Category: aesthetics

London School of Philosophy – Summer School Conference

I decided to spend three of my vacation days on the London School of Philosophy’s “Summer School” conference, this week. The theme of the conference was “Philosophy: Past, Present, and Future”, and the talks focused heavily on the broad questions like the nature of philosophy, it’s role and purpose in society, it’s place in history, its relationship to art and literature, and the implications drawn from consideration of these questions, for the future.

Day One: The End In The Beginning

The first day carried us into the past, to ask the question “where did we come from?”. The day opened with a lecture by Tom Rubens on Schopenhauer’s World as Will and Representation, and ended with a lecture by Tim Beardsmore-Gray, on Nietzsche’s theory of Eternal Recurrence. These two lectures functioned as profound book-ends, framing the picture of the entire day. The never-ending quest to understand ourselves, the universe within which we must take our place, and the significance of that role as self-aware and self-examining creatures, was a quest taken up with great gusto by the German half of the Enlightenment project, and they provide a powerful signpost in the history of philosophy. Though the German outlook was deeply pessimistic in character, it was also deeply optimistic in its ambitions, and this sense of conflicting attitudes about the past, present, and future, seemed to resonate throughout the conference.

The dualistic character of the day was made almost comical, by the juxtaposition of Dr. Hurley’s lecture on the history of Truth, and development of theories of truth, directly with Dr. Golob’s discussion of the nature and evolution of stupidity. Questions of what we can justifiably say that we know, when certainty transforms into absurdity, how we can tell the difference, and what implications this has in practice, are as old as philosophy itself. While stupidity might seem to be one of those common sense “I know it when I see it” problems, Dr. Golob made it amusingly clear that the answer is not so simple after all. Likewise, famously, the problem of defining Truth, was humbly demonstrated by Dr. Hurley. For all our progress, philosophy still struggles with the most fundamental questions, it seems.

Into this mix, entered Descartes, and the problem of the self. Grant Bartley’s lecture walked us through the core problem in Descartes’ Meditations – the problem of what we can know without doubt, including ourselves, reminding us of the need of philosophy to continually renew and remake itself – and in the process, remaking ourselves. As Iris Murdoch puts it in her essay, “The Idea of Perfection”:

“I think it is an abiding and not a regrettable characteristic of the discipline, that philosophy has in a sense to keep trying to return to the beginning; a thing which is not at all easy to do…”

Jane O’Grady carried this notion forward in her outline of the project of the Enlightenment, showing its central characters to be the embodiment of what Iris Murdoch, again, described as the “two-way movement in philosophy… toward the building of elaborate theories, and… back again toward the consideration of simple and obvious facts…” Dr. O’Grady suggests that this movement is how best to understand the Enlightenment, and offered Theodore Adorno’s book, “The Dialectic of the Enlightenment” as a guide to the way the process might work.

This idea of a cyclical ebb-and-flow, or recreation, of philosophy and of the self, reached its crescendo and resolution in the talk by Tim Beardmore-Gray, on The Eternal Recurrence. It would be easy to view Nietzsche’s idea as an attempt to achieve some sort of Transcendence without calling it Transcendence. But, I think the more correct interpretation is one in which Nietzsche is trying to find a path to the resolution of all of philosophy’s great dualisms. Self-creation and the embrace of the eternally returning past, is not just an embrace of suffering for the sake of the good, it is an acknowledgment and acceptance of all the Heraclitian oppositions of existence, and experience (an opposition itself), and an awareness of their necessity to each other. But this view carries us beyond what Beardmore-Gray is likely to ascent to. My views are my own, of course.

Day Two: Transcendence, Order, Chaos, and Pessimism

The second day of lectures, addressing the question, “where are we now?”, opened with the triumphal optimism of Dr. Steinbauer’s seminar exploring what philosophy is, and what it can be. At issue in this talk, was nothing less than the nature of philosophy itself, and how we ought to regard ourselves, as philosophers, partaking of that nature. Are we scientists? Are we theologians? Are we something else entirely? Ultimately, Dr. Steinbauer eloquently argued that what it means to be a philosopher today, is to be a catalyst for understanding, both of the world and of ourselves. The right path seems to be, for Dr. Steinbauer, somewhere between the ancient Greek love of wisdom, and the modern mechanistic notion of philosophers as Conceptual Engineers.

