Philosophical Skeleton Keys: Facts Are Fossils of Acts

Of all the Philosophical Skeleton Keys I have written about, this one is the hardest. Not because it is inherently complicated, but rather because it is so simple, and so powerful; and because the moment I understood it so many perplexities so completely vanished that I have now but little recollection of them. So completely did this Key dispose of so many problems, that I cannot now well remember what most of them even were!

I use this Key all the time; so often, that I don’t usually notice having done so.

It opens all sorts of locks, but I suppose that the most important of them is the Hard Problem of Consciousness, as David Chalmers has called it: namely, how do you get awareness out of the coordinate activities of trillions of particles that – on the usual modern construction of “matter” – are not themselves at all aware? The Hard Problem is the difficult and apparently incorrigibly perplexing nub of the Mind/Body Problem; the other aspects of the Mind/Body problem are what Chalmers calls the Easy Problems. Translating the Hard Problem into the terms I shall employ in what follows: how do you get lively acts from dead facts?

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Iliminative Materialism

I have several times remarked that, on the most popular modern doctrine of matter – that it is dead stuff – eliminative materialism is the only consistent sort. If the universe is nothing but dead stuff, it is impossible for us to be alive, or therefore conscious. You can’t assemble a living conscious mind out of nothing but dead stuff. Thoroughgoing, consistent materialists, who have the courage of their convictions, forge ahead and, on that basis, deny the reality of consciousness.

There are few such.

There are of course some problems with eliminative materialism. In the first place, it insists that there are no conscious minds such as those that confide in eliminative materialism. In the second, because eliminative materialism is not itself composed of dead stuff, on its own terms it has no concrete existence.

On eliminative materialism, there’s no such thing as eliminative materialism, and no one exists to believe or disbelieve it.

So it can’t be true. It can’t even be wrong. It cannot be meaningfully asserted; so it cannot be meaningful.

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Ockham’s Razor, the Gordian Knot & the Thomist Marlinspike

Reality is a knotty problem. It is terrifically difficult to unsnarl it, so that we understand it. It won’t do to cut through it, as (according to the most famous version of the legend) Alexander did with the Gordian Knot. To do that is in the final analysis to surrender to befuddlement, even as one defies it and forges onward, damning all torpedoes. So while Ockham’s Razor is amazingly useful as a way of clarifying and simplifying our understanding, it is not itself a way to arrive at understanding. You want to shave with it, rather than slash.

When Ockham’s Razor cuts away entities that are inherent to the experience of understanding, it forestalls understanding, rather than facilitating it. For example, if you find that your explanation of consciousness is so wonderfully parsimonious that it eliminates consciousness from the universe altogether, you’ve cut too deep.

I used to deal with gnarly knots all the time when I was working as a whitewater boatman. [I’m not working on the River these days, but I’m still a boatman; it sticks with you.] When you put enormous tension on a knot, as happens when it is doing what you wanted it to do under stressful conditions, it can tighten so much that it becomes impossible to untie with fingers alone. It is tempting at such times to just say the hell with it, and cut through the knot. But that’s a bad idea when you are hundreds of miles from the nearest supply of line, in the deep wilderness. You never know when you might need that piece of line uncut. So an outdoorsman will never cut line unless he must.

Instead, sailors and boatmen use a fid or marlinspike:

The marlinspike is not a sharp cutting blade, but a smooth dully pointed stout poker. Poked into the interstices of a knot, a marlinspike can be used to pry apart the recalcitrant strands without cutting them, and allow for a good grip on the one that must be pulled through in order to loosen the doggone thing (sometimes pliers are needed for that).

To unsnarl the world knot, you want the right tool for the job. A razor is the wrong tool for undoing knots. What you want is what might be called a Thomist Marlinspike: neither affirm nor deny, but rather first distinguish. Once you’ve pulled the strands apart, untangled the knot, and laid it out nice and straight, then you can get to work on the line with Ockham’s Razor, shaving off the frayed bits to make things all nice and tidy, shipshape and Bristol fashion.

