Saturday, May 28, 2016

263. Order and disorder in thought

With babies, thought is erratic, incoherent, in what the philosopher William James called ‘a blooming, buzzing confusion’. As they develop coordinated movement, in focused action, thoughts mirror this in some coherence, in neural configuration. Then comes the miracle of language to further form and order thought.

Montaigne withdrew from public life to his castle, disenchanted by the hypocrisy, cowardice, mediocrity, and inanity there. He withdrew into himself and to his dismay found his thoughts flying off in all directions. He found that he had to discipline his thought in the order of writing them down, addressing some indeterminate audience.

Wittgenstein argued against the possibility of a private language. Meanings of words need to be stabilized in the order of discourse.

In sum, one needs others to stabilize one’s thoughts.

Nietzsche was insane for the last ten years of his life. One speculation about it is that his insanity was due to a syphilis that purportedly he contracted from a whore, seemingly the only time he had sex in his life. I offer an different possible speculation. Nietzsche argued for will to power, sublimated in transcending the self, overcoming resistance of the self to its transformation. Pain, suffering is an inevitable part of that, a price to be paid. Nietzsche certainly had his share of pain and suffering. Physical pain from a chronic migraine. Mental pain from loneliness and isolation. His one friend, Paul Ree, with whom he had a triangular relationship with Lou Salomé, was ultimately chosen by her over him. His earlier infatuation with Wagner’s wife Cosima was dissolved in his break with Wagner. Nietzsche ostensibly believed in self-transformation, in lifting himself from the swamp by his own bootstraps. I wonder: could this have contributed to his insanity?     

As I argued extensively in this blog, one needs opposition from others to correct and develop oneself. To order one’s thoughts it helps to write them down, as Montaigne discovered. It may help even more to call in the discipline of logic, or mathematics, if possible, to get a grip. But response from others, rejoinder in debate, yields a more powerful boost.

One needs that to get out of rigidities, ruts, vicious circles of thought. In this blog (item 49) I argued that it contributes to the highest level of freedom: freedom from one’s prejudices.

However, perhaps discourse, harnessed in language, is still too structured, too limited in its scope of variety. Perhaps one also needs more random sources of disturbance. The role of randomness for learning is shown in so-called genetic algorithms in computer science, inspired by the evolutionary logic of random  mutations of genes and cross-over of parental chromosomes to generate new forms of life. Earlier in this blog (item 35) I referred to the ‘neural Darwinism’ developed by Gerald Edelman, which applies such evolutionary logic to the brain.

And how about dreaming? And mind-blowing drugs like LSD?  I recently read in a newspaper article that MRI scans of the brain show that patterns from LSD are similar to those of sleep and of babies.  

Perhaps thought requires an alternation of order and disorder: order of language and logic, minor disorder of shifts from discourse and debate, and more radical leaps of disorder in dreaming. Perhaps this entails the same logic as the one for invention that I developed before, which also included a dialectic of order and disorder, in assimilation and accommodation, in exploitation and exploration, with convergence and divergence (see item 35).

In item 137 of this blog I suggested that this may be linked to the dialectic of Yin and Yang in Taoist philosophy.

Friday, May 20, 2016

262. Banality of evil: threat or consolation?

This is the last item of a series inspired by the work of Michel Foucault. The series will be offered as a bundle on my website

Hannah Arendt made her famous, and contested, claim of the ‘banality of evil’. With Adolf Eichmann as the leading example, she claimed that the Nazi evil of the Holocaust was perpetrated as a cool, humdrum, bureaucratic affair, by normal people who were not themselves possessed by an evil spirit.

That may be seen as frightening: Eichmann is all of us, the mass of normal people.

In a recent article[i], the Dutch philosopher Hans Achterhuis claimed, to the contrary, that it is a consolation: to be realized, evil needs lots of normal people to work its destruction, and why would they all comply?

In his analysis, something is missing, I think. That is Foucaults’s line of thought, with his proposal that social systems (prisons, clinics, lunatic asylums, scientific communities) constitute ‘regimes of truth’. We see all the time, in a great variety of cases, that normal people come to tacitly accept their enculturation in such regimes, taking the ruling ‘truth’ as given, the way things are and should be. Large majorities of people come to not only tolerate but to actively and conscientiously adopt institutionalized views and practices that deeply harm people, and become blind to their injustice.

That applied not only to the holocaust but also, as far as I can see, to apparatchiks enacting communist terror.

