Book Matters

“Young Girl Reading”

Seymour Joseph Guy, 1877

Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius

by Ray Monk

Good biographies of philosophers are a rarity.  The reason is that philosophers, more than other people, take ideas and the whole realm of thought terribly seriously.  Just as we would expect a biographer whose subject was a musician to have some affinity for music, so we’d hope that someone writing up the life of a philosopher would be able to visualize a life whose mainspring and motivator is thought.  Since our age tends to deny the possibility of such a life, this may be a case where

you have to be one

to see one.

My Intro students used to opine that Socrates submitted to the death penalty, rather than escape when he had the chance, because “he had a martyr complex.”  For them it was beyond conceiving that he was led step by step to the death he died by the logic of his argument.  The duties of citizenship, Socrates argued, mandated the life he had lived and the same duties required him to abide by a sentence lawfully arrived at, even if in this case the sentence happened to be unjust.

I take the philosophic vocation to be: to try to think truthfully and to live as one thinks.  The responsibility all of us bear —

 to get real –

weighs heavier for the philosopher who takes this vocation to heart.

Though some of my best collegial friends have been Wittgensteinians, I’d never felt particularly curious about the man.  But when a friend whom I particularly esteem recommended this biography, I decided to take a look.

For the first few chapters, I disliked Wittgenstein intensely.  In his youth, the writer who had the greatest influence on him was a character named Otto Weininger who maintained that only geniuses, whose every deed and word were honest, had lives that stood high above the worthless herd.  A disgustingly anti-Jewish Jew, Weininger eventually enacted the familiar waltz of Old Vienna by committing suicide in a place frequented by the most fashionable society.  Although a lot of people in Alt Wein killed themselves, for myself I am not an admirer of Viennese customs.  That said, Weininger did impress upon the young Wittgenstein the importance of keeping one’s every word and deed honest if one was to be a good steward of one’s genius.

Being a genius was one of Wittgenstein’s main burdens in life.  I can recognize this aspect of him, because my father was often described by people who knew him as “a genius.”  The person who senses that quality in him or herself has a responsibility that cannot be dodged: to keep an inner flame burning and protect it against anything that would douse or cut it down to more ordinary size.  It’s a kind of vulnerability not well understood even by those who want to be supportive.  It puts the person who has that vulnerability in the position of surviving by the thinnest of margins.

Eventually, Wittgenstein goes off to War, the First World War, where he fights on the side of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and is repeatedly cited for valor in combat.  Meanwhile, he is completing his first major work: the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.  This is a supreme effort to lay out the necessities of the world – what must be true if something else is true — the logic of its infrastructure, to which high intelligence self-adjusts by articulating a corresponding language.

He has an almost comically difficult time getting it published.  Genius repels, as much as it attracts, and it probably repels publishers most of all.

Slowly the work will come to be recognized as one of the masterpieces of the philosophic enterprise.  But before that happens, and before Wittgenstein changes his mind about what philosophy should be doing, he does something almost unheard of.

He was raised as one of the heirs to a sizable fortune, with all the privileges that go with it.  When he returns from the experience of combat, these privileges seem to him somehow false, unreal, not a credible part of himself.  He decides to get legally severed from his inheritance, retaining a lawyer who will render his disinheritance so final and irreversible that no well-meaning relative will be able to undo it.  Henceforth, he will stride into the future —

penniless.

For the first time, Wittgenstein got my full attention.  All the money?

You’re giving away all the money?

I have a friend who, as a child, survived the Nazi occupation of France, hiding with her mother in the countryside.

“The French peasants were sympathetic?”  I asked her.

“Oh no.  We paid them.”

For a Jew who knows, from the deepest unspoken instinct, that a border guard will need to be bribed, it is shocking – almost unthinkable – to give away all one’s means of doing that.  To do what, then?  Rely on the secret hearts of one’s neighbors?  Are you making a joke?

I haven’t finished the further story, but it is long and philosophically interesting.  He was quite an eccentric guy.  But the chief challenge of his philosophical life – to try to get real – Wittgenstein has already mastered, so far as I can see.

For whatever he thinks

and whatever he is

he will pay as he goes.

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How A Woman Can Be Liberated

Abbie on horseback

Abbie with Prince at Hilltop.

How A Woman Can Be Liberated

When I started this column a few years ago, I vowed not to give advice.  I even put that in our subtitle: “The Non-Advice Column.”  So why am I about to give some?  Well, everybody else is dishing it out, directly or by implication, and most of it is lousy.  Mine has at least stood the test of time in my own case.  And I figure you wouldn’t be reading this column if your life weren’t somewhat like mine.

To see what I mean, it might help if I revisited my own pilgrimage from girlhood to womanhood.  In my childhood, it was a plus to be a girl.  People thought you were cute and likely to make less trouble than boys would.  Best of all, your body did more or less what you asked.  That is, it climbed trees, it got on a horse when it could, ran races, took companionable walks with the local dog, befriended cats and it played impartially with girls or with boys, depending only on who was nicer and more fun.

With adolescence, all that changed.  Your body became heavier, less flexible, prone to monthly accidents that hurt, about which people told you to have a positive attitude, and – worst of all – it was suddenly the target of interest of an ominous kind from strangers.  Boys were no longer playmates.  They were potential “dates” whom it was your task to interest.

(From my mother and her European friends, I’d got a vague sense of what might appeal to the sort of youth who signed his letter, “I kiss the hem of your robe.”  However, American boys did not write that sort of letter.)

