Monday, July 24, 2017

The Frankfurt School and Critical Theory

The Frankfurt School is a school of social theory and philosophy associated in part with the Institute for Social Research at the Goethe University Frankfurt. Founded during the interwar period, the School consisted of dissidents who felt at home in none of the existent capitalist, fascist, or communist systems of the time. Many of these theorists believed that traditional theory could not adequately explain the turbulent and unexpected development of capitalist societies in the twentieth century. Critical of both capitalism and Soviet socialism, their writings pointed to the possibility of an alternative path to social development.

Although sometimes only loosely affiliated, Frankfurt School theorists spoke with a common paradigm in mind; they shared the Marxist Hegelian premises and were preoccupied with similar questions.To fill in the perceived omissions of classical Marxism, they sought to draw answers from other schools of thought, hence using the insights of antipositivist sociology, psychoanalysis, existential philosophy, and other disciplines. The school's main figures sought to learn from and synthesize the works of such varied thinkers as Kant, Hegel, Marx, Freud, Weber, Simmel, and Lukács.

Following Marx, they were concerned with the conditions that allow for social change and the establishment of rational institutions. Their emphasis on the "critical" component of theory was derived significantly from their attempt to overcome the limits of positivism, materialism, and determinism by returning to Kant's critical philosophy and its successors in German idealism, principally Hegel's philosophy, with its emphasis on dialectic and contradiction as inherent properties of human reality.

Since the 1960s, Frankfurt School critical theory has increasingly been guided by Jürgen Habermas's work on communicative reason, linguistic intersubjectivity and what Habermas calls "the philosophical discourse of modernity". Critical theorists such as Raymond Geuss and Nikolas Kompridis have voiced opposition to Habermas, claiming that he has undermined the aspirations for social change that originally gave purpose to critical theory's various projects—for example the problem of what reason should mean, the analysis and enlargement of "conditions of possibility" for social emancipation, and the critique of modern capitalism.



Critical theory and the critique of ideology

The Frankfurt School's work cannot be addressed without understanding the objectives of critical theory. Initially outlined by Max Horkheimer in his Traditional and Critical Theory (1937), critical theory may be defined as a self-conscious social critique that is aimed at change and emancipation through enlightenment and that does not cling dogmatically to its own doctrinal assumptions. The original aim of critical theory was to analyze the true significance of "the ruling understandings" generated in bourgeois society, in order to show how they misrepresented actual human interaction in the real world, and in so doing functioned to justify or legitimize the domination of people by capitalism. A certain sort of story (a narrative) was provided to explain what was happening in society, but the story concealed as much as it revealed. The Frankfurt theorists generally assumed that their task was mainly to interpret the areas of society Marx had not dealt with, especially in the superstructure of society.


Horkheimer opposed it to traditional theory, which refers to theory in the positivistic, scientistic, or purely observational mode—that is, which derives generalizations or "laws" about different aspects of the world. Drawing upon Max Weber, Horkheimer argued that the social sciences differ from the natural sciences inasmuch as generalizations cannot be easily made from so-called experiences because the understanding of a "social" experience itself is always fashioned by ideas that are in the researchers themselves. What the researcher does not realize is that s/he is caught in a historical context in which ideologies shape the thinking; thus, theory would conform to the ideas in the mind of the researcher rather than to the experience itself:

“The facts which our senses present to us are socially performed in two ways: through the historical character of the object perceived and through the historical character of the perceiving organ. Both are not simply natural; they are shaped by human activity, and yet the individual perceives himself as receptive and passive in the act of perception.”



For Horkheimer, approaches to understanding in the social sciences cannot simply imitate those in the natural sciences. Although various theoretical approaches would come close to breaking out of the ideological constraints that restricted them, such as positivism, pragmatism, neo-Kantianism, and phenomenology, Horkheimer argued that they failed because all were subject to a "logico-mathematical" prejudice that separates theoretical activity from actual life (meaning that all these schools sought to find a logic that always remains true, independently of and without consideration for ongoing human activities). According to Horkheimer, the appropriate response to this dilemma is the development of a critical theory.

