Cross-post: the real battle lines in Renaissance philosophy

Historians of Renaissance and early modern philosophy often try to give a unity to their subjects by framing the creative elements of these periods as engaging in a revolt against “scholasticism”.  However, this only gives as much intelligibility to the Renaissance as is granted to its foil, and historians usually assign scholasticism any negative quality needed to keep the narrative going;  it can be mindlessly dogmatic or aridly intellectual or both at once, despising all nature or assigning fanciful hierarchies within it, servile or unfaithful to Aristotle, holding an opinion of man that is irrationally low (when the opponent is humanism) or high (when the opponent is science).  Ernst Cassirer in his 1963 book The Individual and the Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy tries to fit his material into this standard narrative, but he provides a great deal of interesting material, so that a more interesting story begins to emerge.

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Reconciling Plato and Berdyaev via the Phaedrus


Analytic philosophy is by the far the dominant tradition in the English-speaking world and many countries in Europe at this point, with a handful of “continental” schools, but in either case, atheism and materialism are taken for granted. The way Plato was taught, like the way my professors taught everything else, sucked the significance out, examined arguments out of context, and generally made Plato seem like a no-good philosopher. It was not until I had written my dissertation and been granted my PhD that I read Plato’s Republic for myself, because it seemed ridiculous not to have read it – like an English major being unfamiliar with Hamlet. It was a revelation and I was overjoyed to find such a congenial mind. Like Dostoevsky, who has been described as continuing the dialogues of Plato, I had found a friend.

While aware that some of my other friendships have ended, the one philosophical friendship I started to suspect would last forever was my love of Plato. However, my fairly recent discovery of Nikolai Berdyaev had me wondering how devoted I could remain to Plato. A Russian friend, hearing me describe one of my philosophical views, noted that it sounded like Berdyaev and recommended him to me. When another friend started taking a strong interest too, my new friendship with Berdyaev began, often feeling like I was entering into a dialogue with my future self, as Berdyaev extended some of my own thoughts into new domains.

The solution to my newly acquired doubts about Plato has been to step outside the description of reality found in Plato’s allegory of the cave, and to look to the Phaedrus, for an extension of the Platonic vision of spiritual and metaphysical realities that is more congenial to Berdyaev’s insights. [1] Continue reading

From Promethean Pride to the Holocaustic Imagination: Atlas Shrugged

Rand Soviet Style

Ayn Rand (1905 – 1982)

The victory over desire is extremely painful.  Proust tells us that we must forego the fervent dialogue endlessly carried on by each of us at the superficial levels of our being.  One must “give up one’s dearest illusions.”  The novelist’s art is a phenomenological epochē.  But the only authentic epochē is never mentioned by modern philosophers; it is always victory over desire, victory over Promethean pride.  (René Girard, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel)
The descent of the absolute into the empirical world is the moment of its undoing.  As soon as we posit an absolute difference between victim and persecutor, the underlying symmetry of their relation reasserts itself.  When the SS torturer becomes the villain of the war film, he is turned into a sacrificial figure, a scapegoat, [a] structural equivalent of the Jud Süss in Nazi cinema.  (Eric Gans, Signs of Paradox)

I. No account of Ayn Rand’s (1905 – 1982) sprawling, morally incoherent end-of-the-world story Atlas Shrugged (1957) can begin elsewhere than in an acknowledgment of the way in which the novel’s fascinating spectacle can draw a reader in despite himself. This is the book’s secret, which the present essay aims to investigate. The British writer Colin Wilson gives a typical account.  He first became conscious of Rand’s work while lecturing in America in the autumn of 1961; university students would ask him his opinion about her.  He responded that he had never heard of Rand, whereupon, as he writes, “somebody presented me with paperback copies of her two major novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged – the latter more than 1,000 pages long.”  Delving into the former, Wilson found himself “immediately put off by the rhetorical tone of the opening,” which he quotes: “Howard Roark laughed…  He stood naked at the edge of a cliff,” and so forth.  Turning to Atlas, Wilson writes, “I remembered that I had seen some of this book before [when] a correspondent had sent me its last hundred pages: an immensely long speech, made over the radio by a man called John Galt… to justify individualism.”  Galt’s speech struck Wilson as “too wordy” and he had, on that former occasion, “given it up.”  Now, when students would ask what Wilson thought of Rand, he “inclined to be dismissive – a typical female writer, a kind of modern Marie Corelli, much given to preaching and grandiose language.”  In the autumn of 1962, however, confined to bed by a severe case of influenza, Wilson revisited Atlas, “determined to give it a fair trial.”  Pushing himself through the first twenty pages, Wilson at last –