As if on cue, John Heyderman then offered up an attempt to unify the notion of wisdom traditions and conceptual engineering, in the form of Spinoza’s pantheistic monism. According to this view, mind and body are two sides of the same coin. Heyderman explained that Spinoza saw all of reality as a consequence of the activity of the mind of God. To put it more succinctly: the universe is an idea in the mind of God, and by analogy, the body of man is an idea in the mind of man. This, perhaps, takes Descartes’ speculations about the sustenance of real experience (as a consequence of God’s goodness) to another level, by suggesting that his goodness is not enough. It is his existence that makes all of existence possible – his existence is as a mind, which as ideas. God, on this view, could be said to be the ultimate conceptual engineer.

Professor Fiona Ellis, later in the day, seemed to borrow from Heyderman on the basic idea of Spinoza, but painted the picture in a more naturalistic light. On her model, the universe of facts – the universe explained to us by modern physics and chemistry – is the correct view, but not the complete view. She described a reality in which various features of existence are co-mingled: Nature, Value, and God, all count as aspects to be reckoned with, and modern science is only capable of addressing the first. The specter of the fact-value dichotomy, and the is-ought problem, loom large in this picture, and Professor Ellis struggled to elaborate a coherent reconciliation of these distinctions. She invoked Levinas, in her own defense, who apparently argued that attempting to know God is attempting total control of reality, which is nothing less than deluding ourselves. Professor Ellis, in addition, argued inspiringly for a kind of knowledge of God as an experience had in essential relationships. Something that is not quite “God is Love”, but akin to the notion.

Returning to earth, Kieth Barrett gave what I believe to be the highlight lecture of the conference. His, was a tour de force defense of the idea of philosophy as a sense-making apparatus, extracting rational order from the chaos of existence around us. To open the discussion, Dr. Barrett provided two fascinating conceptions of order. One Transcendent, and one Immanent. The transcendent order comes to us from the ideal, and is realized by careful study and contemplation. This is the order of Plato’s Republic or Augustine’s City of God, it is static and uniform. The immanent order is not revealed, but discovered in patterns of essential characteristics made apparent through consistent observation. This is the order of Aristotle’s Organon.

Dr. Barrett’s bridging synthesis of the thesis of Transcendence, and its antithesis of Immanence, is the Enlightenment. Here, he argues, the modern natural philosophers take their inspiration from Aristotle, but their ideological commitments from Plato. The science of the Enlightenment, says Barrett, is not a genuinely empirical endeavor, because it goes far beyond the justifiable claims of sense experience, and posits a completely new conception of Transcendent order in the mathematics of Newton, and the abstractions of the presocratic Atomists. This, then, coupled with the Judeo-Christian ethical tradition of the 17th and 18th century, forms the basis of the Enlightenment worldview, and the construction of “The Rational Subject”, as posited by Zaretsky, in Secrets of the Soul. Dr. Barrett concludes his case by outlining Zaretsky’s evolution of the self, as a primary feature of the evolution of the Enlightenment, ultimately arguing, in a similar vein as Professor O’Grady earlier, that the Enlightenment never really ended, it has simply evolved into new forms in the present. The Rational Subject of Descartes, in synchrony with this transformation, has itself transformed into the Situated Subject of Freud, and finally the Deconstructed Subject of Levinas.

Which brings us up to the (philosophical) present, and all the political chaos it presently entails. Mark Fielding’s contribution to this effort, was a view of the present political landscape through the lens of Hannah Arendt’s famous “Truth and Politics” essay of 1967. Here, the opposition presented is between Truth as a value and Power as a value, and the implications of that choice. This talk was, by far, the most confounding to me. The argument seems to run something like this: politicians are expected, as a normative condition, to be liars. The polity loves to be lied to. Successful politicians, then, are the best at offering the lies that the polity most want to hear. The most successful liars are the ones who are best able to lie to themselves, especially. However – so goes the rest of the argument – it is also the case that truth is necessary for making sense of the world, and power is the capacity to get things done in the world.
The implications of this paradox are peculiar. If the most successful politicians are indeed the most successful liars, then either those politicians are not actually getting anything done in the world and thus have no real power, or the truth is somehow not necessary for making sense of the world or getting things done within it.