The problem, Horkheimer argued, is epistemological: we should reconsider not merely the scientist but the knowing individual in general.  Unlike orthodox Marxism, which merely applies a ready-made "template" to both critique and action, critical theory seeks to be self-critical and rejects any pretensions to absolute truth. Critical theory defends the primacy of neither matter (materialism) nor consciousness (idealism), and argues that both epistemologies distort reality to the benefit, eventually, of some small group. What critical theory attempts to do is to place itself outside of philosophical strictures and the confines of existing structures. However, as a way of thinking and "recovering" humanity's self-knowledge, critical theory often looks to Marxism for its methods and tools.

Horkheimer maintained that critical theory should be directed at the totality of society in its historical specificity (i.e., how it came to be configured at a specific point in time), just as it should improve understanding of society by integrating all the major social sciences, including geography, economics, sociology, history, political science, anthropology, and psychology. While critical theory must at all times be self-critical, Horkheimer insisted that a theory is critical only if it is explanatory. Critical theory must, therefore, combine practical and normative thinking to "explain what is wrong with current social reality, identify actors to change it, and provide clear norms for criticism and practical goals for the future." Whereas traditional theory can only mirror and explain reality as it presently is, critical theory's purpose is to change it; in Horkheimer's words the goal of critical theory is "the emancipation of human beings from the circumstances that enslave them"


Frankfurt School theorists explicitly linked up with the critical philosophy of Immanuel Kant, in which the term critique meant philosophical reflection on the limits of claims made for certain kinds of knowledge and direct connection between such critique and the emphasis on moral autonomy as opposed to traditionally deterministic and static theories of human action. In an intellectual context defined by dogmatic positivism and scientism on the one hand and dogmatic "scientific socialism" on the other, critical theorists intended to rehabilitate Marx's ideas through a philosophically critical approach.


Whereas both Marxist–Leninist and social democratic orthodox thinkers viewed Marxism as a new kind of positive science, Frankfurt School theorists such as Horkheimer instead based their work on the epistemological base of Marx's work, which presented itself as critique, as in Marx's Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. They thus emphasized that Marx attempted to create a new kind of critical analysis oriented toward the unity of theory and revolutionary practice rather than a new kind of positive science. Critique, in this Marxist sense, means taking the ideology of a society (for example, the belief in individual freedom or free market capitalism) and critiquing it by comparing it with a posited social reality of that very society (for example, social inequality and exploitation). Frankfurt School theorists grounded this on the dialectical methodology established by Hegel and Marx.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Aristotle: Logic

Syllogistic

Aristotle’s claim to be the founder of logic rests primarily on the Categories, the De interpretatione, and the Prior Analytics, which deal respectively with words, propositions, and syllogisms. These works, along with the Topics, the Sophistical Refutations, and a treatise on scientific method, the Posterior Analytics, were grouped together in a collection known as the Organon, or “tool” of thought.

The Prior Analytics is devoted to the theory of the syllogism, a central method of inference that can be illustrated by familiar examples such as the following:

    Every Greek is human. Every human is mortal. Therefore, every Greek is mortal.

Aristotle discusses the various forms that syllogisms can take and identifies which forms constitute reliable inferences. The example above contains three propositions in the indicative mood, which Aristotle calls “propositions.” (Roughly speaking, a proposition is a proposition considered solely with respect to its logical features.) The third proposition, the one beginning with “therefore,” Aristotle calls the conclusion of the syllogism. The other two propositions may be called premises, though Aristotle does not consistently use any particular technical term to distinguish them.

The propositions in the example above begin with the word every; Aristotle calls such propositions “universal.” (In English, universal propositions can be expressed by using all rather than every; thus, Every Greek is human is equivalent to All Greeks are human.) Universal propositions may be affirmative, as in this example, or negative, as in No Greek is a horse. Universal propositions differ from “particular” propositions, such as Some Greek is bearded (a particular affirmative) and Some Greek is not bearded (a particular negative). In the Middle Ages it became customary to call the difference between universal and particular propositions a difference of “quantity” and the difference between affirmative and negative propositions a difference of “quality.”