Omitting the grotesque theories from Sigmund Freud that prevailed in my adolescence and prompted girls to worry whether we were free from inhibitions, worry changed to fear at about the age of 20.  At some point thereafter, a girl might decide that she’d “given up” on finding love and marriage, which were her only desirable future at that time.

I fast forward to Feminism.  It didn’t fall from heaven.  It was ushered in by Simone de Beauvoir, a French Existentialist who wrote a book in two volumes to which she gave the ironic title, The Second Sex.

Why was it the time to do that?  It was the time because (among other things) there were refrigerators, constabulary and contraceptives, all invented by men, as it happens.  So women could leave their cooking pots, take a solitary walk without fear of rape, and have sexual relations that didn’t impregnate them.

What theory did De Beauvoir employ to launch the vessel of feminism on the stormy seas of life?   She used the theories of The Man in Her Life: the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre.  He held that our bodies might be a drag but our consciousness was totally free.  We self-invent our character traits and life purposes.  It follows (De Beauvoir inferred following Sartre) that women too can choose their identities and anatomy is not destiny.

Ladies, I beg you, stop a minute: What’s a man doing when he uses this line with a woman?  Please consult your actual experience, not something you read.  Isn’t he telling you to give in to the “freedom” that fits his agenda?  And if there are consequences, emotional or physical, you’ll be on your own?  In real life, De Beauvoir helped Sartre get a lot of the girls he seduced.

That said, my scathing comment applies only to the philosophical side of The Second Sex. The bulk of her book has solid content, covering major phases of women’s lives and experience, based on significant memoirs and studies.  It brings many layers of unfairness (which nobody before her had recorded in such detail) up to daylight. Armed with her courageous findings, girls and women were morally motivated to make choices.  The feminist revolution gave us … the best thing it could give us:

years.

Because years filled with consequential choices hold intrinsic interest, a woman’s appeal no longer had a biologically fixed cut-off point, any more than a man’s appeal did.  So De Beauvoir, despite her obvious distortions, is a woman to whom we women will always owe a great deal.

Now fast forward to Post Modernism.  In this system, you can’t even ascribe a trait like “freedom” to your consciousness, because what you thought was your own consciousness was merely the site of deposits left by vast anonymous power structures. (For details, see Marx and Nietzsche.)

What’s more, no system of natural laws — psychological, biological, chemical, physical, mathematical or logical – helps your search for truth.  All these domains of empirical inquiry assert x or y and (the claim is) assertion within a discipline is nothing but domination inside the power structure.  As for any rights you might claim as a woman, or injuries you might complain of, here’s the show-stopper: you have no more claim to be a woman than anyone has who claims to be that brand new apparition: a-women-trapped-in-a-man’s-body.  Yeah and that goes for the guy with the male hormones and genitals who’s running off with the trophies in the women’s sporting event.  Suck it up, girl.  And don’t hope that any matching claim to be a man-trapped-in-a-woman’s-body will win you similar trophies in the man’s marathon.  You’ll still be eating his dust.

How did there suddenly get to be so many people claiming to be mismatched with their bodies?  The current dissolving of sexual identities is not the result of empirical studies, which are in fact discouraged for the reasons already cited.  It’s the deliverance of fragile French theories!  Also, whether a woman just takes these theories over entire from their male originators, or works them up with her own icing on top, post-modernism is based on male-authored theories.

If you want to get a woman’s account of a woman’s life, you have to go to women writers of novels, short stories, plays and memoirs.  You can’t repair to the Leading Theories of the Day: they all trace back to narrow agendas of male origin.

So what’s going on here really?  Really ladies, women are still doing what they have always done: trying to please men!  For this purpose, post-modernism throws up an additionally frustrating difficulty: it’s a form of extreme skepticism devised by men who were not looking for women.  Not as sex partners.  Not as spouses.  So they didn’t care whether you pleased them or you didn’t!

What inference shall we draw?  All these mutations and upendings began as theories.  People (men as well as women) live and die by ideas!  I do advise women – and this is very serious advice – approach life with active intellectual curiosity.  Try to see what ideas are in play in situations.  Ideas shape the forces of culture.

Isn’t it enough just to read Marx and Nietzsche?  Nope.  Read them critically and open-mindedly.  They come very late to the table and are thinkers of the second rank.  Read the best.  The best will supply the metric for the rest.  Try to grasp the ideas by which thinkers influence you, directly or indirectly.  Learn to see for yourself whether or not they make sense.  Don’t say things you don’t believe or understand, just to look trendy.

These trends are made of very poor stuff.

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Virtue Epistemology and Feeling Normal

Painting of Narraguagus Bay
by Abigail

Virtue Epistemology and Feeling Normal

I’ve got a funny feeling this is not a trendy topic. Oh well. Here goes.

Epistemology, the logos of episteme, is philosophy’s term for theory (or theories) of knowledge.  In modern times (that is, from the 17th century onward) epistemology has started from skepticism.  Claims to knowledge would be deemed guilty (i.e. unbelievable) until some way could be found to prove them innocent (believable).

It’s as if something were assumed to be wrong with us, affecting our power to know things, and we’d have to first rebut a whole array of defamatory insinuations before we could feel secure about knowing anything at all.

This guilty-until-proven-innocent assumption is quite different from how knowers were regarded in the city where philosophy first began: ancient Athens.  For Aristotle, anyone who claimed not to know — whether he had a body or whether other men had minds – would be just nuts.  Or, more likely, pretending to a skepticism refuted every time he stepped out the door and managed successfully to dodge oncoming traffic.  In sum, a professed skeptic was either a poseur or else sincerely crazy.

