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Monday, November 30, 2009

Philosophical Tales

Recently my favorite method of procrastination involved reading Philosophical Tales: Being an Alternative History Revealing the Characters, the Plots, and the Hidden Scenes That Make Up the True story of Philosophy. Even if not always charitable and not always historically adequate, it's quite amusing. Below, some fragments that I find entertaining (the selection is slightly random, though):
Thomas Aquinas was very overweight, suffered from dropsy, and had one large eye and one small eye which made him look lopsided. As a child he was silent most of the time and, when he did speak, it was often unrelated to the conversation. So, he decided to become a philosopher-monk. And, as such, he was very successful.

After he [Aquinas] drove away the temptress, two angels came to him and fastened a chastity belt around his waist.” Or so at least embellishes our other theological expert at Trinity Communications on the Internet, along with advice to readers to “Buy or fashion your own chastity belt, easy to make from braided yarn or thin, soft rope.” (Adding that “St. Joseph chastity belts are available at some Catholic shops,” which Aquinas would not have approved of, being against shops and trading generally.) But at least there is agreement on Aquinas’s good character, albeit it still remains a challenge for people who think that sex is that bad to work out how to continue existing once the present batch has died out....
In the afternoon, Kant would take a long walk along the river, accompanied by his servant, Lampe, carrying an umbrella in case it rained. Kant’s rule that everyone must be treated as an end in themselves and never merely as a ‘means’ to an end (“there can be nothing more dreadful than that the actions of a man should be subject to the will of another”) evidently did not apply to servants carrying umbrellas
Even in bed, the rules had to be followed: Kant had a system for rolling himself up in his sheets so that they fi tted tightly around him. Kant, it will be noted, slept for less than seven hours. He wrote a little booklet about health matters, warning against the dangers of too much sleep. He explained that as each person had only a certain amount of sleep in them, if they used it all up by lying in bed, they WOULD DIE EARLY. (My parents should have told me that ...)
In the Critique of Practical Reason (1786) Kant’s thought leaves the physical universe behind to find a proof for the existence of heaven and the afterlife. He points out that since justice is the good flourishing and the wicked being punished, and that this does not happen on Earth, as we can see by looking around us, then it must take place “in the next world.” This is sublime reasoning. And so to the less than fully appreciated Kantian treatise on the beautiful and the sublime. Night is sublime, day is beautiful. The sea is sublime, the land is beautiful, men are sublime, women are beautiful – and so on. Lots of professors wrote treatises like that at the time, it was almost compulsory.
...the best known is what he calls the categorical imperative:

Act only according to a maxim by which you can at the same time will that it shall become a general law.

...when Kant’s version appears in the Metaphysic of Morals (1785), the imperative is also offered to decide all moral issues. Curiously, though, it seems to collapse at the most easy tests. For example, it allows things that surely should be banned, while outlawing things that don’t seem to matter very much. A rule, for instance, that all children under 5 who disturb philosophers should be beaten with a stick and have their tongues cut out is approved by the ‘rule’ since it is universalizable, but borrowing is forbidden, as if everyone borrowed, it would lead to a run on the bank.
Pompous Footnote

1 Prior to Kant, as Bertrand Russell also notes, philosophers were gentlemen, addressing an audience of amateurs in the language of the everyday. After Kant, philosophy became a dialogue (indeed, often a monologue), conducted in technical language and obscure terms.
Montaigne constantly referred to himself as a way of both ridiculing and excusing his views. Des Cartes uses the same device to distance himself from anticipated criticism, and also to create the dramatic story of the author’s ‘enlightenment’ after some six days reflecting on the nature of the world in a warm oven room.
The famous words cogito ergo sum (which render themselves so elegantly in English as “I think, therefore I am”) never appear in the original version of the Meditations, only in a later and indeed rather casual translation. The actual words used are better translated as: “let the Demon deceive me as much as he may, he will never bring it about that I am nothing so long as I think I am something. So, after considering everything very thoroughly, I must conclude that this proposition, I am, I exist, is necessarily true, every time that I say it, or conceive it in my mind.”(1)

