Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category
“The life story of Immanuel Kant is hard to describe, for he had neither a life nor a story.” – The poet Heinrich Heine.
The German philosopher Immanuel Kant, author of the canonical work Critique of Pure Reason (1781), is considered one of the most influential thinkers in Western philosophy and modern times. However, the impressive leaps of intellectual fancy that he exhibits in his philosophical works seem to have drained all of the zest out of his real life. In a word, Kant didn’t really get out much. If anything, his life was remarkable for being so unremarkable.
Kant was largely silent about himself. He kept no journal; the details about his life are sparse and must be gleaned from what he accidentally let slip through. Most stories of Kant come only from people who knew him or observed him directly. Of the few daily activities Kant engaged in, his walks have been imbued with the most significance, if only because they were the only activity that people actually saw him engage in.
Kant seldom strayed more than a few miles from the town of his birth, Königsberg, and never left his hometown to see the world that he spent so much time trying to figure out. In fact, to call Kant a ‘creature of habit’ would be a gross understatement. It is said that the citizens of Königsberg set their clocks according to the position of the gray presence of Professor Kant on his daily walk down and back the same street every day. Legend has it that the only time he missed his daily walk was when he first discovered Rousseau’s book, Emile, and became so engrossed that he forgot his walk. The street he walked daily at 3:30 is still called the “Philosophengang” (The Philosopher’s Walk) in his memory.
The historic accounts regarding Kant’s daily walk are plentiful yet contradictory. Whether Kant had one, two or even more preferred routes is not clear. Furthermore one has to place two maps on top of each other, that of Königsberg and that of Kaliningrad, to find the locations today. Kant’s first major biographer, Thomas De Quincey, wrote that the brilliant recluse preferred to walk alone for a very particular reason: “he wished to breathe exclusively through his nostrils; which he could not do if he were obliged continually to open his mouth in conversation”, and by doing this he was better able to pursue his meditations.
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David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion were published in 1779, three years after the Scottish philosopher’s death. The “dialogue” mentioned in the title takes place between three fictional characters: Demea, who believes that God’s existence can be proven through reason; and Cleanthes, who thinks that God’s existence is proven by the existence of the universe; and Philo, who’s more nuanced views are, most likely, Hume’s own.
The work was published after Hume’s death because of the great deal of controversial material it contained. Many of these ideas continue to be debated today, but a particularly fascinating passage is hidden among the more abstruse theology.
It begins when Cleanthes makes a standard argument for the divine Creation of the universe: “Look round the world: contemplate the whole and every part of it: You will find it to be nothing but one great machine, subdivided into an infinite number of lesser machines … we are led to infer, by all the rules of analogy … that the Author of Nature is somewhat similar to the mind of man, though possessed of much larger faculties, proportioned to the grandeur of the work which he has executed.”
Philo, the skeptical stand-in for Hume, is having none of it. He begins by restating Cleanthes’ argument — “Throw several pieces of steel together, without shape or form; they will never arrange themselves so as to compose a watch.” — and then knocks it down. He does so by suggesting how it would, in fact, be possible to throw things together into a watch:
“And what surprise must we feel, when we find him [i.e., God] a stupid mechanic, who imitated others, and copied an art, which, through a long succession of ages, after multiplied trials, mistakes, corrections, deliberations, and controversies, had been gradually improving? Many worlds might have been botched and bungled, throughout an eternity, ere this system was struck out; much labour lost, many fruitless trials made; and a slow, but continued improvement carried on during infinite ages in the art of world-making.”
A world of items, stupidly thrown together, and “gradually improving … throughout an eternity.” Hume needed only to go a few steps farther to anticipate Darwin by nearly a century. Alas, Philo (and, therefore, Hume) backed down, so the world had to wait.
You can find the full story in Daniel Dennett’s wonderful book, “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea.”
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Stoicism (the name derives from the Greek word for ‘porch’ (stoa poikilê)- the place where members of the school congregated, and their lectures were held), was a school of Hellenistic philosophy founded in Athens by Zeno of Citium in the early 3rd century B.C. Stoic doctrine was one of the most durable and influential philosophical traditions of the Hellenistic period, and it enjoyed the membership of many of the most educated people in the Graeco-Roman world (including such luminaries as Epictetus, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius). In modern times, the word ‘stoic’ has become synonymous with ‘philosophical,’ and has come to signify a preternatural courage and calmness in the face of physical, psychological, emotional and situational adversity.
Like most of the educated men of his day (and ours too, come to think of it), Zeno deeply admired the teachings and character of Socrates. Interpreting the Socratic model from the point of view of the Cynics, Antisthenes, Diogenes, and Crates of Thebes (of whom Zeno was for a time a disciple), Zeno was most impressed by Socrates’ strength of character and his ability to detach himself from the trivial concerns of the external world. From Zeno’s point of view, virtue resided not in external fortune, wealth, honor, and the like, but in self-sufficiency and a kind of rational ordering of intention.
Furthermore, the Stoics believed that ‘passionate’ emotions-such as fear, envy or romantic love-arose from false judgments and that a person who had attained a kind of moral and intellectual perfection (the ‘sage’) would not be swayed by them. Stoics were concerned with the active relationship between cosmic determinism and human freedom, and the belief that it is virtuous to maintain a will (called prohairesis) that is in accord with nature. Because of this, the Stoics presented their philosophy as a way of life, and they thought that the best indication of an individual’s philosophy was not what a person said but how he behaved.
Stoicism remained popular until the closing of all philosophy schools in 529 AD by order of the Emperor Justinian I, who believed that the pagan character of stoicism was at odds with the Christian faith.