Read the book from cover to cover in two days, and immediately followed it with The Fountainhead.  I had to admit that I had done Miss Rand a considerable injustice.  It is true that this is partly her own fault.  The cover of Atlas Shrugged has a rather badly drawn picture of a naked Titan, his head thrown back, his arms spread apart, against a fiery red background; the back cover has a picture of Miss Rand, her head also thrown back, her eyes very wide open, the lips slightly parted as if seeing a vision.  It was all a bit Wagnerian; and although I love Wagner’s music, I am inclined to be impatient of literary Wagnerianism – as in Faulkner or Wolfe…  But one thing was immediately obvious from Atlas Shrugged.  Miss Rand has the ability to tell a story… with a minimum of clichés.

In Wilson’s judgment, Atlas “has a great deal in common with Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four.”  Like those, “it is a tirade against collectivism and government interference with individual freedom.”  Pace Wilson, while one might acknowledge some few similarities, Atlas shows little of the political or psychological acumen of Orwell or Huxley, and none at all of their individual stylistic felicity – but this stands as a parenthesis to the criticism.  No subtlety kept Wilson riveted for two days and a thousand pages but rather Rand’s broad-stroke depiction of a grand industrial Götterdämmerung across the three parts of the novelistic tapestry.  Rand has the technological infrastructure of North America collapsing into ruin, often with incendiary effects, while a gangster regime that has superseded the federal government systematically loots the national economy.  Moral invertebrates like James Taggart, who oversees the destruction of the Taggart Transcontinental Railway, or the Al Capone-like Cuffy Meigs, the gang-leader just before the final catastrophe, exercise a kind of morbid glamour as Rand demonstrates the drastic consequences of their larceny-dissimulated-as-altruism.  The protagonists, Dagny Taggart (James’ sister) and Henry “Hank” Rearden (owner of a steel mill), search an obliterated landscape for signs of the elusive Galt, who might be either the evil agency behind all of the massive decay (“the destroyer”) or the genius-inventor whose deus ex machina of a free-energy motor will save civilization.

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Belief vs Knowledge and Plato’s Tripartite Soul

Plato suggested that if a person were to be cut open a homunculus,[1] a lion and a many-headed beast would be revealed. These creatures represent the three different kinds of soul (psyche) out of which someone is composed. In Greek they are Logos, Thumos, and Epithumia.





Logos (reason) is symbolized by a little person.







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Morality and Intuitions of Metaphysical Truths

1No matter which class I am teaching, for quite some time the first reading assigned has been an article on Goedel’s Theorem. The reason is to emphasize that any attempt to make an axiomatic system of any moderate complexity consistent and complete (able to determine whether any statement within the system is either true or false) will fail. This is because, at least when it comes to mathematics, Goedelian propositions will be generated by the system that are true, can be seen to be true, but are not provable. Goedel’s stand-in for all such propositions is the statement “this statement is not provable within this axiomatic system.” If this statement is true, then it is not provable. If it were to be false, and was provable, then it would again be proved that it is not provable, since you would have just proved a statement that says it is unprovable! I add to this that the axioms upon which axiomatic systems are based are by definition, not provable, their truth being self-evident. So, axiomatic systems contain unprovable truths coming and going.

When teaching ethics, after covering Gödel, the first thing I do is to point out our intuitive understanding of the truth and validity of reciprocity/justice/fairness. If someone were to give you a cup of your favorite coffee at the appropriate time and you were to punch them in the face, barring some convoluted back story, this would be grossly unjust. The truth of reciprocity is captured by phrases like “one good turn deserves another” and “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” In practice, no normal person doubts the truth of that notion.

Fairness and reciprocity are axiomatically true. Their truth is self-evident. If anyone claims to doubt their truth, this person is almost certainly a liar and a hypocrite, at least on this topic. When this hypothetical person approaches another in a spirit of friendliness and politeness, only to be greeted with unbridled rudeness and hostility, he is likely to feel offended or at least to question the mental stability of the other person.

