Monday, March 14, 2011

Barbarism of Reflection

For the past couple of weeks I've been content to leave my story where it was -- my personal re-conciliation with Fate in late 2009.  Since that time I've found happiness for the first time in my life.  Almost immediately -- like magic -- I met a wonderful person to spend the rest of my life with.  I started thinking less about unanswerable questions, and more about how to improve my own life.  I took up guitar, I started preparing for economic decline, and I sought a spiritual center through meditation and prayer.  If I had to sum up this change, I would have to describe it as a new search for simplicity.

The main reason I've felt like I needed to share these personal details, was to help other people avoid taking some of the same endless detours that might have ended up consuming my entire life.  When I call myself a "recovered philosopher" I mean just that.  Philosophy is not all bad, but it can easily become a kind of sickness if pure thinking is allowed to run unchecked.  You might think I'm exaggerating when I say this, but it's a real, tangible danger, and I know because I've experienced it firsthand.  The good news is, it's easily avoided -- simply by being at peace.

From the Tao-Te-Ching, ch. 47:

"Without going out his door
he knows the whole world.
Without looking out his window
he knows the Way of Heaven.
The farther people go
the less people know,
therefore the sage knows without moving,
names without seeing,
succeeds without trying."

The Eastern religions have developed this idea to its fullest extent.  In Buddhism, emptying the mind and meditating is seen as the most important way to gain insight.  The Buddha himself is thought to have achieved enlightenment while meditating under the Bodhi tree. 

There was an ancient proverb in China, "He who learns but does not think, is lost."  Confucius responded, "He who thinks but does not learn is in great danger."  In other words, to doubt everything is as great a danger as to doubt nothing.  To have thoughts and doubts for their own sake is pointless -- eventually they must teach you something about life.

By cultivating a peaceful center in one's life, one has fewer worries and can spend more time getting things done.  Then, the thoughts and doubts that do arise tend to lead you to important insights.  Why?  Because thoughts that lead nowhere can be freely discarded, and you can get back to what is important.

Living simply does not necessarily mean sitting under a tree all day.  As human beings, citizens, and family members, most of us have obligations and responsibilities.  Not even the Buddha taught an annihilation of all effort -- instead he taught the Middle Way, which means performing one's tasks in the world without attachment.

Paul said (1 Thessalonians 4:11),

"Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands ... so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody."

Ecclesiastes has many interesting passages about the futility of ambition.  It seems to describe Buddha's Middle Way perfectly in this passage (4:5-6):

"The fool folds his hands and ruins himself.
Better one handful with tranquility
than two handfuls with toil and chasing after the wind."

Ecclesiastes 7:16-18:

"Do not be overrighteous,
neither be overwise --
why destroy yourself?
Do not be overwicked,
and do not be a fool --
why die before your time?
It is good to grasp the one
and not let go of the other.
The man who fears God will avoid all extremes."

Unfortunately, modern Western society has done a poor job of following this advice.  In place of the doctrine of the Middle Way we find the doctrine of Progress, the idea that all poverty can be cured through scientific advance.  Purpose and meaning are taken out of the hands of the individual and placed in the hands of the History of Civilization.  Instead of telling people to work with their hands and achieve self-sufficiency, as Paul did, we are educated to find "jobs" with corporations whose sole purpose is to accumulate wealth.

Modern society teaches us to strive after knowledge, wealth, and societal progress, despite the fact that everyone knows by heart the saying from Jesus' sermon on the mount: "Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth."

The accumulation of wisdom can be as dangerous as the accumulation of wealth.  "Philosophy" is Greek for "love of wisdom," and as such it can be a force for either good or evil.  If it leads you to contemplate higher things such as love of your fellow human and God, then it can heal you.  But if you begin to value knowledge above even love, it can lead you astray.  You can find numerous passages in the Bible warning against such foolish wisdom:

Proverbs 14:6: "The mocker seeks wisdom and finds none, but knowledge comes easily to the discerning."

Isaiah 29:14: "Therefore once more I will astound these people
with wonder upon wonder;
the wisdom of the wise will perish,
the intelligence of the intelligent will vanish."

