Archive: History of Philosophy

Translation of the week: Rivarol on the philosophes

Since in philosophy the spirit of analysis is pre-eminent, its new disciples have used solvents and decomposition throughout. In physics, they find only objections against the Author of nature; in metaphysics, only doubts and subtleties; morals and logic provide them only with declamations against political order, religious ideas, and the laws of property; they have aspired to nothing less than universal reconstruction through universal revolt, and without realizing that they were themselves in the world, they have pulled down its columns.
How could they not have seen that their analyses were methods whose origin lay in the human mind, and were not nature’s way? that in nature, all is relation, proportion, harmony, aggregation? that nature continually binds, assembles, and compounds, even as it decomposes, because its laws never sleep, while the man who analyzes, whether as chemist or reasoner, can only observe and suspend, decompose and kill?
Rivarol, from a portrait by Wyrsch, 1784; in André Le Breton, Rivarol, sa vie, ses idées, son talent […] (Paris: Hachette, 1895), frontispiece
What would one say of an architect who, given the task of raising an edifice, broke the building-stones so as to find in them salts, air, and a terreous base, and offered us an analysis instead of a house? The prism as it dissects the light ruins for us the spectacle of nature.
Still they believed—these philosophers—that to define men was a greater thing than to reunite them; that to emancipate them was greater than to govern them, that to excite them, finally, was greater than to make them happy. They overturned States to regenerate them, and dissected living men to know them better.
It was in vain that Plato (Greece, too, suffered the irruptions of this philosophy) said to them that it was for them to make verses and music, but only to talk about doing so, since their philosophy was merely discursive; it was in vain that Zeno held that the true philosopher is nothing but an good actor, equally fit for the role of king or subject, master or slave, rich or poor: for indeed it is a true philosophy to do everything well, and to find nothing bad; in vain, I say, were men advised on the nature and the difference of the two philosophies; in every head a change had occurred that prepared the revolution of which the philosophers abruptly became the promoters, guides, and victims, a revolution in which they thought that the natures of all things could be altered without destroying any, that all could be destroyed without peril, that mankind could be put at risk without committing any crime.
Original text:
<163> Comme c’est éminemment l’esprit d’analyse qui domine dans la philosophie, ses nouveaux disciples ont employé partout les dissolvants et la décomposition. Dans la physique, ils n’ont trouvé que des objections contre l’auteur de la nature; dans la métaphysique, que doute et subtilités; la morale et la logique ne leur ont fourni que des déclamations contre l’ordre politique, contre les idées religieuses et contre les lois de la propriété; ils n’ont pas aspiré à moins qu’à la reconstruction du tout par la révolte contre tout, et, sans songer qu’ils étaient eux-mêmes dans le monde, ils ont renversé les colonnes du monde.
Comment n’ont-ils pas vu que leurs analyses étaient des méthodes de l’esprit humain, et non un moyen de la nature? que, dans cette nature, tout est rapport, proportion, harmonie et agrégation? qu’elle lie, rassemble et compose toujours, même en décomposant, car ses lois ne dorment jamais, tandis que l’homme qui analyse, soit comme chimiste, soit comme raisonneur, ne peut qu’observer et suspendre, décomposer et tuer ? Que dire d’un architecte qui, chargé d’élever un édifice, briserait les pierres pour y trouver des sels, de l’air et une base terreuse, et qui nous offrirait ainsi une analyse au lieu d’une maison ? Le prisme qui dissèque la lumière gâte à nos yeux le spectacle de la nature. <…><164>
Ils ont cru cependant, ces philosophes, que définir les hommes, c’était plus que les réunir; que les émanciper, c’était plus que les gouverner, et qu’enfin les soulever, c’était plus que les rendre heureux. Ils ont renversé des États pour les régénérer, et disséqué des hommes vivants pour les mieux connaître.
C’est en vain que Platon (car la Grèce avait souffert aussi des débordements de cette philosophie) leur avait dit que ce n’était point à eux à faire des vers et de la musique, mais d’en parler, puisque leur philosophie était discoureuse; c’est en vain que Zenon avait prononcé que le vrai philosophe n’est qu’un bon acteur, également propre au rôle de roi et de sujet, de maître et d’esclave, de riche et de pauvre : car, en effet, il est de la vraie philosophie de faire tout bien, et non de trouver tout mal ; c’est en vain, dis-je, que les hommes étaient bien avertis sur la nature et la différence des deux philosophies : il s’est fait dans toutes les têtes un changement qui a préparé la révolution dont les philosophes ont été brusquement promoteurs, guides et victimes, révolution dans laquelle ils ont pensé qu’on pouvait dénaturer tout sans rien détruire, ou tout détruire sans péril, et hasarder le genre humain sans crime.