Our natural faculties were deemed fully worthy of trust.  My eyes do see what’s out there.  And so on for my four other senses.  The same goes for my intellectual powers, rightly used.  It’s okay for me to generalize from experience.  I can even draw further inferences based on my initial generalizations – meanwhile not neglecting to review the inferences drawn by other thinkers and figuring out which ones make the most sense.

What would Aristotle say about the modern developments, going forward from Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo?  He would probably say that “the moderns” were following the same method – the difference being that they had more data and concomitant hypotheses from which to work.

In recent years, there’s been a movement to revive Aristotelian optimism and self-trust.  The term “virtue” is a translation of the Greek arête, meaning excellence.  Virtue Ethics is ethics based on the excellence of our inherent power to tell right from wrong.  Virtue Epistemology makes the same claim with regard to knowledge: We can tell what is true and what is false.

To put it succinctly: we are naturally disposed to judge correctly.  We stand at the norm.

We are normal.

Well good!  That’s settled.  Can we all pack up and go home now?  Maybe get in a little TV?

Almost, but right about here, I have to introduce a troubling note.  It’s well known that we are social creatures (“political animals” as Aristotle puts it).  As such, we are not impervious to other people’s opinions.  For example, if they think our clothes don’t fit or our accent is strange – and they let us know what they think – we will suffer.

More important from the standpoint of Virtue Epistemology, we will tend to think — about our detractors that —

they are right!

We tend to internalize other peoples’ bad opinions of us.

What does this do to our normality – which is to say, trust in our own perceptions, opinions and reasoning processes?  Just as you would expect: it distorts them.  You say you’ve got a hide so thick and tough that nobody’s bad opinion gets through?  Well, friend, I’m afraid that too is a distortion.  And such distortions are almost impossible to avoid.

If you can avoid them,

please let me know how you did that.

You began life with your cognitive abilities and self-trust lined up in a normal way, like the vertebral discs on a spine.  But then, from the great storehouse of defamatory fictions, you overhear some quite nasty claim about yourself or your group.  What happens?

Ping.

The normal straight spine acquires

a zig

 or a zag –

in it, internalizing the insult.  Then comes the next bit of deprecation.  Ping.  Another zag or zig.  So by the time you reach adulthood, your hold on Virtue Epistemology is in pretty zigzag shape.

It’s probably safe to suppose that every last mother’s child of us, whatever the ethnic or psychological predicament, has internalized a fair number of pings.

So what now?  How do we recover the human norm of self-trust?  Aristotle’s great Metaphysics opens with this optimistic declaration:

All men [people] by nature desire to know.

I’ve born it in mind every time I taught a class in philosophy.  Is our deep or deepest desire unfulfillable?

We don’t really feel unsure whether the hand I hold up in front of my face is really a hand.  Or whether we’re real people rather than brains in a vat.  Those are classroom problems – not the ones we ourselves have.

We feel unsure in actual situations, ordinarily where there is some warrant for the feeling.  If for example the deprecation targets Jews, what I — being Jewish — really feel and fear is that the deprecation is part of a longer danger: it reaches back to a tragic past and links it to a threatening future.  It doesn’t feel like a bounded insult — more like an avalanche or a tidal wave coming toward me.

If it is a tidal wave, I myself am not powerful enough to stop it.  I am, however, powerful enough to attend to what is said and done unfairly right in front of me, and to counter that, as best I can.

We can’t stop avalanches and tidal waves.

We are too finite — too local, too unfinished ourselves — to have any such grand powers.   The power we do have is simpler:

We can counter a particular lie.

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How’s the Eternal Feminine Doing These Days?

Abbie’s mother in her student days at the University of Lausanne

How’s the Eternal Feminine Doing These Days?

 When I started this blog – lo! some years back – I was moved by a concern about women.  We are being bombarded by half-truths.  And if we women start down one of the currently recommended roads, cheered on all sides by our advisors and fans, we may find our way beset or blocked by unforeseen hurdles, with supporters just as baffled as we are.

For more seasoned counselors, I looked backward in time to certain women I had known in childhood or as a young girl.  These remembered figures seemed to embody success at being a woman.  Even as a child I’d known that this was not the same as literary success, or marrying advantageously, or being a respected academic.  The womanly art seemed a different thing entirely – a thing in a class by itself.

The three women I recollected were all European-born.  They were therefore free of the warnings that American girls of those days internalized – to be tomboys so as NOT – at all costs never — to be evil, slinky temptresses.  An American girl had to be nonthreatening.  You had a chance with boys, provided they weren’t scared of you.  (As must be obvious, I had no chance.)

The Europeans who formed my models of womanhood were naturally charming.  They were unafraid to draw people toward them, men or women, attracted by their unassuming coquetry.  Yet they were not manipulative.  They didn’t charm in order to advance an agenda: only the agenda of being present to themselves and other people.  They enjoyed the connections made accessible by their womanly presence.  Their enjoyment was charming.

Of course I was curious – fascinated might be the right word – to know their art.  It was so different from the familiar good-woman flatness of those days that merely telegraphed:

Don’t be scared.

I’m too humdrum to be a threat.

Whatever they knew, there was one thing for sure: they weren’t telling.  They seemed to possess the art of being a woman by instinct.  Or perhaps it belonged to their era: the earlier decades of the last century.  It was a time when women were first coming into their own as accomplished and cultivated, but also persons who could admit to a talent or vocation and pursue it.  Yet, in that transitional era, they were still confident of being admired as ideal beings.

