On Reading Philosophy

French Existentialist Writer Albert Camus (1913-1960)

Generally speaking, I have the devil’s own time trying to understand what philosophers write. The absolute worst are the German philosophers like Hegel, Heidegger, and Kant. I have difficulty even reading excerpted quotations from these writers—let alone whole paragraphs or chapters!

I have come to the conclusion that to enjoy reading most philosophers one has to be a gamer where language is concerned.

Fortunately, there are exceptions, particularly among the so-called Existentialist philosophers such as Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Camus and (on occasion) Sartre. I am currently reading Camus’s Notebooks 1951-1959 where I find surprising, gemlike ideas expressed such as the following:

The history of mankind is the history of the myths with which it covers up reality. For two centuries, the disappearance of traditional myths has shook history as death has become without hope. And yet there is no human reality if in the end there is no acceptance of death without hope. It is the acceptance of this limit, without blind resignation, in the tension of all one’s being that coincides with balance.

I await with patience a catastrophe that is slow in coming.

According to Melville, the remora, a fish of the South Seas, swims poorly. That is why their only chance to move forward consists of attaching themselves to the back of a big fish. Then they plunge a kind of tube into the stomach of a shark, where they suck up their nourishment, and propagate without doing anything, living off the hunting and efforts of the beast. These are the Parisian mores.

Give money, or lose it. Never make it fructify, nor seek it, nor crave it.

In love, hold on to what is.

Lope de Vega, five or six times a widower. Today people die less often. The result is that we no longer need to preserve in ourselves a force of rejuvenating love, but, on the contrary, we need to extinguish it in order to elicit another force of infinite adaptation.

Criticism is to the creator what the merchant is to the producer. Thus, the commercial age sees an asphyxiating multiplication of commentators, intermediaries, between the producer and the public. Thus, it is not that we are backing creators today, it is that there are too many commentators who drown the exquisite and elusive fish in their muddy waters.

Ooh, that last one, I think, is aimed at me.

Shortly after great historical crises, one finds oneself as dissatisfied and sick as on the morning following a night of excess. But there is no aspirin for the historical hangover.

Do not curse the West. For me, I cursed it at the time of its splendor. But today, while it succumbs under the weight of its faults and its long past glory, I will not add to its weight…. Do not envy those of the East, the sacrifice of intelligence and of heart to the gods of history. History has no gods, and intelligence, enlightened b7y the heart, is the only god, under a thousand forms, who has ever been saluted in this world.

I think what makes Camus a philosopher for our time is twofold:

  • He was born and raised in Algeria.
  • His experience with the French Resistance during World War Two made him avoid the obscurantism of more supine intellectuals.

Seize the Day

Roman Poet and Muses

Princeton University Press has come out with an interesting series of books under the general heading Ancient Wisdom for Modern Readers. A few months ago, I read the volume on Epictetus. Just now, I have finished the one on Horace’s poetry, entitled How To Be Content: An Ancient Poet’s Guide for an Age of Excess.

Sadly, I have not tried yet in any sustained way to tackle the Odes, Epodes, Epistles, and Satires, what with their reams of footnotes and textual controversies. This volume, on the other hand, makes it easier to understand what Horace is about:

May I have what I have now, less even,
      and may I live for myself
 What remains of my days, if the gods
      grant any remainder:
 May I have a good supply of books and
      corn planted for the year,
 And never hang and float in waiting for
      an uncertain hour.

And:

To be daunted by nothing is the one and
      only thing,
 Numicius, that can make and keep you
      happy.

It is a sobering thought that we have created such complicated lives for ourselves, whereas more than two thousand years ago, there were certain extraordinary poets and philosophers whose advice is as current as today’s news. It was Horace, after all, who advised us all to carpe diem (seize the day).

Horace was as philosophical in dealing with the end of days:

Order wine and perfume and the too-brief
 Flower of the rose to be brought,
 While circumstances, time of life
 And the dark threads of the three sisters
      allow it.

The three sisters, of course, are the Three Fates of ancient mythology: Clotho, who spins the thread of life; Lachesis, who measures the thread of life; and Atropos, who cuts the thread of life.