LinkOctober 2, 2009

Animal spirits are the motor of the economy

Some time ago I took note of the odd appearance of the antique phrase “animal spirits” in an economist’s ruminations on the future of the US economy. Recently I discovered the immediate source of that phrase in economic discourse: it is Keynes, arguing that economic agents are not, and shouldn’t be, entirely rational.
Enterprise only pretends to itself to be mainly actuated by the statements in its own prospectus, however candid and sincere. Only a little more than an expedition to the South Pole, is it based on an exact calculation of benefits to come. Thus if the animal spirits are dimmed and the spontaneous optimism falters, leaving us to depend on nothing but a mathematical expectation, enterprise will fade and die; — though fears of loss may have a basis no more reasonable than hopes of profit had before.
It is safe to say that enterprise which depends on hopes stretching into the future benefits the community as a whole. But individual initiative will only be adequate when reasonable calculation is supplemented and supported by animal spirits, so that the thought of ultimate loss which often overtakes pioneers, as experience undoubtedly tells us and them, is put aside as a healthy man puts aside the expectation of death.
Now the question is: where did Keynes find those animal spirits? A search of Google Books did not turn up any obvious candidates, but perhaps Keynes read Harald Høffding’s then-recent History of philosophy (1908), which includes a number of references.

LinkFebruary 13, 2009

On passive and active ideas

In an informative discussion of experimental results on what you might call the mind’s presumption that its inputs are veridical—a presumption with startling effects—Eliezer Yudkowsky writes:
One might naturally think that on being told a proposition, we would first comprehend what the proposition meant, then consider the proposition, and finally accept or reject it. This obvious-seeming model of cognitive process flow dates back to Descartes. But Descartes’s rival, Spinoza, disagreed; Spinoza suggested that we first passively accept a proposition in the course of comprehending it, and only afterward actively disbelieve propositions which are rejected by consideration.
Over the last few centuries, philosophers pretty much went along with Descartes, since his view seemed more, y’know, logical and intuitive.
This is one of those cases where in the interest of bringing out a philosophically worthwhile distinction people tend to exaggerate the differences among philosophers.
Descartes and Spinoza both distinguished the disposition to assent to or act upon an idea as if it were true from the act of assenting to it. Dispositions to assent can be acquired through reasoning, but they can also be acquired in other ways, e.g. through the senses or in school—in short, passively.
Descartes argues (in the first part of the Principles) that we acquire many opinions passively; to become a philosopher is in part to attain suspension of judgment with respect to certain key opinions that most of us take on without reflection, when the mind cannot resist the pull of bodily sensation and emotion. I don’t think the results described by Yudkowsky would have surprised him.
Spinoza holds that merely to think an idea is to affirm the existence of the object of that idea; in that sense, to comprehend an idea involves assenting to its truth. But that is only part of the story. The more adequate one’s understanding is, the less passive it will be; assent will follow only upon reasoning, i.e. upon understanding the causes of whatever it is one is thinking of. The ideal in Spinoza is not all that different from the ideal in Descartes: for both, genuine knowledge consists in having clear and distinct (Descartes) or adequate (Spinoza) ideas and in reasoning correctly with them. Everything else is opinion.
The view ascribed to Descartes distinguishes two processes: comprehension and evaluation. The mind is supposed first to take in an idea, to bring it before the tribunal of judgment, where it is then evaluated for truth or falsity. Spinoza departs from the model: as he refuses to separate the act of bringing to mind from that of judging (Ethics 2pr49 & cor). He denies any role in his psychology to what Descartes calls “suspension of judgment”, and having done so can then argue that to think of a triangle is to affirm its existence. Will and understanding, or rather volitions and ideas, are one and the same.
Nevertheless he needs some sort of distinction between having the idea, say, of Peter as free and affirming that Peter is free, so that the mind can, once it recognizes that all events are necessary, reject the idea of Peter as free (by incorporating Peter into a causal network in which Peter is seen to be determined in his acts). Without this it is hard to understand how somone could regard himself as having had false opinions; but Spinoza clearly believes that one can.
Subsequent philosophers favored the “Cartesian” model, according to which it is one thing to have an idea, another to judge it true or false. I don’t think this was because that view seemed more “logical”. It was because they came to regard ideas, or more generally systems of representation as mere symbols, having no force of their own. The idea of red, considered in itself, has then no particular degree of what Hume called “vivacity”; only particular thoughts involving that idea have vivacity. Spinoza had argued that that was a mistake, that ideas are not mere dead letters, but his was a minority view.
One culmination of that tendency can be found in formal logic, where the system of representation, i.e. the class of well-formed formulas, is usually defined quite separately from the system of evaluation, i.e. the class of valid inferences.
Overcoming Bias citation via Reperiendi.