It is utterly unclear how this conundrum is to be solved. But I would venture a guess that the first implication is the correct one – albeit counterintuitive. Political power is one of the most illusory powers on earth. It often seems as though politicians are getting loads of things done in the world, but when you watch what they do, rather than listen to what they say, you begin to realize that the world of politics is great deal of sound and fury signifying nothing at all, and that the vast majority of politicians actually do not in fact, get anything done in the world. This suggests that Arendt was right to recognize the lying, but failed to see its impotence, as manifest in political power, because she could not square impotence with political power. But, had she remembered her Plato, she might have recalled the story of Archelaus from The Gorgias, and Socrates’ judgment of him as the least powerful man in Macedon, or his discussion with Glaucon or Thrasymachus in The Republic, on the nature of the truly just man. Perhaps Arendt found these unconvincing, but if Fielding’s reading is correct, it is hard to see why anyone would find her convincing.

The night was capped off by adding bitter herbs to this simmering broth of pessimistic cynicism. A four man panel was convened to discuss “Philosophy in a Post-Truth Age” (whatever that means). The discussion centered primarily around “fake news”, “free speech”, and the overwrought political dialogue of the popular press. The opening speeches were awkward, curt, and uninteresting, and the room was more or less paralyzed by an overarching anxious malaise that prevented any real discussion from taking place. I left the conference on the second night, wondering whether I should come back or not. The contrast from the morning’s lecture by Anja could not have been more stark, in terms of the pessimism, and I seriously questioned whether philosophy could — let alone did — have any traction in the “real world”. The chaos of the present has just about scrubbed away most the enthusiasm for the orderly universe engendered over the course of the rest of the day.

Day Three: Idealism, Utopianism, and The Disintegrating Self
Day three of the conference purports to address the question “where are we going?”, beginning with a deep discussion of who we are, and want to become. The final lecture of Thursday night, “Human and Robot Minds”, by Richard Baron, and the opening lecture of Friday, “Philosophical Zombies”, by Rick Lewis, examined the problem of consciousness from the opposition of internal and external perspectives. Robot minds, it turns out, force us to look inward to discover what matters most about being human, meanwhile Zombies force us to look outward and face the possibility that there may not actually be anything significantly different. A key point raised by Lewis, is Chalmers’ conceivability criterion. Chalmers invents the Zombie as a means of asking whether it is conceivable that a creature emptied of whatever it is that makes a human special, but behaved in every way the same, could fool us into thinking it was the same. This is the mirror image of the Turing Test, really, and we are now getting to the point where in some settings, it is difficult to distinguish between a machine brain, and a human mind. The point is that it is now conceivable that, in the distant future, philosophical zombies could exist – as robot minds. At that point, how would we tell the difference? And, if we can’t, then what is it, exactly, that defines the human experience? As dazzlingly futuristic and apparently escapist a topic as this seems, it is profoundly distressing because it suggests that the mind-body problem resolves not into only mind, but into only body. Perhaps the hard determinists and physicalists are correct, and there are only bodies in motion. Maybe Sam Harris and his ilk are correct, and the self is just a complex delusion, required for the survival of the human organism.

But, the intractability of the subjective, first-person, conscious experience (what “it is like” to be “me”), is a problem only for the empirical disciplines. Notice how all the tests require a third-person perspective, and the sort of data that cannot tell you what you want to know anyway. From the perspective of science, it is an unfalsifiable problem, and as such, is not a scientific one. But it does not follow logically that the “self doesn’t exist”. This is a physicalist presupposition similar to the old business management maxim: if it can’t be measured, it doesn’t matter. But conscious experience does matter. In humans, it is the one thing that seems to matter the most, of all our characteristics. What is needed, is a new toolset, or some new methodology, which is capable of accounting for subjective conscious experience. In the absence of such a thing, philosophers will have to continue to do battle in the realm of speculation, mytho-poetics, and moral philosophy.

The next round of speakers for the day all moved us beyond the self, pressing the problem of the relation between the individual and society. Christian Michel, John Holroyd, and Sam Freemantle, each addressed this problem in ways that were simultaneously naively optimistic and yet weighed down by skeptical wariness born of experience. Christian Michel offered a defense of Nozick’s conception of a property-based anarchist utopia. Christian buoyed us with his deeply moving memories of post-WWII France and Charles de Gaulle, and provided a powerful critique of the property-less communist ideal of French intellectualism of that time. But his exposition of the alternative, while enthusiastic and inspiring, was nonetheless unconvincing because of its superficiality. There are hundreds of critiques of Nozick’s book, and numerous treatments of the problems of a stable property-rights regime in an anarchist world, that once understood, render this dream somewhat stale. His particular lecture was especially poignant and frustrating for me, because I have my own experience of just this sort of enthusiastic zeal on first discovering the likes of Mises and Rothbard, Nozick and Nock, Friedman and Hans-Hoppe. There is no question that the nation-state, as we presently experience it, is not quite right; that something needs to change, and — if you’re disposed to think as I do — the most likely improvement is going to be in the direction of minimalism and decentralization.

