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Wednesday 19 October 2011

Quotes worth saving (9) Heraclitus praised by Heidegger

"To think is surely a peculiar affair. The word of thinkers has no authority. The word of thinkers knows no authors, in the sense of writers. The word of thinking is not picturesque; it is without charm. The word of thinking rests in the sobering quality of what it says. Just the same, thinking changes the world. It changes it in the ever darker depths of a riddle, depths which as they grow darker offer promise of a greater brightness."
Martin Heidegger, Early Greek Thinking, 'Logos'

Thursday 6 October 2011

Thirty-three, or 33 things for 33 years

1. the ordinary is more wonderful than any fiction can ever be.

2. philosophy is the art of living and dying well, it is not merely a difficult academic game.

3. generalisations can be useful in theoretical descriptions, but are mostly useless and dangerous in practical situations.

4. the oppositional dichotomy employed most commonly in descriptions is naïve at best, corrupting and destructive at its worst.

5. science and religion cannot give the answer - only distraction.

6. art and philosophy cannot give the cure - only pacification.

7. how much we all owe to the randomness of existence.

8. most problems are caused by poor communication.

9. the flaws in language cannot be 'ironed out' and totally corrected, this is because the flaws are not in the system but in the operators (this poor metaphor also serves as an example).

10. a metaphorical description is an attempt to convey something grasped quite loosely, if it is not successful then another might be attempted.

11. caring-for is a devoted focus upon another object, event, or being that signifies a connection.

12. not-caring results in distancing.

13. we cannot be said to have absolute control over what we care about.

14. the focus of care is one of concern, we worry about what we care about because we care.

15. too much worry makes one ill.

16. thinking too much makes one worry about that which we cannot change.

17. thinking too little makes one an object of use for another.

18. we think that our attempted definitions of concepts are like a laser-beam of truth, when in fact it is akin to the sun's rays or rainfall upon a thirsty plant.

19. concepts tend to oscillate at an alarming frequency.

20. we live out our own judgements we make upon our own lives, there is nothing more final.

21. although categorising/theorising/storytelling is, in extreme, the epitome of falsehood it is also at the root of understanding.

22. an artwork, at its best, is an original attempt.

23. do not try and deny your mistakes, instead own them fully.

24. one should laugh as often as possible.

25. a friend is one with whom you can share laughter without pretext.

26. our perspectives are undergoing continual change and cannot therefore be described as 'final'.

27. God is only a concept and not a thing or being, but no less real for all that.

28. there are far too many people who do not care.

29. people would much rather vocalise than properly talk.

30. failure to understand the 'other' is based in the failure to understand yourself.

31. the relationships between things are mostly more important than the things themselves.

32. death, like sickness, is not to be feared. only calmly accepted. death is the end.

33. I would rather be hated than liked, I would rather be loved than hated.

Monday 1 August 2011

Quotes woth saving (8) Camus et Sisyphus

 Il n'y a qu'un problème philosophique vraiment sérieux : c'est le suicide. Juger que la vie vaut ou ne vaut pas la peine d'être vécue, c'est répondre à la question fondamentale de la philosophie. Le reste, si le monde a trois dimensions, si l'esprit a neuf ou douze catégories, vient ensuite. Ce sont des jeux ; il faut d'abord répondre.
There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest — whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories — comes afterwards. These are games; one must first answer.
Albert Camus (The Myth of Sisyphus)

Commencer à  penser c'est commencer d'être miné.

Beginning to think is beginning to be undermined.


Thursday 14 April 2011

Notes on pronunciation (1) Plato

Plato is probably the number one philosopher for mispronunciation. Indeed, an entire country seem to think it is correct to call him:

However, his name is not play-doh. The emphasis should be upon the T rather than flattening it. Thus:

Of course, Greeks might point out that we are all mispronuncing the word and it should sound more like:

I'm not so sure about that myself. Not that they don't know their own language. They do.
Whatever, just stop calling him Play-Doh.

Wednesday 13 April 2011

Quotes worth saving (7) Redemption

Very Little... Almost Nothing
Simon Critchley
(Routledge: London, 1997)

"...[N]either philosophy, nor art, nor politics alone can be relied upon to redeem the World, but the task of thinking consists in a historical confrontation with nihilism that does not give up on the demand that things might be otherwise."

