What I’m Currently Reading

1. Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle: Volume III  — I just received this in the email and am eager to plow through it this weekend. The Norwegian writer’s Proustian memoir, six volumes in all, are slowly being published in English. I think this is one of the finest works of literature in our time — at least based on my reading of the first two volumes.

2. Aristotle, Politics, translated by Joe Sachs — I am studying this as part of my research into the topic of homonoia (like-mindedness) for the paper I will presenting in Germany this summer. (I just completed a study of his Eudemian Ethics for the same reason.) I just discovered that Sachs had translated it and am obviously delighted. My one disappointment is that he didn’t write the introduction. I have nothing bad to say about Lijun Gu‘s introduction, but Sachs’ other introductions are some of the best short pieces on Aristotle.

3. Kostas Kalimtzis, Aristotle on Political Enmity and Disease: An Inquiry Into Stasis — A nice study of the concept of stasis, which means something like political disorder/disagreement/civil war. Stasis is the contrary of homonoia, so it is important for me to well understand stasis.

4. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, translated by Lewis White Beck — I am reading this with a friend who is doing some work on Kant. I have read the Groundwork many times, but have not read the Second Critique since 20 years ago. As I have been doing some reflective thinking on homonoia, it suddenly occurred to me that Kant had already figured out much of what I had been discovering. The Categorical Imperative might even be an articulation of the condition of the possibility of homonoia.

5. John McCumber, Hegel’s Mature Critique of Kant — I picked this up as a complement to my Kant reading and am finding it quite stimulating. Hegel thought through some implications of Kant quite well, however idiosyncratically, adapting Kant to his own purposes. Hegel’s relation to Kant reminds me of Aristotle’s to Plato. Interpreters often focus too much on disagreement and not enough of the treasure of deep and tacit agreement between each pair. I am frustrated with a common tendency to emphasize disagreement at the expense of deeper agreement. The riches of the tradition are more to be found in homonoia than doctrinal conflict.

6. Rene Girard, Battling to the End — I am still working through this slowly as one of the core textual sources of my paper. A provocative work, at once stimulating and maddening. Girard thinks through the war theorist Clausewitz as a way of understanding the apocalyptic dangers of our age. Girard’s last major work, more important than I thought on my first superficial reading.

7. Thomas Mann, Joseph and His Brothers, translated by John Woods — Somehow I convinced my reading group to take up this massive 1500 page epic, a work that Mann had considered his best but which had suffered from a bad English translation until Woods remedied that. We start in a couple of weeks. We’ll see…

 

 

 

“Like-minded people do not fight.”

“Like-mindedness (homonoia) occurs among good people; base people, at any rate, both decide on and have an appetite for the same things but still harm each other. And it seems that like-mindedness is not univocal any more than friendship is. Rather, the primary and natural kind is excellent, which is why it is not possible for base people to be like-minded; but there is another kind according to which even base people can be like-minded whenever they both decide on and have an appetite for the same things. They have to desire the same things in such a way that it is possible for both to get what they desire; if they desire the sort of thing which both cannot have, then they fight.  But like-minded people do not fight.” — Aristotle, Eudemian Ethics, 1241a

Aristotle distinguishes two kinds of like-mindedness (homonoia) in this passage, one version among the virtuous and one among the base, although really only the former type is like-mindedness in the fullest sense. The passage ends with the astonishing claim that “like-minded people do not fight.”

Is this so? Or better, assume that it is so, and ask what could Aristotle mean by “like-mindedness” such that it precludes fighting. Any thoughts?

 

See this link to an earlier discussion of the importance of commonality.

The inescapablity of tradition

The greatest changes of all come not as a thief in the night, as the oak-tree from the acorn. The most radical of thinkers is soaked in tradition; he spends a lifetime bending ancient ideas to a slightly different use, and his followers soon revert to the familiar pattern while still mumbling the novel terms. And it is so: men can work only upon what they have inherited. Fresh experience and novel problems they must understand with instruments they have learned from those who came before them. New ideas they must grasp in the concepts they already know, for they have no others; new habits they must work slowly into the accustomed pattern of their lives.

— J. H. Randall, The Career of Philosophy, quoted in Kostas Kalimtzis, Aristotle on Political Enmity and Disease

 

Some thoughts:

1. We cannot think in a vacuum. We never start from scratch. Even to reject a tradition is to be rooted in it.

2. A sentence is a vehicle of thought, a carrier of meaning, but the meaning of a string of written or spoken words is never confined to those words. Words neither initiate nor complete the meanings that they summon. Words have both histories and destinies, both of which are part of what the words “mean.”

