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Wednesday, April 14, 2010

some Kierkegaard

There is a view of life which conceives that where the crowd is, there also is the truth, and that in truth itself there is need of having the crowd on its side. There is another view of life which conceives that wherever there is a crowd there is untruth, so that (to consider for a moment the extreme case), even if every individual, each for himself in private, were to be in possession of the truth, yet in case they were all to get together in a crowd–a crowd to which any sort of decisive significance is attributed, a voting, noisy, audible crowd–untruth would at once be in evidence.

If one who lives in the midst of Christendom goes up to the house of God, the house of the true God, with the true conception of God in his knowledge, and prays , but prays in a false spirit; and one who lives in an idolatrous community prays with the entire passion of the infinite, although his eyes rest upon the image of an idol: where is the most truth? The one prays in truth to God though he worships an idol; the other prays falsely to the true God, and hence worships in fact an idol.

The objective accent falls on WHAT is said, the subjective accent on HOW it is said.
Aesthetically the contradiction that truth becomes untruth in this or that person’s mouth, is best construed comically: In the ethico-religious sphere, accent is again on the “how”. But this is not to be understood as referring to demeanor, expression, or the like; rather it refers to the relationship sustained by the existing individual, in his own existence, to the content of his utterance.
from selections in Kaufmann's Existentialism.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

agents of positive change

modified from 10/10/2009

When I was younger and more Christiany I thought evangelical Christianity was the end all be all, that once someone "gave their life to Christ" they'd be all set. With experience came the realization that most the people who "gave their life to Christ" would live an existence that only varied slightly from the American norm. Studying the history of Christianity too showed me that though some were able to do incredible things with Christianity (e.g. Methodists in England pushing to stop slavery, MLK, Jr.), that Christianity itself was often impotent in the face of power or worse, used by the powerful to sedate and confuse the masses. Where I did see substantive positive differences they came mainly, I thought, from temperament and education (especially philosophical education).

After that, I went through a phase where it was hard for me to imagine someone who had studied epistemology and the history of philosophy yet remained content in his dogmatic slumbers reinforcing the status quo and still looking to repetition for answers. I didn't really expect all philosophers to be shining lights but at the least I expected them to understand how precarious and absurd our situation truly is. I was thoroughly disabused of that notion as I read and heard from philosopher after philosopher who clearly understood the material yet seemed to have plenty of psychological and rhetorical resources to keep them from any need to appropriate their knowledge.

At this point I assume as I pick other agents of positive change I'll just be corrected again and again; this must be my Sisyphus task. Imagining Sisyphus happy, I look for another. So what are the agents of positive change we can rely on?

I don't know. Different strokes for different folks? I do think some aspects of religion are the answer for some people at some times and the same for philosophy. They both teach types of discipline that can help us achieve goals and reorient ourselves in ways we require. The best answer, at this point, seems to be to put yourself in the place where there are the most external reinforces to move you in the direction you're trying to go.

And of course love, love is an agent of positive change. Gotta love love.

ancient written Scottish language found

Unfortunately the new findings fail to shed light on why the no true Scotsman fallacy (related video) is still so prevalent.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

story of a good Brahmin

by Voltaire

Travelling through India, I met an old gentleman of the highest caste, a Brahmin, a very wise man, witty and learned. On top of that, he was rich, and consequently even wiser; for, lacking nothing, he had no need to deceive anyone. His family was well governed by three gorgeous wives who religiously studied the art of pleasing him. When he was not busy amusing himself with his wives, he philosophized.

His house had charm and beauty, was well decorated, and was surrounded by colorful and fruitful gardens. Nearby lived an old Indian woman, bigoted, stupid, and quite poor.

The Brahmin jolted me one day with this: “I wish I had never been born.” I asked him why, and he answered me:

“I have been studying for forty years...and that is forty years wasted. I teach others, but actually I know nothing. This situation makes me feel so much humiliation and disgust with myself that life is unbearable to me.

“I was born, I live in time, and I do not know what time is. I find myself at a point between two eternities, as our sages say, and I have no idea of what eternity means. I am made of matter, and I am able to think, yet I have never been able to find out how thought is caused. I do not know...Is my ability to think a simple faculty in me like that of walking, or digesting food? Do I think with my head, as I take with my hands? Not only is the explanation of my thinking unknown to me, but how I am able to move my body is also a great mystery.

“I don't know why I exist. Every day people ask me questions on all these points. I have to answer, but I have nothing worthwhile to say. I talk, talk, talk, and then I am bewildered and ashamed of myself after all that hot air.

“It is even worse when they ask me whether Brahma was produced by Vishnu or whether they are both eternal. Well, I don’t know a thing about it, and that's obvious in my pathetic answers. ‘Reverend Father,’ they say to me, ‘explain to us why evil floods the whole world.’

“I am in as much of a fog as those who ask the question. Sometimes I tell them that everything happens for the best, but those who have been destroyed and mutilated by war don't believe that for a second, and neither do I.

“So I retreat to my house overwhelmed with my curiosity and my ignorance. I read our ancient books, and they make the darkness even darker. I talk with my friends. Some tell me that we should just enjoy life and laugh at mankind. Others think they know a little something, and promptly get lost in ridiculous, pompous, empty ideas. Everything increases my feelings of doubt and misery. I am sometimes ready to fall into despair, when I think that after all my dedication and seeking I know neither where I come from, nor what I am, nor where I am going, nor what shall become of me when this life is over.”

I was greatly distressed by the mental condition of this good man. It seemed that no one was any more reasonable or honest than he. I could see that the more he came to understand, the more he came to feel, and consequently the more unhappy he was.