LinkJanuary 4, 2009

Purple Rebuke

It’s a little-known fact about Søren Kierkegaard that one of his last works was an attempt to rewrite the Critique of Pure Reason in a peculiar idiom of his own. It is also a little-known fact about him that in his final period (the “purple” period) he used a typewriter. From the Philosophical Fortnights archives we bring forth an intellectual treasure—the only surviving page of Kierkegaard’s never-to-be-completed treatise.
Because it’s a large image, I’ve placed it in a separate window. Click the View button below to see it (if the window doesn’t appear, you can view the image here).
In case you’re wondering, the text was generated from the Critique of Pure Reason using the “N + 7” technique (in French, “S + 7”) proposed by Oulipo. Using a dictionary, replace each noun (or, as in the present instance, each noun and adjective) with the seventh noun (or adjective) following. So ‘pure’ becomes ‘purple’, and so on. The results are better if you use a small dictionary. For Kant’s Latin phrases Collins’ pocket Latin dictionary was used. The page you see was typed about twenty-five years ago; it has survived many moves and long periods of being displayed on refrigerators. I just noticed a typo in the second paragraph: for ‘obvious reason’ read ‘obvous rebuke’.

LinkAugust 24, 2007

Locke & Berkeley on YouTube

At YouTube, a witty take on Locke and Berkeley. I suppose that this is a premonition of what students will be producing in almost every course in a few years.
When you’re done, watch the Hungarian man riding a donkey.

LinkJuly 9, 2006

Nourrir grand’ barbe

Ronsard, translating a Greek epigram:
Si nourrir grand’ barbe au menton
Nous fait Philosophes paroistre,
Un bouc barbasse pourroit estre
Par ce moyen quelque Platon.
Free translation:
If long beards
Make philosophers
Then goats must appear
Great Sophisters.
Pierre de Ronsard, Gayetez (orig. publ. 1553), in Œuvres, ed. Gustave Cohen (Paris: Gallimard, 1950) 1:341. Ronsard’s source is the Greek Anthology.

LinkJune 10, 2006


It was bound to happen, I suppose. Cornell has remaindered my books. You can get them cheap at Labyrinth. Elsewhere too, no doubt. All under $15.
I’d rather the books were read than sitting in a warehouse. In case you’re wondering, remainder sales don’t pay royalties. In that respect I’m entirely disinterested.