Jeremiah 9:23-24: "Let not the wise men boast of his wisdom
or the strong man boast of his strength
or the rich man boast of his riches,
but let him who boasts boast about this:
that he understands and knows me,
that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness,
justice, and righteousness on earth,
for in these I delight,"
declares the Lord.

Matthew 11:19 (spoken by Jesus): "But wisdom is proved right by her action."

Matthew 13:54-55: "' Where did this man get this wisdom and these miraculous powers?' they asked.  'Isn't this the carpenter's son?'"

Corinthians 1:20-21: "Where is the wise men?  Where is the scholar?  Where is the philosopher of this age?  Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?"

This last passage was written by Paul some years after the death of Jesus, almost exactly 2000 years ago.  At the time, the great Greek philosophers -- Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates -- had been dead and buried for centuries.  Their writings lived on, and the Greek academies of learning were still bustling with scholars and would-be philosophers.  Stoic and epicurean philosophies were widespread, preaching rationality and atheism.  But in the end none of these proved satisfying either to the common man or to the intellectual.  St. Augustine, living another three or four centuries after Christ, when Roman and Greek civilization was at its height and the reputation of an intellectual was largely determined by the size of his library, describes his own entanglement with pure reason in his still widely read book, Confessions ("At Carthage"):

"My discipline as a student drew praise, and I thought I could excell as a litigator in the courts.  The more my work was praised, the better I became at it.  Such is human blindness, that we glory in our sightless condition.  I was proud of my standing as first in my class in the school of rhetoric.  I swelled with arrogance.
    "Confused as I was and living with such people, I studied the great books of rhetoric and dreamed of being an eminent orator.  Fame was the goal of my detestable vanity, for I rejoiced in human conceit.
    "During my studies, I happened upon a book of Cicero.  Almost everyone admires his discourses, although not his heart.  This book, Hortensius, is an exhortation to philosophy.  It changed my attitudes and turned me to pray to You, O Lord, with new goals and desires.  Cicero taught me that every vain hope is worthless.  Suddenly I burned with an intense desire to find wisdom that had eternal value.
    "How my heart burned then, my God.  I yearned to climb from materialism to find You.  For wisdom is found with You, and the love of wisdom is 'philosophy,' as it is called in Greek.  With philosophy that book inflamed me.
    "Some use philosophy to seduce by disguising error with long words and subtle arguments and honorable sounding names.  Almost all who misused philosophy in Cicero's day and before are censured in that book. ... 'See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ' [Colossians 2:8].
    "I resolved then to bend my mind to the holy Scriptures, that I might see what they contained.  But lo, I saw in it something that is not understood by the proud, nor laid open to children.  Its basic words can be understood by the lowly, but in its recesses are mysteries lofty and veiled.
    "In my worldly mind, I could not enter into this passageway because I could not bend my head low enough to crawl in.  For I did not feel then about Scripture what I can say now about it.  Its language seemed unworthy to be compared to the stateliness of Tully [Cicero].
    "So I was influenced by men of similar pride, who delight in carnal babble.  Their mouths were snares of the Devil, for the mixed in syllables of praise to Your name and to our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the Holy Ghost, the Paraclete, our Comforter.  ... [B]ut they had no truth in their hearts.
    "Inwardly the marrow of my soul panted for You when they looked into their many huge books and found various profundities that seemed to echo You to me."

When Rome fell, 99% of these huge books were lost.  What was left were the books that people really cared about, such as Plato, Aristotle, the Bible, and Augustine's Confessions.  Not even Cicero's critical Hortensius survived.  Instead, as with most other books, the scribes neglected to copy it and the paper it was written on merely disintegrated with age. 

It's laughable to think that modern thinking prides itself in its progress when it is really making all the same arrogant mistakes that were rampant in Roman times.

One of the most popular debates in professional philosophy these days is the question of "rationality."  Are humans rational?  Can we become more rational?   What does it mean to be rational?  Is true rationality even possible? 

You're probably thinking, "It depends on what you mean by 'rational.'"  Well, that's the problem.  Different people might mean different things by the word.  To make things more confusing, most philosophers realize that this is a problem.  But they excuse themselves by saying something like, "We're just trying to analyze the meaning of the term 'rational,'", or "We're just trying to figure out what 'rational' should mean.'"  Meanwhile, hundreds of papers are published on the topic every year, and though they all introduce some new insight on the meaning of the word, most of these insights are forgotten over time and little agreement is ever reached.