The Philosophers

Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir

Just as the Second World War was ending, there was a philosophical renaissance of sorts that was born in the streets and cafés of Paris. Most associated with it are Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Simone de Beauvoir. Best known for her book The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir had written a novel about the French existentialists in 1954 called The Mandarins.

It is a classical roman à clef, in which real people appear under fictional names:

  • Jean-Paul Sartre becomes Robert Dubreuilh
  • Simone de Beauvoir becomes Anne Dubreuilh, Robert’s wife (In real life, Sartre and de Beauvoir were an unmarried couple for over fifty years)
  • Albert Camus becomes Henri Perron
  • American novelist Nelson Algren becomes Lewis Brogan

The book’s characters are deeply involved in leftist political issues without subjecting themselves to control by the Russian Politburo. Yet they find that it was easier to blow up trains and otherwise sabotage the Nazi war machine than to find a path through the messy politics of the Fourth Republic in France, particularly during the postwar political rise of Charles De Gaulle.

The Camus/Perron character struck home with me, because he is the most disaffected of the group after the war ends. As he gets pushed more and more by his friends into the messy politics of the French Republic, he becomes increasingly dispirited. This reflects his relationships with his women and his male friends.

Curiously, although Simone de Beauvoir never married and never had children, she is both married and with a troublesome daughter (Nadine) in The Mandarins. Her relationship with Sartre/Debreuilh is an open marriage, and she carries on a long affair with an American novelist, Nelson Algren/Lewis Brogan, the author of The Man with the Golden Arm.

The Mandarins is one of the best books I have read all year. I rather suspect that I will revisit the French existentialists in my reading during the months to come. Also, I have concluded that de Beauvoir is a badly underrated author considering her importance in a major twentieth century philosophical movement.

The Philosophy Club

St Peter Chanel High School in Bedford, Ohio

When I was attending high school at St Peter Chanel in Bedford, Ohio, between 1958 and 1962, I started two extracurricular activities. One was a literary magazine called The Phoenix (our school teams were the Firebirds). I am actually a little embarrassed about the quality of our articles and illustrations. But more interestingly, I started a philosophy club which met evenings. Our moderator was a gaunt Marist missionary priest who had spent years attempting to convert the natives of New Guinea to Catholicism.

Imagine his discomfiture when a bunch of high school kids decided to argue about the existence of God. We had a couple of firebrands in the group—Ed Jaskiewicz and Rodger Harper—who set about demolishing two millennia of church dogma.

The “Angelic Doctor,” St Thomas Aquinas

As a good practicing Catholic (at the time), I introduced St. Thomas Aquinas’s five proofs for the existence of God. That didn’t sit too well with Jaskiewicz, who shot them down while Father Barrett, our moderator, turned a vivid shade of fuchsia. For my part, I started to stammer. It just wouldn’t do for Chanel’s star student to foment heresy.

Well, neither the philosophy club nor the literary magazine exist today. In fact, St. Peter Chanel High School is no more. The last I heard, the school was going to be torn down by he Bedford, Ohio, Board of Education. And I’m still a little skittish about philosophy. It’s not because I still believe in Aquinas’s five proofs, which are the bedrock of Catholic doctrine, but because I’ve always found philosophy so difficult. In no other field of endeavor do all the participants so anathemize one another.

I am currently reading Albert Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus and actually liking his existential philosophy. It’s nice sometimes to undergo change after so many years.

 

Beware of the Passionate Idealist

Philosopher Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997)

Philosopher Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997)

We don’t read philosophers much any more. That’s a pity. Even though their works can be difficult, there is a payoff. I am thinking, for instance, of the late Isaiah Berlin, who died in 1997. Years from now, people will be referring to him as the greatest 20th Century thinker about human liberty.

