Concerning methodology of social science, Hume makes one particularly striking claim: the human sciences are in a sense easier than natural sciences. A more common argument – due to Comte, perhaps, though my memory fails me – is that physics is simpler than chemistry, which is simpler than biology, then again simpler than psychology, and then social sciences, because each builds upon the other. I understand how particles work, hence understand physics, but I need to know how they interact to understand chemistry, how molecules affect lifeforms for biology, how the brain operates to understand psychology, and how brains and bodies interact with each other and history to understand social science. Hume flips this around entirely. He is an empiricist, and notes that to the extent we know anything, it is through our perceptions, and our own accounts as well as those of other humans are biased and distorted. To interpret perceptions of the natural world, we must first generalize about the human mind: “the science of man is the only solid foundation.” Concerning the social world, we are able to observe the actions and accounts of many people during our lives, so if we are to use induction (and this is Hume, so of course we are wary here), we have many examples from which to draw.
All of us are collectors. We are not simply collectors of prints or drawings, we are collectors of interesting moments. If we are alive, we saturate ourselves within states of affairs that we can support. What I’ve been emphasizing is how sensitive we are, and how we sell ourselves the rightness of certain things. We like something, and we begin to think that this represents a state of finality. This finality is fiction. Shall I support what I find in life, or shall I take exception? Shall I say, “I only like this, I don’t like that?” We could go to the world’s greatest banquet, a feast for gourmets, and have a miserable night if were going to be specialists about liking this or not liking that. Each thing would interfere with the next thing. States of affairs are interrelationships.
Every living creature is in fact a sort of lock, whose wards and springs presuppose special forms of key,—which keys however are not born attached to the locks, but are sure to be found in the world near by as life goes on. And the locks are indifferent to any but their own keys. The egg fails to fascinate the hound, the bird does not fear the precipice, the snake waxes not wroth at his kind, the deer cares nothing for the woman or the human babe.
Scientific philologists will often argue that phonetic decay is a natural process, which has always been at work, and has actually produced the very forms of speech that we value most highly; and that it is therefore a squeamish pedantry to quarrel with it at any particular stage, or to wish to interfere with it, or even to speak of decay or corruption of language, for that these very terms beg the question, and are only the particular prejudice of particular persons at a particular time. But this scientific reasoning is aesthetic nonsense. It is absurd to pretend that no results of natural laws should be disapproved of because it is possible to show that they obey the same laws as the processes of which we approve. The filthiest things in nature are as natural as the loveliest: and in art also the worst is as natural as the best: while the good needs not only effort but sympathetic intelligence to attain and preserve it. It is an aesthetic and not a scientific question.
Broadly put, neo-Epicureans suppose not only that you are what you eat, but that you think what you eat. Take German idealism, says Nietzsche. It has the leaden consistency and gaseous redolence of a diet thick with potatoes. Italian thought, one might add, is marked by the slippery texture and doughy blandness of pasta. Jewish metaphysics has the astringency and smoky intensity of briny pickles and cured fish. The indistinctness of Buddhist thought resembles white rice. Neo-Epicureans aim to discover not just a philosophy of being but a hygiene for living; not a universal system but a way of thinking about good health in terms of the peculiar proclivities of the individual body.
What’s more concerning to me is that Philosophy as a discipline has lost (if it ever had) its reputation as a source of meaning, truth, insight and significance for a larger audience. Even assuming the general populace is not aware of the academic factions, specialization, petty politics and other sundry activites in the tower, the discipline as a whole has little cultural relevance.
Seth Paskin, in a comment on The Partially Examined Life website (of which he is a co-host).
I’m not sure how I hadn’t heard of this podcast before now. It’s very good. I’ve enjoyed so far the episodes on Pragmatism, Hobbes, and Plato’s Apology.
Note that none of the three hosts is a professional philosopher, or currently in academia. (All attended grad school, studying philosophy, but moved elsewhere.) Compared to other intellectual podcasts I’ve listened to, I think their distance from academics helps. A lot.