Monday 11 April 2011

The Anarchy of Play

In an earlier post I described the work of play as inappropriate to its own conceptual structure, i.e. it is not part of play for it to be put to use in such a manner, as the solution to otherwise complex theoretical disputes. In the same way the solution to political/democratic problems is not to put an anarchist in charge. This is because anarchy like the concept of play might have a structural system but it is not a system meant for governing. It is a revolutionary or reactionary system, in that, it helps to show the errors with the current theoretical approaches.
What it?
Anarchy and play separate here I’d think.
Play is a fundamental system, it is how we learn, rather how we should learn in contrast with dogmatic learning or indoctrination. Although it is a fundamental system it is still not one that governs. In a similar manner, anarchy promotes freedom and works in reaction to the more perscriptive forms of government, but it is not a replacement.
So, while play works as a system for learning, it is still not a method for getting answers in a theoretical manner and therefore although it is offered by some (example: Linda Nochlin in her lecture ‘The body in pieces’ and by some Wittgensteinians) as replacement or answer in some philosophical problematic (i.e. by Nochlin as a way to get past the objectivbity/subjectivity divide in understanding art) this cannot be anything but a displacement of the problem. It is similar to the ‘quietist’ reading of Wittgenstein, which tells us that there is no answer and that this should be enough for us to be satisfied with. Philosophy then becomes a sort of unnecessary intellectual activity that only creates its own problems that ultimately may as well be set aside.

1. I don’t believe Wittgenstein held this quietist view in his philosophy.
2. I don’t believe play is a conceptual system capable of answering problems.
3. I don’t believe anarchy and play start from the same grounds, but have similar outlooks and (potentially) similar ends or goals.
4. I do believe play is a fundamental system for formulating understanding, but it is not a theory. It is an approach.
5. I do believe anarchy is a revolutionary theory based upon reacting against perscriptive or dogmatic systems of government.

Sunday 10 April 2011

Quotes worth saving (6) Active Nihilism

"Creativity plus a machine gun is an unstoppable combination." --- Raoul Vaneigem