Apart from such extreme cases, it applies much more widely in less gruesome but still inhuman practices. In asylums, painful and deadening lobotomies were routinely performed on mental patients.

In civilized European countries refugees and their children in large numbers are routinely subjected to loss of civil rights and liberties and normal perspectives of education, jobs and care.

So, the point is not that many normal people are required to enact vast misery, so that it should be possible to stop it. The point is that normal people are routinely carried along in the social systems that bring forth the misery, and take it for granted, the right thing to do.

Achterhuis says that to be co-opted in inhumane practices people must suffer from a lack of a ‘sense of reality’. But the point is that the social system in which they are assimilated and percolated produces their reality. He points to the Danish for the example of a people that said ‘no’ to Eichmann’s demand to put Jewish fellow citizens on transport to the camps. Yes: they were socialised in a different culture.

And what we now see happening in so-called normal European countries, including Denmark, is a slide into racism, intolerance, and discrimination that is becoming the ‘proper’, and, again, the patriotic, view, in contempt and derision of what is becoming the political incorrectness of ‘weak’, ‘naïve’, or ‘spineless’ tolerance and multiculturalism.           

[i] In the Groene Amsterdammer, 12-05-2016.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

261. The truth of Foucault

Foucault tugged at the notion of truth in several ways. In his earlier work on power embodied in social systems (prisons, clinics, asylums, ..) he proposed that those constitute ‘regimes of truth’ that ‘make something that does not exist able to become something’, such as notions of insanity or illness. ‘They are things that do not exist and yet which are inscribed in reality under a regime of truth dividing the true and the false’. Such a regime ‘.. is not an illusion, since it is precisely a set of practices, which established it and thus imperiously marks it out in reality’[i] How, I now ask, are we to understand things that ‘do not exist yet are inscribed in reality’?

In this blog I proposed the notion that abstract, theoretical notions, such as madness and illness, and happiness, justice, and meaning, are subject to an ‘object bias’ (see item 29 of this blog). They are conceived of like objects in time and space, while in fact in important ways are not like objects at all. In that sense they are not real, but they are real in their consequences of being accepted and enacted. Is that how we might understand ‘inscription in reality’?

In this blog I adopted the notion of truth as ‘warranted assertibility’ (item 104), as supporting argument with warrants of purported facts, logic, and tested theory. 

In his later work, Foucault turned from systems of power, regimes of truth, to the construction of the subject, the self, that is entangled in such regimes. He rejects Platonic notions of truth in terms of contemplating ideal, universal eternal concepts in another world, removed from the empirical world we live in. He also turns away from truth as identity (x = y), or as correspondence with something in reality, towards a view of praxis, action in this world, which is a view of difference and development, not of identity, universality and constancy. It is not oriented towards another world but to another life in this one.

That, I propose, is close to the dynamic, pragmatist stance (items 26, 108), ‘philosophy and imperfection on the move’,  that I have taken throughout this blog, building on the work of the American pragmatist philosophers (Peirce, Dewey, James), and the practical wisdom of Aristotle.

The classical Greek ‘taking care of the self’ that Foucault adopted is not aimed at discovery of one’s soul but at the aesthetics of existence, life as a work of art, plus a truthful accounting for one’s conduct, in parrhêsia, being truthful. It works with anecdotes, narratives and exemplars rather than theory and analysis.

Here we have truth not in the epistemological sense, of an accounting in terms of logic or facts, also not in the sense of warranted assertibility, but in the sense of talking about a ‘true human being’, or ‘true hero’, or true ‘love’ or ‘friendship’. It is not the truth of science but of conduct, not of knowledge but of ethic, in what I called ‘debatable ethics’.

Foucault recognized four dimensions of this truth:
1.      Unhidden, not absconded, no occlusion, but open, revealed
2.      Unadulterated, pure. In some places this becomes: independent.
3.      Straight, no deviance. In some places this becomes: in accordance with nature
4.      Constancy, standfast. In some places this becomes: sovereign.

Perhaps authenticity can be clarified as ‘being true to oneself’. This, in turn, may be clarified with Foucault’s four dimensions of such truth: being open, straight, independent, and sovereign.