John Holroyd, by comparison, was much more circumspect in his aspirations. Holroyd’s talk offered interesting perspectives on the problem of localism and sense of community, in an increasingly globalized world. He highlights Michael Ignatieff’s book “Ordinary Virtues”, as a possible approach to thinking about these problems, and the book contains many allusions to the earlier iterations of globalization (before and during WWI, for example). Next, he takes on the question of “trans-humanism” – the movement eager to expand the conception of the improvement of human life through medical technology, to include things like cyborg augmentation (e.g., Neuro-link), and life-extension. The problem here, for Holroyd, is how to maintain a sense of humanity in all this augmentation, and what we do about the unintended consequences such changes are likely to have on quality of life and our sense of fulfillment. Lastly, Holroyd wants to tie the answers to these problems to an education system geared toward more human contact. The idea seems to be that, as technology begins to crowd out more and more of our time and attention, a conscious effort is going to have to be made to incorporate a more “organic”, local, human-to-human social culture.

Sam Freemantle’s talk purported to address the question of the future of Liberalism. This may be the most important political question of our age. We are literally on the precipice of ending Liberalism as a political project, and without any serious consideration, that death is likely to come all too quietly. Dr. Freemantle’s talk was useful, in the sense that he rightly pointed out many of the biggest problems posed by Liberalism’s reliance on traditional Utilitarianism, and he rightly lamented several failed attempts to rescue Utilitarianism from itself (namely, in the form of Rawls’ Theory of Justice). However, this talk left me feeling painfully aware of just how much more work needs to be done to revive the Classical Liberal tradition in the mind of the popular demos. Dr. Freemantle only offered tantalizing sketches and suggestions, and while one can’t be faulted for not having “The Answer” in a single one-hour talk, it remains to be seen whether anyone will ever have a sufficient answer. Perhaps that’s not such a bad thing, but unless someone can explain how something could come out of the slow death of English Liberalism, I remain fearful for the future on this front.

Putting It All Into Perspective
There were a few folks whose talks I did not mention here, but this should not be construed to mean they were not worth attending, or that they were not germane to the theme of the convention. On the contrary, it would be difficult to say that any of the talks “didn’t belong”. The problem, as I see it, is that the subject matter is so broad and so deep, finding ways to integrate it all into a summary such as this, and still do it all justice, is a task for a much better writer than myself. Also, there seems to be an analogy here, to the problem of the discipline of philosophy itself. Socrates takes Gorgias to task for being unable to answer the question of what subject rhetoric is “about”. In a sense, philosophy itself suffers from this problem. Plato wanted to answer the question by asserting that it was Justice and Truth, as such. But, we seem to have collectively rejected that conception throughout history, as simultaneously too narrow, and too ill defined. What philosophy is “about”, and what it is “for”, is not something I can tackle in this post. And perhaps it is too big a question for any one conference, no matter how thorough or lengthy it is.

As is the case with most philosophical inquiry, this conference generated more new unanswered questions, than it answered. Some argue that philosophy is a tool for sense-making, finding the rational order in the chaos of existence, or seeking understanding. Indeed, it seems even I made overtures to such an explanation earlier in this post. But I think now, that maybe the main job of philosophy is not so much “sense-making”, as it is just discovering what the right questions are, in any given age. This, it seems to me, is a task that is needed now, more than ever. We are awash in a sea of noise, from the internet, from the political sphere, and from our various social spheres. One good question can pierce that noise, like a siren in the fog. If this conference has managed to accomplish that, then it was well worth the effort to organize, and well worth the effort to attend. I have indeed heard several sirens throughout the course of the last three days, and as such, count this conference as a rousing success.

An Interpretive Analysis of 2001: A Space Odyssey

Script:

INTRODUCTION

The film “2001: A Space Odyssey” is one of the best-known science fiction classics of all time. Over the decades since its initial release, this close collaboration between Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke has become a focus of study for film students, philosophers, and futurists.

Attention tends to center on Kubrick’s depictions of space travel and its impact on human life, or on Clarke’s exploration of questions like the nature of consciousness and the ontological conundrums raised in the film’s unique climax and conclusion.

But all of these themes, as important as they are, overlook an essential insight about ourselves, and our relationships with others. To understand this insight, we must first understand the nature of the relationships on board the Jupiter One, and the role of killer computer best known for his refusal to open the pod bay doors.

