Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Descartes' Bones & The Best of All Possible Worlds

I never got around to continuing my review of Russell Shorto's Descartes’ Bones: A Skeletal History of the Conflict Between Faith and Reason, nor did I ever get around to reviewing Steven Nadler's The Best of All Possible Worlds: A Story of Philosophers, God, and Evil. The former has objective content that merits attention regardless of Shorto's spin on the subject suggesting a moral for our time. Shorto is a journalist. Nadler is a serious scholar of Spinoza and of that period. Here is a paragraph I wrote on 21 July 2010:
The last two books I'm reading are about early modern philosophy: Russell Shorto's Descartes’ Bones and Steven Nadler's The Best of All Possible Worlds. The latter is about the theological-metaphysical problematic of Leibniz, Malebranche, and Arnauld. [This] . . . coincidentally dovetails with parts of the former book, which I'm still reading. Nadler refrains from drawing too many conclusions from this material, unlike Shorto, who thinks like a shallow journalist in reading today's conflict between faith and reason into the past. However, one can draw more severe conclusions from Nadler's book, should one choose to adduce the evidence presented therein to condemn Christianity—not just religion in general but Christianity in particular. I will write about this, assuming I can catch up to my proliferating ambitions.

Atheist Viewpoint: Diversity in the Movement

From American Atheists:

. . . with David Silverman (President of American Atheists), A. J. Johnson (Director of Development), and Ron Barrier. The question of intersectionality or belonging to multiple minorities is discussed as part of the general discussion on the (non-) participation of minorities in the atheist movement. Johnson contributes the notion of social capital and the most of substance on this topic and others. Johnson disagrees with Silverman that diversity including libertarians and other conservatives merits serious consideration. Ron Barrier is accommodating to ideological divergences but Johnson is not having it. I can only hope that the conservative/libertarian element is marginalized in the movement, but I don't believe this any more than Johnson does. Note the closing song "I Ain't Afraid" by Holly Near.

Descartes' Secret Notebook (1)

"The sciences are now masked; the masks lifted, they appear in all their beauty. To someone who can see the entire chain of the sciences, it would seem no harder to discern them than to do so with the sequence of all the numbers. Strict limits are prescribed for all spirits, and these limits may not be trespassed. If some, by a flaw of spirit, are unable to follow the principles of invention, they may at least appreciate the real value of the sciences, and this should suffice to bring them true judgment on the evaluation of all things."

   — Réne Descartes, Preambles
Aczel, Amir D. Descartes' Secret Notebook: A True Tale of Mathematics, Mysticism, and the Quest to Understand the Universe. New York: Broadway Books, 2005. xiv, 273 pp. (The above quote can be found on pp. 38-39.)

While I recommend reading this in hard copy, you have a number of online options at your fingertips. Begin with the Publisher description. You can also read a sample text.You can read the whole book online at scribd.com. And if you have a compelling need to download yourself a pirated copy, you can also download a compressed file from Megaupload.

I've written on this blog before on the burgeoning genre of popularized history of philosophy. Often the ideas themselves are shortchanged, but the biographical narratives are compelling and vividly portray the social contexts of the times. I have been especially rewarded by a complex of books whose narratives (unintentionally) bleed into one another; they could almost be grouped as volumes in a single series:

Rebecca Goldstein, Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity;

Matthew Stewart, The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza, and the Fate of God in the Modern World;

Steven Nadler, The Best of All Possible Worlds: A Story of Philosophers, God, and Evil;

Russell Shorto, Descartes’ Bones: A Skeletal History of the Conflict Between Faith and Reason.

Aczel's book fits in here, too, especially as it intersects the narratives of Nadler and Shorto. While Descartes' coded secret notebook is ostensibly the subject of this book, it is in actuality a biography of Descartes, with the decoding of the notebook the climax of the tale. There are, of course, other biographies of Descartes. Here is one review:

Serfati, Michel. "Descartes, the Pioneer of the Scientific Revolution" [review of Desmond Clarke, Descartes: A Biography, Cambridge University Press, 2006], Notices of the AMS, vol. 55, no. 1, January 2008, pp. 44-49.