3. Like any doxa, a tradition has both its satisfaction and dissatisfaction. The traditionalist is one who would remain comfortably ensconced in the satisfaction, against which the dissatisfaction is seen as threatening to his repose. The rebel would view the positive accomplishments of the tradition as excuses against participation in the energetic demands created by dissatisfaction. Both the satisfaction and dissatisfaction, affirmation and denial, are partial glimpses into the truth that tradition makes possible.

4. Fidelity to a tradition demands that we remain attentive to the dissatisfaction to which it gives rise. Every valid rejection is grounded in an affirmation that we have (perhaps unknowingly) inherited from our tradition.

5. We don’t reach truth by either simply rejecting or accepting doxa, but by thinking through it and by it.

Mind extended into things

I think better on paper than I do in my head. When I read, I don’t just scan with my eyes but actively annotate with my ever ready mechanical pencil. If I am trying to develop an idea that has many moving parts, I have to write it out in list form and I only see the unifying theme when I can reduce it all to a single synoptic page. My work is very much in my mind when I am sitting at my (admittedly messy) desk, but almost completely out of mind when I am away from it. My mind spills out of my brain and becomes suffused with the things around me and by manipulating those things, I can make discoveries in thought. Here a few thoughts to chew over:

1. My mind is embodied but is located neither solely in my brain nor my body but extended through my tools and material touchstones.

2. ‘We have no power of thinking without signs’ (Peirce) but it makes little difference whether the signs are in my internal imagining or present in the form of external signs. My mind ‘spills out’ into the world.

3. My mind is indeed a whole of some kind, but not a whole in the sense of a delimited thing with size, shape or physical boundaries.

4. A mind is a “form of activity” in the Aristotelian sense. A mind is a “realization of form” in the Platonic sense.

5. The material substrate of this activity is brain+body+prosthetics.

6. I have noticed in some of my older, now deceased relatives, that their minds declined precipitously when they were moved from their homes into a sterilized, hospital-like environment, such as a nursing home. Although there are many explanations for this phenomenon, it is at least consistent with the notion that their minds weakened by age depended on the physical cues in their home environment, that their homes and the ordered stuff were invested with Proustian memory and know-how. They literally lost part of their minds in being displaced.

7. Back when I was a Naval Aviator, I noticed that much of my know-how was “stored” in the physical architecture of the airplane I would fly. If I were removed from the cockpit, procedures that were second nature to me could only be recalled with effort and then only by imagining myself in the cockpit reaching for knobs and switches. Once I was having all kinds of difficulty remembering my call-sign during my radio calls (the sign was always based on the tail-number of whatever plane I happened to be flying). I couldn’t understand the source of my difficulties until I discovered that a piece of electrical tape was partially obscuring an engraved plate that had as its last two digits the specific tail number of the plane. As soon as I removed the tape, my difficulties went away. Until then, I was totally unaware that I relied on this visual cue for knowing my call sign. I always assumed that I had always just remembered it from our initial plane assignment and/or seeing the number on the tail when I approached it. Instead, it seems that my mind outsourced this function from the brain to the environment. Again, there was no conscious strategy on my part.

8. I am reading two books dealing with the issue of technological mind extension: a cyber-punk novel called Accelerando by Charles Stross and a philosophical argument for extended mind called Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension by Andy Clark. The former, which explored the potential of neural implants, seemed slightly crazy to me until I read the argument of the latter. Here is a link to an essay co-written by Andy Clark and David Chalmers called “The Extended Mind,” the argument of which is the basis of Clark’s book.

9. See this article about a blind climber given a device that allows him to “see” with his tongue. Pretty amazing.

10. See an article about inversion goggles and how the mind fairly easily adapts to a change in data presentation as long as the new presentation is functionally equivalent. It reminds me of how easy it turned out to be for me to adjust to driving on the left-hand side of the road in Japan. My brain found that the American “right” is the equivalent is looking across the car and “left” is equivalent to looking away from the car. After a little while, the translation was effortless.

