The ‘Philosophy of Life’ as philosophy (or, in praise of Alain de Botton)

A few years ago I would have taken a low opinion of the idea of a popular philosopher diluting insights for a middle class time poor audience who want deep insights at little effort and dismissive of the general genre of ‘Popular Philosophy’. Then I read a few of the ‘pop philosophy’ books. I think having a varied diet means, to paraphrase Dwayne Johnson as Luke Hobbs: having your dessert first, and then the veggies.

 

I would consider Popular Philosophy (and most literature for that matter) as a dessert. But having those veggies and salads are just as important. For every dozen popular non fiction books I’ve read this year, I’ve gone ahead 1/6th through a single volume of Gibbon.

 

De Botton should be praised for his literary efforts. There is a distinct degree to which he dilutes heavy insights from literary and philosophical figures in a way that is most appeasing to the White Middle Class faux-intelligentsia (or as Veblen referred to them: the Leisure class [or as Furrygrrl [[I bet you are looking her up]]) sometimes refers to as the ‘leisure of the theory class’]) to make them look clever for their bookshelves containing books that are ‘better than the film version’. But critiquing his audience is hardly a critique of his body of work.

 

What de Botton has taught me which is immensely valuable is something that Nussbaum wrote in Love’s Knowledge, or that Eileen John writes in her papers on Aesthetics and Literature: there is moral insight to be had in literature. By reading novels exploring character (de Botton favours Stendhal and Proust), we expand our own inner world and that in turn deepens our moral character.

 

Another aspect that I have enjoyed from Consolations of Philosophy and Status Anxiety, is how de Botton makes everyday life seem philosophical. De Botton is hardly original in his views or combining the idea that literature-is-philosophical and the-everyday-is-philosophical. But you don’t have to read papers in contemporary philosophical aesthetics, or have to read John Cottingham’s recent Heythrop-era work to gain that insight.

 

De Botton makes me want to read Montaigne properly. Montaigne’s work is about his musings on the every day, but he makes his very unique problems very universal. I have been captivated by the idea of how particular situations in life, loves and relationships while are not directly the same or relevant to other people’s lives, are deeply relatable in some fundamental way. We do not need to know what it’s like to have kidney stones, to find sympathy in Montaigne’s woes, or even to find insight in our own lives. Perhaps in that way we are going back to what Cottingham refers to as the ‘Philosophy of Life’.

 

What I enjoy about de Botton is the immanent nature and grounded aspect of what he portrays in the world. Avoiding metaphysics or theoretical philosophy, he focusses on the mundane as psychologically insightful. This is hardly systematic philosophy, but it does certainly have a valuable place.

Sinistre

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John O’Keefe Wins Nobel Prize

kantandlaws

A great piece of summer news: John O’Keefe, Kant and Laws Ri Lecturer, has just been awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine.  Congratulations to John!  You can hear John’s excellent talk ‘Immanuel Kant: Pioneer Neuroscientist here in our audiovisual gallery.

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Schliesser on the Use of Earlymoderntexts.org

The Mod Squad

Eric Schliesser has some remarks about the role of Jonathan Bennett’s translations at Earlymoderntexts.org in scholarship:

[…]

First, all translation is an interpretation. Translating complex philosophical texts is much, much harder than figuring out ‘gavagai.’ This is so, even if you have written the text yourself and are fluent in both languages. You should try translating some time; even if you are not a meaning holist, you’ll discover that a lot of philosophical jargon is not stable and uniform across cultural and temporal contexts. (Surprisingly enough, this is even  true of works in the history of physics.) So, leaving aside honest mistakes, all translations involve non-trivial judgments and trade-offs with a complex interplay among style, content, jargon, sentence structure, and even argumentative structure (this list is not exhaustive).

In earlymoderntexts.org, Jonathan Bennett, who is one of the greatest historians of philosophy of his generation and who should be praised for…

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Philosopher-Celebrity Lookalikes

Daily Nous

Brian Talbot (Washington University in St. Louis) has been pairing up well-known philosophers with the celebrities who look like them. He kindly agreed to let me share the idea with you. Here’s my favorite so far:

HumeLovitz

That’s David Hume and Jon Lovitz.