In propositions of all these kinds, Aristotle says, something is predicated of something else. The items that enter into predications Aristotle calls “terms.” It is a feature of terms, as conceived by Aristotle, that they can figure either as predicates or as subjects of predication. This means that they can play three distinct roles in a syllogism. The term that is the predicate of the conclusion is the “major” term; the term of which the major term is predicated in the conclusion is the “minor” term; and the term that appears in each of the premises is the “middle” term.

In addition to inventing this technical vocabulary, Aristotle introduced the practice of using schematic letters to identify particular patterns of argument, a device that is essential for the systematic study of inference and that is ubiquitous in modern mathematical logic. Thus, the pattern of argument exhibited in the example above can be represented in the schematic proposition:

    If A belongs to every B, and B belongs to every C, A belongs to every C.

Because propositions may differ in quantity and quality, and because the middle term may occupy several different places in the premises, many different patterns of syllogistic inference are possible. Additional examples are the following:

    Every Greek is human. No human is immortal. Therefore, no Greek is immortal.

    Some animal is a dog. Some dog is white. Therefore, every animal is white.

From late antiquity, triads of these different kinds were called “moods” of the syllogism. The two moods illustrated above exhibit an important difference: the first is a valid argument, and the second is an invalid argument, having true premises and a false conclusion. An argument is valid only if its form is such that it will never lead from true premises to a false conclusion. Aristotle sought to determine which forms result in valid inferences. He set out a number of rules giving necessary conditions for the validity of a syllogism, such as the following:

    At least one premise must be universal.

    At least one premise must be affirmative.

    If either premise is negative, the conclusion must be negative.


Aristotle’s syllogistic is a remarkable achievement: it is a systematic formulation of an important part of logic. From roughly the Renaissance until the early 19th century, it was widely believed that syllogistic was the whole of logic. But in fact it is only a fragment. It does not deal, for example, with inferences that depend on words such as and, or, and if…then, which, instead of attaching to nouns, link whole propositions together.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Lucius Annaeus Seneca, The Younger

(c.3 BCE-AD 65)

“We learn not in the school, but in life.”


Lucius Annaeus Seneca the younger was born in Corduba (present-day Córdoba), Spain, around 3 BCE. He was the second son of three in a wealthy family. His father was a famous teacher of Rhetoric in Rome. Early in life, Seneca went to Rome with his Aunt, who was wife to the prefect Gaius Galerius, and there he was educated in philosophy in the school of the Sextii. His schooling was a blend of Stoicism and ascetic neo-Pythagoreanism. While in school he earned the reputation for being an excellent orator. Seneca experienced some ill health and followed his aunt to Egypt to recover. He returned to Rome in 31 AD, and began his career in law and politics.

He gained prestige in Rome in the courts while he was also known as a writer of tragedies and essays. However, he fell out of favor with the emperor Caligula in 39 AD, and the emperor Claudius finally exiled Seneca to Corsica in 41 AD, charging him with committing adultery with Claudius' niece, the princess Julia Livilla. In Corsica he pursued his studies of philosophy and natural sciences, writing the three treatises titled Consolationes. In 49 AD he was invited back to Rome on the recommendation of the Emperor's wife, Agrippina. In 50 AD he married an influential and well-connected woman named Pompeia Paulina, and became praetor. His new friends included the prefect of the guard, Sextus Afranius Burrus, and Seneca was appointed tutor to the future emperor Nero. Upon Nero's succession, this lead to his unofficial appointment as chief minister.

Seneca has been credited with influencing a period of sound government during the first part of Nero's reign. However, Seneca's enemies gradually turned Nero against him, suggesting that his popularity and wealth made him a threat. In 62 AD he retired from public life to devote himself to writing and philosophy. It was during this time that he wrote the Letters to Lucilius. In 65 AD Seneca was accused of playing a part in a plot against Nero. As a noble gesture, Seneca complied with the emperor's wish that he commit suicide.

