Form Follows Function?

Louis Sullivan is credited with coming up with the phrase “form follows function.” It is useful to know that someone in the recent past invented this notion in order to raise the possibility of uninventing it.

Some quote “form follows function” as though it were an axiom of geometry that all remotely mature thinkers acknowledge as a foundational truth; even as a God-given dictum.

The phrase could even be rendered innocuous if “function” were suitably defined. What, for instance, is the function of houses and work places? They are there to serve human beings with all their intricacies. They are not there to shelter robots and automatons.

What do people want from houses? They want a house to be a home. They want it to be structurally sound, reasonably affordable, easy to maintain and they want it to be beautiful. Human beings feel at home with beauty. They are instinctively drawn to beautiful things and feel alienated by the ugly. This is why we carefully choose furniture, paintings, decorations, paint colors for walls, curtains and carpets. We attempt, with various levels of success, bearing in mind limitations of budget, to turn the house into a home. Many of us like to include house plants and pets as other living things to share our homes with. Continue reading

AI and the Dehumanization of Man

AI and the Dehumanization of Man

Strong Artificial Intelligence is the idea that computers can one day be constructed that have the abilities of the human mind. The contrast is with narrow AI which is already with us – that is the notion that computers can be made that can do one thing very well, such as the Watson computer that won in Jeopardy, or Deep Blue that bet Kasparov in chess.

Strong AI, artificial general intelligence, would mean that a robot fitted with a computer brain could move around in the world as competently as a human.  As F. H. George commented to the editor of Philosophy, 32 (1957), 168-169: “finite automata are capable of exhibiting, at least in principle, all the behaviour that human beings are capable of exhibiting, including the ability to act as poets or creative artists and even to wink at a girl and mean it.”[1] This reference to a wink itself has a poetic touch to it that captures a sense of genuine humanity.

Strong and narrow AI is the difference between an idiot savant who can do one thing incredibly well, such as recognizing prime numbers of incredible length,[2] reading two pages of a book simultaneously with over 90% recall like Kim Peek, and someone with enough nous to handle the wide range of tasks that any normal human being has to face; engaging in a lengthy conversation one minute and enjoying a work of fiction the next. Continue reading

Philosophical Skeleton Keys: Yet More on Angels

I’ve been thinking about angels a fair bit recently on account of the fact that my wife and I moved houses this last spring. Hard to see the connection between those two topics, I know. But it’s there.

Shortly after we moved, a realtor friend responded to my newsy message about all the problems we were suffering in the new place (and still are, to a not inconsiderable degree):

… I sympathize with your after move feelings. In addition to what to do with [all your] stuff, issues with the new house are appearing. This is because the house typically goes into shock when a new owner arrives and it starts acting out. You want to be there, but the house is not sure it likes you or the new arrangement.

Patience is the key. Gradually, the house will accept you and all will be well.

I tell all my clients the above and may have already shared this with you.

I realized with something of a shock that this had the ring of truth. The house seemed to be *resisting* us.

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What is Puritanism?

P 01 Spengler Left-Glancing

Oswald Spengler (1880 – 1936)

In our sessions at Old City Hall, Richard Cocks and I often exchange ideas with our friend Richard Fader – a true Christian gentleman whom we both greatly admire – and among the recurrent topics is that of Puritanism.  Fader, as we call him, is part libertarian, part social conservative, well read, and a lively conversationalist.  The question used continuously to come up: Who are the Puritans of the present day?  Fader, who despite his socially conservative instincts, has voted Democratic all his life, was, when these colloquies began, all too ready to identify the Puritans with the people whom he called “conservatives.”  Richard and I, who work on the same college campus, have repeatedly explained to our friend that it is not “conservatives” who want to ban free speech, who physically threaten speakers with whom they disagree in order to silence them, or who abuse public institutions for the purpose of political indoctrination.  It is not “conservatives” who preach the lynch-mob sermons of our day.  Fanaticism and hatred, we have argued, are nowadays located almost entirely on the political left, which has taken over the Democratic Party and just about every institution.  As Fader has come around significantly on the issue, the question has changed from its original form to become one of definition: What is Puritanism?  I recently came across a provocative definition of Puritanism in a book that I periodically re-read.

The extended passage below comes from Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West, Volume II (1922), where it appears in Chapter IX, “Pythagoras, Mohammed, Cromwell.”  Chapter IX is the third of three chapters that Spengler devotes to what he calls “The Problems of Arabian Culture.” The “problems” that Spengler discusses are both intrinsic to Arabian Culture and associated with the Western misinterpretation of Arabian Culture.  In the original, the passage is one long paragraph. I have broken it into three shorter paragraphs in order to facilitate its reading.  I offer a few glosses and comments after the quotation.