I have not found any awe-inspiring reviews of Aczel, but here are a few:

Book Review – Descartes’s Secret Notebook, 22 April 2009

Star Topology, 13 Jan. 2011

Descartes' Secret Notebook, Steve Zipp, 20 Jan. 2009

One interesting feature of this book is the incorporation of recent discoveries and scholarship concerning Descartes.

Aczel begins with an account of his encounter with Descartes' cryptic manuscript: actually, the original is lost, and Aczel is really looking at the insatiably curious Leibniz' transcription of Descartes' manuscript. Aczel recounts also how he came by the idea of writing this book. Then he tells the story of Leibniz's encounter with Descartes' hidden work. Some quotes from variously titled texts are adduced, along with Descartes' pseudonym Polybius. The encrypted notebook itself consisted of 16 pages, with alchemical and astrological symbols, obscure figures, and puzzling number sequences. Following this teaser, the book traces the entire course of Descartes' life.

Descartes was the progeny of a wealthy family, endowed also with a tremendous curiosity, an ability to master a variety of skills and a wide range of knowledge, with an especial brilliance in mathematics. He was particularly fascinated by Greek mathematics, and by the power and limitations of what the Greeks could construct with straightedge and compass alone. Descartes was also quite the adventurer, joining in several military escapades, apparently motivated by curiosity rather than partisanship, even taking the side of Protestants in some campaigns though he himself was a lifelong Catholic. (Descartes was a confident swordsman who on one occasion fended off a boatload of criminals he had hired who schemed to assault him and steal his money [pp. 93-95]. He also got caught up in a duel over a woman [pp. 123-125].) Because of his extraordinary ability to solve mathematical problems, Descartes befriended a Dutchman whom he met as a soldier, Isaac Beeckman. They shared a considerable range of knowledge. (Note Descartes' letters to Beeckman of March 26 and April 29, 1619 on Ramon Llull, pp. 47-48.) This is where Descartes' curiosity about mystical ideas was aroused.

Chapter 4 recounts the key dreams that inspired Descartes, his notations in the text Olympica, and the possibility of a meeting with Kepler. Chapter 5 concerns the Athenians' obstacle in doubling the size of the Apollo Temple, a mathematical problem that cannot be solved by straightedge and compass alone. The Delian Problem, as it is known, stumped the Greeks. Descartes' meditation on this problem led him to the mathematical revolution he initiated: the unification of geometry and algebra.

Chapter 6 details the key meeting with the mystic-mathematician Johann Faulhaber of Ulm. We also find a confirmation that Descartes planned to write a mathematical treatise under the pseudonym Polybius the Cosmopolitan. In his notebook Descartes used alchemical symbols used by Faulhaber (pp. 74-75). Faulhaber was interested in the Kabbalah as well as in alchemy. Descartes' solved Faulhaber's mathematical problems. While engaged in a military campaign in Prague, Descartes noted in Olympica on 11 November 1620 a great discovery (p. 79).

In the following chapter we are introduced to the Brotherhood of the Rosy Cross, or the Rosicrucians, who were cosmopolitan philosophical revolutionaries. Descartes was heavily influenced by the Rosicrucians, so much so that he had to publicly deny any such allegiance, whether or not he was covertly a Rosicrucian. (This rumor also disturbed his close friend Mersenne, a Catholic priest albeit more progressive than most.) Descartes was quite interested in occult matters, and the Rosicrucians were also leaders in mathematical and scientific investigation. Faulhaber was a Rosicrucian. Kepler at least had a Rosicrucian assistant, if he was not one himself. Leibniz, who examined Descartes' notebook, was a Rosicrucian.