Since one of the three ladies was my mother, I am now in possession of letters in French from admirers that I still won’t read, though she’s been gone these many years.  To my mind, they’re her business — not mine.

Anyway, I kept this troika in my mind as symbolic of the womanly art that “Dear Abbie” would be free to explore.  Until the other day when suddenly something occurred to me.

In their later years, all three of these exemplary women found themselves under close-range attack from relatives who had been notably unsuccessful as women.  How attacked?  Nagged, reproached unfairly, intruded upon to the extent that their inner rhythms – the intuitive harmonies they had mastered – became painfully hard to maintain.

None felt able to control the attacker or else push the intimate enemy out of her life.  Their social circles would have reproached them for it.  The jealous relative would have spread evil gossip – and it would have been believed!

Why did this happen – as it did – to all three of my exemplary women?  Is there something within achieved womanhood itself that marks out a target for aggressors?  Mind – in these particular cases – the aggressors were not male bullies or predators.  They were women who had not mastered the art of being a woman but who knew – better than a man would! – just where to strike.

It’s a great puzzle and I can only offer my best guess as to the answer.  I imagine there is something inherent in the realized woman that is, by its very nature, vulnerable.  Vulnerability in a woman who has the art is a key to her strength.  She has the power to accept and foster her own receptivity and tenderness — as a musician might have the power to hear the exactly right note or a painter the power to see the very color that is there.  It is an enviable power.  But it does not seem to include the one further thing needed:

the power to protect without sacrificing —

her own vulnerability.

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Who or What Were Adam and Eve?

Adam and Eve
Detail from the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo

Who or What Were Adam and Eve?

 Unless you believe that the entire universe actually came into being at the divine summons 5,781 years previous to the New Year of September, 2020, with the two parents of the human race walking upright and speaking grammatical Hebrew sentences, you have to take the story of Adam and Eve in a somewhat nonliteral way.

But what nonliteral way?

Are they mythic?  “Mythic” doesn’t quite ring the bell with me.  I haven’t made a study of myth, but Erich Auerback has.  In his book, Mimesis, he depicts each mythic figure as having a single outstanding trait: in Homer, for example, it’s the “wily” Odysseus or “the wrathful” Achilles.  In contrast, Biblical characters like King David have a medley of inconsistent traits: emotional buddy to Jonathan, ambitious competitor to King Saul, composer of immortal psalms, brave fighter, adulterer and penitent.  Auerbach’s point is that Biblical characters are much more like ourselves – like real people — than mythic heroes are.

Are Adam and Eve as real-life-seeming as the Biblical David?  Well, they aren’t as complex as he is.  More to the point, none of David’s missteps was as consequential for the whole human race as were Adam and Eve’s first wrong moves.  Just from a writerly point of view, the first couple has to have enough size and traction within themselves to make a downfall on that scale believable.

So what’s left?  Let’s see if philosophy can come up with something.  Thomas Hobbes, the seventeenth-century political philosopher, wrote a book called Leviathan where he posits a primordial condition called “the state of nature.”  It’s a scene where everyone is at war with everyone else – a struggle for “power after power” – and no one is safe.  Once people realize that this is a nasty kind of life, they agree to stack arms and put themselves under political constraints.

Hobbes’s state of nature does not picture how things looked in pre-historic times.  It’s a theoretical construct, like a frictionless plane, to explain concrete realities.  We have politics (so the theory goes) to prevent falling back into the state of nature.

Are Adam and Eve theoretical constructs too, like Hobbes’s state of nature?  To me they seem a bit too loaded down with flesh and blood and emotional ups and downs, to be explained that way.

Does philosophy have other resources that could account for beings like Adam and Eve?  Let’s try Socratic dialectic.

What is dialectic?  It’s conversation, with oneself or another, that seeks to understand some definite topic.  The talkers try out definitions, dropping any that turn out to have contradictory implications or fail to explain all the relevant evidence.

The genius of Socratic dialectic is that each definition is presented in the shape of some character (often a known contemporary) who enters the conversation and personally exemplifies that view.  For example, Thrasymachus, a character in Plato’s Republic, embodies the view that “justice” is just a euphemism for power relations.  Thrasymachus is himself a bully and sincerely believes that everyone else would act as badly if they dared.  Socrates counters by distinguishing two kinds of power: functional power – the power to heal or invent or logically deduce – versus mere brute power, the power of the bully.

Are Adam and Eve like characters in a philosophic dialectic?  One does meet characters like Thrasymachus in real life.  He’s not just a theoretical construct.  He and people like him act out their beliefs.  Yet if you understand their thinking, they are also somewhat predictable.

It’s close, but it’s not quite the answer to our question.  Adam and Eve just feel to me too subjectively vivid – too who me? –to work like embodied definitions in a dialectic chain of reasoning.  I can feel their neck veins throbbing, which I can’t feel with Thrasymachus.

Okay, one last try.  Are Adam and Eve the creations of a talented writer of fiction, like say Charlotte Bronte’s character, Jane Eyre?  Well again, close but not quite.  The plane on which Jane Eyre plays out her moves is fascinating, but it doesn’t have the traction – the sound of gears moving under the life of us all – that the moves of Adam and Eve have.

We seem to have run through – and crossed off — all the possibilities: literal history, myth, theoretical postulates, dialectical place-holders, characters in a great work of fiction.  What then?  Who and what in the world are Adam and Eve?  If we move them off the plane of platitudes and internalize their experience,

why do they feel momentous?

Figures in a dialectic embody ideas and stand for stages in the human search for understanding.

