freedom, philosophy, religion, Uncategorized

Four Sons: Four Responses to Problems

Tonight Jews celebrate the Passover holiday by having an ancient Greek drinking party.  The ancient Greek drinking party, as we know from Plato’s “Symposium” (from the ancient Greek word “symposium” which means drinking party from drink plus together)  required a topic of conversation that each participant would address in turn.  In Plato’s symposium the topic was “What is love?” which is an excellent topic if you are drinking with your friends and some of you are in love with others of you.  For the seder the topic is “What is freedom?” which is an excellent topic for a party with parents and children, since children are unfree in relation to their parents but we are all hoping are on a journey to freedom.

The children are more-or-less unfree and their parents are asking them to discuss freedom.  This will naturally result in a mixed range of reactions — ambivalence and sarcasm (are you kidding me?) spring to mind.  The Haggadah (the guidebook to the seder) singles out four, assigning each one to a “son” — although today it would include daughters (pictured above).

The four responses enumerated in the hagadah are:

1)Asking for an explanation

2)Asking “What does this have to do with you?”

3)Asking “What is this?”


The author of the haggadah has (or claims to have in order to be provoking) strong feelings about these responses, labeling the first “wise” and the second “wicked” and saying the older generation should be happy about response (1) and hurt and angry about response (2).  But if we think a little more deeply we can think about situations in which each of the four responses is appropriate.

A water crisis in Syria leads to a civil war and we are having a feast while the refugees from the crisis starve.


Why did this happen?  A water crisis.  Why are there water crises?  How can they be prevented?


What does this have to do with you?  How can you sit there and lecture me on freedom when people are not free?  Are you doing all that you can?  If you’re not doing all that you can, how can you expect me to do so?


What is this?  People are killing each other in a civil war.  What is a war?  What is a “civil war”?  What is a nation anyway?  What is this life of ours where this happens?



Maybe freedom means the freedom to ask the hard, intellectually challenging questions, to ask the questions that challenge the authority and integrity of those in charge, to ask questions which are so hard because they seem so easy, and to be silent — with shock or awe or joy, or wonder.








Akrasia, Money, and the Body

The akratic is the person who wants to abstain from something but gives in to temptation.  So for example the akratic wants to be healthy and believes eating icecream will cause him to be unhealthy, but eats icecream anyway.

A plausible story about the akratic explains the conflict between the desire for health and the indulgence in icecream in biology.  Our brains evolved in a calorie-poor, fat-poor environment.  Consequently eating high calorie foods feels really good.  Our capacity for long term planning and rational thought evolved later and is instantiated in a different part of the brain.  The akratic is experiencing a war within because he is not just a mind but an embodied system that evolved.

This raises the question: would we like to be free of akrasia if we could?  It helps to feel our way through the issue by imagining what someone free of akrasia would look like.  Such a person would feel pain upon failing to get what they desire that was every bit as intense as bodily pain.  For such a person acting in an unhealthy fashion (or otherwise failing to live up to their highest aspirations) would cause a pain as intense as stepping on a tack.  And, not to be overly obsessed with the punitive, the pleasure of successfully completing a project or following a diet would be as intense as bodily pleasures are for us.

How would that work?  We would only need to make two simple changes.  We already respond to loss of money as a sort of pain and gain in money as a kind of pleasure.  We would simply need to be neurologically or psychologically altered so that a significant financial loss caused actual physical pain and nothing else did, and a significant financial gain would cause actual physical pleasure, and nothing else would.  We would also need a rational free market, so that for example if we followed a decent health regimen our health insurance would be cheaper, and if we indulged it would be more expensive.

Such beings would never cheat on their diets because ice-cream would not give them pleasure, but a drop in health insurance premiums would.

Are such beings imaginable?  Realizable?  Coherent?  Desirable?

My guess is that they are not actually coherent and certainly not desirable.  If that is correct than akrasia is not actually a bad thing — it is the inconvenient aspect of a deeper aspect of being embodied humans.

freedom, guilt, philosophy

Kierkegaard on How We Are Responsible for the Whole World

Kierkegaard writes freedom “always has to do only with itself”.  