Ludwig Wittgenstein had some sensible things to say on topics like these.  He spends a few pages of his aphoristic writings wondering what it would mean to be mistaken that one was speaking or writing in English. There is not really a standard of certainty that goes beyond knowing such a thing. Part of his point is to throw a monkey wrench into the useless, theoretical musings of his analytic philosophy contemporaries. Continue reading

The Allure of Lemuria (Beta)

Lemuria 01

It Might as well be Lemuria

The poet and fantasist Clark Ashton Smith (1893 – 1961) wrote in a sonnet of “enormous gongs of stone,” of “griffins whose angry gold, and fervid / store of sapphires [were] wrenched from mountain-plungèd mines,” and of other exotic artifacts that exist in a long-lost provenance, inaccessible except in dreams or by ecstatic witness.  Contemplating the vision, and beseeching the reader in his opening line, the monologist of Smith’s verses asks the portentous question, “Rememberest thou?”  Ah, remembrance!  Plato’s “unforgetting”!  Smith called his poem “Lemuria,” after the fabled counterpart in the Pacific Ocean of Plato’s Atlantis, the far-famed and foredoomed continent, home to a high but wayward civilization, which vanished beneath the waves in a great and world-implicating catastrophe some twelve thousand years ago and more.  According to the claim, Atlantis leaves its traces in such geographical entities as the Canary Islands, the Azores, and the submerged Mid-Atlantic Range.  Lemuria’s fragments, as enthusiasts purport, consist of the scattered atolls of the South Pacific, their enigmatic monuments, as at Ponape or Easter Island, and a tissue of myth that the poetic sensibility might cherish, but that stern rationality dogmatically and erroneously dismisses.  Rational or not, plausible or not, the Legend of Lost Lemuria, like the Legend of Lost Atlantis, speaks to a need – or rather to a gnawing hunger – that afflicts certain rare souls who find themselves stuck against their will in the modern world: To believe in the fabled, in the scientifically unsanctioned, and in the remoteness-cum-greatness of a past age, very nearly lost to memory, that mocks the modern pretension of omniscience.  The allure of Lemuria, like the fascination of Atlantis, responds to the vapid parochialism of the so-called rational world’s ultra-conceited self-perception.

The story supposes Lemuria to be as old as Atlantis (although the precise measure of its age varies from author to author), but, as a story, Lemuria post-dates Atlantis by two and a half millennia.  The notion of Atlantis – the island-continent beyond the Pillars of Hercules whose people, grown decadent and greedy, attempted world-conquest only to suffer heavenly chastisement in a cataclysm that obliterated them and their homeland – goes back to the previously mentioned Plato (428 – 347 BC), the greatest of Greek philosophers, a metaphysician, and a visionary.  In Plato’s linked dialogues Timaeus and Critias, the tale of the Sunken Continent figures centrally.  Plato offers the Atlantis narrative as a “likely story,” whose meaning remains within the realm of symbols and whose imagery the reader should take care not to interpret literally.  Nevertheless, the tendency since Plato, especially in the late Nineteenth Century and again in the early Twentieth Century, has been to take it literally.  As for Lemuria, it only becomes a topic in the Nineteenth Century in a proposal, indeed in a scientific one, put forward by zoologists and ethnographers to explain otherwise inexplicable uniformities in the zoology of the Pacific archipelagos and in the myths and legends of their people.

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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

Melville’s Typee (1846) and the Case for Civilization

Melville 01 Melville Portrait

Herman Melville (1819 – 1891)

My subject is Herman Melville, and more specifically Melville’s case for civilization, but I would like to approach his Typee (1846), where he makes that case, through a preamble having to do with the figure against whose arguments Melville stakes his own: Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 – 1778).

