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Showing posts from August, 2017

A Story About Hillary Putnam

Hilary Putnam tell the story of his taking to his supervisor, Hans Reichenbach, a copy of Quine’s ‘Two Dogmas of Empiricism’. Putnam told Reichenbach: “it is an extraordinary paper; Quine argues that the difference between the analytic and the synthetic is not a difference of kind, but one of degree.” Reichenbach looked puzzled and then replied “Hilary, is the difference between a difference of kind and one of degree a difference of kind or one of degree?”.

Elon Musk

A fine discussion of Elon Musk, at The Hill.

Musk represents a certain moderate-left image of how a socially responsible capitalist can and should act. One blogger/enthusiast wrote not long ago that Musk has shown by example that "capitalism can be a good thing, especially when someone with ... long range vision uses it for the betterment of humanity."

Ashlee Vance, a prominent tech news reporter, has written a biography of Musk, extolling him as embodying "the quest for a fantastic future."

It all just makes me want to say "bah, humbug," out of season.

Pragmatism and the Problem of Universals

What follows may appear to have been plagiarized from the wikipedia article on The Problem of Universals. It isn't though: I was the original author of much of that article, and the material that follows still survives there in roughly the form I originally gave it years ago.  So I feel free to steal it back from myself.  --------------- William James learned pragmatism, the way of understanding an idea by its practical effects, from his friend Peirce, but he gave it new significance. (Which was not to Peirce's taste - he came to complain that James had "kidnapped" the term and eventually to call himself a "pragmaticist" instead.) Although James certainly agreed with Peirce and against Berkeley that general ideas exist as a psychological fact, he was a nominalist in his ontology: From every point of view, the overwhelming and portentous character ascribed to universal conceptions is surprising. Why, from Plato and Aristotle, philosophers should have vied w…

Statues of Robert E. Lee

I wonder ... whether there are any statues of Erwin Rommel anywhere in North Africa.

The usual statements made by enthusiasts of Confederate statutes would seem to apply. "The statues don't celebrate a cause, they celebrate valor."

Rommel had valor.

"Lee [or Stonewall, or whomever] was a great strategist [or tactician, or whatever]."

Rommel was excellent in the craft of war, as Churchill himself acknowledged.

"Lee was actually against secession and/or slavery."

Maybe, but on the other hand we know for sure that Rommel joined in near the end of the war in a rebellion against Hitler. That should earn him some posthumous brownie points.

An anecdote of no contemporary significance

In the fifth century in India, astronomer Aryabhata contemplated the fact that the moon can hide the whole of the sun during a solar eclipse. The two have the same visible size from the earth, then, although it was clear to Aryabhata that the sun was a good deal larger. He discussed this in a dispassionate mathematical way, one which offended the religious sensibilities of the day. Vedic scripture suggests that the moon is farther from the earth than the sun is, which Aryabhata realized was plainly wrong.

Indeed, another great scholar of the day,  Brahmagupta, who wrote both on scripture and on astronomy, both criticized Aryabhata for his impiety, AND then proceeded to build on Aryanhata's work in his own astronomical writings.

There the matter lay until the 11th century, when Alberuni, an Iranian/Islamic scholar of the golden age of such scholars, became fascinated with Indian culture and history.   He made this comment:

"We shall not argue with him [Brahmagupta], but only …

Samuel Pufendorf (1632 - 1694)

I mentioned Pufendorf here recently, very much in passing.

But hey, why not devote a brief post to him? He does tend to get lost in quickie surveys of the Enlightenment figures, although he usually does show up in those lists.

Here is a link to a discussion of some of his key views in Stanford's invaluable encyclopedia of philosophy:

Pufendorf's overriding project was to set natural law theory on a firm foundation. His presumption was that theology and exegesis was NOT a firm foundation, but a slippery sand of contending sects and state-sponsored devils quoting scripture for their own purposes.  He wanted to start again with moral and political philosophy in much the way that Descartes recently had with metaphysics and epistemology.

The equivalent of "I think," then ... in this writing? Consideration of what life would be like in a state of nature. Yes, Pufendorf -- a contemporary of John Locke -- had obvious ante…

Nietzsche as naturalist

“One drop of blood too much or too little in the brain can make our life unspeakably wretched and hard…But the worst is when one does not even know that this drop of blood is the cause. But ‘the Devil’! Or ‘sin’!” - F. Nietzsche, Daybreak.