According to Foucault, classical Greek cynics (such as Diogenes) take this, and their truth telling, to extremes. Openness, disclosure becomes living out in public spaces, as a vagabond, exhibitionist, in squalor. Life is reduced to pure, elementary nature. Conduct is uncultured, primary, direct, without shame, confrontational, militant. The cynic is staunchly independent, sovereign, uncompromising. All this is in the service of holding up unadulterated truths to people, exposing their laziness, materialism, gluttony, hypocrisy, artificiality, slavery, bondage, …

What to think of all his? I think it is overly pretentious, and counter-productive in part.
1.      Disclosure presupposes self-knowledge and transparency, while in fact much is hidden in our subconscious.
2.      Independence and sovereignty are an illusion: we need others to constitute ourselves. We need their opposition to mend our prejudices and to attain some freedom from them
3.      We rarely go straight, but amble around in improvisation, bumping into errors and novel opportunities and then changing direction.

So, while the ideals of this truth are commendable, normatively laudable, worth striving for, they are hardly realistic and harbour a risk of hubris and self-delusion. My objections are the same as the ones I had against Nietzsche (item 60), in the illusion of developing oneself as a subject by oneself, overcoming oneself, like the baron of Munchausen pulling himself out of the swamp by his bootstraps. 

[i] In a lecture at the College de France on 10th January 1979.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

260. What is an intellectual?

In item 218 of this blog I used a definition of the intellectual from Foucault[i]: ‘The person who uses his knowledge, his competence, and his relation to truth in the field of political struggles’. Elsewhere, I found a similar definition[ii]: ‘… engagement in public life, in the service of a cause that divides politicians, elites and simple citizens’.

The paradigmatic case is that of Emile Zola, with his ‘I accuse’, in the upheaval in France with the affair Dreyfus. Another is that of Sartre. The notion of a public intellectual seems especially French.

This leaves room for a wide variety of intellectuals[iii]: of the left, the right, progressive and conservative, of humanism (Thomas Mann was mentioned, but there was doubt whether he might be too a-political), and even of Nazism (Heidegger). Some defend universal values, such as freedom (Sartre), while others (Foucault) militate against universals in defence of particulars. One may even be an intellectual at arms against any hegemony of intellectuals.

While Foucault pleaded for the intellectual as an expert in some area, Sartre proposed that the intellectual begins where the ‘technician of practical knowledge ends’.[iv]

An important feature is independence, if not autonomy. In item 218 I discussed how difficult it may be to maintain it.

Connected to that, and connecting with Bergson and Derrida, as in preceding items of this blog, I add what I think is a central feature: the intellectual is engaged in Bergsonian ‘duration’ and Derridadaist ‘deconstruction’. This elaborates on the idea that the mission of the intellectual is to break dogma and shift established, taken for granted beliefs or perspectives.

Even deconstruction may be deconstructed. As I argued in item 251, the change, transformation involved in duration and deconstruction cannot be without pause. Some stability is required, and it is part of the task of intellectuals to bring it about, in diffusing, explaining and defending perspectives.

Max Weber distinguished between a ‘morality of conviction’ and a ‘morality of responsibility’. The first may be obvious, but is the latter a requirement for an intellectual? And is the criterion for responsibility then feasibility of the views expressed? I am inclined towards responsibility, but I grant that feasibility may lock one up in the status quo. 

While feasibility and stability may be virtues, it is a challenge not to be co-opted in dominant perspectives, as I argued in item 218. The intellectual must have the courage to maintain independence even at the cost of being ignored, ostracized or persecuted. That is easier said than done. Nazism denounced intellectuals as enemies of the state, forcing them to either conform (Heidegger) or to emigrate, either in reality or virtually, in ‘inner emigration’.

But often, in liberal democracies the price intellectuals pay is bearable, with a little courage. It can help to congregate in societies of their own. Yet, one may ask how many exercise such criticism, at universities, academies of science, and editorships of scholarly journals. 

To use other terminology from Foucault: the intellectual engages in parrhêsia, or should do so, taking risks in engagement, being committed rather than maintaining the aloofness of a philosopher, teacher or scientist. The art of it then is to nevertheless maintain the telling of truth, or the search for truth, in the form of warranted assertibility, and not fall into rhetoric to mould assent.    

[i] In an interview on ‘Truth and power’ in 1976, reprinted in James D. Faubion (ed.), Essential works of Foucault 1954-1984, volume 3, Power, The New Press, 2000.
[ii] Michel Trebitsch & Marie-Chistine Granjon (eds.), Pour une histoire comparée des intellectuels, Editions Complexe, 1998.
[iii] Also from Trebitsch & Granjon
[iv] Jean-Paul Sartre, Plaidoyer pour les intellectuels, a lecture given in Tokio in 1965.