LinkApril 30, 2006


Brian Leiter was here last week. His talk was on Nietzsche’s theory of the will, which is, according to Leiter, in line with certain results in current neuroscience. In brief Nietzsche’s view is that the mental acts traditionally called acts of will or volitions, which were held to be the necessary determining causes of voluntary acts, are only correlates of those acts; the volition and its accompanying act are joint effects of a underlying force or drive, which alone causes the act; but we mistakenly take the volition to be its cause.
I’ve read Nietzsche, but I claim no expertise. Leiter’s reading rings true, although any reading that makes Nietzsche too sensible is in my view suspect. Leiter notes that in the 1870s Nietzsche read up on materialist psychology. The view that our acts and thoughts have unconscious determinants was common property, especially on the Continent, in the late 19th century. Our conscious mental life is spume riding the waves of a great sea of impulses, drives, habits, and so forth, inaccessible to introspection, among which are to be found the true causes not only of our acts but also of conscious thoughts themselves—including volitions.
One of the targets of Nietzsche’s critique is the view, held by Descartes and many others, that for some, if not all, volitions the will, or the mind itself, is the proximate undetermined cause. Desmond Clarke, in his recent book Descartes’s theory of mind, rightly emphasizes the limits of Cartesian will.
Added 5 May: A précis of Descartes’ theory was just published in the Times Literary Supplement.
But he goes too far, I think, in holding that according to Descartes the will is supervenient upon the body-machine(). Descartes is quite conventional in that respect: our freedom may be less than we think, but we are free; and no machine is. Nevertheless the scope of a Cartesian agent’s freedom is, as Clarke says, hemmed in by sensations and the passions that result from them. It is more like an embattled Freudian ego than like God—whose freedom in acting is absolute—even though the freedom of the will is that aspect of the mind with respect to which we most resemble God.
The Passions of the soul promises entire mastery (empire, imperium: sovereign rule) over the passions. But that aim is achieved, in the end, by inculcating in oneself the passion of générosité, a self-esteem resting upon true knowledge of the mind—in particular, that the will is free, that only our thoughts are within our control, and that we have ordered our acts according to our understanding of the good. Générosité, well nurtured, will dominate all other passions, as in Spinoza the love of God subdues every passion contrary to it, and incline the will to good and only to good acts. The Passions aim not to show that the will can be released from determination but rather that we are capable of acting according to the good as represented in the understanding: autonomy, not spontaneity, is what Descartes promises us.
To act freely is, on one understanding of freedom, to have the power of acting according to one’s nature as a rational being, that is, according to one’s understanding of the good or of the moral law. Kantian autonomy is just one chapter in a long story. The will is also sometimes understood to be an uncaused cause, an initiator of causal chains; this can be reconciled with autonomy understood as determination by reason so long as one distinguishes determination from the exercise of active power.
It is on that point that Spinoza, for example, can be distinguished from Descartes (and perhaps also from Kant). For Spinoza, every mode of thought belongs to an infinite causal chain of such modes; there are no originations in Spinoza's world. For Descartes, acts of will are never, or at least need not always be, necessitated by antecedent modes of thought (the texts leave room for uncertainty on this point); in that respect the will remains an uncaused, or spontaneous, cause.
Nietzche, then, aided by his readings in materialist psychology, and guided by a contemporary fascination with the unconscious, continues one strand in modern thinking about the will, according to which being spontaneous, or an uncaused cause, is relatively unimportant. What wisdom advises instead of an impossible originality is to aim for a limited autonomy, which consists partly in acquiring habits of feeling. Having the capacity to acquire them is itself a matter of having a temperament, and living in circumstances, conducive to doing so—which is to say a matter of luck. Some people have, Descartes says, strong wills; some have mediocre wills; and some, perhaps, have wills so weak that they are best off putting themselves under the guidance of others; the allocation of wills depends on chance, on the inscrutable decisions of God.
The novelty in Nietzsche’s view, seen in that light, is the denial of efficacy to volitions; but even that one can find, for example, in Malebranche, argued for not on psychological but on logical grounds. God’s will is known with certainty to be efficacious because the inference from “an omnipotent being wills p” to p is valid, given what omnipotence is. The inference from “Dennis wills that p” to p cannot be demonstrated; experience proves only too often that it fails. The common cause of volitions and acts is God, the only active cause, even though common sense attributes efficacy to the will as to other second causes. The unconscious drives inferred by Nietzsche as the common cause of volitions and actions are functionally equivalent to Malebranche’s God, and like God they are incomprehensible to the agents determined by them.
() An essay-review by me on Clarke’s book is forthcoming in the Oxford studies in early modern philosophy.