Monday 4 April 2011

History of Aesthetics (2) Baltasar Gracián y Morales

Balthasar Gracián (1601 – 1658) was a Spanish Jesuit Priest and Moralistic Writer whose influencial work Oráculo manual y arte de prudenica (1637) was translated into many other languages, most famously into German by Schopenhauer, and became an important starting point for many of the discussions upon the nature of aesthetics in the 18th century. It was in The Oracle (alternatively The Art of Worldly Wisdom) that the first conceptual description of taste (it is believed, e.g. Kivy in ‘The Seventh Sense’) was first set out.  However, the style of the book is somewhat ‘labyrinthine’ in that it tends to ‘orbit’ a point without directly making it. This makes his writing rather easy to take as flippant or else as a misanthropic pithy saying without any deeper or more rigourous grounds to them, but, much like one of his later admirers Nietzsche, to take him at this surface level is to do a disservice to his work.
The Oracle is undoubtedly meant as a moral guide to life, much like the earlier stoic work Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, but within its pages is also a delicate aesthetic theory, one that will reoccur with the development of the ‘man of fine taste’ in post-Baumgarten European Aesthetics. Good taste in the Oracle is not merely a concept related to our critical or aesthetic behaviour but is a constituant part of what we are; it represents the faculty of liking or disliking in a wide range of situations and towards a variety of objects and so forth, and thus it represents the first attempted construction of taste as a mental faculty. A further insight that Gracián elaborates is that this taste is not an innate function of mankind, but that it is must be honed through the correct education. We might say, therefore, that although we all have the capability for exhibiting good taste in our lives it is only those who make the correct efforts and with the appropriate dedication that may be called a ‘person of good taste’ or in Gracián’s words “a saint.” I believe he means this (in the final aphorism) to be taken as a near impossiblity, rather than sainthood being something that most could achieve, the total achievement of Virtue is a task that is almost endless. However, no less worthy for that, that it is rather a life’s work and when do we know when it is complete? Well, like the saint it is only once dead and another can pass judgment upon our life. For saints are only sainted postmortum, which may be seen as a final misanthropic witticism of Graciáns, but I prefer to see this as a humourous aside to those that feel they could not get any better. Your life is never complete, Gracián is saying, it is a constant education to better one’s self and follow the path of Virtue and Virtue is synonymous with good taste in this reading. [Note: Although, under some readings 'saint' = Christian, as Gracián was a Jesuit priest, I'm using the 'saint' = canonized model.]
Following is a small selection from the Oracle of various fragments of aphorisms that deal with taste, either directly or indirectly, and are divided into the; original Spanish, Walton’s translation, and my interpretation.
Un bel portarse es la gala del vivir: desempeña singularmente todo buen término.
A gracious deportment is the adornment of life: it provides the best way to the attainment of every worthy end.
If you behave well then your life will go more smoothly towards the Virtuous.
Es munción de discretos la cortesana gustosa erudición.
The armoury of the discreet is polite, tasteful learning.
I take the emphasis on learning here to be the vital point.This is what the ‘discreet’ have as their advantage over all others.
En nada vulgar. No en el gusto.
Be vulgar in nothing. In the first place, not in your taste.
The importance of taste, that is, its preeminance above all other ‘qualities’. The vulgar is in opposition to what is Virtuous.
Estar en opinión de dar gusto.
Cultivate a repution for being pleasant.
I would see taste (gusto) here as being worthy of cultivation in that your dealings with other people will be all the better for its development, as he goes on to say “those who behave in a friendly way make friends.” Thus, those who are ‘tasteful’ will further develop their taste.
Tenga, pues, libertad de genio, apasionado de lo selecto y nunca peque contra la fe de su buen gusto.
Maintain, then, freedom of spirit, be zealous in pursuit of what is choice, and never sin against the verdict of your good taste.
Do not presume too much, extremes are to be avoided, taste deals with wise moderation.
Es eminencia de un buen gusto gozar de casa cosa en su complemento: no todos pueden, ni los que pueden saben.
It is high privilege of good taste to enjoy everything in its perfect state: not every one is capable of doing this, and not all those who have the ability know how to do so.
It is not just a natural endowment, taste must be ‘cultivated’ that is it must be educated in the appropriate manner.
Son las exageraciones prodigalidades de la estimación, y dan indico de la cortedad del conocimiento y del gusto.
Exaggerations are excesses of the judgment and indicate limited knowledge and taste.
Exaggeration is “an offshot of lying” and is damaging to your own [reputation for] wisdom. The wise prefer understatement to overstatement. Although it should be pointed out that Gracián himself is normally to be found overstating the case...
Lo más se vive de ella: supone el buen gusto y el rectísimo dictamen; que no bastan el estudio ni el igenio.
Most things in life depend upon right choice: it implies good taste and the most accurate judgment, for study and intelligence are not enough.
An argument for free will is also within the pages of Gracián’s Oracle. Also, it is not by study alone that a man might exhibit taste, i.e. one cannot just read books (like Gracián’s) one has to be about to put this knowledge to use and know how to act correctly through practical and not just theorectical application.
Gusto relevante. Cabe cultura en él, así como en el ingenio; realza la excelencia del entender el apetito del desear, y depués la fruición del poseer. Conócese la altura de un caudal por las elevación del afecto.
Good taste. There is room for cultivation here, just as in the case of the mind; the excellence of the understanding enhances the appetite of desire, and, later on, the enjoyment of possession. The extent of a man’s capacity is to be known by the loftiness of his taste.
The “loftiness of taste” is, again, not a ‘limit’ that we are born with, but one that may be extended by our cultivation.
If there are any Spanish speakers who could offer a different translation to Walton’s and help out with any cultural nuances that seem to have snuck past me then I’d be truly grateful.

Tuesday 29 March 2011

The Ontological Cut

The Ontological Cut
McGinn’s Version
For Marie McGinn the ontological cut that is made manifest in our language-games reveals that the important distinction is not between the philosophical myth of the inner and outer realm (something the private language argument is meant to dissipate) but, instead, between bodies whose form of life makes them accessible to psychological description and objects that are out of play to psychological concepts. She continues:
One important aspect of this fundamental division between categories of phenomena that make up our world is the qualitative difference in how we experience them: the words and cries, the gestures, movements and facial expressions of other living things have a significance for us that enters into our experience of them and figures essentially in our descriptions of what we see and hear. (McGinn, 1997, pp. 177-8)
My Version
Zettel §225. "We see emotion."--As opposed to what?--We do not see facial contortions and make inferences from them (like a doctor framing a diagnosis) to joy, grief, boredom. We describe a face immediately as sad, radiant, bored, even when we are unable to give any other description of the features.--Grief, one would like to say, is personified the face.
This belongs to the concept of emotion.

