Tuesday, 21 August 2007

Duplicity, Language Profusion and the Personal

From George Steiner's After Babel:
'A comparison between different languages shows that the point about words is never their truth or adequacy for otherwise there would not be so many languages.' Or to put it simply: there is a direct, crucial correlation between the 'un-truthful' and fictive genius of human speech on the one hand and the great multiplicity of languages on the other.
Most probably there is a common molecular biology and neuro-physiology to all human utterance. It seems very likely that all languages are subject to constraints and similarities determined by the design of the brain, by the vocal equipment of the species and, it might be, by certain highly generalised, wholly abstract efficacies of logic, of optimal form, and relation. But the ripened humanity of language, its indispensable conservative and creative force lie in the extraordinary diversity of actual tongues, in the bewildering profusion and eccentricity (though there is no centre) of their modes. The psychic need for particularity, for 'in-clusion' and invention is so intense that it has, during the whole of man's history until very lately, outweighed the spectacular, obvious material advantage of mutual comprehension and linguistic unity. In that sense, the Babel myth is once again a case of symbolic inversion: mankind was not destroyed but on the contrary kept vital and creative by being scattered among tongues. But in this sense also there is en every act of translation -- and specially where it succeeds -- a touch of treason. Hoarded dreams, patents of life are being taken across the frontier.
Man has 'spoken himself free' of total organic constraint. Language is a constant creation of alternative worlds. There are no limits to the shaping powers of words, proclaims the poet. 'Look,' said Khlebnikov, that virtuoso of extreme statement in his 'Decrees to the Planet', 'the sub obeys my syntax.' Uncertainty of meaning is incipient poetry. In every fixed definition there is obsolescence or failed insight. The teeming plurality of languages enacts fundamentally creative, 'counter-factual' genius and psychic functions of language itself. It embodies a move away from unison and acceptance -- the Gregorian homophonic -- to the polyphonic, ultimately divergent fascination of manifold specificity. Each different tongue offers its own denial of determinism. 'The world, it says, 'can be other.' Ambiguity, polysemy, opaqueness, the violation of grammatical and logical sequences, reciprocal incomprehensions, the capacity to lie -- there are not pathologies of languages but the roots of its genius. Without them the individual and the species would have withered.

Sunday, 19 August 2007

Kant's Foreshadowing of the Quantum and the non-Euclidean

Kant, I think, is often misrepresented in philosophical circles as having supposed that Newtonian physics and Euclidean geometry were the final words of their respective fields.

Certainly, Kant did think Euclidean geometry and Newtonian physics were the most certain bodies of knowledge available, and his philosophy can be seen as providing a philosophical justification for why this is so, but I think a closer reading of his work will show that he never went on to suppose that nothing better than or different to these two bodies of thought were possible.

Now, having just read for the first time his Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics, I was pleased to find the following passage in the chapter titled On determining the boundary of pure reason that directly supports my view, even though I'm well aware that taking a tiny section from a much larger body of work as proof of any standpoint is a thoroughly misguided course of action to undertake:
The expansion of insight in mathematics, and the possibility of ever new inventions, goes to infinity; so too does the discovery of new properties in nature (new forces and laws) through continued experience and the unification of that experience by reason.

Friday, 17 August 2007

Montaigne on Prognostications

In On Prognostications, we have Montaigne quoting Lucan with the following:
O Ruler of Olympus, why did it please thee to add more care to worried mortals by letting them learn of future slaughters by means of cruel omens! Whatever thou hast in store, do it unexpectedly; let the minds of men be blind to their future fate: let him who fears, still cling to hope!

The Mystery of the Montaigne's Misshapen Lumps

I remember a while ago reading the following passage in Montaigne's Essays and being thoroughly perplexed:
...just as a woman left alone may sometimes be seen to produce shapeless lumps of flesh but need to be kept busy by a semen other than her own in order to produce good natural offspring...
Thankfully, I've since gotten my hands onto Screech's translation of the Essays, and a happy footnote at the bottom of the page explains most things:
The human egg not yet having been discovered, many believed with Galen that children were produced by an intermingling of a (weaker) female semen with the male's. By itself the female semen could at times produce moles, a misshapen lump.