LinkApril 2, 2006


It’s Friday the 13th. Outside, near-blizzard conditions. Bad luck for someone, whatever the date. —Long ago, when Hollywood ruled the entertainment world, movies would open in the downtown palaces and then, weeks or months later, they would be relegated to the second-run houses in the neighborhoods (the “nabes”). Philosophical Fortnights is something like that.
I’m unlikely to be the first to alert anyone to the current outrage or today’s sin against reason. Time and energy don’t allow it, not to mention a lack of expertise. Perhaps it’s not so bad that some weblogs should be slow. Weblog software is biased toward an evanescent present, to instantaneous response: but instantaneous responses are by and large stock responses, as I. A. Richards called them. Questions at talks are often stock questions: they’re what you would ask if someone were to argue for materialism or consequentialism. We know the moves after all. That’s part of being an academic philosopher, part of being an original philosopher too. It’s not surprising that those weblogs that consist mostly in links to news items sometimes content themselves with more-or-less long-winded equivalents of mmm or yuck. Good for rallying the troops, not so good for real thinking.
That, in any case, is my excuse for pulling together, belatedly, a few things that have accumulated over the last month or so.
A school for atheists
French, of course. Athéisme, l’homme majuscule is in pure form that secular humanism which Bill O’Reilly thinks is going to take over the country, along with George Soros and the ACLU. Citations, biographies, humor, the Song of Songs, even a section of atheist apologetics. I’m pleased to see them noticing Paul Léautaud, whose literary journal is among the best I know of. Among the (not very well sourced) citations: “La seule foi qui me reste—et encore!—c’est la foi dans les dictionnaires”, which is reminiscent of Nietzsche’s remark about grammar.
Atheism is enjoying a bit of a vogue in France, with help of Michel Onfray’s Traité d’athéologie (2246648017: Amazon.fr, Chapitre) and the Cours accéléré d'athéisme by Antonio Lopez Campillo and Juan Ignacio Ferrera (2930390042: Amazon.fr, Chapitre). Atheism seems to me on the whole a shallower position than theism. That isn’t a criticism but an observation: once you’ve said there’s no God, there isn’t much more to say. What remains is to develop an ethics that rigorously avoids any appeal to the supersensible.
Tara Smith, an epidemiologist at the University of Iowa, is the author of Aetiology, a weblog on disease and public health issues, with occasional remarks on academic life. One entry in her old weblog, “This view of life”, caught my eye. Smith is drawn to biology by the variety of life, by the endless supply of puzzles it presents. Smith starts from an essay in the New York Times (registration required) by Olivia Judson, author of Dr. Tatiana’s sex advice to all creation. In biology, says Judson,
small facts add up to big pictures. For although Mother Nature’s infinite variety seems incomprehensible at first, it is not. The forces of nature are not random; often, they are strongly predictable.
For example, if you were to discover a new species and you told me that the male is much bigger than the female, I would tell you what the mating system is likely to be: males fight each other for access to females. Or if you discover that the male’s testicles make up a large part of his weight, I can tell you that the females in his species consort with several males at a time.
Suppose you find that a particular bacterium lives exclusively in the gullets of leeches and helps them digest blood. Then I can tell you how that bacterium’s genome is likely to differ from those of its free-living cousins; among other changes, the genome will be smaller, and it will have lost sets of genes that are helpful for living free but useless for living inside another being.
Creationism, I should note, hasn’t a prayer of explaining any of these relations. What interests me more is Smith’s final paragraphs:
Elsewhere online, I was involved in a discussion about evolution with a number of people with a host of different beliefs, from atheist to a self-described fundamentalist Christian. One Christian (who actually happens to be in seminary) stated his view on the topic:
And for me, there is something deeply spiritual about that idea, of connectedness to all of the planet on some level. I don’t find that evolution challenges my spirit; rather, learning more about how nature interconnects allows me to find more footing with my own life and walk with God.
This feeling of interconnection is something any of us can experience, regardless of our religious beliefs (or lack thereof). To steal a quote from Darwin, there is grandeur in this view of life—and I’m happy I evolved.