There is no great difference between mine and McGinn’s position, but perhaps my ‘cut’ is less deep. There are distinctions but not final divisions. I consider my cut to be the dotted chalk line (on the tailor’s pattern) marking the space between what is to be kept and what is to be discarded, which could also be thought of as a marking out of what is valued. At any rate this is merely an analogy, if it is not successful then I can offer perhaps another.

What I want to draw attention to here is the experiential quality, a distinction between qualitative and quantitative experience. Here’s a quote from Cussins:
Experience presents the world as coloured but a physicist’s atoms have no colour.  We perceive the world as beautiful or ugly, sweet or salty, happy or sad, brave or cowardly, intelligent or stupid; yet none of these properties figure in the world of the physical sciences.  In the scientific world-view, the universe is an arrangement of atoms in a four-dimensional void, where the properties of sentience have no place.  (Cussins, ‘The Limitations of Pluralism’)

What then are these properties? Ways of describing? At any rate there does seem to be a divide, which becomes apparent when a neuroscientist attempts to explain happiness by reference to particular brain states. There appears to be a ‘leap’ involved in their description, which highlights the difference in description and hence in the language-game to use the McGinn/Wittgenstein phrase. Describing one in terms of the other seems destined to failure or, at best, require the kind of logical ‘leap of faith’ previously suggested. I doubt that this is something we would want to accept. Neither of these ‘worlds’ are totally distinct, but neither can one be reduced one into the other without falling into error.


Wittgenstein, L., Zettel, (Basil Blackwell, 1967)

McGinn, M., Wittgenstein and the Philosophical Investigations, (Routledge, 1997)
Cussins, A., 'The Limitations of Pluralism'

Monday 28 March 2011

The Work of Play

Play is becoming an overused phrase in philosophy and, indeed, throughout the humanities. Its latent ambiguity allows it to be 'put to use' in a variety of explanatory mediums. For example; it is taken as the main goal of the philosopher Wittgenstein, as the aim of modernist art, as an explanation that mediates between subjectivity and objectivity, and so forth. Now, while I might not object to the outcomes of play used in each of these areas, I do find it more than a little disconcerting that play can be such a conceptual multi-tool. Indeed, that it can apparently carry such a heavy weight of theoretical responsibility seems in opposition to the constitutional description of play as a concept.

One should always pay attention to the descriptive language one uses especially when a particular phrase seems to be an especially handy 'catch-all'. Perhaps the worry isn't there and we are really talking about play simply as an analogy for a better description which does not yet exist, i.e. it's the best word we currently have for capturing a certain dispositional feel that is trying to be (indirectly) communicated.

Monday 28 February 2011

Quotes worth saving (5) Horace's consolation for the PhD student:

Molliter austerum studio fallente Laboren. 

Where the interest in the activity beguiles the hardness of the toil involved.

- Horace, Satires, Epistles and Ars Poetica.

Friday 25 February 2011

Questions to ask yourself before an undertaking

Note: Replace 'say' with 'do' or 'make' or 'enact' where appropriate.

What do you want to say?

Why do you want to say it?

What will the saying of it achieve?