On Divine Omniscience versus Creaturely Partiscience

Divine Omniscience and our own creaturely, partial, imperfect knowledge – our partiscience – are categorically different sorts of operations. Both are sorts of discernment – from the Latin scindere, “to cut, divide,” thence from the PIE root *skei-, “to cut, split” – but they are fundamentally different sorts of cut. They cut in opposite directions.

Omniscience cuts, and so differentiates. Partiscience cuts and so sorts the resultant differentiae, so as to integrate them (so far as it can).

Thus the Perennialist intuition, altogether correct, that creation is outward from an Original Unity, whereas creaturity is a return toward that Unity from Partiality.

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The Simultaneous Emergence of Language & Religion

Gans & Girard

Rene Girard (Left) and Eric Gans (Right)

My article on Oswald Spengler and William Olaf Stapledon – Two Eccentric Theorists of the Origin of Language – appears in the current number of Anthropoetics: the Journal of Generative Anthropology. Assuming the framework of Eric Gans’ “scenic” and “evenemential” model of the origin of language, the article examines the convergent intuitions of Spengler and Stapledon that language represents a distinctive break from animal signage rather than a gradual development on the basis of animal signage. Spengler, in his Decline, and Stapledon, in his Last Men in London, agree that language and religion spring into being simultaneously in response to a breakdown of the instinctual order in the proto-human group, a breakdown that is exacerbated by the increasing mimeticism of the individuals who comprise that group. The first sign designates both the group and the emergent consciousness, which what is suddenly a community rather than a mere group perceives as God. The argument also draws on René Girard’s concept of the origin of culture in a “sacrificial crisis,” which provides the starting-point for Gans’ theory.  I reproduce three paragraphs from the article’s Introduction. –

Cognoscenti of Generative Anthropology will have acquainted themselves with the history of language-theory in its broad outline as well as with the narrower history of those investigations of things human that sought plausibly to account for or to characterize, in one way or another, the origin of language and by implication the totality of institutions.  Generative Anthropology is itself a late instance of the latter and its originator Eric L. Gans, in his study of The Scenic Imagination: Originary Thinking from Hobbes to the Present Day (2008), offers a rare and succinct survey of logo- and etho-genetic hypotheses, as one might call them, from the Seventeenth Century down to the Twenty-First.  Gans writes, “My thesis is that human experience, as opposed to that of other animals, is uniquely characterized by scenic events recalled both collectively and individually through representations, the most fundamental of which are the signs of language.”  It belongs to Gans’ thesis that, “If the human is indeed a series of scenic events… then the human must have originated in an event… the representation of which, the first example of language and ‘culture,’ is part of the originary scene itself.”  Gans’ term “originary scene” refers to the logically necessary first occasion when the mutual awareness of the ego and the tu, mediated by an object of contention, articulated itself in a gesture or utterance that, lodging in the newly commenced self-acknowledgment and mental continuity of the group, could be recalled or repeated.  Gans makes his own case for the intuitive likelihood of the originary scene, but there is a simpler argument all the more poignant for originating outside of Generative Anthropology, while lending it logical support.  Every word in every language is a coinage.  Whatever the word, there was a time of its coinage, of its first instance, before which it never existed.  Traveling backward in his time machine, the observer would notice, first, a de-ramification of tongues until, an initial bifurcation into two dialects being annulled, only one tongue existed.  In the case of that tongue, the traveler would then witness a diminution of vocabulary until he arrived at the first, and in its day singular and only word of that tongue’s vocabulary.  He would have arrived at the origin of language.