That same day I saw the old woman who lived near him. I asked her if she had ever been confused and upset not to know how her soul was created. She didn't even understand my question! She had never pondered for a single moment of her life over a single one of the points that tormented the Brahmin. She believed with all her heart in the changing forms of the Lord Vishnu, and, provided she could occasionally have some water from the Ganges to wash in, she considered herself the happiest of all women.

I was so amazed by the happiness and contentment of this impoverished creature, that I returned to my Brahmin philosopher and said to him:

“Aren't you ashamed to be unhappy when right at your door there is an old puppet who never bothers with thinking and who lives quite happily?”

“You are right,” he said; “I have told myself a hundred times that I would be happy if I were as stupid as my neighbor, and yet I would want no part of that kind of happiness.”

These words of the Brahmin made a greater impression on me than all the rest. I questioned myself and saw that certainly I would not want to be happy on condition of being ignorant.

I put the question to some other philosophers, and they were of the same opinion. “There is, however,” I added, “an enormous contradiction in this way of thinking.”

For after all, what is at issue here? Being happy. What does it really matter if you are intelligent or stupid? And what's more, those who are stupidly content with their being are quite sure of being content; those who philosophize and scrutizine and ponder and reason are never so sure of reasoning well.

“Clearly,” I said, “we should choose not to have good sense, if that good sense contributes to our misery.”

Everyone agreed with me, and yet I found no one who wanted to accept the bargain of becoming ignorant in order to become content. From this I concluded that though we greatly value happiness, we place even greater value on reason.

But yet, upon reflection, it seems that to prefer reason to happiness is to be quite insane. How can this contradiction be explained? Like all the is matter for much talk.

Monday, April 5, 2010

"Why do they strive to force everything into that one fixed perimeter?"

"[T]he usual manner of presenting philosophical work puzzles me. Works of philosophy are written as though their authors believe them to be the absolutely final word on their subject. But it’s not, surely, that each philosopher thinks that he finally, thank God, has found the truth and built an impregnable fortress around it. We are all actually much more modest than that. For good reason. Having thought long and hard about the view he proposes, a philosopher has a reasonably good idea about its weak points; the places where great intellectual weight is placed upon something perhaps too fragile to bear it, the places where the unravelling of the view might begin, the unprobed assumptions he feels uneasy about...

No philosopher says: There’s where I started, here’s where I ended up; the major weakness in my work is that I went from there to here; in particular, here are the most notable distortions, pushings, shovings, maulings, gougings, stretchings, and chippings that I committed during the trip; not to mention the things thrown away and ignored, and all those avertings of the gaze.

The reticence of philosophers about the weaknesses they perceive in their own views is not, I think, simply a question of philosophical honesty and integrity, though it is that or at least becomes that when brought to consciousness. The reticence is connected with philosophers’ purposes in formulating views. Why do they strive to force everything into that one fixed perimeter? Why not another perimeter, or, more radically, why not leave things where they are? What does having everything within a perimeter do for us? Why do we want it so? (What does it shield us from?) From these deep (and frightening) questions, I hope not to be able to manage to avert my gaze in future work."

Robert Nozick Anarchy State and Utopia

h/t Andrew Sullivan

Saturday, April 3, 2010

and a couple disparate Nietzsche quotes

working with what can and can't be changed
To "give style" to one's character—a great and rare art! It is practiced by those who survey all the strengths and weaknesses of their nature and then fit them into an artistic plan until every one of them appears as art and reason and even weaknesses delight the eye. Here a large mass of second nature has been added; there a piece of original nature has been removed—both times through long practice and daily work at it. Here the ugly that could not be removed is concealed; there it has been reinterpreted and made sublime. Much that is vague and resisted shaping has been saved and exploited for distant views; it is meant to beckon toward the far and immeasurable. In the end, when the work is finished, it becomes evident how the constraint of a single taste governed and formed everything large and small. Whether this taste was good or bad is less important than one might suppose, if only it was a single taste!

from GS §290
the perils of success
Human nature finds it harder to endure a victory than a defeat; indeed, it seems to be easier to achieve a victory than to endure it in such a way that it does not in fact turn into a defeat.

from Nz's David Strauss, the confessor and the writer

Friday, April 2, 2010

recently relevant Kant (well, relevant to me)

Many historians of philosophy with all their intended praise, let the philosophers speak mere nonsense. They do not guess the purpose of the philosophers... They cannot see beyond what the philosophers actually said, to what they really meant to say.
If we take single passages torn from their context and compare them with one another, contradictions are not likely to be lacking, especially in a work that is written with any freedom of expression. But they are easily resolved by those who have mastered the idea of the whole.

Immanuel Kant (via Galen Strawson)
If you fill in the gaps of any other person's thought to your own satisfaction that makes their thought more valuable to you and others who share your prejudices. I don't think it thereby lends itself to accurate reading.

And If "the whole" is the sort of consistency found in the person (the sentiment Emerson articulates), that doesn't mean it will be free of logical contradictions.

the whole in regard to the person (honesty) is different than the whole in regard to a pristine system. And never the twain shall meet.

Also Relevant - Four (Nietzsche) Aphorisms for Readers

"it is what it is"

I keep hearing this expression from different friends and coworkers and I don't know if it's a sign of a creeping societal desperation or fatalism or what. To me it just means they've given up on something and they're accepting it instead of changing the thing they know needs changing. It also means they're willing to perceive something as negative and then just live with it (and the associated negative perception). A hearty no-saying to life.

Instead of conceding "it is what it is", the no-sayers could either: one, change the thing that needs changing or two, if it can't be changed, change the way they perceive it. "it is what it is" is lazy.

We participate in what it is. It is what we make of it.