The seminarian offers a gloss on the fact of interconnectedness: it is “spiritual”, in a Kantian way—suggestive of ends (and of nature’s being ordered to ends) but in no way demonstrating them. The relation to God intimated in interconnection is the Spinozan relation of being “part of nature”, in necessary relation to the whole; at least that seems to me a more natural conclusion than orthodox theism. You may hold as Leibniz did that all of nature is related and still set God apart from nature as its transcendent cause, wholly distinct from created things by virtue of being perfect. Interconnectedness is ambiguously suggestive of both.
Returning to Athéisme, under the rubric “Science” I find this:
De tout temps l’hommeThrough all age man has posed questions about nature, life, himself… His need of knowledge is immense and ever-increasing. No sooner is one question resolve than another, ten others, emerge.
Religion was the first attempt to provide answers to those question, most often in the form of certainties whose source is a divine Revelation (as in the great monotheisms).
The use of rationality and the progressive liberation of thought from the empire of religion have permitted metaphysics to erect explanatory theories, based, it is true, on logical reasoning but purely speculative because inaccessible to experiment.
In the century of the Enlightenment, the sciences, entering their modern epoch, became aware of the impossibility, by reason of the limits themselves of the human condition, to acquire knowledge beyond experience and so of the vanity of the quest for the absolute.
Science, by its methods, its rigor, its humility (it does not claim to give immutable answers or certainties), its concrete and experimentally verifiable results, gives answers which are almost universally accepted (almost, because there still are creationists!). As the domains covered by science grow ever broader, religions and metaphysics are regularly obliged to reposition themselves with respect to it.
Human curiosity and interest in our surroundings are such that questions not yet resolved by science will not soon be exhausted. Religion and metaphysics, which feed on human ignorance, still have grist for their mills. The stubborn criticism of the “revealed” truths of religion or of the reified, deified abstractions of metaphysics, is a combat which cannot be avoided if humanity is really to take in its hands its destiny and render the world more human.
s’est posé des questions sur la nature, sur la vie, sur lui-même… Son besoin de connaissance est immense et va croissant. Dès qu’une question est résolue, une autre, dix autres surgissent.
La religion, la première, a tenté d’apporter des réponses à ces questions, le plus souvent sous forme de certitudes puisées dans une Révélation divine (cas des grands monothéismes).
L’usage de rationalité et la libération progressive de la pensée de l’emprise des religions ont permis à la métaphysique d’échafauder des théories explicatives, certes basées sur un raisonnement logique mais purement spéculatif car inaccessible à l’expérimentation.
Au siècle des “Lumières”, les sciences qui entraient dans leur époque moderne, ont pris conscience de l’impossibilité, en raison des limites mêmes de la condition humaine, d’acquérir des connaissances au-delà de l’expérience et donc de la vanité de la quête de l’absolu.
La science, par ses méthodes, sa rigueur, son humilité (elle ne prétend pas donner des réponses immuables ou des certitudes), ses résultats concrets et vérifiables expérimentalement, donne des réponses qui sont quasi universellement admises (quasi, car il existe encore des créationnistes !). Les domaines couverts par la science sont de plus en plus larges, ce qui oblige les religions et la métaphysique à se repositionner régulièrement par rapport à elle.
La curiosité et l’intérêt de l’homme pour ce qui l’entoure sont tels que les questions qui ne sont pas encore résolues par la science ne sont pas prêtes de s’épuiser. La religion et la métaphysique, qui se nourrissent de l’ignorance des hommes, ont encore du grain à moudre. La critique obstinée des vérités “révélées” par les religions ou des abstractions réifiées, puis déifiées par la métaphysique, est un combat indispensable pour que l’homme puisse réellement prendre entre ses mains sa destinée et rendre le monde plus humain.
Manifestos tend to be heaps of unargued commonplaces. This one is no exception. The threefold division—religion, metaphysics, science—is straight from Auguste Comte. It’s as if the anthropology and history of science of the last sixty years had never existed. But let’s consider just one claim more closely: that “religion and metaphysics feed upon the ignorance of men”.
This is meant to be an objection. But the ground of the objection cannot be merely that religion and metaphysics address matters on which we are ignorant. Science does too. Nor can it be even that they take up questions that science does not, unless you take a hard positivist line and rule out such questions as meaningless. But ethics, for one, is not meaningless, even though at least part of its subject matter lies outside the range of questions science can address.