I. There is a shadow-side in the Western tradition that takes the form of a recurrent rebellion against reality. Already in the early Fourth century BC Plato identified an impulse arising from the matrix of civilized life that is wildly uncivilized and which expresses itself, in animosity that can be either generalized or narrowly focused, against civic order, technical achievement, and social distinctions arising out of a consensual recognition of merit. In Plato’s dialogue Gorgias, the character named Callicles complains that the rule of law is tyrannical because it places restraints on strength and ambition and so protects the “weak,” as he terms them, from the “strong,” among whom he imagines himself.  When the weak dominate the strong, Callicles argues, nature herself is offended because under her order the reverse is naturally the case.  Nature, not culture, provides the authentic template of existence.  When Socrates points out the verbal flimsiness of Callicles’ syllogism – that it juggles rather too freely with the terms strong and weak and sneakily makes the case for the tyranny against which it lodges its complaint – Callicles accuses his critic of thinking too much.  Callicles warns Socrates that finding logical fault with people will land the philosopher in trouble.  Perhaps someday it will cost him his life.

At the heart of Callicles’ pathology stands his aversion to reason and commonsense.  Callicles’ denunciation of the civilized order stems from this aversion because it is the polity, as an expression of reason and commonsense – that is to say of human self-knowledge – that restrains his libido and forces him to respect the rights of others.  When someone like Callicles determines to rise to power, he must begin by disarming reason and commonsense – he must evade human self-knowledge.  He must also persuade others to join him in his distortion both of human reality and moral perception.  A ritualistic, magical character pervades such activity, linking it to archaic, pre-civilized practices.

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Philosophical Skeleton Keys: More on Angels

In a recent essay, I suggested that the angels are the concrete archetypes of the Platonic Forms. This in response to a few Ockhamian challenges to Plato regarding the Forms that I there adduced:

What’s the Platonic Realm, for Heaven’s sake? Where is it? How does it interact with our own? If it does interact with our own, then isn’t it really integral with our own? If so, then what sets the Forms apart from their contingent instantiations here below? What does eternity have to do with creaturity?

… If [the Platonic Realm is concrete], and therefore ineluctably particular, then how is it universally and archetypally Formal?

Well, OK. Stipulating to the notion that the angels are the concrete archetypes of the Forms, how does that help us answer those questions?

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Philosophical Skeleton Keys: Archetypes, Forms, & Angels

Ockham comes in for a lot of criticism around these parts, the poor honest earnest man. And not unrightly, perhaps, given his (largely innocent and inadvertent) role in the incipience of the prevalent modern nominalism that has gutted the West (he was not really much of a nominalist, as we think of nominalism these days). But in most things he was on target (this is true of all heretics, scoundrels, sinners, and fools (or else they’d die before they could do much damage, understood by their contemporaries as mere silly kooks)). Most of all, he was right in respect to his famous Razor, which more than any of his other immense contributions to human thought will surely warrant his everlasting renown – his status, shared with only five or six other philosophers, as a household name (at least among those who consider themselves somewhat educated). Even men who know nothing else whatever of epistemology or philosophy of science have some notion of Ockham’s Razor. His Principle of Parsimony is perhaps the most important operational, practical principle of thought (the Principle of Sufficient Reason, e.g., is by contrast ontological; or again e.g., the Principle of Noncontradiction is logical; and so forth). It is the whole basis of American Pragmatism, which is to say, of the philosophy of science universally presupposed in the practice of professional scientists. It is followed in its pragmatic importance – opinions differ about their proper order – by the Principle of Elegance (the more beautiful theory is more likely to be true) and the Principle of Adequacy (theories must adequate to the entirety of their proper domain). I would add also the Principle of Serendipity – as I here now decide to name it, not knowing how other thinkers might have done so: the principle, i.e., that a true theory is likely to explain more things, and they unsuspected things, than we had looked for it to explain – things that, i.e., are outside its (expected) proper domain (huge swathes of mathematics, e.g., turn out to exemplify the Principle of Serendipity).

Ockham, then, God Bless him: All else equal, that theory is best which is simplest – which postulates the fewest types of concrete entities.

So then: what about the Platonic Forms? Ockham’s Razor – a native, chthonic tendency in my thinking from infancy – bugged me about them from the first moment I read of them. What the heck are they? Are they a different sort of thing than the things of this world? What’s the Platonic Realm, for Heaven’s sake? Where is it? How does it interact with our own? If it does interact with our own, then isn’t it really integral with our own? If so, then what sets the Forms apart from their contingent instantiations here below? What does eternity have to do with creaturity?

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