Adam and Even embody moments in our spiritual reality.  They are human beings confronted, like ourselves, with essential human choices within what you might call spiritual space:

Of ourselves —

they are the intensifications.

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Can a Philosopher Be a Novelist?

“Spinoza”
Samuel Hirszenberg, 1907

Can a Philosopher Be a Novelist?

These days I’ve been working on a paper to be delivered (in no more than 15 minutes) at the September (virtual) Meetings of the Eric Voegelin Society.  Cutting it down while still retaining meaningful content is hard enough, but in the meantime, I’ve come to think that it needs to be entirely reconceived.

At first, I just wanted to cull 15 minutes’ worth of dramatic episode from Confessions of a Young Philosopher.  It would be entertaining, show off a measure of literary power, and be a teaser for my book when it comes out.

But after all, what’s the point of doing that?  It would make sense if my ambition had been to build a career.  But on the contrary.  My actual ambition – real and unvarnished is —

not to be noticed! 

In my own case, I think of literary gifts the way physicists used to think of mathematics: as instruments for identifying and describing the behavior of real entities.  The point of literary gifts, for me at least, is to draw readers, by their means, to see what real life is like.  So for me the literary point is not that different from the point of philosophy.  The two endeavors have to do with truth.

In a previous column, I described Bryan Magee’s interview with Iris Murdoch, the philosopher/novelist.  Though she could do both kinds of writing, she thought they were widely different.  Philosophic writing, she said, needs to be clear, direct and unambiguous.  It’s like courtroom testimony, though pertaining to abstract matters.  Whereas novels, on the other hand, depict experience in all its unresolved ambiguity, in the half-light and partial shadows where human beings actually live and move.

What Murdoch said struck me as capturing something true about our lives.  Unless one is very depressed, there is a kind of exciting suspense animating ordinary days.  What occurs will not conform to one’s expectations – no matter what one was expecting!

At the same time, while I was writing about Murdoch’s views of the two opposing kinds of writing, privately I thought, no wonder she lost her marbles at the end!  How can one person actually perform two such contrary-tending projects?

In fact, however, I do something both novelistic and philosophic in Confessions.

You might say, “So what?  And big deal!”  The French existentialists – Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus – did precisely that.  Fiction with the left hand, philosophy with the right, and vice versa.  In fact, Murdoch singles out Sartre’s La Nausée for her particular praise.

Well maybe.  But I’ve never read a French existentialist novel with the aim of finding out how life really goes, or how people really are.  For my money, those philosophers’ novels are propaganda for their ideas.  Their characters are never set free to live their own lives – as the great novelists allow their characters to do.

Confessions is not a novel, of course.  It’s nonfiction.  But its characters are shown in the freedom of the choices they made.  So they are alive – not mere theoretical entities.  And yet, when from time to time I write qua philosophe, it’s pretty direct, clear and unambiguous.  So, for cryin’ out loud and whaddya know?  I do believe that, in Confessions, I’m writing both philosophically and novelistically!

Spinoza, seventeenth-century philosopher, lens-grinder of Amsterdam, and excommunicated Jew, was asked long ago if he thought his was the best philosophy.  He gave his usual straight answer, not one that fooled around:

I do not know if mine is the best philosophy. 

But I know I think the true one.

Well, that’s how I actually feel about my own work!  In the case of Confessions of a Young Philosopher — the entity for which I’m acting in the role of midwife – the novelistic sound and color and the conceptual straight talk are not at odds.

They coincide. 

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So Long As You’re Healthy

 

Asclepius, God of Healing
Fragment of mosaic in Roman public bath, 2nd-3rd century, Kyustendil

So Long As You’re Healthy

Of course I’m not referring to the pandemic.  We’re all suffering from that.  I’m looking at the larger question of health — starting with my own, since I know its story best.

How did I get to be as healthy as I am? (I mean apart from my neuropathy — a totally unwelcome fact, for which I’ve got no explanation.)  But there are a lot of painful or jeopardizing conditions from which, as of this present hour, I am not suffering.  So why not?  Do I have an explanation that could shed a wider light on this interesting question of personal health?

In the philosophy of mind, relations between mind and body have come to be called “the hard problem.” For the dominant school of thought, only physical stuff is real, so of course the existence of consciousness has to be a hard problem.  Since I don’t believe that only physical stuff is real, I don’t have what physicalists call the hard problem.

That doesn’t mean it’s easy for me (or anyone) to navigate the sometimes stormy relations between the body that is mine and the “I” of which I’m conscious.

A few years ago, I had cataract surgery.  At the pre-op visit, my surgeon insisted I watch a film that showed in living color all the unintended bad consequences I’d be risking.  She was mounting her advance defense against a malpractice suit, just in case the operation should prove unsuccessful.

Meanwhile, I was thinking,

Is she CRAZY?

Does she imagine that scaring me to death can have no bad effects on how the surgery comes out?  Does she actually believe the mind has no effect on the body?  Why would she believe that?  They’re living in the same place.  My eyes are in my head and, according to her, my mind’s in my head too.  They’ll never pass each other in the hall?

Anyway, the struggle to live as well as one can in one’s body is inescapable.  I am so constituted that every emotion, within and around me, feels like a wave pounding through permeable membrane. Given an emotional/perceptual system like mine, I could expect my digestive pipes to look like a smoking train wreck.  Instead, on most days, I have the alimentary canal of a healthy six-year-old.

Well, how did that happen?  Glad you asked.  It took a lot of thought and a lot of work.  When I was 22, I went to gastro-intestinal specialists.  They told me to accept the train wreck because I was not a 16-year-old anymore!  Okay guys.  Thanks.  You should all live and be well.