Seneca considered himself to be a Stoic, although his personal life seems to contradict the noble attitude of his texts. His philosophical works are influenced by "Middle Stoicism", an adaptation in response to the Roman market by Panaetius of Rhodes 200 years earlier, and developed by Poseidonius in the first century BC. The work of Poseidonius is the main influence behind Naturales Quaestiones, Seneca's books on natural science. The three texts of the Consolations are consolatory exercises for the loss of three sons: Ad Marciam consoles a woman on her son's death, Ad Helviam matrem Seneca's mother on his exile, and Ad Polybium, Polybium on his lost son. Seneca's work De ira is a study in the consequences and control of anger. His work De clementia is addressed to Nero, and argues that mercy is the great sovereign quality of an emperor. His studies on the life and qualities of a wise stoic include De tranquillitate animi, De constantia sapientis, De vita beata, and De otio. De beneficiis examines the benefits of both giver and receiver in an exchange, and De brevitate vitae is an argument that humans have a long enough life span only if time is used properly. Seneca's 124 essays entitled the Epistulae morales address a number of moral problems. Dedicated to his friend Lucilius Junior, these essays are considered among Seneca's best philosophical works.

Seneca's tragedies are perhaps his most influential works for Western literature. His stoicism and rhetoric, his use of gloomy atmosphere and horror, can all be seen as influential to Renaissance tragedy in particular. His plays are considered written for recitation, rather than stage performance. There are nine plays attributed to him, including Hercules Furens, Medea, Troades, Phaedra, Agamemnon, Oedipus, Hercules Oetaeus, Phoenissae, and Thyestes.


When Stoicism was seen to have affinities with Christianity it gained new life, which has kept Seneca's work from falling into obscurity. There are letters that substantiate the theory that Seneca knew St. Paul, indeed his older brother Gallio was said to have met Paul in Achaea in 52 AD. Seneca's works were studied by Augustin, Jerome, and Boethius, and were included in anthologies used in the Middle Ages. Dante, Chaucer and Petrarch were all familiar with his writings. The first English translation of his moral treatises appeared in 1614, edited by Erasmus. We can see his influence on writers of the 16th to 18th centuries in the work of Calvin, Montaigne, and Rousseau. His work was harshly critiqued in the 19th century, but since his 2000th year celebration in Spain, where he is included among the first "Spanish" thinkers, his work has been enjoying a revival. His 40 surviving books pay tribute to a unique writer of considerable versatility.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Friedrich Nietzsche “THUS SPOKE ZARATHUSTRA”


Context

Friedrich Nietzsche was born in 1844 in Rocken, Germany, the son of a Lutheran minister. His father went insane and died while Nietzsche was quite young, and he grew up the only boy in a household of women. He was an excellent student, and so impressed his professor at university that he was granted a doctorate and a professorship in philology at the age of twenty-four, before he had even written a dissertation. At this time, he was deeply impressed with the philosophy of Immanuel Kant and Arthur Schopenhauer, though he would later come to criticize both these figures.

In 1870, the young Nietzsche served as a medical orderly in the Franco-Prussian War, where he contracted dysentery, diphtheria, and perhaps syphilis. He suffered from increasing ill health, migraines, indigestion, insomnia, and near blindness for the rest of his life.
 While the Germany of Nietzsche's day was marked by an unbridled optimism in the future of science, knowledge, and the German people, Nietzsche characterized his age as "nihilistic." The Christian faith no longer held sway over European thought as it once had (a fact Nietzsche famously expresses in the phrase "God is dead"), and the rise of science and Darwinian evolution had led people to see the world increasingly as a meaningless and chaotic jumble. Nietzsche recognized the need for a set of positive values to direct the energy and will of Europe. Prophetically, he predicted that if European nihilism were to run unchecked, the following century would see wars of a kind this earth had never before experienced.

Nietzsche's first book, The Birth of Tragedy, was published in 1872, in which he praised the composer Richard Wagner, whom he had befriended. Nietzsche's admiration for Wagner cooled during the 1870s, largely owing to Wagner's anti-Semitism, nationalism, and Christianity. Because of Wagner's early influence, and also the influence of Nietzsche's sister, who was also a virulent nationalist and anti-Semite, Nietzsche was particularly outspoken against German nationalism and anti-Semitism (not to mention Christianity) throughout his career.

Nietzsche's mature period began with the publication of Human, All-Too- Human in 1878, and culminated with Thus Spoke Zarathustra, published in four parts between 1883 and 1885. Nietzsche wrote each of the first three parts in ten-day spurts, while living alone in modest conditions and battling horrendous ill health. They were each published separately, and the fourth part did not reach the general public until 1892. While his writing and thinking were incredibly energetic, he was miserably lonely and continued to suffer from indigestion, migraines, and insomnia.