 “[T]he opposite of freedom is guilt, and it is the greatness of freedom that it always has to do only with itself, that in its possibility it projects guilt and accordingly posits it by itself. And if guilt is posited actually, freedom posits it by itself. If this is not kept in mind, freedom is confused in a clever way with something entirely different, with force.” [Concept of Anxiety, Kindle 1978]

At first glance this seems an unlikely result.   Why doesn’t freedom have to do with numerous factors other than itself: with constraints for example?  Why doesn’t the freedom of the alcoholic have to do with his disease for example, or the freedom of someone who is the victim of propaganda have to do with the government that deludes him?   Kierkegaard however does not pull his punches.  If freedom does not have to do with anything other than itself, then it follows everything we have to do with in our attempt to be free, is nothing other than a fall-out of our freedom.  Kierkegaard embraces this view and says, counter-intuitively that the free individual feels responsible for the whole world.  

“Guilt is a more concrete conception, which becomes more and more possible in the relation of possibility to freedom. At last it is as if the guilt of the whole world united to make him guilty, and, what is the same, as if in becoming guilty he became guilty of the guilt of the whole world. Guilt has the dialectical character that it does not allow itself to be transferred, but whoever becomes guilty also becomes guilty of that which occasioned the guilt. For guilt never has an external occasion, and whoever yields to temptation is himself guilty of the temptation.” (Concept of Anxiety, Kindle Locations 2002-2006). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.

The two views — that freedom only has to do with itself and that whoever is tempted is guilty of his own temptation — are two instances of the same thesis, one put positively, the other put negatively.    To see how this works, supposing I am tempted to gossip about my friend, in order to keep the conversation at a party lively.  I could give into the temptation and do it, or realize I care about him enough, and endure being thought a boring conversationalist.   The thesis that freedom really only has to do with itself means that if I gossip about my friend the real explanation is that I am trying to avoid the vulnerability and pain of the situation.  I am not dealing with an external force or inner fact — a stressful day, a callous office environment, or my gossipy character — but with my own freedom which by its nature includes the possibility of evasion and self-deception.   If I give in to the temptation and gossip what I have given into is a temptation to avoid risk and vulnerability that I could have stood up to.    Freedom and sin expand backwards in time and outwards in my social world, so that the more I think about my life, the more I see facing vulnerability or evading vulnerability everywhere I look.  Although there may be facts about me that are not relevant to my freedom they cease to be irrelevant once I know about them.  Therefore I am responsible for my whole world and never face an opponent other than me.


Two Philosophies of Failure

Let’s say we are looking at a tree and it looks like it has ten apples growing on it.  I say “That tree has ten apples.” and you say “No, it doesn’t.  Not necessarily.”  I say “What do you mean?” and you say “You can’t know for sure.  Maybe there is an invisible apple on it that won’t be detected until science reaches a more profound understanding of the the nature of light and the nature of apples, and that won’t happen until you and I are dead, many, many thousands of years in the future.”

You are being a skeptic, and a lot of philosophers since Descartes have argued that is no way to be, and have tried to articulate just what mistake you are making.

I remember hearing Hillary Putnam argue once, in a lecture on pragmatism (although I may misremember), that when I say “there are ten apples on the tree” what I mean is “If science continued for the next 10 to the 100 years –an inconceivable time for humans — far longer than the age of the universe from Big Bang to heat death — we would have no reason to believe there were any more or less than ten apples on that tree.”  So if I say that there are ten apples on the tree I’m right.  That’s what apples being on a tree means — that given our understanding of an unimpeded growth of science into an indefinite, but not infinite future, we will have no reason to think otherwise.

That is definitely one way of assuring that I’m right.  Except for the problem that when I say there are ten apples on the tree, I don’t mean that.  I just mean that there are ten apples on the tree.  And I might be wrong.

It seems like the pragmatist impulse is one way of protecting against failure.  It tries to make the goal of statements like “there are ten apples on that tree” more limited and human and humble, so as to avoid the anxiety of total failure.  Another way is to just make the statements and fess up to the fact that they may fail.

Let’s call these two approaches the “pragmatist” and the “fallibilist”.

Which is a better way of coping with the possibility of failure?  They are both attempts to achieve a sort of cognitive humility, and therefore like all attempts at humility, are prone to morphing into their opposite.  The pragmatist endeavors to be humble about the use of his concepts, but if he becomes proud of his humility he seems to make a dubious claim to have an extraordinary insight into what we really mean by ordinary words like “know” and “apple”.  The fallibilist endeavors to be honest about our mistakes but if he becomes proud of his humility he seems to have discovered something amazing: that we don’t know anything.