Some years later, I consulted a French psychic.  She ignored the mental factor entirely but did recommend 75 high colonics.  Nowadays this garden-hose-at-the-other-end procedure gets the more genteel name of “hydro-therapy.”  Call it what you will, the Frenchwoman also predicted precisely what the hose would encounter.  Fait accompli.  I got the insides of a healthy six-year-old.

I had no more problems of that kind until, more recently, I found myself in a totally unexpected struggle to oust a predator from a religious institution I greatly valued.  The situation was mainly unexpected because I consider myself a fairly seasoned philosophe whose fine savoir faire has been able tactfully to discourage unwelcome advances of many kinds without making a federal case out of any of them.  This guy turned rejection into counter-attack in a way that was new to me.  When I saw that others had been targeted too, I resolved to fight it out.

I was however worried that I might not weather it.  One has a responsibility to one’s body.  I prayed about that.

“Lord, You know I’m fragile.  This could wreck my insides.”

The answer came before I could draw another breath:

“Never mind that now.

Get this scum out of My house!”

Oh.  Okay.  That settled the question for me.  But although the eventual outcome was what I had been fighting for, it was achieved in a way that seemed both unkind and disrespectful toward me as accuser.

That is not uncommon in such cases, but I felt deeply wounded and offended.  The feeling didn’t go away and meanwhile the intestinal train wreck returned.  Oh dear, I thought.  The bad guys have won after all.  I hate when that happens!

One morning at our brunch, I described my symptoms to Jerry, telling him that the incident would invade consciousness when I woke in the morning or in the night.  In daylight, it was becoming the default position of my mind.  As the months went by, it was getting worse, not better.

“It sounds like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD),” Jerry said.  “Didn’t we read a book on trauma?”

“That’s right!  In An Unspoken Voice, was the title!” I said.  “I’m gonna try to remember his method.”

The author, Peter A. Levine, had noted that animals in the wild have narrow escapes all the time, yet they bounce back.  Unless they’re in human environments, they go right back to their animal lives.  What do animals know, that we don’t?  They know how to perceive.  They know how not to talk.

We need to scroll back in memory to the first instant when the bad thing happened.  The cure lies there, in the moment before interpretation.

I decided draw memory back to the traumatic denouement of the whole encounter.  I learned two things: the bad guy was leaving but I would be treated as a bad guy too.  How did that scene look to me before I thought about it?

In the first instant, it looked entirely different.  It looked like a win – an extraordinary victory for the good guys, starting with me!

And the blanket of defeat?  That descended a few seconds later.  It was an interpretation, based on comparing it with what I judged to be the appropriate – the ideal — ending.

Once I perceived that first instant, the memory stopped haunting me.  The PTSD went away!  And the train wreck of my alimentary canal?  What happened to those pipes?  Well kids, believe it or not (and I can scarcely believe it myself) –

they’re back to being the pipeline

of a healthy six-year-old.

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“What Are We Really Arguing About Now?”

Model of 4th Century Rome
by Italo Gismondi, Archeologist

“What Are We Really Arguing About Now?”

My recent columns were about “argument” in the philosopher’s sense of reasoning.  Thinking they might find them of special interest, I’ve sent the columns to philosopher friends.  And was pleased, but not surprised, to find that they engaged with the subject, adding stories of their own about the philosophers I mentioned or dramatic tales of arguments haunted by unstated subtexts.

For instance: there was the world-famous philosopher who was not interested in food.  He took long walks in the woods with my friend, discussing arcane matters while subsisting on candy bars.  And another philosopher whose ideas shaped an epoch but took irreparable offense at the faintest provocation.

It was just as I thought:

philosophers come alive

in the country of argument!

One friend wrote that he is now reading a biography of mathematician/philosopher Frank Ramsey, the book’s appeal being its depiction of the “life in Cambridge during the 1920’s, Bloomsbury people w. Virginia Woolf, Lytton Strachey, Ogden, Keynes, Richards, all interacting weekly if not daily.”  On the same principle — that they depict the life-world, the surround in which thinkers like Wittgenstein and Freud found their defining arguments — I’ve read several books about Vienna in the decades before World War II.

For me, human lives – including but not limited to the lives of philosophers – have their defining arguments.  The arguments might be sound or unsound, but as long as their conclusions are believed true, people will live and die by their arguments.

Here’s a case in point: Many years ago, I was chatting with a Tennessee farmer while patting his horse.  I forget what we were talking about, but maybe it was theology.  Anyway, to illustrate his own point, he put his hand way inside the horse’s mouth, back behind the teeth.  “You see,” he said, showing me the smooth gumline, “that’s exactly where you can put the bit.  And some folks say there ain’t a God!”

Now I’ve heard better arguments about God’s existence, and I’ve heard worse.  My point is merely that

on that argument

this man had taken his stand in life.

That’s the role of argument in the life of any one of us.  We may arrive at our premises by empirical observations, via trusted authorities, from intuitions or inspiration – or various combinations of these.  The conclusions we act on will follow from our premises, whether articulated or not.  However come by, there is some argument on which each of us relies in charting our course through time.

The fun and intrigue of exploring de Beauvoir’s Paris is that, for such an opinion-shaper, the life of her argument finds its shape, its thrusting force and its defining resistances, in the life of her time and her city.

All of which leads me to ask:

What is the shaping argument –

of our time and place?