Eichmann and Immanuel Kant

During his notorious trial in Jerusalem in 1961, Adolf Eichmann described himself as a sort of Kantian. But, he also said, Kant's thinking was too deep for him so he had devised a whittled-down Kantianism suitable for his mind, and THAT involved taking the Fuhrer's Word to be an expression of Duty.

This explanation had no impact on the outcome of the trial. Eichmann was executed, and he would presumably also have been executed had he declared himself a utilitarian or anything else ending with "ian" or "ist" or the like. Or if he had never sought to wax philosophical at all.

But it did have three consequences that interest me at the moment:

1) it helped persuaded Hannah Arendt that Eichmann's mind was "banal,"
2) it was taken by some (Leonard Peikoff) as proof of the badness of Kantian ethics,
3) It has stimulated research into what if anything Eichmann can be found to have said about deep philosophical subjects when he WASN'T on trial for…

Antonio Gramsci Quote

"We are all conformists of some conformism or other, always man-in-the-mass or collective man."

I believe the point he is trying to make here is akin to Ludwig WIttgenstein against the possibility of a private language.

But Antonio Gramsci (1891 - 1937), being Gramsci, phrased the point so as to make it more political.

Amartya Sen suggests that Gramsci may have influenced Wittgenstein's move away from the picture theory of knowledge.

Leiter on Nietzsche

Regular readers will know that I often owe my material for this blog to Brian Leiter, of the University of Chicago, and more pertinently (just now) proprietor of the wonderful philosophy blog Leiter Reports. 

This will be another example. Here is a piece of an essay on the interpretation of Nietzsche's philosophy that Leiter published back in 1992. He has recently posted it on his blog, indicating that he still believes it worth discussing (there are many things I was writing in 1992 of which I would not say the same, of which I will never be posting here.)

So ... this is Leiter, controverting one important interpretation of Nietzsche:

Alexander Nehamas’s 1985 book Nietzsche: Life as a Literature offers an elegant synthesis of themes from other (then au courant) readings of Nietzsche by Jacques Derrida, Sarah Kofman, Paul DeMan, and Richard Rorty. He effected this synthesis primarily through the introduction of a novel interpretive rubric: what Nehamas calls "aestheticism.&qu…

Philosophy and the Chain of Custody

Yesterday in this space I quoted a fragment conventionally attributed to the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus and, in essence, free associated from that.

That doesn't advance the cause of scholarship one tiny bit but, heck, it's a hobby blog.

Somewhat more interesting than my personal train of association chugging along its tracks might be the question: how did fragments like that get from Heraclitus to us?

Fortunately, the tradition whereby philosophers write the history of the issues with which they deal goes back a long way. Setting Plato aside (because of the dramatic/literary demands of the dialog form), Aristotle started the practice of setting one's own table historically.

A less well known later fellow named Sextus Empiricus seems to have played a big role. SE lived in the second or third century of the Christian era. He was a skeptic, that is, he believed that no firm beliefs are rational, and that by accepting our ignorance we can achieve tranquility.

Yes, one…

A fragment of Heraclitus

"This cosmos was not made by immortal or mortal beings, but always was, is and will be an eternal fire, arising and subsiding in measure."

The presumption that the cosmos was not made by immortal or mortal beings draws out attention to the verb. The cosmos was not "made" at all, so there is no answer to the question who made it.

The cosmos was not made precisely in the sense that it has always been.

So far so good, we might attribute to Heraclitus something akin to the steady-state theory of the cosmos and knock off our exegetical work for the day. But then what are we to do with the final clause? The cosmos continues to exist by "arising and subsiding in measure."

To continue with the categories of contemporary cosmologists, this seems like a "Big Crunch" theory. The universe is a closed one, in that it will not expand forever (that would be an expansion without "measure"!). It will at some point start to fall in upon itself, with al…

Searle v. Derrida on Speech Acts

I've referenced John Searle in this blog fairly often, I believe. But it has always been as the inventor of the "chinese room" thought experiment. Today I hope to describe another aspect of his life's work: his view of "speech acts," and the conflict with Jacques Derrida over same.

In 1972, Jacques Derrida wrote an essay about J.L. Austin's book, "How to do things with words," a work published in 1962 based on lectures delivered in 1955. Austin's over-riding point was that much of what one does with words is a performance, even if it masquerades as a description. For example, "I'm sorry," in the context in which an apology is socially appropriate.  This is an action, not a report on the degree of one's personal sorrow.

Derrida's essay, "Signature, Event, Context," expresses the view that, yes, Austin had a valid point. But Derrida devotes a lot of attention to the things Austin didn't say, questions he …