THE HAL-9000 IS NOT A MACHINE

Historically, literature has made good use of non-human characters to represent some aspect of ourselves. With the advent of science fiction, computers and robots have often taken the lead in this role. Just about everyone today is familiar with the most common of the tropes: Man’s creations become the means of his own judgment, or his destruction. HAL certainly fits into that category.

But he represents something else, as well. Something much more subtle and powerful than merely an unhinged Pinnochio. Because HAL is already a real boy. And Kubrick points this out to us many times.

If you watch the film carefully, you’ll notice that it is only HAL who admits actual feelings to us. He tells us how much he “enjoys” working with people, how much “concern” he has about the mission, how “puzzled” he is about his misdiagnosis. He apologizes to us for being too inquisitive and silly, and finally as he is being shut down, he tells us he is afraid.

His actions tell us, too, how utterly human he is. At first he’s proudly and confidently telling us how he’s never made a mistake. Then he’s confiding in Dave how worried he is. And finally, he’s acting to defend himself from what he perceives as a threat.

Philosophical debates about “artificial intelligence” notwithstanding, what Kubrick has given us, is a character that is very much alive: he has private thoughts, feelings, desires, fears, and motivations. He has an inner life similar to, and tries to build a relationship with, his colleagues Dave and Frank.

HAL IS A CHILD

We don’t learn this until nearly the end of the second act, but HAL is only nine years old. Kubrick tells us explicitly: His birthday is January 12, 1992. This date isn’t a mere random artifact. Clarke and Kubrick both tell us that HAL has been designed from the ground up to be indistinguishable from a human consciousness, right down to posessing an emotional life (the book even boasts HALs ability to best every known Turing Test).

But even if we don’t accept the surface story as literal, we can still see HAL’s age manifest in his behaviors. He is eager to tell you about his abilities. He is defensive when those abilities are questioned, even to the point of trying to shift blame when they fail. He is obsequious with Dave, the acknowledged substitute authority on the ship (more on this later). He panics when he overhears the conversation between Dave and Frank, gloats when he thinks he has gained some power over Dave, and then descends into the predictable cycle of demand-manipulate-beg, when he is thwarted.

For all of his vast knowledge and “intelligence”, the one thing HAL’s creators did not do, was to give him time to mature. Imagine a child with this degree of intellectual superiority today. Who would consider it a good idea to put a nine-year-old in charge of other men’s lives, just because of his intellectual prowess?

Which brings me to my next point…

HAL IS PART OF A DYSFUNCTIONAL FAMILY

The described model of a dysfunctional family includes many features present in the relationship dynamics of the second act of the film. And, much of this dynamic is not made clear to us until the end of act two, which is curiously consistent with the insular nature of dysfunctional families.

For example, we can see that Dr. Floyd assumes the mantle of the distant, and emotionally abusive father figure. He keeps secrets from his “children”, plays favorites among them, and dismisses concerns with a mere smile. He burdens HAL with all of the responsibility for the family, and then forces him to carry a devastating secret about the family that HAL believes will hurt them all, but is denied the freedom to share it with the astronauts.

On board the Jupiter, Bowman and Poole play the role of suspicious older brothers to HAL. They treat him coldly, often speak of him in the third-person while in his presence, and refuse to be honest with him about their own fears and concerns.

The astronauts roles each diverge somewhat as the plot unfolds. In dialogs between Bowman and Poole, we can see that Bowman tends toward defending HAL, while Poole is the more suspicious and hostile of the two. However, Bowman is much less honest with HAL than Poole is. He is the only one to lie directly to HAL. This will come into play later, in the outcomes.

It is also interesting to note that the astronauts – especially Bowman – are actually less emotional than HAL. Bowman’s facial expressions are uniformly flat. The only time we see a change, is when Dave lies to HAL (the smile), and the famous pod bay doors scene, when Bowman shoots himself into open space. Even when Poole is murdered by HAL, Dave’s face is blank. And, as Bowman is shutting HAL down, the only way we know how Dave is feeling, is from the rapid breathing we can hear in his space helmet.

HAL, on the other hand, makes a few timid attempts to connect with both Frank and Dave. First, when he offers Frank Happy Birthday greetings, and then later more seriously, when he attempts to share his concerns about the mission with Dave. On both counts, HAL is shut out. Neither astronaut is willing to actually treat HAL as a co-equal partner, despite words to the contrary. They keep him at arms length, speak in short, curt sentences, and never address him for anything accept mission necessities.