As Nietzsche's health quickly declined, his writing became more and more prolific. He wrote ##Beyond Good and Evil##, ##On The Genealogy of Morals##, The Twilight of the Idols, The Antichrist, Ecce Homo, The Case of Wagner, and Nietzsche Contra Wagner between 1886 and 1888. In January 1889 he collapsed in the street and became insane. He remained in an incapacitated state for the last eleven years of his life, and died in 1900.
Nietzsche's sister was his literary executor, and she used her brother's fame to advance her own proto-Nazi views, distorting Nietzsche's opinions and publishing selectively to make Nietzsche seem to support her cause. For the first half of the twentieth century, Nietzsche was largely misconstrued as being the primary philosopher of Nazism even though he is quite explicit about his hatred for German nationalism and anti-Semitism in many of his writings.

Nietzsche has influenced twentieth-century thought more than almost any other thinker has. He has been an inspiration to almost every new movement in European philosophy in this century, and his critiques and methodology were far ahead of his time. Among those who owe a debt to Nietzsche are Martin Heidegger, Michel Foucault, Thomas Mann, George Bernard Shaw, W. B. Yeats, ##James Joyce, Jacques Derrida, Sigmund Freud, and Jean-Paul Sartre.


 Synopsis

The novel opens with Zarathustra descending from his cave in the mountains after ten years of solitude. He is brimming with wisdom and love, and wants to teach humanity about the overman. He arrives in the town of the Motley Cow, and announces that the overman must be the meaning of the earth. Mankind is just a bridge between animal and overman, and as such, must be overcome. The overman is someone who is free from all the prejudices and moralities of human society, and who creates his own values and purpose.

The people on the whole seem not to understand Zarathustra, and not to be interested in the overman. The only exception is a tightrope walker who has fallen and who dies shortly thereafter. At the end of his first day among people, Zarathustra is saddened by his inability to move this "herd" of people in the marketplace. He resolves not to try to convert the multitudes, but rather to speak to those individuals who are interested in separating themselves from the herd.

The bulk of the first three parts is made up of individual lessons and sermons delivered by Zarathustra. They cover most of the general themes of Nietzsche's mature philosophy, though often in highly symbolic and obscure form. He values struggle and hardship, since the road toward the overman is difficult and requires a great deal of sacrifice. The struggle toward the overman is often symbolically represented as climbing a mountain, and the light-hearted free spirit of the overman is often represented through laughter and dance.

Zarathustra is harshly critical of all kinds of mass movements, and of the "rabble" in general. Christianity is based upon a hatred of the body and of this earth, and an attempt to deny them both by believing in the spirit and in an afterlife. Nationalism and mass politics are also means by which weary, weak, or sick bodies try to escape from themselves. Those who are strong enough, Zarathustra suggests, struggle. Those who are not strong give up and turn to religion, nationalism, democracy, or some other means of escape.

The culmination of Zarathustra's preaching is the doctrine of the eternal recurrence, which claims that all events will repeat themselves again and again forevermore. Only the overman can embrace this doctrine, since only the overman has the strength of will to take responsibility for every moment in his life and to wish nothing more than for each moment to be repeated. Zarathustra has trouble facing the eternal recurrence, as he cannot bear the thought that the mediocrity of the rabble will be repeated through all eternity without improvement.

In Part IV, Zarathustra assembles in his cave a number of men who approximate, but who do not quite attain the position of the overman. There, they enjoy a feast and a number of songs. The book ends with Zarathustra joyfully embracing the eternal recurrence, and the thought that "all joy wants deep, wants deep eternity."

Ideas
Zarathustra  -  Zarathustra was a Persian prophet (called "Zoroaster" by the Greeks, and most of the Western world) who lived and preached in the fifth century B.C.E. He was the first philosopher to conceive of a universe that is fundamentally defined by a struggle between good and evil. Nietzsche uses him as his protagonist, since, Nietzsche supposes, the first prophet to preach about good and evil should also be the first to move beyond good and evil. In the book, Zarathustra preaches about the overman who has moved beyond the concepts of good and evil, and has embraced the eternal recurrence. It is unclear whether or not Nietzsche means Zarathustra himself to be an overman, though if this is the case, he only becomes so in the fourth part of the book, when he finally embraces the eternal recurrence.