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A Westerner Reads the Koran (Second Surah)

Pussin Golden Calf

Nicolas Poussin (1594 – 1665): Adoration of the Golden Calf (1634)

Introduction. The Western layman approaching the Koran for the first time must experience something like befuddlement.  Supposing that the layman possesses a good education, including knowledge of the Old and New Testaments of the Bible and the core classics of the Greek and Roman worlds, the Koran will strike him as something like the opposite of that with which he enjoys familiarity.  Take the Bible’s Genesis: It deals in straightforward narrative, as do its Near Eastern precursor texts such as the Babylonian Creation or Enuma Elish.  The very opening words of Genesis invoke the concept of a beginning, which implies in advance both an ensuing middle and an end.  The same is true of the Greek poet Hesiod’s account of the generations of the gods – Elemental, Titanic, and Olympian – in his Theogony.  After Hesiod explains his own function as an interpreter of the lore concerning these things, he launches into his genealogical story whose episodes follow one another in comprehensible sequence: Once again, a beginning, a middle, and an end.  In much the same way, the New Testament follows the Old Testament so that, taken together, they constitute a unified tale.  The events in Homer’s Odyssey similarly follow in a comprehensible way the events in Homer’s Iliad.  The essential seriality, as it might be called, of Western narrative and exposition connects itself to their seriousness and to their comprehensibility.  Both the Old Testament and the New generally sort out their chapters so as to keep non-narrative prose separate from narrative prose.  This consideration helps the reader.  To whomsoever compiled the Koran these principles meant nothing; he was entirely unfamiliar with them.  The Koran lards non-narrative exposition into its narratives – promiscuously and confusingly from a readerly point of view.  A properly chronological narrative can, by a difficult labor, be reconstructed from the Koran’s chapters or surahs, which lifts the history of prophecy from the Old Testament, but the naïve Western reader who proceeds from one surah to another will encounter no orderly arrangement of episodes such as he might expect in the Bible or Homer. Continue reading

Enlightenment & Sacrifice – Remarks on Joseph de Maistre

Maistre (1753 - 1821) Unknown Portraitist

Joseph-Marie Comte de Maistre (1753 – 1821)

Joseph de Maistre’s Elucidation on Sacrifices, a late work of his authorship, appeared as an appendix in the posthumously published St. Petersburg Dialogues, one of the towering literary-philosophical monuments of early Nineteenth Century French letters.  Maistre (1753 – 1821) wrote the massive set of Dialogues and its brief sequel during the final decade of his fourteen-year appointment (1803 – 1817) as ambassador plenipotentiary of the King of Piedmont-Sardinia to the court of His Imperial Majesty Alexander II of Russia.  The Dialogues, which saw print in 1821, subsume and amplify the recurrent themes and theses of Maistre’s previous essayistic forays into theology, anthropology, and political theory in the form of a colossal Platonic seminar concerning, as the subtitle would have it, “The Temporal Government of Providence.”  Like his earlier Study on Sovereignty (1794), Considerations on France (1796), and Essay on the Generative Principle of Political Constitutions (1809), the Dialogues and the Elucidation spring from their author’s direct experience of the French Revolution, which, for him and his family, proved dire.  Maistre sees in the Revolution an unprecedented civilizational upheaval – an episode, in fact, of anti-civilizational destructiveness that the observer can really only understand in mythopoeic or theological terms.  Maistre compares the Revolution to the depredations of the chaos-monster Typhon in Hesiod’s Theogony, whose violent disruption of the newly established cosmic order it fell to Zeus to put down by an application of overwhelming counter-violence.  Thus for Maistre the Revolution ferociously spites a continuum of wisdom, supplying the ground of any and all social stability, that roots itself ultimately in what he calls supernatural enlightenment.  In the Second Dialogue Maistre gives it to his spokesman, “The Count,” to assert how, in a much quoted phrase, “wherever you find an altar, there civilization is to be found” (Lebrun’s translation throughout)  Maistre’s altar signifies that the supernatural enlightenment locally still takes effect.  Men may profane the altar, but that reflects on them, not on the symbol.