Is there a way of making sure for once and for all that our humility will not degenerate into false-humility?   There may be somebody out there who knows the way, but if you meet him don’t tell him he does, as this will surely go to his head.

literary theory, philosophy

What’s the Point of Telling Stories? Bad Fiction, Good Fiction, Lies Holy and Unholy

If you tell a story to convince people something is true then the point is to get people to believe whatever you are telling them.  If the story is not true and you know it, then you are lying.  If you don’t care about the truth of the story but are telling it anyway in order to get people to believe it you are engaging in what Harry Frankfort calls “bullsh***” — talk without caring about the truth value of what you are communicating.  If you think it’s true but it’s not you are spreading untruth.  Your moral culpability depends upon how hard you work in general to make sure that what you tell is true.  If you are equally likely to tell false stories that make your political or religious party look bad as ones that make it look good then you seem fine; if it turns out to slant in the direction of your political interests you have something to answer for.

Plato advocated the “pia fraus” or holy lie in order to keep his ideal republic going.  In his set-up, a few morally righteous people — The Guardians — know that their society’s castes are a human invention, but they tell a lie in order to get the lower classes to play along.  Lies that claimed to be pious ran rampant in the ancient world.  Every empire and indeed every city state had a fake tale about how it was founded by divine beings.  The pia fraus might be a good idea but impractical for several reasons.  One is that in our current pluralistic, wired globe people are more likely to be able to see through the noble lies.    This can have the opposite of the intended effect: once the sheep know the shepherd is willing to lie for their own good, they will be less likely to believe their shepherds.  Another problem is that in real life it places a huge temptation in the hands of the lying elite to misuse their power.  For an interesting discussion of a contemporary example of  the pia fraus see “Changing the Immutable: How Orthodox Judaism Rewrites Its History”.

This all applies to stories whose point is to convince people to believe things.   What about a story that is not intended to get people to believe things?  When we listen to a story (or watch a movie or play a video game) we engage some of the faculties of our soul that are engaged in real life, but our rational faculties know that they are engaged with something that is not true.  It is a bit like dreaming.  It is a rare person who eats the pillow while dreaming believing it is a marshmallow.  It is a rare person who actually falls in love with Sherlock Holmes and moves to London hoping to marry him.

When it’s working well this kind of dry run can help build up our capabilities.  We can see if we solve the puzzle before Sherlock Holmes does or if we recognize the self-deception of Emma before she does.  We can practice our wisdom or our cleverness or our courage without dealing with the consequences, or rather without feeling the full consequences.  We can actually feel shame if we sympathize with a character’s poor behavior or rationalization for example, but the shame doesn’t hurt as much as the shame we feel for misbehaving or rationalizing in real life.

At its best fiction can challenge our redoubtable capacity for self-deception.  The cunning writer can play to our hopes and fears, teach us how those hopes and fears lead us to selfish behavior, and trick us into identifying with a character who ultimately is flawed. This can teach us to watch ourselves more carefully, and to pay attention to life.  At its best fiction can also enlarge our perspective and teach us that everybody has his story, and that these stories fit together into an intricate web of cause and effect, self-justification and blame, narrowing and expanding of perspective that is beyond anybody’s ability to see in real life, unfolding as quickly as real life does.  At its worst of course it can encourage our wish to dwell in a world of egocentric fantasy, where the little guy always gets the girl, and the moral hero proves he has the right stuff by wasting those who dared disrespect him in a hail of bullets.

There is also a deeper sense in which collections of stories can be part of the founding of a certain mode of experience — call it a culture in the sense in which a code of laws may found a city..  In this sense certain archetypes, and patterns of significance may be set up within which human beings cultivate themselves.  This is rooted in a fundamental aspect of all talk which is that it makes a decision about what is worth paying attention to.  The storyteller in the deepest sense is making it that these sort of things are to be paid attention to and worth caring about.


Yeats and Sex Robots


A famous poem by Yeats — “Fragments” — consists of two stanzas.  The first one goes:

LOCKE sank into a swoon;
The Garden died;
God took the spinning-jenny
Out of his side.

I misread this poem for many years because for some reason I got stuck in the mis-reading that Locke sank into the swoon because the spinning-jenny was taken out of his side.  I misinterpreted the poem as saying that Locke the materialistic philosopher somehow turned himself into a mechanism.

This morning it clicked into place.  Locke is like Adam, but his garden dies.  When Adam fell into a swoon God took Eve out of his side to help him.  But Locke, the materialist philosopher and symbol of modern man sinks into a swoon and God takes a machine out of his side.  Yeats is saying that modern man is unable to stand being helped by a woman — presumably because she is equally valuable to him, capable of blaming him requiring things from him, a mystery as deep as he is — and prefers to be helped by a robot — a slave he can understand.  Needless to say this is nothing new, as pre-modern man often tried to turn woman into a slave — Robot in Czech.