Monday 21 February 2011

Fitted-ness in the Lecture on Aesthetics

The beginnings of this concept can be seen in lecture one and section 8 (L1, S8) where Wittgenstein says that, “it is remarkable that in real life, when aesthetics judgements are made, aesthetic adjectives such as ‘beautiful’, ‘fine’ etc. Play hardly any role at all... The words you use are more akin to ‘right’ and ‘correct’...”
Aesthetic words are used first only as ‘interjections’ it is later on, in learning, that we start using them rarely to describe experiences. Is this just a culturally depend ‘turn-of-phrase’ then? In one sense perhaps, but there is here the first sign of the sense of a word ‘fitting’ its purpose and this too can be culturally significant in many ways. Indeed, how else would it be significant? Unless we mean here that words extend beyond their cultural usage and into some metaphysical realm of use, which I hardly think is the right choice of phrase here.
Gestures of approval (L1, S12) only enter into our discussions when we start to speak of a ‘right’ way to read a poem or interpret a painting etc.
The Tailor
If you haven’t learnt the rules you won’t be able to make an aesthetic judgement. What could you make? An aesthetic guess. The example of the tailor (L1, S13 & 15) seeks to highlight this. When cutting out a suit, for it to be a good suit, one must know the rules of how long, how wide the cuts must be. “In learning the rules you get a more and more refined judgement. Learning the rules actually changes your judgement.”
Although, Wittgenstein then makes a bracketed claim that possessing neither the appropriate nature nor education might not stop one from making a correct claim. Rather than simply a lucky guess we might interpret this as an example of concepts seeping into/through culture. Especially one as far-reaching as music where a lack of specific training doesn’t stop one understanding misplaced beat or rhythm and so forth, it is not then all a matter of rules or simple human nature.
There is also a distinction made (L1, S15) between an attitude which strictly follows the rules, “I say: No. It is right. It is according to the rules.” And an attitude that develops a ‘feeling’ for the rules, i.e. one in which I actively interpret the rules.
Rules of harmony: It is not the interjections one uses to show appreciation, but the way one chooses, selects, etc. (L1, S19) Being able to see how it will fit shows both knowledge and appreciation of the material. To properly describe what appreciation consists in we must also describe the complete environment, thus making it an impossible task. “There is an extraordinary number of different cases of appreciation.” (L1, S21) Limits of knowledge? I could always know more. This isn't a limit as such. However, it just isn’t reachable. We don’t start from the basis of absolute knowledge before making judgements, with start with simplistic or naive judgements and develop these.
On the 'correctness' of the tailor’s judgements. (L1, S23) However, we don't talk of correctness here, merely being 'too short' or 'too long' or whatever. “The words we call expressions of aesthetic judgement play a very complicated role, but a very definite role, in what we call a culture of a period.” (L1, S25) “What belongs to a language game is a whole culture.” (L1, S26) “In order to get clear about aesthetic words you have to describe ways of living.” (L1, S35)
Aesthetics cannot be thought of as a science for saying what sort of things are beautiful, it is far too hard to find boundaries in these descriptions, would it also tell us “what sort of coffee tastes well.” (L2, S2)
The realms of 'utterance of delight' and that of Art, which are quite different but seem similar.
'Causes' seem to imply an addition of something else. Fitting or clicking (see below) doesn't seem to require this extra dimension. If we say that we 'know the cause' we are misleading if we consider this to be the explanation for our action. 'Why?' and 'because' are used when we are explaining our (aesthetic) discomfort, but hardly ever 'cause'. Knowing a cause is akin to tracing a mechanism. The explanation is a grammatical one.
“We have the idea of a super-mechanism when we talk of logical necessity.” (L3, S25) There is no 'super' there are only mechanisms of connection.
An aesthetic explanation (impression) is not a causal explanation. (L2, S 38) and it is “not one corroborated by experience or by statistics as to how people react.” (L3, S 11)
The 'fit' is something like a criterion, which indicates that e know the right thing has happened in the correct place/time (fit here called 'click'. L3, S2) The fitting or clicking is one satisfies one.
And finally,
“We are again and again using this simile of something clicking or fitting, when really there is nothing that clicks or fits anything.” (L3, S 5)

Wittgenstein, Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology, and Religious Belief, ed. Cyril Barrett (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1966).

Friday 18 February 2011

Some initial notes on the faculty of taste.

This is my own take on taste. It is a preliminary sense that will see what relation it has with the eighteenth century conception. I feel that here is an ever present danger of reading into an older philosophical text something like a false perspective that is part wish fulfillment and part anachronism. Thus, I want to be able to describe the eighteenth century debate but without an attempt 'find' something that was never quite there. Indeed, for all my trepidation of advancing theories there was nothing like that concern present at that time. Rather, it was the growing desire to advance a particular theory of art or beauty or some such that would give us a complete picture of how to 'properly' describe art that was one of the primary causes for the discussion of taste dropping out of the philosophy of art. This focus upon trying to pin imagination down as a specifically identifiable mental faculty and one that is therefore capable of a rationalised reduction into its strict practice is one that I believe deviates from the original conception of taste. With the description of taste as found in the eighteenth century there is more than enough to develop a worthwhile and elucidating discussion upon of relationship with art, artists and their work. However, as these worries can only be fully explained in light of a discussion of the theoretical work of the philosophers writing around Hume's period, I will therefore leave further elaboration on this rejection of theory until their work is under more focus.