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The Visionary Music of Sir Arnold Trevor Bax

Bax 03 Later in Life Portrait-Photo

Sir Arnold Trevor Bax in His Fifties

The name of Sir Arnold Trevor Bax (1883 – 1953) hardly qualifies as a household reference even among people with serious musical interests.  Yet Bax claimed a significant following in his day and in the second decade of the Twenty-First Century, after a long period of diminished currency, his large tranche of compositions finds near-complete representation in the catalogue of recordings.  What would have seemed impossible in 1970, that three complete recorded traversals of Bax’s seven numbered symphonies would one day compete with or complement one another and that these would vie with two partial traversals and numerous one-off items, is today a fact.  Indeed, a recording now exists of Bax’s early, unnumbered and discarded symphony, written as a graduation exercise when he attended the Royal Academy of Music as a piano and composition student.  The twin phenomena of Bax’s virtual disappearance from musical consciousness in Europe and North America and of his subsequent reappearance are themselves of interest, since they offer a glimpse into the relation of art and ideology in the Late Modern Period.  In this way, Bax remains anomalous.  Other English composers – although it might be more accurate to call Bax a British composer – suffered abasements of their reputations in the aftermath of World War Two, not least Sir Edward Elgar and Ralph Vaughan Williams, but none suffered from such a full eclipse as Bax.  It was the usual pattern of modern arrogance. The postwar musical establishment in Britain, while embracing the supposedly inevitable trend of abolishing beauty in art, simultaneously directed sustained contumely against the musical tradition and its practitioners.  Elgar became the icon, quite unfairly, of a now-despised Edwardian imperialism.  Snarky critics referred to the English pastoral style of Vaughan Williams as “cow-pat music.”  Despite this, Elgar’s music and Vaughan Williams’ continued to be performed and recorded.  They always had advocates.  With his death, Bax vanished.

I. In The Brandy of the Damned (1963), Colin Wilson, in assessing English music, wrote of Bax that, “When one turns from Vaughan Williams to Sir Arnold Bax one confronts another of those problems whose answer may be obvious to future ages, but that seems unanswerable today: Why one should be held in high regard and be so well represented on record, while the other is ignored.” Wilson characterized as “the composer of seven symphonies that are in many ways as remarkable as those of Sibelius” and “of a large number of fine piano works.” Wilson recognized Bax as an exponent of Romanticism although not of the blatant Romanticism of, say, Tchaikovsky; rather Bax’s aesthetic appealed to Wilson as “delicate, subtle, [and] intelligent.”  In seeking an answer to his own question, Wilson observed that “although [Bax’s music] is romantic music, it has none of the easily remembered melodies of Sibelius or Tchaikovsky”; and “this means that Bax does not make an immediate appeal to the kind of unsophisticated listener who knows each composer by his best-known melody.”  Wilson argues that the subtlety of Bax’s scores might explain why they go unheard in the concert hall, but not why they are (or were at the time) so thinly available in recorded performance.  In the early 1960s, Wilson was one of the few writers of musical sensibility even to take heed of Bax.  He deserves credit for that despite his characterizations being a bit off the mark.  Everyone can hum the tune from Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, but who can hum the opening subject of Sibelius’ Fourth Symphony, as striking as it is?  Bax does have a relation to Sibelius, not least in being more concerned with musical, especially symphonic, processes than with melody, as such.  Nevertheless, pace Wilson, Bax wrote numerous memorable melodies.

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The Arms Race to the Degenerate Bottom

The race to the degenerate bottom is not steady. On the contrary, it always accelerates; for, it is an arms race.

You can see this with any medium that depends for its survival on the attention of many minds: advertising, entertainment, journalism. All outlets of such media compete with each other for attention. The one that is the most extraordinary wins the competition. So the competition is to discover which outlet is the most abnormal, thus attractive of notice. Whatever was the most abnormal during the last round must be surpassed in the current round in order to gain notice: the most abnormal recent instance resets the bound of normality.

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Chaos and Order; the right and left hemispheres

Chaos and Order; the right and left hemispheres

In The Master and His Emissary, Iain McGilchrist writes that a creature like a bird needs two types of consciousness simultaneously. It needs to be able to focus on something specific, such as pecking at food, while it also needs to keep an eye out for predators which requires a more general awareness of environment.

These are quite different activities. The Left Hemisphere (LH) is adapted for a narrow focus. The Right Hemisphere (RH) for the broad. The brains of human beings have the same division of function.