Overman  -  The goal of humanity. The overman is someone who has overcome himself fully: he obeys no laws except the ones he gives himself. This means a level of self- mastery that frees him from the prejudices and assumptions of the people around him, a creative will, and a strong will to power. Zarathustra suggests that no overman has yet existed, but that we must try to breed one. As a race, we are only justified by the exceptional people among us.

Nihilism  -  Essentially, nihilism means the belief in nothing. Nietzsche characterized late nineteenth century Europe as nihilistic, and would probably consider the late twentieth century even more so. He generalizes that we no longer believe that God gives meaning and purpose to our lives, but we have found nothing to replace God. As such, we see our lives as essentially meaningless, and lack the will to create or to become anything new. Nietzsche worried that without a purpose we would slide deeper and deeper into a dream world of mediocrity and comfort. He also rightly foresaw that nihilism might lead to a rabid nationalism that would cause horrific wars.

Eternal Recurrence  -  The doctrine that all events will be repeated over and over again for all eternity. Zarathustra outlines his vision of the eternal recurrence in Part III: If the past stretches back infinitely, then anything that could have happened must have happened already at some time in the past. By that logic, this very instant must have occurred at some time in the past. And similarly, if the future is infinite, everything—including this moment—must recur again sometime in the future. Walter Kaufmann reads this as a scientific hypothesis that is mistaken. Gilles Deleuze reads this as a fundamental expression of the fact that the universe is in a constant state of change and becoming, and that there is no moment of fixity, or being. Nietzsche would probably agree with Deleuze. The overman can look at his past and himself as something entirely willed by himself, and be delighted by the thought that this process (which includes changes) will recur forever.

Dance  -  Nietzsche often uses dancing as a metaphor for a lightness of spirit. Those who are too serious, and too bogged down by absolutes, such as God, truth, or morality, will be unable to dance. An overman, or a free spirit, who has freed himself from these absolutes will not be weighed down by any seriousness, and will be able to dance. Dancing also metaphorically suggests a kind of mental flexibility and agility that allows a creative spirit to think freely and for himself.

Will to Power  -  Nietzsche calls the fundamental force that drives all life a "will to power," though he might just as well call it an instinct for freedom. It is the drive to be as free from constraints as possible and to command the wills of others as much as possible. A refined will to power also learns to command and obey itself. The constant struggle for power and overcoming between wills means that nothing in the universe can remain fixed in place for long. Thus, all the universe is in flux.

Overcoming  -  The words "overcoming" and "overman" are only two of a number of "over-" words that appear throughout Zarathustra. The concept of overcoming is probably the most central, however. Any improvement in a person is made at the expense of what that person used to be. Thus, in order to improve myself, I must learn to overcome myself. In ##Beyond Good and Evil##, Nietzsche speaks of humans as being part creature and part creator, and that our refinement consists in the fact that the creator in us can torture and re-shape the creature in us. The overman is someone who has fully overcome himself so that he can claim to be all creator and in no way a creature: he is fully responsible for everything he is.

Nausea  -  In Zarathustra, the feeling of nausea, or disgust, is usually associated with contemplating the common people. In particular, Zarathustra has a hard time in part three facing the full consequences of the eternal recurrence, because he is overcome with nausea at the thought that the mediocrity of humanity must recur eternally without change.

Evil  -  This word is often given a meaning contrary to what we normally take it to mean. Something is "evil" only within the context of a given morality. In particular, anything that challenges or tries to destroy a morality is considered "evil" by that morality. Thus, for Zarathustra, "evil" is quite often good. It means doing away with older moralities in favor of something new. He often associates evil with freedom of spirit, and claims that it is essential to creating the higher man.

Laughter  -  Like dancing, laughter is a common characteristic of the overman. Nietzsche considers laughter to be the activity of someone looking down on someone or something else. As such, it denotes superiority. The overman has risen above everything and everybody, so there is nothing, including himself, that he does not laugh at.