Most Analytic philosophers would probably argue that a certain kind of rationality -- scientific rationality -- is responsible for human progress and our "modern" standard of living.  One of the main tasks of philosophy is supposedly to explain scientific rationality.  But this project dates back at least to Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), and has generated more controversy than it has resolved.
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)
"I have found a way of guarding against
all  those  errors  that  have  hitherto  set 
reason against itself"(Critique, p. A xii).

Kant argued in his famous book (The Critique of Pure Reason) that by recognizing certain ultimate limitations on reason, philosophers would finally have a logic or method that would allow them to prove whether a belief was true, false, or unknowable.  Kant believed that this would finally put philosophy on solid ground, just as Isaac Newton had put physics on solid ground with his mathematical theory of gravity.  Though Kant's theory of reason was very long and complex, it was eventually hailed as a work of genius and became famous.

But things did not work out as Kant intended.  Certain doubts about his theory proved difficult to dispell.  Because Kant had argued that ultimate reality was forever beyond the limitations of human reason, he was labeled as an Idealist -- one who does not believe in the existence of the outside world.  Kant denied the charge, but the damage was done, and to this day many philosophers still describe his views in this way.  The beauty of the whole thing is that Kant's book is so complex that not even the experts on it can understand it well enough to agree whether or not he really was an Idealist.

Nevertheless, Kant had a huge influence, and he opened the way for the next great event in Western philosophy, namely, Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit (1807).  It may not be obvious to most philosophers today, but no other single work has had as profound an effect on the debates currently in vogue in philosophy.  How do I know this?  Because it gave rise to a particularly notorious school of philosophy known as Hegelianism, which had it's heyday in the mid-1800's, but lasted well into the 20th century.  To see why this brand of philosophy was so notorious, one only needs to open Hegel's book to any random page (which I am doing right now):
G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831)

"To help bring philosophy closer to the
form of Science, to the goal where it can
lay aside the title 'love of knowing' and
be actual knowing -- that is what I have
set myself to do" (Phenom., p. 3).

"313.  If now the outer shape could express the inner individuality only in so far as that shape is neither an organ nor an action, hence only insofar as it is a passive whole, it would behave as an existent Thing, which passively received the inner as an alien element into its passive existence, and thereby became a sign of it -- an external contingent expression whose actual aspect lacked any meaning of its own -- a language whose sounds and sound-combinations are not the real thing itself, but are linked with that by sheer caprice and are contingent in relation to it."

I just now had to read that three or four times to get even some minimal impression.  I'm guessing he's talking about something similar to inner vs. outer beauty here.  Perhaps you get the picture of how obscure Hegel's books are.  Of course, it's not entirely fair to judge work this way.  So how about we start at the beginning of his book, the "Preface," and give him a chance to explain himself:

"1. It is customary to preface to work with an explanation of the author's aim, why he wrote the book, and the relationship in which he believes it to stand to other earlier or contemporary treatises on the same subject.  In the case of a philosophical work, however, such an explanation seems not only superfluous but, in view of the nature of the subject matter, even inappropriate and misleading.  For whatever might appropriately be said about philosophy in a preface -- say a historical statement of the main drift and the point of view, the general content and results, a string of random assertions and assurances about truth -- none of this can be accepted as the way in which to expound philosophical truth."

But why not?  Why can't you just tell us what your goal is?  Why should we read your book?  Without clearly answering these questions he goes on, in paragraph 2, to argue that it would be pointless to "attempt to define how a philosophical work is supposed to be connected with other [philosophical] efforts" because this tends to introduce false dichotomies and a tendency to expect "a given philosophical system to be either accepted or rejected."  In paragraph 3 he argues that he can't simply tell you his aims and conclusions, because the content of philosophy is supposed to be in its unfolding.  So far I actually find it easy to see the attraction of his ideas.  He seems to be painting a picture of a more organic kind of thinking.