This match, owed to Julia Staffel, is also quite good:

Descartes Sambora

Descartes and Richie Sambora, of course.

Your additions welcome in the comments, but let’s try to not insult any living philosophers.

UPDATE: It turns out that it may be rather difficult, and perhaps impossible, for some people to add images in the comments as the site is currently configured. So if you mention the links to the images in the comments, I will add them to this post below the fold.

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In praise of John Coltrane

For the past 6 months I’ve been trying to organise my music listening through some kind of ordered fashion. Sometimes I explore things through genres or sometimes I explore the complete corpus of a musician or composer’s work. This often requires said musician to be dead usually, and the hope that no new works or recordings are found.

 

Early on in the year I began to listen to the early Jazz musicians. At points Jelly Roll Morton is indistinguishable to Ragtime, not dissimilar to how the likes of the Rolling Stones were very much in the feet of Rhythm and Blues (as opposed to Rock), or Black Sabbath’s Black Sabbath could easily be seen as a Blues song.

 

I recently discovered John Coltrane and reading bits about him and I thought I would listen to contemporaries. Coltrane’s work has often been associated with Bebop or hard bop. I decided to check out the wikipedia page and find who were his contemporaries. I listened to the likes of Al Haig, Lee Konitz and Walter Davis Jnr and the only similarity they have to the eminence of Coltrane is that they happened to live at the same time as he.

 

Are they stylistically similar? There is an extent to which they are. But Al Haig and Walter Davis’s recordings are exceptionally pedestrian compared to the freedom and rule-breaking of John Coltrane’s tenor sax work.

 

Coltrane’s playing classifies as genius. I can hear how the saxophonist simultaneously invents new forms of expression, exploring modalities and at the same time smashing the new forms of jazz tonalities that he has invented, through the dissonances and tangentially related melodies to the background harmonies.

 

Coltrane elevated the potential for Jazz to heights that the contemporaneous classical art music would wish to aspire to at the time. With the mid-century movement of neo-classicism and the more simplistic forms such as minimalism, it could hardly be said that some classical music aimed to be daring or avant garde. Coltrane stands as the example, to me, of an eminent form of expression that a critical perspective on culture should acknowledge. If Adorno followed his own principled objections to mass culture consistently I would have thought that he was correct about the blandness of much of Jazz — except when the bright stars such as Coltrane appear.

 

Coltrane moves beyond the standard boredom of chord progressions and the formulaic character of Jazz that makes everything so samey. The experimental nature of using modes and improvising in what appears to be atonal is evocative of Schoenberg. But I have been insisted upon by many commentators that Coltrane’s style emerged independently from any influence from the second Viennese school.

 

In the hopelessness of Adorno’s cultural picture of the world, I would contend that Coltrane, and figures like him, provide cultural, and moral hope.

 

Kant’s First Critique: The Transcendental Analytic

Kant’s chapter on the Transcendental Analytic is concerned with the positive role of reason. The cognitive psychology of Kant’s epistemology is of a large mental architecture which seems quite complicated for textual reasons as well as its own consistency. The idea of the big scheme is so prevalent in the Kantian philosophy, that even the exposition of this idea takes place within (wait for it)…a big scheme.

The essence of the Transcendental Logic was to point out that underlying most everyday experience is an underlying scheme, the Transcendental Analytic is, in Kant’s terminology, the explication of this scheme. Analytic, as a term means something akin to ‘taking apart’, which is what Kant attempts to do for the non-empirical component underlying of everyday experience. Another idiom of Kantian termology is that ‘deduction’ means something more akin to ‘demonstration’ or ‘proof’ of the items of Kant’s analysis. I note this because it is part of Kant’s critical philosophy to consist of an analytic to precede a deduction.

Kant establishes a few terms as part of his architecture. The Understanding contrasts to Intuition. Thought contrasts to Sensibility. The Understanding exists as an independent role from Sensibility.  An everyday perception would be the unity of the Understanding with the empirical component.