(They’ve also a good dynamic. A listener’s comment sums up my feelings: “I love the fact that I do not agree with any of you all the time and I never disagree with anyone all the time.”)
I think Tyler Cowen once wrote something about how most philosophy blogs aren’t very good — a blog just isn’t the right medium for philosophical commentary (unlike, say, economics). I wonder whether the podcast — dialogic, conversational — is a better fit. (“I wonder whether” is academic-speak for “I’ll be fucked if it isn’t…”).
Reading the newspaper in early morning is a kind of realistic morning prayer. One orients one’s attitude against the world and toward God [in one case], or toward that which the world is [in the other]. The former gives the same security as the latter, in that one knows where one stands.
I had a conversation with my father yesterday about buying the paper New York Times. I used to but have stopped; he continues to buy the Sunday edition and a few day papers a week. Why, I wondered, when there are so many reasons not to buy the physical paper, did he continue to do so, even as the price increased? Consider:
My dad is no technophobe. He actually subscribes to the Times Reader, and can be found reliably reading the NYT on his laptop during lunch. He browses the headlines every morning. It’s clear that the majority of his day-to-day interaction with the paper is online.
He also lives in central Maine, a region that is lucky to get any national papers by 10:00 a.m. In fact, when he buys the paper, it is almost always in the afternoon, when he simply won’t have time to read any significant part of it. Not only does the physical paper cost more, he reads less of it!
And the price. We puzzled over exactly why he continues to spend — according to our quick calculation — around $500/year on NYT dead trees and ink. Not to mention the trip to town it requires. (Ostensibly he has other reasons to make the drive, but I think he makes up excuses so he can buy the paper.) Especially when every article is posted for free online (for now).
He is satisfied with the answer, “it’s just habit.” I’m less satisfied. We all have habits, and usually for some underlying reason. Besides, habits are meant for breaking.
I tried to argue it was due in part to his signaling a certain part of his identity, although I don’t think either he or I was convinced. The fact is that he reads his paper in relative solitude (generally only my mother sees him). So could he really be signaling? Perhaps, in a kind of “impartial spectator” way — the way he sees himself reading the newspaper gives him pleasure and affirms a part of his identity.
Does the image of one “reading the paper” appeal to us, and give us pleasure when we imagine ourselves approaching it? As I read a newspaper I also imagine myself reading the newspaper, and approve of it. It appears as a praiseworthy activity. It’s a powerful aesthetic. (It is my twitter avatar, from a painting by Cézanne. Undoubtably in the cultural consciousness.)
The opposing image I’d suggest is of a person behind a laptop screen. There are similarities, but there are significant differences. The man reading his newspaper is passive, taking in various facts from around the world, soaking up disparate narratives of the day’s events and hopefully coming to a greater understanding — he is a man of letters. The woman behind her laptop also takes in facts, narratives, events and arguments. But where the man stops she continues to work: she checks facts, asks questions, writes her opinion, comments on others’ work. She is an active participant in a global village of ideas — what was once a community to merely be considered, and now is a community one can be part of. She is a woman of conversation.
These two stereotypes are the “reader” and the “blogger” respectively. They are both equally important to a personal sense of propriety. We all yearn to be something significant in the greater world — the worlds of politics and art and culture. The way that we see ourselves in interaction with the larger world is, unsurprisingly, the principle of how we interact. To my father, seeing himself holding a newspaper is as fulfilling — as right — as it is when I see myself at my laptop.
And so, yes, it is a form of signaling. Our pleasure comes not from the substance of what we’re doing (the actual articles read or posts written) but from the aesthetic appreciation of our own propriety. We pray at the altar of our self-identity to appease it and convince ourselves it does exist and is proper. This could cost us $2 for the paper or a night staring at a screen.