I. Given Maistre’s deeply convicted Catholicism, readers will find themselves tempted to qualify Maistre’s altar with the exclusive qualifier of Christian, but the context of the remark says nay to the temptation. What is the context? Maistre’s Count is discussing with his interlocutors, “the Chevalier” and “the Senator,” the phenomenon of savagery – particularly as the Enlightenment thinkers, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, have understood, or rather have misunderstood, it.  The Eighteenth Century has espoused the notion of progress, he says, which, driven by a supposed reason, will gradually lift humanity out of superstition and irrational prejudice toward an entirely secular order.  The Eighteenth Century has also produced a penchant for resentment against anything in the existing arrangement that bruises the rationalist’s ego, which thus furnishes him with cause for complaint.  The complainant or critic assumes that the social dispensation, while an improvement over its precursor stages, is subject to reform in the direction of this-worldly perfection.  Rousseau adds the nuances that perhaps the social dispensation is not, in fact, an absolute improvement over its precursor stages; and that reformation must restore alleged elements of previous eras that the present era has displaced – such as the communism of property.  Of course these Eighteenth Century philosophes have repudiated not only the Christian Tradition but also the shared general Tradition of the civilized nations going back to remote antiquity – beyond remote antiquity, indeed, into undiscovered ages.  The philosophe cannot see that humanity is a fallen species whose perfection under temporality its own “deadly inclination towards evil” permanently annuls.  Nor can the philosophe grasp the action of Providence, which, as under the Karma of the Hindus and the Nemesis of the Greeks, guarantees that the punishment shall in due course fit the crime.

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Gustave Le Bon on the Professoriate

le bon, gustave

Gustave Le Bon (1841 – 1931)

In the following extract from his Psychology of Socialism (1899), Gustav Le Bon discusses the appeal of socialism for the intelligentsia; the discussion includes Le Bon’s amusingly unsparing characterization of the professoriate — a class of people comprised, in his coinages, by demi-savants and doctrinaires, which he rightly despises.  Here, then, from Chapter IV, “The Disciples of Socialism and Their Mental State” –

It is because the half-science of the demi-savant obscures the instinctive intuitions, that its intervention in social affairs is so often harmful.
Social failures, misunderstood geniuses, lawyers without clients, writers without readers, doctors without patients, professors ill-paid, graduates without employment, clerks whose employers disdain them for their insufficiency, puffed-up university instructors — these are the natural adepts of Socialism. In reality they care very little for doctrines. Their dream is to create by violent means a society in which they will be the masters. Their cry of equality does not prevent them from having an intense scorn of the rabble who have not, as they have, learned out of books. They believe themselves greatly the superiors of the working man, and are really greatly his inferiors in their lack of practical sense and their exaggerated egotism. If they became masters their despotism would be no less than that of Marat, Saint-Just, or Robespierre, those excellent types of the unappreciated demi-savant. The hope of tyrannising in one’s turn, when one has always been ignored, humiliated, thrust into the shade, must have created many disciples of Socialism…

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Meditations & Divagations on Two Sonnets

bocklin (1827 - 1901) sacred grove (1886)

The Sacred Grove (1886) by Arnold Boecklin (1827 – 1901)

Of the French Symbolist School of poetry, Nicolas Berdyaev writes in his Crisis of Art (1917) that its contributors not only acutely sensed the profound spiritual crisis that had shaken and shattered Western culture since the Eighteenth Century at least, but attempted a new, redemptive synthesis that would function as the equivalent of “the sacral art of the ancient world and of the Medieval world.”  (The translation is that of Father S. Janos.)  The Symbolist poets, as Berdyaev plausibly describes their aspiration, “wanted to lead art out of the crisis through a return to the organic artistic era”; they sensed that the arts “are a product of differentiation” of an historical type, and that they “derived from a temple and cultic origin… developed from an organic unity” and “were subordinated to a religious center.”  The Symbolists, Berdyaev asserts, were the last Western artists to strive for pure beauty before the schools of aschemiolatry, in a spasm of “empty freedom,” began their program of bespattering the cosmos with mud and offal.  Berdyaev even ascribes to the Symbolists a theurgic propensity.  In The Meaning of the Creative Act (1916), he defines theurgic art as “creating another world, another being, another life,” even to the extent of “creating beauty as essence, as being.”  (The translator identifies himself only as “D. A. L.”)   For the Russian, theurgy in art consists in a revelation of “the religious-ontological, the religious meaning of being.”  Theurgy, as “free creation,” seeks to imitate, under the limitations of mortality and temporality, the original creative act of the World Maker, not so as to challenge, but only so as to imitate, the God whose image man bears.  The Symbolists in this way make themselves followers of such as Rembrandt van Rijn and Johann Sebastian Bach, artists who attributed their creativity hence also their creations not to themselves but, as faithful Monothreeists, to the Three-in-One.