The LH governs the right side of the body, the RH, the left side. With birds, the left eye (RH) looks for predators, the right eye (LH) focuses on food and specifics. Since danger can take many forms and is unpredictable, the RH has to be very open-minded. Continue reading

Nicolas Berdyaev on the Despiritualization of the West

Berdyaev 01 Portrait Face Forward

Nicolas Berdyaev (1874 – 1948)

My long-term ongoing project involves reading backwards into the critique of modernity, resurrecting from the archive writers who fifty, seventy-five, or even one hundred years ago, intuited prophetically where such trends as democracy, utilitarianism, and the technocratic conception of science were taking mankind – and who foresaw accurately just how deformed morally and socially Western civilization was likely to become.  The writers in question, with a few exceptions, are today largely forgotten or are remembered under a false image or for spurious reasons.  The names of Karen Blixen, Gustave Le Bon, Jorge Luis Borges, Julius Evola, René Guénon, Hermann Keyserling, Peter Ouspensky, Oswald Spengler, T. Lothrop Stoddard, and Sigrid Undset, among others, have appeared in a series of articles, most of them at The Brussels Journal.  I wish, however, to devote the present occasion to a renewed discussion of the Russian writer-philosopher Nicolas Berdyaev (1874 – 1948), whom the encyclopedias of ideas classify variously, not to say confusingly, as a Christian Existentialist, a Russian Nietzschean, a Neo-Platonist, a follower of Vladimir Solovyev, or an out-and-out mystic and subjectivist.  Berdyaev is perhaps a bit of each of these, while being also much more than any of them.  Academic philosophers have either never heard of Berdyaev or, knowing of him at second hand, perhaps from an encyclopedia article, and being unable to fit him into any Positivist or Postmodern framework, dismiss him summarily.

One might fairly assert that Berdyaev did himself little good publicity-wise by cultivating a style of presentation which, while often resolving its thought-processes in a brilliant, aphoristic utterance, nevertheless takes its time, looks at phenomena from every aspect, analyzes every proposition to its last comma and period, and tends to assert its findings bluntly rather than to argue them politely in the proper syllogistic manner.  In Berdyaev’s defense, a sensitive reader might justifiably interpret his leisurely examination of the modern agony as a deliberate and quite appropriate response to the upheavals that harried him from the time of the 1905 Revolution to the German occupation of France during World War II.  If the Twentieth Century insisted on being precipitate and eruptive in everything, without regard to the lethal mayhem it wreaked, then, by God, Berdyaev, regarding his agenda, would take his sweet time.  Not for him the constant mobilized agitation, the sloganeering hysteria, the goose-stepping and dive-bombing spasms of modernity in full self-apocalypse.  That is another characteristic of Berdyaev – he is all at once leisurely in style and apocalyptic in content.  Berdyaev was quite as apocalyptic in his expository prose as his idol Fyodor Dostoevsky was in his ethical narrative, and being a voice of revelation he expressed himself, again like Dostoevsky, in profoundly religious and indelibly Christian terms.  Berdyaev follows Dostoevsky and anticipates Alexander Solzhenitsyn in his conviction that no society can murder God, as Western secular society has gleefully done, and then go its insouciant way, without consequence.

The titles of Berdyaev’s numerous books, especially when taken in chronological order, tell a story all by themselves: The Meaning of the Creative Act (1916), The Meaning of History (1923), The End of Our Time (1924), Christianity and Class War (1931), The Destiny of Man (1931), The Fate of Man in the Modern World (1934), Christianity and Anti-Semitism (1938), Slavery and Freedom (1939), Spirit and Reality (1946), and The Beginning and the End (1947), among many others.  There is also a posthumous Truth and Revelation (1954).  I call attention to the earliest of the listed titles, The Meaning of the Creative Act.  Berdyaev began his career as a philosophical writer (he never completed his doctorate) with an ambitious study of aesthetics, his theory of which locates the purest manifestation of the highest value of his worldview, freedom, in the labor that generates the work of art and beyond that in all the highest effects of the artwork in its context.  At the end of Berdyaev’s life, he wrote the essays that constitute Truth and Revelation, one of his several ventures into the philosophical-theological sub-genre of theodicy, in which he invokes a “creative response to the appeal of God.”  Whereas in the Catholic and even more so in the Lutheran and Calvinist variants of Christianity there is, according to Berdyaev, a strong “sociomorphic” or “legalistic” distortion of Christian doctrine; in Russian Orthodox commentary, by contrast, “the coming of the Christ has been understood not as a reparation for sin, nor as the offering of a ransom, but as the continuation of the creation of the world and the appearance of the New Adam.”  In Berdyaev’s view, “What God expects from man is not servile submission, not obedience, not the fear of condemnation, but free creative acts.”  Berdyaev adds in an aside that, “I wrote on this subject some while ago in The Meaning of Creativeness,” that is, The Meaning of the Creative Act.  Thus Berdyaev’s work exhibits a remarkable closure, returning at the end to its beginnings, linking as it were its omega with its alpha.

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The Rectification of Grammar

The Rectification of Names is obviously important, if our talk is to be pertinent to reality, ergo effectual. But prior to the rectification of terms is the rectification of the grammar we use to treat of them. If we can’t agree on the right *way* to talk, we shall certainly find it impossible to agree on the right things to talk *about.*

Too often on sites putatively dedicated to the restoration of the West, or of Tradition, or to Reaction (toward tradition) have I seen writers err grammatically, at the most basic level; even that of the agreement as to number of subject and verb. It makes them look like fools.

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