What then do I mean by taste? I want to describe something here that is to be seen as part of what it means to be human. That is, something that is a fundamental constituent part of how we interact with the World and with each other. It seems uncontroversial to say that when we experience certain things we take pleasure in the experience. Whether it be seeing a sunset, or hearing a piece of music, or eating food, or any of many other things. Also, that we distinguish between these objects of our experience calling them; beautiful, lovely, good, and so forth. As well as finding certain experiences to be displeasing and these also involving various distinctions. The account of taste is one of the many ways in which philosopher's have attempted to describe these experiences and their objects. It is one that attempts to give something like a description in what I take to be a non-theoretical manner. The immediacy of the judgement of taste is still one that can become more refined by a process of learning the rules. So, we have something like an immediate natural response to an occasion or experience in some way and it is in this sense an individual reaction. We might say that the physiological could play a part here as well as the application of reason, but that this aesthetic judgement that taste makes is also one strongly influenced by the 'surround', that is, by the cultural 'rules' for understanding it is also something shaped by the outside. A further point here would be to not readily emphasise any causal direction of taste, that is to say, to see taste as being primarily beginning with the individual or from the external World (internalist or externalist).

Rather, I would instead characterise the judgement of taste as only being possible due to a merging of perspectives. A judgement of taste cannot be a judgement of taste unless it is subjectivity individual in some way and thus it is your judgement, however, it must also be one that is informed by external cultural practice and the possibility of description to others. There need be no first, or initial starting point, this mainly because a starting point always seems to imply the existence of an end point. In a further distancing from the idea of a theoretical completeness, the judgement of taste is never one that ends. By this I mean that another description can always be given of the experience, it is not ever a final description. If my experience is not directly communicable to others then all I can do is offer more attempts at description, perhaps this will bring the other into an understanding of my insight. To use an architectural analogy, this is akin to what is called 'top down construction'* where they build up and down simultaneously. Building up before the foundations are complete, but obviously never going too far or else the structure, the understanding, would topple.

So, taste can be seen as immediate in a certain regard, but that it must also require this intervention of rules into the process. I do find myself being lead by my intuitions to say that the type of judgement made in taste and the type of knowledge required in making this aesthetic judgement is of another type that there must be something special about the case of art and therefore about taste. However, I think it might be possible to say that and yet still not fall into the trap as seeing it as something especially different, in that it cannot be talked of in the same way to other experiences and methods of description. For in talking about the results of science or in ordinary everyday discourse there could be said to be a similarity, but in these cases as compared to our discussions about art objects there seems to be a greater deal of transparency especially when discussing science. There is most often a very definite way of describing such and such a formula or the results of an experiment. The methodology of science is rarely up for debate in the same way that word-use in the descriptions of ordinary life or of art objects seems to necessitate. Of course, various example could be raised here to show both the actual opaque-ness of some scientific descriptions and the transparency of some art works, where the meaning is just there, however, I would consider as these views are most common (science is transparent and art is opaque) that, for now, it is worth simply accepting them at face value (although further investigation into this might be worthwhile).

I believe that apart from the apparently necessary ambiguity to the language of art that there are as many similarities with ordinary language and, indeed, scientific language than there are apparent distinctions. The potential danger of subjectivism in aesthetic judgements, “well, I can't be wrong because it's how I feel”, is denied by the fact that we can judge these judgements. Not all sentiments are created equal. There is a normative character to how we use our aesthetic language, but it is not exclusive, there is more in common with our language use and development and yet, for all that, I still want to say that there is something special about the character of the aesthetic debate.

*    Specifically I'm thinking of the construction of the Shard currently taking place in London.

Thursday 17 February 2011

Why god-free morals?

Depends on what you mean...

Why god-free morals and not God-free morals?
The main reason is because I'm not singling out the Abrahamic before any other 'type' of god.

How can your morals be god-free?
Well, in a certain sense I suppose they're not. The ethical codes of the various religions have seeped into most aspects of my homeland; f.e. the majority of British law has its basis in Christian ethics. So, in that sense my own personal morality is certainly god-influenced. However, there is another sense (that I've heard) that I'm certainly refuting. That the very basis for human morality resides in god, i.e. that we are moral means that there must have been a god for us to have moral thoughts at all. This strikes me as somewhat odd reasoning to say the least. So, in answer to the question, because I don’t believe it follows that to have moral inclinations implies a Creator of the ability to have these thoughts. Indeed, it’s not just a matter of belief; it’s a matter of reason.

Why are your morals god-free?
 As might be expected from the above the main reason is I don’t believe in an interventionist diety, which is what the creation of an individual’s morality by god must amount to. I’m not totally god-free myself, it’s just my morals that I consider untouched, as they a wholly of this realm and not subordinate to some transcendental cause.