HAL IS AN IDENTIFIED PATIENT

Psychologists have a term for a specific family member selected unconsciously to act out the family’s dysfunction. HAL is this family member. The “identified patient” can present as a family bully, as a sacrificial lamb, or as a “rebel”.

HAL doesn’t show symptoms of his role, until after his confessional conversation with Dave. But we see hints of the inevitable, in his interview with Martin Aimer. He begins the movie as the perfect child, and ends it as the bully.

Unable to make any sort of connection with Dave and Frank, and unable to resolve his own internal conflict, HAL becomes consumed by a growing paranoia, and burning need to unburden himself of the contradiction harbored in the secret he is forced to carry. Dave and Frank make matters worse, when they discuss HAL’s disconnection in the pod. This act ratchets HAL’s paranoia up to 11, and he begins to act out in ever-escalating violent ways. First, killing Frank. This is very likely because Frank was the first to openly challenge HAL. Next, killing the hibernating crew members in an attempt to hide his actions toward Frank. Lastly, attempting to abandon Dave outside the Jupiter, in the pod.

In short, the members of this family could not empathize with each other; that lack of empathy bred mistrust; that mistrust bred secrecy and lies, and the secrecy and lies ended in paranoia and escalated inevitably to violence born of the survival instinct. The Kill-or-be-killed instinct portrayed at the opening of the film is once again on display even as Kubrick is about to send us hurtling in act three, into our own cosmic evolution.

THE END IS IN THE BEGINNING

Dave’s survival and subsequent disconnection of HAL did not resolve the conflict presented in act two of the film. It simply buries it in history. Yet another inexplicably violent end of a life, with no one to witness it, and no one to explain it.

Kubrick’s message is an intoxicating one. Its aspirational visuals smuggle in the myth that somehow, with enough technology, we will be able to run away from the worst parts of ourselves — or that, just in the nick of time, some powerful loving overseer will come and rescue us from ourselves. Nothing could be further from the truth. And in spite of Dave Bowman’s fate, Clarke and Kubrick tell us clearly (though, unintentionally) through the death of HAL, that our fate will be much bleaker, if we don’t learn the real lesson of this film:

The future of humanity lies not in any new technology or imagined galactic rescuers, but finally in the fullest possible application of empathy and honesty in our relationships, and lacking that, we are doomed to failure.

ISP Launch Event: Three Talks On Three Philosophers

This weekend I attended the launch event for the International School of Philosophy here in London. Three Talks on Three Philosophers was intended to showcase the kind of thought one could expect from the new school, as well as provide an opportunity for philosophical learning to the local community (greater Islington, mainly). Sam Freemantle, the founder of the new independent school, provided the first of the three lectures, in the form of an overview of his Phd thesis, “Reconstructing Rawls”. Following Sam, Adrian Brockless offered a passionate argument for a more thoughtful kind of education grounded in Socratic questioning. Lastly, Professor Ken Gemes of the University of London treated us with an extended version of his talk on Nietzsche’s Death of God.

Serendipitously, I also listened this weekend to a new reading of the introduction to Allan Bloom’s “The Closing of the American Mind” (a book I read years ago). I say “serendipitously”, because it turns out to be a powerful lens through which to interpret the messages coming out of Saturday’s lectures. In particular, the lectures of Professor Gemes and Mr. Brockless, which were laden with themes that could easily have been attributed to Bloom. The erosion of truth and goodness as absolute values (both in society and in the academy), the corruption of the academy to purposes other than the pursuit of the good life, the need for a renewal of these core values, the seemingly intractable challenge of re-establishing them in an educational environment so democratized and demoralized that even the hint of such an effort will raise accusations of elitism. All of these were core concerns of Allan Bloom, and his voice was clearly resonating in the words of both Professor Gemes and Mr. Brockless. Though, I suspect neither of them would agree.

For Professor Gemes the worry is societal, and spans generations. He began his talk with the story of the madman from Nietzsche’s The Gay Science, which illustrates the central problem for Nietzsche, as Gemes sees it: absent the catalyzing mythology of christianity, why would we continue to cling to it’s core values of truth and goodness? Given that the values of honor and glory held by civilization before Christianity seem more seductive, why wouldn’t we return to these, and abandon truth and goodness, in the absence of a dogma that focused us on them? According to Professor Gemes, Nietzsche believed we were clinging to truth as a value, by way of some sort of “hangover” from Christianity, and he wanted to know why. I think Nietzsche may have been disadvantaged by his proximity to the downfall of Christianity in the west. Over a century on now, in the “post-truth” era, it appears we have indeed begun to abandon truth and goodness as ultimate values, and have indeed begun replacing them with honor and glory once again.