Berdyaev’s observations in The Creative Act and The Crisis are themselves strongly indebted to the poetry and prose of the Symbolists, not least to the musings of Charles Baudelaire and Stéphane Mallarmé, but also to the works of Richard Wagner and Alexander Scriabin.  Like their Kiev-born inheritor, the Symbolists were mainly reactionary – as the cases of Baudelaire and Wagner well illustrate.  Again like Berdyaev, the Symbolists combined in their creative work and in the explanations thereof their keen sense of transcendence, their anthropological clarity, and their profound vision of cultural decline.  Such men were somewhat paradoxically modern in asserting new genres in their respective artistic domains while at the same time both rejecting modernity per se and advocating for the virtues of the West’s pre-modern phases, sometimes in the Middle Ages and sometimes in antiquity.  The Symbolists also tended to valorize Christianity.  In Mallarmé’s Coup de dès or Roll of the Dice (1897), for example, whose bewildering anti-verses seem in their typographic dispersion to represent the chaos of false freedom, Christ appears as “Le Maître,” “The Master,” who is also the early Nineteenth Century Right-Catholic critic of the French Revolution, Joseph de Maistre.  Baudelaire (1821 – 1867), whom Mallarmé took as his model, explicitly identified himself as the successor of the same Maistre.  In these essential gestures, Symbolism links itself to the larger reactionary critique of “progress” and “revolution” that first becomes explicit in Edmund Burke and in the very same Maistre.  The Symbolists must then exert considerable allure on the reactionary, anti-modern consciousness of the early Twenty-First Century – one hopes.

The present essay proposes to examine two short Symbolist poems, both sonnets, and both from the early phases of the movement.  These are “Vers dorés” (1846) by Gérard de Nerval (1808 – 1855) and “Correspondences” (1857) by Baudelaire, the latter appearing in the poet’s famous verse-anthology Les Fleurs du Mal or Flowers of Evil.  In its commentary on the two poems, the essay will bring to bear the insights into Symbolism of Berdyaev, certain elements of the anthropologies of Maistre and René Girard, and the Weltanschauung and generalized convictions of the reactionary consciousness of the Twenty-First Century.  The mixture might strike readers as a bit arbitrary or even as vertiginous, but its fundamental coherency should gradually make itself evident.  It is a premise of the reactionary consciousness that art is fundamentally conservative and that in its highest expression it is a species of prophesy or apocalypse, at once illuminating the fallenness of the world and pointing the fallen creature towards transcendence of its condition.

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The Sorts of Liberalism Are Attempted Implementations of Nominalism

If as nominalism supposes there are no objective universals, then there are no objective truths. Then there is no objective reality. There being no objective reality, there can then be no way that one man might understand or speak of reality more truthfully than another. So there can be no such thing as authority. Authority then is ipso facto null, and wherever asserted, is false and unjust. If authority is unjust per se, then justice might be possible only under conditions of anarchy, wherein each man rules his own life absolutely, and is free to make up his mind and shape his acts in whatever way he pleases.

Nominalism carried into practice then is liberalism: the thoroughgoing rejection of authority.

There are many sorts of liberalism: political, economic, grammatical, theological, liturgical, legal, sexual, aesthetic, gastronomical, cultural, architectural, academic, and so forth. All of them are subjects of discussion here, and at other orthospherean sites. All of them have in common the rejection of all authority other than the authority that imposes upon all men the requirement that they reject authority.

The project of authoritatively imposing the rejection of authority is of course incoherent. That doesn’t stop liberals from propagating liberalism. But it does stop liberalism from ever working.