I am leaving out of account several details of Descartes' life: his bon vivant lifestyle as well as his periodic retreats into solitude—in hiding even—his military adventures, his interests in women, his financial affairs, etc. The most puzzling aspect of Descartes' character is his investment but apparent detachment regarding military affairs. Aczel finally addresses this question at the end of Chapter 11, after detailing Descartes' participation as a scientific observer in the brutal siege of La Rochelle, in which the population was starved out in the course of its military defeat. Descartes had no animosity against the Huguenots, who were crushed by the Catholic power, or against Protestants in general, whom he had fought for. Aczel attempts to explain Descartes by noting that he was trained by the Jesuits and was inducted into and attracted to military order and structure. In the 17th century, war was conducted in a highly and visibly ordered manner. (pp. 129-130)

This might be one of the more telling indications of the contradictions of the birth of modernity. If I believed in the notion of "instrumental reason" as a fundamental explanatory category, here I would find a key target, as I would in the other unresolved dualities of religion and reason, occultism and science, omnipotent mind/immortal soul and mechanical body.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Max Horkheimer, Montaigne, & bourgeois skepticism (2)

Bildung and Critical Theory facing Post-modernity by Ilan Gur-Ze'ev

The postmodernity part and the conclusions are insufferable ("critical pedagogy" has always struck me as idiotic) but the content concerning the Frankfurt School and Bildung is interesting.

Here's the passage specifically about Montaigne:
A clear manifestation of this optimist-positive utopianism is Horkheimer's "Montaigne and the role of skepticism." From within the Marxist tradition Horkheimer here articulates the importance and weaknesses of modern, bourgeois skepticism, which is a central element of Enlightenment and the project of Bildung. Because the bourgeoisie have the upper hand, claims Horkheimer, the worth of the individual becomes mainly an economic issue and the critical Spirit becomes an individual’s aesthetic pastime. Skepticism, he claims, is targeted at saving the individual. This is its great goal. But Critical Theory, in opposition to this tradition, conceives the individual as basically dependent on social conditions and understands her emancipation as part of the liberation of humanity, coming about within an essential change in the social totality. This new society, according to the early Horkheimer, will actualize Montaigne's quest for the happy realization of the essence of the human.
It's hard to imagine an academic department more worthless than Education, "Critical Pedagogy" included, unless it's Political Science. Anyway, here's another specimen:

Adorno, Horkheimer, Critical Theory and the Possibility of a Non-Repressive Critical Pedagogy by Ilan Gur-Ze’ev

Horkeimer's essay on Montaigne is mentioned here, too. And here at least is a critique of Henry Giroux, his descent into postmodernism, and his misunderstanding of Marcuse (who also comes under fire) and other critical theorists. The author also recapitulates the development of the ideas of Horkheimer and Adorno.

What does all this come to?
Counter-education, if true to itself, cannot be, like Critical Pedagogy wants us to believe, an attempt to implement any “theory”, as sophisticated or good-intentioned as it may be. If true to itself, counter-education must challenge any theoretical, ideological, or political "home", any master signifier, dogma, or ethnocentrism as manifestations of the Same, of the thingness in Being, which human beings are called to guard and transcend (Heidegger 196, 234). Counter-education, in this sense, must be at once Messianic and negative at any cost. This means that it cannot satisfy itself even with identification with the negation of self-evident, with the resistance to the ethnocentrism of the oppressed and cannot identify itself with the “worthier” violences they actualize against their own "internal" and "external" Others.
Ugh! I can't go on.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Max Horkheimer, Montaigne, & bourgeois skepticism (1)

In re:

Horkheimer, Max. “Montaigne and the Function of Skepticism,” in Between Philosophy and Social Science: Selected Early Writings, translated by G. Frederick Hunter, Matthew S. Kramer and John Torpey (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1993), pp. 265-311. Original publication: “Montaigne und die Funktion der Skepsis,” Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung 7, no. 1 (1938).