But from here on out the going gets extremely rocky.  Here are paragraphs 4 and 5.  See if you can make sense of this, if you dare (or just skim it if you want):

   "4. Culture and its laborious emergence from the immediacy of substantial life must always begin by getting acquainted with general principles and points of view, so as at first to work up to a general conception of the real issue, as well as learning to support and refute the general conception with reasons; then to apprehend the rich and concrete abundance of life by differential classification; and finally to give accurate instruction and pass serious judgment upon it.  From its very beginning, culture must leave room for the earnestness of life and its concrete richness; this leads the way to an experience of the real issue.  And even when the real issue has been penetrated to its depths by serious speculative effort, this kind of knowing and judging will still retain its appropriate place in ordinary conversation.
   "5. The true shape in which truth exists can only be the scientific system of such truth.  To help bring philosophy closer to the form of Science, to the goal where it can lay aside the title 'love of knowing' and be actual knowing -- that is what I have set myself to do.  The inner necessity that knowing should be Science lies in its nature, and only the systematic exposition of philosophy itself provides it.  But the external necessity, so far as it is grasped in a general way, setting aside accidental matters of person and motivation, is the same as the inner, or in other words it lies in the shape in which time sets forth the sequential existence of its moments.  To show that now is the time for philosophy to be raised to the status of a Science would therefore be the only true justification of any effort that has the same, for to do so would demonstrate the necessity of the aim, would indeed at the same time be the accomplishing of it."

I wouldn't go so far as to say that Hegel can be outright dismissed as nonsense.  The best I can do is admit that I cannot understand him.  The translation that I own and that appears here is by A.V. Miller and is 493 pages long.  I've carefully read up to page 335 and I can only say that I have the foggiest of notions what he is trying to say.  I've even taken a graduate level seminar on Kant, and delved into other philosophical literature from the same period.  This has helped, but only marginally.

Let's give Hegel the benefit of the doubt and say that his system of thought may be coherent and true but is just very complex and sophisticated, or at least alien to our current ways of thinking.  (Poor English translations may also be to blame -- a problem for Kant as well.)  My point is that, even then, Hegelianism came to be seen by most philosophers as a fruitless enterprise by the early 20th century.  It seemed to produce nothing but incoherent babble that was only comprehensible to those who had spent their lives mastering it.  The most important consequence of the controversy over Hegel was the rise of Positivism in the 1920s and 30s.  The basic idea behind Positivism was the philosophy had to rid itself of meaningless Hegelian "metaphysics," which was polluted by undefined terms like "Absolute Reason" or "self-identical Universality" and model itself on the sciences, which had made great progress since the time of Galileo and Newton.

The mascot of the positivists was a young genius by the name of Wittgenstein who famously uttered, "What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence."  They took this doctrine seriously, and attempted to banish all unanswerable questions and unclear terms from philosophy.
Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951)
"This  book  deals  with  the  problems  of
philosophy,  and  shows,  I  believe  that
the reason why these problems are posed
is  that  the  logic  of  our  language  is
misunderstood" (Tractatus, p. 3).

History was repeating itself.  Hegel's philosophy had been presented as an extension of Kant's, and Kant's philosophy was supposed to finally rid us of questions that can't be answered and allow philosophers to finally reach agreement on what can and cannot be known.

The positivists knew this.  So what made them think that things would be different this time around?  It was the development of modern, mathematical logic.  To them, it seemed that mathematics was the source of modern progress.  Centuries earlier, Newton had mathematized physics, and since then physics and chemistry had made tremendous advances, advances that led to steam engines, telegraphs, and airplanes.  Bertrand Russell said,

"In science men have discovered an activity of the very highest value in which they are no longer, as in art, dependent for progress upon the appearance of continually greater genius, for in science the successors stand upon the shoulders of their predecessors; where one man of supreme genius has invented a method, a thousand lesser men can apply it"  (from his essay, "The Place of Science in a Liberal Education," 1913).

The positivists sought to make philosophy like science so it could also progress.  To them, this meant developing logic to the point where all philosophical language could be made precise.  Once this task was done, philosophers and scientists could always agree on what is or is not known.