The question arises in unprecedented circumstances.  We are all more or less globalized now.  So the opinion-shaping argument cannot be found reflecting the character of a city like Paris or Vienna.  The world is our city now.

In the bygone cities where philosophers once lived, conversed and wrote, human understanding seemed to progress by an effort of reasoning.  The advice of Socrates, in his Athens, may be paraphrased as follows:

“Don’t force the argument, don’t cheat your way to victory with rhetorical effects, don’t manipulate, don’t try to impress the unwary.”

Follow the argument where it leads.

If one can identify a culture or epoch by locating its defining argument, what are we, citizens of the world-city, arguing about now?  Or are we just squabbling multitudinously?  Is there — can there be — a world-spanning argument?

Well, let me give it go.

The real argument is about whether we, who inhabit our human world, with its reciprocities and its tensions, its truthful moments and its deceptions, its unfairness and occasional restitutions, will continue to dwell in our human incompleteness — facing the worst and acknowledging the best – as best we can.

Or, alternatively, will we reject the only world we have, and the imperfect people we are, preferring what Albert Camus called

“an unreal city in the future”?

That’s what the argument is all about.

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For Love of the Argument

Blackboard of Mathematician
Photo by Jessica Wynne

For Love of the Argument

I first met Bryan Magee when he was visiting Sidney University’s Department of Traditional and Modern Philosophy.  My then husband was teaching there and I had been granted a nice little niche as “Research Affiliate.”

We had Magee over to dinner at our flat, where he commended the meal, especially “this fish.”

“This fish,” I grinned haplessly, “is chicken.”

So I’m not a natural chef.  So better I should know it now.

In the British set-up, only one person in a department gets to be the professor.  At Trad and Mod, David M. Armstrong, the celebrated “Australian materialist,” was the Professor.  (The term “materialist” designates the metaphysical claim that only physical stuff is real; it does not refer to a person’s fixation on things like food, clothes or money.)

As is the wont of Aussie hosts, Armstrong invited Magee to go with him on a reduced-scale bushwalk.  Magee, an urban type, was soon crimson and perspiring.

“How anyone can think of this as pleasure … baffles me,” he commented when the mid-life fraternity initiation was finally over.

He’d been an M.P.,  a Member of Parliament, and was a worldly man with plenty of stories to tell.  Since I never saw him engage in contests of conceptual agility with the colleagues at Trad and Mod,  I never pegged him for a philosopher precisely.  But he was.

These nights, I’ve been reading Magee’s paperback book titled Men of Ideas: Some Creators of Contemporary Philosophy.  It records dialogues he held with 15 leading Anglo-American philosophers, originally a highly successful BBC television series.  It came out in the 1980’s but, despite changes in fashion, I doubt that the shape of its own cutting edge has been much sharpened or sanded down since then.

He spoke with 14 men and one woman, each very distinct thinkers.  If you suppose it would be easy to get each one to encapsulate his or her philosophic views and then respond to precise and searching questions … well you probably never did imagine doing that would be easy.  Bet your boots it’s not easy.

Did you want to know the difference between the early and late Wittgenstein?  Here is Anthony Quinton, Trinity College, Oxford, to explain.  The early Wittgenstein held that meaning consists in the naming of objects in the world.  A fact is a certain arrangement of objects in the world and a meaningful sentence would be an arrangement of the names of those objects so as to picture — or have a form corresponding to — that external arrangement.  Nothing could be clearer.  The only trouble was that most of our communications don’t exhibit that kind of clarity.  When we say, for example, “he really knows how to behave” or “that’s morally (or aesthetically) unacceptable,” we have something in view not captured by early Wittgenstein.

And the late Ludwig?  He does a complete about-face.  I don’t know of anything like it in the whole history of philosophy.  Now he holds that meaning arises within the particular context where we speak.  So we look for the specifics of the situation in which language is actually used.  The great philosophers raised scaffolds of abstract theory, on which their views of meaning were hung.  So the job of today’s philosopher would be to dismantle the tradition’s scaffolding and recover the circumstances where the philosopher’s displaced terms are used in their everyday sense.

Do you wonder why you never read the novels or philosophic work of Iris Murdoch — only her husband’s pathetic account of her last decline?  Well never mind all that.

Magee’s interview with Murdoch in her heyday focuses on the difference between writing novels and writing philosophy, as she sees it, having done both.  She turns out to have a very elegant mind and to explain that difference with great assurance.  Philosophic writing has to be utterly clear in defining its problems, its terms, methods and how its resolutions would look.  Whereas novels dwell in the half-light, where life retains its mysteries, ambiguities and surprises.  Even its resolutions are never complete or definitive.

My goodness, I thought, imagine having so definite a view of these differences and yet being able to do both!  It’s like going on a workmanlike hike and also, with the same body, engaging in a flying trapeze act in roughly the same time span!   I can’t imagine accomplishing such a feat!  Formidable!

Do you wonder what Noam Chomsky is about, aside from his torrentially flawed anti-Israel polemics?  Well, glad you asked.  It seems that, prior to Chomsky, childrens’ acquisition of language had been explained by B. F. Skinner.  The child sees a red ball.  The ball is the stimulus.  She is told to call it “red.” The word “red” is the response.  Eventually, she acquires the habit of saying “red” whenever she sees the red ball.  This is called “Behaviorism” and it dominated the field of linguistics before Chomsky.