Of course I do think the “blogger” image is more useful for society — hence the original argument with my father. But it’s clear we aren’t perfect utilitarians in respect to our identities; nor, perhaps, should we be. I don’t have much of a right to tell my dad he shouldn’t buy the newspaper (from opportunity cost, etc etc) because, well, it’s part of his identity. I wouldn’t want someone telling me not to sit at a screen all day (clearly a huge investment of my time compared to a $2 paper).
When a man denies the sincerity of all public spirit or affection to a country and community, I am at a loss what to think of him. Perhaps he never felt this passion in so clear a distinct a manner as to remove all his doubts concerning its force and reality. But when he proceeds afterwards to reject all private friendship, if no interest or self-love intermix itself; I am then confident that he abuses terms, and confounds the ideas of things; since it is impossible for any one to be so selfish, or rather so stupid, as to make no difference between one man and another, and give no preference to qualities, which engage his approbation and esteem.
We either approve or disapprove of the conduct of another man according as we feel that, when we bring his case home to ourselves, we either can or cannot entirely sympathize with the sentiments and motives which directed it. And, in the same manner, we either approve or disapprove of our own conduct, according as we feel that, when we place ourselves in the situation of another man, and view it, as it were, with his eyes and from his station, we either can or cannot entirely enter into and sympathize with the sentiments and motives which influenced it.
Adam Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments
When Smith makes statements like this, what exactly are we, as readers, supposed to think? Smith is assuming this is common knowledge, that this is simply the way things are. I suppose we can either agree or disagree. It’s not as if there were empirical evidence Smith gives to back it up. Is there any kind of value in reading a paragraph such as this? I ask because I’m certain there is — so much of Smith is intellectually fascinating — but in the end I’m not sure that I’ve learned anything true. I walk away feeling that I understand the human condition a little better. But does this feeling of understanding and agreement with Smith reflect a truth about the world? Smith is presenting us with his “feeling” or sentiment about how a moral society works. And so one’s reading of Smith depends on how one’s own sentiment harmonizes with Smith’s. Perhaps Smith is merely reinforcing my own view about the world — likely to be biased and false.
Perhaps he’s taking an implicit stance: this is the right way to think about the world, though in a positive sense it isn’t the only way. It is somehow virtuous to read and understand his moral theory. In a way I agree with this. I feel that my own notions about propriety, justice and sympathy are actually strengthened reading Smith; my moral compass, so to speak, is precisely calibrated.
At the same time I can’t help but think about my moral compass. Smith is not only calibrating but revealing my own sentiments to me, allowing for a deep reflection about my “inner judge.” Judging the judge — this is both what Smith theorizes happens and what the reader of Smith should do.
It may be helpful to think of Smith’s writing as a kind of fiction. He is presenting to us an imaginary world, full of actors, sympathy, impartial spectators and judges, that we may “enter into” and think about as its own self-contained universe. His narrative is a theory of morals but in some ways so is fiction: what would so-and-so do in such-and-such situation. The extent to which we find fiction compelling is, in some ways, the extent to which it harmonizes with our own views about the world and human action. And so we may bring Smith into our own through the harmony between the world as we see it and the world as Smith writes it.
A Fight for Knowledge
In college I took a sailing class. I had sailed a few times with my grandfather on his boat but I hadn’t really understood it. Slowly I began to grasp the subtleties of maneuvering a sailboat over the water. It’s actually quite complex. Learning how to correctly trim and use the sail is difficult and counterintuitive. There’s a great deal of anticipation involved, and I had to feel the correct amount of tension in the sail. This meant I needed an intuitive understanding of how exactly the wind interacted with the sail. Soon, this thing called wind, as I understood it, redefined itself. It hadn’t actually changed from before I went sailing — wind is wind — but as an intelligible force, it had an entirely new dimension. I had a new paradigm from which to understand it: piloting a sailboat.
As I later learned, wind can carry quite a bit of power. Enough to capsize the boat, and throw me into the Charles river on a cold April day. That’s a wake-up. That power — its potential is something I could have only learned through such an experience. I might watch a boat capsize, but until I’m the recipient of such a disaster I won’t understand it.