Thursday, 9 August 2007

Schopenhauer and Compassion as the Basis of Morality

From Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Representation comes the following excerpt that privileges compassion over reason as the basis of moral life:
Let us suppose that two young men, Caius and Titus, are passionately in love each with a different girl, and that, on account of external circumstances, each is thwarted absolutely by a specially favoured rival. They have both decided to put their rivals out of the way, and are perfectly secure from all detection, even from all suspicion. When, however, each comes to make more detailed arrangements for the murder, he desists after an inward struggle. They are now to give us a sincere and clear account of the reasons for abandoning their decision. Now, that given by Caius is to be left entirely to the reader's choice. He may have been prevented through religious reasons, such as the will of God, the retribution to come, the Day of Judgment, and so on. Or he may say: "I consider that the maxim for my proceeding in this case would not have been calculated to give a universally valid rule for all possible rational beings, since I should have treated my rival only as a means and not at the same time as an end." Or he may say with Fichte: "Every human life is a means to the realisation of the moral law; hence I cannot, without being indifferent to that realisation, destroy one who is destined to contribute to it." (Incidentally, he could get over this scruple by hoping, when once in possession of his beloved, to produce soon a new instrument of the moral law.) Or he may say in accordance with Wollaston: "I considered that this action would be the expression of a false proposition." Or like Hutcheson he may say: "The moral sense whose feelings, like those of any other, are incapable of further explanation, prevailed on me not to do it." Or like Adam Smith: "I foresaw that my action would not excite any sympathy at all for me in those who witnessed it." Or in the words of Christian Wolff: "I recognised that I should thus work against my own perfections and not help that of another." Or he may use the words of Spinoza: "To man nothing is more useful than man; I was therefore unwilling to kill the man." In short, he may say what he likes.

But Titus, whose account I reserve for myself, may say: "When it came to making the arrangements, and so for the moment I had to concern myself not with my passion but with that rival, I clearly saw for the first time what would really happen to him. But I was then seized with compassion and pity; I felt sorry for him; I had not the heart to do it, and could not." Now I ask any honest and unbiased reader: Which of the two is the better man? To which of them would he prefer to entrust his own destiny? Which of them has been restrained by the purer motive? Accordingly, where does the foundation of morality lie?

Friday, 3 August 2007

Schopenhauer on What Constitues Philosophy

In most introductory philosophical textbooks, the standard definition of philosophy presented is usually etymological in nature. It is pointed out that philo and sophy are derived from the words that mean love and wisdom respectively in Ancient Greek, so philosophy is presented as an enquiry into wisdom and left at that.

For the purposes of an introductory textbook, such a definition I suppose is decent enough. Schopenhauer, however, gets much closer to the truth, if not hitting it directly, when he talks of philosophy as follows in his The World as Will and Representation:
The mode of explanation employed in various fields of study explains things in reference to one another, but it always leaves unexplained something that it presupposes. In mathematics, for example, this is space and time; in mechanics, physics, and chemistry, it is matter, qualities, original forces, laws of nature; in botany and zoology, it is the difference of species and life itself; in history, it is the human race with all its characteristics of thought and will. And in all these it is the principle of sufficient reason in the form appropriate to each. Philosophy has the peculiarity of presupposing absolutely nothing as known; everything to it is equally strange and a problem, not only the relations of phenomena, but also those phenomena themselves.

Schopenhauer and Wittgenstein's Ladder

Wittgenstein was one of the few philosophers of note that did not read much of what other philosophers had written. One exception, however, was the work of Schopenhauer.

I presented Wittgenstein's ladder to you before, but the germ behind the philosophy and the metaphor itself can be found in Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Representation as follows:
Perception is not only the source of all knowledge, but is itself knowledge par excellence; it alone is the unconditionally true genuine knowledge, fully worthy of the name. For it alone imparts insight proper; it alone is actually assimilated by man, passes into his inner nature, and can quite justifiably be called his, whereas the concepts merely cling to him.
And later:
For the man who studies to gain insight, books and studies are merely rungs of the ladder on which he climbs to the summit of knowledge. As soon as a rung has raised him one step, he leaves it behind. On the other hand, the many who study in order to fill their memories do not use the rungs of the ladder for climbing, but take them off and load themselves with them to take away, rejoicing at the increasing weight of the burden. They remain below for ever, since they are carrying what ought to have carried them.