Pity  -  One of Nietzsche's, and Zarathustra's, pet peeves. A person who shows pity is displaying a perverse and inappropriate amount of interest in the suffering of others. Furthermore, pity harms the person who is suffering, as it makes the sufferer feel pitiful and shamed.

Monday, July 3, 2017

The Myth of Sisyphus - Albert Camus

The central concern of The Myth of Sisyphus is what Camus calls "the absurd." Camus claims that there is a fundamental conflict between what we want from the universe (whether it be meaning, order, or reasons) and what we find in the universe (formless chaos). We will never find in life itself the meaning that we want to find. Either we will discover that meaning through a leap of faith, by placing our hopes in a God beyond this world, or we will conclude that life is meaningless. Camus opens the essay by asking if this latter conclusion that life is meaningless necessarily leads one to commit suicide. If life has no meaning, does that mean life is not worth living? If that were the case, we would have no option but to make a leap of faith or to commit suicide, says Camus. Camus is interested in pursuing a third possibility: that we can accept and live in a world devoid of meaning or purpose.

The absurd is a contradiction that cannot be reconciled, and any attempt to reconcile this contradiction is simply an attempt to escape from it: facing the absurd is struggling against it. Camus claims that existentialist philosophers such as Kierkegaard, Chestov, and Jaspers, and phenomenologists such as Husserl, all confront the contradiction of the absurd but then try to escape from it. Existentialists find no meaning or order in existence and then attempt to find some sort of transcendence or meaning in this very meaninglessness.

Living with the absurd, Camus suggests, is a matter of facing this fundamental contradiction and maintaining constant awareness of it. Facing the absurd does not entail suicide, but, on the contrary, allows us to live life to its fullest.

Camus identifies three characteristics of the absurd life: revolt (we must not accept any answer or reconciliation in our struggle), freedom (we are absolutely free to think and behave as we choose), and passion (we must pursue a life of rich and diverse experiences).

Camus gives four examples of the absurd life: the seducer, who pursues the passions of the moment; the actor, who compresses the passions of hundreds of lives into a stage career; the conqueror, or rebel, whose political struggle focuses his energies; and the artist, who creates entire worlds. Absurd art does not try to explain experience, but simply describes it. It presents a certain worldview that deals with particular matters rather than aiming for universal themes.

The book ends with a discussion of the myth of Sisyphus, who, according to the Greek myth, was punished for all eternity to roll a rock up a mountain only to have it roll back down to the bottom when he reaches the top. Camus claims that Sisyphus is the ideal absurd hero and that his punishment is representative of the human condition: Sisyphus must struggle perpetually and without hope of success. So long as he accepts that there is nothing more to life than this absurd struggle, then he can find happiness in it, says Camus.


Camus appends his essay with a discussion of the works of Franz Kafka. He ultimately concludes that Kafka is an existentialist, who, like Kierkegaard, chooses to make a leap of faith rather than accept his absurd condition. However, Camus admires Kafka for expressing humanity's absurd predicament so perfectly.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Aristotle : Philosophy of science and mind

In his Posterior Analytics Aristotle applies the theory of the syllogism to scientific and epistemological ends. Scientific knowledge, he urges, must be built up out of demonstrations. A demonstration is a particular kind of syllogism, one whose premises can be traced back to principles that are true, necessary, universal, and immediately intuited. These first, self-evident principles are related to the conclusions of science as axioms are related to theorems: the axioms both necessitate and explain the truths that constitute a science. The most important axioms, Aristotle thought, would be those that define the proper subject matter of a science (thus, among the axioms of geometry would be the definition of a triangle). For this reason much of the second book of the Posterior Analytics is devoted to definition.

The account of science in the Posterior Analytics is impressive, but it bears no resemblance to any of Aristotle’s own scientific works. Generations of scholars have tried in vain to find in his writings a single instance of a demonstrative syllogism. Moreover, the whole history of scientific endeavour contains no perfect instance of a demonstrative science.


Philosophy of mind

Aristotle regarded psychology as a part of natural philosophy, and he wrote much about the philosophy of mind. This material appears in his ethical writings, in a systematic treatise on the nature of the soul (De anima), and in a number of minor monographs on topics such as sense-perception, memory, sleep, and dreams.