Twenty years ago, on November 25, 1994, he accepted an honorary degree of Doctor of Laws from the University of Toronto. On that occasion, he pleaded with people not to give way to a passionate idealism that violates individual freedoms:

I am afraid I have no dramatic answer to offer: only that if these ultimate human values by which we live are to be pursued, then compromises, trade-offs, arrangements have to be made if the worst is not to happen. So much liberty for so much equality, so much individual self-expression for so much security, so much justice for so much compassion. My point is that some values clash: the ends pursued by human beings are all generated by our common nature, but their pursuit has to be to some degree controlled—liberty and the pursuit of happiness, I repeat, may not be fully compatible with each other, nor are liberty, equality, and fraternity.

That Business of Making Omelets

That Business of Making Omelettes

That is one of the reasons I so distrust conservative ideologues such as Ted Cruz and Paul Ryan: For the sake of their ideological purity, they are willing to deprive us, if necessary, of our liberties. (By the way, I feel the same about liberal ideologues, even though they have not been much in evidence lately.) Berlin goes on:

We must weigh and measure, bargain, compromise, and prevent the crushing of one form of life by its rivals. I know only too well that this is not a flag under which idealistic and enthusiastic young men and women may wish to march—it seems too tame, too reasonable, too bourgeois, it does not engage the generous emotions. But you must believe me, one cannot have everything one wants—not only in practice, but even in theory. The denial of this, the search for a single, overarching ideal because it is the one and only true one for humanity, invariably leads to coercion. And then to destruction, blood—eggs are broken, but the omelette is not in sight, there is only an infinite number of eggs, human lives, ready for the breaking. And in the end the passionate idealists forget the omelette, and just go on breaking eggs.

For Nazism in Germany, the original goal was to unite the rich and poor in a common national project (“Volksgemeinschaft” or people’s community) and “promoted the subordination of individuals and groups to the needs of the nation, state and leader” (Wikipedia)  Of course, it was not for all. Jews, Communists, Gypsies, Slavs, and other non-Aryans were rounded up and eliminated.

In Russia, everything was subordinated to the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, which never quite happened.

As for the United States in the 21st Century, I conclude with Yeats in his poem “The Second Coming”:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Does that make me wishy-washy? To some, perhaps, but I would rather lack all conviction than be full of a passionate intensity that deprives anybody of the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

If you’d like to see the complete text of Berlin’s address, you will find it on Page 37 of the October 23, 2014 issue of The New York Review of Books under the title “A Message to the 21st Century.”

 

Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc

A Particularly Persistent Superstition

A Particularly Persistent Superstition

If you’ve never heard this Latin phrase before, you might want to remember it. It describes a logical fallacy which, translated into plain English, is “after that, therefore because of that.”

Let me give you an example. You are a little boy who, for the first time in his life, kisses a girl the in school playground. That same day, your teacher decides to land hard on you—even though she does not know about the kissing incident—and makes you sit in the corner all afternoon with a dunce hat on your head while the whole class taunts you. Using a very common form of magical thinking, you blame the punishment on the kiss, even though it is totally unrelated. Because the punishment came after the kiss, you assume it is because of the kiss. Result: you think that girls must not be kissed, or else terrible things will happen.

In September 1966, to give an example from my own life, I had a terrible headache. I was during my summer vacation just a few days away from starting graduate school in film at UCLA. I managed to cook a hot dog for myself as well as a can of corn. On the hot dog, I smeared some ketchup. Within an hour, the headache became unbearable. I managed to crawl into bed, but the pain kept ramping up. I realized I had to contact my parents and tell them that something was wrong. It took me over an hour to crawl to the kitchen phone, blacking out from the pain several times in the process. Finally, I managed to get my mother at work. Having told her what was happening, I collapsed on the kitchen floor.

And Then There Was the Canned Corn

And Then There Was the Canned Corn

The next thing I knew, I was in the emergency room at Fairview General Hospital in Cleveland being asked questions by physicians. Within minutes, I fell into a deep coma. Somehow, my doctor figured it was a pituitary tumor; and, when I came to after having been wrapped in ice to keep my temperature down, I was operated on. I might add the operation was a glittering success.

However, gone from my diet were hot dogs, ketchup, and canned corn. The one time I had that lunch, terrible things happened. It is only forty-eight years later that I can now eat those three items—though not together. And I put mustard on my hot dogs now instead of ketchup.