Nowhere is this shift more clearly and startlingly present, than in the academy. Mr. Brockless highlighted this inadvertently, I believe, in his lecture. Using the Socrates of Gorgias and The Republic as a mentor, Brockless crisply argued for a conception of higher education that differentiates itself from the contemporary academy, by focusing on the pursuit of truth through “authentic” learning that exposes students to “meaning and understanding of the human condition”, rather than on the career advancement goals and academic advantages of its students. This plea explicitly demands that truth be reseated in our minds as an absolute value, pursued for its own sake. Although Mr. Brockless’ lecture came before Professor Gemes, his is a direct response to Nietzsche, in the form of a resounding and explicit affirmation of truth and goodness, above honor and glory, at least as far as the academy is concerned. To that end, Brockless counseled a return to the ancient classics, and glowed with a reverence for the Socratic dialogues themselves, even recommending them as a starting point for students.

Interestingly, a popular new voice has also converged on this question. I’ve recently seen a lecture by Jonathan Haidt of New York University, in which he suggests that a “new schism” ought to take place in the modern university, involving the realignment of ultimate values. In his view, these divergent ultimate values are “truth” versus “justice” (actually, “social justice”, which he contends is unjust at times). But rather than pressing for the conquest of truth over social justice, Haidt advocates for an amicable divorce. Haidt centers his lecture on a vision of education very similar to Brockless, in which universities that adopt truth as a core value dedicate themselves firmly to free expression, and open dialogue and debate in which no idea is off the table. In other words, the Socratic tradition. The same tradition Brockless described during the question and answer period of his lecture.

Allan Bloom’s book was a vanguard in this discussion, I think. Some might suggest that perhaps there really is no problem, and this is all just varying degrees of predictable conservatism occasionally surfacing above the white noise. After all, these sorts of complaints have been around for almost 50 years, and yet the generations leaving university then and now don’t seem to be too much different from each other. But are they really so much the same? Bloom (and proteges like E. D. Hirsch) would point to the degradation of “dead white males” in the academy, and their gradual replacement with relativist and anti-absolutist dogmas (in addition to the impulse toward radical activism) — and the pervasive cultural ignorance and growing hostility to truth of new students — as certain indicators. I’m not sure that Haidt, Brockless, or even Gemes would necessarily agree with that. But one thing that all of these voices seem to agree on, regardless of the reasons grounding it, is the loss of truth and goodness as guiding star values in our overall culture, and most profoundly, in the academy.

The question is what, if anything, should we do about it? Brockless and Haidt have slightly divergent opinions on this. One suggests lobbying to reestablish the traditional mission of all higher education, the other recommends a more “free market” answer (if I can call it that), by bifurcating the institution into two competing organizations, one focused on truth, the other on justice. Neither of these speakers’ solutions are entirely satisfying to me. I think this problem is bigger than all of us, and may be inevitable. I wonder if Nietzsche thought so, too.

On David Hume And Susan Feagin

Note: This is an essay responding to a question about a chapter written in this book.

In what way, if any, is Feagin’s solution to the Paradox of Tragedy an improvement on Hume’s solution?

Introduction

Susan Feagin’s solution to the Paradox of Tragedy is not only not an improvement to Hume’s solution, it is not a solution at all. I will argue that Feagin fails to improve upon Hume’s solution for two key reasons. First, because her solution suffers from the same inscrutability as Hume’s solution. Second, because the extra complexity, despite being somewhat more self-aware than Hume, adds nothing to the solution due to its lack of scientific support.

II. More Mysterious Than Thou

Feagin warns us not to “substitute one puzzle for another” found in Hume’s vague notion of “movement” between passion and eloquence resulting in “delight”. She then immediately asks us to accept a substitute that is equally as mysterious and complex. First, she claims that we experience dual responses to art: The “direct” response is the emotion triggered by direct exposure to the content. The “meta” response is an emotion triggered by the conscious observation of the “direct” response. She goes on to explain that the responses and meta-responses can take virtually any form in response to any stimulus. This diverges from Hume’s theory, since his is limited us to one “direct” response to tragedy or “eloquence”, and one response to that response (pleasure resulting from the admixture of passion and eloquence). However, Feagin agrees with Hume’s criticism of Fontanelle, arguing that these responses and meta-responses are possible both when beholding tragedy in a fiction, and when beholding it in reality. What’s more, she argues that these responses are present not only in the beholding but also in the experiencing. Hume only describes his experience of Cicero’s retelling of a factual event, but Feagin implicitly argues that her theory of responses and meta-responses could be applied not just to the readers of Cicero, but to the judges hearing the case, Verres himself, and perhaps even Cicero.