Isn't it just a pun on your name?
Yeah, pretty much, but I like the implications too.

Wednesday 16 February 2011

Thomas Reid : On Liberty

Thomas Reid was a Scottish ‘common sense’ philosopher and theologian from Aberdeenshire who was born the year before David Hume (1710) and was part of the Scottish enlightenment. In his moral philosophy (but perhaps less so elsewhere in his work) we find some distinct parallels with Immanuel Kant’s own work on freedom. However, Reid’s work is not as hampered with the complex structure that Kant had built for himself in the Critique of Pure Reason and that put sections of his work on freedom under sense entirely of his own making.
Thomas Reid, in his ‘Essays on the active powers of man’ (1788) argued that “if we have moral duties it must be possible for us to fulfil them… If the will were not free we would have no use for such terms as praise and blame”[1] etc. But he does not conclude from this that there is a phenomenal will (Willkür) that is subject to the necessity of nature and a noumenal will (Wille) that somehow affects the natural will from the intelligible world. It is only Kant’s conception of nature that leads him to argue this way.
Indeed, Reid’s ‘common sense’ philosophy does seem to yield similar conclusions with Kant without the complex architectonic. There is a shared thread of individualism in both men’s works, for example this section of Reid’s is much like Kant’s insistence that positive freedom through reason empowers man as a person, “the first cause in the chain of action is not an event but a person.”[2] This humanist aspect and with it the beginnings of Romanticism are surprisingly strong in Reid, “my free action may be the outcome of rational motives, but motives do not cause my action, I do.”[3] Although both men were strong believers (Reid held parish in Newmachar Aberdeenshire) this self-governing aspect of human autonomy present in their work could be seen as threat (and in Kant’s case was) and worse still as an affront to their faith.
What then is the ‘common sense’ in connexion with Reid’s philosophy? Well, and we may well find another connexion with Kant here, it is not the everyday term but rather a philosophical position that distinguishes Reid from Hume and others. It could be put thusly, “the first principles of morals like the first principles of science, are self-evident.”[4] However, as we might remember Kant did attack the Scottish common sense philosophers, so what might seem like a connexion here is only to be rebutted by Kant himself. Still, I believe that there is some similarity in that Kant states that the rational ‘fact’ of reason is immediately apparent to us, with how Reid justifies the acceptance for his doctrine of liberty. He argues thusly, and this may remind us of the refutation of consciousness’ possible illusory nature, “it [the ‘fact’ of the doctrine of liberty] is justified as soon as it exists and requires no reasoning on its behalf.”[5] Reid likens it to our belief in an external world; if we are to deny liberty then we must also throw our entire existence in radical scepticism. “The assumption that we act freely is one we have by our natural constitution, and it is implied by our moral conceptions.”[6]
How then does Reid define ‘Liberty’ and in what regard is it similar or different to Kant’s Freedom? “By the liberty of a moral agent, I understand a power over the determinations of his will.”[7] This account of liberty supposes that the agent has understanding and will. Liberty requires understanding in addition to will because will requires conception of the thing, and, therefore, an understanding adequate to supply such a conception.[8] Will in this conception, of Reid’s, does not seem to have the more complex and possibly more subtle description of Kant’s but its more everyday or ‘common sense’ use it hold no less merit.
“The liberty of a moral agent implies, not only a conception of what he wills, but some degree of practical judgement or reason.”[9] The difference between Kant and Reid here might be said that Reid does not go far enough, for Kant ‘some degree’ of reason would be a weak claim. Although we can well understand Reid’s point, that the willed result is not enough that there must also have been a motive from reason, for Kant pure practical reason is fundamental throughout the process it is not merely a ‘part.’ “The effect of moral liberty is; that it is in the power of the agent to do well or ill.”[10] Here Reid moves further from Kant, and in a surprising direction. Whereas Kant wanted to suggest that the force of the voice of the moral law should not, but could, be ignored here Reid describes it in a much more matter-of-fact manner, where the agent can choose to act well or ill, without it being depreciating to his character. Kant’s moral agent may act ill sure enough but if he does he negates his rights as a subject. Reid’s description of liberty then, seems to hold a less complex structure (for reasons given) but for all that it is no less penetrating in its description of freedom (liberty).