The Understanding

One feature of the Understanding is that it exists as an entirely independent entity from Sensibility, even though it co-opts with sensibility in the construction of everyday experience. A fundamental idea of the Understanding is that it is organised in a system. Because of Kant’s strict notion of the understanding of apriorism, he maintains that the understanding must form a system and the workings and relations of this system is discoverable a priori.

Logical features

To discover the workings of the fundamental aspects of this cognitive architecture, Kant essentially boils everyday perceptions idealised as propositions, to find the categorial features of what underlies them. In this way, it seems, Kant discovers the fundamental logical structure of the understanding. I’ve used the word ‘logical’ here, and I relate to my view (and Destre’s) understanding of what logical means.

It is in my view, as well as Destre, that the notion of ‘logical’ refers to what really means ‘categorial’, by categorial, I understand the fundamental aspects of reality which are so fundamental that they consist of constraints upon our understanding. It is for instance, the case that we understand terms as true or false, or even in between; we understand alethic modal terms, or other kinds of modes such as temporal terms or intentional terms. The one thing that unifies all formal logics is that they attempt to bank on a collection of fundamental categories. Alethic logic uses terms such as necessity; deontic logic pertains to intention while we might say that classical logic commits to the bivalence of the world being organised into true and false propositions. I consider this sense of ‘logical’ to be important because it is in my view that preseves a body of knowledge in a tradition spanning Aristotle to Frege, if we look at logic as a notion of the fundamental categoricity of reality, we subsume it as a form of metaphysics, and modern logic would continue as the ‘analytic’ of those terms.

The rule of three

One thing that really confuses me is that Kant organises the categories as a table, and each category has three branches. The table of elements is resoundingly similar to Aristotle’s categories and Kant acknowledges this. Kant considers Aristotle’s categories to be flawed however, where Aristotle elicits 10 categories, Kant expresses 12. Kant links the categories through distilling empirical linguistic claims and in doing so forms a table of judgments, these then have a more fundamental rooting on an isomorphic table of categories. The categories and judgements consist of genii: quality, quantity, relation and modality, within these are three specii.

What I find interesting about this table structure is that it exemplifies itself in some ways. The categories exemplify unity and plurality, Kant noted earlier in the Analytic, that unity is a fundamental idea to the understanding, but is it the most fundamental? Is it possible for instance, that one category precedes the structure in importance, or constrains it?

If we are to agree with this structure of the categories, it would essentially detail the structure in which we study metaphysics. Kant says that his intention of philosophy was to classify these notions but not to go much further with them. If we understand the archictecture of reality, there is still much more work within it to bring out its details. Another way to describe this is that we could say that Kant is creating a demarcation of subjects, in the same way that say, we understand the demarcation between pure and applied mathematics; astrophysics and microbiology, and even though we see their differences and appreciate why they are so fundamentally different, there is still much work to be done in the individual areas of pure mathematics, or microbiology. It is hardly the case that once we know the structure of reality or metaphysics through the table of categories, there is nothing more to be said about say, necessity or parthood, but what could be said by virtue of the table, is that those metaphysical features form part of a greater system.

With regard to the specific categories and judgments elicited in the table, I cannot get my head around the motivations for some of them. I would grant the importance of modality or perhaps quantity, but ‘relations’ could be realised in several other ways, and each particular branch should have, if we are to be convinced of this system, a description of why we should be motivated for the specific categorisation, instead of another one which may explain multiple categories all at once, the category of ‘community’ or ‘reciprocity between agent and patient’ seems the most arbitrary, and Kant does little to convince us of why this should be a category. Even if we accept Kant’s category scheme, there is a rational burden to convince us why each category should be considered on individual merits, instead of by its weight in place of the system.

Michael (following conversations with Destre)

[disclaimer: This was incredibly hard for me to read and more still to understand. My post serves as a set of notes for my own indulgence and hardly any definitive kind of reading, I am all very likely to change the way I’m reading Kant as I gain more insight or read it again and I do not assert this reading with any confidence at all, this chapter was a beast to read.]