What Chomsky noticed was the child’s skill in putting newly-acquired sounds together, assembling them according to grammatical rules that were not acquired in this way, or even taught at all at the age when complex speech patterns first show themselves.  To try, on the stimulus/response model, to explain the syntactical rules that children master without being taught them, would be like explaining the complex guidelines to which bees conform in their beehives, on the Skinnerian model.  Obviously, what bees know, they know innately.  They don’t have to be taught.  Similarly, human beings are born knowing a good deal about how to speak.

So here are three philosophers lifted out of Magee’s 15.  Their differences are evident, but what do they have in common?

They come alive in argument.  They live in that inner space where the reasoning process lives.  They recognize each other as citizens within that realm.

Long ago Socrates warned against the hatred of reason.  He said that newcomers to philosophy meet with a few bad arguments and rush to the judgment that no argument can lead one toward truth.  But that’s analogous to someone who, disappointed by his earliest friends, decides that no human being is any good.

In fact, says Socrates, few among us are outstandingly good and few are outstandingly bad.  Most are somewhere in between.  And it’s the same with arguments.  So, we should avoid

misology, the hatred of reason —

since it resembles misanthropy, the hatred of human beings.

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The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Argument

Abbie in a previous identity, Philosophy Staff Room
Photo by Elmer Sprague, colleague and friend

The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Argument

Arguing, in the philosophical sense, doesn’t mean quarreling.   The term “argument” designates one or more statements, each capable of being true or false, which present the basis for a final statement called the conclusion.  If the conclusion is supported by the previous statements (which are called premises or reasons) the argument is valid.  If in addition, the premises are true, the argument is sound.

Simple enough.  When someone says — about the case another person is making for his views –

“That doesn’t follow!”

she’s discounting his conclusion because of the way he arrived at it.

And when she says, about the reasons he gives for his beliefs –

“That’s not true!”

she means that, even if his reasoning was okay, his starting point was wrong.

So, in a general way, we all know what arguments are and we know how to evaluate them.  What no one teaches us is what is actually going on in real life.

I once attended a meeting at the American Philosophical Association where Christina Hoff Sommers, the well-known critic of contemporary feminism, was giving a talk to a packed hall of feminist philosophers.  For me, though I have my own reservations about some of the pathways taken by this or that variant of feminism, taking on Christina’s role would be a one-way ticket to cancer.  An auditorium of wall-to-wall angry women is an audience I could not face.  But there’s Christina, doin’ her number!

We got to the Q & A and one woman philosopher raised her hand to object:

“You have not given an argument!”

Now Christina had given about ten arguments (that is, reasons for her particular conclusions) but she was so astonished to hear an objection

of the masculine type in that setting,

that she appeared stumped, unable to recall her own reasons for her conclusions.  Her comeback, as I recall it, was that arguments weren’t needed or that what she’d just presented was lots better than an argument.

You can lose an argument for reasons that are irrelevant or even false.  Even though, in a cooler moment, you knew that.

Jerry and I spent the past week in California, where I go periodically for treatments for my neuropathy.  Since in this Time of Plague we were not planning to see family or friends, the question loomed, how would we pass the time between treatments?  We couldn’t go to a movie or a concert.  We couldn’t take walks because I have neuropathy.  There were only so many episodes of “Friends” we could bear to watch.

Finally, I thought of the solution.  Jerry’s an accomplished logician.  Why not go over the art of argument as it occurs in real life?  I can hold my own on paper, or inside the boundaries of an intellectual space where the terms are understood and the shared objective is truth.  But when I get blindsided in real life, I often find myself speechless and defenseless.  So, when that happens, what I need to know is,

What’s really going on?

and

what needs to be done about it?

Take one example:  I am insulted by the husband of a friend.  He smilingly offers his medley of reasons for concluding that what I  said should be discounted because I am the one saying it.

It’s called the ad hominem fallacy.  Why then am I rendered speechless?  Oh, so glad you asked!  It’s because I don’t want to counter-attack, since I fear it would hurt or offend his wife — who is my friend.  If she’s such a friend, you say, why doesn’t she rise to your defense, or at least applaud your counter-attack?  Puleese.

Here’s another example: Jerry and I meet an old friend of his for lunch at a restaurant in D.C.  Their friendship dates from grad school days.  The old friend begins a discussion with me, about Israel, which he steers toward the point where he can ask me a loaded question.  I begin to respond but he cuts me off, declaring —

“I can’t talk about Israel to — an American Jew!”

The one-syllable word “Jew,” flung in one’s face that way, is being used as an epithet.  A man doesn’t hurl an epithet at a woman.  A colleague (which he was) doesn’t hurl an epithet at another colleague (which I was).  A friend doesn’t fling an epithet at the wife of a friend.

So what did I say?  I said nothing at all, though I didn’t spend too much more time at lunch.  Most of the hour remaining I spent in the Women’s Room.

Women friends, to whom I confided the story later, all reproached me for not hitting back.  The real reason I didn’t verbally hit back was that I didn’t want to goad Jerry into a man-to-man kind of fight over a woman, where each combatant has to outdo the other to prove his manhood.  The ensuing quarrel between the men was conducted by email.  Their friendship didn’t survive the incident but I didn’t make it worse or cause the breakup.

I could go on, and in fact our logic lessons in California called up memory after memory of this kind.  In actual human encounters, a surround of issues hovers over the reasoning process.  All the fallacies covered in the logic textbooks fail to cover actual arguments in their real life surround.

My conclusion?  If I weren’t in the middle of several projects needing to be seen through to completion, how about a logic textbook analyzing actual argument situations – bringing in their surround – and recommending effective stratagems?

Gentle Reader, do you hear the faint summons?   You would be doing a real service and I’ll wager you could get very rich.

It’s virgin territory.

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