In a smaller way, I still see the same logical fallacy at work in my life. The last time I ate at the Yamadaya Restaurant, I suffered what looked to be (but wasn’t) a stroke: It was a transient ischemic attack (TIA). Only today was I brave enough to go back. Somehow, at the back of my mind, I still fear something bad will happen to me today. And I didn’t even get to kiss a girl this time!

 

The Runaway Trolley Dilemma

What Is the Right Decision?

What Is the Right Decision?

We tend not to discuss ethical dilemmas in the abstract, if for no other reason that they usually tend to be real posers.Take this famous dilemma: There is a runaway trolley headed in your direction, and in its path there are five people tied to the track. You find you are standing right next to a switch which could shunt the trolley off on a siding. You proceed to pull the switch, only to find there is a single person tied to the track on the siding.

The Utilitarians would say that it is a better thing to sacrifice one life rather than five—all other things being equal. But are they really equal? What if the five people tied to the track are all serial child molesters, and the single person tied to the siding is Pope Francis? Also, are there any people on the trolley? If so, wouldn’t they all risk dying in any case?

There is a variant of this dilemma, but without a switch and a siding. Again, we have a runaway trolley, again with five people tied to the track. You are standing on a footbridge over the track with a fat man whom you don’t know. You are between the runaway trolley and the five persons on the track. Should you push the fat man off the footbridge so that he lands in the path of the trolley, leading to a derailment upon impact?

Is This an Easier Decision?

Is This an Easier Decision?

In the first case, most people would throw the switch in the first case, but few would push the fat man to his death in the path of the trolley.

My own preference is to avoid situations where I am anywhere near any runaway trolleys, especially since I could be considered a fat man myself.

Mind, Matter and the Great Unknown

Sometimes Philosophy Ignores the Most Important Subjects

Sometimes Philosophy Ignores the Most Important Subjects

Sometime around a hundred years ago, philosophers decided not to talk about anything that they couldn’t prove. Over the decades, biology was reduced to chemistry, which in turn was reduced to physics, which in turn was reduced to mathematical formulas.

In the meantime, what was ignored was the whole subject of mind.

It reminds me of an old joke:

“What is mind?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“What is matter?”

“Never mind!”

And yet, mind exists. There is this thing we have called consciousness. It is that consciousness which, from time immemorial, prompted talk about the human soul. Whether the soul exists apart from consciousness, I don’t know. Whether consciousness can exist unhooked from the whole material superstructure that is the human body, I do not know.

I tend to think that because of my sense of my own consciousness—the thing that makes me who I am—that I say I believe in God. Certainly I am not beholden to any organized religion for my belief: I think that all the scriptures are merely metaphorical attempts to create a myth around a belief in the deity.

In his recent book Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, Thomas Nagel writes:

I would like to defend the untutored reaction of incredulity to the reductionist neo-Darwinian account of the origin and evolution of life. It is prima facie highly implausible that life as we know it is the result of a sequence of physical accidents together with the mechanism of natural selection. We are expected to abandon this naive response, not in favor of a fully worked out physical/chemical explanation but in favor of an alternative that is really a schema for explanation, supported by some examples. What is lacking, to my knowledge, is a credible argument that the story has a non-negligible probability of being true. There are two questions. First, given what is known about the chemical basis of biology and genetics, what is the likelihood that self-reproducing life forms should have come into existence spontaneously on the early earth, solely through the operation of the laws of physics and chemistry? The second question is about the sources of variation in the evolutionary process that was set in motion once life began: In the available geological time since the first life forms appeared on earth, what is the likelihood that, as the result of a physical accident, a sequence of viable genetic mutations should have occurred that was sufficient to permit natural selection to produce the organisms that actually exist?

Nagel does not provide the answers, but he asks the right questions. Is my consciousness of myself an accident? And why is my consciousness of myself so different from everyone else’s consciousness of themselves?

What has dictated that mind across so many billions of instances should be so rich, so incredibly diversified, so beautiful (and sometimes so heinous)?

The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind.

 

To Be a Philosopher …

To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust.—Henry David Thoreau