Yeats is a good poet so he picks a machine with a female name; a spinning jenny.  You can google it — it was important for the industrial revolution.


How did I figure it out?  It clicked into place for me this morning.   But how do I know it’s correct?  Does the subjective feeling of clicking into place prove anything?  Is it just “fancy”?  Not really because it had been bugging me unconsciously for years — what does that mean exactly that he took a spininng jenny out of his side?  What was a spinning jenny anyway — I had been too lazy to look it up.  And for some reason I never made the obvious connection that what is taken out of Adam’s side is not the mechanism that makes him work, it is woman.

Now it’s so obvious — Yeats is re-telling the creation of woman but telling it as the story of the creation of the first robot.

Locke of course would say I could have gotten this truth in two ways — through a sense impression or through an innate idea.  My ideas are true if the outside world is making me think them by plinking my sense organs, or because it is part of the factory presets of my operating system.

Yeats gives us a different epistemology of poetic creation and poetic interpretation.

Where got I that truth?
Out of a medium’s mouth.
Out of nothing it came,
Out of the forest loam,
Out of dark night where lay
The crowns of Nineveh.

What is this medium’s mouth, nothing, forest loam, dark night where Yeats got his poem and I got my interpretation — which serves to crown us as god-kings of Nineveh?

What is it? It’s unknown but by moving forward into it we can cultivate the known.  As the medium also says somewhere “there is a budding morn in midnight.”

Not a sense impression and not an innate idea, Locke.  Nothing, loam, night and the medium’s mouth.

Needless to say the mediums for men were all women.  I would guess if a woman wrote the poem the medium might be a man.


Until Engineers Become Poets and Poets Become Engineers there will be No Perfected World

Praxiteles and Polemarchus were brothers in the Greek colony of Melos in the Aegean sea, during the period directly before the Peleponessian war.  Praxiteles, who was the eldest, won the laurel crown at the local ode-writing competition while Polemarchus went into business.  Praxiteles once came to visit Polemarchus’s place of business, a gold mine in Scotland and wrote a poem about it which gathered him some reknown.  Horrified by the acrid smoke, the dead vegetation, and the sheer ugliness of the hole in the Earth Praxiteles wrote a poem comparing the Earth to a mother and the mine to a wound that her ungrateful children had stabbed into her breast.

Polemarchus felt indignant in his breast but finally went to his brother and gave vent to his heart:

“Brother, your most successful ode was one that compared a gold necklace on the neck of your girlfriend Lydia to the sun setting behind mountains.”

“It was, brother” quoth Praxiteles “Did you like it?

“I may I may not.  But I cannot both like it and the ode you just wrote condemning the mine that brought forth the gold that made the jewelry in which you find beauty.”

Tears came to the eyes of Praxiteles.  “Forgive me brother!”  He knelt at his feet.  “I have wronged you.  How can I make amends?”

“Before you write a line of verse, my beloved brother” said Polemarchus “I beg you to submit it to the rules of the guild of engineers.  Is what it says true?  Is it consistent with other poems?  Will those who endeavor to live according to your poetic vision in fact have their lives enriched thereby?  Or will they suffer?  Your poems are after all structures that you erect in the minds of men.  Exercise due care, I pray thee, that the structures not collapse crushing the men within them.”

“I will do so, brother.  I promise.”

The two brothers started a school of engineering and poetry called The School of the Brothers.  At this school,  engineers were taught to open their hearts to beauty in order to embody it within their work and in fact, to recognize that their work of remaking the Earth as a fit habitation for man was nothing but poetry in stone and steel, while poets were taught to think carefully and honestly about the consequences of their poems, and, indeed to view their poems as so many machines and structures for the upbuilding of the human psyche.

The greatest result of their work was the line “there is a budding morn in midnight” and the mobile siege tower, used to great effect in the siege of Rhodes.

As many know Melos was conquered by Athens, its inhabitants enslaved, and its wealth taken as booty.  Among the stolen wealth was the motto of the School of the Brothers “Engineers Must Become Poets and Poets Must Become Engineers” which was appropriated and debased by the philosopher Plato into “Kings Must Become Philosophers and Philosophers Must Become Kings” — a much worse motto as it appeals to bullies and braggarts of all stripes.  Because if a King claims to be a philosopher who has the courage to tell him he is not?

If Plato had suggested his motto at the School of the Brothers he would have been sent back to the drawing board!