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In the Sigmund Freud’s last book, Moses and Monotheism (1939), he advances a psychoanalytical interpretation of Moses’ life, which is explored through three essays titled, “Moses an Egyptian,” “If Moses Was an Egyptian,” and “Moses, His People, and Monotheistic Religion.” Freud postulated that Moses was an Egyptian nobleman who adhered to the monotheism of Akhenaten. Following a theory proposed by a contemporary biblical critic, Freud, a committed atheist, believed that Moses was murdered in the wilderness, producing a collective sense of patricidal guilt that has been at the heart of Judaism ever since. “Judaism had been a religion of the father, Christianity became a religion of the son”, he wrote.
Upon first examination the work seems somewhat disordered, and contains repetitions and inconsistencies. The writing appears to reflect the movement of Freud’s thought, his doubts and hesitation, his concern regarding the scientific nature of the information he provides, and his fears concerning the way the text might be received among Viennese Catholics and by the Jewish community.The last essay includes prefatory notes written at different times, one in Vienna before Freud’s departure for Great Britain, the other in London, which partly contradicts the first. Finally, part two of the third essay is preceded by a “Summary” in which he reevaluates much of the information in the first essays.
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“The female is, as it were, a mutilated male.”
– Aristotle, Generation of Animals.
The etiology of the Western philosophical tradition can be traced back to the Holy Trinity of Greek philosophers-Socrates, Plato and Aristotle- who loom so large in our cultural memory that they are only referred to on a first-name basis. Aristotle’s writings have been especially significant to the development of Western philosophy, especially with respect to his influence on Arabian, Christian and Jewish thought since the Middle Ages. While Aristotle’s contribution to ethics and political theory are inarguably impressive, his views on women have had a more troubling impact, and many feminists credit his writings with influencing the patriarchal and sexist ideologies of his successors.
Aristotle believed that the virtue of a thing lies in the realization of its essential nature. With this framework in mind, he set out to determine the “nature” of the fairer sex, starting from a “biological” perspective. He (rather self-servingly) thought that women were merely passive vessels in the reproductive process, with the active and dynamic masculine element (semen) bringing life to the inert and passive female form. Thus, he viewed women’s inability to produce semen as a sort of deficiency and likened women to “infertile men”. He believed that a male was a male by virtue of this ability, while women were defined by relative “inability”. He also declared that women are inherently less intelligent and more compassionate, emotional and jealous than men. Moreover, because of the alleged superior intelligence of males, Aristotle believed that women should inhabit a subordinate role within the home, a position that he likens to that of a “tame animal.”
To his credit, Aristotle also believed that the well being of society depended equally on the happiness of both sexes, and was allegedly happily married during his lifetime. Lucky lady….
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Pyrrhonism, also known as Pyrrhonian skepticism, was an extreme school of skepticism named after Greek philosopher Pyrrho of Elis (c. 365-275 BC) and later founded by his follower Aenesidemus in the first century BC. The distinguishing quality of this philosophy is its rigorous application of skepticism to itself. Thus, ancient skeptics argued that not only could man not know anything for certain, but that he could not even know that he couldn’t know something for certain.
Skeptics also vigorously questioned whether appearance reflected reality, but (of course) neither denied nor claimed that it did so.
Thus, skepticism advocates for a total suspension of judgment, a perspective that would later experience something of a renaissance in the 17th century when the modern scientific method was born, and was later echoed in the works of the philosopher David Hume (1711-1776).
The skeptic reconciles contradiction by suspending judgment, and neither affirms nor denies that knowledge is possible. Skeptics posit that every assertion has an opposing counter argument and is therefore susceptible to doubt. Unsurprisingly, the application of philosophical skepticism acts as a better means of avoiding error than a method of discovering truth. The skeptic eschews belief or disbelief in anything, believing that suspending judgment leads to inner peace and balance with respect to what constitutes truth or falsehood.
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Yup his painting looks pretty unconscious to me....
The modern artist… is working and expressing an inner world – in other words – expressing the energy, the motion, and other inner forces. -Jackson Pollock
Cultural icon and American painter Paul Jackson Pollock was a major founding father of the abstract expressionist movement, and he stands as one of the most influential artists of the 20th Century. His radically abstract works evoked passionate admiration and scorn in equal measure, and he was derisively nicknamed “Jack the Dripper” by his detractors, a slight that did not go unnoticed by the sensitive painter.
Despite the considerable fame he achieved during his lifetime, Pollock regularly suffered from severe bouts of depression and alcohol abuse, and his friends eventually pressed him to enter psychotherapy to help him get his drinking under control. While therapy appeared to be of little assistance in helping the troubled artist curb his self-destructive impulses, Pollock became fascinated with Jungian concepts that he was exposed to in treatment.
Pollock embraced Jung’s theory that art originates from the unconscious and seeks expression through concrete representations of cultural symbols and archetypes. Pollock’s interest in these concepts occurred at a time when psychoanalysis was beginning to have a major impact on people’s understanding of the human psyche and the construction of the self.
Jungian symbols and archetypes can be seen in Pollock’s pioneering “action paintings,” which he worked on during the late 1940’s. These “action paintings” represented a radical deviation from the norms of classical European art, as they were not intended to portray specific objects or elicit specific emotions in the observer. Instead, these paintings were intended to penetrate the subconscious of the observer and tap into the primal drives that motivate the creation of universal archetypal symbols. Pollock strove to create these paintings “unconsciously” and spontaneously, so that he could better evoke a sense of raw emotion and primal action in the observer.
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