The objection isn’t really to disciplines that inquire into matters not (yet) addressed by science, but to the methods that religion and metaphysics use to answer them: revelation and speculation. Consider speculation—“raisonnement inaccessible à l’expérimentation”. It’s not easy to find a metaphysics that has no relation to experience; and I’m not sure what a metaphysical “experiment” would be. The authors seem to be running together two sorts of claim:
  • (i) The claim, Kantian in spirit, that certain questions—summarized by the phrase “the quest for the absolute”—cannot even in principle be settled by appeal to experience;
  • (ii) The claim that only experiment, and not just experience generally, yields genuine knowledge.
The second is more restrictive than the first. How much more depends on the definition of “experiment”. Too narrow a definition will consign history to the flames. I’m not sure that (ii) can be made plausible except by defining ‘experiment’ merely as some sort of test to which experience is essential. But then (ii) is effectively equivalent to (i).
Concerning (i): Kant’s position, in brief, is that reason itself demands that we move from the conditioned (e.g. a determinate region of space) to the unconditioned (space without limits). This is not the result of some argumentum ad ignorantiam but a product of reflection on what being conditioned presupposes. Kant himself did not so much rule out metaphysics as put it in its place: the Ideas of metaphysics (God, space, time, the harmonious unity of the laws of nature) have no role in the determination of the objects of thought, and thus no role in science; nevertheless they remain indispensable to thought and even to science, as conditions on the conversion of experience into knowledge that cannot be proved from experience itself (nor applied to it, as the categories are).
What I’m summarizing is the murkiest part of the Critique of pure reason. Opinions differ, to say the least, on what Kant was up to and whether he succeeded. Still what I’ve said is enough to show that the Kantian claim (i) need not commit you to a combat with religion or metaphysics. Indeed if you want to revive the “warfare between science and theology” (historically a dubious notion, I should note), it would seem that you must either argue that outside science there is no knowledge or else grant that religion does have testable consequences that science can refute.
The critique of dubious religious or metaphysical claims is a worthwhile project. I don’t think it is well served by dubious history or question-begging arguments.
Briefly noted
  • The neuroscience of regret:
    From Cosma Shalizi’s Three-toed sloth.— Nathalie Camille, Giorgio Coricelli, Jerome Sallet, Pascale Pradat-Diehl, Jean-René Duhamel and Angela Sirigu, “The involvement of the orbitofrontal cortex in the experience of regret”, Science 305 (2004): 1167--1170. Punchline: “The orbitofrontal cortex has a fundamental role in mediating the experience of regret”. There is a comment by David Eagleman (308 (27 May 2005):1260) and a response by the authors.
  • The neuroscience of intuition:
    From Neurotopia.— One class of neuron, known as Van Economo neurons, resides in the fronto-insular cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex. Those two areas of the brain are “active during social situations”, when we’re assessing other people’s beliefs and desires; they also process “the conscious monitoring of visceral activity”. As Neurotopia notes, the expression “gut feeling” may have some truth to it.
  • Old fogies still have it in ’em:
    From Postclassic. —At least some old fogies. Old Masters and Young Geniuses by David Galenson distinguishes two kinds of artist: the experimental artist and the conceptual innovator. The innovator is at his or her best under 40; experimenters reach their peak at 40 or later. (Galenson is an economist at Chicago.)

LinkJanuary 14, 2006

Maker’s knowledge and the judgment of taste

An emailed comment on the Average Philosophers pictures got me thinking about the motives or motifs at work behind the scenes as I was making them. The visual starting-point was the “Fifty People See” series at Brevity on Flickr. Brevity mentions Jesse Salavon, so I looked at his work too. Further back, I think, were memories of Saul Steinberg’s vague portraits and landscapes, which manage to be, despite their determinate concreteness, about portraithood or landscapeness rather than being actual portraits or landscapes. Francis Bacon comes to mind too. His images fascinate me because you can’t quite make them fit together; they seem to portray bodies in pain but the parts of those bodies are difficult to distinguish, and so what exactly they are undergoing is unclear.


LinkJuly 16, 2005