Problems with History of Philosophy

If I’m writing a history of military strategy I don’t have to be a successful military strategist myself because I can evaluate military strategies based on their results.  I would give a lot of attention to Roman military strategies and not so much to those of the neighboring Italian states of Latium because the Romans won and the Latians lost.   The task of studying the history of philosophy is harder: it’s as if I am given the strategy books of history’s generals but the knowledge of the success or failure of these strategies is barred to me because the world is hidden by a fog.  I have no way of knowing whether the generals I’m studying won or lost.  How do I figure out who to study?  How do I figure out who to pay attention to?  I need to evaluate Eisenhower without knowing if the D-Day invasion was a success or a fiasco.

If I want to evaluate whether Kant was an important or a minor figure I need to figure out for myself whether or not the central claims of the critique of pure reason make sense or they don’t.  Otherwise I am just doing the history of publishing — there was a man in such and such a place who wrote some pages.  I can’t even say who is influential or who is not, because the people who claim to be influenced by Kant may be incorrect.

The only way to do the history of philosophy is to do philosophy.  Every historian is a good or bad philosopher.


Expressing the Inexpressible: One More Try

Wittgenstein in the Tractatus maintained that the only sensible propositions were ones that stated facts, and drew the conclusion that the philosophical statements in his work were nonsense, since they did not state facts.  They were only, in a famous image, a ladder that would be thrown away once used.   He ended the work referring to silence: that which we cannot talk about we must remain silent about.

Academic interpreters of Wittgenstein have argued about whether Wittgenstein was somehow trying to get out of playing by his own rules.  When he said we must remain silent about it, was he trying to say something by remaining silent?  Was he claiming to have a special kind of nonsense that somehow communicated important deep things about reality but not by means of meaning?  Was he “showing” something deep which it was impossible to “say”?  Was he, as Frank Ramsey suggested, trying to whistle what it was impossible to say?

The so-called “Resolute” reading of Wittgenstein (James Conant, Cora Diamond, to some extent Stanley Cavell) says no to all.  Wittgenstein has no special kind of nonsense, he is not gesturing at an ineffable truth, like a mystic.  He is just using “garden variety” nonsense to let us know that we shouldn’t use language in illegitimate ways.  When a proposition is senseless it does not have a special sense that is senseless.  It just doesn’t work.

Yet I find myself wondering: how can nonsense let us know that?  And if the “Resolute” readers of Wittgenstein are able to say what Wittgenstein was up to — holding a mirror up to the reader’s illegitimate use of language maybe — how are they able to do that?  In one of Conant’s articles he shares his pain — he wants to say that it’s a mistake to think that Wittgenstein is saying what can’t be said, but he’s worried that (he, Conant) can’t say that either.

(Sometimes people try to clarify this by using spatial metaphors.  Wittgenstein, they say, teaches us that there is no way to stand outside of our language and see its limits.  Wittgenstein, they believe, shows us that we can only see the limits of our language from the inside, by banging our noses against those limits.  If you can make sense of these spatial metaphors as applied to thought and language, bravissimo.  Please let me know in the comments section — to me they seem like nonsense.)

And yet we all know there are millions of things we used to not be able to say and now can.

And we all know that there are lots of people to whom we cannot express what is important to us.

So there should be no problem with accepting that there are now things that we cannot express, and people to whom we cannot express them.

What Wittgenstein and his resolute interpreters seem to be looking for is a clear rule for what can never be said — not that is what cannot be expressed right now to a specific audience but what can Never Successfully Be Said, Ever, to Anybody.   It is as if we find ourselves tempted to talk but upon studying philosophy can examine our temptations and know when it is okay to give in to the temptation and talk, and when we should be “resolute” and be silent.  But it seems to me that they are in error to hope for such a rule or such a procedure of self-disciplining.  They want to punish themselves first so It does not punish them by revealing them to be fools.  For myself I don’t imagine there is any rule or philosophy I could follow to keep myself from being a fool or saying foolish things.  No philosophy other than the scary and exciting Try It and See.

I have said a lot of sensible things in my life and a lot of nonsense, but I don’t see why I should expect myself to ever know which was which.

As for leaving things unsaid, and passing them over in silence, we do that whenever we employ a comma or a period.


The Sexiest Animal

Is a human being.
For me.
No question.
I completely feel that when it comes to sexual attractiveness a human woman is the best.
By far. It is definitely no contest. There is no non-human animal that even comes close in raw sex appeal to even a middling human woman.
If you exclude human women from the picture, if I had to pick an animal that seemed to me sexiest, which is to say the kind of animal I would most want to have sex with, again, assuming that no human female were available (and I cannot stress this point too much cause it is really important) the question of what animal is sexiest admits of an answer, and the answer is vicuna.