Taxonomies and ‘the Reichenbach rule’

This post is more for informational purposes and not so much making my mind up about something. Lately I’ve come across differing notions in the taxonomical organisation of life forms in contemporamous biology, as opposed to the Early Modern Period which I normally make reference to. The role of taxonomy is an issue which relates to an aspect of Immanuel Kant’s philosophy of science which I see having a big importance. I will consider a specific case of dispute in biology, brought to my attention by Samir Okasha (2002).

While virtually all biologists maintain the veritude of a system of ordering life forms. I say life forms as the most general taxon term to include as robust a set from viruses to bananas. What some quibble over, however, is the ordering system of these life forms. In a contemporary context, there are differing notions of classifying species. One concerns addressing ancestry, and so a life form is ordered in a taxonomical structure in relation to its ancestral species. Cladistics is the approach which looks at organisms by organisation of their ancestors and descendants, and nothing more. This may allow for a family or ‘clade’ of species to emerge from any given ancestor. Cladistics can be distinguished from earlier ‘Linnaean’ approaches which emphasis specific classification schemes like ‘phylum’ and ‘genus’, in order to reflect the complexity of genealogy. It is said that Cladistics is a more parsimonious approach to the traditional Linnaeus taxonomical scheme, because taxa are used sparingly in the former approach by its appeal to ancestry.

By contrast there is another notion of taxonomy: Evolutionary systematics. Systematics is an approach which varies from Cladistics in that it identifies and organises organisms not by ancestry, but by accounting for evolutionary heritage (let’s call this vertical ordering), as well as preserving a form of ‘horizonal’ classes of species akin to the traditional Linnaean approach. This approach varies in its emphasis on trying to merge the 18thC Linnaean scheme, with the 19thC notion of natural selection. Instead of looking at individual organisms, the focus for systematics are the emergence of groups of species, such as dinosaurs, and their descendants. In some respects the approach of systematics allows for more flexibility in the organisational scheme, and is less rigorous.

These two approaches of systematics and cladistics vary in the way that they cut across organisms to create taxonomies, to invoke a philosophical phrase, they quibble on how they ‘carve nature at its joints’. It gets philosophical when we consider the role of the notion of a ‘common ancestor’. A taxonomical scheme can be said to be monophyletic if there is a common ancestor to a group. The two approaches construe the notion of of common ancestry in different ways. Systematics approaches hold that a grouping has a similar ancestor, while Cladistics holds that the whole ancestral group is a common ancestor of a given group.

Why is this important for someone thinking about Kant?

This is potentially an example of how systematicity, a dictum about the nature of science, actually works in practice. The one thing that is not disputed in any way, is that there needs to be a taxonomical system. New evidence, and differing approaches allow for the system to be refined, expanded and even significantly re-ordered. Yet, the idea of Kant’s system is distinctly a priori. The potential area that needs more work in my view, if the claim that biological taxonomy is an actual example of Kantian Systematicity, is the role of the monophyletic, or the common ancestor. in Kant’s view, the ‘higher genus’ concept required that in principle there is a single highest taxon or entity to give rise to its ‘lower’ concepts. I used to think that this meant an a priori claim that there was a potential single taxon at the highest level, even if it is not discovered.

The case of Reichenbach’s critique of Kant’s metaphysics of space and time come relevant here. Kant was criticised severely on the basis that his rational geometry was fundamentally Euclidean, which was the basis of his metaphysics and epistemology of time and space. Spacetime, as the physicists have come to know it, is a much more complicated affair than Kant had come to know it the 18thC. If a philosophical theory makes a claim that is subject to empirical review, then the evidence of whether the claim stands up to empirical scrutiny makes the theory stand or fall, on the basis of the evidence. I shall call this the Reichenbach rule. To what extent is there an issue of Kant violating ‘the Reichenbach rule’ in Kant’s theory of systematicity in relation to the issue of taxonomy. I think that it relies heavily on what the taxonomical approaches hold in relation to the notion of the common ancestor, and how it is possible to interpret biological taxonomy in terms of systematicity.There are other issues as well as the Reichenbach rule, which also weighs of importance to compare, namely: whether a theory can change its components and structuring, while maintaining some aspect of truth to it, or the a priori ‘necessity’ of structure and also whether the fact ‘that there is a system’ is preserved through the differing contemporary theoretical perspectives to taxonomy.

Michael