11. Michael Polanyi’s example of using a hammer or a blind man’s stick as examples of the to/from nature of embodied existence:

The way we use a hammer or a blind man uses his stick, shows in fact that in both cases we shift outwards the points at which we make contact with the things that we observe as objects outside ourselves. While we rely on a tool or probe, these are not handled as external objects. We may test the tool for its effectiveness or the probe for its suitability, e.g. in discovering the hidden details of a cavity, but the tool and the probe can never lie in the field of these operations; they remain necessarily on our side of it, forming part of ourselves, the operating persons. (Personal Knowledge, p. 59)

 

This is just grist for the mill. Later, I will bring this back to Plato/Aristotle and the ideas that (1) the necessary material of thought is whatever is capable of receiving the governing form, and (2) forms are forms of wholeness that govern activities, including thought.

What I’m reading (or just read)

1. Middlemarch. As I mentioned before in this blog, I have been leading a reading group on George Eliot’s masterpiece. We will be discussing Book V tonight. Here’s a nice quote that bears on my blog’s themes: “[The] egoism which enters into our theories does not affect their sincerity; rather, the more our egoism is satisfied, the more robust is our belief.” True, isn’t it?

2. Everything is Obvious (*Once You Know the Answer): How Common Sense Fails Us by Duncan Watts. Very good so far. The subtitle tells it all. As the blurb says, the book is about “how common sense reasoning and history conspire to mislead us into believing that we understand more about the world of human behavior than we do; and in turn, why attempts to predict, manage, or manipulate social and economic systems so often go awry.” Definitely speaks to the limitations of opinion (since common sense is a type of opinion/doxa in Plato’s sense.)

3. Battling to the End by Rene Girard. A book on the important of the Prussian war strategist Clausewitz (of all people) for understanding the contemporary crisis and its basis in total war and the duel. I read it far to hastily when it came out and am reading much more carefully this time around in preparation for my presentation at the Colloquium on Violence and Religion in July. I still can’t tell if this is Girard’s best book or worst book — I am only two chapters in. I will figure it out and write a review later on. (As a side note I actually participated in a study group at Stanford with Girard when he was working though some of these ideas.)

4. Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt by Michael Lewis. This just came out yesterday and I haven’t received my copy yet, but if Lewis’ previous books are any indication, I will finish this book within a day or two of starting it. I have read an excerpt and (again) Lewis’ books always make useful case studies for some of the epistemological ideas that I explore in this blog. If you told me Michael Lewis’ next book was on sock manufacturing, I would still guess it would be a gripping read.

5. The Up side of Down: Why Failing Well is the Key to Success by Megan McArdle. I just finished this one. A couple of people I respect let me know that this would be a book that I would like and they were definitely right. The book is on failure, which turns out to be an engaging and informative theme — much like my favorite subject: ignorance!

6. Physics by Aristotle, translated by Joe Sachs. I spend the rest of the semester on Aristotle and just reread Books 1 and 3 in preparation for the Ancient Greek Philosophy Class I am teaching. Hopefully I will be able to communicate my excitement in reengaging the great Aristotle!

Philosophy and conversion

One of the chief teachings of Plato is that the aim of philosophical pedagogy is periogage, i.e. conversion. In Book VII of the Republic, Socrates tells Glaucon:

“Education is not the sort of thing certain people who claim to be professors claim that it is. Surely they claim they put knowledge into a soul it wasn’t present in, as though they were putting sight in blind eyes…

But the current discussion indicates…that this power is present in the soul of each person, and the instrument by which each ones learns, as if were an eye that’s not able to turn away from darkness toward the light in any other way than along with the whole body, needs to be turned around along with the whole soul, away from what’s fleeting, until it becomes able to endure gazing at what is and at the brightest of what is, and this, we’re claiming, is the good…

Then there would be an art to this very thing…this turning around, having to do with the way the soul would be most easily and effectively redirected, not an art of implanting sight into it, but of how to contrive that from someone who who has sight, but doesn’t have it turned the right way or looking at what it needs to.   — Republic, translated by Joe Sachs, 518b – d.

One of the frustrations of teaching philosophy in a university setting is the narrowly circumscribed (more…)

What I think I understand about Platonic form

My title is tentative, I know, and so is what follows. But we always must begin with the tentative, in its etymological sense of stretching — stretching toward what we don’t yet fully know and yet which grips us by means of anticipations present in the desire to know. I want to write a straightforward statement of what I believe forms to be in Plato. I have no book in front of me and so will not cite any texts. My purpose is to lay bare my own pre-understanding so that I will have a sample to test against the texts themselves. The dialogues are the testing-stone, the basansos, that I can measure myself against when I do return to them, and measure myself without evasions. (It is as if I write what follows in answer to a kind of subpoena from a divine judge — I will really try not to perjure myself!) (more…)