For Aristotle the biologist, the soul is not—as it was in some of Plato’s writings—an exile from a better world ill-housed in a base body. The soul’s very essence is defined by its relationship to an organic structure. Not only humans but beasts and plants too have souls, intrinsic principles of animal and vegetable life. A soul, Aristotle says, is “the actuality of a body that has life,” where life means the capacity for self-sustenance, growth, and reproduction. If one regards a living substance as a composite of matter and form, then the soul is the form of a natural—or, as Aristotle sometimes says, organic—body. An organic body is a body that has organs—that is to say, parts that have specific functions, such as the mouths of mammals and the roots of trees.

The souls of living beings are ordered by Aristotle in a hierarchy. Plants have a vegetative or nutritive soul, which consists of the powers of growth, nutrition, and reproduction. Animals have, in addition, the powers of perception and locomotion—they possess a sensitive soul, and every animal has at least one sense-faculty, touch being the most universal. Whatever can feel at all can feel pleasure; hence, animals, which have senses, also have desires. Humans, in addition, have the power of reason and thought (logismos kai dianoia), which may be called a rational soul. The way in which Aristotle structured the soul and its faculties influenced not only philosophy but also science for nearly two millennia.

Aristotle’s theoretical concept of soul differs from that of Plato before him and René Descartes (1596–1650) after him. A soul, for him, is not an interior immaterial agent acting on a body. Soul and body are no more distinct from each other than the impress of a seal is distinct from the wax on which it is impressed. The parts of the soul, moreover, are faculties, which are distinguished from each other by their operations and their objects. The power of growth is distinct from the power of sensation because growing and feeling are two different activities, and the sense of sight differs from the sense of hearing not because eyes are different from ears but because colours are different from sounds.

The objects of sense come in two kinds: those that are proper to particular senses, such as colour, sound, taste, and smell, and those that are perceptible by more than one sense, such as motion, number, shape, and size. One can tell, for example, whether something is moving either by watching it or by feeling it, and so motion is a “common sensible.” Although there is no special organ for detecting common sensibles, there is a faculty that Aristotle calls a “central sense.” When one encounters a horse, for example, one may see, hear, feel, and smell it; it is the central sense that unifies these sensations into perceptions of a single object (though the knowledge that this object is a horse is, for Aristotle, a function of intellect rather than sense).

Besides the five senses and the central sense, Aristotle recognizes other faculties that later came to be grouped together as the “inner senses,” notably imagination and memory. Even at the purely philosophical level, however, Aristotle’s accounts of the inner senses are unrewarding.

At the same level within the hierarchy as the senses, which are cognitive faculties, there is also an affective faculty, which is the locus of spontaneous feeling. This is a part of the soul that is basically irrational but is capable of being controlled by reason. It is the locus of desire and passion; when brought under the sway of reason, it is the seat of the moral virtues, such as courage and temperance. The highest level of the soul is occupied by mind or reason, the locus of thought and understanding. Thought differs from sense-perception and is the prerogative, on earth, of human beings. Thought, like sensation, is a matter of making judgments; but sensation concerns particulars, while intellectual knowledge is of universals. Reasoning may be practical or theoretical, and, accordingly, Aristotle distinguishes between a deliberative and a speculative faculty.

In a notoriously difficult passage of De anima, Aristotle introduces a further distinction between two kinds of mind: one passive, which can “become all things,” and one active, which can “make all things.” The active mind, he says, is “separable, impassible, and unmixed.” In antiquity and the Middle Ages, this passage was the subject of sharply different interpretations. Some—particularly among Arab commentators—identified the separable active agent with God or with some other superhuman intelligence. Others—particularly among Latin commentators—took Aristotle to be identifying two different faculties within the human mind: an active intellect, which formed concepts, and a passive intellect, which was a storehouse of ideas and beliefs.


If the second interpretation is correct, then Aristotle is here recognizing a part of the human soul that is separable from the body and immortal. Here and elsewhere there is detectable in Aristotle, in addition to his standard biological notion of the soul, a residue of a Platonic vision according to which the intellect is a distinct entity separable from the body. No one has produced a wholly satisfactory reconciliation between the biological and the transcendent strains in Aristotle’s thought.