Acton, H.B., Kant’s moral philosophy, (London: Macmillan, 1985)
Lehrer, K., Thomas Reid, (London: Routledge, 1991)
Reid, T., The works of Thomas Reid, 2 vols, ed. Hamilton, (Edinburgh: James Thin, 1895)

[1] Acton, p. 48.
[2] Lehrer, p. 23.
[3] Lehrer, p. 24.
[4] Lehrer, p. 221.
[5] Lehrer, p. 24.
[6] Lehrer, p. 270.
[7] Reid, p. 599.
[8] Lehrer, p. 256.
[9] Reid, p. 599.
[10] Reid, p. 600.

Tuesday 15 February 2011

Quotes worth saving (4) Thin Red Line

This might seem a little odd to quote from a dramatic production rather than a philosophical text, but I consider some of the more aphoristic statements that various characters make to be worth noting. Not sure whether I should credit screenwriter/director Terrence Malick of the excellent film version for the text or the original author James Jones, so I'll just give a hefty nod of acknowledgement to both. 

Japanese Soldier: Are you righteous? Kind? Does your confidence lie in this? Are you loved by all? Know that I was, too. Do you imagine your suffering will be any less because you loved goodness and truth?

Private Edward P. Train: Where is it that we were together? Who were you that I lived with? The brother. The friend. Darkness, light. Strife and love. Are they the workings of one mind? The features of the same face? Oh, my soul. Let me be in you now. Look out through my eyes. Look out at the things you made. All things shining. 

Private Witt: This great evil. Where does it come from? How'd it steal into the world? What seed, what root did it grow from? Who's doin' this? Who's killin' us? Robbing us of life and light. Mockin' us with the sight of what we might've known. Does our ruin benefit the earth? Does it help the grass to grow, the sun to shine? Is this darkness in you, too? Have you passed thro this night?

First Sgt Edward Welsh: Everything a lie. Everything you hear, everything you see. So much to spew out. They just keep coming, one after another. You're in a box. A moving box. They want you dead, or in their lie... There's only one thing a man can do - find something that's his, and make an island for himself. If I never meet you in this life, let me feel the lack; a glance from your eyes, and my life will be yours.

Private Jack Bell: Why should I be afraid to die? I belong to you. If I go first, I'll wait for you there, on the other side of the dark waters. Be with me now.

Monday 14 February 2011

Old Post #3 'Seeing Beauty'

[I thought this was quite interesting just to see how much I changed my views since writing this and it appears that 'not a great deal' is the answer. If anything has changed then all I can do now is give a more nuanced answer. So, although this is somewhat clumsy (due to its brevity) there is a kernel that still seems correct. And it is Valentine's day afterall...]

The rose is traditionally seen as a symbol of beauty

[The rose as the symbol of beauty prompts the question...]

Is there something ‘in’ the rose which prompts our reaction?

I find this idea objectionable, that aesthetic qualities might be inherent in an object seems wrong. We come to understand something as beautiful (for example) in that we learn to attach a certain meaning (in this case beauty) to the thing. It is in how we first apprehend the thing (that is, the context and how others describe it) and in how we ourselves relate to the thing (an object, situation, or other condition).

Mathematicians describe complex equations as beautiful, or simply the operation of mathematics itself. For many the idea that maths can be seen as beautiful can be as bewildering as those who find cars things of beauty. What is it for the car-fancier or the mathematician to finds beauty in something so mundane to others? The beauty resides ‘in’ their interaction, the activity becomes more meaningful and they appreciate the better functions of the operation now with an aesthetic judgement. The mathematician finds the unity that mathematics provides beautiful in that it simplifies, complicates and explains life. The mechanic finds the smooth fast engine and sleek body of a design of car beautiful in a similar manner, i.e. it is part of an understandable practice (whether it be mathematics or automotive design).

The rose is the most recognisable symbol of beauty (originating from the Greeks most likely) in that it is culturally imbued with this meaning. Cross cultural identification of beauty can be difficult; the first step tends to be a mythologizing exoticism before we can identify with the art of another culture (even with their idea of beauty) as being understandable as a beautiful object, e.g. consider how African art was first introduced by Victorian ‘explorers’ or how the ‘Far East’ has been portrayed.

We only ‘see’ beauty (or hear it, or…) we do not find it already there. Does this mean then that I am saying that beauty is solely in the eye of the beholder? Well, mostly, but remember that this is a human activity and it is from our cultures that we get the idea of beauty from.

Sep 08