Our human lens, by which we render the world intelligible, is in a state of continual transformation. How we perceive the world, and how we think the world should be, are evolving. We calibrate theory against our ever-expanding memory of experience. Quite simply, we learn. And so what can we say defines our true principles and nature? How can we cling to a notion of “self” if that self is always in motion? The understanding of reality is always changing. Values always change. What is real? What is life?
Take a bird. A bird — I imagine — has a certain conception of how the world works, and it doesn’t change much. A bird’s reality is complete, concrete and final. Wind is wind from the moment its wings have matured. Can we say we are more knowledgeable than the bird? This may seem a silly question, but a bird appears to understand perfectly his world. There is no faltering, no doubt, and no misunderstanding.
So with us humans, something isn’t quite complete; something is flawed. We’re struggling, arguing, going to war, killing one another, in order to feel we’ve achieved some kind of final, cataphatic knowledge — that only becomes more obfuscated as we seek it out.
We should be aware of this ‘flux’ we are in; our values are not written in stone. While nature may move along happily, without a second thought, we humans have to perpetually check ourselves, react to complicated situations, and from time to time values do bump up against each other. And this is a good thing, because we aren’t perfect, and we get into trouble when we think we are.
Directly after the terrible 2006 Amish school shooting, many of the Nickel Mines Amish extended their forgiveness to the shooter’s family. That the Amish could do this in such trauma is fascinating and humbling. To forgive in such circumstances is, perhaps appropriately, a controversial moral act.
I’m reading Amish Grace, a scholarly examination of how and why the Amish responded the way they did. According to the book, most of the opinion pieces and editorials from the “non-Amish” — i.e., the mainstream — then approved highly of the community’s response. Some were more critical. This piece in the Boston Globe by Jeff Jacoby, “Undeserved Forgiveness,” written the following Sunday after the shooting, is a widely-cited example:
To voluntarily forgive those who have hurt you is beautiful and praiseworthy. That is what Jesus did on the cross, what Christians do when they say the Lord’s Prayer, what observant Jews do when they recite the bedtime Kriat Sh’ma. But to forgive those who have hurt — who have murdered — someone else? I cannot see how the world is made a better place by assuring someone who would do terrible things to others that he will be readily forgiven afterward, even if he shows no remorse.
Jacoby — whether or not you agree with him — brings up a good point: forgiving as an act is itself morally praiseworthy and blameworthy, depending on the context. Forgiving everyone of every wrong at once is more the role of Professor Pangloss in Candide. I think most Americans would actually find such forthright forgiveness unmerited and perhaps blameworthy in their own community. I think it is a cultural difference, perhaps even an ethic of capitalism that is absent with the Amish: debts — emotional, monetary or other — are not forgiven easily.
So did the Amish err? The shooter was dead, as were his victims. Forgiving him is accepting that which is clearly unchangeable: it is coming to terms with a horrible tragedy. The Amish were not, as some editorials suggested, acting as emotionless robots, merely repeating the teachings of Jesus without an understanding of them.
But something still troubles me: were the Amish too quick to forgive? How could they have come to terms with such an evil act so soon? Was it true forgiveness they offered? The temporality of forgiveness seems important, that one should have some distance from such an emotional ordeal.
How might a utilitarian think about forgiveness? Jacoby wrote, “I cannot see how the world is made a better place by assuring someone who would do terrible things to others that he will be readily forgiven afterward, even if he shows no remorse.” I’m inclined to agree with him, although I don’t see anger as a good alternative. I’m not so sure forgiveness should make the world a better place; it seems less a social virtue than a personal one.
Forgiveness seems most useful in emotionally accepting new conditions and moving forward, in calibrating oneself to a “new normal” (a phrase used by grief counselors meeting with the Amish after the shooting). As backward a people we may think of the Amish, they are able to move forward quickly in a tragedy such as this: they do not dwell in the past to fuel hatred or a desire for vengeance. But they did not forget, either. To forgive is not to forget; it is a way of moving past life’s traumatic peripeteia while still embracing them.