There are some choice quotes in this 1938 essay, few of which will be comprehensible out of context. Let me begin with my favorite:
There is no humanism without a clear position toward the historical problems of the epoch; it cannot exist as a mere profession of faith to itself. The humanism of the past consisted in the critique of the hierarchical feudal order, which had become a fetter on the development of humanity. The humanism of the present consists in the critique of the forms of life under which humanity now perishes, and in the effort to transform them in a rational manner. [p. 308]
Though written in 1938, this claim is applicable to today's humanism, which I intend to show has been intellectually stagnant for decades, esp. lacking in profound social, historical, and political analysis. I adduce this quote as an entry into a whole intellectual tradition excluded by the Anglo-American humanist movement.

Here's another interesting quote, the conclusion of the article. It is not readily decipherable out of context, however:
. . . skepticism in its liberal and authoritarian forms constitutes an aspect of the dominant bourgeois type of individual. The reason is that characterological structures are consolidated and transformed not by knowledge and enlightenment but by material conditions. The advances in weapons technology, by means of which entire peoples are held in check by a well-stocked army, are much more decisive for the persistence of skepticism as an anthropological characteristic than the arguments with which the skeptical attitude seeks to rationalize itself. One could counter that insights such as these constitute the very essence of skepticism. To be sure, it is typical of skepticism, as well as of the dominant character as such, to ascribe the vulgar motives—according to which alone the rulers of the world act—not to them and their principle, but to the idea of humanity itself. The difference here is that the critical theory which we espouse, in contrast to skepticism, does not make an antitheoretical absolutism of the insight into the inadequacy of things as they are and the transitoriness of cognition. Instead, even in the face of pessimistic assessments, critical theory is guided by the unswerving interest in a better future. [p. 311]
Now let's skip to what others have to say about Horkheimer's essay.

Young Horkheimer: Critical Theory Before the Dialectic of Enlightenment, And After It by Matthew Sharpe (2007).
For young Horkheimer, the re-emergence of scepticism in the modern age, first in Montaigne (MFS) and later in Hume’s ‘deconstructions’ of personal identity as “fictional” or consciousness as a “theatre” (MFS, Stirk), already reflect the material disempowerment underlying the bourgeois’ paeans to the autonomous “masters and possessors of nature”.
That's it for Montaigne, though the author places this in context of Horkheimer's overall project of the 1930s.
This analysis, however, is all about Montaigne:

Frankfurt School, 1938: Max Horkheimer on Montaigne by Bruce Miller, Old Hickory's Weblog, 29 January 2011.

For some background on Montaigne:

Michel de Montaigne by Marc Foglia, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Note Richard H. Popkin on the conservative dimension of skepticism. It was from Popkin's work that I learned of the dual ideological role of skepticism 40 years ago.

Additional references on my web site:

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Philip Kitcher: Militant Modern Atheism

Kitcher, Philip. "Militant Modern Atheism," Journal of Applied Philosophy,Vol. 28, No. 1, 2011.

While defending the "new atheists" on the matter of their objection to superstition, Kitcher is dissatisfied with the belief model of religion, suggesting an orientation model instead and offering a working taxonomy of religious orientations. Here is a key passage:
First, militant modern atheism is entirely correct in its assault on those types of religious life that fit the belief model. On the other hand, all three of the non-secular approaches that accord with the orientation model are defensible. In the case of the mythically self-conscious that is hardly surprising, and the militant modern atheists applaud when tho e who continue to think of themselves as religious firmly reject ‘supernatural’ entities — the militants think, however, that what remains hardly deserves the name of religion. More problematic, at first sight, are the cases of the doctrinally-entangled and the doctrinally-indefinite. I’ll suggest that doctrinal indefiniteness can be a reasonable expression of epistemic modesty, and that even doctrinal entanglement can be justified when it is the only way of preserving, in the sociocultural environment available, a reflectively stable orientation. Militant modern atheism tends to overlook this point because it is in the firm grip of the belief model, and thus assumes — wrongly — that correction of belief about the occupants of the cosmos can automatically be articulated into a satisfying vision of what is valuable in one’s life. Perhaps that is true for the privileged few, but it is not so for the less fortunate many.
I find Kitcher's justification of an orientation model unconvincing and incoherent, though indeed the belief model (which one sees in its most ridiculous incarnation in Sam Harris) is shallow and asociological. Kitcher however does go on to emphasize the inadequacy of religious experiences, however valuable they may be as pure experience, as justifications for beliefs and doctrines.

