break to prevent myself from going insane. I expect I'll be posting fairly often (I have no life, but since this is mostly an on-line notebook for ideas rather than a personal journal, that makes no difference), but not, I think, at the pace I have been doing so, nor always with the sort of ponderous lecture-style that (alas!) has a nasty way of sneaking into the way I write down what I think.

The Intellectual Clown

Source-Criticism Satire

There is a funny (well, I found it funny) satire on source-critical analysis at The Lord of the Rings: A Source-Criticism Analysis by Mark Shea. And, yes, I should be working on chapter revisions....

Sunday, June 06, 2004

Dante's Limbo

Since I posted on it previously and am procrastinating a break dissertation work, here is the section from Dante's Inferno 4, where he portrays limbo (in the Mandelbaum translation):

The kindly master [i.e., Virgil, Dante's guide] said: "Do you not ask
who are these spirits whom you see before you?
I'd have you know, before you go ahead,
they did not sin; and yet, though they have merits,
that's not enough, because they lacked baptism,
the portal of the faith that you embrace.
And if they lived before Christianity,
they did not worship God in fitting ways;
and of such spirits I myself am one.
For these defects, and for no other evil,
we now are lost and punished just with this:
we have no hope and yet we live in longing."
Great sorrow seized my heart on hearing him,
for I had seen some estimable men
among the souls suspended in that limbo.
"Tell me, my master, tell me, lord." I then
began because I wanted to be certain
of that belief which vanquishes all errors,
"did any ever go-by his own merit
or others'-from this place toward blessedness?"
And he, who understood my covert speech,
replied: "I was new-entered on this state
when I beheld a Great Lord enter here;
the crown he wore, a sign of victory.
He carried off the shade of our first father,
of his son Abel, and the shade of Noah,
of Moses, the obedient legislator,
of father Abraham, David the king,
of Israel, his father, and his sons,
and Rachel, she for whom he worked so long,
and many others-and He made them blessed;
and I should have you know that, before them,
there were no human souls that had been saved."
We did not stay our steps although he spoke;
we still continued onward through the wood-
the wood, I say, where many spirits thronged.
Our path had not gone far beyond the point
where I had slept, when I beheld a fire
win out against a hemisphere of shadows.
We still were at a little distance from it,
but not so far I could not see in part
that honorable men possessed that place.
"O you who honor art and science both,
who are these souls whose dignity has kept
their way of being, separate from the rest?"
And he to me: "The honor of their name,
which echoes up above within your life,
gains Heaven's grace, and that advances them."
Meanwhile there was a voice that I could hear:
"Pay honor to the estimable poet;
his shadow, which had left us, now returns."
After that voice was done, when there was silence,
I saw four giant shades approaching us;
in aspect, they were neither sad nor joyous.
My kindly master then began by saying:
"Look well at him who holds that sword in hand
who moves before the other three as lord.
That shade is Homer, the consummate poet;
the other one is Horace, satirist;
the third is Ovid, and the last is Lucan.
Because each of these spirits shares with me
the name called out before by the lone voice,
they welcome me-and, doing that, do well."
And so I saw that splendid school assembled
led by the lord of song incomparable,
who like an eagle soars above the rest.
Soon after they had talked a while together,
they turned to me, saluting cordially;
and having witnessed this, my master smiled;
and even greater honor then was mine,
for they invited me to join their ranks-
I was the sixth among such intellects.
So did we move along and toward the light,
talking of things about which silence here
is just as seemly as our speech was there.
We reached the base of an exalted castle,
encircled seven times by towering walls,
defended all around by a fair stream.
We forded this as if upon hard ground;
I entered seven portals with these sages;
we reached a meadow of green flowering plants.
The people here had eyes both grave and slow;
their features carried great authority;
they spoke infrequently, with gentle voices.
We drew aside to one part of the meadow,
an open place both high and filled with light,
and we could see all those who were assembled.
Facing me there, on the enameled green,
great-hearted souls were shown to me and I
still glory in my having witnessed them.
I saw Electra with her many comrades,
among whom I knew Hector and Aeneas,
and Caesar, in his armor, falcon-eyed.
I saw Camilla and Penthesilea
and, on the other side, saw King Latinus,
who sat beside Lavinia, his daughter.
I saw that Brutus who drove Tarquin out,
Lucretia, Julia, Marcia, and Cornelia,
and, solitary, set apart, Saladin.
When I had raised my eyes a little higher,
I saw the master of the men who know [i.e., Aristotle]
seated in philosophic family.
There all look up to him, all do him honor:
there I beheld both Socrates and Plato,
closest to him, in front of all the rest;
Democritus, who ascribes the world to chance,
Diogenes, Empedocles, and Zeno,
and Thales, Anaxagoras, Heraclitus;
I saw the good collector of medicinals,
I mean Dioscorides; and I saw Orpheus,
and Tully, Linus, moral Seneca;
and Euclid the geometer, and Ptolemy,
Hippocrates and Galen, Avicenna,
Averroes, of the great Commentary.
I cannot here describe them all in full;
my ample theme impels me onward so:
what's told is often less than the event.

Note the description of the Harrowing of Hell. Saladin probably sits apart from the others because he's a Muslim, and so doesn't strictly belong with the noble Romans, although his reputation puts him in with others who have a reputation for nobility(there are two other Muslims, but they're with the philosophers: Avicenna and Averroes).

Conversation Between Heaven and Hell

I had a great idea for a poem this morning, although I don't know if I'll ever get around to writing it. The theme of the poem would be that our life on this earth is a conversation between hell and heaven, which, stripped down to the bones, would be as follows:

Hell: Why won't you send us some crumbs to save us?

Heaven: You have already been given a feast; if you won't feast on that, what good will crumbs do?

And it would then portray this conversation as the monotonous theme of history: we already have what's good for us, but we don't want it, and instead demand something else. I got the idea from the parable of Lazarus and Dives, particularly verse 31: "He said to him, 'If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.'" It struck me that this is the way human beings are at everything; we expect our problems to be solved, but, unwilling to accept the solution, we demand some other, more spectacular, solution. But if we won't accept the solution in the first place, what good will we get out of any alternative, however spectacular? We always already know what we should do; but we always want something amazing to come along to force us to do it. It's astonishing, really, how much of human history consists of people waiting around for someone to tell them how to act when they've been told again and again by the wisest people in the history of the earth. What more could we reasonably want?

Anyone's welcome to try their own hand at it.

Yes, Sunscreen

I have been having trouble with the two dissertation chapters I'm writing right now. At times I feel like I'm on a never-ending treadmill. The chapters are basically written; the problem is that I'm at the 'debugging' stage, where it always takes forever to make insignificant progress. It leaves me a bit dazed sometimes. Yesterday, after finishing up (well, almost finishing up) one of the chapters, I went home and almost brushed my teeth with sunscreen.

Today I have to debug the other chapter, the one that needs more work. Joy!