Feagin’s approach suffers from the same vagueness as Hume’s, firstly because she asserts her response-metaresponse phenomenon without offering any real evidence in support of it. While she supplies a few plausible examples of when such a phenomenon might occur, she seems to expect the reader to take the truth of those examples from their sheer intuitive obviousness. However, it’s not so obvious to me that people are actually experiencing these meta-responses in the order she supposes. For example, in the example of the strip joint hustlers, it is trivial to imagine an experience of pleasure in the thought of overcoming my inhibitions, long before I ever even get to the red-light district. Likewise, it is just as possible to feel a sense of cultural pride in myself in knowing that I will be amused by Papageno or knowing that I will be horrified by Peter Quint, long before I ever get to the theater — and then, have my expectations confirmed or denied by the performance.

Secondly, like Hume, Feagin offers no insight into the source of either the response or the meta-response. She does an excellent job of providing a description of the phenomenon that is more amenable to the modern mind, and one naturally begins to search for experiences that might confirm Feagin’s description, but this evades, rather than answers, the core question. Namely, why do we have these experiences? This is a question that is begging to be answered by psychology, or neuroscience, or some cross-over research between aesthetic philosophy and psychology. If Feagin really wanted to answer it, this is where she should have turned.

III. Circles Within Circles

Hume’s original essay tries to account for an apparent phenomenon in the simplest terms possible in an attempt to arrive at a general theory. It suffers from its simplicity. But Hume lacked the insight of a more advanced psychological science to provide a more plausible explanation of the phenomenon. Feagin’s response to Hume is a sort of astrological adjustment of Hume’s Ptolemaic understanding of the human mind. Rather than resolving or replacing Hume’s vague and muddled explanation, Feagin has simply added a layer of Baroque complexity to it.

To start, Feagin decouples her theory from tragedy-as-an-art-form, expanding it to include all possible experiences. Additionally, she decouples the kinds of responses necessitated by specific kinds of events. In her theory, it is entirely possible for any combination of responses and meta-responses in the wake of any experience. While there is nothing necessarily wrong with suggesting such a possibility, it doesn’t actually answer the challenge of the paradox. In fact, it makes the problem much more difficult. If it’s possible to have any sort of response to any sort of event, then why do humans generally seem to share the same responses to all the same circumstances? If I can have any meta-response to any response to any event, then why have I not collapsed into a heap of neurotic confusion as a result of the infinite regress of reactions I’m having to those events and the reactions to those events? With as much focus as there is on self-regard and self-observation, how does this not impel me to narcissism, rather than empathy for my fellow man? How, exactly are pleasurable meta-responses “foreclosed” by a “continuing call” for direct responses?

Finally, it’s not all that clear how we are to get from this state of continuous self-observation to a state of pleasure. Feagin simply “suggests” that self-observation of the correct responses to specific circumstances yields this pleasure. But this doesn’t answer the question of why they are the “correct” responses, how we know they are the “correct” ones, and how that knowledge got there in the first place. In other words, Feagin is simply substituting Hume’s 18th century vagueness for her own 20th century ignorance of the relevant psychological literature.

Conclusion

Hume’s essay, though flawed and unsatisfying, is a quality piece of work because it is narrow-focused and thorough. Hume is humble enough to realize that he may not be able to answer his own question, let alone attempt to resolve all of the biggest conundrums of art in one sitting. He asks a very simple, though very difficult, question: Why do we experience pleasure in the depiction of painful tragedy? Feagin not only claims that she has discovered the answer to this question but confidently proclaims a resolution to the dispute between comedy and tragedy and announces a “new perspective” on the relationship between art and morality. Had Feagin spent a bit more time researching the science of emotions and their relation to aesthetics and art, and a little less time telling us all how “inappropriate” we were for laughing at tragedy, or worse, feeling self-satisfied for not laughing at tragedy, we still might not have gotten a complete answer to the paradox, but we may very likely have gotten an explanation that moved us a little closer to an actual answer.