This utopian project has not yet succeeded.  By the 1960s and 70s, most philosophers had given up on positivism in this strong form.  But many of the ideals of positivism live on to this day in Analytic philosophy, especially in the idea that philosophy is most successful when it is modeled after science and mathematics. 

So far, I've described three failed attempts to develop an ultimate system of thought:  Kantianism (late 1700's and early 1800's), Hegelianism (1800's), and Positivism (early 1900's).  But these are only a few examples.  You had Cartesianism in the 1600's (based on Descartes' Meditations), Leibniz's famous attempt (see his Art of Discovery, 1685), Spinozism in the 1700's (based on Spinoza's Ethics), Husserl's Phenomenology in the early 1900's (see Edmund Husserl's Phenomenology and the Crisis of Philosophy), and the Artificial Intelligence movement of the late 1900's (see Douglas Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher, Bach, considered by some to be the "Bible" of the movement). All these attempts have one, somewhat comic, thing in common:  their goal is to develop a science of knowledge (you might say a science of science) that is true and ultimate and would form the basis of all rational thinking.

The absurdity of this goal should be clear if you think about what it really means.  To date, philosophy has been the study of those really difficult questions that seem important but which no one has yet solved, especially after centuries of trying.  The limits of human knowledge, the nature of reality, and the meaning of life are perennial philosophical topics.  To claim to have solved all these problems, or even just to be able to solve all these problems, is pure arrogance.

The question bothering you now might be: how have such brilliant minds been led so far astray again and again?  I don't pretend to know the answer to this question.  But let me try to explain how I've come to peace with it.  Let's assume that I thought that I did know the answer to this question, that I thought I had found a way to explain what it is that has been leading philosophers astray for all these centuries.  So what I do, then, is I go and I write a book explaining why philosophy has been so confused, and how future philosophers can avoid taking themselves down dead end roads of thought.  And let's also assume that I'm really good at writing books, and at sounding profound, so I show this book to my fellow philosophers, and they tell me that it's brilliant and that I should publish it.  So I go and publish it, and I'm hailed as the new genius of philosophy, who's demonstrated how philosophers can avoid trying to solve problems that are unsolvable.  The result of this might be that a new philosophical school rises up, perhaps called "Unsolvabilism," that tries to use my method for avoiding unsolvable problems.

But behold!  The story I just told has already occurred!  It's the story of Kant, Hegel, Wittgenstein, and the rest! 

So what does it mean?  Nothing.  It just means that the human mind has its limits, and when it tries to surpass these limits, it is liable to get confused.  The easiest way I've found to solve the problems of philosophy is simply to ignore them.  As long as you can find a way to go about living your everyday life, and solving the mundane problems that face you as they come, you'll be okay.  It's not that thinking is a bad thing, or isn't sometimes useful or needed, but that it is usually not very fruitful to allow it to become a goal in itself.

Paul wrote to his "son in the faith" Timothy (1 Timothy 1:3-7),

"As I urged you when I went to Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you many command certain men not to teach false doctrines any longer nor devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies.  These promote controversies rather than God's work -- which is by faith.  The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.  Some have wandered away from these and turned to meaningless talk.  They want to be teachers of the law, but they do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm."

In this passage Paul is referring to controversies within an early Christian congregation.  But I think this lesson can be applied more generally.  Debates over the reality of myths and superstitions, over metaphysical questions, and over points of history are not always bad, but if they take over our lives, then they can cause us to forget what is really important.

Tao Te Ching, ch. 48:

"Those who seek learning gain every day.
Those who seek the Way lose every day,
they lose and they lose
until they find nothing to do.
Nothing to do means nothing not done.
Whoever rules the world isn't busy.
If someone is busy
he can't rule the world."

Post Script

"Barbarism of reflection" is a term introduced by Giambattista Vico, an 18th-century historian who also introduced the idea of cyclical history -- that civilizations rise and fall and go through certain rhythmic stages of development.  For him, the final stage of civilization before it collapses is called the human age (coming after the divine age and the heroic age), and is characterized by "barbarism of reflection" as opposed to the "barbarism of sense" that prevails in the first, or divine, age.  There is something very insightful about this idea, I think, given that both the late Roman Empire, and late Western civilization, have been characterized by the proliferation of books and speculative philosophical ideas.

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