Kitcher also addresses the inadequacy of Dawkins' & Dennett's speculative evolutionary psychology, which is based on the belief model, or in the case of Dennett an incipient orientation model. Kitcher frames the inadequacy in terms of needs which may be unmet by Dawkins' perspective, given the fact that few can participate in the creative scientific life therein indicated. You can read Kitcher's conclusions for yourself. I find his treatment inadequate, and paradoxically, predicated on the same academic isolation as that of the militant atheists he criticizes: his tolerance is the tolerance of the privileged, and just as apolitical.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Blasphemy Tanka for James Baldwin

 Blasphemy Tanka for James Baldwin

In James Baldwin's tale,
    Go Tell It on the Mountain,
        a note for Jesus:
    ". . . tell that puking bastard to
kiss my big black ass." It's there!

REFERENCE: James Baldwin, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953; New Dell Edition, 1970), p. 163.

— Ralph Dumain, 7 & 11 August 2011

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Richard Wright's Outsider vs. the priest

Cross's anxieties now condensed themselves into an attitude of sullenness toward the priest. He disliked most strongly all men of religion because he felt that they could take for granted an interpretation of the world that his sense of life made impossible. The priest was secure and walked the earth with a divine mandate, while Cross's mere breathing was an act of audacity, a confounding wonder at the daily mystery of himself. He felt that the attitude of the priest was predicated upon a scheme of good and evil ordained by a God whom he was constrained out of love and fear to obey; and Cross therefore regarded him as a kind of dressed-up savage intimidated by totems and taboos that differed in kind but not in degree from those of the most primitive of peoples. Cross had to discover what was good or evil through his own actions which were more exacting than the edicts of any God because it was he alone who had to bear the brunt of their consequences with a sense of absoluteness made intolerable by knowing that this life of his was all he had and would ever have. For him there was no grace or mercy if he failed.

SOURCE: Wright, Richard. The Outsider (1953). Restored text: Works. Volume 2. Later Works: Black Boy (American Hunger); The Outsider. New York: Library of America, 1991. (The Library of America; no. 56) Excerpt from Book Two: Dream, p. 494.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

UFO (Haiku for Richard Wright)

"The Visions of Eternity, by reason of narrowed perceptions,
Are become weak Visions of Time & Space, fix'd into furrows of death;
Till deep dissimulation is the only defence an honest man has left"

  — William Blake, Jerusalem The Emanation of The Giant Albion, 49.23; E198

"Reason has always existed, but not always in a reasonable form."

  — Karl Marx, Letter to Arnold Ruge, Kreuznach, September 1843

  (Haiku for Richard Wright)

    by Ralph Dumain

Whirling in the sky,
  the truth is over their heads
    in more ways than one.

  (4 August 2011)

by Ralph Dumain

The Outsider read
              summons purple-flowered fields
       contrasting the doom.

(Written 11 Feb. 1995)

  A Divine Image

Cruelty has a Human Heart
And Jealousy a Human Face
Terror, the Human Form Divine
And Secrecy, the Human Dress

The Human Dress, is forged Iron
The Human Form, a fiery Forge.
The Human Face, a Furnace seal'd
The Human Heart, its hungry Gorge.

  — William Blake, Songs of Experience

The first stanza of this poem prefaces Richard Wright's The Outsider.