Pompous Footnote
1 Ego sum, ego existo, quoties a me profertur, vel mente concipitur, necessario esse verum is the original Latin text of 1641, for purists. The French version of the principle in the Discourses is superficially nearer to “I think, therefore I am,” being “Je pense, donc je suis,” but an accurate translation of this is not “I think, therefore I am,” but “I am thinking, therefore I exist.” Anyway, the ‘cogito’ does not refer to this text but to the argument in the Meditations. So that’s clear.
Bertrand Arthur William Russell, Third Earl of somewhere or other, son of a Victorian prime minister, and Professor of Philosophy at Trinity College, Cambridge, is still considered there, if not much anywhere else, as “profoundly infl uential in the development of philosophy in the twentieth century.” His special expertise is said to have been in the area of philosophical logic; indeed, he is credited with having coined the term, although as the words have long currency individually, and the activity preceded him by 2,000 years, it is hard to see how his arrangement can count as a novelty. Nevertheless, says Nicholas Griffin, writing in the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, he was indisputably responsible for a number of “important logical innovations,” prime amongst which was a way to “reparse sentences continuing the phrase ‘so-and-so’ into a form in which the phrase did not appear.” Such achievements deserve further examination.
As a philosopher, Russell sometimes speaks absolute nonsense. Russell seems to have been aware of this, hence his “impish grin” whilst offering increasingly ludicrous examples. Not so his heirs. They issue their dull arrangements with a seriousness born of a serene lack of self-knowledge. Fortunately aside from his logic, Russell did other things. The same is not true of his followers.
Whilst there at Cambridge, Wittgenstein became an institution within an institution, celebrated both for his unorthodox personal style and for his revolutionary approach to teaching. Refusing to lecture but offering only to hold seminars, his ascetic office had few books, equipped instead with the famous deckchair. Those who attended his seminars became his ‘disciples’, and showed their commitment by dressing the same way – tweed jackets, fl annel trousers, no ties. (The clothes, like the philosophy, were not for girls . . .) After each session, he would invite selected confidants to join him at ‘the flicks’, where he would sit in the middle of the front row (nearest the screen) munching on a pork pie. As for Cambridge’s official social gatherings, Wittgenstein declined to attend the ‘dinners’ of the university, although he did agree to participate in the ‘Moral Science Club’ from time to time, including one infamous evening when, to murmurs of approval from his disciples, he demanded of Karl Popper that he provide an example of a ‘moral rule’, gesticulating with a poker for emphasis. Popper supposedly said, “Not threatening visiting speakers with pokers,” and Wittgenstein threw the poker down and stormed out (followed by disciples).
... today the official hagiography neglects some facts. Wittgenstein did give away ‘control’ of his inherited millions, but only to his sisters, and so it was that during World War II, even as the Nazi project was at its most clear and most appalling, he was still able to arrange that a large chunk of the Wittgenstein family fortune – not, say, three ingots of gold (as we all might send) but three tons of the stuff – was made available to the Nazi war effort. In return, the family received official ‘non-Jewish’ status.
Yet, despite favoring one absolute authority, Hobbes dismantled the claims of kings to divine favor, and for doing this (amongst other reasons) he was considered by many of his contemporaries to be, if not actually an atheist, certainly a dangerous heretic. After the Great Plague of 1666, when 60,000 Londoners died, followed by the Great Fire straight afterwards, a parliamentary committee was set up to investigate whether his writings might have brought the two disasters on the realm. As a result of its findings, he was forbidden to write any more books about matters relating to “human conduct” and so had to publish his work abroad instead.
A report in the Journal des Savants of March 4, 1686, records that one young lady had refused “a perfectly eligible suitor” because “he had been unable, within a given time, to produce any new idea about squaring the circle.”
No one knows now exactly what he was accused of, but one of his early biographers, Colerus, describes how Spinoza, relaxed by smoking a pipe, or when he wanted to “rest his mind” rather longer, looked for some spiders which had gotten into a fight with one another, or (failing that) he put flies into a spider’s web, “and then watched the battle with so much enjoyment that he sometimes burst out laughing.” Such diversions there were before there was telly.

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